FORGIVENESS

Clay watched with amusement as the group he privately called “The Proper Hens of Curtis Wells” tried to ignore his presence. He’d nodded politely to them as he’d taken a table at the Dove and proceeded to order lunch. They’d returned his polite nods. They might be interfering busybodies, but they never forgot his power enough to deliberately snub him.

He glanced up when Caroline entered and joined them. He found her presence with them to be very interesting and decided to linger over coffee. He took the opportunity to continue a letter to Robert. Pulling the paper and pencil from his pocket, he began writing while he watched them from the corner of his eyes.

“You certainly must realize your position in Curtis Wells,” Matilda Crees simpered.

“My position?” Caroline’s saucer blue eyes widened. “I’m not sure what you mean. I have a position?”

“Naturally, my dear,” Matilda patted her hand. “After all, you do own a railroad.”

“What position does that give me?” Caroline asked looking at the others.

“A very powerful one,” Matilda pointed out. “And, as the Mayor’s daughter-in-law, you have a responsibility towards the moral standards of Curtis Wells. We women must lead by example.”

“Have I done something wrong?” Caroline looked at Matilda curiously.

“Not at all, my dear,” Matilda leaned forward. “However, you can be a positive force in helping us rid Curtis Wells of the immorality that exists here.” She lowered her voice. “The drinking, the gambling, the...that...that place of loose morals!”

“You mean Twyla’s?” Caroline asked. “And Mr. Mosby’s club?”

“Well, I’m certainly not pointing my finger at one specific places,” Matilda glanced at Mosby from the corner of her eyes.

“I think there’s something you should know,” Caroline replied quietly. “Miss Twyla was very kind to not only myself but a friend of mine when...there was trouble. She protected us at her own risk. I owe her a great debt which I hope someday to be able to repay.” She looked at Matilda evenly. “As far as Mr. Mosby’s business is concerned, I personally do not find it objectionable.”

“Well, I can understand how you’d feel that way,” Eleanor Carson sniffed. “Considering your husband’s own...”

“Eleanor!” Matilda shushed her quickly.

“Ladies, I assure you these are my feelings...not my husband’s,” Caroline’s voice remained quiet. “However, if you have an objection to Mr. Mosby’s business, perhaps you should take the matter up with him yourselves.”

Clay wasn’t sure what Caroline had said but he smiled to himself as the other women suddenly grew quiet. He glanced back at the envelope and continued scribbling.

“Well, of course, you’re entitled to your opinion,” Matilda finally stuttered. “However, perhaps Reverend Flynn will be able to convince you otherwise.”

“Who?” Caroline looked interested. “A minister?”

“Yes!” Eleanor nodded enthusiastically. “A permanent minister who will bring God back to this town!”

“How wonderful,” Caroline smiled. She glanced over at Clay surprised to see him there. “Mr. Mosby, did you hear? We’re getting a permanent minister.”

The other ladies caught their breaths as Clay slowly rose and walked to their table.

“Really?” he smiled. “I wasn’t aware.”

“The Ladies Temperance League has arranged for his services,” Eleanor finally forced the words from her quivering lips.

“And arranged for his recompense?” Clay’s eyes were twinkling.

“That would come from the town funds,” she lowered her eyes after a moment.

“Indeed?” Clay frowned slightly. “I was under the impression that town funds couldn’t be dispensed without approval of the Town Council.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem, should it?” Caroline asked. “After all, it would be nice to have a minister here on a regular basis.”

“Mayor Peale didn’t seem to think it was a problem,” Matilda’s eyes glittered up at Clay. After a moment of meeting his gaze, she lowered them.

“Then Mayor Peale must have followed proper procedure,” Clay said softly.

“I’m sure he wouldn’t do anything wrong,” Caroline protested. She looked at Clay. “He’s very particular about proprieties.”

Clay’s expression relaxed as he studied Caroline. “Yes,” he finally agreed. “I’m well aware of Josiah’s habits.”

Caroline smiled. “Then there’s no problem.” she looked at the women. “Is there?” When none of them answered, she gracefully rose from the table. “Thank you, Mr. Mosby. I’m sure Reverend Flynn will be an asset to Curtis Wells.”

--------------------------

Reverend Michael Flynn stepped down from the stage and looked around. He immediately spotted the two women rapidly approaching and inwardly sighed. Members of the Ladies Temperance League all seemed to have the same pinched ascetic look about them. He smiled as they stopped in front of him.

“Reverend Flynn, I’m Matilda Crees and this is Eleanor Carson,” Matilda announced. “We’re the founders of the Curtis Wells Ladies Temperance League.”

“How wonderful of you to meet me, ladies,” Flynn bowed over their hands. He looked around. “Such an energetic town. I’m sure we’ll be kept quite busy.” He reached up and retrieved his suitcase from the driver. “I would enjoy talking with you ladies, but I’m a little fatigued from my journey. I wonder if it would be possible to talk perhaps over dinner?”

“That would be fine, Reverend,” Eleanor nodded. “We’ll be sure Mayor Peale joins us.”

“Wonderful!” Flynn smiled broadly. “Would six o’clock be convenient?”

----------------------

“Preacher, huh?” Luther eyed the man carefully.

“That’s what Caroline said,” Austin replied neutrally. “Wonder if he’ll last longer than the last one?”

“Guess that depends on how much he riles Mosby,” Luther decided. “Still, he looks like he can take care of himself.”

Call looked at the closing door of the Dove and pondered. As far as he was concerned, anyone who riled Mosby got his tacit approval.

------------------

Much to Caroline’s disappointment, Austin avoided dinner with Rev. Flynn. He glared at Luther and Call daring them to dispute that he was needed elsewhere. Truth was, he wanted to wait on some responses to his telegrams regarding Rev. Flynn. Caroline seemed too pleased at his arrival for Austin’s taste. He didn’t want her to be hoodwinked by some clever conman.

