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.


From the small balcony above the Ambrosia Club most of Curtis Wells was visible. A few patches of frost lingered in the shadows across the street and deep tracks crisscrossed as wagons plowed their way through the mud. Before long, the rain would quietly turn to snow, cold weather would settle in for the duration, and long distance traveling would be all but impossible. In the meantime, there was business to attend to. Clay sat on the railing, savoring one last cigar as the stagecoach arrived. He tracked it as it rounded the corner in front of the Ambrosia and slowly came to a stop in front of the freight office. It would most likely be another hour before their departure to Billings.

The driver climbed down from the top of the coach and anxiously opened the door for his passenger to alight. Just as hurriedly, he lumbered across the street to the mercantile. A woman peered out of the open door and looked around. She stepped down from the coach, paused momentarily to assess the surroundings, then proceeded carefully over the wagon tracks to the boardwalk. Clay watched her as she brushed off her jacket. Curtis Wells was one of those places where a person could be knee-deep in a mud puddle and still choke on the dust. For some reason, the dirt always seemed more noticeable when there were newcomers in town.

The driver trudged back out of the mercantile, mumbling to himself as he glanced up at the sky. Mud sucked at his boots as he made his way back across the street. "Well, folks," he announced from the boardwalk, "looks like this here’s gonna be a short stop. Better make it quick." With that he disappeared into the freight office.

Clay was caught off guard. He’d been taking his time getting his baggage together for his trip to Billings, leisurely watching the comings and goings of various individuals, and generally filling in time until the stage arrived. Normally there would be a short layover before the scheduled departure. Apparently, not today.

Anticipation briefly overshadowed his annoyance as he thought about the business that awaited him in Billings. The discussions over the Northern Pacific’s proposed route through Curtis Wells were taking twice as long as they should, and some of the ensuing arguments were, as yet, unproductive. Nothing less than a personal consultation with the railroad's owners would be needed to resolve certain issues. On more than one occasion, that had produced the desired results. The timing of the meeting, in mid-September, wasn’t ideal. Winter usually came early in Montana Territory. Nevertheless, the trip was vital to ensure the success of certain long-term initiatives for growth and development in the community. He could address the remaining problems in the comfort of a decent hotel, and be back in Curtis Wells by the end of the week.

Quickly as possible, he scooped up the remaining papers and stuffed them into his bag along with some extra clothes and other items he’d already packed. He checked the Remington one more time, grabbed his coat and hat and started out the door. It was a long way to Billings, and except for a couple of mining camps along the route, there wasn't much that resembled civilization. It might be wise to take the Winchester along. One more thing. He reached inside the humidor next to his desk, pulled out two fresh cigars, and tucked them into his coat pocket.

With his coat over one arm, he hurried down the stairs and across the street to where the stage waited. Doogan, the driver, had just stepped out of the freight office as he approached. "What’s the rush? I assumed there'd be a few minutes to spare." Sudden changes of schedule were aggravating. So were abrupt surprises.

The driver was unimpressed by his displeasure. "Well, Sir, it ain’t real smart to ass-ume anything around this here part of the country – ‘specially this time of year." His voice was nonchalant, but clearly assertive as he glanced toward the mountains. "Look up yonder at them hills," he continued. "See them clouds just behind 'em? I reckon this whole valley’s in for a real howler 'fore too much longer. Now, less you like the notion of bein' up to your pecker in a snowdrift, I’d suggest we get a move on. I seen blizzards that can bury a herd of cattle in a matter of minutes, and cold that can freeze your spit 'fore it hits the ground. Don’t know 'bout you, mister, but I ain’t getting caught in one. We’re leavin' in five minutes."

Clay scowled. The driver was right. Montana was famous for its unpredictable weather. Maybe "infamous" was a better word. It was probably just as well to leave right away, and he’d be in Billings that much sooner. He tossed his bag into the coach and pulled on his overcoat. The wind was blowing from the north again, and it was already turning cold.

As he surveyed the street, the door of the mercantile flew open and a man stumbled out. Another man followed closely behind him, having been propelled almost into the air by a rough-looking ranch hand who stood in the doorway. The first outcast had managed to catch hold of the railing, but the second lay sprawled in the mud in front of the store. Another cowboy appeared in the doorway, smiling as he chewed on a cigar butt. "Get the hell out of here!" one of them snorted as he looked at the two pitiful individuals that had been ejected from the store. "Go on, get your sorry asses back to that reservation, and stay there! We don’t need your stinkin’ kind around here."

The cowboys strolled back into the mercantile while the two ragged Mehtis struggled out of the mud. They were dressed in torn clothing that barely covered them, and one had no shoes. Both were drunk. They stumbled away, clinging loosely to each other and totally oblivious to the traffic around them as they made their way up the street to the #10 Saloon.

Clay watched the two "warriors" as they waded through the mud. In only a few short years, the once powerful Mehtis had been reduced to little more than squatters at the edge of civilization. Sad, even pathetic, some might say. On the other hand, they weren't the only ones to see their entire way of life destroyed. He’d lost everything too, and had barely survived, but he’d managed to salvage his self-respect.

Whatever else he’d done to sustain himself, he hadn’t resorted to begging. That was more than the Mehtis could claim. He didn’t want to look at them. It was up to them if they chose to be objects of pity or disgust, and not his concern. Anyway, there was more to think about than the plight of two hopeless drunks.

Suddenly he was aware of someone standing beside him. It was the woman he’d just seen getting out of the coach. She was younger than he’d guessed from a distance, and rather pretty, in a frail kind of way. Light brown hair was tucked neatly under her bonnet. Her lashes fluttered at him for a second before she modestly dropped her gaze to the ground.

"Allow me." He smiled, instinctively offering his hand to help her into the coach.

"Why, thank you, Sir," she replied as a small, gloved hand reached out to accept his gesture. Wet mud clung to the hem of her petticoats as she pulled her skirts in after her and took a place next to the window. Women’s clothes always took up a lot of space, no matter what the occasion. Still, they were attractive, if somewhat impractical. He wrapped his own coat tighter and casually glanced in her direction.

She was rather pretty – not a raving beauty, but interesting nevertheless as she gazed out the window to the street. Her petite form, outlined by her prim, tailored jacket, looked even smaller in contrast to her full skirts. Small and delicate. Those were attractive qualities in a woman. That wasn't to say taller women weren't as appealing, but somehow, being with a petite woman seemed to enliven a man's natural sense of dominance. All things considered, she seemed as agreeable a travel mate as one could expect in Montana Territory. It might prove to be a more pleasant journey than he'd first thought.

"Pardon me, Ma’am, are you on you way to Billings, too?"

"Why, yes – unless the driver has other plans," she smiled back.

Despite her prim demeanor she wasn’t shy. Clay was a bit surprised, and pleased. "I’m sorry you didn’t have a chance to see more of our fair city," he began again. "It’s usually somewhat more … hospitable."

"Oh, I don’t mind," she replied. "I think I’ve seen enough for the moment."

Damn drunkards. And the crude language of the ranch hands, not to mention the less than articulate stage driver. "Curtis Wells is a bit rough around the edges," he conceded, "but there’s enormous potential here, for someone with vision."

She appeared unimpressed – not that the rough surroundings would impress any lady of good breeding and sophisticated taste. Such women were rare in Montana Territory. Come to think, it was uncommon to see a woman of her refinement traveling alone. But then, she wasn’t the typical ingenue.

"May I ask what brings you this far west?" Her gloves concealed any ring she might have been wearing, but behind the modest attire and reserved manner, there was a seductive quality that she did little to hide.

He smiled to himself as he remembered his father’s advice to him about how to approach a lady in any given situation. It was a scene he recalled very well. Typically the elder Mosby would lean back in his leather chair and puff contentedly on his pipe whenever he issued instructions on the subject of social decorum. The rules seemed elaborate at the time, but they were fundamental to any young gentleman’s education.

"Actually, I’m headed east from San Francisco to visit friends in Denver." He'd just assumed she was traveling west, like so many others seeking a future. But she was already settled, and judging by her appearance, quite comfortably. The crusty driver was right. It didn’t pay to assume anything.

"I see. I believe Denver has grown considerably in recent years." Demonstrating some knowledge of the area might invite her to engage in conversation and possibly answer his questions without him asking.

"Have you been to Denver recently?" She seemed to have no problem asking questions.

He thought about the first time he’d been to Denver. It was an over-grown boomtown nestled high in the Rockies, bristling with activity and wild as a horny mustang. He and Robert had made a hasty exit from one of the city’s more notorious gambling parlors after their winning streak at poker was discovered to have been "assisted by design." The two ex-Confederate drifters had narrowly escaped with their lives, and had departed Denver exactly as they had arrived – hungry and penniless.

"Not for a few years, but I remember it being an interesting city." More recently, he had discovered safer and more efficient ways to make money – without the use of fisticuffs, deadly gunplay, or the fanfare of an impromptu lynching. "The old days were exciting, but I must say they did leave something to be desired."

Somehow he’d just managed to sound like his own grandfather recollecting "the old days". "Of course, I wasn’t much more than a boy at the time." As the memories of those turbulent days swept through his mind, his smile faded. In truth, he really hadn't been much more than a boy at the time, even though he’d already endured what seemed like a lifetime of regret.

"I’m sorry," he stumbled as he tried to regain his sense of the present. "Forgive my bad manners. It’s easy to dispense with the amenities out here. I’m Francis Clay Mosby." He rarely used his first name, but in this case it seemed appropriate, and distinguishing in the midst of a common crowd of ruffians who frequently used only one name. That included the driver, who he’d only ever known as "Doogan." No "mister," no first name, just Doogan.

"I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Mosby. I’m Dorothea Donnelly." She looked at him with an amazingly confident smile, apparently aware of his curiosity, and pleased by his unconcealed interest. He eyes flickered with satisfaction. "And it’s ‘Miss’."

"All aboard that’s gittin’ aboard!" The coach briefly leaned to one side as Doogan climbed up to his seat on the top. "Heeeahhhh!" he bellowed, as he snapped the reins with both hands. "Gittyup, you nags!" With that the mud reluctantly loosened its grasp on the wheels as the coached lurched forward.

