SECOND THOUGHTS & SECOND CHANCES

Austin Peale didn’t really like doing difficult things. In fact, he avoided them if at all possible. But, Caroline was leaving and he really had no choice. He glanced across the breakfast table at his fiancé and smiled despite himself. Caroline Hall was a small blonde-haired woman with a pale complexion that hinted at frailty of health.

Her uncle, Randall Terence, smoothed back his thinning blonde hair. It had been very obvious almost from the beginning that Caroline had preferred Austin Peale over Robert Shelby, a fact that still surprised him. He absently shook his head. He didn’t like his plans being altered and Caroline’s infatuation with Austin Peale was a definite alteration.

“I have a couple of errands to run, Caroline,” Austin apologized as he stood. “But I’ll be back before the stage leaves.”

“I wish the two of you would be sensible and agree to have the wedding in Denver,” Terence said irritably. “It’s going to be damned difficult for your friends, Caroline. And what if this circuit riding preacher doesn’t show up on time?”

“Then my friends may send their best wishes,” Caroline replied quietly. “And we’ll wait until the minister arrives.”

Terence glanced at Austin. “You see, young man?” he said half-jokingly. “She may be delicate but she’s stubborn.”

Austin took Caroline’s hand and frowned slightly at the mention of her health. Caroline saw this and gave her uncle a pleading look. “I wish you wouldn’t say that, uncle,” she tried to laugh. “You’re going to give Austin the impression he’s marrying a bullheaded invalid.”

“You are delicate,” Terence repeated stubbornly. “No need to hide it.”

“I think Caroline’s health might improve here,” Austin intervened as Caroline frowned. “The air in Denver is very thin from what I’ve heard.”

Terence grunted but Caroline smiled up at Austin.

Austin kissed the back of Caroline’s hand. “I’ll be back,” he promised.

Caroline watched him leave then turned back to her uncle.

Terence held up his hand to forestall her words. “I’m not going to lie to the young man, Caroline,” he said sternly. “And I’m not going to pretend that I think you’ll be happier and healthier in Curtis Wells.” He sighed and took Caroline’s hand as she dropped her head. “Why is it that the women in my family are always able to get what they want from me by looking like I’ve just kicked them in the teeth when all I’m trying to do is look out for them?” he asked forcing a laugh.

“I’m sorry,” Caroline blinked. “I know you wanted me to marry Robert Shelby.”

Terence grunted. “Well, there’s no need to go over that again,” he said firmly. “You want Austin so Austin you will have.” He sat back in his chair. “I wonder why he didn’t want us to say anything? I had the Devil’s own time persuading both Robert and Clay not to mention anything.”

“Austin probably wanted to tell his father and friends first,” Caroline answered softly. “After all, we’ll be announcing it in Denver.”

Terence grunted again not believing a word of Caroline’s explanation.

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

Austin hesitated in front of the offices of the Montana Statesman and took a deep breath. He saw his father and Amanda Carpenter bent over one of the desks working on the next edition of the paper. He felt the tension knotting his shoulders as he opened the door.

Josiah Peale turned around and smiled at his son. “Austin!” he greeted happily. “I’m glad you stopped by.”

“Something wrong?” Austin asked his eyes automatically studying Amanda.

“No, nothing’s wrong,” Josiah chose to ignore Austin’s actions. “I just hadn’t seen you in the last couple of days.”

Amanda glanced from Josiah to Austin and smiled. “Josiah, I have a few errands to run,” she reached for her cloak. “Can I get you anything?”

“No, thank you, Amanda,” Josiah smiled gratefully. He helped her with her cloak very aware that Austin was studiously ignoring them. When the door closed behind Amanda, he turned to his son. “I suppose it’s too much to ask that the two of you at least try to be polite to each other?” he removed his glasses.

“You know my feelings about Amanda being here, Father,” Austin’s hand made a chopping motion as though dismissing Amanda. “I don’t want to argue with you about that.”

“Good,” Josiah looked relieved. “It’s just from our talk at the dance I had the impression...”

“Father, I need a favor,” Austin interrupted.

“Of course,” Josiah frowned slightly at the interruption but nodded his head. “What is it, son?”

Austin hesitated. He removed his hat and tossed it on the table. “I’ve asked Caroline Hall to marry me and she’s agreed,” he said hurriedly.

Josiah sat down quickly. “Marriage?...when...what...” he shook his head. “Austin, this is rather sudden, isn’t it?”

“Maybe to you,” Austin reluctantly acknowledged. “Not to us.”

“What does her uncle say?” Josiah asked. “I think he wanted...”

“Caroline doesn’t want to marry Robert Shelby,” Austin said firmly. “She wants to marry me.”

“I wish you wouldn’t interrupt, Austin,” Josiah reproved his son. Then he smiled hugged Austin. “What am I saying? Congratulations, Austin.”

“Thank you, Father,” Austin hugged his father back relishing the sudden approval.

“When is the wedding?” Josiah asked stepping back. His eyes twinkled. “You know I’m going to announce it in the Statesman.”

Austin winced. “Next month when the circuit preacher arrives,” he said. “Perhaps you’d better talk with Caroline about the announcement. She’s planning on announcing it in Denver.”

“I’ll go right now,” Josiah reached for his hat. “Clay mentioned they were leaving today.”

“Father,” Austin put a hand on his father’s arm. “That’s not the favor I wanted.” When Josiah looked at him, Austin took a deep breath. “Do you still have grandmother’s rings? I’d like to give them to Caroline.”

“Why, of course, Austin,” Josiah looked a little relieved. “They’re packed away upstairs in my closet in that tin box.” When Austin hesitated, Josiah smiled. “Hurry up, Austin. That stage won’t wait while you stand here. Go get them.” He was out the door before Austin could reply.

Austin slowly climbed the steps to his father’s room. He looked around somewhat curiously. He hadn’t been here for almost a year. Suddenly he wondered about how his father occupied his time away from the Statesman. Shaking his head, he opened the closet door and began searching.

He soon found the box his father mentioned and took it to the dresser. Opening it, he was surprised to find it held various papers. He saw his parents’ wedding license as well as notices of both his and Hannah’s births. He saw a small velvet jewelry bag and opened it. He smiled as he saw the two small rings he recalled gracing his grandmother’s finger. He remembered his grandmother as not much taller than Caroline. Taking one of the rings, he put it in his pocket and replaced the other to use at the wedding.

His attention was caught by a faded photograph in the bottom of the box. Reaching down, he pulled it out and caught his breath. Captured for all time was the Peale family. Josiah and Sarah smiled looking content and happy. Austin gently rubbed a finger across the face of his sister, Hannah, who looked straight at the camera smiling and eager. He looked at his face in the picture then reluctantly looked in the mirror over the dresser. He studied his reflection for a moment then silently replaced the picture in the bottom of the box.

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

“Caroline!” Josiah called across the lobby of the Dove.

“Mr. Peale,” Caroline smiled. “I was just going to finish packing.”

