Disclaimer: For full disclaimers please see beginning of Prelude in Act I. All herein is owned and copyrighted by the author.
 
 

This Mortal Coil

by Dyin’ Isis
 
 

Act III
 
 

There is a legend about a bird that sings just once in its life,

more sweetly than any creature on the face of the earth.

From the moment it leaves the nest it searches for a thorn tree,

and does not rest until it has found one.

Then, singing among the savage branches,

it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine.

And, dying, it rises above its own agony to outcarol the lark and the nightingale.

One superlative song, existence the price.

But the whole world stills to listen, and God in His heaven smiles.

For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain…

or so says the legend.

- Colleen McCullough, The Thorn Birds
 
 
i.

The lawman rode back into Red Mesa in a comfortable gait. He saw the long shadows of cacti grew longer as the air grew colder. As he had predicted, his arrival into the small town was right before dark. He had been disappointed at first that he wouldn’t be needed in Albuquerque. Flushing out Horace Grant and his thugs once and for all, was something the lawman had been looking forward to. Horace Grant had been using Albuquerque as a hub for his illegal activities far too much recently, and the Marshals had seen the opportunity to trap him once and for all. The lawman himself had seen plenty of action riding with the Marshals. He loved the freedom the Riders afforded him and he lived for the pounding rush only found in a good fight. He supposed he shared that with his sister…wherever she was.

The lawman passed the fringes of the town and let his even gaze fall on the people. A mother was holding a small child on her lap. Another child, a girl a few years older, sat next to her mother, her young face set in a grimace. The mother held a candy in front of the small boy. He chortled as his small hands reached for the treat. She let him grasp it from her hands, much to the small girl’s howling protest. The mother leaned down and tried to calm her. She wrapped her arm around her daughter and whispered something that seemed to content the young girl. The daughter suddenly lunged downward and opened a small paper bag. She let loose a high pitch scream, a trilling note only the young can attain, in exclamation as she held the ragdoll up and hugged it closely. The mother smiled and pulled her daughter closer to her. They just sat there, the three of them, and enjoyed…being a family.

The lawman couldn’t help but smile. That was what he was fighting for—a chance for those kids to sit with their mother and to be loved. To have a childhood…at least as much as they could in this unconquered land. It seemed like the city dwellers back east had a sense of invulnerability to nature—as if any storm could be weathered. Any sea could be tamed. That they could recede into their dwellings and know that the storm would pass. Out here, these people learned real quick that nature was something that could never be controlled. Flash floods couldn’t be outrun. Fires were devastating because there were no firefighters out here. Hell, they didn’t have any running water.

But, the children had a childhood. The family had a chance to grow together. He fought to give these ordinary folks a chance to be a family in this wild frontier. He and his sister had no such chance all of those years ago. A man wearing the uniform of a Union soldier took that away from them. It was so long ago, and yet the memory still haunted him. In many ways the memory created him…just as it did his sister. He looked down at the winking badge. He shined away a thin layer of dust and grime with his sleeve. He knew what he had become, but he wondered how his sister had turned out. She had been so full of hate way back then…so long ago.

Images of his life flashed by as the sounds and echoes of long ago clamored to be heard. His pale blue eyes grew dim, as he felt overpowered by the memory when he was a totally different person. A long time ago, when his sister’s mischievous smile was frequent and their twin laughter constantly tangled with each other. Another tragedy had robbed them of that, too. And his grandfather…Oh god, his grandfather. He was such a big strong man…that same battered hat which he wore every day…his piercing blue eyes could read so much…oh god, how he…they…his sister and he…had loved him—
 
 

ii.

"Gwen, c’mon! What are you doing?" Caleb whined to his darker older sister and pulled on her elbow.

"Cal, stop it! I’m trying to remember what mama used to play," She shook off his small hand easily and turned back to the upright piano.

"I know but…you’ve been trying all of the time since she died! Leave the piano alone, Gwen. Mama’s gone." Caleb pleaded.

"I know that, Cal, thanks a lot," Gwen closed the piano and pushed the seat under it with a strong shove. The piano groaned in response. She turned her stormy eyes to her younger brother. "Leave me alone."

"But Gwen, c’mon! It’s a great day outside!" Caleb refused to give up. His sister was so strong. Not as strong as grandpa of course, but he never saw her cry once. Ever. Not even after their mom died only six months ago. He had cried all of the time, but she had never come to him. Grandpa had.

"I know."

"And Grandpa wants us to go milk the cows before dinner."

"I know."

"And we have to water the vegetables," Caleb continued his list of chores.

"Caleb!" Gwen exploded. Caleb instinctively backed up. He tried to blink back tears, but it wasn’t working. Gwen sighed heavily and unclenched her fists. "Okay, I’m sorry. Let’s go."

Caleb nodded and trotted off with his big sister. "It’s okay, Gwen."

"I wish it was," Gwen muttered.

"What?"

"Nothing. Okay, let’s split the chores. Do you want to milk Bessie or water the vegetables."

"Ugh, that’s easy," Caleb’s young features contorted as he made a face. "I think those udders feel weird."

"Okay, I’ll take care of it," Gwen nodded and turned toward the barn.

Caleb rushed over to the large barrel of water and dunked one of the smaller buckets. He loved talking to Gwen. He knew his big sister was only two years older than he, but she was just so smart with things. As he watered the vegetables, he remembered the time when Grandpa wanted to make a table, but he wanted to stow it away when he was done. They didn’t have enough room in the house to keep it up all of the time, but he needed it for his woodcarvings. Caleb had shrugged his shoulders, but Gwen had walked away from them. She just stood there looking at the door. Then she walked up to the hinges and studied them. She suggested using hinges like the door to allow the table to fold up and down. She was smart like that.

Caleb finished with the garden and set the bucket down. He sprinted up to the barn and stuck his head inside. Gwen was sitting with her back to him, her pale red dress flowing behind the stool. He eagerly picked up another stool and sat next to her as she coaxed milk out of the cow.

"Cal, you finished already?" Gwen asked skeptically.

"Yep." Caleb answered instantly.

"You remembered to water the edges this time, right?"

"Uh-huh." He nodded his head vigorously.

"Because you know Grandpa will be angry if you only did it halfway." She continued in a warning. She waited for another quick response, but was met with silence. "Caleb?"

Caleb’s eyes had clouded over. His body language suddenly changed. With a sigh, he let his shoulders sag and softly asked his sister a question that has been bothering him for a long while.

"Gwen, why did Momma die?"

Gwen’s hands stopped what they were doing and her back straightened. She turned her head slowly and looked at her younger brother closely. His elbow was now resting on his knee with his palm cradling his head. His pale blonde hair spilled over his head in confusion and disarray. The light blue eyes had grown somewhat darker, and yet his youth and vitality continued to burn bright. She doubted that her own blue eyes looked that way.

"Do you remember what Grandpa said?".

"Yeah," Caleb answered. "He said that she was sick."

"That’s right, Cal. She had a fever. That’s why we couldn’t stay with her when she got sick. We could have gotten the fever too." Gwen said gently.

"I know, but I just wanted to say goodbye to her," Caleb’s ears started to tear up again. "Do you think she wanted to say goodbye to us, too?"

Gwen’s shoulders sagged as her last shred of control began to waver. She moved her stool closer to her brother and wrapped her arms around him. He let his head lean on her chest as he felt her hand stroke his hair.

"Yeah, Cal, I’m sure she did. But we have to live with Grandpa now. He’s been very good to us." Gwen murmured.

"Why did she get sick, Gwen? We were with her, too, when she got sick. Why didn’t we get sick, too?" The questions that Gwen didn’t want to answer, or even could, continued.

"Cal…shh, it’s okay. I don’t know why. Try not to think about it."

"You do," he accused. "That’s why you keep trying to play the piano although mama only taught you a few times. You want to play for her."

Gwen’s heart plummeted. She didn’t think that Caleb would be able to see though her ill attempts at playing. So that it could give her a chance…a chance to say goodbye to her mother.

"Yeah, I do think about her, Cal. But I know that she knows that we miss her. Just because mom is dead, doesn’t mean that she isn’t here with us."

Caleb, apparently, wasn’t appeased by this abstract concept. His big blue eyes looked up in her in confusion. "How? Do you mean like God does when we pray to him? We pray to him although we can’t see him?"

Gwen took a deep breath. "Yes, Cal, sorta like that."

Caleb reached his arms around his sister and pulled her close. "But, it didn’t work…."

"Hmm?" Taken off-guard, Gwen stiffened in his arms. Caleb didn’t seem to mind and burrowed his head into her dress. He continued in a muffled voice.

"I used to pray to him every night to keep you, me, and momma safe…and it didn’t work. Why? Did I do something bad? Is that why she isn’t here?"

Despite being fourteen years old, the sudden death of his mother seemed to make him act like a small child.

"No, Cal," Gwen answered forcefully. She turned her head down and tried to make eye contact. "It isn’t your fault that mom isn’t here. You have to believe that."

"I just miss her, Gwen. I just miss her and I want her back. Can you sing that song again…that one when we were at the graveyard?"

Gwen became quiet for a long moment as the dark memory gathered over her.

