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.


Widow-Makers and Spirit Breakers
(50th in the Romancing the Plains series)
by Craig Caff

When you stand up for what's right
you're not going to be popular.

(Reverend Loyed Arnold -- Baptist Minister)

The discussion, though not likely to turn into a heated argument, had brought out frustration in both Call and Gretchen -- neither one retreating a step or even compromising. Gretchen could be exasperating at times. When the Brandt sisters had first arrived in Montana from St. Joseph, Missouri, on several occasions she had exasperated her older sister, Victoria, when she attempted to pursue Newt Call, an unsociable young man Victoria had thoroughly disliked and disapproved of wholeheartedly.

"I want to go with you, Call," Gretchen said once again. Only this time, she stomped her foot on the floor, as she was prone to do when angry at her husband. "Why can't Becky and I go with you? We've gone before." There was fire in her green eyes -- she meant to have her way.

Call moaned, trying to be patient with his wife of one year. "I already told you, Gretchen. It's different this time. It ain't no place for a woman or a baby." Since receiving the telegram from Captain Call two days earlier, Gretchen had been persistent in letting Call know how she felt. Call had always wanted Gretchen with him when he rode to Hat Creek -- this time was no different. He had explained to her that the horses he would bring back were all unbroken and wild -- accidents could happen, mustangs could stampede. A woman and a baby riding along in a wagon might well be in danger. Call wasn't about to put his wife and infant daughter in peril.

"I just wish I could go with you, Call." Gretchen pouted. It was the exact same pout Becky was beginning to learn, having used it on her father with successful results a time or two, already.

"I wish you could too, Gretchen," Call replied. "My mind's made up. It's too dangerous for you and Becky."

"And, what's going to happen when you get back, Call? Does the Captain expect you to be the one to try and tame those wild horses?"

"That's what I'm getting paid for, Gretchen. They ain't about to be broke on their own. We need the money and you know it. I ain't worked for the Cap'n since the wagon rolled over me. The Cap'n ain't hardly a patient man."

"Riding those horses -- they're wild, Call. You could get hurt," Gretchen said.

He stared at his wife. "You fixing on arguing all night, Coyote Girl?"

Gretchen shook her head, her long brown hair swinging across her small shoulders. "No, Call. I won't argue any more. You're more stubborn than me -- you're wearing me out."

"I reckon I am," he laughed, pulling Gretchen close to him.

"Our little Becky is asleep in her room, Call." She leaned close to his face and whispered, "let's get in bed, Call. I want you as long as I can have you before you go."

Call placed his hands on Gretchen's waist, lifting her about a foot off the floor and carried her into their bedroom, Gretchen's arms tightly wrapped around Call.

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

When the wagon pulled to a halt in front of the dry goods store, Mattie and Josiah, who had just left the hotel's dining room, observed the woman and small child climbing down to the street.

"Another family has taken up residence near Curtis Wells," Josiah remarked with an approving smile.

"Their name is Shofner," Amanda replied, joining the pair. "Clay hired her husband -- another gunman with an attitude."

"Sounds like you don't much care for them," Mattie commented.

"I don't have a problem with her," Amanda said, nodding toward the woman across the street. "It's her husband -- he's the one."

"It sometimes requires time to get to know a person," Josiah mentioned.

"I don't need time to know a skunk," Amanda sharply replied. "He's dressed in fine clothes. Look at his wife and the little girl -- they're in rags. He's got a mouth on him, too."

The three observers watched as the woman took her young daughter by the hand and went inside the dry goods.

****

All three of the Brandt sisters were busy when the woman stepped inside the store. Gretchen, helping out while Call was on his way to Hat Creek with his uncle, Mason Dobbs, stood closest to the mother and daughter. "Good morning." She bent down near the little girl. "What's your name? You've very pretty."

The little girl shied away, pressing her face against her mother's hip. Gretchen then noticed the bruises on the woman's face -- her lip swollen and a purple welt under one eye. "Oh, my goodness. What happened to you?" Gretchen asked.

The young woman appeared nervous. "I'm all right -- thank you. I . . . I fell. My husband says I'm . . . he says I'm clumsy. I guess I am."

Victoria and Paige both came over to the woman. "My husband is Dr. Cleese," Victoria said. "He would be glad to look at you . . . Mrs. . . .?"

"Mrs. Shofner. Mrs. Vaughn Shofner. I'm Jessica, and my daughter's name is Kate. I don't need a doctor -- I'm fine, really. My husband would be angry with me if I spent his money for a doctor. These are just bruises. They'll heal. Did I mention that I fell?" She unconsciously rubbed her arm -- holding it, then rubbing, as if more bruises were hidden by her sleeve.

The sisters glanced at each other. Perhaps the family was dirt poor? The woman and her young daughter both wore dresses that had long since been worn out. Jessica Shofner had light, golden brown hair just like her daughter. The pretty hair was in direct contrast to the tattered clothing.

"We haven't seen you before," Victoria replied. "Is your husband a farmer or a rancher, Mrs. Shofner?"

"No," Jessica answered, a hint of sadness in her tone. "My husband was hired by a Mr. Mosby. He's using his gun. He's very good with a gun. I guess he's like a deputy, as he put it."

Paige noticed the little girl was either extremely shy or just not sociable. "There are two babies behind the counter, Kate. I'm their auntie. Would you like to see the babies? Their names are Daniel and Rebecca."

