This is a fan fiction story based on characters from
Call rode into Curtis Wells in a dispirited state of mind. He had spent the better part of a week trying to track down the Stanton gang, one of whom he’d already captured a few weeks back, but who’d been sprung from jail after Ike had accepted a bribe. Those Stantons were a slippery bunch, and he’d finally decided to head back to town and rest up a spell before riding out and trying again.
After stabling the Hell Bitch at the livery, he bought some biscuits from a lady selling them in the street. He settled down on his bench and began to read the latest issue of the Statesman, the one good thing that had happened lately. Josiah seemed enthused with the paper again, though the editions were much shorter than when Hannah was alive, and sometimes took strange flights of fancy.
He looked up from the paper and spotted Austin coming out of the sheriff’s office. Call smirked. The man had lately taken to strutting around town like a peacock on parade and become even more unbearably obnoxious since reclaiming possession of the sheriff’s badge. Now that Mosby was out of town, he was probably going to get worse. Chewing on a biscuit, Call watched to see what stupid thing Austin would do next. It took a full thirty seconds before he was gratified.
Austin strolled over to a couple of cowboys who were just standing around, minding their own business. One of them spat, and before the spit hit the ground, Austin had him by the collar and was hauling him into the jail.
"Hey, hold on, Sheriff!" The cowboy protested. "What’d I do?"
"Town ordinance," said Austin. "No spittin’."
"Aw, you must be jokin’, Sheriff!" The other cowboy defended his friend. "No spittin’—what kind of a dumb ass—"
Austin drew his gun and pointed under the second cowboy’s chin. "You lookin’ to go to jail, too, fella? There’s laws against interferin’ with a sheriff doin’ his duty."
The second cowboy jumped back a little and stood there with an amazed look on his face as his buddy got dragged off to jail.
"Well, will you lookit that," a voice said from behind Call. "Can’t even spit no more in this town—won’t hardly be worth living here if this keeps up."
Call turned around and saw Luther standing by the bench. "Thought you’d be on a run with the stagecoach now, Luther."
Luther sat next to him. "I got to wait a day—big gold shipment bein’ sent to Miles City."
"That so?" Call began reading the paper again.
"Hey, Call—you ain’t busy doin’ nothin’ now, are ya?"
Without looking up, he said, "Oh, I’m busy, Luther. Can’t you tell?"
"Come on, buddy. Help me out. I need someone to ride shotgun."
"Can’t. I’m heading out again after the Stantons."
"Well, that there is my very point. They might try to hold up the stage."
Call finally looked up from the newspaper and considered a moment. "I guess they might."
"Come on, fella. When we get to Miles City we’ll have ourselves a fine old time, you and me."
Just then, Austin came out of the sheriff’s office again, and stood out front while he lit a cigarette. His eyes raked over the street, as if looking for more unrepentant spitters to haul off to jail. Of course, though the Stantons had been causing a whole lot of trouble in the area, and could well be headed for Curtis Wells at any moment, Austin had not made the slightest effort to go after them.
Call folded up the paper. "You know somethin’ Luther? I think I might like to get away from here for a spell at that."
Luther almost knocked him over with a thunderous clap on the back. "All right, buddy!"
* * * * * * *
They headed out the next morning, the strongbox with the gold coin in it firmly planted underneath Call’s legs as he rode on top of the stagecoach with Luther. There were no passengers this run, and Call was glad of that. There was more than $10,000 in gold in the box, and he would be amazed if they got to Miles City without incident.
The first day there were no problems, and as the sun went down, they found a clearing to set up camp. As they drank some coffee, Luther said, "How’s about we go visit Mattie when we’re in Miles City?"
"Visit Mattie? What for?"
"To say hello, pay our respects. Ain’t that what you’re supposed to do when you go through a town where a friend of yours lives?"
Call shrugged and sipped more coffee. The last thing he wanted to do was see Mattie, especially after the humiliation of losing the sheriff’s election to Austin. "You can visit her if you want. I’d just as soon—"
Suddenly, Call heard a click, like a shotgun being set into firing position. He looked up, and sure enough, in the diminishing twilight he managed to recognize two of the Stanton brothers coming out of a thicket of trees with their rifles pointing straight and him and Luther. They were followed by one of their gang members, also aiming his weapon at them.
The elder Stanton brother, a tall, dark-haired man with a thread of dried tobacco juice down his chin said, "Now, you fellows best cooperate. We just want that there trunk of gold. Wells Fargo ain’t payin’ you enough to get killed over it, I reckon."
"I guess that’s the truth," said Call as he rose from the ground, his hands in the air. Luther did the same. Call could see that his sawed-off was near his feet, and hoped that it was too dark for the Stantons to see it, too.
"Hey, Ben," said the younger Stanton, a mere lad named Willie.
"Shut up, Willie. Just help get that gold offen the stage."
"That there fellow, that’s Newt Call. That’s the bounty hunter who hauled me into Curtis Wells."
"Is that right?" Ben looked Call over. "You the one who beat up my kid brother?"
Call didn’t answer, just kept sight of his sawed-off from out of the corner of his eye.
Ben said, "I don’t like folks who beat up my brother, and I ‘specially don’t like bounty hunters. Guess I’ll have to teach you a lesson." He strode over and whacked him across the face with the butt of his rifle.
Call went down, but not out. He didn’t let on that he was still conscious, because the fall had brought him close enough to his sawed-off to touch it. He heard footsteps coming closer to him. Then he felt sharp pains in his sides as one or both of the Stantons began to administer some vicious kicks.
He kept still at first, then, in a move quicker than lightning, he grabbed the sawed-off, rolled over on his back, and shot at the first body he saw. The blast blew the man back and reverberated through the trees.
"Ben!" Willie screamed and went down on his knees next to his brother. The other figure ran towards Call, and he shot at it, though his aim was off and only managed to get him in the leg. The man yelled and cursed from the pain.
Call got to his feet. Willie looked up at him. "You killed him," he said, a note of wonder and horror mixed in his voice. Then he got up and ran for the trees. Call aimed his rifle, but it was really dark now and he couldn’t see well enough. Besides, he’d hate to have to kill such a young kid.
Luther said, "What do we do, Call?" He looked at the injured man. "I guess we have to haul that one in with us to Miles City."
"And bury this one’s sorry ass, too."
* * * * * * *
As they rode out towards Miles City the next morning, Call kept especially alert, but nothing more happened. Possibly, that kid Willie had not yet met up with the rest of his gang. They rode into Miles City right on schedule and had the gold delivered just as the bank was closing for business. Then they delivered the injured desperado to the sheriff.
"Come on, Call," said Luther as they left the sheriff’s office. "Let’s go have ourselves some laughs."
"Nah. I just want to eat and go to sleep."
"Hell, you can eat and sleep any old time. Let’s go see Mattie."
"I told you, Luther—"
The next thing he knew he was locked in a steel grip, being half-led, half-dragged through the street, and a few moments later practically thrown through the door of a shop. He tried to run past Luther, but that big block of a body made it impossible. Luther grinned and pushed him further into the shop.
"Hey, Mattie! We come by to say howdy!"
Call, seeing there was no avenue of escape, slowly turned around. He saw Mattie standing behind the counter. Their eyes met, and he imagined he saw a mixture of dismay and pleasure in her face before she turned away. She hadn’t changed much in the months since she’d left Curtis Wells, except maybe her hair was a little longer, and he couldn’t help noticing that she had it tied back with a bit of satin ribbon. It was a feminine touch he’d never seen before in her way of dressing.
She had been tending a customer, but they were finished now. The man picked up a box of bullets he’d just purchased, tipped his hat at Mattie and left the shop.
"Hey, Luther. Call." She spoke quietly, looking down at her hands.
"Ain’t this great?" Luther’s voice boomed across the shop. "All of us together again?"
"Yeah, great," said Call. He looked around the shop. "Nice place you got here, Mattie."
"Thanks," she said. She looked around, too. "’Course, it’s smaller than the other place—"
"—and there ain’t no dead bodies on the other side," said Luther, chuckling.
"No," said Mattie. She looked up, as if remembering something. "How’s UnBob doin’?"
"He’s fine. Busy," said Luther. "Always got a fresh supply of bodies for him in Curtis Wells, ain’t that right, Call?"
"Yeah. He misses you, though. Misses you somethin’ awful."
Mattie looked away again. "Well, you boys be sure to remember me to him. Tell him I miss him, too."
Luther said, "Why don’t we all go out and get us some grub? We can talk over old times."
Call didn’t want to talk over any kind of times with Mattie, and was anxious to leave and get away from this terrible, uncomfortable feeling in his gut.
She said, "I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I’m already engaged for this evening."
"Engaged!" exclaimed Luther. He squinted at her. "Mattie, have you got a fella?"
Call was surprised to see her blush. She said, "I guess—yeah, you could say that."
"Well, if that don’t beat all. What do you think of that, Call—Mattie’s got herself a fella!"
Call felt his face get warm. Quickly, he said, "That’s good, Mattie. Glad to hear it."
"Well, I want to meet the man who’s won your heart," said Luther. "I aim to look him over and see if he’s deservin’ of you."
"You can do that right now," said Mattie. "Here he comes."
Luther and Call turned around, looked out the window of the shop and saw a tall, dark-haired man of about thirty years sauntering up the steps. He was not handsome, exactly, but nice-looking enough. There was something oddly familiar about him to Call. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
"Hey, darlin’," said the man as he came through the door of the shop.
"Hi, Jake," she said.