Call joined Mattie for dinner at the Dove curtly nodding to Josiah and Caroline as they sat with Rev. Flynn and members of the Ladies Temperance League. He walked on before Josiah could stop him.

Mattie looked up as Call sat down across from her. “That was an awfully quick entrance,” she teased.

Call shrugged. “Came to eat, not sit ‘round jawin’,” he muttered. After a moment, he glanced over at Josiah. “Surprised he didn’t bring that cat with him,” he mentioned sourly.

“You just don’t like Mandy ‘cause she’s one of the few creatures in this town who ain’t scared of you,” Mattie chuckled.

Call grimaced. “Never did like cats,” he snorted. “Dogs got a reason for livin’. Cats are just a damn nuisance.”

“They make good mousers,” Mattie argued.

Call shook his head trying to imagine Mandy chasing after a mouse. “Not that cat,” he decided.

“Kinda thought Austin would join them,” Mattie said as the waitress brought Call some coffee.

“Austin’s waitin’ on some telegrams,” Call sipped the coffee and wrinkled his nose. He had to admit the coffee had been better when Amanda was running the Dove. “He sent some inquiries ‘bout the new preacher.”

“Call!” Mattie’s eyes widened as she leaned forward. “I swear I don’t know who’s the most suspicious anymore...you or Austin.”

Call’s eyes narrowed. “Luther thought it was a good idea, too,” he pointed out. He shrugged ignoring her look. “Can’t hurt checkin’ on him.”

“Call, he’s a preacher,” Mattie hissed.

“That’s what he says,” Call shrugged again. “We don’t know for sure he’s who he says he is.”

“Heaven forbid anyone around here be what they say they are,” Mattie’s eyes flashed angrily at him as she stood and left the Dove.

Call casually reached across the table and picked up the half-eaten remains of Mattie’s slice of pie. He took a bite and shook his head. The pie had also been better when Amanda had run the Dove.

---------------------

“I must say this is the best meal I’ve had for quite some time,” Rev. Flynn sat back with a satisfied look on his face. “I can see I’ll get quite fat very soon if I’m not careful.”

“I’m certain you’ll be kept too busy to get fat,” Josiah’s eyes crinkled in restrained amusement at the ladies across the table.

Matilda and Eleanor had been joined by Amelia Dorn. Together they had formed and were almost the only members of the Curtis Wells Ladies Temperance League. However, what they lacked in numbers, they made up in enthusiasm. Matilda gave Josiah a sour look which everyone ignored.

“Certainly there is a tremendous amount of the Lord’s work to be done here,” Amelia simpered. A widow, she eyed the bachelor with a predatory gleam. “What with the drinking and gambling and...other activities I prefer not to mention.”

“The Lord turned water into wine, Mrs. Dorn,” Flynn recalled. “Who are we to doubt His wisdom in doing so?” He paused for a moment obviously enjoying the ladies’ silence. “Of course, we deplore the excesses of imbibing liquor and strong spirits. Moderation, I feel, is important in all matters. We must lead by our actions. We must temper our zeal to avoid unnecessary confrontation.”

“Well, confrontation certainly cost us our last preacher,” Eleanor huffed.

“Really?” Flynn looked interested. “What happened?” He frowned slightly as the others became silent. He noticed Caroline looking at Josiah in puzzlement.

“He just...wasn’t right for Curtis Wells,” Josiah finally replied lamely.

“You’ll understand when you meet Clay Mosby,” Eleanor promised grimly. “Hand in glove with the Devil Himself.”

“I must object, Mrs. Carson,” Caroline spoke up firmly. “I’ve found him to be a good person. Certainly Amanda wouldn’t be alive today if not for him.”

Flynn watched the faces of the people around the table fascinated as always by how people responded according to their own needs and desires. It was becoming more and more obvious the Ladies Temperance League wanted him to spearhead some sort of action against Clay Mosby whom, Flynn surmised, had a great deal of power in town. He wondered about the power that Caroline Peale welded. Certainly her two sentences did wonders in silencing the other women.

“Well, drinking and gambling are certainly obvious problems,” Flynn spoke up. “As I said, we must lead by our actions. A strong sense of community spirit centered around the church and, dare I hope one day, also a school? These will provide suitable moral balances against these...other activities.” He nodded charitably towards Eleanor. “I can surmise what they are, but I will not offend you by speaking openly of them.”

“Harlots!” Eleanor hissed. “All of them. That den of harlots burned to the ground, and it was rebuilt! Rebuilt, I tell you!”

Caroline glanced down at the table in embarrassment. She saw Josiah frowning although he looked like his mind was elsewhere.

“The Lord preached to the fallen, Mrs. Carson,” Flynn smiled. “And, from your words, I can assume there are many fallen here in Curtis Wells?”

“Reverend, you have no possible conception...” Amelia began.

“If you’ll excuse me, Reverend, it’s getting late,” Caroline interrupted smoothly. “I’m afraid I’ve developed a slight headache. Perhaps we can talk some other time.”

“Of course,” Flynn immediately stood and took her hand. “It was a pleasure, Mrs. Peale. I look forward to it.”

:I’m afraid I must be getting along as well,” Josiah stood. He smiled. “I have someone waiting for me.”

“You should have invited her..or him to join us,” Flynn remarked.

Josiah’s smile widened. “Mandy is very particular,” he pointed out. “Last time I brought her in here she caused quite a ruckus.”

“Mandy is a cat,” Caroline quickly interjected.

“I adore cats,” Flynn smiled. “I look forward to meeting her, Josiah.”

----------------------

Josiah slowly walked back to his rooms above the Statesman. He thought about talking to Mosby about Rev. Flynn in an effort to forestall any potential trouble. He saw a light in the office of the Statesman, however, and decided to speak with Mosby later. He glanced in the window and was surprised to see Austin working at the press.

Austin glanced over his shoulder as his father entered. “You’re not able to work the press,” he said before Josiah could open his mouth. “Everything was ready to go except the front and back pages. I’ll run them tomorrow evening.” He turned back to the press.