That had been such a horrible day. It was the first time that she had seen Caleb wear a black suit. She, herself, had been wearing black and she remembered when the priest approached her. He mentioned a song that Grandpa remembered and wondered if she knew the words and how it went. She had nodded and agreed. If it was one more way to show her strength for Caleb…that she could sing at the most devastating point in her life, then maybe he’ll feed off some of that strength as well.

Gwen remembered that the song had originally been a poem. But the song had lent it self so easy to the singing meter, that it hadn’t been hard to change it into a melody. Her mom had taught it to her and complimented her voice. Oh god, that whole day at the cemetery had been a blur. She had been amazed at herself for remembering the words, let alone hitting the pitches.

Then, after gathering the words again in her mind, Gwen began to sing a cappella. At first her voice was quiet and timid. But she felt the hurt once again. When she felt her heart breaking once again, then her voice soared high and strong and she remembered the legend of the thorn-bird and hoped that as she sang, she wouldn’t have to pay so high a price to sing…just once…so well.

Do not stand at my grave and weep

I am not there, I do not sleep.

I am a thousand winds that blow,

I am the diamond glints on snow,

I am the sunlight on ripened grain,

I am the gentle autumn rain.

When you awaken in the morning’s hush,

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight,

I am the soft stars that shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry,

I am not there, I did not die.

"Who wrote that?" Caleb asked after a long moment.

Gwen felt the tears begin to threaten her tenuous composure. "I don’t know. Momma told me it was anonymous."

Caleb shook his head. "Anonymous? That’s a strange name!"

"Well, now…that was right purty," a menacing voice grumbled to them.

Gwen instantly pulled away and stood up to face the source. She pulled Caleb behind her as she evenly measured up the intruder. A group of men stood in the doorway of the barn. They practically licked their lips as they surveyed the pretty young woman and her younger brother. With relief, Gwen and Caleb saw their grandfather roughly work his way past the men and walk up to them. He turned and glared at the strange men, using his other hand to push Caleb and Gwen farther back.

"Okay, men, that’s enough of that," an authoritative voice rang out. A tall man walked with a commander’s gait looked severely at the men in ragged uniforms. Instantly, the demeanor of the men changed. They evened out into a single line and stood at attention. It was then that Gwen noticed the color of their uniforms…gray. They were Confederate soldiers.

"I had your assurance, Captain Ketchum, that you would leave the children alone," their grandfather rumbled.

"Of course, Nathan. We are Confederate soldiers and adhere to a strict code of conduct. I assure you, we are gentleman and do not make it a practice to harm children," a dramatic pause as he kneeled down and looked Gwen in the eyes. "Now the Yankees…well, I can’t promise you that they would act the same. Especially to Southern children."

"This is not their war," Nathan Johnson, Gwen and Caleb’s grandfather, didn’t back down from the man’s withering gaze. The older man drew his lips into a tight even line and maintained eye contact with the soldier. "They are only children. As I told you before, you and your men may use my barn for the night. Although we may not completely agree with the cause, we love our land. My family has been living in South Carolina for generations and are proud of it."

"Regardless of your feelings for the war, we do thank you for your hospitality. We’ll move out before sun-up. Men, find a bail of hay…we’re making ourselves comfortable for a few hours. Do you have any food you can spare?"

"No," Nathan responded instantly. "It’s bad enough the third Amendment was broken, don’t you think?"

The captain walked forward menacingly. "Ah…the right to not have soldiers’ taking over your living quarters…is that what you mean, sir?"

Nathan just stared back at him with anger.

"We are tired and hungry, sir, protecting the land you’ve lived on all of your life. Just like my men are fighting for theirs. Besides, you have our protection should anything occur. We merely wish for payment in food for our services."

Nathan grunted. "I don’t recall asking for your services, Ketchum." Ketchum’s eyes flashed at the sign of disrespect. Grandfather paused as the soldiers continued to closely watch the children…Gwen in particular. She had just turned sixteen and had already begun to blossom into the beautiful woman she was destined to become. "Captain Ketchum," he amended. "However, we do have some bread and cheese we can spare."

"Thank you," the soldier smiled in triumph as his weary men relaxed on top of the soft hay. Gwen was surprised that most of the men had shoes falling apart at the seams…if they had shoes at all.

Nathan nodded and shepherded his grandchildren out of the barn. "Gwen, pull all of the bread and cheese together and place them in baskets. I don’t want either of you to go outside today or tomorrow, understand?"

Gwen felt her heart pounding all the way up to her temples. Her hands had grown clammy and she rubbed them over her dress. She had felt very, very uneasy back there in the barn. She felt like they were still watching her.

"But Grandpa!" Caleb voice piped up. "Gwen and I were going to go to the river tomorrow after chores."

"Plenty of time to do that on Saturday. Mind me now—you can’t go outside tomorrow." Nathan’s voice firmed with the repeated command and his eyes narrowed.

Caleb realized he wasn’t going to win this argument. "Okay."

"Gwen?"

"Yes, Grandpa."

"Okay, now do what I say."

Less than an hour later, Nathan again emerged from the house. He clattered down the porch and then was stopped instantly by a gun barrel in his face.

"Hello there, sir," a menacing voice rasped. "Mind if I ask you a question?"

Nathan looked past the revolver at the assorted men surrounding him. The buttons of their blue uniforms gleamed under the faltering sun. He immediately knew he was in a very, very bad situation.

"That is, sir, if you are going somewhere?" Cold black eyes looked questioningly at the bundles the older man was carrying.

"Uh, no…actually…I was just going into town."

"Oh…how? The nearest town I could think of is…oh, I don’t know…is over that steep hill a few miles away?" His eyes flicked around the yard in interest. "I don’t see a horse saddled…or even a wagon. What were you going to do at this time of night…." He paused and glared at Nathan. His voice dripped in sarcasm. "Walk?"

"No, no…." Nathan’s eyes fearfully shifted from the angry captain to any other face. He just needed to see one of the other soldier’s eyes show some compassion. They glared back at him with hate and anger. Either these men were born evil…or God forbid…they already knew.

"Shut up, Southerner," Bent spat the name with disgust. "Before you start lying to me. You really don’t want the next thing you say to Lieutenant John Bent to be a lie. Men have died for less…most of them from Dixie."

His cohorts laughed. Nathan couldn’t help but wonder which of the two armies he liked better. They both seemed repulsive and less than human.

"Grab him!" Bent’s voice rang out suddenly. Two men reached for his arms and held tight. Bent growled in his face. "It is time for you, sir," he spat out the word, "To start telling the truth."

The two soldiers dragged Nathan back into the house. They violently threw him against a chair, purposely missing their target, so that the older man crashed to the floor. Hard. The men grabbed him again and jolted him into the chair. They roughly tied his arms and his legs. One swung and punched him across his face. The other man jabbed into his ribcage until he heard a satisfied break. They punished him without mercy.

They didn’t see the two pairs of fearful eyes watch the whole thing. As soon as Gwen saw their grandfather being bodily pulled into the house, she had placed her hand over Caleb’s mouth. She grasped him close and wished she had an extra hand…to shield him from the violence.

"Now, we know some Confederate soldiers are nearby," Bent began almost conversationally. His eyes flicked with a fire that was far from sane. "We can smell their stink from here. Now, we need to know if you’ve seen them."

Nathan shook his head vehemently. The blood spilling from his cut lip peppered his shirt with the violent motion. Bent sighed and nodded. A vicious right hook snapped his head back.

"You’re lying," Bent said simply. He shook his head and made a clucking noise. "Don’t do that. It’s painful."

Bent spied something in the corner of the room and walked towards it. "What’s this?" He grabbed it and handled it jauntily. "Why, it’s a stick bat…am I right? What do you use this for?"

"Nothing."

"Wrong answer." Whack. "I repeat: what do you use it for?" Bent was smiling and Nathan saw plainly he was hoping for another denial.

"Bent! The barn!" A few of the men had scouted up to the barn and looked in. "We found the Rebels. What should we do?"

"I thought so…this is just too easy," Bent smirked. Then his eyes blazed brighter. He clenched his fist and bellowed. "Kill them. Kill ‘em all!"

The men swarmed up the hill to the barn. Instantly the sounds of death carried to Bent’s ears. The men cleared the house and Bent was left alone with Nathan.

"You see, old man? You went through all of that pain. You went through all of that fear. For nothing…oh yes, I saw the fear. You know that your time is coming to a close don’t you, old man? Is it during times like this that you wonder if you had a good life? Did you do enough good deeds to go to heaven…or is there just not enough time to atone for the mistakes in your past? I am seriously interested in this, old man. I mean, here I am…ready to end your life…and all I know is your name."

The screams of fallen men and explosions created a ghastly cacophony against the insane man’s words. He had no remorse for the deaths of the men he had so nonchalantly hastened with his orders.

"And I’ve killed knowing far less." Bent rasped. He looked closely at the broken man and continued to study Nathan like he was a fascinating specimen.

"Bent! Bent!" A bleeding soldier in a tattered blue uniform threw open the door. "There’s more of them coming up the road. We have to retreat. Our scouts didn’t pick up the second regiment of confederates."

