This is a fanfiction story based on characters from the Lonesome Dove television show, which belong to Rysher Entertainment and Hallmark. No infringement on copyrights is intended. All other characters and storylines belong to me.
The following is a backstory for Robert Shelby from birth to age eleven, when he is befriended by Clay Mosby at boarding school. I wrote this originally as a background sketch about Robert's early life so I could draw on it in my other project, Darkly Bound. It morphed into a short story, however, about how Robert and Clay meet and bond, and I liked it so much, I decided to post it as is. I only touch on my version of Clay's backstory in this one because it is told from Robert's point of view.
The beginning is mostly narrative description, very Dickensian but perhaps a bit boring. If you can bear with that, it changes into a full-blown story about halfway through.
Please write to me about my stories if you get the urge. I welcome any and all comments from my readers.
Colleen J. MacLennan
Robert Lucius Hardwin Shelby--it was a staid and noble name for one with such an ignoble beginning. Of course, during those innocent early days, Robert had no inkling of the facts of his birth, no awareness that he had arrived amidst controversy. Only later, after his young life had changed forever, did he begin to learn the whole truth, and even then, it was years more before he’d fully understand its implications.
In truth, Robert’s father, Richard James Shelby, was not the hero his little boy imagined.
Drifting through most of his youth, Richard married for the first time in his twenties, taking as wife a frail woman named Leila who had impressed him with her pale beauty and substantial dowery. Their union produced two children, Thomas and Nellie Ann, neither one, it turned out, possessed of any character to recommend them. The ill-fated Leila, however, did not see the fruits of her labor mature--she died soon after their daughter was born, never having recovered from the strains of childbirth.
Richard took to drinking and gambling heavily after Leila died, squandering her fortune as well as his own in the process. With the accumulation of enormous debts, Oak Wood, his tobacco plantation outside of Richmond, went into decline. A number of slaves and even pieces of the land were sold to pay creditors. Although the Shelby line was blue-blooded, Richard’s reputation by now retained only a semblance of his ancestors' quality. An idea eventually occurred to him, though, that would be the solution to all his woes--he would take another wife. He was convinced that a woman’s gently civilizing influence was what he needed to transform his world and give him new purpose. So in 1841, at a middle-aged forty years old, he married Alice Anna Pryor, a demure girl of seventeen from a family with little money and no dowery to provide.
Despite Alice’s lowly station, Richard did love her and vowed to straighten out his life for her sake, and for their infant son Robert, born almost nine months exactly after the wedding. Richard doted on his new family and threw himself into reorganizing his affairs both personally and professionally, requiring frequent travel on business trips to curry favor with potential investors in his schemes.
His two older children, however, were not so enamored of the newcomers. Fifteen and thirteen years of age respectively at the time their father remarried, they resented the sudden restrictions he placed on their own bad habits. Long unsupervised, they chafed at any rules and were jealous of the attention their father gave Alice and her baby when he had neglected them for so many years. They set about to make Alice's life as miserable as possible, and unfortunately for Alice, who was barely older than the children to whom she was stepmother, Richard's absences left her no recourse except isolation in her rooms.
This was not the life Alice had expected when she was swept off her feet by the handsome, charming Richard Shelby. She felt like an unwanted guest in her husband's home and she had no real power to make any decisions besides. The furnishings had been chosen by her predecessor, the servants disdained her directions, and even some of her clothing was remade from garments left behind by a woman now dead. There was no money for new furnishings and new clothes, she discovered. So she attempted to brighten the rooms with flowers from the garden, a frugal measure, she thought, and a way to plant herself in this hard, dry ground. Her malicious charges criticized her as frivolous and pulled the petals off their stems behind her back.
The brief times that Richard spent at home came to be like the eye of a hurricane for Alice, but gradually she came to cling to him with an intensity he disliked, and the very desperation that drove her to hold him close finally began to drive him away.
In the meantime, Robert developed his own perspective on the situation. His first memories were of his mother playing with him in the nursery adjacent to her own bedroom. She spent hours sitting on the floor with him, her skirts melted down into a pool of satin around her. From this vantage point, she helped him build forts out of painted wooden blocks and they marched little tin soldiers in and around them, staging battles with all the appropriate noises for emphasis.
As he grew older, though, he played alone while she spent more and more time staring out the windows as if she were waiting for someone to appear on the driveway up to the house. He didn't like her to do this because she cried when she looked outside, so he always tried to draw her into his games, make funny faces and do tumbling acts with the flair of a circus acrobat to make her laugh instead.
Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. When it didn't and she cried, it scared him and he would go to her to ask what was wrong. She never answered him, but she would pull him onto her lap and hug him so tightly, he couldn't breathe, and her ferocity scared him more. He always kissed her cheek and told her he would take care of her, hoping that would make her let him go. When she did, he would quietly slip out of the room and go find his mammy, the large, cheerful, very black woman who could make everything better with milk and cookies.
