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 Associate
by Debbie Vega

Mosby had seen a lot of strange sights in his day, but the one before him took the cake.

A reporter from an eastern newspaper had shown up the day before, having heard of the apprehension of the Stanton gang, one of the most heinous and feared gangs in the territory. Somehow, Austin had become the sole person credited with the destruction of the gang, and at this very moment the reporter and a photographer were taking pictures of the victorious sheriff for publication.

Mosby stood across from the sheriff’s office and watched the despicable display. Of course, the fact that it was Austin’s idiotic gun ban that had allowed the gang to take over the town in the first place had somehow been erased from people’s memories. So was the fact that he never could have vanquished them without help from Enona, Luther and Call.

When he had returned to town and found out about the shambles that had been made by Austin’s foolishness, he vowed to himself not to let his resolution to get rid of him slide by for too much longer. Unfortunately, the moment was all wrong—Austin had never been more popular with the townspeople, and he was using that fact to his full advantage.

Just a few feet away from the sheriff’s office, he could see Call, probably the true reason the Stantons had been brought to their knees, stretched out on his bench, passed out cold. Mosby shook his head. He could almost feel sorry for the poor bastard. His hand was still a useless mess and he couldn’t even do menial work. Mosby never thought it was possible for Call to sink lower, but he had been wrong.

"Christ, that’s a revoltin’ sight."

Mosby turned to Malone, who had come out of the Ambrosia and was standing next to him. "I couldn’t agree more."

"Then why don’t you do somethin’ about it? This is your town, after all. Why do you tolerate a filthy layabout like that, especially when there are reporters takin’ photographs?"

Mosby was taken aback—he had been referring to Austin, not Call.

Malone continued, "And why do you let him muck up your hotel? Can he even pay his bill?"

In truth, Call’s account was several weeks in arrears. Before he could answer, Malone said, "Throw that lazy cur out on his ass, Mosby. It makes you look bad to have him stinkin’ up your hotel."

Mosby felt his face prickle with anger. He found Malone a much more annoying problem than Call. He seemed to think he had the right to come into Curtis Wells and order him around. That was something else he wouldn’t tolerate for much longer.

However, the mine wasn’t in full operation yet. The time to deal with that was still in the future. He decided he may as well yield on this one thing. He said, "He’ll be out of the Dove before the end of the day."

He’d barely finished speaking when he saw an object flying right at him. He ducked instinctively, but not before something hit him just below his left eye.

"Holy Mother, what was that!" shouted Malone. "Are you all right?" He bent down and picked up the missile, a small, smooth stone.

Mosby took a handkerchief out of his pocket and pressed it to the wound. He watched Robbie Monahan, who’d been standing around with the crowd gawking at the photographer, running away as if the devil were after him. He knew the boy had done it.

"It’s nothin’," he said. He took the handkerchief away from his face and saw the bleeding was minimal. Probably just grazed his cheek.

"Was one of those little hooligans, wasn’t it?" said Malone, tossing the stone away. "One who don’t get the strap often enough, I’ll be bound. You oughta find the one who done it and lock the little bastard up to teach him a lesson."

"No need to make a fuss over a prank. I’ll head over to the Dove and speak to Mrs. Monahan about getting Call out." He left Malone, glad for an excuse to get away from him, and headed towards the Dove, his handkerchief still pressed to the cut.

When he entered the kitchen he found Eliza Monahan pouring some disinfectant into a small basin, clean rags already laid out beside it. Without looking up, she said, "I was looking out the window and saw what happened. Sit down, I’ll clean it out for you."

"It’s nothin’—"

"Don’t be ridiculous. It should be tended to."

He sat in a chair and watched as she came over, holding the basin in her hand and squeezing the disinfectant into one of the little rags. She put the basin down on the table and said, "Look at me."

He obeyed. She leaned close to him and examined the wound. "He could have put your eye out, " she said after looking it over. "He’s going to be severely punished, I promise you."

"There’s no need for that," he said, wincing at he felt the sting of the disinfectant when she pressed it to the scrape. "Just high spirits. A boyish prank. Could have even been an accident."

"Is that what you think?" she scoffed. She continued patting the wound. "I know my son better than you, Mr. Mosby. I saw with my own eyes what he did. You were his target, don’t doubt that."

He found that he was barely listening to what she was saying. In spite of the sharp smell of the disinfectant, he could detect the softer, sweeter scent of the lavender soap she used on her hands. She must have noticed his reverie, because she abruptly stopped her ministrations and stepped back, looking disturbed and confused.

The boy suddenly shot through the back door, trying to head out of the kitchen and up the stairs, but his mother accosted him. She grabbed him by the arms and commanded that he stop.

"That was a wicked thing you did, Robbie, a very wicked thing," she said.

"I didn’t do nothin’!" The boy tried to wriggle out of his mother’s grasp.

"So you’re adding lies to your wickedness," she said, turning him roughly around and forcing him to face Mosby. "You’re going to apologize."

"I won’t! I won’t!"

"Then you’ll march upstairs and stay in your room the rest of the day."

"But Ma!"

"And you’ll get no supper. Are you going to apologize?"

The boy stuck his bottom lip out stubbornly and shook his head.

"Then upstairs. Now."

The only way to describe the look the boy gave Mosby was murderous. It was clear he blamed him for the severity of his punishment. He turned and trudged out of the kitchen, his shoulders hunched. His mother went with him to make sure he went up the stairs to his room. Mosby followed her.

"You needn’t have been so harsh with the boy," he said.

Before she could answer, Malone, who must have followed him to the hotel, appeared by the stairs. "Mosby is right. Nothin’ to be done about that one. He’ll end up the same as his father no matter what you do."

Mrs. Monahan face crumpled from the cruel remark. She said nothing, only ran up the stairs after her son. Mosby was certain he could detect a strangled sob coming from her throat as she passed him.

Malone calmly puffed on his cigar and looked pleased with himself. Mosby had to exert tremendous control to keep from smashing the cigar into his fat, dissipated face. He said, "I don’t care if the boy apologizes, but you will apologize to her before this day is out."

Malone looked completely unperturbed by the threat. "I never apologize for speakin’ the truth, Mosby. You know and I know—"

"I know no such thing, and that’s not even the point. You will apologize to her."

"Don’t get all in a twist over that woman and her beastly little brat," he said, leaning in close and puffing cigar smoke into Mosby’s face. His eyes narrowed. "And don’t forget who butters your bread."

Mosby swallowed back the oaths he felt rising in his throat as he watched Malone leave the hotel.

* * * * * * *

Eliza went into Robbie’s room. The boy sat on the bed, his arms crossed, his face immobile. She felt the fear rise in her again, the terrible, sickening fear that what that rat-faced Malone had said would come true. Tears began to fall. She wiped them away impatiently.

Robbie turned. His face softened. He got up from the bed and ran to her, throwing his arms around her waist. "Don’t cry no more, Ma. I’m sorry. Don’t cry."

She sighed, the fear leaving her. He really is a good boy, she thought. She held him close to her, stroking his hair. Then she pulled him gently away from her and crouched down so she could speak to him eye-to-eye. "You must mind me when I tell you to do something, Robbie."

His face got stubborn again. "Why should I have to apologize to that bastard—"

"Robbie . . . " she said in a warning tone.

"I’m sorry, ma’am. But why should I?"

"First of all, because what you did was wrong, plain and simple—"

"He deserves worse."

"This isn’t about what he deserves. You have to understand something. If you make Mr. Mosby angry, he might ask us to leave. We’ve nowhere else to go. What you think of him is not important. You have to show him respect."

The first flicker of doubt showed in his eyes. "It ain’t fair."

"Life isn’t fair, son. You may as well learn it now. I wish to God someone had taught me that when I was your age."

The boy was silent for a moment, thinking it over. Then he nodded.

"I take that to mean you’ll say you’re sorry?"

"Yes, ma’am," he whispered.

"Good. Good boy." She kissed him briefly on the forehead, then stood up. "Now. You wash your hands and face, and then you come downstairs."

"Ma’am?"

"I don’t want any more arguments, Robbie—"

"I meant to give you somethin’."

She felt a small object being pressed into her hand. She turned her palm up and found herself looking at a crudely whittled doll. She smiled. "Why—why that’s quite nice, Robbie. Thank you, sweetheart."

The boy frowned. "Did you forget, Ma? Did you forget what today is?"

Her heart constricted and she felt the smile die. "No, of course not. Of course I didn’t forget."

"I made it for Sissy’s birthday. I made it before—before—"

She could barely make her voice work. "It’s lovely, Robbie. I’m sure she would have loved it." She shoved the doll into the pocket of her apron. Clearing her throat, she said briskly, "Now go on and do what I said." She patted his back and pushed him toward the bureau and the wash basin.

She left him, the tears starting up again as she left the room. She ran to her room and poured water into her own basin, then splashed some on her face even as the tears were still falling, as if this would somehow make them stop. She finally gave up. Sitting down on the bed, she buried her face in a towel, letting the sobs come.

A voice behind her said, "You all right?"

She jumped. Looking up, she saw Newt Call standing at the door. Standing wasn’t quite the word—more like leaning, as if to keep from falling down.

"Oh—yes. I thought the door was closed," she said, quickly wiping the towel over her face, knowing she must have looked a sight.

He squinted at her. "Was it Mosby made you cry?"

"What an odd thing to say."

"Was it?"

"No."

He looked very much in danger of falling down. She got up from the bed and reached out to steady him. He jerked away from her. "Don’t need no help, thanks just the same."

She nodded. He started to stagger away towards his own room She stopped him by calling out his name.

He turned around. "Yeah?"

"I wonder—I wonder if I could ask a very great favor."

"Ya want me to pound Mosby for you? Would be a pleasure, ma’am." He made a clumsy attempt at a bow. "’Course, I ain’t exactly in the best condition at the moment, but I could take a stab at it."

She couldn’t keep a giggle from escaping her. "No."

"Oh." He sounded very disappointed.

