My thanks to Robinita for not only the idea in her vignette but also her kind permission and encouragement to take the idea and run with it. I hope it lives up to her expectation.
When had he gotten so tired, Clay wondered. When had it become such a burden to even move? His eyes burned from staring at the cross on the Christmas tree. He rubbed them absently welcoming the sting. The church had long since lost any warmth it possessed leaving it empty and deserted.
Clay didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there or even what he expected to find. There were no answers and probably never had been. All the faith Mary had possessed hadn’t saved her from being raped and butchered. All the faith in the world his friends had still hadn’t prevented them from dying in the service of a lost cause. All the faith Hannah Peale had possessed hadn’t saved her life.
Slowly, aching like an old man, Clay stood. There was nothing here for him. He hadn’t really expected there would be. Yet, like a man dying of thirst seeking that one last drop of water from an empty canteen, he looked around the church...waiting...listening. He hesitated at the door of the church then left it open as he’d found it. Perhaps someone else would be able to find comfort or forgiveness...if such things still existed.
Hidden in the shadows, Robert watched his friend slowly walk back towards the Ambrosia Club. He hesitated as a light came on in Clay’s room. Taking a deep breath, he turned towards the Dove. It had been years since he’d seen Clay look this bad. But Clay had given him his word. He wouldn’t go back on it now.
Call huddled deep in his coat as he watched Shelby disappear inside the Dove. He glanced up at the light in Mosby’s room over the Ambrosia. He saw Mosby’s shadow at the window and a glimpse of him as he looked outside. Then Mosby turned away.
Call slowly walked back down the street. He hesitated in front of the church then slowly went inside. He slowly looked around telling himself he just wanted to make sure Mosby hadn’t disturbed anything. Like Mosby, he felt the cold chill inside the church. Like Mosby, he slowly turned around and left.
Call walked to the jail and closed the door. He leaned against it briefly wondering at his own feeling of weariness. He saw the opened Christmas present from Caroline lying on the desk. Despite her assurance that it was also from Josiah and Austin, Call knew it had been Caroline’s gift.
Putting more wood on the fire, he sat behind the desk. Slowly he reached out and took the blanket Caroline had given him. He hadn’t seen this in Creel’s store and suddenly realized she must have made it. He slowly wrapped it around him and propped his feet up on the desk. Despite himself, he snuggled into the blanket unconsciously luxuriating in its warmth.
Call could have sworn he’d barely closed his eyes. The sound of a gunshot cutting out through the still night air brought him to his feet hardly before he knew it. Hand on his gun, Call ran outside trying to figure out where the shot had come from.
By the time he’d reached the Dove, Austin and Robert had run out into the street. Austin glanced at Call who shrugged. Robert looked over at the light in Clay’s room. He knew Clay had to have heard the shot. Without a word, he started running towards the Ambrosia.
Austin glanced at Call then followed Robert. Call saw Luther running towards them as half the town now was standing on the street. “You people get back inside,” Call shouted as he motioned Luther to follow Austin.
“Clay!” Robert shouted as he entered the Ambrosia. Not waiting for an answer, he ran up the stairs. “Clay! Answer me!” With Austin at his heels he burst into Clay’s room.
They found Mosby lying across his bed...blood flowing slowly from a wound in his head. Robert rushed to the bed as Austin stared in shock.
“He’s breathing,” Robert turned to Austin. “Get a doctor!”
Austin turned and saw Luther starting up the stairs. “Get Cleese,” he told him in a low voice. “Fast.”
Luther nodded and left. Austin walked back to Clay’s room.
“You promised me, Clay,” Robert was muttering as he knelt on the bed next to his friend. “Damn you, you promised.”
Austin turned as Call slid into the room. Call’s eyes flickered as he studied the room. A half-empty bottle and glass sat on a nearby table. Mosby’s gun lay on the floor next to the bed.
“Get out of here,” Robert looked at Call. “I told you to leave him alone.”
“Didn’t do nothin’ to him,” Call bit off the words.
“For all I know, you did this,” Robert’s voice rose. “Now get out!”
“Come on, Call,” Austin took Call’s arm. He stepped aside as Cleese entered the room. He felt Call pull against him, but he pulled harder and got Call outside the room.
