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.


Don't Cross The River (The Texas-Virginia Conflict), Part 1
(54th in the Romancing the Plains series)
by Craig Caff

Don't cross the river if you can't swim the tide.
("Don't Cross The River" - America)

CHAPTER 1

It was the way of the Sioux. It had proved successful several occasions before, it was succeeding once again. During an unguarded moment between darkness and dawn, Colonel William Pollack of the 5th Cavalry awakened to the sharp crack of a carbine. The first flush of daylight revealed a dozen mounted warriors stampeding the remuda. Fort Davis was momentarily in a panic -- soldiers scrambling for their rifles, stumbling into the frigid morning shoeless, most clad only in longjohns.

"Pawnee-Killer!" yelled the Colonel, recognizing the chief of a one-time Oglala band. In less time required to blink, Colonel Pollack's mind flashed a similar memory sixteen years earlier, when he had been an ambitious, young trooper in Colonel Custer's 350-man squadron of the famed 7th Cavalry, at Fort McPherson, on the South Platte River, Nebraska. On that June 1867 morning, bivouacked on North Fork of the Republican, just as he witnessed now, Pawnee-Killer and his renegade Sioux warriors were stampeding Cavalry horses.

The unexpected attack, coupled with the freezing temperatures and snows of mid February, allowed the band of Sioux to escape before the soldiers could adequately dress and mount their own attempt to track the raiders. Colonel Pollack was unprepared for an attack from Pawnee-Killer. The band of Sioux warriors had quietly disappeared among those hostiles taking up residence within the dreary confines of the Red Cloud Agency.

Within days, Colonel Pollack had dispatched riders across the Montana Territory, posting notices in every town, at every stage stop, at some of the bigger ranches. The notice, which made its way to Curtis Wells, displayed at the livery and hotel, read:

PROCLAMATION
of the
United states army

-------------------------------

the cavalry needs horses
to combat Indian depredations
up to $30 per horse ~~ need 150 horses
inquire - fort davis, col. pollack

Colonel Wm. J. Pollack, Commanding Officer, 5th Cavalry

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

"Excuse me, Mr. Mosby, sir?"

"What it is, Ike?" Clay Mosby sighed impatiently, looking up from his table of solitude.

"Uh, well, Miss Carpenter, she told me to come get you," Ike nervously replied. "That Army proclamation that was posted three weeks ago . . ."

Clay frowned. "Get on with it, Ike."

"Yes sir, Mr. Mosby. Those men you been waiting for are here. They're at the hotel. They just got into town."

Clay's expression changed. "Excellent," he said, standing. "You may inform Miss Carpenter that I am on my way."

Ike nodded, quickly heading out to deliver the message. Clay placed his hat atop his head then strode outside toward the Lonesome Dove Hotel. Three men stood in front of the hotel, each unique in his own way. One dressed all in black -- shirt, pants, and hat. The second was large and heavyset, wearing a huge hat. The third, wore his gun on his left hip and had a small green jacket that ended at the waist.

"Ah, you must be Clay Mosby," said the dark haired man in black.

"And, you must be the Cartwright's," Clay replied.

"Adam Cartwright," the man in black offered. "My brothers, Hoss, and Little Joe."

"The horses?" Clay inquired.

"They're on the way," Adam Cartwright replied. "We ran into some unexpected bad weather in the Territory of Idaho."

"Yessir," Hoss, the large brother added. "That gull dern avalanche lost us nearly five whole days." He hesitated, blinking his eyes. "Hey, fellows. Take a look over there at that little gal. She's wearing pants."

"Yes," Clay said. "That is Miss Shaw. Our gunsmith."

"Gunsmith?!" the third man, Little Joe, said.

"She is quite handy with a gun," Clay remarked.

Adam Cartwright folded his arms and grinned. "Well, this town is just full of surprises. Even the streets are somewhat unusual."

"You men must be thirsty from your ride," Clay replied. "I'd like to invite you to join me across the street in my saloon. Perhaps we can continue our discussion over a bottle of brandy?"

"A superb suggestion, Mr. Mosby," Adam Cartwright agreed.

