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.


Harsh Realities
(36th in the Romancing the Plains series)
by Craig Caff

Every sorrow seemed much worse out there,
where we were so unaccustomed to suffering.

(Elizabeth Bacon Custer - Boots and Saddles)

A month had passed since the appropriately named Runt had become a fixture with the Call's. The shaggy mongrel was seen on every occasion that brought Call and Gretchen into town.

Spring was quickly giving way to warmer days now that it was early June -- summer being a mere two weeks away. The chill of winter only a cold memory, except for the snowy white peaks adorned atop the distant mountains -- peaks that towered above the ground -- remaining snow-covered all year round.

"I must admit, Mr. Call," Ashley Mosby confessed, "you are quite possibly the most contentious man I have ever met."

Clay Mosby smirked -- staring at Call -- noting the blank expression on his face. "What my wife is trying to tell you, Call, is that you happen to be a very quarrelsome and argumentative sort of fellow. Which happens to be quite accurate." He grinned at the inferiorly educated Call.

Call frowned -- he had no use for fancy words -- it made sense to just speak like normal folks. "They're out there, Mosby. I reckon you done enough hunting to know that. Pheasant and grouse are plentiful this time of year."

As Clay was about to respond, the door to the Lonesome Dove Hotel opened, leaving two newly-arrived young women, both lacking patience, waiting for Call to step out of their way. They were sisters -- part of a lone-wagon party bound for Oregon -- by way of Michigan.

"Sir?!" one of the women curtly said.

Call turned -- he hadn't heard them step outside.

"Are you inclined to remain standing there all day? My sister and I are trying to get by you. Now, move! I do not intend to repeat myself!" The young woman appeared adept at giving orders.

Call shrugged -- he wrapped his hands around his holster belt -- walked off without another word, toward the dry goods. He stepped inside the store, noting his wife and her sisters near the entrance -- observing what had just happened.

"They were in here earlier, Newt," Victoria said. "They happen to be extremely rude and demanding."

"Their names are Suzanne and Elizabeth," Paige added. "The one who spoke to you was Suzanne. She's married to a Theodore Van Atta. I think they said their family name was Dewberry?" She turned, looking to Gretchen. Gretchen was smiling at her husband.

"They're traveling west," Victoria commented. "Three people -- two women -- alone out there. I do hope nothing tragic befalls."

Call nodded -- he had no interest in the conversation. "We best set out. Too much daylight's already burning."

Gretchen continued to smile at her husband. "Call? Look what arrived -- Victoria had it waiting for us."

Call stepped close to his wife. He smiled, then nodded. It was the sepia photographs Gretchen's cousin had taken while they were in St. Joseph. Gretchen had already placed one inside the locket Call had given her on their one month anniversary.

"I reckon I'd favor keeping this one," Call remarked, taking hold of a small photograph Gretchen had sat for -- for the very purpose of giving it to her husband to carry wherever he went. He smiled, staring at Gretchen. "You look real pretty, Gretchen."

"There's Dish!" Paige excitedly said. She hurried out the door, paused, ran back inside, hugging Victoria. "Good bye, Victoria." She could hardly give her oldest sister a proper hug, so sizable had Victoria become with child.

Gretchen hugged Victoria -- somewhat gentler -- her stomach larger than it had been a month earlier, as well.

"Take care of them, Newt," Victoria replied, hugging her brother-in-law. Call nodded and stepped outside -- Runt alongside him.

"Cap'n Call's found the horses to his satisfaction, Newt," Dish Boggett said. It was a jubilant remark. Newt Call and Dish had spent half of the past month on the trail -- riding south to Clara Allen's in Ogallala -- then north to Hat Creek, with the twenty-two horses Call had picked out during the brief visit made on the way to Missouri.

"Isn't it surprising of Captain Call to invite us to spend a few days at Hat Creek?" Gretchen asked.

"Well," Dish sheepishly replied, "I guess it wasn't the Cap'n who sent the invite -- it was Sarah Pickett." He kept glancing at Paige -- she had a permanent smile aimed at him.

As Call helped his wife up onto the springy bench seat, she let out a small cry of pain. Immediately, Call grew nervous -- concerned for Gretchen and the baby. "You all right, Coyote Girl?"

"I'm fine, Call," Gretchen said, smiling. He stood there, staring at her for long moments.

When he refused to move, Gretchen sighed. "All right. I . . . just felt a pain in my leg -- the one I hurt when I was little."

"Maybe it'd be best if we didn't go," Call suggested. "I can't abide watching you suffer needless."

"No, Call," Gretchen urged. "I'll be fine. Really, I will. I'm sure it's just the weight of the baby." She reached out, taking hold of him and pulling him to her -- locking her mouth on his -- kissing him passionately for long moments. "Please, Call?" she whispered, smiling.

Call stared at his wife -- her fiery passion getting the best of him. "I reckon you know what you're doing, Gretchen."

"Anything you say, Call." Gretchen turned to Paige -- both sisters quietly laughed.

Across the street -- in front of the Dove -- Suzanne Van Atta and her sister, Elizabeth Dewberry, had struck a conversation with Clay and Ashley Mosby. It seemed all four observers found Gretchen's passionate kiss with her husband to be something less than acceptable for public display.

