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 2
It ain't healthy to pack a gun bigger than you.
The chirping of quail, resonating from each side of the camp, appeared innocent enough to Mosby's men, as well as the ranch hands belonging to the Ponderosa. The waxing crescent moon, slowly sinking in the pitch black, star-filled sky, had provided little illumination upon the cold, barren plains. Hoss Cartwright shuffled uncomfortably near the chuck wagon that had journeyed from Nevada with the horses they were delivering to the Army. Robert Shelby, pouring a tin of black coffee observed his new partner. "You seem nervous, Mr. Cartwright," Robert noted.
"It's those dad blamed birds," Hoss confessed. "I ain't quite sure they're quail. I've had an occasion or two with some cagey Paiute Indians back home."
Robert squinted, staring out at the blackness of night. "I have never been one to rely on defensive tactics. I prefer to take the battle to the enemy on my terms."
"And, that is precisely what you and I will do, Robert," Clay Mosby said, joining the pair along with Adam Cartwright.
"Those sneaky devils are out there," Hoss agreed. "There's no doubt about it."
"Captain Shelby was quite accomplished at guerilla tactics during the war. My cousin, John Singleton Mosby, spent a lengthy training period instructing us in night warfare against an unseen enemy. Robert and I will infiltrate the north flank. Adam, discreetly pass the word to the men."
"Yes," Adam nodded, "we must be on our guard. And, what about the flank to our right?"
"I am inclined to believe our enemy is in greater number to our left," Clay replied. "The open plains beyond those trees are better suited if they were to steal our horses than crossing the river a half mile south."
Robert and Clay checked their pistols, then holstered them. They held their Winchesters and drew their knives, then silently disappeared to the north, into the shroud of darkness.
Mesmerized by the dancing flame on the wooden match end, Corporal Rix didn't respond when the door to the sheriff's office opened, assuming it to be one of the three Privates that had deserted with him. Only when the dying flame was blown out from behind his shoulder did he abruptly turn. "Damn you, Vaugant! Why can't you say something instead of being so sneaky?"
The Private, youngest and shortest of the four soldiers, laughed in a way that caused the Corporal's spine to tingle. "If I was one of these town folks I could have taken you, Corporal."
"Except for these three we got locked up, no one in town knows we deserted, Vaugant. Just report what you found," the Corporal barked.
Private Vaugant motioned for the Corporal to follow him outside. "It seems that all the able-bodied men are out of town -- at least most of them are," the Private said. "Me and the men were talking. Tomorrow's Sunday, right? Not much is going to be open for business. There's a whorehouse. One of us can keep an eye on the telegraph office so no one tries to send a wire." His eyes widened. "There's got to be some decent women in this town. We can have the run of this place -- take what we want, do whatever we feel like doing to whoever."
Corporal Rix was silent.
"All right, Vaugant," the Corporal agreed. "But, listen to me and listen real good. We don't touch any woman, only whores. Right now we're deserters from the Army. You touch one of these town women and they'll come after us and hang us as sure as I'm standing here. Do anything you want to the whores. No lawman is going to waste his time chasing a man who rapes or beats a whore."
The Private nodded. "Sure, Corporal. Whores are just fine with me and the men."
Corporal Rix stared out into the dark street. "Where's Breger and Smallwood?"
"Still snooping around. I'll fetch them back. We can figure a plan."
When word quietly spread that Mosby and Shelby had crept off to scout the unknown strength of the hostiles, they were hailed by both Mosby's men and the Ponderosa hands as either the biggest fools ever to trod the vast plains or the bravest men ever. The three Cartwright brothers had quickly organized the men -- each man standing ready to unload their Winchester repeaters at the initial outbreak of an engagement.
Clay and Robert moved swiftly. They move silently. Crossing the sinister plains, stepping ankle deep through the cold waters of a wide creek bed, ever aware that every shadow, every boulder could hide one of the red enemies that was most likely thirsting for their blood. Once they emerged on the far side of the creek, among a thicket of bushes, Clay reached out, lightly touching Robert's shoulder. Robert instantly looked at Clay.
"Forgive me, Robert. I seem to be overcome with a flair for the morbid. Considering it is possible neither of us will live to view the next sunrise, a strange thought has entered my mind."
Robert Shelby hesitated, giving ear to his most trusted friend.
"As I have just said," Clay snickered, "allow me my moment for the macabre, Robert." Clay sighed, laughing quietly as he gazed about him. "If you knew you were to meet your death, would you have preferred it be the Yankees during the war or possibly one of these uncivilized savages?"
Robert appeared momentarily confused. "Now, Clay? You ask me this, now?"
"Indulge me, Captain Shelby."
Robert grumbled. "I despise the Yankees that destroyed our lives, Clay." He paused, thinking about the Indians. "I doubt these savage Indians would be civil enough to just kill us. They're barbarians. They torture and mutilate. If we had the opportunity, I would select the infernal Yankees to end my life."
Clay nodded. "As would I, Robert. Therefore, let us be the ones to strike first."