“Let me go, Austin,” Call finally pulled his arm free. “I didn’t shoot Mosby.”
“I know that,” Austin looked surprised at Call’s hot denial. “If you were going to shoot him, you wouldn’t do it this way.”
Call glared at him not certain how to take Austin’s answer. “Stay here and see what you can find out,” he finally snapped before heading down the stairs. He passed Flynn on the steps. He heard the preacher say something to Austin before going inside Mosby’s room. He was surprised to see people in the bar downstairs.
“What’s going on?” Amanda demanded.
“Don’t think you should be out,” Call evaded. “You’re still cut up.”
“Never mind about that,” Amanda said dismissively. “What happened?”
Call looked around. “Where’s Luther?” he asked.
“He said he was going to look around outside,” Josiah answered. “Newt...”
Call ignored him brushing his way past Mattie and Caroline near the door. “You people need to go home,” he advised roughly. Outside, he found Luther behind the Ambrosia.
“Too many people traipsin’ around here,” Luther said disgustedly glancing at Call. “How’s Mosby?”
Call shrugged. “Cleese and Flynn are with him,” he answered. “Told Austin to stay and see what he could find out.” He was aware of Luther’s curious glance at him and flushed. “I didn’t shoot him.”
“Didn’t say you did,” Luther replied looking away. After a moment, he glanced back. “But somebody’s gonna say it.”
“Sayin’ it don’t mean it’s true,” Call snapped. “Ain’t gonna find nothin’ now.”
He and Luther returned to the Ambrosia surprised to see Austin with Caroline and Mattie. “They’re still upstairs,” he said quietly. “Mattie’s gonna see Caroline back to the Dove.”
“Want me to walk ya, Mattie?” Luther quickly asked aware of Call’s glance at him.
“We’ll be fine, Luther,” Mattie took Caroline’s arm. “Let me know what happens,” she whispered as she passed him in the door.
Call’s eyes narrowed as he saw Luther nod in agreement to whatever Mattie whispered to him. He glanced at Amanda and Elizabeth. “You women need to go, too,” he snapped.
“Do we?” Elizabeth eyed him coolly. “I think I’ll wait for my husband, Sheriff. Clay’s my friend, too.”
“Do what you want,” Call muttered with a shrug.
Josiah went into the back of the Ambrosia. To their surprise, he soon returned with coffee. Passing cups around, he shrugged. “I know where Clay keeps it,” he said.
Everyone jerked when they heard the door upstairs open and close. Ephraim and Robert slowly walked downstairs. Elizabeth frowned at the expression on her husband’s face.
“Mosby alive?” Call’s voice cracked through the strained silence like a whip.
“Yes,” Ephraim slowly cleaned his glasses. “Barely.”
“He say anythin’?” Luther asked curiously.
“No, he hasn’t regained consciousness,” Ephraim replaced his glasses. He glanced somewhat fearfully at Robert who stood next to him. “It looks like a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”
“That’s a lie,” Robert’s voice was low but full of scorn. “The bullet didn’t enter his head. It furrowed along the side.”
“How can you be sure?” Josiah asked Ephraim.
“The angle of the wound,” Ephraim said slowly. “There’s gunpowder burns on near the wound and in his hair. There’s no evidence of a struggle.” He glanced at Robert. “He could have changed his mind at the last second.”
“Mosby ain’t gonna let nobody get that close to him,” Luther pointed out.
“I said he didn’t shoot himself!” Robert turned on Luther angrily. “But I suppose it’s what you all want to hear, isn’t it?”
“Robert,” Elizabeth said warningly as she went to him.
“You got somethin’ to say,” Call faced him. “Go ahead and say it.”
“Any of you care?” Robert’s voice shook. “I doubt it. You hate Clay so much you don’t care that somebody tried to kill him. It’s easier to believe he shot himself.”
“That’s not true, Robert,” Josiah said soothingly.
“Tell me, Sheriff Call,” Robert asked sarcastically. “If Clay dies, are you going to hunt for a killer? Or just call it suicide and forget about it?”
