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.


Visions of Unfavorable Destinies (or When Legends Collide), Part 2
(60th in the Romancing the Plains series)
by Craig Caff

For there is a proper time
and procedure for every matter,
though a man's misery
weighs heavily upon him.

(Ecclesiastes 8:6 -- Holy Bible)

CHAPTER 9

The shocking vision of Austin Peale being gut-shot by Clay Mosby -- whose eyes appeared devoid of emotion, singed as if branded in Mattie Shaw and Amanda Carpenter's mind. The ghastly image repeating to their horror -- Austin on the ground writhing in searing agony, groaning almost unbearably. The dust kicked up by the fleeing masked riders still hadn't settled while the women stood stunned, frozen momentarily -- their minds struggling to comprehend this implausible event.

No words were spoken as they watched Josiah burst from the Statesman's door, dropping to his knees in the street as town folks swarmed the fallen sheriff. Mattie and Amanda stared at each other, assuming their thoughts to be identical -- mainly disbelief. Questions of why had yet to surface.

The two women who had witnessed the sickening deed silently followed funeral procession-like as some of Mosby's men carried Austin's two hundred-plus pounds of dead weight the shortest and quickest route available -- cutting behind the tonsorial parlor and general merchant, laboring to haul Austin's body up the narrow flight of stairs to Dr. Cleese's office. Amanda would later recall one of the men commenting that it felt as if he was pulling a mountain with a piano on his back.

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

To the relief of Josiah, Ephraim and his wife, Victoria, had just arrived in town in their wagon -- Mrs. Cleese still holding their nearly one year old son, Daniel, before crossing the street to open the dry goods. The next few minutes were only a chaotic blur for Mattie and Amanda -- instructions being ordered by Dr. Cleese; Josiah begging his son to stay awake; Mosby's men arguing about who should be in charge.

Ephraim urged everyone out of the office, allowing Josiah to remain and imploring Amanda and Mattie to help Victoria prepare for surgery -- heating water, stock piling clean, white towels, gathering any medical needs necessary. Upon close examination Dr. Cleese was able to exhale a huge sigh -- relieved that the large .45 caliber slug had miraculously not penetrated any vulnerable organs. "It is absolutely amazing!" he said, astonished. "Austin should be dead. The bullet should have entered his stomach . . . yet, it somehow struck his belt buckle and was redirected, slicing the fatty tissue open, as if a sharp knife had cut his stomach apart." He shook his head. "I have witnessed and experienced most injuries. This is a first . . . incredible!"

The last thing Amanda and Mattie heard before exiting the office was Josiah offering thanksgivings to the Good Lord and Dr. Cleese assuring him that Austin would survive. The pair descended the stairs with heavy legs, their minds still toiling to accept what had just occurred.

"Did we actually see what I think we saw?" Mattie asked.

"One of us could be mistaken," Amanda remarked, "but, not both of us. He shot him. Clay Mosby shot Austin Peale."

"I need a drink," Mattie stated. Amanda agreed -- the pair crossed the street and entered the back door of the hotel, where Amanda kept a bottle tucked away. The whiskey calmed their nerves, allowing each woman to think clearer.

"What are we going to do, Amanda? We have to do something."

"Well, I know what we're not going to do -- we're not going to tell Josiah that it was Clay Mosby who shot his son. Josiah will only get a gun and go after Clay. He'll end up dead or else Clay might be killed."

"I suppose you're right," Mattie acknowledged. "We can't tell Austin, either. Maybe we should tell Call?"

Oh, well fine," Amanda barked. "You tell Call that Clay Mosby gunned down Austin, Mattie. Call's so damn crazy he'll hunt Clay and probably kill him. Do you want that on your conscience?"

"Well," Mattie stuttered, "Call isn't exactly on the friendliest terms with Austin."

"Call isn't on the friendliest terms with anyone! If there's money involved he'll track Clay down. No! We can't tell Call what happened."

"We have to do something, Amanda! We're the only ones who saw Clay's face."

Amanda could hear Mattie's voice crack -- she knew she was close to losing control. "Don't yell at me, Mattie -- it's not my fault. We need to calm down and think it over. Here. I think we both need another drink."

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

CHAPTER 10

"That was damn pretty! You should have seen it, Boss. Reb, here, gunned that son of a bitchin' bastard sheriff down in the street just like a dog. He doubled over and plop! Why, I'd say he killed him good."

