This is a fan fiction story based on characters from the
Lonesome Dove television show,
Author's Note: This piece represents my first attempt at a complete story and took its inspiration from Clay's "Lord, how I loved her..." line from his jail cell in THE LIST. My thanks to Laura Barnette and Colleen MacLennan for their unwavering support, frequent criticisms and most importantly, belief in the things I found so hard to see.† No seedling grows alone and without them, the page would have remained blank.
A soldier never truly slept and the Captain came fully awake the moment the intruder set foot in his tent. Keeping his breathing steady, Clayís fingers closed around the knife under the pillow while he listened to the hesitant steps grow closer to the cot -- closer to his exposed back.
Closer ... so close he could almost hear his assailant's nervous breathing. Closer still until a foot bumped the leg of the cot and Clay sprang, flinging himself at the shadow beside the bed.
His aim was lucky. They tumbled to the floor, Clay on top of the smaller man, his knife at his throat. "One more move and Iíll slit your Yankee throat," Clay snarled, applying a little more pressure to the blade for emphasis.
"Clay ... stop it. Youíre hurting me...."
Clay froze. His senses numbed. This could not be. Mary ... Mary here... Mary....
"Clay ... it would be very ungentlemanly to kill your own wife. Clay ... the knife ... please...."
"Mary?" he whispered as if in church. "Oh my God ... Mary." The knife dropped out of his hand, thudding to the floor. Springing up, he reached for the lantern and lit it with trembling fingers.
The flame took and cast an amber glow on the figure slowly pulling herself up to a sitting position. The boyís clothing was oversize and worn and a wide brimmed hat shaded most of her face. Shocked disbelief written all over his face, Clay reached down and pulled off the hat, releasing a river of chestnut hair.
"Mary...." He let out a ragged breath. She caught his hand, bringing it first to her lips, then her cheek.
For a moment they simply drank in the sight of one another until suddenly, the risk sheíd taken hit him full force, contorting his face into a rage she had never seen. Grabbing her slender shoulders, he gave them a hard shake.
You little fool ... donít you realize... I almost ... I could have...." He saw the blood on her neck where his knife had nicked her and was almost undone. Rage, terror, joy -- all fought for mastery at once.
"Clay ... I know ... I know it was foolish but when we heard the 14th was so close ... I had to see you ... no matter the cost." Her voice soothed him like no other sound on earth and as he slowly exhaled the wildness left his eyes.
She smiled her smile. "Course if Iíd known all Iíd get out of it was a scold I might have saved myself the trouble ... how foolish of me, thinking you might be glad to see me, not ... cross."
"Cross?" Clay met her sparkling eyes and grinned. Sinking down on the cot he pulled her onto his lap. "Miz Mosby, you have yet to see me Ďcrossí -- not that you would live to tell the tale.... oh, Mary." He buried his face in her hair and breathed in the scent of her.
She snuggled closer, her arms encircling his neck. Playfully she pulled on a dark ringlet that lay along his neck. Unshaven, tousled headed, he was still the most beautiful man she had ever laid eyes on and the haven of his arms was the only home she would ever need.
Married little over a year, their times together had been brief, and in many ways they were still new to each other. Clay lifted her chin, smiled tenderly and gently kissed the tip of her nose. Mary ran her finger down the gaunt cheek, the stubble of his beard and lightly across his lips. "You, sir, are in dire need of a shave ... Iím not sure I approve of your unsightliness..." But her words were cut short as his mouth found hers.
Gently, tentatively, their lips brushed each otherís until their mutual need and hunger grew. Clay pulled back -- face flushed, eyes bright. Cupping her small, heart shaped face in both hands, he was torn between desire and decency. "Mary ... here? Are you su....?"
With cheeks as flushed as his own, she nodded, almost shyly, but her eyes were dancing when she raised them to his and her feather touch was deliberate as she slowly opened the buttons of his undershirt. "I do have the right tent, donít I, sir?"
Sharply inhaling, Clayís eyes glowed with desire and his grin was nearly lecherous as his hands left her face to caress her neck, her shoulders... "I most certainly hope so...." His husky voice was fervent.
Longingly, their lips met again and this time they spoke of their love in the silent speech of touch, losing themselves to the passion only the other could ignite.
