SPIFFY DISCLAIMER THINGIE!!
Not mine! Marvel's! No profit! Don't sue!
Rated PG-17 for M/M slash themes.
The End of the Line
By Dannell Lites
You have to understand. He wasn't a bad man in spite of all that happened; no, he wasn't. It's important that you know that.
They call me Red Jean. I guess it isn't hard to see why. Slim says my hair reminds him of a crackling fire; warm and bright and friendly. How someone who is blind can know that is beyond me. Doctor Xavier is a little more poetic. He claims it's like watching the sun set. Me? All I know is that it brings me a lot of customers and that's all that matters in the end. The first thing everybody always wants to know is "how did a nice girl like you", etc. Magnus was the first man I ever met who never asked me that question. He just seemed to know the many pathways errant feet can travel; how dreams can twist and change until you don't even recognize them anymore. Until, somewhere along the way, little by little, one compromise at a time, they turned into nightmares. As if he'd been there himself.
I didn't start out to be a whore. But, then, does anyone? I started out to be a school teacher as a matter of fact. It's what I came west to do but I'm afraid I didn't get the chance. I never made it past St. Louis. My own damn fault really. Remy was charming and sexy and one hell of a talented gambler. What that man could do with a deck of cards was absolutely amazing. And illegal, of course. That was the part I always refused to let myself think about. All I knew was that I was in love. Before you can say, "You want ol' Remy, non, chere?" he'd talked me out of my money and my clothes. I guess they learn to work quickly in New Orleans. Damn me if it wasn't almost worth it. Almost ... Lord we had fun in the beginning. It was like a fairy tale come true. Early afternoon breakfast served to us on silver dishes that sparkled. Champagne and the luxuriant feel of beautiful silk and lace dresses. Roses ("Red as your hair, chere!") and long lazy afternoons full of breathless lovemaking. I could never get enough of Remy's body. I used to adore sex. But that was quite a while ago. And more men ago than I care to count. Now it's just a job. I never enjoy it anymore. Well, almost never. Hair like spun silver haunts me now. Soft ... so very soft ...
But no, I'm getting ahead of my story.
The fairy tale came to an end, of course. In St. Louis, the same place it all started. The same place I'd met Remy. There's not much to tell, actually. Remy was caught cheating. It was bound to happen. Even for someone as skillful as Remy the odds were against him. Which he knew, damn his eyes. He was prepared, I'll give him that. But when he disappeared like a thief into the night ("The law be bad news, cher ami; ol' Remy he don't be caught!") he left a few things behind.
Me, for example.
So what with one thing and another, mostly "the other", I reached my nadir here in End Of The Line, New Mexico about five years ago. Yes, that *really* is the name of the town. It rests at the end of the Great Plains And Western Stage Line, you see. What an ironic and appropriate name. It's not a bad life. It does have a few compensations for all it's humiliaton.
Doctor Xavier is one of those compensations. When he all too infrequently visits my small upstairs room he's always very considerate. He actually talks to me. The truth is that's mostly what we do: talk. I think he enjoys that even more than the sex. Lord, it's nice to have someone to talk to! I think that's the thing I miss the most. No one wants to talk to me. Charles is very well read and he doesn't mind lending me his books. And if he's a bit condescending because I'm a woman ... well, you can't have everything, now can you? I'm very lucky to be his friend.
And then there's Slim. Slim, who knows that I "entertain" other men night after night while he serves drinks from behind the oaken shield of The Ace Of Spades' polished bar. Slim, who worries about me and looks after me and never, never lectures me or asks for something I can't give him. Slim, who loves me and will always be too frightened to say so. Lord, what am I going to do about Slim?
It began innocently enough. Well, no, on second thought I guess it didn't begin all that innocently, at that. There's nothing innocent about Logan, not a damn thing that I can see anyway. If he had any innocence left, he lost it along with his eye in the War. And he's a stubborn and surly man. How else would he have the termerity to come back here to a Union town after fighting for the Confederarcy? Logan always rubbed people the wrong way. Now don't get me wrong. He's not quite the bastard everyone makes him out to be. He was always nice to me and these days that's my only standard of character assesment. He's quiet, generally. But you don't want to make him angry the way this town did. No, you don't want to do that. Logan may be small but I've seen him without his clothes and he's solid muscle, built like a bull. And when he's angry he likes to ... break things ...
To say that everyone was surprised when he came back is an understatement. Shocked is more like it. And nervous. *Very* nervous. Just about all of us thought that he was dead, you see. The War ended four years ago for God's sake! So when Sebastian Shaw helped himself to Logan's property by paying the overdue taxes no one said or did anything. How were we to know? Shaw has always done as he pleases here. That's one of the wonderful things about being wealthy.
I loathe Sebastian Shaw, you should know that right now. He isn't one of the nice ones. The only time he ever purchased my services Slim heard me screaming and came running. He pulled Shaw off me and got pretty beat up in the process himself. Mister McCoy smoothed things over with Shaw. Henry's good with words. But, then, that's part of a school teachers job, isn't it? Doctor Xavier made me spend a week in bed and Slim never left my side for long. He sat there holding my hand, telling me stories to distract me from the pain. Stories about places he'd never seen, only imagined and for a bit, just a little while I could let myself believe in them. I mean how else in the world would Slim and I get to San Franciso or some place like that except in his stories? And what would we do when we got there? Dreams are foolish things. I learned that the hard way. It took a long time for the look on Shaw's smiling face to fade from my dreams. But Slim was there to help with that, too. He's got strong arms for holding onto you when your frightened and broad shoulders to cry on.
Logan hadn't been home a week before Shaw tried to kill him. He didn't have anyplace to stay so he was camped out in the old livery stable. Since Logan gets along better with animals than he does most people that suited the townspeople just fine. I've never heard all the details of exactly what happened but I was there that night when Logan came stalking out of the burning livery stable. The horses he'd set free were fleeing in all direction, whinnying in equine terror. One of them almost ran me down. Quite a hostile crowd had started to gather as I recall, but that didn't stop Logan. He never missed a stride. He just kept coming, two of his assailents slung over his massive shoulders, dragging the other two behind him by the hair like sacks of grain. He didn't stop until he was inside the Ace Of Spades, facing down Shaw who smiled pleasantly and never broke a sweat. With a shug Logan tossed his burdens at Shaw's booted feet one after the other into a ragged pile. Shaw moved quickly but he was still splattered with blood. I told you, Logan plays rough. Frowning in distaste, the bane of everyone in End Of The Line's existence sneered and started to speak but Logan cut him off.
"Don't mess with me, Shaw!" he hissed. Then, almost faster than the eye could follow, he was hehind Shaw pulling his head back by his hair. The knife that he had used to butcher four men drew a thin, warning line of blood across the rancher's exposed throat. "You want me, you come for me yourself," he snarled. "Just take yer cajones in yer hand and *do* it, rich man. Don't make me come for *you*. You won't like it if I do." Is it any wonder that Sebastian Shaw was angry? Men like him can't abide their own corwardice. And having his displayed so publically must have been like reaching out and touching the surface of the sun.
So where was our estimed Sheriff during all this? Oh, you mean Peirce? Donald Peirce is every bit as much Senbastian Shaw's servant as his butler or his ranch foreman, make no mistake about it. Why you may as well depend on Miss Frost to protect you. You'd be better off, actually. Emma takes fine care of us girls. She runs a quiet, quality House even if some of her "ladies" are a little young. I worry sometimes about Logan's new favorite that little Chinese girl Julee. She's awfully young. But, I suppose she's better off with Logan, at that, than with some of the other men here. Logan spent some time with her here in the House waiting for something to happen. The truth is, we were all waiting for something to happen. After his humiliating confrontation with Logan, Shaw stormed out of town and didn't come back. End Of the Line held it's collective breath and waited for his responce. No one was more shocked than I when it didn't materialize. In point of fact, things settled down considerably for almost a month. Tension can only last so long. Things were about as normal as they ever get in End Of The Line.
And then one bright and dusty August day the stage from Sante Fe pulled into town and we all had our answer about Shaw's next move.
I didn't know *who* he was (none of us did at first) but from the instant I saw him I knew *what* he was.
"My stars!" exclaimed Henry McCoy, blinking owlishly from behind his thick round glasses, for once at a loss for words. Young Sam Guthrie frankly goggled.
"Lord Jesus!" he breathed. "I ain't seen nothing like that since Great Aunt Sadie passed on!" Doctor Xavier just stared. Was that a flash of recognition I saw in his eye? I will admit that on ocassion I have wondered about Charles. He still hasn't lost that faint New England accent. What could it have been that drove him west? He's a little like a fish out of water here in End Of The Line where one of the very few people with whom he can indulge his literary passions is one of the town whores.
The tall stranger stepped with easy grace down from the coach and sparkled in the hot mid day sun.
He wasn't wearing a hat, you see.
Clad in black from the crown of his silver head to the rounded toe of his soft leather boots, the stranger carefully flicked non-existent dust from off the broad shoulders of his long tailed coat and looked about.
From beneath expressive silver eyesbrows he regarded the world and found it wanting. Impatiently, he tugged a gold watch from the pocket of a silken waistcoat the color of drying blood. I watched him carefuly. Not once did his hand stray downward to the gun that caressed his hip like a lover. Polished and lethal it seemed very much at home there resting in its well oiled holster. Instinct told me that it had seen a lot of use. I may have been the only one who noticed the way he walked (forward on the balls of his feet like a cat as if he never wished to be caught off balance) but I wasn't the only one who noticed that well cared for gun. Beside me Emma drew in a sharp breath.
"Damn Sebastian!" she hissed. I don't think she knew that I heard her. I'm certain she didn't plan for me to.
She was right, of course. There was only one reason for a man like that to be in End Of the Line like a wolf among the sheep. And only one man who could have brought him here. I am no great judge of men that's certain. I wouldn't be festering here in End Of The Line if I were. But unless I was very much mistaken Logan was in deep trouble. Formidable fighter that he is, our local desperado was no match for *this*. I turned to speak to Doctor Xavier, but he was gone. Strange. I could have sworn he was there standing next to Emma less than a moment ago. Restricted by the use of his canes as he is, he does not normally move so fast but I did not see him anywhere on the street. Where could he have gone?