"If it's all the same to you," Hoss commented, "I'd just as soon have a beer or two."

Little Joe raised his hand. "The same for me -- I'll have two beers."

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

"They don't do nothing. They can't fetch nothing and they both of 'em look sort of sorrowful like they's both got bellyaches."

"They're just little babies, Dewey," Paige Mackinaw explained. "They aren't supposed to do anything just yet. It won't be long before Daniel and Becky are both walking and talking."

Dewey sniffed the air, frowning. He pointed to Daniel Cleese. "That one there smells like an outhouse. He stinks almost untolerable."

"I don't think untolerable is a word, Dewey?" Paige quietly remarked. "I think it's intolerable?"

"Well, that too," Dewey nodded. "That smell is making me want to puke."

"Paige! Will you change Daniel?" Victoria Cleese asked. "Since our young friend has such sharp senses, we'd better not offend him."

"Yes, Victoria," Paige replied. "My two older sisters are getting ready to do our spring inventory, so I have to watch my nephew and niece, Dewey. I'm going to have my own baby soon."

"Uh, I'm feeling a mite hungry, Mrs. Mackinaw. Can I have one of them apples? I'm real advanced at begging for food or other necessities."

Paige, already cleaning Daniel, looked up. "I don't think you better let your mama hear you say that, Dewey. You're welcome to take an apple, though. Would you like to hold one of the babies?"

"No, ma'am," Dewey said, biting into a dark red apple. "I wouldn't know what to say to them."

Paige hooked her finger, signaling the young orphan boy to bend down. "We're paying you twenty-five cents to help clean the shelves," she whispered. "You better go back there now, Dewey."

Nodding, Dewey shoved the half-eaten apple into his pants pocket, and headed down the aisle to earn his pay. Gretchen Call smiled at him as she passed by, on her way to run across the street to the Dove on an errand.

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

The three brothers from Nevada sat at the back table with Mosby. The group eventually grew from four to seven -- Robert Shelby, still healing from his recent gunshot wound, had been first, followed by Josiah Peale and his son, Sheriff Austin Peale. Mosby and the Cartwright's discussed the partnership they had formed which would bring needed horses to Montana, and thousands of dollars to both sides. Josiah enjoyed listening to Adam Cartwright speak. He was an educated man, similar to Clay Mosby, almost uncanny in their similarity of mannerisms and attitudes.

"Of course," Adam agreed, "a man with knowledge always has an advantage over his lesser, more physical counterpart, Mr. Mosby."

"My sentiments, exactly, Mr. Cartwright," Clay confessed. "Mr. Shelby and myself will represent the 14th Virginia Cavalry in this opportunity that now presents itself."

Adam raised his glass. "Well, the best horsemen in that war were the Southern riders."

"You are too kind. However, our enterprise will not go unchallenged, Mr. Cartwright," Clay warned. "There are a group of Texans in the territory -- experienced men that have driven horses and cattle thousands of miles."

"I see," Adam replied. "Well, I'll stake our group on any wild, uncouth Texans, any day."

"Perhaps you've heard of Captain Woodrow Call?" Clay inquired.

"Ah, Captain Woodrow F. Call," Adam smiled. "Deeds of the famed Texas Rangers have reached our ears near the Pacific. He's an old man, now, isn't he?"

"Yes," Clay replied. "And, he can die, if he gets in our way."

"Oh, come now, Mr. Mosby," Adam said, "surely our intellect can outwit these barbaric Texans, without resorting to bloodshed?"

"Come on, big brother," Joe Cartwright said to Hoss, slapping him on his stout back. "Let's drink at the bar while Adam takes care of the business."

Hoss nodded. "Sure thing, little brother."

Austin Peale relocated to the bar with the two younger Cartwright's.

"Hey, Sheriff?" Joe asked. "How's the girls up here in Montana?"

Austin gazed at the youngest Cartwright. "Well, like most of us, everyone comes from somewhere else. The territory is still young -- there aren't a lot of folks that were born here. But, I'd say the girls are the same anywhere."

Joe turned to Hoss. "Hey, Hoss? How much you want to bet that I can ask the first girl I see to supper and she'll accept? Huh, how much? Come on."

