This is a fan fiction story based on characters from the
Lonesome Dove television show,
A Degree of Redemption
(After the episode "Redemption")
The two men faced each other, separated by a few feet of floorboards, a row of iron bars, and a personal gulf almost as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. Still, if they had only been able to see it, at this moment they looked very much alike. Dooley, immigrant and miner, and Clay Mosby, Virginia blue-blood and mine owner, stood in exactly the same position: proud and defiant, feet spaced slightly apart and planted firmly on the floor, shoulders tight, heads up and chins out, both men unwilling to show so much as a whisper of weakness.
The memorial service for the dead miners was underway, with Sheriff Austin Peale in attendance. Zander’s body lay on a slab at the back of the gunshop, his possessions collected and left in Clay’s office, so there was no trace of the late foreman’s existence in Tent Town. The report of his death while attempting to resist arrest for his part in the mine explosion had already been written up, waiting for Austin’s signature before being dispatched to the territorial marshal. The victims and their families would receive their compensation the next day. Only one detail remained, and that was the fate of the man Zander had so skillfully framed for the disastrous explosion.
"We’ve no time for lies now. What do you know about the mine explosion?" Clay was pretty sure he knew the answer, but still he had to ask.
"I know I had nothin’ to do with it. I don’t care what Zander or anyone else says about me, I didn’t do nothin’."
"You’re not workin’ for Halcyon? I know they were tryin’ to force me to back down. You would be just the kind of man they’d hire, just for that purpose."
"Ask Zander about that. He was there when I asked Halcyon for a job. They wouldn’t have me. Everyone’s heard about the Bell explosion, and no one cares I was cleared. I’m just one poor miner. Who’s going to take my word for anything?" There was just enough anger and hurt in Dooley’s voice to make the reply believable.
Clay took a deep breath. Damn, how could he have been so foolish, trusting Zander, putting so much value in the man’s words that he would condemn another with no more proof than those words? He’d been desperate for a culprit, that was true, and arresting Dooley had possibly staved off a riot, but there was no reason to punish the miner any further. "Give me the keys," Mosby ordered, and Zeke obediently handed them over. While Dooley watched, with an air of suspicion paired with desperation, Mosby unlocked his cell and told him he was free to go.
"And what is it you’re plannin’ now?" Dooley asked, unwilling to move until he knew for sure it was safe. "You wouldn’t be thinkin’ about a lynchin’, just to save your own neck?"
"Zander set the explosives," Mosby said bluntly. "He admitted it. He probably figured on lettin’ you take the blame all along. He bragged about how invulnerable he was."
Dooley shook his head. "That’s as may be. I ain’t surprised, but why ain’t he the one in jail?"
Mosby looked directly at Dooley, and despite himself, the miner leaned back, away from those cold eyes. "He’s at the undertaker’s. He kept sayin’ I couldn’t do anythin’ to him because Halcyon had more than enough power to protect him." A short smile did nothing to warm the atmosphere. "Pity no one from Halcyon was there in the tent to protect him when he tried to escape."
Dooley responded with his own humorless smile, showing that he understood perfectly well what he’d just been told. "He shoulda known better than to mix with your kind. Likely Halcyon wouldn’t have helped him anyway. You money men, with your fancy clothes and clean white hands, you don’t care nothin’ for the men workin’ for you. After all, there are always more hungry people lookin’ for work."
He picked up his sack from the floor and walked past Mosby out of the cell. "The rest of your things are in the livery with your mount. You’d do well to be out of town before the service is over," Mosby told him. Dooley just kept walking, in silent accusation. As he opened the door to the jail, Mosby said probably the last thing the stubborn miner expected to hear.
"Mr. Dooley, I should have made Zander give me more proof. I was wrong."
It was almost an apology. Almost. Dooley looked back at his ex-employer. "That’s the smallest thing you need to be sorry for, Mr. Mosby."
Clay closed his eyes, biting back an angry response about not having said he was sorry for anything. The pride and anger that had kept him going without sleep for the last two days were running out, and sheer obstinacy was the only thing holding him upright, that and the soft, inconvenient voice of his conscience, impossible to ignore no matter how hard he tried. The image of that first victim he’d seen from the mine, and helped take out of the wagon, swam through his mind. As it was, he still would never have said any of this in front of other witnesses, but Zeke wouldn’t say anything, and he didn’t really care what Dooley said to anyone else. "I know," he whispered, and he meant it. He was the one who’d hired all those extra workers, including women and children, none of them experienced miners. Call was right about that much. In the end, for the victims, it didn’t really matter who lit the fuse. Mosby was responsible for those people being in the mine, so he had to share some portion of blame, even if Zander was the one who’d actually committed the act, with the knowledge and approval of the bastards at Halcyon.
He held out an envelope. "Here, this should help until you get established somewhere else." He’d taken the money from Zander’s bags, leaving just enough to satisfy the territorial marshal. Somehow, it seemed only right that Dooley get something for his trouble. Besides, he’d get out of town faster if he had some funds.