"What? Retreat! Never. I will not have this." Bent leaned into Nathan’s bloody face. "I have never lost, Nathan. Don’t worry if you think you’re being killed by someone who is a Nothing. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. I am Lieutenant Commander John Bent. The finest commander in the Union army. I have never lost in battle. I want you to take comfort in that knowledge that a hero is ending your life."

"Bent! We’re taking heavy casualties! It’s only a matter of— Ahh!" He suddenly slumped through the doorway. His blood seeped into a sticky river on the floor.

Gwen could feel Caleb convulse with sobs under her. She had sat down long ago and pulled him close. She had to wrench his face away from the actions of the maniac and the dying of their grandfather. The ringing shot made them both jump as the sound marked the end of their grandfather’s life. Gwen heard the crashing of the front door and peered through the opening again. Bent was gone.

It must have seemed like hours that Gwen and Caleb had been sitting in their old hiding place. Caleb, actually, was the one who had found it. They had been playing hide and seek in their new house. Gwen, for the first time, had actually been frustrated in the game. She couldn’t find her little brother. Although he was only two years younger than her, his thin frame and boyish good looks always made him seem even younger.

But not since then. The sun had been gone for hours until Gwen opened the wall opening and crept outside. Caleb hadn’t moved. He was still crying and probably too afraid to leave.

It’s too much, the thought penetrated her head over and over again. It’s just too much.

She crawled to the haggard and bloody form of her grandfather. He was still bound to the chair. His shirt soaked with blood. The sickening smell of death made her nauseous. She lunged to a nearby bucket and threw up. She hadn’t eaten for at least twelve hours, her body convulsed in the motion as the bile burned through her throat. As her body reacted with grief, it wasn’t until then she started to cry. And the tears didn’t stop. The intensity built up quickly in earnest, trying to compensate for her mother’s death as well.

"It’s just too much," she whispered again. "Too much...too much," She crawled back to her grandfather and tugged at his ropes. With dismay, they wouldn’t loosen. She tried again with a double grasp but the bonds still wouldn’t give. In anger and frustration, she cried harder. Gwen reached for all of the bonds and met with the same great resistance. She was just not strong enough. She was simply too weak…and the fear of not knowing what to do, a feeling she had known only once before, clenched her heart.

Gwen felt the tears beginning to fall. She put her hand on her grandfather’s thigh and felt something hard inside his pocket. She slowly reached in, past the drops of blood staining his pants, and pulled out a gold shiny object. She then reached over and undid the clasp. A pocket watch. It was his most prized possession. She clasped both hands around it and pulled it tightly against her bosom.

Then the wailing began. It rose from the primal depths of her soul and sent a crescendo out into the night. Her ears were roaring so loud that she didn’t hear the horrible raw sound she made. It took a hold of her and drained her energy. Sapped her soul. The harrowing song of loss stripped her broken heart of hope and faith. She sobbed at the site of destruction around her. If only she had been stronger. If only she had done something. If only….

All of these inadequacies roared to the forefront of her mind as she grasped her grandfather’s leg. She pulled herself closer to his cold hard limb and tried to feel comfort. She continued to cry and the wails wracked her body finally into soul-wrenching sobs. It was her turn to be comforted, just like the way she struggled to comfort Caleb. But there was no one left who could do such a thing - only the dead cold body of her grandfather.

Oh god, Caleb!

Gwen turned to her brother, but he hadn’t moved. He was still facing the wall opposite her and their grandfather. The fear that he wasn’t all right surged through her. It gave her a new purpose. She slowly stood up, clutching the pocket watch. With its comforting weight, she rushed into the night for help. Bodies littered the yard, and she had to hurdle over several to finally clear the field of death. She sprinted as fast as she could away with a singular purpose in mind.

On that night, she ran away from the girl she had been…toward the woman she would become.
 
 

iii.

Caleb involuntarily shuddered as the memory washed over him. He knew from that time on that things would be different. He and Gwen were both reborn that day. He didn’t know what he would have done without Gwen. She must’ve run into town and got help. A kind neighbor took pity on their plight and offered them a warm home.

Gwen had stayed for a year but then had taken off one night. He remembered how she had crept to his bedroom to say goodbye. He remembered how he had begged her not to go. The only answer she had was that she had to leave. And so she did. Caleb left soon after and joined the military.

They haven’t seen each other since.

"Ah, so you’re back at the Dusty Hole Saloon, huh Marshal?" the bartender nodded his head in recognition.

Caleb shook his head to dispel the memory and hunkered down to the bar. "I reckon so. I’ll have a draft."

The bartender nodded and slid him a mug. "You gonna be stayin’ a while?"

"Mmm hmm," Caleb answered as he downed a long sip. "Heard that Dusty Swanson was around. How about it? Have you heard anything?"

"About Dusty?" Travis, the bartender, laughed. "You don’t really think so, do you? He botched that hold-up over here just last year."

"Hm, well, he had a score to settle still, didn’t he? I mean," Caleb watched the bartender intently. "He did used to own this place, right? Word has it he lost in a rigged cardgame…."

"‘Rigged?’ Are you serious?" Travis shook his head in disbelief. "Dusty is one sorry man. He just couldn’t accept that he lost to a woman, that’s all. He just never expected quite a woman like that," He sighed. "The Lord sure did break the mold after her…."

"A woman, huh? She still around?"

"Around? Around here in Red Mesa?" Travis asked casually.

"Well, yeah…I’d like to talk to her," Caleb took a long pull of the draft and gauged the bartender carefully.

"Well…she’s here in Red Mesa for a little while longer. But, now that I think about it, I haven’t seen her in a while," Travis rubbed the bill of his hat thoughtfully.

Caleb was getting the impression that the bartender was being deliberately vague. He wondered why, but kept his suspicions to himself.

"Oh? Do you know where she is…or when I can talk to her?"

"Hmm…quite a while I’d say," Travis as if he hadn’t heard. "I’d say she’d be gone at least that long. Ya know...huh—Rusty!"

A slouched form in an adjacent table suddenly perked up. He turned his head and raised a hand in question.

"What?" He wiped the foam from his draft. His dark eyes sized up the lawman thoroughly. He didn’t bother to ask the question, but his body language demanded an answer to the lawman’s identity.

"Have you seen Viola around?" Travis asked impatiently. "You know, one of the strangers…pretty one... with the red hair."

"Oh, yeah, the actress," Rusty shook his red hair back and forth. It fell in a more disarrayed pattern than before. "Nah, Travis. Not for a while."

"Yeah, well she’s gone, too," Travis looked at him sharply. "Find out where they at."

"They?" Caleb asked in confusion. "What? Are there two owners?"

Both men ignored Caleb’s question. Rusty nodded slightly to Travis. "Sure, that’s strange. I’ll ask around." Rusty quickly stood up and left without a backward glance.

Caleb wondered what was going on. "The redhead…." Caleb held a look of bewilderment. "Is she the one who used to own this saloon? Is she the one I need to talk to?"

"Nah, don’t worry about it," dismissed Travis, as he shrugged his shoulders. "We take care of our own things ‘round here. Now, the one you need to talk to will probably be around in a day or so." He noticed that the lawman was not appeased with the answer. He continued to stare at Travis with a hard expression that demanded an explanation. "It’s probably nothing. It’s just that one of our guests is missing also. She’s new in town so we’re gonna make sure nothing happened to her."

"Well, that’s right courteous of you, bartender," Caleb still held his suspicions in check. "But if somebody’s missing…I’d like to help."

"Well, I doubt she’s been missing long, but I’ll let you know." Travis nodded then turned to the other customers.

Caleb felt a dozen questions on the tip of his tongue, but let the bartender go. He hadn’t heard of saloons keeping track of their guests that way…and yet, his concern seemed not only genuine, but urgent as well. Why? And it wasn’t lost on the lawman how the bartender had neatly sidestepped the lawman’s question of the owner of the bar altogether. Either he was truly a very sincere and good man…or, he was hiding something. Protecting someone…like the owner of the bar and…most likely his boss.

Like a hawk circling his prey, Caleb waited until he finished his draft and watched the barman closely. He seemed to know everyone, which wasn’t unusual, but the way he handled himself seemed to be more assertive than a usual bartender. The locals listened to him carefully when he talked and didn’t take shots about the amount of alcohol in the drinks like most did. Indeed, it seemed like many of the people around held a healthy respected for the man.

Caleb closed his eyes and sighed. Naturally, this might not mean anything. He just didn’t like to be lied to. But, being a man wearing a silver badge, he was lied to…and often. He waited until Travis made eye contact with him, then raised his mug innocuously.

"I need another," he said simply.

Travis nodded and walked over. "No problem, Marshal," He took Caleb’s empty mug and filled with another draft expertly. "There ya go."

Caleb nodded and took another deep pull of the draft. "Gotta name? Didn’t catch it last time." Caleb continued sipped his draft slowly, watching the barman closely under hooded eyes.

Travis waited a moment to scrutinize the lawman, then made a decision. "Travis Houghton. Nice to meet you."

Caleb accepted the proffered handshake. "Marshal Caleb Jennings. Likewise."

