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.


by Tieranny

"Clay Mosby! Well, I’ll be…." Vera barely managed to hide her delight. And her surprise. It was a different Clay Mosby than she’d seen a few weeks before. The clean lines of his face were blurred with dust and at least two days’ beard growth, and his eyes, usually warm and smiling, were shadowed with discontent. He stood just inside the entrance, rifle in hand, as he scanned the dark interior.

"My goodness." She hesitated briefly, then strolled out from behind the bar to greet him. "To what do we owe the honor?"

As she approached he pulled off a glove and removed his hat, but without the customary flourish. "Miz Vera, always a pleasure." A few strands of dark hair fell onto his forehead as he leaned forward to kiss her hand.

With or without the chivalrous gestures, Clay was usually one of the Emporium’s more pleasant visitors. Usually, but not today. As his gaze swept the premises a frown crossed his face and his fingers tightened around the Winchester. Whatever the purpose was for his visit he didn’t appear to be in a mood to discuss it, but it was evident that business, not pleasure had brought him to Crossroads. "Well now," she ventured, "don’t tell me you’re on some kind of hunting trip all the way out here."

His expression remained unchanged as he scouted the room. "In a manner of speaking’."

"Really?" The day Clay Mosby actually got his hands dirty would be a day to remember. "Exactly what are you ‘hunting’ for – or should I say ‘who’?"

"Your powers of perception never fail to amaze me, Miz Vera." The frown softened for a second, then hardened again. "I’m looking for a man. Short, thin, poorly dressed. Had an Indian woman with him."

Vera looked around. Their conversation had attracted the attention of three men seated at a corner table. Clay hadn’t appeared to recognize them when he came in, but they seemed to know who he was.

"Let’s talk over here." She motioned for him to follow her to the far side of the room while the men at the table continued to stare. "I saw them," she went on in a low voice. "Scrawny little fellow – not much juice left in him. I don’t know what they were doing out here, but I doubt he’ll last much longer if they keep up that pace."

"Where were they headed?" Clay stiffened as he spoke. His voice was cold and absent of any concern for the plight of the two beleaguered travelers.

"I don’t know. I’m not even sure which direction they came from. They just appeared a couple of nights ago, camped outside somewhere, and left with a few days’ supplies. I didn’t pay much attention, but I thought it was kind of odd that they were in such a hurry to leave, I mean with the weather building up and him being so sickly and all. Who are they anyway?"

Clay’s jaw tensed as his grip on the Winchester flexed and tightened again. It wasn’t just his appearance. There was something about his whole attitude that was different. Barely hidden behind the authoritative posturing was a sense of urgency she hadn’t seen before. His eyes looked past her as he spoke.

"Just someone I knew a while back. He and I have some business to take care of."

That, most likely, was all the explanation that would be offered.

"Well, you’d better make it sooner rather than later," Vera sighed. "From the shape he was in, I’d guess he’s not long for this life."

"You’re absolutely right about that. In fact, I guarantee it."

His tone gave her a shiver. Clay was on a mission of some kind, and God help the person who accidentally got in his way.

"Look, it’s coming on nighttime. No point in trying to track anyone in these hills after dark, or any time, if you ask me. You might as well have a drink and something to eat … maybe get some rest while you can."

His glare settled on her with chilling intensity. Then, as if its strength was spent, the expression relaxed into a familiar smile.

"I believe you’re right again, Miz Vera. Any idea where I might obtain some casual accommodation for the night? Nothing fancy…."

"Oh, I think something could be arranged." That was better. Clay’s disposition could turn on a dime, but for the moment he seemed agreeable to her offer of a meal and a warm bed.

"Come with me. You can wash up, and then have some supper." She led the way to the rooms upstairs where construction was still in progress. "You’ll be pleased to see that your money’s being well spent." She opened the door to a small room with a bed, a night stand and one chair. It was Spartan accommodation with modest furnishings, but it was adequate. "I know it’s not what you’re used to…."

"It’s fine." He exhaled heavily as he dropped his leather coat onto the chair. Under the layer of dust he looked completely drained of energy.

"Clay," she ventured, "you look awfully tired. Why don’t you stay for a day or two, rest up a little before you go gallivanting all over the countryside after somebody….

"I’m fine. I just need a good night’s sleep is all." He sighed again as he raked his fingers through his wind-tangled hair. "I’ll be down soon as I wash off some of this trail dust."

"Take your time, Clay. We’ll be open late tonight."

Tonight and every other night for the foreseeable future, Vera thought as she closed the door. It would be a while yet before Crossroads could be described as "flourishing." Still, it was an improvement over Sweetwater. That place would have made Purgatory look inviting. Being burnt to the ground was the best thing that ever happened to it.

Now, with Sweetwater gone, Crossroads was the last civilized stop between Curtis Wells and the Badlands. Most of the girls from the Celestial Palace had pulled up stakes and moved to Curtis Wells after the fire claimed their workplace as well as their meager belongings. They were welcome to it. She had her own plans, and it hadn’t been hard to persuade three friends to join her. With plenty of customers and fewer girls to share the profits, Crossroads was as good a place as any to set up a new establishment. Destructive as the Sweetwater fire had been, it had created an inviting situation for the right investor, and for the purpose of restarting their business, circumstances were as favorable as they were ever likely to be.

Neither had the opportunity for investment gone unnoticed by Curtis Wells’ foremost benefactor. Although Clay had chosen not to make it public, it was obvious that he had plans for the tiny outpost. Within a short time, construction had sprung up everywhere, and most businesses with even a hint of profit potential had undergone some kind of remodeling or expansion. That included the Emporium. In addition to major repair work the shabby little saloon now sported a refurbished gambling hall and a second story with entertainment areas and comfortable living quarters. There was still work to be done, but compared to what had preceded it the new Emporium resembled a Victorian manor. It was the perfect venue for a new "sporting" business.

It was also more than Vera and her girls could afford, even if they pooled their savings. Then, just as they had begun to regret their group decision to stay in Crossroads, fortune had smiled. More accurately, it had flashed a seductive and irresistible grin.

Clay’s gambling talents extended well beyond the poker table and some of his business deals had yielded impressive results. Maybe it was because taking chances never seemed to worry him. Unlike his fellow players who gambled in desperation to win, he always managed to make a game of it, no matter who set the stakes or how high those stakes were. And he rarely lost.

It was also apparent that his indulgence in what often appeared to be nothing more than casual "gentlemen’s diversions" usually masked a more serious purpose. For him material gain was only one aspect of a broader plan, and wherever an investment opportunity arose, the resourceful Col. Mosby could be trusted to sniff it out and turn it to his advantage.

This time his nose for speculation and his apparent taste for risky ventures had worked in their favor as well. He’d needed someone to manage the new Emporium, and as an incentive to get their enterprise going again, under his supervision, he’d lured them to the Emporium with a generous subsidy. It was a shrewd, if not blatantly opportunistic move, but even at his most devious, Clay remained the consummate charmer. His offer was simply too tempting to pass up, especially with its own unique fringe benefit – Clay himself.

In addition to that, owning and operating their own business had proven to be a more ambitious undertaking than she and the girls had realized. In the end, giving up a certain degree of independence, in exchange for security, seemed like a reasonable trade.

Vera watched a few new customers slap the dust off their clothing as they entered the saloon and sauntered toward the bar. Civilization was a late bloomer in Montana Territory, but it was bound to take root in Crossroads, eventually. It was a matter of vision, Clay had assured her, and a certain amount of hard work. "All in good time," he’d said. "Patience is a fine quality."

Patience was indeed a virtue, but, as Vera had frequently observed, not one for which the Colonel, himself, was famous. Ambition and power would better describe Clay Mosby’s primary incentives, but they were motivations from which Crossroads would ultimately benefit.

She glanced toward the stairway as she stacked extra glasses on the shelf. There was still no sign of her overnight guest. He might have decided to have a short rest before coming down to eat. She’d wait a bit longer, then, if he hadn’t appeared, she’d take some supper up to him. He’d done a lot for the town and he was entitled to a little extra service when he came calling.

To be sure, Clay contributed a colorful highlight to an otherwise dull and dusty landscape, and nowhere did that light shine brighter than at the Emporium. It was here that he often concluded his business day with an evening’s relaxation in the company of his winsome hostesses, and in the comfort of new surroundings, he could look forward to being greeted with genuine delight and entertained with limitless enthusiasm.

For reasons including, though not limited to financial reward, all the ladies relished his attention, but none more than her youngest girl, Calley. In her adoring eyes, the man could do no wrong, and whenever his schedule allowed him time to visit their establishment, Col. Clay Mosby proceeded to do no wrong with panache and extraordinary style.

There was no denying that Clay was an attractive man, and then some, but as far as Vera was concerned, his single best feature was the full money clip he brought with him when he came to Crossroads. She smiled to herself as she wiped down the bar. Come to think of it, that was probably his second best feature.

Back in the kitchen she loaded a plate with beef and potatoes and picked up a new bottle of whisky from the storage shelf. Only a few men sat in the bar room and none seemed to notice her as she headed back upstairs with supper. At the end of the hallway she stopped at Clay’s room and tapped on the door. There was no response. She cautiously opened the door and peeked inside. Clay was stretched out on the bed, sound asleep with his boots still on. His Remington lay on the bed within easy reach and the Winchester was propped against the nightstand.

Just as well. She set the plate and the bottle on the stand, tiptoed out of the room and quietly closed the door behind her.

It was also fortuitous that Calley would be busy with other clients for most of the night. The Colonel’s appeal to her could only be described as hypnotic and despite her experience with other men she was completely and irrevocably smitten.

It happened occasionally with the younger girls, and seldom, if ever, ended happily. Each time he visited the Emporium, Calley seemed to go into a trance. It was an unhealthy state of mind for any woman, but especially so when she had the proverbial "snowball’s chance in hell" of enjoying anything more than the occasional tumble with her part-time paramour.

She’d been with Clay herself and had no complaints about his bedroom talents or the nature of their business arrangement. There had been physical passion, resulting in a more than satisfactory performance from both participants, but no significant relationship beyond that.

It was better that way, especially with a man like Clay Mosby. Though her efforts were always handsomely rewarded, business was still business, and sentiment was a luxury she couldn’t afford. From all indications, that attitude suited most of her customers, although where Clay was concerned, she’d never been quite sure if that was a relief or a disappointment.

"Look, darlin’," she’d warned the girl early on, "don’t get yourself too attached to any of these fellows, because sure as shooting, none of them will."

Her admonition to Calley was issued from a genuine voice of experience, but it was already too late. It wouldn’t have mattered if her gallant colonel sprouted horns and a tail. She adored him and there was no talking her out of it. She’d learn the same old lesson, probably the hard way, just like women always seemed to.

Meanwhile there was plenty of work to do – both upstairs and down.

* * *

Morning came streaming through the window with unusual brilliance. Vera shielded her eyes against the harsh light and drew the shade. The place wouldn’t open for a few hours and there would be a chance to see Clay before she started work. She dressed quickly and proceeded down the hall to his room. A tap on the door elicited no response. He might still be asleep. As carefully as before she opened the door just a crack and peered in.

The bed linens had been loosely pulled back into place. The bottle of whisky was half empty, but the supper plate was barely touched. Beside the plate lay a clean serviette, and on it was a twenty-dollar double eagle. Apart from that the room was empty. Clay was gone.

* * *

The sunlight that had awakened him earlier had quickly withdrawn behind the clouds that rolled across the sky. Clay kept an eye on them as they grew darker along the horizon. Typically, their shadows would drift leisurely over the hills for hours while they consolidated their forces. Then they’d pile into huge thunderheads, crowding out the sun and releasing the storm they carried. That was the usual pattern in this part of the country. He would need to find some kind of shelter if the rain became heavy. So would Redmont and the woman, and unlike some settlers, they’d know better than to camp close to a creek bed. More people had drowned in flash floods than had been killed in the Indian wars. They’d most likely head for higher ground.

From the crest of the hill he could see across the flats to the mountains’ southern perimeter. There didn’t appear to be a single living, breathing thing for miles. How could Redmont and the woman have made it that far? Under the circumstances it would seem more logical to take the faster, easier trail over the flats instead of trying to negotiate the rugged timberline along the river route, especially where there was a risk of sudden flooding.

Evidently they’d thought otherwise. He’d have to double back along the river where there were plenty of places to set up camp in the forested surroundings. A man could hide out there for weeks and not be seen. That had to be where they’d gone to hide their tracks.

As he scanned the terrain a wind gust sent a swirl of leaves across his path. The horse shied away at the sudden movement, and lurched sideways as the whirlwind swept in front of them. Horses knew when a storm was coming. They could sense it, like a good hunter could sense danger. He patted the big bay on the neck as he turned and headed toward the river.

Within a short time, the landscape began to change from a dry, barren plateau to a green valley.

It was still forbidding countryside, but the breeze that drifted off the water was noticeably cooler. As he approached, the distant rumbling from the storm-swollen river grew louder until its steady roar devoured all the sounds that emanated from the timber-lined gorge.

Clay guided the horse along the edge of a steep incline and reined up at a narrow opening in the trees. Far below the cliff side the current crashed over a series of waterfalls. He watched for a moment as the river charged through the stone passage, venting its turbulence and churning with raw, primitive power. If one day all that untamed energy could be harnessed and controlled, it could pump water to the most remote areas of the Badlands. In time, settlements would spring up. Hundreds of square miles could be cultivated. Mining could be developed. Whole communities could be supported. Small outposts like Crossroads would flourish. One day….

One day, but not now. There was no time to stand around pondering the future. Redmont had to have holed up somewhere along the river, somewhere that provided shelter. As Clay proceeded along the ridge, groves of aspen and birch mingled with dense stands of pines. Straggling, twisted branches reached out of the shadows, waving in the wind, almost as if to warn him away.

The horse needed to rest and so did he. As he followed the ridge along a bend in the river, the trail widened into a small clearing. It was an ideal place for a campsite although there was no evidence that it had been used recently. Surrounded by cliffs on three sides it offered protection from the wind, but not from creatures that would be prowling the banks at night. No matter. He wouldn’t be here that long. There was a lot of ground to cover and none of it would be easy going. Still, as he watched the deafening current cascading over the rocks, and the rainbow spray rise above the flow, a quiet spirit seemed to reach out from the river and encompass him in its wild, restless beauty.

As he stood at the perimeter, another gust of wind whipped through the pines, bending their towering shafts and whispering its warning once more.

The bay shied nervously at the sound, fighting the reins as he backed away from the edge of the cliff face. In a sudden flurry of motion several quail burst from the tree tops as the ping of a ricocheting bullet echoed off the stone walls. A small explosion above his head sent pieces of rock flying out from the cliff and the crack of rifle fire reverberated throughout the clearing. Clay instinctively reached for his Winchester, but as he attempted to dismount the horse bolted, pawing the air as it reared on its hind legs, and spilled him off onto the ground. Already skittish from the noise of the river, the bay galloped off, taking the Winchester with him.

Clay rolled to one side, momentarily stunned by the shock of the impact. As he struggled to his feet, straining to recover his balance and shake off the dizziness, an unfamiliar voice broke through the confusion. "Stay right where you are. Make a move and you’re dead where you stand!"

He reached for his Remington. The holster was empty. It must have fallen out when the horse bolted. Still shaken from the hard fall Clay looked around for the source of the voice. A man holding a rifle stood a few yards away. Another stood opposite him at about the same distance. Neither moved as they trained their weapons on him.

From the corner of his eye Clay saw a third man approach. "Well now, if it ain’t Colonel Mosby himself. Imagine that, would you – meeting up all the way out here."

"Who the hell are you?" Clay growled. They must have been waiting for him, and he’d ridden straight into their trap.

"Well, now," the stranger sneered through a lopsided smile, "is that any way to greet a man on such a fine day as this?"

He stepped forward, slowly closing the distance between them until only a few inches remained. "Look here, even I, poor lad that I am, was taught better manners than that. And if you don’t mind me saying so, it’s about time you were, too."

He’d barely finished his statement when the rifle butt struck Clay squarely in his unprotected midsection. The force wrenched his breath out of him, doubling him over as another blow caught him on the jaw, knocking him backward and onto the ground again.

A convulsion of pain shook him. The pounding in his chest vibrated through his body as he staggered haphazardly to his feet, gulping the air as he pulled himself upright. He wiped the blood from his mouth with his shirt sleeve, and tried to focus his attention on his unidentified assailant. Two other men stood close by, evidently eager to demonstrate their murderous intent.

Although the main challenger was taller and heavier, his real advantage in the assault had been the element of surprise. They could easily have shot him and taken whatever money he was carrying, but they hadn’t. Apparently their motive was more than common thievery.

"Don’t even know who we are, do you? Too busy counting your damn money – too busy to see who might be dying just to make you filthy rich."

It was rage that reflected in the faces of the attackers as they circled him like wolves. A glint of metal flashed as the youngest pulled a knife from his belt.

Still somewhat dazed, and uncertain as to what had provoked the attack, Clay stepped backward, holding up his hands in a gesture of conciliation. "Now gentlemen, surely we can settle this … disagreement … some other way…."

His bid for a peaceful resolution was answered with an angry glare and a burst of spittle that landed on his boot. It appeared that a compromise of any sort was out of the question. They had no interest in a discussion on the subject. They wanted blood.

As he watched the man with the knife advance toward him, Clay calculated his next move. Seconds ticked off as the smaller man cautiously eased forward, crouching like a predator.

Clay saw his chance.

Swinging his fist in a wide arc, he narrowly missed the bigger man’s jaw, but turned his back to his attacker so the man’s heavy arms clamped around his shoulders from behind. That provided him with the leverage to kick out with both feet as the knife carrier came within reach.

Awkward as it was, the hastily choreographed maneuver succeeded in knocking both assailants off balance and enabling Clay to retrieve the weapon the younger man had dropped when he succumbed to the unexpected boot in his face. Armed with the knife, Clay countered. He turned, grabbed the big man by the back of his shirt and pressed the blade to his throat.

"I don’t know who the hell you are," he growled, "but I suggest you back away before I filet your friend here!"

"Back off, boys. Do what he says." The man’s voice resonated with contempt. He seemed indifferent to the threat, and with a sharp thrust he jabbed his elbow into Clay’s ribcage.

The blow left Clay breathless as he twisted sideways and dropped to his knees. Another hand fastened onto his hair, yanking him from behind and arching his back so painfully that he barely felt the knife blade stab just below his ribs.

