THE WEDDING

“Think we should help him?” Luther Root asked as he watched the two men fighting.

Newt Call shrugged. “He ain’t lost the fight,” he answered.

Luther winced as Austin Peale was knocked to his knees. Austin growled and threw himself against the other man as they rolled in the dirt.

The girls from Twyla’s eagerly cheered Austin on. The man he was fighting and his friend had been causing trouble for hours until finally one of the girls found Austin. By the time Luther and Call arrived, Austin had knocked one of the men out and was brawling in the street with the other. The first man lay stretched out unconscious in the street with Luther’s boot on his chest.

Finally, Austin managed to land two punches directly on the man’s nose, dazing him enough that he quit fighting. Austin, breathing heavily, turned to look at Call and Luther. “Thanks for the help,” he said sarcastically as he staggered to his feet. He ignored the cheering of Twyla’s girls.

Call shrugged as he bent and dragged the semi-conscious man to his feet. “Best have Cleese stop that bleedin’,” he said curtly. “Stage is due in a couple of hours.”

“Damn,” Austin touched his mouth and felt blood against his fingers. He saw Luther half-dragging the other man down the street. “Who are they anyway?” he asked.

“Some of those railroad men that Mosby put up in the Dove,” Twyla answered. She patted Austin on the arm. “You come by, Austin, and we’ll do you up right.” She ignored Austin’s sudden blush and glared at Call. “They been roughin’ up some of the girls. What do you plan on doin’ to keep these fella in line?”

“Talk to Mosby,” Call grunted as he walked off with his prisoner. “Send the bill to him.”

“Don’t think I won’t!” Twyla sniffed as she headed towards the Ambrosia Club.

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

It wasn’t more than 20 minutes before Clay Mosby showed up at the jail to bail the men out. Both men looked subdued as Mosby paid the fine. He watched them as they quickly left.

“Better keep your guests in line, Mosby,” Call leaned back in the chair putting his boots on the desk. “Would hate to have all those fellas in jail and not able to build your railroad.”

Mosby glared at Call. “That railroad will keep Curtis Wells on the map, Call,” he snapped. “I’m sure even you can see that.”

Call shrugged. “Like things the way they are,” he said breezily. “Don’t see a need for a railroad.”

“You wouldn’t,” Mosby smiled coldly. “Somehow I think both you and Luther would prefer to live far back in the mountains away from all civilized people.”

Call masked a grin although his eyes twinkled. “Depends on what you think civilized is,” he said. He thought for a moment. “Wonder how Mattie looks at it?”

Mosby’s smile widened. “The way any intelligent person does,” he answered. He saw Call’s eyes tighten as he tipped his hat and left.

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

“So this is Curtis Wells,” Elizabeth Lang murmured as she stared out the window of the stagecoach. She saw Randall Terence’s ironic nod as she mentally compared Curtis Wells to Denver. Now she understood his difficulty in understanding why his niece would want to live here. Elizabeth suddenly looked forward to meeting Caroline’s fiancé.

Caroline Hall looked eagerly out the window hoping to catch a glimpse of Austin. Robert Shelby, sitting across from her, watched her for a few seconds then glanced away. From what Clay had written him, Austin had been perhaps reconsidering the marriage. It was a distant hope, but...he glanced over at Elizabeth Lang. A smart man always makes adjustments, he told himself.

Robert stepped off the stage and grinned when he saw Clay lounging against a nearby post. Clay grinned back and tossed his cigar into the street. As Robert turned around to help Caroline down, Austin brushed past him.

“Austin!” Caroline said with delight as he took her by the waist and twirled her around. Caroline hugged him tightly as he gently set her on the sidewalk. “Oh, Austin,” she frowned as she saw his bruised lip.

“It’s nothing,” Austin grinned cheerfully as he hugged her again. He glanced at Terence. “Some of your people got a little out of hand at...” He hesitated glancing down at Caroline. “They’re in jail.”

“Not precisely,” Clay interrupted smoothly. “I took the liberty of settlin’ damages and gettin’ your people out of jail.” Both he and Robert noticed Austin’s flush of anger.

“I see,” Terence looked angry. “My apologies. I’ll see that doesn’t happen again.” He turned to help Elizabeth from the stage.

“Austin, this is Elizabeth Lang, my maid of honor,” Caroline introduced Austin. “Elizabeth, this is Austin Peale.”

“Of whom I’ve heard so much,” Elizabeth murmured offering her hand to Austin. Austin gingerly shook her hand studying her closely. He mentally nodded. She was another Amanda Carpenter. Then, as if his silent thought had conjured her, he heard Amanda’s voice behind him.

“I told you they’d still be here, Josiah,” she said.

“Mr. Peale,” Caroline smiled happily at Austin’s father.

“Hello, Caroline,” Josiah kissed her gently on the cheek. “I hope you had no problems?”

“None,” she smiled up at Austin hanging onto his arm. When Austin smiled back at her, Josiah silently nodded to himself. He turned to Terence who was introducing Elizabeth.

“Rev. Kelly arrived yesterday,” Josiah said. “He said he would be able to perform the wedding tomorrow if that’s convenient.”

“Tomorrow?” Elizabeth’s eyebrows raised.

“Tomorrow?” Austin’s eyes widened a bit unsure. He glanced down at Caroline.

“Tomorrow’s fine,” Caroline replied firmly. “Unless you’re rather...”

“No,” Austin said quickly. “I just wasn’t sure that would give you enough time to..uh...”

“It will,” Caroline replied softly with a smile.

“I’ll let him know,” Josiah offered. “Why don’t we all get together for dinner tonight?”

Clay and Robert immediately begged off. Elizabeth smiled. “Perhaps Amanda will keep me company,” she suggested. “Why don’t the family members have dinner together?”

“If you’re sure...” Josiah’s voice trailed off.

“I’d be happy to keep you company,” Amanda nodded.

When Terence nodded, Josiah smiled. “If you’ll excuse me, I have some errands to run.” He hurried down the street as both Austin and Amanda watched him curiously.

“Uncle, could you have my bags taken upstairs?” Caroline asked. “I’d like to take a walk. I’ve been sitting so long.”

“Of course,” Terence nodded towards Austin and turned to Clay. “Now about those men...”

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

“Are you sure about tomorrow?” Austin said as he walked Caroline down the street. “I don’t want you to feel rushed.”

“Austin,” Caroline hesitated. “Have you changed your mind about marrying me?”

“No!” Austin looked at her sharply. He took a deep breath. “I guess some of my letters sounded a little crazy.” He glanced around to make sure no one was watching then reached into his pocket. “I’ve kept this,” he said looking a little embarrassed as he put something in Caroline’s hand.

She glanced down to see the hair ribbon she’d used to wrap around a letter she’d sent to Austin. “Oh, Austin,” she smiled then hugged him. “I’m so sorry I asked you that.”

“Don’t be,” Austin quickly took the ribbon and shoved it back into his pocket. “I mean, you’re sure about this, aren’t you?”

“Very,” Caroline squeezed his arm contentedly.

Austin nodded silently...wishing his stomach would quit lurching.

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

Elizabeth closed the door to her room. She squealed with glee as she and Amanda hugged. “So that’s Austin Peale,” she finally said as she sat on the bed. “All I’ve heard is how wonderful Austin is. I really wasn’t sure what to expect.”

Amanda grimaced. “With Austin, you never know what you’ll get,” she admitted.

“And his father?” Elizabeth asked archly.

“Josiah?” Amanda became serious for a moment. “He’s a good person, Elizabeth. Naive, but good. He’s been good to me. And not the way you’re thinking.” She laughed suddenly. “I actually like working in the newspaper business.”

Elizabeth shook her head. “I would never have believed it,” she smiled. She stood and began to unpack. “Here’s what you’re looking for.” She handed Amanda a packet of papers.

“Thank you, Elizabeth,” Amanda smiled. “You have no idea what this means to me.”

“I owed you,” Elizabeth shrugged. “Now we’re even.” She grinned. “Speaking of owing...do you have any money left?”

“Not much,” Amanda acknowledged. “But this is worth it.”

Elizabeth hesitated. “Randall seems to think Robert Shelby is the man to back in this railroad business,” she said. “For some reason, he’s been leaving us alone together. He actually told me that he wouldn’t mind if Robert and I...well, you know.”

Amanda’s eyes narrowed. “That doesn’t sound right,” she said slowly.

“No, it doesn’t,” Elizabeth agreed. “He’s up to something. I just wish I knew what.” She shrugged. “But he seems insistent on putting a railroad from Miles City to Curtis Wells, so you’ll be set.”

Amanda glanced down at the papers in her hand. “I should,” she admitted slowly.

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

Clay glanced at Robert as he poured another drink. The two men sat at the back poker table at the Ambrosia Club where they had privacy.

“For a while, I thought Austin was goin’ to back out of the weddin’,” Clay admitted. “Damned inconsiderate of him, wouldn’t you agree, Robert?”

Robert smiled. “Never mind,” he said heavily. “Caroline isn’t the only way to get what I want.” He sipped the scotch slowly. “What about this trouble with Terence’s men?”

Clay shrugged. “Just the normal,” he recalled. “A little too much whiskey, a few too many women. Nothin’ to really get worked up about.” He glanced across the table. “Why?”

Robert shrugged. “They’re some men Terence is using to do some preliminary field work,” he said slowly. “His people are usually very disciplined.”

Clay shrugged. “It happens,” he decided to change the subject. “Tell me about the lovely Miss Lang. She doesn’t seem the type to be Caroline’s friend.”

“Oh, they’re friends,” Robert nodded. “You’ll find out that Caroline will befriend anybody.” He shrugged. “Elizabeth is really Terence’s lady friend.” He smiled slowly at Clay. “But it seems Terence doesn’t mind throwing the two of us together.”