"Well, Miss Donnelly, it appears that we’ll have this space all to ourselves." He'd barely finished his statement before he regretted its suggestiveness. Either she hadn't noticed, or she didn’t care. But then, what did it matter? He’d be staying in Billings, and she’d be off to Denver, and that would be that. At least they weren’t jammed in with several other passengers, like pickles in a barrel.

Traveling was not something he cared to do very often. Sometimes it was necessary in order to resolve business issues, or simply to maintain his authority by establishing a reliable, predictable presence in certain key locations, but there was more comfortable to be had in his own town, his own saloon, and in his own rooms. Years of having no home at all, drifting and being constantly on the move for one reason or another underscored one's appreciation for simple comforts – clean sheets, warm clothes, a hot bath, and plenty to eat and drink. Now he could afford to take those things for granted, there was no need to do without such conveniences, ever again.

He glanced at his travel companion. She seemed more interested in the scenery than in conversation.

Her reticence might be attributable to the fact that they were not well acquainted, but it was a long way to Billings, and that could easily change. Inside the coach they were relatively protected from the harsh wind that scraped over the flat plains, blasting away at the mountains, and whittling down wooden buildings till they were no more than kindling. The area outside Curtis Wells was still rugged and wild, and at the same time, eerily beautiful – if a person liked that sort of rustic atmosphere. In the spring it was alive with color and the richness of new life, but in the winter it was a force to be reckoned with, and potentially deadly if a person dared to challenge its formidable conditions.

As he looked back at the mountains, he was glad he’d decided to take the stage instead of venturing out on horseback. The weather was changing too fast now, and it was just too damn cold to be out there alone.

The coach ride was rough, thanks to the finesse of the driver who seemed to easily locate every rock and bump in the road, but at least for a little while, he could relax. It wasn't entirely unpleasant – enjoying the winter landscape and an expansive countryside that offered its own kind of austere, unsettling beauty.

"Amazing, isn’t it," his quiet companion observed, "that anything could actually live out there."

She was right. It was amazing. Frankly, it was hard to imagine. Unlike the Rockies, the vernal slopes of the Virginia countryside were emerald green for most of the year. When rain came, it gently nourished the soft, fertile hills and valleys. Here, in the wildest part of Montana, nothing was gentle or soft. Even the vegetation was designed to defend itself. There was very little that wouldn’t stab you, sting you, or bite back if you confronted it. It was the only way anything survived in so harsh a world, including the rugged people who inhabited this desolate, forbidden place.

"Yes, it is." It was as much as he could say to her casual statement. "Amazing." He couldn’t help thinking about the two drunken Mehtis he’d seen in town. At one time they were probably strong, capable individuals – brave men who’d provided for their families, commanded respect in their communities, and inspired fear in their hearts of their enemies. Now most were just gypsies without homes, like the ragged immigrants that swarmed in from who-knew-where. They belonged nowhere, and that’s where they had fled to – nowhere.

As the sun vanished behind the mountain a light snow began to fall. Even in the early afternoon the warmth of the day was already gone. Grey flannel skies blanketed the mountain peaks, foreboding, and forewarning of the storm to come. It was just as well they had left early. It was also interesting how much more quickly the time went by when one could enjoy another’s company. They’d been on the move at a steady pace for quite some time, and with luck they’d be at the halfway point in Roundup before dark.

"Are you traveling on business, Mr. Mosby?" Her question was a mere formality, but it was an open invitation to engage further. She had also focused the conversation on him, and away from herself.

"Yes, as a matter of fact. But I’m hoping to resolve matters as quickly as possible, so I can … relax a bit."

Billings was no one’s idea of a holiday resort, and he had no intention of spending any more time there than was absolutely necessary. Nevertheless, his travel companion was attractive and intelligent. That alone was refreshing. From all indications, she was unencumbered by time and circumstance, and if Miss Dorothea Donnelly somehow got the impression that he had a little extra time to spare, she might, possibly …

"Whoooaaaa! Hold up you nags!" Doogan bellowed his command as he reined in the horses, bringing the coach to a jolting stop. Clay almost bounced out of his seat. What the hell was it this time? He opened the door angrily and glared at the driver who was climbing down from the top.

"What the…." He barely resisted a tempting expletive. The driver barely looked in his direction.

"Horses need a rest. You and the lady can stretch your legs if you got a mind to." With that short announcement he shuffled off to a thickly wooded spot a short distance away.

Fine place for a pissing stop. They still had quite a distance to go, and this buffoon had chosen the most desolate place he could find to "stretch his legs." It was no place for a lady, or for a man either, but the horses probably needed to stop, at least briefly. "What’s wrong with the old relay station?" he queried, remembering it from a previous trip along the same route.

"Burnt down a few months ago. Nothin’ there now but a pile of charcoal. They reckon injuns done it to scare off settlers – somethin’ like that."

Who in their right mind would want to settle out here, for God’s sake? Who would be crazy enough to want to live so far from … anything? Indians, maybe – people who didn’t fit anywhere else, and had nowhere else to go. Even for a tenacious individual, it would be terribly difficult in such surroundings. He shuddered at the thought. He’d lived amidst harsh and dangerous conditions during the War, but then, that was war, and at least in that part of the country your spit didn’t freeze. It would serve Doogan right if his piss turned into an icicle before he finished.

He looked back to see where Miss Donnelly had gone. She hadn’t left her seat. Some women were good

long distance travelers. They needed to get going, as Doogan had so eloquently stated, "before they were up to their peckers in a damn snowdrift". Clay looked at his pocket watch. It was nearly 3 o’clock. They were close to their schedule and a few minutes either way would make very little difference. He wrapped his overcoat closer around him and walked back to the coach.

At least he would have pleasant company for the remainder of the journey. On a previous trip he had shared the ride with a former abolitionist who treated him to a three-hour-long dissertation on the evils of human enslavement. When he had dared to suggest that, from an historic perspective, slavery had been an intrinsic component of numerous cultures in the past, the old biddie had launched into another diatribe on the perils of alcohol consumption. It had been a long ride. This trip, however, showed promise – however faint – of something much more agreeable when they finally reached their destination.

Having completed his ablutions behind the trees, Doogan strolled back and clambered onto the stage.

"Yep," he confirmed as he looked for a spot to send a stream of tobacco spittle, "This here’s gonna be a real howler." The projectile sailed over Clay’s head and landed on the targeted tree stump.

Clay pretended not to notice the flying chaw. "Well, then, let’s get going, shall we." He climbed into the coach, eager to be out of the wind, and in the pleasant, if somewhat aloof company of Miss Dorothea Donnelly. "Don’t mind Doogan," he tried to explain. "This part of the country is opening up to all kinds.

Some are a little rougher than others." So many people had migrated west, especially in recent years, that it wouldn’t be long until the entire wilderness vanished into history. For the moment, however, they would have to tolerate the inhospitable environment and the crude individuals who were part of it.

"It’s all right, Mr. Mosby." Her tone was obliging and conciliatory. "We’ll be in Billings soon enough."

Dorothea seemed accustomed to the discomforts of traveling, and he couldn’t help but admire her resilience. He was also increasingly curious about where she came from, and where she might also be going, and more importantly, what opportunity there might be for some interaction on a more personal level. That possibility remained obscure. Her flirtatious eyes belied her cool demeanor, but there was still no indication that she intended to confide her plans, or the possibility that those plans might be altered to include him.

As the coach rumbled over the bumpy terrain, she seemed more entranced with the changing landscape and less interested in social repartee. She gazed out the window – detached from the outside, as if she was viewing a painting in a museum. Gradually, her body seemed to give way to its rhythmic sway, and her eyelids drifted shut, almost like those of a child being rocked to sleep.

Clay felt his impatience rising. She was apparently quite content to flirt with him from a safe distance, but unwilling to play the game on his terms. Nevertheless, the situation was worth cultivating. The challenge just made the game that much more interesting. Indeed, they would be in Billings in due course, but there was still quite a distance to go.

The snow had begun to fall heavily as they continued through the rough timber country. It was more dense and dark than he remembered, and the trail was much narrower through the thick pines. It was also much steeper and rockier as it twisted through the trees, around sharp turns, and slowly up the mountain pass. It would be hard to negotiate a wagon of any kind over the uneven ground and the occasional rockslide even in the summer months, but winter made it downright treacherous. He had to give Doogan credit for his skill as a driver. The man had driven this route for more than five years, with no unfortunate incidents to speak of. That, if nothing else, was reassuring.

There were certain advantages to taking the stage, despite the uncomfortable ride. In fact, it seemed unusually restful – almost pleasant, and surprisingly peaceful. Maybe, just for a short time, he could relax. That, after all, was the idea in the first place. He would be rested by the time they arrived, instead of tired from riding a horse all day. As he watched the snow drifting silently through the trees, he too began to be lulled by the coach’s rhythmic rocking, and his eyelids felt heavy with fatigue.

Finally, away from the noise and clamor of Curtis Wells, and surrounded by the pristine wilderness of the mountains, he could close his eyes, and for the first time in many days, breathe a sigh of relief. Now, if only for a little while, he could enjoy a few moments of peace….

A hard jolt bounced both passengers out of their seats as the coach suddenly shuddered sideways.

One corner thudded heavily to the ground, as the abrupt force vaulted Dorothea into Clay’s arms. He barely managed to catch her as they were flung together into the low corner of the compartment.

Over the sound of the axel scraping against the ground, he heard Doogan hiss, "Ahhhh, shhh…!"

The coach lurched precariously to the side as Clay tried to grab on to the door handle, but the door, shaken loose from its hinges, opened freely, revealing a steep cliff just outside. The wheel must have hit a rock squarely, and broken into pieces, leaving the coach to skid off balance on the three remaining wheels.

The next few seconds were a blur of noise and flailing motion as the coach listed further and began to lose its grip on the narrow ledge. Dorothea’s screams were muffled as her skirts flew up, covering her face and enveloping her in their fullness. Billows of fabric, loose handbags, rocks, and branches filled the small space as the coach turned on its side, then upside down, and over again. Beyond the screams Clay could hear the sound of broken tree limbs slashing past them, then the sharp sound of wood cracking and splitting apart, and metal groaning and screeching as they collided with the stony cliff face.

The walls of the coach slammed against him as he and Dorothea were hurled together, bumping and thrashing about as their fragile compartment was crushed from all sides. The violent blaze of sound and motion became a roar as Clay tumbled out onto the ground.