He walked right by Luther and Call, obviously assuming they were customers. He leaned over the counter and kissed Mattie on the cheek. "How’s the sweetest gal in Miles City?" He ran his finger down the side of her face.
She gently pulled his hand away from her. "Jake, these are some friends of mine."
He straightened up and smiled at them. "Pardon me, fellas."
Luther stuck out his hand and said, "Pleased to meet ya. I’m Luther Root and this here is my buddy, Newt Call."
Jake shook hands with both of them, then said, "Call? Ain’t you a bounty hunter?"
"Yeah. What of it?"
"Oh, nothin’. You’re just kind of well-known around here, is all."
Mattie said, "Are you still bounty hunting, Call? I guess I kind of assumed you’d given that up when I’d heard—"
"Well, I heard you ran for sheriff in Curtis Wells."
"Yeah. But I lost. Fellow’s gotta make a living, don’t he?"
Luther said, "Well, I guess these two love birds want to be on their own, so we’d best be movin’ on. Nice to have made your acquaintance, Mr.—"
"Stanton. But you can call me Jake."
Luther and Call looked at each other. Call said, "Stanton? You any relation to—"
Jake Stanton drew himself up straight. "Yeah, those boys in the Stanton gang are kin to me. My brothers, in fact. But I ain’t part of them."
"Nobody said you was," said Call.
"Well, folks have a peculiar way of assuming that just because I have the same last name, I hold with what they do. And I don’t. I got me a good job and I live a decent life."
Call looked at Mattie, and he could see that none of this was news to her. "Come on, Luther. We’d best be goin’."
"Yeah." For once, the bluster had gone out of Luther and he was clearly not the least bit pleased with this Stanton fellow, either.
They left the shop. Call could not resist turning and looking back. Through the window he could see Stanton kissing Mattie again, and this time she was kissing him back.
* * * * * * *
Call told himself that he was only thinking of the best interests of a good friend. That was it, plain and simple. Otherwise, he’d never have dreamed of investigating Jake Stanton and would have taken him at his word when he said he wasn’t part of his brother’s gang.
He quietly asked around town about him, and found that most people held a good opinion of the man. He worked as head wrangler at a spread not far from Miles City and had a great reputation with horses.
There were one or two who didn’t like him, though, and what they said worried Call. Seemed the man had a quick temper, and had been known to get violent, though usually with his fists and not a gun. Most folks said that after he calmed down he was usually very apologetic. Few who’d crossed him still held grudges.
It was clear that Stanton was telling the truth about not being part of his brothers’ gang. Still and all, he couldn’t help being concerned, because the man evidently had a volatile temper. He knew Mattie was a strong woman who could stand up for herself, but Stanton looked capable of hurting her in the event that he lost control.
He wondered what he’d accomplished by finding all this out. He knew Mattie would not appreciate any warning from him. He just had to keep it to himself.
He tried to keep away from her and the gun shop, but found himself in front of it the next day. She saw him and came outside to greet him.
"Mattie. Nice to see you again."
She leaned against a post. "How long are you and Luther stayin’ in town?"
"Not long. We head back to Curtis Wells today. This was just a special run to deliver the gold coin."
"Oh. I see."
The conversation seemed to be over, so Call turned to be on his way. But as happens sometimes, his mouth stepped in front of his brain and started talking. "You know, we was held up by them Stanton brothers on the way here."
Mattie frowned. "Jake has nothin’ to do with them—"
"I killed one of his brothers."
Her face constricted with sorrow and disappointment. "Oh, Lord, Call! Why did you tell me that?"
"I don’t know." He looked down at his feet.
"I thought maybe you was gonna change. I thought, after you runnin’ for sheriff—"
"It’s too late for me to change, Mattie. I couldn’t if I tried. I know, ‘cause sometimes I try."
"Maybe that’s only ‘cause you ain’t tried hard enough." She stepped closer to him. She said, "Jake’s a good man. He—he asked me to marry him."
Call looked at her sharply. "What did you say?"
"That I wasn’t sure—that we’ve known each other for too short a time. That I’d think on it."
"If I was you, I’d think on it, then think again."
"Why?" She searched his face and waited, perhaps for a sign of jealousy or even a declaration, but he did not change expression. She sighed and said, "I told you, he ain’t like his brothers—"
"Maybe he is—more than even he’d like to think."
Mattie’s manner got testy. "What do you mean, Call? It takes one to know one?"
"Maybe." He started to leave, and without looking at her, he said, "Think on it, Mattie. Think good and long."
* * * * * * *
Mattie went back into the shop after Call left. She wished like hell that he’d never shown up in Miles City. She thought she was over him, thought she’d moved on with her life and he no longer had any part in it. Now she wasn’t so sure.
She opened the gun case and was about to start her daily ritual of cleaning her stock when Jake walked into the shop. She smiled, glad he’d stopped by and hoping he could help her calm down after being riled up by Call.
The hope died when she saw the look on his face. It was one she’d only seen once or twice before, just before he lost his temper. These moments were rare and far between, but the truth was, they had scared her a bit. "What’s the matter, Jake?"
He ripped his hat off his head and whacked the top of the counter with it. "That friend of yours—that Call. I just heard he killed one of my brothers."
"Oh, Jake—" She went around the gun case and put her hand on his shoulder. He shook it off.
"Don’t you ‘oh, Jake’ me, woman! I saw that bastard leaving here not ten seconds ago. What’s goin’ on between you and him?"
"Nothin’. I told you, we was just friends when I lived in Curtis Wells."
He grabbed her arms and shook her. "Just friends? How come I don’t believe you when you say that?"
She looked straight into his eyes. "You’re hurtin’ me."
As before, the fury quickly drained out of him and was replaced with sorrow. He released her. "Mattie, I—I’m sorry. Hell, I’d rather die than hurt you. I just can’t help bein’ jealous, is all."
She turned away from him, her arms throbbing where his fingers had gripped her. "I think you should leave. And maybe you’d better not come back no more."
He moved towards her with a mollifying gesture, but she reached into her gun holster and took out her pistol, pointing it under his chin. "I mean it, Jake. Don’t come back, ever."
He didn’t answer at first, just backed off and slowly put his hat back on his head. As she put her gun back in its holster, he said, "It’s ‘cause of Call, ain’t it?"
"It’s nothin’ to do with him. This is between you and me."
"Lie to me if you want, but don’t lie to yourself." When she didn’t say anything, he said, "Suit yourself. But that Call feller—he ain’t never gonna have you. He ain’t, ‘cause I’m gonna kill him."
He slammed out of the door. She called after him, but he didn’t stop.
* * * * * * *
"Mr. Peale! Mr. Peale!"
Josiah, on his way back from having his lunch at the Dove, turned around and saw UnBob scurrying after him. He stopped. "What is it, UnBob?"
UnBob seemed in need of catching his breath. His mouth opened and closed, as if there was just too much he had to say and couldn’t say it.
Josiah put his hand on his shoulder. "Settle down, UnBob. It’s O.K., take your time."
It took him a minute, but the man finally calmed down enough to speak. "Mr. Peale, you’ve just gots to say somethin’ to the sheriff. It just won’t do, won’t do at all."
He took another deep breath. "You see, the sheriff, he says I can’t bury the dead when I need to. He says there’s a new ord—ornid--"
"Yes, sir. That’s right. And that means a town rule, that’s what he told me."
"Yes, yes. I know what an ordinance is." Josiah hoped UnBob would hurry. He had a story to work on for the next day’s edition.
"He says I can’t bury the dead any old time I want to no more. Says I can do it only between the hours of nine and twelve in the morning. It won’t do, Mr. Peale, it just won’t do. I got me a whole pile of stiffs in the ice house, and Doc Cleese, he says it ain’t healthy—"
"Oh, you must have misunderstood. Why would Austin institute an ordinance like that?"
"I’m sure I don’t know, Mr. Peale. The sheriff, he’s a smart man and all, but some days I got me so many coffins to build and holes to dig, I can’t do it all in three hours—"
"Yes, well, I’ll straighten it out, UnBob. Don’t you worry none."
UnBob heaved a sigh of relief. "Thanks, Mr. Peale. Only hurry, ‘cause the town’s runnin’ out of ice."
Josiah left UnBob and headed to the sheriff’s office. Austin wasn’t there, so he went to the next most likely place, the No. 10. Sure enough, when he entered the tent, he found Austin.
That was no surprise. The surprise was Amanda, who stood behind the bar, heaving empty whisky bottles at Austin’s head. Several of the patrons huddled under the tables, and some of them looked to be trembling in fear.
As Austin ducked out of the way of a flying bottle, Amanda yelled, "You get the hell out of my sight, you back-stabbin’ son of a bitch!"
Another bottle sailed through the air, this one smashing against the open door near Josiah’s head. Josiah rushed in and managed to get hold of her arm before another bottle took flight. "Now hold on there! Why, Miss Amanda! What ever is the matter?"
She lowered her arm and glared at Austin. "I’ll tell you what’s the matter! That son of yours is just askin’ to have his head smashed in—just beggin’ for it!"
She seemed to calm down a bit and put the bottle in her hand down on the bar. "Why don’t you tell him, Austin? Why don’t you show your daddy what a big man you are?"
Josiah looked at his son. Austin said, "Just a minor disagreement over a new ordinance, that’s all it is, Father. Nothin’ that merits this roughhousin’."
Josiah asked, "What kind of ordinance?"
