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

"Fall back! Fall back! "Shouts came from somewhere close by … and from a distance, muffled by the shelling from heavy artillery. Men scrambled over each other, over barricades and dead horses and underbrush aglow with live embers. Smoke from burning timber swirled with residue from canister and rifle fire, filling the air with a blinding black fog, leaving the stragglers gasping for breath. "This way!" Robert's voice broke through the wall of noise. "This way! His eyes stung as he fought through the smoldering tangle of branches and bodies, trying to find Robert in a blur of smoke and confusion.

"Get the hell out of there!" someone was yelling from beyond the tree line. Fire lapped at the tree trunks, darting its tongues, spitting sparks, shining its eyes in flashes of glistening steel. Through the haze came the shadow of a riderless horse, churning up clouds of debris as it galloped past … behind it, another horse, and a rider in a dark uniform waving a saber and charging straight at him. He couldn't hear anything – not the screams or the rumble of the cannon that shook the ground – only a guttural cry and the echo of his own rifle as the saber slashed a flaming arc through the air.

Overhead, soundlessly, a shell tore through the branches, turning everything white as a bolt of lightening split the sky, blasting whole limbs into splinters, upending the ground under him and knocking him backward. Another shell landed with a deafening shudder and the rider's face vanished in a bright red explosion that sprayed outward onto the front of his uniform as the horse raced by, still carrying its dead rider. He struggled to his feet, gulping hot air, choking on the filthy stench that crawled down his throat.

"Look out!" Robert yelled as something struck him from behind. As he reached out to steady himself, a stab of pain seared through him. "Robert!" He staggered forward, trying to stay on his feet, fighting to free himself from the vines and tendrils that wrapped around his legs, clinging to him, pulling him down into the dark red mud. He couldn't breath. He could barely move. He clutched at a fallen limb to keep from sinking any further, but as he strained to hold on, the limb broke off in his hand and burst into flames. "No!" he shouted as Robert took a step backward, turned toward the fire and disappeared in a tunnel of smoke.

"Nooo…." The strangled cry stuck in his throat as he shook himself awake. His body tensed as the early morning chill swept around him, sending a tremor through him, and with it, a steely shaft of pain. The sheet was damp and cold as he sank back on the bed. Even if the nightmare wasn't real, the pain was. "Bloody dreams," he groaned aloud as he wiped his face with the bed linen. Goddamned bloody dreams. They never tired of their insidious games or missed a chance to deprive him of sleep, always when he was most in need of it.

He tossed off the blanket, reluctantly gathering his strength as he sat on the edge of the bed. Cautiously, trusting his legs to support him, he shifted his weight to his feet and forced himself upright. Every muscle in his body was stiff, with one notable exception. Lord knew when that would be serviceable again, not that it mattered. Maybe it was all the pent up frustration, or just plain fatigue that was robbing him of his reason as well as his strength. It was becoming a way of life – the ghastly nightmares, waking up in a cold sweat, feeling exhausted by ordinary exertion … worse, being helpless to do a damn thing about it.

He rubbed his eyes, trying to focus as he glanced up from the wash basin. The face in the mirror bore an disturbing resemblance to the one that had glowered back at him from Vera's vanity table – a haggard, unpleasant-looking stranger, irritated at being awakened, and disdainful of the pitiful presence before him.

He'd taken a moment to wash up the night before, but now more grooming was needed. His beard could use a trim, although that was best done with a steady hand. His hair had also grown to an awkward length. That could wait, too. It could all damn well wait. The mirrored image reflected its disapproval. Despite the last day or two of relative calm, he felt just as depleted as he had when he'd left Crossroads, and looked, as Vera had so colorfully put it, "like shit on a burnt biscuit." Nor had the grinding torment from the knife wound relented since he'd returned. He'd thought about seeing the doctor, and initially dismissed the notion. Now, on refection, it made some sense to pay Cleese a visit, maybe in the form of a social call. It was the neighborly thing to do after being away, and considering the doctor's fondness for dispensing medical advice, a bit of light conversation might yield something useful. In any case, he could do with a little fresh air.

He splashed some water on his hair to smooth it down, picked up the scissors and snipped off a few errant strands from his beard and mustache. It would do for the moment. He dressed slowly, careful not to prompt the jarring spasms that stretching and straining seemed to generate, and pulled on his boots. With the task completed, he consulted the mirror again, hoping for a nod of approval, and debating whether or not it was really worth the energy. Once more the mirror scorned his efforts. His clothes appeared rumpled and ill-fitting. His hair and beard looked just as unkempt as before. And under the day-old stubble was a pale, worn face that belonged to someone he hardly recognized.

The hell with it. He retrieved a cigar from the humidor and stuffed it in his coat pocket. His ablutions may have gone for naught, but no matter. Given the local standard, few of the good citizens of Curtis Wells were likely to notice.

* * *

He made his way slowly across the street toward the building that housed Cleese's office. In a town like Curtis Wells nothing remained a secret for long, including the reason for his extended absence. By now, Cleese would have heard several versions of the story from as many sources. He'd welcome a visit, if only to be privy to first hand knowledge of events.

He cursed to himself as he paused at the foot of the steps that led to the office, damning his infirmity and trying to remember why he'd talked himself into coming. Why were facilities specifically intended to serve the sick, the injured, and the otherwise debilitated invariably located on the uppermost floor of the building? The steep incline of the steps would make a mountain goat think twice about climbing them. Still, he'd come this far, and as he'd persuaded himself earlier, it wouldn't do any harm.

Cleese hardly fit the image of a small town country doctor. Young, culturally astute, and witty, if not caustic at times, he was still idealistic despite the challenges of his profession. He was also one of the few men in town with whom it was possible to have an intelligent conversation. Overlooking his tendency to ramble, his opinions were worth hearing, and what he lacked in frontier experience, he generally compensated for with common sense, even if his choice of office space was somewhat questionable. It might be worth investing in some reasonably priced ground level property if he could persuade Cleese to relocate.

Taking a deep breath and a reluctant hold on the railing, he started up, careful not to overexert himself or to lose his footing on the weather-warped treads. Despite slowing his pace, he was almost dizzy by the time he reached the landing.

Cleese looked up from his desk as the door squeaked open. "Well, Mr. Mosby. I was wondering when you might be back. There's been some rather disquieting talk around town. We were beginning to worry."

He managed a tepid smile. "I'm touched by the concern, but as you see, and contrary to any grim speculation in regard to my absence, I've returned alive and well."

"Hmmm." Cleese frowned over the top of his spectacles. "I'm relieved to know you still live and breathe among us. However, while I concede to the former, I reserve judgment on the latter."

"I'm pleased to hear it – the first part, that is." Small talk served no real purpose, but it was a formality one was obliged to observe. "In the meantime I trust you've been keeping busy."

"To say the least." Cleese glanced down at the medical journal he'd been reading, then back with an unreadable look on his face. "A friend of yours stopped by a couple of days ago, mainly to chat, I think. In the course of the conversation she told me what happened outside Crossroads. From what I understand, you're lucky to be alive. Now that you're out and about again, how are you feeling?"

"Like I'd been run over by a freight wagon, repeatedly." He'd barely slept, and his patience for niceties was running short. "How would you feel…."

Cleese's expression didn't change. "Well, if I may offer my professional opinion, I'd say that was consistent with your appearance as well as your demeanor. Perhaps you should sit down."

Good idea, before he fell down. "Thank you for those words of encouragement, Doctor." He muffled a groan as he sat down in a chair opposite the desk. "And I hope you'll pardon me for saying that in my professional opinion, your rapport with patients leaves something to be desired."

Cleese stood up, walked around the desk, and took a hard, evaluative look. "I believe you have mentioned that on past occasions. Likewise your unusually surly disposition, if I may be so candid as to point that out. Now, let's have a look at that arm."

It wasn't like Cleese to be so abrupt. Apparently, the good doctor wasn't in the mood for small talk, either. He'd only stopped by as a courtesy, not to subject himself to unnecessary scrutiny. "There's no need. Apart from a little trouble sleeping, I'm perfectly fine."

"Yes, I can see that from all the cuts and contusions, not to mention your pallor and a noticeable shortness of breath. Frankly, I've see healthier looking cadavers. I'm surprised you actually made it up the stairs."

"Oh, if by 'stairs' you're referring to that broken down stepladder you have tacked to the side of the building, so am I. The damn thing's a safety hazard." He straightened his tie. "Frankly, I'd have thought forcing your patients to negotiate an obstacle course just to come see you would be bad for business."

"Your attempt to divert attention from the matter at hand is noted. However, based solely on outward appearances, I'd say those stairs are in better shape than you are. From my observations, I believe you're due for a consultation."

In addition to his gift for bluntness, Cleese possessed a quality one usually associated with the fairer sex: he could be a real nag when it pleased him … rather like a certain lady friend they evidently had in common. Then again, most of his patients were so ignorant of health concerns that nagging was probably essential to their care and treatment. He meant well by it. He was also uncomfortably close to the mark with the cadaver comment. "Actually, I just stopped by to be sociable."

"I'm pleased you finally found the time. Now that you're here, it won't hurt to have a look, will it?"

He directed one of his more intimidating scowls at Cleese, with no more effect than it had had on Vera.

Either he was losing his touch, or the good doctor was learning the rugged ways of the West at record-breaking speed. It wasn't worth an argument. He grudgingly pulled off his coat, unfastened his shirt cuff, and rolled back the sleeve.

"Hmmm." Cleese was noncommittal as he examined the even row of suture marks left by the silk thread Vera has used when she'd carefully stitched up the gash … and later removed, somewhat less tenderly.

"'Hummm, what?"

"Oh, I was just admiring this needlework. Did you do it yourself?"

"I beg your pardon."

"I must say I'm impressed with the quality of the stitchery. This is as refined as anything I ever saw at Mrs. Hackett's dress shop."

"Is that a fact."

"Absolutely. I'd even venture to say that if you ever decide to retire from the gambling business, you might consider opening a tailoring salon."

"I'm glad you find this so amusing." Apparently, Cleese was in as testy a mood as he was. "As it happens, I was able to engage an expert seamstress for this particular job – one with an exceptional bedside manner, which, by the way, would serve as an excellent example for anyone who cares to refine his own technique."

"If you're referring to Vera, I wholeheartedly agree. Actually, I suspect her expertise was a primary factor in your recovery."

That was an understatement. Vera was a primary factor in his very survival. And thanks to her, he'd not only recovered, but had enjoyed what some might call an embarrassment of riches while in the care of two women – not that his condition at the time had allowed him to enjoy much of it.

"So you're acquainted with Vera, are you, Doc?"

"Yes. A charming woman, I must say. Very informed. I'd like to have visited with her a bit longer, but she seemed anxious to get back to Crossroads."

"Hmmm – probably frightened off by all the beads and rattles."

"I rather doubt that. She didn't strike me as the type who'd be easily intimidated by anything, including her recent house guest. Now I'd like to see how the rest is coming along, if you don't mind."

"Would it matter if I did mind?"

"No. That is, not to me personally, but while you're right here it would seem like the logical and sensible thing to do, wouldn't you agree?"

