DISCLAIMERS: These characters don't belong to me, unfortunately. They belong to Universal, but if they did belong to me, I'd be making a movie right now.
Language: Yes, this story contains Janice Covington and some other characters who get a tad ticked off once in a while, so there will be just a hair of foul language. If you don't like it, you might move on.
Subtext: Again, yeah. This story portrays women who love each other. If you are under 18 or this stuff is illegal where you are, get along little dogies.
Violence: Yeah. Some. But only 'cause this is a reality-TV themed piece. There's a little bit of gore in here, too, even if it's in a comic context.
Land and animals: Despite the setting being Texas, when I describe the scenery, I'm really portraying New Mexico. No animals were harmed in the writing of this story.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to my beta reader who always rocks!
Surviving Big Brother's Texas Ranch
Bard of New Mexico
"Awwww, come on, Gabrielle! This is stupid! Why are the gods playing with us again and what is this place called Texas? And what in Hades is a ranch?" Xena complained. She'd just been told that Aphrodite and Ares would transport her, Gabrielle, and four Amazons to 1867 Texasto live on a ranch. The gods would also transport Mel and Janice, Xena's and Gabrielle's descendants, back in time to the ranch.
Gabrielle blinked as she considered the question and how to explain it to Xena, Ephiny, Eponin, Solari, and Yakut as they were waiting for Aphrodite and Ares. "Well, Aphrodite tells me there's another part of the world out there that will be discovered about 2,000 years from now. Part of that new place is called Texas. I'm not sure what a ranch is. We're going to have to find out and complete certain tasks or we'll have to pay a penalty."
"Damn them to Hades! I'm not going to be their pawn again!" Xena screamed.
"Wrong, warrior babe," a disembodied voice said before Aphrodite appeared in a flash of pink smoke. "Things are a bit boring up on Olympussince you've pretty much put the bad guys in their place." She pointed to Ares who just appeared in a flash of blue smoke touched with red and orange flame. "Ooh, nice touch, bro." Aphrodite smiled and complimented Ares on his new entrance style. Ares returned her smile, bowed slightly, and skulked over to the Warrior Princess.
"You really ought to bathe once in a while," Xena told Ares when he stood behind her. The smile on Ares' face fled. "Now, you were saying?"
Aphrodite took up the conversation's thread again. "Things are a bit boring right now, mostly due to your kick butt style and do-gooding ways, so the Olympic gods figured you owe us some entertainment."
"Why don't you ever respect human life?" Gabrielle questioned.
Ares moved closer to Gabrielle's ear, but he spoke loudly enough for everyone to hear. "Remember, Xena kills easily."
Two angry green eyes turned to meet Ares' brown ones. She defied Ares. "When she kills, she always has a reason for it!" Unconsciously, Gabrielle's hand sought out Xena's.
Xena gave Gabrielle's hand a light squeeze and let it go. "Enough." She turned to the god and goddess. "And what if we say no?"
Ares took a step away from Xena and Gabrielle and didn't mince his words. "Gabrielle dies."
The Amazons and Xena clenched their jaws and gave Ares hard, cold looks. Finally, Xena said calmly, "If Gabrielle dies, there's nowhere you can hide."
Ares laughed but didn't come any closer to Xena. He didn't trust her not to crush his "godhood". "Is that a threat?"
"No," Xena evenly replied. "It's a promise."
Aphrodite chimed in again. "Hey, bro, now might be a good time to tell them the good side of the deal."
Xena looked suspicious. "The good side?"
"Yeah, warrior babe. It's a real upper. You might get a rush from it."
"Yeah, Ares," Xena turned her attention back to Ares. "What is the 'good side' of it?"
"First of all, you'll see Mel and Janice again. We're bringing them back."
"Who are they?" Eponin asked.
Gabrielle's face brightened. She pointed to herself and Xena. "We're their ancestors. Xena told me about them after she went missing one day. She didn't get to meet Mel because she was in Mel's body, but she saw Janice and she says Janice looks exactly like me! I can't wait to meet them!"
Xena and the Amazons looked at Gabrielle like she was crazy. Gabrielle blushed under everyone's gaze. "Oh, come on. Wouldn't you want to meet your descendants, too? Wouldn't you like to meet the part of you that'll live on?" Everyone thought about it and nodded in unison. Gabrielle smiled again.
Xena once again turned to the god and goddess. "It looks like you've convinced Gabrielle, but you still have to convince me. Do you have anything to add to the table?"
Ares circled to Xena's back and spoke seductively in her ear. "I saved the best for last. Close your eyes." Xena did so. "Imagine a limitless land under some of the bluest skies you have ever seen. The wild grass is so tall that when the wind blows through it, it rolls in waves and you roll with it...."
On the back of her eyelids, a scene played. Xena could see the sky stretch to the horizon and melt with the land. She knew there was more beyond her vision. Xena also imagined being on a horse, riding through such waves of grass, feeling like she was on a ship at sea instead of atop an animal on land.
Ares used Xena's love of a challenge against her. "It is not a place for the faint hearted, Xena. The land abounds in dangers not only from people, but from the most unusual creatures. Oh, yes, it is a land you can't tame.
Now here's the good part. Although you will get bumped and bruised and feel the pain of what the land and animals offer, neither you nor your friends will die. You can see what more this world has to offer and you can live it as large as you want...as large as you dare."
Ares circled Xena again until he was face-to-face with her. Although her face was passive, he could feel the excitement rising in her. She slid open her eyes. "We need to set some ground rules first."
Aphrodite held up a hand and pointed at herself and Ares again. "No, we need to set some ground rules first, warrior babe. You need to make the ranch show something." She yawned to show her boredom when it came to money. "You know, profit. Then you can come home."
Ares picked up again. "You have to do certain tasks by certain times or you will have to pay a penalty. Something harsh, but you can't die."
Aphrodite's turn came again. "Only four of you may choose to leave or be kicked off the ranch. A harsher penalty awaits whoever leaves and comes back here or whoever votes to kick someone off the ranch."
Xena had heard enough. "Are you done?"
Aphrodite and Ares looked at each other. "Yep, pretty much," they said in unison.
"Okay. Now it's my turn," Xena growled. "If we play this silly game, nobody gets killed, you safeguard Greecefor me, and we come back at some point in time."
Aphrodite and Ares looked at each other again. "Okay. Bon voyage," they said in unison.
* * *
Xena was first aware of an intense heat on her back. Alarmed, she grabbed at her sword and chakram and found neither weapon on her. She didn't even have her hidden daggers. "Great," she muttered. "Have to do things the hard way."
She carefully opened her eyes and blinked against the white hot sunlight. She saw the land she'd imagined when she closed her eyes. Xena called for her bard. "Hey, Gabrielle? Look at this!"
Gabrielle groggily pushed herself up. "What?" She wrinkled her nose at the putrid smell.
Xena turned to her and smiled.
"What?" Gabrielle repeated.
"I think you landed face-first on a fresh cow patty."
"Ugh!" Green eyes closed as Gabrielle wiped the muck from her face. She ran the backs of her arms against her mouth. Ptooey, ptooey. She spat out saliva to keep the dung from entering her mouth, and her face wrinkled in big-time disgust. "I didn't know we were paying penalties already."
