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UNDER WESTERN SKIES by Eva Allen
LEGAL DISCLAIMER: The characters Xena and Gabrielle, along with others who have appeared in the TV series XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, are the sole property of Universal/Studios USA and Renaissance Pictures. All other characters are the clever invention of the author. The use of Universal's characters in this story does not constitute the author's intent to make a profit or otherwise infringe on the existing copyright. The interpretation of the characters in this story is purely the author's own. Copyright for this fanfiction held by Eva Allen, September, 1999.
Xena hoisted the heavy saddle onto Argo's back and reached under the mare's belly for the cinch strap. "Gabrielle," she said, glancing over her shoulder at her companion, "you know, the more I think about it, the more I think it would be better for you to stay here instead of going with us."
"No, Xena, don't start that. I want to go, and I'm going. That's the end of it."
Sighing, Xena threaded the strap through the buckle and pulled it up tight. "If we actually find those guys, there could be some shooting," she said, "and I may not be able to protect you. I can't just catch a bullet in flight the way I can an arrow or a spear."
"I know," Gabrielle said quietly. "I'm not asking you to protect me. I'm just asking you to let me go with you. Besides, after yesterday, I feel more like I can take care of myself now."
Xena turned to face the younger woman and put a hand on her shoulder. "Why is this so important to you?" she asked. "You were perfectly happy to stay in town the other days."
"That's true, and I can't really explain it, but I just feel like I need to go today -- like I'm supposed to be there for whatever's going to happen."
"All right, let's get going then," the warrior said. She still felt uneasy about the situation, but knew better than to argue once Gabrielle's mind was made up. She led Argo out of the stable and swung herself into the saddle. Then she reached down to pull Gabrielle up behind her.
Herbert was waiting for them, chewing thoughtfully on a toothpick while he sat astride his white stallion. "Are we ready?" he asked, tossing the toothpick aside.
Xena nodded and touched her heels to Argo's flanks. The two horses started down the road, cantering side by side in the early-morning sunlight. A mist hung over the meadows and the air still felt chilly. Xena was glad for the warmth of Gabrielle's body pressed against her back and the arms wrapped around her waist.
They slowed to a walk as they turned off the road and started across the rocky field, and Gabrielle laid her head against the warrior's shoulder. "When we get home," she said, "I think I'm going to take a long nap."
Xena wondered if by "home" Gabrielle meant the boarding house or Greece, but she didn't ask.
"I have the feeling this is all just a wild-goose chase," said Herbert as they entered the trees near the river. "Those three are probably long gone -- that is, if they have any sense at all."
"Yes, it seems like once they figured out Gabrielle got away they would know she'd lead us to their hideout," Xena agreed. "But we have to go see, at least. And maybe we can pick up their trail from the cabin."
"I don't really have the time or the jurisdiction to follow them very far," Herbert said. "But I can issue a 'wanted' notice to the surrounding states and territories." He urged his horse into the river and Xena followed.
"I'll go after them, if I have to," she said. "I'm not worried about jurisdiction, but I am worried about getting that Cronus Stone back."
Herbert glanced over his shoulder at her, frowning. "Well, we'll talk about what to do once we find out what the situation is," he said.
They rode on in silence for a few minutes, then Gabrielle said, "I think I like riding in the river a lot better than wading in it."
Xena laughed. "Did your dress ever get dry?" she asked.
"Not totally. The bottom of the skirt is still pretty damp, and so are my boots."
"Lizzie offered you a different dress."
"Yes, but I hate to get another of her dresses all dirty and torn. I don't think she has very many."
"Probably not," Xena agreed.
They left the river at the mouth of the canyon. Herbert reined his horse to a halt and looked back at Gabrielle. "This is the canyon we were in yesterday when I fired those two shots," he told her. "Is this the right one?"
Gabrielle looked around for a moment and then pointed. "Yes! There's the pile of stones I made last night," she said, "so that means this is the right place."
"Good. Let's go," said Xena. She started Argo moving forward, and Herbert followed. The canyon floor still lay in shadow at this hour, although the sun was now hitting the tops of the sloping walls. They went slowly, following the twists and turns of the small stream, and as they went, Xena felt the back of her neck begin to tingle. It was a sensation which almost always meant she was being watched. Slowing the pace even more, she scanned their surroundings carefully, and although she saw nothing, her uneasiness continued to grow. As they neared the place where she and Herbert had eaten lunch the previous day, Xena pulled Argo to a halt and waited for the sheriff to catch up.
"What's wrong?" whispered Gabrielle. "Did you see something?"
"No," Xena whispered back, "but I'm getting a really bad feeling about this place." Then, as Herbert came up beside them, she turned to him. "I'm afraid we may be riding into an ambush," she said in a low voice.
He cast an appraising glance at the canyon walls. "Well, this would be a good place for one," he said, "but I haven't seen anything suspicious. Have you?"
"No," she admitted. "It's just a feeling I get sometimes -- a feeling I've learned to trust."
"Do you want to turn back?" he asked.
Xena considered for a moment. "No," she said. "We need to go on and try to get to that cabin, but I think we should be on the alert."
"All right," Herbert said, drawing his gun. "I'll ride in front."
Xena opened her mouth to protest, but then remembered she had Gabrielle to protect. "Okay," she said, nodding. Drawing her own pistol, she cocked the hammer and held the weapon ready as they started forward again.
A deathlike silence had fallen over the canyon, broken only by the clopping of the horses' hooves on the rocky ground. Xena strained her senses to catch any sound or movement which might spell danger. At her waist, she felt Gabrielle's clasped hands begin to tremble. Argo, too, seemed to be on the alert, looking around with neck arched and ears pricked forward.
They had only gone about a hundred paces when Xena saw what she had been watching for -- a man moving behind some bushes up on the canyon's side. "Herbert!" she shouted.
But he had seen it, too, and as the first shot rang out, he fired an answering one. Xena also fired, but as she did so, Argo spooked at the sound of the whining bullets, and the shot went wild. In that instant, the warrior realized that she should have spent some time practicing her marksmanship on horseback, as well as accustoming her mount to the sound of gunfire.
"Steady, Girl," she called out in Greek as she wheeled the mare around and squeezed off another shot. This one appeared to come closer to the mark, and she was about to try again when a bullet screamed past from a different source. Quickly scanning the canyon's side, she spotted the second gunman just as he appeared over the top of a boulder and took aim at Herbert. It was Isaiah. She recognized him just as she pulled the trigger. Then, in the next moment, she saw the outlaw drop his gun and clutch his chest as he toppled over behind the stone.
"I got one!" she cried triumphantly.
"Good!" Herbert shouted back. "Now let's take cover before they get us!" He reined his horse's head toward the low willow trees on the other side of the stream.
Xena was just steering Argo in the same direction when suddenly she heard a shot fired from close at hand. The nervous mare whirled around, and as she did so, the warrior caught a glimpse of Bill Garrison crouching behind some shrubs at the base of the canyon wall. She aimed and fired. The bullet ricocheted off the stones with a loud zing which sent Argo skittering into another spin.
All at once, Xena felt Gabrielle's body slam against her own. The younger woman gave a choked cry, her arms tightening convulsively around the warrior's waist for a brief moment before letting go entirely. Only then did the sound of the shot register in Xena's mind.
"Gabrielle!" she screamed, as she felt her lover's body go limp and slip to the left. Dropping the reins, she reached an arm back to steady the younger woman.
"What happened?" Herbert called.
"Gabrielle's been shot!"
"Get her out of here!" he shouted, waving in the direction they had come from. "I'll cover you!" he added, firing a quick shot at each of the remaining outlaws.
With neither hand free to guide her mount, Xena pressed one knee hard against the mare's side and called out in Greek, "Argo, fall back!" The horse obeyed instantly, wheeling and taking off at a gallop down the canyon as the warrior fired a parting shot in Bill Garrison's direction.
Thrusting her revolver back into the holster, Xena picked up the reins and pulled back on them to slow Argo's pace. Her left arm felt cramped from the effort of supporting Gabrielle's weight at such an awkward angle, and she knew she couldn't hold her much longer. Rounding another bend in the canyon, she decided it was safe to stop.
"Gabrielle," she called, as she twisted around, trying to see. "Gabrielle, can you hear me?" But there was no answer. "Gabrielle!" Xena cried again, and felt a wave of icy fear sweep over her. She was just trying to think how to get her wounded companion safely to the ground, when she heard the sound of approaching hoofbeats.
A moment later, Herbert galloped into view. Leaping off before his horse had even come to a stop, he ran to Argo's side and reached up for Gabrielle. She groaned as he lifted her down.
"She's still alive," Xena breathed in relief.
Herbert lowered the young woman gently to the ground and, leaping out of the saddle, Xena hurried over to kneel beside her.
"Here's where the bullet went in," the sheriff said, pointing to the hole with its spreading stain to the right of Gabrielle's spine, about halfway down her back. "I don't see any place where it came out, though," he went on, rolling her carefully onto her side to get a better view.
"So the bullet is still in there," Xena said.
"Is that bad?"
"Well, I guess it depends on what it hit and how much damage it did. But in your case, it's good because if it had gone on through--"
"It would have hit me."
"I wish it had hit me instead of hitting Gabrielle," Xena said. She reached out to pull the young woman over so that she was lying facedown across her thighs. "I should never have let her come with us."
"Don't start that, Xena," Herbert said. "It won't help us now." He pulled a folded white handkerchief out of his back pocket and pressed it against the wound. "We've got to get the bleeding stopped and get her to Nick's office."
Xena nodded. She laid her fingers on the pulse in Gabrielle's neck. It was weak and fast, and the breathing seemed erratic. Brushing the hair back from her lover's face, she noted the pallor of the skin and the thin sheen of cold perspiration.
"This isn't going to do the trick. I need something else," Herbert said, lifting the now-soaked handkerchief off the wound.
"Cut the bottom off her skirt and use that," Xena suggested.
"Good idea," he said, pulling out his pocketknife.
Gabrielle gave a small moan and began to vomit.
Xena bent over her, lifting her head and holding it until the spasms ended. Herbert handed her a piece of the calico skirt and she used it to wipe the bard's face.
"Xena?" murmured Gabrielle.
"I'm right here, Sweetheart," the warrior said, turning the younger woman's face toward her.
"You got shot in the back."
"With an arrow?"
"No, with a bullet."
"It hurts so bad."
"I know, Love. I know it hurts, but you have to be brave for a little while until Herbert and I can get you back to town. Then Nicholas will give you some morphine for the pain and he'll get the bullet out. You'll feel all better in no time."
Gabrielle groaned again and clutched at Xena's leg with weak fingers.
"What did she say?" Herbert asked, looking up from the thick pad of fabric he was holding over the wound.
Xena glanced at him, wondering if there was something wrong with his hearing. Then she realized that she and Gabrielle had been speaking Greek. "She's in a lot of pain," she explained. "And I'm not sure she understands what happened."
"I'm not surprised," he said softly. "Here. Can you hold this for a minute?" he asked, nodding at the compress. "I'll cut some more strips so we can tie it in place."
Xena put her hand on the pad and pressed down. Gabrielle moaned sharply.
"I'm sorry," the warrior said, gently stroking the younger woman's hair. "I don't want to hurt you, but we have to get the bleeding stopped."
"Don't leave me," Gabrielle said in a choked voice.
"I won't, Sweetheart," Xena said quickly. "I'll be right here with you every minute."
Herbert tore several long strips from the bottom of Gabrielle's petticoat, then began binding them around her body over the compress and tying them. "Do you think that will hold it?" he asked when he had finished.
"It ought to," said Xena, nodding.
"All right. How do you want to do this?"
Xena considered for a moment. "I'll get on Argo and you can lift Gabrielle up to me," she said. "I'll hold her in front of me, across the saddle."
"Are you sure you can hold her that long? Maybe it would be better if I did it."