"He expects me to close down at midnight! Midnight! And then he wants me to pay up for a license to sell liquor—you rotten bastard—"
She seemed ready to advance on Austin, so Josiah held her by the shoulders to stop her. "Miss Amanda, let’s all stay calm and rational. I’ll have a talk with my son."
She relaxed and shook his hands off her shoulders. "All right. But I’m warning you, if these ordinances ain’t repealed, effective immediately, I’m gonna fix it so you ain’t never gonna have any grandchildren. You get my drift?"
"Ah—yes, I think your meaning is quite clear." Josiah pushed Austin out the door. As they walked back to town, he said, "What’s got into you, son?"
"Nothin’. Just tryin’ to make this a more pleasant place to live, is all. Time we got some order around here. Thought you’d be in favor of that."
"That’s all well and good, but what about this ordinance where you say UnBob can’t bury the dead any time but the morning?"
"Folks don’t like seein’ the funeral wagon goin’ back and forth all day long."
"That may well be, but we have to have a little practicality in these rules. UnBob says there’s a back-up of corpses in the ice house, and that just won’t do, son."
Austin considered that for a moment. "He’ll just have to work faster."
"Well, even you can’t order folks to die at a particular time of the day."
"Are you mockin’ me, Father?"
"No, no. Of course not."
"I’m the only one lookin’ after the best interests of this town. You remember that."
Josiah watched his son as he strutted back to the jail. He sighed and went back to the newspaper office, wondering what had gotten into that boy.
* * * * * * *
As the stagecoach rolled along its route, Call found himself deep in thought. Luther had rambled quite a bit during the first leg of the journey about seeing Mattie again, and expressed some concern about her possibly marrying Stanton. This second day, though, Luther seemed talked out, and Call had occasion to think about the matter quietly to himself.
Why would Mattie want to get caught up in a family full of outlaws? Even if Jake were an upright, decent fellow, marrying into that family seemed an act of lunacy to Call. The worst of it was, he wasn’t totally sure Jake was so upright and decent.
He kept reminding himself that it wasn’t his concern, that Mattie was a grown woman with every right to live her own life.
Damn Luther for insisting that they see her.
He was so lost in his thoughts that he must have let down his guard. That was the only possible explanation for what happened next.
He felt the stage lurch to a stop. He turned to Luther to ask him why he was stopping, but the words never got out of his mouth, because a swarm of armed men suddenly surrounded the coach. They seemed to materialize out of thin air. Before he could even reach for his gun, he heard a click close to his ear.
He slowly turned around and saw himself eye-to-eye with Jake Stanton, who had quietly climbed up on to the stage and now had his gun pointed at Call in a dead aim right between the eyes.
Instead of shooting him, Stanton turned his revolver around in his hand and smacked Call sharply across the temple with the handle. He blacked out, never feeling a thing when he crashed to the ground.
* * * * * * *
Amanda headed for the center of town, determined to have it out with Austin once and for all. She had tried to calm down, tried to get to a point where rational conversation was possible. That idiot’s betrayal was too much to be borne. She was going to have to remind him that she was the one and only friend he had in this town, his only ally.
As she approached the edge of town, she saw UnBob pounding a sign into the ground with a hammer. She stopped to read it.
ORDINANCE NO. 5
NO FIREARMS WITHIN CITY LIMITS
TURN ALL WEAPONS IN AT SHERRIF’S
OFFICE FOR DURATION OF VISIT
* * * * * * *
She stood there for a moment, her mouth open. Then she started to laugh.
UnBob stopped pounding the sign and looked at her. "You all right, Miss Amanda?"
"Oh, I’m just fine, UnBob. There ain’t nothin’ wrong with me." She turned away from him, still giggling. She almost ran smack into Austin. "Well! If it ain’t just the man I want to see."
Austin stood there, coolly smoking on a cigarette, though he did look a bit unsettled by her reaction to the sign. "Mind letting me in on the joke?"
"You, you jackass. You’re the joke. What are you, crazy or somethin’? You really think folks’ll let you take their weapons away from them?"
"They ain’t gonna have much choice in the matter." He took another puff and blew smoke leisurely into the air.
"If I was you, I wouldn’t be so set on makin’ enemies out of just about every citizen in this town. And I sure as hell wouldn’t be makin’ one out of me."
He smirked. "What makes you think I need you for anything? I got my badge back all by myself, didn’t I?"
"You have a faulty memory, but never mind about that now. Why you doin’ this?
"I aim to make this into a peaceful, law-abiding’ town. One decent folk would be proud to call home."
"Is that right? I can’t wait to see what happens when Mosby and Call get back. Love to know what they think about this little beauty." She gestured at the sign.
"It just so happens I plan to meet both on their return and disarm them personally."
She laughed again. "Well, that’s somethin’ I’d buy a ticket to see. It’ll be interestin’ to see if you walk away with your head still attached to your shoulders."
"You underestimate me, darlin’." He threw the cigarette butt on the ground and ground it with his boot heel.
"No, I don’t. But good luck to you anyways. You’re gonna need it."
She turned and headed back to tent-town.
* * * * * * *
Call slowly regained consciousness to the sound of gun blasts and men whooping it up. He tried to move, but found that close to impossible. He was prone, his hands over his head and tightly tied up to what seemed to be some stakes driven into the ground. His feet were tied up, too. He turned his head and saw Luther in a similar position next to him.
He lifted his head a bit. The first thing he found himself wondering about was how in the world anyone had managed to subdue Luther to the point where they could tie him up, and keep him tied up. He got an answer immediately. There had to be close to a dozen men in the gang, more than he ever knew rode with the Stantons. It was sheer numbers that had bested Luther.
He felt something wet smack him in the face. One of the gang had thrown a cup of water at him, perhaps in an attempt to rouse him. The man did the same to Luther, who woke up gasping and sputtering, and started to struggle with his bonds even before he could have been fully conscious.
The man kicked Luther and said, "None of that now. You boys just behave yourselves."
Call heard some more people come closer, then a voice say, "Well, lookie here, Jake. Our friend Call has finally woke up."
Call saw Jake and Willie among the throng, and another man who, from his resemblance to his brothers, could only be Roy Stanton. That was the eldest and, some said, the meanest brother.
Roy Stanton began to pace back and forth in front of Call. He said, "You know, Call, we brothers kind of take it personal when someone kills one of our own. I think we’re just gonna have to teach you, and others of your kind, a lesson. Ain’t that right, boys?"
Several others nodded. Call couldn’t help looking straight at Jake until the man was forced to look away. At least he had the grace to be somewhat ashamed of joining up with his brothers.
Roy continued, "I guess you and your friend think maybe we aims to kill you, since you killed our brother. Is that what you’re thinkin’?"
Call didn’t answer or move a hair.
"Unfriendly little cuss, ain’t he? Well, Call, I got me another scheme in mind. See, my brother Jake here says you got a mighty big reputation in these parts as a bounty hunter. Says you don’t give up until you gets your man. Now, I can’t have you on my tail all the time." He stopped pacing and stood in front of Call. "‘Course, I could just kill you and get it over with, but what about other bounty hunters? Maybe I can discourage all of you in one fell swoop."
Roy gestured to one of the gang. The man went outside of Call’s line of vision and came back with something in his hand. He couldn’t tell what it was at first, until he turned the object in his hands and the blade glinted in the sun. It was an ax.
Luther whispered, "Oh, Lord, Call."
"Can’t be no bounty hunter if’n he can’t shoot no gun, now can he, fellas?"
Sinister laughter began to murmur through the crowd of men gathered around them. Still, Call refused to show any emotion. Roy took the ax from his man and advanced on Call.
He rose it in the air—and then suddenly stopped. He lowered it and then leaned on it like a cane. "You know somethin’? I don’t think it’s right for me to do this here little job. I think my brother Willie ought to do the honors."
The murmuring and laughter stopped. Even the scumbags who belonged to the gang seemed shocked by the idea.
"Me?" The boy began to turn a pale shade of green.
"Why sure, lad. It’ll make a man of you. Go on, get the bastard for killin’ our brother." Roy offered the boy the ax. The boy looked around him, unwilling to look cowardly in front of the gang, then reluctantly began to take the ax.
"Now hold on there," said Jake. He came forward and took the ax from Roy. "Let me do it. I got me a more powerful reason than all of you to do it."
"Yeah?" What’s that?"
"He tried to steal my woman from me."
Roy laughed delightedly. "Well, if that don’t beat all! By all means, brother Jake. Do the honors."
Call could feel Luther next to him struggling with his bonds in another attempt to free himself. "Stop it," he whispered. "Keep still, and we might get out of this alive."
Jake advanced on them. He raised the ax high above his head. Call closed his eyes and braced himself. Then there was a whooshing sound as the ax sliced through the air.
No human being could have been insensible to the pain. Call screamed, and kept groaning at the bursts of excruciating pain that jolted through his hand, and, it seemed, right up his arm and into his shoulder. It took him a moment to realize that his hand was still attached to his arm, or else he would not be able to feel it. Stanton had brought down the blunt end of the ax square on his gun hand.
Roy yelled at his brother, "You bastard! Why didn’t you—"
"If I’d have cut off his hand, he might have bled to death. If he was dead, then your message wouldn’t be near so powerful, now would it?"
"Wha—well—oh, I suppose."
"Don’t worry, his bounty huntin’ days is over. He’ll never hold a fork in that hand, much less a gun."
The pain finally got to be too much for Call. He passed out.
* * * * * * *
The moment Austin stepped into the Ambrosia, the whole place grew quiet as a tomb. Not one person turned to acknowledge his presence.