Then everything went silent.

* * *

The sound of chirping in the distance came closer and a chilly wind brushed Clay’s face as he opened his eyes. Large, lacey snowflakes fluttered down through towering pine trees as he stared up at the sky. He watched them for a few seconds, then rolled weakly to one side. Except for the sound of a few birds, and the wind in the trees, it was deathly quiet.

A thin layer of snow had covered him as he’d lain sprawled on his back halfway down the frozen hillside.

As he raised himself up on one elbow he glanced around at the unfamiliar surroundings, searching for an identifiable landmark. Near the bottom of the cliff he spotted the crumpled remains of the stagecoach. There was no sign of Doogan or Dorothea.

With his sight still blurred, he sat up, moving carefully to assess possible injuries. There was no blood and nothing felt as if it was broken, but sharp pains pulsated through his head with every move he made.

Whether it was from being tossed around inside the coach or from the impact of being thrown out onto the rocky ground, he couldn’t be sure … best to move slowly until his vision cleared. Cautiously as possible, he stood up on the uneven ground, careful to maintain a secure footing before he climbed down to the coach. It wasn’t a long way down the hillside, but it was a steep drop.

A few large rocks had rolled down, having been dislodged by the force of the coach, but at least the ground was stable under his feet. With the dizziness subsiding, he made his way down the slippery trail of broken branches and scattered pieces of luggage. If Dorothea had managed to stay inside she might still be all right. The coach lay on its side and only one wheel remained fixed on the bent axel. One door had been ripped off, but the door on the upside, though crumpled, it was still attached. She could be alive and might not even be injured.

He lifted the door and anxiously peered inside. Dorothea lay inside the coach with her skirts disheveled and twisted around her. A few strands of light brown hair were pulled loose from her bonnet and lay softly across her face. Her expression reflected only vague astonishment as her eyes gazed upward, fixed and unblinking at the snow as it drifted toward her. She was dead.

He looked away. Only moments before he had watched her as she sat serenely, almost transfixed, looking out the window at the forest as filled with snow, and wondering at the beauty of the winter landscape. Now it had taken her life. The last thing he remembered seeing were those blue eyes, frantic and wide with fear as they desperately reached out to him for safety. Now she was gone.

He climbed inside the coach, straightened her dress around her and gently smoothed her hair back inside her bonnet. He picked up a few of her belongings that had been spilled and placed them within the folds of her skirt. As he closed her eyes a few snowflakes melted onto her face and trickled in delicate lines down her cheek, like fragile traces of tears.

"I’m sorry, Dorothea," he whispered. "I’m so sorry."

He climbed out of the coach and closed the door. As soon as he got back to town, he'd notify someone about her. "Damn!" he swore aloud. He’d let down his guard – just for a moment, and in the blink of an eye a young woman was dead.

He wasn't even aware that he’d dozed off in the coach. Not that this was his fault. There was nothing he could have done even if he’d been riding on top with the driver. It was Doogan who had driven them off a cliff. Hell. It wasn’t Doogan's fault either. It was an accident. The man had done his best.

Where was Doogan? Maybe he’d gone for help. The harness had been torn loose and the horses had probably just kept running. Maybe he was able to catch one and ride back for help. With the weather worsening by the hour, it wasn’t likely that anyone would be venturing out to look for them for days.

He pulled his overcoat tighter. At least he had gloves, decent boots and, most importantly, his Winchester.

Luckily, it was retrievable and undamaged. That was fortunate.

He'd have to stick to the winding trail in order to reach any of the outposts along the way, even though it meant a longer walk. There were probably short cuts that would save time, but it was too easy to become lost in such dense, wooded areas, especially in a storm. It wasn’t worth the risk, and there were already enough hazards in this god-forsaken part of the country.

With his Winchester in hand he started back up the hillside to the road. By the time he reached the top, his head was pounding again. He couldn’t be sure how far they’d come, but the trail through the mountains was at a high altitude where the air was noticeably thinner -- probably about 9,000 feet, and at that level, it didn’t take much exertion to leave a man breathless.

From the top of the ledge he looked back to where the coach had strayed off the road. It had sheared off a few small trees, leaving a stubby clearing of rocks and loose branches in its wake. At the edge of the cleared area, beside a large pine, lay Doogan.

He must have been thrown off the stage when the wheel broke apart and been hurled against the tree. His head was bent at an unnatural angle, and by the position of his body, it was clear, even from a distance, that he, too, was dead

Poor bastard. He’d never known Doogan that well, but the man done his job without the usual complaints. Despite the driver’s crude demeanor, he deserved better than this abrupt end to his life – not that there was anything he could do about it now.

The first order of business was to find shelter before he was caught in the storm. If he followed the trail he would eventually come to a settlement of some kind. There had to be something between here and Roundup. From there he would let someone know about the accident and where to find its victims. It was all he could do for now. As soon as their remains were recovered, he would try to notify their families.

The road was rough and winding through the pass. No wonder that the wheel had given way. Rockslides had left the narrow trail nearly impassible in some places. It was the same every year. Fires, ignited by lightning, left some slopes without vegetation to hold the soil in place. Heavy rains loosened the dirt, released large rocks, and left the steep hillsides vulnerable to rock and mudslides. Some sections of the road were blocked or missing altogether. Somehow, he'd have to circumvent those areas, and locate the trail when it appeared again. The darker it became, the more difficult that would be.

Even now, it was difficult to see where the road ended and began. The wilderness had reclaimed the narrow trail as quickly as the snow piled up along the rugged terrain. He'd have to be very careful. More experienced men than he had been lost to the mountain, and not just because of inhospitable weather.

He thought about the people who were waiting for him in Billings, casually discussing their businessconcerns, arguing, joking, and biding their time over drinks by a warm fire … and of Dorothea’s desperate eyes – now closed forever as she lay inside the crumpled coach, cold as a stone.

He wouldn’t be any better off if he didn’t reach an outpost, or find shelter of some kind by nightfall. With the sun behind the mountains, the daylight would soon be gone, and with it, the temperature would be dropping quickly. A man could freeze to death out here before anyone even missed him. The sobering chill of reality settled on him with the ferocity of the coldest winter wind.

He hurried along the jagged trail, skirting mounds of loose rock, and doing his best to follow the main road. Several paths led away from the edge of the ridge, but meandered down through the trees until they became overgrown with foliage, and disappeared. Deepening shadows flowed together in the stillness of evening, and the ever-present wind howled, as if in protest to his intrusion into its sanctuary.

He estimated that he’d advanced about five miles – not much, due to the rough terrain, but it was better than staying where he was. He and his troops had covered more miles than that on many marches during the War, and it was no easy task while avoiding patrols and enemy fire. This time, it was different.

As he leaned against a boulder to rest he realized his left arm and shoulder were stiff from the battering he'd taken in the crash. His head still throbbed. Still, he’d been lucky. Somehow, he’d been tossed out of the coach before it crashed into the trees. Otherwise, he’d most likely have been killed. But stopping only reminded him that every bone in his body ached from the cold, as well as from the accident. He was tired, and he was hungry. By this time he’d expected to be relaxing in comfort, in a soft leather chair, savoring a medium rare steak, preceded by a good brandy or two, accompanied by a light, aromatic merlot, and followed by a select port. Instead, he was sitting on a frozen rock that was numbing his backside faster than he could take time to think about it.

"Sonovabitch!" he cursed aloud. It seemed almost inevitable that each time he made plans, something would interfere, no matter what.

A distant sound caught his attention. He reached for his rifle and listened. It wasn’t the wind this time. It was the sound of a wolf howling. Good god! Wolves. He had his Winchester, which would dispatch any predator, but he’d left Doogan’s body out in the open. He should have put him inside the coach with Dorothea so the wolves couldn’t get at them. It was too late now. There was no choice except to continue, or risk becoming the wolves’ next meal. He checked the Winchester again, and headed off, toward the next craggy bend in the road. It was getting dark all too quickly. It was hard enough to see where he was going in daylight and now the damn wind was picking up. His legs ached as he trudged along the road. The trail had deteriorated into a broken path, identifiable only by the occasional evidence of wagon tracks. It was taking too long. At this rate he’d be in Roundup in approximately … three months.

A shrill, screeching cry split through the air as a hawk burst upward from its rocky haven, and into the evening sky. At the same time, he heard a low rumbling from somewhere above the crest line. Several small rocks rolled down in front of him, then several more, larger boulders … then a broken tree trunk that tumbled end over end, and erupted into huge, jagged splinters under the hurtling force of the landslide.

He stumbled backward, trying to duck the flying debris and lethal wooden shards, but in the darkness he lost his footing. Suddenly he was pitched sideways, over the ledge and into the shallow dip that ran parallel to the ridge. For the second time in one day he’d been dumped over the side of a hill like a sack of old potatoes. "Goddammit! he swore aloud, as if someone was there to hear his protest.

A deep rumble made its way up through the earth – slowly at first, then louder as it gained momentum. The ground under his feet began to vibrate, then to tremble violently. He reached out to keep his balance, waiting for the shuddering to stop, but the trembling continued with thundering intensity.

Avalanche!

The entire hillside was in motion, swaying and spilling tons of loose rock down the mountainside. There was nothing to hang on to or to hide under – anywhere. The ground crumbled under his feet as he slid downward, toward a churning mass of rocks and dust and splintering tree limbs. He choked on the clouded spray of dirt and debris as he pitched forward into the darkness below. Instinctively, he held his breath, anticipating a suffocating deluge of sand and rocks. As he grabbed for a protruding branch his body suddenly slammed against a fallen log, nearly knocking his senseless.

For several minutes he lay motionless, careful not to move as he tried to catch his breath and determine which direction was up. As quickly as it had begun, the deafening roar subsided. Once more everything was quiet as a few small stones rolled casually down the hillside.

He waited till the last rocks had settled, then sat up cautiously and looked around. There were more loose limbs and several large boulders in the roadway. He stood up and dusted off his coat. As he retrieved the Winchester he looked up at the trail where he had stood moments before. The mountain peak was still intact, but the ground just ahead of him had given way, and half the hillside had slipped into the river below.