"No. I can do it," Xena said firmly.
"Okay," Herbert said. He rolled the wounded bard over carefully and picked her up.
Xena climbed into the saddle and then moved back to sit behind it. Herbert lifted Gabrielle up, wincing visibly as she cried out in pain. They positioned her so that she was sitting crossways, her back supported by Xena's arm and her head against the warrior's shoulder.
"Will that work all right?" asked Herbert.
"Yes, this is fine," Xena said, and then as Gabrielle moaned again, she added, "I only wish there were some way to do it without hurting her."
"I wish so, too. Let me just wash some of the blood off my hands and we can get going," he said, then went and knelt beside the stream.
Xena looked down at her lover, noting that although her eyes were open, she didn't seem to be focusing on anything in particular. "Gabrielle," she said softly. "How are you doing?"
The younger woman looked up at her. "Are we going home now?" she asked in a weak voice.
"Soon, Love. Very soon. But first we have to go see the healer."
"Yes," Xena said with a wry smile. "We're going to see Nicklio."
"I took you there one time, remember?"
"Yes, I remember. Now, don't talk anymore, Gabrielle. You need to save your strength."
But the younger woman's voice rambled on. "I took you all the way to Mt. Nestos," she said, "and it was snowing and my leg hurt."
"That was a very brave and loving thing you did for me," Xena said softly.
"I took you all that long way there and then you died," Gabrielle concluded in a tired voice.
"Shh. Rest now," Xena said, stroking her lover's hair while she tried to ignore the sudden chill that clutched her gut.
Gabrielle looked up at her again. "Xena, am I dying?" she asked.
"No, Sweetheart, of course not. You've been badly wounded and you're in a lot of pain, but you're strong and you're going to pull through this."
"I feel so sick," she whispered, then began to vomit again.
"Herbert," Xena called. "Can you get me a wet cloth?"
He was on the way to his own horse, but quickly changed direction. Coming over to stand beside Argo, he looked first at Gabrielle and then at Xena.
"You know," he said softly as he began tearing another piece off Gabrielle's skirt, "Nick is a very good doctor, but he's not God. There are some things that even he can't heal."
"I know," Xena said, and she understood what he was trying to tell her.
Turning, Herbert went to the stream and stooped down to wet the fabric.
"Thanks," Xena said when he brought it back, then added, "We need to get going."
"All right," he said, then he mounted and gestured for her to lead the way.
* * *
The trip back to town seemed to take forever. They went slowly, trying to avoid jarring Gabrielle, and used a different road so that they would come out at the end of town where the doctor's office was.
"I'll ride ahead and tell Nick we're coming," Herbert said when they got close.
"Okay," Xena said. She shifted her lover's weight slightly to ease the strain on her arm. "We're almost there, Gabrielle," she said, kissing the blond head.
The wounded woman responded with some mumbled words which Xena couldn't make out.
"Be strong, Sweetheart. Stay with me," the warrior said for maybe the fiftieth time since they had begun their little trek. "I love you and I'm not going to lose you," she added. Then, looking up, she saw Herbert come out the door of Nicholas' office and hurry toward them.
"Nick isn't here," he said as he took hold of Argo's bridle and led her to the hitching post. "There's a note saying he's at the boarding house," he went on, "so I'll just take Gabrielle inside and then I'll run down there and get him."
Xena nodded mutely as she fought down a wave of panic. It had never occurred to her that the doctor might not be in his office. What else could go wrong on this wretched day?
As soon as Herbert lifted Gabrielle down, Xena jumped off Argo's back. "I can carry her in," she said, taking the wounded woman out of the sheriff's arms. "You go get Nicholas. And hurry!"
"I will," he said, then set off at a run for the boarding house.
Xena laid Gabrielle faceup on the examining table. The younger woman looked at her, but with a gaze that seemed vague and unfocused. "How's the pain?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle looked away, and for a long moment, she gave no sign of having heard or understood the question. Then she said, "The rocks were so slippery."
"In the river. I fell down and got my dress all wet and now I'm cold."
"You're cold?" Xena said, taking one of the bard's hands. "Yes, you are, aren't you? Let me see if I can find a blanket." She went to the cupboard and got one, then spread it over Gabrielle, keeping one of her lover's hands out so she could hold it. "There. That should help warm you up," she said.
"We have to find a place to put my scrolls."
"What do you mean?"
"A place where people will find them and read them. I want everybody to know about you."
"Sure. We'll find a place," Xena said. She brought her lover's hand to her mouth and gently kissed it. "How's the pain, Gabrielle?" she asked again. "Are you still feeling a lot of pain?"
The younger woman turned her eyes toward Xena, but she seemed to be looking at something much farther away. "I don't feel afraid anymore," she said in a voice so faint that Xena had to lean close to catch the words. "I just . . . feel . . ." She didn'tfinish. Instead, her eyes went slowly blank and then her eyelids closed.
"Gabrielle?" Xena said, but the only response was the shallow rasp of the bard's breath. "Don't leave me," the warrior whispered as she gently brushed back the hair from Gabrielle's face. "Please don't leave me." Then she bent and kissed the pale cheek.
She straightened up when she heard the heavy pounding of footsteps on the boardwalk. A moment later, Nicholas burst in through the door, followed by Herbert. The doctor started toward her, but stopped short when he saw her face.
"Xena, is she--" he began.
"Okay," he said, with a measure of relief in his voice. "Let me just wash my hands." He crossed quickly to the wash basin and poured some water into it. "So tell me again what happened," he said, turning to Herbert. "You got ambushed in the canyon?"
"Right, although we weren't caught totally by surprise," Herbert said. "Xena somehow guessed what was going to happen. I think she has some kind of sixth sense or something," he added. "But it was just so strange that those three would have been there at all, lying in wait for us at that hour of the morning. They should have just taken their loot and headed for Mexico."
"It doesn't make much sense, does it?" Nicholas said as he dried his hands. "It's almost as if they had a personal vendetta against you. And why would they shoot Gabrielle, of all people?"
"They were probably aiming for me," Xena said, "but Argo was pretty skittish about the gunfire and was moving around a lot, so--"
"You and Gabrielle were on the same horse?" Nicholas asked in surprise as he picked up his stethoscope and walked over to the table.
"Yes," said Xena. She was still holding Gabrielle's hand, but now she laid it down and pulled back the blanket.
"That's the amazing thing," Herbert said. "If the bullet had gone on through Gabrielle, Xena would have been hit, too."
"Hmm, you're right. There's no exit wound," Nicholas said. "The bullet must have struck a bone." He leaned over to listen to Gabrielle's heart and then checked her pulse. "All right," he said, straightening up. "Now I need to--" He stopped speaking as he stared at the warrior's clothes. "Were you wounded, too?" he asked.
"No," she said, puzzled. Then, glancing down, she saw that her shirt was covered with dried blood and vomit. "No, I'm fine," she repeated.
Nicholas nodded and turned back to the younger woman. "Help me turn her over," he said to Xena, and between them, they rolled the bard carefully onto her stomach. Then Nicholas picked up a pair of scissors, sliced through the bandages, and pulled them off. After that, he started cutting off the dress and chemise.
Herbert had moved closer to watch, but now he apparently realized that the doctor's intention was to remove all of Gabrielle's clothing. "Uh, Nick," he said, "if you don't need my help, maybe I'll take the horses on back to the stable."
Nicholas glanced up at him. "That's probably a good idea," he said. "Lizzie should be here in a few minutes, so I'll have plenty of help."
"All right, then," the sheriff said, backing toward the door. "I'll check back later to see how she's doing."
"Thanks, Herbert," said Xena.
He nodded and then ducked out.
"The bullet went through her right kidney," Nicholas said, examining the wound.
"How can you tell that?" Xena asked.
"Well, by the location of the wound, for one thing. And also by the fact that there's blood in her urine," Nicholas said, pointing to some stains on Gabrielle's petticoat.
Xena nodded as she tried to remember her anatomy lesson from the two days before.
"Did you see who shot her?" Nicholas asked then.
"Yes. It was Bill Garrison."
"I might have known. Where was he when he fired?"
"He was behind some bushes, down on the canyon floor."
"So he was below you."
"That means the bullet entered on an upward trajectory," Nicholas said, more to himself than to Xena. "Let's see," he went on as he rolled Gabrielle onto her side. "If it entered here, then it must have hit one of the lower ribs." He ran his fingers carefully over Gabrielle's rib cage, stopping when he found what he was looking for. "Right here," he said. "This rib is broken."
Xena felt the spot, too. "So this is where the bullet stopped?" she said.
"Maybe. But more likely it bounced back through the liver." He pulled the rest of Gabrielle's clothes away from her body and dropped them on the floor. Then he positioned her again on her stomach and spread the blanket over her.
Xena watched in silence, her eyes searching his face for the answer to the question she was afraid to ask.
He looked up and seemed about to speak when the door opened. "Ah. Here's Lizzie," he said.
The older woman hurried across the room and put an arm around Xena's shoulders. "How bad is it?" she asked, staring down at the figure on the examining table.
"Well, it looks like there's damage to one kidney and to her liver, but I'll know more once I open her up," Nicholas said. "Can you stay and help me?"
"Yes, I'd be glad to."
"I can help, too," Xena said.
He looked at her. "You're welcome to, of course," he said," but it can be very difficult seeing someone you love under the knife. I'll understand if you don't want to be involved in this."
Xena shook her head. "No," she said. "I want to be here. I promised Gabrielle that I would stay with her and I intend to keep that promise."
"Xena," Lizzie said quietly, "Gabrielle will be asleep during the surgery. She won't know whether you're here or not. You can be here for her when she wakes up."
"I want to be here during the surgery," Xena insisted.
"All right," Nicholas said. "Go wash your hands -- both of you -- and let's get started."
* * *
"Xena, I want you to do the chloroform," the doctor said when the two women got back. "Just pour some on the cloth, like this, and hold it over her nose and mouth."
"Why use chloroform when she's already unconscious?" Xena asked.
"Just as a precaution," Nicholas said. "It could be very unpleasant for her if she woke up in the middle of the surgery." He smiled a little and then went on. "I also need you to watch her breathing, and for any vomiting."
"Now, Lizzie," he said, "if you'll stand here by me, you can hand me instruments as I need them."
Xena would have found the surgery fascinating if it had involved anyone else but Gabrielle. Nicholas worked slowly and carefully, explaining what he was doing as he went along. He pointed out the damage to the kidney and liver, then spent what seemed like an eternity poking and probing, looking for the bullet.
"Well, I can't find it," he said finally, "and I'm afraid I'll do more harm than good if I keep looking for it."
"You can't just leave it in there, can you?" Xena asked in surprise.
"Yes, I'll have to," Nicholas said. "But I don't think it will cause her any problems," he added.
"There are plenty of old soldiers and gun fighters walking around with bullets inside them," Lizzie said with a grin. "This will just be a special little Colorado souvenir that Gabrielle can take home with her."
Xena tried to grin back, but she wasn't sure if she succeeded or not.
Nicholas set to work stitching what he could of the internal injuries while his two assistants watched in silence. When it came time to close the original incision, he said, "Lizzie, I think I can finish this up without your help. Why don't you go get Xena some clean clothes to wear?"
"All right. That's a good idea," she said. "Is there anything else you want me to bring?"
"Gabrielle's nightshift," Xena said promptly. "She usually leaves it on the floor someplace, but if you can't figure out which one is hers, just bring one of them -- it doesn't matter which one." Then she turned to Nicholas. "Can we take Gabrielle back to the boarding house?" she asked. "I think she'd be more comfortable there."
"Yes, I guess it would be all right to move her, if we're careful," the doctor said. "I've got a litter we can use."
"Okay. Clothes for Xena, nightshift for Gabrielle," Lizzie said. "Anything else?"
