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.


Better Than Stealing
(53rd in the Romancing the Plains series)
by Craig Caff

Why, I been in the presence of grizzlies and rattlers,
red devils and disease; the orneriest critter I ever met
was none other than the high-falootin', civilized easterner.

(California Joe Milner - Scout for the 7th Cavalry; Black Hills Expedition, 1874)

"Clay! Come out here. You've got to see this."

Circling the elongated, mahogany bar, walking through eternal clouds of cigar smoke, Clay Mosby leisurely stepped through the open doorway, into the chill of wintry Montana. Two months had passed since his return from a journey that swept him to the edge of his own sanity -- the mutilated vision of his butchered body in the Blackfeet lodge, the ordeal with the gypsy twins. He glanced at Robert Shelby, who merely nodded in the direction of the street.

"Look at them, Clay. Easterners. Rich, infernal, Yankee Easterners," Robert muttered.

"Yes," Clay acknowledged, opening his pocket watch. "And, right on time. Come, Robert. Permit me to introduce you to our very wealthy guests."

"You know about them, Clay?"

Clay descended the chipped wooden steps onto the dark brown, muddy street. "Of course, Robert. Very little transpires in Curtis Wells in which I am not aware."

Robert Shelby followed Clay toward the group of strangers exiting the bright red Concord stagecoach. Accepting Northerners had been his Achilles' heel. Hadn't he admitted to Clay years earlier his reluctance to enter the welcoming doors of any church since the engagement at Gettysburg? While Clay Mosby had succeeded, Robert floundered like a great fish on the banks of the mighty Mississippi. Clay had been willing to do whatever was necessary in order not only to survive, but to flourish. It was so simple, yet so difficult for Robert.

Clay approached the well-dressed leader of the group -- consisting of four men -- the leader being rather short and overly heavy, yet not much more than a boy.

"Mr. Mosby, I presume?" the corpulent young man said, exhibiting a wide smile.

"Colonel Francis Clay Mosby, to be precise." He shook hands with the young Easterner. "You must be Mr. Remington . . . although, to be quite honest, I was expecting you to be somewhat older."

"Frederic Remington, Mr. Mosby," he laughed. "And I am all of twenty-one years old, sir. Allow me to introduce my traveling companions." He turned to the others, who stood with apparent impatience. "I might also add, all extremely wealthy. This is Mr. Foster Billingham -- his family's fortune comes from textiles." A tall, thin, middle-aged gentleman shook Clay's hand. "These other two rascals are Mr. J.B. Larimer, of steel industries and Mr. Martin Windsor, of the Windsor lumber fortune." Both Larimer and Windsor were on the heavy side, their apparent age falling somewhere between Frederic Remington and the older Mr. Billingham.

Clay acknowledged each man, then introduced Robert Shelby to the group.

"We are hoping to spend a most interesting week out here in the West, Mr. Mosby," young Frederic Remington said. "Mr. Larimer and Mr. Windsor would like to accompany me on a hunting expedition. I would seek to find suitable guides willing to take us to picturesque locations where I might work on my illustrations and paintings of the West -- the Indian, the Cavalryman, and sceneries. Mr. Billingham would prefer to remain in town where he hopes to try his luck at games of poker."

Clay looked at Robert. "Well, I am quite sure we will be able to accommodate Mr. Billingham with all the poker he desires. And, we can provide a couple of accomplished guides, also."

"Excellent," young Frederic replied. "We are sure to find this odd, little town interesting, Mr. Mosby."

Clay nodded. "Then, perhaps Mr. Shelby and myself can assist you with your luggage -- the hotel is right across the street. Although not up to eastern standards, it is quite satisfactory."

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

Watching her husband watching the baby caused Gretchen Call to swell up with a warm feeling inside her chest. The way he stopped whatever he was doing to stare with interest and amazement at tiny Rebecca Maggie pleased Gretchen exceedingly. "Becky's moving faster, isn't she, Call?" The infant, on her hands and knees, had just recently become adequate at crawling across the floor.

Call turned to his wife, nodding in approval. "I reckon she could scoot out the door and crawl around the whole house at a fair pace."

"Our little Becky Bug is six months old, Call. She can crawl and sit up by herself quite well. It won't be long until she's saying real words out of the sounds she makes. Why, I do believe the first word we'll hear will be her saying Papa."

Call smiled. "Ain't no reason she can't be set on saying Mama first, now is there?"

Gretchen laughed, rising from the wood chair where she had been darning Call's socks. "Well, you still don't know very much about babies, do you Sweetheart?"

"Nope," Call agreed.

"It's easier for her to say papa before she can say mama."

Call just nodded, sort of confused. Every day he was in awe over the miracle of life -- to actually watch his infant daughter develop and grow. It was the most incredible and amazing thing he had ever experienced in all his days, filling him with a feeling unlike anything he had ever felt before.

Becky crawled toward the door of her bedroom then grabbed the small rag doll her Uncle Mason had given her. Babbling incoherently and chewing on the doll's leg, she sat up fine for a minute then slowly began to tilt sideways until she fell over on her side. Call moved to help her but Gretchen urged him to let their infant daughter alone -- she needed to exercise her arms and legs in order to strengthen and develop.

"Gretchen?" Call finally groaned when it was apparent the baby was rolling back and forth, unable to sit up.

"She can do it, Call," Gretchen promised. Moments later, Rebecca Maggie Call rolled over onto her belly, letting out a garbled sound of delight. Gretchen, the proud young mother, flashed an I told you so smile at her husband, causing Call to shake his head and laugh.

