Author’s Note: Full Disclaimers, found at the Prelude (the beginning of Act I) apply to all following acts. This story is copyrighted to me, the author, and holds all rights thereof. Any private reproductions of this work must have all disclaimers and copyrights included. If this story is published without the author’s knowledge, I will happily hunt you down. Trust me, I have ways, I will find out, and karma can be a nasty boomerang. Thanks - DI

This Mortal Coil

by Dyin’ Isis
 
 

Act II
 
 

To die, to sleep—

No more, and by sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to; ‘tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep—

To sleep perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub,

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil

Must give us pause; there’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life.

— Hamlet, (Shakespeare, Hamlet. II. i. 55-68.)
 
 

i.

With a sigh that could rival Atlas’ when presented with the monumental task of holding the earth, the frustrated man went back to bed. These long periods of brooding and sulleness were becoming tiresome. He truly loved the boy, but his twin pools of pale blue gave away nothing. They were as deep as they were unyielding. The boy certainly didn’t get his stoicism from his mother. Jenny’s emotions always swam so close to the surface, it enabled him to read her easily. He liked that about his wife, that she was so open and honest. But not the boy. At times like these, he seemed to walk heavy and age years over a period of days. No matter how hard he tried, Jack never opened up to him. Over the last week or two, when the sulleness and brooding became truly pronounced, the boy refused to communicate without outbursts or tantrums.

"Jenny, what’s wrong with him?" He asked her as he settled himself in bed. "That was the second nightmare tonight. And it’s only three in the morning!"

The moon, shining brightly through their window, bathed her golden hair in a soft luminous halo. She put down her knitting and turned to her husband. She saw hurt and confusion swimming in his dark eyes. She lay her palm on his face comfortingly and kissed his forehead gently.

"Thomas, you heard him. He thinks he saw Coal Damian last week," she sighed struggling to match his. "He said he woke up late one night and looked out the window. I guess the nightmares are getting worse…more vivid."

"But why? We tell him over and over again that Coal Damian is dead. But he refuses to believe us," Thomas rubbed his tired eyes. "I was hoping that he’d be able to sleep when we heard of Damian’s death a while ago, but if anything, he’s gotten worse. Why? Is there something he knows that we don’t?"

"No, Thomas, I think it’s more complicated than that...." Jenny’s voice trailed uncertainly and she felt sorry for him. Thomas was such a good man. Marrying her and treating Jack like his own son. There were few men in this town who would take such a risk.

"Jenny, you have to tell me," Thomas searched her face intently. "I know it’s something that happened before we were married. You never talk about that time." Thomas could still see that same pain in her eyes inflicted so long ago. "He’s my son, too."

"I know, Thomas." Jenny flinched slightly. She picked at the sleeve of her nightgown in agitation. "I’m sorry… this is so unfair. The whole reason why we left and moved to Red Mesa was so that we could leave all of those memories. I realize now in hindsight, that we were just trying to escape." Jenny closed her eyes, the memories swirling in her mind’s eye. "It didn’t work."

"No, Jenny," Thomas said earnestly. He hugged her tightly. "Running never does. Tell me."

Tears already started to well in her eyes. She paused for a moment, not trusting her voice, and grasped for control. "Once, long ago, I was married before to a man…Danny," The name sounded so strange to her now. She usually heard the name uttered only by her inner voice but now… It had been so long since she had manipulated her tongue in a way that had once been so familiar. To finally say his name out loud. She couldn’t help the catch in her voice or the slight shudder of misbegotten love course through her.

"My god, Thomas…you know, he loved me and Jack so much," Her sadness from long ago settled itself over her features. Her voice still held that melancholy that not even the love that Thomas had brought to her…had saved her…could dispel. She continued after a moment as she revisited a time long ago. "We had all of the hopes and dreams that only newlywed couples could have. Living out there on the far outskirts of Eagle’s Bluff, we knew…we knew that we lived too far away from town…but we were young, eager, and our love was so strong. He…he was my first love." Jenny opened her eyes suddenly, as if to return from the past, and she turned to Thomas quickly. She had almost lost herself in those bittersweet memories. It had once been so easy.

"I’m sorry, Thomas. This must be so difficult for you to hear. I knew that if I had ever told you, that I wouldn’t know what would be the right thing to say. Even now, when you ask I swear I can see pain in your eyes.. That pain…that I caused…that I see right now, that is why I never talked about it before. It happened and what else could Jack and I do but move on?"

"You can’t stop there, Jenny. I love you and we deserve a chance to put this all behind us. Once and for all," Thomas hugged her tighter and kissed her flaxen hair. "Please tell me."

"I know this is hard for you, Thomas, but it was so important to us, at the time, to make it on our own. We chose our own plot of land and put all of our heart and soul into cultivating it. Making it our home."

Thomas nodded and didn’t try to rush her. He held her palm in his and didn’t trust himself with words of encouragement. These memories were bittersweet and fragile…and it was time that they stopped haunting his family. His family. For that to happen, she must not stop her melancholy narrative. Their future rested

on it.

"Well, one day I opened the door, looked down, and there...." Jenny released him slightly and looked up with him with flowing tears. "There he was…the most beautiful baby boy. Oh, he wasn’t that old at all. Maybe three months or so. He was just sitting there and looking up at me with those big blue eyes of his. Jack…I just knew his name was Jack. I looked around to see who had left him, but there was nothing. Just him, with a note pinned to his clothes, sitting in a basket, and that was it."

"What did the note say?"

Jenny turned to him and smiled for the first time. "Ah, this was when I knew that we were meant to have Jack as our son. As I was unpinning the piece of paper from his clothes, I was expecting to see a note from his mother. Maybe it would explain the desperate circumstances why she left her son on a stranger’s doorstep. Or maybe the note would be a plea to take care of her little boy until she came back. Or…I don’t know, Thomas. I just thought that it would be some kind of explanation. But there wasn’t one. I was shocked to see nothing but one word: Jack. At that moment, I knew he was meant to stay with me…us…to be our son. It was fate."

"He was literally just dropped off on your doorstep," Thomas almost succeeded in keeping the dubious tone from his voice.

"Yes, just like that. I know it sounds amazing, but there was never a moment that I didn’t think of Jack as my own son," Jenny’s face brightened considerably when remembering these cherished memories. "I felt that from the moment I saw him. And then the note, with just one word, confirmed my guess. How could I

know, Thomas? How could I have possibly known?"

"It sounds like it was meant to be, Jenny." Thomas said softly.

"He was such a good baby…and intelligent," Jenny carried on, so willing to ride the crest of happiness, especially when she knew there was so much darkness ahead. Tears welled in her eyes as she remembered these precious times. "Danny and I were amazed that he started to walk at six months. And talking! He

talked continuously."

"I believe that, Jenny, I really do. It’s just that I’m, well, after all of this time I just assumed…." He let his voice trail off uncertainly. All of this time he just assumed that Jack was her natural son. She had never told him. Jenny must have read his look and exclaimed:

"Oh Thomas, I didn’t care! As soon as I saw him, he stole my heart. In fact, for years I lived in fear that his mother would show up and ask for her baby back. And yes, after all of this time, I still do. I know it’s crazy, but I’ve always felt that Jack was a gift. Like he was something wonderful that was easily given, but at the same time, easy to take away. That scared me, but it didn’t stop us from loving him. We believed that he was our son from the day we saw him, and that has never changed. It never will. And we were so happy, Thomas! Finally, we were a family. We had such a future...." Jenny had been smiling brightly through her tears but now…the smile began to falter. She stopped for a moment and closed her eyes, as if to prepare herself for something. "…or we thought we did…but that wasn’t meant to be. Jack was only

about six years old when Coal Damian came to our door and single-handedly ripped all of that happiness away. Jack hasn’t forgiven him since."

"Coal Damian?" The color drained from his face. "Oh, God...what did Coal Damian do?"

"I remember, Thomas," Jenny’s voice gradually became softer, the joy ebbing away. Her hand reached for him slowly, and he grasped it tightly. "I remember like it was yesterday. It…it seemed like Coal and his men came out of nowhere. He stood before us and...darkness surrounded him. Black shirt...Black pants...Black hat...yes...he wore the color easily. I was startled by twin sapphire fires burning within his gaze. I was afraid to look into his eyes long...too afraid I’d get burned. He said that he and his men were staying in the barn. They needed food and supplies. Luckily, we had enough to spare.... Danny had pushed Jack back into the far bedroom when he heard the horses, but Jack…you know how curious he gets…if only the door could have been locked from the outside."

One more "what if" to add to the multitude of "what ifs" that Jenny had been able to accumulate over the years. And every "what if" had a different ending than the one that the fates had spun so long ago. She began to talk faster now. The guilt and heavy burden she had been holding for so long finally found release. A torrent of words spilled from her lips.

"Coal noticed him immediately," she continued. "Danny rushed to Jack to push him back into the bedroom, but Coal quickly drew his gun and fired. I remember hearing a sound so loud and terrifying, that it was like my body was being torn apart. I wanted that shrill noise to stop so badly, that I closed my eyes and put my hands up over my ears to protect them. It wasn’t until I opened my eyes that I saw Jack’s terrified face staring back at me…it was then that I realized that I was the one who was making that horrible noise. It was me that was screaming when Danny crumpled to the ground and saw his son rush to him. Jack had turned to me for comfort and I was doing the exact opposite: I was scaring him even more. In tears, Jack grabbed Danny’s shoulders and tried to shake him. We both thought that his Daddy was dead. Coal told me to shut up, and that Danny was fine. Coal softly called Jack to come towards him. To my relief, Danny sat up and I saw that his ear had been nicked. Just the very bottom had been scratched. Jack wouldn’t let go though. He was just crying and saying ‘Daddy’ over and over again. Danny wrapped Jack in his arms and held him.

"Coal walked over to them and he murmured Jack’s name again. Danny wrapped Jack tighter and tried to turn him away from Coal, but Coal shook his head and trained the gun on him again. He called out again and Jack finally turned to look into Coal’s dead cobalt eyes. He didn’t say anything. Just looked Jack up and down. Then the bullets came. It felt like the house would come apart as splinters jumped everywhere. Coal rushed out with a yell and he started to fight back. I could hear Danny shout to me that it was a posse and it looked like it was led by the sheriff. He pushed Jack back towards me then rushed to get his shotgun. He told me to go back into the room and I...I didn’t."

Jenny felt her tenuous grasp of control slip, crying even harder. "I don’t know why. I just cowered in the corner and held Jack close. Danny used his gun and broke a window then started firing at Coal. All of a sudden, I heard him grunt and fall. I rushed to him and saw blood on his chest. Jack wrapped his arms around Danny’s head and started to scream. I remember his screaming the most because it echoed throughout the house. The fighting had stopped. I rushed to him and saw blood on his chest. Jack wrapped his arms around his dad’s head and started to scream. Coal ran into the house, both guns smoking, and saw us. Jack started screaming at him:

"‘You killed him! You killed my Daddy! I hate you! Go away!!’ Coal actually paused. He finally took a step and tried to say something but Jack grabbed his Dad’s shotgun and pointed it at him. He started screaming again. Coal stopped and he…he just stood there. Coal didn’t do anything but watched Jack closely. He let his hands fall to his sides. It was so strange…it was like he was waiting for Jack to pull the trigger. I thought he would too, but the gun must have been to heavy for him. The gun fell with a thud and Jack started to cry again. He collapsed on top of Danny and just sobbed into his father’s bloodstain shirt.

"One of Coal’s men ran in to get him and grabbed his elbow. Coal looked at the dead body, the crying little boy, and me and then…they were gone. You wouldn’t have known they had even been there if it wasn’t for the carnage they had left in their wake. The yard was littered with bodies. We weren’t sure, but it looked Coal had successfully killed the sheriff and most, if not all, of the posse. Shortly after we packed up what we could carry and took off for Red Mesa. We’ve been here ever since."

