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.


Brothers of The Dark Trails
(46th in the Romancing the Plains series)
by Craig Caff

"As sitting in dark days,
Lone, sulky, through the time's thick murk
looking in vain for light, for hope,
From unsuspected parts a fierce and momentary proof"

(From Far Dakota's Canyons [A Death-Sonnet For Custer] -- Walt Whitman)

Where he was he really didn't know. What he saw he wasn't even sure was real or a long, unceasing nightmare, continuing -- no beginning, no ending -- bordering on confusion. It felt real -- yet, couldn't be. On horseback, Clay Mosby rode inside his mansion, pursued by someone whose features were murky. It was someone very close to him, which didn't make sense. Then, it would suddenly end, leaving him numb. For a brief moment his mind cleared as he relived the harrowing tribulation in all its horror. Ashley throwing herself in front of the exploding gun to protect him -- giving up her life to save him.

Clay's eyes stared -- blank and empty -- observing nothing. It was all in his mind -- the great mansion burning to the ground -- the hideous and grisly odor of Ashley's body burning -- the baby she carried, four months along, dying. The scene repeated, over and over again -- allowing no peace for his torturous mind.

He had spent the entire night riding back and forth along the banks of the river, searching for Willis Logan -- desperate to find and butcher the dirty bastard, son of a bitch that had murdered his wife and unborn child. Samuel Peters had stood by his side, ignoring the bullet hole in his arm as he attempted to assist Mosby in the search for Logan. Eventually, in the early dawn, Peters rode off for Curtis Wells -- returning a short time later with a frantic Robert Shelby.

Robert and Peters finally took Clay by force, bringing him back to the charred remains of his dead wife. Finding blankets in the unscathed stable, they wrapped the ghastly remains, bringing her into town to the shock and horror of its citizens. For Robert Shelby, this would be another '65. He stood by Clay during the darkest days of his life and intended to do the same this time. It had been fortunate that a spare coffin sat behind the gunsmith shop -- a timely funeral was essential. Robert Shelby and Samuel Peters dug a grave in the churchyard, not far from where Josiah Peale's daughter, Hannah, lay buried.

Once the funeral -- attended by everyone that was in Curtis Wells at the time -- had ended, Clay walked trance-like back to the Ambrosia. Samuel Peters rode away, his work done. Robert spent the next two days sitting alone with Clay in the dark and empty saloon. He allowed no one to enter -- leaving only for the briefest of moments, to bring food back to Clay. He refused to eat anything -- sinking into a frightening state reminiscent of his condition after the war had ended.

"You have to eat something, Clay," Robert implored. Clay merely stared at the splintered walls -- neither hearing or even caring.

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

Boone Mackinaw believed that Sunday, October 15, 1882, was the day he would die. Riding hard for hours -- the savage and brutal Northern Cheyenne warriors gaining on him and Mason Dobbs -- Boone expected his final thoughts to be filled with images of Paige Brandt. It wasn't until they crossed a shallow stream and raced upward into a thick wooded forest that they managed to escape -- though almost at the risk of their lives. An enormous grizzly, weighing close to seven hundred pounds and hungry, suddenly reared itself into the air, startling Mason and Boone. Boone's horse bucked, losing its balance and tumbling to the soft ground, throwing Boone. As the great bear began to maul the panicking horse, Mason turned his gray and pulled Boone up behind him. The Cheyenne warriors, whooping and yelling, rode right into the savage beast, causing the angry grizzly to chase after the startled Indians, allowing Mason and Boone the opportunity to separate themselves from danger.

Mason's gray -- already winded from the exhaustive ride, seemed to have an extra sense and reserve energy for occasions such as this. The horse had been the difference between freedom and jail numerous times.

With the great bear standing between them and the Cheyenne, Mason and Boone were able to cross the plains and reach Hat Creek safely.

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

It wasn't the best feeling in the world, but it was a good feeling. Wrapping the holster belt around his waist -- buckling it and holding the Colt in his hand -- was reason for Newt Call to smile. A man tended to feel naked without his gun strapped to his waist. It wasn't just the power, it was the security it brought in a frontier that was still uncivilized.

Gretchen smiled when Call holstered his gun after checking it. "Do you think our daughter will want to shoot your gun when she gets a little older, Call?" She held the tiny infant in her arms, humming softly in her ear, rocking her gently.

Call looked at Rebecca Maggie. It was hard to imagine this tiny, helpless baby, holding a gun. "Well, if she has a mind to, I'll be real sure to see that she don't hurt herself none."

"I wonder if our little nephew, Daniel, will show an interest?" Gretchen asked.

Call shrugged. "Not if he's anything like Ephraim."

Gretchen laughed. "That would be something, wouldn't it, Call?"

He nodded. It was time to return home. The accident out on the prairie -- Call being run over by the wagon and kicked in the head by the horses -- had altered the plans of Woodrow Call. Lacking in sympathy as well as patience, the Captain had sent Augustina Vega to Clara Allen's with Dish Boggett. Although he would never allow his feelings to surface in public, he wanted Newt to heal and look after Gretchen and the baby. In order to provide for the two of them, the Captain suggested Newt deliver four broken mustangs to a rancher in Angela, along a fork of the green waters of the Yellowstone. It would be on the road home -- not far out of the way.