“Austin told me,” Josiah said breathlessly. “I want you to know I’m pleased for you both.”

“Thank you, Mr. Peale,” Caroline blushed. “I’ll do everything I can to make him happy.” She hesitated then hugged Josiah carefully.

Josiah closed his eyes and returned the hug. “Well,” he said pulling away after a moment. He looked at the floor blinking hard. “Austin mentioned you were going to make the announcement in Denver. I’d like to announce it in the Statesman but not before you announce it.”

Caroline tactfully ignored Josiah’s reddened eyes. “That’s very considerate of you, Mr. Peale,” she said. “It would be very nice if you could wait a week?”

“Of course!” Josiah nodded. He looked at Caroline. “I’m so very pleased,” he said softly.

“So am I,” Caroline smiled.

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

Newt Call glanced up from studying wanted posters. He scowled as Austin entered the jail.

Austin glanced around. “Where’s Luther?” he asked.

“Out,” Call said dismissively looking back down at the desk. When Austin didn’t leave, he glanced back up. His eyes narrowed when Austin grinned.

“I’m gettin’ married, Call,” Austin announced. He saw the look of surprise and continued. “Next month when the circuit preacher comes around.” When Call continued to look at him in silent surprise, Austin continued. “I’m marrying Caroline Hall and I want you and Luther to stand up with me.” For the rest of his life Austin would always remember the stunned look on Call’s face.

“What?” Call finally managed to croak.

“What part didn’t you understand?” Austin asked innocently leaning against the door. “The part about getting married? The part about getting married to Caroline? The part about you and Luther?” He folded his arms across his chest and waited.

Call instinctively put his hands in front of him as though pushing something away from him. “Married?” he repeated. Then he smirked. “Don’t reckon Shelby’s real happy ‘bout that.”

Austin shrugged. “I don’t particularly care about Shelby or what he thinks,” he answered.

“She seems like a good woman,” Call said reflectively.

“She is,” Austin said quietly.

Call studied Austin for a moment. “You sure ‘bout this?” he asked equally quiet.

“Yes,” Austin met Call’s eyes firmly. When Call glanced away, Austin smiled to himself. “So, you gonna do it, Call?”

Call looked confused for a moment, then suddenly stood. “I can’t, Austin,” he said roughly going over to look out the window. “Why not ask Josiah?”

“Because I don’t want my father standing there with me,” Austin said quietly. When Call didn’t react, he continued. “Because you and I were friends once. Because I’ve decided I want a life, Call. And I want to try and make Curtis Wells a decent place again.”

“Can’t go back,” Call’s voice grated.

“No,” Austin agreed. “But we can go forward.”

Call’s jaw tightened. “What about Luther?” he asked. “Didn’t think you’re supposed to have everybody standin’ with you.”

“Call, I’ve decided I can pretty much do whatever I want,” Austin said lightly. “Besides, since when did you decide that what you’re going to do is based on what Luther does?”

Call looked over his shoulder and scowled. “Best make plans for Luther to be there,” he grunted.

“Alright, Call,” Austin looked disappointed. “If that’s what you want.” He turned and opened the door.

“Don’t need to get fancy-dressed and make a fool of myself in front of some folks,” Call grumbled.

“You know something, Call?” Austin turned back. “I don’t give a damn anymore about making a fool of myself in front of Mosby. Maybe you should stop, too.” He saw Call’s angry look and smiled. “Or are you talkin’ about Mattie?”

When Call didn’t reply, Austin started out the door.

“I’ll try to be there,” Call said suddenly. When Austin glanced back at him, he was looking out the window. “If you and Luther are both at the weddin’, somebody’s gotta be out to keep the peace. But I’ll try.”

“Thanks, Call,” Austin nodded. He closed the door behind him and grinned widely.

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

“You want me to what?” Luther looked at Austin in shock.

“Stand up with me at my wedding,” Austin repeated. “You know I’m getting a little tired of repeating myself.”

“Ain’t that, Austin,” Luther shook his head as though struggling with his thoughts. “Me?”

“Yeah,” Austin nodded. “I figure you and Call are probably the only ones I can call my friends.” He grinned. “Not exactly flattering to either of us, is it?” he teased.

“Call?” Luther’s eyes were as wide as possible. “Call’s gonna do it?” He slowly grinned. “Hell, Austin, I’ll do it just to see Call dressed up and in a church.”

“Wouldn’t count on him dressing up too much,” Austin had to smile. He held out his hand to Luther. “Thanks, Luther.”

“Sure,” Luther shook Austin’s hand and watched him walk down the street. “I gotta talk to Call,” he muttered to himself.

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

Clay Mosby stood behind his friend as they watched the stage loading. Robert Shelby’s face was a study in rage.

“Did you really love her?” Clay asked quietly.

Shelby shrugged. “Doesn’t matter now, I suppose,” he said. “Won’t make any difference in my business with Terence.”

Clay put a hand on Shelby’s arm. “I’m sorry, Robert,” he said. “But short of killin’ Austin...” he grinned at Robert’s expression. “While that certainly appeals to me, I’m afraid it would cause more problems than it would solve.”

After a moment, Robert smiled wanly. “I suppose you’re right, Clay,” he agreed. Taking a deep breath, he smiled. “I should say goodbye.” Clay nodded and followed his friend across the street.

Terence threw the last of the luggage up to the driver. He smiled as he saw Clay and Robert approaching. “Clay, I don’t imagine there will be any problems in approving a railroad spur from Curtis Wells to Miles City,” he said dusting off his hands. “I’ll let you know once the final approval’s been given.”

“Excellent,” Clay smiled. “I’m sure your Board of Directors will see the benefits for everyone.”

Terence turned to Robert. “I assume you’ll report to the Canadian railroad,” he said.

“Yes,” Robert nodded. “I have a few more loose ends to tie up and then I’ll be headin’ back to Canada. You can be assured we’ll be in touch.”

“Good,” Terence glanced at his watch. “Well, Clay, I will see you next month at the wedding.” He glanced apologetically at Robert. “I can’t say I’m pleased about what’s happened, Robert. But I won’t forbid her from marrying Peale. She’d probably do it anyway.” He looked disgruntled. “She’s a lot like her mother.”

“I understand,” Robert said softly. “I was planning on returning to Curtis Wells next month, but I’ll be sure not to intrude on the wedding.”

Terence gave Robert a level look. “I’m sure Caroline would have no reason not to invite you if you wish,” he said neutrally.

“I’d be honored,” Robert inclined his head. He saw Caroline and Josiah emerging from the Dove. “If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to tell Caroline goodbye.”

Terence nodded and glanced at Clay when Robert brushed by him. He saw that Clay looked somewhat uncomfortable. “I’ve always found that weddings have an element of suspense to them,” Terence idly remarked. “Don’t you, Clay?”

“Weddin’s can be interestin’,” Clay smiled neutrally.

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

“Caroline,” Robert said softly. He nodded curtly to Josiah who turned to Caroline.

“Have a safe trip,” Josiah said quietly as he hugged Caroline.