More than one person held their breath as Call slowly walked over to Robert. The two men eyed each other...one full of rage...the other full of cold anger. “Said when I took this job, nobody got special treatment,” Call said in a low even voice. “Everybody got treated the same. I don’t go back on my word.”
“Neither does Clay,” Robert said so softly that only Call heard. “He promised me.”
Call stared into Robert’s eyes studying the man closely then turned and walked out. Luther glanced at Austin then followed.
“Robert,” Elizabeth took her husband’s arm. “Come with me. It’s almost dawn. You need to get some sleep and something to eat.”
“No,” Robert shook his head. “I’m stayin’ with Clay.” He glanced at the others in the room. “I don’t know who else can be trusted.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Amanda snapped as she stood up. “Clay and I have our differences, but you better understand one thing, Robert Shelby. If I was going to kill him, he’d be dead by now!”
Robert slowly smiled. “True,” he admitted. “I apologize, Amanda.” He glanced at Josiah. “To you as well, sir.” He ignored Austin.
“You’re just upset and rightly so,” Josiah nodded. “Let us know if we can help.”
“We need to keep this as quiet as possible,” Austin spoke up from the doorway where he’d watched Call and Luther disappear down the street. When they looked at him, he returned their stares coldly. “Mosby never shot himself. I know that even if Cleese questions it.”
Ephraim shrunk into himself as Robert gave him another angry look. “I said it looked self-inflicted,” he defended himself.
“Somebody tried to kill Mosby,” Austin continued. “They may try again.”
“They can try,” Robert promised grimly. “They won’t succeed.”
As Luther had predicted, word spread that someone had shot Mosby...and Call was the leading candidate as the shooter. By mid-morning, Mattie had already had two shouting matches defending Call. By the time Flynn rang the church bell for Christmas Day services, the town was polarized between those (dependent upon Mosby) who wanted to attack Call, and those (who didn’t like Mosby) who were prepared to defend Call.
As Flynn looked out over the congregation, he sighed to himself. He saw Josiah’s worried look and knew it mirrored his own. He knew Josiah expected him to speak soothingly. But he recognized that emotions were running high. As he began the opening prayer, he saw the door open and Austin quietly close the door behind him. He watched furtively as Austin slid into the back pew seemingly content to stay there rather than sit with his wife and father.
Josiah wasn’t the only one surprised when Flynn launched into a scathing sermon. He glanced around worriedly as the preacher seemed to catch the raw conflicting emotions of those around him. Yet Flynn was able to harness those emotions somehow drawing them into himself and giving them a voice.
Austin carefully watched those around him. He wished he was able to see their faces. He knew Luther would watch Call’s back. It was up to him to see if he could determine who, besides Call, hated Mosby enough to try and murder him.
Amanda slowly opened the door to Mosby’s room. She caught her breath as she saw Robert’s pistol aimed directly at her. Slowly Robert relaxed and Amanda stepped inside.
“Sorry,” Robert apologized although he didn’t sound all that apologetic.
“Merry Christmas to you, too,” Amanda replied waspishly. She glanced down at the bed. “How is he?”
“No change,” Robert said briefly. He sat back in the chair evidently weary. “What are you doing here?”
“I can sit here as well as over at the Dove,” Amanda put her hands on her hips. “Besides, you’re exhausted. You can sleep while I sit with him.” She glanced around. “Now get me a chair.”
A ghost of a grin flashed across Robert’s face. “I can see why you and Elizabeth get along so well,” he muttered. He set the chair next to the bed. “You think Call shot him?”
“Good Lord no!” Amanda exclaimed. “I mean, he’d do it if they got into a gunfight. But like this, no. I mean, not even Austin would do that.” Or would he, she suddenly asked herself.
Robert’s eyebrows rose as though considering Austin as a suspect. Then she shook his head. “Austin and I came out of the Dove together after hearing the shot,” he remembered. “Call was already in the street.”
Amanda reached over and took the cloth from Clay’s forehead. She dipped it into the basin on the table next to the bed. Wringing it dry, she replaced it on Clay’s forehead. “Call didn’t do it,” she repeated. “If he was going to face Clay, he’d do it in broad daylight in the middle of the street...in front of everybody.”
“Maybe,” Robert reluctantly admitted. “But I wonder how hard he’s gonna look for who did it?” He settled back in his chair and closed his eyes. “Wake me if Clay stirs,” he ordered.
