For what had to be the seventh time that day, Newt Call mentally wondered what possessed him to agree to take Austin Peale on this hunting trip. For some reason, Josiah had prevailed upon him to allow Austin to go with him and Luther. Call had hoped Luther would disagree but he had shrugged and said it didn't matter to him. For a second, Call thought he saw a glance pass between Josiah and Luther but dismissed it.
He had to admit that Austin hadn't been bad company....just silent. For once he was sober and looked like he had a reason to stay out of the bottle. Not that Call had any reason to stand in judgement. He just wondered why he had allowed Josiah to manipulate him. Call shrugged. He really didn't want to know the answer.
All three men had hunted quietly each engrossed in his own thoughts. What passed for conversation around a campfire consisted of comments about the cooking. At one point, Luther glanced at Austin & shrugged. "Maybe he's got to decide 'bout somethin', that's all," he commented. Before Call could respond, Luther headed off towards the trees.
Austin lay quietly on the ground his hands clasped behind his head. He stared silently up at the stars.
Call knelt down and poured a cup of coffee. He sat down his hands wrapped around the cup appreciating the hot steam rising to his face.
"Ever look at the stars, Call?" Austin asked quietly.
"Some," Call replied quietly sipping the coffee.
"Hannah like looking at them," Austin continued quietly. "She said it was like looking at diamonds on black velvet."
Despite himself, Call glanced up at the star-filled sky.
"I guess so," he said neutrally. "Got other things to do."
"Like what, Call?" Austin asked indifferently.
Call's eyes slid to Austin a little surprised at his tone. "Dunno," he said somewhat defensively. "Things that need done."
Austin nodded his eyes still fixed on the stars.
"Any coffee left?" Luther asked as he rejoined them. Without waiting for an answer, he reached for the pot.
"Ever look at the stars, Luther?" Austin asked absently.
Luther glanced up. "Some," he nodded. "Kinda nice to watch 'em."
Austin nodded again still looking at the sky.
Call shook his head and silently wondered if Austin was going as crazy as Josiah...or as crazy as he was for putting up with this.
"Yeah, Luther," Austin said quietly. "They're really pretty."
For once it would be good to get away from Curtis Wells, Clay Mosby decided with relief. Usually, he felt uneasy knowing that no matter how detailed the instructions he left with his people on what to do, they would find someway of committing mistake after mistake. This time, he was tired of being badgered by everyone wanting Ike replaced as sheriff.
Granted, Mosby agreed that Ike was a bad temporary solution at best, but there was no one else he could trust in that position. Even Josiah, regaining some of his fire, had been badgering him almost daily. Thankfully, Josiah had been otherwise occupied since early the previous day. If Lady Luck smiled upon him, he could be on the stage to Miles City before Josiah spotted him.
Lady Luck was a fickle woman, Mosby decided a half hour later. She smiled on him enough that he was able to board the stage before being cornered by Josiah or anyone else about Ike. However, she frowned on him that his fellow passengers turned out to be a nun and 4 children. Even worse, one was an infant.
Clay had been aware of their presence in Curtis Wells. The nun, Sister Mary Bernarde, was escorting the orphans to their uncle. They had stayed a few days at the Lonesome Dove waiting for the stage to be repaired to continue their journey.
"Sister, " Clay politely tipped his hat as the stage departed Curtis Wells.
"Mr. Mosby," Sister Mary Bernarde nodded equally polite. "I wasn't aware you were making this journey as well."
"Unfortunately," Clay acknowledged. He quickly smiled at the nun. "I hate to leave Curtis Wells, you see."
"Yes," Sister Mary Bernarde replied drily. "I heard how important you are to Curtis Wells."
Clay hesitated momentarily then smiled again.
"Children, your manners," Sister Mary Bernarde prompted.
"Hello," the three children murmured in various forms of compliance.
"Children, this is Mr. Mosby," Sister Mary Bernarde performed the introductions. "Mr. Mosby, these are the twins, Jason and James Brent."
"Jamie," one of the boys automatically corrected.
"That will be enough, Jason," the nun said severely.
Clay studied the 6 year old boys who looked nothing alike. Jamie with dark hair and eyes and Jason with lighter brown hair and brown eyes flecked with green. Jason returned Clay's stare while Jamie shyly waved his fingers.