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

Clay Mosby, upon the insistent urging of his wife, Ashley, invited Theodore Van Atta and his wife, as well as her sister to join them for lunch in the Dove -- an offer that was heartily accepted.

"Will you be spending time here?" Amanda asked the three visitors while serving them. It was their intension to reach Oregon as quickly as possible, they informed Amanda, as well as the Mosby's.

When Amanda returned to the kitchen, she paused to observe Austin Peale. The sheriff, still not over the deceptive Mary Piatt, seemed interested in the two young women. "The taller, lighter haired one is married, Austin. The dark haired one has no beau. Don't let your opportunity to find a decent woman slip through your hands." Amanda laughed then entered the kitchen. Austin glared at her, then looked back at the two sisters.

"I do miss my books," Elizabeth Dewberry replied, when Ashley inquired about traveling with necessary materials -- books being high on the list for these cultured sisters.

"Do you prefer the English writers over the American writers where romanticism is concerned?" Ashley questioned.

"Oh my," the younger Elizabeth replied, "I simply adore the English. I believe the major works of the English Romantics was compressed into a mere twenty-six year period -- from 1798 until 1824. William Wordsworth's and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads is the beginning and the death of Lord Byron, sadly enough, the ending. Much too short a period for such treasured works."

"I am sure if you were to be enticed to remain here, perhaps another day or two," Clay Mosby suggested, "I might be persuaded to relinquish one of my novels."

"How very kind of you, Mr. Mosby," Suzanne said. "We have been in the company of very few gentlemen, such as yourself, since leaving our home in Michigan. It is quite unnerving to see the drastic difference between the civilized East, and this vast and uncivilized frontier."

Luther Root entered the dining room with Robert Shelby and joined Sheriff Peale. "Hell," Luther said, "where'd them two fine looking women come from?"

"Forget it, Luther," Austin replied. "One's hitched. Besides, they're leaving soon as they finish in here."

Robert shook his head. "That's unfortunate. They are both quite attractive."

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

Dewey, the orphan boy, was the first to come down with it. Next was Unbob. Dr. Cleese determined -- once again -- that both had eaten -- this having occurred once before -- too many crab apples near the abandoned mine.

While both groaned with knotted bellies -- sure that the Grim Reaper had come to claim them -- Dr. Cleese administered castor oil -- eliciting verbal regrets. When assured by the doctor that they would not suffer horribly and die, both calmed to the point of mild grunts.

Mason Dobbs, the one who had found Dewey and Unbob, now stepped outside of Ephraim's office, content that it was just a whopper of a bellyache. Mattie quickly joined him on the small landing outside the door.

"I'm obliged to you, Mason."

Mason Dobbs folded his arms, leaning back against the wood railing. It seemed neither he nor Mattie would take that first step toward a relationship. Both were frightened -- Mattie, because of the rejection she had received from both Clay Mosby and Robert Shelby when she had given herself to each man -- Mason, because of never putting down roots or allowing himself too close to any woman.

"I'm thanking you, Mason," Mattie continued, "for being patient."

"Well," Mason began, "I'll wager it's more profitable at times to ford a river slow, than to just charge head first and sink." He winked at her. "I'd venture to say we consider taking supper together. It smelled mighty good behind the Dove and it would like to break my heart if Miss Carpenter slaved to fix all that tasty food and we not at least eat it."

Mattie shook her head and laughed. "All right, Mason. I guess if you put it that way. I'll just check on Dewey and we can talk some more."

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

Travel to Hat Creek had been slower than anticipated -- due to Gretchen's nearing the seventh month of her pregnancy. Call was sensitive to the needs of his wife -- all the more since she had felt pain in her leg back in Curtis Wells. Paige didn't mind -- she had more time to look at Dish -- who in her opinion made quite a handsome cowboy.

Hoping to pass the time while basking in the sun's warmth, Gretchen opened her Bible to read. She turned to Ecclesiastes and with a clear voice, began reading out loud. "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to rend, and a time to sew. A time to keep silence, and a time to speak. A time to...."

"Well, I guess that makes sense," Dish Boggett interrupted.

Gretchen glared at Dish -- though he wasn't aware of it, since he was looking only at Paige, who sat behind the bench seat. "Do you mind, Mr. Boggett?" Gretchen snapped.

Call laughed at his wife's sudden temper. Dish didn't think it was something to cause a stir.

"I'm sorry, I guess," he mumbled.

"Are you going to read all of that part, Gretchen?" Paige asked.

"That was my intention, Paige!" she barked.

Call turned his head, looking at his wife. "You sure you're all right, Gretchen?"

"No! I'm not all right. I don't feel well, Call. I'm irritable and I seem to be annoyed far too easily. And there are no plates here for me to break!"

"Thank God, for that," Paige sarcastically replied.

"Well, fine!" Gretchen said, raising her voice. "I won't read anything, then!" She closed the book with an abruptness.

"I guess it's all my fault, Mrs. Call," Dish apologized. "Didn't mean nothing by it."

"It ain't your fault, Dish," Call was quick to say. "We should of never come out here."

"Then stop the wagon, Call!" Gretchen cried out -- her voice tense. "I can ride the Hellbitch. I'll go home and the three of you can have yourselves a nice time at Hat Creek."

