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.


Journey to Acceptance
(8th in the Romancing the Plains series)
by Craig Caff

Through the wind, through the rain, the snow
the wind, the rain
You've got, you've got my, my love
heart and soul.

("Drive All Night" - Bruce Springsteen)

"I agree, Clay. Mason Dobbs is most certainly a cagey one. He's mean enough and smarter than most of his kind."

"Then, we are in agreement, Robert? Enlisting Mason into our schemes should allow for us to prosper. He has already proven his worth in the diamond enterprise in which I related to you."

"Are you certain you want me as a deputy, Clay?"

"I would prefer you keep a close watch on Austin. He is not to be trusted. Who better than you, Robert?"

"Then, let us set up a meeting with Mason Dobbs sometime soon. I had better return to the hotel. I'm an honest man now, Clay."

Clay Mosby and Robert Shelby separated as each man went to his place of business.

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

He was interrupted yesterday during the commotion down at the jail. The business concerning his Uncle Mason and the false Pinkerton agent. Now, Call sat on the Hellbitch outside the dry goods store as he thought about things.

"Gretchen," Paige said, "Call's outside. He seems . . . confused."

"We have work to do, girls," Victoria replied like some school teacher calling her distracted students away from the window.

Gretchen stared at Call from the window then turned to her older sister. "I have to go find out what's troubling him, Victoria." She walked over to her older sister. "I have to, Victoria. Something's bothering him."

"Don't be out all day, Gretchen," Victoria said as she smiled.

Gretchen hurried outside. She stepped off the wooden porch and ran to where Call sat mounted. "Call. What it is?"

He hesitated for a moment then held his hand out to her. "Wanna take you for a ride."

Gretchen immediately gave him her hand as he pulled her up behind him. The tops of her black high buttoned shoes could be seen. "Are we taking Sugar or just the Hellbitch?"

"One's enough," he replied. "Just hold tight."

Gretchen smiled and wrapped her arms around his waist. "I'm ready, Call."

He nodded and spurred the Hellbitch to gallop down the street and out of town as Gretchen leaned close and laid her head against his back.

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

Amanda paused at the table Sheriff Austin Peale sat at. "Any more coffee, sheriff?"

Austin smiled. "I like how that sounds."

Amanda looked around the dining room. "Listen, Austin. You better think of some way to help me get the money I need to buy back my hotel from Mosby."

"It isn't my fault that Mason Dobbs was smarter than we figured," Austin said as he held his cup out for a refill. "And why should I help you. I'm the sheriff now."

"Because if you don't help me I'll tell Mason Dobbs about our plan. I'll tell him everything," Amanda said as she purposely over-filled his cup so it would spill and burn his fingers.

"Ow! Damn you, Amanda. You wouldn't dare."

"Oh, yes I would. A man like Mason Dobbs would kill you but he wouldn't hurt a woman." Amanda smiled with confidence.

Austin wiped the coffee off of his fingers as he shot an angry glare at Amanda.

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

Call was quieter than usual as they rode out to where they had revealed their love for each other. Gretchen was very much aware that something was eating at his insides. They stopped at the tree he had recently carved their initials in and both dismounted. With his head down, Call took a couple steps one way then paused. He turned and took a couple slow steps another way. He turned again and Gretchen stepped close and reached out to grab his arms. He instinctively smiled as he gazed at her in the blue and white, checked gingham dress he had just bought her and drew her close to him.

"Call? What's bothering you so much? Can't you tell me?" Gretchen asked.

He looked into her green eyes and warm, smiling face. He pulled his hat off.

"You've been fighting something within you," Gretchen said as she put her hand out to brush the hair away from his eyes.

Call stared at Gretchen. He opened his mouth as she waited for him to speak. "How would you feel . . . about becoming my wife, Gretchen?"

"Call! Do you really mean it? Do you, Call?"

He nodded. "Yep. I never felt anything like this before." His heart pounded like the Lakota drums at Red Crow's village as he swallowed hard.

"Yes, Call! Yes!" she cried as tears began sliding down her high cheek bones. "I'll be your wife! Call, I love you. I love you, Call. I love you more than anything I've ever felt before. I want to be your wife, Call." Gretchen hugged him as the tears were released. "Oh, I want you so very much, Call."

