Note from Author: Sorry for the long wait. My life kinda exploded, and I spent the last couple of weeks putting out fires. For full disclaimers please see beginning of Prelude in Act I. All herein is owned and copyrighted by the author.
 

Act IV
 


I’ve dreamt in my life

dreams that have stayed with me ever after

and have changed my ideas;

they’ve gone through and through me, like wine and water,

and altered the color of my mind.

- Emily Dickinson


 


i.

Jenny sat absently watching the orange fingers of the sunset spread gloriously to the heavens. Her brow was furrowed with thought, and she didn’t pay much attention to the display of natural splendor. Instead, she was trying to search her heart for an answer to her dilemma. Unfortunately, it was a dilemma that held no easy solution. And so, she sat alone, her hand crooked comfortably under her chin, second-guessing long-past decisions made in haste.

Thomas and Jack hadn’t returned from town, so her solitude made the musing of the past all the more painful. She mentally replayed her conversation with Thomas from the other evening relentlessly. The sadness intensified in its throbbing, as it unmercifully reminded her of its presence. Thomas had surprised her with the easy way his words had invoked enough hurt to slowly tear at her heart. The words had been so painful, and yet, many of the things he had said were true. Had Thomas been right? By keeping Jack in the dark about his past, was she merely trying to keep him from rejecting her? From being mad at her? From accusing her of lying to him? After all of this time, Jenny wondered if she had been doing nothing but stalling the inevitable. And by doing so, the anger and resentment would build the longer she held the truth from him.

No, there was more, and Jenny knew it. It was one thing to lie to her husband and son, but quite another to lie to herself. Jenny had been ignoring the past for so long, that she had tried to bury it with all of the pain that came with it. But that pain had been buried down deep, and it lay there in the depths of soul. The truth was like a slumbering giant she prayed would never be awakened, because the havoc it could wreak would be devastating. And now, Jenny was filled with the dread that something was coming. That the giant might be awakened soon…and she didn’t know if she could handle what might be coming next. But she knew…she could feel it down to her bones…that a day of reckoning would be had. Whether she was truthful with Jack, Thomas, or herself, things would come to a head and only question would remain.

Who would be left standing in the end?

Jenny felt the shiver travel straight down to the bottom of her spine. With eyes lost in the past, she opened a drawer and reached down. Way down deep, beneath the assorted papers, Jenny unearthed a diary. The roses graced the white cover with red wisps of red that had faded to a faint pink over time. Jenny hadn’t thought about her diary for years…and yet she knew exactly where it was. It had been too painful for her to open the pages before …and read about Danny…how they fell in love…their courtship…their dreams.

Before they had been brutally ripped away by a tall dark figure with cold foreboding eyes.

Jenny remembered being so tempted one day to burn the diary. It was shortly after Danny had been killed and she and Jack tried to make a home in the desolate city of Red Mesa. Jenny had chosen Red Mesa because it was as far away as she could possibly get from their splintered homestead. What had once been a place of laughter and angels was no more. It was Death’s earthly abode. She placed Jack into the foreign bed and climbed in after him. He wrapped his arms around her and clung to her tightly. Jenny knew that if she hadn’t been there, Jack would never fall asleep. And so, she waited for sleep to lull the small boy away from the horrors of the present to dreams that would be more kind. At least, she hoped the dreams would take mercy on the boy and let him sleep in peace. In Jack’s case, that wasn’t always what occurred.

So, when Jack’s breathing finally slowed into a deep and even rhythm, Jenny climbed out of bed and walked over to her bag. Pausing for a moment, she reached down and unearthed the white diary with vibrant red roses on the cover. She then turned and sat down in the rocking chair. She didn’t dare to open it…but instead, let her hands caress the cover.

She wondered what use it would give her now? Jenny knew that she would never turn to it for comfort. That was completely out of the question. No, all that diary held for her were hopes and dreams of what might have been…and that was the hardest part of all. She and Danny hadn’t even had a chance to realize a sliver of their dreams.

That is what this diary symbolized…potential that could have been realized if she and Danny had only had the chance. Jenny suddenly became aware of the fire. It licked at the wood contentedly and burned bright with light and warmth. Jenny remembered the legend of the phoenix…and how it would be given a second chance of life…after it had risen from the ashes.

Maybe, if Jenny threw the diary into the fire, she too would be able to rise again. Like a phoenix. If she didn’t do it for herself, then she should do it for her son Jack. She stood up and walked closer to the fire.

"Hello! Hello, is anyone there?" A masculine voice called out.

Jenny stopped and turned toward the door in surprise. She and Jack had just arrived yesterday….

"Hello, ma’am," the man said when Jenny cracked the door slightly. She left the chain on, so was able to see the stranger’s handsome face. "My name is Thomas Houghton. It’s nice to meet you…."

And the rest was history.

And now, after all those years, Jenny slowly opened the diary and felt compelled to read the entries written in a girl’s handwriting. She read the poems Danny had written for her. Memories of the days when they had first met ; when possibilities had seemed endless. She remembered… how much she hated him at their first meeting. He thought her feet were too big and told her so. Jenny was highly insulted…and more angry with herself for finding the rakish young man attractive. Very attractive.

Jenny cried and cried as teardrops softly rained on the script of a young woman…a child really. One poem, in particular, caught her eye. She remembered how his voice…how it would soothe her when she cried…until only hiccups and sobs were all that was left. And now, in her weakened state, she relived the night one particular poem was read to her for the first time.

It was the night after their honeymoon, and Jenny was feeling a little upset that her new husband—her husband—was working on something the entire day instead of attending to her…needs. Needs she had only recently discovered the previous night.

"Hold on, honey," he mollified her with a smile. "Get back into bed. It’s almost done."

His eyes…his beautiful hazel eyes…all he would have to do is look at her a certain way and she’d do anything he said. Especially, after last night.

"But Danny!" She whined playfully. "I’m having problems with my nightgown… I think I might need your help."

Danny looked up from the paper he was writing on and smiled mischievously. "Oh, don’t worry. I’ll be there in just a second."

"Danny…." Jenny worked her way into their bed and tried to strike the most seductive pose possible, which wasn’t saying much for a girl who had just lost her virginity the night before.

Danny laughed and walked toward her. His supple muscles rippled as he approached her. She smelled his scent of masculinity and her heartbeat faster. His hair was mussed, but that only added charm to his smoldering gaze. The two complemented each other well: he was tall and dark while she was small and bright. Walking side by side, it was easy to see that they had found their other half, since they fit so well. Jenny sighed quietly upon her scrutiny of her new husband. He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen. It didn’t seem to matter that he was also the only man she’d ever completely seen….

He wrapped his long legs beneath him and held the paper up teasingly. Jenny reached out to grasp it, but his long arms made it very frustrating.

"So, what is it?"

"It’s a…poem." Danny smiled proudly.

"A poem? For me?" Jenny was touched by the gesture.

"No, for that brunette down by the—hey!" Danny laughed as Jenny walloped him with a pillow.

"Let me see it!" Jenny demanded to her laughing new husband.

"Okay, Jenny, but first you have to come here…." Danny’s voice dipped dangerously as he stealthily advanced toward her. Jenny’s eyes grew wide and yelped. She turned and tried to escape his grasp, but she was folded onto his lap in the end. "I knew you would present some kind of challenge." He said teasingly.

Jenny arched an eyebrow. "I had to. You wouldn’t have respected me otherwise."

Danny smiled knowingly and folded the paper out in front of them so that they could both see the writing.

"Does it have a title?" Jenny inquired as she noticed the top of the poem held only the first line.

"No, and I’m not sure if it will. Suffice it to say, darling, it’s about you…and what I saw last night."

Jenny’s eyes grew wide at all of the acrobatic things they did. Danny caught her horrific expression and just laughed harder.

"Just listen, okay?" Jenny nodded as his resonant baritone filled the room with emotional words of love.

Moonlight cracks a beam of light

Through the darkness a stream of white

The silhouette stirs and sighs

Quiet night, the stars still shine.

This lunar kiss of midnight fair

Crackles and plays quietly in her hair.

Every sigh, every murmur there…

A different star explodes in her hair.

I hold my breath and count to ten

Hoping that she doesn’t notice me then

That I watch the fireworks and repeatedly can

Tonight, fall in love with her all over again.

Her being is shrouded in jealous blackness

With only a sliver of scintillating cascade of brightness

A vision of beauty in simple quintessence

And for one fleeting moment, I have captured her essence

In absolute terror struck I see, as she smoothly turns

Facing me her luminous facade bathed in moonlight burns

Powerless...dreaded eyelashes flutter...I am rendered asunder

I am vulnerable as my heart pounds and thunders

On this fated night, to mischievous eyes and a knowing smile.
 
 

His voice finally faded and, as it do so, Jenny felt herself slowly resurface from the past. She realized that, after all of this time, she had been keeping Thomas at arms length. Always reserving a small part of herself, and in the process, not letting him know her completely…not the way Danny had. After reading the entry, she also felt a little guilty. It was as if she had cheated on Thomas somehow…just by reading the lines written in the hand of her first love.

