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.


The Election
by Debbie Vega

"Mind this one don’t turn out to be a case of mistaken identity, Ike, " said Call as the jail door clanged shut on his latest captive. The desperado, a grizzled-faced man named Stanton, glared at him through blackened eyes. He’d put up quite a struggle before he had managed to subdue him.

"Don’t know what you mean, Call," said Ike.

"Yeah, you do. He just better not walk out of here after having paid no fine, neither."

Ike’s manner got huffy. "I don’t think I like what you’re insinuatin’."

"Never mind whether you like it or not. Just wire for my money. Both the money and Stanton better be here when I come back tomorrow." Call left the sheriff’s office and headed for the Dove for a meal. When he was done, he returned to the sheriff’s office. He just didn’t trust that Ike, and wanted to make sure he’d sent the wire.

The door to the office was open as he approached it. When he came in he found Ike sprawled out on the floor and the cell door wide open. Stanton was nowhere to be seen.

"Ike!" Call roughly dragged him up off the floor by the collar and started slapping him to get him to wake up.

Ike’s eyes opened and he began to moan a little. But to Call’s ears, they sounded like feigned moans. Ike said, "He got me, Call. When I went in there to give him some food, he conked me in the head."

Call let go of him so unexpectedly Ike almost fell down again. His eyes searched the office. There was no food tray to be seen anywhere. He grabbed him again and started shaking him, his eyes wild. "You goddamn liar! You let him go, didn’t you?"

"No—no, I swear on my mother—!"

"Your mother." He let go of him, pushing him away and sending him sailing almost halfway across the room. "You’d sell your mother for two bits if you could."

Ike got back on his feet and tried to strike a dignified pose. "I resent that implication."

"It weren’t no implication, Ike. Just a pure statement of fact. " Call ran to him and searched his pockets. Nothing. Then he ran to the desk.

"Now, Call, you have no right, you can’t look through there!"

He found what he was looking for as soon as he opened the drawer. Fifty dollars in cash. He picked up the cash and said, "When are you gonna learn that I’ll always find the bribes you take, you sorry son of a bitch?"

"If you take that money, I’m gonna arrest you for thievin’ That there is my money!"

Call pocketed the cash. "Try it." When Ike opened his mouth to protest more, he said, "If you want, we can take it up with Mosby. Try to explain where you got all that money at once."

He strode out of the office. As he did so, he passed Josiah, who had stood outside the open door and heard most of what was going on. He headed for the Ambrosia. When he arrived he ordered whisky and knocked it back quickly.

Just then Josiah entered the Ambrosia. Call turned away, not meeting his eye, sure he knew what was coming next. He was wrong though. Instead of coming over to him to talk privately about his becoming sheriff, Josiah raised his voice and addressed the whole crowd.

"I think it’s high time we got ourselves a proper sheriff."

People murmured in agreement, though not very enthusiastically, Call noticed.

"As mayor of Curtis Wells, I say we hold an election!"

"Election?" Mosby’s voice came from the top of the stairs. He put his hands on his hips and laughed. "Very amusin’, Josiah."

"What’s amusing about it? I am mayor of this town, aren’t I?"

Mosby kept smiling as he walked down the stairs, but his tone was hard. "You’re mayor because I say you’re mayor. Don’t you forget that."

"I know exactly who our first candidate should be." Josiah walked over to Call and threw his arm around his shoulder. "Mr. Newt Call!"

That wiped the smile right off Mosby’s face, especially when he noticed a few people nodding in agreement with Josiah. He tried to dismiss the idea lightly. "Mr. Call wouldn’t want the job if we handed it to him on a silver platter. Would you, Mr. Call?"

Call shrugged Josiah’s arm off his shoulder. "Not from any silver platter you were offerin’, Mosby."

Mosby started smiling again. "There, Josiah, you see? Now don’t you worry none about who the sheriff’s going to be. I’m workin’ on it, and we’ll have a new one in no time."

That seemed to put an end to it. Josiah left the bar. Mosby chuckled. "Election. What fool silly ideas Josiah comes up with sometimes, eh, Call?"

Call drank down another shot of whisky and left the Ambrosia without answering.

* * * * * * *

To Mosby’s chagrin, the subject of electing a sheriff seemed to catch people’s fancy. He heard them talking about it over the next several days. He noticed that Cleese especially seemed to back Josiah up. Lunching with both of them in the Dove one day, Cleese brought it up once again.

"I say an election is the best solution for all concerned."

"See, Mosby," said Josiah. "I’m not the only one who thinks so."

Eliza Monahan emerged from the kitchen bearing a pot of coffee, and went from table to table refilling cups. Mosby watched her, frowning a little. He’d told her time and again not to do the serving, but she ignored him. In fact, although she was never openly defiant, she managed to ignore a lot of what he said. She merely smiled through every order and recommendation as if she had every intention of capitulating. Yet he couldn’t fault the way she was running the hotel. He’d imagined he would have to guide her in almost everything, but she turned out to be a marvel of efficiency.

As she approached their table, Josiah turned to her and said, "What do you say, Mrs. Monahan? Don’t you think an election is the best way to decide who will take over the sheriffing?"

The corners of her mouth twitched ever so slightly, as if she meant to smile. She didn’t, though. Pouring coffee into Josiah’s cup, she said, "Why, I had no idea this was such a forward-thinking community. Do you gentlemen intend on giving us women the vote?"

The three of them laughed. "Hardly," said Mosby.

"Then this isn’t a matter that would concern me, now would it?"

Josiah said, "Well, you must have an opinion."

This time she did smile, that same capitulating smile. "Oh, I think I’ll leave it to you men to figure it out for yourselves. Now if you’ll excuse me, it looks as if the stage has arrived."

Luther came into the hotel bearing a rather large traveling trunk on his shoulder. He was followed by a tall, striking woman of about thirty years. Mosby, always interested in any stranger who passed through his town, watched her. Like Eliza, she seemed to be a widow, for her dress was black and trimmed with lavender lace.

Eliza went behind the desk and offered her the registration book. The woman slowly stripped off her gloves, then took the pen she offered her and signed with strong flourishing strokes. Eliza turned the book around and looked in it, then raised her eyes and said to the woman, "Welcome, Mrs. Zander. I hope you enjoy your stay."

Mosby almost choked on his coffee.

Cleese said, "Is something wrong, Mr. Mosby?"

Mosby shook his head. "Coffee’s just a little hot, is all." He watched the woman go up the stairs, following Luther, who still carried her trunk.

It was moments like these when he had rare occasion to regret Austin was no longer sheriff. He could have sent him off to discreetly inquire about the woman. It was one of the few things he ever did well. Mosby knew Ike would bumble such an assignment. He would have to find out about her on his own.

It turned out Mosby didn’t have to bother making inquiries about Mrs. Zander—she made her intentions crystal clear that very afternoon. Ike, for once in his life showing a little initiative, came over to Mosby’s office with the news that she’d visited the sheriff’s office and insisted on seeing a report on Zander’s death.

Mosby tried to keep calm, but he knew this could spell trouble for him, and he questioned Ike closely. "What did you tell her?"

"Nothin’. Well, there ain’t much to tell, is there? Austin had a report in there about the body bein’ found, is all."

"Did she seem satisfied with that? Or did she ask more questions?"

"Nope, just said thank you very much and left."

"And that’s all?"

"Yes, sir."

Mosby was sure he was leaving something out, either by stupidity or malice, he couldn’t tell. He stared Ike down, knowing it rarely failed to get the little weasel to break. "What else, Ike?"

"Nothin’."

Mosby rose from his chair and walked over to where Ike was sitting. He strolled over in a very non-threatening way, but when he was near him, he suddenly reached over and grabbed the man by the collar of his jacket, almost yanking him out of his chair. "What else did you tell her, Ike?"

The man started stuttering like an idiot. "N—nothin’, I swear. Only—"

"Only what?" Mosby gave him another good yank.

"Only—I kind of mentioned that Austin Peale was the sheriff then, and she asked me where he was, and I guess, that is, I told her where she could find him."