Robert squinted, then smiled. "You sly devil, you, Clay. You always have had a silver tongue and the gift of inspiring your men." Robert realized that Clay had subtly caused him to be more alert, more apt to fight like an unleashed tiger once they were in the frenzy of battle.
Solitude brought a sense of comfort to Woodrow Call. Since his earliest days as a Ranger, even back in '42 when Texas was still a Republic and he and Gus McCrae were camped on one of the great Comanche trails used by the vicious Buffalo Hump, he had been most comfortable during his times of separation from the others. He hadn't taken up with drinking or gambling, and even women were not important to Woodrow. The darkness of night -- standing on guard, alone with his rifle, had satisfied him.
It was still an hour away from the first rooster's crow. Woodrow pulled his pants over his longjohns, yanked his boots on, then slid his suspenders over his shoulders. Grabbing his rifle, he quietly went out into the chill of early morning, where he made a straight path for the big corral. It had been so hard for him to change, fighting any upheaval in tradition tooth and nail. He knew it would one day happen to Newt. Though the boy had worked hard, never complaining or slacking, Woodrow could see Newt's mother, Maggie, in him. Now, Newt had a young wife that was strong and a baby girl, as well.
Tramping past the cabins and barn, Woodrow climbed the hill that overlooked much of the valley in which Hat Creek lay. He was glad Newt had come to help with the horses, even if it meant Maggie's youngest brother, Mason Dobbs, had come with him. Mason had persevered -- attempting to do whatever necessary to win the approval of Captain Call. What bothered Woodrow was seeing Gretchen and the baby. It wasn't that he disliked them, he just wasn't comfortable in domestic settings. Isom and Sarah Pickett had told him that this young Missouri girl was his daughter-in-law and the infant his granddaughter. The adjustment was still extremely difficult.
Woodrow stared to the east, awaiting the first crack of light. It had always been simpler for him to deal with horses rather than people.
Advancing as careful and deliberate as possible, Clay Mosby and Robert Shelby moved slowly past bush and tree, cautious not to alarm the Indians whose voices could now be heard. Robert said they were Sioux, though neither he nor Clay could understand their tongue. One thing was obvious, the band of renegade warriors, painted for war and silently holding spears and rifles, meant to attack the Mosby-Cartwright party soon.
Climbing silently like hill panthers, Clay and Robert managed to reach the rocky places slightly above the waiting Sioux. They counted eight warriors sitting quietly upon their ponies, strung out in a long line. They observed another four or five on foot, moving below the rocks where Clay and Robert had taken temporary refuge. One warrior, most likely their leader, sat on horseback in front of all the others.
With daylight only minutes away, Robert slipped out from his place of seclusion, moving like a phantom, descending to where one of the Sioux had laid his bow to make water before the attack. Robert silently raised his rifle and drove the butt-end into the unaware Sioux's skull, rendering him unconscious. Wasting no time, Robert drew his knife and slit the throat of his enemy -- an unconscious enemy was sure to awaken and attack, eventually. Robert grabbed the dead Sioux's bow and slid his quiver of arrows off his limp shoulder, then returned to his place of concealment. Clay pointed toward the one who appeared to be their leader. He was riding down the hill, alone, heading straight for where the Cartwright's stood.
Reluctantly sitting in the sheriff's office, taking his turn to guard Austin, Josiah, and Mattie, Private Smallwood had just drifted off to restless sleep when the door was thrown open.
"Christopher Columbus!" Dewey yelled, immediately noticing his mama and the sheriff in jail. He looked at the Private, who jumped up, drawing his pistol. "A soldier?"
"Run, Dewey!" Mattie urged.
"You little bastard!" the Private snapped.
Dewey scooted out the door, racing across the street, disappearing between the livery and tonsorial parlor. The Private rushed out the door, pausing to search the boy's whereabouts. In the early morning light, he didn't notice Dewey run across the empty field to the back of the gunsmith shop, hiding behind one of the coffins that leaned against the rear of the building.
"What the hell are you doing out here, Smallwood?" Corporal Rix demanded, the other two Privates walking with him toward the sheriff's office. Each man had spent considerable time at Twyla's. The women had been paid -- the money intended to be stolen back once the town realized the soldiers were deserters and had locked up their sheriff.
"Did you see a small boy, Corporal?" Smallwood asked.
"Boy? What're you babbling about, man? I give you a simple order -- guard the prisoners. What happened?" Corporal Rix replied.
"I dozed off, Corporal. Some boy walked in and saw the three of them in the cells. He ran off before I could grab the little bastard. He's around here somewhere."
"You stupid ass!" Corporal Rix barked. He turned around. "Breger. Vaugant. One of you go watch the telegraph office. The other one get inside and if anyone else walks in, lock them up. Get your damn ass down here, Smallwood. We'll find the brat."
The Sioux leader rode across the creek, over the short distance of yellow grass, drawing to a halt in front of the three Cartwright's. The bright morning sun was emerging from the horizon, casting its first rays across the vast plains, causing the Cartwright's to be slightly blinded, as they moved to observe the bold intruder.