Mammy Lou kissed his cuts and bumps to make them heal and told him he would grow up to be a big, strong, honorable gentleman, not a horror like his father's other children, those good-for-nothing bullies who seemed to have the devil in them. Mammy also gave him a talisman to wear for protection against them, a piece of carved bone she said would ward off the evil eye. She had "a powerful lot" of love for him and called him "sweet boy," which always made him feel warm and happy inside.
He hardly ever saw his father, but he raced to the front door whenever he heard the infrequent commotion that meant his father had returned from a business trip. There on the steps, his father grabbed him up and lifted him into the air, and they'd both laugh excitedly. He thought his papa was the strongest man in the world and he loved him so much, he could just burst into a thousand hundred pieces. Nothing rivaled the delight he felt when Papa came home and made the sun shine in all the dark corners of his world.
He loved those times, rare as they were, because his father’s presence protected him and his mother from the mean tricks Thomas and Nellie Ann played on them. He was very little then, not even in pants yet, and he liked to snuggle between them on the sofa in the parlor. They passed him from one warm lap to the other as they held and rocked him and talked in low, affectionate voices to each other. The sound lulled him to sleep and later his father carried him to bed and tucked him in tightly "so the bedbugs wouldn’t bite."
Robert thought his father meant Thomas and Nellie Ann. They were the only ones he knew who would want to bite him. They had certainly done everything else they could think of to torment and terrorize him. By age four, he had wised to their hollow promises of sweets and marvelous sights, and he ran and hid whenever he heard them coming. Sometimes, though, he wasn’t fast enough and got caught in their traps anyway.
His brother and sister, though dull at their studies, were endlessly inventive when it came to devising Robert’s death. They suspended him over the well by his ankles and said they were going to drop him in with all the green slime and bugs and let him drown. In the smokehouse, they tied his wrists and hung him from the rafters with the hams and sausages, telling him in graphic detail how he’d get cut up and served at the next big holiday meal. Shoving him into the icehouse, they described through the door how he’d be found all frozen and hard and blue, that is, if the monster that lived in the brick and cedar-lined cellar didn’t eat him up first.
Almost always, it was his Mammy Lou who rescued him. She was the only servant at Oak Wood who didn’t seem scared of his siblings, and her ears must have been better than a hunting dog’s because she could hear his cries and screams from a mile away. Mammy would push his torturers aside and scoop Robert into her fat, protective arms, rocking and shushing him quiet as Thomas and Nellie Ann beat a hasty, laugh-filled retreat. With his father away, he felt safe with Mammy Lou, safer even than with his mother, who grew increasingly distant and despondent as the months went by.
One morning when he was five, though, his mother danced into his bedroom, happier than he had seen her in a very long time. She was going with his father to Baltimore City, she told him, and they would buy many new things for the house and she would get him the toy sword he had wanted for last Christmas and never received. He was happy because she was and because he was going to get his much-desired sword at last, and he waved goodbye to his parents as their carriage disappeared down the drive the next day.
While they were gone, his first milk tooth came out, one of the front ones, and Mammy Lou put it in a special jar to save for his parents to see when they returned. They never did see it, though, because they never came back. A man riding very fast came up the drive instead two days later and suddenly everyone in the house was whispering when they should have been talking, and wearing black when it was summer and time for bright colors. Twenty-one-year-old Thomas gave him the evil eye so much, he had to feel his chest three times to be sure he had his talisman under his shirt, and 19-year-old Nellie Ann alternated between crying and calling him a little bastard, which he knew was a bad word she wasn't supposed to say.
It was Mammy Lou, though, who told him that his mama and papa were in a train accident and were in heaven with God now. "Well, when they get done visiting God, they'll come home because my mama promised to bring me a sword," he insisted stubbornly, refusing to understand. Mammy just shook her head and said, "They ain't never comin' back, sweet boy, but don't you worry, your ol' Mammy won't never leave you," and she gave him milk and cookies even though it was almost time for supper.
Robert was devastated in the months following his parents' deaths, and the shadows that hitherto only darkened the corners of his world now threatened to swallow him whole in their cavernous jaws. Alone at night, he curled into a frightened ball under the covers in his huge canopy bed, or he sneaked into his mother's empty room to sleep in her bed, that is until Thomas had the room cleared of all her things. He cried and prayed for God to make him die, too, but if he received any sign–a creaking stair or moving shadow--that said God might accommodate his request, he was alert and ready to defend himself with a knife he stole from the kitchen.