He let him go. He felt a cold fury envelop him from head to toe. He almost gave into an impulse to pound Ike, but he stopped himself. Why should he worry? Austin wasn’t going to talk. Not unless he wanted a noose around his own neck.

Still and all, it wouldn’t do to have that Zander woman continue snooping around town.

Ike made a little whimpering sound. "Mr. Mosby? Did I do wrong? Can I go?"

Mosby nodded, and the man scurried out of the office as fast as his legs could carry him.

This was a pretty problem. He didn’t trust Ike’s version of the story one bit. He knew if Ike had known anything, he’d have told the woman without blinking an eye if she had flashed money in his face. Good thing he didn’t know anything. He was safe for the moment.

* * * * * * *

The momentum for holding an election began to pick up speed, mainly because Josiah never ceased to talk about it. He also never failed to mention Call’s name in connection with the election.

While making his breakfast in the newspaper office the next day, he looked up and saw Austin coming through the door. He smiled, pleased to see his son, who seemed to avoid his company lately. He couldn’t help feeling a pang, too. The boy had really let himself go to seed.

Josiah put down the pan of sausages he was about to eat and said, "How are you, son?"

"Not too good."

"Have something to eat, you’ll feel better."

"That ain’t gonna make me feel better. Not when my own father’s goin’ about, stabbing me in the back."

Josiah raised his eyebrows. "I don’t know what you mean, Austin."

"You know perfectly well what I mean. Why you goin’ around town, stirrin’ up all this nonsense about electing a sheriff?"

"Why, it’s not nonsense. It’s a very sound idea, lots of folks have told me so."

"Yeah? Well, how come it never occurred to you to put my name forward as a candidate, instead of Call?"

"I guess I thought you wouldn’t be interested in it anymore, is all."

"Not interested? Not interested?" Austin’s voice got very ugly. "But you think Call would be interested? He don’t care about nothin’ in this world but pickin’ up bounties."

"I think he wants to change."

Austin’s face turned several shades of purple. "Who gives a damn about whether or not he wants to change? Mosby took that badge away from me—it was mine. MINE. Now you just want to hand it over to Call. Well, you’ll do that over my dead body. Understand?"

Austin turned and left the office, slamming the door so hard the windows rattled.

* * * * * * *

Austin headed back to the No. 10, anxious to get started on the day’s drinking so he could blot out the miserable feeling in the pit of his stomach. He grabbed a full bottle of whisky from behind the bar without even asking Amanda. She glared at him, but said nothing, possibly realizing an argument would not be a good idea at the moment.

He sunk into a chair and pulled out the stopper from the bottle. He didn’t even bother with a shot glass, just began taking long swallows straight from the bottle.

Amanda wandered over and stood there looking at him, hands on hips. "You gonna spend your whole life drunk, is that it?"

"Maybe." He took another long pull of whisky, then slammed the bottle down on the table. "What’s it to ya?"

"Nothin’. Suit yourself." She went back behind the bar.

"Thank you so much for all your concern. You’re a pal." He already began to feel the effects of the whisky. It burned his stomach and made his vision just a tiny bit blurred.

He barely noticed the woman who came into the 10 and looked around, then asked, "Is there an Austin Peale around here?"

Somehow, that managed to seep into his whisky-soaked brain. He raised his hand and said, "Yeah. Whaddaya want?"

The woman came over to him. Her face was covered in a black veil, and her dress was black. She looked like the Angel of Death. She reached up and pulled the veil away from her face. Then Austin saw she looked like an angel, all right, an angel with the finest pair of dark eyes he’d ever seen in his life. He sat up and stared, fascinated.

"May I join you, Mr. Peale?"

He just nodded. She sat in the chair next to his.

"My name is Lucinda Zander. Perhaps you knew my husband? He worked as a foreman for the mine?"

Austin hesitated ever so slightly before answering, "I remember." He took a pull of whisky from the bottle, then said, "Where are my manners? Would you care for a drink?"

She smiled slightly and shook her head. "I was told you were once sheriff of this fair town."

"So?"

"So I wondered if you knew anything about the circumstances of my husband’s death."

Austin looked across the room and saw that Amanda was staring at them. She watched him like a hawk, and he didn’t like it. She would ask a million questions after the woman left. He said to Mrs. Zander, "I might recall a few details, if I think on it. It was over a year ago." He leaned forward all of a sudden. "Time enough for you to put aside your widow’s weeds, if you don’t mind my sayin’ so."

She smiled again. "I might do just that, if I could find out exactly what happened to my husband. Then his poor soul would be at rest, and I could go on with my life."

Austin nodded. "I understand what you mean. Well, you might ask Clay Mosby. You see, he runs this whole town. If he don’t know about it, there ain’t nothin’ to know."

"Thank you for all your help, Sheriff—oh, excuse me. I mean, Mr. Peale." She got up and walked out of the tent.

As he’d expected, Amanda immediately walked over to him and started asking him questions. He ignored her, thinking, which caused his head to hurt a might.

* * * * * * *

As Mosby worked in his office he heard a knock on the door. He called out for whoever it was to come in. He was shocked to see Mrs. Zander sweep into his office.

"Oh, Mrs. Zander. Come in." He stood up.

"You know who I am. How flattering."

He tried to smile. "Small towns—you know. And I make it my business to know everything that goes on around here."

"I am so glad to hear that." She looked around the office. "Might I sit down? We have much to discuss."

"Of course."

They sat down opposite each other. There was something about her that seemed odd, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. There was almost an exotic look about her, with her black hair and dark, almond-shaped eyes. He couldn’t picture her with Zander. Well, the world was full of unusual pairings.

He smiled what he hoped was his most charming smile. "I had no idea, Mrs. Zander, of your existence. Zander never mentioned any family to me. Otherwise, of course, I would have contacted you immediately when the body was discovered after the unfortunate incident."

"Ah, yes. The unfortunate incident, as you call it. Or, to put it more bluntly, my husband’s murder."

Mosby tried to keep smiling. "Hold on now. We can’t be sure it was murder, exactly."

"Not suicide? My husband had no reason to—"

"No, no. But perhaps a fair fight. Well, you know how it is, especially in a mining town. People blow off a little steam, get liquored up. Maybe start out playing a friendly game of cards and someone starts losing—things can degenerate into an ugly situation. Who knows?"

"Apparently no one around here knows anything."

He decided to veer the subject over to money. "I know I must have owed him back wages. If I’d known he was a family man—I will go over my books and let you know how much is coming to you."

"I would appreciate that greatly. But I intend to find out exactly what happened to my husband, Mr. Mosby. Don’t doubt that."

"Mrs. Zander, over a year has passed since then. Whoever killed your husband could be God knows where by now. I doubt he or they are still here."

"We shall find out soon enough, won’t we? Thank you for your time." Mrs. Zander got up and swept out of the office.

He could do nothing but watch her leave. Upon reflection, he doubted there was much she could find out in the end. In spite of dressing as if she were in deep mourning, she didn’t seem broken-hearted at the thought of her husband’s demise, so he discounted a strong need for revenge as her motive. Her eyes seemed to light up at the mention of money. Pay her off and see her on her way. Then the problem would be solved.

* * * * * * *

Later in the day, he took a walk over to the Dove to meet with Mrs. Monahan to talk over hotel business. On the way across the street, he noticed a handbill tacked on the front of the hotel. As he approached the hotel entrance, he pulled it off. NEWT CALL FOR SHERIFF, he read. Then he read a point-by-point argument for why Call should be elected sheriff.

He could only stand there for a moment, frozen by the audacity—no, the insanity—of such a defiant act. There was only one person in town crazy enough to do such a thing. Not to mention, he was also the only one who owned a printing press.

When he’d sufficiently recovered from the shock, he went to the old newspaper office. There he found Josiah cranking out handbills one at a time on the printing press, which seemed to creak in protest at being used after such a long rest, but managed to do the job well enough.

"Mosby! So, you’ve seen the handbills?" Mosby realized Josiah was much too cheerful to notice what surely must have been a murderous look on his face.

