Convert this page to Pilot DOC Format
UNDER WESTERN SKIES by Eva Allen
LEGAL DISCLAIMER: The characters Xena and Gabrielle, along with others who have appeared in the TV series XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, are the sole property of Universal/Studios USA and Renaissance Pictures. All other characters are the clever invention of the author. The use of Universal's characters in this story does not constitute the author's intent to make a profit or otherwise infringe on the existing copyright. The interpretation of the characters in this story is purely the author's own. Copyright for this fanfiction held by Eva Allen, September, 1999.
"Xena, let's go in here," Gabrielle said, stopping to peer in through the window of the General Store. "This is where Nicholas said I could get a comb."
"All right," Xena said. "I'd kind of like to see what's in there, myself."
She opened the door, then followed Gabrielle inside. The shopkeeper and two male customers turned to look curiously at the newcomers, and especially at the tall, dark woman dressed in men's clothing. Xena stiffened, waiting for the smirks and lewd comments. But the shopkeeper merely nodded to them pleasantly. "Good afternoon, Ladies," he said.
"Good afternoon," Gabrielle murmured in reply.
Xena nodded to the man and relaxed her guard a little. Apparently, the kind of clothes they wore really did make a difference. She turned to look around. The store was fully as big as any she had seen in Athens, and an amazing amount of merchandise was packed onto its shelves and tables. There were tools of all types, many of which Xena recognized -- hammers, shovels, axes, knives, pitchforks, and rakes. She stopped to finger a braided leather whip, then moved on to survey the selection of locks and keys, buckets, lamps, and candleholders.
"Look, matches!" Gabrielle said, pointing out a box of the small sticks they had so recently learned to use.
"Yes," Xena said, "and here's something interesting." She picked up an object. "It's sort of like a lamp, but it has a handle, so you can carry it."
"Or you can hang it up," Gabrielle suggested.
"Right," Xena agreed. "I wonder what it's called."
Gabrielle shrugged. "We've learned so many new words already today that I'm having trouble remembering them all," she said.
Xena set the unnamed object down and moved on to examine the ropes and chains hanging from the wall.
"Xena, come look at all this food in bottles," Gabrielle said. Tugging on the warrior's arm, she led her over to some shelves on another part of the wall. Xena stared in amazement at the large assortment of tightly corked bottles, recognizing cherries, peaches, apples, and blackberries. Other shelves nearby held dishes, iron pots, skillets, dippers, crocks, and jugs.
"There's fabric over here," Gabrielle said, pulling Xena toward another part of the store. "And just look at all the buttons! There are so many different designs!"
"I can't believe this," Xena said in a low voice. "Have you ever seen this much stuff in a shop back home?"
"No, I haven't. I wonder where it all comes from and how it gets here."
"Most of our merchandise comes by train from the eastern cities where it's manufactured," the shopkeeper said. The other two customers were gone, and he had apparently been watching the two women and listening to their conversation. Smiling, he walked over to where the two women were standing. "Was there anything in particular you were looking for?" he asked.
Xena regarded the man for a few moments, noting his portly figure, ruddy face, bushy red mustache, and the smudged white apron he wore over his shirt and pants. Then she gestured toward Gabrielle and said, "She needs a comb."
"A comb," he said. "Well, we have some very pretty combs right over here."
They followed him to a counter where he pulled out a box and set it in front of Gabrielle.
"There are so many of them," she said, sorting through the box.
"Did you want a fancy comb to wear, or just one to comb your hair with?" asked the shopkeeper.
"Oh, just one to comb my hair with," Gabrielle said. "It doesn't have to be fancy at all."
He reached into the box and pulled out a plain black comb. "Something like this?"
"Yes, that's just the thing," she said, taking it from him and examining it. "What's this made out of?" she asked.
"That's rubber," he said. "Haven't you ever seen rubber before?"
"No, we're not from around here," Gabrielle said.
He looked at her for a moment and then at Xena. "You're that Greek warrior woman or whatever it is, aren't you? I saw you out here earlier with that little leather dress on."
"Yes, that was me," Xena said guardedly.
He nodded, seemingly unalarmed by her admission, then turned back to Gabrielle. "I'll bet you've never seen a rubber ball, have you?"
"Well, wait here just a minute," he said.
Xena looked at Gabrielle. "Let me see that comb," she said, taking it out of the bard's hand. "This rubber stuff is interesting," she mused as she first squeezed and then tried to bend the comb. "It's hard, yet it's still flexible."
The shopkeeper came back. "Do you know where rubber comes from?" he asked.
The two women shook their heads.
"It's the sap of some tree that grows in the jungle in South America," he said. "Now watch this." He held up a black ball about the size of an apricot. Then, in a quick motion, he threw it down at the floor, where it struck the boards with a thud and bounced all the way up to the ceiling and then down again to the floor. Xena reached out and snatched it from the air.
"Wow!" exclaimed Gabrielle, looking at the shopkeeper. "How did you make it do that?"
"That's just what rubber does," he said. "It bounces. You try it."
Xena handed the ball to Gabrielle, who threw it down at the floor and watched with glowing eyes as it bounced toward the ceiling again.
The warrior smiled. It seemed like a long time since she had seen such a look of pure delight on her lover's face. "Why don't you buy it?" she suggested.
"Do you really think I should?" asked Gabrielle.
"It makes you happy, doesn't it?"
"Yes, but I don't know if we have enough money."
"How much is the ball?" Xena asked the merchant.
"Five cents," he said.
"And the comb?"
Gabrielle handed the ball to Xena, then pulled out her coin purse and dumped its contents onto the counter. Picking up the dinars, she put them back in the purse, then looked at the shopkeeper. "We have this much money," she said, "but we don't know how to count it."
Xena frowned at Gabrielle's honesty, then watched the man narrowly, knowing he could easily cheat them. They should have asked Nicholas or Lizzie to explain the money to them.
The shopkeeper studied the small collection of coins and bills. "Let's see," he said. "You owe me eight cents. You don't have that much in pennies, so I'll take this dime," he went on, picking up a small, silver coin. "It's worth ten cents, which means I need to give you two pennies in change." He pulled out a drawer, dropped the dime in and handed Gabrielle two copper coins.
"A penny is the same as a cent?" Xena asked.
"Yes. There are one hundred pennies in a dollar." He glanced at their money again. "It looks like you have about three dollars there, so you could actually afford to buy a lot of rubber balls," he said with a grin.
"Maybe we'll come back and get some more later," Gabrielle said as she stuffed the money back into her coin purse. "Xena , wouldn't it be fun to take these little ball things home to all our friends?"
"Sure," Xena said with a grin, "as long as they fit in our saddlebags."
"Did you want to buy anything?" Gabrielle asked, looking up at the warrior.
"No, not right now. We need to get going."
"Okay. Thanks for your help," Gabrielle said to the merchant.
"My pleasure. Come back any time."
* * *
A few minutes later, they stood at the door to the sheriff's office.
"Do we need to knock?" Gabrielle asked.
"I don't think so," Xena said, opening the door. They stepped inside and stood looking around. The dominant feature of the room was a jail cell in the back right-hand corner, outlined with floor-to-ceiling bars. It contained a cot with a thin mattress, and a battered metal chamber pot. In front of the cell stood a large wooden desk, turned sideways so that whoever sat behind it could easily keep an eye on both the cell and the front door. Near the desk was a small heating stove and a tall cabinet with drawers. Shelves nailed to the wall held several thick books.
The two women stood in silence for a couple of minutes, and then Gabrielle said, "I wonder where Herbert is."
"Maybe in the back room," said Xena. "That's where they live." She started walking towards a door in the rear wall, but before she reached it, the door opened.
"Hi! Come on in," said Herbert. "I should have told you to go around to the side door."
"That's all right," Gabrielle said. "This way we got to see the jail."
"As if we hadn't seen one before," muttered Xena as she followed the younger woman into the back room.
Herbert laughed and then, as he got a good look at them, gave a low whistle of admiration. "Wow," he said. "You two have really made a wardrobe change! Maybe now you won't have to threaten any more of our good townspeople with your sword," he added, looking meaningfully at Xena.
"Word gets around, I guess," she commented dryly.
"Oh, yes," he said. "I had people knocking on my door within minutes after it happened, demanding that I arrest you, but I told them you were basically harmless."
"Boy, you sure got that wrong," said Gabrielle with a grin.
The sheriff laughed again and pulled a couple of chairs out from the table in the middle of the room. "Have a seat," he said.
"Ellis isn't here yet?" asked Xena.
"No, but I expect Nick will bring him any time now. He said he had some calls to make this afternoon, and he's already late getting started."
Gabrielle sat down in one of the chairs, but Xena remained standing, looking around the room. There were two beds with narrow iron frames, one against the wall of the jail and the other against a side wall. The corner between the two beds was curtained off, and Xena imagined that the space was used to hang clothes in. At the far end of the room was a large fireplace with several hooks for pots. Shelves on the back wall held cooking utensils and containers of food, while another wall was pretty much taken up with bookshelves.
"Nice place," Xena said and was about to sit down when a cupboard near the door to the jail caught her attention. She walked over to it, looking at the long metal objects in it. "Are these guns?" she asked.
"Yes. They're called rifles," Herbert said, joining her at the gun case, "all of them except these two, which are shotguns." She looked at him questioningly, so he went on. "Rifles give you more range than the smaller guns, so they're often used for hunting and in warfare. Shotguns shoot little pellets called 'shot.' They work well for things like bird hunting, but if you're trying to hit something at a distance, you need a rifle." He smiled at her and then moved back toward the table. "We're just going to deal with pistols today, though," he said.