Resistance was taking a toll on his stamina. Like Vera, when Cleese drew a bead on his target, there was little chance of escape. Together they would have made a formidable team. In this case, it appeared they already had. He sighed an ineffective protest as he removed his waistcoat, eased the suspenders over his shoulders and pulled his shirt tail out of the back of his trousers.

Cleese seemed reticent as he assessed the bruises and abrasions. They were healing satisfactorily, but the wound in his back was causing him painful days and sleepless nights. "This is a serious injury," he declared, "from a fairly large, sharp instrument, by the looks of it."

"Once again your powers of observation amaze me, Cleese."

"Hmmm … good use of subcuticular sutures," Cleese went on. "I can't determine the exact angle of entry, but it appears that the blade was deflected by the last vertebral rib. I can see how it might be the source of some concern."

"Yes, I noticed that, myself. In fact, the second I felt a sharp pain I instinctively knew something was wrong, but now that you've confirmed my suspicion that cause of it may have been a knife stuck between my ribs I feel tremendously relieved."

"I'm glad." Cleese was too focused on his evaluation to respond in kind. He flinched as the doctor's fingers moved over the sensitive spot. "Still a bit tender, I see."

"I suppose 'tender' would describe it, although I'd be inclined to use a stronger term."

"I'm not surprised. It's often hard to determine the extent of deep tissue damage, but traumatic injuries that involve tendons and ligaments can be extremely painful and rather slow to heal. You can expect some moderate discomfort for a while."

"You don't say."

"I do say, and you'll need to limit your physical activities in order for this to heal properly. I suggest you engage in more sedentary diversions for the time being, and refrain from anything strenuous."

"That's fine. As it happens I have no plans to engage in anything more strenuous than dealing cards and stacking poker chips."

"Good. I'm relieved to know your metacarpal dexterity hasn't been compromised."

Cleese took a final glance at the knife wound and stepped back to officially announce his findings. "It appears that the laceration involves the latissimus dorsi and part of the external oblique. That's the muscle that covers the lumbar region and the lower part of the dorsal…."

"Yes, Doctor, I'm acutely aware of its location."

"I expect so. Those muscles have their origin in the ribs and vertebral column, so each time you turn or reach for something, you aggravate the injury. That would explain the persistent pain and prolonged recovery period. In any case, the entrance wound is below the thoracic cavity and evidently didn't cause any internal hemorrhaging or damage to any vital organs. All things considered, I'd say you were extremely fortunate."

"So I'm told." The reminders of how fortunate he'd been were becoming increasingly tiresome. "However, I feel obliged to say that your definition of the term 'fortunate' differs dramatically from mine."

"That's entirely possible, but what I'm suggesting is that under the circumstances, you were fortunate your injuries weren't a great deal worse."

"In which case the mind boggles as to what might be involved in an unfortunate circumstance." He grimaced as he tucked his shirt tail back into his trousers. "Frankly, I shudder to think what might happen if this 'lucky streak' continues, so if it's all the same to you, I believe I'll forego any additional good fortune for now."

"If you prefer, although I should think most people would consider it lucky to have survived after being beaten, stabbed, and tossed over a cliff."

"That's a valid point. Luckily the rocks were there to cushion my fall."

"At least there were no broken bones, though I daresay there could have been much more serious, if not fatal exsanguinations with the deeper stab wound. A bit higher, and the blade could have severed the splenic artery or, to the right, punctured the abdominal aorta. In either case, you'd be a client at Miss Shaw's place of business instead of mine."

"And with that unpleasant thought, I assume we're nearing an end to this catalogue of catastrophes."

"We are. Just remember, you can't always count on someone as skilled as Vera to be there when you're in need of medical attention."

"Skilled" would be one way to describe Vera's talents, although he'd never actually associated them with the practice of medicine. "I take it you're impressed with Vera's capabilities, varied as they are."

"Why yes, from a professional standpoint, of course."

"Of course. I can assure you the woman's nothing if not professional."

"I'm sure you can. What I meant was that from my observations, her abilities as they relate to surgical procedures are surprisingly adept for a person with no formal education in the practice of medicine. Those techniques come from specific studies and training, not just natural aptitude. Mind you, I'm not one to pry into people's private lives, but as we were talking, I couldn't resist asking her about it."

He exhaled impatiently. Here we go – another dissertation on a topic of interest to no one but himself. He'd be stuck for another hour if Cleese launched into one of his rambling retrospectives or an encyclopedic review of some rarified scientific theory. In an effort to be cordial, he'd lingered too long. Now a graceful exit was impossible.

"As I suspected, she has, to a degree, had some experience in certain medical procedures."

"Really," he sighed. "How's that?"

"Actually, she told me that her father was a surgeon, back East, before the war. When her husband went off to fight, he volunteered his services as a physician, and she worked as his assistant in an army hospital." Cleese removed his glasses and took out his handkerchief to wipe them. "It couldn't have been easy for a girl of only twenty or so, witnessing all that carnage, with so many sick and injured, and so few resources to ease the suffering. It must have been very hard on her."

"It was hard on everyone." So Vera was married, or had been. It had never occurred to him to ask.

"Needless to say, especially for a young girl left to fend for herself."

"I thought you said she worked with her father."

"Yes, in the camp where a makeshift infirmary was set up close to the front lines. There were a great many casualties and very few doctors, so they treated men from both sides. Her father was seeing to some of the injured men when a dozen or so irregulars rode in – deserters, most likely. They tore up the camp, set some of the tents on fire, and started shooting everyone who tried to run, even the women who were there helping to tend the wounded. When her father tried to intervene, they shot him where he stood – right in front of her. She was lucky to have escaped with her life."

The image was all too familiar. "You said she was married at the time. Where's her husband?"

Back in Tennessee, buried somewhere near Fort Donelson, where he was killed. From what she told me, they'd only been married a few months. Such a dreadful thing to happen – to anyone, of course, but especially to two young people just starting out in life."

"Yes …dreadful."

Cleese adjusted his glasses. "As I was saying, while you're getting your strength back, I'd recommend you take it easy. And by that I mean no fisticuffs, gun-fighting, that sort of thing. Just to be on the safe side, try to avoid anything strenuous or dangerous for the time being. There's no point in tempting fate any further than necessary."

"You're absolutely right, Doctor. I'll be much more careful the next time I'm forced into a knife fight with a gang of mauradin' killers."

"My advice is that you stay out of knife fights entirely from now on." Cleese walked back to his desk and glanced at his medical journal. "The human body is a complex mechanism with amazing recuperative capacity, but it's not indestructible. From all indicators, yours would benefit from a good, long rest."

"Sound logic, as always. I'll give it my utmost consideration." Cleese's advice was reasonable, but his need to sermonize bordered on the pedantic. "For the record, and as much as I'd have preferred to avoid this latest encounter, I wasn't offered much choice in the matter. And while a rest from the usual routine sounds inviting, I'm afraid I'll have to defer the luxury. In the meantime, I have a town to think about."

"So do I." Cleese pulled off his glasses and tossed them on the desk. "I'm sure it hasn't occurred to you, distracted as you seem to have been lately, but the citizens of this town are my concern, too."

"Yes, of course, I simply meant…."

"I know what you meant. This was a crude, uncivilized place when I arrived, and it's only getting worse. I spend most of my time tending to casualties that are largely avoidable and frankly, I'm tired of patching people up just so they can go on brutalizing each other. Something has to be done."

"I couldn't agree more, but as you can imagine, it would be impractical to incarcerate the entire town. Bound as we are to reality, I can only dream about it." Cleese wasn't amused. "Look, I appreciate your concerns, believe me, but there are a lot of people around here who clearly have no idea how to conduct themselves in a civilized fashion. They've never seen it demonstrated, much less tried it themselves."

"In that case, and as both primary benefactor and guardian of Curtis Wells, perhaps you could provide an example for some of our more rambunctious residents. Show them that it's possible to settle their differences peacefully as opposed to resorting to fist fights and gun play at the slightest provocation."

"An excellent suggestion, Doctor. Unfortunately, it's a bit easier said than done. With all the new people arriving and the town growing, the opportunities here are bound to attract some unruly elements. A certain show of strength is necessary just to keep things orderly."

"And approximately how much strength do you estimate will be necessary to wage a defense against these unruly elements? How much longer do you think people will tolerate you and your private army imposing your own system of 'order' on them before they decide to fight back?"

"Judging by their lack of leadership and fundamental discipline, I'd guess quite a while. Public sentiments notwithstanding, there are certain basic organizational skills needed to stage a decent rebellion, more still to operate a regulatory system once it's in place." Smoothing Cleese's ruffled feathers could prove more difficult than he'd first thought. "Mind you, that's not to say the duties of city management can't eventually be assumed by democratically elected officials. The problem is simply that, as it stands, the people in this community have yet to take on the sort of civic responsibility that's essential for self-governing."

"And I suppose you're here to lead the way."

"At the risk of sounding presumptuous, yes. I have plans for this town, to ensure that it realizes its full potential. To borrow a passage I'm sure you're familiar with, 'Where there is no vision, the people perish'."

"Yes, I believe I have heard that verse quoted once or twice, although it's my understanding that the term 'vision' refers to one's faith in the law of God, not the law of Clay Mosby – not that it matters since people in Curtis Wells seem to perish just as quickly with visions as they do with none at all." Cleese sighed wearily. "I'm afraid if things continue as they have, the dead will soon outnumber the living."

"I wholeheartedly agree. That's precisely why a strong hand is needed. One day we'll be able to sit around discussing our differences in an atmosphere of peace and quiet, but from all indications, that day is a long way off. In the interim, a few arbitrary measures may be required to protect the citizens of this town and to keep things moving in the right direction, as I'm sure you understand."

"Of course." Cleese leaned back in his chair. "Relying on mutual trust and co-operation and would be much too risky at this point. You'd have to compromise your authority, negotiate with people, even allow concessions on some issues. That could jeopardize everything. Better to rule from a position of absolute power and to use whatever means necessary to maintain it. Anything less might be perceived as weakness and we'd be vulnerable to a takeover by some other bold, ambitious, control-driven visionary."

For some reason, Cleese seemed to be spoiling for a fight. "Oh, I'll confess to being bold and ambitious – those are fine qualities, but 'control-driven' is a little harsh, don't you think?" He didn't need to defend himself. Still, quelling an argument was often easier than conducting one. "I realize some of the preemptive measures I've been obliged to employ may seem severe and uncompromising, but from where I stand, it's clear that those strategies are fundamental to the town's growth and development."

"Is it?" Cleese wasn't backing away. "Then maybe you should drop by my office more often, or better yet, accompany me on a few house calls, just to see, from where I stand, how severe and uncompromising the results of your strategies actually are."

Normally Ephraim Cleese wasn't one to engage in heated rhetoric. On those occasions when he voiced his opinion, he did so in carefully chosen, understated terms. For whatever reason he had to be so peevishly out of sorts, he definitely wasn't himself. "I seem to have caught you at an inopportune moment. Perhaps we should continue this discussion another time."

"And when do you think that might be? When everything is calm and quiet, and there are no beatings in the alleys or gun fights in the streets, no riotous commotion anywhere? By all means, when that happy day arrives, we'll sit down for some nice, pleasant conversation." He shoved his hands into his pockets. "Unfortunately, I doubt either of us will live that long."