Kate looked at her mother, awaiting approval, showing no emotion.

"I think that would be very nice, don't you, Kate?" Mrs. Shofner replied.

"And, after we look at the babies," Paige said, "I'll give you a licorice stick. They're free today to little girls."

"Thank you," Jessica said. "I could use a friend or two."

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

The times before when Gretchen accompanied Call to Hat Creek had seemed to pass quick. This time, however, the barren plains appeared to stretch on forever. Mason Dobbs, though never liked by Captain Call for stealing a horse from the Texas Rangers as a boy, rode with his nephew. There would be at least a half dozen unbroken mustangs to bring to Newt and Gretchen's home that required an experienced flash rider -- someone who could turn broomtails into shavetails. The U.S. Cavalry was in need of good horseflesh and was willing to pay fair prices. Renegade Cheyenne, Crow, Blackfeet, and Sioux were always raiding the overmatched and underpaid soldiers whenever they rode the territory on patrol.

Captain Call and Isom Pickett had explained the setup to Newt and Mason once they arrived at Hat Creek. It was straight-ahead simple -- fourteen miles north of the ranch the river ran through a valley, into a narrow canyon. The mustangs Newt was expected to break were all in that general area.

In the quiet of the cold evening, Augustina Vega sat with Mason Dobbs, outside by one of fires. "These are strange men, Senor Dobbs," Augustina mentioned. "They do not care to be inside at night, even now when winter is coming, they still prefer being outside."

Mason looked around the darkened ranch. "I'll wager those boys never change their ways, Senorita. I wouldn't mind feeling that warm, southwestern sun on my skin. It sure does get cold way up here in Montana."

Mason and Augustina paused as Captain Call, rifle over his shoulder, passed some twenty yards from where the pair huddled near the crackling fire, on his way to one of the small knolls that populated the expansive ranch -- a favorite retreat of his, four hundred yards away from the commotion and sounds of activity. This time, instead of walking alone as he always did, Newt walked alongside him. Mason noticed both men appeared remote as they proceeded like twin shadows in the night.

It was a pensive and melancholy Captain Call that Newt sat a few feet away from on a jutting boulder just over the knoll's pinnacle. They were far enough from the ranch that the only sounds reaching their ears was a multitude of crickets, mixed with the croaking of a few frogs, down near the cold waters. Newt's arrival had been cause for Woodrow to relive the past,once again facing haunting regrets, memories he wished had never happened. It still confused Woodrow. After all these long, painful years, it still confused him. And the most painful memory of all was Maggie's eyes. He could never understand why she singled him out as if he were the one who was supposed to be her savior. He didn't ask her to care about him -- he didn't want anyone needing him.

Woodrow cast a subtle glance over at Newt. A great pain had consumed him when Maggie bore the child, growing worse instead of better, as the years went by. Love just wasn't important to him. Yet, this timid, lonely, sad looking young woman had been cause for him to carry a heavy burden of guilt he was never able to shake or forget. It had been the most difficult thing he had ever done, finally admitting Newt was his son. Woodrow didn't quite know how to be anything except a Ranger. "I suppose your wife and child are well?" Woodrow finally said, staring straight out into the night.

Newt looked at his father for a moment, then gazed out into the darkness as well. "Yep." There was a long, uncomfortable silence. "Gretchen's a good woman, Cap'n."

Woodrow Call knew Gretchen was a good woman. Hadn't she all alone dragged Newt while carrying her baby in a cradle board across the empty plains after the wagon accident? She had shot and killed a vicious black wolf. "I suspect ol' Gus would have liked her."

"I reckon so," Newt agreed. Gus, Deets, and Jake. All three would have liked Gretchen. Newt started to open his mouth to mention Becky but no words came out. It was awkward trying to talk about an infant with the Captain.

Both Woodrow and Newt -- father and son, stared uncomfortably out into the heavy silence of the cold night. Sometimes it was just better if nothing was said at all.

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

Along with the cold winds and first snows of oncoming winter, early December also brought favorable tidings -- blessings, in fact. On their way to the winter camp of the Lakota, Red Crow had stopped by the Call's home to share his good fortune; Singing Bird, his recent bride was with child. The news delighted Paige and Gretchen -- Gretchen being especially glad since it had been Singing Bird who had helped her during her difficulty in labor when Becky was born, just three months earlier.

Paige Mackinaw, the youngest and most recently married of the three Brandt sisters had also conceived and was expected to give birth to her first child sometime next summer, during late July -- about the same time Singing Bird was due with Red Crow's first child. Ephraim had confirmed Paige's pregnancy only in the past few days, causing a stir among the town folks of Curtis Wells. Josiah Peale had been happy when he heard the news, believing these were the types of families the little town needed to grow. Unbob had inquired whether Paige wanted a boy or a girl. Paige admitted, with excitement, she wanted twins but would be thankful with whatever the Good Lord saw fit to bless her with.

A slow morning had allowed Dr. Cleese the rare opportunity of visiting his wife over at the dry goods store. Paige took advantage of the lull and went out to spend time with Gretchen, since Call was away. Becky Call was always delighted to have her Auntie Paige hold her and fuss over her. "Becky's rolling over, Gretchen. She'll be crawling soon -- just like Daniel. I think little girls are smarter and they seem to mature faster than little boys."