With a force she couldn’t control, Jenny let her eyes wander back down to the poem and read it a second time. How could Thomas compete with that? How could he compete with the complete and utter happiness she had experienced with Danny? He couldn’t…he didn’t have a chance against a ghost who not only loved her with his whole being…and shared the kind of love that only first loves could. She supposed now that perhaps the reason the diary had stayed hidden was to spare Thomas—or even herself—from that competition. But now, after re-reading all of those memories, maybe she had unknowingly held Thomas up to Danny and measured them. It was not surprising that Thomas had come up short, not because of any human frailties on his part, but because there was no competing with a ghost. It was impossible. Thomas is not a perfect man and he continued to live…make mistakes…make efforts which were successful and other that weren’t. That was one of the prices we paid for being alive.

But Danny… Jenny felt the tears cascading her face. Danny was dead…and although he wouldn’t be subjected to those mistakes of living humans…he was also in a world which they couldn’t have a present or a future. That was, perhaps, one of the largest prices we paid for burying our loved ones: to carry on and never see the life again in those we love. To never have an opportunity to make new memories, be they bad or good.

Jenny suddenly felt very chastened…she had performed a great disservice to Thomas. After all that he had done for her and Jack…to not have a chance to truly know her heart…to ultimately know her…and never be told why. Just as he said a few days ago…he deserved more than that…they all did.

She looked out the window and saw two far-off figures slowly approaching the homestead on horseback. Maybe, in her pursuit of protecting Jack, she was actually trying to protect herself a little more.

With a heavy sigh, and fervent hopes that she was doing the right thing for her son, Jenny slipped out a fresh sheet of paper and grabbed a pot of ink and a quill. Then, as she wrote, Jenny endeavored to unburden her soul. It was time that she and Jack had a chance to know what freedom was and, hopefully, not by the high price of crimes committed in the past.

Jenny thoughtfully tapped her cheek with the quill and wondered where to start. Where did it all begin?

My dear son Jack,

I am writing to you this letter in hopes that it eases your pain. I hope that, with this piece of paper in your hands, it is the first step you will take in your journey of becoming your own man…. As Jenny continued to write, the few days of clear skies were being threatened. A gathering of storm clouds massed into a dark layer…on a direct course for Red Mesa. Although the clouds gathered in increasing size, nature’s manifestation of discontent refused to shower just yet.
 
 

ii.

Charles slammed the door shut and rushed to Sandra. He pushed her back from the trunk until she fell heavily onto the thin mattress. His eyes large and wild, Charles lunged back towards the door and locked it with a final click. For the first time since she had known him, he was scaring her. She looked at him in horror as he completely changed into a desperate man that marked only the slightest resemblance to her fiancé. She heard the words of warning Viola had tried to tell her before, after Viola had pulled Charles aside that first evening, about him reverting to old behavior. Behavior he had shown before Sandra had met him at the ball in the Chamberlain mansion. Sandra felt the increasingly familiar feeling of fear well up inside her.

"Charles! What are you doing?" She yelled. Suddenly, he was on top of her, straddling her, with a hand slapped on top of her mouth.

"Quiet, Sandy, be quiet," Charles hissed. "We don’t want them to come up here."

Sandra’s eyes flew open wilder. His paranoia…she remembered Viola warning her about his paranoia.

"You don’t understand, Sandy, you don’t understand exactly what we have gotten ourselves into," Charles continued to lean forward and whispered urgently to her. "There is nowhere in this fucking town that is safe…safe from her."

Sandra struggled to no avail.

"Oh, come on, Sandy! You know who I am talking about. You know! I’ve been watching you. You hate her as much as I do."

Sandra shook her head vehemently and wished to continue her state of ignorance.

"No, Sandy. You and I…we’re in this together. Because you know…," Charles paused and took a deep breath. "…you know that she has already taken Viola away from you."

His words shocked Sandra to the very core of her soul. She refused to believe it…to give any kind of credence to these harsh words Charles had said in his fierce staccato. Sandra continued to shake her head, but this time it slowed as tears began to well in her eyes. Sandra shrugged her shoulders and arched her back in effort to break his hold. How she wanted his words, which gave voice to her darkest fears, to stop.

"No, no, Sandy. Think about it," Charles closed his eyes and tried to pull himself together. He paced in front of Sandra for a moment then paused. He turned back to her and looked up into her face with pleading eyes. "I was there when Viola abandoned you on top of the stage," Charles kept his voice low. "I saw how, as soon as Gwen entered the Saloon, Viola took off. It was like Viola couldn’t leave you soon enough."

Charles felt his palm moistened by Sandra’s tears and he knew that he was making some progress.

"Okay good…now you’re listening to me," Charles watched her closely. "Now, you know that some of these things I’m telling you aren’t new. We’ve talked about it before."

Sandra refused to look Charles in the eye. Her hair was tousled and she was trembling. She felt Charles slide his arms around her torso. He pulled her up into a sitting position and rocked her like she was a little girl…just like her father used to do…back when the South was warm and safe. Like long ago, when she was someone and had everything.

"Shh, shh, Sandy," he hushed her quietly. "Come on, you know that your Charles needs you now…."

"Charles," Sandra finally whispered. "Tell me about the gold…and the manila envelope."

"The gold is what is really behind all of this," Charles let her go and turned to the window. The town of Red Mesa stretched out beyond his gaze. "Look, …look out there for yourself, Sandra. Everything you see, someone named Gwenyth Devereaux owns."

Sandra stood up and turned to the window. The unremarkable town of Red Mesa looked more red than ever as the fiery sunset strove to match the red clay of the earth. It looked like any other town that the three of them had passed through on their way from New York to…Red Mesa. A general store. A livery. Blacksmith shop. Clothing store. It all looked so normal.

"That’s impossible, Charles," Sandra continued to look out at the town. "How could she own all of this? She’s a woman…and women can’t own property out here."

"Gwenyth Devereaux is a very cunning dangerous person, Sandra. She uses people then throws them away," Charles voice grew hard. "She threatens to get her way and wouldn’t bat an eye to sacrifice someone for something that she wants." Charles spat the words out with hate.

Sandra remembered when she had first met her - the beautiful dark woman in question. The townspeople, when Gwen had first descended from the stagecoach, had seemed to adore her. But, even then, Sandra had noticed a dangerous undercurrent that had flowed between them. Despite their happiness to see Gwen, there also existed a wary respect. The type of respect won by force and cunning. Sandra wondered how such a woman, with looks so pleasing and attractive, could radiate such a menacing aura. The woman that Charles described had never shown those colors to Sandra or Viola. But, apparently, Charles had glimpsed a whole other side to Gwenyth Devereaux that Sandra was just learning about. Despite his strong feelings, Sandra couldn’t help but question Charles’ earnestness and how he could bring into focus so many treacherous things of the enigmatic woman.

"I can see it in your eyes, Sandra," Charles said quietly. "I know that you saw it too. That is one of her skills, Sandy. Gwen looks so pretty, but inside her, her soul is twisted and evil. That is how this town fell to her. They believed that her looks reflected her soul. Always remember that isn’t true."

"My god, Charles…the entire town? What about the law?" Sandra whispered.

"Sandra…there is no law out here," He waved his arms to indicate the entire town. "She owns everything. Think about it for a moment. Think about what all this could mean…to us, to Viola, everything."

"Her husband…." Sandra’s mouth began to feel dry as small things that had annoyed her before began to take on a whole new meaning. "Her husband doesn’t exist, does he?"

Charles smirked. "Does she seem like a married lady to you?" He asked sardonically.

"But Charles…," Sandra whispered fearfully. "Does this mean that the men…all of the men…."

"Yes, honey, yes. Now you’re getting it," Charles walked up behind her and put his strong arms around her waist. He leaned the bottom of his chin on her shoulder and smelled her powdery feminine scent. "You always were a smart girl."

"They all work for her…." Sandra was amazed at the machinations Gwenyth Devereaux had to go through to actually own a town and all of the people in it. "That’s more than a town…that’s like a fort during the war. Daddy used to tell me about all the forts in the South...and how they would protect us." She shook her head sadly. "But…Daddy was wrong."

"Yes, this town is like that…a place where Gwen directs other things than the Dusty Hole Saloon," he smiled sardonically.

"What?"

"She’s a liar, Sandra…she’s not what she’s seems. But you, darling, you mustn’t be scared," He reached out and took her gloved hand. He brought it up to his lips, letting his mustache caress it slightly, then kissed it. "Do you know why?" He saw her head shift slightly from side to side. "Because I am going to take care of you. But, for me to do that, you have to trust me. Completely. Even if that means that we have to do things Viola might not like."