"No, I think that's it," Nicholas said. "Thanks for your help, Lizzie," h e added, giving her a quick smile before she went out the door. Then he bent over the incision and began stitching it.
Xena studied his face, noting the same grim lines she had seen it wear when Mrs. Brown died, and again when he spoke of losing his wives and son. She became aware once more of the cold fear that gripped her heart, and the question she had been wanting to ask finally burst out: "She's going to die, isn't she?"
Nicholas glanced up at her, compassion in his eyes. "I don't know, Xena," he said quietly. "And that's the truth. I'm not just trying to be kind." He looked down again, carefully pushed the needle through Gabrielle's flesh, then drew the thread up and tied it.
The warrior watched in silence while despair and hope battled within her.
"I won't deny that Gabrielle's injuries are serious," Nicholas continued, "and she's lost quite a bit of blood from internal bleeding. I think I got most of that stopped, but I don't know if I got it all." He paused long enough to tie off another stitch and then went on. "The fact is, right now Gabrielle's chances for survival don't look that great, but Xena, I've seen people pull through before after I thought for sure they were goners. And the lesson I've learned is that you can never give up hope. Gabrielle is young and strong, and she has a lot of reasons to want to go on living. She may very well surprise us all before this is over."
Xena swallowed hard and nodded. She was quiet for a few moments and then said, "I had a dream about Gabrielle last night. I saw her getting into Charon's boat."
"Charon? Isn't he the one who takes souls across the River Styx to the underworld?"
"Well, dreams are strange things -- hard to understand. I don't usually put much trust in them."
"You dreamed about setting my broken legs," Xena said.
"Yes, but that was more of a past-life memory. When it comes to dreams that purport to tell the future, I'm pretty much a skeptic."
She smiled. "Thanks, Nicholas," she said.
"For what? For not believing in your dream?"
"Yes, and for everything you've done for Gabrielle."
"Well, I've pretty much done everything I know to do, so it's up to her now."
With a small shock, Xena remembered once saying much the same words about Gabrielle when the bard lay, gravely wounded, in a Thessalian temple. That story had had a happy ending. Maybe this one would, too.
Through all the long hours of that day, Xena stayed with Gabrielle, sometimes sitting by the bed, and at other times pacing the room or staring out the window. The wounded woman had not regained consciousness after the surgery, but Xena hoped that somehow she could hear her as she sat holding her hand, speaking to her in Greek about how much she loved and needed her.
Lizzie, too, spent several hours in the room, keeping the warrior company. She arrived carrying a large cloth bag, seated herself in one of the two straight-backed chairs, opened the bag, and took out two sticks and a ball of yarn. Then, to Xena's surprise, she began to weave the yarn between the sticks, creating a sort of fabric. She called the process knitting. There was something about the repetitive movements which the warrior found comforting, but when the older woman offered to teach her, she shook her head. "I just don't think I could concentrate on anything like that right now," she said.
Herbert stuck his head in a couple of times to ask how Gabrielle was doing, and Ellis dropped by to sit and talk for half an hour or so. Nicholas, of course, came as often as he could between seeing patients in his office and calling on a few outside of town. But each time he came, he only confirmed what Xena already knew. There was no change in Gabrielle's condition.
"I think it's a good sign that she's held on this long," the doctor said when he checked his patient again after supper. "She's tough, and as I said earlier, she may well surprise us all."
"Yes, I suppose so," Xena said dully. "It's just so hard not knowing how this is going to turn out."
"You're right. The waiting is hard," he said, "but Gabrielle is fighting for her life, and she has to do that in her own way and in her own time." He paused and then went on. "I will say this, though. I can't imagine that there won't be some change by morning -- one way or the other."
"By morning," Xena repeated in a bleak tone of voice. She turned and walked over to the table, where she stood looking at the plate of food Mary had brought up for her earlier.
Nicholas followed her. "Xena, you need to eat something," he said. "If Gabrielle gets through this, she will need you to be strong for her. And if she doesn't-- Well, you'll still need to be strong."
"I know," Xena said. She sank down in the chair and picked up her fork. A slice of ham stared up at her, along with some carrots and a roll. It all looked distinctly unappetizing.
"I'll be downstairs if you need me," Nicholas said, laying a hand on Xena's shoulder. "Call me if there's any change. And eat your supper," he added.
Left alone, Xena forced herself to eat a few bites of the food. Then she gave up and went to stand beside the bed. Was Gabrielle waiting for her to release her so that she could cross over? Maybe it was her own selfish need that was keeping the bard from the Elysian Fields. But how could she let her go? How could she not hang on fiercely as long as there was even a shred of hope that Gabrielle would recover?
Turning away, Xena moved to the window and stared out without seeing anything. Behind her, she heard the door open.
"It's just me," said Lizzie. "I thought I'd come sit with you again for a little while."
Xena turned to face the older woman. "Lizzie," she said abruptly, "do you think Gabrielle is waiting for me to let her go so that she can die?"
"Well, I don't know," the other woman said, apparently surprised by the question. "I've heard of people who claimed they got all the way to heaven and then came back because someone here needed them. So I guess if Gabrielle thinks you need her--"
"Shh!" Xena said suddenly. She thought she had heard a sound from Gabrielle. Moving quickly to the bed, she sat down in the chair and leaned close to her lover. The sound came again -- kind of a whimpering sigh. "Gabrielle," she said, taking the younger woman's hand, and then touching her face.
"What is it?" asked Lizzie anxiously, as she crossed the room to stand beside the warrior.
The hand Xena was holding twitched slightly, and she saw the bard's eyelids flutter. "She's waking up!" she exclaimed.
"I'll call Nicholas!" the older woman said and hurried out into the hallway.
"Gabrielle," Xena said again.
The green eyes opened, and as they turned to focus on her, Xena could see a clarity in them which had not been there before. The young woman gave a weak smile and said in Greek, "I'm not going to make it."
"Sure you are," Xena responded. "You're strong, Gabrielle. You just have to keep fighting."
"Don't, Xena. Don't argue with me. I haven't got the strength . . . or the time."
Xena stared at her, feeling all at once as if a heavy pall had dropped over her, blocking out the light and making it almost impossible to breathe.
"The Cronus Stone," Gabrielle said in a voice barely louder than a whisper.
Xena leaned closer so that she could hear, aware now that Nicholas and Lizzie had come into the room and were standing behind her.
"Get the Cronus Stone," Gabrielle went on. "If we can go back, before all this happened, we can be together again."
"Yes," Xena said, caressing her lover's cheek. "I'll get it. I promise you that we'll be together . . . one way or another."
Gabrielle nodded and tried again to smile. "I love you, Xena," she murmured.
"I love you, too," the warrior responded. "With all my heart." Then she brought Gabrielle's hand up and pressed it against her mouth.
The younger woman continued to look at her, but now the clarity began to fade from her eyes. "I have to . . . rest now . . ." she whispered, and then her eyelids closed.
Xena sat frozen, still clutching Gabrielle's hand, still staring at the pale face. All the fear and despair she'd felt before were suddenly gone, replaced by a strange numbness.
Nicholas moved forward, stethoscope in hand, and bent over the bed.
Lizzie put her hands on Xena's shoulders. "What did she say?" she asked.
"She said she wasn't going to make it," Xena said in an expressionless voice. "She said I need to get the Cronus Stone, so we can go back home and be together again."
Nicholas straightened up and pulled the stethoscope from his ears. "And she said she loves you," he said softly. "I understood that part."
Xena nodded, but said nothing.
"Her heartbeat is getting weaker," Nicholas said. "I don't think she'll wake up again."
"How much longer does she have?" Xena asked in a low voice, never taking her eyes off Gabrielle.
"A few hours, at the most," the doctor said. "Sometimes the body has a hard time giving up, even when the spirit is ready to move on."
"Xena," Lizzie said, brushing the warrior's hair back gently and bending forward to look at her face, "We'll be glad to sit here with you, if you want us to. Or would you rather be alone with Gabrielle?"
Xena considered for a few moments, and then looked up at her. "I'd rather be alone," she said quietly.
"All right," Lizzie said. "But we'll be close by, if you need us."
"Just call if you need anything at all," Nicholas said. "Will you do that?"
"Yes," said Xena. "Thank you." Then she turned her gaze back to Gabrielle.
Lizzie and Nicholas left the room, and Xena sat for several minutes without moving. Finally, getting up, she returned the chair to its place by the table. She sat down, unlaced her boots, and took them off. Then she removed her belt and her vest. Going back to the bed, she lifted the covers and slipped in under them, pressing her body close to Gabrielle's. "I'm right here, Sweetheart," she said, softly kissing the bard's cheek. "I'll be here as long as you need me." And laying her head on her lover's breast, she wrapped her arms around her.
Then, through the dark hours of the night, she lay listening to the faint heartbeat and the shallow, rattling breath until, sometime after the clock downstairs struck three, Gabrielle let out one last, slow breath, and then was still.
And in that moment, it seemed as if the whole world had fallen silent.
Raising up on her elbows, Xena tried to see her lover's face in the darkness. Failing in that, she ran her fingers gently over each part of it and then leaned down to kiss the soft lips. "I won't say goodbye, Gabrielle," she whispered, "because we'll be together soon."
She got out of bed and crossed the room to the table, where she lit the lamp. Carrying it to the nightstand, she set it down and brought over a basin of water and a washcloth. Then, working quietly and with great tenderness, she removed Gabrielle's nightshift and stripped off all the bandages. She washed the body, dressed the bard in her Greek clothes, and then combed the golden hair.
When she had finished, she stood beside the bed, looking down, wondering at the numbness which had stolen away all her sorrow and pain. The only thing left for her to feel now was resolve. She would get the Cronus Stone back or else she would die trying. Either way, she would be with Gabrielle again.
Turning, she crossed the room and put on her boots and vest. She reloaded her gun, buckled the gun belt around her waist, and hooked her chakram to her belt. Then she went back to the nightstand to turn out the lamp, and stopped to gaze again at Gabrielle's body. An image from the previous night's dream came suddenly into her mind, causing her to realize that she had overlooked an important custom. Pulling out her coin purse, she opened it and took out a dinar. Then, sitting on the edge of the bed, she slipped the coin into her lover's mouth.
"That's for Charon," she said softly. "Make sure he takes you to the Other Side. But don't get too comfortable there," she added with a slight smile. "I'm going to get the Cronus Stone, and when I get back, we're going home -- together -- back to where we belong." She touched the still, pale cheek with gentle fingers. "Wait for me, my darling. I won't be gone long."
The clock downstairs chimed four times as Xena slipped silently out of the room. Easing the door shut behind her, she moved toward the stairs, but stopped when a board creaked under her foot.
"Xena? Is that you?" came Lizzie's low voice.
The warrior turned, but it took her a moment to spot the other woman, curled up on the short sofa in the dark hallway. With a sigh, the warrior walked back to her. "What are you doing out here?" Xena whispered.
"I wanted to be close, in case you needed me," Lizzie said, sitting up and pulling a blanket around her. "Is Gabrielle . . . gone?"
"She didn't wake up again?"
"I'm so sorry, Xena," she said.
"Thanks," the warrior mumbled.
"You've got your gun on, haven't you? Just where are you sneaking off to?"
"I'm going to get the Cronus Stone."
"At this hour?" Lizzie said in surprise. "It isn't even light yet."
"It will be by the time I get there."
"Well, you shouldn't go alone. Take Herbert with you. Or Ellis. He's pretty well healed up now."
"No," said Xena, shaking her head. "This is something I have to do by myself."
"You can't take on three outlaws alone. That's crazy!"
"Lizzie, I'm a warrior. Fighting is what I do. I've faced greater odds many times before, and won. Besides, I shot one of the bastards yesterday, so there are only two now."
"Still, I don't see why you're so bound and determined to do this."
"Because I have to get that stone," Xena said in an urgent tone. "It's the only way I can get Gabrielle back."
