It was close to three years after the end of the war before Hercules was able to return to his sanctuary in Banff and when he arrived, he almost didn't recognize the place from the changes Gabrielle had wrought in her time there.
Gone was his tiny, one-room cabin and in its place stood a three room home. Gabrielle had added a private bedroom and a bathing room that had real hot and cold running water. He simply stood and marveled as she showed him around the place.
He hugged her hard again, just as he had when he'd first come over the final ridge and found her out in the small garden patch.
"This is wonderful, Gabrielle. You've turned it into a home. How did you manage?" He noted the large logs that made up the walls of the new rooms and remembered all too well the struggle he himself had had building the original room alone. He saw too the furniture she had added, including a neat writing desk for herself at an angle near the fireplace.
She gave him a look. "After nearly two thousand years, I hope I've learned to work smarter. Besides, I had plenty of time and little else to do," said without a hint of reproach, though Hercules took it as such.
"I'm sorry it took so long, Gabrielle," Herc said as he scrubbed a hand across his face, trying to hide the weariness and disillusionment he felt so deeply. She pushed on his shoulder lightly and he took the hint, easing himself into a kitchen chair he had crafted himself many years before. Gabrielle moved the tea kettle into the center of the stove and took a seat beside him and covered his hand lightly with her own.
"Hercules, it wasn't a problem, really. War is rarely short-lived in mortal terms and I used the time to catch up on a lot of things... my writing, for one. Do you know how many stories I was able to go back and flesh out from my journal entries?" She laughed softly. "I didn't realize I had been so busy."
Herc chuckled. How well he understood *that* feeling.
"Besides," she continued with a smile. "I created a new writing instrument. It made things even easier for me. Wanna see?"
Hercules knew what Gabrielle was doing and he appreciated the effort. So he matched her enthusiasm in his answer. "Sure!"
The kettle started hissing as she rose and he motioned her away. "Go get your new quill. I can pour up hot water." He grabbed his saddle bags from where he had dropped them by the door when he came in and rummaged around inside until he found what he was looking for. He stepped back to the counter just as Gabrielle came back out of the bedroom.
Gabrielle set down what appeared to be a stick of wood before going to a cabinet and retrieving the honey. Herc's eyes lit at the prospect and he brought both cups over to the table setting one at each place before picking up the odd writing instrument she'd laid down.
Gabrielle grabbed two spoons from the drawer and handed one to Hercules before resuming her seat. She watched with fascinated eyes as he studied the object, finally managing to pull it apart and realizing....
"It's a quill with no feather!" he exclaimed with delighted astonishment. "This is very clever, Gabrielle. It must last much longer than feathered quills... even those with metal tips like this."
Green eyes sparkled in merriment. "It's even better than you think. I call this a fountain pen. It actually sucks up and holds the ink so it doesn't need to be dipped into the well as often. The only thing I have had to change since I crafted it has been the metal tip. It wears down to a nub after a while... at least it does the way I use it." She giggled and Hercules chuckled in sympathy.
He understood then that she was much changed from the chattery, impulsive child she had been when they'd first met, nor was she the tired, pursued warrior she had been during the twilight. She was even different from the woman he'd found helping escaping slaves get out along the Underground Railroad.
The woman before him had a poise and confidence that her many years on earth had given her. And now there was also a peace about he that he suspected had long been missing. He decided it was time to share some of his news, but he was roundabout in his methods.
"How do you like the tea?" he asked as she took her first sip.
Gabrielle took a second sip and held it on her tongue, letting the flavor waft into her senses. Finally she swallowed and nodded. "It's very good, but different from anything I've had in a long time. It reminds me of... spring and sunshine and... blackberries."
Hercules swallowed his own gulp, then winced at the burning as it went down his throat. It brought tears to his eyes and he drew a deep breath. Without a word, Gabrielle stood and pumped him a glass of cold well water, then waited patiently for him to drink. He chugged it down gratefully and set the empty glass on the table.
"Thanks," he croaked. "That wasn't the smartest thing I've ever done."
"You all right?" she questioned gently. "You need a little more?"
He held up a hand. "No. I'll be fine in a minute. Please sit." Herc waited until Gabrielle resumed her seat. "Xena is a very lucky woman," he said as she blushed then continued on before she could respond. "Let me tell you what took me so long to get back here."
Gabrielle nodded and picked up her tea, sipping it gingerly and waiting for Hercules to speak.
"The war was only four years long, but the ugliness... the senselessness of it...." Hercules scrubbed his hands over his face and through his hair. "Gabrielle, it reminded me so much of the Trojan, or the Thessilian-Mitoan wars. It was vicious and really I'm not sure it managed to do anything except divide a nation and get a lot of people killed."
He drew a deep breath.
"I saw so many lives and homes destroyed and near the end... Gabrielle, have you run into any old friends?"
"You mean besides you and Cecrops?"
Hercules shook his head. "No, not other immortals. Reincarnations of souls you've known before."
"No, not re... wait. I did run into a funny little man thirty-odd years ago. He wore a pot on his head and he reminded me of Joxer. So much so I had to consciously realize that he wasn't. Is that what you mean?"
"Uh huh." Herc scratched his head. "Near the end of the war, I was riding with a general named Sherman. He was a brutal man, burning everything in his path, but he was also a big reason the war finally ended. His tactics caused the Southern forces to become trapped between Northern ones."
Gabrielle nodded her understanding, the harshness of war all too familiar to her.
"When we reached the sea in Georgia, we turned and headed back north. In North Carolina, I came upon a Rebel soldier who was no longer fighting. He had gone home to protect his mother and all he wanted was to be left alone."
Hercules looked at Gabrielle, the anguish now apparent in his eyes. "Gabrielle, it was Iolaus. As sure as I am sitting here, I recognized his soul." Here he chuckled. "And his fierceness. Some things just don't change."
Gabrielle smiled sympathetically. This had obviously rocked Hercules to the core. "So what happened?"
"I convinced Sherman to leave him alone. He wasn't any danger to us. And his mama fed us... well, we provided the rations and she cooked one night. We almost didn't get the troops to leave the next morning."
"Oh yeah. The tea you're drinking is one of her special blends."
"Umm, it's good. So then what?"