“That’s very kind of you, Austin,” Josiah managed to say. “But I’m sure I could have managed.”

“I suppose you would have, Father,” Austin replied evenly. “But there’s no need to strain yourself.” He glanced over to the corner. “Your cat acted hungry so I gave her some milk.”

Josiah looked down at Mandy who sat on the steps regarding the bowl of milk with obvious suspicion. “Thank you, Austin,” he said. “I didn’t see you at the Dove, though.”

“Went in the back,” Austin carefully placed the sheet of paper onto the press. “Did your dinner with the new preacher go well?”

“Very well,” Josiah took pity on Mandy and put her on his desk. He carefully picked up the bowl of milk and set it next to her. Nudging her towards the milk, he continued, “Caroline will tell you all about it.” He hesitated. “I suppose Newt has already sent out telegrams to make sure Rev. Flynn is legitimate.”

“Call knows what he’s doing,” Austin’s hand tightened on the press’ lever.

“Of course he does,” Josiah nodded. He saw Mandy stick the tip of her tongue cautiously into the milk. After a few seconds, she lowered her head and began lapping. He smiled to himself and stroked her back. “I’m sure he’ll find everything in order. I just hope Clay doesn’t cause a fuss. Perhaps I should talk to him.” He glanced at Austin waiting for a response.

Austin carefully lowered the press. “Mosby’ll be sure to cause trouble unless he finds a way to own him,” he said carefully. “I’d let him make the first move against Flynn.”

Josiah frowned. “I suppose you’re right,” he admitted. “I doubt I could talk much sense into Clay this late at night anyway.” He saw Mandy had finished with the milk and picked her up. “Are you sure I can’t help?”

“You know Cleese doesn’t want you running the press,” Austin reminded his father. He studied the paper he’d removed from the press. “I’ll finish these and then run the others tomorrow evening. I assumed you’d want to rewrite the front page anyway.”

“Naturally,” Josiah smiled. “I think a rather large announcement on the front page concerning Rev. Flynn would be appropriate. If Newt learns anything from his inquiries, I can include that.” He started up the stairs. “Don’t stay too late, Austin.”

-----------------------

“Wouldn’t expect you to look so haggard, Austin,” Call’s eyes twinkled. “Like you ain’t had much sleep. ‘Specially since I heard they put that preacher in the room next to you and Caroline.”

“Shut up, Call,” Austin shot back. “That ain’t none of your business.”

Call shrugged. “Didn’t say it was,” he replied lightly. “Awfully touchy this mornin’, Austin.”

“Seems Rev. Flynn is who he says he is,” Austin ignored Call. “Got a description that matches. Looks like we got another preacher.”

“Wonder for how long?” Call gestured towards the Ambrosia Club. “Saw him headed that way a few minutes ago. Guess he’s met Mosby by now.”

-------------------------

“You must be Clay Mosby,” Flynn smiled as Clay descended the stairs. “Reverend Michael Flynn, sir.” He held out his hand.

“Reverend,” Clay cautiously shook his hand. “Welcome to Curtis Wells.”

“Thank you,” Flynn nodded. “I understand you’re the man who makes things happen around Curtis Wells.”

Clay stared at Flynn for a moment then grinned widely. He motioned Flynn to join him at the bar. “I imagine you realize that statement can be taken more than one way,” he poured a cup of coffee and slid it across to Flynn.

“Of course,” Flynn grinned back. “I can’t wait to see in which way.”

“Interesting attitude for a preacher,” Clay commented. “I assume you intend to clean up Curtis Wells and rescue it from the rampant immorality that abides here.”

“Rampant immorality?” Flynn sipped his coffee. “This seems like such a quiet little town.”

“It’s still early,” Clay remarked wryly. “Our last preacher was very intent on closing down my businesses.”

“He didn’t last long, did he?” Flynn asked politely.

“No,” Clay replied evenly. “He didn’t.”

Flynn nodded at the bottles along the back of the wall. He commented. “It’s the overindulgence in spirits that causes problems. Moderation is to be encouraged.”

“From an economical standpoint, moderation isn’t necessarily a good thing,” Clay pointed out. “Your time would be best suited to conducting funerals. There seem to be a lot of them around here.”

“And church services as well,” Flynn added. “I intend to hold them every Sunday. I look forward to seeing you there.”

“I’m sure you do,” Clay drawled. “But I wouldn’t delay your service waitin’ for me, Reverend. You might wind up not preachin’ at all.”

Flynn chuckled. “I can see Curtis Wells will provide me with quite a challenge,” he commented. “Well, I have to be going. I wanted to walk around and meet as many people as possible.” He glanced at Clay. “I wonder if you could direct me to the Sheriff’s office.”

“Sheriff?” Clay looked interested. “Why would you want to see him?” he asked curiously.

“Just to introduce myself,” Flynn replied innocently. “It’s been my experience that the local sheriff or Marshall usually knows who the troublemakers are in town. I dislike confrontation, you see. If I know who the troublemakers are, I can try to avoid creating any problems.”

Clay rubbed his thumb across his lip studying the preacher closely. Flynn looked back innocence shining in his dark blue eyes. “I’m sure Sheriff Call would be more than happy to tell you who the...troublemakers are,” he finally said. He walked the preacher outside to the street. “At the end of the street. Close to Twyla’s.”

“Excellent!” Flynn smiled shaking Clay’s hand. “I wanted to call upon her as well. Do you think it’s too early in the morning?”

“Twyla’s an early riser,” Clay restrained a smile.

-----------------------

“You must be Sheriff Call,” Flynn had looked at both Luther and Call then turned his attention to the shorter man.

“Yep,” Call looked at Flynn reluctantly. “Guess you’d be the preacher everybody’s talkin’ about.”

“They are?” Flynn looked pleased. “Good, that means I’ll have a good turnout for Sunday’s service. It’s usually just to look me over and see if I’m suitable but it’s a start.” He glanced at Luther.