"This young lady is their sister, Marie Brent," Sister Mary Bernarde's voice was heavy with martyrdom.
Clay nodded to the boys and turned to observe the 4 year old girl sitting beside him. Her dark red hair was curled into ringlets and her bright green eyes twinkled.
"Mr. Mosby," she nodded. "I am pleased to make your acquaintance."
Clay smiled in spite of himself. The child was a born flirt. With her hair and eyes, she will be devastating, he told himself.
"Not as pleased as I am, Miss Brent," he nodded graciously.
Marie nodded to herself and gave her brothers a look which plainly said 'this is how you're supposed to behave'. Jason immediately stuck out his tongue at his younger sister.
"Jason!" Sister Mary Bernarde reproved coldly.
"Sorry, Sister," Jason muttered showing no remorse.
"And this is their youngest sister, Sarah Brent," Sister Mary Bernarde pulled back a blanket to reveal the 9 month old infant.
"How nice," Clay said neutrally. "I hope she travels well."
"Very well," Sister Mary Bernarde said carefully. "She never cries." The nun folded the blanket around the baby then glanced up at Clay. "That's not natural, Mr. Mosby."
Before Clay could reply that he had no knowledge about babies and their habit or non-habit of crying, Jason turned to the nun. "There's nothing wrong with my sister!"
"I didn't say there was, Jason," Sister Mary Bernarde said evenly. "Your tone of voice, however, leaves much to be desired."
"He's sorry," Jamie apologized. "He didn't mean it."
"Yes, he did," Marie nodded so quickly her curls bounced against her cheek.
"Enough," Sister Mary Bernarde commanded. "You are disturbing, Mr. Mosby."
"We're sorry, Mr. Mosby," Jamie apologized smiling shyly.
"Quite all right," Clay replied magnanimously. "A brother should take up for his sister even if there's no need to do so." He glanced at the nun. "I must say, I admire anyone for escorting 4 children across this county."
"Their parents died of fever trying to get to California," Sister Mary Bernarde explained quietly choosing to ignore Jason's scowl. "I was on my way to a convent in Oregon and offered to escort the children as far as Miles City. Their uncle owns a ranch 2 or 3 days ride from there and will meet us. It is my understanding he and his wife are childless." She glanced at the children and smiled quickly. "They will be blessed."
Or cursed, Clay silently debated. "Still, Sister, this journey can't have been easy," he eyed the infant in particular.
"The Lord will provide, Mr. Mosby," Sister Mary Bernarde said quietly. "He always has and always will."
"Of course, Sister," Clay smiled sardonically. He lowered his hat over his eyes and leaned back indicating no further conversation was necessary. A few minutes later, an argument developed between Jason and Marie about who was kicking who. Clay sighed to himself. It was going to be a long trip.
It was mid-afternoon when Clay was jolted from his sleep...again. The first time had been when Marie climbed on his lap to look out the window. Sister Mary Bernarde had quickly pulled her away. The second time had been when Jason had crumpled up a piece of paper he'd been practicing his ABC's on and thrown it at Marie who immediately howled. Before Clay could open his eyes, he heard the smack of the nun's hand on Jason's and a brief yelp of protest from the boy.
This jolt from sleep was more critical. Clay sat up as he heard a bullet nick the side of the stagecoach. He quickly drew his gun and glanced out to see four masked riders riding hard to catch them. The driver of the coach snapped the reins urgently and the team hauling the stagecoach began to run faster.
"Sister, I believe you and the children should sit over here," Clay said pleasantly as he pulled Jamie from his seat.
"Quickly, children," Sister Mary Bernarde's voice snapped. For once all 3 of the children were quiet. Clay saw that the baby's eyes were open wide as the nun quickly sheltered her.
Coolly, Clay sighted along the barrel of his gun and squeezed the trigger. He smiled grimly as one of the masked riders fell to the ground. He did not see one rider, however, break from the others and ride into the trees.
Curiously, Jamie glanced out the window just as Clay was about to fire. "Get him back!" he snapped at the nun just as Jason pulled his brother's head back into the stagecoach.
"You wanna get shot?" Jason punched his brother on the shoulder.
Marie shrieked at the stagecoach swiftly rounded a sharp curve in the road. The stagecoach rocked back and forth almost turning over. Then she shrieked again as Jason punched her in the shoulder. "Be quiet!" he demanded.
