Disclaimer: This story is based on characters
and situations created and owned by Larry McMurtry, the staff writers
of Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years (of whom I am not one), and
by Rysher Entertainment. No money is being made and no copyright
infringement is intended.
Posted by: Elspethdixon
Pairing: None, unless mentions of Call's dead wife counts.
Warnings: There are ambulatory corpses, but, alas, no sex.
He'd had just about all he could take of this particular bounty. Call shrugged his shoulders, sending a dusting of snow down onto the Hell Bitch's neck, and squinted into the grey landscape ahead. The snow-covered ground blended into the leaden sky, making familiar landmarks almost unrecognizable, but he could just make out the skeletal shape of Curtis Wells' tower on the horizon.
About damn time.
"I'm freezing to death back here, you little bastard!"
Call ignored Eli Clark's ranting--something he'd gotten a lot of practice at doing over the past three days--and kept the Hell Bitch walking forwards, pulling her head around again when she tried to turn away from the icy wind. Only a few more hours, and he'd be back in Curtis Wells, and the loudmouthed idiot behind him would be Austin's problem.
Austin, he thought darkly, was welcome to the man. He'd had to track Clark halfway to Nebraska before he'd finally succeeded in cornering him, and the gunman had put up a considerable fight before Call had finally gotten the drop on him. There was hot ache in his side where Clark's bullet had grazed his ribs, and the man's non-stop whining was giving him a headache.
"Hey! Hey, I'm talkin' to you!"
"Yeah, well, I ain't listening," Call told him. Unfortunately, this didn't have the desired effect of making the man shut up.
"You better start, less'n you want me to freeze to death," Clark whined. "I can't feel my damn feet anymore!"
He should have known better than to answer back, Call thought. "You shouldn't've shot up that trading post, then," he said.
"I told you, that was my brother."
Call didn't bother answering that one. Clark had stubbornly insisted that he wasn't guilty all the way back from the Nebraska border, and his story was as unlikely now as it had been three days ago. Unless his brother had the exact same crooked nose and missing front teeth Clark had. The wanted poster had been very specific about both of those.
Just a little further, and Call would never have to hear about Clark's imaginary brother again. He'd drop the man off at the jail, stable the Hell Bitch, and find someplace warm to let his fingers and toes thaw out. He generally thought of the town bath house as a waste of money, but right now, a tub of hot water sounded pretty good.
By the time they reached the outskirts of Curtis Wells, the snow was falling more heavily, and Call had to tilt his hat forward to keep it out of his eyes. There was something eerie about how quietly the white flakes drifted down. Despite years in Montana, Call still felt a bit uneasy around snow--anything falling from the sky, he felt, ought to make a sound, the way rain did.
It was starting to get dark, night coming early now that it November had arrived, and the dim light and steady fall of snow played tricks on Call's vision. Several times, over those last few miles into town, he had caught sight of something moving out of the corner of his eye, only to turn and find that it was nothing but a bit of blown snow. As they rode past the gallows, Call was sure for an instant that a body hung swinging there, a dark shadow against the white snow. When he looked back again, it was gone.
Clark had fallen silent again, either because the end of their ride was near, or because he'd finally whined himself hoarse, and the only sounds were the scrunch of their horses' hooves in the snowdrifts, and the faint, whispery, noise-less noise of the snow.
Bolivar, the cook back at the Hat Creek ranch where Call had grown up, had called the second of November "el Dia de los Muertos"--the day of the dead. The souls of the dead, he had said, chose that day to come back out of Heaven and Hell and visit the earth again, to make sure their loved ones were honoring them properly, or to take vengeance on anyone who had wronged them. This evening, with the snow shrouding everything in a silent veil, Call could almost believe it. Well, he could if it weren't for the fact that he didn't believe in ghosts.
The snow was thick enough that Call almost rode past the jail; the Hell Bitch was level with the building before Call realized that they had finally reached their destination. He had to pull back hard on the reins to stop her. The mare snorted and laid her ears back, then started walking again, in the direction of the livery stable. Call hauled back on the reins a second time. "I ain't in no mood for games," he told her.
He swung down out of the saddle, hissing at the stab of pain that tore through his ribs, and led the Hell Bitch and Clark's gelding to the jail's hitching post. Then he reached up, laid hold of Clark's roped-together wrists, and yanked the man out of the saddle.