While Isom and Sarah Pickett were hugging tiny Becky Call and saying their goodbyes to Newt and Gretchen, Mason Dobbs and Boone Mackinaw rode into Hat Creek. Gretchen was relieved that Mason and Boone would accompany them back to Curtis Wells. She knew her stubborn husband hadn't yet healed and welcomed the addition of his uncle.

Once out on the plains, stories were relived of each situation. Gretchen, sitting next to Call on the wagon, lifted Becky, saying, "your Uncle Mason almost went away and wouldn't have seen you growing up."

Mason suddenly remembered the rag doll that had been left on the prairie near the spot where Call had been injured. Although the doll had been ripped and part of its stuffing hung out, Gretchen assured Mason she could repair it by sewing it once they returned home.

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

Initially, when she heard that Clay Mosby's wife, Ashley, had been murdered, Suzanne Van Atta, pregnant with Clay's child, though saddened by the tragic news, felt a glimmer of hope that Clay might want her to remain in Curtis Wells. By Tuesday afternoon, one day after the funeral, she was having doubts. Having just returned to the general store -- Robert Shelby not allowing her or anyone else to see Clay -- she voiced her concerns to her sister.

"Did you know Mr. Mosby has had three wives and that they have all met with tragic deaths?" Suzanne asked her younger sister, Elizabeth.

"How would I know that, Suzanne?" Beth replied, annoyed that her sister would even ask such a foolish question. "I didn't even know he lost one to tragedy, besides this one."

"Mr. Shelby informed me that seventeen years ago, after the war ended, Mr. Mosby discovered his wife had been killed by Yankees who were using the uniform to pillage and ravage poor defenseless women."

"How terribly dreadful," Beth said. "But, you said there were three wives, Suzanne. What of the third one?"

Suzanne waved her hand. "It seems that right around the time we arrived here, Mr. Mosby had been given a young teenaged Indian squaw as a wife. I think Mr. Shelby said she was a Comanche or Cheyenne. Yes! It was a Cheyenne girl. She was killed in a recent fight out at the Sioux village. He traded her to some painter from Canada."

Elizabeth thought about it for a moment. "Then, surely you have considered the possibility that Mr. Mosby may ask you to become his wife, Suzanne? You are carrying his child."

Suzanne nodded, though not with a smile. "I have. I have also considered that it is less than appealing to envision myself as Mr. Mosby's fourth dead wife."

"Oh, don't be so somber, Suzanne. You can't be seriously thinking the poor man is cursed, now can you?"

Suzanne gazed at her sister but didn't answer. She wasn't sure.

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

"What do I get out of it?" Austin Peale wasn't convinced.

Amanda Carpenter looked around the empty hotel, as if invisible spies were silently listening. "You'd like to own Twyla's, wouldn't you?" She looked at him and laughed. "Yeah, you would, Austin. This is the break we've been waiting for. All we have to do is get rid of Robert Shelby for a few minutes."

"And how do we do that, Amanda?"

"Oh no! Don't look at me that way, Austin," Amanda replied. "Robert Shelby is too smart to buy into my charming schemes. He'd see right through it."

"So, what do you suggest?" Austin asked, the thought of owning the sporting club suddenly piquing his interest. Ever since he had beaten up Rosa, most of Twyla's girls refused to give him a poke. If he suddenly became the owner they would no longer have that luxury.

"You're the sheriff, Austin," Amanda pressed. "Clay made Shelby your deputy. Stage a robbery. Pay some men to break up the No.10 Saloon. All I need is five minutes alone with Clay. I'll get him to sell me back my hotel and sign Twyla's over to you."

Austin allowed a wishful smile to surface. "It just might work. But what happens once he becomes himself, again?"

"We can deal with that when it happens. Aren't you even willing to gamble? Take a chance?"

Austin nodded. "Yes. You're right, Amanda. We should take advantage now."

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

When the wagon came to a halt in front of the Call's home, Victoria and Paige were waiting, along with Ephraim and Runt. The sisters mobbed each other, shedding tears of relief. Paige even threw herself into Boone Mackinaw's arms, causing the bearded young mountain man to redden with embarrassment. Runt, having not seen Call and Gretchen for a week, ran around the wagon barking -- as if he had drank an entire pot of coffee -- so excited was he to see his family. He licked Becky's face, slobbering so much the tiny infant began to cry, causing her nearby cousin, Daniel Jefferson Cleese, to cry -- something he was prone to do without any hesitation or reason.

Knowing her sister and her husband would be hungry from the long ride, Victoria brought along an apple pie and a large bowl of stew -- enough to feed everyone, including Mason and Boone. Gretchen went alone into the bedroom so she could give her hungry daughter the breast while Victoria set the table in the other room. Call unhitched the horses from the wagon -- Mason helping him. Ephraim held his son, Daniel, allowing Paige the opportunity to finally be alone with Boone.

"I was so worried about you, Mr. Rabbit Two Knives," Paige said, her blue eyes staring at the young mountain man. "Uh . . . I mean . . . I was worried about Call and Gretchen and little Becky. I was worried about all of you." She blushed.