Travis nodded then turned away, but Caleb’s voice halted him. "So…you think I can talk the lady of this fine establishment tomorrow, right Travis?"

Travis turned back to the lawman and shrugged. "We’ll see."

"Well, then I’m sure you have a moment to answer—"

"Sorry…Marshal, but I don’t know anything. She’s the kind to keep things close to her vest, ya know? I don’t think it’s right if I speak for her. Might lead you astray or somethin’." He held out his hands to show exactly what he had to offer—nothing.

"Okay, you’re right…better to get the information from the horse’s mouth anyway," Caleb nodded in understanding.

"Yeah," Travis turned away again. But, again, he was stopped by the lawman’s voice.

"You think they’re together?"

"What? Who?" Travis turned guarded eyes to the lawman.

"You know…the missing guest and the owner of this establishment," Caleb asked casually. Maybe that’s why you thought of the missing guest earlier. You know, cuz she came up when I was asking about the owner." Caleb watched the barman’s reaction carefully.

Travis blinked. "I don’t know what you mean."

"Maybe they’re missing because the same thing happened to them?" Caleb wished he could get a straight answer from the evasive bartender. "Just seems like a coincidence."

"Nah…hardly know each other," Travis shook his head. "But we’ll find Viola—that’s the missing guest." Travis nodded then walked over to another man holding an empty mug. "I’ll be right back."

"Yeah, well, when the owner turns up, I need to talk to her." Caleb took another sip of beer. "You said she was good at cards, right? I used to know someone…a woman, in fact…who was pretty good at cards, too…a long time ago."

The bartender kept true to his word and walked back to the lawman. He seemed to be reluctant to return, but he always did. However, Caleb could smell something strange was going on in this town and he was waiting for the barman to give away more. The guarded look increased upon each return as well, however.

"Yup, she’s quite a player," Travis shook his head in disbelief, then changed the course of the conversation adroitly. "You think Dusty is coming to Red Mesa? Geez, he’s never gonna learn."

"Yeah, well he’s pretty desperate at this point. He’s been hitting banks for a few months now…and they’ve all been busts." Caleb smirked and changed tactics smoothly with the barkeep. He decided not to push too hard, for now. "So far the only casualties are his own men."

Travis harumphed knowingly. "Yeah…he never was cut out to be an outlaw. Not smart enough."

"Smart enough?" Caleb turned to the bartender suddenly. "You think that most of the outlaws out there are smart?"

"Hey," the bartender made a pleading gesture and slid him another mug of beer. "Relax. Just that Dusty’s pretty dim. It was only a matter of time before he got caught or killed."

Caleb grunted in response. "Huh. It’s too bad that not all criminals out there would have such luck."

Travis grunted in non-commitment.

"Or that their legends wouldn’t be looked on as something to be proud of," Caleb continued. "I’d lost count how many people Billy the Kid supposedly ‘killed’ until he was finally taken down. The way people talk about him, I’d swear that he had killed a hundred people!"

Travis looked up from behind the bar in surprise. "He didn’t?"

Caleb snorted derisively. "Doubt if he broke twenty."

"Really!"

"Now that Coal Damian…he was the worst of the bunch by far."

Travis’ eyes clouded over. "Oh?"

"Most of the things you heard about Coal Damian were unfortunately true," Caleb sipped his drink. "Very few of his exploits were made up…until recently." He referred to the stage coach robbery from a few weeks ago.

"Oh, thank god!" a shrill voice made Travis and Caleb turned toward the flustered woman.

"Miss Wellings!" Travis exclaimed. "What’s wrong?"

"It’s Viola! I think she’s been kidnapped by that Devereaux woman!"

"What?" Travis exclaimed. "Now, Miss Wellings, we’ve noticed that Viola’s been missing—"

"Yes, that Devereaux woman…I’m sure she’s got something to do with it." Sandra looked fearfully at the bartender.

"Don’t worry, Miss Wellings, I’ll lead the search party myself. It’s getting late…at this point it’s better to find them now then tomorrow morning." Caleb placed a hand on her shoulder reassuringly.

"Wait a minute, Marshal," Travis looked at Caleb sharply. "This could be nothing. For all we know, Gwen and Viola could by at someone’s house or something. Let’s not overreact," He took a deep breath. "Now, Sandra. How long do you think Viola’s been gone?"

"Oh, Travis…it’s been a while," Sandra answered fretfully. "I haven’t seen her since early afternoon! It’s after dinnertime now!"

"Why didn’t you say something earlier?" Travis asked pointedly.

Sandra’s face filled with surprise. "I took my afternoon nap like I usually do and….and she’s still gone!"

"Okay, don’t worry, Sandra," Travis patted her hand comfortingly. "I’ll go get Sheriff Howie and we’ll run up some men and start searching. Do you have any idea where she went?"

"Travis, I insist on being a part of the search party. I’m Marshal in these parts, so I’ll coordinate the search. Just tell me where the Sheriff is, and I’ll take care of it."

"Look, stranger," Travis walked out from behind the bar and walked toe-to-toe with the taller lawman. "We’ve been taking care of our own business for a long time now. This is only the second time you’ve ever been here! We know this land better than you—"

"Stop fighting! Both of you! Go find Viola!" Sandra cried out desperately. She shook her head fearfully. "Oh no!" she wailed. "Gwen could have taken Viola anywhere! I want that Devereaux woman brought up on charges and hanged, is that clear Travis?" Her voice was more of a shrill command than a question. "If anything happens to Viola, I’ll kill Gwen myself. She’s the only family I have left," Her voice rose in emotion. "I’m gonna kill that Devereaux woman!"

Travis shot Caleb a furious look. "Now Viola, we don’t really know for sure if Gwen had anything to do with Viola’s disappearance." Travis began patiently.

"I’ve heard enough. Regardless if this ‘Gwen’ person is part of Viola’s disappearance, we have to find them soon. It’s already dark …." Caleb’s voice trailed uncertainly at Sandra sobbing figure. "Now you look, bartender," Caleb’s voice was threaded with steel. "I am the Marshal and I will take care of this. You stay here with Miss Wellings. Period."

The Marshal spied a large comfortable man at the back of the room. The light glinted on his star-shaped sheriff badge. Without another word, Caleb left Travis and the fearful Sandra. Sandra flew into his arms instantly. Travis sucked in a deep breath full of frustration as he watched the Marshal confer with the local sheriff.

"Oh, please tell me she’s going to be all right…." Sandra sobbed into Caleb’s shoulder.

"Don’t worry, I’m sure she’ll be fine." Travis continued to hold her.

"How do you know? You don’t even know who Viola is?" Sandra wailed accusingly.

"No, I don’t know who Viola is," he murmured as Sandra searched for comfort in his strong arms. "But I do know who Gwen is…."

iv.
 
 

"Do you feel better now, son?" Travis smiled at Jack as he ruffled the boy’s hair.

"Yeah, Uncle Travis, I do. I guess I was wrong when I saw Coal Damian that night," Jack smiled sheepishly. For some reason, he suddenly felt a lot lighter. "But I only thought I saw him, right?"

After Sheriff Howard and the Marshal coordinated the search for the two women, the sheriff walked over to Travis and filled him in. Then, the two men walked out onto the porch and lit a couple of cigarettes. Sheriff Howard indicated an approaching figure with a sharp nod of his head, and Travis nodded his head in agreement: It was Jack. Travis had an idea, which he shared with Sheriff Howard, who instantly agreed. Travis called the boy over, and steered him toward Sheriff Howard to talk about what Jack had seen. Now the two straggled back into the Dusty Hole Saloon with a twin pair of grins.

Travis grinned wider, very pleased with himself. "Yep, I wanted you to know everything that Sheriff Howie knew. You saw the reports, and even some sketches of the bodies yourself. But, by God, don’t tell your mother, okay? She’d have a fit if she knew you saw those pictures."

Jack wrapped his arm around Travis’ waist and winked. "Aww, Uncle Travis. Don’t worry about it. I just wish the pictures were clearer. But, I guess they were enough for the lawmen, right? To see for themselves that Coal Damian and his gang are dead."

"Right you are, Jack," Travis led him back into the saloon and drew a pint of rootbeer. "So, let’s not scare your folks about your nightmares. Instead, I want to hear about the stickball game…or more specifically, that pretty blonde girl I saw you talking to after the game."

Jack’s young face immediately flushed with embarrassment. "Uncle Travis!"

Travis winked knowingly. "Aw, c’mon, Jack. Here we are…man to man. Surely you know that I notice these things…especially when it comes to my favorite nephew."

Jack studied his root beer intently. "I’m your only nephew, Uncle Travis."

"Yeah, but I don’t have to like you, right?" Travis laughed at Jack’s indignant expression. Jack had so few friends to confide in. Travis hoped that he would open up a little tonight. "You’re a good guy, Jack. I think that someday you are going to be a great man. She must see that in you."

"She?" Jack’s voice cracked and his eyes grew wide.

"Uh huh…she." Travis laughed harder as Jack’s coloring slowly burned to a beet red.

"Travis!" a voice boomed in on the laughing conversation between the man and the boy. "I’m glad that you are watching my son so closely. How did I know that he was here?"