"Well, as soon as Lee surrendered and the Confederate units were dispersed to go home, I asked for extended leave. The last leave I had was when I brought you up here, so there wasn't a lot anyone could say, especially since all the others had had leaves during the war. Some of them more regularly than others."
"You went back to North Carolina." Gabrielle made it a statement and not a question.
"Yeah. I felt I owed Isaac and his mother."
"Because of Iolaus?"
"Mostly, yeah." Hercules paused and drew another deep breath. "I'm glad I went, Gabrielle. The months hadn't been kind to either of them and they were trying to eke out a living on land that was singed and battered and bruised."
He chuckled as he remembered the looks of astonishment on both Isaac's and Mama's faces when he knocked on the door and Gabrielle laughed in delight when he shared the experience with her.
"So you stayed long enough to help them get back on their feet?" Gabrielle asked when her curiosity outweighed the silence that had fallen between them.
Hercules shook his head. "No. I convinced them to move west. To get a new start." He grinned at her sheepishly. "And then I helped them move. We had quite a wagon train by the time we pulled out. There were a number of folks who wanted a fresh start."
Gabrielle nodded sagely. How many times had she been glad for each new chance she got? And after war... she knew only too well how desperate people were to put that kind of unpleasantness behind them and sometimes the easiest and best way to do that was to simply start over somewhere else.
"So where did you go?"
"Well, we rode a ways. There was so much destruction until we reached almost the middle of the country. Isaac decided he wanted to try his hand a being a lawman and Mama said she wanted wide open spaces. So we headed down into Texas. An old Army buddy is the Federal Marshal in those parts and I told Isaac I'd talk to Daniel about making him a deputy."
"And Daniel made Isaac a deputy Marshal in a little town called Nocona Corners. Beautiful place. Already has a stable and livery with a blacksmith, a dry goods store, stagecoach office, marshal's office, a church, a saloon, a mill and Mama set up a boarding house."
"No school for the children?"
"No teacher... yet. But if you'd be willing...."
"Hercules, what makes you think I can teach children English? I still write in the now dead language of ancient Greek. Or history... I haven't been in this country that long, relatively speaking, ya know. And Xena did all the math when we were together. I hated math... still do."
Hercules covered Gabrielle's hands and waited for her to calm down. He didn't realize he would throw her for such a loop with his suggestion and wondered what was behind it.
"Gabrielle, even if you agreed to do it, it wouldn't be this year. I'm tired. We wouldn't leave here til next spring anyway. Okay?" He waited for her to take a deep breath and nod. "Besides, you read and write English better than most that were born to it... you told me about Shakespeare, remember?"
Gabrielle smiled, remembering fondly the times she and Will had spent creating with words.
"And you've lived history... even if it wasn't American history. And that is short enough you can learn it over the winter if you want." He hesitated. "Gabrielle, I didn't commit you to anything. Honestly, I would never do that. I didn't mention your many skills to anyone."
Gabrielle drew a hand over her eyes. "I know you wouldn't and I'm not sure why that spooked me so bad. It's not like I haven't done that during my life." She paused. "Maybe it is the fact that I have been alone here for the last few years. I haven't interacted with anyone."
"Well, I did mention the fact that I had a sister who I had moved out of the war's path and Mama told me to bring you to visit. She wants to meet you."
"Oh, she does?"
"Yep. She didn't believe me when I told her my sister was a wee bit of a thing."
"Sure I did. Gabrielle, you *are* a wee bit of a thing next to me. And you'll like Mama. She Irish and spunky and as fine a woman as you'll ever hope to meet."
"Uh huh. Did you at least bring me some books to study?"
"Yep and I brought books just for reading too. Figured it would help pass the winter months."
"True. I can quote a few of the ones here," Gabrielle said with a wry smile.
"And when spring comes...."
"When spring comes we'll take a trip to Texas. If you like it we can stay a while; if not, well, we'll figure that out when the time comes."
He waited until she nodded and rose before he spoke again. "There's one more thing, Gabrielle. Something I think you should know."
She looked up from where she was rinsing her cup and Hercules stood and stepped up beside her to do the same. Gabrielle arched an eyebrow at him and waited.
"I think if we go to Texas you have a better chance of finding Xena."
Hercules didn't miss the flare of hope that lit her eyes. The tone of her voice remained cool though.
"Why? Some insight or just a gut feeling?"
He shrugged nonchalantly. "A little of both, I think. I've heard some rumors - rumors about hit-and-run raids that the Indians are perpetuating on the white settlers, trying to keep them off Indian land. Not all, but a lot of them have a very familiar feel. The tactics are similar to what Xena was using as a warlord."
Now the hope flared into a dangerous fire. "You think Xena has reverted to being a warlord again?" Gabrielle asked in a perilous purr.
Herc shook his head and noticed the slight relaxation of the bard's rigid posture. "No!" he said emphatically. "No," he reiterated in a softer tone. "Gabrielle, when Xena was brought to this country, she was adopted into the Cheyenne nation. They are a nation of fierce, proud warriors and Xena looks at them as part of her extended family. For years the white man has made and broken treaties with all the native tribes. I think Xena is just using the skills she has to the Cheyenne's best advantage."
"Why not unite all the tribes against the whites?" Gabrielle asked pragmatically. "They'd win with Xena leading them."
Hercules nodded his agreement. "Yes, they would. But there is a lot of conflict between the tribes and many of them would never accept a woman as their leader in a war party. Especially one who's untried."
Gabrielle burst into laughter and Hercules joined her heartily.
"I know, I know," he said when he caught his breath. "Knowing her like we do makes that absurd in the extreme. But they don't and there just isn't time to convince them all. But thank you for the laugh... I haven't done that in years."
"How did you find all this out?"
"About the raids? Or Xena's involvement in Indian affairs?"
Herc chuckled. "Well, Xena told me a little about her involvement with the Cheyenne tribe when I saw her. She was explaining her quest."
"Did she tell you what her quest was exactly?"
"I just know there are a number of sacred objects she has to find before she can attempt to return to the Greece she was taken from."
"But we were in Ja... Japan."
Hercules shrugged broad shoulders. "I dunno. She seems to think she can go back to Greece. I think she's got enough determination to find a way to do just that." He hesitated. "You're part of that, you know."
