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Legal Disclaimers (or Please Don't Sue Me Cuz I Have No Money): Herein lies yet another uber-work inspired by the syndicated action series Xena: Warrior Princess. Xena is owned by Renaissance Pictures, USA Studios, and a whole bunch of other people who work in concert to provide my weekly dose of Xena. I'd like to formally thank them for their inspiration and acknowledge their ownership of two particularly engrossing characters. Although they don't make any appearances is this story, Xena and Gabby have flavored my two main characters in their special own way.

This Mortal Coil is completely copyrighted to me, Dyin' Isis, and any form which it exists must have all disclaimers associated with it. Please do not put my story on any other websites without the author's knowledge. All quotes that do not stem from the author have been credited and are used without permission throughout the story. I have alluded to a quote Lucy Lawless reportedly said upon her opening night in Grease, but did not credit. I will do so at the end of the act it appears. Extra chakram points to those of you who recognize the paraphrase....

Violence Disclaimer (Or Please DI Don't Hurt Them): Well, this is a Xena: Warrior Princess fanfic. A certain amount of head-bashing should be a given. However, this story does have a level of violence some might feel disturbing. To be fair, if you are under the chronological and/or mature age of 18, it would probably be best for you to read something else.

Emotional Distress Disclaimer (Or Why Did You DO This To Them??): This story is not a fun romp through the countryside. My characters definitely go through the wringer in an ultimately 143-page story. I accept no responsibility for your own personal aftermath. Heck, I'm still recovering. But then, I've always liked the haunting melodies the best....

Naughty Words (or Dude, I Only Counted, like, 2 And They're Not Even That Bad): Well, there isn't many, but they do exist. I've always thought comments that do not resort to four-letter words usually hurt the worst, but sometimes...well, no other word will do. So, be warned, there are a few.

Lack of Subtext (Or Where's the Hanky Panky?): For someone who usually reads uber-alt stories, I was surprised this story had sub-sub-subtext-if any-between the two main characters. Oh sure, there is a tenuous connection that strengthens throughout the story, but here it is still a connection. However if the reader, perceives it to be more of an attraction...well, nothing I can do there. :)

Hey, Where's Your E-mail? (or Dude, We Need To Have Some Words): At the moment, I find that I am just way too close to this story. I'm sorry, but I am not accepting/expecting responses to this story right now. Hopefully, after I have started to write the sequel, Nothing Grows In Moonlight (don't even have an outline yet), maybe I can persuade the webmaster to post my e-mail. Until then, I apologize.

Second-To-Last Thing (or Why Am I Posting This Thing): This is the first work I am actually posting onto the net. I didn't write this story for profit, glory, or even adoring e-mails. I have been watching Xena since the first season, and I just wanted to thank all involved, not only the XenaStaff but the Xenaverse as well, for challenging me in so many ways. Many of the fanfic writers on this site are bards I truly admire and wish to someday achieve a level close to their ability of storytelling. For me, sharing my ideas and imagination is extremely personal, so I can't think of a better way to thank all of you than by posting the first story I am truly proud of. Just FYI, it was written between January and April of 1999.

Last Thing (or Finally! I've already Hit the Page-Down Button Three Times Already!): Finally, I would like to thank my best friend for trudging through the rough copies and my editor for polishing up the final draft. To their support, I am eternally grateful.

Parting Shot (Or If You Are Reading This, You Might As Well Read The Rest of The Story): If you were lucky enough to find this story-I know there are a lot out there-you know exactly why such stories exist. If you don't-don't be scared! Give it a shot....heh-heh. :)


This Mortal Coil

by Dyin' Isis

Prelude: Alea Iacta Est

"I like these calm little moments before a reminds me of Beethoven."

- Gary Oldman, from The Professional


How can the air hang languidly around this anxious group and yet the heavens be discontent? The stillness of the air, the gathering of the clouds, and a billowing trail of dust wouldn't be remembered this day. And yet, it was exactly what the tall dark figure was waiting for. The rider's chipped malachite eyes absorbed it all. Not a true drive for understanding was the impetus behind these thoughts, but the cataloguing of the surrounding was incessant. The whispering among the others of these azure eyes, never stilling, never stalling, and always absorbing, had died down. But the whispering inevitably would begin again.

Murmurs of great interest seemed to be focused on the billowing dust below them. Or, to be more exact, what was disturbing it into plumes of dusty clouds. Dark figures awaited from a lofty plateau, surrounded by the sky as it lost its war with the color of those eyes. The clouds continued to gather and darken, but the tall rider seemed to be in harmony with the turbulent landscape. Even when nature seemed to be in discontent with itself, the rider seemed to belong to the complexities of Nature. The looming layer of thick dark nimbostratus clouds was taking over the cerulean blue of the sky, signaling stormy weather ahead.

In a gesture born from years of command, a subtle hand movement became the catalyst for the pounding of hooves. The group turned their horses away from the cliff and the spectacle created by nature embraced them. Like the swirling hands of dye when dropped into water, the ominous predators swarmed down the high plateau. Their dark forms astride pounding steeds disrupted the red clay with blurs of swift movement.


Act I

Men ought to know that from the brain, and from the brain only,
arise our pleasures, joys, laughter, and jests, as well as our sorrows,
pain, grief, and tears...It is the brain which makes us mad or delirious,
inspires us with dread and fear, whether by night or day, brings sleepness,
mistakes, anxieties, absentmindedness. Acts that are contrary to our normal habits.
These things that we suffer all come from the brain, including madness.

- Hippocrates, from Sacred Desires cited by Ducey and Simon


"I think I'm going to be sick," a green face puckered in disgust and nodded in sickening rhythm to the stagecoach.

"Viola, hey!" A worried voice filled with thoughts of self-preservation broke into the lament beside her. "Vee, come on...hang in there." Viola heard the agitated movements of hands looking for something. "By the heavens, where did I put that bag...."

"Sandra, could we stop for a minute? I really need to walk around and get my bearings." Emerald eyes closed and tried to think of something, anything, other than the haphazard rocking of the stagecoach.

"Hey, driver!" Charles' voice rang out as he jabbed the roof of the coach from within with his cane. "Take it easy!" He paused for a moment as if waiting for something, then sighed and regarded the pained face opposite him. He reached out and comfortingly placed the small elegant hand in his. "These drivers don't seem to be paying attention to me. I doubt if they ever had the presence of a—"

A head poked over the side of the coach from above. With a broad smile dotted with missing teeth and an odorous smell that even the rushing wind couldn't disburse, the driver's partner appeared.

"AAAAAAAHhhhhhhhhh !!!!" Twin screams reached a shrilled note that Charles doubted existed. But reached it they did.

"AAAAAAAHHHHHhhhhhh!!" The partner's baritone tried to make a trio of the shrill duet, but his sliding over the side interrupted his efforts. He grabbed the railing from above as his body rolled down over the side. His armpits were level with the windows of the coach and the occupants were now associated with him more intimately than they had ever wanted to be. Charles immediately regretted tying back the heavy curtains within the stagecoach. Viola didn't need this odorous air to calm her motion sickness.

With a seemingly superhuman effort, the driver's partner twisted around with footing from the step and relief visibly flooded into him. He smiled his gaping grin again and noticed the distress of his passengers. One of them was in a fetal position on the floor. The crackling of the bag under her and the convulsions of her body left little doubt what she was doing.

"Trate!" Charles' voice rang out as he grabbed the windowsill and yelled into the man's stricken face. "You fool! Look what you have done !!"

Sandra had leaned down to help Viola. One arm rubbed Viola's back and the other, after obtaining great assurance it wouldn't be needed anymore, threw something out of the coach. Then Sandra helped Viola into a sitting position. She looked visibly better, if not exhausted.

"Now, sir," Trate implored as thoughts of a tip seemed to evaporate proportionally with the temper of the dark man raging at him. "If there is anything me and Paley could do—"

"No, sir," Charles spat out, his eyes smoldering coals. "You have done enough. I demand that you and that 'driver' of yours drop us off at the next town."

Sandra patted Viola's hand and frantically fanned their faces. She heard a sharp crack and assumed it was lightning. She closed her eyes and fervently hoped the lightning wouldn't hit them as chaotic images of a fiery death besieged her. Feeling the panic welling insider her, she tried to get a hold of herself. She cradled Viola in her arms and held her close. Viola needed her now. With a strong resolve, and a good dose of denial, Sandra decided to dismiss the flashes as part of the wild terrain. She flicked her eyes back to Charles and the driver's partner. Trate suddenly seemed to be just hanging there on the coach. Oh dear, she thought, Charles is not going to like this. In fact, the sooner they got to Flagstaff and a decent bath....