He didn't understand until years later the utter chaos that tore the rest of the household apart in those months. Unknown to him was the fact that his brother inherited a depleted estate with creditors lining up at the door for payment, nor was he aware of the legally-unbreakable trust fund his father had set up for his own education. All he knew at the time was that Thomas was in charge and sold his Mammy Lou "down the river" along with a number of other servants. He also arranged an almost immediate marriage for their sister with a much older man who didn't care about a dowery, and despite her tears of protest, he sent her off without a second glance. He told Robert to be careful or he would get rid of him, too, and this Sword of Damocles in the form of an orphanage hung over Robert's head throughout the next few years despite the assurances his paternal grandparents gave him after coming to live at Oak Wood.
No children were left on the plantation for him to play with as he grew so he often took a couple of his brother's hunting dogs on expeditions around the grounds--anything to get away from the constant arguing between his brother and grandfather and the wild swings that Thomas took at him when he came too close. In the woods about a quarter mile to the west of the house, he built himself a fort from dense brush. When his brother was drunk and in a particularly foul mood, he stayed there for hours, organizing and cataloguing his collections of rocks and insects.
He longed to learn how to ride a horse properly, but the only good one left in the shabby stables was Thomas' mount for hunting, his third favorite activity behind drinking and gambling. He had forbidden Robert to go near the animal, so Robert did the best he could on the back of a work horse with the guidance of the groom. He never knew that the man risked a whipping to help him. He only knew that, of the few servants remaining, Joshua always had a kind word and a smile for him, and he taught Robert many fascinating things about rocks and trees and plants and animals--all of Robert's most loved subjects.
When Mammy Lou was sold, he was left to the sporadic care of a young housemaid, a favorite of Thomas’ who had no patience for the needs of a perpetually dirty little boy. So Joshua bathed him periodically in a wooden washtub in his cabin and then fed him a baked sweet potato heaped with butter and brown sugar for supper. Sometimes, other servants gathered in the cabin, too, and they talked while Robert sat in Joshua's lap being rocked to sleep late into the evening.
Even after he felt too old to sit in someone's lap, though, he sought out their company. With more care than he received in the big house, they fed and fussed over him, and let him sit in the shadows, listening to them socialize as they sewed or carved or did other handwork for themselves. On occasion, he heard them say angry things about his brother and white people in general, but he never told anyone. In a way, he felt more like one of them than one of the white people they disparaged. The servants were his real family.
Joshua was officially charged with transporting Robert to and from a small school about three miles from Oak Wood. It was run by a kindly Northern brother and sister for a motley assortment of children from families unable to pay for private tutelage in their own homes. Robert liked going there even though he enjoyed the socializing more than the schoolwork. Much of the latter seemed to involve tedious memorization and useless information--nothing like Joshua's fascinating lectures about real life. But he had other children to play with, and that made all the rest bearable.
Despite these periods of refuge from the Shelby strife, it was actually a relief to be sent to boarding school at the age of ten. He looked forward eagerly to making new friends, but his excitement was short-lived. His trust fund afforded him a place at the prestigious Thornhill Academy for Boys, the school his father once attended, but his recent family background made him poor white trash in the eyes of his status-conscious peers. To survive, he quickly learned to make the other boys laugh--they wouldn't hit him or call him names while they were laughing. And if they didn't laugh at his clowning, he learned to hit back hard and fast and not to stop until one or the other of them couldn't get up.
Then a year later, in the middle of the fall school term, he met Clay Mosby.
He knew who Clay was before this, of course--everyone knew who Clay was. Impeccably dressed, smart, and supremely self-assured, Clay was the most popular boy in their class, and he was always surrounded by a group of his loyal followers, other boys who came from the same wealthy social circles as their leader. They all owned finely-bred horses when Robert barely knew how to ride, and they all defied the authority of the schoolmasters with impunity when Robert faced almost weekly whippings for the battles he was forced to fight out of self-defense. He never even hoped to become a part of that elite group. The gulf between them was as wide as an ocean, and just as impossible to bridge.
Or so it seemed until the day he and Clay got into a fistfight.
It was over something Billy Jarvis accused him of--said he saw Robert going through Clay's chest in the dormitory when no one else was around and put something in his pocket. Clay was missing a fancy steel pen and Billy was his best friend, so he confronted Robert on the matter after classes were over and everyone was walking to the dining hall for supper. Robert had no idea what Clay was talking about, but he did know from the other boy's angry expression that the situation would not be resolved with a few jokes.
He could easily beat this boy in a fight if all he had to consider was physical size and weight, but his opponent's popular position at the school gave him pause. Beating Clay would not win him any friends. Losing to him, however, was also unacceptable. Robert avoided fights when he could, but he would stand up to anyone who questioned his integrity, even the famous and intimidating Clay Mosby.
With his chin up defiantly, he told Clay to go to hell. Clay lit into him in a furious blur and they rolled together on the lawn accumulating grass stains and bruises. Robert found he had underestimated Clay's strength, or perhaps it was his determination that powered him, but it took an adult hand to pull them apart.
