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.


Rake Up The Persimmon
(52nd in the Romancing the Plains series)
by Craig Caff

Rake Up The Persimmon -- To win, to get the prize; particularly, to get
the pot in poker. The gambling phrase comes from Southern expressions that give
high value to persimmons, such as "I wouldn't bet a huckleberry to a persimmon,"
which is like doughnuts to dollars.

(Dictionary of The American West ~ Win Blevins)

Unable to sleep inside his room, Mason Dobbs pulled his boots on and walked out onto the hotel's balcony -- shirt-tail hanging out. Winter's pre-dawn chill burned his exposed flesh -- his face, his hands, his ears. "Miserable cold," he quietly grumbled, blowing warm air into his cupped hands. If he had any inheritance he gladly would have sold it for a hot tin of coffee at that moment. His right hand still hurt from where his own gray had stepped on his fingers, breaking two of them recently. Mason's mind was troubled, his thoughts coming fast as a wild stampede. It would be Sunday morning soon. The first hint of sunrise on the distant plains would appear in another twenty or thirty minutes. Unbob's roosters would begin crowing even sooner. How a pretty little gal like Clementine Hale had managed to track him down was a head scratcher to Mason.

He leaned over the wood railing, setting his chin on top of his crossed forearms reposefully, Clementine's voice echoing inside his restless mind -- reliving their conversation from last night.

"I want you to help me steal $20,000," she stated, staring him in the eye.

"Just like that?" Mason quizzed. "Keep talking, Senorita."

Clementine explained in bits and pieces what her plan was and how she expected Mason to accomplish her daring scheme. When pressed by Mason she merely shrugged and frowned, continuously repeating the same words, "I can't tell you that."

His ears perked as the first rooster notified the sleeping community that dawn was at the doorstep. "I'll wager that ol' rooster crawls back in some warm bed after blowing his bugle," he mumbled, staring down the street toward the livery, where the sound had come from. Mason would have preferred the luxury of time -- something Clementine Hale informed him there would be none of -- the job needing to be fulfilled that very night, on Christmas Eve.

The unseen rooster crowed another three, four times. Mason turned to go back inside the hotel. By now Amanda would be in the kitchen -- that first cup of hot coffee would taste especially good.

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

Deep sleeps -- drug-induced sleeps -- were apt to either cause a man to slowly open his eyes, coming out of a fog, or cause him to suddenly open his eyes wide, having no knowledge momentarily of where he was. For Clay Mosby, it was the sudden eye opening that brought him back to the world of sanity. He stared at the inside of the lodge, as if still asleep. Nothing had registered yet. His face was flushed, his hair clung to his cheeks and his neck. Great drops of sweat fell off him -- sliding down his forehead, his temples, down the middle of his back. He felt extremely hot, his breathing still rapid.

Focusing on the old Indian who had given him the long pipe to smoke, Clay squinted, looking down at himself. He was fully dressed, just as he had been when he entered the solitary lodge, whenever that was -- he had completely lost track of time. He winced, reaching for his head. It throbbed in rhythm to some distant drums. Clay couldn't discern whether the loud beating was coming from the Cheyenne encampment or merely from his own pounding skull.

"What did you give me?" he finally whispered to the old man. Clay opened his hands, staring at them as if they weren't real. He squeezed them into fists -- images, some disgusting and horrible, others lustful, flooded his aching head. "Answer me!" he ordered.

The old Cheyenne smiled. A man who had lived as long as he had was no longer frightened by any man, not even the ferocious Bearclaw, himself. "Your eyes have showed you bad pictures."

"I said, what did you give me?!" Clay demanded.

The old man held up the pipe. "You smoked the pipe."

"Is that all I did?" Clay inquired, not sure what had happened.

"You ate one of these," the old man revealed, holding up a small leather pouch. He pulled out a few dried, button-shaped discs.

"What is it?" Clay asked.

"It is strong medicine. An old Apache had them -- he died. His wife poisoned him. I found his pouch -- it is mine now."

"Do you mean to say . . . ? Is that mescal?" Clay replied.

"It is," the old Cheyenne acknowledged. "Taken with the pipe it shows powerful visions."

Clay nodded, touching his chest and his thighs. He even grabbed his genitals, making sure they were still attached to his body. "I have to go." He stood up.

"Yes, you must go. Bearclaw is on his way back. If he finds you here he will kill you."

Clay wasn't of a mind to argue. He could sort out his disturbing vision later, once he put a safe distance between himself and these Cheyenne. His vision had been so real -- the brown-skinned girl he fornicated with, even the warriors hacking his body to a mutilated death, had seemed so real. "I suppose I should thank you . . .?"

"I have done nothing," the old man admitted. "The medicine can only show you what you need to see. Go, now."

Clay stared at the old man then pushed the flap aside, stepping out into the morning. He turned back to the old man. "How long have I been here?"

"One sun."

Clay hesitated, assuming the old man meant one day. As he stepped out into the crisp morning, a young Cheyenne woman was waiting with his horse. Clay felt the small hairs behind his neck tingle. It was the same Cheyenne girl from his vision, only she was wearing clothes now. She stared into his eyes, revealing no emotion. Clay took the reins and stared back, then mounted up and rode back down the rocky bluff he had ascended one day earlier.

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

Being a responsible and considerate wife, Gretchen Call rose early. She started a warm fire in the fireplace and had already begun cooking breakfast for her small family when her husband stepped out of their bedroom, into the large room.