Charles raged on despite Trate's seeming relaxed posture. When the rocking of the coach snapped his head up, Charles glimpsed a glassy-eyed and unworried countenance. 'The idiot doesn't understand!' the thought yelled in his head. Well, I'll make him understand. Trate's head whipped down as the unruly coach pitched over a rock. It bobbed unnaturally, but Charles was on a roll and he railed on.

"—and if you think that you have any prayer of finding customers for your next fare, you can just forget it! If I had it my way, you would never work in this—Hey!! Are you listening to me?"

Trate's head pitched again, this time spraying blood onto Charles' elegant face and expensive white shirt. Viola and Sandra were too scared to scream again. Chaotic thoughts bounced in his brain as the rising din of the upcoming thunder screamed death in his ear. Charles pushed Trate back, hearing him fall in a sickening heap. Eyes wide in alarm, he looked over behind the coach. Definitely, not all of the thundering was due to natural phenomenon. But the way the riders approached with a menacing confidence, bearing Death fast at their heels, they didn't seem at all out of place with the angry weather. They seemed to have been born with it. Charles' ashen white visage turned away from the macabre scene behind him and tried to yell up to the lone driver.

"Paley! Drive!" Charles' voice warred with nature as he stuck his head out. A flash of lighting. Thunder crashed. "Drive faster!!!"

A whistling noise then a sensation cracked against the side of his face. What felt like the searing of a hot iron tagged his left earlobe. He hissed as crimson dripped down his neck.

"Charles?" Viola's panicked voice cut through his own rising panic. "What's going on?"

Charles was slumped onto the seat across from her. His hand clasped to his left ear. His eyes winced, shutting them as if in effort to cut his connection with the horrific events around him. Rain pelted the coach and the darkness enveloped them. And the thunder—God! The incessant thunder was crashing around his ears-raged in a war against his sanity.

"Why isn't the thunder stopping?" Sandra whispered in Viola's ears. The titian-haired young lady turned and saw Charles lips moving, his hands raking through his dark hair. With a sinking feeling, Viola realized that her friend was saying his prayers. Sandra continued to babble. "At home, in New York, the thunder would crash and then stop. Why isn't it stopping?"

Viola reached out and hugged Sandra closely, then her ears picked up a subtle undercurrent. At first, it could be mistaken as part of the unfurled storm, except that a low ominous rumbling seemed slightly out of place. She slowly turned and searched the darkness. Lightning flashed and, for one split second, she was able to see. She could see everything.

The desolate country was suddenly bathed in a garish white light that could only spring from the cloudy darkness of a storm. Her eyes grew wide when she saw them: strange forms riding pounding beasts. The handkerchiefs over their mouths and their driven pursuit of the stagecoach left little doubt what they were: outlaws. Viola caught sight of them just as the bandits overtook them. She noticed with surprise that only one of them, a tall form, held a drawn pistol. The menacing sky didn't seem to hinder these harbingers of death. After the lightning struck the earth in a fiery glory, the night took hold of the earth again like a jealous lover. The shadowy forms blended into the countryside and raced with the wind. Only that it was too late...Viola had seen them. As dread slowly welled inside, it dawned on her that the creatures of the night were very real. And at least one was armed.

That's all it took to kill someone.

"It isn't stopping, Sandra, because the thunder is chasing us," Viola whispered more to herself than her terrified friend. Charles blinked and looked at her in pain. Her throat felt dry and the words became difficult to say. "And we're not going to get away."

With a loud crack, the horses neighed as the driver toppled over the side. Viola caught a clear view of his anguished face as crimson blood spilled over the side of his face. Sandra started to sob. She held her temples on either side with small white gloves. As tears rolled down Sandra's face, she leaned her head against the far side of the coach. Eyes shut, she didn't want to see anymore. She wished she could silence the thunder, grasp the lightning, and still it in an effort to bring her tenuous enclave of safety back.

But Sandra couldn't do that now in this world. She felt death close at hand. She knew that icy grip around her throat meant her time in this world was quickly running out. The time to fulfill her dreams and escape her nightmares was over. San Francisco never seen. Her name in lights in Paris , never to happen. Her wedding to Charles, on hold forever. The chance to feel that old mundane familiarity with her husband as the decades pass would never be realized. The easy communication between old couples vocal and silent never established. The children never to be protected and proud of. She could tell just by looking at Charles that he wasn't there with her. All she wanted right now was to escape with him into whatever safe world he was in right now. Apparently the escape of one prison had lead led them to a more permanent one. Never guessing or wishing that Viola would share this same fate.

In her mind's eye, she saw Charles as the striking figure he had been when she had first met him. The vision there was much more comforting than the murmurs and muttering across from her. Only the small glove in her hand, gripping it with a strength that belied its the appearance of elegance and agility, strove to calm her in the world she had given up living in. Viola's fiery red hair enclosed a mind much stronger and intelligent than hers. It was all the more tragic that her days would also be cut so short. At least Sandra had found her soulmate in Charles. Viola ran away from her own betrothed at an age when Sandra hadn't even met Charles yet.

Sandra strove to insulate herself by memories of the past. She remembered meeting Viola for the first time.... It had seemed only natural that Sandra would gravitate toward the charismatic blonde with shining red highlights and flashing green eyes. Or was it the charismatic redhead with shining blonde highlights and flashing blue eyes? Viola sometimes wasn’t sure of her haircolor herself, but Sandra had noticed that her coloring usually strove to match her mood. Either way, the fair young lady with creamy skin and an inherent grace was a beauty in any light.

The awkwardness of their first acquaintance gave way quickly to an easy familiarity. For some reason that even today still eluded the Southern brunette, especially considering which side of the family Sandra hailed from, Viola had sought her out as well and showered her with attention. Even then Viola had seemed like a force of nature. Viola didn't seem to care about their families' feud, which had lasted for so long. Sandra, who had instantly became wary when she realized Viola was a Chamberlain, couldn't help but reciprocate as much as she could. The two distant cousins had become best friends.

Sandra lost herself in a slightly later memory, which seemed to lull her more into safety of the past. The faint strings of a Viennese waltz slowly became louder as the magnificent gowns turned vibrant colors and the tuxedo-clad gentleman danced with debutantes filled with mirth....


Standing in her deep blue gown and shoes that pinched the circulation from her feet, all that Sandra knew was that she was very, very uncomfortable. Although Viola had insisted the dress looked beautiful, Sandra couldn't help but wish she could wear her day dress that her mother had made for her. Looking at the magnificent gowns that swirled and fluttered, she came to the grudging conclusion that Viola had been right. She wouldn't have garnered the right kind of attention....

Sandra looked at her friend standing next to her. She was utterly beautiful. The pearls that adorned Viola's neck sparkled and shined. Her hair was intricately swept up on the top of her head. The deep forest hue of her dress accentuated Viola's flashing emerald eyes more than ever. Sandra felt like she was a daisy next to a rose. Beautiful but different nonetheless.

Sandra once again asked herself how such a vivacious person like Viola would become anything more than an acquaintance. Why should she? If anything, their tenuous family ties should have made Viola run in the opposite direction. There had been too much blood spilled between the North and South. Sandra wasn't the only victim of the War that had tried to destroy her.

Even at the beginning, Sandra had lacked that spark which Viola could all but crackle with incessant energy. It was all people could do to keep from hovering around them continually, or around Viola to be more honest. People such as Viola, the Chamberlains of New York, were destined for great things. And people radiating with such potential held a sort of magnetism few could deny.

Sandra leaned over to Viola's ear and made a dry comment on her friend’s popularity. It was doubtful that many of the men were concentrating on their dates, because of the vision the eldest Chamberlain projected. The hapless beaus might have had better luck had Viola stayed with her own parentally-chosen beau, but Viola had lost him five waltzes ago. Just enough for appearances sake. Viola only smiled at Sandra's wry observation, then favored her cousin with a bright smile.

"Oh, Sandra," Viola laughed. Her face lit up only making her look even more beautiful. Sandra was happy that Viola didn't take offense like so many others did when receiving her dry wit. It was one of the things they had in common. Viola just seemed to use it a little more sparingly.

"Don't you know that they are only after my money? But you, Sandra... You truly like me." Viola grasped Sandra's hands between her own. She pulled her close to whisper in Sandra's ear. "I could tell. After years on the debutante circle, I could tell. Much to my father's displeasure."