When Pierce came to collect the stranger the whole town seemed to breath a great sigh of relief. The silver haired man said not a word. He simply walked away, leaving Peirce to collect his sparce lugguge and pant along behind him like a faithful dog. It never seemed to occur to him that Pierce might not follow him. But, then, Peirce *did* follow him, so he wasn't wrong was he? I couldn't help but smile. Arrogance like that takes a lot of work.
But when a huffing Donald Peice trotted after the stranger into the elegant confines of Miss Frost's Massechusetes Academy, I stopped smiling. Of all the places ... Why there I wondered faintly? What trick of fate had led him to choose someplace so close to - well, to *me*? I found that the prospect of his continued nearness upset me. And I didn't know why.
He signed Emma's Guest Registry "Erik Magnus" in bold very carefully scripted letters, artful calligraphy, stylish and with flourish but without distracting ornamentation. I had to smile again. Magnus. "Great One" in the tongue of Cicero. It seemed to suit him.
Behind the Reception Desk Doug Ramsey blinked. The boy has a talent for languages. He's one of the few literate people in town, which is why he has his job even at such a young age.
Shaw took his time. He didn't deign to visit his new employee until the next morning. Magnus made him wait and I was delighted. There was, after all, absolutely nothing he could do about it was there? Not if he wanted Logan dead there wasn't. I'm a people watcher. It's one of the ways I amuse myself and pass the time. After a while you start to notice things. And then you start to understand why some people are the way they are. You just have to know what you're seeing. Slim says it's my biggest talent. But Magnus had me flummoxed. There were some things missing. Some ... vital pieces of the puzzle still unseen. I kept watching.
No one talked to him, either, I noticed. People would, quite literally, cross the street to avoid him. And above all, no one would met his eyes. I thought that much like me he must be very lonely. He seemed to enjoy the fear he inspired, though. It almost seemed that he went out of his way to intimidate the residents of End Of The Line, silently taunting them with his unwanted presence. He was fondest of intruding in small unspoken ways; waiting impatiently for a drink in The Ace Of Spades's and then leaving it untouched, handing Mrs. Allbright her newly purchased cloth at Drake's Mercantile. His threats were never overt. They didn't have to be. All you have to do to be rid of me, he seemed to say, is ask. No one did, of course. He was the man with the gun, after all. He confused people when he wasn't politely terrorizing them What he did for the Guthrie's was very kind in it's way but I think I was the only one who understood it. I was there when lanky Sam Guthrie tried to sell his mother's earrings. The Guthrie's are a proud family but like most people they lost someone in the War. Tom Guthrie was a good man and Sam worked hard to fill his shoes. It wasn't the boy's fault that these were such hard times.
"I -I was just dickering with the boy, that's all," Drake protested weakly, sweating fear from every pore. "I wasn't trying to cheat him." Magnus lifted one sardonic silver eyebrow.
"Of course not," he said mildly. "Undoubtedly, two dollars is a fair price for a pair of gold and emerald earings here in your joyous, rustic Utopia. I yield to your greater expertise, sir." He turned to Sam and Drake resumed breathing. "Those ear bobs are all my Mama has left from her dowry," Sam said. Drake held his tongue when Magnus paid Sam fifty dollars for them, effectivily cutting him off from his share. Sam's blue eyes lit up and he stared at the money in disbelief. That was enough money to keep his struggling family afloat for another half year at least. Sam was stubborn though.
"I ain't takin' charity," he said. "Ya'll ain't doing this just for a handout are you?"
"I find myself in urgent need of ladies jewelry," said Magnus. No one laughed. Sam clutched his new found wealth in one hand and held out the other.
"A fair deal, then," he smiled and his eyes shone with pride. Magnus shook his hand. Sam was almost out of the door before Magnus spoke again.
"Young Guthrie, should any more of your mother's jewelry find its way into Mr. Drake's pocket I'll smash these earrings, I promise you that." After a moment Sam nodded his understanding.
For almost a week we watched one another he and I. From a distance like two wary warriors we circled one another and vied for position on the slippery, rocky terra incognita of our unknown relationship.
Now that Shaw felt safe returning to town again, I had a problem. Shaw wanted me. I managed to avoid him for days but my luck ran out on a busy Friday night. He spotted me from across the room and smiled like a snake.
"Jean, my dear," he said and I went cold as ice. Suddenly I couldn't feel my feet. Behind the bar I could see Slim start to reach for something. I had to move quickly before something really bad happened. But what? Think, woman, think, I cursed myself. Shaw will kill Slim without a thought. I couldn't let that happen.
In a wave people began parting before him as he made his steady way toward me. With a pounding heart, I grabbed Logan. Julee was going to be angry with me but I'd worry about that later. I could only hope that she'd understand my fear. Frowning, Shaw paused and the muscles of his jaw clenched. Logan didn't miss it. With a small nod of understanding he curled his muscled arm possesively around my waist. My eyes were grateful. On our way up the stairs I thought I saw something from out of the corner of my eye before it disappeared around a corner. Was that a flash of silver hair?
"Ain't necessary darlin'," Logan said when I slipped from my petticoats.
"Yes, it is," I smiled and kissed him.
"Ain't refusin'," he chuckled and tumbled me onto the bed.
It was a day or so later before more pieces of the puzzle that was Magnus fell into place.
I couldn't sleep. The night air was hot and stifling. It lay like a wet smothering blanket over me. For once I was alone and glad of it. Emma didn't like my little vacation but I didn't care at the moment. I was used to annoying her. I decided it might be cooler downstairs. I was halfway down the stairs before I heard it. The faint sound of music wafted from the center of her House. Who could it be, I wondered? I can play, but unlike my unknown pianist I have no real talent for it. Skill, yes, but no great feel for the music. I paused at the top of the landing and looked down into the parlor almost afraid to see who it was.
I was not truly surprised when I saw him bowed over the piano's ivory keyboard as if in prayer. There was no mistake, of course. That hair is impossible to miss.
I listened for several moments as Magnus played on. The last thing I wanted to do was give him an excuse to stop. So I held my silence as I made my quiet way down the rest of the stairs and found a seat. He caressed the keys of Emma's fine imported piano with loving hands and beauty emerged. I closed my eyes and lost myself in the flow of sadness summoned by those long, elegant fingers. The exquisite sonorous music was all weeping minor chords and shouting silences between the notes. But, beneath the surface, anger and lonliness boiled like acid. Great passion long stiffled and denied rang like a bell and Magnus' skillful fingers captured every note, wrung them dry, then left them choking in the dust of his wrath. It was like listening to the death of a child never given a chance to live or grow.
"'Funeral Mass For Leopold Mozart' by his son Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart," said Magnus without looking up from his keyboard. "I don't think he liked his father very much, do you?" He looked at me then. It was my first encounter with those extraodinary blue-gray eyes. I think I can be excused for the weakness that forced me to find a seat.
"Do you always spy on your guests this way?" he asked.
"No," I said. I count it as one of the great victories of my life that my voice did not tremble in the least. One silver eyebrow lifted quizically.
"To which question?" I hadn't expected him to smile so I was caught off guard. Unless I was mistaken he was very good at that.
"Both," I smiled back at him.
His hands couldn't seem to leave the piano in peace. They roamed restlessly about its polished exspance like lost souls. They only left off their musical penance to sip ocassionally from the amber contents of one of Emma's Waterford crystal glasses. I inhaled the rich earthy scent of fine Scotch. Emma keeps a bottle or two of Glen Morangie for "special guests". Guests like Sebastian Shaw.
"You play beautifully," I said.
Startled, he looked up at me with those remarkable eyes again. There was something disturbing about his eyes. Something sharp and painful like one of Logan's knives lurked there, hiding in the shadows just behind the truth where all the secrtets hid.
"I'm a man of ... many talents," he replied softly and played on.
"Oh? And just what did you do before you came to End Of The Line, Mr. Magnus?" I asked. His answer was almost an echo, it was so immediate.
"I was a killer," he said. My eyes widened but I tried to remain nonchalant. Magnus chuckled low in his throat.
"It's hardly what I was trained for. But then, I expect you're somewhat familiar with sudden career changes, arent't you?" He assumed an air of great pride with only a vague tinge of mockery beneath it to give it bite. "My gifts are quite diverse. My father was very proud of me. Isn't that a comforting thing to know? That your father is proud of you?"
I grinned. "That might be a nice thing to know," I agreed then snapped my fingers. "I know! That's who you remind me of!" I cleared my throat and quoted: "'Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them?'"
Magnus' pale face lit up with delight. "Shakespeare!" he cried. He turned from the piano and plunged into a nearby chair. "'To die ... to sleep ... no more ... Perchance to dream! Ah there's the rub! For in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have suffled off this mortal coil must give us pause ...'" He speared me with those eyes again. "Imagine that!" he sighed. "An educated whore. How extraordinary!" My lips thinned.
"Almost as extraordinary as an educated gunfighter," I pointed out acerbically. He clapped softly in appreciation of my bitter retort, smiling all the while.
"Touche!" His eyes sparkled. "Shall we test our knowledge of The Bard? And the devil take the hindmost!"
"Absolutely," I rose to the challenge. "But Hamlet's soliloquay is off limits, agreed? It's done it's job." He nodded.
"'Lay on, McDuff and cursed be he who first cries hold enow!' It's not often I have a worthy opponent."
"Is that so? Modest, too, I see." Now it was my turn to raise an eyebrow. I threw down the gauntlet with a tight smile.
"'Beware of jealosy, My Lord; the green-eyed monster which doth bite the hand that feeds it!'" I quoted.
"Tsk, tsk," Magnus shook his pale head in disappoinment. "Othello? Desdemona to my Iago? Too easy!" He contemplated for only seconds before chuckling mirthlessly, "'You are one who would not serve God if the Devil bid you.'"