Hoss shrugged. "I don't know, Joe. I'd probably lose."

Joe Cartwright laughed.

Austin cast a quick glance outside. "How about that one coming out of the hotel?"

Joe spun around, staring. "You mean her? The one in that green and white dress?"

"I'll put up five dollars she won't have supper with you," Austin said.

"You're on," Joe replied. "Come on. I'm going to make an easy five dollars, big brother." They headed outside -- Clay Mosby, Adam Cartwright, and Robert followed.

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

"Thank you, Mrs. Call. I've been waiting for this," Amanda said. She stood with Gretchen in front of the Lonesome Dove Hotel looking at the new silver handled clothes brush.

Gretchen smiled and stepped out into the dirt street. "I have to get back and help my sisters, Miss Carpenter."

"Go on little brother," Hoss Cartwright said, elbowing Joe. "Five dollars is riding on you."

Joe Cartwright hurried toward Gretchen. "Miss! Miss! Hey, wait up!"

Gretchen turned, confused. She frowned then continued walking across the street, ignoring the man.

"Didn't you hear me?" Joe said, stepping in front of Gretchen. "I just wanted to talk. Me and my brothers just got here and . . . look, why don't you and me have supper together?"

"I'm having supper with my husband. Good day."

Joe reached out, grabbing Gretchen's arm. "Hey? You don't have to go running off so fast. I didn't know you were married."

"Take your hand off me!" Gretchen demanded, pulling abruptly away, just as Call and Boone Mackinaw came around the side of the hotel.

Call's eyes widened -- his nostrils flared. "Bastard!" he yelled, charging the man in the small green jacket. Gretchen quickly stepped out of the way as Call threw his fist into Joe Cartwright's face, hitting him in the eye and cheek bone. Joe fell -- Call jumping on top of him. "What the hell are you trying to do to my wife? You sonofabitch!"

Joe Cartwright was taking a beating, slightly drunk and slow in his reactions.

Adam Cartwright turned to Hoss and sarcastically said, "it seems the family honor is at stake."

"That little fella sure packs a wallop," Hoss replied.

"Damn it, Call!" Clay Mosby snapped.

Boone Mackinaw stood close by, ready to jump in if needed. The dispute in the street brought several town folks outside to view what was happening. Victoria and Paige hastened outside, then went to Gretchen, who stood near their dry goods. Amanda stared, angered, from the front of the Dove -- street fights were bad for business -- bad for Clay Mosby's plan for a civilized and thriving town.

Joe Cartwright landed three or four punches, as the scrappy pair wrestled on the cold ground -- Call's fists making contact more than a dozen times, put Joe flat on his back, unconscious.

"That's enough of that, little fella," Hoss Cartwright said, yanking Call off the ground with hardly an effort. Boone approached Hoss -- Call swung wildly at the giant man. "Dad gum it. The fight's over. You won, little fella. Now, I'm putting you back down. Don't go hitting me."

Call breathed in short, rapid breathes. Boone stood next to him.

"My little brother didn't know that gal was married," Hoss confessed. "Seems he took a bet with your sheriff, over there."

Call glanced at Austin, who had sidled next to Mosby, Shelby, and a man dressed in black.

"Don't do nothing now, Call," Boone quietly said. "His time's coming."

Call turned to Gretchen. "Did he hurt you, Coyote Girl?"

"No, Call. He just grabbed my arm," she replied.

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

"Austin Peale! That was a cruel thing to do!"

Austin laughed. "A bet's a bet, Mattie. That's all it was -- nothing more. Don't go getting yourself upset about it."

Clay Mosby was angry. "I'm inclined to agree with Mattie, Sheriff Peale. I am trying to do business. As my sheriff, you would do well to remember that should a similar occasion arise."

Hoss Cartwright helped Little Joe to his feet. He handed Austin five dollars. "That was a low down, sneaky move on your part, Sheriff Peale. I don't like it. No sir. I don't like it at all. Me and Little Joe never figured on you picking a married gal."

Austin shrugged. "You didn't say nothing about the girl being spoken for." He collected his winnings then quickly headed down the street toward the sheriff's office.