"Of course I do, Vee but...," Sandra became a little more serious. "You know that your father will never fully accept a Southerner in their family. I truly doubt that if the tables were reversed, the Wellings would have accepted you. Much to their loss, of course. I don't know how you did it over the last six months, but I feel you have actually cajoled your parents to the point where they allow my company because it amuses you."

"Amuses me?" Viola impetuously hugged her dear friend close. "You know that you are like a sister to me. You do much more than 'amuse' me. Surely, you know this. Besides," she smiled impishly. "Who else do I let get away with calling me 'Vee'?"

"I know...but I only use it on occasion," Sandra assured the beautiful figure in front of her. She saw Viola's green eyes search in her own brown eyes for signs of doubt. "You won me over a long time ago. And without a slight bit of effort on your part."

"And yours as well," Viola assured her and clasped Sandra's hand in hers. "Oh, Sandra," she smiled. She chose not to impart the fact that Viola still had to engage in verbal gymnastics with her parents to win her friendship with Sandra Wellings. "Let's not talk of serious things. Hey! ... Look, there's Baron vanDorn. I'm afraid he is approaching us...again."

"What?" Sandra's slight southern accent raised in surprise. "A baron? Here?"

Viola raised an elegant eyebrow. "Would you believe that is only his first name? I doubt it since he carries himself as if it were a title."

"No, Viola!" Sandra breathed as her brown eyes went wide. "But he had been talking about his family's crest and...."

"Which they paid for most handsomely many years ago," Viola artfully steered them away from the approaching gentleman. "My father has been talking with the vanDorns quite extensively lately."

"Oh no," Sandra sighed, "You're not about to be engaged again, are you?"

"I'm not too worried, Sandra. I've only been on the debutante circle for six months, and I've lost count how many times I've been engaged. I'm sure that proposal will have some competition." Viola grimaced. "If all else fails, I'll talk my way out of it. However, my father is truly interested in VanDorn Shipping. Apparently, a family crest isn't the only thing that family has bought."

Sandra saw the emerald green eyes darken in hue and wondered if Horace VanDorn had spread some of his wealth in the Chamberlain's direction. Sandra knew that, more often than not, Viola and her younger sister Samantha didn't enjoy being sole heirs to the Chamberlain fortune. Sandra remembered a time not so long ago, when her father tried to strike similar deals with wealthy families in Georgia.

Sandra was suddenly enveloped in sadness. "I know what you mean, Viola." A wistful far-away look remembered a different time and place. "I think my mother and father were very frustrated with me. I was on the debutante circle for a ghastly eighteen months and I didn't receive any marriage proposals. It was scandalous the time."

"Sandra, I strongly doubt that you didn't have any wedding proposals." Viola chided affectionately.

"Well, true, but they weren't from the correct families. Before the—" Sandra broke off suddenly. Viola was able to catch the pain in her friend's eyes before reaching down to fix the lace on her dress. "Well, let's just say my parents had a very short and exclusive list. They were afraid I might die an old maid!"

"Now Sandra, you know you would have married eventually," Viola disagreed. "Although, my mother is on her way to sharing that same philosophy as well. Is it truly that strange to marry someone you are in love with? I mean, before the engagement. My mother insists that the suitors are being turned away because I'm reading too much. As if being a learned woman is a terrible thing! Can you believe that she is trying to lock the library because of all of these 'fantastical' ideas I am getting?"

"But Viola," Sandra protested quietly. She looked at the groups of people who hoped for Viola's presence. "Surely you notice that everybody likes you."

Viola nodded absently and an unfamiliar shadow flickered behind her eyes. "That isn't always a good thing," she confided. "The men want to marry me and the women want me as a friend. And that is putting it delicately with a nice dose of naiveté included. But," Her green eyes flash. "I will embrace it and use it as a strength rather than a weakness. You'll see."

Sandra looked at Viola and couldn't help the surprise crossing her face. "What do you mean, Viola?" She didn't like it when Viola spoke in riddles. Sandra could rarely figure out what she meant by them. She knew that understanding her cousin's strange words would be a valuable clue to whatever she was planning. Prior experience taught her that Viola always had a plan.

"Don't worry, Sandra," Viola neatly pulled a drink off of a server's tray with a natural grace that could only be bred and not learned.

Viola immediately dispelled the topic and walked with Sandra at her side. Sandra realized she would be getting no more strange comments tonight. Viola pulled her to the waiting throng of friends, ready to talk of inconsequential things. Sandra looked back and noticed that the bobbing head of Baron vanDorn had disappeared. She realized that the dizzying path they used had worked. Yes, apparently Viola always had a plan.

Sandra watched her friend with respect as she easily navigated between countless couples. She seemed to know everyone. They all smiled courteously to Sandra as well, but they left murmurs of questions in their wake. Although discreet, Sandra heard a common phrase repeated in murmurs: "Who is she with Viola Chamberlain?"

Viola didn't seem to notice. She smiled easily as she floated between distinguished couples. Sandra was introduced to so many people that she could only hope she wouldn't be addressed by any of them without Viola's assistance. There was simply no way how she could remember all of their names. Viola's hand performed an intricate dance, easily balancing the drink, as she moved and swirled. Despite being obscured from her view most of the time, Sandra doubted that Viola had spilled a drop.

"Hello Stan, Marjorie, Ellen, everyone," Viola greeted the elegantly dressed young people. "This is my cousin Sandra Wellings."

"Hello," they all chorused. Sandra curtsied politely then waited for the strangers to ask the inevitable. The men approached her and bowed. They chastely kissed her hand and murmured pleasures to meet her.

"I believe we have met most of the Chamberlain family," said the lady, whom Sandra guessed was named Marjorie, addressing her. "But I do apologize for my ignorance. I simply don't seem to recall you. Are you a distant cousin?"

Sandra felt the eight pairs of eyes simultaneously rake over her dress and appearance. She hoped she passed the grueling test of manners and etiquette. If not, it would be a very long and unpleasant evening indeed. Viola's hand squeezed hers in reassurance that repeated conveyed belief in her friend. Sandra also had Viola's will on her side. That alone should be enough for a smooth evening.

"Yes, I am visiting New York," Sandra answered. "Viola and I had reacquainted recently."

"Oh really, what a small world!" They all laughed.

"At the theater," Sandra felt a little braver and continued when the chuckles subsided. "Somehow they had unwittingly assigned the same seat to me and another lady. Unfortunately, she and her husband had arrived before I did."

"That is horrible," Ellen sympathized. "How could they make such a grievous error? How could they give away a box seat to someone else?"

"That is strange," Stan agreed. "All of those box seats at the opera are held by the same families all year. Where do the Wellings usually sit? I don't recall that name before."

Sandra felt her face beginning to flush. "Well, actually, it wasn't at the opera...."

The group seemed to be perplexed. "Oh, so it was a play on Broadway." Stan nodded his head.

Sandra shifted uncomfortably. They had entered dangerous waters. Better shoes. Definitely better shoes next time—if there was one. By their faces, it was apparent to Viola that her friends were desperately trying to connect the dots.

"It was a Moliere play," Viola came to Sandra's rescue. Wrinkled brows and thoughtful countenances instantly cleared and relaxed. Sandra wondered how she did that. "I had recognized Sandra as a familiar sight at the theater. Everyone around her seemed quite agitated. It was simple to figure out what was happening above me."

"Above you?" Ellen said in confusion. "Like the...." She searched for the word.

"Balcony!" Stan exclaimed like he had just found something extremely elusive. "That's it."

"Yes, the balcony," Viola nodded encouragingly to Stan. She smiled at Sandra and discreetly rolled her eyes. "The couple was actually quite loud and rude. I couldn't help but look up and I quickly understood what was happening. I ascended to the balcony and by Sandra's stricken face, it was apparent she was losing the battle."

"Viola basically saved me," Sandra interjected. She felt the multitude of eyes center on her again, but she continued. "She managed to quiet the couple down, persuaded the usher to give me a ticket for a free performance, and offered me the seat next to her."

"What?" Stan asked incredulously. Questions bounced in his head and he tried desperately to ask one of them intelligently. "The seat next to you, Viola? You went to a show alone?"

"No no," Viola shook her head and tried to smile. "It really isn't important. Roger and Edythe still came by the house since Howard was supposed to be there already. However, an emergency at home prevented his arrival. I wanted to go anyway and, swearing everyone to secrecy," Viola gave each of them a significant look. "I went with Roger and Edith. I'm very glad I went, too."

"Viola!" Marjorie laughed. "Excitement seems to follow you everywhere! I'm very happy everything worked out."

Viola graced Sandra with a warm smile. "Yes, I seemed to have come out ahead in the end."

