Author's Note: All Disclaimers and copyrights extend and are valid for all five acts of this original work. They must be included in all private copies made of this work. Again, I would like to extend my thanks to my best friend and editor who both helped to elevate this story to its present state. Their feedback was invaluable and I look forward to their input in crafting the sequel…whenever that may be. I don't know exactly where this story came from, somewhere deep inside, but I really hope I can tap into it again. All burning questions and constructive comments can reach me at Dyinisis@hotmail.com Thanks for giving my story a chance and taking the ride with me. - DI

 

This Mortal Coil

by Dyin' Isis

 

Act V

 

Now cracks a noble heart.

Good night, sweet Prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

—Horatio, Hamlet, (V. ii. 359-360)

i.

It seemed like the rain that had been threatening over the last few days might never come. Thomas came in from doing the morning chores and looked around the small home. Where was she? The last time he had seen her, she was still in bed. With a worried frown creasing his brow, Thomas walked over to the master bedroom and spied in. Sure enough, the small frame was burrowed deeply under the blankets as if in effort to seek refuge from the world. He suspected Jack might be the reason for her melancholy, but even staying in bed this long was strange.

Thomas softly sat on the edge of the bed next to his wife. He contemplated her for a moment. This was very unlike her usual self. At this early time in the morning, she was usually already up and preparing breakfast. She'd greet him with a kiss as he walked in at his usual time for his first real meal since his customary two cups of coffee. She would chide him for not at least taking an apple. And she would smile…and that smile would light him up for the rest of the day.

Thomas sighed. This meant that it was probably not going to be a good day.

"Honey…hey," He walked over to her and sat down. He reached out a hand and softly caressed her hair. The gold wisps threaded easily in his large callused hands. Her skin was so soft…and it welcomed his own harshness with her soft caress every time.

"Jenny…it's late. Are you—oh no, what's wrong?"

His breath caught in his throat as she slowly roused herself awake. She had dark circles under her eyes. Her face was red and blotchy…tears most likely the culprit. He was instantly angered at himself…he should have known. Tried to protect her.

But it was too late. She shook her head and burrowed deeper into the blankets. She had already been hurt—deeply.

"No, no, honey…please, tell me." He implored with dark eyes.

His words echoed harshly in her ears. Tell me! That was exactly what she did…and because of it, she lost the one thing she had ever truly known and loved: Her son. But the man wouldn't stop. He was growing agitated…shaking her shoulder back and forth as he demanded attention.

He wanted to know? Fine, maybe then he'll be in pain more than she. After all, he did cause it.

"Do you really want to know, Thomas?" Her voice came out in a hoarse whisper. He nodded fervently and leaned down to her pursed lips. "You…you were so intent on the truth. Not just for him, you said, but for all of us, right? Or something like that…."

"Jenny, you're scarin' me. What's happened?"

"The truth happened, Thomas. There. Now you know. You happy now? I'm going back to sleep," With that, Jenny turned onto her side facing away to Thomas and curled up into a fetal position.

"Jenny, no. What do you mean? Do you mean about Jack? He knows…he knows everything?" Thomas felt panic welling up inside him. Panic and fear. Obviously, their talk must not have went well.

Jenny didn't bother to answer because, since he wanted the truth so much, she wouldn't start with a lie. The truth was, she didn't know. She didn't see him this morning, like Jack said she would. Her hesitant exchange last night was the last she had seen of him.

"Darling, please, I have to know. Please…he's my son, too."

Jenny winced at his words. If she could, she would yell at him. She would harness the anger from deep within and leash it out against this man…this man who swore that he had loved her. This man who had sworn to protect not only her…but her young son as well. He was just a boy…didn't he deserve his parents protection for as long as they were able? But, these angry questions remained bottled inside her. It hurt too much to give voice to this deep, unnatural, anger. At this point, if she did release these frustrations, she knew in the end that she would be hurt more than Thomas anyway. What was the use anyway?

Jack was gone. He probably read the letter she had left him and took off…hating her. Questioning why all that he had known was a lie. Jenny knew that if she concentrated…she could guess what he might have looked like—a figure of devastation. All because of her...not to mention his truth.

Well Thomas had his truth…Jack had his truth…all of the secrets were finally revealed. But what was she left with? What did she know? All she knew was that when she had woken up earlier that morning, the butterflies were swarming a hectic dance in her stomach. She had tried to screw up enough courage to explain herself…to explain the letter that she had left for Jack. She had opened up Jack's door…her blue eyes drifted slowly up from the floor it had scrutinized carefully…then stopped cold.

Jack was gone…and so was the letter.

ii.

"I think we should just go now and do it, guys," a hard voice graveled the chorus of bass and baritones to a halt. The voice belonged to a speaker with coal-black hair and grey eyes. He stood up and walked around the gathering of men, an unspoken challenge emanating from his being. The beer had been liberated from the hiding place under the floorboards, and the men thought their unrest would be cured with a few sips. When that didn't work, they tried a few more bottles just to make sure.

The restlessness in Coal Damian's gang that had been stewing for the last few weeks had finally risen to a boiling point. The flowing alcohol helped facilitate the moment Kelvin had been waiting for. Ever since Travis had told them that some of the men, him in particular, wouldn't be going on the heist. Not only that, but they weren't going to get a cut of the loot either. He'd been waiting for this opportunity, and now he was going to take it.

"Kelvin, you're crazy," Lucky's light scar running down his right cheek creased as he laughed. "There's no way how you're gonna get us to go with the heist. Especially without Coal's okay. Even if we got the money, he'd track us down like dogs."

"Nah, Lucky, being crazy has nothing to do with it. I think it's time we showed Coal what we're made of."

Lucky shook his head when he realized just how seriously Kelvin was taking this. He thoughtfully rubbed the scar down his cheek. Story was that after a drink too many, the young man with fiery dark red hair had challenged a tall dark figure one night. He gathered from the whisperings of the men that this was Coal Damian himself. The hushed tones were the result of uneasiness. Coal's appearance with his men was infrequent, but as the brash young man was about to find out, they always made an impact. As such, the others always gave Coal a wide berth.

Lucky decided to find out for himself if Coal was all that the legends made him to be. Proud of the military heritage his family spoke of, Lucky threw down a saber in front of Coal and challenged him to a duel…of about five seconds. Coal didn't bother to pick up the saber or acknowledge the duel with a word. Lucky ran at him and sliced wildly. That was his only chance. He didn't remember how, but he remembered hearing the fluttering of wind through fabric as something flipped over his head. Turning wildly around, Coal stood up from a crouch with the other saber in his hand. With two sharp flicks of the hand, Lucky lost his sword and won the opportunity to have a slight scar against his left cheek. Lucky hissed and reeled back, crouching in a defensive position. But Coal had already turned away and left the sword on the ground. Lucky made a move to go for the sword when he felt an arm on his shoulder. He looked up and met Travis' dark face leaning down to him. With a smile, Travis told him that his name would be Lucky from now on. Lucky clenched his teeth, thinking that Travis was making fun of him and started for the saber again. Travis easily held him back. He would be called Lucky because Coal wasn't left-handed. The meaning was clear to the young man, if Coal had used his right-hand, Lucky would have been dead. Lucky had been a loyal follower of Coal Damian ever since.

"What're you talking about?" Horace rumbled forward and sat down on a yielding bale of hale. He reached for an ever-present bottle of beer and twisted the cap off expertly. Coal always provided beer for his men. It was one of the reasons his gang was so loyal…most of the time.

Horace, Kelvin, Lucky, and the rest of Coal's men were sitting in a barn on the outskirts of Red Mesa. It was only one of many hiding places which Coal's gang would meet. "Taking off and doin' the heist isn't a good idea, and you know it." Horace spoke the most obvious thought on everyone's mind.

"Hey, we've been riding with Coal for a while now. He knows we wouldn't take the gold for ourselves." Kelvin continued to work the reluctant men. "We'll give 'im his half when we get back. If anything, we'll be doing him a favor."

"I don't like it. I don't like all of these things Coal's supposed to know. I say we stick to whatever timetable Coal's got…at least that way we'll stay alive." Lucky shook his head.

The men grumbled in agreement. They knew damn well that none of them were indispensable as far as Coal Damian was concerned.

"Look, all of us are tired of sitting around and doin' nothing, right? How 'bout you guys who aren't goin' at all? Don't you want your rightful share of the loot? This much is clear, we are going to rob a gold mine. This could be the last heist for some of you, boys. 'Specially since we'll have more money than we can carry."

Now this really got their attention. Slowly but surely, Kelvin saw another cowboy get dollar signs in his eyes. Never underestimate a man's capacity for money. Especially when it meant a lot of money.

"Yeah, but if you think we're gonna go and heist the mine behind Coal's back, then you're a fool, Kelvin." Rusty spoke up and smoothed his rangy hair back. "There's no way how I'm gonna follow you blind."

Kelvin's face darkened, but brightened suddenly when a thought hit him. "No, Rusty, you're right."

Rusty snorted and took another swill of beer. "Good, I'm glad to see you finally get it."

"No, Rusty, you're right. It would be crazy to hit the mine without the papers Coal was waiting for. I mean, that's why we hit that stagecoach a couple of weeks back to begin with, right?" Kelvin rubbed his hands back in forth in growing excitement. "But…"—he paused for effect—"…what if we don't hit the mine."

"What!" Jake exploded, giving Kelvin a hard look. "That was not a part of the plan. Me and the boys from Dunston got your message about a sure-fire plan to get some loot, and you want to go against Coal? No way."

"All right! All right, listen, I think you're all right. It's crazy to hit the mine…but what if that was only a part of Coal's plan. What if he was also planning to hit the trains?"

Rusty began to nod his head. "Ya know, I think Kelvin is actually on to something this time."

"Yeah, we don't have all of the information we need to hit the mine…but we know the times the trains are leaving and we know the tracks they go on, right Lucky?"

"Three…six…and nine," Lucky recited dutifully. "Those're the times. Yup, we tracked the trains also. Just like Coal said."

"Okay, Rusty hand me the map." Kelvin chortled with laughter. The men were on their feet now it seemed that the desire not to be restless anymore finally found an outlet. Rusty grabbed the map and slid it open on the table.

"Okay, we still got one more train we can hit tonight. I say we do it. All we have to do is decide where…."

Kelvin's grey eyes lit up as the wheels in his head continued to turn. It seemed more and more possible to carry out the plan…his plan. You don't ride two years with Coal Damian without learning a thing or two about train robberies.

The other men crowded around the table eagerly. Lucky stepped forward and lightly traced the train route with his finger. The third and final train would take this route at nine o'clock that Friday night.

"Alright, so here's the plan. We do the rockslide like we usually do for train robberies here," a meaty index finger stabbed the map in the middle of a winding ravine. "At Deadman's Gulch. How long does it take for the train to get to this point?"

"About an hour," Lucky estimated.

"Perfect," he drawled the word and smiled. "That'll be plenty of time to get to Deadman's Gulch and start the rockslide. And then…the gold is ours."

iii.