Cyrus Tunney gazed at Clay Mosby. "You did good, Reb -- I got to admit I was sort of fretting over you, not remember you're one of us."

Clay Mosby found it strange that he was quiet, not delighting in the assassination attempt as the others seemed to be. During the two hour ride back to the ranch he had been less talkative than the other riders. This troubled him. Why wasn't he celebrating the shooting and probable murder of a lawman? Was it true? Was he actually one of them? On his own he was unable to determine -- he had no recourse but to still trust these men, even though something inside him, some barely audible voice warned him otherwise.

Winnett Sheriff Cyrus Tunney, the leader of the gang, motioned to one of his men. "Break out some of that brandy we stole -- we're drinking to Reb Richards! Any man shoots a whore-humping, son of a bitch lawman deserves first drink."

Judd Wyandotte, the outlaw who had been jailed with Clay, offered him a bottle. "Here, Reb. This is some fine brandy."

Clay stared at the bottle. "Brandy? That word seems . . . " he struggled to find the right word. " . . . familiar," he finally said.

"Well, hell!" Judd replied. "Maybe you used to have yourself an old hound dog named Brandy?"

"Perhaps?" Clay agreed.

"Or, maybe you loved a woman who had herself a dog named Brandy."

"Yes," Clay nodded. "That must be it." He accepted the bottle and drank, wondering why it disgusted him to drink from the bottle. "I still feel weakened and my head has been throbbing since returning," he said, looking at Cyrus Tunney. "I feel weary -- perhaps some rest?"

"Sure. Sure, Reb," Tunney said. "Let's go, men. Let him rest up -- he earned it."

Clay handed the bottle back to Judd then laid on his cot. Though tired, sleep eluded him. Confusion ran amuck inside his mind. Nothing about the shooting or any of the people seemed familiar -- not the town, not the women who stared into his face as if they were shocked. He had no doubt that he had killed before -- he just wasn't sure it was gunning men down without cause.

Closing his eyes brought little peace. A fat, gray rat, its claws scratching the floor in the corner near his bed annoyed him. He tossed uncomfortably on the soiled cot -- a stale, pungent odor offending his senses. I feel naked -- exposed, he thought. The desire to learn his identity was gnawing at his insides. Unable to drift off to sleep, he sat up, glancing at himself. My clothes . . . ? Torn and shredded. They placed me strategically in front of them -- a target to be shot at first. Why? He tightened his face, wrinkling his features. His fists tightened until his knuckles were strained and white. Something about those thoughts haunted him, as if he had already experienced this. Moaning with frustration, Clay laid back down. The images darting through his mind seemed to toy with him. It was as if he had just awakened from a dream, only to have nothing solid to pinpoint -- the images so close but always out of reach.

Outside the bunkhouse, one of the men watched him through a hole in the burlap curtain that blocked the sunlight from the dirt-covered, cobweb-infested window.

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

CHAPTER 11

Aside from anxiety for Clay's life, one of the initial thoughts Robert Shelby experienced as he fell from the cliff down into the bottom of the waterfall was he had just gone from the fry pan into the fire. By some perverse hand of fate he had miraculously not been shot, due to his losing his footing on the loose gravel at water's edge. Though no lead slug pierced his flesh -- and, he indeed heard the whiz of the bullet pass near his body, the contact of hitting the water and being drawn under where his head slammed against a jutting rock, his senses reeling, scrambling to not lose consciousness, for fear of drowning.

Swallowed up by the pressure of the perpetual pounding waters, Robert was powerless to resist the will of nature. He sunk under the foamy, white water, his arms heavy, as if pinned against his sides. One ability Robert possessed was being able to hold his breath under water longer than any man in the Virginia Cavalry, allowing him opportunity to slowly drift under the backside of the falls, swept into a small whirlpool that deposited his aching body near the muddy bank which he clung to, digging his fingers into the soft mud -- an abundance of chokecherry bushes blocking his view from above, where he had fallen. Blood from his gashed head rose to the top, mixing with the dark waters of Box Elder Creek.

Robert struggled, attempting to pull himself from the shadowy waters that he might gain the hill to fight with Clay. His passion and desire were greater than his strength and he slipped off into unconsciousness, his body precariously balancing between the muddy bank and the murky waters.