He stared into the narrow river valley and back up the hill, hardly able to believe what little his eyes could make out in the darkness. Everything had shifted. The rocks and trees were still there, but the road was completely covered. His only route to safety was gone.

"Jesus H Christ!!" He’d survived a fatal accident, and an avalanche – maybe an actual earthquake – only to be helplessly stranded with no food, no shelter – nothing – in a godforsaken frozen wasteland. How much more did he have to face?

That was a question he didn’t dare ask. Somewhere, in the far reaches of his mind, it made sense to stay angry as long as possible. Anger provided a certain kind of energy and strength. Fear could steal it away.

Wait a minute. An idea emerged from the thoughts that raced through his mind. The same river that followed the road for several miles also ran through the mountain pass. It wouldn't disappear, even if it diverted from the main road at some point. And by staying along its bank he could avoid climbing over treacherous rockslides. If he followed the river far enough it would bring him out of the timber and back to some form of civilization – at least to a mining camp, or even a small settlers’ lodge.

Cautiously, he proceeded down the hill toward to riverbank. The situation was manageable. He'd survived worse conditions and met greater challenges in the past. With a little luck, he might locate some kind of shelter where he could at least wait out the storm. Until then, he'd have to keep moving – stay warm, as much as that was possible under the circumstances. His feet were numb with cold and his fingers were painfully stiff. He’d dressed for cold weather, but hadn’t intended to actually spend much time out in it. He stomped his feet to get some circulation back, and tried to keep his hands in his pockets.

An old trapper had told him about a winter years ago, when he was a boy, how one of his friends had gone out to rescue a calf in a blizzard. The snow had drifted so fast that no one could find either his friend or the calf until two days later. Both were dead, frozen right where they stood only a few yards from the barn. "They reckon the kid breathed that cold air and froze his lungs, right there where he was a-standin," the old man had recalled as best he could. "That there was about the coldest winter I ever did see."

This one wasn't far behind, he thought as he trudged along the riverbank. The ground felt smoother, even with the snow piling up, although he could barely feel his feet. He had to keep moving. There would be plenty opportunity to warm up when he got where he was going – wherever that was. There was no way to tell which way was east or west, but the river had to lead somewhere, and just about anywhere would be fine, as long as there was a nice warm fire waiting.

It was exhausting. The long hike and the high altitude were enough to wear anyone out. He needed to rest.

But then, stopping would only remind him how tired he was. Maybe he’d just take a minute to catch his breath … get some feeling back in his feet. No, not yet. Better to keep going and retain what little warmth the movement generated. His feet didn’t hurt that much. If anything, his hands and feet seemed to have adjusted to the cold. They were starting to feel almost hot.

He could stop and make a fire, but everything resembling kindling was saturated by now, and with the wind blowing, there wasn’t much chance of getting one lit. He stood on an open piece of ground, listening for any sounds of life in the vicinity. In the darkness, covered with snow, the small area had looked like a quiet meadow surrounded by pines, but all he could hear was the sound of water rushing – all around him.

And under him.

Ice. Creaking … groaning…. He was standing in the middle of a frozen river. The fragile surface was giving way to the churning tide below it. Christ! The whole damn thing could collapse any second!

Panic flashed through him as he dropped down to spread out his weight. If he broke through the thin layer at any point, the swift current would drag him under the surface.

As he lay still on top of the snow, the sound of the fast-moving water roared under him, threatening to swallow him if he made a wrong move. Slowly … carefully, he inched his way toward the bank where a few scraggly tree roots protruded from the mud – not too fast– as if any sudden move would alert some beast in the watery cave below.

Gradually the roots came within reach. He strained to grab on to their spindly fingers as he pulled himself forward, clawing his way to safety. At last he lay on the frozen mud, listening to the frantic beating of his own heart and gasping his relief to be back on dry land. Not entirely dry, but solid, at least.

He gulped the air, choking as the icy pain stabbed inside his chest. He covered his face with his linen handkerchief to block some of the chill, and stood up on the rocky bank. He couldn't stop to rest now. He’d have to stay in motion to preserve what little heat he had left. His coat was still dry on the inside, but the snow had left the outside wet and now it was stiff with ice.

Something about it reminded him of the War, and the last winter before they’d been captured. He and Robert had been stuck behind enemy lines – or what they presumed to be a defense perimeter of Union troops. It was bitterly cold, and most of the men were poorly dressed for the harsh weather conditions.

They’d managed to creep into a barn at an abandoned farmhouse, and had hoped to stay hidden until nightfall when they could sneak past the Yankee patrols and return to their own encampment.

Just as dusk settled, an old man had appeared in the doorway. No one had seen him approach, He was unarmed and there was nothing threatening about him, and he didn’t appear to be upset by the presence of soldiers. If anything, he seemed almost friendly.

"You can’t stay here," he warned.

"We plan to be gone soon enough," Robert had assured him. "As soon as it’s dark."

"No, you need to go now," the old man insisted. "It’s not safe. They know you’re here. They’ll find you.

And they’ll kill you."

"Well, they’re gonna have a fine ole time catchin’ us first!" Robert retorted with his typical raw wit.

He remembered it all very well.

"I think he’s right," he’d told Robert. Something about the old man confirmed his own instincts. "We need to get out of here … now!"

They’d roused the exhausted troops and headed into the surrounding woods. Minutes later Union troops surrounded the house and barn, shouting like lunatics, and fighting for the dubious honor of bagging the first Rebel soldier. Then they'd watched from the cover of darkness, as both buildings were set ablaze. The old man had vanished.

"You can’t stay here," a voice said clearly.

Clay jumped at the sudden sound. He strained to see through the darkness. There was no one there.

He must have been dreaming, although he wasn’t even aware that he’d dozed off. The last time he’d let down his guard the result had been disaster. This could be worse. He had to stay alert. He started off again along the bank, trying to focus what was around him. That would take all the concentration and energy he could generate, although both were in short supply.

"One step at a time," he had told his troops. "Don’t think of it as a long road with no visible end – just one step, then another, then another." They would get there together. They would all get there, or know the reason why. They were his men and his responsibility – no one else’s. They’d made it this far. No one had imagined they would ever make it this far, but they had.

What was he thinking? He wasn’t in the army anymore. He was halfway up a mountain, and alone. His feet no longer burned. They had lost all sensation, and his fingers felt like fence posts. He had to sit down, anywhere – just for a few minutes. It wasn’t that cold. At least, it didn’t feel that cold. The storm must have blown in the other direction. The wind wasn’t as strong as before, and the moon had risen over the trees, illuminating everything in a bizarre transfiguration.

The snow-covered landscape made everything look different– like the glass negative of a scenic photograph. The ground was white and the trees were dark. Why not? Everything else was the opposite of what it should look like. No color. No sign of life – just a bloodless sea of black and white where nothing was real, and everything was in reverse, and nothing was as it should be.

At least he had acclimated to the frigid temperature. In fact, he was actually beginning to feel warm. Fatigue was enemy now. He had to rest. If he closed his eyes – just for a few minutes, he could regain his strength and momentum. Then he could go on. Just a few minutes of sleep would be all he needed.

That was the trap, wasn’t it? Sleep, only for a while, and wake up dead. How tempting. How seductive.

It would be so easy to simply lie down and fall asleep – forever.

The thought of being lulled and caught so cleverly was maddening. He’d survived worse than this, and he’d survive this too. For God’s sake! How much more did he have to endure, then turn around and do it all over again, struggling out of one situation, just to go through more of he same damn…!

"It’s all right," a soft voice whispered. "I’m here, Darling. Everything will be all right."

It was the voice he always heard when he was consumed with anger and frustration – the voice he always depended on to calm him – Mary’s voice, assuring him that somewhere in this upside down world, all was well, and everything would be all right.

"I know," he answered. "As long as you’re with me, everything will be fine. I’m sure of it. Don’t worry. I’m here, and we’re together again – for good this time."

The warmth of her voice folded softly around him, gently comforting, as she touched his hand. "But you can’t stop – not yet. You have to come with me now."

"Mary," he pleaded, "I’m so tired. I just need to sleep … just for a little while."

"No! Not yet. Please. You can’t stay here. You have to get up now, and come with me, Clay. Please."

She was crying. The urgency of her voice startled him as he blinked into the darkness. He couldn’t bear to see her cry. "Oh, my sweet Mary, don't you know I was just teasin' you?"

He had to laugh. They’d quarreled during a walk by the pond at Brown’s Point – disagreed over some trivial matter he couldn't remember now. He'd shown his irritation at her persistence. Her dark eyes flashed with equal annoyance at his casual disregard for her feelings. They’d faced each other with angry looks … then tears … then desperate kisses of joy at their reconciliation. She’d never looked more beautiful.

"Come with me," she was saying. "Come with me now. We’ll make it, my darling. We’ll make it together. Please trust me. Please!"

He reached for her hand and the warmth of it enveloped him. So warm, so soft. Mary. Beside him again. Holding him again. Dear God, how could anything be more exquisite? His heart could barely contain the joy that filled him. Nothing would ever separate them again, he thought as they walked together, hand in hand, through the willows.

As they approached the lake, the water spread out before them with circles of dark blue shadows swirling and shimmering in silver moonlight.

"This is as far as I can go," she was saying. "I can’t come with you, my darling. Not now. Not yet. I can’t go any further. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry."

A chill raced through him. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. "What do you mean? We’re together now. What are you saying!"

Her hand reached up and touched his face, like a sweet, gentle kiss on his cheek.

"This is as far as I can come with you, my dearest. You must go on alone from here. Remember my voice. Remember my face. Remember that I love you as I always have, and always will – to the end of eternity, and beyond. Go now, and know that we will always be together."

"No, I can’t let this happen again. I won’t let you go this time."

"My sweet darling," she was saying, "Don’t you see, you don’t have to. I will always be with you. Always. Go now, quickly! Please, Clay, now!"

The lake stretched out in front of him, waiting. He had to find a way across it alone.

Its calm, languid depths beckoned him. Once more, he would have to leave her behind.

"No! I won’t leave you again!" he shouted. "I had to then. I’m sorry, but I won’t, ever again. I promise. Please believe me. I promise!"