"I suppose," Gretchen commented. She was scrubbing the floor -- a small bucket of soapy water alongside her. "There are some chores I prefer to do when Call is away. Washing the floor is one of them. He doesn't mean to, but he and Runt tend to track dirt and mud into the house. At least I can scrub the floor before he comes home from Hat Creek."

Paige lifted Becky into her arms and paused. "I wonder if Dish is still upset with me for marrying Boone? Do you think he's still upset, Gretchen?"

Gretchen blew some strands of hair out of her face that hadn't stayed bundled and tied with the new ribbon Call had recently given her. "I don't think Dish is upset, Paige."

"I hope not," Paige replied. "Gretchen? Becky's eyes are blue -- just like Call's. And her hair is just like yours."

A sudden knock on the front door interrupted the sisters' conversation. Gretchen opened the door, surprised to see Mrs. Jessica Shofner and her daughter, Kate. "What happened to you? Come inside," Gretchen replied, noticing more bruises on the swollen face of Mrs. Shofner.

The young woman stepped inside. She had been crying -- dried tears stained both her cheeks. "I'm sorry for coming here, Mrs. Call. I just don't have anywhere else to go."

Paige marched over. "You're hurt. We should bring you into town. Ephraim should look at those bruises. Your lip is bleeding. What happened? This isn't from falling. And, Kate! Oh, my goodness! She has a bruise! Jessica? I think you better tell us what's wrong." Paige was straightforward in her dealings with folks, tending to be outspoken at times.

Jessica Shofner shook her head. "My husband, Vaughn." She hesitated, wanting desperately to bare her soul and reveal the dark secret, yet fearful of sharing so heavy a burden with anyone else.

"My pa hits us," little Kate suddenly said, clinging to her mother's dress.

Jessica nodded. "He drinks an awful lot of whiskey. It makes him mean. He forces himself on me and when nothing happens because he's too drunk, he starts beating me and tells me it's all my fault. Kate tried to protect me and he slapped her and knocked her down. She's only five years old. The only reason I married him was because my husband, Kate's real father, died and I was only thinking of finding a father for Kate. He told me no man would want me -- no one would marry a woman with a child. I was used merchandise, he told me. But Vaughn was always mean. He's not very tall -- he's always been angry about that, as if he didn't measure up to other men. So he started bullying me."

"I saw your husband today," Paige interrupted. "Gretchen's husband, Call, is exactly the same height as your husband. He treats my sister decent."

"JESSICA!" The three women were startled to hear the commanding voice from outside the house.

"Oh no!" Jessica cried. "He's here! He followed me. What do I do?"

Paige grabbed Call's sawed-off which Call left for Gretchen while he was away. She opened the door and Runt charged onto the porch, growling at the unwelcome man standing at the foot of the porch.

"Who the hell are you?" Vaughn Shofner demanded. "I want my wife. Jessy!"

Paige raised the sawed-off, pointing it at Vaughn's fancy vest and clean shirt. "You are not welcome here, Mr. Shofner. You better leave before something happens." Gretchen stepped outside, standing next to Paige. Jessica and Kate peeked behind the two sisters, too frightened to come any further.

"You damn women better not poke your noses where they got no business! I want my wife!"

Little Kate tugged on Paige's arm. "Make him go away."

"Jessy!" Vaughn Shofner pointed a condemning finger at his battered wife. "You better heed my warning, woman. The longer you avoid me the worse it'll be for you and your brat."

"You get off of this property right now," Gretchen ordered. "I'll sic my dog on you."

Jessica started to weaken, moving to push her way past Gretchen and Paige. "Maybe I had better go with him. Just get it over with." Her voice was resigned to hopelessness and despair.

"No!" Paige replied. "Leave, Mr. Shofner!"

"You'll be sorry for this -- all of you!" Vaughn Shofner turned and mounted his horse, then rode off angry.

"We're taking you into town to see Dr. Cleese," Gretchen stated.

Jessica Shofner stared at the sisters. "You both stood up to Vaughn. I've never seen anyone do that. You weren't even afraid."

"We were afraid," Paige replied, laughing nervously.

Gretchen agreed. "Yes, but we can't stand by and allow you to be treated like that. My husband should be home tomorrow. He'll help you."

"So will mine," Paige added.

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

In his days in New Orleans, occasionally riding the paddlewheel boats up and down the great Mississippi, Clay Mosby spend part of his days and nights perfecting his skills at poker. The riverboat gamblers were many -- each being a professional, by trade. Clay had learned not only how to subtly cheat, he had learned how to spot a cheater. Though his skills had not eroded, the meetings with other skilled gamblers had thinned, being so far away in the Montana frontier. Opportunity to match his ability against a worthy opponent had become a rare treat in Curtis Wells.

Most of the men lounging inside the Ambrosia had wandered over to the table Clay Mosby sat at -- the stakes against the professional gambler, a man passing through the territory, now reaching over eight hundred dollars.

"I believe this little charade has reached its limit, Mr. Jenkins," Clay casually and confidently said, drawing his pistol and pointing it at the gambler. The man froze, not daring to open his mouth. "You've been cheating the entire time -- idly thumbing the edges of the deck each time you shuffled. You're quite talented, though not quite good enough. Robert! Pick up the deck," Clay ordered, cocking the hammer of his gun, causing the gambler to stare nervously at his accuser. "He's been trimming, subtly, of course, the aces to a wedge shape, placing them on the bottom."