"You think so?"
Hercules shook his tawny head. "Uh uh. I *know* so."
Gradually the days settled into a pattern and it wasn't long before the warmth of summer turned to the coolness of fall. Together Hercules and Gabrielle took in the garden produce and prepared the cabin for the coming winter. Hercules stood amazed more than once at Gabrielle's strength and determined capabilities, but instead of saying anything and making her self-conscious about them, he simply shook his head and got back to work.
When everything around the cabin was done and ready for the coming storms, Gabrielle decided to approach Hercules about hunting.
"Hercules, would you be terribly offended if I asked you not to go out hunting with me?"
He took her hands in his and chafed them lightly. "Gabrielle, I know you need to feed and I would never embarrass you... well, you know what I mean. If you're more comfortable out there alone, I know there are still things around here for me to take care of. But be careful, will ya?"
She smiled impishly at him. "I always am," she said saucily, conveniently forgetting what Xena had always referred to as the 'Gabrielle Effect'.
"Uh huh," he teased. "Like I haven't heard some stories."
Gabrielle smacked his muscular arm. "Be nice to me," she growled.
He laughed and absently noted that he tended to do that a lot around her. That went a long way to explaining the extreme changes he'd noticed in Xena and he put that thought aside to ponder more when he was alone.
"Go on," he said with a pat on her back. "I'd like some venison steaks."
Gabrielle's eyes twinkled. Since the weather hadn't turned completely cold, most of the furs and all of the ones she had tanned were still put away. She decided to yank Hercules' chain... just a little.
"Oh you would, huh? I'll see what I can do, though it's not usually what I go looking for at this time of year. In the meantime, the furs and bedding probably needs to be aired out. See ya."
Then she disappeared down the slight path and into the woods beyond.
Hercules watched for a while, his eyes remaining on the spot where Gabrielle stepped into the trees for long moments after she was lost from sight. "Now I wonder what she meant by that. She's got that 'I'm up to something' twinkle going. Poor Xena," he said, chuckling to himself as he moved towards the lean-to that served as the storage shed. "She's gonna have a hell of a time trying to keep up with Gabrielle anymore."
Hercules sat outside on the tiny porch when he saw Gabrielle's blonde head pop through the opening in the trees. He thought about letting her struggle with her burden herself after the surprise he'd been handed earlier in the day, but his nature wouldn't let him and he got up and jogged over to the tree line.
"Did you get another bear?" he asked with a small smirk.
"Yep and I got you your deer too."
An eyebrow rose on his forehead. "You didn't have to...."
I know," she cut in, "but I could." She shrugged gracefully. "So I did."
He noticed a skin pouch on her waist and figured she must have drained the blood she needed for the coming winter. He shuddered, but pushed the thought aside, knowing she hadn't chosen the destiny she'd been handed. Besides, he'd never her take more than she needed and from what he'd seen in the short time he'd been back in Banff, she put back into the earth at least as much as she used.
"Well, thank you, Gabrielle," he said, focusing his mind on other things. "How 'bout I take this stuff and start preparing it and once you get cleaned up, you could maybe, um... cook us some steaks?"
"You saying I stink?"
"Nonononono!" Hercules said, backpedaling a bit as Gabrielle took a step forward. "Just thinking you might like a soak after lugging this big old bear back."
Gabrielle let him worry for a moment as she continued to advance. She giggled when she reached him. "Nice save," she said. "And you're right, I would."
"Cook?" he ventured.
Gabrielle walked by him laughing. "That too."
Hercules was very thankful for Gabrielle's hunting skills when the weather suddenly dropped from chilly to frigid. His bed was a stuffed mattress on the floor in the main room and he noticed an immediate difference when the furs she had captured became rugs and blankets and window coverings. He couldn't believe how much snugger and cozier the cabin became with the addition.
Winter passed pleasantly enough for the two immortals. There was plenty to keep them occupied and they respected the silence as much as they indulged in conversation. Gabrielle studied American history and Hercules found out she was better at math than he was. Hercules decided it was nice to have family to share with again, even if only for a little while and Gabrielle came to the conclusion that having an older brother was nice, especially one who respected your skills.
Days turned into weeks and then into months and eventually the storms went from fierce blizzards to lazy snowfall to spring rain. Finally the weather cleared enough that traveling down out of the mountains and into Banff was not treacherous and after making sure everything was well-tended and put away, they began their journey back to civilization with only a single glance at the cabin that had been their sanctuary.
"What was that all about?" Gabrielle asked Hercules as he stepped from the small office. Banff was not too greatly changed since Gabrielle's arrival years ago - a few more shops, but it mostly retained its rustic flavor and appearance. Hercules walked slowly, allowing Gabrielle to soak up the renewing of connecting with humanity on a personal level again.
The first thing Gabrielle noticed was that many of the women in this small frontier town wore trousers much like she herself had on, though they were certainly not stylish or well-fitting. Then she realized that since many of them had come to climb the mountains, they simply had to wear smaller versions of men's pants to be able to do so safely. Maybe there was some hope for society after all. She couldn't imagine anyone not choosing trousers over the confining garb that was considered fashionable for women if they were given the chance to choose.
She looked in many windows, fascinated by the changes a few short years had brought. Then she remembered the pen she had crafted from necessity. Probably that same need was behind many of the new gadgets and contraptions she saw in the small town.
"Ya know," Hercules commented, breaking in on her thoughts. "Maybe you should market that fountain pen of yours. I imagine that could become quite popular." He looked around. "Not here necessarily, but in the big cities." He shrugged. "Something to think about."
Gabrielle nodded. "Maybe, but that still doesn't answer my question."
"Huh?" he blinked. "Oh, I sent a telegraph off to an old friend in Calgary. Asked him to have a couple good horses ready for us." A blonde brow rose and he answered what he felt was an obvious question. "So we don't have to walk all the way to Texas."
"Uh huh... and how is he gonna know when to have them ready and waiting?"
"Well, he'll be in town for the mustang round up and we should arrive pretty close to then as well. "Whoever gets there first will wait for the other."
"And you're sure he'll get that telegraph thing you just sent?"
"Yep... in two to three days if there are no lines down the man in the office said."