"I reckon it's time we got hitched," Call said as he took his hand and gently raised her chin so he could kiss her lips. Gretchen kissed him as they slowly sunk to the dry, brown grass. "I love you too much now to be away from you."

"I wish we were married right now," Gretchen whispered as they laid on their sides holding each other close. "I want to give all of me to you, Call."

He kissed her lips and her neck. "I want all of you, Gretchen. Want you every day." He rolled onto his back and pulled Gretchen on top of him as she giggled.

"We can be married right here, Call," Gretchen said as she stood up and looked around, far too excited to stay in one spot. Call got up and smiled as he watched the joy burst out of her. "We have to tell Paige and Victoria! Victoria can send a letter back home to Mother and Father! And, we have to ride to Miles City to tell your father."

Call tilted his head. "I ain't exactly sure he'd care to . . ."

"No, Call! We have to. We have to go tell him. I want to meet him. Please, sweetheart? For me?" Gretchen smiled at Call. Her smile was something he had no defense for. It always melted him. He wasn't sure if it was her green eyes that sparkled like jewels or her perfect smile. It could have been her voice or the fact that she always put him first and was unselfish and considerate. Whatever it was didn't matter. She had a way about her.

Call laughed and shook his head. "You know something, Coyote? You can wear a man out."

She giggled happily as she embraced him. "Thank you, my-husband-to-be."

Call held Gretchen close. He loved how good she felt being near him. It seemed to make everything right.

Gretchen suddenly looked at him. "Is this what's been troubling you, Call?"

He laughed slightly. "Yep."

"Oh, Call," she said. "These have been the happiest days of my life since you told me you loved me."

"I just . . . I . . . don't ever wanna fail you. Not be there when you need me," he quietly replied.

"We love each other, Call. I want to be your wife. I want you to be my husband. That's all that matters. That's all I care about."

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

Florie blew cigar smoke into the air with a cavalier attitude. Twyla walked up to her near the sheer curtains covering one of the downstairs windows. "That Burton DeLong fellow was talking to you last night before he got killed.

Florie ignored Twyla.

"I heard you say something about money. What were the two of you talking about?" Twyla asked.

"He said he expected to come into a large sum of money." Florie turned to Twyla. "He mentioned some . . . unusual things he wanted me to do upstairs. I told him I'd do anything for the amount of money he offered me."

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

In the upstairs room above the gunsmith shop Dr. Cleese looked at Unbob. "How many crabapples did you say Dewey ate?"

"Well, I think it was seven. Or, maybe eight. I don't remember." Unbob put his hand on his stomach. "I'm feeling a mite peckish myself."

"Well, no wonder, Unbob. The two of you having an apple-eating contest. Those apples are sour." Mattie looked at Dewey curled up and holding his belly as he laid on the bed groaning.

"He will be good as new later today," Dr. Cleese said. "They both will. They may need to make a couple of trips to the outhouse though."

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

Call led the Hellbitch down the street with Gretchen holding on tight. He drew to a stop in front of the dry goods as his soon-to-be-wife leaned forward to kiss him. He helped lower her down to the ground. Gretchen's eyes danced with anticipated excitement as she could hardly wait to run inside and share the best news ever with her two sisters.

"I'm going to tell Victoria and Paige, Call. Will you come here after you unsaddle the Hellbitch?"

"Why?" Call asked with a confused look.

Gretchen giggled at his face. "Because Mother and Father are back in St. Joseph. Victoria has to give us her blessings, Call. Please, my darling? I want her to accept you."

Call was feeling better than he had expected. He nodded. "I could go in with you now."

"No! Let me tell them by myself first, Call."

He looked at her and laughed. "Anything you say, Gretchen."

"Thank you, Call," she replied as she curtseyed to him. "Hurry, sweetheart."

Call nodded and turned his horse around as Gretchen ran inside the store.

********

Amanda and Mattie were both inside the Brandt Sisters' store as Gretchen excitedly entered. She hurried down the aisle to where her sisters stood and was unable to contain her joy.

