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.
Nine-thirty. Another long night. Within the hour, more customers would wander in from the No.10, gradually replacing the regulars as they finished last rounds. A steady night for the bar usually meant a decent night for gambling. It would probably go on until dawn. Good news for the till.
Clay roughly calculated the evening’s take so far. Unusually warm autumn weather always turned out thirsty customers. So did cold winter weather, and rainy and exceptionally dry weather. Whatever Curtis Wells lacked in commercial enterprise, it rarely ran short of saloon patrons.
Cigar smoke clogged the far corners of the saloon. Scattered conversations mellowed into an even hum, interrupted by occasional laughter. It was good that the place was so busy. It was also too early to be tired. Clay rubbed his eyes. He’d catch up on sleep later.
From outside a crude serenade, accompanied by more raucous laughter and a few randomly chosen expletives, grew louder as two more customers staggered up the street. The revelers clung to each other for support, warbling an unrecognizable tune and cheerfully proclaiming their intention to drink the town dry as they made their way toward the Ambrosia. Evidently business was good at both ends of town. A rowdy fanfare announced their arrival as the cowboys stumbled through the doors.
Their entrance was greeted in turn with a shrill, banshee-like cry and the frenzied flapping of wings as an owl swooped down from the rafters in a blast of feathers and squawks. The bird flailed about the room in blind confusion, banging against the ceiling in a frantic attempt to escape.
"What the hell!" someone hissed as the terrified creature bumped and screeched its way toward the front of the saloon. A few more colorful curses ushered the bird out the entrance where it vanished in a swirl of feathers and dust. An agitated calm settled over the room as the last few tufts of down drifted to the floor.
"A goddamn owl!" Ike’s voice quavered as he huddled at the far end of the bar, using his hat to swish away a few errant feathers. "That’s a bad sign for sure."
"It will be if you don’t stop acting like an old biddy hen," Clay chided. "Forget that superstitious nonsense and get back to work." Ike could be a pain in the ass when he wanted to, and this wasn’t the time to be scaring away paying customers.
"Them’s bad luck, Mr. Mosby." Ike stood with his crumpled hat in his hands as he issued the feeble warning. "I’m tellin’ ya – real bad luck."
"Well, that is truly unfortunate, Ike, since there’s at least one in every barn around here. I’m afraid we’ll all just have to manage as best we can in spite of them." Clay strode the length of the room, inspecting the ceiling for openings where the bird might have entered. He’d have one of the boys check the roof tomorrow. "Meanwhile, in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s plenty to do around here. Now get on with it. And stop behaving like a frightened schoolgirl. That poor bird was more terrified of you than you were of it."
"I ain’t so sure ‘bout that," Ike mumbled as he shuffled out from behind the bar.
Ridiculous, Clay fumed. How could a grown man be so timid and so frightened of a simple barn owl, and so superstitious? Regional folklore declared that an owl was often regarded as a harbinger of doom and was viewed by some as a symbol of death, but only poorly educated people really believed that sort of mythical nonsense.
He strolled past a group of men who milled around the roulette table. "How ‘bout another round, boys?"
That was always a welcome suggestion. A sober gambler was a cautious gambler, although in the Ambrosia sobriety was rarely a hindrance. He made his way through the gathering and returned to his customary place behind the bar. From that vantage point he could keep an eye on everything.
The surface was wet with small puddles of various libations and substances, including some misdirected tobacco spittle. Evidently, not everyone in the crowd had been instructed in the proper use of a spittoon.
He pulled out a dry towel from behind the counter and proceeded to mop up the spills, vaguely aware of the lull in the drone of voices.
Clay looked up from the bar as he wiped off the few remaining spots. A thin, poorly dressed man stood in the doorway. At first the man’s features were blurred by the smoky haze that surrounded him, but as he stepped forward they came into focus. A ragged, ill-fitting coat concealed the form within it, but the face was that of a weary man, worn down and old before his time.
Clay didn’t recognize him, but he knew the expression. The scraggly beard, the sallow face and deeply lined forehead, the hollowed, leaden eyes – all were disturbingly familiar, like the empty faces of the men he’d seen toward the end of the War. In the warmth of the summer night, Clay felt a chill shiver through him.
Ordinarily it would be rather impractical to select one’s clientele solely on the basis of appearance, but from the looks of him it was obvious that the man had little or no money. He was probably looking for a free drink or a handout. For two bits he might just go away without pestering anyone else.
The stranger proceeded to within a few feet of the bar, and stopped. "You Clay Mosby?" It sounded more like an accusation than a question.
Clay quickly assessed the man. There was no horse outside and nothing about his attire provided a clue to his identity. His memory for faces was generally good, but he couldn’t recall ever seeing this one. Even so, the stranger seemed to know who he was. That was disquieting.
"Somethin’ I can do for you?"
The stranger’s gaze drifted away for a moment, then back. "In a manner a’ speakin’. It’s taken me a while to get here." Then the look hardened. He took a long breath, as if it took all his strength to do so, and faced Clay squarely.
"My name’s Redmont. Ezekiel Redmont."
Clay looked at the gaunt, weathered figure in front of him. For a second he thought he had simply heard wrong. Something had distracted him, or maybe other noises had obscured what the man was saying. Ezekiel Redmont. His mind went blank. The sounds around him faded into silence. For a few seconds, nothing moved.
Clay stared at the man who stood squarely in front of him. It wasn’t possible. Ezekiel Redmont was a world away, a ghost from a life that he’d left behind – or rather, the life that had been torn from him and obliterated in the firestorm of war.
Redmont. Captain Douglas Armstrong. Outlaws and looters who’d slashed their way through the countryside on a mindless rampage. A surge of heat raced through him. The same murdering cutthroats that had set upon Hatton Willows.
Screams … flames … women running, skirts billowing … blood splashing onto white walls….
Unleashed images streaked through Clay’s mind as he stared, not wanting to believe it, not wanting to look at him, but unable to look away.
It was the same man that Capt. Armstrong had identified. Finally he could put a face to the name he’d scribbled on a piece of paper only minutes after an explosion had sent Armstrong to Hell.
"What … what the hell are you doin’ here!" he stammered, still trying to find refuge in disbelief.
"So you know my name, do ya?" The stranger’s voice was steady as he spoke. "Well, I suppose you could say we have some … unfinished business."
