This is a fan fiction story based on characters from the Lonesome Dove television show, which belongs to Rysher Entertainment and Hallmark. No infringement on copyrights is intended.

"They'd been through so much together, as boys and as men.
Finally, after years of struggling to leave painful memories behind,
Clay and Robert have managed to move on with their lives.
Still, no matter how hard a man tries to forget,
those regrets have a way of catching up...."

The Winds of Autumn
by Tieranny

He stood beside the walkway, momentarily detached from the street noises and the surrounding activity as he paused to savor the late afternoon sun. The nights were already turning cold, and with fall weather quickly approaching there wouldn't be many more days like this. The warmth had barely settled on him when he heard someone speak his name. Clay turned in the direction of the familiar voice – just as a solid fist connected with his jaw.

Pain bolted through his head as the force sent him tumbling backward onto the ground. A wave of darkness swept over him, circled, and departed as his vision slowly cleared and his mouth filled with the taste of blood. He spat the salty residue into the dirt and raised himself on one elbow as he squinted into the sunlight.

"Robert. Always a pleasure."

"Is it?" The tone in Robert's voice was as disarming as the unexpected blow.

He rubbed the side of his chin as he glanced upward. "Look here, I'll admit Curtis Wells is still a bit rough around the edges, but even so, we’re accustomed to somewhat less robust greetings." Robert’s glare remained fixed and steady. The same could not be said for the double images that seemed to float before him as they slowly merged. He sat up, shadowing his eyes with one hand. "If this is your way of telling me you’ve abandoned the life of a highwayman in favor of a boxing career, I must say, it’s very convincing."

"Get up." The guttural response resonated with anger. It was the same Robert he’d seen a week earlier, and yet it wasn’t. And so far, his attempt at conciliation appeared unpersuasive.

"Let's be reasonable," he groaned as he pulled himself to his feet and dusted off the seat of his trousers. "Whatever this is about, I’m sure we can resolve it without resorting to fisticuffs."

In fact, Robert would probably have made a good professional fighter. His square build and stony expression gave him the look of a granite statue. They’d occasionally joked about it. But he wasn’t joking now. He wasn’t even listening.

"You just can’t help yourself, can you, Clay?" His voice grated as he spoke. "No matter how much or how often you win, it’s never enough."

Robert’s face was a knot of outrage and pain. "It’s no more than a game to you – fooling around with other people’s lives like they were nothing more than stacks of poker chips." He took a step forward. "You just collect them and toss them around any way it amuses you."

He didn’t want to fight. Robert was shorter, but heavier, and even as a boy, he could deliver a powerful punch. If his throbbing jaw was any indicator, neither Robert's ability nor his willingness to demonstrate it had diminished over the years.

"What are you talking about? What the hell is wrong with you?"

Robert glared at him. "Oh, you wouldn’t have the slightest notion, would you?" His fists were still clenched.

"Maybe you’d care to enlighten me – without the pugilistic demonstration." None of it was making sense. "And it might help if you’d stop talking in circles. I’ve never had much patience with riddles, as you may recall."

"Or with anything else – as I recall. You just couldn’t wait. Not even for a day. What is it – any woman you happen to notice automatically becomes your property – no questions asked? Isn’t that how it’s always been?"

"Isn't that how what's always been? Look, I have no idea what you're getting at, but…."

"Save it, Clay. I’m tired of hearing it." Robert sighed heavily, as if the fire inside him had suddenly been extinguished, and its energy spent. "I know you too damn well." He turned and headed toward the hotel without looking back.

He watched Robert cross the street and disappear through the hotel entrance. Let him go, the words in his thoughts called out, as if someone standing behind him had spoken them aloud. Judging from his appearance, Robert had been drinking for a while. And trying to talk sense to a man who was drunk was like head-butting a stump – in this case, an impervious, solid oak stump.

As he brushed a patch of dirt from his shirt sleeve a wind gust hurled a spatter of dirt in his face, as if to punctuate Robert’s departure with one final rebuke. Any further discussion would have to wait till cooler heads prevailed. He tugged his vest down and stalked back up the street toward the Ambrosia.

As he entered the bar, a few customers stared in his direction, then at each other, then down at the floor, like schoolboys who had just been caught peeking through a keyhole. He made his way though the crowd, ignoring the awkward glances and murmurs that followed him across the room and up the stairs. No doubt they’d found it entertaining to see the town’s foremost benefactor knocked flat on his ass in the middle of the street.

Once inside his private quarters he could close the door to prying eyes and muffled snickering. His jaw ached and there was an unpleasant humming in his ears. He sat down at his desk, closed his eyes and tried to slow down the thoughts that raced randomly through his head.

Only a week before, in Miles City, where they’d agreed to meet, Robert had been jubilant. The telegram had read, "Pardon granted. Meet me at the Hotel. We’ll celebrate."

After all Robert's misadventures over the years, it seemed fate had unexpectedly smiled on him. A recent newspaper article had mentioned something about an amnesty being offered by the Territorial Government to a number of fugitives. At first glance, it appeared to be a simple act of clemency intended to encourage expatriates, now living in Canada, to return to their homes in Montana. In fact, it was part of the Governor’s plan to increase the territory’s population by any means necessary in order to pave the rocky road to statehood.

Regardless of its real purpose, the proposed repatriation was a legitimate reason to celebrate. By offering amnesty to the alleged felons, the decree opened the door to an opportunity that would otherwise be unavailable to them – a chance to return to mainstream society.

He’d arrived at the hotel at the appointed hour, shortly before Robert had appeared with a quiet, mildly attractive woman on his arm and a broad smile on his face. It was obvious that his lady friend was as accountable for his exuberance as his liberation from a self-imposed life of crime. Julia was fair, modestly dressed and quite well-endowed for a woman with her small frame, and unlike the more hardy women Robert seemed to prefer, she was outwardly demure, almost plain … until she smiled. The warm expression that lit up her face was unquestionably her best feature. A smile like hers could transform a plain woman into a temptress, and the message it conveyed was unmistakable.

There was something else about her – some intriguing, but disquieting quality he couldn’t define.

It didn’t matter. She was Robert’s lady, and if appearances were any indicator, he was all hers. Clearly, the purpose for their meeting was not only to toast his newly found freedom and the start of a new life, but to celebrate the fact that he had found a woman with whom he could share it. She’d offered her quiet, evocative greetings with a smile, and immediately returned her attention to her suitor who stood basking in the sunlight of her adoration. He’d never seen Robert look happier. Then, in only a few short days, all that had changed.

He pulled himself up and strode across the room to the open window. Deep shadows poured over the hills as the chill of early evening chased the last touch of warmth out of the air, leaving the sun to fade as it rolled beyond the horizon. The sounds from the street drifted upward as he watched from the window. There was no point trying to talk to Robert at the moment. There would be time for that later, when he sobered up and came to his senses. He’d take care of business downstairs, and maybe go over to the Dove later on if things were quiet.

A few dried leaves rattled down through the trees as he glanced out at the darkening street, and at the mountains that stood in the distance in a calm, peaceful repose between storms. A breath of damp air rushed in as he eased the window closed against the draft, and the noise, and the coldness that crept in, quietly invading the surroundings like a sudden, early frost.

He rubbed his eyes to relieve the ache that pulsated behind them. It wasn't like Robert to be so belligerent, or to lash out at anyone without provocation. Maybe Julia had said something that made him suspicious. Being so smitten could muddle a person's thinking. And what was it about Julia that disturbed him? Not her exactly – just something that had stirred in his memory when they’d met, just as she’d smiled at him. The more he tried to ignore it, the more bothersome it was. Like a single wrong note in a long forgotten tune, it jarred his senses as it kept repeating the same dissonant chord.

He pulled his tie from under his collar and tossed it on the chair. Maybe if he lay down – just a few minutes of peace and quiet would help ease the painful ringing that vibrated through his brain. He closed his eyes, but as his headache retreated, the same face with its soft, lilting expression refused to vanish. Not Julia, but someone who had wandered into his life, lingered there briefly, and long since vanished into time. Someone fair-haired, sweet faced, and like Julia, full-breasted beyond perfection. Somehow that feature that had remained in his memory and triggered his recollections long after the details of her face had faded.