"Thomas," Travis reached out a hand and shook his brother’s hand firmly. "We just got back from a walk, right Jack?"

Jack nodded as he hugged his stepfather. "Yeah, we just talked."

Thomas held him and looked anxiously over Jack’s blonde hair to Travis. Travis met his gaze and nodded his head somberly. Thomas flashed him a smile of thanks then steered Jack out of the saloon with a strong arm.

"Well, Travis, I’m just glad you’re not keeping my boy in this saloon all day." Thomas reached over and shook Travis’ hand again. "Why don’t you come over for dinner tonight? Jenny is cooking steak and potatoes. You love how she makes those little carrots…." His voice trailed off invitingly.

Travis felt his stomach rumble and wistfully thought of a home-cooked meal was tempting. "I would love to Thomas, but something’s come up. Maybe another night?"

"Sunday night it is, Travis," Thomas’ eyes twinkled. "That’s the next night after the party. Gives you plenty of time to make sure you come, so no exceptions…I don’t care if Gwenyth Devereaux has you here until two in the morning. Be there, you hear?"

Travis nodded and shrugged. "You got it." Travis reached out his hand and Jack accepted it with a firm shake. "I’ll see you tomorrow, Jack."

"Okay, thanks again, Uncle Travis." Jack smiled.

As the two walked out of the saloon, Travis turned to Rusty who had just walked up to the bar and filled the place the father and son had just vacated.

"How’s the search going?" Travis asked eagerly. "Any sign of Gwen or Viola?"

"Nothing," Rusty spat out in disgust. "You know that Gwen doesn’t want us to find her tonight and why."

"I know," Travis nodded. He knew of the meeting with Dusty earlier. "It’s not that I think she needs the help, it’s just that Viola Chambers is gone also. That complicates things. Do you think they’re together?"

Rusty nodded his head in confirmation. "Oh yeah, definitely. Sam saw them last when he was working at the stables."

"Great, then that clinches it. Viola is in as capable hands as she can be tonight."

"There’s one more problem," Rusty nervously pulled his hat down a little lower over his eyes. "That Marshal is very intent on finding Gwen tonight. He acts like he knows about…you know."

Travis shook his head emphatically. "No way. That’s impossible. He’s just suspicious. All lawmen are suspicious about somethin’. Jus’ in their nature."

"I guess you’re right. Either way, that marshal’s got twenty guys looking for Gwen and Viola."

Travis shrugged. "Yeah, but there’s nothing we can do about it. Besides, he’s not going to find Gwen or Viola tonight."

"Yeah, I really want to tell him it’s a waste of time so we can go to sleep, ya know?" Rusty gratefully accepted a fresh draught of beer. He took a deep pull and sighed in resignation. "If I know one thing about Gwen," Rusty said solemnly. "It’s that if she doesn’t want to be found…."

"She usually isn’t." Travis finished. The two exchanged knowing glances and wondered if Gwenyth Devereaux had tempted the fates once too many.

And maybe, retribution was on its way.
 
 

v.

After Travis released her with promises of finding Viola and Gwen, Sandra was left sitting at the bar. She felt that cold feeling of loneliness spread over her. She noticed a poster announcing the play’s opening night and made her feel even more depressed. She immediately thought of Viola and the balls they had attended a world ago.

Her feelings of loneliness slowly mixed with fear, which conjured up more memories …back when she was sitting alone among the remnants of her home. Burnt to the ground… her sisters lay dying from disease in one of the slaves’ quarters. Soon they would die just as their mother. Her father’s death wasn’t meant to be so long and filled with suffering…the bullet of a Union soldier’s gun ended his life soon enough.

It was at this time that Sandra remembered feeling the coldness and fear well up inside her. Her future uncertain at best…she couldn’t help but wonder why she had been spared such a fate. She was hardly the strongest of the Wellings…far from being among the best…but, here she was…sitting in front of the rapidly decaying mansion she had once called home…soon to be the last of the great, prestigious Wellings Family of Atlanta.

But then the anger slowly built up inside her…the indignation of all that she had lost. The horror of what she had turned into by one fell swoop of a Yankee contingent. Those men in blue uniforms realized that there was little to be gained after using the Wellings plantation as a Union headquarters. The sisters were following in the footsteps of their mother…dying from some contagious disease…and ordered Sandra to take them outside to the slaves’ shack or they would all be killed.

And so, Sandra did. She cared for the last of her family. She watched them die…heard their cries of pain…not knowing how to ease it. At least the Yankees left her alone, though. Some of the Yankees heard the cries of the dying women and were scared stiff of touching Sandra. So, despite the lustful looks they sent her way when she was forced to fetch water, they stayed far away. After the Yankees left, they burned the plantation to the ground…a useless mean act against three Southern women…two dying and one who felt dead inside….who posed them no threat. But this was war…Sandra closed her eyes and remembered the rousing speeches of the Southern politicians calling for war...and war was proud.

And now, a few years later, Sandra Wellings sat in the Dusty Hole Saloon and felt again the anger when the few people she held dear were being threatened. She wouldn’t have it again. She wouldn’t lose them…or anyone else…ever again.

Especially Charles…the man she saw a future with.

Charles. Sandra turned away from the bar and ran up the staircase to the rooms. Charles…she needed to find Charles. He could comfort her…hold her…he would be there for her. Sandra’s mind erased all other thoughts except for one thing…Charles.

She knocked on his door fervently.

"Charles!" she yelled. "Are you in there? Charles!"

Sandra continued to knock, but to no avail. There was no stirring on the other side of the wooden door. In desperation, Sandra brought both hands down against the door in fists. Her eyes grew wild as one more person, whom she loved, seemed to be absent from her life…just when she needed him the most.

"Charles!" Sandra screamed. In a burst of desperation, fueled by hectic thoughts, which surged from her memories of home, Sandra pushed the door open.

Wild-eyes fervently scanned the room. The bed was unmade…a trunk was laid open slightly at the foot of the bed. The closet…the closet!

Sandra scrambled to the closet and flung it open. Everything was held in impeccable order: Clothes were hung neatly on racks… recent shined shoes gleamed …trousers folded impeccably…the trunk opened slightly ajar….

And no Charles to be found.

Sandra sunk to her knees as hot tears sprung and wet her face. "Charles!" She yelled in futility. Her cry echoed off the walls and seemed to mock her.

No answer.

Sandra wiped her tears with the back of her hand. She sniffled and sat back on her haunches. The trunk conspicuously ajar caught the corner of her eye. Hmm…that was strange. She turned her attention fully on the trunk. It was strange that Charles, in his usual fastidious way, would leave the trunk open...even just slightly.

She crawled over to it and opened it completely. She saw nothing but a few more suits…some books…nothing extraordinary. Sandra picked up a few books, then noticed the floor of the trunk. A memory came unbidden….scent of her father…sounds of his laughter…. As Sandra continued to remember, she leaned a little closer. She stared at the floor of the trunk as if in a trance. The memory of her father…who had once owned similar trunk as this. Remembered how he had been so proud of it…how he had winked at her affectionately…how in a hushed whisper, confided to her that it was a special trunk. Neither of her sisters had known…it was a secret just between and her father. He had made her feel so special.

Here Sandy, let me show you… His warm words from long ago floated to Sandra.

Her hands reached out and slid across the smooth surface of the floor of the trunk. She wondered…. The bottom of the trunk…it felt thin…and if she pressed on it…it gave away easily. Sandra realized that something could be hidden underneath it. Just like her father’s. In dawning understanding, Sandra worked her fingers underneath the thin cardboard and wrenched it up. She saw the heavy manila envelope first. She reached for it and held it up. This was strange. Sandra suddenly had a flashback the night she and her friends were held up by Coal Damian. Coal had seemed disappointed there was only money…and no papers. Sandra turned the manila envelope in her hands. Maybe…. But then a golden sight interrupted her train of sight. The brightness cast her coffee-brown eyes downward. Five bars of gold were gleaming up at her…light cascading off its shiny facade.

In wonderment, Sandra reached out and touched the cold metal…her fingers traced the indention a seal had made when the gold was still hot.

23-A72 Chamberlain Mine USA

Sandra’s wide eyes reflected golden brilliance as she continued to drink in the beautiful sight.

Chamberlain!

"My God…." She breathed.

Fear hit her physically as a hard hand closed over her shoulder.

"Sandra…darling…I think we need to have a talk…."
 
 

vi.

Viola felt the water splashed on her and she spluttered in surprise. Her head was pounding in an aching rhythm. Her dreams were positively strange. The last thing she needed was to be awaken so rudely in a…. Viola paused and looked around her unfamiliar surroundings. If she didn’t know better, she would swear that she was in a…. The rock walls rose and fell in crags above her. A…cave! Viola Chamberlain did not sleep in caves. She suddenly gasped and looked down. But, apparently, Viola Chambers did. She had been sprawled in sleep over the hard dirt for a while. Viola made a small indignant sound and looked again for the perpetrator who had put her in these sullied conditions…and found herself staring into a twin pair of very impatient eyes. Apparently, Gwen Devereaux was a morning person.