"What in the hell do you think you’re doin’, Josiah?" He tried to keep his rapidly rising temper under control.

"Just getting things rolling. What do you think?"

"I think you’re crazy."

Josiah laughed. "Well, you know the beauty of an election, Mosby? You can back any candidate you want. Hear Ike’s gonna run, too. I imagine since you appointed him deputy, Ike’s your man."

"No one is runnin’ for anything!"

"That’s not what the rest of the town thinks. Everybody seems real keen on the idea."

Mosby looked out the window and saw several men gathered around one of the handbills, talking intently. He saw he was rapidly losing his grip on the situation. He also realized he was talking to the wrong person, but Call was nowhere to be seen at the moment.

He went back to his office to plan his next move and was startled to see the door to the balcony open. Funny, he could have sworn he’d left it closed. The day had been slightly nippy, and he had no reason to keep it open.

He stepped out on to the balcony and was confronted with a very irritating sight. Austin sat on a chair, his feet up on the railing, looking out over the town like the cat who’d swallowed the canary.

Mosby walked over to him slowly and in a quick move, kicked Austin’s feet so he almost went over in a crash. Austin managed to right himself at the last moment and rise out of his chair.

Mosby reached into his holster and had his Colt pointed under Austin’s chin in a flash. "All right. You’ve had your little joke. Now get out before I blow you to kingdom come for breakin’ into my office."

"Put the gun away, Colonel, " Austin said, in a firmer voice than Mosby had ever heard him use before. "You ain’t gonna blow me away in front of half the town. You and me, we’ve got a lot to talk about. Now why don’t you run in there and get me a drink?"

Mosby tried to keep control of his finger, which was just itching to pull the trigger, because indeed there were a lot of people out on the street who would hear a gun blast. He backed off reluctantly, put his gun back in its holster and stepped back in the office. He heard Austin follow him.

When they were inside, he said, "You want a drink, go downstairs and pay two bits, like everyone else. I’m busy."

"Give me a drink. And none of that watered-down piss you call whisky, either. Gimme some of the good stuff."

If that Zander woman hadn’t recently been in the office stirring up trouble, Austin still wouldn’t be standing on his feet. However, Mosby knew he had to find what was being cooked up in that feverish little brain of his, so he got out a bottle of the good whisky and poured Austin some in a shot glass on top of his desk.

Austin slugged it back in one gulp. What a waste of good Scotch, thought Mosby, mournfully. Austin slammed the glass down on the desk.

"Damn! That’s good stuff, all right."

"Is there a point to this visit?"

"Hell, yes. I think you know what it’s about, too."

"Do I?"

"Don’t act smart with me, Mosby."

Who’s acting? Aloud, he said, "I’m just dyin’ of curiosity, is all."

"Just here to name my terms."

Mosby laughed out loud. "Your terms? What—"

"For starters, I get my sheriff’s badge back."

Mosby said, "Why stop there, Austin? Why don’t--"

"I ain’t stoppin’ there. I’m taking a lump sum for what I consider my unjust dismissal, and the humiliation attending to it—in advance."

Mosby still laughed.

Austin said, "Do I really have to tell you why you’re gonna do all this?"

"Please do. I haven’t had this much diversion since the last time I attended the circus."

"You’re gonna do it so I don’t tell that Zander woman how her husband ended up pushing up grass."

He finally stopped laughing, his eyes narrowing and turning hard.

It was now Austin’s turn to laugh. "You’ll do it, all right. And just to show you I mean to be fair about it all, you can hold that election, and run other candidates, to make yourself look good in front of the town. Only thing is, you’d best make sure when the numbers are counted up, they’re in my favor. Got all that, Colonel?"

Mosby was about to say something, but stopped. He eyed Austin carefully for a moment. Then he said, "Well, I hate to admit it, but you seem to have me over a barrel."

"Damn right I do."

"Guess there’s only one thing to do. Accept your terms."

"Smart move, Colonel."

Looking mighty pleased with himself, Austin flipped his hat on his head and sauntered out of the room. Mosby watched him, wondering if there could be a bigger fool on God’s green earth.

* * * * * * *

"You’re gonna run for sheriff?"

"Yep."

As she wiped down the top of the bar, Amanda looked at Austin as if he’d sprouted feathers. "Exactly how much whisky have you been swillin’ today, anyways?"

"Only one shot. Of the good stuff, too." Austin’s eyes were almost twinkling.

She said, "Why stop at sheriffin’, Austin? Why not have yourself crowned king while you’re at it?"

He laughed. "I might just do that. And Mosby himself will put the crown on my head."

That stopped her short. "Why would he do a thing like that?"

"Never you mind." He reached over and playfully tweaked her nose, a wildly uncharacteristic gesture for him. "You don’t have a lot of faith in me, do you, darlin’?"

"Not when you rave like a lunatic. Maybe whatever your father has is catchin’."

His eyes narrowed. "That ain’t funny."

He looked almost dangerous for a moment, and she got the feeling that he wasn’t fooling around. She suddenly felt very uneasy.

He said, "You’re gonna have to show me respect from now on. You, and everybody else in this town. I’m sick of you treating me like I’m your boy!"

"I never—"

"The hell you haven’t! Ain’t takin’ orders from you or Mosby or anyone, ever again!

"All right, I’m sorry!" Best to humor him for the moment, she decided. "I—I’m proud of you. Honest. I’ll be real glad when you get your badge back."

He still wasn’t mollified. "No thanks to you," he grumbled. "You remember that." He put on his hat and strode out of the tent, leaving her troubled and speechless.

* * * * * * *

Mosby found Call in the hotel dining room, eating his lunch. He walked over to his table and said affably, "May I join you?"

Call, who had a forkful of food halfway to his face, just sat there and stared. "You tryin’ to spoil my appetite, Mosby?"

"Hardly." Without invitation, he sat next to him. "You and me, we got some things to talk over."

Call put down the fork and didn’t meet his eye. "You and me, we got nothin’ to talk over."

"Now, now, Call—we can’t fight all the time."

"Says who?"

Mosby laughed. "Listen, you care about Josiah, don’t you? Ain’t you kind of worried about him—goin’ on and on about this silly election idea?"

"Maybe it ain’t so silly."

"Yes, but—didn’t you see those handbills? Surely, you didn’t give him permission—or did you?" Mosby eyed Call for his reaction.

The man was as inscrutable as a Chinese puzzle. He answered, "No. I never said a word to him about it."

"Don’t you think it would be a good idea to discourage him of these flights of fancy?"

Call said nothing.

Mosby sighed. "You don’t want to be sheriff, do you?

There was a long pause. Finally, Call said, "Maybe I do at that."

That really threw him. But he knew Call all too well. He guessed what was behind his answer. "You mean you’d want to do it just to irritate me, don’t you?" He stood up. "Well, I’d just ask you to ponder on a few things. Do you really think you want to take on the responsibility? Answering to people other than yourself?"

"If I was elected, I wouldn’t be answering to you. That’s all that matters."

"Is it? Well, we’ll see."

Call stood up and threw some money on the table. "We’ll see all right." He left the Dove.

* * * * * * *

The next few days were very vexing for Mosby. He met with the Widow Zander and handed over a rather generous amount of money he explained was Zander’s "backpay." The lady took it, pleased, but by no means overjoyed. She also didn’t leave on the next stage, as Mosby hoped she would.

The campaign for sheriff went into full swing. He never fully sanctioned it, but neither did he disallow it. Ike decided to run, which was no surprise. The man had found being deputy a relatively soft job with many tempting opportunities to pocket bribes—he probably thought sheriffing would be an even more profitable enterprise.

The truly annoying part was that Call decided to run, too. Mosby knew he’d miscalculated by trying to dissuade him. He should know by now that if he said "black" Call would immediately say "white."

He quietly let word get around that Austin was his preferred choice for the job. Ironically, in a way he was preferable to either Ike or Call. He sent his men around to get chummy with voters and buy them drinks to find out who they were voting for. Not surprisingly, this informal polling showed Call a clear favorite.