“And the lady?” Clay’s eyes twinkled.

Robert shrugged. “I have the feeling she’ll look out for herself first,” he admitted. Then he grinned widely. “But, God, Clay...she’s stunningly beautiful, isn’t she?”

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

“Tomorrow?” Luther looked surprised. “You’re gettin’ married tomorrow?” When Austin nodded, he headed out the door of the jail. “I gotta tell Mattie. What time?”

“Nine o’clock,” Austin yelled as the door slammed behind Luther. He turned to Call who sat slouched in the chair behind the desk. “He’s taking Mattie?”

“Looks like,” Call said evenly. “Guess you’ll be tellin’ Enona, too.”

“Yeah,” Austin nodded. “You two still not talkin’?”

Call scowled. “Don’t got nothin’ to talk ‘bout,” he said in a surly tone.

“Guess I’ll see you tomorrow,” Austin said as he started out.

“Never promised that,” Call answered roughly ignoring Austin’s look back at him. “Told you in the beginning.”

“You do what you want, Call,” Austin said softly after a pause. “But I’d like you to be there.” He gently closed the door behind him.

Call stood and kicked the side of the desk. “Don’t need to be pushed,” he muttered angrily.

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

Mattie smiled as Enona sat down in the pew next to her. “I’m glad you came,” she murmured. “Has Call been as surly to you as to me?” she grinned.

“At least he’s been surly to you,” Enona had to smile. “I don’t even get that.”

The two women looked at each other and laughed softly.

Amanda surprised Clay by slipping into the seat next to him. “We should be very careful,” she whispered to him.

Despite himself, Clay’s eyes twinkled. “And why is that, Amanda?” he whispered back.

“Why, Clay,” Amanda’s eyelashes fluttered. “You and I...in church together...who knows what might happen?”

Clay managed to resist the temptation to roar with laughter. Instead only a choked chuckle emerged.

Amanda glanced over her shoulder. “And to tell you the truth, I’m not comfortable with some of Terence’s men,” she confided.

“Really, Amanda,” Clay frowned. “I know they’re not up to your current standards...but you must remember, your current standards haven’t always been your usual ones.”

Amanda’s eyes glittered as she patted Clay’s arm. “That’s one thing I like about you, Clay,” she smiled coldly. “You know how to insult a lady with style.”

Clay’s eyes twinkled with glee as he sardonically kissed the back of Amanda’s hand.

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

“Hold still, Austin,” Josiah said for the third time as he struggled with Austin’s tie.

“I am,” Austin said faintly. “You’re tying it too tightly. I can’t breathe.”

“Ah, that’s just nerves,” Luther slapped Austin on the shoulder.

The three men stood behind the church waiting to enter. Josiah finally nodded in satisfaction and stepped back. “There. Now leave it alone,” he ordered as Austin began tugging on it.

“Where’s Call?” Austin looked around irritably.

“If Newt can be here, he will,” Josiah said quietly. He reached into his pocket and handed Luther a ring. “I guess you should have this. Give it to Austin during the ceremony.”

Luther’s eyes widened as he saw the ring and gave a low whistle. “You sure you want me to hold this?” he asked.

“It was my grandmother’s,” Austin said quietly to no one in particular.

Luther glanced at Josiah who looked at Austin with concern. Austin was tugging at his tie again.

“Well, ya gettin’ married or not?” Call’s voice came from around the side of the church.

“Newt!” Josiah smiled happily as Call walked around the corner towards them.

“Call?” Luther looked startled.

“What?” Call demanded. He ran his hands through his hair and scowled.

Luther looked at him closely. Call’s clothes had been cleaned and his boots shined. Then Luther knew why he looked different. Call had even combed his hair, partially shaved, and he was even wearing a tie.

“You look very nice, Newt,” Josiah beamed. His walked over and began rearranging Call’s tie.

“Don’t, Josiah,” Call said irritably.

“Thank you, Newt,” Josiah whispered. “This means a lot...to both of us.”

Call met Josiah’s eyes briefly and curtly nodded.

Suddenly Austin took an audible deep breath and quickly walked around the corner. Josiah hesitated then followed him.

Call scowled at Luther. “You’re not wearin’ a tie,” he accused. “You said I was to wear one.”

Luther shrugged a slight grin on his face. “Never said I was to wear one,” he pointed out.

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

Austin leaned against the side of the church trying to take deep breaths. He felt Josiah’s hand on his arm and flinched.

“Austin,” Josiah said quietly. “It will be fine. You worry too much sometimes.”

Austin stared at his father then nodded. “I just wish...” He forced himself to take a deep breath and lowered his eyes. “Father, the reason I didn’t ask you to stand up with me...” he began.

“Is because you wanted Newt and Luther,” Josiah continued smoothly. “I understand that.” He looked closely at his son. “Austin, is this what’s upsetting you?”

Austin hesitated then nodded. “I suppose so,” he lied.

“Austin, sometimes you...” Josiah shook his head with a smile. “I understand. Now put it out of your mind.”

Austin nodded closing his eyes. His breathing became more regular. “I’m fine, Father,” he said after a moment.

“Good,” Josiah pulled something from his pocket. “I was going to give this to you later, but..well, perhaps you should have it now.”

“What is it?” Austin took the papers and opened them. He scanned the first page then looked at his father. “Father! You didn’t!”

“Yes,” Josiah smiled proudly. “It’s not much land but it’s close to town. After all, Austin, you and Caroline can’t live at the Dove for the rest of your lives. You’re going to want your own home.”

Austin returned the papers to Josiah. “You’d better keep them until we get back from Denver,” he suggested. After a moment, he stood and looked at his father. “Thank you, Father. I’m sorry for the way I’ve acted sometimes.”

“Never mind,” Josiah patted Austin’s arm. “It doesn’t matter now.” When Austin nodded, he pulled him along. “Come on.”

Call and Luther glanced up as they returned.

“Were you this nervous when you got married?” Austin tugged on his tie as he eyed Call and his father.

“Of course,” Josiah nodded.

“Yep,” Call said reluctantly.

“Nope,” Luther answered as he peeked in the back door of the church. When the others looked at him skeptically, he shrugged defensively. “Wasn’t nervous or scared. Just...wanted to get it done.”

Rev. Kelly pushed open the back door. “We’re ready,” he smiled.

Austin took a deep breath and entered the church. As Luther followed, he handed the ring to Call. Call looked at it curiously then angrily hissed at him, “You’re supposed to do that!”

Luther looked over his shoulder and whispered back, “You got it now. I ain’t bein’ responsible for that.”

Josiah squeezed Austin’s arm a final time then sat down in the front pew. Just then everyone turned to see Terence escorting Caroline down the aisle.

Austin smiled slowly feeling all the tension leave his body as Caroline approached. Call glanced at Luther who shrugged. Seemed like a lot of fuss about something so simple, he thought.

Call glanced to see Enona and Mattie sitting together. As usual when he saw them together, he felt a cold chill run up his spine. He saw them looking at him and he quickly looked away.

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

The party afterwards was held outdoors. Luther quickly claimed his kiss from the bride and went to find Mattie.

“You look really nice, Mattie,” Luther saw Clay and Robert approaching. “You wanna get somethin’ to eat?”

“Sure, Luther,” Mattie saw Clay. “Why don’t you join us, Clay?”

“Why, thank you, Mattie,” Clay grinned at Luther’s expression. “But out of respect for the festive occasion, perhaps we should try to keep the bloodshed to a minimum.” He tipped his hat and smiled as Mattie chuckled.

As Luther escorted Mattie to the buffet table, she looked up at him. “I ain’t sayin’ nothin’, Mattie,” Luther shook his head. “You know what I think...but I ain’t sayin’ nothin’.”

Enona and Call stood awkwardly at the end of the buffet table. “You talkin’ to me now?” Call finally challenged.

Enona stared at him for a moment then nodded. “Sometimes, Call, you just need to be kicked into what you need to do,” she half-smiled.

“I know what I need to do,” Call grumbled as Mattie and Luther joined them.

“You both look real nice,” Mattie commented looked at both men. “I’m glad you both were here.”

Luther and Call both looked away in embarrassment. Mattie caught Enona’s eyes and they chuckled. Call scowled at them wishing they would stop that.

“Austin, don’t eat so quickly,” Josiah quietly said. “You’ll be sick.”

Austin glanced at the plate of food. “I’m hungry, Father. I haven’t eaten since yesterday,” he protested.

“All the more reason to be sensible,” Josiah took some of the food from Austin’s plate onto his. “Don’t argue with me,” he ordered with a smile.

“Mr. Peale?” Caroline, with Terence in tow, came to him. Josiah set his plate aside not noticing that Austin quickly moved some of the food back onto his plate.

“Caroline told me about you purchasing that land,” Terence smiled. “Most generous.”

“Thank you so much,” Caroline gently kissed Josiah on the cheek.

“It was my pleasure,” Josiah said awkwardly patting her on the shoulder.

“The stage back to Miles City will be leaving in an hour, Caroline,” Terence glanced at his watch. “If the two of you are planning on leaving, you’d best get changed.”

Caroline nodded and whispered in Austin’s ear. He nodded and she turned back to them. “I’ll tell Elizabeth. She said she was going back as well.”

Terence frowned but nodded. “I thought she might stay longer,” he smiled. “Oh, well, women change their minds for the most trivial of reasons.”

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

Austin glanced around the room making sure he hadn’t forgotten anything. Not that he was even sure what he had packed in his suitcase. He hesitated for a moment, then placed his extra gun in the suitcase. He stared at it for a moment wondering at his actions. Then, with a shrug, he closed the suitcase and left the room.