"Money," Dooley snorted. "With men like you, it all comes down to money." But he took the envelope. He pulled out the written note that was also there, obviously trying not to be embarrassed by how hard it was for him to work out all the words. That he could read at all put him ahead of many of his fellow miners, but he couldn’t read very well.
The letter stated simply that Dooley was not responsible in any way for the explosion in the Curtis Wells mine, despite any rumors to the contrary. "Won’t do much good, I reckon, but it’s more than Bell ever did," he said grudgingly. He put the money in his pocket, returned the letter to the envelope, and carefully placed that into his sack, trying to keep it from getting too wrinkled. "You said you was going to help the families. I heard them words before. It usually means a box of food and maybe some cheap blankets."
"I said I would compensate the families, and that’s exactly what I meant. I’ve already told the mercantile to give them what supplies they need and send me the bill, and they’ll all get some money. Not much, I admit, because I stand to lose a hell of a lot with the mine shut down, but somethin’ to tide them over for a little while, anyway."
Dooley couldn’t quite manage to keep his face straight; he’d spent long years under the bootheels of mine owners and his eyes widened just a little, probably surprised at this demonstration that Mosby would actually care about such things. "Aye, at least that’s somethin’. But you really want to make up for this, you remember it. Next time you want to make money riskin’ the lives of hungry people, you remember what happened here."
As it became apparent that Dooley just wasn’t going to let him off the hook, Mosby’s cold anger was coming back. "I may still regret releasin’ you like this, Mr. Dooley. You’d be wise to stay well away from Curtis Wells in future. For your information, I have no intention of forgettin’ any of this, includin’ you. And I have a long memory. If you still know anyone at Halcyon, feel free to warn them about that."
"Halcyon be damned," Dooley said. "It was you shoved all those people down that hole. It was you promised to deliver copper without carin’ about the danger. It was YOU, Mosby! That’s what I want you to remember."
"Judgin’ from the church bells, the service is over. Zeke here will accompany you to the livery and on out of town. I suggest you hurry. I’m not the only person in Curtis Wells who might have lynchin’ in mind. After all, we only have your word you weren’t in cahoots with Zander all along." Mosby had considered just that possibility, but the scheme showed careful planning, and enlisting such an obvious ally simply didn’t make sense. Mosby believed that Zander was telling the truth when he said no one was supposed to get killed, simply because the deaths drew more attention to the event. So, the foreman’s ally couldn’t have been someone very experienced with explosives; Dooley would never have made such a mistake. There was that other miner, the boy dying over at the Dove, with his wild talk – he was the more likely candidate.
Mosby’s words were a very thinly veiled threat, making it obvious that Dooley was very close to overstepping himself. The miner allowed Zeke to push him out of the jail and down the street. The memorial service was indeed over, but people were moving slowly enough that the deputy was able to sneak Dooley out of town without being spotted. Those individuals who hadn’t attended church weren’t paying much attention to anything but their own business.
For a few moments, Clay leaned back against the door of the jail, feeling the lack of sleep and food, but then he spotted Austin and Josiah, walking together for a change, heading in his direction. Right now, the idea of facing either man was too depressing and exhausting to consider, and he slipped out the side door to escape that fate.
In the cloudy coolness of the approaching dusk, he made his way around the backs of buildings, to avoid being confronted by anyone. Without realizing where he was going, or why, he found himself standing outside the now-empty church. The image of another church flashed through his mind: the church that had offered sanctuary for his wounded men if he agreed to surrender to the Maryland militia. From a distance of more than 15 years, he once again heard the gunfire and the screams, the laughter of the bastards who held him back while those helpless men were murdered, still inside the violated safety of the church, while the minister who’d volunteered his sanctuary stood alongside and murmured prayers of praise to God for delivering these enemies into Union hands for their well-earned punishment. When the slaughter was done, when twelve men who’d trusted him and accepted the idea of surrender because he’d put it to them were dead, leaving just Clay, Robert and two other officers alive to be dragged off to prison camp, Clay had sworn an oath that he would never again enter a church. Except for a few times when it was required for business reasons and therefore had nothing whatsoever to do with God or faith, he’d kept that oath, in memory of his murdered men.
Still, however much he hated and blamed that Maryland minister and the militia commander, he had to reserve a certain amount of blame for himself. Just as his decision to hire extra workers for the mine had indirectly led several of them to their deaths, his decision to surrender had led to the murder of men under his command. The guilt wasn’t his, but ultimately, some of the responsibility was.
He looked up at the mournful sky, breathing painfully against the tight bands around his chest. "Where were You?" He screamed silently, as he had so often before. "Why are You never THERE?"
"You’re still not looking in the right place. Your mother tried to teach you, but you don’t appear to have learned anything."
The voice responded to his unspoken question, and the words drew another memory from his past. His mother’s quiet voice spoke inside his head. "God is always there, Francis. We just aren’t always lookin’ in the right place."