As soon as Charles mentioned Viola’s name, all thoughts of the mysterious gold completely flew out of Sandra’s head. After all of the people she had lost, the thought of losing Viola took precedence over everything. Besides, right now, at this moment, she needed to believe in something…someone…more than ever. Sandra began to wilt as her knees slowly let her down. She prayed that 'someone' would be the man she loved…the man who meant more to her than…anything.

Sandra began to cry as darkening storm clouds filled the sky in front of her. "Viola…my God, Charles. That was why I rushed up the stairs looking for you in the first place! She’s missing! For all I know, Viola could be dead."

"Honey…think about it. Who is Viola with?" Charles deftly sowed the seeds of jealousy.

"She’s with her." Sandra’s voice took on a hard edge.

"Mmm-hmn," Charles nodded his head. "And did Gwen ask Viola for her company?"

"Well…no." Sandra whispered. "I guess not."

"Did Gwen persuade Viola to accompany her?"

"No." Sandra said a little more forcefully.

"So, are you saying that Viola rushed off to see Gwen on her own free will?"

Sandra let the silence answer for her.

"Sandy, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to hurt you, but I am trying to protect you from getting hurt in the future… and from a very dangerous woman," Charles paused to gauge Sandra’s reaction. "You have to accept that Viola’s had made her choice." He said softly.

"What?" Sandra turned and looked at Charles in wonder. "But, Viola doesn’t know. Viola doesn’t know Gwen like you do. We have to tell her."

Charles shook his head sadly. "I’ve already tried to warn her but, she doesn’t believe me," Charles lied easily. "She’s fallen under that horrible woman’s spell."

"What are you talking about? How do you know all this?" Sandra was fearful to hear the answer.

"Sandra…you didn’t really think that all I have been doing in Red Mesa was working on the play, did you?" Charles seemed offended. "I’ve been finding out about our host. Talking to people…listening to conversations. I’m telling you, Sandra, while you and Viola were all caught up with that woman, I was the one who was trying to protect us. To see what we’re up against."

"Oh God…." Sandra said in a soft prayer.

Charles pounced on the opportunity to drive the final nail in the coffin. "Sandra, you have to listen to me," He waited until Sandra finally looked him in the eye. "Viola has already chosen to be with Gwen…a stranger that she certainly doesn’t know. Over you! My god Sandra, you were her best friend the last time I checked. You’re blood! Reunited cousins…how could she abandon you like that? How could she drop you for that dangerous slut?" He railed indignantly.

"Dangerous…." Sandra whispered out the word in dread.

"Yes, Sandy, she has decided to cast her lot with Gwen. Not with us. We can’t save her now. All we can do now is save ourselves."

"Charles, no…I can’t believe that. Viola…alone with such a dangerous person. You’re trying to protect me still…you won’t tell me what you really think!" Sandra yelled, completely beside herself. "You think that Viola is…dead." Sandra whispered the word

"On the contrary, I believe that she is very much alive," Charles said soothingly. "But, I think that if she continues to stay in Gwenyth Devereaux’s company, she will live to see things that threaten the very nature of who she is. She will run the chance of having her life threatened in many different ways. And now, when she returns, like I told you I am sure she will, watch how she behaves. You will see that she has turned even more against you."

Charles’ dire words knifed through Sandra and made contact with a special place in her heart. A place of endearment where only Viola Chamberlain belonged. Those harsh words threatened to dismember the very threads of love and trust that Viola and Sandra had cultivated for so long. They had once bound each other so close that their love was closer to sisterhood than some sisters ever knew. And now, thousands of miles away from home, Sandra slowly realized that out here, those same bonds were placed in an environment never tested before. She hadn’t given up the prospect of losing Viola. For better or for worse, Viola would see to that for herself.

As for Charles, Sandra made a fateful decision.

Sandra turned and wrapped her arms around Charles. "I love you, Charles. I loved you since the day we’ve met."

Charles felt Sandra melt into his embrace and he smiled slightly over her shoulder.

"Darling, there is a church in town. Let’s get married tomorrow." He suggested, then slowly released her and looked down at his shoes. "That is…if you still want me."

"Oh, Charles, of course I do! I would love to be your wife!" Charles smiled and pulled her back into his arms. "How do you always know the perfect things to say?"

Sandra was now crying tears of joys as she tipped her head up to him. Charles eagerly obliged and kissed her sweetly. At that moment, Sandra meant to share her future with Charles. She knew that their love would only bring each other happiness, comfort, and security.

By this final bond of matrimony, Sandra knew that she would never be alone. Her future was secure.

A harsh knocking broke the two apart. Charles instantly turned to the door.

"What is it?" He yelled.

"It’s about Viola Chambers!"

Sandra gasped. "Viola!" She rushed past Charles and flung open the door. Skeet’s flushed face greeted her. She had never been so glad to see him before. "Is she…alive?"

"Yes, Miss Wellings. Alive and well!" Skeet smiled brightly. "I thought you and the mister would like to know."

Sandra screamed in excitement and rushed into Skeet’s arms. Although he smelled bad, it was worth it since he was the one who gave her the news that her best friend was alive.
 
 

iii.

"That’s amazing, Viola! She walked into a burning house all by herself?" Rusty exclaimed. He was truly enjoying himself. It was as if Viola had a knack for this storytelling thing.

Rusty was sitting with some of the other men in the Dusty Hole Saloon. They were gathered around Viola’s animate form as she regaled them with Gwen’s rescue of two people from the burning house. As Skeet walked down the stairs from Charles’ room, he noticed the looks on the men as they listened to Viola. It was pathetic, he supposed. He was glad he didn’t look as glassy-eyed as they did. He felt something push him roughly out of the way which made him stumble the last few steps.

"Viola!" Sandra’s voice exclaimed. Her eyes bright with tears, Sandra engulfed Viola in a big hug. Viola eagerly hugged her back.

"Hi, Sandy. Shh…it’s okay. I’m fine…okay…shh." Viola said comforting as Sandra’s tears of joy slowly dissipated into sobs of relief.

"Oh, Vee…it was horrible. I was so afraid something happened to you. What am I saying? Something did happen to you!" Sandra hugged Viola fiercely. "Oh, thank you God. Thank you for sparing her."

"Sandy…really. I’m okay. I got in a little while ago." Viola released her slightly so that Sandra could look in her eyes. "I was just telling these men about what happened."

"Oh, about Gwen?" Sandra asked. Her eyes quickly flashed in anger. Viola softly put a hand on Sandra’s arm. "How she almost killed you?"

"Well, now, Miss Wellings," a masculine voice spoke up. He had been sitting in the circle with the other men listening to Viola. "Miss Viola tells it a little differently."

"Sandra, I’m okay," Viola tried to assuage her friend’s fears. "I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Coincidence, really. I’m just lucky it all ended okay."

Sandra wasn’t to be appeased though. She remembered Charles’ words earlier and clenched her teeth. Sandra could hear Gwen’s influence on her best friend already.

"Viola, I really need to talk to you." Sandra lowered her voice with effort.

"Oh, sure, Sandra," Viola turned to the men and informed them that she was going to retire for the evening. The groan of disappointment made Viola promise the continuation of the story the following evening. As the men turned back to their own conversations, Viola let herself be pulled urgently to a table in the back of the saloon, close to the stage.

"Viola, I want you to tell me what happened," Sandra clasped their hands together. To her surprise, Viola found Sandra’s arm to be shaking. She was still quite agitated.

"Okay, Sandra, but I want you to try and relax," Viola looked at her friend with concern. "I’m back…safe and sound for the most part. I won’t deny that it was a very scary situation…and I won’t deny that my life was threatened. But, let’s try to dwell on the fact that I am okay. All right? The way you are acting…it’s as if you were expecting otherwise."

"Vee…I’m sorry. I was just so scared that I had lost someone…someone else," Sandra kept touching her friend to make sure she was real. "I just don’t think I can handle losing another person close to me… especially someone as close as you. I know it’s hard for you to understand, Viola…you haven’t lost anyone from your life like I have."

"Oh, Sandy…you’re not going to lose me. I mean, we’re not only best friends…but family as well. I love you like a sister! You know that." Viola’s brow furrowed. "In a way…I have lost my family. Certainly not like you…but you are the only family I have left, too."

Sandra shook her head slowly. "You’re right, Viola. But after all that I have been through…all of the loved ones who have been taken from me…." Sandra let her voice drift away. Then she clasped Viola’s other hand and held onto both hands in a strong grasp. "I’m pleading with you, Viola. Leave Red Mesa with Charles and me tomorrow morning. It isn’t safe here."

Viola was shocked. "What? With all of those people counting on us? Sandra, I don’t think—"

"Viola, tell me you weren’t almost killed yesterday." Sandra was growing angry at her friend’s denial.

"Sandra…I’m not going to lie to you. I came close, but it was strange. I’m not sure…."

"Of course it was strange, Viola!" Sandra exclaimed. "Our lives have been threatened from the moment we arrived in Red Mesa!"