"Jack!" Jenny's cry carried on the wind and easily reached Jack's ears.

After a long day of soul-searching and alternating bouts of depression and anxiety, Jack finally returned to his home. He still wasn't sure how he should feel about the events of the last few…what was it, days? No, he had seen his Uncle Travis—Jack closed his eyes inadvertently at the name—just that last night. He knew that his mother loved him, and that wouldn't change.

But Travis…that changed everything. Jack had to find Travis to talk about something they had in common he never thought they would: Coal Damian.

"Oh, thank god you're home!" Jenny ran to her lanky son who suddenly felt very fragile in her arms. He had grown past her height a summer ago and was still growing like a weed. She felt Jack tentatively return the pressure, but this time he didn't allow his head to rest on her shoulders like he used to. He just stood there…his stiffness shriveling her heart.

It was going to take time for him to hug her like he used to.

"It's okay, shhh, it's okay," Jenny murmured comforting words of love in his ear, although it seemed to be more for her benefit than his. "I'm just glad you're okay. It's late afternoon, Jack! Have you eaten anything?"

Jack released her and gazed at her steadily. "Naw…haven't been hungry."

Jenny's felt her self-control slipping as her only son stood in front of her. He didn't look at her the same way. Although she couldn't bring herself to admit it, his pale blue eyes were now cold and regarded her cautiously…as if seeing her for the first time.

"Well, let me fix you something, okay?" Jenny hoped that he would say yes. She wanted to do something, anything, for her son. The slightest indication of a shrug sprung her to action. "Okay, come inside."

"Hello, Jack," Thomas looked at Jack with a worried countenance. "Go on inside and have somethin' to eat."

Jack only nodded and allowed his mother to shepherd him inside.

"Is he okay, Jenny?" Thomas said lowly in Jenny's ear.

"Why don't you ask him yourself?" She snapped back and entered the homestead without him.

Thomas sighed for a moment and pushed his hands into the pockets of his pants. He turned his back on the unruly landscape that had once engulfed his son, and now returned to the place which harbored the young man from the cruel world…even if it was for a little while.

"We don't have to go to the play tonight, Jenny," Thomas tactfully avoided Jack's disappearance last night. As much as he wanted to holler and chastise Jack for scaring them both to death, he knew it would only drive Jack farther away … so far away that he might never come back. Right now, that was the last thing he wanted to do. Jenny continued to give Thomas dark looks and accusatory glares as if to blame him for the disappearance of her son. He sighed heavily and couldn't deny that some of that was true.

Thomas watched as Jenny bustled around the kitchen, as she tried to do something normal. But, Thomas had a feeling it would take more than "acting normal" before things actually were normal.

"I mean," he faltered slightly in the waning silence. "I'm sure there will be another performance tomorrow or another night."

Jenny didn't bother to look at him. She settled a bowl of stew in front of Jack and sat down beside him. "How do you feel, Jack?" She reached out a hand to touch Jack's forehead. He winced and leaned back slightly. She held her hand aloft for a moment, then quickly brought it back down. Her son's action hurt her more than words ever could.

"I'm fine," Jack mumbled and stared at his soup. His usual answer when things were the opposite. They all knew it, but were far from knowing how to make things normal again.

"Jack, don't you want to go to the play with us tonight?" Jenny asked quietly. She wrung her hands fretfully. "You seemed so excited before."

Before, Jack thought glumly. Before seemed like such a long time ago. Before he had wanted to go because Libby would be going with her parents. Maybe they could see each other for just a quick moment…. But now, Jack had more pressing things on his mind, and the pretty blonde girl was dismissed as soon as her sweet countenance was called upon.

"Nah, I think I'm going to stay home tonight," Jack said softly.

"Oh, that's too bad, Jack," Thomas placed his hands behind his back as he rested against the wall of the kitchen. "Your Uncle Travis—"

"Travis?" Jack interrupted. His demeanor changed immediately. Jack turned around abruptly and looked at Thomas squarely. "I mean, what did Uncle Travis want?"

"Oh, well I was going to tell you," Thomas was visibly surprised by Jack's response. "Uncle Travis was hoping that you would go the play tonight. He seemed really eager to see you, I know, like he always is."

Travis was going to be there! Jack thought excitedly. Maybe he'd get a chance to talk to him alone….

"…but if you don't want to go, that's alright."

"NO," Jack said forcefully, but then caught himself. Now Jenny was looking at him more worriedly than before. "I mean, no, I changed my mind. I think it'll be good to go to town."

Thomas beamed. "That's great, Jack. I think the play will give all of us a chance to enjoy ourselves for a little while, right?"

"Yeah," Jack smiled thinly. Ironically enough, he felt like he had just found himself. "I think it'll be okay."

Jenny reached for his hand and held it tightly. She echoed her son's sentiments fiercely. She wanted desperately for everything to be okay.

iv.

Caleb and Sam found themselves searching the far outskirts of Red Mesa. They were surrounded by the titian color of clay and the vast blue and swirling white of the heavens. It was strange how one looked down to expect the dirty brown color of earth, but instead the dark hue of the clay surprised him. Caleb could practically hear his mother urging him to notice nature like she had done so often so long ago. For his part, the older man slipped off his steed and bent down to the underbrush, apparently used to seeing the earth a different color. Sam reached out and fingered the broken blades of brush. Caleb figured that Sam didn't count though, nothing seemed to unnerve him.

"Do you think that's a part of their trail, Sam?" Caleb asked eagerly.

"Nah, this is much different," Sam's voice grew troubled. "It's not like those tracks of the Indians back there, Cal. Maybe you should come over here and take a look."

It was dark now and the musical cacophony of nightlife serenaded them softly. The inky darkness of night was slowly snuffing out the last rays of sunset. As the heavenly body continued to spin on its axis away from the sun, the sallow beam of moonlight lit the nocturnal inhabitants. Its lurid brightness threw more shadow than light. It was in this different world that the two Marshalls found themselves as they doggedly continued to track the Indian scouts who could have set fire to the homestead.

I hate tracking Indians, Caleb thought more than once as he scanned the underbrush for telltale clues of its native sons. It seemed that the land of their ancestors had swallowed them up in an effort to protect them. Sam was an exceptional tracker, and even he continued a soft stream of profanity as he searched for anything hinting of a former presence. Needless to say, it was slow going, and what marks they did find were considered lucky, especially because their prey knew this terrain so well. Once again, they had lost the trail and found themselves intimate with frustration. As they continued their endless scouring of the underbrush, both men knew that the trail, not to mention the weather, was growing colder. It seemed that nothing could stop the night from becoming blacker.

"It's like they just disappeared," Caleb commented needlessly. Sam stood up from his hunched search and threw him a dark look. If one had nothing productive to say, then say nothing at all, his glare conveyed. As if to show his support, Caleb loosed a stream of swearing as well. Slightly above the nocturnal sweet sounds was a perverse duet of the two Marshals. As the duet became more colorful and creative, the moon ducked in between clouds—and the trail became colder. Time was certainly not on their side. Caleb had just about given up when Sam suddenly called out. Caleb quickly galloped over and jumped off his horse.

Now the two lawmen were circling a large set of horse tracks that headed northeast. With the sightings of Dusty and his men heading toward Red Mesa, it would make sense that they would have traveled far out this way to move onto the next town.

"Geez, how many different horses do you think there are, Sam?" Caleb bent down and tried to discern the different tracks. "At least six, huh?"

"Nah, Cal, I think you need to brush up on your tracking," Sam smirked with a newfound confidence. Now the older man felt much more comfortable with these blatant tracks. However, these tracks were not obviously made by Indians. "There's more like eight or nine here."

"Hey, you were the one who lost the Indian tracks," Caleb needled and arched a dark eyebrow.

Sam snorted and pointed to the tracks. "Oh, and what did you find?"

Caleb knew that look from old games of poker and wisely folded. "So…you think they're Dusty's?"

"I dunno. Could be." Sam shrugged his shoulders. "Dusty doesn't usually travel with that many people though. From what I could pick up in Red Mesa, it seems doubtful he would talk anyone there into riding with him. Not the recruiting kind."

"Yeah, I think they'd be too busy laughing at him or something."

Sam nodded. "Yup, but you know what does trouble me…is that these tracks are fresh. Very fresh. With the wind blowing, and for them to be so clear…." A few wisps of gray hair fluttered in the breeze as if to demonstrate his point. "Yup, I'd say we just missed 'em."

"I wonder where they're going. There's really nothing in this direction," Caleb heard a faint train whistle off in the distance. He turned his head and tried to find the source. "Hey, I didn't know there were train tracks way out here. They must be new."

Sam nodded. He pushed his well-worn hat back against his scalp and looked out into the red-cindered distance. "Yeah, another Chamberlain gold mine opened up not too far from here. From the sound of that whistle, I'd say that train is coming this way—Oh, no!" Sam breathed the last words then jumped onto his horse hurriedly. "Caleb, saddle up! We gotta follow those tracks."

"What? What are you talking about?" Caleb did as he was told though. "Whoa!"

Suddenly a deafening roar shook the earth and the horses reared in surprise. Caleb and Sam fought with their mounts to get control and ultimately appease the startled horses.

"What was that? It sounded like a crash. Like an avalanche!"

"Yep, it sure was, Caleb! By the sounds of it, it's close by!" Sam smiled broadly and checked his guns to make sure they were loaded. He could tell that his partner had no idea what was happening. "It's a rockslide, Cal. And those horseprints we found are headed right for the traintracks."

"It sounds like the makings of a train robbery to me!" Caleb's blue eyes gleamed with excitement.

The two men hurried their mounts to the sounds of screeching brakes and gunfire.

v.

"Gwen?"

"Ah Travis, you're back." Gwen turned away from the handsome tailor and regarded her bartender. The audience was milling around and talking softly during the intermission. "Stephen and I were just discussing the play. We agree that our visitors from the East are doing a—"

"Gwen, I'm sorry, but I need to speak to you," Travis waited as Gwen's demeanor changed slightly.

"Ah," Gwen turned back to the tailor and declined her head slightly. "We'll continue our conversation in a few moments, Stephen."

"Of course, Gwen," Stephen nodded, his eyes moving restlessly between her and Travis. "I'll be waiting."

"Thank you." Gwen turned back to Travis, her sapphire eyes glinting. "This way."

Without turning back, Gwen walked to an obscure part of the back of the Saloon and entered the shadows. Travis took a deep breath, then followed his boss. She knew that this was about his abrupt exit earlier during the play. By his urgency to dismiss the tailor, it also meant that it regarded her illicit extracurricular actives and not with the banal routine of maintaining the Dusty Hole Saloon.

"Okay, you have my attention." She whirled back at him, the long petticoats of her dress swirled under her. She waited with hooded eyes and folded arms. Her elegantly coifed black hair was in a style he had never seen before. He just hoped that after this conversation, he would live to see what new hairstyles his dangerous boss would try.

"The boys are gone." Travis hissed. His pleasant features were filled with worry as he continued to play the appointed role of messenger. "We can't find them anywhere."