"What the hell's wrong with you, Gretchen?!" Call asked. His patience deserting. "Something sure as hell is ailing you! What kind of fool talk is that? Take the Hellbitch! You think I'd just up and let you ride off alone?" Call drew the wagon to a halt. He stared at his wife. Suddenly, he climbed down. "I reckon you and me got business needs settling. Dish! Take the reins. Me and Gretchen are taking the Hellbitch. We'll meet up the trail some."

Gretchen didn't argue. She knew fighting out here on the prairie was foolish -- it would be far better if her and her husband just rode off alone and talked. She needed Call now. He would make it better. She allowed him to help her to the ground, then up onto the Hellbitch. Paige held Runt, who squirmed and wanted to jump off the wagon and go with Call and Gretchen.

***

Call's initial reaction was to click heels and ride off reckless. Wisely, he rode off slow, considering Gretchen and the baby. They separated from Dish and Paige, enabling them the privacy his wife seemed to desire. Gretchen pressed her forehead into Call's back and began to cry -- tears flowed down her cheeks. After a mile -- ample distance between them and the wagon had been created -- Call drew rein and climbed down, helping Gretchen off the Hellbitch. She wrapped her arms around her husband tightly, crying hard.

Call was silent for what felt like long minutes -- just holding his wife. He didn't know what to say to her -- he had no idea what had caused this flaring up of her temper and the pouring out of her emotions. He kissed her cheek, tasting the salty tears.

"Call," she whispered, looking into his eyes.

"What's wrong, Gretchen?"

"I don't know, Call. I . . . I . . . don't know. It just . . . started when I felt the pain in my leg." She stared at him for comfort. He didn't disappoint her. He took hold of her, gently pulling her close to him. His reassuring love and patience made her feel better. She laid her head into his chest for a moment then lifted her face to kiss him. "My moods, Call. It's getting closer now. Our baby will be born soon."

Call nodded. "I reckon it's new for both of us, Coyote Girl."

"I was terrible, wasn't I?"

He shrugged. "It don't matter none." He looking around. "We best mount up and ride."

"I love you, Newt Call."

"I love you, Gretchen Call."

She stared into eyes -- Call stared back. Gretchen's eyes suddenly took on an intensity of deep green, sparkling with enchanting brilliance -- melting into his very being. He felt as if he had been pulled inside her soul -- so great and hypnotic was the look -- staring with all the love and passion she had for him. It was a look he would never forget.

Somewhat dazed,he turned and stepped into a small hole, twisting his right foot. "Aaarrghhh!" Call yelled in pain, dropping to his knee.

"Call?!" Gretchen screamed, dropping to her knees immediately. "Call!"

"I'm fine," he said. It was a lie. She could see his face tense -- contorted in pain -- his eyes bulging. He quickly grit his teeth and stood up, groaning. His leg throbbed -- fire burned from his foot up to his thigh.

"Call! Let me help you," Gretchen begged.

He put his hand out, telling her to wait as he walked in a small circle -- obviously favoring his right foot. He shook his head, looking at Gretchen. "We best go."

"Call! I'm your wife! Let me help you." Gretchen was persistent.

"No," he said. "Just twisted it, is all." He helped her onto the Hellbitch and climbed up slow. He turned to his wife. "I'll be fine. Let's go find the wagon."

"What am I going to do with you, Call?" Gretchen said, holding him tight.

"I'll tell you when we get back home."

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

"I'm sorry to see them leave," Robert Shelby mentioned to Clay as the lone wagon pulled out of town -- heading south.

"As am I, Robert. There are few enough educated and knowledgeable people out here. I rather liked them," Clay remarked.

"Those two sisters were quite attractive, Clay." Robert nudged his friend in the side.

"Quite!" Clay replied.

"Shall we have a drink, Clay?"

"Of course, Robert. Just having Call out of town is reason to celebrate."

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

Call and Gretchen had caught up with the wagon -- nothing was said of Call's new injury. Gretchen apologized for her childish temper tantrum. Paige was happy -- Dish was with her. Dish was happy -- Paige was with him. The rest of the ride to Hat Creek was without incident.

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

It was a well-organized plan -- pulled off without a hitch. Three men stepped out of Twyla's, whooping and discharging their pistols into late afternoon's peaceful sky. The disturbance brought the anticipated result -- Mosby, Shelby, and Sheriff Peale -- rushing headfirst toward the sporting club. The timing near perfect -- four riders circling around the livery -- opening the corral gate -- stampeding and stealing the dozen and a half horses within.

When it was realized it had been a set up -- Josiah Peale attempting to holler above the thunderous hoofs to warn Clay Mosby -- the three instigators had mounted up and rode off.

Clay Mosby took immediate control -- dispatching Austin and Robert to organize a posse with as little delay as possible. The horse thieves would have a decent start -- along with the setting sun, bringing darkness over the land -- within hours -- making it more difficult to track the outlaws.

Within minutes, Clay Mosby and Robert Shelby led Sheriff Peale and Mason Dobbs, as well as a handful of Mosby's men, after the brazen outlaws.

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

Theodore Van Atta was nothing out of the ordinary. He looked like most men of his day. He exerted a valiant attempt to please an unsatisfied wife. Suzanne Van Atta was a very demanding woman. She desired more than her share of things. Michigan no longer suited her and after constant quarreling -- constant hen-pecking and pestering, Theodore agreed to move across the country to the Oregon Territory. He had previously moved her twice before when she demanded to first leave Monroe and live in Adrian, then return to Monroe when she claimed to have missed her sister.