Sent to the headmaster of the academy for discipline, the two of them sat on the bench outside his office to wait. Robert was unhappily familiar with this location, but he stared ahead stoically, refusing to look at his accuser. "I didn't steal your pen," he said with the indignation he still felt.
Clay looked over at him thoughtfully and after a moment, nodded. "I believe you," he said.
Clay was called in first and stayed only a short time before coming out again. Robert hadn't heard the sounds of the paddle he knew so well--Clay had escaped unscathed as usual--but he expected he would not get off as easily. When he took his turn before the stern headmaster, though, all he received was a sharp lecture on the evils of fistfights. The shock of that reprieve was only surpassed by the sight of Clay still sitting on the bench in the austere hallway as he exited.
Clay jumped to his feet and faced him calmly. "Did he give you a whipping?" he asked.
Robert could only shake his head in reply, wondering why the most popular boy in his class would care what happened to him.
Clay nodded as he had earlier, as if he possessed some secret insight into the situation. "I'm Clay Mosby," he said, introducing himself.
He put out his hand and Robert shook it hesitantly, confused about Clay's intentions. "I'm Robert Shelby," he said, although it seemed an odd formality to go through. They already knew each other's names.
"I'm going to supper now. You can sit at my table if you want," Clay told him.
This time, Robert nodded, struck speechless once more. Clay Mosby was inviting him to sit with his group at supper? How had they gone from a fistfight to friendship in such a short time, and why would this rich boy want him for a friend? Maybe he didn't--maybe he just wanted to humiliate Robert in front of his real friends by getting him to come along, and then just when Robert tried to sit with them, they would laugh at the great practical joke Clay had played on him.
Robert was wary as they walked from the administration building to the dining hall across the parade grounds, but he couldn’t suppress his curiosity. "What did you tell Headmaster Wynne?" he asked.
"I told him you didn’t steal my pen and I was the one who started the fight," Clay said in a very matter-of-fact manner.
Robert was amazed by Clay’s straightforward admission of guilt. "What did he say to that?"
"He said I must take the punishment for both of us then and he told me to drop my trousers for a beating."
Clay was apparently not inclined to long explanations, so Robert pressed on. "But I didn’t hear you get beat!"
Clay turned to him and Robert saw the same unstoppable determination that had been in Clay’s eyes right before their fight. "I told him I wouldn’t accept a beating. My father never whips me and no schoolmaster is going to, either. And I told him he better not beat you for something you didn’t do because that would be unChristian." Clay’s expression softened as he grinned with sudden mischief. "He got sort of red and puffy in the face, but he just said, ‘I’ll have to write to your father and see about this, young man,’ and then he dismissed me."
Robert laughed at Clay’s mocking imitation of their blustery, overfed headmaster, but then gave him a worried look. "What will your father say? Won’t he be angry?"
"No. I don’t think so," Clay answered, but he chewed his lip and frowned a little, and Robert could tell he wasn’t completely sure.
"If I ever said no to a whipping, I’d get beat twice as hard!" Robert noted, shaking his head. He was astonished at Clay’s audacity, and the success he’d had with it, and he gazed at him with admiration. "Thanks."
Clay shrugged. "I was just telling the truth."
Robert had actually begun to feel at ease by the time they reached the dining hall, but when Clay asked one of his friends to make room for him, all his fear of ridicule returned. The others stared at him as if he were an uppity servant who had stepped out of his proper place in the social order. They were done eating well before he and Clay, but they waited anyway, talking and laughing with each other and ignoring him entirely, even when Clay asked him a question here and there. By the end of it, Robert felt entirely out of place and vowed he would not be stupid enough to aspire to these heights again.
Dying from discomfort, he thanked Clay for the supper invitation afterwards and moved to leave as fast as possible. The others watched him and snickered behind their hands, but to everyone's surprise, including Robert's, Clay stepped forward and called, "I'll see you tomorrow then." He seemed oblivious to his companions' disapproval, which they were quick to hide, Robert noticed, as soon as Clay rejoined them.
Robert had no intention, and indeed, no desire to see Clay again the next day. One painfully awkward evening with Clay and his stuck-up friends was enough to convince him he didn't belong in that group, or really anywhere for that matter. He was truly the proverbial fish out of water here among these scions of the wealthy, old families of Virginia, and even at home, he was an unwelcome intruder.
He wondered if he would ever find where he fit in the world as he pored over maps in the library for his geography assignment. Tracing the outline of Europe on the paper he pressed over the page, he thought about going there. It was already pretty thoroughly explored, though, so they wouldn't have any need of adventurers there, and he wanted to go on an expedition someplace, anyplace where no one else had been before. Then he'd find things there to bring back and show everybody and they'd say he was a great explorer like Marco Polo, whom he had just learned about in history class.