"Jason, do not hit your sister," the nun said quietly. "Remember your manners."
Clay shook his head. They were in danger of being robbed or worse and Sister Mary Bernarde was concerned about the manners of a 6-year old boy.
Clay snapped off two more shots then felt the stagecoach jerk. The rider who had split off from his companions had cut through the trees and beaten the stagecoach to this part of the road. He had jumped onto the top of the stage and was engaged in fighting the driver for control.
"Damn," Clay muttered as he felt the stagecoach slow down.
"Mr. Mosby, your language," the nun reproved.
Clay started to reply then saw the amount of control the nun was exercising over her own fear. "My pardon, Sister," he replied in acknowledgment.
Suddenly riders appeared on either side of the stagecoach. Marie shrieked again as the driver's body flew past her window hitting the ground with a sickening thud. The stagecoach quickly was brought to a halt.
"You in the coach...throw out your guns," came the command.
"The Lord will provide, Sister?" Clay muttered as he silently threw out his guns.
"Always, Mr. Mosby," Sister Mary Bernarde said firmly.
The door was pulled open. Marie shrieked as a masked man thrust the barrel of his gun inside.
"Shut that kid up!" he commanded.
"That will be enough, Marie," the nun ordered as Jason balled up his fist to punch his sister.
"Out!" the man ordered.
Slowly Clay stepped down from the coach. He was thrown face forward against the stagecoach as the other man removed Clay's wallet and watch. He watched as the nun quietly stepped from the coach with the children.
"There's no strongbox!" the man who had jumped onto the coach yelled.
"Has to be!" the man holding the gun on Sister Mary Bernarde yelled back. "Look again!"
"There's no strongbox," Clay said quietly. "All you're goin' get is my money."
"Nothin!" the man on the coach said.
"That looks like gold," one man indicated Sister Mary Bernarde's cross.
"Give it here," the other man commanded.
Clay automatically moved in protest only to have the man at his back slam the barrel of his gun across Clay's head. He slowly slid to the ground as he heard a gunshot. The last thing he heard was Marie shrieking...again.
The first thing he heard was distant gunfire. Clay slowly shook his head aware that Marie was tugging on his shirt & shrieking. "Do you do nothin' but scream?" he muttered as he forced his eyes open.
"Wake up!" Marie demanded. She put her face against Clay's. "Wake up! Sister's hurt!"
Clay groaned and tried to sit up. He was helped by Marie jerking on his arm. He saw the nun lying on the ground. The robbers were gone. Jason sat on the ground cradling the baby a stunned look on his face. Jamie knelt by the nun his hands bloody.
"Go help with the baby," Clay ordered Marie who thankfully did as ordered. He crawled to where Jamie was vainly trying to stop blood from flowing through a bullet wound in the nun's chest.
"It won't stop," the boy looked up at Clay with sick desperation in his eyes. "I can't make it stop!"
"Enough, James," Sister Mary Bernarde said weakly. "Go to your brother."
Jamie glanced at Clay who nodded. Then Clay quickly examined the bullet wound. "You're not goin' to die on me," he said roughly. "You're not leavin' me out here with these kids."
The nun weakly raised her hand and ran it through Clay's dark hair. "You're bleeding," she murmured. She raised her head slightly and stared into Clay's eyes. "Remember, the Lord will provide," she whispered. Her eyes flickered and her body collapsed.
"Not always," Clay muttered angrily. "Not always, sister."
Wearily, now aware of the blood crawling down the side of his face, Clay turned to look at the children.
"Is she dead?" Jason asked quietly.
"I'm afraid so," Clay said weakly. He sat up then tried to stand. Quickly, Jamie and Marie ran to his side. Clay weaved for a moment then shook his head. "Did I hear gunfire a few minutes ago?"
"Yes," Marie quickly answered.
"I think it was from them," Jason quietly pointed over Clay's shoulder.
Clay turned too quickly feeling the world spin around him. He leaned heavily against Jamie almost knocking the boy down. "How many?" he asked falling to his knees.
"Three," Jason stood and reached the baby to Marie.
"Get in the stage," Clay ordered blinking to clear his eyes. "All of you...now."