Clark let out a howl of indignation when he hit the ground, and set to cursing Call, his ancestors, and bounty hunters in general. Call turned a deaf ear to the whole thing, and dragged him onto his feet and into the jail.
"Here," he announced, slinging Clark toward Austin, who had come to his feet with a startled look on his face when they'd burst through the door. "Eli Clark. Shot up a trading post over to Nebraska." He pulled Clark's wanted poster out of the pocket of his coat and threw it onto Austin's desk. "You can give me my thirty dollars tomorrow," he added. "I'm going to find someplace warm."
As he left the jail, he could hear Clark's nasal voice raised in another complaint. Austin told him viciously to shut up, and the clang of a cell door slamming reached clear to the street.
Feeling much more cheerful about life in general, Call untied the Hell Bitch and the gelding's reins from the hitching post and began leading them towards the livery stable, intending to get them untacked and rubbed down as quickly as possible. Warm, golden light was spilling out of the windows at the Ambrosia and the Dove, and he truly couldn't decide if whiskey at one or a hot meal at the other would be better.
By the time he got to the stable, he'd settled on whiskey. Despite the long ride he'd just finished, he wasn't all that hungry—just cold clear down to the bone, and tired enough that his eyes ached.
He got the two horses settled in their stalls, and removed their tack and saddles, starting with Clark's gelding, since he could be trusted not to pin Call against the side of the stall or try to bite.
The Hell Bitch, who'd been known to do both those things, was well behaved for once, which was fortunately, because Call flat didn't have the energy for any of her usual tricks tonight. This became painfully obvious when he tried to lift the saddle off her back and onto the rail at the side of her stall. The leather saddle felt twice as heavy as usual, the weight tearing at his ribs where Clark's bullet had hit, and for a moment, a grey blur danced at the edge of Call's vision. He managed to keep hold of the saddle, though, and to heave it up into it's proper place, before he slumped against the wall to get his breath back.
He blinked the spots in front of his eyes away, and finished rubbing the Hell Bitch down, taking twice as long a usual because his fingers were so stiff with cold. Part of Clark's bounty was definitely going to buy him thicker gloves.
He really hoped the sonuvabitch kept up his whining and complaining from inside his cell. With any luck, he'd manage to provoke Austin into beating the snot out of him, until his ribs ached as much as Call's did.
Call hung the brush he'd been using on the Hell Bitch back on its hook and turned to go. Then he halted, frowning. The stall next the gelding's, which he'd thought had been empty, was in fact occupied by a sturdy little cow pony that reminded Call vividly of the horse he'd had as a kid. This horse looked enough like Mouse to be his twin, right down to the white sock on one foot. Call must have been more tired than he'd thought, to have missed spotting it.
He shrugged, and left for the bathhouse, already imagining the steam and hot water that would be waiting there. A few hours there, and he might be able to feel his feet again. And he'd clean out that graze along his side, something he'd never got around to doing before now, what with the need to keep an eye on Clark and all. And then he'd find a warm corner in the Ambrosia Club where he could sit and drink Mosby's over-priced whiskey.
Mattie's gun shop lay between the bathhouse and the stables, and, on impulse, Call turned aside to climb onto the shop's porch. He'd get a new box of shells, he decided, and kind of let Mattie know that he was back in town. Not that she would have been worrying or anything.
He was just about out of .45s.
Mattie's shop, like the Dove and the Ambrosia Club, looked warm and inviting, light shining in its windows. Inside, he could see Mattie sitting behind the counter, her head bent over a revolver which lay in pieces on the countertop. She was doing something to a piece of it with a small brush. Behind her, by the curtain that blocked the undertaker's shop from view, an older man Call had never seen before lounged in a rocking chair, watching Mattie fondly.
Call frowned, and hesitated, his hand freezing halfway to the doorknob. Since when did Mattie's shop have a rocking chair? Since when did it have a rocking chair that she invited strangers in to sit in?
And then another man sauntered out from behind the back curtain and swaggered over to lean a hip against the counter, leering down at Mattie possessively. Call gaped at the sight, his jaw dropping in astonishment as he recognized Deke Logan, whom he'd last seen deader than Dixie with a bullet hole drilled right through his chest.