He studied Cleese for a moment. "I'm sorry to find you so dispirited, Ephraim. I'd have thought someone in the profession of saving lives would have a more optimistic outlook."

"I would if I thought there was any reason to. We're approaching a new century – a modern era full of technical advancements and social change, and yet we seem to be stuck in some sort of Stone Age where bashing in a person's head is proof of one's manhood, and the best way to settle an argument with someone is to shoot him. And if it isn't the pure viciousness driving people to destruction, it's the unbelievable stupidity – people dowsing open wounds with horse liniment, mothers feeding babies kerosene for whooping cough – meanwhile, one act of barbarity begets the next, the cycle perpetuates itself, and as far as I can see, there's no end in sight." He rubbed his eyes. "Frankly, I'm inclined to believe Darwin's theory about humans having evolved from wild, primitive species."

Cleese's frustration was understandable. If the behavior of certain residents was any indicator, the evolution from simians to humans was still in progress. Sometimes it seemed as if the ignorance that persisted throughout the region was as destructive as the violence that plagued it. Montana Territory had come a long way on its journey toward civilization, but there was still a lot of ground to cover. "I tend to agree, and I sympathize, truly, but in a town like Curtis Wells, I'm afraid these unfortunate incidents are bound to occur occasionally."

"And with predictable regularity, I might add. But then your understanding of all this is clearer than mine. In fact, the next time I have to inform the mother of three young children that she's just become a widow as a result of one of these 'unfortunate incidents' I'll have you drop by to comfort her." Cleese picked up his glasses from the desk. "I've lost count of all the men I've treated for injuries and illnesses and nursed them back to health, only to see them gunned down, or stabbed, or beaten in some idiotic brawl. Yesterday one of Twyla's girls came to me with a fractured cheekbone that she insisted was accidental. She stayed just long enough for me to stitch up her face, then went right back to the Sporting House."

He raked his fingers through his hair. "I became a doctor so I could preserve lives, not just to stand idly by and see them wasted in one grotesque folly after another."

"I trust that will change in due course. People can be educated and taught civility, but as I'm sure you realize, it all takes time and patience."

"Education is one thing. The Neanderthal mentality that prevails around here is something else. Nothing is likely to change as long as people believe that brute force is preferable to common sense."

"Which is why it's important that someone takes responsibility for maintaining order around here, and precisely why I'm doing what I can to improve the situation."

Cleese took a long breath. "May I be completely frank for a moment?"

"If you think you can be any more frank than you have been already, by all means."

"Then you'll forgive my bluntness in saying so, but from my perspective, and judging from what I've seen in the last couple of years, it appears that your efforts to 'improve the situation' have created more conflicts than they've resolved. What you see as 'taking responsibility,' others see as simply 'taking over.' The florid language and persuasive logic may sound convincing, but they don't disguise the fact that your management style is more that of a military dictator than a town supervisor."

"Is that so?" Not only had the diminutive doctor held his ground, he'd decided to dig his heels in. "Now that your expertise includes municipal government as well as medicine, what, exactly, are you suggesting I do – allow outsiders to go around stirring up trouble, or just stand here counting horse flies while thieves and reprobates take over the town? Frankly, I don't think that's the solution to the problem."

"No. What I'm suggesting is that at the moment, you're more a part of the problem than you are of the solution." Cleese stiffened, tugged his vest down and took a fortifying breath. "The point I'm trying to make, with limited success, is that you're attempting to devise your 'New Atlanta' with the same sense of superiority and entitlement that helped to destroy the old one. You like to think of yourself as some sort of pre-ordained ruler and to give the impression that only you can protect this town – that it's your mission to end the kind of violence that nearly got you killed – but we both know that's a lie." He planted his feet squarely. "The truth is that you live for that kind of thing. It's exciting, even exhilarating. It validates you as an undisputed commander – a conqueror in this primitive warrior society where you rule through intimidation and fear, and as long as everyone is afraid of you, no one can challenge you or defeat you or steal anything that's rightfully yours ever again." He pulled himself up to his full height and punctuated his reproach with an unflinching glare. "The truth is … you're not worried that this current atmosphere of hostility and fear might continue indefinitely. You're afraid it won't."

He stared at his accuser, simultaneously stunned and incensed by the unexpected outburst. Had the charge been issued by anyone but the town's only doctor, it would have been answered with a solid fist. On the other hand, hitting the man would only prove his point and inflame passions further. Better to smother the fire than to heap more fuel on it. "I'm wounded, Sir – mortified really that words uttered by a caring physician should be so hurtful, especially given my condition as it is presently. I hardly know how to reply." Hopefully, a bit of satire would mask his indignation at the affront and, worse, that the little bandy rooster had caught him so completely off guard.

The fire that had ignited the attack appeared to have burnt itself out as quickly as it had erupted. Cleese looked utterly bereft as he retreated behind his desk. "I'm sorry, he sighed. "That was completely uncalled for." His face was flushed as he adjusted his glasses. "What I meant to say is that there's a difference between acting like an absolute ruler and being a genuine leader … that is to say … a distinction to be made between arbitrarily dictating policy and supporting a democratic process that could, if given a chance, help this town to adapt to the future … as I'm sure you understand."

Apparently, the exhortation was concluded. "I'm aware of your sentiments, Doctor, and I share your frustration. I also hope you understand that in order for that democratic process to take place, someone has to pave the way, and that means clearing away any rocks and debris that block the path of progress."

"By force, I take it."

"If necessary, yes. Convenient as it would be to banish all violence and evil from our midst with a wave of my hand, I'm afraid that's just not possible."

Cleese slumped at his desk. "No, of course not," he murmured. "I don't know … I suppose I'm just weary of all the anxiety and exasperation. It's been a rather difficult week, but that's no excuse for taking out my aggravations on you, or anyone."

That was better. Cleese's show of contrition was well-timed. "No need to apologize. I appreciate your concerns, however earnestly stated." Had the tirade gone on much longer, he'd be the one apologizing for his own behavior. "Fortunately, there's no law against being overly opinionated."

"Yes. Fortunate. Otherwise, I'm afraid we'd both be in serious trouble."

"Actually, I was just thinking that with such impressive analytical skills and knowledge of history, not to mention your flare for the dramatic, perhaps you should consider becoming a novelist when you retire."

Cleese gazed toward the window, as if to ponder the possibility. "Perhaps I will eventually, but for now I'm a doctor. I shouldn't have lost my temper. It's just that sometimes I feel helpless in the face of all this sturm und drang."

Sturm und drang. That sounded more like the Cleese he knew. Only the bookish and scholarly physician would use a literary expression to describe his personal feelings. Though the phrase mainly referred to the movement against European neo-classicism, "storm and stress" also alluded to a fervent desire to break from the past. In the context of their conversation, it was an appropriate metaphor.

"I understand your feelings, believe me. Anyone's patience would be tested under these conditions."

Cleese hadn't minced words in expressing his dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs. "Your candor is … refreshing, to say the least." The message was not what he'd expected to hear from such a reserved individual, but it bore the weight of a disturbing reality. "It's not often that I encounter anyone willing to engage in such a lively debate. However, much as I'd like to continue, I'm afraid we'll have to postpone any further discussion until this business with the O'Reilly's is resolved, one way or another. God knows where those bastards will show up next, or who they'll decide to kill just for amusement."

Cleese looked up. "Oh, I doubt we'll be seeing the O'Reilly gang anytime soon, or ever, for that matter."

"Really." Cleese knew something. "And what, may I ask, leads you to that conclusion?"

"Actually, it's just speculation at this point, provided there's some truth to the swirl of rumors that seem to have flooded the community in recent days – that is to say, rumors that may or may not prove credible, that you may or may not even have heard."

"Enlighten me."

"Well, it seems the three of them got into a fight with someone over in Crossroads last week."

"Imagine that."

"I know, it's hardly front page news, but this time a man was killed. Just someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time – that place and time being wherever the O'Reilly's happened to be."

"What a surprise. A pack of derelicts gangs up on another bar fly and a man dies in the ensuing fight. You're right, a killing isn't especially newsworthy, at least not in that town."

"Probably not. Nevertheless, it is illegal, even in Crossroads. In any case, the law finally caught up with two of them in Miles City. In addition to attacking their victim in front of eye witnesses, one of them actually left his knife at the scene. I'm sure it's only a matter of time until the third one is caught. And when they're tried, they'll almost certainly hang."

"No doubt. And with no loss to the community." The possibility of a triple hanging was no reason for celebration, although, in this instance, it was no cause for regret, either.

"Apparently the man used a shovel to fight off the assailants. Resourceful, I must say, however ineffective."

"Yes, well, with all due respect for the dead, you don't bring a knife, or a farm implement, to a gunfight."

"No, but in this case it wasn't so much a fight as an ambush resulting in cold-blooded murder."

He tensed as he fought to dismiss the images that charged through his mind. "Sounds like the O'Reilly's."

"Still, from what I hear, he managed to give a fairly good account of himself. You have to give the fellow some kind of credit."

So much for lost causes. "I s'pose." For every derelict or drifter that departed from Crossroads, toes up and penny-eyed, there'd be a dozen more to take his place. What had happened in recent days made the unpleasant subject all the more distasteful. His energy reserve was nearly used up, along with his patience for any further discussion on the topic of frontier justice. He sighed as he reached for his coat. "What do I owe you?"

"Nothing. Just remember to those wounds clean. That's critical to the whole healing process." Cleese's eyes rounded. "Come to think of it, you might care to try some sticking plaster."

"Some what?"

The mere mention of a new scientific device seemed to reinvigorate Cleese's enthusiasm. "It's a different type of sterile dressing that's being used quite extensively back East. It adheres to the skin surface without the use of bandages to keep the gauze in place. It's an amazing advancement with numerous applications. A colleague in Boston was kind enough to send me a sample."

Probably the same colleague who'd provided the foul-smelling ointment he'd recommended for quinsy.

"Mmm hmm. If it's all the same to you I believe I'll forego the opportunity this time." The concept of a self-adhering bandage might actually have some merit, especially if, in addition to its other numerous applications, it might be used to seal a person's mouth shut.

Cleese looked a little disappointed. "As you prefer." He hesitated for a second. "I have some laudanum, if you think you might have need of it, just to help you sleep."

Arouse the demons with laudanum. That was all he needed. "No. Thank you. That won't be necessary. I'm sure I'll manage." He eased his coat back on and started for the door. Happily, getting down the stairs would be easier than climbing up had been.

"Well, at the risk of sounding redundant, I still say you were lucky this time." Cleese's chair creaked as he leaned back. "Perhaps, one day we'll be able to walk the streets without fear of being attacked or robbed or even killed by some demented fool. The poor fellow never had a chance against those cutthroats."

"S'pose not. The recollection was all too vivid. "Family man?"

"Not that I'm aware of. A day laborer of some kind. The name escapes me, but I know he used to live here in Curtis Wells. Actually, he was a bartender at your place a few years ago when it was still the Pig's Eye Saloon. As I recall, he left shortly after that unfortunate incident with the tainted whisky and moved to Sweetwater. Somehow he ended up working in the livery in Crossroads. That's where it happened. Crossroads always did have a reputation for that sort of thing. Still, it's a shame when an innocent man, minding his own business, gets caught up that kind of needless violence. It doesn't make any sense." Cleese replaced his spectacles and glanced up. "Was there something else?"

