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.


Echoes
by Tieranny

Each man must choose his own path and go where it leads him,
even if no one else follows, or remembers his name when he is gone.

The entrance of the stable darkened as two men appeared in the doorway. One tall, the other shorter and stocky. Both carried Winchesters. He glanced beyond the stalls where a third man blocked the rear exit, then back at the men who stood just inside the front doors.

"Somethin' I can do for you?"

The taller of the two men seemed to be in charge. "Mosby wants to see you. Now."

It was the same routine, like the one just after Willis Logan's son was found dead. Mosby had conducted that investigation in person – followed him into the livery and tried to bully him into telling what he knew about the killing. "You'd die just to spite me, wouldn't you?" he'd said, as if he actually thought the fun of irritating him was worth a man's life.

He focused a grim smile on Mosby's lacky. "I'm busy."

The man shifted his rifle but made no advance from where he stood. "Ain't a good idea to keep the Colonel waitin'. I'd be quick if I was you."

"Well, you ain't me. And for all I care, your boss can wait till this time next year."

Being cornered like an animal was enough to rile anybody. On the other hand, there had to be something important going on for Mosby to send three men to fetch him at gunpoint. Might be worth doing his own investigating this time.

"All right, I'll play along. So long as he knows my time ain't cheap."

The men stepped out of his way as he stalked past them and started up the street toward the Ambrosia. He walked at his own pace, as leisurely as possible, expecting Mosby's men to follow.

But they didn't – not that there was any need. If he didn't come peaceably this time they'd just come after him again.

* * *

The Ambrosia looked empty. Most likely its high-minded owner was upstairs, waiting for his guest to come to him. The sonovabitch didn't even have the courtesy to come down and meet him halfway. So much for the amenities he was always talking about.

What the hell. Long as he was in a saloon there was no point in going thirsty. He strolled across the room to the bar, removed a bottle of Scotch from the shelf and poured himself a generous drink. Whatever else Mosby laid claim to, the man had decent taste in whisky. He swallowed it in one gulp and poured another. With a full glass in his hand, he started up the stairs.

It had always struck him as peculiar – Mosby's so-called headquarters – a stuffy den above a saloon – made even stuffier by a constant layer of cigar smoke, and filled with so much furniture a man couldn't turn around without bumping into something. In spite of the rugs and curtains and fancy wall paper, it hardly seemed fitting for a "town boss."

Mosby barely glanced in his direction as he sat at a desk stacked with papers. "'Preciate you stoppin' by," he drawled. "I'd offer you a drink, but I see you already have one."

"What is it? I got other business to tend to."

"Of course. That bench of yours doesn't warm itself, does it?"

It wasn't the usual sarcasm in his voice. Mosby sounded anxious about something.

"I can see you're a busy man, so out of consideration for your 'other business' I'll be brief. I have a proposition for you. It's a simple job, in return for which I'll pay you a hundred dollars." He stood up, retrieved an envelope from his desk drawer and briefly inspected its contents. "I need you to deliver this with a message to Red Crow."

"Take it yourself, why don't ya?"

The familiar grin appeared. "I'm not a frontiersman, Mr. Call. I'm a businessman, and with all the responsibilities that entails presently, I simply can't afford to be out of town."

More like he couldn't afford to get himself lost in Indian Territory. "You got plenty of hired hands to do your biddin'. Why not send one of them gun-totin' 'ladies' out to see Red Crow?"

Mosby glanced down at the small parcel. "Of course that's a possibility, but I'm afraid, considering what all's at stake here, it might be inadvisable." He hesitated for a second, and held out the envelope. His expression hinted at something sly. "That is to say, why place temptation in someone's path unnecessarily?"

He reached out for the envelope. It was stuffed with cash. "This here's a lot of money."

"I daresay. Thirty thousand dollars to be exact, and I'd prefer not to take any chances with it."

"Don't suppose so."

"Oh, don't get me wrong – my men are reliable enough when it comes to maintaining the order in town, but frankly, I see no point in putting anyone's loyalty to the test."

"Yeah, thirty thousand dollars could do that, all right." He fingered through the bills – all hundred dollar notes. "How do you know I won't up and ride off with it myself?"

Mosby's gaze held steady. "I know. Just as I know you don't want to see Red Crow or his people taken advantage of – for any price."

"The only one I see takin' advantage of anybody is you. 'Sides, I don't need your money."

"Well, Mr. Call, if the financial opportunity doesn't appeal to you, perhaps the purpose behind it will."

"Don't count on it."

"At least hear me out." Mosby reached for the humidor he kept on a small table near the window, and took out a cheroot. "It's not a simple situation we're dealin' with here. In fact, you might call it a matter of economic, as well as political necessity." He paused as he struck a match and lit the cigar. "You see, Red Crow's camp is located in an area that would be better suited to … how should I say – a more stable population than the one that presently occupies it."

"That a fact?"

"It is, indeed, a fact, and given the current rate of expansion, one with far-reaching implications. The territory's fillin' up. Ranges are bein' sectioned off as fast as you can stake a claim, towns springin' up everywhere. A year or two from now you won't even recognize this part of the country. Meanwhile, it's vital to the growth of the community that the environs be settled and properly managed – cultivated, you understand, in order to accommodate its future residents."

"You mean, at the expense of its current residents."

Mosby took a long draw on his cigar. "Progress, like time, waits for no man, my friend." He exhaled with deliberate ease as he gazed across the room. "I appreciate your feelings about Red Crow and his people, but when all's said and done, there are some cold, hard realities to be dealt with." He turned toward the open window. "Listen. What do you hear outside?"

"A lot of noise."

"Yes, well, to some I'm sure it's just noise. To others – to men of vision – that is the voice of the future." He shifted his stance as he flicked the ash from the cigar. "Look down there. New families are arriving almost every day – hard-working people, eager to put down roots and raise their children in a safe, civilized community. At the same time, there are thousands of acres standing empty out there, waiting to be developed into what will some day be one of the richest and most productive regions in the country. Fortuitous, wouldn't you say?"

"Yeah. Fortuitous. You're startin' to sound like one of them politicians. You fixin' to appoint yourself mayor, or somethin'?"