Then he turned around and got as far away from there as he could, as fast as he could.
By the time Call reached the Number Ten, on the other side of town and as far from Mattie's gun shop as he could get without going back out into the snowstorm, he'd managed to halfway convince himself that the man in Mattie's gun shop hadn't been Deke Logan after all. It was late. He was tired. Probably his eyes were playing tricks on him or something. Deke Logan was inside the deep grave he'd more than earned himself, and the man in the gun shop was just some stranger who'd happened to look a bit like him.
All right, more than a bit like him.
Maybe Logan had had some cousins or something, or a brother who looked just like him, like Clark's imaginary "twin."
Call bought himself a bottle of whiskey from Charlie, the Number Ten's owner and only bartender, and retreated to a corner of the room, where he could see the entire saloon and keep an eye out for anybody looking for trouble—including the walking dead.
The Number Ten was crowded with people—the inhabitants of tent town were clearly eager to spend the evening someplace warmer than their own canvas dwelling places—and the heat of that many people packed into a room combined with the warmth from the cast iron stove to make the saloon pleasantly cozy. Well, if you ignored the drafts from the holes in the place's canvas roof.
The ice that had collected on the fringe of Call's jacked melted off, until he was dripping and steaming, and his fingers burned and stung as they slowly thawed out. Eventually, even his toes stopped feeling frozen, and as the ice in his bones ebbed away, exhaustion came flooding in to replace it.
It couldn't have been Deke Logan, he thought again. All the same, maybe he ought to go and check on Mattie again. In just a minute or so.
He was almost asleep, his head nodding forward onto his chest, when the tent flaps that made up he Number Ten's door were pushed aside and Luther came in. There was a shorter man right behind him, who followed him to the bar and leaned an elbow against it so naturally that, for a second, Call didn't think anything of it. Luther collected friends and drinking buddies wherever he went. Then Call remembered that this particular friend of Luther's had hung himself by accident last summer, when that traveling circus had come through.
As if his memories had conjured her up from some place, the circus fortune teller—the one who'd died in a fire and spooked Luther's friend into hanging himself—appeared out of the crowd, vast, blonde, and looking as if she'd never been locked in a burning shed. She seated herself primly at a table near Luther and started to lay out her fortune-telling cards. Luther ignored her, talking cheerfully with Charlie as if he didn't have dead people following him around.
What in the pure Hell was going on?
Call glanced at the bottle of whiskey on the table, wondering if maybe Charlie had stuck rattlesnake poison or something in it that was making him see things, then looked back up at Luther and his two companions.
All right, maybe that had been Deke Logan earlier.
Thoroughly disturbed now, Call stared hard at the two… ghosts? Was that what they were?
Each of them had a circle of empty space around them, folks keeping clear of them even though they didn't seem to be able to see them. Somehow, even from across the saloon, they seemed to make the place colder.
Call felt the skin on the back of his neck crawl as he watched them, as if someone behind him was staring at him. The spirits of the dead, coming back just like Bolivar had always said they did.
The Captain had always told him to stop talking nonsense and get to work, and Gus had pointed out that the world was full of powerful strange things and who knew if the old Mexican wasn't right? And Deets had kept his mouth shut and looked knowing.
The spirits of the dead…
Call had to fight a sudden, terrible urge to turn and look behind him, half certain that if he did, he would see Hannah standing there watching him, checking to see if he was honoring her properly. He forced himself not to, not sure what would be worse, to actually see her, or to find that there was no one there at all.
The fortune teller turned and winked at him, and Call jumped to his feet, knocking the whiskey bottle over, and fled. He heard Luther called something after him, but he didn't look back. He couldn't. Hannah would be there, following behind him, snow collecting in her dark curls.
Since running screaming into the night would only have ended with him freezing to death somewhere, Call settled for trudging wearily back into town.
This time, as he passed the gallows, there really was a body hanging there, and even through the dark and the snow, Call recognized Silas.
He shuddered and looked away.
The snow and the dark and the wind were too creepy for staying out in the street, not to mention too cold, but when Call cautiously approached the Lonesome Dove, he saw one of the men who'd been killed by the copper mine explosion sitting at a table inside, as if he were waiting for Amanda to serve him diner. Half his face was charred black.