"Someone's riding up to the house," Call suddenly replied. "It's Mason. I best see what he wants." He opened the door, Gretchen lifting Becky into her arms and joining him.

"Howdy do, nephew," Mason winked. "Coyote Girl," he nodded. "Hello, Bug," he said, poking his finger against Becky's chin. The baby's face lit up.

"What brings you out our way, Mason?" Call asked.

"Easy wages for a simple enough job," he answered. "Some Eastern fellas got off the stage earlier today. Rich folks. Three men want to hire out guides to take them on a hunting expedition -- one of them is an artist, he favors doing some painting out there."

"It's winter -- ain't likely to be a picnic out there. You set on obliging them?" Call replied.

"I'd venture to say that you and me would satisfy these boy's plenty enough, Newt. They're hoping to tent on the plains for a week -- paying ten dollars a day, hard cash!"

"Ten dollars a day?!" Gretchen repeated. "That's an awful lot of money!"

"And, that's for each guide, mind you," Mason added.

Call nodded. "I reckon that's better than stealing."

"Hell!" Mason remarked. "It is stealing!"

"Well, ain't no denying it," Call commented, looking at Gretchen, "we could use the money. Ain't likely to be any more mustangs from Hat Creek till spring kicks in."

"Call, I'll be fine," Gretchen assured him. "Runt's become a very good protector of me and Becky. And you always leave your little shotgun with me. But, I'll miss you terribly. You said a week, Mason?"

"Give or take a day, I'll wager," Mason said. "Pack your kit, boy. We leave come morning."

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

Victoria Cleese stood in the large downstairs room gazing at her husband and infant son. Ephraim sat in one of the matching rocking chairs near the warm fireplace bouncing young Daniel on his knee. The seven month old boy had grown much quicker than his tiny cousin, Becky.

"Gretchen's going to watch Daniel on Sunday, Ephraim. With so many folks being sick this winter, I thought I could help you while the store's closed."

Ephraim gently placed their infant son on the floor and welcomed Victoria onto his lap. "It would be most appreciated, my dear." He hugged his wife, kissing her full on the mouth.

"You're developing into quite a good kisser, Ephraim," Victoria remarked, causing her husband's face to redden.

"I must admit," he replied, "I had few opportunities to learn the art of love and passion before we were wed, Victoria."

"As did I, also, Ephraim," she said, "that is . . . few opportunities. Did you happen to meet those people from back east?"

"Yes. I found the heavyset, young man, Mr. Frederic Remington to be quite artistically gifted. He shared two illustrations he did earlier today. He is quite talented and should have a successful career in his field. And, he is still so young." Ephraim began to kiss his wife on her neck, stirring her to respond. "Shall we put the baby in bed and delight in each other?"

Victoria Cleese nodded approvingly.

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

Once the sun disappeared from the cold, winter sky, the temperature dropped suddenly. Mattie Shaw had waited patiently for Sheriff Peale to return from picking up a prisoner waiting to stand trial for robbery. As Austin rode into town with his prisoner, Mattie, sitting by the window inside the Dove, hastened outside into the early evening.

"I thought you'd never get back, Austin," she said, joining him as he led the prisoner inside the jail.

Austin mustered a half smile, obviously weary from the long, cold ride. "What's that in your hand, Mattie?"

"Your supper," she replied. "I had Amanda keep it warm on the stove."

"I'm hungry," the prisoner said.

"Shut the hell up!" Austin barked, shoving the man inside an empty cell. He locked the door then turned to Mattie, pulling her close to him.

"Austin! In front of your prisoner? Besides, your supper will get cold."

Austin sat at his desk and began to devour the meal. "Anything happen while I was out?"

"Some rich men got off the stage today," Mattie remarked. "They want to go out to the mountains and hunt."

Austin listened while cleaning his plate. "Do they know their way around?"

"No," Mattie replied. "They hired Call and Mason to guide them."

Austin nodded. He was worn out and hoping to spend the night with Mattie -- a luxury no longer available inside the sheriff's office, now that a prisoner was locked up.

"Dewey's spending the night with Unbob," Mattie quietly revealed, intertwining her fingers with Austin's hand. "We can use my room." His tired face lit up.

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

The morning star shone with dazzling brilliance in the eastern sky -- the first sign of light stretching across the horizon. The plains slowly woke, appearing like a huge canvas of glowing colors, painted by the master painter in Heaven. Patches of white-yellow and brown-yellow dotted the snowy landscape. Along the banks of the creek were strips of bright green grass.

Although the early morning temperature was in the twenties, the north wind made it feel even colder. As Call and Mason led the Frederic Remington party in a northwest direction where they would eventually cross the frigid waters of the brown Missouri on their way toward where the Bear Paw Mountains merged with the greater Baldy Mountain, the three easterners commented on the inclement conditions. The icy air burned their faces and hands and whenever their mounts or the pack animals kicked up the chill waters from Box Elder Creek they cursed that the cold spread throughout their entire bodies. Mason Dobbs found their petty grievances amusing -- Call, already soured at being separated from Gretchen and tiny Becky, rode ahead about eighty or ninety yards, preferring the solitude over idle chatter.

As the group of five continued toward prime hunting, the winter sky grew dismal, appearing gray and somber from one horizon clear across the entire Montana sky. Each of the three easterners led a pack horse or mule behind them -- Larimer and Windsor boasting over who would claim more prominent game to bring back when it came time to return to the civilized East. Young Frederic Remington chose to burden his pack animal with sketch books and an easel, as well as paints and brushes and pencils. He also kept a leather-bound book for keeping a journal of his experience.

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

"Howdy, Miss Paige. Mr. Boone," Unbob Finch said, staring at Paige's stomach. "Is your baby comfortable today?"