Ingrid. That was her name. Robert had courted her during the last few months before the War. Evidently his taste in woman hadn’t changed very much. If not for the twenty years that separated them, Ingrid and Julia looked enough alike to have been sisters – like Mary and Hannah had. Random recollections filtered back as he lay stretched out on the day bed. Ingrid …Hanson, Hollander… something more pronounceable than the foreign surname her family had arrived with years before.

He remembered her father, too – a stolid Hessian burgomeister who'd sold a profitable business to become a planter. The smug sonovabitch had used his money to buy his way into Virginia society, and made no secret of the financial success he’d obtained virtually overnight. That, he'd attributed to a good Christian work ethic and a weighty sense of social responsibility that he imposed on his children with an iron hand. It was to that philosophy that he'd ascribed his decision to pack his daughter off to a Swiss finishing school so when she returned she’d be able to assume her rightful place in sophisticated circles. Of course, the old man's argument in favor of a European education might have been more convincing if Ingrid’s departure had not coincided with whispers of an inappropriate liaison involving a young officer at VMI – a member of another prominent family.

It all seemed an impossibly long time ago. Ingrid had certainly nudged the boundaries of social propriety, but that was part of her allure – the unapologetic self-assuredness and winsome charm that had attracted so many suitors. On her return to Richmond she'd quickly resumed her role as one of the most sought after young ladies in the community despite some rather unflattering suggestions as to why that was the case. Most likely it was jealousy, not piety that spawned the crude innuendo about Ingrid. In an atmosphere of civility and grace, such judgments had seemed unduly harsh, if not downright hypocritical, especially when some people had nothing better to do than prattle away like common fishwives. For all its high-mindedness and pretense of superiority, upper class Virginia society was no more immune to idle gossip than anyone else.

None of it had mattered to Robert. Ingrid was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, and his enchantment with her was spontaneous when they’d all met in Richmond during the height of the social season. A week long visit to her family's estate was highlighted by a lavish affair, and in that elegant setting, aglow with candlelight and rich, glittering decor, Ingrid was the perfect centerpiece. Her delicate cameo face and sweet expression exuded a kind of girlish innocence, while her lips – tinged with color, full and round like overripe fruit – curved in a vision of undisguised sensuality. All it had taken was one dimpled smile from her to draw Robert into a state of joyfully demented bliss.

Interestingly, she’d looked upon him with equal favor, at least for a time. Having endured a year's exile, she seemed delighted to reenter an environment that permitted mixed company, so it was somewhat surprising when she declined several invitations to dance, including his own, in favor of some light repartee on the balcony with Robert. Maybe it was Robert’s quiet demeanor that had appealed to her, or his natural reticence that seemed more challenging than the aggressive charm employed by her other gentlemen callers.

In any case, the little coquette had blossomed into an alarming seductive woman, and during the European phase of her education she’d managed to refine her methods d’amore into an art form. How that was possible at the exclusive Lucerne Academie des Jeunes Femmes was something of a mystery, but she’d returned to Richmond as eager as ever to explore and share intimacy with whomever she found agreeable, and with the skills of a practiced professional.

He might have resisted her, in deference to Robert’s interest, had she not taunted him so devilishly. It was a game she played, like many women did, toying with one man’s affections in order to lure another – all the time encouraging rivalries between suitors. Robert’s infatuation with her was all the motivation she needed. She was still outwardly girlish in some ways, but while her youthful beauty feigned modesty, it masked a deeper passion that no one man was likely to satisfy. Her smile teased him with the promise of exotic delights and forbidden pleasures made all the more tantalizing for their wickedness – pleasures that, up to now, had been largely unobtainable, and reserved for only the most sophisticated lovers.

One morning near the end of their visit, while the others were enjoying a walk in the gardens, she’d asked him to accompany her to the smokehouse, presumably to help her select some choice entree for supper that evening. It was an odd request since the household servants usually attended to such matters, and it was hardly a place to enjoy the company of a lady. On the other hand, it was unlikely that anyone would think of looking for them there….

As he opened the door to the smokehouse and stepped inside, a flow of rich, pungent scents engulfed him. The air was thick with dusky aromas – savory, sweet, and tantalizingly flavorful. Smoke swirled in the shafts of light that pried through cracks in the blackened walls, quietly turning day into night, and giving the dark interior the feel of an ancient cave.

In the dim light he could make out bulky, monolithic silhouettes – huge chunks of meat of various proportions, displayed in lavish abundance. Some were heavily distended as they hung, swollen within the confines of their in hemp bindings. Larger ones remained suspended from hooks fixed into the overhead beams. All loomed in quiet, smoldering decadence as smoke hovered in pools of shadowy vapors near the ceiling – its languid arms pouring down, entwining, embracing, hungrily lapping at mounds of tangy pink flesh that seemed to melt from the rafters.

"Do you see anything that appeals to you?" she asked as she moved closer.

There was the scent of fresh flowers in her hair, like perfume from the surrounding gardens.

He looked at the array of succulent delicacies, and at her plump, luminescent breasts – barely concealed beneath a diaphanous veil of lace – imagining their delicate rosy tips, responsive to the slightest touch even from within their silky confinements, and the taste of her lips – ripe with color, luxuriantly soft, and poised, ever so delectably, in the shape of a heart….

"Mr. Mosby."

The sudden noise startled him. He must have just dozed off.

"Sorry, Mr. Mosby … I knocked, but I didn’t hear no answer."

Clay rubbed his eyes to clear away the last remnants of his daydream. "What is it, Ike?"

A momentary silence seemed to interrupt Ike’s thought process as he peered around the room like a rodent searching for food. "There’s a ruckus brewin’ downstairs. Figured you might want to see about it…." His voice trailed off as he withdrew from the doorway.

Clay ran his fingers through his hair. "I’ll be down directly," he sighed. Another loud-mouthed troublemaker spoiling for a fight. Just what he needed to make the day complete. He buckled on his gun belt, hoping the situation could be controlled without any serious disruption.

The reason for Ike’s concern was evident from the top of the stairs.

"Yep, we had them Rebs backed up all the way to the Tennessee River ‘fore we was through. There they was, in the Hornets’ Nest, thick as flies on shit. All’s we had to do was fire away at ‘em and they went down like wheat’n a hail storm."

"Yeah," another voice chimed in, "them Rebs got what they deserved if ya ask me."

At a table, flanked by an assortment of ruffians, sat the man he knew only as "Pike" – a scurvy individual whose military history was, at best, obscure. What few details there were of his war experience remained too sketchy to be verified. Nevertheless, he seemed adept at using them as brickbats.

Well, now," he snorted as he turned, "if it ain’t the Colonel hisself."

The laughter faded as the crowd’s attention shifted to the stairway.

"Maybe you can answer us a question that’s been vexin’ this here community." He tossed back a whisky. "We already know who made the best showing when it come to brass tacks. Now 'Uncle Billy' there, he had the right idea, didn't he boys?"

Several men nodded and laughed. Most didn't.

"What I wanna know is, who’d you say was the best general in the whole Reb Army – Forrest or Hood?"

"Forrest and Hood," someone called out. "Hell, you mean the worst general, don't ya?"

He gazed upward, grinning through a stubby, tobacco-stained beard. "Whaddya think, Colonel?"

Clay took quick stock of the crowd that followed after Pike like a pack of stray dogs. Talk about the War was distasteful enough without likening Southern commanders to incompetent drunkards like Grant or raging madmen like Sherman – men without honor or conscience, or the slightest remorse for the cruelty they’d inflicted and the misery they’d caused. Such a comparison carried an implicit and deliberate insult. It was Pike's favorite method of baiting someone into an argument.

"I think, gentlemen, I’d prefer to let history render judgment on that particular subject – which I trust it will, in due course."