The flimsy mattress had been pulled to the floor and Mary, physically and mentally exhausted, slept in the tangle of blankets and clothes.
Head propped up on one elbow, Clay lay beside her, watching the rise and fall of each precious breath, etching her features into the fabric of his soul. Gently, he wound a strand of her thick hair around his forefinger, letting his thumb caress its softness. Unable to deny that their time was nearing its end, the soft smile faded into a hard line as his eyes looked beyond her, pondering the realities daybreak would bring.
"Clay ... darling, come back to me."
Mary reached up and touched his cheek. The eyes that flew to her own were those of a stranger and she shivered at the deadly cold of their depths.
"Shhh...." He lightly laid a finger across her lips. The warmth was back in both look and touch but Mary had glimpsed some of the price his new life was exacting and it twisted her heart.
There were no lies between them and when he saw the shadow of pain in her eyes, a floodgate flew wide.
"Damn those Yankee bastards to hell...." His voice, barely audible, shook with suppressed rage. "Damn them for taking our liv--"
She forced a small smile and shussed him with her fingertips. "Captain Mosby, really.... is that any way to speak in front of a lady?"
Their eyes locked and slowly, ever so slowly, he exhaled.
A rueful, somewhat reluctant grin teased his mouth as he slid his body over hers. His mouth hovered mere inches above her own.
"No, maíam, it surely is not." He cocked one brow, frowning in mock perplexity. "How, pray tell, can I ever make amends?"
She buried her fingers in the thickness of his hair, pulling his face even closer. "Just love me, Clay," she whispered. "Always."
Their eyes devoured one anotherís and on a sharp intake of breath he whispered back, "Always, Mary ... always," before his mouth claimed hers with all the passion he possessed.
She laid in the crook of his arm, one hand at rest on his chest as she softly spoke of home, of family, of life, in his absence at Hatton Willows, knowing as well as he, dawn and the awakening of the camp were all too close at hand.
He stroked her hair almost absently, drinking in every word , while simultaneously wrestling with the dilemma her appearance had presented him.
"Jacob." He spat the name out, interrupting her in a dark tone as he correctly surmised the part her old family servant had played in her arrival, though it was a subject she had yet to broach. The old timer was her fatherís pride -- no finer tracker inside of four counties, heíd often boast, and "Miz Mary" was the light in his eyes.
Never one to cower, Mary stopped mid-sentence and raised herself up on his chest to confront his stormy eyes. "Clay Mosby, you cannot hold him at fault. He was merely doing my bidding and we both know it."
Glare melted into gleam as he fought the urge to grin at her fierce protectiveness of those she held dear. "I donít care if St. Peter himself gave the order, he put you in harmís way and he shoulda known better. Iíll be dealing with him at the proper time."
Knowing her battle won, Mary lowered her lashes and murmured a demur, "Yes, Clay."
Laughing at her transparency, Clay playfully grabbed her by the shoulders and in one swift motion, reversed their positions, rolling her beneath him. His breath quickened just looking at her and he could feel her heart beating against his own. Her lips parted slightly in unconscious anticipation and he traced them with a forefinger, prolonging the moment.
"Owww," he laughed, taken by surprise at the sharpness of her teeth.
His revenge was swift and long and deep as he kissed her thoroughly. With every ounce of willpower he possessed, he slowly sat up, running long fingers through tousled hair.
"Mary, we best--"
Before he could finish, the tent flap flew back and a breathless solider burst in. "Clay, I thought you oughta know--" Robert froze as he took in the scene before him, his hand automatically reaching and drawing his gun.
Torn between anger and amusement at the expression on Robertís open face, Clay quickly positioned himself in front of Mary, blocking her from Robertís view.
"For godsake, put that thing down. Iím alright, Robert."
The pistol slowly dropped but Robertís face darkened as he took in the disheveled bedding, the hastily discarded clothing ... boyís clothing.... His frown deepened.
"Outside, Lt. Shelby," Clay snapped. "Now. Iíll join you shortly."
Narrow streaks of blue and grey crept across the eastern sky as Robert cooled his heels, puzzling over Clayís odd behavior. Friends since childhood, he probably knew Clay better than anyone, yet there were twists and turns to the man that even Robert could not follow.