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

It required long moments before Robert -- upon finally awakening, remembered what happened. A tense, shooting pain exploded through his head, causing him to yell in anguish, grasping his skull, feeling dried blood and caked mud in his hair. The pain, so intense, nearly overcame his conscious mind. Breathing with labored gasps -- shaking from the pain and being immersed in the cold waters for long hours, Robert Shelby, moaning through gritted teeth succeeded in pulling his body out of the water. Gaining his feet, he stumbled along, his legs wavering. Emerging past the chokecherry bushes, Robert gazed up at the waterfall, where he had toppled from. There was no sign of Clay -- no sign of anyone. He stood on the opposite bank, determining he would scale the hillside and search for his friend.

Taking the initial steps to climb the hill, Robert groaned, dropped to his knees and grabbed his head. Everything, the waters, the hill, the sky, was spinning around, causing him to lose his stomach. He tried to gain his feet twice more but each time the earth began spinning, forcing him to delay his assault on the hillside. Collapsing in the damp grass near the creek Robert shut his eyes, the darkness consuming him until there was no conscious thought.

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

"Hey, Pa? Look at that down there -- is that a man laying in the grass?"

"Your eyes are good, boy," the man said. "Let's leave off the fishing and have us a look. Don't go poking at him -- he might be one of those outlaws Sheriff Tunney is after."

Exercising caution, the father and son approached Robert Shelby. "Look, Pa! He's got a big, ol' cut on his head. Half his face is covered with blood. Yuk. What are we going to do, Pa?"

"So much for our Saturday morning fishing. Bring up the wagon, Elmore," the father ordered. "We'll haul him back to Winnett -- to the doctor. Sheriff Tunney will want to know about this."

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

CHAPTER 12

It was time -- Saturday, July 21, 1883. The youngest of the Brandt sisters, Paige Mackinaw, was in the process of giving birth. Ephraim Cleese had stitched Austin Peale's belly one day earlier and ordered his patient to remain in bed for a week, unless he risk infection or tearing the stitches and losing more blood. It was impossible to move the tall sheriff just yet and Josiah, grateful for Ephraim allowing him continuous access to his office, clung patiently to his son's bedside. Content that if Austin obeyed he would recover, Ephraim waited for Victoria to close the dry goods then rode out to Boone and Paige's house, situated between the Call home and the much larger Cleese house.

Cousin Jenny Letts tended the babies -- Daniel, less than two weeks from his first birthday, and Rebecca Maggie, one month younger, while Caleb sat outside with Call and a relaxed Boone. The cousins from Union Star, Missouri, would have returned home -- the chance to be with Paige when she gave birth postponed the journey. Now, Jenny would have exciting news to share with the family.

Paige had learned from her older sisters' pregnancies and seemed to benefit, handling her stomach pains from the time they happened every ten minutes. The contractions came quick, five minutes apart, then continued to quicken as the time neared. She still experienced great pain but no difficulties developed, causing Gretchen much comfort, as she remembered the rough delivery she had giving birth to Becky.

The three sisters were together in the room. Paige's eyeballs seemed to be large and intense as she grabbed Ephraim's arm and squeezed with a vise-like grip, the pains now constant.

"It will be very soon," Ephraim noted, shaking his arm in attempts of allowing the blood to flow again.

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

"I heard you darn near went berserk when Gretchen had her baby, Call," Boone commented. "Your Uncle Concho, he spun the tale."

Whittling a piece of pine, Call paused, looking up and half-heartedly nodded.

Boone glanced at the house then at Caleb, who was sitting on the porch rubbing Runt's stomach -- the dog's tail occasionally wagging with a lazy effort, his eyes rolled back in bliss.

"It won't be long now!" Jenny Letts proclaimed, standing in the doorway holding Daniel and Becky in her arms. Becky held one of Daniel's playthings.

"I'm curious," Boone mumbled, "will it be a son or a daughter?"

"Don't you fret none," Jenny informed the father-to-be. "We'll tell you just as soon as the baby is born."

"Hey?! Looky, there!" Caleb announced, jumping up with a sudden bolt, causing Runt to grunt in frustration. "Two ladies in a wagon."

Amanda Carpenter and Mattie Shaw approached the Mackinaw house. "We've been searching all over creation for you, Call," Mattie said, climbing down while Amanda was still applying the wooden brake. "We stopped by your house then figured you'd be here."

"I don't see no smoke rising from town," Call grumbled. "Can't be no fire brings you here."