"Pistols?" said Xena, following him to the table. "Is that what those small guns are called?"
"That's one name for them," Herbert said.
"How many people do you think have been killed by guns?" Gabrielle asked.
Herbert gave a short laugh. "Hundreds of thousands," he said. "Probably millions, if you think about all the wars that have gone on since firearms were invented." He picked up a small pouch that was lying on the table and opened it. Taking out what looked like dried-up, crushed leaves, he began filling the bowl of a pipe with them.
"I don't understand it," Gabrielle said sadly. "Here we are two thousand years in the future, in a culture with all these wonderful inventions, and people are still killing each other. Why?"
Herbert shook his head. "I can't understand it either," he said. "All I can do as sheriff is try to keep the peace and maybe prevent a few people from murdering each other, but I tell you, it's not an easy job." He tamped the dried leaves down in his pipe, then put the stem in his mouth, struck a match and held the flame over the bowl of the pipe.
Xena wrinkled up her nose at the sharp smell of the smoke. "Is that tobacco?" she asked.
He nodded. "I guess that's something you don't have in Greece," he said. "It's a New World plant."
"New World?" said Gabrielle. "What's that?"
"The Americas, where we are now. This whole side of the globe. It's called the New World because that's what it seemed like to the explorers from the Old World who discovered it."
The two women were silent, watching curiously as smoke curled around Herbert's face while he puffed on the pipe.
"Why do you do that?" Xena asked finally. "What's the point in breathing smoke?"
"Well, I find it relaxing, personally," he said. "Of course, it takes some getting used to. I didn't really start smoking until I was living with the Indians. They consider tobacco to have sacred properties."
"Who are the Indians?" asked Gabrielle.
"They're the people who were already living here when the Europeans arrived. I think it's a crime what we've done to them -- pushing them off their land, forcing them to live on reservations -- not to mention the thousands of them we've killed." He paused to strike another match and relight his pipe. "Of course, you won't find many people agreeing with me on this subject," he went on. "Most folks still believe that the only good Injun is a dead Injun."
"You lived with these people?" said Xena. "These Indians?"
He nodded. "I grew up in the town of St. Louis -- that's east of here -- and I used to watch all those big boats going up the river, carrying goods to the settlements in the Indian territory."
"Is that a map on the wall?" asked Gabrielle. "Could you point out these places you're talking about?"
"Yes, of course," he said, getting out of his chair. "I forgot Ellis had nailed this map up here over his bed."
Xena and Gabrielle got up and followed Herbert over to the map.
"Okay," he said. He knelt on the bed and pointed to a spot near the middle of the map. "This is St. Louis. It's right here where two big rivers meet, so there are lots and lots of boats. Well, I saved up my pennies, doing odd jobs here and there, and when I was sixteen, I bought me a ticket and got on one of those boats and headed up the Missouri River." He ran his finger along the curvy line of the river. "I don't know where I thought I was going, exactly, but on the way, I met up with a trader who was bound for the Dakota Territory. So I helped him get his supplies up there to his trading post and then I worked for him for a couple of years. That was right about here," he said, pointing out the place on the map.
"Didn't your parents worry about you, leaving home when you were so young?" asked Gabrielle.
"Oh, I'm sure they did," Herbert said, "but they really couldn't keep me from going. I didn't feel like I belonged there anymore."
Gabrielle nodded. "That's pretty much how I felt when I left home to follow Xena," she said.
He looked at her in surprise and then smiled. "I guess we have that in common," he said.
"So how did you end up living with the Indians?" Xena asked.
"Well, I got to know some of the warriors who came to the trading post pretty often, and I learned a little of their language. So they invited me to hunt buffalo with them, and I--"
"Buffalo?" asked Gabrielle. "What's buffalo?"
"Oh, well, it's an animal sort of like a cow, except it has a big, woolly hump on its back. There used to be millions of them, roaming the plains in herds. When they stampeded, they made the ground shake like an earthquake. The Indians hunted them for food and made clothing out of their hides. But then the white men came and started killing off all the buffaloes, so now there aren't so many left, and it's a lot harder for the Indians to survive."
Xena was silent, trying to imagine a large, woolly cow with a hump on its back.
"Anyway, to make a long story short," Herbert went on, sitting back on his heels on the bed, "I fell in love with one of the Indian women and married her. We had three children -- two girls and a boy -- all with beautiful dark hair and eyes like their mother's." He stopped speaking and smiled sadly, apparently gazing at a scene somewhere in his memory.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances and then Gabrielle said softly, "Where is your family now?"
"They're dead," Herbert said, turning to look at her. "They all died of smallpox." He hesitated and then went on. "The Army gave us blankets that were infected with the disease. Over half the tribe died."
"That's horrible!" exclaimed Gabrielle. "Why would the Army do such a thing?"
"It's just another form of warfare," Xena said. "And it's easier and safer than sending men out to hunt down the enemy and shoot them."
"Yes, you're exactly right," Herbert said. He looked down at the pipe in his hands, and Xena saw that it had gone out again.
"What did you do after that," she asked, "after your family died?"
"I felt pretty lost for a while there. I just sort of wandered around out west, exploring and living off the land. Eventually I ended up in San Francisco. It's on the west coast here," he said, pointing to the map. "That's where I met Ellis. We hit it off right away and got to be good buddies. We worked in the gold mines for a while, but it was hard, dirty work and didn't pay much. We were trying to figure out something else to do, when Ellis got a letter from Lizzie saying her husband had died. So we bought a couple of horses and came back here to see her. We never intended to stay, but the town needed a sheriff and was willing to pay a small salary, so two years later here we are, still in Corinth."
He grinned at them and then climbed off the bed and walked back over to the table. Xena followed him, but Gabrielle stayed to look at the map a little longer.
"That's quite a story," Xena said to Herbert.
"Yes, well, I guess everybody has a story of some kind to tell." He started to pick up the tobacco pouch, but stopped as the sound of voices reached them from outside.
A moment later, the door opened and Ellis came in, looking a little pale, but fairly steady on his feet. Nicholas was close behind him, holding the deputy protectively by one elbow.
"Hey, look at this welcoming party!" Ellis said with a big grin.
"Don't flatter yourself," said Herbert. "Xena's just here because she wants to learn to shoot, and Gabrielle is here--"
"Because I wanted to see Ellis," Gabrielle finished for him.
"Ha! I was half right, anyway," the deputy said, laughing.
"All right," said Nicholas. "It's straight to bed with you."
"The doctor has spoken," Ellis said, and crossing over to the bed, he sat down on it and began unbuttoning his vest.
"Here, I'll take that for you," Herbert said and hung the garment on the back of a chair. "Want to take your boots off?" he asked.
Ellis nodded and stuck out one of his feet. Herbert grasped the boot and pulled it off, then did the same with the other one.
"The boots here don't lace up," Gabrielle said in surprise, looking at Xena.
"Yes, I've just been noticing that," responded the warrior.
"Well, you two look quite different from the last time I saw you," said Nicholas, eyeing the two women's outfits. "I've always liked that green calico of Lizzie's," he went on, smiling at Gabrielle. "It looks very nice on you."
"Thank you. Lizzie said she'd put my hair up for me tomorrow, if I want her to. We didn't have time to do anything with it today. But I bought a comb," Gabrielle said, holding up her new possession for him to see. "And a rubber ball, too."
"A rubber ball," he said laughing. "I guess that will be a novelty back in Greece." Then he turned to look at Xena. "And you've gone for the more masculine look, I see. Are those some of Jake's clothes?"
"Xena was afraid she'd get all tangled up in a skirt," said Gabrielle, "and besides, Lizzie didn't have one that would fit her."
Nicholas nodded. "Well, you should do fine in those clothes, if you don't get too many objections from the stick-in-the-mud conservatives."
"What's to object to?" Xena said.
"Oh, don't worry. Folks will always find something they can object to," he said with a grin. "Well, I've got to be going," he added, looking over at his patient, who was now in bed. "Are you doing all right, Ellis?"
"Just fine, Doc."
"Okay. Don't let these three wear you out. You need to get some rest."
"I will. I'll be fine. Thanks, Nick," Ellis said.
The doctor nodded again and turned toward the door, but Gabrielle stopped him.
"Nicholas, could I ask you something?" she said.
"Why do you wear that thing on your face?"
"What thing?" he asked, putting a hand up to his face. "Oh, do you mean my eyeglasses? I wear them so I can see better."
"Better than other people?" asked Xena.
"No. I have poor eyesight, so they help me see as well as other people." He unwrapped the wires from behind his ears and took the glasses off. "Here," he said, handing them to Gabrielle. "You can look through them if you like."
She took the glasses and held them in front of her eyes, then frowned. "Everything looks blurry," she said and handed the glasses to Xena.
"That's because you probably have good eyesight already," Nicholas said. "These lenses are cut to the exact thickness I need to correct my vision, so they won't work for other people."
Xena held the lenses up and looked through them, then blinked and quickly lowered them. "What about those tubes you put in your ears," she said, handing the glasses back to Nicholas. "Do those help you hear as well as other people, too?"
He laughed. "No, that tube thing is called a stethoscope," he said. "It helps me hear better than other people. I'll let you listen with it sometime, but it's out in the buggy right now and I don't really have time to--"
"That's okay," Xena said. "I just wondered what it was."