Next, he told his men to get chummy and buy drinks in an effort to change votes. This caused some movement in Austin’s favor, but not much.

Then he instructed his men to put pressure on those who owed him money and/or favors. This made more inroads into Call’s lead, but not enough to guarantee Austin would win.

It was unfortunate, but it looked as if things were going to have to get rough.

* * * * * * *

Call could not help wondering how he found himself caught up in this situation. One minute, everything was exactly the same as it had always been, the next thing he knew he was a candidate being shepherded around town by Josiah, shaking hands and having to try to persuade people to vote for him.

It turned out after a time not to be as difficult as he’d first imagined. All the venom he’d stored up inside against Mosby came spewing out, but in a way that everyone found perfectly reasonable and respectable. Though there was a definite pro-Mosby faction in the town, he met more than a few people fed up with him and the way he had control over everything. Call began to feel something he hadn’t felt in a long time—hope that maybe Mosby would not only not get his candidate elected, but be run out of town in the bargain.

Luther was fascinated by the idea of Call becoming sheriff, and became his most vocal supporter, possibly because he was pleased that Call was finally showing some interest in life again. He even got involved in a couple of dust-ups over the whole affair, fighting with some of the pro-Mosby folks.

While Call drank with Luther and Josiah in the 10, Josiah said, almost shyly, "You know, Newt, it might not be a bad idea if you went on over to Mr. Lau’s and had a bath."

Luther snickered. "Get him to dowse you with rosewater, too. Run as the most sweet-smelling candidate."

Call didn’t know what to say. He was grateful for Josiah’s advice, and knew that he was torn because he was preferring him over his own son. But take a bath? Reluctantly, he said, "Sure, I guess that might not be too bad an idea."

"Let’s get him spiffed up, too. A whole new set of duds!" Luther was obviously inspired by the idea.

They finished their drinks and headed out for the public baths, Luther whooping it up the whole way. As they crossed the street, they were stopped cold by a man staggering out of an alleyway. He looked as if he’d been beaten to a pulp.

A woman’s voice cried, "Oh, my Lord!"

Call turned around and saw Eliza Monahan standing behind him, carrying a basket of things she’d just purchased in the general store.

She said, "The poor man—help him!"

Call caught the falling man in his arms. Out of the corner of his eye he saw one of Mosby’s men zip out of the alleyway and run away. From the look on Mrs. Monahan’s face, he could see she’d recognized him, too.

With Luther’s help, they carried the beaten man to Doc Cleese. It turned out to be one of the young lawyers who had an set up an office over in tent-town. He’d told Call personally that he planned to vote for him.

As they approached the doc’s office, Call looked around for Mrs. Monahan. She was nowhere to be seen, and he wondered where she had gone. He would have thought she’d have accompanied them until she was sure the man was all right. But he didn’t have a clue as to where she’d got to.

* * * * * * *

Mosby entered the Dove and asked one of the girls where he could find Mrs. Monahan. She directed him to the kitchen.

"Wouldn’t go in there now, if I was you," said the girl.

"Why ever not?"

"She’s worked up in an awful lather."

"Mrs. Monahan? Why, I don’t believe it." He laughed at the thought. She had such a calm demeanor that even in her worst moments she rarely showed anger.

He went into the kitchen and was upset to see her scrubbing a pot within an inch of its life. "Mrs. Monahan, how many times have I told you to leave that kind of work to the girls? If they’re too lazy to do it properly, just fire—"

She stopped what she was doing and turned around. He was completely taken aback by the naked fury in her eyes. It was gone in such a quick flash that he wondered if he’d imagined it.

She said in a cool voice, "Mr. Mosby. What can I do for you?"

"Whatever is the matter?

She reached for a towel and wiped her hands dry. "I—I just saw something rather upsetting."

"What?"

She hesitated. He wondered what in the world could make her so unruffled. Finally, she spoke. "I saw a man get beat half to death this afternoon."

"Well, did you notify Ike—"

"No."

"You should—"

"I doubt that would do much good. The man doing the beating works for you, after all."

He felt his face get warm. He tried to inject a note of indignation into his voice. "Why, that’s outrageous! I’ll deal with him myself."

She said nothing, just eyed him cooly as if she didn’t believe a word he was saying. He said, "I’ll make sure he gets what’s comin’ to him. In fact, I’ll look into this right now." He started to leave. He stopped when he heard her say his name.

Her eyes glinted. She said, "Wouldn’t it help if I told you which one of your men did it?"

There was a short silence. "Mrs. Monahan, surely you don’t think—"

She turned away. Without looking at him she said quietly, "Mr. Mosby, believe me, you don’t want to hear the things I’m thinking."

She began to scrub the pot again, even more furiously than before, and he saw that she meant to end the conversation. All he could do was go.

Damn that Austin! Over the past weeks he’d tried to get past that cool reserve of hers, a difficult, if not impossible, operation, but he’d felt some progress had been made. In one afternoon, all his efforts had been swept away because of that bastard.

He went back to the Ambrosia, and as he’d expected, found his man, Madden, in his office waiting to be paid.

"You idiot," he hissed, as soon as he saw him.

Madden’s jaw dropped. He was a huge, hulking fellow, matched in size and strength only by Luther Root, but infinitely more sadistic. "I done what you told me to, Mr. Mosby."

"I didn’t tell you to do it in broad daylight, where women and children could watch you. And from what I heard, you went more than a little too far."

"Hell, that lawyer fellow was bein’ awful ornery. Kept sayin’ he was gonna vote for Call, no matter what I did."

Mosby considered arguing that the lawyer couldn’t vote for anyone from a coffin, but realized Madden was too thick-headed to reason with, so he opened the cash box on his desk and extracted the money they’d agreed to for the job. He flipped the bill at Madden and said, "I suggest you get out of town. Otherwise, I’ll have to make a show of having you arrested."

Madden took the money, then said, "In that case, I’ll need travelin’ money."

He was about to tell him to go to hell, but if Madden did end up in jail, he might be stupid enough to blab. With a grunt of annoyance, he reached into the cash box and tossed another bill at him. "Now get the hell out of my sight."

"Whatever you say, Mr. Mosby."

* * * * * * *

The election took place a few days later. They held a secret ballot at the church. To ensure no one would doubt the outcome, Mosby asked Cleese to count the votes.

By the end of the day, the winner was clear. Austin led Call by almost a 2-1 margin. When the final count was tallied by Dr. Cleese, Mosby declared Austin the official winner and made a speech about how wise the citizens of the town were in their choice. In spite of their "little misunderstanding" of a few months back, he had the highest confidence in Sheriff Peale, he assured the crowd. He personally pinned the badge on Austin’s vest. Then he invited everyone back to the Ambrosia for a celebration.

Although there was little cheering and celebrating over the result, the only thing that marred the event was an outraged shout from the back of the room that Mosby had fixed the election, probably from Luther. Fortunately, most of the crowd was too busy thinking about the free booze being offered and ignored him.

One pathetic moment occurred when Josiah stepped up to congratulate his son. He ignored his father’s outstretched hand and walked out the door, leading the crowd personally to the Ambrosia. Josiah stood there for a bit, shoulders hunched, then finally left with the last of the crowd.

Soon most of the people had filed out of the church, and only Call and Mosby were left. Mosby couldn’t help being mildly amused by Call’s appearance. He’d actually made an effort to look respectable for the election—taken a bath and bought some new clothes, including a brown vest that he’d probably thought would be sporting a badge by the end of the day.

Call said, "You ain’t gonna get away with this, Mosby."

"Call—"

"You’ve had your way for far too long. People are sick of it."

Since he’d had anything but his way, he couldn’t help defending himself a little. "Things ain’t always the way they seem."

"What’s that supposed to mean?"

Without answering, Mosby left the church and headed for the Ambrosia, leaving Call to puzzle it out for himself.

* * * * * * *

Instead of going to the Ambrosia, which would have been far too depressing, Call headed back to the Dove. On the way, he couldn’t help noticing a light coming from inside the sheriff’s office. He stopped and looked inside. He saw Ike was busy cleaning out the desk.