"Well," Amanda corrected, "it is . . . sort of."

"Call, we need your help -- this is urgent." Mattie noticed Call's impatience. "By now you must have heard about Austin."

"Yep."

"You're the only man capable of keeping this town together until Austin heals, Call." Amanda paused, noticing Boone and Caleb. "Call, the town needs you."

"Mosby put you up to this?" Call asked, the granules of his patience quickly emptying into the lower compartment of his hourglass. He cast his eyes down, resuming his whittling, pig-tail-like shavings floating to the ground. Glancing up, he observed the women stare at each other.

"No," Amanda replied, "Clay Mosby had nothing to do with our coming out here."

"Mosby's not even in town, Call," Mattie added. "That's just it -- he's been away for days now. So has Robert Shelby. If you weren't so damn stubborn you'd help us."

"The town will listen to you, Call," Amanda insisted. She turned, seeing a man on horseback riding toward them. It was Josiah Peale.

"Hello, everyone," Josiah said, dismounting. "I see Mattie and Amanda have come to enlist your services, Newt. I just received troubling news." The crumpled piece of paper in his hand obviously held the disturbing information. "A man visited me in my office -- he said the gang that shot Austin paid him to deliver it. They're coming back! They know Austin is still alive."

Amanda folded her arms in frustration. "What will it take, Call? Do we have to pay you to pin on Austin's badge for a few days . . . a week? Pphtt! I knew it was a waste of time coming out here."

"Please, Call?" Mattie asked. "With Austin shot and Clay out of town, you're the only one that can help us."

"If you'll pardon me," Josiah interrupted, "I really must return to Austin. Newt? Do this for me."

"There's something . . . we have to tell you," Mattie quietly said. She moved away from the others, Amanda with her. "Call, this is complicated."

"Why's that, Mattie?"

"You have to promise us you won't do anything drastic," Mattie replied.

"I ain't doing no such thing," he told her. "You got something needs saying, you best tell me."

Mattie sighed deep. "We saw who shot Austin -- his mask fell off. It . . . it . . . was Clay Mosby."

Call's eyes widened. Mattie knew he was surprised. "He just stared at us. It was like he didn't know who we were. Call, I don't think Clay recognized us."

"Don't be thinking you're going to hunt him down and kill him now," Amanda insisted.

"Then, why'd you tell me?" Call snapped. "I ain't likely to stand and let them masked riders come into town shooting at me -- not without taking out some of them. Who else knows about this? Josiah?"

"No," Mattie said. "No one else knows. We're the only ones who saw his face."

"That means that Shelby's one of them," he surmised.

"Boone! Come inside!" Victoria intoned. "Come meet your daughter!"

Boone and Caleb rushed inside -- Gretchen stepped outside. "Call, Paige just gave birth to a beautiful . . . ? oh! Is something wrong?"

"Good afternoon, Mrs. Call," Amanda said. "We were just leaving. He can tell you."

"We'll talk on it later," Call assured Gretchen, allowing her to take his hand and lead him inside the house where a drained and weak, though smiling Paige held a tiny baby wrapped in flannel.

"July 21st," a beaming Ephraim remarked.

"Say hello to Alexandria Marie Mackinaw," Paige proudly announced.

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

CHAPTER 13

"He's been talking out of his mind," the doctor commented, when Sheriff Cyrus Tunney regarded the feverish Robert Shelby, brought into Winnett hours earlier by a local resident and his young son. "He keeps asking where his friend is -- supposedly a man named Clay Mosby. They were searching up at the falls before Box Elder splits into McDonald Creek. He said the masked riders stole a wagon load of their brandy."

"Oh, he said that, did he?" Sheriff Tunney replied, suddenly gazing at the injured man on the cot with interest. "I'd like to question him, Doc. I'm trying to catch those no-good, sons of bitches and he just might shed a little bit of daylight on the situation for me."

"Well, he needs rest -- he should recover in a few days. He's a strong, determined man. But, I suppose I could allow a few minutes, Sheriff." The doctor left Cyrus Tunney alone with Robert.

Sheriff Tunney bit down on a toothpick he carried in his vest pocket then nudged Robert. Opening his eyes to only half-mast, Robert squinted at the lawman. "You tell the Doc you and your partner were attacked by masked men?"