“Thank you, Mr. Peale,” Caroline smiled. She looked quickly for Austin as she turned to Robert.

Josiah moved away shaking his head. “Where are you, Austin?” he muttered.

“I suppose I should say congratulations,” Robert said softly. He gently took Caroline’s hand. “But all I can ask is, are you certain?”

Caroline gently squeezed Robert’s hand then slid her hand free. “Very certain, Robert,” she answered. “I’m sorry if...”

“Don’t be,” Robert smiled soothingly. He straightened as he saw Austin approach. “Well, here comes the hopeful bridegroom,” he said ironically.

Caroline looked a little confused but smiled when she saw Austin.

“Sorry I’m late,” Austin tossed his hat onto the nearby bench. He nodded at Terence but ignored Clay and Robert. He reached inside his pocket and brought out his grandmother’s ring. “This was my grandmother’s,” he said a little hesitantly. “I thought it would look nice on you.” He took Caroline’s hand. “If you’d rather not...”

“It’s beautiful, Austin,” Caroline smiled. “Please,” she encouraged.

Terence, Robert, and Clay all curiously edged forward to observe the ring. Austin slid it along Caroline’s small finger and exhaled. “Wasn’t sure it would fit,” he grinned at Caroline.

Terence nodded approvingly at the small diamond set in an antique gold band. It was small but of good quality and taste and didn’t overwhelm Caroline’s small hand. He made a mental note to get Elizabeth’s opinion. She was an excellent judge of jewelry.

Clay was a little disappointed that Austin’s ring wasn’t more ostentatious and gaudy. However, he remember with a dull ache, the Peale women were more refined than the Peale men.

“Very pretty,” Robert said heavily. He glared at Austin. “How nice that you’re able to pass along family heirlooms...not everyone has been able to retain theirs.” He felt Clay squeezing his arm in a tight grasp. “Have a safe trip, Caroline.” He tipped his hat to her then turned and brushed past Clay.

“My sentiments exactly, Miss Hall,” Clay tipped his hat but his eyes were on Austin’s face. “Until next month, Terence.”

“Clay,” Terence’s eyes were twinkling. He turned to Caroline and helped her into the stage.

Austin glared furiously at Clay then grabbed his hat and walked to the other side of the stage. Caroline leaned out the window and put her hand on his shoulder.

“They were cruel, Austin,” she murmured. “I’m flattered you want me to have your grandmother’s ring.”

Austin relaxed and smiled. “It doesn’t matter,” he quickly kissed her hand. “I mean it,” he said when she looked unconvinced. “I’ve decided they don’t matter. You do.”

Caroline blushed a bright pink. She felt her uncle climb into the stage. “I’ll write,” she hurriedly promised.

Austin leaned forward and gently kissed her lips. “I’ll be here,” he promised. Reluctantly, he stepped away as the stage began to move forward. He watched until the stage turned following the road away from Curtis Wells.

Austin turned his head and saw Clay standing on the sidewalk watching him intently. Austin met his gaze evenly. After a few moments, both men slowly turned and walked away.

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

Two days later, Austin awoke asking himself just what he’d gotten into. It was as though he suddenly realized he was engaged to be married. He stared at the ceiling silently aghast at what had happened. If he’d ever thought about marriage it was at some distant time occurring after he’d gotten even with Mosby.

Austin scowled as thinking about Mosby brought Shelby to mind. He was certain Shelby would try to interfere in some fashion. And Mosby....Austin smiled coldly thinking of how he and Shelby had reacted to his giving Caroline his grandmother’s ring.

Austin sat up and ran his hands through his hair. His smile softened as he thought about Caroline...and he knew why he’d done what he did.

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

“The Montana State Bank is pleased you’ve decided to do business with us, Mr. Shelby,” Chad Harper smiled. “I would like to personally assure you of my complete cooperation.”

Robert Shelby smiled at the banker. His smile hid his amusement. Harper’s bank was the only bank in Curtis Wells. “Thank you,” he said smoothly. “You’ll be gettin’ all the necessary information from my employers in Canada and our partners in Denver.” He rose and shook Harper’s hand. “I should be back next month.”

“I look forward to seeing you then,” Harper escorted Robert to the door where he saw Clay Mosby almost colliding with Austin Peale.

“Stage is almost ready to leave,” Clay said to Robert after nodding to Harper.

Austin smiled to himself. “Have a good trip, Shelby,” he spoke up. When Shelby’s face flushed, he turned to Harper. “I wonder if you have a few moments.”

“Of course, Deputy Peale, come in,” Harper invited.

Shelby stared at Austin for a moment then began walking across the street closely followed by Clay. Robert said quickly, “Is there anything in Denver I can bring you, Clay?”

Clay grinned. “I understand there’s a Yankee mint...” he teased. He was rewarded by Robert’s matching grin.

“I’m a legitimate businessman now, Clay,” Robert reproved his friend. “Don’t go temptin’ me.”

Clay laughed. “Of course not,” he assured his friend. He hesitated then continued. “Are you really plannin’ on attendin’ Caroline’s weddin’?”

Robert shrugged. “Lots of things can happen between now and that weddin,’ Clay,” his eyes twinkled. “Remember Jimmy Edwards? Night before his weddin’, he was two counties away and runnin’ hard.”

Clay chuckled. “I also remember Francine’s father and brothers trackin’ him and haulin’ him back by the scruff of the neck,” he remembered. They were silent for a moment both remembering how Jimmy had slowly coughed out his lungs in a filthy Yankee prison camp.

“I’ll see you in month, Clay,” Robert said somewhat abruptly as they reached the stage. He glanced around Curtis Wells. “Who knows?” he suddenly teased. “Perhaps this little mudhole might actually become a half-way decent sized town.” He chuckled as Clay’s eyes narrowed.

“Perhaps sometime I should travel to Canada to see your little mudhole,” Clay retorted.

“Anytime,” Robert said softly.

Clay turned to the driver and motioned. The driver dropped down a small box.

“You forgot this,” Clay handed the box to Robert.

Robert slowly took the box. He knew it contained the saber Clay had purchased in Miles City...the one he’d used in their early morning practices. He shivered slightly and suddenly wanted never to see it again. Then he saw the look in Clay’s eyes and forced a smile. “Keep it safe for me,” he said. “I’ll get it next month.” He handed the box to Clay. “I plan to doing a lot of traveling between now and then.” He gave Clay a quick hug. “Watch your back,” he warned suddenly.

“You as well,” Clay nodded. He frowned as the stage began to drive away. He remembered Robert’s instincts and wondered about the sudden warning. He turned and stared as Austin walked out of the bank.

Austin took a deep breath. If nothing else, his father would be pleased, he thought wryly. Now just about every penny he had was deposited in the bank. He winced slightly thinking of the amount of money he’d spent on liquor and at Twyla’s in the last several months. Austin supposed this was what being responsible felt like. He suddenly envied Call.