Xena smiled a bright smile. "We're not."
"You mean it gets worse than this," Gabrielle complained.
The rest of the Amazons were waking up from their trip. Ephiny made her way over to Gabrielle but stopped a few feet short. She shook her head of honey-colored curls and smiled. "I don't suppose it's in Amazon protocol to tell the queen she stinks?"
Gabrielle frowned. "No, it's not, but duly noted."
Xena, Gabrielle, and Ephiny turned when they heard a groan from one of the other Amazons. Yakut and Eponin hid Solari from view. All three were standing in a ring.
"What is it?" Xena called.
Yakut, always on duty as a healer, answered. "Solari landed on a plant that bit her."
Gabrielle looked at Xena. This land was almost stranger than she had imagined. "A plant that bites?"
"No," a voice from a big clump of tall prairie grass said. The speaker spoke perfect Greek. "She landed on a cactus. It's going to take forever to get those spines out of her arm, huh Mel?"
"By the Gods," Solari whispered, forgetting for a moment that she'd landed on a cactus.
"It's like looking at my reflection in the water," Gabrielle said as Janice and Mel stepped forward, wearing 1940s-style clothes that were foreign to the ancient Greeks.
Mel smiled and pointed at Xena. "That's mine," she said in English, in a heavy Southern accent. She pointed at a dung-covered Gabrielle. "That's yours."
Janice aimed her sarcasm at Mel. "Ha, ha."
Mel straightened her skewed glasses and gave Xena a big hug, which Xena gladly returned. Although Xena never met Mel face-to-face, she'd had a good glimpse into Mel's feelings and thoughts when she was in Mel's body. She liked what kind of woman her descendant was.
The Amazons scurried to form a protective barrier in front of their queen, but Gabrielle waved them off. Janice blinked twice. "You are the Amazons' queen, aren't you?" she asked Gabrielle in Greek.
Janice gave Mel a smile and then turned her attention to Gabrielle again. "Well, I'd hug you and all, but...." Janice pointed to the cow poop covering Gabrielle.
The bard laughed. "It's all right. Let's go find a place to clean up, shall we? And you can tell me more about that cactus thing."
Xena spotted the adobe ranch house 100 yards off and headed everybody in that direction.
As Eponin took the rear position, she halted and looked up.
"What's up?" Yakut asked.
"Do you ever get the feeling we're being watched?"
* * *
Ares popped three grapes into his mouth and munched happily. He and Aphrodite watched the scene unfold in the Texasdesert. "Leave it up to your chosen to land in cow dung," he boasted to Aphrodite.
She frowned. "That was so uncool, Bro!"
Ares just laughed.
"Yeah? Well, we'll see who gets the last laugh when I win our bet!"
* * *
Janice found a clean piece of linen and poured some water into a porcelain basin she found in one of the two bedrooms. She brought it over to the kitchen's plain wooden table. "Here you go. It's kind of cold."
"Thanks," Gabrielle replied. She took the piece of lye soap Janice found and started scrubbing. As the layers of dirt and dung came off, Janice recognized her own face more and more. Gabrielle caught her staring and grinned widely. "I have a cute kid. Looks just like me."
"So, how'd you get here?"
Janice took a cigar from her shirt pocket and angrily chomped on the end of it. "Funny enough, Ares and a goddess kidnapped us while we were looking for one of your scrolls."
"This goddess," Xena piped up, "Frilly pink lace thing?"
"Aren't there any other gods in on this sick joke?" Gabrielle asked after splashing a good handful of cold water on her face. She shook her head and told Janice, "Never mind. I don't think that's important just now. Did they tell you why you're here?"
"I heard Ares and Aphrodite arguing near the dig site. Something about some bet between them that neither you folks nor we are supposed to know about. Didn't get the details. Ares said something about leaving you to fend for yourself..."
"Big surprise," Xena growled.
"...but Aphrodite argued for some sort of mercy." Janice laughed bitterly. "I guess we're it." She saw the question in Xena's eyes and explained further. "I guess Mel and I know about the plants and animals around here. Could be useful to you. And Mel studied this period of time, too."
Xena looked at her. "Did you?"
Mel raised an eyebrow like Xena usually did and smiled self-consciously. "A little."
"What's so funny?" Xena asked.
"She looked just like you then!"
"Of course she looks like me! We're related!"
"N -- no," Gabrielle stuttered through her giggles. "She did the eyebrow thing just like you do. You didn't notice 'cause you can't see yourself do it."
Xena had to grin. It took so little for her bard, her partner, to laugh and smile. Her Gabrielle was sunshine personified. Xena took up the piece of cloth and started drying Gabrielle's arms, hands, and head. "It looks like we have two guides." Janice, Mel, and Gabrielle nodded in agreement. "Let's go see if your Amazons got the needles out of Solari."
The two pairs followed the dusty trail that led to the ranch hands' bunkhouse. Just outside the door, they heard a curse from within. "Son of a bacchae!"
"Just hold still, Solari. It'll hurt worse if you move," said Yakut.
The foursome opened the door and went to check on the progress. They saw Yakut's face near Solari's arm so she could see better. Yakut plucked the needles quickly.
"Ya look like you're pluckin' an ol' rooster," Mel observed.
"Looks that way," Ephiny dryly observed.
"Where's the garden?"
Ephiny pointed out back.
"Be right back." Mel left and circled to the back of the bunkhouse in search of the garden.
Gabrielle stood next to Solari and put her hand on Solari's back. She felt Solari relax a little. "How are you doing?"
"I don't ever want to be that intimate with a cactus again. It's like a tiny army threw all their spears at me." Yakut plucked again and Solari stiffened.
"It's just the plant's defense mechanism," Janice explained. "If some plant-eater goes after it, they get stuck and don't want to go after the cactus again."
Mel came back. She held a pointy part from some plant or other. Solari eyed it warily.
"Found it," Mel said proudly.
"What is it? I'm not going to mess around with any cactus again," Solari replied.
"It's not cactus. It's aloe." Mel carefully opened the leaf and revealed the slimy insides. "You rub the goop on your skin and it'll soothe you. It's good for burns and other skin irritations." Yakut took out the last cactus spine and Mel studied the small indentations on Solari's arm where the needles had been. Mel gently rubbed a little aloe on Solari's arm. "See?"
"Hey, yeah. That's all right."
Gabrielle took the aloe from Mel's hand, sniffed it, and tested its texture, rubbing it between her own fingers.
"What do ya s'ppose our first task is?" Mel asked as Gabrielle finished tending Solari.
As if in answer to her question, a scroll appeared next to her on the bunkhouse table. Xena snatched it and read. "We have until tonight to get into more proper clothes. Ephiny, Yakut, Solari, and Eponin will find their clothes in the corner of the bunkhouse." The Amazons' cowboy clothing magically appeared. "And the rest of us will find our clothing in a trunk in the ranch house."
Eponin picked up a cowboy hat. She saw the strap hanging down and put that at the back of her head and pulled the hat down in front of her face like a mask so she was looking into the hat. "Hey," she complained, "I can't see through this thing."
Mel giggled and Janice sighed, seeing the big job they had ahead of them getting everyone dressed. "It's a cowboy hat. Here." Janice took the hat off Eponin's face. She resettled the hat on Eponin's head and adjusted the strap under her chin. "Hurricane strap," Janice explained.