I suspected I was not alone in that. Switching tactics, I shot back, "If music be the food of love, play on: give me excess of it ..."
Magnus' smile was now a mere showing of strong white teeth. "You neglected the the rest of the quote," he countered. "'If music be the food of love, play on,'" he corrected, "'give me excess of it that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken and die!' An unfortunate mistake, all things considered, don't you think?" My hands spasmed into tight fists at my side. A direct hit, that. But, in the end I could only shake my rueful head. "Walked into that one didn't I?" I admitted. Magnus nodded and slowly a lazy smile crept silently across his pale features. He was enjoying this.
I grinned ferally and crowed: "'I am but mad north by north west; When the wind blows southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw ... '" Those pale eye brows lifted quizically.
"I never said the rest of Hamlet was off limits," I pointed out. "Just the Soliloquay." With a small nod of his head he awknowledged my small victory. The mad Dane seemed to suit him.
"Mad am I?"
"What would *you* call someone who kills other men for a living?" I inquired archly. He smiled. Damn him! He couldn't be as impervious to pain as he seemed.
"Very good! You've played this game before, I see." He wasn't talking about Shakespeare now.
"All the time." I acknowledged. "Most people don't notice, though. That rather takes all the fun out of it."
Undaunted the man with the silver hair contemplated the air for a few seconds and began: "'Oh Lord, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself King Of The Universe were it not that I have bad dreams.'" The image that came to me of Magnus as the brooding Danish Prince tippled the corners of my mouth and threatened to grow into a smile. But, no we couldn't allow that, now could we?
I was disdainful, dismissing the quote with a wave of my hand.
"The devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape," I assured him. I almost had him with that one. But, now it was his turn for an abrupt change.
"'The youth mistook me pleading for a lover's fee!'" he cried. "'Shall we their fond pageant see? Lord what fools these mortals be!'"
It was difficult to see him amidst the Bard of Avon's Midsummer tale of frolicsome faerie folk and ass-headed Bottom's boastful folly. "'Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania,'" he murmurred and I had to smile. Now that was much better. Oberon, Lord of Faerie, was much closer to the truth. But not quite. I bit my lip in concentration. And then I had it. The very thing. It was against the rules of the game, of course, but then I have seldom concerned myself with rules. Neither had Magnus, I suspected. He might even appreciate the irony. I began curtly.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul."
The man with the gun stiffened in his iron chair. "That's cheating ..." he said softly. "It's not ... Shakespeare." Was there the slightest hesitation in his voice? Had my verbal reposte actually struck him? Was he bleeding?
Magnus' mirthless laughter echoed through the hidden spaces in the large room. It made me want to cover my ears against the pain there. I didn't, of course.
"Who wrote that?" he demanded.
"A man very much like you at heart. His name is William Ernst Henley," I chuckled in my turn. "You'd like him, I'm sure. He's quite the rage in England just now, I understand. He titled the poem 'Invictus' ... that's Latin; it means -"
"I know what it means," the tall man cut me off impatiently. I sighed. How many languages do you speak, I wondered? And how many other things am I likely never to know about you?
"Unconquered," he murmurred. "It means 'unconquered'."
Magnus seemed to grew even paler and looked away. I frowned. Somethig was very wrong. He'd been almost enjoying himself and now he simply sat there his white knuckled grip on the wrought iron chair making the metal creak in protest.
I know about men like Magnus. In many ways, Logan was rather like that. The ex-Confederate was laconic, except for ocassional outburst of anger and disdain. "Never let'em see ya cry, Jeannie," he advised me once. But beneath that stoic, silent facade, pain and anger sometimes roiled perilously near the surface. "Why does he do that?" I had once demanded exaspered with the man. Surprisingly, It was Julee who had the answer for me.
"Not everybody bleeds on the outside where you can see it." she had said.
"I'm sorry," I said tentatively, unsure if I were the cause of this abrupt withdrawal. "It's not important if you don't know the poem. It's only a game ..." And still Magnus was silent.
"Magnus?" I let the question ring clear in my voice. And again. "Magnus?"
How to reach him? Something in Henley's dark paen to strength had robbed him of his own. He was vulnerable now. Ironically, I had at last suceeded in wounding him without intending to. But my petty vengence had cost me. I was about to lose something. Something ... very important ... I could feel him shutting himself off from me; guarding himself from more pain.
"Emma took my books away," I said quietly. It was a small thing, really. Not very important to anyone but me. But I thought Magnus might understand my offer of trust. He looked at me with hooded eyes and waited.
"When I first came here," I explained, "Emma took my books away. They were about the only thing Remy left me when he abandoned me. They were my way of proving to myself that I was more than just a whore and Emma took them away from me. 'We'll have none of *that*, my girl,' she said. You're no different than the rest.' And she took my books away. Slim was the one who found me crying. I thought I'd forgotten how but I hadn't." I almost winced. What would he do now with my vulnerability? The silence settled leaden between us. Magnus sat silent and unmoving in his chair, the muscles of his throat working. He sat there so long I was on the verge of admitting defeat, actually rising from my own chair to go and leave him as he wished to be; alone.
When he finally spoke his voice was so soft I almost missed what he was saying - but not quite.
"My mother was a very beautiful woman," he said. Looking at her son I had no trouble believing that. "She sang in three languages. My father liked to hear her sing; especially in Italian. His guests were always amazed at her versatility. My father would smile and call her his Songbird. When I was fourteen she went to my father to ask him about my future." He poured himself another drink. "You see, she wished to educate me beyond what they called my 'station in life'. He refused, naturally. She persisted. It ... annoyed him." His grip on the arm of his chair tightened considerably.
"So he sold her."
I stood very still. Narrow eyed, he wached me closely, searching, waiting for some sign of my inevitable rejection to reach him in the curve of a cheek, the sweep of a distainful lip. I hoped to God that he didn't find it. I was once caught in the wake of a violent thunderstorm. I huddled foolishly beneath a tree lashed by the wind and the rain, at the mercy of elemental forces much stronger than I, fearfully waiting for the lightening to strike. This was a lot like that. Absently, I wondered how many people's last sight had been that beautiful face.
"Appearances are deceiving," he said and tugged at a loose strand of his shoulder length silver hair. "Did you know that in New Orleans there are names for the progeny of miscegination that go back six generations? Names for things like me. There are many career opportunities available to the son of an octoroon slave. Piano player in a fancy House ..." His eyes drifted to the paino and I remembered Mozart who "didn't much like his father". "Backroom gladiator for the betting white gentlemen ... Bedwarmer for the more adventurous amongst them ..." He closed his eyes. "Do you know I was still surprised when he sold *me*? I never saw my mother again but once. We briefly graced the same House. I heard her singing while she waited for a customer and went to find her. She was no longer very beautiful. I don't think she recognized me."
"But your name," I said thinly. "That beautiful name ..."
"My father's. It was his greatest pride. And I'm covering it with glory, don't you agree?"
I had to turn away. Logan was right. Don't ever let them see you cry. Tears draw wolves for feeders. Wolves like Magnus. Slowly he rose from his chair and advanced on me. He never touched me. But I could feel the heat of his anger raising off him in waves like steam. When he spoke his breath was hot on my neck.
"Are you crying?"
"No," I lied. "Why would I do that?" His baritone voice was sharp.
"For my father's good name, perhaps?" I shook my head.
"No, not for your father," I said.
At that moment I would have given anything to comfort him. But I didn't know how. He stared at me for long moments before he looked away. Those startling sea born eyes are a shield beyond which very few people were allowed to pass and I wasn't one of them yet. I hadn't the slightest idea where to find someone like that, either. Isn't it strange? I had already met one and didn't even know it.
"I *will* kill him, you know." he told me. "This won't save him."
"I know," I said.
Wordlessly, he held out his hand to me and I shivered with something other than the cold desert air of End Of The Line, New Mexico. You'd think that someone who spends their nights with so many different people wouldn't be this lonely. His hand was strong and warm and I didn't protest at all as he led me silently up the stairs.
I watched him for a long time as he slept. At rest he was free. Free of his sordid past, his damning present and his uncertain future. Asleep he wrestled with no demons, fought no futile battles. He was peaceful in my arms. He must have been very tired. When I slipped quietly from his embrace he never even stirred. But then I have had a good deal of practice at that sort of thing. For a moment I felt like a mother abandoning her child. We had more in common than I had known. Every whore has a limit. Something they will not willingly do or allow to be done to them. Some small thing that is reserved just for themselves; an untouched part of them that must remain untainted almost ... virginal. With Magnus it was his hair. "No," he warned harshly when I went to kiss that silver glory and directed my lips elsewhere. Me? I've lost clients before because I won't let them touch my hair either. As I said, more in common than I had known. Watching the silent play of moonbeams among those touseled silver locks it was hard not to touch them. My fingers longed to explore their softness. But I didn't violate him against his will. He would never have known, of course. But I would have.
"Silver," I chuckled when he told me his childhood name. "How appropriate!" His lips turned into a thin white line.
"Don't call me that," he snapped at me in a flash of unexpected anger. It took me a moment to realize that it must have been his name as a slave.
"I'm sorry," I said carefully, sincerely and he kissed my eyes in acceptence.
Still restless, I drifted back downstairs. Through the windows the lights of the town sparkled in the night. Feeling the need to breath the cool, clear air for a bit longer, I walked over to seat myself in the chair that Magnus had abandoned earlier. Closer now, I bent to inspect its white painted iron arms. I ran my fingers over the metal. The iron of both arms was bent and twisted, crushed with the force of great strength. And along both sides where Magnus had lain hands on it the white expanse was marred with a dark stain of blood.
"I told you," I seemed to hear Julee's ghost-like voice, "not everybody bleeds on the outside where you can see it."
When I woke in the morning, I was alone. Magnus was long gone. The sheets on his side of the bed were cold; no one had lain there for hours. I was not surprised, of course. But then, I am used to waking up alone. It doesn't bother me anymore. Honestly, it doesn't.
Doctor Xavier was waiting for me when I came down the long stairs into Emma's parlor.
"Jean, I must talk to you," he said urgently.