She felt her face getting warm. She was being so nervy, but her objective, which had just entered her mind, was so firm that she couldn’t abandon it. "I wonder if I might borrow your horse this afternoon."

She was so certain the answer would be negative that it took a moment to realize that he was nodding. "Sure. She’s been cooped up in the livery an awful long time, she’d like the exercise."

"Really? You really wouldn’t mind?"

He just shrugged his shoulders as if it didn’t matter one way or the other. Before she could even thank him, he began making his way to his room with heavy-footed steps.

* * * * * * *

Mosby waited for her to come back down. She did eventually, leading the boy by the hand. Her eyes looked dull and a little feverish, as if she’d been crying. He felt the anger rising in him again.

At the foot of the stairs, she pushed the boy in front of her and said, "I believe you have something you want to say to Mr. Mosby."

The boy refused to raise his eyes. "I’m sorry, sir," he mumbled.

"Louder, please," she said, tapping him on the back. "And look at him."

The boy obeyed.

"That’s all right, son," said Mosby.

The murderous look returned. "Don’t call me that. I ain’t your son."

"Robbie!" His mother tapped him on the back again.

The boy looked at his feet. "I’m sorry, I’m sorry!" Then he turned to his mother and said, "Can I go now?"

"Yes. But," she said, grabbing him by the collar before he could bolt for the door. "The next time you do something like that, you get a whipping, understand?"

"Yes, ma’am."

She let him go and he was gone in a twinkling.

Without saying a word, she went into the kitchen and began clearing the basin and rags away. He followed her. She said, "Is there something else I can do for you, Mr. Mosby?"

He was about to make excuses for Malone’s behavior, but doubted she would appreciate it. Besides, there was no excuse for that abominable remark. Instead, he said, "I originally came over here to speak to you about some business. Disagreeable business, I’m afraid."

"Yes?"

"It seems Mr. Call’s account is several weeks in arrears."

She paused in her task. "Yes, I know."

"Has he said anythin’ to you about when he might be able to pay at least part of what he owes?

"No." She wiped her hands on her apron and went back to the job she had abandoned before he’d come into the hotel, rolling out pie dough.

"I’m afraid he’s goin’ to have to leave, then."

The expression on her face did not change. She picked up some rolled-out dough and put it into a pan. "Yes, of course. I’ll tell him right away."

"You needn’t bother. I’ll inform him myself."

She began pressing the dough into the pan. "That would hardly be proper. This is my responsibility. It’s the sort of thing you pay me to do."

"I would really prefer—"

"You don’t have to worry that I won’t be able to see it through. I assure you he will be out of his room today."

"I never thought you couldn’t, it’s only—"

"Please, Mr. Mosby." She finished her task and looked at him. "Please. I would really rather it come from me than you."

"Very well. If you insist."

All she did in answer was to nod slightly, then picked up a bowl from the table and began pouring out slices of apple into the pie pan.

* * * * * * *

She decided to get this new bit of unpleasantness out of the way at once. As soon as the pies were tucked into the oven, she went up to Call’s room and knocked on the door.

There was no answer. She slowly opened the door and peeped in, softly calling his name.

He was sprawled out on top of the bed quilt, fully clothed, a whisky bottle in his good hand. He peered at her, then sat up and quickly put the whisky bottle on the night table. "Sorry, Mrs. Monahan. I know you don’t like drinking in the rooms."

"That’s not why I’m here, Mr. Call." She hesitated, drawing in her breath. This seemed so wrong to her. He deserved a better reward for capturing that gang than being thrown out onto the street. The timing also weighed on her mind, as she’d just asked for and received a favor from him. Yet there was no alternative. In fact, she’d been surprised that Mosby had not taken this action much sooner.

She began. "You haven’t paid your hotel bill for several weeks, and I’m afraid, that is—"

"You want me to leave."

"It’s not what I want, Mr. Call, but you do realize this isn’t a charity."

"Yeah, I know."

She stepped a little closer to the bed. "Is there any way you can pay something towards what you owe? If you could, I’m certain I could persuade Mr. Mosby to let you stay."

Call smirked, grabbed the whisky bottle again and took the last swallow in the bottle. "I doubt that. I’m sure he’s gettin’ a real kick out of this. Still, he shouldn’t have sent you to do his dirty work."

"Will you be all right? Have you someplace to go?"

"No need to worry yourself about me." He staggered to his feet. "Well, guess there’s no point in draggin’ things out. I’ll be on my way." He tottered around the room, gathering up his belongings.

"I wonder—"

"Yeah?"

"This is going to seem terribly presumptuous, especially after I’ve just ordered you out, but—but—"

He stopped what he was doing and looked at her. "You can still take the Hell Bitch out. Don’t hold you no grudge."

She thanked him profusely, then left quickly, embarrassed by her own selfishness. She resolved to repay him for the favor. How she could eluded her at the moment, but she was sure she would find a way.

* * * * * * *

Amanda poured a whisky for Austin. "So, you headin’ out of town again?"

He slugged back the liquor and nodded. "Yep. Got a lead on a gang that operates out of Miles City."

She couldn’t help smirking. "Kind of like capturing gangs these days, is that it?"

He held out his glass for another shot. "I like makin’ this town a safer place to live. Most folks seem to appreciate that."

She poured him another drink. "Most folks don’t know their ass from their elbow, Austin."

"What’s that supposed to mean?"

"Nothin’."

Just then, Call burst through the door and staggered up to the bar. "Hows about you gimme a drink on account, Amanda?"

She glowered at him. "No credit, Call. Don’t pretend like you don’t know it."

"Hows about you buy me a drink, Austin? For old times sake?"

Austin shook his head and looked away. Amanda was surprised to see that Call’s condition truly pained him. She said, "You’d best be movin’ on, Call. Go back to the hotel."

"Don’t live there no more. Just got throwed out."

Austin turned to him and said, "What?"

"Not like it’s the first time I was ever throwed out of the hotel." He turned to Amanda and gave her a significant look. "Got to admit, though, I never got throwed out in such a nice way. Almost didn’t mind so much."

Amanda laughed. "You mean that mealy-mouthed bitch had the gumption to toss you out? Never would have thought she had it in her."

Call’s eyes darkened and he leaned over the bar. "Don’t talk about her like that."

Austin reached over and pulled him back. "No cause to get all huffy, Call."

Amanda smirked. "Well, I can see she’s got a white knight to defend her honor every hour of the night or day."

"Shut up, why don’t you?" Austin struggled to hold onto Call to keep him from falling down.

She made a sound of disgust and said, "What a pair the two of you make."

Austin pulled Call out of the saloon and began a long, slow struggle to walk him to his father’s old house. When they finally got there, he opened the door and pushed Call through, leading him to a settee and dumping him into it.

"You can stay here," said Austin. "I’m sure my father won’t mind. At least you won’t have to sleep in the livery."

"Can’t stay here," mumbled Call. "Can’t take no charity."

"It ain’t charity, and you know it."

Call was too far gone for serious protest. He mumbled a few other incoherent things, then slipped off into unconsciousness.

* * * * * * *

The Hell Bitch seemed to be jumping out of her skin, excited and happy to be in motion again. Eliza knew exactly how she felt. The more distance the two of them put between themselves and Curtis Wells, the lighter her heart felt.

She knew this feeling was transitory, because her destination was sure to bring down her spirits as soon as they arrived. For the moment, though, she enjoyed being on her own, feeling the early summer sun on her back, feeling more like herself than she had in a long, long time.

As she expected, the feeling diminished as she approached the edge of the badlands. Now she had to concentrate, trying to remember the exact location of the cabin where Sissy had died. It didn’t take very long. It even seemed as though the mare knew where they were headed, and soon she saw the ugly little shack off in the distance.

When they got close enough, she pulled on the reins and sat astride the mare for a moment, looking at the place as the unhappy memories flooded into her mind. She sighed again and again, each agonizing event crowding into her thoughts, one on top of another. The pain was almost as fresh as the day they happened. She shook her head as if to dislodge the memories from her head, then dismounted and tied the Hell Bitch to a rotting fence post.

She set about looking for the exact location of the grave. It took her some time, because they had never put up a marker, and the ground, which three months before had been almost bare, was now ankle-deep in weeds.

She thought she’d found it, and knelt on the ground and began to pull up weeds to clear it. After a while, she sighed again, realizing that there was no real way to tell if this was the exact spot, and she had so little time. If she got back too late for the dinner rush, she was sure to face a lot of questions from Mosby, and she was hardly in a humor for that.

She had with her a small bouquet of wildflowers, which she lay down on the cleared spot. Then she reached into her pocket and took out the doll Robbie had whittled. She tucked it into the middle of the bunch of flowers, then began to pray silently.

A creaking sound behind her made her stop. She slowly turned and was startled to see two men coming out of the cabin. She stood up quickly, her heart pounding. They were filthy and ragged and did not look the least bit friendly. It never occurred to her that there would be anyone in there. She tried to keep her breathing even, so they would not detect her fear.

They walked over to her slowly, grinning at each other, then grinning at her.

Their silence unnerved her, so she spoke first. In as calm and polite a voice as she could manage, she said, "I’m sorry, I didn’t realize anyone lived here. I’ll just be moving on."

She turned toward the Hell Bitch, meaning to walk in an unhurried manner. The minute she did, the men stopped their slow amble and broke into a run. She cried out and started to run, too.

They were not that young and she wondered if she could outrun them. She got her answer almost immediately. One got close enough to grab her by the hair and pull her roughly to the ground. She didn’t even feel the pain. The only thing she was aware of was the cold blade of a knife pressed against her throat.

"Woo-eeh! Joe, look at what a pretty one we got here!"

"Sure is, Lem. Nice horse she’s got, too. Fetch a sweet price."

"Hell, horses is the last thing I got on my mind at the moment," the first man said. "Now you just be nice to us, and then maybe we won’t hurt you, understand? Be a shame if such a pretty face got all cut up to ribbons, wouldn’t it?"