Boone suddenly felt hot -- it obviously wasn't the early evening temperature -- although it had been unusually warm for the middle of October. "When me and Concho were riding to keep our scalps from the Cheyenne, all I could think of was you, Miss Brandt."

Paige suddenly burst into tears.

"What's wrong?" Boone inquired, wondering what he had done to cause that reaction.

Paige stepped closer -- Boone reached out, pulling her against him.

"The thought of you being killed by Indians . . ." she hesitated, wiping her eyes. "Please do try to be more considerate and not get yourself killed." She felt safe in his strong arms. "Promise me, Boone Mackinaw!"

"I . . . I can't promise that," he replied.

"Then promise me you'll try, at least," Paige whispered. "For me?"

Boone stared at Paige. "Do you want to get married? Uh, to me, I mean?"

Paige's eyes widened. "Yes! Yes, Boone! I want to marry you!" She squeezed him tight, catching him off guard -- taking his breath away. "We have to tell my sisters! We're getting married!"

Boone suddenly realized something. "Paige? What about that other fella? The cowboy with the strange name over at Hat Creek?"

"Dish Boggett?" she replied, suddenly remembering him, also. "Well, Mr. Dish Boggett could have asked for my hand, now couldn't he? He has had more than enough opportunities."

Boone scratched his bearded jaw. "Supposing he asked you yesterday?"

Paige leaned slightly up, kissing Boone on the mouth. "I think I fell in love with you, Mr. Rabbit Two Knives the night you saved my life." She smiled warmly at him. "Now! Let's go tell Victoria and Gretchen! I can't wait!"

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

Determined not to travel the same dark path a second time, Robert Shelby finally grabbed the languid and listless Clay Mosby, shaking him violently. "Stop this, Clay! I will not tolerate it!"

Clay Mosby didn't respond -- not as Robert had hoped he would. He looked at him but it was plain enough that Clay Mosby was just not himself.

"Damn it, Clay! You have a saloon to run. You have a town that needs you. Ashley is dead. It's tragic. But you . . ."

"That is enough, Robert!" Clay grabbed his friend, swinging him to the floor, catching Robert off guard. "My wife was buried only yesterday. I insist on a proper amount of time for grieving. Allow me that much!"

Robert Shelby looked up at Clay. At least he had evoked a semblance of emotion, which was better than the moping he had sunken into. He, too, felt remorse and grief for Ashley's tragic death -- especially since they had been so intimate with each other -- but knew it was urgent to bring Clay out of his daze.

Clay dropped back into his chair and looked at his open palms. "I couldn't save her, Robert. My own wife and I was helpless. I didn't trust Willis Logan and he still rendered me unconscious."

Robert stood up, brushing himself. At least Clay was talking now.

"I did love her . . . though not as I loved Mary. She gave her life to save me. I don't even know if Willis Logan is dead or alive? I shall not rest until I know for certain. Please, Robert? Leave me. I do not desire to see anyone right now."

Robert placed his hand on Clay's shoulder. "All right, Clay. But allow me to bring you something to eat. You haven't eaten in days."

"No," Clay insisted. "I have no appetite. Just leave, Robert."

Robert Shelby nodded.

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

"I'm getting married, Victoria! Gretchen! Boone just asked me!"

Victoria and Gretchen both stared at each other for a moment while the youngest Brandt sister's outburst caused the two infants to suddenly stop making their gurgling sounds. The three sisters embraced as one, high pitched exciting squeals coming from all three of them.

Mason, nearest to where Boone stood, extended his hand. "Congratulations, amigo!"

Call and Ephraim, both surprised by the sudden announcement, walked over to offer their approval to the young mountain man.

"Hey, Doc," Mason said, "by this time next year you might be delivering another baby." He winked at Boone.

Ephraim nodded, smiling. "Yes. Quite correct, Mr. Dobbs. Or, perhaps Victoria or Gretchen will give birth to a second child." He arched his eyebrows at Mason.

Paige turned to Call, grabbing him and hugging him. "You're my big brother, Call. Tell me you approve of Boone. I don't want you upset with me because it isn't going to be Dish." Paige stared at Call, waiting.

"I reckon you make your own bed, Paige. Ain't hardly my place to say." Call nodded. "My guess is Dish will get over it. I'd say you got yourself a decent man."

"Thank you, Call," Paige kissed him on the cheek, then turned to Ephraim. "You're the oldest of all of us, Ephraim. Do you approve of Boone?"

Ephraim looked at the bearded, longhaired man. "As a matter of fact, it is my opinion that you have made a wise decision. Considering how close you are to your sisters, I am of the opinion that were you to indeed marry Mr. Boone Mackinaw, you will no doubt live closer to your sisters than had you married someone else."

Paige suddenly cupped her mouth with her hands. "That's right! Where will we live, Boone?"

Boone Mackinaw flashed a wide grin. "I already figured that out. Over that hill yonder," he pointed in the direction of Curtis Wells, "about halfway between where both your sisters live, there's a fine spot to build a home." He looked at Paige. "You do want to live near your sisters, don't you, Miss Eyes of Summer Sky?"

Paige nodded, tears welling in her eyes. She couldn't wait to be married like her sisters.