He caned himself awkwardly forward and sat down heavily in a chair. Charles dislikes standing for long periods. It's painful for him, I think. And, of course, he's always very conscious of his dignity.
He settled himself nervously in the oaken chair's scant comfort. That surprised me, I must admit. Charles is always so self processed that it's quite startling to see him on edge and at sixes and sevens like any other man. As flattering as it would have been to think otherwise, I somehow didn't think that I was the cause of his unease. His hands fluttered about like small, quick birds and finally settled in his lap. After a moment he blotted sweat from his forehead with a linen kerchief and looked at me. His eyes were distant; as if his thoughts were somewhere else. With someone else, perhaps? I remembered the swiftness of his disappearance on the day of Magnus' arrival.
Since then he had been most notable by his absence. Was he hiding? From whom? Magnus? Why? Charles didn't even know Magnus. Or did he? A memory stirred and I saw again the glint of recognition in his eyes when Magnus stepped off the stage into the bright sunlight. Yes, it seemed plain now that he did know Magnus. Just how he might know Magnus was less plain. A brief ugly suspicion blossomed in my mind, but I dismissed it. Charles wouldn't be the first New Englander to own slaves, but it seemed unlikely in the extreme. Despite his disability he was a Union surgeon during the War. Had they met then? Again, I dismissed the idea. Magnus would never have fought for the Confederacy and he wasn't free until the end of the War. No. Not that way, then. When I remembered Charles' kindness to me with his books and his passion for educated company I wondered if it could be something that simple. Had he lent Magnus books? Or, perhaps, taught him?
And suddenly I felt Magnus' hands on my body again, kissing my eyes with soft lips ... just as Charles liked to do. Oh yes, Magnus had learned from Charles. Or vice versa? My eyes widened and I told myself it was impossible. Charles? Surely not. But I have learned a great deal about men in my present profession. Not least of all never to dismiss anything as impossible. Still ... I told myself I was being unnecessarily convoluted. I must be mistaken.
My eyes widened but otherwise I gave no sign of my possible epiphany. It did explain quite a lot, though, didn't it? I wrestled, momentarily, with my baser instincts before I decided to let my new suspicions lie still and quiet within me. Charles, it seems, has a predilection for whores ... He has been good to me, though, in his way. There was no need to hurt him so on such flimsy evidence. But what to do? First, I decided, I had to be certain.
Charles was grateful, I think, when I rescued him from his predicament.
"He's only afraid," I said quietly. "He doesn't want to be hurt anymore." It didn't escape my notice that Charles did not hesitate in his answer. We both knew who I was talking about. Score one.
"He's dangerous, Jean," the expatriate New Englander replied and his lips formed themselves into a hard line. He sighed. "But I see that my advice comes too late. You can't stay away from him now, can you? Damn him." That last was laced with growing anger. Score two, perhaps? No one feels that strongly about someone who doesn't matter to them.
"He thinks he already *is* damned," I pointed out. I kept my voice light, but I was not smiling as I said it. I was probing blindly, now, to see his reaction. I was luckier than I deserved. Charles regarded me with such buried rage I was stunned. His voice shook with it and his eyes glinted like glacial ice.
"Good," he hissed. And his busy hands began unconsciously shredding the fine linen they clutched. After a moment he looked at the ragged remains of his kerchief with great surprise, as if his hands were alien things that had somehow betrayed him against his will.
"He must have hurt you a great deal," I said. Another probe. Charles only nodded.
"Oh yes," he acknowledged. His smile was the bitterest sight I believe I have ever witnessed. "He ... took something away from me. Something very precious." He looked off into the distance. After a moment, when he again had control of himself and felt that he could face me, he watched me closely. I made a mistake then; a move made too soon, that presumed too much. It's true that I only wanted to help him, so perhaps I may be forgiven for my lapse.
"Did you love him?" I asked my friend and sometimes lover. Charles blinked as if he couldn't quite understand the simple question. His look told me that I must have taken leave of my senses.
"Love Magnus?" The doctor shook his head in sharp denial. "It isn't possible to love Magnus. He won't allow it. You don't love a raging fire; a great conflagration that consumes everything in it's path and leaves only smoldering ashes in is wake. Not if you're smart. And I've forever been cursed with too much intelligence; my mother always said so. He'll consume you too if you let him. I *know*" He stuffed the remnants of the kerchief, guilty evidence of his unwanted passion, into his trouser pocket.
"No," he said. "I never loved him." As far as I know, that was the first time he ever lied to me. Score three.
He rose to leave and I stood with him, not knowing what to say. Words are treacherous things. Ask Henry McCoy about that. The shield he makes of them often fails him. So I eschewed words altogether and only squeezed his hand when Charles cupped my hands with his. Whores learn to use their bodies to speak for them when words are not enough.
Magnus could tell you that.
"Take care that he doesn't burn you, too, Dearest Jean," Charles whispered as he left me.
I sank back into my chair and struggled to put the events of this steadily becoming even more wretched day behind me. I fancy I was well on my way to succeeding. It's easy, really. All you have to do is think of something else. Find someone else to mock, some other target for all that unwanted insight and acidic reflection. It works splendidly.
But the fates were not yet through with me. "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods", the poet says. He couldn't have been more right, I discovered. It wasn't until I heard his voice that I realized the enormity of what I had done. And what it might very well cost me. Damn Magnus.
"Are you all right?" came Slim's quiet inquiry.
I actually jumped. I'm as easily startled as the next person, but it takes someone like Magnus to put a whore to the blush. Was it guilt? No, impossible. That would mean that last night had meaning beyond the purely physical. That would mean that Magnus had touched me with more than his body. That would mean that I had betrayed Slim in some way. It's a terrible thing when you ... care ... for someone as much as I do Slim and are still glad they're blind and can't see the guilt and fear stamped on your face. After all, since Slim couldn't see my tears I hadn't disregarded Logans canny advice, had I?
"I won't let him hurt you," Slim said.
I am one of the few people who have ever seen Slim's eyes. He's careful about that. They were meant to be brown, I think. I've always seen them in my mind as a deep warm brown like the earth or Fall leaves. But the cloudy cataracts that have covered them since his early teens are pale, ugly things. Slim doesn't let just anyone see them. People aren't kind, faced with someone else's affliction. I should have known better than to think he wouldn't know. When did it happen I often wonder? When did this deceptively quiet, strong man take up residence in my soul? Before I knew what was happening he'd slipped past all my defenses and I was lost. There are times when I'm sure he knows what I'm thinking. He frightens me, he knows me so well.
I couldn't face him. Any more than Charles could face me. From behind, strong arms encircled me and held me tightly. I turned and buried my head on his shoulder.
"Oh God, don't cry," he pleaded and stroked my hair, clumsily, uncertainly. Not at all like Magnus' deft, sure touch. Slim is the only man I willingly allow to touch my hair. "Please don't cry. You know I can't bear it when you cry."
Did an errant tear fall on his hand where he could feel it? Did he hear the tears of sorrow in my voice? Perhaps. With Slim I'm never sure how he knows these things. He simply does.
"It's all right," he said; his voice and the broad hands that succored me were full of certain love. Not at all like Magnus' hungry, demanding touch: sure of what they wanted but with no idea how to get it. Or give it.
"It doesn't matter," he told me and I began to cry even harder. My small fists beat an irregular, broken tattoo on his broad chest. But my strongest blows bounced off the hard muscles of his body like raindrops. He made no move to stop me and not a single sound.
"Don't say that!" I cried. I struggled to spin away from him but he refused to let me go. "I"m a whore," I flung at him, "and I spent the night in another man's bed!" The muscles of his jaw tightened for an instant, no more. "And I wasn't paid," I raged at him, "it wasn't because I *had* to. I *enjoyed* it! Don't you understand? I'm a whore!" He lifted my sobbing face to kiss me lightly on the forehead.
"And I'm an ugly, blind bartender with absolutely nothing to give you but me," he said simply. "I love you, Jean. Nothing you can ever say or do will change that. Nothing." He smiled, holding me tighter.
"You're stuck with me," he assured me.
For many long moments we just stood there holding one another until the fear was beaten back. Absently, I ran my fingers threw his now tousled ginger colored hair. His smile reminded me of how much he likes that and I smiled in return.
"Once upon a time, " I said, "a little girl named Jean Grey has to have done something wonderful. I can't imagine what it was. But, there's no other explanation for *you*." He chuckled warm laughter.
"Sure there is," he said, merrily. "I'm The Frog Prince and you're my Fairy Princess!" He lifted me in his arms and spun me around until we were both marvelously dizzy and the world was far, far away.
"Hungry?" I asked. Slim has a beautiful smile. It's like watching the sun come up.
"Starving," he assured me. "Pierre is making pancakes, today," he whispered conspiratorially, taking my offered arm.. He couldn't have seen my small moue of distress, but he knew it was there. He patted my hand in sympathy. "Be nice," he urged with that smile still intact. Pierre is a wonderful cook. Emma hired him directly from the Cordon Bleau in Paris, after all. Nothing but the best for her customers. He's still working on the intricacies of ethnic American cuisine, however. His crepes melt in the mouth, delighting the senses. His pancakes, on the other hand, taste like old, boiled shoe leather. Pierre is very proud of them. I sighed.
"We could always eat at Delmonico's," offered an understanding Slim. I squeezed his hand.
"What?" I cried. "And insult Pierre? Never!" Slim laughed and gladdened my heart. "Vive le France!" I muttered and strode bravely forward to face Pierre's inedible pancakes.
I took his hand and guided him to a table. It isn't necessary, you understand. Slim is remarkably capable. He knows every nook and cranny of Emma's domain better than she does. He never gets lost. He knows exactly how many steps will take him up the stairs to his room, down the bar to the last customer barstool and precisely where every bottle of liquor lurks.
And exactly how far away the double barreled shotgun he keeps beneath the bar is located at all times.
No, he's not helpless. But he knows how much it pleases me to do small things for him (because I have nothing else to offer him) even though they aren't necessary. So he indulges me. He's a very kind man.