"Those were my friends who died in your bloody mine," the big man roared, "and there’s a debt you’ll be paying for it, you murdering bastard!"

He let go of the fistful of hair and fastened his arm around Clay’s neck. Just as the blade rose for a second strike a hand reached out and grabbed onto the massive arm.

"Wait now," a calm voice called out, "don’t let’s be forgetting it took Jimmy more’n a day to die. It wouldn’t be proper if we didn’t extend the same courtesy to his Lordship here, would it now?"

The man halted his attack and stood still, as if to ponder the suggestion. Then, with his arm still clamped around Clay’s throat, he grunted and let the knife drop.

Clay looked down, relieved to see the knife fall, but nearly out of breath from the chokehold that threatened to strangle him. As he tugged at the powerful arm that gripped him, he felt the fiery bite of another blade slash down the length of his forearm.

"Now, your Lordship," the man snarled, "there’s a little souvenir of the occasion!"

Just as the big man’s arm released its stranglehold, a heavy foot slammed Clay on the side of his head. Pain exploded in his skull like a shotgun blast as the force of the blow lifted him off the ground and propelled him head first into the dirt. A shaky attempt to rise was met with a solid kick to his ribs, and as he pitched forward, a tunnel of darkness closed in around him. With the taste of damp earth in his mouth, he sank face down into unconsciousness.

* * *

The youngest member of the trio paced the uneven ground, enraged at being bested by an unarmed opponent. He stalked over to where Clay lay sprawled on the ground and stood over him as he watched the red stain spreading over the back of his shirt. Satisfied that his quarry was sufficiently subdued, he shoved a muddy boot under his chest, nudged him over onto his back and knelt down beside him.

"Well, now, your Lordship, you’re looking a bit untidy this morning. I’d be more than happy to oblige you with a wash-up and a nice clean shave."

Lifting Clay’s head by the hair, he spat squarely in the unconscious man’s face and brought the tip of his hunting knife up under his chin.

"Ahhh, but it looks like ‘Captain Blackbeard’ here’s had his fill of fighting for one day."

He flicked the knife and grinned as he watched the blood spurt, then trickle through Clay’s beard and stream down around his throat. "You’re gonna pay, and that’s a fact."

"Ahhh, leave the man be, Sean." The smaller man glared at his partner. "He won’t be getting far without his hired guns to protect him. We done what we came to do, now let’s get the hell out of here before somebody comes looking for him.

Sean eyed his trophy for a second and loosened his grip, letting Clay’s head drop backward with a thud. Then he stood up, and with a look of gruesome satisfaction on his face, triumphantly placed his foot on Clay’s chest, as if he’d single-handedly bagged a grizzly. He smiled as he stood over the prize catch, watching his victim’s blood soak into the wet ground beneath him.

"Well, now," Sean sneered. "This won’t do a’tall." He reached down and grabbed hold of Clay’s wrist. "Wouldn’t be passing up a bath on such a fine morning as this, would you now?" With that he proceeded to drag the limp form to the rim of the rocky cliff face that rose up from the river below. With one foot he shoved Clay over the edge.

"Come on now, I tell you," the third man rumbled. "Let’s get back to town before somebody comes along."

"What’s the almighty hurry? There’s no one around for miles, and besides, who’s to care if the bastard rots?"

"I say let’s go," Liam growled. "I’ve had enough of this place. And now I’m thirsty."

The third man nodded. "All right then. We could all use a drink, and remember, as far as anyone knows, we’ve been at the Emporium the whole time."

* * *

Vera worked behind the bar, wiping up random spills and trying to appear busy while she kept an eye on the cantankerous Irish crew.

It was early in the afternoon and the three immigrants had already polished off their first bottle of Red Eye. For a second day they had graced the Emporium with their disagreeable presence and it appeared that they had settled in for the duration. As usual, they were at odds with each other over some matter known only to themselves and of no particular interest to anyone else. Nevertheless, their muffled tones hinted at something beyond ordinary mischief.

Vera kept her eyes on the bar as she worked her way closer to their table.

"I’m telling you, we should’ve finished him off when we had the chance! The bastard don’t deserve no more favors than he gave Jimmy and the rest of the boys. If he makes it back here somehow, it’ll be hellto pay, and you know it!"

"Ahhh, shut your gob, Sean. There’s no way he’s about to be showing up here, or anywhere else. If he ain’t drowned by now he’ll be bear shit before morning, I tell you. This town’s seen the last of Mosby, that’s for sure!"

"Oh, and you know that for a fact, do you now?"

"Yeah, and if you don’t hush your mouth about it, we’ll be seeing the last of you, too. Look here, I’d have liked to slice out a little more of his good-for-nothin’ gizzard myself, but that’d be too good for the likes of him. This way, the man’s gonna pay, and we was right here all along, if anyone cares to ask."

Vera stared down at the bar as she listened in morbid astonishment. Was it possible that the daring and seemingly indestructible Clay Mosby had met his match, and possibly his end, at the hands of this shanty town mob? Clay wasn’t one to shy away from trouble. To the contrary, he seemed to attract it. And this time it sounded serious.

Vera realized she’d been wiping the same spot on the bar for several minutes. The O'O'Reillys were a mean-spirited lot at the best of times, but how could they have gotten the advantage over Clay, and what exactly had happened to him? The thought of him being done in by these thugs was hard to believe. Men lived and died quickly in the territories, but for some reason, she couldn’t imagine that she would never see him again.

As she glanced around a solitary figure caught her eye. Calley stood perched on the stair landing like a frightened bird. Her expression was frozen and all the color had drained out of her face, as if she was in some kind of shock.

As calmly as possible, Vera ascended the stairs to where Calley stood, stiff and unmoving as she stared at the trio of petty felons below. She took hold of the girl’s arm and gave her a firm shake.

"Now, darlin’," she whispered, "you know what those O'O'Reillys are like, especially when they get a pint or two under their belts – always talking like they’d done something real important – don’t pay them any mind, less you want them giving you more attention than you care for."

Calley’s stare remained fixed and unbroken.

"Come on now," Vera coaxed as she tightened her grip. "Best you don’t let on that you overheard anything, even if they’re all drunk as skunks."

It was sound advice. The O'O'Reillys would not want any witnesses to their recent activity. If they thought anyone even suspected them of foul play, that person would likely be added to their list of victims.

Obviously, that hadn’t occurred to Calley. "Didn’t you hear what they were saying? That’s Clay they’re talking about! He’s out there – somewhere...."

"I heard. Now get back upstairs before they see you."

Vera glanced down at the table where the O'O'Reillys sat drinking and arguing. Fortunately they’d already consumed a substantial amount of cheap whisky and there was no sign that they had even noticed Calley. Taking the girl by the wrist, she pulled her back up the stairway to her own room. Once inside, Calley shook off Vera’s grip and hurried to the window overlooking the street.

"Don’t you understand? Clay’s out there, alone – maybe hurt. I’ve got to find him!" Her voice trembled. "I’ll go alone if I have to."

"Well, you’ve got no chance of finding anything out there but a bunch of moth-eaten wolves looking for an easy meal." Vera knew, even as she spoke, that her argument was useless. Calley wasn’t about to be stopped, or even slowed down by anything as ordinary as simple logic or plain common sense. She was in love, or thought she was, and arguing with someone in love was like trying to talk sense to a drunk. It would be a waste of time to try.

"Damn it," she cursed to herself. Clay never seemed to think twice about taking chances, and if he chose to put his life at risk, that was his own business. But now, suddenly, there was another life at stake. She could let the girl venture out alone into a dangerous countryside to look for him or, against her own better judgment, she could go with her.

Apart from emotional factors there was a practical aspect to consider. Most of the men who passed through to Crossroads came with only a few dollars in their pockets, barely the price of a lady’s company for an hour or so. Clay’s investment was considerably more substantial. If something happened to the Emporium’s enterprising new owner, it could jeopardize a promising business as well as the future she and her girls had hoped for. That, in itself, was ample reason to try to find Clay. Vera thought for a moment and turned to Calley.

"Listen to me. Go to the livery and find Joseph. Tell him to hitch up a wagon and bring it around back. Walk, don’t run, you hear? Be careful not to let those boys see you leave. And don’t talk to anyone. You got that?"

Calley nodded without blinking and headed for the door.

"Here, take my shawl." Vera handed Calley the coarsely knit wrap, as if that could protect her from the evening chill and the dangers she hadn’t even thought about.

* * *

"Beggin’ your pardon, Miss Calley, but are you outta your mind? I can’t go looking for Clay Mosby. He told me he’d shoot me if he ever laid eyes on me again, and he weren’t just whistling ‘Dixie’ neither!"

Joseph was visibly shaken by the mere suggestion that he take part in the search. The Badlands were dangerous, but not as frightening to him as the possibility of running into Clay Mosby again.

Calley faced him squarely. Joseph’s reluctance to go chasing after his former employer was understandable. Their last meeting had been a particularly unpleasant confrontation in which Clay had coolly stated the reasons for his anger with the ex-bartender, and had threatened to kill him if their paths ever crossed again.

Everyone in Crossroads knew about Joseph’s purchase of tainted whisky and what had happened in Curtis Wells as a result. Nevertheless, a few daring individuals had taken pity on the man and offered him temporary refuge whenever the Colonel was in town. With no money and nowhere else to go, Joseph worked at odd jobs when he could find them, and kept a keen eye out for the man who had sworn to shoot him on sight. Joseph had taken the threat seriously, and for good reason. Whatever else he was, Col. Mosby was a man of his word.

Regardless of all that, she still needed help, and Joseph could be counted on not to divulge her plan. At this point, he was simply too frightened to confide in anyone.

"I don’t care what he said about shooting you. If you don’t come with me I’ll shoot you myself!"

Joseph sighed in resignation. Apparently the urgency of her tone was enough to convince him that she was prepared to follow through on her threat. It should be enough. She hadn’t survived in places like Sweetwater by accident, and now she was desperate. There was no time to entertain any discussion on the subject, much less an argument. If he valued his life the timid stableman would have no choice but to go along with it.

"All right, all right, now ... calm down," he pleaded. "Just let me get my coat – and my gun."

Joseph fumbled through his few belongings and produced an old Colt from under a blanket where he sometimes slept in one corner of the stable.

"Got any bullets for that thing?" Calley felt her impatience pulling at her. "Bring the wagon around to the back," she ordered, "and be quick about it. Miss Vera don’t like to be kept waiting."

Vera paused for a moment at the top of the landing to watch the Saturday night regulars arrive. Cigar smoke clung to the far corners of the room. As she made her way down the stairs she spotted the O'O'Reillys at their usual table. Liam was already nodding off in his chair while the other two continued their petty bickering.

"Well, I haven’t seen you boys for awhile. Been working somewhere?" Ordinarily she wouldn’t have wasted conversation with the three ruffians, but it was the only way to glean information about what might have happened with Clay.

"Yeah ... here and there." Sean’s taciturn response made it clear that he wasn’t in a mood for light conversation. It wouldn’t be easy finding out anything from them, but she had to try. She glanced toward the door, pondering her strategy. There had to be some clue as to where they’d been earlier in the day. It was doubtful that anything had happened between Crossroads and Curtis Wells since there was regular traffic between the two towns. More likely, it had occurred beyond Crossroads, somewhere in the Badlands, possibly along the trail that paralleled the Canyon River. What had they said, "if he hadn’t ‘drowned’…." There was no other place a man could drown except the river. If that was the case, it would narrow the search considerably.

"It’s getting kind of chilly out there," she ventured. "Looks like we might finally be getting some rain. I hear there was some flooding up near Canyon River last week."

If the O'Reillys had been in the Canyon River area they would know something about the flood. That would confirm their recent whereabouts, and possibly Clay’s.

"Yeah, could be." Sean wasn’t giving anything away, but his attempt to avoid even a mention of the area was suspicious. They couldn’t have been very far from Crossroads to be back in the Palace by mid-afternoon. Vera considered the possibilities.

There was only one place to the north of Crossroads that would suit the kind of ambush they’d described. It was an area between the Canyon River and Yellow Leaf Creek, unique for its gray, silt-like mud. It stretched for about a mile along the east bank, and unlike the surrounding countryside, the place was camouflaged by pine trees. The dense timber could easily conceal perpetrators from the view of an unsuspecting traveler.

Obviously none of the O'Reillys was about to offer any useful information, and asking questions about Clay would be far too risky. It wasn’t much to go on, but it was all she was likely to find out.

A few more thirsty customers ambled through the front entrance. Each man who arrived at the Emporium brought more dirt in with him, and the air was already clouded with smoke and dust. It looked like a fairly busy night. The other girls could manage in her absence, and with a bit of luck she and Calley wouldn’t be missed.

Vera paced as she thought. There wasn’t a lot of time to go wandering all over the badlands before it was too dark to see anything. Whatever they decided to do would have to take place quickly as well as carefully, or their only chance to find Clay would be gone.

Dammit, Clay, she cursed silently. You just never run out of ways to drive women crazy, do you?

She glanced back at the O'Reillys. Liam was passed out with his head on the table, and the other two weren’t far behind. As she looked at them she noticed an empty bottle on the floor under their feet. Unlike most of the regular patrons who wore boots, the Irishmen wore heavy, laced-up work shoes. A quiet smile crept over her face as she gazed at the would-be assassins.

Their shoes were covered with thick, gray mud.

"Get you boys another bottle?" she chirped, as she reached for another container of Red Eye. Without waiting for a reply she plunked the bottle down on the table, somewhat to the surprise of its happy recipients, and directed her friendliest smile at them. "Drink up, fellas. Hard-working boys shouldn’t have to go thirsty on a Saturday night."

The complimentary whisky was met with momentary perplexity, but quickly accepted.

It would do the job. The O'Reillys wouldn’t be up to any more mischief for at least another day. She and Calley could be out of town before anyone realized they were gone.

It was only about fifteen miles to the Canyon River oasis, but it was one of the most inhospitable fifteen miles in the territory. Anyone unfamiliar with the Badlands, or disadvantaged in some way stood little chance of getting back safely. At least Joseph had some knowledge of the area. He’d hidden out there often enough.

The hapless stableman pulled the wagon up just outside the rear entrance of the Palace and drew the team to an abrupt halt. Without waiting for further instructions he handed the reins to Calley and jumped down from the seat even before he saw Vera waiting in the doorway.

"Where’re you going in such a hurry, Joseph? We need your help."

"Not me, Miss Vera, you don’t understand…"

"I understand just fine. Now climb back up there and let’s go."

"I can’t … don’t you see? He said he’d kill me, and…."

"I know, Joseph. You’ve been skulking around this town for weeks, afraid of anything that moves or makes a sound. Is that the way you want it to be from now on?"

"Ain’t nothin’ I can do about that, Miss Vera. That’s just the way it is, and besides, I got nowhere else to go."

"Good Lord! Aren’t you tired of being afraid of your own shadow, acting like some scaredy-cat schoolgirl?"

They were running short of time, but Joseph was as uninspired by shame as he was unimpressed by any sense of urgency. He’d have to be persuaded with something more positive than the usual insults. Vera studied him for a moment.

"Look here, what if you didn’t have to run for cover every time Mosby showed up in town? What if there was a way you could make things right with him somehow?"

Joseph was still fidgeting, but he was also listening. A little persuasive logic might just work.

"I know Clay pretty well, and I can tell you that he puts as much store in paying debts as collecting them. Now, if you were to help him out of a bad situation, maybe even help save his life somehow, I’ll bet he’d be grateful enough to call it square between you and him. What I’m saying is, he’d most likely be willing to forget about what happened before, and everything he said, in return for you lending a hand. Besides, if you don’t get back in this wagon, I’ll make good on his threat myself. Now, how about it?"

Death threats from two anxious women within the space of an hour were evidently more than Joseph cared to contend with. Calley handed him the reins as he clambered into the seat, and the three headed out of town.

Vera had forgotten how rough the countryside was north of Crossroads. There was only one road through the foothills and it was riddled with potholes, rocks and fallen timber. They’d be lucky if the wagon didn’t break apart before they got back.

Isolated stands of aspen and silver birch trees dotted the rolling hills along the Canyon River. From the higher levels, visibility was good for miles, but there was no sign that anyone had passed through the vicinity in recent days. There was also still some distance to cover and only a couple more hours of daylight left.

From the crest of the hill Calley spotted the Oasis. Compared to the barren countryside that surrounded it, the small forest of pines looked almost inviting, but hidden within its dark recesses were stone quarries where the ground was unstable, and cliffs where rockslides were frequent. The Badlands territory was aptly named. The wagon rumbled onward, grinding and creaking as it proceeded over the uneven path that led to the Canyon River.

Finally Joseph pulled to a stop at a clearing as they approached the wooded area, and stood up to survey the surroundings. It was getting dark.

"Ain’t nobody around here, Miss Vera. I say we head back while we still got some light left."

"No! Not yet." Calley wasn’t about to give up.

There was very little reason to be hopeful, but it was obvious that nothing was going to dissuade Calley from scouring the entire river basin if she had to. ‘Well, we’ve come this far," Vera sighed. "We might as well make sure – one way or another."

She climbed down from the wagon without Joseph’s help, and looked around for some sign of recent activity. If an ambush had taken place there would almost certainly be some evidence of it, some tracks, some trampled grass, anything that might indicate an altercation of some kind.

"Let’s look further along the bank." She motioned for Joseph to look around the wooded area while the two women searched along the rocky edge of the cliffs. The men could have been anywhere along the thickly forested terrain, and soon it would be too dark to see anyone even if they passed within a few feet. Still, it was the only place that made sense from an attacker’s point of view. If Clay had run into the O'Reillys anywhere along the river, it had to be here.

A few hundred feet along the faltering trail another clearing opened up. It was a wet, muddy area surrounded by dense foliage. Some of the grass was flattened and in the pale light of early evening the gray riverbank looked almost like fresh, silvery snow.

"Miss Vera!" Calley cried out. "Look, over there!"

Footprints shown clearly in the soft mud, then disappeared into the grass. At least two sets of prints were of shoes, not boots, and they were different sizes. It had to be them.

"They were here! I know it!" Calley was ecstatic.

"Someone was," Vera agreed, "but there’s no sign it was Clay. He could be anywhere …"

Vera stopped in mid-sentence as she turned toward Calley. The girl stood still, her eyes round as saucers as she watched Joseph walk toward them, leading a riderless horse by the reins. A Winchester was still in the rifle scabbard. In his hand he held a black felt hat with a wide brim and a matching ribbon trim around the crown. It was Clay’s.