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

Luther Root was so intent on the wanted posted he was reading that he barreled around the corner and fell sprawling on top of Enona. The wanted posters in his hands went flying into the air. Enona’s hand was on her gun before she realized who was on top of her. She angrily shoved Luther to one side. “Ever trying watching where you’re going?” she asked.

“Sorry, Enona,” Luther apologized. “I didn’t even see you.”

Enona shrugged. She respected Luther partially because he accepted her as she was. “Must be some awfully bad people on those posters,” she said wryly as she helped Luther gather them up.

“Just one,” Luther handed Enona the poster.

“Why is he so important?” Enona asked studying the poster.

WANTED - CHRIS COFFIN! $500.00 REWARD DEAD OR ALIVE

“Was part of a gang that shot up Curtis Wells,” Luther quickly explained. “Call tried to bring in his cousins but they got killed. Coffin and his uncle brought this gang into town. They damn near killed Austin between here and Ft. Bennett. He was lucky to make it back alive.”

“Seems somebody helped him escape once he got away from here,” Enona remarked.

“They were holdin’ him in Miles City,” Luther scowled. “Never did trust that sheriff there.”

“Says he was last seen heading this way from Miles City,” Enona handed the poster back to him. “Mattie get over bein’ mad at you and Call?” she changed the subject.

Luther flushed uncomfortably. “Mattie’s got a temper,” he admitted. “But she’s a good woman. She won’t hold it against me...us.” He looked hopefully at Enona who blandly stared at him. “See ya, Enona. Better let Call know ‘bout this.”

Enona watched as Luther disappeared around the corner. She knew Call had ridden out of town with Josiah and wouldn’t be back until that afternoon. It was enough time. She didn’t see Luther shaking his head as he watched her striding towards the stable.

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

“I appreciate you coming with me, Newt,” Josiah Peale said as they approached Curtis Wells later that day. “I enjoyed the company...even if I didn’t need a guide.”

Call glanced at Josiah from the corner of his eyes. “Needed to ride,” he said abruptly. “Besides, you ever think you might need somebody along since the newspaper’s kinda rilin’ things up?”

“That’s my job, Newt,” Josiah said lightly. “I simply report the facts. If it riles things up, perhaps they need to be riled up.”

“Think you’d know better after what happened to you,” Call grunted.

Josiah frowned. “You’re starting to sound like Austin,” he complained. When Call gave him a sharp look, Josiah continued. “If Austin’s not complaining about Amanda working for me, he’s complaining about how I should be more circumspect in what I print.” He shook his head. “If he’s that interested in the Statesman, you think he’d come back to work there.”

“Maybe Austin’s just concerned ‘bout you,” Call replied. “Not ‘bout the Statesman.”

“Well, hopefully, he’ll start concentrating on his wedding,” Josiah smiled.

“And stop botherin’ you?” Call asked looking at Josiah.

“Newt!” Josiah protested. “I just think that Austin needs to worry about someone else for a while.” He hesitated then continued, “What do you think about that anyway?”

“Not my concern,” Call shrugged. “If Austin wants to get married, ain’t none of my business.”

Josiah sighed. “I just hope he knows what he’s doing,” he said as they rode into town. “It just seems like it’s happening so quickly again.”

Call winced suddenly looking at the church at the end of the street and remembering events he didn’t want to remember.

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

“Well, Deputy Peale,” Clay smiled genially as Austin entered the Ambrosia Club. “How nice of you to grace my establishment.”

Austin leaned against the bar. “I can see how happy you are to see me, Colonel,” he smirked.

“A drink?” Clay held up a whiskey bottle his eyes twinkling.

“Not for me, Mosby, but help yourself,” Austin said coldly as he leaned across the bar. “You just tell your friend, Shelby, to stay away from Caroline. If he has a problem, he can deal with me.”

“Interestin’ that you waited until Robert left to deliver your stirrin’ challenge, Deputy,” Clay smiled frostily. “But I’ll be sure to let him know if the subject arises.”

“You do that, Mosby,” Austin pushed away from the bar. “He’ll try something. Just make sure he’s man enough to come after me and not Caroline.” He stalked out not waiting for Clay’s reply.

“As you wish,” Clay murmurred in amusement.

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

Luther looked up as Call entered the jail. “Think you better see this,” Luther handed Coffin’s wanted poster to him. Call swung the door behind him but didn’t notice it stayed partially open.

Call studied it for a moment then grimaced. “Don’t suppose he got smart and decided to go somewheres else,” he said.

“He didn’t look that smart,” Luther shook his head.

Call nodded and handed the poster back to Luther. “I’ll ride out and see what I can find,” he said. “Better keep that away from Austin.”

“Keep what away from Austin?” Austin said suspiciously as he closed the door behind him. He saw Call and Luther exchange quick looks. Then Luther handed him the wanted poster.

“Dammit,” Austin said coldly as he read. He glanced at Call. “Why weren’t you going to tell me?” he demanded.

“Would’ve told you,” Call said defensively. “Just wanted to ride out and see what I could find first.”

“I’m going,” Austin said firmly.

"No,” Call braced himself as he moved between Austin and the door.

“He almost killed me, Call!” Austin shouted. “He’s mine.”

“You ain’t no bounty hunter, Austin,” Call argued. “Since I’m sheriff, I decide who goes after who.”

Luther looked from one man to the other. Before he could speak, Austin confronted Call.

“Is that so?” Austin demanded.

“You got no reason to go ridin’ out like this, Austin,” Call said tightly. “You think I’m gonna explain to Josiah and Caroline how you got yerself killed?”

“I can do my job, Call!” Austin shouted. “In fact, I can do your job! I’m going!”

Call raised his head to stare at Austin. Cold blue fire flickered in his eyes. “Ain’t that you can’t do the job, Austin,” he said coldly. “You just don’t need to do this one.”

“Well, whoever’s goin’ better hurry,” Luther broke in. “Enona’s already got a couple hours head start.”

Both men turned their heads to look at Luther. “Enona!?” Call shouted. “What’s she doin’?”

“Bein’ a bounty hunter, I guess,” Luther shrugged. “She saw the poster and then rode outta town.” He glanced at the two men and then shrugged his way past them and out the door.

“Be best to follow Enona’s trail,” Austin murmurred.

“Assumin’ she’s on the right trail to begin with,” Call eyed Austin carefully then shrugged. “Don’t reckon you’d stay here after I left?”

“No,” Austin shook his head. “Why don’t you want me along, Call?”

“Don’t matter to me,” Call said coldly as he turned to leave.

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

Luther watched silently as Call and Austin rode out of town. He was aware of Josiah joining him.

“Why is Austin going?” Josiah complained. “He doesn’t need to do that.”

“Maybe he does, Josiah,” Luther shrugged. “He’s a man and he’s gotta do what he thinks is right.”

“But...with the wedding...” Josiah shook his head.

“You think Austin’s gonna do somethin’ else after he’s married?” Luther shook his head. “He’s like you, Josiah. You didn’t stop with the paper after you got beat up. He ain’t gonna stop unless he wants to stop.”