"One kind of storm you never wanna experience. But if a big wind blows, this strap will keep you from losing your hat." She caught Mel's eye and nodded toward Xena and Gabrielle. "You'd better take them and get them dressed. I'll deal with the Amazons." Mel agreed and the three left.
* * *
The ranch house's front door crashed open and an angry Janice Covington bolted out, screaming at the top of her lungs, "Son of a bitch! Seven layers? I'll wear that when hell freezes over!!!!!!!!" Janice stomped down the porch stairs and yelled at the sky, "I'd rather take my chance with a penalty!" Gabrielle chased after her wayward progeny hoping to calm Janice down. Before she could reach Janice, though, the earth beneath their feet rumbled and heaved. A white stallion came out of nowhere and raced towards Janice. A rope, coiled around the saddle horn, snaked out and grabbed Janice's arm and before she knew it, the horse ran away, dragging her behind it. Janice struggled with the rope, but it wouldn't give. Finally, the rope dropped off the saddle horn after the horse had gone a good mile. Janice didn't move.
Cursing the seven layers of dress that included stockings, bloomers, a corset, various petticoats, and hoops before the dress was finally put on, Xena moved as fast as she could to reach Janice. When she turned Janice over, Xena saw the cuts and scrapes that bloodied Janice's face and neck. Her trousers also had gigantic rips in the front, but nothing that couldn't be sewn up. Green eyes amazingly like Gabrielle's fluttered open. Xena smiled wryly. "Feel better?"
"Much," Janice replied before fainting.
Xena chuckled at the odd response. She picked Janice up in her arms and carried her towards the ranch house. She called to the others, "She'll be okay. She just fainted. Good thing she was wearing her leather jacket, too."
When the Amazon queen was near, Xena's blue eyes twinkled and she lifted Janice slightly. She told Gabrielle, "This one's yours!" That earned Xena a playful punch in the shoulder. "Careful now. You don't want me to drop her. If I dropped her on her head, maybe that'd make her normal."
By that time, Mel caught up with the others and gave Xena a playful punch on her other shoulder. Xena glared at Mel. "You're lucky we're family."
Xena growled, "Don't you dare start that! Maybe I should drop you both on your heads and knock some sense into you."
* * *
"Good one, Sis!" Ares chuckled gleefully at the sight of a bloodied Janice. "You know how Dad loves to change into animals. And that really beat the crap out of the runt! You really put her in her place!"
Aphrodite didn't take any pleasure from enforcing the first penalty. "That one was more your style, Bro."
* * *
Xena laid Janice down on one of the two large beds in the ranch house. Mel tended Janice's wounds.
"I guess the next order of business would be to choose the head of this place," Xena said.
"Yeah," Mel agreed. "Any thoughts?"
"Gabrielle. She has the unquestioning loyalty of the Amazons. That might be very important. I'm wondering why we were split up; we four in the ranch house and the Amazons in the bunkhouse. Physical division within a group can't be a good thing."
Mel looked Gabrielle over. "I was thinking the same thing."
Gabrielle sighed. "All right. I'll do it as long as I have the rest of you as my advisors."
"Hold on. Ya need a segundo," Mel said.
"Ya know, your second-in-command, your foreman. Xena would be a good choice there."
Gabrielle gazed into Xena's blue eyes. "Always," she whispered.
"Ya will still get input from us, maybe even forceful suggestions from her." Mel indicated Janice, whose eyes opened.
"Damn straight," Janice rasped.
"Not tonight, you don't," Xena said. "Tonight, we all get some rest and plan more in the morning."
The ladies said goodnight and Xena led Gabrielle to the other room.
* * *
Everyone gathered at a table in front of the ranch house for breakfast. Janice, miraculously healed from paying the penalty the night before, scrounged up some eggs and biscuits.
Gabrielle, glad to not have to do the cooking for once, savored the bite of scrambled eggs that seemed to melt in her mouth. She followed it with a bite of buttermilk biscuit that had some honey on it. "Thanks, Janice. This is good."
Janice stole a glance at Xena and replied, "It's nice to have cooking as one of my many skills."
That comment earned a laugh from Gabrielle and a mutter from Xena, something about a brat. Mel glared at Janice, a silent signal for Janice to behave and not push Xena too far.
"So Mel," Xena said in a voice that everybody could hear, "What do you propose we do to make this ranch profitable?"
Mel had everyone's attention riveted on her. "Well, there are a few options. The biggest industry around here at this time was raising cattle. If we had a few head of steers and cows, we could take the time to build up a herd to sell. But if we want to do this the quick way, we need to go on cow hunts and find the maverick longhorns that roamed Texasafter the Civil War."
Xena's ears perked up. "There was a war here and I missed it?"
"Yes. Texas, when it wasn't fighting in the Civil War, is one of the states in the United States of America, this country we're in. In the early part of the 1860s, there was a war between the Northern states and the Southern states. The North won. You were lucky you weren't here, Xena, because the kind of fighting they did was nothing like what you did." Mel ended with an I'll-tell-you-later look.
Mel continued, "Anyway, we also have decent gardens that should feed us with some to spare if we work it carefully. We can sell the extra food at market and maybe sell whatever else we can hunt or make. The gods, if they're responsible for this, gave us a good foundation to work from."
The Amazons, who had been listening carefully and generally agreed with the plan, whispered amongst themselves. Gabrielle noticed the concerned look on Ephiny's face. "Problem?" she asked her Amazons.
Ephiny spoke for the group. "Yeah. We were wondering about the hunting thing."
"What about it?" Gabrielle asked.
"First of all, no bows and arrows."
"We just might have to make our own from what's available."
"Secondly, there aren't a whole lot of trees to hide in." Ephiny spread her arm around to show the nearly treeless land around them.
Janice spoke. "Then you'll just have to use normal ground stealth, twinkle toes." She smiled at the Amazons to deflect the comment's sting, but the Amazons glared at her.
Janice made eye contact with everyone. "One thing is for sure. We'll all need to adapt as best we can and work together. Everyone needs to pull her own weight. We need every single person here, so if there's a problem, air it and we'll work on it. Nobody gets thrown out." Janice got nods all around. "And last night, we decided that Gabrielle will be our leader and Xena will be her segundo, second-in-command. Mel and I will have to serve as your guides. You will be our able-bodied assistants. Any arguments, thoughts, comments?"
The Amazons didn't like not being consulted beforehand, but they had no trouble following their queen. The rest of the roles made sense to them.
Before Janice could turn the meeting over to Gabrielle, a scroll appeared before the Amazon queen. Gabrielle took it and skimmed it. She paraphrased the message to the group. "First of all, Aphrodite wants to congratulate the warrior babe for not balking at the seven layers of clothing." Gabrielle smiled at Xena and Xena rolled her eyes. "Next of all, each of us, except for Janice, may choose one weapon of her choice. It appears to be a reward for completing our first task. Just speak the name of your weapon when you're ready." Gabrielle studied her Amazons and counseled them, "Think carefully before you choose a weapon."