The laughing of the group continued as Sandra lost herself in thought. Viola patted her hand in congratulations then turned to talk with Stan who had leaned in her ear, causing her to laugh. Sandra looked at them in veiled surprise. It seemed that the tension dissipated instantly as soon as her vibrant friend had opened her mouth. Acceptance was the only thing held in their eyes now. It seemed that Viola's opinion of her companions went far with these people. If anything, they were impressed that she and Viola had dared to venture the strange waters of the balcony and survived to tell the tale.

"Oh, I almost forgot," Viola presented the drink from obscurity and presented it to Sandra with a flourish. "I wanted you to taste this."

"Eggnog?" Stan asked and laughed. "You've never had eggnog before?"

"Stan!" Viola scolded him laughingly. "Are you comparing Cook's eggnog to just anyone's? Oh dear, I hope I don't take offense...."

"Oh no, Viola," Stan rushed an apology. He hastily tried to salvage some of Viola's favor. "How about a waltz?"

"In a moment, Stan," Viola smiled and watched Sandra with interest. "This one is ending soon. I want to have as much of the dance as possible with you."

Stan puffed his chest out so far, that Sandra thought he looked comically like a peacock. Sandra gazed at the drink suspiciously. She recalled how big and innocent those green eyes were when they handed her the drink. Through experience, she knew those eyes hardly looked quite that innocent even when they actually were. She tried to sniff it subtly, but apparently not enough.

"Sandra, I swear truly it's only eggnog," Viola laughed and the others quickly joined her. "Did you know that Sandra has been to Europe? She told me of the sidewalk cafés of Paris and the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower." Viola sighed wistfully. "What I would give to escape the confines of this house and town...."

"But Viola," Roger quickly interjected. "You could travel with your husband. I'm sure that he would do anything you desire."

"I would hope so, but I would hate to rely on someone else to make my dreams come true," Viola smiled. "Ultimately, it would matter what he would want to do. And when I have children...." she shrugged and continued to watch in amusement as Sandra performed a subtle battery of tests on the mysterious liquid.

All of the young men and women hoped that their new friend would like the eggnog, but only one knew how much it would mean. Sandra felt the eyes on her again and quickly made a decision. With a courageous, albeit completely forced, nod to the group she slowly tasted the eggnog. Immediately, the unfamiliar rush of alcohol threatened to overwhelm and lay claim to her senses. Steeling herself, she thought a series of words directed at her friend—how that endearment was in jeopardy—that she would never say in public. She grabbed a hold of herself and smiled weakly at the chorus of expectant eyes. Viola laughed and smiled in true affection. The others quickly joined in.

"The eggnog is something else, isn't it?" Ellen took another sip. "I don't know where the Chamberlain's found Cook, but every year she seems to outdo herself."

" was something else," Sandra said hoarsely, but Ellen didn't seem to notice. With a twinkle of her eyes, Sandra could tell that Viola had.

Viola raised her hand up slightly to steal a glass off a waiter's tray. As she did so, Sandra saw the flash of a thin top of an extremely small bottle poking out of Viola's sleeve of her dress. The pieces were quickly thrown together in her mind.

"Everyone, I would like to congratulate my dear cousin, Sandra, for surviving Cook's first cup of eggnog!" Viola announced with a flourish. The others laughed harder and began to clap wildly.

"Thank you, everyone," Sandra smiled wryly. "I have never felt so honored before. Now, I truly feel that I have arrived."

Viola raised an eyebrow as if being impressed and clapped again. The others were smiling at her with similar affection as if she were an old friend. Apparently, she had passed their test of new acquaintances.

Viola waited for a moment for the laughter to stop, then held her glass up in salute. "To dreams, my dear friends," Viola said in a clear voice. Her friends eagerly lifted their glasses higher. "May all of our dreams come true."

Sandra realized she would have to take another sip of the drink. With a meaningful look directed at Viola's watchful gaze, Sandra sipped her drink and forcibly smiled to her waiting friend. Those big green eyes couldn't have looked more innocent. With a laugh, Viola inconspicuously raised her hand again as the light flashed on the lid of the bottle for the last time, receding even further down her sleeve. It was little wonder why Viola had wanted her to taste a seemingly ordinary glass of eggnog. Although she knew how, she still wasn't quite sure why. However, as her mind raced through possibilities, Sandra eventually came up with the only answer: She wasn't told because she wasn't meant to know. Viola Chamberlain always had a plan.

Suddenly, Viola was bumped and her drink moved precariously. She deftly righted the glass before a drop could be spilled. With the action, Sandra once again saw how Viola had concealed the cup as they were threading through couples, and spike the drink at the same time. All she could do was shake her head and smile to herself. That was Viola.

"Oh dear, Viola, are you okay?" Stan made his way closer to Viola and looked hard at the servant. "We're waiting for your apology, servant."

"I, ah, I'm sorry!. I truly am..." The young boy stammered. His crisp uniform fit him ill and he looked very uncomfortable.

"It's okay, Stan. No harm done," Viola smiled warmly at the mortified young man. "Please don't worry—Johnny?" She took a closer look. "Is that you?"

"Miss Chamberlain," Johnny breathed a sigh of relief. "It's so good to see you. I really am very sorry...I—I didn't mean to—"

"I know, Johnny, I know," Viola smiled and gave him a brief hug. Luckily, he wasn't carrying anything at the time or the force of her hug would only cause him further embarrassment. "You look so handsome! Is your father here also?"

"Yes, Dad is helping the bartender. I really should be going...." Johnny noticed that Mrs. Chamberlain was looking his way. She had already warned him that his friendship with Viola was on tenuous ground at best if he didn't keep his distance.

"But, Johnny! You just got here!" Viola laughed. She pulled Sandra forward and indicated the young man. "This is Jonathan Porter, Sandra. He and I grew up together here at the house. I've known him since we could talk. He's like a brother to me...."

Jonathan tried to muster up some courage and ignore the cold stares of the other sophisticated young people. He knew what Viola really thought of them, so if he was introduced to Sandra, then she probably wasn't like the others. He clasped Sandra's hand and kissed it briefly.

"It's nice to meet you, miss," He said politely then turned to Viola. "I'm sorry, Vee, I really do have to go."

"Okay, Johnny...we'll talk later." Viola smiled as Jonathan nodded and hurried back to his duties.

Stan cleared his throat and proffered his arm. He repeated his request for a dance, which Viola gracefully accepted. She winked to Sandra during a smooth turn of the waltz. Sandra knew exactly what Viola meant as she looked down at her eggnog. She smiled wryly as she turned and poured out the rest of the eggnog into a nearby plotted plant. A servant miraculously appeared, wearing the same starched clothes as Jonathan, and saved the cup from an obscure fate in the foliage.

With a slight inclination of his head, the man offered Sandra another eggnog which she felt much more safe in accepting. Regardless, Sandra was aware of Viola's charms and knew that the servants were far from impervious. She gave in and smelled it carefully. One never knew what to expect with Viola Chamberlain. For all she knew, Viola could have persuaded enlisted the waiters in her little ruse as well.... It was in this suspicious frame of mind that a voice interrupted Sandra's thoughts.

"Good evening." A strong baritone distracted her. "Charles Huntington. At your service, miss...."

Sandra looked up in surprise and hurriedly curtsied. "Sandra Wellings. It's nice to meet you."

"Likewise," he answered. "I take it you and Viola Chamberlain are friends?"

"Yes, as well as cousins." Sandra took in his presence. He was of medium height and slender build. He was attractive to look at, but there didn't seem to be anything quite outstanding about him. She heard a peal of laughter and immediately noticed Viola had been dipped, much to her surprise.

"Ah, well, the doors of New York Society will swing open for you," Charles remarked. "Miss Chamberlain is like a skeleton key. She has entree' everywhere."

"Sir, I think you forget yourself," Sandra's protective streak immediately surfaced. "Viola doesn't need to be a key to be anywhere she wants to be. She is always invited. I doubt you could say as much."

Charles bowed his head in acceptance. "Touché, Miss Wellings. I apologize."

Sandra instantly felt remorse. She sometimes spoke before her mind could rein in her tongue. "No, no, it is I who should apologize. Viola is not only my cousin, but my best friend as well. I can't help but be—" Sandra held her breath when she suddenly saw Baron VanDorn try to cut in and replace Viola's partner.

"Would you like to dance?" The handsome dark man interrupted Sandra's watchful surveillance of Viola's sweep through the dance floor.

