"I swear to God, Newt Call, if you don't get Austin off my back, I'm going to kill him!" Amanda Carpenter's eyes flashed as she backed Call against front of the Lonesome Dove.
Call's arms spread to either side as he ducked his head. He edged to the left as he tried to escape. "Don't know what..." he began.
"I don't want to hear it, Call!" Amanda cut off Call's line of retreat. "I mean it! And he won't die easily, either!"
Call gave up trying to escape and looked at Amanda curiously. "What do you figure on doin' to him?" he asked.
"Never mind!" Amanda snapped. "Just find him something to do and get him away from me!" She turned on her heel and walked away.
Call shook his head. If it wasn't one thing, he mused, it was another.
Austin Peale looked up as Amanda stormed into the offices of the Montana Statesman. "What are you doing here?" he snarled.
"I work here!" Amanda retorted.
"Not any longer," Austin smirked. "Your services are no longer needed. I've told you that."
"Are you going back into the newspaper business, Austin?" Amanda asked curiously widening her eyes in disbelief.
"Get out," Austin ordered tightly.
"Fine," Amanda nodded. "I didn't want to do this but I'll ask Josiah about my status. He's the one who hired me."
Austin grabbed her arm. "You stay away from my father!" he demanded. "I'm not going to tell you again!"
"Let go of me!" Amanda shouted as she tried to pull away.
"My, my, what a spectacle." Clay Mosby slowly closed the door behind him.
Both Amanda and Austin looked over their shoulders in surprise.
"What do you want?" Austin demanded as he released Amanda.
"Just watchin' the performance," Mosby leaned against the door. "You did realize, of course, that you could be heard outside."
Amanda and Austin exchanged glances.
"Thank you for your concern, Clay," Amanda smiled coldly.
"Oh, it's not for either of you," Mosby grinned. "The both of you could kill each other for all I care. But it would put a black eye on the face of Curtis Wells."
Mosby tipped his hat in their direction and closed the door behind him. Amanda and Austin exchanged angry looks as they heard Mosby laughing.
"He's the enemy, Austin," Amanda pointed out.
"He's not the only one," Austin replied coldly.
Two days later, Josiah returned to the office of the Statesman. He held the latest edition in one hand.
"Father!" Austin stood abruptly. "You're not supposed to be up yet."
"Nonsense," Josiah nevertheless sat down heavily. "I'm going crazy just sitting around at the Dove." He smiled suddenly at his son. "However, that shouldn't prevent you from visiting Miss Hall."
Austin flushed angrily as he noticed Amanda listening in.
"Is that the next edition?" Josiah asked standing up again.
"Sit down, Josiah," Amanda admonished. Ignoring Austin's furious look, she brought drafts over to him.
"You've done excellent work," Josiah complimented her. "Your writing has improved, you know."
"You think so?" Amanda smiled in relief. "I wasn't sure."
Josiah began to read the drafts in his hand. "Of course," he continued. "You have a natural talent. It just needs to be polished. The last couple of editions of the Statesman have been up the expected excellent quality."
Austin absently raised a hand to his chest and clenched his fist. He felt a sharp stab of pain as he saw Amanda standing next to Josiah the way Hannah used to do. The way they talked without him.... Austin suddenly walked to the coat rack and grabbed his hat. "You seem well enough to return, Father," he said coldly. "I have important work to get back to." He slammed the door so quickly behind him that Josiah barely had time to look up before Austin was gone.
"What?" he looked at Amanda in some confusion. "I did something wrong with Austin, didn't I?"
Amanda hesitated her initial instinct to make Austin look bad. But she felt her heart soften at the expression in Josiah's eyes. "Maybe you should have praised him, too," Amanda suggested.
"But Austin is much better at this than you, Amanda," Josiah protested. "He's had more experience. I expected nothing less than what he produced. You've made such improvement that I felt you should know about it."
"Austin sees me as an interloper," Amanda said gently. "He doesn't think I should be trusted." She hesitated then continued. "You should have praised him as well."
Josiah shook his head in bewilderment. "He should understand," he said heavily. "He should understand."
"Unbob!" Luther Root looked around the undertaker's shop. "Unbob!"
Unbob glanced in from the bad door. "Luther!" his face broke into a wide smile.
"Got a surprise, Unbob," Luther's grin matched Unbob's. "But ya gotta keep it quiet."
"I'll try to," Unbob promised.
"Mattie's coming back," Luther waved pieces of paper between them. "Got a letter today."
"Miss Mattie! Back!" Unbob shouted happily. "Oh, I got to get workin' to clean out the shop!"
"She wants it to be a surprise," Luther cautioned. "That means you can't tell anybody. Especially Call."
"But what if he asks why I'm cleanin' the shop?" Unbob's face crumpled. "I can't lie ‘bout it."
"Just tell him you're cleanin' it ‘cause it's dirty," Luther suggested. "Just tell everybody that."
"Yeah," Unbob's head shook up and down quickly. "It is dirty," he admitted. He grinned happily. "Miss Mattie's comin' back!"
"You must be slippin', Robert," Mosby teased his friend as he poured a drink and set it on the bar.
Robert Shelby gave Mosby a sharp look. "There's time," he pointed out. "Terence is impressed with me and my abilities. That's more than half the battle."
Mosby grinned. "I wouldn't dismiss Caroline's part of the decision on whether to marry you or not," he warned. "Seems the lady is more interested in Austin Peale. My God, of all people! I could understand it if she were interested in me! But Austin!"