"I can't find my britches, Gretchen. Did you wash them?" Call asked, standing in his longjohns.

"I threw them away," Gretchen replied.

Call stared at his wife of one year. She stood near the stove wearing her green and white gingham dress -- the one Call had bought for her. "You threw my britches away? Why'd you do that, Gretchen?"

Before Gretchen could answer, Runt cried and whined on the floor, distracting her. Becky sat on the floor next to Runt. The dog had been gentle and protective of the tiny infant. Becky had on several occasions fallen asleep on Runt -- using the loyal mongrel as a soft pillow. Now, she was pulling one of his floppy ears with her strong, little grip.

"Becky! No!" Gretchen scolded, lightly slapping the infant's hand. "That hurts Runt, Becky. Don't pull his ears."

Call temporarily forgot about his britches, mesmerized by his wife and daughter. He really knew very little about infants and if not for Gretchen, would have allowed the baby to stay awake till late at night, denying Becky her much needed sleep.

Gretchen stood up, moving back to the stove. "They had too many holes in them, Call."

He looked at her, puzzled. "You saying Runt has too many holes in his ears?"

Gretchen laughed, her green eyes lighting up. "No, Call. Not Runt. Your britches. They had too many holes in them. I can't keep re-sewing the same holes every week. We don't have enough thread. You have another pair -- it'll have holes in it soon enough, I expect."

"I was partial to them britches, Gretchen. Seems a man should be likely to keep his britches if he has a mind to," Call grumbled, knowing he had already lost the argument.

Runt whined again, a little louder this time. Gretchen patiently walked over and pulled Becky's hand. "I said, no! Don't pull Runt's ear, Becky."

Becky began to cry, the tone of her mother's voice frightening her. Gretchen lifted the infant into her arms and rocked her, speaking gentler. "It's all right, Becky Bug. You have to learn not to pull Runt's ears -- it hurts him." She turned to Call. "Call? Just go put on your britches. Breakfast is ready."

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

The sure-footed horse ridden by Clay Mosby had made short headway when he suddenly noticed his Winchester was missing from its scabbard. Drawing his mount to a halt one third of the way down the rocky bluff, Clay discovered upon inspection that his saddlebag was missing, stripped of its contents -- food, matches, flint. His nostrils flared at the prospect that one or more of the savages had stolen from him while immersed in his frightening vision. Clay hesitated, determining his options. If he were to turn and climb the bluff, perhaps he would secure his kit, although word that Bearclaw was on his way back to the Blackfeet encampment posed a sizable threat.

Clay, unable to stomach the fact that a less-intelligent heathen, inferior to him, had stolen from him, led his horse back up the bluff. He dismounted when he was only eight feet from the rim, tying his horse to one of the small, wiry bushes that dotted the bluff. Climbing with care so as not to be spotted, he peeked out at the village, attempting to locate the thief who had stolen his rifle. Within seconds he caught sight of what he was searching for. To the far right, near the camp's edge, the two skinny Blackfeet boys that had been beating the dog held his property. One boy waved the rifle as if it were a trophy he had earned while the other was preoccupied emptying his saddlebag near the creek.

Clay suddenly understood something that had troubled him for long years as he stared at the boys. He had heard about the massacre at Washita some years ago -- how the soldiers of the famed 7th Cavalry had shot and killed women and children. Of course, Clay had also heard that the soldiers had sworn the women and children killed all had guns and rifles which they used to try and kill the soldiers. Clay understood as he realized it was the soulless media, newspaper men -- most of them prostitutes -- who had inflamed the unknowing public with exaggerated lies in order to sell their newspapers, with no regard for honesty or even providing an accurate account. Clay could now see that killing the two Blackfeet boys might be the only means possible of reclaiming his things. Why should he be foolhardy enough to believe the boy wouldn't try to kill him with his own rifle? A man's folly was certain to lead to his own demise. Perhaps another time he would meet the challenge. Now, his mind was dull due to the lasting affects of the mescal button and the pipe.

Deciding it would only prove fatal for him, he crept back down the bluff to where his horse waited patiently. Even if he were to reclaim his rifle and saddlebag, the chances were that Bearclaw would return before he could sneak back out. Having no desire to face Bearclaw or any of his Blackfeet braves, Clay Mosby, cloudy of mind and slow of thought, descended the steep bluff then headed south, riding at a fair pace -- separating himself as quick as he could from the ferocious Blackfeet. He still had his pistol and surely he would come upon some food in the form of a bird or rabbit. Better a hungry man that was alive than a dead man with a full belly.

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

Two days had now passed since Clay Mosby rode out of Curtis Wells. Robert Shelby, troubled by Clay's signing over the Ambrosia to him in case he didn't return, was aware that his patience was taking leave of him by the moment. "Peale! Get this drunk out of Clay's saloon."

Mattie Shaw, sitting quietly at a table, observed Austin stand up and glare at Robert.

"I work for Mosby," the sheriff remarked, "not you, Shelby."

Robert approached Austin. Speaking in a more subdued tone he said, "my apologies, Peale. I'm concerned about Clay." Saying no more he returned to serve drinks behind the elongated mahogany bar.

"Come on, you," Sheriff Peale grumbled, pulling the besotted cowboy away from the counter.

"Austin! Wait!" Mattie implored once she followed the sheriff out into the cold street. "It's Christmas Eve. Don't lock him up."

Austin looked at Mattie, nodding in agreement. "Go find a warm place to sleep it off," he told the drunk. "Who cares if it's Christmas Eve, Mattie? It's not as if I have anything to look forward to."