"I'm merely stating the obvious. The Lakota are still nomadic tribesmen with no definable land base. They're constantly on the move, roaming around, drifting wherever the wind blows them – like gypsies with no vision beyond their own simple existence and no apparent ambition for anything better. Now, with so many settlers moving west and the demand for land being what it is, their migratory habits are simply not sustainable. The truth of the matter is that there's no future for them in Montana Territory." He took another puff. "Sad as it may seem to you, their way of life is a thing of the past."

"You'd have an argument on your hands tryin' to convince them of that."

"Which is precisely the point. I expect there to be some disagreement over the issue of land rights, but this is an argument in which you, Mr. Call, can play a definitive role. There's plenty of open land to the west and south of here where the Lakota could be easily and safely relocated. The money will buy them a good piece of it. Once they're established within the new territorial boundaries they can wander wherever they like. The settlers will be safe, the Indians will be content, and we can all live in relative peace." The thoughts seemed to weigh on him as he sank back into the chair at his desk. "Anyhow, it's not as if there was any real choice in the matter."

"You think money's gonna solve everybody's problems?"

"It will solve a few, and in the meantime, it oils the wheels of progress – that and a certain degree of flexibility where public policy is concerned." He glanced back from his cluttered desk. "You see, money is merely a means to an end. Power is the currency that really matters, as a great many people already know and are eager to exploit to their own advantage."

"What're you gettin' at?"

Mosby sighed impatiently as he leaned back in his chair. "Plainly put, whoever controls the land controls its resources, their development, and ultimately the future of the whole territory. Even you can see the danger in leaving that to chance."

It was starting to make sense. Nobody handed out that much money without expecting something in return. Random thoughts converged. Little Wolf. Enona … Burns ….

"It ain't just the land you're after, is it, Mosby? It's the gold nobody's supposed to know about. Ain't that right?"

Mosby glared back. "Use your head, Call. News like that can't be contained for long. It's only a matter of time before Little Wolf's secret is out and we have another goddamned gold rush on our hands." He sighed as he raked his hands through his hair. "The last thing we need is a flood of fortune hunters pourin' in from all over the country, expectin' to strike it rich the minute they pick up a shovel."

"So? A minute ago you were givin' a speech about seein' the town grow. Ain't you the one who wants to make Curtis Wells into some sort of 'Atlanta'?"

"That's right. A 'new Atlanta,' not another 'Sutter's Mill' with miners climbin' all over each other, fightin' over every handful of dirt – thieves, drunkards brawlin' in the streets, shootin' up the town. It'll be total chaos – as if it wasn't already hard enough keeping the order around here." He snuffed out his cigar. "Soon as the Federals hear about it, they'll send troops into Indian Territory so they and their carpet-baggin' cronies can get control of it themselves". He picked up a whisky glass and dispatched what remained in it. "Next thing you know, they'll be paradin' through Curtis Wells, tryin' to take over the place. And where your Indian friends are concerned, they won't bother with negotiations. Red Crow and his people will be left with nothing."

Chances were he was right about both the army and the government's land grabbers. None of them gave a damn about Indians. Under the circumstances, retreat might be the Lakota's best defense. Convincing them of that was another matter.

"Could be, but I doubt Red Crow would be willing to pull up stakes and leave, just on your say so. Most folks don't take kindly to bein' uprooted like that."

Mosby's glass came down hard on the desk. "Better uprooted than gutted at the end of a bayonet! I've seen what the Federals can do when they want something. They swarm down like plagues of locusts, steal whatever they like, and lay waste to everything they can't carry off. When they're through there's nothin' left but ashes." He reached for the whisky bottle and poured himself another full glass. "Face it, Call. The times are changing and your Indian friends have no way to change with them." He looked back toward the window. "Make no mistake. One way or another, the Lakota will be driven out."

Truth wasn't something Mosby ever showed much concern for, but there was a lot of it in what he was saying. It wouldn't be long before headlines about a gold strike on Indian land showed up in every newspaper in the country. Once word got out it would be open season on anyone who stood in the way of progress.

"It ain't that easy. They'll fight to keep the land they still have. A lot of their people are laid to rest in them hills.

"Then they'll be buried alongside them." Mosby exhaled tiredly. "Look, I understand your concerns, believe me, but this is the one chance Red Crow has to secure a safe haven for his people, and you know it. Talk to him. Make him listen to reason. I don't want this thing escalating into an all out confrontation."

"Me neither. But it was the government that put them Indians on the reservation in the first place, then signed a treaty tellin' 'em it was theirs. Seems to me any gold on that land belongs to them."

"I'm sure you could find support for that argument, but I suspect our bureaucratic friends from Washington would disagree. Besides, the territory's already under siege by speculators lookin' for ways to make a killing, snatchin' up every piece of land they can get their hands on."

"Yeah, well, like they say, 'It takes one to know one'."

"Homespun humor aside, the time to act is now, not after the profiteers move in. Anyone with eyes in his head can see that expansion into Indian Territory is inevitable. I'm only trying to head off more trouble – to ensure that all parties concerned are treated equitably."

And in the meantime, buyin' up Red Crow's gold is gonna make you a rich man. Sounds good, don't it?"

"This concept may be outside your immediate grasp, Mr. Call, but not all achievements are measured in dollars."

"Nope, not all of 'em. Just most of 'em."

"Then I suggest you try lookin' ahead for a change – from a practical standpoint. The Lakota have no way of getting the gold out of the ground by themselves. The process will take a great deal of manpower as well as considerable investment capital. In turn, that commitment of industrial and financial support will ensure the growth and development of the territory. It's the next logical step on the road to statehood."

The notion of Montana becoming a state seemed to have a calming effect on its outspoken promoter. He paused to sip his whisky, as if to toast his own declaration.

"Personal advantages notwithstanding, my primary concern is for the betterment of the community on behalf of its current and future citizens. We have a unique situation here, Call – one with potential for economic advancement as well as financial gain – a 'golden' opportunity, you might say – and Curtis Wells stands to benefit significantly from our efforts." He swirled the remains of his whisky around in his glass. "Naturally, I expect to recover my initial investment, but as far as I'm concerned, any profits beyond that are inconsequential."

A brittle silence hung in the air. The plan made sense, despite the disagreeable thought of Mosby's gaining from it, inconsequentially or otherwise.

"Got it all figured out, do ya?"

"Well, not entirely." Mosby made no effort to hide his satisfaction. "At the moment the project is what you might describe as 'a work in progress'." He glanced back, suddenly serious again.

