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UNDER WESTERN SKIES by Eva Allen
LEGAL DISCLAIMER: The characters Xena and Gabrielle, along with others who have appeared in the TV series XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, are the sole property of Universal/Studios USA and Renaissance Pictures. All other characters are the clever invention of the author. The use of Universal's characters in this story does not constitute the author's intent to make a profit or otherwise infringe on the existing copyright. The interpretation of the characters in this story is purely the author's own. Copyright for this fanfiction held by Eva Allen, September, 1999.
It was almost midnight by the time Xena got back to the boarding house. She found Gabrielle already in her nightshift, sitting on the side of the bed, reading by lamplight. "Aren't you tired?" Xena asked in Greek.
"No, not really," the bard said, looking up and smiling. "I know I should be, but I actually seem to have quite a bit of energy left."
Xena shook her head in wonder. Taking off her gun belt, she rebuckled it and hung it over one of the chairs. Then she untied her chakram, laid it on the table, and sat down to unlace her boots. "How did the stories go?" she asked.
"Much better than last night," Gabrielle said. "I told the one about how Hercules fell in love with the golden hind and gave up his powers so he could marry her."
"That's a sad one."
"Yeah. Lizzie started crying toward the end of it, and Nicholas had to give her his handkerchief. I think Herbert got a little misty-eyed, too, but he tried to hide it, of course."
Xena smiled as she took off her vest and shirt, and draped them over hooks on the wall. Then she unbuttoned her trousers, pushed them down, and stepped out of them. "What else did you tell?" she asked.
"The one about you and Caesar."
"Did Nicholas like it?"
"Yes. He was really interested in that one, but the rest of the evening I don't think he paid much attention. He seemed kind of distracted or something."
"I think he has a lot on his mind right now," Xena said. She dipped a cloth in the wash basin, wrung it out, and began sponging herself off.
"Then at the end, I told the Cecrops story," Gabrielle said. "That's one that people generally like, and at least it ends on a cheery note."
"Yes, well, I imagine your audience needed a little cheer after those first two stories."
"Hey, I only told them because you asked me to!"
"I know, and I appreciate it," Xena said, smiling as she picked up the towel. The soft cotton cloth felt good on her skin and, thinking about other things that might also feel good, she glanced over at Gabrielle. But the younger woman's attention was focused again on her book. With a small sigh, Xena hung up the towel and put on her nightshift. Then she padded across the room on bare feet and sat on the straw mattress next to her lover.
"Xena, these poems are wonderful," Gabrielle said, glancing up briefly. "Want to hear some of them?"
"Okay, well, here's one by that same man who wrote the Romeo and Juliet story." She cleared her throat, then read, "'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate . . .'"
The poem went on, but Xena did not hear the rest of the words. Gazing at Gabrielle, she smiled, picturing the young woman as she had seen her a thousand times, with the sunlight shining like a halo on the red-gold hair. "That was a nice one," she said when she realized that the bard had stopped reading.
"You weren't even listening," Gabrielle said in a disappointed tone of voice.
"Sure I was!" Xena said. Then, seeing the skeptical look on the younger woman's face, she relented. "Well, okay, I guess I only heard the first couple of lines, but they made me think about how beautiful you look with the summer sun shining on your hair." And reaching out, she picked up a lock of the long, golden hair and brought it to her lips.
Gabrielle smiled. "Well, I guess I can't get mad at you for that," she said. "But let me read you another poem. This one is by a bard named Robert Herrick."
"Is that a man or a woman?"
"I'm not sure," Gabrielle said. "With these strange English names, it's hard to tell. Anyway, the title of the poem is 'To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.'"
"It's a man," Xena said with a cynical grin.
"Yeah, I guess you're right," agreed Gabrielle, laughing. "Here's how it goes: 'Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying; And this same flower that smiles to-day, To-morrow will be dying.'"
Xena drew in a sharp breath as a sudden cold chill ran through her. "Don't!" she said quickly, putting her hand over the page. "Don't read that one. It's too sad."
"Too sad?" Gabrielle said in surprise. "Xena, this is a poem about seduction! What's sad about that?"
"I don't know. Nothing, I guess. It just-- Well, it gave me the creeps somehow, talking about flowers dying and stuff."
Gabrielle gave her a quizzical look. "Let me get this straight," she said. "The mighty Warrior Princess, killer of thousands, is suddenly worried about the death of a flower?"
"Yeah, it's pretty stupid, isn't it?" Xena said with a weak grin. Then she gently pulled the book out of her lover's hands, closed it, and laid it on the nightstand. "I think it's time we went to bed, Sweetheart. My feet are getting cold and yours must be like ice by now. Go ahead and get under the covers," she instructed, then reached over to turn out the lamp.
"I love you, Xena," Gabrielle whispered as they snuggled up together.
"I love you, too," responded the warrior. Then she wrapped her arms tightly around the warm body and kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. "And I miss you," she added.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, it seems like we haven't spent much time together since we got here."
"No, we haven't. I guess I've been missing you, too."
Xena kissed the golden head again.
"Sleep well, Love," Gabrielle said.
"Mmm, you too," Xena murmured. She closed her eyes, and in a very short time, slipped away into the land of dreams.
* * *
Sometime later, Xena woke halfway and lay with her eyes closed, enjoying the warm comfort of the bed. The clock downstairs chimed twice, and the thought that sunrise was still several hours away made the warrior smile. She reached out for Gabrielle, but her hand found only empty space. Opening her eyes, she saw that the room was much lighter than it should have been in the middle of the night. She sat up, hugging the covers to her chest. From the table near the door, the lamp glowed brightly, and Gabrielle, wrapped in a sheepskin they had brought from Greece, sat hunched over a book.
Xena watched for a few moments and then swung her feet over the side of the bed. Pulling the top cover loose, she draped it around her shoulders and walked over to the table. "Couldn't sleep, huh?" she said as she sat down.
"No," Gabrielle admitted. "Is the light bothering you? If it is, I can go read out in the hall."
"What bothers me is that you aren't able to sleep," Xena said quietly. "Are you still feeling frightened?"
"Yeah, I guess I am."
The warrior drew in a long, slow breath and let it out again while she studied the younger woman. "I just don't understand," she said finally. "You seem to be making friends here and finding lots of things to do. What are you so afraid of?"
Gabrielle shook her head. "I know it doesn't make any sense," she said, "but I just keep having this feeling that if we don't find the Cronus Stone and get home soon, something terrible is going to happen -- something that will keep us from ever going home again."
Xena stared at her, feeling the same chill of dread that she had felt earlier. Reaching across the small table, she put her hand over Gabrielle's. "Herbert and I are going out to look for the Garrison gang first thing in the morning," she said.
"That's what you told me yesterday, and then you didn't go."
"Yes, well, this time is different. If something comes up and Herbert can't go, then I'll go by myself. I'll do everything I can to get that stone back tomorrow. That's a promise."
"Thanks," Gabrielle said softly. She turned her face away, but not before Xena saw the tears in her eyes.
"Did you ask Lizzie if she thought we would get the stone back?" said Xena.
Gabrielle nodded, then pulled her hand free from Xena's and used both hands to wipe her eyes.
"What did she say?"
"Well, at first she just said she wasn't very good at making specific predictions. And she told me that same strange thing she told you about healing that doesn't feel like healing. But then, finally, she said she saw an image of us sitting by a lake someplace -- she thought it must be back in Greece -- and we looked really happy to be together again."
"Together again?" Xena said. "What did she mean by that? Are we going to be separated somehow?"
"I don't know. I was going to ask her about it, but then we got interrupted, so I didn't get to."
Xena frowned as she sat trying to puzzle out the meaning of Lizzie's words. Several moments passed before she looked at Gabrielle. The younger woman was staring at the open book in front of her, but her thoughts appeared to be elsewhere.
"What book is that?" Xena asked.
"This? Oh, I bought this at the General Store today," Gabrielle replied, brightening. "Lizzie said she thought I would like it. It's called Sense and Sensibility, and it's by a woman bard named--" She stopped to consult the book's cover. "Jane Austen. She's from Britannia, just like Mr. Shakespeare."
"From Britannia?" said Xena. "Does she talk about Boadicea?"
"Uh, no. I mean, she hasn't yet, and I don't really think she will," Gabrielle said. "The people in this book aren't warriors, Xena. They're just ordinary people leading peaceful, ordinary lives. And besides, none of them are real."
"None of them are real? What do you mean?"
"Well, Lizzie told me that this kind of story is called 'fiction,' and all the characters are invented by the writer."
"So you mean the bard just makes up stories that aren't true about people who don't exist?" asked Xena in amazement. "That's lying!"
"Yeah, well, I guess you could call it that," Gabrielle said, uncertainly.
"And isn't the purpose of a bard to tell tales about heroes and gods? That's how people learn the stories and remember them. Why would anyone want to remember a story about someone who doesn't exist? It doesn't make sense to me."