They both laughed menacingly. She felt the knife beginning to slice into her throat. In spite of being scared out of her mind, she knew if she remained passive, they still might kill her. Her only hope, she decided, was to fight back. As the first man hovered over her, she drew up her knee and rammed it as hard as she could into his groin.

As he fell over, cursing and groaning, she threw a fistful of dirt into the eyes of the other man. She scrambled to her feet and began running again. She heard the uninjured one running behind her. She ran toward a thicket of trees, hoping to lose herself in them so they wouldn’t find her. She thought she could feel the man’s fingers brushing across her back, as if to grab her. Just a little further, a little further, she thought, and she would be in the trees.

At the edge she tripped on a fallen tree branch and fell. She screamed as she felt the man grab her by the ankle and begin dragging her along the ground.

I’m done for, she thought. They’ll kill me now for sure.

"Oh, God, oh, God!" she cried.

"He can’t help you now, bitch." The man kept dragging her. "I’m a-gonna make you pay for what you done to Lem, yes ma’am!"

Suddenly, a shot rang out. She flinched, sure the man had shot her. It took her a few seconds to realize that she had not been shot, and her ankle was no longer in the man’s grasp.

She turned around, looking through strands of hair that had come loose in the struggle. She pushed them away and witnessed her assailants running as fast as they could, the first one hobbling along because of the pain from her blow. She heard another shot and turned toward the sound. She saw a man on a chestnut horse, aiming a revolver at the two men. They disappeared into the trees that she had been heading for in her futile attempt to escape.

The man on the horse lowered his arm and put his gun back in its holster. He rode over to her and dismounted. It suddenly occurred to her that he may have only scared off the other two so he could attack her himself. She tried to stand up, but found fear had almost paralyzed her.

He approached her. "Ma’am, are you all right?"

She managed to croak out, "Leave—me—be."

He reached out to her, but she pulled away. He said, "It’s all right, I won’t hurt you."

She looked up at him and saw that he was only a few years older than she, unusually tall, well-dressed, with finely-chiseled, handsome features. He wore a bowler hat atop light brown hair and had dark brown eyes that at the moment seemed clouded with concern. He knelt next to her and reached inside his coat, drawing out a flask. He opened it and offered it to her.

She shook her head. "Don’t—drink."

"It’s brandy. You’re shaking like a leaf, it will calm your nerves."

She was indeed shaking all over, so she reached for the flask. She could barely hold it in her hand without dropping it. He put his hand over hers and guided the flask to her mouth so she could drink.

She gagged on the first sip, but he kept the flask to her mouth until she took a good swallow. She felt it take its warm path down to her belly, and in a few moments the shaking and terrified feeling in the pit of her stomach did seem to diminish.

He looked around, his gaze lighting on the cabin. "Do you live here?" His tone plainly declared that to be an unacceptable possibility.

She shook her head. It was still difficult to speak. Waves of relief washed over her as she realized how close she came to losing her life and making her son an orphan. The thought brought fresh tears to her eyes.

"There, there," the man said soothingly. He took a handkerchief out of another pocket and handed it to her. "What in the world are you doing in this God forsaken place all by yourself?"

She wiped away the tears from her face. "My daughter is buried here. Today would have been her fifth birthday."

"Oh, I see. I see." There was a short silence "But just the same, how could your husband have let you come out here alone?"

"He’s dead, too."

"Oh."

He began to look at her in a slightly different way, a way that made her suddenly feel very self-conscious. She became aware of how disheveled she must have looked, and began smoothing back her hair.

He stood up and offered her his hand. She grasped it and let him lift her to her feet. She found her legs were a bit wobbly. The man held her steady in a firm, yet gentle, grasp.

She gasped. "Oh, no, the horse!" She looked around to see if the two vagabonds had either taken the Hell Bitch or frightened her off. To her relief, she saw the mare was still tied to the post, calmly chomping on grass.

The man laughed. "The horse! I think you should worry about yourself first."

She extracted herself from his grasp and lurched over to the Hell Bitch. She patted the mare’s neck. What would she have done if she’d lost her? She had promised so faithfully to take good care of her.

"I think I should escort you to your home, ma’am," the man said.

She turned to him. "Oh, please, don’t bother."

"It’s no bother and, besides, I wouldn’t dream of letting you travel alone when those men could still be about."

That sent a shiver up her spine. "I never thought of that. I never thought—" She turned to the horse and began stroking her neck again, trying to cover up her renewed nervousness, which was quickly giving way to anger for putting herself so thoughtlessly in danger.

"I don’t wonder at your reluctance to have me accompany you, ma’am—seeing as how we’ve never been introduced."

"Oh! And I never even thanked you Mr.—"

"Larkin. Ned Larkin."

"My name is Eliza Monahan." She held out her hand. "Thank you, sir. I’m eternally grateful.

He took it, and instead of shaking it, he held it up briefly to his lips. "A pleasure, Mrs. Monahan."

If she had been in a different sort of humor, she might have been a little put off by his manner, but she just smiled and took her hand away in such a way as to show that she was not offended.

"Well," he said. "Lead the way, Mrs. Monahan. You are my guide."

"I live in Curtis Wells."

"Is that a fact?" He raised his eyebrows and smiled. "That happens to be my destination as well. Isn’t that lucky?"

"Yes. I am very lucky that you came along."

He gave her a leg up while mounting the mare. In spite of the gallantry of the gesture, again something about his manner again made her slightly uncomfortable. But that was uncharitable, she thought, considering how the man had just saved her life. She tried to smile pleasantly and began to show him the way to town.

* * * * * * *

Mosby spied Austin heading for the livery, so he strolled over there, too. He stood by the doorway and watched him as he saddled his horse.

"On your way to catch another gang, Austin?"

"What’s it to ya, Mosby?" Austin did not look up from his task.

"Oh, nothin’." Mosby examined his fingernails casually. "Just wonderin’ if you made arrangements to leave a deputy in charge while you’re gone, is all. Can’t leave the whole town without any law at all."

Austin turned around. "That ain’t your concern no more, and you know it. I run the sheriff’s office, not you. Stay out of it."

"’Course, there’s not too many men you can choose from who don’t work for me in the first place—but if you like, you can appoint one of them—"

"Forget it. Besides, I ain’t gonna be gone that long."

"I don’t doubt that. I’m sure you’ll bring this other gang to justice in no time at all."

"Damn right I will."

As Austin led his horse out of the livery, Mosby put his hand on Austin’s shoulder. "You know, and I know and the whole town knows that those Stantons were defeated by Call, not you."

Austin shrugged him off. "If you think that, why’d you throw him out of the hotel? Seems to me you should reward him, not throw him into the gutter."

"He stayed in the hotel for weeks without payin’ room and board. Can’t keep him as a permanent charity case, can I?"

"Can’t you?"

"You surprise me, Austin. You’ve never had much love for Call. Why you defendin’ him, all of a sudden?"

Austin frowned. "Don’t talk about things you don’t understand."

"I wouldn’t dream of tryin’ to figure the two of you out, " Mosby mumbled, more to himself than to Austin. Aloud, he said, "Well, time’s a-wastin’. Don’t want that trail to get cold. Best get a move on."

"Go to hell."

"Not before you."

Austin stood there for a moment with his face screwed-up, as if trying to think of a way to keep Mosby from having the last word. He finally let out his breath and moved on, leading his horse out of the livery.

* * * * * * *

Eliza and Larkin soon were out of the badlands and almost near the road to town. They chatted along the way, and she presently found out that he was a lawyer who had lately been living in Miles City.

As the horses splashed through a small stream, Larkin asked. "Do you know a Clay Mosby?"

She smiled thinly. "Everyone in Curtis Wells knows Mr. Mosby."

"I work for him."

"You’ll fit right in, then. So does practically everybody in town—his town, as he’s so fond of saying. As do I."

"Is that a fact?"

"I manage his hotel."

"Then we shall see each other often."

His pleased smile made her blush. "Yes, I expect we will," she said in a neutral tone.

They rode on a little while in silence, then Larkin said, "You know, you should report what happened to the sheriff when we return to town."

In spite of still feeling unnerved by the afternoon’s events, she couldn’t help laughing. "The sheriff! I may as well report it to the horse."

"You certainly don’t make this town sound terribly inviting."

"Believe you me, Mr. Larkin, if there were any way I could manage it, I’d be as far from here as I could possibly get."

"Why’s that?"

She shook her head, wishing she hadn’t said so much. "Too long a story. Mr. Larkin, I wonder if I could ask you, that is—"

"You don’t want anyone to know what happened."

"Yes."

He leaned over to her and winked. "Your secret is safe with me."

She thanked him, and saw that they were nearly on the outskirts of town. She had no idea what time it was, but knew that dinner should have been started quite some time ago. She sighed inwardly, knowing Mosby would be there, asking questions. So when she and Larkin arrived at the hotel, she asked him to come with her through the back door.

She thought being in her own kitchen again would finally calm her down, but the opposite turned out to be true. The accumulation of the day’s events finally got to her and her legs turned to jelly. She collapsed into a chair. She must have not looked well, because Larkin extracted the flask again and poured a stiff shot into a glass. Dropping to one knee beside her, he offered her the drink, which she took from him. As she sipped slowly, he took her other hand in his.

"You’re like ice," he said. "Really, you should see a doctor."

"No, I—"

She didn’t know how she knew Mosby had entered the kitchen, because she heard no sound. She merely divined his presence. She turned around and saw him staring at them with an unreadable expression on his face. Suddenly, it occurred to her that the vision of her drinking, with a handsome young stranger on his knee and holding her by the hand must have looked very strange indeed.

Unused to alcohol, the brandy was already clouding her thoughts. Her first impulse was to laugh, but she suppressed it, alert enough to know that it would leave an even worse impression. She quickly withdrew her hand from Larkin’s and clumsily put the glass on the kitchen table.