He stepped inside. Ike looked up and said, "Is it customary for the losers to commiserate or somethin’?"

"I guess maybe so."

"Oh, well, maybe next time."

"Next time? You think Mosby’ll let there be a next time?"

Ike shrugged. "I think folks will expect it, don’t you?"

"Don’t count on it."

"Well, people get the government they deserve, I reckon. At least that Zander woman will be Austin’s headache from now on. For such a pretty lady, she’s a real pain in the ass."

Call felt his ears prick up at this statement. "What do you mean?"

"She’s always here, askin’ questions."

"’Bout what?"

"Her husband’s death, and all."

"Death?"

"Yeah, he was shot to death soon after the mine explosion, don’t you remember? Found in an alleyway."

Call blinked. Truth was, he had no idea what had happened to Zander after he’d told Mosby that he was an employee of the Halcyon Mining Company. He’d always assumed Mosby had simply run him out of town, since the Halcyon outfit would have had Mosby for lunch if he’d tried to have him arrested for the mine explosion.

He suddenly felt a bubble of excitement well up inside him. How could he have been so utterly stupid? There was no way Mosby would have let Zander walk away from Curtis Wells without making him pay for the crime, especially when everyone had held Mosby personally responsible for the explosion. He had dispatched Zander himself!

And, and . . . Austin knew about it. That was the reason for Mosby’s reluctant, but brutal, interference in the election. Austin was blackmailing the son of a bitch!

Call barely heard what Ike was saying to him. He just left, lost in his thoughts, wondering how he could use this exciting revelation to finally bring that bastard to his knees once and for all.

* * * * * * *

The revelry lasted almost through the night, people filling themselves up with beer and whisky at the Ambrosia. A couple of fist-fights and one shooting gave the new sheriff a bit of work right off the bat. After Austin ran the culprits into the jail, Mosby wandered over to the sheriff’s office. It was time for a little chat.

He came in just as Austin had finished pushing in a couple of low-lifes into one of the cells. They both immediately passed out and began snoring loudly.

"See you’re gettin’ right back in the swim of things, Austin."

If the two low-lifes hadn’t been falling down drunk, it was doubtful Austin could have handled them. He was pretty well soaked himself. He tottered across the room and flopped into the chair behind the desk. "Damn! Feels good to be back again!"

Mosby couldn’t help smiling. This didn’t sit well with Austin, who’d obviously expected Mosby to be devastated by the sight of him in his old office.

"What you grinnin’ at?"

The grin faded and a hard glint came into Mosby’s eyes. "We got a few things to talk over, you and me."

Austin swung his feet up on the table with a loud clonk. "Can’t imagine what about. I ain’t your boy no more."

"No?"

"Nope. You’re my boy now." Austin cackled with delight.

Mosby paused before saying anything, then he said, "I’ve always believed, Austin, that there’s a sort of pecking order in society—much like there is in the animal kingdom. Some of us—the strong—will always be on top, while others . . ."

"I’m the one on top now, you son of a bitch."

"You think so?" Again, that glint in his eye. "I have a different opinion. You’re just as much my boy, as you put it, as you ever were. More so, in fact."

It took a few seconds for that to filter through the liquor-induced haze. "How you figure that? Hell, one word from me to that Zander woman and you’ll find yourself on the way to the gallows quicker than you can spit!"

"Perhaps. But at least I’ll have company."

"What—"

"You and me, we’d be takin’ that trip to hell together. You’re an accomplice after the fact."

"I didn’t kill no one."

"No, but you stood by and did nothin’ to stop me. You falsified the report on Zander’s death. You moved the body. You’re as guilty as sin."

Austin could only sit there, his mouth opening and closing, obviously anxious to rebut what he’d just said, but knowing he couldn’t deny its veracity. "You—you agreed to help me get elected—"

"—so you’d be under my control again. And take my word for it, you are, for now and forever."

Austin suddenly shot up from the desk and went for him. Mosby easily deflected the attack, and soon Austin found himself flat out on the floor, his head pounding from a ringing blow.

"I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you," Austin panted as he tried to struggle up from the floor.

Mosby walked over to him and, grinning ever so slightly, pushed him back by stepping on his chest. He didn’t do it hard enough to really hurt him; just enough pressure to keep him pressed to the floor. "Did you really think you could outsmart me?"

Austin kept panting, whimpering like a wounded animal. "You ain’t gonna get away with this, Mosby. I’ll talk. I swear I will. I’ll stand at the gallows by your side and laugh the whole time."

"I doubt that. You know the mark of a true leader, Austin? One who understands his enemy better than he does himself. You have a remarkable instinct for self-preservation. You’d never risk your own hide."

"I’ll just put a bullet in your back, then."

"Here’s lesson number two on what makes a good leader—he always takes precautions. I sent off a full confession to the crime—"

"You what!"

"—in a sealed letter to a lawyer in Miles City. With instructions to open it upon my death. Of course, I also had to outline your full complicity in the crime. So you see, Austin, not only won’t you kill me, it will be in your best interests to keep me breathin’ as long as possible."

From the glazed look in Austin’s eyes, it was clear the horrible truth had finally sunk in, so Mosby took his foot off his chest. He left him on the floor, staring at the ceiling.

* * * * * * *

Call could hardly sleep that night, he was so anxious to begin questioning Mrs. Zander. However, she was hardly an early riser—rarely coming down to breakfast before ten o’clock. In fact, this morning the girls were already clearing away the last of the breakfast dishes and she still hadn’t come down.

He sat at one of the tables, waiting. Finally, he saw a lady walking down the stairs dressed in black, and began to rise out of his chair. He sank back down again. It was only Eliza Monahan.

She had her son by the hand, the child scrubbed and neatly dressed. In her other hand she held some wildflowers she must have picked earlier that morning. She paused on her way out the door and spoke to him. "Mr. Call, haven’t they served you your breakfast yet?"

"Yes, ma’am. Don’t mind if I sit here a spell, do you?"

"Why, no, not at all. Robbie and I are off to visit his father’s grave, but I’ll be back soon. If there’s anything you need, just let one of the girls know."

He nodded. A few minutes after they left, something occurred to him. He got up and shot out the door.

* * * * * * *

Amanda stood in the near-empty No. 10, looking over her diminished clientele. Damn that Mosby. He’d poured so much free beer and whisky into people the night before that even the hard-core drunks had trouble crawling out of bed that morning.

As she got ready for the day’s business, she couldn’t help wondering what the hell had happened to Austin. She was sure he would want to do a little private celebrating with her after the election. It scared her that he never showed up. She wasn’t sure yet what was going on, but she had a gut feeling that whatever it was, she wasn’t going to like it.

As she served some cowboys who’d just ridden into town, she pondered her problem. True, Austin had not proven much use to her, but she preferred him to be under her thumb rather than Mosby’s any day of the week. His rebellion before the election had been a total shock to her, and she realized that she’d miscalculated. Letting him into her bed was not enough to control him.

As the morning wore on, the place began to fill up again with customers. She finally saw Austin come in, wearing his badge but looking anything but happy.

She poured him a drink and tried to smile as sweetly as was possible for her. "Well, I was wonderin’ where you got to last night. Missed you." She batted her eyes a little.

He didn’t even look at her, just knocked back the drink and wiped his mouth with his hand. "Got to talk to you . Now."

Her eyes widened. "Why, you know I can’t—"

"Right now." After a moment’s hesitation, he added, "Please."

Now that was really a shock. After a few seconds, Amanda recovered and said, "Sure. We’ll go to my tent."

She handed over bar duty to one of the barmaids and they left the saloon.

* * * * * * *

Call finally caught up with Lucinda Zander. She came out of the Dove and walked along the sidewalk as if she didn’t have a care in the world. He followed her a piece and soon they were walking in sync with each other.

Far from unnerving her, she suddenly stopped, turned to him and said, "You seem to be going my way, cowboy."

There was something about the way she said it that was mildly suggestive, though not nearly as blatant as something one of Twyla’s girls might have said. He removed his hat and said, "Fine day, ain’t it?"