Gabrielle was silent for a few moments, apparently considering Xena's words. Then she said, "You're right, of course. People need to know the stories about gods and heroes, but I can also see a certain advantage in writing stories about people who don't exist."
"Well, when you tell a story about real people, you have to be careful because if they don't like what you say about them, they could make a lot of trouble for you."
"Yes," agreed Xena. "Aphrodite is a good example of that."
"Exactly. But if you invent all the characters in your story, you can say anything you like about them, and you can make them behave any way you want them to."
"Right. But it's still lying."
"Maybe so, but I don't think it's a bad kind of lying. You could actually teach a lot of good lessons with the right story. And if the reader knows that the story isn't true, but still reads it and learns from it, then where's the harm in that?"
"Hmm. Well, I suppose maybe you have a point," Xena said. "So are you learning any lessons?" she asked, nodding toward the book on the table.
"Not yet because I just started reading," Gabrielle said, "but it's an interesting story and I do think it can teach me something about the nature of human beings."
"The nature of human beings," Xena said as she stood up and moved over to stand beside her lover's chair, "is to need rest."
"I know," Gabrielle said, "but I just don't think I can sleep." She put her arms around Xena and buried her face against the warrior's stomach.
Xena sighed softly as she stroked her lover's hair. "What if I give you a back rub? Do you think that might help you relax?"
Gabrielle looked up and smiled at her. "Yeah. I think it's worth a try, anyway," she said.
"All right. Go lie down on the bed," Xena said. "I'll see if I can find some olive oil in our saddlebags."
By the time she had found the oil and turned out the lamp, Gabrielle had taken off her nightshift and was lying on her stomach in bed.
"Did you buy anything else at the store?" Xena asked as she spread the bedcover she had been wearing over the bard, followed by the sheepskin Gabrielle had left lying on the floor.
"Oh, yes!" the younger woman exclaimed, propping herself up on her elbows. "I forgot to tell you, didn't I? Well," she went on, "I bought all the rubber balls he had in stock."
"And how many was that?" Xena asked warily.
"Only six," Gabrielle said, laughing. "Don't worry. We'll have room for them. I want to give one to Joxer. Don't you think he'd really like it?"
Xena smiled. "Yes, I do," she said.
"And then I've got one for Lila, and one for Iolaus, and maybe one for Autolycus. But he might just think it was stupid. Oh, and one for Salmoneus, and one for Lydia, and-- How many is that?"
"I don't know. I lost count," Xena said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "What else did you buy?"
"Not that much, really. A couple more combs, and that book, of course, and I saw some things I might get next time I go back. Oh, and I found out what that lamp thing is called."
"What lamp thing?"
"That lamp we saw that has a handle so you can carry it around."
"Oh. What's it called?"
"A lantern. Lizzie said it would probably work okay with oil instead of kerosene, so I thought about getting us one because it seemed like it would be really handy to have, but I wanted to ask you first."
"Well, you're right. It would be handy to have, but it would also be one more thing to carry around with us, and it has that glass part, so we'd have to worry about its getting broken."
"Oh," Gabrielle said as she lay back down. "I guess it's not very practical, is it?"
"Not really," Xena said. She climbed over and sat straddling Gabrielle's legs. Then she pulled back the covers to reveal her lover's bare back. Opening the vial of oil, she poured some into her palm, then rubbed her hands together to warm it.
"The printing press was pretty interesting," Gabrielle said. "I wish we had them in Greece."
"We will someday," Xena said as she began to massage the younger woman's back with long, slow strokes.
"Xena, do you know what's really strange?"
"Everybody here knows Homer's stories about the Trojan War and about Hercules and the Greek gods, but no one's ever heard of you. Why do you think that is? I'm writing all the stories down on my scrolls, but it's as if they got lost or something. No one's ever read them."
"Hmm. Well, we'll have to think about where we can leave the scrolls so that they'll be safe and someone will find them someday," Xena said. Then she leaned forward to reach her lover's shoulders and neck.
"Tomorrow morning Mr. Shipley is going to take me to see the bank," Gabrielle said.
"Sweetheart, you've got to stop talking and try to relax," Xena said. "Otherwise, I'm wasting my time here."
"Oh, right. I'm sorry."
"Just close your eyes and try not to think about anything for a while."
"Okay. That feels good, by the way," Gabrielle murmured.
Xena didn't answer, but smiled as she noticed the tightness in her lover's muscles beginning to ease up. She poured out a little more oil and continued the massage, working gently and skillfully to release the knots of tension. After a time, she felt the younger woman's body sink into limpness under her fingers, and heard her breathing deepen. "I love you, Gabrielle," whispered Xena, but there was no response. With a small sigh of relief, the warrior got up, took off her nightshift, and then slipped carefully under the covers. Lying on her stomach, she wrapped an arm around her lover, and very soon fell asleep.
After breakfast, Xena walked with Gabrielle and Charles Shipley as far as the bank.
"Are you sure you don't want to come in, Xena?" the banker asked. "This is a good time to see everything, before we open up for business."
"Maybe some other time," Xena said. "I'm kind of eager to get started looking for those outlaws."
"Well, I can surely understand that," Mr. Shipley said. "And I hope you find them, too."
"Yes, good luck," said Gabrielle, giving the warrior a warm smile.
"Thanks. I'll see you later," Xena replied. She let her hand linger for a moment on her lover's arm, then nodded to Mr. Shipley and hurried on her way. Going first to the livery stable, she saddled Argo and led the mare across the street to the hitching post in front of the jail. After that, she went around to the side entrance and knocked.
"Hey, look what the cat drug in!" Ellis said with a grin as he opened the door.
Xena smirked at him and strode into the room. "Are you ready, Herbert?" she asked.
"Almost," the sheriff called to her over his shoulder. He was standing at a table near the fireplace. "I thought I'd make us each a sandwich, in case we're not back in time for lunch."
"A sand witch?" Xena said. "What in Zeus' name is that?"
"It's a piece of meat between two slices of bread," Ellis explained.
"Oh, of course. Just like the name implies," she said with a sardonic grin.
"Well, it's not 'sand witch,' it's 'sandwich' -- all one word. And it's called that because--"
"Shh!" said Xena suddenly, holding up her hand.
>From outside came the sound of running footsteps and a man's voice, shouting, "Sheriff Lees! Sheriff Lees! Come quick!"
In one swift movement, Xena went to the door and threw it open. The man stopped in the doorway, wide-eyed and panting. "The Garrison gang!" he gasped. "They're robbing the bank!"
"The bank!" Xena exclaimed. "That's where Gabrielle is!"
Pushing roughly past the man, she sprinted up the street, drawing her revolver as she ran. Behind her, she heard the sound of Ellis' and Herbert's pounding footsteps. Thirty paces from the bank, she began to slow her pace, considering how best to confront the robbers. But before she could formulate a plan, Bill Garrison suddenly appeared in the doorway. He held Gabrielle in front of him, her arms pinned behind her back and a pistol pointed at her temple. "Hold it right there," he shouted, "or this little gal gets her brains blown out!"
The warrior came to an abrupt halt, and Herbert and Ellis did the same.
"Now, drop your guns," ordered the outlaw.
Xena hesitated, but hearing two revolvers hit the hard-packed dirt behind her, she reluctantly let her own fall, as well.
"That round thing, too," Garrison added, eyeing her chakram.
Xena gave him a defiant look, then untied her weapon and tossed it down.
Apparently satisfied, the bank robber edged out of the doorway and then sideways a short distance, keeping Gabrielle in front of him and the bank wall at his back. Stopping, he carefully surveyed the three law officers and the few scattered spectators.
Xena watched his movements closely, looking for some opening which would allow her to disarm him and free his hostage. Gabrielle looked ashen, her eyes full of fear. Trying to reassure her, Xena smiled slightly, but there was no answering smile from the younger woman.
"Okay, Isaiah," called Garrison, glancing back at the doorway.
A moment later, the other outlaw appeared. He was broad-shouldered and bulkier in build than the gang's leader. In one hand he held a gun and in the other a lumpy bag made of heavy gray fabric.
"Nobody try anything, or the girl gets it," Bill warned.
Then he nodded to Isaiah, who hurried along the boardwalk to the place where the outlaws' horses were tied. Unfastening the reins of the spotted horse, he quickly mounted and secured the heavy bag to his saddle horn. Then he kicked the animal hard in the flanks, took off down the road past the jail, and soon disappeared from sight.
Xena shifted her weight as she watched him go, fuming at her helplessness. She turned her attention back to the bank and saw that the third outlaw, the one with the scar across his left cheek, had come out of the building. He stood boldly now on the wooden walkway, a pistol in each hand, staring at the onlookers.
"Cover me, George," Bill said. Then he shoved Gabrielle toward the horses.
"You're not going to take the girl, are you?" Herbert called out in surprise.
"Why not? I think we could have a little fun with her later on," Bill said, leaning forward to leer at Gabrielle's frightened face.