He saw Call standing at the end of the hallway staring at the floor as he kicked the toe of his boot against the stair railing. Austin stopped when he reached him.

“Call,” he said quietly sitting his suitcase down.

“Hope it works out,” Call said equally quiet not looking at him.

“It will,” Austin grinned confidently. “Thanks for bein’ there,” he said softly.

Call shrugged. “Wasn’t nothin’,” he mumbled. He looked down the stairs. “Best get goin’. They ain’t gonna wait all day.”

Austin nodded. He was surprised when Call reached down and picked up the suitcase. Silently, the two men left the Dove.

Call tossed the suitcase up to the driver as Austin hugged his father.

“I’m proud of you, son,” Josiah said quietly. Austin stared at his father with such a look of surprise that Josiah flushed guiltily. “Now go,” he said quickly.

Austin grunted as Luther pounded him on his back. “Told ya it was just nerves,” he grinned.

“Shut up, Luther,” Austin hissed glancing at Caroline and Elizabeth already seated in the coach.

Caroline leaned out to hug Terence. “Thank you so much, Uncle,” she whispered. “For everything.”

“Family means everything, Caroline,” Terence said evenly staring into her eyes. “Remember that. Family means everything.”

“I know,” Caroline kissed his cheek.

Robert and Clay slowly walked back towards the Ambrosia Club as the stage rolled down the street. Amanda slid her arm through Josiah’s and led him towards the Dove. Mattie and Enona started walking towards the gun shop. Call’s eyes narrowed as he heard them again chuckling.

With a grin, Luther reached out and yanked at Call’s tie. “You can take that off now,” he said.

Slowly, Call removed the tie. “Hate it when they do that,” he muttered nodding at Mattie and Enona.

“Ah, they’re friends,” he said as they walked towards the jail. “No harm.”

Call grunted unconvinced.

Terence turned to the man next to him. “Is everything in order, Kyle?” he asked quietly.

“Whenever you want to start,” the man nodded.

Terence carefully lit his cigar and puffed consideringly. “Tonight,” he decided. “Let the others know.”

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

It was close to dark when the stage pulled into the relay area. “Looks like we’ll be spending the night here,” Elizabeth glanced over at Austin. “Not exactly a first choice for a wedding night,” she teased.

Caroline blushed. “Elizabeth!” she gasped.

Austin scowled which only made Elizabeth grin. “You need to develop a sense of humor, Austin,” she suggested.

Austin ignored her and opened the door when the stage stopped. He helped Caroline down first then Elizabeth.

“Jake’s probably out back,” the driver said. “I’ll take care of the horses.”

Austin nodded and took Caroline’s hand leading her towards the building. Elizabeth smiled as she followed. Robert would have been much better company, she decided.

Austin frowned as they entered. No one was visible and it looked as though no food was being prepared. “I’ll try to find him,” he told Caroline. As he turned to go back outside, something heavy glanced off the side of his head and he fell heavily to the ground. He heard Caroline scream and felt his gun being tugged from his gunbelt.

“Shut up!” a familiar voice yelled.

Austin shook his head to clear it as he heard a gunshot. For a moment he panicked then realized it came from the back of the building. He got to his knees and looked up.

“Ike,” he muttered staring up.

“You women shut up!” Ike ordered as he leveled his gun at Austin.

“Austin!” Caroline screamed. She tried to run to him but Elizabeth caught her in the doorway.

“Do what he says!” Austin yelled blinking to clear his eyes. He slowly got to his feet. “Are you out of your mind, Ike?”

“No,” Ike grinned. “I’m gettin’ even.” He spit on the ground. “You shoulda stayed drunk.”

“He’s right.”

Austin turned to see a man coming around the side of the building. “Driver’s dead. Got him in the barn with the other one.”

“Chris?” Caroline’s voice was wavering.

Austin’s eyes narrowed in recognition then he looked at Caroline. “You know him?”

“Why wouldn’t she?” Chris Coffin grinned as he pointed his gun at Austin’s stomach. “We’re cousins.”

Austin’s head throbbed. “Cousins?” he looked from one to the other.

“Chris, what are you doing?” Caroline’s hands were squeezing Elizabeth’s arms.

“Settin’ scores, Caroline,” Coffin glanced at his cousin then grinned at Austin. “You figured it out yet?”

Austin glared at Coffin but remained silent.

“Nash’s wife was Terence’s sister,” Coffin explained. “My mother was Nash’s sister.” He shrugged.

“Chris, please,” Caroline pleaded. “What’s going on?”

“You husband here’s gonna pay for Nash’s death, cousin,” Coffin grinned coldly. “He shot him in the back.”

“Nash was holding a gun to my father’s head!” Austin snapped. “He was gonna pull the trigger.” He glanced at Caroline. “I didn’t have a choice.”

“Nash practically raised us both,” Coffin continued coldly. “Was more of a father to me than my own father was. You gotta pay for that.” He nodded to Ike. “Toss him his gun.”

“What?” Ike looked at Coffin in surprise.

“You heard me!” Coffin yelled. “I ain’t gonna backshoot him like he did Nash. He’ll have a chance.”

“How generous,” Elizabeth said coolly. “Since you’re little more than a gunslinger, Chris.”

“I’d be careful in startin’ any name callin’,” Coffin sneered.

“Randall doesn’t know about this, does he?” Elizabeth speculated. “How will you ever explain it to him? You know how he feels about Caroline.” She studied him silently. “Or do you plan on executing us as well?”

“Nobody’s gonna hurt you,” Coffin looked at Caroline. “I swear, Caroline. I guess I’ll deal with Terence later. But he’s gonna pay.” He looked at Caroline’s stunned expression. “Do you understand what I said, Caroline? Your Austin here shot Nash in the back!”

Austin watched as Caroline slowly looked from one man to the other. She leaned weakly against the doorjam. “Please, Chris,” she said softly. “I don’t understand. Why would you have gone to Curtis Wells in the first place?”

“Nash’s sons were rustling horses and cattle,” Austin said evenly. “Call was a bountyhunter then. He went to bring them in but they decided to shoot it out. So Nash and Coffin came after him. Caught me coming back from Ft. Bennett. Nearly beat me to death as a warning. You remember that, Coffin?”

Coffin sighed. “I said, give him his gun, Ike,” he said taking a few steps backward and holstering his gun. “It’s between him and me. You stay out of it.”

Elizabeth stepped out of the building as Ike tossed Austin’s gun at his feet. He eyed her and licked his lips. Elizabeth clutched her bag to her and stepped back against the side of the building.

Slowly Austin picked up his gun and checked it. He wouldn’t have put it past Ike to have emptied it while he was stunned. With a sigh, he carefully put it in his holster.

Coffin nodded at Ike who reluctantly lowered his gun.

“Chris! No!” Caroline screamed.

“Shut up!” Coffin said angrily watching Austin closely.

“Be quiet, Caroline,” Austin said quietly his eyes never leaving Coffin.

Just as Coffin’s hand moved towards his gun, they heard a shot. Coffin instinctively glanced over and saw Elizabeth with a small derringer in her hand...and Ike falling to ground. He saw Austin’s hand move towards his gun and quickly drew.

Two shots echoed in the still evening air. Caroline slumped against the door jam. Elizabeth quickly grabbed her by the arm and shook her. “Don’t you dare faint!” she ordered roughly shaking her again.

Elizabeth looked over her shoulder to see Coffin fall to his knees a stunned look on his face just before he fell face-first into the dirt. Austin slowly exhaled aware he’d been holding his breath. Slowly he holstered his gun.

“Austin,” Caroline murmured as she stumbled into his arms.

Austin held her close wrapping his arms around her. He glanced at Elizabeth. “You always carry a gun?” he asked.

“Always,” Elizabeth nodded curtly. “A lady needs some sort of protection.” She kicked Ike’s limp body as she stepped over him. “Caroline and I didn’t know about this.”

Austin stared at her silently then glanced around. “Looks like Coffin was acting on his own about this,” he guessed. He caught the look in Elizabeth’s eyes. “Terence is going after Call, isn’t he?”

“I don’t know,” Elizabeth shook her head. She reached and took Caroline’s arm. “If Chris was telling the truth, I’d say so. Randall always placed a great emphasis on family. I know he felt his sister’s death pretty hard.”

“Aunt Laura,” Caroline took a deep breath. “They were so close.” She stared up at Austin. “She died soon after her sons were...”

“Call didn’t have a choice,” Austin repeated. “They didn’t give him one.” He looked at Elizabeth. “Take Caroline inside. I’ll take them to the barn. We can send somebody out later.” He waited until Elizabeth turned Caroline around then turned Coffin’s body over. “What the hell!?” he exclaimed in shock.

Elizabeth and Caroline turned back. Austin’s hand was closed around something at Coffin’s neck and he tugged pulling it away.

“Chris said it was the only thing his father gave him besides his name,” Caroline said chokingly as she stared at the item in Austin’s hand. “It’s a lion’s tooth.”

Austin stared at the object in his hand...stained with blood. “Lion’s tooth?” his voice shook.

“A mountain lion,” Caroline explained. She saw the expression on Austin’s face. “Austin, what is it?”

Austin shook his head. “Get inside,” he said roughly. He closed his eyes hearing Enona’s voice. ‘You will know the price to be paid when you see blood on the lion’s tooth.’ He felt the world spin around him and heard the roar of his own blood in his ears.

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

Elizabeth and Caroline looked up when Austin entered the building. “Here,” Elizabeth handed Austin a cup of coffee. Austin nodded his thanks and looked at Caroline sitting at the table. Walking over to her, he set the cup on the table. He knelt and stared at her. “Caroline, I had no choice,” he said evenly. “Just like Call had no choice.”

Caroline flung her arms around Austin’s neck. “I know,” she sobbed.

