This is a fan fiction story based on characters from the Lonesome Dove television show, which belong to Rysher Entertainment and Hallmark. No infringement on copyrights is intended. This story is not to be published on any ftp site, newsgroup, mailing list, fanzine or elsewhere without the permission of the authors.
AUTHORS' NOTE: This was meant to be the first episode in our twisted vision of the 3rd or Cyber-Season. Our intention was to pick up exactly where Love and War left off - no killing off major characters, no skipping two years, no LD equivalent of The Brady Bunch’s cousin Oliver. We approached the task as though we were writers hired in to make the show kick ass.
“Ghost of a pale girl is solemnly following me.”
Atlanta in the picture was just as he remembered it: a place of prosperity and promise. Storefronts and awnings stood guard over the street, hinting at the bustle of commerce, of community.
Clay Mosby studied the photograph that now hung on his office wall, searching. What Curtis Wells will be like one day, Mattie had said. He wished he could believe her words - he’d long since stopped dreaming of his own future, but the town’s was what drove him. Consumed him. He stared at the black-and-white lines connecting, intersecting, simple parts that made up the greater whole. Mattie was right; a town didn’t grow through force. But how then, how could he keep his vision on track?
A slurred shout from the street snapped him back to the present. Not even noon, and already the ne’er-do-wells were spreading chaos. Clay listened to the scene play out: the chairs scraping back as the Ambrosia Club’s patrons hurried to the windows. Then the doors, then more voices raised, egging on a fight. Clay sighed and cast one last look at Atlanta.
Curtis Wells still had a long way to go.
He stalked out to the balcony just in time to watch a man - one of the troglodytes who frequented the No. 10 - having his face repeatedly smashed against the water pump by none other than Newt Call. The man’s friend jumped into the fray, grabbed Call from behind. Call shook him off with a feral growl and returned to his task, slamming his bloody victim into the pump again.
Good Lord, Clay thought, this was savage even for Call. He spotted Ike in the crowd and shouted his deputy’s name. “Don’t just stand there,” he called when Ike glanced up, “Do your duty!”
As Ike hemmed and hawed, the victim’s friend drew his gun and cracked Call upside the head. Call went stiff, then crumpled unconscious.
At least now Ike was only responsible for cleanup. Clay marched downstairs and shrugged into his duster. Outside, the chill air carried the fight’s fading electricity. Passers-by melted back into doorways. Ike scratched his head and surveyed the scene with an air of puzzlement, as though he couldn’t decide who needed arresting first.
“What the hell’s goin’ on out here, Ike?” Clay stood over Call’s prone form; streaks of blood matted the younger man’s blond hair.
“Well sir,” Ike stammered, “seems like Call and these boys had a fight.”
“Really, Ike,” Clay said, “Your powers of observation never fail to impress.” He glanced down, nudged Call with his boot. A soft groan was the only response. At least the fool wasn’t dead.
He glanced back to Ike. “What the hell got into him?”
Ike shrugged. “Guess he’s all tore up ’bout Mattie’s leaving.”
Clay forced a smile. Surely he’d heard wrong. “What?”
“Ain’t you heard? Whole shop’s cleared out. Poor Unbob’s just sittin’ by himself starin’ off into space.”
Clay looked toward Mattie’s shop with a growing numbness and dread. She couldn’t be gone. She’d never leave town for good, at least not without saying goodbye.
Unless that’s what the picture had been.
“Mister Mosby?” Ike didn’t like the darkness that crossed his employer’s face, or the faraway look that turned Mosby’s eyes to liquid fire. He tried again. “Mister Mosby? What do you want I should do with these boys?”
Clay realized Ike was speaking to him, knew he’d better give some instructions or else nothing would ever get done. But somehow, the news of Mattie’s departure had shocked him into silence.
Ike took a step back, hoped he hadn’t done something wrong…again. “Mister Mosby?”
Clay was too deep in his own thoughts, didn’t hear, couldn’t speak. The fight forgotten, he left Ike to deal with the scene and headed for Mattie’s shop.
It was all gone.
Just as Ike had described - the glass case sat empty; the shelves held nothing but dust. Clay paused just inside the door, staring at the spot behind the counter where Mattie should have been.
Clay’s head snapped toward the sound. Unbob sat at the back of the shop, half-shrouded in darkness. “What the hell happened, Unbob? Why did she leave?”
Unbob’s eyes widened. “It weren’t - ”
Clay barely heard the other man’s words. “It doesn’t make any sense,” he said, pacing the room. “Why would she just pack up and go? Why wouldn’t she say anything?”
Unbob said, “She said - ”
“Did she seem unhappy? Did someone upset her?” Clay looked back to Unbob. “Well?”
Unbob’s mouth worked for a moment. “All I know is what she said yesterday - ”
The word exploded in Clay’s mind. “Yesterday? You mean you knew about this and didn’t tell anyone?”
Unbob lowered his eyes. “She told me to keep it a secret.”
Lord, look at him. Yelling at poor Unbob. Clay drew a deep breath and tried to rein in his temper. “I’m sorry, Unbob. It’s just that this is so sudden. I need to know why.”
Unbob’s eyes glistened. “It weren’t my fault, Mister Mosby. She said so.”
Clay shut the door behind him and softened his tone. “Of course it’s not your fault, Unbob. Nobody’s blamin’ you. But she must have had some reason. Did she say anything to you?”
“She said - ” Unbob’s face screwed up as he tried to recall each word. “She said that her hopes here weren’t working out, so she needed to put some space between her and them hopes. That’s all she said, Mister Mosby, I swear.”
Clay nodded slowly and absently ran his thumb across his lower lip. He should have known something was different when she’d come to see him at the Ambrosia - what was it she’d said about never really understanding anyone else? But he’d been so wrapped up in his own problems, he hadn’t thought anything of it.
“Where was she headed?”
“Miles City,” Unbob said.
Clay frowned. Something else had occurred to him. Luther had left on the stage earlier that day, Call was drunk in the street. Unbob was standing in front of him. “Who’d she find to go with her?”
Unbob looked down at the ground. Clay felt his gut twist. “Well sir,” said Unbob, “she left by herself.”
“You mean she’s alone out there?” Clay snapped. Unbob flinched as though he’d been struck. Clay dug his fingernails into his palms and searched for patience. “I’m not angry with you, Unbob,” he said through clenched teeth. “I’m just worried is all.”
Unbob looked up slowly, fear still clouding his eyes. “I told her it weren’t a good idea.”
That was an understatement. The dangers of the territory swirled through Clay’s mind: bandits, animals, Indians. The expanse from here to Miles City was no place for a woman alone.
He could never forgive himself if something happened to her.
He turned back to Unbob. “How long ago did she leave?”
“Four, maybe five hours.”
With the wagon loaded down by her inventory, she’d be traveling slow. She couldn’t have gotten far. Clay strode toward the door.
“Mister Mosby?” Unbob called after him. “Are you gonna bring Miss Mattie back?”
Clay paused with his hand on the knob. “I’m gonna do my best.”
The windowpanes rattled as Austin slammed the door to the Statesman office. Josiah glanced up from the Good Book.
Austin stared at the dried blood caked on his father’s shirt. “What the hell were you thinking, going after Ted Breen?”
“Austin, I - ”
“That man is wanted for robbery and murder. You could’ve got yourself killed.”
Josiah stood to face his son. “Something had to be done, Austin. Ever since Mosby took your badge, there’s been no law to speak of in this town.” He held up his gilt-edged Bible, the cover worn and tattered from so much careful reading. “I just did what the good Lord wanted.”
“What about what I want, Father?” Austin regretted his shout the moment his father flinched, took a step back. He drew a deep breath, consciously controlled his tone. “You’re the only family I have left. With Mother and Hannah both gone - ”
Josiah’s head drooped at the mention of his loss.
Austin paused again, tried to gather the right words. He needed enough force to reach his father, enough patience to avoid more harm. Damn it, if only he’d paid more attention to Josiah’s lessons and lectures. Maybe then he’d have learned how to harness the power of language, divine the flow of words the way his father and Hannah had always seemed intuitively able.
Austin could feel his failures as son and brother, journalist, protector, towering over him. He closed his eyes briefly, trying to ignore the palpable sensation of being swallowed. When he spoke again, the whisper took all his strength. “Father, I know you love this town. I know you think it’s your duty to protect this place, and the memories we have here.”
Josiah’s head came up; his eyes seemed more focused than they had in months. Austin felt relief spread through him like whiskey, grateful to have his father’s attention.
“But you’re no gunslinger,” he went on. “Everyone has his own talent, his own way to contribute to the community. You taught me that yourself. If you want to save this town, you have to do it with your words, your leadership. Not with bullets.”
Josiah met his son’s gaze for a long moment, then looked away. “But this town needs law.”
Austin watched his father turn and shuffle back into the gloom, still clutching the Bible. For a few seconds, he’d seen the old Josiah Peale - leader, intellectual, pillar of the community. But now Austin could see his father as the rest of the town did: a doddering old man, once capable, now consumed by madness and grief. Regret gripped Austin’s throat, as it had so often since Hannah’s death. He left the office without saying goodbye, hoping that in that one moment of clarity, his father hadn’t seen the tears that burned his eyes.
Call sat by himself at a corner table in the No. 10, a shot glass and a half-empty bottle of whiskey in front of him. It felt as though a nest of hornets had taken up residence in his skull, buzzing and stinging till his head swam and he needed another drink. He had only a dim recollection of the events that had reduced him to such a state - another bottle, voices raised, considerable blood and pain - but beyond that, everything was a blur.
He barely noticed when Amanda sat down across from him. “I know what they say about the hair of the dog,” she said, “but isn’t too much whiskey what got you into this condition in the first place?”
Her voice drove spikes of pain through Call’s head. “Ain’t none of your business,” he slurred. Lord, was he really as drunk as he sounded?
“Call,” Amanda said, gentle but firm, “I don’t know what you got into this morning, but you still got blood in your hair. You’re startin’ to scare my customers away, and considering the folks that come in here, that’s saying a lot.”
