SNOWPLAY

“Thank God we’re getting out of here before we get snowed in,” Elizabeth Shelby muttered to her husband as they walked across the street.

Robert masked his grin. “And here I thought you liked it here,” he tried to frown. “I’m glad there’s nothing between you and Clay after all.”

Elizabeth shot her husband a warning look. “He’s about the only thing I like about Curtis Wells,” she pointed out. “Amanda’s a fool to stay here.”

“I’m sure Clay would be eternally grateful if you managed to convince her to move to Denver,” Robert grinned.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Elizabeth retorted sharply. She watched as Robert handed the suitcases up to the driver then turned as Clay joined them. “How are you, Clay?” she asked noticing the bandage over his wound.

Clay absently touched the bandage on his head. “Recoverin’, dear Elizabeth,” he admitted. “However, your departure is sure to delay my complete recovery.”

“You just want Robert around so you and he can spend all your time playing poker,” Elizabeth gave him a level look.

“Well, I couldn’t possibly expect you to nurse me all the time,” Clay’s dark eyes twinkled as he kissed her on the cheek.

“Take care of yourself, Clay,” Elizabeth finally smiled as she returned the kiss. “Perhaps I enjoy your company too much. Next time in Denver?”

“That’s enough,” Robert firmly took his wife’s arm and helped her into the coach. He gave Clay a wounded look. “I thought you were my friend.”

Clay chuckled. “I take it Elizabeth’s not going to Canada with you,” he surmised.

“No,” Robert shook his head quickly. “I’ll see her on the train to Denver then head to Canada. I’ve got a lot of business to wrap up there.”

“Instead you were here,” Clay said quietly.

Robert shrugged nonchalantly. “It’s nothin’ really important,” he waved his hand. After a moment, he continued. “I’ll look up Ned Carson in Miles City. He should have his homicidal wife settled down by now. He should be more than willing to sell his property.”

“Good,” Clay nodded coldly remembering the woman who had nearly killed him. “That property can be quite valuable.”

“Depending on where the rail line is run?” Robert irrepressibly teased.

Clay sighed. “This is serious business, Robert,” he cautioned.

“Of course, it is,” Robert tried to look serious.

Clay gave up. With a smile, he hugged Robert. “Thank you,” he murmured softly.

“Anytime,” Robert whispered back. He climbed in the stage and sat down.

“Have a safe journey,” Clay told Elizabeth as he leaned in and kissed her hand.

“If you get bored, just come to Denver,” Elizabeth grinned. “As I understand it, my husband will be in Canada for a while.”

“I said that’s enough,” Robert gently used his boot to push Clay out of the stage. He firmly closed the door. “Good-bye, Clay.”

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

“I’m sorry, but I’ve already sold my property,” Ned Carson looked apologetically at Robert. “Sold it last week in fact.”

“Really?” Robert looked mildly interested. “Too bad. I probably would have paid more for it. Would you mind telling me who purchased the property?”

“A young man named Evan Lawton,” Carson frowned. “Said he and his mother would be living there.”

“Is he still around?” Robert idly asked.

“I don’t know,” Carson stood. “If you’ll excuse me, Mr. Shelby. I really gotta get back to see about Eleanor.” He hesitated. “You tell Mr. Mosby I’m real sorry about what happened.”

“I’ll do just that,” Robert easily assured him. He watched the man shuffle away and took a deep breath. It had taken a couple of days to locate Carson and convince him to meet. He only had a few hours before catching the train north. He pulled out paper and pencil and began writing. Clay would have to take care of getting that property himself.

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

“How long will you be gone, Luther?” Mattie asked as she watched him saddle his horse.

“Don’t know,” Luther said evenly. “Never liked towns much anyways. Just gotta get up into the mountains for a while.”

“You make ‘em sound really pretty,” Mattie said quietly. When Luther didn’t answer, she walked over and gave him a hug. “You take care of yourself.”

“Always do, Mattie,” Luther hesitated then returned the hug. He led his horse outside and quickly mounted.

Mattie bit her lip as she watched him ride away.

Just past Cemetery Hill, Luther saw Call sitting on Hellbitch. He looked around curiously wondering what Call was looking at. He reined up next to him.