"No!" cried Xena. "Let her go! There's no reason to take her!"
"She's right," said Herbert. "You got your money. That's what you came for, isn't it? Just let her go and ride on out of here. We won't try to stop you."
Bill appeared to consider this for a moment, then grinned and said, "Well, the fact is, I've taken a fancy to this little gal, so she goes with us."
"No!" screamed Gabrielle, struggling in his grasp, "I'm not going! Xena, help me!"
The warrior started forward, but stopped short when a warning shot from George kicked up the dirt in front of her feet. "Take me instead," she called to Bill. "I'll go with you. No gun, no tricks. Just take me and let her stay here."
The outlaw leader laughed as he bent to wrap an arm around Gabrielle and toss her onto his horse. "Thanks for the offer," he said with a grin, "but somehow I don't think you'd be as . . . cooperative . . . as this one will be." Then he mounted behind the bard, gathered up the reins, and pointed his gun at her head again. He sat for a moment on the prancing bay, surveying the crowd.
The look of sheer terror in Gabrielle's eyes left Xena with a cold, sick feeling in her stomach. "I love you," she mouthed, and got a small nod in response. Then, giving a loud whoop, Bill Garrison reined his horse around in a tight circle and galloped out of town.
"Okay, folks," George called out. "Just stay right where you are and nobody will get hurt." He kept both guns at the ready as he backed slowly to the hitching post. Then, shoving one pistol into its holster, he used his free hand to untie his horse.
"What have you done with the banker?" asked Ellis.
"Oh, he's just taking a little snooze," the outlaw replied, grinning. He started down the road, striding backwards while he kept his revolver and a wary eye trained on the townspeople. The chestnut stallion walked along beside him. This was the horse which had carried away the Cronus Stone, Xena remembered, but today there were no saddlebags. What had become of the stone?
Ellis edged closer to her. "Was there anyone else in the bank besides Gabrielle and Shipley?" he asked in a low voice.
"Not that I know of," she said without taking her eyes off the retreating outlaw. Then a thought struck her. "Damn!" she muttered.
"What's wrong?" asked Herbert.
"Well, Mr. Shipley wanted me to stay and see the bank, but I was in a hurry to go after the outlaws. If I had just stayed--" She stopped and shook her head in frustration.
"Don't blame yourself," Herbert said. "You had no way of knowing. None of us did."
George had by this time backed out of range of the others' guns, and thrusting a foot in the stirrup, he swung himself into the saddle. "Don't bother trying to follow us," he shouted. Then, giving a yell and firing a shot into the air, he took off in pursuit of his companions.
Xena snatched her weapons up out of the dust and wiped them off on her trousers.
"I'll go check on Shipley," Ellis called as he headed for the door of the bank.
Herbert started to follow him, but Xena grabbed his arm. "I'm going after them," she said, nodding in the direction the outlaws had gone.
"Well, yes, I am, too," the sheriff said. "I just want to make sure Charles is okay, and then I need a few minutes to saddle my horse."
"No, I can't wait. Every minute we lose will make it that much harder to find them. I'll go ahead and you can catch up."
"All right," Herbert said uncertainly, "but Xena, don't try to take them on alone. Just follow them and watch where they go. When I get there, we'll figure out how to deal with them together."
"See you soon," Xena said, then turned and ran back to Argo. Untying the reins, she vaulted into the saddle and galloped out of town at full speed.
* * *
She hadn't gone far before she slowed the mare to a trot and began to watch for any signs that the outlaws had left the road. The need to rescue her lover before the three men could harm her pounded in the warrior's brain more loudly than Argo's hoofbeats, making her head begin to throb. The image of Gabrielle bruised and hysterical after the incident with Garron flashed painfully into her mind, and Xena knew she could not allow the same thing to happen again.
Drawing a deep breath, she forced down the panic that she felt rising within her and resolutely focused her attention on the task at hand. A few minutes later, she pulled Argo to a halt and leaned out of the saddle to study the rocky ground beside the road. There were hoofprints in the dust, heading away toward a stand of trees at the base of the foothills. As far as she could tell, the prints had been made by a single horse. Had it been Garrison's horse? If the outlaws were smart, they would take three separate routes back to their hideout, making it more difficult for pursuers to track them. The bay horse was carrying two people and thus could be expected to leave the deepest tracks, but in this stony terrain, making such a distinction might be impossible. The best she could hope for was that whichever outlaw she was following would lead her to the other two.
Noting the direction the hoofprints were pointing, Xena drew a mental line to a spot in the trees several hundred paces away. Then, turning her mount's head in that direction, she started off at a brisk canter. She was almost halfway across the open space when suddenly she felt Argo lurch and then stumble to a halt, limping on her right front foot.
Uttering a few choice curses in Greek, Xena jumped down and walked around to the mare's injured side. "Hey, girl," she said in a gentler tone, "you sure picked a bad time to go lame on me. Let's see what the problem is." She ran her hand down the horse's leg, carefully feeling the muscles and tendons. Then, lifting the hoof, she examined the bottom of it. Wedged into the space beside the tender frog was a sharp-looking rock. Relieved to see that the problem wasn't too serious, Xena reached for her breast dagger, only to realize that her change of costume had made it impossible to carry the weapon. Nor did she have her boot dagger, since the close fit of her trouser legs made it too difficult to get at the blade.
"Oh, for the love of Zeus!" she said, looking around for a small, sharp stick. But they were still too far from the trees. All she saw was dry grass and a few scraggly shrubs growing in the arid, stony earth. Leading Argo slowly forward, she continued to scan the ground and eventually spotted a long sliver of granite. Picking it up, she slipped it into the space in Argo's hoof and carefully pried loose the offending rock.
"There, that's better," she said, setting the mare's foot down and patting her neck. The horse took a tentative step and then snorted as if to say thank you. Xena quickly mounted and gathered up the reins. She clucked to Argo and they resumed their journey at a walk so that the warrior could be sure there was no further limping. Valuable time had been lost, much to her dismay, but she felt confident that she was on the trail of the outlaws. Surely it wouldn't take too long to find them.
She entered the trees and soon came to a clear, swift-flowing river whose banks and bed were lined with smooth, round stones. The water appeared fairly shallow, probably no more than knee-deep in most places. There were a few pines along the verges of the watercourse, but most of the trees were of a different variety. Tall and somewhat slender, they had gray-white bark and shiny, dark green leaves which twisted and fluttered in the breeze.
Reining Argo to a halt at the edge of the water, Xena let the horse drink while she sat surveying her surroundings. She was sure the outlaws had crossed the river, but where? In all likelihood, they had ridden in the water for a distance in order to hide their trail. She studied the opposite bank both upstream and down, looking for bent grass, broken branches, or anything else that would betray a rider's recent passage. But when no clear signs presented themselves, she simply shrugged, turned Argo's head upstream, and urged the mare into the water.
She went along slowly, keeping a close eye on the other shore, but the rocky ground revealed nothing. Time passed and the warrior's frustration grew while Argo waded resolutely on, picking her way among the stones. At a certain point, the mare stumbled badly and, regaining her footing, came to a stop. Xena reached down to pat the horse's neck as she turned her attention from the shore to the frothy water rushing down towards them over boulders which blocked the way ahead. The sound of roaring filled her ears and drowned out her deep sigh as she turned Argo's head and started back downstream.
Now, in an effort to save time, Xena rode on the near bank, still studying the far one for any tracks or signs she might have missed. When she came to the spot where she had begun her search, she steered her mount once more into the stream and slowed her pace. She had not gone very far when she heard what sounded like another horse splashing through the water further downstream. She stopped to listen for a moment, then quickly urged Argo out of the water and in among the trees. She did not have to wait long before the other rider came into view -- a tall man who wore a white hat and rode an even whiter horse.
"Herbert!" she called, starting forward.
He looked up and waved. "I wondered when I would catch up with you," he said. "Have you had any luck?"
"No," she said, shaking her head. "I think I saw where they left the road and crossed the field to the river, but then I lost the trail."
"That's exactly what happened to me," the sheriff said. "How far did you go?" he asked, gesturing in the direction she had come from.
"As far as I could. To where the rapids start."
He nodded. "Well, I've been downstream to where the river moves out into open land again. It stands to reason that the gang is holed up in these hills someplace -- maybe in one of the canyons -- but Ellis and I have never found the place. I thought maybe this time, with such a fresh trail . . ." He sighed and shook his head.
"I was pretty close behind them, but then Argo picked up a stone in her hoof," Xena said.
"Tough luck. You might have caught up with them otherwise."
"I know, but we've got to keep looking," she said fiercely. "I have to find Gabrielle before those bastards can hurt her."
"I understand," Herbert said quietly. "Well, why don't we ride back upstream a ways and start looking in some of these draws and canyons. Maybe we can pick up the trail again."