Shelby slammed his glass on the bar. "Are you tryin' to provoke me, Clay?" he demanded.
"Not at all, Robert," Mosby grinned. "Now why would I do that?"
Robert studied his friend. "Why would you?" he mused. He stood erect. "You've got somethin' you want to do and you're tryin' to provoke me into doin' it with you."
"Robert!" Mosby feigned astonishment. "I can't believe you said that!"
Robert merely continued to look at Mosby until Mosby gave in. "Come with me," he suggested.
Robert followed Mosby upstairs to his room. He waited patiently as Mosby opened the closet and shoved boxes back and forth. Finally, he pulled a long box from the closet and laid it on the bed.
"I had the rather good fortune to obtain these a couple of years ago," Mosby explained. "I was doin' some negotiatin' over some minin' rights in Miles City. I saw these being offered for sale." He opened the box and glanced at Robert. He grinned as Robert's eyes widened and heard him slowly exhale.
In the box lay two gleaming sabers. Carefully, almost fearfully, Robert reached out and closed his hand around the hilt of one saber. He slowly lifted it from the box never taking his eyes from the blade. He slowly turned his wrist watching as the metal caught the sunlight, bending it, flashing it against the walls of the room.
"My God, Clay," he said quietly. "Where..." He closed his eyes remembering the last time he'd held a saber...just before a Yankee officer had taken it away from him. He opened his eyes and stared at the hilt. It didn't have his initials elaborately carved on it, but the balance was perfect.
"I know," Clay said equally quiet. He reached into the box and held the other saber. "It's not the one that my father received from his father that was taken from me, but it's excellent workmanship." He glanced at Robert. "N'Arleans made, I'd guess."
Robert shakily lowered the saber. "Why, Clay?" he asked.
Mosby shrugged a little embarrassed. "It's a part of us," he tried to explain. Then he grinned. "You know I never try to explain what I do, Robert. It's enough that I do it...and that I do it better than anyone else.."
Robert grinned. "So I remember," he agreed. Reluctantly, he started to replace the saber in the box.
Mosby slid his saber under Robert's and raised them back up to cross the blades between them. "Just how much do you remember, Robert?" he grinned.
"This is insane, Clay," Robert shook his head as he followed Mosby out behind the Ambrosia Club. "You realize that, don't you?"
"And if it is?" Clay looked over his shoulder with a shrug.
Robert grinned. "Is there a town ordinance against duelling?" he teased.
"Must have slipped my mind when I wrote them," Mosby acknowledged.
The two stood facing one another silently for a moment. Slowly each man brought up his saber in a salute then stepped back. Carefully, they circled one another watching for an opening, remembering the other's style of using a saber.
Suddenly, Robert raised his saber and feigned a thrust. Mosby recognized the feint and tried to slide his saber under Robert's guard.
The sabers clashed metal against metal as both men used their strength to force the other back. Locked together they struggled for an opening. Robert moved to his left twisting slightly. His saber slid the length of Mosby's blade. Mosby jumped back quickly to prevent being cut. He grinned and gallantly bowed in Robert's direction. Robert laughed and twirled his saber in acknowledgment.
"You do understand, Caroline, that Robert Shelby is on his way to becoming not only an influential man, but most probably a rich one as well," Randall Terence advised his niece as they walked along the sidewalk.
Caroline Hall nodded her blonde curls gently sweeping her cheek. "Is that so important, Uncle?" she asked quietly.
"You're not a fool, Caroline," Terence remonstrated. "You know it is."
"But it's not all that's important. Is it?" Caroline looked up at her tall uncle.
"What do you think about Clay Mosby?" Terence ignored the question.
"He seems to be a very nice man," Caroline answered honestly. "A lot like Mr. Shelby."
"He's already an influential man," Terence pointed out.
"Are you trying to get rid of me, Uncle?" Caroline asked half-jokingly.
"Caroline, I'm not getting any younger," Terence argued. "You are my only living relative."
"I don't want to continue this conversation," Caroline said firmly her fingers closing tightly on his arm.
Terence patted her hand. "Alright, alright, Caroline," he said reassuringly. "I'm sorry." He stopped and took her chin between his fingers forcing her to look at him. He smiled teasingly. "Will you tell me what you think about Austin Peale? I understand you're going on a picnic with him tomorrow?"
Before Caroline could answer, they heard the sound of metal violently striking metal. Terence frowned and walked to the end of the sidewalk. "Stay here," he ordered Caroline as he disappeared around the corner. Caroline hesitated then slowly followed. She saw her uncle stop and silently joined him. She grabbed her uncle's arm as she saw Mosby and Robert striking at each other with sabers.
"Quiet!" Terence hissed at Caroline ordered never taking his eyes from the battle. Caroline closed her eyes and buried her face against her uncle's arm. Neither of them saw Amanda watching from the shadows on the other side of the Ambrosia Club.
Circling, dodging, sabers swinging perilously close to their faces, the two men time and again aimed sharp blades at the other man's body. Both Amanda and Terence intently watched the battle's ebb and flow. Both Mosby and Robert were as closely matched as could be possible. Robert's strength offset by Mosby's speed. Despite herself, Amanda could not look away.