But Viola continued to shake her head. "No, Sandra…that isn’t what I meant. It was as if I knew that Gwen could handle Dusty. You’re right…I should have been so scared, but I wasn’t. I can’t tell you how sure I was that Gwen would protect me. It was just a feeling…and it came true. I’m still not sure how Gwen saved me from Dusty…I can’t quite remember everything from last night…but I just knew."

"You can’t remember?" Sandra remembered Viola’s amazing recall and her heart pounded harder. "Are you alright?" Sandra dark eyes were filled with worry for her friend.

"Gwen said I went into shock…."

"What? In shock! Vee, I really think you should stay away from Gwen Devereaux. I mean—in shock! Doesn’t that mean that you went through something really traumatic!" Sandra exclaimed.

"But…she said I was okay." Viola raised her hands then performed a graceful turn, similar to the one she performed at balls a lifetime ago. "You see, I’m okay!"

Sandra exhaled audibly and closed her eyes. "You trust her, Viola? You trust Gwen…with your life? You’ve known me for a few years and you turn me down flat," Sandra shook her head more emphatically. "You’ve known Gwen for two weeks and you’re okay with almost being killed!! Because…because of a feeling? No, you are not okay. The Viola I knew would have at least heard me out."

Viola’s eyes grew wide with the accusation. "What? What are you talking about?"

"Shock is caused by something…like something you can’t deal with, so you just shut down. I should know…I had seen enough of it during the War. So stop saying that, Viola. You are not okay. And Gwen isn’t good for you either!"

"Sandra, why do you keep dragging Gwen into this? It wasn’t her fault what happened to me last night! She even tried to get rid of me…several times. I should have just listened to her," Viola tried to cajole her friend back into the fold of assurance. "Hey…I promise to listen to her next time."

"I don’t want there to be a next time, Vee," Sandra said quietly. "I’m not going to lose you…and that’s what could have happen last night. I could have lost you…and I don’t think—"

"Shh…Sandra. You’re just scared right now…and I’m sorry. I know that—that it could have been worse. I’m not in denial, Sandy, although I must sound like it. I’m sorry I can’t explain it, but I just knew that Gwen would protect me the best she could. I just knew I would be all right." Viola let her arms fall in defeat.

"Viola, you’ve talked about listening to Gwen, but now I want you to listen to me! Your best friend. Listen, Vee, you don’t know her," Sandra searched for a glimmer of understanding in Viola’s eyes. "Have you talked to people in this town about her Viola?"

Viola blinked at the intensity in Sandra’s voice. "No, of course not."

"Why? Because it’s rude? Bad manners? Well, Viola we’re not in New York anymore. Charles opened my eyes to many things in this town. Thanks to him, I know what we’re up against."

"Charles…I should have known," Viola’s gaze darkened as she felt the anger building. "I don’t know what you’re talking about Sandra. I don’t know what he’s been telling you, but you know full well how I feel about him. If there is anyone in this town I don’t trust, it’s him."

"That’s not true, Viola. I don’t know why you are choosing this Gwenyth Devereaux person over people you know and love you…but you are!" Sandra accused heatedly. She had enough of Viola’s derisive attitude towards Charles as well as her spur-of-the-moment loyalty to Gwen. It really irked her. "It is just as Charles said…you’ve fallen under her spell just like the rest of the people in this town. You don’t even want to know what Charles found out, do you?"

"Trying to find out information about Gwen by talking behind her back…talking to random people who you know even less about than Gwen herself? No, it doesn’t sound like the best method of obtaining information." Viola withdrew her hands from Sandra’s and folded them across her chest. "What it sounds like to me is that you haven’t been listening to my warnings about Charles. I don’t know what is wrong with him or why he’s been acting strangely, but until I do I wouldn’t put much stock in what he says."

"Vee—"

"And don’t call me ‘Vee’ anymore, Sandra. I am not a child." Viola’s green eyes flashed in anger. "I went through a lot last night and I’ve seen things that you haven’t. Keep that in mind when you throw accusations around."

Sandra blinked back hot tears. Viola had drawn a line in the sand and it was clearly between them. She realized in frustration that they were at an impasse. She also started to feel the anger give way as the panic began to well up inside her. Viola was slowly falling away from her…and her allegiance to Gwen was becoming stronger and more apparent. Sandra felt tears welling up and blinked them back again determinedly. She was so tired of crying.

"Vee—ah, Viola….please, just let me say one more thing," Sandra pleaded softly. Viola hesitated, nodded slowly, and unfolded her arms onto the table. Viola knew that the heat of Sandra’s words stemmed from love and concern, and she was willing to give Sandra one more chance. Their friendship, despite the shaky ground, deserved that much. Sandra slowly reached out with one hand and intertwined her fingers with Viola’s.

"Ever since we’ve been in this town…I’ve felt like it was a bad place…as if it had a menacing ambiance. A feeling of foreboding. Strange things happen here. I mean, we didn’t arrive in Red Mesa by ‘accident’. We were placed here. I’ve felt that people act like they have something to hide and even the bartender…even he strikes me as more than he seems," Sandra paused and shook her head, as if to hear for the first time the words she was saying. "I know…to you it sounds like I’m paranoid…but just like you have a feeling about Gwen…so do I have a feeling about this town," Sandra took a deep breath and tried to gauge Viola’s reaction. She saw conflicting emotions swirling behind those emerald eyes. "I truly think that as long as we stay here…something will happen. Something bad and," Sandra paused and took a deep breath. "I just don’t want it to happen to you or Charles."

Sandra’s words touched Viola’s heart. This was the Sandra she remembered from New York…not the desperate woman who had clung to her when she first ran down the stairs. Viola stood up from her seat and walked over to Sandra. She wrapped Sandra up in a heartfelt hug so tight she could hear her friend’s heart beat.

"Sandy…I hate arguing with you," Viola whispered in her ear. "You know that. You are my best friend and I love you to death. I’m closer to you than anyone…and you know how much I value and respect our friendship…but—"

"No, Viola, no more," Sandra interrupted her friend quickly. "We’ll talk more about this tomorrow. Please don’t ruin this with a ‘but’, okay?" She smiled weakly. "For now…go on and take a long bath. Tomorrow is another day."

Viola smiled back at her friend. Sandra couldn’t help but noticed the blonde highlights that shone brightly under the lamps at the Dusty Hole Saloon. It afforded her an incandescent beauty that few ever achieved. Sandra wanted that moment in time to freeze. For some reason, she wanted to memorize every contour and sweep of her hair at that moment. As she wished this, she also felt a pang of sorrow. Although they looked the same, the relationship between them had irrevocably changed. Sandra felt it as she rose her hand slightly in a wave. Viola cautiously raised her hand in response and smiled softly. Yes…Viola felt it too. Sandra took a deep breath as her coffee-brown eyes followed her friend up the stairs…increasing the distance between them. Sandra sighed deeply and suddenly wished they had never left New York. When Viola finally disappeared from sight, Sandra felt a hand caress her waist softly. She knew who it was.

"It’s like you said," Sandra said in a soft monotone. "Viola wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say about Gwen. She doesn’t know how dangerous that woman is. I won’t let anything happen to her."

"I know, darling, I know…. Sandy, I wanted to apologize for scaring you earlier. I—I just can’t stand being in Red Mesa for much longer." He gazed into her eyes soulfully. Sandra felt her heart flutter. "Sandy…." His soft baritone caressed her name. "…how about first thing in the morning? Would that be a good time for you to become my wife?" His breath caressed her ear and Sandra felt a shiver dance up and down her spine. "I talked to the pastor already. Our marriage licenses will be ready by then…so we can do it, darling. We can do it tomorrow morning."

Sandra felt her Dream Wedding slowly become more and more unobtainable. The cathedral in New York would never hold her wedding. The large banquet…the dancing…her dress. The white dress she had wanted to design for herself since childhood…all such wishes fell from her grasp like grains of sand through her fingers. It was so depressing that she struggled to think of something else…. She wondered idly when Charles talked to the pastor, but at the moment, it didn’t seem relevant. At the moment, the only thing that Sandra wanted more than anything was to belong to someone. Forever.

"Charles," Sandra paused for a long moment. Softly, with a touch of melancholy, she began to speak in a low voice. "I really want Viola to be at our wedding, but you don’t, do you?" His silence gave her the answer she already knew. She exhaled softly in resignation. "You think she’d try and stop the wedding if she knew."

"I’m sorry, love." He whispered in her ear, then his voice filled with quiet understanding. "But, if you’d rather wait—"

"No," She said instantly. "I think it’s a good idea. I think we both need this." She felt his warm body press closer behind her as he held her tightly. "I need this."

Her future would be immutable and secure soon…just as she always wanted.
 
 

iv.

It always began this way.

Darkness…a dark void in which he feels he’s the only one. The last one here…in this place of nothingness. There are no walls…but the blackness is everywhere and he doesn’t bother to move. There was no reason to. In this place of nothing, only blackness resided.