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

Early next morning Call and Gretchen took Becky and Runt in the wagon to their secluded spot near the river. It was an unusually warm morning for October and they knew most likely the last chance they would have to cast aside their clothing and go into the river before winter's chill made it too cold.

Cautious, as always, Call listened intently and searched fervently with his eyes before nodding to Gretchen. She giggled and quickly removed all her clothing -- standing before Call in her nakedness. Call's breath was taken away as he stared at Gretchen. They were less than a month away from their one year anniversary. Their infant baby daughter, Becky, was in her cradle board in the back of the wagon. Runt ran off into the bushes, sniffing everything.

"Hurry, Call," Gretchen impatiently said. "It's been so long since we were here."

Call, slower to shed his garments, finally untangled himself and joined his wife in the cool waters. He reached out to grab her when she splashed him in the face, laughing, carefree. When Call grabbed her, Gretchen suddenly tensed, looking toward the wagon.

"What is it?" Call asked, suddenly looking around.

"I thought I heard Becky cry," Gretchen said. She splashed her husband a second time, then laughing, tramped through the refreshing waters, running to the blanket they had laid on the ground before removing their clothes. Gretchen waited for Call to reach her then pulled him down on top of her, guiding him inside her. She was careful with his healing, cracked ribs. They began kissing and moaning passionately until she excited Call too much and his seed filled her. Gretchen held him tight as long as she could. "What if we just conceived another baby, Call? Would you be happy, Sweetheart?" She stared at him -- her hypnotic green eyes melting him again.

Laying on top of her, holding her close, Call nodded. "Yep. I reckon so, Coyote Girl."

"I love you, Newt Call. Forever." Gretchen bit his lower lip.

"I love you, too, forever, Gretchen Call," he quietly replied.

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

Unbob Finch was worried. The Ambrosia Club had been closed for three days. Today would be the fourth. He looked at the restless group of men loitering in front of Mosby's saloon then turned to Mattie and Dewey. "I wonder if Mr. Mosby plans to open his saloon today?"

"I wish I knew, Unbob," Mattie replied. She hadn't known Ashley very well, but shed tears when she heard the tragic news.

"Maybe me and Unbob could find some whiskey and sell it to those men?" Dewey wondered out loud.

"Don't you even think of that!" Mattie admonished the young orphan boy she had adopted. "I'll tan your hide if you do."

Dewey groaned, rubbing his backside. He hadn't forgotten the recent tanning Mattie had given him for throwing firecrackers around town and looking up the skirts of the Dewberry sisters.

"Good morning," Josiah Peale said, joining the trio. "Quite warm today, isn't it?"

"Warm enough that those men might get out of hand if Clay doesn't open his doors soon," Mattie replied.

Josiah paused, gazing at the Ambrosia. He shrugged his thin shoulders. "They can drink at the No.10,"

"Well, that's what I said," Unbob replied, looking at Mattie.

Dewey tugged Unbob's arm. "I got a plan. Let's go." He ran off.

"I got chores need doing first, Dewey," Unbob groaned.

Mattie just watched the crowd in front of Clay's saloon.

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

"Now's your chance, Austin," Amanda urged. "Those men are just the distraction we need."

Sheriff Peale stood in front of the Lonesome Dove Hotel, not as eager as his partner. He sighed, angering Amanda. "I'll see what I can do about stirring things up."

"Just get Shelby out of the Ambrosia, Austin -- I'll do the rest."

Austin nodded, not entirely sure what he planned to do. He stepped into the street, hoping an idea would come to him before he reached the saloon.

"Get out of the way!" a voice yelled.

Austin turned, seeing the stage riding into town -- Luther Root flexing his massive arms to pull the leather reins -- bringing the four-horse team to a halt. Amanda's eyes fixed on the incoming stage, realizing the opportunity now presented. She rushed back inside the hotel, emerging moments later with pen and paper.

Austin Peale hesitated -- watching as Luther climbed down from the driver's box. "Howdy, Austin. What're these boys doing out here?"

"Mosby's wife was murdered three days ago," Austin replied. "He's been holed up inside his saloon."

"That's a damn shame," Luther said, shaking his head. "Did they catch the skunk?"

"Mosby shot him -- the river washed him away. He doesn't know if he died or escaped."

Luther paused, only to be rudely addressed by a stunningly attractive woman, who had just been assisted out of the coach by a gray haired man. "If you can find the time to stop your daydreaming, I would like my things carried across the street to the hotel."

Luther nodded, unstrapping the rear boot. He lifted a sizable trunk, let out an insignificant grunt and followed the woman, careful not to step on the elegant train of her showy and expensive dress. The older, sophisticated gentleman followed. The woman and gentleman paused in front of the hotel, addressing Amanda. She pointed to the Ambrosia. The woman entered the hotel with Luther while the gray haired gentleman crossed the street, heading for the saloon. He opened the door, only to have Robert Shelby charge like a guard dog.

"This saloon is closed," Robert snapped. "Go to the No.10 for a drink."

The older man stood his ground. "I bring a message to you, Mr. Shelby."

Robert's eyes widened. "I know you! I remember you. You were traveling with . . ."