“Luther Root,” Luther finally answered.

“Nice to meet you,” Flynn nodded. “I was hoping you could help me, Sheriff.”

“What about?” Call asked looking at him fully.

“Well, first, I’d like your permission to preach to any of your...prisoners who would want my services,” Flynn requested.

Call snorted. “Don’t think you’ll have many callin’ for you,” he said.

“Perhaps,” Flynn replied gently. “However, I’d like the opportunity to be of service to them spiritually.”

Call shrugged. “Not in the cells or even near ‘em,” he warned. “If they want to listen with you sittin’ across the room, that’s up to them.”

“Thank you,” Flynn looked relieved. “You wouldn’t believe how many officials in your position feel otherwise. There was one time...”

“Anything else?” Call interrupted abruptly.

“Well, this is a little difficult to explain,” Flynn lowered his voice. “You see, I’ve found in many occasions that if I get to know as many people as possible, I can try to avoid any potential problems that my presence might cause. Even in the smallest towns, there are unfortunately factions. My job is to bring people together...not help drive them apart.” He waited as Call simply stared at him. “So I was wondering if you could possibly tell me who is the major troublemaker in town?”

Luther looked at Call his eyes wide. Call ostentatiously looked past Flynn to where Mosby was standing leaning against a post watching them.

“You just came out of the Ambrosia,” Call pointed out. “You met him.”

“Really?” Flynn’s eyes widened. “Then I’m already accomplishing my task. I’ve found a personal touch can avoid so many problems and misunderstandings.”

“Mosby had the last preacher run out of town,” Luther added. “Set him up with one of Twyla’s whores.”

“Really?” Flynn’s eyes widened further. “Well, then it’s a good thing that I’m going to see Miss Twyla next, isn’t it?” He reached out and shook Call’s hand before the man could move away. “Thank you both so much. I look forward to seeing you Sunday.” He clapped Luther on the arm as he walked towards Twyla’s.

“A preacher...in Twyla’s?” Luther looked astonished as he watched Flynn mount the stairs and knock on Twyla’s door.

Call glanced out of the corner of his eyes to watch Mosby’s reaction. He frowned when he saw Mosby casually light a cigar and go back inside the Ambrosia.

“Bet it’ll be one hell of a sermon on Sunday,” Luther predicted as he watched Flynn disappear inside Twyla’s.

------------------------

As Flynn had predicted a lot of people from in and around Curtis Wells showed up Sunday. While many people came simply out of curiosity, it looked impressive.

“Reverend Flynn,” Eleanor Carson tried to draw him aside from greeting people at the entrance of the small church. “I can’t believe you invited those...immoral women to church! As though they were respectable!” She glared at Twyla sitting in the middle pew of the church surrounded by almost all of her girls.

“Mrs. Carson, have you forgotten?” Flynn patted her hand soothingly. “The Lord stretched out His hand to Mary Magdalen. Should I do less?” When Eleanor’s mouth opened in shock. “We must lead by example, madam. Charity. Forgiveness. That is our mission.” He smiled benignly. “I hope you enjoy the service.”

“Reverend,” Eleanor caught his arm. “What’s this about games after church?”

“For the children,” Flynn nodded. “Idle hands make the devil’s work, Mrs. Carson. While the adults talk about weighty matters, the children should have something to do...to keep them out of temptation’s way.” He patted her arm again. “Everything will work out,” he assured her as he edged her into the church then turned back around.

“Reverend, I’d like you to meet my husband, Austin,” Caroline invited.

“How very nice to meet you,” Flynn shook Austin’s hand. He noticed the badge on Austin’s coat. “A deputy? I thought I saw you working the newspaper press...”

“Father isn’t able to work the press right now,” Austin interrupted. “I was just helping out.”

“Wonderful,” Flynn beamed. “You must be very proud, Mrs. Peale.”

Austin flushed as he glanced down at Caroline.

“For many things, Reverend,” Caroline answered smoothly. “We’re all looking forward to your sermon.” Holding Austin’s arm, they quickly entered the church finding a spot close to where Mattie sat with Luther.

Austin and Luther exchanged sympathetic looks. Luther slouched down in the pew until Mattie pulled on his arm.

“And this must be Mandy,” Flynn reached out to pat the cat in Josiah’s arms.

Mandy glared at him suspiciously but allowed the touch.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Josiah said hesitantly.

“All God’s creatures are welcome here,” Flynn said gently. He glanced across the street to where Call lounged on a bench. “All of them.”

Josiah nodded and started inside the church. Mandy suddenly hissed and wiggled out of his arms. “Mandy!” Josiah whispered frantically giving Flynn an apologetic look. Mandy ran down the steps of the church, stopped, and looked back at Josiah. “Mandy!” Josiah said more sternly. Mandy arched her back and hissed again before turning and running back down the street. “I better go after her,” Josiah apologized. “She won’t be able to get in.”

“It seems she’s found a place to stay for a while,” Flynn remarked looking past Josiah.

Josiah shaded his eyes to see Mandy disappearing through the partially open door of the Ambrosia Club.

“I’m certain she’ll be fine,” Flynn took Josiah’s arm and led him inside the church. He turned before entering and waved at Call who ignored him.

----------------------

Clay looked up a little startled when Mandy jumped up onto the bar. He glanced at the slightly ajar front door certain he’d closed it. He set his inventory book on the bar and walked to close the door. He saw Mandy walk along the bar shaking herself all over a though trying to remove water...or something else equally irritating. He shook his head certain the cat was crazy.

Call glanced back down the street towards the Ambrosia. Knowing how little Mosby liked Mandy, he was a little surprised not to see Mosby throwing the cat back outside. He studied the quiet street then pulled his hat over his eyes.

It seemed that all of Curtis Wells was inside the small church...leaving possession of the town to Call, Mosby....and Mandy.