Pushing a stray strand of dark blond hair off his forehead, he turned to a page with China on it and began drifting into a daydream spun by silkworms when someone interrupted him.
"So this is where you've been," Clay whispered loudly. "Don't you know it's Saturday? Why aren't you outside riding or something?"
Robert glanced at Clay and then looked down at his book again, turning red with embarrassment. "I'm behind in some of the assignments," he mumbled vaguely, not about to say that he didn't have a horse.
Clay tugged on Robert's arm. "I'll help you with that later. Come with me now. I have something to show you that you'll like."
Curiosity getting the better of him, Robert followed Clay out of the solemn, Gothic stone library building and toward the stables. Once there, Clay stopped at one of the stalls and pointed to the dapple gray gelding it housed. "That's my horse," he said, and opened the gate to lead the animal out. He handed the halter rope to Robert. "Hold him while I get the saddle," he directed. A black groom emerged from the shadows but Clay waved him away.
Robert took the rope but felt rising irritation. Was this what Clay wanted him around for--to act as his servant? He may be poor, but he still had pride and he wouldn't be used by anyone, even someone who got him out of a paddling.
Clay came back from the tackroom with the saddle and bridle. He hoisted them over the gate and took a brush to clean the horse's back. "His name is Bucephalus. It means ‘Ox-head’ in Greek," he said as he brushed. "That was the name of Alexander the Great's battle horse, you know, except his wasn't a gelding. My father didn't think I was ready for a stallion yet, but I will be soon." He draped the saddle blanket over the animal and went for the finely-tooled saddle as he talked. "Bucephalus couldn’t be mounted by any of the men in King Philip’s court, but Alexander tamed him. He wasn’t scared at all because he understood how horses think. He was the same age as us then." He turned toward Robert and looked him in the eye, apparently to impress this last and most significant fact upon him.
Robert had remained silent till now. He had tried at first to think of something sharp to say about Clay's superior attitude, but then without knowing how it happened, he felt as gentled as the horse under Clay's ministrations. "I don't have a horse to ride," he admitted, and frowned at himself for letting that out after all.
Again, Clay just nodded knowingly as he finished saddling the horse. "You can ride Bucephalus with me," he said, taking the lead rope back and removing the halter to replace it with the bridle. He turned to Robert with a secret smile. "There's a place I want to show you and it's too far to walk. You won't mind riding behind me, will you?"
Taken aback for a moment, Robert didn't know what to say, but he recovered quickly. They were going on an adventure, and would ride a fine horse to get there! "No, I don't mind," he answered, although Clay must have assumed his agreement because he was already leading the animal out of the stables.
Luckily, or perhaps by design, Bucephalus was not a large horse--around fourteen hands--so Clay could mount without too much awkward effort. When he was settled in the saddle, he instructed Robert to stand on a wrought iron bench against an outer wall and walked the animal to him to mount behind. Robert climbed on, eager now to see whatever sights Clay would show him, and held on to his host as they went from a walk to a canter in short time, heading down the dirt road away from school.
When the gloomy gray buildings and spires could no longer be seen, Clay reined Bucephalus off the road to cut through a farmer's freshly harvested field. Chaff kicked up behind the horse's hooves as Clay urged it into a gallop, and Robert felt thrilled with the speed--until he spied the stone fence looming ahead.
"Hold tight and lean with me," Clay said loudly, but the instructions were unnecessary because Robert was hanging on for dear life, leaning wherever Clay leaned as they jumped the fence and landed with a jolting bounce on the other side. Both laughed at that, Clay from pleasure and Robert from relief.
Slowing now, they entered some woods and followed a little-used trail until Robert heard the gurgling water of a stream. The creek had cut through some hilly ground to create steep banks further down, but Clay led the horse to a level area where they dismounted. He tied the reins to a sapling, leaving room for Bucephalus to drink and graze on the lush grass there while he and Robert explored.
"Come on," Clay said, picking his way downstream toward the sounds of a small waterfall. Heedless of his expensive clothes, he edged past the mossy, moist bank to his right, using the exposed tree roots for support. "What I want to show you is over here."
Robert followed easily. He was in his element now, and could climb up or down, into or out of almost anything. He loved the smell of the earth and the way the rocks in the stream showed their colors better under water. The sounds of busy birds and chittering squirrels above, the gentle tinkle of the clear water flowing over smooth, flat rocks was like music to his ears. Here, he felt at home.
They squeezed around one more narrow place and stepped into a small alcove carved into the bank. It was like God's church, Robert thought, as he examined all its holy wonders. The ground was big enough for the both of them to sit and was covered with moss and fallen leaves. Above them, a ceiling of woven tree limbs blocked the sky, and in front of them, the waterfall dropped into a deep, quiet pool.