Her hands clenched his wrists with a strength he’d never imagined she could possess, gripping him almost painfully, leaving him helpless in her desperate grasp, paralyzed by her eyes, unable to move. "I know it isn’t easy, Clay, but you have to go now. Neither of us has a choice. Don’t you see? There is nothing to decide. I love you so much … you can never imagine how much!"

The demons appeared out of nowhere … bright, satanic orbs glowing in the darkness just behind her … mad, fiendish eyes. Wolves’ eyes – hungry, threatening to attack at the first chance. He snatched his rifle, gripping it in both hands, unable to feel the weight of it, and fired blindly into the shadows.

The shots blasted fragments of rocks and earth into the air … exploding them into tiny pieces of light that drifted down until they melted onto the swirling blue surface. The water lapped over his feetand over his legswashing over his body, bathing him in silent, soothing pools of contentment. Stars sprinkled over the blanket of glistening snow, and moonlight poured down its shimmering veil of tranquility, wrapping him in its warm, comforting embrace.

* * *

Pain speared through his feet, and his hands, streaking up his arms and legs, like millions of sharp knives, jabbing him out of his foggy reverie and forcing him awake. A thin sliver of light stabbed at his eyes. He closed them tight against the intruding glare and turned his head away, toward the shadow. Very carefully, very slowly, he opened them again, just enough to allow the slightest amount of light. There was a ring around an undulating gold flame and an amber haze around that.

Something moved beside him. He turned his head to see, but his eyes refused to focus. In the dim light, he could barely make out the silhouette of a woman, or rather, a girl, with long hair – black as a raven’s wing – that fell in silky streams down her bare back. She rose, almost in slow motion, and walked silently away from where he lay.

He must still be asleep – dreaming, with his eyes open. He blinked himself awake and stared into the surrounding darkness. He closed them tightly, trying to rid them of the haziness, hoping that would help to return his sight. Nothing came into focus immediately, but at least he was adjusting to the light.

Something was stirring on the other side. Another woman, similar to the first, rose up and without a word, looked back at him as she, too, glided gracefully beyond the flickering amber haze … the same raven-black hair, and the same fluid, naked body….

This time his eyes stayed open. He strained to focus on her before she vanished in the shadows. He knew he wasn’t asleep and he wasn't hallucinating. As he lifted himself up on one elbow, yellow sparks darted up from the corners of his eyes, stabbing him as they spun off to each side. His vision dimmed, then darkened, then slowly brightened enough for him to make out the two figures that stood together some distance away. Both were now wrapped in long thick robes that reached to the floor. One of them seemed to be smiling.

"Good." A soft, low-pitched voice came from somewhere. "Good you are awake."

Both women knelt beside a small fire in a crude stone hearth. He looked around quickly, trying to locate the source of the voice he’d heard. A man sat on the other side of the dark room, rocking slightly as he puffed on a pipe. His hair was also long, but it was more silvery, and hung in plaits.

"You been asleep for a long time," he said quietly. Then he turned to the women and said something in a low voice. Both women nodded.

The words were strange, but the intonation was oddly familiar. It was almost as if he’d heard them before – somewhere. How was that possible? He looked at the two robed figures near the fire. One of the women was quite young. The other was somewhat older.

They were Mehtis. A silent panic surged through him. What was he doing in a Mehti camp? How in hell did he get here? He scanned the room in search of his Winchester. He couldn’t see it anywhere, but hung over a chair, close to the fire, were his overcoat and the clothes he’d been wearing.

For the first time he realized he was completely naked under the heavy fur blanket. Not only was he stark naked, but he’d been asleep under a bear hide – with two women.

He forced himself up as far as he could, ignoring the sparks and the dizziness. Where … how…. He couldn’t think, while the man in the chair rocked slowly back and forth, calmly puffing on his pipe. He raised one hand to rub his eyes and thumped himself on the forehead. He looked at his hand and saw that it was swathed in some kind of soft material, similar to that of his deerskin gloves. Both his hands were wrapped in it. So were his feet. He remembered the crushing pain that had gripped his hands and feet as he was struggling to cross the lake….

No. There was no lake. That was a dream. Mary. She'd been there with him. She’d spoken to him. She’d told him to…. But of course, that was a dream, too.

"You got lucky," the man went on. "Lot of men – they die easy up here. You got real lucky."

Clay sagged back down helplessly. That was the damn truth. Men had gone into these mountains to hunt and trap – experienced, and confident that they were prepared for anything – and had never been seen again. He couldn’t imagine why he wasn’t dead.

His mind hurried to piece together some possible explanation for what had happened. Somehow, they’d found him, before the blizzard had killed him and buried him. Otherwise, he’d be frozen stiff under a snowdrift – just like the old trapper had said. Like Doogan, and Dorothea – out there, in the snow. Nothing could hurt them now. He couldn't remember how far back he’d left them or even where exactly the accident had occurred.

For that matter, where was he? The small room was dark inside, with the only light provided by the fire and a small oil lamp which hung on a post near the opposite wall. Still, it was much warmer than the woods outside where he’d been for … how long? And how long had he been here?

The older woman stood up and moved toward him. With the long robe hiding her feet, she looked almost as if she was floating. In one hand she carried a small metal cup. Warm vapors lapped over the sides as the scent permeated the room. She knelt beside him, clutching the robe around her with one hand, while the other hand held a cup containing a pungent broth. She held it for him to drink, and as he sipped the steaming liquid he realized how hungry he was. The last time he’d eaten was back in Curtis Wells, however long that had been. The broth was gamy and a little salty. More importantly, it was hot.

The woman was saying something to him, but he couldn’t understand the words. "She says to go slow," the man responded to his perplexed expression. "Just a little at a time."

He was sure he could devour most of a side of beef without any trouble, but she was right. He should take it easy at first. He took another sip of the broth, letting it fill him with its savory warmth. Nothing he’d had in recent years had tasted so good. Nodding her encouragement and reassurance, she patiently held the cup for him until he’d finished. Then she stood up and returned to the fire.

He lay back, momentarily fatigued by the effort that the small, simple exercise had taken. He wasn’t sleepy – just tired. A hundred questions raced around his head, but he didn’t have the strength to talk. He’d rest for now and talk later. Maybe he’d sleep a little longer….

* * *

Gray skies melted into bright blue as the morning sunlight peeked through the small windows of the cabin.

All that had stayed hidden in the darkness of night was now visible, as he looked around the single room. The walls were roughly constructed of wooded planks and sealed here and there with sod. The hides of various game animals were draped on the inside, probably to help contain the heat that was generated from the fire. The hearth was constructed of large stones and reached to the ceiling. A few tattered, hand-woven mats covered the floor. His clothes were still on the chair where he’d seen them the night before, and his boots stood in one corner. Beside them, his Winchester leaned against the wall.

"Thought you’d sleep some more," the now familiar voice came from the far side of the cabin. "You had a long walk – out in the snow." The man chuckled as if he was amused at his guest’s near-fatal misadventure.

"If dead men could talk, they tell you to think twice next time."

He wanted to explain what had happened, but for some reason, it didn’t appear to be necessary. The man seemed to understand, and he was trying to reassure him that he was safe now. He was older than he had first appeared, and clearly older than either of the women.

Who were they? For that matter, where were they? He knew he hadn’t imagined them.

The man relit his pipe and took several long draws to get it going before he asked them. "My wife," he said, "and my daughter." He seemed to anticipate Clay’s questions. "They went out for more firewood. Snow stopped last night. Storm’s over by now. No more for awhile." He drew on the pipe again. "Good time to find more wood. Gets pretty cold at night," he mused as he stoked the fire.

Clay glanced over at the chair where his clothes had been hung to dry out in front of the open hearth. It might be a good time to get dressed before the women returned. On the other hand, they’d probably seen everything there was to see already. It would be rare enough to share a bed with a woman only to sleep, but not with two women. Not just two women, but a mother and daughter! That had to be a first.

"How did … " he started to ask, but he choked as he heard his own voice croak. The wind had left his throat raw and parched, and it was hard to speak above a whisper. They were the first words he spoken aloud since he’d awakened in this strange surrounding. "How did you …?"

"How did we find you in the storm?" Again the question was finished for him. "We were asleep when we heard two rifle shots. Only white men dumb enough to go hunting at night – in a blizzard." This time he grinned broadly. "You pretty lucky to have that long gun. Shots sound pretty close. I went outside to see and found you down by the river. It runs right by this place. You were only a little way from here."

It was an incredible piece of luck. In the storm and darkness, he hadn’t even seen the small cabin, and if he hadn’t fired his rifle, he'd have frozen to death, only a short distance away – just like the boy who was lost in the blizzard a few yards from the barn. He shivered at the thought of how close he’d come to dying.

"Your clothes be dry soon," he went on, as if he realized Clay’s discomfort at his current state of dishabille. "We get you something to put on." His eyes twinkled as he reached for a faded blanket.

"Don’t worry. Make sure nothing else gets frostbite." Laconic as he might be, the man possessed a rare wit, ironically reminiscent of Doogan and his crude "pecker" jokes.

At least he spoke serviceable English. Neither of the women spoke much at all. They were like two alluring ghosts, draped in their heavy robes as they moved silently about. Whoever this man was, he had good company in his sheltered hideaway. How long had he lived here? How had he survived at all?

More questions rose in his mind, momentarily displacing the concerns he’d had only a short time ago.

How had this quiet man, with an engaging sense of humor managed to live in apparent contentment with a wife and daughter, in such a hostile and dangerous place? He didn’t want to pry, or enquire about matters that were none of his business. They’d found him in the middle of the night and taken him in. They’d asked him nothing, nor had they questioned him in any way. Whatever they had wondered about him had remained unspoken. Their courtesy deserved to be acknowledged, and returned.

He was thirsty. The cold air had parched him, and his throat felt like sandstone. In his dazed state the night before, he’d tried to rub his eyes and inadvertently hit himself in the mouth with his thickly wrapped hand. His lip, already cracked and bleeding from the severe exposure, was still sore. Sitting on the floor with only a blanket around him, he felt like a lost child.

The man put down his pipe and turned to the hearth where a large wooden bucket had been placed. He poured some water into the metal cup beside it and brought it over to where Clay sat. With his fingers bound up, he had to use both hands to hold it, but the water soothed his throat as he drank. It was the purest taste he could remember – not like the water he was used to, but amazingly fresh – almost sweet in its crisp, unadulterated clarity.