“You think Austin’s like me?” Josiah smiled suddenly.

“He’s just as stubborn,” Luther acknowledged. He saw Mosby entering Mattie’s shop and nodded to Josiah before leaving.

Josiah watched Austin and Call’s figures as they receded in the distance. He remembered another time they rode out...a time when they both came back wounded.

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

“Hello, Clay,” Mattie smiled as Mosby closed the door behind him.

“I hope I’m not interruptin’ anythin’,” Clay grinned as he looked around the empty store.

Mattie closed the gun case and smiled. “Don’t look like it,” she admitted ruefully.

“Could I interest you in dinin’ with me tonight?” Clay offered. When she hesitated, Clay continued, “I confess that I don’t look forward to eatin’ alone. Seems Robert’s company has spoiled me, I suppose.”

Mattie grinned as Clay tried to look forlorn. “I don’t imagine you’d lack for a dinner companion,” she said pointedly looking out the window towards Twyla’s.

Clay’s face reddened somewhat. “Actually I was more interested in conversation, Mattie,” he said quickly.

“That’s good,” Mattie nodded. “Alright, Clay. How about 6 o’clock?”

“I’ll meet you here,” Clay grinned. He turned as the door opened and Luther entered. “Ah, Deputy Root,” he smiled. “It’s good to know you’ll be protectin’ all of us since Call and Austin have left town.”

“Not all of you,” Luther pointed out seeing Mattie’s frown. “I figure there’s folks need protectin’ more than you.” He looked Mosby up and down. “You bein’ such a powerful man and all.” He opened the door. “Afternoon, Mosby.”

Mosby nodded at Mattie. “Until this evenin’, Mattie,” he smiled.

Luther shut the door after Mosby and frowned.

“Somethin’ wrong, Luther?” Mattie asked.

“Yeah,” Luther nodded. “But I don’t want you mad at me so I won’t say it.”

Despite herself, Mattie smiled. “Thank you, Luther,” she said. “It’s nice that somebody thinks I can make decisions for myself.”

“Don’t really think it’s a good decision, Mattie,” Luther said carefully as he leaned against the gun case. “You still mad?”

“No,” Mattie said after a moment. “But I don’t like that you and Call were fighting like that.”

“Hell, Mattie,” Luther snorted. “Me and Call are gonna fight. That’s just the way we are. But we fight and then it’s settled.”

“Wish it could all be that simple,” Mattie muttered as she took a pistol from the gun case to clean it. “Did you really come in just to see if I was still mad?”

“Uh..no,” Luther looked embarrassed. “Was gonna ask if you wanted to eat with me tonight. But Mosby got here first.” He looked disgusted with himself.

“What about tomorrow?” Mattie asked softly.

Luther looked at her in surprise. “Yeah?” he asked with a wide grin. “Really, Mattie?”

“Of course,” Mattie smiled. “I did enjoy being with you at the dance, Luther.”

“I liked it too, Mattie,” Luther nodded. “Uh..could I ask you somethin’?” When Mattie nodded, he took a deep breath. “Don’t know if you heard, but Austin’s gettin’ married next month.”

“Josiah told me,” Mattie smiled. “He was so excited he had to tell someone.”

“Well, Austin’s asked me to stand up with him,” Luther said proudly. “Call’s gonna do it, too.” He saw Mattie’s surprised look. “Well, he said maybe...but I think he might.” He took another deep breath. “Anyways, I was wonderin’ if you’d...if I could...” He shook his head in frustration. “I don’t know what’s right and proper, Mattie, but you wanna go to the weddin’ with me?” Luther realized he should have asked Josiah the correct way of inviting Mattie, but he was afraid Mosby would ask her first....or Call would.

“I’d love to, Luther,” Mattie smiled. “Thank you.”

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

Call had some difficulty in following Enona’s trail. He hadn’t spoken to Austin since leaving Curtis Wells but silently let Austin know he preferred to do this alone. To his surprise, Austin kept his temper in check and ignored Call’s attitude. They made camp and ate silently. Call was aware Austin kept glancing at him but said nothing.

“I want to know something, Call,” Austin said quietly. “Truthfully.”

“Got no reason to lie,” Call growled.

“Did Father ask you to keep me in town? To keep me...away from trouble?” Austin demanded.

Call’s look of surprise answered Austin’s question. “Nope,” he finally said. “Never said anythin’ like that.”

Austin looked both surprised and relieved. “Just that the two of you were out earlier today,” he explained. “And you didn’t want me coming along.”

“Had nothin’ to do with Josiah,” Call sipped his coffee. “Just didn’t see any reason for two of us to be gone from town.”

“Think Coffin’ll go there?” Austin asked.

Call shrugged. “Luther’s there,” he said his eyes narrowing as he stared into the darkness. Austin saw him move his head to one side a fraction of an inch.

“Maybe this time Mosby’ll get more than a bullet in the arm,” Austin said casually. His hand, hidden by his body, slowly slid towards his gun.

Despite himself, Call half-smiled. “That’d be nice,” he admitted. He rolled suddenly to one side into the shadows drawing his gun as he came to his knees.

At the same time, Austin pulled his gun and whirled to face the darkness.

“Is that anyway to greet a guest?” Enona’s cool voice came from the shadows. She slowly walked into the light.

“It is when you try to sneak up on somebody,” Call said angrily as he stood.

“You shouldn’t have been following me,” Enona shrugged.

Austin holstered his gun and reached for the coffee pot. “You eaten, Enona?” he asked. “You’re welcome to camp with us.” He ignored Call’s angry look.

“Thanks, Austin,” Enona nodded. “Looks like we’re all on the same trail anyway.” She disappeared into the darkness. “I’ll get my horse and be back,” she said softly.

“You got a reason for that?” Call asked abruptly as he knelt by the fire.

Austin shrugged. “Rather have her with us than out there alone,” he said quietly. He looked up at Call. “You got a reason not to have her with us?” he asked blandly. He smiled to himself as Call turned and began laying out his bedroll.

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

Late the next day they followed the trail into a wooded area. “Don’t make sense,” Call shook his head. “You sure this is Coffin’s trail?”

Enona nodded. “Caught a glimpse of him soon after leaving Curtis Wells,” she said firmly. “Maybe he’s meeting somebody here.”

“Some of Nash’s gang did get away,” Austin mentioned absently rubbing his chest.

Call’s eyes narrowed as he watched Austin for a moment before turning his head. “Best we separate up,” he decided. “Probably have to lead the horses if the undergrowth is bad.” He and Austin moved to either side of Enona and rode about a hundred yards in either direction from her.

Enona shook her head as she watched Call. “No wonder Mattie gets so mad,” she murmured. She carefully edged her horse into the woods.

The further into the woods she walked, the more her instinct told her this was a trap. She slid off her horse and waited for a few seconds. Something was terribly wrong.

As she started to step forward, her horse shied slightly. Enona patted the horse’s neck as she looked around quickly. Her eyes saw something glinting in the faint sunlight. Cautiously, she edged forward then stepped back quickly. She patted the horse this time in gratitude. She carefully drew her gun and fired a shot in the air. “Wolf traps!” she screamed hoping that Call and Austin would hear her.