Robert Shelby picked up the deck and turned it over. He grinned, showing the cast of drinking customers three aces on the bottom of the deck.

"I'm afraid you lose, Mr. Jenkins," Clay calmly replied. "Lock him up."

The gambler, realizing Mosby was a generous man, stood up. He put his hands on the bottom of his silk vest, to tug at it and straighten his outfit.

Bam!

The gambler fell back, blood seeping out of his shoulder, where a bullet had just entered. Clay spun around. Vaughn Shofner, the new gunman, stood with a trail of smoke rising from the barrel of his pistol. Clay stared angrily at his new employee.

"He was going to shoot you, Mr. Mosby," Shofner said.

"Put that gun away," Clay ordered. "He never put his hand anywhere near his gun. I will not have you shooting men without my say so! I do not intend to repeat myself. Understand?"

"Sure. Sure," Vaughn Shofner replied. He pushed past Austin and grabbed the gambler. "I'll lock him up."

"That's my job," Austin fumed.

"Maybe I should be wearing that badge. It would look a hell of a lot better on me," Vaughn said, then shoved the gambler roughly toward the door, his gun in the man's face.

"Have Dr. Cleese look at Jenkins' shoulder, Austin," Clay told his sheriff.

"Let's get one thing straight," Austin said to Vaughn Shofner, once Ephraim patched up the gambler's shoulder, "I'm the sheriff. Not you."

Vaughn, strutting toward the door, turned to Austin. "Sure, sure. You're the sheriff." He snickered and left.

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

Mounted and riding north before first light, five riders -- Captain Call, Pea Eye Parker, Isom Pickett, Mason Dobbs, and Newt Call, had ridden past the valley, along the river, into the canyon in search of the mustangs that would bring top dollar to the Hat Creek outfit. It reminded Woodrow of the Palo Duro Canyon that Charles Goodnight had claimed as his own some six years earlier, within the Texas Panhandle. Similar to the Palo Duro, the narrow chasm was cliff-sided, eventually widening into a vast, sheltered, well-watered pasture, fenced by its own towering bluffs -- a virtual Eden.

At one point, having trapped a dozen wild horses in a ravine, Mason Dobbs had roped one of the mustangs and jumped from his saddle as his gray thrashed along the embankment. Mason lost his footing in the loose rock and dirt, slipping where his gray stepped on his right hand, breaking two fingers. Newt managed to pull his uncle up onto the Hellbitch safely. Though he would be unable to use his right hand, Mason could still shoot just as good with his left, having carried two guns with him since organizing the Concho County Whiptail Scorpions in Paint Rock, Texas.

As Captain Call rode over to yell at Mason, Newt's uncle jumped off the Hellbitch and remounted his own gray, riding off and roping another of the mustangs. The Captain watched -- Newt grinned, he highly favored his Uncle Mason and had had his fill of the Captain's bad mouthing him.

It had taken longer than expected but they finally managed to rope eleven of the mustangs, allowing only one to escape. All five men were road sore and weary by the time they returned to Hat Creek. A hot tub would have comforted aching bones but that would never happen -- not with Woodrow Call in charge.

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

"My goodness!" Ephraim exclaimed. "What happened to you, Mrs. Shofner?" He cast a concerned gaze at little Kate. "Even the child is bruised."

Jessica Shofner lowered her eyes, embarrassed. Her daughter held tightly onto her hand, looking about the office with wonder and interest.

"Her husband did this, Ephraim," Paige replied. She still held Call's sawed-off. One could never be sure when a crazed husband might barge in to claim his wife. Gretchen stood quietly by. It grieved her exceedingly to witness the sickening results of brutality one man was capable of inflicting upon his wife. It had never occurred to her that her own husband might unleash his anger and fury upon her or their infant daughter. Call had never shown himself capable of striking her. He couldn't abide a man laying hands on a woman.

"I haven't got any money to pay you, Doctor," Jessica meekly remarked. "My husband works for Mr. Mosby -- he doesn't allow me money unless I'm told to buy something for him."

"I met your husband earlier today, Mrs. Shofner. He shot a man," Ephraim announced as he examined Jessica's arms. "He seems to delight in cruelty to others." He was careful not to speak too loudly in front of the little girl.

*******

"You wanted to see me, Mr. Mosby?"

Clay didn't look up -- he knew the voice. "Have a seat, Shofner."

"Sure." Vaughn Shofner sat down then impatiently tapped his fingers on the table.

Clay placed his cigar on the table and stared directly into the cold eyes of his newest employee. "It's been brought to my attention that your wife appears in town on occasion dressed . . . shall we say, unsuitable, for the wife of a man in my employ. I am quite aware that you are well-dressed. Am I not paying you enough?"

"I got no complaints," Vaughn said. "I won't spend my money on buying her a dress and I don't care about that brat of hers." He laughed, displaying a sardonic tone. "We're not even properly hitched. I saw to it that it wasn't even a real preacher who did the service. She don't know it -- it's none of her business. I only took her to cook and mend my shirts. And, for satisfying this." He pointed between his legs and grinned at Mosby.