"Found him over there by them trees," he stammered. "Didn’t see nobody else around."

"All right, all right, now," Vera tried to comfort Calley. "He’s got to be close by, probably sitting on a big ole log, enjoying a smoke."

They all knew better, but what could she say? The girl was nearly catatonic with fear.

Clay had to be somewhere close by, maybe even within shouting distance, but there was no point in yelling. The rush of water below was so loud that one person could hardly hear another, even at a short distance.

Vera shivered at another unpleasant, but real possibility. If Clay had fallen into the river, he would have been quickly swept under and drowned. Even the strongest man couldn’t stand up against such a rapid current, much less swim his way out of it. If that’s what had happened, they’d never find him.

Vera looked through the deep green shadows of the pines and into the encroaching nightfall. She thought about saying a short prayer for Calley’s sake, but what was the use of that? It never seemed to work, no matter how much a person wanted it to. Life was simply what it was. And so was death.

Where was Calley anyway? She’d only taken her eyes off the girl for a second. Vera quickly scanned the terrain along the river and as far as she could beyond the trees. Calley was nowhere in sight.

Good Lord! What next? A small rush of panic seized her. Then anger. Where had that girl vanished to? How many people were going to disappear before this was over? Anger wasn’t an emotion Vera enjoyed, but it was better than fear, and on occasion, it was a sight more useful.

"Calley! Where the devil are you!" It was pointless. The fast-moving river swallowed up all sounds and the darkness was closing in quickly.

Vera tried to think past her anxieties as she made her way along the riverbank. The crashing current roared louder with every step, as if to frighten her off coming any closer. As she stumbled over the uneven ground, she caught sight of something half way down the slope of the bank. It looked like Calley’s light-colored dress. The girl was going to slide right into the river and drown if she wasn’t careful.

"Calley! So help me!"

Vera froze where she stood. It wasn’t Calley’s dress that she saw. It was a white shirt sleeve – a man’s white shirt sleeve.

"Oh, my God!" she started to call to the others, but stopped short. It was Clay, she knew it. But if he was dead she couldn’t let Calley be the one to find him …not like that.

Vera inched her way down the slippery bank, careful to secure her footing, until she reached a patch of solid ground. Through the darkness, she could see the outline of a figure that lay between some boulders halfway down the embankment. She held her breath as she focused on the white shirt, hoping fervently to see some sign of life from the man who wore it.

Somehow he’d managed to grab onto a cluster of exposed roots, and had narrowly avoided tumbling into the river. Anticipation fought with dread as she stumbled over the rocky surface to where he lay motionless, with one arm hooked into the gnarled tendrils of the uprooted tree. Her heart pounded as she reached for his free hand. It was deathly cold.

She searched for a pulse, shivering as thunder rumbled in the distance and the river crashed onto the rocks below. "Come on, Clay. You want to live as much as anyone ever did!" She placed her hand flat on his chest and strained to feel a heartbeat. There was a faint, but detectible rhythm.

"Calley, Joseph! Over here!" she screamed. "It’s Clay, he’s alive!"

Within seconds loosened rocks were rolling past them and into the water as Calley scrambled down the side of the bank.

"Be careful, darlin’," Vera warned as she peered down at the churning torrent. "We don’t need to go swimming right now." Try as she might to sound stern, she couldn’t. She was too relieved.

Joseph’s reaction to the discovery was somewhat less jubilant. He evidently harbored some serious doubts about the whole rescue effort, as well as the contentious Col. Mosby’s reaction to his part in it.

"Oh, for God’s sake," Vera chided, "He’s not going to bite you – not at the moment, anyway. Get down here and lend a hand. Now!"

Joseph descended the slope with the enthusiasm of a prairie dog approaching a rattlesnake.

"Come on, Joseph. We need to get out of here before the weather sets in."

Clouds had drifted across the northern sky all day, but with the darkness came the familiar scent of dampness and cold. They needed to hurry.

It was too dark to evaluate Clay’s condition. All they could do was get him in the wagon and head back to Crossroads. Vera hoped her ploy back at the Emporium had worked, and by now the O'Reillys were sleeping it off – probably somewhere under a flat rock.

Joseph complied with his orders, lifting Clay by his shoulders while the women each grabbed a leg, and together they pulled his inert form up the embankment. By the time they reached the grassy summit their clothes were soaked with mud. They hauled him into the wagon and wrapped him in a saddle blanket that Calley had tossed in just before they’d left.

Vera tied the horse to the rail of the wagon and climbed up onto the seat beside Joseph. Calley sat in the bed of the wagon, cradling Clay’s head in her arms as the four started back over the bumpy trail to Crossroads. It was beginning to rain.

By the time they reached the outskirts of town it was nearly midnight. In his eagerness to reach sanctuary before Clay woke up and killed him, Joseph maneuvered the wagon in and out of two sink holes and nearly scuttled the shabby vehicle by driving too close to the edge of a narrow hillside. Vera was briefly inspired to submit another prayer – one of sincere thanks for their safe arrival back at the Emporium. At least she was back on familiar ground. With considerable effort they managed to convey Clay through the back entrance.

"We’ll put him in my room," Vera decided. "Nobody will come looking for him there." It was safer than Calley’s room where business would have to go on as usual. No one who knew Vera would dare enter her private quarters without asking.

"I’ll take him the rest of the way, Miss Vera." Joseph hoisted Clay’s limp body over his shoulder and climbed the narrow stairs to the appointed room. Having deposited his charge on Vera’s broad bed, he withdrew toward the doorway.

"I’ll be going now, Miss Vera – if you don’t mind."

"That’s fine, Joseph," Vera stopped to catch her breath. "I appreciate your help, especially with those stairs."

"That’s all right, Miss Vera." He looked over at Clay, then back at her with an oddly calm expression. "Funny … he weren’t all that heavy."

The stableman paused by the doorway and reached inside his coat. "I reckon he’ll be wantin’ this, sooner or later," he said as he pulled Clay’s Remington from his belt and handed it to Vera. "Picked it up back there, when I found the horse."

She reached out for the gun and noticed that for the first time in a long time, the man wasn’t trembling. "Thank you, Joseph," she replied as she offered her hand to him.

He simply nodded as he took her hand in his own. It was steady as a rock.

* * *

With Clay ensconced in her bedroom, Vera turned to her next task. The man was a mess. His clothes were wet through to the skin and covered with mud. She’d have to clean him up before she did anything else. He’d managed to wrap part of his torn shirt sleeve around his injured arm. That was saturated with blood, as was the back of his shirt where the knife had stabbed through it. Calley started to wipe the dirt and blood from his face with her handkerchief.

"Never mind that just now," Vera said quietly, "help me get these wet clothes off him." As carefully as possible, she stripped off what was left of Clay’s linen shirt. "No way to mend this," she sighed as she peeled away the blood-stained remnants and tossed them aside. Calley said nothing as they pulled off his boots and trousers. Both were heavy with mud and river silt.

"Drawers, too." She glanced at Calley as the girl stood looking down at Clay. "’Less you want him to catch a chill." Calley’s apparent disorientation was not helping. "You didn’t haul him all the way back here just so he could catch his death of cold, did you?"

Calley shook her head, but didn’t move.

"Oh, for God’s sake – you’ve seen your share of naked men before – including this one!"

Calley looked back at Vera, still in something of a trance.

"Well … ‘a course – but not without him knowing about it…."

Vera couldn’t be angry with the girl. She’d been through a lot in her young life, but she’d never seen the man she adored in such a sorry state, and it plainly frightened her. She, too, was accustomed to seeing Clay at his best. His appeal was underscored as much by his expensive clothes and fastidious grooming as by his natural good looks. Not only was he one of the handsomest men she’d ever been with, he was almost certainly the cleanest.

Vera carefully examined the assortment of scrapes and bruises as he lay on the white sheets, bloody and grimy from head to toe. She’d seen worse.

"We’ll need some hot water and clean linens, and bring me some whisky from downstairs," she instructed as she pulled the blanket part way over him. Calley stood in a subdued state of shock, trying not to cry. She was struggling to stay calm, but fear was winning out.

"Maybe we should send Joseph to go and fetch Dr. Cleese … maybe…."

Vera had already considered the notion and rejected it. Joseph could be trusted up to a certain point and he’d performed adequately under stress, but it might be wise not to test the limit of his endurance any further.

"No, darlin’, it’s up to you and me from here on. Go get me my sewing basket out of the dresser."

"But, Miss Vera.…" Calley’s anxiety was giving way to panic. Vera felt her own patience wearing thin, but she had to stay calm for the sake of all concerned.

"Calley, do what I tell you!" She needed Calley’s help and there was no time for girlish nonsense. Still, she understood. Anyone would be upset to see someone they cared about in such a condition.

"Settle down now. It looks worse than it really is. I’ve been sewing up cowboys for as long as I can remember, and I haven’t heard any of them complain yet. We’ll get him cleaned up and he’ll be just fine." With just a little more effort, she might even convince herself.

Clay’s arm could be stitched up with the silk thread she kept for that purpose. Dipped in whisky, it was reasonably sanitary. The small cut on his chin could be treated likewise. Trimming his beard would help make a cleaner job of it, but despite its advisability it was unlikely that Clay would appreciate that decision.

The wound in his back was more serious. Had the knife entered at a straighter angle, it would probably have killed him, but it appeared that the blade had been turned outward, possibly deflected by a rib, and it didn’t appear to have reached any major internal organs.

"Looks like it missed his vitals," she speculated as she examined the injury.

"How can you be sure of that?" Calley protested. "How can you tell ...?"

"Because he’d be dead otherwise." Vera’s efforts to calm her own doubts were straining under the added weight of Calley’s desperation. "You understand? If that was a fatal wound, it’d be fatal by now!"

None of the injuries appeared to be life-threatening, but all together they represented some serious damage. Considering the potential for blood loss and unpredictable complications, their cumulative effect was no trivial matter.

"Listen to me. We’re going to take care of him and he’s going to be fine, you hear me?"

Calley retrieved the sewing basket from the dresser drawer and handed it to Vera.

"Now, go get me that hot water, and don’t forget the whisky. Do like I told you now – and be quick about it."

Calley disappeared out the door without a word. At least she could make herself useful by fetching a few simple items. She wasn’t prone to hysterics like some girls, but she wasn’t her usual self either. Maybe it was because she’d never been in love before.

She looked back at Clay, as she considered her treatment options. It would be better to simply wash the blood out of his beard instead of shaving any of it off in order to sew up the cut on his chin. Considering how proud he was of his looks, it would be a pity to ruin that fancy trim.

A number of men around town had beards, but amongst those on display, Clay’s was truly one of a kind. Most of the others were longer and many were left shaggy and unattended for months at a time. When those men congregated at the bar in groups they looked like small herds of buffalo in the winter. Some men’s beards were so unkempt they could have housed whole families of screech owls without their owners noticing.

By contrast, Clay invariably appeared in Crossroads looking like some kind of European royalty. If he’d first introduced himself to her as the Ambassador to France, she’d have been tempted to believe him.

Now he lay disturbingly still, trapped in an unnatural kind of sleep, and looking like some half-drowned creature that had been dragged in from a rainstorm.

"Don’t you dare die in my bed, Clay Mosby," she scolded gently, hoping the sound of her voice would nudge him back to life. "Look here, we’ll get you cleaned up and you’ll be good as new." She dipped a wash cloth in the water pitcher by the bed and proceeded to wipe away the blood that was streaked across his face. Most of it emanated from a gash just behind the hairline above his forehead, but his hair was too thick and matted to permit a proper washing.

"Sorry, darlin’" she whispered as she reached for her sewing scissors, "but I think I’m going to have to trim you up after all." She separated a tangled section where the strands were stuck together and carefully snipped away a few dark locks.

"Now, don’t you worry. It’ll grow back before you know it."

As she combed her hands through his hair, the soft, damp ringlets curled around her fingers … just as they’d done before, on another quiet, rainy night. It seemed like a long time ago.

Ironically, Clay had frightened her a little at first. There was a sinister quality about him that hinted at some dark, possibly violent undercurrent. Of course, there was always the danger of mistreatment by rough, belligerent customers, or by drunken cowboys who didn’t know how else to be with a woman, but Clay was different. He was as ruthless a man as one could imagine, and he could be a son of a bitch when it suited him, and yet, for some reason she’d never understood, it was strangely exciting.

Why was she even thinking about it? She turned her attention to the task at hand, ringing out the wash cloth and rinsing the remaining blood out of his hair. Scalp lacerations were always messy. One method often used to stop bleeding was to empty a sugar bowl over the cut. She treated a lot of cowboys successfully with that remedy. This was more of a scrape – possibly a result of his tumble down the river bank. It didn’t look so bad, and didn’t appear to need any stitching, although he’d probably be less than thrilled with her barbering skills.

Where was Calley with that hot water, and the whisky? In addition to its medicinal applications, she could use a drink.

Clay hadn’t stirred. Under the layer of dirt he looked terribly pale, and his hands were cold. She remembered how warm his hands were the first time they were together – warm and unusually soft for a man. But then, almost everything about Clay Mosby was … unusual.

There was the sound of hurried footsteps just outside the door. Calley entered with a large bucket of hot water, some linens, and a new bottle of whisky. She quickly set the items down by the bed and knelt beside Clay. She stroked his hair, ignoring the watery, red stains that came off on her hand.

"Come on now, darlin’," Vera coaxed. "Let’s get our gentleman friend cleaned up, shall we? His own men wouldn’t recognize him looking like this."

She remembered the first time she’d seen him as he lay asleep in her bed, and how much thinner he’d appeared without all the layers of clothing that men customarily wore. He’d put on a pound or two since then, but he was still on the slender side.

"Must be all that good, clean living" she mused aloud.

"What?" Calley looked up at her.

"Oh, nothing. I was just thinking back…." She’d seen the scars, too, most of them years old, a few more recent. All of them testified to a brutal and violent past. Men wore them like medals. And it seemed to be part of some unwritten law in the male code that old scars should periodically be replaced with new ones. If such a law existed, men were certainly faithful in their obedience to it.

The water in the basin darkened quickly as Vera washed away the surface layer of blood and dirt. The bruises on Clay’s face and ribs were proof of his assailants’ resolve to take some kind of revenge on him, although his scraped knuckles suggested that he’d countered aggressively. Ordinarily he’d be quite capable of defending himself, but at three-to-one odds he’d evidently lost the contest and been left to die on a barren hillside.

Here, submerged in the delirium of pain and blood loss, he lay deathly still in Vera’s bed as the women bathed him in warm water and stitched up the knife wounds with whisky-soaked thread. How serious his injuries might be was difficult to tell, but at least he was alive, and under the circumstances, that was something of a miracle.

She tucked the blanket back around him and turned to Calley. "There now, he’s going to be fine. Why don’t you sit with him for a while?"

Calley nodded and sat down on the edge of the bed. Vera looked away, suddenly feeling as if she was intruding on a private moment between two lovers. She couldn’t help feeling a sense of sorrow for the girl who adored this man so much that nothing else mattered to her.

She watched Calley as she took his hand and held it against her cheek. Those beautiful, soft hands of his, always so clean and neatly manicured. Now there was dark blood under his nails and in the creases of his fingers. Calley sat quietly, holding his hand as her tears mingled with the residue of blood and ran down her face in pale, red streaks.

Vera withdrew to the far side of the room and sat down in a rocking chair by the window. The rain was coming down steadily through the moonless night. She was more tired than she’d realized, but she’d better not fall asleep just yet, in case Clay woke up.

She shivered and pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders. What if his injuries were more serious than she’d thought? There could be internal bleeding. What if he never woke up, or died right there in her bed? Good Lord, he wouldn’t do that – not with Calley right beside him.

Vera shook herself awake. She was too tired to think. Clay was either going to live or he wasn’t. She’d allowed herself to care too much already. Whatever happened from this point was out of her hands. She’d done her best, and now he would just have to do his best. After all their effort, the least he could do was survive.

She looked back across the room where the dim light from the lamp outlined the contour of his face. Even now, he was handsome as ever, like the hero of some distant fantasy as he lay unnaturally still, adrift in some silent, soundless, place.

What are you dreaming about, Clay? Her fingertips could feel the soft, silky bristles of his beard. What grand, romantic adventure are you chasing? Her lips remembered the gentle curve of his smile and the taste of his brandy-scented kisses. Once he came into view, little else was visible. It was amazing what even the wisest heart refused to forget.

No wonder Calley adored him. She might have loved him herself … once … but not now. Too many things had happened. Life had a way of tossing dreams around so they smashed to pieces when they collided with reality. And ironically, it seemed to be the strongest men who were most vulnerable to the whims of Fate … men like Clay.

Look at you. Clay Mosby. Army officer. Town boss. Commanding, ambitious, all-powerful, and defenseless as a new spring lamb.

What a picture it would have made – a whorehouse proprietor tending to a favorite patron, not as a bed partner, but like a mother watching over a sleeping child.

Heavy droplets pattered on the outside of the window. Their gentle rhythm was like a lullaby, and the darkness, with all its hidden dangers, felt strangely comforting. Maybe she would sleep – only for a few minutes, and maybe forget about everything, just for a little while. Vera closed her eyes as she slowly rocked back and forth, listening to the wind and to the cool, soothing song of the nighttime rain.

* * *

Pale lavender streaks filtered through broken clouds. Morning always came too soon.

Vera felt a sharp cramp in her neck as she turned her head. She hadn’t moved since she’d nodded off to sleep. The room was filled with light from a clear, clean sunrise after the rainstorm. She squinted as her eyes adjusted to the brightness, and glanced across the room.

Calley was sitting on the floor, sound asleep as she leaned against the side of the bed. She’d probably been there all night and had finally given in to exhaustion. Clay was in much the same position as before, but his head was turned toward the window. And he was awake.

Vera got up quietly so as not to disturb Calley. As she started toward the bed a chill raced through her. Clay’s eyes were open, but he wasn’t moving, not like people normally do when they first wake up.

Oh, no. She caught her breath in an instant of cold fear. Don’t let him be dead!

Just as she reached the bed, he turned his head toward her. His hair was tangled. His eyes were bloodshot, one solidly red toward the outer corner, and circled with blue shadows. The bruises on his face had darkened and his unshaven cheeks made him appear even more haggard. He barely resembled himself.

"Clay," she called softly. He looked at her as if he’d never seen her before.

"Clay, honey … it’s me, Vera. You’re back here in Crossroads. You’re safe now, but … you’re going to need to rest up some."