"Oh, Mr. Mosby, I apologize for getting back so late. I—I—"

Before Mosby could say a word, Larkin was off the floor and extending his hand. Mosby stared at it, plainly confused. Larkin said, "How do you do, sir, my name is Ned Larkin. We’ve conducted business through correspondence only—"

"Larkin. Yes." Mosby still stared at Eliza and seemed to be waiting for an explanation which she knew was vastly out of her power to give. She had to make a great effort to keep from yawning.

Larkin came to her rescue for the second time that day. "Mrs. Monahan and I met out on the road this afternoon. Her horse threw her, I’m afraid."

"Horse? She doesn’t own—"

She was still steady enough to say, "Mr. Call lent me his horse."

She had the satisfaction of seeing him become even more confused by this information. Again, she had to suppress an impulse to laugh.

"I’ll go get the doctor," said Mosby, turning.

"No!" Eliza put her hand to her mouth, aware she must have shouted. "No," she said in a calmer voice. "I’m perfectly fine, I don’t need a doctor." She staggered to her feet. "I just need to lie down for a little while."

She felt herself sway. Both men reached out to steady her, but Larkin caught her first. As if from far away, she heard Larkin say, "I’ll take her up to her room."

"No," said Mosby. "One of the girls will do it. You’ve done quite enough already."

She only had a vague memory of Mosby shouting for one of the waitresses to come take her to her room, being led up the stairs and then put into bed. As she drifted off, she hoped Robbie hadn’t seen her in such a disgraceful condition.

* * * * * * *

In spite of the inauspicious beginning, in the days that followed Mosby found much about Ned Larkin that pleased him. What he liked about him the most was that Malone didn’t like him. In fact, he acted extremely offended by the lawyer’s presence, making Larkin’s sudden appearance in town a valuable gauge of Malone’s nefarious intentions.

"Lawyer? Lawyer?" sputtered Malone when he’d found out about Larkin. "What you want to have lawyers muckin’ about in our business for, Mosby?"

They were sitting in Mosby’s office. Larkin seemed not the slightest bit perturbed by Malone’s ire.

"If I may, sir," said Larkin. "I would point out that a partnership of the magnitude outlined by Mr. Mosby should be made more official."

"Let’s hear the fellow out, Malone," said Mosby in a neutral tone. "He seems to make a lot of sense."

"I’ve taken the liberty of drawing up a partnership agreement—" Larkin opened up a case and drew out some papers. "It’s fairly standard, as you will see. We can add or subtract anything that you feel is necessary to—"

"What the hell is this, Mosby?" Malone puffed furiously on his cigar. "Here I thought your word and my word were official enough. A man’s handshake, that’s all that’s needed where I come from!"

"Of course, Malone," said Mosby. "My word is my bond. But it seems to me that for the sake of the entire enterprise—"

"Bah!" Malone stood up and tramped out of the room, slamming the door.

After listening to the vibrations die down, Mosby said, "I have a feelin’ Malone won’t sign anything."

Larkin smiled easily and began putting the papers back in his case. "Don’t worry, Mr. Mosby. Mr. Malone will sign in the end. I’ll make out an agreement both of you will find easy to live with."

Mosby doubted that. What Larkin didn’t know was the degree to which he was dependent on Malone’s money to get the mine reopened, which hardly put him in the position to make demands. He decided to sit back and watch how the man operated.

To his delight and surprise, in the end, Larkin did convince Malone to sign an agreement, and one that put him in a much stronger position in the partnership. He had to admire his silken tongue and power of persuasion. Malone even seemed pleased by the final document, and didn’t squeak one word of protest while he signed it.

A day or so after this, Mosby took Larkin back to his office. As Larkin settled into a chair, he offered him a cigar from a box on his desk.

"Yes, I’ve lately acquired the habit," said Larkin, as he took one. They each lit their cigars and smoked in silence for a bit.

As Mosby poured them drinks, he said, "Tell me, Larkin. Why’d you take it in mind to come to town just now?"

"When you wrote to me about the mine going back into operation, I figured I’d be of more service to you here."

"Initiative. I like that."

Larkin smiled modestly. "I try to do the best I can by my clients."

"You know, when I first saw you, I thought you were awful young—have you been practicin’ law long?"

"One of the youngest in the history of my school to get a degree. I started out in criminal law, but—well—"

"Yes?"

Larkin leaned forward. "Not much money in that, you see. Business law began to look more attractive."

"So you’re ambitious?"

Larkin only smiled and shrugged.

Mosby matched his smile. "I like that, too."

Mosby reflected that Larkin was remarkably bright and quick-thinking. His manner was straightforward, but still deferential to him. He was close to perfect for what he had in mind.

He put down his whisky glass. "I’ve got a lot of plans for this town, big plans. Reopening the mine is just the first step. Could use someone like you as a right hand—an associate. I don’t suppose you’d be interested?"

Larkin looked genuinely surprised. "Oh. Well, this is awful sudden."

"Give it some thought, why don’t you?"

"Of course," he said quickly. "I’m terribly flattered, don’t misunderstand. It’s only that as things are now, I’m my own boss. Why should I want to work for someone else?"

"I’ll tell you why—opportunity here will be unlimited. I guarantee that. Once the mine is reopened, the railroad is sure to follow. You’d be in on the ground floor."

"Sounds awful tempting."

"There’s but one thing you need to know about me, Mr. Larkin. I know how to reward loyalty."

Mosby was pleased to see a light shine in the man’s eyes. Larkin puffed on his cigar, then said, "Is that a fact?"

"That is a fact."

Larkin held out his glass and Mosby filled it again. After taking a sip, he said, "What about Malone?"

"What about him?"

"He’s your associate, too. More than that now—your partner in business. Shouldn’t he have a say in this?"

Mosby grimaced. "He and I are associates only because of some rather unusual circumstances I’d rather not get into right now. Make no mistake about it—I don’t trust him any further than a snail can hop. Which is why I so appreciate your efforts of the last few days."

"I see."

"I would expect your undivided loyalty."

"That goes without saying, Mr. Mosby."

"Good. You think on my proposition for a while." He poured himself another drink, then raised his glass. "In the meantime, here’s to unlimited horizons."

"Unlimited horizons."

They clinked glasses.

* * * * * * *

Call had not stayed long at his father-in-law’s house. The morning after Austin had dumped him there he moved out and into the livery on a permanent basis. He made an arrangement with the owner to do some of the cleaning so he could keep the Hell Bitch stabled there and earn a bit extra for food.

When he wasn’t struggling to clear out the hay or grain the horses, he slept or just lay in the straw, leaning against his saddle. This was what he was doing when he looked up one afternoon and found Eliza Monahan standing over him, holding a pan with a towel over it.

He sat up quickly and mumbled a greeting. She crouched next to him.

She said, "I just came by to thank you for giving me the loan of your horse the other day."

"No need."

"Of course there is. I’m grateful you would trust her to me." She held out the pan to him. When he didn’t take it, she reached over for his good hand and thrust it gently into his grasp. "I made applesauce cake."

She took off the towel, and the spicy aroma that wafted up to his nose made his mouth water. Food the past weeks had only served to quiet a growling in his stomach; this was the first time the idea of eating seemed truly appealing. "Thank you," he said.

"I’ve got something for her, too." She stood up and went over to the Hell Bitch’s stall. She reached into the pocket of her apron and took out a carrot, then offered it to the mare, who crunched it down quickly. Mrs. Monahan patted the mare’s neck, then stroked her nose, smiling all the time.

Call started to tear into the cake. When a few mouthfuls were gone, he said, "You seem to get on well with her."

"She’s a fine horse. The finest I’ve seen since leaving home."

"Your people raise horses?"

"No. My uncle owned a couple of race horses, though. That’s how I knew Des. His father trained them." She stopped patting the horse and grew quiet, perhaps remembering. When she finally turned around, she smiled. "My, you finished that quick."

Call looked down and saw that the pan was indeed empty, with only a few crumbs left. "Guess I was hungry." He held out the pan to her, and she took it.

"I’d better get back to the hotel and start dinner. Thank you again."

Just as she got to the door, Call said, "You want her?"

She turned around. "What do you mean?"

"The Hell Bitch."

"Oh, I couldn’t possibly afford—"

"No, I mean I’d give her to you."

"Give?" Her eyes clouded over. "I don’t understand."

"You know—like a gift."

She walked a few steps back towards him. "Why would you do a thing like that?"

"Can’t afford to keep her, and I’d rather see you get her than anyone else."

"Why don’t you just sell her?"

He didn’t answer at first, just looked away from her. There was a long silence.

She finally said, "I couldn’t possibly accept her. You know that, don’t you?"

"Yeah. Never mind. Must have just lost my head for a minute."

She nodded. "I see. But don’t sell her, Mr. Call. I think you’d regret it in the end."

"Yeah, I reckon."

"Well, good afternoon." She began leaving again.

"Good-bye," he said to her receding back.

* * * * * * *

From Mosby’s point of view, Larkin had only one flaw, if it could be considered a flaw. He was an incurable flirt, a condition that would not have bothered him much if his primary target weren’t Eliza Monahan. She met most of his driveling patter with her usual cool, polite reserve, but it nauseated Mosby to listen to it.

He reached the limit of his tolerance when he was having lunch with both Larkin and Malone in the hotel dining room. After she had finished serving them coffee and headed back to the kitchen, Larkin leaned back in his chair. As he watched her he said in a sighing voice, "The Lonesome Dove, the Lonesome Dove."

Mosby and Malone looked at each other.

Larkin smiled at their confusion. "Tell me, Mr. Mosby, how did you choose the name for your hotel?"

"A previous owner chose it."

"Ah!" Larkin said. "I had the idea that you named it after Mrs. Monahan. Doesn’t it just fit her? Poor little lonesome dove."

Even before Mosby could open his mouth, Malone said, "Laddie, you want a valuable piece of advice?"

Larkin leaned forward and eyed Malone. "Have you a method for capturing lonesome doves, Mr. Malone?"

"Women," said Malone in a dramatic voice. "Are poison to men like us."