He walked to the door, opened it, and then turned to look back. "Be careful using a gun, Xena," he said. "I don't want to be digging bullets out of you."
"I'll be careful," she promised, then watched as he went out and closed the door behind him.
* * *
"All right," Herbert said, placing a small metal cylinder in Xena's open palm, "this is your ammunition."
She picked it up and turned it over in her fingers, then frowned. "It's bigger than the bullet that was in Ellis' neck," she said.
"It looks bigger because you're looking at the whole cartridge. This part at the tip is the bullet. The other part is called the casing. It holds the gunpowder that fires the bullet."
"Gunpowder," she said. "What's that?"
"It's this black, powdery stuff -- very explosive. Besides being used in guns, it's used by miners and road builders to break up rocks and move dirt. It's a heck of a lot easier than shoveling," he added, "but it's also more dangerous."
"What's it made of?" asked Xena.
"Let's see. The main ingredient is something called saltpeter, and it also has sulfur in it, and charcoal."
They were standing in a field some two hundred paces down the road from the jail. Herbert had brought along a few metal food containers that he called "tin cans" and had set them up in a line on a large tree stump.
"Here's how you load the gun," he said, holding it where she could see. "You pull this thing here back until it clicks twice. It's called the hammer. That makes it so you can turn the cylinder, see? Then you open this little door thing and you stick a cartridge in each hole, like this." He demonstrated. "It only holds six," he went on, "so after you've shot six times, you either have to reload or switch to another gun. That's why a lot of guys carry two guns."
She watched as he inserted the rest of the cartridges.
"Okay, when you get ready to shoot," he continued, "you cock the hammer all the way back to the third click. Each time you cock the gun, the cylinder revolves and a new bullet gets lined up with the barrel, ready to be fired. That's why another name for a pistol is 'revolver.'"
"Revolver," she repeated, then sighed. "I'll never remember all these new words."
"Yes, you will. You're doing fine. And the nice part about shooting a gun is that once you know how it's done, it doesn't matter if you forget the names of its parts."
"Good," she said, laughing.
"All right," he said. "The gun is cocked now, so all you have to do is pull the trigger, which is this part down here, and the hammer is released. It falls forward and hits a pin, which sets off the charge in the cartridge, and that propels the bullet out of the gun. Simple enough, right?" he said, looking at her.
"Yes, I guess so," she said a bit uncertainly.
"You aim the gun by lining up these sights here on the barrel," Herbert said, pointing them out. "So when you put it all together, it looks like this." He raised the gun, turned it in the direction of the cans, and fired.
Xena jumped a little at the sound of the report and the sharp ping as one of the cans went spinning off the stump. "Let me try it," she said, reaching out for the gun.
He handed it to her. "You always have to be careful with a loaded gun," he said. "There's been a lot of fingers and toes shot off by people who were careless."
She nodded, taking a cautious grip on the pistol's handle. Then she carefully eased the hammer back, counting the clicks. Holding the weapon up, she aligned the sights with one of the cans and pulled the trigger. The gun jumped in her hand, sending a shock all the way up her arm. The bullet missed the can, but knocked a chip out of the tree stump.
"Hey, that was pretty close," Herbert said encouragingly. "I forgot to mention the gun has a little kick to it."
"Yes, I noticed," Xena said. "It surprised me."
"Try squeezing the trigger more steadily instead of jerking it. That should give you better results."
She cocked the gun again and fired off another shot. This one hit the can.
"Good!" exclaimed Herbert. "I think maybe you're a natural!"
She fired a third time, grinning as another can flew off the stump. "This is kind of fun," she said.
Half an hour later, she was shooting cans in the air as Herbert threw them up for her. "I can't believe how quickly you caught on to this," he said, shaking his head.
"I've always been good with weapons," she said. "This one's just a little different, is all." She shot the last can as it arced upward and then glanced at the sun. "What time is it?" she asked. "We have to be back for dinner at six."
Herbert reached into an opening in his vest and pulled out a gold disk attached to a chain. Holding it in his palm, he pushed a button and a lid popped open. He glanced at it and then held it out for Xena to see.
"It's a little clock!" she said in surprise. "The one at Lizzie's house is much bigger."
He laughed. "Well, this size is a bit easier to carry around. It's called a pocket watch." He let her look at it for a few moments, then closed it and put it back in his pocket.
Xena stood looking at him expectantly. "Well?" she said.
"What time is it?"
He stared at her, puzzled, then suddenly smiled and pulled out the watch again. "Lizzie showed you the clock but didn't teach you to tell time, is that it?" he said.
"She said you could watch the time for us."
"And she's right, I can," he agreed. "But since you learned to shoot so quickly, we've got time left over for another lesson." He held out the watch again. "The short hand points to the hour," he said. "Right now, it's between the five and the six, so that means it's past five, but not yet six."
"The long hand points to the minutes. There are sixty minutes in an hour, so each time the long hand moves past a number on the dial, it means another five minutes have passed. As you can see, the long hand is now--"
"Wait a minute," Xena said. "Are you saying there are sixty minutes in every hour? That all hours are the same length?"
"Yes, of course."
"But that can't be. Everyone knows that in summer the daytime hours are longer than the nighttime hours, and in winter the opposite is true."
"Huh!" he said, looking at her with his head tilted a little to one side. "Is that how you think about time in ancient Greece?"
"Yes. There are always twelve hours of light and twelve of dark, but the length of the hours varies with the season."
"Well, we just think of there being more hours of daylight in summer than in winter -- not that the hours themselves are longer."
She considered this for a few moments, then said, "I guess that's the way you have to describe it, isn't it, since you measure time with these clock things rather than by the sun and stars. The clock can't see if it's light or dark, so it has to make all the hours the same length." She turned back to the watch in his hand. "Okay," she said, studying dial. "The hands are moving this direction, toward the twelve, right?"
"So that means there are twenty-five minutes left until six."
"Very good!" Herbert said, closing the watch. "And I think that means we had better head back."
* * *
"How did you become a warrior?" he asked as they walked toward the jail.
"Years ago, a warlord attacked my village, and my brother and I organized a defense," she said. "We were successful, and after that I led a band around the countryside, taking nearby villages and forming a perimeter to protect Amphipolis."
"You and your brother did this?"
"No. Lyceus was killed in the initial battle." She paused for a moment, then went on. "But I discovered I had a natural talent for military strategy and the ability to inspire loyalty in the men who joined my army. One thing led to another, and . . ." Her voice trailed off. She stopped walking and turned to face the sheriff, laying a hand on his arm. "Herbert, I might as well tell you that I've done some terrible things in my life -- things I will spend the rest of my days trying to atone for."
"Xena, all of us have done things that we later regretted. I have, Ellis has, I think everybody has."
She shook her head. "I'm not talking about the little, regrettable things we do every day. I'm talking about evil things, inexcusable things. I'm talking about torture and murder, and about the looting and destruction of entire villages. I'm talking about things every bit as disgusting as those diseased blankets that killed your wife and children." She paused to draw a deep breath, went resolutely on. "And I'm talking about the fact that I enjoyed doing those things. The gods forgive me, but I did." She bit her lip and looked away from him, unwilling to see the revulsion that she knew must be written on his face.
"Why are you telling me this?" he asked softly.
"I just-- I thought you ought to know what sort of person you're dealing with."
He was silent, and finally she looked up to meet his gaze. To her surprise, she saw no condemnation in his blue eyes -- only a gentle compassion.
"You said you've done all these wicked things, but now you are trying to atone," he said. "What made you change your ways?"
"Hercules," she said. "He's the one who convinced me I could change."
"Hercules!" he exclaimed. "But he's not real! He's a mythological figure."
"Oh, he's real enough, all right," she said firmly. "He's one of the most wonderful, caring people I've ever met. He changed my life and he's done the same for a lot of people." She smiled at Herbert. "In fact, you sort of remind me of him," she said.
"I do?" he said, looking confused. "Well, uh, thanks. I always loved to read all those stories about Hercules. I never imagined he was real, though."
"He is. He's as real as you or I," Xena said, then turned and started walking again.
Herbert fell into step beside her. "You know," he said after a minute, "you have kind of a unique opportunity here. No one around these parts knows anything about your past. All we know is that you helped prevent a robbery and then you saved a life. What you did before doesn't really matter. What matters is what you do from now on."
She shook her head, unable to speak for a moment. Then she said, "The burden of my past is something I will always carry. But thanks," she added, smiling at him. "You really are a lot like Hercules."
They soon reached the jail and went in the side door to the living quarters. Ellis was asleep, and Gabrielle sat at the table with her head bent over a large book. She looked up as they came in, and Xena saw that her face was streaked with tears.
"Gabrielle," she said, hurrying to her friend's side and putting an arm around her. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"I just read the most beautiful story," the bard said, using the palms of both hands to wipe the tears off her cheeks.
"You're crying over a story?" Xena asked in amazement.
"Yes. I know it's silly, but it was so sad. It was written by a man named -- let me make sure I get it right," she said, flipping back to the front of the book. "William Shakespeare."
"Shake spear?" repeated Xena. "What an odd name. Is he a warrior?"
"I don't think so," Gabrielle said uncertainly, "but he does write about sword fights and wars and things like that." She looked at Herbert. "Do you know if Shakespeare is a warrior?" she asked.
He grinned. "No, he wasn't a warrior -- just an actor and a writer. Let me guess. Were you reading 'Romeo and Juliet'?"