Paige Mackinaw laughed, looking at her husband. Boone Mackinaw just smiled. "Well, I suppose the baby is very comfortable, Unbob," Paige happily replied. The youngest Brandt sister was now four months pregnant, her lower belly already beginning to swell.

"That's good," Unbob answered. He noticed young Dewey in front of the gunsmith shop, waving him over. "Uh . . . I think I better go see what Dewey wants."

Paige took Boone's hand and led him inside the Lonesome Dove Hotel. "Come on, you grumpy old bear. Maybe someone else's cooking will make you feel better."

"Aw, you know it's not that," Boone grumbled. He paused, gazing out at the distant mountains. "I'm of a mind that I should be out there guiding those eastern fellas on that hunting trip with Call and Concho."

"Boone Mackinaw! You know very well why Mason didn't ask you. He's been wanting to spend some time with Call. They are uncle and nephew, after all."

"Yeah, I know," Boone shrugged. "But me and Call are kin now, too. I would have liked to be out there."

"Well, I'm sure there will be other hunting parties," Paige suggested.

Boone nodded. "I don't intend to be making big over nothing so let's go inside and eat."

Paige smiled. "You can always help me and Victoria in the store, Mr. Rabbit Two Knives."

Boone groaned.

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

"Go on, now, Unbob. Do just as I told you. Go outside and fetch Mama and Sheriff Peale back inside here real quick."

Unbob hesitated, squinting at Dewey. "Well, I'm not exactly sure it'll work. Are you sure this'll work?"

"I said it would, didn't I?" Dewey replied. "Hurry, Unbob. And, don't go letting on about it no how, you hear? It'll be a dandy. A real Jim Dandy. Just you watch and see for yourself if it ain't the honest to gosh truth."

The two unlikely culprits laughed, then Unbob rushed out into the morning street. "Mattie! Mattie! Sheriff Peale! Come quick! Come quick!"

The loud and sudden explosion of sound ended what had been a quiet and enjoyable breakfast that had carried beyond flapjacks and coffee into the street for Mattie and Austin. Mattie's smile disappeared as she turned toward Unbob. "What's the matter, Unbob?"

"Come quick," he repeated, standing in front of the gunsmith shop.

"Better see what he wants," Austin commented. He decided to follow along -- being the sheriff, it was his job to uphold law and order in Curtis Wells.

Mattie stomped into the dusty shop she shared with Unbob. "Well?"

Unbob twitched uncomfortably then rolled his eyes toward the pine box on top of the work table.

Puzzled, Mattie stepped over to the coffin then suddenly screamed. Austin flinched then took a look inside the coffin. Dewey was laying on his back, his eyes closed and his small arms crossed over his chest.

"Dewey!" Mattie hollered, slapping her hand across the boy's arm, repeatedly. "Don't you ever do that again!"

"Ow! Ouch! Cut it out, Mama! I'm awfully sorry," Dewey moaned, jumping out as fast as he could separate himself from Mattie.

Austin laughed -- it was good to see a prank played on someone besides him for a change. "Forget it, Mattie. He's just funning around."

"Are you mad at us, Mattie?" Unbob asked.

Mattie spun, angered. "Of course I'm mad, Unbob. Whose addled idea was this?" She already knew the answer -- it was always Dewey. He was the mastermind between the two.

"Um," Dewey stuttered, then pointed a bony, muddy finger at Unbob. "He done it, Mama. Unbob told me to get inside there." Before Mattie could reply, Dewey ran out the open back door and continued running across the empty field, never once turning to look back.

"Go fetch him back to me, Unbob," Mattie ordered. "This time I'll tan his hide for lying to me."

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

Foster Billingham, oldest and self-proclaimed wisest of the foursome of easterners that had descended upon the quiet little town of Curtis Wells was satisfied with his decision to remain in town while his young, impetuous companions tented on the barren and frigid plains to indulge their fantasies of manhood. Damn the formalities -- Foster Billingham decided to wear his fancy fur-lined greatcoat outside in the chill of late winter. He assumed for the vast majority of citizens in Montana that they were an uncivilized breed, perhaps eating raw meat and still clad in buckskin.

"A pleasant good afternoon to you, Miss Carpenter," Mr. Billingham said, stepping out of the Lonesome Dove Hotel. "Mr. Mosby. My dear chap. I would find it convenient if you were to prepare a most enticing game of five card draw, I believe it is referred to, is it not, sir?"

"Yes. Quite," Clay Mosby replied, standing alongside Amanda. "I trust you slept well, Mr. Billingham?"

The thin, middle-aged gentleman nodded vigorously. "I slept like the proverbial baby, dear fellow. My compliments to you, Miss Carpenter. Now, if you fine citizens of the West will excuse me, I have a date with your mayor, Mr. Josiah Peale. He promised to give me an exclusive tour of the town and its history. While my young friends are out there, God knows where, pretending to be mountain men, I will be thoroughly content to while away my time here in town. Good day, for now."

Amanda and Clay watched as the older gentleman bounded lightly into the street.

"He told me he's over fifty, Clay. It's the easiest money I've ever made -- charging them for four rooms and only one being used. It's like I'm stealing from them."

Clay snickered. "Let's hope you do not . . . relieve the gentleman of all his savings before I've had an opportunity to sit down with him and play poker, hmm?"

Amanda cast a long glance at Clay. "We would make a good team, Clay. We're the same." She folded her arms, wrapping her white shawl tightly around her. "What's all this gotten either of us, Clay?"

"I'm not quite sure I understand your meaning, Amanda?"