“I don’t have any choice,” Austin repeated slowly. “Understand that, Caroline. I have no choices left.”

Elizabeth looked at him quizzically.

“The two of you stay here,” Austin said to Elizabeth. “When the stage doesn’t arrive by tomorrow in Miles City, they’ll send someone out looking for you...or someone will come back from Curtis Wells.”

“Austin,” Caroline looked at him. “Do you have to go?”

“Yes,” Austin said roughly. “Call’s my friend. He was married to my sister. Terence has got his men all over Curtis Wells. It won’t be a fair fight.”

“What makes you think I’m staying here?” Elizabeth demanded. “There are 4 dead bodies in the barn and God only knows who’s going to stumble in here next!” She looked at Caroline. “We’re heading back to Curtis Wells with you.”

“No, you’re not!” Austin yelled standing to look at Elizabeth. “That’s the last place you need to be! Do you really think you can keep Terence from doing anything?”

“Of course not,” Elizabeth scoffed. “But he has no reason to hurt us. And he’ll protect us.” She glanced meaningfully at Caroline.

“Damn,” Austin muttered. He ran his hand through his hair. “Can you ride?”

“We’ll keep up,” Elizabeth promised.

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

Robert glanced out the window of Terence’s room at the Dove wondering why Terence had insisted on meeting him there. He hoped it wouldn’t take long. He was feeling lucky and planned to finally take some of Clay’s money at poker. He glanced out again suddenly realizing there was a great deal of shouting.

He turned suddenly as Terence entered the room.

“Sounds like a lively night,” Robert mentioned.

“Very lively,” Terence agreed as another man followed him into the room. “My men are taking over Curtis Wells.”

“What?!” Robert stared at the other man in shock. “What are you talking about?”

“Sit down, Robert,” Terence invited. “We have quite a bit to discuss.”

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

Amanda screamed as men threw open the door of the Statesman and rushed in. She threw a bottle of ink in the face of one of the men as Josiah was clubbed into submission. The man howled as he clawed ink from his face. Two men grabbed Amanda as she struggled to free herself.

“That’s enough!” A gun was thrust into her face. “Bring them,” he ordered the others.

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

Four men burst into the gunshop startling Mattie and Enona. Enona tried to draw her gun but one of the men stunned her by clipping her with the butt of his gun. When Mattie tried to run to Enona, another man backhanded her to the floor.

“Miss Mattie!” Unbob shouted as he rushed forward from the back room.

The man standing over Enona fired at Unbob who grabbed his chest falling to the floor.

“Unbob,” Mattie groaned as she was dragged to her feet and Enona’s guns taken from her.

As they were dragged into the street, Mattie saw Josiah and Amanda being shoved out of the offices of the Statesman. Several shots echoed through the town as Terence’s men quickly worked their way from one end to the other.

“Over there!” Mattie heard one man yell. She turned to see shots being fired. In the moonlight, she saw Luther slump against a building then stagger into the darkness. She shoved hard against the man next to her trying to get his gun. Another man grabbed her arm and flung her to the ground. She heard a gun being cocked and looked up into the barrel of a Peacemaker.

“Take them inside,” one man ordered. “This won’t take long.”

Enona held the side of her head with one hand. She glimpsed Call in the shadows next to Opera Hall. She shook her head as though trying to clear it. She saw Call’s gun tip upward in response just before he faded into the surrounding darkness.

“Just what the hell’s goin’ on here?!” Clay Mosby was raging at both Terence and Robert as they were shoved inside the Ambrosia Club.

“Very simple, Clay,” Terence lit a cigar and leaned back in his chair. “Revenge. Retribution. I’m sure you understand those things.”

Clay looked over and muttered a curse. “Mattie, are you alright?” he went to her and helped her sit down.

“I’m fine,” Mattie murmured gently rubbing her face. “They shot Unbob.”

“Kyle, find the doctor and see about this Unbob person,” Terence ordered. He watched as Josiah, Amanda, and Enona were put at the table with Mattie.

“Robert, what’s this about?” Clay asked angrily.

“Terence here is...or was...related to a man named Nash,” Robert said neutrally. “Call killed his sons...”

“My nephews,” Terence added casually.

“My God,” Clay laughed sharply. “All this is to get Call?”

“Originally,” Terence nodded. “Oh, the railroad is an excellent business proposition. This is a personal matter and shouldn’t interfere with that. But then I found out from Nash’s nephew...a rather rash young man named Chris Coffin...” He smiled as he saw Clay’s expression harden. “Well, after I managed his escape from Miles City, he told me who killed my sister’s husband.”

“Austin,” Amanda whispered.

“You used your own niece to get at Austin?” Josiah looked aghast.

“I really tried to keep Caroline from marrying Austin,” Terence admitted. “To be honest, I was certain he would come after Clay after my men beat you up, Josiah. I hoped Clay would kill him in self defense. Unfortunately, Call and Root interfered in that plan.”

“Caroline didn’t know, did she?” Amanda demanded.

“She probably does now,” Terence frowned. “I told Coffin to let them get to Denver then arrange a fatal accident for Austin. But, knowing his rash nature, I imagine he’s stopped the stage by now. You see Nash treated him like his own son.” He looked over at Josiah sardonically. “My condolences on Austin’s death.”

Josiah groaned and dropped his head to the table. Amanda reached over and hugged him. “He doesn’t know that for sure,” she whispered.

Clay felt a pang of remorse seeing Josiah’s obvious grief. He and Austin had been allies for a while and he’d even trusted Austin more than anyone else until....He looked up as several men walked in.

“Nothin’ so far,” one of them said.

“It seems Call and Root prefer discretion to valor,” Terence remarked to Clay. He looked at them. “Look again,” he coldly ordered.

“I trusted you, Robert,” Clay’s voice seethed as he approached Robert. “How much of this did you know?” He stared deeply into Robert’s eyes.

“Just stay out of it, Clay,” Robert advised after a couple of seconds. “Call and Root are nothin to you’. You can’t be concerned ‘bout them.”

“To hell with them!” Clay shouted. “This is my town! I trusted you, Robert, and you betrayed me!”

“Betrayed you!?” Robert laughed harshly. “Ever since we were children, it’s been you, Clay...YOU! What you wanted...what you cared for. I did all the dirty work while you charmed and smiled your way out of trouble. Even after the war when you couldn’t...”

With a growl, Clay threw himself at Robert knocking them both backwards over the bar. Enona and Mattie both started to rise but were pushed back down in their chairs. Terence watched with interest as his men moved behind the bar to separate Clay and Robert.

Robert slowly rubbed blood away from his nose. “You should have been smart, Clay, and just stayed quiet,” he said coldly.

“Not in my town,” Clay breathed heavily shrugging off one man.

“Robert...” Clay said warningly.

“Take him upstairs,” Robert said suddenly to one of the men holding Clay. He walked over the stared Clay in the eyes. “You know what to bring down, don’t you, Clay?”

“You’re a fool, Robert,” Clay shook his head. “You really think he’s goin’ to let you have anythin’ once this is over?”

“Do it!” Robert shouted as he turned to the bar to get a drink.

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

“Southerners can be very inventive in settling scores,” Terence said as he lounged against a railing. The full moon clearly illuminated Clay and Robert as they faced each other in the middle of the street...each man holding a saber.

Slowly Clay shook his head. “You’re a fool, Robert,” he said angrily. “But I don’t want to kill you.”

“You should have left things alone,” Robert retorted coldly. “But I guess it’s too late now, isn’t it?” Slowly he advanced towards Clay who braced himself.

Mattie shuddered as the sabers clanged against each other. She turned her head as the man behind her snickered. She saw Dr. Cleese being brought to join them. “Unbob?” she murmured.

“He’ll be fine,” Cleese stared at the two men in the street in confusion. “Now what?” he muttered.

Enona watched with interest as Clay and Robert each shoved the other away then slowly circled each other. Her eyes flickered as she stared into the shadows past the dueling men trying to spot either Call or Luther.

“You can’t beat me, Robert,” Clay said mockingly with a grin. “You never could.”

“Maybe I never wanted to until now,” Robert’s eyes narrowed as he lunged forward.

Amanda could swear that sparks flew off the blades as they clashed. Josiah simply closed his eyes not wanting to see anyone else die.

Clay quickly dodged as Robert swung wildly in his direction. She held her breath as Clay’s ankle slightly turned and he wobbled. Robert’s blade swung again barely missing Clay’s chest as he caught his balance and dodged again.

Robert continued pressing forward continually attacking Clay who seemed surprised at the ferocity of Robert’s attack. Forced to defend himself, Clay was gradually backed up against one of the hitching posts. He dodged twice as Robert swung his saber down with deadly force. Clay managed to parry a third thrust and tried to move back into the street.

Robert swung around to cut off Clay’s maneuver. Clay looked surprised as Robert’s actions left him vulnerable. Almost regretfully, Clay automatically sliced his saber through the still night air towards Robert’s ribs. Suddenly, Clay gasped as he felt a sharp pain as Robert lunged against him.

Both men stood locked together and Mattie could easily see a shocked look on Clay’s face. Slowly Robert stepped back, dragging a bloody knife from Clay’s body. He watched in silence as Clay slowly fell to the dirt.

“No!” Mattie screamed as she tried to run to him. She was immediately caught by one of Terence’s men. Another one, perhaps more respectful of Enona’s capabilities, held a gun to her head.

Cleese, however, broke free as did Josiah and Amanda. Terence motioned for some of his men to follow as he, too, walked across the street.

“Is he dead?” Terence demanded.

“Of course he’s dead,” Robert nodded painfully. “He wouldn’t stop until he was dead.”

Cleese merely nodded and looked away.