The Van Atta party -- Theodore and wife, Suzanne, and her younger sister, Elizabeth -- were camped near a river valley -- the Yellowstone -- that boasted an abundance of chokecherries and buffalo berry shrubs -- some reaching almost eighteen feet into the sky, with silvery leaves and small yellowish flowers. The red berries were quite tasty and noted by Elizabeth that an excellent jelly could be made if they were in a more logical situation.

Having been more inclined to city living, the three travelers never noticed the numerous birds in nearby trees that had been chirping continuously, suddenly grow silent.

Theodore grunted as an arrow pierced his side, causing him to fall over. Out of the trees a short distance from the river, a small band of yelling Blackfeet rushed upon the unsuspecting camp. Suzanne and Elizabeth screaming as loud as their voices would carry -- frozen with terrifying fear -- unable to move. The women watched in horror as two of the bloody savages jumped off their ponies and with hacthets drawn, began brutally mutilating Theodore Van Atta, until he resembled a red mass of undistinguishable flesh.

Two other Blackfeet -- frightening in appearance -- seized both women -- throwing them roughly onto their ponies. Before the band rode off, they set fire to the covered wagon. Suzanne and Elizabeth were in shock at viewing the butchery of Theodore Van Atta.

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

"I'm looking forward to seeing Newt's wife, Gretchen," Sarah Picket told Isom, as the wagon carrying the two Brandt Sisters and Dish, along with Call atop the Hellbitch, rode underneath the Hat Creek sign Gus McCrae had carted all the way from Lonesome Dove, Texas.

"I imagine she must be getting big with the baby by now," Isom countered, his lit-pipe in hand.

"Expected you hours ago," Woodrow Call gruffly said as the wagon pulled up to where he stood.

"Had a small delay," was all Call would say to his father concerning why they had taken longer than anticipated to arrive.

"Too late now. You'll have to hunt first light."

"Yessir, Cap'n," Newt replied.

"Hello, Captain Call," Gretchen said, smiling. "This is my sister, Paige."

Paige curtseyed. "I'm quite honored to meet you, Captain Call."

Woodrow eyed the two Missouri girls. He finally tilted his head slightly -- a bare minimum of a nod. "Get your things put away. We'll talk later, I expect."

Isom and Sarah welcomed Gretchen and her sister, Paige. They led Newt and the sisters to their cabin. Dish followed -- he hoped for time alone with Paige.

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

It had been the horse thieves intent to separate the posse as soon as possible. Clay Mosby soon came upon a fork in the road -- horseshoes branded into the hard dirt that went off in both directions. Only moments ago the sun had been swallowed by the mountains -- day's fading light soon to disappear. They had entered a narrow pass -- the headwaters of the Rosebud Creek running south toward the Yellowstone.

"I'll wager if we just follow the shallows we'll run those curs down," Mason Dobbs said.

"I prefer we not divide the men," Clay remarked to Robert. Robert Shelby was of the same opinion. Clay bid the posse to follow Mason's suggestion and they rode as one.

Austin Peale suddenly rode to the front, his horse kicking up water. "I've been here before, Mosby."

Clay had no interest in hearing his sheriff.

"You better listen to me," Austin insisted.

Clay drew rein. "Make it brief, Austin."

We're about two hours from Callahan's Pass. Me and Call rode through here. A fellow by the name of Ned. This is a good place for an ambush, Mosby. All these trees -- all these blind turns."

"I'll keep that in mind, Austin." Clay rode off. He stood to lose nearly one thousand dollars. No right minded horse thief would consider an ambush -- it wasn't a fight they wanted -- they were distancing themselves more every minute.

Clay led the posse around a sharp bend in the creek when disaster struck. It was an ambush. Austin had been right. Guns exploded -- waters thrashed as six of the seven horse thieves commenced firing into the posse. Robert Shelby attempted hand to hand combat with one of the enemy. There was chaos. One of the outlaws -- a small, dark skinned man, leapt into Clay's saddle and with a small knife, stabbed Clay in the chest -- where his heart was. Clay's body lurched -- the small man extracted the red knife and shoved Clay off his horse.

Austin, Mason, and Zeke had managed to repel the horse thieves -- returning enough firepower to cause them to retreat. The waters stopped churning. Robert jumped off his horse.

"Clay! Clay! No!" Robert dropped to his knees near the bank. Clay Mosby lay face up, his eyes closed. His body seemed stiff. Blood was still soaking onto his dark coat.

"We have to head back," Austin loudly ordered. Zeke and another of Mosby's men had taken bullets -- though not serious.

It had happened suddenly -- too quick to defend. Austin stared down at the unmoving body of Clay Mosby, knowing he would die someday. Having now seemed likely that Clay Mosby had been killed by a knife's stabbing bite to the heart, it seemed unreal.

Mason helped Robert lay Clay's body over his horse.

"We have to ride quick!" Robert ordered.

The posse, shocked to silence by the likely death of Clay Mosby, turned and headed back toward Curtis Wells.

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

The rooster hadn't been born yet that had ever crowed before Woodrow Call awoke. Day began early at Hat Creek -- just as it had in Lonesome Dove, Texas. The men were dressed and heading out to do the morning chores -- Pea Eye hesitating -- observing a soundly sleeping Dish Boggett. He put the toe of his boot on Dish and nudged. No response.