She shook her head in frustration. "I mean, what good has all this wealth done us? You're the most influential man in Curtis Wells and . . . and, look at me. I own the hotel. It just seems like neither of us are really happy."

Clay Mosby was slightly taken back by Amanda's baring of her soul. He had been extremely cautious in wearing his heart on his sleeve. A man determined and ruthless could not afford to show any signs of his true inner feelings. "Are you suggesting we . . .?"

"Oh, I don't know, Clay! I don't know what I'm saying. I'm babbling like some foolish woman. I just think we could both reach some sort of . . . I don't know. An understanding, I suppose."

"Your methods of reacquiring the hotel were, to say the least, rather underhanded."

Amanda smirked. "And, you've never resorted to shady actions in order to achieve your goals?"

Clay shrugged. "Perhaps you're correct, Amanda." He looked into her eyes. There was a sadness and emptiness, similar to a lonely animal.

"Clay, can you honestly tell me that you're happy?"

Clay's jaw tightened. "I will achieve my goals, Amanda. No one is going to prevent me from that."

"Clay, you aren't fooling me. Do you think I don't know what goes on? I see you sneaking up the back stairs of Twyla's late at night or Florie sneaking behind your saloon to spend the night with you."

Clay's eyes narrowed. "That is none of your concern, Amanda. You would be wise to heed my words."

"Clay, I'm not some young fool. Neither of us are as young as . . ." she hesitated. "I have work to do inside." She turned abruptly and went back inside the hotel. Clay stood motionless, wondering if what she said held any merit. He couldn't allow sentimentality, not now, at least. He still had a rich, eastern fish to reel in.

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

The Frederic Remington party covered a sizable amount of ground -- the three wealthy easterners long since had begun to grumble at the excessive amount of time bouncing rudely in their hard leather saddles.

"You boys best enjoy resting up a piece," Call suggested, once camp was made in a boxed canyon near the foot of the high country. "Come first light, we'll be climbing that rise yonder."

Larimer and Windsor both protested but young Frederic Remington was undaunted. "Bully for you, Mr. Call and Mr. Dobbs. As you can readily see, my somewhat esteemed and older associates are quite frankly in poor health."

"I'd venture to say you aren't exactly the picture of vitality, amigo," Mason commented.

Frederic Remington laughed. "Yes, I have heard that on several occasions, Mr. Dobbs. However, do not take my girth for sluggishness or even weakness. I was very physical while attending Highland Military Academy in Worcester, Massachusetts." He inhaled slightly, puffing his chest. "Now, we seem to have struck good luck, indeed. This canyon is absolutely gorgeous. Perhaps you and Mr. Call will allow me to draw the two of you? My sketch book is always nearby -- I make a point of assuring its closeness for any spur of the moment inspiration."

Call frowned and shook his head. "I ain't of a mind to do no such thing." He tramped off, gathering twigs and branches for a campfire.

"My nephew, Newt, isn't interested, amigo. But, I'll wager I strike a fine pose for your drawing."

Delighted, Frederic Remington hastened to prepare his drawing.

Mr. Windsor, weary and saddle sore, hobbled over to where Call had separated himself from the others. "Say there, young fellow. Just what, exactly, will we have opportunity to shoot tomorrow?"

"I reckon whatever we come upon -- bear, mule tail deer, elk, antelope, mountain lion. Even buffalo."

"Goodness! It sounds like a veritable cornucopia of wild game," Martin Windsor replied.

"A what?" Call said.

The rich, heavyset easterner laughed. "Why, a plethora, my good man."

Call's face knotted into confusion. It seemed there was no making sense of civilized folk. They not only acted different, they talked different.

"And, pray tell," Mr. Windsor persisted, "is there any chance we might happen upon some savage red men?"

Call eyeballed the talkative easterner. Earning ten dollars a day, hard cash, for guiding these three men might not be a simple matter. "You saying you want to find some Indians?"

"Yes! It would be delightful to actually view the savage red man in his natural environment."

"Mister," Call said, "It's bound to take all the skills we got to keep you from getting scalped. There's renegade Blackfeet in these here parts. Tribes of Cheyenne and Lakota live out here. Ain't likely they're going to take kindly to you cluttering up their land. Now, why don't you go lay down and leave me be. Morning comes quick enough."

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

When Foster Billingham opened his gold pocket watch and realized it was well past midnight, he laughed. "I had no idea . . . where did it go? The time, I mean, Mr. Mosby? I know where my money went -- right there, in front of you."

Clay Mosby, confident and nearly one thousand dollars richer than he had been before the first hand of draw poker had been dealt, merely smiled and allowed for a small, polite laugh. "It does appear as if the night has passed us by in the blink of an eye, Mr. Billingham. Perhaps another brandy?"

"No, I've had my limit. Too much brandy causes me to do things I come to regret the next day. You're quite knowledgeable at poker, Mr. Mosby. Would you be willing to sell me some of your secrets? I would pay you most handsomely for the information. Just think how entertaining it could be if I were triumphant over my young friends that are right now sleeping on the cold, unmerciful ground somewhere out there in the darkness."

Clay lowered his cigar and rubbed his chin. "Perhaps you need only practice, Mr. Billingham. You already possess the courage to bet substantial amounts."

"I know what we'll do, Mr. Mosby. Shall we play again tomorrow night? If I study your every move, then I see no reason why I cannot master this highly addictive game. Will you indulge me, sir?"

Clay gazed at the gentleman. He had learned as a much younger man to be wary of any gambler, especially one who lost as easily as Foster Billingham. "I can find no excuse why we shouldn't continue playing tomorrow night."