“So you’re headin’ up into the mountains in the winter?” Call said a little sarcastically.

“So what?” Luther challenged. “Ain’t the first time I wintered in the mountains.”

Call glanced over his shoulder at Curtis Wells. “What did Mattie say?” he asked.

“Ask her yourself,” Luther said coldly. When Call looked at him in surprise at the icy tone in his voice, he leaned forward. “Told you once, Call, I didn’t want to fight you. You wanna keep Mattie from gettin’ with Mosby, you better do somethin’ ‘bout it.” When Call scowled, he leaned back. “Told you I ain’t gonna spend my life wonderin’ if she’d rather be with you.”

“You figure headin’ up into the mountain is gonna settle that?” Call finally asked.

“Don’t know,” Luther shrugged gathering his reins. “All I gotta say is if you let her marry Mosby, I’ll kill you.” He kicked his horse and rode away.

Call looked at Luther stunned into silence. Finally he rose in the stirrups and shouted, “Fine! Go ahead and leave!” When Luther ignored him, Call sat back in the saddle. Hellbitch nervously pranced from side to side. Call cursed and turned his horse towards Curtis Wells.

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

It snowed for the next two weeks. Caroline, never having seen snow like this, was entranced. She went out every day to walk around town. Mindful of Austin’s previous warnings about wolves, she never strayed too far. Sometimes, she coaxed Josiah into joining her. Sometimes, Amanda joined her. Austin wasn’t sure which irritated him more.

Despite Caroline’s efforts, Austin remained detached from Josiah. Call refused to acknowledge Caroline’s silent pleas for his help. He’d told both Austin and Josiah what he thought. It was all he could do. It got to the point, Call went out of his way to avoid Caroline.

It was to hopefully avoid her that Call wound up by the frozen pond. He stopped silently aghast as sudden memories flooded through his mind. He remembered sitting watching Hannah skate across the ice...gracefully twirling and turning...her long dark hair streaming behind her. With a curse, he suddenly turned around...and was struck in the shoulder by a snowball. He angrily turned and saw Curtis Wells’ new minister with a shocked look on his face.

“I’m so sorry, Sheriff,” Rev. Flynn apologized.

“What the hell are you doin’?” Call snapped brushing snow off his jacket.

“Practicing,” Flynn looked down at the snowballs at his feet. “I’m afraid my aim is definitely off.”

“What were you aimin’ at?” Call asked suspiciously.

“Not at you,” Flynn assured him. “I was aiming at the side of the livery.”

Call turned to look at the livery...a full 15 feet to his left...and rear. “At the livery,” he repeated.

Flynn looked embarrassed. “I knew I needed practice, but I didn’t realize I’d gotten so bad,” he sighed.

“Why are you doin’ this?” Call asked.

“Why?” Flynn looked a little confused. “Oh, I promised some of the children, we’d have a snowball fight after church Sunday. I thought I should practice.”

Call glanced at the side of the livery as he started to walk away. “I guess you should,” he nodded.

“I wonder if I could impose on you for a few pointers,” Flynn asked quickly.

“Pointers?” Call’s eyes narrowed.

“Aiming,” Flynn nodded. “I’d hate to be embarrassed by the children.”

“Throw it,” Call looked a little uncertain. “Livery ain’t a small target.”

Flynn reached down and picked up a snowball. He stared at the livery and then threw. The snowball landed several feet to the side of the livery. He looked helplessly at Call.

“Do it again,” Call ordered his eyes narrowed wondering if the preacher was deliberately missing the livery. After a couple more throws, Call was convinced Flynn actually couldn’t hit the side of the livery.

“You’re turning when you throw,” Call finally pointed out. He reached down and quickly threw a snowball at the livery. The snow splattered against the side.

Flynn quickly made more snowballs handing them to Call who quickly threw one after the other. Each snowball hit the side of the livery with more force than the previous one. After a few minutes, Call stopped breathing hard. He stared at the livery with barely contained anger.

“I guess with practice I can do that,” Flynn said quietly.

Call gave the preacher an angry look and stomped away.

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

Mattie looked up surprised when Call stormed into the gunshop slamming the door behind him. Before she could say anything, Call looked over at UnBob. “Get out,” he told him. “I need to talk with Mattie. Alone.”