Terence knelt and picked up the knife Robert had dropped. “You cheated,” he said idly before dropping the knife at Robert’s side.

“I told him I would win,” Robert said quietly a little color coming back into his face. He lowered Clay to the ground and slowly shoved the knife into his belt.

“For God’s sake, Terence,” Josiah said. “Let us at least take him to the undertakers.”

“Of course,” Terence nodded pleasantly. “My quarrel was never with Clay, you understand.” He turned and motioned for his men to take Enona and Mattie back into the Dove. He glanced down the street as he heard sounds of gunfire. “Kyle, perhaps you’d best see if the good doctor’s services are required down there.”

He walked to the middle of the street and looked around. Raising his voice, he shouted. “Call! Root! I know you both can hear me! Make this easy for you and the others! Otherwise, Mosby won’t be the only one to die!” He waited for a couple of seconds then walked back into the Ambrosia Club. “Jansen, you help Robert,” he said over his shoulder.

“Leave him alone!” Amanda hissed as Robert started to lift Clay.

“Amanda, please,” Josiah begged. “Go inside.”

“No,” Amanda shook her head angrily. “If you want him to help you, fine. But I’m going, too.”

“Let her,” Robert said wearily. “Help me, Josiah.”

Robert and Josiah together lifted Clay’s body and slowly carried it towards Mattie’s closely followed by Amanda and Jansen.

Hidden on the roof of the Opera House, Call’s eyes narrowed as he watched them carry Mosby’s body away. He briefly wondered why he felt a sudden surge of anger. He shook his head slightly as he carefully crawled to the far side of the building and lowered himself to the ground. As he disappeared into the darkness at the edge of town he could only reason he was angry that Shelby, rather than he, had killed Mosby.

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

Carefully Josiah and Robert laid Clay’s body on the table. Amanda stood to one side shooting angry looks at Robert. Josiah shook his head and walked to stare out the window. As Robert lightly touched Clay on the shoulder, Amanda lunged at him. “Haven’t you done enough!” she hissed angrily.

Robert instinctively stepped away then whirled sliding his knife from his belt. As Amanda watched in shock, he buried the knife deep in Jansen’s chest covering the man’s mouth with his hand.

Amanda felt someone behind her as a hand slid over her mouth. “Don’t scream, Amanda!” she heard Clay’s voice hiss.

Amanda’s eyes rolled back in horror then she realized that Clay was alive. She nodded as Robert edged Jansen’s body to the floor. Josiah glanced at them briefly then continued watching out the window. “I don’t think anyone saw,” he said cautiously.

“Go” Robert nodded. He checked Jansen for a pulse then pulled his knife from the body. He glanced at Clay who was sitting on the table with his hand over Amanda’s mouth. “Clay, we have work to do...pleasure later?” he suggested.

“My apologies,” Clay grinned as he slowly removed his hand. “I was merely enjoyin’ the silence.”

Amanda whirled away and glared at Clay. “You both had this planned!” she accused.

“Keep your voice down, Amanda,” Josiah cautioned.

“You knew as well?” Amanda challenged Josiah.

He shook his head. “But I could tell Clay wasn’t dead,” he explained. “Cleese figured it out, too.”

Robert had gone to Clay helping him to staunch the knife wound in his side. “Looks worse than it is,” he said.

“From my perspective, Robert, it hurts just as bad,” Clay grimaced. “Still, it’s better than a bullet in the head.”

“When did you two decide to pull this trick?” Amanda demanded.

Clay shrugged. “We used it once on a Yankee patrol that captured us durin’ the war,” he explained wincing slightly as he rebuttoned his shirt. “When I started yellin’ at Robert, I could see he remembered it. We just played it out.”

“Played it out,” Amanda’s eyes narrowed. “I out to...”

“Not now, Amanda,” Josiah pulled her to the window. “Keep watch.” He and Robert carefully laid Jansen’s body into an empty coffin on the back table. Robert quickly and quietly put a few nails in the lid. “You need to hide, Clay,” he said. “After a while, Terence’s men will settle down and you can slip out of town.”

Clay nodded as Josiah slipped into the gunshop and returned with a box of ammunition. “The display cases are all locked. I’m afraid someone will see if I break into them,” he apologized. “If you can find Luther and Newt, they might have an extra gun. The ammunition, at least, should help.”

“Thanks,” Clay nodded. Then he glanced at Josiah. “I wouldn’t worry ‘bout Austin, Josiah. He has an irritatin’ way of gettin’ out of bad situations.” He smiled to take the sting out of his words.

“Thank you, Clay,” Josiah said heavily. “Try to find the others if you can.”

“After what Terence announced, it shouldn’t be too hard to find them eventually,” Clay grinned. “In the meantime, I know a place to hide.” He glanced at Robert. “Be careful,” he cautioned. “You’ll be in the middle of it all.”

Robert nodded. “I know,” he studied his knife for a moment. “I think Enona could put this to best use,” he decided as he tucked it into his pocket. Clay took Amanda’s arm as he followed Josiah. “Don’t tell the others unless you can help it,” he cautioned. “The fewer people know I’m alive, the better.”

“You skunk,” Amanda said but she nodded. “You enjoyed that, didn’t you?”

Clay’s eyes twinkled as he bent his head and gave her a quick kiss. “I shall always treasure your sorrow over my demise,” he whispered. Before Amanda could do anything more than sputter, he slid out the back door. As Josiah closed it softly, Amanda stomped her foot.

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

“Where’s Jansen?” Terence asked when Robert herded Josiah and Amanda back inside the Ambrosia Club.

“Said he was gonna join the others and look for Call and Root,” Robert answered. He pushed Amanda into her chair earning an angry look. He grinned and slid a finger down her cheek. “Best be nicer, darlin’ Amanda. Clay’s not here anymore, is he?”

“You bastard,” Mattie said quietly. Her eyes were red rimmed but she stared evenly at him.

Robert chuckled but leaned over Enona’s shoulder. “You’d just love to shoot me, wouldn’t you?” he taunted. As he bent his head to her ear, his hand slipped inside his pocket and quickly shoved his knife under her thigh. Enona jumped slightly, her eyes widening. “Think about it, little girl,” Robert chuckled as he straightened up.

“You’re in remarkably good spirits, Robert,” Terence remarked.

Robert shrugged. “I just killed a man who’s been my friend since we were boys,” he said leaning over the bar and bringing up a bottle from Clay’s private stock. “What the hell...I’m committed to this now.”

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

Each step closer to Curtis Wells seemed to form another layer of ice around Austin’s heart. They’d ridden to within ½ mile of town before hiding the horses and walking the rest of the way. Austin, his extra gun tucked in his gunbelt, led the way with Caroline and Elizabeth following. He knew Caroline was puzzled and hurt with his brusque actions, but he kept reminding himself he had no other choice.

Thunder rolled over their heads as Austin led them into the shadows behind the church. As large drops of rain began pelting them, he peered around the corner. Several small groups of men were systematically searching each building. He leaned back and thought carefully.

“C’mon,” he whispered. “And stay quiet.”

Waiting until the men had entered the Opera Hall, Austin led the two women across the street and to the back of Twyla’s Sporting House. Motioning for them to stay hidden, Austin carefully crept closer and peered in the back window.

Luckily, Twyla was in the kitchen. From her expression, she was not a happy woman. Austin watched for a moment to be sure she was alone, then gently tapped on the window with his gun.

Twyla jumped, then recognized Austin. She motioned him towards the door. Austin turned and waved for the two women to join him. When Twyla opened the door, Austin almost pushed Caroline and Elizabeth inside. “I need that favor, Twyla,” he said quietly. “They need a place to hide.”

“All of you,” Twyla quickly led them into the storage room. “You’ll be killed now, Austin, if you go back out.”

Inside the storage room, Twyla pushed some boxes away from the wall. Austin glanced over his shoulder to make sure they were unobserved. When he looked back, he saw that part of the wall had been pulled out revealing some stairs.

“In case of an Indian attack,” Twyla grinned. “But it serves the same purpose.” She leaned down and quietly said, “Friends coming down.” She turned and motioned for them to descend. “I’ll let you know when it’s safe, Austin.”

Elizabeth took Caroline’s hand and started down the stairs.

“Father?” Austin asked. “The others?”

“They’re tearin’ this town apart looking for Call and Luther,” Twyla shoved Austin towards the stairs. “I don’t know about your father. Now go.” She shoved him again and closed the door behind him.

Austin carefully walked down the stairs. He saw Elizabeth and Caroline standing at the bottom. Caroline looked back up at him. Austin saw the feeble light from a lantern and then saw Mosby grinning sardonically at him.

“Ladies, I do apologize for the accommodations,” he waved an arm. “However, there are a couple of what used to be beds over there.”

“Go on,” Austin walked around them and over to where Mosby sat on a chair. “What’s going on, Mosby?”

“Appears Randall Terence plans to continue Nash’s plans of revenge,” Mosby eyed the two women curiously. “By the way, Austin, congratulations on your resurrection. Terence is positive you’re dead.”

“Father thinks I’m dead?” Austin’s eyes narrowed dangerously as he sat next to Mosby.

Mosby shrugged. “I’m not sure,” he answered easily. “Perhaps at first. He seemed more hopeful when I last talked with him.”

“Where’s Shelby fit into this?” Austin demanded.

“Robert’s keepin’ an eye on your father, Mattie, and Enona,” Clay’s eyes flashed. “Managed to get me out before Terence eliminated me as well. As long as Terence thinks Robert’s on his side, Robert will be able to keep an eye out for them.” He grinned. “It seems Call and Luther are managing to play a very nice game of cat and mouse with Terence’s men. He’s beginning to get a little upset.”

Austin snorted. He noticed Clay’s bloodstained shirt. “You hurt bad?” he asked gruffly.