"Dish?" Pea said. "Are you asleep or dead?"

The comment irritated Dish. "Well, if I'm talking to you, Pea, I can't hardly be dead, now can I?"

Pea thought on it. "I guess that makes sense." He pulled his suspenders over his bony shoulders and stepped toward the door. "I do believe the Cap'n will be looking soon enough for you, Dish Boggett. You best come now."

"I'm coming," Dish grumbled.

As Dish staggered to his feet, Pea noticed a sizable welt on his cheek. "What happened to your face, Dish?"

"I won't say," Dish remarked, apparently out of sorts. He grabbed his hat and walked out the open door into the still-dark morning. The rooster crowed.

***

Gretchen and Paige had dressed and risen early. Their offers to help Sarah Pickett with the cooking of breakfast were denied -- Sarah, insisting they walk around outside. The sisters thanked Sarah and went out for a quiet walk, Runt tagging along. Paige shared her previous night's event with Gretchen. While in what was a budding romance with Dish, and amid the passion of their inflamed kissing, Dish had foolishly groped Paige's breast. This resulted in his being punched firmly -- leaving a noticeable red mark on his cheek. Dish must have apologized nine or ten times. The pair made up and commenced with the kissing. They spent half the warm night sitting quietly and just holding hands. By the time Dish laid down to sleep, he had begun to sulk. Thinking about Lorena Wood, the yellow haired girl he first saw in Lonesome Dove -- the one who had given him so much pain by not loving him back. Dish didn't think Paige Brandt would be that way -- she had made it clear that she favored him more than any other man she had met since leaving Missouri. Still, Dish laid awake most of what was left of the quickly-fading night.

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

The Blackfeet camp was located in a small grassy clearing, surrounded on three sides by forest. The vicious band of warriors had hedged themselves in a strategically sound and protective emplacement. The pompous and self-centered Suzanne Van Atta and her sister, Elizabeth Dewberry, now captured and believing no hope at their survival -- let alone their rescue, sat outside one of the Blackfeet lodges, bound to a wooden pole. The sisters, who had both appeared prim and proper one day earlier in Curtis Wells, were now besmeared with mud and grime -- their elegantly fashionable hair dirty and loosely hanging out of place.

Their dresses had been torn and ripped. Though none of the Blackfeet warriors had forced their disgusting attentions on the white captives as of yet, both women were terrified that at any moment they would be taken somewhere nearby and cruelly raped.

It was then that an unusual pair of riders slowly rode into the Blackfeet camp. Bloody Knife, the vile and malicious leader of the small band, rose from sitting near the morning campfire and stood defiantly -- three other braves with him.

"Kan gi>sa. Takuwe niye au ki Sina Ogle Sapa?" ("Red Crow. Why do you bring the Black Robe here?").

Red Crow and his companion, a white man wearing a black robe, was a Jesuit named Brother Sebastian Loudermilk. The Lakota and the Jesuit both took note of the two captive white women.

"Takuwe econ niye oyuspe lena wi cin nu<pa?" ("Why did you capture these two young women?") Red Crow asked Bloody Knife. They both knew each other -- had met on occasion -- though were not overly friendly.

Bloody Knife shook his head and repeated his question -- more adamantly this time. "Takuwe niye au ki Sina Ogle Sapa?" ("Why do you bring the Black Robe?").

"Iye waste pejuta." ("He is good medicine.") Red Crow said.

Brother Sebastian turned to Red Crow. "Those poor, frightened women. Is there any way we can free them?"

"No," Red Crow quietly replied. "We must be patient. Come. We go. Before there is trouble." Red Crow nodded to Bloody Knife and turned his pony, riding out of the Blackfeet camp. The Jesuit followed close behind.

"I don't understand," Brother Sebastian said. "Those women must be rescued as quickly as possible."

"There are too many of them," Red Crow remarked. "It is a battle we cannot win. You will need much help."

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

Robert Shelby sat listless in Dr. Cleese's office. Haunting memories of the past twelve hours being relived time and again. It had appeared that what no Yankee bullet could do during the war, a small half breed horse thief was able to do quite easily -- ending the life of Clay Mosby. Or, so it had seemed. There was still a heartbeat -- though weak -- detected by Dr. Cleese when Clay had been carried up to his office. Robert had rushed out to the Mosby home, returning with a startled and near-hysterical Ashley, to be at Clay's dying side.

By the time Robert had mounted the stairs and barged inside the office, the deathwatch had ended. It was over. By a stroke of incredibly great fortune, Clay had survived. Unbeknownst to Robert at the time, the dark skinned assailant's knife hadn't pierced Clay heart -- instead it had penetrated the small silver flask Clay had placed in the shirt pocket on his left side. The brandy Clay had filled his flask with was what Robert mistook for blood. The knife's sharp blade had indeed pierced Clay's flesh -- cutting into his chest -- blood and brandy mingling to make a vivid mess on his clothes.

Dr. Cleese, upon closer examination, found a sizable knot behind Clay's head -- a severe blow near his right ear which had rendered him unconscious. The doctor had responded quick -- stitching both chest and head wounds. Ashley Mosby nearly fainted but was thankful her husband lived.