"Wonderful! Then, if you will forgive me, I would like to get some sleep. Although, to be perfectly blunt, I imagine I may well spend the night lying on my back, trying to analyze this complicated and enthralling game of five card draw. Goodnight, Mr. Mosby." He paused. "On the other hand, perhaps I should spend the night inside the town's bordello. Whom would you recommend, Mr. Mosby?"

Clay hesitated. Anyone, but Florie, he thought. "Well," he grinned, "I've always heard Sadie is the one most men prefer."

Foster Billingham nodded approvingly. "Then, I shall proceed there with haste. I am most grateful to you, Mr. Mosby."

Clay walked the easterner to the door then went back to the table. "I must say, Robert, it was like stealing from a blind man."

"Be careful, Clay," Robert suggested. "He may not be as stupid as he appears."

"Yes," Clay agreed. "And, yet, the fool continuously drew on inside straights or whenever he held an ace and a king."

"No man can be that stupid, Clay. He's a no-good Yankee. He's setting you up."

Clay poured two small drinks. "That's precisely what I suspect, Robert. For, if this fool was as stupid as he may want us to believe, it would be better than stealing." They both laughed.

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

"Hurry along now, Gretchen. Ephraim's waiting in the wagon. Mustn't keep him waiting."

Gretchen Call hastened to clean the mess Becky had created. "I'm sorry, Victoria. Becky had a rough night. I put her basket in our room but she still fussed and cried. Poor little girl -- her teeth are coming in and bothering her." She bent down, picking up a wooden spoon and a thin green blanket.

Victoria lifted Becky into her arms. "Good morning, Rebecca. Daniel does the same, Gretchen. Maybe you should try to start your day a little earlier?"

"I do," Gretchen moaned, taking Becky from her older sister and wiping her mouth. "Runt caused a commotion chasing a mouse over there by the fireplace. It excited Becky and she . . . all right, Victoria. No excuses. We're ready." She looked at tiny Rebecca Maggie. "You're going to be with your cousin, Daniel, today. Mama's going to help Auntie Victoria in the store, Becky Bug."

The sisters rushed outside into the cold and gloomy morning. Ephraim climbed down from the bench seat to help his wife and sister-in-law. "Good morning, Gretchen. Hello, Rebecca." He stepped back when Runt came running toward him. "Oh! Go away, Runt. You're dirty."

Gretchen laughed. Call would never comment that the dog was dirty. At least working at the sisters' dry goods store would help pass the time while Gretchen awaited her husband's return.

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

The endless plains, cold and silent, began to wear heavy on young Frederic Remington's companions by late morning. Five hours of constant riding, aside from the occasional resting and watering of the horses, had agitated Mr. Larimer and Mr. Windsor a great deal. Their grumbling subsided as the party climbed higher ground above a small valley, once again upon the plains, when they spotted six huge buffalo bulls grazing at a distance of one mile. The winter wind blowing directly from the hunting party toward the game made it necessary to use precaution in approaching them. Unless the buffalo were in large numbers, Call explained, they would be wary, and if they took notice of scent or sight of an approaching hunter they would instantly take flight. His warning went unheeded as the two heavyset men charged excitedly out onto the sea of yellow-brown grass.

"Damn fools," Call snapped, clapping heels to the Hellbitch as Frederic Remington followed his friends. Mason urged his gray and rode off with Newt.

As Call foretold, the six buffalo bulls galloped off, never seeming to tire during the chase that ensued. The vast plains, appearing so flat from a distance, became a continuous effort for the three easterners as they leapt down then climbed up the steep sides of numerous small canyons. When one of the buffalo stumbled, Martin Windsor, an adequate rider and fair shot, managed to shoot the beast. The group was temporarily satisfied as Windsor dismounted and proceeded to secure the dead animal's tail -- cutting it off as a trophy and proof of his deed.

The three men's boisterous joy was short lived as Windsor suddenly dropped his knife and the tail, standing stiff like a statue, his face paling. "Oh, Lord! Oh, Lord! We're going to die!"

Turning quickly, Mason Dobbs noticed six Indians on horseback, each holding a feathered spear at least five feet in length. "Don't move your hands anywhere near your guns, amigos."

"We're dead!" J.B. Larimer cried. Remington and Windsor both paled, unable to move.

"Just shut up! You hear me?" Call barked. The Indians, possibly hostile, were at the top of a dried out wash, some three hundred yards away. The fact that all six of them held spears wasn't a good sign. "Mason, you stay hereabouts with these boys. I'll ride out and see what they want."

"Mind your hair, Newt," Mason replied, placing one hand near his Winchester, the other on one of his gun handles.

Call nodded and rode off toward the Indians.

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

"Come back any time, Handsome," Sadie cooed, sliding her long, thin finger along Foster Billingham's cheek, down his neck, and along his chest. He had paid more money to spend the night with her than any man ever had before.

"My dear," he mumbled, apparently drunk, "you did things my prudent wife would never hear of doing -- and I enjoyed every heart-pounding moment thoroughly." His voice grew louder. "Now, be so kind as to show me where the door is. I'm quite famished from our intoxicating night."

Sadie, holding a drink, used her free hand to guide the inebriated gentleman to the open door. Foster Billingham squinted as he stumbled off the worn down steps, into the muddy street. His expensive clothing -- the most up to date eastern fashions, clashed with the sloppy, dirty surroundings of Curtis Wells. He had been satisfied beyond his expectations with his adventures in the West, boasting a slightly euphoric feeling. Reaching the pump in the center of town, he began dancing in spastic motions on the wooden platform. Robert Shelby stood in front of the Ambrosia with Josiah Peale, observing the comical sight.