"Miss Abigail Farrington. The Prairie City Canary -- the Dakota Diva," he interrupted, puffing his chest some. "Quite correct, my fine fellow."

"Abby's here?" Robert asked, suddenly forgetting his responsibility to Clay Mosby.

"Here, and Miss Farrington has requested your immediate presence in the hotel. Shall I walk you there?"

"I know where the hotel is, you old fool," Robert barked. He nudged the older man out the door and hastened across the street to find the woman who had shot him one year earlier.

"Where's Abby?" Robert demanded. "Which room is Miss Farrington in?"

"Room 3," Amanda replied, attempting to leave the hotel before Robert could return to Clay. "The same room she was in last year." She stepped through the open door, hoping Robert wouldn't notice. He didn't. Instead, he rushed up the stairs, the older gentleman a few steps behind him.

*******

"Clay? Is there anything I can do for you?" Amanda Carpenter's tone was soothing. "Would you like a drink? Something to eat?"

Clay turned his head, halfheartedly looking at her. He didn't respond.

"Clay, we all feel bad for your lost -- it's tragic. We need you to run things." Amanda studied his face, watching for any signs of coherency. "If you need time to grieve or mourn, it's understandable -- we all need time. Uh . . . I just want what's best for the town. Clay? I have the money to buy back the hotel."

Clay stared at the floor.

Amanda held out a pen and white piece of paper. "Clay? I'm only doing this to help you -- help the whole town. Sign this paper."

Clay looked at Amanda. His eyes were empty. His thoughts were not on the present moment, but on Ashley.

Amanda eased the pen into Clay's hand. He glanced at it. "Hurry, Clay," she urged, looking toward the doors. "Sign this paper."

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

Only one woman had ever cast her spell on Robert Shelby -- so thorough and all-consuming that the total control of his mind was like putty in her elegant hands. A glimpse of her stockinged leg, a soft whisper in his ear, and Robert was ready to obey her every whim.

"Leave us, Richard, darling," Abby Farrington ordered, waving her pink ostrich feather hand fan -- lightly stroking her ample cleavage.

"As you wish, my little petunia," Richard Watt, the older gentleman who had accompanied her to Curtis Wells a year ago, replied. He bowed to the Prairie City Canary, then departed, leaving Robert Shelby alone with Miss Farrington.

Robert stared -- once again mesmerized by her stunning beauty. His eyes feasted on her silken hair, the front sides of which was waved and pulled back from the top into a huge, amorphous knot at the crown of her head. Long ringlets fell from the nape of Abigail's neck over her alabaster skin.

Robert unconsciously inhaled the intoxicating fragrance of Abby's Violette France perfume, evoking pleasant memories from their days together in the Dakotas. Abby extended her slim arm, encased in white elbow length formal gloves. "Robert."

"Abby," he breathed, instantly taking her hand and lightly kissing it.

"I shouldn't tell you this, Robert," she confessed, "but I have allowed myself the most wicked thoughts about you and I. I had to drop everything -- leave the theater to find you."

Robert Shelby's heart pounded in his chest -- his breathing accelerating.

"Do you forgive me for shooting you, Robert, my sweet?"

"I can forgive you for anything, Abby," Robert replied. "You have always been my weakness, I'm afraid." He shook his head. "You are absolutely breathtaking, Abby."

The compliment pleased her. "Tell me, Robert, my sweet? Do you have a newspaper in this town?"

"Yes, across the street."

"Then allow me time to freshen up from my ride. I will expect you here in two hours. You may escort me to the newspaper office."

"The moments apart will be agony to me, Abby," Robert said. He reached out to kiss her.

Abby put her hand up. "We shall save that for later, Robert."

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

The first stop they made was the church cemetery. Call helped Gretchen out of the wagon and held their infant daughter while his wife placed the flowers at the foot of Ashley Mosby's grave. "She cared enough to bring us food after Becky was born, and I was too weak to get out bed, Call. I was hoping to repay her when she gave birth early next year." There was sadness in Gretchen's voice. She looked at her husband and smiled, reaching out to take their baby. "I'm so thankful we have each other, Call. And, our precious little Becky."

Call helped her back into the wagon then drove to the dry goods. The three Brandt sisters walked to the bank -- where the telegraph office was -- and wired a short message to St. Joe, announcing Paige was soon to wed her young champion. Call remained outside, showing no interest that Elizabeth Dewberry and her sister, Suzanne Van Atta, were observing him from across the street.

When the Missouri sisters stepped out of the bank, Mr. Richard Watt, the theatrical manager of Miss Abigail Farrington, crossed the street to enter the bank in regards to sending their own telegram, Miss Farrington alongside him.

"Out of the way, peasants," he ordered, "the Prairie City Canary has the street." He nudged Gretchen sharply, causing her to stumble with Becky in her arms.

Watching intently, Call was at Gretchen's side before she fell, catching her and their infant daughter. He stared at her for an instant. "You all right?"

Gretchen nodded, her face white from the fear of Becky being injured.

"You sonofabitch!" Call yelled. He grabbed Richard Watt by his costly jacket and threw him violently into the street. Before the gray haired gentleman could get to his feet, Call seized him by his hair, yanking him off the ground. Richard's screams, although loud and heard by everyone in the streets, were ignored by Call -- whose fury had been unleashed by the flagrant assault on his wife and child. Gretchen, along with Victoria and Paige, stood motionless, their gaze locked on the savage eruption.