He closed his eyes for a second, then blinked them open. He looked bewildered. As he stared up at her his breathing became more rapid and sweat beaded on his forehead. He tried to speak but only a weak, guttural sigh escaped as a look of unconcealed panic swept over his face. It was an expression she’d seen before. She reached for his hand and carefully lifted his bandaged arm. "Don’t worry," she whispered, "it’s still there – see, and it’s going to heal up just fine."

Clay looked at his heavily swathed arm, then back at her for a moment, and squeezed his eyes shut again, as if that would help to wipe away the confusion and uncertainty. Vera put her hand to his forehead. He was slightly feverish, and no doubt exhausted from the whole ordeal.

Suddenly Calley stirred from her sleep.

"Oh, Clay." She nearly choked as she reached for the hand she’d clung to for most of the night, as if by holding on to it, she could keep him alive.

"All right." Vera put a hand on her shoulder. "Now that our ’guest’ is awake let’s try not to suffocate him."

She couldn’t fault Calley for her fears. She was overwhelmed with relief herself. She checked the bandages and, satisfied there was no more bleeding, sat down on the bedside him. With swollen, blackened eyes and an assortment of scrapes and bruises, he was still rakishly appealing.

"You really are a rascal, Clay Mosby, worrying us like that. You look like some poor child that fell out of a tree – twice." Humor seemed a bit ill-timed, but sometimes it settled a person’s nerves. "It’s going to take some mending, but I think you’ll live to fight another day." So far, so good, at least. "Just look what all you’ve been through already, and lived to tell about it."

That was the Lord’s own truth. He’d survived a great deal in spite of formidable odds and conditions that would have killed most men. In all fairness, that was worthy of admiration. "I guess you were just born lucky," she sighed, "even though it may not seem that way at the moment."

Calley was on the edge of tears again. She needed to do something besides sit and sob all over Clay.

"Calley, go down to the kitchen and find something for Clay to eat." It wasn’t much of a kitchen, but there was usually something on the storage shelves or leftovers from the night before. "Just heat something up and bring it back up here, and if anyone asks, tell them it’s for me." Clay needed to eat something if he wanted to get his strength back – even if he wasn’t so inclined at the moment.

She poured some water from the pitcher and let him sip it at his own speed. Every swallow seemed to require considerable effort, but he finally finished the glass. As he sank back on the pillow he looked up at Vera.

"I don’t suppose … you’d have any decent whisky.…"

His voice was raspy and barely audible, but there was a hint of a smile in it. "This early in the morning? Why, Mr. Mosby, I’m shocked!" She leaned toward him. "And for your information, Sir, I always keep decent whisky in stock – just for you gentlemen with discriminating taste."

"Is that so?"

Clay’s wry wit was still in tact. That was a good sign. The crease between his brows deepened as he closed his eyes. She was tempted to let him go back to sleep, but Calley would be back soon with something to eat. When he finished that he could sleep all he wanted. Maybe she could, too. They wouldn’t open for business for a while. It would be the only chance she’d have to rest.

Calley hurried up the stairs with a plate of beans and biscuits, and a bowl of chicken broth. It was all that was left over from supper, but it was edible. Vera watched the younger woman from a distance. She looked pale and her hair and clothes were a mess.

"Calley, honey, why don’t you go get tidied up," she coaxed. "I’ll take care of this, and then you can sit with him." The poor girl was dizzy with fatigue and worry. She wouldn’t be much good to anyone until she got some proper sleep, if that was possible under the circumstances.

Calley ran her fingers through her hair, suddenly aware of her unkempt appearance. Clay had always complimented her on her attractiveness and especially, her soft, fresh-scented blond hair. "I must look a fright." Her voice quavered as she withdrew, leaving Vera to attend to Clay.

The warm aroma filled the room. Vera set the bowl of broth down in front of him, hoping the inviting smell would encourage him to eat. He had to be hungry after days without proper nourishment, but when he tried to lift the spoon, his hand shook uncontrollably.

Vera thought for a moment, then walked back to the sitting area where she occasionally entertained private guests, and produced a shot glass from a cabinet. Returning to Clay’s bedside, she picked up the spoon and filled the small glass with hot broth.

"Here, try this," she encouraged him as she held out the shot glass. "It’s not exactly 100 proof, but it might be just the thing on a cold morning."

Clay took the shot glass and cautiously sipped the contents. "You’re a girl after my own heart," he croaked as he fought to keep the pungent liquid down. "Wait till my supplier in San Francisco hears about this."

"Never let it be said you’re a stickler for tradition, Clay. Here, have some more."

"Thank you … that’s enough." He’d nibbled part of a biscuit and finished half the broth.

"For heaven’s sake, that little bit wouldn’t keep a bird alive. Honestly, I’m beginning to think you don’t like my cooking."

"Nonsense," he groaned. "Wash it down with enough whisky and it tastes just fine."

There was no point in coaxing him further. Generally speaking, when Clay said he’d had enough of something, he’d had enough.

"Vera … I think I need to …" He looked up at her with an expression of unmistakable urgency.

Of course. With most men, nature called with certain predictability. She retrieved the chamber pot from under the bed and handed it to him.

"Think you can handle that by yourself?"

"If I can’t I’ll be sure to call for help," he replied weakly.

Sardonic as ever. Clay was on the mend. Considering his impatience with everyone, including himself, it might be a test of wills to keep him in bed long enough to heal up. On the other hand, he wouldn’t be putting up much of an argument for the time being.

Vera retreated to the small parlor that adjoined the bedroom. It wasn’t unusual for Clay to be away from Curtis Wells for extended periods, and no one was likely to come looking for him any time soon. That was good. Too many questions might sound an alarm, and the O'Reillys were bound to hear it.

Unlike their fellow countrymen who worked hard to feed their families, the O'Reillys had no apparent interest in actually earning a living. Their main occupation seemed to be drinking and fighting with each other, as well as anyone else who happened along, as if it was their goal in life to give the Irish community an unfavorable reputation. The O'Reilly mob would give "trouble" a bad name. Now they were out there, somewhere, looking for more.

Joseph could be trusted not to let on that he knew anything about Clay or his present whereabouts. If the O'Reillys found out that he’d helped them save Clay’s life, there’d be hell to pay, and he knew it. For now, ignorance of the situation would be his best defense.

It was also too risky to involve Dr.Cleese in the whole business. In a small town like Crossroads, Cleese’s appearance would not go unnoticed. It would undoubtedly lead to widespread gossip that would, in turn, alert the O'Reillys.

Vera remembered the story Clay had told her about the time Robert Shelby had sought refuge at the Ambrosia Club after being wounded in a failed robbery attempt. Clay had hidden him in his own room, right above the heads of a posse that was searching for him. After a few days he’d sneaked Robert out of town in a wagon and no one was ever the wiser.

Under the circumstances, Clay was as safe right where he was, as long as no one else knew about it. But they would need to be careful. Flossie and Lou could keep the usual crowd entertained while she and Calley took turns tending to him and to business downstairs. There was no reason for anyone else to be involved. If he was considerate enough to live, it would insure some security for her and the girls. And if he would just cooperate and continue to regain his strength without any complications, everything would be fine.

* * *

It was late afternoon when Clay awoke. Every muscle in his body felt as if it had been twisted and torn loose. It was painful just to breathe. He managed to roll onto his right side and rise up on one elbow, but an attempt to sit upright proved unwise. His head swirled with an unsettling queasiness as he collapsed back down on the pillows.

Calley saw him struggling. "There now, what are you up to – not thinking about going somewhere, are you?"

She was trying to sound calm, but the fear in her voice was obvious. She looked even younger than he remembered from the last time they’d been together. Her hair was loose and her clothes were wrinkled, but she was as pretty as ever. As she knelt beside the bed she lifted the edge of her skirt to wipe her eyes. Something about the simple gesture reminded him of Mary.

"Calley," he whispered, "you shouldn’t worry so much." His throat was so parched he could hardly speak above a hush. "Get me some water."

She was on her feet instantly, pouring a glass from the water pitcher on the table. His hand shook slightly as he held the glass, but he managed to drink half of it. She took a linen from the night stand to wipe off the small drip that ran down his chin, but as she dried the wet streaks from around his neck, her smile began to crumble, and the tears she’d tried to hide spilled down her face. She laid her head on his chest, and sobbed. "Oh, Clay, I was so worried…."

"Well," his voice grated uncomfortably as he stroked her hair. "I can’t remember the last time a woman cried over me. I must say, it’s very flattering."

"Clay, you mustn’t tease me. How can you joke like that? I was so afraid…."

Her face was streaked and her voice quivered, but there was very little he could say that sounded reassuring.

"Now, look here," he scolded tenderly, "I don’t want to see those pretty blue eyes all red and puffy. Besides, there’s nothin’ to cry about."

"Nothing! You could have died out there and no one would ever know what happened. And if Vera hadn’t come with me, I don’t know what I’d have done." She wiped away the damp spot her tears had left on his chest and kissed him there. "I can’t even think about it…. "

"Don’t worry." He smoothed her hair. "It’s all right now." He could feel his strength fading as he spoke. "I know you were up all night. Why don’t you try to get some rest, hmmm?"

Calley nodded as she brushed back a dark strand from his forehead. She kissed him again and stood up. All right, but I’ll be right here if you need me." She moved quietly to the window and gazed outside. "I’ll always be right here."

Clay looked at her perfect profile as the sunlight illuminated the soft outline of her hair. Framed within the window, her silhouette looked like an ivory cameo, trimmed in delicate, golden lace.

"I know you will," he whispered, and closed his eyes.

Sleep brought neither comfort nor rest, only the ghastly images that tore through his memory, as clearly as when they’d first followed him into hell.

Violent sex with a faceless stranger, and death on a battlefield he didn’t recognize. The moans and shrieks of his lover echoed the cries of dying soldiers as their bodies writhed, intertwined, and merged together.

He was dancing with Mary on their wedding day while soldiers watched them from a distance. As they danced, it started to rain, and the soldiers who were lying dead all around slowly rose up and began to walk toward them. None appeared to see anything as they walked past. He tried to speak to them, but he couldn’t make a sound, as if some invisible force held him by the throat, cutting off his voice.

There was a clattering of metal as someone yelled, "Fix bayonets!"

"No!" He called out, but no one heard him. The harder he tried to shout, the harder it was to breathe. As he stared he saw that the soldiers’ faces were covered with soot, and that they had only charred, burnt out holes where their eyes should have been. They just kept on marching forward, almost in slow motion, into a mass of boiling black clouds.

Suddenly the rain was lit up by cannon fire so it glowed in a red mist. As the raindrops fell, they ignited into burning embers, exploding, setting everything alight.

He looked back at Mary. She stood in the fiery rain, in her wedding dress, covering her eyes with the edge of her skirt. He couldn’t see her face, but he could hear her crying. He started to run toward her, but he tripped and stumbled over the bodies that lay in his path.

Searing pain burned through him. Warm blood spilled over his hands as he staggered forward, holding the blade of a bayonet that had speared him from behind and torn out through the front of his uniform jacket.

He tried to run, but smoke coiled around his legs and began to pull him downward into a river of dark, red mud. When he tried to shout, the smoke curled around his neck, twisting tighter and tighter, leaving him gasping for air as it began to pour down his throat.

Suddenly he was floating above the ground, drifting weightlessly above the battlefield. An invisible current carried him so effortlessly that everything beneath him seemed to flow, like a peaceful evening tide. On the field below were fallen soldiers – a few at first, scattered here and there – then more and more until there were piles of lifeless bodies heaped on top of each other.

He looked down and saw a young soldier lying very still, half-covered in white sheets – not dead, not alive – just floating silently in a shadowy limbo, with the sheet wrapped around him like a shroud. He watched as the soldier drifted away, out of himself, into the murky twilight.

Mary stood alone in the middle of an open field as the glowing embers rained down and began to explode around her. The hem of her wedding dress darkened and began to smolder as it caught fire. She held out her arms to him, but he was too far away. Tears ran down her face from the blackened hollows of her eyes, as cold, dead hands reached up out of the ground, grasping her skirts, trying to pull her down into the mud.

She reached out blindly and desperately as she called to him, "Clay … please, don’t go … please, Clay!"

"Clay. Clay, wake up."

Someone called to him from a distance. He recoiled at the feel of a hand on his shoulder as a spasm of dread shook him awake.

"You were dreaming, Clay. It was only a bad dream." Calley’s voice came closer. "It’s all right now. Everything’s all right." He was bathed in sweat and the sheet under him was damp. He fell back on the pillows and waited for his heart to stop pounding. "Don’t worry," she whispered. "You were having a nightmare, but it’s over. Try to go back to sleep."

He didn’t want to sleep, or even close his eyes again. He just wanted the noise in his head to stop. He watched her as she straightened out the bed linens and pulled the blanket back over him. He’d tossed it off and become entangled in the sheets as a fever drove him into the frightful delirium. She sat down on the bed beside him, leaned forward and kissed him on the forehead.

The sound of her voice was soft and reassuring. Her hands felt cool as she wiped the sweat from his face and gently stroked his hair, and slowly the throbbing began to fade. She always seemed to have the right touch, and she was there when he’d needed her. Having her there while he slept, and there with him when he awoke, was comforting.

Maybe it was too comforting. It didn’t really matter. It would be daylight soon and with dawn approaching the nightmares would be banished – at least temporarily – and he’d be able to think more clearly. In any case, he needed to get back on his feet and start getting his strength back as quickly as possible. There was the town to think about, and the usual matters that required attention. Those could all be prioritized, managed, and dealt with accordingly. The first order of business would be to take care of Redmont. Then, he’d deal with the O'Reillys.

He lay beside Calley, watching the few stars that peeked through the darkness, trying to think, and trying desperately to stay awake. Morning couldn’t come soon enough.

* * *

The smell of fresh coffee permeated the room.

"Well, you’re looking a little brighter today." Vera’s skirts rustled as she moved.

"Miz Vera," he began half-heartedly, "What a pleasant way to greet the day."

She glanced down at him and smiled. "I appreciate your effort, Clay, but such enthusiasm can use up a lot of energy. You mustn’t exert yourself on my account."

He looked toward the door. "Where’s Calley this morning?"

Vera was non-committal. "You mean afternoon, don’t you? She had some work to do. She’ll be back later. For the time being, you’ll just have to settle for me."

He’d counted on Calley to help him get up and dressed. She’d do anything he asked. Vera, on the other hand, was not likely to be so accommodating. Her cooperation would require a more persuasive approach. She appeared to be in a relaxed mood, and while she pretended to be impervious to it, she was usually receptive to a little harmless flirtation.

"’Settle’ for you? Well now, I’d hardly put it that way, m’dear. You must forgive me for being so neglectful – I’d have paid a visit sooner but I was unavoidably delayed by some pressing business. However, in that absence of opportunity, I confess that I’ve truly missed the pleasure of your charming company."

Vera looked askance. "Well, Mr. Mosby, it’s good to see you feeling so chipper, but if you think I believe a word of that, you must have hit your head harder than either of us realized. Now, here, have some coffee while it’s hot. Maybe it’ll help to revive your common sense."

She put the cup of coffee on the bedside table and withdrew to the sitting area, but as she turned, her expression softened.

"Vera, I’m serious. I need to get up today, and get dressed."

"I’m serious, too. I think you’re fine right where you are. What’s your hurry anyway?"

"I’ve been in bed long enough. I need to walk around while I still remember how."

"For heaven’s sake, Clay, it’s only been a couple of days since we hauled you back here more dead than alive. Besides, I used up half a spool of my best silk thread on you, so don’t you even think about ripping out all my nice handwork."

Vera was too well prepared. She must have been waiting for this.

"I’m truly touched that you’re so concerned for my well-being. Nevertheless I’m quite sure your tailoring will withstand any stress I might be capable of subjecting it to.

"Don’t flatter yourself to excess. I simply don’t want you bleeding all over my new carpet. And just so there’s no confusion about it, I should point out that for the moment, you are not the one in charge here, Colonel Mosby. I am."

Vera enjoyed a good sparring contest, and in that capacity she was a formidable contender.

"Now Miz Vera, you wouldn’t be trying to challenge my unquestioned authority, would you?"

"Clay, just knowing you is a challenge.

"Is that so?"

"Yes, and if I have to sit on you to keep you in bed, don’t you believe I won’t."

"Hmmmm. Now that might provide some medicinal benefits I hadn’t considered as part of my convalescence. But of course I’d be willing to try it – if you insist."

"I didn’t mean it like that, and you know it." Vera glanced Heavenward. "I should have known better. Honestly, Clay, I don’t know what keeps you going. You must be possessed."

"I prefer to think of it as ‘inspired’." He grinned as he reached for her hand and pulled her closer. As she sat down beside him she noticed the vertical protuberance under the sheet.

"Clay, you devil! I swear, when you die they’ll have to drill a hole in the lid of the coffin just to accommodate your ‘friend’ here. But it’s nice to see that at least one part of your anatomy has made a satisfactory recovery – actually, more than satisfactory, by the looks of it."

He flashed his most engaging and persuasive smile. That usually worked.

"Well now, Miz Vera, where your satisfaction is concerned, I am your most humble and willing servant. Needless to say, I’d be happy to share my …’friend’ with you if you’d be so kind as to help me get up and dressed afterward. I have business that shouldn’t be postponed any longer than it has been already. You understand, now don’t you?"

"I understand that you’re foolish enough to try anything just to get your own way. You’re too weak to get out of bed by yourself, but you can still carry the flag in the parade without using either hand."

She couldn’t help laughing as she glanced at his veiled erection. "Can’t hoist it much higher than that. I have to admit I’m impressed. Such a pity, though – all that satisfaction, and inspiration going to waste." She looked up with an exaggerated sigh of regret. "Sorry, darlin’. You must be losing your charm as well as your authority. And much as I admire your … resilience, you’re staying in that bed until I say otherwise."

He’d forgotten how exasperating Vera could be when she put her mind to it.

"Oh, and don’t you be thinking you can work your magic on Calley. She’s no fool, either – except, of course, where you’re concerned. That’s a real pity."

"What do you mean?"

"You know exactly what I mean, Clay. She’s so in love with you she can’t see straight, and she has some romantic notion that one of these days you’re going to ride up on a white horse and take her away with you. Now, you and I both know better than that. Even if you weren’t old enough to be her father, you’re not what she needs."

She looked him straight in the eye, punctuating her statement with a strong hold on his solid male member. "You’d be doing that girl a favor if you ‘kept it in your pants’ where she’s concerned."

"I’ll consider it, as soon as I’m permitted to start wearing them again."