"Guess what happened?! Victoria? Paige?" Gretchen said out loud. She smiled brightly as she twirled around once. "Call asked me to be his wife! We're going to be married!"

"Gretchen!" Paige happily cried as she hugged her sister and they both jumped about excitedly. "The future Mrs. Gretchen Call. Ooh, Gretchen! I'm so happy for both of you!"

Amanda's head turned while Mattie's snapped sharply as both women heard the news. They looked at each other with the same shocked gaze.

"Victoria, aren't you happy for me?" Gretchen asked as both her and Paige grabbed their oldest sister to hug.

"We can come back a little later," Amanda replied as she pulled Mattie to the door. "I think they'd prefer to be alone right now," she added as Mattie walked outside stunned over the announcement.

"He has no money, Gretchen. You'll never acquire a standing in the community or have the finer things life has to offer," Victoria solemnly replied.

"I don't care about any of those things, Victoria," Gretchen said as she continued to beam. "Those things are not important to me. All I want is for us to be together. He loves me, Victoria. He takes good care of me. And I will take good care of him. Our love for each other is all that matters. I want you to write to Mother and Father and tell them. And, Victoria? Please give us your blessings? Please?"

"I need to think about this, Gretchen," Victoria quietly said.

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

Call unsaddled his horse near the back of the livery as his uncle came walking through the rear doors. "Howdy, Newt."

Call turned and smiled. "I reckon you should be first to know, Uncle."

"You finally asked Gretchen Brandt to be your wife?" Mason replied.

"How did you know?" Call asked.

Mason laughed. "We're kin, boy. I'll wager I've known longer than you." He winked at Call. "You got a good, strong woman, Newt. You two are gonna do fine." Mason extended his hand. "Congratulations, Newt."

Call nodded as he took his uncle's hand. "She wants me to take her up to Hat Creek to meet the Cap'n."

Mason shook his head. "Just like I said, she's strong."

Call suddenly stared at Mason. "What about you? Maybe I should stay hereabouts and help you."

"I'm working on a couple of ideas. I'd venture to say that I'll find out who tried to sell me out. I may ride over toward Cat Creek and settle in with the Hollisters for a spell. Least till I decide what to do next. Kind of got an urge to see Ellen."

"Well . . . if you get in a bind, you best let me in on it," Call said.

"Count on it, boy. Where are you bound for now?"

"Down to see Gretchen," Call said as they walked through the livery and outside.

**********

"Mason," Clay Mosby said, "I wonder if you might join me for a moment?"

Mason paused with Call in the street. "Best of luck with her sister," Mason said and winked. Call nodded and continued down the street.

"What's on your mind, amigo?" Mason asked as he walked up the wooden steps and into the saloon with Mosby.

"Now that you no longer are sheriff perhaps you would be willing to work for me full time? Shall we have a drink?" Clay replied.

Mason smiled. "Now, that drink suits me, amigo. I could use one."

They walked up to the bar where Robert Shelby stood. Both Mason and Robert nodded. "Clay has told me how impressed he was with the way the two of you handled that diamond swindler not too long ago," Robert said..

Mason looked at Clay as he accepted a shot of Mosby's good whiskey. "I'm open to all offers, boys. I've been entertaining another offer so I may require some time to dwell on which horse I decide to put my saddle."

"Well, of course," Clay agreed. "You and I have already spoken about power and wealth, as I recall."

Mason relaxed as he let his mind roam. Clay Mosby and Robert Shelby weren't Duncan Brady or Big River Kane. However, Clay Mosby would be a strong partner. Mason would give serious thought to this. "Don't forget all that dinero," he added.

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

Newt Call wasn't exactly looking forward to dealing with Victoria Brandt. Then again, he wasn't looking forward to seeing the Cap'n, either. But he truly loved Gretchen and this was important to her so he was willing to do these things.

He turned the brass knob to open the door to the dry goods and stepped uncomfortably inside. "Call!" Gretchen said as both her and Paige ran to greet him.

"Congratulations, Call!" Paige said as she hugged him. "You're going to be just like my brother."

Call smiled as Gretchen threw her arms around him. She held him close as they walked over near some women's dresses. Victoria looked at Call.