"My God, Jenny," Thomas said hoarsely and held her close. She sobbed on his chest as he murmured comfortingly. It had been difficult to watch all of the pain flash in front of her face as she related her painful past. "I can’t believe you and Jack had that buried for so long," he said at last. "It’s no wonder Jack has nightmares of that monster Coal Damian. After all that, I would think that he would be happy to know that Coal Damian is dead. But he doesn’t believe it. Has he told you why?"

"Yes," Jenny’s tear-stained face collapsed in her hands. She took a deep breath and released her face. "He believes that he’ll know it when Coal Damian is dead. He feels that the fates owe him retribution. He’s meant to kill Coal Damian…no one else can."

"How can he know this? I mean, he’s more of a kid than a teenager!" Thomas exclaimed. "Jack is too young to be carrying all of that guilt and responsibility. He shouldn’t be. It’s not his fault that Danny’s dead."

"I know, Thomas, I’ve tried to explain that to him a thousand times, but it’s no use. He doesn’t believe me."

"Okay listen, we have to make things better for Jack, somehow. Have you told him that Danny wasn’t his father?"

"My God, Thomas!" Jenny looked horrified at the thought. "Danny was his father. In every sense of the word. I know it was hard for you to hear about him, but I will not let Danny’s memory be blackened like that. He was Jack’s father, period. From the moment that he saw Jack ‘til the day he— "

"Yes, Jenny, exactly. Until the day he died. I know this hurts, but you have to listen to me. I know you want Danny to be remembered as Jack’s father and he was. But, did you ever think that one of the reasons why Jack is so angry is because of that? I bet you that when he looks in the mirror, he searches for

characteristics of you and Danny. He tries to figure out who he is and one of the way kids do that is by looking at their parents."

"Listen Thomas, Danny was a good man and if Jack has great memories of him as a father who died trying to protect his family, then I won’t be taking that away from him. And neither will you. Memories are all that we have left of him." Jenny started to cry again. "Don’t!"

"Jenny, please, it might help Jack to accept this horrible thing from his past if he knew that he wasn’t responsible for his father’s death. Don’t you think he deserves a chance to know that Danny isn’t his father? It might be a hurtful step for you and Jack to take, but it might lead him away from that dark place he is now. He’s so far away we can’t even reach him and—"

"I am his mother! His only family! Thomas, you are asking too much of me. I can’t hurt Jack any longer. If he finds out, it will kill him. He’ll think that I’ve been lying to him this entire time. And yes," Jenny took a deep breath as she realized how her own words sounded. "I guess I misled him about his birth, but only for the best of reasons."

"Jenny, you are his mother. I’m not trying to change that. And I am certainly not going to take that away from you. Please remember that I love you and Jack, okay? Nothing will change that," Thomas earnestly hoped that she believed that. He could see that the things he was telling her were hurting her, but if he didn’t tell her now, he never would. "But Jack needs us now more than ever. If we don’t do anything, and continue to lie to him, how can that help him?"

Thomas let the rest of his sentence go unheard, but Jenny closed her eyes as if he had shouted it. If we do nothing, he’ll stay the way he is….

"Thomas, Jack is my son. Period." Jenny’s maternal side leaped instinctually to protect her son. "We don’t know that it won’t make things any worse."

Thomas reeled back as if the words had slapped him. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the headboard. "I thought he was my son, too, after all of these years. At least, that’s how I’ve been treating him."

Jenny sobbed quietly. Thomas decided to let it go, for now, and tried again.

"But by not telling Jack the truth, things aren’t getting any better, are they? I mean, he’s not," Thomas said in simple truth. He gauged her reaction and continued. "He saw his father shot and killed. It scarred him…deeply. Jenny, you don’t have to look far to know that is true. Just look at the nightmares he’s been having. He has these horrible nightmares and one keeps coming back. With what you had just told me I can see now what is the cause of Jack’s nightmares. I wouldn’t know that unless you had told me."

"You make it sound so easy, Thomas. Just tell Jack the truth."

"Jenny, it’s not easy. Either decision we make won’t be easy. It will probably be the hardest decision you’ve ever made…and one of the greatest acts of love a mother can do for her son. A chance to have a future. A chance to have no secrets between his parents." Thomas said the last sentence softly, his voice slightly faltering to his emotions.

Jenny didn’t even try to match her husband’s resolve. She crumpled into a heap and leaned on him heavily. She looked so small and frail all of a sudden. Vulnerable…for the first time truly vulnerable.

"Oh my God, Thomas…I’ve really messed up haven’t I?" She slowly tried to pull herself together. "I was just trying to be a good mother, Thomas. I was trying to protect him. I thought that if he didn’t know, then it wouldn’t hurt him. Danny and I were mom and dad. We loved him so much."

"I know that this is hard, Jenny, but don’t blame yourself," he could see that she didn’t believe him. "No, Jenny, you are a good mother. Just look at the way he was with you yesterday…I mean he adores you. When we were walking to the general store, you saw how he stayed so close to you. He’s always protecting you…making sure you’re okay. At times, I admit, he’s worse than I am. He dotes on you and I know that he would rather be around you than me. But Jenny, that is because he loves you." Thomas sighed heavily as if it was obvious. "You’re his mother."

Jenny smiled faintly as she knew that what Thomas was saying was true. "I know, but what you are asking of me, Thomas. I…I know that you’re saying that if I tell him, then he’ll be able to move on with his life, right?"

"Exactly." He nodded simply.

"But what if he moves on without me?" She grabbed his hand in a death grip and her voice slightly became shrill with fear. "What if he accuses me of lying to him and he hates me? What if he leaves to find his ‘real’ family and forgets all about me? I can’t do that, Thomas. I can’t lose him. I’ll die if he hates me…everything good that I am, I see in him. There are some things than can only be learned, Thomas. I believe that and I see that in the good things that he does."

"Jenny, you have to tell him," Thomas lay all of the cards on the table. "Even if someone comes here looking for Jack, you know he won’t go! Your fear of losing him to someone else is very likely not going to happen. What I am sure as hell not going to have happen is seeing you lose him yourself. After everything that had happened, you deserve that chance to save him….don’t let Coal Damian take that away from you, too."

Thomas felt the saltwater tears of this remarkable loving woman and knew that through her tears she was crying for so much more than her son. It was finally the time when she could grieve for a man who was taken in the prime of his life. She grieved for the family they could have been. She grieved for their love that was so swiftly taken away. She grieved for her son who still, after all this time, did not understand why the man he had loved so much was taken so violently away from him. His childhood ended the day Coal Damian ripped into their lives. It was time Danny’s ghost was laid to rest.

"Jenny," Thomas whispered softly into her ear. "He deserves so much in life. A chance to find love. A chance to have a future. A chance to be a man…I just don’t want these secrets to come back and haunt him. Look at me, Jenny," He waited until her soft brown eyes met his. "I could tell that something was bothering you from before, but you never told me. Don’t you feel better now that you did?"

Jenny sighed and looked up into Thomas’ eyes. They were so full of love and compassion for her. And they accepted her and didn’t reflect any sign judgment. She released a long breath in relief. She had been dreading how he would look at her after he knew.

"A little…." She curled up to him close. It was strange how suddenly she felt exhausted.

"Only a little?" Thomas said lightly and hoped he got a smile. She simply leaned on him more.

"I’m going to consider everything you said very seriously, Thomas," Jenny promised softly and closed her puffy tear-stained eyes. "The way Jack has been talking since that nightmare a week ago…when he thought he saw Coal Damian. It really scared me, Thomas."

"Why?" Thomas was almost afraid to ask. He couldn’t help but wonder what other things his "easy to read" wife held up her sleeve.

"It helped me to realize how much of the responsibility and guilt Jack holds since Danny’s…his father’s… death." Jenny murmured into his chest.

"I feel so bad for the kid, Jenny. You know I do. But why does he feel he has to carry that burden? A kid like that can’t have a real childhood, let alone a real chance at happiness in life, with such a heavy yoke around his neck," Thomas heard the anger in his voice and sighed.

It was too-little, too-late to be protective now. As much as he wanted to, there was no way Thomas could save Jack from the pain that was hurting him all of these years. Their innocence, the naiveté of his family evaporated as soon as Coal Damian entered their homestead on that fateful day. He hoped that now that after their conversation, things would change. They were his family now. Their pain was his pain.

"No, Thomas, you don’t understand," Jenny said sleepily. She rested her head on his chest and wrapped her left hand around his waist. He could feel her breath slowly even out. "Jack feels that he will be the one to destroy Coal Damian. Yes…destroy…that was the word he used…."

"Can you just tell me why?" Thomas asked in desperation to understand despite her obvious exhaustion. It was stunning to think that the woman and child he had been living with all of these years had such a deep and profound secret. And he hadn’t truly pressed in asking until now. Perhaps he wasn’t the only one reluctant to hear the answer to that question. His mind reeled as he thought how these revelations put everything he had ever known about his family in a completely different light.

"God, why?" was all he could ask.

"It’s his destiny," was all she could say.
 
 

ii.

I am the man! If it be so, as ‘tis,

Poor lady, she were better to love a dream.

Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness

Wherein the pregnant enemy does much.

How easy it is for the proper false

In women’s waxen hearts to set their forms!

Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we,

For such as we are made of, such as we be.

— Viola, (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night II. ii. 25-36.)
 
 

A week later Viola Chambers stood on top of the stage at the Dusty Hole Saloon. She imagined the rush of applause and couldn’t help but smile. The soliloquy was one of her favorites. After a week in Red Mesa, rehearsals of Twelfth Night seemed to be going very well. It seemed only obvious by whom the heroine,

Viola’s namesake, would be personified.

She looked out at the pulled curtain and felt the excitement grow in her. Although it was not the red velvet she was used to seeing in New York, it still acted as a doorway that when opened, magic would occur. Audiences would be transported to another time where they could, for one night, forget about their problems of the present. They could root for the villain, laugh at the jester, or wrestle with their own mortality. They could do all of these things and more, if they let themselves believe that the characters on stage were real. If they could do that and let themselves be touched by emotions the stage could

bring, then that would be a magical thing.

This is what Viola, Sandra, and Charles wanted to do for the residents of Red Mesa. And so, they pored over William Shakespeare’s play and tried to enlist as many townspeople as possible who could read. They weren’t sure where to look or who to ask, so they found themselves mostly confined to the patrons of the saloon. Unfortunately, they found that not many of the townspeople could handle the strange elaborate language. They were able to come up with only a handful, thus they modified the play slightly so that all of the integral roles would be covered. Despite the pages of text that had to be memorized and the many characters the three primary actors would be playing, Viola knew above all that this is what she wanted. She wanted to act Shakespeare, have the freedom to do what she wanted to and, above all, be happy.

Was that so much to ask?

Viola cocked her head slightly, hearing Sandra muttering to herself the prior exchange of two characters, Viola and Olivia, as her friend tested her memory of the lines. Viola smiled when she remembered how Sandra had compared her friend’s mind to a sponge. Sandra had wished despondently that if only she could just absorb her lines as quickly as the porous Viola. It had just always been easy for her. Viola’s sea-green eyes regarded Sandra affectionately.

Charles had pulled Lucky, a copper-haired young man and diligent patron of the saloon, off to the side and was trying to explain the lighting for the scene when a commotion interrupted them. Given their endless rehearsals, Viola quickly seized the opportunity to run down the stage and fulfill her curiosity. Sandra was quick on her heels and followed her friend outside.

"But Grant," a voice filled with laughter. "I really hadn’t been gone for that long. You know how business is."