Pike wasn’t about to let his amusement be cut short. "Aww, now don’t tell me you’re backin’ off," he prodded. "I gotta tell you I’m real disappointed."

He and his men customarily spent a lot of money in the Ambrosia, but it barely compensated for the disruption they provoked.

"In case you hadn’t heard about it, Mr. Pike, the War has been over for quite some time now, and frankly, I see no point in discussin’ it further."

Pike leaned back in his chair as he exhaled a cloud of cigar smoke. "Why hell," he sneered, "I ain’t never seen a Reb colonel run so fast from a fight. Guess what they say is true…."

"I said that’s enough!" Clay snapped, instantly regretting the show of temper. It was just what the bastard wanted. Despite the urge to knock the stupid grin off Pike’s face, he’d have to resist the temptation. Sparring with customers wasn’t good for business.

One of Pike’s drinking companions poured himself another glass. "I reckon Hood gets my vote," he announced. "Heard he took up with some woman after the War and had hisself a passel of kids, ‘spite of bein’ a one-legged, cock-suckin’ cripple. Guess getting’ shot up didn’t spoil his aim none."

"Reckon not," Pike grunted as he held up a discolored newspaper. "Eleven young’ns in ten years, it says here. Now that’s what I call a straight shooter."

"Well, shit," another man bellowed through a blast of laughter. "If that don’t make a fuckin’ legend out of a man, I don’t know what does!"

Clay walked over to the table where the three men passed a bottle between them. He picked up the newspaper. It was more than a year old, torn and yellowed with age, and wet with the whisky that had spilled on it. Indeed, John Bell Hood had survived the War, and despite severe injuries, had married and fathered eleven children, including no fewer than three sets of twins. The details were included in his obituary. According to the article, the general, his wife and a daughter had all succumbed to Yellow Fever in New Orleans in August of 1879. Of the six deaths attributed to the illness that year, three had occurred in the Hood home. It was a sad end to a troubled, but remarkable life.

"Yessiree," Pike belched as he raised his glass, "I say we drink to the Reb general whose courage and determination to get hisself killed done so much to preserve the Union!"

Courage. Determination. Strange words coming from a man who was barely qualified to dig latrines. If he excelled at nothing else, Pike was an accomplished braggart, and judging by the discrepancies in his fictitious exploits, he was also an imposter – like the cowards who frequently seized credit for others’ sacrifices. When the fighting ended and it was safe to come out of hiding, those champions of the Union cause had begun to spring up everywhere, practically seeping out of the woodwork to claim their accolades. Strangely, most of their names were missing from official military records. Nevertheless, they continued to appear spontaneously, and in numbers that often exceeded the size of the ranks to which they claimed membership. At times, as their absentee warriors stepped forward, it seemed the Northern armies boasted more unsung heroes than the number of soldiers who had actually marched into battle.

It was, after all, the victors of the conflict who got to tell the stories. And whatever their accounts lacked in authenticity, they more than made up for in imagination.

"Well then, here’s to old Sam Hood." One of the men raised his glass in a mock salute. "Hope he got a few good pokes at them angels ‘fore the devil spied him up there."

"Yeah," another laughed. "’Fore you know it they’ll be so many Reb brats runnin’ around in the clouds there won’t be no room for decent folks."

"Heaven er Hell. Who cares where the old fart pumps his seed?" Pike huffed. "Good riddance to traitors and troublemakers. I say we have us another round."

Some customers leaned forward cautiously in their chairs. Others watched silently from where they stood. Clay glanced across the room where Ike had taken refuge at the far end of the bar.

"By all means," he sighed. Incendiary as they were, the remarks were unworthy of a response, especially before an audience of jackasses. Robert would have found a way to laugh it off. But Robert wasn’t here.

A few more cowhands sauntered in, laughing and slapping the top layer of dust from their clothes as they headed toward the bar. A wind gust shoved a cloud of dirt through the entrance just as the doors clattered shut. Where was Robert, anyway? A cold wind usually preceded a cold night. He might already be holed up in his room at the Dove. More likely, he was at the No. 10. Odious as it was, the canvas saloon was the only other place to go for a man bent on drowning whatever sorrows troubled him. Ike and the boys could manage things at the Ambrosia while he paid a visit to Tent Town. In any case it might be wise to briefly withdrew from the scene before he succumbed to temptation and planted a fist squarely in Pike’s loathsome face.

* * *

The No. 10 was a pest hole, a tented swamp, choked with grimy sawdust and stale smoke. Despite the Spartan facilities, it always seemed to fill up more quickly than the Ambrosia, especially in cold weather – probably because the whisky was cheaper.

Clay glanced around the dingy interior, at the assortment of human dregs that had washed down to the lower end of the street, like loose debris after a rainstorm, and collected in a cesspool of cheap whisky and squalor.

"Evenin’, Mr. Mosby." A young woman with stringy blond hair stood just inside the entrance as she smoked a cheroot. "Can I get you a drink?"

He looked at her slender face, her pale cheeks streaked with lip rouge, and her eyes, hollowed by tedium and drudgery. "How about if I buy you one," he replied as he slipped a five dollar gold piece inside the neckline of her dress.

She smiled back, casting a glance toward the darkened corner of saloon, then back to him.

Robert sat alone where he'd staked a claim on a spot near the far wall. From a distance, he resembled Call as he slumped in his chair with a half empty bottle before him. In fact, he looked worse, if that was possible. And even the rowdiest of the regulars seemed to be giving him a wide berth.

"Well, I was wondering where you disappeared to," he drawled as he approached the table, "but I see you’ve found yourself a comfortable corner."

"What are you doin’ here?" Robert mumbled without looking up.

He dropped his hat on the table. "Oh, let’s just say I’ve listened to enough Yankee folklore for one night. A little of that goes a long way." He pulled out a chair and sat down. "You know, at first glance Julia bears a striking resemblance to an old flame of yours. Ingrid, I believe. I must say, she reminds me of her a great deal."

"In more ways than one, I imagine." Robert’s reply was barbed with the sting of bitter irony. "I’m surprised you remember." He looked off to one side as he fixed his gaze on something across the room. "Ever wonder what happened to her?"

To be honest he hadn’t given it much thought. During their last few weeks in Richmond, Ingrid had been conspicuously absent from the social scene. She’d cancelled her remaining engagements and, as rumor had it, gone to visit friends in Atlanta. There had been no word from her, and he’d forgotten about her when he and Mary had commenced their courtship. What difference did any of that make now?

"I just assumed she met someone." Knowing Ingrid’s social skills, it was hard to imagine otherwise. "The last I heard, she’d gone to Atlanta, shortly before the War broke out. I lost track of her after that. If my memory serves me, there was quite a lot going on at the time."

"And few would have demonstrated that better than you." Robert's words blurred as he rocked back and forth in his chair. "Tell me, Clay, was it your intention to service the entire female population of Virginia … before we went marching off … on our sacred mission … on behalf of God and country?"

"If you’re referring to Ingrid, I don’t believe we were corresponding at that point."

"I doubt there was any need, considering all the ‘corresponding’ you’d already enjoyed."

"Good Lord, Robert, that was twenty years ago. We were hardly more than school boys. Besides, I recall you having your share of attention from the ladies."

"And I didn’t have to go dipping into your private stock to find it, either."

"Don’t be ridiculous. Ingrid was no one’s private stock." In truth, she was everyone’s, but Robert hadn’t seen that. Or he just didn’t want to know. It was hardly worth remembering. "What’s the difference? It’s all in the past." He shifted uncomfortably in the chair. Some memories were more difficult to dismiss than others. "Speaking of the past, I just learned that Sam Hood died in New Orleans over a year ago."

Robert tossed back the remainder of his drink and reached for the bottle. "Is that a fact?"

He replenished his whisky and raised it in an unsteady toast. "Then we shall lift our glasses to the memory of the courageous Sam Hood. Pity he didn’t see fit to throw himself on the altar of Southern sovereignty before he destroyed half the damned army."

"It's rude to speak ill of the dead, Robert. Besides, the man paid a high price for his ambition."