"Stay here." Gwen muttered with a hard look. "And keep an eye out." She turned away.

Viola slowly pushed herself into sitting position, her arms and legs aching all the way. "What?"

"You’re fine. I’ll be back with help." Then Gwen gathered her skirts and began to run.

"Hey, wait a minute! I’m still kind of fuzzy—" Viola suddenly broke off as she realized that Gwen was rapidly becoming a dot on the horizon. "Argh! A morning person and she—what?—decides to run off this early in the morning?? The sun isn’t even out—hey!!"

Viola gathered her skirts and followed Gwen as best as she could. She was no match to the long-legged easy stride of Gwen. It was as if the lady were part horse. The skirts, which so hindered Viola’s efforts, did nothing to impede Gwen’s flying progress as she cut against the wind. Gwen easily scrambled up a hill, and wearing as many petticoats as she did, that was quite a feat. It was then that Viola smelled the burnt tinge in the air. Something was burning…and a lot of it. As she came upon the hill, it was then that Viola noticed that it wasn’t a normal white cloud that hung languidly over them, but the curling smoke of a large fire.

Viola gamely struggled up the hill. She looked down at her shoe with a grimace. She couldn’t help but wonder once again at the design of a woman’s heel. The impracticality of it was added yet another dimension. Climbing up dirt hills was not to its best use. However, being as short…petite as she was, the few inches didn’t help her stature much either.

Viola finally made it to the top of the hill. But then, her eyes suddenly widened with fear at the scene of death and destruction. There in the quiet morn was a frontier house at the burning mercy of flames. It was a tragic sight: the plumes of smoke curled into the heavens as it marked the ascent of the lone man’s soul below. He was laying face down, his body sprawled in a posture only achieved in a harsh death. Viola saw that he lay thirty feet in front of the flame ravaged house. Gwen knelt down, checked him over quickly, then flicked her bright blue eyes up at her. Gwen gave no sign of acknowledging Viola’s presence. Instead Gwen jerked her head toward the burning house as if she heard something. She ran up to the well and pulled her long petticoats off and dunked them into the well. The water splashed loudly at Gwen’s frantic motion.

Viola ran down the hill and came to the fallen man. She looked down at him. Viola realized in horror that the blood did more than obscure her view of him…indeed, he was missing most of the top of his head.

"My God…Gwen! Gwen, you have to try and help him!" Her hand flew to her mouth in horror.

Gwen suddenly grabbed Viola by the arms. "He’s already dead!" She yelled.

Viola’s expression reflected the terror of the fire as she absorbed the second time she saw a dead man. Ignoring her, Gwen gathered the drenched clothing and quickly wound it around her head. She twisted it twice, making sure it covered her mouth and nose, then let the wet material cover her back and arms like a cape. Viola felt Gwen’s cold wet hands, then noticed that the rest of her clothing was completely wet as well. Her blue eyes stared at her fiery adversary and matched it with power and intensity. She burned with a fire all her own.

"Stay here!" Gwen commanded harshly. She clenched her jaw, hoping that the redhead would listen this time.

Viola suddenly was filled with dread when she realized exactly what the turbaned Gwen was going to do.

"Gwen, no! It’s on fire!!" Viola clutched Gwen’s forearms. "You’ll die!"

"Cynic," Gwen muttered then ran into the burning house.

"Gwen!" Viola yelled again. Suddenly she felt sick to her stomach. She lurched and stumbled over the dead man. Yelling, she scampered up and lurched again, but this time made it to the well. She heaved over its side.

For what seemed like an eternity, Viola waited for Gwen outside of the house. Even from the distance the heat was all but overpowering. Viola couldn’t understand how Gwen could withstand the heat, the smoke, and beat the sheer odds. Maybe she was a cynic after all. Viola suddenly jumped at a loud crashing. The house’s roof lost one more battle in its war against its destroyer. She hoped fervently that Gwen wasn’t anywhere near. Now, the last bit of the roof and remaining wall was all the protection Gwen had left to survive. The hungry flames rose and fell as it lapped lasciviously at the blackened wood.

Then, a figure appeared. It held something with one arm while the other wrapped around the waist of a woman. The inert woman’s heels dragged uselessly against the floor as Gwen struggled out of the house.

Gwen wouldn’t let herself be beaten that day. What she was doing ceased to be human, for Viola couldn’t do anything but accept that Gwen was doing the impossible that day. The woman against her was like a rag-doll…the figure in her arms continued to scream in harrowing yells…and both relied on Gwen’s impossible will more than ever to live. The tall form continued to push the odds more and more into her favor as she successfully dodged burning debris, and continued her way out of the tinderbox. Viola scrambled up and ran towards them.

Gwen walked a few more steps until they were out of reach of the house and she finally collapsed completely. She finally gave in to the limits of her human frailty. With a final groan of protest, the house collapsed with a large crash. It, too, gave into the limits with which it was born. The difference was that Gwen wouldn’t let her limits impede her until she willed it.

Viola heard the screams of the child first, and then noticed Gwen. She was completely black and had holes in her dress where the flames had licked too close. She was easily in the best shape as opposed to those she had pulled out. The woman was lifeless on the ground. Viola shut her eyes as she took in the sight of the burned woman; her skin held black patches of shriveled flesh, other sections of skin were red and swelling, while still other areas were welted severely. Gwen gently laid the small bundle in her arms to the ground next to them. Then she reached up and hastily unwound the petticoats from her head.

"Oh, Gwen!" Viola exclaimed. The child cried and cried.

"Momma! Momma!" The child screamed over and over. The harrowing sights and sounds that took her house, her father, and now threatened to take her mother continued to shake the child. "Momma! Momma!"

Viola reached for the child and pulled her into her arms as the girl continued to cry in a high pitch. While Gwen tended to the woman, Viola quickly checked the child thoroughly for burns. The child refused to look at her. She squirmed for a glimpse of her still mother. Viola understood that the mother must have protected her daughter with her body because the child was completely unharmed. True, the child was scared and crying, but more importantly, she was alive and well. Well, she was physically well.

Viola huddled the child closely to her, but the child constantly strained for a look over Viola’s shoulder. Viola realized that she had to either position the child away from the bloody form of her father, the dying form of her mother, or watch her house burn down to nothing but ashes. Viola’s heart ached over the decision, knowing that the child should be spared from all of the horrors of this day. But that fleeting thought would never happen. The family was already a victim. Viola forced the child to burrow her head into the crook of her neck…hopefully shielding her from all sights of the destruction, but failing in sparing the small child the sounds.

"Gwen, is she going to be okay?" Viola indicated the mother who now seemed eerily quiet. "I mean is she…."

"No, she’s not dead…." Gwen said softly, letting the unspoken word fill the silence. She heard something and looked up briefly. "It’s about time they got here," Gwen closed her eyes and mentally berated herself. I knew that they wouldn’t get here in time…I should have gotten here sooner….

"Get them some help now!" a strong voice boomed.

Viola looked up and didn’t recognize the man at first, but then realized it was the U.S. Marshal who had assured her and her friends of Coal’s death. Men quickly jumped off of their horses and stared in awe at the sight. There was no saving the house. They watched as the horrifically magnificent power of fire burn the house to the ground.

Viola was very glad to see them…even Skeet who stumbled off of his horse in haste. He suddenly skidded in dawning recognition. "Gwen? Viola?"

"Skeet, help me with the woman, now!" Gwen’s voice immediately startled Skeet out of his shock. "Go to that plant over there and pull of some of its leaves. Then come back and give them to Viola. She’ll tear off a piece of her dress and I want you wrap the leaves against this woman’s burns. Now!"

Skeet nodded his head instantly and ran off toward a cactus. He brought out a knife and began to hack the spindly leaves. He gathered them up in his arms and sped back to Gwen, pulling up alongside Viola in the process.

"Gwen? Is that you?" a new voice threatened to interrupt her concentration.

"Get down here," Gwen ordered without bothering to look. All of her attention was focused on helping the woman beneath her. Her hands expertly checked for broken bones. She heard the man kneel down next to her instantly. Good, at least he was capable of following orders when he heard them. "At first, I thought she went into shock from the pain…but now, she’s stopped breathing and her heart’s not beating. I need you to place your hands on her chest and press up and down."

He uncertainly placed his hands on the woman’s chest. "Like this?"

"Yes, but wait a second," Gwen ordered, then checked the woman’s neck for broken bones thoroughly, Gwen pulled the woman’s head back until the airway was cleared. "Now count fifteen outloud….no, you have to do it harder. You have to press through the ribs to the heart." Gwen barked the instructions out in a rapid command. "Good, better."

Gwen took a deep breath and breathed into the woman’s mouth. Her face was blackened completely. Gwen came up as the man continued to count each compression. She looked intently at the woman’s face. Her hands trembled slightly as she wished this mother would struggle for life. Mothers and fathers should never die before their children. Gwen’s eyes flashed up to Viola and the crying child in her arms. Especially, not in front of their children.

Viola watched the Gwen and Caleb work on the woman in awe. She leaned toward Skeet and whispered, "What’s she doing?"

"She’s trying to get the woman to breathe," Skeet answered very quietly.