Sandra turned in surprise to see Charles' elegant form back in front of her. She was sure that she had been acting particularly rude and distracted towards him, but he didn't seem to mind. She was sure that if Viola was standing next to her, he would have asked Viola first anyway. Sandra had gotten over such thoughts earlier in their friendship. It was simply how things were between them. Sandra was too grateful for their friendship to let jealousy interfere. It was only by very firm friendship with Viola that she had been invited to the ball in the first place.

"Of course," she smiled demurely and curtsied with a practiced grace. "I would love to."


She and Charles had been together ever since. But there had always been Viola. After two years had passed, Viola and Sandra's friendship flourished. Dreams confided and shared, emotions exchanged, and events brought them closer together. In the earnest confidences shared by trusted friends, Viola disclosed to Sandra that she knew she didn't belong in New York. Viola heard the calling of the West and San Francisco was where she wanted to start her future. Viola had been a rock Sandra's life and attained the same lofty status as air. She simply wouldn't know what to do had Viola ever disappeared from her life. Looking at the excitement and confidence in those jade-colored eyes, Sandra had doubted with a smile that the wild nature on the far side of the Mississippi River could defeat Viola's strength and will. Now, traveling West with Viola and Charles, Sandra had begun to believe that perhaps this foreign land would not try to capture Viola's strength and will after all. Perhaps in deference to recognizing such character should succeed in the face of a force perhaps greater than itself.

She believed Charles' love for her had made his acceptance of this Westward adventure with Viola easy. He had told her time and time again how he considered Viola to be like a sister. He appreciated the way she treated Sandra with so much love. Sandra now reflected that Viola had even helped her indirectly find Charles as well. People such as Sandra were destined for...different things...for a happy life with Charles.

As the loud percussion replaced the dying strains of the violins, the crash of thunder tore Sandra away from those happier times. And now, tonight, a death with him as well.

But now Sandra wondered about her earlier assumptions. With the anger of the storm swirling around them, it seemed that Fate worked in allegiance with Nature. In an ominous concert, they hinted at a power strong enough to snuff out Viola's spark before it even began to rage into the fire only hinted at by those flashing green eyes. Sandra could tell by Viola's grip that it was those fiery qualities raging inside her now that would, if it could, save them. If it could.

The uneasy muttering of her fiancé broke into Sandra's thoughts once again. Thoughts of salvation led by Charles evaporated as quickly as they came.

"...And they told me..." Charles murmured on with tightly closed lids. "...And they told me that Coal Damian's gang....they told me...that they were killed at La Camisa Sucia....Go through the southwest route... First time in years it's safe since that Damian's gang....My god, the bargain....the deal...Not dead..."

"Charles," Viola went over to him desperately. For the first time, she was able to understand his babbling. "What are you talking about?" She patted the other side of his face to keep him lucid. "Is that what these bandits are? How do you know?"

Charles looked at Viola and tried to shut the world out again. "Well, now look who is feeling better!"

"No, Charles, tell me-"

"Hello, ladies." A smug voice greeted them. His rakish dark eyes looked at three occupants with great interest. "When you're done with him, I'm next."

Coldness crushed her heart. With the bandit's smoldering eyes on hers, there was little to doubt what he was referring to. The bandit leaned over his horse and grabbed the top of the coach. He let his legs swing over to the step. Sandra thought irrationally how much better he smelled than the driver. She took very little comfort in that. Sandra felt something rush past her. Viola began to swing at the open windows. The curtains flapped at will against the wind.

"Hey!" The bandit exclaimed. He had expected the act from the guy, but had immediately dismissed the broken man. But the rage surged up through him, and he punched Viola in the face. She flew back and hit her head on the other side of the coach. He immediately knew that he was a dead man. With nothing to lose, he yanked the door of the stagecoach open.

"You bastard!" Sandra spat.

"Yeah, but Momma always did love me the most." The bandit looked smugly back at them with wild eyes. Sandra must have imagined it, but she thought she saw a flash of fear cross his eyes. It fled as quickly as it came. All that seemed to matter now was there was nothing there but primal rage in him now.

"Well, well, look at this fine thing!!" he growled and immediately descended on top of Viola. Sandra beat his back and screamed. The bandit sat up from where he straddled the unmoving form of Viola. He slapped Sandra hard against the face. She fell and huddled in pain back to where she was sitting. Her sobs wracked her body as she convulsed in tears.

"So, you like to hit, huh?" The bandit rasped as he roughly hiked Viola's skirts up. He began to unbuckle his pants, but the stagecoach came to an abrupt halt and threw him against the cushions.

The door flew open as a strong hand grasped the collar of his shirt and pulled him out of the coach. Two beaten women inside the coach, a broken man talking to himself, and his own pants pulled down to his knees...the bandit knew he made a pathetic sight.

"What do you think you are doing, Jeb?" A low menacing voice filled with disgust and the heel of a boot stepped on his hand. With a twisting motion, small bones snapped, nerves screamed, as the sharp heel ground his hand. "So, you like to hit, huh?"


Viola came-to in time to feel rough hands take her face between a harsh thumb and index finger. She looked back into chipped ice-blue eyes that showed no emotion but the extreme anger that flashed back from the captive. The handkerchief that adorned over the tall rider's mouth had an elaborate gold and black pattern. These hooded eyes watched Viola very closely and didn't seem particularly pleased.

"Jeb!" The tall rider released Viola and went over to a familiar man with a bandaged hand. He was the one who had attacked her. A six-shooter cocked smoothly and pressed against Jeb's temple. "You know the rules...."

"Coal! We got all of the money," a man in a pale green shirt opened the five gold purses and raked the coins in his fingers. "Just like you said."

"Are the papers there?" The voice might have remained neutral, but the intense glare never left Jeb's face. Viola watched in awe as Jeb's once surly and indifferent countenance slowly crumbled under that stare. His sweating became more profuse. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down nervously. This man standing before her looked nothing like the smug rider who had forced his way into the stagecoach.

"No, Coal."

"Great, more money," ice-flecked eyes bored into Charles who looked like he had been dealt a death sentence. Jeb blinked as if he felt a slight reprieve from an inevitable. "Just what we need." Sarcasm dripped as it was repeated. "Just what we need." Charles flinched as if the words had slapped him.

"I....I...please...." Charles stammered and lowered his eyes. He stepped back as if the extra distance could help. "Anything...please...."

"Who are you, pig?" Contempt laced through Coal's voice and kicked Charles' cane away. "Did I tell you that you can speak?"

Charles looked up in consternation and he opened his mouth as if to say something. A flash of movement immediately turned his face ashen. He was looking at the barrel of Coal's other six-shooter.

"You want your other ear to be nicked as well?" Coal pulled the safety back.

"Don't!" Viola interjected. She wished she could yell the word but the pain wouldn't let her. "Haven't you done enough?"

"No," Coal pulled the trigger. Jeb collapsed and fell at Coal's feet, his head spraying the ghastly dark maroon color of blood on the dirt around them. Without missing a beat, Coal walked over to Charles and deliberately stepped on a felled piece of Jeb's skull. The bones crunched against his heels as he slowly reinstated the safety on the gun that had once been threatening Charles only seconds before.

"You murdered him!" Viola found her voice again. Those dangerous eyes centered back on her. "How could you just kill him like that?"

Coal rushed up to her and took her face into those rough hands again. "What?"

"You didn't-" Viola felt a wave of exhaustion and her voice faltered, "You didn't...have to execute him wasn't even human."

Viola, once again, felt rough hands grab her chin and forced to meet the gaze of the dark imposing figure. Viola figured that Coal would try to intimidate her into a pathetic sight as she did to Charles and Jeb, but she would prove him wrong. Steeling herself, pale blue met unflinching green. As if a dam had broken, Viola watched fascinated as emotions swirled and warred with each other. Those blue eyes looked as if a turbulent ocean caught in a vast storm with tidal waves of memories crashing into each other. It was as if the entire gamut of human emotion passed behind Coal's eyes. Viola was able to see Anger crash against Resentment. Rage and Despair clashed with a will much more troubled and pained than her own.

This monster before her was so damaged that she doubted anyone could save it. Demons such as this were usually destroyed by the way they lived. And never saved. Coal pulled Viola's face forward and she flinched despite herself. Then she heard Coal speak in a low voice raw with the multitude of emotions she had just witnessed. The voice drifted to an ear crowned with reddish-gold hair.

"How could you want anything less?"

Coal drew back slightly and searched wide green eyes for a moment then released her completely. He turned away from her and addressed the dark eyes of a heavy-set man.

"Take the gold. You know what I want done with the passengers."

"Done," The man answered with finality and threw the three passengers with a cold look.