"As did quite a few others – just so he could impress his adoring lady friend – whatever the hell her name was…."

Robert’s assessment wasn’t far off the mark. Some said it was Sally Preston’s fickle heart that robbed the lovelorn general of all reason during his last disastrous campaign. Hood’s fiancé had been courted by every eligible bachelor in Virginia, and had left a trail of dead lovers in her wake. But "Sally’s Curse," as it was called, did nothing to discourage Hood who pursued her with an ardent, if somewhat undignified zeal. She made a fool of him, repeatedly rejecting him, then luring him back when it suited her. It was a popular scandal at the time. Nevertheless, as averse to commitment as she often was, Sally remained the consummate enchantress.

"The name escapes me at the moment. But as I say, it was a long time ago. Time tends to cloud one's memory over the years."

Interestingly, Ingrid had possessed many of the same talents, including an exotic allure that had attracted more than one of Richmond’s finest young sons. But if speculation about her romantic liaisons had caused her family some private embarrassment, she seemed unrepentant. In fact, it was her nonchalance that had helped to conceal any hint of his own complicity. If Robert had known of their secret involvement at the time, he hadn’t said anything.

As whispers of Ingrid's rumored dalliances continued, her status in society was relegated to that of a stylish courtesan. It wasn’t a title to which most respectable women would have aspired, but with war imminent, social protocol had given way to immediate necessity. Many young couples married in an atmosphere of urgency and in need of some semblance of stability as they charged ahead toward an uncertain future. He and Mary were among them. For all anyone knew, so was Ingrid – but not with Robert. She’d toyed with him, stolen his affection, and ultimately spurned him for another. That, evidently, was a wound that time had failed to heal.

Robert studied his glass for a moment, then swallowed the remaining whisky. "Old habits die hard, don’t they, Clay?"

Instinct cautioned him against being drawn in further, but Robert wasn’t going to let his grievance be dismissed casually. Obviously, something more potent than whisky was fueling his anger.

"And exactly which old habits might those be?"

"Oh, you remember – the ones that compel you to take possession of every woman who happens to glance in your direction. One look from you makes her part of your private domain, and to hell with everyone else."

"What are you trying to say? You think I stole Ingrid away from you – after all these years? You can't be serious."

Evidently Robert had known of their brief liaison, or suspected something. But what of it? They’d competed over lots of girls. It was a gentleman’s sport. They’d enjoyed their light-hearted rivalry simply for the challenge of it, with no concern for any emotional consequences. The ladies themselves enjoyed it. They must have, or they would not have encouraged it so constantly.

And besides, it was just a game.

"Look, I’m sorry about Ingrid, but if her interest in you was sincere, she would never have left Richmond." He picked up the bottle and filled his glass. "Anyway, she probably has grandchildren by now."

"Ingrid’s dead."

He stared at Robert who suddenly looked very sober. "Dead? How do you know that?"

Robert looked beyond him … through him. "She died in Atlanta – in childbirth, I’m told, a few months after she left." He spun his empty glass on the table. "I wonder whose little bastard that could have been…."

"Considering her affinity for men in uniform, you could probably narrow it down to, say, half the 14th Regiment. I’d be surprised if she even knew herself." He regretted the words even as he heard himself speak. It was a harsh thing to say, especially of someone whose life had been cut so short. "I’m sorry to hear it, but the truth is, Ingrid was a – how can I say it politely…."

The table shook as Robert’s fist came down on it. "I’m not talking about Ingrid!"

"Who, then? Julia?" That's what the argument was about. He might have guessed. Robert was suspicious – maybe even jealous, and being in love had only intensified his resentment. Now memories of the past were mingling with the present, and blocking his attempts to salvage facts from the tangle of innuendo and anger. "Good lord, Robert, use your head. How could I have…."

"The same way you always do – the minute I turn my back. Just like always."

"That’s ridiculous."

"You're telling me it's not true?"

"I'm telling you that your attitude is rapidly redefining the term 'insufferable.' Just what did she say?”

“She didn’t have to say anything. It was the way you looked at her. And the way she looked back.”

“For God’s sake, Robert, that’s what women do! It’s as natural for them as breathing. Half the time they don’t even know they’re doing it.”

“But you know it, don’t you Clay? It’s all the invitation you need.” He fumbled for the bottle, spilling whisky onto the table as he poured himself another drink. “This might come as a shock to you, but a lot of men don’t take kindly to smooth-talkin’ skirt hustlers who come sniffin’ around their womenfolk.” He picked up the glass and downed half of it. “What is it – something you need to keep proving to everyone – that you still have what it takes, that no woman can resist the charm of the great Colonel Francis Clay Mosby – not then, not now, not ever?”

He turned and leveled his glare, this time taking aim with cold, deadly focus.

“Or is it something you have to keep telling yourself – that you’re the same virile, unconquerable, hero – the same complete man you were before the War.  Before … everything….”

A shadow leaned out of the darkness – an obscure phantom presence that lingered just beyond the edge of his memory. He felt his gut tighten as his mind rushed to dispel the sensation before it took shape.

"You’re drunk, Robert. You’d be wise to go sleep it off before you get yourself into trouble."

"Trouble? Well now, you’d be an expert in that department, wouldn’t you? Robbing banks and shooting your own men dead in the street – all the time pretending to be respectable just so you could go chasing around after a girl half your age, like a bull in a goddamned rut!"

He felt the heat of anger burning up into his face. "I suggest we forgo this whole discussion."

"You were acting like a love sick lunatic from the moment we got to Curtis Wells and you were still lustin' after Newt Call’s wife when I left."

"I said that was enough."

As he reached for the bottle, Robert’s powerful grip closed around his wrist.

"Enough? When do you ever get ‘enough’ of anything? Money. Whisky. Women. The only woman you haven't had is the one in that painting over the bar, and if you figured out a way to do it, you’d drag her out of the picture and ram her till you were cross-eyed."

He pulled his arm out of Robert’s faltering grasp. "I think you overestimate my ambition in that area, as well as my patience with this nonsense."

"But not with your celebrated propensity for melancholy. Isn’t that how you justify everything you do – ‘Poor me – I’ve lost so much, now I’m entitled to some kind of recompense – no matter where I find it or what I have to do to get it’." He swirled the whisky around in his glass before finishing it. "Come to think, it’s been a while since you exercised your ‘droit de signore’. Did you enjoy it this time?"

Anger clawed at restraint. If it had been any other man, he’d have been out cold on the floor by now. But it was Robert.

"Are you delusional as well as drunk? Do you seriously believe I’d force myself on your lady love – or anyone else – just for some perverse momentary pleasure?"

"I think the only pleasure you get in life is stealing it from someone else. You can't stand it if some poor fool has something you don't have, so you go ahead and take it and if he doesn't like it, you just ride right over him." He held up his empty glass. "Nothing else matters as long as you own everything and everyone. That way you can keep reminding us all who's the better man."

He looked at Robert's weathered clothes, and his shabby, unkempt appearance. "For the record, my friend, there’s no harm in a man wanting to better himself. One of these days, when you tire of being a bone-headed vagabond, you might actually care to try it."

"I was, until you decided to ‘intervene’ on my behalf."

"Listen to me. If you think I was ever interested in Julia, you’re dead wrong."

"My ass.

"It’s the truth, damn it." A half-truth, at least. "There was never anything between us."

Robert's gaze fixed on the empty bottle. "Well, evidently not for long, since she’s still alive."

"What the hell’s that supposed to mean?"

"It means, my friend, my … dashing, daring comrade-in-arms, that unlike most of your paramours of the past, she is still among the living." He picked up the bottle, tilting it to see if anything was left. "I know you're not out of practice. Maybe you're just losin' your touch."

He sank back in his chair. He wouldn't have thought Robert capable of such vitriol. But then, liquor could do strange things to a man's thinking. So could pain and disappointment and a lot of things people had no control over.

"I hate to think what Julia might say if she saw you like this."

"No worries there," he muttered as he toyed with his empty glass. "She’s gone.

He looked at Robert. "Gone where?"