Saddened by the stark remark, Mattie stood alone in the street watching the tall, lonely sheriff walk slowly back to the jail. She regarded herself to be in a similar plight.

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

The road to Miles City was full of revelations. Clementine Hale, sitting next to Mason Dobbs on the wagon's bench seat, decided she would open up and trust the charming Texan. "The man I want to steal twenty thousand dollars from is a no good, lying thief! Besides," she added, "he stole all that money from my father and other ranchers that trusted him."

"Why not sic the law on this fella?" Mason inquired.

Clementine frowned. "That would take too long. He's already skipped out of Colorado. Now, stop asking questions and listen."

Mason nodded -- he knew when he was licked.

"He runs a big spread outside of Miles City. He gives the smaller ranchers barbed wire to string along their property, telling them not to brand their cattle. When they get ready to drive the cows to the railroad in spring, all the cattle are herded onto his land. He tells the small ranchers that if they go to market with several brands the buyers will be more picky, expecting to weed out a lot more cows than if they all have the same brand."

Mason shrugged. "That sounds sensible."

"It's more than that," Clementine snapped. "His men cut the fences at night and run a few cows onto his land. He steals them blind or else he takes the best cows and replaces them with old, sick ones."

"So where do I come in, Senorita?"

Clementine smiled. "Tonight, he's throwing a big Christmas party for all the small ranches -- even the folks living nearby without cattle are invited. He's a very charming gentleman. I want you to find where he keeps his safe and open it during the party. I have twenty thousand dollars counterfeit money I want you to switch with the real money -- that way he won't suspect anything until it's too late."

"Now, how did you come about that much counterfeit money, Clem?" Mason asked.

"Well, if you must know," she sighed, "two very dear friends -- they're like brothers to me -- I asked them to help." She knew what Mason was thinking as she looked at him. "They're trying to go straight -- that's why I came looking for you."

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

The bizarre ordeal Clay Mosby had experienced left him sweaty -- his mind still cloudy as he ran his mount at a brisk pace. Nearing the chill waters of McDonald Creek, four miles from the town of Grassrange, Clay drew rein. Leading his horse into a densely populated thicket, he dismounted and removed all his clothing. He felt dirty and sticky from the lingering, heavy smoke that had clung to him inside the Blackfeet lodge and suddenly desired to bathe in privacy. He strode into the frigid, icy creek, the invigorating waters causing him to involuntarily inhale, as if taking his breath away. Wary of the Blackfeet, Clay dipped his head under the chill waters, rising almost instantly with hardly any sound.

As he brushed his dark, flowing mane away from his face, he sensed he was not alone. A slight rustling sound from nearby confirmed he had company. Most likely it wasn't a bear since they were all tucked away in warm caves. But, Indians? He had had his fill of the savage Blackfeet and was not inclined to see them again, especially naked with his gun maybe fifteen, twenty yards away.

As Clay Mosby stood unclothed, dripping water in McDonald Creek, he suddenly observed a young woman with hair as black as darkest midnight, stroll out into the creek, in water up to her knees, completely naked. The young woman suddenly spun, staring at Clay. She stood there, not attempting to cover herself -- neither did Clay attempt to conceal his nakedness. As quickly as she had appeared, the mysterious girl vanished into the reeds and thickets.

The image of the black-haired girl standing before Clay in her nakedness was a pleasing sight branded into his mind. Clay coveted the young woman and came out of the cold waters, dressing with haste. Lest it be a trap, he had little desire to rush downstream weaponless. Leaving his horse he moved silently through the bushes, in search of the young Aphrodite. He still possessed a superior ability in guerilla tactics -- honed to near-perfection before the war with his cousin, John Singleton Mosby, the Confederacy's greatest guerilla fighter. There had been occasions when Colonel Clay Mosby had relegated volunteers to belly-crawl hundreds of yards in order to bring back accurate information on camped Union troops -- occasions when he led by example, crawling through mud and water to spy out the enemy encamped across river banks or huddled in the pre-dawn fog.

Though it was an attractive naked woman he crept toward, Clay Mosby proceeded with cougar-like caution. As he moved into a small, circular, grassy clearing, the young woman attacked Mosby from where she had crouched among the bushes, grabbing his arm and pressing the sharpened edge of a curved knife against his throat.

"Pig! Infidel! You have come from the town to take me back!" she cried in a heavy accent.

Clay froze -- an angry woman with a knife could be dangerous and had to be dealt with carefully. "I've never seen you before today."

"You speak lies to Allegra!" She pressed the knife's point slightly harder, puncturing Clay's flesh, drawing a fat bubble of blood on his neck.

Clay was not in a tolerable mood to bandy words with an obstinate woman. He subtly raised his boot and brought it down on her naked foot with only enough force to distract her then grabbed her hands, falling on top of her. She struggled valiantly, though no match for the stronger Clay Mosby who squeezed her wrist until she dropped the blade in the wet grass.

She stared at Clay, her dark eyes burning into his. Her expression changed. "Who are you? You are not one of them from town."

Clay, still feeling the lingering affects of his Blackfeet experience, merely stared at the young woman. "You speak with an accent -- are you European?"

"I am Romanian. I am a gypsy," she whispered, feeling movement between their bodies. The gypsy girl, no longer frightened, slid her hands against Clay, unbuttoning his trousers. When she had what she was searching for, she guided it where she wanted it, causing them both to groan loud.