"Any business that would keep you away from Red Mesa for almost a month...." Vibrant blue eyes seemed to distract his thoughts and Viola could swear he blushed. "Well, we’re just glad to have you back Ms. Devereaux. You sure do travel a lot…."

"Too much traveling," she complained lightly with an agreeing nod. "Well, it is definitely good to be back, Grant." She accepted the bashful man’s hand and eased out of the stagecoach. "Even if it is for only a little while." She smiled softly at the man’s crestfallen expression.

Gwenyth Devereaux’s stylish shoes graced his coat, which had been placed on the damp ground beneath the coach door, and moved toward the gathering of people. Even as she smiled and exchanged familiarities, Viola could tell that the stranger just didn’t seem to blend. It wasn’t just her statuesque height and inky dark hair. It was everything about her: pale blue dress, the artful way her hair was set, a fashionable hat.... The whole presentation of the woman exuded such individuality that Viola couldn’t help but wonder how long Ms. Devereaux had lived in this town.

"Ah, it seems that we have some visitors, hmm, Dolores?" Malachite eyes immediately noticed the three strangers and she raised an eyebrow in question.

A heavy-set woman came forward and smiled under the striking creature’s attention. They were a study in contrasts with the new arrival’s dark exotic good-looks and the local’s rotund body and common clothing. However, Dolores seemed to radiate a goodness that could only come from a woman loved by her family and friends. Gwenyth Devereaux held no such contentment emanating from her. She possessed more of a dangerous, restless allure that seemed to guarantee a tenuous distance, even among this eager crowd. Flattered with this unusual attention, Dolores nodded and eagerly came forward. She indicated the three

strangers who had appeared from the saloon.

"Yes, this is Viola, Sandra and Charles. They’ve been in our town for about a week." Then she lowered her voice and leaned forward conspiratorially. "They’re from New York."

"Ah…New Yorkers, hmm?" A throaty voice caressed the word. Ebony hair spilled down a slender neck and an elegant finger tapped the curve of her high cheekbone in thought. "A little far away from home, aren’t they?"

"They’re actors," Dolores blurted as if such a fact explained their presence.

An elegant dark eyebrow rose slightly. "Thank you, Dolores." Light blue eyes matched green and she seemed to pause for a beat. "Gwenyth Devereaux. It is nice to meet you Miss Viola...."

"Chambers," Viola supplied as she curtsied nodded slightly. As she looked up into the chiseled face above her, she couldn’t help the strange feeling overcome her. She shivered slightly and wondered what it meant, but then realized that she had paused longer than she had intended "Viola Chambers. It is nice to meet you too, Ms. Devereaux. I’m sorry, but I can’t help this feeling I’ve met you somewhere before...."

"Really? Who knows....perhaps we did? Were you in Dallas lately?" The blue eyes danced in amusement.

"No, I don’t know how. We actually we veered off course on our way from New York. Our last stop was in St. Louis..." Viola regarded the woman thoughtfully.

"Well…I have been in St. Louis recently," Gwen offered as she walked up the steps to the Dusty Hole Saloon. Although her demeanour suggested otherwise, her malachite gaze watched the three strangers carefully as she continued. "There was such talk about that new mine they found in Colorado," She turned her head as she approached Charles slowly. "Did you know that there was a robbery recently, Mr….?"

"Huntington," Charles had an unusually pale pallor and seemed to be tongue-tied for a moment. He felt as if Gwen’s blue eyes bored into his soul. He found himself sweating under her intense gaze and hoped that Viola and Sandra wouldn’t notice. He quickly gathered his capacity for speech, accepted the offered hand, and kissed it deferentially. "Charles Huntington, Ms. Devereaux. But please call me Charles."

Viola could tell that Sandra didn’t like this. The brunette abruptly moved past Viola and approached the two.

"Well, the robbery really is quite fascinating. It seems that ten bars of gold were stolen and they have no idea how it happened. They suspect an inside job, isn’t that amazing?" Gwen drawled on the last word and watched him.

"It sounds like the perfect crime," Charles managed.

"Oh, Mr. Huntington!" Gwen laughed lightly as she heard Sandra approach. "Don’t you know that there is no such thing as a perfect crime?"

"Excuse me? It is nice to meet you, Ms. Devereaux," Sandra extended her hand and looked up at the statuesque woman with determined eyes. "My name is Sandra Wellings."

Gwen turned from Charles’ dark handsome looks and didn’t try to hide her slight amusement. She nodded in greeting and looked back to Charles with a questioning look. He nodded.

"It is nice to meet you, Miss Wellings."

"Ms. Devereaux, forgive me for being so forward, but I couldn’t help but notice your title," Sandra and Gwen entered the saloon together as Charles held the swaying door for them. "Please don’t be offended…."

"…but?" Gwen anticipated teasingly. She turned her head and regarded Charles with amused eyes.

Sandra flushed and hurried her question. "…but I wondered if you were married?"

Viola followed the other two but paused in the open doorway. She turned to Charles, throwing daggers with a look. "What happened, Charles? Did you see something interesting or were you tongue-tied because of her exotic beauty? Maybe a little bit of both?"

"Sandra is just jealous, Viola. Not to worry. You have to admit though…." He shrugged in pathetic defense of a man’s human nature.

Viola sighed and walked into the saloon shaking her head. "Men!"

Viola entered the saloon in time to hear Gwen’s hearty laughter. "Oh, Miss Wellings, please! Why the thought had never occurred to me before. Besides, my husband lives in San Francisco."

Well, she sure as heck didn’t look married, Sandra thought behind lowered lashes. She felt the hotness flush her cheeks. For that matter, why didn’t Mr. Devereaux, her husband, live in Red Mesa also? Not that she didn’t trust Charles…but it would put her mind a little…a lot…more at ease.

"Ah, Miss Chambers, where were we?" Gwen turned around and waited for Viola to join her. The four of them walked to the back of the saloon and sat down in a comfortable booth. "Miss Chambers--"

"Please Miss Devereaux, Viola will be fine." Viola settled in and watched the

dark beauty beside her.

"Likewise, I prefer ‘Gwen’. I have learned from experience to always trust your instincts. You seem, like me, to be very sure of your instincts, so I won’t doubt them. Therefore, we must have met. The only question is when? I believe it could have been anywhere from passing each other on the street, and no one is more skeptical about this stuff than I, or it could have even been several lifetimes ago. Either way, it is all the more reason to call me by my Christian name since, I daresay, we are merely being reacquainted."

Sharp intelligent blue eyes flashed and Viola couldn’t tell what else was lying behind those enigmatic eyes as well as her eloquence. "Well, that does sound logical. But I do believe that anything is possible," Viola answered and tried to decipher Gwen’s reaction.

"To an extent, of course…oh dear, Viola," Gwen leaned in and whispered in Viola’s ear. "What is wrong with your friend Charles? He has such an expression on his face. He looks like he’s seen a ghost."

"Well, in a way…" Viola answered and examined Charles across from her.

"What?" Sandra asked and looked suspiciously between Viola and Gwen.

"Well, with everything that has happened, it does feel like we’ve seen a ghost," Viola replied.

"Oh, we did!" Sandra exclaimed and nodded vigorously. Charles grimaced. He stood up, bowed slightly to the three women, then made his way to the bar.

"Oh really? What do you mean? Does this have anything to do why you’ve made this unscheduled stop in Red Mesa?"

"Oh yes! It has everything to do with that. It was almost a week ago…. It was a dark and stormy night…" Sandra began, her eyes wide with remembrance of fear.

"Actually, it was day," Viola corrected her friend with a smile.

"Oh, right, it was day," Sandra nodded vigorously. "But it was dark because we were caught in a storm. It came out of nowhere! It’s just amazing how quickly everything turned so dark in the wilderness."

Gwen could already tell that she wished Viola would take up the narrative. She turned her azure gaze to Viola. "Yes, that can happen quite easily in the desert."

"Oooh, yeah!" Sandra ejaculated, then continued. "We were in our stagecoach…minding our own business then boom!"

"Boom?’" Gwen looked at Viola questioningly.

"We were attacked by bandits," Viola explained. "We had traveled from St. Louis to Colorado, and then we turned southwest from Colorado to New Mexico when we were accosted by bandits. They pulled us over and threatened to kill us. They stole our money, killed our drivers, and actually killed one of their own men in cold blood!"

Gwen shook her head, letting her long sable tendrils of hair shake from side to side. "Poor things, that sounds horrible. I thought this area was safe since Coal Damian was killed."

"We thought so, too," Charles interrupted in announcement of his return. He sat down unceremoniously. By sipping his beer noisily, he succeeded in drawing an annoyed look from Viola. "However, we were mistaken. Just like everyone else who believes that Coal Damian is alive. I’m positive it was Coal Damian

who led the robbery against us."

The tone in his voice seemed to challenge Gwen who only lifted her eyebrow.

"Hmm, how frustrating for you, Mr. Huntington," Gwen’s voice seemed to caress the words. "Apparently, by your angry expression, no one believed you. Word of Coal Damian’s death has spread far and wide. It was quite a coup de grace for the lawmen and they made sure everyone knew it."

Viola turned in surprise and regarded the enigmatic woman thoughtfully once again. "Coupe de grace? Are you fluent in French, Gwen?"

Gwen slowly turned her head at the inquisitive face and smiled. She opened her lips partly as if to say something, then stopped herself, settling only for a wink. Then she deliberately turned her attention away to Sandra who was shaking her head in disbelief. Viola couldn’t believe it. What the hell was that? she thought.

"But all of the descriptions I’ve heard seemed to match!" Sandra agreed with her fiancé’.

"Oh really? This is interesting. I might owe you an apology, sir," Gwen turned her cool look from Charles back to Sandra. "Please tell me, Miss Wellings, what did Coal Damian look like?"

"Oh, Ms. Devereaux—" A slight pressure on her elbow silenced Sandra abruptly. Gwen’s silver-indigo eyes seemed to flash at will.

"Gwen. Please call me Gwen." She smiled graciously then released Sandra.

"Gwen," Sandra corrected herself and rubbed her arm. "He had to have been seven feet tall!" Sandra exclaimed, her eyes now wide from remembrance. "He was huge, too. If I had to guess I would say at least…" Sandra pondered for a bit. "…300 pounds!"

Viola shook her head. For every moment that Sandra had thought about her guess, she must have added ten pounds. Gwen nodded thoughtfully beside her. "Yes, I’ve heard that also. And blue eyes, right? Eyes so pale that it was a wonder they belonged to someone alive?"

"And ugly," Charles added. "Had scars all over his face."

"Charles!" Viola chided and wondered, not for the first time, why Charles was acting so strange. It seemed more pronounced than ever in Gwen’s presence. "You know that isn’t true."

Sandra agreed with a solemn nod of her head. "She’s right Ms....er, Gwen. Viola’s face was actually wrenched in his hand so that she could look into that monster’s face." Sandra leaned forward so that her face was only inches away from the dark newcomer. "This close!"

"Look, Gwen, there’s more to it than that. We also think it was Coal for the simple fact that one of the men addressed the man threatening us as Coal. But granted, that could have been done deliberately just to scare us more. And no," Viola shot Sandra a look. "He wasn’t seven feet tall and three hundred pounds. I would say more like six feet and less than two hundred pounds."

"And ugly!" Charles sulked. The three women looked at him doubtfully. "Well, he was to me!"

"Hmm, well, unfortunately that only describes most of the men around here," Gwen tried to smile reassuringly to Sandra. Then she turned her gaze at Viola. "Is there anything else?"

"Well," Viola thought carefully. "All of the bandits had an elaborate gold and black pattern on their handkerchiefs.... But I agree with Charles, that could mean anything."