Blood in his hair - now details swam up out of the fog. Call remembered stumbling out of Cleese’s office before the doc had even looked at his head. Then there was more of the black haze of unconsciousness, a blissful oblivion. He’d awakened on his bench in front of the store, bone tired, freezing cold, blinded by the weak autumn sun.
And just what had brought him to this state? He looked up at Amanda, trying to focus, but was confronted by horrifying double vision. Two of the bar, two of each bottle, two of the hook-handed man who tossed back a shot. Two of Amanda. Four of her breasts, popping out of her dress as usual. Didn’t the woman ever cover herself?
Call looked back down at the table. Occupying his entire field of vision, there was no way it could multiply.
“Call?” Amanda’s tone sharpened. “You even listening?”
“I said - ” The words went soft again. “I said, I heard about Mattie.”
The mention of her name was all it took to bring it back - the empty shop, the empty bottle, his black despair. Call shut his eyes, trying unsuccessfully to will away his memories of her. Against the black screen of his eyelids, he saw Mattie’s huge eyes, the way they flashed anger and compassion with equal force; her hair, falling soft into her face before she’d push it back behind her ear. Call had always wondered what her hair smelled like. He imagined it would be sweet, like the air after a summer storm.
Now he’d never know.
He forced his eyes open and poured another shot. Amanda went on talking even though Call was only half-listening. “I know you and her were pretty close. But drinking yourself to death won’t help matters.”
No, he thought, but it might make her leaving easier to bear. He downed the shot and stared into the glass.
“Maybe you don’t get what I’m saying,” Amanda said, no sympathy left in her voice. “If you’re so miserable ’bout her leaving, then maybe instead of tryin’ to pickle yourself, you should just go find her.”
Call looked up, watched two Amandas for a moment before they merged into one. “Mattie’s a stubborn woman,” he said. “Once her mind’s made up, there ain’t no stopping her.”
Amanda pressed her lips into a thin line. “You’re a bigger fool than I thought, Call. Mattie didn’t leave because she was so hellbent on gettin’ out of this town. She left ’cause she’s hoping someone will go after her.”
Call stared at Amanda for a long moment, then pushed himself up from the table. “You don’t know nothin’ about it.”
He tossed some money on the table and staggered toward the door.
Outside, the sun was blinding. He shielded his face with an arm and picked his way through Tent Town. Maybe he’d head for the Ambrosia. Much as he hated Mosby, it was a nice place to drink.
Halfway there, Unbob flagged him down. “Call!”
Call stopped and waited, feeling a twinge of hope. Unbob’s face fairly shone with joy. Maybe Mattie had turned around - maybe she’d stay after all.
“Call, I had to tell someone.” Unbob panted from the run.
“What is it, Unbob? Did Mattie come back?”
Unbob sucked in a huge breath. “Well, no, not yet.” He met Call’s gaze and grinned. “But Mister Mosby’s gone to find her.”
A black hatred swept Call’s soul. Damn that man.
Unbob’s grin faded. “What’s the matter, Call?”
All Call could do was shake his head and walk away.
The cold wind stung Clay’s eyes as he pushed on, hoping he’d catch up to Mattie before nightfall. Out here, alone, with that big empty sky that could make a man feel so small, his thoughts were apt to run wild. The images flickered through his mind at breakneck speed: the atrocities he’d seen committed in the lawless territories, during skirmishes with Indians, in dark alleys in filthy cities, during the War…what he’d returned to after the War. He gritted his teeth against the memories, tried to focus on the present. This was not then. He still had a chance to make things right.
At least he hoped.
He forced his mind blank and let instinct kick in, that sixth sense that had always guided him through danger before. He opened himself to the wind in his face, the country ahead, the trees blurring past, the horse beneath him, its pace, its breath. He knew he had to be close; with her wagon loaded down, Mattie couldn’t have gotten much further.
Soon his hunch proved right. He crested a ridge and saw a wagon in the distance. Not moving, either - in fact, it seemed to be listing badly, its contents spilling. For a second, panic seized Clay’s throat. Then he spotted a person, dragging crates out of the muddy road. Mattie - had to be - she was wearing that ridiculous red coat.
Relief swept Clay’s senses, followed by hot anger. What did she mean to do, present an easier target for robbers and rapists? He’d known she was stubborn, but he hadn’t thought she was that foolish.
He leaned into the wind and steered his horse down toward her, the questions, frustrations and terror of the last few hours still burning his mind.
Mattie had forgotten how hard life on the trail could be.
Not even a day into her move, and already the trip was a bust. First she’d started out late after waiting for Call. Then one of the horses had spooked, bolting off the trail and stranding the wagon in a ditch. She’d been thrown herself, hitting her head, scraping her hands raw on the rocks. Now, besides being bruised and stuck, she found that the wagon tongue had broke, the splintered wood had gashed one of the horses in the flank, and half her inventory was spilling out into the mud.
That morning, she couldn’t wait to get away from Curtis Wells. Now she only wanted her headache to disappear.
Another crate began to slide from the back of the wagon. “Damn, damn, damn.” Mattie hurried around and got her hands underneath, stopping its fall for the moment. She stared out at the country around her, wide open as far as the eye could see. No cabins, no shelter. No way to get her wagon repaired without leaving her inventory. Lord, what was she gonna do now?
The sound of nearing hoofbeats sawed at her nerves. This was it - this was where she paid for being so stubborn. She reached toward her gun, took a deep breath, then whirled and drew on the rider.
Clay Mosby reined his horse to a stop and dismounted, his features a mask of rage. He covered the ground between them with angry strides. “What the hell were you thinkin’, riding off all by yourself?”
Mattie uncocked and holstered her gun. “It’s a free country, ain’t it?”
Mosby blinked, for a split second seeming flustered. “This is dangerous territory.” He made a sweeping gesture, indicating the entire countryside. “Anything can happen out here. And looks like it did.” He turned toward the stranded wagon and skittish horses.
Mattie narrowed her eyes. Look at that pompous fool - wearing one of his shiny vests even out here, riding in on that dark horse like he owned the whole territory, assuming he needed to save the day. Mosby set about untangling the horses, probing gently at the wound in the injured animal’s side.
“It’s nothin’,” Mattie told him. “I can handle it by myself.”
Mosby came back around the wagon. “Forgive me, Mattie,” he said, “Since you so obviously require no assistance, I’ll just be on my way.”
Mattie’s patience broke. “And what concern is it of yours? What the hell are you doin’ out here anyway?”
The crate she’d just saved slipped toward the ground again. Mosby got a shoulder underneath and shoved it back into the wagon, then stood bracing the cargo with one hand. His amber eyes burned. “I’m here to bring you back,” he said.
“What?” Mattie could scarcely believe what she’d just heard. “Are you out of your mind? You can’t just order me around. And just what makes you think I’d come back in the first place?”
“You have to come back.” Mosby’s cat-eyes wouldn’t let her go. “You haven’t even been gone a day, and already the place is fallin’ apart. Call went and got drunk, picked a fight, got his fool head cracked open again.”
Mattie kept her face flat.
Mosby wouldn’t give up. “Poor Unbob’s just sittin’ in the dark by himself. Practically burst into tears when he was tellin’ me that you’d left.”
“He’ll get over it. Call, too.” Mattie turned away and stood with her hands on her hips, staring at her scattered possessions. Damn Mosby - reminding her of the reason she left, and the only reason she had to stay.
She heard movement behind her and turned. Mosby shrugged out of his duster and laid it in the back of the wagon, set his hat on top. “Might as well get everything out of the road, see about makin’ camp. Night’ll be coming on soon.”
He rolled up his shirtsleeves, tugged at his vest. Mattie had to smile. The man was always preening - hell, sometimes she thought he was prettier than she was. He set about hefting her crates well out of the road, stacking things carefully, stopping to fold the quilts that had spilled out in the wreck.
Maybe she was being too hard on him - after all, he’d come all this way to find her. Mattie stooped to repack some belongings - lacy things, muddy now - and wondered why he’d done it. Must’ve set out as soon as he heard the news to catch up with her so quick. She glanced over at his horse. No bedroll. No provisions. Not even a change of clothes.
This was too good to pass up. Mattie cleared her throat. “You, ah, leave town in a hurry?”
Mosby looked up. “What makes you say that?”
“Looks like you didn’t bring much in the way of supplies. What would you have done if you hadn’t caught up to me?”
Mosby looked back toward his horse, as though the lack of provisions had just occurred to him, then rubbed his thumb across his lower lip. “I suppose I hadn’t thought that through.”
Mattie pressed her lips together to stop a smile. “Didn’t think much through at all, did you?”
Mosby rolled his eyes. “Your display of gratitude is simply overwhelming.”
Even though she considered him a friend, Clay Mosby was the last person in Curtis Wells Mattie would’ve expected to ride out after her, especially in such a hurry, especially so uncharacteristically unprepared. She watched as he hoisted a crate of Winchesters, thick ropes of muscle standing out from his forearms. “Clay?”
He stacked the crate with the others and looked back to her, questioned with a cocked eyebrow.
“I’m glad you came.”
A slight smile crossed his face before he ducked his head and went back to work.
Ike truly enjoyed taunting prisoners.
Since Call had returned Ted Breen to the small cell, Ike had taken great pleasure in eating his meals at the desk. Expensive meals, ordered special straight from the Dove. Meals that absorbed nearly all of the extra cash he’d been skimming from the payment of fines. If this kept up, he’d have to take up bounty hunting like Call.
Ike leaned back in the chair, balanced carefully with his feet on the desk, and let his belt out a notch. He watched through heavy-lidded eyes as hunger and resentment tightened Breen’s jaw.
“Deputy?” Breen said, in that who-me, farmboy tone that wouldn’t even fool Ike. “It sure would be nice if you could get me some of that food next time.”
Ike narrowed his eyes. “Why should I?”
“This slop ain’t fit for man or beast.” Breen nudged the tin plate at his feet. It clanked against the bars. “ ’Sides,” he said with a grin, “I’d make it worth your while.” A wad of money materialized from his coat.
Ike wavered between spouting a retort and asking just how much. In the silence, footsteps sounded on the boardwalk outside. The door rattled as Josiah stepped in.
The old man had cleaned up, but not much; his white hair stood out in wild licks, and his Sunday suit seemed faded. He was still favoring his left side. “Well, Breen, how does it feel to have met the hand of justice?”