Suddenly Robert thrust his saber along Mosby's right arm. Mosby leaned to his left and twisted suddenly bringing his saber along Robert's arm. Both men stopped eyes fixed on each other as their sabers rested close to the other man's throat. Mosby and Robert stared deeply into each other's eyes as they slowly relaxed.
Robert stepped away first nodding silently at Mosby. "That felt good, Clay," he said quietly.
Mosby looked at the saber in his hand remembering all the instructions from fencing masters and even more training from his father. He held the hilt tightly in his fist as though trying to recover those lost memories...memories of a happier time. "Clay," Robert's cautionary voice got his attention. Mosby glanced up to see Robert staring at Terence.
"I have never seen such an exhibition," Terence grinned in admiration. He glanced at Caroline who was still hiding her eyes. "It's over, Caroline. No one's hurt."
Carefully, Caroline looked up and then relaxed.
"My apologies, Miss Hall," Robert offered with a bow. "Clay and I used to practice this way during our youth. We had no intention of hurting one another."
"I understand," Caroline said although she clearly didn't.
"Gentlemen," Terence nodded at them then led his niece away.
Robert turned and reached the saber to Clay who had returned to staring at the saber tightly clenched in his hand.
"Keep it," Clay murmured. "I had you in mind when I bought the second one."
"Clay," Robert hesitated.
"I said keep it," Clay repeated more sternly still not looking at Robert.
Robert briefly touched Clay's arm then walked away.
Amanda waited until Robert was gone then slowly walked from the shadows her eyes fixed on the saber. Clay heard her coming and raised his head. His eyes narrowed as he recognized Amanda but he made no move to leave.
Amanda stopped next to Mosby her eyes still on his saber. She tentatively ran a hand along the blade then up the hilt, her fingers stopping just short of touching Mosby's fingers. Slowly she raised her head to stare into his eyes. Both held their breath as their eyes locked onto one another.
"Damn you, Clay Mosby," Amanda whispered shakily. She turned and quickly walked away.
"Damned indeed," Mosby murmured equally shakily as he watched her go.
"You're heading back to Curtis Wells?"
Mattie turned away from the wagon to face a blonde woman standing behind her. "Enona?" Mattie finally asked hesitantly.
Enona nodded pushing her hat back from her forehead. "Need some company?" she offered. "After all, you're transporting a lot of weapons."
"Sure," Mattie nodded. "I'd feel better."
"I'll get my horse," Enona turned then looked over her shoulder. "I think we have a lot to talk about before we reach Curtis Wells."
Austin Peale didn't know where he was but he was certain he didn't want to leave. He was warm and comfortable and...yes, safe. He luxuriated in the unusual feeling of being protected. How long he stayed there, he didn't know and didn't care. In fact, he was pretty sure he never wanted to leave.
But into Austin's Eden, came a snake...slithering slowly...so slowly that Austin wasn't immediately aware of it's intrusion into his new world. Slowly Austin realized he was getting colder, slowly at first, then faster until he started to shake from the cold. Snow swirled around him...biting icy air cut through his skin. "Tell Call Nash is coming." He heard the taunts over the howl of the wind.
Instinctively, Austin's hand went to his chest...clutching it as he struggled to breathe. He felt someone grab him and he tried to twist away. "No..." he moaned feeling the pain in his chest...pain from being beaten...pain from fighting the cutting icy air...pain from simply trying to breathe. "Not again..." he whimpered.
He felt someone try to grab his arm. This time, he violently shoved his attacker away...and woke up...
Austin woke up to find himself falling backwards onto grass. For a second he lay staring blankly up at he blue Montana sky then rolled to his knees. Hand on his gun, Austin looked around somewhat wildly completely confused.
He saw Caroline sitting beside a picnic blanket staring at him in fear and confusion. Slowly Austin relaxed removing his hand from his gun.
"I'm sorry," he mumbled as he tried to gather his thoughts. He stood weaving slightly and pressed a hand against the side of his head as he leaned against a nearby tree.
"Are you alright?" Caroline asked in concern going to stand next to him.
"Don't, Caroline," Austin said roughly. He winced when he saw her hurt expression. "I'm sorry," he repeated. "I guess I fell asleep."
"You mentioned you were tired," Caroline said softly. "I didn't realize at first you had fallen asleep." She smiled gently. "I hope it wasn't my company. I'm not a very good dinner partner."
"No," Austin shook his head. "I mean yes." He looked exasperated. "It's not you. I was tired." He shook his head again. "It seems I'm tired a lot." He absently rubbed his chest.
"Does it hurt?" Caroline asked gently.
Austin glanced down to his chest and quickly moved his hand. "Not really," he denied. "I guess it's a habit now." He glanced at the sky and frowned at the sun's position. "We should have been back to town by now. Your uncle will be worried."
"He knows I'm with you," Caroline replied. "He knows I'm safe."
Austin laughed harshly as he pushed himself away from the tree. "He's probably the only one in Curtis Wells who'd believe that," he said.
"That's not true," Caroline protested angrily. "I know I'm safe with you. And I'll tell anyone that."
Austin had to grin. Only a few inches over five-foot, Caroline looked right now like she would take on Luther Root in a bare-knuckle fist fight. "Thanks for the support," he said. "But people's opinion of me isn't worth fighting about." He knelt down beside the picnic basket and found some bread and cheese.
"Why not?" Caroline asked quietly as she sat beside him.
Austin looked at her curiously.
"Why isn't it worth fighting about?" Caroline repeated.