UnBob gulped looking at Mattie.

“Now, UnBob!” Call snapped.

“It’s ok, UnBob,” Mattie said soothingly. “Why don’t you see if those special bullets I ordered are on the stage?”

“Ok, Mattie,” UnBob nodded. He glanced at Call as he walked to the door. “You mad at me, Call?”

“No, I ain’t mad at you, UnBob,” Call took a deep breath.

“Good,” UnBob smiled happily. “Hate for you to be mad at me. ‘Cause we’re friends.”

Mattie glared at Call as UnBob shut the door behind him. “You don’t come into my place and order him around!” she snapped.

Call’s eyes glittered. “You ain’t marryin’ Mosby,” he warned coldly.

“What?” Mattie looked confused. “I never said I was marryin’ Clay,” she said. “Somebody say that?”

“Nope,” Call put his hands on the display case and leaned forward. “But you ain’t never marryin’ him.”

“How dare you?” Mattie shouted. “You don’t have any say ‘bout...”

“You ain’t marryin’ him,” Call repeated coldly. When Mattie glared angrily at him, he continued. “Luther cares a lot ‘bout you, Mattie.”

“I care about him,” Mattie admitted after a moment. “He’s a good friend.”

“That all?” Call prodded.

“Don’t see that’s none of your business,” Mattie snapped.

“I figure Luther’s my friend, too,” Call said looked almost surprised at the words. “He figures...he thinks...” Call’s hands bunched into fists. “He took off for the mountains ‘cause he don’t want you to settle for him ‘cause you can’t get me.”

“What?” Mattie’s eyes searched Call’s face. “What?” she repeated.

“You heard me,” Call moved away from the display case and looked out the window.

“What put that idea in his head?” Mattie asked.

Call shrugged. “He’s fond of you, Mattie,” he finally said. “That ain’t no secret. Guess he figures you gotta get over me first.”

“Over you?” Mattie’s eyes glittered. “You really think...of all the...”

Call watched half-amused as Mattie’s face turned red. “Ain’t what I think that matters,” he finally said when she was reduced to taking deep breaths to calm down. “It’s what Luther thinks.”

“Is it?” Mattie snapped. “Seems to me what you think seems to matter a hell of a lot to you.” She quickly stepped around the display case. Before Call could move she stood in front of him, hands on her hips. “You don’t want me to do this...you don’t want me to do that...Austin told me that when he and Enona were taking you to that Indian camp to have your leg worked on, you told him not to let me marry Clay!”

“You can’t do it!” Call angrily snapped not backing down. “Mattie, he’s...” For once Call was at a loss for words.

“Whatever trouble is between the two of you, I happen to like both of you,” Mattie replied firmly. “You’ve both been a good friend to me.”

“Ain’t gonna let you marry him,” Call muttered stubbornly.

“Call, I ain’t said I was marryin’ anybody!” Mattie fairly shrieked. “I don’t know what’s put that sort of nonsense in your head.”

Call leaned against the display case his hands jammed in his jacket pocket. “Guess I was a little out of line,” he mumbled as he studied the toe of his boot.

Mattie smiled sadly. “I wish it had worked between us,” she half-whispered. “But it ain’t gonna, is it, Call?”

“Won’t stand in your way if you wanna marry Luther,” Call muttered still studying his boot.

“And he’s up in the mountains not standin’ in the way of my marryin’ you, is that right?” Mattie pressed. When Call didn’t reply, she shook her head. “Can’t the two of you see how silly this is becoming?”

“Dammit, Mattie, we just don’t want you doin’ somethin’ stupid!” Call suddenly yelled. “Don’t see nothin’ wrong in that!”

“Didn’t say there was,” Mattie said softly.

Call took a deep breath. “Enona told me I needed to let you know...well, if there was..” he began.

“Enona!” Mattie almost stomped her foot. “Is there anybody in Curtis Wells who ain’t tryin’ to run my life?”

“Enona’s on your side!” Call protested. He moved restlessly across the room. Despite himself, Call grinned. After a moment, Mattie smiled as well. “I’m sorry I yelled,” Mattie apologized. “What did Enona say?” When Call hesitated, her eyes danced. “Or should I ask her?”