"Of course, you understand this matter requires the utmost discretion."

He looked down at the envelope. It was more cash than he'd ever seen at one time.

"Yeah, I understand. And considerin' how important it is, I reckon my utmost discretion is worth more than a hundred dollars."

Mosby had a way of tightening his jaw when some plan of his didn't go like he wanted. Seeing him twitch with annoyance was almost as satisfying as the money.

"Very well, Mr. Call. It appears you have me at a disadvantage." A look of feigned resignation crossed his face as he puffed on the cigar. "A hundred dollars now, and another hundred when you get back."

Two hundred dollars. That was as good as it was likely to get. Knowing Mosby, it was probably what he'd figured on all along. "All right. I'll do it. But there ain't no guarantee Red Crow will even listen. If it turns out he don't want no part of this, you're on your own."

Mosby's eyes locked onto his. "Agreed."

He stuffed the envelope into his coat pocket and headed for the door.

"Call," Mosby looked away as he spoke. "Good luck."

He glanced back for a second, then turned and proceeded out the door without answering.

* * *

No doubt about it. The closer a man was to civilization, the more confused and aggravated

he felt; the further away from it he got, the better everything seemed to be – like when a rain storm passes and the clouds gradually clear away.

He rode at a casual pace, easy enough to let the Hellbitch pick her way along the rocks and gopher holes. It was rugged country, but it was better than being cooped up in a place where everything was crowded – where everything clattered and banged and bellowed in a constant, never-ending drone. Sometimes he wondered why he wasted his time with towns – or with people like Mosby. The man was kidding himself if he thought he was keeping any kind of order in Curtis Wells. The entire Lakota nation was ready to declare war and all he was concerned about was a bunch of drunks stumbling around town, busting up his saloon – as if he didn't depend on them to keep his pockets full of cash.

Why had he bothered with Mosby at all? No matter what kind of scheme he was cooking up, he always made a game of it, as if he was at the poker table, and playing the game by his rules was a mistake. So was the idea of working for him, helping the sonovabitch get what he wanted. Mosby had made it sound like Red Crow had everything to gain if he'd just cooperate, but there was no guarantee Red Crow would even listen to the latest "peace offering," or what passed for one. It was a fool's errand he'd agreed to. All the empty words and broken promises were stacking up. Now, with both sides claiming the same ground, and a powder keg of trouble already in place, it wouldn't take much to light the fuse. Where there were fortunes at stake, there were bound to be confrontations, and unless somebody pulled a miracle out of his pocket, that's where it was headed.

Mosby was right when he said it wasn't a simple situation. Both sides had good arguments, but so far they'd only agreed on one thing – the more space that could be put between the Lakota and the white population, the better.

Anyway, it was Red Crow and his people who were important, not Mosby. If anything could be done to improve the situation, it might be worth a try. If he could strike a deal over their land rights, it would put some money in their hands and save a lot of lives on both sides. And if Mosby finagled a profit out of it, what the hell. Maybe it would keep him quiet for a while.

If nothing else, it was a good excuse to get out of town. Out here there was room to stretch, and to think. A man could lose himself for as long as he wanted – forget about dealing with people and all their nonsense. In spite of the wild surroundings, it was calm ... peaceful. Late afternoon was the best time – when the wind nudged the clouds to the far edge of the sky and shadows began to seep into the valleys below and the chill carried all the scents and sounds of the woodlands through the timber. You could tell when there was rain coming by the smell in the air. If you stopped and listened, you could understand what all the birds and creatures were saying as they chattered back and forth. They had a language of their own, and they could tell each other where they were, when it was safe, or warn each other when there was danger. It all retreated into the background as his focus trained on the two horsemen who flanked him.

He hadn't even heard them. Suddenly, they were just there. Neither made any advance. Neither reached for a weapon. Tensions being what they were lately, anything was possible. For a moment no one moved.

Red Crow's men weren't there to kill him. If they were, he'd be dead. Their camp lay further along the trail, just beyond the tree line. The riders waited for him to proceed, then followed a short distance behind. It seemed like everywhere he went lately, he had an escort.

As they descended over the rocky trail, down the gradual slope to Red Crow's village, the trees thinned out slightly and the sky broadened. A flock of geese swept gracefully overhead, streaming out into their V formation like a spear hurled through the clouds. At the tip, the leader pointed the way, skimming over the treetops and keeping the others in line as it guided them to the shelter of their winter home. Most creatures seemed to know there was safety in numbers, but only a special few had the instinct and ability to lead. It just came natural to them. Red Crow was that kind of leader. People trusted him. He could take everyone out of harm's way, find them a safe, permanent place to live, maybe, if things worked out, even make peace with the settlers.

It was a big load to carry, but as chief of his small nation, Red Crow was in a position to change the course of fate – if he just had the common sense of a goose.

* * *

Treat a man with respect and he's likely to do the same for you. Crowd him, corner him like a hunted animal, and he'll fight back. Little Wolf had been a man of peace, and a spiritual leader that everyone had looked to for guidance. Now it was Red Crow's job to carry on the tradition. The smoke drifted above his head as he sat calmly, almost serenely puffing on the pipe. His youthful face revealed little of the long-running tragedy he'd witnessed in his lifetime, or the threat he faced from the enemy on his doorstep. His eyes hinted at a smile as he handed back the calumet.

"Good tobacco," he mused. "Not like Army tobacco. Those people will smoke anything."

Red Crow's manner was quiet and reserved, and he had a way of making a simple smoke into a relaxing social grace. He was a considerate host, unlike Mosby who was always in a hurry as he marched around shouting orders at people, and who could chew up a cigar faster than he could smoke it. Red Crow puffed on the pipe, savoring it at his leisure, not allowing himself to be rushed. His way was better. It also let him postpone subjects he'd rather not discuss.

The young chief exhaled lazily. "It's late. We'll eat. You can sleep here tonight. We'll talk tomorrow."

Either Red Crow didn't want to hear what he had to say, or he'd already guessed what it was about. Whatever his thoughts were, he'd discuss them when it suited him.

Maybe it was Mosby's sense of urgency that was starting to creep into his own thinking, stirring his apprehensions. It wasn't polite to ignore the chief's hospitality, but it was better if he said what he had to say sooner rather than later.

"Look, I know it might not be the best time, but I got a proposition, and … I figure it might be good if you was to think about it. Leastwise, it wouldn't hurt to hear it."