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

Getting inside the spacious hacienda proved simple for Mason and Clementine -- attempting to locate the safe and the room it was housed in would be the problem. There were more than one hundred people in attendance -- all from Miles City or the outlying ranches, great and small. Clementine informed Mason that the man who owned this grand ranch was named L.D. DuPont, an average-looking, middle-aged man who wore expensive suits. The couple were to pretend to be married and were recent transplants to Montana. They would be called Johnny and Charlotte Kant.

Mason and Clementine moved about, casting no suspicion -- they acted friendly and mentioned they were hoping to buy some cattle. The mansion was filled with extravagant chandeliers and paintings by men whose names were strange looking -- being European.

"This place is guarded," Mason noted, aware that hired hands stood inconspicuously near doors and staircases.

"Right," Clementine agreed. "So, how are we going to find the safe?"

"We?" Mason asked. "You stir up folks attention -- I'm slipping outside to look around."

Clementine frowned. "Just what to you expect me to do, Mason? Take off my dress?"

"I sure as hell would stop whatever I was doing and have a look," he grinned, then winked at her. "You'll think of something, Senorita. I'm sure of it."

Clementine watched Mason move through the crowd, disappearing out into the dusk. Whatever she planned to do had best happen soon.

Mason wandered outside the mansion, strolling leisurely to the rear of the large, two-story home. The crisp, cold, early evening, coupled with the annual Christmas Eve party, had left the grounds deserted, allowing Mason freedom to find a suitable location to enter the large house. Hoisting himself onto the back porch railing he climbed to the roof and crossed quietly to a row of windows, all slightly ajar. Within minutes Mason found the safe in an upstairs room that was probably used as an office. He struck a match and making sure the door was locked, turned to apply his surgical skills on the gray J. Halls Lock & Safe Co. safe. He smiled at his seemingly good fortune, having once before opened a similar safe.

Mason brought his thumb and finger to the tumblers in the center of the safe's door when he heard a key open the door into the darkened room, as well as voices.

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

It being Christmas Eve, as well as Sunday, Curtis Wells was mostly quiet by early evening. Robert Shelby closed the Ambrosia, concerned about Clay Mosby's whereabouts. Ephraim Cleese was home with his wife, Victoria, and their infant son, Daniel. Josiah Peale sat inside the Dove with Amanda Carpenter.

When the door to the sheriff's office opened, allowing the cold air to sneak in, Austin raised his head. "Mattie?" The sheriff sat on the side of his bunk holding an almost-full bottle of whiskey he had gotten at the Ambrosia earlier in the day.

"Austin," came the reply. Mattie quickly closed the door and held her shoulders, shivering. "It's . . . cold outside."

Austin realized Mattie was slightly drunk, her words slow. He sat staring at her, supposing she had had a few drinks and was now ready to be sad and weepy, as some folks tended to become at Christmas. "This'll warm you," he said, holding up his bottle and offering her a drink.

Mattie ignored the offer -- at least for the time being, and turned to gaze out through the scratchy, dirty glass window, into the cold, dark, lonely street. "I miss my daddy," she said. "I guess some times are more lonesome than others for folks." She looked at Austin, slowly walking across the cold, dirt-covered floor to accept the bottle. "Why didn't you ever take a woman for your own, Austin?" She took a longer drink than Austin expected.

"I had my cap set on one a few years ago. Her name was Emily. Her father bought the old McCutchen place outside of town," Austin replied, surprised that he was even admitting it to himself.

"What happened?" Mattie quietly asked, sitting next to Austin. The springs were hard and the mattress too thin but neither really noticed.

Austin hesitated. "She wanted me to be someone I wasn't."

Mattie stood up, wavering slightly.

"Good night, Mattie," Austin said in a monotone voice.

Mattie turned, laughing some. "I'm not going, Austin." She pulled her boots off and quickly unbuttoned her pants, letting them bunch around the bottom of her white legs. Stepping out of them, Mattie stood naked from the hips down, her white shirt and black vest hanging seductively just above her exposed private garden.

Austin stood up, blood rushing like wild stallions through his loins. He allowed Mattie to remove his clothing then stared as she laid on her back, awaiting him. Unable to contain his passion, Austin gently laid on top of Mattie.

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

Darkness had engulfed the region when Clay Mosby opened his eyes. The gypsy girl who called herself Allegra was sleeping next to him. There seemed to be a commotion of some sort but it sounded as if it were far off, perhaps even in his head. It was only when Clay spotted flickering lights -- torches, no doubt -- approaching their direction, that he urged the black-haired Venus from her slumber.

"Hurry!" he ordered. "Put your clothes on. Riders are coming."

Allegra jumped up, scooping her clothes and ran off into the darkness.

"Wait!" Clay cried out. He turned back. The flickering lights were larger and he could distinguish several men's voices. If he could only make it to his own horse, he could take Allegra and ride away from what appeared to now be some sort of posse. But, the gypsy girl had fled into the night.

"My sweet! This way," suddenly came Allegra's voice.

Clay moved quickly. He had lost his Winchester and his saddlebag of food to the Blackfeet. At least he still had his pistol and a whole belt of cartridges.

"Yes, my sweet," Allegra said, wrapping her arms around Clay as he found her -- now dressed and standing near a large pine.

The riders were close -- Clay being able to hear them talking about his horse, which they had just found. He gritted his teeth, silently cursing himself for his now-foolish plan to go off on some journey that had been nothing short of folly.