"Who the hell knows – San Francisco, Seattle … somewhere…." His eyes glared through a cloud of alcohol and rage. "… with the money you gave her."

So Julia had told him about the money. Lord knew what else she'd told him.

"Oh, I’m sorry, did I neglect to thank you for your concern … and your generosity … and your timely interference in something that was none of your goddamned business!"

"Robert," he hesitated as regret hung on his words. "There's something you should know…."

"Forget it, Clay. I told you I’ve heard it all, and I’m tired of listening." He leaned back in his chair, so far that it nearly tipped over. "Get me another bottle," he called out to the man behind the bar.

Clay sat back, momentarily without words as his mind tumbled over the events of the last few days, back in Miles City.

He had just left the hotel for breakfast at the café a few doors away when he’d spotted Julia in front of the bank across the street. He hurried over to say good morning and to invite her to join him. She’d paused just outside the entrance to retrieve a handkerchief from her purse. A veil shadowed her face, but it didn’t conceal the tear that rolled down her cheek.

"Is anything wrong," he’d asked spontaneously. "You and Robert haven’t been quarreling, now have you?"

"No," she’d replied as she quickly dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief. "It’s nothing like that."

He looked down at her heart-shaped face, and at the sweet expression peeking out from behind the veil. "Well then," he smiled back, "suppose you tell me what ‘it’ is."

"I’m sorry," she whispered as she gazed downward. "I’m embarrassed to have made a scene. It’s really nothing important."

He glanced toward the bank from which she had just exited. "Forgive the presumption, but if the matter involves some financial concern, I’m certain there’s a solution."

She stiffened slightly and looked away. "I’m afraid my secret is woefully unconcealed. I’d hoped to handle this more discreetly."

"My dear," he smiled again as he took her hand in his. "I am the very soul of discretion." He brushed her fingertips with a light kiss. "You must feel free to confide in me." In truth, it had been curiosity, not compassion that prompted him to press her for details.

"You’re very kind, Clay. Robert is blessed with your friendship, as am I."

"We go back quite a long time. Now, what can I do to dispel your anxieties?"

A brief hesitation preceded her words. "Robert is a wonderful person, but he’s not a young man anymore." She gazed into the distance, as if there was something only she could see. "Time takes its toll on all of us." Her eyes were fluid as they followed the leaves that drifted to the ground. "I like to believe that we’re in the summer of our lives, but at the same time, I feel the winds of autumn in the air." She turned her face to his. "I know Robert does too, although he pretends otherwise. We’ve talked about a future together – a home, stability – all those things that have been missing in his life … and mine." Her gaze drifted off again. "I fear that if he has none of that, or a reason to be hopeful about the future, he’ll be tempted to resort to his old way of life. I have to find a way to prevent that – whatever the cost."

She took a long breath before continuing. "I’d hoped to obtain a small down payment for an investment in a business here in Miles City – something that would represent a commitment of some kind. But with our meager assets and no collateral, I’m afraid an unsecured loan is out of the question."

"My dear Miz Julia." He smiled broadly as he held his hat over his heart. "In celebration of your union and in honor of your betrothal, I hope you’ll allow me to make a wedding gift of the sum required."

She looked up demurely. "Yours is a truly chivalrous gesture, Clay. Robert speaks so highly of you, and he’s told me of your generosity, but, kind as your offer is, I couldn’t possibly accept it."

He studied her, stroking his mustache as he did some quick calculating. It wouldn’t cost him that much to prove his instincts about Julia were true. He owed Robert at least that much. And if, by chance, he was wrong, their business might even turn a profit, not that that was of primary concern at the moment.

"Well then, would an investment in your new enterprise be more acceptable – in the form of a cash advance, with shares to be determined on a profit percentage basis?"

Her eyes widened. "Oh, my. That’s extraordinarily generous of you, Clay. I must confess you’ve caught me completely off guard. I hardly know what to say."

"I believe the appropriate response would be ’yes’ to the terms as proposed. I’ll have the bank draw up something official-looking. Robert can even sign it if he likes."

"Oh…" She hesitated for a moment. "Robert mustn’t know. He’d be quite upset with me if he knew I’d taken some initiative without consulting him. It’s a matter of pride, you see – his personal show of responsibility to me, and I daresay, to himself. But if that’s a problem…."

"I assure you it is not," he held up his hand before she could decline again. "No problem whatsoever. I’ll just wire the money to your account here in Miles City."

Julia was an excellent actress, and hers was one of the best performances he'd ever witnessed. Unfortunately, Robert was too blind to see through it. Even if he'd voiced his misgivings about her, his warning was bound to be dismissed. He could hear Robert's counterattack. "What's this, Clay – another of your ploys – some clever way of maneuvering the competition out of the way so you can step in…." There was no point in arguing. It was better to let him find out for himself.

Of course, there was a small chance that he could be wrong. Despite the odds against it, Julia's intentions might actually be sincere. Maybe she was just tired of grifting, like Amanda had professed to be, and with time and age encroaching, she'd decided this was a chance to start a new life. It was possible, however unlikely. In any case, he owed Robert the chance to make it all work. If he gave Julia the money it might provide her with the security she needed and the incentive to stay. And seeing Robert happy for the first time in so many years – knowing that he was in a position to keep it that way – was a source of relief as well as satisfaction. Now, thanks to his own rash interference, that was gone. And so was Julia.

"Robert … I don’t know what to say…."

"Try saying nothing at all for a change."

He glanced around the dismal interior, through the layers of smoke that hung in the air like a dirty stagnant fog.

"I’m truly sorry … believe me. I thought I could help…."

"Oh, you’ve helped more than enough. Now get out."

He looked at the man he had known since they were boys, whose life was so intertwined with his own, and who had suddenly become a stranger. Trying to persuade him of anything at the moment was probably another exercise in futility, but he owed him the effort.

"Look, there's no point drownin' yourself in this sink hole. Why don’t you come back with me to the Ambrosia? We could …"

"Well, of course." Robert leaned back in his chair. "Who wouldn’t want to sit around watchin' a drooling desperado makin’ an ass of himself – poppin’ the buttons off his fly every time a woman sashays past – skulkin' around with his tongue hangin' out. Tell me, do your lady friends still swoon when you dangle it in front of ‘em?"

"Jesus, Robert!" It was the whisky talking, not the man. "Are you listenin’ to yourself?"

"Are you?" Robert shot back an unfocused glare. "Maybe you didn’t hear me. I said ‘Go to Hell’!"

He pushed his chair back and stood up. "I’ve been there already. We spent some time there together … remember?"

Robert didn’t answer. He remembered well enough. But at the moment, it wasn’t worth pursuing. Nor was it something he, himself cared to revisit. "We’ll talk another time," he murmured as he picked up his hat and turned to leave.

The place was choked with smoke and dust, and a silence that seemed to absorb the noise around him. All the talk about Hood and the War had made for a downright unpleasant atmosphere. And it had dredged up old memories – thoughts and images that had lain quietly – like dead, decaying things at the bottom of a quiet lake – now suddenly churned up and heaved toward the surface … things that were best left undisturbed.

The sour stench burned in his throat as he elbowed his way between groups of customers who stood huddling together for warmth, milling around like herd animals, obstructing all avenues of retreat. It was repressive, almost suffocating, as if suddenly all the air had been sucked out. He pushed through the crowd and around the last two men who stood blocking the entrance. The flimsy frame rattled as he pulled the door shut behind him, closing all the filth and clamor inside.

The chill washed over his face like ice water as he stood motionless outside the tent, gulping down the cold air, and filling his lungs with the smell of pine needles and fresh rain. He gazed beyond the rooftops to the darkened hills, listening as a wave of dampness swept past, carrying with it the sounds of the night, the creak of bending branches, nocturnal calls and whispers, and the wind’s angry feral howl.

He pulled his coat tighter around him, bracing against the chill as he cursed the cold, and the wind, and his own reckless folly. What the hell could he have been thinking? Was it vanity – some childish need to impress a woman he hardly knew, or was it as Robert had said – just plain arrogance – a compulsion to control other people's lives, to succeed where others had failed – just to prove his superiority?