"Poison? Isn’t that a bit of a strong statement?" said Larkin. "And what do you mean by men like us?"

Malone savagely cut into the roast beef on his plate. "Leaders, that’s who I mean. Women weaken a man’s resolve, laddie. If you want to go far in this life, best to keep away from them. Especially her kind. They’re the most dangerous."

"Dangerous?" said Larkin, laughing. "Mr. Mosby, let’s hear your point of view on this matter."

Again, Malone stepped in before Mosby could say anything. "Mosby feels just as I do about this."

Mosby didn’t know what to make of Malone’s presumption that he had the least notion of what he thought or felt. Still, he said nothing, fascinated to hear what he had to say.

"Mosby and I are smart to stay unencumbered, boyo. No distractions, our sights pinned on our goals. Women are a trap. A prison."

Larkin smiled into his cup of coffee. "In that case, lock me up and throw away the key."

Malone turned to Mosby. "Ach! There’s no hope for the lad. He’ll never be more than he is now—a nobody, a nothing. Some woman will get her hooks into him for sure, and that’ll be that, laddie, you wait and see."

Mosby said nothing, simply sipped his coffee. He decided he was going to give Larkin his own lecture on the matter—in private.

* * * * * * *

Eliza couldn’t get what happened in the livery out of her mind. She had put off seeing Call the first few days after the attack, wanting to forget the whole thing and not caring to confront anything that would remind her. Finally, she scolded herself for her foolishness and sought him out.

Now she was worried. The offer of the horse was the most astounding thing she could imagine. As she stood in the kitchen washing the cake pan, she tried to figure out why he would want to do such a thing. It had to be more than sympathy for her plight since Des’ death.

Someone tapped her on the shoulder. She jumped, dropping the pan with a crash into the sink.

She turned around, her heart pounding. It was Mosby.

"Are you all right?" he inquired.

"Yes, of course. You just startled me."

"You’re shaking all over," he said. He reached over to her and very lightly touched her throat. "And what in the blazes is this—this scratch?"

She’d thought the scratch from the knife blade had been barely visible and hadn’t tried to hide it. She’d forgotten that Mosby had eagle eyes, that he never missed a thing. "N-nothing. A tree branch or something did that." She pushed his hand away. "Is there something that you wanted, Mr. Mosby?"

"I wanted to speak to you—it’s rather a delicate matter."

Now what? "What is it?"

"I just wanted to tell you that if you—or any of the girls who work here, for that matter—especially after that unfortunate incident last month with those Stantons—if you find that anyone’s been bothering you—"

"B-bothering?" she said sharply. "What exactly do you mean by that?" Had Larkin shot off his mouth to Mosby about the attack, after all?

"I know we don’t always get the most refined clientele in here—some of them get rowdy around women—and if you find any of them are bein’, you know, fresh—"

"Fresh?" She had to smile at her mistaken assumption. Over the past months she’d heard more than her share of lewd suggestions and rough language, and had become almost immune to it. The way he was characterizing it seemed silly. "Yes, I’ll be sure to report to you anybody being—fresh—right away."

"There’s nobody in particular that you wish to complain about?"

"No, but I’ll keep my ears open for it." As she spoke, she looked out the window and detected Josiah Peale outside, making his way to the newspaper office. She wiped her hands on a towel and began removing her apron. "Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to run a few errands."

He nodded and she went to fetch her bonnet and handbag. Seeing Mr. Peale had given her an idea.

As soon as she got her things, she headed for the newspaper office. When she arrived, she peered into the window and saw Josiah sitting on a cot, reading something. She tapped on the door jamb.

He turned around, smiled and stood up. "Mrs. Monahan. This is a pleasant surprise."

She smiled back and walked inside. She looked around. The office looked as if a hurricane had come through it. She began to wonder if this was such a good idea, after all.

"Please sit down," he said, clearing some old editions of the Statesman off a chair. She sat, and he went back to his cot. "What can I do for you?"

She hardly knew how to begin. "Mr. Peale, I hope you won’t think I’m poking my nose into your business—"

"Oh, I doubt you would do a thing like that."

"Yes. Well. I—people have told me that you’re Newt Call’s father-in-law."

"That’s true. What of it?"

She cleared her throat. "You must know that I was forced to turn him out of the hotel a few days back."

"Why, no one could blame you for that. Truth be told, you probably let him stay on longer than you should have."

"That may be, but I feel terrible about it. I just saw him today, and he’s living in the livery. He seems very bad off, and I wondered—"

"Aren’t you sweet? So good-hearted. You remind me of—" He stopped, his eyes becoming vague.

"Who?"

"Hannah. My daughter." He reached over to a table by the cot and picked up a framed photograph. "Would you like to see?"

"Yes, of course." She took the photograph from him. "My, what a lovely young woman."

"She was as beautiful on the inside, too."

"It must have been terrible to lose her."

His eyes grew shiny. "Yes."

She looked away, embarrassed. She spied another framed photograph on the table, and picked that one up, too. This one was also of Hannah, with a young man by her side. "Who’s this?" she inquired.

He snapped out of his reverie. "Don’t you know?"

She peered at the picture. She was sure the man was unknown to her. If she’d ever seen such an angelic-looking face before, she would have remembered it. "Should I?"

"That’s Newt, just after he married Hannah."

This jolted her so severely she almost jumped out of the chair. "This is Newt Call?"

"He’s changed since then," said Mr. Peale, unnecessarily.

"Oh. Oh, my." Her throat suddenly went very dry. "I had no idea." She handed the picture back to him.

"Now, don’t you worry about Newt. He’ll be all right, I’m sure of it."

She was not the least bit sure of it. She said, "Couldn’t he live with you for a time? Just until he heals?"

"Why, I’d like that fine, except I live here in the office, and there’s little room—"

"Don’t you have a house?"

"I don’t live there anymore. It’s in bad condition, anyway. I’ve hardly been in it since—" He began tracing the picture of Hannah with his finger.

It was becoming clear that there was no help for Newt Call here. She stood up. Mr. Peale stood also.

"Well, it was just a suggestion. I’ll be on my way, then."

He nodded, and began staring at the photograph again. She turned around quickly and left him.

* * * * * * *

"That Malone is a funny duck, isn’t he?" said Larkin. "What odd notions he gets."

Mosby smiled and agreed. There were standing on his balcony, having a drink.

"Ah," said Larkin, leaning forward. "Here comes the little lonesome dove now."

Mosby leaned forward and looked, too. When she told him she would be running "errands," he’d assumed she was going shopping. What the hell had she been doing at the newspaper office?

Larkin was sighing and getting that insipid look on his face again. Mosby looked at his shot glass and said, "You know I don’t hold with those idiotic things Malone was sayin’ in the Dove this afternoon."

Larkin laughed. "Of course."

"So I don’t want you to take what I’m goin’ to say the wrong way."

Larkin stopped laughing and looked at him sharply. "Take what the wrong way?"

"Well, you seem to enjoy flirtin’—and mind you, I have no objection to that, in and of itself. It’s a harmless enough pastime. It’s just—"

"What?"

"You seem to enjoy flirtin’ with Eliza Monahan in particular."

Larkin raised his eyebrows in surprise. "Something wrong with that?"

"No, no. Not under normal circumstances."

"And these aren’t normal circumstances?"

"She’s had more than her share of tragedy, and quite recently, too."

"Her husband and her daughter. Yes, I know about that."

He found out about that awful fast, thought Mosby. "Do you know how her husband died?"

"No."

"I’m afraid the man was hanged for murder, right here in this town."

"Oh, I see," said Larkin. He sipped his drink. "How horrible."

"So you understand how wrong it would be if someone started triflin’ with her."

"I wasn’t—"

"Of course you weren’t. I’m sure you meant no harm. How could you have known? But you see how under the circumstances she could take it a very different way and be hurt by it."

The insipid look was completely gone, replaced by a much shrewder one. "I think I get what you mean."

"Good. That’s good. Have another drink."

As he poured the whisky, Mosby felt sure that he’d made a very good choice in Larkin. The man was smart, and knew what was good for him.

* * * * * * *

Late in the evening, Eliza finished locking up. This was the time of the day she found the hardest to bear, when there was nothing to do. She sometimes sat and sewed, or wrote a letter to Mavis, or read, until she got so sleepy that it felt as though her head would fall off.

She went into the office and sat at the desk, taking out paper and ink. Was it too soon to send another pleading letter to her sister? So far, all they had yielded were letters from Mavis full of mindless gossip about half-remembered people and an occasional ten dollar bill. The last few days made her escape from this hell-hole seem even more imperative. She sighed and began to write. It would do no harm to try again.

After a few moments she looked up and was surprised to see Robbie standing in front of her in his nightshirt.

"What in the world are you doing out of bed?"

"I’m supposed to give you somethin’."

The boy held out a piece of paper. She took it, saying, "When did you get this? Why didn’t you give it to me before bedtime?"

"He said to wait. To wait until it was late."

"Who said?"

"Mr. Call."

Eliza felt her heart begin to thump. "Go on back to bed, Robbie. Right away."

"Yes ma’am." The boy left.

She held the paper close to the lamp. The scrawling words were almost impossible to read, probably, she realized, because he’d written them with his left hand. It took a few moments to decipher it. As the meaning of the letter sank in, she gasped and stood up quickly. Running into the lobby, she took a shawl she kept by the door on a hook and ran out of the hotel, heading for the livery.

She threw the shawl over her shoulders. Being the middle of the week, the town was lively with activity but not rowdy. Off in the distance she could hear thunder rumbling low in the sky.

She burst into the livery, looking around, afraid of what she was going to find. She finally found Call by his usual spot, leaning on a post. With a rope in his hands. Twisting it clumsily into what looked like a noose.

He stiffened when he saw her, then looked away. "Late for you to be about, Mrs. Monahan."

"Late for you to go roping cattle, Mr. Call," she said, her voice trembling,

There was a long silence.