"I understand you wish to marry my sister, Mr. Call? You do realize that with our parents back in Missouri, I am in charge of overseeing my younger sisters?"

Call didn't say anything as he stared with unflinching eyes at Victoria.

"Now, even though I am aware that you do not smoke tobacco or gamble, I still find you less than qualified for my sister, Mr. Call," Victoria flatly stated. "You drink and fight. You hunt men for money."

"That isn't fair, Victoria," Paige blurted out. "Maybe Dorian Mowery was better suited. He would have beaten Gretchen up and treated her like a dog."

"Can't you see that we love each other, Victoria?" Gretchen softly replied as she pressed herself tighter against Call.

"Tell me, Mr. Call," Victoria asked, "how do you expect to support Gretchen? Where do plan to live? Hopefully, not the livery?"

"I reckon I'll tell Gretchen all about it tomorrow on the way to Miles City," Call said to Victoria.

"We're going tomorrow, Call?" Gretchen excitedly asked as she smiled happily. "Oh, Victoria? Please write Father and Mother to take the train and stage out here. We want to be wed as soon as possible and most definitely before winter sets in."

Victoria was still for a moment. She had heard Gretchen mention that Call and his Texas Ranger father were not as close as the sisters were with their parents. The fact that he was willing to take her and do it immediately impressed her. "Very well. We shall continue this conversation once you've returned from visiting your father, Mr. Call. I assume you will be spending the night at the Hat Creek Ranch?"

"Victoria?" Gretchen said. "I promise you we'll sleep in separate beds."

Victoria agreed.

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

Austin sat in the sheriff's office polishing his new badge. He was still somewhat shocked at how Mason had simply handed him the badge. Now, he could show Mosby and everyone else that he was all along the one worthy to pin it on. His father, Josiah, had tried telling him he wasn't a lawman and he should take it off. Austin refused to listen to any advice. Instead, he sought out those who tickled his ears with words he wanted to hear.

He smirked as he thought about how much pleasure he would gain by making life miserable for both Newt Call and Gretchen Brandt. He stood up and decided to walk down to the Ambrosia for a beer.

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

Even though it was the middle of the night and the lone candle's flickering light danced across Mattie's face providing a bare minimum of illumination, Clay could easily read her face.

"It would appear that you are slightly distracted this evening, my dear."

Mattie didn't respond. She just laid unclothed on Clay's bed.

"Perhaps this will clear your thoughts," Clay said as he lifted one of her legs. Clay proceeded to kiss and nibble Mattie's foot as he continued all the way up one leg then down the other. He moved slow as he made sure to give special prolonged attention to every inch of her body, neglecting nothing as he delighted in her soft, smooth flesh. Mattie responded by groaning and wiggling beneath him until he had used his tongue to paint a masterpiece over her entire body where he concluded by sliding his tongue low enough and deep enough to cause Mattie's hips to buck uncontrollably as her groans of ecstasy were swallowed up by the darkness.

This only caused Clay to become more excited. He mounted her as hard iron and molten lava were brought together. Clay worked his hips slow at first then like some huge, powerful locomotive, he began moving faster and faster until he reached a frenzy where he lost control and had to bury his face into Mattie's chest as he moaned in lustful passion.

As Clay rolled off Mattie he could sense her detachment. Once his breathing slowed to normal he turned to her. "I fear my ego has been deflated tonight, Mattie. Perhaps you are not in the mood."

"I'm sorry, Clay. You're an incredible lover."

"It would hardly appear so," he replied.

Mattie brought her hand over to touch Clay's dark, curly-haired chest. She unconsciously played with the tight curls as she sighed. "I guess my mind's not here tonight, Clay."

"Well, that is quite obvious," he said. "And just exactly where is it?"

"Oh . . . I was thinking how some folks seem to try so hard to get certain things and never really find them. Then there are others who don't even bother and things just fall on them."

"What exactly are you saying?" Clay asked.

"Did you know Call asked that girl to be his wife?" Mattie replied.

"That girl's name is Miss Gretchen Brandt. And, no. This is the very first I have heard of it."
"I don't know what he sees in Miss Giggles," Mattie said.