"What? What happened at the last meeting?" Gwen asked sharply, although she knew damn well—but still, she tested him. "There wasn't something that you'd left out, was there?" Her voice had grown menacing.

Travis shook his head from side-to-side fervently. "No, Gwen. I told you exactly what happened. The boys were restless, as usual, and Kelvin's comments weren't helping any. I'm sure he has a hand in this."

"Travis! You know what your job is!" She hissed and advanced on him. "You have to keep the men in line. Any problems and I will take care of it. Did you forget that?"

Travis' heart beat furiously as if in telling him that if he was going to die, then his heart was gonna go for the last hurrah. He worked to loosen his tie, which suddenly felt too much like a noose.

"Gwen, I know, and I did everything I—"

"Obviously it wasn't enough," Gwen spoke lowly and full of venom. Her voice slit through him like tiny knives. "That's why I'm here. I could have convinced them just what a bad idea disappearing could have been. All of this could have been avoided, Travis, if you had just told me."

"I-I—" He held his palms up in front of him in a protective gesture. Now was the time to worry.

"Choose your words carefully, Travis," Gwen pushed him back against the wall. His head jerked back and banged solidly against the strong wood. Her eyes flashed and she stared at him blackly. "Do you know what direction they went?"

"N-N-No," Travis stammered. His legs began to shake and threatened to give out.

"Does Howie have any idea?"

His silence was enough of an answer. Gwen's mind raced with possibilities as she assessed the new situation. It was something Travis found fascinating about her. How plans never worked without a little surprise, and how good Gwen was to come up with a solution. She loved a challenge, and she always rose to meet it. She tilted her head slightly to the side in thought, the light sparkling over her sable hair. Her eyes narrowed into slits as she breathed two words, "The mine."

Travis' eyes widened a little then quickly fell to the floor. He was hoping he wouldn't be blamed.

"Tell me, Travis," Gwen's voice caressed the words, but her eyes and demeanor held the promise of what could happen if he didn't tell her everything. "Howie came over and pulled you over to the side during the beginning of the first act. Now, tell me…where did the two of you go?"

Travis paused for a while as he studied the floor, choosing his words as carefully as the dark woman had warned. Her eyes weren't storming like they usually did when she was upset, instead they flashed with annoyance. He hoped this was a good sign. He cleared his throat and looked up at her meekly. "Well… Howie and I followed a series of tracks heading east, but that's not the direction.…"

"To…."

"The Chamberlain mine." He whispered hoarsely. He knew that he was in charge of shuttling Gwen's orders to the men. He felt personally responsible for the men's betrayal. God help him now as he faced this woman who was capable of so much. "But they didn't know anything about the plan. All they knew was that we were going to hit it eventually."

"Exactly. But you're right, it's not toward the mine, but it's on the way to Deadman's Gulch."

Travis looked at her blankly. "But that trail just heads up the ravine to the top. There's nothing up there."

"No, but there's something down there…in the ravine. When was this Travis?"

"It was a bit before dusk…there was still light out. We also searched the area around the tracks because we knew there was nothing around the Gulch. That's why I just got back."

"And now it's around nine," Gwen was more sure than ever exactly where her renegade men went. More importantly, she knew what happened at this time.

Gwen's blue eyes darkened to a menacing shade of indigo. By reflex, her jaw tightened in anger. "No, Travis, they didn't go to the Chamberlain mine. That's why they went east. No, I'm sure that's where they wanted to go, but Kelvin isn't stupid enough to take the mine without me. He doesn't have the map nor does he know the guards' schedule. But, he's just dumb enough to think he could take the next best thing. No, they went toward the railroad."

"The trains?" Travis was aghast the men would rebel this way. Surely they knew that they had just signed their death warrants. "What were they thinking?"

"They weren't thinking, Travis, that's the point!" Gwen shook her head in disappointment. Travis was a good man to have in your corner, but ultimately, he was a simple man. He didn't have vision. Thus, men like him would always be followers. "All they saw were dollar signs. It will be their undoing and ultimately their death. I'll see to it."

Gwen turned her back to him and directed her gaze to the oblivious townsfolk. They talked of mindless things and town gossip that Gwen never bothered herself with. Her life was so unique to theirs, partly by the twists of fate, but by choice as well. The arena she chose to play in was much larger than so many could've suspected. Life would be much different if they only knew.

"Yes, but Gwen, what if they survive?" Travis asked after a moment. "What if they're successful? They know that if they don't give you all of their loot, they're dead men. They've ridden with you long enough to know that. Hell, even Kelvin knows that. They'll give you everything to save their lives. So, why kill them?"

"Travis!" Gwen's patience was rapidly thinning. "That's enough. You know better. They went against my orders. Period! They knew the risks, even if their greed blinded them. You should know by now that there is more to a perfect crime than not getting caught."

"Gwen," Travis reached out and grabbed her elbow again. She turned back around and easily pulled her arm from his grip. He advanced and whispered fiercely. "If we don't stop them, they'll ruin everything. We've planned this for so long!"

"Travis, have you lost faith in me?" she asked suddenly. His eyes widened in surprise.

"No, Gwen, it's just that—"

"You worry too much. Listen, for the last time, they won't jeopardize anything. Kelvin and the boys only knew the barest bones of my plan. When they get caught, it'll be just like all of the other times. The only thing we've lost is…time." Gwen grinned wryly. She noticed that people were going back to their seats and lowered her voice. "There was a reason—a very good reason—why I didn't go after the mine earlier."

"But Gwen, we've been planning this for so long! Why jeopardize it all tonight?"

"Ah, but my dear Travis, there is no we," She advanced on him and stabbed her finger into his chest. He winced and easily imagined a gun. Her blue eyes intensified to a deep blue fire. "There never was. That is why you are so confused. Even you don't know the whole plan, understand? I'll contact my men up north at La Camisa Sucia or even those out west in Dunston. Both groups would love a chance to go after that mine just brimming with gold. The plan will continue, just with different men and a different time." Gwen seemed to check herself suddenly as men and women glided past them on their way to their chairs for the second part of the play. She softened her tone and cupped his bristled face in her hands and gazed into confused brown orbs with a confidence born of leading and being very good at what she did. "Don't you worry. Have I ever failed?"

"Never," Travis sighed. He ran his hand through the unruly mass of his mahogany hair. No matter how many times he tried, he will never figure out this beautiful woman standing before him. He had ridden with her for a while, and more often than not, he was left with more questions then answers. "At least not as far as I know."

"Exactly. Now, sit down. It's rude to be milling about when the curtain goes up." And with a swirl of petticoats, Gwen receded from him for the final time, leaving only the scent of rose petals in her wake.

Now, there would be a guy to take the fall, Gwen thought as she added him to the list of sacrifices. It was an acceptable loss, though. She doubted if Travis held the vision to see whom it would be.

Gwen emerged from the shadows where her conversation had taken place. She casually turned left, then right, before continuing to her seat. Travis followed her soon afterwards and quickly took the seat next to her. Another man emerged from the shadows, not unlike the dark woman a moment ago. He found it to be a stroke of luck that the slope of the grand stairway had easily hidden him. Or else, more than likely, he'd be on the wrong side of a very sharp knife. Charles rushed back to the stage knowing that he might miss his curtain call, but too excited with the information he had learned to be worried at all.

Now the tables were finally turning towards his favor. Armed with such knowledge, for the first time since arriving in this horrible town, Charles welcomed the chance of speaking to Gwenyth Devereaux after the show.

As far as he was concerned, it would be their final tête-à-tête.

vi.

"That was an amazing play, Viola!" Heddie, a rotund woman with blonde hair swirling down her back, leaned down and wrapped the petite woman with a generous hug. She laughed and grabbed a strong hold, then straightened, raising Viola's feet three inches off the floor as she did so. Sandra laughed as Viola's face contorted from a grimace to surprise at the action.

"Ugh, Heddie!" Viola laughed at the kind woman's antics. She and the members of the Sewing Circle had kindly agreed to help make the costumes after friendly cajoling from Charles.

As Viola was swept from handshake to hug, she was pleased that so much of the town had pitched in during the production of the show. She saw Charles and a group of other men drinking free beer as they congratulated him. She had noticed that his beer had been more refilled than emptied. At this disturbing thought, a dark suspicion swept over her. She prayed that Charles wasn't reverting to his drunken ways.

As Viola continued to accept congratulations and offered her own thanks, her thoughts strayed to wondering where Skeet was… She wanted to thank him and his friends for the construction of the sets and the props. Although she had objected when the placement of a large bouquet of potted violas on the stage caused an obstruction, Skeet's face looked so heartbroken at the suggestion of removing it that she rescinded. Come to think of it…there were many of the men who were regulars at the Dusty Hole Saloon that were absent. Lucky…he had helped with the lighting…how did he figure out to use the mirrors to help direct the candle lights? Grant had to step in at the last minute when the crew was thrown for a loop with his absence. One of the painters, Rusty, was absent also….

"Viola!"

Viola heard her name and smiled instantly. She hoped that one of the absentees had finally shown up and she could finally give him hell….

But instead, she found herself in Travis' arms. He hugged her briefly then stood back with a grin.

"That was a great job, Viola! I really liked it."

"You did, Travis? I mean, it wasn't too complicated…." Viola's voice drifted off uncertainly. One of her concerns, as well as that of Sandra and Charles, in putting on the play was to make it accessible to the audience. They had to improvise a little and throw out a few scenes, since putting on a Shakespeare play with basically three actors demanded it.

"Naw, I got it, Viola. I remember my momma used to telling me stories about that guy, uh Shakespeare, I mean. She was a teacher, ya know … a long time ago…."

Viola smiled. "That's great, Travis. I'm glad you liked it." Travis nodded. "Hmm, where's your boss?"

Travis' smile suddenly deflated and his eyes grew guarded. It was the first time she had seen him tense up at the mention of Gwen. "What?"

"Oh, I was just wondering about Gwen. Where is she, Travis? I need to talk to her."

"Oh, well—oh, Jenny…Jack! Hey, guys!" Travis seemed relived to see his family. He hugged Jenny briefly then shook hands with his brother. "It's good to see you. This is Viola, the actress, herself."

"Ah," Jenny smiled and shook hands with Viola. "You did a great job. We were just surprised what time it was! The play didn't seem that long…."

"Oh, well, we were hoping that it wouldn't." Viola smiled kindly. She turned to the boy who hung back behind his parents. He kept looking furtively between Travis and the floor. What an odd boy…maybe he was just shy….

"Hi, there," Viola had to tilt her head back a little to see Jack's blue eyes. They were such a clear blue and looked vaguely familiar. She shook off the feeling of deja vu and held out her hand. After hesitating a moment, Jack stepped forward and shook her hand.

"Hi," he mumbled softly. Jack seemed to be between boyhood and manhood. His body was at that stage where it couldn't be comfortable in either stage. "I'm Jack."

"It is nice to meet you, Jack." Viola looked at the father who smiled and tilted his head.