"The man is a complete fool," Shelby grumbled.

"That's quite true," Josiah agreed.

Foster Billingham then reached into his coat, extracting a .41 caliber two-shot derringer. "Wah hoo!" he yelled, firing one shot harmlessly into the gray sky. He swung his arm and fired again.

"Uuuhhhh," Robert Shelby groaned, feeling a burning pain tear through his chest. He doubled over, slumped into the bench and collapsed on the wood sidewalk, blood forming a dark red puddle.

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

Riding across the barren, snow laden plains toward the six hostiles, Call realized it was just as he suspected. He pulled up alongside the Indians and said, "hello, Red Crow."

Red Crow nodded. "My friend, Wild Dog. How is your wife, Coyote? And, Little Fox, the child?"

Call smiled. "I reckon just fine. Your wife, Singing Bird, and your baby . . . are they favorable?"

"They are well, my friend," Red Crow replied. He pointed toward the three men and Mason. "What is this?"

Call turned. "Them boys are paying me and my uncle to guide them on a hunting trip. They hail from far away, back east. Seems to me we might have us a little fun. They don't rightly put a value on life out here. I got me an idea." He told Red Crow his plan, causing the Lakota to laugh in agreement. The six Lakota pointed their spears at Call then they all rode toward the others.

"Oh, dear Lord," Martin Windsor cried, "they're coming to kill us."

Mason quietly slid his hand away from his gun when he recognized Red Crow and the other Lakota braves. They rode up to the frightened easterners, although Frederic Remington appeared less afraid than his older companions.

Red Crow pointed his spear at the three men and employing an angry tone, spoke his native tongue. He shifted from staring at the three easterners to aiming his gaze at Call as he continued to fill the men with fear.

Call nodded, then said, "they're Sioux warriors. This one here says we're trespassing on their sacred grounds -- some of their people are buried yonder in those hills. He says if you make a sacrifice you can pass through."

"Sacrifice?!" Mr. Larimer exclaimed. "Do these red savages intend to take our blood? Or, perhaps something even worse?" He reached nervously for his head.

Red Crow shook his spear and said some more. The other Lakota whooped and hollered, shaking their spears with him.

"He says he knows you boys ain't from these here parts," Call replied. "If you give him something he won't impale your bowels with his spear or strip you and fill you with arrows."

Mason and Red Crow had to turn their faces and tighten their jaws so they wouldn't ruin the prank and laugh.

"They can have anything they want," Frederic Remington said, "except my paints. If only they would allow me to paint or draw them."

"Eciyapi wi cin," ("We should call them girls,") Red Crow said to Call. The other Lakota laughed mockingly at the three heavyset men, causing them extreme discomfort.

Call struggled to keep from laughing. "Icu mazawakan na sun ka<wa kan" ("Take a rifle and a horse").

Red Crow nodded, then motioned for two of his braves to collect. Call turned and ordered the three men to remain motionless, allowing the Lakota to take what they wanted. There was no argument -- the three heavyset easterners sat like stone figures atop their horses. The Lakota took two Winchesters and one of the pack horses. The group was satisfied to escape with their lives.

Red Crow shook his arm, waving his spear at Call. "Niye yuha icimani waste, Sun Ka< Watogla" ("May you travel safely, Wild Dog"). The other Lakota joined in with Red Crow, then rode off.

Mason quietly said to Newt, "I'll wager these curs go back where they came from and brag about how they cheated death at the hand of wild renegades . . . if they ever get around to moving again."

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

It took the slamming of the door to awaken Foster Billingham from his drunken slumber, where he had slept for over three hours. He grumbled and slowly sat up, realizing he wasn't in his bed inside the Lonesome Dove Hotel. "What am I doing in this jail cell?" He stared at the door, where a somber Sheriff Peale stood. "Now I recall -- I accidentally shot that poor chap." He breathed deep then stood up and stepped to the cell bars. "It was a simple mistake, Sheriff. I trust the gentleman I shot, Mr. . . . uh . . . Shelly, I presume. Yes. Roger Shelly. That's the . . ."

"His name was Shelby. Not Shelly," Austin remarked. "Robert Shelby."

Foster Billingham appeared confused. "Was? What does that mean, precisely?"

Austin approached the cell that held Foster Billingham. He cut a figure of intimidation in his long, gray duster and tall stature. "Robert Shelby was pronounced dead two hours ago."

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

The next few hours were heavy with silence as the Frederic Remington party rode across an endless sea of yellow grass and snowy patches. Not until they reaches a field full of burrows and small dirt mounds -- a prairie dog town, did the pale-complexion easterners finally begin to speak.

"I insist we double your salaries, Mr. Dobbs and Mr. Call," Frederic Remington said. "You did save our lives."

Mason grinned. "I'd venture to say that's a wise choice, amigo."

"We ain't taking nothing more than we settled on," Call interrupted, glaring at his uncle.

"But, Mr. Call . . .?" J.B. Larimer interceded, "we insist."

"Ten dollars a day is what we agreed on," Call replied. "I reckon that covers it all."

Mason shrugged. "Ten dollars a day."

"Well, that is quite chivalrous of you gentlemen," Frederic Remington commented. "Perhaps we could rest here? I would appreciate the opportunity to draw these prairie dogs that seem so interested and curious about us. Would that be acceptable?"

Mason nodded. "Why, sure it would, amigo. This is what you're paying us for."

For the next few hours they camped while young Frederic painted the quaint little creatures from an unusually close distance. The easterners commented that the reddish-brown prairie dog bore a fair resemblance to the woodchuck as well as the European marmot. When Mr. Remington was satisfied with his drawings and paintings, they mounted and proceeded toward the mountains, where they would ascend the next morning.