Marie clutched her baby sister and ran to the stage. Jamie followed to help her climb inside.
"Here," Jason handed Clay a rifle.
"Where did you get this?" Clay asked as he used the rifle for leverage to stand up.
"It was the driver's," Jason answered. "Marie climbed up and got it."
"A resourceful young lady," Clay leaned on Jason's shoulder as he walked to the stage.
"She's a brat," Jason answered.
"Am not!" Marie yelled from the stage.
"Get in and stay down," Clay ordered.
"I can help," Jason argued. The argument was cut short as Jamie reached out and dragged his brother into the stage. Someone, probably Marie Clay figured, slammed the door shut after him.
Clay staggered to a nearby boulder and leaned against it. He shook his head to clear his vision. He was able to make out three riders. It didn't make sense for the robbers to return unless they were afraid he and the children would be able to identify them for the murder of Sister Mary Bernarde.
Taking a deep breath, he cocked the rifle and aimed. He fired a shot into the dirt ahead of the horses. "That's far enough!" he yelled.
"Easy, Mosby!" Luther yelled back.
Clay blinked and tried to stand. He saw Luther, Call, and Austin slowly approaching. Both Call and Austin had hands on their guns but kept them holstered. He slowly walked back to the stage and glanced in.
Marie held the baby against her as she and Jamie sat on their brother. Jason was trying to push them off but was obviously afraid of hurting the baby if he tried very hard.
"Who is it?" Marie demanded.
"The Almighty's version of providin'," he said weakly feeling his knees start to collapse. "I didn't realize the Almighty had such a poor sense of humor."
"What strongbox?" Luther asked in a puzzled voice.
"Who knows?" Clay gingerly touched the bandage on his head. "They seemed to think there'd be a strongbox on board. From what I could tell, they didn't look very intelligent."
"They look dead now," Luther shrugged. "They started shootin' as soon as they saw us."
"Things gettin' bad 'round here," Call said idly. "Gettin' hard to keep control, Mosby?"
"Mr. Mosby protected us," Marie said indignantly staring up at Call. "Who are you?"
Austin smirked as Clay smiled. "Ah, allow me to introduce you," he offered gallantly. "Miss Marie Brent, may I present Mr. Newt Call."
Call shot an angry look at Mosby then stared down at the little girl who was in the process of looking him up and down.
"You need a bath," she declared before turning on her heel and walking away.
Call ignored Luther's choked laugh. "We need shelter," he said gruffly. "There's a storm movin' in. This coach won't do."
Luther glanced at the children. "You kids get what warm clothes you got," he ordered. "The rest we'll have to leave." He glanced back at the shallow grave of the nun and shook his head silently. It was the best they could do.
"We've got plenty of horses," Austin decided. "Think the kids can ride on their own?"
"And have to chase 'em down?" Call shook his head. "We'll each take one."
"Can you ride, Mosby?" Luther asked watching as Clay got to his feet.
"Of course," Clay said even though the ground spun beneath his feet.
Austin and Call ignored Mosby as they got the horses ready. "We should make that old miner's shack by nightfall," Call said to Luther. "We need to be inside before dark."
"I wanna ride with you," Jason tugged on Luther's jacket.
"Why?" Luther asked in surprise.
"'Cause you got a knife," Jason pointed.
Luther shrugged. "Good a reason as any, I suppose," he picked Jason up and sat him on the horse.
Clay slowly mounted his horse holding his breath as he fought off the dizziness.
"I'll ride with Mr. Mosby," Marie decided.
"You'll probably fall off he's so dizzy," Call warned her.
"I will not fall and he is not dizzy," Marie argued. She looked at Austin. "You can help me up."
"Bossy little girl, huh?" Luther muttered to Call.
"She sure is," Jason replied.
"Thank you," Marie told Austin as he settled her in front of Mosby.
"You're welcome," Austin grinned at Mosby as he tipped his hat to Marie.
Call quickly glanced at Jamie who held the baby in his arms. "I'll take him," he said quickly.
Jamie glanced up at Austin obviously wondering if he could be trusted holding the baby. "She's real little," he warned.
Austin reached down and stared into the baby's grey eyes. Small tufts of blonde hair sneaked from under her bonnet.
"What's her name?" he asked quietly.
"Sarah," Jamie replied. "She doesn't cry."