Coal looked up at the sky and absorbed the details as always. The heavy clouds were strong enough to swallow the sun and precipitate the early arrival of night. The deadness of the terrain cast eerie shadows in the approaching darkness. It was as if all signs of life had escaped this desolate landscape to seek out friendlier skies. Coal breathed deeply. The rain was coming. The smell of wetness laced on the wind was strong. It was time to go. Too much time wasted on this simple and useless robbery.

The men cut familiar dark forms in the landscape. The thunder was rolling stronger and faster now. The cold dampness of the rain would follow closely on its heels. Coal and the lightning moved simultaneously. In the flash, Coal seemed to have turned away from the darkness of the bandits to the intense light of Viola and the passengers. Like beacons in a night without stars, the fear burned brightly in all of their eyes. Coal looked closer at the small one with the green eyes. The fear didn't burn quite so brightly as her indignant anger. Coal saw the acceptance of death sinking into the others, but not this one. She was different. Her emerald eyes flashed annoyance and anger at Coal even as the bandits approached. Perhaps this uncharacteristic defiance was revealed because she had seen too much.

Viola watched with steely green eyes as the man, whom the leader had indicated, walked over to them. He signaled two of the other men and they each walked over to take a prisoner. She struggled as hard as she could, but the ordeal overwhelmed her. Sandra whimpered. Charles had given up a long time ago. Viola could tell that her friends were past fear and now just waited for the bullet that would finally end their lives.

Coal watched as Viola and Sandra clung desperately to each other even as they were pulled apart. That one had seen too deeply, Coal decided as the strange thoughts continued. No one had bothered to look before, but then, that was because everyone knew that Coal Damian had no soul. But still, those green-eyes had seen something that even Coal had believed once lost a long time ago. Coal could feel it as certainly as the lightning would strike again. The weather's discontent relentless to run its course.

Handkerchiefs tied tightly over their eyes. Ropes bound their wrists. Viola winced in pain as the nightmare steadily got worse. Her ears sharply attuned to the sound of boots grating to where she was standing. She felt the cold steel carefully make its way to the ropes. Then, with a strong sure motion, her hands were free. She felt her blood rush to the prickled nerves and she sighed in relief. The imminent blackness was gaining on her and she was afraid what would happen to her when she finally succumbed to it. That is, if she didn't become overpowered by exhaustion first. Viola reached out blindly and suddenly caught by strong hands. She reached up for the handkerchief but immediately restrained.

"No, that has to stay there," The unexpected rough voice made Viola recoil instantly. "What you don't know might save you...yet."

It was Coal's voice. Viola started to fight again, but Coal easily restrained her with one hand. If she could just ride with anyone but that monster. She was convinced that he was probably the one who had nicked Charles' ear. No doubt this killer had enough arrogance to be the lone rider that had his gun drawn earlier. Viola heard the creaks of saddles as the riders mounted their horses. Sandra and Charles both grunted in protest as they were saddled with the bandits. At least she knew they were alive.

Despite being grateful for that knowledge, she couldn't help wondering why they all weren't dead yet.

They were witnesses to a robbery and a murder after all, so then why were they allowed to live this long? She tried to be optimistic even as perhaps a more obscure site for their deaths tentatively answered her question. She really tried not to be a cynic, even in dialogues with herself.

Lost in thought, Viola heard Coal mount the horse. Two pairs of arms reached down, clamped tightly under her armpits, and lifted her up so that her feet were swinging above the ground. Her stomach rolled as a dire feeling of foreboding overcame her. Unceremoniously, and with the grace of a bag of potatoes, she sailed through the air and found herself in front of Coal. Viola tried with all of her might to be angry, but that would require more energy then she possessed. Viola managed a soft grunt of protest as the exhaustion pulled her into blackness once again. She distantly felt one arm wrapped itself more tightly around her.

"Yaw!" Coal's voice rang out as the thunder began again.

Viola had been right. It was impossible that they would escape the thunder. Indeed, it had swallowed them whole.


At lunch the next afternoon, three very worn figures picked at the food in front of them. Well, two of them picked. Viola was ravenous. She indicated the pancakes on Sandra's plate with a fork. Sandra rolled her eyes and shook her in disbelief. Viola gingerly scooped one up and added it to her barren plate. The locals watched the trio in amazement and surprise since learning that they had lived through the ordeal the day before. When Viola and her friends had mentioned Coal Damian, the townsfolk snickered.

"Coal Damian?" A particularly gallant man in a red plaid shirt sat next to Viola. He smiled and offered Viola a napkin. "You're not from around here, are you?"

How original, Viola thought as she forced a smile and accepted the napkin.

"Thank you," She nodded. With her fork, she made a sweeping motion to include herself and her travel-weary companions. "Evidently not."

"Coal Damian's gang is dead," the local said in a matter-of-fact voice. "'Bout time, too. They were the roughest, deadliest bunch of rednecks this side of the Mississippi. That I guarantee."

Viola closed her eyes and tried to see some very elusive patience to seize. Every notorious outlaw described to her from Jesse James to Billy the Kid was described in the exact same way. Illumination of their plight from yesterday was still far away. Her eyes must have communicated this for the local rushed on.

"There was a big shoot-out about three months ago," he began. Apparently, the townsfolk liked this story because they eagerly crowded around him and the strangers.

"At La Camisa Sucia?" Viola hazarded a guess and was rewarded with a dumbfounded expression.

"Hey, yeah! How did you know that?" He exclaimed. His eyes suddenly lit up in inspiration. "Oh, you must have heard of the gunfight but not who was in the fight." He smiled craftily at her.

She wants me. He thought rakishly and tried to smile in a way that can only enhance his appearance.

Far from impressed, the New Yorker closed her eyes. "Please continue."

Yep, she really wants me. He drew himself up a little straighter.

"What Skeet here is trying to say is," an old man cut in, "is that the Marshals had been tracking Coal for years. Specially since that schoolhouse burned to the ground a long time ago. Everyone died including thirty children. Unfortunately, the U.S. Marshals weren't fast enough. That disaster is only one of many marking Coal's reign of terror."

"Yes but," Sandra cut in. "I just can't get those eyes out of my mind."

"Yeah, it's usually like that in stagecoach robberies." Skeet volunteered again when he was able. "The eyes are really the only distinguishing part of the robbers you can see. So they haunt you. Can you remember what color those eyes were?"

"You know, it's the strangest thing. I can't remember the was pretty dark. But I swear if I see them again I'll recognize them." Sandra mused.

"They were blue." Viola interjected. "Light blue."

"Hmm, well, to give you some credit. Those are Coal Damian's color eyes," the old man mused and the patrons nodded in agreement. "But I am sorry dearie--" Viola grimaced and hoped like hell he was referring to Sandra. "Coal Damian is dead."

"But how do you know?" A voice whispered. Charles coffee-colored eyes challenged the old man then turned to the rest of the group. "How do you know that Damian is dead? We were accosted last night by bandits that had handkerchiefs with black and gold embroidered on it. Now tell me, Skeet." Charles grated Skeet's name from between his lips then grabbed his collar and pulled Skeet up. "Now tell me Coal Damian's colors are not black and gold."

"They're not," Skeet said with effort.

"Charles! Control yourself!" Viola rose quickly and put a restraining hand on Charles shoulder. "Put him down. He didn't do anything to us."

"If these townspeople continue to doubt the existence of Coal Damian and his band of outlaws, then another stage coach will get robbed as well. They will be shot at, their drivers killed, and dragged into a black night. Their very lives will be at stake and it will be at the cause of people like this. Coal Damian is out there because you won't do anything about it!" Charles clenched his teeth.

"But Charles..." Sandra began softly. "...they said that black and gold wasn't the color of Damian's gang."

"That means nothing! They could have changed the colors." Charles spoke patiently to Sandra as if she was a child. "Different handkerchiefs. Probably too many killings and deaths that could be too easily associated with them."

Viola suddenly remembered something from last night. "Wait...Charles could be right. Last night, one of the men referred to the leader as 'Coal.' So-"

Skeet laughed and slapped his knee. "Oh, no, don't tell me you fell for that?"

Viola turned quickly to him and grew angry. "What? What is so funny about that?"

"Ah, it's just good to know that you city slickers are only human after all," Skeet winked at Viola, but that only agitated her more. "It's just a trick some outlaws do so that they're name isn't associated with the robbery. You know, blame it on somebody else?"

"What? You mean someone's done it before?" Viola asked in surprise.

"Oh yeah!" Another man walked up to Skeet and slapped him on the back. "You're referring to Dusty, huh?"