"Well, obviously Call must see a great deal if he's actually proposed to her."

Mattie stood up and walked over to where her clothes had been neatly draped across the chair at Clay's desk. She began to get dressed. "I'm sorry, Clay. I'm just . . . not in the mood tonight. Forgive me?"

Clay stood up and walked up behind her where he placed his hands on her shoulders and kissed the bottom of her neck. "Of course, Mattie. Don't give it a second thought."

Mattie turned and embraced Clay tightly. "Thank you, Clay." Then she kissed him passionately.

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

Newt Call and Gretchen Brandt saddled their horses and hit the trail before first light. They rode due east toward the waking sun as it slowly climbed into the vast September sky. Gretchen was excited over the thought of meeting Call's father. Call, on the other hand, would have preferred to forego the trip entirely.

Once they crossed the Yellowstone River, below the Little Dry Creek, Call suggested they rest the horses. Gretchen agreed as Call expected she would. He was fully aware of the hardships that accompanied the ride and that his future wife would feel slightly weary from the journey. He dismounted then assisted her. Call then pulled his canteen off the saddle horn and uncapped it for Gretchen.

"Go on, Gretchen. Take a drink," he offered.

Gretchen smiled and accepted the water. "Thank you, Call." She took a small drink then used her finger to wipe a thin line of water off her chin. "Here, sweetheart," she said as she handed the canteen to Call. He nodded and took a drink. "Call?"

"What?"

"Am I dressed decent enough for your father?" she asked as she looked at herself.

Call stared at her. She was wearing the white blouse and coarse brown skirt that he had first seen her in. He nodded. "I reckon you look prettier than any flower or sunset ever looked, Gretchen."

"Ooh, Call," she said and wrapped her arms around him. "I love you so much, Call," she softly said. She raised her head to gaze into his eyes.

"Something I been meaning to talk to you about," he said as he kissed her mouth. "Think it's time."

Gretchen released her grip slightly. "Yes, Call?"

"Been thinking about where we should live."

Gretchen's eyes lit up and she smiled brightly. "Where are we going to live, Call?"

"We could stay in my room in the Dove," he said. "You'd be close to your sisters and the store." He paused to observe her reaction.

"It doesn't matter where we live, Call. As long as we're married," Gretchen replied.

He smiled at her. "There's another place. Remember the barn we spent the night in a couple weeks back?"

Gretchen looked puzzled. "Mr. and Mrs. Scully's home?"

"Yep. I stopped by there on the way back with those two fellas I collected the bounty on."

Gretchen listened with interest.

"Seems they favor moving into town. Said they would sell us the whole spread for a fair price. I figure I collect a few more bounty's and we'll have enough to buy it outright. It's got a decent house and barn and a small corral. Sets near the creek."

"Call?!" Gretchen excited replied. "Our own home! Just the two of us!" She hugged him. "At least until our first child is born."

"I think you should have a say in this. We can always fine another place," Call said.

"No, Call! It was a darling little house. And it's less than an hour's ride from town. It would be our very own home," Gretchen happily said. "And it's not far away from the tree where you carved our initials and where we first said we loved each other."

"What about your sisters? Ain't likely you'd be working in the dry goods," Call said as he held her close.

Gretchen lowered her chin. "Even if we had remained back in St. Joseph we would have eventually separated, I suppose. We always thought Victoria would be the first to marry and move out. I love my sisters but I belong with you, Call. Wherever you are that's where I belong. I can't wait to tell everyone that I'm Mrs. Newt Call. I'll wear your name proudly, Call."

"That sounds real fine, Gretchen. Well, we best get moving. You can think on it some," Call said as he helped Gretchen climb into her saddle..

Gretchen looked down at Call and smiled. "I love you, Call."

"I love you, Coyote. I want you wearing my name. Soon as possible." He smiled back at her.

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

Josiah quietly entered the Lonesome Dove Hotel and noticed Robert Shelby sitting with Victoria Brandt. He smiled as he walked up to their table. "Good day, Miss Brandt. Mr. Shelby."

"Mr. Peale," Victoria replied, "I had hoped to speak with you today. Would you kindly join us?"

Robert motioned for Josiah to sit down and he complied.