"Well, on my way from Dallas I had heard that Dusty Swanson was moving into this area. Apparently now that Coal Damian is no longer a threat, he wants to go into those areas. So now, instead of being glad Coal Damian is gone, now they’ll have to worry about Dusty. Also, and this is interesting, he had actually used Coal Damian’s name before in a bank hold-up to scare the people more. Actually, it did the opposite. One of the guards expected to be shot, as is Coal’s custom when it comes to anyone in a uniform, and it actually gave one of the guards the courage to shoot him!"

"No!" Viola exclaimed. "How ironic!"

"Amazing," Charles added dourly.

"How do you know this?" Sandra inquired.

"Oh, it happened right here in Red Mesa. Howard, the local sheriff, still works there from time to time. You can ask him. The bullet hit Dusty right in the arm and knocked him to the ground. Howard arrested him and everything but, Dusty managed to escape from jail," Gwen broke from her narrative and took a sip of her drink. Even Sandra seemed taken with the story. "Ah well, Howard received the award anyway and Dusty never came back. It’s a pity to think he might give Howard another run for his money."

"I hope you’re wrong, Gwen. I think we’ve had enough dangerous men playing havoc with our lives." Viola shook her head.

"Well, as for your own incident, for now I think you should just be grateful that your lives were spared," Gwen smiled at them. "I hope they find out who did it. Howard wasn’t much help?"

"No, he mostly said the same stuff that Marshal said," Sandra shook her head and sighed.

"Marshal?" Gwen looked at her with true interest for the first time. "What Marshal?"

"Yeah, a Marshal was visiting Red Mesa when all of this happened," Charles cut in. Viola could have sworn that he threw Gwen a triumphant look. "We told him everything."

"And was he much help, Charles?" Gwen asked smoothly.

Sandra thought again that she sure wasn’t acting married. Maybe she would have to watch out for the beautiful Gwenyth Devereaux after all. She sighed. Sandra wasn’t sure if she was up for the challenge. It seemed that Ms. Devereaux was in a league all her own.

"Well…." Charles hedged. He noticed her cool demeanor and easy smile. He was sure she already knew the answer. "No."

"Ah," Gwen said simply and kept her face neutral. "So, where does that leave you now?"

"We’re going to be putting on a play here in Red Mesa," Viola answered with a bright smile. "It’s going to be great. We’re adapting a play by Shakespeare."

"Shakespeare! Oh dear, I hope people won’t be intimidated by the flowery language."

"Well, many people in Red Mesa haven’t even heard of the play we’re doing."

"Which is?"

"Twelfth Night."

"Ah," Gwen smiled a large genuine smile. "My favorite."

"You know it?" Sandra asked in surprise.

"Of course, Sandra, that play by Shakespeare holds a very special place in my heart. I take it that the fact that the heroine’s name ‘Viola’ was a simple coincidence?" Gwen winked conspiratorially to Viola who blushed slightly. "I thought so. Well, it is true that most of the folks here are simple farmers and ranchers and probably have never heard of Shakespeare. But I’m sure that they just need to give it a chance. Do you have everything you need?"

Viola nodded. "Pretty much. We’ve only had a chance to talk to a few people, but most of them were enthusiastic about having new entertainment. It breaks up the monotony of the day, I guess. I just wish there was something we could do to encourage more interest."

"Hmm, well, I think that you just need to talk to more of the people here. I’m sure that the schoolteacher might be aware of the play…" Gwen let her thought trail off as she continued to think. "I suppose we could set up a party to celebrate opening night. Red Mesa hasn’t had a town event for a while now, so I’m sure they would be interested," she laughed. "Especially if I provide some of the…refreshments."

"Wow, that would be great!" Viola’s green eyes danced in excitement. She looked over to Charles who looked skeptical at best. She thought this was strange. He had been quiet for a while. "Don’t you think so, Charles?"

He shrugged. "I guess. The more people who come to the play, the more money we can make, and the sooner we can get out of here."

"Mr. Huntington," Gwen hardened her voice slightly. "You aren’t thinking of leaving Red Mesa so soon, are you?"

Charles was unable to hold her gaze and studied an obscure corner. "Well, no, of course not."

"Good, because it isn’t often that a humble town like Red Mesa is lucky enough to get people from back East to entertain them with a classic play about the subtleties of human nature. It would be a pity if you all left too soon."

Viola listened to the exchange with interest. She felt a strange uneasy undercurrent flowing between them and wondered why it was there at all.

Charles grunted. "How are you going to throw a party Gwen? What are you going to do? Invite the whole town?"

"Of course, Charles. That is what a town festival basically is out here in these parts. It will be perfect to celebrate your opening night. Naturally, it won’t be like the big parties you throw in New York, but don’t underestimate me," Gwen smiled at the three strangers. "I have many skills."

"I don’t doubt that, Gwen," Viola laughed as this stranger completely changed the direction of the play for the better. It was staggering to think of all that they had experienced so far. Although Gwenyth Devereaux sat casually in front of them, Viola could feel the power radiate from her. If she didn’t know better, it would seem that this woman was a force all her own…and certainly one to be reckoned with.

Gwen didn’t seem to be aware of her influence, but she wielded it easily enough.

"Okay, we’ll have it in a week. I’ll take care of it. Don’t worry, everyone will be there," Gwen smiled and stood. "Well, it was very nice to meet you all, but I’m tired from my journey. I think I’ll retire for the day. Please enjoy the saloon. I told Travis to put whatever you order on the house to make up for your unfortunate set of circumstances."

She stood up to depart and they all rose as well. "Oh, thank you for your hospitality, Gwen," Viola smiled.

"You’re welcome," Gwen nodded graciously. She turned toward the stairs, but stopped abruptly. "Oh, and by the way," she turned back to them and let her gaze focus on Viola. "Be careful out here. You’re not in the ‘civilized’ East anymore. This is a land yet to be tamed…where things are not always what they

seem…especially in a town like Red Mesa."

Viola paused. "We will keep that in mind."

"Please do," Gwen nodded then ascended the stairs as several men picked up her bags and followed her up.

"So, what can I get you?" A woman suddenly appeared and looked very very bored.

"Uh, well, I don’t know..." Viola sat down and fiddled with the menu.

"Oh…well, just let me know. The boss said it’s on the house and she doesn’t do that often. So, take advantage of it, ya know?" With a wink, she turned.

"Excuse me?" Viola interrupted her and she spun around again. "The boss?"

"Yeah, the boss. Ms. Devereaux owns the place. Well, she won it, but that’s another story," The waitress jabbed a bony finger at upper-case red lettering on Viola’s menu. She seemed oblivious to the surprise faces of her customers. "The ribs. If I were you I’d get the ribs. Those are good and expensive, if you know what I mean. Okay, just let me know."

The waitress spun around again and hurried to the bar.

"What a coincidence...." Charles mumbled and suddenly he didn’t look so well again.

"She’s just full of surprises, isn’t she, Viola?" Sandra asked and took Charles’ hand in comfort.

Viola looked back at the staircase Gwen had ascended. She wondered how much French the lady with the high cheekbones and flowing black hair actually knew. "To say the least…."

Viola’s stomach clenched knowingly…a story was there. She wondered how Gwen was able to win the saloon? What sent Dusty to such desperate lengths as to hold-up the bank in his own town? That was the same as robbing his own family and friends. There was, after all, only one bank in town. And now he was coming back home.

Wonderful.

Doesn’t life ever get boring in Red Mesa? Viola mused on her temporary home. Or does Gwenyth Devereaux’s presence prevent it from being so?
 
 

Intermezzo I

Viola tossed and turned until she finally gave up. Her mind wouldn’t let her rest with so much that had happened recently. Pieces of a strange puzzle floated around her brain. Everything was so jumbled that she was unsure if the pieces formed one puzzle or just a few small ones.

Ever since they had left New York, everything around her had become more and more strange. Charles acted like a different person. Sandra refused to heed Viola’s warnings as more and more of Charles’ behavior was revealed to be closer to the rumors Viola had heard before he had "changed." That is, before

he had met Sandra.

And Gwenyth Devereaux. Although she had the potential of becoming a strong ally, Viola couldn’t help but be aware that such power could be a daunting foe as well. She hoped that she would never have the experience of being on the other side of Gwenyth Devereaux’s favor.

But what truly kept her awake at night were the events constantly replaying in her mind—when Coal Damian, or whoever it was behind the dark elaborate handkerchief, had pulled away the familiar feeling of safety and replaced it with doom.

Viola turned onto her side for the umpteenth time in search of rest. In aggravation, she leaned up and tried to fluff up the pillow. For a moment, she very much wanted to go back home. At least there, events were ordered and predictable. Things she didn’t like or were unsure of were whisked away. If she didn’t like a pillow, a new one was given to her immediately. The Cook back at home was aware of her favorite dishes and rotated them frequently. The smells of home that comforted her so easily, were replaced with unsettling noises and different smells. She ran a hand through her tousled hair and sighed.

It was simply no use. She was acting a spoiled little rich girl, and she berated herself for being so. Being so used to the finest things in life had been such an intricate part of her, that she hadn’t been exposed to anything else. All of the things outside the Chamberlain Mansion were experienced through books. She realized now, so far away from the library that had transported her to other worlds, that reading about the West and living there were two very different things.

The spoiled rich girl of Fifth Avenue found herself in this strange dangerous land because of one thing. That glittering life in New York held a price too high and dear for her to pay : freedom. A chance to live her life and to let it take her wherever it may lead. Even if it meant the company of strangers and the humble town of Red Mesa.

To dwell on why she was sleeping on a simple bed in Red Mesa, New Mexico and not her own plush four-poster bed wasn’t nearly as challenging as answering the questions of the stagecoach robbery. They continued to haunt her. What had Coal Damian been looking for? He seemed disappointed with the money, and seemed to be searching for some papers….Papers? What papers? If it was papers, then why would he assume they had them? How did he find the stagecoach? They witnessed a murder and yet they were spared, why?

She remembered Charles’ reaction when she had asked him about those same questions.

Viola was surprised at how quiet the rooms were. On her long journey West she had slept in hotels and inns before, but the walls had been as thin as paper. But here, the solid oak of the doors and walls made the whole building feel as quiet as a tomb. This was the last thing Viola wanted to feel. She had come close to death once, and that was one too many as far as she was concerned.

So, Viola finally gave up on her war with sleep and slipped out of her nightgown. She laced herself up in a casual cotton dress and, feeling brave and a little daring, quickly threw her robe on. She knew she looked strange and fervently hoped nobody else was up at this hour. She would die of embarrassment. It was bad enough she was going downstairs into the unknown. But now, in the dead of night, without much of a destination or purpose and dressed so haphazardly…her mother would have had heart attack.

But her mother wasn’t out in here in New Mexico now was she?

So, the delinquent Viola Chamberlain, Chambers…I have to remember that, she admonished herself … skulked downstairs. Then she saw it, and her heart leaped as it always did. Viola never could exactly define why, but whenever a piano was in her vicinity, she unerringly found it. As she descended the stairs, a loud creak suddenly reverberated around her. She winced and waited. No movement. Nothing.

Screwing up her courage, Viola rushed downstairs and opened the glass doors that separated the two large rooms of the saloon. Closing the doors, she walked over to the piano and smiled. It was a small upright just a few inches taller than she was. The dark mahogany glistened in the moonlight. Viola let her hand rest on the instrument and smiled. For some reason, she felt a little closer to home.

Viola picked up the box of matches and withdrew one. With a sure swipe, the match glowed with light and warmth. She leaned over the top of the piano and lit the five candles staggered on the candelabra. Then she walked over to the small fireplace and lit the kindling. She had a feeling she might be out here playing for a while. It had been so long that she hoped she could do justice to the beautiful arrangements of notes.