Robert nodded. His head throbbed and he couldn't understand why the laudanum given him by the doctor hadn't taken effect yet. "They weren't wearing masks when they attacked us. I shot one of them -- I can identify them. Uuhhh! My head's burning up," he groaned.

"That's quite a gash you've got there," Tunney replied. "The Doc just gave you medicine. It'll start up its healing affects soon enough. You just tell me what you told the doctor. I'm the sheriff and I'm going to catch and hang those masked bastards. I could use any information you have."

Robert breathed deep. "We were ambushed by a waterfall -- it was at the top of the waters. I fell off the cliff into the water. I don't . . . what happened to Clay? He might still be out there. Maybe dying. You have to find him, Sheriff."

"Where do you two hail from?"

"Virginia," Robert said, without thinking. "As of late, Curtis Wells. We're from Curtis Wells."

Cyrus Tunney turned toward the closed door of the modest room -- a simple cot with a scratched nightstand, a window covered with a yellowish shade, and the stench of death, as if others before Robert had expired in this very bed.

"You will ride up there and look?" Robert asked. His breathing no longer labored, the affects of the laudanum beginning to relax him, he closed his eyes. "Will you, Sheriff?"

"Are you certain you can identify the men who attacked you?"

"I am most certain," Robert proclaimed, opening his eyes. He stared at Sheriff Tunney then closed them again, drifting off to the welcoming darkness of painless sleep.

Casting a quick glance at the door, Cyrus Tunney leaned over, grabbing a spare pillow wedged between the nightstand and bed. It would be a simple matter to terminate this trouble maker's worthless life by smothering him. He was, after all, in a weakened condition.

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

CHAPTER 14

Rebecca Maggie Call lay tucked away, sleeping soundly in her wooden crib near Call and Gretchen's bed. "Becky's become quite a force, Call. Besides taking her cousin Daniel's playthings, Jenny said she tugged his hair when he protested."

"Kind of like you, Gretchen," Call replied, kicking out a single laugh.

Gretchen rolled on top of her husband, laughing. "Like mother, like daughter, Call." She rested her face on his chest. "Isn't Alexandria a beautiful little baby?"

Call shrugged. "I can't hardly say -- she was all wrinkled and sort of reddish."

"Remember when Becky was born? It seems like it was only a month ago -- now she's almost eleven months old."

Call was silent, thinking how he had nearly lost Gretchen and Becky during her ordeal of difficult childbirth.

"Call? It sounds like the vision you told me about is happening. Are you going to run the town until Sheriff Peale is well?"

"I expect I'll ride into town come morning and set about organizing a way to stop them masked riders."

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

"Forget it, Call," Pratt snickered. "We only take orders from Mosby -- not you."

Luther Root stepped in front of Call. "The man needs your help. Hell, it sounds to me like you're all scared -- the whole blamed bunch of you."

"We're not scared," Zeke replied.

"I'll wager these masked boys are the same ones that roughed you up, amigo," Mason Dobbs told Zeke. "I'd venture to say you boys are as useless as a four-card flush or a wart on a pretty gal's bottom."

"If Mr. Mosby says to take orders from Call," replied Zeke, "then we will."

"Mosby ain't here now, is he?" Luther barked. His massive frame and angry attitude cause for discomfort among the handful of Mosby's men being addressed by Call.

"It's just as well," Call said, his eyes burning straight into Pratt. "I'd hate to stand alongside men I can't hardly depend on."

Luther watched Call and Mason walk away. "I can't stomach cowards -- why don't all of you crawl back inside the Ambrosia. You might be safe in there." He stared them down then joined Call.

"What about Mack?" Mason asked. "We could benefit having him with us."

"Paige just had a baby yesterday," Call replied. "I ain't of a mind to ask him."

"Then, we need to ride to Hat Creek, Newt. The Cap'n might help."

"Not likely," Call remarked. "He already made it clear he didn't come all this way to fight other men's battles."

"I'll stand with you, Newt," Josiah Peale said. He had strapped his holster and gun around his waist. "They shot my son -- I have to do this."

"Count me in, Call," Mattie added. "I'm not scared -- this is my town, too."

Call paused, nodding.

"Newt, I know you're trying to help the town," Josiah observed. "You have to understand though, folks are afraid to get involved -- others . . . " he glanced at Mosby's men, " . . . will only obey Clay Mosby."

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

Upon entering Dr. Cleese's office, Call's initial impression of Austin, as he lay in bed, was how pale he appeared. "Folks say you're mighty fortunate to be breathing."