"Yes. Have you read it? Don't you think it's terribly sad?"
"Yes, indeed. A delightfully tragic tale. It sounds like just the kind of thing Ellis would recommend to you."
"What's it about?" asked Xena.
"It's about these two young lovers," Gabrielle said eagerly, "and their families hate each other, so they have to get married in secret. And then, well, I can't tell you the whole story right now because it's too long, but Juliet drinks this potion so she won't have to marry the man her family wants her to marry. Then Romeo thinks she's dead -- except she's not -- and so he kills himself. And when Juliet finds out that Romeo is dead, she kills herself, too."
Xena smiled. "Sounds like enough to make a person cry, all right," she said. Then, glancing over at the bed, she saw that Ellis was awake.
"How did the shooting lesson go?" he asked.
"Very well," said Herbert. "I've never seen anyone learn so quickly -- you'd be amazed, Ellis. And I also taught her to tell time," he added, then pointed toward the fireplace. "We have a clock there on the mantel, Xena. Why don't you tell us what time it is."
The warrior grinned and studied the clock for a moment. "It's fifteen minutes until six," she announced.
"Wow, can you teach me to tell time, too?" asked Gabrielle.
"Sure. Come on over here," said Herbert and led her over to the fireplace.
Xena sat down in the chair Gabrielle had just vacated. Glancing at the book in front of her, she began to flip idly through the pages, stopping abruptly when her eyes fell upon the name Julius Caesar. She leaned forward, running her eyes rapidly down the page as she tried to make sense of the strangely stilted language printed there. At last, she looked up and saw Ellis watching her. "Are these stories true?" she asked.
"No, they're mostly just stories," he said. "Well, except for the histories. They're based on real events, I guess. Which one are you looking at?"
"The one about Julius Caesar," she said. "Did he really die this way? Was he stabbed by Brutus and the others in the senate?"
"Yes, that part's true."
She leaned back in her chair, staring at the deputy. "I just wish I'd been the one to do it," she said finally.
"To do what? Kill Caesar?" Ellis asked in surprise. He sat up in the bed.
"But why? I mean, I know some people thought he was a tyrant, but he was also considered to be a great thinker and military strategist."
"Divide and conquer. Yes, I'm well acquainted with his strategy."
"You almost sound as if you knew him personally."
"Oh, I knew him all right," Xena said, making no effort to disguise the bitterness in her voice. "Quite personally. I'm just glad he finally got what he deserved. But who would have thought Brutus would be the one to do it?" She looked up as Gabrielle and Herbert came back over to the table.
"What are you talking about?" asked Gabrielle.
"Julius Caesar," said Xena. "He was stabbed to death by a bunch of Roman senators. Your friend Shakespeare wrote a story about it."
"Xena knew Caesar personally," Ellis said to Herbert.
"You did? Was he as brilliant as they say he was?" asked the sheriff.
"Brilliant? Yes, I suppose you could say he was brilliant," Xena said, "in his own arrogant way." She glanced over at the clock. "We'll be late for dinner if we don't get going," she said, rising from her chair and closing the Shakespeare book.
"You can take that with you, if you want to, Gabrielle," Ellis said, gesturing toward the book.
"No, I'll just come back and read it here," she said. "I don't want anything to happen to it."
"Well, all right," he said, getting up and crossing to the bookshelves. "But why don't you take another book with you? Maybe something smaller. Do you like poetry?"
"Then here, take this little book of love poems. I think you'll enjoy them." He handed her a slender, leather-bound volume. She took it and glanced through the pages, then looked at him with glowing eyes. "Thanks, Ellis. I'll be very careful with it."
Xena went to the door and opened it. "What time do you want to leave in the morning?" she asked Herbert.
"Why don't you just come over after breakfast?" he said.
"Okay. I'll see you then. Thanks for all the lessons."
"Come on, Gabrielle," Xena said, reaching out and pulling the bard by the sleeve. "You can read the poems later."
Xena sat in the parlor after dinner, in a soft chair near the door, and watched the smoke from Rev. Miller's pipe drift through the room. Two windows stood open to the early evening air, but that did little to alleviate the general warmth and stuffiness of the room. Leaning her head back, Xena closed her eyes. Her body felt weary, her head ached dully, and she was beginning to have trouble staying awake. It was hard to believe that this time yesterday they had still been in Greece, camped beside the lake. What a long day it had been -- maybe one of the longest of her life.
Rousing herself, Xena opened her eyes, then picked up a small white cup and took a cautious sip of the hot beverage within. It was a strange, bitter-tasting drink, dark in color -- something called "coffee." Lizzie had brought a big pot of it into the parlor before retreating again to the kitchen. Mrs. Miller had ceremoniously poured a cup for each guest, meanwhile explaining that the beverage was made from some kind of bean. Xena had not found the taste much to her liking, and although the addition of cream and sugar helped, she still found herself wishing she had a mug of mead instead.
She took another sip, wrinkling up her nose a little, then set the cup back in its saucer. At the other end of the room, Mr. Shipley, the banker, stood beside the piano, singing a seemingly endless ballad. Mrs. Miller accompanied him, her head bobbing energetically up and down just as it had during the two previous pieces she had played. At one side of the room, Gabrielle sat on a sofa with Rev. Miller, a polite distance between them. The bard smiled and tapped her foot in time to the music, and watching her, Xena suddenly wanted nothing more than to spirit her lover away to the privacy of their room upstairs. There she would undress her in the soft lamplight, and then lie with the golden head cradled against her breast. She smiled at the thought, then started when someone touched her arm.
"Are you awake?" whispered Nicholas from the chair next to hers.
"I thought I was, but maybe not," she whispered back. "Sorry."
"If I'd done everything you have today, I'd be sleepy, too," he said with a grin. "Drink your coffee. That will wake you up."
He nodded. "It's a stimulant."
She picked up the white cup again, looking at its contents with renewed interest. Lifting the cup to her lips, she found the coffee cooler now and she took a couple of big swallows. Maybe the stuff wasn't so bad after all, she decided. Still, it would definitely take some getting used to.
The song came to an end and the listeners applauded. "That was wonderful, Mr. Shipley!" exclaimed Gabrielle. "You have such a fine, clear voice. It's just right for that type of song."
"Thank you, Miss Gabrielle," the banker replied, coloring slightly. "You're very kind with your comments."
"Good job, Shipley," Nicholas said, "but I'm just wondering when we're going to get to hear some stories." He looked at Gabrielle.
"Whenever you're ready," she replied.
"Well, don't let me stand in your way," Mr. Shipley said, quickly resuming his seat in a chair opposite the sofa. Then, fishing into his breast pocket, he pulled out a cylindrical brown object, stuck one end in his mouth and lit the other end.
Xena watched with interest. Perhaps this was the thing called a cigar, she mused.
"Before I begin," said Gabrielle, "I just want to say that I have really enjoyed hearing the music, and I'm sure Xena has, too." She looked pointedly at the warrior.
"What?" Xena said, dragging her attention back to the conversation. "Oh, the music. Yes, it's very nice -- quite different from ours. The piano has a very interesting sound."
"Why, thank you," Mrs. Miller said, apparently feeling she had been complimented. Rising from the piano stool, she crossed to the sofa and sat down between Gabrielle and her husband. "I guess we're ready for stories then," she said, "but I hate to begin without Mrs. MacDonald here."
"I'm sure she'll be in soon," said Nicholas. "I don't think she'd mind if Gabrielle went ahead and started."
"All right," said the bard. She got up and moved to the front of the room, setting her cup and saucer carefully on top of the piano. "I thought I'd begin with a story about Prometheus. Do you all know who he is?"
"He's the titan who is said to have given mankind the gift of fire," said Nicholas.
"Exactly," said Gabrielle. "And he also gave us the gift to heal ourselves. That's why when Hera bound him, all of us mortals suddenly found ourselves in a lot of trouble."
She launched into the story with enthusiasm, describing the early-morning attack on their camp that had left one of the attackers wounded and unable to breathe. "But Xena saved the man's life by cutting a hole in his windpipe" she went on, "just like she did with Ellis this morning." She paused for a moment to let her audience take this in, then continued. "Xena saved this man's life even though a few minutes earlier he had been trying to kill her."
"That was a very Christian thing to do," said Rev. Miller.
"Christian?" said Gabrielle. "What does that mean?"
"It's what we call ourselves -- those of us who believe in Jesus Christ. We are Christians, and Jesus said we must love our enemies and do good to those who hate us."
"Well," Gabrielle said thoughtfully, "I believe that if you have a good heart, you will do good deeds, whether you worship the gods or not."
"Yes, but it's not enough just to have a good heart," said the pastor. "You must also--"
"Jeremiah Miller," Nicholas broke in, "this is not the proper time nor place for one of your sermons. Let the poor girl tell her story."
The reverend sat with his mouth hanging open in surprise for a moment, then he smiled stiffly and nodded. "Yes, you're right, of course. Please forgive me, Miss Gabrielle."
"No harm done," Gabrielle said. "It's just that I'm used to telling these stories to people who believe in the same gods we do. This is a little different experience for me." She picked up her coffee cup and took a quick sip, then turned back to the listeners. "Okay, where was I? Oh yes. Xena saved the man and we took him to an inn so that the innkeeper could care for him. But that night there was a terrible storm. . ."
The story went on, but Xena knew she could not stay and listen any longer. "Good night," she whispered, touching Nicholas lightly on the sleeve. Then, with an apologetic smile for Gabrielle, she got up and slipped out into the hall.