Viola pulled the piano bench out and sat down carefully. It creaked slightly and she once again looked behind her. Nothing disturbed. Everything around her glowed from flickering candlelight and she only heard light crackling from the fireplace. Her hair shone as it reflected the warm light. She closed her eyes and opened the lid.

She began to play. In the dead of night, it seemed only appropriate she should start out with Frederick Chopin’s Nocturne in E-Flat Major. A favorite piece. As her left and right hand played in counterpoint, Viola cleared her mind and just concentrated on the music. Her lilting left hand moved from the low note of bass end of the keyboard to finishing the chord near the treble section, forming the accompaniment. The lyrical melody, softly and full of grace, began by the cadences of the right hand.

She remembered how she had been introduced to Chopin one day. Her piano tutor had come by the house and the usual austere woman had a huge smile plastered on her face. Viola couldn’t help but take a step back in surprise. A smile on Mrs. Jennings was truly something to behold. Mrs. Jennings excitedly told Viola that she was ready. Viola’s forehead creased in consternation as her piano teacher clip-clopped to the music room.

On her way, she finally acknowledged that Viola had been playing beautiful music before but now, now she was ready to hear music actually speak the beautiful words of poetry. She was ready to play compositions that were meant to be felt and not to be learned. She would be a slave to notes no longer. Now notes were words and compositions were poems. With a flourish, Ms. Jennings set the music on the stand. She told Viola that their lesson was over. She would be back next week to see which composition Viola had chosen...and probably learned.

Wrapping Viola in a big hug Ms. Jennings said that Chopin was the first stop to a New World. No more rigid and strict metered timing of Bach. Although Chopin held the complexities of Beethoven, he also held the intricate grace and beauty of only one who truly loved the piano and dedicated his short life to it.

In surprise and trepidation, Viola walked her beloved tutor to the door. Despite her frigid appearance, it was amazing to see the woman melt over this very brief music lesson. She supposed that this was what it was like when you truly held a passion for music. Even those who seemed cold could suddenly be warm and be at a point where they were the most human.

Viola smiled back at her then closed the door and considered the text of compositions doubtfully. The notes were so small and so many of them. The dark splotches of ink seemed to be scrunched together, next to each other, on top of each other, beside each other…. The variations continued for the thirty pieces in the book. Regardless, she hesitantly started the Nocturne in E-Flat Major. As the keys were slowly pressed, she felt herself lulled into the web of passion Chopin had spun. She couldn’t help but play it continuously until she got it right. No, she couldn’t stop playing until it felt right.

The week seemed to fly by. When Ms. Jennings returned, she was pleased to see the Viola had almost memorized the piece. Indeed, the simple nocturne was only a building block to the preludes and eventually the etudes. Viola had fallen in love with Chopin’s beautiful music immediately. She yearned for the day when she could travel to Paris and lay a rose on his grave.

And now, only a few years later, here she was…playing Chopin in this wild frontier. It comforted her to be able to do something she loved and found familiar in this alien unknown place. She finished the nocturne then started his Prelude in C Minor. She was still learning this one and fumbled over the notes. She chided herself for not bringing the sheetmusic downstairs, but she worked on the measures she knew until they were seamless. Lost in thought, she didn’t notice the figure sitting outside against the door adjoining the two rooms of the large saloon.

Blue eyes rimmed in tears, Gwen was besieged by memories of happier times when her mother had once played Chopin. The nocturnes had been her favorite. It had been just her mom, Caleb, and herself. All of those years ago before they left to live with their grandfather. Until he too was torn from their lives. It was during the War Between the States in her home in South Carolina. It was then that Bent changed her. It hurt too much to remember. She had tried to fulfill the void left by her mother’s and grandfather’s death with her purpose. But since those fourteen winters ago, all that seemed to be left was death. The death of her innocence…and of Bent. Lieutenant Commander John Bent.

She was too old for this. Too old for the random liltings of the piano to invoke so much pain. It had happened so long ago and she didn’t need the distraction now. She slowly receded into the darkness and shadows after one hour of Chopin had segued into Beethoven and then Mozart. She ascended the stairs and turned quickly behind her when she heard the music stop. She saw a form move in the saloon and move quietly towards her. Gwen recognized her immediately as Viola.

Gwen’s eyes narrowed and hoped she hadn’t been seen. She slipped into her room just as Viola began to ascend the staircase. She knew better, she scolded herself. There was nothing random about the arrangements of notes at all. The whole purpose was for the listener to feel something. To let the music touch a piece of her soul. She had thought that that part of her was gone or at least untouchable. She had to wonder. Was it the music or the musician?

Gwen reoriented herself by focusing on the task at hand. She never did have an easy time falling asleep and figured it would be more to her advantage if she let him sweat it out a little longer. After all, she could tell that he had grown increasingly uneasy in her presence, and that is what she wanted. The more nervous people became, the more distracted they became, and thus, the more mistakes they were likely to make.

She just had to wait one more day until she would find out the answers that she wanted. One more day before her plan could finally be set in motion.

Gwen’s mind was spinning through an endless number of scenarios of the probable future. She absently removed her robe and settled into bed. The possibilities ranged from the practical to the improbable, but her mind was restless. She supposed there really never was any true rest for the wicked.

Even as she hoped her mind would exhaust itself so that she could fall back into her usual uneasy sleep, she couldn’t help but feel surprised as the thick blanket of sleep wrapped itself around her. Her mind seemed to stray away from those endless "what-ifs" and more into a strange sight in her mind’s eye.

She could hear the soft tinkling of Chopin as soul-searching green eyes bore into hers. It was the last thing she could remember before the darkness took hold of her again.
 
 

iii.

The following afternoon, a withdrawn figure entered the saloon. His arms bowed slightly and firmly defined his personal space. His hands sullenly jammed into his pockets. Travis heard the shuffling of boots and knew immediately it was his young friend Jack. As always, Jack pulled up to the bar and drank the root beer Travis had placed in front of him.

Travis had known Jack for years but his true affectionate for the boy was born from being his uncle. He knew that his brother Thomas had been desperate and angry at the walls Jack had put in between them and at the way Jack often confided in Travis. Travis, almost ten years younger than Thomas, found it easier to relate to the many hardships a boy found in becoming a man since he too was learning. But both men believed that there was something else behind Jack’s troubled persona than growing pains.

"Hi, Jack," Travis nodded as he continued to clean the beer mugs.

"Hi, Uncle Travis," Jack nodded and looked up for a second before studying the bubbles in his root beer.

"Do you want some peanuts?"

"No."

"Okay, let me know." With that Travis walked away and addressed a particularly buxom young lady at the end of the bar. Although he was aching with the need to ask Jack what was going on, he knew that was the quickest way to be confronted with Jack’s steel blue eyes.

"Jorge wants another bottle of tequila," Dame Julie said in the slightly slurred voice of a woman happily buzzed.

"Hmm," Travis rubbed his dark mustache thoughtfully and looked at the poker game. "I dunno, Dame, Lady Luck seems to be a little slippery right now."

"What?"

"I’m just saying he might want some coffee," Travis smiled easily. "He’ll play better and perhaps turn the tables on those guys."

"I don’t believe it! You’re giving him poker tips," Dame Julie sighed heavily and leaned forward so that he was more intimately acquainted with her cleavage. She raised her voice an octave and wagged her chest slightly. "Now Travis…my honey is just having a very, very bad day. And we have never stiffed Gwen on

our bill. We know better than that."

Travis backed up and smirked slightly. "I think the whole town knows better than that. Look, no bottle. I’m giving him his last drink and that’s it."

"Travis—"

"They’re cheating," a new voice suddenly reached her ears. She turned in surprise and almost knocked Jack over with her breasts.

"What?" Dame Julie breathed.

Jack’s neutral face nodded at Travis who gave him a tight warning look. "Don’t mind Jack, Dame Julie."

"How can you tell?" Dame Julie asked and leaned forward eagerly.

Jack took a long pull on his root beer. "They switched the decks when Jorge wasn’t looking. The other deck is probably bulging out of the pocket of that guy with the red shirt. He doesn’t look so smart. They’re good but I bet they waited until Jorge was liquored up before they started to play. It’s easier when the other guy is drunk."

"No!" Dame Julie breathed. She left instantly and the deep hue of her red dress slipped in between the other tables.

Travis turned to Jack and gave him a look. "What?" Jack shrugged his shoulders and drank his root beer.

Travis shook his head and carefully watched Dame Julie as she arrived at Jorge’s table. Suddenly, Jorge’s eyes grew twice their previous size. His dour demeanor immediately rose into anger and he would breathe fire if he could. Jorge stood up and reached into the red shirted man’s pocket and found a deck of cards. With a primal yell, Jorge overturned the table and the other three men immediately rushed out of the saloon. Jorge yelled a slew of obscenities as he withdrew his gun and started to fire at the three gamblers. The hooves of horses pounded on dirt as a lone gun continued to fire at them punctuated with obscene words newly inducted into the English and Spanish languages.

"You got lucky, Jack." Travis shook his head as he went back behind the bar after all of the excitement had died down. "They could have started shooting in here. I’ve told you before how Gwen won’t tolerate fights inside the saloon."

As if on cue, the piano player started up again and everyone else snickered at Jorge’s luck.

"What are you all laughing about?" Jorge thundered as he rejoined Dame Julie who had immediately begun collecting Jorge’s winnings…from what had been losses.

The patrons turned their heads and continued with their own games. Dame Julie approached the bar and slapped down some money.

"There you go, Travis. Jorge and me are gonna call it a night." She winked suggestively at Jack. He didn’t seem to notice and continued to sip on his root beer. Miffed, she looked at Travis who only shrugged. Apparently deciding to take matters into her own hands, she reached out and took Jack’s face and pulled his lips to hers. With a satisfied smack, she released him and smiled.

"Dame!" Jorge’s voice called over the din. "What are you doing over there?"

"Nothing, honey!" Dame Julie yelled back. She turned back to the nonplused young man who now sported a smeared version of her lips on his. "If that was nothing, sweetie, just imagine what something would have been."

She winked then sailed off to her waiting man. Jack wiped his face furiously.

"Why do girls have to be so…so...weird?" He asked incredulously.

Travis laughed and handed him a small hand towel.

"That’s why we love them, Jack." He laughed harder as Jack’s face became a perfect portrait of disbelief.

Jack shook his head then seemed to pause for a moment. The all too frequent composure of seriousness descended on his young handsome features. He stopped studying his root beer and raised his clear blue eyes in address.

"Uncle Travis…I was wondering how those three strangers got into town." Jack watched him intently.

"Three strangers? Oh, you mean Viola and her friends…the actors." Travis nodded. "Yeah, they showed up about two weeks ago. They said their stagecoach was robbed," He shrugged. "How else would New Yorkers wind up in a place like Red Mesa."

"Oh, really?" he shook his head. "Just like that? I heard that they think Coal Damian had something to do with it."

"What? Naw, we told them that was crazy. Coal’s been dead for a while now," Travis shrugged. "I guess they didn’t get the news in New York."

"Oh…so you…you still think he really is dead?" Jack studied his root beer and tried to calm himself.

"Well, yes, of course, Jack. We all know he is. Good riddance, too."

"But…what if I told you that I had seen him?"

"Jack, I don’t think—" Travis began then stopped as Jack started to lower his eyes again. "What have you heard?"

"No, Uncle Travis, I saw him. I swear to God I saw him," Jack said in an intense low voice.

"Now Jack, that’s a good way to get people upset. The Marshals themselves said that there were no survivors…." Travis trailed off uncertainly. He watched as Jack closed his eyes and slumped down. He didn’t know why, but he felt like he had failed the young man somehow. "But, it’s obvious you saw something…."

"Yes! Damn it, I swear he is," Jack said fervently. He clenched a fist then made an effort to compose himself. "It’s okay, though. I didn’t expect you to believe me. I just needed to tell someone I trusted."