Gabrielle let her eyes follow the long thin wires that were strung precariously high above her head and tracked them through the mountainous area until they were well out of sight. She shook her head. "If you say so. I've seen enough strange new things in my life not to discount something just because I don't understand it."
Hercules grinned and clapped her on the shoulder. "That's the spirit." He took her arm. "Now c'mon. I'd like a hot meal and a bed tonight. We start a long walk into Calgary in the morning."
Gabrielle laughed infectiously and soon Hercules joined her without understanding the reason why. When she was able to draw breath and wipe her eyes she looked at him seriously. "Herc, I have walked the diameter of the world several times in my lifetime. Walking from here to Calgary will be a day in the park."
Of course, he never mentioned that walk in the park was gonna be mostly through the mountains, Gabrielle groused silently as the duo approached Calgary. The walk had taken longer than Gabrielle remembered, though in all fairness she was so anxious to get there she didn't recall much of the trip in.
They weren't in Calgary yet, but they had slowly started seeing the occasional ranch with its accompanying outbuildings. To Gabrielle's surprise, Hercules turned down a long lane without a word and she kept pace beside him. Just as the sun reached its zenith, Hercules removed his hat and wiped the sweat off his forehead before raising his hand and knocking loudly on the front door.
An older woman came to the door, wiping her hands on a towel, then squealing and opening her arms to the big man when she recognized him.
"Harrison Tillman!" addressing Hercules by the moniker he wore in his present incarnation. "What are you doin' here? Phillip got your telegram and was making plans to meet you in Calgary next week." She looked past his broad shoulder. "You gonna introduce me?"
"Oh, yeah... sorry Maggie. "Maggie, this is my sister, Gabrielle. Gabrielle, this is Maggie Atkins. Maggie and her husband Philip and I knew each other in the States before the war."
"Nice to meet you, ma'am."
"It's Maggie, child, though you must be older than a child to be Harrison's sister." Maggie looked at Hercules. "Sure do wish you'd share the secret of your eternal youth though. We seem to get older every year and you still look as good as you did the first time I met ya."
Maggie stepped back and gestured them inside. "Ya'll come on in and be comfortable. I'll call Daddy in from the field." She stepped onto the porch and rang the heavy iron bell that hung from the side of the house. "He'll hear that and be right in."
Sure enough, it wasn't long before Phillip was stomping his boots just outside the kitchen door. And after another surprised round of greetings and introductions, they settled into visiting.
"So what brings ya by here instead of meetin' me in Calgary?"
"We made better time than I expected, actually. Thought maybe we could just pick up the horses and leave from here. It's a long ride into Texas."
"Can you stay a day or two? Visit a little bit?"
Hercules looked at Gabrielle who nodded ever so slightly in agreement. He smiled. "We'd love to, thanks."
The rest of the day was spent catching up, though Philip promised them a tour of the ranch and the mustangs he was taking to the round-up in Calgary the next week. And with the early morning light, he did just that.
The spread was beautiful, nestled into the heart of the valley and framed by the craggy mountains that stood majestic behind it. There were a few trees and a stream, but what captured Gabrielle's imagination was the vast space around them. Similar to what she had known in Banff, yet not the same at all. What seized her attention however, were the wild horses running circles around each other in the corral. They were beautiful in a fierce rowdy way that simply awed her in a way she hadn't felt in a very long time.
Gabrielle edged the horse Hercules had purchased for her up to the corral, close enough to brush the fence post with her leg. The mustangs ceased their movement, only their breathing making their sides quiver. Gabrielle sat completely still, simply watching, feeling her breath catch as one mustang separated itself from the pack and stepped forward towards her.
The two men sat back a little simply watching the tableau that was taking place before them. Hercules had felt Gabrielle's start and quickly realized the reason behind it.
The horse approaching her bore an uncanny resemblance to Argo. It was a little smaller and its mane and tail were a little darker, but the similarities were astounding.
"I'll be damned," Phillip muttered sotto voce to Hercules.
"No kidding," Herc mumbled back.
"No, you don't understand. That 'stang... I have never seen one that color before and until today... until right now, he has been the meanest, orneriest critter I have ever had the displeasure to meet." The two men watched in silence as the horse eased up beside Gabrielle and not only allowed her to pet him, but actually encouraged it.
They remained that way for sometime before Gabrielle whispered in the mustang's ear. He whickered and shook his head and she laughed aloud. The horse nudged her gently and she kissed his head on the white mark between his eyes before moving back to where the two stunned men sat watching her.
"What??" she asked, looking at herself for marks.
Hercules just shook his head with a smile. Phillip cleared his throat. "Wow," was all he managed to whisper.
Gabrielle grinned real big and started to make her way back towards the ranch house.
"Oh!" she exclaimed and stopped the big horse in its tracks, turning to face the two who had yet to move. "His name is Shamrock." Then she continued on her way, grin still plastered to her face.
Hercules laughed heartily and clapped Philip's shoulder as the two friends watched the mustangs scurry away at the rolling sound. Then they turned and headed their own horses for home.
Phillip waited until he thought she was out of hearing. "Well, I'll be damned," he repeated again.
"Well, I'll be damned," the grizzled cowboy commented as he came up to lean on the corral fence next to Xena. "Ya know, you're the second beautiful lady to tame him this week. Must be a trend." Then he was forced to step back from the fence when the horse reared in his direction.
Xena snorted and so did the horse. The man just chuckled at the similarities between the two until he was pinned with ice blue eyes. Then he swallowed his laughter with an audible gulp. The horse whickered and Xena smirked.
"First of all, this horse isn't tamed. He's his own spirit." She gave a small smile when the horse nodded his agreement. "And secondly, I'm no lady." Her feral grin made the man straighten uncomfortably, but he held his ground and extended his hand.
"Name's Phillip Atkins." He motioned to the horse. "This here's Shamrock."
Xena raised and eyebrow as she clasped his hand. "Xena," she said briefly. "You gave a wild, untamed horse a name because...?"
"Oh, no ma'am. *I* didn't. We had a friend and his sister visit last week. She and the horse took a shine to one another. *She* named him Shamrock."
"I see," Xena drawled slowly, clearly confused. "So why didn't she keep him, if they got along so well?"