-----------------------

Luther shook his head as he joined Call on the bench across from the church. “Whores in church and playin’ games after services,” he muttered in confusion. “Never saw anythin’ like it.”

“From some of the sour looks on them faces, you may not see it again,” Call commented nodding to where Eleanor, Amelia, and Matilda stood glaring back at Twyla’s.

“Dunno,” Luther shook his head. “Most seemed to like him. Wasn’t a bad sermon,” he mused. “Too long though.”

“Gettin’ religion?” Call asked sourly.

“Mattie asked me to go,” Luther said defensively. “Didn’t see no harm.”

Call grunted.

Luther grinned and lightly punched Call on the arm as he stood. “You’re just mad ‘cause Mattie didn’t ask you,” he chuckled.

Call grunted again this time giving Luther an angry look. “I don’t need no church if I want to see somebody,” he pointed out. He ignored Luther’s chuckle as the man walked away.

Call watched as people mingled after church talking with neighbors watching the children and Flynn play games. Despite himself, he remembered the party Curtis Wells had thrown celebrating the building of the church. Everyone believed it was the start of a better time...a happier time...

“My goodness,” Flynn panted as he flopped down on the bench next to Call.

Call jerked startled that he hadn’t realized Flynn was that close to him. He automatically looked around tense and wary.

“I’d forgotten how much energy children have,” Flynn seemed to ignore Call’s actions as he wiped his face with his handkerchief. “I hope it wasn’t any bother for you to miss services.”

Call looked at Flynn a little surprised.

“I saw Luther and Austin in church,” he leaned back on the bench. “I was halfway through my sermon when I realized that forced you to miss services.” He nodded as though agreeing with himself. “Of course, one of you had to remain on duty.” He looked at Call. “I do apologize for that.”

“Weren’t no bother,” Call assured him drily turning to watch Josiah head towards the Ambrosia to retrieve Mandy. “Notice Josiah’s cat didn’t go in either.”

“Probably frightened of all the people,” Flynn nodded. “I hope she wasn’t too scared. Cats can be quite sensitive creatures.”

Call snorted.

“Well, I must be going,” Flynn smiled as he stood. “It’s been quite a day. I still have to clean up around the church. And I understand there are some elderly and ill people who couldn’t make services. I need to visit them.”

“You might check on Amanda Carpenter,” Call suggested with half-masked smile. “Restin’ at the Dove from surgery. I’m sure she could use your attention.”

“Thank you, Sheriff,” Flynn’s eyes twinkled. “I’ll be sure to tell her you sent me.” He saw a flash of genuine amusement in Call’s eyes and looked upwards. “We’ll have snow by Christmas, I think.”

Call’s eyes darkened and he turned away. “Probably so,” he agreed curtly.

“I’m not sure what’s been done before, but I was thinkin’ of holding an open door at Christmas...keeping the church open all day,” Flynn frowned in thought. “Perhaps some decorations...a tree...”

“Do whatever you want,” Call snapped. He stood up suddenly uncoiling like a spring. “Most ain’t gonna care.” He stalked away heading towards the stables.

Flynn’s head slid to one side in silent contemplation.

---------------------

“So many invitations!” Elizabeth Shelby said happily as she eyed the daily mail. “This is going to be a wonderful Christmas!”

Robert, immersed in a letter from Clay, nodded absently.

“It’s going to be difficult to decide which ones to attend,” Elizabeth frowned slightly as she sat in her favorite chair. “But next year, we will give the grandest Christmas party in Denver.”

Robert, barely listening, nodded his eyes fixed on the letter.

Elizabeth realized that she was being ignored. “I think a circus trapeze artist performing on the front lawn would be suitable, don’t you, Robert?” she politely asked.

“Whatever you think, dear,” Robert automatically replied.

Elizabeth glared at him. “Robert!” she snapped. “You aren’t even paying attention!”

Robert finally looked up. “I’m sorry,” he apologized. He hesitated. “How would you feel about spending Christmas in Curtis Wells?”

“How would I feel about it?” Elizabeth pretended to think. “Let’s see. Christmas in Denver with our friends....or Christmas in little tiny Curtis Wells.”

Robert took a deep breath. “I can see it’s a difficult decision,” he said wryly.

“Hardly,” Elizabeth muttered. “Why on earth would I want to spend Christmas in Curtis Wells?”

“Well, you could see Amanda,” Robert carefully folded Clay’s letter. “I’m sure her Christmas will be a little bleak what with her still recovering from surgery.”

“As soon as she can travel, she can come here,” Elizabeth pointed out. “I can’t imagine why she stays in Curtis Wells anyway.”

“I’d really like to go, Elizabeth,” Robert said seriously. “As a favor to me.”

Elizabeth studied her husband for a moment. “You don’t mind asking great favors, do you?” she finally said.

“No,” Robert grinned. “I’ve never had any problem with doing just that.”

-----------------------

Two weeks later, snow had indeed covered the ground around Curtis Wells. News of Rev. Flynn’s decision to have a Christmas celebration in the church had spread. Soon the church was being decorated with brightly colored ribbons and other homemade decorations. It did look festive and nice, Austin admitted when he stopped by to escort Caroline back to the Dove.

“Isn’t it wonderful!” Caroline enthused as she looked skyward. “I love snow.”

Austin grunted. “Don’t care for it myself,” he mumbled.

“Really?” Caroline slipped her arm through his. “Why not?”

Austin hesitated. “Just don’t,” he evaded. He wasn’t about to remind her that her uncle and cousin had beaten him half to death and left him stranded in a raging snowstorm.

Caroline saw the shadows in Austin’s eyes and changed the subject. “I saw Rev. Flynn and Luther riding out of town,” she remarked. “Luther had an axe. I guess the church will have a Christmas tree after all.”

Austin smiled. “I think it was more Mattie’s doing than the preacher’s,” he pointed out. “If Luther isn’t careful, he might find himself getting married.”

“Is that so horrible?” Caroline teased.