"This is it--what I wanted to show you." Clay stood at the pool and looked down. "If you stand very still and look carefully, you can see your future."
"Really?" Robert joined him in gazing intently, excited at the prospect of magic prophecy. After a minute of this in silence, though, he still saw nothing but a pool and its tiny, swimming inhabitants. "I don't see anything," he said in disappointment.
"You have to kind of let the ideas come into your head," Clay advised, keeping his focus fixed on the water.
"What do you see?" Robert asked, hoping that would give him a clue as to what to expect when ideas came into his head.
"I see myself as a great leader like Alexander, or David in the Bible, and I'll be very brave and people will listen to what I have to say because I'll be very wise, too."
Robert didn't think that was much of a prophecy--anyone with enough money always had lots of followers who listened to him and thought he was wise, even if he was as stupid as dirt. Just look at his brother, always surrounded by men he bought drinks for. He persisted, though, just in case there was something to Clay's prophetic "ideas." "Do you see anything about me?"
"Yes," Clay nodded solemnly. "You'll be at my side, just like Alexander's friend Hephaistion." He looked up at Robert and smiled. "You're going to be my right-hand man."
Robert frowned at Clay's presumption, suddenly wary again. "How do you know that?"
"I just do. I saw it in my head." Clay sat on the ground and sighed contentedly. "No one else knows about this place. You're the only one I've shown it to."
Robert sat next to him, cross-legged. "Why are you showing it to me?"
"Because you're going to be my right-hand man and I can tell you things I don't tell anyone else."
Robert began to wonder if Clay was a little touched in his idea-filled head. They had known each other less than a day, and only met because of a fight--not a very auspicious start to a partnership of historic proportions. "How do you know I won't just go blabbing about you all over school?"
"I trust you," Clay replied, then looked at him with a worried expression, as if the possibility of betrayal had just occurred to him when Robert suggested it. "You won't go talking about me, will you?"
"No," Robert said. He would never betray anyone who had done nothing to harm him.
"Good. I knew you wouldn't," Clay said, satisfied again.
"Why do you want me to be your right-hand man?"
"Because I like you."
"Your friends don't. They think I'm trash."
"Who cares about them? They only like me because I do things for them, and because of my father. He's on the board of the school, you know."
"I didn't know."
"You see? That's what I mean. You don't care about those kind of things, so I can trust you to be honest with me. You wouldn't be my friend just for what I can do for you."
"I guess that's true," Robert conceded. "You don't even know me, though."
"Tell me then."
"Tell you what?"
"Whatever you think I should know about you."
And Robert did. He told this strange, touched boy everything from his mother's crying spells to his brother's evil eye. The whole story poured out of him like a confession from the depths of his soul. It brought such relief to cleanse himself of its darkness, to admit to his wretched state in the world and be absolved by a nodding, attentive companion who was, perhaps, wise after all.
When he was done, Clay didn't look disgusted by Robert's lowly origins or smug about his own highborn heritage. Instead, he told Robert all about himself--how he was the only child to live after his mother had lost seven other babies, how he had a great responsibility to carry on the family name and do it honor, how his mother worried he would die and his father told him he had to be strong and clever to stay on top. He seemed very serious about it all, weighed down with the burden of countless expectations. And Robert could tell it wouldn't matter if no one else expected anything from him, Clay would still expect miracles from himself.
He would need a right-hand man who could make him laugh once in awhile.
The sun was starting to go down, so they rose and brushed the leaves from their clothes and made their way back to Bucephalus, who suddenly seemed to Robert very aptly named. Their ride back to the academy was more leisurely, except of course, they had to jump the fence again, but Robert was ready this time, and more confident of Clay's control.
Arriving at the stables, Clay let the groom take his horse inside so he could walk with Robert to the dormitory. They changed and washed up for supper in surprisingly companionable silence, catching each other's eye on occasion and grinning. Words were superfluous--they had said everything of importance at the stream.
Later, on their way to the dining hall, Clay's other friends caught sight of him and hurried to catch up. Again, they ignored Robert and shoved him aside like so much excess baggage, but Clay gripped his arm and held him near, shoving the others in return to make room for him. It was odd to see how Clay could do this with almost imperceptible force and without appearing angry. They simply parted like the Red Sea at Moses' command.
Clay was different now, though, different than he was at the stream. Everything inside him, everything he had told Robert, was wrapped tight and buried deep so no one would see what he really felt and thought. He was all smiles now, joking and light and absolutely superficial. The mask was so life-like that Robert began to question the reality of their afternoon together. Had it really happened? Did Clay really tell him his hidden secrets, and did he really spill to Clay his not-so-hidden shame?