The light in the old man’s eyes struck Ike as too bright. He swung his feet down from the desk and stood. “Now, Josiah,” he said, “I thought I told you to watch what you say ’round him.”
“I know,” Josiah sneered, “he’s got lots of brothers.” He sauntered up to the cell. “That kind of talk won’t scare me, Breen. A two-bit hoodlum like you will always - ”
Ike cut in. “Josiah! Why don’t you get on home? The law’s got things under control here.”
Josiah looked back to the younger man and snorted a laugh. “Guess that’s why I had to bring this scum back in the first place.” He shook his head and swaggered back toward the door.
The No. 10 at suppertime was quiet. A few of the regulars hunched over tables in the back, staring into bottles or at the shadows that shape-shifted across the translucent white walls of the tent. Amanda knew it wouldn’t stay that way for long. She restocked the bar while she could, digging through the crates of whiskey.
The voice from behind made her back go stiff. “Want some help?”
Austin. She lined up two more bottles along the shelf before she turned. “That’s all right.” She reached for a glass and poured him a shot. Watched as he downed it.
Austin’s brown eyes swam with the liquor. He was half-crocked already. “I been thinkin’,” he said. “About our friend the Colonel.”
A smile spread across Amanda’s lips. “Yeah?” She poured another shot.
Austin sipped, set the glass down, sucked in air through his teeth. “You know that damn fool went off after Mattie?”
“That’s right.” Austin downed the rest of the shot. “Unbob’s been tellin’ everybody who’ll listen. Soon as Mosby heard, he saddled up and rode out. Didn’t even take a bedroll.”
Well. That was an interesting development. Amanda had spent enough time alone with Clay to know the depths of his emotions. But she’d never figured him for that kind of romantic fool. She gave a short laugh. “He just hasn’t been himself since that robbery.”
Austin gave a lazy grin. “What you said before…about an unfortunate turn of circumstance?”
Amanda leaned forward, her elbows on the bar. “Yeah?”
Austin’s eyes drifted down toward her chest. His tongue darted across his dry lips; his eyes came up to meet hers. “You have anything in particular in mind?”
For once Clay felt at home out here, even though the cold settled deep in his bones. He leaned in close to the fire. Out of habit, his perpetual sense of caution and tactics, he’d kept the blaze small. No sense in drawing attention to their camp. He’d seen the consequence of that mistake more than once, from both sides.
“Clay?” His head snapped toward the sound. Mattie smiled soft, her fine hair catching the glow from the fire. “Thought you might like some.”
He glanced down at the steaming cup she held out to him. He forced a weak smile, murmured thanks as he wrapped his hands around the warmth. Lord, what was wrong with him? Feeling whole and poetic just a moment ago, now drowning in melancholy.
“Something wrong?” Mattie asked.
These moods came to him too easily out here. Clay remembered again why he stayed near the bustle of towns. “It’s nothin’,” he told her. “Just the…quiet of this place.” Just his paranoia again. Just the swarm of memories he couldn’t hold back out here.
“I know what you mean.” Mattie tilted her head up toward the sky. “No place to hide.”
Clay was transfixed by the stark white of her throat, the dark blanket of stars pillowing her pale, fine hair. He thought of going to church when he was a boy, the smooth porcelain skin of the statues, the Virgin Mary with her bloodless hands folded, eyes closed, serene in prayer.
He stared too long. Mattie’s head came down, her eyes fixed on him in a deep and puzzled blue. He looked away, took a scalding sip of coffee. He could sense the questions on her lips. Before she could speak, he cleared his throat and asked his own. “Why did you leave? Why’d you just run off without even saying goodbye?”
As the words slipped out, the hurt struck him full force. He felt again the hollow ache in his chest that had burned when he first saw the empty shop, realized how terribly - how instantly - he’d missed her.
He watched her close. Mattie turned toward the fire, stared ahead at the spitting sparks. The quiet of the night settled around them, the plains not quite so alive as they were in summer.
After a restless silence, Clay had to ask the question he feared. “Was it something I did?”
Mattie glanced up. Gave him a sharp look. “No, of course not.”
Clay thought back to Unbob’s words - something about her hopes not working out. He played a hunch. “Was it something Call did?”
Mattie turned back to the fire, the soft curtain of hair hiding her face. She laughed quietly. “More like something he didn’t do.”
When she looked up, her eyes seemed slick. “I really thought we could have something,” she said, her voice raw. “I thought we could build a life together. But no matter how hard I tried, he won’t take a chance. He just won’t let me in.”
Clay tried to keep his face neutral, but he couldn’t stop the strange sense of sympathy that rose up toward Call. He let his mind drift back to the first weeks and months after he’d learned he’d lost Mary - the bleak days that all blended together, the long stretches of time still blank in his memory. “It’s awful hard for a man to have hope,” he told her, “when he loses the woman he loves.”
Mattie knew that look in Clay’s eyes, that amber-gold distance that showed when the past came to call. She watched him close, her lips parted. She knew a lot about him. But even she didn’t know everything.
He ducked his head, stared into his cup. Damn him, Mattie thought, damn him and his stupid stubborn ways, his cryptic comments, his dark and haunted past. She couldn’t stop the spike of rage. “Why am I tellin’ you this?” she wondered aloud. “And what were you thinking comin’ after me, anyway?”
Clay blinked, seemed startled by the question. The silence wrapped around them again. Mattie waited.
He kept his gaze on the fire. “I don’t have many friends left, Mattie,” he said. “I don’t think I could stand losin’ another.”
Everyone in every room froze for a moment when the bellow echoed through the hall at Twyla’s. Florie went stiff in front of her dresser, her hands hovering above the top drawer. She listened.
“FLOR-IE!” The voice came again, unmistakably Call’s. She groaned inwardly and dropped the night’s last payment into her cache. Got everything closed up before the footsteps lurched down the hall and the fist pounded on her door.
She pulled a shawl around her shoulders - didn’t know why she bothered with modesty anymore - and pulled open the door. Call swayed on his feet, then pitched forward into the room. Florie caught him best she could. She kicked the door shut and coaxed his dead weight toward the bed. A whiskey bottle dropped from his hand.
“Lord, Call - ” She sidestepped the bottle as it rolled across the floor, dropped him on the bed. The springs creaked under his weight.
Call squinted up at her. “Florie?”
She brushed the lank blond hair out of his eyes. “Yeah, Call. It’s me.”
He pushed himself up with one hand, fished around in his coat with the other. “I got plenty of money,” he slurred. “Bounty on that Breen fella.” He dropped back to the bed, a wad of bills spilling from his hand. He laughed. “Part of it, anyways.”
“Save your money, Call.” Florie collected the bills, stuffed them back into Call’s pocket. When she looked up to his face, she saw his eyes were closed, his mouth half-open. Dead asleep. She shook her head. “Don’t look like you’re in much shape to spend it right now.”
She yanked his boots off and pulled the covers over him.
The flames seared Clay’s flesh, but he still felt cold. He shivered, tried to back away from the pain, but found he couldn’t move. Somewhere beyond the smell of burnt flesh, he caught a sweeter scent - summer rain. His vision cleared and he saw himself at a distance, curled on the hard ground beside Mattie. He watched closely, caught the rise and fall of his chest. If his body was still alive, there on earth, then surely his soul must be in hell. He wondered how that could be, how he was damned without being dead.
Then the world dropped away; the blackness closed in. He saw shadows shift in the dark, vague hints of the corporeal, suggestions of eyes outlined with red. And now he knew, now he remembered.
It was the War that had damned him, the things he’d done, the things he’d seen and didn’t stop. The shadows reached out; their black talons clawed at his flesh. He held his breath to choke off the scream. Thought of Mary - how she’d suffered, how she’d died. He deserved this.
The flames licked higher. The claws ripped the flesh from his bones. Pain flashed white hot across his eyes.
This time he couldn’t hold back the scream.
Mattie woke to see her breath clouding in the cold night air and Clay Mosby twitching in his tortured sleep beside her. She propped herself up on one elbow, watched for a moment, waiting for the dream to subside.
Clay’s face twisted in fear. Mattie reached out tentatively, shook his shoulder. “Clay.” No response. “Clay, wake up.”
She’d seen men’s nightmares before - her father’s, Tom’s - and it scared her every time. She didn’t want to see this, the visible struggle with inner demons, the deepest hurts laid bare. “Clay.” She shook him again, more emphatically.
She wasn’t prepared for the scream that ripped from his throat. Clay jerked awake and scrambled away from her hand, the terror plain in his eyes.
They stared each other for a long moment over the fire’s dying glow. Clay’s chest heaved as he gulped in air.
Mattie pitched her voice low, soft. “Clay? You all right?”
He ran a hand over his face, drew a long, shuddering breath. He squeezed his eyes shut, nodded. “I’m fine.”
Mattie inched closer, reached out to touch his hand. He jerked away. His eyes snapped open, the amber clear now and fully awake. “I’m fine,” he said again.
He stood and paced for a restless moment before kneeling close to the fire, poised to keep watch.
Rex Breen hunched over the bar in the tradin’ post and ran his tongue over the gap where his front tooth used to be. It had been a hell of a fight the night before in Miles City. The men in that bar had thought they were slick, but they’d crossed the wrong men when they’d used those marked cards - nine of the twelve Breen brothers had been there that night. All of them had been drinking. And they all knew how to fight.
Rex figured they’d best avoid Miles City for a while.
He gestured to the barkeep for another whiskey just as the middle Breen, Sam, scurried up to the rail beside him. Rex scowled. “What now?”
“Well, Rex,” Sam began in that lisping tone that made him the other brothers’ punching bag, “seems that fella back in the corner had news of Ted.”
Rex stared down into his whiskey and wished Sam would get to the point. “Yeah?”
Sam stroked the ends of his wispy mustache. “He told me that Ted had got caught by a bounty hunter, and then got away, but then he was back in here the other night. Fella said Ted was real drunk and spoutin’ off about how much he missed his woman, and - ”
“Jesus, Sam, just get on with it.”