"Xena," Lizzie said, patting the sofa beside her, "sit down here for a minute."
The warrior hesitated and then reluctantly perched on the edge of the seat.
"When people die, you can't just 'get them back,'" Lizzie said gently. "Surely you know that."
"Yes, of course I know that," Xena said impatiently. "But these are unusual circumstances. Gabrielle and I are in a different timeline. We're in the future now, but if we return to the past, Gabrielle won't have died, and we'll be able to go on with our life together."
"Are you sure about that?"
"Well, Gabrielle said on her deathbed that it would work, and I believe she knew what she was talking about."
Lizzie sighed and studied Xena for a few moments in silence. "You know, those outlaws may be long gone by now," she said.
"If they are, I'll come back here for some supplies, and then I'll go after them. I won't quit until I find them. I'm going to get that stone back, Lizzie. I have to."
"I still wish you wouldn't go alone. I'm afraid you'll get hurt."
"Don't worry about me. I'll be fine," Xena said, but suddenly she remembered having a similar conversation with Lydia right before that fight where she got hit in the head with a mace. Well, she had been tired and distracted then. Now she was focused and ready. She stood up and laid a hand on Lizzie's shoulder. "Don't worry," she repeated. "I'll be back soon." Then she turned and headed for the stairs.
* * *
The sun was just peeking through the trees along the eastern horizon when Xena entered the canyon. She rode at a slow, almost leisurely pace, letting Argo pick her way through the land of shadows. She passed the spot where she and Herbert had tended Gabrielle's wound the day before, and was thankful that the dim light kept her from seeing the blood stains and discarded compresses she knew were there. At this time yesterday, Gabrielle had still been sleeping, safe and alive, in the boarding house. It was strange to think of that. Well, maybe by this time tomorrow the two of them would be back home in Greece, camping by the lake. Xena smiled a little at the thought.
There was no prickly feeling on the back of her neck today -- no sense at all that anyone was around. When she reached the site of the ambush, Xena crossed the stream and dismounted. Leading Argo in among the short willows, she secured the reins to a tree trunk. Then, taking a small coil of rope off the saddle and hanging it over her shoulder, she proceeded on foot.
At the end of the canyon, she pushed through the shrubs hiding the narrow opening and entered the canyon beyond. She had not gone very far before she began to hear sounds -- sort of a rhythmical hacking, followed by scraping noises. Taking cover behind a boulder, she listened for a few moments and then cautiously continued her journey, moving soundlessly from boulder to shrub to tree.
Before long, the cabin came into view, a dark shape huddled against the sloping canyon wall. A pale light glimmered in its half-open doorway, and a thin trail of white smoke rose from its chimney into the ever-brightening sky. The source of the scraping sounds now became apparent. On the near side of the cabin, a man was digging, alternately using a pick and a shovel. Xena crept closer to watch, taking shelter behind a shrub some twenty paces away. After a few minutes of work, he straightened up to wipe his brow, and she recognized him as the outlaw called George.
The shadows were dissipating rapidly now, and Xena studied the cabin and its surroundings carefully. She noted the locations of trees and boulders, the crude corral with its three horses already saddled, and the long trench of sorts that George was digging.
She was just considering what her strategy should be when the cabin door swung all the way open and Bill Garrison came out. He carried two bedrolls to the corral and tied them to the saddles of the bay and chestnut horses. Then he walked over to inspect the digging project.
"Jesus Christ, George! Is that all you've got done?" he exclaimed.
"Well, yes, considering this stinking ground is mostly rocks!" George shot back.
"We haven't got all day, you know. We need to get that bastard buried and get out of here before the sheriff and his deputy bitch come back looking for us."
"If you're in such an all-fired hurry, then let's not bury him. Just leave him right there on his bed and let him rot."
Garrison sighed and shook his head. "Nah, we can't do that," he said. "It'd stink up the cabin something awful, not to mention attracting every varmint in the state. We might want to use that cabin again sometime. Besides," he went on in a softer tone, "I reckon we owe him a proper burial. He was a good buddy, and loyal, even if he was a bit slow."
"He was sure as hell slow enough about dying," muttered George, as he scooped up another shovelful of dirt and flung it aside. "If we had just put him out of his misery first thing after he got shot, we could be practically to the border by now."
"I know, but it didn't seem like a mortal wound at first. How were we to know his lungs would fill up with blood and choke him like that?"
George shrugged and stabbed his shovel back into the rocky ground. "You know, this grave would get dug a hell of a lot faster if you was to pitch in and help out," he said.
"We've only got one shovel," Bill pointed out.
"Sure, but while one of us is using it, the other one could be using the pick."
"I got to get our gear packed. And I thought maybe I'd try to clean old Isaiah up a little before we plant him."
"Right. Clean him up before you stick him in the dirt. That makes sense," George said sarcastically.
But Bill ignored this remark while he cast his gaze around at their surroundings. "Keep your eyes open while you're out here. I don't want any surprises," he said, then glanced down at the hole. "You don't have to dig that very deep," he added. "Just enough so's we can cover him, and then we'll pile rocks on top to keep the coyotes from digging him up."
George nodded, but said nothing. Tossing the shovel aside, he reached down for the pickax and began hacking again at the stony soil. Bill Garrison turned and walked back to the cabin. As soon as he was inside, Xena heard George start throwing muttered curses in the leader's direction.
She smiled as she loosened her chakram from her belt. The gods had been kind. One outlaw wasdead, and the other two were still here, practically within her grasp. But maybe the gods had nothing to do with it. It was her own shot which had felled Isaiah. And when she thought about how he had put his hands on Gabrielle, it made her glad to think he had died a slow, painful death.
Reaching down, she picked up a small stone and fingered it while she kept a close eye on George. As soon as he paused again in his work, she threw the stone into a bush behind him. Startled, he turned toward the sound and drew his gun. In one quick movement, Xena stepped out into the open and loosed her chakram in his direction. It struck the revolver and sent it spinning out of the outlaw's hand. She sprinted toward him, catching the returning chakram as she ran.
George turned and swung the pick at her, but she grabbed it and yanked hard, pulling him off balance. In the same moment, she kicked his feet out from under him, and he sprawled facedown in the dust. Pouncing, she quickly straddled him, pulled his other gun out of the holster and tossed it out of reach. Then she pinned his arms behind his back, pulled a length of rope from the coil she carried, and began tying his wrists.
"What do you think you're doing?" he sputtered, kicking and struggling beneath her.
"I'm taking you into custody," she returned.
"You can't do that!"
"Of course I can. I'm a deputy sheriff."
"No, I meant--"
"You meant that you didn't think I'd be capable of disarming and overpowering you, is that it?" she asked.
"You goddamned bitch!" he muttered. Then he raised his head and looked toward the cabin.
She slammed his head back down into the dirt with the heel of her hand. "Don't be thinking about calling for help," she growled. She finished tying his hands, drew and cocked her revolver, and stuck the barrel against his ear. "All right," she said. "Get up. We're going in the cabin."
He stumbled to his feet while she kept his arm in a firm grip and the gun pointed at his head. When they reached the log structure, she shoved him through the doorway ahead of her. The room was dimly lit and smelled of grease, vomit, and death. Bill Garrison was bending over the body which lay stretched out on a bed against the back wall. He turned as they entered, his hand going to his pistol when he saw Xena.
"That's right," said Xena calmly. "Just lay your guns down nice and easy on the bed there and then step away. Otherwise, I'll have to shoot your buddy's head off."
The outlaw leader glared at Xena, his face darkening with fury. Then he slowly drew his guns and dropped them on the bed behind him. As he took a couple of steps away from the bed, he turned his scowl on his partner. "You idiot!" he snarled. "How in hell could you let that slut get a gun on you like that?"
"Well, I, uh-- I didn't know she--" George stammered.
But Bill cut him off. "Is your sheriff friend here, too?" he asked Xena.
"No, it's just me," she said cheerfully. "I thought it was time the three of us had some of that fun you boys have been talking about." She grinned and then looked over at the stacked-up beds to her right, noting that they were nailed solidly to the log wall. "Sit down there on the floor," she ordered, shoving George toward the end of the beds nearest the door.
He obeyed reluctantly, while she held her pistol aimed at him. Then, taking the rope coil off her shoulder, Xena tossed it to Bill Garrison. "Tie him up," she said.
"What?" asked Garrison in surprise.
"Tie him up," Xena repeated, "the way you did Gabrielle. Tie his feet and then tie him to the bed. And do a good job of it. I'll be watching."
The outlaw leader moved slowly toward his companion, rope in hand, then suddenly lunged at Xena. She squeezed the trigger and at the same time threw a high kick in Garrison's direction, catching him in the jaw and sending him sprawling onto his back. The bullet from her gun splintered the bedpost a finger's width above George's head.
He gave a startled cry and ducked. "Dammit, Bill," he gasped, "you're gonna get me killed!"
"That's right," Xena said, "because next time I won't miss." She kept the gun aimed at him as she re-cocked it. Then she looked at Bill and said, "Now get over there and tie him up, like I told you to."
Rubbing his jaw and staring at her in amazement, Bill went over and knelt beside George, then began wrapping the rope around his ankles. "I thought you said we were going to have fun," he grumbled.
"Oh, we will," she said in a sultry tone, "just as soon as you two are all tied up."
He looked up at her and then a wary grin spread across his face. "Hey, are you one of them gals who like their men all tied up and helpless?"
"You might say that," she answered.
He turned back to his task. "How's your little blonde friend?" he asked.
"She's dead," Xena said casually as she moved closer to observe the tying-up process.
"Well, ain't that a shame," Garrison said with a sardonic grin. "I surely did look forward to getting some pleasure out of that little gal. Too bad our dear, departed Isaiah so stupidly let her escape."
"You're breaking my heart," Xena said. She kept her voice cool, even as a sudden flash of hot anger ran through her. It was the first emotion she had felt since realizing that Gabrielle was dying, but it was gone again as quickly as it had come. "Hurry it up," she said to Bill.
"All done," he returned as he tied off the last knot.
"Good. Now go sit up there at the other end of the bed," she said, gesturing with her revolver.
"Yes. Now tie your feet."
"What are you going to do with us?" asked George.
"Well, now, that's a good question," Xena said. "I suppose I ought to turn you over to Sheriff Lees and let him put you in jail."
"Ain't no jail made that can hold us for long," George said.
"That's what I'm afraid of," Xena said. "So I guess it would be better if they just hung you and were done with it."
"Sure, if they can keep us locked up long enough to sentence us," Bill said as he looped the rope somewhat loosely around his ankles and tied a clumsy knot. "But nobody's done that yet." He looked up at her. "You want me to tie my hands, too?" he asked with a smirk.
"No, I'll do that part," Xena said.
"You'll have to put your gun down," he said. "Unless you can tie knots with one hand."
"Yes, and you're thinking this will be your big chance, aren't you?" she said with a grin. Then, without taking her eyes off of him, she slowly lowered her pistol, uncocked it, and slid it into the holster. Crouching down beside him, she reached for the remaining piece of rope.
He sat perfectly still until she got quite close, then suddenly swung a fist at her. She ducked the blow and, in one swift movement, hit the pressure points on either side of his neck. He gasped and then stared at her, his eyes bugging out in pain and disbelief. "What did you do?" he managed to choke out.
"I've cut off the flow of blood to your brain," Xena said calmly as she pulled his arms behind his back and began tying his wrists. "You'll be dead in less than a minute unless I release you, but I think that will give me just enough time to get you all tied up."
"You can't . . . do this . . . you bitch!" he sputtered, as Xena shoved his back against the bed frame and quickly used the rope to bind his torso to it.
"You'd be surprised what I can do," she said as she tied the knot. "I'm a woman with many skills." Then she hit the pressure points again to release them.
Garrison slumped forward, sucking in big raspy breaths. Xena moved to his ankles, untied the rope and tied it again tighter.