Clay turned slowly, to see a familiar figure standing in the shadow of the church. He’d had conversations with Death twice before, and he supposed it was only right that the spectre be here now. "And just where is the right place?" he asked bitterly. "A church where a minister, a servant of God, praises God for allowin’ the murder of helpless men? A mine that could have meant a good income for people desperately in need of jobs, not to mention a chance to put this town on the map for good? Or is Curtis Wells supposed to end up just another empty ghost town?"
Death shook his head. "Jehovah cannot be blamed when bad things happen. That is the price of free will. All He can do is gather the victims to Him, and offer them peace."
"And you? Just once, couldn’t you come in time to stop tragedy from happenin’?" Even as he said it, Clay knew how absurd the question was. The third time he was in this ridiculous situation, and he was still asking stupid questions!
The familiar thin smile answered his words as well as his thoughts. "I am rarely allowed to interfere. As you know."
Absurd or not, he felt compelled to continue. "You know, I have to admit that you exist. You’ve proved that. But I still don’t see much proof of God."
The smile remained. "I am not here to argue. Besides, I know you too well. You believe in God. You just don’t understand Him, and like many men, what you don’t understand, you fear, at least a little." Death looked away, studying the town, and the church cemetery where he had first confronted Clay Mosby standing over the grave of Hannah Call more than two years past. "I have work to do, and can tarry no longer. You asked where the right place was. I suggest you try looking inside yourself. The place is there, as it was when you were a boy, sitting beside your father on a mountainside, counting stars." Then he was gone, and Clay was alone again.
Counting stars. Oh, that long-ago hunting trip in the Blue Ridges. Clay remembered how he’d felt, listening to the night sounds in the forest. God had been there that night; he’d been able to feel it. Just as he’d felt that presence while singing Christmas carols with his friends and family, with Mary. Doing anything with Mary! He hadn’t felt that close to God again after he put on a uniform and went to war.
No, that wasn’t quite right. There had been moments, brief but memorable, hearing chaplains as they prayed with the wounded and watching the tight, pain-filled faces relax as faith brought comfort. Writing letters home that spoke not of the horrors of the battlefield but of trivial matters, like the many different things men could make ‘coffee’ out of. The presence had been there then, from time to time, but now, he just couldn’t feel it.
Without making a conscious decision, Clay pushed open the church doors and made his way down to the front pew, just as his family had always done in Virginia. He sat down and stared blankly at the altar. He should have been praying, but he was out of practice and couldn’t think of the words. Even the Lord’s Prayer escaped him, but out of a jumble of tired emotions, troubled thoughts and painful memories, came a kind of wordless prayer. It begged for forgiveness, pleaded that the souls of the dead men in that church in long-ago Maryland, and those of the poor workers in the mine, would understand and forgive him for his failure to protect them.
At first, the bands around his chest only pulled tighter, and even years of practice couldn’t stop a few tears, but then, as the setting sun broke through the clouds for one brief moment of pink and purple glory, he was released and could breathe again. There had been no exchange of words, no ponderous, pompous declaration of scripture, no earthshaking revelation, but for just a second, there was a peace inside his heart that he hadn’t felt in years.
The men in Maryland probably wouldn’t blame him. They knew it was the fault of an unctuous, hypocritical minister and the vicious Federal officer who’d given the order to shoot, regardless of plain decency and military protocol. Those ghosts didn’t haunt him, it was only his own memory castigating him. As for the dead miners, the real blame lay squarely upon the Halcyon Mining Corporation, and right then and there Mosby promised himself there would be a reckoning with that corporation, however long it took. Mosby hadn’t forced any of those people to work in the mine, and if Halcyon hadn’t been so determined to ruin him, there wouldn’t have been an explosion. People who otherwise didn’t have an income would have had money, and his biggest worry would have been how to keep the miners from destroying private property.
It wasn’t total forgiveness, complete redemption. He would still have to carry some of the blame, but only a small portion. Hopefully, in time, the townsfolk would come around. After all, there still wasn’t anyone else willing to do the things he did, in order to keep Curtis Wells from drying up and disappearing competely. Mosby looked out of the windows for several minutes, watching the sunset instead of just ignoring it as he usually did, and although he would never again feel the purity of his boyhood faith, for those minutes he actually felt the presence of God.
He still did not feel comfortable in church, and would probably never again trust a minister, but he did believe in God. Death was right about that, at least. This episode in his life was over, and he most likely would not see the inside of a church again for years. Just this once, he had found a modicum of comfort within these walls, and that would have to serve. It was obvious that no rainbow was forthcoming, and it was time for him to leave, to go back to the Ambrosia Club, wash up, eat, and get some sleep. He would stop and talk to Mattie on the way, arranging Zander’s burial, and tomorrow he would send money to the families of the dead miners.
Tonight, he would sleep, and, God willing, there would be no dreams.
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