* * *
A couple of hours passed, during which the sheriff and deputy explored many of the nooks and crannies along the base of the foothills, but still they seemed no closer to finding the Garrison gang's hideout.
"Let's try this canyon," Xena suggested, peering along a wide corridor which wound out of sight between stone walls.
"We can if you want to," Herbert agreed, "but it just goes about half a mile and then comes to a dead end. Ellisand I have been up this one before."
Xena hesitated. Surely the outlaws would not choose to hide in a box canyon with no other outlet. Still, she had a feeling about this place. "Let's try it anyway," she said, turning Argo's head in that direction.
Herbert shrugged and followed her lead.
They rode along the rocky margin of a small stream which wound its way through the canyon. Their route twisted and turned, narrowing gradually until the walls were only some fifty paces apart. It would be a good place for an ambush, Xena thought -- although, of course, not many people would have reason to travel up a dead-end canyon. Still, she felt her senses go on high alert and she kept a sharp eye on the shrubs and boulders which dotted the sloping sides of the canyon.
Then, as they rounded a bend, Xena saw that their path ended abruptly in a stone wall about a hundred paces further on. A few small trees huddled in one corner, but there appeared to be no way out of the canyon. Reining Argo to a halt, she surveyed the scene carefully. Something on the ground caught her eye and, dismounting, she walked over to pick it up. It was a horseshoe, well-worn and with a thin film of rust on one side.
"What did you find?" asked Herbert, urging his horse closer.
Xena handed him the horseshoe.
"Well, the horse that lost this was definitely in need of new shoes," he commented, turning the object over in his hands.
"Doesn't look like it's been here more than a few days," Xena said. "There's not much rust on it."
"You're right, but unfortunately I don't think it tells us much more than that." He looked again at the shoe and then tossed it to the ground. "Why don't we take a break, eat some lunch," he said, dismounting. "I brought the sandwiches."
"All right," Xena said reluctantly. She glanced around again at the canyon walls, but saw no cause for alarm. Kneeling beside the small stream, she splashed cold water on her face and drank deeply from cupped hands. Then she stood up, wiping her face on her shirt sleeve. Herbert handed her a parcel wrapped in grease-spotted brown paper and, sitting down on a boulder, she opened it. Inside were two pieces of white bread with a thick slice of beef between them.
"I hope you like ground mustard. That's what I put on them," Herbert said.
"That's fine," Xena said absently and took a bite of her sandwich. She chewed mechanically, not really tasting or wanting the food. The image of Gabrielle's terrified face came into her mind, and she closed her eyes, trying to blot it out. When she opened them again, she saw that Herbert was watching her. She looked at her sandwich, took another bite, and turned her gaze toward the end of the canyon.
"If it's any consolation to you," the sheriff said in a quiet voice, "the Garrison gang aren't usually known to kill people."
Xena looked at him but did not answer.
"They could have killed Charles Shipley today after they made him open the vault," Herbert went on, "but all they did was knock him out and tie him up."
Xena swallowed the food she'd been chewing. It felt dry and seemed to stick in her throat going down. "It's not killing I'm worried about," she said bleakly. "It's-- Well, you know what they want to do to Gabrielle."
"Yes, I know. But what I'm saying is that the chances of her getting through this alive are pretty good."
The warrior shook her head. "You don't understand," she said. "About a month ago Gabrielle was . . . attacked . . . by a man and she still hasn't gotten over it. She's afraid. She can't sleep at night. She can't--" Xena felt her voice beginning to tremble and she stopped speaking. She had probably said too much already, but she wanted Herbert to understand the urgency of the situation. She looked at him and saw sympathy in his eyes. "I can't let her be hurt again," she went on in a low voice. "I know what it did to her last time, and now there are three of those bastards." She swallowed hard and looked away. "You're right. She may very well survive this physically, but what good is it to be alive if your spirit is dead?"
"We'll find her," Herbert said, reaching out to put a hand on Xena's shoulder. "Everything will be all right. I promise."
She looked at him and tried to smile, wishing she could believe him. Then she glanced down at her sandwich and folded the paper over it. "I'm sorry," she said. "I can't eat this. I'm just not hungry."
"Throw it away then," Herbert said. "Unless you think you'll want it later. I'm sure the crows will be glad to have it."
Xena tossed the sandwich in its paper under a nearby bush. Then she looked down the canyon again. "Are you sure that's a dead end?" she asked.
"Well, we never went all the way to the very end, but we went pretty close, and there doesn't appear to be any way out."
"Where does this stream come from?"
"Probably from a spring up there in the rocks." He bit off a mouthful of sandwich and chewed for a few moments. Then he said, "I really think we'd be wasting our time to go any farther."
"I guess you're right," Xena said dully. Then, pulling her knees up to her chest, she laid her arms across them, put her head down, and closed her eyes. The aching in her head had been getting steadily worse, but by force of will she had managed to ignore it until now. Taking a deep breath, she tried to relax, but without much success. She opened her eyes and stared at the low-growing trees on the other side of the stream. It took a few moments for her to realize that they were willows. Sitting up quickly, she turned to Herbert. "Have you got a knife?" she asked.
"Yes, sure," he said. "I've got my pocketknife. Do you want to use it?"
He pulled it out and handed it to her.
She recognized it as the knife he had used that first day to cut a reed for Ellis' throat. Curious, she turned it over in her hands. "How do you get the blade to come out?" she asked.
"Oh, see that little groove in the blade? Just use your thumbnail--"
But before he could finish, she had figured it out.
"There are actually two blades," Herbert said. "You've opened the big one, and there's a smaller one at the other end."
Xena unfolded the second blade and studied the knife, thinking about the possibilities of having a double-bladed dagger. "Well, it isn't much of a battle weapon," she said finally, "but you could slit a few throats with it."
He stared at her in surprise. "Do you slit many throats?" he asked.
"No, not anymore," she said with a wry grin. "But I can think of three right now that I'd like to slit."
"Xena, when we catch up with that gang, we're going to bring them to justice, not kill them. You do understand that, don't you?"
"Yes, I understand," she said grimly. Then she stood up and crossed the stream in one long step. Crouching beside one of the willows, she sliced off several strips of bark, stuck one of them in her mouth and started chewing.
"Willow bark," Herbert said as she hopped back over the stream. "The Indians use that for pain."
"So do we," Xena said, and then, because he seemed to expect an explanation, she added, "I have a headache." She wiped the knife off on her trousers, closed the blade, and handed it back to him. "Thanks," she said. "That's a very handy invention. I wish I'd had one when Argo got that rock in her hoof. I was a fool not to bring a dagger with me." Then she whistled for the mare, who was browsing on shrubs a short distance away.
"I guess we should get going," Herbert said. He stuffed the last of his sandwich in his mouth and stood up.
Xena tucked the willow bark into her pants pocket and put her foot in the stirrup. She was about to mount when she suddenly had the sensation that they were being watched. And in that same moment, her eye caught a movement near a boulder partway up the side of the canyon. She froze, scanning the entire area carefully, but she saw nothing to confirm her suspicions. Swinging herself into the saddle, she sat, still surveying the scene while Argo shifted and turned somewhat nervously beneath her.
Herbert mounted his own horse and moved close to Xena. "What is it?" he said. "Do you see something?"
"I thought I saw someone moving near that boulder up there," she said in a low voice and pointed to the spot.
He looked for a time, then said, "I don't see anything."
"Neither do I -- now," Xena admitted.
"Maybe you saw a bird."
"No, it was bigger than a bird."
They watched the spot for a time in silence, then Herbert said, "All right, if there's somebody up there, maybe we can draw their fire." He pulled out his revolver and cocked the hammer.
Xena drew her own gun and watched as the sheriff aimed at a spot near the boulder and fired. The shot sounded loud in the confined space, and the whine of the bullet as it ricocheted off the rock lingered in the air for several moments. But after that, there was only silence. Herbert fired a second shot with the same result, then shrugged. "I think you're seeing things, Xena," he said.
"Maybe so," she admitted.
"Let's go," he said, and gestured for her to precede him out of the canyon. She looked back several times, but saw no further movement near the boulder.
They spent the rest of the afternoon searching up and down the riverbank and in between the foothills, but without any success. The sun continued on its path across the sky and then sank below the mountain tops, sending heavy, black shadows creeping across the land.
"I think it's time we headed back to town," Herbert said finally.
"No! We can't just give up!"
"Xena, look around. The sun has gone down and pretty soon it will be too dark to even see where we're going, let alone to track anyone."
She sighed and bit her lip, knowing he was right, and feeling a despair so sharp that she could almost taste it.
"We'll come back first thing in the morning, as soon as it starts getting light," Herbert said.
"Okay," she murmured.
He turned his horse and headed through the trees toward the open land beyond, and with a heavy heart, she followed him.
Xena opened the door to the boarding house as quietly as possible and slipped inside. She was halfway to the stairs when Lizzie rushed out of the small parlor.
"Xena! I thought that might be you," she exclaimed. "Did you find her?"