I didn't see Magnus all that day. I was almost glad in a way. I wasn't ready to face him. And besides, I had business with Logan that night. He needed supplies. I waited for him in the basement of Drake's Mercantile, accompanied only by the soft glow of an oil lamp. When the agreed upon hour of midnight came and went without any sign of Logan, I sighed. There was no point giving in to my impatience. Logan was Logan. He'd be there when he was there. And not one instant sooner.
I have no idea how long he was there, concealed by the darkness, before he spoke up. Probably for a very long time.
"You really should get more sleep," Magnus' cultured voice advised me from out of the blackness just beyond the range of the lamp's thin light. Startled, I spun to face him, thinking fast. But not fast enough.
"Don't bother to lie," he said. "Innocence doesn't become you, my dear. I told you once you can't save him. I always knew that you were the key to finding him. It was only a question of time." All the color drained from my face until I was as pale as Magnus.
"And so you thought you'd go right to the source, did you? You're really something," I spat.
At first Magnus said nothing to my accusation. Then he nodded.
"I have always believed in taking the most direct route to the solution to any problem," he acknowledged. "In this case that was you." He looked away but his voice was quite steady.
"What a piece of work is man," he quoted in that musical voice, so fit for the rhyme and meter of poetry.
Enraged at this Shakespearean reminder of my trust in him and his apparent betrayal, I slapped him. He let me. Once. But when I drew back my hand for another blow, it never landed. He caught my wrist in midair and held it there. I struggled to break free but could not.
"Once was enough," he warned me. "I owe you that much. Twice is redundant. I expected more of someone with your imagination and education. For shame. Surely you can do better than that, Jean," he taunted. In the heat of the moment, I had forgotten how much he hates to be touched against his will.
"Oh, yes," I assured him between gritted teeth, "I can do better, *Silver* ..."
His grip on my wrist tightened involuntarily; suddenly, I felt the full force of the strength that had bent the iron of Emma's parlor furniture and I cried out. But I refused to beg.
So did he.
"Let the Lady go, Mister," came a deep voice from out of some dark, hidden place in the large basement. Emerging from the shadows, it was just possible to make out the reflection of lamplight off a glittering metal blade. Magnus pushed me away and I almost fell to the sawdust covered floor before I caught myself. It didn't occur to me until much later that I was, perhaps, safest there, out of the line of fire.
"Ah, Mister Logan," Magnus greeted his now fully exposed target, "if I didn't know better I'd say you've been avoiding me. You'll hurt my feeling if you're not careful. You're a difficult man to find."
Logan moved closer into the light. "When I want to be," he acknowledged. "You okay, Jeannie darlin'?"
"Logan!" I shouted, "get *out* of here!" But even as I said the words I knew they were futile. And, sure enough, Logan shook his head at me.
"Can't do it, darlin'," he said sadly. "Ain't my way."
Magnus lowered himself into a nearby chair, long unused, and fastidiously brushed the dust from off his dark coat with long, agile fingers. Those pale eyes watched Logan carefully, as they watched everything. Logan didn't flinch. He isn't easy to intimidate. Magnus almost smiled and nodded imperceptivly, pleased. But, pleased with *what*? Pleased with a good man with whom he had no quarrel? Or simply a worthy opponent? It was impossible to tell.
"You intrigue me, Mister Logan," began Magnus, crossing relaxed arms over his chest. "It isn't often that I meet someone capable of inspiring such anger in an entire town. They all want you dead, you know. You must be quite a through bastard. I like that in a man."
Logan's eyes narrowed. "Who in hell *are* you, Mister?" His deep bass voice was almost a growl. It was a rhetorical question, really. There was never any doubt that Logan knew who Magnus was. And *what* he was.
Magnus blinked and in a instant his eyes were colder than the first advent of Winter. I thought he might kill Logan then and there. But, then, he threw back his silver head and laughed almost until the tears came. I decided I liked Logan's honest curses better.
"Why, in Hell, I'm no one at all," Magnus smiled. Logan frowned. He's not one for subtlety.
"You're a complicated man, Mr. Logan," Magnus continued. The ex-Confederate shook his dark head in quick denial, cutting him off.
"No, I ain't," he said. "It just suits ya ta think so, cuz that's gonna make it easier for ya to ta try to kill me, is all. I ain't hidin' a blamed thing. Ain't got no hidden motives or any such like. I'm a simple man. I just want what's mine. That bloodsucker Shaw stole something from me and I aim to git it back. Ain't nothin' complicated 'bout that." It was difficult to tell in the poor light of the lamplit basement, but it looked to me as if Magnus went even paler than usual. As pale as a sun polished desert bone.
"*Yer* another story, though, ain'tja, gunslinger?" observed Logan. "Oh, God, Logan!" I thought and I went cold all over. "Be careful what you say!"
"What do you mean?" said Magnus, slowly, the shadows in his eyes dancing in fear.
"I *mean*," replied Logan, "that somethin' crawled under yer skin a long time ago and it ain't done wigglin' around in there." Logan stomped out his cheroot beneath one booted heel. "Best be careful, friend," he advised softly. "It's aimin' for yer heart. I don't figure there's a lot left that it ain't already et."
Too many people underestimate Logan. He's ignorant and uneducated, yes. But he's not stupid. There's a lot of experience and intellect hiding behind that roughneck exterior. He doesn't miss much that goes on around him. It was was good to know that he hadn't been wasting his time since Magnus' arrival the previous week. He'd been watching and listening, apparently. Magnus fairly exploded out of his comfortable chair.
"You know *nothing* about me! Nothing!" he shouted at the small, disturbingly discerning man before him. Logan smiled. He doesn't do it often. Thank God. His one brown eye gleamed in the rapidly disappearing shadows as the rising sun began to filter into the basement through the eastern window. He nodded.
"You got the right of that," he growled. "Don't want to, either. I know enough. The details ain't important. I been where you are." He grunted in self mockery. "Didn't like it much. I left."
"I'm going to kill you, you know," said Magnus, clearly. "Jean didn't change my mind about that." Logan began gathering supplies and stuffing them into the course burlap sack he had brought with him for the purpose.
"Didn't figure she would. Takes a lot to derail as much fear and hate as yer draggin around, Mister. More'n just a pretty face, that's Gospel. Or even somebody who really cares 'bout ya." Logan has sharp ears, so I'm sure he heard my sudden intake of breath at his incisive remark. Like surgical steel, Logan cuts right to the heart of things. Often, he doesn't realize what he's done until he sees the blood. But Magnus' intended victim gave no sign that he saw anyone bleeding as he threw the sack over his shoulder and faced Magnus squarely.
"I ain't afraid o' dyin', gunslinger," he said calmly, "but if I was, it'd still be a damn sight better'n bein' afraid o' livin', wouldn't it?"
Magnus said nothing. He just sat there, the cold metal of his gun clutched so tightly in his hand that I thought surely the delicate, carved ivory of the handles would shatter beneath the assault. He made not a single move to stop Logan when the ex-Confederate slipped into the murky shadows and disappeared with his urgently needed supplies. Not one single move. He just sat there with his eyes tightly shut against the world.
"What a piece of work is man," I said, my voice all but inaudible in its husky fury. I left him there, then, as he wished to be.
As I told myself he *deserved* to be.
Alone and in pain.
I woke to the sweet floral scent of fresh flowers. On my pillow, lying next to me was a single blossom, wrapped in paper.
"The quality of mercy is not strain'd," said the note. "It droppeth as the gentle rain from Heaven Upon the parched place beneath: it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes."
It did not surprise me that a man with Magnus' background knew the language of flowers. But, where in the name of God did he find purple hyacinth? The floral symbol for sorrow and forgiveness, for mercy given and forgiveness craved, does not grow well in a dry climate such as New Mexico. Not at all well. And he was doing more than asking for my forgiveness. My fingers trembled for a brief instant as I realized that Logan would live.
I found him on my balcony, sitting silently, staring into the sun, watching it's sad journey across the sky. I knelt beside his chair. With tender hands, I slowly lowered his gaze to mine. He blinked, focusing his dazed blue gray eyes.
"You'll hurt yourself if you keep doing that," I chided him softly. He cupped my cheek and then let his hand fall away, curling his fingers into his palm.
"Would it really matter?" he asked, bitter as brine. "There are those who might say that I am already blind. Much blinder than your Slim." I kissed his eyes and heard him draw a sharp involuntary breath. I hadn't thought that the kiss might remind him of Charles. I bit my lip.
"But they're such beautiful eyes," I foundered.
He closed his eyes to cut me off from the sight of them and my weakness. His usually immaculate clothes were wrinkled and worn. On his cheeks lay the pale shadow of a silver beard. He ran his fingers through his thick silver hair and tugged at it brutally.
"There is a snake," he said, "that lives in southern climes. Sleek and supple, the color of burnished cooper with bright red banded markings. Lovely, like a gem." Blood trickled from between his clenched fingers from the wounds his fingernails left in his palms.
"False beauty," he mourned, "disguising the ugliness beneath." Slowly, deliberately, I unclenched his hand and held it.
"You're not a snake," I pointed out. He smiled at that.
"No," he agreed, "I am not. The snake has no say in what it is."
I lead him to the bed and lay him down with his head in my lap. He didn't struggle. He was very tired, I think. I doubt that he'd slept at all the night before. The sense of touch is a very important one. Our sense of touch is what makes other people real to us. We can feel their reality and we are less alone. It connects us and makes us whole. I stroked Magnus forehead soothingly, being very careful not to touch his hair.
"What was her name?" I asked him, as he grew drowsy in my arms.
"Gabrielle," he whispered. "Beautiful, beautiful Gabby ..."
Until that moment I hadn't known her name. But, like a beloved myth, I knew that she had to exist. She ... or someone like her. Men quarrel, they posture and threaten and upon occasion they fight. Perhaps it's only my somewhat skewered view of the world, but most often what they fight about is women. Quite tiresome, really, when you encounter it as often as I. But there was more to this than simple jealousy, I sensed. Much more. Oh, jealousy was a part of it, right enough. No question about that. No question at all.