The inky darkness held onto him. Not yet…not until the Voice would disturb the blanket of darkness around him. As always, the waiting for the Voice seemed to stretch for an eternity… feelings of loss and abandonment course through his body . Maybe this was the time he would be forgotten, too.

"Jack…Jack," a laughing deep voice dispelled the darkness.. Jack looked up and he saw a tall figure leaning down to him. As always, he couldn’t make out the face, but he could see that the figure was tall and strong. He felt large warm hands swallow his own. Jack looked in awe as the darkness gave way to a semblance of a man’s face. The focus was never sharp, but Jack could tell that his eyes were bright and seemed to alternate between the colors green and brown. Then the feelings he craved the most would encompass him with warmth: safety and love. He was found. As the man continued to laugh, the darkness recedes some more, and he sees the unabashed affection in the man’s eyes. Affection reserved only for a father for his son. "I’m right here. Jack, you have to be strong. I was only in the kitchen." The man…his father…

picked him up easily and carried him to a chair. He mussed with the smaller boy’s blonde hair.

"Hey…I got something for you."

The large hand disappeared for a moment, then quickly reappeared, with a cookie. With a huge smile, the man winked at his son. "Now don’t tell Momma—"

"Now don’t tell Momma what?" An amused feminine voice interrupted the two. Blue eyes sparkled brightly and a frequent smile appeared. The darkness receded even more and Jack saw the living room in a comfortable house. The past had blurred the details…but he could feel more than see that his parents were there. Both of them.

Daddy turned to Momma and neither seemed to notice how the colors began to melt away until only different shades of gray existed. Jack struggled to say something, but his voice was stilled as always. But he could hear everything. The sounds of the house became louder and echoed in his head. Strange black forms slowly rose forth as they seeped from cracks and shadows. A tall one with cold blue eyes stepped forward and grabbed the cookie. The form radiated danger and the guns…the guns were huge.

Coal. The name echoed in Jack’s head over and over. Coal. Coal. Coal stepped forward and touched his mother. Then he stepped forward…and Jack knew. Jack knew what would happen next if he didn’t reach out…if he didn’t try to stop Coal’s arm…from touching his father. He couldn’t move. He felt himself grow cold. Fear’s tendrils crept into his heart and squeezed it in a vice grip. He could feel the blood rush into his brain. His heart pounded louder. His lungs threatened to fail as every breath became an effort. It was no use…he was too young. He was too small to fight the fear which so easily iced him in place. He tried so hard to move…but his arms and legs wouldn’t respond. They were too cold.

A mere inches away from his eyes, Jack saw the dark finger reach out … slowly … unerringly … until it made contact with the strong man who had looked at him with such love.

Coal and the shadows retreated back into the cracks of the house. Their purpose fulfilled—Jack

was left with the horrifying aftermath.

The family slowly fell away from Jack’s reach. His mother seemed to slide to the back of the house. Jack and his father moved eerily, slowly to the floor. Jack found himself looking down at

his father…covered in a warm dark red liquid. The blood easily stood out from the muted colors around him.

"NO!" Jack yelled, but Coal and the shadows had receded long ago. He lifted his hands. With

horror, he saw that they were coated in blood…his father’s blood.
 
 

"No!" Jack yelled again. He bolted up right in bed. Sweat streamed from his forehead. His heart beat quickly and forcefully in his chest. His head felt hot and wet and he knew….he knew that he had been crying again. He shook his head, as if to dispel the familiar vision, but wondered what was the use in that.

It seemed likely he would have the same nightmare again.

Jack sucked air deeply into his lungs. He remembered the words of his uncle Travis and Howie, Red Mesa’s sheriff. And that had worked…for a little while. But he felt the familiar emotion of doubt concerning Coal’s death staying with him. Seemingly, it didn’t matter how many people he loved and respected told him otherwise, the feeling of Coal Damian’s existence continued to gnaw on him. There was just something inside him that assured him Coal’s death wasn’t true.

Coal Damian wasn’t dead. He had to destroy him.

It was strange, but Jack felt the calling more urgently than ever this time. He just knew it would happen someday…someday soon.

"Jack!" Jenny rushed into his bedroom. Her hands flew to his face and cupped them. "Are you okay? You had been doing so well lately. We were really hoping…."

Jack tiredly shook his head. "No, mom, the nightmare is back." He didn’t bother to tell her that this wasn’t the first time the terrifying dream had struck this week.

"Oh, Jack," Jenny hugged him. "I’m so sorry. Your father and I weren’t ready this time. Is there anything…."

Was there anything Jenny could do for her son? At that moment, she knew the answer. With his head curled up next to her shoulder, Jenny reached out and softly laid an envelope on the table nearby. She already knew that she wouldn’t be able to explain the whole story adequately—that was what the letter was for. The tears were already threatening to come. She quickly ducked her head down and wiped them. Jenny hoped her only son hadn’t seen her hesitation, but she shouldn’t have worried. Jack was staring at something outside.

"No, mom, no…I’m okay." Jack reassured her as he turned back from the window. "The moon looks different tonight, mom. Can you see it?"

Jenny shook her head and leaned closer to her son. She stared out at the night and nodded her head. "It looks like we have a blue moon out tonight. It’s the second full moon we’ve had this month. That’s what makes it a blue moon."

Jack nodded and stared back out the window. "Yeah, it sure is bright outside…."

"Jack…" Jenny began hesitantly. She turned towards him as she sat on the edge of his bed. "There’s something I need to tell you."

Jack turned back to her warily. "It sounds bad, mom."

Jenny began to nod her head, but caught herself. She quickly shook her head and smiled. "No, it’s not bad…but your father and I have been talking. We think there is something you should know."

"Mom, you’re scaring me." Jack’s features began fill with worry.

"Well, it’s important, honey."

Jack sighed and looked out the window. Something looked strange. Very strange…and it wasn’t the moon. He moved the curtains back a little father, then sucked in a breath with surprise. There were men and they were riding out into the darkness. Just like he had seen a couple of weeks ago.

"Mom, did you see that?" Jack turned quickly to his mother.

Jenny had been picking at his bedspread trying to gather the courage to tell her son the truth. Grateful for the interruption, she looked out the window, but the shadowy figures had already disappeared.

"What, Jack? I don't see anything, " Jenny confessed.

Jack knew that he had to follow the men to see what was going on once and for all. He also felt that Coal Damian was behind it. A part of him responded so strongly that he knew it was true. It called to him.

"Mom," Jack hugged Jenny again. "Can we talk about it tomorrow? I’m really tired and…well, it’s pretty late. Light is only a few hours away…can we talk then?"

Relief flooded Jenny and she suddenly felt like she bought some more time. "Oh, all right, Jack. You’re right…it’s important…but it can wait."

"Thanks, Mom. Good night." Jack made a pretense of getting comfortable for bed and yawning.

Jenny smiled. She rose herself up, leaned over, and kissed him on the cheek.

"Good night, Jack. We’ll talk about it in the morning" She smiled at the still figure and softly drew the curtain back.

By the time Jenny had entered enter the master bedroom, her son had already put on his jacket and boots, and slipped out the window. Soon the pounding of hooves raced into the night.

*******

It was almost too easy to track the riders that night. They cut their own trail easily through the brush. It was unlikely they expected anyway else out, so little care was made to hide their tracks. As of yet, Jack figured there were about eight of them. Jack liked to track, and it came easily to him. His mother and Thomas were unsure how he learned so quickly, but decided that it was something he was undoubtedly born with.

Whatever the case, it was coming in handy tonight. The blue moon was bright and high in the sky. The wind whistled by his ears, urging the rider and mount on. Faster…

Several miles out from town, Jack pulled back on the reins. He looked up as he followed the tracks up a plateau. It was high, but not too high if Jack was careful. The tracks followed a curvaceous path to the top. The problem was, it was also rocky…and one misstep by his mount…. Jack’s eyes looked at the zenith of the plateau to the base, and he winced.

He felt the tingle in the base of his spine…Coal could be up there. Jack was at the point where he had to know. His uncle…the sheriff of Red Mesa…his family…they had all told him that Coal Damian was dead. All he had left was his own overpowering feeling of Coal’s continued existence. Jack weighed his options, then decided to go with the recklessness of youth: He picked his way up the plateau.
 
 

v.

The progress up the plateau had taken a painstakingly long time, but Jack made it. He silently crouched underneath some brush. He had seen the lurid cast of light from the campfire from a distance, so he knew the men would be close by. Jack inched forward closer until he heard the first faint voice:

"Well, that seems to be it," the man mentally counted the men surrounding the campfire. "Lucky and Sully should be here in a little bit."

"Wait a minute. What about the boss?" a gruff voice questioned. Quickly a chorus of agreement arose. "This is his show, ya know. Isn’t it about time we’ve seen ‘im besides during the actual hit? If I didn’t know better, I’d say we were riding with a ghost."

"No, as usual, I’ll be giving the orders straight from Coal himself. Now stop asking," a harder edge on the voice this time. "Look, I’ll make this fast. It’s late…we’re tired…."

Coal!