"Oh, I'm so sorry. That poor girl! Lord knows what she's going through with those horrible men!" Lizzie sighed and turned to Nicholas, who had followed her out of the parlor. "They didn't find her," she told him, then turned back to Xena. "Ellis said you rode out of town right on their trail, so we were hoping you'd catch up with them, but then when you were gone so long . . ."
"We tracked them to the river, but after that we lost the trail," Xena said in a tired voice. "We spent the whole day trying to pick it up again."
"It's this damned rocky ground," Nicholas said. "It's a lawman's nightmare and an outlaw's paradise."
"Well, I've kept your supper warm for you," said Lizzie, "so why don't you come on back to the dining room and eat it. I've got fried chicken, green beans, and cornbread. Oh, and cherry pie, too."
"Thanks, but I'm not really hungry," Xena said. "I think I'll just go on up to my room."
"And do what?" Lizzie asked. "Pace the floor all night because you can't sleep?"
Xena looked at her in surprise and then gave her a weak grin. "Yes, probably so," she admitted.
"Come on," the older woman urged as she took hold of the warrior's arm and drew her along the hallway. "At least try to eat something. We'll sit with you and keep you company, and you can tell us the whole story."
"I'm afraid there's not much to tell," Xena said as she let herself be led to the dining room. Then she sat down in the chair the other woman pulled out for her. Silverware and a napkin had already been laid out on the table.
"I'll just go get your plate," Lizzie said, and she hurried off to the kitchen.
Nicholas had followed them into the room, and now he walked around the table and took a seat opposite the warrior.
"How's Mr. Shipley?" Xena asked him.
"Well, he's got a nasty lump on the back of his head, but that hasn't slowed him down much. He spent the whole day at the bank, fretting over the money that was stolen. And over Gabrielle, too, of course. About an hour ago he finally took my advice and went to bed."
Lizzie came back in and set a plate of food in front of Xena, along with a glass of water.
"We've all been just worried sick about Gabrielle," Lizzie said, taking a seat beside the doctor, "and I'm sure you have been, too."
"Yes," said Xena. She stared at the plate for a few moments, then picked up her fork and thrust it into the beans. Bringing the food to her mouth, she forced herself to chew and swallow. Then she took a drink of water. Glancing up, she saw that the other two were watching, so she reluctantly ate some more beans and then a few bites of cornbread. Several awkward minutes went by before Nicholas, to her great relief, broke the silence.
"Lizzie has been telling me some memories from her life as Lydia -- some she hadn't shared before," he said. "I didn't realize what Gabrielle had already been through."
"I hope you don't mind that I told him," Lizzie added.
"No, it's all right."
"It just doesn't seem right that such a terrible thing could have happened again so soon," the older woman went on.
"It's because I failed to protect her," Xena said grimly. "I failed before, and now I've failed again."
"No, don't say that. It's not your fault," Lizzie protested.
"Yes, it is. I could have prevented this. If I had just gone in to see the bank, like they asked me to, I would have been there when--"
"Of course," cut in Nicholas, "and if I had just kept my son home that day instead of letting him go swimming, he'd still be alive."
Xena stared at him.
"I know what you're doing, Xena," he said. "I did it to myself often enough after Benjamin drowned. But believe me, it doesn't help. What happened has happened, and you can't change that, so there's no use beating yourself up about it."
She drew in a deep breath and let it out again. "I guess you're right," she murmured.
"Eat some more of your supper, Dear," Lizzie said. "You've haven't had more than four or five bites."
Xena picked up a chicken leg, looked at it, and then laid it down again. "I'm sorry. I'm just not hungry," she said.
Lizzie and Nicholas exchanged glances. Then he said, "Maybe Xena would like some wine. Don't you have a bottle hidden away someplace? The Millers aren't here to protest, so I think it would be safe to have a little drink."
"Oh, that's a good idea," Lizzie said. "Would you like some wine, Xena?"
"Yes, very much."
"I'll go get it," she said, getting up. She smiled at Nicholas and he smiled back. Then she touched his shoulder lightly before she left the room.
"Do you have a headache today?" Nicholas asked.
"I had one earlier," Xena said, "but I've been chewing willow bark, so it's pretty much gone now."
He nodded. "I've got a bottle of laudanum for you. Don't let me forget to give it to you. Maybe it will help you sleep, if nothing else."
Lizzie reappeared with a wine bottle, corkscrew, and three long-stemmed glasses. She handed the bottle and corkscrew to Nicholas, and Xena noticed again how they smiled at each other.
"Is there something going on here that I don't know about?" she asked. "You two seem different tonight somehow."
The older woman smiled and colored slightly. "Well, we didn't know if it was a good time to tell you," she said, "what with you being so worried about Gabrielle and all."
"You can tell me."
"Okay. Well, uh, what happened was that last night after the storytelling, Nicholas and I sat in the parlor and had a really long talk about a lot of things, and well, the result was--" She stopped and blushed again, then turned to the doctor. "You tell her," she said.
He laughed as he carefully pulled the cork out of the wine bottle. "The result of our little talk," he said with a smile, "was that I asked Lizzie to be my wife, and she agreed."
"That's wonderful news," Xena said, smiling back at them. "That makes me feel better than I've felt all day."
"Good. Then I'm glad we told you," Nicholas said. He poured out a glass of the deep red wine and handed it to her.
When the other two had their glasses, Xena raised hers and said, "Here's to many happy years of love and good health for both of you."
"Amen! I'll drink to that!" Nicholas exclaimed.
"Thank you, Xena," said Lizzie. "What a nice toast!"
Then the three of them clinked their glasses together and each took a drink.
"When will the wedding be?" asked Xena.
"We haven't set a date yet," said Nicholas, "but it will probably be soon -- maybe in a month or so. There's really no reason to wait."
"If you're still here, Xena," Lizzie said, "I'd love to have you stand up with me at the ceremony."
"I doubt that I'll be here, but-- Well, if I am, I'll be glad to do that."
"Nicholas is going to move to the boarding house," Lizzie went on, "and we're going to turn the ladies' parlor into his examining room."
"That should work out nicely," Xena said and took a long sip of the cool, sweet wine. "What does Ellis have to say about your engagement?"
"Oh, we haven't told him yet," said Lizzie. "We wanted you to be the first to know."
"Yes," Nicholas said, "because we wanted to thank you. If you and I hadn't had that little discussion last night, I might have stayed stuck in my fear forever. I would never have seen how much Lizzie means to me, and I'm afraid we both would have missed out on a lot of happiness."
Xena smiled and then drank some more wine.
"Of course, maybe you would give me different advice tonight," the doctor went on in a slightly hesitant tone, "now that you've . . . lost Gabrielle."
"I haven't lost her," Xena said, shaking her head. "I'm going to keep looking until I find her. And even if--" She stopped to take a deep breath. "Even if something happens and I can't bring her back," she went on, "I still won't have lost her. She's a part of me now. She's part of everything I do and say. She'll always be right here," the warrior finished, touching her chest.
There was silence after she finished speaking. Lizzie reached for Nicholas' hand and Xena saw that there were tears in her eyes. Tipping her head back, the warrior drained her wine glass and set it on the table. "If you'll excuse me," she said, "I think I'll go on upstairs."
"Can't I talk you into eating some cherry pie?"
"No, I'm afraid not," Xena said. Then she pushed back her chair and stood up.
"I'll get that laudanum for you," Nicholas said. "It's in my bag in the little parlor."
He left the room and headed down the hallway. Lizzie walked with Xena to the staircase.
"I can't tell you how sorry I am that this whole thing happened," the older woman said.
Xena looked at her. "Does this have anything to do with that healing you were talking about?" she asked. "That healing that supposedly won't feel like healing?"
"I don't know," Lizzie admitted. She hesitated for a moment and then said, "You probably won't believe me, but I actually have the feeling that somehow Gabrielle is all right and this is all going to turn out better than we think it is."
"You're right. I don't believe you," Xena said with a sad smile. "But I certainly wish I could."
Nicholas emerged from the parlor with a small, corked bottle in his hand. "Here you are," he said. "This should help chase those headaches away."
"Thanks. What do I owe you for it?"
"Nothing. I'm the one who's in your debt, remember?"
"Okay, if you insist," Xena said and smiled. Then she turned to Lizzie. "Herbert and I are heading out at first light to look for the outlaws again."
Lizzie nodded. "Stop by the kitchen and get some food to take with you," she said. "I'll be up."
"And if you need anything during the night, just come knock on my door. I don't mind."
"Thank you, Lizzie. You're a good friend. Good night."
"Good night, Dear," the older woman said, giving Xena a hug.
"Good night, Xena," said Nicholas. He offered her his hand and she clasped it warmly. "Good luck to you tomorrow," he added.
"Thanks. Good night," the warrior said. Then, turning, she started up the steps.