“I was thinking of poor Mattie,” Austin grinned.

“Luther is a very nice person,” Caroline admonished.

“He better not be too nice,” Austin warned half-seriously.

Caroline hugged Austin’s arm. “He’s a good friend,” she murmured. “I think this is going to be a wonderful Christmas.”

---------------------

Clay couldn’t believe it. Twyla was actually closing down her business for Christmas so she and her girls could attend services and the celebration. He angrily stalked towards the church. It seemed Rev. Flynn was going to be a more worthy adversary than he’d anticipated. Clay had been in a surly mood for the last week as all everyone could talk about was the upcoming Christmas party. He really wasn’t in the mood for this sort of nonsense.

The front door to the church was open. Flynn preferred to keep it open assuring people that he didn’t mind the cold...and felt the doors to a church should be kept open as much as possible. Most people just shrugged it off as part of Flynn’s nature.

As Clay got to the half-open door, he heard a man’s voice singing. What stopped him was that the song wasn’t a hymn but a rather ribald soldier’s marching song...one he’d heard many times during the War. He opened the door wider and saw Flynn singing as he hung paper decorations on the tree.

“Interestin’ song for a preacher,” Clay commented wryly.

Flynn jumped startled by Clay’s voice. He flushed. “I’m certainly glad it was you that heard me and not some of the ladies,” he admitted. “I apologize if it offended you.”

Clay waved his hand. “I’ve heard worse versions,” he admitted. “But it’s hardly the sort of song I’d expect a preacher to be singin’.”

“Perhaps I should just whistle it,” Flynn decided. “I wasn’t always a preacher, you know.”

“Really?” Clay’s eyebrows rose in mock surprise.

“Actually, I was a blacksmith when I was younger,” Flynn admitted. “It was my father’s trade. Until the war, I never thought about doing anything else.” He tried to unknot the paper decorations that had wrapped around his fingers. “But I’m sure that happened to a lot of people.”

“I’m sure,” Clay replied coolly. “Did you....”

“To be perfectly honest, I didn’t want to get involved in the war,” Flynn admitted frowning as the decorations became more and more entangled. He stepped out of the mass of paper flowing around his ankles. “When the Army came looking to draft people, my brother hid in the woods. I tried hiding under the house. They found me.”

“Perhaps you should have gone with your brother,” Clay suggested. “I need...”

“I should have,” Flynn nodded. He held the paper decorations over his head his arms moving acrobatically to try and shake the knots from the paper decorations. “Still, I was young and told myself it was an adventure. They said I’d be back in a couple of months. That was 1863.”

Clay’s eyes clouded. “I supposed everyone thought it would be over soon,” he said softly.

Flynn glanced up. “You were in the War?”

“Opposite side, I would presume,” Clay nodded with a slight smile.

“Afraid so,” Flynn said half-apologetically. “I imagine you were a good soldier.” He frowned at the paper decorations now completely knotted around his hands. “I was thoroughly sick after Gettysburg.”

“A lot of people were,” Clay’s eyes clouded.

“After that, I’m afraid I spent most of my time in the guardhouse,” Flynn admitted with a sheepish smile.

“Oh?” Clay looked interested.

“I shod the horses and made homemade whiskey,” Flynn laughed self-consciously. “Not bad stuff, even if I do say so myself. Unfortunately, my company commander had taken a pledge of abstinence.”

“Not very sympathetic to you, was he?” Clay had to grin.

“Not very,” Flynn sighed looking from the paper decorations to the tree. Then he glanced at Clay. “Could you...?” he asked holding out his arms.

Clay patiently began unwrapping the paper decorations from Flynn’s arm.

“Anyway, by the time the war ended, I’d seen enough destruction,” Flynn continued. “But when I returned home, I just couldn’t settle down and be a blacksmith again. It seemed so...meaningless somehow.”

“So you became a preacher?” Clay asked as he carefully laid the paper decorations along the front pew.

“Eventually,” Flynn admitted. “It gives my life purpose.” He caught Clay’s amused look. “It’s hard to understand, I know.” He sighed with relief as his hands were freed. “Thank you very much. I would have hated to explain to Mrs. Dorn that I damaged her decorations.”

“Mrs. Dorn is a widow, Reverend,” Clay pointed out with amusement. “If I judge her correctly, she wouldn’t mind if you were completely tied up in her decorations.”

Flynn stared at Clay for a moment then laughed. “I can see I need to watch her very carefully then,” he shook his head. “Thank you for the warning.” He took one end of the paper decorations. “Would you mind holding the other end for me? This is where I got into trouble before.”

Clay hesitated then picked up the end lying on the front pew. “Did you know Twyla is closing down Christmas day?” he asked.

“No,” Flynn shook his head. “Is that unusual?” He glanced over his shoulder at Clay. “I’m afraid it’s been so long since I’ve had any experience with whorehouses that...”

“Most unusual,” Clay interrupted quickly. “I just hope it doesn’t become a weekly event.” He slowly stepped closer to the tree as Flynn wound the paper decoration around the tree.

“I doubt it will,” Flynn assured him. “After all, she had to make a living, doesn’t she?”

“Yes, she does,” Clay said pointedly. He was a little perturbed that Flynn ignored the meaning of his remark.

“There,” Flynn stepped back with a smile. “It certainly wouldn’t look that good if I’d done it by myself.”

To Clay, the tree looked a little pitiful but he nodded silently.

“Well,” Flynn admitted after seeing Clay’ look. “It will be much better with some more work. Mrs. Peale and Miss Shaw promised to bring over some popcorn decorations.” He chose to ignore Clay’s skeptical look. “I hope you’ll be able to join us on Christmas.”

“I’m certain you’ll be quite busy with everyone else here,” Clay smiled. “What with people coming in and out all day. Besides, I just found out some friends of mine will be visiting then.”

“How wonderful,” Flynn beamed. “It’s always nice to have friends and family around at Christmas.” He saw Clay’s eyes harden briefly.