“All right, I’m comin’ to it! That fella said that some crazy old man had come after Ted for the bounty, so Ted squared off with the old man, and they shot each other - not bad or nothin’. But then the bounty hunter who caught Ted in the first place, well, he comes in, and - ”
“Jesus, Sam! And what?”
“And he took Ted in again and now Ted’s in jail in Curtis Wells.”
For pity’s sake. How was Rex supposed to lead their gang when they all the time were getting arrested for foolish mistakes - or when they were plain incompetent, like Sam. He tossed back his shot and slammed the glass down. “Guess we’ll have to go bust the damn fool out.” He started toward the back of the room, where the other Breens sat.
Sam followed close on his heels, yapping like one of those fancy little city dogs. “Well, you know, Rex, what I would do, if I was you is - ”
Rex stopped dead and grabbed a fistful of Sam’s grubby shirt. “What I would do, Sam, if I was you, is shut the hell up.”
He shoved his brother out of his way and started back across the room, all the while thinking how he should’ve done the gang a favor and killed Sam years ago.
First light found Call kneeling in the alley out back of Twyla’s, heaving last night’s whiskey up into the mud. When his stomach was empty, he tried to focus. He should try to make it back to the Dove. Get some sleep. Maybe get cleaned up. He looked down at his hands sinking into the mud. Lord, this was low - even compared to the way he’d lived the last two years. He had to find a way to drag himself out of this despair.
He staggered down the alley, heading for the Dove. The sun was bright white, shone blinding through his eyelids. His temples throbbed. He glanced down the main street. The town was starting to come awake, people drifting in and out of stores or standing in line at the water pump. He started up the hotel steps, had his hand on the knob when someone called his name.
“Newt! Hold up!”
Call turned and saw Josiah trotting toward him. He waited.
“Newt, I have to ask you something.” Josiah panted as he caught up.
“Can’t it wait, Josiah?” Call mumbled. “I ain’t feelin’ so good.”
“It’ll just take a second.” Josiah smiled, his eyes lit with a crazy glee. “Ike told me he’d wired the marshal for that bounty. I was just wondering how long you think it’ll take.”
Call nearly groaned aloud. This was the last thing he needed - Josiah fancying himself a bounty hunter. “I ain’t got time for this,” he began. He turned back toward the hotel and saw Unbob coming from the opposite way.
The tall man’s face split into a wide grin. “Mornin’, Call.”
“Mornin’, Unbob.” He swallowed, almost afraid to ask. “Did - did Mattie come back?”
“Well, no sir, not yet.” Unbob nodded in the general direction of the gunsmith’s shop. “But I’m headin’ back to the shop right now, get things all nice and cleaned up. You know. So’s she’ll be surprised.”
Call forced a grin. “That’s good, Unbob. I think she’ll like that.” He watched as Unbob hurried off down the street.
He turned back to Josiah. The old man’s face was dark. “That man will poison her soul.”
Call stared at him. “Who, Unbob?”
“No! Mosby!” Josiah frowned. “I thought you of all people would realize the danger that man can pose.”
The street began to swirl; Call’s head felt a mile away from his feet. “I gotta go,” he told Josiah. “I ain’t feelin’ so good.” He staggered inside the Dove.
In bed, on top of the covers, he couldn’t quite recall how he’d gotten there. The sun blazed through the window, too hot. He felt bathed in sweat. Found it hard to breathe.
He wondered where Mattie was right now. Whether Mosby had caught up to her. Despite his hate for the man - despite Josiah’s concerns for the safety of her soul - Call hoped Mosby had found her. The man might be a blackhearted son-of-a-bitch, but Call knew he wouldn’t let any harm come to her.
Mattie rubbed the sleep from her eyes and let the coffee nourish her soul. She hadn’t slept well, not since the nightmare. Now Mosby wouldn’t meet her eyes, and it infuriated her. Too damn stubborn to let out any of his pain - just like her father.
Just like Call.
She watched out of the corner of her eye as Mosby saddled his horse. He had an intuitive way of handling the animal, could calm even the most skittish horse. What was it about certain men that made them clairvoyant about the most complex equine needs at the same time they were simply oblivious when it came to human beings? Mattie shook her head and drained the dregs from her cup. She was fairly certain she’d never understand.
Mosby shrugged into his duster, settled his hat more firmly on his head. “There’s a stand of trees just up over that ridge,” he said, nodding to point out the direction. “Should find the size branch we need with no trouble.” He got one foot into the stirrup and swung his way up. “I won’t be gone long.”
Mattie nodded and watched him ride off.
Clay wasn’t sure he believed in ghosts, not the campfire tale variety, the ethereal night spirits, the apparitions typically born out of laudanum dreams. But the ability of the dead to haunt the living -
That was another story.
He covered ground quickly and soon found the stand of trees he’d seen the day before. Up on that ridge, the empty sky seemed to mock him, perverse in its beauty, endless and hollow despite the warm sun. He paused, aware of his surroundings as always. He couldn’t quite quell the feeling that something was wrong.
He dismissed the thought and set to work. There was a branch that seemed right for their needs. Already felled, perhaps from the weight of the first snow. He used his knife to hack away the twigs that remained, grimly enjoyed the glint of the blade in the sun.
He couldn’t recall the dreams he’d had, not completely, but he remembered all too well the look of concern on Mattie’s face after he’d started awake. That sort of gentle pity was something he always detested, hoped never to inspire.
But there they were as always, those damned ghosts, the people he’d lost who refused to leave him alone. He’d thought he’d had his memories under control, at least as much as they could be. But lately it seemed his whole past was coming back, reliving itself at inopportune times.
Was there something about Mattie, about her sudden departure, that had caused these latest dreams?
Or was it the thing that seemed to have triggered it all - the robbery? For a moment, Clay let his mind touch that night, and that quick, it was all happening again: the pain and terror, McSween’s taunts mixed with the screams, the whip crack, the consuming darkness, the click of the key in the lock.
Clay snapped back to himself with a startled gasp, relieved when the torrent of memories stopped. There was no danger here, now. He glanced down at his hands, chapped from the cold. He must have gone blank again, like those times someone spoke but he didn’t hear.
He watched his breath cloud in the air. Had he been gone too long? He squinted up at the sun. From its place, not much time had passed.
He went back to his task, hacked at the branch with swift, savage grace. He would not let his past interfere with his life.
The blade of his knife flashed again in the sun.
Rex Breen studied the streets of Curtis Wells from the bluff overlooking the town. They weren’t up against much. Just two little streets, haphazardly laid. From the way things looked up here, the Breen gang could take over in no time at all.
He watched a lone figure ride up from the town. Sam Breen, on his mangy, swaybacked horse. Rex waited and tried to check his contempt. “Well?” he snapped as he watched his brother dismount.
“Well,” Sam stroked the ends of his moustache, “I made the rounds of all three saloons, just like you said, Rex, and I didn’t hear a whole lot, but - ”
Rex closed his eyes against the midday sun. “Get on with it, Sam.” A touch of weariness crept into his voice.
“All right, Rex, I’m gettin’ there. I heard two fellas talking about the man they say owns this town, fella named Mosby, and they said he’s away right now.”
“Good.” Rex opened his eyes. “What of the sheriff?”
“They ain’t got a sheriff right now,” Sam said, nodding to himself. “I saw a deputy chargin’ someone a fine for spittin’, but those same two fellas I heard talkin’ were wonderin’ who the new sheriff is gonna be. Guess the old one got de-sheriffed.”
Sam grinned and rocked back on his heels. “Well, Rex, did I do good?”
Rex shrugged and turned back toward their camp. “Not bad,” he said. Maybe he’d let Sam keep breathing. At least for now.
The afternoon quiet of the dining room at the Dove was too much for Call’s hangover. Each clinking plate, each scraping fork drilled at his brain. He sat in a corner by himself and cradled his head in both hands, staring into a cooling cup of coffee.
Nearly evening and still no word of Mattie. He hoped she hadn’t run into trouble on the trail. Surely Mosby must have caught up to her by now. And if that was the case, then she would be safe.
The Dove’s front door rattled. “Hey, Call.” Austin pulled out the chair across from him and sat down hard. He looked about as scruffy as Call felt himself. Austin gave an oily grin. “What’d you look so serious for?”
It was none of Austin’s damn business. But he held his tongue. “Just tired, is all.”
“Yeah,” Austin said, “you look it.” He waved the waitress over and ordered coffee. “Real shame ’bout Mattie leaving town, ain’t it?”
Call ignored the layers of meaning that crept into Austin’s tone. “ ’Spose so,” he said.
“Guess you heard Mosby went off after her.” Austin paused while the waitress set down his coffee. “You think she’ll come back?”
Call shrugged. “I ain’t no mind reader.” He drained the last of his lukewarm coffee and stood to leave.
He was halfway out the door when Austin’s words floated behind him: “Awful funny, ain’t it, how you and Mosby have the same taste in women.”
Call slammed the door. The glass panes rattled. He stepped toward the street, squinting in the slanted afternoon sun, then stopped. Where was he going, anyway? He put one hand out to the porch post, gingerly, half expecting it to disappear. His head hurt so bad he couldn’t think straight.
He leaned heavily on the post. Maybe he would find Luther. Buy him a drink with that bounty.
But then he remembered. Luther had left on the stage the day before. Wouldn’t be back till tomorrow.
Normally, he’d just stop by Mattie’s shop. Watch her work. Tease her a bit.
He cut that thought off quick. Let his mind run through the rest of the town. Who was left - what friend, what refuge? Austin had turned bitter and corrupt, Josiah half-mad. Everyone else, the kind friends he once knew, had died or left town.
For the first time in a long time, he thought of his father. He missed him powerfully. It had been so long.
And just as quick, the thoughts flashed away. He glanced down at his grubby clothes. Felt that gun weigh heavy on his hip. The Captain would only be ashamed of him now.
Call stepped out into the muddy street, feeling empty. Aimless. He wasn’t sure where he was going but he was pretty certain it would involve him getting drunk. And then down the street, he heard a commotion.
He glanced in that direction, toward the Ambrosia. Saw a wagon getting stopped, and Unbob running toward it. Josiah, Ike, those prissy twins, a couple of whores were all gathered around.