Clay stared with unflinching eyes at Vaughn. "I find your attitude to be disturbing. Perhaps I have erred in hiring you."

Vaughn's expression changed. "I'm good with a gun."

"Yes," Clay replied, "you proved that." He stood up, as did the new gunman. Clay walked toward the doors. "I expect my employees to treat their families in a civilized manner, Shofner. Buy your wife a decent dress."

"Sure. Sure," Vaughn said. As they gazed out into the street, Vaughn suddenly tensed. "That bitch!" He stared angrily as his wife and daughter stepped out from between the gunsmith and Dr. Cleese's office with the two young women who prevented him from taking his wife earlier in the day. "Those two damn women! They brought her and the brat to the doctor."

Clay observed the scene -- Gretchen Call and Paige Mackinaw were with a shabbily-dressed woman and an equally shabby looking little girl. "I will not tolerate any public displays, Shofner. Are we understood?"

"Sure. Sure. I can wait till I get her home." He headed straight for the women.

Clay motioned to Austin, who stood close by, leaning against one of the posts. "See that nothing happens, Austin."

Sheriff Peale nodded and followed behind the hotheaded new employee.

"Jessy! You stupid woman. I told you before not to piss away my money! It'll be the strap for you tonight," Vaughn boasted as he confronted his wife.

"How dare you treat your wife like some animal!" Paige boldly replied.

Vaughn laughed. "She is an animal -- she's a dog."

"She's not going with you," Gretchen said. "Her and Kate are coming home with me."

Vaughn, though uncaring when it came to the feelings of a woman, was still no fool. He looked at Austin. "You're the sheriff -- make her go with me. She's my wife -- make her go."

"Don't you dare, Austin Peale," Paige angrily hissed. "Look at what he's done to her."

Jessica lowered her gaze once again.

Austin despised Vaughn Shofner but there was little he could do. "It's the law. She's his wife. If either of you try to prevent him from taking her I'll be forced to lock you up."

Vaughn laughed, pulling Jessica's arm so hard she nearly fell to the ground.

Gretchen and Paige were helpless to save Jessica or Kate. Jessica looked back at them. "I'll be all right."

"Shut up!" Vaughn ordered.

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

"Newt, boy! I'll wager five dollars I can run this string of mustangs back to your spread faster than you."

Call squinted -- the cold, glowing sun temporarily blinded him so he couldn't see Mason wink. "How you figure on doing that with two busted fingers, Uncle?"

Mason grinned, allowing a small laugh. Riding with the Concho County boys back in Texas and New Mexico he had done that and more on several occasions when being chased by the law. A man learned to either ignore the pain and keep riding or his days of breathing free air were numbered. When the young outlaw band was formed, Mason had already heard of Tascosa Roy, a well known and successful outlaw from up north in the Panhandle. Tascosa Roy had taken part in robbing a wagon train of emigrants on their way west through the Nations when a cramp in his side caused him to pull up. The men he rode with urged him to ride but Tascosa Roy laughed, believing farmers and church-going families in wagons had no way of running them down. The robbers rode off and Tascosa Roy was caught by the emigrants, unloading over a dozen rounds of lead into his body before he died. "I can ride just fine, Newt," Mason replied.

"I'm obliged to you for helping me and Gretchen, Mason," Call said.

"We're kin, boy. You'd do me the same," Mason commented. "Besides, you two got yourselves one fine looking baby girl to raise."

Call nodded, smiling as he thought of Becky. "Heard tell she'll be scooting along any time now. She's set on kicking and rolling over." He shook his head. "I ain't never seen nothing like it before, Mason. Watching a little baby grow -- it's downright . . .?" he hesitated, unable to find a suitable word with his somewhat limited vocabulary.

"She's special," Mason remarked. He stared off at the vast plains -- an unending sea of brown grass. "Hey, Newt? Doesn't it seem kind of strange that the Cap'n wants these mounts broken now? Springtime is when mustangs are usually broke."

Call shrugged. Each man rode with a string of three wild horses. "They need fresh mounts over at Fort Benton, the Cap'n said. It don't matter none. Leastways now I can earn some money for Gretchen and Becky."

"That ground's likely to be a mite hard each time you get thrown," Mason reminded his nephew. "This cavy of widow-makers won't sit still for you."

"I reckon I already thought on it. It don't suit me to be spending all my time away -- seems to me if I can earn some money without hauling Gretchen and Becky up to Hat Creek . . . Gretchen's a good woman -- she don't complain none."

"Coyote Girl's strong," Mason agreed. "The Little Coyote's going to be, too." He winked at Call.

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

Usually quick to make a decision, Clay Mosby had found himself floundering over the Suzanne Van Atta situation.

"You need to decide," Robert Shelby advised him, "one way or the other, Clay. Make a decision."

Robert was right. Clay knew it was wrong to drag it out. Mrs. Van Atta deserved an answer. He had decided to send her away, providing her with a sizable amount of money for her and the child to live off of. Then his thoughts fluctuated, he second-guessed himself. Perhaps they should stay -- the child was after all, his child. What if it was a boy? He would have a son. He cursed himself. What had now turned out to be no more than a moment's pleasure was having lasting affects that could haunt him the rest of his life. And, what would happen to Suzanne's sister, Beth? She was young and attractive. "I'm not in love with her, Robert," he finally said. "If I were to keep her here it would be for the child."