There were sounds of someone outside as a young woman entered the lodge with two bowls in her hands. She smiled shyly as she set the food in front of them. Red Crow's expression softened as he looked up at her. Funny, he'd never thought about Red Crow having a woman, or any family of his own. Without speaking a word, she pulled her robe around her and withdrew as quietly as she'd appeared.

He couldn't tell what was in the bowl, but whatever it was smelled pretty good. Leastwise as good as anything he might have had to eat out on the trail. Red Crow put down the pipe, picked up the bowl and stirred it with two fingers.

As he picked up his own bowl, its earthy scent streamed upward. He savored the warmth for a moment, stirred it as Red Crow had, and fished out a piece of meat. It tasted a little like the stew Florie had given him once after they'd spent the night together – something she'd found in Twyla's kitchen and called by some French name he couldn't pronounce. This was better.

Red Crow glanced over at him as he chewed a bit of meat off a bone. "Not many deer left around here," he said. "But there's plenty rats to eat."

Rats?

Red Crow's grin told him he'd taken the bait. It was the same look Jake Spoon always had when he was joking around. One time he'd choked down a live grasshopper when Jake bet him two bits he wouldn't have the nerve to eat a bug. He'd caught it, popped it in his mouth, then hopped around like a fool to prove he'd swallowed the thing. Everyone in the bunkhouse was watching, so Jake actually had to pay up that time.

"Tastes like rabbit to me," he smiled back.

Red Crow continued to gnaw on the small bone. It was strangely reassuring. A man didn't joke with someone he didn't feel comfortable being around.

They ate in silence till both had finished. Some people, like Mosby and Cleese, insisted on chattering from start to finish. It made more sense to just get it down before it got cold and talk afterward, but then he rarely shared a meal with anyone, so it didn't matter much.

Red Crow put his bowl aside and leaned back against a cut log that served as a back rest. As casually as he had before, he picked up his pipe and added a few more shreds of tobacco. "Good smoke," he observed. "Sometimes it takes a while for a pipe to smoke like it should."

Red Crow usually said what he meant straight out, and he could pin a man to the wall with a hard stare, but for now his black eyes hid any message that might have been intended. The thought of one day having to face him down in a battle hardly seemed real, but if more trouble broke out between warring parties, they could end up on opposite sides. With any luck, it wouldn't come to that.

"Like I said, I come here with an offer. It ain't the best deal I ever heard tell of, but it ain't the worst one either."

The young chief looked up, but did not speak as he relit the pipe. It was hard to read a man's expression when you couldn't see into his eyes. Talking to Red Crow wasn't so different from talking to Mosby – the stone cold looks, the way they both squinted when they smiled. Each man had his reasons for what he did, each had a purpose he kept hidden behind a sly grin, and both were capable of just about anything if you provoked them enough. Either way you leaned, it made for an uncomfortable feeling– like trying to decide which one you wanted to tangle with, the snake or the wolf.

"Here's the thing … this part of the country's gettin' more crowded by the day. That's plain to see. There's a lot of people wantin' to homestead and farm and who knows what all in Montana Territory. There ain't no stoppin' it. Far as I can tell they aim to take the whole countryside for grazing and ranching, and build towns everywhere they can, 'specially up in gold country. With all that goin' on, the reservation ain't safe anymore. Might be better for everyone if you was to think about movin' to a better location – least for now."

"We've given up everything we had. The treaty says the land on the reservation is ours."

"I know. That's how it was supposed to be. But a lot's changed since that paper was signed. The thing is, sooner or later somebody's gonna stumble over Little Wolf's secret. Folks are bound to find out that there's the gold out here, and when they do there's nothin' gonna stand in their way. Gold fever's a powerful thing. It makes men crazy."

Red Crow quietly puffed on his pipe. "White men don't need gold to make them crazy. If the earth was made of gold, they would kill each other over a hand full of dirt."

"Maybe. But when they get wind of it, they'll fight for it, treaty or no treaty."

Smoke swirled lazily over Red Crow's head. "Men who go looking for fights usually find them."

This time his meaning was plain. "Give me eighty men, and I can ride through the entire Sioux nation." That's what Fetterman had said right before he'd followed a small band of Sioux out across the hills near Fort Kearny and straight into the ambush Red Cloud had set for them.

"Some men never learn." There was a tinge of satisfaction in his voice. Just like Fetterman, Custer had led his men into enemy territory looking for a fight, and found one on a remote Montana hillside near a river the Indians called the Greasy Grass. Their bodies – what was left of them – were discovered the next day.

Several warriors even told how "Yellow Hair" had passed them up and gone off in another direction to chase after a group of women and children. Word was he meant to take hostages to force Crazy Horse into surrendering. Newspapers never mentioned those kinds of details. They were too busy spinning their tales, turning dead men into martyrs, and hailing them as heroes for riding into a calamity of their own making.

"Yep, you got in some pretty good licks along the way."

"Hmmm," Red Crow mumbled. "Didn't do us much good."

Fact was, it had only made things worse. The public outcry and calls for military protection had cleared the way for even more settlers. Meanwhile, dime novelists made Custer into a legend, and had the battle sounding more like a disaster out of the Old Testament than the simple military blunder that it was. It made for good reading, but somewhere in the translation, the truth about Little Big Horn got buried with the only people who knew what had really taken place there.

"Reckon not. But there ain't no goin' back to fix it. Seems to me there's been enough bloodshed to satisfy everybody."

"Enough for some. Maybe not for everyone."

"That's just the point. If folks start talkin' about the gold fields, feelin' like they do, it wouldn't take much to get things stirred up again. We could end up with another massacre on our hands before anyone can stop it."

A dark smile crossed Red Crow's face as he stirred the fire. "Don't worry. It's only a massacre when white men die."

That was an unhappy truth. For every Little Big Horn there was a Sand Creek or Washita River. Lord knew how many more had been killed and left to rot in places that didn't even have names.

Some of the older men from the Hat Creek bunch used to reminisce about their adventures back when the frontier was still wild, about the things they'd done and how many Indians they'd killed, but not when the Captain was around. It wasn't something he liked to talk about much.

"No one wants war."

Red Crow turned toward him. "If that is true, why are so many dead? Half the children in this village have no fathers because 'no one wanted war'." His black eyes narrowed. "How many more will die, not wanting war?"