Clay shrugged. “I knew about this room. Figured I’d hide out here until they got tired of tearin’ the town apart.” He grimaced. “Besides, I knew Call and Luther would be showin’ up soon.”

“We gotta find them first and figure out a plan,” Austin reached into his belt and handed Mosby his extra gun. “Here, Colonel. You might need this.” He smiled mockingly. “Even you deserve a chance to defend yourself,” he quoted.

“Another example of poetic justice, I presume,” Clay sighed. He looked at the ceiling as he heard sounds of Terence’s men alternately throwing furniture and then laughing half-drunkenly. “A monkey house,” he muttered.

When the noise above them subsided, Clay glanced at Austin a little surprised to find him still sitting there. “I take it that our Mr. Coffin won’t be a problem?” he asked.

“Not to anyone,” Austin said quietly. He idly unloaded and reloaded his gun. “He and Ike killed the man at the relay station and the stage driver, too.”

“Ike?” Mosby’s eyebrows raised. “Poor Ike. He never did know his limitations.” When Austin snorted, he continued. “Why did you bring them back?” he looked at where Caroline had collapsed onto the bed. Elizabeth sat next to her angrily glaring at Austin.

“They’ll stay here,” Austin decided. “If Terence’s men find them, they won’t hurt them. Safer here than leaving them at the relay station.”

“I suppose,” Mosby considered.

“You know anything about curses, Mosby?” Austin asked after a few minutes.

Mosby looked at Austin as if he’d suddenly developed a third eye. He blinked when he saw Austin was looking at him seriously. “Don’t want to know anythin’ about them,” he answered evenly.

“Heard you spent some time in New Orleans,” Austin spun the cylinder of his gun. “Thought you might have heard about them. Imagine there’s quite a price to pay to get one removed, wouldn’t you say?” he asked sighting along the barrel of his gun.

“Usually a price for everythin’,” Mosby nodded wondering what Austin talking about.

They heard the door at the top of the steps open. Both Mosby and Austin stood slightly apart, their guns trained on the steps.

“It’s me,” Twyla called softly. She tossed some clothing to the bottom of the steps. “Dry clothes for those ladies. You two get ready. Looks like they’re callin’ it a night.” The door quickly closed again.

Austin walked over and picked up the clothing. When he brought it to Elizabeth, she shoved him back..

“You haven’t said a dozen words to Caroline...your wife...since we left that relay station!” she hissed. “Don’t you think she deserves some consideration?”

“She deserves to live,” Austin’s eyes flashed angrily. “If you’re really her friend, Elizabeth, you’ll help her to hate me.” He shoved her away from him and walked away.

Clay watched the byplay curiously unable to hear much of the conversation. “I suppose you might have some idea where Call’s to be found?” he said as Austin walked back to him.

“An idea,” Austin admitted after a moment. “If not, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.” He watched closely as Mosby stiffly walked towards the stairs then froze as he heard Caroline softly call his name.

When Mosby turned around he saw Austin’s face had hardened. Austin’s eyes briefly closed then reopened. He looked like a man staring into the bowels of hell. Caroline got to her feet and looked at him in confusion. “Do you have to go?” she pleaded.

“You would ask that, wouldn’t you?” Austin’s voice cracked like a whip. “But then you knew all about this right from the beginning, didn’t you?”

“Austin?” Caroline looked confused then she gasped when she understood. “No, Austin! No!”

“I can’t believe I ever listened to a word you said,” Austin sneered. “You lived in Nash’s house. You had to have heard Call’s name...heard what Nash planned.”

“No!” Caroline started forward but Elizabeth caught her arm. “Aunt Laura forbade him to ever mention who killed her sons. I never heard it.”

“You were so perfect for what Terence needed,” Austin’s mouth curled. “All to get me alone so Coffin could finish the job he started...so Terence could do whatever he wanted here.” He shook his head in disgust. “I don’t know who I despise the most...me or you.” He turned away and brushed past Mosby up the stairs.

Mosby looked at Elizabeth in surprise as she folded Caroline into her arms. Elizabeth looked equally confused. The door opened and Twyla hissed for them to hurry. Mosby shrugged at Elizabeth and followed Austin upstairs.

“Good luck,” Twyla said as they eased out the back door.

Although the sudden storm had passed, there was still enough cloud cover to dim the moonlight as they made their way out of town.

Mosby refrained from a shudder when he saw Austin leading them to Cemetery Hill. Holding his side, he climbed wondering what had provoked Austin’s outburst. A betting man, he would have gambled almost everything that Austin had been completely in love with Caroline...and any fool could see that she was no schemer or plotter. Elizabeth, on the other hand...

He stopped suddenly at the sound of a gun being cocked.

“Likely to get yerself killed, Austin,” Call quietly said.

“Didn’t realize I needed to announce myself,” Austin replied equally quiet.

Call’s eyes widened as Austin moved past him to reveal Mosby. “Thought you was dead,” Call said disgustedly after a moment.

“My apologies, Sheriff,” Mosby said mockingly as he sat on the ground. “I do hate to disappoint people.” He saw Luther propped up against a headstone, Austin next to him examining a shoulder wound. “Well, we are an interestin’ group, aren’t we?”

“It’s not bad,” Luther said shrugging away from Austin.

Austin sat next to him. “Coffin’s dead,” he said brusquely. Quickly he explained the reason behind the attacks.

“Damn,” Call shook his head. He stared down the hill towards Curtis Wells. “What’s happenin’ down there?”

“Robert is keepin’ an eye out for Josiah, Enona, and Mattie,” Mosby explained. “As long as possible, he’ll stay close to them. In fact, he’s probably slipped his knife to Enona by now.”

“Sure you can trust him?” Call looked at Mosby carefully.

“More than I can trust you,” Mosby retorted.

“There’s no way we can get to Terence,” Austin interrupted. “He’ll have most of his men around him now.”

“Probably use somebody come mornin’ to draw us out,” Luther figured.

“He doesn’t know I’m alive and thinks Mosby’s dead,” Austin pointed out.

“He’ll know when Coffin doesn’t show up,” Luther saw Call and Mosby continuing to eye each other.

“I got the impression he was supposed to take...the women on to Miles City,” Austin said roughly. “By the way, Ike won’t be back either.”

Both Call and Luther shrugged. Neither would miss Ike.

“We can try to eliminate as many people as possible before dawn,” Mosby offered after a few minutes. “I can slip into the Ambrosia then to make sure nothin’ happens to the others.”

Call frowned then nodded. It was a sensible idea. “Get a gun in Enona’s hands as quick as you can,” he suggested.

“Yeah,” Luther grinned slightly. “She’ll be real riled by dawn.”

Austin glanced at him. “You sure you’re okay?” he asked quietly.

“Hell, yes,” Luther snorted. “I’ll get to the roof of the Opera House. I should be able to cover from there.”

Suddenly Call and Mosby looked at each other...each remembering a similar night not too many years distant when they united against another evil man and his forces...a night when the world for both of them changed.

“We need to get a couple hours’ sleep,” Call eventually said not looking away from Mosby. “Austin, you and Luther first.”

Luther glanced uncertainly at Austin who shrugged and stretched out. With a shrug, Luther leaned back against the tombstone and closed his eyes...but he doubted any of them would sleep.

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

Two hours before dawn, they made their way towards Curtis Wells. Another thunderstorm was rumbling in the distance. Mosby and Austin watched as Call helped Luther slowly climbed to the roof.

“Hope he stays conscious,” Clay muttered. “That wound’s broken open again.”

“He will,” Austin nodded. He glanced at Mosby. “So’s yours.”

Clay grimaced as he touched his side feeling the warm sticky blood on his fingers. “It seems Cleese will be a busy man in a few hours,” he acknowledged. He moved away heading for the opposite side of the street.

“Mosby,” Austin hissed. When Clay turned around, Austin hesitated. “If you get the chance, tell Father I’m alive.” Before Clay could respond, Austin disappeared into the shadows.

Clay grimaced and quickly ran across the street. He briefly wondered again just what had gotten into Austin.

Call watched as Austin and Mosby separated. He briefly nodded at Luther then disappeared over the side of the building.

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

An hour later, Terence descended from the second floor of the Ambrosia Club. Josiah and Cleese were slumped across one table sleeping. Amanda and Mattie sat sleeping at another. Enona raised her head as Terence came downstairs. Robert slouched in a chair across the room his eyes closed.

“Good morning,” Terence greeted her with a smile. “I must admit Clay didn’t stint on his personal comfort. That bed is quite comfortable.” He nodded to the men who’d been standing guard. “Get some rest,” he advised.

He walked to the other side of the room and woke the other men. When he awoke Kyle, he ordered. “Make sure everything’s quiet outside.”

As Kyle took a few men with him, Terence saw the others had awoken. “Well, Robert, it seems that Call and Root are going to require some persuasion,” he leaned against the bar.

Robert shrugged. “There was no love lost between Clay and either of them,” he pointed out.

Terence eyed the women speculatively. “I wonder if the same is true with the ladies,” he wondered. He glanced towards the ceiling as a clap of thunder rolled overhead. “Seems to be quite a storm moving in.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t be so confident,” Josiah rasped. “Coffin hasn’t returned. Maybe Austin isn’t dead.”

“Don’t rely on forlorn hope,” Terence grunted. “He was to make sure Caroline and Elizabeth got safety to Miles City. Austin is very very dead.”

Cleese put a hand on Josiah’s arm to prevent him from standing. Slowly Josiah sat back down and lowered his head.

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

Kyle cursed as he stood over a third body lying behind the undertakers. “Tell Terence we got trouble,” he ordered. Motioning for another man to accompany him, he drew his gun and slowly entered.