"Because you'd lose," Austin said heavily. "If there's one thing I've learned, it's to pick your battles and fight only when you've got a very good chance of winning."
"Isn't there anyone...anything worth fighting for even if you don't know you'll win?" Caroline asked hesitantly.
Austin hesitated not looking at Caroline. Before he could reply, he heard horses approaching. He quickly stood, hand on his gun as he pulled Caroline protectively behind him. As the riders approached, he relaxed.
"Here you are!" Randall Terence called out to niece.
"Hello, Uncle," Caroline greeted stepping out from behind Austin. She took the bridle of his horse and smiled up at him. "There isn't much food left but you're welcome to join us."
Terence shook his head as he saw Austin exchanging angry glances with both Mosby and Shelby behind Caroline's back.
"We were out surveying some land and were on our way back," he explained. "Have you had a good picnic, Caroline?"
"Yes," Caroline turned to the others. "I'm sorry, Mr. Mosby. Mr. Shelby. Please forgive my lack of manners. Good afternoon to you both." As they removed their hats, she turned back to her uncle. "Austin has been a wonderful companion."
Austin glared again as Shelby and Mosby exchanged glances. He was acutely aware of their fashionable clothing as it contrasted with his dusty outfit. They suddenly reminded him of the two fat and sassy cats he remembered his grandmother owning. He grinned as he remembered how he'd retaliate every time they scratched him.
Mosby's eyes narrowed as he saw Austin grin. A little more every day, Mosby was convinced Austin had little more grip on reality than Josiah.
"May we escort you back to Curtis Wells, Miss Hall?," Robert was offering.
"Thank you, Mr. Shelby," Caroline replied politely. "But Austin is my escort today." There was stunned silence from all four men as they stared at Caroline.
"Of course, Caroline," Terence nodded. "However, I would like the opportunity to speak with Mr. Peale privately. I'm sure Mr. Shelby can drive you back to Curtis Wells." He glanced at the buckboard wagon tethered nearby.
"But then how would Austin return to Curtis Wells?" Caroline asked sensibly. "Unless either Mr. Mosby or Mr. Shelby left one of their horses for him to ride?"
Mosby quickly glanced at Robert. His look clearly told his friend he had no intention of allowing Austin anywhere near his horse let alone riding it.
"Of course, Mr. Peale may have the use of my horse," Robert said gallantly as he dismounted reaching the reins to Terence.
Austin knelt and started packing the picnic basket.
"Thank you, Mr. Shelby," Caroline said softly as she watched Austin. She stood close to Austin and took his arm as he started towards the wagon with the loaded basket. Austin looked down at her in surprise then smiled to himself as he saw the anger in Shelby's eyes.
He put the basket and blanket in the back of the wagon then turned to help Caroline into the front seat. Shelby quickly joined her as Mosby nudged his horse close to where Austin stood.
"Thank you for a wonderful day, Austin," Caroline squeezed his hand.
"The pleasure was mine, Caroline," Austin grinned as he kissed the back of her hand in mock imitation of Shelby and Mosby's gallantry. His grin widened at Shelby's expression which was quickly masked as Caroline turned to look at her uncle. "Will I see you for dinner, uncle?"
"Absolutely," Terence said as he nodded at Mosby and Shelby.
Austin watched the wagon disappear over the hill towards Curtis Wells. He turned and took the reins from Terence. "What did you want to talk about?" he asked as he mounted.
"Protection for my niece," Terence replied evenly.
"Then you shouldn't be exposing her to the likes of Clay Mosby and Robert Shelby," Austin said coldly staring at Terence.
"Strange," Terence's eyes crinkled at the corners. "That's what they say about you."
Austin flushed. "I can imagine what Mosby says," he muttered. "Shelby only knows what Mosby's told him." He nudged Shelby's horse into a walk. "You must know the type of man Shelby is."
Terence nodded. "I also know that no man is completely innocent," he replied. "Everyone's done something they prefer not to have known to others. We all have skeletons in our closet. Don't we, Mr. Peale?" When Austin remained silent, Terence continued. "I want better for Caroline than she's had. She's known far too much violence in her life. Her parents were butchered in an Apache raid when they lived in the Arizona Territory."
"I know," Austin nodded abruptly. "She told me."
"Really?" Terence looked surprised. "She rarely speaks about it." He stared at Austin closely. "Caroline must think a great deal of you." When Austin refused to look at him, he continued. "I understand you published the Statesman while your father was recuperating. The issues looked very professional. Why don't you continue in that profession? I understand you used to work with your father."
"I don't like the publishing business," Austin answered coldly. "Now more than ever."
"Too bad," Terence studied the landscape in front of them. "Publishing a newspaper has got to be less risky than law enforcement. Even considering what happened to your father."
"I'm not my father," Austin tried to keep his temper under control.
"I know," Terence replied with irony.
Austin shrugged a little embarrassed. "Are you asking about my intentions towards Caroline?" he pushed.
Terence slowly nodded. "Yes, I suppose I am," he admitted with a smile.
"They're a hell of a lot more honorable than Robert Shelby's," Austin said bitingly as he kicked the horse into a gallop.
Terence hesitated for a moment then broke into laughter as he watched Austin ride away.
"Unbob, what are you doing?" Call demanded as he looked down at his boots. He stood in front of the open door of Mattie's former gun shop. Unbob had swept a pile of dirt and mouse droppings out the front door which had landed on Call's boots. Call stomped his boots angrily looking back at Unbob.