"Thank you," he whispered. The hoarseness was diminishing, but his throat still grated with each word he tried to speak. He took another drink and handed back the cup.

The man simply nodded, returned to his rocking chair, and picked up his pipe. He took a long branch out of the fire to relight it. "I carved this pipe a long time ago," he said as he casually leaned back in the chair. "It’s just starting to smoke good now. It takes time. Everything takes time."

The utter simplicity of his statement underscored its deeper truth. He was right, Clay thought. Everything takes time. Whether it’s seasoning a homemade pipe, or aging a good scotch blend, or learning to love someone….

The thought caught him off guard. Where did that come from? He hadn’t thought about anything even remotely to do with love for – who knows how long? Why would he think about that now, and here, of all places? He’d just narrowly escaped death. What did that have to do with love?

"You can stay here now," the man was saying." When you are stronger, you can return home."

How many people in Curtis Wells would be so generous to a complete stranger? He couldn’t think of many. He wasn’t sure his own hospitality would have extended so far, given the circumstances. All that was certain was that he’d been incredibly lucky. And for the first time in many years, he felt completely safe.

He pulled the blanket tighter around him, even though the cabin was warm and comfortable. He wasn’t used to being so exposed, but somehow, that didn’t seem to matter very much. Suddenly, everything had been reduced to bare bone reality. The art of simple survival was all that mattered. Everything else could damn well wait. As the man had said, "Everything takes time."

Clay looked across the room at his mysterious host who sat calmly in his rocking chair, smoking his pipe.

As the old man glanced out the window, the smoke from the pipe drifted toward the ceiling, slowly spreading its aromatic scent though the small cabin. He seemed to be absorbed in thoughts of his own.

So many questions raced through his mind, but it would be impolite to intrude on this man’s privacy. He sat quietly, listening to the wind and the few birds that called to each other outside. Nothing in his life had ever been so amazingly simple, or uncomplicated – or so completely honest. It was an extraordinary feeling.

The man sighed as he puffed on his pipe, sending another cloud of filmy smoke into the air. Slowly he rose from the rocking chair and moved closer to the window. He had to know that his unexpected guest was perplexed with his situation, and still somewhat stunned by his frightening odyssey. He seemed to be searching for something outside as he tapped the spent tobacco out of his pipe. A shaft of late morning sunlight cast sharp highlights and shadows on the chiseled contours of his face. His silver-laced hair contrasted with his dark, hooded eyes. As he stood by the window, watching … waiting, he looked like a great bird of prey – a hawk, or maybe an eagle, splendidly carved in granite.

Clay looked around the dusky interior of the cabin. Its plain furnishings were rudimentary at best, but the austere, almost primitive setting radiated warmth and comfort. There was so much he wanted to know, but asking questions felt inexplicably awkward as he searched for the right words. Even his vocabulary seemed to have been reduced to its barest essentials.

"I … forgive me," he faltered, "I don’t mean to be …personal, but, you’re so far from everything out here. How did you get here? What made you chose to live in such a … remote part of the country?" Why would anyone seclude himself in such a harsh and forbidding place, with two women – in a primeval forest on a treacherous mountain slope? He couldn’t imagine an answer to that query. The Big Belt and Bitter Root ranges had been the only refuge left to many fatherless Mehti families after a long war. Homeless and hounded relentlessly in the wake of a bitter defeat, the remaining Mehtis had fled where no one dared to pursue them. Some had managed to survive the merciless winters and had met the challenges they’d encountered in the uninhabited backcountry. Most had not.

Almost immediately, he regretted the enquiry. It was certainly not a subject for polite supper conversation.

He should not have said anything.

The man remained at the window, looking out at the wintry landscape. The pale sunlight faded as clouds dimmed the sky, softening the shadows and darkening the room even more. Undulating smoke drifted upward, curling in translucent waves above his head. "It’s a reasonable question," the man answered, as if he hadn’t anticipated it already.

"I had a family," he began. "Long time ago, in the country you call Dakotas." He leaned on the rough windowsill and gazed out into the distance. "My father was a holy man. You would call him a chief. I had a wife and two sons. When the white settlers came, my father told us sooner or later, they would bring war with them. Many wars would come. We could run, or we could defend our home and families like our fathers, and their fathers before them. The spirits of our ancestors lived there. And so, we went to war.

Many fought bravely. But they fought a battle that could only be lost, and they died for a cause that could not survive. When the fighting was over, my wife and sons were taken away. I was taken prisoner by the blue soldiers. That is where I learned the white man’s English – in the white man’s prison. It made no sense at first, but later I found it was useful sometimes. I knew when I returned to my home I could speak to other white men and find a way to live in their world. My world was no more, but remembering it kept me alive – the thought that my wife and sons were waiting for me. Then soldiers came and told us we could go home. We should go home and work to feed our families. We walked for four months to reach our home. Many died along the way and we buried them where they died. When I got home I was told that my wife and my sons were dead. They had been killed a few days after I was taken prisoner and sent away. I didn’t know what had happened to them. All that time, they were dead. No one could tell me where they were buried."

His voice trailed off. Clay heard the man’s words echoing like his own painful memories, but he could not bear to look at him.

"I could not stay there," he went on. "I left with many others. No one followed us. It was a long journey – too hard for some after they had already come so far. I spent the first winter in these mountains and when the snow melted I decided to stay. My wife and my daughter are my family now. We are safe. No one will follow us here. We will not have to fight again. My journey is done."

Something outside had caught the man’s attention. The women had returned. Clay could hear their laughter, echoing softly, like bells, through the chilly air. As they approached, he heard a thud as armloads of firewood were dropped just outside. The door opened as they stomped the snow off their thick leather leggings. They both smiled to see their guest fully awake. He wondered what they must be thinking of him, snuggly wrapped in his blanket, like an old woman. He’d been inside all the time they were laboring outside in the cold. It was embarrassing, but no one else seemed to think anything about it. They were busy, and evidently content with "women’s work". It all seemed perfectly normal.

As they stood, warming themselves by the fire, the younger woman looked back at him. She could not be more than fifteen. Her dark eyes danced as she whispered something inaudibly and covered a shy giggle with one hand. The older woman said something to her and laughed softly.

The man chuckled. "She never saw a man with whiskers before," he explained. "She says first she thought you must be spirit of mountain goat. Now she says you are more like ... skinny buffalo."

Close enough. A person would have to be part mountain goat to live up here. On the other hand, the comparison to a buffalo wasn't entirely unreasonable. With his beard and dark, curly hair, that must be what he resembled to her. To be fair, he had occasionally been the subject of less flattering commentary.

He feigned a frown and rubbed his chin with one bandaged hand, pretending to take her observations under serious consideration. She giggled again, and hid her face behind her shawl. He started to laugh, but his chafed lips reminded him how painful that was. Reflexively, his hand went to his mouth. If he lived to be one hundred, he'd never get used to the cold.

The older woman noticed his reaction, and reached for a small earthenware bowl that sat in front of the fire with several other vessels of similar size and shape. She picked it up and stirred the contents with her fingers. Returning to where he sat, she knelt and spoke softly in words he could not decipher. Then, very gently, she touched one finger to his lower lip and smoothed the warm substance over it. It was salty, but felt surprising soothing to the touch. He didn’t recognize the taste, or the strange, tingling sensation it brought, but it was altogether quite pleasant. Again, he looked over to his host for an explanation.

"Bear grease. Taste good, uh?" The man’s eyes twinkled with amusement.

Bear grease. Splendid. Clay cringed, closing his eyes as mild revulsion gave way to reluctant acceptance. What the hell, why not? He could feel his strength returning, but he was still virtually helpless, and little more than an intruder in a frigid oasis, in the middle of a forbidden wilderness. Compared to everything else that had happened, how much worse could a little bear grease be?

In fact, it wasn’t all that bad. His cracked lips already felt better. The woman arose, content that her remedy was successful, and returned the bowl to the hearth. Bear grease for breakfast. What next? At this point he was prepared for just about anything – almost anything. He was also hungry enough to consume anything that didn’t try to bite him first – even if it was skunk stew and snake soup. But from now on, he wouldn’t ask.

The woman returned and knelt down again beside him. As gently as before, she took one of his swathed hands in hers and carefully unwrapped it. She studied it as she turned it over, then back. His fingers felt stiff from their brief mummification, but they had regained their sensation, and it was apparent that their former dexterity would also return.

Evidently satisfied with his progress, she nodded her approval, and proceeded to unwrap the other hand. Flexing his fingers was painful at first, but it was a great relief to have them back again. He could easily have lost them all to the severe frostbite. His feet were still too swollen to put on his boots, but at least now he could get back in his clothes.

Checking to be sure they were dry, the older woman gathered them up and placed them in front of him. Then both women headed outside again, laughing softly as they closed the door behind them. In their brief absence, he hurriedly pulled on his rumpled clothing. Their concern for his modesty was purely a formality at this point, but it was a gesture of courtesy to him, and obviously, a source of amusement to them.

This was not exactly how a well-bred gentleman dressed for dinner, he thought as he peered down at his rumpled attire. He must look like one of the unkempt drifters that frequented the #10, but it was better than sitting in the corner wrapped in a blanket.

As evening approached, the women prepared the main meal. With the days so short, they had fewer hours of daylight to complete their work, and that centered on making sure there was plenty to eat during the long months when game was scarce. Still, one successful hunting trip could feed a family for quite some time, and the small household appeared to be well-stocked.

Skunk stew was not on the menu, but elk was. Clay had never experienced anything, particularly any wild game that was as flavorful. It was succulent, almost sweet, and incredibly tender. Whatever else his host did, he was a very capable hunter and an excellent provider for his family. The unique, one-course meal was more than enough to fill him, and it was hard to remember having anything so tasty. It certainly didn’t need any imported brandy to wash it down, but the notion of a relaxing smoke passed through his mind.

It suddenly occurred to him that he’d tucked a couple of cigars in his coat pocket just before he’d gotten on the stage. He reached in his pocket and discovered, despite all that had happened, the two slender cigars still there, right where he put them. One was badly mashed, but the other was more or less intact.

He held them up to compare the damage, and offered the better one to his host. The man reached out to accept the misshapen cigar, inhaled its aroma like a seasoned tobacco expert, and nodded his appreciation.