"I’m glad you trust me, Jack. You know you can always talk to me." Travis waved Lucky over from his work on stage to take over tending bar. Now Travis turned his complete attention to Jack.

"I know, Uncle Travis. I told my mom and dad, but they don’t believe me. I really feel I need to do something. Soon."

"Okay, Jack, okay. One step at a time. What did you see?" Travis noticed that Jack’s fingers were drumming on the bar. The beat became louder and faster as Jack’s agitation increased.

"It was almost two weeks ago. I’ve been telling you how I ain’t been sleeping too good, cause of some bad dreams right? Well, there’s one that keeps coming back. "

Travis nodded.

"Well, this night I woke up in a cold sweat. As always I was crouched next to my dad and a dark figure was pointing his gun at us. I usually wake up before he pulls the trigger, but this time I didn’t. I woke up with a scream. I looked out the window and saw a group of people on horseback…."

"On horseback? Really?"

Jack nodded. "Yeah, there was a bunch of them and three of them were carrying loads or something. It wasn’t until after they unloaded them on the porch that I realized…I realized they could walk. They were people, Travis!"

Travis didn’t know what to say at this point, but alarm bells rang loudly in his head.

"They were sitting outside next to the entrance when one of them stepped forward. He was waving his hands like he was telling the men to do something. I guess he was the leader. The other men left and the leader led them inside the saloon. That was all I saw until my parents came into my room to check on me. When they looked out the window, they didn’t see anything. They think it was just a dream or something…."

"Hmm…Jack, that’s quite a dream. And you think it was…Coal Damian?" Travis tried not to let the strong doubt betray him when he said that name.

"I’m positive, Uncle Travis. It’s just a hunch…a gut feeling. You know what my Dad used to say about gut feeling?"

Travis eyed the boy warily, knowing he was talking of the father who died long ago. "What’s that?"

"They’re never wrong."

A long silence held between them as Travis processed everything that Jack had said. It seemed that the young man’s convictions were enough for Travis to believe that Jack had seen something. But if Travis voiced his doubt, then it might actually increase Jack’s apprehension and force him to do something stupid. On the other hand, if Travis agreed that what Jack saw was possible, then his nephew might take the second leap in logic and believe it was Coal Damian. Having Jack hunt a dangerous man, even if he was dead, was not a good idea. Travis reached a decision.

"Jack, I don’t want you to get all bent out of shape about this," he said soothingly. Travis comfortingly put a hand on Jack’s arm. Because he was so tense, the boy flinched instinctively from the contact. "I want you to put Coal Damian out of your head…no, no listen!" He immediately silenced Jack’s protestations. "That horrible man is dead. You have to accept that. You said so yourself that this happened very late at night and that you have been having nightmares often. So, it is possible…only possible Jack, that your nightmare

helped you to see something that was not actually what you thought "

"You mean, there could have been men outside my window, but maybe not Coal and his men. And maybe there weren’t any people on horseback with them?" Jack said doubtfully. "I don’t think so, Travis. Like I said, I didn’t expect you to believe me."

It dawned on Travis that Jack didn’t know how Viola and her friends arrived in Red Mesa at all. That was why he had asked in the beginning. What a stroke of good luck! However, in a small town like this, it was inevitable that the news would travel to him fast. He just had to set the boy’s suspicions to rest first….

"It’s not that, Jack…look, we’ll go to the sheriff together and see if anyone else saw something, okay?"

"And maybe we’ll hear if anyone else saw Coal Damian lately."

Travis tried to hide his disappointment that Jack was still clinging to that hope. "Yes, we’ll see."

"You know, Uncle Travis, it’s not like I want Coal Damian alive," Jack continued. "I just have this strong feeling that he is. And that I have to do something about it. It’s weird...I feel like I am the only one who can do something about it."

"Aw, Jack," Travis lightly ran a hand through his tousled black hair. "Don’t do that to yourself. You’ve gotta stop blaming yourself for how your father died so long ago. We keep telling you it’s not your fault--"

"Uncle Travis--" Jack protested, his fists clenching at his side.

"Hey, look, no matter what you saw that night, you know you need a direction, son. That’s why you’re here, right?" Travis could feel the boy, a young man really, shaking beneath his touch. Jack nodded once. "Okay, so then you need to know exactly what happened at La Camisa Sucia, right?" Travis continued reasonably and chose his words carefully. "Where Coal Damian supposedly died?" Jack nodded again and unclenched his fists. The thought of doing something about what was bothering him was having a soothing effect.

"Okay, Uncle Travis," Jack looked up finally and smiled thinly. "Thanks for not telling me I’m crazy right off the bat like my mom and dad did. It helps a lot."

"No problem, Jack. I’m just glad you were able to get that off your chest. It’s getting late…I’m sure your parents are wondering where you are."

"When are we going to see Sheriff Howie?" Jack asked abruptly.

Travis discretely looked over to the figure sitting over by the door, and steered his nephew away. "Soon, alright? Maybe even tomorrow. I’ll set it up with Howie as soon as I see him, okay? So...your parents know where you are?"

"Yeah, they know I come here and see you sometimes, but...." Jack’s voice trailed as his eyes skittered around the saloon, unknowing that his quarry was blocked behind his uncle’s body. "...yeah, I better go. I’m sure I have some chores waiting for me." Jack impetuously jumped down from the stool and ran around the bar. He careened into Travis and gave him a big hug. "Thanks, Uncle Travis...thanks for believing me! I knew I could count on you."

"Always," Travis said very softly,

Then Jack released him quickly and ran out of the saloon. Jack almost ran into Gwen but she gracefully avoided him. Her eyes followed the boy as he ran down the street. She then continued into the saloon and made eye contact with Travis in question. He shrugged and smiled at her. She nodded and continued to her

usual table in the back.

Travis moved from behind the bar and walked toward a man against the wall. His presence obscured by the open French door swung to joining the two rooms. He easily slid into a chair and looked worriedly at the man with the silver badge.

"We got a problem…." He began.
 
 

iv.

Viola sat pensively on a crate with her hands cradling her chin. The stage of the Dusty Hole Saloon was vacant except for her lone figure. She needed a chance to be lost in her thoughts because that something that had been bothering her since she had arrived was still nagging at her. But now, there seemed to be

a new sense of urgency behind it.

Viola stood up and stretched. She supposed it was natural to be thrown into a strange environment and feel out of place. Or, to be more specific, to feel as if the environment didn’t make sense. This, of course, assumed that she did make sense in this strange frontier land. But now, with this nagging feeling and a general sense of urgency…she was starting to wonder. Viola had doubted herself before, but never was the feeling this overwhelming. For the first time, in a very long time, Viola began to wonder if throwing away the privileged existence she led in New York was worth being in the wild and dangerous land she lived in

now.

It seemed as if the answer had been obvious back in her old plush bedroom and spacious four poster bed. Of course it was worth it to give up everything to follow your dreams. Especially if you had a strong belief in yourself. Looking back now, Viola had so much faith and conviction that could only exist in someone who had never failed before, it had seemed so obvious and possible.

Follow your dreams, Viola. Win your freedom, and the chance to marry for love. Give your heart free reign. Left to her own devices, she had seemed so sure that someday, maybe not today or anytime soon, she would see Paris. And maybe, just maybe if she worked hard enough, she would see her name in lights.

Why not? At that point in her life when she lived in a grand mansion on Fifth Avenue, there had seemed nothing holding her back but who she was. Viola Chamberlain, heir to the Chamberlain fortune. Destined to be a supportive and loving mother to the husband of her parent’s choosing. It was all so simple. It was a tried and true method for others in Viola’s position. How else had her parents met and married?

How…how horrible. For Viola, it was too high a price.

So she fled and now she had the proud distinction of being on her own…as well as probably disowned, disinherited, disgraced as well as any other "dis-"words which pertained to one being cut off from the Chamberlain family. It would be as if she had never been born. It had hurt. And, once she screwed up enough courage to face that aching pain, the wound in her heart was still far from being healed.

So now, Viola Chambers, was sitting quite uncomfortably on a rough crate located on stage of the Dusty Hole Saloon (what an abhorrent name) and feeling sorry for herself. Viola sighed: this was exactly what she had promised herself she wouldn’t do.

It was strange though…of course this thought could just be due to Viola’s self-pity, but although this world in New Mexico had tested her, she really felt that she had passed. Perhaps, as time went on, Viola would find a place out here in the wilds of the West. And maybe, eventually, feel like she would belong again…and have a chance to not be hindered by what her name was. Changing her name from Chamberlain to Chambers was a start.

What a nice thought, Viola thought dourly. I couldn’t be farther away from feeling I could belong in a strange place like this. If anything, I’ll probably be some obscure wanderer who can spout Shakespeare and tell stories hoping for a laugh. I just…I just feel like I could do so much more than that. Maybe this

is what has been bothering me. Or at least part of it.

Viola wrenched her face from her hands in surprise as she heard someone coming up the stairs. She saw the familiar figure of Sandra and sighed. For some strange reason, she had hoped it was the enigmatic Gwenyth Devereaux.

"Viola!" Sandra exclaimed with a big smile. She rushed up to her friend and felt her brow crease in question. "What are you doing up here all by yourself?"

"Oh, hello Sandra," Viola smiled weakly and slowly stood. "Not much…just thinking."

"Thinking? Up here all by yourself. What’s wrong? Oh, I know…you’re worried about the play on Friday. We have only a few more days!" Sandra nodded. "I can’t help but get the Jitters too."

Viola walked with Sandra down the stairs. "Um…the Jitters?"

"Yes, of course, the Opening Night Jitters! But don’t worry, it’s going to be great. I just heard a few of the guys talking and they think, as I do, that you’re great! Everyone’s so excited!" Sandra’s eyes lit up and practically pulled Viola to a table.

"Hey, calm down, Sandra," Viola found herself smiling at her friends enthusiasm.

"No, I’m serious, Viola. You’re doing great," Sandra hugged Viola tightly and smiled. "This play is going to be great. At least the townsfolk will have something to do besides play cards and drink."

"Oh, Sandra, I think you’re exaggerating," Viola’s eyes crinkled kindly. Sandra held a knack to always put a smile on her face. "It only seems that way because we see most of them after sundown. You know, most of them are ranchers or farmers."

"Afternoon, Miss Viola," Skeet’s presence immediately marked itself with a grimace on the girls’ faces. "You sure do look purty today."

Sandra turned and gave Viola a pointed look and then smiled smugly. To her credit, Viola pretended not to notice.

"Oh, Skeet…thank you," Viola answered graciously. A movement at the edge of her peripheral vision made her head turn slightly. The tall dark slender form easily stood out among the patrons. Gwen had walked up to the bar and was deep in conversation with the bartender. Hmm….

"Hello Skeet," Sandra smiled at him and extended her hand. Skeet looked perplexed for a moment, but then his brow cleared and he gallantly took her offered hand. He kissed it grandly then turned back to do the same to Viola.

"Viola, you know the opening is coming up this weekend and I was wondering…." Skeet began, but then his face suddenly blanked in surprised. He whirled back to Sandra, his face contorted in familiar confusion once again.

"Hey, where did she go?" Skeet asked in wonder. He found her easily as the elusive Viola made a bee-line for the maroon hue of Gwen dress at the bar. "Aw, I must have surprised her or something." Skeet winked at Sandra knowingly since he considered himself one of the few men on the planet who had figured out women.

"…or something," Sandra replied absently and watched her friend in confusion as she walked outside the saloon. Gwenyth Devereaux…again! Sandra couldn’t help but feel slighted that Viola would prefer Gwenyth Devereaux’s company to her own. She simply wasn’t used to seeing her best friend run off in search of…more intriguing company? Sandra felt hurt as the seeded thoughts of jealousy slowly

sprouted.