"I'm sorry, Call," Unbob gulped. "I didn't see you comin'."
Call looked past Unbob at the newly cleaned shop. Blinking his eyes, he stepped around Unbob and into the shop. Silently he looked around. "What are you doing, Unbob?" he repeated calmly.
"Cleanin'," Unbob replied innocently.
"Did a good job," Call admitted glancing at Unbob from the corner of his eyes. "Why?"
"It was dirty," Unbob answered remembering his promise to Luther. "I gotta finish, Call." He turned to pick up his bucket.
Call turned his head from side to side as though scenting trouble.
Unbob straightened up and glanced out the window. "She's here!" he shouted.
Call turned to see what Unbob was looking at. He caught his breath as Unbob ran out the front door. "Miss Mattie!" he yelled.
"Unbob!" Mattie jumped down from the wagon and hugged him closely. "I'm happy to see you!"
Call slowly walked out onto the sidewalk. He stared at Mattie in stunned silence.
"So Luther was right," Enona said drily as she walked around the back of the wagon. She stared at Call's chest. "You are sportin' a badge."
Call blinked at yet another surprise. "Enona?" he asked. He turned his head to look at Mattie. "Mattie?"
He saw Enona stand beside Mattie. Both women studied him intently from nearly identical blue eyes as the sun shone on both of their blonde heads.
Call felt a cold shudder run up his spine. This was trouble...real trouble.
It seemed that everyone in Curtis Wells stopped by to welcome Mattie home. Luther and Unbob carried in boxes from the wagon and started unpacking them before Mattie could stop them. Enona saw Call scowling from outside the shop as Mosby hugged Mattie and welcomed her home. As Josiah and Amanda stepped inside, Enona walked outside and leaned against the railing.
"Don't look like you're too happy," Enona remarked. "Thought you would have been glad to see Mattie back."
"Why you figure that?" Call scowled as he kicked his boot against the sidewalk.
"You're the reason she came back," Enona said quietly.
Call gave her a sudden shocked look then quickly glanced away.
"Mattie tell you that?" he demanded after a moment.
Enona studied Call closely. "Why don't you ask her?" she prodded. When Call didn't answer, Enona walked back inside Mattie's shop and closed the door.
Call turned his head and glanced through the window. Everyone was talking with Mattie, hugging her, welcoming her back. Angrily, Call stomped away.
Finally, Mattie got everyone out of the shop. Unbob promised to return the next day to finish cleaning. Luther hung around offering to open the boxes for her. Mattie sighed in relief when she finally shut the door behind them.
"Quite a homecoming," Enona said from behind her.
Mattie jumped and spun around. "I wish you wouldn't do that!" she demanded.
Enona smiled. "Force of habit," she remarked.
Mattie ran her hand through her blonde hair. "I suppose it was a nice homecoming," she answered.
"Been nicer if Call had been part of it?" Enona asked.
Mattie gave her a sharp look. Enona ignored it as she walked slowly towards the door. "Call's got a wild streak in him, Mattie," she said carefully. "Probably always has. Probably always will. If you want him, you'll have to take that streak as well."
"People change," Mattie argued. "A year ago, Call wouldn't have been sheriff."
"Couple of years ago, he was deputy," Enona reminded her. "You can't ignore what a man is." She gave Mattie a searching look then gently closed the door behind her.
Mattie stared for a long time at the door then shrugged her shoulders. She began opening boxes and placing guns in the display case. She looked up as she heard the door open.
Call stood hesitantly in the doorway. He took a deep breath and closed it behind him. "Why'd you come back, Mattie?" he asked roughly.
"I thought I knew why," Mattie said softly as she stood. She clenched the edge of the display top. "Why didn't you stay with the others?"
Call jerked slightly turning his head way. He glanced at Mattie from the corner of his eyes. "Didn't see no reason to make a fuss with others ‘bout," he mumbled.
"There's nobody else here now," Mattie said softly. She slowly walked around the display case towards Call. Call raised his head to stare at her. He instinctively stepped back as she came closer then stopped. Mattie smiled sadly at the expression in his eyes.
Call saw that expression and whirled around opening the door. Then he stopped and looked back at Mattie. "Wouldn't work, Mattie," he said quietly. "I got nothin' left in me."
"You got a lot left in you, Call," Mattie argued quietly but not moving towards him. "You once told me I was afraid of your nature. Maybe I was then. But I'm not afraid now." She put her hands on her hips. "But I think you might be afraid of my nature," she teased.
"Probably right," Call couldn't help but grin at her.
Mattie studied him for a moment then walked back to the display case. "I think Enona was right," she said idly.
Call stopped in the doorway and looked over his shoulder. "Right ‘bout what?" he demanded.
Mattie looked up innocently. "Oh, nothin', Call," she smiled widely. "We just had time on the trip to indulge in some...I guess you'd call it girl talk."
Call scowled as he slammed the door behind him. He felt a familiar coldness run up his spine again and shivered. He decided he needed to talk with Enona.
Call found Enona at the Ambrosia Club standing at the bar slowly drinking whiskey. Mosby, lounging against the end of the bar observing a poker game, glanced over his shoulder at Call's entrance then returned his attention to the game. Call leaned his back against the bar and glanced over at Enona.
"Stayin' long?" he asked quickly returning his eyes to the room.
