CHOICES

"I can't believe Robert's getting married," Clay snorted as he helped Amanda into the stagecoach.

Amanda smiled as he followed her inside. "Never underestimate a woman's determination," she advised. "I think Elizabeth had her eyes set on Robert from the very beginning."

"Oh, I don't doubt that," Clay agreed ironically. "I just wasn't aware that marriage was part of her agenda." He smiled to himself as Amanda tossed him an angry glare then turned her head to look out the window. "Don't get ruffled," he relented. "It's a long way to Denver. We might as well be pleasant to one another." When Amanda didn't look at him, he grinned. "After all, we're part of the wedding party."

"That depends on whether or not you survive the trip," Amanda snapped.

Clay chuckled then held open the door as Caroline and Austin approached. "How fortunate that I'll be havin' such lovely and pleasant company to Denver," he said as Caroline settled in the seat next to Amanda. He wasn't sure if Austin's scowl was because of his comment or because he suddenly realized he would be sitting next to Clay.

"Thank you, Mr. Mosby," Caroline smiled pleasantly.

"Please, call me Clay," he requested seeing Amanda's eyes now twinkling as well.

Austin closed the door to the stagecoach with a loud thump. He glanced out and saw his father running towards the stage. He mentally shook his head as he saw Mandy firmly ensconced in Josiah's arms.

"I was afraid I'd miss you," Josiah panted. He patted Caroline's arm. "I hope you have a good trip," he told her.

"I'm sure we will," Caroline smiled.

Josiah turned to Austin. He started to say something then slowly shook his head. "Could you bring back some of the newspapers from Denver?" he finally asked. "I'd like to see some of them."

"Of course, Father," Austin nodded slowly. When his father didn't say anything else, he frowned. "Was that all?"

"Oh...just have a pleasant trip," Josiah stammered as he backed away. "Both of you."

"Father, are you all right?" Austin prodded noticing how his father was panting.

"Of course, I am," Josiah smiled. "I've just been running all morning, that's all." He moved away as the stage began moving. "Good-bye."

Austin glanced out the window at his father as Caroline waved. "I think maybe he's allergic to that cat," he finally decided looking at Mosby accusingly.

Clay raised his eyebrows. "I didn't give her to Josiah," he protested humorously. "Amanda did."

Austin glared at Amanda who shrugged. "Josiah likes her," she defended herself. "Besides, you didn't want her, Clay."

"Never did like cats," Clay grinned at her. "Never liked sharp claws."

Caroline looked at both of them in slight confusion. She saw Austin's frown and spoke up. "I'm sure Dr. Cleese could tell if Mr. Peale's allergic to Mandy," she smiled at Austin.

"I suppose," Austin nodded. "I'll ask him."

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In a way, Luther hated it when Mosby left town. That meant more trouble at the Ambrosia Club. Not that he ever turned down a good fight; but without Mosby's commanding presence, a lot more trouble developed there than usual.

Besides, he grunted to himself, he'd lost the coin toss with Call over who was to stay at the Ambrosia to keep as much trouble as possible from breaking out. It hadn't helped Luther's temper any to see Call escorting Mattie to the Dove for dinner. He could have sworn he saw Call smirk in the direction of the Ambrosia although he knew there was no way Call could have seen him through the dimly lit window.

Luther was surprised to see Josiah come in a little later. As usual, Mandy was in his arms. Josiah nodded absently to Luther as he made his way to the bar. Zeke, acting as bartender in Mosby's absence, grinned and tried to pat Mandy. The cat, temperamental as usual, hissed in his direction. When Zeke drew back, Josiah told him something. Zeke nodded and went into the back. He quickly returned with a saucer of milk. When he placed it in front of Mandy, she looked at him snootily then began lapping at the milk. Zeke just shook his head and poured Josiah a drink.

Luther kept an eye on Josiah throughout the evening. He nursed the one drink casually talking with Zeke and some other people. Luther's attention was gradually drawn towards a poker game in the corner. As the evening wore on, tempers became shorter. Luther finally walked over and put his hand on Jeff Rider's shoulder.

"C'mon, Jeff, call it a night," he urged.

"Man's cheatin' me, Luther!" Jeff snarled. "You gonna let him get away with it?"

"Didn't see no cheatin'," Luther answered pulling Jeff to his feet. "You're a lousy poker player anyways. Now get on home ‘fore you lose everything." He shoved Jeff towards the door and turned back to the table. He glared at the others. "Rest of you git, too. Game's over."

"Reckon the game's over when we say it's over," a well-dressed man spoke up. "He was the one causing the trouble."

Luther frowned. The man had gotten off the stage that morning. From his dress, Luther figured he was some fancy-pants'd gambler...just the sort Mosby would attract to the Ambrosia. "You ain't from ‘round here so let me tell you agin," he leaned over the table and stared at the man. "Game's over now," he repeated firmly.

The other men scooted away from the table. They recognized the tone in Luther's voice. The man saw their actions and leaned back in his chair. He smiled and nodded. "As you say..." he glanced at Luther's chest. "Deputy." He nodded pleasantly, picked up his money, and left.