By the time Flynn got through with his congregation, he’d brought them more than once from the depths of despair to the heights of enthusiasm. In other words, they were emotionally wrung dry and grateful to go home.
“Interesting sermon,” Austin half-grinned as he joined Caroline and Josiah at the door.
“I don’t enjoy doing that,” Flynn said somewhat irritably. “Certainly not on Christmas.” He sighed heavily. “But I think it diffused some potential trouble.”
“Please join us for Christmas dinner,” Caroline invited. “You’re more than welcome.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Peale,” Flynn smiled tiredly. “I realize I’m imposing, but I would like the company.”
“It’s not an imposition,” Josiah assured him. He glanced at Austin. “Will you and Newt be joining us?”
“Probably not, Father,” Austin gave Caroline a quick kiss on the cheek. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Caroline squeezed his arm. “Don’t worry,” she urged him with a returned whisper. She turned to Josiah and Flynn. “Perhaps we can invite some of the others to join us as well.”
As Austin left the church, he saw Luther and Call coming out from behind the Ambrosia. He followed them towards the jail. Inside, Luther was pouring himself a cup of coffee as Call leaned against the jail cell.
“Found tracks down the back steps,” Call said as Austin entered. “Too many people tracked around afterwards. But somebody was up there last night.”
“Mosby?” Austin asked tossing his hat onto the desk. He stopped as he stared at the chair behind the desk.
“Too small,” Luther said disgustedly. “I shoulda thought of that last night.” He glanced at Call. “Sorry.”
Call shrugged crossing his arms in front of his chest. “Whoever it was is gonna try again,” he figured. “Can’t take the chance on Mosby identifyin’ him. But nobody’s gonna try as long as Shelby’s there.”
“What’s this doing here?” Austin held up the blanket Call had slung over the chair. He turned to Call. “This is Caroline’s. I saw her with it.”
Call, coldly trying to figure out a way to leave Mosby vulnerable, simply stared at Austin not entirely comprehending what he was talking about.
“Answer me, Call!” Austin yelled. “What’s Caroline’s blanket doing here?” He started towards Call only to have Luther get in his way.
“Don’t be an idiot, Austin,” Call warned suddenly realizing what Austin was talking about. He half-smiled. “I thought Caroline was stretchin’ the truth.”
“Call!” Luther warned as he shoved Austin back. “Somebody want to tell me what’s goin’ on?” He looked at both men for an answer.
“Ask Call,” Austin said jealously. He saw something flicker in Call’s eyes and caught his breath suddenly wishing he’d kept quiet.
“I’m gettin’ awfully tired of this,” Luther warned. He suddenly reached out and shoved Call into the cell. Before Austin could react, Luther had shoved him in beside Call. Both men lunged for the door but Luther slammed it shut in their faces.
“Luther!” Call yelled. “Open this door!”
“Nope,” Luther shook his head. “I’m tired of you two actin’ like a couple of brats. Now you settle it!” He slammed the jail door behind him for emphasis.
Austin glared angrily at the closed door. Call kicked the cell door in frustration.
Robert glanced at Clay through half-closed eyes. Amanda sat quietly in the chair studying Clay and thinking only God knew what, he realized. As Robert closed his eyes, he wearily asked himself how many vigils he’d kept. Far too many to either count or want to remember, he decided.
New Orleans, Kansas City, St. Louis....tiny towns in between and beyond. Nights when ghosts haunted Clay to the point he couldn’t sleep...couldn’t even get drunk enough to pass out. Nights when all that stood between Clay Mosby and death was a very determined Robert Shelby.
As Robert dozed, he thought about the many times Clay had tried to drive him away...so he could die...and how many times Robert had simply and quietly refused to even listen...or obey. A childhood friendship had been tempered by war and a grim determination to survive a hellish prison camp...then hardened into an unshakeable faith in one another as one friend kept the other from embracing death. It was never spoke aloud, but Robert knew that Clay would unhesitatingly forfeit his life to save Robert...and Robert knew Clay understood he would do the same in return...even if he didn’t have a death wish like Clay.