Gabrielle went first and chose a staff. It appeared magically near her hand as did the rest of the weapons once the speaker named it. Xena chose a sword. Mel, since she didn't have any weapon of preference, chose Janice's favorite pistol and some bullets. One Amazon chose a crossbow and bolts, one picked bows and arrows, another, a staff, and the last chose a sword. Gabrielle smiled because they heeded her warning. The group now had a nice selection of weaponry because the Amazons picked wisely.
The bard again consulted the scroll. "Our next task is to have the Amazon ranch hands round up 40 head of cattle in the next four days."
"We seem to have a teeny problem," Mel said. "We need to expand the holding pen and build a cattle chute. That's going to take a while and digging those post holes won't be easy in this heat."
Gabrielle eyed the pile of lumber and tools where the pen should be and made a quick decision. "We'll keep four teams of two going. First up, Xena and me. Next, Mel and Janice, Ephiny and Solari, and Eponin and Yakut. Any other foreseeable problems, Mel?"
"Good. Xena and I will get started. The rest of you, haul firewood and water and please bring some water for Xena and me." Gabrielle waved her hand to dismiss everybody and headed for the tools with Xena right behind her.
"Hold your arms out and let me load you up," Gabrielle instructed Xena.
Gabrielle piled the fence posts across Xena's arms, and then she grabbed the digging stick and shovel. She led them to the general pen area. There, Xena let the fence posts drop in the best place for them. "Thank you, my beautiful beast of burden." Xena chuckled and accepted a kiss on the cheek. "Now, where do we put these posts?"
Xena grabbed the digging stick and made her first mark. "Here." She made another mark. "And here." She rapidly made several more marks. "And here, here, here, and here," she kept on saying until there were small pits in the ground where each post for the pen and the cattle chute should be. She and Gabrielle took a few minutes to study the lines from different angles.
"Well done, love," Gabrielle complimented. "This looks very square to me."
Xena grinned. "An accurate eye is one of my many skills."
"Let's see if digging holes quickly is another of your many skills," Gabrielle replied with a smile of her own. Gabrielle grabbed her shovel and started removing the dirt Xena's digging stick had loosened up.
After a few minutes of digging, the bard worked up a good sweat. After three-quarters of an hour, she was happy to see Ephiny coming their way with two hollowed-out gourds full of water. The foresighted Amazon also brought a few strips of linen for them to wrap around their hands. The strips would protect them from getting bad blisters.
Gabrielle spoke to Ephiny haltingly, sparing only a few words after dumping every shovelful of dirt. "I don't know -- how far we are from Greece, -- but I bet -- we're just two feet -- from Tartarus."
* * *
After an evening meal of dried beef with water gravy, more biscuits, and fresh greens from the garden, the Amazons, Xena, Gabrielle, and Mel helped Janice clean the dishes and get everything in order. When the last few dishes were nearly done, though, Janice dismissed everyone but Mel. The Amazons left for the bunkhouse and Xena and Gabrielle sat on the bench underneath the kitchen's west-facing window, held hands, and enjoyed a luminous orange and red sunset that only comes after an extremely hot day. The pair on the bench listened to the pair finishing the dishes and enjoyed their light banter, flirting, and laughter.
When they heard the last dish being put away, they also heard a little slapping sound and a yelp from Mel. Then came Mel's mock indignant voice. "Janice Covin'ton, you scoundrel! Didn't digging post holes all day in the heat take the starch outta you?"
Janice's voice sounded happy and a touch mischievous. "You forget, sweetheart, I dig for a living. Post holes in 100 degree heat ain't nothin'."
Janice playfully growled and Mel giggled. Xena and Gabrielle heard the sound of footsteps running to Janice's and Mel's bedroom. Xena laughed and put her arm around Gabrielle, bringing Gabrielle to lean against her. "Those kids of ours."
Gabrielle smiled. "Yeah. They're making the best of things."
An hour and the sunset passed before Xena spoke again. "Despite the terrible heat of this place, this is a beautiful land. Who knows? I might even come to the conclusion that these are good days."
"Oh, I know they are," Gabrielle whispered and stretched to give Xena's earlobe a little nip.
Xena used her most seductive voice, "And how do you know?"
"Because I'm here with you."
Xena was about to give Gabrielle a long kiss when Janice's cry broke the silence. Janice screamed Mel's name, but her strangled cry got cut short, probably by a kiss. Gabrielle laughed. "Oh, Mel is most definitely yours." She ran her hand over Xena's ribs. Suddenly the thought of what wonderful treatment her descendant was getting from Xena's made her think how Xena made her feel and she desperately needed some privacy with her warrior, away from any prying eyes.
* * *
Aphrodite watched Ares laugh all day long as the women on the Texasranch toiled hard in the heat. The clothes Aphrodite provided for Xena, Gabrielle, and Mel made much movement very difficult and Aphrodite decided to do something about it the next day. Then, the night came and Ares' good mood fled as the two couples stationed in the ranch house became amorous, even after a hard day's labor.
Finally, Ares pointed at the portal and shut off the images. He pouted as he recalled Gabrielle's passion-filled eyes focused on the object of his greatest desire. "What does that irritating blonde have that I don't?"
Aphrodite laughed. "Got all night?"
Ares frowned and glared at Aphrodite.
"Admit it, bro. You hate that they're perfect for each other and even if you could have Xena, you wouldn't have half of what she and Gabrielle share. And they keep finding each other again and again and again, no matter how big this world is and how far they have to go to do it."
"GET OUT," he roared and aimed a red-hot fireball at Aphrodite, who disappeared just before the fireball got to her.
* * *
Toward noonon the third day after the last task scroll arrived, Gabrielle reluctantly sent her Amazons off on their first cow hunt. She knew she couldn't afford to keep them working on the holding pens if they were going to complete the task. Gabrielle had two things going for her, however. First, two days before, Aphrodite modified Mel, Xena, and Gabrielle's clothing from the full seven-layered gown to a loose, free-flowing peasant dress and blouse that still covered a lot, but was more like what Xena and Gabrielle might've worn every day in their home villages. The second was by the time the Amazons returned that night, the holding pens would just be finished enough to start taking the cattle. The posts were in and the bottom two rungs of board were nailed perpendicular to the posts and created the fencing. The only thing left was to put in the top rung of board.
A little more than an hour before sunset, four dusty Amazon riders returned with only five head of cattle. All of them, though, were steers who'd fetch a better price at the market than mothers and calves because the steers were ready to be slaughtered for meat.
"By the Gods!" Gabrielle exclaimed. She pointed at the five-foot span rack of horns on one's head.
"Yep! Gotta be mighty careful with those big boys," Janice said. "And they're just one of the animals out here that could do a bit of damage. Scorpions and some kinds of spiders and snakes can kill you." Janice ordered the Amazons, "Line 'em up in the chute, one by one, you know, head to tail."
The Amazons carefully guided the animals into the chute. Mel inspected the hind area of each one on both sides. "What're you looking for?" Xena asked.
"Brands. Ranches used brandin' irons to mark the cows that belonged to them. Each ranch has its own unique brand." Mel walked to the other end of the pen and retrieved a long iron rod with something on the end of it. She gave it to Xena. "I found this this mornin'. Apparently, it's our brand, the XG." She looked at the last cow and addressed the Amazons. "I don't see any brands on these, so they're ours now. Good job! Hold 'em still, now. Janice, please help me?"