“No,” Call said quickly remembering the circumstances of that conversation. When Mattie stared at him curiously, he looked away. “I mean...she probably wouldn’t remember it.” He ignored Mattie’s raised eyebrows. “She just said it wasn’t fair to you for me not to let you know how I feel.”

“How do you feel, Call?” Mattie asked softly after a moment.

“I dunno,” Call admitted sounding a little surprised.

“Well neither do I,” Mattie replied briskly. “That’s why this whole situation is silly.” She stared at the window. “Guess we need to go find Luther.”

“Ain’t gonna find him,” Call shook his head. “He headed into the mountains.”

“Call, I ain’t gonna let him stay up there thinkin’ all sorts of nonsense,” Mattie argued.

“He’ll be back when he’s ready,” Call said stubbornly.

“Alright, Call, you don’t want to take me up there, I’ll find somebody who will,” Mattie decided. Call watched as she shrugged in to her coat. “Lock up when you leave,” she flung over her shoulder.

Call stood at the door watching as she walked through the snow. Deep down he figured he could find Luther if he needed to but knew Luther would be back when he was ready. Luther wasn’t a man you could push. His eyes narrowed then he cursed when he saw Mattie going into the Ambrosia Club. Leaning over the display case, he grabbed Mattie’s extra key and locked the door behind him.

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

“Well, Mattie, come on in,” Clay looked up pleasantly surprised. “I didn’t expect to see you.”

“How are you feelin’, Clay?” Mattie smiled.

“I’m told I’ll survive,” Clay grinned. “I’m certain that displeases some people but I have no complaints.”

Mattie leaned against the bar and raised her voice. “I need someone to take me up into the mountains,” she announced. “Somebody who can track Luther Root.”

Clay choked on his coffee. Several men eyed Mattie with speculation.

“Mattie, are you insane?” Clay finally gasped out. “It’s winter! The mountains would be even worse.”

“I know what time of the year it is, Clay,” Mattie replied.

“Don’t think anybody ‘cept Call can track Luther,” one man finally pointed out.

The door was flung open and Call quickly entered.

“I never thought I’d say this,” Clay muttered. He raised his voice. “Sheriff Call. Perhaps you can talk some sense into Mattie.”

“Come on, Mattie,” Call hissed taking hold of Mattie’s arm.

Mattie jerked her arm away from Call. “You gonna do it?” she demanded.

“We’ll talk about it,” Call said through clenched teeth.

Mattie studied him for a moment. “Then I guess I’ll just have to do it myself,” she decided.

“Mattie!” Clay and Call said at practically the same time. Then both men looked at each other with ill-concealed distaste.

“Mattie, surely you can see the foolhardiness of going into the mountains at this time of year by yourself,” Clay quickly pointed out. He smiled charmingly at her. “No one wants to see you get hurt.”

“Seems like a lot of people are tryin’ to decide that for me,” Mattie snapped. When Call slightly grinned at Mosby’s discomfort, she turned to look at him. “You got somethin’ to say, Call?” she demanded.

“Already spoke my piece,” Call muttered suddenly uneasy as Mosby.

“Seems like lots of people speakin’ but nobody answerin’ Mattie’s question,” a cool voice came from the back of the room.

“Enona?” Call looked over to where a figure, wrapped in a thick blanket sat next to the stove.

Enona looked up then slowly unwrapped the blanket from around her. Folding it, she walked over to Mattie. “I’ll take you into the mountains,” she offered. “Don’t know if I can find Luther, but we can try.”

“Oh, for God’s sake!” Clay exclaimed. “Of all the foolishness.”

Enona glanced over at him. “Thank you for your opinion, Mosby,” she said coolly. She glanced at Call. “You got anything to say?”

“Guess not,” Call’s voice grated. As the two women walked past him, he felt a familiar chill up his spine...the kind he felt everytime Mattie and Enona got together.

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

The next morning, Call and Austin watched as Enona and Mattie rode out of town. Austin started to say something to Call then saw the expression on his face. After a moment, he took the chance. “You alright, Call?” he asked.

“Luther was an idiot goin’ into the mountains this time of year,” Call said edgily. “Both of them are idiots, too.”