"One of those bastards shot me straight on -- right in my belly," Austin replied. "When I get out of this bed I'll hunt him down and kill him, so help me."

It was apparent to Call that Austin was weak -- his voice not as strong as usual. His face appeared haggard and tense from the pain and bullet wound. When Austin grit his teeth and tried to sit up, he shook violently, grunting in short gasps until he gave up and fell back down, grasping his stitched belly.

"Uuuuuuhhhhhhhhh! Give me something, Cleese! The pain . . . ! My belly -- it's on fire! I can't bear it!" Austin turned slightly, cupping his hands over the tightly stitched area, as if the mere touch would take away the sudden, severe pain.

Ephraim, weary from delivering Paige Mackinaw's baby and the ordeal with Austin, approached the bed. "Austin, please?! I've already given you more laudanum than I should have. This type of medicine, derived from the opium poppy, can become quite addictive. Please, Austin? You must attempt to settle down. As you have just experienced, the slightest movement of your stomach muscles will result in excruciating pain -- possibly the tearing of your stitches."

"You must be enjoying this, Call," Austin snapped, holding his breath, tossing uncomfortably.

"Not likely," Call answered. "I just come up here to look in on you."

Ephraim turned to Call. "I would like to offer my assistance, Newt. Perhaps if you were to provide me with a rifle . . . ?"

Call put his hand lightly on Ephraim's back. "I reckon this town needs you a whole lot more up here, Ephraim. You're a far piece more valuable tending to folk's needs."

Ephraim smiled. "Thank you."

"I suppose you'll want my badge, Call?"

"Nope," Call replied. "A badge ain't worth spit to them outlaws."

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

CHAPTER 15

"You mean you had the chance to kill him and let it slip away, Boss?"

Sheriff Cyrus Tunney grumbled. "That damn addle-brained deputy came in on me -- good thing that two-legged jackass can't tell his right from his left." The sheriff of Winnett and Bloody Nick Djorvic, most dependable of his gang of masked riders stood inside the doorway of the bunkhouse. Only Clay Mosby, alias Rebel Richards, lay sleeping in his bunk. "He told me his friend and him were chasing down the men who stole their cases of brandy."

"So, his real name is Mosby?"

Tunney laughed. "Clay Mosby. He runs Curtis Wells. That was his brandy you men stole."

"Then I'm thinking that we got to dispose of him and his partner before he remembers who he is. I could put a slug in his skull right now, Cy. Watch his head explode -- his eye balls bulge. Maybe see his brains all over the floor."

"You'd enjoy that, wouldn't you, you bloody son of a bitch?"

"Hell, yes!" Bloody Nick grinned, dribbling tobacco juice through the cracks in his brownish-yellow teeth.

"I got me an idea," Sheriff Tunney mentioned. "I got me a good idea. Put him in front when you ride back to Curtis Wells. Head east first -- steal some horses. When you run the street gun Mosby down. The horses can follow -- they'll trample him to death, just in case. You men shoot and kill every man, woman, and child -- especially the sheriff."

Bloody Nick nodded. "That dumb son of a bitch sleeping over there ain't got himself no clue he's about to die." The pair exited the bunkhouse. Mosby slept soundly.

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

The ability to withstand excessive and intense pain was a trait Clay Mosby had always admired in Robert Shelby. During skirmishes and cavalry charges resulting in injury during the war, it had constantly been Captain Shelby, when wounded, who exhibited an uncanny knack to block out high levels of pain.

It was this spirit of superior strength which now assisted Robert as he ignored his own wounds, realizing the urgency of finding Clay, that allowed him to rise from his cot and slip past the sleeping doctor. With saturated paper money he purchased an older horse from the livery -- stealing a horse would avail Clay little if Robert were captured and hung. His travels would be marred by a worn-out plow horse, but he would eventually reach the waterfall, then ride to Curtis Wells, if Clay wasn't found.

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

CHAPTER 16

The newest offspring, courtesy of the Brandt sisters, Alexandria Marie Mackinaw, squeaked in a tiny, mousy voice until Boone handed her to her mother, Paige, to be breast fed in the privacy of the bedroom. Victoria and Gretchen followed their youngest sister, leaving Call and Ephraim with Boone.

"Where'd your Uncle Concho go, Call?" Boone asked.