"Why?" Enona's cool voice was even. "Bounty hunters not welcome since you started wearing a badge?"
Call grimaced. "Just wantin' to know," he answered.
Enona shrugged and turned her blue eyes towards him. "Maybe I am," Enona studied him for a minute. "I'm not looking for anyone' bounty at the moment, if that's what you mean."
"Then your visit should be...peaceable," Call grinned. "Nice and quiet. No stirrin' anythin' up."
Enona turned and leaned against the bar to stare at him. "Peaceable...nice and quiet...somehow those words just don't bring you to mind, Call," she said lightly.
"I try to be a peaceable man," Call protested mildly. "Just some folks won't let me." His eyes rested briefly on Mosby before he turned his eyes back to survey the room.
"I see," Enona nodded ironically as she turned back to the bar.
When she didn't say anything more, Call glanced back at her. "Nice of you to ride shotgun for Mattie," he commented.
"Yes, it was," Enona nodded motioning to the bartender for a refill.
"You two gettin' to be friendly, I suppose," Call said neutrally.
"I suppose," Enona shrugged. She turned to Call. "Is that a problem?"
"Why would it be?" Call shrugged. "You and Mattie probably got a lot in common."
"More than you might guess," Enona murmurred as she sipped her drink. She saw Call's eyes narrow and smiled to herself. "Are you asking these questions in your professional capacity?" Enona carefully enunciated the words.
"Nope," Call shook his head. "Just...friendly like." When Enona merely nodded, Call grunted and left the bar.
Enona's eyes twinkled as she watched him leave. She was aware of Mosby leaning across the bar.
"Sheriff Call seems a little out of sorts this evenin'," Mosby grinned as he refilled her glass. "On the house."
Enona slowly emptied the glass. "I figure one of these days one of you will kill the other," she said idly. She raised her eyes to meet Mosby's. "Wonder who's gonna win?"
"Why, the one left standin', of course," Mosby smiled.
Austin Peale watched with narrowed eyes as Robert Shelby patted Caroline Hall's hand as he walked her down the main street. Shelby held her arm as though she belonged to him. Austin didn't realize he was grinding his teeth until Luther spoke.
"Somethin' wrong, Austin?" Luther peered over Austin's shoulder.
"Nothing a good lynching wouldn't cure," Austin muttered. He gave Luther an angry look and stomped off.
Luther glanced down the street at the retreating forms of Caroline and Robert. He shook his head then entered Mattie's shop.
"Hi, Luther," Mattie greeted him with a smile.
Luther looked around. "Things look just fine, Mattie," he complimented. "Looks real good to see you back in here."
Mattie leaned across the display case. "Luther, thank you for sending me those issues of the Statesman." When Luther flushed, Mattie smiled. "I know it was you. Nobody else would have sent them to me."
"Aw, somebody would have," Luther studied the toe of his boot. "Josiah woulda done it."
"But you're the one who did do it," Mattie pointed out. "You're a good friend, Luther."
"Uh, Mattie," Luther took a deep breath. "There's gonna be this dance tomorrow night. Mosby's throwing this big party for this railroad fella and I was wonderin'..." he peeked up at Mattie and gulped. "I guess you wouldn't want to be goin'...with...well, I mean, if ya was to go, I'd be right pleased to take ya."
Mattie's eyes widened. "Luther," she smiled after a moment. "Thank you. But I'm really not a very good dancer."
"Neither am I," Luther grinned. "C'mon, Mattie, it'll be fun." After a moment, he leaned across the counter. "Somebody else already asked ya?" he asked seriously. "I mean, if Call's already asked..."
"He hasn't," Mattie averted his eyes for a moment. "And he won't."
"Maybe he just needs the right...push," Luther forced a grin.
"Don't you dare!" Mattie warned as she looked up at him. "Oh, Luther..." she smiled at his expression.
"Look, Mattie, you come to that dance with me," Luther urged. "I'll get Call to show up."
Mattie thought for a moment then put her hand on Luther's arm. "Luther, I'd be happy to go to that dance with you," she smiled. "Never mind about Call."
"Good afternoon, Caroline," Randall Terence greeted his niece. "Robert." He nodded in Shelby's direction. "You're getting around quite a bit, Caroline. I hope you'll rest tomorrow for the dance."
"I'm not sure I'll attend, Uncle," Caroline replied demurely as she sat by her uncle in the dining room of the Dove.
"I've been trying to convince Miss Caroline to attend," Robert said in mock ruefulness. "But so far I've been unsuccessful."
Terence frowned slightly. "Are you ill, Caroline?" he asked in concern.
"No, Uncle," Caroline reassured her uncle. "I just..."
"Excuse me," Austin interrupted softly. "May I speak with you, Caroline?"
Terence saw how Caroline's eyes lightened when she saw Austin. He also saw Shelby's angry look directed at Austin.
"Is there something amiss, Deputy?" Shelby half-sneered Austin's title.
Austin glanced at Shelby then coolly dismissed him. Terence hid a smile behind his hand as he stroked his mustache.
"Yes, Austin?" Caroline said softly. When she saw his hesitation, she smiled. "You can speak in front of my uncle and Mr. Shelby."
"I would consider it an honor if you would allow me to escort you to dance tomorrow evening," Austin formally requested.
"I hadn't considered attending," Caroline gave Robert a gentle look. "But...yes, Austin, I accept your invitation."