He gazed past Cleese and out into the distance. "No. Nothing," he murmured as he stepped out onto the landing. He stood there for a moment, watching the passersby as they continued up and down the walkway, visiting, gossiping, going about their daily routines like nothing had happened. Without looking back, he closed the door and descended the steps to the dusty street.

The town looked no different. Why should it? Nothing extraordinary had taken place while he was away, at least not as far as the local residents were concerned, although it was apparent that the rumor mills had been working overtime. Some people nodded their greetings as he proceeded along the walkway. Others just stared as if they were surprised to see him alive. As slow as news from the civilized world was to reach Curtis Wells, local chatter seemed to travel with amazing speed. He hastened his step. Back at the Ambrosia he could escape the noise and relax in relative calm, at least for a while, until the next dire, irresolvable crisis broke loose.

* * *

The bed felt unusually comfortable as he lay on top of the blanket. Or maybe it was just the momentary absence of noise that was comforting. He'd exerted considerable energy going to see Cleese, more to endure his animated speech on the topic of law and order, and spent the last of his reserve trying to remain calm in the face of a damning censure. Maybe the doctor thought blowing off steam was good for the circulation, or that it proved he wasn't the obsequious little pantywaist he often appeared to be. He'd delivered an impressive tour de force, although in the heat of his verbal assault, he'd displayed more bravado than good sense. Commitment to civic improvement was one thing. Outright provocation was another. Clearly, he'd underestimated the man's passion for social progress as well as his talent for antagonism.

The usual dissenters generally conveyed their displeasure with scowls and muffled profanities, but unlike the majority of his detractors, Cleese was both knowledgeable and articulate, and in his brief display of temper, he'd made his point as he'd promised, with disarming frankness. Despite his small stature and good manners, Cleese had stood toe to toe with him and called him a tyrant to his face. A duplicitous, self-serving dictator. Who'd have guessed the polite, cordial little man would have the balls to voice his concerns in such a crescendo of condemnation? Not many men in Curtis Wells would have that kind of nerve. Not many in all of Montana Territory.

Then again, he was an Easterner, accustomed to certain refinements and behavioral standards, not normally one to pursue an argument in an untoward manner. He'd probably never heard anyone swear in his presence before he'd come west. Now, as a physician in a rough frontier settlement, he had no control over the mayhem, just the job of repairing the damage left in its wake. Considering what he saw on a daily basis, his concerns were justified. Less so his assumptions about the town's future and how to safeguard it. Despite all that he'd witnessed since coming to Curtis Wells, Cleese was still surprisingly naVve on those issues. Whatever he knew, or thought he knew about running a town had evidently been derived from books – from all indications, mainly works of fiction.

The man was welcome to his opinion. And so was anyone else who cared to share his thoughts, not that they had any grasp of what he was trying to achieve. Some were bound to see his methods as autocratic and their implementation brutal. He'd been accused of worse. But the indictment Cleese had handed him with such rhapsodic emotion included a particularly unflattering charge – that the lawlessness he pretended to oppose was precisely the tool he'd used to advance a sinister agenda – that he'd deliberately generated an atmosphere of violence and brutality, imposed it on innocent people, and exploited their fear in order to reinforce his dominion over the town and to strengthen his own tight-fisted control.

It was a brazen accusation, distorted by shallow suppositions and tainted by claims of calculated deceit and casual indifference – as if he'd contrived some sort of Draconian subterfuge just to amuse himself. Such charges were barely worthy of denial. Montana Territory was a hostile, unforgiving place long before his arrival. If he'd occasionally acted on impulse, it was unavoidable. The confrontations he'd faced offered little chance to think, much less to contemplate the pros and cons and eventual consequences of his decisions. Where diplomacy failed, the hand of uncompromised authority usually succeeded. And sometimes force had to be met with force. Cleese's intellectual, analytical approach seemed to overlook the fact that brutality was built into people's thinking, that savagery was second nature for a lot of men – compulsive for some, like those he'd seen during the War – men who enjoyed killing and couldn't get enough of it … like wild predators that, having once tasted blood, never lost their thirst for it.

Ephraim Cleese was too refined, too genteel to understand that kind of mentality. He might have been of a similar mind himself, if the world he'd known hadn't come to such a calamitous end … if he hadn't been made a refugee in his own country. He and Robert had meant to leave it all behind them when they left Virginia. But instead of abandoning the violence when they'd drifted west, they'd brought it with them.

And it was a good thing they had. The perils they'd faced in Montana Territory bore striking similarities to those they'd confronted during the War, and the survival tactics they'd employed at the time had proven just as serviceable. He'd put those tactics to good use over the years; along the way, invented some new ones. Had he been less resourceful, or less determined in the face of grim odds, he'd have been dead long ago. Cleese had experienced none of that. He still seemed amazed at the town's steady demand for coffins, as if deadly encounters were unusual in a rough cut colony of miners, cowboys, and whores. That perspective might have been altered had the young doctor ridden with the 14th Regiment back in the Shenandoah … been with him and his men as they'd wandered over charred fields, searching for enough body parts to fill just one coffin … that is, when they still had coffins.

He reached for a cheroot and lit it, expelling some of his aggravation in a small billow of smoke. Maybe he should talk to Cleese and Vera about opening a business together – preferably back in Boston. Neither had any notion of what managing an entire town required. If he'd taken a few liberties with the law it hadn't been for his personal convenience, but for the good of the community. Curtis Wells was like a wild mustang that had to be kept on a tight rein. In order to steer it in the right direction he'd had to assume authority and take command. That's what a leader did. It was the key to the future. From that position of power, he could encourage growth and still shape the town into whatever he chose. Ultimately, everyone would benefit whether or not they were capable of seeing the larger picture. One day, Curtis Wells might resemble Richmond or Atlanta. One day. Meanwhile, certain people's attitudes toward that plan could do with a few adjustments.

He puffed on the cheroot, exhaled, and closed his eyes as the rich, aromatic scent filled the room. At least there were a few simple pleasures available in Montana, even if only a few appreciated them. A good smoke enlivened a man's senses. It was an affordable luxury, and a small reward for what he'd accomplished in a place where even the smallest achievement came at a painfully high price.

He took a long drag and exhaled slowly, forming a perfect smoke ring, then another, and a third so they floated through each other as they drifted away. His father had taught him how to do it. They'd enjoyed one last smoke on the veranda just before he'd left to join his regiment in Richmond, savored cigars hand-rolled from the finest flue-cured bright Hatton Willows produced, talked about tobacco prices and hopes for the new crop, and how they'd smoke cigars together again when he returned in the autumn….

His thoughts were chasing each other in circles. He took another puff and watched the smoke curl and twine and fade into the shadows. Lord knew he'd made enough mistakes, made hasty judgments, trusted the wrong people, on occasion with disastrous results. No doubt his thinking had been faulty, or clouded by feelings he hadn't recognized, or even admitted to himself. But there could also be some darker truth in what Cleese had said. Maybe, in his struggle to force everything to go where he wanted, to write the future episodes of his life the way he'd originally intended, he'd failed to close the book on the chapters that had gone before.

Amanda had hinted at it, asking if he was making Austin pay for things that happened a long time ago, punishing him for someone else's crime, as if that made any sense. In a state of subdued outrage, he'd dismissed her, partly to stop her damn meddling, mostly just to avoid thinking about it. As long as Ezekiel Redmont was alive, there was someone to blame for what had happened. But Redmont was dead and beyond the reckoning his victims might have sought. What was she trying to say – that Cleese was right – that he'd seized power and turned the town into his private domain just to pretend he was someone he used to be – that he was trying to go back in time and correct the mistakes he'd made? Amanda's theory was even more imaginative: unable to revenge himself on those who'd destroyed his life, he'd simply replaced the villains of the past with those of the present and extracted his vengeance from them instead.

And what if he had – if that was even possible? The town had benefited from his oversight. And for the record, present day outlaws were as guilty of their crimes as their predecessors and just as deserving of punishment, no matter who rendered judgment, even in Curtis Wells. In the midst of perpetual disorder, someone had to take control, though in his eagerness to establish his own system of law enforcement, he may have allowed his personal sense of entitlement to justice govern his thinking. The notion that "might made right" had simply been the easiest way to achieve that justice. Now it was the only way.

The resulting violence had become so commonplace it seemed to erupt spontaneously – as randomly as prairie fires and just as hard to stop. Not only had he become part of it, he'd helped to fan the flames.

He glanced at the new bottle of Scotch he'd taken out of the cabinet earlier and set on the table. A drink would taste good right now, especially the single malt whisky he had shipped from Speyside. It was a pricey indulgence, but Glenlivit was 90-proof, smooth as satin, and worth every cent he'd paid for the pleasure. A couple of solid shots would easily drown his miseries. Then again, a fine whisky, twelve years in the making, was meant to be enjoyed leisurely, not just tossed down to deaden one's senses. Tempting as it was, it would only add a headache to the list of things he'd have to deal with later.

He sagged back on the bed and closed his eyes. "You'll never run short of outlaws, Clay." Vera had said it with her usual stark candor. "There'll be a new crop of them every year, and each one'll be tougher and meaner than the last bunch. You'll be old and tired of fighting and they'll always be young, all full of piss and vinegar, and looking for trouble. You can't kill them all. What you can do is create a place where it's hard for them to survive, or at least where they can't raise hell just 'cause they feel like it." Maybe it was true – that the situation he faced was one of his own making, but as Vera and Cleese had both pointed out, he still held authority over the "wild west show" he'd been instrumental in creating. Vera had held a mirror up to his face. In a fit of reckless defiance, Cleese had hit him over the head with it. The plain truth was that he did have the power to exercise control over the chaos, even to bring an end to the constant unrest. That was, if he really wanted to. At the moment, all he wanted to do was sleep.

* * *

He watched her through the window for a moment as she stood behind the back counter, writing something on a ledger, then scratching it out as she brushed back a wayward lock of hair. She looked up, slightly surprised as he stepped through the doorway of the gun shop.

"Clay. I heard you were back." Her expression softened as her gaze dropped, and returned to him. "I also heard what happened. How're you doin'?"

It wasn't like Mattie to pry into people's business, but from her voice it was apparent that she'd been worried about him. It was gratifying. And flattering. He felt almost awkward as he stood beside the gun display case. "I'm fine. I'm … gettin' low on .45 shells. Just thought I should stop by and pick up a couple of boxes."

"Sure." She walked around to the glass case near the front of the shop, removed the boxes of ammunition from the shelf and set them down in front of him. Her gray eyes were soft as velvet as she looked up. "Anything else I can get for you?"

"No. Not at the moment." He reached into his pocket, retrieved several coins and dropped them on the glass surface without bothering to count them.

"You look awful tired. You sure you're feelin' all right?"

"What…" He barely heard what she was saying. "Oh … I'm fine. Just haven't been sleepin' is all."

She looked away, almost wistfully. "I know what that's like. Sometimes, even when I'm worn out, I just lay there until the sun comes up, half wishin' it'd hurry up, half wishin' it wouldn't." He lips curved in a shy smile. "Clay … it's good to have you back."

The delicate gold lace of her hair shown in the sunlight that filtered through the window behind her.