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

Boone and Call followed the three Brandt sisters into the dry goods store, where Dewey had been left to watch the babies. Victoria suddenly let out a scream, staring at her infant son, Daniel, and her infant niece, Becky. The two babies were covered with flour, having gotten into an open sack on the floor.

"Dewey?!" Victoria Cleese cried. "What were you doing? You were supposed to keep an eye on the babies. You said you were responsible. Look at these two babies!"

"Aw, I'm sorry, Mrs. Cleese." He turned away and shuffled his feet. "I'd rather not tell."

"You'll tell me, Dewey," Victoria ordered, "or so help me, I'll take you in the back room and tan your hide, just like your mama does. Now, out with it."

Dewey's face soured. He looked at Call and Boone for support but they just shrugged. "Well, that was a fine whooping you gave that man, Mr. Call."

"Dewey!" Victoria scolded.

"I don't see any harm done," Boone offered.

Paige placed her hands on her hips. "You should be taking our side, Mr. Rabbit Two Knives. That could be our son or daughter in another five months."

"We're waiting, Dewey!" Victoria said.

"I was watching the babies but they never much do anything exciting and when Mr. Call hit that other fella, I plum forgot about these here babies. I was eyeballing the fight and lickety-split the babies were in the flour. I feel downright rotten about it, Mrs. Cleese."

Gretchen and Paige hurried to pick up the whitened infants, covered in flour from head to foot. "I don't think they ate any of it, Victoria," Gretchen said. "They were just playing in it."

Ephraim entered the dry goods, having viewed the altercation from an upstairs window in his office. "My goodness!" he exclaimed. "What happened to Daniel and Rebecca?"

"It was a simple mistake, Ephraim," Paige mentioned. "They just need to be cleaned up."

Dr. Cleese gazed at Dewey. "Are you responsible for this preventable occurrence?"

Dewey shuffled, his face reddening. "I gotta go," he spit out, squeezing past the town doctor. He ran across the street, heading for the empty field, something he was used to doing on a regular basis -- a place of refuge and safety.

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

Sensing the need to back away from the sisters and the flour-covered babies, Call and Boone headed toward the No.10. In tent town they were hailed by Dewey.

"Mr. Call. Are you fixing on telling my mama about what I done?"

Call stopped, turning to the boy. "First off, I reckon we best get an understanding between us. There ain't no cause for you to be calling me Mr. My name's Call. I expect that's enough."

Dewey sighed, then smiled. "Thanks, Call."

"And, there ain't hardly no cause to go off saying nothing to Mattie. I figure it's a sight tough for me, too, learning about how to tend to my own daughter."

Boone nodded in agreement. "I'll be up that creek soon enough, myself." He laughed with Call.

"Mama tells me I'm like a lost sheep," Dewey confessed. "She tries powerful hard to change me -- I feel all cramped up and start sweating like it's summer and I'm wearing a big ol' furry buffalo coat. She's been telling me a whole lot lately that folks in town are complaining about me. Some of the things I done are mean practices, she says. But, I been missing my real mama. I wouldn't dare tell my new mama, not for all the jaw breakers in Mr. Creel's store. I don't want to make trouble cause it only adds up to no good far as I can determine."

Call put his hand on Dewey's bony shoulder. "My mama died when I was littler than you. I miss her, too. Seems to me all we can do is just go on. It ain't tolerable to think too much on what happened -- it's done with. Ain't nothing you can do to change it." He glanced around at folks walking the streets. "Folks are always going to wag their tongues -- you just try and listen to your mama."

Dewey grinned with his crooked teeth. "Thanks, Call."

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

CHAPTER 2

"What are you doing, Pea? There ain't no mustangs up there in the sky."

Pea Eye Parker turned his head. "Well, yessir, I know that, Cap'n. I was looking up there at the sun. It doesn't feel warm like other days."

Woodrow Call rode his horse over to Pea. "It's winter, Pea -- it ain't quite spring yet."

"It's coming though, ain't it, Cap'n," Pea replied. "It smells like spring."