Austin took Caroline's hand and bowed over it. He nodded at Terence and ignored a steaming Robert Shelby. "Until tomorrow evening, Caroline," he promised.
"I apologize, Mr. Shelby," Caroline flushed as Austin left. "Please don't think I meant to insult you."
"Of course not," Robert regained his temper and forced a smile. "However, I must insist on claiming some of your dances."
"Of course," Caroline nodded in relief. "If you'll both excuse me..."
Terence and Robert both stood as Caroline left. As they sat back down, Terence lit a cigar. "I never mix business with pleasure, Robert," he idly commented. "No sensible man does."
"I'll remember that," Robert replied politely. "However, I think you should know that Austin Peale, until very recently, was little more than the town drunkard."
"So I've heard," Terence nodded. "He's made an amazing recovery, hasn't he?"
Austin glanced through the window of the Dove and grinned. Shelby and Mosby might think that no one born north of the Mason-Dixon line was entitled to call himself a gentleman or act with manners, but he intended to show them both what a well-bred Yankee could do.
"You may be an excellent poker player, Clay," Robert Shelby said early the next morning. "But before I leave Curtis Wells, I will beat you with this." He raised the saber slightly.
"I am an excellent poker player," Clay Mosby replied seriously. "And you shall not defeat me." He grinned suddenly breaking the serious mood.
Robert looked exasperated. "You never did have a sense of propriety, Clay," he pointed out.
"Well," Mosby raised his saber. "Hardly ever." He studied his friend closely and goaded. "Besides, this is just what you need to get all those aggressive feelin's ‘bout Austin out of your blood before tonight."
Steel suddenly crossed steel and caught the early morning light. The shrill sound of metal sliding across metal echoed in their ears. To others it might have seemed as though the two men were focused on slicing the other to ribbons. Time and again, either Mosby or Robert would dance away barely escaping the slice of a razor-sharp blade.
Amanda watched from the shadows transfixed as always. She had found herself drawn back to this scene again and again, mesmerized by the sight and sound of this repeated so-called friendly duel. She gasped as Mosby tripped and fell backwards.
Robert grinned and lunged forward bringing his saber downwards in a vicious arc. Mosby rolled to one knee and brought his saber up hard to check the downward swing of Robert's saber. The metal clashed, each man using all his strength to force his saber forward. Mosby's arm trembled slightly as he felt Robert's strength and leverage winning the contest.
Quickly Mosby rolled to his right, allowing his saber to be forced to the ground by Robert's. His teeth jarred as he rolled along the hard ground. His wrist twisted painfully as he forced his hand to remain clenched around the hilt. Rolling again, he found his feet and swung his saber in a wide defensive arc.
Robert, intent on following Mosby, suddenly lunged backward to avoid Mosby's swing. He brought his saber up against Mosby's checking the other man's lunge. Once again, they stared at each other for several seconds before slowly relaxing.
"Next time, Clay," Robert promised breathing heavily.
"Next time, Robert," Mosby promised leaning against the railing. "I will miss this," he said quietly.
Robert grinned. "When Caroline and I are married, we'll be visiting quite often," he promised.
"You are the eternal optimist, aren't you?" Clay drawled raising his eyebrows.
Robert laughed and walked away.
Clay's eyes stayed on Robert for a moment then he slowly turned his head to where he knew Amanda was standing. Some mornings, she would leave as soon as their eyes met. Other mornings, she would defiantly stare at him before turning away. This morning, however, she slowly walked towards him.
"Tell me, Amanda, are you picking up pointers or do you just spy on people for no reason?" Mosby asked as she approached.
"Tell me, Clay, do you and your supposed good friend enjoy trying to kill one another?" Amanda mimicked.
"Robert and I would never fight in earnest," Mosby said seriously. "We may disagree at times, but we will never raise a hand to one another."
"How reassuring," Amanda mocked raising her eyebrows in disbelief.
"What do you want, Amanda?" Mosby snapped.
The sudden question seemed to take Amanda by surprise. "What do you think I want, Clay?" she countered.
Mosby grinned. "There's only two reasons a woman enjoys watchin' two men fight," he decided. "One is to watch them fight over her." His grin widened when Amanda snorted. "The other is because she's interested in one of the men and enjoys watching him...perform, shall we say?" Mosby's dark eyes danced with merriment as Amanda sputtered. "I suppose I should warn Robert about your interest in him."
"Shelby?!" Amanda squealed. "I would no more be interested in him that I'd be interested in Unbob!"
Mosby put a hand over his heart and looked surprised. "Then...do I dare assume, Miss Carpenter, that your interest is in my humble person?" He watched Amanda's face turn several shades of both purple and red. "I am honored, Miss Carpenter, that you deem me so worthy." Before Amanda could move, Mosby took her hand and bowed over it.
"You are insufferable, Clay Mosby!" Amanda finally choked out snatching her hand back. "Don't tell me you honestly believe that!"
"You're here every morning," Mosby could barely refrain from chuckling. "What am I to believe except that you desire..."
Amanda's hand flew across Mosby's cheek before he finished the sentence. In a second, Mosby had grabbed Amanda's hand and pulled her close to him. Angry sparks flashed in his dark eyes as he bent his head and kissed her. Amanda stiffened as she tried to move away but Mosby held her close. A few moments later, Mosby slowly raised his head looking more than a little surprised. As Amanda took a deep breath, he released her and looked away.