"Have we been introduced?" Mrs. Zander looked up and down the street, as if bored with the conversation already.

"No ma’am. Name’s Newt Call." He extended his hand.

She took it and shook it briefly. "I already knew that—the handbills posted all over town. What can I do for you, Mr. Call?"

"I heard you was lookin’ for information about your husband’s killing."

"Yes, that’s true."

"I knew your husband. We used to play cards. He lost an awful lot of money to me."

She smiled. "Are you implying that I owe you money?"

"No ma’am. Just—if you wanted to talk, I’m your man. I guess you knew about that mine explosion?"

"Yes, of course."

A few people walked by. Call said, "Maybe we could find a quiet place to talk."

"Yes, please let’s do."

They returned to the Dove and sat in the dining room, which had yet to become full with the lunch crowd. After one of the girls served them coffee, Call spied Mrs. Monahan and her boy returning from their trip to the gravesite. As they passed by, he asked Mrs. Zander, "Ma’am, where’s your husband buried at?"

The coffee cup in her hand was halfway to her face, then stopped. "Why—in the church cemetery, of course."

"Hate to contradict you, ma’am, but they don’t plant outsiders who die here on the church grounds. They bury them up on a hill outside of town."

From the look on her face, he could tell she was vexed by the way he had so easily tripped her up. He could almost see the wheels turning in her head, trying to think up a way to extract herself from his trap. Before she could, he said, "See, Mrs. Monahan over there? She and her boy go off at least once a week to visit her husband’s grave. ‘Course, their loss is fairly recent, but still and all--you bein’ so fired-up to find out what happened to your husband, wouldn’t you at least want to see the place where he’s buried?"

All the teasing bravado was gone. She said quietly, "Just what are you implying, Mr. Call?"

"There’s only one explanation I can come up with, and that is he weren’t your husband at all. I wonder if you even knew the man."

She put down the cup. "What do you want from me?"

"The truth. Why don’t you start out by telling me who you work for?"

She did not answer.

"Halcyon?

The barest flicker in her eyes betrayed her. He said, "Don’t worry, Mrs. Whoever-the-hell-you-are. I ain’t gonna unmask you."

She finally found her voice. She looked at him narrowly and said, "Why on earth should I believe that?"

"Because you’re going to tell me everything you know about the death of Zander."

She seemed to have recovered herself, for that smile crept back slowly on her face. She leaned forward and said, "Mr. Call, I believe you may know more about it than I do."

"Maybe so. I think it was Mosby."

"Why?"

"He had the motive. Zander worked for Halcyon and set off that mine explosion at their order, didn’t he?"

"Officially, that never happened," she said.

"Yeah? I guess those fifteen men, women and children ain’t officially in their graves." She didn’t answer, so he said, "Everyone in town blamed Mosby, and he didn’t like that. He was the one, I’d bet my life on it."

"It’s a bet you may well lose."

That stopped Call short. "What? You can’t tell me you think he’s innocent?"

"I’ve no opinion, one way or another, Mr. Call. My job is to gather information. Information that so far doesn’t confirm or refute your hypothesis."

"But—doesn’t Halcyon want to get the bastard? You’d think—"

"Why should they? Mosby is no threat to them now. He’s out of business, that’s all they care about."

"So why are you looking for Zander’s killer?"

She said, "What makes you think we’re looking for his killer?"

"What do you want, then?"

"Never you mind. It’s company business, not your business, Mr. Call."

"Hold on, now—"

She got up and left, walking out the door of the hotel. Call was completely baffled, wondering what had gone so wrong.

* * * * * * *

Amanda walked to the Ambrosia as fast as her legs could propel her. She could not help feeling massively triumphant. Her gamble on Austin had paid off quicker, and with a much bigger jackpot, than she’d ever imagined.

She found Mosby in his office. He didn’t grimace, as he usually did. He seemed to have stopped regarding her as a threat. Good, she thought. Now you’re ripe for the plucking.

He even managed to sound gracious. "What can I do for you, Amanda?"

"For starters, I’ll take back my hotel."

He rolled his eyes. "Amanda, don’t you know of any other topic of conversation?"

She smiled. "You think I’m jokin’, don’t you?"

"That, or you’ve suddenly lost your mind."

"I am completely in my right mind, Clay. You’re gonna sign over the hotel to me right now, this very minute. Otherwise, you’re gonna find yourself facing a murder charge."

She had to give him credit. His expression barely changed. He tried to smile and said, "Whatever do you mean?"

"You know perfectly well what I mean. You see, I just got an earful out of Austin, about a certain mine foreman who disappeared from these parts a year ago."

"He didn’t disappear. Austin filed a report on his death. You can go over to the sheriff’s office and read it yourself."

"A false one."

Mosby stood up and walked slowly over to her. He looked her over for a moment, as if evaluating something. "Why would he tell you about this, anyway? My God. Have you and he—?"

She matched him stare for stare. "What of it?"

He laughed. "Oh, my, oh, my. I’m havin’ a time picturing this. You must hate me much more than I ever realized was possible."

"Let’s get back to the point I was makin’—about my hotel?"

He reached into his cigar box and took out a cigar, then lit it with a match. After puffing on it for a few seconds, he said, "First of all, it’s my hotel, and has been for quite some time. Secondly, there’s no reason for me to hand it over to you."

"Oh, yes there is. I doubt you’d like to be thrown in jail on a murder charge."

"On what evidence? Austin might be stupid enough to tell you, but he’d never talk to anyone official. He’s too fond of his own hide."

"But I ain’t."

"What do you mean?"

"If I were to wire the territorial marshal—"

He smirked. "Oh, that again."

"It I were to tell him about how I got me a witness—"

"Who’ll never talk."

"Who’s too afraid to talk. Who’s afraid because the man he saw kill Zander tried to hang him once—"

That wiped the smile off his face. "Now, hold on—"

"Who trumped up false charges and tried to hang him—and was stopped only because other folks intervened—what do you think he would say?"

"I think he would say you and Austin were both crazy."

"Austin was not your accomplice, Clay. I doubt he would hang, or even end up going to jail. There’s plenty of people who would say he was your victim, just like that poor Zander fellow."

"Poor! That man, he murdered women and children, he—"

"And you thought of yourself as some kind of avenging angel, didn’t you? That’s why you shot him down in cold blood."

For once Mosby had nothing to say. Amanda couldn’t have been more pleased with herself. She looked around the office. "Where’s the deed? I think you can just sign it right over to me now. Then we can hammer out the rest of our terms later."

"You’re not getting the hotel. Just forget it."

She was about to say something, when he interrupted her. "I know perfectly well the first thing you’d do is throw Eliza Monahan and her boy out into the street. I won’t have that, you hear?"

Amanda clutched at her heart in a mock gesture. "What a kind-hearted soul we have here—he’s willing to face the gallows rather than harm the poor, innocent widow—I think my heart just might break! How gallant, how noble—"

"I won’t have it. And I ain’t going to the gallows, either. We’ll work out some other arrangement, but the hotel is off the table, understand?"

"Listen, I don’t see how you can think you’ve got the right to dictate terms. You—" She stopped talking and suddenly realized, she’d won. He’d just implied he was guilty of the crime. She slowly twirled around, her arms thrown out and said, "How about the Ambrosia, then?"

"That’s off the table, too. How about I buy you controlling interest in Twyla’s? Now there’s an atmosphere that would suit you, darlin’."

She stopped twirling. "You’d best not insult me anymore, Clay. I mean it. You just better not make me mad."

"All right, all right. Don’t get all huffy now. I’m sure we can come to a suitable agreement."

"You’re damn right we will. You keep your hotel and your saloon, but that’s all. You won’t even have a nice, shiny vest left after I’m through with you."

He laughed. "Now, now, darlin’. I think we should bury the hatchet and see ourselves as partners, not enemies. You and me, we’ll be the two top citizens in this town. Best for us to be on speakin’ terms, don’t you think?"