"Yep, I think Miss Viola is sweet on me," Skeet confided and drew himself up a little taller. "Yep, whenever she sees me she gets all embarrassed and walks away," Sandra reacted to him with an incredulous look. "Uh huh, I know…I can tell. It’s only a matter of time before she’s mine," he continued. Sandra shook her head and sighed. She turned and walked over to Charles.

"Yep, she wants me." Skeet declared to Sandra’s retreating form. He snapped his suspenders in satisfaction. He clattered back up the steps of the stage.

Sandra approached Charles with a disturbed expression on her face. She noticed that she wasn’t the only one. Charles looked similarly preoccupied as he picked at his lunch from earlier. Every so often he would pause and sip his draft. His hand constantly tapped against the table in a relentless repetitive motion.

He had been so preoccupied lately…. Come to think of it, ever since Gwenyth Devereaux…. Charles noticed her approach and his face instantly cleared. Sandra sat next to him and began to talk in hushed tones.

"Excuse me, Gwen," Viola’s voice carried up to the tall woman’s ears. Gwen turned and saw that Viola Chambers was expectantly waiting for her to answer. For some inexplicable reason, Gwen felt a smile grace her face.

"Ah, Viola," Gwen nodded in greeting and abruptly finished her conversation with the bartender Travis.

Gwen couldn’t help but notice that Travis looked at her smaller companion with a little more intensity than usual. She raised a dark eyebrow pointedly, but Travis neatly escaped her penetrating gaze and turned back to cleaning his glassware. Hmm… Gwen could hardly blame him. She had noticed that Viola’s bright good looks and thick reddish-blonde hair turned as many heads as she herself did. Well, almost. Gwen was sure that the Skeet wasn’t the only victim of Viola’s good looks. The man was less coordinated than usual lately…and most often when Viola was around. The fact that Viola and her friends also held the aura of people from a big city, from New York no less, only added to their mystique. Gwen cleared her thoughts and addressed the object of her musings.

"I’m sorry to hurry away, but I have a business meeting soon," Gwen smiled regretfully and made her way to the door.

"But, Ms. Devereaux," Viola strove to get Gwen’s attention. "Something is bothering me, and I think that only you can help me." She hurried to match Gwen’s long stride. Gwen heard the sound of petticoats swish in agitation and knew that Viola was close behind.

"I’m sorry, Ms. Chambers," Gwen returned to formalities as well. "But we can talk later," she added firmly. Her eyes narrowed as the sound of swishing continued.

Viola finally caught up with the taller woman, rushing into a matching stride. With a determined air, Viola dodged around busy couples and families focused upon their tasks.

"No, Gwen, please I need to talk to you…perhaps I could walk with you on the way to your meeting?" Viola asked desperately as she neatly avoided running into the owner of the general store. She turned and kept eye contact with him, smiled in apology, and nodded her head in salutation, only to be stopped abruptly by a powerful grip. With a yelp, she almost fell, but the hands quickly straightened her. Viola turned around and realized that it was Gwen who had stopped her…from backing into a bench. Viola sighed in relief. There was little doubt that bench would have left a nasty bruise. She heard a low laugh from above and craned her neck up slightly. Gwen’s blue eyes twinkled with amusement.

"You seem to be doing that quite well already, Viola," Gwen released her then reached into her bag. She pulled out a man’s style pocket watch.

"Wow, Gwen…that’s a very nice watch," Viola’s eyes lit up in recognition. "An heirloom of considerable quality I’d bet."

"Is it? I don’t know." Gwen answered as she studied the time. Viola couldn’t see Gwen’s eyes cloud over briefly as she continued very softly, "It’s…it was my grandfather’s."

"He had good taste," Viola nodded, briefly took it in her hand, turning it over, examining it. "Yes. German-made. It’s a very rare style. Part of a limited edition. Only six were made. My father owned all but the first model in the series." Viola continued, smiling at the warm memory, "It was part of his prized collection. Many an evening he delighted in showing me the distinct and exquisite workmanship of each one. We used to sit for hours together. How I loved those moments." She closed her eyes briefly, returned the watch then looked up at Gwen. "As far as I know the collection is still incomplete. He was obsessed with finding the last one…. I suppose there is nothing worse than being so close to completing something and being frustrated in never finding the final piece."

Gwen regarded Viola behind veiled lids. They hid Gwen’s feeling of uneasiness over the mention of her grandfather to the young woman who was still very much a stranger. She couldn’t even remember the last time she referred to him, let alone out loud.

"Yes, but sometimes that only fuels the drive for obtaining that goal," Gwen continued seamlessly as if nothing had happened. "It all depends on one’s hunger." She turned back to the watch and replaced it in her bag, and started to walk away.

"Gwen, please, I really need to talk to you. It will only take a minute." Viola tried again.

Gwen sighed audibly. She paused to think for a moment then shook her head. "Sorry, I really can’t. I’m late as it is. I’ll find you later…sometime."

The sun hung low on the horizon and Gwen’s shadow was becoming longer. Viola wondered about her choices. There really wasn’t a good reason why she should continue to pester Gwen. It made perfect sense for Gwen to find her later in the evening. After all, it was getting late…she was getting hungry…and what was--

Viola hurried to catch up with Gwen’s retreating figure once more. "It’s about Coal Damian. I think Charles is right. I think Coal is alive!"

Gwen faltered in her step for a moment before her strong stride resumed. Viola supposed it was an indication that the taller woman had heard her. The problem was, Gwen didn’t answer. She continued her long strides, but heard the swishing of petticoats again. Suddenly Gwen stopped and turned. Her eyes blazed with a blue fire.

"Viola! I said that I— Hey! Viola?"

Gwen turned around in a tight circle and the icy realization of Viola’s disappearance washed over her. Her mannerisms and facial expressions changed immediately. Hard ice-flecked eyes whipped around as she stealthily walked back the way she’d come. She slowed down deliberately as she approached the last alley they’d passed only a scant few moments before. Gwen took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and opened her senses. The wind suddenly became noisy. Every sound was intensified. She opened her eyes and knew. She clenched and unclenched her hands, steeling herself before walking into the trap.

"Well well, if it isn’t Gwenyth Devereaux herself! Just the broad I was searching for!" A figure cackled from the shadows. "But now that I have this one…."

"Let her go, Dusty. If you draw blood…." Gwen’s voice held a weighty promise.

"Gwen, I’m in charge here. Start walking this way. Make any loud noises and the girlie here will be sorry."

Gwen slowly moved forward as the voice cajoled her closer into the shadows.

"Oh yeah, you’re good," a low voice caressed the last word in an obscure corner. "I don’t know how you do it, Gwen. I mean my new buddy and me are way over here…but you can still tell that I have her life in my hands…literally. You know sweetheart," the voice referred to Viola’s still form in his arms. "You’re lucky. You’ve got the one and only Gwen Devereaux over there looking out for you. In some circles she has quite the reputation," Viola yelped as the sharp edge of a knife pressed tighter against her neck. "Just not the reputation a man like me prefers of an independent lady."

Viola yelped again and began to whimper as he lightly…slowly…moved the knife back and forth against her throat in a treacherous sawing motion. "She’s got these senses, ya know?"

"Okay, Dusty," suddenly Gwen was right in front of them. "Enough. Let her go and I’ll let you die quickly."

"Oh, Gwen…you must really think I’m stupid," he mocked her. "You didn’t really think I’d come here alone, did you?"

"Fine," Gwen rasped the word between clenched teeth. "I was hoping you would want a slow death…." Gwen approached menacingly, but several consecutive clicks brought her to a halt. She snorted derisively when five men with guns came forth from the shadows. Gwen shrugged and held her hands up in defeat. "But, I guess that can wait until later."

Viola’s head was swimming with fear. It was the first time she had actually felt a weapon against her skin. Being threatened was bad enough, but to actually feel the sharp cold kiss of a blade…. Viola was sure she would be sick again. But Gwen…even through Viola’s haze it was amazing how calm Gwen looked. She didn’t even bat an eye with ten guns pointed at her. Viola wondered if ten knives pressed to Gwen’s body would draw any reaction. Viola regarded Gwen’s stoic expression and answered her own question.

Only the cold blue eyes gave away any emotion Gwen was feeling.

"Okay, okay, Dusty, relax. I was coming to you anyway," She looked ruefully at Viola. "You just had to follow me to my meeting, didn’t you?"

Viola’s eyes rounded in shock. "Your meeting?" Instantly, her face contorted in pain. "Ow!"

Gwen immediately surged forward but a gun pressed to her forehead made her stop. Gwen’s eyes narrowed and she gritted her teeth.

"Dusty!" Gwen’s sharp voice erased the proud smile from his face. "Let her go or else things will get messy."

"That’s true, Gwen. Very true! Things will get messy…but it will be your blood…and hers if you don’t do what I say. We have things to talk about. Ya know, unfinished business," He paused to spit out a wad of tobacco and curled a lip. "I’ll just hold on to this pretty young thing so that you don’t try anything, Gwen."

"Like I have a choice…." Gwen muttered and did as he asked. She raised her hands above her head. Two men instantly pounced on her. One slapped her hard against her face then punched her in the stomach as the other man held Gwen’s arms out to her sides from behind. Viola flinched and could feel the tears well in her eyes.

"No, don’t hurt her!" she yelled. "Gwen!"

Gwen fell weakly to her knees. Her mouth was bloody and her dress was torn. Four hands grabbed her roughly and pulled her to her feet. A third wrapped a hefty rope around her wrists, effectively pinning them against her back. Satisfied that Gwen was incapacitated, Dusty sheathed his knife but kept an arm securely across Viola’s waist.

"Shut up!" Dusty yelled in her Viola’s ear. He quickly took out his gun and put other his hand over her mouth. He pulled her to him and he growled menacingly in her ear. "If you make one more noise, I’m going to fucking kill you! Got it! Just remember something, girlie. There’s more than one use for you now." He nodded in Gwen’s direction. "Now that we got what we came for."

"We gotta git, Dusty," a nervous voice cut into the drama. "Someone might’ve heard the girl."

"I told you to let her go, Dusty," Gwen’s voice was eerily neutral. She paused and let her tongue roll around in her mouth, tasting blood and checking. Yep, all teeth still there. She casually tilted her head to clear her dress and spat out some blood. "You’re making a mistake."

"No, my mistake was gambling the Dusty Hole Saloon. I should have known that you were cheating, but those bastards of yours overpowered me. If it had been a fair game, Gwen, you would have lost." Dusty pointed at Gwen and used jabs in the air to illustrate his point. "You ruined me, Gwen. Now you are going to pay…."

"Whatever you say, Dusty," Gwen sighed in tired resignation.

Dusty growled and pushed Viola towards one of his men. He lunged forward and slapped Gwen across the face. Hard. Gwen’s head rocked back violently, then slowly recoiled back, and stared at him with dead eyes and an impassive expression.

Now she was angry.

"Are we going somewhere or are you going to make it easier for my men to find us and stay here a little longer?" she asked quietly.

"Shut up, Gwen, or the next time the girlie gets it, got it?" Dusty yelled and balled his fist.

"She’s right, Dusty," A voice piped up nervously. "We gotta go."

"It’s alright. I can handle her," His lips curled in satisfaction at the sight of Gwen’s battered appearance and tied hands. "Hell, I can handle all of ‘em!" Dusty waited a beat and thought for a second. Suddenly, he turned and stormed off to the horses kept behind the large building and called over his shoulder. "Saddle up!"

"What are you doing! Why did you warn them?" Viola indignant words rushed to Gwen. Strong hands roughly hustled them from the alley.

"Hey, shut up, you two!" a thug with odorous hygiene snapped and pushed Gwen roughly.