"I suppose," Woodrow grunted. Discussing the seasons was a waste of time and effort, as far as he was concerned. "Get back to rounding up these mustangs, Pea. We got a whole mess of wild horses to herd down to Hat Creek."

"Cap'n?" Pea said. "Since that notice come out a few weeks back, we been up here across the Milk River three times now. How many of these mustangs do you reckon we need?"

"All we can get, Pea."

"Sometimes I still expect to hear Gus talking, Cap'n. My ears start feeling empty." Pea looked off into the distance. "I reckon I miss ol' Gus and Deets."

"There ain't no time for that, now, Pea. We got to run these mustangs down to Hat Creek and still break them."

"Newt's coming up to Hat Creek with Mason Dobbs, ain't he, Cap'n?"

"He said he was. Dish sent him a telegram," Captain Call remarked. He turned and rode off toward a nearby dry wash where Isom Picket attempted to rope one of the free mustangs. This was more conversing than he could remember doing in months.

Pea Eye gazed up at the cold sun. He still tended to miss the warmth of the Texas sun, especially during the frigid Montana winters. Roundups of mustangs were always done during the spring or summer, not winter. It had been the proclamation from Fort Davis that caused Woodrow Call to ride north, crossing near the confluence of the Missouri with the Milk, in search of the free-roaming, wild horses that were in an abundance.

Pulling the worn, leather gloves off his hands, Pea Eye opened and closed his fingers, squeezing them tight. There were small cuts, several marks where the dry, cold air had split the skin, causing mild pain and bleeding on every finger. It felt as if sharp needles were piercing the flesh each time he moved his hands. Most of the men experienced it during the long, dark months of winter -- young and old, alike. Pea cupped his hands and blew warm air into them -- it was little comfort. A small group of birds flew noiselessly across the sky. Patches of yellow grass poked through the white, snowy plains, sending a chill down Pea's back. "Well," he muttered, "Cap'n says we gotta work." He pulled the tattered gloves over his shredded hands and rode off to rope another mustang.

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

"Tell me, Mr. Mosby," Adam Cartwright asked, "how do you propose to turn Curtis Wells into a busy town?" The pair of educated gentlemen stood in front of the Theatre of the West, the town's seldom used Opera House -- an establishment that had been relocated from Sweet Water, after the destructive blaze had burned the entire town's dwellings.

"It has been my quest," Clay began, "to entice the railroad -- either the Central or Northern Pacific, to lay track through our town. Unfortunately, they do not possess the vision that I have, Mr. Cartwright."

"Yes," Adam agreed. "If the railroad were to pass through your fair town, it could bring new businesses as well as schools, libraries, churches." He gazed at the Opera House. "And, how often do you have the privilege of entertaining?"

Clay frowned. "The class of people in this town are not clamoring for sophisticated art."

"Ahh, but if you were to retain the services of a distinguished actor," Adam suggested, "perhaps these peasants would learn to appreciate true art."

"I was brought up as a young man in Virginia to appreciate true art, Mr. Cartwright. However, I will not be thwarted by the likes of this common rabble in which I have immersed myself. I intend to fully arise victorious."

Adam Cartwright offered a small, polite applause. "Bravo, Mr. Mosby. I see you and I are cut from the same cloth."

"As do I, Mr. Cartwright," Clay agreed. "Perhaps this is merely the commencement of a new and lucrative partnership? One, in which we both profit."

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

"There he is, little brother," Hoss Cartwright said, pointing to a corner table where Call sat with Mason Dobbs. "That skinny fella with the overalls said he was in this here tent saloon. Now, go on, Joe. Tell him."

Joe Cartwright groaned, frowned, then shrugged and walked over to Call. Call stared up at the two Cartwright's, glaring at them.

"Now, just a doggone minute there, little fella," Hoss said. "My brother's got something he wants to say. Go on, Joe."

Mason instantly noted the hands of two strangers. Satisfied they didn't seem intent on gunplay, he moved his own hands away from the handles of his two pistols, though not far.

"I just wanted to apologize for what happened," Joe said.

"Yes sir," Hoss added. "My little brother would never try to get familiar with another man's wife. We had us a bet with Sheriff Peale -- he's the one pointed to your wife. We didn't know, neither of us, he would pick out a gal that was hitched."