After a moment, Austin said quietly, “Hate to say it, Call, but Mattie’d go after you, too.” He felt rather than saw, the tensing in Call’s back.

“Ain’t none of your concern, Austin,” Call snapped starting to walk away. When he reached the end of town, he saw Rev. Flynn making snowballs.

Michael looked up as Call approached. “Good morning,” he said cheerfully. “I think today is going to be....”

“You gonna throw snowballs at kids, you better learn to hit somethin’ smaller than the livery,” Call interrupted coldly. He walked some distance away. “Throw at me.”

“You?” Michael hesitated. “You?”

“Yeah!” Call shouted. “I figure if you can hit me, you can probably hit a kid.”

Michael took a deep breath and then lobbed a snowball towards Call...who simply watched it land several feet in front of him.

“Sorry,” Michael apologized. He reached down for another snowball. Taking better care, he threw the second one at Call....who simply watched it land to his left.

Michael looked extremely embarrassed. He reached down for a third snowball only to hear Call curse. Looking up, he saw Call brushing snow from his arm.

“Dammit, Austin!” Call yelled.

Austin smirked as he formed a second snowball. “Thought the good Reverend should see how it outta be done,” he said innocently. Taking quick aim, he threw at Call...who quickly ducked to his right. “You see, Reverend, the kids aren’t gonna stand still.”

Call eyed Austin coldly as Austin began making another snowball. “I loved snowball fights when I was a kid,” Austin smiled fondly. He eyed Call evenly. “Always pretty good at ‘em, too.”

“That a fact?” Call said coldly. “I guess if you were playin’ with kids...”

“Gentlemen,” Michael spoke up. “There’s no need...”

Call made the mistake of turning his head to tell Flynn to shut up. Austin quickly aimed and his snowball landed on Call’s upper chest, the cold snow splattering his neck.

Michael’s eyes grew wide as he listened to Call loudly curse Austin. Austin listened for a moment, then bent to pick up snow. When Call took a breath, Austin laughed. At the sound of Austin’s laughter, Call quickly knelt and began packing snow together. Michael began backing away. Austin saw Call making a snowball and quickly threw his. He laughed as Call’s hat went flying to one side. Call shook the wet snow from his hair and dived behind a pile of snow.

Mosby lit a cigar as he watched the sheriff and deputy of Curtis Wells pelt each other with snowballs. He stared from his balcony watching Enona and Mattie disappear over the hill. The whole town was going crazy, he decided.

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

“Are the two of you crazy?” Josiah looked at first Austin then Call. After an hour of throwing snowballs at one another, both men’s clothing were more wet than dry. Austin quickly tried to brush wet snow from his hair although Call defiantly let the snow in his hair run down his neck.

“Don’t think so, Father,” Austin tried not to smile. “Do you, Call?”

Call scowled at Austin.

“You’re both going to catch your death of cold,” Josiah warned.

“I’d say that cat’s gonna catch it first,” Call pointed out seeing Mandy shiver in Josiah’s arms. He looked positively happy at the thought.

“Leave Mandy out of this,” Josiah told him although he pulled her closer to him. “At least she has enough sense to stay out of the snow.” He turned around to leave. “Just remember, Newt, you’re supposed to have dinner with us tonight.”

Call frowned. “I don’t recall...” he began.

“Both of you,” Josiah retorted over his shoulder. “Six o’clock prompt.”

Both Austin and Call watched him disappear inside the office of the Statesman.

“Guess we better quit,” Austin sighed brushing the rest of the snow from his hair. He looked around for his hat.

“Here, Austin,” Call held out Austin’s hat. When Austin turned around, Call flung the hatful of snow into his face.

“Call!” Austin bellowed shaking snow from his face. He dived behind a snowbank and began making more snowballs.

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

Josiah glared across the table at both Call and Austin. His glare was a mixture of aggravation and righteousness. “I told you both you’d catch your death of cold,” he proclaimed.

Call muffled a sneeze.

Austin glared at his father. “Hardly that,” he protested his voice gravelly.

“Here, Austin, this tea should help,” Caroline edged the cup closer to him.

Austin glared at the cup. He hated tea. He glanced at the matching cup in front of Call. “Call’s not drinking his,” he muttered petulantly.