But there was Clay's hand on his arm letting him know the answer. It was real, it had happened. And if that was real, then maybe the rest would come true, too. Maybe they really would be friends in the future and tell each other everything and travel to foreign places on adventures like Alexander and Hephaistion.
Robert smiled to himself and settled into the pack of boys around Clay. He made a joke and a couple of them even laughed and started to walk nearer to him. Bolstered by this response, he joined in the conversation and no one talked over him like the evening before. By the time they reached the dining hall, only Billy Jarvis looked at him with open scorn, and he was fairly certain he could handle Billy if worse came to worst.
After all, he was going to be Clay's right-hand man.
Robert awoke the next day both excited and fearful. He wanted so much for it to be true, to finally have a real friend in this place and a group to do things with, but no one ever kept their promises to him, and Clay hadn't even crossed his heart and hoped to die on this one. What if Clay had changed his mind overnight? Then life would be normal again, with no special friend and no horse to ride, only the endless routine of schoolwork and military drills and church services to attend.
Peering out of one eye, he glanced across the large, communal bedroom toward Clay's place and confirmed his worst suspicion. Clay was talking to three of his friends, including Billy, as they dressed. Their voices were mere murmurs to Robert's ears, but he felt certain they were talking about him, especially when Clay looked in his direction and the others laughed.
A late sleeper if left to his own devices anyway, he rolled over under the warm covers and tried to pretend he didn't hear the other boys getting ready for Sunday chapel or the humiliating laughter that left him with a lump of indigestible disappointment in his stomach. He just wanted to go back to sleep and forget everything. Moments later, though, someone pounced on him roughly, squeezing the air out of his lungs.
"Get up, lazybones!" Clay laughed, pulling the blanket off and dragging him upright. "We've got a lot to do today."
Robert blinked blearily at him and grinned, a rush of exhilaration chasing away his brief depression. Clay looked like an angelic devil--not the mask but his real self, and inordinately happy. Robert felt inordinately happy, too, now--they were still friends after all. Clay pushed his shoulder lightly and Robert pushed back, and they laughed together.
"After chapel and breakfast, I'll show you more about Bucephalus and you can ride him by yourself," Clay told him.
Robert could scarcely believe his new friend would trust him with his obviously expensive and pampered mount, but even as he tried to imagine how wonderful a ride on Bucephalus would be, he looked around for Clay's other friends. Talbert Wilson was sitting on Mace Jackson's bed as the two of them tied their shoelaces, but Billy Jarvis stood glaring at him and Clay, arms crossed over his chest. If Clay really meant to make him his right-hand man, Robert was going to have trouble with Billy, that was a certainty.
He pulled the nightshirt over his head and let Clay rifle through his locker at the bottom of the bed, picking out a clean shirt and his best trousers to wear with his uniform coat to Sunday service. Offhand in the process, Clay remarked that he would get them beds side by side next term so they could talk at night.
Robert agreed to the wisdom of that, but felt a little overwhelmed. It was all so sudden and unreal. He wondered if Clay would really arrange for a bed near him after Christmas, or if a long holiday spent away from school might at last bring his self-appointed leader to his senses.
Clay's next comment, though, showed he had been busy planning for every eventuality. "I expect you'll probably come home with me for Christmas," he announced, and then, as if he just remembered Robert might have a plan of his own, he added quickly, "If you want to, that is."
Robert stared at Clay dumbfounded for a few seconds, dizzy from the speed at which his life was changing. "I'll have to ask my brother first," he answered at last, attempting nonchalance as if he were invited to other people’s homes all the time. He donned the clothes laid out on his unmade bed and considered his chances. Thomas might refuse him permission out of spite, but more likely he'd agree just to be rid of him. The kind of revelry Thomas liked at Christmas didn't include family entertainment.
"I'll ask my father to write a letter of invitation for you," Clay said, obviously confident that such a letter would dissolve any obstacles.
"Are you sure your parents will want me to come?" Robert asked. Already he looked forward to the visit and its sure pleasures, but no one else had ever wanted him to come visiting, and the Mosbys were a decent family. Clay's father might not think him a suitable friend for his son.
"They want me to bring my friends home so they can meet them." Clay looked at him and smiled reassuringly. "Don't worry, they'll like you."
And so Robert's life went from echoing emptiness to overflowing abundance in one day. It never occurred to him to ask himself if he wanted Clay Mosby for a friend, no less a leader. Clay had a way of making everything he said sound unquestionable, but he also actually seemed to care about Robert, and that was the real deciding factor. Clay began to teach him things--real life things like Joshua taught him, only these were things a servant wouldn't know because they had to do with white people customs like good manners, horsemanship, gaming fairness and honor--all such manly arts as that.