The question was, of *whom* was Magnus jealous?
Leaning down, I kissed Magnus softly into the comforting embrace of slumber and held him until his breathing quieted, watching the steady rise and fall of his broad chest. I didn't want to leave him. I was afraid that he might dream and I wanted to be there if he woke in the midst of a nightmare. Silly, I know. But I couldn't abandon him to his inner demons; his guilt and pain.
But I had to know.
And there was only one other place to find out, wasn't there?
Silently, with great care, I rose and left him sleeping in my bed, seeking the last piece of the puzzle that was Magnus.
My strident knocking on his door probably did little to rouse Charles, I'll confess. And not simply because of his handicap. Our good doctor does things in his own way, his own time. I waited impatiently for several moments and then called softly, "Charles, please answer the door. I need your help."
But the crystal blue gaze that engulfed me with the opening door didn't belong to Charles. Calm and steady, Ora stared back at me, her mass of snow white hair spilling from beneath the colorful blue and yellow turban she wore. I've often wondered just where she came from, originally. Her voice still bears the faintest trace of an accent. English isn't her first language, that's certain. Those liquid vowels and soft consonants never sprang from the King's English.
"Jean," she greeted me with a smile. Then she frowned when she saw my anxious face. "Bright Lady, protect you, what's wrong, child?"
Somehow being called a child didn't bother me. Not when it came from her lips. Ora is much more than simply Charles' assistant. She's a midwife and a damn fine herbalist, for one thing. Charles is the first to admit that he's learned quite a lot from her about herbal medicines. She is Charles' arms and legs, when need be, yes. But she's more than that, too. No one in town speaks of it or thinks ill of her, you understand. They simply assume that Ora is Charles' occasional bed mate. Forge might have something to say about that. Hereabouts he's known as "The Maker"; and not just because he's the town blacksmith. If you need something made or fixed, take it to Forge.
No, Ora isn't Charles' lover. She's his conscience, his friend and helpmeet, and much, much more. I doubt that Charles could function without her. Or would want to. If it weren't for the accident of race that separates them, they might be married. Certainly there are times when they act as if they are.
"Ora," I pleaded, "I must see Charles. It's - it's very important." Tall and proud, she stepped aside and gestured me into her employers sanctum.
"Come in, child," she urged, "come in. I'll fetch Charles for you. He'll want to see you."
As I watched her walk gracefully away, head held high, I doubted that very much. But no doubt, by the time Ora has spoken to him in her soft, demanding way, Charles *would* agree to see me. Fleetingly, and not for the first time, I wondered how Ora had survived as a slave, with her pride and dignity intact. So different. So very different from Magnus ...
And then I realized that Ora's survival was no great mystery. For she had never been a slave. Her body, yes; but never *Ora*. *Ora* had always been free; and Magnus might very likely never be free.
When Charles appeared, leaning on his canes and seeking the relief of a chair, I minced no words. His haggard mien did not stop me. Nor the look in his haunted blue eyes. I did not let it. I have come to regret that, now. But, then, I brushed it aside and plunged mercilessly, imprudently, into the thick of things.
"Tell me about Gabrielle," I demanded.
Charles' eyes widened and his breath whistled between his teeth for an instant.
"Who told you about Gabrielle?" he questioned me, trying very hard to be soi-distant and stern and not succeeding at all.
It's almost impossible to be master of a situation when your voice is trembling, I've noticed. But Charles made a valiant effort. I didn't bother to answer. It was, to be certain, a foolish question. There remained only one other possible source of my knowledge, after all. I said nothing and waited. At the thought of Magnus a strange thing happened to Charles. His lips began to pull themselves back in a snarl but I was not surprised by that. What rocked me was when his snarl disappeared almost at once. The smile that replaced it was sunny and open, reaching and warming his blue eyes. There was nothing of reserve or caution in it. Charles was happy and he wanted everyone to know. He fairly glowed for an instant.
But only an instant.
Mind you, Charles has smiled before; many times. He maintains a very pleasant facade. And it's not as if he's given to lies and deception. Never think that. He's not. Be even at the best of times, when he is at his most cheerful and buoyant, there's still something ... missing. Some small part of him that is cautious. That is fearful, perhaps, of acknowledging his happiness, even to himself, lest he lose it. But there was no trace of any such thing here, now, in this smile.
And when it was gone, I somehow felt ... the less ... for it's loss. I lowered my eyes to mourn.
Charles' eyes clouded with memory. Sadness flicked deep in those azure depths and I could almost see the instant he decided he talk to me take shape there. It is often easier, I have discovered, for someone carrying such a burden of guilt and anger as Charles, to talk to a relative stranger. And Charles, I realized, was desperate to talk to someone. To share his story with someone who might understand it. And he thought that I might.
"She was someone, I loved once," he said in a distant thin voice that seemed to come from far away. Out of a dream, perhaps. He could not look at me but I never took my eyes off him. Ora brought tea as Charles spoke and it sat forlorn, cold and ignored by the both of us, lost as we were in the narrative unfolding from Charles' thin lips. But Ora's kindness and understanding did not stop there. For the most part, the tall African woman gave us our privacy, slipping away, disappearing into the depths of Charles' rooms. But ... she did not abandon us. Whenever Charles would flag in the telling of his tale, whenever his courage threatened to desert him, she would appear at his side as if by magic and, with a gesture, a touch, would offer him a small part of her courage. I said almost nothing. I simply let him talk.
"Gabrielle ... " he whispered. "Gabrielle ... Gabby was my salvation. She taught me that I was still a person ... still a man ... in spite of these ... " He fingered his canes idly. "Gabby taught me to love myself again. I came to love myself again because she loved me. She ... and Magnus." He whispered the name like a benediction and I drew a sharp breath at the sound of it. He sought my eyes, now.
"I wasn't always like this, you know." he said. "After the accident, I - I had to get away. I fled from my family and all their pity and solicitude. I couldn't bear it anymore. All the piteous looks, all the eager, helping hands. 'Please, Charles! Be careful, now! You'll overextend yourself! Remember what the doctors told you! Here, let me get that for you! I don't mind at all, really, I don't!' Between that and my step brother Cain ... He liked to trip me in passing and watch me fall. And then he'd laugh at me." He covered his ears for an instant as if to block out the sound of that invading, unwelcome laughter and closed his eyes against the memory of it. His voice rose in falsetto mockery. "'What's the matter, Charlesy-Wharlsey? Can't stay on your own feet? Have a nice trip ... on *me*!'" Bitterness ate away at his simple words like acid and I suppose I must have flinched from them. But Charles was relentless, now.
"So I ran away. Ran all the way across the country to be free of them. Down to New Orleans. That's where I met Gabby. She was a streetwalker ... a whore ... and she made no apologies for it. It wasn't easy for a free woman of color in those days in a city like New Orleans. Gabby lived as best she could."
I smiled, wanly. "Surely, you don't expect me to think the worse of her for *that*?" I remarked, trying to keep my voice level and my face calm. I like to think that I succeeded. Still, I can't be certain, of course. Though, if I betrayed myself, Charles gave no sign of it. But then, Charles was always polite. He looked quite serene as he continued. As if the press of a great weight were slowly being lifted from off his relieved body.
"How did you met her?" I asked, soft voiced.
He looked away, unable to met my gaze and studied his canes intently, figuring them as if to remind himself of their reality.
"I - I --" he stammered, searching desperately for words that would not come easily to his lips. He fell silent and I was not sure what to do. Should I prompt him with more questions? Would that be wise? Or might it only alienate him further? Drive him even more deeply within himself? I do not deal well with confusion. Perhaps it was this that finally motivated Charles. I could almost see him take firm hold of his resolve and shake himself free of his reticence.
"I was drinking quite a bit in those early days," he admitted. "More than I should, perhaps. I - was not always wise in choosing my words. I was quick to offer bitter offense to one and all. Eventually ... it got me into trouble. I - misspoke - when I shouldn't have. Gabby's quick thinking saved me from a severe beating at the hands of a group of ruffians. Rather the reverse of the classic 'Damsel in Distress", I fear." He even smiled at the memory and I made bold to join him.
"When I came to my senses," he explained, "I was very grateful. I thought to use my money and position to help her. But she was proud. It was only when I put it to her in the form of a business proposition that she succumbed to my non-existent charms." Ora brought fresh tea and her smile to join us and Charles poured and offered me a warm cup of the fragrant brew. Gratefully, I accepted. I was very careful to make certain that my hand was steady as I brought the cup to my lips to sip.
"I told her that I wished a companion ... someone ... a lady of intelligence and grace to brighten my dreary days and lonely nights. Gabby ... sensed, I think, that I was only mocking myself in part ... that I really *did* desire it. From the first she could always read me like the open pages of a book. Imagine my joy when she accepted. And why shouldn't she? It took her off the crowded dangerous city streets. My small, comfortable rooms became our sanctuary. Our huddling place away from the time and tide of the outer world. It ... was magical ... " His eyes shone like small, bright stars.
"I never thought I'd be happier," he said. And the truth of that simple statement was in his face. His hands tightened on his canes. "And then, miraculously, we were three ... and I *was* happier ... happier than I had ever dared to dream."
My quick gasp of indrawn breath caught his attention and he speared me with his merciless eyes.
"Magnus?" I whispered.
He nodded. The muscles of his face worked themselves as if in rebellion until, after a moment, they lay calm once more "Magnus." he agreed. I stirred to life.
"How - how did you met him?"
"I answered my door one lazy afternoon ... and there he stood ... framed by the setting sun. Glowing like the precious metal he was named for."
"Silver ... " I breathed. And he took my hand in his, grasping it tightly, as if to anchor himself, to keep from losing himself in the power of his memories.
To keep from losing the both of us.
"He came looking for Gabby," he said. "When she disappeared from the streets he was worried for an old friend. So he slipped away from his House and came searching for her. Since she was last seen in my company, he came to me. Gabby was very glad to see him. He stayed for dinner ... and never really left." Charles covered his face with his hands. The voice that emerged from behind his would be shield was thick with his passion and shame.