Finally, he said, "You’d best get back to the hotel. Ain’t safe for a lady like you to be out and about right now."

"I don’t think it’s safe to leave you here alone."

"Ain’t your business. Leave me be."

"I beg to differ, Mr. Call. You made it my business. You made it my business when you sent me this," she said, tossing the paper at him. It fell at his feet.

The rope unraveled and fell to the ground.

* * * * * * *

Mosby stood at the bar in the Ambrosia with Malone. The saloon was busy for that time of the week, and Mosby couldn’t help feeling as though just about everything was starting to go his way again. The mine would be open soon, Austin was spending most of his time out of Curtis Wells, Amanda seemed to have adapted quite well to her life in tent-town and he was even feeling tolerant of Malone. He was able to stand there, drinking with him, as if they were friendly.

He looked across the room and had even more reason to feel gratified. Larkin had apparently taken their talk to heart. He currently had his arm around one of the bar girls and was in the process of seriously chatting her up.

He finally had someone obedient and trustworthy to help him. Things were going well.

Malone watched Larkin, too, cluck-clucking at his behavior.

"Come now, Malone!" said Mosby. "Nothin’ wrong with the fellow havin’ some fun."

"You and he have gotten awful thick, awful fast," said Malone.

"Somethin’ wrong with that?"

"No. He’s got his uses, I’ll admit. But watch out for him, Mosby."

Mosby couldn’t help smirking. As if he didn’t have to watch out for Malone. "Watch out for him? Why?"

"Ach, he’s a little too slick for his own good."

"We may be glad of that in time."

"I said he has his uses," said Malone, leaning on the bar. "But I can never completely trust a fellow whose brains is all in his pants."

"I’ll take that under advisement." Larkin was right, Mosby thought. Malone was a funny duck. As he drank some whisky, he watched Larkin pat the girl on the rear and then leave the saloon.

"Well," said Malone, yawning. "Guess I’ll make it a night, too."

Malone followed Larkin out.

* * * * * * *

Amanda woke up, knowing instinctively that there was someone in the tent with her. As quietly as she could manage, she reached under her pillow and took hold of her derringer.

Someone touched her shoulder and shook it. She sat up quickly and shoved the butt of the gun against the man’s chest, hoping she was in the vicinity of his heart.

"Don’t move, or you’re dead," she growled.

"Whoa! It’s just me, no need for the gun," said a familiar voice.

She eased off and said, "Light the lamp."

A few seconds later, a glow from the lamp illuminated the little tent. She smiled and shoved the gun back under her pillow.

"Jesus, Ned, you half-scared the life outta me," she said, pushing the quilt back and throwing her legs over the side. "Hand me my shawl."

Larkin obeyed. "My, my, Providence, don’t you look fine. How about a kiss, for old times sake?"

He reached for her, but she pushed him away good-naturedly. "Still the same horny bastard, ain’t ya?"

"You used to like that, Providence."

"Yeah, well, let’s talk business first. And by the way, don’t call me Providence. That’s a sure way to tip off to people that you know me from before. I’m Amanda here in Curtis Wells."

"Amanda—I like that. Suits you just fine." He took off his jacket and tossed it over the headboard.

She wrapped the shawl around her shoulders. "What the hell are you doin’ here, Ned? You want everything we’ve been settin’ up to go up in smoke?"

He sat down on the edge of the bed and began removing his boots. "I told you—Amanda—our operation was about to go up in smoke anyway. Coming here just confirmed my fears. Mosby is definitely putting the mine back in operation."

"Damn!"

"We have a few choices on how to deal with this," he said. One boot came off and clonked to the floor. "Cut and run is probably the sensible way."

"Well, I ain’t never been the sensible type."

He laughed. "That’s the truth! That’s how come you ended up in jail that time."

She frowned. "Do you have to bring that up?"

"What? The tender story of our first meeting in the county jail?" He snickered.

"Just shut up about it. I’ve left all that behind me."

The other boot came off and he crawled into the bed. "Come here, darlin’," he said, patting the empty space beside him.

"In a minute. What’s the other choice?"

"Set up a patsy. Convince Mosby it was someone else."

A smile spread slowly over her face. "That might just do. I’ll have to think on it."

"You can think better over here," he said, grabbing her around the waist and pulling her down beside him.

* * * * * * *

Mosby sat in the Dove by himself, having his breakfast. He looked around. It was highly unusual not to see Mrs. Monahan in the dining room at that time of day. She usually helped the girls serve.

When one of the girls came over to refill his cup with coffee, he asked for her. The girl became nervous.

"Haven’t seen her this mornin’," she said, looking at one of the other waitresses.

"What do you mean, you haven’t seen her? Where is she?"

Both girls shrugged, then scurried off to the kitchen. He waited a few moments, then got up and headed for the kitchen himself.

He found Mrs. Monahan and the two girls whispering together frantically. She looked up at him, startled. He was just as surprised at her appearance. Her hair was in disarray and her dress, the same one she’d worn the previous day, was rumpled, as if she’d slept in it.

She waved at the two girls to go away. They left the kitchen quickly.

He walked up to her and looked her over good. She just stared back, as if challenging him to say something. He didn’t, at first. Instead, he reached over and plucked a piece of straw from her hair.

"Well," he said, flicking it away. "I’m sure you have an interestin’ story about where you’ve been."

"I have no story, Mr. Mosby."

"There must be a reason you left the hotel unattended during breakfast."

"The girls seem to have managed quite nicely."

"Where were you?" he asked, his tone coming out a little harsher than he intended.

She flinched. He saw a glimmer of fright cross her eyes. But all she said was, "I can’t tell you that."

"That is not an acceptable answer, Mrs. Monahan."

Her eyes grew shiny, but she held her head high. "Do you want me to leave? The stage leaves tomorrow. Robbie and I can be on our way once you pay me what you owe."

He was taken aback. "No, no—I only—"

"I’m not going to share my private affairs with you, Mr. Mosby. If you feel that you are entitled to know them, well—I guess you have every right to turn me out."

He didn’t know how, but the conversation had slipped out of his grasp. He tried to regain his equilibrium. He finally said, "That won’t be necessary. And you’re quite right. I’ll leave you to your own affairs."

"I’d appreciate that."

He looked her over again, and thought she had to be the coolest article he’d ever seen. Though she seemed relieved that her job was safe, she did not look the least bit ashamed. He must have had a wrong impression of her. He left the kitchen.

He went into the dining room and sat at his table, glowering into his now-cold cup of coffee. Ned Larkin came sauntering into the hotel, whistling, his jacket thrown over his shoulder.

"Mr. Mosby!" he said. "May I join you for breakfast? I’m hungry as a bear." He swung his leg over the empty chair next to Mosby and sat down.

"Gone huntin’, have you?"

Larkin laughed. "In a manner of speaking." When Larkin caught his eye he stopped laughing. "Something wrong?"

"Of course not. What could be wrong?" He stood up.

Larkin said, "Not having breakfast this morning?"

"Remembered some business I have to attend to."

"Anything I can help with?"

"Definitely not." He took his hat off the hook by the door and put it on, then walked across the road to the Ambrosia. Two of his men where hanging about outside the saloon.

He went over to them. They stood straight and awaited his command.

"Got a job for you boys."

* * * * * * *

The girls were almost finished doing the breakfast dishes when Eliza saw Call standing at the back door. She told the girls she would finish putting the last of the dishes away herself and shooed them out.

He stepped in, reluctantly it seemed to her. They said nothing at first. He took off his hat, but would not look her in the eye.

"Mrs. Monahan," he said. "I just wanted to say—just wanted to say sorry for causin’ you trouble."

"Yes," she said crisply. "You’ve caused me a great deal of trouble, Mr. Call. I almost lost my job this morning."

"Mosby—"

"—apparently thinks I spent last night rolling in the hay with my secret lover."

Call’s head snapped up. She said, "Don’t worry. I said nothing."

"Thanks. I am sorry."

"Well, if you mean that, then I expect you won’t give me any trouble now and do what I say."

"Do what?"

She smiled. "Sit down while I make you some breakfast."

"No—no—"

"Mr. Call, I’ve had all the arguing I’m going to take for one day. Especially considering how I’ve sacrificed my reputation for your sake. Sit."

He obeyed.

* * * * * * *

Mosby’s men had nothing to report at first, as Mrs. Monahan did not leave the hotel the rest of the day. The second day happened to be her regular day off, so he waited impatiently for his man to make his report.

This particular man, Dawkins, was doggedly servile, not tremendously bright, but the sort to carry out instructions to the letter. He knew that if he told him to follow and watch Mrs. Monahan, he would do exactly that, and nothing more. Mosby sat at his desk, gouging the top of his desk lightly with a letter-opener while the man spoke.

When Dawkins was done Mosby could not believe what he heard. "She went where?"

"To Mr. Peale’s old house, sir."

"What the hell—? Tell me exactly what she did."

"Couldn’t see, sir. She was in the house most of the time."

"With somebody?"

The man hesitated.

"Well?" said Mosby.

"Call. She was with Newt Call."

"Who?" The letter-opener put a deep, permanent gouge in his desk. Call was currently living at the livery, he suddenly remembered. "Why, why—you must be jokin’!"

"No, sir, saw him with my own eyes."

Eliza Monahan—and Call? That was too, too ridiculous to contemplate. "They never came out of the house?"

"Well, she come out of the house for a time."

"What was she doin’?"

"Her and the boy—"

"The boy? You mean, her son was with them?"

"Uh—yeah."

The boy chaperoning put an entirely different light on the whole business. Through clenched teeth he said, "Why didn’t you say so in the first place?"

"I—uh—I—"

"Never mind. Go on."

"Well, they come out carryin’ a rug, and then they hung it over a wash line, and she was beatin’ it, like."

"Why was she doin’ that?"

Dawkins grinned sheepishly. "I expect ‘cause it was dirty, sir."

Mosby stood up quickly. Dawkins jumped back, obviously thinking he’d done something wrong and was about to receive punishment. Mosby put up his hand and said, "It’s all right. You see anythin’ else?"