"It's good to be back," he answered, almost to himself. He glanced past her, across the room to the undertaker's section of the building where a freshly planed coffin had been propped against the wall. "There is somethin' else." He paused as he looked at the simple pine box. "I need to order a coffin. And a headstone."

Mattie looked mildly curious as she reached for a pencil and some paper. "Sure. Who're they for?"

"A man named 'Joseph' … 'Joseph'…." He'd never actually known the man's surname. "I'll get you the particulars later."

"Oh, that fellow who was killed over in Crossroads. Some folks were talkin' about it over at the freight office. Didn't he used to work here in town?"

"A while back." He shoved the boxes of shells in his pocket, suddenly impatient to be going. "How long will it take?"

"About a week. Friend of yours?"

"In a manner of speakin'."

"From what I heard, he didn't have any family around here. Where's he gonna be buried?"

The answer was obvious. "Here in Curtis Wells. The man deserves a proper burial."

"Well, I think that's real nice of you to see to it, I mean, him bein' alone and all."

He looked back to the shadowed recess of the mortuary. "It's a little more complicated than that."

The words were out before he could slow down his thoughts. Mattie had been worried about him. She deserved to know what had happened. "The fact is, I once threatened to kill him." Her eyes widened, but she said nothing as she waited for him to continue. "He worked for me a few years ago when the Ambrosia was still the Pig's Eye Saloon. I'd just won the place in a poker game and didn't know any suppliers at the time, so I let him buy the whisky. Some of it was contaminated … maybe all of it. A man died after drinking the stuff. I found out Joseph had bought it from some moonshiners at a cheaper price and pocketed the difference, so I tracked him back to Sweetwater, and told him I'd shoot him on sight if I ever saw him again – the irony being that the next time I did see him was when he helped to save my life back in Crossroads."

He looked down at the glass case, at the array of revolvers and pistols, at the row of hunting knives, and at the bare wood coffin leaning against the wall in the next room. "I think maybe he felt that by risking his life on my behalf, he was redeeming himself for past sins. Now, as it turns out, he's just as dead for his honest intentions as he might have been for his dishonest ones."

He hadn't meant to unload so much of his own burden on her. Somehow it just spilled over.

"You can't blame yourself, Clay. Him getting killed wasn't your doin'. That's just the way it happens sometimes. Besides, from what I hear, he put up quite a fight."

"To no avail, unfortunately."

"I dunno. I heard he hit one of those bushwhackers over the head with a shovel and stabbed another one with a pitchfork. They got away, but they left a blood trail a blind man could follow, so I guess it wasn't hard tracking them down. Whatever else he did, the man died standing his ground. Anyway, that's what I hear. The two who showed up in Miles City looked like they'd been in a stampede."

"I know the feeling." Two of the fugitives had been jailed, but the third one could be anywhere between Miles City and Curtis Wells. "Be careful, Mattie. Make sure your place is locked good and tight when you close up. There's no telling what to expect with one of those bastards still on the loose."

"I will." she answered. "And I'm sorry about your friend." Her eyes turned downward. "Just seems like a decent man deserves better."

"If decent men could speak from the grave, I'm sure they'd agree." He didn’t want to think about it any more. He just wanted to get back to normal and be done with everything that involved the O'Reilly's. "You'll let me know when the headstone arrives, won't you?"

"'Course." Mattie gaze followed him as he started for the door. "Any kind of inscription you want on it?"

As he paused in the doorway a wind gust blew across the street, kicking up a cloud of dust and twisting it into a whirlwind as it streamed past. It was a familiar part of the stormy landscape, strangely emblematic of the turbulence that could flare at any moment, strike with a vengeance, and fade as quickly as it had arisen … like the sudden furies that descended from nowhere to rip people's lives apart, destroy whatever and whoever they randomly chose, and leave the rest to struggle in a silent wake.

"Yes." He looked out over the windswept street toward the cemetery on the hillside. "Rest in Peace." The leaves rustled softly as they swirled upward, drifted, and floated calmly to the ground. He watched for a moment, pulled down his hat as he stepped outside, and quietly closed the door behind him.

* * *

From his position on the balcony he could see in all directions, observe all the comings and goings as evening set in, and keep track of everyone's whereabouts. It was only a matter of time until the last O'Reilly was caught – most likely in the center of some trouble he'd stirred up – and only a short time after that until he was hanged. With men posted at key locations around town he'd be prepared in case the fool was stupid enough to set foot in Curtis Wells.

He glanced up and down the shadowed street, and to where Zeke stood at the edge of the walkway awaiting further orders. Zeke was a good man. He knew his place in the chain of command and he knew how to carry out instructions. He could also be trusted, unlike Austin who'd sold his loyalty for a few dollars, or Ike, who, if directed to organize a firing squad, would probably tell the men to form a circle.

"I asked around like you said, Mr. Mosby. Nobody's seen nothin'. He could be any place by now."

Zeke's bloodhound expression underlined his unquestioning sense of duty. "I could take some of the boys and scout around for 'im over toward Miles City."

"No need. There'll be plenty of men looking to cash in on the reward for a fugitive, and not many places for him to hide." He leaned on the railing as he surveyed the street one more time. "You boys just keep your weapons ready. We'll have him behind bars soon enough. Then we can sit back and watch him hang with the rest of his friends."

Zeke could keep things under control while it was quiet outside, at least long enough to look over some paper work that had piled up. He stepped back into the room, into the darkness, and into an odd silence. A chilling awareness took shape with the click of a revolving cylinder. "Well now, I wouldn't be countin' on that any time soon. In fact, I'd be sayin' me prayers if I was you."

He didn't have to look to see whose hand held the revolver. A flash of panic surged through him … shining metal … insane laughter …and stone cold rage as he stared into the barrel of Sean O'Reilly's .45. "How the hell did you get in here?"

O'Reilly's crooked smile bent upward. "Ya ought ta keep yer door locked, Mosby. There's no tellin' who might be prowlin' around in the dark, jus' waitin' fer a chance ta kill ya."

He forced his thoughts to stop racing, to banish the images that charged through his mind. "Point taken, although I don't know of any barrier that can stop a snake from slithering inside."

"Ya always did have a smart mouth." O'Reilly's grin faded as he waved the gun menacingly close. "An' ya got me thinkin' I might hafta to close it fer good this time."

He pulled his focus away from the gun that was now aimed directly at his head. "Well, as you can see, your last attempt to do so was rather ineffective. However, before you decide to shoot an unarmed man, I should advise you that there's a rather stiff penalty in this town for cold-blooded murder."

"Ahhh, is there now?"

The Irishman didn't seem to be the least bit intimidated, or even concerned. Why should he be? He'd killed at least one innocent man just in the last few days. Over time, probably more than anyone knew. He had nothing to lose by shooting another.

"There is, indeed, so I'd suggest you consider your next move very carefully. You see, my men have this place surrounded, and the second you pull that trigger they'll be through that door and you'll be on your way to Hell."

O'Reilly sneered, as if the idea sounded like some sort of mischief he hadn't thought of before. "Well then, I guess I'll be takin' you with me, won't I?"

The man was obviously aroused by the thought of killing someone, but as long as he was talking, he wasn't shooting. "I suppose that's a possibility." He shifted his weight, feigning nonchalance as he searched the room for a weapon. "Let's see, in addition to myself that would include you, your brother, your friend with the knife, and whoever else was fool enough to tag along. Considering the size of your entourage, not to mention the steady stream of newcomers adding to Hell's burgeoning population, you might end up having to fight for space."

O'Reilly laughed. The lines that crisscrossed his raw, weathered face were etched with dirt. "Me brother an' me, we been fightin' our whole lives. What difference would it make?"

"None at all, most likely. On the other hand, who knows what difference it might have made if you and your half-witted friends – God rest their soon-to-be-departed souls – had refrained from brawling long enough to put in an honest day's work, just to see what it was like?"

"And what'd be the good a that, spendin' me days takin' orders from some high 'n mighty lord o' the castle like yerself, I suppose." His face tightened into a snarl. "Hell, I wouldn't waste piss on the likes a ya." His grimy fingers flexed around the pistol's grip. "Ya want somebody ta lick yer boots? Tell it ta one a yer hired hands, er one a them whores yer so fond a pokin' – like that little light-haired one. 'Calley,' weren't it? I kinda fancy that one meself."

The man reeked of stale whisky and barn rot. The thought of his filthy hands on Calley was revolting. "I doubt she'd be the least bit interested."

"She's a flamin' whore! They got no interest but one. That's so's they don't have ta think about it."

O'Reilly leaned forward. "I got news fer ya, Mosby. Just 'cause ya own the fuckin' whorehouse don't mean yer any bigger er better than the next stoat with an itch in 'is drawers."

"And yet the mystery remains as to why 'Pride' should be included on the list of deadly sins and 'Stupidity' omitted."

"Shit. Ya think struttin' around like a fuckin' rooster, spoutin' all them fancy words makes ya smarter'n anyone else?"

"Indubitably and incontrovertibly."

"Ta hell with ya!" He spat on the floor. "Soon as I'm through with me business here, I'm goin' back fer some a that tail – not that one twat's any different from the next."

Anger burned in his face. "Not to some, I'm sure, but in regard to such a venture, mightn't your need for entertainment be just as satisfied with a bottle or two of the saloon's best redeye – less expensive and not as tiring?"

"Ahhh, reckoned ya'd keep 'er all ta yerself, did ya now?" O'Reilly grinned as he hooked his thumb on his gun belt. "Well, it so happens I got me own plans fer that one." He hiked up his trousers with one hand.

"An' I aim ta show 'er a few things ya never even thought of."

"Do you?" He felt the heat rising, sweat trickling down his neck. "That's a shame since you won't be around to see any of your plans to fruition."

"Ta what?"

O'Reilly's interest in the discussion was nearing an end. "I said that if you kill me, the only plans you'll be a part of are those your Maker has in store – that is, assuming the Lord takes pity on such inconceivably witless individuals as yourself. Even Divine tolerance has its limits."

"That bein' the case, ya got anything grand ta say before you meet yer Maker?"

"Perhaps my concurrence that Darwin was right. Apart from that, nothing you'd find decipherable."

"What the hell's that supposed ta mean?"

"It means that if you and your slack-jawed cohorts had crawled out of your cave at some point and left your Stone Age mentality behind, you might not have to see your worthless lives concluded at the end of a rope."

"Now that's mighty bold a ya, Mosby, seein' as yers is about to be concluded at the end of a gun."

As he searched the shadows, his eye caught a glint of metal. On the table where he'd laid it down was his Remington. If he could only distract the man … just for a second….

"Go on, give it a try, why don't ya?" O'Reilly sneered. "That's a fine weapon ya got there, but if ya was ta reach fer it, I'd have no choice but ta shoot ya, in self defense, don't ya see?"

Scattered thoughts converged. His Remington was out of reach, but the whisky bottle wasn't. "In that case, seeing that my demise is imminent, you wouldn't begrudge me one last drink, would you?" O'Reilly eyed the bottle of Scotch that stood, invitingly full, on the table beside the gun belt. "In fact, you may as well join me, since it's likely to be your last drink as well." O'Reilly wiped his mouth on his sleeve. Apparently, in his eagerness to shoot another man down in cold blood, he'd worked up a thirst. His sneer widened into a toothy, lopsided grin.