Allegra clung to Clay, shaking fearfully as the unseen riders drew closer -- their torches growing larger. Clay motioned for the gypsy girl to follow him as he took refuse among the chokecherry bushes. Allegra pressed her body tightly against Clay's, her warm breath on his cheek as they remained motionless until they heard one of the voices telling the others to return to town. Allegra smiled at Clay and moved slightly, her foot snapping a dry branch. The sudden sound -- loud in the quiet of their hiding place, caused the torch-carrying riders to call out to each other and abruptly turn their horses, descending upon Clay and the gypsy girl.

Clay was roughly dragged out into the open, as was the gypsy girl, by some of the men.

"Unhand me!" Clay demanded, loudly.

"We got the woman!" one of them yelled. "We got her!"

"No!" Allegra screamed.

Clay's attempt to converse with the mob was met with failure as they were far too rowdy and one of the men drove the butt-end of his rifle into the back of Clay's head, rendering him unconscious. The gypsy girl fought and hollered. "He is my husband! Leave him alone."

A heavyset man smoking a short, fat cigar, looked down at Allegra from his overworked horse. "The man you killed in that store was the sheriff's brother. Looks like we're going to be having ourselves a double hanging in Grassrange, come morning." He laughed. "Bring them both back, boys. We've earned ourselves a night of drinking."

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

When the door opened, Mason was barely able to extinguish the lamp and conceal himself behind a small, round table of maple that stood near the safe. He heard two people enter the gloomy room and immediately wondered if it had been a trap set by Clementine Hale to catch him in the act of robbery? He soon put that caution to rest when he realized it was nothing more than a man and woman sneaking off to fornicate.

"What if my husband comes looking for me, Mr. DuPont?" Mason heard a woman quietly ask.

"I've made sure he's being watched," the man replied. Mason assumed the man was the owner of the mansion and the one Clementine was so adamant about robbing. He only hoped the copulating pair would be quick and not look around the room. Mason huddled quietly in the dark, forced to listen to the rustling of the woman's undergarments and then the low grunts and breathing that went along with the action near the locked door.

The adulterous couple eventually finished and the man told the woman to go downstairs first then he would soon follow. He re-locked the door then stepped over to his safe and lit the same lamp Mason had just blown out. Mason had managed to climb back out the open window while the owner was showing the woman out. From his place of hiding outside the room, the lamp allowed Mason to observe the opening of the safe: 12 left -- 24 right -- 18 left -- 32 right. A simple enough combination. The owner removed something small from his pocket and placed it in the safe then closed the thick steel door, spinning the tumblers. He blew the lamp out and without taking notice of anything else, quickly left the room and locked the door.

Mason quickly climbed back inside the room and squatted near the safe. The door suddenly opened again -- Mason once more barely ducking behind the table. From underneath the table he saw Mr. DuPont pick up an article of clothing from where he been fornicating, then he was gone again, leaving Mason alone. He quickly lit the lamp and had the safe open in moments. He found a large pile of money and began counting twenty thousand dollars. He replaced the counterfeit money and hesitated, his conscience battling over lifting some for himself or just leaving the damn money. He shook his head, mumbling to himself and closed the safe then exited the upstairs room as he had entered.

"Let's ride, Senorita," Mason said, once he rejoined Clementine in the house.

"And, where are we supposed to spend the night?" she asked him.

"Didn't you arrange for that?" Mason asked, as they casually walked out toward their wagon.

Clementine shook her head. "I was so concerned about getting the money that I completely forgot about sleeping arrangements."

"Then, I'd venture to say we put as much distance between this place as we can."

"But, it's night," Clem argued when Mason helped her up onto the bench seat.

"There's a sizable moon -- we can ride the trail slow, as long as we keep moving," Mason assured her.

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

It was a loud belch which stirred Clay Mosby from his unconscious state -- squinting and blinking in an attempt to comprehend his situation. The man's face -- it seemed to be a man -- was blurry. An obvious consequence of the blow to his head, which felt as if sharp pins were piercing his skull. The face slowly grew clearer as Clay took note of his immediate surroundings. Realizing he was imprisoned in a strange jail, he abruptly stood up, only to grasp his head in pain and sink back to the hard, besmirched cot. "Why in the name of decency am I locked up?"

"Well, now," the man sneered, "you can't expect us to let a murdering, gypsy like yourself run around in the street. You'd likely get yourself hurt. This way, you'll be nice and safe for your hanging."

"You can't hang me," Clay objected, "I haven't done anything. I don't think you understand the mistake you've made. I'm not some vagabond gypsy -- my attire should confirm that. My name is Clay Mosby. I happen to be the most prominent citizen of Curtis Wells."

"Well, Mr. Fancy-Talking Gypsy Man, I happen to be Deputy Moultrie and even a slimy gypsy can change clothes. You slept all through the night. You're just lucky it's Christmas today and Sheriff Yount is burying his brother that your wife killed. Otherwise, we'd hang you both today."

"Wife?" Clay replied. "I'm not married. I just met this gypsy woman yesterday. Look! At least allow me to send a telegram to Curtis Wells? They'll prove my innocence."

The deputy shrugged. "I said it's Christmas -- are you deaf? The telegraph office is shut down today. It's the only day all year we close -- besides Independence Day, of course. You can ask the sheriff tomorrow." The deputy closed the door, leaving Clay alone with Allegra.

Clay looked at the attractive gypsy. "Why did you inform them that I was your husband? I expect you to recant such an absurd statement."