"Is there something you want?" Hoss Cartwright inquired, looking up at the painted warrior.
The Indian stared with cold, black eyes at the men and the horses. "Unkis tawaci icu nitawa sun ka<wa kan -- wik ce<mna zap tan, opawin<ge. Nike tawaci te waste lake sun<ka" ("We will take your horses - fifty, one hundred. You will die like dogs").
"Dad burn it," Hoss replied. "We don't none of us speak Sioux."
The Indian stared with contempt. "I speak your tongue, white dog. I am the one called Pawnee-Killer. Many of my braves are on both sides of you."
"Well, if it's a few horses you need?" Adam Cartwright said, attempting to be civil.
"That Indian sure is a cocky one," Little Joe quietly mentioned to Hoss.
"We will spare your lives," Pawnee-Killer continued, "leave the horses and go."
"I'm afraid we can't do that," Adam replied. "My offer still stands -- if you have need of a few horses . . ."
"Now, you will find no mercy," Pawnee-Killer growled. He raised his spear, sunlight reflected off the blood-stained point. He let loose with a loud, blood-curdling yell. The Cartwright's and all the hands turned their heads left and right, staring at the tree-lined ridges on both sides.
There was gunfire erupting from the north, where Mosby and Shelby had snuck off to. Sounds of commotion and chaos. Pawnee-Killer looked up to his right -- his warriors seemed detained in battle, unable to charge down the hill. The six or seven warriors off to the south came riding in, whooping and screaming, making easy targets for Mosby's and the Cartwright men.
Pawnee-Killer, realizing something had gone wrong, pulled his pony to leave. "Not so fast, Mister," Hoss Cartwright said, grabbing the reins and twisting the struggling animal's neck, preventing him from escaping. Pawnee-Killer jabbed his spear at Hoss, barely missing the large man's flesh. Little Joe and Adam wrestled the lone Sioux off his horse, to the ground, where he was overpowered and bound.
Seeing their leader captured, the scattering of Sioux on both sides turned and rode away. Clay Mosby and Robert Shelby could be seen descending the hill. They crossed the creek and met the Cartwright's.
"You've caught their leader, I see," Clay remarked. "Well done."
"This rascal's name is Pawnee-Killer," Hoss revealed. "He's a mean one."
"Is that a fact?" Clay replied. "The Army will be quite thankful to hear we've captured this murderer."
"Congratulations, Mr. Mosby. Mr. Shelby," Adam said. "How did you manage to subdue those cutthroats?"
"Guerilla tactics, Mr. Cartwright," Clay announced. "We managed to pick off a few with their own weapons -- arrows make for a silent death."
Adam gazed at Pawnee-Killer. "I imagine we'll have to bring him along with us. This is . . . rather unexpected."
Thrown to the cold, unmerciful ground, Dish Boggett picked himself up and climbed the fence, shaking his head at the unbroken mustang kicking the air with violent thrusts. He stepped over to the small fire twenty yards away from the corral and bent down, rubbing his hands near the warm flames. He looked at Newt Call, leaning against the fence, waiting to tame the next wild horse.
"Newt?" Dish asked, walking up to his long-time friend. "I'd like to speak to your wife, if you'll permit me?"
Newt nodded. "I reckon I trust you more than most anyone, Dish."
"Well, I would like to ask about Miss Paige -- I know she's hitched now." Dish walked across the open field to where Gretchen Call sat on the Pickett porch, holding her infant daughter. He pulled his hat off. "Uh, Mrs. Call?"
"Good morning, Dish," Gretchen replied, rocking Becky, who had fallen asleep in her mother's arms. "You rode that horse very well."
Dish smiled, looking at the ground, embarrassed. "Well, I guess so. Uh, Ma'am? I was wondering . . . ?"
"Would you like to hold Becky, Dish?"
Dish stared at Gretchen as if her question was the most absurd thing he had ever heard. "I guess not. I wouldn't feel comfortable holding a little baby -- I might drop it."
Gretchen shook her head, laughing. "Are all of you men afraid to hold a baby? Call was quite timid at first, also."
"Yes, Ma'am," Dish agreed. "Uh, I was wondering how your sister, Paige, is faring?"
"She's going to have a baby in the summer, Dish. I'm sorry," Gretchen quietly said. "Her husband, Boone Mackinaw, came out of nowhere. He saved her life at the Lakota village and she fell in love with him."
"Well," Dish muttered, "the Cap'n don't put much value on his men getting hitched."
Gretchen held her tongue. She wasn't about to start trouble between Captain Call and any of the Hat Creek outfit. Dish had had his chance to marry Paige. While he was slow and hesitant, Boone Mackinaw moved quick. "I'm sorry, Dish."
"Dish Boggett!"Captain Call barked. "Get yourself back to them mustangs!"
"Yessir, Cap'n," Dish replied. He nodded to Gretchen then hurried back to the corral.