Robert Shelby sat patiently near Clay's bed. The stolen horses -- the lost of a large sum of money -- hardly mattered now.

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

When Newt walked through the door Gretchen cast herself into his arms. "I like it here, Call," she told him. The young, married couple sat with Isom and Sarah Pickett, their children, Lizzy and Nathan, as well as Paige. The Picketts had been fond of the newlyweds ever since they first met Gretchen.

When breakfast ended, they went outside -- it was time for the hunting trip to begin. Isom Pickett was to ride with Newt and Dish -- the Captain and Pea, forming the other party. Paige begged to ride along -- something Gretchen would be unable to do, considering that she was now growing large with child. Captain Call wanted no part of a woman tagging along -- Isom volunteered to bring Paige with them. Woodrow was angered but allowed it. He pointed to Gretchen. "You! You stay here. I won't have a woman with child riding with us."

Gretchen approached the Captain. "It would please me very much if you were to say my name, Captain. I am your daughter-in-law, you know. Won't you call me Gretchen?" She smiled at him.

Woodrow stared at Gretchen -- she still reminded him of Maggie. "We'll see." He turned and walked to his horse.

"I reckon we'll be back tomorrow," Call said to his wife. He didn't expect much from his father. It was better that way. Less chance for disappointment.

"Sarah Pickett and Augustina Vega want me spending the day with them, Call," Gretchen replied. Runt sat obediently by her side. "You just take care of yourself, Newt Call. And, Paige." She hugged him tight, then tugged at his hair. She kissed him, not caring who saw them. This was her husband, after all, the man she loved. She carried in her stomach the baby they had created out of their love.

"Hey, Newt," Jasper Fant said. "Don't be worrying about your wife. While you're away I'll take care of her for you. I'm good with women." He began to laugh.

Newt spun sharply -- his eyes blazing. "You don't learn, do you, Jasper?" He drove his fist hard into Jasper's belly, causing the loudmouthed Jasper to double over, groaning. "DO YOU?!" Newt yelled. He threw a solid punch into Jasper's face, knocking him to the ground.

Dish Boggett shook his head. He remembered when he had tangled with Jasper on the drive north. "He ain't ever gonna learn."

Jasper Fant had a loose mouth -- saying things before thinking of the outcome. But he was a scrapper. He growled and jumped to his feet, grabbing for Newt. Jasper tried to kick Newt's injured foot. Newt swung him and threw him back to the ground.

"That's enough!" Woodrow loudly ordered. "You know the rules -- both of you. You want to fight? Draw your wages and get."

Whereupon, the fight was over. Newt stood over Jasper -- tense and ready for blood. Jasper sat on the ground -- his breathing slightly labored. "Sorry, Newt. I didn't mean no offense by it."

Newt pointed his finger at Jasper. "Don't you ever say nothing about my wife, Jasper." It was a threat that carried serious consequences. He then grit his teeth and limping slightly, went to his wife.

"Get on your horses," Woodrow ordered. "We lost enough daylight."

Gretchen hugged Paige. "Take care of him, Paige. I wish I was going." She hugged her husband. "I love you, Call."

"I love you, Gretchen," he replied, holding her close.

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

An argument had broken out in the Blackfeet camp. Bloody Knife wanted to trade the white captives for useful items -- food, weapons, horses. Takes Many Squaws wanted the two white women for his own. He burned with desire -- lustfully wanting to force himself on both sisters. The camp seemed split on who to follow. The white captives smelled nice and were young, making for pleasure -- even though they would scream at the brutal treatment. It also made sense to trade them for something of more value.

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

Red Crow had gone off to hear what the Great Spirit, Wakantanka, had to say to his people. He had taken the Jesuit, Brother Sebastian Loudermilk, the one the Indian tribes called Sina Ogle Sapa, the Black Robe. Other Jesuits had traveled the West -- seeking to bring their Catholic religion to the savage Red Man. Some found minor success -- others were never heard from again.

"I must admit," Brother Sebastian blurted out during a quiet period of meditation, "my spirit is grieved by the inhumane treatment of those poor white women. Deplorable! That's what it is. Deplorable."

Red Crow found the Black Robe -- though believed to have strong medicine -- to be a man who said too many words -- words that filled the air like empty clouds when the land thirsted. He began to consider if he had made an error in bringing him along.

"We must at least honor the Lord God and pray for those girls. I can only imagine the sickening things their captors will do to their bodies -- the flesh being quite weak and the captives being quite lovely, although it goes against my beliefs to think of them in lustful manners."

Red Crow exhaled in frustration. "It is not for me to interfere. The Lakota and the Blackfeet will end up in battle. It is not good."

"Our motto is 'For the Greater Glory of God,' and by the names of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, I cannot sit idly by and do nothing. I must implore upon their human emotions to release those women."

Red Crow stood up. He picked up his spirit blanket and mounted his pony. "Wakantanka will not speak to me until your spirit is still. Come! We will find someone to help."

Brother Sebastian hurried and mounted his horse. "May the one true God lead us to victory."

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

Gretchen Call liked Sarah Pickett -- she reminded her of her own mother. She found herself liking Augustina Vega, also. She had met few Mexicans -- there being so few in Missouri -- so far from Mexico. She enjoyed hearing Augustina talk -- the accent -- the way she said certain words.