He walked up to UnBob, who stood next to Doc Cleese at the bar. "UnBob," he said. "Why haven’t you picked up that stiff that’s lyin’ out there in the middle of the street?"
UnBob nervously darted his eyes, then sipped from his glass of beer. "It’s 12:22, sheriff."
Someone guffawed. Austin turned around and glared at the crowd. Then he said, "That don’t mean you leave stiffs lyin’ about in the street! Get out there and collect him, now!"
UnBob put down his glass on the bar and looked at Cleese. Cleese shook his head. UnBob lifted his chin and said, "No. Don’t want to violate the ordinance and all."
Austin looked about the room again. It was still eerily quiet, though he could detect some snickering. He turned to the Doc. "Cleese, will you tell this fool why he has to get that dead body off the street?"
Cleese looked at him coolly. "Which fool is that, Sheriff?"
"Sheriff, really, it hardly matters if he leaves it there or puts it in the icehouse. That place is so packed now, all the corpses will soon be rotting in the open air." Cleese casually began to sip his whisky. "I just want it known that if there is a sudden outbreak of disease, I’m not the one at fault."
More snickers. Through clenched teeth, Austin said, "O.K., UnBob. I’m temporarily repealin’ that ordinance. Now get out there and start buryin’ bodies."
"Yes, sir, whatever you say!" UnBob abandoned his beer and scurried out of the Ambrosia.
Austin raised his voice. "That don’t mean none of them other ordinances ain’t in place!" He reached over to a cowboy standing near Cleese and removed the revolver from the man’s holster. "Everyone turn in their weapon, right now!"
Cleese said, "Sheriff, don’t you think—"
"Stick to doctoring, why don’t you? Leave the sheriffin’ to me."
Cleese sipped a bit more whisky. "God help us."
One by one the patrons in the Ambrosia went up to the faro table and put their weapons on it. He ignored the looks that, if they could kill, would have made him deader than all the stiffs currently occupying the ice house.
* * * * * * *
Luther tried for three hours to break his bonds. The Stanton gang had simply abandoned them and ridden off. He knew even if he could get free he and Call were far from out of danger. They had been taken prisoner in the middle of the badlands, and left without water or food. But at least they were alive.
He looked at his friend. Call was still out, his face slick with sweat. By lifting and turning his head, he could see that Call’s hand was a swollen, bruised, bloody mess. That made him mad as hell. He started struggling again.
After a few more hours of this, he gave up. It was dark now, and getting mighty cold. But he was so tired he managed to fall asleep.
When he woke up, he started struggling once more. To his complete and utter surprise, he felt no resistance. His hands were free!
He sat up slowly. His arms were racked with pain from being in that unnatural position for so many hours. He looked around, and saw that Call was gone.
Where could he have got to? And who had set them free?
He staggered to his feet and started looking around. He finally got his answer.
He saw Call laid out by a fire, covered up with animal skins. In the early morning light, Luther made out a figure kneeling next to him and putting something in his mouth. The person looked up as Luther approached.
"The one and the only," she answered. She had finished pushing the Indian medicine into Call’s mouth, then held a canteen to his lips and forced him to drink a bit. Then she stood up and handed the canteen to Luther, who took a few grateful swallows.
"How’d you find us?" He handed her back the canteen.
"Wasn’t lookin’ for you. Was lookin’ for the Stantons. They do this?" She gestured at Call’s smashed hand.
"Yeah. Those rotten bastards. Said they was gonna send a message to all bounty hunters who try to track them down."
"Is that right?" Enona’s eyes danced with sly amusement. "Message received and duly noted."
"Hell, they shoulda known this wasn’t gonna discourage no bounty hunters. Not with the price those boys have on their heads."
"Well, I can’t speak for the rest of my profession, but on my part it ain’t got nothin’ to do with money."
"Is that right?"
"That’s right. They killed my blood brother, Grey Eagle. Only way I could stop the Lakota from puttin’ on the war paint was to promise to bring them in myself. I aim to do that, and this little stunt ain’t gonna scare me off."
Luther couldn’t help grinning. "No, I guess it wouldn’t." Then he got serious again. "What about Call? You think he’ll be all right?"
She knelt next to him again. "Don’t know. He needs better attention than I can give him."
"We’d best head out to Curtis Wells." Luther saw that the Stantons had left the stagecoach, but taken the horses with them. Damn!
"I got a better idea. Lakota camp ain’t far off. Let’s go there first. The medicine man can tend to Call, and we can get food and maybe the loan of some horses."
"Sounds like a sensible idea."
"After that, we’d better get our asses to Curtis Wells. The tracks left by the gang lead straight to town."
* * * * * * *
The sound of gun blasts awoke Amanda from a sound sleep. She sat up in bed, grimacing and cursing. Damned cowboys.
As she rose out of bed and covered herself with a wrap, it suddenly occurred to her that the sounds of gunshots were mighty strange, because Austin had disarmed the whole town the previous day. She snickered to herself. Clearly, somebody had it in mind to lead a rebellion against the King of Fools. She dressed quickly. This she had to see from a front-row seat.
As she walked towards town, her good humor vanished. She instantly perceived something was dreadfully wrong from the way people were scurrying through the streets and ducking quickly into buildings. A hand suddenly grabbed her and pulled her back.
"Miss Amanda, don’t go into town! There’s trouble."
She turned around and saw that it was UnBob who had accosted her. "What’s goin’ on?"
But she didn’t need to wait for an answer. Just then, several men on horseback thundered into the middle of town. Then she saw three men drag Austin out of the sheriff’s office and throw him down in the middle of the street.
"Who are those men? And why don’t anyone fight back?" Suddenly, she remembered why not. Every gun in town was currently locked in the sheriff’s office. "That blasted idiot! He’s left us completely defenseless."
"Ho-ly!" UnBob exclaimed. "I saw that man’s picture in the sheriff’s office. Those are the Stanton brothers!"
"Oh, Lord." Amanda thought quickly. She, of course, had not handed in her weapons to Austin, as she officially lived outside the town limits. She still had her derringer and a .45 in her tent. How comforting, she thought. One derringer and one pistol against at least a dozen, well-armed men.
The biggest and the ugliest of the men stood over Austin and addressed the gathering crowd. "Now, see here, folks. We’s the Stanton brothers. You’ve heard of us, ain’t you?"
Several people in the crowd nodded grimly, and one woman screeched and fainted on the spot.
The man grinned, pleased at such an extreme reaction. "Now, there ain’t no cause for alarm. We just aim to be guests in your town for a spell. We’re just waitin’ on someone, and then we’ll be off. No one needs to get hurt. That is, as long as you all cooperate."
From the corner of her eye, Amanda noted the banker was being forced to leave the bank at gun point by one of the gang. That was the limit. "Ain’t there no men left in this town? Where the hell is Call? Luther?"
"They’re on a stagecoach run, ma’am," replied UnBob. "But don’t you worry none. I’ll protect you."
She looked at him. "Well, that makes me feel a whole hell of a lot better."
"Thank you, ma’am."
"UnBob, you have to do me a favor."
"Find Mr. Peale, and bring him to the No. 10. Can you do that?"
"I’ll get right on it."
He dashed off to find Josiah.
* * * * * * *
"Roy, why are we waitin’ around here for?" Jake sat with his two brothers in the dining room of the hotel. "I think it’s best if we head for the border—"
As he rolled a cigarette, Roy said, "Since when did you appoint yourself leader of this gang?"
"It just seems madness. We should keep movin’."
Roy took a match out of his pocket and lit the cigarette. "We gots to wait. I hear there’s another bounty hunter on our tail. I aim to finish this one off before we move on. Damned bounty hunters. Ain’t no scum lower in this world than bounty hunters." Roy looked around, and his eye must have caught something, because he shouted, "Hey, honey! Come here."
The hotel staff had taken to huddling together in the kitchen from the moment they had arrived, only appearing when one of the gang demanded something. A girl crept out of the kitchen. She didn’t look more than sixteen, and had a sweet, vacant look about her.
"You the manager, sweetheart?"
"Oh, no, sir! That’s Mrs. Monahan. Only she ain’t here today."
"Well, I’m sure you’ll make my stay an enjoyable one, won’t you, honey?" He grabbed her and pulled her down on his lap. The girl did not protest, but looked as if she was about to burst into tears.
"Leave her alone, Roy," said Jake. "There’s a whorehouse down the street for that sort of thing."
"Hell, who wants some flea-bitten whore when you can have such a fresh, pretty thing? Hey, boys? We’ll all have a go at her!" The gang laughed menacingly.
"I said, leave her the hell alone!" Jake rose out of his chair and pulled his gun. "Let go of her. Now."
A couple of the gang members jumped to their feet, too, ready to defend their leader. Roy looked at the gun, plainly amused, and said, "It’s all right, boys. My brother ain’t gonna kill me. Not over some little slut."
He pushed the girl off his lap so violently that she fell on the floor in a heap. She scrambled to her feet and ran to the kitchen, crying hysterically.
"You proud of yourself, Roy?" Jake replaced his gun in its holster.
"You know, you should’ve never become no wrangler, Jake. You should have been a Sunday school teacher instead."
The rest of the gang members laughed as if this were a great joke. Jake said, "I’m gonna get some shut-eye."
"You do that, Preacher Man."
* * * * * * *
"Ain’t nobody here man enough to stand up to those bastards?"
Amanda paced back and forth in front of the bar. The only "men" in the bar, aside from UnBob and Josiah, were her regular clientele—in other words, drunkards who were scared out of their minds and trying to find the swiftest path to unconsciousness possible.