"I know what you're saying. Lord knows we've had enough killin' around here. There ain't no denyin' that. But it's got to stop somewhere. What I'm gettin' at is … things have changed. Sooner or later we're going to have make peace with each other. That's what we all want – peace."

"No." Red Crow's face was filled with cold anger. "The whites only want peace for themselves – not for us. That has not changed."

"And I suppose for some folks, it never will, but that don't mean we can't try to make it safe for the ones who just want to tend to business and work on making a better life. Mosby's plan's not going to solve everybody's problems, but I reckon' it's worth considering. Leastwise it'd keep people from getting' in each other's way. If things settle down, it might even lead to a permanent peace agreement."

"That's what they said the first time we made a 'permanent' peace agreement. And the second time. And the time after that."

"I know. Seems like them people in Washington got nothin' else to do but sit there dreamin' up new treaties. A man could wear himself out just tryin' to keep track of 'em."

"Maybe if they kept the old ones, they wouldn't have to keep making new ones."

"Yeah. They're better at making 'em than they are at keepin' 'em. Fact is, this here's a lot simpler, and it don't depend on anybody back East makin' more promises they can't remember afterward."

Red Crow didn't reply, but he was listening.

"Mosby and I ain't what you'd call 'friends' – hell, most days I wouldn't stop to piss on him if he caught fire, but I think this plan of his is worth a shot if it helps put an end to all the fightin' and killin'. Fact is, once he gets a notion to do something, he ain't one to give it up. Neither are some folks who may have the same idea, and most of them got no time for negotiatin'."

The argument was met with more silence as Red Crow stirred the fire again, removed a stick from the embers, and lit his pipe – deliberately taking his time, like he often did when he wanted to rattle somebody, or stall them just for the hell of it.

"Look, no one's pretendin' it makes up for everything that's happened in the last few years, but it's a way to make sure nobody else gets killed for no good reason. There's a lot of good land out there – enough for everybody. Besides, there ain't no stoppin' all them settlers, and all the army needs is an excuse to come charging in here and shootin' everyone they see. All things considered, it ain't a bad offer."

Red Crow drew on the pipe, momentarily lost in thought. "It is something to think about." He raised his head and exhaled slowly. "I'll make them an offer in return," he said as he aimed a dark glare at his target. "I will offer them their lives if they choose not to make war on us again. Let them go to this place you say is good. Let them take their children and go there and build their houses and their towns. Let them leave here and go to this far away place and stay there forever. Then we will all live in peace. That is all I have to say."

There was no point in any more talk – least not now. Red Crow wouldn't be pushed into anything he didn't like the sound of – not that anyone could blame him for his mistrust, or for the anger he must surely be feeling at the thought of another betrayal. Maybe the idea would make better sense to him once he and the other tribal leaders had a chance to mull it over. More than likely, it was the best offer they were going to get. And considering what was happening all around them, it was probably the only one.

That's how you could tell when you'd crossed over into civilization – when open country turned into "property," when a man's thinking was ruled by his ambition, and greed determined what he did to fulfill it. That was the main difference between Red Crow's world and the one that was threatening to destroy it once and for all.

In spite of the odds against him, Red Crow seemed as determined to hold onto his small parcel of land as Mosby was to separate him from it, not that Mosby was the only one with a "get-rich-quick" scheme. Compared to the bottom-feeding scavengers from Washington he looked more like a chicken thief than a "businessman." Maybe somebody should lock him and Red Crow in a shed together and let them fight it out by themselves. They both had their reasons. You could argue the point from either side and make a strong case any way you looked at it. Like Hannah had once said, "Sometimes there's no right or wrong – just a whole lot of in between."

They'd talked all evening, agreed on some things, disagreed about others. He'd given it his best shot, and so far, he'd accomplished nothing. Maybe, if he slept on it, he could come up with a better argument. If he could just convince Red Crow of what he had to gain, and not think so much about what he was giving up, it might change his mind.

Somewhere there had to be a way to convince him to move to safer territory, but nothing had come to mind as he'd watched Red Crow puffing calmly on his pipe … not as his woman had gone about her work inside the lodge, nor as they prepared for the night.

The lodge was big enough to accommodate several people, but Red Crow's invitation to share sleeping quarters was a little too generous. It was different than spending the night in a bunkhouse with a bunch of other men. Most of them weren't in the habit of bringing women to bed with them. Anyway, showing respect for the couple's privacy was a good excuse to bed down outside. They didn't need his company, and out in the fresh night air, there'd be more space and time to think.

The smoke from a dozen teepees curled upward, floating lazily, and streaming out into the night. A million stars glistened, like sparkling snowflakes spilling into a black abyss … like countless buffalo, scattered for miles as they grazed over distant plains. All around, the darkness seemed to pulsate with life. Unseen creatures scurried over brush and dry leaves in search of food or a path to escape nighttime hunters as they stalked their prey. The air throbbed with sound as they hummed and whispered and murmured their songs and answered each other's calls, just as they had for centuries before any man had ventured into this ancient countryside, or climbed its rugged cliffs, or raced over its windswept hills … and looked up in wonder at the same stars – at the skies that reached beyond time itself.

What the hell was he thinking? Red Crow would never leave the place where his ancestors were born, and where their spirits watched over his people. The whole plan was just another scheme to steal land, and he'd been party to it – for a few dollars. Mosby could keep his damn money. For that matter, he could stuff it back under the piano, or bury it behind the outhouse for all anyone cared – not that anything either of them did would make any difference.

* * *

Long goodbyes weren't something a man could take much pleasure in. They only made leaving that much harder.

Red Crow and his wife stood together outside their lodge in the mist of early morning. Inside the lodge, in the dim light of the previous evening, she'd concealed herself in her heavy robe, just as he'd often hidden his thoughts behind a mask of cool restraint. Now, in the daylight, things were a little clearer. Whatever the Lakota term was for being "in a family way," it was obvious that Red Crow would be a father by the time the weather turned. Maybe even before. That could help to explain his reluctance to relocate the village any time soon – not that she'd be the first woman to give birth along the trail between camps. Most likely, he wanted his first child to be born on their own land, in relative safety, and under the watchful eyes of their grandfathers. Just how safe that would be from now on was becoming increasingly doubtful.