* * *
It was dark in the room, so Xena left the door open until she got the lamp lit. She noted, as she performed the task, that she no longer took much interest in the miracle of flame appearing at the end of the matchstick. Was it because she had grown so soon used to the idea of instant fire, or was it more because of her concern over Gabrielle?
Sighing, she unbuckled her gun belt and hung it over a chair, along with her chakram. Then she began undressing, wondering dully whether it was really worth the effort, since she didn't expect to be able to sleep. After sponging herself off in a perfunctory way at the washbasin, she donned her nightshift and then wandered back over to the table. Her eye fell on Gabrielle's nightshift, which lay in a heap on the floor where the young woman had dropped it. Picking it up, Xena held it close and buried her face in the soft linen fabric, breathing in the gentle scent of her lover which still clung to the garment. After a few moments, she lifted her head and looked around the room, wondering how such a small space could seem so incredibly empty.
She pulled out a chair and sat down, still holding the nightshift. This is where she had sat last night, talking to Gabrielle. What had the bard been so afraid of? Was it this thing that had happened today? Had she somehow known that she would have to endure the horror of being raped again? And where was she now? Was she lying all tied up, bruised and maybe bleeding, on the cold, hard floor of the outlaws' hideaway? Did she wonder why Xena hadn't come to rescue her? Did she blame her for not protecting her?
Xena leaned back in the chair, letting her body sag heavily against the unyielding wooden slats. Nicholas was right. It did no good to think this way. It only clouded the mind and made it impossible to focus on what needed to be done. Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to think about the canyons and draws she and Herbert had searched. They should have been able to find the robbers, and yet they hadn't. Where had they gone wrong? What should they do differently tomorrow?
There had been something about that canyon -- the one where they had eaten lunch. She had had the feeling they were onto something there, but what? It made no sense that anyone would hide in a dead-end place like that. Yet she had seen someone there -- or had she? Had it just been her imagination? To go up among the boulders and look would have been suicide if anyone with a gun were really hiding there. Still, she could have at least gone to the end of the canyon and seen for herself that there was no outlet. She would do that tomorrow. And after that -- well, they would figure out something.
Her head was beginning to ache again, which reminded her of the laudanum. Picking up the bottle, she held it in the lamplight and watched the way the light shone dimly through the liquid within. After a moment, she pulled out the cork and put the bottle to her lips. She took a long swallow of the medicine, hesitated, and then took another one. Replacing the cork, she set the bottle back on the table.
Her gaze fell on the book Gabrielle had been reading the night before. She picked it up and turned it over in her hands, noting the scrap of paper the bard had left sticking out from between the pages to mark her place. Opening the front cover, Xena turned to the first page and scanned a few sentences. Then, with a small sigh, she closed the book again, knowing she could not concentrate on it as long as Gabrielle was in danger.
She looked down at the bard's nightshift lying in her lap and ran her fingers softly over the fabric to smooth it. Then she stood up and moved to the wall, where she hung the garment on a peg. Returning to the table, she reached over to turn out the lamp. There were too many things in this room which were painful to see -- too many things which reminded her of Gabrielle.
She made a slow circuit of the dark room on bare feet, noting which of the floorboards creaked. Then she made another circuit in perfect silence. Stopping at the window, she looked out over the rooftops of the neighboring buildings. She could see part of the street, but the only activity seemed to be near the saloons. The clock downstairs chimed ten times, and soon afterwards Xena heard soft voices in the hallway, followed by the sound of the door opening and closing. She caught a glimpse of Nicholas heading home along the boardwalk, and then she heard Lizzie's footsteps on the stairs and in the hallway as she turned out the lamps. Next came the muffled noises of the older woman moving around in the room next door, and after that, a deep silence settled over the house.
Xena remained at the window, staring out at nothing in particular. After a time she noted, but without much interest, that her feet were getting cold. She also noticed that her headache was gone. The laudanum was taking its effect, spreading through her body like a gentle glow, bringing her the first sense of calm that she had felt all day.
Moving to the bed, she pulled back the covers and slipped under them. The straw mattress rustled softly and she lay on her back, staring into the darkness. Her body felt light and easy, as if she were floating in the peaceful waters of a lake. All thoughts of trouble or danger faded slowly away as her eyelids grew heavy and then drifted shut. She wandered in and out of sleep, hearing the clock strike twelve, and afterwards dozing off again until she woke to the lonely chime of one.
Turning on her side, she settled into the new position and was just letting herself slide once more toward slumber when a new sound suddenly made her body go rigid and alert. It was the sound of the downstairs door opening. And now, raising her head and listening carefully, she heard it close again. In one swift movement, she was out of bed. Crossing the room on silent feet, she eased the door open and glided out into thehall.
In the darkness below, Xena saw a vague movement and heard footsteps which sounded more uncertain than stealthy. They stopped at the bottom of the stairs, and after that the warrior heard a long, weary sigh. Edging forward, she strained her eyes into the blackness, but could make out nothing. "Who's there?" she asked in a low voice.
"Xena, is that you?" the answer came in Greek.
In the blink of an eye, Xena had found her way down the stairs, and was clasping her lover tightly in her arms. Emotion clogged her throat and kept her from speaking for several long moments. But finally she released her hold and pulled back slightly, trying to see the younger woman in the darkness. "Gabrielle," she whispered in Greek, "I've been frantic with worry about you. Are you hurt?"
"No," murmured the bard. "No, I'm not hurt, but I'm really cold and I feel exhausted. I don't know if I can even make it up the stairs."
Without a word, Xena bent and scooped her up. Then, feeling each step carefully with her feet, she began the climb up to the room. "Your dress is all wet," she said softly. "No wonder you're cold."
"I know. I had to cross the river, and it was so dark that I kept slipping on the rocks and falling down. I got pretty well soaked."
"Don't worry. We'll get you warmed up in no time," Xena said.
They had reached the top of the stairs, and now they continued the few paces along the hall and through the open door of their room. Once inside, Xena set Gabrielle's feet on the floor, and then, as she straightened up, she felt the younger woman's arms go around her in a sudden, fierce embrace.
Holding her lover's trembling body tightly against her own, Xena pressed her face against the damp, tangled hair and breathed a deep sigh of relief. But after a few moments, she pulled away. "You're shivering," she said. "We need to get those wet clothes off of you."
She turned to close the door and was surprised to see a light moving in the hallway. A moment later, Lizzie appeared in the doorway.
"Xena?" she said. "Are you all right? I thought I heard voices."
"I'm fine, and guess who's here," Xena said with a grin as she drew the older woman into the room and then stood aside to let her see.
"Oh my Lord! Gabrielle!" Lizzie exclaimed. She set her lamp on the table and rushed to embrace the young woman. "You can't imagine how worried we've been," she said. "Did they hurt you, Child?"
"No. I got away before they could do anything to me."
"Got away! Well, aren't you the clever one!" Lizzie said, hugging her again. "Your clothes are all wet," she observed.
"Yes, we were about to get those off and try to warm her up," Xena said. She pulled out a chair, and Gabrielle sank down on it. Then the warrior knelt and began unlacing the soggy leather boots.
"What can I do?" Lizzie asked. "Would you like a glass of warm milk, Gabrielle?"
"Yes, that would be wonderful, thanks."
"Good. How about some food? Are you hungry?"
"A little, but I think I'm too tired to eat much," Gabrielle said.
"I've got cherry pie," Lizzie coaxed. "Surely you could eat a piece of cherry pie."
Gabrielle smiled and nodded. "Yes, I think I could eat that."
"Fine. I'll get it for you," Lizzie said. Then she added, "How about you, Xena? You didn't eat much supper. Do you want something now?"
"No, but thanks, Lizzie," said the warrior, glancing up.
"I don't know what I'm going to do with you," she said, frowning and shaking her head in mock despair. Then, going to the table, she lit the other lamp. "Anything else I can get you?" she asked, picking up her own light. "Do you have enough blankets?"
"Yes, I think we'll be fine," Xena said.
"All right. I'll be back soon," Lizzie said, then she turned and left the room.
* * *
Xena finished unlacing Gabrielle's boots and pulled them off. Then she looked up, noting that the bard's face appeared pale and drawn in the lamplight. "I was so afraid of what those bastards were going to do to you," she said softly, switching back to Greek. And rising up on her knees, she clasped Gabrielle's cold hands between her own. "I tried so hard to fi nd you. I looked all day long. Herbert did, too, but once we lost the trail, we just couldn't seem to pick it up again."
"I know," Gabrielle said. "I never doubted that you were looking for me, but that place where those men hide out, it's in a kind of secret canyon or something. It's very hard to find."
"Do you think you could find it again?"
She nodded. "I made a little pile of rocks to mark which canyon it's in," she said.
"Good," Xena said. "We need to go there first thing in the morning, with Herbert, and try to catch them before they can get away."
"Okay," Gabrielle said and shivered.
Reminded of what she was supposed to be doing, Xena quickly released Gabrielle's hands and began unbuttoning the wet dress. "Tell me what happened," she urged. "How did you manage to get away from them?"