Skeet smiled and nodded. He enjoyed having all of Viola's attention on him "Yup. You see, Dusty is an outlaw who got run out of town for gambling debts. He decided to use Coal Damian's name because everyone was scared as hell of Coal Damian. It was easier to rob people, I guess. So, anyway, Coal Damian's reputation was actually hurt because Dusty was just so bad at it."

Sandra sighed heavily and rolled her eyes. "I don't believe this. Look, Viola's right. We were robbed last night by someone calling himself Coal. I still don't think you convinced us otherwise."

"Exactly," Charles said with force. He turned to Skeet. "I think we need to talk to your sheriff and get some men together and track down the man who did this to us."

Skeet looked at Charles doubtfully. "Well, sure, but they're probably long gone now. There's miles and miles of nothing for days in all directions. They could be well on their way to Mexico by now....or hell, even Canada!"

Charles threw up his hands. "But it was Coal Damian. I'm sure it was!"

"But Charles, there doesn't seem to be a majority to support your beliefs. I agree with you that someone used the name 'Coal' last night, but we all know that really doesn't prove anything. In fact, the only one here who is sure of the assailants from last night is you, Charles," Viola stood toe-to-tow with Charles and looked up at him with blazing green eyes.

"God, she's beautiful when she's angry...." Skeet murmured and sighed.

Charles clenched and unclenched his fists with effort. He noticed everyone was staring at him but, being an actor, he was used to this. He sat down again and petulantly crossed his arms and legs.

"So, answer my question Skeet," Charles continued and almost had to manually turn Skeet's head away from Viola. Skeet reluctantly met the dark eyes of Charles and not the beauty standing so close. "How do we know it isn't Coal Damian."

"Because I killed him." A stranger strolled up to them, U.S. Marshal badge gleaming, and gave Charles a penetrating look. "The Riders and I caught up with him and his gang as they were terrorizing the gold mines of La Camisa Sucia. We were able to drive them back into the mines and cause a cave-in. Nobody got out."

He saw Charles brooding at the table. The unspoken question held in his eyes.

"Nobody escaped. My commander ordered us to scour the hills to make sure there weren't any escape routes. The ones we found we threw dynamite and ignited it. Despite all of that gold, efforts to reopen the mind have failed. Coal Damian is dead."

Skeet nodded then decided to say something to get those lovely green eyes back to his face:

"We haven't had a gunfighter or bank robbery since!" Skeet's proud face seemed to speak volumes. "We have an occasional duel, but those are usually between townspeople. In fact, your stagecoach robbery is out of the ordinary."

"Are you doubting it?" Charles answer dripped in sarcasm.

"Well, no, of course not," Skeet rubbed his beard thoughtfully. "I doubt if these two lovely ladies..." He gave a special leer to Viola. "Would walk all of the way from New York to Red Mesa."

"Then why are the Marshals still in Red Mesa if the crime is so low?" Viola asked despite herself. Her intelligence and wit usually scared men off, but something from yesterday was pulling at her for attention.

The Marshal couldn't help being surprised by the intelligent question. So she wasn't just all looks....

"Actually, we're on our way to Albuquerque." The Marshal gave an easy smile. "So, I'm sorry what happened to you last night, but it couldn't have been Coal Damian and his gang. Besides--" The Marshal tried to stop himself. He could tell he was already winning over the suspicious New Yorkers.

"Besides what?" Viola asked. Well, he brought it up, she thought wryly.

"You wouldn't have been spared. Coal Damian left bodies in his wake and wouldn't have spared yours. His reputation wouldn't have it. From what I gathered, you're telling me: a ghost and his riders killed your drivers, took your gold, and was kind enough to spare your lives and carry you a few hours, on horseback mind you, so that the three of you could spend the night right here at the Dusty Hole Saloon where a U.S. Marshall just happened to be staying. You also have no idea in which way you came. This, of course, means that you probably veered off the main road and we, should we go searching for your coach, will probably never find it. And, to top it all off, I have a feeling those black and gold handkerchiefs are long gone." The lawman smiled and shook his head.

The townspeople broke into laughter in disbelief of his absurd speech. Charles looked at the stranger dourly and harumphed in the corner. Viola sat down again with a strange expression on her face. To her, there were too many things that didn’t feel right.

"Well, since you put it that way...." Sandra mused and smiled for the first time. "It does sound a little crazy. I'm sure it was just drifters and our imagination must have run away with us a little as well."

"No, no I don't mean to dismiss the horrible ordeal you experienced, miss," the lawman sat down next to her and tried to gauge Charles' reaction. "It's just that Coal Damian was a monster and to think that he is still out there and terrorizing people is unthinkable. The three of you are lucky to have escaped with your life. Please rest and try to enjoy the town."

"This town..." Charles groused. He seemed as if to say something then stopped, realizing he had an audience. His eyes looked around the saloon and then centered on the back wall. The wheels in his head began to turn. He rose and raised his arms in exultation "...Would be a perfect place to begin our tour!"

Viola looked across the table to Charles. "Are you crazy?"

"No, Viola, listen! We could put the play on here. Look," Charles got up and walked to the back of the saloon. "We could make a stage here. Charge a price--" The townspeople looked at him in warning. "--A very, very low but fair price--for admission and we can at least salvage some of the money that was stolen from us last night. We might even afford a train to Flagstaff. C'mon Sandra...Viola. Work with me here."

"You're actors?" Skeet asked. With three bobbing heads he saw an opportunity to spend time with Viola.. "Well, I'm all for helping out with the stage. I could help you with sets and stuff...."

"Actors," the old man grimaced. "No wonder why they made their whole 'ordeal' last night so dramatic."

The stranger stood up, his shield gleaming in the candlelight. He tipped his hat to the company of actors, then walked off as suddenly s he appeared. Viola slowly warmed up to the idea as plans of Flagstaff and eventually San Francisco were put on hold indefinitely. The events of last night still swirled in her mind and she wondered. She wondered what the holder of those two eyes truly looked like. She had assumed it was the knowledge that this was the infamous Coal Damian and perhaps that had initially intrigued her. But even though that identity had been put in doubt, the leader of the men last night was...special somehow. Viola just wasn't sure how.

The swift and cold killing of Jeb...the sparing of the witnesses who saw the execution...leaving one of the five gold purses in her camisole (Viola didn't even want to guess how it got there) so they wouldn't be destitute...dropping them off at this town.... not tying her hands. And the papers? Why would "Coal" be more interested in papers than five bags of gold? All of these things were very strange.

Viola noticed heads turned to her as if waiting for something. She smiled and agreed to the plan of staying in Red Mesa. The excited conversation between two people quickly spread throughout the gathering of people. By the end of the day, the patrons of the Dusty Hole Saloon found themselves involved in the production somehow. Plans were made. A play was chosen.

Amidst the excited gathering, Viola grabbed the sleeve of Charles' shirt and pulled him away from the crowd. He looked down at her in surprise and shook his elbow away.

"Hey, Viola! That's an expensive piece of fabric, you know!" he hissed and inspected it carefully. "You didn't tear it, did you?"

"Charles, I remembered something, but I don't want to upset Sandra more than she already is," Viola hissed back. "Stop being such a dandy and listen!"

Charles dark eyes widened in surprise at her tone. "A dandy? Me?"

Viola looked pointedly at the cuff of his shirt. Charles followed her gaze and huffed with indignation.

"Charles, I remembered something from the other night. Why do you suppose those bandits were asking about 'papers'?" Viola's green eyes clouded in thought. "Do you know what they were talking about?"

"Papers?" Charles looked at her blankly. "No, this is the first time I've heard of it."

"You don't remember any mention of papers? They looked right at you when they mentioned it." Viola persisted.

Charles' demeanor changed slightly. "Viola, what are you trying to say?"

Viola didn't answer him. She simply waited, with her arms crossed, for his reply.

"They mentioned papers, hmm?" Charles turned his head away from Viola's gaze and stroked his goatee thoughtfully. "Papers...papers...hmm. Well, ah, I'm sorry, Viola, but I really don't remember much of that hellish night. To be honest, I've tried to block out as much of that beastly night as possible."

"The whole thing just really bothers me, Charles," Green eyes clouded with thought, "I mean, it was almost as if they had targeted our coach on purpose? But, why would they do that? How would they know we were coming that way, anyway?"

"Wait a minute..." Charles voice trailed off as enlightenment dawned. He drew his brows together. "You think I had something to do with this, don't you?"

"No, Charles, I really don't know what to make of the whole thing," Viola answered truthfully. "What happened last night just feels so wrong in so many different ways."