"Oh…where did she learn that? I’ve never seen it before," she breathed.

"I’m not sure…but Gwen’s seen a lot. Probably learned it from Indians or something," Skeet shrugged.

"Gwen knows Indians?" Viola’s eyes went wide. She heard of the vicious savages who wreaked havoc over the West.

Skeet opened his mouth to save something, but suddenly felt Gwen’s eyes boring into his head. He quickly turned to her as Gwen’s voice startled them both.

"Viola, get the child out of here!" Gwen barked. Viola quickly nodded and moved the child toward the men. "Skeet!" Gwen’s voice rang out again. "Where are those leaves?"

"Yeah, I got—" He fumbled the bundle in his hands with indication.

"Did you take the needles off?"

"Yeah, Gwen, just like you showed me the last time." He nodded eagerly.

"Okay, go to Viola, then come back here."

Skeet hurried to Viola and urgently held his hand out. Viola instantly reached down to her dress and ripped a chunk of fabric off. She couldn’t help but wonder what else the resourceful Ms. Devereaux might know. Skeet nodded his thanks and knelt down between Gwen and the other man.

"…Fifteen…" The man continued to count presses against the woman’s chest. "How long do you think it’s been?"

"Okay, Skeet, start wrapping the leaves against the arms and legs like the last time," Gwen ordered tensely. Skeet wisely didn’t say anything and began to work quickly. "Tight. Gotta stop the bleeding too…."

Gwen pressed two fingers towards the back of the woman’s neck and felt for a pulse. "I’m not sure…I didn’t get a chance to check while in the house. Hopefully not long," She added grimly.

Shaking her head, she leaned down and breathed again. The chest rose and fell slowly. The group of men, easily numbering fifteen, watched quietly as Gwen, Skeet, and the lawman worked together to save the woman’s life. The only sound was the cackling of the fire as more parts of the house was consumed.

The child continued to cry. "Momma! Momma!" She wailed again and again, easily covering the distance to her fallen mother. "Momma!"

"Gwen, it’s been at least ten minutes," Sheriff Howard gingerly put a hand on Gwen’s black shoulder in comfort. "Maybe…."

"She’s not dead," Gwen said lowly. She continued to stare at the woman below here. "Keep going."

"Eleven…Twelve…." The lawman continued. "Okay, breathe."

Gwen did and blew into her as hard as she could. "C’mon, breathe! You have a child. A family. Don’t give up on that." Gwen bent down again and breathed more forcefully. "C’mon, you can feel that! Breathe!"

The child screamed shrilly as her chubby hands reached out to the woman whom so many strangers were kneeling over. "Momma!"

"Keep going…" Gwen ordered. The man nodded and continued to beat in an even rhythm. He started to push harder.

"Gwen, I think you should let her cross over peacefully….it’s been a while now…." Sheriff Howard kneeled down next to Gwen.

"No, she’s not dead. I know it," Gwen turned around and forcefully pushed the sheriff back. She quickly turned back to the mother and didn’t even notice that the sheriff had flown back a good twenty yards. She breathed again and saw the chest rise and fall from the corner of her eye.

"Gwen, it’s time. Let her cross over in peace…."

"For what?" Gwen rasped out. She turned fiery eyes on the sheriff. "So she can leave a child orphaned? I won’t let her." Gwen leaned over and breathed in again. "Keep pushing!"

The man obliged and continued to press on the woman’s chest. "…eight…nine…"

"Gwen…I’m sorry," The sheriff said carefully, keeping a safe distance between them.

"No, Gwen, don’t give up!" Viola’s voice rang out in a sound of hope. "Please!"

"You have a child!" Gwen yelled down to the body. The woman didn’t respond. "Don’t do it! Not again…Don’t leave me!" In futility, Gwen’s arms pounded on top of the woman’s chest. "Wake up!"

For a long moment there was silence as the group watched as Gwen continued to work passionately to save the woman’s life. Viola hoped with all her heart that the Lord would abstain from taking this soul that day.

"Wait a minute," the man said lowly. "I think I felt something…."

Gwen’s eyes flew open. She leaned down and put her ear next to the woman’s mouth. "She’s breathing!"

The lawman nodded as he beamed a huge smile. "Yeah, I definitely feel something!"

Slowly, the body beneath them began to move as the woman struggled for breath. She hacked and coughed violently until she could finally suck in the life-giving air. Gwen helped her to sit up and patted her back in an effort to help more.

"Slowly…slowly…." Gwen cautioned the weak woman.

Viola handed the child to Skeet who looked at the small human as if it was a strange exotic creature. With a huge smile on her face, Viola ran over to Gwen and threw her arms around her.

"You did it, Gwen! You saved her life!" Viola hugged her tightly.

Gwen instantly tightened in her arms. She seemed to be very uncomfortable by the close contact. Her hands and arms struggled to remember the right thing to do, but eventually they fell to her sides in quiet defeat. Viola backed up slightly and Gwen could see shining emerald eyes radiate back to her. It had been quite a while since such attention had been favorable.

"That was amazing!" Viola breathed. Dancing green eyes tried to break through the walls she met in the blue eyes across from her. She tightened her arms around Gwen again and happily gave the tall woman another hug, who winced as if she was being hurt.

"Yes, yes it was, Gwenyth," The strange voice halted Viola for a moment. Gwen and Viola looked up to see the beaming smile of the lawman at them. "It looks like you’re saving people again huh, sis?."

Viola turned and looked at the lawman in surprise. "Sis?" She released Gwen who sighed with relief. "Hey, I’ve met you before!"

Caleb laughed. "Yep, right after your ordeal with the stagecoach."

"But…how—" Viola looked between the lawman and Gwen in confusion. Judging by Gwen’s current state, it would be hard to compare their looks. "Huh?"

"I know…I’m surprised, too!" Caleb sat on the ground and looked at his sister with a bemused expression. "If I had known my big sister was here…." He winked at Viola.

"Big sister? Wow!" Viola turned back to Gwen and was surprised at what she saw.

Gwen continued to hold her impassive expression. It hadn’t changed through Viola’s hugs and it wouldn’t give in even with the sight of her own brother. The swirling emotions behind the mask was another story, however, but that was something no one could see…except for that one time Viola saw a glimpse.

But, for now, that insight was bubbling slightly beneath the surface and not realized, so Viola simply smiled. It was such a brilliant smile that Gwen hadn’t come near to matching in a very long time. "Although it’s true that Gwen and I had just met…. Well, I know that face and that is a face of absolute joy to see you again. Right, Gwen?"

"You’re taller," Gwen said after finding words. Although her face betrayed nothing, her eyes had absorbed every detail of the strange, and yet familiar, man standing before her. He was strong…he was in uniform…and he was the last member of her family to walk and breathe. She felt the emotions warring inside her, and yet she completely turned them off like a stop valve. It was dangerous to express so many different intense feelings…especially with the skills she had.

Not to mention, he was a lawman…and Red Mesa wasn’t a safe place for a Marshal.

"You should get out of town, Caleb." Gwen said succinctly and turned on her heel. She joined the waiting men and climbed on an extra horse. "So you guys saw the fire, huh?"

"Yeah, Gwen, we were able to see it as far away as Red Mesa," Lucky spoke up. "What happened?"

"Indians. Let’s hope it’s a one-time incident," Gwen answered. "Let’s go….Yeeaw!"

With a pounding of hooves, the calvary left with Gwen firmly in its lead.

Skeet walked up beside Viola and Caleb and looked at the billowing trail of dust dourly. He sighed heavily. "I hate it when they do that. At least they left us with extra horses. I have mine…Caleb’s…and they left an extra horse for Viola. We brought them in hope we would find you guys. Caleb, you think you could handle the woman on your horse? I’ll take the child and Viola can ride by herself…unless she prefers otherwise…." He hinted suggestively, but Viola hadn’t heard a word he said.

She simply stared off into the distance, as Gwen’s form quickly became a dot on the horizon for the second time that day. The woman was becoming more puzzling as the days went by.

Caleb, for his part, tried to process the strange welcome he received from his sister. To be honest, he had expected a much warmer reception.

"Hmm," Viola murmured thoughtfully. She regarded the placid face of the lawman next to her. It must run in the family, she thought. "She’s kind of hard to get to know, isn’t she?"

Caleb knew exactly whom she was talking about. "Yeah, but she’ll come around. We haven’t seen each other in a while."

"Oh?"

"Yeah…fifteen years."
 
 

vii.

Gwen sighed in luxurious abandonment as she let herself finally unwind from the last few days. The hot water felt sinfully good. The heat seeped into her worn muscles and soothed the aches and pains she wouldn’t let herself acknowledge before. She closed her eyes and let the heat work its magic. Back at the Dusty Hole Saloon, Gwen left detailed instructions not to be bothered. Not for at least an hour. Any who violated this command would be punished…severely.

Gwen opened her eyes with a languid thought. She moved her large hand and knifed through the fragrant soapy bubbles. As she expected, the water had already turned a murky dark color. Due to her recent brush with fire no doubt. She wouldn’t betray the emotion, of course, but she had felt the familiar fear of fire creep up on her that day. It had threatened to turn her away from the house, but that was the reason why she chose to acknowledge the cry for help. She forced herself to dash into a burning house.