* * *
Her intention had been to go directly upstairs to the room, but hearing the sound of dishes rattling in the kitchen, she paused, then turned her steps in that direction instead. Passing quickly along the hallway and through the dining room, Xena stopped when she came to the kitchen door. Lizzie stood alone at a table in the center of the room, washing dishes in a big pan of soapy water. She hummed as she worked, studying each newly-scrubbed dish for a moment before dropping it into a pan of rinse water.
"Could you use some help?" asked Xena.
The older woman looked up, smiling as she shook her head. "No, I wouldn't ask you to wash dishes -- you're my guest here. But I'd be glad to have you stay and talk to me while I work."
"Now listen here, Lizzie," Xena said as she strode over to the table and began rolling up her sleeves. "My mother runs a tavern and I spent most of my childhood washing dishes. I can assure you that I'm quite good at it, and I insist on demonstrating my ability."
Lizzie laughed. "All right, then," she said. "There's a dish towel on the table there beside the pan. Mary usually does most of the evening clean-up, but she was feeling kind of poorly, so I sent her home." She looked at Xena and then added in a confidential tone, "She's in a family way, you know."
"A family way? What does that mean?"
"That's what we say when a woman's expecting a baby."
"Why don't you just say she's pregnant?"
"Well, because there are certain words we don't use in polite conversation, and 'pregnant' is one of them."
"I see," Xena said, although she didn't really.
"Anyway," Lizzie continued, "this is Mary's first, and she hasn't had an easy time of it, poor thing. She and her husband, Enoch, just moved to Corinth last year. He's a cooper -- does nice work, but there's some folks in this town that won't do business with a colored man."
"They won't? Why not?" asked Xena in surprise.
"Oh, I suppose it's because they still see the negroes as slaves, even though slavery was abolished after the War."
"Mary and her husband were slaves?" Xena asked. "Is that what the War was about? Slavery?"
"Well, it was about a lot of different things. Most wars are. But yes, slavery was one of the issues." Lizzie paused and used her apron to wipe the perspiration off her forehead. "Someday when we have more time, I'll tell you about the War, but right now there's something else I want to talk about."
Xena looked up from the plate she was drying. "All right," she said. "What is it?"
But Lizzie didn't answer immediately. Instead, she focused her attention on a serving bowl, scrubbing vigorously at the dried gravy along its rim.
The warrior watched for a moment, then lifted another dripping plate from the rinse water, dried it, and added it to the growing stack of clean dishes. The room was quiet except for the soft crackle of the fire in the cookstove, and from down the hall came the sound of voices and laughter.
"When we first met today," Lizzie said finally, looking at Xena, "what name did you call me? Was it 'Lydia'?"
"Yes. I'm sorry about that. It's just that you reminded me of a friend of mine."
The older woman nodded and then turned her attention back to the dish she was washing. "Is this your friend who can see the future?" she asked.
"I thought maybe it was," Lizzie said, glancing up at the warrior again. "Well, I believe I know something about this Lydia."
"About Lydia? How could you?"
"Just tell me if I'm right," Lizzie said with an enigmatic smile. Then a faraway look came into her dark green eyes as she appeared to gaze at some picture inside her mind. "I think that Lydia ran a tavern long ago, in ancient Greece," she said slowly, "and this tavern had a few rooms upstairs, which she rented out to travelers. Her husband was killed by a man named Paulos who came around every so often to collect protection money. He was the same man who . . . violated . . . her daughter."
"Gabrielle told you this story, didn't she?" said Xena.
"She didn't? Then how--"
"Just let me finish and then I'll explain."
"Okay," said Xena with a puzzled frown.
"One day," Lizzie went on, "two women came to Lydia's tavern. One was small and blond. She'd been injured -- there were bruises all over her face and arms. The other woman was tall and dark-haired. She was known as the Warrior Princess."
Xena stopped making any effort to dry dishes and simply stared at the other woman.
"After a few days," Lizzie said, "the younger woman -- the one who'd been injured -- left her friend and set out for her hometown. The warrior was sad, and Lydia tried to comfort her, but she couldn't really, because the pain was too deep. Then Paulos showed up again, and the whole town turned out to see the warrior fight him. She defeated him, but she got wounded -- hit with a mace in the side of the head, and Lydia took care of her until the friend returned."
Lizzie stopped speaking and turned to Xena. "Did I get it right?" she asked.
"Exactly right," the warrior said with quiet wonder. "But if Gabrielle didn't tell you about Lydia, then I don't understand how you . . ." her voice trailed off.
Lizzie smiled. "No one told me about Lydia," she said. "I remembered."
"Yes. You see, I believe that I was Lydia -- that I am Lydia. I'm the same person -- only now I'm living a different life."
Xena looked at her without answering.
"Have you ever heard of the theory of reincarnation?" Lizzie asked.
"I'm not sure. Is it--"
"It's the idea that each soul lives many lives -- that we are born again and again until we have learned all the lessons we need to learn."
"I have heard of that belief in the Eastern lands," Xena said. "Do people in this country believe that way, too?"
"No, most people here believe that we only live once, and then after death we either go to heaven or to hell. That's what Christianity teaches. But some of us believe a little differently." She fished a handful of forks out of the dishpan, scrubbed each one briefly, and put them in Xena's pan. "Ever since I was a child," she went on, "I've known that I lived other lives before. I could remember some of those lives quite clearly. But my family thought I was silly for talking about such things, so I soon learned to keep quiet. My husband and sons, well, they tolerated all my 'lovable quirks,' as they used to call them, but they never really took my ideas seriously."
"So you never had anyone to share your thoughts with?" said Xena.
"Not really. Not until I got to know Nicholas." She smiled.
"And he believes like you do?"
"Yes, to a great extent," she said. "Nicholas is a person who does a lot of reading and thinking. He likes to figure things out for himself -- likes to question the traditional beliefs. He hardly ever goes to church, and that annoys Rev. Miller something terrible." She laughed, then added, "But I surely do enjoy talking to him. The way his mind works -- it's amazing to me. I wish I could be half that smart." She grinned at Xena and then looked down at the dishpan. "I think we need to get some fresh water here," she said. Then she picked up the pan and carried it out the back door.
Xena heard the sound of water splashing onto the ground outside. She swished her hand around in the rinse water, pulled out two forks and dried them slowly as she thought about what Lizzie had said. Then she took her pan out into the yard and emptied it.
Going back inside, the two women refilled the dishpans with hot water from metal buckets that had been sitting on the cookstove. Lizzie added soap to her water, then picked up a stack of bowls and set them in the pan. Glancing at Xena, she said, "Why don't you hang up that towel and get a dry one? There are some on the line there at the far end of the room."
"If you really used to be Lydia," Xena called back over her shoulder as she went to get a new towel, "it would explain why I felt like I recognized you when we first met today. You don't look like Lydia, but there was just something about you that made me think of her." She returned to the dishpan and began drying the bowls.
"Have you ever had that feeling before? Like you know someone you've never met?"
"Actually, I guess I had that feeling the first time I met Lydia. At least I felt immediately that she was someone I could trust."
Lizzie nodded. "That's because we've known each other in several lifetimes -- including at least one before the one in Greece."
"Can you remember all your other lifetimes?"
"Oh, heavens no! There are too many of them. But I've been able to recall quite a bit about a few of them, at least."
"Did you remember being Lydia even when you were a child?"
"No, I didn't actually start to see scenes from that life until about a year ago. I began by dreaming about Lydia one night, and then I remembered more things after I woke up. And one of the most vivid images was the one of you getting wounded in that fight."
"You remembered that a year ago?"
"But how could you? It's only been about a month since that fight took place."
Lizzie smiled. "Well, yes, but you have to understand that even though it's only been a month for you, it's been almost two thousand years for me."
Xena shook her head. "This whole time thing is so strange," she said. "I'm having trouble getting my mind wrapped around it."
"So am I, believe me," Lizzie said with a grin. "The fact is that ever since I started remembering my life as Lydia, I've had the feeling that I would meet you and Gabrielle again in this lifetime. But I never dreamed you would come here straight from the past, still wearing the same clothes and everything!" She chuckled. "That's why it took a minute for me to recognize you today."
"Well, you were also pretty worried about Ellis at the time," Xena said.
"Yes, and thanks to you, he's still alive and well," she said softly. "I'm in your debt again -- just like Lydia was when you killed Paulos."
Xena was silent for a moment, then said, "Actually, if this reincarnation stuff is true, and Ellis is who I think he is, I owed him a good deed."
Lizzie looked at her in surprise. "Do you think you've known Ellis before?" she asked.
"Well, Gabrielle and I were commenting earlier that he reminded us of Hercules' friend, Iolaus. And Herbert--"
"But I didn't think Hercules was a real person," Lizzie said. "I thought the stories about him were myths."
"He's real," Xena said. "Gabrielle is in there telling a story about him right now."
"Amazing," Lizzie murmured.
For a time, neither woman spoke. The clock began to chime in the parlor, and Xena counted nine before it stopped. She glanced out the window and saw that the deep blue of the evening sky had faded to black. "Lizzie," she said, "could I ask you something?"
"Of course. What is it, Dear?"
"Well, I was just wondering . . . why are we here? I mean Gabrielle and I. Why did we end up coming to this time and place? Is there any reason for it, or is it just some bizarre trick the gods have played on us?"
"Hmm. Let me think about that for a minute," Lizzie said. Her hands stopped moving in the dishwater, and the faraway look came into her eyes again.