There was nothing more he could say. Red Crow had made his decision. A man must choose his own path, he'd said, and he must follow where it leads him. He was determined to stand between his people and the onslaught of civilization as if he alone could turn back the tide of white migration and somehow repel the evil that it brought.

He looked around. Tepees, once made of buffalo hides, were now pieced together from scraps of frayed canvas. In place of thick fur robes and soft doeskin was an odd assortments of castoff clothing – thin, ragged coats and threadbare shirts, most faded to the color of dust. The fine, decorative quills, beadwork, and elk teeth were gone, like so much of what distinguished them as the Lakota. As he saddled his horse, the last of the warriors stood, watching in silence, dressed in remnants of army jackets adorned with a few tarnished buttons.

It was all that was left of his small nation, and Red Crow aimed to protect it, or die trying. The truth of the matter was, his battle was lost before it could even get started. The Indian wars were over. He just didn't know it yet.

"Good luck to you." The words nearly stuck in his throat as he offered his hand.

"And to you," Red Crow replied as he accepted the gesture of friendship. "We will see you again."

I hope so, he thought, not daring to say it aloud.

* * *

The trail back to Curtis Wells seemed narrower than when he'd followed it to the village, as if it had become overgrown in only a few hours. The smell of lichen and damp leaves filled the air. Along the edge of the trail several broken trees lay between the sturdier ones – probably fallen during the last storm. The wind could tear a tree off at the base if it picked up enough force, but for the moment, everything was calm. In fact, it seemed unusually quiet. Normally the voices of the woodlands surrounded him as he moved along the trail – the sounds of insects rustling in the grass, of squirrels scurrying over the ground, of birds chirping and chattering overhead. Now there was nothing. Not a leave stirring … not so much as a cloud moving across an empty sky.

Old Curtis was right. It ain't what you hear – it's what you don't hear….

"Don't even think about it." The voice cut through the silence just as he reached for his Colt.

A man on horseback emerged from behind a thick stand of aspens. "You'd be a fool to try it," he warned. "Just get climb down off that horse and keep your hands where I can see 'em."

The man was tall, wore a faded duster and carried a Winchester. It was one of the men who'd cornered him in the barn. Mosby's man. But this time he wasn't acting under orders. Mosby was right not to have trusted his own hired hands with that much money.

"I ain't got no quarrel with you, mister. Least none I know of. What's this about?"

"Just do like I say, and maybe I won't kill you."

Somehow, the no-account had found out about the cash and decided to help himself. Mosby's money wasn't worth dying for, but the thought of being robbed at gunpoint by one of his hired thugs didn't set well either. "What makes you think I got anything worth stealin'?"

The man leaned forward and spat into the dirt. "Don't give me none of that," he snarled. "I know why you was out there at that camp, cozyin' up to them Injuns. I seen you with Mosby." He wiped his mouth on his shirt sleeve. "He sent you out here to buy up that gold field they're sittin' on, and don't be tellin' me no different."

"Figure all that out by yourself, did ya?"

"Not all of it. Just the money part."

"Well, you're a day late and a dollar short. Parlee's over. I done what I come here to do. If it's cash you're after, you'll have to talk to Red Crow."

"Don't bother stallin' me, Call. I told you to get off that horse, and toss down them saddlebags while you're at it."

His thoughts raced as he held up his hands. "Don't reckon there's much point in arguing with a loaded Winchester." As he reached back to untie the saddlebag his hand passed over his sawed-off. "But I wouldn't want to be in your shoes when Mosby finds out who made off with his money."

"Well now, I guess it's lucky for me dead men don't talk, ain't it?"

"You tired of livin', mister? Once Mosby sees you're missing and the money's gone, he'll know it was you that took it. Killin' me won't change nothin'. The smartest thing you could do right now is to put that rifle away and ride outta here."

The man grinned. "You know, you're mighty talkative for a man that's about to get his head shot off. You got about one second 'fore I blow you clean outta that saddle."

"All right, hang on." He looped the reins over the horn. "Let's all just … simmer down." The mare tugged on the bit. "My horse here, it don't take much to spook her." He leaned forward and patted her neck. "Easy, girl," he murmured as he gauged the distance between himself and the man he was about to kill. "Easy now…." Taking mental aim at his target, he loosened the rawhide ties, grabbed hold of the saddlebags and flung them at his assailant. The man's horse bolted, knocking its rider off balance as it stumbled to one side. It was all he needed. In a single motion, he pulled the sawed-off out of its scabbard, swung it upward and fired.

The shotgun blast erupted as a shell from the Winchester sent splinters flying from a branch on the tree behind him. In a blur of action, the thief catapulted backward off his horse and tumbled heavily to the ground.

It all seemed to happen in slow motion – almost in reverse, as if what he'd anticipated was already in front of his eyes as he'd made his move. He dropped down quickly from his horse, landing on both feet, ready with the sawed-off if his stalker had any fight left in him. Dry leaves crackled under his feet as he moved forward. The man lay motionless where he'd fallen, staring up at the sky as if he couldn't believe he'd just been shot dead.

He stood over the body for a moment, watching for any movement, then backed away from the clearing and sank down on a log at the edge of the grass. It was like he'd accidentally stepped into a soundless void where everything just stopped for a few seconds, and then started up again when he stepped out of it – as if, in those few seconds, he'd stood on some invisible edge of time and watched as a life suddenly halted, froze there for an instant, and faded into death. He closed his eyes and listened to the silence that engulfed him, and to the blood that pounded at his temples. Some things happened in a way that distorted time, so the memories of them felt like part of a dream. It was what a person's imagination did when something caught him off guard. Now, in the clear light of day, a man lay dead. There was nothing imaginary about that.

Slowly the quietness gave way to the sounds of the woodlands as he inhaled the cold, clean air. The dead man lay sprawled in some brush at the side of the dirt path. His horse, who'd trotted off at the sound of the gunfire, stood only a short distance away, pawing nervously in the dust.

It figured to be one of Mosby's men. He never much cared who he hired. Best to just bring him back to town and let Mosby take care of it from there. He stood up and walked slowly toward the man's horse, calming it as he approached, stroking it as he took the reins in his hand. The corpse would be heavy to lift, but if he tethered the skittish animal to a tree, he could toss a rope over a sturdy limb, use it to hoist the body upward, and lower it onto the horse's back.