"I am not certain that you have heard the news yet," Victoria said. "Mr. Call has asked my sister, Gretchen, to be his wife. I was told that he was married to your daughter for a short time. Would it be too great a tragedy to speak about it, Mr. Peale? I assure you that I ask only out of extreme concern."

Josiah sat back. He hadn't heard. "I . . . I was not aware, Miss Brandt."

"He and Gretchen are on their way to Miles City to visit Mr. Call's father. Do you know him?" Victoria asked as she took a sip of her coffee.

"Newt's father is a famous Texas Ranger," Josiah offered as Amanda poured him a cup of coffee.

"Captain Woodrow Call," Robert Shelby respectfully said.

"Yes," Josiah replied. "I did meet him once. It was a few years ago."

"Tell me, Mr. Peale," Victoria continued, "what was Newt Call like? Was he a decent young man?"

Josiah smiled. "Oh, Newt was much different then. He looked more like Mr. Shelby, here. I mean, with the shorter hair and he dressed cleaner. Newt isn't the kind of man to look at another woman. You won't find a man with a better heart than Newt, Miss Brandt."

Victoria noticed that Josiah was shaking slightly and that perhaps she had opened a much too sensitive subject. She reached out to touch Josiah's hand and smile. "Thank you very much, Mr. Peale. I will not invade your privacy any further."

Josiah stood up. "Well, good day." He turned around and walked outside, completely forgetting that he had entered the hotel to eat his breakfast.

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

By early afternoon Call and Gretchen had arrived at Hat Creek. Call drew rein and paused outside the gate. Gretchen pulled up on Sugar and moved close to Call. She quietly waited as he stared ahead. After a minute he looked at her and nodded. They rode under the Hat Creek Cattle Company sign and onto the ranch. Call saw what had once been a single dirt-floor cabin with a bunkhouse had now grown to three cabins, a bunkhouse, and a barn. Dwellings must have been built for Augustina Vega and Carlos Herrerra's family, as well as for Isom and Sarah Pickett and their two children.

"Cap'n!" Pea Eye said. "Two riders coming in. One of them's a woman. I believe the other is Newt."

Captain Woodrow Call paused from watching Isom Pickett attempt to break one of new mustangs to turn and look. He stared for a moment. "It is."

Some of the Hat Creek boys like Lippy, Needle, and Jasper recognized Call and were calling out his name.

"Newt's back."

"It's Newt."

Call and Gretchen rode up to where the Captain, Pea Eye, and Isom Pickett were waiting.

"Cap'n," Newt said as he nodded to his father. "Howdy, Pea. Isom."

"I swear . . . Newt," Pea Eye replied.

Isom Pickett lit his pipe and grinned. "Good to see you, Newt."

The Captain just stared at Gretchen Brandt. She smiled at him.

Lippy, Needle, and Jasper came over to where the others were. They all were welcoming Newt.

"Howby, boys," Call said as he smiled at them.

"As I recall," Woodrow said, "it's not a holiday." He waved his hand for them to return to work.

"We come to have a talk, Cap'n," Newt said.

The Captain looked at Gretchen once more. Then he nodded to Newt. Both Newt Call and Gretchen Brandt dismounted. Newt shook hands with all three men.

"Cap'n," he began, "this is Gretchen Brandt. She wanted to meet you." Newt motioned with his hand to each man. "Cap'n Call. Pea Eye Parker. Isom Pickett."

Gretchen smiled and curtseyed. "I'm very pleased to make all of your acquaintances." She looked at Woodrow. "Most especially yours, Captain Call."

Isom and Pea nodded to her.

"I don't know of any cause to see me," the Captain replied while still staring at Gretchen. "You from these parts?" he asked her.

"No, Captain Call. My sisters and I have come to Montana from St. Joseph, Missouri. We haven't been here that long."

Been here that long. Woodrow's eyes widened as Gretchen spoke those words. His mind flashed back to Austin, Texas. Back around '42. Almost twenty years ago. Just before the exposition to Santa Fe with Gus, Long Bill, Blackie Slidell, Big Foot Wallace, Shadrach, and the others. Gretchen's voice as well as her mannerisms and words reminded him of Maggie, Newt's mother.