Who the hell was in there with him? To the best of his knowledge, Clay had remained faithful to his young wife since theyíd taken leave of home, but God knew, the pressures had been rapidly mounting.
A natural born leader who took the accompanying responsibility as a personal yardstick, Clayís recent promotion to Captain was, at best, a mixed blessing. Now, coupled with the gathering storm clouds of imminent battle.... Robert scowled at the dirt clump as he kicked it with a vengeance.
"Battle fever, Robert?" Clay drawled as he emerged from the tent, tucking the half-buttoned shirt into his trousers. Dawn had barely begun, but already the air was thickening with the heavy humidity they would wear as sweat all day long.
Robert snapped to attention, saluting smartly. "Lt. Shelby, waiting as ordered, suh."
Clay gave Robert a withering look as he lazily struck a match on the sole of his boot and lit his morning smoke. Taking a long, slow drag, his gaze swept the camp before coming to rest on his frustrated friend. At sharp contrast with his relaxed, somewhat insolent stance, the amber eyes were as piercing as an eagles ready to swoop down on its prey, belying the soft velvet of the voice.
"You had something of a rather ... urgent nature to tell me, Robert?"
Robert opened and shut his mouth on his own burning questions. Clay, as usual, led the dance. "Yankee patrols, Clay. Two more of Ďem. Hudson spotted one just east of the woods and Jackson saw another north of Gatlingís farm. Thatís six in four days--"
"I can still count." Clay snapped, only to instantly regret his sharpness.
Taking a deep breath, he lightly touched Robertís arm with a self-deprecating grin. "Sorry ... itís just been ... a very long night."
Dropping his cigar, he crushed it under one booted heel and raised his eyes to look deep into Robertís. "Seems Iíve got bigger problems than Yankee patrols tíworry about." He held up one hand to stave off Robertís flurry of questions. "Maryís here and it appears I have to see her home." Clay smiled slightly at his friends astonishment. "Close your mouth, Robert."
"Mary?" he gasped.
"Surely you remember ... my wedding ... I was certain youíd met ... hard to forget such loveliness...."
"Damn it, Clay, this isnít funny."
"Not particularly, no. Here." Lighting a second cigar, this time one for each of them, Clay provided a brief recap of the nights events as Robert watched the conflicting emotions wash across his face. Pride at her courage, fury at her foolishness and an overwhelming sense of concern for her immediate safety.
"Right now I want you to find that damn servant and bring him and the horses here." Pondering the logistics of the coming day, he ran his thumb absently over his lower lip. "Canít travel till nightfall anyway and--"
"Travel? You donít think for half a second that old Barnes is gonna give you leave ... now of all times, to--"
"Iíve no intention of asking," Clay interrupted, his jaw tightly set.
"Clay, you just canít run off without someone taking notice...."
"Something wrong with your hearing, Robert? I said, Iím not asking. Now go bring Ďem in. If anyone asks, say itís my cousin and his servant, returning home. Don't give me that look... it's under a two hour ride. I'll be back before dawn." He turned to the tent, then paused, looking back over his shoulder.
"Oh, and Robert, be careful. Maryís awful fond of that old coot. Besides, Iíll need you to cover for me tonight."
He left Mary with a quick embrace and strict instructions that not, under any circumstance, was she to leave the vicinity of the tent without Robert or himself beside her. A casual glance back as he strode away showed her framed by the open tent flap, sitting on the freshly made cot looking so very small, so very vulnerable. His step lagged as his fingers clenched into tight fists.
With a muttered curse, he tore his eyes away and nearly collided with a young soldier headed towards him. The boy jumped back, eyes wide, face blanched by the smouldering fire in Clayís eyes.
"E...excuse me, C...captain."
"As you were, private." Clay nodded curtly without changing course.
"Captain Mosby ... sir ... I ... I ... need to s...speak with you...."
Clay pulled up a few steps beyond the lad but did not turn around. Shutting his eyes on an indrawn breath, he replied in soft, measured tones. "Now ... now would not be the moment I would choose to do so, soldier." And without a backward glance, Clay continued on to take up the reins of reluctant command.