Before he could could say anything, Amanda stepped forward. "No man does that to me, Clay Mosby," she hissed sparks now flashing in her eyes. She slid both hands into his dark hair and pulled his head down to her. "Unless I want him to." She pressed her mouth hard against his.
Mosby froze in shock. His eyes widened as he finally managed to raise his hands to her shoulders. Before he could push Amanda back, she released him and stepped away. "You shouldn't play with fire, Clay," she said unevenly. "You're likely to get burned. Badly."
Before Mosby could speak, she whirled on her heel and walked away. He watched in stunned silence as she disappeared around the corner of the Ambrosia Club.
Clay Mosby looked around satisfied at the decorations for the dance. The Opera Hall had been converted to allow for dancing. Although the musicians were not professional they would at least provide a variety of music. He stood by the door to greet people as they entered and directed them towards the buffet tables.
"Very nice," Terence boomed with a smile. "I'm very impressed, Clay. Meaning no offense, but this is better than I expected."
"No offense taken," Mosby smiled. "I wonder if I might borrow Robert for a few moments."
"Of course," Terence eyed the buffet tables with appreciation. "I must say, though, I didn't expect you not to have a lady by your side."
Robert eyed Mosby as he stood next to him. "From the expression on your face, I assume you aren't with the lady you wanted either," he murmured.
"You've gotten quite impertinent, Robert," Mosby replied testily. He relaxed a little when Robert grinned widely. "It seems Miss Shaw had a previous commitment."
"What about Miss Carpenter?" Robert asked neutrally watching Mosby from the corner of his eyes.
"What about her?" Mosby asked in clipped tones.
"I'm not blind, Clay," Robert lowered his voice. "She's shows up every mornin'. And she doesn't come to talk to me."
Mosby slowly turned his head and stared at Robert. "Spyin', Robert?" he asked.
"Call it providin' stragegic and tactical support in case you needed it," Robert tried not to grin.
"I need no help concernin' Miss Carpenter," Mosby said firmly.
"Of course not," Robert agreed deliberately turning to observe the musicians as they took the stage.
"Speakin' of the devil," Mosby muttered.
Robert turned to see Amanda, escorted by Josiah, entering the room.
"Clay!" Josiah greeted holding out his hand. "This is wonderful!"
"I'm glad you approve, Josiah," Mosby smiled shaking Josiah's hand. "I trust everyone will enjoy themselves." He glanced at Amanda. "Amanda, you look especially fetchin' in that gown."
Josiah turned and nodded approvingly at Amanda. "I told Amanda it was an excellent choice," he agreed.
"I also agree, Miss Carpenter," Robert took her hand. "I hope you'll do me the honor of keepin' a few dances reserved for me."
Amanda's eyes glittered in appreciation. Her dark red gown was fashionably cut exposing her rounded shoulders. Bits of white lace dropped from the sleeves and along the tightly cinched waist.
"Of course, Mr. Shelby," she cooed. "However, I have promised Josiah both the first and last dance."
Josiah slightly reddened. "Amanda's just being kind," he hurriedly explained. "I'm sure your dance card will be filled without me."
"The first and last dance, Josiah," Amanda repeated lightly. "Gentlemen." She gently inclined her head to Mosby and Robert before leading Josiah away.
"He has no idea, does he?" Robert muttered.
"None at all," Mosby agreed. "However, perhaps we can use that to our advantage." He smiled as he glanced at Robert.
"Well, I'll be damned," Call's eyes widened as he stared at Luther. He leaned forward in his chair and put his hands on the desk.
"You act like you never seen a person wearin' new clothes," Luther said uncomfortably as he shut the door to the sheriff's office behind him.
Call shook his head. "Well...not on you," he pointed out. "I saw Austin all duded up headin' for the Dove. Guess you're goin' to the dance, too."
"Yep," Luther self-consciously straightened his shirt. "Thought I'd ask when you was a-goin'."
"Ain't goin'," Call scowled. "‘Specially if you gotta get all duded up." He leaned back in his chair.
Luther shrugged. "Suit yourself, Call," he hesitated. "Just remember, you decided to stay here."
Call looked up curiously as Luther left. After a moment, he stood up and grabbed his hat and jacket. Softly closing the door behind him, he stood in the shadows and watched as Luther walked down the street. His eyes narrowed when he saw Luther knocking on the door of Mattie's gun shop. He saw the door open and Luther quickly removing his hat before stepping inside. He didn't realize his fist was clenching as he watched the door close behind Luther.
"You look real nice, Mattie," Luther complimented.
Mattie glanced down at her pale blue dress. "Thank you, Luther," she smiled. "To tell you the truth, I'm not sure when I wore this last."
"Bet you looked just as good then," Luther nodded. When she grinned at him, he reddened. "What I mean is.."
"Thank you," Mattie touched his arm. "That's awfully sweet."
"Uhh..oh, here," Luther reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple of wildflowers. Unfortunately, they had been pressed in his pocket for sometime and came out looking very crumpled and wilted. Luther grimaced as Mattie took it. "Well, they looked a lot better when I took...uh...when I got them."
"It's real nice that you thought enough of me to bring them," Mattie said gently.
"Well...I guess we outta go," Luther opened the door.
Call took a deep breath as he watched Mattie take Luther's arm as they walked along the sidewalk towards the Opera Hall. Ain't my concern, he told himself. It ain't.