Austin Peale had a throbbing headache -- pins and needles stabbed his head, piercing his skull with sharp pain. He moaned, wishing he had a bottle of whiskey to dull the pain. "You won't get away with this," he told the soldier sitting at the desk.
"Don't move, Austin," Mattie replied, from the adjoining cell. She looked out at the soldier. "You can't outrun the law and the Army. They'll catch you soon enough. Let us out. Just ride away."
"It's true," Josiah commented. "There are too many folks carrying guns in town. You can't possibly take every weapon or prevent them from seeking help."
Private Breger was silent. Corporal Rix had panicked last night. The plan had been to quietly rest in town, arouse no suspicion. It was too late for that. All four of the deserters could now be identified. The Private wasn't sure he even intended to remain with the others. Traveling alone would be safer. He could change clothes, not be noticed. The Army was certain to hunt them down. They would be hung. They had paid for their pokes at the whorehouse but they agreed to return before leaving town and do as they pleased with the whores, then rob them and ride off.
"Please?" Josiah begged. "My son needs to be examined by Dr. Cleese."
Private Breger gazed momentarily at the sheriff. It was Sunday. Most of the town would be closed. He wasn't sure if he would stay with the others or just leave. Now would be a most opportune moment to ride away from what was surely going to end up disastrous.
"Let us out!" Mattie repeated. "You know you have to. It's the right thing to do."
"Shut up! All of you!" the Private yelled. He stared at the floor, then opened the door and went outside.
The pair of Army deserters moved quickly, searching from building to building, the town still mostly quiet for a Sunday morning. When they neared the gunsmith shop, Dewey ducked underneath the building, crawling among the weeds and mud to the middle, where he slid a flat piece of wood away, revealing a large hole he had dug one time when he planned to tunnel all the way to China, to see if people on the bottom of the world walked upside down.
The soldiers squatted, attempting to peer under the darkened building. They saw nothing -- Dewey had already pulled the discarded piece of wood over the hole, covering himself from view. He waited, holding his breath, until he heard two heavy sets of boots slouch off to the next building, the assay office.
After what appeared to be a thorough but unproductive search, Corporal Rix and Private Smallwood stood in front of Twyla's.
"If you weren't so hotheaded, Corporal, we wouldn't be running around chasing after some no account kid," the Private argued.
"When we find that little bastard, and we will find him," the Corporal answered, "I'll snap his scrawny neck."
"We could have just laid low here for a couple of days, Corporal. You should have never hit that sheriff."
"Well, it's too late now," the Corporal barked. "It's Sunday. Long as we keep folks out of the jail we'll be fine. That little bastard must be hiding somewhere. He's probably too afraid to open his mouth. Come on. We'll go into the hotel up the street -- I'm hungry."
"No!" Private Smallwood insisted. "The less people that see us . . . they'll draw up posters on us if they see us. I'm going back in the whorehouse. I'm taking my money and after I'm finished with one of these whores, I say we all ride out while we can."
The Corporal gritted his teeth. "I'm in charge here, Smallwood."
"We're all deserters, Rix. You, included. You don't have no more authority over any of us."
"I thought we were all in this together?" the Corporal remarked, sensing his control loosening.
"We were," the Private replied, "until you lost control and hit the sheriff and locked those folks up."
"Although quite noisy, I find them to be a most attractive bird," Ephraim Cleese remarked to his wife, Victoria. The couple, riding slowly back to their home outside of Curtis Wells, together, had just helped deliver a baby, the third one born to Mrs. Phillip Acostia. It was their first daughter. Victoria had delighted in not only being able to assist her husband as a nurse, but to experience the joy on the mother's face when told the child was a girl.
"Magpies are as chatty as blue jays, Ephraim," Victoria replied, cradling their infant son, Daniel, from the cold. The boy, though healthy, had shown signs of laziness, a trait Ephraim assured Victoria that was completely normal for boys. He had even predicted Rebecca Maggie Call, one month younger than her cousin, would either walk or talk before their son.
"Yes, Victoria," Ephraim agreed, "quite chatty. But, you must admit the magpie has beautifully long and somewhat elegant feathers. I find their sharp contrasting colors quite appealing."
"Elegant?"Victoria cupped her hand over her mouth, giggling quietly. "Oh, Ephraim, my darling husband. I wouldn't go so far as to say the magpie was elegant. Colorful, perhaps."
Ephraim drew rein on the small buggy. There were trees scattered in every direction. Birds flew across the sky, dipping and rising, appearing carefree as Ephraim smiled, aware of at least five different types of birds, by the sounds he heard. "My desire is for Daniel to be possessed of a gentle spirit, Victoria." His eyes lit up as he watched a handful of tiny yellow finch pecking at the nearby ground. "I have no wish to observe our son become a common laborer, toiling in drudgery. There is so much beauty to behold, Victoria. A world where the finer things, music and art, science and knowledge are a foundation."
Victoria gazed at their infant son, asleep in her arms. "I, too, have had those self same dreams, Ephraim. But, shouldn't we allow Daniel the freedom to make his own decision in life?"