Janice came over with a knife she'd found among some of the other tools.
"What now?" Xena asked.
"Bob off their tails," Mel said. "Cut off most of the hair that's on their tails. For one thing, it helps us keep a head count."
Ephiny, who'd been sulking at their lack of success, spoke up. "I don't think we'll have a problem with a head count tonight. Those are the only bastards we could find. Have to try a different direction tomorrow, I guess."
As she and Janice bobbed the steers' tails, a thought occurred to Mel. "Ya roped these, didn't ya? Sometimes ya have to do that to control these brutes."
"Yep," Ephiny replied.
"How good are ya at ropin'?" Mel asked.
Ephiny got out her lasso, swung it, cast it, and snagged Solari who was helping hold the steers within the narrow chute. "Hey," she complained and struggled out of Ephiny's lasso.
Mel giggled. "Okay. I was just checkin'."
Janice finished bobbing the steers' tails and eyed the branding iron, wondering if it was such a good idea to try to brand 800-pound steers with such a green crew. Gabrielle latched onto Janice's thoughts. "Get a fire going," she instructed Yakut. "I think we'll try branding one of these, but if it's too dangerous, I'll call the operation off." Gabrielle smiled at Xena. "Somehow, though, I don't think it's going to be a problem."
"Okay," Mel said as she borrowed Yakut's rawhide gloves and started the branding iron heating. "As soon as this iron's red hot, let the first bull into the pen. Catch him and throw him as quickly as you can."
In a few minutes, the iron was ready. Mel took a breath. "Okay...now!"
The hands let the first animal into the pen. Xena immediately jumped the steer and gave him the pinch. He dropped like a bag of wet sand.
Janice's eyes went wide. Gabrielle laughed. As Mel branded the beast, Gabrielle couldn't resist interrogating the animal. "The flow of blood to your brain has been cut off and you will die in 30 seconds if you don't cooperate. Now, be a good boy and tell us where your little friends are." The steer responded only with a labored snort and his eyes wildly rolling around in his head. Other than that, he laid eerily still. Mel finished and got the branding iron heating again. Gabrielle finished her talk with calm tenderness in her voice that soothed the animal. "It's okay, boy. We'll let you live." Xena took off the pinch and the other steers were done just as easily.
* * *
Ares threw his hand at the portal, almost punching into it. "DISCORD!!!!!" he shouted, the chamber echoing with his rage. Two minutes later, Discord popped into the room.
"You sure took your sweet time," Ares growled.
Discord was unimpressed. "What do you want, Uncle Ares?" Discord asked in a bored voice.
Ares' eyes seemed to burn a hole in Discord. "I have a little job for you."
* * *
Swirling pink smoke ringed the portal in Aphrodite's room where the goddess sat alone watching the proceedings in Texas. In between the backbreaking work and hardship, laughter and love ruled the ranch instead of hatred and division. Aphrodite laughed a musical laugh not because she found something funny; she laughed from pure happiness. Oh, yes, in most stressful reality situations, Ares' influence won out, but not here, not now.
Aphrodite smiled down on Gabrielle, dwelling on the capacity of love her favorite mortal had. She even loved the animals. "Way to go, sweet pea," Aphrodite whispered.
The goddess then considered Xena, the other half of her favorite pair. "That was a nice trick with the steers, warrior babe. I think it's time to reward you with your chakram and see what you'll do next."
* * *
At Xena's bedside table the next morning, she found her chakram and a quick note from Aphrodite: Enjoy your reward! The day was looking up until breakfast. While Xena, Gabrielle, Janice, and Mel chatted amicably, the Amazons sat silently and sullenly, their eyes staying on their own plates. Any attempts to bring the Amazons in on the conversation netted the other four only brief replies.
Finally, Gabrielle had enough. "Is there a problem?" She regarded them with beautiful green eyes that usually invited her sisters' confidences.
Yakut said, "No. There's no problem."
Gabrielle wasn't completely convinced, but she decided she'd let her Amazons handle it themselves. Instead, the queen got down to business. "You four, go the opposite direction that you went in yesterday. Mel, Janice, you can do what needs doing around here. Xena and I can scout around a little and see if we can find any more cattle." She dismissed them all.
Mel grabbed the rake from the porch and immediately headed for the garden. Before she got to the gate, everyone heard her surprised cry. Xena grabbed her sword from her side and got there as fast as she could, Janice hot on her heels. When they got there, Janice saw a rattlesnake half a foot away from a very still Mel who had pinned the snake's body between the rake's tines, but the tines were widely spaced and allowed the rattlesnake too much room. It slid slowly out from the rake's grasp and coiled its body. Xena cut its head off before it could get its wits together and strike.
"Th -- thank you, Xena." Though visibly relieved, Mel shook and reached for the comfort of Janice's arms.
Janice slipped into Mel's embrace and explained, "That's a rattlesnake. Those things can be deadly if they strike. Very poisonous venom." Janice frowned at the snake. "That's not the way I wanted to start my morning."
Janice murmured something in Mel's ear, Mel nodded, and everybody went their separate way to do their chores.
As Xena saddled Argo, another castaway in the gods' game, she noted which way the Amazons went and figured which ways she and Gabrielle should go. Gabrielle came out of the ranch house with two metal canteens of water and two lunches, each stashed in a burlap bag. "I figure it's best if we split up today," Xena said. She pointed in two different directions. "You go this way and I'll go that way."
"Okay, but be careful, love."
Xena hugged and kissed Gabrielle. "I will. You be careful, too."
Gabrielle got her staff, lunch, and canteen stowed on her horse and swung herself uneasily into the saddle. "I will."
* * *
After six hours of riding and not seeing a single head of cattle, Xena spotted a lone tree a hundred yards away from a deep spring-fed pool. Hoping to have a little shade while she ate her lunch, she led Argo toward it. She had just dismounted when she heard a buzzing sound and knew that she was in trouble. "Hades!" she shouted as she saw the sudden swarm of bees gathering for an attack. She turned and sprinted toward the pool, diving in with her clothes on and still holding her bag of lunch.
* * *
Gabrielle had a little better success finding cattle. She stumbled across a little canyon whose end led out to the great prairie beyond, and there, she found about 50 head of cattle. Although she had no means to round them up and bring them back to the ranch herself, she noted where she was so she could send the ranch hands back to gather them. Unexpectedly, they bolted in the direction Gabrielle had just come from. She didn't understand until she heard what she thought was thunder, but there wasn't a cloud in the sky. She wheeled the horse around to face the canyon's prairie entrance and then knew. "Oh, gods. Stampede!"
A big black swarm of shaggy beasts headed straight for Gabrielle and she knew she couldn't outrun them or turn them. She figured her best chance was on the ground, so she quickly fetched her staff and dismounted. Gabrielle faced the charging horde and swung her staff in sweeping arcs in front of her. The first animal couldn't change his direction quickly enough and nearly knocked Gabrielle to her feet. As it was, she got a bruising jolt from him, but she kept swinging and gave him a good crack on his rump as he passed. The herd divided and went around her, but the animals still stepped on her and bumped against her, banging her up some.