"All of you did a great job, Viola. We look forward to the next one." Thomas leaned forward and shook Viola's hand briefly, then turned to Travis and shook his hand warmly. "Nice to see you, too, Travis. I'm afraid we're heading out, though. We had so much fun with the party after the show, we didn't notice that it was so close to eleven. Jack especially, wasn't ready but, I gotta get my family home."

"Yeah, I hear you, Thomas. Take care. I'll see you soon." Travis hugged Jenny briefly and kissed her chastely on the cheek. Then he turned to Jack and sensed something was off. "Hi, Jack. I'm sorry that we didn't get a chance to talk tonight."

Jack nodded and hoped that Travis couldn't hear the thumping in his chest. He prayed for all that he was worth that he could hold his ground…just this once.

"S'okay, Travis." Jack mumbled again.

Travis figured that Jack was in a mood and held out his hand. It was strange, but Jack even seemed to hesitate to shake his hand when earlier that day they had been on, what had seemed like, the best of terms. He would try to track his nephew down tomorrow and feel him out. Maybe he could figure out what was wrong. Hopefully, it wasn't those dreams….

"Okay, we're heading out," Thomas declared a little too hastily. He gently put a large hand on the small of the back of his wife and on Jack's shoulder and shepherded them out into the night. "Until next time, Travis. I hope to see another play soon, Viola."

Travis nodded as Viola raised her hand to wave at the departing family. They seemed to carry a dark cloud over their heads. She hoped that it would be resolved soon, whatever might be ailing the family.

vii.

It was nearing the witching hour, and the crowd had thinned dramatically. Gwen had kept her word and kept the refreshments flowing at a reduced price. The cook had even prepared the food with special names to mark the occasion. Sandra was the chosen namesake for the "Sassy Sandra Sandwich." Charles was honored by the "Charles' Chicken 'N' Chives". Viola, however, was dismayed that the "Voluptuous Viola Venison" was made in her honor. Venison was the one meat she hated with a passion. The cook had challenged her to think of a better name that began with the letter "V." The cerebral New Yorker had yet to succeed, but vowed she would.

Viola, Sandra, and Charles found themselves still at the Dusty Hole after their exhausting performances. All that the three players had wanted to do was eat and go to sleep, but the enthusiastic townspeople had other plans. Charles had found another mug of strong ale in his hand and was pleasantly happy to see that it never emptied despite all of his attempts. Then, Gwen had called for a free round for each of the players, which only enhanced their popularity. As the praises flowed, not to mention the thanks for something so wonderful to break up the monotony of everyday living, they found themselves invigorated with happiness. They had succeeded one part of their dream since leaving New York: They had been able to perform what they had wanted and succeeded in pleasing an audience.

But now, the euphoria of a successful production was running out and the fatigue was returning. Somebody had left a cowboy hat at the table, and Charles gazed at it moodily. He idly pushed it around the surface of the table by its brim. Travis was cleaning up the mugs littered around the table. Gwen was speaking to the last of the lingering customers. By her bright smile, it was a safe bet she was talking to very satisfied customers.

Viola found her gaze straying to the two people next to her…two people she had once believed in so strongly that she had thrown away all that she had ever known and fled to the West with them. She had found herself in a position where their lives had been threatened. Had fought through the early rounds of homesickness with Sandra. And before Charles had changed so much, they had good times. But now, these two people sitting next to her were strangers…married strangers. She still remembered the hurt and confusion when Sandra finally showed her the ring. But, of course, she had to. Viola had seen it by accident and asked. What a horrible way to find out that your best friend had gotten married and you hadn't even known it. For Viola, that still left a taste of bile in her mouth.

It was these tensions that drew the exhausted players to the table now. They had every reason to leave for a warm bed and a chance to sleep until dawn. The crowd finally dissipated and it would be easier to leave without being noticed. By all accounts, all three of them should have gone to bed. And yet, here they were, watching Gwen wave farewell to the last customers, and not making a move to leave. They seemed to look at each other expectantly…waiting, for the other shoe to drop.

And so, naturally, fall it did.

The rumbling of the heavens came to life; not to be contained any longer. A sheet of rain fell from the sky. The night sky became alive with lightning and the conversations of thunder. The feeling of apprehension over the looming dark clouds was finally answered as the torrential downpour swallowed all of the dryness below it. Viola could see from her seat the large drops of rain slapping the window.

With another roar of thunder, two men suddenly strode through the double doors and were instantly greeted by Gwen. She focused on her dark-haired brother and gave him a mock glare.

"Caleb!" she turned to him as he rigidly stood before her. "You're a little late."

"Actually, Gwen, we're just in time," He gazed at her grimly. "We stopped a robbery attempt. It was pretty bloody. Most of the men died. The few left are now locked up." He cocked his thumb back behind him to indicate the jail across the street.

Gwen's eyebrow arched as she let surprise spread over her features. "Oh, really? Where?"

"It was aways to the northeast, Gwen," Caleb replied as he watched Sam stride purposefully toward the bartender. "They started a rockslide at Deadman's Gulch, then attacked from the northeast. But, the funny thing is, most of the men we saw were from around here. What do you make of that?"

Gwen opened her mouth to reply, but was cut off by a loud shout. "Hey, what's going on?" a surly voice challenged the men. Caleb and Sam turned to the source, their badges symbolizing and order. Charles, on the other hand, epitomized entropy.

"Charles," Viola hissed. "Be quiet!"

"No, Vee," Charles hissed the diminutive form of her name in derision. There was no denying now that the two had a firmly drawn a line in the sand. "I wanna know what kind of trouble the great Gwenyth Deveraux got herself into now."

"What's he talking about, Gwen?" Caleb turned to his sister who wore her customary stoic expression.

Gwen shrugged her shoulders. "Got me… Sounds more like the ramblings of a drunk. It's probably nothing," Gwen dismissed Charles easily. "What do you want with my bartender?"

Sam advanced on Travis, while Caleb covered him with a drawn Colt Peacemaker. Gwen walked up to her brother and waited for an answer with questioning eyes.

"Well," Caleb's sharp blue eyes watched Travis closely. "It would seem that we caught some men trying to pull off a train robbery way out there by the Chamberlain mine. They claim that Travis is the leader and Coal Damian is the mastermind." He laughed. "Coal Damian!"

Sam quickly slapped the handcuffs on Travis. Travis was so surprised that he looked down at the shiny bracelets in surprise. He stood there, taken the sight in, then turned to Gwen.

"What it sounds like is that the men you caught are pretty desperate, Cal," Gwen shrugged. "I can assure you as well as a room full of people, that Travis hadn't left my side all night."

"Is that true?" Sam's hooded grey eyes regarded Travis suspiciously. "We got a man named Kelvin who is singing like a bird. He's claiming that you drew out all of the plans. And, you know what, he's explaining things in detail. It's plain to me and Sam that he doesn't have the brains to think of things like that."

"And Travis does?" Gwen asked dubiously, her simple words holding more meaning only Travis could catch.

"Gwen, please help me," Travis pleaded. "Don't let them take me."

The three actors, who had triumphantly told a story of drama, now watched fascinated as a real drama unfolded in front of them. Charles fingered the brim of the hat and looked down at the floor. He leaned down and picked up a handkerchief. Now he placed the handkerchief on the table with the hat slightly above it. He looked at the positioning of the items intently. Viola wondered what he was doing.

"Alright, Travis," Gwen approached Travis and put her hand on his shoulder in a show of comfort. "I've known you for a while, but you gotta be honest with me. Did you have anything to do with what happened tonight?"

Travis eyes' grew wide. These were not the words he had wanted to hear. "No! Of course not!"

Gwen nodded comfortingly. "Exactly. See? What more do you want, Cal?"

"But why would they mention you at all, Travis?" Sam spoke up angrily as he felt the strong hunch he was being lied to. Being a man who sought out criminals on a daily basis, he was sick and tired of all of the lies he was continually told. "Two of the men we dragged back with us to Red Mesa don't even live here, but they sure as hell know who you are. They can I.D. you to a tee. How can that be if you've never had anything to do with them before?"

Kelvin! Travis' mind raced as he easily figured out what the greedy man had done. Being on Coal's list of men who had to leave town had angered him more than Travis had realized. He should have told Gwen right away. Now, Travis remembered sending the list to some of the accompanying towns who held pockets of Gwen's men. Kelvin must have also roped the dissatisfied members of those towns into the raid. Gwen remained impassive. The glint in her eye knew that she had figured it out, too.

Sam cleared his throat and pulled Travis back into the present. They were still waiting for an explanation, but he was horrified that Gwen was offering one. Travis' thoughts raced and he was about to open his mouth, when he realized that he didn't have one. He couldn't think of a way to get out. As he struggled to think of an answer, his hands began to sweat. As his heart pounded more blood to his brain, he realized that this was what it was like not to be able to see things like Gwen could. As he looked up from the floor, his gaze centered on Gwen. He was sure she could think of a way that could answer the Marshall's question. His eyes pleaded her to do just that.

"You see, Travis, it really doesn't matter where you were tonight," Caleb turned away from his sister and approached the furtive man. He put his hand on Travis shoulder and leaned in with an air of false camaraderie. "Because, we know—we know—that you're up to your neck in this. Even though all of the men, as crazy as it may sound, are claiming that Coal Damian is the one who thinks up all of the plans, the only one they ever met is you."

"So, even if you were here all night," Sam continued logically as he mirrored his partner's gesture. He then leaned in and lowered his voice to a menacing whisper. Travis could feel both gazes burning into him. "We know it was probably you who outlined the train robbery tonight." Travis looked very uncomfortable with the lawmen so close. He could almost feel the noose already being thrown over his head. "The rockslide… how the play provided the perfect diversion…. C'mon Travis, do yourself a favor and admit everything."

"No…." Travis breathed and stared at Gwen. He hoped, waited, prayed that this woman he loved so much would say something to save him. He had known her for years surely she would— "Gwen! I'll tell them! I'll tell them all about Coal!" He threatened her desperately. It was the last card he held.

"Coal! Again!" Caleb exploded. He threw up his hands and walked away. After a few steps, he whirled around suddenly and jabbed a finger in Travis' direction. "For the last time, Coal is dead and gone. I of all people should know. I was there when the mine shaft closed in. Eight bodies came in and none came out. We found all of the bodies crushed inside!"

"Wait a minute, Caleb," Sam stroked his mustache thoughtfully. He walked in front of Travis and looked at him intensely. "I think I know what is going on here… He's claiming the mastermind is Coal, right?" Caleb nodded, wondering where Sam was going with this. Travis's expression began to change as hope seeped in to his hell…the Marshall just might believe him. Sam continued with his deduction. "And since Travis here was the only one those men ever saw, and if we believe his claim, then there's only one logical conclusion." Sam paused, looking from Travis to Gwen and finally to Cal, allowing the tension to build before he delivered his own dramatic announcement. "He's Coal Damian!"

Sandra and Viola gasped audibly. Gwen retained her impassive gaze at the captured man. Caleb nodded eagerly.