"Well now, seein' as how yer offerin, I don't mind if I do." He moved closer, holding the .45 straight out in front of him. "Go on then. Pour yerself a tall one, and hand over that bottle, slow an' easy now, ya hear?'

He reached for the bottle, opened it with deliberate calm, and slowly filled the glass to the rim. "As I've always said, there's nothing as satisfying to quench a man's thirst as a fine imported Scotch – ideally one from the Speyside region, aged in charred oak for at least twelve years. Personally, I prefer a single malt," he drawled, holding up the bottle, "like this one." As O'Reilly's eyes flicked to the whisky, he gripped the neck of the bottle and swung it full force at the leveled pistol. He heard the glass shatter in a burst of amber spray, felt the bullet sting the side of his head in an explosion of blinding white light, saw the floor upending under him as he tumbled into the darkness … and the cold, empty silence.

* * *

"You all right…." The voice sounded far away. Then closer. "Mr. Mosby …you all right?" The ceiling came into focus. Faces. He felt the day bed under him as he lay on his back with one leg hanging over the edge. "That was close," Zeke was saying. "… had us worried…."

He blinked the haze away as best he could while the darkness lingered at the periphery of his vision. "Close" was hardly the word. The dull ache quickly sharpened as he pulled himself up to a sitting position.

His hand reflexively went to the source of the pain. There was a little blood from where the bullet had grazed the side of his head, but the throbbing radiated from a spot at the back of his skull. Most likely, O'Reilly's bullet had knocked him off balance and he'd hit his head on something when he fell backward. He scanned the room. "Where's…."

"O'Reilly?" a different voice answered. "Aw, don't worry. We got 'im locked up nice an' safe. Heard the shot from across the street. Caught the guy tryin' to sneak down the back stairs."

"Yeah," another man huffed. "He ain't goin' nowhere 'cept to the nearest gallows."

"Hell, I reckon we oughtta string 'im up right here," a third man chimed in. "Save the town a little time an' money." It was one of the new men who appeared to be enjoying the excitement. "I mean, why spend time buildin' a gallows when we got us plenty a trees out back?"

A practical suggestion, if somewhat crude. His head pounded as Zeke helped him to his feet.

"Yes, well, as long as the man's in jail I think we can defer that decision, at least to give him a chance to contemplate his fate." As he reached out to steady himself against a wave of darkness, he felt a reassuring grip on his arm.

"The doc's out at the Stannett place, but I could send one of the boys out there to fetch him."

He closed his eyes, focusing on the sound of Zeke's voice as he forced the shadows out of his way. "No. That won't be necessary." After the encounter he'd just had with O'Reilly, another confrontation with Cleese could be enough to do him in, if climbing up those infernal steps didn't kill him first. "I'll be fine now that that bastard's behind bars." Shards of broken glass lay scattered on the floor. "What a waste," he mumbled as he felt his equilibrium slowly returning.

"Ain't that the truth," the new man replied. "Scum like that rascal ain't worth spittin' on."

He looked down at the floor, at the shattered glass, and the rug now saturated with fine imported Scotch. "Of course," he sighed wistfully, "that, too."

* * *

He hated funerals. Hated the mournful eulogies, the hollow platitudes and commiserations, but mostly the falseness – the pretense that the dead were still with us and that loved ones would meet again in their own private versions of Heaven – all designed to assure people that some saintly presence was always there to protect them and save them from an apocalyptic doomsday, and to conceal the biggest lie of all – to convince them that they weren't really alone.

It would be a simple service. And if the officiate had any compassion for the living, it would be a brief one. Hopefully, Josiah would defer his usual meandering presentation, read a few vaguely relevant passages, and in view of the weather, make the remembrance mercifully short. Still, it seemed oddly fitting when a burial occurred in winter time, in a colorless landscape where the bare trees resembled skeletons and the hillside lay covered in a cold white shroud … fitting that the season itself represented an end to the cycle of life, not the beginning. He glanced at the grave markers, old ones weathered by wind and time, and new ones, set in freshly turned earth. There'd been a lot of funerals in recent years. Many of them too soon. Some not soon enough.

Call had just returned to Curtis Wells when he gunned down the sheriff and the men who'd hanged his partner. Later he'd dispatched McSween and Prentice after they killed Taylor in the saloon. Stocker got himself and several others killed in a showdown over a bunch of cows. Enona's brother was drunk but unarmed when he was fatally shot. Hastings' quest for revenge had cost him his life in a senseless duel. Frances Phillips murdered her own parents and let another man die for her crime. The bodies had stacked up like firewood. The fortune teller who burned to death in a shed by a fool who accidentally hanged himself; Twyla's girl, Fiona, stabbed by another whore. The two carpet baggers Gabe killed before he was shot dead in the street. He'd seen to justice himself where Sander was concerned. Too late for the fifteen men who died in the mine. Some deserved it – Frank Carpenter, Burns, Armstrong, but others didn't. Little Wolf died protecting his people. Aaron Grayson, just doing his job. And Hannah.

Hannah. From the moment he saw her he knew his life had turned in a new direction. Robert was wary from the start, certain that it wasn't his ambitious vision of the future, but his infatuation over Hannah that had compelled him to remain in a dingy backwater town. "Hannah's not Mary," he'd argued. "Hannah Call is another man's wife and you'd be wise to remember that. The smartest thing you could do is forget about her."

"I'd like to, truly," he'd said, "but I just don't think that's possible."

They'd stood on a frost-covered hill at the edge of town. "Come with me," Robert had urged him as he'd issued one last invitation to join him in a life of reckless adventure, reminiscent of their days as outlaws, or maybe just as young men growing up in a turbulent and unforgettable time.

"I can't," he'd answered. "For some reason, I think I'm meant to be here." It was as if he'd stepped out of the unchanging past, and onto the edge of a future that was moving forward like a train picking up speed and carrying him along with it – toward what, he had no idea.

Robert had always worried too much, worried that his memories of Mary had become entangled with his desire for Hannah, that he'd momentarily relinquished his reason, and that his fascination with her was a dangerous folly that could only bring him regret, and he was right. In the end he'd had to let them both go. He'd arranged for her memorial personally, seen her laid to rest in the churchyard, and mourned her passing in the solitude she'd left behind. It was a kind of cruelty only the most vengeful god could have conjured up. But if Hannah had been put there for a reason, it was for no sentimental purpose – not that she'd died just to spite him or to punish him for any sinful desire, but to remind him that the life he'd known with Mary was irretrievably lost, and that the fragile bond that held him there had to be broken. She was a living apparition who'd taunted him with her presence and vexingly denied him his dream. And with her death, she'd severed the final tie and destroyed any link he might have used to cling to the past.

He didn't need her for that. Or for anything. He may have allowed his infatuation to distract him, but he wasn't a complete fool. Despite the cold, he felt the heat of anger rising. Of course Hannah wasn't Mary any more than Curtis Wells was Atlanta. He didn't need her casual indifference or assurances of her spotlessly clear conscious or her pretense of moral superiority. If she'd chosen to close the door on any further involvement with him, fine. She didn't need to slam it in his face.

For that matter, he didn't need a pontificating little pismire telling him how to conduct business in his own goddamned town. Of course things were changing. A school child could see that. And from now on it would be a matter of overseeing those changes and refocusing them in the right direction for the good of everyone, even if that meant forcing them to go as he intended.

That's not how a town grows. Mattie's words. He'd barely heard her, but there was something about the sound of her voice, the sadness in it when she spoke, that lingered in his memory.

He ran his fingers through his hair. He hadn't generated the trouble that regularly visited Curtis Wells, but he hadn't done much to contain it, either. How the hell was he supposed to enforce the peace in a town where bloodletting was a tribal tradition and mindless violence was part of the daily routine?

On the other hand, how could he let it continue, even when it worked to his advantage, if the community was to prosper and grow? Why, after all this time, was he still having the same damned argument with himself? And how many more graves would he stand over before the conflict was over?

"Deliver us from the workers of iniquity and save us from bloody men." The wind was picking up, swirling through the trees as if to intimidate the mourners, to empower the speaker and dramatize his invocation. "O God, be not silent, and be not still. For behold, your enemies … they conspire against those whom you protect. Make them like leaves in a whirlwind … as a fire raging in a forest, as a flame setting the mountain ablaze … pursue them with your tempest and rout them with your storm."

He tugged his coat tighter around him. Josiah had chosen his words well. Had he chosen his own actions more wisely, more thoughtfully, others might not have paid for his mistakes. Had he taken more care, they might all have escaped the fire and survived the storm. Hannah might still be alive. And Mary.

Their images drifted like smoke rising from burning embers, sometimes separately, sometimes intertwined, always ethereal, wistful, and tormentingly unreachable. Their resemblance to each other had been uncanny, but in death it mirrored a more chilling similarity. The same senseless barbarity that had taken Mary's life had returned to claim Hannah. Having destroyed all that he'd once loved, it now turned its eyes on the future and all that he'd tried to build. It had pursued him through time, hovering like an evil phoenix arisen from the ruin he'd left behind and continuing to feed on the blood that he himself had spilled.

It hadn't mattered in the beginning – the brutality, all the conflicts he'd caused. He'd done what was necessary to survive, careless of the consequences, and used whatever methods served his purpose. But that was then, and this was now. What were once indispensable weapons had become agents of wanton destruction. If nothing changed Curtis Wells would become a ghost town whose only inhabitants would reside in a field of lonely, unattended graves. There were too many of those already.

How do you suppose you're going to build a new life if you maintain the same sense of superiority and entitlement that destroyed the old one? Cleese had poured out his frustrations in a stinging rebuke, but reality supported his argument. To preserve what he'd built, he'd have to relinquish the control he'd guarded so closely, share it with those who were less capable – those driven more by self-interests and greed than by the welfare of the community. He'd managed to postpone it, but the inevitable had its own way of catching up. Divide his command and dilute his authority, or watch his town fade into the shadow of the old century while the rest of the world forged ahead into the new one. That was the choice. Time was like a tunnel that was closing in just behind you as you made your way through it. You could either continue forward or be buried where you stood. Robert had tried to tell him that in his plain, pragmatic way as they'd paused on the hillside overlooking the church – that his out-dated dream was a relic of the past, and that despite his melancholy yearning to remain there, it was time to go.

Far over the distant hills, a broad, empty landscape reached beyond the horizon. Before long it would be filled with new people – ambitious people with dreams of a better life. He watched the small group descend the slope as they headed for shelter. A gust of wind scooped up a few fallen leaves and swept behind the stragglers as if to hurry everyone along.

"Better get goin'." Mattie stood beside him. "Looks like there's a storm kickin' up."

He pulled his thoughts back to the present. "I believe you’re right," he replied as he took her hand and tucked it in the crook of his elbow. "Allow me to see you back to your shop. You'll be safe now that this unpleasant business is finished."

She lowered her glance as she accepted his gesture. "Is it finished … completely, I mean?"

"It will be, as soon as the last of those lunatics is hanged and on his way to Purgatory."

"Well, I figure they deserve it after all the things they did, but to tell the truth I'd just as soon not have to see any more hangings for a while."