"My goodness, Victoria! The child will require guidance. It is our duty, our responsibility, to prepare the path most profitable for our child."
"And, we will, Ephraim." Victoria paused, watching the birds flying across the land. "You know something, Ephraim? If I had insisted that Gretchen not marry Newt . . . but wed a man more like you, she would have died inside."
Ephraim removed his glasses, wiping them with his handkerchief. "I must agree that your sister and Call are quite perfect for each other."
"Do you think Newt would be content if I were his wife, Ephraim?"
"No, of course not, Victoria. You are both two completely different people."
"Then, please, Ephraim. Let's allow Daniel to make his own choices. We can still guide him in the direction you prefer."
"Very well," Ephraim agreed. "It is a delightful day. And, since it is Sunday, I can enjoy spending time with you and our son. I am certain things in town are most quiet today."
A decision that had been made -- a moment of rashness, resulted in a situation that should never have happened. When Corporal Rix slugged Austin Peale with his gun, forcing the soldiers to lock the sheriff, Josiah, and Mattie in jail, it changed everything. The other three deserters, trusting the Corporal, found their plans compromised by the foolhardy action of the Corporal. It would have been a simple and much safer two days in Curtis Wells if the Corporal hadn't panicked unexpectedly.
Sunday was passing like a wind-blown cloud when Private Breger made his decision to leave the jail -- not stand guard over the three prisoners, preventing the rest of the town from discovering what had transpired. The Private forced Austin to remove his clothing, trading his dirty-shirt blue for the larger pants and shirt worn by the sheriff. He then went outside, mounted his Army issued horse and rode off, heading back in the direction of Fort Davis.
When Private Smallwood and the Corporal entered Twyla's, Unbob Finch was unloading an armful of chopped wood in the kitchen. The girls were thanking him as he hobbled to the door to leave. Corporal Rix suddenly drove his fist into Unbob's stomach, causing the kind and helpful undertaker to double over in pain. The Corporal then kicked him in the side, knocking him to the floor. Twyla and her girls were animated, yelling at the soldier. The Corporal drew his pistol, vowing to put a bullet in the head of the older man in overalls if any of them left the whorehouse or allowed any customer inside. Corporal Rix dragged Unbob up the stairs, pointing his gun at Florie, forcing her to join him.
Once the Corporal forced Florie and Unbob into a room and closed the door, Private Smallwood quietly slipped out the upstairs back door and made his way to his horse. Private Vaugant, keeping watch near the telegraph office, intercepted Smallwood, only to be told what the crazed Corporal had just done. Both men decided to grab their horses and leave Curtis Wells. It was Sunday. Chances were they could escape before the Army missed them.
Corporal Rix tied Unbob to a chair, forcing him to watch as he repeatedly violated Florie. The abusive Corporal laid hands on her, cutting her mouth and nose, swelling up her lip and eye until she was half unconscious from his violent attack. He never heard Twyla enter the room.
"Get off my girl, you son of a bitch!" Twyla ordered, holding a shotgun.
The stunned Corporal turned suddenly, his sweaty body on top of an unmoving Florie. "You pull that trigger and that scattergun will injure this whore, too."
Twyla glared at him. "Not if I do it like this!" She stepped near the bed and pressed the barrel of the shotgun against his naked ass, squeezing the trigger. The Corporal screamed, twisting his body violently, falling off the bed onto the cold floor. He squealed like a pig, thrashing about in severe pain. Sadie and Rosa came into the room, one untying Unbob, the other looking after Florie.
"Someone go find Sheriff Peale," Twyla demanded, "before I put some holes in his stiffie."
Days at Hat Creek began before the first rooster crowed. The pressure of breaking the wild horses that had been running free above the Milk River and running them to Fort Davis ahead of the Mosby-Cartwright outfit was cause for even longer days. Exhausted from the constant poundings and beatings of breaking the mustangs, Newt Call headed straight for the small, one-room cabin that had been built for him and Gretchen as soon as he finished supper. It was already dark outside -- the next morning would arrive in moments, it seemed.
Call was too tired to talk, slowly pulling his boots off and dropping them on the floor.
"Call?" Gretchen quietly said, sitting next to her husband. "I asked your father if he wanted to hold his granddaughter today."
Call looked up at Gretchen, then at Becky in her basket on the floor. "Did he?"
Gretchen shook her head, her long hair swishing across her neck and shoulders. "No. He mumbled something about being too busy then walked away."
Call sighed deep. His body ached from being thrown violently to the hard ground so many times by the horses. "Some things . . . things I never reckoned would change . . . they changed." He looked into Gretchen's warm, green eyes. Not a single time went by when he didn't look into her eyes and felt mesmerized by her. "I never hardly expected to love . . . now you're my wife, Gretchen." He looked at tiny Becky, wiggling her arms and babbling incoherently. "I never thought I'd have a baby. I reckon the way I feel inside me about you and Becky is stronger than anything I ever knew before."
Gretchen smiled, listening.