Feel the fear…and do it anyway. She wondered idly who had made such a pithy comment. The more fears Gwen faced, the less the hold they had on her. She had been doing it for so many years, that Gwen felt she was at a state where she feared very, very little. Her men would probably take that thought a little farther—Gwenyth Devereaux didn’t fear anything.

A hesitant knock threatened to jolt Gwen out of her moment of stillness. Stillness, never peacefulness, Gwen’s turbulent soul knew nothing of contentment. Gwen turned fiercely at the side wall hidden panel. He knew better. Travis was the only one in her company who knew of the secret door. He obtained that knowledge because he was closest to trust that Gwen could allow. That distinct honor left him a few privileges…but disturbing her during her first bath in a few days was not one of them.

"Go away!" She yelled and purposely ducked her head into the water.

Now, she couldn’t hear a thing. Just silence. The water enfolded her in its intimate embrace and she let herself float for a moment. Unfortunately, the sides of the porcelain tub were too close for her long frame. Her knees jutted out and she rose her head out into the cold air. The water grudgingly let her go, but stubborn drops refused to leave her magnificent form only until the pull of gravity was too great to overcome. The drops contacted the watery surface with a splash, with fervent vows to reclaim that skin at another time.

Gwen sighed in aggravation. She needed a bigger bathtub.

The knocking continued. "Gwen! It’s me, Travis." A muffled voice persisted.

Of course it was! Angrily, Gwen began to think of the many ways she would torture the tenacious barkeep. A long finger jabbed a button by the bathtub. A snap of the lock freed Travis to open the wall panel. His face was appropriately chastened and he immediately veered his eyes away from his boss’ vulnerable state.

But then…Travis had to wonder if Gwenyth Devereaux even had a vulnerable state.

His face quickly flushed a dark hue of red, which was laughable when Gwen thought of all of the things Travis had seen before. It certainly wasn’t as if he hadn’t seen her naked before. Not that they had been intimate, it was just that Travis had walked in on his boss on more than one occasion. Over time, although Travis had grown to doubt that his intrusions were always entirely by accident, he knew that she played with him on many levels. Naturally, that had only made him fall harder for his boss.

His flushing in embarrassment was simply one more telling sign of his continued love for the dark enigmatic woman. Something that Gwen had known for some time, but refused to act on. Gwen liked to keep men guessing…and she excelled at it.

"Travis! Did you not understand the instructions I gave you?" Gwen growled with an edge in her voice. She didn’t bother to spread the bubbles evenly over the surface of the water.

Travis noticed, his dark eyes immediately finding a crack in the wood floors incredibly interesting. "I know…and I’m sorry, Gwen. But this couldn’t wait," Travis hastily took off his hat and stopped after taking a few steps into Gwen’s bathroom. "It’s about the Marshal…."

"He’s still here."

"Ah…yes, Gwen." Travis thought the safest thing would be to agree to the perturbed dark-haired lady.

"He’s not leaving."

"Yes, Gwen. He’s insisting that he talks to you." Travis backed up a step. "Er…ah…there is something else."

"Just tell me, Travis!" Gwen ordered. Her mood rapidly worsening.

"As you ordered when you first arrived, Rusty and Devon increased patrols of the border around Red Mesa because of the lawman."

"You mean because the first lawman who was here….before I arrived from Dallas…." Gwen shut her eyes as her mind quickly made connections. "The one which you didn’t tell me before-hand."

Travis winced at his error. "Yes, Gwen, but there is something you should know—"

"Travis, just tell me. That is the last warning." Gwen said lowly as she quickly became more and more perturbed.

"This is the Marshal’s second time in town. Skeet told me he was the lawman I told you about when you first arrived from Dallas. The Marshal came back on account a word of Dusty Swanson headin’ to these parts."

"Dusty Swanson," Gwen spat out derisively. "Is not a problem any more."

"That’s true, but Rusty and Devon spotted another lawman riding into town."

"Another lawman? How far away?" Gwen asked sharply.

"We expect him early tomorrow morning. We were wondering if you wanted the…er, accident…to occur tonight?" Travis waited expectantly. He was aware of her hate for men in uniform and expected the hasty death of this latest arrival.

Gwen closed her eyes and thought how best to handle this latest development. She remembered the fire earlier the day and smiled.

"No, let the lawman enter Red Mesa." Gwen ordered as her mind worked with the unexpected variables.

"What? But Gwen…two U.S. Marshals…at Red Mesa…at the same time could put all of our—"

"That is not your concern, Travis. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it."

Travis nodded. He knew better than to question her too much. "Of course, Gwen."

"But," Gwen held up a long finger. "I will make a list of men I want to leave Red Mesa as well as names I don’t want to come here. I don’t want to run a chance of any of them being recognized by our latest arrivals."

"Gwen, if I give out that order," Travis spoke up nervously. "Those men on that list will think they won’t be getting a cut from the heist."

"That’s not my problem. They’ve been picked up by sheriffs and other lawmen around the country. I will not let their mistakes affect my plans." Gwen’s voice had taken a cold tone. "Give them a few dollars to hold them over until the heist is done."

"Gwen…I really think you should think—" Travis’ jaw had dropped. A couple of dollars? When the heist could bring them so much more? The men were not going to like the latest set of orders from Gwenyth Devereaux.

"Are you questioning my orders, Travis…again?" Gwen looked over at her barkeep. He was nervously shifting his weight from one foot to the next.

"No, Gwen."

"Fine…then let the lawman enter Red Mesa." Gwen turned away and waited for him to leave her in peace.

"Gwen…there’s been talk…between the men." Travis began quietly. "They want to know what’s going on. Now I know you like to keep your plans to yerself, but they’re gettin’ antsy and wonderin’ what the hold-up is."

"Travis!" Gwen rolled her azure eyes. "I haven’t been gone for that long!"

"No, Gwen…it’s just that you don’t come to the meetings…." Travis pressed on cautiously.

Gwen arched a sable eyebrow. "Other interests need attention. Those meetings are a part of your responsibilities. Were there other problems I didn’t know about?"

"Well…no, just the things I’m telling you now. When you were gone for so long yesterday and tonight, …the grumblings…became louder." He faltered under her penetrating gaze.

"Hmm…they’re restless." Gwen said thoughtfully.

Travis sighed with relief. "Yes, Gwen. That’s exactly what’s wrong."

"Restless…hmm, do you know what their problem is, Travis?" Gwen began to make lazy circles in the suds with a long index finger.

"No, Gwen." Travis answered dutifully.

"They let the rush of sex and the thrill of crime be the same. To them, it doesn’t matter if they are taking a woman or stealing weapons from a stronghold. Either way, they feel the rush. And they like it. They like it enough to let those rushes rule them. They lose control of their desires, their goals…everything that had once made them individual. And now, what are they? Simply pawns in a game of chess," Gwen paused and turned towards Travis. "My game. Do you know what chess is, Travis?"

"Yes, Gwen…you tried to teach it to me once…long ago."

"Ah, yes…chess is a game of strategy. Getting to know your opponent could mean the loss of a few pawns… even a loss of lieutenants like bishops and rooks. But the queen…the queen is the most powerful weapon on the board. I like that," Gwen favored him with a feral smile. "But, if you use your opponent’s thinking against them, you always win."

"Gwen…." Travis said imploringly. He began to get nervous as Gwen talked about the loss of pawns and lieutenants. "I’m telling you this because you need to know what is going on with the men."

"Ah, but Travis, I do know. I know because I know my men. Go to the safe. Go on." She encouraged him with a long finger. Her throaty laugh made his heart plummet. She just had a way of doing that to a man.

Travis did what he was told and opened the safe. Inside were four small bags of gold as well as other valuables and expensive trinkets. He knew that he was the only one in her company who knew the combination. It also made the disappearance of anything in the safe easy to find out should Gwen suspect something was missing.

"Take two bags of gold and take the boys to Dame Julie’s tonight," She held up a finger and wagged it back and forth slowly. "And be sure they’re nice, Travis."

Travis winced as he remembered the altercation that occurred when Dame Julie had accused one of Gwen’s men for savagely beating up one of her girls. Gwen had immediately shot him between the eyes.

"I’ll remind them, Gwen."

"Good, now leave." Gwen turned back into the tub and closed her eyes. She struggled to attain that state of peace she had only read about but never came close in attaining.

"Oh, Gwen—" Travis began again.

"Travis! What did I say about the warnings you had left?" Gwen snarled.

"The party is Saturday," he rushed out. "Are you going?"

Gwen was about to shout out a decisive "No" when another puzzle piece in her plan nicely fell into place.

"Yes, I think I will. Make sure that everyone, except for the men on the list, attend," Gwen’s eyes twinkled with anticipation. "Well, at least it will promise to be…interesting."

Travis nodded and walked out the way he came. For some reason, as Travis left Gwen that night, he had a strong feeling in the pit of his stomach that tomorrow night would be many things…and interesting would just be a small part of it.

To Be Continued in Act IV….


Taiko's Scrolls Of The Xenaverse