"I could not help myself," he pleaded for understanding. "God as my witness, I *could* not. He was hungry. So hungry for knowledge and affection. Starving. When I thought of him in that awful place ... in the hands of uncaring strangers ... I wanted to be ill. I showed him my books and opened his mind to philosophy and poetry. And science! He soaked it all in like a sponge. Before long he was reading the poems of Keats and Byron in that beautiful musical voice of his ... And I was lost. Utterly lost."
Tenderly, I took his hands in mine and moved them away, uncovering his face. His eyes did not thank me at first, but when I squeezed one hand in patient sympathy, he did not flinch or try to stop me. "I know." I assured him. "God help me ... I know. He's easy to love."
"I never meant for it to happen," Charles mourned. "You must believe me when I tell you that. You must! It - it was an accident. I swear it was! I never - I *never* intended -" He swallowed his words with a gulp, staring at me as if daring me to dispute him.
"Nei - neither did *I* ... " I spoke so quietly that, at first, I wasn't at all sure he had heard me. But he must have.
"One night he and Gabby were making love ... I was watching ... And ... And ... " He swallowed hard.
"You joined them," I guessed . His nod of affirmation was tiny, barely moving his sleek head.
"I've never ... before or since ... " He seemed to lose his voice, then, lapsed into a loud thunderous silence that engulfed us both. On ever silent feet Ora brought us small spiced cakes hot from her oven. The graceful hand that she lay briefly on Charles' tense shoulder must lent him a bit of her considerable courage and strength, for within moments, he found his voice again. Although it was not easy. No, it was not.
"I never even imagined ... " Charles swore. " ... not with another man ... But Magnus ... Magnus seemed to *need* me ... So hungry ... so hungry for love ... " I squeezed his hand when his voice faltered and, after a moment, he continued. "It seemed so natural," he breathed. "Such a natural expression of my feelings for him ... And for Gabby. From that night on, it was most often the three of us in that bed."
"That ... must have been difficult to arrange," I guessed. He nodded.
"More difficult than you can imagine," he agreed. "Less difficult than you might think. I - I must have spent a small fortune arranging it with his House. I - I - " he looked away. "I even offered to ba-buy him. Of course, I never told him that. It would have ... it would have infuriated him. He was so proud. All that anger ... so much anger ... "
I stroked his cold hand in understanding.. No words were needed.
"The Madame wouldn't hear of it. Magnus was not for sale at any price. So I - I did the only thing I could think to do ... I purchased as much of his time as I was allowed and I did not let myself think of ... others ... others who might come to his House ... and yet ... And yet I tormented myself with visions of them ... Visions of Magnus in the hands of others ... " Even now, he closed his eyes against the sight of such an obscenity and my stomach roiled in rebellion.
"My poor family ... " he mourned. "What a thoughtless wastrel they must have believed me! They bore it, unchallenged, for almost a year and then ... then they began demanding my return. There was trouble with my step-brother Cain, they said ... My mother fell ill. She was calling for me."
With a rattle, Ora drew back the heavy white damask curtains from the large bay window, bathing the cozy room in the ruby light of the dying day. Charles watched the painted glory of the setting sun, all purple and scarlet and gold, his pale eyes reflecting their bright colors, his face twisting with remembered pain.
"What could I do?" he pleaded for understanding. "I - I was needed ... my mother ... " he rubbed his temples rhymically as if the memory were an actual physical pain. "After ... after the death of my father, my mother was never a well woman. And I was ashamed that I had abandoned her so precipitously. When she married my father's colleague Kurt Marko, I was so angry with her! Why couldn't I have been enough for her? Why must she bring these boorish strangers into our home, into our lives? Now I know that she was only lonely. Lonely and afraid. But I didn't understand that until much later. Tucked safely away in my warm comfortable New Orleans hideaway, I felt so guilty! She - she was ill ... I must go to her, I thought."
"You ... left ?" <å> The muscles of his face twisted and writhed in agony, mirroring perfectly, I suspected, the state of his mind. "What choice did I have?" he cried. "They threatened me! I must come at once, they insisted! I - I made plans to leave New Orleans ... " In an instant, then, his face calmed itself, falling once more into its familiar lines of stoic stillness to mask itself. His hands stopped shaking and he regarded me levelly from out of his bright, hidden blue eyes.
"But then, Gabrielle ran away," he said in a voice that was quite devoid of all feeling. "She stole money from me and fled. Disappeared in the space of a single night. When I went to Magnus in despair to see if she might have confided in him he was quite candid with me. I fact, I'd say he took great delight in telling me that he sent Gabby away. Frightened at the thought of my possible desertion, she came to him, seeking comfort and advice in her travail. And he lied to her. He told her that I intended to leave her ... to return to New England without her. He laughed when he told me how he persuaded her to take my money and run ... to leave me. And he knew ... he *knew*! Magnus saw the railway tickets himself. Gabby was to come with me. I always planned for her to accompany me home."
I looked away. In that moment I could not face the emptiness in Charles' smooth face as he recounted all his efforts to find his lost Gabrielle. All the years of fruitless searching, the many dead ends and blind alleys his quest led him to. Now, I was the one futilely covering my face with the puny shelter of my shielding hands.
"Oh, Magnus ... Magnus .. " I mourned in the privacy of my thoughts, "*why* ... why would you do such a terrible thing to someone who loved you ... *why* - ?"
And then I knew. Like a physical blow my mind and body resounded with the knowledge and I lowered my hands slowly, staring at the now silent Charles. He must have sensed it, fathomed my new certainty almost as if he had read my mind, for he shrank from me as if he were afraid of my rejection, my loathing. Or perhaps he merely read it in my eyes.
"And what about Magnus?" I inquired softly. I watched the panic and terror blossom in his pale eyes and ignored them "You weren't going to take him with you, were you?" I did not even grace him with time to deny it. "Only Gabrielle. After all ... how could you ever explain him to your family? To your colleagues? A beautiful freedwoman as your mistress was one thing. But Magnus, a *man* ... well that was something else entirely, wasn't it? Gracious! What a scandal!"
"No - no!" my one time lover stammered, pale and shaken. "You - you don't understand - "
"Oh, you're wrong, Charles," I denied it, cutting him off in mid sentence, "you're so very wrong. I *do* understand. Why, I understand perfectly. Do you think I haven't thought about going home? And about how my family would take to the knowledge of how I've spent these last several years? Of course, I have ... " I lowered my voice into a telling mockery of his own vibrant baritone, biting off my words like bullets from one of Magnus' well polished guns.
"What *would* the neighbors say?"
I left him then, left him sitting in his stiff chair, clawing after his own self respect and what little comfort he could find. Out in the street I blinked up at the waning sun in astonishment. It hardly seemed as if I'd spent hours, the whole of the afternoon, listening to Charles. And yet the evidence of my eyes could not be denied. It was the shank of the evening and I ... I found myself hurrying down the street, almost running, heedless of the few others out this early in the evening. I'm not sure, at first, that I had a destination in mind. I was simply moving. Moving away from Charles and his haunted eyes and his exposed heart.
But when I found myself once more in my own familiar, safe rooms I wasn't at all surprised. Far from it. Somehow I had known, hadn't I, that Magnus was what I sought? I rushed into the bedroom, calling his name.
But there came no answer.
My bed was empty. Magnus was gone.
I found him in a most unexpected place. The Ace Of Spades isn't one of his usual haunts.
From my perch at the back of the crowded saloon, I was just in time to see Shaw scowl at Magnus. By instinct almost, I began making my slow way to the bar and Slim. Shaw pushed the girl on his lap away and she fled, grateful to be free of him, I imagine. But then, she was new and might not be familiar yet with Shaw's ... habits. The rancher's face twisted with suppressed fury when Magnus ignored the seat at his table he proffered the gunfighter.
"I'm particular with whom I share liquor, I'm afraid," said Magnus with an insulting smile. He wrinkled his nose in distaste. "My sense of smell, you see, has always been very acute." He turned and regarded Logan steadily for a moment, his eyes veiled and hooded. "I suspect that Mr. Logan and I are alike there." Wordless, Logan returned Magnus' gaze for several moments. After tense reflection, the smaller man nodded almost imperceptibly and Magnus turned back to Sebastian Shaw.
"Our ... business ... isn't finished yet, Magnus!" spat Shaw from between his tightly clenched teeth.
You'd never have suspected from Magnus' relaxed smile that he had taken in the whole saloon. Unless I was very much mistaken, he knew where each of Shaw's men lounged, where every man in the room stood.how close their hands lay from the grip of their weapons.
He didn't miss a thing. But his eyes never left Shaw.
"Oh, I think it is," remarked Magnus, voice dry as the desert wind outside. Frowning, Shaw snapped his fingers and Donald Pierce rushed to fill his empty glass.
"Still a slave owner, I see," said Magnus.
"Why, slavery is illegal, boy," Shaw replied with a vast grin. That was when Magnus decided to kill him, I think. Before that he might have saved himself. But with that single small word, Sebastian Shaw sealed his fate. Magnus reached out, and before anyone could prevent him, grabbed Shaw by the shirt, effectively using him as a shield. Around the room men tensed and swore. At my side Slim began to reach for his shotgun but I captured his hand with mine and frantically hissed, "No!"
"It's a hard habit to break, isn't it?" said Magnus and slapped Shaw hard across the face. "I *know*. I have had ... experience ... in such matters." Shaw twisted and writhed in that strong grip, unable to free himself. Magnus shook him casually.
"How does it feel, Shaw?" he inquired, his soft words belying the fury in his eyes. "Do you like it? Is it pleasant to have no options; no control of your life? To be bought and sold ... a *thing* for the use of others ...? Is it *pleasant*?" Shaw's continued struggles denied it.
"Nor was it pleasant for *me*," Magnus informed him. "Being someone's *property* never is. Ask the good people of End Of The Line, if you doubt me." And Magnus struck him again, a sharp blow that left Shaw bleeding.