Call stared at both men then nodded. "I reckon any man can make a mistake."

"Now, these boys seem decent enough, Newt," Mason said. "Sit down, amigo," he told Hoss. "You boys working for Mosby?"

"We're working with Mosby, not for him," Joe answered. "We're driving horses from Nevada to some Army fort."

"Yessir, that's right," Hoss acknowledged. "That Mr. Mosby told us you fellows are from Texas and there's some other Texans gathering horses to drive them to the same place."

"We've been on the trail for almost three weeks," Joe Cartwright revealed. "We got half the hands from our ranch out with us. They should be crossing into Montana any day now."

"Long as you boys don't mind a little competition," Call said. He stood up. "You coming, Uncle?"

Mason stood up. He dropped a coin on the whiskey-stained table. "Have a drink on me, amigos." He winked at the Cartwright's then followed Call.

"Now, that's what I call real fine fellers," Hoss muttered.

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

Stepping out of the telegraph office, Paige Mackinaw couldn't help smiling. Hiking her yellow calico dress a few inches, she hurried toward the dry goods to share the news with her sisters.

"Miss Paige!"

"Hello, Unbob. Hello, Dewey," she intoned.

"Is that good news in that letter?" Unbob asked. "You sure look happy."

"Oh, yes! The best. Our cousin Jenny is coming out to visit us from Missouri. She's a little younger than me." Paige smiled at Dewey. "And, her little brother is coming with her -- my little cousin." She shook her head. "I bet the two of you get along very well, Dewey."

Dewey's face lit up. "A friend? What's his name?"

"His name is Caleb Letts," Paige announced.

Unbob scratched his head. "Well, if they're your kin, how come they ain't named Brandt?"

"They're my mama's brother's children. My mama's name was Letts before she married Papa."

Unbob looked at Dewey, confused. Dewey shrugged his small shoulders. Paige giggled.

"I can't wait to tell Victoria and Gretchen," Paige said, waving goodbye to the pair.

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

The logs in the fireplace were burning -- warming the big room. Gretchen lay back, reclining against Call, slowly rocking their infant daughter. "Becky fell asleep in my arms, Call. She loves being with us so much."

Call smiled, inhaling the light fragrance of his wife's soft hair. He kissed the top of her head and squeezed her tenderly.

"Do you know that when you and Mason were out two weeks ago guiding those men from the East that I played the music box you gave me for our wedding so Becky could listen to it? She was so cute, Call -- shaking her little arms to the music."

"She sure is something special. I reckon by the time we get back from Hat Creek, driving them mustangs to Fort Davis, your cousin should be due," Call said. He kissed Gretchen on her neck, causing her to moan softly.

"You'll like them both, Call. Jenny's almost the same age as Paige. Caleb is . . . um, I think he's probably as old as Dewey. Those two will likely find trouble to get into."

"Two Dewey's," Call said, shaking his head. "I ain't hardly sure the town can handle that."

Gretchen laughed. The warmth from the fire felt good on her face. "Call? Do you remember the first night we slept up in the livery in town? When I almost tripped and fell out of the open doors?"

"I ain't likely to ever forget it, I reckon. You scared me something fierce, Gretchen."

"The Good Lord has blessed us, Call. We've had so many dangerous occasions. But, we've been husband and wife for nearly a year and a half and we have the most precious and beautiful baby girl."

"I'm of a mind to agree with you, Coyote Girl."

"Remember when you and Red Crow first called me that? The first time Paige and I were at the Lakota village. I could have taken off my shoe and smacked you over the head."

They both laughed -- it was a happy laugh. Call knew he dearly loved Gretchen and Becky. Come morning, along with Mason Dobbs, he would bring his wife and daughter out to Hat Creek. Life was too unpredictable -- he preferred having his family together, if possible.

"Here, Call. Take Becky. Don't wake her. I'll go pull down our bed."

Call eagerly accepted the sleeping infant. "It ain't against the law to not make the bed once in a while, Gretchen."

"Get used to it, Call," Gretchen replied, smiling. "I like our bed being neat."