"You are most fortunate, Senora Call. Your man is . . ." Augustina made a fist, "most strong. He is like his papa. Capitan Call. It is much easy to see that Newt loves you very, very much."

Gretchen smiled. Sarah Pickett smiled.

"And you and Newt are going to have a baby," Sarah excitedly said. "I believe you will have more than one child, Gretchen."

"I expect our love will create a few more babies after our first child is born," Gretchen replied, with a big smile. "I know my Call will want more once he learns how precious a child is for those blessed to have one."

"Amen to that," Sarah Pickett wholeheartedly agreed. She looked out at her growing children -- Lizzy and Nathan.

Augustina Vega -- without man or child -- could only contemplate the words she had just heard.

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

The hunting parties trailed west along the Yellowstone, where deer, elk, and antelope would be in abundance. At first opportunity, Woodrow separated himself and Pea Eye from the others, crossing the river. It made sense -- allowing both groups access to either side of the river, where the cool water would draw thirsty game.

By early afternoon, Isom Pickett's group had shot a pair of elk -- each adult bull standing five feet tall at the shoulders. They were draped across the large pack horses. Paige's eyes widened as she watched a hawk ride across the prairie winds. Although she would never embrace the frontier as Gretchen had, this was an exhilarating experience for her.

"We got us some company," Isom said, noticing two riders quickly approaching. His hand slid to grasp his Winchester.

"Hold up!" Call said. "I know one of them." He recognized Red Crow.

The two riders drew to a stop. "Tun Ka< Sila has led us to you, my friend, Wild Dog. We need your help."

Call nodded. "Hello, Red Crow."

Red Crow looked at Paige. "I Sta<Mahpiya Bloketu. It is good to see you."

Paige blushed. "Hello, Mr. Red Crow."

Dish Boggett was jealous. He didn't know why the Indian was talking to Paige. "What did he say to you?"

"It's my Lakota name, Dish," Paige proudly replied. "It means Eyes of Summer Sky."

"Blackfeet have taken two white women," Red Crow said. "They are captives. We found the man they butchered and the wagon they burned."

"Let me speak," Brother Sebastian interrupted. "You have to rescue those poor, helpless women. I want to go with you."

"Who are you? Some kind of priest?" Isom asked.

"I happen to be a Jesuit. Brother Sebastian Loudermilk. Touring the cultures of the different tribes here in the western wilderness. I have made my vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in serving the Roman Catholic Church. Now, please! We must not delay. I fear those poor women are in serious danger." He looked at Paige. "Perhaps she should remain here."

"She goes where I go," Dish replied.

Newt looked at Isom. "It'd be best if we stay together. I ain't of a mind to let Paige out of my sight, either."

Isom nodded. "Let's ride." He, of course, hoped the Captain and Pea would eventually find their tracks and follow them to the Blackfeet camp.

"I didn't hardly know you had a Lakota name," Dish said to Paige, as they rode off.

"Are you jealous, Dish Boggett?" Paige asked.

He groaned. "Well, I guess I am."

Paige squeezed him a little tighter, smiling.

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

Upon opening his eyes, Clay Mosby was met with a host of citizens standing over him. His initial thoughts were of confusion, anger, dizziness, and pain. True to his nature, he insisted on leaving Dr. Cleese's office to hunt down the horse thieves -- one small dark skinned man, in particular. He found this a simpler task to say, than to do. He did, however, have a potent headache and his chest pained and burned from the stab wound. He found no humor in the fact that everyone thought he was dead -- only to miraculously rise again -- and rejoin the living.

It was his wife, Ashley, who cleared out the office -- removing Amanda, Mattie, Josiah, and Unbob. Only Robert Shelby did she allow to remain. Clay needed rest -- something he wouldn't find if town gawkers continued to mill about.

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

The Blackfeet warriors stood poised with weapons as Red Crow led the six riders into their camp. The two sisters -- Suzanne Van Atta and Elizabeth Dewberry -- did not raise their heads at first. Brother Sebastian noted with shock their appearances had decayed -- the Blackfeet having used sticks to prod, grope, and beat the girls -- though not sexually molesting them yet. There was dried blood from cuts on their arms and even one or two on their faces.

When the captive sisters did finally raise their heads, their hopes melted away. Out of all the men in Montana, why did it have to be the one man they had insulted in front of the hotel in Curtis Wells? He'll never save us -- not now, Elizabeth thought, looking at Call.

Red Crow explained that he had found someone willing to trade for the white captives. Takes Many Squaws saw Paige and wanted the girl with the blue eyes. "Miye ci i sta<to" ("I want the blue eyed one.").

Unanimous, as one, Call, Dish, Isom, Brother Sebastian, and Red Crow said no, as they dismounted and sat with the Blackfeet. Takes Many Squaws argued with Bloody Knife again -- he wanted a white women to fornicate with.

Call, short tempered, due to the throbbing pain the tight fitting boot caused his foot, stood up and dropped his jacket, pulling his knife out. Dish quickly did the same. Brother Sebastian grew exceedingly nervous feeling as if he would have a bowel movement any moment.

Call turned to his sister-in-law. "I ain't letting no one take you, Paige."

"Me either," Dish added.

Red Crow proposed an enticing offer to Bloody Knife. An offer of trade was better than a fight in which there could be more whites hiding nearby. Red Crow turned to Call. "Offer them the two large horses and the elk they carry. The elk will provide much meat for them and they will find use for the skins and teeth."