Xena lifted a platter out of the rinse water, trying not to make any noise, and began to dry it. When she was finished, she set it down and leaned against the sturdy table, keeping her eyes on the older woman's face.
"I think there's some healing that needs to take place," said Lizzie finally.
"For both of you. But I think that when it happens, it may not feel like healing to you."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm not sure how to explain it. I don't really have an image of what will happen. I just get a sad, heavy feeling when I think about it."
Xena frowned. The woman was speaking in riddles. How could anyone understand such a strange prediction?
As if reading her mind, Lizzie said, "I wish I could give you a clearer answer to your question, but I'm afraid I can't. I do have the feeling that everything will come out well in the end, though. It's just that first there is some sadness and pain to get through."
"Pain? Do you mean physical pain?"
"Possibly, but there will definitely be pain of the spirit." She looked at Xena. "You've been wounded many times, I'm sure, so you know that there is often pain in healing."
"This time is no different."
"But we've already suffered so much -- especially Gabrielle," Xena said, reaching out to grasp Lizzie's arm. "When will it end?"
"Soon," the older woman said gently, as she patted the warrior's hand. "At least I hope it will be soon. You must be brave a little while longer."
Xena bit her lip and turned away. She herself could be brave as long as it was necessary -- she knew that. But Gabrielle had been to Tartarus and back already. How much more pain could she bear before the weight of it broke her?
"I'm just going to let these pots soak overnight," Lizzie said. "I want to get to the parlor before the storytelling is over."
With an effort, Xena brought her attention back to the task at hand. "Go on in there," she said. "I'll finish up here."
"No, no, it will just take a minute," Lizzie said quickly. "Why don't you put the plates and bowls away in the dining room, and I'll empty these pans."
The work was quickly done, and a few minutes later, Lizzie hung up her apron and smoothed the wrinkles out of her dress. "Thank you, Xena," she said, "not just for helping with the dishes, but for listening to all my crazy ideas, too."
"Your ideas aren't crazy," Xena said. "The reincarnation thing makes a lot of sense, in some ways. It's just a concept that takes some getting used to."
"I know," she said with a smile. "Are you coming back to the parlor with me?"
"No, I think I'll go on upstairs to bed."
"All right," Lizzie said, then suddenly exclaimed, "Oh, drat!"
"I forgot to light the lamps in the hall upstairs."
"I'll do it," Xena said quickly. "I'm going up there anyway. Just tell me what to do."
"Oh, thank you. It would be a big help if you could do that for me. It won't take you very long." She went to a shelf, took down a candle in its holder, and lit it from one of the lamps on the table. "All you have to do," she said, "is lift up the glass chimney on each lamp and use the candle to light the wick. I trimmed all the wicks and filled the lamps this morning. I really appreciate this, Xena."
"It's my pleasure," the warrior said with a smile. "There must be a lot of work involved in keeping this place up."
"Yes, there is, and it's been harder for me since Jake died, of course. But Mary's a big help, and Enoch does most of the repair work. And I've got a boy who comes and chops wood for me every day, so I manage."
"Have you ever thought about marrying again?" Xena asked. "It seems like there are a lot of men in this town. Surely there's one among them who would make a good husband."
"Yes, there are some good men around," she admitted, "although most of them are young enough to be my sons." She smiled, then hesitated for a moment before going on. "But to be honest, there is one man here I'd marry in a minute, if he asked me -- which I don't expect him to do."
Xena thought for a moment. "Nicholas?" she said.
"But why wouldn't he ask you?"
"Well, because Nicholas has known so much sorrow. He's buried two wives, over the years, and then last summer his son drowned -- a lovely, bright boy, only fourteen years old." She sighed and smiled sadly. "It really tore Nicholas up to lose that boy. I don't know if he'll ever let himself care that deeply again."
"I'm sorry," Xena said softly. "It just seems like the two of you--"
"I know, but don't you go worrying about me," Lizzie said, putting a hand on Xena's shoulder. "I have a good life here and some very dear friends, and Nicholas is one of the dearest. Besides which, I now have my favorite baby brother living right here in town. What else could I ask for?"
"Maybe to hear a few good stories," Xena said with grin. "You'd better get on in there."
"You're right, I'd better. Are you coming this way?"
"No. I'll go the back way."
"Okay. Good night, Xena. You sleep well," Lizzie said, giving the warrior a hug.
Surprised, Xena stood stiffly for a moment and then returned the embrace. "Good night, Lizzie," she said. "And thanks for everything."
"You're entirely welcome. Now get to bed and get some rest. You've had a big day and you look tired."
"You know, you're really starting to sound a lot like Lydia," Xena said with a grin. Then she picked up the candle and headed out the back door.
* * *
She made a quick visit to the outhouse, then started up the back stairs to the second floor. The cool night air felt refreshing after the heat of the kitchen, and halfway to the top she stopped to take a deep breath and look up at the stars. There they were, shining brightly above her in the same familiar patterns she had observed the previous night back in Greece. It was so hard to believe that she was now seeing them in a whole new land, two thousand years later.
Sighing a little, she climbed the rest of the steps and entered the dark hallway. Moving from lamp to lamp, she lit each one, then went into the room and lit the lamp there, too. It was a little disappointing not to get to use a match, but as long as she had the candle, it seemed like a waste to use one of the magical little sticks.
Blowing out the candle, she set it on the table near the door. She took off her vest and shirt, hung them on hooks on the wall, and then went to the washstand. The water was cold, but it felt good on her face and arms. She dried off quickly with the soft cotton towel, and hung it up. Then, becoming aware of a dull throbbing in her left arm, she moved closer to the lamp and carefully unwrapped the bandage. The wound showed a little bit of swelling and redness, but it was not enough to alarm her. Taking off her boots and pants, she donned her linen nightshift, then pulled the other nightshift out of the saddlebag and tossed it over the back of a chair. She would leave the lamp burning so that Gabrielle could see to undress when she came upstairs later.
Xena moved to the bed and pulled back the top cover, surprised to see that the one underneath it appeared to be made of small pieces of fabric sewn together to form a pattern. Curious, she studied it for a few moments, running her fingers lightly over the stitching and along the seams. Then she folded this cover back, too, along with the thin cotton one beneath it, and climbed into bed. She felt chilly at first and wished Gabrielle were there to snuggle up against, but soon her body heat began to warm the bed, and closing her eyes, she quickly fell asleep.
She woke to the soft sounds of someone moving about in the room. Rolling over onto her side, she propped her head up on one hand. Gabrielle stood at the washstand, the skin of her back reflecting the golden glow of the lamplight. After a few moments, she turned, lowering the towel that was pressed to her face, and looked at Xena.
"I waited up for you," the warrior said in Greek.
Gabrielle laughed. "Yes, I noticed that right away," she said, in the same language. Then she draped the towel over the bar of the washstand, picked up her nightshift, and pulled it on over her head.
"How did the storytelling go?"
"Well, it was kind of a tough crowd," Gabrielle said with a smile "They don't believe any of our gods exist, or the titans, or even Hercules."
"I know. Both Herbert and Lizzie have told me today that Hercules is a myth."
Gabrielle nodded. "So you know the problem," she said. "Shall I turn out the lamp?"
"Sure, unless you're afraid to sleep in the dark."
"Not with the Warrior Princess beside me," the bard said, grinning. Then she turned down the wick and slipped into bed.
"Ouch! That's my sore arm," Xena said. "Maybe you'd better sleep on the other side of me."
"Okay. Sorry about that," Gabrielle said, climbing over the warrior and snuggling down.
"Your feet are cold," the warrior observed as she pulled the younger woman close.
"Yes, but I know a good place to warm them."
"I'm sure you do," Xena said dryly. Then her lips found Gabrielle's in the darkness. A few moments passed in intimate silence before she asked, "What stories did you tell besides the Prometheus one?"
"Oh. Well, I made a big mistake with my second choice," said the bard. She sat up for a moment, fluffed her pillow, and then settled down again in crook of Xena's uninjured arm.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I thought since these people believe in the one god of the Israelites, they would like the story about how you and Autolycus rescued that chest from Malthus and gave it back to the Israelites."
"Seems like a good choice," said Xena. "But they didn't like it?"
"Not exactly. It turns out that their holy writings actually mention that chest. It's called -- let me see if I remember -- the Ark of the Covenant."
"Huh. Seems like a strange name for a weapon."
"Yeah, well, Mrs. Miller objected loudly to my calling it a weapon. But then Rev. Miller said that in their story, any nonbeliever who touched the chest was killed instantly, which makes it sound like a weapon to me. And according to him, the chest would have zapped you and Autolycus because you don't believe in the one god."
"Did you tell him about the inscription? It was only people who turned away from the truth who got zapped."
"Yes, I told him, but he said there was no record of that inscription in their writings. So he didn't believe it was the real Ark of the Covenant -- at least until I mentioned the tablets inside, and then he seemed kind of confused."
"It sounds like you had a hard time," said Xena, stifling a yawn.
"Yes, but Nicholas and Lizzie were both really good about making the Millers shut up so I could go on with the story."
"Mmm-hmm. They're nice people," Xena murmured, feeling suddenly very sleepy again.
"Yes, they are," Gabrielle agreed. "And after I finished telling the story, they wanted to hear another one. In fact, everybody did, which surprised me. I thought I'd better play it safe, though, and tell a story that didn't have any gods or religious objects in it, so I told the one about the Black Wolf."
"Did they like it?"