Luther walked over to the bar and motioned to Zeke. "Who's he?" he asked bluntly.

Zeke shrugged. "Called himself Peter Franklin," he said. "Didn't say nothin' ‘bout havin' any business here with Mr. Mosby or anythin'."

Luther nodded. "Keep an eye on him," he suggested. "He's gonna cause trouble." He glanced at Josiah. "You doin' okay, Josiah?" he asked.

"Oh...yes," Josiah nodded. "Just trying to sort some things out in my mind, Luther." He reached out and took Mandy in his arms. "Guess I'll be going, too."

Luther watched him as he left and shook his head. He stood at the door and watched to make sure Josiah got to the Statesman. When the door closed behind him, Luther stepped back into the Ambrosia just in time to see a bottle being thrown across the room. ‘Bout time, Luther told himself as he waded into the brawl.

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"Nice shiner," Call absently remarked the next morning as he and Luther walked towards the Dove.

Luther gingerly touched his left eye. "Lucky punch," he snorted. "Ain't nothin'." He scowled as he saw Franklin step out of the Dove.

Call saw Luther's scowl and eyed the man. "He give you problems last night?"

"Didn't nobody give me problems last night," Luther snapped. His head was hurting and he wasn't in the mood for Call's attitude.

Call glanced at Luther and grunted. "Who is he?" he asked.

"Some fancy gambler," Luther growled. "Almost broke Jeff Rider."

"Rider can't play poker," Call pointed out. "Mosby usually cleans him out." He eyed Franklin closely however as he and Luther entered the Dove.

"What happened to you?" Mattie asked as saw Luther come in.

"Aw, nothin', Mattie," Luther grimaced.

"You might ask the three fellas he threw in the jail ‘bout that," Call said as he walked past them.

Mattie glanced at Call then at Luther. " Has Cleese take a look at your eye?" she asked.

"Ain't nothin'," Luther shook his head. "Just a black eye, that's all."

The door opened and Cleese ran in. "Luther, thank God!" he saw Call in the dining room. "Call, you better come, too!"

"What is it?" Call asked irritably as he walked towards the door. He saw Luther starting out the door.

Luther walked into the street where Jeff Rider stood trying to point a gun at Franklin. Josiah, with Mandy in one arm, was in front of Rider blocking his aim. "Now, Jeff, you don't want to do this," he was saying. "I'm sure we can work this all out."

"Stay out of this, Peale!" Rider's gun wavered. "You too, Luther! He cheated me and I'm gonna get my money back."

Franklin casually glanced over at Luther then at Call who joined him. "You were there, Deputy," he pointed out. "There was no cheating involved. He's just a bad gambler." "Stay away!" Rider swung his free arm at Josiah.

Mandy hissed and jumped from Josiah's arm. She landed on Rider's shoulder sinking her claws into his neck.

Rider howled reaching up to pull Mandy off him. His gun pointed in all different directions as he swung around trying to dislodge Mandy. People on the sidewalks immediately ducked for cover as a shot rang out. Josiah slowly turned his head to see Franklin lowering his gun. Call's gun appeared in his hand pointed at Franklin. Luther ran to kneel beside Rider. He looked over his shoulder at Call and shook his head.

"Drop the gun," Call ordered.

"He drew on me," Franklin pointed out. He kept his gun lowered away from Call. "Threatened to kill me."

"He wasn't aimin' at you," Call shook his head. "Said for you to drop it."

Franklin glanced from Call to Luther who slowly stood.

"Don't be a fool," Call warned. "You can't win."

Franklin smiled. It was a ghostly smile. "I suppose you're right," he agreed just before raising the gun towards Call.

Call quickly fired two shots both landing in Franklin's chest. The gambler slowly crumpled to the street. Call slowly lowered his gun and stepped forward taking a deep breath. He stood over Franklin and stared down at him. "Why'd you do it?" he mumbled. "Dammit."

Slowly Cleese walked past Call and knelt by Franklin. After a moment, he stood. "I'm afraid he's..." he began.

"Josiah!" Mattie screamed as she ran past them. Call glowered as he watched Josiah gasp for air. Cleese murmured to Josiah as he took his pulse. Then he turned to the others. "Get him to my office...now," he ordered urgently.

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Call glared at Mandy. The cat prowled Ephraim's outer office despite Mattie's attempts to hold her. Luther had tried to put her outside only to have Mandy sink her fangs deep into his hand. After that, he left her alone.

"I'm gonna get rid of that cat!" Call finally snapped taking a few steps towards her.

Mandy immediately jumped on Cleese's desk and arched her back. She hissed warningly at Call who automatically stopped.

"Leave her alone, Call," Mattie urged. "She's Josiah's pet....she's just upset."

Call snorted but retreated.

Mandy slowly relaxed but kept watching Call.

Finally, the door opened and Ephraim stepped outside leaving the door half-open. "He's had a heart attack," he told them with a sigh.