Then he saw Mattie’s red coat. And then Call smiled, big and deep, and truly meant it. Felt its roots run down into his soul. He slogged through the mud across the street.
When he reached the wagon, Unbob was hugging Mattie like he wasn’t ever gonna let go. Call watched from a distance, not wanting to interrupt.
Then he glanced around. Saw Mosby doing the same, murmuring to and petting his horse in a don’t-mind-me sort of way.
Unbob let Mattie go and Call felt her huge blue eyes turn to him. He looked down at the ground, suddenly nervous, not sure what to say. He felt his face turning red.
Lord. You’d think it was the first time he’d ever talked to a woman.
He forced himself to look up, found himself falling into those eyes. Couldn’t think of a damn thing to say.
Mattie gave a little half-smile. “Hey.”
Call felt his mouth twitch, but it was all he could give. “Hey,” he echoed. He felt his face burn, a desert in his mouth, and down in his heart, all the whys he wanted to ask.
But not in front of all these people.
He swallowed hard and forced out the words: “I’m glad you came back.”
Mattie’s face softened. She glanced back at the wagon. “Well, I ran into a bit of trouble,” she said. “Wagon tongue broke. If Clay hadn’t come along, I don’t know what I’d have done.”
Clay? Call felt a jolt of rage. Since when was Mosby anything but Mosby to her? A deep frown crossed his face.
He tried to hide it. Looked away from Mattie, toward the wagon. The anger melted away a bit. The bastard had done a decent job of improvising a fix; he’d fashioned a new tongue from a tree branch, held in place with just a few nails and some baling wire. “That’s good.” Call faced Mattie again. “Everyone was real worried about you.”
This time, neither one of them looked away. Call felt everything he wanted to say lodged in his chest. Mattie watched him close, waiting. He swallowed again and tried to work up the nerve.
Then a shout came up from the crowd on the sidewalk, one of those old biddy twins shrieking, “Fire!”
Call’s head jerked toward the sound. The twins pointed, synchronized, toward the livery. Flames licked the building’s edge.
For a paralyzed second, he stood, staring dumb. Mosby shouted directions - buckets, get to the water pump, now! - shrugged out of his duster and ran toward the stable.
Then the thought flashed across Call’s mind: Hell Bitch. He unfroze quick and sprinted full-tilt toward the fire.
He would not let anything happen to that horse.
Clay’s first thought when he saw the flames was what now? More than fear, more than alertness or direction, he felt a deep, abiding disappointment that he still couldn’t rest, not even for one second. He was so tired.
Then the leader in him was taking over, mobilizing those who needed instruction. Buckets. The pump. Form a line. They were lucky the pump was so close, that so many had stopped to greet Mattie - half the town was there to help. Clay grabbed the shawls from the twins, despite their protests in unison, and ran headlong toward the flames.
The first moment inside, he knew this was wrong, hopeless, foolhardy. The flames licked highest in the back and roared as they grew. All that wood and straw - tinderbox wasn’t even the word. Still, he couldn’t give up.
Clay reached the horses in back first, the ones closest to harm. Frightened sounds came from deep in their throats, shrieks, almost. He murmured reassurance, reached a hand out, tried to project calm. The first one went easy enough. He tied the shawl over its eyes, led it toward the door. In the smoke, he saw the shape of a man. Call.
Clay saw Call’s hands were empty. “Here!” He threw the second shawl to the younger man, led the horse toward the light.
The cool air and human sounds were a startling contrast, all too short. Clay handed the horse off to someone, retrieved the shawl, and dashed back inside.
Call was on the way out, leading the second horse. “There’s three more,” he said, a shout over the roar of the flames.
Clay nodded, and the inferno swallowed him again, deafening now, crackling, popping. Embers drifted down from above.
It always came back to fire, Clay thought - Hatton Willows, his family. Poor Hannah, burned alive. Even that idiot Boyd, set ablaze by the Lakota. As he guided the second horse to safety, he wondered if this wasn’t his fault somehow, if he hadn’t conjured this through his own sins.
It was, after all, his nightmare come to life.
He passed Call again on the way back in, and he knew there was only one horse left: the Hell Bitch. Clay found the mare spooked, skittish, nearly screaming. He got the shawl tied around her eyes just before he felt another presence near him. “Go on,” Call yelled, “I’ll get her.”
All Clay could see of the man was a silhouette against the flames. He started to nod, make for the door. But a detail stopped him, a snag of conscience. While Call led his horse toward the cool air, Clay grabbed the saddle from the Hell Bitch’s stall. Man didn’t have much else. It seemed like the right thing to do.
Outside, he could breathe again. He gulped in the air, dropped the saddle at Call’s feet. Call glanced up, surprise plain in his eyes. “Thanks.”
Clay only nodded, and tried to catch his breath.
The bucket brigade worked as fast as they could, but Clay could see they were no match for the flames. The rafters in the barn started to give way, caving in with a gunshot crack and a shower of sparks. But wait - the ear-splitting crack really was a gunshot.
Clay watched in disbelief as a horde of men rode through the street, thundering hoofbeats in a cloud of dust. They yipped and yelled and hollered, firing into the crowd.
The bucket brigade scattered, running for cover. Clay’s anger returned with a shattering force. He drew his own gun and returned the fire. He didn’t know who these men were, but he’d have plenty of time to find out after they were dead.
Call didn’t bother taking cover. That’d just foul up his aim. He and Mosby stood side by side, center of the street. Those first chaotic moments, they dropped three riders.
But now there were problems of numbers - of men and of rounds. Mosby grabbed Call by the shirt and jerked. Call just followed. He understood the plan. Mattie’s wagon was parked in front of the Ambrosia and loaded with all the firepower they’d need.
Mattie herself was ducked there, too, gun drawn. “What the hell’s goin’ on?” she yelled.
As if to answer, a shout came from the riders in the street. “Listen up Curtis Wells! You got our brother in jail, and we want him back!”
Breen. The name whispered across Call’s mind, followed by terror as he heard the next words.
“And we want the fella that took him, too. Old man. Josiah Peale.”
Another flurry of shots. Then the voice shouted again. “And if you don’t give ’em to us, we’ll just start killin’ till you do.”
Call glanced at Mosby. For a moment, the Southerner stared straight ahead, face almost blank. Then his jaw tightened, his lip curled. With a near feral growl, he darted from their position.
Half the town was here, ducked behind the corner of the sheriff’s office or the fence or the shed. Mosby shouted directions: “Austin! You get your father and these people to the Ambrosia. Anybody with a gun, you fight these bastards off, don’t even let ’em get near the door.”
He turned back to the wagon. “Unbob, go with - our mayor and make sure he stays put. Mattie, take the wagon ’round to the back of the Ambrosia. Anybody don’t have a gun, you give ’em one. And get someone to bring some ammunition back here to us.”
Call barely had time to think, us? before Mosby grabbed his shirt collar and dragged him back into the street. “Lay down some cover for Mattie,” he said, and they did. Call heard the wagon clatter off as he fired at the shadowy riders down the street. Bullets whizzed by, close - awful close - and when the wagon was out of sight, Mosby jerked him back to the doorway of the sheriff’s office.
“You want ’em, Breen?” Mosby shouted. “You come and get ’em.”
Call covered the street while Mosby unlocked the gun case, brought down rifles and as many boxes of bullets as he could carry. Although Call was starting to understand the plan, he listened as Mosby explained.
“We’ll draw the fire,” the Southerner said. “If we want Josiah and the rest of those folks to stay safe, it’s the only way.”
Call listened to the window shatter as Mosby broke out the glass and poked his rifle out. He ducked down, grabbed the second rifle, and started to load. “We need more men - some way to counter.”
“Zeke and the boys might be able to take a few.”
Call snapped the breech shut and chambered a round. “How many you think there are?”
“Don’t know. Maybe fifteen. Maybe more.”
Laughter came from the cell. Breen. “Looks like my brothers are gonna have some fun with your town.”
Call glanced back. Breen lounged on the bunk in the cell, grinning. “They’re gonna tear this place apart!”
“You just shut up,” Call said. Out there in the growing dark, the livery still burned. Call figured it wouldn’t be for long - wasn’t much left to the barn. There weren’t any buildings close enough for the fire to spread, but he hoped the horses in the corral had found a way out.
Further down the street, the gang hollered and shot into the air. Call could see that getting their brother and finding Josiah were not their main goals. Like Ted Breen had said, they wanted to have some fun. Looked like they were in the general store right now, busting out windows and stealing whatever wasn’t nailed down.
He poked the rifle out the window, took aim in the dying fire’s light. Fired
One dropped. The others scattered. Ducked. Call could see the top of a head sticking up behind a rain barrel. He aimed. Fired again.
He could tell from the flailing limbs and angry shouts that the bullet had found its mark. Then came a flash and a crack. Call ducked as the bullets rained their way.
Austin couldn’t even enjoy the simple barbaric pleasure of busting out Mosby’s windows - he was too damn busy trying to keep his father from getting killed.
He fired at anything that moved, with a determination he’d never known. He winged a couple, took one down. Between him and Mosby’s lackeys, they had the gang, if not pinned down, then at least reluctant to move.
He glanced at the people huddled behind him, underneath tables, in back of the piano. The prissy twins, a few weeping whores. Unbob and Dr. Cleese held Josiah back from the windows. At the back door, Zeke helped Mattie unload crates of guns from her wagon.
When something moved in the dark out back, Mattie and Zeke both drew. Then a voice came out of the inky night: “It’s Amanda! Don’t shoot!”
Austin watched long enough to see Amanda dart inside, her huge eyes wild, followed close by Florie and another couple of whores. Then he turned back to the street. Those bastards were busy down the street; gunfire and breaking glass rang out. Probably looting the land office. Off in the distance, another fire glowed - wrong direction to be the livery. Lord, what was burning now?
Amanda’s shaking voice provided the answer: “I was on my way down to help with the livery when the shooting started. Some of those boys stopped by Twyla’s and started busting things up. Wanted to have some fun for free, if you know what I mean. I think someone must’ve knocked over a lamp - last I saw, the curtains were going up in flames.”
Then Florie took up the narrative: “Selena and I, a few others ran out the back soon as we heard shooting. Hid back by Dr. Cleese’s stairs, figured we should get to the sheriff’s or the Dove. Found Amanda by accident, and when we saw everyone coming here, well, we came too.”