“Yes, it is,” Clay smiled coldly.

-----------------------

“You do realize, Robert Shelby, that spending Christmas in Curtis Wells...Curtis Wells of all places...does not appeal to me at all,” Elizabeth glared across the stage at her smiling husband.

“I would have thought you would be eager to spend time with Amanda after her surgery,” Robert’s eyes twinkled. “To cheer her up. To help her recover.”

Elizabeth swore under her breath and looked out the window. Snow was gently falling barely visible in the late afternoon shadows. “We’re likely to get snowbound here,” she grumbled. “Christmas in Curtis Wells indeed.”

Robert laughed. “I tried to convince Clay to join us,” he pointed out. “It’s not my fault he refused.”

“Clay is obviously more well-bred than you, my sweet,” Elizabeth replied tartly. “He probably assumed we’d like to spend Christmas alone...together.”

“Is that why you were eagerly looking at all those Christmas party invitations from the Denver elite?” Robert teased.

Elizabeth muttered something under her breath and snuggled deeper into her cloak. Robert smothered a smile and slid across the coach to sit beside her. Ignoring his wife’s stiff posture, he pulled her closer to him. “To share body warmth,” he said innocently when she glared at him. “We’ll be in Curtis Wells in an hour,” he promised. “You can get warm then. You can sit with Amanda and both of you can consign both me and Clay to the Devil all you want.”

“It won’t be enough,” Elizabeth promised. “I don’t understand why we had to make this journey anyway.”

Robert hesitated. “Instinct, I suppose,” he admitted looking out the window. “Christmas has always been hard for Clay since the War. But there was something in his last letter...maybe it was having to perform surgery again....or maybe it’s this new preacher in town....I don’t know.” He glanced down at Elizabeth’s pouting face. “I’ll make it up to you, Elizabeth. I promise.”

“I know you will, my sweet,” Elizabeth’s eyes glinted in the afternoon light. “I know you will.”

-----------------------

“Austin!” Josiah called across the street to his son. Even in the dim afternoon light, he saw Austin’s face smooth over into a non-committal mask as Austin waited for him.

“Something wrong, Father?” Austin asked as Josiah joined him.

“No...well I hope not,” Josiah frowned. “Caroline had some leftover decorations from the church. She decided to take them to the cemetery. I offered to go with her but she said it probably wouldn’t be good for me to be out that long in the cold.”

“How long has she been gone?” Austin demanded.

“Just a couple of hours,” Josiah’s voice faltered. “I’m sure she’s fine, Austin.”

Austin barely restrained the angry words half-formed on his lips. It wasn’t unusual for wolves to range close to Curtis Wells during the winter. “You should have told me sooner,” he finally said before walking away.

Josiah refrained from pointing out that he, Call, and Luther had spent the better part of the afternoon settling brawls at Twyla’s from those angry that she would be closed the next day for Christmas. He watched Austin stride through the snow and shook his head.

It wasn’t hard to follow Caroline’s trail through the snow. A light snow had only began falling in the last hour barely enough to be noticeable in her tracks. Austin felt his heart pound as he climbed the hill remembering the last time he’d been in the cemetery during the winter...when Call had found him collapsed on top of his sister’s grave.

The cold wind blew causing the snow to swirl up around his knees. He looked around in the shadows starting to panic. “Caroline!” he yelled holding his hand to his chest.

“Austin?” Caroline turned a little startled. She began walking towards him.

Austin relaxed noticing she had been at her uncle’s grave. “I’m sorry I yelled,” he apologized. “I didn’t see you at first.”

“I’ve been here too long, haven’t I?” Caroline stood on tiptoe and kissed Austin’s chin. “Your father got worried, didn’t he?”

“He should have told me earlier,” Austin grumbled. “You should have told me. Wolves prowl around close to town sometimes, Caroline.”

“Really?” Caroline looked around as though expecting to see a pack of wolves next to her.

“Come on,” Austin had to smile as he took her hand. He kept a sharp eye out as they walked back to town.

“It’s so beautiful,” Caroline sighed as she swung Austin’s arm.

“What?” Austin looked around.

“Curtis Wells,” Caroline pointed. “The town, the snow...just everything.”

“I suppose,” Austin shrugged.

“I think this is going to be a wonderful Christmas,” Caroline smiled as she hugged Austin’s arm. “You’ll see.”

---------------------------

“I can’t imagine why you agreed, Elizabeth, but welcome to Christmas in Curtis Wells,” Clay grinned as he helped Elizabeth from the stage. “Robert must have gotten far more persuasive than I remember.”

“I just couldn’t resist seeing you again, Clay,” Elizabeth’s eyes twinkled as she kissed him on the cheek. “But let’s not tell Robert, shall we?”

“Your servant, madam,” Clay grinned as he kissed the back of her hand.

“Very amusin’,” Robert said in a bored voice. “The two of you should join the theater.”

“Where’s Amanda?” Elizabeth ignored her husband.

“At the Dove,” Clay smiled. “I didn’t tell her you were comin’. It should be a nice surprise.” He glanced at Robert. “We’ll take care of the luggage.” When Elizabeth had gone, Clay grinned at Robert and picked up one of the suitcases. “What are the two of you doin’ here, anyway?”

“I’m hurt, Clay,” Robert looked disappointed. “Truly I am.” Before Clay could say anything else, he lifted Elizabeth’s two suitcases and started across the street. “But I know you’ll make it up to me.”

---------------------

Luther awkwardly brushed the snow off his jacket before entering Mattie’s gun shop. He saw Mattie grinning and flushed. “Didn’t want to mess up the floor,” he said when he entered.

“Call goin’ to the party?” Mattie asked casually.

“Don’t think so,” Luther decided Mattie didn’t need to hear Call’s actual answer word for word. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a roughly wrapped item. “Here, Mattie.” He laid the item on the counter and backed off. “I just remembered somethin’. I’ll meet you at church.”