* * *
Early in the evening, Janice finished all the pressing chores she needed to do. She invited Mel to go for a walk with her, but Mel declined because she had to tend the animals, so Janice headed off alone, needing a break. Janice wandered off toward the gentle hill in back of the ranch and was lost in her own thoughts until she was in front of a mountain. When she looked up, she noticed a strong wind blowing and black clouds rolling in, tumbling impatiently over each other as if they were in a hurry to get somewhere. Cursing herself for wandering too far from the ranch house, Janice decided to try to find temporary shelter in the mountains. Before she took another step, though, a sudden flash of lightning struck, barely missing her but still stunning her.
* * *
The Amazons drove the 25 head of cattle toward home. They could have brought more cattle back, but they grumbled and snapped at each other all day and suffered an unusual day of not being able to work together. To make things worse, each of them silently wondered what penalty they were going to have to pay.
Ephiny noticed the threatening clouds overhead and spotted the mountain that was about two miles from the ranch. She also saw a gaping hole in the side of the mountain and decided that they should probably take shelter when a bolt of lightning struck not too far away. "We should probably take shelter," she told her sisters. It was the first thing they all agreed on that day, so Ephiny led them to the hole.
"Is this a cave?" Solari asked.
"Don't know," Eponin replied. "It looks like a cave, but what are these timbers doing here?" She pointed at the old wooden frame shoring up the hole in the mountainside.
"Let's just go in," Ephiny said, not wanting the slightest thing discussed that could start and argument.
Ephiny lit the end of a pine branch and led them into the abandoned mine as the clouds dumped their load of rain.
Ephiny's torch lit the interior chamber of the mine and since they had nothing better to do until the rain let up, the Amazons explored their surroundings. They didn't find much until Ephiny found an old box. She held the torch up, but couldn't read the word "dynamite" printed in English on its side. The ground rumbled and heaved under their feet. Ephiny knew what was coming. "Oh, no!"
The old mine blew up with the Amazons inside.
* * *
The drenching rain edged Janice back to her senses. The loud explosion she heard not too far away really brought Janice back to her senses. She jumped up and raced around the next corner of the mountain and when the dust from the explosion settled, what she saw made her stomach lurch. Various limbs, miraculously intact, littered the desert floor. Ephiny's head -- minus her body -- faced Janice.
"Eeeephinyyyyyyy," Janice heard Yakut's high, keening wail. "Do you know where my left leg is?"
"I don't even know where the rest of me is," Ephiny replied.
"Hey, would someone please get their butt off my hand?" Solari asked.
"Sorry, but it's kind of hard to move myself without arms or legs," Eponin sarcastically replied.
"Great. An Amazon jigsaw puzzle!" Janice said.
Ephiny's eyes stared hard and her jaw worked. "Shut up, smart ass, and help put us back together!"
"Whatever you say, Humpty Dumpty." Janice replied.
Janice gathered the limbs into a pile and laid out the four torsos side by side. Then, she took the heads and tried the first one on three bodies before she got Ephiny's head back onto Ephiny's torso. Janice felt a tugging and heard a slight sucking sound as it popped back on.
Janice placed the rest of the heads with little or no trouble. Next came the hard part, figuring out right arms, legs, and feet from left arms, legs, and feet, not to mention whose was whose. Janice started with the feet and legs. She lightly sang to herself, "The ankle bone's connected to the leg bone. The leg bone's connected to the knee bone. The knee bone's connected to the thigh bone." She paused. "Is that right?" She paused again. "No, can't be."
"What?" a panicked Solari's head connected to her torso asked.
"There's no such thing as a knee bone, is there? Well, there's the knee cap, if you count that as a connecting bone."
Solari snorted angrily.
"Hey," Janice said. "Lighten up."
Eponin's head connected to her torso spoke. "I'm lighter right now than I wanted to be, so please hurry up."
Janice shot her a look. "You're lucky I never skipped anatomy class. Now, stop worrying. I'll have you all back together in a jiffy."
As she got ready to put the last body part onto Ephiny, Ephiny regarded her with true gratitude in her eyes. "Thanks for lending a hand," she told Janice.
Janice smiled, held up the last body part -- Ephiny's left hand -- and said, "No problem."
Janice's "jiffy" was amazingly quick; she had them all together in 45 minutes. The sun was setting, however, and they still had to get the cattle back to the ranch. Luckily for them, the cattle sought shelter not too far off and didn't wander far apart from each other. Ephiny offered to let Janice ride double with her back to the ranch and Janice accepted.
* * *
Meanwhile, back at the ranch.... [Sorry. I couldn't resist putting that in.]
Everyone pretty much returned to the ranch at the same time. Mel came out to the porch, got an eyeful of everybody, and exclaimed, "Sweet Jesus! What happened to y'all?"
Gabrielle started. "Big shaggy animals stampeded me."
"Bison?" Mel guessed.
"Could be," Janice said.
Xena told her own story briefly. "Bees attacked me. Good thing there was that pool there."
Ephiny spoke for the Amazons. "We got our penalty. We were blown up in an old mine that had a box of dynamite in it. Fortunately, Janice was nearby and put us back together." She swung her arms to illustrate her point.
Mel walked over to Janice and gave the hero a hug. "Well, what happened to ya?" she drawled.
"Zeus damn near fried my butt. Luckily, it wasn't a direct strike."
Mel had never met anyone who'd been hit by lightning, no one who'd even gotten close. She gazed down and captured Janice's green eyes with her curious bright blue ones. "How was it?"
Janice reached up, took Mel's lips in a quick but very passionate kiss, and when she let go, she looked at Mel and smiled. "Electrifying." Predictably, Mel blushed.
Janice regarded the sky and the fading light. She told Gabrielle, "I propose we bob these animals' tails tonight but brand them tomorrow when we have enough light to see what we're doing."
Gabrielle agreed and left to tend the supper Mel had started while Mel, Janice, Xena, and the Amazons dealt with the cattle.
Over a dinner of beans that had chopped jalapenos mixed in, more dried beef, and odds and ends from the garden, everyone discussed the bad luck events of the day. "Those weren't all penalties, were they?" Mel asked, not believing that all of them could be penalized for something.
"I don't think so," Janice said.
"No," Gabrielle replied. "There's a pattern when the penalties come."
Xena added her thoughts, "The ground rumbled and heaved just before the two known penalties were given. Still, it's quite a coincidence that we all had something to deal with today and you know what? I don't believe in coincidences."
* * *
The gods had a great time watching the day's drama unfold. Aphrodite didn't like seeing the Amazons arguing all day, but she was glad Xena saved Mel from the rattler and laughed as hard as anyone when she saw Xena dive into the pool to escape the bees. She cheered Gabrielle when Gabrielle avoided the worst of the stampede with her quick thinking. Aphrodite wasn't too happy to see Janice stunned by the lightning strike, but she laughed as Janice cheerfully put the Amazons back together. One thing bothered her, though. Only the last catastrophe was a planned penalty.
Aphrodite went back to her room, reviewed the events, and her rage boiled over as she figured out what had happened. Ares cheated.
"DAD!!!!! We need to talk!" she bellowed and disappeared.
* * *
The next scroll showed up beside Gabrielle at breakfast the next morning. It was addressed to her personally, but after she scanned it once, she read it aloud:
Sorry, Sweet Pea. Ares cheated and sent Discord to throw a monkey wrench in the works. Soooo bogus!!!!! Dad's having a long chat with Bro and things should be fair and square now.