Florie went on, “It’s bad out there. I think those bastards got a couple of our girls, were draggin’ them down the street to the Dove. And we heard a lot of screamin’, a struggle. Twyla must’ve tried to protect the girls. We saw her fall from upstairs. Don’t know if she’s alive or not.”
Austin got off another shot at a shadowy rider in the street. Missed. He cursed to himself, then turned toward the back door. “Zeke,” he ordered, “Get upstairs with Foster and Brody. Get someone on the balcony, a man on the roof. You make sure no one gets close to this building. Amanda - ” he met her eyes and found no resistance “ - you and Mattie get the rest of those guns in here.”
Dr. Cleese stepped forward and ducked behind a table closer to Austin. “What on earth is going on, Austin? Who are these men?”
“Breen gang,” Austin answered, peering out into the darkening street. “Brothers, mostly, of the man in the jail.”
“The man your father went after?”
“Then what are we going to do? Do Call and Mosby have a plan?”
“I guess,” Austin said. “They’re pretending they’ve got my father in the jail with them and Ted Breen. Guess they mean to draw the fire, until we can figure out some way to drive ’em off.”
Cleese’s tone shook. “That’s insane - you saw how many men rode in. They’ll run out of ammunition. They’ll both be killed.”
“And what then, Austin? What if they both get killed?”
Austin saw a shadow move in the street and squeezed off another shot. Missed.
Call watched Mosby’s eyes roving the street. Something wrong about the way he was moving - stiff - and the way his breath came, sharp and too quick. “You hit?”
Mosby’s eyes flicked down, then back toward the street. “It’s nothin’.”
Stubborn fool. Call shook his head. “Where at?”
Call let his gaze travel down. He couldn’t see any blood, but Mosby’s vest was dark. “Bad place to be hit,” he said. “Can do a lot of damage.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Mosby snapped. He aimed the rifle, remarkably steady, considering. He squeezed off a shot, then ducked back down.
Breen cackled from his cell. “Mister Call there’s right. Gut shot ain’t nothin’ to mess around with.”
Call glanced back. “Shut up, Breen.”
More laughter. “There was this fella used to ride with me and my brothers. Got shot while we were robbin’ a bank in Kansas City. Right about the same spot as you got hit, if’n I remember.”
“I said, shut up, Breen.” Call could feel the heat of Mosby’s anger, tried to convey that in his tone. He pulled the bandanna from around his neck. “Here.” He tossed the cloth to Mosby. “I’ll watch the street.”
In the growing dark, Call heard Mosby moving around. He glanced over, saw the Southerner unbutton his vest, press the bandanna to the wound. His hand came away streaked red.
Damn. This was bad, Call knew from experience. Even if Mosby had gotten away without damage to his vitals, he was still losing a lot of blood.
And that damn fool Ted Breen wasn’t helping matters. “This fella,” Breen picked up his story where he’d left off, “It took him nearly three days to die. He was just lyin’ there moanin’, callin’ for his mama.”
“SHUT UP!” Call yelled it this time, tempted to just go over there and smash Breen’s head against the bars. Might’ve, too, if it wouldn’t have meant exposing himself to the line of fire.
He turned back to Mosby, who raised his rifle again, this time with more difficulty. Call could see the pain in his eyes. “You hurt bad?” he asked
Mosby shook his head. “I’ll be fine.”
“You think it’s bad now,” Breen crowed, “just wait till two days from now, when you’re beggin’ somebody to put you outta your misery!”
Mosby whirled from the window, took aim with the rifle. The crack sounded and the back of Breen’s head disappeared in a spray of blood and bone.
Call stared at Mosby. “What the hell’re you doin’?
Mosby shrugged. “One less Breen to worry about.” He slid down to a sitting position, his back pressed against the wall, knees drawn up to his chest but with that rifle still ready.
Call looked out to the street, trying not to think about what they would do for a bargaining chip now, about trying to cover the other side of the building if Mosby passed out. As he watched, another burst of fire came their way. Call ducked. The glass above him showered down, shards that turned silver in the limited light. He threw up his arms to cover his head and waited for the volley to stop.
Mosby hadn’t moved - still sitting there folded up, still clutching the gun. His eyes were half-closed. The pain was catching up to him.
Silence in the street, at least from the store. Further down the street, Call could hear more ruckus, men yelling and shooting. He figured the bank would be hit, probably the land office. The dry goods store. He hoped the folks down at the Ambrosia were giving them a fight.
He shook the glass from his hair, brushed it from his jacket. Glanced back to Mosby. “Any idea what we’re gonna do about ol’ Ted back there? His brothers ain’t too likely to bargain once they see he’s dead.”
“Very astute, Mister Call.” His drawl managed sarcasm but didn’t sound too strong. “I suggest we let his brothers believe he’s still alive.”
Call risked a look out at the street and was answered by another burst of
fire. He ducked back down. “How the hell we gonna do that?”
“Prop him up with his feet on the desk, put a bottle of whiskey in his hand? How should I know?”
Despite himself, Call laughed. “Put a cigar in his mouth. I bet we could find some of Austin’s girlie pictures, too.”
Mosby managed a chuckle. “I think we might be on to something.”
“How do you mean?”
“Put him in the chair and tie him up, we have a hostage.”
Call glanced at the cell, the splatter of blood on the wall. “Holdin’ a gun to his head ain’t much of a threat when he ain’t got one.”
Mosby’s shoulders shook with silent laughter. Had to hurt. “I suppose we could - ” he hitched in a deep breath - “we could put his hat on him.”
The very idea was absurd. But it was dark enough that it just might work. Call’s mirth drained away as a thought occurred to him. “I reckon I’m gonna be the one that gets the pleasure - what with you hurt and all.”
Mosby turned to Call with a slick smile. “And you’d better hurry up, before rigor mortis sets in.”
Call looked back toward the cell and sighed.
Amanda looked with disgust at the chaos around her. Everyone with the ability to shoot had a gun, but not much idea what to shoot at. Most of the women just sat and wept over the men who’d been hit. Austin, at least, had some inkling of what needed to be done, but he kept having to glance back at his father, concern deepening the lines around his eyes.
Josiah, for his part, made sure he kept his son distracted by running off at the mouth, shouting nonsense about justice and judgment, demanding that he be released to exact divine retribution upon these heathens.
Good thing Mosby had assigned Unbob to look after the old man.
Amanda loaded the rifle Mattie had handed to her. She’d had a lot more practice with six-guns and derringers, but she figured she’d do all right - and probably a damn sight better than most of the fools in this saloon. She watched Mattie fill a knapsack with as many boxes of bullets as she could cram inside, slung the bag over her shoulder. “Just what do you mean to do with that?” Amanda asked.
“If Call and Mosby are gonna hold these bastards off,” Mattie said, reaching for the back door, “they’re gonna need a lot more bullets than what they’ve got.”
“You’re crazy, you know that?” Amanda called, but by then Mattie was already dashing out into the dark.
Austin turned back from the front window. “Where the hell is she goin’?” he shouted.
“Takin’ some shells down to the jail,” Amanda told him.
Austin swore. “Woman’s gonna get herself killed.”
Amanda ducked down and crawled toward the front of the saloon, cradling the rifle at an awkward angle. “Tried to tell her that,” she said, “but she wouldn’t listen.”
Up here, Amanda had a much better idea of what was going on: a whole lot of nothing. Austin and the other guns at the saloon had the Breen gang pinned down in a couple of locations - across the street at the Dove, at the general store - and although a flurry of gunfire erupted every few minutes, it seemed no one was getting any good shots. She peeked up over the windowsill. There was a fair slice of moon in the sky, but all she could see of the outlaws was their shadows.
Austin glanced over at her. “What do you think you’re doin’?”
“Looks to me like you can use all the guns you can get,” she said.
She’d barely gotten the words out when a commotion burst from the rear of the saloon. Josiah had broken free of Unbob’s hold - thanks to a low blow, from the way the simple man clutched his privates - and now dashed toward the front door, gun drawn. Unbob called after him, his face screwed up in pain: “Mister Peale!”
Amanda saw the horror cross Austin’s face as Josiah reached the door. “Father, no!” He dropped his rifle, got a hand on Josiah’s arm even as the old man stepped out into the night.
From across the street, a gunshot cracked.
Austin fell in slow motion, eyes still widened in shock. That stopped Josiah. The old man stopped his escape, turned back toward his son. “Austin?” he whispered, confusion clouding his face.
Amanda poked her rifle out the window and searched for a target. She didn’t bother wondering what else could go wrong. It was her experience that things could always get worse.
Mattie ran as fast as she could, ducking behind outbuildings and fences, then darting on to the next safe spot. She ignored the burning in her chest, the tightness in her legs. The cold air squeezed tears from her eyes as she lugged the weight at a full-tilt sprint.
She got lucky. Reached the sheriff’s office without being spotted. She found the back door and burst inside.
Two guns whirled to face her. Panting, she reached for the sky. “It’s just me,” she said. “Just Mattie.”
Call’s shoulders relaxed. He turned back to the window and poked his rifle through again. “You’ll get yourself killed doin’ a damn fool thing like that.”
Clay didn’t relax - he slumped back against the wall, the pose stiff and unnatural. Mattie dropped down to the ground, below window level, and crawled to the front, between the two men. Immediately, even in the dim light, she saw the blood streaking Clay’s hands. “Oh, Lord, you’re hurt.”
She reached out but Clay drew back, pressing his hand to his side. “It’s nothin’,” he said.
Call glanced over. “Just let her take a look,” he said. “I’ll keep watch.”
Mattie moved in again, and this time Clay relented. She lifted his hand, began to unbutton his vest. “Not much to see,” he told her, swallowing with the effort of speech. “Bullet’s still in there. Probably cracked a rib. Hurts to breathe.”
Gingerly, she opened the vest, found the sodden bandanna pressed to the wound. She started to pull it away. His hand snaked out and grabbed her wrist. She looked up to find his cat-eyes fierce with pain. “Don’t,” he breathed. “It’ll just bleed more.”