"And bored!" Kelvin yelled out. "Hey, I thought we were going to get some action soon. Now, don’t get me wrong…the action at Dame Julie’s was great…but my trigger finger’s itching again."

"Yeah, this is crazy. Why don’t we just do the heist and get it over with?" Another low voice growled. "It’s been too long. ‘Sides, I get angry if I don’t get a chance to steal some money."

"I’m getting low on cash, too." Kelvin agreed heartily.

"That’s because you’ve been losing at poker, Kelvin. You suck at cards. Deal with it," the first man said flatly. "Now, listen up! The heist will continue as planned, but some of you have to leave town. Tonight."

"Ah c’mon—"

"Kelvin." The authoritative voice rang out. It held a distinct undercurrent of danger.

Suddenly, two riders noisily appeared. Jack was able to peer through a crack between two rocks. He saw a young man with shiny red hair and a light scar running down his cheek flanked by an older man. They quickly tethered their horses and ran up to the shadowy men.

"I got the times for Coal," the younger man said breathlessly. His green eyes shined with excitement. "They’re three…six…and nine: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Just like clockwork."

Coal! Jack felt his heart race. Coal was still alive…He knew it! Of all the luck! Problem was, it sounded like Coal wasn’t here.

"Good. Now look, Kelvin, I’m tired of you always toeing the line. Gotta problem…you know who to take it up with."

"Nah, just me and the guys here are tired of waiting around. It’s about time we started to do something about it."

Again a chorus of murmurs and agreement greeted Kelvin’s pointed comments.

"Okay, back to business: These men will not be going to Colorado," Jack heard some paper rustle in the breeze as the voice recited a list of names. "I don’t have to tell you this, but I know a lot of you are upset. Another lawman is coming to Red Mesa and Coal doesn’t want the men on this list to be seen. If they are, the heist’s off…and we sure don’t want that, right?"

"What? Some of us are going to be left behind because of some guys with a badge? That’s fucked!!" Kelvin’s voice was shaking with anger. His name was one of those on the list. A quick scuffling signaled that Kelvin was quickly on his feet. Jack heard the click of a drawn pistol. An angry chorus quickly ensued. "Some of us are getting cut out of this heist that’ll make most of us rich and some of us poor."

"Sit down, Kelvin. This is coming from Coal himself, alright? Now don’t give me this crap! You all know how Coal operates. I don’t explain orders to you. You all know Coal’s success rate…there’s a reason its perfect."

As the grumbling continued, Jack stealthily made his way to the flickering shadows dancing on the neighboring rocks. It was as if an unseen force propelled Jack forward as he crept closer to the voice. Quietly, he backed himself against a boulder and stilled every muscle.

The voice, which seemed to be the leader of the group, continued. "If you thought about it for a minute, you’d see that killing the lawmen would only bring attention to Red Mesa. Attention to us!"

"Hey…Luke," Kelvin continued. "You think Coal is losing his nerve or something?"

"Leave me outta this, Kelvin. I like breathing…I guess you don’t." Luke replied pointedly.

"Why, boys, I think Luke’s is on to something," the command voice came back again. "Apparently your buddy Kelvin thinks he has nine lives—"

Jack’s eyes grew wide as he suddenly heard a sharp movement and loud scuffling. The temptation to match the harsh voices to their owners was growing harder and harder to control. He began to lean forward to clear his view around the boulder when the clicking of a six-shooter stopped him instantly. He looked up and breathed a sigh of relief. For a moment, he thought that a gun was aimed at him.

"Kelvin, you are breaking the rules," the leader’s voice had gone cold. Jack heard someone gasp a breath. "Does this look familiar boys…a gun stuck to the temple of another man? Kelvin…you worthless piece of crap. Have you forgotten Jeb already?"

Jack slowly inched his eyes over the boulder. All he heard was dead silence…but the unrest of the men was palpable.

"Good, so you have your orders. If you have a problem, take it up with Coal."

Jack strained once again to got a look, then felt his world crash around his ears. He saw his beloved Uncle Travis—the man closer to him than his own father—give the last order. He backed away as the final word echoed in his mind relentlessly. His face turned white…his jaw went slack…the pounding in his ears deafened him as his center lost its hold.

Coa.l … Coal…Coal. Once again, that name was associated with loss. For at that moment, Jack lost everything all over again. Instead of shooting his father, Coal took away his trust of one of the few people he loved. And, to Jack, that was the same as killing Travis - that once-beloved man.

Jack rushed onto his horse and eagerly anticipated the night’s dark oblivion. He needed speed…flight—anything to escape the pain that crunched his heart. The betrayals were many…too staggering to conceive of. For if his Uncle Travis was involved with Coal, then everything he said—

Oh no…that meant…the sketches of the bodies…the reassurance of Sheriff Howie…the sheriff?

The layers of deceit began to take its toll on the young man’s shoulders. His heels dug deeper into the horse…he crouched lower on the seat and rocked with the movement…urging his mount faster. Trying to outrun the pain…trying to get to a speed where the wind will blow his tears away from his face before they have a chance to run down his cheeks. Maybe that way, he could can argue they were never there in the first place. The horse strained under his load as it tried to answer the rider’s need for speed.

With sudden clarity, Jack knew what he had to do. His purpose was back...indeed, now he knew it had never left. With all of the things he had lost, the one thing he would gain would be Coal’s death…Coal’s destruction. He ought to have known… trusted his instincts…to believe that part of him screaming for recognition. Now, the purpose was finally acknowledged and accepted. Jack finally gave in. At that moment, he was past all hesitance of not killing that awful man. His nemesis.

A new look settled over the boy’s face and he immediately looked…older. All signs of doubt and confusion were erased…because it didn’t matter. He had his purpose…he knew what he had to do…all he had to do was fine Coal Damian…and he would succeed.

He would destroy Coal Damian. He was meant to…all events led up to this one clarifying moment. Coal Damian was alive…close by…and Jack would destroy him.

Jack closed his eyes and welcomed the complete darkness. All he heard now was the wind…the rushing wind screamed to him in protest of his speed…for even the wind couldn’t keep up with him at this rate. For now, he had a destination…he had an evolution to complete.

For that night, Jack ran away from the boy he had been and the man he would have become.

The boy’s instincts had been right…a gun had been aimed at him. A tall dark figure with startling blue eyes walked forward. With a slight twist of the head, those eyes followed the progress of the men as they descended the plateau one way…and a lone streak of movement descended on the other side.
 
 

Intermezzo II

Gwen’s eyes snapped open. Somebody was moving around…and it was late…very late. Her heart slowly beat faster as a cold steel of calm armored itself around her. With all of the different intricate plans she had laid out, it would be best to make sure that nothing changed. Not that Gwen couldn’t have handled any contingencies, in fact she thrived on them, but it would still be better to neutralize any if she could.

Besides, she worked better in the dark. A feral grin snaked across her lips as the slightest noise was magnified in her ears. Oh yes…somebody was restless. Gwen had always made it a habit to memorize the resting sounds of any structures she might live in - be it man-made or natural. The Dusty Hole Saloon, the irony surrounding the title made her smile a little wider…was no exception. Her eyes held no mirth however, just a brightness reflecting the opportunity in which to act and all of the potential that lay beyond it. Well, that and Gwen had always loved a challenge.

Gwen soundlessly slipped out of her room and slowly passed each of the rooms. Travis was snoring as usual, and Gwen snorted soundlessly. She should tell the barkeep to move farther along the hall. She continued down the hall, only to halt abruptly and, seemingly, inexplicably. Although she wasn’t aware which room Caleb slept in, she still found herself paused in front of the silent door. By all laws of nature, there wasn’t any way Gwen could know her brother was in this room…there was no snoring…no mutterings…no tell-tale cries in the night…nothing. Just silence. Almost as silent as her own room. But still, she felt something long dormant stir from deep inside her. Gwen momentarily allowed herself to close her eyes and slowly held out a hand in front of her. She softly pressed her palm onto the door and tried to listen…like the Druji once taught her to do…a long time ago. She listened…not only with her ears, but with her—

Gwen shook her head forcefully. No, she didn’t need distractions. Her instinct of dispatching Caleb out of town as soon as possible was the right one. He was a distraction. Her only flesh and blood…in a town like Red Mesa…with her men…some here…more close by. It didn’t help that another lawman had come to town. Gwen had to make sure that all went according to plan tomorrow. The repercussions of his shared blood with her might not be enough to protect him should something disastrous and unplanned occur.

It was a strange feeling…to protect someone…a lawman of all things. She, who had a habit of killing anything in uniform. Zeroing her deadly aim on a man with a brass star pinned on his upper shoulder— a perfect target. And now, here she was, standing in front of the door of a sworn enemy—and a Marshal on top of that. The only thing that protected this persona of law and authority was one thing:- he was her brother.

Gwen released her hand and let it fall in a caress near her hip. Gwen didn’t owe him anything, did she? He knew what he was getting into when he joined the Army and the Marshals after that. He was sworn to hunt down people like her…no, more like he was meant to kill people like her.