In all honesty she was right about Calley. If he had no plans to offer her something more permanent, he should tell her so. He’d talk to her about that. But first he needed to get back on his feet.

"Vera, I’m getting out of this bed, with or without your help."

"Well, fine. It’ll be interesting to see whether you waltz around with, or without your trousers, too."

"Don’t tempt me – any more than you have already." Her willingness to defy him was oddly invigorating. It wasn’t something that happened often, but Vera’s feistiness made it an interesting contest.

"Tempt you?" She looked at him with mock surprise. "Why, Clay," her voice softened, "would I do that?" As she leaned forward to bestow a lingering kiss on his lips her hand slid under the sheet. It wandered at its leisure, slowly and deliberately, teasing as it ventured up the inside of his thigh. She remembered exactly what he liked and just how he liked it. Vera possessed real talent, not to mention an excellent memory.

Judging from its spontaneous reaction, his body had also retained its powers of recollection. His response to her touch refused to be ignored, and a moan of pleasure escaped as her tender manipulation continued, blithely and unmercifully.

"You present a strong argument, Miz Vera. It might be wise to be completely sure my strength is returning before I engage in any … strenuous activity. There are some things that simply … shouldn’t be rushed."

Vera was nothing if not professional. Each stroke of her hand sent invigorating ripples of arousal through him. He’d missed the softness of a woman’s touch, and every move she made enhanced the pure physical delight of it. Gradually the ache in his muscles loosened its grip and the pain dissolved into a sensation of effortless bliss. He exhaled slowly as he settled back onto the pillows and closed his eyes.

"I believe I’ve had a change of heart," he sighed. "If you’ll permit me, Miz Vera, I’d like to reverse my previous stand on this entire issue. You are completely in charge."

"I knew you’d come to your senses, given the opportunity to reconsider." Her voice was as velvety as her touch. "Is there anything else you’d like to discuss with me?"

"Not at the moment. I think … everything else… can wait."

The excitement that had stirred in him surged eagerly to its peak, climaxed and released, and with it swept a wave of luxurious contentment. Nothing on earth was so relaxing and so exquisitely satisfying.

"Maybe I’ll get up … a little later," he murmured as soothing shadows crept in softly, enfolding him in their warm, dreamy embrace.

"That’s fine," he heard Vera saying, as she gently pulled the blanket back over him.

* * *

Clay groaned as he tried to stretch. His muscles ached and his bones creaked, protesting every movement with stabbing pain. He fought off a rush of dizziness as he forced himself to stand upright, and plodded across the room. The worst hangover he could remember wasn’t as miserable as this.

As he paused in front of Vera’s vanity table, his eyes focused on a haggard face that appeared in the mirror. It was a strange and contradictory image as the scruffy derelict stared back at him from the ornate frame. He barely recognized himself.

His hair was tangled and particles of dried blood had flaked off onto his shoulders. Several days of beard growth shadowed his face, and dark circles hollowed out his eyes. He looked every bit as unkempt, if not worse, than many of the residents of Crossroads. That wouldn’t do.

"Vera, you wouldn’t happen to have a straight razor, would you?"

She studied him from a distance. "Why, you think you need a shave?"

"Well, that is what people use razors for, isn’t it?" Vera had a peculiar way of discouraging things without putting up any physical resistance.

"You look perfectly all right – as good as any man in Crossroads."

High praise, indeed. The image in the mirror glared back in sullen disapproval. "That, m’dear, is exactly the point I am trying to make."

"Honestly, Clay, you just look like a man who’s had a rough couple of days."

"I look like a mad raccoon."

"Well, that beats the hell out of looking like a dead raccoon. I swear, you’re damn lucky to be alive, and all you’re worried about is looking like one of those cavaliers, or buccaneers – privateers – whatever they call themselves."

"Cavaliers. Really?"

Vera stood up and walked toward him. She took an evaluative look at him, then reached up and lightly stroked his beard with her fingertips. "Not only are you the handsomest man in town, Clay, you are, without a doubt, the single vainest man I’ve ever met."

He leaned back in feigned indignation, peering thoughtfully into the mirror as he adjusted the waistband of his rumpled drawers. "For what it’s worth, you’re probably right. But then, some illusions are more justifiable than others. Besides, we ‘cavaliers’ have an image to maintain. Now about that razor…."

"I’ll see what I can do. Would monsieur care for some rosewater with his twa-lette?"

"No, I believe I’ll forego the rosewater for now, merci, Madame."

"As you wish." Vera curtsied as she mimicked one of his favorite phrases. "Will that be all, sir?"

Clay lingered in front of the mirror. As he ran his hand through his hair, he noticed a small section in the front that was considerably shorter than the rest. He eyed Vera suspiciously as he held the abbreviated strands between his fingers.

"Hmmm." He raised one eyebrow as he looked askance at her. "There seems to have been a little ‘accident’ here."

Vera glanced at his bare torso. There were numerous scrapes on his back and chest, and his ribcage was a mass of dark, discolored bruises. He flinched as her fingers brushed over a sensitive spot.

"In a manner of speaking, although I wouldn’t call any of this an accident."

"It wasn’t." He looked back at her. "I must say, you’re remarkably well informed."

Vera turned toward the door. "I heard those O'Reilly boys talking in the saloon after they’d had a belly full of whisky. Sounded like they were real proud of what they’d done. I haven’t seen them since. Looks like they left town, for awhile at least. But you never know about that bunch. They could show up any time, and if that happens, it’s best they don’t see you – at least not now. I’ll be back in a few minutes."

He had to agree. He was in no shape even to defend himself, much less to protect anyone else from three violent men. For the moment, his presence in Crossroads would best remain a secret. There would be time to take care of business with the O'Reillys later.

Good Lord, he thought as the drawn face in the mirror frowned back. He hadn’t looked this bad since he was a prisoner of war.

Vera returned with the shaving equipment. She filled the wash basin with hot water and laid out the various toiletry items on the vanity table. As the steam swirled up from the basin it clouded the mirror.

"I must say, you seem to be well-stocked." Clay couldn’t hide his curiosity. "I wouldn’t have expected a lady’s toilette to contain any men’s shaving necessities."

Vera smiled. "Oh, it’s not so unusual. It’s just a little service I occasionally offer to preferred customers. Some men seem to enjoy it."

"Hmmm." The notion of a woman barber seemed like a peculiar idea. On the other hand, it made perfect sense. Why not? Women were accustomed to doing almost everything else when it came to servicing a man’s needs. "It appears, m’dear, that you are a woman of many talents."

She looked up at him and winked. "You might be surprised."

No, I don’t think so, he thought. "Once, maybe, but not any more."

"I’ll take that as a compliment, Mr. Mosby."

"Precisely as I intended it, Miz Vera."

He picked up the shaving brush and lathered his throat below the beard line. The image that faced him resembled a ragged stranger he would have preferred not to meet on the street. As he stood before the mirror, holding the straight razor, the steam obscured his reflection and the heat that rose from the basin made his skin tingle. Several days in bed had left him weaker and shakier than he realized. For some reason, that made certain sensations feel intense and strangely distorted. As he looked into the clouded mirror, a chill fluttered through him, and for a second the razor seemed to vibrate in his hand.

He tightened his grip as he held the blade to his throat, hesitating momentarily as he waited for his hand to stop shaking. Steadying himself with a deep breath he took a careful upstroke with the razor. Almost immediately a bright red line began to seep through the white foam.

"Good Lord, Clay!" Vera gasped. "You’re going to slit your own throat – as if you weren’t sliced up enough already? Give me that thing."

She took the razor from his hand before he had a chance to protest, and laid it on the table. "If you’re so determined about this, you’d better let me do it. Here, sit down before you fall down."

There was no point in arguing, and given his condition, a straight razor was probably safer in her hand than in his. "I assure you, Miz Vera, that I am perfectly capable of performing my own ablutions. However, if you insist…." He sat down in the dainty, ruffle-trimmed chair in front of the vanity.

Vera looked content as she draped a bath linen over his shoulders. "Now, you just sit right here and let me take care of this. You’ll look like your old self in no time. Besides, I’m running low on sewing thread. I don’t want to have to use any more of it sewing up unnecessary razor cuts."

He sat uncomfortably on the edge of the chair. "Far be it from me to start an argument with a woman who’s armed and, uh, ‘dangerous’."

"Good thinking, Clay. Some old-fashioned logic for once. What a pleasant change. Now will you please relax? You’re stiff as a board."

He took a deep breath and tried to ignore the queasy sensation that stirred in the pit of his stomach. Vera was perfectly capable of performing the simple task, but there was still something strange about a lady barber. She wiped the spot of blood from his throat with the corner of the linen and whisked the brush in the shaving mug.

"You’ve done this before, I take it?"

"Oh, a few times," she cooed. "Don’t worry, Clay, you’re safe with me. I would have thought you’d have figured that out by now."

His eyes followed her hand as she stroked the lather under his chin and picked up the razor. As she brought the blade close to his throat, its shiny surface caught a ray of sunlight from the open window and reflected in the mirror. A sharp glint of metal gleamed through the swirling haze of steam. The sudden flash of steel sent another tremor shuddering through him and his hand reflexively grabbed Vera’s arm. The razor dropped to the floor, but his hand remained clamped onto her wrist.

"Clay! What’s wrong?" Her voice conveyed the pain his grasp had inflicted.

He let go of her wrist, but his hand continued to shake uncontrollably. He jerked himself out of the chair and stumbled backward away from the mirror, as the walls of the room began to move in, closer and closer. Nausea churned in his stomach and bubbled up into his throat. There was no air as shadows crowded in from all sides.

Salty perspiration stung his eyes as it streamed down his face. He began to tremble convulsively as rivulets of sweat rolled down his chest. He squeezed his eyes shut, hoping the room would stop turning, but a shroud of darkness began to encircle him, surrounding and smothering him as it pulled him deeper into the shadows. He barely heard Vera cry out as the floor beneath him upended, and slammed against him with a deadening thud.

Everything went numb as he descended into the soundless void.

* * *

Flickers of awareness merged together as consciousness drifted back. Clay rubbed his eyes and gritted his teeth against the merciless pounding inside his skull. Through the scattered patches of light Vera’s face slowly came into focus.

"Well, Mr. Mosby, you’ve decided to join us again, I see."

Clay lay flat on his back as his hostess hovered over him like a moth above a lamp.

"This is beginning to be a rather embarrassing habit, I’m afraid." He rolled to one side without lifting his head. The floor tilted again as the dizziness refused to let go. "I know it’s proper for a gentleman to rise when a lady is present, but perhaps you’ll allow me to dispense with that formality, just this once."

"You just fainted, Clay. That’s all. It happens."

He looked back at her, trying to reconcile the blurred edges of her face into a clearer image.

"Women faint … I do not faint."

"Oh, I beg your pardon, Colonel. What was I thinking? After all, you’ve only been stabbed, stomped, and had your ass kicked over a cliff. You lost enough blood to float a barge and all you’ve eaten in the last four days is a few stale biscuits. Did you think you could just jump up all of a sudden and start racing around like nothing happened?"

Clay raised himself enough to lean on one elbow. He didn’t feel like a discussion, much less an argument, but once Vera got started it was hard to stop her.

"You may have gotten away with that when you were younger, but in case it slipped your mind, you’re not exactly a kid any more."

"Thank you so much for the reminder, Vera. I’d hate to forget something as important as that." He’d forgotten what a pain in the ass she could be, but the recollection was quickly returning. "Look here, I came to do a job and I intend to do it. Now if you’d be so kind as to help me…."

"Help you what, Clay? Get yourself killed?"

"That is not my intention."

"It never is. But you seem to attract this kind of thing."

"I’m afraid I don’t follow your meaning." She could try a man’s patience like no one else, but somehow the aggravation seemed to help bring things back into focus.

"You know exactly what I mean – this reckless game you play, trying to see how near death can come to you before you manage to escape. Well, this time it came pretty close."

"It wouldn’t be the first time."

"No, but one day it will certainly be the last. What are you trying to prove, Clay? How tough and indestructible you are? Or just so damned superior that no one can touch you."

Arguing with her was a mistake. A softer approach might be better. He reached up and gently stroked her arm. "Well now, we both know better than that, don’t we?" His hand moved up her arm to her shoulder, then down to the open neckline of her dress.

"You can pretend all you want," she continued, ignoring his conciliatory gesture. "You came out here chasing one man, now you’ve got three more trying to pin your hide to the wall. Everyone has a limit – even you, whether you care to admit it or not."

"What’s your point, Vera?"

"The point is that if once in a while you stopped to think of someone besides yourself, this kind of thing wouldn’t happen on such a predictable basis."

"Well, look who has all the answers. For the record, I didn’t go looking for those sons-of-bitches. They came after me. There weren’t a lot of choices to be made."

"I suppose not." She sighed as she pulled herself upward and out of his reach. "I’m just tired of seeing men fighting and killing each other, and dying for nothing. I’m sick of it. No matter how many people die it seems like there’s just no end to it."

That was an unfortunate truth. One day it might be different, but no time soon.

"Well, I’m afraid we are all condemned to frustration and disappointment in that respect." He looked at her squarely. "Now, I’m only going to say this once. I have unfinished business to attend to, and that will take precedence over all other matters. The discussion is now closed."

"I swear," she fumed, "You men think just because you can grow hair all over your faces and piss standing up, you should automatically be masters of the whole goddamn universe!"

Vera could be difficult. Most women could. To be sure, they suffered through hardships and sorrows just as men did, often with greater endurance and fortitude. In all fairness they had a right to their own opinions. Unfortunately, some women were all too quick to exercise that right and the practice had set an unhealthy precedent. He sighed wearily, remembering why he had initially questioned the wisdom of allowing them to vote in Montana Territory.

Gentlemanly conduct dictated that there was no excuse for a man to raise his hand to a woman, but Vera’s incessant nagging could severely test that precept. Still, despite her aggravation and her picturesque way of expressing it, it was clear that Vera genuinely cared what happened to him. A whore who actually cared. It was an interesting irony.

In any case, enough was enough. He needed to finish the business he’d started. Every day he stayed was another day wasted, and he’d been cooped up too long already. He raised himself up and painfully shifted his weight onto both knees. As he forced himself into an upright position every bruise and strained muscle reminded him of the abuse he’d endured. His entire body seemed to object to the slightest attempt to move. "Stiff everywhere, except where it counts," as Vera would say.

He trudged across the room and collapsed backward onto the bed. His legs hung over the side of the mattress as he lay gazing at the ceiling. This must be how a cow felt upon learning that its reward for enduring a long, rigorous trail drive was being carved up and served on a supper plate. Having survived a deadly attack by three murderous thugs, he now found himself in the hands of a woman of equal passion and resolve. Given Vera’s temperament, it was uncertain as to which situation represented the greater peril.

He groaned as she took hold of his ankles, dragged him sideways to shift his body parallel to the mattress and dropped his legs onto the bed. "You’re truly an ‘angel of mercy’, Miz Vera. Where ever did you develop such a tender touch?"

"Oh, you’d be surprised", she countered and headed out the door.

I doubt it, he thought as he closed his eyes and waited for the dizziness to subside. Very little, if anything Vera did, came as a surprise to him. In some ways she reminded him of the women he’d most admired – all of them capable individuals, even when decorum required that they appear dependent and deferential. Now, every one of them was gone.

The brief memory sapped what was left of his strength. He felt tired, but sleep only brought back images of things he’d tried not to think about, like the women he’d loved, the men he’d known and admired … the ghosts of the dead who spoke to him in his dreams … and the unnatural spirits that seemed unconstrained by distance or time.

They’d become phantoms, bent on extorting retribution for something he’d done, or had failed to do, or inflicting some cruel penance, simply for the kind of life he’d led – bizarre, inescapable demons who’d come to punish him, and no amount of regret could pacify their anger, or quell their passion for revenge.

In their crude way, the O'Reillys resembled such phantoms, like the McSweens before them – always striking from ambush, and for some reason, always three at a time, like some unholy trinity of the damned. They’d pursued him through brutal combat, and the terrible events that had sent him to Elmira. There, in that godless place, three other assailants had trapped him and set upon him in some fit of diabolical mania.

Goddamn dreams. They’d leave him alone for months at a time. But they always returned, and when they did it was with a vengeance. He rubbed his eyes and glanced around the room, angrily forcing the memories out of his head. There was no point in thinking about that now. There was work to do and there was no time for any more distractions or delays. First he’d find Redmont and take care of that business once and for all. Then he’d deal with the O'Reillys.

None of them were going anywhere – except to jail, and then, most likely, to hell.

* * *

Arrow straight shafts of sunlight broke through the clouds that drifted across the morning sky. Clay sat stiffly on the edge of the bed, focusing on the heavy, gray thunderheads that waited just beyond the mountains. He breathed in sharply as Vera rolled a new bandage around his midsection. The scrapes and superficial cuts were healing but the bruises remained as evidence of the deeper pain beneath them.

"Make it tighter," he ordered as he sucked in his breath to stave off the discomfort.

Vera leaned back to assess her handiwork. "All right, if you insist." She withdrew the end of the cloth binding, unwrapped it halfway, proceeded to pull the strip painfully taut and tied the end securely.

"How’s that?" She stood up and headed out the door before he could answer.

"Just fine," he gasped, trying to suppress his reaction as pain bolted through him. Evidently Vera was not in a talkative mood – for once. That was just fine, too. Neither was he.

It felt as if everything in his life had come to a complete halt. Between them Vera and Calley had managed to detain him for the better part of a week. It was some kind of game they’d played – first one, then the other taking a turn at distracting him from his purpose while they competed for his attention. It had given him a chance to rest but now the game was over.

He shoved his legs into his trousers and dragged them on over his drawers. Carefully, he pulled on one boot, then the other. He couldn’t remember when it took so much energy simply to get dressed. The shirt Vera had found for him to wear was a bit large, but it was serviceable. He slipped his injured arm through the wide sleeve, pulled the shirt on the rest of the way and eased the suspenders over his shoulders. It seemed like weeks since he had on a complete set of clothes. They felt bulky, but they would do for now.

Vera returned with a stack of fresh bed linens. She paused in the doorway long enough to register her disapproval, then proceeded across the room to the linen closet. "You really think you’re up to more physical activity?" she queried, as if she had not anticipated the answer.

"Indeed I am," he forced a smile as he braced for resistance, "thanks due primarily to your excellent care, if not my inordinate vitality."