“Both of you,” Josiah ordered firmly. “Drink the tea.”

With almost identical looks of resignation, Austin and Call sipped at the tea. Call openly grimaced but then swallowed the cup. He glared at Josiah and ordered coffee.

Caroline glanced out the darkened window. “I hope Enona and Mattie are alright,” she mentioned.

“Enona knows what to do in the mountains,” Call said suppressing a cough.

“They’re fine,” Austin patted Caroline’s hand then turned his head to cough.

“I told you,” Josiah reminded them a bit self-righteously.

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

Enona and Mattie sat huddled around a campfire. As Mattie shivered she again silently cursed both Call and Luther. Enona, seeing Mattie’s shiver, suppressed a smile.

“You think you can find Luther?” Mattie finally asked.

“He’s not stupid,” Enona replied levelly. “He knows he can’t camp out in the mountains this time of the year. There are some abandoned miners’ shacks pretty close by. He’s is one of them.” She peered into the darkness. “We’ll just have to try each one until we find him.” She glanced at Mattie. “What do you plan to do when we find him?”

“Tell him what I told Call,” Mattie shivered again. “Ain’t nobody gonna run my life for me, Enona. All this stuff between him and Call and about them not lettin’ me marry Clay is nonsense.”

“Is it?” Enona turned to look at Mattie. When Mattie looked down at the campfire, Enona leaned forward. “Mattie.”

“Yes, it’s nonsense!” Mattie raised her head. “I’ll decide what to do with my life, Enona! How dare they tell me...”

“They care, Mattie,” Enona interrupted. “Call and Luther can see that Clay cares about you. Austin cares about you, too. If he wasn’t married, they’d be on you about him, too.” She suddenly grinned. “Maybe we should just put the three of them in a cage and let them fight it out. You get the winner.”

“Enona!” Mattie looked shocked then giggled. “What would you do in my place?”

Enona shrugged. “Neither Call nor Luther would try that with me,” she pointed out. “Guess they don’t figure I need to be protected.” Ignoring Mattie’s frown, she curled up under her blanket. “Better get some sleep.”

Mattie sat for a while staring into the darkness.

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

Call wearily looked up as the door to the jail opened. He groaned to himself as Josiah entered with a tray in one hand and Mandy in the other.

“Here’s some tea,” Josiah sat the tray on the desk and lowered Mandy to the floor. “It’ll help your throat.”

“Ain’t nothin’ wrong...” Call rasped out then began coughing.

Mandy looked around the jail then up at Josiah. Irritated that he wasn’t paying attention to her, she jumped onto the desk. Irritated, Call took a swipe at her. Mandy jumped back to the floor and hissed.

“Newt Call!” Josiah reproved. “Leave Mandy alone!”

“Get that damned cat outta...” Call’s threat was interrupted by more coughing.

“Drink your tea,” Josiah ordered. “Here’s some soup as well. Get it inside you while it’s still hot.”

Grumbling, Call sat up and began eating the soup.

Josiah leaned down to pick Mandy up. “I’ll be back later,” he said as he turned to go. “You should be in bed.”

“That where Austin’s at?” Call croaked out.

“Caroline’s taking care of him,” Josiah evaded.

“Don’t need takin’ care of,” Call mumbled. He glared at Mandy as she hissed at him.

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

“Looks like he’s stayin’ here,” Enona half-grinned as she looked around the cabin. Pans were scattered around the room along with a couple of empty dirty plates. Various pieces of clothing they recognized as Luther’s lay strewn across the floor. “Guess he wasn’t expecting company.”

“Wonder where he is?” Mattie set her saddlebag in the corner.

“Probably out hunting,” Enona shrugged. “You’d be surprised at the game you can find even in the winter if you know how.” She walked to the door. “Good luck.”

“You’re not stayin’?” Mattie quickly asked with a half-pleading look.

Enona smiled. “Nope,” she answered closing the door behind her.

Mattie looked around the cabin and shivered. The fire had gone out in the stove...the cabin was a mess...and Luther was probably coming back soon.