She had never expected to see him again. In fact, a good portion of her hoped that she wouldn’t, believing that when she had left all of those years ago, she had done him a favor. And now, she was forced to wonder, did she?

Gwen sighed heavily. She couldn’t afford to brood on such things as the past. Over the years, she had jumped in the fray in an effort to live for the moment. And now, with Caleb’s presence came a reminder of the life she held before Coal Damian had been born. And now, with Viola’s presence, the knowledge that someone could see past her walls into the turmoil which lurked beyond.

A distraction. Both of them. If all went well, they wouldn’t be tomorrow.

With this vow reverberating in her head, Gwen found herself continuing her way past the doors that guarded her sleeping brother. A well-practiced ear magnified the sonorous slumber around her, mentally matching the snore or movement with the occupant…all were accounted for—except for one. The softest tickling of the piano only confirmed her educated guess. Viola. The actress, who by all accounts should be snoring the loudest, was up again playing a midnight performance.

If Gwen was as focused as she usual, she would have turned around and went back to sleep. She knew who the intruder was. It posed no threat to her plans. But, still, the tall dark form continued to glide toward the source of the melodic rhythms. With every step, Gwen knew she was giving power to another distraction. And Viola, with her eyes the color of jade and talent of fervent hugs, was becoming too much of a distraction.

Gwen usually had a deadly method of dispatching such distractions.

Gwen softly walked to the French doors and sat down with her back to them. She was all the way over to the left, safely in shadows and obscurity, so she could listen to the midnight performance. If the plans went well, more than likely, it would be her last.

The oblivious performer was improving in interpreting the phrases of legato by the esteemed Monsieur Chopin. Although the piece was simple when perused on paper, in performance, the prelude in E flat Major held a delicate grace that only a skilled musician could evoke. Gwen’s mother had been able to do that. She had been able to play the repetitive minor chords in a way that created an ambiance of mystery. Her mother’s hands would lithely change through every chord progression with an effortless grace. Gwen could tell, as she relaxed her head back against the cold windows, that Viola was succeeding to play the sad song just as her mother had. The mystery, Gwen knew as she felt her eyes lull close and her mother’s visage swum before her, was what could make that simple melody so full of sadness? The haunting lyrical melody seemed to amplify that question of why? by the soon agitation of fierce chords. Yes, apparently behind that simple melancholy was a passion…an anger…perhaps against the perpetrator of those wounds.

Almost against her will, Gwen felt herself crying inside. Although the salty taste hadn’t spread down to her lips, she could taste the brine of her own pain. Gwen knew more than she wanted to of wounds. She knew that the most painful wounds were always the ones which others couldn’t see.

"Gwen?"

Gwen blinked back unseen tears and looked up. For a moment, she thought the visage of her mother had spoken, which only caused the pain to become that much more poignant. But still, despite the tumult of strong emotions, she would not cry. She opened and closed her eyes with disbelief and tested them again. To her bitter disappointment, her mother’s image changed into a slightly more petite form illuminated by moonlight. Viola’s fiery red hair was lit to a color never seen before by the sun. Viola waited, with her hand resting easily against the door, as a happy expression spread across her young face. Gwen looked down and saw the shadow of Viola’s form merge with Gwen’s own as Viola slowly stepped forward.

However, to Gwen, the soft voice might as well have hit her like a thunderbolt. This soft voice had been able to slip past all of her formidable defenses, training, and basic instincts. Viola had unwittingly found Gwen at her most vulnerable in a long time. The beautiful creature with golden highlights and emerald eyes had snuck past everything in Gwen’s control. And it frightened her.

Gwen’s anger surged as her heart began to pound louder and faster than ever before. Blue fire was met with nothing but the soft warm glow of concerned green eyes. Concern reserved for her…Gwenyth Devereaux. The woman who didn’t need anything or anyone. Certainly not a stranger…especially an actress from New York. The sharp words, which usually dressed down her men that came so easy were inscrutably still now.

"Gwen? Are you—" Viola began softly, knowing that she was disturbing the pained woman on the floor.

"Oh, so it’s you," Gwen slowly stood up. With an inbred fierceness, she clamped down on her emotions so hard that not even her eyes would give her away. "I thought I heard something."

Viola blushed. "Oh no. Did I wake you?"

"Yeah," Gwen answered. She turned to head up back to her room. "It’s all right though. See you in the morning."

"Gwen!" Viola entreated, reaching a hand out to the dark woman’s retreating form. "I’m sorry I woke you."

Gwen slowly turned back to the vision of fiery red-hair and emerald eyes. She held Viola’s gaze and inclined her head slightly. It wasn’t much of a nod, but that night, it would have to do.

Viola watched transfixed as Gwen slowly, but methodically, walked back to her private bedroom. She felt the need to stop the tall woman again, but stopped for some reason. She knew that when she spotted Gwen on the floor, she had interrupted something important. The feeling of intrusion washed over her so strongly that she had forgotten why Gwen was sitting there to begin with. She ached to know what Gwen had been thinking, but knew that she had made the right decision to wait until tomorrow.

Viola knew that she would find Gwen tomorrow. If not during the day, then after the play.

She was sure of it.
 
 

vi.

"Sam, good to see you," Caleb favored the older man with a salute and smiled when greeted in kind.

"Same here, Caleb. Why are you out here so early?" The older man laughed as Caleb shrugged. "It’s only an hour after dawn!"

Sam Cummings had been around for a while. He had not only fought in the War Between the States, but saw action during the Spanish-American War. He had seen more death than one man ever should. He now traveled as a Marshal trying to prevent private wars before they started. When Caleb first joined the Union soldiers, it was Sam who was his commanding officer.

"I prefer to start my days off early, Sam. A habit you ingrained in me when I was a cadet," Sam smiled crookedly. "Now, it seems I can’t break out of the habit. Besides, it gives me a chance to finish the things I need to."

Sam laughed. "Well, I’m glad something I taught you stuck. But now, after all of these years, does waking up so early really give you the time you need?" The older man smirked as if he already knew the answer.

Which he did. Caleb laughed, his blue eyes crinkled at the sides. "No, but I always preferred the early mornings anyway. At least I tried, right?"

"Right," Sam nodded approvingly and let himself be led to the Dusty Hole Saloon. The town was so quiet and still, that it reminded him of the ghost towns that had already begun to dot the path to Red Mesa. It was odd…how Red Mesa seemed so far out of the way from things. Almost like it was constructed deliberately for that purpose. "So, Caleb, what’s the status on Dusty?"

"I’ve already started to search around the perimeter of the town. Only a radius of a few miles but so far nothin’. He could have cleared out already." Caleb shook his head ruefully.

"Hmm," Sam thought for a moment. "Well, I passed by an Indian scout who assured me a man with that description," Sam reached in his back pocket for the wanted poster with Dusty’s face, "was on his way here."

"When was that?"

"Just a few days ago."

Caleb whistled. "Well, he’s gotta be close. I’ve been talking to the townsfolk and they haven’t seen hide or hair of him. It’s like he never made it to Red Mesa."

Sam nodded. "That’s strange. Dusty’s not one to be subtle upon his entrances into a town," Sam referred to Dusty’s well-known robberies upon practically every town he entered.

"Yeah, but this is his hometown. Where it all began."

"Caleb…how do the folks strike you? You don’t think his family or friends or covering for him do you?" Sam wandered over to a booth. "Can you get me some coffee?"

"Oh, yeah…I think Travis already has some up." Caleb quickly returned with two steaming mugs. "Nah, I’ve been getting the distinct impression that Dusty had worn out his welcome in Red Mesa a long time ago. Apparently, he wasn’t too good at running this saloon. He cheated too many people."

"Really? Dusty owned this place at one time?" Sam was slightly surprised. "So he did try to go legit at one time."

Caleb shook his head and snorted in disgust. "Naw, the Saloon never was legit. At least, that was the impression I got. It got so bad, that the townspeople stopped coming here altogether, and it attracted a seedier crowd. Then, Gwen came into town…and changed everything." He conspicuously held a big grin on his face.

Sam arched an eyebrow in piqued interest. "Gwen, huh? I take it she’s still here?"

Caleb’s eyes burned bright with happiness. "Yeah, she actually won this place from Dusty. Kicked him out of town…and the rest of history."

"I’m getting the impression that this Gwen person isn’t your ordinary lady, huh?" The crinkled gray eyes crinkled knowingly.

Caleb shook his head emphatically. "Nope, but what would you expect? She’s my sister!"

"Sister!" Sam burst in surprise. "But you never talked about any family!"

"Well…I didn’t. She told me goodbye one day and disappeared. Haven’t seen her since." Caleb shrugged and let the happiness of finding his sister wash over him, choosing to ignore the disappointment of his reception. He took a moment to ponder his words. "Sounds like a sad song, doesn’t it?"