He couldn’t think. Before he realized it, he’d charged out from behind the bar and found himself standing only inches from a man he had never met, but who, in the course of the bloody conflict, had helped to destroy his life.
"Unfinished business! Are you insane – crawling back here – expecting me to…."
Ezekiel Redmont stood his ground, undeterred by Clay’s angry advance toward him. A cold smile crossed his face. Then a sneer.
"Oh," he snorted, "you thought I come here to beg your forgiveness, did ya? Well, you thought wrong."
He slid his hands into his pockets and relaxed his stance.
"Hell, all we done was to finish the war you started – you and your stinkin’ Reb army. An’ all’s I regret is that I didn’t spread more Confed’rut guts around ‘fore I was through." He took another step forward as if to underline the incendiary statement.
"Shoulda cleaned out the whole lot of ya, includin’ those no-account darkies. You think I wanted to git my butt shot off for a bunch a lazy niggers – fightin’ for them an’ their goddamn freedom? They can all rot, just like the stinkin’ cowards that kept ‘em chained like dogs."
Clay stood motionless, stunned into silence at what he was hearing. The idiot had to be drunk. Or insane. Or both. No one in the Ambrosia Club dared to move. No one even breathed. All eyes were on Clay Mosby.
Redmont shifted his weight to one foot without retreating or dropping his gaze. "Had to teach you Rebs a lesson," he wheezed. "Had to make an example outta some of you big time planters just to show everybody else what happens to Southern traitors for stirring up all that trouble – you and your stinkin’ rich Reb friends – startin’ a war just so you could go on livin’ like kings. All that fightin’ an’ killin’ wasn’t enough. You just kept on comin’ – sneakin’ around, raidin’ behind our lines. You wouldn’t learn. You Mosby’s with your high-falutin’ ways – you thought you was above it all. Thought we was kiddin ‘bout bringin’ the South to its knees, didn’ ya? Well, I reckon you found out differ’nt."
Clay stared in mute astonishment. Then outrage. He should shoot the bastard where he stood! The only sound he heard was his own heartbeat, thundering like the rumble of canon fire, vibrating so hard that his chest could barely contain the pounding inside it.
"Sure, I remember that big fancy place a’ yours, right outside Richmond. Seemed like there weren’t nothin’ for miles around you high an’ mighty Mosby’s didn’t own. Gotta admit, though, your taste in women weren’t half bad." The sneer broadened. "Me, I always been partial to them younger gals – like that pretty little one with the dark hair. Yeah, ‘specially that one." He tugged upward on his belt as if to hike up his trousers. "We had us a mighty good time before we was through." The crooked gash of a mouth pulled back, exposing broken yellow teeth. "Then afterwards, watchin’ that big ol’ house catchin’ fire, burnin’ right down to the ground…."
His home. Its graceful white columns blackened and crumbling. Mary crying … Her skirts ripping, filthy hands tearing them to shreds … Smoke, churning, rolling out the windows … Cries echoing demonic laughter … Sabers shining with blood, slashing in wide arcs of bright red spray….
Smoke filled his lungs. He couldn’t breathe. A rush of noise, like the sound of a freight train, roared through his head. In an instant his hands were around the man’s neck. The ludicrous grin froze around the yellow teeth as he felt his grasp tighten around Redmont’s throat.
A scream and an explosion of shattering glass yanked Clay from the grip of raw fury, almost as if it had struck him from behind. The sudden crash barely loosened his hold, but it was enough to throw him off balance and allow Redmont to break away.
"Get the hell outta here and take yer squaw with ya!" A nameless voice hurled the insult through the broken window as its shabby source scuttled across the street and out of reach. Clay stumbled backward, flashing a glance in the direction of the sound as he regained his footing. The scream had come from a woman who huddled just inside the doorway. She was small, and her slight form was concealed under the thin shawl that reached to her knees. Not a shawl exactly – more like a colorless Indian blanket.
Redmont dashed back to where the woman was standing. With both arms around her, he pulled her back through the doors of the saloon.
Clay bolted toward to the entrance, seething with anger as he stumbled outside. The street was clear, except for a few startled people who stood motionless, as if they had suddenly been frozen in place. He’d been close enough to seize Redmont by his scrawny neck – only to be thwarted by some cowardly hooligan. He leaned on the railing the edge of the boardwalk, raking his fingers through his hair as he choked down fresh air and waited for his heart to stop racing.
Breathless and shaking, Clay peered into the darkness hastily searching up and down the abandoned street. Ezekiel Redmont was nowhere in sight.
He stomped back inside the saloon, ignoring the stares of dumbfounded customers. His hand trembled as he poured himself a stiff drink and downed it in one gulp. He felt like vomiting. Steadying himself against the bar, he took several deep breaths to brace against the tidal wave of nausea and confusion. He wanted to tell himself that what had just happened wasn’t real. But it was.
Slowly, the pounding inside his head faded and his convulsive reaction withdrew into cold outrage. He stalked across the glass-covered floor, furious with everything. He should have choked the life out of the bastard while he had the chance. Redmont was the same deranged killer he’d always imagined, the same demonic presence that inhabited his worst dreams. For some reason he’d had come out of hiding, out of his filthy pesthole, and crept into town like some gruesome night creature.
Clay brought his fist down on the bar with a thud. Why hadn’t he just shot him then and there? Sweat stung his face and trickled down under his collar. One thing was certain. They did have unfinished business. He’d deal with that personally. He’d haul Redmont back to town by whatever means were necessary and let him stand trial. Then he’d hang him like the murderous degenerate he was.
Several customers had jumped out of the way, accidentally overturning a table and some chairs when the rock came crashing through he window. The drone of their voices had abruptly halted and now they stood, like cows in a field, staring in dumb fascination. Clay looked up from the bar, suddenly aware of the conspicuous silence, and the fact that he was the focus of everyone’s attention.
"All right," he heard himself saying, "Show’s over. Go on now, drink up, boys…." No one seemed to need much encouragement in the wake of the unsettling incident.
He squeezed his eyes shut. He had to think, and calm down before he did anything else. An old man, on foot, with a woman – Redmont wouldn’t be hard to find.