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

A couple of hours later, Mattie had a fire going in the stove and the cabin had warmed up. She had melted some snow and washed the dishes. She had carefully moved Luther’s clothes to the small bed. Heading outside, she took some feed for both her horse and Luther’s. She kept looking around for him but didn’t see any trace of him. Grumbling under breath, she waded through the deep snow back to the cabin. She’d have to melt more snow and start dinner.

Mattie felt her feet sliding under her and wound up falling backwards. She tried to hold onto the slim truck of a nearby sapling. She only managed to break her fall landing full length in the deep snow. To make matters worse, the trunk of the sapling shook sending snow cascading down onto her head.

Mattie howled as wet snow slid down her neck and through her clothing. She scrambled to her feet, her blonde hair full of wet snow plastering it to her scalp. Stomping back to the cabin, she loudly cursed Luther, Call, and Clay.

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

Luther’s eyes narrowed as he studied the cabin down the hill. He saw a second horse tethered close to his. At first he half-expected it to be Hellbitch, but it didn’t look familiar. He carefully made his way down the hill. Standing for a few seconds outside the door, he set the two dead rabbits to one side and checked his rifle. Taking a deep breath, he flung the door open...and stared in surprise.

Mattie squealed as the door was flung open. Her damp clothing was stretched across a piece of rope hanging over the stove. She was wearing a pair of Luther’s pants and holding his shirt in front of her.

“Mattie?!” Luther exclaimed. Suddenly realizing she was half-dressed, he flushed a bright red. “I”ll wait outside.” Before Mattie could say anything, he slammed the door shut.

Mattie quickly pulled Luther’s shirt on and buttoned it. She opened the door to find him pacing in front of the cabin. For a few seconds they stared at each other.

“Better get inside where it’s warm,” Mattie finally suggested.

Luther grabbed the rabbits and his rifle. He brushed past Mattie into the cabin.

“Mattie, what are you doin’ here?” he flung the rabbits to one side and set the rifle next to the bed. He suddenly frowned. “Somethin’ happen to Call or Austin?”

“No, they’re fine,” Mattie stared down at herself a little self-conscious. “At least they was when Enona and I left.”

“Enona’s here?” Luther looked around.

“No, she headed back to Curtis Wells,” Mattie took a deep breath. “She tracked you for me...then left.”

Slowly Luther removed his hat. “What are you doing here, Mattie?” he repeated.

“Call came to see me,” Mattie slowly began leaning against the table. “Seems you and he think you got a say in who I marry.”

Luther grimaced. “Call’s got a big mouth,” he said sourly.

Mattie chuckled. “Only compared to you and Enona,” she pointed out.

“Mosby’s no good, Mattie,” Luther muttered. “You just can’t see that.”

“I know he’s been a good friend to me,” Mattie said softly. “Just like you and Call.” She saw something flicker in Luther’s eyes. “You and Call just gotta accept that I’m gonna make the decisions about my life.”

“Ain’t that simple, Mattie,” Luther said defensively.

“I know,” Mattie said sadly. “But I feel like it’s my fault you came up here.”

“Ain’t like that, Mattie,” Luther protested.

“No?” Mattie asked lightly.

“No,” Luther said more firmly as he looked past her. “You fall in the snow or somethin’?”

“Yeah,” Mattie nodded. “Hope you don’t mind...” she fingered his shirt.

“No,” Luther said quickly. “Just kinda took me by surprise...you bein’ here and all.” He glanced back at her. “Sorry, Mattie. Never meant to interfere.”

“I don’t mind that you and Call care,” Mattie smiled as she put a hand on his arm.

Luther’s eyes darkened. “Don’t want that to be a problem either,” he replied shortly. He picked up the rabbits. “I’ll get ‘em skinned for supper.”

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

Call murmured as he felt a cool hand on his forehead. Wrapped in the blanket Caroline had given him for Christmas, he’d fallen asleep behind the desk in the jail. Slowly his eyes opened and he stared up at Caroline. He jerked awake quickly his feet falling to the floor.

“I’m sorry,” Caroline apologized. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“You didn’t,” Call’s voice came out raspy and hoarse.

“You need to get some rest,” Caroline pointed out.

“Josiah send you over?” Call demanded. When Caroline flushed, he grunted. “Tell Josiah...”

“He said you’d be more childish than Austin,” Caroline murmured apologetically.