Call looked at Becky. "I guess you'll be just like your mama, won't you, Becky?"

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

Amanda Carpenter's firm breasts heaved -- she gasped for air. "Clay! I think you ripped my insides," she finally managed to say.

Clay Mosby raised his hips, then rolled off of Amanda, lying in bed next to her. "You're quite the vixen, Amanda. I seem to become . . . more inspired during our moments of passion."

"I told you that whatever Florie did, I could do better," she commented, getting her breath back. "Are you sure you have to ride off with these men from Nevada when those horses get near?"

"If I were willing to reconsider earlier," Clay breathed, his body still throbbing, "now that Call and his uncle are involved, it is most assuredly out of the question, Amanda."

"You don't seem like you're concerned too much, Clay." Amanda leaned over, pressing her warm lips on his chest, sliding her tongue lightly over the dark, curly hairs.

It was difficult for Clay to concentrate on conversation. "I'm not," he groaned, as she continued to explore his body. "I . . . I . . . just want to . . . " he moaned -- the talking was over.

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

"Colonel Pollack, sir! This just came over the wire."

The belabored officer looked up from his desk, opening his hand to receive the message. He read it while the Sergeant stood at attention. "Damn! The Sioux have run off more horses. This time it's Fort Keough."

"Shall I notify the men to prepare to ride, Colonel?"

"Yes," the frustrated Colonel replied. "One report says there were twenty of Pawnee-Killer's braves -- another says it was more like thirty." He slammed his fist against his desk. "When in the hell are some fresh horses going to arrive? That infernal savage is wearing me out! We've chased him from sunrise till sundown and never gotten close enough to even take aim on those damn renegades." He glanced at the trooper. "Dismissed, Sergeant."

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

Employing the same attitude as his superior, Colonel Custer, during the Nebraska encounter with Pawnee-Killer, sixteen years earlier, "we'll track 'em to the ends of the earth," Colonel Pollack spent the next week chasing specters and dots on the distant horizons -- never able to draw the run-ragged 5th Cavalry within gunshot range of the marauding Sioux band.

During the morning of the seventh day pursuing the hostiles, the 5th was caught unawares by brisk gunfire and wild war whoops -- Pawnee-Killer's braves attack and run tactic causing temporary chaos among the troopers. Colonel Pollack screamed for the troop to mount and chase the savage renegades till every one was captured or dead -- preferably dead.

It was the opportunity four soured troopers had been impatiently awaiting. When the Sioux band split to ride off in two directions -- one group of about twelve to fifteen Sioux crossing the wide open snowy plains, the other ten to twelve disappearing in a thicket just beyond the first ridge, Colonel Pollack ordered a small detachment to pursue the second group. Corporal Rix immediately chose three men -- Privates Vaugant, Breger, and Smallwood, and rode off.

Once they reached the ridge, they drew rein, turning quickly to observe the rest of the troop. Colonel Pollack's men were riding hard across the barren plains, never once looking back.

"This is what we've been waiting for," the bearded Corporal said. "Anyone not sure, better spit it out now." No one spoke. "Good," the Corporal replied. "No more Army rations that only a dog would eat. No more tenting in this damn snow. They'll shoot us as deserters if they catch us. We'll cut across the plains, head west to a town. When they figure out we ain't dead they'll be knowing we deserted -- they'll think we rode north for Canada. Let's ride."

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

"I swear, Cap'n," Pea remarked, "ol' Newt and his Uncle sure have a way with those mustangs. Even Isom Pickett says so."

Captain Call chose not to answer -- he stared at Mason Dobbs, flash riding one of the more spirited horses they had brought from above the Milk River to Hat Creek.

"He sure used to be a troublesome sort -- when he was little," Pea said. "You think maybe he's changed for the better, Cap'n?"

"Not likely, Pea," Woodrow snapped. "A man don't usually change -- a bad seed most likely stays a bad seed."

"Aw, you gotta give that boy a chance, Cap'n," Isom Pickett commented, joining the ex-Rangers. "We're gonna be needing him if we expect to break all them mustangs and deliver them to the Army before that other outfit does."