"Zeke, check outside in the back." he ordered. "Murphy, you and Donovan search the buildings across the street. Find out if anyone over there saw which way they went. Wake ‘em up if you have to!"
Of course there wasn’t much hope of finding anything in the dark. It would probably have to wait until daylight. He downed another straight whisky. It didn’t matter. He’d take Zeke and some of the boys with him to take care of it. They’d find the coward and drag his sorry ass back by the end of the day.
Still quivering with anger, Clay strode over to the window to assess the damage. Loose shards crackled under his feet. First things first, he repeated to himself, forcing his mind to slow down. One thing at a time. A broken front window. Another mess to clean up. More expenses. Splendid. He groped for control, straining to concentrate on the window, trying to calmly figure what another repair would cost, but the specter of Redmont blocked all other thoughts. "Damn!" He cursed aloud as a wave of residual shock trembled through him. "Damn that godforsaken sonavabitch!"
Ike hovered in the furthest corner of the saloon, evidently hoping to become invisible.
"Well," Clay barked in his direction, "don’t just stand there, get a broom and clean up this mess."
He glared at the cowering barman. "And when you finish that, nail some boards over the window."
Ike reached for the broom and began shoving the scattered glass into loose piles. "Yes, Sir, Mr. Mosby. Right away."
At least the man was good for something. Owls. Vandals. Indian women in the saloon. Diabolical ghosts from the past. What the hell next?
What was an Indian woman doing in a saloon anyway? It was hard to imagine that someone like Redmont could find anyone to keep him company. He’d probably traded a mangy mule, or a few pox-ridden blankets for her.
Why was he even thinking about that?
Clay kicked a few stray shards back onto the pile of broken glass. All he’d wanted to do was sleep – not dream, not to have to think about anything. That wasn’t likely now. He wouldn’t be getting any sleep until Redmont was found, but unless Zeke and the men turned up something in their initial search it would be morning before he could do anything about it.
Sonovabitch!" He swore aloud as he stomped up the stairs to his rooms.
"Mr. Mosby…." Ike’s quavering voice reached up from downstairs. Clay glanced down to where the bartender stood with the broom in his hands. He looked like a scruffy dog awaiting a command.
"You take over for awhile, Ike. I’ll be in my office." He couldn’t talk any more. He couldn’t think. Every joint in his body seemed to grind in protest as he forced himself up the stairs to his rooms. As he paused on the landing the scene below took on an illusion of unreality. He cursed his own bewilderment at the situation as he struggled to absorb the shock of what had happened, and to get a grip on his own simmering outrage.
It was hard to believe it – to finally look at that scarecrow of a man, to see him as the monstrous evil that had destroyed everything he cherished and made him a refugee in his own country.
He was barely nineteen when he’d left with his boyhood comrades – all of them feverish with pride and eager for combat, determined to defend their country’s honor and ward off the enemy with a cavalier disregard for danger. With banners flying and sabers flashing, they’d ridden straight into Hell.
Pride had come at a terrible cost. Friends who were not among the wounded or missing lay dead with countless others who had died in blood-soaked fields, somewhere far from home. The losses were staggering. He and Robert had survived the merciless conflict only to be captured and tossed into the tomb-like confines of Elmira as prisoners of war.
Thoughts of home and family were all that had made it bearable – visions of Mary, and of better days that would surely follow if he could manage to survive and return to her. Whatever damage had been incurred, Hatton Willows could be repaired – rebuilt, if necessary. He and Mary would have each other, and together they could start again when the War was over.
The brutality of the prison camp had matched, if not surpassed that of mortal combat, but nothing in his wartime experience had prepared him for what was to come.
By the time Lee surrendered most battle-weary troops were content to end the hostilities and return to their homes. But for men like Armstrong and Redmont, revenge on the South, seemed only to be satisfied with more violence. Their bloodlust was insatiable, and they needed to inflict their own hateful retribution on Southerners before the War ended and the excuse for killing was gone.
In four years Clay had seen more death and destruction than anyone had thought was possible. But in the clouded aftermath of the War there would be an even more profound loss, more devastating than he’d ever dared to imagine. Not until his return home had he realized the true depth of the tragedy. He stood, gripping the railing, trying to dispel the frightful images that raced through his mind, and the sickening thoughts of what Armstrong and Redmont had done.
Hatton Willows, once among the most stately and gracious homes in Virginia, lay in ruins – his entire family, coldly massacred. And Mary – his life and his hope … his beautiful Mary was dead at the hands of those God-cursed murdering bastards.
He should have been there to protect her, or to die trying. At least they’d be together. He would have joined her that terrible day if Robert hadn’t intervened. Then, and on more than one occasion afterward, Robert Shelby had been all that stood between Clay and a sorrowful death.
Overpowering grief and guilt trapped him more tightly than the darkest cell ever had. Whisky and opium did nothing to dispel the ghastly images that had burned into his memory. They only blurred the pain as days and nights merged into a desolate maze of confusion. His family home was gone. That was agonizing enough. But with Mary dead he’d found himself in a prison of self-imposed solitary confinement where invisible walls allowed no one to pass, and beyond which he himself dared not venture.
It had taken years to find a way out of the darkness, just to decide to live again. He’d struggled, first simply to survive, then gradually to build a new life, to leave the terrible memories behind, and to bury the pain and bitterness of the past as best he could. Now Ezekiel Redmont had walked in, dug it up, and with the same venomous hatred, hurled it all back in his face.
He pulled himself up the remaining stairs to his rooms and slammed the door behind him. He needed another drink before he faced the long night.
None of it made sense. How had Redmont found him? Why had he even come looking? Maybe he thought that one day the last surviving Mosby might try to take revenge on the men who’d murdered his family. His own woman might be in danger and he needed to protect her as well as himself. Maybe that was the "unfinished business" he had come to Curtis Wells to conclude. When he found Redmont those questions would be answered – one way or another.
He looked around the small, crowded office, searching for anything that would distract him, just long enough to clear his mind. Paperwork covered his desk – several hours’ worth of accounts he planned to review, unfinished correspondence, ledgers that need updating. It stacked up quickly – the problems of running even a small town – the myriad concerns that demanded his personal attention, often simultaneously, as if somehow they conspired together to antagonize him.