"Them are changes I never thought could of happened. But, the Cap'n. There ain't no way he's ever going to change. It ain't going to happen, Gretchen. He ain't ever going to see fit to hold Becky. I reckon I already made peace inside me over it."
Gretchen leaned close, lightly kissing her husband's cheek. "You and him have the same blood, Newt Call. Your father may one day change. I'm not giving up."
Call nodded. "Well, have it your way, Coyote Girl. Right about now, I just want to crawl under them covers and sleep."
Rebecca Maggie Call wasn't tired. She felt like talking and that's what the tiny infant did. She made noises, babbling to her blanket, her doll Mason had given her, and to her fingers. Call had fallen asleep within minutes after his head touched the pillow. Gretchen laid awake for a time, listening to her daughter.
Call had turned in the small bed, waking suddenly. Becky was still jabbering, showing no sign of sleep. Not wanting to waken Gretchen, Call slipped out of the bed and lifted the talkative infant into his arms. He held her close, feeling her little heartbeat against his chest. "Let's see if we can get you to go to sleep, Becky," he whispered, sitting in a chair near the baby's basket.
Feeling a sudden cold air, Gretchen stirred. Her hand stretched out, patting the empty, cold spot where Call had been sleeping next to her. "Call?" she mumbled. Opening her eyes and sitting up, Gretchen realized her husband wasn't in bed. Her eyes quickly adjusted to the low light of the lamp -- she climbed out of bed then paused. Becky was asleep in Call's arms, both of them in the chair. Call's face resting on the baby's head, her tiny fingers wrapped tightly around one of her father's fingers. Gretchen smiled.
Brandy Bill Whissenet, a loyal hand of Mosby, and old Pete Jurgenson, long time employee of Ben Cartwright's Ponderosa, were both found dead, their throats slashed from ear to ear. Pawnee-Killer had escaped sometime during the night, stealing four horses in addition to killing two men.
"We've seen the last of that red scoundrel," Hoss Cartwright said. "He's hightailing far away."
"What do you think, Mr. Mosby?" Adam Cartwright asked. "Do you feel the same as my brother in regards to that murdering Indian?"
"I honestly don't know, Mr. Cartwright," Clay replied.
"Ahh, don't sweat it," Joe Cartwright suggested, with a cavalier wave of his hand. "Didn't you and Shelby shoot up most of their war party? He won't show his ugly face around us again."
Clay glanced at Robert, then cast his eyes across the early morning plains. "Perhaps you're correct, Mr. Cartwright. Although, to be quite frank, I will breathe easier once these horses have been delivered to Fort Davis."
"Then, shall we bury these unfortunate men, and continue on?" Adam Cartwright suggested.
During the following two days, no sign of Pawnee-Killer or any other renegade Sioux had been detected. Horses had been stolen each night -- six the first and four more the second night. Though no one had seen anything, they knew it was Indians. Most likely, it was a small band, too weak to pose any significant threat, Little Joe Cartwright had said.
The Mosby-Cartwright outfit continued northeast, traveling in between the Big Horn and Yellowstone rivers. Aside from the bitter cold, the weather was favorable -- no snow or rain. Flashes of fresh green grass, in bold contrast to the yellow-brown grass, dotted the landscape, a sure sign that spring was at the door.
When they arrived at the crossing of the Big Horn, the river had risen too high, forcing the outfit to backtrack, losing valuable time, while searching for an alternate path to the north, along the green waters of the Yellowstone. Even with the unforeseen delay, Mosby's outfit was only two days ride from Fort Davis.
The Hat Creek outfit had finally set out on what was to be a short two day journey to Fort Davis, traveling southwest. On several occasions the first day, Woodrow Call observed small clouds of dust ahead of them, in the distance. Using the same pair of field glasses, Isom Pickett caught sight of the dust being kicked up, as well.
"It ain't that other outfit, Cap'n," Isom said. "Those are small clouds. Can't be more than ten riders. They're covering a lot of ground -- and fast, too."
"Dish!" the Captain ordered. "Tell the men to check their weapons and keep their eyes open."
Pea Eye rode over to Woodrow. "Cap'n? Do you suspect those Indians out there will try to steal our horses?"
"They been trying ever since we took up with the Rangers, Pea. Sometimes the Kiowa and the Comanche managed to steal horses right under our noses. I won't tolerate it this time."
"Yessir, Cap'n," Pea replied, drawing his rifle and returning to his position riding swing.
The Captain turned, gazing back where Mason Dobbs was bringing up the rear, riding drag. No man with any wit about him would ever volunteer to ride drag -- constantly eating dust. The fact that Mason had refused to rotate with others was showing Woodrow the caliber of man he was. Captain Call paused, staring at the young Texan. It would be difficult to bad mouth him after this display.
"Nine more horses are missing -- damn those sneaky son's of bitches, every one of them!"
"Yelling at the wind will neither bring our horses back, nor reveal where those Sioux raiders ran off to, Robert."
"I know that, Clay. This is absurd! We've lost too many horses," Robert protested. He dumped the dregs of his coffee onto the ground and stormed away.