"Of course, Sam! After all of this time, there never was a Coal Damian. Our buddy, Travis, here was leading those guys by telling them he was Coal Damian. It was perfect!" Caleb smiled broadly, now that he figured out why 'Coal Damian' had been popping up in the area so recently. "I bet Travis led the raid on the stage coach that held the actors." He nodded over to the three New Yorkers who all looked shocked at the revelation.

"WHAT?! NO!" Travis shook his head vigorously and struggled with his bonds. "No! I'm not Coal Damian! I swear!" He gazed at Gwen with wild eyes. "Sh—"

A crazed laugh interrupted Travis. Charles was pounding his feet and slapping the table in glee. "Oh my! This is just too funny!" He continued to laugh uproariously. "Travis? Coal Damian?" He gasped the two words out and continued to laugh. As he did so, he placed the cowboy hat on his head and twirled the handkerchief around his finger cockily.

Gwen wanted to punch him.

"Charles!" She warned sharply. Her voice cut through the laughter like a knife.

"Quiet down, Charles," Sam turned back to Travis. "Be careful what you say, Travis. Kelvin was singing about you not ten minutes ago. He places you at the scene of that crime, too. Apparently, they never saw Coal Damian. They do say that an extra man rode with them at night who fit Coal's description…but that could have been anyone since they always tied handkerchiefs around their face. Fact is, Travis, the men only received orders from you."

"Travis, this is serious," Gwen stepped forward and looked at him with mock sincerity only he could see. With horror, he saw Coal quite clearly in her look. There was no going back now. "I don't think you should say anything else."

"Hey!" Charles called out. "Cal, the guy is lying!"

"Charles!" Gwen yelled out to the inebriated man. "Shut up!"

Travis felt his insides turn to jelly as the world loudly crashed around him. He just knew that Charles' next exclamation would be another nail in his coffin.

"Let him talk, Gwen." Caleb muttered softly. He thought it was admirable how his sister was trying to help her employee.

Charles was still grinning, but now he forgot what he was laughing at. He took a moment to grab the thought, but instead remembered something else. "We saw Travis leave at the beginning of the first act. Viola and Sandra saw it too!" He shrugged. "Just ask them. That sheriff guy waved him over at then the two of 'em took off." Charles brought his hands together then slid the top one off quickly. "Split. Outta here."

Caleb walked over to Viola and gazed at the pretty red-hair. "Is that true, Viola?"

Viola nodded her head. "Yes, they stood up. The audience was lighted so…it was tough to miss them."

"When did he come back, Charles?" Sam spoke up and roughly shook the bartender.

"Huh, ya know, I dunno! He musta but I don't quite 'member….." Charles' musings were interrupted by a burp. "'Scuze me."

"So you're lying to us, huh?" Sam roughly pushed Travis toward the door. "Now how can we believe anything else you might say. And stop with that 'Coal' stuff, okay? It'll just really anger me and you don't want that, got it?"

"Gwen!" Travis voice rose an octave as he frantically tried to turn back to his boss. "I'm sorry! Please…do something!"

"She already tried to save your ass by providing you with an alibi. You should have told us you left the play early. Let's go." Sam pulled Travis' shoulder roughly as the two lawmen led him out of the saloon.

"I'm sorry, Travis, please don't dig your grave any deeper," Gwen called to him. "It'll be taken care of."

Caleb nodded in departure to his sister, then he followed Travis and Sam out to the Jail. The rain was coming down harder now. Their clothes instantly clung to their bodies in a wet embrace. Travis shoulders and head sank with resignation. With every step mud flew up into his face, only to be quickly washed off from the rain. At least he had this to thank.

The two men led him away silently. There was nothing else to say, and fighting to be heard over the storm wasn't worth the effort. Travis wished he could say the magic word so that they could believe the truth, but in the end, he was scared to death to say another word. He had already gambled by trying to tell the lawmen Gwen's true identity, but that didn't work. He had nothing else but his word against…against, ultimately, Coal—a dead man. As he was being led to the jail cell, soon to be joining the men who disobeyed Coal, he felt the pit of his stomach drop. He knew he was walking the final path of a dead man.

In a last grab of hope, Travis replayed Gwen's final words to him and hoped that they were true. If anyone could find a way, it would be her. She had the knack of doing the impossible.

If it was worth her time.

viii.

Jack tethered his horse and rushed for cover from the downpour. The horse neighed at him in indignation for being left out here in such horrible conditions, but Jack paid no attention. As he ducked underneath the overhang, he heard loud voices from the Dusty Hole Saloon. He felt the luck was with him since the rain had just started.

Hopefully, the luck would stay with him. Not that it mattered, in the end he knew that he was doing what he was meant to be doing. He shucked off his father's coat and leaned against the wall. Jack looked down and reached inside his breast pocket. He felt the paper there and opened it in a familiar gesture. The beautiful script of his mother's handwriting met his eyes. The hand that had created such bends, curves, and slashes, was someone he had loved and adored. They were so familiar to him that he felt like he was going to cry. That was one of the reasons why it still hurt so much.

Above the rumblings of thunder, he heard the heavy boots of men push their way through the door of the Dusty Hole Saloon. To his horror, he saw his Uncle Travis being led away in handcuffs by the two lawmen. Their hats were no match to the rain as it plastered them to their heads. The reason why Jack had fought through the rain was slowly being led away in the opposite direction. It wasn't supposed to happen this way! His chance of a confrontation seemed to be growing as small as the men walking away became. But then, as he hunched against the wall, he heard yelling inside the Saloon and, despite the fury of the heavens, was able to discern the enigmatic words…..

"Just like you, Gwen," Charles snorted derisively as she turned to him with a dark glare. "Leaving your own men high and dry. Yeah, I'm sure you'll think of a way to get Travis out of that mess."

"Gwen, don't mind Charles," Viola glared at the surly man across from her. "He's had a little too much to drink…."

"Of course I did, Vee!" Charles stood up unsteadily. "Why shouldn't I? For once, it looks like things are finally going my way."

"As always, Charles, it was a pleasure speaking to you," Gwen said in a forced polite tone. Despite the words, Gwen's eyes told a different story. "Have a nice evening."

"Oh, really? Why, then, thank you…Coal." Charles yelled the last out in an accusation. It was so unexpected that Gwen actually stood still for a moment. "Oh yeah, I know. I know everything. We're gonna have this out once and for all."

Jack's heart skipped a beat. Coal! Wait a minute…

"Charles, you're drunk and agitated," Jack clearly heard the low alto of a woman. A woman? "I'm not going to talk to you like this. It's a waste of time."

"Oh really?" Charles taunted. He grabbed the cowboy hat and threw it at her then threw the handkerchief. She caught both of them easily. "Put them on and we'll see."

She laughed harshly and held the items in front of her. "You're drunk and a fool," she let the articles fall to the floor. "If I was Coal Damian you'd be dead a long time ago." With a roll of her eyes, Gwen turned away and walked to the stairs.

"No, Gwen, I think you had better listen," Charles held a new undercurrent of danger in his words and Gwen instantly reacted.

Gwen turned quickly and swung the knife up from its place behind her ankle. She held the knife in one hand, cocked and ready to throw, and was met with the surprised countenance of Sandra with a gun to her head. The gun was cocked and Charles' hand seemed surprisingly steady. His eyes glistened as he heard a surprised yelp from his captive.

"Charles!" Viola cried out

"Lose the weapons…all of them." Charles demanded in a menacing tone.

Gwen didn't move a muscle. "Now that was a stupid move, Charles." Her voice dripped ice. "She's your wife. She doesn't mean anything to me."

"Yeah, but everybody knows that Coal Damian doesn't kill women and children," He cocked the safety back and dared Gwen to move. "But I'm skeptical myself. I knew that monster never died in that shoot-out. So, prove me right, Coal, and test me." He waited a beat as they warred with glares. "Now drop the goddamn knife!"

Gwen slowly leaned down and placed the knife in front of her. "Now kick it to me," Charles demanded. She did so, sending it skittering along the floor. She had felt the strong urge to kick it up into his face, but she didn't want to risk slicing Sandra's face in the process. Gwen could tell by Sandra's tear-stained face that she was just beginning to see how deeply the betrayal cut.

Sandra whimpered. "Charles…what are you doing?"

"Be quiet, Sandra dearest, or else somebody might get hurt," he warned harshly. Sandra blinked as if she had been struck. "Put the hat and handkerchief on, Gwen. If you don't, you might as well admit you're Coal." Charles voice taunted her, but Gwen remained stoic.

"Charles, let Sandra go. She has nothing to do with this," Gwen said calmly.

"Oh, now that's a good idea," Charles said sarcastically. "You didn't think I had it in me, did you? You didn't think that I could stand up to you. Well, I'm proving you wrong…in fact, I'm proving you all wrong."

"Yes, you are," Viola said quietly. She had been skeptical of Charles redemption from the start. Now, the mask was finally gone and the true colors of Charles Huntington were finally seen…and believed.

"Shut up, Viola," Charles threatened. "I remember how you all looked at me back in New York. Like I was lower than dirt. Well, no more. It's time for me to get the respect I deserve."

"And this is the way to get it?" Viola demanded heatedly.

"Viola, please, I think this is just a big misunderstanding," Sandra tried again to reach the man who had held her tenderly when he asked her to marry him. "Charles, put the gun down and we'll talk about this, okay. Nobody wants to get hurt."

"As if Viola hasn't hurt you, Wife," Charles moved his eyes to the fourth finger of her right hand meaningfully. Sandra remembered the day she chose her loyalties. With that disdainful look, Sandra realized how deeply this betrayal meant. She had never known Charles at all. "Your other weapons, Gwen. You don't really think I believe that someone like you only has a knife, do you?"

Gwen Devereaux? Jack's mind reeled from the name. Ms. Devereaux is Coal Damian? The woman who runs the Dusty Hole Saloon? He waited for the deep ingrained instinct to tell him if it was true. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end, as it did when someone walked over your grave. With that, Jack knew it must be true.

Gwen, oblivious to the deliberations outside the door, still hadn't moved except to arch an eyebrow in annoyance. "Charles, I don't need the dramatics, I'll leave that up to actors, but just tell me…what do you want?"

Charles smiled wildly. "I want to keep the gold, Gwen," Charles eyes grew wide as adrenaline pumped strongly in his veins. "I don't want to have to keep looking over my shoulder from now on. I want this to end here."

"Well, I don't care if Sandra dies. I thought we had established that…so why should I give in?" Gwen smiled thinly. "I'll kill her for you…." Gwen's voice promised she would.

The words triggered a flood of memories in Viola that demanded to be realized. Memories of a similar situation, but it was outside town, on a dark night. She was the one who had a knife to her throat, not Sandra with a gun to her head. It was Viola whose life was threatened by Dusty…and how Gwen had nonchalantly spoken of her death, just like she was doing now with Sandra's fate.

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

"No, you won't. You're lying Gwen, not that we should be surprised. That's second nature to you, isn't it?" Charles was getting angry and scared. Gwen and Viola were not supposed to be asking things. It wasn't working and he was starting to feel trapped. "Besides, you don't kill women and children, right? Or is that a lie, too?"