"No, sir."

"Where is she now?"

"Still there, far as I know. I left Barnes over there, he’s still watchin’ her."

"All right, that’s all. I’ll take care of it from here."

Dawkins left the office. Mosby got his hat, and set out for Josiah Peale’s old house.

* * * * * * *

"You could make yourself useful, you know," said Eliza. "You’re just hurt, not helpless."

Call, who’d been lying on the settee, stood up and said, "What you want done?"

"Help me take these curtains down."

He walked over to the window and frowned. "You ain’t gonna get rid of them, are you?"

"No, of course not. They just need a little mending and laundering—" She turned around and saw the concern on his face, and knew curtains in and of themselves couldn’t be the cause of it. She looked at them and said, "Your wife made these, didn’t she?"

He fingered the material and nodded.

"I’ll take good care of them. I promise."

When they finished taking the curtains down, she looked around the room. "Well! We’re not nearly finished, but this place almost looks habitable. Fit for human beings. Now, won’t this be better than living with animals?"

"Never said yet that I’d move in here with Josiah."

"You will." She held up her finger as he started to protest again. "You promised not to give me any more grief, remember?"

"You’re a determined woman."

"Yes." She started folding the curtains.

"Why you doin’ all this? You can’t have no love for me, after—"

She looked at him and realized that he had become so cynical he couldn’t believe in or appreciate simple kindness. So she said, "I need the money. I have to get away from this place, get Robbie away. I don’t want him to end up—"

"Like me?"

She stopped folding the curtains, surprised. "You see a lot. More than you let on."

He shrugged. "More than I want to, sometimes."

She was in the process of folding up a bed sheet, with Call helping her as best he could with his injured hand, when a shadow fell across the room. They turned around and saw Mosby standing in the doorway, looking at them, his mouth open in disbelief.

"Mr. Mosby," said Eliza, as she put the last fold into the sheet. "Is there some emergency over at the hotel?"

"No, but I need to speak to you, Mrs. Monahan."

He and Call eyed each other. Not for the first time, she wondered what the animosity between them was about. She handed Call the bed sheet and swept past Mosby. He followed her outside. When he faced her, she said, "Yes?"

"It’s come to my attention—"

"Why don’t I just save you the trouble, Mr. Mosby? You found out that I’ve made an arrangement with Josiah Peale to clean his house on my day off."

"You—what?"

"That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?"

"Ah—yes. Yes." He cleared his throat. "I really think you should have consulted me first, because—"

"I plan to do it on my free day. Free meaning, free to do as I please, or so I thought."

He paused and seemed to be looking past her, over her shoulder. She wondered if Call was watching them.

"Is this a matter of money?" he asked.

"Yes, most definitely."

He looked relieved. He even smiled. "If that’s all it is, we can renegotiate your salary. Well, we should have, anyway. You’ve taken on more than the usual share of duties, the cookin’ for one thing. Yes, a raise is certainly in order."

"Thank you, Mr. Mosby. I gladly accept."

"Good. I suppose there’s no reason for you to stay here. We should get back to the hotel now—"

"No."

"What?"

"I plan to continue working for Mr. Peale. With the money he pays me and the raise you’re going to give me, I’ll get out of this town just that much quicker."

"But—you shouldn’t be doin’ work like this."

"Why ever not? It’s honest work, isn’t it?"

"I know, but you work so hard all week at the hotel and—"

"I’m used to it. Believe me, I worked a lot harder when we had our farm."

He finally gave up arguing. "Very well. I see you’re not goin’ to be talked out of it."

"No."

She turned and headed for the house before he could answer. Call was indeed standing by the door, watching, with the closest thing to a smile on his face that she’d seen yet. He followed her back into the house, then looked at her, as if appraising her somehow.

She picked up another bed sheet and said, "Help me fold this."

He picked up one end and said, "You ain’t afraid of Mosby, are you?"

"Only right down to my boots," she said.

"No, you ain’t. How come? Most folks are."

"Well," she said as they folded up the sheet. "I suppose it’s because I grew up in a family of men just like him."

"You mean your father?"

"To a degree. But I’m thinking mainly of my mother’s family—my grandfather and two uncles. They’d walk into a rooms like they own them just because they’re in them, too."

"That so?"

"Grandfather made a fortune from land speculations and his sons made it even larger." She paused, remembering. "Yes, Clay Mosby reminds me quite a lot of my Uncle Jack."

"Had no use for him, huh?"

She looked up and laughed. "Why no, Mr. Call. As a matter of fact, I was very fond of my Uncle Jack. He was my favorite relative."

It was Call’s turn to look surprised.

* * * * * * *

Mosby tramped back to the Ambrosia, fuming. And he had thought Amanda Carpenter was an exasperating woman. What was this—thing—with Call about? He couldn’t make it out.

Well, there was one good result from all this. At least he knew Larkin was keeping his word to him. Someone knew something about the meaning of the word loyalty.

* * * * * * *

Amanda pushed the bed quilt away and sat up. She tapped Larkin’s shoulder and said, "Wake up."

He stirred and groaned. "Aw, gimme a break, Providence."

"Come on. You’d best not let anyone see you coming in or out of my tent. Mosby would have your hide if he ever found out we was associates."

He turned over and traced a finger up her back. "More than associates."

She turned around and grabbed his hand. "I mean it, Ned. Don’t underestimate Mosby. If he finds out all we’ve been up to, he’ll kill you. And that ain’t a figure of speech. I mean you’ll be six feet under."

He pressed her hand to his lips. "You let me worry about that."

"No, I gotta worry about it, ‘cause I ain’t goin’ down with you. Understand?" She let go of his hand. "Don’t know what you were thinkin’ about, comin’ here and goin’ to work for Mosby. Makes about as much sense as walkin’ up to a bull and kickin’ it in the ass. It’s only a matter of time—"

"Quit worrying. He likes me. He trusts me. He’s no different from any other mark."

"Yeah, he is. He’s a lot smarter. And don’t believe for a minute that he trusts you. He don’t trust no one." She reached for her wrap and threw it on.

"I’ve been meaning to ask you—why do you still live in this hell-hole? You don’t have to anymore. Damned uncomfortable, if you ask me."

"That’s exactly what I mean, Ned. You gotta stay one step ahead of Mosby. If he saw I was well off enough to leave tent-town, he’d get suspicious."

"O.K., I getcha. I’ll be careful."

"You better, or we’re both dead."

* * * * * * *

Eliza emerged from the banking house, feeling almost contented. The few extra dollars a week she would receive from Josiah Peale would go straight into her account. She would have the money to get back to Boston sooner than she’d hoped. Penny by penny, she thought. Time would fly, and she would be back where she belonged.

She crossed the way, swinging her handbag, cheerful enough to hum a little tune. As she passed by the mercantile, the song stuck in her throat.

The two men who attacked her in the badlands were standing outside of it.

She stopped dead. They had not seen her, so after taking a few seconds to compose herself, she forced herself to move. She turned, walking away as fast as she could without actually running.

She soon found that she was headed for tent-town. This won’t do, she thought. She stopped and looked behind her, and saw that the men were headed for the No. 10. They still had not spotted her.

"Mrs. Monahan!" a cheerful voice said.

She jumped. She saw Ned Larkin heading towards her. "Oh, Mr. Larkin, Mr. Larkin—"

"Whatever is the matter? You’re paler than a ghost."

"Those men," she whispered. "Behind me. They’re the ones—"

He looked and saw them, too. He pulled her away and led her into an alley. They watched as they passed by.

"It’s all right," said Larkin after a bit. "They’re in the 10 now."

She felt herself trembling all over. "Oh, God. What do I do? I’m so frightened."

He grabbed her by the arms. "Don’t distress yourself, Mrs. Monahan. We’ll go to the sheriff and report them now."

"No! No! Besides, the sheriff is out of town."

"We’ll tell Mosby, then."

"Mosby? Absolutely not."

"Why not? You have to tell someone in authority—"

"No." She shook off his hands and said, "No. I’m all right now. Thank you. I—I doubt those two will wander much from that side of town. They’ll be moving on soon, I’m sure. Then everything will be fine."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. Thank you, Mr. Larkin. You seem to be constantly coming to my rescue."

He picked up her hand and pressed it to his lips. "A role I find most pleasing."

* * * * * * *

Mosby waited for Larkin to meet him in his office. He had the letter-opener in his hand again, adding more barely visible scratches to the top of his desk. Dawkins and Barnes had made a final report, and what they just told him was far from agreeable. Especially the part about the hand-kissing.

Larkin burst in. "Afternoon, sir. You wanted to see me?"

"Yes."

Larkin’s cheerful demeanor didn’t change, but he was perceptive enough to detect a chill in the air. "Something wrong, Mr. Mosby?"

"No, no. Just—curious about somethin’." He put down the letter-opener and stood up, then walked around the desk and right up to him. He smiled. "What were you talkin’ about to Mrs. Monahan just now?"

Larkin was unperturbed. He smiled back. "Well, now, Mr. Mosby, I’m glad you asked me that."

"You are?" said Mosby, surprised.

"Yes. You see, I’m in a bit of a pickle, and maybe you can help me out."

Mosby waited. This he had to hear.

"I’ve given my word to a lady not to break a confidence—you know what that means, to give your word, don’t you? Especially to a lady. And I hate to have to do so, but concern for her safety, I believe, outweighs—"

"Safety? What in the hell are you on about?"

"That day, when I met her out on the road, her horse didn’t throw her."

"I thought that was strange. What really happened?"

"I’m afraid I came along just as two vagabonds were attacking her."

"What!" Mosby traced his finger on his throat. "That scratch—"

"They threatened to cut her up if she wouldn’t—well, you can imagine. Luckily, I scared them off before—"

The room seemed to tilt out from under him. He could barely catch his breath, he was made so angry by the images filtering through his mind. "Why didn’t you tell me this before?" he said through clenched teeth.