"Who are you anyway?" asked George in amazement. "And where did you learn a trick like that?"
"My name is Xena. Some people call me the Warrior Princess."
"Warrior Princess?" scoffed Bill in a slightly hoarse voice. "What are you -- some kind of Injun?"
"No, I'm Greek," Xena said as she checked and then tightened the rope that bound George.
"Greek?" George said. "Do you mean like from Greece?"
"Well then, what the hell are you doing here?"
"It's a long story," she answered with a dismissive wave, "and you wouldn't believe it if I told you." Then, standing up, she took her first good look around the cabin. She needed to find the Cronus Stone. That was why she had come. Once she had found it, she could figure out what to do with the outlaws.
At the other end of the room was a fireplace, with a smoky fire smoldering inside it. Against the front wall sat a small table and three crudely-made chairs. Xena walked over to the table and saw that there wasn't much on it -- a couple of dirty metal plates and mugs, a battered lantern, a box of matches, and four bullets. A can marked "Kerosene" sat on the floor close by.
Turning, the warrior scanned the rest of the room. In a corner near the back door, she saw two wooden kegs. Assuming that they held flour or meal, or possibly some liquid such as water or wine, she ignored them. Crossing to Isaiah's bed, she stood looking down at the body sprawled in a strangely awkward position. The dead man's mouth hung open, his features fixed in what seemed to be a grimace. Bloody rags and bandages littered the bed and floor.
"Did he suffer much?' Xena asked without taking her eyes off the corpse.
"He most surely did," answered George in a solemn voice. "He was groaning and coughing up blood all night."
Xena nodded, pleased once more to think that one of Gabrielle's would-be attackers had died such a death.
"What about your little friend?" asked Bill. "Did she suffer?"
The warrior turned to stare at him, wondering if he, too, wanted the satisfaction of knowing that he had caused an enemy pain. Well, she would not let him have it. "No," she said. "Gabrielle was unconscious most of the time. She died a peaceful death."
The image of her lover's face, so still and pale in death, appeared unbidden in her mind, and she began to feel a slow rekindling of the anger which had come and gone so quickly before. Thrusting the image aside, she focused again on the task at hand -- finding the Cronus Stone. Her eyes lit on some saddlebags lying on the floor near Isaiah's bed. Picking them up, she dumped out the contents of each one in turn, and then tossed it aside.
"Okay, Boys," she said at last, as she walked over to the outlaws. "What have you done with that big ruby you stole from us a few days ago?"
"Oh, that pretty little thing?" said Bill. "We sold it."
"No, you didn't."
"Yes, we did," chimed in George. "We sold it first thing. Got a good price for it, too."
"Did you now?" asked Xena, folding her arms across her chest. "How much did you get, if you don't mind my asking."
"Oh, well, I think it was about a thousand dollars, wasn't it, Bill?"
"A thousand even," Garrison said, nodding. "That was quite a valuable little gemstone."
Xena crouched down beside him and clamped a hand around his throat. "No, it wasn't," she said. "It was just a piece of colored glass, and I don't believe you sold it. Now, where is it?"
"Just a piece of glass?" Bill choked out. "Well, if that's all it was, why are you so eager to get it back?"
"Let's just say it has . . . sentimental value," Xena answered. She removed her hand from the outlaw leader's throat and poised her fingers over the pressure points on his neck. "Start talking," she said, "or I'll start pinching."
"It's--" he began, then stopped and glanced over at George.
"It's where?" Xena prompted, moving her hands closer in a threatening gesture.
"Under the floor, near the fireplace," he said quickly, nodding toward the other end of the room. "The fourth and fifth boards are loose."
She got up and strode to the fireplace, counted the boards, and then knelt down. They came up easily, but she could see very little in the dark space beneath them. Leaning forward, she reached her hand in cautiously and felt around. Her fingers soon brushed against a heavy fabric of some kind, and taking hold of it, she pulled out a bag which she recognized as the one Isaiah had ridden off with during the bank robbery. She loosened the drawstrings and peered inside, noting several bundles of paper money, as well as some loose silver coins.
"It's all there," Garrison said in a flat tone. "We haven't had a chance to spend any of it yet."
"What a shame," said Xena dryly as she tied the bag shut again. Then, thrusting her hand back into the space under the floor, she felt around once more. At first, her fingers encountered only dirt and rocks, but then, just as she was beginning to despair, she came upon the smooth, pointed shape she was looking for. Pulling it out, she held it up and looked at it with a deep sigh of relief. "Soon, Gabrielle," she whispered as she used her sleeve to wipe the dust off the reddish surface.
"Well, now that you've got the bank money back, and that ruby thing, you can just let us go," said George.
"Sure," agreed Bill. "We'll ride on out of here and never come back to bother you. I can give you my promise on that."
Xena set the Cronus Stone down beside the moneybag, then stood up, walked over, and fixed the two men in an imperious gaze. "I don't think you understand the principle involved here," she said. "The fact that I got the money back doesn't mean you didn't rob the bank, because you did. You also took a hostage, and you were planning to rape her."
"Whoa, now!" exclaimed Bill. "We were just going to have a little fun. I wouldn't really use the word 'rape.'"
"I would," Xena said coldly.
"Well, it's not rape if a woman cooperates," said George, "and Isaiah said that little gal got downright friendly with him."
"A lot of people will cooperate if you put a gun to their heads," Xena said. "And Gabrielle was just being 'friendly' because she was trying to get Isaiah to untie her. No, you were planning to rape her all right," she went on. "And failing in that, you shot her in the back and killed her."
"Well, I didn't exactly mean to shoot her," Garrison said with a cool grin. "I was actually aiming for you. But I'm glad I got one of you bitches, at least."
She turned away, disgusted by his nonchalance. Her numbness was quickly fading, and now the anger which had been simmering inside her flared suddenly into white-hot rage. She knew this rage -- knew it well, for it had once forged her into a murderous warlord. After that, it had strengthened and nourished her through all the long years of pillage and slaughter. Its familiarity comforted her, and she welcomed it wholeheartedly.
Turning back to her captives, she was pleased to see the look of fear that came into their eyes when they saw her face. "You two are nothing but scum," she said in a low, rough voice. "You don't deserve to live, and I'm going to see to it that you die screaming in agony."
"What are you talking about?" Bill said in amazement. "You can't just kill us!"
"Sure I can. Killing is what I do best."
"But you're a deputy," George exclaimed. "You have to make sure we get a fair trial!"
Xena glanced down at the star on her vest. Then, pulling it loose, she dropped it casually on the floor. "Well, I guess I'll just have to give up being a deputy, won't I?" she said with a diabolical grin.
Turning on her heel, she went over to Isaiah's bed and picked up Bill Garrison's revolvers, along with a gun belt which had apparently belonged to the dead man. She carried these, plus the Cronus Stone and moneybag, out and laid them beside a boulder some fifty paces from the cabin. Then she retrieved George's pistols from beside the half-dug grave and added them to the pile. The sky had brightened considerably, she noted, although the sun had yet to clear the canyon walls.
Returning to the cabin, the warrior stood leaning against the doorjamb, contemplating the captive outlaws. There were many good ways to torture and kill people. Which one would give her the most satisfaction? Unexpectedly, a picture of Garron's charred body lying in the ashes of the cottage came to mind. She had always regretted the fact that Gabrielle's attacker had remained blissfully unconscious while he burned to death. If it had been up to her-- Well, she couldn't change the past. Or could she? And suddenly she knew what she would do.
She made a quick circuit of the room, checking to make sure she had removed everything of value. Then she picked up the can of kerosene. It was half empty, but there would be enough.
"What are you going to do?" asked George nervously.
"I'm going set fire to this place," she said, "and then I'm going to sit outside and listen to your screams while you burn to a crisp."
"You can't do that!" Bill protested. "That's cruel! It's-- It's barbaric!"
Xena crouched down in front of him. "That's the whole idea," she said with a mocking smile. Then the smile faded and her tone became suddenly harsh. "You killed the person I loved most in the world," she said. "Do you think I'm going to let that go unpunished? You would have been so much better off if you had shot me instead of her. Guess it just wasn't your lucky day, was it, you son of a bitch?"
He stared at her, his eyes full of hatred. "You'll never get away with this," he growled. "Your little sheriff friend will lock you up, and then they'll hang you. You'll have to spend the rest of eternity with us in hell. What do you think about that?"
"I can hardly wait," Xena said, and gave him a wicked grin as she stood up. Moving to the center of the room, she sloshed kerosene on the floor, table, and Isaiah's bed. When the can was empty, she cast it aside, picked up the box of matches, and walked to the door. Taking out one of the small sticks, she rubbed its head against the doorjamb, and as it burst into flame, she held it up, awed once again by the simple miracle. Looking at the outlaws, she smiled to see them struggling frantically against their bonds. "Bye, Boys," she said sweetly, and after a moment added, "Don't forget to scream." Then she tossed the match onto the kerosene-wet floor and gave a joyful whoop as it burst into flames.
Retreating to the place where she had left the Cronus Stone and salvaged gear, she hopped up onto the boulder and settled herself cross-legged to enjoy the show. Through the doorway, she could see the orange dance of the flames, and soon black smoke began rising from the chimney and pushing its way out through the door. With some satisfaction, she heard the outlaws shouting curses which soon turned to cries for help.
Xena smiled, so engrossed in the spectacle that she did not at first hear the approaching clatter of hooves. Then, becoming suddenly aware of the sound, she reached for her gun and turned to see a figure on a white horse galloping toward her. It was Herbert. She relaxed, waving cheerfully as he dismounted and hurried toward her.
"I got the Cronus Stone and the bank money, too," she called to him. Then she patted the space beside her on the boulder. "Have a seat," she added with a happy grin. "You're just in time for the show!"
He stared at the pile of objects on the ground, and then at the burning cabin, the panicky horses in the nearby corral, and finally at Xena. "What's going on?" he demanded. "Where are the outlaws?"
"In the cabin," the warrior said, gesturing casually in that direction. "But don't worry. I tied them up good and tight, so they won't get away. Listen," she instructed as the sound of renewed shouts and screams reached them. "Isn't that a lovely sound?"
Herbert looked at Xena in horror for a moment, then grabbed her roughly by the shoulders. "Did you set that fire?" he demanded. "With those men in there? Alive?"
"Well, only two of them," Xena said with a smirk. "One was already dead."
"What are you -- some kind of monster?" he cried, shaking her.
Then, releasing her abruptly, he turned and sprinted toward the cabin.
Xena watched him, stupefied, as he ducked through the thick smoke and disappeared into the burning structure. What had she done, she wondered. And then, like an icy wave, the realization swept over her. Herbert was right. She had indeed become a monster. In spite of all her efforts to redeem herself, and all her promises to Gabrielle, she had become the worst possible kind of monster.
Scrambling down off the boulder, she stood for a moment, trying to think what to do, then started running toward the cabin. About halfway there, she heard coughing, and saw Herbert emerge, dragging a half-conscious George.
"I'll get the other one!" she shouted as she passed them.
"Be careful!" Herbert shouted back. "I think I saw a couple of kegs of gunpowder in there!"
Nodding, she ran on. She was only a few paces from the cabin when, suddenly, the roof seemed to lift off and split apart in a blinding flash. The ground jerked beneath her feet, and a roaring filled her ears as a huge ball of fire rushed toward her. Striking her full force with its searing heat, it flung her violently back until at last she landed with a crash. The acrid scent of scorched flesh filled her nostrils, and then everything faded to nothingness.
When she woke, it was to overwhelming, excruciating pain. She heard herself moaning and felt her body writhing in a feeble attempt to escape, but there seemed to be no relief. Every part of her was consumed by a burning, blistering agony more intense than anything she had ever felt before. A reddish haze surrounded her, and she had no idea where she was or how she had been wounded. She moaned again and then gradually realized that there were two people bending over her. With some effort, she recognized them as Nicholas and Lizzie.