Gwen's brows pulled together. That was one code she would never break, but the choosing of his victim made it all the more personal to the dark lady. She slowly bent down and dropped the knife, then let her hand dip into her bodice and pulled out a breast dagger.

"…and the gun? If you don't drop the gun, I'll kill her and ruin your nice floors."

Gwen figured Charles was desperate enough to kill Sandra if she bluffed her way into keeping the small revolver in her boot, but decided not to risk it. Long tapered fingers moved to the boot holster and she removed the small gun.

Charles laughed. Things were going better. "I guessed, can you believe that?"

"Yes."

"Shut up, Gwen…now back up towards the bar." He waited for Gwen to begin moving away from him to his right before shepherding his devastated wife along. They walked with their back to the door, Charles' desperate sights on Viola and Gwen the whole time. Sandra whimpered as she realized that she had bought into the devious machinations of her husband, and was paying dearly.

"I thought you loved me…." her voice trailed off.

Charles grunted, then grinned cruelly. "You were supposed to. How else was I going to get Viola and her father to give me a chance?"

"We had a deal, Charles," Gwen stilled their labored progress to the door. "I would rip up your debt of fifty grand in exchange for some information. It was as simple as that. But you found something worth testing me, didn't you?"

"Deal?" The word awoken Viola from her attempt to attain another memory and gazed challengingly to Charles. "What deal? Charles, what is she talking about?"

"Shut up, Gwen!"

"Haven't the two of you wondered how 'Coal' managed to know to hit your stagecoach and when? Not to mention those papers he was after. But, wait a minute, maybe Charles can tell you that…." Gwen continued to rip larger holes in Sandra's faith, and unwittingly restore Viola's memory, relentlessly. "Didn't you think we might have known each other from somewhere…." She looked at Sandra pointedly, whose face reflected horrified dawning recognition.

Viola remembered the undercurrents running between Charles and Gwen that day and wondering why it was there at all. "Where did you two meet?" she asked.

"I know what you're trying to do, Gwen…but it's not going to happen," Charles began to feel threatened and he pressed the gun harder against Sandra's temple. "I am not going to take the gun off her, no matter how much you try to distract me. I know the minute I do, you'll make your move."

"Charles, what is she talking about?" Viola walked toward him slowly. He instantly backed away in kind. "You had something to do with the attack on our stagecoach?"

"Don't listen to her!" Charles struggled for control. "She's a ruthless killer! You can't believe someone like that." His voice had taken a shrilled note.

"That's my best friend you're threatening to kill," Viola clenched her fists. "I think you better tell us exactly what this is all about."

Jack continued to sit with his back against the wall at the entrance of the saloon. His hunch told him to sit

tight…for now.

Charles blew out a frustrated intake of air. "There's nothing to say! Gwen, you better rip up that debt or else I swear I'm going to kill her."

"Even if I did, do you really think I let you get away with it tonight, Charles?" Gwen stood up a little straighter and seemed a little taller. Her blew eyes narrowed as her irises burned with a blue flame. To Viola, Gwen seemed to look different, and it triggered a memory from a previous night:

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

Sandra began to sob in his arms. "Oh my God…Charles! You did make a deal with Gwen. I—I can tell." His arms that had once been a source of love and protection, was now a desperate vise grip of death. Her legs weakened and gave out under her. Charles held her up and dragged her with him like a ragdoll.

"I had to!" Charles yelled at her. "If I didn't, then they were going to kill me."

"I should have let them kill you," Gwen spit the words out.

Charles saw the skeptical look in Viola's eyes and felt Sandra's tears on his sleeve. It wasn't supposed to be this way. His control of himself was quickly slipping. "It was before I met you, Sandra." Charles spoke quickly and hurriedly. "I was in New Orleans and got into some trouble. I met Gwen and we made a deal. She agreed to pay my debt in exchange for some help or else she'd kill me!"

"What did you want from him, Gwen?" Viola turned to the raven-haired woman. Their hair glinted in the white light of the flashing windows.

"Information. He was dropping the Chamberlain name quite a bit. In fact, once he mentioned that he was engaged to you," Gwen smiled at Sandra's horrified expression. "That's how he was able to keep raising the limit."

Viola pounced on Charles with a quick stacatto of words. "You told them that we were engaged?" Viola rose her voice and pointed her finger at him. "My father trusted you, Charles. You begged to be given another chance, over my objections, might I add. I knew that you were trouble, but you had stopped drinking and gambling, so my father gave you a job in the mailroom."

"Can you think of a better place to get information?" Gwen asked reasonably.

"Shut up, Gwen! If you so much as move I swear I'll kill her." Charles began to sweat visibly now and the gun began to sway. "Look, like I said, it was before I met Sandra. I was in New Orleans, and yes, I admit, I was gambling and…and I got in over my head."

"So! Fifty-thousand dollars. That's how much my best friend was worth?" Viola hissed.

"Oh Charles!" Sandra whimpered and continued to sob. Their reaction made him get more nervous and his words began flowing on top of each other.

"I was winning, don't you get it? I could feel it…the feeling was so strong, Sandy. It just reels you in and you ride it as far as you can. All that money I would win, Nothing could stop me. You don't understand what it's like to be without money for so long and then to have it so close…I could almost taste it. I was winning so I kept raising the limit by…I told them that I knew the Chamberlains…." he noticed Viola's expression, "…intimately and they agreed to raise the stakes. Well, Lady Luck turned out to be a cruel mistress and I lost. I couldn't pay the house. The words were scarcely outta my mouth when these two goons come out of nowhere and they pulled me off of the boat."

"What a minute," Viola shook her head. "A boat? You were gambling on a boat?"

"A riverboat, all right? They kept punching and kicking me! I could have sworn that I was gonna die," Charles waved the gun nervously in front of Gwen and Viola. Both watched it carefully. "Then suddenly they stopped and I heard them talking. They walked away with a check in their hand and Gwen…she owned me."

"Gwen, what did you tell him?" Viola turned her gaze to the dark woman who watched everything.

"Just that we could help each other," Gwen began coolly. "He tips me off when something interesting pops up and if it delivers, I consider it part of the payment. It worked out well for a couple of months and I even sent the ungrateful bastard a statement at the end of the month so he could see what each favor was worth. But, then the news of the new Chamberlain mine came up from my sources…and, strangely enough, I didn't hear anything from my own source at Chamberlain Industries."

Gwen paused in her narration as Charles backed away with Sandra in tow. His back was to the front entrance now, Gwen to his right with her back against the counter of the bar, and Viola stood in front of him at the table in front of the stage. He had a clear shot at either of them should he take it. Gwen decided to continue to distract him as her voice took a low soothing tone. The hat and handkerchief still lay on the floor, waiting for someone to claim them.

"Just when I had given up on Charles, I received a telegram," she continued. "It mentioned an envelope, but it was missing. I guessed by the condition of the telegram, that it wasn't a message he meant to have sent."

"Why?" Viola asked.

"Because it was all crumpled up and there were hasty pen marks crossing out most of the message. Like he was about to throw it away."

"You got that message?" Charles breathed for the first time since Gwen began her narration. "How? I had put it on the counter, then leaned down and picked up the briefcase…My God!" His face turned white. "I left it out on the counter. The clerk must have sent it anyway. He was so used to sending my telegrams and must've assumed that I forgot to send it. That's how… that's how you knew!"

"Well, that and I caught sight of you and your friends boarding the stagecoach in St. Louis," Gwen smiled thinly. Keep talking…she knew that it was only a matter of time before the opening presented itself and she could disarm him. "What luck. My men and I deliberately took a shortcut so that we could head you off, find the papers, then arrive after we dropped you off at Red Mesa." Gwen shrugged at the gaping mouths of her audience. "It was an easy plan until Charles decided to keep the plans for himself…and eventually the gold."

The final puzzle clicked in place as Gwen's coolly outlined her plan. As the news registered, another part of Viola's memory clicked into place.

It was amazing to watch…and frightening as well. Gwen seemed to be entirely comfortable fighting five men by herself. In fact, she was very good at it. Her moves were efficient, deadly, and unerringly accurate. She chose the men in a specific order—the best shot going down first—and threw them down in certain places. It seemed almost routine, this dance with death. It was clear that Gwen Devereaux had done this before.

Viola felt herself grow colder as Gwen continued to outline her plan. It was all so logical and calculated, that it was frightening. If all of her plans were this detailed and precise, it was little wonder she was dressed as finely as she was. As Gwen talked, Viola clearly saw Gwenyth Devereaux for the first time. She was two halves of the same person. Coal Damian and Gwenyth Devereaux both existed inside that envious body of femininity. Now, she just had to be sure, for all of their sakes.

"Gwen," Viola said softly, her emerald eyes resting on the hat and handkerchief, then slowly lifted up to that penetrating gaze of vibrant blue. "Do it." She said simply. She hadn't phrased it as a command, but instead, a request for the knowledge all in the room had to know.

Gwen focused her gaze on Viola and felt herself being carefully examined once again. Incredibly, it happened, and those eyes seemed to break down the barriers like they had done…so long ago. Her gaze flicked down to the hat and red-checkered handkerchief. She breathed deeply. Viola saw the emotions roil inside those cerulean eyes and knew, even if she didn't put on the accessories, exactly who she was. The seconds continued to tick until Gwen kneeled down and fingered the top of the hat. Her forefingers and thumb pressed into the grooves at the top and her other hand pinched the handkerchief. She didn't know why, but Gwen felt like she had to do this, too. She had to merge the double life of Gwen Devereaux and Coal Damian sometime.

She just wondered which would win.

 

Jack felt himself grow more and more angry as his suspicions of Coal Damian's existence and whereabouts where confirmed. That monster in there was a cold killer that had taken away his Dad. He had taken away his mother's chance for happiness. It had taken away his home. He reached into his breast pocket and took out the letter his mother had written to him. He read her endearing scrawl once again for the millionth time.

…When I first saw you, Jack, I felt like had been blessed. I saw you, looking up at me with those intense blue eyes of yours, and I knew that your name was 'Jack.' I didn't even need to see the paper pinned to your clothes to tell me that my guess was right. There was only one thing written on it, 'Jack.' Even though our blood does not run in your veins, your father and I had felt such love for you, so quickly and immediately, that I knew you were already a part of us. That was how you came into our lives—as a gift. I know that this won't ease the pain of your father's death, but I hope that by knowing this truth, you find it easier to move on with your life…and past the nightmares.

…Remember that family is what you make of it. It is so much more than whose blood you share. I know that reading about Coal Damian and how he killed your father upset you greatly, but you must let this hate against Coal go. Don't let it shape who you are. Don't give it that power. It doesn't deserve it. Thomas and I are afraid of how it rules your nightmares. It scares us how strongly you feel the need to hunt after a dead man. Even if he was alive, killing Coal Damian will not save you. Indeed, it will bury you. Can't you already feel it? Can't you tell by how much sleep you get at night?