Sitting on the cot, Mary lightly ran her hand over the coarse blanket as she took stock of his sparse accommodations for the first time. An empty barrel served as nightstand and she smiled inwardly at the irony of the countless hours she had spent in the selection of fabrics for their room at Hatton Willows. Bits and pieces of his new life filled the cramped tent and Mary closed her eyes, feeling his essence for a few moments more.
But the tent was already growing close and she was too restless to sit idle for long. Rising, she found her jacket, and with a smile, remembered the small bundle carried in the large pocket. Carefully, she unwrapped the contents and set them on his nightstand. The tin had been dented, but the cookies were his favorite, and he always seemed to be in need of fresh handkerchiefs -- sheíd embroidered these with his initials.
Needing a task, she rummaged through his belongings until she found clothing in need of repair, or worse yet, clothing heíd attempted to repair himself. Locating needle and thread, she stepped outside and surveyed the landscape. Fortunately, his tent ended the row, and to the east was only woodland. Not too far off, a small grove of birch looked as if it would offer a haven of shade without violating her husbandís directives on distance. She gathered her things and settled in among the trees.
Never had duty and desire been at such odds in the young officerís life. The morning routine became almost surreal as he dealt with the torment of her nearness, the weight of her well being. It was mid-morning as he sat his horse atop a slight rise watching maneuvers, when he spotted Robertís small caravan exiting the woods across the meadow. Feeling his sudden tension, Clayís horse began to fidget.
"Lt. Ashton, I have a matter to attend to. The field is yours." Giving his mount its head, they were off at a strong canter.
Robert, seeing the rider bearing down on them, pulled up, casting his sideways grin at the grey headed old servant behind him. "Hope youíve made peace with the Lord, old timer, Ďcause it looks like He might be calling you home sooner than ya think."
In a moment, Clay was upon them. Acknowledging Robert with only a glance, he pulled his horse up alongside of the servantís. Before Jacob could speak or Robert intervene, Clay backhanded the old man, sending him tumbling from his horse, sprawled on the ground with blood streaming from his split lip.
"If you ever ... ever put her in harmís way again, I will kill you with my bare hands," Clay softly hissed.
"Clay ... for the love of God....." The horror in Robertís voice broke the spell and they looked at each other as strangers.
"This is my affair -- stay out of it," Clay snapped defensively, but it was he who looked away first, and with a tug of the rein, whirled his mount around and headed back towards camp.
Glaring after Clayís retreating back, Robert jumped off his horse to tend to his friendís folly. Jacob was already sitting up, if slowly, and he took Robertís proffered arm gratefully.
"Donít you mind Marse Clay none. Man do things when he git scared."
Robert eyed him incredulously. "You bump your head? Clay ... scared.?"
Jacob shook his head and smiled painfully. "Man fierce in love as Marse Clay, he be scared all the time."
She must have drifted into a brief sleep, for when she came awake, Mary was aware of movement in her husbandís tent. Letting the mending fall from her lap, she sprang up, not bothering to brush the woodland debris from her clothing, eager only to be in his company again.
She reached the tent door and came to an abrupt halt, words of welcome dying on her lips. Seated on the cot, a coffee and cream colored beauty was opening the tin she had left for Clay.
"I believe those belong to the Captain." Maryís voice was soft steel and her eyes were battle ready as she stepped inside to face the intruder.
Startled, the beauty jumped to her feet, the open tin forgotten, its contents spilling out onto the dirt floor. Ebony eyes widened, then narrowed as the two women shared the silence of mutual surprise and quickly took the otherís measure.
Sheltered as her upbringing had been, Mary had no doubt whatsoever what role this exquisite creature played in camp life. From the look of puzzlement on Belleís face, Maryís position was not so easily defined, and wariness crept into her eyes.
Mary glanced at the fallen tin but did not stoop to retrieve it. "Is there something ... other than his rations, that you require from the Captain?" she asked with soft but thinly veiled contempt.
Belleís face flushed as her temper flared.
With deliberate slowness, she smoothed the folds of her dress as she sighed in mock frustration. "Iím afraid my ... business with Captain Mosby is..." she lowered her eyes, "somewhat of a ... personal nature. Iíll just have to see him another time." Belleís eyes swept the tent. "Now where on earth could I have left ... well, no matter, Iím sure Cla ... the Captain, will return it in due course."