He whistled to the Hellbitch who grazed calmly at the edge of the pathway. She looked up from her small patch of grass and came loping back in response to the signal. With the rope tied to her saddle horn, she easily pulled the dead weight off the ground, and stood patiently as he secured the load.

"Good girl," he said softly as he patted her on the neck. "You may just get some extra oats tonight." He picked up the saddlebags, draped them over the horse's broad flanks and fastened them back into place. Even if the thief had succeeded in running off with them, he'd have been sorely disappointed. The money was in his coat pocket the whole time.

It might be smart to make tracks before any more of Mosby's mercenaries showed up. He mounted the Hellbitch and untied the other horse from the tree. A few birds chided him from a distance, scolding him for the disturbance he'd caused, and vanished behind the trees. He paused for a moment to survey the open sky, to feel the cool wind on his face, then turned his horse onto the rocky trail that would lead him back to town.

* * *

Two of Mosby's men leaned on the railing outside the Ambrosia. Both eyed him as he approached, as if he was a stranger in town.

"Mosby around?"

One of the men shifted his stance as he hooked his thumbs on his gun belt. "Ain't seen him today."

The other man snorted and spat onto the ground. "Hell, he's probably not even up yet."

He grinned as he rolled a wad of chaw around in his mouth. "You know Mosby. Thinks the sun shines outta his ass and he ain't gettin' up early for nobody."

Both men chuckled, but kept their eyes focused on him.

"Well, in that case, you won't mind if I wake him up, will you?"

The first man who'd spoken smiled. "Don't matter to me. Just be ready to dodge a few bullets."

"I'll keep that in mind."

* * *

It was quiet in the Ambrosia as he climbed the stairs. The air inside the cramped quarters felt stagnant, like an attic in a house that had been boarded up for a while. Through the dingy haze that blurred the interior, the place looked even more cluttered than before. Loose papers and piles of unopened mail littered the desk. An ash tray overflowed with cigar butts on the small table where several whisky glasses had collected. From the far side of the room, Mosby's dark silhouette blocked all but a few shafts of sunlight. He stood, waiting, as smoke swirled in the pale light that streaked through the window behind him.

"Well?" he queried without the courtesy of a greeting.

"No deal. Red Crow ain't interested in your money". He strolled across the room and tossed the envelope on the table. "Looks like he aims to hang onto his land, and his gold."

"Is that a fact?"

"Reckon so. I told him what you said. Guess his land's worth more than money to him." He glanced down at the packet of notes. "Maybe you ought to count it – make sure it's all there."

Mosby remained by the window, puffing testily on his cigar. "No. Thank you. I'll take your word for it."

Failure wasn't something the man found tolerable. And the chance to humble him with it didn't come often. "Guess you'll have to dream up some other scheme to get your hands on that gold."

Mosby's face was taut with frustration as he glared back. "Tell me, Call, has it ever occurred to you that your head could be useful for something other than smashing furniture and breaking open whisky bottles – that you might, one day, consider using it to think?" He jammed the cigar butt into the glass tray. "What do you think will happen when Red Crow's camp is overrun with hoards of crazed miners … when Federal troops come chargin' in to 'save the day' – as if the army needed another excuse to 'intervene'." His eyes were cold as stone. "How many do you think will be alive when the dust clears?"

Once again, he was right. If the army took charge in defense of the government's mining interests, there wouldn't be enough of Red Crow's people left to bury their own dead. Still, it wasn't like Mosby to waste his concern on anyone else.

"Since when do you care about the Lakota?"

He exhaled wearily as the filmy cloud drifted around him. "Let's just say I'm tired of watching history repeat itself."

"Yeah, well, it does that sometimes. They say it's supposed to remind us not to keep making the same mistakes."

Mosby rubbed his eyes. "Then perhaps, one day, 'they' can explain the purpose of that since no one ever seems to learn a damn thing." He stared out the window, at something only he could see. "No matter how it starts, or what it's about – it always ends the same way – as if the single solution to a conflict was more bloodshed."

"Sometimes there ain't no other way, 'specially when folks figure that's the only answer."

"It's never the only answer, Call. It just always seems to be the last one. When all else fails, there's nothing like death and destruction to bring people to their knees."

He'd know something about that. He must have understood how Red Crow felt, after all the pride and power he'd known – seeing his country torn apart, the survivors left to the mercy of an enemy who'd prefer to see them all dead. He had to have recognized the *undeniable irony* in seeing it happening again.

"Maybe you should talk to Red Crow yourself. Could be you got more in common than you think. I mean, you both seen plenty of fightin' ... and what comes of it."

Mosby glanced back, as if to ponder the thought momentarily. "I doubt that would make a difference now that Red Crow has chosen to defy common sense at all costs."

"Probably figures he's got no choice. Better to go down fightin'."

"I see. Since he's no longer able to live like a warrior, he's decided to die like one."

A man was dead already if he didn't fight for something. That's what Gabe had said – right before he was killed.

"I guess he thinks there are still some things worth dyin' for – things that can't be bought. When it comes down to it, he's just doin' what he thinks is right."

"I'm sure he is. You'll forgive me if I don't indulge in that kind of sentiment. I've had enough noble causes for one lifetime."

"If you say so." Persuading Mosby of anything was a waste of energy. Why was he even trying?

It was the same attitude he'd come to expect, although being cooped up in such a cramped, suffocating place would make anyone peevish.

He'd almost forgotten. "I got your man outside."

"I noticed." Mosby looked disgusted, but not surprised as he lit another cigar. "I presume this is the result of some unavoidable altercation."

"S'pose you could put it that way." Irksome as Mosby could be at times, he had a right to know why his hired man had turned up dead. "Said he seen us talkin'. Must have figured out what was goin' on and decided he was tired of workin' for wages." Mosby's expression was hard to read. Whether he approved or disapproved, it didn't much matter now. "Look, I don't hold with killin' somebody for no good reason, but thievin' has a way of catchin' up with a man. Sooner or later he was bound get what he had comin'."

"To be sure – the ultimate comeuppance in this case."

"Hell, I'd just as soon not wasted a bullet on him, but he didn't give me a choice."

"Oh, I'm not disputing your logic. On the contrary, I'd say your ammunition wasn't entirely wasted, considering that it dispatched your attacker and saved your life."

"And your money."

"Yes, of course – that, too. In fact, I think you've acquitted yourself impressively, having achieved two objectives in a single stroke. Then, as I recall, you've quite a talent for that sort of thing."