You are loved, Jack. After you finish reading this letter, remember that. There are too many people in this world who have no one to love them. Take great comfort in the fact that you are not one of them. Take comfort in the fact that you will always have a home to come back to..

I love you so much my son.

Always,

Mother

Jack took a deep breath and knew exactly what he had to do. He took the note and carefully folded it in his left hand. When he did what he had to do next, he wanted to feel his parents' love not only in his heart, but also palpably in his hand as well.

As he lifted the gun with his right hand, a sense of relief and determination washed over him. It glinted in the moonlight and promised him the fulfillment of his destiny. He tried to think what it would be like after killing Coal Damian, but couldn't see what would happen after such success. He couldn't see anything beyond this moment. Momentarily surprised, he figured he was too wound up to think of anything. After all, he had been waiting for this moment for so long.

Yes, now he knew what he had to do. And when.

 

"Charles! When you went ahead of us, 'supposedly' looking for work in St. Louis, you had actually went on to Colorado? You found someone who helped you steal some bars of gold?" Viola raised her voice in wonder. She couldn't believe Gwen had gotten him to admit all of that. "And from my family's mine?? The people who hired you and gave you a chance? How could you do that?"

Charles' dark eyes bulged and he wiped his forehead nervously. Everything he had worked for was slipping through his fingers. It couldn't happen this way. He…he still had the gun!

"I had to, Viola," Charles began to talk faster. His eyes growing wild. "We needed money and I had to see if the information I got really worked. And…and it did, Viola! It did…and it'll work again. Do you really think they noticed ten bars of gold were missing? I mean, there was stacks and stacks of gold. I'm sure they didn't miss it."

"But, Charles, all of the bars were stamped!" Sandra wailed as the image she had of her husband continued to crumble around her. "I saw them! Of course they knew the bars were missing!

"Don't you remember, Charles?" Viola said lowly as she slowly approached him again. "Gwen told you about it when we first saw her in Red Mesa! We all heard her."

"What happened to your partner, Charles?" Gwen asked in that calm voice of hers that infuriated him so. "You must've had five bars of gold and your partner must have had the other five. What happened to him?"

"Accident. He had an accident." Charles muttered through clenched teeth. No, this wasn't going the right way at all.

"You killed him!" Sandra accused in a shrill voice. She wasn't mindful of the gun to her temple anymore. After tonight, she might as well be dead. She had nothing left to lose. "Oh my God, you wanted all ten bars of gold, didn't you!"

"NO! No, I didn't. He really did have an accident. His horse stumbled and—"

"Fell?" Gwen drawled the word dripping in sarcasm.

"He did!" he declared indignantly and roughly moved Sandra back with him. She stumbled and he roughly pulled her up.

"Charles—" Sandra gasped. He brought the barrel of the gun hard the side of her head again. His eyes wildly flew from Gwen to Viola.

"Shut up, Viola! Don't test me, I am more than willing to kill you!" Charles warned.

It would be soon, Gwen thought to herself. The moment would be soon. She just had to be ready.

The crash of the door banging open and the sound of the fury of the storm was finally unleashed.

"Coal!" A piercing yell cut through the thunder outside, as if sensing Gwen's cue. Then, it rushed toward them.

Gwen reacted first and vertically jumped into the air. Sandra screamed a high-pitched wail. Charles turned towards the sound and fired his gun. Viola heard the first crack, then another shot. Gwen felt the whoosh of another bullet beneath her as the second bullet jammed into the bar where she had once stood. She continued upward and flipped behind the bar, finding the shotgun always kept under the counter, and trained it on the crazed look of Charles. She immediately fired and hit the side of his head. The force kicked Charles and Sandra to one side and onto the floor. Gwen cocked the gun again and looked through the smoke.

Devastation greeted her.

"A boy!" Viola breathed as she focused in on the rumpled form in front of her. She felt the warm sticky blood all over her, but blocked it out. "Oh my God…it's Jack!" She remembered the sullen boy from their last and only introduction a few hours before.

"Jack?" Gwen repeated to the ashen white face of Sandra. She had never spoken two words to the boy before. All she knew was that he was Travis' nephew.

Sandra, momentarily stunned from the fall, struggled to release herself from Charles' death grip. As she wrestled with the dead body, she was filled with so much guilt for the role she had played in this mess. She could only hope to begin to build her friendship with Viola again, if Viola would let her. Sandra jerked herself free and absently tried to wipe away some of the blood of her husband away from her face. The shock of Charles' revelation and the shooting had affected her so greatly that it took a few moments for her to remember to breathe.

"Are you hit, Sandra?" Viola's lower lip trembled as her hand searched the creamy skin of her cousin.

"I…I don't think so." Sandra's voice faltered.

The scene was so macabre that Viola wanted to cry, but knew that once she started, she wouldn't be able to stop. Seeing that Sandra was uninjured, she turned her eyes towards Gwen helping the downed boy. "Oh Gwen, is he…."

Gwen had already ripped open the young man's shirt and was dismayed to see blood where his stomach had once been. He might have the body of a man, but he still held the ungainliness of youth, Gwen thought as she worked. He was really just a boy. Her eyes focused on the wound in his stomach and pressed her hands to its warm stickiness. The boy breathed quick shallowed breaths and gazed up at her, a rivulet of blood sliding from the corner of his mouth. The cowboy hat still pressed against her head…the handkerchief still tied around her neck.

"It was you," he breathed. Enlightenment settled on him as he stared at her for as long as his fading blue eyes could focus. He reached up with both hands and weakly grabbed the collar of her dress. She heard the crumpling of something against her ear as he tugged her down weakly to his face. She let him pull her head down towards him, fulfilling his dying wish. She cupped his head with her hand to help support him. She stared down onto familiar cerulean eyes and sable dark hair. He looked so much like Caleb as a child that she shivered. "It was you."

Then he gasped one final time and released her. As his arms fell limply to his sides, Gwen slowly lowered him to the ground, the light fading from his eyes. She saw the shape of his jaw…the clear blue of his eyes staring up at her glazed over with death…the sable hair mussed and haphazard. The similarities to her brother were becoming more and more eerie.

"Gwen," Viola pointed to a blood-smeared piece of paper. "He had it in his hand. What is it?"

Gwen reached for the folded paper and slowly opened it. Her eyes were met with a tear-stained letter from mother to son. The thunder and lightning continued to rage outside, but that couldn't compare to the violence that occurred in the saloon.

My dear son Jack,

I am writing to you this letter in hopes that it eases your pain. I hope that, with this piece of

paper in your hands, it is the first step you will take in your journey of becoming your own man….

Gwen's blood began to pulse louder as her always firm hold of control was tested by the slopes of writing.

When I first saw you, Jack, I felt like had been blessed. I saw you, looking up at me with those intense blue eyes of yours, and I knew that your name was 'Jack.' I didn't even need to see the paper pinned to your clothes that told me my guess was right. That was the only thing that was written on it, 'Jack.' Even though our blood does not run into our veins, your father and I felt such love for you, so quickly and immediately, that I knew you were already a part of us. That was how you came into our lives—as a gift. I know that this won't ease the pain of your father's death, but I hope that by knowing this truth, you find it easier to move on with your life…and past the nightmares….

"What does it say, Gwen?" Viola interrupted Gwen's silent narration. "Why did he come here tonight? What was he trying to do?"

Gwen didn't answer her. She slowly stood up, the letter clutched in her left hand. Without a word, not even sparing a glance, Gwen turned away and walked outside. She couldn't handle seeing Jack…her son… like that anymore. For so long, she had fooled herself in believing that they had never existed. Indeed, she should have never seen him at all. The thoughts circled in her head in a tumultuous fury, creating a chaos that would never be completely resolved.

Viola watched her go in disbelief. She broke away from Sandra and careened out into the furious storm. She felt herself slip and stumble into the mud. She watched helplessly as Gwen increased her distance. Viola reached a hand out to her retreating back. In a last burst of effort, Viola let loose a desperate cry. Willing her voice to slice through the sound and fury of the storm.

"Gwen!"

The small figure in the distance continued to walk towards the welcoming darkness and into sheets of pouring rain. The swirling wet blackness beckoned to give her the oblivion she so desperately needed. Its lightning and thunder, a harrowing siren song of misery, called to her. And she, with chaotic thoughts tearing away her thin veil of self-control, could do nothing but answer it. She had to. It was only in these declining depths of misery, that she was able to recognize the angry nature for what it was.

Jack died knowing that he had succeeded in fulfilling his destiny. Coal Damian was finally destroyed.

 

Duet

I can stand the rain

I grow cold

Loneliness grips my heart

Tries to asphyxiate my soul

I look up and lamplight sears my eyes

Rain pings against the window

But I won't go

I won't seek shelter

I will let my clothes turn a darker shade

Because I can stand the rain.

 

She knew that she was playing again.

Gwen stood alone in the rain and darkness. Its wetness blanketed her with its own tears and she let the rain cry with her. She cried like she had never cried before. Only in the darkness would she allow herself this indulgence. The rain merged with her own tears and, for some reason, it let her accept that she still had tears left to indulge in this rare show of weakness.

She watched as her brother and Sam rushed into the Dusty Hole Saloon. She didn't have to be present to know that that their jaws had gone slack with disbelief at the macabre sight. Two bodies met them covered in blood. Only one of them would have an open casket at the burial.

The two men went back outside to awaken the only doctor in town. They had been discussing the shooting, surprised that Charles would be the one to wreak such death. The fact that the two men hadn't made any mention of her name, as well as that of Coal Damian, let her know that they wouldn't becoming after her…at least not for these deaths. The faces of the dead…there were so many. But these deaths were…that one death…was so different.

Viola and Sandra probably told them of Charles' betrayal and the events that led to his death. The town would openly grieve the death of Jack and shun the gravesite of the stranger. Perhaps, after all that had happened, Sandra would go, and maybe Viola too, if only to support her friend.

As for Jack, Gwen received the burden of knowledge. She knew exactly what events had led not only to his death, but his birth as well.

People like her were not meant to have mourners at their grave. She was never meant to have a tombstone at her final resting place. She had accepted long ago that when she died, at most, it would be a shallow unmarked grave. Eventually, her bones would be scattered by the winds and scavengers. Death wouldn't claim her in old age but, marked by the violent way she had lived, by the gun. Her death wasn't mean to be glorified or remembered, and perhaps this is why she was so notorious in life.

But now, the soft glow of the lamp showed clearly from the Dusty Hole Saloon. Viola must have added the lamp for extra light so she could play without squinting. Gwen wondered what the petite woman would play. She did, after all, have quite a list of choices.

I tried to save him, but all I did was kill him…just like I had killed so many others.

Introspection was a dangerous thing. It made warrior hearts weak. It shook the resolve of leaders entering battle. It made the best gunslingers question their gifts. Often, self-examination led to fatalities. Gwen had seen it enough to know that it was true. But, the cruel irony of her life just couldn't be denied.

The letter was still in her hand, and the full meaning of the words were just too cruel to be fully realized.