Austin faintly heard Enona’s warning and looked around quickly. Underbrush could easily conceal the traps. He stood in the stirrups and grabbed a low hanging tree branch. Breaking off a long slender limb, he dismounted. He used the branch to sweep the path ahead of him slowly leading his horse forward.

Call frowned at Enona’s shout. He couldn’t make out her words and waited. One gunshot probably meant a warning of some sort. He slid from Hellbitch to the ground. “Stay here,” he told the horse. Drawing his gun, he stepped forward...and screamed.

Enona’s head swiveled as she heard Call’s scream. Taking a deep breath, she left her horse and began walking as quickly as possible towards him. She tried to stay on rocks and out of overgrown areas. Call’s voice, half-screaming half-cursing, became louder the closer she came.

Call’s hands were grabbing at his lower right leg. Fangs from a sharp edged trap were deeply embedded. His hands were soon as bloody as his leg as he tried vainly to open the trap.

“Best put ya outta yer misery, boy,” a mocking voice said from behind him.

Before Call could turn his head, he heard a gunshot. He flinched then realized the person behind him had fallen to the ground. He turned and saw blood oozing from a hole in the man’s forehead. He jerked his head to see Enona calmly walking forward a trace of smoke from the barrel of her gun.

Enona looked around quickly, then knelt beside Call. She tried to wedge her fingers into the trap to help him open it. Call cursed as it refused to budge. Suddenly, Enona heard twigs snapping and whirled around smoothly drawing her gun. She relaxed as Austin appeared.

“My God, Call,” Austin breathed as he knelt on the other side of Call.

“We’ve got to get it open,” Enona said quickly. She nodded as Austin worked his fingers between the two sides of the trap and started to pull from the other side. For a couple of seconds, the trap opened then closed again as the tension was too tight. Call screamed as he fell back onto the ground.

Austin quickly rose and looked around. He saw a nearby rock and picked it up. Tossing it next to Call, he walked to nearby dying tree. Enona watched silently then put her hand on Call’s forehead. “You’ll be free,” she promised softly. She stared deeply into his eyes and repeated her words. Call’s eyes closed and he nodded. She turned as Austin knelt beside Call laying a thick branch next to him.

“We gotta get it open enough to use this,” he picked up the rock. “Call, you’ll have to shove it in. It’s gonna take both of us to get it open. You understand?”

Call gritted his teeth and nodded. Enona helped him to raise up frowning at the clamminess of his skin. Call clenched the rock in his hand.

Enona nodded at Austin and they again pulled on the jaws of the trap. Call’s hand shook as he tried to force the rock between the metal fangs. “Easy,” Enona cautioned as the rock seemed to hold the jaws apart as Austin quickly moved over the trap. She watched as Austin gritted his teeth and used leverage to force the trap open further.

She grabbed the rock before it fell and quickly slid the branch between the jaws. The half-dead wood cracked and splintered as she used it to open the jaws further. Austin’s arms shook as he struggled to hold it open. “Get him,” he grunted as he saw Call’s leg begin to slide off the metal fangs. Enona swiftly grabbed Call’s leg and pulled it free.

“Austin,” Call warned weakly as the trap began to close. Austin literally jumped back jerking his hands free as the trap snapped shut with a clang. Austin stared at the blood-stained trap for a second then kicked it to one side.

“We’ve got to get him out of here,” Enona said urgently. Austin nodded and went to collect the horses as Enona tied a splint around Call’s bleeding leg. Call groaned as he tried to sit up then fell back to the ground his eyes closed. Enona glanced up as Austin returned. “I don’t think he can ride,” she said.

“I can ride,” Call grunted.

“Help me get him up. He’ll ride with me,” Austin said ignoring Call’s angry look.

“Like hell,” Call muttered as Enona and Austin stood him on his feet.

“Shut up, Call,” Austin answered angrily. “You think I don’t know how you got me down from Cemetery Hill?” He ignored Enona’s questioning look. “You’re gonna let us help you and you’re gonna like it.” This time he ignored Enona’s grin.

Together they shoved Call onto Austin’s horse. As Call leaned over the horse’s neck gasping in pain, Austin quickly came up behind him. Enona took Hellbitch’s reins and mounted her horse. Austin pulled Call up next to him and turned to Enona. “He can’t go far,” he warned softly. “Can you ride back to Curtis Wells and get Cleese?”

“There’s an Indian village closer,” Enona started leading the way from the woods. “He can get help there.”

Austin looked doubtful but concentrated on keeping Call from falling off.

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

“We could have finished them off,” a heavily-built man complained.

Chris Coffin lowered the binoculars and frowned slightly. “That’s not the plan,” he reminded his companion. “They’re not headed for Curtis Wells,” he mused in surprise.

“Some sort of Indian encampment couple of miles north,” another man recalled. “Maybe they’re goin’ there.”

“Good,” Coffin smiled. “I got business in Curtis Wells.” He handed the binoculars to his companion. “I’ll meet you at the rendezvous. And remember, they stay alive for now.”

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

Call felt Austin pull the blanket Enona had tossed around him closer. Even with the blanket, his heavy jacket, and Austin holding him close for warmth, Call was still shivering. The splint around his leg was blood-stained and he felt himself leaning weakly against Austin.

“How much further?” he heard Austin call to Enona.

“Another half-mile,” Enona twisted again in her saddle to look behind them. “Wonder why they didn’t pick us off?”

Austin shrugged irritably. “I don’t care right now,” he muttered.

“I’m going ahead to let them know we’re coming,” Enona said moving her horse away.

Austin watched as she rode off. Call groaned as he tried to raise his head. “Damn you, Call,” Austin muttered. “You’re not getting out of my wedding this easy.”

“Both of us gotta suffer?” Call grunted. He forced his eyes open. “‘Nona’s right. Somethin’s wrong.”

“I’ll worry about that later,” Austin held Call closer as the wounded man began shivering again. “You ain’t gonna die on me. Think I want to make Mosby a happy man?”

Call tried to laugh but only groaned in pain. “Make sure Mattie don’t marry him,” he finally said. “Luther...”

Austin caught his breath as Call’s head slumped forward. He held Call tightly as his body went completely limp. “Call!” Austin shook him roughly. He breathed again when Call moaned weakly. “Damn you, Call,” he repeated softly.

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

Call coughed repeatedly as smoke curled around him. He felt heat from a fire but couldn’t see the flames. He tried to turn his head but it was too heavy to move. Panicking, he tried to move his arms and legs but found them immobile as well. He finally forced his eyes open. Smoke all around him...curling around his body...teasing him...he strained to move then yelled in frustration.

Austin suddenly rose and left the tent unable to continue watching. Enona glanced over her shoulder at his departure then returned her attention to the medicine man sitting on the other side of Call.