“Luther...” Mattie looked confused as he quickly shut the door behind him. She walked to the counter and slowly unwrapped the item. She smiled softly. “Oh, Luther,” she sighed looking down at the homemade knife. She ran her fingers over the carved letters of her name on the handle. “Just what every girl wants,” she grinned.

--------------------------

“Actually, for a preacher, he’s not a bad person,” Amanda told Elizabeth as they slowly walked towards the church. She lowered her voice so Robert, walking behind them, couldn’t hear. “So far he’s managed to get by both Clay and Call.”

“No mean feat in itself,” Elizabeth nodded. She looked over her shoulder and smiled. “Isn’t Clay joining us?”

“Probably not,” Robert grinned. “Once I make sure all the men know that they’ll have me to deal with if they bother you, I’ll probably go back to the Ambrosia and join him.”

“If that’s all we need you for, you can go now,” Elizabeth replied pertly. She caught Amanda’s eye and both women began giggling.

“I love you, too, my pet,” Robert rolled his eyes.

------------------------

Call looked up as the door to the jail slowly opened. “Sheriff Call?” Caroline peeked inside.

“What?” Call asked bluntly. “Don’t know where Austin’s gone off to.”

“Oh, he’s going to meet me at the church,” Caroline smiled as she closed the door. “He said you probably wouldn’t be there so I wanted to give you this.” She laid a carefully wrapped package on the desk in front of him. “It’s from Austin, Mr. Peale, and myself,” she said quickly backing towards the door. “Merry Christmas...Call,” she said quietly before leaving.

Call looked at the wrapped package and then back at the door. He sat up cursing under his breath. He quickly opened the door to call Caroline back but saw her disappearing up the steps to the church. Cursing louder this time, he slammed the door. He took the package in his hands and slowly unwrapped it.

------------------------

Flynn felt the party had been a success. True, people tended to stick to their own factions at first, but soon the singing started and people slowly began mingling with one another. It was the season of forgiveness, Flynn stressed to Amelia with a smile. Forgiveness of sins...forgiveness of hatred...forgiveness of one’s self.

When he saw Robert slip outside, he watched at the door of the church and smiled when he saw him disappear into the Ambrosia Club...which was practically empty. He glanced across the street at the light in the jail and sighed. He’d wanted a challenge, he told himself wryly, as Amelia coaxed him back inside.

He grinned when Josiah proposed a toast to an obviously stunned Austin thanking him for his work on the Statesman. Austin had actually flushed when Josiah admitted the Statesman would have had to suspend publication without his help.

Perhaps the seasonal feelings would last beyond the next sunset, Flynn hoped as he followed the last ones out of the church. Perhaps this one night would cast it’s light into the upcoming weeks and months. He hesitated then left the door to the church open. On this night of all nights, the church should remain open....for those who preferred to come later.

----------------------------

“Go on, Robert,” Clay’s voice was only slightly slurred. “I’m quite sure the good pastor’s party has ended. Elizabeth’s mad enough at you already.”

“She’ll be madder sooner or later,” Robert said lightly.

“Well, she’s mad enough at me already,” Clay pointed out with a grin. “I prefer her not to get any madder.”

"Scared of her, Clay?” Robert teased.

Clay grunted. He looked across the table at Robert. “Go home,” he said softly his voice no longer slurred. “Nothin’s gonna happen.” He saw Robert glance away. “I know why you came even if Elizabeth doesn’t.” He stood and took Robert by the arm. “I assure you everythin’s under control.” When Robert didn’t move, Clay’s eyes hardened. “It’s not your concern any more, Robert.”

“Isn’t it?” Robert matched Clay’s stare. “You really think even Elizabeth could affect that?”

“Don’t be a fool, Robert,” Clay said roughly. “She’s a fine woman. A little headstrong and self-centered, I suppose. But she’s your wife.”

Robert studied the dark eddies in Clay’s eyes for a moment. “If that’s how you want it, Clay, we’ll see you tomorrow,” he promised.

“Tomorrow,” Clay repeated gently shoving Robert out the door. He watched as Robert ran across the street and entered the Dove. He ignored the small voice in his head telling him he’d hurt his best friend. He waited a few more minutes then put on his coat.

Robert watched through the dark window of the Dove as Clay walked towards the church. “I’ve learned patience, if nothing else,” he told himself wryly. “You’re gettin’ obvious, Clay.” Quietly, he stepped outside.

Clay stood at the entrance of the church slowly looking around. The decorations were slightly askew with papers on some of the pews. It was still warm in the church Flynn having left some lanterns on in case anyone came inside. Clay slowly walked forward his heels clicking slightly on the wood floor. He sat heavily on the front pew and leaned back.

Call stood uncertainly in the door of the church watching Mosby. He had the sudden feeling he was intruding...a feeling that irritated him. Mosby had no right to be inside this church...no more right than he had to be here Call suddenly realized. His jaw clenched, he suddenly turned away and quietly walked down the steps.

Robert reached out from the darkness and flung Call away from the steps.

Call’s hand flashed to his gun then saw Robert holding his hands far away from his side.

“Good way to get killed,” Call muttered.

“Leave him alone,” Robert’s voice was low and deadly.

Call glanced at the church expecting to see Mosby standing there. He saw no one and looked back at Robert.

“You his bodyguard now?” Call asked sarcastically.

“You’d be surprised what friends will do for one another,” Robert matched Call’s tone. “But tonight, he gets left alone.”

Call studied Robert for a moment then curtly nodded. To Robert’s surprise, he turned and walked away.

------------------

Closing his eyes, Clay heard music in his head...sounds of laughter...sounds of happy celebrations...sounds of mournful voices trying to sing Christmas songs to lighten their imprisonment.

Clay opened his eyes and glared at the cross on the tree. In his mind he shouted the eternal unanswered question of “Why?”. But there was no answer. There was never an answer no matter how loudly he screamed it. There was never an answer.

THE END

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