I created him. Not just in giving birth, and seeing him for the first time, but I molded him just as Bent molded me. I saw what Bent had done to Grandfather, and my hate kept me going through the pain. But Jack…he thinks he saw the same thing. All of this time, he believed that I had killed his father….

Gwen had burst back into the house. She had been angry that she had led those bastards right to her. The sight that greeted her pulled her to a full stop. She saw the little boy crying over his father. At her loud arrival, he looked up and saw both barrels of the gun pointed at him. He began to cry hysterically. She could tell by the look in his eyes, that she would be blamed for the man's death.

At the time, it hadn't even registered. She hadn't known that the boy was her son. She remembered the way she had looked at him for a while. The boy standing in front of her, bravely enduring the examination of a dangerous stranger. For the first time in a long time, she had felt something, but didn't dwell on it long enough to question. It had been so long in feeling anything other than the dark familiar surges she lived with every day, that this new sensation had unnerved her.

But now, Gwen thought back to that day and realized the cruel twist of fate it truly was. She had randomly chosen to go left instead of right, and they ended up at the remote homestead. That feeling she had felt when looking at the scared little boy would come back to haunt her for a long time to come. Especially when compounded with the fact that whole time she watched him, had spoken to him, had seen him gaze adoringly at the couple…he had been her son. She wished now that she had known. She wished now that she had never entered that homestead at all.

To think, that for years, she had been living in the same town as her son. He had been growing up under her nose, and she had never stopped to look. How could she not notice the familiar set of his jaw? The bright blue eyes that he had unknowingly shared not only with his mother, but with his uncle as well. How would Jack had felt if he had known that he had two blood relatives living so close? That he had passed by his mother on his way out from the saloon the other day? That he, Travis, and Jenny had come to the Dusty Hole Saloon and was in the unknowing company of the killer of her first husband?

It was why she would always have the letter. It would be a constant reminder why people like her were not meant to mix with the lives of good people like Jenny, Viola, and…Jack. She should have realized it then when she was holding the dying boy's head and noticing the eerie similarities to Caleb, that she should have known his name was Jack all along. After all, it was she who had pinned her son's name to his clothes all of those years ago. It was she who had named him.

She had become what she had never wanted to be…someone who was more crazy and dangerous than Bent. For that alone, she felt, was a fate worse than death.

Gwen heard the tinkling of the piano and shook herself out of her reverie. How did she get here? She had been standing on the other side of the street, letting the rain hit her in the shadows, but now she was standing outside of the saloon. She must have walked over and didn't even know it. She grimaced and clenched her fists. This was how introspection could kill you.

Viola played on. Gwen didn't recognize the piece, but its soft sounds spoke of remembrance of her mother. The softness of her skin, the kind warmth of her blue eyes…. Gwen had thought she had stopped missing her mother long ago, but now, she realized that she never let herself feel that loss. Not completely.

Her hand was on the door now. The music beckoned her to enter. Once again, Viola had chosen a different piece…a Chopin Nocturne Gwen hadn't heard in a very long time. Gwen turned her head to see the wet blackness around her. How appropriate, she thought, nocturnes were meant to be played at night.

Her two personae warred with each other. She thought of so many reasons not to enter the Saloon. She certainly didn't want to see anyone, especially in her raw and vulnerable state. She didn't want to explain to Viola what the letter, and Jack's death, meant…especially not to her. She should go. She should leave this place and find a dark hole to crawl in and never come out. The deaths that had accumulated had finally reached their breaking point. There was no retribution. There was no atonement. There was no way Gwen could ever go back to that day her Grandfather died and save him, although she had dreamed of it often. Why couldn't she have chosen the path her brother did? A warrior on the side of good and justice. Instead, she chose a path of justice as well, but it was twisted and on the side of evil.

For the first time in fifteen years, Gwen was made to question if she had made the wrong choice all of those years ago. Had she really wasted fifteen years of her life? The ominous questions continued to scream through her head, and Gwen felt her hand twist the handle of the door.

Viola looked up from the sad song and was amazed to see Gwen standing next to her. A lump formed in her throat, which prevented her from asking all of the questions that had accumulated since Gwen had made her exit. Her hands automatically stilled on the keyboard, and to her horror, she saw that Gwen had begun to turn away. Frantically, she started to play again, and was relieved to see Gwen turn back to her. With such a tenuous resolve to stay, Viola didn't want to trust herself to say anything.

"I know that song," Gwen said lowly. Her voice was hoarse and the sound was husky. "My mother used to play that over and over again at night."

"It's called the 'Goodbye Nocturne'," Viola answered softly, as her lithe fingers intricately moved over the white and black keys.

Gwen simply stood there and closed her eyes. The song was deceptively simple. The melody was graceful and uncomplicated, but the machinations one had to use to create such beauty were only revealed by the position of the notes. The song ended on a soft chord, and Viola held it there for a moment.

"Play it again," Gwen requested softly.

The song began again and Gwen listened to it carefully. As Viola played, Gwen suddenly felt the soft touch on her shoulder. It pressed softly against her and Gwen was filled with memories of her mother. Usually, an act like that threw Gwen on the defensive and the owner of the touch was looking down the barrel of a gun. But, this time it was different, this time Gwen knew exactly who it was. She was afraid to open her eyes and be met with nothing but the latent tingling of a ghost. Instead, to Viola's surprise, Gwen laid her hand an octave higher on the keyboard, and began to play the melody.

Viola's eyes grew wide as she saw Gwen's hand gracefully sweep through the melody without a stumble. She smiled widely and smoothly lifted her own right hand, and let her left hand continue with the accompaniment. Without pause, Gwen's hand crossed eight keys downward and hit the note on the perfect beat where Viola's right hand would have been.

The two of them together played a heavenly duet. Viola didn't dare to say a word, because although she didn't know why, she felt like something special was occurring. Finally, the last chord was played and Viola intently watched Gwen's hand to see if it would continue. However, it merely stayed where it had landed, the note fading. After a moment, Gwen opened her eyes.

"It sounded alright, didn't it?"

"It was beautiful, Gwen." Viola said softly.

"I have to leave, Viola," Gwen said after a moment of silence.

"I know," she answered. "When?"

"Now…tonight. I probably won't be back."

"Gwen, please don't go," Viola whispered. Her eyes drifted up from the black and white keyboard, finally resting on this woman standing next to her. This woman who threatened to disappear in at any moment.

"The town needs you more than ever. So many of the men are dead or locked in prison. Travis is gone and the Dusty Hole Saloon will have no one left. Sandra can't even look at me. We all need you."

The words screamed in Gwen's mind: All my fault. She knew that everything Viola said was true, but it wasn't she who the town needed.

"You don't have to go," Viola pleaded. "Sandra tried to tell them about your identity as Coal Damian, but they wouldn't believe it. Especially not your brother. He insisted that it was just another one of Charles' manipulations."

Gwen looked her squarely in the eyes. "You know that isn't true, Viola. You know who I am. How does it feel to talk to the notorious Coal Damian?"

"I'm scared, Gwen. I know you can kill me…that you have the ability to do so," Viola's memory flashed to the quick death of Dusty and his men. "I've seen it…but I know that you won't hurt me. I know that you are capable of death, but I saw how you saved that woman in the burning house…I know that you are also capable of life."

Gwen winced as again she thought of her slain son.

"You are young, Viola," Gwen shook her head. "You can't even begin to know what I am capable of. I know how that sounds, but it's true. You shouldn't be in company with people like me. In the end, I'd probably get you killed just like all of the others. Don't make the mistake of knowing who I am."

"Gwen, if you leave this town, so much of it leaves with you."

"Everything will work out for the best, Viola," Gwen gazed at her with haunted eyes, her hand still resting on the keyboard, playing a note that had faded long before. "The town will recover. Sandra will make amends with you and then you'll move on to San Francisco. It will be like I was never here."

It was Viola's turn to shake her head, the falling wisps of her red hair swung back and forth gracefully. "You know that isn't true. Gwen, you are this town. Even if you left, people would still remember you. They need you…they need your strength."

"I shouldn't have come back here," she said dully. "I'm done. I won't be back."

Gwen stood there for a moment, then stepped away from the piano. Her head nodded forward to see her hands. They rose up before her. She looked at them intently and saw them for what they were, the good and the bad. It was enough to make her turn a final time away from Viola, open the door, and merge with the darkness. A thought suddenly crossed her mind, and she stopped underneath the overhang

"Viola Chambers…when you get to San Francisco. Change your name again," Gwen shook her black mane from side to side. "It's too obvious you are a Chamberlain." Then she began to walk again. Viola was so surprised Gwen had figured out her identity, she felt rooted to her spot. With her jaw slack with surprise, she watched Gwen walk away.

"Gwen!" Viola suddenly rushed out under the overhang, but Gwen had already began to merge with the darkness as she trudged down the muddy road. Gwen had known the entire time exactly who Viola Chamberlain was. But now, watching the tall form disappear into the blackness, Viola realized that she had no idea who Gwenyth Devereaux was. The desire to run after her was strong, but the night soon swallowed up the tall woman so quickly, that before she knew it, the enigmatic woman was gone.

"Gwen!"

 

Coda: Vincit veritas

 

She couldn't remember how long she had been walking until the shadows began to rise up against the high canyon walls. She heard the familiar songs and chants. They had found her.

A tall man with ceremonial robes advanced on the bedraggled form of the woman. Her proud stature had finally been broken. Her bearing, that once had been so tall and straight, was at the mercy of the rain. He put his hand on her shoulder then cupped her face with his hand.

"No," she choked the words out painfully. Her legs trembled from exhaustion. The minute she opened her mouth the rain threatened to drown her. "Let me go."

"We have been waiting, Dresti," he said gravely. "You're eyes are opened wide enough to see why nothing grows in moonlight."

He had chosen to use her Druji name that had been decided upon after their brutal last meeting. Much blood had been spilt on both sides. It was the only time Gwen's men had been forced into a stalemate.

Dresti…Destroyer.

"Now, you are ready for your life to begin."

 

FINE

 

Author's Final Last Words: To date, this work is probably the one thing I've written that I've been comfortable enough to post. For this reason, it is very special to me. In the fourth act, Gwen thinks about fear and how she deals with it. I alluded to what Lucy Lawless reportedly said upon the opening night of Grease! "Feel the fear, and do it anyway." I assure you, I felt that many times in deciding whether or not to post this.

Danny's poem in Act IV is another original work by me. I have written some other poems and will probably be in following stories. All quotes are favorites of mine and found randomly throughout the years. As for what the work means in fate, destiny, and consequences of actions…I prefer to let the story speak for itself. Any interpretations you, dear courageous reader, choose to take away from this story, I applaud. Above all, I believe that stories are meant to make the readers think. I hope to have accomplished at least that.

As for Gwen and Viola, well, I can't just leave Viola in Red Mesa. The question is also begged who the heck are the Druji and what does Gwen have to do with them?

Well, hopefully, we'll find out in the sequel…that is, if you are interested….

Thanks for reading,

Dyin' Isis

dyinisis@hotmail.com