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

When Clay Mosby entered the jail, Foster Billingham jumped up from his soiled cot and began to plead. "It was an accident! I never meant to shoot anyone. I . . . I didn't mean to kill Mr. Shelby. Please, Mr. Mosby! I beg of you! Please do not hang me!"

Clay mosby hesitated, casting a glance toward Austin.

"Sheriff Peale told me Mr. Shelby died," Foster Billingham weakly said. "Don't hang me. Please, Mr. Mosby?"

"If Mr. Shelby had indeed died," Clay said, "I would not hesitate to drag you myself to the gallows and hang you."

Billingham squinted. "What?! You . . . you mean . . . he isn't dead? I don't understand?"

"No," Clay Mosby coldly replied. "Our good Dr. Cleese stitched him up. He did quite a remarkable job, as a matter of fact. You are most fortunate, Billingham. The bullet creased his rib and exited the side."

Mr. Billingham wiped his forehead and sat down. "Oh, thank my lucky stars. Good luck is once again mine. Then, you will unlock this cell door and release me."

Austin snickered at the man's audacity.

"Not so fast, Billingham," Mosby replied. "I will not tolerate, under any circumstances, anyone coming into my town and shooting someone. Are we understood, sir?"

The thin, older man didn't comment.

"You will remain here, in this cell, until your friends return. Then, I will expect all four of you to leave and never return."

"What about our poker game, Mosby?"

Clay sneered. "Do you propose to insult me further, Mr. Billingham? Your display of stupidity was quite amateurish, to say the very least. I am well aware that you are quite knowledgeable in poker. You intended to set me up and wait for that perfect opportunity, didn't you?"

"No! That's a lie!"

"Is it?" Clay calmly remarked. He walked to the door. "Sheriff Peale? If he so much as opens his Yankee mouth . . . kill him."

Austin nodded, smiling, as Clay left the jail. Foster Billingham slunk down on his cot looking pale.

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

A small crowd of concerned citizens, mostly women, had gathered outside the Ambrosia Club awaiting news of Robert Shelby's condition. When Dr. Cleese finally emerged from the saloon, where Robert had been carried upstairs to his room, the first person he noticed was his wife, Victoria, holding their seven month old son, Daniel, in her arms.

"How is Mr. Shelby, Ephraim?" Victoria inquired.

"He is a remarkably strong man, Victoria," Ephraim replied. "He was quite fortunate that the bullet hit one of his ribs and was redirected, exiting his side where there was fatty tissue as opposed to a major artery.

Clay Mosby, returning from the jail, paused with the others. "Your skills are appreciated, Doctor," Clay commented.

Ephraim nodded. "When I removed Mr. Shelby's shirt, I noticed another bullet wound that had been sewn up at one time or another. Although it was obviously performed by a layman, it proved sufficient."

Clay nodded, remembering the occasion when Robert had taken a bullet during a bungled stage robbery that netted some pocket watches.

"Can I see him, huh, can I?" Dewey asked. "Can I poke my finger through his hole?"

"You march yourself up to your room," Mattie snapped. "He could have been killed, Dewey."

"Aw, shucks, Mama. I didn't mean nothing by it." Dewey turned and shoved his hands into the pockets of his pants and lowered his head and shoulders as he headed for the gunsmith shop. He kicked a small rock then followed the zig-zag pattern as he continued kicking the rock toward the gunsmith shop, his mind now consumed with his rock.

"Is there anything I can do, Clay?" Amanda Carpenter asked.

"No," Clay replied, "thank you, Amanda. Perhaps some food later."

"Well," Ephraim interrupted, "it's getting late. I would prefer to go home with my wife and son. Mr. Shelby should be stable and safe from any danger. However, if he develops a fever during the night, do not hesitate to notify me." He looked at Paige Mackinaw. "I apologize for not being able to see you in regards to your pregnancy, Paige. Perhaps tomorrow?"

"That's all right, Ephraim," Paige said. "I feel fine. Boone's with me."

Boone sat on the bottom step of the Ambrosia, idly whittling a piece of wood.

"If you will all excuse me," Clay replied, "I would like to see how Robert is faring."

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

Rising at daybreak the next morning, the Frederic Remington party began to ascend Baldy Mountain, spotting white tail deer and elk. Unexpected trouble was cast upon the group when J.B. Larimer slipped while dismounting and severely twisted his ankle. Although not broken, the badly sprained ankle rendered the stout easterner incapable of placing any pressure on his foot. It required the combined strength of Call and Mason just to lift the two hundred and sixty pound man onto his horse.

When moderate snow began to fall at a steady pace, the group of easterners had had enough. Imploring their guides to find suitable refuse, they camped in the mouth of a huge cave entrance, protected by a solid protruding overhang of rock that supported two fairly large pines. The daring adventure had reached its climax -- Larimer unable to walk and Windsor complaining of a stomach ailment, though young Remington spent the day painting colorful and picturesque sceneries of Montana. He was blessed with good fortune in spotting a beaver dam, though no beaver was ever seen -- being cunning and cautious of any sign of outside intrusion. Numerous cottonwoods were seen in construction of the dam and chips that had been bitten out in the gnawing of the trees covered the ground. Ignoring his disgruntled companions, Frederic Remington delighted in his opportunity.

"We've had our fill," Martin Windsor complained. "We wish to return to civilization as soon as possible -- preferably sooner, if at all possible. We intend to compensate both of you with the guaranteed full week of your salaries. Can we count on you bringing us back tomorrow morning?"