The effort to sound convincing was hardly worth the strain. Vera wasn’t buying any of it. "You know, Clay, I’ve always had the impression that you liked being a fox in a henhouse."

"I suppose that’s one way of putting it." It was an interesting metaphor with an element of truth. Being the fox in a house full of hens had its privileges, but the coop was beginning to feel more like a cage. "Of course I appreciate the hospitality, but I have business that won’t wait, and I’m afraid I’ve already over-extended my welcome". Her wordless reply was punctuated by a look of pure exasperation. Under different circumstances, he’d try to be more persuasive, but there wasn’t time now.

"Vera, I need your help with one more thing." Her look of disapproval hardened as he took her arm to draw her nearer. "I need my horse saddled and brought round to the back entrance."

"Your horse?" Yesterday you could barely make it across the room. Now you’ve decided to go out for a ride. You’re out of your mind."

"That may be," his hand tightened around her arm, "but I’m also, as you may remember, your primary benefactor, and that means I get to make the decisions around here. I trust that’s fully understood?"

Her eyes widened, more in frustration than in fear.

"You have the common sense of a jackass."

"And you, my dear, have the disposition of a.…" He stopped before the words escaped.

"’Common whore’? Is that what you were about to say?"

Even if it was true it sounded crude and hurtful. But she’d driven him to do just that – to hurt her, knowing he’d feel guilty afterward – maybe guilty enough to acquiesce to her reasoning and stay a little longer. "Don’t play that game with me, Vera. I appreciate everything you’ve done – more than I can tell you – but I cannot afford to lose any more time. Now do as I ask and I’ll see that you’re amply compensated."

She pulled her arm out of his grasp with one final gesture of defiance. The game was definitely over. What reflected in her face resembled disappointment more than anger.

"Some things aren’t for sale, Clay. One day you’ll realize that." She smoothed down her dress and headed for the door. "Your horse is in the livery stable. I’ll send Calley for it." She turned and proceeded out of the room without waiting for a reply.

* * *

If the road leading to Crossroads was rough, the trail leading out of it was virtually non-existent. Recent rains had washed away most of the craggy path that wandered away from the little town and deposited rocks and other debris along the route that led northward. The visible tree line that skirted the river basin was all that was left to serve as a guideline.

Clay reined the horse to a halt as he reached the summit of a hill overlooking the Canyon River. The morning’s ride over the uneven ground had used more energy than he’d expected and the stamina he’d counted on had dissipated rapidly. His muscles ached, weakened by days of inactivity, as well as from the whole unpleasant experience that preceded them. The bay was agitated in the cold air and it was easier to rest in the saddle than to keep climbing on and off the skittish animal. On reflection it might have been wise to stay at Vera’s place one more day, but there was no point in turning back now.

He scanned the horizon, searching for signs of activity. As long as the rain continued there was no dust to reveal the whereabouts of travelers in the vicinity, but there would be tracks in the wet ground. As he reached for the canteen, the horse shifted its weight. Clay counterbalanced, but the sudden jarring motion sent pain shuddering through his body. He closed his eyes to quell the wave of dizziness that followed and grabbed onto the saddle horn until the sensation passed. He’d have to pace himself to preserve his energy. He’d ride for another hour, then rest again.

The landscape stretched outward in all directions, just as barren and inhospitable as he remembered. Just as it was when he’d been attacked and left to die only a week ago … and the year before that when a stagecoach wreck had left him stranded, alone and lost in a deadly snow storm. Miraculously, he’d survived both encounters. And now, for the second time, he’d found himself being rescued and cared for by two women. Even for a man accustomed to dealing with chance, the odds against that happening twice would be hard to calculate.

Maybe it was the thought of being at the mercy of unforgiving surroundings that had triggered all the unhappy memories. It was strangely reminiscent of his experience in the cavalry when he and his men had been forced to travel through desolate, war-ravaged country for days at a time. Deprived of sleep and even the barest comforts, they’d had to deal with enemy troop movements while under constant threat of snipers and ambushes, not to mention the dangerous business of scouting and foraging for food when rations ran low.

At the age of twenty-two he’d found himself responsible for the lives of many men, in addition to his own. It was hard to remember being that young. Now the burdens of responsibility had changed. In addition to the troubling issues at hand, there was an entire town to worry about and the myriad concerns that arose constantly. And, as Vera had so tactfully pointed out, he wasn’t twenty-two anymore.

He hung the canteen back on the saddle and looked out over the canyon. One last sweep of the terrain revealed no movement – only the slight swaying of tree tops in a distant breeze. He took a long breath and nudged the bay onward. He’d only briefly questioned the logic of embarking on another trek into this godforsaken country, and Vera had made a strong case for abandoning the quest altogether. "What are you going to do on the off chance you happen to find him, shoot him where he stands, or punch it out with that sorry old bag of bones? That’d be something to see," she’d chided, "him on his last legs and you staggering around like a sick calf. What’s the point in killing him if it means killing yourself in the process?"

Hers was a reasonable, if somewhat peevish argument that he’d disqualified in one verbal swat. "Stay out of it, Vera. You don’t understand." He’d been dismissive of her concern. But then, she hadn’t given him much choice.

A thick fog had begun to move in over the pines, slowly, like ocean waves rolling onto a quiet shore. In the distance an owl skimmed the tree tops. It paused in the air for an instant, then plunged beneath the deep green canopy. The fog rippled at the point of entry, swirled around it, and calmly settled back down to cover any evidence of intrusion into its depths.

The gray current spread outward, weaving through the trees in a filmy haze. Near the center of the pine forest a thin, vertical plume, almost like smoke, hung in the air as clouds around it drifted past. He watched the undulating ribbon curl upward, winding slowly until it too vanished above the pines.

It was smoke. Somewhere within the dense mass of trees, someone had lit a campfire – after days of sporadic rainfall. Most trappers and miners panning for gold would know how to light an open fire from wet kindling. And Indians. Or a man traveling with an Indian? It could be Redmont’s camp.

Clay instinctively held his breath, as if he might be heard from a mile away. He quickly gauged the distances between a few landmarks to calculate the location of the campsite. It would be hard to keep track of it as he descended below the tree line that overlooked the valley, and impossible to locate if the fire went out. And if the rain continued it would wash out the tracks.

If it was them, Redmont and the woman hadn’t progressed nearly as far as he’d supposed. He’d overestimated their location by several miles in his initial search through the flats. Now, looking back, it made sense. If Redmont wasn’t able to move quickly they’d have taken a route that provided camouflage rather than attempt a speedy retreat over open countryside.

Given those circumstances, it was also possible that Redmont had anticipated his pursuit. He’d lived in the mountains. He might even have baited him into venturing into the wilderness where he would have an advantage. The bastard could very well be laying a trap, using the smoke to lure him into an ambush. Clay surveyed the surroundings. He’d been careless before. It wouldn’t happen again.

He spurred the reluctant bay forward, down the hill. Loose rocks tumbled ahead of him as he picked his way along the route. The damn countryside seemed to grow rocks. He couldn’t hurry over the precarious surface and risk being thrown off another horse, but he couldn’t let Redmont slip away again either. "Easy, boy," he cajoled as the horse struggled to maintain his footing over the broken ground.

As he descended below the tree line the mist condensed into fog, blotting out the faint sunlight until the outline of pines blurred into shades of gray. Toward the inner reaches of the canyon the woodland grew darker. The sounds of the forest quickly merged with the roar of rushing water and vanished behind the shadows. It was as if all life had fled before him as he proceeded along the rock gorge toward lower ground.

Through the pines, Yellow Leaf Creek meandered away from the river for a short distance before it rejoined the main water a few miles up the trail. Along its edge thin groves of aspen shone through the diffused light. Their bark, white as bleached bones, was notched with horizontal black markings. With their spindly trunks straining upward to grasp at thin streaks of sunlight, they looked like skeletons whose broken bones had been loosely reconstructed and assembled in standing positions.

In contrast to the colorless surroundings, bright yellow leaves, still crisp with the frost of early winter, carpeted the ground along the banks. More leaves, darkened with age, drifted under the water, shining beneath the icy surface like bronze and copper coins – like a trail of scattered ingots, tempting him to follow.

As the pathway broadened it opened into a small area where some of the brush was cleared away. Two war lances had been stuck in the ground and crossed to form a crude barrier to the next section of the winding trail. The bindings were too weathered to determine their origin – maybe Mehti, maybe Lakota. It could be a warning. Knowing Redmont, it was more likely a taunt or an undisguised dare to come closer.

That could be obliged. Only a fool would play such a dangerous game, although that was consistent with Redmont’s whole approach so far. It figured he would make some kind of moronic hide-and-seek game of it. Ridiculous as it was, it appeared that he would have to play it to the end. He sat still for a moment, watching for any movement within the trees, but all that stirred was the mist as it drifted into the distance. He nudged the horse forward toward the primitive gate. Without dismounting he shoved the lances aside and proceeded on to whatever, and whoever waited beyond it.

There was something morose and unsettling about the place. Maybe it was the false twilight where clouds and towering trees blocked the sun, and the fog that masked what stood quietly in the shadows. Fog, itself, was a deceitful entity. It could distort distances and dimensions, trick you into thinking something was further away than it really was, or make it invisible when it was right there in front of you. It was downright ghostly.

That didn’t matter. A ghost couldn’t kill a man. The fright of one might, if you let it, but an apparition was made of nothing more than a man’s imagination. The only real thing about it was the fear it inspired. And dead men were harmless. He’d seen enough of them to know.

Something caught his eye.

He reined in the horse and stood still for a moment. High above the tree tops any sign of smoke from a fire was lost in the fog. He closed his eyes and listened, like he’d done in the nighttime raids during the War. For some reason, sound told more than sight, even when the enemy was close. Something wasn’t right. He opened his eyes and quickly looked around to see if anything had moved, or changed. It all looked the same. Nothing had changed, but something felt different. It was too quiet. Despite the emptiness that surrounded him, he wasn’t alone.

There it was again. A tiny flicker of light. It was barely visible through the thick branches and layers of ground fog, but there, in a clearing just a short distance along the trail, was a campfire.

He held his breath as he focused on the light. Nothing moved as he eased his Winchester from its scabbard and silently nudged the bay forward. A few more paces brought him to the perimeter of the clearing. Within the open space several roughly built scaffolds had been raised and tied between poles cut from young aspens. Tattered hides, scraps of blankets, and clutches of horse hair hung from structures. Atop the platforms were weathered shrouds. A chill crawled up his spine.

It was a burial ground.

Jesus H Christ! That’s what the lances meant. They had marked a sacred place, forbidden to whites and not to be intruded on. He gripped his Winchester as instinct whispered a warning.

"You’re too late."

Clay swung his rifle in the direction of the voice and trained the weapon on the figure that had appeared from nowhere. It was Redmont’s woman. She’d been watching him the whole time. He hadn’t even noticed her.

"You’re too late," she repeated in a hollow voice. "He’s gone."

He looked around. There was no one else there.

"What do you mean, ‘gone’?"

She glanced toward one of the platforms that were fixed head-high to the bare poles. The threadbare blanket she’d worn earlier was wrapped around the form that lay on top of it.

"He’s dead … last night. You’re too late."

He stared at her for a moment. Her face was pale and expressionless. He lowered the rifle. She was no threat to him, and it appeared that she was alone.

A hundred questions hurried through his mind. What had actually happened, just as he was about to catch up with them? Redmont was sick, probably dying, but his gristly strength had carried him further than most men in that condition would have been able to travel. Maybe the strain was too much for him and he finally just gave up. Somehow that didn’t seem likely.

"What happened here?" The words were out before he knew it, and spoken in an abrupt tone he immediately regretted. His argument was with Redmont, not with a defenseless woman.

She turned her eyes on him – not the eyes of a grief-stricken girl in mourning, but those of a woman who had learned to accept what fate had imposed on her. She knew what had gone before and what had taken place in years long past. And she had to know how it would all end.

"The medicine he got from the Chinese man.…" Her eyes returned to the scaffold where her father lay wrapped in her own shawl. "He…."

Laudanum. That’s what had done it. The stuff could kill you if you swallowed too much. It could have happened accidentally when Redmont was too tired to take proper care with it. Or he might have overdosed deliberately. Either way, it had done the job. It could even explain his lunatic behavior back at the Ambrosia Club. Maybe it had made him crazy for a while, and when it wore off, he realized what he’d done and high-tailed it out of town.

The woman stood motionless a few feet from the crude structure. In one hand she held an unsheathed hunting knife. He hadn’t seen it before. The other hand….

Morbid fascination held his gaze. Then revulsion. Two fingers of her left hand had been severed. Fresh blood covered the side of her long skirt. He looked away. Despite the forced abandonment of many tribal traditions, this gruesome practice had survived. Self-mutilation was an expression of grief, a demonstration of suffering that honored a fallen warrior, or symbolized his sacrifice … something like that. In her case, additional suffering hardly seemed warranted.

He dragged one foot out of the stirrup and over the horse’s back, leaned out of the saddle and dropped to the ground. His legs, weak after hours of riding and barely able to support him, trembled under the sudden weight. He steadied himself, draped the reins over a branch and walked stiffly toward her. She didn’t look at him. It was as if he was invisible to her. He paused, so as not to startle her, reached inside his coat for his handkerchief, and held it out to her – as a person would offer a piece of food to a timid, frightened animal.

He took another step, keeping a cautious eye on the knife and watching for any defensive reaction to his approach. She didn’t look frightened, just oblivious to the gesture and detached from everything that surrounded her. Her eyes looked past him as he reached for her mutilated hand. She offered no resistance as he took it and gently wrapped the handkerchief around it. What could he possibly say to her? No more than she could say to him. She knew why he’d come, and yet there was nothing about her that suggested fear or hatred, or offense at his intrusion.

He secured the handkerchief and let go of her hand. She looked up at him for a moment, showing no hint of what she was thinking. Then, without a word, she sheathed the knife and stepped back toward the trees, leaving him alone in the middle of the clearing. He watched her withdraw silently between the white interlacing branches, behind the misty curtain that enclosed her, and in seconds she was gone.

He glanced around, at the trees, at the bodies as they lay atop their splintered funeral pyres, enshrined in rags and sorrow, and an all-consuming stillness.

It was as if he’d been here before, standing alone in the middle of the burial ground … like the mornings when he and his men emerged, dazed and disoriented in the aftermath of another bloody nightmare. Amid the carnage, heroes and cowards lay side by side under smoke-darkened skies. Blue and gray uniforms, covered with mud and ashes, faded together into colorless shrouds until one was barely recognizable from the other. They’d all thought death would come for them. It had come, and watched, and departed with its chosen souls, and left the rest standing before vast fields of the dead, staring in silent amazement at what they’d done.

A raven perched on the corner of the scaffold, preening at black satin feathers as it stared at the uninvited visitor. A few leaves fluttered down from overhead branches, like so many yellow butterflies, and came to rest on the remains of the dead. High above, the pines watched over them, as they had season after season, all who had come in search of peace and forgiveness. They stood in solemn witness, as if to dignify the passing of fallen warriors, as if peace was finally within reach, and all could at last be forgiven.

He looked up at the platforms, some recently built, others disintegrating with age, all of them bearing the last remnants of lives lost to one forgotten cause or another. Now all that remained were piles of bones, shreds of clothing, buttons, arrowheads, scattered teeth, things that used to be men, fathers, sons. Forgiven, unforgiven. It didn’t matter. Separated from their names and memories, and the people who had loved them, they would sink back into the earth, and over time they would become part of the earth once more – all of them, including Ezekiel Redmont, under the same sullen sky.

The raven stared back for a moment, then casually lifted off, sailing upward till it vanished into the mist, and leaving him alone in the cold, gray silence.

So there it was. Finally, after all the angry years, it was as if nothing else had happened in all that time, as if every road he’d ever traveled had somehow led him to this quiet, lonely place. He pulled his hat down and closed his coat against the bitter wind.

What had he expected? Some sort of fanfare? A defiant last hurrah? Armstrong had at least had the courage to blow himself to hell. Prideman had been hung for horse theft, Whitewood had been killed in a saloon brawl back in Colorado, and Homer would end his days in prison somewhere in Texas. Here, on this barren patch of earth, the last man on the list was accounted for. Now all of them were gone, as ignominious in death as they had been in life. And in one last touch of irony, Redmont, a coward and no one’s idea of a soldier, had found his final resting place among the bravest of warriors. It hardly seemed fitting, but there it was.

He watched for a moment as the yellow leaves drifted down from the trees and settled onto the wet ground. Once again, death had surrounded him and enfolded him in its shadows, as if to remind him of its constant, unyielding presence. Then, as swiftly as it had descended, it had spread its great, dark wings, taken flight, and left him standing there, alone in the emptiness of its wake.

The raven’s cry echoed in the distance as the wind circled the clearing once more. Then everything was quiet.

There was no point in staying. There was nothing he could do for the woman, even if he could find her. She knew the country better than he did. She would easily make her way back to where she’d come from, wherever that was. At least she’d be safe there with her own people.

Come to think of it, someone must have helped her hoist Redmont’s body up onto the scaffolding. Most burial grounds were located near villages and its inhabitants might take serious exception to his trespassing on their sacred ground. It wouldn’t do to be killed in this mournful place – much less to be stretched out stone dead beside Redmont and have to stumble into Hell right behind him.

He walked back to where the bay was tethered. It was a long way back to Curtis Wells. Crossroads was as far as he would get before dark, and he could rest there for the night before continuing on. He climbed into the saddle and turned the horse toward the trail that would lead him home.

The heavy blanket of fog hung just overhead, as if it could drop down at any moment and smother everything beneath it. So much of it resembled the War, like the walls of smoke that came rolling toward him and his men as it poured from enemy guns … the sounds of drums and cannons growing louder, merging together as the front lines marched forward and disappeared into clouds of smoke and dread. It was as if the smoke itself became some kind of primeval force that descended on its victims, choking them as it devoured their lives, and leaving their dead remains behind. Then afterward, like now, it would all dissolve into silence.

The better part of the day was done, and was quickly fading into an early twilight. Any warmth the pale sun had to offer was gone. Clay pulled his coat tighter around him. The chill from the wind-driven storm had seeped through his clothing and settled in his bones, and the grinding pain that gnawed at his energy had taken up permanent residence. That, too, felt disturbingly familiar. He remembered the words of a surgeon who had treated him at a field hospital in the first year of the War. He’d removed a piece of shrapnel from his leg and sutured the ragged wound with catgut. Compared to most battlefield casualties it wasn’t a serious injury, but it hurt like hell.