A few were still enough in their senses to put forth an opinion. "Hell," said one from the back of the room. "This here is the sheriff’s fault. If he hadn’t a taken everybody’s guns—"
"Yes, yes," said Josiah. "We know that wasn’t—well, it wasn’t very well thought out, but his intentions were good."
Amanda scoffed. "What’s that they say about the road to hell, Josiah?" She stopped pacing and faced the crowd. "We got to whup these sons of bitches. We can do it. All we have to do—"
"Without guns?" This from another patron. "Are you out of your mind, woman?"
Another one said, "And who died and made you the Queen of Sheba, anyways?"
She ignored that, and said, "The sheriff couldn’t have gotten his hands on every gun in this town. Speakin’ for myself, I got a derringer and a .45—"
The first patron burst out laughing. "A derringer? A derringer! That’ll beat out a dozen men armed with both pistols and rifles!"
She glared at him. "It’s a start, it’s something. Does anybody else—"
UnBob piped up. "I got me a little rifle for huntin’ rabbits. ‘Course, I never hunt rabbits, but—"
"No, UnBob, that’s good. It’s something. Anything else? Maybe something Mattie left behind before she went to Miles City?"
Josiah said, "Miss Amanda, why don’t we just wait them out? Call and Luther will be back soon, and so will Mosby. Maybe even before that, the gang will just—"
"—dance on out of here? I doubt it, Josiah. We wait, and we’ll be sorry. You mark my words."
The first patron took a slug of whiskey straight from a bottle. "Well, I’m with Mr. Peale. I say we wait ‘em out. Sounds more sensible than followin’ a woman and a fool with a couple a guns."
Austin suddenly lurched into the bar. He stood there for a moment with a look on his face that was an odd mixture of shame and bravado.
Amanda sneered at him. "Well, I can see what a big threat that there gang takes you for, lettin’ you loose."
He ignored her, then tried to strike a dignified pose and put a note of authority in his voice. "I need help."
Laughter rumbled through the tent. One patron shouted, "Hell, we wouldn’t be in this fix if it weren’t for you!"
Shouts of "Yeah!" "That’s right." "Dumb bastard!" rang through the tent. Then Austin had to duck and cover his head as several shot glasses were thrown at him.
"Well," said Amanda, as the ruckus finally died down. "Guess you have your answer, don’t you?"
Austin didn’t respond. He just turned and ran out of the saloon.
* * * * * * *
Call slowly opened his eyes. At least he thought his eyes were open. He couldn’t see a damned thing.
He could hear, though. He thought he heard some chanting, the kind he’d heard before from a medicine man. He tried to sit up. That was a mistake. Though he felt no pain, his whole arm was like a dead weight, and it panicked him. Had someone cut it off?
He reached over with his other hand and felt his injured limbs. Everything was intact.
The chanting faded. He turned his head and finally saw some light coming from a small fire in the middle of the shelter he was in. When he turned away from it, he saw a tall Lakota man standing over him, waving a burning feather over his body. The chanting started again.
He knew someone had given him the Indian medicine he’d had before, because he recognized the strange sensations coursing through his body. He decided not to fight it this time. Perhaps the worst thing that would happen is that he’d fall asleep again. Sleep was what he longed for, blessed, endless, sleep . . .
The medicine man shouted, "Wake up!"
Call grimaced at the command and shook his head, refusing to open his eyes again.
The chanting continued, louder this time.
Call finally opened his eyes again and shouted, "Shut up! Leave me alone!"
The medicine man said, "Wake up. Look." He pointed.
Call finally looked, and realized that he and the medicine man were not the only ones in the shelter. There was a figure before him, though whether it was man or woman, he couldn’t tell right off. He shook his head, trying to clear it. Something was happening, something important.
The figure moved closer to him. At first, he could not believe what he was seeing. It was no more than a dream, he told himself, no more than the effects of the drug. He turned to the medicine man.
"Am I dead?"
"You are in a place between life and death. Look." The medicine man pointed, then seemed to fade away before his eyes, then was slowly replaced by the other figure.
He only sighed, afraid saying her name would drive her away. Yet he couldn’t help himself.
She didn’t answer, only smiled. Her image gradually became clearer. She was dressed in her wedding gown.
He burst into tears, crying like a baby. "Hannah, Hannah." He reached out for her with his good hand, wanting to touch her, wanting to feel the warmth of her skin again. She moved away. "No, no!," he cried. "Don’t leave, Hannah, please don’t leave again!"
She moved close again.
He just looked at her, breathing in long, tremulous sighs. She seemed so real. If this was a dream, he never wanted to wake up again.
Then he saw another image, a man standing next to her. He squinted to see who it could be, and was shocked to recognize himself, as he was when he and Hannah first married.
He watched as the image of himself took Hannah in his arms and kissed her. Oh, he swore he could feel the sweetness of that kiss on his own lips! It was almost too beautiful a sensation—he thought he would faint.
Too soon, the image began to fade.
He called out, "Hannah, don’t go!"
The image started to change slightly. He still saw a man with a woman dressed in a wedding gown, but they were two different people now. He lifted his head and blinked, trying to see better. This time, he recognized the woman as Mattie. The man was Jake.
He watched as Jake tenderly lifted the wispy veil covering Mattie’s face. He took her in his arms and kissed her. When Jake released her from his embrace, Mattie looked down at her dress. It was covered with blood.
She looked at the blood, then she looked at Jake. She began to fall backward and Jake caught her in his arms. From the vacant look in her eyes, Call knew she was dead,
"Mattie," Call whispered. "Oh, no, not Mattie."
They slowly faded from view, and her face was replaced by that of the medicine man. Call flopped back on the skins. He could still feel a tingling on his lips from the warmth of Hannah’s kiss.
He wished he was dead.
* * * * * * *
Jake looked at himself in the mirror, then down at his hands. He was so full of self-loathing he almost couldn’t rise out of bed that morning. This had happened other times, when he’d lost his temper and gone off half-cocked. This time, though, was the worst. This time, he would never forgive himself.
He examined his hands, almost fascinated with them. These hands had committed an unspeakable act. Over and over again he felt the vibrations from the impact when he brought that ax down on Call’s hand. It made him sick to his stomach to think he could have done such a thing.
Now there was no turning back. He could never return to his old life. His job, his friends . . . Mattie. She would look upon him as the worst of men when she found out.
The anger and frustration became too much for him. He cried out and swept those guilty hands across the bureau, sending the water pitcher and basin flying into space. They crashed to the floor.
"What’s wrong, Jake?"
He turned around and saw his youngest brother standing there. "Nothin’," he replied. "Leave me be."
Willie slowly crept closer. "You did the right thing."
"It weren’t right, what I did."
"Yeah, it was. Don’t you understand? Roy would have made me do it and if I hadn’t a done it, he would have. And that Call feller, he’d be dead now, instead of just hurt."
"I wanted to kill him—"
"Not that bad. Not really."
Jake put his arm around his brother and drew him close. "Why do you ride with Roy, anyways? You don’t belong in that gang."
The boy shrugged. "Thought it would be fun. It ain’t fun, Jake. Now I’m stuck."
Jake sighed. "Me, too." He hugged his brother tighter.
* * * * * * *
"Come on, Call," said Enona. "We have to get back to Curtis Wells, pronto."
Call barely turned his head. "Get the hell away from me."
"Well, he’s almost back to normal," said Luther.
Enona went over to where Call was lying in the shelter and shook his shoulder. "We have to move quickly. Luther and I just got back from town. The Stantons have taken over the whole place."
"I don’t care."
Enona looked at Luther, who shrugged. Then she said, "Well, I don’t care much either, exceptin’ I don’t want the Lakota to go on the war path. Do you?"
"Don’t matter to me. Nothin’ matters."
Enona said to Luther, "What the hell is his problem?"
"Must be sick from the pain and the drugs."
"Well, he better get unsick, and fast."
"Maybe we can ask the Lakota to help us."
"Sure, why not? And the minute the news gets to Fort Davis, there’ll be a massacre ‘cause they’ll think the Lakota have gone to war."
"It was just a suggestion."
She turned to Call again. "Look," she said, her off-handed manner slipping a little. "You need serious doctorin’. That means we have to get you to Curtis Wells to see Doc Cleese so he can tend to your hand."
"Let ‘em cut it off. No use to me no more, anyways."
Enona looked at Luther again and jerked her head. He stepped forward and reached for Call, pulling him up off the floor. Before Call could utter a word of protest, he had him slung over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and was taking him out of the shelter.
* * * * * * *
As he walked to the newspaper office, Josiah heard a strange sound come from an alleyway. Like a cat mewling. He stepped over to investigate.
He found one of the serving girls from the Dove huddled next to a barrel, weeping, her knees drawn up and her head in her arms. He approached her and touched her shoulder.
The girl jumped, then began crawling backwards further into the alley. When he saw her face, Josiah gasped. Someone had beat her.
"You poor child, what happened to you?"
"What do you mean nothing? Someone hurt you, I can see that as plain as—"
The girl stopped crawling and began to bawl louder. "He said he was gonna chop off all my toes and fingers, he said—"
She just shook her head and sobbed some more.
"It was one of those Stantons, wasn’t it?"
She didn’t answer him, but he knew it was the truth. He knelt on the ground and gathered the girl in his arms. She struggled, but he said soothingly, "Come along, now. Let Doc Cleese have a look at you."
After more soothing talk, she finally let him lead her out of the alleyway and take her to the Doc.