"We'll ride at first light, amigo," Mason informed them.

Once a decent fire had been built to help warm the three easterners, Mason joined his nephew, who had separated himself from the confinement of the others, having no desire to listen to their idle chatter. "You sure don't have a hankering for fame, do you, Newt?"

"If you mean I ain't likely to pose for one of that fella's paintings, then I reckon so."

"Hell, boy," Mason said, sitting next to his nephew, "that Remington is good. He's going to be famous one day, I'd venture to say. Ambitious fella, too. Said he plans to head to Kansas soon and try his hand at sheep ranching."

Call shrugged. "It'll suit me to just get back on home with Gretchen and the baby."

"I guess it would," Mason agreed, laughing. "It's been a fine few days, Newt -- being out here together."

Call smiled and nodded. "You're always welcome at our place, Mason -- I expect you know that."

"I know it, boy. And, it suits me all the way down to my boots." Mason pulled out a small pouch of tobacco and sprinkled some into a paper then rolled a cigarette. "It just beats the tar out of me that those two heavy fellas that are ailing both said this was the best time they ever had."

Call wrinkled his face, gazing at the shivering easterners. "They said that?"

"Yessiree," Mason replied. "The thrill of a lifetime, according to both of them."

"For them, maybe," Call commented. "This wasn't exactly like stealing, was it, Uncle?"

"No. No, it wasn't. That big ox over there nearly busted my back each time we had to lift him onto his mount."

"I sort of feel sorry for the poor horse," Call said.

Mason winked.

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

Two nights later, Curtis Wells was back to normal. The Frederic Remington party was content to return home to the civilized East, having boasted an exceedingly remarkable and highly entertaining hunting trip. Young Frederic Remington remained in Montana, where he had been for over a year.

Late winter's chill wind cut right through flesh and bone with anyone willing to brave the frigid evening. Tucking his chin and tightening his leather duster against his chest, Clay Mosby crossed the street, entering the Dove. He pulled the stairs of the quiet hotel and knocked lightly on Amanda's door.

"Well . . . I'm glad you decided to accept my offer, Clay." Amanda closed the door and poured two whiskeys. "We both made out from those four easterners. It was easy money. And, you won close to a thousand dollars from one of them."

"Yes," Clay admitted, "a paltry sum. I had expected to come away with substantially more. Although, Robert could very well have died on account of one of them."

"Well, let's just be thankful he didn't die, Clay. We have more . . . urgent matters to discuss." Amanda seductively loosened her robe, letting it fall off her shoulders, to the floor. Clay placed his empty glass on the dresser and removed his clothing.

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

Rebecca Maggie Call had been so happy to see her father she threw up in his arms, forcing him to wash up twice in the same day, which Gretchen found extremely funny. The family of three had retired early to the bedroom, allowing tiny Becky to lay in between her parents. The tiny infant, content, was soon in her own world, talking to her fingers in strange sounds.

"I swear, Gretchen," Call said, "I ain't ever seen nothing like Becky." He stared at their six month old daughter, mesmerized by the miracle of life. "Seems to me the baby favors you even more than she did a week ago, when me and Mason rode out of here."

Gretchen smiled warmly, as only a proud and loving young mother can do. "Our little Becky Bug's eyes are blue, Sweetheart -- just like yours. She missed you, Call. I missed you." Gretchen reached out to squeeze her husband's hand. "I'm so proud of you, Call. You don't even have a single cut on your face." She kissed him, biting his lower lip and tugging on his hair.

"We got us seventy dollars, Coyote Girl. I reckon we can use a little of it to buy something for Becky and maybe something for you."

"Seventy dollars is an awful lot of money, Call," Gretchen replied.

"Yep," he agreed. "It likely would of taken me two or three months to earn that much for us."

"We can spend some time together now," Gretchen said. "And, that's better than anything else in the whole world, I believe." She leaned over, taking hold of a folded piece of paper. "Look, Call. Mason wanted you to have this."

Call took the paper and stared at it. It was a pencil sketch of two men sitting, one rolling a cigarette, the other with long, shabby hair. He squinted. "That's me and Mason."

Gretchen smiled. "I love it, Call. Mason said Mr. Remington wanted you to have something special. See? He even signed it. Do you like it, Sweetheart?"

Call smiled. "Yep. I reckon I do."

"I'm so happy you're back home where you belong, Call."

Call nodded, smiling. Being with Gretchen and Becky was better than anything else. He looked at the baby. Becky had fallen asleep with one arm on each parent.

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

"I am most happy you are here, Senor Mason. Will you stay all night?"

Mason looked into Rosa's brown eyes, her dark hair falling on his face as she lay on top of him. "I'll wager I might even stay in here until the snow melts." He winked at her. "Does Twyla have any food?"

"Si," Rosa replied. "Do you want to eat now?"

"What? And freeze while you're downstairs. No, ma'am. You stay put right where you are, Senorita."

Rosa glanced at the chipped nightstand next to her bed. Near the bottle of whiskey sat a twenty dollar double eagle. This would be better than stealing for her. She cared for Mason and would give herself to him without charging the usual two dollars.

Mason Dobbs was content. He didn't like the cold weather. Having rode both sides of the fence, he was satisfied the money he earned guiding the Remington party was a sight better than stealing. Tolerating the constant nagging and bellyaching from the two older men was a lot healthier than running from angry posses and ducking flying lead. He even got to spend a week with his nephew, Newt. "Just keep me warm, Senorita -- you'll earn that twenty dollars, I'll wager."

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

Feed the author here!


AMBROSIA FANFIC CLUB:
[Homepage] [Reading Room] [Art Gallery]