With a self-satisfied smirk, Belle nodded and took her leave.
Mary sank down on the vacant cot, feeling the aftermath of the skirmish. Grass clung to her homespun pant leg and she slowly picked off the blades. Belleís beauty was haunting. Any man.... The small jaw tightened.
She shut her eyes against the pain of doubt, the images of ... but only for a moment. With a deep determined breath, she re-opened them and spied the tin on the floor. Squatting to retrieve it, she carefully looked for pieces to salvage, blinking back tears that she refused to shed.
Distracted by the sound of footsteps, she put the tin aside and cautiously peered out the doorway.
"Robert!" She ran to meet him halfway, not questioning why she so desperately needed the steady reassurance of his honest brown eyes.
"Mary!" He grinned like a schoolboy as he caught her up and swung her round and round, delighting in her silver laugh.
"Put me down this instant, Mr. Shelby, or my husband shall hear of this." She smiled affectionately as she regained her feet. "Where is Clay? Didnít he come with you--" The delight died in her eyes as Jacob came into view. Her eyes flew back to Robert, who averted his own, shifting uncomfortably.
"Iím sure heíll be along shortly. Mary, he--"
She interrupted with an upraised hand. "Fetch me what I need to tend to him, Robert." Her tone was level, but the look she gave him scorched as she walked past to see to Jacob.
Belle silently slithered from her hiding place and made her way back to her own quarters, musing over all sheíd heard. Glancing back, a cat like grin grew as she thought of her next encounter with the Captain and she was suddenly glad sheíd saved that new dress after all.
In concession to the noon day sun, Clay removed his jacket and loosened his shirt collar as he approached the campsite. Smells of home caught him by surprise as some of the provisions Jacob had brought simmered over the camp fire. He breathed deeply.
Robert was nowhere to be seen. Coward, Clay thought as he smiled inwardly. Not even Maryís cooking had enticed him to remain.
Jacob sat on an upended crate as Mary finished her ministrations. Hearing Clay's approach, she glanced up and the look in her eyes stopped him dead. Before he could speak, she emptied the bowl of blood-tinted water and tossed the stained rags aside. Turning her back to him, she went inside the tent.
His jaw tightened.
"Marse Clay ... dinner be real good, lemme git you...." Jacob started stiffly to rise, but Clay shook his head, and laying a hand on his shoulder, gently pushed him back to his seat.
"My appetite ... appears to have left me," he observed dryly.
Rubbing his thumb over his lower lip, Clay studied the tent as if it were the first of its kind. A low, barely audible chuckle stiffened his spine and with a dark glare at Jacob, he straightened his shoulders and went inside.
Her back was to him as she re-folded some of the completed mending. Lightly, he laid his hands on her shoulders, but she stiffened at his touch. Instantly, he dropped them and took a step back.
Their previous differences had been few and easily repaired with a soft kiss. Never had he encountered the full power of her silence and he was at an infuriating loss as to how to deal with it.
The silence grew as she took the greatest of care in the folding of his shirt.
Grabbing the shirt out of her hands he flung it across the tent.
"Damn it, Mary ... what exactly is it you donít understand? Those woods are crawling with bluebellies. Killing you would be the least of it. I canít allow anyone to...." He stopped, drawing a ragged breath, fighting to rein in the temper she so seldom saw.
Quieter, but with no less intensity, he continued. "Iíd die ... inch by inch if you asked it of me, but as long as I have a breath left in my body, I will never stop protecting you as I see fit."
Turning on his heel, he stormed out, too late to see the tear-streaked face she turned to his.
Striding across the campsite, Clay snatched a couple of empty canteens and headed down the narrow path that led to a small stream, slaughtering any and all vegetation foolish enough to stand in his way.
Reaching the shallow bank, he shut his eyes, taking a deep breath, waiting for the waves of frustration and anger to ebb. Slowly, he exhaled, and dropping to one knee, began to fill the canteens. Sweat trickled teasingly down his forehead and he wiped it with the sleeve of his forearm. Bowing his head, he baptized himself with the canteenís contents, then gave his thick hair a shake like a rain soaked dog.