After Cleese examined the girl, he called Josiah aside. "She’ll be all right, physically, but—"
"I’m afraid she’s been—violated."
Josiah sighed and hung his head. "I was wrong. We were all wrong, and Miss Amanda was right. We should have fought back. We didn’t, and now that poor child is paying the price."
"What can we do? We’re not armed."
"By fighting with clubs and rocks if we have to. No one should be able to come here, ever again, and harm a poor, innocent girl."
Josiah put on his hat and strode out the door.
* * * * * * *
Austin told Carson, "Line five glasses up along the bar, then fill ‘em up."
Carson glared at him, but silently obeyed. Austin picked up each glass one by one knocked back the contents in one gulp. When he was finished, he felt a hand touch his shoulder. He turned and saw that it was his father.
"Son, what are you doing? Stop that. We need to do something, and quick."
Austin shook his father’s hand off his shoulder. "And just what do you propose I do? No one wants to help me, and I ain’t dumb enough to face that gang alone."
"Listen to me. They—" He lowered his voice. "They raped one of the waitresses from the Dove. We have to take action, before someone else is hurt."
Austin lowered his head. "What do you suggest?"
"Sneak out of town and find Newt."
Austin stiffened, then shouted, "Carson, fill up these glasses again!"
Carson obeyed. Austin heard his father sigh and move away from him. He began to knock back the shots of whisky, one by one.
Austin soon lost track of time. He had a vague memory of being forcibly ejected from the Ambrosia. As he went flying out the door after someone pushed him through it, he shouted, "Just you wait! You’ll be in jail on a charge of harming the person of the lawful sheriff before you know what hit ya!"
He staggered to his feet and groped his way along the sidewalk. As he passed an alleyway, someone grabbed him and pulled him into it.
"Shhh." Austin saw that he was face-to-face with Luther and Enona. Luther said, "Shut up! You want to alert the gang?"
"Well, it’s about time you showed up—"
Enona whispered loudly, "Lower your voice, you idiot."
He pulled himself out of Luther’s grasp and struck a dignified pose. "Who’re you callin’ an idiot? Idiots don’t get elected sheriff."
She grimaced and said, "First time for everything."
"Listen, you little—"
Luther interrupted. "Stop it! No use arguin’ amongst ourselves. We got to do somethin’ about those Stantons. Am I right, or am I right?"
Austin looked at them, trying to focus his eyes. "I don’t need your help."
Enona said, "Oh, really? I suppose that’s why the gang has control of the whole town."
"I’m workin’ on the problem."
"And bein’ real effective, anyone can see that."
Luther said to Enona, "We got to sober him up."
"What for?" She shook her head. "He’s no use to us. More of a hindrance than a help, if you ask me."
"Maybe you’re right. But what do we do?"
"I say we storm the sheriff’s office. When we were at the 10, I heard someone say the sheriff has all the weapons in there. Ain’t that right, Austin?"
He said, "Go to hell."
"Give me your keys. I expect you got them guns locked away."
"Go. To. Hell."
She made a sound of disgust and began to search him. He knocked her hands away. "They ain’t locked up—just put away in a cabinet."
"The two of us, storming the jail?" Luther looked doubtful. "I don’t know about that."
"Got a better plan?"
"No. Too bad we can’t get Call to come up with somethin’. He’s good at plannin’."
* * * * * * *
They left Austin in the alleyway and headed out for the jail. Since the gang members couldn’t account for every single person who had been in town when they rode in, Luther and Enona had found it fairly easy to sneak in and blend with the crowd after it had become dark, and were lucky enough to find out about the weapons ban before one of the gang members had seen them. Call, being so sick and, therefore, very conspicuous, they left camped out a few miles out of town.
Luther whispered, "How’ll we do this?"
"You’ll kick the door in. That’ll surprise ‘em."
Luther nodded. When they arrived at the jail, Enona crept up to the window and peeped in. She whispered, "Only one man in there. This will be easy as pie."
They each stood on either side of the door. Enona nodded. With one, swift movement, Luther kicked the door in. She came in right behind him, her weapon pointed in the face of one of the gang members before he barely had time to be cognizant of what was happening.
"Luther, get the handcuffs. We’ll—"
From behind her, she heard a thump and a groan. Turning ever so slightly, she witnessed Luther falling to the floor in a crash. In the bare seconds that passed, she was able to register the fact that another gang member had been in the jail after all, and had just ambushed Luther. Pain burst through her wrist as the first gang member took advantage of her being distracted and ripped the gun from her hand.
He growled, "You bitch." Then he slapped her across the face. The blow was so hard that it knocked her out cold.
When she came to, she found herself in one of the jail cells with Luther. She sat up on the cot and looked around. The place seemed just full of people, and she immediately recognized Roy Stanton at the front of the crowd.
"Well, lookie here, boys," said Roy. "A girlie who thinks she’s a bounty hunter. Ain’t that rich?"
The gang members laughed. All except two, Enona noticed. From their physical resemblance to Roy, she assumed they were his two surviving brothers.
"O.K., fellas. Tell you what we’re gonna do to shake these bounty hunters off our tail. We’s gonna hang them right here in the middle of town."
The youngest brother said, "You ain’t really gonna hang a woman, are you Roy? Jake, tell him he can’t do that."
"I keep telling you, Roy, we should just ride on out of here."
"Shut up, both of you. I’m gonna find that Call again, too. He’ll hang right along side these two."
"You do that, " said Enona. "And not only will every bounty hunter and lawman around here come after you, but so will the Lakota. You just better hope it’s some bounty hunter who catches you and not the Lakota. They ain’t too merciful when exactin’ justice."
"Well, listen to her. Ooh, I’m scared."
"You should be." She looked at him steadily, not betraying an ounce of her own fear.
Jake said, "Roy, let’s just leave these two here and get our asses to Canada."
"I told you to shut up. Now, girlie, tell me where you left your friend Call."
She smiled. "Why do you want to bother with him? You smashed his hand up good, he can’t hurt you. Or can he?"
"No, he can’t hurt me!"
"You sure about that?"
"I think you’re scared to death of him. Scared, ‘cause you know he’s like a dog with a bone—he never gives up. You hang me and his friend Luther and there ain’t no corner of this world he won’t look for you."
The gang stopped snickering and became quiet. She pressed on. "You know why else you’re scared of him? ‘Cause you see in him what the Lakota see. He’s marked, special. He travels in the world between life and death. I know, ‘cause the medicine told me so. He can call on spirits to come after you—"
"Oh, shut up, you dumb bitch. I don’t believe in that Indian mumbo-jumbo."
"You oughta, or you’ll repent of it. Mark my words."
"Oh, yeah? Well, we’ll see about that. We’ll hang his sorry ass right in front of you, girlie, and see how many Indian spirits come after us."
She only smiled in answer. She was gratified to see that most of the gang looked extremely nervous, especially the youngest brother. Only the middle brother seemed unaffected by her talk, but he had another look on his face, one that told her he wanted words with her, in private.
* * * * * * *
"Well, I sure as hell feel safe." Amanda watched Austin as he sat at one of the tables, pouring whisky into him even faster than usual for him. He also had his arm around one of the bargirls.
He smirked and held the girl tighter. "Jealous?"
"Are you serious? If one of the gang members tries to kill you, you’ll probably use her as a shield."
The girl’s eyes widened and she quickly extracted herself from Austin’s grasp. Amanda laughed.
UnBob burst into the tent, followed by Josiah. "Miss Amanda, have you heard? The gang has put Luther and Miss Enona in jail!"
Amanda gasped. "What? Enona? Is she here in town?"
Before UnBob could reply, Austin said, "I knew those two morons would get caught."
Josiah said, "You knew about this? Why didn’t you help them, son?"
"This is the limit," said Amanda. "Someone’s got to do something, and fast. If Luther’s back, then where is Call?"
"Yeah," said Austin, sneering. "Where the hell is Call? He wasn’t here with Luther and Enona last night. What’s happened, did he just turn yellow, or something?"
"No, he ain’t yellow."
Everyone turned around to see who had spoken. It was Jake Stanton, standing by the entrance of the saloon.
Amanda came from behind the bar, and lifted her chin in a defiant pose. "Look, why don’t you hang out at the more elegant establishments like the Dove and the Ambrosia? I mean, don’t those places have the proper atmosphere for a bunch of murderin’, thievin’ rapists?"
"Go on," said Amanda. "Git. We don’t serve your kind."
"I know where you can find Call. And I also know why he ain’t come back."
Austin said, "Why the hell should we believe you? You ain’t just one of the gang--you’re one of the Stanton brothers!"
"Yeah, but—look, I don’t care what you believe or don’t believe. Just—Call’s hurt bad. Them two that got caught last night left him at a campsite just outside of town. Do what you like with that information."
He left the bar. Amanda said, "It’s a trap, a trick of some kind."
Josiah said, "Why would he trick us into trying to send someone out of town to find Call? No, he must have had a falling out with his brothers. I say someone should go look for Newt."
Austin was about to pick up the whisky bottle off the bar and start drinking from it again. Josiah plucked it out of his hand and said, "That someone is going to be you, son."
* * * * * * *
Amanda and Josiah had been fairly successful at sobering Austin up, pouring black coffee down his gullet, then, when that didn’t seem to do a complete job of it, Amanda suggested he dunk his face in some ice water. That did the trick.
He set out to find Call. He found slipping out of town as easy as Enona and Luther had found slipping in—apparently, Roy Stanton did not feel the least bit threatened by the townspeople.