How had his father managed several businesses, a tobacco plantation with its burgeoning population of servants and field workers, and a medical practice all at the same time? He remembered his father sitting behind an enormous oak desk, writing, reviewing his paper work. Aromatic smoke from his favorite brier pipe would drift above his head, and float throughout his study with its dark, polished wood trim and rich furnishings. Rows of leather-bound volumes rested on towering bookshelves between windows with ornate panels of beveled glass.
Now all of it was ashes.
He cursed to himself. Why must all roads, all thoughts, lead back to the War? He leaned forward in his chair and rubbed the fatigue from his eyes. Maybe because all roads had led from it, including the one that had brought him to Curtis Wells. It was his town now. He’d wanted the responsibilities, even invented a few new ones, and they had all quickly become his to deal with. Now this.
He needed to focus, to concentrate in a calm, controlled way before he went after the sneaking bastard.
On occasion he’d dreaded the light of dawn. Now it couldn’t come fast enough. His eyes burned as he forced them shut. He needed to rest before he and the boys went hunting at first light. He’d try to sleep … just for a few minutes.
A soft knock at the door jarred him out of his shallow sleep. "Col. Mosby." Silence. Another quick knock. "Col. Mosby." The voice was muted, almost too far away to hear. Not many people addressed him as "Colonel" anymore. He forced himself up and across the room, and jerked open the door, ready to throttle the person who had interrupted his rest.
"What is it!"
In the half-light a woman stared back at him. Redmont’s woman.
He glanced quickly at the clock on his cluttered desk. It was half past eleven. Her hand tightened on the thin blanket that wrapped around her like a shroud, and her gaze dropped to the floor.
"What do you want?" he demanded, trying to clear his vision and his thoughts.
She spoke softly, without looking up, "Please, I need to speak to you."
"In the middle of the night?" Clay looked at the young woman as curiosity began to overtake his annoyance. He was not in the habit of making war on women. She was no threat to him, and would surely not have dared to approach him at this hour if it wasn’t important. And whatever her business with him was, it was hardly appropriate to talk about it in a hallway.
"What exactly was it you wished to discuss with me – at midnight?" He made no attempt to conceal his impatience as he gestured for her to enter, but if she felt intimidated, she didn’t show it. She was like a deer venturing into a wolf’s lair. The image amused him briefly. He knew why she was here. Redmont’s woman had come to plead for her husband’s life. How gallant of him to let his own wife present his case for clemency!
He was wide awake now, and no doubt would be till morning. Still, she’d shown a certain kind of courage and there was no harm in hearing her out, even though her attempt to placate him would be futile.
"I suppose it would only be polite to hear what you have to say before I inform you that you are wasting your time." She peered at the surroundings – like a defenseless animal realizing that it has stumbled into the den of a predator.
"I’ve come to ask you…."
"I know," he interrupted. "I know exactly what you’ve come here to ask."
"No, you don’t understand…."
"Oh, don’t I really? Did your ’husband’ tell you anything – anything about the War – what he and those bastards did? How they…."
"Yes." She lifted her head to meet his infuriated glare. "He told me."
"Huh," Clay sneered, dismissing her statement. "I’ll just bet he did!" But what was the point of arguing with her? The last thing he wanted to do was revisit the whole thing.
"He’s not well," she said softly. "Many people suffered terribly during the War … and afterward. We’ve all suffered…."
Clay looked at the woman who stood resolutely before him. He had to concede that, given her situation, she might know quite a bit about suffering. Still, there was no point in discussing it. It was all history. It was done and there was no undoing it. Now it was time for an accounting. If she didn’t understand that yet, she would very soon.
"What are you doing here – in Curtis Wells?" he demanded. "Why here … why now?" They weren’t the questions he really wanted to ask, but she knew that, and she wasn’t about to tell him where Redmont was.
"We stopped at Ft. Wynyard for supplies a few weeks ago," she began. "There was a picture of Capt. Armstrong on the wall outside the trading post, and a newspaper story about his death during a robbery in Curtis Wells. Someone said that he and a group of soldiers from the fort had tried to steal a gold shipment, and Capt. Armstrong was killed when he tried to escape." She lowered her head, as if part of the shame was hers. "They said the story had named you and Sheriff Call as the men who had chased him and captured him. That’s how we found out you were here." She looked away. "It was an old picture, but easy to recognize. I guess he hadn’t changed very much."
No. Armstrong hadn’t changed. Not one bit. Obviously, neither had Ezekiel Redmont. They’d brought their love of brutality with them when they’d come West after the War, to an untamed part of the country where violence and lawlessness were still a way of life.
Evidently it was a life they had learned to relish. Bands of hooligans had burned their way through miles of rich countryside, setting whole towns ablaze, descending on their victims with apocalyptic fury, slaughtering everyone they saw. Indiscriminate, vicious killings and atrocities were commonplace in a world gone mad. Surrounded by the smoking ruins and unburied victims of a new, more horrifying kind of war, people had called it the "End of Days." And for many of them, it was.
Redmont had survived, or rather escaped the real fighting. While still in uniform he and his cohorts had committed some of the worst crimes of the War – all of them sanctioned by Federal forces and carried out with the full authority of the conquering Union Army. No one would ever know how many innocent lives they’d taken. Now Redmont had found a woman to take care of him.
Good Lord. What kind of life would that be for any woman? It was hard to imagine.
He studied her for a moment. Her hands were red and raw as they clutched the threadbare blanket. She was younger than he’d thought at first. Many of the Indian women he’d seen were attractive, and some of the younger ones were actually quite beautiful with their sculpted features and sleek raven hair. That was, until the harshness of their lives took its toll. In most cases, their pagan allure was short-lived.
"He was trying to protect me … I’m sorry." Her voice trailed off as she appeared to realize the futility of her mission. Her dark eyes seemed to look through him, beyond him, without the trace of a tear. Even in the dim light it was plain to see that the softness and beauty she must have possessed in her youth was gone.
"You’d better get back before your ‘husband’ misses you," he huffed as he pulled the door open for her to leave.
Her eyes met his with matching intensity and an unflinching response. "He isn’t my husband. He’s my father. I’m sorry to have disturbed you."