"Separate yourself from it," the physician had said. "Take yourself away from the pain and leave it behind." It had sounded like peculiar advice at the time, if not an impossible thing to achieve. "You’d be surprised," he’d insisted. "The mind can do strange things…." The old man was right about that.

The horse’s plodding gait maintained a steady rhythm as they continued along the broken pathway. He seemed to know where he was going. Most horses instinctively knew where home was. He loosened his grip on the reins to give the bay his head. The narrow path was lined with rocks and brush so there was nowhere for him to go but forward. He’d stay on the trail while he closed his eyes for a few minutes.

Rain that had swept in from the flats dissipated to a steady drizzle … like it sometimes did in the Shenandoah this time of year … as it had during a long march he and his men had made early in the Virginia campaign. It was December of ’62. Fifty-eight thousand Southern troops had faced twice as many Union forces at Fredericksburg. Their raid on a Federal supply depot the week before had been a hollow victory when the mission proved more costly than it was worth. The action had taken half their number and only a dozen men were left when they managed to withdraw back through enemy lines. It was a high price to pay for the few crates of ammunition they were able to carry away.

Somehow the Union commander had anticipated the nighttime offensive and arranged an ambush. The Federals hadn’t gotten any smarter in the previous two years – they’d simply grown in numbers while his own ranks had sadly diminished. Now his remaining troops had plenty to shoot with, but after the brutal encounter they barely had the energy to lift a rifle.

"Ain’t it about time for a rest, Lieutenant?" The young enlistee was the first to speak as their withdrawal led them back through enemy territory. They still had several miles to go before reaching the safety of their own lines.

"I’ll tell you when it’s time to rest, Corporal. Now keep moving." He had to keep the men on their feet if there was any hope of getting the bone-weary survivors back to camp. That meant keeping them angry enough to think about shooting him themselves. There was energy in anger, but nothing to sustain them if they gave in to exhaustion and defeat. They could decide later if they wanted revenge on him, when they woke up the next day and discovered they were still alive.

A sudden movement jolted him awake. The horse had stumbled on something and nearly dislodged him as he swayed to recover his balance. What was he thinking? If he dropped his guard he could wake up dead. The light rain pattered on the surface of his duster, almost as if to lull him back to sleep with its soft, steady drone. It was a subtle and all too tempting trap. He wouldn’t fall for it again.

Everything was wet. The leather duster provided some cover, but slowly it too had succumbed to the unrelenting rainfall and grown heavier with the dampness it absorbed. He began to wonder if it was possible to drown by simply breathing the moisture laden air. Under the coat his clothing was soggy. The bandage had loosened and the back of his shirt clung to him. It was wet too, but not from the rain. Fatigue ground away at his resistance and the pain that he’d forced out of his mind had returned with renewed vengeance. At least it would help to keep him awake. He couldn’t risk stopping, or even getting off the horse. If he spooked and ran off, he’d be on foot with no way to catch him. The scent of fresh blood traveled quickly and too many stalkers were waiting for an easy victim and a quick kill.

For that matter, the O'Reillys were still out there, on the loose and creating havoc wherever it was possible. They could be waiting for him. No. As far as they knew he was dead back by the river. They wouldn’t know any better until he caught up with them. They’d had the advantage the first time. Their next encounter would be a different story entirely.

There would be time to rest when he reached Crossroads. A week ago a warm bed and dry clothing hadn’t seemed like luxuries, but circumstances could change a person’s whole perspective on some issues. He’d make time for a long, hot bath when he got to Curtis Wells. But first he’d have to get there. It was almost too dark to see the landmarks he counted on to guide him back to town. He prodded the bay into a faster walk, hoping he could follow his nose in the direction of home. He was tired, too. "Just a few more miles," he coaxed. The animal seemed to nod his head in response to the reassurance as well as to the signal.

As he approached the summit of a hill the bay began to fight the reins. Something was making him nervous. Probably the scent of a coyote foraging for food. It wasn’t the place to be at night and he knew it. The horse quickened his pace as they continued along the rugged path in a gait that was jerky and uncomfortable, but at least they were moving forward. He resisted even as he was pulled to a stop at the crest line. Clay looked out over the lower section of flat land that stretched out before him. Near the center of the shadowy area a few dim lights shone through the darkness. Crossroads.

He reached down to pat the bay on the neck just as he threw back his head. The sudden jolt nearly tossed him out of the saddle. "Whoa, boy," he called out. "Take it easy, now. We’ll get there." Most horses became anxious when they got close to their own barn. He knew exactly how he felt, but he’d prefer not to have to walk the last couple of miles. He kept him to a gradual, even pace as they descended the final hill. The town looked quiet, but someone at the Emporium would still be awake. Someone always was.

Hollow black squares of empty windows stared out and the buildings flung shadows across his path as he proceeded up the deserted street toward the Emporium. He kept to a slow walk as he scouted the area for signs of activity. Evidently, most of the citizens of Crossroads had found something better to do than traipse around in the rain in the middle of the night.

He brought his mount to a halt in front of the saloon where a few horses stood tethered to the railing outside the entrance. There was no telling who might be inside and under the circumstances it might be prudent to go around to the back.

His hand reflexively reached for the Remington almost before his eye glimpsed something in the shadow. With deliberate aim he trained the weapon on the lone figure that stood motionless at the corner of the building.

"Clay!"

He squinted into the darkness, keeping the Remington aimed and cocked. The figure stepped into the dim light that filtered through the shaded windows of the saloon.

"It’s me, Calley," the small, urgent voice called out. In a second, she was beside him, grasping at his wet duster as she smiled up at him. "Thank God you’re all right," she was saying as her hand gripped his knee. "Let’s get you inside." He holstered the Remington, closing his eyes in relief that he hadn’t spontaneously fired.

Before he could dismount, she had hold of the bridle and was pulling the horse after her around to the back entrance. "I saw you ride up," she went on, "I knew you’d be back tonight, somehow I just knew." She tied the reins to the post and motioned for him to hurry. He dragged his leg over the bay’s hind quarters and slid out of the saddle. His legs felt as if they’d been bolted on crookedly and his knees threatened to buckle under his weight. He leaned on the railing as he paused at the foot of the long stairwell. "Come on," she urged him, "before anyone comes along." He forced his legs to carry him as she hurried him up the long staircase and down the hallway to her room.

Calley’s room was just large enough for a bed and a small vanity and chair, but it was clean and it smelled fresh. He shrugged off the sodden leather coat, let it fall to the floor in a heap, and sat down heavily on the bed. Immediately Calley was kneeling at his feet, pulling off his boots and his socks, tending to him like a servant, as if he’d just returned from a morning ride.

He could feel the warmth of her body and smell the scent of her hair as she leaned forward to unbutton his shirt. She carefully eased his suspenders off his shoulders, and over each arm, then gathered up the bandage and the bloodied shirt and discarded them. He leaned back, as she undid his trouser fastenings, shifting his weight as she pulled both his trousers and drawers out from under him and stripped the wet garments off his legs.

"You’ve done this before, I take it." He sighed and stretched out flat on the sheets.

"As a matter of fact, I have … once or twice." He could hear the smile in her voice. She was happy to have him in her bed again. From his perspective, any bed would have sufficed.

"I don’t suppose you’d have any whisky hidden away."

She laughed. "I’ll see what I can find." She reached inside a small cabinet that served as a bedside table and retrieved a bottle of whisky and two glasses.

The sheets felt a bit scratchy, but they were clean and dry. Her scent was in them – a light perfume, like a small field of flowers. Wildflowers, jasmine, memories of floral aromas drifted in from the past and seemed to crowd out those of the present. For some reason, sights and images faded in time, while scents seemed to linger with remarkable clarity.

She poured them both a drink and handed him a glass. The whisky’s aromatic bite flared through him as he swallowed it down. Calley filled the glass again and sat down on the edge of the bed, soothing him with a smile as she sipped her own drink. A soft light flickered in her eyes as her fingers gently brushed through his hair, patiently, wordlessly….

Mary had done that for him, each time he’d returned from the fighting. She’d caress him with her eyes and her smile, tenderly, as lovers do, as she welcomed him back into her arms. She would warm him with her embrace and encircle his body with hers, comforting him, healing the wound of their separation, dispersing the awful emptiness he’d felt without her, and slowly the memories of what he’d seen and done would fade.

She would give him her body as if it were a gift, new each time. She would love him with every part of it, purely, desperately, from the deepest reaches of her heart, giving him everything, withholding nothing. She would consume him, draw his consciousness out of him with the ecstasy of their coupling, and breathe life back into him with her kisses. And he would love her back from the core of his being, until they inhabited each other, as if they shared a common heart and a common soul, and he would please her so fully, so completely that they would laugh and cry from the joy of it.

Surrounded by fresh flowers from the gardens, they would lie together while the moonlight washed over them and the fragrances filled the room. They’d awaken with floral perfumes streaming through the windows on the early morning dew. Mary would stir in his arms, and he would watch her smile as her body folded into his.

Now, with Calley beside him, and the scent of flowers invading his senses, the familiar ache returned. Pain from new wounds recalled the morbid throes of old ones until every fiber of muscle and bone echoed in dull torment. He knew the feeling, and its predictable result. There was a threshold at which physical discomfort would relinquish its hold to a more turbulent force. At some point, beyond the reach of understanding, the pain would transcend to a bizarre compulsion that generated power, and torrents of relentless craving.

He could feel desire spiraling upward, the same insistent urge he always felt the moment he touched Calley. He could already feel her hands moving over him, inviting him and confirming her own need, her fingertips, confident and articulate, would pretend to explore, all the time knowing just what he wanted. His body tensed with anticipation – pining for satisfaction, and, at the same time, threatening to punish him severely if he dared to pursue it.

Anger swirled through him. The pain had grated away with unpitying persistence, doing everything it could to distract him, subjecting him in a constant barrage of a misery and frustration. Now it was determined to steal even this simple pleasure, as if he was entitled to nothing but torment. After all that had been inflicted on him, he deserved better – or at least some small recompense for what he’d endured, and survived.

He reached for her arm and drew her closer. Her skin was soft and smelled of soap and light perfume. She knew what he liked. Nothing too strong. Just enough to enhance her own natural scent. He inhaled it, allowing himself a moment to drink the musky flavors of her body’s essence. Then, with one hand, he yanked her dressing gown open, pulling it out of his way as if it too conspired to deny him his reward. Calley jerked back in surprise at the abrupt gesture. It wasn’t what she was used to, and obviously not what she expected, but before she could react he reached around her with his good arm, enveloping her in a rough embrace and hauling her backward onto the bed.

"Clay, wait … you really should rest…."

He covered her mouth with his, as if he could suck out her uncertainty and breathe his own desire into her. Ignoring his own body’s grinding protests, he lifted himself over her, supporting his weight on his elbows as he nudged her legs apart and settled comfortably between them.

"This isn’t a good idea, Clay … I mean … if that knife wound starts bleeding again…."

As he kissed away her words, the pain retreated behind the feverish demands that propelled him forward. The cold air crackled with excitement as the overpowering need within him smoldered and his skin tingled with sweat. Her hand moved down his back and over the tender spot where the stitches were stiff with dried blood. His body tensed as a brief spasm trembled through him, but the sensation only magnified the ripples of arousal that pulsated with every heartbeat. He was already uncomfortably hard as he kissed her throat and the pale, silky skin of her breasts. He lingered there briefly, kissing them, cushioning his face between them and teasing the sensitive tips with his tongue. His beard tickled her, she’d often said, and usually made her laugh. But if she was laughing he couldn’t hear it.

He edged forward on his elbows, pressing his erection against her, promising her pleasure in return for the satisfaction he craved for himself. His sense of urgency must have surprised her. There was no resistance on her part, but there was none of the usual enthusiasm either. If anything, she seemed strangely unprepared, even a little frightened knowing she was helpless and had no choice but to accommodate him. For some peculiar reason, that felt gratifying. It would be good to savor her, to indulge leisurely, enjoying her as he was accustomed to doing, but his arms and shoulders trembled under his weight. They wouldn’t last much longer, and neither would anything else if he had to spend energy on any preliminaries.

"Clay," her voice quavered, "please…."

He wanted to empty himself into her, to cover himself with her tenderness, to lose himself in her and not think about anything. Ignoring her reluctance, he shoved his engorged member into her hot inner flesh, groaning with renewed vigor as he consumed the warmth that surrounded him. She could absorb the hurt and his anguishing, unrelenting need. She could fulfill everything that his body stubbornly demanded, and at the same time, awkwardly resisted. He drew back and thrust forward repeatedly, straining to push beyond the pain that fought to deprive him of all pleasure as it hacked away at his strength. The hunger was there, greedy as ever, and the force that fueled it refused to be contained.

There was no time. He jammed himself into her and let his body have its own way. The maddening ache writhed at his core, gathering its restless flame into a single glowing orb and amassing its strength until it threatened to erupt inside him. Somewhere, maybe in his head, there was a noise, like distant bells clanging and echoing through a fog, and a dizzying sense of weightlessness that overpowered all sound and sight. At once the frustration and pain that fed his anger came raging to the surface, shuddering through him in one final burst of defiance as the fire inside him flared and ignited, and the burning orb exploded into a million stars….

A residue of tiny sparks floated near the corners of his eyes as he watched the stars spin away into the darkness. Somewhere in the distance he could hear Calley’s voice. He lay on his back on the sheets and raked his hair back from his forehead. His arm throbbed and the wound in his back felt like a bayonet had speared completely through him. Sharp pains stabbed back with every jarring heartbeat, as if his heart was suddenly located in that very spot. He ground his teeth against the searing backlash and closed his eyes as the night crowded in around him.

If only he could dissolve into the darkness and fade into the deepest reaches of nothingness, into the kind of oblivion that had once terrified him, and that now seemed like a safer haven than any he had ever found. Sleep pulled him into its depths, enclosing him its murky shadows.

They waited there. Phantoms – real and imagined. Demons spawned by all the horrors that a man’s memory could tolerate before it retreated into madness. Guilt had long since replaced fear. Now revenge had come to supplant even that as spirits of the dead roamed ceaselessly, demanding vengeance and exacting retribution for their severed lives.

He stared into the blackened corridor, and beyond it, where demons stalked the night. He could sense them approaching, closing in, circling like jackals through the shadows of hell.

Redmont’s face stared back from the darkness.

"It weren’t so different, you know. What happened to your wife … what happened to you. Just about the same time. And neither of you knew it. Kind of funny, ain’t it?"

Redmont stood in the dark, leering like a lunatic as his filthy hands reached out. They were grimy with black powder and blood. He was reaching out for Mary … and laughing.

"All them months you spent wandering back home to her, worried you weren’t a man no more, scared shitless that somebody would know it, or find out somehow. Not sure what you’d say to her. Thinking she wouldn’t love you no more. And she was dead the whole time."

Rope … straw, stinking of horse piss and barn rot. The stench crept down his throat and stung his eyes. Hands, like bloody talons, filthy with carrion … he could feel them … rough, calloused hands. Maniacal laughter echoed around him as he struggled to break free.

The air was acrid with their steaming breath. He could feel their hands clawing at him, forcing him face down into the dirt, strangling him, impaling him through the length of his body, out the top of his skull. Blood spilled from their jaws as they snarled – biting, slashing, tearing at him in frenzied arousal, shrieking their hatred in a maelstrom of smoke and noise and fury, howling as they tried to rip him apart for the savage thrill of it.

"Least she had the gumption to put up a fight. Hell, all you done was scream like a woman – like some stupid, stinkin’ whore."

"Nooooo!" he yelled as he bolted upright. Hands held him tightly by the shoulders, jerking him and pulling at him. "No!" he heard himself shout again as he lunged full force at his attacker and grabbed him around the neck. He wouldn’t escape this time.

As suddenly as it had surrounded him, the darkness shattered, breaking away unevenly as pieces of light slowly fused together. His eyes strained to focus. Calley’s face was drained of color as she stared back at him in wide-eyed disbelief. Still shaking with rage and fear, he looked at her and at the trembling hands that were locked tightly around her throat.

"Oh God!" he gasped as he released his grip. "Calley, are you alright!" He reached for her slender shoulders. "I’m sorry … I’m sorry," he stammered as he felt her shivering in his hands. She only stared, as if some frightening and unexpected revelation had suddenly forced her out of her dream and into a dreadful reality.

He exhaled heavily and squeezed his eyes closed, as if that would block the noises that swarmed around him, plundering his thoughts, obscuring sensations and memories, hurling everything into a storm of chaos and confusion … wildflowers … whisky … the sickly sweet fumes of decay that hovered over fields of the dead. He held his eyes tightly shut, and waited for the ringing in his ears to stop as he strained to force the last burning fragments of the nightmare out of his head.

Sweat streamed down his face as he pulled himself back and leaned against the headboard. Cold air rushed in from outside, pouring over the damp surface of his skin as the drumming in his chest reverberated through him. He filled his lungs with the chilly air, and focused on the sound of the rain, and gradually the pounding in his temples faded and his heartbeat began to slow.

All he’d wanted was to return to a safe, familiar place where they could both find pleasure and comfort, to satisfy Calley as well as himself. Instead he’d abused her. He’d climbed on her like an animal and come gushing like some clumsy, drunken cowhand. The result was not the fulfilling experience he’d anticipated, but a crude, convulsive act of lust that resembled rape. Then, in a few seconds of mental disarray, he’d attacked her and nearly broken her neck. It was something a bastard like Redmont might have done. Jesus Christ in the morning! He rolled out of bed, pulling the blanket around his shoulders as he stumbled toward the window.

"It’s … all right…." Calley’s voice was no more than a frightened whisper as she sat shivering with the bed linens gathered around her.

It wasn’t all right. None of it was right. He’d needed her to comfort him, to shelter him, so for a while he could feel something besides anger and grief and endless, bitter cold. He’d wanted her to lift him out of his desolation and all he’d done was to drag her down into it. He’d sprung on her the way a predatory beast attacks its victim. He could still see her eyes staring back at him in fear and disbelief – like Mary must have in that instant of awful realization, in those last terrible seconds before a stranger’s brutality had claimed her.

"Dear God," he groaned as he stood, listening to the echo of distant thunder, and the sound of his heart beating … to the rain as it tapped against the glass and streaked down the clouded panes onto the sill … to the rustling of leaves, and the wind as it howled through distant hills where the withered remains of warriors lay crumbling into dust.

The cold air washed over him as he stood by the window, watching the rain … looking out into the moonless night, searching beyond the darkness, wondering, remembering … and waiting for everything to be quiet once more.