"Nor would I. Nevertheless, the law demands a prompt and appropriate punishment for those kinds of crimes. As Josiah would say, 'Swift be the sword of Almighty justice'."

"Really. I don't recall him ever mentioning that particular quote. Is it from the Old or the New Testament?"

"Neither one. I composed it myself this very moment." He grinned down at her. "Josiah's message about righteousness and retribution must have inspired me."

Mattie smiled. "I guess all that talk about Heaven and Hell gets a person thinking ... or should." Her gaze drifted off toward the open countryside. "You don't believe in Heaven, do you?"

It wasn't a topic he cared much for. "I don't know. I think it's up to each individual to decide what he does or doesn't believe in." Blind, unquestioning faith in the concept of a celestial paradise floating somewhere in the vastness of eternity was hard to reconcile. Hell, on the other hand, had proven its existence beyond any doubt.

"I suppose so." She was quiet as they continued down the hill toward the street. As they neared walkway in front of the gun shop he felt her hand slip from his arm. "You know, I was worried about you, Clay."

"You don’t know how flattered I am to hear that, m'dear, and gratified that such tender sentiments can be stirred within these inhospitable surroundings."

"I reckon it's not so bad, once you get used to it." She reached in her pocket for her keys. "Where're you off to now?"

"Oh, I just thought I'd go over to the Dove for some hot coffee. Care to join me?"

"I'm tempted." She smiled again. "But I need to get some work done before tonight. Thanks anyway."

"Another time then." He hesitated as he turned to go. "Mattie, if you see Josiah, ask him to come to my office, will you? I think it's time we called a meetin' with the Town Council."

"Sure. Something goin' on?"

No. Nothing urgent." He glanced across the street, at the muddy thoroughfare, and rough hewn buildings of the town that had become his home. "Just a few items of business we need to discuss." Deliver us from the workers of iniquity and save us from bloody men. "Be careful, Mattie."

"Be careful of what?" She eyed him curiously. "I'm always careful. You know that."

"Yes, I mean … be careful of those who come after me – those men who tell you to believe in them and trust them, and leave your future in their hands."

"Who are you talkin' about?" A flicker of soft-eyed innocence twinkled, and vanished. "Men like you?"

"No." He looked away. "Nothing like me."

* * *

The hot coffee was a good idea. Happily, the Dove was nearly empty except for an older couple who sat quietly near the window. From across the table he could feel Amanda's eyes on him. "Well," she cooed, "you're lookin' better, I mean now that you've have some time to rest and all, not that you missed much while you were gone."

He was feeling better. "Just business as usual, was it? No shootings, no robberies, no one dancing naked in the street?"

No, nothing of the sort. Without you here stirrin' things up, this is startin' to be a peaceful, law-abiding little town. If it keeps up we won't have anything to do but sit around and watch the grass grow. Who knows, folks might start cultivating daisies from above the ground instead of pushin' them up from below."

"That's a possibility. And in that atmosphere of peace and quiet I might even sit down, myself, perhaps take a little time to jot down a few memoirs while I'm monitoring the daisies' progress."

"I don't know, Clay. I can't quite picture you in a rocking chair, telling old war stories, dozing off now and then as you watch the world go by."

"Don't worry. I'll hire someone to shoot me before it falls to that."

"I'll remember you said so. At least you won't have to spend money advertising."

"I beg your pardon."

"Oh, I'm just thinking you could auction off the job to the highest bidder and make yourself a tidy profit, probably more than enough to cover your funeral expenses." She glanced Heavenward. "I'd suggest a solid oak coffin with silver handles and a velvet lining. That would be appropriate for a man of your standing in the community, and it would keep you warm in the winter."

"You're too thoughtful, Amanda. It's always been my hope to be celebrated out of this world in comfort as well as style."

"Absolutely. I'm sure arrangements can be made to accommodate your final requests. Just remember to keep me in mind when the time comes to do you in."

"I'm touched by your compassion, as always, and while I'm sure there'll be some lively competition for the privilege, I'll make sure you get first dibs."

"You're too generous. I'm honored."

"As well you should be, m'dear."

Amanda's smile lingered briefly, and faded. "You know, Clay, you got real lucky – especially after being ambushed twice by the same man. I don't think you realize how lucky."

"That seems to be the consensus, although I can assure you that managing a defense against an advantaged adversary requires more than blind luck."

"No doubt, but in all fairness, I don't think your adversary knew what he was up against."

"How's that?"

"Well, I've always known you were hard-headed, but I had no idea you could deflect bullets off your skull. I have to say I'm impressed."

"It's a hidden talent only my closest confidents are aware of. Besides, I'd be remiss if I failed to provide you with some mild amusement, wouldn't I?"

"I suppose so. I'd think most men would be humbled by the whole experience, and yet, here you are, alive, well, and not at all reluctant to brag about it."

"Bragging rights aside, one does one's best when called upon."

"It's a testament to your resilience, Clay. Even after getting all roughed up, your vanity appears to have emerged perfectly in tact." The tea spoon chimed softly against the cup as she stirred her coffee. "You plan to hang that O'Reilly fellow here in Curtis Wells?"

He'd thought about it. What Nathaniel Hawthorne had said of John Brown on hearing of his inglorious end could in turn be said of the less salubrious but equally deserving gang leader: No one was ever more justly hanged. "No. I prefer to leave that task to the territorial marshal's office. That way there'll be no question that the procedures were handled correctly."

"I don't know who'd care. After what they did, I'm surprised you haven't had him drawn and quartered, like they used to back in the 'olden days,' correctly or otherwise."

"And I confess there was a time I might have entertained that possibility. However, I think a show of restraint is a demonstration of civility, a statement of faith in our judicial system. So, alas, tempting as some form of medieval torture sounds, I'm afraid that must remain no more than a pleasant fantasy."

"Well, if it was me, I'd want the three of them stuffed in gunny sacks and tossed in the nearest river."

He'd thought about that, too – some gruesome kind of execution – deriving a passing satisfaction with the idea while lamenting that it could only happen once. "Oh, I'll admit I'd enjoy personally seeing them dispatched in some crude, homespun manner, but I'd prefer not to get my hands dirty. In any case, I'm sure we can trust the authorities in Miles City to take care of the details. From this point, we need only stand back and watch as the wheels of justice turn."

"I hope you're right about that. I heard two of them got themselves a fancy lawyer, and now they're trying to say it was the dead man's fault, that they killed him self-defense."

"Yes, I believe the attorney in question is an ambitious young man from somewhere back East. I further surmise that his only reason for taking the case is to exploit its notoriety and make a name for himself. And with that, I wish him the best of British luck. With clients like those, he's gonna to need it."

"I'm not sure. You know how lawyers can turn things around with all that legal mumbo-jumbo nobody understands. I wouldn't trust any of them to tell me the time of day. He's probably sitting there dreaming up some kind of scheme right now."

"That's his job, futile as his strategy may be. In the meantime, the leader of the gang – the 'brains,' if you can call it that – will remain safely ensconced in our own facility at the sheriff's office."

"I hear the lawyer wants him transferred to Miles City for the trial, probably so they can all vouch for each other."

"Yes, I'm aware of the request, and if that's what his attorney wants, I'm sure it can be arranged. That way they can bury all three in Miles City, and we won't have to waste our own memorial space."

"Good idea. There's no room left behind the church and it looks like the bone yard up on the hillside's filling up pretty fast."

"Entirely too fast. It's the town I want to see expanding, not the cemetery." Talk of graveyards was hardly appropriate supper conversation. "As soon as the trial's over, the authorities in Miles City are welcome to select a permanent location for the pack of them. From that point, St. Peter can take the matter into his own capable hands and we can look forward to never hearing their names again." His gaze drifted upward. "You might say, in this case, satisfaction is its own reward."

Amanda looked curious as stirred her coffee. "I must say, you seem awfully calm about all this."

"'Content' is the term I'd use, and confident that our legal system is adequate to manage the situation."

"My, times sure have changed. I don't recall you standing around waiting for the legal system to manage the situation when the McSweens robbed the Ambrosia. In fact…."

"You're absolutely correct. Times have changed. The vigilantism and vendettas that occurred in the past are unacceptable these days. And if we're going to enjoy the benefits of these enlightened times, we need to adjust our thinking in regard to the law and its enforcement."

"I suppose that's one way to look at it."

"It simply stands to reason. We can hardly expect people to invest in the community if they're too busy dodging bullets and fighting desperados. They need safe places to raise their families and run their businesses. If we can't provide that, they'll simply go elsewhere. The train won't even bother to stop in Curtis Wells, and we'll be left out here, as you say, with nothing to do but watch the grass grow."

"I don't think there's any danger of that. It seems like there're more people coming to town every day, more little businesses selling things to bigger businesses – 'progress,' as you're so fond of sayin."

"An astute observation, m'dear. In fact, I anticipate that with the railroad, there'll be an increase in population and with it, a steady demand for a supply line of food, equipment, and building materials, not to mention goods and services, and anything else that’s needed to support a successful commercial enterprise." He took a thoughtful sip of coffee. "Of course, that kind of development takes time."

Amanda's fingers daintily traced the rim of her cup. "Of course. Time and a lot of careful planning by some very clever people."

"Hmmm. That sounds intriguing. Is there something you'd care to confide?"

Amanda smiled. "Really, Clay. It's not like you to be so coy. Anyone with reasonable eyesight can see what's been going on around here."

"And what might that be?"

Amanda's gaze settled on him as she leaned forward. "You're talkin' to me, remember? After all the effort you've spent establishing yourself as the town's 'foremost benefactor' – all the trouble you've gone to just to keep everyone in line, marching to your tune while you do everything you can think of to bring in cattle, mining, banks, lawyers. Are you saying it's all just been for the benefit of the people of Curtis Wells, and not part of a much bigger plan?"

"A much bigger plan for what, exactly?"

"For statehood, of course."

He took another sip of coffee. "Yes, I suppose that's a possibility, in due course. Under favorable circumstances things might eventually fall into place. Then, of course, someone has to take on the task of guiding the whole effort."

"Well, I guess it's fortunate that you're here at just the right time, isn't it?"

"Hmmm, fortunate, indeed. One might almost say 'providential'."

"Oh, Lord." Amanda rolled her eyes. "And I suppose you're going to sit there and pretend that wasn't the plan from the very beginning – that it wasn't your 'vision' to organize the campaign, to have the whole town rallying behind you in support, advancing toward statehood like an army, with you leading the charge. Sounds like that painting of George Washington crossing the river, which ever one that was."

"The Delaware. And, yes, the idea has occurred to me, but only as a vague possibility in a very distant future. There's a great deal of work to be done if that's ever to be seriously considered."

"Oh, I'm sure there is. And as soon as a petition is written – under your supervision, naturally – we'll need to start thinking about a governor, won't we?" Amanda laughed. "Honestly, Clay, did you think no one would ever suspect the real purpose behind your 'vision' for this territory, sly as you are?"

"Not sly enough, apparently. It seems I'm the only one in this town who doesn't know what I'm up to."

"And I suppose you're going to insist that you don't really want to be Montana's first governor."