Call noticed Boone's eyes at half-mast. Obviously, he hadn't slept much the night before. Call remembered the first nights Becky slept in between him and Gretchen. "My guess is he rode out looking to find help."

"I'm counting myself in on this donnybrook with those masked riders. Don't try and stop me."

"If I were you," Call replied, "I'd stay put and tend to your wife and baby."

"Her cousin, Jenny, is spending over to lend a hand -- she's real fine with Ali."

"Ali?" Call said.

"Yes," Ephraim commented. "Ali is short for Alexandria. I am quite sure most of the family will now refer to her as Ali."

Call shook his head. "I reckon I'll call her Alexandria -- that's her name."

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

From the heights of the mountains the plains seemed to stretch endlessly -- a waving sea of brown grass as Mason Dobbs, the Mesilla Kid, rode hard for Hat Creek. His nephew Newt had revealed the vision he experienced inside the medicine lodge of Red Crow, telling his uncle that the old Indian had said he would overcome. Mason, no stranger to peyote or Indian pipes -- having sat and consumed with Apache, Navaho, and Pueblo alike, knew from his own past that visions weren't always accurate. He knew there were too few capable guns to ward off the band of killers that promised to return within days.

"Cap'n! Newt needs your help," Mason said without the customary greeting when he rode into Hat Creek and dismounted like one of the former Pony Express riders. "He's standing almost on his own against these masked riders coming to shoot up the town."

Captain Woodrow Call, a hard but fair man, had never taken to Mason Dobbs, even though he was blood kin to Newt's mother, Maggie, being one of her five older brothers and sisters. The episode of young Mason stealing a Texas Ranger horse more than a dozen years earlier had persuaded the Captain that Mason was a thief and a thief wasn't likely to ever change his ill ways and loose living . "I don't recall sending you no invite here, Dobbs," Woodrow said, giving Mason a stern look.

"That's common enough, Cap'n Call. This ain't about me. Now, I know you and me, the only common ground we hold is Newt -- we're both his kin. He's got himself a strong, fine wife and a pretty daughter. But, that boy won't give ground -- he's stubborn to a fault."

"I suppose you're saying you know best?" the Captain sharply replied.

"Damn it, Cap'n! I ain't making big over nothing. Those riders are thieving murderers. They'll tin can him for sure. Three or four of us can't lick 'em all."

"The boy's mighty persuasive, Cap'n," Isom Pickett commented. "I say we mount up and go help Newt."

"I recall you had some work needed doing," Woodrow replied.

"Got it all done, Cap'n," Isom said. "How many riders you expecting?" he asked Mason.

"Quien sabe? Ten . . . maybe fifteen."

Woodrow waved the back of his hand at Mason. "You had your say, Dobbs. Go on, now. Ride out."

Mason's face reddened with anger. He shook his head, fighting back a tear. Why couldn't the great Captain Woodrow Call show any feelings for his one and only son? In an angry state, Mason yanked the reins, turning his gray and rode off.

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

CHAPTER 17

A written note wrapped around a rock, thrown to Unbob Finch in the early dawn near the back of the livery, where the warmth of late July had already intensified the distinguishable scent of hay and fly-infested manure, demanded the surrender of Sheriff Peale in two mornings or men, women, and children would be butchered and the town razed to the ground.

"Newt, I've seen to the women -- they're all safe inside Mosby's saloon, in the back," Josiah announced two mornings later.

Call nodded to Josiah. Due to the terrain it was not likely the masked outlaws would venture behind the Ambrosia when they rode into town. "You best get up to Ephraim's, Josiah. Someone's got to protect Austin in case they figure he's up there."

"Yes, of course," Josiah nervously answered.

"Guess it's time," Call replied, casting his eyes around the street. It had been determined the outlaw gang would most likely enter from the west, the same as they initial had done. Boone Mackinaw, refusing to stay home with Paige and their newborn daughter, Ali, was loaded for bear -- his customary two knives, a rifle and a gun, and a fairly new bow he had recently made and strung with fresh sinews. Call had him watch from the hotel balcony, where his keen sight would prove most advantageous.

Amanda and Mattie, both armed with Winchester's from Mattie's shop, hid in the entrance of the Dove and the gunsmith shop -- Mattie strategically there in case the outlaws stormed the stairs to attack Austin.