“He did, did he?” Call glanced out the window silently appalled that it was twilight. “Guess that’s somethin’ I’ll take up with Josiah.” He hesitated then folded the blanket. “Come on, I’ll walk you back to the Dove. Time to eat anyways.”

They found Austin at a table with Josiah. Mandy lay curled asleep in Josiah’s lap. Call was absurdly pleased to see Austin didn’t look much better than he knew he looked.

“Newt, are you feeling better?” Josiah asked.

“Fine,” Call grunted. He glanced at Austin who wanly sipped his tea. He looked down at the cup that miraculously appeared in front of him. More tea.

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

Mattie and Luther ate in almost complete silence. After dinner, Luther carried in more snow so Mattie could wash the plates and pans. As Mattie finished, Luther came back in from seeing to the horses. Luther split the available blankets laying half on the bed and using the other half to make a pallet on the floor. “I’ll take you back to Curtis Wells tomorrow,” he said shortly as Mattie watched.

“That’ll be fine,” Mattie replied coolly. Without a further word, she snuggled under the blankets on the bed and closed her eyes. She heard Luther lay on the floor. After a few moments, she heard him roll over. After a few minutes, she heard him roll over again.

“This is crazy, Luther,” she said into the darkness. “You can’t sleep on the floor. It’s too cold.”

“Slept in colder places,” he grumbled.

“I swear you have got to be the most bull-headed man I’ve ever known!” Mattie sat up. “Would it be so bad to sleep in this bed with me?” She caught her breath realizing how it sounded. “I mean, you don’t need to freeze to death.”

“Won’t freeze,” Luther replied stubbornly. “‘Sides...it wouldn’t look right...me in bed with you.”

“Who’s gonna know?” Mattie asked sensibly. “I swear I’ll never tell.” She heard Luther sigh then he stood and began piling his share of the blankets on the bed. Mattie slid over against the wall giving him plenty of room. Then Luther laid down along the edge of the bed careful not to touch Mattie.

He lay there for several minutes listening to Mattie’s even breathing. “Call know you’re here?” he quietly asked his voice tinged with jealousy.

“Asked him to track you for me,” Mattie replied softly. “He said no...that you’d be back when you was ready. So Enona said she’d do it.” She hesitated. “I don’t think Call liked that much.”

“Probably not,” Luther grunted. “Look, Mattie, it just don’t look right for you to be up here with me alone. People are gonna talk.”

“I don’t care,” Mattie shrugged.

“Well, I do,” Luther argued. “So does Call. He probably figured Enona would stay up here with us.”

“Well, I guess Call figured wrong,” Mattie snapped. She turned to stare at Luther. “You know, you and he are so hell-bent on decidin’ who I can’t marry that maybe the two of you need to figure out if I want to marry any of you at all!”

Luther glanced at her in surprise. He started to say something then closed his mouth obviously stunned by what she said.

“Ain’t nobody decided that I gotta marry you...or Call...or Clay...or anybody!” Mattie angrily hissed. “Maybe I’ll marry somebody else!”

Luther’s eyes narrowed. “Now wait a minute, Mattie,” he warned after a few seconds. “It’s bad enough I gotta deal with Call. At least I know he’ll fight openly. It’s bad enough I gotta worry ‘bout Mosby. He fights dirty. Who else do I gotta take care of?”

Mattie sat up and stared at him in frustration. “You haven’t heard a word I’ve said!” she accused. “Of all the....” she stopped when Luther chuckled. She angrily grabbed her pillow and flung it at Luther’s head.

Luther caught the pillow with a laugh. “Mattie, all Call and I want is somebody that’s gonna take good care of you,” he explained as he tossed the pillow back at her. “Somebody that’ll be good to you. That so bad?”

“No,” Mattie said after a moment. She replaced the pillow. “Just that sometimes you and Call act like I don’t have a say in the matter.” She glanced at him. “Luther, I really don’t know who I’ll marry. But I know I ain’t ready to do it now. I’ll decide who and when I marry.”

“Sounds fair enough,” Luther nodded cheerfully and closed his eyes. “Night, Mattie.”

Mattie stared down at him repressing the sudden urge to strangle him where he lay.

THE END

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