"Ahh, well, I really do think your imagination is working a little too much," he said in a dismissive tone. "From what little I can remember, none of us were in any condition to recall that evening with a shred of lucidity."

"Oh really?" Viola pounced on his slip. "But then, that wouldn't make any sense either."

Charles eyes narrowed and drew himself back against the wall. "What do you mean?"

"If that was true...then the question still persists, Charles. How can you be so sure that you know it was Coal Damian who kidnapped us last night?" Viola's eyes burned into Charles.

"Look, Viola, you've known me for years, longer than Sandra and she wants to marry me! And yet you are accusing me of somehow being involved with what happened last night. How do you think that makes me feel? You should know me better than that," he exploded with indignation. "This isn't something that fine ladies such as you and Sandra should worry about. Obviously you are highly distressed and aren't thinking clearly, so let me endeavor to explain it to you. I assure you that there was no mention of any papers. And if they were, well, those outlaws would have found them. Furthermore, like you yourself heard, one of the men addressed that killer as 'Coal.' That's how I know."

Viola felt her temper rise with every word that sprung from Charles Huntington's mouth. "Charles! That's crazy and I don't deserve to be treated like a child. Anyone with an ounce of common sense would realize that last night was just plain wrong on many levels. And do you want to know what the worst part is?" Viola decided to tell him anyway. "For some reason, I feel like it isn't over yet."

"Viola, I want you to listen to me," Charles hardened his voice. "What I believe is, when a man is about to take away your life, that is when you have to trust your instincts the most. My instincts tell me it was Coal Damian who shot that man's brains out right in front of us. It was Coal Damian who successfully killed our two drivers and dragged us to this god-forsaken town." Charles approached Viola again and lowered his face in front of hers. His dark eyes filled with righteous indignation as he continued.

"For God's sake, Viola, accept that it was a solitary unfortunate incident where we were lucky we had escaped with out lives. Leave it at that. May I remind you that I am not the one who should be accused here. For the last time, I am a victim here just as much as you are." Charles lowered his voice with disdain. "And now, maybe more so."

"Charles-" Viola's voice began to falter as she considered his words.

"What's going on here?" A feminine voice interrupted. Sandra looked worriedly between her fiancé and best friend. "Oh dear...I heard some yelling and I was hoping that it wasn't...."

"Nothing is going on, darling," Charles pointedly ignored Viola and held his elbow out for Sandra. He waited until she accepted it and steered her away from Viola. "Viola and I were simply going over a few things. We were just...discussing...the finer points between two of Shakespeare's plays. For obvious reasons, Viola prefers 'Twelfth Night', but I've always preferred 'The Taming of the Shrew'...."

His somnolent voice tried to mollify Sandra's worry, but his parting comment was subtle enough to sting Viola. She knew the shrew that Charles was referring to. Her. As he turned her away, Sandra turned back and caught Viola's gaze. Viola concealed her ill feelings with a smile and waved in a gesture of well-being. Sandra held up a hand in understanding. When the two had disappeared from view, Viola turned her back to the wall and leaned against it.

Viola tried to turn her thoughts away from last night and dwelled on other things for a moment in hopes of pulling herself together. She could still feel the sweat of her palms and the pounding of her heart. The dull throb of a headache threatened to crescendo into a migraine.

Viola looked up at the rustic ceiling beams for a moment and wondered if what Charles said was true. Was their ordeal from last night truly over? She looked out of the window and saw the wind rush through branches and the foreboding sky from still enveloped them. She wondered if she would ever get to San Francisco and if her life would ever begin.


Charles Huntington sighed heavily as he tried to make himself comfortable in bed. The bed groaned and creaked in protest. Charles grimaced. The room, if one could call it that, was small and spare. Not nearly what he was used to in New York. This was slightly bigger than his own closet on Madison Avenue. With only a single small table, a short dresser, a basin to shave, Charles was slowly getting used to this "frontier" life. He leaned over from his bed and ran his finger across the dresser's top. He then rubbed it across his thumb and forefinger. Well, at least it was almost clean. He harumphed in judgment of the room and once again went through the elaborate process of settling down into bed.

With a sigh, Charles ran through the last couple of days. It had been a trying, and very surprising few days, but he was content to put his plans on hold for a little longer. He would have to. As strong as the desire to run away pulled him, he knew that there was no distance far enough. A life looking behind his shoulder was no life at all. Besides, there was no escaping of Coal Damian. The men whose last sight was the twin barrels of Coal's six-shooters could attest to that. No, the chances of running into more problems would be inevitable if he didn't finish things right in Red Mesa. Charles was too far into his plans to risk any more mistakes.

A tapping at the windowpane jarred Charles rudely from his thoughts. He turned his head sharply at the noise. His body recoiled into a fetal position. Eyes wide, Charles finally saw the faint outline of a tree. It was nothing, just a tree branch.

Charles breathed out a sigh of relief. He wiped his forehead with the cuff of his sleeve. He instinctively reached down and handled the flask of whiskey like it was an old friend. He took a long pull of the strong intoxicating elixir and welcomed the fire it burned in his belly. Simply one more thing in his life that others would best not to know about. Especially Sandra and Viola.

"Hello, Charles," A voice rasped like knife thrown it darkness. It hit its mark easily as Charles violently backed his way against the bedboard.

"What? Who's there?" Charles hoped fervently his questions wouldn't be answered.

But they were.

"An old friend, old friend." A lone match hissed loudly when struck and burned quickly. The yellow-orange heat illuminated only the black and gold handkerchief. Smoke slowly wafted up to the concealed face, a soft plume curling around hard eyes. The match fell to the floor. A hard stomp making sure the heated life was truly extinct. The lured overtones it illuminated in the room struck fear in his heart. The meeting certainly not welcomed...but expected. A soft breath extinguished the candle, the only light the orange tip of the cigarette. Charles shrank into the darkness.

"Coal...." Charles whispered and pulled the blankets higher around him. As if the extra layer could protect him from the shadowy form in front of him, Charles writhed his way further away from the tall figure.

"No, Charles, but I work for Coal. Obviously, Coal has other things more pressing to handle than a scum like you," the cold disdain in his voice chilled the frightened man. "My vote was to just kill you, but apparently the job is more important."


"Shut up, pig. Listen, the mine was hit a week and a half ago. Ten bars of gold was stolen. Coal's upset. He wanted all of it. Now, did you have anything to do with that?"

"What robbery? No, no, of course not! I told Coal everything I knew in the telegrams--"

Suddenly the figure swooped down to him and punched Charles in the ribs. He gasped out in pain. The blankets did nothing to block the violent blow to his body.

"Coal just believes it was so convenient that the mine we were going to hit had already been done. Just thought that you wanted the gold for yourself? We all know how much you needed that gold to pay off Gwen, so it all fits, see?"

A hand lashed out and slapped Charles across the face. "So, make your decision, or I'll make it for you."

Charles felt his heart jump into his throat as the deafening sound of the gun cocked crashed against his ears.

"No, wait! Please, believe me. I don't know anything about the Chamberlain mine."

The shadowy figure waited a beat. The cowering figure in front of him had raised his hands to his face to ward of the evil. "You better be right, Huntington. You don't have the balls to gamble with your life. You were a lot more daring at the riverboat casino in New Orleans."

"Oh, thank you...thank you." Charles pleaded plaintively as tears streamed down his face.

"Heard you were staying in Red Mesa. That was the right choice, Charles. If you had fled, then Coal would have been sure you were behind the robbery." He moved his face closer to Charles and rasped in his face. "He would have caught you, tore you apart, and fed you to the wolves. I should know...I saw it done."

Charles whimpered softly.

"So, I have orders for you. Stay in town for a while. Do the play. Fit in. And, whatever you do, don't run. I don't care if those broads of yours hightail it out of here, but don't go anywhere, got that, Chuck? You're the only one we want."

Charles rubbed his sleeve under his nose and nodded his head.

"Oh, and if you thought you could get away with naming Coal Damian as a part of that robbery. Go right ahead. No one will believe you," The shadowy figure snorted derisively. "Especially not here. Now, Chuck, play your cards right, and I won't have to see you again, got it?"

Charles still had his eyes closed when he heard a slight scuffle and then silence. He finally gathered up some courage and looked around the room. There was nothing there. It was completely empty. It was as if he had been alone the entire time. He reached up and touched his face. He hissed in pain. The slap had been real. He replayed the one-sided conversation and a hard look settled across his face.

Charles held no doubt that it was Coal Damian who had left the room.

Continues in ACT II


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