But Clay had promised him...that last time. That filthy little town in New Mexico when Robert had pulled the gun away from Clay...when it had gone off and nearly killed Robert in the process. Clay had been so shaken that Robert had forced him to promise he’d never do anything like that again. Clay had promised him...and Clay didn’t lie to him.
Mattie glanced up as Luther walked through the door of the Dove.
“Merry Christmas, Mattie,” Luther grinned. “Can I sit?”
“Sure, Luther, join us,” Mattie scooted her chair to one side making room for him at the table. She saw the look on his face. “Something wrong?”
“Nope, just figured I ought to get one last good meal,” he chuckled. He glanced at Flynn. “That’s what the condemned’s supposed to get, ain’t it?”
“Traditionally, yes,” Flynn nodded cautiously.
“Is something wrong, Luther?” Josiah asked.
“Not yet,” Luther started shoveling food into his mouth. “There will be when Call and Austin get outta jail.”
“Out of jail!” Josiah’s eyes widened.
“Yep, got tired of their squabblin’,” Luther looked at Caroline. “Somethin’ ‘bout a blanket this time.”
Call and Austin were standing as far apart from each other as possible when Caroline opened the door. Both men looked up expecting to see Luther. Both men slightly reddened when they saw Caroline.
“I am so angry with both of you,” she said quietly as she retrieved the keys.
“Angry?” Austin asked in surprise. “With me?”
“With both of you,” she stressed standing in front of the cell. “This is Christmas. You’re not supposed to be fighting.”
“Ain’t my fault,” Call muttered wondering why he was bothering to defend himself to Caroline. “Didn’t do nothin’.”
“I suppose it’s all my fault,” Austin sneered at Call. “Nothin’ never seems to be your fault, is it, Call?”
Call angrily glared across the cell at Austin.
“Stop it!” Caroline snapped. “Both of you or I swear I’ll throw these keys away and you can stay in there forever!”
Both men looked at her in stunned surprise.
“I don’t know what you’re fighting about, but I want it to stop,” Caroline demanded. “I want both of you to promise me.”
“Caroline,” Austin began then stopped as she glared at him. “Maybe I did make a mistake,” he muttered.
Caroline looked at Call who shrugged. When Austin looked at him, he glared back. “Got no reason to argue,” he finally muttered.
“Good,” Caroline turned the key in the lock then stepped back. As Call and Austin quickly exited the cell, she opened the front door. She stopped and looked over her shoulder. “Austin, the reason you didn’t know the blanket was for Call was that you’ve been so busy helping Josiah at the Statesman. Call, that’s why Austin didn’t know.” She saw both men look away embarrassed. “And I want both of you to leave Luther alone. He only did what you deserved.” She slammed the door behind her.
Despite himself, Call eyed Austin sympathetically. “Better go after her,” he advised.
“Yeah,” Austin agreed. He glanced at Call. “I’m sorry.”
Call shrugged. “Don’t matter none,” he muttered. “Guess I’d ‘ve done the same.”
Something cool surrounded him...cool and soothing. Instinct told him he was hurt badly. He felt someone touch his cheek and he tried to cling to that touch.
Amanda hesitated wondering if she’d imagined the slight movement of Clay’s head. Then she saw Clay trying to open his eyes. She stared to raise up and rouse a sleeping Robert.
She was leaving again, Clay thought in despair...just like every other dream of her. Leaving him alone and cold. “Mary,” he tried to call out.
Amanda stopped surprised at the whispered word. “What is it, Clay?” she asked softly leaning forward.
“Mary,” Clay tried to reach for her.
Amanda sat down on the bed surprised at the strength in Clay’s grip on her wrist. “Don’t, Clay,” she urged her hand on his cheek. “Don’t move.”
“Mary,” Clay tried to hold onto the ghost. “Don’t leave me again...please don’t leave me.”
Amanda froze then slowly patted his cheek. “I won’t,” she said soothingly. “I’m not leaving.” She winced slightly as Clay tightly held onto her wrist as if it were the only thing that kept him alive. “I won’t leave.” She saw Robert jerk then sit up.
“Don’t leave me, Mary,” Clay murmured as he drifted back into the darkness.
Robert leaned over Clay gently touching his shoulder. Not for the first time, Amanda wondered at the bond between the two.