"Governor of Montana? Hardly." He smiled to himself. "In all honesty, I don't think my vanity is equipped to embrace so lofty an ambition as that, although now that you mention it, perhaps I should submit your name for that office, seeing as you possess such keen understanding of commercial and economic development, amongst other things. Meanwhile, I assure you that my vision for this town, and this territory, includes no such plan."

"Well, if that's true, maybe it's just as well. Being in such a lofty position would expose you to a lot of public scrutiny. You'd have to be careful with folks watching every move you made, put up with them asking all sorts of nosey questions, wanting personal favors all the time, then raising a ruckus over every little decision. Frankly, I don't know why anybody in their right mind would want that kind of job."

"Nor do I, which is why I believe I can best serve this community, and our future state, by conducting business from a less conspicuous podium. In the interim, and in my capacity as the town's benefactor, I've decided it's time to make some changes – nothing drastic, mind you – just a few modifications that will bring our fair community up to a standard that confirms its place in contemporary society."

"Spoken like a true statesman and politician."

"Politics aside, times are changing, and whether we decide to lead or to follow, we'll have to deal those changes if this town has any hope of surviving."

"I don't know. People around here are pretty set in their ways. I know how persuasive you can be, but even when it makes sense, some folks would rather die than change their way of life."

"If precedent holds, I'm sure they would. Remind me not to give a damn about that."

Change. He'd seen more than he'd ever imagined was possible, and most of it unwelcome. Under the old rules, a man knew his responsibilities and what was expected of him. Duty, in peacetime and in war, was understood. Loyalties, unquestioned. None of that seemed to matter now. Reassuring as it might be to believe otherwise, not all change was for the better. The reality was that change, despite the greed and vulgarity it spawned, was as inevitable as tomorrow's sunrise. The sooner people learned how to cope with it, the better chance they'd have to survive in the world that surrounded them.

"I'm glad to hear you say that." Curiosity crept back into her expression. "I have to admit I never expected to hear anything of the sort from someone with your 'traditional' way of thinking."

"Nonsense. I've always had an eye to the future – a vision so to speak, and it's clear to me that that vision can only take shape if certain improvements and implemented and maintained." He leaned back in his chair. "It's also clear that one man can't to it alone."

Amanda eyes widened. "Really."

"Yes, really. What's important is not so much what's gone before, but all that's yet to come. And I've just been thinking that with all the progress Curtis Wells has made the last couple of years, we need to encourage more community involvement, and I don't mean just collecting taxes. We need to make sure that responsibilities are shared evenly, that authority is fairly and appropriately delegated, and that the townspeople are motivated to work together toward common goals. Growth and prosperity require the participation of all citizens, not just a few in leadership positions."

"That sounds reasonable. And I assume you'll be retaining your leadership position while all this growth and prosperity is taking place."

"For the time being. That is, until the key committees are formed, city officials are elected and their respective duties are defined, that sort of thing. As I say, it all takes time, but we're a modern society, not a fossilized fiefdom, and we need to move forward as a community if we're going to succeed at all." He swallowed the last of his coffee and set the cup down. "That reminds me, I need to speak to Josiah."

"Josiah. Why? What's he done now?"

"Nothing. It's what he will be doing, that is presiding over a special meeting of the Town Council."

Amanda gazed away as she stirred her coffee. "Oh…."

He watched her, taunting her with his silence as he waited for her attention to return to him. "In fact, I'm thinking about opening certain meetings to anyone who cares to contribute his ideas and suggestions – designating those as public forums so we can hear more opinions from the local residents, and hopefully, inspire a stronger sense of civic pride amongst the townsfolk." Her expression was one of genuine amazement, just as he'd anticipated. He leaned forward, delighted at her reaction. "Why upon my soul," he crooned, "I believe I've surprised you."

She stared back for a second. "You have," she sighed, "just when I thought I had you it all figured out."

He reached for her hand. "I must confess, you have to a certain extent." He grinned as he brushed her fingertips with a kiss. "But perhaps, not entirely." He could see her eyes glittering with irritation as he released her hand and rose from his chair. "Now if you'll forgive me, I need to attend to some business with the Council members." He glanced outside where shadows were already moving across the darkened street. "There are a few items on the agenda that are probably overdue for consideration."

"In that case, I suppose I'll have to forgive you." Her sultry smile hinted at how she'd punish him for teasing her. "I wouldn't want to hold you up if those items demand your attention."

"I daresay they do," he replied, favoring her with a courtly bow. "And be assured that no lesser force of nature could wrest me from your charmin' presence." He could still feel the touch of her long, tapered fingers as he turned to leave … feel her eyes on him as she followed him to the door with a seductive green-tinged gaze. Amanda was as clever as she was dangerous, and as dangerous as she was desirable. Dealing with her on a casual basis had already proved daunting. Lord help him if she ever went into politics.

He paused in the entrance of the Dove. Up and down the street the row of shops stood mostly occupied, some with new signs on their weathered storefronts, others with pealing paint. The rhythmic creaking of wagon wheels echoed the comings and goings of people along the thoroughfare. Smoke from the chimneys swirled with the fragrance of pine and cedar. Further up the hill a stand of aspen swayed in the wind as their leaves shimmered in late afternoon sunlight. It wasn't as if anything looked any different than it had before he'd left. As far as appearances were concerned, nothing had really changed.

But it would.

A dust cloud surged behind a single rider as he approached. Zeke halted abruptly in front of the hotel and quickly dismounted, keeping hold of the reins as he stood at the edge of the walkway.

He quickly scanned the street as he stepped outside to meet his right hand man. "Well?"

"We got him, Mr. Mosby. About half a mile outside town."

"Good." He looked around again. "Any trouble?"

"No, Sir. No trouble." Zeke wiped his forehead with his shirt sleeve and replaced his hat. "Don't know how far he reckoned he'd git on that worn out ole plow pony."

"Desperate men do desperate things, especially when they have nothing to lose. Where's he now?"

"Got the body in the barn out back of the livery. You want me to take him over to the undertaker's?"

"No. Just box up the remains and load him on a wagon. Then you can take a couple of the boys with you and deliver his rum-soaked ass to the sheriff's office in Miles City, with my compliments."

"What'll I tell the sheriff?"

"Nothing. I'll wire the O'Reilly's lawyer and inform him that his third client has been transferred as requested." He took a puff on the cigar he'd just lit and exhaled slowly. "We'll let the local constabulary take over from there."

Zeke nodded, mounted his horse, and trotted back toward the livery at the edge of town.

Unlike Gabe's defiant and very public jailbreak, Sean O'Reilly's doomed escape effort hadn't attracted any attention, nor would he have drawn one extra breath if it had. In fact, the crudeness of his demise seemed perfectly fitting in light of his past crimes, not to mention the threat the man had posed to future victims. Whether the maneuver would be seen as a calculated act of revenge or a simple matter of expediency wasn't important. What was important was that he'd rid the territory of a deadly predator and made a thought-provoking example of him. He'd also preserved the integrity of the local cemetery by disallowing O'Reilly's burial there and preventing his pox-ridden carcass from taking up space intended for more deserving occupants.

A sharp pain in his back flared, burned for a second, and faded, as if the dead man's ghost had taken one last feeble stab at him as it departed for Hell. Had he the power to do it, he'd have liked to momentarily halt the town's advance toward civility and briefly turn back the clock to a more rugged, unsettled time – just long enough to hang the bastard from a tree, gut him like a pig with his own hunting knife, drag out his entrails and leave them piled in a stinking, steaming heap for scavengers to pick over at their leisure.

He tugged his vest down and smoothed his hair back into place. Of course, that sort of thinking belonged to the past … to a different world. It was, after all, restraint that distinguished the enlightened from the primitive. He'd done what was necessary. Now, with the unpleasant business finally concluded, maybe he could get back to business as usual … if there was such a thing.

He watched the dust drift off into the distance, vanishing like time itself, into thin air. There was a kind of angry satisfaction in knowing a challenge had been met, the unfinished business resolved, and the promise fulfilled, and at the same time, an odd regret that it was over. He'd felt it as he'd stood before Redmont's ragged funeral bier – not the contentment he'd expected after all the years he'd waited for it, but a strange need to hang on to the moment just a little longer, an unnerving sense that something had slipped out of balance, and that when it eventually shifted back, nothing would ever be quite the same.

But then, how could it be? He wasn't the same man he was when he'd left Virginia. Had any step along his journey strayed or any detail of it changed, it wouldn't be the same. Had he never come to Curtis Wells he wouldn't be the same, or maybe wouldn't be at all.

But he had come. The town had taken its energy from him, gained its strength and momentum, formed its very shape because of the stand he'd taken and the things he'd done. He'd found his purpose, or perhaps rediscovered it, and made it his town. Somehow in the process, beyond his awareness of it, he'd stepped away from one world onto the invisible edge of a new one as he'd ventured through some imaginary passage between two lives. It was the same sensation he'd felt looking back at Hatton Willows for the last time, clinging to the thinnest of threads that connected one sense of being to another, preparing to enter a new country where uncertainty of the future stirred as much dread as memories of the past, regretting, just for an instant, that the old days were nearing an end, disappearing into another time …and so was the man he'd become.

What the future would bring, he couldn't imagine. All that was certain was that each step took him closer to it and further from all that he'd known and trusted. Before long, that would all be gone, too. The changes that were taking place would not be turned back, or even slowed down. Over time, he'd come to feel more comfortable in a chaotic world than in a quiet one, but from now on, it would be a war of wits, not weapons, one of opportunity, ambition and vision. His vision, and others'.

He took a puff on his cigar, savoring the taste of Virginia tobacco as watched the smoke rings float through each other, drift on the breeze, and fade away. Justice had been served, and judgment rendered. That's how it would be from now on. He'd make sure of it. To provide for the future and all who would come after was to honor the past and all who had gone before. That was as much as any man could do.

It was enough for now.

Familiar faces greeted him as he proceeded along the walkway, most of them friendly. A supply wagon stood in front of the mercantile as two men unloaded crates and carried them inside. Word was that the place was once again under new management – the third owner since Creel's departure. It might be a good time to see if the new shipment contained the cigars he'd ordered three months and two shopkeepers ago. In fact, it wouldn't do any harm to replenish his whisky inventory, perhaps replace one or two items of his personal stock, including the bottle of Glenlivit that had been so sadly wasted on that no-account Irishman … well, not entirely wasted since it had been useful in disarming the rascal and saving his own life. In that regard it was worth every penny.

Perhaps, on further reflection, such an extravagance was fair recompense for everything he'd endured recently, and survived – a small comfort in view of the crises he routinely confronted, but a comfort, nevertheless to know that some old world refinements were still relevant. It was an indulgence to which a gentleman was at least occasionally entitled, even in Montana. Especially in Montana.

Shadows darkened the street as he strolled past the row of shops. What had started as a difficult day had turned into a surprisingly pleasant evening. He paused at the edge of the walkway to finish his last good cigar and to enjoy a moment or two of relative calm before he opened for business. It was getting late and there were a few people to advise about the Town Council meeting, but the mercantile would probably be open for a little while longer, at least long enough to pick up some decent whisky.

Come to think, it was as good a time as any to meet the store's new owner, ask him over for a drink at the Ambrosia … perhaps, if he was so inclined, invite the man to join him for a few hands of poker, just to be neighborly, and welcome him to Curtis Wells.

The End

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November 11, 2011


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