Two of Mosby's seldom-used hands, Foster and Brody, men known to hang out at the canvas-covered No.10 Saloon, both joined the small group set on defending the town. They were placed at the east end, near the livery and sheriff's office. Congregating too many men in one location would offer a sizable target for the riders -- a tactic not favorable for the outnumbered town defenders.

Call, Mason, and Luther stood in the street between the dry goods and real estate brokers, near the bath house and windmill.

"Dust cloud -- rising from the west!" Boone Mackinaw announced from the balcony. "Looks like . . . ? . . . maybe a dozen riders coming fast. Get ready!"

The riders slowed to a walk as they reached Curtis Wells. All wore black sacks over their heads. There was no way to determine which men were Clay Mosby and Robert Shelby. One masked rider, the one in the lead, approached Call. Mason crossed his arms, his fingers lightly touching his two gun handles.

The masked outlaw stared at Call for tense moments. "I need your help, Call," the man whispered. "They plan to kill me -- I heard them speaking. It was a simple matter for me to feign sleep."

"Why should I help you, Mosby?" Call snapped. "Why should I trust you? You shot Austin. You ain't no better than the rest of them you're riding with."

"Damn it, Call!" Clay said, attempting to remain calm. "I had an accident -- I lost my memory. I didn't know what I was doing."

"Convenient, ain't it, Mosby? Now, you remember? That the way it works?" Call said, stepping closer. Lowering his voice, he said, "You best trust me and go along if you expect to survive this day."

"These men intend to kill everyone they can -- they plan to burn the town. We need to stop them. Robert is out there somewhere -- maybe dead. I need to find him."

"Shut up, Mosby," Call said. He knew they were vulnerable, easy targets out in the street for the dozen armed riders on horseback. If he drew his pistol the outlaws would massacre all of them before they could even clear leather. Though he bore no love for Mosby, he would try to save him. Reaching unexpectedly for Clay's arm, he yanked him off the horse.

"Don't do this, Call! You stubborn son of a bitch," Clay said.

Call grabbed Clay before he could manage his feet and punched him, striking two solid blows to Clay's head and chest.

The masked riders tensed, ready to unleash their hatred and fury upon the town. "Hold up," Bloody Nick Djorvic ordered. "Let's see what happens first. Maybe he'll kill him for us."

Clay Mosby, his vision hampered by the shifting of the loose fitting sack, felt the sting of seven or eight blows to the head before he finally ripped the sack violently off and attacked Call with pent-up anger. He rapidly strung together a combination of four consecutive punches, knocking Call back. The pair, grappling and swinging wildly, tumbled to the dusty street, rolling and still landing blows.

"Hell! That's Mosby! What's he doing riding with them?" Luther asked.

"Must be working like some kind of spy, I'll wager," Mason replied.

"Damn you, Call!" Mosby cursed. "I ought to kill you!"

Gunfire, the explosion of weapons coming from two different directions, suddenly did what Clay Mosby couldn't do -- it caused Call to hesitate, staring wildly at the street.

"Hey! Whoa now!" Bloody Nick Djorvic hollered. "You're making a big mistake."

"Careful you don't make one now." It was Captain Woodrow Call and Pea Eye and about ten of the vaqueros that had journeyed to Hat Creek with Augustina Vega and Carlos Herrera. Their pistols and rifles aimed at the masked outlaws. They had ridden in from the east, past the livery -- some circling around the rear of the masked outlaws, where Isom Pickett and Dish Boggett cut off the escape from the west. Robert Shelby sat alongside Jasper Fant, having met up with the Hat Creek outfit on his way to Curtis Wells to search for Clay.

"Cap'n?!" Newt said, completely surprised to see his father. He picked himself off the ground.

Clay Mosby also stood up and smiled, noticing Robert, as he did the same. He understood what Call had done to save him.

Captain Call looked at Newt. "These men rode onto Hat Creek and stole some of our stock. Drop your weapons on the ground and remove those sacks -- I can't abide men who hide their faces." There were about nine horses among the masked riders. "We'll be taking them back and hanging them between here and Hat Creek. I won't tolerate a horse thief."

Newt stared at Mason. "I rode out and talked to him, Newt."

Call smiled slightly at his uncle. He knew how much the Captain despised Mason.

"Guess I'm obliged to you, Cap'n," Newt said.

"You ain't neither," Woodrow replied. "Round up these bandits!" he yelled then looked at Newt. "I'll just take it out of your wages next batch of horses you break." With that, they rode off.

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

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