"Remove your filthy hands from my Richard!" Abigail Farrington demanded, though careful not to draw too close. When she realized the raging young man might very well kill Richard, she rushed to the Ambrosia, knowing Robert Shelby was inside, and implored his assistance. Robert hurried to the street where he paused, revealing a grin, content to watch Call belittle a man he thoroughly disliked.

Call flung Richard Watt up the steps to where his wife stood. He yanked his hair, pulling his head taunt, until Richard felt as if his eyes were bulging out of his skull. "Tell her you're sorry or I'll cut your hand off!" Call yelled, drawing his knife.

"I'm regretfully sorry, madam," Richard stuttered. "My apologizes."

"You take a real good look at my wife and baby! I ever see you touch them again I'll carve the skin off your damn hide! You hear me!"

"Yes! I hear you!" Richard managed to say.

Having observed the tempestuous spectacle -- unseen from the side of the hotel -- Austin Peale determined it time to make an appearance. "That's enough, Call! Leave him alone."

Call lifted Richard Watt, then drove his fist into his stomach, knocking him to the ground. He turned to Austin, glaring, then went to Gretchen. Victoria knew Call's ways were sometimes excessive, but she knew it was because of his love for Gretchen.

"I'm all right, Call," Gretchen quietly said. "Let's just go to the dry goods."

Boone Mackinaw, who had returned from looking for a suitable location to build a home for him and Paige, managed to catch the entire event.

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

"Are you sure about this, Call?" Gretchen asked.

"It ain't what I favor doing," he grumbled. "I reckon it has to be done." He looked at Boone Mackinaw, who was soon to be his brother-in-law. "I can depend on you, can't I?"

"You can depend on me, Call," he replied, confidently.

Call nodded, then hugged his wife and held the baby. He placed her tiny head on his cheek then kissed his daughter. "Be good for your mama, Becky," he said. He kissed Gretchen -- a long kiss -- then went to the door. "I'll be back in a day or two."

"Be careful, Call," Gretchen softly said. "For me and Becky."

Call headed straight to the Ambrosia. Robert Shelby stood up when he stepped inside. Call walked over to where Clay Mosby sat -- staring blankly.

"Get up, Mosby," Call said. "You're coming with me. Saddle your horse."

"What are you doing, Call?" Robert asked.

Clay looked at Call. His eyes moved, gazing at him. Gradually, he stood up.

Robert stepped in front of Clay. "No, Clay. I must insist . . ."

"It's all right, Robert," Clay quietly replied. "He's right. This is something I must do."

"Where are you going? When will you return?" Robert inquired.

"Maybe tomorrow -- maybe day after," Call shrugged.

Clay produced a small smile, patting Robert on the shoulder. "I'll be fine, Robert. I'm ready, Call." They walked out, mounted their horses and rode out of town.

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

Victoria Cleese and Gretchen Call were buttoning their blouses -- finishing up feeding their babies in the privacy of the back room -- when Elizabeth Dewberry, along with Sheriff Peale, entered the dry goods. Paige Brandt frowned.

"Where's Call?" Austin asked, observing the older sisters carrying their infants. "Mr. Watt has filed a complaint to have him arrested."

""He's like an animal," Beth added. "Decent folks are frightened of him."

"Oh, shut your mouth, Elizabeth Dew-Nothing," Paige angrily replied, "or I'll get the broom and chase you out like the sneaky little rat you are! You were outside watching. You saw that rude man push my sister."

"That's correct, Sheriff," Victoria responded. "That man shoved Gretchen and her baby."

"Then, I wish to file a complaint against him," Gretchen said. "He assaulted me. If either one of us -- my baby or myself -- had been hurt, that rude man would be in Ephraim's office right now. My husband would have shown no mercy."

Beth snickered. "That was mercy?"

Austin hesitated. "You still haven't told me where Call's at?"

"He rode out with Mr. Mosby," Victoria answered.

Austin nodded then turned to leave. Elizabeth's face reddened with anger. "Do something, Sheriff!"

"Miss Dewberry?" Paige said. "Next time you intend to enter our store please inform us beforehand so we can put a wider door in. We wouldn't want your fat behind getting stuck in the door."

Offended, Beth stormed out -- the sisters laughing. Austin had to tuck his chin to hide his grin.

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

"For some unexplainable reason," Clay Mosby said, "you and I are destined to a similar suffering -- an unfathomable fate." He gazed at the quiet Call. They had been gone for almost two hours -- trailing west -- heading north -- beyond the badlands as they neared a fork in the brown waters of the Missouri River, past the Judith Mountains.

"You're a difficult man to understand, Call. You dislike people in general. Yet, you passionately love your wife and daughter. And, now . . ."

"Can't you just shut up, Mosby?" Call grumbled. He didn't like being away from Gretchen and little Becky.

Clay Mosby laughed slightly. "I am quite grateful to you, Call. Perhaps you are the only man who knows the dark road I find myself presently traveling?"

Call frowned. It was enough that he took it upon himself to help Mosby, listening to his chatter was annoying him.