Call tensed as he saw a figure approaching through the smoke. He squinted trying to see who it was. Then he closed his eyes trying to shake his head. “Hannah?” he murmured. He forced his eyes open to see Hannah standing in front of him. She smiled at him so sweetly then turned as others joined her.

Call didn’t take his eyes from Hannah’s face but finally saw the others. Enona stood to one side calmly watching him. Just behind her stood Mattie smiling sadly at him.

“I don’t understand,” Call whispered. “I don’t understand!” repeated in a louder voice.

Enona and Mattie looked at one another then at Hannah before turning to disappear into the smoke. “No! Don’t leave!” Call shouted. “Mattie! Enona! Come back here!”

Hannah smiled at him this time in knowing amusement.

“Hannah?” Call tried again to move. “Hannah, don’t leave me again.”

Hannah walked closer and gently touched his face. Call closed his eyes in agonizing pain. “Do you hate me, Hannah?” he whispered. “I couldn’t save you.” He opened his eyes quickly as her hand left his face. He saw Hannah slowly shaking her head.

Slowly Hannah turned to walk away. “Don’t go!” Call screamed. Hannah turned around slightly frowning. Call struggled and this time found he was able to move. He saw Hannah look to her left. Call looked in that direction and faintly made out Enona and Mattie through the smoke.

Slowly Call looked at them then at Hannah...then back at Enona and Mattie...then at Hannah as she started to move away. After a few more steps, Hannah looked over her shoulder and smiled almost in relief.

“Hannah!” Call screamed dropping to his knees his head falling to his chest.

“Tell Father and Austin I love them, ” he heard Hannah’s voice swirling around him. “I will always love you, Newt...but you need to be happy.”

“Hannah,” Call moaned as he fell face forward. His fists pounded the ground beneath him in anger...loss...pain.

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

Austin sat alone by a campfire. One of the women brought him food which he nibbled. Once he heard Call scream and started to get to his feet. A stern glance from the woman encouraged him to sit back down. When he heard Call scream Hannah’s name, Austin jumped to his feet and walked away. Enona found him a couple of hours later sitting by the horses. She saw Austin’s head raise as she slowly walked towards him.

“Call?” Austin’s voice was rough.

“He’ll make it,” Enona said. Even in the moonlight, Austin could see her exhaustion as she sat beside him.

“The men do,” Austin mumbled. “It’s only the women who die.”

Enona glanced at him curiously. “What do you mean?” she asked when Austin didn’t continue.

Austin took a deep breath. “Father and I were so sick,” Austin almost whispered. “Mother kept Hannah away but she nursed us both. We survived...she didn’t.” His eyes were focused on something in the darkness that only he could see. “Then Hannah...Father and Call survived that night. I wasn’t even there. But Hannah died.” He slowly turned his head towards Enona. “I can’t marry Caroline. She’ll die if I do.”

“Everyone dies sooner or later,” Enona pointed out. “Caroline’s life doesn’t depend on whether or not you marry her.”

Austin laughed harshly. “I’ve seen what happened to Father and Call,” he shook his head. “I’ll wind up like them if Caroline dies because of me. I don’t want that!” He looked at Enona angrily. “I couldn’t stand it!”

“So you’ll break her heart because of something that might never happen?” Enona asked lightly.

“Better to break her heart than to see her lying in her coffin,” Austin said savagely. He suddenly laughed. “Maybe we’re cursed.”

“Curses can be broken,” Enona shrugged. “If you really believe in them.”

Austin studied Enona quietly considering.

“There’s always a price,” Enona continued. “And you don’t know what it is until it’s time to pay it.” She watched Austin closely. “Would you trade your father’s life for Caroline’s?” She saw the shocked look on Austin’s face and shrugged. “Best to let whatever happens happen, Austin.” She stood and stretched before walking away.

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

Ike gurgled out a whimper as a hand roughly covered his mouth. He felt the cold barrel of a gun at his temple and heard a voice in the dark hissing, “Shut up or I’ll kill you.”

Ike quickly nodded to show he would cooperate. Slowly the hand was removed. Ike glanced around and saw a man next to his cot. Through the hole in the tent, the moonlight revealed a slightly built blonde man.

“You’re...” Ike began.

“I’m your new employer,” Coffin hissed. “Keep your voice down.”

When Ike nodded again, Coffin moved the gun from Ike’s head. “Mosby kicked you out of that nice cushy sheriff’s job,” Coffin said softly almost pleasantly. “Now nobody respects you. Call gets all the respect.” He smiled coldly. “Think a man like you would want to get even.”

Ike’s eyes glinted in the moonlight. “What did you have in mind?” he sat up.

Coffin tossed some money on the bed. Ike eagerly grabbed it and began counting it. “Not much,” he complained.

“You can’t afford to be seen spendin’ a lot of money,” Coffin pointed out. “There’ll be more. Besides, you might even have a chance to own the Ambrosia Club.”

Ike rubbed his hand across his mouth. “That’d be over Mosby’s dead body,” he said half-anxiously.

“Anythin’s possible,” Coffin admitted. “But there’ll be more money.”

“What do you want me to do?” Ike thrust the money into his pillow.

“Just watch and report on what’s going on,” Coffin holstered his gun and handed Ike a map. “You know where this place is?”

Ike squinted in the moonlight and studied the map. “Sure,” he nodded. “Everybody knows where that old mine is.”

“Good,” Coffin took the map and put in back in his pocket. “Every third day you ride out there...real casual-like. You’ll be met. You let him know if anything unusual is going on.”

“Like what?” Ike asked.

“What Call and his deputies are doin’...especially Austin Peale,” Coffin fairly spat out the name. “Like if any army patrols are scheduled in. Like if Mosby hires a lot of new men.”

“I can do that,” Ike agreed eagerly. He looked up at Coffin. “I get the Ambrosia Club?”

“Over Mosby’s dead body,” Coffin said pleasantly.

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

Two days later, Call slowly opened his eyes. He stared up at the top of the tent in confusion. Slowly he looked around and saw Austin asleep lying next to him. Austin’s hand was laying on Call’s shoulder. When Call started to sit up, Austin’s eyes flew open.

“Don’t..” Austin quickly sat up and gently pushed Call back down. He sighed in relief as he saw Call’s eyes were clear. “You’ve been out of your head for the last couple of days.”

“Reckon so,” Call said quietly as he began remembering. Suddenly he looked up at Austin. “My leg...”

“Looks like it’s gonna be fine,” Austin said slowly. “Curtis Wells was too far away. Enona led us to this Indian village. Their medicine man’s been working on you.” He glanced down at Call’s leg. “Seems to be healing and no infection.”

Call slowly exhaled. He remembered when Mr. Gus had died from an infected wound...after some doctor had cut his leg off. He closed his eyes weakly.

“Here,” Austin helped Call sit up and drink some water. Call drank thirstily and motioned for another cup. When he finished that one, he laid back down closing his eyes.

“I saw Hannah,” he said quietly.

“You were calling out for her,” Austin replied equally quiet.