Before Clay could react, she was out the door and down the stairway. As briefly and unexpectedly as she had appeared, she retreated back through the saloon and disappeared into the night. The anger that fueled his energy faded momentarily, as if the presence of this woman was its only source. Everything was quiet as Clay stood alone in the doorway, momentarily deprived of his rage, and silenced by the sudden, overwhelming emptiness that surrounded him.
He stood in the open doorway, letting the breeze flow through the entrance, as if that would hold back all the bitterness and debilitating anger. There was no point in trying to follow her in the dark. Indians had an ability to become invisible, and she wouldn’t be careless enough to lead anyone to Redmont.
Whatever her motivations were, she was right about one thing. Many had suffered. No amount of time or contrition would ever make it right again. So many had died – all for nothing. The dead deserved justice.
But where was justice if worthless, murdering scum like Ezekiel Redmont was blessed with a child – even a half-Indian child – while every member of his own family had been butchered like cattle? His Mary. She was so young. They’d only begun a life together. They’d talked about children – "at least three," she’d laughed – and even picked out their names….
He didn’t want to think about it, but it was impossible not to. He’d served willingly and honorably in defense of his country, as two generations of Mosby’s had before him. Redmont had just taken the opportunity to go on a killing spree for the pure sadistic pleasure of it. The man was as ignorant as he was poor, and while there were no laws against poverty or stupidity, there were against the slaughter of innocent civilians – even in wartime.
Apparently Redmont had found a place to live with other hopeless, displaced people who somehow managed to tolerate his wormy presence. Now, for whatever reason had prodded him, he’d crawled out from under his flat rock and slithered into Curtis Wells. And the bastard had a daughter.
Clay opened the door of the small cabinet beside his desk, took out a new bottle of aged Scotch and poured himself a stiff drink. He dispatched that in short order, and poured another. Ike could handle everything downstairs. The liquor seared his throat and gnawed at his empty stomach. He’d awakened early with a headache and a scratchy throat. On top of everything else he was catching a cold.
What had Redmont said … "Had to punish you Rebs," something like that. "Had to teach you a lesson … make an example of you Mosby’s…."
Ordinarily the advancing troops wouldn’t have known whose home they were destroying, nor would they have cared. But the Mosby name was well known in the richest and wealthiest part of Virginia. His family was among the most prominent in the state. Armstrong and his group might even have confused him with his distant cousin, the famous Col. J. S. Mosby and pursued him in order to make a trophy of the Confederacy’s celebrated hero. But then, what difference would that have made? One Rebel officer was as good a target as another when it came to revenging themselves on the South.
And what had Redmont expected to happen when he entered the Ambrosia Club and announced who he was? He couldn’t be sure that his name would mean anything to a man he’d never met, or if it had ever even been mentioned. Maybe he suspected that before Armstrong had died he’d talked and divulged the names of his wartime accomplices. Then, to test his theory, Redmont had tossed out his name to see what, if any reaction there was to it.
Stranger things had happened. Even more curious, why had Redmont identified himself to a man who had reason to shoot him dead on the spot? None of it made sense.
He filled the glass to the rim and carried it to the sofa near the window. Without removing his boots, he stretched out on the sofa and tossed back the better half of his drink. Fatigue and tension knotted in his back and shoulders. His head throbbed as it echoed the pulsating drum of his heartbeat. If only he could slip into deep, dreamless oblivion. He closed his eyes. Light from the lamps flickered and faded into shadows as waves of whisky-induced sleep rolled over him, coaxing him into their silent, soothing refuge.
Mary’s image danced before him. Turning … twirling. Her dark hair loosened and streamed over her face. Her skirts flowed around her and her body arched and twisted in unnatural, torturous gyrations, as if she was being wrenched by some invisible force. Blood splattered and saturated her white linen petticoat. With each violent turn, strips of the fabric tore loose, encircling her in long, ragged ribbons, and snaking away in spirals of smoke, until nothing of it remained. Her naked body writhed in agonizing contortions as hands grabbed at her, savagely pulling at her from different directions. He could see her struggling, reaching out, her mouth opening, straining to call to him, but the only sound was that of a screech owl’s distant cry.
Another nightmare. Or was he awake? The demons never tired of their insidious games. Bad enough that they prowled the night, leaving him sleepless and shaken, but now they intruded at will to torment him whenever it pleased them.
"No!" he growled. Not this time. It was Redmont, showing up after all these years, dredging up all the horror of that terrible time, standing there, hissing and snarling like a rabid animal, like some diseased creature, daring someone to kill it.
Fine. That could be arranged. He was the same bloodthirsty cutthroat he’d been fifteen years ago. If he was so anxious for a confrontation, it wouldn’t be difficult to accommodate him.
It was barely light enough to see as Clay stalked into the bedroom. He picked up his pocket watch from the top of the dresser and opened it. Mary’s face smiled back at him calmly, quietly, like she always did. He looked at her for a moment, remembering the promise he’d made to her. His thumb caressed the finely etched surface as he closed the gold filigree cover back over her face. He opened the top drawer and retrieved a linen handkerchief – one that she’d embroidered for him with an elegantly stitched "M" in one corner. Very carefully, he slipped the watch between the folds and closed the small parcel back inside the drawer. She’d be safe there. And she wouldn’t have to witness any more violence, or see the bastard who’d….
He shoved his arms into the sleeves of his leather duster and grabbed his Winchester as he headed out the door. He didn’t need Zeke or anyone else to hunt down a rabid dog. And no matter what he had to do, he would not allow Ezekiel Redmont to disrupt his life – or anyone else’s – ever again. He barely felt his feet under him as he hurried down the stairs.
Just as he cleared the entrance of the Ambrosia Club, the figure of a man appeared directly in his path. The abrupt presence startled him and he reflexively side-stepped.
"Kinda early for you, ain’t it. Mosby?" Call’s eyes were glassier than usual and just as taunting. Obviously, he hadn’t slept much either.
"I could ask you the same thing, Call." He didn’t like being caught off guard. "And just what brings you out of hibernation?" As quickly as he’d lost it, he’d regained his sense of control. He barely looked in Call’s direction as he scanned the street.
"Lookin’ fer somebody?"
No doubt, Call had heard about the unpleasant incident in the Ambrosia. By now, everyone had. Call gazed at nothing in particular as he adjusted his gun belt and tucked his shirttail back into his trousers.
"Try Harry’s place."