"She's getting bigger, Clay. The baby is growing. You have to make a decision."

Clay shook his head. A moment's pleasure . . .

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

The sun, December cold, had long since reached its zenith and was drawing toward the far distant mountains when Gretchen spotted Call and Mason coming over the last hill before home. She had stood on the front porch a thousand times during the day, anxiously awaiting her husband's return. "They're home!" she excitedly announced, running into the small house and taking Becky from Paige's loving embrace. "Your papa is home, Becky Bug." Gretchen hastened outside, to the corral where Call and Mason were leading the six wild horses. Paige and Boone, who had stayed nearby because of the situation with Jessica Shofner, came outside as well.

"We missed you so much, Call," Gretchen said -- her voice loud enough over the commotion caused by the mustangs. "Look, Becky. Papa. Your papa." Gretchen's face was lit up -- Becky's arms excitedly wiggling at seeing her father.

Call dismounted, a big smile on his face at the sight of his wife and daughter. He trudged over to them. "I missed you something fierce, Coyote Girl. You too, Becky."

They held each other tight, kissing for long seconds. Gretchen finally laughed. "You need a bath, Newt Call. There's dirt all over your clothes and your face."

Call lifted his infant daughter, kissing her little cheeks.

"Thank you, Mason," Gretchen said, hugging him. She turned to Call. "Boone and Paige stayed here because there was an incident."

Immediately, Call's smile disappeared. "Something happen to you, Gretchen?"

"Come inside, Call. Let me feed you and Mason. We can all talk about it." Call nodded and everyone went inside the house where Gretchen and Paige explained the entire story concerning Jessica and her daughter and the abusive husband that was Mosby's new employee. Call thanked Boone and Paige for their help. He was glad to be home -- it was his responsibility to protect his wife.

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

Creel was getting ready to close up the general merchant -- Suzanne Van Atta and Elizabeth Dewberry having left earlier, when Vaughn Shofner, Mosby's new man, walked in. He looked at Amanda Carpenter and Mattie Shaw, both on their way out.

"I'm closed," Creel barked. "Come back tomorrow."

"The hell I will," Vaughn said. "I need you to take supplies out to my place."

"You have a wife, Mr. Shofner," Amanda commented, "why can't she come in tomorrow morning with your wagon?"

Vaughn laughed. He made a fist and wiggled it. "She's in no condition to do much of anything right now. And I've forbidden her to leave the house or else!"

"You're disgusting!" Mattie remarked. "You don't deserve to have a wife."

"A wife ain't nothing but a two-legged dog," Vaughn replied. "And, that dog of mine's been bad so I punished her. Oh, yeah! I punished her real good." He arched his eyebrows mockingly.

Amanda and Mattie were sickened by the short, cocky man. Austin had already told them whether it was right or wrong, the law favored Vaughn Shofner. As far as Amanda and Mattie were concerned, it was a terrible law.

"Well?" Vaughn said to Creel. "Are you going to take supplies out to my place or do I have to hurt you?"

Creel knew Mosby was no friend of his -- he chose the safer route. "Make it quick. I want to be paid up front."

"Sure. Sure," Vaughn laughed.

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

Call was up early the next morning. Gretchen sat at the table with him, drinking coffee while her husband shoveled his flapjacks down his throat. He paused, watching with interest as Becky talked away to her fingers -- indistinguishable sounds a three month old baby makes.

"She's been doing that for a few days now, Call. She can roll over and she's starting to crawl, just like her cousin Daniel. Babies tend to find their fingers interesting."

Call stared at his tiny daughter. It was the most amazing experience, to actually observe a small baby changing -- growing right in front of his very eyes. There were no words Call knew that could accurately explain how he felt. Nothing had ever come close to this before. Call stood up, washing down his breakfast with his blue tin of coffee. Gretchen didn't mind him drinking from a tin instead of a civilized coffee cup. She knew her husband had made drastic changes in his life for her. A single man, suddenly with a wife -- ten months later with a baby. She wasn't about to take everything away from him.

Call wiggled Becky's tiny hand, kissing it. He kissed his wife. "I best get out to the corral. The sooner I start breaking them mustangs . . ."

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

Breaking wild horses was a job Call had experience with -- first with the Captain's Hat Creek outfit, then with the Dunnigan outfit. He hung his holster belt and Colt on the corral fence, fastened the spur straps across his boot insteps -- having filed down the rowels to avoid scouring the horse's flanks, then set about to busting the untamed mustangs. The nerve-shattering, traumatic job had to be completed within six days, in order to deliver the six mounts to Fort Benton for the Army.

The first mustang, a bay gelding, was roped by Call as the wild animal pounded against the corral -- kicking up a long ribbon of dust. The grueling morning had begun. The horse was roped then cross-hobbled. Call managed to put the bridle on but the mustang ducked away from the saddle blanket, causing a struggle between man and beast. Once Call was able to swing the heavy saddle onto its back while holding the rearing horse with one hand, the untamed mustang began to fight violently, trying to throw off the saddle, tugging Call around the corral.