So he ended up going into the Ambrosia Club instead. Like the Number Ten, it was crowded with people, the air filled with the hum of conversation. Normal, brightly lit, and completely free of dead people.
Of course, the Number Ten had seemed normal too, until the hanged man and the fortune teller had come in.
Mosby was behind the bar, an open bottle at one elbow and a shot glass in his hand. He looked up as Call entered the room, and smiled just a bit.
"I see you've returned from your hunting expedition, Mr. Call," he said. "Any luck?"
"You could say that," Call said. He glanced around at the crowded room. He'd never seen the Ambrosia Club so packed; the tables were filled with miners and soldiers. "Place looks busy," he commented. "Guess the Army's sending a patrol through the area."
Mosby gave him a flat, irritated look, then shrugged. "I suppose the weather is keeping people inside," he said.
One of the men sitting at the bar, a young man with thick moustaches wearing a US Cavalry uniform, asked Mosby for a drink. Mosby ignored him completely, not even looking at him. Instead, he was frowning at Call.
"Are you all right," he asked. "You look… odd."
"Fine," Call snapped. There was no way in hell he was going to tell Mosby that he was seeing dead people. He ordered a drink, then sat down at the bar to nurse it slowly and watch Mosby ignore his customers.
The gaunt man sitting to Call's right had been patiently waiting for Mosby to notice him and pour him a drink for a good five minutes now, and Call was considering informing Mosby of this fact (possibly with the words, "you arrogant bastard," added on). On the other hand… Call gave the thin man a second look, and realized that, under the coating of grime he wore, there were open sores on his face. Open sores that looked disturbingly like smallpox marks.
Call edged his chair a bit further away, trying not to be too obvious about it. He was surprised that Mosby hadn't thrown the man out-—he was twitchy about disease in "his town."
He sighed, staring absently at his half-empty glass. He was so tired that his head ached, and his eyes kept wanting to close, but the things he was sure were lurking just outside his range of vision made him determined to stay awake.
"You believe in ghosts?" he asked Mosby.
"Ghosts?" Mosby raised his eyebrows, stroked his beard. "I believe people can be haunted by their past, certainly, but actual ghosts?" He shook his head. "Probably not. Why? Thinking of conducting a séance?"
Call glowered at him, and was about to answer back when he caught sight of something in the mirror that made the words freeze in his throat.
Hannah was coming down the stair from the upper floor.
Call was frozen, unable to turn around and look at her, unable to move at all. He just sat, silent and horrified, and watched her in the mirror, walking closer and closer until she passed him and slipped behind the bar to stand next to Mosby.
"Call?" Mosby asked, sounding concerned now. "Call? Are you all right?"
Call didn't answer him, his eyes glued to Hannah. 'She's standing right next to you,' he wanted to tell Mosby. 'Don't you see her?' But he couldn't speak.
Then the woman turned, and Call saw her face clearly for the first time. Not Hannah after all. This woman's nose was a bit longer, her chin more pointed, and her hair wasn't quite as dark. Her dress was an old-fashioned one with a hooped skirt that Call knew Hannah hadn't owned, and there was a gold wedding ring on her left hand far fancier than anything he had even been able to afford for his wife.
Not Hannah. Strangely, despite the horror that had gripped him when he'd thought it was her, the realization filled Call with a curious sense of loss.
"Are you all right?" Mosby repeated.
"Yeah," Call said, knowing his voice sounded shaky. "It's just a little crowded in here."
"Call," Mosby said, very slowly and carefully, "You're the only customer in here."
"I'm… what?" Call looked around the Ambrosia Club again. It was every bit as crowded as it had been when he'd walked in. There were the miners, the soldiers, the woman behind the bar… she was standing practically at Mosby's elbow, far too close for him not to notice her.
Then Call realized that the men he'd thought were miners were soldiers as well, their faded, worn clothing the remnants of Confederate uniforms. What he'd taken for U.S. Cavalry uniforms were blue Union infantry coats, the sort men had worn back during the war. The men at the table in the back corner, whom he hadn't bothered to look at closely before, had all been killed when the copper mine collapsed; he'd seen their bodies on the dead cart.