That made sense. Redmont wouldn’t have two nickels to rub together, much less the price of a room, even a cheap one. He eyed the young bounty hunter, searching for a hint of whatever else he might know. It was a rare occasion when Newt Call chose to be helpful to anyone, most especially, to him. Ordinarily Call wouldn’t spit in his direction if he spontaneously burst into flames. Maybe he understood something about the situation because he’d lost his own young wife to violence.
Hannah. Fresh as early morning. Spirited as a thoroughbred. He’d kissed her, felt her warmth and sensed her longing, and he didn’t regret it – not one bit. "What happened was a mistake," she’d said afterward. Newt was her husband and she would always love him … "That would never change." He hadn’t even stayed to bury her.
"Go back to your bench, Call. You can watch everything from a safe distance."
"Yeah, I’d sure hate to miss anything … ‘interestin’."
That sounded more like the Newt Call he knew.
"Would I be wrong in assumin’ that you’d find it entertainin’ to see a face off between me and that loathsome excuse for a human being? Maybe you’re thinkin’ the cards might fall in his favor instead of mine."
Call smiled without turning his head to reply. "S’pose that’s a possibility. Ain’t like it never happened before."
"I’m sure it has, but not today. I’m afraid you’ll have to find your amusement somewhere else, at least for the moment."
Call leaned against the post, indifferent and laconic as always.
"Ever occur to you he might be tryin’ to draw you out in the open, somewhere there’s no witnesses, just so he could kill you, then call it self-defense or somethin’ – tell everybody it was you that went crazy, over some kinda argument the two of you had – long time ago?"
Clay studied the younger man. From a callow stable boy and citizen sheriff to a rye-soaked bounty hunter and stone cold killer. In a short time he’d aged beyond his years. Still, for all his shabby appearance and surly disposition, Newt Call was one of the cleverest and more observant men he knew. And one of the most dangerous. If anyone knew about such stealth tactics, he would.
"You might be right, Call. I guess we’ll find out."
Call pulled his hat further down over his face and ambled down the walkway. Clay watched him cross the street and wade through the mud to the entrance of the Dove. Newt reminded him of a boy who’d joined his cavalry unit late in the War. "The Kid," they’d called him – like every "kid" who had lied about his age so he wouldn’t miss out on the fighting. The older men tried to look after him as much as they could, like they would for a younger brother. A few weeks after he joined the unit a sniper’s bullet struck him in the head as he sat cleaning his rifle.
His hand tightened on his Winchester as he turned and stalked up the boardwalk toward Tent Town.
* * *
Harry seemed to appear out of nowhere. Like always. As enigmatic and mystifying, like the apparitions he fostered in the smoke-clouded inner sanctum of his opium tent. The place had a surreal quality about it that felt deceptively calm. It was downright disturbing.
"Something I can do for you, Mosby?" His voice was as smooth and weightless as the film of hallucinogenic haze that surrounded them.
"He was here, wasn’t he?"
"You know damn well ‘who’. That bastard Redmont."
Harry absorbed the accusatory glare, apparently unperturbed. He wasn’t easily intimidated, but he wasn’t quickly angered either.
"If you mean that stranger with the Indian woman, yes – he was here. Early this morning. Then he left."
"Left? Where?" Harry’s intransigence, as well as his dead calm demeanor, could be infuriating.
"He declined to confide in me. He just came and went."
"What did he want?"
"What does anyone want, Mosby? Freedom from their worries, and their pain – even if the relief is only temporary. In this case, laudanum. All I had. That was it."
"Is that so?" Laudanum was a versatile painkiller, and Harry dealt with it in considerable quantities. What did Redmont want with so much?
"Guess Cleese was low in supply."
That was interesting. As a rule it was harder than cracking walnuts with your teeth to get information out of Harry. It was curiously out of character for him to be dropping such a clear hint as to where any enemy of Mosby might be found. What kind of game was he playing? Clay glanced quickly around the dim interior of Harry’s establishment. Instinct and acquired cynicism warned him to be suspicious of such a leading suggestion from the den’s proprietor.
On the other hand Harry probably just wanted to see him go somewhere else and take his volatile situation with him before it blew up and scared his customers away. Still, there was something about his tone, his whole attitude. Something about it sounded right. A curt nod acknowledged the message.
Harry’s steady, wordless gaze confirmed its truth.
So Redmont had been to see Cleese, too. Why? Despite several layers of trail dirt, the man didn’t appear to be sick or injured. Nor did the woman. Perhaps the good doctor would care to enlighten him.
Crisscrossing the town, first in one direction, then another in search of the wandering villain was not how he cared to spend his energy. He should have brought Zeke and the boys along. They could have covered more ground in less time than he could alone, charging around by himself, trying to drag information out of whatever source he could find. It was all leading nowhere fast.
What kind of wild goose chase was this anyway? Harry. Cleese. Even Call, his avowed nemesis. They all seemed to know more than he did. Who else was part of it? The whole damn town? Not likely. Who, in any part of Curtis Wells, would offer shelter to such a despicable character, especially one dragging an Indian woman around with him. Who would dare?
He couldn’t let anger cloud his thinking, or allow any more distractions. Redmont was still a vicious outlaw, capable of anything. He was a menace to anyone he came near and as long as he was loose and looking for a fight he represented a danger to the whole community. The town needed protection. Redmont had to be found before he hurt anyone else – before he escaped again. And he had to be brought back alive.
* * *
Ephraim Cleese was too young to have fought in the War. Maybe he’d understand, and maybe he wouldn’t. It didn’t matter. Clay gripped the railing as he climbed the stairs to the doctor’s office.
"My father was a young officer in the medical corps," Cleese recalled as he sat at his desk leafing through a recent medical journal. "When the War began, he volunteered to serve on the front lines. He never liked to talk about it, and I can understand why. It was a terrible time. Under those conditions, the suffering must have been … unimaginable."
"It was, thanks to Redmont and his kind." Cleese could turn the simplest conversation into a long-winded dissertation. He didn’t have time or patience for it at the moment.
"I don’t doubt it," Cleese continued. "There weren’t nearly enough doctors to take care of all the injuries and illnesses, but my father thought he could make a difference, and I believe he did. It was the reason I decided to study medicine."