"Mr. Shelby is quite correct, Mr. Mosby," Adam Cartwright agreed. "We began with just under one hundred horses for the Army. We barely have seventy, now."
"We should reach Fort Davis some time this afternoon, Mr. Cartwright," Clay replied. "Surely, these renegade warriors will no longer trouble us. There cannot be more than a dozen of them. They won't risk drawing too close to Fort Davis."
"My exact sentiments," Adam admitted. "We've crossed the Yellowstone -- we just ride east until we reach Rosebud Creek. It should all be downhill now. Perhaps we can hold out for more money from the Army, once we reach the Fort?"
Clay nodded. "I have no . . . shall I say, affection, for the United States Army. Your suggestion merits consideration. Shall we get started, Mr. Cartwright?"
"By all means, Mr. Mosby."
"My goodness!" Dr. Cleese exclaimed. "The poor man will never be afforded the luxury of sitting comfortably in a chair." His face soured at the grisly sight of Corporal Rix's shredded behind. "He was quite fortunate his vital organs were not damaged."
Austin Peale snickered. "It serves him right -- for hitting me. You did good, Twyla. I'm proud of you."
"I would have blown his damn head off for what he did to Florie," Amanda Carpenter confessed.
"I look after my girls," Twyla boasted. "We may be whores, but we're still people like anyone else."
"What about Florie?" Mattie Shaw inquired. "Will she heal, Ephraim?"
"I've kept her sedated," the doctor replied. "She's been through an extremely traumatic and painful ordeal. But, she's a strong woman." Ephraim stepped out of the jail cell in which Corporal Rix was now a prisoner.
"The other three escaped," Sheriff Peale revealed. "There should be a nice reward for you, Twyla."
"What's going to happen to him?" Dewey asked Austin, tugging on his arm, pointing to the Corporal.
"The Army will probably hang him for desertion," Austin replied, staring at the Corporal.
Capturing the free-roaming mustangs -- running them from above the Milk River to Hat Creek, a job requiring three separate trips north, and then breaking and taming the horses, that had been the hardest part of all. Once Woodrow Call and Isom Pickett led the eighty-five horses south toward Fort Davis, it was a simple matter of just delivering them.
By the time the sun had reached its zenith in the cold, March sky, the Hat Creek outfit was only two hours away from delivering the horses to the Army. There had been no attempt to steal any horses or engage in battle. Instead, an even deadlier fate awaited them. Crossing through the range of small mountains west of the Rosebud, Captain Call ordered the outfit to suddenly halt. Pea Eye Parker and Newt were sent ahead to scout a suspicion that had taken root inside the Captain's head.
Thirty minutes later Pea and Newt came riding back, bringing the Captain news he half expected. A gathering of renegades -- bands of reservation runners hailing from tribes such as Oglala Sioux, Blackfeet, Crow, and Cheyenne. Waiting up ahead at a strategical point. Forming one united band under the leadership of Pawnee-Killer. Close to forty strong. That wasn't the only issue facing the Hat Creek outfit. Captain Call had spotted the Mosby outfit drawing near the ambush. Without hesitation the Captain barked orders to Newt and Pea that they should immediately ride to the Mosby outfit and warn them.
"Riders coming! Three of them!" one of the Ponderosa hands yelled. Clay Mosby and Adam Cartwright gave word to stop. Robert Shelby and the other two Cartwright's, Hoss and Joe, rode up to the front. When Call, Mason Dobbs, and Pea Eye Parker rode up, Clay dismounted. Call dismounted as well.
"What are you doing here, Call?" Clay asked. "Perhaps to inquire about directions, hmm?"
Call glared at Mosby. "Ain't that just like you, Mosby. You're all about to get your heads blowed off and not one of you even knows it."
"What the hell are you talking about, Call?" Robert Shelby barked from his horse.
"Up ahead. Coming through the mountains there's a place called High Plains Gap. We scouted it -- there's like as not near on to forty Indians on each stretch, just waiting to pick you off when you go through."
Clay scoffed. "You're a liar, Call. This is merely a ruse to gain time and prevent us from reaching the fort first." Clay pushed Call. "Go back where you belong."
Call swung his fist instinctively, hitting Mosby hard enough to stagger him. "Damn you, Mosby! We're trying to help you!"
"Put it to rest, Newt," Mason ordered. "The Captain won't tolerate you wasting time."
Clay shook his head then was on Call, grabbing him firmly with one hand, punching him three or four times before Call could retaliate. Both men were thrown to the ground, punching and wrestling. Mosby temporarily got the advantage over the lighter and smaller Call, but Clay, being the more civilized of the pair, was overmatched by the animalistic, berserker heart of the uncivilized Call.
Mason and Robert both dismounted, pulling the pair apart. Blood trickled down the mouth of both Mosby and Call.
"Listen up, amigo," Mason said to Mosby. "Instead of throwing down on us, you'd do well to heed our warning. The only chance any of us have now of driving our horses through the gap and not being shot to pieces by those red curs is to join our outfits together."
Clay stared at Mason. "Did . . . Captain Call send you here . . . to deliver this message?"