These weeks before Christmas, Robert blossomed under Clay's protective wing and tried his own more boldly. Swept along in Clay's wake at first, he gradually found his own balance in humor. He had been gifted with an easy nature that buffered him well at home. Now he made himself hard to dislike among most of his new comrades with gentle joshing and clever wordplays.
He discovered that Clay genuinely did like two of the other boys at least--Mace and Talbert, both of whom came from plantations bordering the Mosby estate, Hatton Willows. Mace and Tal had been the first to laugh at Robert's joking and the first to include him in their activities even when Clay wasn't around, so Robert liked them, too. He had thought Billy was Clay's best friend, but that seemed to be mostly just in Billy's mind, or maybe he used to be Clay's best friend until Robert came along. Whatever their relationship in the past, Robert could see Clay was wary of him now. This was one topic, though, that Clay would not discuss when they were in private.
Despite the growing bond between them, Clay didn't protect him all the time, and Robert knew his strength was being tested. Clay wanted to know if he had chosen correctly, so sometimes he merely watched when Robert received rough treatment from the others, most especially Billy, to see if he could stand up to them, to see if he had the blood of a true warrior in him. That was very important to Clay. Alexander and Hephaistion were warriors first and foremost, and Clay modeled himself on his hero.
Robert found Clay's obsession somewhat annoying at first. His new leader had read extensively on the subject and sought parallels between himself and the great Macedonian conqueror. Alexander had his Oracle at Delphi foretelling future greatness, Clay received ideas while meditating before his Oracle of the Stream; Alexander had his faithful Companions made up of the sons of kings and noblemen, Clay's companions were drawn from the sons of Virginia's aristocracy; and finally, Alexander had his right-hand man Hephaistion, so Clay chose Robert to be his right-hand man. He didn't have his own true Bucephalus yet, a war horse worthy of that name, but he was sure that would be next on his list of acquisitions.
Clay even looked like Alexander, if the drawings in the books could be trusted. Both had manes of short, curly hair framing their faces, only Alexander's was golden while Clay's was the color of bittersweet chocolate. Clay's eyes were golden, though, a golden brown, and Robert often thought he could see more of his future looking into their depths than into that pool Clay set so much store by.
After joining Clay's companions, he began to understand, at least in part, why Clay had chosen him as right-hand man instead of one of the others. All the boys Clay associated with were heirs to their own kingdoms, little Alexanders in their own right. They followed Clay readily now, but they were his peers and would hardly consent to obey his dictates later, when they ruled their own plantations. Robert, on the other hand, owned no such distractions, nor would he ever. He was free to follow Clay to the ends of the earth if Clay commanded it, and he thought he might be willing, too.
The only problem was, Robert didn't want to be Hephaistion. He wanted to be himself and he finally had to make that clear to Clay in no uncertain terms. It was the first time he opposed Clay's formidable will and he risked losing everything--his new social position, his sense of importance, even his friendship with Clay himself--but enough was enough.
They had gone to the pool again even though winter was fully upon them--Clay was in one of his Alexander moods and wanted to commune with the gods. Which gods these were, Robert never really knew and he suspected Clay didn't either, but they both felt the presence of something sacred there.
"Clay," he began, half a start to further statements, half a question.
Clay heard the question. "What?"
"I don't want to be Hephaistion." There. It was out.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I don't want to be Hephaistion. You're always telling me we're like Alexander and Hephaistion, but I don't want to be someone else. I want to be myself."
Clay looked with full focus at him now, his eyes narrowed and dark like a churning sea. He was getting more ideas in his head, Robert could tell, but what kind of ideas? Sometimes Clay's depths were as clear as glass, but at the moment they were unfathomable.
"Hephaistion was a great man and a loyal friend," Clay said sharply, as if Robert had just said he didn't want to be great or loyal.
"I know that, but I want to be your friend as myself," Robert insisted, determined to make his point. "If I'm not good enough for you just as I am, then you better find yourself another right-hand man, but I'm not going to be Hephaistion anymore. I'm Robert Shelby and that's all."
Clay chewed on this for a moment and then suddenly relaxed. "All right," he said with a small smile.
"All right, what?" Robert felt his stomach drop. Was this it, then? Would Clay leave him the way everyone else in his life seemed to?
"You can be yourself."
Relief filled him. "Thanks, Clay," he said. It made no sense to thank his friend for such a thing, but that was the way it was with Clay. He seemed to have the power to make all things right--or wrong.
"That was good, Robert," Clay said in praise. "Hephaistion always spoke his mind to Alexander, too. He was the only one who could." He went back to contemplating the ice-edged pool and the grand ideas it gave him, still smiling.
Robert sighed in resignation. There was no way around it--he would have to be Hephaistion whether he liked it or not.
[Continued in YOUNG ROBERT & CLAY: Brothers, Part 1]
Colleen J. MacLennan