She nodded. His voice carried none of its usual weight, its honey-thick drawl and resonance. It pained her to listen. “What can I do, then? Want me to run and get Dr. Cleese?”
He shook his head. “See if you can find something for a bandage.” She started to crawl away when his voice stopped her. “And some whiskey.”
Duck-walking to the living quarters at the back of the jail, she stripped the sheet from the bed, found a half-empty bottle of whiskey on the bedside table. Figured. With the lushes they had for protection in this town, she was surprised sieges like this didn’t happen every day.
Turning back, she saw the man tied to the chair near the cells. Breen, she guessed. Then she looked closer, saw the pale and slack face, the slow drip from under the hat. The gore spread through the cell. She put a hand to her mouth, shut her eyes to keep from gagging. Don’t think about it, she told herself, don’t look at it - at him.
She focused on Clay instead, following his instructions numbly, finding the knife tucked away in his boot and slicing strips from the sheet. “What the hell happened to him?” she asked, nodding toward the dead prisoner.
“Wouldn’t shut up.” He looked back toward the cell with heavy-lidded eyes. “Suppose I had a lapse of judgment.”
Mattie wrapped Clay’s midsection with the makeshift bandages. A knot of worry began to form deep in her chest. She’d seen Unbob drain enough dead men to know that the bullet in Clay could be fatal. It was all a matter of luck, whether the slug had nicked the wrong spot. And she’d never seen him like this, breathless from the pain, that animal glint in his eyes. She focused on her own hands, on tying the bandage tight.
Clay sucked in a deep breath. “What are you doin’ here anyway?” he asked. “I told you to send someone.”
“Who was I gonna send? Everyone’s busy shooting or crying, or looking after Josiah.”
She was surprised when Call spoke. “Well, now you can get on back to the Ambrosia.”
She turned to face him. “Are you crazy? I’m not lettin’ you two try to fend off that entire gang by yourselves.”
“Damn it, Mattie - ”
“No, Call, you listen to me.” She took a third rifle down from the gun rack and began loading it. “There’s at least fifteen men out there, and every one of ’em wants what they think you’ve got in here. Now I know you both think you’re invincible, but there ain’t no way you can hold them off alone.”
Clay shifted to sit up better, fumbled with the buttons on his vest. “Call’s right, Mattie. You go on now.”
“Don’t you patronize me, either of you.” She carried the rifle toward the back of the room. “If I go, who the hell’s gonna cover this window?”
She pointed the barrel toward the side window - whose bright idea was it to put one that big in a jail anyhow? - and knew they knew she was right. Clay rubbed his eyes with tired resignation. Call looked so sheepish she wondered if he’d completely forgotten the window.
Mattie was grinning to herself, satisfied with the small victory, when she turned back to the window and saw a shape move in the darkness outside. She cursed under her breath and ducked down.
“What?” Clay said behind her, quiet. “What is it?”
She didn’t answer, just crept closer to the glass.
There, in the shadows, an oily shape edged nearer. Mattie held her breath, then in one swift motion, lunged the rifle barrel forward through the glass and fired.
The shadow dropped, but just behind it, a muzzle flared. Mattie ducked to the side but didn’t lose sight of that second shape. Quicker than the thoughts flashed across her mind, she fired again. The second shape went down.
Breathing hard in the dark, Mattie watched the night for more movement and tried not to think of the shots fired in human terms. They were shadows, that’s all. Shapes. Silhouettes. Just like target practice.
From her spot at the front windows of the Ambrosia, Amanda had an excellent view of the street, but caught only glimpses of what was going on behind her.
She shouted back to Dr. Cleese, “Is he gonna make it?”
Austin lay motionless on the barroom floor, blood streaking his face, matting his hair. Josiah, nearly lucid for once, knelt over his son, silent tears running down his face. As Amanda craned her neck to see behind her, Cleese looked up. “The bullet just grazed him,” he said.
Unbob crouched near the trio, rocking back and forth. “But Dr. Cleese, there’s so much blood.”
“Head wounds bleed a lot, Unbob.” Cleese pushed his glasses up with the back of his hand. “He’s probably got a concussion. He’ll be pretty groggy. But it looks a lot worse than it is.”
Unbob’s rocking didn’t stop. “I tried to stop him,” he said, “I tried.”
Amanda yelled over her shoulder. “It’s not your fault, Unbob.”
Josiah finally spoke, his words hushed. Hoarse. “He’ll be all right,” he asked, “won’t he?”
Rex Breen cursed the day he’d ever heard of Curtis Wells. He’d thought this mission would be easy, and if his gang were made up of anyone but his incompetent brothers, it would’ve been.
He hunkered down in the general store, ducked just below a window, and tried to calculate their losses. They’d come to town with nineteen men - the eleven brothers who weren’t in jail, and eight prime examples of saddle trash they’d found at the tradin’ post.
In that initial attack, while the town was fighting the livery fire, they’d lost three. That made - he counted on his fingers - sixteen.
Then they’d lost two more exchanging fire with the sheriff’s office. One was killed by a shot from the saloon. A couple more were hit, but not hurt bad.
Then he’d sent two of the middle Breens down to the jail to try again, this time from the back door. They’d never come back. That meant they were down to - he counted twice - eleven.
This town might not have had a sheriff, but they damn sure had some marksmen.
Now time was creeping toward the darkest part of night, and they still hadn’t accomplished what they’d come here to do. Sure, the brothers had had some fun - that was why things didn’t go off as planned in the first place. The two youngest Breens had stopped by the whorehouse. Wanted to play before they worked. Once the first shot was fired, they’d had no choice but to go in with guns blazing.
They’d gotten a fair amount of loot from the land and freight offices, picked up some nice new clothes and plenty of supplies from the stores. But other than that, this place had been a bust. Sam had damn near blown off his hand trying to crack the safe at the bank. The gunsmith’s shop had been empty. And the damned whorehouse burned down.
Rex watched the street, quiet for now, and made up his mind. It was time they got back to business.
He shouldn’t have shot Breen.
Clay knew this now, with numbing certainty. He sat slumped just beneath the window, shadows shifting across the room, watching his breath cloud in the cold, feeling small and bloodless and pale. It always came down to this, his mistakes costing others.
He glanced over to Mattie in the hollow moonlight, kneeling by the side window, ever vigilant. He’d seen the way she trembled when she thought no one was looking. This strain was one she shouldn’t have to bear - spending all night in a standoff, having to kill when he knew it affected her so. Holing up in the dark with a dead man.
Hell - maybe three dead men.
The street was quiet, and Clay knew they were running out of time. The Breen gang was likely regrouping. Collecting ammunition. Planning their charge.
Things were going to get awfully bloody, awfully quick. He had to get Mattie out of here.
He focused on taking deep, even breaths, ignoring the pain that stabbed his chest each time. Gathering strength. “We need to act now,” he said.
Call and Mattie both jerked at the sudden sound of his voice. He went on, afraid he’d lose momentum if he stopped. “They’re out there right now plannin’ their next move. Probably gonna flank to this side - ” he nodded toward his right “ - and hit us with all they’ve got.”
“Any suggestions, Colonel?” The sneer was plain in Call’s voice.
“We need to move first,” Clay let the dig slide, “throw them off. Maybe if we use dead Ted there, we can draw out the leader. Dupe them into negotiations. How much do you know about the Breens?”
Call shrugged, keeping his eyes on the street. “Leader’s the oldest brother. Rex. The rest of ’em ain’t too bright.”
Mosby waited a second longer than necessary, till Call faced him again. He held the younger man’s gaze. “Take out the head, and the body falls.”
Clay leaned on his rifle to pull himself up a little straighter. “Mattie, you think you can sneak back to the Ambrosia?”
“Damn you, Clay, I’m not leavin’ you two.”
He tried to keep his voice level. “I’m not asking. You need to alert the others. Tell them what we’re up to so they can be ready to move in.”
Mattie turned back toward the window, her fine hair hiding her eyes. She nodded, almost imperceptibly.
“Now you wait till we’ve got them distracted. When we give you the signal, you go.” Clay glanced back to Call. “You think you can do some yellin’?”
Call had caught on to the plan quick - something in Mosby’s eyes, unspoken but clear, filled in the blanks he’d left for Mattie’s sake. The man meant to take Rex out himself, or at least try. Even if he didn’t succeed, the distraction would give the townsfolk an edge.
Call left his position at the window, crawled back to dead Ted. In the dark, he supposed, the body would make a sufficient hostage. He got behind the chair, pushed it closer to the windows. Glanced back to the door, where Mattie crouched waiting, then toward the front. Mosby had managed to get to his knees to cover the street. “You ready?” Call asked.
Mosby nodded without looking back.
Call got his pistol ready. Swallowed hard.
“Rex Breen!” he yelled in the next breath. He stood behind the body, gun pressed to the already ruined head. “Make one wrong move and your brother’s dead!”
Call held his breath, listening. Silence from the street. “Come on out, Rex!” he tried again. “We’re willin’ to talk. One on one. It’s your only chance of gettin’ Ted out of here alive.”
Another silent pause. Then came a reply, shouted from somewhere across the street: “You send one man out. No weapons. Then we’ll talk.”
Mosby laid his rifle on the floor, almost gently, and struggled to his feet. Call could see the grimace of pain that crossed the man’s face - and then nothing. Mosby’s features went blank, perfectly composed; his back straight, his shoulders squared. He tugged at the bottom of his vest.
He met Call’s gaze head-on, with the slightest twinge of a smile and a manic light in his eyes. Call knew that look, had met it what seemed like a lifetime ago, and was struck with the sudden certainty that he would never see Mosby alive again. “Looks like that death wish might’ve caught up with you,” he said.
Mosby said nothing, just reached for the door.
Clay heard each sound as though underwater - his own breath, the doorknob turning in his hand, and somewhere behind him, Call shouting, “Clay Mosby’s comin’ out! He’s unarmed!” then hissing toward Mattie, “Go on! Now!”
The clock started in the back of his mind, keeping track of Mattie’s departure. He had to keep the Breens distracted long enough for her to get away. Hands raised, feeling abandoned without the gun on his hip, Clay walked down the steps and into the street.