"Xena," the doctor said, laying a gentle hand on her head, "can you hear me . . . and see me?"
"You've been badly burned," he told her. "I know the pain must be terrible." He paused, but when she did not answer, he went on. "Lizzie and I are trying to get your clothes off, but the fabric is stuck to the burned places, so I'm afraid we're just making the pain worse. I'm going to give you a little chloroform and let you sleep while we do this."
Xena looked at him, trying to make sense of his words. An image of the cabin began to form in her mind -- she remembered flames and smoke, and then an explosion. "Burned," she mumbled. "I burned the bastards. Burned the monster, too."
Nicholas leaned closer and then looked at Lizzie. "I can't understand her," he said. "Can you?"
"No," she responded.
"I'll prepare the chloroform," he said, straightening up. "See if you can get her to drink some water."
Lizzie lifted Xena's head and held a glass to her lips. The warrior tried to take in the soothing liquid and swallow it, but her weakness made it difficult to drink without choking. Soon the older woman took the glass away, and Xena lay back, closing her eyes against the pain that pressed down on her so relentlessly.
When she opened her eyes again, she saw Nicholas standing there, holding a bottle and a folded cloth. She turned her gaze to Lizzie, then reached out to grasp the older woman's arm. "The Cronus Stone," she said.
"What, Dear?" asked Lizzie, bending down.
"The Cronus Stone," Xena repeated, trying to make her voice louder. "I got it from the outlaws. It's by the boulder. Herbert can bring it. I have to have it to take Gabrielle back home." She stopped, exhausted from the effort of speaking.
Lizzie softly patted the warrior's hand. "Don't you worry about a thing," she said soothingly. "Everything is going to be just fine."
"She's delirious from the pain," Nicholas said quietly. Then he poured some liquid onto the cloth and brought it toward Xena's face.
Suddenly understanding his intent, she pushed his hand away. "No!" she cried. "No sleep! I have to go home! I have to--"
But her words were choked off by the cloth which now descended over her mouth and nose. She squirmed violently, crying out and pushing against Nicholas' arm with what little strength remained in her. But the doctor was too strong for her. She could not escape the horrible fumes which now began to gag and choke her. They rushed into her lungs in spite of her best efforts not to let them in. Struggling against their power, she fought to stay conscious while she tried once more to push Nicholas away. But her arms were growing heavy and they no longer did her bidding. She felt her body sinkingas if into heavy quicksand. Her pain began to slide away as her eyelids closed, and then darkness enveloped her.
"All right, she's out," Xena heard Nicholas say in a quiet voice. "Let's try to get the rest of these clothes off of her."
There was a brief silence and then Lizzie spoke. "Such a beautiful woman," she said, "and now she will be so terribly scarred. I wonder how she will deal with that."
"I'm not sure she'll have to," the doctor replied.
There was another short silence and then, "You mean you don't think she'll survive?"
"Well, let's just say that I've seen people die from lesser burns."
"But she's so strong," Lizzie said. "Surely she can get through this."
"Yes, it's possible that she can -- but only if she really wants to. With Gabrielle gone, I'm just not sure whether Xena has the will to live."
Their voices began to fade away, but it no longer mattered what they had to say. Xena's pain was gone and now she drifted, carefree, into gentle oblivion.
* * *
She woke again sometime later and saw that she was lying in the bed at the boarding house. Where had she been before? Here? Nicholas' office? She had been hurting too much to know or care. The pain had come flooding back as she returned to consciousness, but now it seemed somewhat more bearable. She raised her head and looked around, finding herself alone in the room. Through the half-open door, she could hear Lizzie, Herbert, and Nicholas in the hallway, talking in lowered tones, the way people do when someone has died.
A sheet of thin cotton fabric covered her from the neck down. She hesitated for a moment, and then slowly brought her arms toward her face, wincing when the movement increased her pain. As the cover lifted, she peered under it, amazed to see the great red blotches of blistered and oozing flesh that marked much of her torso and thighs. A thick, yellow salve had been spread over the burns, giving them a strange, almost eerie sheen. She slid her hands out from under the cover and studied them, noting that they had somehow escaped being burned as badly as the rest of her body. Then, hearing footsteps, she looked up to see Nicholas coming toward her. He carried a chair, which he set down beside the bed.
"How are you feeling?" he asked as he seated himself. "Any better?"
"Good. The salve should help ease the pain, and I also gave you a shot of morphine to let you sleep awhile longer. Now, how about some water?" He picked up a glass from the nightstand and raised her head so she could drink. After that, he took out his stethoscope and applied it carefully to the fabric that covered her chest.
Xena watched his face, recognizing the same deep lines of concern she had seen when he was caring for Gabrielle. And now she remembered the conversation she had heard before the chloroform blotted out the last of her senses.
Taking off his stethoscope, Nicholas put it back in his bag and reached for Xena's wrist. When he turned it over to take her pulse, she was surprised to see how many burns there were on the underside of her arm. Raising the other arm, she saw that it looked the same.
"Apparently, you threw your arms up to protect your face," the doctor said in answer to her unspoken question. "And it's a good thing you did, because that's probably what saved your eyes." He fell silent for a few moments, concentrating on her pulse. When he was finished, he looked at her and said, "You were lucky Herbert was there, and that he got you to town as quickly as he did."
How much had the sheriff told him? Xena tried to read Nicholas' expression, but could not do so. "Did he tell you I set fire to the cabin?" she asked finally.
"Yes," the doctor said quietly.
"You must think I'm a horrible person."
"No, Xena, I don't," he said, shaking his head. "I know what grief can do to people. Besides, Herbert said you had a change of heart. He told us you were trying to save Bill Garrison when the gunpowder exploded."
Xena nodded slightly and then turned her gaze away from him, not knowing what to say. But a moment later, the sound of a step at the door made her look up ag ain.
"You're awake!" Lizzie said happily as she crossed the room.
She was carrying the Cronus Stone.
"Herbert brought this for you," she added, smiling as she placed the stone into the warrior's outstretched hands.
It seemed heavier than Xena remembered, and her hands trembled a little as she held it.
"It surely is a funny-looking thing," Lizzie said, as she pulled a chair up next to Nicholas and sat down. "But it's kind of pretty, too, in a way. Anyhow, it doesn't look like it'd be able to carry two people all that way through time and space."
"Two people and a horse," Nicholas said with a grin. Then he added, "May I see it?"
Xena gave a reluctant nod. He lifted the stone gently from her hands and held it up to the light, turning it first one way and then another.
"Is that some kind of Greek writing on the base there?" Lizzie asked.
"Yes, I think it is," Nicholas said. "It says, 'The future--'" He paused, frowning, and then went on. "Well, I think it says, 'The future leads to the past.' Is that right?" he asked Xena.
"But what does it mean?"
"I'm hoping it means the stone will take Gabrielle and me back to the past."
Nicholas nodded and set the crystal on the nightstand, then he bent down to get something from his bag. "I'm going to give you another injection of morphine, so you can rest," he said.
"No!" Xena said quickly. "I can't! Now that I have the Cronus Stone here, I have to use it to take Gabrielle back home!"
"Xena," Lizzie said, covering one of the warrior's hands with her own, "why don't you wait a few days until you're stronger? There's no way you could go anywhere right now. You're too badly hurt."
"That's exactly why I have to go now," Xena said, looking first at Lizzie and then at Nicholas. "Don't you see? It's taking all my strength to fight this pain, and if I wait, I'll just get weaker." She stopped, breathing hard with the effort to make them understand. "Nicholas said he didn't think I had the will to go on without Gabrielle, and he was right," she continued. "Either I have to use the Cronus Stone so we can be together again in Greece . . . or I have to join her on the Other Side."
Nicholas and Lizzie stared at her in silence for several long moments. The doctor opened his mouth to speak, closed it again, and then finally asked, "You heard what I said after I gave you the chloroform?"
"Xena, I'm so sorry. I had no idea you-- I thought you were asleep."
"It doesn't matter. What you said was true."
"Yes, but--" He glanced at Lizzie.
"Did you hear everything we said?" the older woman asked.
"No, I don't think so. Just the first part."
"Could you feel anything? Were you in pain?" asked Nicholas.
"No, I could just hear for a little while and then there was nothing."
He nodded. "I'm glad you told me this," he said. "I'll be more careful in the future about what I say while people are supposedly asleep."
There were several more moments of silence, and then Xena said softly, "I want to go home. Please, will you help me?"
"Of course we will," Lizzie said quickly. "Just tell us what needs to be done."
The pain had begun pressing in again, and Xena found it hard to think. "Well, I need to be with Gabrielle," she began, then stopped. When she had left the room earlier that morning, her lover's body had been lying here, on the bed where she herself now lay. "Where is she?" Xena asked.
"We moved her body downstairs, to the little parlor," Lizzie said. "We figured we would need to bury her soon, so Mary's husband, Enoch, made a simple pine coffin for her." She paused and smiled at Xena. "You had her laid out so nice -- all we had to do was carry her downstairs and put her in the coffin."
Xena nodded. "All right, well, when it comes time to use the Cronus Stone, I'll need to be down there with her."
"Herbert and I can carry you down," Nicholas said. "What else needs to be done?"
"Our gear," Xena said, trying to focus her mind through the red haze that was closing in. "I need all our gear . . . and Argo. I left her . . . I tied her in some willows . . ."
Nicholas leaned closer. "Herbert told us he found your horse and brought her back to town," he said. Then he picked up Xena's wrist and checked her pulse again. "Is the pain getting worse?" he asked.
"Yes," she whispered and closed her eyes.
"Let me give you some morphine."
"No," she murmured.
"I'll just give you enough to ease the pain some -- not enough to make you sleep," he said.
She opened her eyes and looked at his face. Could she trust him? Or was this some kind of trick to keep her from using the Cronus Stone? It was getting so hard to think. "Okay," she said at last. Then she watched as he filled the syringe and slid the needle into her arm.
"We'll just wait a few minutes until that takes effect," Nicholas said quietly. "Then we can talk about what other preparations we need to make. In the meantime, do you think you could drink some more water?"
Xena nodded and he turned to get the glass from the nightstand. By the time she had drunk several long swallows, she felt a warm glow begin spreading through her body. The weight of pain slowly lifted, and the red haze started to dissipate. "That stuff works fast," she said, giving Nicholas a weak smile.
"Yes, that's the beauty of injecting it directly into your bloodstream. It gets to your brain much more quickly."
"But my brain doesn't hurt," Xena said, frowning.
"No, but it's your brain that tells you what does hurt." He smiled and gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "Do you feel more like talking now? Tell me what needs to happen with the horse."
"Put her saddle and bridle on," the warrior said slowly, "and bring her to the boarding house. I left some other things at the stable, too -- a cooking pot, frying pan, I'm not sure what else. Just bring whatever's there. Everything has to be close by when I use the Cronus Stone."
"Okay," Nicholas said with a smile, "saddle the horse and put her in the parlor with you and Gabrielle. Anything else?"
"Not in the parlor!" Lizzie exclaimed. "We can't have a horse in the parlor!"
The doctor laughed and put an arm around Lizzie's shoulders. "I'm just teasing you, my dear," he said, and she began to laugh, too.
Xena smiled, watching them. In a very short time, they had become such good friends to her, and now she was about to leave and never see them again.
"I'm sorry," Nicholas said, turning back to the warrior. "We haven't really got time for lame jokes, have we? So, how close does the mare need to be? Can we tie her out in front? Will that be close enough?"
"Yes, I guess so," Xena said uncertainly.
"How close was she before," Lizzie asked, "when you used the Cronus Stone to get here?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know?" said Nicholas in surprise.
"No. I was asleep at the time."
He gave her a puzzled frown. "Well, then how did you--" he began.