"Yeah, but they were all pretty sleepy by the time I finished, so we decided to go to bed. But they want me to tell stories again tomorrow night, and they're going to invite some more people to come."
"Mmm. That'll be nice," Xena mumbled. She had given up all efforts to stay awake and now felt herself sliding over the edge into the soft darkness of slumber. Then Gabrielle's voice pulled her back.
"Lizzie said you helped her wash dishes. What did you two talk about?"
"Talk about?" Xena said, trying to reclaim the power of thought. "Oh, uh, Lizzie thinks she was Lydia."
"Lizzie was Lydia? What do you mean?"
"It's called . . . reincarnation. I'll tell you . . . in the morning." After which, she really was asleep.
The room was gray with early-morning light when Xena woke. She was lying on her right side, with Gabrielle's backside nestled warmly against her stomach. She liked the feel of it, but now began to think how much nicer it would have been if they had gone to bed without their nightshifts. Feeling peaceful, she lay without moving, not wanting to wake her lover, and listened to the birds singing outside. But after a few minutes, Gabrielle sighed and then shifted her position, as if trying to get comfortable. "Are you awake?" Xena whispered.
"Yeah, I'm sorry. Did I wake you?" Gabrielle said as she turned over to face the warrior.
"No, I think I woke up all by myself. Have you been awake long?"
They were speaking Greek, just as they had been the night before. Xena liked the familiar sound of the words -- they seemed comforting and more intimate somehow than the newly-acquired English ones.
"I guess I slept for an hour or two," said Gabrielle, "but then I woke up and couldn't go back to sleep. I know I heard the clock strike two, and then three and four."
"What's keeping you awake, do you think?" Xena asked, reaching out to brush the hair back from Gabrielle's eyes. "It's not like you not to be able to sleep."
"I know. I'm not sure what it is, but I just feel really tense, and I can't seem to get warm. I think I'm scared about something, but I don't know what."
"Come here," Xena said, rolling over onto her back and pulling the other woman into her arms. "Let's try to get you warm, at least." She felt Gabrielle's body shiver against her own and tightened her embrace. "Just try to relax," she murmured as she gently kissed the top of the blonde head. "Everything's going to be all right."
Neither of them spoke for a few minutes. Gabrielle's trembling gradually stopped, but Xena could still feel the tension in her lover's body.
"Xena," Gabrielle said, raising her head and looking at the warrior. "When are we going to get the Cronus Stone back?"
"Herbert and I are going to look for those three men first thing this morning. Do you want to come with us?"
Gabrielle was silent for a moment, then said, "Would you mind terribly if I didn't? Lizzie said she would take me to see the printing press, and I'd also like to find out how she cooks some of the food here. But if you really need me--"
"No, no. You go on and do those things with Lizzie. I just didn't want you to feel left out."
"I know. Thanks." She buried her face again on Xena's breast.
"Gabrielle," Xena said, stroking her lover's hair, "what if something happens and we can't get the stone back? Do you think it would be so terrible to live here?"
"Well, yes," the bard said slowly. "It would mean we'd never see our families again, or our friends. And no one would even know what happened to us. It would be just as if we vanished into thin air or something."
"Salmoneus would probably figure it out. He knows we had the Cronus Stone."
"Yes, but we'd never see him again, or Hercules, or Iolaus, or Ephiny, or Joxer, or Lydia. It would be as if they had all suddenly died." She propped herself up and looked at Xena. "You'd never see your mother again. How would you feel about that? And I'd never see Lila or Mother or Father." Her lip began to tremble and a tear trickled down her cheek.
Moved, Xena gently brushed the back of her fingers across Gabrielle's face and wiped the tear away. "You're right," she said. "We need to get back home, and I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure we do." She hesitated for a moment and then went on. "I'm just saying that if it didn't work out for some reason-- Well, staying here wouldn't be the worst thing that could ever happen to us."
"You actually like this place, don't you?"
"Yeah, I guess I do. It has a sense of wildness and adventure that appeals to me. And I really liked learning to shoot a gun."
"And now I suppose you're going to 'really like' killing people with that gun," Gabrielle said. "Xena, is your dark side coming out again?"
The warrior frowned. "No, I don't think so," she said uncertainly. "Does it seem to you like my dark side is coming out?"
Gabrielle looked at her for a long moment, then sighed and laid her head back down. "No, it's not. I don't know why I said that. I don't know what's wrong with me."
"Nothing's wrong with you, Gabrielle," Xena said softly. "You've just been through one terrible experience and now you've suddenly been plunked down in the middle of a strange place in a totally different millennium. Who wouldn't be frightened?"
"You. You're not frightened."
Xena sighed and ran her fingers slowly through the golden hair. "You know," she said finally, "we haven't really left all our friends behind. Some of them are right here with us. It's just that they're in different bodies."
Gabrielle looked at her. "Is that what you were talking about last night? You said 'Lizzie is Lydia' or something like that."
Xena nodded. "That's what Lizzie and I were talking about while we washed dishes," she said. "Lizzie 'remembers' being Lydia in a former lifetime. She started telling me all this stuff about Lydia and how Lydia has a daughter and runs a tavern and everything. She even knew about my fight with Paulos and how I got hit with the mace."
"She just knew all that? You didn't tell her?"
"No. That's what was so amazing. She said she believes that each soul lives many times -- that we keep coming back until we've learned what we're supposed to learn. Most people don't remember their other lives, but Lizzie remembers hers. She even thought she would meet up with us in this lifetime. But she wasn't expecting us to arrive directly from the past like we did."
Gabrielle smiled. "I guess that explains why she was so quick to believe our story about the Cronus Stone, doesn't it?"
"Yes, I guess it does."
"Oh, and do you know what else it explains? Lydia's dream!"
"You know, the one she told us about the night before we left. She said she dreamed we came and visited her, and she was all different, but we were the same. Don't you remember?"
"Yeah, I do, now that you mention it. So you think Lydia was dreaming about being Lizzie, just like Lizzie dreamed about being Lydia?"
"Well, it makes sense, doesn't it, in a way? I mean, if they're the same person and everything . . ." She stopped speaking and seemed to be thinking deeply about something. Then, suddenly, she sat up. "Xena," she said in an urgent voice, "don't you see what this means?"
"Mostly I just see that you took away all the bedcovers when you sat up." She grinned, but Gabrielle did not seem to be in the mood for humor.
"What it means," the bard said, laying a hand on Xena's arm, "is that Lydia saw that we were going to come here. It's not just some horrible twist of fate -- there's a reason for it. We're meant to be here."
"Yes, well, that idea occurred to me, too, so I asked Lizzie why she thought we were here."
"And what did she say?" Gabrielle asked eagerly.
"She said there was some healing that needed to take place, but that when it did, it might not feel like healing -- at least not at first."
"It won't feel like healing? What in Zeus' name does that mean?"
"I'm not sure," Xena admitted. "Even Lizzie wasn't sure what she meant. She said it just made her feel sad."
Gabrielle was silent for a few moments; then she said, "Well, did you ask her whether we would be able to get the Cronus Stone back, at least?"
"No. I didn't think to ask that."
"Xena! Where was your mind? That's the most important thing!"
"Then ask her yourself."
"Okay. I will."
"Good. Now, could you please lie down again? I'm getting cold."
Without a word, Gabrielle curled up beside the warrior again, and Xena pulled the covers over them. The clock downstairs began to chime.
"It's five o'clock," Xena said.
"Breakfast is at seven."
"I guess we've got some time then." Xena ran her hand along her lover's back, wishing they were naked, wishing they could make love. "Do you think you can sleep?" she asked softly.
"Not really, but you go ahead."
"No, I'm not sleepy either," she said, and it was true. "Why don't you tell me that story?"
"The one about the lovers who killed themselves."
"Oh. Okay. But it's kind of complicated and all the people have funny-sounding names, so I might not get everything right the first time through."
"I don't care about that -- just tell it however you can."
"Well, there were these two families," Gabrielle began, "the Montagues and the Capulets."
"You're right -- they have strange names."
"I warned you," Gabrielle said with a grin. "Anyway, Romeo was a Montague and Juliet was a Capulet. At least, I think that's the way it was."
Xena smiled and squirmed a little to get more comfortable, then settled down to listen.
* * *
"Come in!" called Herbert in response to her knock almost three hours later.
Opening the door, she stepped into a room fragrant with the smell of bacon and coffee. The sheriff and his deputy sat at the table, eating from big metal plates piled high with scrambled eggs and bacon.
"Morning, Xena!" exclaimed Ellis, waving a greeting with his fork. "Come sit down and have some breakfast!"
"Oh, thanks, but I already ate," Xena said. She crossed to the table, pulled out a chair and sat down. "We had--" She paused to remember the strange English word. "Flapjacks."
"Mmm," said Herbert with a grin. "Lizzie's flapjacks are the best in the whole county -- I really do believe that."
"Absolutely," agreed Ellis, "but Herb here can make a pretty mean flapjack himself."
"Why, thank you, Deputy Johnson," the sheriff said, laughing. "I know just how much that compliment means coming from a man who will eat basically anything -- no matter what it tastes like!" He winked at Xena. "At least that makes him easy to cook for," he said. "Do you want some coffee, by the way? We've got plenty."
"No, thanks. I had a little over at the boarding house, but I'm having trouble acquiring a taste for it."
"Well, you'll have to learn to like it if you're going to live here," Ellis said. "It's practically the national beverage, you know." Then he turned to Herbert and asked, "What time is your train?"