He almost expected to be shot on sight, but no guns were fired. He could feel the eyes on him, the sights trained on him. A slight breeze swept his skin; he was certain it was the collective intake of air as the entire town held its breath.
Across the street, a person-shape melted away from the other shadows. This was his objective: Rex Breen. As the shadow moved closer, Clay could make out its features in the moonlight - the same mongoloid sneer that had been Ted Breen’s most distinguishing trait. He carried a rifle, the barrel cradled in the crook of one arm.
Two more shadows moved in from the sides, rifle-toting brothers who stopped Clay and frisked him briefly. Neither found the knife in his boot. They nodded, waved him on, and disappeared.
“So you’re the fella that owns this town,” Rex said, stepping closer. “Mighty brave of you comin’ out here yourself.”
Clay mustered a sneer of his own. “You think I’d entrust the lives of these citizens to a hired hand? You’re a bigger fool than I thought.”
Rex’s hands struck out, drove the butt of the rifle into Clay’s gut.
Clay dropped to his knees, doubled over, the pain a lightning strike, a muzzle flash along his nerves. He pressed his hand to his side, felt fresh blood seep from the wound. Damn it, this wouldn’t do; he had to give Mattie more time. He ground his teeth, didn’t breathe, waiting for the pain to pass.
Rex grabbed a fistful of Clay’s hair and pulled until he had no choice but to look up. “Seems to me,” Rex said, “you should be a little more polite if’n you want to live.”
Clay could only see this as the perfect opportunity. He let his eyes flutter shut, pushing the pain to the back of his mind, breathing as steady as he could. In subtle movements, he slid his hand toward his boot, found the handle of his knife.
Clay felt the seconds slow and stretch, noted with great precision the graceful arc of the blade. Rex Breen’s stomach opened up, a wet red mouth. Fleshy organs tumbled to the ground, and Clay’s mind whispered the word: eviscerate. Such a lovely, sparkling sound.
As Rex dropped to his knees, Clay was standing up. He cupped Breen’s chin with his left hand, drew the blade across the throat with his right. The hot spray of blood spilled over his hands, and he wondered, where was the shot? Then the night exploded into flashes of gunfire. Clay let go of Breen and dropped to the ground.
Call couldn’t quite comprehend what he was seeing: he’d hoped for a distraction at best from Mosby’s suicide mission. Instead, Rex Breen’s face fixed in a look of horror as most of his guts spilled on the muddy street. In those few stunned moments, Call marveled at the reserve of energy Mosby had managed to tap, the calm, almost practiced manner in which he slit Breen’s throat, the regal stance and stubborn set of his jaw.
Then the first shots cracked out. Call used dead Ted as a shield, shoving the chair before him through the door, letting the body sprawl in the street. From there, a quiet settled over his mind as his pistol bucked and spat; he knew his aim was true. Funny how moments of killing could seem almost divine.
Mattie had to choke back a scream when she saw Clay fall. From her vantage point at the corner of the Ambrosia, she couldn’t tell whether he’d been hit. All around was smoke and noise, an unholy level of chaos she’d never known.
Just in front of her, Ike threw his hands up in front of his face as though they could block lead. “Stand aside, Ike.” Mattie grabbed the rifle he was too scared to use and darted down toward the Statesman office, toward the action.
She’d be damned if she let Clay die in the street like that.
Instinct overrode pain. In the muzzle flash light, Clay groped, found Rex Breen’s rifle in the gory mud. Hands slick with the other man’s blood, he stayed low, fired in the direction of the unseen enemy.
Call was amazed when the shooting slowed. He squeezed off another round into a writhing Breen, watched the body twitch, then stop. He searched the street - seemed the plan had worked. Some of the citizens began making their way out from cover, shouting to one another, searching for friends.
Mattie dropped her head and tried to breathe.
It was over.
She stepped down from the boardwalk, sensing the shakes welling up in her. Even in the dark, she could see the bodies where they’d dropped in the street, some of them by her own hand. She tried to push the thought away. There’d be enough time to deal with that in the morning.
She made her way down the street, cautiously at first, then trotting when it seemed all was clear. Clay knelt in the mud, breathing hard, dark curls falling over his face as he searched for the strength to stand. Mattie reached out for his shoulder, the words you alright? already forming on her lips.
He jerked away.
Call watched with detached curiosity as Mosby stood, leaning heavily on Breen’s rifle, looking unsteady. Mattie hovered just to his side, hands outstretched, waiting to break the apparently imminent fall.
Call came around to Mosby’s other side and listened as the man rattled off orders to the lackeys who finally managed to show up. “Brody,” he said, “You and Foster get some men together, make sure that these fires don’t spread. Zeke, see about boardin’ up all these broken windows.”
Call glanced over to Mattie, saw the lines of worry crease her forehead. Mosby walked toward the Ambrosia as he talked, seemingly propelled by sheer force of will. His face seemed too white under the streaks of soot. His eyes were bright but vacant.
“Ike, help Unbob with the bodies. Call - ” Mosby turned toward him; Call resisted the urge to remind the man that he was no slave. “You just make sure they get it done right.”
They were in front of the Ambrosia now. Call felt a twinge of surprise at Mosby’s apparent trust. He wanted to look away, but the Southerner’s eyes pinned him, waiting for an answer. He gave a nod.
“Thank you.” Mosby turned to the Ambrosia, reached a hand out toward the porch rail. “And send Dr. Cleese on up to my room.” His hand missed the rail.
Call barely had time to react; even as he moved to help, Mosby’s strength gave, and he started to fall.
When Call returned to the Ambrosia, late afternoon sunlight slanted through the windows - or, rather, through the gaps between boards. The saloon was quiet. The overturned chairs and the splotches of dried blood that stained the floor suggested mundane violence, an everyday brawl that just hadn’t been cleaned up.
He knew some of the blood belonged to Austin - he’d seen his brother-in-law on the steps of the Dove, pale and shaky, a bandage wrapped around his head. A close call - he’d heard the story from Amanda. He stared down into the stains, wondering how many times a man could tempt fate before his luck ran out.
He found Mattie sitting on the steps halfway up to the second floor. Elbows propped up on her knees, she rested her face in both hands.
Call started up the stairs, stopped a couple of steps below. Waited.
Finally Mattie looked up, the strain evident in her face. Her eyes were red-rimmed, underscored by dark circles. A streak of rusty color matted her hair on one side; the realization struck Call that she must’ve pushed her hair back behind her ear while her hand was covered with blood.
“He gonna live?” Call asked, his voice seeming foreign in the still air.
Mattie nodded. “Dr. Cleese says he was real lucky. If that bullet was half an inch higher or lower…” She looked down as her words trailed off.
Call leaned against the wall, the exhaustion catching up with him. Maybe that was why he felt glad to hear the news.
Mattie’s head came up again. “He’s been askin’ for you. Wants to know what’s going on.”
As often as Call had visited the Ambrosia - for the fine drinking atmosphere or, a lifetime ago, when he had still considered Mosby a friend - he had never seen where the man slept. He tried to suppress the resentment he felt at the opulence. Sheer curtains, fine white sheets. That maroon and gold wallpaper probably cost more than the biggest bounty Call had ever earned.
The feeling disappeared, though, when he saw Mosby: supine in the plush bed, eyes shut, even paler than those sheets. Mattie perched on the mattress’ edge, touched his shoulder, soft. Mosby’s eyes fluttered open. He glanced around, his gaze unfocused at first, then passing over Mattie, settling finally on Call.
“Call,” he said by way of greeting, his voice sounding strained. He shifted as though trying to sit up. Mattie laid that hand on his shoulder again with a stern shake of her head. Mosby settled back in the bed, looking almost relieved. “What’s goin’ on out there?”
“Well, the fires are out,” Call began. “The livery was a loss, but they’ve rounded up most of the horses. Twyla’s is gone, too.”
“Gone?” Mosby asked.
“Burnt to the ground,” Call said. “Twyla’s dead. Fell outta the second story window. Couple of the whores got roughed up, but they’ll be okay.”
Clay shut his eyes. Through the pain, the leftover chloroform haze, he felt a raw sense of grief. Twyla dead - as vexing as the woman could be, she’d been a fine madame - the whorehouse gone. He thought of all that needed to be done: repairing, rebuilding. Finding shelter for the displaced whores, a replacement for Twyla. He was glad he was injured, glad he didn’t have to see the ruins of his town just yet.
He forced his eyes open. “Go on,” he told Call.
Call rubbed his forehead, trying to remember it all. “Zeke and them got most of the windows boarded up. We got Ike helpin’ Unbob with all the bodies.”
Clay nodded. So much had gone wrong, there was so much to do, but he couldn’t summon any more strength. He willed his mind to focus. “Tell them - ” he stopped, tried to get more breath behind his voice “ - tell them I’m sorry I can’t help personally.”
Call exchanged a glance with Mattie - only Mosby could get shot up and still be so concerned with appearances.
Clay felt Mattie’s warmth move against him. He glanced up at her, watched her watching Call. The afternoon sun caught her hair at a slant, shining through the gold like stained glass. She reached up, pushed her hair back behind her ear, that self-conscious habit. It was then that Clay saw the streak of dried blood matted there.
His own blood. He felt sick. He knew then that he shouldn’t have gone after her, shouldn’t have brought her back to this misery and filth - this rough and lawless town, the muddy streets that never seemed to dry. Curtis Wells would never be his new Atlanta. And it was no place for a good woman like Mattie. He knew what he needed to do.
“I suppose-” she turned to face him at the sound of his voice “- we’ll have to round up all your guns. Get your wagon repaired. Just tell the blacksmith it’s on me.”
Clay felt a familiar hollow ache, the same wretched despair that had settled in his chest when he first saw Mattie’s empty shop. He cursed the pain-induced fog, the warmth of her hip against him, for making him feel so lost.
Mattie stayed silent for what seemed like too long. Clay looked up in time to catch her soft smile. Her hand closed on his. “I won’t be needin’ that,” she said.
Two men held their breath.
“I think I’m gonna stay.”
Clay felt relief flood through him, a floating sensation that tingled in his veins. He forced his eyes to focus, returned her smile the best he could. He saw the sun blaze through her hair, a wink of gold, before the world went dark once more.
January 9, 2001