"I could not say such a thing, my sweet. You did not resist me when we were lovers in the grass."

"Come now," Clay responded, "you can hardly attribute an hour of pleasure to such a preposterous claim as my being your husband? Now, I am prepared to offer my assistance in helping to free you but I cannot help either of us unless you drop this foolish lie."

Allegra could only return a forlorn gaze at Clay.

"This man . . . you killed. Was it self defense?"

She nodded. "There are others of us out there. We are never welcome in their towns -- they consider us thieves and filth. When our men come into their towns to buy food they beat them or hang them. They sent me but the pig in their store put his hands here," she pointed to her breasts. "He forced me to the floor and put his filthy hand under my skirt. I cut his throat. I am not sorry -- he was a pig, just like the others. You were different."

"What town are we in?" Clay asked.

"It is named Grassrange," Allegra replied.

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

When he first opened his eyes, Austin Peale smiled, content and satisfied over his unexpected and passion-filled night with Mattie. With lazy eyes he looked around, only to realize he was alone, leading him to surmise whether she had actually been there, or if it had merely been a very real dream.

His doubts were immediately put aside when Mattie stepped inside the office, carrying two plates of food from the Dove.

"Morning, Austin," she intoned, smiling.

"Morning," he cheerfully replied.

Mattie placed the food on the small table near the bed, then leaned over to quickly kiss Austin. "I'm sure you have an appetite after last night? I do." She started a pot of coffee. "Merry Christmas, Austin -- come have some breakfast."

Austin wasn't sure where their sexual passion from the night before would lead but he was happy, and so was Mattie. "Christmas, huh?" he said.

"The town should be quiet today, Austin," Mattie said, a hint of hope that they might continue where they had left off during the night. "Dewey and Unbob are together but I'll have to check on them later."

Austin nodded. "Then let's eat," Austin suggested.

"Good morning, Aus . . .? Oh? Hello, Mattie. Merry Christmas." Josiah Peale stepped inside. "I didn't realize you were already having breakfast, Austin."

"I can go across the street and get another plate from Amanda, Josiah," Mattie unselfishly replied. She turned to Austin and quietly said, "it's Christmas, Austin."

Austin nodded. "Come in, Father."

Josiah's face lit up. "Thank you. Thank you, Mattie."

"I'll be right back," she answered.

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

Gretchen Call boiled the carrots and peas until they were soft enough to smash. She let them cool a little before feeding Becky, now able to eat soft foods such as porridge or vegetables. "Look at her, Call. Look at our daughter. She growing so fast. One more week and she'll already be four months old." Gretchen paused, looking at the medium-sized tree Call had cut down for her and Becky. She had hung ribbons on the tree -- nothing fancy or expensive like her older sister, Victoria, and her husband, Ephraim, would do.

"Bring Becky over here by the door, Gretchen," Call quietly said.

Gretchen paused, turning to see what her husband was looking at. He motioned for her to hurry. She put the spoon down and wiped the baby's mouth then cradled her in her arms and joined Call. "What is it, Call? What's out there?"

Call pointed out onto the plains. "Look over there, Gretchen. It's a coyote pup."

"Oooh, I see it," Gretchen quietly replied, staring at a young coyote the same colors as the yellow-brown grass. "It looks a little like a cat, doesn't it, Call?"

He nodded. "The legs are longer and thinner -- its ears are sharper." He turned to observe their infant daughter. "Do you think Becky sees it?"

Gretchen smiled. "No, Call. Look at her -- she's in her own little world, talking to her fingers again."

They went back inside the house. "Call? Did you really steal horses down in Mexico with the Captain?"

"Yep. I only went into Mexico once with the Cap'n. We got us a whole mess of Mexican ponies to trail up here to Montana. Gus . . . Deets . . . Dish. Jake Spoon and Pea."

"What about the men you stole them from?" Gretchen asked with curiosity.

"We stole them from a Mexican bandit. Pedro Flores. He was . . ."

Call was interrupted by a knock on the door. Still holding Becky, Gretchen opened the door. "It's my pregnant sister and her mountain man husband."

Paige and Boone stepped inside the small house. "Aren't you two ready yet?" Paige asked. "Victoria won't like it if we don't help her with the cooking, Gretchen." She looked at Call. "Are you ready to enjoy Christmas with your family, Call?"

Gretchen laughed. "I think my husband would be happier to just stay here with me and Becky. Wouldn't you, Call?"

He shook his head in agreement. "Yep."

"Well, by next Christmas, there'll be at least one more baby in the family," Paige commented, rubbing her stomach.

Call looked at Boone Mackinaw -- the same uncomfortable look was in his eyes as well.

********

Ephraim's face beamed as he cut the bountiful ham -- Victoria held their son, Daniel, watching with pride. The three Brandt sisters and their husbands, as well as the two infant babies, celebrating the Christmas spirit at the Cleese home. Mason Dobbs had also been invited -- bringing Miss Clementine Hale as his guest.

During the main course an unexpected visitor showed up. Robert Shelby called in search of qualified men to track Clay Mosby. "Your forgiveness, Mrs. Cleese," he addressed Victoria. "And, yours also, Mrs. Call, Mrs. Mackinaw. Miss Hale."

"What's your business?" Call bluntly asked, standing up.

"I'm concerned about Clay Mosby," Robert replied. "He rode out of town three days ago. He should have returned by now."

Call shrugged. "Mosby can look after himself, I reckon. Give the man some time."