“Who’s Mary?” she asked.
“His wife,” Robert sighed running a hand through his hair. “He must have thought you were her.”
“Clay has a wife?” Amanda gently tried to move her hand only to have Clay reflexively grip it tighter.
“He did,” Robert sat on the side of the bed. “She was raped and murdered by some Yankee soldiers at the end of the war. When we got back, Clay’s family was dead and his home burned almost to the ground.” He hesitated. “Christmas was Mary’s favorite holiday.” He grinned suddenly. “Hell, all the Mosbys’ loved Christmas.”
“Not any more,” Amanda said gently.
Robert’s face darkened. “No,” he agreed abruptly. “I doubt Clay will thank me for tellin’ you ‘bout this.”
“Then it’ll be out dark little secret,” Amanda said lightly with a smile.
Austin helped Robert move the table from the side of Clay’s bed allowing Cleese to put both chairs next to the bed. Every time they tried to ease Amanda’s wrist from Clay’s grasp, he held onto her tighter. Cleese, worried about Amanda’s recent surgery, finally agreed to allow her to stay if she was able to stretch out and not sit up all the time.
Austin, however, thought it was more fear of Robert’s reaction if he forced Amanda to leave than out of consideration for Mosby’s emotional state. He glanced down at Clay and realized he was still trying to prove to Mosby he was worth something...that Mosby had been wrong to turn on him. 'You should have trusted me, Mosby,' Austin thought. Then he abruptly turned to Robert. “We need to talk,” Austin said as he pulled Robert into the hallway where Call and Luther waited.
“What?” Robert asked in exasperation.
“Whoever shot Mosby ain’t gonna come back as long as you’re with him,” Call said coldly.
“You want to just leave him without any protection?” Robert scoffed.
“He’ll be protected,” Austin assured him. “But you know as well as I do, Shelby, whoever it is will come after him again. Best we control the situation.”
Robert frowned not wanting to acknowledge the sense of it. “If anything happens to Clay,” he warned softly. “He won’t be the only to die.”
Death was a familiar acquaintance...almost an old friend. Death had walked with him for so long that it no longer held any sort of terror for him...perhaps a morbid fascination...but no terror. But Clay felt the familiarity of death around him...stalking him. This time he held Mary with him. Death would not take her from him another time. He would go this time as well.
He actually felt the cold chill of Death’s hand and gripped Mary’s hand tighter. He heard her scream and tried to pull her closer. The violent sounds that always accompanied death rang in his ears....shouting...gunfire...screams of the dying. Clay grunted as he forced his eyes open. Someone was on top of him even as he lost his grip on Mary’s hand.
Robert, who had fallen half on top of Clay to protect him from any errant stray bullet, slowly sat up.
Clay, looked past his friend to see Luther and Austin struggling with someone. The door to the balcony was open allowing cold winter air to whip through the room. Call quickly shut the door then went to help Amanda who was getting to feet holding her side in pain.
“I tell you he’s the Devil!” Eleanor Carson was screaming. “He must die!”
“Robert,” Clay murmurred. When Robert glanced down at him, Clay continued. “I swear...” he took a deep breath. “I didn’t try....”
“I know,” Robert interrupted with a smile. “You promised me.” He glanced over his shoulder at Eleanor. “She’s the one who shot you?” he asked.
Clay nodded wearily blinking as he tried to understand what was going on.
“You sure?” Call snapped.
“I ought to know who tried to blow my head off,” Clay closed his eyes. “She was here when I returned from...my walk. I turned around and next thing I knew a gun went off.”
“Your gun,” Robert pointed out. He watched in silence as Luther and Austin dragged a screaming Eleanor out of the room. “She’s insane.”
“C’mon,” Call put an arm around Amanda. “You need to see Cleese.”
“Amanda?” Clay looked up in surprise. “What are you doin’ here?”
“That’s the last time I do you a favor,” Amanda looked at Robert in indignation. When Clay looked questioningly at Robert, she winked.
Robert groaned inwardly realizing that what Amanda knew, Elizabeth would soon know. He had a feeling he would be walking a very slippery tightrope in the future. It wasn’t a pleasant thought.
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