Woodrow cast a glance at Isom. "Well, I'll say one thing. We got us an advantage. We've driven horses and cattle through the snow before."

******

"This baby of yours is just about the prettiest child I ever laid eyes on, Gretchen."

Gretchen smiled at Sarah Pickett -- both sitting in rocking chairs on the Pickett porch -- Sarah holding tiny Rebecca Maggie in her arms. "You're so kind to me, Mrs. Pickett. Becky took to you when you stayed with us after she was born and I needed a few days to recover from childbirth."

Sarah laughed. "When our men folk take those horses to the Army, we'll have us some time to knit for Becky."

"Thank you for the flowers you put in our cabin," Gretchen said. "They so make the room brighter. I doubt Call even noticed them."

"Ain't that the way men are? Always getting dirt on them and tracking it in the house. I don't mind, none," Sarah admitted. "Long as I got me a good broom."

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

News finally reached Clay Mosby and the Cartwright brothers -- the horses driven from Nevada had crossed into Montana Territory. Mosby and Robert Shelby, along with most of Mosby's hired men, joined the Cartwright's to ride southwest and meet the herd -- escorting them the rest of the journey to Fort Davis.

"Look at them, Clay," Robert Shelby said, staring at the Ponderosa stock. They had just met up with the Cartwright outfit on the lower Yellowstone, in the Bozeman Pass.

"I would just as soon finish this drive, Robert, and return to the warmth of my saloon, sitting comfortably next to the wood stove." Clay pulled his collar tighter around his neck and shivered.

"So would I, Clay. I despise this cold."

Riding up to the former Virginians, Adam Cartwright seemed confident they would easily arrive at Fort Davis ahead of the Texas boys from Hat Creek. He and Mosby agreed to push the herd until they found a suitable location to water the horses and it was near the end of the day.

By evening, the combined Mosby-Cartwright outfit had made camp, unaware that a fair sized band of painted Indians were converging on both flanks.

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

Half the men of Curtis Wells were away when the four Army deserters rode quietly into town. Coming from the east, they first noticed the lamp burning inside the sheriff's office and dismounted, tethering their worn out horses to the hitch post. They looked around the empty street then climbed the steps, entering the office.

Austin sat up in his chair. "Soldiers? What brings you men here? It's rather late."

The four deserters gazed at an older man and a woman wearing pants with a gun and holster.

"Are you boys lost?" Austin asked.

"Well now, that depends," Corporal Rix replied. "What town is this?"

"This is Curtis Wells," Josiah announced. "I'm Mayor Peale."

"Good," the Corporal answered. All four deserters drew their pistols, aiming them at Austin, Josiah, and Mattie. "The sheriff and the mayor. Where's your deputy, Sheriff?"

Austin stared defiantly at the Corporal. The Corporal stepped near Austin and slammed his gun across Austin's head, knocking him off the chair, onto the floor, dazed.

"Stop it!" Mattie hollered, dropping to her knees to examine Austin's bleeding head. "You didn't have to hit him."

"Please?" Josiah begged. "He's my son. I'll tell you what you want to know."

"Then answer my question, old man," the Corporal ordered.

"Yes. The deputy, Robert Shelby, is out of town. He's driving horses to Fort Davis. You're soldiers -- are you from there?"

"You better mind your tongue, old man. I'll ask the questions." The Corporal cocked his gun. "All three of you get inside those cells."

"He can barely stand!" Mattie snapped. "You nearly split his skull open."

Corporal Rix turned slightly. "Smallwood. Vaugant. Drag that big son of a bitch into one cell and take his gun. You! Woman in pants. And, old man. You two get comfortable in the other cell. Give me that gun of yours, lady. You might hurt yourself."

Mattie scowled at the soldier but unhooked her holster belt, dropping it on the floor. One of the soldiers grabbed Josiah's small revolver and shoved him into the cell with Mattie.

"What are you going to do?" Mattie asked.

"What are we going to do, Corporal?" Private Breger replied. The four deserters huddled together.

"Two of you scout the streets," the Corporal ordered. "I want a detailed report. We'll burn part of the town come morning before we ride out."

++++++++++ Continued in Next Installment ++++++++++

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