He kicked the remains of a broken crate out of his way.

No. They’d been friends for too long. No one needed to prove anything. Robert knew that, but now he was hurt and angry, and incensed that he’d been made to look like a naive school boy by someone he'd trusted, and loved. He’d need some time to get over it. And he would – that is, if he could be persuaded to give up his fool's notion of a storybook romance and face reality.

It wasn’t as if he was the first man to fall prey to a woman’s deception, nor was Julia the first woman to employ it. After all, matters of the heart, like gambling, even war itself, were conspiratorial by nature. Experience helped, but it wasn’t always reliable, and being in love could render a man virtually defenseless. Julia knew that and she'd taken full advantage.

"I feel the winds of autumn," she'd said. It was an appropriate metaphor. Autumn was notoriously fickle – serene and beautiful one minute, foreboding and bitterly cold the next, capricious and utterly faithless – like the woman herself. Whether it was a penchant for larceny that inspired her, or some desperate survival instinct, or simple greed, she’d used her seductive charm to exploit what she saw as a ripe opportunity, and cold bloodedly used an act of trust to serve her own selfish interests.

But if Robert’s judgment had been poor, his was no better. He should have spoken up when his intuition told him something wasn’t right – not that it would have made any impression. Robert's stubbornness could put a mule to shame. Nothing he could have said would have convinced Robert that the woman he loved was about to betray him. Still, he should have protected him – or at least tried. But he hadn’t.

He tugged his hat further down on his forehead as a gust of cold air swirled up behind him.

Anyway, what the hell difference did it make now? Deception and intrigue were part of life – whether it was business or just a friendly poker game. He proved that every time he turned a card. Instinct and a certain talent for duplicity had served him well over the years, but he’d ignored his instincts this time and, ironically, it was his role as an ally, not a competitor that had played directly into the hands of deceit. Maybe it served them both right to be seduced in so heartless a manner. Sincere as his intention to help Robert had been, it had served as the unwitting instrument of another’s treachery, and in the end, made fools of them both. Just as he had in the past, Robert had become a casualty of his own vulnerability, and he of his own pride.

The moon was a pale smudge on a starless, black sky as he trudged through the mud and back up the plank walkway to the Ambrosia. With a little luck, Pike and his cronies might have spent their money and retired early, although that was probably too much to hope for. Light spilled from the windows of the saloon as haphazard piano tunes drifted outside. Above the music rose the familiar drone of voices, strung together by a variety of obscenities and crude laughter. Just as he neared the entrance, the wind whipped around the corner, kicking leaves and dust into the air and nearly taking his hat with it. Standing watchfully at the door, as he’d been ordered, was his foreman.

"Zeke," he said as he scraped some mud off his boot, "take a couple of men down to the No. 10 and keep an eye on Robert. Make sure he gets back to the hotel safely. Drag him upstairs and throw him into bed if you have to."

"Yessir," Zeke replied. Two men followed him, and the three disappeared down the street.

Clay glanced around the smoke-clouded room. Pike and his companions were still at it, liquor having energized their need to create some kind of havoc. A puddle of whisky dripped off the edge of the table as the noisy crew splashed more into their glasses. "Where the hell’s that fool Rafferty?" one of them rumbled as he gulped his drink. "Gettin’ another two-dollar dip at Twylas’?"

"Nah," another one called out. "He ain’t got no money left after last night. ‘Sides, I heard he got sweet on one a them sows over there at the dummy’s place. Said somethin’ about gettin’ a pig and a poke’."

The joke was applauded with more loud guffaws from Pike’s assortment of rabble. "Hey, barkeep," one shouted. "We need some more to drink over here. And don’t be tryin’ to sell us none a that mule piss you been passin’ off as whisky."

Clearly the men were saturated and spoiling for a donnybrook with whoever dared to cross them. Ike fumbled with a new container as he flicked a nervous glance in Clay’s direction. With the whisky in hand, he ventured out from behind the bar and started toward Pike's crowd – apparently not fast enough –

A bottle exploded in a spray of glass as it came down on the edge of a table.

"I said now, you fuckwit!" The man wobbled slightly as he gripped the jagged remnants in his fist.

Clay glanced at the man, then at Pike. Even in a town like Curtis Wells certain rules governed one's public behavior. As he strolled toward the table the onlookers separated to either side, clearing a path between him and the unruly group. He took a drag on his cigar and casually exhaled as his gaze settled on the primary instigator.

"Mr. Pike, if you and your friends can’t comport yourselves in a civilized manner, I suggest you find your entertainment elsewhere."

"Well now, Colonel," Pike looked up as he poured another drink. "You wouldn’t begrudge these boys a little fun, would you? They done built up a head a steam the last few days. They just need a chance to blow it off."

Clay’s eyes narrowed as they clamped on Pike. "For all I care, you and your boys can blow each other off. While you’re in my town, in my saloon, enjoying my hospitality, you will conduct yourselves as I see fit."

Pike put down his glass and focused a rheumy-eyed glare at Clay. "You limp dick cracker," he hissed. "Ain’t no pussy-faced, whore-humpin’ Reb gonna tell me what…"

The tirade stopped short as Pike was hauled out of his chair by the lapels and thrust backward onto the floor. Clay’s voice was chillingly calm as he spoke.

"In that case, I recommend that you vacate this establishment – permanently. And take this paltry collection of reprobates with you."

Pike scrambled to his feet, suddenly dumbstruck as he stared into the bore of a .45 Remington.

"Oh, by the way, my men have orders to shoot trespassers on sight, and make enquiries afterward." The cylinder clicked as the hammer was drawn back. "Is that clear?"

An unintelligible curse was Pike's only reply. He snatched his crumpled hat and lurched toward the door with his friends scuttling after him like a cluster of unearthed beetles.

Clay eased the hammer back down and holstered his .45. "Excellent," he sighed "I’m so pleased we were able to reach an understanding."

From across the room he saw the men he’d dispatched to the No. 10 enter through the back entrance of the saloon. Zeke approached while the other two remained at the rear door.

"Well?" he asked as he pulled out a handkerchief to wipe Pike’s dirt off his hands.

"Shelby made it back to the Dove on his own," Zeke answered. "He’ll be sleeping it off for a good while yet."

"That’s fine, Zeke." He took a final puff on the cigar. "You and the boys can go now. Just keep your weapons handy."

"Yessir, Mr. Mosby."

He extinguished the smoke. Hopefully, that was all the excitement there would be for the night. The regulars sat huddled in small groups, once again mumbling in subdued tones and generally behaving themselves. With the crowd finally settled down, Ike could handle everything till closing time. If there was any more trouble from Pike or any of his friends, Zeke and the boys would know what to do.

His bones ached as he trudged upstairs to his rooms. Thank God there was someone he could depend on to follow orders. Zeke was a good man, and as reliable as any he’d know since the War – since Robert had been his second-in-command. But then, he’d been more than just a fellow officer. Robert was more like a brother when they’d rough-housed as schoolboys, when they’d courted the prettiest girls … and when, as soldiers, they’d ridden away to war, into a cataclysm that would change their lives in ways they could not have imagined.

He lay down on the bed and rubbed his eyes, trying to dispel the fatigue and the dispiritedness that dragged on his strength like an enormous weight.

It was so simple then. War was right. And defending one’s country was a matter of unquestioned duty. It was a demonstration of worthiness, justified by honorable intentions, and legitimized by its own inevitability. Many had had little interest in what the War was about, but knowing it would soon be over, they'd hurried to join before their chance to prove their manhood was gone. In a few short weeks, they would return as heroes, covered in glory, and even the most callow youth would be revered as a knight-errant defender of the faith.

In the terrible aftermath, it was Robert who had sheltered him from his inconsolable grief, and the unspeakable fear that some personal failing had caused his own ruin. In a devastated world where bewilderment and desperation were deepening into madness, it was Robert who had dragged him back to the world of the living, demanding that he survive despite his own resistance to the idea.