"Well, at first I was so scared that I couldn't think about anything, really," Gabrielle began in a low voice. "I was just so sure I was going to be raped again." She paused for a moment and then went on. "But as we were riding, I began to realize that I had a little time before anything happened, and that if I could just focus, maybe I could come up with some kind of plan. So I started thinking about those rules of survival you told me a long time ago, and I tried to decide what I should do."
"Good for you," Xena said, nodding. "Now, stand up for a minute so I can get these clothes off of you."
Gabrielle stood and Xena pulled the wet dress down over her lover's shoulders and hips, followed by the petticoat, and then helped her step out of them. "Okay, now turn around so I can unlace this other thing," she instructed. "What's it called?"
"A chemise," Gabrielle said. Then she added, "I feel like I should be helping you get me undressed, but I'm so tired I can hardly see straight."
"No problem," Xena said with a grin as she slid the undergarment down. "I like undressing you, remember?"
"Yeah, I remember," said Gabrielle, giving a weak grin in return.
Moving quickly to the wall, Xena retrieved Gabrielle's nightshift from the peg where she had hung it, brought it back and helped the younger woman put it on. Then, pulling a blanket off the bed, she wrapped it around her and sat her back down in the chair. "Go on with your story," she said. "You didn't get very far."
"Oh. Well, let's see. We went along the road a ways and then we turned off and crossed an open area to some trees. Bill kept looking around to see if anyone was following us, and when we got to the trees, he stopped and took that red cloth from around his neck and tied it over my eyes."
Xena sat cross-legged in front of Gabrielle and reached for the sheepskin, which she wrapped around one of the bard's feet. Then, taking the other foot in her lap, she began trying to massage some warmth back into it. >From this angle, she could see several bruises on the young woman's shins and knees, probably the result of falling on the slippery rocks.
"We went on a little ways," Gabrielle continued, "and then we came to the river. We waded in and went toward the left, and after a while, we came out on the other side. It sounded like the ground was rocky, so I was afraid we weren't leaving any footprints."
"You weren't, believe me," Xena said with a cynical smile. "What happened after that?" she asked.
"Well, after that, we just rode along for a while, but I couldn't see where we were going, of course. So I asked Bill where he was taking me, and he said he couldn't tell me. And then I asked him how far it was, and he told me to stop asking questions. He still kept turning around to look behind us, so I started talking about you and what a great warrior you were and how you had led armies and killed thousands of people. And I also said that you were really good at tracking and that you could find anybody, no matter where they tried to hide."
"Yeah, right," Xena said, snorting. "Well, we know just how true that turned out to be."
"It didn't matter if it was true or not," returned Gabrielle. "The point was just to make him worry about the fact that you were looking for him."
"And did it work? Did he get worried?"
"Yes, I think so, although he didn't admit it. He just told me to shut up because someone might hear us."
Xena nodded, then she switched her massage efforts to Gabrielle's other foot.
"Anyway, pretty soon we got to the cabin," the bard said, using the English word.
"Yeah, that's what they call it. It's just this little, one-room house and the walls are made out of logs stacked on top of each other."
"Really. They're notched at the ends so they fit together, and then the spaces between them are filled with mud."
"So I guess he took the blindfold off of you."
"Yes, but only after we got inside. Then he made me sit on the floor, which was made out of really rough boards, and he tied me to the frame of the bed, only it's like two beds, with one right above the other. And he tied my feet, too. I asked him where the other men were, and he said they went the other way. I don't know what he meant by that."
"There's probably a second way to get to the cabin," Xena said. "If there was only one way, it wouldn't be a very good hideout because they could get trapped there."
"Yeah. That makes sense."
"Did you see the Cronus Stone while you were there?"
"No, I didn't, come to think of it. I was so worried about what they were going to do to me that I totally forgot to look for it. But if it had been sitting out in plain sight, I'm sure I would have noticed."
"Let's just hope they've hidden it someplace, and haven't sold it or anything."
Hearing Lizzie's steps on the stairs, Xena tucked Gabrielle's foot back under the sheepskin and got up to open the door.
The older woman smiled at them as she came into the room, carrying a tray in one hand and the lamp in the other. "I brought pie and milk for both of you," she said, setting the tray on the table. Then she handed one of the glasses to Gabrielle. "How are you doing, Dear?" she asked. "Are you getting any warmer?"
"Yes, I think I'm finally starting to thaw out," Gabrielle said. She slipped her arms out through the folds of the blanket, took the milk and began drinking in long, eager swallows. The glass was half empty when she stopped. "I guess I was really thirsty," she admitted. "Thanks, Lizzie."
"You're more than welcome," Lizzie said. "It's the least I could do after everything you've been through today." She handed Gabrielle a piece of pie on a plate, then gave the other glass of milk and serving of pie to Xena.
"Thanks," said the warrior and sat down on the floor. She was surprised at how hungry she suddenly felt. Raising the glass to her lips, she took a long, slow drink, then dug into the pie with her fork. "Gabrielle was about to tell me how she got away from the outlaws," she said to Lizzie with her mouth full.
"Oh, I'd like to hear that story myself," the older woman said as she settled herself in the other chair.
Gabrielle swallowed a mouthful of pie, then addressed herself to Lizzie. "Well, like I already told Xena, Bill Garrison took me to this little cabin back in a canyon and tied me up. I told him that Xena and Sheriff Lees were sure to find the hideout soon because Xena was such a good tracker, and he said, 'If she shows up here, I'll just have to kill her.' Then he told me if I didn't keep quiet, he might kill me, too, so I didn't say much after that."
She grinned and took a quick bite of pie. Then she went on. "I could tell he was worried, though," she said, "and when the other two got there, he went outside and they all stood around and talked about what they should do." She swallowed, then gulped some milk. "In the end," she said, "Bill and that one named George went off on foot, and they left the third guy, Isaiah, there in the cabin with me."
"Isaiah," Xena said. "He's the one who rode off with the money bag, isn't he?"
"What did he do?" asked Lizzie. "Did he try to hurt you?"
"Well, no, because Bill gave him strict instructions not to do anything until they got back. I guess Bill wanted to be the first to . . . you know. But I could tell Isaiah was really tempted. He came in the cabin and sat down and just kept looking at me in a horrible, lecherous sort of way."
"How awful!" Lizzie exclaimed.
"Yes, it was," agreed Gabrielle, "but I realized that with only one outlaw to deal with, maybe I could somehow fool him and get away, so I started trying to talk to him."
"What on earth can you talk about with a man like that?" asked Lizzie.
Xena laughed. "Don't worry," she said. "If there's anyone who can talk to anybody about anything, it's Gabrielle."
The younger woman laughed, too. "Xena's right," she said. "So I just started asking him things, like where was he from and how long had he been an outlaw, and if it was fun to rob banks. And pretty soon he got to talking, telling me all about himself, and then before long he came over and sat down on the floor by me. He got real close and began saying he thought I was pretty, and stuff like that, but he smelled really bad, like he hadn't had a bath in quite a while. And then he started touching me -- first my face, and then -- other places." Her voice broke and she stopped speaking. She stared down at her empty pie plate for a moment and then set it on the table.
Xena laid aside her own plate and slid across the floor to sit beside Gabrielle. Reaching up, she clasped one of the younger woman's hands in her own.
"I'm sorry," Gabrielle said with a weak smile. "I don't know why this part of the story is so hard to tell."
"We understand," Xena said softly. "Just take your time."
"Well, the worst part," Gabrielle said after a moment, "was that I had to pretend I was enjoying it all. I told him that if he untied me, I could really make him feel good. But he said Bill would get mad if we did anything, so I said I would just give him a little backrub."
"Mmm," said Xena with a grin. "Who could pass up one of Gabrielle's backrubs?"
"She's pretty good, is she?" said Lizzie.
"Well, only because Xena taught me everything she knows," Gabrielle said, squeezing the warrior's hand. She smiled at Lizzie and then went on with her story. "Anyway, I eventually talked Isaiah into untying me, and at first he just kept trying to kiss me. But finally I got him to lie down on the bed and I started rubbing his shoulders, and when he got all nice and relaxed and closed his eyes, I hit him over the head with a stick of firewood."
Xena laughed. "I guess I'll think twice before I ask Gabrielle for another backrub," she said.
"I don't blame you," Lizzie agreed, grinning. Then she turned to the bard. "Did you run away after that?" she asked.
"Yes. I went out the back door and started sneaking along the canyon, hiding behind every rock and bush I could find. I was really scared that Bill and George would come back and catch me, but I didn't see them anywhere. So after a while, I climbed partway up the side of the canyon and found a little rock ledge hidden behind some grass and shrubs, and I crawled in under it."
"Lordy, Gabrielle!" said Lizzie with a shudder. "You could have been bit by a rattlesnake, crawling in a place like that!"