"I did love her, Call. Despite her failings, I loved Ashley."

Realizing Mosby wasn't about to stop talking, Call decided he might as well deal with it. "Ain't me that needs convincing."

Clay pulled up. "I've already gone through this once before, Call." He thought for a moment. "In a way, this time was worse -- I was there! I couldn't save her. I watched her die." He tensed his body, shaking at the horrible image -- an image that would be branded in his mind forever.

Call tightened his jaw, wincing. Although he had long since moved on -- realizing Gretchen Brandt had been the perfect girl for him -- he still agonized over not being able to save Hannah. Clay Mosby was stirring up old memories. Call knew Mosby was on the same dark path he had been on a few years earlier.

"I understand your rage now, Call," Clay admitted. "How did you ever overcome it? I need to know."

Call hesitated, groaning. He didn't favor this kind of talk. "It was Gretchen. She was everything for me. I reckon she cared enough . . . was unselfish . . . it was Gretchen."

Mosby listened. If Newt Call was able to conquer the dark road of gloom and destitution, then a man of superior upbringing such as himself, must surely conquer this torturous existence. "Where, exactly, are we going?"

Call nodded. "Right there."

Mosby noticed the scattered lodges of the Lakota. They had reached the encampment of Red Crow.

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

His duty to watch over Clay Mosby temporarily removed, Robert Shelby opened the Ambrosia to the public then met Miss Abigail Farrington for supper at the hotel. "Don't be angry, Abby," Robert pleaded. "Your Mr. Watt deserved what he got. I cannot abide a man shoving a woman holding her baby. It is a cowardly act."

"Hello, Miss Farrington," Josiah Peale interrupted. His son, Austin, stood with him. "Where is your manager, Mr. Watt?"

"I'm afraid the silly boy has been offended and embarrassed and has locked himself in the room next to mine," Abby replied, displaying her charming smile.

"Good," Robert muttered under his breath.

"How long do plan to grace us with your delightful presence, Miss Farrington?" Josiah asked.

She glanced at Robert. "I haven't made that decision yet."

"Well," Josiah replied, "we'll leave you two to your supper." They found a nearby table.

Abigail twined her fingers in Robert's hand. "I was hoping you and I could start over, Robert. I've had enough of this meal. Shall we go upstairs, to my room? A private desert, Robert?"

Robert nodded. He stood up, helped Abby out of her chair and walked her upstairs.

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

Victoria and Gretchen watched the two infants lying side by side. Both had finally fallen asleep. Though only one month older than Rebecca Maggie, Daniel was huge compared to his tiny cousin. It wasn't that he was big -- Becky was small. "I imagine those two will be quite a handful once they're of age to run around," Victoria commented.

"I believe our little Becky will be spoiled by Call," Gretchen noted. "He loves her so. It's going to be hard for him to tell her no. It's already happened once when he put her in the other room. It tore him up inside. I could see it in his eyes."

"I just hope Daniel outgrows his whiny stage," Victoria replied.

Paige walked inside the house with Boone Mackinaw. Taking him by the hand, she led him to where the two infants slept. "See that, Mr. Rabbit Two Knives? I hope we have our own baby one year from now."

Boone's face reddened. A young man growing up with five brothers wasn't completely at ease around three women. The talk of babies and civilized conversations wasn't what he experienced on the plains and prairies. He just wanted to marry Paige and be with her.

"We have to make wedding plans," Victoria excitedly stated. "Do you want the whole town invited, Paige?"

"No!" Boone blurted out.

The three Brandt girls looked at him.

Boone's face turned a brighter shade of red. "I mean . . . can't we just get hitched quiet like?" He seemed to have difficulty breathing.

Paige put her hands on her hips. "If the man the Lakota named Wild Dog can marry my sister, Gretchen, with folks gathered, you can too, Boone Mackinaw!"

Boone stared at Paige, then Gretchen. "You mean, Call is Wild Dog?!" He shook his head. "I should of known! I should of known when I saw him protect you and your baby." He grinned wide. "He said he's depending on me," he proudly noted.

"Do you want your family coming out for the wedding, Boone?" Victoria inquired.

"Naw," he said, waving his hand. "Can't it just be a small wedding? Paige?"

"I'm all right with small," Paige agreed. "Only, we have to wait till Call returns."

Gretchen sighed. "Call," she whispered, missing him, looking at her sleeping daughter.

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

Red Crow led Call and Mosby to a low hut, framed of willow branches and covered with hides. Clay immediately noticed the low entrance facing east. Outside the hut were fire pits and inside the hut were more of the same.

"The sweat lodge," Call said to Mosby.

"Sweat lodge?" Clay repeated.

"Yes," Red Crow agreed. "It is the sweat lodge. It will cure you, Chief of the square lodges. I will be the one 'to pour' for this ritual of purification and to cure your illness."

Call laughed, finding humor in Mosby's obvious confusion and lack of the Lakota ways. He led Clay into the hut, where Red Crow urged both men to remove their clothing -- placing deer skins over their private areas as they sat on the ground.

"You've no doubt participated in this . . . strange ceremony before," Clay remarked.

Call merely nodded.