Memories of those years were mercifully blurred by time. Many went missing altogether. How they'd managed to stay alive after the War was anyone's guess.

"The hell with it," Robert had grumbled one day after a particularly disappointing afternoon at the poker table. "I'm sick of riverboat gambling. We ought to just take what we've got and head west. I know how we can make more money in one day than we do in a month on this floating flea circus. It's not as if we had anything to lose."

"I don't give a damn," he'd replied, too despondent to argue.

On reflection, their decision to become bank robbers wasn't the wisest choice they'd ever made, but at the time it seemed preferable to subsisting as penniless vagrants. Compared to what they'd already been through, the risks seemed minimal. And in some ways, their outlaw existence had offered a kind of escape from the desolation, as well as a seductive element of dangerous, relentless excitement. Even now, despite all the hazards and uncertainties, Robert seemed strangely drawn to it, as if he still thought of himself as the hero in a dime novel adventure.

"Come with me," he’d said. "It’ll be just like old times. We’ll rob every bank in the territory. We’ll be swimmin’ in Yankee gold."

He’d thought about it, and about the things they’d had to do, just to survive … and the sense of uselessness he’d felt when he’d looked back at the destruction they’d left in their wake. That had been the turning point. It wasn’t the way he wanted to spend the rest of his life. It wasn’t how he cared to see Robert spend his. There were better, safer ways to succeed. And if all the Yankee gold in the country had floated down the Missouri and washed up on his doorstep it wouldn’t have brought back what he’d lost.

"I can’t," he’d said. Life as an itinerant highwayman offered no future and few prospects even for moderate success. And if its rewards had proved to be minimal, its perils had not.

Of course, the same could be said for a life of virtue and honesty which came with its own set of limitations. The difficult road back to respectability was rife with sinkholes, and somehow Robert had managed to find most of them. While he’d been able to rebuild his own life, Robert’s had been drawn into a downward spiral of misadventure and failure. Their friendship had barely withstood the strain, but it had held ... until now.

The chance to help Robert get back on his feet could not have been better timed. He’d felt compelled to act on it, but because of the secrecy involved, not to mention his own selfish indulgence, the plan had backfired and ruined what Robert perceived to be his last chance at happiness. The man was entitled to some indignation – and a great deal more….

They’d enjoyed an excellent supper that last evening – as fine as Miles City had to offer. Robert had paid for everything, including several bottles of the most expensive wine he could order. Finally, after numerous toasts to the couple’s future happiness, they'd retired to their rooms. He’d stretched out on top of the bed, light-headed from the wine consumption during dinner as well as the whisky that had preceded it, and the brandy that had followed. He'd overindulged. They all had. But it was an occasion to relax and celebrate. Lord knew there were few such opportunities, and this one would be over entirely too soon. If he woke up with a headache in the morning, it was well worth it.

He'd lain comfortably, trying to review all the business that awaited him back in Curtis Wells – the accounts for the Ambrosia, the payroll for the new men he’d hired, some business details he could safely delegate, others that he’d have to see to himself. He’d need to get some sleep before he left early the next morning, but each time he closed his eyes, visions of Julia’s face flowed in front of him, invading his thoughts, teasing him with unspoken promises.

She hadn’t said much at supper, but each time he glanced in her direction, her eyes were already on him – not really flirting, simply waiting for him, reaching out with silent thoughts intended only for him to hear, and which only he could understand. When he’d heard a soft knock on his door later that night, there was no doubt in his mind as to who it was, just as he’d imagined it would be.

"Robert’s asleep," she’d said quietly. "He’s really not a wine drinker."

"Nor am I," he’d replied. "My preference leans toward something more … substantial."

"I can see that yours is truly a connoisseur’s taste," she'd murmured. "You deserve only the finest things in life." She looked almost wistful as her gaze drifted past him. "Pity the pale, imperfect rose, longing to blush, dreaming of your touch as you pass by, but for your slightest favor, sighs in vain."

"My slightest favor?" He reached for her hand. "Unless I'm mistaken, you've already availed yourself of that."

Her gaze returned, luring him, enclosing him. "You think I'm a charlatan, maybe even a thief, don't you, Clay?"

He raised her hand and brushed her fingers with a kiss. "No, my dear. I'm certain of it. And a very accomplished one at that." He smiled down at her, fully expecting to be slapped. But her eyes locked on his as her fingertips lingered at the corner of his mouth, lightly stroking the edge of his mustache.

"I'm accomplished at a great many things. You'd be surprised."

His smile broadened in amusement at the undisguised advance. "Surprised? No. Amazed, possibly, but not surprised."

"Well, I flattered to hear it. I had my doubts, and I'd hate to think I was a disappointment."

"Indeed. Perhaps we should ask Robert if he's at all disappointed."

Her expression showed no sign of intimidation.

"He wouldn't believe you." Her fingers continued to follow the trimmed edge of his beard, reaching upward, gently combing through his hair, sending a tingle through him. "Robert's a dear, but he's rather set in his ways, and you know how intransigent he can be at times." Her hands wandered, soothing, reassuring him as he stood – prey to his own desire, and to the wave of excitement racing to his core.

She’d approached him without shame, enticing him to follow, as if their coupling was pre-ordained and its reward assured. They'd kissed, tenderly at first. There was a taste on her lips like that of rich liqueur, and in her hair a hint of jasmine as her delicate perfume drifted around him like some rare hypnotic incense.

Maybe it was her boldness that had fascinated him. Or her ability to turn a simple sentence into a line of poetry, or the way the candlelight danced in her eyes when she looked up at him. Women like Julia could raise a man's spirit beyond his imagination, crush it at will, and raise it again, as if to remind him that with them he was everything, and without them he was nothing.

As her fragrance filled his senses, he'd felt the last twinge of resistance give way, leaving him to the mercy of his own erotic yearning, and to a sudden, unbearable emptiness in his heart.

He'd felt her hands moving over him, exploring, gently delving, happily discovering … and his arousal intensifying, pulsating, echoing his heartbeat, and demanding fulfillment. Feverish, aching to be inside her, he'd savored the pliant flesh that seemed to melt at his touch. He could still feel her body under him, writhing in unembarrassed delight, gathering up all the fantasies he dared to imagine and breathing life into them.

He'd reveled in the warmth that surrounded him, felt the joy of her body blending with his – absorbing his need, rewarding him, completing him, and easing the pain of unrelenting desire. He’d devoured her passion and rejoiced in their unbridled intimacy, pleasing her, pleasing himself, luxuriating in a wellspring of euphoria, all the time believing that he controlled every wave of pleasure, every moan of satisfaction.

He could still feel it – his sense of exhilaration as he'd overpowered her, declaring his mastery, straining almost angrily to possess her … and she, smiling up at him, telling him that he never would.

Somehow, through some predatory instinct, she'd discovered a weakness in his façade. Despite all his awareness, she’d slipped past his defenses, used him like he’d used so many others – entirely to his own advantage and with no concern beyond his own immediate needs. Like a spider that beguiles its prey, mates, and calmly kills it, she’d taken everything she wanted from him and dismissed him without a care.

In a way, it was fair. The truth, however unflattering, was that Julia was more his own type, more in tune with his thinking, and equal to his "connoisseur's taste" in certain indulgences. Had they met under different circumstances, their union might have proved mutually beneficial. Still, nothing in life was permanent. Nothing. He'd been reminded of that more than once. So had Robert.

His old friend had returned full of hope, as if a new world had been created just for him. In a way, it had, until he'd stepped in and spoiled it all. Robert had enriched his life with the very thing that was so painfully missing from his own. Was he so envious that he had to steal part of it for himself?

Ridiculous. He was a man of substance, and of considerable means. He owned half the town, for God’s sake. And Robert had so little – a horse, a worn out saddle, one decent change of clothes, and a dream – a hastily conceived and poorly constructed one perhaps, but a dream, nevertheless. No one would have begrudged him that.

He sat up and looked around the room. Along with a few expensive accoutrements, his cramped quarters contained the basic necessities, but little of any sentimental value.