Xena addressed Mel and Janice, "Goes to show, never trust the gods." Mel and Janice nodded silently.
Gabrielle thoughtfully munched on a bite of scrambled eggs, then she called for her Amazons' attention. She had a stern look on her face, but the twinkle in her eyes belied her love for her sisters. "I understand you argued all day yesterday," Gabrielle began. Four heads hung in shame. Gabrielle waited, but when their eyes didn't come up to meet hers again, she said, "Listen to me. You didn't know what you were doing because Discord messed with you." Four pairs of Amazon eyes met hers when her sisters heard the forgiving tone in the queen's voice. "But you paid the penalty because you didn't work together and couldn't complete the task because of that. This just emphasizes the point that we all need to work together so we don't suffer a penalty again. And be wary. We've always known we can't trust the gods, now more than ever."
She paused to give her Amazons a chance to speak up. No one did. "Do you have any questions or comments?" They all shook their heads.
Gabrielle hated speaking to her sisters as if they were children, but she needed to be absolutely sure they understood. They did.
Gabrielle gave them her brightest, proudest smile, one that each of her sisters lived to see. "Good."
* * *
They all spent the next two and a half months rounding up cattle and doing their necessary chores. Extreme caution and plenty of teamwork helped them avoid having to pay any more penalties and at the end of the day, every one of them felt proud and satisfied in a way that they'd seldom experienced so fully. Freighters sometimes stopped by with a variety of items and eagerly offered small luxuries for the quality produce the ladies could trade from their garden. One of the most joyous events, though, was when a promising offer for their cattle fell into their laps -- or more like rode into the ranch.
Mel finished feeding the chickens one morning and spotted riders coming. She yelled for the people in the ranch house and the Amazons. The whole group gathered their weapons and waited to see who came a callin'. As the group got nearer, Janice and Mel identified the blue uniforms with yellow stripes down the side of the trousers and told the rest of the group they were U.S. Army soldiers. Still, nobody put their weapons down. Mel ran to get the pot of coffee heated and came back to watch the proceedings.
The lieutenant raised his hand and halted his men. Except for Mel, Gabrielle, and Xena, he thought all the women were dressed strangely and except for Mel, they all carried unusual weapons, which unsettled a gentleman like him. Unsure of whom to address, he chose Janice because the unlit cigar she chomped on made her seem like the one with the business sense. "Lieutenant O'Donnell, ma'am," he began. He had a medium-thick Irish brogue. "My troops and I are stationed at FortLincoln, 20 miles south of here."
"Janice Covington," Janice said warily.
Lieutenant O'Donnell eyed Janice and the rest of the ladies suspiciously. "You are new to the area, are you not?"
"Yes," Janice replied.
The lieutenant's eyes wandered over toward the holding pen where some of the cattle were. The rest were out grazing in good pasture land that had a watering hole.
The lieutenant addressed Janice again. "Still, it looks like you have fine beeves here. The U.S. Army is looking to purchase good meat cattle at cost or below cost. Are you looking for a contract?"
"As a matter of fact, we are."
"May I speak to your foreman?"
"You may deal with me. I'm in charge of the business end since most of the rest of these ladies are my Greek cousins and don't speak any English."
Lieutenant O'Donnell looked at the strangely-dressed woman (Janice) and wrinkled his face in disgust.
"Is there a problem?" Janice snapped.
"No, ma'am. Just have them down to the fort within three weeks."
"Fine," Janice concluded. She glanced at Mel.
"Lieutenant, would ya like some coffee? And your men, too, would they like a cup?" Mel drawled.
O'Donnell bristled. "Are you a Southerner?" Less than two years ago, he'd finished the worst fighting he'd ever been in and lost many good men and friends. Southerners were high on his list of prejudices.
Mel blushed. "Yes, sir, but I have no quarrel with ya. I just meant to offer ya some hospitality. Ya look like ya might be thirsty."
Janice wondered what a Southern-hating man would be doing stationed in a Texasfort.
O'Donnell offered an apology without very much sincerity in it. "I'm sorry, ma'am. Sure and I'm fair parched. Thank you."
Lieutenant O'Donnell's treatment of Mel made Janice want to horsewhip the man, but she knew she'd better be nice to him so they could fill their contract, make the ranch profitable, and get out of Dodge -- uh, Texas.
* * *
The Amazons worked hard the next week, rounding up 100 more head of cattle, making the total 203. When they weren't busy bobbing and branding the animals, they were preparing the remuda, the string of horses, for the cattle drive. Each hand got three horses so the horses could be changed out when they got tired and the gods, in a rare apology for Discord's pranks, rewarded Mel, Janice and Gabrielle with two horses. Even Xena got an additional horse, although she preferred Argo.
Janice and Gabrielle got busy planning, checking, and packing the ranch cart, the only thing they had that they could use as a chuck wagon. Janice took a few spare strips of board, nailed them to the wagon sides to make uprights, and oiled a large tarp to put on top as a cover. Then, she tied the cover to the wagon. It wasn't pretty, but it worked. "I guess you should drive this puppy, huh? I mean, you drove wagons all the time in Poteidaia, didn't you?"
Grateful for the chance to escape riding a horse, Gabrielle said, "Yeah."
"Who should we assign as horse wrangler?"
"Mel, maybe? She seems to have a calming effect on horses."
Janice smiled lovingly, thinking of her partner. "Yeah, she does."
"That's settled, then. You can ride with me sometimes and you can help the Amazons drive the cattle. I think Xena will help drive cattle, too."
"Sounds like a good idea."
* * *
A decent-sized wagon train, one without a big herd of cattle, could make 20 to 25 miles on a really good day. If there were accidents, rivers to be forded, or just plain bad luck, 8 miles generally was more common. Mel advised Gabrielle not to rush, to let the cattle wander just a bit and graze so they'd be fatter when they got to the fort and fetch a better price. Since they were so close to FortLincolnand had at least a week and a half before they absolutely needed to be there, Gabrielle planned for a three-day drive, five days at the maximum.
"Roll 'em out!" The call came from Janice, the passenger on Gabrielle's chuck wagon. The Amazons and Xena would leave after they rounded up the horses and had breakfast, but Janice and Gabrielle left an hour before sunrise to set up at a designated camp site. Mel started just ahead of them with the horses tied together. Mel held the front of the rope with one hand and her reins with the other, looking as if she were leading horses on leashes instead of dogs.
Gabrielle remembered Xena leading an army and laughed. "There goes Mel and her equine army."
"Yep." Janice grinned.
Gabrielle and Janice chatted at times and enjoyed a few silent moments, too, throughout the rest of the ride to the camp. When Janice finished helping Gabrielle set everything up and checked on Mel and the remuda, she grabbed one of her horses and took off in search of the herd to help bring them in. She spotted Xena bringing up the rear of the herd and went to join her.
They rode in companionable silence for a while, whistling and trying to get the stragglers moving, but they didn't seem to want to. Janice brought out an old cowboy song, changing some of the lyrics, "Whoopie-ti-yi-yo, get along little dogies. If you don't move, she'll kick your butt."
Xena laughed. "You're a brat, aren't you?"
Janice gave Xena a roguish grin. "I do my best."