Gretchen stepped up to Woodrow and took his hand. "We have something we very much wish to share with you, Captain Call." She smiled at him.

"I doubt you would ride all the way out here otherwise," Woodrow replied. He looked at Newt.

"I asked Gretchen to be my wife, Cap'n." Newt stared at his father. "Was important to her to see you first."

"I swear," Pea said. "Hitched."

Isom Pickett grinned and shook hands again with Newt.

"I don't claim to know about matrimony," Woodrow said. "I have never had need for such an occasion, as I recall."

"We want your blessings, Captain Call," Gretchen softly said.

"My blessing don't amount to much," the Captain said.

"Come on, Woodrow," Isom said. "They rode all the way out here to tell you. The least you can do is smile." Isom turned toward his cabin. "Sarah! Come here. Look who's here!"

Sarah Pickett stopped washing clothes to look up. She smiled, then she began laughing as she recognized Newt. Dropping the wet shirt into the wood tub of water she ran over to hug Newt, then Gretchen. Both Newt and Gretchen returned her hug with equal enthusiasm.

"I suppose you'll be staying the night?" Woodrow said as he looked at both of them.

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

Paige Brandt stepped out of the general merchant store and handed Dewey a blue jaw breaker. "I heard about your bellyache, Dewey. That's why I think one piece of candy is enough right now."

Dewey smiled and hugged Paige then ran off to find the other boys he had recently become friends with. Paige sat down on the bench next to Unbob.

"Congratulations, Miss Brandt," Dr. Cleese said as he paused on his way back to his office. "I hear your sister and Mr. Call are to be wed. Marriage is such a delightful way to go through life. Provided one has an appropriate mate in which to travel."

Paige smiled happily. "Yes. Thank you, Dr. Cleese. Call's going to be my brother-in-law."

Unbob looked puzzled. "Call and Miss Gretchen are gonna get hitched?"

"Yes, Unbob," Paige replied.

"Where are they gonna live?" Unbob asked.

"Oh . . . I suppose they'll decide soon enough," Paige said.

"Well, I must be going," Cleese said. "It is quite uplifting to hear about positive occasions in town. We seem to be confronted with far too many shootings and killings. Good day."

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

"Austin? Did you hear the news?"

Austin looked at his father from the comfort of his desk. "What news, Father?"

"Newt and Gretchen Brandt are to be wed."

Austin slammed his fist onto the desktop. "That bastard! He has no right to be happy. Not after what he caused."

"Austin, please?" Josiah begged. "It's . . . it's over. We . . . have to move on."

"No! This town was better off before Newt Call and Clay Mosby showed up. It was our town, Father. He doesn't deserve a second chance." Austin sat up as Josiah quietly turned and headed for the door. "Where are you going, Father?"

"To the church, Austin. To pray for you."

Austin snickered. He was the law now. Sheriff of Curtis Wells. He could legally torment Call and that damn girl from Missouri.

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

Gretchen rested her head on Call's shoulder as they gazed out at the Hat Creek Ranch. It was twilight. "It's beautiful country, Call. The land abounds."

"Senor Newt Call, por favor."

Call and Gretchen turned.

"It is good to see you again, Newt Call. I am Augustina Vega. You remember me, no?"

Call nodded. "This is Gretchen Brandt. My wife-to-be."

Gretchen curtseyed and Augustina smiled. "The son of Capitan Call is a good man," she said to Gretchen.

Gretchen looked at Call and smiled. "Yes. He's the best."

"Isom and Sarah Pickett have prepared two beds where you may sleep tonight," Augustina said. "I have work to do. I will see you both before you leave in the morning."

Augustina departed just as Woodrow Call approached. Gretchen went up to the Captain. "Good evening, Captain Call."

"Evening," Woodrow said as he once again found himself staring at Gretchen. He looked at his son and realized that Newt had no concept about the somewhat striking resemblance Gretchen Brandt bore with his mother, Maggie. They didn't exactly look alike. It was more in her voice and the way she acted. Woodrow found himself liking this young woman.

"Will you honor us by attending our wedding, Captain Call?" Gretchen asked.