"He did," Mason nodded.
"The Cap'n don't lie," Pea added.
Mosby swallowed, glaring at Call. Both men were still gasping for air. He bent down, grabbing his hat. Call's eyes were still wild, his unkempt tangles of hair in his face.
"And, how does Captain Call propose we do this, if I may inquire?" Clay asked.
"You just have to trust us, amigo -- that's all it takes," Mason replied. "Run your ponies toward the gap. Just follow our lead."
"You aiming to finish this, Mosby?" Call snapped.
"Shut up, Call, and get on your horse," Mosby said. He looked at Adam Cartwright. "Are we in agreement over this?"
"Completely," Adam remarked.
High Plains Gap stretched across thirty to thirty-five yards, angling down to the flatlands. A natural bridge, formed by the earth countless centuries before, with sharp twenty foot drops into a rapid stream of the Yellowstone, separated the gap from the plains.
Pawnee-Killer had brought together four small renegade bands -- each joining to make a larger, more powerful war party. Though his face was wrinkled, his hair graying, he was still as vicious and cunning as he had been as a young Sioux warrior. He was wise in the ways of tactical warfare, placing half the renegades along one edge of the bridge, the other half along the opposite side. They would wait for each outfit to ride through, then crossfire at them, killing the men and stealing the horses.
Woodrow Call stared at three men -- Pea Eye, Dish, and Newt. "You boys remember what we did the night we crossed the border and went into Mexico, when we stole those horses from Pedro Flores?"
"Well, I guess so," Dish nodded.
"Yessir, Cap'n," Pea replied. He pointed his hand straight. "We ran them horses into Pedro Flores' horses."
"We took them all back to Lonesome Dove, Cap'n," Newt said.
"That's what we're going to do right now," the Captain announced. "Run our horses straight into that other outfit's and charge over the gap. Draw your pistols -- it's time."
A few minutes later, pushing the mustangs hard, the Hat Creek outfit came upon Mosby and the Cartwright's men, nearing them from the west. "Run 'em hard!" the Captain yelled.
The eighty-five horses from Hat Creek charged into the seventy-three horses from the other outfit, forming one huge, powerful herd racing straight down onto High Plains Gap. The unexpected joining together of the two outfits momentarily froze Pawnee-Killer and his braves. The Indians began firing their rifles but the thunderous charge and size of the horses was overpowering. Indians began to scream in terror as the ground shook like an earthquake with a deafening roar -- the horses, now over one hundred and fifty strong, covered the entire width of the gap. Indians were knocked violently off the cliffs, tumbling roughly down the sides into the rapids below. Those fortunate enough not to be scattered off the bridge were trampled to death by the weight of the horses. It was as if a powerful, unstoppable locomotive had barreled through, knocking everything out of its way.
The horses continued running once they crossed the gap, onto the flat plains, the final stretch to Fort Davis. Woodrow pulled out, along with a few others, notably Mosby, Hoss Cartwright, and Newt. There were a few Indians still moving -- mostly thrashing in pain from broken legs and ribs. Cast like rocks from a landslide were dead Indians scattered recklessly across the gap. There were some struggling in the rapids to stay above water as the swift current pulled them down the stream.
"Let's finish this up," Captain Call ordered. They turned and rode off.
No one was more surprised or thankful than Colonel William Pollack when the one hundred and fifty-eight horses rode through the tall wooden gates into Fort Davis. Each outfit was paid in cash, and although the Mosby-Cartwright outfit had been the victim of stolen horses by the Sioux, they still made a handsome profit -- well worth the time and effort.
Three days later everyone had returned to their homes, except the Cartwright outfit -- it would require another week before they saw the towering pines of the Ponderosa.
While his wife was in church with her sisters, Call entered the darkened Ambrosia Club, finding it strangely empty of customers.
"I had a suspicion you would come here today, Call," Clay Mosby said.
"That so?" Call looked around quick. "Where's your customers, Mosby?"
"To be quite honest, I haven't opened yet. I've decided to wait until church lets out before opening my door to the public." He smiled. "At least that's what I'm doing today."
Call just nodded, feeling uncomfortable.
"Perhaps a whiskey?" Clay asked.
Nope. I come in for a beer. I ain't of a mind to sit in church."
"My feelings, exactly," Clay replied, filling a mug of beer. He set it in front of Call and poured himself a shot of whiskey. "Your drink is on the house."
Call shook his head, pulling a coin from his pocket. "I don't want nothing from you, Mosby." He dropped the coin on the scratched counter top and downed his beer.
"You know, Call," Clay casually said, "whether you admit it or not, you and I are somehow bound together. We need each other."
Call squinted at Clay, then turned and headed for the door.
"It's our secret, I'm afraid, Call," Clay confessed.
Call paused, barely turning his head. "Yeah, well, don't be telling folks about it, hear? I got me a reputation to keep." He nodded barely, then quickly left.
Clay picked up the coin and nodded. He shook his head and smiled.
++++++++++ The End ++++++++++
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