Call opened his eyes and looked at Austin. “She said to tell you and Josiah she loved you,” he continued a little surprised at Austin’s quiet reaction.

Austin closed his eyes briefly then opened them. He sat down next to Call and ran his hand through his dark hair.

“I asked her if she hated me for not being able to save her,” Call said slowly. “She said she didn’t.”

“Hannah loved you too much to hate you,” Austin said almost reluctantly.

The tent flap opened and Enona stepped inside. “You look better,” she said as she looked at both men.

“Which one?” Call asked. He almost smiled when Enona shrugged.

“It’ll be a week or so before you can ride,” Enona sat down beside Austin. “I’ll stay with him,” she said.

Austin nodded. “Just get him back for my wedding,” he told her.

“Didn’t promise that,” Call scowled. “Only said I’d try.”

Austin looked at Enona who nodded silently in agreement. Call scowled again and closed his eyes.

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

Luther listened quietly as Austin explained what had happened. “Call’s lucky,” he commented. “Those traps can kill a man. Think it was deliberate?”

Austin shrugged as he finished unsaddling his horse. “Didn’t stay around to find out,” he said. “Better watch out, Luther. Coffin nearly beat me to death and he may have set that trap that almost killed Call. You could be next.”

Luther snorted in dismissal. “He’s probably long gone by now, Austin,” he said decided. He took the brush from Austin. “I’ll do this,” he offered. “Go by Josiah’s. Think there’s a letter there for you.”

Austin’s eyes lightened and he nodded gratefully at Luther. “Thanks,” he said. He turned at the stable door. “By the way, Mattie in her shop?”

“Far as I know,” Luther nodded. “Why?”

Austin hesitated. “Call asked me to make sure she didn’t do something,” he grinned. “Thought I’d better tell her. You should go see her later. She’s probably gonna be mad at Call about it.” He grinned at Luther’s own grin.

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

Austin saw Mosby leaning across the gun case talking with Mattie. He hid a grin as he opened the door.

“Austin,” Mattie smiled. “I didn’t know you were back.”

“Did you and Call bring back the bad guys?” Clay asked with a grin.

“Nope,” Austin leaned against the wall and folded his arms. “Call stepped in a wolf trap.”

“Oh my God, Austin!” Mattie looked shocked. “Where is he? What does Dr. Cleese say?”

Austin smiled to himself as he saw Mosby’s disgruntled expression at Mattie’s concern.

“Think he’s gonna be okay,” Austin said carefully. “He would've died if we tried to get him back to Curtis Wells.”

“We?” Mosby raised his eyebrows.

“We met up with Enona on the trail,” Austin explained. “When Call got hurt, she led us to an Indian camp.” When Mattie frowned, Austin continued. “They saved Call’s life if not his leg. Gonna be a week at least before he can ride. Enona’s stayin’ with him.”

Mattie smiled weakly. “She’ll take care of him,” she forced a smile.

“Probably,” Austin moved away from the wall. “Do you mind, Mosby? I need to talk to Mattie privately.”

“Of course,” Clay smiled at Mattie. “I’ll see you later.”

Mattie nodded and watched as Clay left. “You and Mosby act like a couple of snarling puppies,” she told Austin.

Austin shrugged. “We’ve got some unfinished business,” he admitted.

“Is Call really gonna be okay?” Mattie asked.

“From what I could tell,” Austin nodded. “Enona seemed to think so.” He placed his hands on the countertop. “Call didn’t think he was gonna make it so he asked me to make sure about something.”

“What?” Mattie’s eyes looked haunted.

“That you didn’t marry Mosby,” Austin’s eyes twinkled. “He started to say something about Luther but passed out.”

“What?!” Mattie’s blue eyes flashed angrily. “How dare he? Who does he think he is to decide what I’m going to do?”

“He’s your friend,” Austin said quietly. “Right or wrong, Mattie, he didn’t want you to make a bad mistake.”

Mattie fumed.

Austin turned to go. “Luther’s three times the man Mosby is, Mattie,” he said evenly. “And no...Luther doesn’t know about this.”

Mattie glared at him as he closed the door.

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

Josiah heard the door open. He didn’t look up from the printing press. “That was a quick trip to the Dove, Amanda,” he said.

“Hello, Father,” Austin said quietly.

Josiah looked up in surprise. “Austin!” he smiled in delight. “I didn’t know you were back.” He saw Austin’s tired expression. “You look exhausted.”

“Call almost died,” Austin sat heavily in a chair. “He’s gonna be okay though. Enona’s with him at an Indian camp.”

“My God,” Josiah removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “But you’re not hurt, are you, Austin?” He looked closely at his son.

“I’m fine, Father,” Austin answered a little surprised. “Luther said he thought you had a letter for me.”

“Oh, yes,” Josiah went to his desk and opened a drawer. “From Caroline.” He smiled as he handed it to Austin. “There’s probably a copy of the wedding announcement. She sent one to me as well.” He hesitated. “You don’t mind that, do you, Austin?”

“Of course not,” Austin stared at the envelope for a moment then shoved it into his pocket. “Thank you, Father.” He wearily stood.

“Get some sleep, Austin,” Josiah advised quietly. He watched as Austin walked down the street and shook his head.

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

‘Dearest Austin - I hope you are well and happy. I wish I was still in Curtis Wells with you. I know the wedding announcement is somewhat overblown but Uncle liked it. I asked a friend of his, Elizabeth Lang, to help me. She will be my maid of honor. I think you will like Elizabeth. She’s been a good friend to me as well as to my Uncle.’

Austin’s eyebrows raised. He instinctively felt Elizabeth was another Amanda.

‘I’m afraid none of my friends will be at the wedding. They're giving me a party before I leave. But the trip is too far, I suppose. So only Uncle, Elizabeth, and I will be returning to Curtis Wells. Uncle proposed that we come back to Denver for our honeymoon. He said instead of a wedding present, we could stay at his house for as long as we wanted. He plans to be either in Curtis Wells or Canada on business so we would have privacy. Elizabeth would return with us but she has promised to give us privacy on the return trip. She’s so considerate that way. I told Uncle I would ask you your opinion about it as you might have other plans.’

Austin flushed slightly. He hadn’t even thought about going anywhere. He stared at the wall of his room in silence. Denver would be nice, he decided. He’d never been there and Caroline would enjoy it.

'Please give my best wishes to your father and friends. I really can’t wait to see them again. There is so much I want to say, Austin, but the words look strange when I write them. So I’ll close by saying that I love you very much. Please be careful. All my love - Caroline’

Austin slowly folded the letter and lay back on the bed. He closed his eyes tiredly wondering again if he was doing the right thing. He remembered his father’s anguish over the deaths of his wife and daughter...Call’s obvious pain and need for Hannah during his fevered ravings...and his own rage at Call for disappearing after Hannah’s death...his desire to be revenged on Mosby.

His fist clenched around Caroline’s letter. The sound of paper crumpling startled Austin. He straightened it out and folded the letter properly. He stared at it for several seconds then closed his eyes with a smile.

The End

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