"Because they were leaving out for Texas and she needed a horse that had already been trained and was ready to make the trip."
Xena nodded, accepting the explanation, then she turned her attention back to the mustang. "Shamrock, huh?" she asked, rubbing his head. He pushed harder under her hand and she laughed soundlessly. "How much?" she asked the cowboy without removing her eyes from Shamrock.
"Well," he considered, "He's got good tone and speed and he is such an unusual color... I won't take a penny less than two hundred."
Xena looked at the horse carefully, then put her hand on the top rail and lightly leaped the fence into the corral.
"You can't...." Phillip sputtered, then simply stood back and watched as Xena gently lifted and examined each hoof. She walked around the mustang, talking to him in a low tone that no one else could understand. The horse stood stock still, allowing the examination, even when she opened his mouth and checked his teeth.
"Two hundred, huh?" she said with her back still turned to Phillip.
"Yes, ma'am. I think he's worth every penny."
Xena wrapped her hands in the dark blonde mane and leapt onto the mustang's back. The horse trembled but stood still, waiting to see what this strange new human had in mind. Xena sat confidently, giving the animal a chance to adjust to her weight. She eased one hand into her shirt pocket, pulling out a handful of bills and counting out two hundred. She extended her reach towards the cowboy who stared at her with astounded eyes.
The horse stutter stepped nervously and Xena gently urged him to take the sidestep necessary to bring her body along side the fence.
"Your price," she said briskly, when Phillip made no move to take the money from her. Slowly he raised his hand and felt the warmth of the paper as the transfer was made. He looked at her fully then and Xena let her eyes show a feral joy she hadn't felt since coming to this strange land decades ago.
"Do we have a deal?" Xena asked softly. She sat straight on the mustang's back, sure of her seat and confident in her abilities. Her hair blew away from her face in the light, early morning breeze and her eyes reflected the glow of the dawning sunlight.
Phillip merely nodded his head, mesmerized by the living portrait of feminine fierceness before him. She accepted his word with a slight lift of her head. Then she leaned down into Shamrock's neck and whispered into his ear.
"All right, boy... let's see whatcha got. Let's RUN!"
She nudged him with her knees as she spoke and Shamrock took off like the wind. Around the corral he ran, stirring the other mustangs until he was leading a parade. Xena angled him towards the fence, hoping he would clue into what she was thinking. A grin crossed her face when she felt the mustang gathering himself as the fence approached. Xena leaned down into him and Shamrock pulled his legs up, clearing the fence by a good foot and leaving Phillip staring at their dust with his mouth agape and his eye bugging out of his head.
"Well," he drawled at last. "I'll be damned."
Xena laughed in sheer pleasure as the headed out of the town proper and into the outskirts. She pulled up in front of the boardinghouse with a flourish and Rosalie stepped out to see what was causing such a commotion so early in the morning. Her eyes widened perceptibly when she spotted Xena sitting so comfortably on top of a mustang, looking for all the world as though she'd been born to the saddle. Except....
"Come with me," Rosalie said abruptly.
Xena slid down from Shamrock's back, though she kept a hand in his mane as she followed Rosalie to the barn. Xena had spent a lot of time cleaning out the old place out and now it was clean and repaired and nearly empty, save the few odds and ends Rosalie had insisted be stored there.
Now they went in with Shamrock walking obediently behind Xena. She wondered about the oddness of that, then accepted it as a gift not to be taken lightly... especially not knowing how long it would last.
"Wait right here," Rosalie asked and move further into the barn.
The barn was mostly dark in the early hours of the morning, even with the barn doors open wide, but Xena breathed deeply of the clean scent of hay and fresh wood. Shamrock nudged her gently in the back and Xena chuckled lightly as she scratched his ears.
She could easily hear the bumping and groaning coming from the dark corner and wondered what on earth.... Then she saw Rosalie struggling and rushed over to help her.
Rosalie's face was a little flushed from the exertion and she was happy to have Xena relieve her of her burden. "Take that outside, please. I have a couple things to go with that and you'll be all set."
Xena took the heavy wooden box and stepped back out into the morning sunshine. She put it carefully on the ground and turned to see if she could help Rosalie when the older woman came through the doors struggling with a smaller box. Xena was quick to take that from her as well and stacked it on top of the bigger one.
Rosalie leaned against them and removed a kerchief from her bodice, wiping away copious amounts of sweat from her face and forearms. Then she blew out a disgusted breath.
"I surely don't recall this being so heavy before."
Without a word, Xena crossed to the well and pulled up the bucket. Then she grabbed the full dipper and brought it back to Rosalie. Rosalie accepted the dipper and drained it, patting Xena on the arm with a smile.
"You're a sweet one, Xena. Remind me a lot of myself in my younger years. C'mere." Rosalie pushed off of the boxes and picked up the flat iron bar she'd brought out from the barn with her. She handed it to Xena and gestured to the wooden crates. "Open those up for me, will ya?"
Xena pried the lid off and set the smaller box aside. Then she lever the second one off and stepped back.
Shamrock, doing his bit to help, lipped at the straw that was visible, but he soon abandoned the stale straw in favor of Xena's clean hair. She ducked his lips playfully and scratched his neck, then froze when she saw what Rosalie had removed from the crates.
On the lid sat a western leather saddle that though used, looked as though it had been well-cared for. Rosalie set the oilcloth it was wrapped in on the straw and casually moved over to the smaller box and took out bridle, reins, bit and various other sundry parts that Xena needed to saddle Shamrock.
Wide blue eyes blinked and her mouth worked, but before Xena could get sound to come out, Rosalie started to speak softly, her back turned to Xena.
"When I was a much younger woman," she reminisced, "I had a best friend that I loved very much. We did everything together. Neorah and I, we... I... well.... Anyway, when we were sixteen, my folks married me off to a much older man and Neorah, she ran away from home and headed west, swearing she would never suffer my fate. Marriage, ya know."
Xena nodded but remained silent, wanting to hear more of Rosalie's story.
"Horace, my husband, was a kind man, but we didn't love one another. He lived for three years after we wed and once my period of mourning was over, I came out west, hoping against hope to find my Neorah."