"Well—" She nodded slowly, vaguely troubled. He was giving in a might too easily. She brushed the thought away. He had to agree, or risk his own hide. She held all the cards.

She found Austin in her tent, stretched out on her bed, staring off into space. She crept up on him, sat next to him on the bed and took off his hat. She was so happy she could almost pretend she liked being in his company.

He sat up, the vacant, despairing look rapidly leaving his face. "You saw him?"

She said, "You bet I did."

"So what happened?"

"Mr. Mosby keeps his hotel and saloon—"

"What!"

"Let me finish! We haven’t worked out the terms yet, but let me tell you, by the end of the week you and me will own most of this town. What do you think of that!"

"You should have taken everything, and we could have run that bastard out of town once and for all."

"Oh, we will, darlin’, we will. Let him keep his stale old saloon and hotel for the moment. I couldn’t let it all be over that easy." She leaned over and stroked his cheek in a mollifying gesture. "That badge is your badge now, Austin, and nobody else’s. What do you think of that?"

"I think it’s fine. I think you’re fine."

She bent over and kissed him hard on the lips. As they embraced, she thought to herself, "Now all that’s left is to get rid of you."

* * * * * * *

Call couldn’t help but be intrigued by the false Mrs. Zander and wondering what little game she was playing. He began quietly asking about her around town, seeing if he could retrace her steps since she’d been in Curtis Wells.

He already knew what she’d been doing at the sheriff’s office—Ike had been very obliging about filling him in. But he knew Ike was given to a might of exaggeration, so he took most of what he said with a grain of salt.

The only useful thing he could find out was that she’d been to the bank and withdrawn a rather large amount of cash from an account Zander had left there. Now that was interesting. She had to have had identification—false identification, of course, but good enough to fool the banker. Call knew that banker was mighty skeptical.

He began to wonder if she was some kind of confidence trickster, who’d heard about the mine explosion and got the idea to come to Curtis Wells so she could shake Mosby down. He’d heard that Mosby had given her some money.

On the other hand, she had seemed upset when he’d mentioned Halcyon, and certainly talked the company line. The phony identification supported the theory that she was being backed by a sophisticated operation.

After a time, he perched on his usual bench and waited to see if she came out of the Dove. She finally did, and he followed her, though this time he was careful, so that she didn’t see him. It turned out she was headed for tent-town. As he approached, he saw her talking to a couple of men, rather scruffy-looking fellows, but something about them made them seem a bit respectable. He suddenly realized that at least one of them looked familiar to him.

She spotted him and, after saying something to one of the men, quickly went on her way. Since she’d seen him following her, he decided not to continue trailing her. He went over to talk to the two men, who were standing outside the Number 10, striking elaborately casual poses.

"Howdy," said Call.

One of the men spat. "How-do."

"Don’t I know you fellas?"

The other man grimaced and said, "Could be."

The first one said, "Then again, maybe not."

The two men seemed to find this an especially funny joke, and burst out laughing. The taller one clapped the shorter one on the back, and they went on their way, as if they hadn’t a care in the world.

Later that afternoon, Call saw this same pair board the stage to Miles City. It was almost two hours after that when he finally placed their faces—they were two of the men he’d helped pull out of Mosby’s mine after the explosion.

* * * * * * *

Mosby began to lock up the Ambrosia for the night. He’d half-expected Amanda to show up, with her list of demands in hand. As unpleasant and mortifying as their afternoon meeting had been, he almost had to laugh at himself for underestimating her. He had not a doubt in the world that she would hand him over the hangman and then dance on his grave in the bargain. But for some reason, the thought of her being so desperate that she had to take Austin into her bed made the whole situation bearable, even downright amusing.

He was surprised, though, at how easily he had stalled her. Perhaps she just wanted to savor the moment before taking whatever it was she thought he would hand over to her in exchange for his freedom and life. He wondered how much longer he could put her off before he came up with a counter-attack.

The last shade pulled down and all but one of the lamps put out, he took the lit lamp and began to head for his rooms upstairs to ponder the problem further. Suddenly, the light illuminated a pair of eyes, almost scaring the life out of him.

Instinctively, he went for his gunbelt, but the intruder said, "I wouldn’t do that if I was you, Mosby."

There was something vaguely familiar about the voice. "Who’s there?"

"Just an old friend." A massive hulk of a man stepped out of the shadows, grinning. "That right, Mosby. It’s—"

"Peters!"

Peters grinned like a hyena, the light reflecting off his gold tooth.

Mosby put down the lamp, but stayed tensed and ready to go for his gun again if the bastard even looked at him sideways. "What the hell are you doin’ here? I never thought you’d have the gall to show up here again. Why, I can have you arrested for kidnapping, right here and now—"

"Now, now, Mosby. Ain’t polite to treat a guest in your house so poorly. Thought all you Virginians was known for your hospitality. How’s about a drink?"

Peters was behaving so affably that it made Mosby more suspicious than ever. Just the same, it might be a good idea to hear the man out. He went to the back of the bar and poured Peters a drink, then another and another as the man knocked them back in quick succession.

"Damn, that’s bad whisky!" Peters wiped his mouth.

"What do you want? I assume you’re riskin’ hanging for a very good reason."

"Hanging? Now, we don’t want no unpleasant talk about things like hangings, do we?"

"Get to the point, Peters," Mosby said through clenched teeth.

Peters made a show of clearing his throat and getting down to serious business. "Mosby, I am here as the representative of a businessman who wishes to buy an interest in your mine."

If Peters had leapt up on the bar and started to crow, Mosby couldn’t have been more surprised. All he could do was stare at him. Peters laughed, obviously delighted by his reaction.

"Ain’t that a kick in the head? Me, here to help you make a wagonload of money!"

Mosby finally found his voice. "Who do you represent?"

"Fellow named Mike Malone. Wants to buy a share for a substantial price and get it back into operation."

Mosby smelled a rat. "Halcyon—"

"Mr. Malone thinks Halcyon has too much control over the mining enterprises in Montana. Wants to give them a run for their money."

"Tell him from me it ain’t as easy as it sounds."

Peters poured himself another drink and took it in one swallow. "Hell, you think he doesn’t know that? Part of the deal with you is that he will personally make sure nothing unpleasant attaches itself to the mine—past or present."

Mosby eyed Peters coldly. In spite of Peters’ off-handed attitude, something about the whole thing rang true. But perhaps he only thought that because the prospect of having the mine up and running again, not to mention the specter of Zander wiped out of his life once and for all, was so tempting. He had to be cautious.

He reached for a glass and poured himself a drink and another one for Peters. He raised his glass. "Tell your boss I’d be pleased to meet with him to discuss terms." They drank to it. He couldn’t resist asking, "What’s all this to you, Peters?"

"Big commission."

"Ah. Of course."

"Just about make up for the money I never got from you last time."

Mosby laughed as if this were a great joke, but the glint in Peters’ eyes stopped him cold. He smiled weakly and poured more drinks.

* * * * * * *

It didn’t take Mosby long to figure out that he didn’t like Mike Malone. They met in his office at the Ambrosia. Malone was about Mosby’s age, but looked much older. He was a short, squat man, with dirty blond hair, watery blue eyes and a thick brogue. Like Mosby, his taste in clothes ran to expensive and natty in the extreme, the difference being that his grooming habits left much to be desired.

What especially irritated Mosby was the way Malone raked his eyes over his office, and as they spoke, picked one thing up off his desk after another and examined it, as if trying to ascertain its value.

"What do you say, Mr. Mosby? My terms are more than fair."

He tried to keep a polite tone in his voice. "More than fair. But I warn you, Halcyon—"

"Bugger Halcyon. You leave everything to me. I got me ways of dealin’ with them."

"Care to let me in on them?"

Malone laughed. "Well, there’s our friend Peters for one. Hate to have him for an enemy, but having him on your side is very comfortin’, wouldn’t you say?"

"He hasn’t always proved infallible."

"No. But I got me a secret weapon."

Mosby didn’t like secrets, and he didn’t like not knowing everything that was going on in his town. He told Malone just that.