"Train?" Xena said in surprise.
"Yes. I'm really sorry, Xena," Herbert said as he stuffed the last piece of bacon into his mouth. "Something's come up and I'm not going to be able to go look for the Garrison Gang today. I'm glad you got here in time so I could explain in person."
Xena arched her eyebrows questioningly, folded her arms, and leaned back in her chair.
"Herb made a big arrest last night," Ellis said.
The sheriff nodded and then took a long swallow of coffee. "There was a brawl at one of the saloons and I arrested the guy who started it. Turns out he's wanted in Denver for robbery and murder. I wired the law enforcement office there, and they want me to bring him today on the train."
"Where's Denver?" asked Xena.
"It's about two hours from here by train. We leave on the 8:30 and then I'll get back to town on the 5:15 this afternoon." He got up and carried his plate and mug to a table near the fireplace. "Again, I apologize," he said as he turned and walked back. "This kind of thing almost never happens, but when it does, I have to deal with it. We'll go look for the gang tomorrow. I promise."
"Just tell me where they might be and I'll go after them myself," Xena said.
"No, I don't like that idea," Herbert said, frowning. "I don't want you to get hurt."
Xena laughed. "Don't worry. I can take care of myself," she said. "I just need to borrow a gun is all."
"Tell her about the deputy thing," Ellis said.
"What deputy thing?" asked Xena.
"Well, the truth is," said Herbert, "I'm a little worried about leaving town with Ellis laid up like this, because he really should be spending most of the day in bed. At least that's what Nicholas said."
"So I suggested Herb could swear you in as deputy for the day," Ellis said. "What do you think of that idea, Xena?"
She stared at him in surprise and then looked at Herbert. "You want me to be deputy?" she asked. "What would I have to do?"
"Probably nothing at all," Herbert said. "Corinth is usually a pretty dull town, but you never know. I'd just feel better if Ellis had somebody to help him out in case something did come up."
"We've got a gun you can wear," Ellis told her, "and one of those fancy metal stars, too."
She scratched her head, then grinned. "Well, okay, sure. Why not? Sounds like a job I could handle -- for one day, at least."
"Good," Herbert said. "Come on in the office and I'll get you sworn in. Ellis, you come be a witness."
The three of them went into the front room. Xena glanced at the man who sat in the jail cell finishing off a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon. He was burly and tough-looking, and his face wore what appeared to be a permanent and deeply-felt scowl.
"Well," she said to Herbert, "looks like you'll have fun for two hours on the train with this one."
"I can't wait," he said dryly. "Okay, let's see. Where's that badge?" He pulled out one of the desk drawers and rummaged around in it for a few moments, then triumphantly held up a metal star. Walking over to face Xena, he said, "Raise your right hand. Like this."
She raised her hand.
"Do you swear to do all in your power to uphold and enforce the laws of this town and of the State of Colorado, so help you God?"
Xena stared at him for a moment. "Well, first of all," she said, "I have no idea what the laws even are here, and second--"
"Come on, don't get technical on me, Xena!" Herbert said in exasperation. "You know I haven't got time to give you a law course right now."
"But how am I supposed to enforce the laws if I don't know what they are?"
"Let's just put it this way," Herbert said, "if something seems like it ought to be against the law, then it probably is."
"And you can always ask me, if you have any questions," added Ellis.
"Right. You can ask Ellis," Herbert agreed.
Xena nodded. "All right," she said. "But there was something about a god in there, and you know I don't believe in your god."
The sheriff looked at her, and then at Ellis. "Maybe this isn't such a good idea, after all," he said.
"Sure it is," Ellis said. "You just have to reword the oath a little bit. Let me do it." He turned to the warrior, thought for a moment, then said, "Okay, raise your right hand. Do you, Xena, swear by all that is sacred to you that you will uphold and enforce the laws of this town and the State of Colorado to the best of your understanding and ability?"
"Yes, I can do that," she said.
"Good," said Herbert. "Now you're a deputy." And he pinned the star on her vest.
"Why did I have to raise my hand?" Xena asked.
"I don't know," Herbert said with a shrug. "That's just the way it's done."
"Well, I'll be jiggered!" exclaimed the prisoner. Then he spat emphatically on the floor. "If that doesn't beat all the stupid things I ever heard of! Making a woman a deputy! Just who the hell do you think's gonna obey the likes of her?" He tossed his plate aside with a loud clatter and then walked over to stand near the bars.
In one quick step, Xena was in front of him. Reaching into the cell, she grabbed him by the shirt and jerked him up hard against the bars. "I think someone needs to learn a little respect here," she growled, "and know what? I'm a very good teacher!"
"Xena, let go of him," said Herbert, moving to pry her fingers loose from the man's shirt. "It's against the law to beat up a prisoner."
"Humph!" said the warrior, then released the man with a shove. He stumbled back a few steps, then stood staring at her and rubbing his face where it had come into sudden contact with the cell bars. "What if he tries to escape?" Xena asked.
"That's different," Herbert muttered, then pulled out his watch and looked at it. "We've got to get going or we'll miss our train," he said. From a hook on the wall, he took down some handcuffs, leg shackles, and a ring of keys. Then he opened the cell door and handcuffed one of the prisoner's wrists to his own. "I guess we'll be on our merry way," he said with a grin.
"Okay. Be careful," Ellis said.
"I will be. Xena, you're in charge, but use some discretion, all right?"
She smiled, then said, "I promise to try to control myself."
"Good. Ellis, get that gun out for her to use, then you go back to bed."
"Sure thing, Boss!" Ellis said, giving a little salute.
"See you this afternoon," Herbert said, then herded his prisoner out the door.
Xena followed Ellis back into the living quarters. He went to a cupboard, opened it, and took out a revolver and some cartridges. "This is an old gun of Herb's," he said, handing it to her. "It works fine. He just doesn't use it much since he got himself some new ones last year. I think we've got a gun belt you can use, too."
She sat down at the table and turned the pistol over in her hands, examining the lettering and markings on it. The gunmetal felt cool and smooth beneath her fingers. She liked the weight of the weapon, too -- it gave her a sense of the gun's strength and reliability. She knew she could count on it in the same way she had always counted on her sword and chakram.
Ellis laid a gun belt on the table and then sat down to watch her load the cartridges into the chambers of the revolver. "Most women are afraid of guns," he said. "They don't much like to handle them."
Xena shrugged. "Most women don't like swords, either," she said, "but I've met a few who are quite handy with one." She eased the hammer back down and stood up. Untying her chakram, she laid it on the table, then buckled on the gun belt. "What are these things for? Decoration?" she asked, fingering the rawhide thongs at the bottom of the holster.
"No, you tie those around your leg," Ellis said. "That way the holster will stay put when you have to draw your gun in a hurry."
"Mmm. Good idea," Xena said, bending down to tie the thongs.
Ellis picked up the chakram and turned it over, studying the design. "This must be that weapon of yours Herbert was talking about. What's it called?"
"Chakram. Never heard of that. How do you use it? Just throw it?"
"Yes, that's basically it. Just throw it," Xena said. She slid the revolver into the holster, hesitated for a moment, and then quickly pulled it out and aimed it at the map on the wall.
"Not bad," said Ellis. "You look like you could shoot an outlaw or two."
"What's an outlaw?" Xena asked, returning the gun to its holster.
"Oh, that's what we call the bad guys. They're outside the law, so we call them 'outlaws.'"
"That's a good word. I'll have to remember that one." She held her hand out for the chakram, and when he gave it to her, she tied it to the gun belt on the left side. It wouldn't be quite as handy there, but the important thing was to be able to reach the gun. Sitting back down, she looked at Ellis. "How are you feeling today? I meant to ask earlier, but I got distracted."
He smiled. "I'm doing better than I was yesterday, but I still feel weak, and I tire out pretty fast."
She nodded. "You look a little pale. It's a good thing you're planning to spend the day resting. You need to get your strength back before you try to do too much."
"Yes, you're right, but I sure hate lying around in bed."
"I know, but you need to rest, so I'm going to make it my duty to see that you do."
"You're a strict one, Deputy Xena," he said, laughing. Then he got up and went to the bed, where he sat down and pulled off his boots.
Xena picked up the dirty dishes and carried them over by the fireplace. "I can wash these, if you tell me where to get water," she said.
"Oh, don't bother with those. We can wash them with the supper dishes tonight," Ellis said as he climbed into bed and pulled the covers up.
Xena walked over and stood near the bed. "Does this job require me to stay here in the office?" she asked, suddenly realizing that it might turn out to be a long, boring day.
"No, not necessarily. There's not much to do here unless you like to read, and I'm afraid I won't be very good company because I'll be sleeping." He grinned, then added, "I'd kind of like to know where to find you if something comes up, though."
"Well, I guess I should go tell Gabrielle that we're not looking for the Cronus Stone today," Xena said with a small sigh. "She won't be too happy to hear it, but there's nothing I can do about the situation. And after that," she went on, "I might go talk to Nicholas, if he's not too busy. I have some things I'd like to ask him."
"Sounds like a good plan," Ellis said.
"Will you be all right here by yourself?"
"Oh, sure. Lizzie will be over later, and Nick will come checking up on me, too, if I know him."
She laughed. "All right. I'll try to get back by here before midday. And I'll also try to -- what was it Herbert said? Use discretion."
"Don't beat up any prisoners unless they're escaping," Ellis said with a grin.
"Right," Xena said, then turned and headed for the door.