By late afternoon Call's head was throbbing, his ears were ringing. His entire body from head to boots ached, his bones and muscles all worn out. He was exhausted. One horse had been broken -- the wildest of the six mustangs. Gretchen held Becky in her arms, watching her husband take a beating. He leaned against the corral, sweat covering his body, making his eyes blurry. He had worked like an animal, refusing to give an inch or even take a rest. He was out of breath, wanting nothing more than his bed. Gretchen handed him the canteen he had hung near his holster belt. Call drank deep, the cool waters tasting like nectar from the heavens. Nothing satisfied a dry, parched throat more than cool water. He poured some over his dirt-covered face then suddenly stared at the wagon that was riding toward their home at an alarming pace. "What the hell . . .?" he mumbled.

Gretchen turned, surprised. "Call! That's Jessica and her daughter -- the one we told you about last night. If she's come back her husband must have beat her again. Please, Call? Help her?"

Call didn't need to be asked -- he despised any man who would strike a woman. He put his holster on and climbed over the fence as the woman and her little girl quickly drew to a halt and climbed down from the wagon.

"Please? Help me?" Jessica Shofner pleaded. "He tried to burn Kate's hand on the stove because she spilled her milk on the table!"

"Jessica," Gretchen replied, "this is my husband, Newt Call. He'll help you."

"I think my arm is broken," Jessica said. "He grabbed me when I tried to protect my daughter. I'm frightened! He's going to try to kill us."

It was a few minutes before Vaughn Shofner rode onto the Call's property. Being shrewd, he didn't ride alone -- Sheriff Peale and Clay Mosby were with him. He was willing to allow the law, which had fortunately taken his side, to act on his behalf.

"You'll have to return with your husband, Mrs. Shofner," Austin informed the battered woman. "If you try to interfere Mrs. Call," he said to Gretchen, "Mr. Shofner will file a complaint."

"Go right ahead," Call remarked. "You got eyes, Austin. You can see this woman's been beaten." Call turned only partially -- keeping the men on horseback in sight while he addressed Jessica. "It'd be best if you have that bastard arrested for hitting you."

"You shut your damn mouth!" Vaughn Shofner yelled, jumping off his horse. He hadn't expected Gretchen's husband to be home.

"That's enough, Shofner," Mosby ordered. He looked at Call. "Stick with what you know, Call. This doesn't concern you . . . or your wife."

Call stared at Mosby, unflinching. "Heard tell you hired this sonofabitch, Mosby. I guess it don't matter none what kind of scum you hire, does it?"

"I'm warning you, Call," Clay angrily replied. "Let the law handle this."

"What kind of law, Mosby?! Take a good look at this woman! You set on siding with a useless bastard that hits women?" Call stared at Vaughn. "Get the hell out of here -- she ain't going with the likes of you."

Vaughn Shofner grew impatient. "I can treat her anyway I want, hear? She's a whore. I can beat her."

Austin dismounted. "The law is on his side, Call. There's not a damn thing we can do."

"I'm taking Jessy," Vaughn stated, pushing Call.

"I wish he hadn't of done that," Clay Mosby grumbled, knowing what was about to happen.

The throbbing, worn out muscles suddenly vanished, replaced by anger surging through Call. He grabbed Vaughn Shofner and drove his head into one of the sturdy fence posts around the corral.

"You son of a bitch, Call," Austin barked. He reached for his pistol but was stopped.

"Put up your weapon, amigo!"

Austin turned -- Mason Dobbs had ridden up and sat quietly behind Austin and Clay.

Gretchen grabbed Jessica with her free hand, pulling her and Kate toward the barn.

Call reached up, taking the bridle he had just removed from the first broken mustang and swung it roughly over Vaughn's head. "You like to hit women? Let's see how you like being ridden like an animal!" He straddled Vaughn, dazed by the hard blow to his head, then drove his spurs into the wife-beater's thighs, causing Vaughn to scream and buck. Call forced Vaughn's face into the hard ground, then yanked his head up. He kicked his spurs into Vaughn's thighs again, then rode his face into the fence. Call used pressure to keep Vaughn's face against the fence then grabbed him by his hair and forcefully rubbed his face back and forth along the rough wood -- splinters piercing Vaughn's lip and cheek, causing him to yell in pain.

Jessica stood frozen, watching her husband take a much-deserving beating. Gretchen urged her into the barn -- this was no sight for a woman or her small child. Gretchen planned to run back out, pleading with Call to stop fighting. It wasn't concern for Vaughn Shofner, it was the always present fear that her own husband might be hurt.

Disgusted with the entire scene, Clay Mosby turned his mount to leave. "After this sickening display is concluded, Austin, bring Shofner back to town. Get him doctored up then we'll talk." He rode off.

There wasn't any fight left in Vaughn Shofner. He tried to collapse on the ground. Call yanked him up, choking him. "We ain't done yet!"

Vaughn Shofner gasped for air, his arms swinging wildly to grab Call. Call put his heel to Vaughn's head and forced his face back into the ground. He held him securely there and took one of the thrashing arms and braced his knee on the elbow and yanked violently, snapping Vaughn's arm in a sickening sound.

"Aaaaaahhhhggggghhhhhhhh!" Vaughn Shofner screamed, his broken arm hanging limp. The pain so severe he blacked out.

Call turned, breathing hard. He glared at Austin. "Get this piece of trash out of here. I ever see his face around here or near my wife, I'll kill him, Austin!"

"Well," Mason Dobbs said, "it's time to go, Peale. I've enjoyed your company. We should do this again some time."