Silence fell as Rosalie got lost in her memories. Xena waited patiently.
"It took me almost a year to travel out here on my own, avoiding Indians and white men alike. From the little I'd heard they were equally vicious and even as young and stupid as I was I knew it was best not to be a woman caught alone out here."
"So why do it?" Xena asked logically. "Were things that bad for you as a widow?"
Rosalie shook her head with a sad smile. "No. Horace left me comfortably well off. But I needed to find Neorah." Her eyes pinned Xena's. "You can understand that."
"This area was empty when I stopped here. I just couldn't go on any further. And that first year... God, I didn't think I'd survive. I built the barn alone and it took me until after the first snows. It was... it was rough." She swallowed hard. "For five long years, I worked the land and built me a little place. The Indians left me alone because I respected the land and their way of life. Very few white men came through until they built the fort and even then, they didn't come out here unless they were passing through to the ocean."
"What happened?" Xena asked when silence fell again.
"Neorah," Rosalie answered with a tremulous smile. "Out of the blue one fine spring morning almost thirty-five years ago, the most beautiful sight I have ever seen came riding up to my front porch." She laughed. "I was out back in the garden when I saw a rider come up the path. I picked up the shotgun Horace had taught me how to shoot, having learned real quick to be safe rather than sorry."
Rosalie never felt the tears fall from her eyes, but Xena felt her own tearing up at the joy that shone in her face. She blinked rapidly and focused her attention on keeping her breathing even.
"The rider dismounted and walked towards me, even though I had the gun still raised. I asked what they wanted, told them to get off my land. She stopped, just out of arms reached and lifted a hand towards her hat...."
Rosalie trailed off again, remembering the day her life had changed so drastically. Then she sighed and turned her attention back to Xena, who had a faraway almost pained look in her eyes. She laid a tentative hand on the warrior's arm and waited until the blue eyes tracked to her own.
"We had twenty-five wonderful years together before she... before...." Rosalie bit her lip and turned away. "Even after all this time," she whispered, "it still hurts."
Finally she lifted the bridle and bit and put them in Xena's hands. "These were hers... well, her horse's," Rosalie said with a small smile. "I'd be honored if you'd consider them yours and...." She looked at the horse. "He got a name yet?"
"Shamrock," Xena said gruffly. "Name he came with."
Rosalie held up her hands defensively and tried not to laugh. "Yours and Shamrock's," she continued. "You need them and I'd like you to have them. Please," she added when it looked like Xena might refuse. Xena nodded and moved to outfit Shamrock in his new gear for the first time. Then the day got *really* interesting.
"Guess you're glad he's a fast learner," Rosalie commented that evening as she put the stopper back in the bottle of witch hazel. Xena's hands and arms had cuts and scrapes that were already healing, though if Rosalie noticed, she kept such things to herself.
Xena merely grunted her agreement. Her butt was sore. It had been a long time since she'd ridden such a strong-willed horse and it had taken Shamrock a little while to accept the new tack. But a few well-placed words after their first battle of wills and he settled down right. Xena spent a good bit of the morning learning his gaits and teaching him different commands. She felt satisfied with their work and turned him back towards the house at a fast clip when without warning he threw her cleanly out of the saddle and unfortunately landed her in a briar patch.
She climbed back on a little warily and put him through his paces again. Once she was satisfied they were communicating again, she directed him back to the house. Everything was fine until they reached the yard. Then without warning, he stopped dead and arched his back, jumping and curling in a wild, graceful dance.
Then she realized that he was bucking and twisting because he enjoyed it... it was his way of playing with her. But she supposed that free spirit had to express itself somehow. Xena held on tight and just hoped that mostly it came in the form of running and not this creative dance he seemed so enamored of. She wasn't sure she could handle all that enthusiasm, despite her immortality. Especially since the panther and the fox tended to bring out those traits in Shamrock and they seemed predisposed to appearing in her life at the most inopportune moments.
Xena left Calgary with good memories though they didn't last long. Almost the minute she crossed back into the United States from Canada, ugly rumors reached her ears about Union atrocities and she set out to find out the truth.
What she found was beyond her understanding, worse than anything she had done during her warlording days in Greece. Union soldiers had killed Indian women and children and that put Xena on a warpath that would bring her in contact with a despised enemy.
Xena's first glimpse of Custer sent proverbial chills up her back... something she'd not felt since.... India? The Steppes? Rome? The familiarity of it made her spine tingle in a most unpleasant way and she initially tried to put it aside as malevolent feelings towards a soldier she considered to be without competence or honor. But it niggled at her and she began comparing it to the other times in her life she'd felt it. It was reminiscent of Ares, but....
Xena cast her mind back nearly two thousand years and remembered what Naima had said about karma and the circle of life. Then she realized why this union soldier felt so familiar to her. The colonel known to the world as George Armstrong Custer was in actuality the reincarnation of Alti's soul. And Xena set out to defeat her in the lifetime she now lived.
For several years, Xena had dogged Custer's steps, harassing him and his troops at every turn. She organized raiding parties that plagued Custer's efforts across the plains. Fort Riley had been razed because of his desire to channel the Indians onto a reservation and she had only just missed catching him there. It was the Battle of Washita that made it personal for Xena though.
The fact that soldiers killed defenseless women and children made her blood boil and it made Xena want to bring the skirmishes to an end once and for all.
Various Native nations had joined her periodically to drive the troops from their land, but Xena was having trouble convincing them to join forces and with one another to drive the white man out completely. They felt their hatreds for each other were too old and deep.
Finally she went to Sitting Bull, with whom she had developed a friendship over the last few years as they'd fought together against the white man. Crazy Horse, whom she met on her trek back from California, had introduced them. Crazy Horse was like a duplicate of Palaemon, being something of a dashing rogue, a ladies man with an almost identical facial scar. Once he understood that she was a warrior of no small skill and not a woman to be wooed, Crazy Horse had accepted her as a friend and brave. Sitting Bull had never questioned her motivations, accepting her introduction by Crazy Horse and appreciating her Cheyenne warrior marking and skills. Several times she had been invited to share around his fire and he'd found her thoughts succinct and insightful.