Gwen easily regained her footing and threw back a hateful look. She was trying to choose which way he would die. Either way, lots of blood would be spilled…and it wouldn’t be hers. She paused in her thoughts and regarded the anxious green eyes next to her. Or Viola’s blood either.

"You were the one who just had to come to my meeting, remember?" Gwen replied in a low grumble once Viola caught up with her.

"This was your meeting?" Viola hissed back. She looked at the horses and sighed. Viola had a sudden case of déjà vu. "Oh no…not horses again. I’m not good on horses."

"Okay…up we go!" Dusty leered at Viola and roughly put her on the horse. As she landed on the horse with a grunt, she had a sinking feeling whose horse she’d be sharing.
 
 

v.

They rode for what had seemed like hours. The horses smelled. Flies swirled everywhere. Viola’s inherent dislike of these tall four-legged beasts was only increasing. The last rays of hot sun had been stifling before it set, but the night quickly cooled the air and now the moon glowed softly down upon them. Viola marveled how one place could have such vastly different temperatures between night and day. Then she grimaced and looked out at the terrain passing in front of her. Well, in the same vicinity at least.

Viola’s stomach grumbled in discontent. Knowing her punctual appetite, she figured it was around eight o’clock. She stole a look of Gwen from the corner of her eye. Gwen had her hands bound together, a handkerchief over her eyes, and a gag tied against her mouth. It was strange…Dusty obviously feared the statuesque beauty. Viola thought back to the alley and the dark demeanor that had quickly appeared out of nowhere. Either Gwen had been talking a good line, or Dusty had good reason to believe her.

Finally, they stopped and made camp for the night. The men carried over an exhausted, bruised, and achy New Yorker over to a large rock and unceremoniously dropped her in front of it. "Ow! Hey!" Viola freely threw him a look of disgust and inched her way up the rough granite into sitting position. It was no small painless feat.

Viola watched the dark group play cards. They might as well have been deciding her fate the same way. She wondered if these were the bad men she had only read about. But these bad men were different…they were real and unpredictable. For the first time, it seemed a story was happening around her, and she didn’t have a clue as to the plot line.

Viola’s green eyes flicked over to Dusty who smiled smugly and winked lewdly at her. The men began to drink with gusto. She grimaced and quickly diverted her eyes towards the much more appealing sight of the sky above. The heavens were bathed in darkness with only small points of light dotting the sable blackness. Despite her grievances and probably impending death, she couldn’t help but be drawn into the beauty of the view above her. She was amazed how bright the stars were out here…so far away from home. They were truly magnificent. The night sky over New York was never this clear and bright. The scintillating stars had never seemed so plentiful nor shined so bright before tonight. Viola easily found the Big Dipper as well as its greater constellation Ursa Major. Her eyes traveled over to the three vertical bright stars that made up Orion’s belt. Following the stars up and down, she was able to pick out the rest of his forms as well as her own sign: Chiron, the centaur shooting his arrow into the heavens, making the astrological sign of Sagittarius.

This is strange, Viola thought, I should be scared out of mind…but for some reason I’m not. She turned her head slightly and saw Gwen seated confidently amongst the four men despite her bindings. Gwen caught her eye and paused for a moment. She didn’t change expression nor give her any sign of reassurance. Regardless, Viola was somehow comforted.

Gwen’s profile was towards her, so it was easy to see the expressions on her face as well as most of the gestures she made. It was strange…slightly familiar. Gwen finally acknowledged Viola’s questioning expression and smiled thinly. With a toss of her head in Viola’s direction, Viola could tell that she had made a request of some kind. Sure enough, the protestation of one of the men was heard instantly. Dusty yelled something back at him and the chastised man turned to Viola, giving her a churlish expression.

Oh, wonderful, Viola thought sarcastically. She wondered exactly what had transpired, but suddenly felt very protective over her virginity. I hope I’m not a bargaining piece at the ‘meeting’ over there.

Viola shivered and wished heartily for her four-poster bed back in New York. She closed her eyes as the sound of boots pounding on dirt approached her. Then something warm and fibrous was flung on top of her. A blanket! Without explanation, the boots turned heel and pounded away. Viola had her wrists bound in front of her, but she wiggled her way into the blanket. She heard laughter in front of her and realized that it must look amusing…but at least she was warmer. Viola peeked from the confines of the blanket and found Gwen’s eyes watching her. The sides of Gwen’s lips twitched slightly, forming an imperceptible smile, then continued her conversation with Dusty.

"Okay, Gwen, we gave her a blanket now give me my saloon back!" Dusty roared. He was getting tired of Gwen’s games. They had already done a lot of drinking and he felt the alcohol rushing his senses. Some people acted silly when they were drunk. Others were affectionate. But Dusty fell into the final category of a reckless and angry drunk. He wanted to shoot her right there and then, but only the greedy thoughts of getting his saloon and the money he had lost, halted him. He really was at the end of his rope.

"Dusty," Gwen began patiently. "I really don’t understand why you hold on to the past like this. I won the Dusty Hole what…four years ago? Isn’t it a few years too late to want it back?"

Dusty gave her a cocky grin, his words sloping slightly in a drunk’s cadence, "Y’know Gwen, I’ve been right gentlemanly and patient. You should really thank me for not killing you already and havin’ my way with your little friend over there. So here’s how it’s gonna be. It’s very simple, you give me my goddamned Saloon and I’ll let ya live…or maybe I’ll kill you anyway, just for fun! Either way, you’re in no position to make any more requests. You’re tied up and I’m the man with the gun, got it?"

"You kill me and you’re a dead man, Dusty, got it?" Gwen gave him a hard look. "You know I’ll be missed. But then, you’re not very bright, so let me remind you that I had plenty of time to tell my men exactly who I was meeting tonight."

Dusty gulped audibly. "You did? But the note specifically told you not to!"

"Oops!" Gwen shrugged her shoulders. "Still feeling confident?"

Dusty refused to give up so easily. "I don’t believe you. There’s no way how Rusty or Travis could find you out here. We made sure we wasn’t followed. We could kill you right now…or worse," he leered appreciatively, "And no one would be the wiser."

"But if you really want the Dusty Hole Saloon and that money…then killing me leaves you with nothing, right?" Gwen yawned and as she did so, moved her bound wrists a little more until she heard a very muted pop. That should do it. "Now, this is your last chance to hear my proposition."

Dusty growled, "What could you possibly—"

Suddenly, a quick and deadly right hook sprung out and bloodied his nose. He dropped back with a yelp. Gwen sprung up. Her eyes burned with a raging fire. A malicious smile creased her lips. It was amazing to watch…and frightening as well. Gwen seemed to be entirely comfortable fighting six men, including Dusty, by herself. In fact, she was very good at it. Her moves were efficient, deadly, and unerringly accurate. She chose the men in a specific order and threw them down in certain places. It seemed almost routine, this dance with death. It went without saying that Gwenyth Devereaux had done this before.

Gwen quickly kneed another man in the groin. Her hand lashed out from behind and grabbed another man, twisting his arm behind him. Gwen forced him in front of her as she smoothly reached for his gun still in its holster. His body convulsed as a bullet hit him. Dusty had found his gun. Five quick bursts of light, then darkness. No one else had the chance to answer the deadly staccato.

Gwen turned to Dusty and she seemed almost unrecognizable now. Her eyes had turned into slits. She held herself differently and seemed to be taller. The confident way in which she overpowered the men hinted at strength not obvious by her build. That kind of strength was something only one could be born with and

patiently cultivated over time.

Viola felt the ropes cut into her harshly as she strained to see what Gwen was doing. Even her voice seemed to be lower and…again…strangely familiar.

"Dusty…put away your gun…." Gwen said in a low warning.

Dusty hesitated for a brief moment then swiftly aimed his gun at Viola. "I’ll kill her, Gwen. I swear I will you hell-raising bitch!"

"Go ahead." Gwen nodded agreeably and pointed her gun to Viola as well. "She was getting on my nerves anyway…."

"What?" Dusty exclaimed. With a strong shove, Gwen hurled the dying man at Dusty, who instinctively raised his arms to catch him. As he did so, Gwen fired one shot and the men’s bodies crumpled together to the ground. One shot was all she needed. She shook her head in disappointment. "They never learn."

"I warned you Dusty," she sighed and held the pistol with a practiced ease. She gripped her left thumb with her right hand. She clenched tightly and pulled. The thumb popped easily back into place. The fire in her eyes ebbed to a soft glow.

Viola could only stare up at her with wide green eyes slowly glazing into shock.

"Dusty, Dusty, Dusty. You had four years to come up with something and this was it?" she muttered and indicated the inert bloody bodies on the ground in disgust. Gwen paced restlessly and seemed oblivious to Viola’s cowering form on the ground.

With the sound of the first shots, Viola had closed her eyes and drawn herself into a fetal position. She had never been so close to death before. She hoped that the red spots on her dress were not really there. That all of this wasn’t really happening. With the acrid scent of burnt gunpowder in the air, Viola had finally reached a turning point where the taking of a life was much more than an isolated incident on a surreal desolate landscape. It was more than the long elegant death scenes Shakespeare was able to write so well. It was about men like Dusty Swanson who had been leering at her only a few moments ago. A man once a living, albeit disgusting, thug when he had pressed a knife against her throat. He was real…she had felt his breath on her neck…and for the first time, Viola understood that he was dead. Death was the antithesis of everything she had ever known. It was foreign to her, and above all, she wanted it to stay that way.

She began to murmur to herself the pointless sweet things her mother used to say to comfort her. She tried to remember her familiar mansion on Fifth Avenue. She tried to distance herself from the wild frontier where taking a life was so easy to do. Especially when it was taken by this dark figure that seemed to feel no remorse for the lives she had just taken. If anything, she seemed disappointed at the casual ease with which she had taken them.

But, like so many other times in her life, Viola wouldn’t be left behind. Her eyes still closed, Viola felt the ropes suddenly being pulled free from her hands followed by strong sure hands examining her wrists. After, she felt nothing more. Then, with seeming satisfaction, Viola’s terrible savior grunted and stood upright.

"I’m leaving," Gwen said brusquely with an air of finality.

Viola didn’t move. She simply continued to lie there with her eyes wide shut.

"You’re coming too, Viola," the words seemed to be somewhere between a command and a request. "It would be easier if you walked."

Still no movement. Gwen knew that Viola hadn’t been shot, so the reason for her stillness was much different from the men that surrounded them in a macabre circle.

"Viola, get up," Gwen hardened her voice. "Look, I’m not leaving you out here with all of the wolves and hyenas. This fire won’t last much longer. You’re coming if I have to carry you." Gwen leaned down and peered into Viola’s face. Her face had gone slack and her skin felt clammy. Viola had passed out from

shock and wouldn’t be walking anywhere that night.

Gwen sighed and realized that this would only complicate matters. This night that would have gone smoothly if only Viola had listened. Gwen bent her knees and wrapped her arms around Viola’s still form. Gwen stood and hefted the weight easily. Her gaze fell on the sleeping countenance of the woman in her arms. Viola had gambled on who she thought Gwen was and badly miscalculated. She shouldn’t feel bad, though, most who made such a gamble never came out unscathed. Dusty was a fine example of such luck going south.

Standing, Gwen shook herself out of her reverie and turned to practical matters. She made a quick list of the things she would need once she reached the cave. Gwen hefted the weight in her arms again. She couldn’t help but be surprised at the slight weight in her arms. Gwen had heard from the chef himself about the frequent and voracious appetite the red-haired stranger demanded.

For some reason, despite the circumstances, Gwen couldn’t help but twitch a lone hint of a smile. Then she adjusted her bundle, and walked purposely out into the darkness.

This time, she wasn’t alone.
 
 

To be Continued in Act III....


Taiko's Scrolls Of The Xenaverse