"You hot, Captain, honey?" A soft laugh brought him to his feet and face to face with Belleís impudent smile.
In no mood for games, least of all hers, Clayís eyes glittered dangerously as he gazed down at the enticing woman before him.
"Have a care, Belle. Itís not safe for a ... lady such as yourself this far from camp. Go on back now. Get." He nodded in dismissal and turned back to the stream to refill the last canteen.
Belle took a step closer. "Why Captain Mosby.... Iíd expect youíd treat your friends more kindly ... specially when theyíre gonna keep secrets for ya...."
Still kneeling, Clay finished with the last canteen and rose with easy grace. Ever so slowly, he brought the full force of his gaze to hers. "And just what Ďsecretsí would that be?" he enquired with a small smile.
Encouraged by the smile, Belle drew closer still, smiling back. "Well ... I donít think the Colonel ... heíd take too kindly to officersí wives payiní Ďem visits. But if you and me ... we got to be real good friends ... well, Iíd never say nothing...."
Clayís smile broadened and Belleís heart took a leap. She slid up against him, hands resting on his chest. "Ah honey, Iíll be real good to you. She ainít the kind of woman who understands a manís ... needs."
Clay covered her hands with his own. "And you are?"
Belle nodded, pressing herself closer. "Iím all the woma--" She cried out in sudden pain as Clayís fingers closed crushingly over her own. In the flash of a second, she found herself looking into the blazing eyes of hellfire itself.
His smile returned. "Are you listening, Belle?"
The vise tightened and she whimpered, terrified and trapped.
"Good, Ďcause Iím only gonna say this once. You breath a single world regarding my wife to anyone -- anyone -- and nothing will save you from the things I will personally see done to you. Am I making myself completely clear? Hmm? It would surely pain me if we were to have any future ... misunderstandings."
Shivering in the hot afternoon sun, Belle could only nod.
"Well ... now that we understand each oth--" A flicker of movement at the top of the rise caught Clayís eye long enough to give him a glimpse of Maryís retreating back.
"Sonofabitch." Shoving Belle aside with a look of utter loathing, Clay picked up the canteens and squinted in the direction of the now vacant hillside. Squaring his shoulders and jaw, he started back towards camp, wishing fervently for the simplicity of mortal combat.
Clay yawned deeply as he gave the girth a final check and dropped the stirrup iron. Closing his eyes, he rolled his head in a backward circle, trying to release some of this endless dayís tension from its permanent home in the back of his neck. The soft evening breeze teased the errant lock of hair that fell across his forehead, and for a brief moment, he indulged in the nightís peaceful illusion.
Mounting with practiced ease, Clay took up the reins and guided the animal out of the grove where Robert had secured him. A few miles distant, again courtesy of the friend he so often did not deserve, he would find Jacob and Mary awaiting his escort home.
Seared in his memory was the look of betrayal heíd seen on her face when heíd caught up to her just outside camp. He'd barely spoken her name, taken her arm, when the long roll sounded -- an intruder not to be denied. Against all instinct, Clay stood his ground, refusing to relinquish her arm. The drum roll continued its call to arms until Mary, pulling herself free, made the choice for him.
That ill-timed skirmish had forced him to delegate the orchestration of their departure to Robert. Unfortunately, putting things right between them could not be so easily delegated and Clay ached with the need of righting his world.
The sound of horses made Clay draw his gun, only to drop it a moment later as Jacob stepped from the shadows, hands outstretched, obviously relieved that it was indeed Clay.
His eyes already searching for Mary, he sprang quickly from the saddle, tossing his reins to Jacob.
"Marse Clay... I think we best git started ... rights away."
Clay nodded but held up his hand. "One moment." He approached the diminutive figure who remained all too quietly in the shadows near the tethered horses.
"Mary...." His voice was almost a whisper and when he reached out to touch her arm, she withdrew another step into the darkness. He stopped short and slowly dropped his hand. There was no need to see her face, for her silence was eloquent. A slap could not have stung more.
"Marse Clay ... we need outta here ... soon as can be...."