"Good smoke," he grinned as he lit them both from a long smoldering twig. The two women seemed to be amused by the men’s form of after dinner relaxation, but Clay was glad that he’d finally been able to contribute something, even as small a token as a bent cigar. It was all he had to offer, but the gesture was received with obvious pleasure. Sometimes the simplest things were the most enjoyable.

The man looked out toward the fading sunset as he puffed thoughtfully on the cigar, and raised his head slightly to release a breath of pale blue smoke. "No ke ano ahiahi," he murmured quietly.

Clay looked over at him. They were the first words he’d heard him say in his own language.

"Best time of day," he said contentedly. "The evening time. No one dies in the evening time."

Clay looked past him into the soft lavender glow of dusk. It was true. It all seemed so simple – for now.

Before long, he would be back in Curtis Wells, where nothing was simple. In some ways he almost envied his new friends for the purity of their Spartan existence, and maybe also for their closeness, and their ability to share companionship with a total stranger.

This man had not had an easy life, but his sense of contentedness permeated the little household like the warmth that filled their cabin. After all he’d been through, seen, experienced, and survived, he seemed completely at peace.

How would that ever be possible? Looking out at the snow-covered hillside, he could only imagine what it must be like.

"Tomorrow, I'll show you a different road to take back," the man said. "You'll see, this one – it’s a lot better."

Anything would be better than the route he'd chosen. He wasn’t cut out to be a mountain man, but somehow he’d discovered a very different road – one he had never expected to find.

He nodded in agreement. He should get back to civilization, such as it was, as soon as he was able to travel. That wouldn’t be long. He felt much stronger after eating and sleeping for … how long had it been – three days, or was it four now? No matter. He’d be back when he got back. It was as simple as that.

The sky was blue at the higher elevations. Pristine, snow-capped peaks rose above the frosted timberline. No clouds meant no more snow, at least for the moment. The storm he’d blundered into had arisen in what seemed like a matter of minutes. He hadn’t been as watchful as conditions had warranted. He’d been absorbed in business matters, distracted by the railroad problems, eager to get to Billings to conclude the details, anxious to get back in a hurry to take care of more business. And in the process, he'd failed to notice the deadly menace that loomed directly in his path.

The oversight was inexcusably careless, and his impatience had nearly cost him his life. It was a lesson learned over and over by foolhardy individuals – usually with tragic results, and it was one he would not forget. When he got back to Curtis Wells he would consider his decisions with a more objective concern for their consequences, and from a very different perspective.

He'd also open a new case of imported Scotch and avail himself of several satisfying rounds of the good stuff. Strange, it occurred to him, up to now, he hadn’t even missed it.

He hadn’t realized just how comfortable he’d been until he was finally able to get up and move around. It was painful to walk as he gingerly crept around the small interior. Every strained muscle seemed to cry out in protest, and every bruise reminded him of the battering he’d taken. He’d survived, if only narrowly, but two other people were dead, and as far as anyone else knew, so was he. Even if anyone had come looking for him, they would never have found him in the snow. As violent and destructive as men could be, none held a candle to nature’s unholy wrath.

As he padded around the cabin in his socks to get his legs working again he felt his energy and strength slowly returning. He should try to leave before another storm arrived. A man could tempt fate only so many times, and at least for now, he had no desire to test his luck any further.

Daylight hours were brief in the winter, and the nights were long. It left a great deal of quiet time to think.

In the darkness, Clay lay awake most of the night, listening to the wind singing through the pine trees and wondering how he’d been so fortunate as to be found in such a vast and ominous surrounding.

"Fortunate" was hardly the word for it. If not for an extraordinary turn of fate, he would have died on this mountain, and no one would ever have known. A man he had never met had left the safety of his home and ventured into the darkness of a deadly storm to search for a lost stranger. Two women he’d never seen before had cared for him when he was helpless to save himself. There, in the midst of a perilous winter night, they’d saved his life.

How could he thank them? They wanted nothing and needed nothing, and they’d asked for nothing. He couldn’t think of anything that would be equal to the kindness they’d shown to him, and now it was time for him to leave. They seemed to understand. Of course, they’d known that from the beginning, but it was troubling to leave with no way to repay them.

As he contemplated his return to Curtis Wells, ideas about his business, concerns about the town, worries of all descriptions crowded his mind. Come to think about it, how would he actually get back? Walking would take a long time, and the possibility of being caught in another storm was too unnerving to contemplate.

Of course, people had walked further than that to travel across the country, but not alone, and certainly not in winter. He couldn’t ask anything else from his newly found friends. They’d already done more for him than he could ever return.

There was a lot to think about. From now on, he would give considerably more thought to the whole matter of consequences. Life was full of choices, and a wise man should take care that those choices were based on wisdom, not temperament or pure caprice. When it came down to it, what was any man but the sum of his own decisions? And how was he measured except by the courage he found to make them?

* * *

Bright sunlight streamed throughout the cabin. Clay opened his eyes to see the women both by the fire, evidently cooking something. When he stretched, his shoulder and ribs ached, but it felt good to move more freely again. As he pulled on his boots he noticed that his pipe-smoking friend was not in the cabin. He must be outside somewhere. The women both turned and smiled at him as the girl added another large log to the fire. They’d been careful not to wake him, but now he felt strangely self-conscious being alone with them.

He was hardly unaccustomed to the company of women, either in a social setting, or privately, but this was different – not at all unpleasant, just different from anything he’d ever experienced. The intimacy they had shared had been a matter of practical and urgent necessity, with none of the physical fascination that normally inspires such close contact.

Where Dorothea had been concerned, his own intentions could hardly be claimed as innocent. Maybe it was the combination of cool charm and casual indifference that made her so appealing, and so tempting. Her responsiveness had hinted at mutual attraction. Her eyes had teased him, suggesting that her reserved demeanor concealed a pagan soul. There was no question that she’d engaged in a demure flirtation, and had subtly invited him to pursue her. After all, Dorothea Donnelly was an attractive woman, physically and socially desirable by any standard. She was educated, intelligent, and one of few women in the territory who might have been interesting company on an intellectual level. And yet, of the fine qualities she had possessed, there had been no indication that compassion was among them. All her charm and flirtatious allure had not contained so much as a spark of human warmth.

How strange, that a man’s conscious desires could be so different from his real needs. The people who had come to his rescue and taken him into their own home without the slightest hesitation, would be regarded as little more than savages by the rest of "polite society." But in a simple act of kindness they had intervened in a desperate situation where, without their help, he would surely have perished. Few long-time acquaintances could match the compassion and care he’d received from total strangers.

With these women, he’d felt no physical desire, no palpable reality, or even the slightest awareness of their presence until he’d awakened from his cold-induced sleep. They’d pried off his frozen clothing and lain naked beside him, using their own bodies to warm him. They'd withdrawn when he’d first begun to stir, covered themselves quickly, and patiently allowed him to adjust to the unfamiliar surroundings. But in the stillness of that dark night, and beyond the depths of his consciousness, they'd radiated more than their warmth to him as they gently coaxed him back from the edge of death.

There had been no questions, no conditions, and no expectation of reward. The life that had flowed back into him was a gift offered generously, with uncomplicated honesty, and bestowed with a spirit born of purest innocence. Their only purpose was to give shelter and comfort to a lost traveler, and they had cared for him as tenderly as they would a small child.

Their lives were simple, and guided by fundamental rules in a rudimentary, almost ascetic existence.

But then, what actually distinguished a sophisticated society from a primitive one? For most it might be the ability to analyze and articulate one’s ideas in some formal, erudite manner. Then, for a special few, there seemed to be some higher plane of communication on which one could share those feelings directly and honestly, even without words. It was arguable as to who possessed the greater wisdom.

There was something outside. Both women looked up at the same time. Clay went to the window to see who, or what, was just outside the cabin. To his relief, the old man had returned from wherever he’d disappeared to earlier. He was leading a horse – one of the horses that had broken loose from the stage. The harness was still fastened.

Clay hurried outside, not even stopping to grab his overcoat. He could hardly believe it. The horses had bolted when the stage had plunged down the hillside and the harness had given way. Amazingly, this horse had escaped serious injury. Even more incredibly, it had apparently followed a route similar to the one he’d taken along the riverbank. How the animal had managed to wander this far, he could not imagine.

The man beamed at his acquisition. "Make pretty good plow pony," he chortled, "if we had anything to plow." He gazed around thoughtfully. "Be pretty hard to try to plow around all these trees. Maybe better if you just ride him back home." With that he stomped the snow off his feet and went inside.

Clay stood in the snow, speechless as he stared at the horse. The big bay snorted and shook his head to loosen the remaining fragments of frost that clung to his mane. He appeared unscathed with only a few small scratches. Clay reached out and stroked the animal’s nose and forehead. "Nags", Doogan had called his team, "shaggy, good-for-nothin’ hayburners!" Clay couldn’t disagree more. This horse wouldn’t win any races, but at the moment, he looked as fine as any thoroughbred he'd ever ridden. It was his way home.

He realized he was out in the cold without a coat. It wouldn’t do to catch pneumonia now. He hurried back inside to the warmth of the cabin. He would leave soon, but eager as he had been to get back to civilization, something inside him hinted at regret. He couldn’t stay even if he wanted to. He didn’t belong here.

He belonged in Curtis Wells. It had taken him long enough to finally find a place to belong again, a town and a home that was his. He would leave soon. Tomorrow.

* * *

Morning had come quickly. It had all happened so fast, as if only moments had passed since he had awakened in the small cabin, frostbitten and nearly frozen to death. Now the two women were tying an extra blanket and a parcel of provisions on the horse for his long ride back to town. They looked small beside the huge animal – two women of enigmatic beauty, of tenderness and quiet grace, whose gentle strength had given him back his life. He didn’t even know their names. For some reason, it didn't seem necessary.

He looked back at them as they stood together outside the cabin door, wrapped in their long robes, smiling their goodbyes. They would remain there, waiting until the men were out of sight. He knew he would not see them again.

The older woman nodded her encouragement as she had done all along – serenely and calmly, quietly assuring him that despite all the doubts and fears that haunted him, all would be well. The girl’s face was nearly hidden behind her shawl. Her shy smile was barely visible, but her dark eyes glowed softly, reflecting the sparkle of glistening white snow.