"Well, brat, hold my reins a second." Xena handed them to Janice.
"What are you doing?"
Xena strode over to a mother cow that wasn't moving much at all. The warrior selected one of her calves, picked it up, and started moving forward with the rest of the herd. The angry mama bellowed and charged after Xena who seemed unconcerned.
"You are insane, aren't you?" Janice called.
Xena turned her head and replied with a million-watt grin, "I do my best."
* * *
Everything went well the first day on the drive. On the second day, however, everyone watched as a big thunderhead built up, finally flattening out like an anvil at the top as it reached the ice bank. That evening, long before they could hear its thunder, they saw lightning bolts pierce the cloud like the cloud had an electrical short in it.
"Cattle are goin' to be spooked tonight," Mel observed at dinner. "We need to set a watch. Ya know, I read about cowboys gathering the herd in one spot and riding circles around it. They sang to the cattle, too, or played music to try to keep them settled."
"Okay. Do you and Janice want to take the first watch?" Gabrielle asked.
"Sure," Mel replied, speaking for both of them.
"Eponin and Solari can relieve you in four hours."
Mel and Janice left for their watch, taking their favorite horses, wondering if it was possible to catch a few naps in the saddle.
After the third hour of the watch, the storm passed without much rain and the night didn't offer too much light from the quarter moon. Mel and Janice were on the other side of the chuck wagon from where the intruders crept into camp, intending to cut the remuda's ropes and steal a few horses. They tiptoed only a few feet away from Xena's bedroll and as Xena let them pass, she felt for her chakram, readied it, and held her sword in her other hand.
"Ayi-yi-yi-yi!" Xena sprang up and tossed her chakram, bouncing it off the chuck wagon, a barrel, and finally, it sliced through one of the intruder's rifle stocks.
The battle cry jerked the others awake and the Amazons quickly strung their bows and let their arrows fly, cutting down four of the party. The rest of the intruders jumped on their ponies and fled.
Mel, who'd left Janice behind to guard the cattle, raced in to see what the trouble was. Her horse smelled the intruder's blood and reared in fright, but Mel kept her seat and turned him until he calmed. She gave the reins to Ephiny and took a torch to inspect the dead invaders. She took an educated guess. "Comanches, probably." She explained the dangers of Comanches and other tribes although she carefully noted that it wasn't their entire fault that they were violent. Broken treaties with the United Statesgovernment led to mistrust, violence, and hatred. The ancient Greeks understood. "Let's just hope we don't run into any more between here and the fort."
* * *
The herd made it to FortLincolnin the early afternoon. The last half day of the drive went well and despite letting the animals graze along the trail, they made remarkably good time and the animals were nice and fat. The U.S. Army's cattleman asked the Amazons to cut (separate) and sort the herd a few times and then the cattleman made Janice a fair offer for the steers. Janice was still a little short from making a profit, so she haggled with the cattleman to take some of the cows and older calves.
"Come on, Mr. Adams. We came to sell the whole shooting match. Nothing less will be acceptable."
"Those young 'uns won't be ready for another three months. I can't give you no better than $16 a head."
"Well, sir, we can't take less than $18 a head. That's scraping the bottom of the barrel as is."
"Sorry. $18 firm. Besides, keep the calves on the hoof another three months and have fresher meat this winter."
Mr. Adams considered that. "Okay, $18 it is, but I won't take the two scrawny ones in t' corner."
"We'll throw 'em in, no charge," Janice said in an effort to garner a bit of goodwill before haggling for the cows. "$23 a head for the cows."
"Miss Covington, that's almost steer price!" Mr. Adams shouted.
The Amazons, who were hot and tired by that time, gathered from Mel's whispered translations that Janice was having a real tough time with the cattleman. They raised their bows and arrows and pointed them straight at Mr. Adams.
Feeling the pressure of the threat but maintaining a calm façade, Mr. Adams stated, "Tell them to put their weapons away. Threats are not tolerated here!"
Janice waved her hand downward, hoping the Amazons would put away their weapons quickly. Mel whispered quickly and the Amazons replied. "Sorry about my cousins. They get a bit touchy sometimes," Janice explained. "$21 a head for the cows."
"Can't do, Miss Covington. $18."
"You're breaking my heart, hombre," Janice pleaded. "I raised them myself from calves," she lied.
"Fine, but you're a thievin' son-of-a-gun," Mr. Adams informed Janice.
She gave him her most disarming smile, "But a son-of-a-gun with a deal. Thank you, Mr. Adams. Nice doing business with you."
He looked her in the eye and smiled. "I would say the same, li'l lady, but I'm sure I'm going to change my mind right quick."
Mr. Adams toted up the figures, got Janice and Mel's approval, and handed over the money.
The ladies mounted their horses. Janice gave a hearty handshake and a farewell to Mr. Adams and turned the group back toward the ranch.
* * *
They got back to the ranch in the middle of the afternoon the next day. Janice jumped off her horse and ran into the ranch house to get the ranch's business ledger. After accounting for the ranch's main debts, she called the Amazons and gave them their wages. When all was said and done, the ranch had a $50 profit, not too much, but good enough to keep going another season.
Figuring that their time was about up, Janice, Mel, Xena, Gabrielle, and the Amazons said their goodbyes. Then Janice and Mel hugged Xena and Gabrielle, respectively, and switched to hug their own ancestors. In the middle of the final hug, everyone was transported back to their own time and place.
* * *
Ares, Aphrodite, and an Amazon search party waited for the others' return.
"I know, I know. I lost the bet. Being there didn't tear them apart," Ares said.
Aphrodite laughed, joyous at her victory. "Can't you just feel the love?"
Sensing one last opportunity for some sort of vengeance, Ares got ready to welcome Gabrielle home. This time, she landed face-first in horse droppings.
The smile on Aphrodite's face vanished. "Stop that!" she whispered harshly to Ares who gleefully savored his petty victory. Aphrodite waved her hand and magically cleaned Gabrielle.
"Ugh! Thanks, Aphrodite."
"No probs, sweet pea."
The Amazons embraced their lost sisters and started the journey home. Gabrielle and Xena stayed behind.
"I found them searching for their sisters yesterday and told them you'd be back from your extended vacation today," Aphrodite said. "You guys provided wonderful entertainment! That was great!"
"Sure was. We might not have to bother you again for, oh, a whole three moons." Ares smirked.
"That's what we're here for. To entertain you," Xena replied sarcastically.
Curiosity finally getting the better of her, Aphrodite asked, "Did you learn anything from this?"
"Like what?" Xena asked.
"I don't know. You tell me."
Xena thought about her and Gabrielle's ancestors. She smiled dreamily. "It's nice to know the future's in good hands."
Ares stopped in Gabrielle's personal space and asked her, "Did you learn anything?"
Gabrielle stood up to him, faced him eye to eye. "Yes."
Ares smirked again. "And what might that be?" he asked seductively.
"In my life, I won't always have happy landings. Oh, and by the way, Ares, thanks for that." Gabrielle kneed Ares in the groin.
"Bitch!" Ares spat out, doubled over in severe pain and breathless. He quickly vanished.
Aphrodite laughed and gave Gabrielle a hug. "Righteous!" she proudly exclaimed. Then, she disappeared, too.
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