"I'll be real careful," Austin said quietly. "I promise." Slowly he mounted his horse keeping the baby close to his body. He smiled as he saw Sarah stick her thumb in her mouth and begin to suck.
He glanced at the others who were watching in surprise at his ease with the baby.
"You leadin', Call?" he asked innocently.
They made the miners' shack with an hour of daylight left. Clay swayed briefly in the saddle as Luther reached and pulled Marie from the horse.
"Better get inside with the kids," he said.
Not feeling like arguing, Clay trudged inside with the children. He noticed that Austin carefully dismounted and handed the baby to Jamie. He briefly wondered what Austin was doing with Luther and Call in the first place.
"This place is dirty," Marie announced.
"It's inside, Marie," Jason argued. "We're lucky."
"Jason's right, Marie," Clay leaned against the door. He glanced at Jamie. "Find someplace...as clean as possible...to lay the baby. Then we'll see what's here."
Jamie glanced around and decided the small table in the middle of the room looked the cleanest. Clay figured the baby wouldn't roll off the table so he joined the children in examining the shack.
"Look!" Jason turned quickly a dirty rifle in his hand.
"Don't..." Clay started to say when the gun fired.
Marie shrieked. Clay instinctively ducked then sputtered as dirt from the ceiling fell on him. Startled, Jason threw the rifle away from him causing it to fire again when it hit the floor. Marie shrieked again. The door was flung open as first Call then Luther and Austin entered the shack with guns drawn. Marie shrieked yet again.
"Will you stop that?" Clay snapped at Marie.
The child glared at him. "Don't yell at me!" she defended herself. "He did it!" She dramatically pointed her finger at Jason.
"What the hell's goin' on?" Call demanded holstering his gun.
"I found it," Jason said quietly. "I didn't mean for it to go off."
"You don't go 'round finger' guns!" Call snapped angrily. "You coulda killed somebody!"
"I said I didn't mean it!" Jason yelled as he ran for the door.
Austin reached out and grabbed Jason. "We know," he said quietly kneeling down so he could look into Jason's eyes. "It was an accident, Jason," he explained. "That's why they're accidents." He nodded towards the rifle now in Luther's hands. "But you shouldn't touch guns. You're too young. You might have accidentally hurt someone." He winked at Jason. "Besides the sound of gunfire tends to scare the girls."
Jason instinctively looked at the baby who was being held by Jamie. "She doesn't cry," he said.
"It doesn't mean she wasn't scared," Austin said quietly. "Sometimes you can be scared but not cry. And Marie screamed."
Jason glanced at his sister who didn't seem the least bit scared. In fact, she looked rather pleased that Jason was in trouble. She saw the look on Clay's face and immediately her bottom lip began quivering.
Jason didn't seem quite convinced about Marie's fear but nodded at Austin. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.
"I know," Austin nodded. "I also know it won't happen again. Right?" When Jason nodded, Austin stood. "Why don't you and your brother come and help me gather some wood for the fireplace? We're also going to need some water from that stream."
The boys nodded and quietly left with Austin.
"Well, I'll be damned," Call shook his head in astonishment.
"You aren't supposed to cuss," Marie pointed out.
The door opened and Jamie stuck his head into the room. "Sarah needs to be changed. She's wet." He pulled his head back outside and slammed the door shut.
Call, Clay, and Luther looked first at the baby, then at each other, then at Marie....who smiled sweetly.
"You know," Luther said quietly. "They're kinda cute when they're asleep."
The others turned to see all four of the children curled up in the one bed. The three older children lying protectively around the baby.
"Too bad they don't sleep all the time," Call answered sourly.
"You think there's somethin' wrong with the baby?" Luther continued. "I mean...did you see what was there when Marie changed her?" He shook his head. "I ain't never seen nothin' like that!"
"I would have preferred not to have seen it to begin with," Clay replied wearily.
"There's nothin' wrong with Sarah," Austin said quietly.
"How come you know so much 'bout babies?" Luther challenged. "How come she don't cry?"
"Considering how her sister shrieks, I think we should be grateful for small mercies," Clay pointed out.
"Some people can't cry," Austin pointed out. He carefully avoided looking at Call who studiously looked at his plate. "Just leave her alone." He turned away and spread his bedroll out next to the bed.