* * *

Clay led the horse by the harness as he followed the man through several narrow passages between the cliffs and through a dense forest of pines whose limbs bent low, heavy with snow and ice. Their crystal spires reached up, clean as arrows, pointing skyward. Sunlight flickered through the branches, illuminating their lacey edges with frosted prisms of color. Crisp, frozen leaves crackled under their feet and icicles tinkled with each breath of wind. He felt almost mesmerized by the austere and untamed wilderness that surrounded them for miles on all sides, awed by the stark elegance of this unforgiving land – fascinated, and reverent as never before, of its dangerous, deceptive beauty.

After several miles of winding paths and thick forest, they arrived at a wide landing on the edge of a cliff that faced north toward the low hills and plateaus, and back to "civilization." From the rocky shelf they could look across the valley that stretched before them like a huge white lake. There was still a long way to go.

"They call this ‘Eagles’ Castle’," the man was saying. "You can make it the rest of the way by yourself. You just do like I told you. You will have no trouble finding your way back."

For a moment the man stood silently as he looked out from shadowed eyes, over the mountain vista, like an eagle surveying his kingdom from a lofty, stone fortress. Then as he turned, his weathered face revealed an expression Clay had not seen before.

"No one knows about this trail." His voice was solemn. "No one has ever seen it…."

"And no one will," Clay finished the thought aloud, just as so many of his own thoughts had been. "You have my word on that." He offered his hand on his promise.

"Good," the man answered, nodding as he reached out to confirm the covenant.

Clay felt a wave of calm, quiet strength, and a strange sense of peace radiate through him, as if somehow it flowed from the man’s hand into his own. The old man only smiled.

"How can I thank you?" Clay groped for words that could express what he felt. "How can I ever …"

"You be smart to think twice, next time you feel like wandering around in a snow storm. And no more hunting at night," he admonished with a wide grin. "I get so I’m too old to run out looking for you all the time."

Clay pulled himself onto the harness and adjusted himself on the animal’s broad back. Settling as securely as he could in the makeshift riggings, he turned the horse around to wave one last goodbye to his friend before he disappeared back into the forest.

He was already gone.

Clay sat on the horse’s back and gazed northward over the mountains. As a breeze swept the chilling mist across the treetops, a solitary eagle glided effortlessly over head, dipping its wings before it vanished into the distance.

He looked across the timberline, breathing in the tingling scent of pines as he scanned the horizon. He sat for a moment, listening to the wind as it sang through the tall trees, to the whisper of powder snow sifting down from heavily laden branches, to the birds who called to each other from their rocky hideaways … to the sounds of a once forbidden realm that no longer seemed bleak and barren.

Something else felt different. From the anguished ruins of Virginia, across miles of war-ravaged countryside, to sultry, seductive New Orleans, then North to a remote Montana settlement on the untamed Western frontier – the road that led to Curtis Wells had been a difficult one. It had been a long journey, fraught with turbulence, and plagued with one violent upheaval after another. Now, for some reason, the challenges and relentless aggravations in Curtis Wells no longer seemed so … unconquerable.

Maybe it was the haunting beauty of a wilderness that swept outward in all directions, and the serenity and solitude that one felt, all alone on a mountaintop. Or maybe it was the stark realization of how close Death had actually come … or the memory of how warm and soft the touch of a human hand could be. If only for the moment, the constant pain of regret seemed to fade, and the bitter, all-consuming emptiness that robbed him of every joy, had somehow loosened its vengeful grip. He'd traveled a long way in both time and distance, but in the last few days it felt as though he’d come almost as far, this time along a very different road. It was a journey he would not forget.

The sunlight felt warm on his face as he pulled the blanket from its bindings, drew it around his shoulders, and gently nudged the horse back toward the trail to begin the long descent down the mountainside.

As he followed the rugged track back along the timberline, down through the tree-lined riverbeds and between great stone facades, he took care to identify every landmark the old man had described to him. He’d carefully memorized the directions so there was no danger of any written instructions being lost.

Everything appeared as it was expected to appear, and with amazing accuracy. Every detail he’d been told was precisely as he’d pictured it. The trail would lead him home.

At last, Clay stood on the ridge of the mountain’s northern perimeter. Below it, nestled comfortably in a shallow valley, lay Curtis Wells. He paused on the ridge for a moment, watching the late afternoon sun sink into the amber sky. He had no notion of how far he’d ridden. It would be dark before long, but there was still a chance to stop for a moment and enjoy the calm at the end of the day – the evening time, when everything was peaceful. He'd take time to do that from now on. Slowly, almost reluctantly, he coaxed the bay forward and headed down the hill.

As he approached the outskirts, a few inquisitive inhabitants of Tent Town emerged from their canvas dwellings to greet their community’s most prominent citizen with expressions ranging from the mildly curious to the thoroughly astonished. Stranger sights had been witnessed in Curtis Wells, but Col. Francis Clay Mosby had seldom been a part of them. Once past Tent Town, he stopped, dismounted, and led his trusty steed down the street to the livery.

"Hey there, Mr. … Mosby?" The owner turned and stared in wide-eyed wonder at the town’s foremost benefactor who stood before him, unshaven, unkempt, wrapped in a faded Indian blanket, and leading a horse by the remnants of its broken harness.

"Give him a good rubdown, Mr. McNally." Clay handed the severed reins to the livery owner. "And some extra hay. He’s earned it." He stroked the animal’s sturdy neck and turned away.

"Yes, Sir … right away, Mr. Mosby." The stableman took the tattered reins and led the horse into the barn.

Clay pulled off the blanket, folded it over one arm, and started across the street. He'd get cleaned up first, then he'd have something to eat at the Dove. Tonight he would sleep in his own bed.

"Mosby! Where the hell you been?" He didn’t recognize the voice, but the gruff tone was all too familiar.

He glanced toward the source of the noise and spotted two cattle hands leaning on the railing outside the mercantile. "’Bout time you got back," one of the cowboys chided. "You got some thirsty men waitin'."

What a surprise, Clay thought as he proceeded across the muddy street to the boardwalk. The voice belonged to a part-time ranch hand, mostly-a-drifter named Jenkins. It was only a matter of time until his face was featured on a wanted poster, but for now, he was merely a horsefly on the rump of society.

"We’ll be open for business tomorrow," Clay advised the cowhand. It was apparent that he’d already been a guest at the #10. "At the moment, we’re closed."

"Well don’t that beat all!" the miscreant bawled. "Looks like any skulkin’ injun can get a drink wherever and whenever he feels like it. But us working folks, well, we got to wait till Mr. ‘High ‘n Mighty’ Mosby gets it in his mind to open up – just for us!"

"Then I suggest you come back another time," Clay answered. There were financial matters to be attended to, a stack of paperwork to review, correspondence to answer, myriad concerns that required his attention, and a few items of unfinished business with various individuals in town. Jenkins could wait. All he wanted now was a hot bath, a fresh change of clothes, and a good stiff drink – in that order.

"Well, it don’t look like Mr. Mosby here’s interested in his regulars, just taking off like that."

"Jenkins, you are tiresome." There was no point in responding to the uncouth drifter. Besides, Ike was in charge during his absence, and he could deal with the drunken cowhand. "I’m busy at the moment," Clay growled impatiently.

Jenkins was evidently not prepared to quit his own game so easily. "Yeah, I can see that," he persisted. "Been having a good time up there with them hot little injun gals, have ya? I had me one or two of them myself. Had us a fine ole time!"

Clay turned to the cowboy. "That’s enough, Jenkins. Go home." His voice was calm and deliberate.

"Yes, suh! Yes, SUH, Colonel, SUH!"

Clays eyes narrowed as their shadows deepened. Several people had already ducked inside the nearest door they could find. Jenkins was insufferable and, unbeknownst to himself, dangerously insistent.

"Yeah," he announced to the few brave souls who remained outside. "I reckon Colonel Mosby's been havin’ hisself a real good time, too. Ain’t that right? Those little gals can put up a right good fight when they want to. ’Course, when you’re through, you can always skin ‘em, and have ‘em for breakfast."

Clay looked at the scruffy cowhand who stood grinning in amusement at his own vulgarity. He reached out, grabbed the ruffian by the front of his shirt and smashed his fist squarely into the man’s face.

The cowboy went sailing backward over the edge of the boardwalk, completing a nearly perfect summersault before his body landed with a heavy splat into the mud.

Clay shook the stinging vibration out of his hand, and almost instantly the tension vanished from of his strained muscles. It felt wonderful.

"Hey! Wha'd you go and do that for!" Jenkins sputtered.

Clay looked at the mud-soaked cowhand lying in the street in front of him. "Just for the hell of it!"

He took a long, satisfying breath, released it slowly, tugged his wrinkled waistcoat down and straightened it into place. "Beyond that, I doubt you’d have much understandin’."

That was the honest and unfortunate truth. The fool could not understand, and he never would. Neither would most of the esteemed citizens of Curtis Wells – not now, probably not in his lifetime – maybe not ever.

On the other hand, maybe it didn’t matter that much. There were other things that were more important.

There was a business to manage, and a town to take care of, and most importantly, a vision to realize.

It would take time. But it would all happen … eventually.

Meanwhile, it might be a good idea to check his inventory, as well as his own private stock. He was in the mood for a drink and a twenty-year-old Islay single malt would do nicely. The usual clientele would be happy with their common rotgut variety. Even if a few had more cultivated preferences, the many would continue to indulge as they saw fit. A man was entitled to that which he could obtain for himself. "You’re as good as the whisky you drink." He couldn’t recall exactly who had made the definitive pronouncement, but it sounded reasonable.

Clay glared as the hapless drifter picked up his hat and stumbled off toward the #10 where there was enough redeye to satisfy the entire population of Curtis Wells. He brushed off his coat as he watched Jenkins retreat up the street. This might be a good time to re-evaluate his own immediate priorities – or at least to reorganize those priorities, in order of importance. The hot bath had waited this long, and it could wait a little longer. So could the clean clothes.

A good, stiff drink, however – that was another matter entirely. A man was, indeed, as good as the whiskey he drank. He dusted off his hands, and, with a sigh headed off in the direction of the Ambrosia Club for a glass of the good stuff.

THE END

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January 26, 2003


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