"You don't understand, Call," Robert Shelby pressed, "he wasn't in his right mind when he rode off. I should never have allowed him to leave. I need someone to track him. I'll pay you well for your services."

Call smirked. "I ain't interested in Mosby's money. Go home, Shelby. He'll show his face soon enough."

Robert gritted his teeth, holding his tongue. He didn't particularly have any fondness for Texans. "It isn't Mosby's money, Call. It's my money."

Call turned to Gretchen, who sat quietly with the others. "Well, as you can see, it's Christmas. I intend to spend the day with my wife and daughter . . . and family."

"Count out the dinero, amigo," Mason Dobbs said. "I'll go. I can track as well as Newt, here. But, I won't ride till first light." he gazed at Clementine and winked, the consequence being a flushed face by Miss Hale.

"Shelby cast a glance at Boone Mackinaw. "What about you, mountain man? You can track."

"Sure, I can. I'll ride with you come morning. Me and Concho will find Mosby," Boone remarked. "Uh . . . " he gazed at his young bride. "You mind, Eyes of Summer Sky?"

"No, Mr. Rabbit Two Knives," Paige replied to Boone.

"Something the matter with Mosby's men, Shelby?" Call asked. "Seems to me he's got himself enough hired guns to cover the whole territory."

"They aren't skilled at tracking like you three," Robert retorted. "Will you reconsider, Call?"

"Nope. I got me a job -- breaking some mustangs."

Robert nodded. "Then, we ride at first light. Merry Christmas and forgive my interruption." He bowed to the four women and left.

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

Daylight was at its minimum during the onset of winter. Deputy Moultrie unlocked the door to the dingy room which held Clay Mosby and the gypsy girl, Allegra, bringing their supper. He stood away from the cell door until his eyes adjusted to the dim light.

"You're in luck, gypsy man," the deputy said. "Sheriff Yount's agreed to let you send a telegram . . . tomorrow."

"I already told you," Clay stated, "I am not a gypsy!"

"Well, it sure doesn't matter, as I see it, gypsy. You're still getting your neck stretched."

"You can't be serious?" Clay replied. "I'm entitled to a trial."

"Oh, sure," Deputy Moultrie agreed. "Trial first -- hanging later." He looked at Allegra. "You're awful quiet. Maybe you're some kind of witch, huh?" He laughed. "You figure on drumming up some kind of potion or spell, gypsy?" He slid the two plates of food under the cell bars.

Allegra stared into the deputy's eyes. "Maybe I am a witch. Maybe I will rot your insides and they will dry up while you sleep."

The deputy stared uncomfortably at the gypsy girl.

"Look, Deputy," an annoyed Clay replied, "if you check my saddle you will see the initials F.C.M. -- Francis Clay Mosby."

"Anyone could have those initials," the deputy insisted. "It don't prove nothing." He stepped to the door. "Just shut up and eat your grub." He closed the door, then locked it.

Walking back to his desk in the outer office, Deputy Moultrie paused, a strange sensation overcoming him. He felt something move out of the shadows and a knife pressed against his back.

"Be careful how you move or I will cut your heart out from the back and cook it until it breaks into little pieces and the birds of the air come and take it away."

The deputy nodded, turning around with extreme caution. He dropped the tray from his sweating hands as he gazed upon an unexpected sight. "Allegra?! How?!"

"Did I not tell you I was a witch?" the gypsy woman said.

"But . . . but, you were dressed different a minute ago," he stuttered, then tensed as the gypsy woman placed the knife against his chest.

"Unlock the door to your jail or I will poison you -- you will already be a dead man before you take another breath," she ordered.

He raised his arms in a show of surrender and backed up to the door. He fumbled nervously until he was able to open the door then went inside and unlocked the jail cell. He stared at the gypsy -- there were two of them, twin sisters, no doubt. "You tricked me," he said.

Clay Mosby quickly removed the deputy's gun from his holster. "Well done," he praised Allegra's sister.

"I will cut his heart out now," the sister hissed.

"No!" Clay implored. "Your sister has already killed a man in self defense. If you kill the deputy it will be murder."

"As you wish," she shrugged.

Clay moved fast -- gagging and tying the deputy, then locking him in the jail cell. He threw the keys into the cell then closed the door, grabbing his own holster and gun.

"Your horse is down the street in the livery," the sister replied. "I will meet you there."

******

Allegra pressed her body close to Clay as they rode out of Grassrange, her sister, Jezreel, riding alongside them. The large, swollen moon, hidden by dark, sinister clouds, shone through with enough illumination upon the land, providing safe passage across the silent plains. Jezreel, twin sister of Allegra, informed Mosby that their family -- two wagons of gypsies, had crossed the Flat Willow Creek to the south.

"It's too great a distance to ride tonight," Clay stated. "Perhaps we should seek refuse of some sort before continuing on. This cold is intolerable, to be quite frank."

It was their good fortune to stumble upon a deserted line shack -- most likely the owner had gone belly-up with his cattle, providing the ghost town atmosphere cast upon the wooden monolith by the moon's silver glow. Clay inspected the inside, content that it was a step up from sleeping on the cold, hard ground.

Two thin mattresses were left behind -- one on the floor, the other wedged against the wall, covering a sizable hole. Clay exchanged the second mattress, replacing it with a barren cupboard. There was no reason to invite hungry wolves or coyotes into the shack. "I propose we lay these together," he suggested. "I believe it will become rather cold during the night."