"Still say that weren't normal," Luther muttered.
"Should be in Curtis Wells by noon tomorrow if the rain holds off," Call decided. He glanced up at the leaky roof. "Reckon somebody'll come lookin for those kids when the stage don't get to Miles City."
"Their uncle," Clay's eyes briefly closed then opened. "An aunt and uncle who were adopting them."
"Brave people," Luther acknowledged. He glanced at Call who began unrolling his bedroll. Shrugging he began unrolling his leaving Clay, without a bedroll, sitting at the table. Clay smiled sardonically at the duo silently acknowledging the irony of the situation. As he settled his head down on his arms on the table, they heard Marie's piercing voice. "Where is Mr. Mosby sleeping?"
"Not my concern," Call said firmly rolling over to go to sleep.
"Go to sleep, Marie," Clay ordered. "I will sleep here."
"There's room here," she announced calming rolling Jason out of the bed. Jason howled as he landed on Austin who grunted in pain. Jamie awoke and immediately assessed the situation. He firmly shoved Marie out of the bed in retaliation for the attack on his twin. Marie shrieked as she landed on top of both Jason and Austin...who grunted again.
"Dammit!" Call roared as he stood up.
"Don't cuss!" Marie yelled.
"I will if I want!" Call yelled back.
As Austin finally sat up holding Jason and Marie at arms length, Luther managed to kill his grin. Clay sat back in feigned nonchalance to see what Call would do.
"You," Call pointed at Jason. "You like Luther? You sleep in his bedroll." Call glared at Luther who started to protest.
"I wanna sleep with you," Jamie announced pointing at Call.
"Fine, get over here!" Call said sternly.
"I'll take Sarah," Austin quickly reached for the baby who was watching everyone with solemn gravity.
Marie sat on the bed. "I told you there was room," she said to Clay.
"And so there is," Clay smiled at the others. "Gentlemen." He lay down on the bed then grunted as Marie settled in against him. He wondered if she deliberately planned striking his thigh with her elbow and knee at the same time.
"Now sleep!" Call ordered laying down next to Jamie.
"Son of a bitch, Call," Luther muttered after a moment. "Mosby got the bed."
"He also got Marie," Jamie snickered.
"Yeah," Luther started to smile. "He did."
They were a bedraggled lot as the rode past the cemetery into Curtis Wells. Luther held Jason on the horse in front of him. He would later claim that the boy had asked at least a million questions about guns, knives, Indians, and whatever else managed to attract him.
Call had rode with Jamie in companionable silence with the boy occasionally looking up at him and asking a quiet question. Call figured he had the best kid.
Austin rode silently obviously lost in thought as he carefully cradled Sarah occasionally speaking softly to her. They stopped often to, as Marie put it, to change Sarah. Luther shook his head ever time they stopped still certain something was wrong with the baby.
Marie continually chattered to Mosby which didn't help his headache. She assured him she was going to be a grand and beautiful lady. She would have many gentlemen callers all of whom would certainly teach her brothers a severe lesson in both manners and humility. Mosby was reduced to simply nodding in silence wondering if they would ever reach Curtis Wells.
Dr. Cleese and Josiah Peale watched in silence as they rode in. "Stage was attacked," Call said simply.
"Clay, you come with me," Dr. Cleese's eyes narrowed at the bandage on Mosby's head. "Bring the children, too. I'll check them over."
Luther easily dismounted bringing Jason down with him. "Check the baby," he said lowly to Cleese. "She don't cry but she does a lot of..." he glanced down to see Jason frowning at him. "You heard the doc," he changed the subject. "Git."
Josiah's mouth opened in amazement as Austin passed him carrying the baby. "But, Austin doesn't know anything about babies," he said to no one in particular.
Call shrugged. "Reckon he knows somethin'," he said. "Who's gonna take care of 'em until their uncle and aunt get here?"
"I'll take care of the horses," Luther excused himself quickly although he'd been thinking the same thing.
Call looked at Josiah who glanced up at Cleese's office. "Well, I'm sure someone..." Josiah's voice trailed off. It was obvious he was thinking about Austin bringing home a baby.
"Yeah," Call nodded noncommittally and walked off.
"Newt," Josiah called but Call merely waved his hand and continued walking. CONTINUED PART TWO