"Is he gonna die?" Luther asked after a moment's silence.

"Luther," Mattie groaned giving him an angry look. Luther gave her a helpless look back.

"Is he?" Call snapped ignoring the glare from Mattie.

"I hope not," Ephraim straightened his shoulders. "He needs to be kept quiet. Hopefully the damage is minimal. I just can't tell right now." He hesitated. "But he wants to see you, Call."

"Why?" Call's shoulders hunched. "You just said he needs to be kept quiet."

"Because he....just go see him," Ephraim finally snapped back. "He'll rest better if you do." He glanced at Mandy sitting on his desk. "Here, take the cat in with you."

"You take her in," Call said brusquely pushing past the doctor. The doctor sighed and walked over to the desk. Mandy immediately jumped down and ran through the half-open door almost causing Call to trip over her.

"Damn cat," Call muttered watching as Mandy jumped on the bed and curled by Josiah's side. The cat watched him almost warningly.

Josiah's eyes flickered open. "Mandy," he murmured reaching out to pat her arched back. He slowly turned his head and saw Call standing stiffly by the bed. "Newt, can you make sure the Statesman is closed up? I don't think I'll be working for a little while."

"Sure," Call nodded. "Me and Luther'll keep an eye on it. Don't fret ‘bout it." He stood there awkwardly. "I'll wire Austin in Miles City."

"No," Josiah shook his head. "Let them enjoy their trip." He took a deep breath. "It's not as though he can do anything."

Call hesitated then slowly shook his head. "Can't do that, Josiah," he reasoned. "Austin's got a right to know ‘bout this. He'd be sure to get real mad if he wasn't told."

Josiah closed his eyes wearily. "I was afraid you'd say that," he said with faint humor. After a moment, he nodded. "Tell him he doesn't have to return."

After a moment, Call placed a hand on Josiah's shoulder. When he opened his eyes, Call pulled away. "Don't worry ‘bout nothin'," he mumbled before turning to leave.

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Caroline watched as Austin walked towards the telegraph office. The train station at Miles City was bustling forcing her to stand on tip-toe to watch him. Amanda glanced at Clay who shrugged. They had been almost ready to board when Austin had heard his name announced advising he had a telegram.

Clay saw Austin unfold the telegram and turn white. "Come on," he immediately took Caroline and Amanda's arm. Pushing through the crowd, they quickly reached Austin's side.

"Austin, what is it?" Caroline took Austin's arm frightened by the expression on his face.

"It's Father," Austin looked up shock on his face. "I have to get back to Curtis Wells." He didn't move when Caroline took the telegram from him.

Clay immediately signaled a porter. "I'm afraid Mr. Peale will not be making the journey," he smiled handing the man some coins. "Please have his baggage brought here."

The porter nodded as Clay described Austin's bag.

"Mine, too," Caroline quickly added describing her suitcase.

"You have to go to Denver," Austin said faintly.

"Don't be ridiculous, Austin," Caroline chided. "I'm going back home with you." She turned to Amanda. "Please give my apologies to Elizabeth and Robert."

Austin ran his hands through his dark hair and sat down. Caroline sat down next to him. Clay and Amanda looked over her shoulder and read the telegram.

JOSIAH HAD HEART ATTACK. STOP. CLEESE SAYS OK RIGHT NOW. STOP. JOSIAH SAYS TO GO ON. STOP. BEST RETURN. STOP. CALL

Clay heard Amanda catch her breath as he slowly took the telegram from Caroline. He carefully folded it and put in his pocket.

"Austin," he said quietly. When Austin didn't look up, he said cleared his throat. "Austin," he said more firmly.

Austin glanced up a little startled.

"Is there anything Amanda and I can do?" he asked.

"No," Austin immediately shook his head. He stood up as the porter brought their luggage. "Nothing." He automatically reached for the luggage.

"Tell Elizabeth I'll send her wedding present to her," Caroline whispered to Amanda.

Amanda nodded. "Josiah will be fine," she said firmly. "I know he will."

Caroline nodded murmuring her thanks to Clay as she followed Austin towards the door.

"Clay, there's not a stage back to Curtis Well until tomorrow," Amanda muttered.

"I know," Clay frowned.

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Austin sank down on the bed. He couldn't believe it would be tomorrow before they could start back to Curtis Wells. Even then, it would take the better part of two days to get back. He'd sent a telegram to Call for more information. It was just like him not to tell more than he wanted to, Austin grunted.

Caroline looked around the room they'd rented at the Miles City Hotel. She saw Austin's expression and knelt in front of him. "Austin, you can get a horse and start back now if you want," she murmured. "I'll take the stage."

Austin automatically shook his head. "I can't leave you here," he said lowering his head into his hands. "Besides, Call's gonna wire me back."

"Austin...go," Caroline urged. "I will be fine. I promise."

"I shouldn't have left," Austin moaned. "I knew something was wrong with him. He hasn't been himself for weeks." He felt Caroline's hands in his hair. "I shouldn't have left him alone."

PART 2