"Oh. Well, I didn't think about that. I was just looking for a good place to hide. I figured it would be better to wait until dark and then try to find my way back to town."
"That sounds like a good plan," said Xena, "and one that apparently worked."
"Yes, it worked," Gabrielle returned, "but I had to wait for hours, and I was terrified the whole time that they were going to find me. I hadn't been there too long when I heard two shots, not very far away. My first thought was that they had killed Xena," she said, glancing at the warrior, "or maybe Xena and Herbert both. But then I realized maybe it meant Xena had killed--"
"Wait a minute!" Xena exclaimed. "You heard two shots? Just two, and then no more?"
"Herbert fired two shots. He and I were in a strange little dead-end canyon and I thought I saw someone moving, up among the rocks. So Herbert fired a couple of times to try to get them to shoot back, but no one did."
"Are you saying you were in the same canyon where Gabrielle was hiding?" Lizzie asked.
"No, we couldn't have been, because Herbert and I went almost all the way to the end of our canyon and there was no cabin there. But we must have been close by."
Gabrielle nodded. "See?" she said to Xena. "You really were pretty much on their trail, but you just didn't know it. And that person you saw -- maybe that was George or Bill."
"Maybe so," agreed the warrior, "if I really saw someone. At least it would make sense that they wouldn't return our fire if they didn't want us to know how close we were."
"Yes, that would explain it," said Lizzie, "but I just keep thinking about poor Gabrielle, hiding there all day long under that rock ledge. Did those outlaws ever come looking for you, Child?"
"Yes, they did. Not too long after the shots, I heard Bill and George going back along the canyon toward the cabin. And a little while after that, they started looking for me. One of them walked past not more than three paces from where I was hiding. I don't know which one it was -- all I could see were his boots -- but he stopped right there and I thought for sure he would look under the ledge, but he didn't. He just went on." She stopped and gave the other two a weak grin. "It was a long time before I could breathe again, though," she added.
"Yes, I imagine it was," said Lizzie, nodding her head.
"So then you just stayed there until it got dark?" asked Xena.
"Right. I think it was the longest day of my life," Gabrielle said. "Even after the sun went down, it seemed to take forever before it got dark. And then, of course, I couldn't see where I was going, but I kind of slipped and slid down to the canyon floor and I followed the little stream. I figured it would eventually lead me back to the river."
"Good thinking," said Xena.
"The only thing was that after a while, the canyon got really narrow and then it just seemed to end in a bunch of trees and bushes."
"It seemed to end?" said the warrior.
"Yes, but the stream kept going, so I kept following it, and it turned out there was a passageway there -- just enough space for someone on horseback to get through between the rocks and brush, and then it opened out into another canyon."
"Another canyon!" exclaimed, Xena. "That must be the one where Herbert and I were. We thought it was a dead end, but apparently there's an opening, like you said."
"So that would explain why Gabrielle could hear the shots, even though you weren't in the same canyon -- or not exactly," said Lizzie.
Xena nodded. "That would explain it, all right," she said. "If I had just gone down there and looked, I might have seen that opening and we could have found the cabin."
"Well, it's really hard to see, so I'm not surprised you didn't find it," Gabrielle said.
"That sure does beat all," Lizzie said, shaking her head. "No wonder those outlaws have been able to hide so close to town all these years without anybody finding them."
"We're going to go after them tomorrow, first thing," said Xena. Then, turning to Gabrielle, she added, "And now that I know how to find the canyon, you don't even need to go with us, unless you want to."
"But I do want to. I'd like to see those scum get what's coming to them," she said and then she yawned.
"Do you two want anything else to eat or drink?" Lizzie said. "I should have asked earlier, but I got all interested in Gabrielle's story and forgot."
"No, we're fine," Xena said, glancing at the younger woman for confirmation. "I think what we need now is to get some sleep."
"Yes, morning will be here before we know it," said Lizzie, getting up from her chair. "Why don't I take Gabrielle's clothes and boots downstairs and put them near the cookstove to dry," she offered. "The fire's been banked, but it's still warmer down there than it is up here. I'll come back for those plates and glasses tomorrow," she added.
"Thank you, Lizzie," said Gabrielle. She bent down to unwrap the sheepskin from around her feet and then stood up.
"I'm just so glad you're back home, safe and sound," the older woman said, giving her a hug. "Sleep well. You too, Xena," she added, reaching down to pat the warrior on the head. Then, picking up the clothes and her lamp, she went to the door, turned long enough to smile at them, and then disappeared into the hallway.
Xena got stiffly to her feet and set her plate on the table. Gabrielle was already heading for the bed.
"Do you want to wash up or anything?" asked the warrior.
"No. I'll do it in the morning," the bard said. Taking off the blanket she'd been wearing, she spread it over the bed and then crawled under the covers.
Xena watched her for a moment before blowing out the lamp. Crossing the room, she lay down beside Gabrielle and wrapped her arms around her. "Are you warm enough?" she asked softly, switching to the more intimate-sounding Greek.
"Yeah, I'm fine," murmured the younger woman, burying her face against the warrior's neck.
"I am so proud of you, Gabrielle," Xena said. "You kept your head even though you were in a very bad situation, and you found a way to get out of it, without help from me or anybody else."
"I did all right, didn't I?"
"You did more than all right," the warrior said. "Most people would have let themselves become victims, but you didn't. You used your skills and your knowledge to good advantage. And now you're back here, and I'm holding you in my arms again. I can't tell you how good it feels."
"Uh-huh. It feels good to me, too," mumbled Gabrielle.
Xena knew she should let her fall asleep, but she couldn't -- not when there were things she still needed to know. "Gabrielle?" she said.
"Do you think this is what you've been so afraid of? This thing that happened today?"
"I don't know. Maybe. But in a way, I still feel afraid -- like there's something else that's going to happen."
"Something else? What do you mean?"
"I don't know, Xena. Can we talk about it in the morning? I'm too tired right now."
"Okay, Sweetheart. I'm sorry," Xena said and softly stroked Gabrielle's hair. "Good night," she added, but there was no answer. She heard her lover's breathing deepen and the clock downstairs strike twice. Closing her eyes, she willed herself to relax, but her mind was still too active -- full of images from Gabrielle's story and plans for the next day's raid on the outlaws' cabin.
After a time, she fell into a light sleep, but woke periodically to assure herself that her lover was really there, safe in her arms again. Then, shortly after the clock struck four, she drifted into deeper slumber and dreamed she was riding Argo along the river, searching for Gabrielle. She could find no tracks to follow, but filled with a frantic sense of desperation, she pushed herself and her mount ever onward. Then, rounding a bend, she saw a boat tied up at the shore. It looked strangely familiar and yet she could not place it. Nor could she see the face of the boatman. She stopped to watch and was surprised when Gabrielle emerged from the trees and approached the boat. After a brief conversation, the young woman offered the man a coin, and he held out his hand to help her aboard. At that moment, Xena felt the cold shock of recognition. It was Charon, ferryman of the underworld. "No!" she cried. "Gabrielle, no!"
The cry woke both her and her companion, and she opened her eyes in the pre-dawn light to see her lover leaning over her.
"Xena, what is it? What's wrong?" Gabrielle asked, gently brushing the hair back from the warrior's face.
"I-- I had a dream."
"Must have been a bad one."
"It was. I was looking for you all along the river, but I couldn't find you."
Gabrielle smiled. "Well, now you did. I'm right here beside you."
"Yes, so you are," Xena said with a weak grin. She reached up to touch Gabrielle's cheek, then pulled her close in a strong embrace.
"You're trembling," Gabrielle said, raising her head to look at the warrior again.
"Am I? Well, I'll be all right in a minute. You lie down and try to go back to sleep."
"That shouldn't be too hard," said Gabrielle. "Are you sure you're okay?"
She laid her head on the warrior's chest, and after a few minutes Xena felt her relax into slumber once more. But for herself, she knew there would be only wakefulness now. The chill of the dream still lingered deep within her. Why would she have dreamed such a thing when Gabrielle was lying, secure and warm, right there in her arms? Was it a portent of the future? She had never before had a dream of that nature, so why should this one be different? Surely it was just a symbol of the fear she always carried with her -- the fear of losing Gabrielle. Yes, that made sense, she decided at last, and she resolutely shut the image of Charon's boat out of her mind.
She lay there for some minutes longer, staring at the gray shadows on the ceiling, then carefully slipped out of Gabrielle's embrace.
"Where are you going?" the bard asked sleepily.
"Just to tell Herbert that you're back. You stay here and sleep a little while longer. I'll bring some breakfast up for you."
"Okay," said Gabrielle, turning over on her back and closing her eyes again.
Moving quietly about the room, Xena got dressed and put on her gun belt and chakram. She started toward the door, but then stopped and went back to stand beside the bed. The sight of her lover lying there asleep in the soft morning light stirred an ache of longing deep inside her. "I love you, Gabrielle," she whispered, then reluctantly turned and left the room.