"Gabrielle's the one who used the Cronus Stone," Xena said. "She didn't think I was going to agree to let her try it, so she did it while I was asleep."
"Didn't you tell us that you were trying to get to the past, but you ended up in the future instead?" asked Lizzie.
"Why did Gabrielle want to go to the past?" asked Nicholas.
"She wanted to go back and make it so that she never got raped," Xena said quietly.
"And you didn't want her to do that?"
"I was afraid it wouldn't work out the way she thought it would."
"Well, you were right about that," Lizzie said with a small smile. "But I'm glad you came. I'm glad we got to know you both. I'm just sorry that it turned out so badly."
Xena smiled back, but didn't answer.
"All right," said Nicholas. "Herbert wants me to come over and take a look at that outlaw he saved. Apparently, he suffered some ill effects from the smoke this morning. While I'm there, I'll get Herbert or Ellis to bring your horse and the other things over here. Lizzie can help you with everything else."
"Thanks, Nicholas," Xena said.
He put a hand on her head. "How's the pain?" he asked. "Is it more tolerable now?"
"Good. I'll be back in a little while. I can give you morphine again if you need it then." He picked up his bag and stood up. "Lizzie," he said, "if there's any problem, just send someone down to the jail to get me."
"I will," she said.
He smiled at her and then at Xena, patted Lizzie on the shoulder, and then left the room.
* * *
"I want to put on my warrior clothes," Xena said. "I want to wear them home."
"Are you talking about that leather corset thing you had on when you got here?" Lizzie asked in surprise.
"There's no way you could wear that tight thing now, Xena. It would be pure agony for you."
The warrior looked at her and sighed, knowing she was right. "Well, I don't want to go home naked," she said. "So I guess I'll have to wear my nightshift. I don't have anything else."
"Where is it?"
"On one of the hooks over there on the wall."
Lizzie walked over and got the nightshift. "Do you want to put it on now?" she asked.
"Yes. Can you help me?"
"Of course, I'll be glad to, but I imagine it will be painful. Maybe we should wait."
"No, it's better now, while the morphine is still working."
So Lizzie helped her sit up and then carefully eased the linen garment over the blistered flesh. It hurt more than Xena had anticipated, and she had to bite her lip several times to keep from crying out.
When the ordeal was over, she sank back down on the mattress, exhausted. "I don't know if I can do this, Lizzie," she murmured, looking up at the older woman. "I don't know if I can find the strength."
Lizzie sat down by the bed and took the warrior's hand. "Xena, I'd give anything to have you stay here," she said softly. "You're like a sister to me, or a daughter, and I wish you could go on being part of my life. But that's a selfish wish, I know. You need to go back to Greece -- not just to save Gabrielle, but to save your own life, too. It's something you have to do, and somehow we always find the strength to do what we have to do."
Xena smiled and squeezed Lizzie's hand.
"It's just making me sad to know that once you leave, I'll never see you again," the older woman went on. "You can't even write me a letter to let me know you got home safely."
"We'll see each other again," Xena said. "Gabrielle and I will be there for Lia's wedding at the winter solstice."
"Lia's wedding?" Lizzie said with a puzzled look, and then suddenly she brightened. "Lia is Lydia's daughter! Yes, of course!" she exclaimed. "I've had memories of that wedding, and both you and Gabrielle were there. Now I know you'll get back home. I wish I had thought of it sooner."
"I'm just glad you thought of it at all," Xena said with relief. "I'm starting to feel stronger already."
"Good. Now you can tell me what to pack up." She rose and crossed the room, looked around for a moment, and then began gathering things together.
"Be sure you get Gabrielle's rubber balls," Xena said. "And her comb. And whatever else she bought."
"Okay," said Lizzie. "The comb is here on the table . . . and the balls are in this little bag . . . and here's the Jane Austen book she bought."
"There's another book there that belongs to Ellis," Xena said. "Could you give it back to him?"
"This book of love poems?"
"Did Gabrielle like it?" Lizzie asked, opening the book and leafing through it.
"Yes, she did. She read me several of the poems."
"All right. I'll take it back to Ellis."
"Oh, and what happened to the gun and gun belt I was wearing?" Xena said. "They're Herbert's."
"Well, the belt got scorched pretty badly, but I think the gun is all right," Lizzie said. "I'll make sure Herbert gets it."
"You can just put everything in our saddlebags. They're on the floor over there," Xena said, gesturing.
Lizzie picked up the bags and began filling them. "What about food?" she said. "I can send some food back with you."
"Yes, I guess we'll need some. Thanks."
"Do you want something to eat right now?" Lizzie asked, turning toward the bed. "I should have asked youearlier."
"No, I'm not hungry," Xena said. "I just hope I will be when I get home."
"You should be," Lizzie said. "You haven't eaten anything much for the last two days."
Xena didn't answer. Her pain, although somewhat dulled, still lay upon her like a heavy, suffocating blanket. She shifted her body in a vain effort to get more comfortable, and then closed her eyes.
When she opened them again, she was surprised to see Ellis standing near the table, hat in hand, talking in low tones to Lizzie. Xena hadn't heard him come in, and guessed that she must have dozed off.
After a couple of minutes, the brother and sister turned and saw her looking at them.
"Well, I've packed up everything I see to pack here in the room," Lizzie said to Xena. "I'll go downstairs and get some food ready. Ellis wants to talk to you for a few minutes, I think." She smiled and patted the deputy on the shoulder, then left the room.
Ellis crossed slowly to the bed, sat down in one of the chairs, and hung his hat over his knee.
"Hello, Ellis," Xena said.
"Xena, I-- Well, I hardly know what to say. I sure do hate to see you looking like this."
"That bad, huh?" she said with a wry smile, and wondered for the first time how disfigured her face was.
"Oh, I don't mean it like that," he said quickly. "It's just that, well, it looks like you must be in a lot of pain."
"Nicholas gave me some morphine."
"Is it helping?"
"Yes, somewhat. I only have to hold out until everything's ready, and then I can use the Cronus Stone to get us home."
"Is this it?" Ellis asked, looking at the red crystal on the nightstand. "How does it work?"
"You just rub it, and think about where you want it to take you."
"That's all? Just rub it? You don't have to say any incantation or anything?"
"And then what happens? Do you just disappear from one place and appear someplace else?"
"Yes, that's pretty much it."
"How long does it take?"
"Not long," she said. "A couple of minutes. Maybe less."
"Just a couple of minutes," he said, marveling. "That's really amazing!" He looked at the stone for a few moments in silence, then said, "Would it be all right if I touched it?"
"Sure, as long as you don't rub it," Xena said with a half smile.
Ellis picked up the stone and held it carefully, turning it slowly in his hands. "So when you get back to the past," he mused, "it will be as if this never happened, right? Gabrielle won't have been shot, so she'll still be alive, and you won't have gotten burned."
"Yes. At least I think that's the way it will work."
"Will you even remember that this happened to you? Will you remember being here?"
"I don't know," Xena said. She hadn't thought about this eventuality. "I suppose it's possible that we won't remember, but I hope we do. I don't want to forget any of the friends I've made here."
Ellis smiled and set the Cronus Stone back on the nightstand. "Well, you can be sure that I will always remember you, anyway. You saved my life, and that's something I'm not likely to forget."
"I'm glad I could do it, like I told you before," she said.
They fell silent, neither apparently knowing what else to say, then Ellis took up his hat and said, "Well, I don't want to wear you out, so I guess I'd better be going. Just remember that if this Cronus Stone thing doesn't work out, we'd be glad to have you stay on around here. This part of the country is still pretty rough and uncivilized, and we need all the peacemakers we can get."
"Thanks, Ellis," she said, smiling in spite of the tiredness she felt. "It's nice to be thought of as a peacemaker rather than as a warrior." Then she held out her hand, and he took it gingerly.
"Goodbye, Xena," he said. "You were only here a few days, but you did so much for us. I know we won't forget you."
"I won't forget you, either -- I hope," she said.
"I didn't get to say goodbye to Gabrielle," Ellis added, "but tell her I'll be thinking about her, and that I really enjoyed her stories. And tell her to keep writing," he added, as he pressed Xena's hand gentlyand then stood up.
She watched him leave the room and then heard him talking to someone in the hall. After a moment, Charles Shipley appeared in the doorway.
"I don't want to disturb you, Miss Xena," he said, advancing hesitantly toward her, "but I heard you were leaving, and I just wanted to thank you for getting the bank money back."
"There's no need for thanks," she said.
"Well, it means a lot to me and to the townspeople," he said. Then, stopping a couple of paces away from the bed, he shifted his weight awkwardly from one foot to the other. "I didn't get a chance to tell you how sorry I am about Miss Gabrielle," he went on. "She surely had a bad time of it -- getting kidnapped like that and then getting shot. I kind of feel like it was all my fault somehow."
"No, Mr. Shipley," Xena said quickly. "There's no reason to blame yourself."
"But if I hadn't taken her to the bank that day--"
"Don't think that way. Gabrielle didn't go anywhere or do anything that she didn't choose to do. What happened wasn't your fault at all."
"Well, thank you, Miss Xena," he said with a little smile. "It makes me feel better to hear you say that."
She returned his smile, although it seemed to take a lot of energy.
"I guess I'll be going now," Mr. Shipley said. "It was a pleasure meeting you, and I hope you have a good trip home."
"Thank you," she murmured.
* * *
As soon as he left, she closed her eyes again and soon felt consciousness slipping away from her. She woke to the sound of Nicholas speaking her name. He was bending over her, stethoscope in hand. When he finished checking her heart rate, he sat down next to the bed.
"You seem to be getting weaker," he said quietly.
She nodded, but did not speak.
"Xena," he said after a moment, "are you sure you want to go through with this? No one will blame you if you choose not to. You've been hurt severely and--" His voice broke a little, and he reached out to put his hand over hers. "Well, if you want to stay here, I'll do everything possible to ease your pain until . . . the end comes." He paused for a moment and then went on. "But if you still want to try to use the Cronus Stone, I'll help with that, too. It's your decision."
She looked at him for a long moment and then looked away. It would be so easy just to give up, to drift away on a morphine dream until it was time for Charon's boat to take her to the Other Side. There she and Gabrielle would be together again, reunited in the Elysian Fields.
But no, she realized suddenly. Hades would never let her into the Elysian Fields now -- not after the monstrous thing she had done at the cabin. Instead, she would suffer the torment of being separated from Gabrielle, maybe for eternity. No, it would be better to go home, back to Greece, where she could be with her lover again -- at least for a while. There she would have more time to redeem herself, to atone for her sins and maybe somehow earn the chance to be with Gabrielle in the afterlife.
Turning back to Nicholas, she said, "I want to go home. I have to. I know I can find the strength somewhere."
He nodded. "All right," he said. "Do you want some more morphine?"
"Yes. A little."
While he was filling the syringe, Lizzie came in. Crossing the room to stand behind the doctor, she put her hands on his shoulders and asked, "How's she doing?"
"She's being much braver than I think I would be under the same circumstances," he said, smiling at the warrior as he gave her the injection. Then, glancing up at Lizzie, he added, "But I'm afraid we don't have a whole lot of time left."
"Herbert just brought Xena's horse around from the stable," Lizzie said. "He'll be up here in a minute. I can go ahead and start carrying things downstairs."
"Lizzie," Xena said, "did you find my coin purse, and Gabrielle's, while you were packing?"
"Yes. I put them in one of the saddlebags. Do you want them?"
"Yes, please," Xena responded, and then said to Nicholas, "Could you help me sit up?"
He hesitated for a moment and then did as she asked. The movement brought new pain, and she gritted her teeth while he tucked a couple of pillows behind her. Then, to her relief, she felt the comfort of the morphine begin spreading through her body.
"Here are the coin purses," Lizzie said.