"I applaud your dedication, Doctor. Now, if you know anything about him or his whereabouts, I suggest, in the strongest possible terms, that you tell me – now."
Cleese looked up from his journal and removed his reading glasses. "Do you think killing him will change any of what happened? Mind you, it’s not that you need any additional authority here in town, it’s just there are laws on the books about shooting people at will, and I already have more than enough business resulting from that sort of thing."
"Really, Doctor, I wasn’t aware of your interest in law enforcement." Cleese was evidently in one of his philosophical moods. "Don’t worry, I intend to see that he’s brought in alive."
"Why? So you can render justice personally? Tell me, do you plan to put him on trial, or dispense with the whole formality and proceed straight to the execution?"
"Justice will be rendered, Cleese. I can promise you that. I only wish I could hang him for every innocent person he murdered."
"I understand your frustration, but you realize that the law still allows for only one hanging per individual."
Clay felt his rage returning. "The man’s a raving lunatic. He stood in front of me in my own saloon and practically dared me to shoot him – right there in front of everyone."
"I’m not surprised." Cleese was more cryptic than usual. "Well, you can save yourself the trouble. The man’s already dead – that is, in a manner of speaking."
"Oh?" What the hell was that supposed to mean? "Why’s that?"
The doctor sighed as he turned over a page. "He has a condition that causes serious impairment to the respiratory system. It’s characterized by a progressive deterioration of the lung tissue, similar to the disease coal miners develop after years of inhaling the dust, only worse. It’s irreversible and there’s no known cure. That may change one day, but not in time to save him. For the moment there’s no effective treatment except increasing doses of painkillers. Eventually even that doesn’t help."
Cleese glanced at the journal, then back at Clay. "In plain terms, the lungs diminish in their capacity to absorb oxygen, breathing becomes increasingly difficult, and in the final stages, the victim slowly and painfully suffocates. I suspect he’s had the condition for quite some time. He may have a few months left, but no more, especially out there in Badlands country. Frankly, I don’t know how he survived this long. It’s a miserable way to die. I wouldn’t wish it on a mongrel cur. To be quite candid, shooting him would be a more merciful fate than the one he’ll be facing – sooner rather than later. I’d have nothing but pity for anyone in his situation."
Cleese closed the journal and returned it to the shelf behind his desk. "If you wanted revenge on him, I’d say you already have it."
Clay stood in silence as the confusion fell away. Suddenly it all made sense. Every peculiar detail of it –
Redmont’s inexplicable appearance in Curtis Wells, his vitriolic ranting and suicidal confrontation in the bar. He hadn’t been looking for any sort of dramatic showdown. He just wanted a quick, easy death. Maybe he suddenly found religion and thought that by offering his life to a man he’d wronged he’d be granted some kind of absolution.
Not bloody likely. He was just too much of a coward to do it himself, and besides, he might even succeed in getting his own killer hung for the crime. As long as he was doomed to die, why not take one more rebel soldier with him – just for the hell of it? That must have been what his daughter had tried to say. It figured. Redmont had chosen a coward’s way out the real fighting during the War by targeting defenseless civilians, and he was still looking for a cowardly, vengeful way out.
Clay paced the small room, taut with frustration as anger conflicted with maddening disappointment.
"What’s wrong, Mosby? Feeling cheated somehow? You wanted to watch him hang – maybe strangle him yourself, but God beat you to it. Ironic, wouldn’t you say? You wanted to kill him, but now you can’t do that without playing right into his hands."
Anger was winning. "If you think I’m going to make it easy for him, you’re wrong. I promised I’d see him pay for what he did, and I will."
Cleese sat down behind his desk and wiped off his spectacles. "The last time I ran across this passage it read, "’Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord’," not Clay Mosby. What happens to that man from here on has already been decided. Suffice it to say you have your revenge, and your justice."
Clay stared back at Cleese, then turned, and without replying, headed down the steps to the street.
What the hell did Cleese know about justice, or revenge? Most of his experience had been within a safe, comfortable medical practice back East. He’d seen some of the violence that frontier life had to offer, but he hadn’t been part of it.
He’d never drunk coffee made from chicory and mud, or had to eat raw seed potatoes crawling with worms. He hadn’t seen men – many of them boys younger than he was – staring in morbid amazement at freshly severed limbs, or at their own internal organs spilling out of gaping wounds, piling onto the ground in cold, wet heaps beside them. He hadn’t seen the empty faces of the men in the prison camp – hope beaten out of them as they lay starving, silently, helplessly waiting for death. Ephraim Cleese could afford to be philosophical. He hadn’t lost anyone. Not yet.
The good doctor could pity Redmont as much as he liked. For that matter, God would decide if he was entitled to any mercy. Those were sentiments of which Ezekiel Redmont had no experience and no understanding. But before he died, however long that took, he would come to know the full, terrible meaning of revenge whether it involved justice or not.
As Clay walked back to the Ambrosia Club his leather duster felt heavier than usual. It had been chilly when the first colors of dawn crept over the sky. He’d tossed it on when he stormed out the door with no other thought than finding Redmont and hauling his putrid carcass back to town. Now he and the woman had fled to the Badlands. He must have sobered up enough to remember what a coward he really was and taken her with him.
What would become of her now? Open country was no place for a woman and a sick old man. She might be able to go back to her people if they didn’t both die out there. But then, people died for all sorts of reasons. Some, for good reason and some for no reason at all.
He would have liked to rip off Redmont’s rancid hide with his own bare hands, but whether the bastard finally croaked face down in a steaming dung heap or was torn to pieces by coyotes wasn’t important. His miserable life was over. The only pity was that it hadn’t happened sooner.
The street was unusually quiet. Apparently, a number of townsfolk had decided they had business indoors, where it might be safer for the time being. A few horses stood tethered to the railing in front of the Dove, contentedly swishing flies with their tails as they waited for their owners to return. They were sturdy, weathered beasts, more suitable for plowing and carrying supplies on their shaggy, swayback frames. Not like the magnificent breeding stock back in Virginia or the elegant thoroughbreds that raced over green hills in the early morning mist. Or the splendid mounts that proudly carried the officers into battle – sleek, and prancing as if in dress parade formation – only to be shot out from under their riders or mutilated and destroyed in barrages of canon fire.