In spite of a roaring hangover, he found Call fairly quickly. He was lying on the ground on a pile of animal skins near a campfire that had gone out. As Austin dismounted, he could tell something was terribly wrong, but not sure what it could be.
As he walked closer he thought Call was asleep, so he kicked his leg and said, "Wake up, Call."
Call opened his eyes slowly, and Austin felt a chill go through him. His eyes looked so—dead. He crouched on the ground and was about to say something when his gaze fell on his right hand.
He was so startled that he almost fell back on his heels. The hand was a mess—swollen, misshappend and almost purple in color. "Hell! What happened to you? Did the Stantons do that?"
Call just nodded apathetically.
"Those bastards," whispered Austin. He actually felt his eyes sting with tears. He blinked them back quickly, and immediately started convincing himself that they were caused by a flying cinder.
With his good hand Call gestured for Austin to come closer. He bent over to hear him better. "I saw her," said Call.
"Hannah. And she looked so beautiful."
Austin couldn’t answer right away, he was too upset. Obviously, the injury and whatever stuff the Indians had given him had messed him up good.
He decided to humor him. "Right, sure you did. Come on, we’d best get you back to town."
"I ain’t goin’."
"Yeah, you are. They captured Enona and Luther and put them in jail. You have to come."
"Ain’t no good to nobody like this."
"Well, somebody thinks you are, that’s why they sent me after you."
Call laughed bitterly. "Guess that put you all in a snit."
"Now, look! You’re comin’ with me if I have to drag you all the way. Leastways, to see the doc, if for no other reason."
"Leave me here. I just want to die."
"You’re gonna have to die some other time." He pulled Call up off the ground and said, "Come on. I’m takin’ you home."
* * * * * * *
"There’s no telling how this will heal up," said Cleese. "If I could have set the broken bones right away—as it is, the damage may well be permanent."
The three men were in Josiah’s old house, Call stretched out on a settee. Austin had managed to sneak Call into town unnoticed, the gang having spent the previous night boozing and carousing at Twyla’s. Most were currently passed out in various locations around town.
"What else is wrong with him?" Austin pointed his chin at Call. "His eyes, they look awful funny."
"Something the Lakota gave him, I expect." Cleese bent closer to Call and pulled open one of his eyelids. "It’s as if he’s been given a very powerful drug. He’ll come out of it soon, I think."
There was a knock on the door. Cautiously, Austin opened it only a crack. He found Amanda standing there. She pushed the door open and swept into the house. She stopped in front of the settee and put her hands on her hips.
"What the hell is wrong with him?"
Austin asked, "How’d you find out we were here?"
"Are you joking? The whole town is buzzing about Call bein’ back in town."
"Well, that’s just great. I guess we’ve lost the element of surprise, haven’t we? And who knows if one of them Stantons followed you here."
"No, they just think it’s a rumor, nothin’ more. Looks like we’re the ones who’ve got the surprise. What’s wrong with his hand?" The doc had already set the hand, and it was swathed in bandages, so that the most horrific sights were obscured.
"One of the Stantons apparently smashed it with the blunt end of an ax," said Cleese.
"Those rotten cowards," Amanda said. "And that’s his gun hand, ain’t it? What do we do now? Jake Stanton told me his brother means to hang Enona and Luther, and Call, too, if they find him."
"Oh, my Lord," said Cleese.
"I’ll tell you what we gotta do," she said. "What we should’ve done from the moment those bastards arrived. We gather up whatever guns we can find, and those who can’t arm themselves with a gun should find a knife or a club or a rock, and we all get those sons of bitches right now!"
The three of them turned around and saw Call sitting up. "No," he repeated. "We got to get Enona and Luther free first, and maybe get some of them guns out of the sheriff’s office."
Amanda rushed to him. "Now you’re talkin’, Call! Are you up to it, you think?"
He stood up on his feet, swaying a bit. Amanda reached out to steady him, but he waved her away. "I’m up to it," he said. "But I need your help, Austin."
They all looked at Austin. He said, "Let’s get the bastards!"
They found Josiah and brought him to the house, and then began to plan. As time went on, Call seemed to regain more and more of his faculties. Certainly, his mind was razor-sharp again.
"We have to create some sort of distraction. Not only do we need time to get Enona and Luther out of the jail, we need time to gather up the guns and rifles locked up in there."
"A distraction," said Amanda. "Well, maybe Twyla’s girls could be of service."
"No. The fewer people who know about what’s going on, the better. What we need is something big, something—"
"Like an explosion?" This from Josiah.
"Yeah," said Call. He thought a bit. "Remember the mine explosion? Afterwards, Ike wanted to salvage some of the mine equipment. Maybe—"
Austin asked, "You think he might have some explosives on hand?"
"He might. It’s worth a try."
"Oh, just forget it," said Amanda. "He’s got the biggest mouth west of the Mississippi. And he’ll probably try to auction the stuff off to the highest bidder."
"Well, I wasn’t exactly aiming to ask him, Amanda," said Call. "I figure the sheriff here should just commandeer it from him."
"Don’t worry, I’ll get if from him," said Austin, standing up and putting on his hat. "I’ll get it from him if I have to rip his lungs out."
"Don’t worry, he says," Amanda muttered as he walked out the door.
* * * * * * *
There turned out to be no need to rip Ike’s lungs out, or any other of his body parts, for that matter. He willingly handed over the couple of sticks of dynamite he still had hidden in his room, though he did try to get paid for his trouble. Austin told him if he didn’t hand them over to him now, this minute, he would tell the Stantons that he had the dynamite and was planning to use it on them.
After that little difficulty was smoothed over, all that was left was to wait for dark. Though the rumor about Call being back was bouncing around Curtis Wells, apparently the gang, Roy especially, decided to discount it as silly nonsense, since they didn’t think he’d be in any condition to ride into town due to his injury.
Instead, Roy dispatched a couple of his men to look for Call and drag him back to town. When Call heard that, he knew they had to hurry, because if Stanton’s men were even barely passable trackers, they would find out eventually that he was already there.
Call decided since he was of no use with a gun, he would be the one to light and throw the explosives. He gave Austin his gun and gunbelt. There was a eerie feeling about not wearing it strapped to his hip. He felt almost naked.
They waited for the sun to go down, then Call and Austin hid in an alleyway near the sheriff’s office. Since Cleese had tended to his hand, Call began to feel more like himself, and though the pain was still pretty bad, it was manageable.
As they waited for the street to empty, Austin said, "So, I guess you blame me for all this happenin’, too."
"Never said so."
"Come on, admit it. You think it was stupid of me to make everyone turn in their guns."
"O.K., I admit it. It was stupid of you."
"Son of a bitch."
The were quiet again for a time. Then Austin said, "What was all that stuff you said at the campsite—about seein’ Hannah?"
Call stared at his hand for a moment. "Nothin’. Just ravin’ from the medicine the Lakota gave me, I reckon."
"Good. You scared me for a minute. I thought you’d gone off your gourd for sure this time."
"Look. They’re startin’ to head out for Twyla’s."
Sure enough, several of the gang member departed from the Dove and the Ambrosia and headed up the street to Twyla’s.
"We’ll wait till they’re all happily ensconced, then I’ll light the fuse."
They waited. Then Austin left the alleyway and crept closer to the door of the sheriff’s office. Once he was in place, Call fumbled with a match, striking it against the side of the building, until it lit. Then he touched the flame to the fuse of the stick of dynamite that he had tucked under his injured arm. He’d already decided the dynamite’s destination—an old, abandoned wagon that had been left on the street by who knows who some time ago. He hoped no one would come out on the street, because they could easily be hurt by flying debris.
He threw it as hard as he could with his left hand. Not being used to using that hand, he was somewhat off the mark, but the stick of dynamite landed fairly close to its target.
The boom was satisfyingly loud, piercing through the peaceful night air. Call heard screams, windows shattering, and, as expected, people began to come out in droves from buildings up and down the street, including the sheriff’s office.
The wagon was ablaze, flames leaping in the air. Call saw Austin dart into the sheriff’s office, and Call gradually strolled up the sidewalk as people flew by him to see what was happening in the middle of town. Not one turned their heads to look at him.
He got into the jail just as Austin was opening the cell door with his set of keys. Luther and Enona ran out of the cell.
It was amazing to Call how the four of them just seemed to know what to do—not one word passed among them in the next few seconds. Austin had the cabinet with the guns in them open in a flash, and they were armed with rifles and out the door in no time.
The entire town was still mesmerized by the spectacle of the wagon burning, including many of the gang members. They could see Roy Stanton standing among the crowd, watching. It would be easy to pick off most of the gang members—they were concentrated in one spot, and the flames made the street seem almost as well-lit as the middle of a sunny day.
They spread out, Luther heading out for the livery, Austin for the Dove, and Enona for the Ambrosia. Call went with Austin, and the two of them burst through the now-empty lobby then ran up the stairs to one of the front rooms. By that time, they heard some gun shots. Enona and Luther were already firing at the gang.
They heard screams as people scrambled to get out of the line of fire. The gang, most of them already inebriated from the evening’s revelry, were caught totally off-guard. Austin aimed his rifle and began to pick off some of the gang members. As Call looked out the window, he could see some of them were sprawled out on the street, already struck by bullets.
Several of the men in town caught on to what had happened and there was a rush for the sheriff’s office. In the space of a few minutes, more armed men were shooting at the gang members.
It was like shooting fish in a barrel, and soon the street was so littered with bodies it resembled the site of a massacre.