"I don't have much use for weddings," Woodrow replied.

Gretchen smiled. "I understand. Please consider it though? Won't you, Captain? It would really mean so much to both of us. It really would."

Woodrow looked at Newt. "This what you want? Gettin' hitched?"

Newt nodded to his father. "I love her, Cap'n. I wanna take care of her. Raise a family with her. I reckon Gretchen's about the most beautiful and best woman there ever was."

"When you planning on doing this?" Woodrow asked.

Gretchen and Call looked at each other. "We haven't set a date yet, Captain," Gretchen said. "I was hoping my mother and father could come out from Missouri."

"It's gonna be before winter sets in, Cap'n. We found us a place about an hour's ride outside of Curtis Wells. I reckon it's got good grazing land to raise horses or cattle," Newt said.

"Isom and Sarah Pickett are waiting for both of you. I suspect we'll speak in the morning before you leave." Woodrow said.

Gretchen leaned up and lightly kissed the Captain on his cheek. "Thank you, Captain Call. For everything."

Woodrow sort of paused uncomfortably then nodded and walked away quickly.

Gretchen wrapped her arms around Call as they headed toward the Pickett cabin. The smell of wood burning in a fireplace filled the air in the cool autumn evening.

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

Most of the Hat Creek outfit had gathered to see Call and Gretchen off next morning. Isom and Sarah Pickett, and their children, Lizzie and Nathan. Pea, Lippy, Jasper, and Needle. Augustina Vega. Carlos Herrerra and the vaqueros.

Captain Woodrow Call stood near his son and future daughter-in-law.

"Cap'n," Newt said as he extended his hand. The Captain shook hands.

"I'm so happy I was able to meet you, Captain Call," Gretchen said with a smile. She reached out and hugged Woodrow. He lifted one hand and lightly patted her shoulder.

They mounted and rode past the Hat Creek sign as Woodrow reluctantly let his thoughts travel some nineteen years as he allowed Maggie back inside the hidden and private domain of his mind.

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

Call and Gretchen rode down the street of Curtis Wells by late afternoon. They tended to Sugar and the Hellbitch then walked down to the dry goods to face Victoria. Gretchen proudly had her arm around Call's arm as they entered the store.

"Victoria!" Paige said. "Gretchen and Call are back!" Paige ran to hug her sister. "Hey, Call," she added.

"I'm pleased you returned safely," Victoria replied as she joined them. Gretchen hugged her older sister.

"I wired a telegram to Mother and Father yesterday," Victoria said. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a note. "They sent a message this morning."

Gretchen bit her lip and held her breath as she took hold of Call's hand for support. "What did they say, Victoria?"

"Father injured his leg and they cannot make the trip before next spring."

Gretchen cast her eyes at the floor.

"They said it was up to me to make the decision for them, since I'm the oldest. They are quite concerned about the first time one of us wants to marry and the type of man that would ask for one of our hands in marriage."

Gretchen's eyes remained gazing at the wooden floor.

"Newt Call is not the kind of man I want for you, Gretchen," Victoria said. "I sent a return message to Mother and Father."

Gretchen was beginning to feel sick to her stomach.

"In the telegram, I told them he makes you happy and will love and care for you. I gave you my blessings, Gretchen."

"What?!" Gretchen exclaimed. "Victoria?! You approved?"

Victoria smiled and nodded. "Yes, little sister. You can marry Mr. Call."

"Aaaahhhhhh!" Gretchen screamed excitedly as she hugged Victoria. Paige screamed and hugged them both. Call frowned and stepped back some. He wanted Gretchen. Not a package deal consisting of three screaming girls.

Victoria released her sisters. "Just a moment, Mr. Call. Since we're going to be family, I think it's time I hugged you, too." She stepped over to Call and hugged him. Not as tight as Paige or as loving as Gretchen, but it was a hug.

"I must admit," Victoria said, "it has been quite difficult to accept you, Mr. Call. I make no secret of that. You have rescued us on more than one occasion and I am finally convinced that you will not run out on my sister."

Call looked at Victoria. "Just got one favor to ask."

Victoria looked puzzled. "Yes, Mr. Call?"

"Stop calling me Mr."

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

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