He walked inside and closed the door. If only he could close a door on the images that charged through his head for no reason, the chilling specters that stalked him like predators, that crept into his brain and sprang without warning. The more he tried to dismiss them, the more defiantly they came howling back, in more vivid and frightening clarity, as if to remind him that there was nowhere he couldn’t be hunted down and tormented for their own perverse pleasure.
He climbed the long stairway to his rooms. The creaking of the floorboards echoed the same sensation in his bones. He was too tired to think. The bedroom was in a state of disarray after his abrupt departure in the early hours, but one of the Chinese women from the laundry could have it tidied up by evening. He tossed his duster on the bed along with the waistcoat and shirt he’d worn for more than two days. He’d get cleaned up later. For now a quick wash and a change of clothes would do.
As he stood before the mirror above the vanity, a tired face looked back. What a fine line there was between vengeance and justice. How surprisingly empty they both were in the end and how much it all felt like a broken promise. He’d done what he could to bring a wanton killer to justice, and he’d done it with legitimate concern for the community – not just for his own impassioned reasons. It was right, but it wasn’t what he’d promised Mary. It was justice, and in a sense it was fair, however impersonal, but it wasn’t the same justice he’d vowed to bring her.
He put on a clean shirt and buttoned his waistcoat. As carefully as he’d placed it in the drawer, he removed the linen handkerchief that contained his pocket watch. A warm breeze drifted through the window as he stood holding the timepiece in his hand, lightly tracing over the delicate design … remembering the day his father had called him into his study and presented him with his grandfather’s watch. Its solid gold case had born an etching of the Mosby family crest. His own initials had been engraved on the inside. Without opening it, he tucked the pocket watch back into the drawer.
Mary. Her laughter. Her quiet beauty. She would understand, like always. They’d clutched at happiness, melted together – mad with joy, luxuriating in their love for each other … and in minutes, it was gone.
"The War won’t last forever," she’d told him. Separation by time and distance only strengthened their bond, and thoughts of her had been filled with promises of better, happier days to come. The War would end and they would have the rest of their lives together. Throughout the conflict that single thought had given him the strength to go on, and in the final torturous months of imprisonment it was all that had kept him alive.
What a cruel irony. Maybe one day he would understand why things happened the way they did. Now it all just seemed like an evil plan devised by some malevolent, unforgiving deity, to punish him for surviving when she had not. What kind of justice could he expect from such a merciless god?
When had he ever seen justice? Not during the War. Not much in the last fifteen years. Nothing he’d done had made a damn bit of difference. What was the point in any of it? He should just let it go. Let nature take its course and let God do whatever He bloody well liked. He would anyway.
What was important now was to try to get back to normal, take control again. Then they could go back to things as they were. Redmont would be fighting Hell’s fires for the rest of eternity. Maybe God’s vengeance was better than any he could devise. Maybe it was enough.
As he descended the stairs to the gambling hall he surveyed the quiet interior. The boarded up window blocked most of what little light there was. He’d see about ordering a new front window. Something with beveled glass. And he’d have a few repairs made to the inside. The whole place could do with a good airing out. It was dark as a cave and it smelled like stale smoke.
He poured a whisky and downed the glass. He held the empty glass in his hand … remembering Hatton Willows before the War, thinking of Mary, feeling the warmth of her smile, trying to imagine what his life with her might have been like – if he hadn’t had to leave her … if he’d only been there that day … if he’d been there to protect his wife….
Rage churned up from his gut, searing past the horrid memories and erupting its way to the surface.
It wasn’t enough.
God’s so-called "divine will" had allowed his family to be slaughtered and their killers to go free.
He wanted to smash something … to stand out in the open and shout obscenities until his lungs collapsed. The madman who’d helped to destroy everything he loved had stood right in front of him, looked him in the eye and bragged about murdering his family as if it was an achievement – some sort of military victory. Who knew what else he’d done? He’d had the coward by the throat and in an instant of distraction he’d let him go. Why in hell hadn’t he just killed him? He could have gutted him like a fish and no one would call it anything but justice! He could still see the maniacal grimace – like that of dead men – their contorted expressions, frozen in death, their sightless eyes staring back in bewilderment, long after dark red froth had dried on their faces….
He clenched the empty glass, ready to hurl it through the one remaining window. His skin tingled as fevered sweat beaded on his forehead and the pounding in his head grew louder. A phantom sensation reverberated through his fingers – some odd tactile response that his hands somehow remembered. He could feel the pulsating of Redmont’s leathery neck straining within his grasp – its boney, skeletal ridges cracking and crumbling as he closed his fists around it, squeezed tighter and tighter … the eyes bulging, the face brittle with fear, the crooked red mouth, gaping open, gasping for breath….
"Mr. Mosby …" Zeke’s voice came from across the room, muffled at first, then jarringly clear. "You all right, Mr. Mosby?"
Clay stared up at his hired gun, then back at the broken glass as he held it in front of him. His hand felt strangely detached, almost as if it belonged to someone else. Blood flowed from the gash in his palm and streamed down his arm into his shirtsleeve. He watched the red stain seep through the clean white linen.
"I’m fine." He pulled out his handkerchief and wrapped it around his hand. "It’s nothing." A blur of dizziness surged through him as the stench of smoke crept down his throat. He had to hold his breath to keep from retching.
"I’m perfectly fine." He released a deep breath slowly. "Go saddle my horse."
"Yessir." Zeke’s bloodhound expression didn’t change. He knew how to follow orders. And he could be trusted.
Clay rifled through the shelves in the back room’s storage area, searching through the miscellaneous containers and spilling some of their contents onto the floor. He retrieved some hardtack, another water canteen and some extra ammunition.
Zeke looked curious but not surprised as he stood in the doorway. He watched as Clay stuffed the plain supplies into the saddlebags and rechecked his Winchester.
"You plan on bein’ outta town long, Mr. Mosby?"
"No. Not long. You just keep an eye on things while I’m gone."
"Yessir." Zeke seemed content with his orders. " What’ll I tell the boys?"
Clay looked past his right hand man as he mounted his horse and adjusted his rifle. "Tell them I’ll be back as soon as I attend to some unfinished business."
With slow, deliberate calm he walked the horse to the outskirts of town, then turned and spurred him into a canter as he headed for open country.
End of Part 1
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