Flushing with a sudden rush of anger, Clay turned on his heel and nodded to Jacob to see Mary mounted. Snatching the reins of his own horse, he swung up into the saddle, snapping out instructions.
"Jacob ... you got her here, you get us home. Take the lead. Mary. You stay put in the middle. Since we donít appear to be on speakiní terms, not talking shouldnít present us with any problems. Anyone hears a sound, pull up -- understand?"
He waited for their compliance, not their replies.
The waning half moon sent them in and out of shadows as the silent caravan headed for home. Clay watched Maryís unrelenting back as the minutes turned into miles that seemed to feed the growing distance between them. Patience, never one of his closest friends, taunted him with his inability to bridge the divide until a later time. His jaw stayed clenched.
The trees that had been their shelter were thinning and the fickle clouds chose to reveal all of the moon as Jacob turned into the clearing. Clay frowned. The sudden silence was somehow wrong, but before he could pull them up, it was shattered by a single shot that took Jacob square in the chest. The old man was dead before he hit the ground.
Spurs dug deep as Clayís horse bumped Maryís aside, cutting her scream short. Taking aim, he brought down the nearest of the three snipers.
"Stay back!" he hissed, trying desperately to position himself between her and the remaining men.
Fighting for so much more than his own life, Clay took careful aim at the second soldier, who fired simultaneously. Neither missed.
Clayís bullet had found its mark, but the Yankeeís shot grazed his temple with enough force to knock him out of the saddle.
"Clay!" Mary screamed leaping off her horse and running to his side.
Only semi-conscious, Clay saw her through a fading red mist. "Mary...." he whispered urgently. "The gun..." His hand, raised only slightly off the ground, fell back to earth as his eyes closed and his head lolled to one side.
"Clay...." she sobbed, leaning over her husband, angrily pushing aside the heavy hair that the loss of her hat had freed. She was only dimly aware that the third rider had dismounted and was heading toward them.
When he got close enough to see, the Yankee pulled up. "Why you little reb bitch... Iím gonna make you pay for what they done to my friends... Right after I finish off this piece of trash..."
He was almost to them when Mary turned, Clayís heavy gun gripped tightly in both hands, and fired point blank.
His eyes, so full of surprise, were the bluest sheíd ever seen.
The darkness held him tight, but slivers of memories, like pinpricks of light, disrupted his peace with their vague demands.
Something ... someone ... the darkness faded into a face ... her face.
"Mary!" Her name was a scream torn from deep inside. His eyes flickered open and his head exploded with the pain of motion and sound.
"Easy, Clay ... stay still, darling. Iím here...."
Gentle hands, her hands, eased him back down to the pillow of her lap. He shut his eyes against the sudden waves of nausea, the blinding pain that seemed to split his head in two. "Mary...." His voice was a plea.
"Rest, Clay ... shh.... Itís over, my love ... please, rest now." Soothing him with voice and hands, she tried to keep him still as he fought his way through the pain and confusion.
Angrily, he rejected the returning darkness. In defiance to the pain, he opened his eyes. He needed to see her. To touch. To know she was whole and there and real.
As if reading his mind, Mary lifted his hand to her face. "Iím here, Clay ... Iím alright. Youíve been wounded, but thank God, the bullet only grazed you. Rest for a bit now ... then weíll go home...."
Home. Hatton Willows. Suddenly the darkness lifted, letting memory rush in. Jacob. Gunfire. Only two of the three dead when he.... Lurching up to a sitting position, the world took a nosedive and he clutched her slender shoulders to stop the fall.
"Clay! You have to rest!"
The world righted itself and he felt blessed gratitude for the irritation in her voice. Corpses were seldom testy.
"No need to yell, Mary. I heard you the first time." Looking into her eyes, his face and hair caked with dried blood, her makeshift bandage drooping, he smiled with his soul. Slowly, he touched the tangled hair, the dirt and tear streaked face. "Youíre ... here." He grinned at the foolishness of his words, but at that moment, nothing in life mattered more
His grin was her undoing. Tears filled her eyes as her strength crumbled.
"Mary...." he whispered as he gathered her into his arms. "Itís alright ... I promise ... itís alright now." They clung tightly to each other -- both with wounds hidden and seen.