He raked his fingers through his hair. Maybe it wasn’t jealousy. Maybe it was his own disappointment in himself. "Don’t dwell in the past too long," someone had said. "When you look backward all you’ll see are the mistakes you’ve made, all the blunders and the failures." Lord knew there were plenty of those. For some reason, he’d imagined that by building the town he could somehow rebuild his life, and that by determining its future, he could control his own destiny. But there’d been too many mistakes. The gains barely offset the losses, and even the smallest achievement had come at a disheartening cost.

That wasn’t going to happen again. Robert had good reason to be angry, but in time he’d realize that what had happened was for the best. If they parted company eventually, it wouldn’t be over some cloying, money-grabbing woman. They’d been through too much together, shared too much, and lost too much. He wasn’t going to lose Robert.

He pulled himself up from the bed, strapped on his gun belt and threw on his coat. They were going to talk whether Robert wanted to or not – even if it was the middle of the night. Even if it took an old-fashioned dust-up to resolve issues.

It was pitch black outside as he headed across the deserted street to the Dove. The hotel was quiet, its guests having retired for the evening. Nevertheless, Robert might still be up. He never had needed much sleep, and anger had a way of keeping a man awake.

The boy he’d hired to clean up was just finishing his chores.

"Evenin’, Mr. Mosby." He looked tired and dreary-eyed from the day’s work. "I was just fixin’ to close up for the night. There somethin’ I can do for you?"

He couldn’t remember the boy’s name. "No, that’s fine," he answered. "I just stopped by to see one of your guests. Which room is Mr. Shelby in?"

"Mr. Shelby? Oh, he ain’t here. He left a while ago. Came back to collect his gear. Then he just lit out."

"What…." Clay stared at the boy as his mind stumbled over the words. "Did he leave a message … or say where he was headed?"

"No, Sir." The boy fumbled through his pocket. "But he left this here five dollars for the room. Don't look like he ever slept in it." He held the coin out flat on his hand. "Reckon you ought to give it back to him." Clay looked down at the gold coin, then back to the blank expression on the boy’s face.

"No." he murmured as he turned toward the door. "You keep it."

His thoughts pulled in different directions as he stepped out into the night, numb to the cold, feeling that his breath had been knocked out of him and that all the strength he possessed had suddenly been ripped away.

As he trekked back through the mud, Robert’s angry words rang in his head like a painful echo. What had been said of Sally Preston could just as well be said of him– that somehow everyone he touched had been cursed, simply by their association with him, and that without intending to, he’d destroyed them all. Ingrid had died giving birth to a child that he might very well have sired. Mary had perished in the storm of violence he’d been a part of, in a war that he’d willingly fought. And Hannah. He’d tried to restore his happiness through her, to erase his own tragedy and replace it with the contentment he should have had. He knew it was wrong. And Hannah had paid for his mistakes with her life.

Now Robert was gone, too. Despite the hardships and the challenges he’d met over the last few years, all that he’d done to bury the past and to build a future, nothing had really changed.

* * *

Back at the Ambrosia he prowled the upstairs rooms. The place was in complete disorder – not unlike his life at the moment. His office was strewn with miscellaneous items he’d either postponed or ignored in recent days and his sleeping quarters looked like a brothel. Except for the absence of sawdust on the floor and vomit on the tabletop, it resembled the # 10.

He closed the door to the bedroom and proceeded to tidy up the office, organizing the day’s activities in his head as he roamed the cramped interior, collecting the empty glasses, picking up loose papers, and trying to remember what had possessed him to take on the job of managing an entire town.

He dropped the last few sheets onto his desk and sat down to glance through them. How could a few items of business generate so much paperwork? Judging by its volume and the rate of accumulation, the demand for wood pulp must be considerable. A wise investor would do well to buy into the timber industry while there were still some trees left.

He succeeded in dividing one large pile of papers into several smaller piles, placing them in neat, square stacks, and arranging them in order of importance. Finally he leaned back to assess the achievement. The desk was just as cluttered as before. What would be so terrible if he simply set fire to the whole damn thing – apart from being incinerated when the entire building went up in flames?

As he chewed on the end of his spent cigar, strands of tobacco began to separate from it. He spat out the loose fragments, tossed it aside and lit a fresh one. The paperwork could wait till tomorrow. So could the housecleaning. He’d get one of the women from the Chinese laundry to come in tomorrow and straighten up everything.

Meanwhile the whole place could use a good airing out. He opened a window and stepped outside to enjoy one last cigar. The wind had died down and a skim of frost was settling on the damp surface of the walkway. He watched the smoke drift and dissolve into the darkness as he stood on the balcony, breathing in the chilly night air and wondering why the hell he’d ever come to Curtis Wells.

How could he have been so careless? And so monumentally stupid?

He'd abandoned common sense in favor of an enticing illusion, allowed himself to be transported to a long-forgotten place where women smiled softly, and whispered tenderly and warmed him with secret kisses and sighed when they spoke his name. He’d let down his guard, ignored his better judgment and dared to pretend that somewhere on this cold, God-forsaken earth there was a woman who felt his need, who understood it, and whose desire for him was not spawned of greed or deceit. He’d closed his eyes, just for a moment, and drifted into the murky twilight of fantasy and passion, imagining himself warm in the embrace of a sweet woman’s love.

Maybe it was a sign of Divine disapproval, or poetic justice, or plain fate at work when he’d opened his eyes and discovered, in the harsh dawn of awakening, another whore.

Robert had made the same unhappy discovery, even if he hadn't realized it yet. Once again his life was at a standstill and his future held hostage by the specter of another failure. Not that he was to blame. He could never have held on to Julia. She was too strong-willed and far too independent. It was only a matter of time before he awoke to an empty bed and a poetic, lilac-scented note on the pillow beside him.

He was out there somewhere, mad at the world, retreating to some silent refuge where he could think, or maybe not think at all – as if enough time hadn't already been lost to anger and frustration – years clogged with regret over events that shouldn't have happened and things that could never be changed.

The hills lay cloaked in shadows so dark they were barely visible under the endless, empty sky. He stood on the balcony, listening to the rustle of tall grass, and the whisper of the breeze as it swept through the pines. Somewhere in the distance, beyond the trees, a wolf called out for its mate, keening, and waiting for the echo of its call. The only answer was the wind's mournful sigh.

Damn it, Robert!

If he could just haul him back, tie him to a chair and slap some sense into him. "Life is full of unpleasant realities – in case you hadn't noticed – and one of those realities is that no matter how truthful and sincere you are, loving someone doesn't obligate them to love you back. Most people learn that before they come of age. How is it possible that you still haven't?"

That's what he should have said. "The fact is, it doesn't pay to leave yourself vulnerable in this life. Truth and sincerity are fine qualities, but they don't make a man immune to disappointment or protect him from betrayal." One day he'd realize that.

He took a long drag on his cigar. Robert was not generally inclined to hear what he didn't want to hear, and at the moment he was too infuriated to think straight. Better to give him some time and space … let him sort things out on his own. There was that point when a man had to call a halt to his own misery before his capacity for suffering began to outweigh his will to survive. He'd reached it. So would Robert, eventually.

He snuffed out the cigar and went back inside. A few papers had blown onto the floor. Leave it, he thought as he strolled over to the sideboard and picked up a new bottle of imported Scotch. It could all be dealt with tomorrow, when he could think more clearly. Morning had a way of bringing things back into focus. Maybe everything would make more sense in the light of day.

"Well," he sighed as he filled his glass, "for what it's worth, here's to … better times – past, and future." The soothing fire warmed him as he swallowed it down. Sometimes it seemed the frustrations that plagued a man were too numerous to count, and the pleasures, all too few. Good Scotch whisky was worth the expense.

He pulled a chair over to the window where he could see the street. A sprinkling of stars glittered for a moment and quietly faded into the clouds. There was a smell of rain in the air. Probably an early snow. He poured another drink and settled back in his chair where he could sit and watch over the town as it slept, and wait for the dawn.


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January 26, 2003

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