Now when she approached him for a meeting, he couldn't refuse and he listened carefully while smoking a pipe which they shared. His gaze went inward for a while once she finished speaking and he thought about what she'd proposed. Finally he nodded.
"Join me for Sun Dance. See what spirits think."
Xena nodded. She felt confident that the spirits were in agreement.
The following morning the rites for the Sun Dance began and for four days Xena fasted and meditated except when her physical presence was required for some ceremony. Just before dawn of the fifth day, she escaped her self-imposed exile and hunted, knowing she needed the blood sustenance for the trial ahead.
Xena was already deep in a trance when the blades were inserted into her breasts. For hours she simply hung still reviewing her life with Gabrielle while those around her struggled and fought to get free. The medicine men couldn't understand the small smile that graced her face. Finally, though, she slid free from the blades and only the silent tears on her face gave any indication of the excruciating pain she felt, though they never knew the real cause.
When the day was over, she had Sitting Bull's agreement. The tribes would join together to fight the Union Blue Coats at Little Big Horn.
Runners were sent out to the Nations and men gathered very quickly, including a very surprising visitor for Xena.
The appearance of a white man in their camp was stunning, but the enthusiasm with which he was greeted by Xena and Crazy Horse caused a dead silence to fall over the entire assembly.
They had been preparing for war - arrows added to quivers, axes honed to razor sharpness, guns checked and loaded and the buzz of conversation hung low across the encampment. When the stranger approached the camp, he drew everyone's attention, then Xena looked up and caught his eyes and the small grin on his face that he produced on sight of her.
"Hercules?" she whispered, before launching into a run and engulfing him in a hug.
Hercules wrapped her in a fierce embrace and lifted her off the ground until he felt her shrink away from him. He drew back to look at her face, concerned.
"Problem?" he asked softly, well aware of the eyes on them.
She shook her head and hugged him again, though it was much lighter than the first. "I'm just a little sore," she answered vaguely. "C'mon," she said with a smile as she pulled away again. "There's someone here I want you to meet."
They turned to find Crazy Horse waiting. Hercules extended his hand and Crazy Horse simply looked at him a long moment, before engulfing him in a hug.
"Harrison! I have not seen you since we fought with Red Cloud in Wyoming."
"Crazy Horse! How are you?"
"Good, my friend. You?"
Hercules smiled. "The same. Glad to find friends here," though his look at Xena conveyed more than his words.
"Happy you are here, Harrison. Come." Crazy Horse led the way.
The eyes of the whole community followed them until they reached Sitting Bull's fire. And conversation started up again slowly as the Chief invited them to sit down. They sat and talked until the shadows grew long and Sitting Bull found a friend in the man named Harrison Tillman.
Once the sun had completely set, Xena and Hercules took their leave from Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and walked away from the camp out into the darkness of the plain. Without a sound, two animals came up on either side of Xena, subtly pushing Hercules further away from the warrior. He looked at Xena with a raised eyebrow. She chuckled softly.
"Etor, Melo, this is an old friend... Hercules. Herc, these are my spirit guides."
Hercules knelt down to bring himself eye to eye with the animals. "It's nice to meet you. I'm glad Xena has had you and hasn't had to be alone." The panther stepped into Hercules' personal space and growled, showing its canine teeth in a full, snarling smile. The fox crossed in front of the cat, putting itself between the panther and Hercules. The cat held Herc's eyes for another full minute before turning its face into the fox's neck and nuzzling with a faint purr.
Hercules stood slowly and looked at Xena who has silently watched the entire tableau. "They're mates?"
She nodded, "Since before I found them, I think."
"Ya know," he commented casually, "They remind me of y...."
"I know," she cut in. "Me too."
They walked on again in silence. "Would you excuse me a few minutes? I need to...."
Hercules held up his hands. "Go ahead. Etor and Melo can keep me company til you get back."
Xena nodded and slipped into the darkness without a sound and Hercules sat down and turned his attention to the two animals. The panther sat facing him and the fox curled up in its embrace. Hercules stared at them for a time, then turned his attention to the darkness, feeling as though he had intruded on something intensely private when they began grooming on another. He never heard Xena come up until she seated herself next to him, clearly visible in the moonlight.
"Do you know who Alti is... who she was in the lifetime that was so long ago for us?"
"I know some. I've heard stories. Why?"
"I've seen her in this lifetime. She is the soldier known as George Custer."
"I met him once, during the war. He was a total ass."
"Yeah, well, soon he is gonna be a dead one. We're gonna wipe 'em out, Herc. They've killed enough, killed women and children and it ends here. But Custer especially dies."
Xena shrugged. "It is part of my destiny... my karmic circle. I defeat Alti in every life we cross paths in."
Hercules looked a little lost at her surety, but decided to let it pass uncontested, having other things of importance on his mind. He was composing a way to bring up his topic, when Xena beat him to the punch.
"So what brings you here, Hercules? I got the distinct impression from your arrival that you were looking for me."
"I was." He looked down at his clasped hands then back out at the flat plain of darkness that stretched to infinity. "I found Gabrielle." Xena's grip on his arm made him flinch with the bruising force she applied when she grasped it.
He waited, but she didn't say a word, her jaw clenched so tightly he could hear her teeth grinding together.
"She, um... she's a beautiful woman, Xena, but time and the world have worn on her... a lot."
"She's always been a beautiful woman, Hercules. Even when she was still a cute kid," she whispered, though Xena's hold grew noticeably tighter. Hercules surreptitiously flexed his hand to keep the blood flowing to it. He cleared his throat and continued without looking in her direction.
"I took her to Texas... to stay with some friends I have there. It's given her some stability and she's well thought of there. She's the school teacher in a little town called Nocona Corners."
Hercules heard Xena swallow, but it was the only sound she made. He looked at her and watched her jaw clench and unclench, knowing she was fighting an emotional battle to stay focused. He'd given her the impetus she needed to make the coming fight swift and furious. Herc nodded to himself and returned his gaze back to the blackness and kept a silent watch, waiting for the sun to come up.
Morning brought battle. The Indians spotted the Blue Coats in the same instant they were seen and they prepared themselves for the coming fight.