"Are you telling me that I once *owned* you?" Shaw gasped, wiping blood from his eyes. Magnus backhanded the larger man and he went flying across the room, now. Before the blink of an eye could pass, three shots rang out and as many of Shaw's men fell limp to the floor and lay still. The others, those that were left, froze, staring at Magnus as his gun returned itself to it's welcoming holster, as if it had never left those familiar surroundings.
I've never seen anything else quite like it, really. One instant the gun was simply in his hand, speaking eloquently in a loud language of hurtling metal bullets. The next, three men lay dead or dying. Approaching the downed rancher, Magnus kicked Shaw savagely in the ribs. Moaning, Shaw clutched at himself. Magnus smiled.
"Oh no," he said softly, "no one ever owned *me*." He twisted one hand in Sebastian Shaw's long dark hair and tightened his grasp. The rancher cried out sharply. "Someone once owned a frightened little boy named Silver. But they never owned *me* ... Silver, as you may see, is quite dead." Shaw crawled to his knees. Magnus held him there, immobile.
"Look at me," commanded Magnus. Shaw opened his eyes wide.
"Do you like what you see, Sebastian Shaw?" said Magnus gently and shook Shaw again. "I hope so. I hope you remember it and dream about it; I hope it invades your nightmares when you sleep at night. Because *you* created me." Magnus fastened a hand around the ranchers throat and squeezed.
"I didn't sell you!" Shaw croaked, struggling under those strong hands. Magnus shook him one last time.
"No," he said, "but somebody very much like you did." For a moment he studied Sebastian Shaw's battered, frightened face. Then he seemed to relax completely. The contempt on his pale face began to flow away like water until what was left looked very much like compassion.
"After this, you're not worth killing, Shaw," he said. "But then ... you never were. How strange. Perhaps even tragic ..." Those smoky blue gray eyes grew dreamy and unfocused for an instant. Magnus' lips curled in a bitter, searing smile that left his pale, aristocratic features frail and empty when it was gone, at last. He expelled a harsh breath and rubbed his hand briefly across his eyes, blinking down at the struggling Sebastian Shaw as if seeing him for the very first time.
"I've spent my life hating something .. someone ... who never existed ... "
The revelation seemed to startle him.
Magnus walked away then, and left Sebastian Shaw gasping and choking in a spreading pool of his own bile. I'd never seen him more relaxed; more at peace. And his eyes were smiling when he looked at me. He was free. At last.
All these many years later *that* is how I have always remembered Magnus - standing tall, no longer a slave in any way; walking victoriously away from all that fear and hatred.
Oh God forgive me, I thought it was over. It wasn't until I heard Logan's shouted warning of "The balcony!" that I realized I was wrong.
I swear I didn't *hear* anything. Logan has a loud voice and he meant for it to be heard. What I *saw* was Magnus. Spinning around to meet the threat, he tried to crouch, making himself a smaller target. I halfway expected him to leap and take shelter behind a nearby, overturned table. And he almost made it.
Instead of finding cover, he aimed carefully at the shadowy figure on the balcony above. He must have looked Donald Pierce directly in the eye, I decided later. And then he hesitated. For a split second his steady hand wavered and his gun lowered, ever so slightly.
Then he stiffened, swayed, and crumpled to the sawdust floor.
It was only then that I heard anything. The sharp crack of splintering wood, a high pitched scream of pain, as Donald Pierce tumbled from the overhead balcony and struck the sawdust covered floor with a dull thump. Sean Cassidy's shrill whistle of surprise, as he stared at Logan's quick hands, where yet another knife poised in readiness cut through the yawning void in sharp contrast.
"What in the name o' God did ye hit him with, laddie?" the ex-silver miner insisted.
"Somethin' *sharp*," was Logan's laconic reply.
All I could see was Magnus, lying still in a growing stain of crimson blood. Frantic now, I pushed aside the gathering crowd around him without thought or consideration. My first glimpse of him told me all I needed to know. His pale face was calm and rested; as if a difficult opponent had been faced and overcome. As if a great weight had been lifted from weary shoulders. I could feel the tears spill down my cheeks, hot and fierce. But I made no sound as I sank to my knees and gathered his head in my lap.
"Jeannie, darlin'," Logan began, tight voiced.
I think I saw Slim lay a hand on Logan's shoulder, but I can't be sure. My attention was elsewhere. I do know that Logan said nothing else, for which I was grateful. But Slim spoke.
"Let her be," he said, "let her be."
I ran my fingers through that glorious silver hair, lay my head on Magnus' breast and wept.
He didn't stop me from doing either.
When my falling tears touched his face, he stirred and opened his eyes, briefly.
" ... it droppeth as the gentle rain from Heaven ... " he murmured. And then his eyes fell gently closed again.
In the end, Magnus helped everyone in End Of The Line. He set us all free. Most of all himself.
They shipped Shaw's body back east to his family. He's buried in New York state somewhere, I think. Officially, Sebastian Shaw died in "a hunting accident". You'll never find anyone in End Of The Line who will deny it. Not that any of us grieved, mind you. Well, some few may have grieved for their jobs before they packed up and left town suddenly, but I don't think anybody grieved for *Shaw*. Unless it was Emma.
Logan bought his ranch back. Chewed nails and spit them out about having to *pay* for something that was already *his*, but the law was the law. When the town tried to make him Sheriff, he reared back and spit in their eyes. "Go to Hell," he told the town fathers, cheerfully. They beat a hasty retreat and I admit, I laughed louder than most. He took Julee out of Emma's. He didn't marry her, it's true. But she's safe and happy and so is Logan. Today, the Stars And Bars Ranch raises and trains some of the finest horses in the West.
I saw Charles off at the Great Western stage office myself.
He's headed for a little mid-western town in Ohio. An unassuming town with the unlikely name of Plainsville, where a still beautiful woman named Gabrielle and a small boy named David are waiting anxiously for him.
"But what if I'm not any good at this parenting business?" he mourned. "What if the boy doesn't like me?" He was nervous as a cat.
"Hold still!" I admonished and straightened his tie. Charles is sometimes careless about his appearance. He needs a wife badly. Obediently, he ceased fidgeting and I kissed him on the cheek.
"You'll do fine," I smiled. "Just listen to your heart; not your head. Now, off with you!"
Charles does not know what awaits him in Plainsville, Ohio. Happiness, I hope. But whatever fate lies slumbering in those dusty mid-western streets, it is there for him if he wishes it. Magnus' last gift to him.
Magnus ... is gone. No one knows where. Charles couldn't stop him. But he did try.
He stood on his crippled legs for hours, covered in blood, sweating and cursing at his dying patient, even as he strove to save him with his surgeon's scalpel.
"Damn you!" he raged, "You can't die. I won't let you take the easy way out! There are people who love you and depend on you! Come on, you great coward." Ora wiped the sweat from his brow, her dark skin gleaming in the lamplight.
"Please don't leave me again ..." Charles whispered.
"It all depends on him, now," he gasped, leaning his head back and closing his eyes. "I've done all I can. If he has the will to live, he will; if not ..." He didn't need to finish the sentence; he let it trail off like a fading dream. Gently, Ora covered him with a warm blanket and he fell into a fitful sleep.
"He needs to rest," the beautiful African woman said. "They both need to rest." She glanced over at Magnus and smiled. "The silver one is strong. He will live. Do not fear, I shall watch over him for you."
Magnus didn't wake for more than three days. But during all that time he was never alone. No one planned it. It just happened. From the beginning Slim was there. I fell asleep that first night curled in his strong arms, holding Magnus' hand in mine. When I woke there was Logan sitting in a corner smoking quietly staring at Magnus like the pieces of a puzzle that didn't quite fit.
"Go on home, Jeannie," he ordered. "He's safe with me. Go on darlin' - git!"
When I returned later there was lanky young Sam Guthrie, long legs stretched out before him like one of the foals from Logan's ranch.
"My Mama's ear bobs," he alibied himself, blushing furiously. "He gave them back. Ah reckon Ah can spare him a short spell to see he ain't lonesome."
Even Emma brought us all food and drink from her kitchens.
"Fools," she sneered, "allof you! Fools for a pretty face!" But the rich Coq Coq Vin and the succulent Veal Marsala kept right on coming, nonetheless.
"You got somethin' against a big chunk o' cow, woman?" Logan groused.
"Barbarian lout!" shouted Emma. But she smiled. They both did.
On the third day Magnus, like Lazarus, woke. When he saw me he smiled.
"She walks in beauty, like the night," he murmured fighting his drugged slumber the way he might fight an enemy.
"Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes ... "
I stroked his cheek.
"Oh now, that's cheating," I accused, holding him tightly, happy tears threatening. "Byron is *definitely* against the rules." He squeezed my hand weakly.
"Pardonne moi," he begged, closing his eyes and slipping back into sleep. "Ah Dieu! Pardonne moi!"
But less than a weak later he was gone; disappeared into the night. Slipping elusively from the grasp of our lives like a ghost much more placidly than he entered them. Charles was distraught.
"Where could he have gone?" he cried. "He's not well! He needs help," the ex-New Englander insisted. I nodded.
"That's why he left."
My hand shook as I handed him the letter with which Magnus had entrusted me. His eyes widened as he read the words that told him Gabrielle yet lived.
"Da- David?" he said the name reverently, almost like a prayer. "I have a son named David?"
Magnus left me something, too. I found it the day after he disappeared, carefully wrapped in fine linen, lurking in the hidden recesses of my cedar wood armoire. My paid in full contract with Emma, duly signed and notarized. I was a free woman.
And two one way rail tickets to San Francisco.
"My Dear Jean," said the note in that bold, stylish hand that I recognized at once
"There is a small school in San Francisco on Clarion Street in great need of a teacher. The students are immigrant Chinese for the most part, eager to learn and find their place here in this land. Have you any idea where they might find someone to help them?
Be happy. Forgive me."
It wasn't signed, of course. There was no need.
"Where are you planning to spend the rest of your life, Mr. Summers?" I asked Slim.
"With you," he said smiling and took my hand in his. I held on tightly.
So far, neither of us has ever let go.