Austin didn't say anything. He lifted the unconscious Vaughn Shofner across his horse and mounted his own, then rode off.

Mason noticed the mustang that had been the wildest and most difficult to catch. "How'd you get that widow-maker to stand hitched, Newt?"

"Same way I broke that bastard," Call replied.

"I'll wager a horse is more reliable than a two-legged varmint," Mason noted. "I'd keep my eye open for him. You won't see it coming."

"I reckon," Call agreed. He turned to Jessica and Kate. "You best stay here tonight."

Gretchen nodded, squeezing Jessica's hand. "Hopefully, he won't break your spirit any more, Jessy."

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

During the recovery of Vaughn Shofner, he babbled incoherently at times. When Clay Mosby reaffirmed the comment about Shofner not being married to Jessica -- that he had deceived her, Ephraim felt it was his moral duty and responsibility to inform Jessica immediately.

"I had a feeling in my stomach that the man he claimed was a real preacher wasn't," Jessica replied. Although she had no money, she was entitled to some of Vaughn's money. All she wanted was enough for her and little Kate to take the stage back to Idaho, where family would welcome and provide for her. Vaughn Shofner had belittled Jessica and taken away almost all of her self-esteem -- her spirit had been broken by a petty, small man.

Ephraim and Victoria checked the stage routes -- it would be two more days before a westbound stage came through Curtis Wells. Call was able to spend time on the other five widow-makers, breaking all six of them with a stronger spirit and will than the wild horses. The untamed mustangs grunted and snorted, bucking violently -- several times throwing Call to the unsympathetic, hard ground. On one occasion, he lost his stomach, coming close to spitting up blood. Gretchen would sporadically stand on the porch, Becky in her arms, cringing as her husband was thrown time after time. She knew he was doing this to feed and clothe them. At times, he seemed like a mad man, gritting his teeth firmly, his eyes locked on the mustang, his will against the wild will of an uncivilized beast. By the end of the day, at supper, Call was exhausted -- nearly too tired to even lift the fork to his mouth. The constant gurgling and senseless sounds Becky made always brought a smile to his face. Just as a warm smile from Gretchen produced an equally warm smile from the worn-out Call.

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

Town folks wanted to know what happened to Vaughn Shofner -- who was it that had thoroughly and mercilessly beaten him up so bad? One free drink was all it required to coax the information from Sheriff Peale -- though anyone with a keen eye could easily determine it had been the volatile Call who had viciously beaten Vaughn Shofner.

The Brandt sisters' dry goods and clothing store had suffered slightly -- some folks not appreciating their stand for what was right and decent. There was a general opinion that it was best not to interfere with private matters -- it was easier to just look the other way, pretend it wasn't happening. There had been less business during the past few days. Most of Mosby's hired men supported Vaughn Shofner, even though most were single and their sole experience with women coming from the prostitutes at Twyla's. These men worked together -- they would support each other, regardless of the situation.

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

Call and Gretchen brought Jessica and her daughter into town with their wagon. The westbound stage was sitting in front of the Wells, Fargo & Co. Banking House. Gretchen brought Becky into the dry goods to see her aunts. Call accompanied Jessica across the street to the hotel, where some of the citizens stood.

"You bastard, Call! I'll kill you and Jessy!"

Call spun quick -- Vaughn Shofner, bandaged and bruised like Jessica had been, stood with his gun in hand in the street.

Bam!

Shofner fired recklessly toward Call and Jessica. Call turned, shoving Jessica and little Kate to the ground for their safety. "Stay down!" he ordered. Folks screamed -- there was panic in front of the Dove.

Bam! Bam!

Shofner fired twice more.

Call grasped and cocked his gun as he turned, attempting to clear leather.

Bam!

Before Call could take aim a bullet ripped through the side of Vaughn Shofner with searing pain. He looked in the direction the shot had come from. Clay Mosby stood on the bottom step in front of the Ambrosia, a thin trail of smoke lifting up into the cold December sky. Vaughn Shofner coughed, dropped his gun and fell face-forward into the street, dead.

Call stared at Mosby. Clay Mosby casually removed his cigar with his free hand and smirked at Call. The surprised look on Call's face was something Clay intended to long remember. He knew Call would seethe knowing Mosby had just possibly saved his life.

"Rather fortunate for you, Call, that I was here," Clay remarked, taking the golden opportunity to rub it in some.

"You sonofabitch," Call muttered, then turned to check on Jessica and Kate.

Clay snickered. He turned to go back inside his saloon to bask in his victory when there suddenly came a loud scream. "No! No!"

Clay looked toward the hotel. Elizabeth Dewberry was screaming and crying. Clay rushed across the street, pushing his way through the crowd of onlookers. Suzanne Van Atta lay on the ground in a puddle of blood. "No!" Clay yelled. He dropped down, lifting Suzanne's unmoving body.

"It's too late, Clay," Dr. Cleese sadly informed him. "One of Vaughn Shofner's shots hit her in the chest. I'm afraid both she and the baby are now dead."

Beth Dewberry cried. "This is a horrible place. Killing people all the time. I hate it!"

Clay's hands shook. A minute earlier he was puffing his chest out. Now, in just the blink of an eye, another child of his was snatched from his grasp. He stared at Suzanne's silent face. He never even noticed Jessica and little Kate board the stage and ride off.

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

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