"Sister, huh? Right here in Red Mesa of all places. Well now…it’s a small world, isn’t it?" Sam chuckled. He sipped the coffee for a while. "What does she think of Dusty? Does she know him?"

"Well…" Caleb hedged. "We haven’t really had a chance to talk yet."

Sam looked sharply at him. "What do you mean? You find your long-lost sister and you haven’t even talked yet?"

"Well…things just keep coming up," Caleb said lamely.

"All the more reason why we have to find Dusty and get rid of him. Is there anything else I should know?"

Caleb nodded. "About three weeks ago, a stagecoach was robbed. Two drivers were killed and the three passengers were spared. Just took their money. The guy in charge was called ‘Coal’."

Sam’s ears perked up. "Really? How far away was the robbery?"

"Don’t know…nobody does…including the three passengers," Caleb shrugged and held up his hands in futility. "But then, their story gets bizarre. After they’re robbed, they get put onto horseback and dropped off here. Yep, right on the doorstep of this very saloon. Haven’t heard from ‘Coal’ since. What do you make of it?"

Sam shrugged. "I have no idea. First time I’ve heard anything like that…especially with Coal Damian’s name attached to it. Were all of the passengers women?"

"Nope, two women and a man."

"Well, Coal’s hallmark is usually to kill all of the men. So, maybe it wasn’t him. It could have been Dusty. He’s tried to impersonate Coal before, so I wouldn’t put it past him." Sam said thoughtfully. "But still, the whole thing sounds too bizarre and complex…especially for Dusty."

"Yeah, I agree. There’s also one more thing…."

Sam sighed. "For a place out in the middle of nowhere, there are sure a lot of things going on. What now?"

Caleb nodded. He’d been thinking the same since he arrived. "Yesterday, there was a fire about eight miles northwest of here. Some men and I saw the smoke and rode off to find out what it was. It was a fire…an entire home burned to the ground. A man was scalped in the front yard. Someone ran in and saved the mother and daughter…miraculously."

"Miraculously on both counts, right? Lucky the house hadn’t exploded with the guy trying to save the victims, but also that they were saved at all…Oh, that’s bad," Sam shook his head. "Remind me to shake the hand of the man who went in after the woman and child. Risking his life like that was a selfless act. He deserves a medal."

"I’ll be sure to tell her," Caleb broke into a laugh at Sam’s dumbfounded expression. "It was my sister."

Sam’s jaw dropped incredulously. For a man to have witnessed so many things, this was quite a telling feat. "Your sister? I don’t believe it!"

"Ah," Caleb smirked knowingly. "That’s because you haven’t met her yet."

"Hmm, sounds like quite a lady. Definitely someone I want to meet."

Caleb smiled ruefully. "I know the feeling."

"Hello, gentlemen," a throaty voice surprised the two lawmen.

"Speak of the devil…" Caleb said as a large smile spread over his face.

"…and the devil will come," Gwen smiled and arched an eyebrow. "Careful of what you say, Caleb. You just never know."

"Ah, well, this must be Caleb’s long-lost sister," Sam smiled kindly and offered his hand. "Normally, I would greet a lady differently, but apparently you are a special lady."

"Oh really," Gwen answered, amused. She turned to her younger brother and smiled wryly. "He hasn’t been here long, so what could he have told you?"

"Yesterday morning, Gwen. I was telling him about the fire." Caleb visibly relaxed. Apparently, this day Gwen wasn’t nearly as tense and fiery. She was like a whole different person. It gave him hope.

"Oh, the fire…actually, that was what I came over to talk to you about," Gwen smiled and indicated the booth. Both men quickly rose slightly and she gracefully slid down. She flicked her eyes from the older man back to her younger brother in question.

"Oh, I’m sorry," Caleb blushed slightly, despite his years and experience. He suddenly felt like the small boy who had once adored his older sister. "Captain Sam Cummings…I would like you to meet my sister Gwenyth Devereaux. Gwen, this is Sam." The two nodded in greeting. "Gwen, how did you know we were here?" Caleb asked in puzzlement.

"Oh, I like to go on walks in the morning…it clears my head before I begin my day," Gwen smiled.

"Well, now, Ms. Devereaux—" Sam began with worried eyes.

"Gwen, pardon me for interrupting, but please call me Gwen." Gwen insisted and smiled winningly at the older man.

"Ah, yes, Gwen. I was just going to say how dangerous it must be for you to go wandering alone in the early morning." Sam found Gwen’s eyes to truly be captivating…they were a bright blue that seemed to shift shades with the lighting. Caleb’s sister was truly a stunner.

"Oh, really, Captain Cummings…do you suggest I have a gentleman to protect me?" Gwen leaned over and watched his reaction closely.

Sam blinked under the intense scrutiny. He had stared down generals and Indians, and yet he felt his gaze waver under this woman’s. Sometimes women were like a whole ‘nother creature.

"Please call me Sam, Gwen…and I’m not implying your weak…Caleb’s story of your rescue convinces me that you can take care of yourself…but why tempt fate? Why let yourself be vulnerable in a desolate place like this?"

"Sam, your sentiments are touching, but I know this town very well. I consider it a second home. And, if there is one thing you should not be concerned about, it would be my vulnerability. I try not to have one."

She smiled enigmatically which only caused the men to gravitate her more.

"But Gwen," Caleb interjected. "We all have a weakness. And being alone, by yourself, at dawn in the wilderness…it could be dangerous. We just want you to be aware of that."

Gwen sighed. "Thank you, but I did come over here for a reason," She brushed their concerns away with a flighty hand. "I am concerned about the fire yesterday. I was wondering if either of you found the men who did it."

Both men looked at her in surprise. "Well, no, Gwen," Caleb spoke up after a moment. "I searched around the house, but I didn’t find anything. Actually, I thought it was an Indian attack. If so, they’re gone by now."

"You were just cautioning me for being outside this morning, and now you are telling me not to be worried about an Indian attack a few miles away?" Gwen frowned at the two men in visible confusion. "That doesn’t make sense."

The two men exchanged glances and couldn’t help but acknowledge that she had a point. But, still, they had a mission.

"Okay, Gwen, I’m going to tell you something, but you can’t tell anyone," Sam waited for the beautiful woman to nod solemnly. "I mean it. We don’t want people to panic."

Gwen let her eyes grow appropriately wide enough. "What is it?"

"Dusty Swanson was spotted coming in this direction. Caleb and I were sent to take care of him. After we do that, we have orders to return to base immediately." Sam informed her.

Gwen nodded slowly as if digesting the information for the first time. "Okay…and I am glad to hear of that. So, then why can’t you handle the Indian raid as well? There are two of you…and you are U.S. Marshals. I just thought…." Gwen sighed heavily and bit her lower lip fearfully.

Caleb shifted uncomfortably. "Gwen, I promise nothing will happen. We’ll go back to the house and look around. I learned everything I know from Sam…maybe a fresh pair of eyes will tell us what happened and by whom."

"You’ve been here a few days, Caleb…have you heard anything about Dusty?" Gwen asked innocently as she surreptitiously changed tactics on the two lawmen.

"Well…no," Caleb eyes studied the six inches of table in front of Gwen carefully as he used to do as a child. "Actually, there hasn’t been any sign of him for three days."

"And…have you seen any sign of him in the area?" Gwen persisted.

"Well…no. I’m kinda surprised by that actually." Caleb turned attention to the rim of his hat. "But that doesn’t mean he isn’t nearby."

"True…but considering how a homestead was attacked only a few miles away yesterday and not knowing if it’s a part of a larger uprising…one that could be eventually directed toward Red Mesa…." Gwen’s voice trailed off, letting the men connect the dots themselves.

"Goddamn it, Caleb…your sister’s a smart one," Sam sighed heavily. "I have such bad luck with smart women."

Caleb shook his head. "Yeah, I know. I grew up with her."

"At least we know that is a threat. I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I have to go." Gwen rose in departure and nodded to the two men who joined her in standing. "Why search the brush for something that hasn’t reach Red Mesa yet, hmm? For all we know Dusty could have turned south toward the Mexican border."

Caleb nodded. "We’ll figure it out, Gwen. Don’t worry about it."

"Oh, I’m not…not with two U.S. Marshals in Red Mesa. I promise not to worry about a thing." Gwen nodded her head again and waved her hand to Travis who was behind the bar. "Give them two more coffees, Travis. On the house, of course.’"

Travis nodded and filled two mugs with the hot brown fluid. Gwen turned back and smiled brightly. "There is a party tonight after the opening of the play. I hope the two of you look into it. Have a good day." Then she turned back to the staircase and began to ascend.

The two men looked at each other in puzzlement. In truth, Gwen’s departure left the two men a little befuddled. Sam shook his head as he watched Gwen ascend the staircase to the bedrooms above. He waited until she was out of earshot then turned to her brother.

"What just happened there?" Sam demanded.

Caleb shrugged. "I guess we’ve got a new assignment."

To be concluded in Act V….


Taiko's Scrolls Of The Xenaverse