"I told you, sir, I gave my word—"

"Never mind that now. Why do you say you’re concerned with her safety?"

"Those men are here in town. She just pointed them out to me in the street."

He felt as though he was suffocating, the rage was so bad. "Where are they?" he growled.

"Last I saw, they were at the No. 10."

"Come on."

Mosby slammed out of the office and rushed downstairs, Larkin following close behind. As they went through the saloon, Mosby signaled Dawkins and Barnes, who were drinking beer at the bar, to come with them. They obediently put down their drinks and followed. When they were outside, he signaled two more of his men to follow, too.

They arrived in the No. 10 a few moments later. Amanda looked up from behind the bar, startled. "Ain’t this an honor?" she said, smirking. "Visiting royalty from the other side of town."

Mosby ignored her. He said to Larkin, "Which ones are they?"

"Those two in the back." Larkin pointed them out.

Mosby jerked his head and said to his men. "You heard him. Get them."

The four men walked over to the vagabonds and began pulling them up from the table.

"Wha—hey!" cried one.

"Get the hell away from me, son of a bitch!" screamed the other as Dawkins dragged him out the door.

"Clay, what the hell’s goin’ on?" Amanda came from behind the bar and ran to him. "You can’t come in here and—"

"I’m sorry, Amanda, but these two have to be taught a lesson. A very severe lesson. Let’s go, boys." He turned to Larkin. "You too. I want you to see this."

They made a gruesome procession back to town. The two bums struggled and protested the whole way, confused about what was happening, not understanding why they’d been singled out.

Dawkins said, "Where you wanna take ‘em, Mr. Mosby? To the center of town?" Dawkins apparently expected him to make a public spectacle of whatever punishment he was set on meting out to these two.

"No," said Mosby. "Let’s take them to the livery."

The men obeyed. There was no one about, only the horses.

One man stood behind each vagabond and took hold of them by the arms. Mosby nodded to his other two men. They immediately commenced beating the tar out of their prisoners.

Larkin winced at each punch and subsequent groan from the men being beaten. He turned positively green when one spit out a couple of teeth after an especially vicious blow.

The faces of the two vagabonds soon became swollen, bloody disasters. Mosby finally signaled his men to stop.

They needed the men holding them to keep them on their feet, because both would have fallen over otherwise. One of them croaked out, "What we done? We don’t deserve this!"

Mosby waved the two who had done the punching away. "You know, you’re right. You don’t deserve this. You deserve a hell of a lot worse for attackin’ a lady."

"Is that what this is about?" One of the men peered at Larkin. "That slut we found in the badlands?"

Mosby stepped in front of him. "Hold onto him, Barnes." Barnes obeyed as Mosby landed a couple of punches of his own. He hit him with all the force of his rage.

"Please, please stop," gasped his victim.

He turned to the other, who said in a pleading voice, "No more, no more!"

He shut him up with a blow hard enough to break his nose. Blood shot out like water from a fountain.

He stepped back, taking out his handkerchief and wiping away the blood on his hands. Then he began massaging his knuckles. Speaking over their groans of pain, he asked, "Which one of you is the one with the knife?"

The one with the broken nose spat out, "That be Lem."

"You bastard!" said the other.

Dawkins searched him and extracted the knife from its holder when he found it. He handed the knife to Mosby.

Mosby ran his thumb along the blade of the knife. Then he walked up to the one called Lem. He shoved his arm across Lem’s neck and then held the blade of the knife against his jugular vein.

"Oh, God," Lem said in a sobbing voice.

"You scared?" asked Mosby, pressing the knife a little harder into his throat.

The man nodded.

"Afraid I’ll cut out your throat?"

"Yes," he whispered.

"Think on how she felt. Think on it good." A line of red appeared on Lem’s throat, blood beginning to drip from it.

They stood like that for a time. There was no sound except the soft whinny of horses who’d been riled up by noise from the beating and the ragged breathing of the two injured men.

Larkin finally broke the silence. "Mr. Mosby, I think you’ve delivered your point quite successfully."

Mosby blinked, as if he’d been in a trance. He shoved his arm harder into Lem. "You thank that man, you scum. If he hadn’t stopped you from hurtin’ that woman, you’d be minus a throat right now."

He released him and stepped back. He tossed the knife so it stuck into the ground. "Gentlemen," he said to his men. "Escort this trash to the edge of the badlands. And let them know there’s more where this came from if they ever come within fifty miles of here."

He turned to Larkin, who seemed shaken and pale. He laughed harshly. "Don’t tell me you’re squeamish, Larkin!"

"N-no. Just—guess I’m more of a lover than a fighter."

Mosby laughed again. Before he could say anything, Larkin shouted, "Mosby, look out!"

He turned and saw that one of the vagabonds had gotten loose and was holding the knife. He was about to throw the knife right at him. Mosby flinched as he heard a gun blast. The vagabond fell over, dead before he hit the ground.

Mosby thought it was one of his men who’d done the shooting. As he looked around, he saw it was Larkin holding the smoking revolver.

Larkin lowered the gun, and seemed almost as surprised as everyone else that he’d done the deed.

Mosby regained his composure quickly. "Oh, I don’t know, Larkin. You seem to hold your own in a fight." He turned to Barnes. "Get him to the undertaker. And get that other one out of my sight, before he ends up like his friend."

He led Larkin back to the Ambrosia and up to his office. He poured them stiff drinks. Larkin downed his quickly.

"Well!" said Mosby, sitting down in his chair with a sigh. "That business is taken care of. You can tell Eliza Monahan she needn’t worry about those two miscreants anymore."

"You want me to tell her—"

"No, no. Of course not. Just tell her you know for a fact that they left town."

Larkin held out his glass for another drink and knocked it back in one gulp.

"I owe you my life," said Mosby.

"Anyone else would have done the same."

"Perhaps, but—it’s more than that, Ned—may I call you Ned?"

"Of course."

"Have you thought over that proposition of mine?"

"Yes. Hardly thought of anything else."

"And?"

"Well, after thinking on it a time, maybe, that is—"

"Sounds like you mean to say no. Well, I just won’t take no for an answer."

Larkin said nothing, just reached for the whiskey bottle and poured himself another drink. He said, "You’ve still got blood on your hands, Mr. Mosby."

"Have I?" He looked at his hands and saw that there were some spots of dried blood on them. He walked over to a basin he kept in the room and poured out some water. He washed the blood away and dried his hands with a towel.

When he was done he turned around. Larkin said, "Mr. Mosby, I—"

"Please. Call me Clay. No need for us to be formal." He walked over to him and put his arm around his shoulders. "There’s few in the world I’ve ever been able to completely trust, Ned. This afternoon you have more than earned my trust."

"I appreciate that, Clay."

"Good! Good. Then your answer is yes."

Before Larkin could say anything, he pushed him out the door of the office and led him down to the saloon, which was buzzing with business. To the crowd, he announced, "Gentlemen! I want you all to meet my new associate. Mr. Ned Larkin."

He took him around and introduced him to Josiah Peale, Doc Cleese, and the banker, who’d just closed up the bank and stopped for a drink on his way home. Mosby told Carson to give everyone a round for free.

Malone was also at the bar. As the town’s leading citizens lined up to congratulate Larkin, Malone walked over to Mosby.

"So, you’re takin’ the lad on as an associate."

"Anythin’ wrong with that?" Mosby grimaced as he folded his hand around a shot of whisky. His hands were terribly sore.

"Well, I’ve warned ye, and once is enough, I guess."

"I trust that fellow. He’s proven himself to me."

"Guess you won’t take no advice from me, then."

"No, I’d like to hear it."

"Trust no one, Mosby. I sure as hell don’t." Malone knocked back a shot of whiskey, then left the saloon.

Mosby felt a momentary chill. Then he reminded himself that Malone probably felt threatened by Ned. His advising him to not trust him was as good a reason as there was to have confidence in the man.

* * * * * * *

Eliza was hanging out wash when Newt Call came around to the back of the hotel to see her. She smiled. "How are you, Mr. Call?"

"All right, I reckon."

"You sure?"

"Yeah."

"Good." She reached into the laundry basket and picked up a pillow case, which she proceeded to hang. "Got those curtains in here. They’re going to look as good as new when I’m done with them."

"That’ll be fine," he said in a neutral voice. "Josiah will be pleased."

"Have you given any more thought to living with him?"

"Some. Ain’t decided yet."

She looked at him. He seemed less drained, less hopeless. She prayed that he had passed by that black moment. When he just stood there, as if he wanted to say something more, she said, "Is there something else you wanted, Mr. Call?"

"Yeah. Somethin’ I gotta tell you. Mosby—he was havin’ you followed, ma’am."

"What!"

"Wasn’t sure at first. Was just sitting a spell on that bench, and noticed it a couple of times. His men Dawkins and Barnes."

She could hardly believe her ears. "Why on earth would he do a thing like that? It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard!"

"Guess it’s his way of controlling you—like he wants to control everything around here."

She threw down the pillowcase she had in her hand and closed her eyes. "Sweet Jesus, when will you save me from this dreadful place?"

"Seems as though they stopped doin’ it. Haven’t seen them around you today."

She opened her eyes and took a deep breath. "That’s something, I suppose. Thank you, Mr. Call. Thank you for being my friend. I’ve no other in this God forsaken town."

He looked acutely embarrassed. He nodded, then left.

* * * * * * *

Call headed for his father-in-law’s house. He hadn’t told her the worst of it—about what he’d heard in the livery, and what Mosby and his men had done to those two drifters. The only reason he hadn’t was because he wasn’t absolutely sure that she was the woman they’d been referring to. He had his suspicions, though.

He was angry with himself for not letting them know he was there. He looked at his hand. Six against one, and with this hand—but that had been a poor excuse. If he had stepped in, he might have defused the situation enough to stop at least part of the brutality he had witnessed.

He was glad now, very glad, that she stopped him that night. Someone had to keep an eye on her. Protect her from Mosby.

He vowed to be that someone.

THE END

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