Call looked over, very slowly, at the men seated on either side of him. The Union soldier to his right had an open wound in his gut, blood spreading out from it to dye his uniform coat black, and the dark hole of a pistol shot in his temple, where someone had tried to put him out of his misery. The man to his right wore rags that had once been Confederate grey, and his face was, indeed, covered with smallpox sores.
"Go home and sleep it off, Call," Mosby said. He walked over to stand in front of Call, stepping around the woman as if she weren't there, and leaned forward, one hand on top of the bar. "Or maybe you should go see Dr. Cleese."
"Maybe I'll do that," Call said. He stood up, set his drink down very carefully, and walked away, making very, very sure he didn't brush against any of Mosby's "customers."
The wind outside didn't feel cold at all-—not compared to the ice in Call's veins. Dead men. He had been drinking with dead men.
Once out in the street, he stopped and turned around-—he couldn't look back over his shoulder, because Hannah was behind him—-staring back at the Ambrosia Club. It was empty now, the chairs set upside-down on top of the tables. One more ghost was leaning in the doorway, a bone thin young man in yet another ragged Confederate uniform, his face swollen and bruised from a beating so bad that, even if Call had ever seen him alive, he wouldn't have recognized him. There was no sign of Mosby. Just one last ghost, whose eyes--swollen half shut--watched him from behind a curtain of matted dark curls.
He turned around again and walked away. Walked, not ran. He could feel the dead Reb's eyes on his back, could hear Hannah's footsteps crunching behind him, breaking the frozen crust that had formed on top of the snow.
He slept in the stable with the Hell Bitch.
"Call? Call, wake up."
Call pried open his eyes and squinted against a stab of bright light. Mattie was bending over him, frowning.
He tried to sit up, and pain stabbed at his side. Grey blurred the edges of his vision, and he sagged back down again, the straw rustling under him.
"Stay down," Mattie ordered. She placed one hand on his chest, pinning him flat, something she shouldn't have been strong enough to do.
He was lying on the floor in the Hell Bitch's stall, Call realized. Lying on the floor with Mattie leaning over him. He saddle was lying on the ground next to him, and, beyond Mattie, the Hell Bitch stood against the side of the stall, looking disdainfully down at the humans invading her bed. She was still wearing a halter.
"What-" he started to ask. Mattie cut him off.
"Don't talk," she told him. "Unbob's gone to get Dr. Cleese." Her voice was angry. "You've got some sort of cut in your side that's gotten infected, and it must've broke open while you were tending the horses. Unbob found you when he came in to feed them. Scared him half to death. You're lucky you didn't bleed out."
"Oh," Call managed. That would explain the hot ache in his side, and why trying to sit up had made him so dizzy. He frowned, trying to remember exactly how he'd ended up here. Eli Clark! The sonuvabitch had shot him. He'd brought him in, though, which meant that Austin owed him thirty dollars reward money.
There was more, something about Mosby and some dead soldiers—with Deke Logan and Hannah mixed in somehow—but he'd sort it all out later. He was too tired for all that now.
Unbob and Dr. Cleese came in then, Unbob looking worried and Cleese, disapproving. Call was hauled to his feet—which made his side hurt even more—and half-carried to Cleese's surgery. Cleese, ignoring the fact that Mattie was standing right there, stripped his coat and shirt off and started doing painful things to the gash in his side, muttering about infections and blood loss. He made Call drink a dose of bitter-tasting laudanum, and then ordered him to lie down while he got his instruments ready.
Call lay back on Cleese's surgical table, his limbs leaden and his eyelids heavy. Cleese was doing something with silk thread and a big, curved needle that he knew dimly ought to be worrying, but he couldn't dredge up the energy to care.
"He'll be fine, Miss Shaw," Cleese was saying. "He just needs a few stitches, and some rest to get over the blood loss. The infection is mild enough that it shouldn't be anything to worry about. Still, he's lucky Unbob found him."
Who was lucky? Call wondered. Whoever it was, he couldn't be but so lucky if Cleese was going to stitch him up. Maybe he'd ask someone about it when he woke up again.
"Remind Austin he owes me thirty dollars," Call mumbled at Mattie. Then he fell asleep. This time, there were no ghosts.