Xena mounted Shamrock and prepared to lead a mounted charge against those who were coming. Her gut told her Custer would be among them and she had a burning need to finish her business with Alti so she could finally reunite with Gabrielle... especially now that she had all the totems save one. With the chakram she suspected was still in Gabrielle's possession, they could go home.
Hercules gathered up his borrowed weapons and prepared to join the warriors who were on foot. Sitting Bull had introduced him to the war chiefs and he had been made welcome to join the many braves who would fight on foot. He felt Xena's regard and he gave her a salute from his chest which she returned with a smile, before giving her war cry and leading the mounted troops to meet the enemy. He felt himself wishing for a horse so he could fight by her side once more and then a far bigger problem became his immediate focus.
Custer was not a stupid man and he had divided his forces into a three-pronged attack and unexpectedly, one of those prongs came over the horizon towards the encampment and the warriors who remained there. The war chiefs rallied the braves and soon they were engaged in the battle. Hercules spared a prayer for Xena, then focused his attention on the fight that lay ahead of him.
Meanwhile Xena and the rest of the mounted warriors pursued Custer and his battalion into the hills, knowing they had the advantage in both numbers and knowledge. This was their home they were defending and many of them had grown up learning their skill at arms in this very valley. So it was with many glad voices raised that they now fought to drive the white man from their territory once and for all.
Xena honed in on Custer, wanting him to know where his death was coming from. He was a little separate from those in his command, as though his being in charge would make a difference in whether he lived or died.
Pompous little prick, Xena thought to herself before turning Shamrock and heading directly towards George Armstrong Custer. She blocked the other sounds of battle, negligently killing those who thought to get in her way and letting this one Blue Coat become her entire focus.
Custer caught sight of the brave headed at him so recklessly and he raised a pistol to shoot him. Before he got the gun to firing level, however, he realized two very important things. The brave was no brave at all, but a woman with startlingly blue eyes. And she was now leaping from her horse and taking him off of his.
Custer lost his gun along with his balance and was barely able to roll to his feet before the first blow rattled his brains. He fell and she kicked him and he reached for his remaining pistol while shaking his head.
"Die, Injun!" he yelled as he pulled the trigger, his smile a grimace when Xena fell to the ground unmoving. The bloodstain blossomed on her chest and he reached for the knife strapped to his leg and grabbed the dark hair in his fist.
"I've never taken a woman's scalp," Custer sneered, "but I'll make an exception in your case."
He never saw the blow coming, but the pain that exploded in his throat was telling as her foot connected with his throat and he landed on his butt from the force of her kick. His breath grew raspy as he struggled to pull air into his lungs and Custer recognized to his bemusement that he was going to die. He looked at Xena with a mixture awe and fright when she snatched the blade from his hands.
"Y-you... should be... d-dead!" he wheezed as his eyes fastened on the big red spot on her chest. "I-I-I shot... you... at p-point... blank... range!"
She looked down at her chest and felt a wave of lethargy flow through her at the blood loss. "Damn you, bitch! That hurts!"
Xena punched him and watched his head snap back, then drew the blade up Custer's face, leaving a thin trail of blood in its wake. "I don't kill that easy," she remarked. "You of all people ought to know that by now."
Custer stared at her trying to focus even as his breath grew subtly shallower. Xena waited, knowing revelation would come and recognized the moment it did.
"Xena," Alti drawled. The warrior could hear just the faintest hint of the telltale rasp that her voice had carried in their original lifetime. "How...? You can't...."
Xena smiled cruelly. "Oh but I can...I have many skills," she said coldly.
Alti forced her body to stand. "So do I," she growled, gathering her waning life force in her hands and channeling it, hitting Xena in the chest again. The warrior flew back and landed on the ground a second time. "At least if I have to go I can take you with me."
Alti fell to her knees and punched Xena's face, then reached for the knife. "Say your prayers, Xena."
The warrior jerked upward and pulled out of Alti's grasp shaking her head to clear it of the dizziness that the blood loss had caused.
"Why won't you die?" Alti hissed, even as Xena swung the knife towards her. She sliced through the blue uniform and cut into the skin on Alti's upper arm. Then she spun and kicked the shamaness in the gut, watching as she fell to the ground.
Xena clenched Custer's hair in her hand and twisted hard as she moved the blade into position. "Nice as this has been, I've got other places to be," she said.
"I'll see you in hell," Alti said, then screamed as Xena removed her scalp. Silence soon followed, but she, like those of her regiment, was not alive to appreciate the peace that shrouded the battlefield at their deaths.
Xena stood and raised Custer's scalp to the sun and her war cry was echoed across the plains by the warriors who had survived the day with her. She whistled; Shamrock ran to her and she leaped astride the mustang as he headed back to the encampment, followed by his compatriots.
What they found when they got there was astonishing. Yet another band of Blue Coats had attacked the main camp, but they were being held off by the foot troops that had not left for battle... instead the battle had come to them. Now with the return of the mounted warriors, the Blue Coats were being forced to retreat into the hills and the war chiefs were pursuing them to wipe out the last of the enemy.
Xena rode the where Sitting Bull stood, directing the warriors. She dropped the scalp at his feet. "Custer is dead," she said succinctly. "And now I must leave. Duty calls me elsewhere."
He motioned to her bloody chest, but she waved him off. Sitting Bull shook his head, but motioned his acceptance of her diagnosis nonetheless.
"Go find beloved. Search over soon."
Xena's eyes rounded with questions. Sitting Bull chuckled at her expression.
"Vision quest during Sun Dance revealed many things. Now go, brave warrior. Your place not here now."
Xena nodded and stood in the stirrups, looking for Hercules. She gritted her teeth against the pain and the dizziness and guided Shamrock through the maze of bodies living, wounded and dead before she reached him.
"Where is Nocona Corners?"
"Let me get my stuff...."
"Hercules, you've got no horse and I'm not gonna wait. Where is she?"
"A little town in the northeast part of the state."
She extended a hand with a grimace and he took it, knowing she bore him no malice but that her patience had finally run out. He just hoped she'd be all right alone.
"Thanks, Hercules. You've been a good friend and I appreciate...."
He held up his hand. "We'll see each other again. Good luck, my friend."
She nodded and wheeled her horse around, headed southeast and giving Shamrock his head. Herc watched until she was out of sight.
"You're gonna need it."