"Yeah, well, I reckon you can decide what to do with him."

Mosby glanced toward the window. "I'll take care of it," he sighed, releasing some of his aggravation in a puff of smoke.

"Can't help wondering how he knew about the money – or the gold out there on the reservation, for that matter."

"Just like Burns found out, I suppose. This is a growing community, Call. News like that is hard to contain, despite one's best efforts."

"Reckon so." With all the new people in town nothing stayed secret for long. "S'pose it's gonna attract even more folks."

"I have no doubt of it, despite the repercussions of uncontrolled expansion."

"Well, wasn't that plan in the first place – open up the territory to more settlers, see Montana become a state?"

"In due course. But unless you have some idea of how to keep the peace in the meantime, we could have a serious situation on our hands. That could mean dire consequences where the future of this town is concerned.

"Could be. Looks to me like Red Crow's mind is made up. You can push some folks just so far before they decide to push back."

"Splendid. All we need now is a full-scale uprising. Everything we've accomplished so far could be in jeopardy, not to mention all the lives put at risk. It could set us back years."

"Yeah. Shame it takes so much blood to oil the wheels of progress."

Mosby's jaw tensed as he looked back from the window. "The rest of your money – it's there on the table."

He glanced toward the overloaded table in the corner of the room. There, separated from the disarray, was an envelope with his initials on it – the additional hundred dollars he'd bargained for when they'd first talked.

"No. I only got the job half done. Far as I'm concerned, we're square."

The words were out before he even had a chance to think. No matter. It was the fair thing to do. Besides, it'd be a cold day in Hell before he needed Mosby's money.

Mosby eyed him for a moment, and returned his gaze to the street outside. "As you wish," he murmured with no sign of concern either way.

It figured the bastard would let him think money wasn't that important – after it nearly got him killed. He looked around the room where cigar smoke hung from the ceiling like a heavy, gray storm cloud, and where a familiar sense of uneasiness seemed to lurk in the darkened corners.

"Dammit, Mosby, a man can't hardly breathe in this place. You ever think about openin' a window ... get a little air circulatin'? Smells like somethin' died in here."

Mosby turned a dour look in his direction. "Thank you for bringing that to my attention, Mr. Call. Rest assured, I'll give your suggestion all the consideration it deserves."

"Yeah, you do that." He waved the murky haze away as he turned toward the door. "I got to get me some fresh air."

He headed down the stairs, anxious to be outside in the open again. He should have taken the rest of the money. That much cash could buy a lot of whisky. It was stupid to turn it down. On the other hand, he had what he needed to get by, and the chance to toss it back in Mosby's face didn't come often. That satisfaction was worth a hundred dollars. Anyway, the man deserved it.

If he wasn't out bullying people, or pickin' 'em clean at the Ambrosia, he was holed up in his den, snarling at everything that came near him, like a wolf guarding his lair.

"Face it," he'd said. "The Lakota have no future in Montana. Sad as it may seem to you, their way of life is a thing of the past." It had sounded like one of the announcements he often issued to make himself sound superior. This time he'd seemed to take no pleasure in it.

The image lingered – the young chief and his wife standing outside their lodge, protecting their home and their family, what was left of them, trying to salvage a few hopes in the midst of their crumbling world, and watching everything around them going to hell in a hat basket.

So what was he supposed to do about it? Little Wolf's gold couldn't do the Lakota any good, in or out of the ground. All it could do was cause more trouble for them. And whoever ended up with the profits in his back pocket wasn't likely to share the wealth, although there could be more than enough fighting and killing to go around.

The sunlight outside felt painfully bright. Or maybe it was just that Mosby's place above the Ambrosia seemed more like an opium parlor than an office, or any so-called "gentleman's quarters," as he liked to think of it – not that anyone gave a damn where he spent his time.

The sonovabitch could stay up there drinking and cheating at solitaire till doomsday if that's what made him happy. Somewhere, in some restless, smoke-clouded corner of hell, he must have had his own private room.

There was no point in stewing about it. The trip to the reservation hadn't cost him anything except his own time, but he hadn't come back with anything to show for it, either. They'd sat around, arguing and poking holes in the air, and all they'd done was come up with more things to disagree about. So much for Mosby's big plans to save everybody and make himself richer. He could talk all he wanted. All the justifying and speech-making wasn't going to change anything. Whatever was going to happen would happen no matter what anyone did or said about it. He'd failed, and that was the truth of it. Not that anyone was worse off now. They just weren't any better off than they were before.

He hadn't been gone all that long. For some reason, it just seemed longer. Nothing looked any different than it had before he'd left. Up and down the boardwalk people were tending to shores, loading and unloading supplies, visiting while shopkeepers swept off their doorsteps, passing the time and griping about the weather like there was nothing else to worry about.

Across the street, Mattie stood outside the gunsmith shop. A glint of sunlight shone through her hair as she leaned against a post with a tin mug in her hand. With a little luck she might have some coffee left. She'd make him ask for some, just so he knew it was his idea to invite himself over – not that anyone cared. Anyway, her company was as good as anyone else's, and a lot better than some he'd had recently. They'd talk for a while about nothing in particular, then she'd smile and tell him she had work to do …probably pretend like she hadn't noticed that he'd been gone, and act like she hadn't missed him at all.

The sounds were the same, too – all the comings and goings, children shouting to each other, the clomping of heavy work boots over wood planks, the creaking and clattering of wagons as they rumbled their way over the dusty thoroughfare that would soon turn to mud. The town was growing, all right. There was no stopping it, and there was no changing the direction it was all bound to take. In time the voices of the future would drown out those of the past, till they were nothing more than echoes carried on the wind. All he could do now was watch, and wait for Hell to break loose again.

Maybe he'd take a ride out to the river, see if the Chinooks were biting like they were up on the Gallatin. He could do a little fishing. Or maybe do nothing but enjoy some peace and quiet while it lasted. A breeze swept across the top of the tree line, as if to signal the approach of colder weather, and warn of the storms that were sure to come. There was the smell of rain in the air. In the distance the clouds were starting to gather. Overhead, beyond the reach of the tallest pines, two lines of geese soared, like a great arrowhead rippling across the sky as they sailed above the trees, drifted on the breeze to rest for a moment on their long journey, and faded into the distance without a sound.

THE END

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