As soon as the narrow mattresses were placed side by side, both Allegra and her twin sister, Jezreel, removed all of their clothing. "We have another suggestion, my sweet," Allegra replied. "Our bodies will be much warmer this way."

Clay didn't resist as each sister assisted him in stripping off his clothing, resulting in the three of them standing completely naked in the empty shack. A small lamp had been lit, providing adequate light, allowing Clay to take in the beauty of the Romanian twins. The sisters smiled, their eyes feasting on Clay's impressive attribute.

This would not be the first time Clay Mosby had spent an amorous and lust-filled night with two women. He had had occasions with two of Twyla's girls and in his younger days even two close friends. But, he had never laid with two sisters, let alone, twins.

"For your kindness to my sister," Jezreel promised, "we shall give you a night you will never forget." The sisters, together with an eager Clay Mosby, began a passionate display. A nearby screech owl and a pair of coyotes were made to endure the loud groans and uninhibited screams of lust coming from the small wooden enclosure.

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

Austin Peale couldn't remember the last time he had enjoyed Christmas as much as he had this day. His father was smiling and laughing, allowing both father and son to treasure their relationship. It had all been brought about by Mattie Shaw, who had enjoyed one of the nicest Christmases she had ever remembered. She had been there, right under their noses, and was perhaps that rare jewel that would allow all three of them to walk away from a haunted and troubled past, into a compatible and even happy future.

Once Josiah finally returned to his small newspaper office, whistling contently, Austin locked the door, drew the shade down low, and went back to his cot, where Mattie awaited.

*****

Unbob had given Dewey a spy glass purchased from Ike. Dewey's first thought was to go play pirate but instead built a makeshift ladder behind the Opera House, using wood crates. He climbed to the roof, hiding behind the tall false front where he aimed his spy glass inside the exposed windows of Twyla's. "Jumping grasshoppers! Jumping grasshoppers!" he repeated as he beheld sights he had never seen before, but would never forget.

*****

Clementine Hale returned to The Dove with Mason, where they spent most of the long night enjoying each other's company in the dining room. When it came time to turn in, Clementine allowed Mason an extended kiss, then said good night.

*****

"It's hard to believe your Uncle Mason was an outlaw, Call. It really is." Gretchen watched their infant daughter nod off to sleep clutching the new rag doll Mason had bought for her. Becky's first reaction when Mason handed her the soft-material doll was to put it in her mouth, testing her four new teeth.

"Why don't you let her sleep here with us tonight, Gretchen?" Call suggested, staring with amazement at tiny Becky.

Gretchen shook her head, lifting the sleeping infant and climbing out of bed. "She has you wrapped around her little fingers, Call. Someone has to be the strong one. She belongs in her own bed now."

Call groaned. He knew Gretchen was right but he dearly loved their pint-sized daughter.

Gretchen tenderly placed Becky in her basket, then climbed in close to her husband. "This was the best Christmas ever, Call. We're married and it was our daughter's first Christmas." She kissed Call and then whispered in his ear, "I want to give you a son for next Christmas."

Call smiled, looking into Gretchen's warm green eyes. "A son . . . or another daughter."

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

The chill wind abruptly awakened Clay Mosby -- the door to the line shack slightly ajar. Clay turned and realized he was alone -- the twin sisters were gone. Grabbing a discarded blanket -- the one they had used to keep warm once their night of lust had ended -- Clay hastily covered his exposed lower half and stepped to the open door. The moon had shifted in the sky and the gloomy clouds had separated a little, allowing a handful of far-distant stars to twinkle silently in the night.

Realizing the gypsy girls had long since vanished, Clay decided to dress and ride back to Curtis Wells. "What the hell?!" he said. The only items left behind in the shack were his boots, his hat, and his one-piece of long underwear, which every man wore in Montana during the winter. Gone were his clothes -- his white ruffled shirt, his black and gray-patterned vest, his trousers and his leather duster with the slit in the left arm.

The gypsies had also taken his expensive pocket watch, his pistol and holster, his knife, and if they could have carried his forty pound saddle, would have relieved him of that. Clay was thankful Allegra and Jezreel had been kind enough to leave his horse. He pulled his longjohns and boots on, grabbed his hat and wrapped the shredded blanket around his shoulders, then went out and mounted up.

He found himself unable to be angry with the gypsy girls -- they had been incredibly agile, performing sexual acts and positions he had never experienced before. It only made sense that the sisters, raised in a strict, European upbringing, could hardly ride into their camp and proclaim this outsider as their lover.

Clay rode east, straight for Curtis Wells. It was his intention to arrive in town well before morning. He had no desire to be seen in his underwear. Once he observed the church steeple, he was overcome with an unusual feeling. He rode up to the small church and went inside the empty building, sitting in the far rear. He had taken a strange journey, purchasing a ticket that brought him to the edge of his very own sanity. A death fight with two savage Cheyenne. A horrifying vision in a Blackfeet lodge. Robbed by two Blackfeet boys. Imprisoned in a jail where he had been sentenced to hang. And, an unforgettable experience with two beautiful gypsy sisters.

Clay could buy another gun and rifle. He had more clothes than any other man in Curtis Wells. He hesitated, recounting the days he had been gone. "My goodness," he said, "it's still Christmas night." He realized he had been extremely fortunate to survive his ordeal. Maybe the reason he was still here -- the reason he had lived when so many around him had perished, was for something he had yet to accomplish. He walked out of the church, gazing at the quiet little town. Somehow, it seemed to shine a little brighter now.

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

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