Xena took them and dumped the contents out into her lap. She began sorting through the coins and bills, thankful to finally be able to do something for herself. Counting out fifteen dinars, she returned them to one of the purses, added a few pieces of American money, and then tied the purse shut. The remaining money, which was mostly American, she put into the second purse and handed it to Nicholas.
"What are you doing?" he asked.
"I want you and Lizzie to take this money--"
"Xena, you don't owe us any money," Lizzie broke in. "I told you and Gabrielle that you were my guests here, and I meant it."
"I know," Xena said, "but I'd like you to pay my bill at the stable, and also give Enoch something for making the coffin."
"All right, we can do that," Lizzie said, nodding.
"The rest can go to Nicholas for medicine, and for taking care of Gabrielle and me," Xena finished.
"You don't have to do this, Xena," the doctor said.
"I want to," she responded. "And anyway, the money will be worthless to me back in Greece. I kept a little as a souvenir, but you might as well take the rest and do something useful with it. If you don't need it yourselves, then give it to the poor -- maybe to Frank Brown's children."
"That's very thoughtful of you," Nicholas said. He stood up and put the coin purse into his pocket.
"Don't worry," Lizzie added. "We'll find a good use for the money."
"Could you put this back in the saddlebag?" Xena asked, and handed Lizzie the other purse.
"Here's Herbert," Nicholas said, turning toward the door just as the sheriff came in. "Lizzie and I are just going to take the gear downstairs," he said to the other man, "and then I'll come back and help you carry Xena."
"Okay," Herbert said. He stood aside until the other two had left the room, then walked over and sat down in one of the chairs by the bed. "I'm so sorry you got hurt like this," he said.
"It was my own fault," Xena responded grimly. "You know what I did. I let myself become a monster, even though I promised Gabrielle I wouldn't. And I betrayed the trust you had in me as a deputy." Then, glancing down at the burns on her arms, she added, "I deserved all this and more."
"No, Xena," he said gently. "No one deserves this kind of suffering."
She opened her mouth to protest, but he held up his hand to stop her.
"It's true that you took the law into your own hands when you decided to execute those two men without the benefit of a trial," he said. "But as soon as you realized what you were doing, you had a complete change of heart. You almost died trying to save Bill Garrison."
"I didn't save him, though."
"No, and I'll be the first to admit that I think Garrison got what he deserved. But it would have been better if he had had a fair trial."
"How's the other one doing? George."
"He's all right," Herbert said. "I imagine the judge will decide to hang him, but at least he'll have his day in court."
"Better keep an eye on him," Xena warned. "He and Bill told me no jail could hold them."
"Yes, they have quite a reputation for jail breaks, so Ellis and I are being especially vigilant. I'm hoping I can take George to Denver tomorrow. They have better facilities there for keeping dangerous criminals." He paused for a moment and smiled at her. "I still can't believe you caught those two all by yourself," he said and shook his head.
"It wasn't so hard. They weren't exactly expecting me at that hour of the morning."
A footstep at the door caused both of them to look in that direction. It was Nicholas.
"Everything's ready downstairs," he said as he crossed the room to the bed, "so we just need to get Xena down there."
"All right," Herbert said, but he did not get up. Instead, he turned back to Xena. "Before we do this," he said, "I just want to thank you for everything you've done for us. Let's see, you helped stop a train robbery, saved Ellis' life, got Frank Brown to confess, took care of the Garrison gang, and--" He grinned suddenly and turned to glance back at Nicholas. "The most amazing thing of all," he went on, "is that somehow you talked Nick here into finally proposing to Lizzie. You've been a very busy lady," he concluded.
"No wonder I feel so tired," Xena said with a wan smile.
Nicholas laughed and then clapped a hand on the sheriff's shoulder. "Xena's done some amazing things," he agreed, "but she's getting weaker by the minute. We need to take her downstairs so she can go home."
"Maybe I can walk," Xena said as Herbert stood up and moved the chairs out of the way. She pushed the cover aside and then, with some effort, swung her legs over the side of the bed.
"Xena, I don't think you can do this," Nicholas said.
"I want to try it," she insisted.
So, with one on either side of her, the two men grasped her arms and helped her to her feet. She cried out at the pain, and clutched at them as everything around her began to spin crazily. Then, after a moment, she felt herself lifted in strong arms.
"I've got her," she heard Herbert say, and she let her head drop against his shoulder.
He took the stairs slowly, but each step jolted her with new agony, and she moaned several times, in spite of her best intentions not to.
"I'm sorry," Herbert said more than once. "I'm really trying not to hurt you."
"I know," she murmured. "I'll be all right."
Finally, they reached the bottom, and he carried her into the small parlor. Stopping at the front window, he turned so that she could look out. "See?" he said. "There's Argo, right outside there, just as close as we could get her. And I brought your other things inside."
Xena lifted her head and saw the mare standing patiently in the street, wearing saddle and bridle, her reins draped over the hitching rail.
"Herbert," Xena said, "if something happens and Argo doesn't go home with us, could you--"
"I'll be glad to take care of her," he said quickly. "She'll always have a good home here."
He turned away from the window then, and Xena saw the pine coffin sitting on a low table in the center of the room. The sofa and chairs had been piled with saddlebags and other gear. Walking over to the coffin, Herbert gently lowered the warrior to her feet. She gripped the edge of the box, smelling the freshly sawn wood, and staring at the still, white face of her lover.
"Here, sit down," she heard Nicholas say as he placed a chair behind her. "You need to save your strength." She lowered herself onto the chair without taking her eyes off Gabrielle.
"Xena," Lizzie said, leaning over the warrior's shoulder, "we didn't know where to put things. Is everything the way you want it?"
But Xena didn't answer. She could only stare at Gabrielle and think about how peaceful the bard looked . . . and how very far away.
"Xena? Did you hear me?"
Dragging her eyes away from the coffin at last, she looked up at Lizzie. "What?" she said.
"I asked you if everything was arranged the way you want it."
Xena looked around the room while she tried to think. "My leathers and my weapons," she said, "and Gabrielle's staff--"
"They're right over there on the sofa," Lizzie said.
"Put them--" she looked at Gabrielle again. "Put them in the coffin."
"In the coffin?" Lizzie said in surprise.
"Yes, just put everything in there. The closer it all is to the Cronus Stone, the better the chance that it will end up going home with us."
"All right," Lizzie said, motioning to Nicholas and Herbert to help. And while Xena watched, the three of them carefully piled blankets, weapons, saddlebags, and cooking utensils on top of Gabrielle's body, leaving only the bard's head and chest uncovered.
"This cloth bag has the food in it," Lizzie said. She held it up for Xena to see before she placed it in the pine box. "And we tucked in a few little gifts here and there," she added.
"Thank you, Lizzie," Xena said, reaching out to take the older woman's hand. "You've been wonderful to me. All of you have been," she added.
"Where do you want this?" Lizzie asked, holding up the Cronus Stone.
Xena released the other woman's hand and reached out to take the stone. She looked at it for a moment and then placed it carefully on her lap.
"So what happens now?" Herbert asked. "Do you just rub the stone and vanish?"
"Yes. At least I hope so," Xena said. "But I don't think anyone should be in the room with me when I do it. I don't want to take you back to Greece by mistake."
"Oh. I never thought of that," Lizzie said.
"I guess we can wait out in the hall," Nicholas said, "but how will we know if it worked or not?"
"Give me a few minutes and then look to see if we're gone," Xena suggested.
"I'm going to watch out the window and see if Argo disappears," Herbert said.
"That's another way," the warrior agreed.
There was a moment of awkward silence as they all looked at each other. Then Herbert stepped forward to take Xena's hand. "I hate goodbyes," he said, "so I'll just say how glad I am that you and Gabrielle paid us a visit -- even if you didn't mean to. Things just won't be the same around here without you."
"Thanks, Herbert," Xena said softly. "You've done a lot for me, and I won't forget it."
"I sure hope this stone thing works and you get home like you want to," he said with a smile. Then giving her hand a quick squeeze, he turned and strode out of the room.
Xena looked at Nicholas and Lizzie. "I wish I could be here for your wedding," she said.
"I wish you could, too," the doctor replied. "We owe you more than we could ever repay."
"Don't worry about that," Xena said. "Just love each other and live a long, happy life together."
"I really think we will," Lizzie said in a voice choked with emotion.
Nicholas laid a hand on Xena's head. "Are you feeling strong enough to do this?" he asked.
"We'll be right out there in the hall," he said. "Call us if you need anything."
"I will. Thank you, Nicholas. You've been a good friend, and I've learned a lot from you."
"Not as much as I've learned from you," he responded, smiling, then bent and kissed the top of her head. "Goodbye, Xena," he said. "We'll miss you more than you'll know." As he straightened up, he looked at Lizzie and said, "Don't take too long. She hasn't got much strength left."
"I wish I could give you a hug," Lizzie said when they were alone.
"I wish you could, too," Xena said, and saw that there were tears in the older woman's eyes.
Kneeling beside the warrior's chair, Lizzie took one of Xena's hands in hers. "I wish we could have had more time together, but I'm grateful for what we did have," she said.
"Lizzie, I don't know how to thank you for everything you've done for me and for Gabrielle."
"You don't have to thank me. Everything evens out eventually. Our paths have crossed already many times before, and I know they will again."
"Yes, I hope so."
Lizzie smiled and reached out to brush Xena's hair away from her face. "When you get back to Greece," she said, "where, exactly, do you think you'll end up?"
"I don't know for sure, but I hope we'll be back at the campsite we started from."
"Was it by a lake?"
"Yes. How did you know that?"
"I saw you there -- you and Gabrielle. I told Gabrielle about it, but I didn't know then what the vision meant."
"So it means we'll get back there? Back to that spot by the lake?"
"Yes," Lizzie said with a soft smile. "I feel certain of it." She brought Xena's hand to her face and held it against her cheek for a moment. Then, getting to her feet, she smiled again and said, "Go on, now. Gabrielle is waiting for you." And turning, she left the room, closing the door behind her.
Xena sat for several moments without moving. The weight of her pain suddenly seemed overwhelming. Maybe she had been wrong when she told Nicholas that she still had enough strength. The clock in the other parlor chimed three times, reminding her that she needed to hurry. Leaning forward, she looked again at her lover's peaceful face, and all at once it occurred to her that Gabrielle might not want to come back. After all, if she had found a place of endless beauty and rest, why would she choose to return to a life of danger and hardship?
A wave of dizziness swept over her, and Xena leaned her head against the hard edge of the coffin. She fought to hang onto consciousness, fearing that if she passed out now, she would never again find the strength to try to go home. When the lightheadedness passed, she looked at Gabrielle again. This was not a good time to be having doubts. The bard had told her to get the Cronus Stone and use it, and Xena would have to trust that death had not changed her lover's request.
Taking the red crystal from her lap, she set it on Gabrielle's chest. Then she touched her lover's cheek, surprised somehow to find the skin cold and stiff. "We're going home, Sweetheart," she said softly. "I hope that's what you still want."
She placed both hands on the cool, smooth surface of the Cronus Stone and resolutely pushed aside the pain which threatened to cloud her mind. Then, closing her eyes, she thought about the campsite by the lake, forming as clear a picture of it as she could. "We want you to take us back home to Greece," she said, feeling slightly foolish for talking to a piece of glass. "Take Gabrielle and Argo and me back to the lake where we started from. And take all our belongings. Please," she added. "Please take us home." And then she began to rub the stone.
For several long moments, nothing happened. But then came a strange sensation, as if she were rising and then moving rapidly through a space devoid of sound or light. She did not fight the sensation this time, but surrendered to it, even though the thought came to her that it might be Death, and not the Cronus Stone, which was taking her on this journey. In the end, she knew it did not matter -- just as long as she could be with Gabrielle once she reached her destination.
It seemed to last forever, and yet to be over in an instant. Suddenly, all sense of movement ceased, and everything was still.