"It's a good trade, Newt," Isom Pickett suggested. "We can't leave them women here and they outnumber us in a fight. You got your wife's sister to think of."

Call knew they had to decide quick. He did indeed recognize the captives as being the rude and obnoxious girls from yesterday morning in front of the Dove. He nodded.

The trade was made hastily -- neither side wanted to lose their take. Red Crow told them to ride out and he would remain until they had safely headed up river. One of the sisters rode double with Brother Sebastian while the other rode with Isom Pickett. Paige was already riding with Dish.

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

Captain Woodrow Call didn't like it when Isom Pickett's group arrived in camp late. He liked it even less when he saw the two white women they had with them. Isom explained what had happened. The lost pack horses and two elk didn't bother him as much as being saddled with the two women. Newt finally told him, upon Paige's urging, that they would bring the women back to Curtis Wells. That seemed to satisfy the Captain.

Brother Sebastian, realizing Woodrow Call was in charge of the party, attempted to engage the Captain in religious conversation.

"I do not care to talk philosophy," Woodrow assured the Jesuit. "And I do not know any theology, either. If Gus McCrae were here I am sure he would keep you awake all night discussing these things."

Paige Brandt tended to the needs of Suzanne and Elizabeth. Brother Sebastian offered his services as well. Both young women had been traumatized to a degree. Each sister apologized to Newt Call -- he nodded, not interested in talking.

Nothing was said of Suzanne Van Atta's butchered husband. The girls were in shock and it was best to return to a settlement where they could grieve more proper. "If we only had a comb, or perhaps a brush," Suzanne commented, "we could look more presentable and feel somewhat better."

Paige had forgotten her niceties at Hat Creek -- so excited was she to be allowed on the hunting trip. She suggested they might find a few vestiges of civilization at the ranch.

Elizabeth Dewberry had something else on her mind. "Did you see how that shabby fellow jumped up with his knife, Suzanne? I found him to be quite repulsive yesterday. Now, I wonder?"

Paige gave Elizabeth a stern look. "Call is married to my sister, Gretchen. She's going to give birth in two months. Call? Do you have a photograph of Gretchen with you?"

"Yep," he replied, pulling the new photograph that had just arrived from Missouri, out of his pocket.

Elizabeth Dewberry didn't care. She walked over to Call. "Thank you once again for rescuing my sister and I, Mr. Call. I must look quite a sight. My hair all mussed and my clothes torn from those bloody savages. My name is Beth. May I sit here next to you?"

Call frowned. "There's a reason I'm sitting over here by myself."

Paige kept an eye on Elizabeth. She would protect her sister's husband from these women.

Beth watched Call for a minute then slowly walked away. There would be other occasions.

Brother Sebastian was engrossed in a lively discussion with Isom Pickett. Dish Boggett had no interest in their conversation -- he was much more interested in sitting near Paige.

The rescued sisters ended up sitting with Pea Eye Parker.

Newt found himself walking over to his father. "You did good -- rescuing them women," the Captain told him. "I imagine Gus would be better at saying things now."

"It don't matter none, Cap'n," Newt quietly replied.

Woodrow looked at his son. "I guess it's plain to see you love her."

Newt looked his father in the eye. " I love her more than anything, Cap'n. It would mean a lot to her if you did call her Gretchen."

"I don't see what it amounts to," Woodrow dryly replied.

They said no more.

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

"Newt's back, Mrs. Call," Lippy informed Gretchen as the party -- now three larger -- returned next morning.

"Call!" Gretchen eagerly said, as her husband lifted her in his arms. "I missed you so much, Call." She locked her mouth on his, kissing him long.

Brother Sebastian talked to everyone -- Suzanne Van Atta and Elizabeth Dewberry remained subdued, although Elizabeth found herself staring shamelessly at Call and Gretchen.

Soon, it was time to leave. Brother Sebastian was determined to join the others and visit Curtis Wells -- heathens were in civilized towns as well as Indian lodges. "I must tell you, Mrs. Call," Brother Sebastian said, "if your husband's uncle is all you say then I shall delight in his company."

"You fixing on converting Mason?" Call said to Gretchen as they sat close together in the wagon. Runt laid in Gretchen's lap.

"Yes. And maybe you too, Call," Gretchen replied.

Paige laughed. "Gretchen fooled you again, Call." She smiled at Suzanne and Elizabeth, who sat with her in the back of the wagon.

Woodrow stood near the wagon as Newt prepared to lead them away. Sarah Pickett had dropped a casual remark saying how nice it was to see Newt and Gretchen so happy together.

"I reckon it's time, Cap'n," Newt said.

Woodrow nodded. "I expect you'll be working some more soon enough."

"Goodbye, Captain Call," Gretchen smiled. She wrapped both her arms around Call's arm.

Newt snapped the reins to ride off.

Woodrow looked at them. Isom elbowed him.

"Hold up," Woodrow ordered.

Call pulled up. "Yessir, Cap'n?"

Woodrow exhaled deeply. He looked at Gretchen. "I expect I'll see you again . . . Gretchen."

Gretchen smiled brightly -- a tear in her left eye. "Thank you, Captain Call . . . Father." She laid her head on her husband's shoulder as he led the wagon away. They both smiled.

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

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