Red Crow threw water on the fire-heated rocks, creating intense, hot steam. He offered prayers, raising his arms above his head. Mosby and Call began to break out in sweats, large drops of water sliding behind their ears onto their necks and down their backs, feeling like spiders crawling over their flesh.

Once the prayers were offered, Red Crow began to sing. "Tunkasila! Iosila miye el. Tunkasila! Iosila miye el. Tunkasila! Iosila miye el" ("Great Spirit! Be compassionate.").

Clay opened his eyes, gazing at his two unlikely companions. He never would have expected Call to help him, let alone enter the sweat lodge with him. He noticed Call seemed comfortable with the entire Lakota experience, causing him to wonder if he should be more involved with the recessive tribes -- Lakota, Cheyenne, Crow. It was a thought he entertained for only the briefest of moments, aware that the Indian's plight was unfavorable and it would avail him far more to concentrate on the white society. He wiped the sweat from the sides of his head then closed his eyes.

Red Crow suddenly rose and left the hut. Clay looked around -- his long, dark curls clinging to his neck -- waving his hand in front of his face. "Are we permitted to drink a cup of cool water?"

Call opened his eyes, revealing a scowl. He shifted his body, grunting in pain -- the cracked ribs still not healed. "Dammit, Mosby! Shut the hell up!"

Clay frowned at Call. One thing was certain. Although Call was helping Clay, he made it clear nothing had changed between the two of them.

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

When Sadie and Florie sat on the tattered couch near Mason Dobbs, Rosa stood up and repositioned herself squarely in Mason's lap, claiming him as her possession. Florie didn't mind, the welfare of Clay Mosby was her urgent concern.

"Poor, Clay," she remarked. "He's going to need a lot of comforting."

"He won't come to you," Twyla jealously snapped. "He was already involved in an illicit affair with Mrs. Van Atta."

"That sounds just like Clay Mosby," Rosa commented. She had never forgotten how he had ordered her to bring shame to Reverend Amos Bantry the first time he was in Curtis Wells."

Florie sat up -- her breasts nearly popping out of her loose-fitting silk robe. "How do you know that?"

Twyla smirked. "I have to know what's going on in town with the men."

"What do you know about me, senorita?" Mason asked.

"You're our best customer and you treat my girls with more respect than any other man."

Mason looked at Rosa and winked.

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

Abigail Farrington, the Prairie City Canary, was completely satisfied. She sighed with deep contentment, turning to gaze at Robert's naked body. She took note of his distant stare. "Was I that bad, Robert?" She slid her fingers to him, rubbing his inner thigh.

"No, Abby," he replied. "Clay Mosby's wife was murdered a few days ago."

Abby sat up. "Oh, how dreadful! Robert, I'm sorry."

Robert Shelby shrugged. "I went through this with him once before."

Abby began massaging his neck and shoulders. "You're tense, Robert. Let me relax you."

Robert tried to relax but found his concern about Clay overshadowing his pleasure.

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

When Red Crow returned to the sweat lodge with more water for what they called the next round, Clay had passed out from hunger. "Was is too hot for him?" Red Crow asked.

"Hell if I know," Call replied.

Red Crow noticed Clay's haggard cheeks, remembering his voice had been weak. "He needs food." He stepped out of the hut and said to one of the squaws, "au ta<lo, a guya<pi"

("bring meat, bread"). The Indian woman nodded and rushed off, returning soon with a basket of food. Red Crow wakened Clay. "Here. You eat. Eat. Then, more water."

Clay devoured the meal, refreshing and strengthening himself. He noticed Call smirking, which annoyed him greatly.

Red Crow poured more water on the fire-heated rocks, producing the intense steam. With his belly filled, Clay was ready to continue the ritual. The sessions continued throughout the night. By morning, Red Crow had offered many prayers and sung many songs to heal Clay Mosby's spirit. Red Crow's wife, Singing Bird, came over to greet Call once the men emerged from the lodge.

****

On the ride back to Curtis Wells, Clay Mosby felt different. He couldn't say exactly what happened but knew he didn't feel as he did the day before.

"I am most grateful to you, Call. Perhaps I may never get over this tragedy but I truly appreciate your concern," Clay said as they rode out from the Lakota village.

"I wouldn't want you to be sitting with your chin on the floor next time I got me a notion for a drink. Might ruin the mood," Call replied, staring straight ahead at the trail.

Clay smiled. He knew that even though Call would never admit it, he was concerned. "Then, I must attempt to remember that the next time you come into my saloon."

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

When Amanda Carpenter opened the doors to the Lonesome Dove Hotel to let in the morning crowd, Austin Peale grabbed her by the arm. "You've been avoiding me since the stage arrived yesterday, Amanda."

Amanda pulled her arm free. "I'm busy, Austin. Talk to me later."

"No! You'll talk now, Amanda," he ordered. "I saw you go inside the Ambrosia. What happened? I want to know."

"Clay wouldn't listen to me," she said. "I didn't have enough time to do everything."

"Everything? What do you mean by everything?"

"This is all I got." She opened a piece of paper that read, I, Clay Mosby, sell the Lonesome Dove Hotel to Amanda Carpenter for $5,000. It was Amanda's writing and Clay Mosby's signature.

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

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