Finally, the gunshots died down. Call said to Austin, "We’d best get down there and see if any of the Stantons are still alive."
The flames from the wagon had begun to die down. The gun shots finally stopped. Several of the surviving gang members were being dragged out to the middle of the street by some of the townspeople, including Willie Stanton. Jake and Roy were nowhere in sight.
Enona appeared at Call’s elbow. "Where’s Roy Stanton? He’s the one I want; he’s the one who killed Grey Eagle."
"I’m right over here, girlie!"
Everyone turned and saw Roy dragging someone along with him. Call saw Austin suddenly stiffen. Stanton was holding Josiah at gun point.
Call stepped forward and faced Stanton. "Let him go. Ain’t gonna do you no good. This fight’s over."
"Oh, it ain’t over till I say it’s over, Call." Stanton raised his pistol and pointed it at Josiah’s temple. "I heard this is the sheriff’s papa. Well, Mr. Sheriff, say bye-bye. He’s comin’ with me outa town."
Enona went for her gun, and so did Austin. Roy laughed. "Uh-uh! No you don’t. I swear, I’ll take him with me."
"You bastard," said Austin in a raspy voice.
"I’ll be all right, son," said Josiah. "Don’t worry about me."
"That’s right, sonny. I’ll take good care of papa."
Roy began dragging Josiah along with him. All everyone could do is stand by and watch. Call had never felt so frustrated in all his life—if he’d been able to use a gun, he knew he’d have gotten the drop on Roy before this situation could even arise.
Suddenly, Call heard a yell, almost like a savage howling. It was Austin, rushing straight at Roy, and straight at the pistol.
Roy was taken completely by surprise, perhaps because it never entered his head that anyone would commit such a foolhardy act. It was enough to make him hesitate so that Austin could knock him to the ground before he could fire a shot.
The crowd stood by and watched this amazing spectacle. Austin soon had Roy pinned to the ground and socked him hard enough to subdue him. He ripped the pistol out of Roy’s hand and pitched it away. Then he pulled him up on his feet, and before the man could be sensible of what was happening, socked him again and again, until he fell in a heap on the ground.
There was a stunned silence. Then someone shouted, "Three cheers for the sheriff!"
The crowd cheered, and some of them rushed towards him. His father embraced him.
"O.K., O.K.," said Austin. "Enough of that now. Let’s put the rest of these bastards in the jail."
The men who were armed marched the prisoners into the jail, but they left Roy flat out on the street for the moment.
"You did good, Austin," said Call.
"He sure did," said Enona. "Well, I guess I’d best be takin’ my prisoner with me, so I can tell the Lakota we got the killer of Grey Eagle."
Austin said, "Your prisoner? Now hold on a minute—"
"Austin," said Call. "You got the bastard, and everyone saw it. Now let her take him. It’ll keep the Lakota quiet."
"I don’t give a damn about the Lakota. He’s my prisoner, and I mean him to stay that way—"
"You two-bit little jackass," said Enona. "You think what you just did was heroic, don’t you? Well, let me tell you something. It was just dumb luck."
"Is that right? And what was you and Luther getting thrown in jail about—smart luck?"
"Oh, you’re a funny, funny man. Call, tell this idiot—"
"Call don’t run things around here, in case you haven’t noticed."
As they continued bickering, no one noticed that Roy had begun to come to, nor had anyone thought to pick up the gun Austin had pitched away during the fight.
"Austin, look out!" Call pushed Austin with the shoulder of his bad arm just as Roy pointed the gun at him and pulled the trigger. They both went over in a sprawling heap. Call, in agony as pain burst through his arm and hand again, barely heard a second shot ring out.
After he and Austin disentangled themselves, they saw Jake Stanton standing over his brother, with the gun that had fired the fatal shot at his own flesh and blood still in his hand.
Austin scrambled over to Jake and disarmed him. The man did not put up a struggle.
"You killed your own brother," said Call in an amazed voice as Austin pushed Jake towards the jail.
"It weren’t my brother. I put a wild animal out of its misery, is all."
* * * * * * *
There was much celebrating over the defeat of the gang, and Austin was congratulated by many for his amazing act of bravery. He soon found himself the object of much admiration.
After some intense persuasion, Call and Josiah finally convinced Austin to let Enona take Roy’s body with her back to the Lakota tribe. Feeling affable after several hours of non-stop flattery, he was in the right mood to relent. Call accompanied Enona to the outskirts of town. They led her horse and Roy’s by the reins as they walked to the cemetery. They paused by Tyler’s grave.
Enona said, "You goin’ to be all right, Call?"
"Don’t know. Don’t know who I am if I can’t use a gun."
She smiled. "Oh, I think you do. Somewhere inside you."
He thought he saw a movement in the trees, and a sound like a person walking along the grass. There was nobody there. A chill went up his spine. "Do you believe in ghosts, Enona?"
Looking at Tyler’s grave, she said, "I believe the dead stay close to us. I feel Tyler’s with me all the time. Grey Eagle, too. We were always together when we were children. Now I’m the only one left."
"How can you—"
"Go on livin’?"
"It’s all I can do. It’s all any of us can do."
Reaching up, she stroked his hair, then leaned in and kissed him hard on the mouth. For a brief flash in time, he felt that same drugged feeling he got whenever he took the Lakota medicine. He opened his eyes just in time to see her mount her horse and take off, exiting his life with the same speed as she always seemed to enter it.
Call went back to the jail where Jake and Willie were locked up. He found Austin sitting behind his desk having a smoke.
He looked at the two brothers and the two surviving gang members. "What’ll happen to ‘em, Austin?"
"They’ll be hung, I reckon."
Call saw that the boy understood for the first time that he was in danger of being executed. Willie lowered his head, his face turning pale.
"Let ‘em go."
Austin smirked. "I will like hell."
"You owe that man your life, Austin. It’s the least you can do. Look." Call turned his back on him. "I’ll even pretend not to watch while you unlock the cell."
Jake spoke up. "Leave me here, but let my brother go. He weren’t in the gang of his own free will."
"Let ‘em both go, Austin."
"I ain’t lettin’ anyone go!"
Jake said, "Why would you want to let me go, Call, after what I done to you?"
Call turned and looked at him. "’Cause I reckon I owe you my life, too." He walked up to the bars of the cell and leaned in close. "There’s just one condition. You never get within a hundred miles of Mattie as long as you live."
Jake sneered. "I knew it. I knew you wanted her for yourself."
"This ain’t about that. This is about what I owe you. But you’re death to Mattie, and I think you know it."
He buried his face in his hands. "I know it."
"Then it’s agreed?"
"Open the door, Austin."
Austin said, "Call, I told you—"
"Just open the damn door, already!"
Austin finally got up from behind the desk and obeyed. "What the hell are we gonna tell people?"
"Oh, you’ll think of somethin’, Austin. You’re a smart man."
* * * * * * *
The town soon returned to its normal routine. All the ordinances instituted by Austin were officially repealed, which made UnBob especially happy, since the dead gang members had swelled the number of corpses waiting to be buried to an appalling figure.
Call accompanied Luther on his next stagecoach run to Miles City. As they rolled along the stage route, Call said, "’Preciate you lettin’ me tag along, ‘specially seein’ as how I can’t be no use to you ridin’ shotgun."
"Hell, I just like havin’ your company, Call."
"Stagecoach line don’t pay so drivers can have some company."
"What they don’t know won’t hurt ‘em."
When they arrived in Miles City the following evening, Call said to Luther, "I’m headin’ out to see Mattie. Want to come?"
"You gonna tell her about Jake?"
"If you don’t mind, I can live without seein’ her this particular time. Hate watchin’ a woman bawl."
"Know what you mean." He left Luther and headed out for Mattie’s gun shop. He found her tending a couple of customers. Her eyes flickered with surprise when she saw him come in the door, and again when she noticed his heavily bandaged hand.
When the customers left, she said, "Call, what happened to you?"
"What, this?" He raised his hand. She nodded. "Had kind of an accident."
"It weren’t no accident was it? Jake did that, didn’t he?" He didn’t answer, and she took it as an affirmation. "Damn. He said he was gonna kill you. That was the last thing he said before he left. Is he—dead?"
"He’s alive. But he’s gone for good—he ain’t never coming back. You’re goin’ to have to forget about him."
In a shaky voice she said, "Seems I spend most of my time tryin’ to forget."
He could see the hurt in her eyes, and knew that Jake had meant a lot to her. But he also saw that she had already begun grieving for him and resigning herself to the loss.
He said, "I know it’s hard to believe, but I’d probably be dead right now if it weren’t for him. I wanted you to know that."
He shrugged. "Just seemed right that you should know." He reached into his shirt pocket with his uninjured hand and extracted something. He put it on the counter in front of Mattie. "I also stopped by to return this to you."
It was the sheriff’s badge. Her face, already twisted with conflicting emotions, became even more upset. "I gave that to you, it was a gift. I don’t want it back."
"Ain’t no use to me, Mattie. I’ll never be sheriff, not now. Probably never be a bounty hunter again, either. Guess that’ll make you happy."
"It don’t make me happy. And besides," she said as she pushed the badge across the counter towards him. "I have a feelin’ you’ll find yourself wearing this one day."
She pushed it a little more towards him. "You keep it, Call."
He looked at if for a few seconds, then picked it up and put it back in his pocket. "Well—thanks."
He left the shop. He’d assumed that after seeing her, he would want to go somewhere and get blind drunk. But just at that very moment, the idea had no appeal. In fact, he was in surprisingly good spirits.
He set off to find Luther.
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