One coffin sat on a table along one wall. Kyle assumed it was where they’d placed Mosby’s body the previous night. Nothing else looked like it had been disturbed. He motioned for his companion to check the adjoining gunshop. As the man walked towards the door, he foot caught on an upraised board and tripped falling against the coffin.

Kyle cursed as both the man and coffin fell to the floor. The coffin, only loosely nailed shut, fell open and a body rolled out.

With a shout, Kyle’s companion quickly got to his feet and moved away. Kyle looked down at the dead body...only it wasn’t the right dead body.

“C’mon,” Kyle growled throwing open the front door to the undertakers.

Luther saw the two men emerge from Mattie’s heading quickly back to the Ambrosia Club. He squinted as the sun began peeking over the horizon. Looked like things were starting to happen. As best as he’d tried, he hadn’t gotten a glimpse of either Austin or Mosby during the last couple of hours. He just hoped they’d managed to even the odds a little.

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

“What do you mean, they’re dead?!” Terence roared.

“We found Mike, Eddie, and Marty all dead,” the man said hurriedly obviously worried. “Kyle sent me back to tell you.”

Robert exchanged a worried look with Terence. “Looks like Call and Root have been busy,” he said.

“Some of them’s been dead couple of hours,” the man continued. “But Marty...we must’ve just missed ‘em.”

“Well, well, well,” Terence sighed heavily. “It appears your friends don’t care much about keeping you safe.” He walked past Josiah and Cleese to where his jacket hung across the stair railing. Suddenly he turned around bringing the butt of his pistol down across Cleese’s head.

“Ephraim!” Josiah yelled as he caught the young doctor.

“Put him somewhere,” Terence ordered roughly. “We may have need of his professional services.” He reached out and pulled Mattie to her feet. “You come with me, Miss Shaw. The rest of you bring them.”

Clay watched from upstairs as the others were dragged to their feet. A sudden clap of thunder caused Amanda to jump against Robert just as Kyle burst in the front door.

“Mosby’s alive,” he told Terence. “They put Jansen’s body in the coffin.”

Terence’s eyes flickered to Robert who shoved Amanda away from him. He drew quickly and exchanged shots with Kyle. Terence shoved Mattie out the door in front of him as Kyle grabbed Amanda and followed.

Clay quickly fired a shot at a man aiming at Josiah. Josiah flinched as the bullet whistled past his ear and he saw the man next to him fall. He glanced up to see Clay coming down the stairs.

Enona quickly slid Robert’s knife from her boot and threw it over Robert’s shoulder burying it in the shoulder of a man aiming at his head. Robert gave her a quick look of thanks as he and Clay followed the last two of Terence’s men out the back door of the Ambrosia Club.

Clay and Robert looked at each other as they watched the two men run away. Robert shrugged, aimed and fired. Clay sighted along his barrel and squeezed the trigger.

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

“Didn’t think you was a man to be hidin’ behind a woman,” Call’s calm voice called from across the street.

Terence and Kyle saw him lounging casually against the front of the general store.

“It seems I’ve underestimated you,” Terence acknowledged. “Tell me, have you figured it out?”

“I told him,” Austin spoke as he stepped around the side of the general store. He walked carefully a few paces away from Call and waited. “By the way, Coffin won’t be back.”

Kyle glanced at Terence in surprise. “I’m impressed,” Terence admitted. “But you must have had an edge.” He frowned. “Where are Caroline and Elizabeth?”

Call glanced at Austin from the corner of his eyes and was surprised to see him shrug unconcerned.

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

When dawn broke, Twyla brought Elizabeth and Caroline upstairs. They were clad in the most respectable clothing Twyla had been able to find.

“You’d better come and see this!” Florrie called from the porch.

They crowded onto the porch. Caroline gasped as she saw her uncle holding a gun to Mattie’s head...and Austin facing him across the street. She started down the steps but Elizabeth and Twyla both grabbed her.

“Honey, you can’t!” Twyla said.

“Caroline,” Elizabeth gently shook the younger woman. “It’s out of your hands. You never could have stopped this.” She looked at Twyla. “I’ll take her inside.”

“No!” Caroline pulled away. “I won’t go.” She fixed her eyes on the men down the street.

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

Cleese moaned as he started to regain consciousness. Enona went over to him and helped him stand up.

“Enona!” Josiah suddenly yelled.

She turned to see the man she’d knifed drawing his gun. Before Josiah could slam a bottle down on his head, the man fired.

Enona grabbed her shoulder crying out as she slumped against the wall.

Clay and Robert burst in. Clay went to Enona and helped her sit. He quickly looked at the wound and smiled. “Not too bad,” he decided.

“Terence and Kyle have Amanda and Mattie,” Josiah looked down at the man at his feet in astonishment.

As Clay stood, he felt the wound in his side tear open. He caught the edge of the table but waved off Robert’s help. Then they heard gunshots from the street...

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

Luther carefully sighted down the barrel of his gun. He knew that neither Call nor Austin would fire as long as Mattie and Amanda had guns pressed against their heads. He saw Mattie’s white face and knew he had one chance.

Terence flinched as a splinters of wood from the post next to him were sprayed into his face from the bullet fired by Luther.

Mattie felt his hold on her loosen. She drove her elbow back into his stomach and heard Terence loudly exhale. She pulled away and dropped to the street below.

Amanda dropped her entire weight on one of Kyle’s feet causing him to stumble backwards. She dived to the sidewalk away from him. Amanda closed her eyes and covered her head with her arms. Mattie did the same cowering in the street as bullets flew over her head.

Kyle fell sideways partially landing on Amanda. Terence slumped against the post next to him for a moment. Austin coldly aimed and fired two more shots sending the man backwards onto the sidewalk.

Amanda struggled to get Kyle’s body off from her. Clay and Robert carefully emerged from the Ambrosia Club. Robert kicked Kyle’s body into the street as Clay helped Amanda stand up. She shivered as Clay’s arms went around her soothingly. “It’s alright, Amanda,” his voice teased her. “He’s dead now.”

Amanda threw Clay’s arms away from her. “You skunk,” she hissed. “I still haven’t forgiven you.”

“I’m hurt,” Clay looked wounded. “And here I thought my gallant rescue would win back favor in your eyes.”

“I should have nailed your coffin shut myself,” Amanda huffed as she stalked away.

Robert grinned and slid an arm around Clay’s waist. “I think you’d better have the doctor see to that wound before you try fighting with her,” he advised.

“You alright, Mattie?” Call said as he helped Mattie stand. He looked at her with concern at the shocked look on her face.

“Clay’s alive?” she said bewildered.

“Yeah,” Call looked disgusted. “Somehow you outta’ve figured that.”

“Luther?” Mattie asked. “I know I saw him get shot last night.”

“He’ll be fine,” Call nodded down the street where Luther was limping towards them. “He must’ve fired that first shot.”

As Mattie walked quickly towards Luther, he saw Enona emerging from the Ambrosia Club, holding her shoulder.

“What happened?” he demanded seeing the bloodstain on her shirt.

“What does it look like?” Enona answered irritably. “I got shot.”

“Where’s Cleese?” Call said roughly as he tried to check her wound.

“Inside,” Enona jerked her head towards the Ambrosia Club. “Getting ready for the wounded.” She pulled away. “I’ll be fine, Call.”

Call stared at her in frustration. “You gotta be the most bull-headed woman...” he began.

“Luther, are you alright?” Mattie wrapped an arm around his waist. “C’mon, Cleese will see to you.”

“You okay, Mattie?” Luther asked seriously. When she nodded, he relaxed. “Sorry we couldn’t get to you sooner.”

“Austin!” Josiah yelled as he brushed past Call and Enona. “Oh, God...Austin, you’re alive.”

Austin looked up from where he’d been staring at Terence’s body. As Josiah hugged him, he automatically put his arms around his father. “I’m fine,” he said calmly. “Mosby was supposed to have told you that.”

“Austin, there wasn’t time,” Josiah hugged his son again. He looked past Austin. “Here comes Caroline,” he glanced down at Terence’s body in consternation. He was surprised when Austin pulled away and began to walk in the opposite direction.

“Austin!” Caroline called running towards him. He spun around when she caught at his arm.

“Stay away from me,” he ordered his eyes cold as winter ice. “Nothing’s changed. I meant every word I said. There was no way you couldn’t have known about this.” Without another word, he turned and walked away.

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

“I just do not understand,” Josiah shook his head as he repeated the words for the tenth time. He absently patted Caroline’s shoulder as she lay her head against his chest. “What can Austin be thinking?”

They sat around tables in the Lonesome Dove late that night. Clay leaned back in a comfortable sofa his side padded with bandages. Robert lounged in a nearby chair watching Caroline with obvious mixed emotions.

Luther shook his head. “Wish I knew,” he said wincing as he moved in his chair. Mattie frowned at him and he grinned.

Enona, forced to relax on the sofa next to Mosby, watched Call as he turned Austin’s deputy badge between his fingers. In the confusion after Terence’s death, Austin had managed to saddle his horse and slip out of town. Call, looking for him afterwards, found the badge sitting on the stall where his horse had been stabled.

“It simply doesn’t make sense,” Josiah sighed. “Caroline, there’s no way Austin would believe you were involved in your uncles’ schemes. That’s preposterous.”

“Why would he want me to hate him?” Caroline asked as she rubbed the tears from her eyes and sat up. “That’s what Elizabeth said to him.”

“Maybe he thought it would be easier,” Mattie tentatively spoke up. “With you knowing he’d killed your cousin and both uncles...in some way you’d be torn.”

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” Elizabeth said as she and Amanda brought in coffee. “Men know nothing about women.”

“I try never to argue with a beautiful woman,” Robert took the tray from Elizabeth and smiled charmingly.