* * *

It was barely light enough to see as he pulled on his clothes. Just as the night had a way of distorting realities and twisting certain emotions, morning usually managed to put them all back into perspective. Somehow its clean, sharp light made everything look real again.

Clay fumbled with the buttons of his shirt as he paced the small interior of Calley’s room. With his injured arm still painful and his fingers somewhat stiff, the task was awkward. He paused at the window as he stuffed his shirttail into his trousers. Nothing stirred outside as he scanned the empty street below. There was no sign of anyone, including the O'Reillys. Nevertheless, it was only a matter of time before they returned to their favorite watering hole. As long as they thought he was dead they’d be content to sit in the saloon and drink. But if they discovered that he’d survived, they’d realize he’d had help from someone, and in a town like Crossroads it wouldn’t be hard to figure out who that was.

They’d also assume that if he could identify his attackers he’d be seeking to even the score. Of course they’d retaliate, and the women would be in the direct line of fire.

The only way to deal with the O'Reillys was to take them out of circulation – permanently. But since he could barely manage to button his own shirt at the moment, an attempt to face down three dangerous men single-handedly was not likely to resolve matters in his favor. Under the circumstances the smartest thing to do would be to return to Curtis Wells as quickly as possible and dispatch some of his men to take control of the situation. Then, with the O'Reillys safely in custody, justice could be effectively rendered. He’d see to that personally.

"Well, you’re up early this morning, Colonel." Vera stood in the doorway. "Don’t tell me you’re in a hurry to leave our fair town, especially after your extended holiday."

"Not at all, Miz Vera. In fact, I can highly recommend your facilities, and I must say the hospitality was … extraordinary, to say the least. However, the next time I indulge myself it will be under entirely different circumstances."

Vera sighed. "I’ll go along with that. And the next time you visit us, you can have your own room. That way, at least one of us will get some rest."

"Well, between you and me, I can’t remember any occasion when I enjoyed the company of two lovely ladies for this long, and somehow managed to spend the entire time sleeping.

"Neither can I. And last night wasn’t one of them."

Obviously she knew about the incident with Calley. "Vera, I swear you must have a spy under every bed."

"No – just instinct, along with a certain amount of experience from which I have learned a great deal about men. So will Calley, in time. She told me what happened."

Vera was never reluctant to make her feelings known, even in subtle terms. She wasn’t happy about any of her girls being manhandled. For that matter, neither was he. Mistreatment of women wasn’t something he tolerated in or outside a whorehouse. And Calley had trusted him – maybe even loved him in her own way. She’d had none of the emotional reluctance that had become an intuitive part of his thinking and he’d taken full advantage of that – not deliberately or even consciously, but that didn’t matter. The result was the same.

"Believe me, Vera, I regret what happened. It was entirely my fault, although it was by no means intended." Regret didn’t excuse his actions, or erase them. Nevertheless, what was done was done and there was no changing it.

"I don’t doubt it. Fortunately Calley’s pretty resilient. She’s endured worse."

"Not from me. You know I’d never hurt her."

"No. Not intentionally. I think it just caught her by surprise when you tried to strangle her. Some people might find that a tad disconcerting."

"I dare say." He didn’t want to think about it. Despite Calley’s profession, there was a quality of innocence about her. He’d always paid her well and treated her far better than most of her clientele, even dared to feel genuine affection for her. Granted, she was a whore, and he hadn’t paid her to say "no" to him, but in a rash moment he’d given in to his own impulsiveness and allowed anger rule his actions. She deserved better.

"I’ll have a word to her."

"I’d give it a little time if I were you."

"I’ll have to, I’m afraid. There’s still the matter of those three bastards to attend to before I do anything else."

"Oh for God’s sake, Clay! Where does it end?"

"Where does what end?" Vera could be relentless as well as oppressively maternal. This wasn’t the time for that, but a lack of timing rarely inhibited her compulsive need for self-expression.

"You know what I mean, and don’t pretend otherwise. This unholy crusade you’re on. It’s like some terrible thirst that can only be satisfied with blood. Whether it’s the O'Reillys or some sorry old derelict, revenge is all you seem to think about. Nothing else matters."

Her kind of unbridled persistence wasn’t something many men tolerated. Even in uncivilized places like the territories there were limits. "Stay out of it, Vera. You don’t understand."

"Oh, of course. I forgot. You’re the only one who ever lost anything or anyone they loved, or had their lives turned upside down. It’s all about you, isn’t it? No one else counts, and if someone gets in your way, you just ride right over them."

"Is that what you think?"

"What I think is that you’re a selfish son-of-a-bitch who won’t be happy until he gets himself killed, along with anyone else who happens to get too close. It doesn’t matter how many innocent people suffer as long as you get your bloody-minded revenge in the end."

"Well, that’s a relief. I thought you might be upset with me for some reason."

"I am upset with you. But I’m more worried than anything else. And don’t go trying to tell me I don’t understand. The truth is that I understand it all too well. You’re the one who doesn’t."

"Is that a fact?"

"I’ve seen too many men die for nothing, Clay, and I don’t want to see anyone else get hurt, including you."

"Nor do I. So if you’d be so kind as to hand me my coat, I’ll be on my way."

"I understand your feelings, Clay, and your eagerness to get back to Curtis Wells. Trust me, no one will be more pleased than I will to see you safely home. Unfortunately, you’re not exactly in shape for another long ride. You barely made it back this time. It’s almost twenty miles, over rough countryside, and if you go galloping off again it could be the last trip you ever take. Besides, I have a business to run and I don’t have any more time to be wandering all over creation looking for you."

"Well, there isn’t a lot of choice since I don’t think the Northern Pacific is due here any time soon, and I don’t fancy walking the entire way."

"All right. I’ll see if I can get the wagon. We can leave right away and be in Curtis Well by evening."

"What do you mean ‘we’?"

"Oh … uh, I was thinking about going to Curtis Wells sometime this week. I need to pick up a few things for the girls. You know, ladies’ things that we don’t have here in Crossroads."

"Oh, really? And would I be correct in assuming that this urgent need for a shopping tour arose in, oh say, the last thirty seconds?"

"Thirty seconds, thirty minutes, what’s the difference? It’s not something either of us should be doing alone, and if you care to start thinking with your head instead of your ‘wandering willy’, you’d see the logic in that. You just be ready to leave as soon as I get back. And I’ll drive."

What a memorable picture that would make – being ordered around by a woman, like a child. No question about it. Allowing them to vote represented a serious lapse in judgment. He directed one of his more intimidating scowls at her.

"Vera, I am perfectly capable of driving a wagon, amongst other things."

She appeared unimpressed and undeterred. "I know – just as you’re perfectly capable of wasting all my medical expertise in a display of male superiority. Now how about a demonstration of common sense for a change, just to see what it actually feels like?"

In all honesty, Vera’s idea was within reason. Male superiority notwithstanding, decorum did not always reconcile with practicality. Given the situation, a wagon could be a more safe and comfortable form of transportation than a horse. Still, there were appearances to be kept up, and a compromise of some sort would have to be arranged.

"Perhaps you’re right, m’dear. A common sense approach might be advisable under the circumstances. So, if you’d permit me to ‘escort’ you to Curtis Wells, I’d be happy to have the pleasure of your company."

"We’ll see." She nodded her tacit approval.

"Indeed, we will." Compromising or not, she was still a woman with a woman’s desires and a woman’s need for a man’s attention. A little old-fashioned charm might just soften her attitude. His hand wandered over her shoulders, pausing briefly to admire her décolleté, then followed the curve of her back, toying with the buttons on her dress as it traveled downward.

"Of course, I am, as always, a servant to your every wish, m’dear." He broadened his smile as he drew her into an affectionate embrace.

"My goodness, Col. Mosby, aren’t we in a pleasant mood all of a sudden."

"I cannot imagine being anything else where you’re concerned, Miz Vera."

"Oh, Clay … darling, if you ever get tired of running a saloon, you can always get a job in a lighthouse. I do believe you could call ships home through a heavy fog with that smile." Her eyelashes fluttered. "Why, I declare, it positively glows in the dark."

"Vera, I swear …!"

A number of vivid expletives came to mind, but it was apparent that the decision had already been made. Moreover, her imitation of his Virginia accent was improving by the day, as was her insight into his thinking. It was a bit unnerving. It was also strangely reassuring. In spite of her shrewish manner, Vera was one of the few he knew he could trust. It was a rare comfort.

He lifted her chin and playfully kissed her on the nose.

"Miz Vera, I’m not entirely sure why, but I believe I’m going to miss you."

She smiled. "You can only imagine how pleased I am to hear that. Now, if you’ll be kind enough to wait here, I’ll see about getting the wagon."

* * *

Vera brought the team up close to the back entrance and motioned to Clay to make his exit. Gritting his teeth in frustration as much as discomfort he pulled himself up over the side of the wagon and climbed onto the seat. She took the reins and urged the team forward at a slow walk. Neither spoke as they proceeded toward the edge of town and onto the road to Curtis Wells.

Clay wrapped his coat snugly around him. It was chilly, but rather refreshing. Although the refurbished living quarters were adequate, they’d begun to feel cramped. And leaving under such strange circumstances felt even more uncomfortable – as if he was the outlaw fleeing from a band of vigilantes. At least the women would be safe now that there was no evidence to suggest their part in his rescue. Crossroads was still a lawless town with its share of mindless violence. In some ways it made Curtis Wells seem downright civilized.

Sporadic flooding had deposited the usual wreckage in its wake. The road out of town was strewn with rocks and debris, and completely hollowed out in some places. Vera evidently regarded the destruction not only as a physical impediment, but as a direct threat to her authority. She seemed determined to meet the challenge by putting both the weathered buck board, and its occupants to the test. Had she deliberately aimed for each bump and dip in the roadway she cold not have been more accurate. While women possessed some unique capabilities, there were a few things in life for which they were simply not physically suited.

Clay pulled his coat tighter, as if that would buffer the next jolt. "A little more to the right, Vera, there’s a nice big pothole just ahead. It’d be a shame to pass that one up."

She seemed impervious to his remark and apparently undeterred in her mission to personally deliver him to Curtis Wells. "If you don’t like my driving, you can always get out and walk beside the wagon."

"It would be safer, as well as considerably more comfortable."

"Oh, stop complaining. Sit back and try to relax for once."

"I would if I wasn’t so busy hanging on for dear life. Riding a wild mustang bareback would be easier than this."

"I’m surprised you didn’t want to try that, too, just to prove how indestructible you are."

"No, I think surviving this trip would be ample proof of my indestructibility. Any further demonstration of my natural physical prowess might be seen as redundant.

"Speaking of physical prowess, it might be a good idea to see Dr. Cleese when we get to Curtis Wells, just to make sure you’re doing as well as you seem to think you are."

"S’pose so."

"What does that mean?"

"That means ‘I suppose so’."

"I swear, Clay, you’re the most cantankerous, short-tempered ‘overseer’ I’ve ever met."

"And you, my dear, are the bossiest, bitchiest, and most overly opinionated white woman I ever met."

"Well, I guess that makes us even, wouldn’t you say?"

Even? To be honest, no. Not by a long shot. He’d provided her with a building where she could continue to work while paying him a percentage of the profits. It hardly compared to the fact that she’d given him back his life. A man could a lot worse than find himself in her care, and for that matter, her company, challenging as it might be at times. Beneath the tough exterior was genuinely good woman. The petty bickering served to hide her real fears, among other feelings she’d be loathe to admit. What she’d done for him, despite the dangers involved, was deserving of something more meaningful than a polite nod. True to form, she wasn’t likely to make that easy either.

"Vera, I’m rarely at a loss for words, as I’m certain you know, but I’m indebted to you in a way that I’m not sure how to repay. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said I you owe my life.

"Oh, don’t start getting sentimental with me, Clay. I wouldn’t have gone wandering all over the countryside looking for you if Calley hadn’t been so insistent. I only went along to make sure she didn’t do anything foolish. Fact is, I warned her about you a long time ago, and she fell in love with you anyway."

"But you never did. Why’s that?"

"I guess I was just too smart for you."

"Is that a fact?"

Her eyes met his. "Yes. It is." Despite her coquettishness, her tone hinted at something more serious.

"Well, I suppose that will forever remain my misfortune. Nevertheless, I owe a great deal to you and Calley."

Vera smiled as she held his gaze. "And to Joseph."

He stared at her, momentarily at a loss. "Joseph? The bartender? What’s he got to do with any of this? I haven’t seen him since.…"

"Clay, you don’t think Calley and I went all the way out to Canyon River alone, do you? It was Joseph who drove us out there to help look for you. He was the one who spotted your horse. He wouldn’t give up till we found you. I’m not sure why, but I think it had something to do with that whisky incident back in Curtis Wells. I guess he felt pretty bad about it, and just wanted to make things right with you, I mean, while he still had the chance. Anyway if it wasn’t for him, you wouldn’t be here, and that’s a fact."

"Oh, I’m fairly certain who was the real motivating force behind this little expedition." He didn’t want to question her story, but a willing effort on Joseph’s part seemed highly improbable. "If you don’t mind me saying so, I find all that a bit hard to believe under the circumstances – with which, I’m sure, you’re familiar."

Vera stiffened as she snapped the reins. Of course, she knew about Clay’s threat to kill Joseph on sight. Everyone in Crossroads knew, and many had steered clear of him for a time.

"That’s all in the past now. Joseph made a mistake. We all make mistakes, Clay, even you."

"A man died – an innocent man whose only crime was having a drink in my saloon."

"Men die every day, and for less reason than that."

"Not under my own roof. I don’t want anyone walking through the door at the Ambrosia Club wondering if he’s going to leave alive or dead. Whatever happens in there, I’m the one who’s responsible."

"Joseph didn’t mean any harm to anyone. He just didn’t know about the whisky."

"He should have known, or at least thought about it instead of sneaking around behind my back, trying to line his own pockets."

"Well, what’s done is done and as far as I know, retribution doesn’t bring back the dead. I just think he paid for his sins when he helped save your life."

"I must say, Miz Vera, you’re extraordinarily generous with your absolution."

"Look, Clay, the man was with us every step of the way. He was the one who hauled your fanny up the stairs in the middle of the night – not knowing who might be watching, and waiting. He risked his own life to help save yours. In my book that clears up any debt he may have owed. ‘A life for a life.’ Isn’t that what it says in the Bible? It seems to me that ought to apply just as well to saving a life as it does to taking one. And that being the case, I think it’s up to you to square things with him."

There appeared no limit on the amount of aggravation some women could create. With Vera, it seemed almost effortless. Still, he had to admire her tenacity as well as her ability to manipulate his opinion to accommodate her own purpose. Vera would have made a good politician.

"Well now, there’s a novel approach to interpreting Holy Scripture. When, exactly, did you become an authority on religious literature?"

"Not literature. Just life in general."

As usual, she made a convincing argument. If only part of what she’d said was true, he still owed Joseph a debt of gratitude. As a matter of moral accountability, there was a standard to be maintained, and he couldn’t expect any man to live up to a standard that he, himself, did not uphold. At least he could set the man’s conscience at ease, for once and for all. He deserved that peace of mind. In any case, he owed it to Vera to grant her simple request.

"All right," he conceded. "If it’s that important to you, I’ll speak to him, and all will be well, m’dear. Now, was there anything else you’d like me to do for you while I’m … feeling generous?"

Vera smiled. "Oh, I can think of several things, but I suspect it would be prudent to wait until you get a little more strength back. Why, I’d feel just terrible if you succumbed – unexpectedly…."

"You’re a wicked woman, Miz Vera, but as always, I appreciate your concern for my well being."

"And you’re a lucky man, Clay," Vera’s eyes twinkled as she spoke, "in more ways than just one."

"Yes." His eyes twinkled back. "I know."

The miles rumbled under them as they proceeded along the uneven trail. For some reason it seemed like a longer distance than he remembered. And for once, Vera was unusually quiet. She’d won her last argument quickly and all too easily. There had to be something else. Whatever that was it would have to be soon. They were almost home. As they approached the last incline she pulled back on the reins and brought the wagon to a stop on the hill that overlooked Curtis Wells.

"Clay, there is one more thing I want you to do for me."

"Uh huh, and what might that be?" The answer was fairly predictable.

"I want you to give up this crazy notion you have of getting even with those no-accounts for what they did. Let the law deal with them. They’re not worth the risk you’re taking by going after them, whatever your reasons may be."

Her concern was warranted, but it wasn’t her decision to make. "For what it is worth, madam, my reasons are justified, whether or not it seems that way to you. I intend to see that those murdering thieves are permanently retired, one way or another.

"’Revenge’ is the thief, Clay. Can’t you see that? It’s robbed you of your reason, along with everyone you ever cared about. How much more will you let it steal from you?"

"Nothing else is going to be stolen. I can assure you of that."

"Including your own life? I’m glad you’re so certain."

"Listen to me, Vera. There’s more at stake here than your confounded motherly philosophies. I have a town to consider along with the safety of everyone in it. With men like the O'Reillys running around loose, everyone’s life is in danger. And as long as that’s the case, there’s not much choice about how justice is carried out."

"Yes, there is."

"And how’s that?"

"You’re the man who wants to see this town grow. In the process of watching that happen, you could make this a town where people like the O'Reillys are the exception and not the rule. Create an environment where they can’t exist, and if they cause trouble, you’ll have the law to control it. That’s the best revenge anyone could have."

"That day’s a long way off, if it’s even possible. Putting up fancy sporting houses and replacing water pumps with fountains is easy. Building a civilized society isn’t quite so simple."

"Well, it looks to me like if anyone can do that, it’s you. You’re a man of vision, so you tell me, or is that all just talk?" She smiled as she handed the reins to him. "You’re in charge, Clay. It’s all up to you – what you want for this town, and for yourself."

"I assure you I shall take your counsel under my most serious consideration, Miz Vera. Now, if you’ll permit me…."

He snapped the reins. The buckboard jerked forward as the horse started down the last grade to Curtis Wells, to the comparative peace and quiet of saloon brawls, fist fights, bank robberies, miscellaneous disturbances, disputes between squabbling citizens, the raucous hurrahs of drunken cowhands, and the occasional mid-street shoot-out.

Clay looked down at his town as he urged the horse forward. His town. A breeze stirred a small whirlwind of yellow autumn leaves across the path as the wagon rolled down the hill, toward home, and all that awaited him there.

End of Part 2
[Continued in REVENGE, Part 3: Passage]

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November 12, 2004


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