Malone held up his hand in a mollifying gesture. "Christ, Mosby, don’t get all in a snit! This here is still your town, and you’re welcome to it. The mine, that’s all I’m concerned with. You leave it all to me, and soon you and me’ll be richer than the Pope."

The prospect of riches was enough to make Mosby capitulate, so he got the deed for the mine out of his desk. With the mine up and running, there was little Austin and Amanda could do to him—they could own every pissant business in town and he’d still be top dog.

* * * * * * *

The false Mrs. Zander was a mighty busy lady, Call discovered. Sitting on his bench, he observed her coming out of the Dove and heading for the old newspaper office. She stayed there for quite a little while, then emerged and headed for the Dove again.

Call intercepted her. "Mornin’, ma’am."

She smile beguilingly, obviously not viewing him as a threat anymore. "Good morning, Mr. Call."

"Find what you’re lookin’ for yet?"

"As a matter of fact, yes." Her eyes danced with amusement at what must have been the shocked look on his face.

"So—was it Mosby who done in Zander?"

"Why not read today’s issue of the Statesman? It’s the leading story."

"Today’s what!"

She just laughed and turned away, then sashayed her way back to the Dove.

* * * * * * *

Soon the whole town was talking about the two amazing pieces of news—one, that the Montana Statesman was up and running again, and two, that the leading story of the first issue of the revived paper was about the death of Zander.

DEATH OF MINING FOREMAN SOLVED AT LAST, blazed the headline. At the Dove, the dining room was abuzz with people passing around copies of the newspaper.

Mosby stood outside the Ambrosia when Lucinda Zander came by. She had dressed that morning for traveling, he could see. At last! She smiled, and as she went by, she thrust a newspaper in his hand.

"Thought you might be interested in seeing this."

He took the paper and before he could even say anything, she was across the street and boarding the stage for Miles City.

He looked at the headline, and his heart skipped a beat. It took some time for him to recover, and when he did, he began to read.

At first, he thought it must be some gibberish that Josiah had made up himself, it all sounded so outlandish. The story said that two miners who’d been injured in the mine explosion in Curtis Wells had come forward and told how another miner, who gave his name as Jimmy Gallagher, had confessed to killing Zander. They had kept silent, fearful for their lives, but since Gallagher had left town over a year ago, and probably the territory as well, they’d told their story to the poor widow desperate for information about her dead husband.

As Mosby read on, he felt a chill go up his spine. There were several details about the death of Zander described in the article that he thought only he and Austin knew.

It took a while for all this to sink in. That woman calling herself Zander’s widow—was she for real? Or did she work for Malone? Was she the "secret weapon" he’d referred to?

He heard someone come up behind him. A voice said, "Some story, ain’t it?"

He turned around and saw Call standing by his elbow, reading with him. "Yes, indeed. I always wondered if someone had killed Zander out of revenge."

"Well, now we know."

"Yes. Not that it matters much. Except to that widow of his, I guess."

Call didn’t answer, just walked away.

Mosby went back into the Ambrosia. He needed to mull over all the implications of this astounding article. He went into his office and stepped out on to the balcony, looking over the town.

The newspaper article was his salvation. Even if Austin came forward now, people took the printed word as the gospel truth. It would be impossible to convict him for killing Zander. He was in the clear.

He didn’t have to give into Amanda’s demands, yet now he was locked into a partnership with this Malone, and he already didn’t trust the slimy little bastard. If that Zander woman was in his employ, then he’d gone to an awful lot of trouble for him, and he knew perfectly well the man hadn’t done it out of the goodness of his heart.

He tried to look at the good points. The mine would be up and running again, and now he didn’t have to relinquish any control over his other holdings. Yet a little voice inside his head just wouldn’t be still—he knew that he also had no control over Austin. If he was clear of the murder, then so was Austin, and the son of a bitch was free to roam the earth and do as he pleased as sheriff.

That was something he was going to have to rectify, and fast. Causing his downfall shouldn’t require too much thought.

He began to feel better.

* * * * * * *

Amanda read the article over and over again. Then she crumpled the paper in a tight little ball.

Damn! Austin’s crazy father had ruined everything! Just when she’d thought she had bested that bastard.

Why, oh why hadn’t she demanded he sign over some of his holdings right on the spot! She must be losing her touch. She’d let personal feelings cloud her judgement. She had enjoyed the thought of Mosby sweating before she finally lowered the boom.

Austin came wandering into her tent, holding a copy of the paper and grinning from ear to ear. "Damn, I’m feelin’ mighty good, Amanda! ‘Course, I would have liked to see old Mosby swing from the end of a rope, but all the same, this works out good for me."

"We won’t get anything out of the bastard now."

"Don’t worry about that none, darlin’. You’re a clever girl. You’ll think of some other way to get him. In the meantime, I’ll be the one who’s really running this town. Why don’t you think on that?"

The thought make her sick to her stomach. He came over and began to embrace her. She was about to push him away and tell him to go to hell, once and for all. But something inside her told her not to throw him aside. Not just yet.

Trying not to feel nauseated, she let him kiss her.

* * * * * * *

Call sat on his bench and read the article again. Mosby had gotten away with murder, Call was sure of it. It galled him to see him standing on his balcony as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

Austin was back in the sheriff’s office, Mosby was free and clear, and everything was the same as it ever was. Or maybe worse. At least Mosby had some control over Austin in the past. That wouldn’t be so anymore, and Call shuddered to think how Austin would flex his unfettered power.

Dark days were on the horizon for Curtis Wells.

* * * * * * *

Peters waited astride his horse in a thicket of trees near the crossroads outside of Curtis Wells. His saddlebag was bulging with the $10,000 commission paid to him by Malone. Damn, that was easy money! The easiest he’d ever made. Made up completely for the foiled kidnapping of some months back. He could almost feel forgiving about it.

The stage finally arrived. A lady, dressed all in black, disembarked. He could hear the stagecoach driver shouting from his seat if she was sure she wanted to get off in the middle of nowhere.

"Thank you kindly. I’m being met at any minute. Drive on. I’ll pick up my trunk in Miles City later, if you’d be so kind as to leave it at the hotel."

The stagecoach driver nodded, then the stage continued on its journey.

The woman looked around. Peters dismounted his horse and came out of the thicket, leading a pretty palomino horse.

She smiled and ran to him. They embraced, he lifting her almost up off her feet.

"How are you, Mrs. Zander?"

"Oh, hush up."

They kissed. Then he put her down on the ground. "So how’d you make out?"

"Well, there’s the money Mosby gave me for Zander’s ‘backpay’—pin money, that’s all. But then I found out Zander was a very naughty boy, skimming the Halcyon books right and left. With the phony identification Halcyon provided, I cleaned almost $50,000 out of the account."

Peters whistled. "That’s an awful lot of money to be skimmin’ off of mine payrolls and such."

"Oh, he was involved in all kinds of nasty business. I’m sure he was paid a pretty penny to set off that explosion. He was also bribing government officials for Halcyon. That must be where the better part of the money came from."

"But what will Halcyon say when they never get the money back?"

"Easy as pie, darlin’. Seems Mr. Zander had a lot of bad luck playing cards. I bumped into at least five men who told me they won a significant amount of money off of him."

He laughed. "Damn, I got me a clever wife!"

"And you, love?"

"Ten thousand from Malone. Easiest money I ever made. Mosby was practically beggin’ for Malone to come in and rescue his sorry hide."

"Hmm. What luck we had, combining our two little jobs. Halcyon is happy—no trial will ever be held, and nothing about that nasty mine explosion will ever be brought out in open court."

"And Malone is happy—he’s got a piece of the mine, and that’ll help put Halcyon right out of business."

"Mosby can’t be too thrilled about it."

"He’s still breathin’, ain’t he?"

Lucinda Peters mounted her palomino. "Come on, love. Let’s get to Miles City and kick up our heels a bit. I want to get the hell out of these stupid widows weeds!"

"Wear the blue, darlin’," he said as he mounted his horse. "You know how much I favor you in blue."

They rode off together.

THE END

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