Call’s eyes narrowed. “He musta said somethin’,” he said quietly. “To somebody.” He looked up suddenly and saw a troubled expression on Enona’s face...and a lesser matching one on Mosby’s.

“Don’t suppose he said anythin’ to you, Mosby?” Call demanded although he looked at Enona.

Clay’s eyebrows raised sardonically but he hesitated. “He did mutter some sort of nonsense about curses and what it cost to get one removed,” he shook his head. “Utter rubbish.”

Call stared evenly at Enona who flushed slightly then returned his look. “Austin thought he was cursed,” she explained. “He came out to the village to have Grey Eagle remove it.” She saw their surprised looks and quickly explained.

“What nonsense!” Josiah exclaimed angrily. “Sometimes I don’t know what gets into him. Thinking he’s cursed!?”

Clay looked a little uncomfortable and exchanged a quick glance with Robert. “Who’s to say what a curse is, Josiah?” he said carefully. “If Austin believes he’s cursed, then he’ll act accordingly...and it becomes true.”

“Nonsense!” Josiah fumed. He looked around. “Well, we have to go after him.”

“Maybe it’d be better if we just let him have some time alone,” Luther suggested. “And not push him right now...give him time to think ‘bout everythin’.”

Call’s head dropped as he played with the badge between his fingers.

“No,” Caroline shook her head. “Mr. Peale is right. I don’t know anything about curses but I know I love Austin and he loves me. I have to find him.”

Elizabeth saw Robert’s disappointed expression from the corner of her eyes. She exchanged a quick glance with Amanda.

“Where you plan on looking?” Amanda said gently. “He’s got quite a head start.”

“You can find him,” Caroline stared at Call.

“Me?!” Call’s head jerked away.

“Luther is hurt,” she said sensibly. “He can’t ride. Enona’s hurt and can’t ride. I know they’d help me if they could.”

Luther ducked his head to avoid the looks he got from both Caroline and Call. Enona fixed her blue eyes on Call and waited.

“Even if I was to do it,” Call mumbled. “Can’t do nothin’ tonight.”

“Then we’ll leave first thing in the morning,” Caroline promised.

“We?” Call looked up in astonishment then smiled thinly. “You ain’t goin’. You couldn’t keep up and if I was do to this, I wouldn’t have time to look out for you.” He shook his head stubbornly. “Man deserves to be left alone if he wants to be.”

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

The sun was barely over the horizon the next morning as Call led Hellbitch from the stable. He stopped as he saw Mattie, Enona, and Caroline standing in his way. He frowned and tried to walk around them.

“I’m going with you,” Caroline said quietly. She was wearing one of Mattie’s outfits suitable for riding.

“You can’t keep up,” Call muttered.

“I can so,” Caroline argued. “But if I can’t then I’ll follow.”

Call glanced irritably at Enona and Mattie always uncomfortable when they were together and staring at him. “Fine,” he muttered.

Mattie smiled at him as Enona took Caroline into the stable to find a suitable horse. “You’re doin’ the right thing, Call,” she squeezed his arm.

Call looked away. “Tell Luther I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he shook his head. “Still say he’s got a right to be alone if he wants.”

“Not now, Call,” Mattie said gently. “Sometimes that’s the last thing somebody needs.”

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

Call and Caroline stood staring down at Austin’s campsite. To his surprise, Caroline had kept up although exhaustion was plainly showing. Another surprise was that Austin hadn’t traveled very fast or made any effort to conceal his trail...almost as though he didn’t care if he was followed...or believed anyone would come after him.

“Stay here,” Call told Caroline.

“But...” she protested.

“No,” Call said firmly. “I’m goin’ down and talk to him first.” He sighed. “Look, right now he ain’t gonna want to talk to you. Maybe I can talk some sense into him.” He shook his head as he still wasn’t certain this was the right thing to be doing.

As he came closer, he saw Austin’s head turn to see who was approaching. Call stared back at Austin for a few moments as he slowly and carefully approached. When he came closer, Austin reached over and pulled a bottle from his saddlebag.

“Join me, Call,” he said grinning drunkenly. “Have a drink.” He set the bottle down a little too firmly on the ground. “On me.”

Call let Hellbitch’s reins lay loose on the ground knowing the horse wouldn’t stray. He knelt down across the campfire and stared at Austin. “I seen you drunk before, Austin,” he said as Austin’s eyes slid away from his. “You ain’t drunk.”

“I will be,” Austin promised sitting straighter. “What are you doin’ here, Call?”

Call reached inside his shirt pocket and flipped Austin’s badge across the fire. It landed on the ground next to Austin where he stared at it silently.

“Musta lost it,” Call suggested.

“Didn’t lose it,” Austin started to reach for the badge then pulled his hand back. “If Father sent you...”

“Josiah weren’t the only one,” Call interrupted. He glanced away obviously trying to find the right words. “You got some idea ‘bout bein’ cursed or somethin’...runnin’ away ain’t gonna help.”

Austin studied Call for several minutes. “Maybe not,” he acknowledged. “But I made a deal, Call. Right or wrong.”

“And you kept your end of it,” Call pointed out. “You left her so she’d be safe.”

“Caroline’s gone?” Austin asked with a frown.

“She ain’t in Curtis Wells,” Call said truthfully.

Austin slowly exhaled. “Good,” he finally said. “It’s for the best. You may not believe this, Call, but I do love her.” He lowered his head not wanting to meet Call’s eyes.

“I’ll tell you what I don’t believe, Austin,” Call cocked his head to one side as he rubbed his jaw. “I don’t believe she actually came after you.”

“What!?” Austin’s head jerked up. “You brought her out here with you?” His hands clenched into fists as he angrily stared across the fire at Call.

“Didn’t have no choice,” Call shrugged. “She was comin’ no matter what.”

“You could have stopped her,” Austin argued angrily.

“Maybe,” Call agreed. “But she had Mattie and Enona with her. I ain’t that stupid, Austin, to go up against all three of ‘em at the same time.” He slowly stood and stared down at Austin, his hands on his hips. “And it ain’t gonna matter what I do. She’s gonna follow you no matter what.” He shrugged. “I guess it’s up to you.”

“Take her back, Call,” Austin’s eyes closed. “Don’t you understand? I don’t think I can do that to her again.”

“Can’t do that, Austin,” Call said sympathetically. He hesitated. “I don’t know ‘bout no curse. But it weren’t a curse that killed Hannah.” When Austin looked up, Call turned and took Hellbitch’s reins in his hands. “Guess maybe we make our own curses sometimes.” He mounted his horse and turned to ride away. “Keep that badge, Austin. Think maybe it means more to you than you might think.”

Austin stood and watched as Call rode towards Caroline standing at the top of a nearby hill. He saw Call lean down and talk to her for a moment before riding over the hill and out of sight. He cursed under his breath as Caroline mounted her horse and began riding towards him. He’d hoped Call would have taken her back with him and not left her to Austin’s whimsical nature. He caught his breath as she slowly rode into camp. They stared at each other for a moment before she dismounted.

Call lay flat on the ground carefully peeking over the top of the hill. He wasn’t a fool. He knew if he returned to Curtis Wells without knowing what happened between Austin and Caroline both Mattie and Enona would make his life miserable...and Josiah wouldn’t let him have a minute’s peace. Despite himself, he smiled when he saw Caroline put her arms around Austin...and Austin suddenly sweep her up in his arms and twirl her around.

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

Three weeks later, Josiah was sipping a drink at the Ambrosia Club. Clay was behind the bar checking his stock.

“Well, I hope this trip to Denver finally puts that idiotic notion of being cursed out of Austin’s mind,” Josiah said.

Clay glanced across the bar at him and smiled. “I remember my grandfather sayin’ that a man is either blessed or cursed durin’ his honeymoon,” he teased. “Wonder if Austin’s luck has changed?”

“Honestly, Clay,” Josiah snorted. “To hear you talk, one would think you believe in all that nonsense about curses.”

Clay merely smiled and offered Josiah a refill.

“No, thanks, Clay,” he shook his head. “I should get back to work.”

The door opened and Amanda walked in grinning widely. “Afternoon, Josiah,” she smiled. “How are you feeling, Clay?”

Clay’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Why, I’m feelin’ much better, Amanda,” he replied. “Thank you for carin’.”

“Oh, I do care, Clay,” she smiled her eyes twinkling humorously. “I truly do. Especially since Shelby’s gone back to Denver.”

Josiah glanced from one to the other in confusion.

“By the way, this telegram arrived for you,” Amanda handed Clay a folded telegram.

Clay saw her expression and had the uneasy feeling she’d read it. “Deliverin’ telegrams, too, Amanda?” he jibed. “I’m glad to see you’re expandin’ your talents.”

“I try,” she cooed at him before turning to Josiah. “I’ll see you at the Statesman later, Josiah?”

“In a little bit,” Josiah nodded more confused when she flashed another dimpled smile at Clay before leaving. “What’s that all about?” he asked.

Clay shook his head irritably. “I doubt even God could answer any question about that woman,” he said as he opened the telegram and began to read. “I honestly don’t know, Josiah, how you...”

Josiah glanced at him and saw Clay’s expression. “Clay, what’s wrong?” he asked with concern.

“Good God,” Clay muttered. He ignored Josiah and reread the telegram.

CLAY, TERENCE’S WILL PROBATED. STOP. CAROLINE INHERITS ALL HIS STOCK. STOP. AUSTIN NOW A RICH MAN. STOP. MINORITY STOCKHOLDERS OF THE RAILROAD INCLUDE ELIZABETH LANG AND AMANDA CARPENTER. STOP. SUGGEST YOU BE VERY VERY CAREFUL. STOP. ROBERT

THE END

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