With great reluctance, he let her go. It was past time to move on. Standing, he steadied himself on her shoulder until the dizziness passed. Scanning the clearing, he saw a single horse tied to a bush.
Mary followed his gaze. "The others ... they spooked.... All the gunfire...." She looked away.
His gun lay where she dropped it. Clay stooped slowly to retrieve it and looked back at her. "Mary ... sometimes ... thereís just no other way."
She nodded, but kept her back to the dead manís body, not seeing the bitter look on her husbandís face.
"Mary...." He closed the distance between them, touching her back. "Mary ... what happened here ... happened. Youíve got to let it go. You can only think of the living ... not the dying."
She turned on him, eyes ablaze.
"Let it go ... let it go?" She laughed abruptly, hysterically.
"Do you see me, Clay?" Her hand swept the front of her blood-stained shirt. "This is your blood ... oh, you bled so ... I couldnít stop it at first...." Her eyes looked beyond him for a moment as she relived the horror.
"Mary ... donít." He tried to pull her to him, but she jerked away.
"Donít what, Clay?" She laughed bitterly. "Donít remember what Iíve done ... whom Iíve murdered?" She forced herself to look at the dead Yankee just beyond Clay and began to shiver violently.
Again, he tried to console her, again she pushed him away.
"Don't touch me! Oh God, donít touch me...." Sinking to her knees, she doubled over as the wave crested and broke and the sobs racked her body. "Jacob.... Iím sorry.... Iím so sorry...," she whispered over and over and over again.
In spite of her resistance, Clay picked her up and carried her beyond sight of the corpse. Not trying to stem the flow, he simply held her close until her grief had been spent and she lay quiet in his arms.
Raising her face, he wiped her eyes, first with his thumb, then his lips. Brushing aside the tangled hair, he looked deep into her eyes. "Mary ... if thereís to be blame ... itís mine." He shook his head at her instant protest. "The truth -- isnít that what we promised?" He took a deep breath. "Jacob was no soldier. I shoulda been in front...."
"Oh God, no...." Mary shuddered. "I could never have lived with...." She drew a ragged breath. "Seeing you go down...." Her voice broke and she turned her face into his neck to hide the fresh rush of tears. "Oh Clay ... I'd treated you so badly ... even thinking for half a second that ... that there could ever be anything between you and that ... that ... and then to have you nearly die on me...."
He stroked her head. "Shh ... now, Iím alright...." He chuckled softly. "ĎSpect Robert would say I was hit where it could do the least harm."
Mary choked on her tears and Clay pressed his advantage by raising her face and coaxing the pale ghost of a smile.
"You held your own under fire. Mary, half the men in my command freeze up that first time or," his smile widened, "throw up. I was sick as a dog after our first skirmish. No, truly. Ask Robert."
The shadows in his eyes refuted the smile and Mary touched his lying lips. "Clay ... how ... how do you stand it? The faces...."
He drew a deep breath.
"Because I have to," he replied quietly. "Because thereís no choice. Because when it comes down to the moment ... itís him or itís me. Mary, donít you see? It was the same for you." He nodded in the direction of the dead Yankee. "Him or me."
She followed his gaze, then slowly looked back at her husband.
"You," she whispered fiercely. "Iíd kill the entire Union army...."
"Miz Mosby, of that I have no doubt whatsoever." This time the smile was genuine as Clay pulled her to her feet. "Letís go home, Mary."
Clay fetched the solitary horse. Mounting, he pulled her up before him. The scattered bodies were half in shadow but Mary took a long last look before turning her face into the shelter of his shoulder. It was time to move on.
They rode in the silence of trust, content just to feel the otherís nearness.
Reaching the final rise before the Willows, Clay pulled up. The heavy shadows obscured all but the most isolated, disconnected pieces of property. Strange, all he could remember from before was the sunshine.
Maryís voice pulled him back and his eyes softened.
She touched his cheek. "Weíre almost home."
Gazing down at her upturned face, he shook his head. "Miz Mosby ... you ... you are my only home. You always will be."
Maryís eyes began to mist and he lightly kissed the tip of her nose.
Clay straightened in the saddle, turned the reins in the direction of a well worn path, and giving the horse his head, let it take them back to their beginnings.
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