The Mountain House Hotel was a two‑story wood structure set on the corner of two muddy streets, but in this early afternoon, the whole scene was somehow special. There seemed to be music in the air.
As Helena got closer to the hotel, she realized that there was indeed music in the air. The music became louder the closer she got to the hotel. She couldn't readily identify the piece, but it was obvious that someone was holding a piano recital in the hotel. She wondered for a moment what might be going on, then shrugged off the thought with a wry snicker. It was obvious to her that Yuvon must be doing something to keep himself occupied.
She lightly stepped up to the twin tall doors and stepped though them. The etched glass rattled in counterpoint to the piano music that filled the nearly empty lobby. Off to her right there was a crowd of people clustered in a doorway to another room. Beyond that door lay the source of the music. Helena tried to look into the room, but her efforts were frustrated by the fact that she was considerably shorter than her fellow listeners. With a nudge from her finger, her hat slipped back off her head, so that it hung by its leather drawstring.
After a moment's hesitation, she stepped up behind the nearest listener, and tapped him sharply in the middle of his back.
"May I?" she asked, indicating her desire to enter the room. She reasoned that even should Yuvon not be the pianist, it made perfect sense that where one found a large group of people, one should find Yuvon Arelssyn.
The man, who was primarily a nonspeaking extra in a crowd of cardboard cutouts, muttered something that might have been "Why, certainly, but of course." had he actually been assigned lines, and began to push aside a space 'for the lady.' There were times, Helena noted, that it was convenient to be a woman.
As she shoved her way through the crowd, she caught sight of the pianist. It was indeed Yuvon. It also made perfect sense that where one found a large crowd of people, Yuvon would be the center of attention.
Helena shook her head in exasperation, then smiled. He looked like he was really enjoying himself, playing the complicated piece of music. She decided that he was so much fun to watch when he was having a good time. That much innocent pleasure was almost enough to renew one's faith in the universe.
The music gradually wound down,and the crowd exploded with applause. Helena walked though the noise, up to Yuvon.
"I should have known that it was you, making all that noise." She said smiling at him. "What was it?"
"Oh that?" he drawled, sounding as if her were faintly bored. Then he smiled and shattered the facade of ennui. "That was a variation of an aria from 'La Folia di Spagna' by Antonio Sallieri."
"I've never heard of him."
"Frankly, I'm not surprised." He looked up and down at her. "My, don't we look ecstatic."
"What's that supposed to mean?" She asked, momentarily suspicious. She noticed that the crowd was beginning to break up.
"Never mind. I apologize. I really shouldn't make religious jokes."
"Whatever the joke was, I don't understand it." The crowd, muttering about having its music interrupted, was beginning to break up.
"That doesn't surprise me either." His tone was sharp as he turned and slipped the lid back down over the piano keys.
"I am sorry if I am intruding, Yuvon. Are you being this obnoxious for a reason?"
He looked at her. "I'm sorry. No, there is no real reason for it." He lowered his voice, "I just hadn't intended on attracting an audience."
"Do you mean with your playing, or your ridiculing me?" She decided that she wasn't going to let him off that easily. After all, this was the first really good mood she'd been in since, well, since yesterday.
Yuvon glanced at her, his eyes narrowed for a moment, then opened with a glitter.
"My playing," he said with a good natured shrug. "Did you have a nice time at church?"
"Perfectly splendid, Hypocrite."
"No, that's Hippocrates, and he was some other fellow."
"I said hypocrite, and hypocrite is what I meant."
"Why am I a hypocrite?"
"Your telling me that you don't want an audience. If you didn't want an audience, you'd have stopped when people started to gathering."
"What? And tailor my life around theirs?"
"Uh huh." Remembering the size of the crowd that had gathered by the time she had arrived, she asked. "By the bye, Yuvon, just how many of those little ditties had you played before I arrived?"
He shrugged. "That was my third."
"Ah ha!" Helena stood straight and eyed him sternly for a moment, pursing her lips. Then, tossing her hair to the side, she relaxed. "Now that I am safe in my victory, Hippocrates. Shall we find some place to eat. I'm famished.
An hour later, they were sitting in the hotel's restaurant, relaxing after a good sized meal. The restaurant was crowded with people, transients mostly, partaking of their Sabbath meal. Helena slowly drew her finger through a water ring on the table before her as she watched Yuvon out of the corner of her eye. He pulled his a clay pipe from within his coat pocket and began to fill it. She eyed him with a sharp hunger.
"Yuvon," she asked, her voice thick with desire. "Would you answer a question for me?"
"Quite likely." He flicked a match alight with his thumbnail and placed the flame over the pipe's bowl. Helena licked her lips.
"Why does a man who smokes a pipe and cigars carry around machine rolled cigarettes?" Her nostrils twitched at the first subtle hints of smoke emanating from him.
He smiled a blew a stream of smoke just past her head. "Why, so I can give them to a beautiful woman."
"I beg your pardon?" Hope sprang in her heart.
"Well, after all, cigars aren't good for you."
"To be perfectly frank ..." she was interrupted from a voice behind her.
"Hey you there." Helena looked at Yuvon.
"Yes?" he said, "To be perfectly frank what?"
"To be perfectly frank, cigarettes aren't all that good for you either."
"I hear tell you're the low down sheep poker what shot Cord Burdett."
People in the restaurant erupted from the central floor area, as people tried to find a safe place to watch. Yuvon sighed and looked at Helena. Yuvon set his pipe down on the table. He picked up his coffee cup with his right hand, his gun hand, and stood slowly.
"I beg your pardon?" he said softly.
Helena turned to see who was talking. She saw a man whose attire revealed everything about him. Although he was dressed after the fashion of a cowhand, or rather after the fashion of someone who had never done cattle work might think a cow hand ought to look. His gear was too clean, too fine. From his over polished pointy toed boots, to the silk kerchief fitted around his neck,and his immaculately clean J.B. Stetson hat, it was apparent that he was trying to present an image, but of what, Helena wasn't entirely sure.
She took in his tied down twin ivory handled Colts, and analyzed that for a moment, as she thought Doc Holliday might do. Twin guns were a rarity, as two of the monsters were nearly impossible to keep under control at the same time. Therefore, two pistols either meant that you were very good, or wanted people to thing that you were. Tied down holsters were an asset when drawing for speed, because they didn't move around and slow you down. Helena had heard that ivory grips got slick when wet and so were harder to control than walnut. Obviously they were only to be used by someone whose hands didn't sweat, someone with a goodly amount of sang‑froid. Or someone wearing gloves. She decided that her first impression was more than likely the correct one, this was just another tough out to make a name for himself.
"I saw, I heard you was the no 'count slow elker what shot Cord Burdett."
Helena cursed herself as she watched Yuvon taking a sip from his cup. She was getting to know him well enough to suspect that his relaxed pose was no more than an act. He seemed to be almost imperceptibly tightening up for action. She really didn't want any more killing. The day had been going so well.
An idea occurred to her.
"That." she said as she stood up.
"What?" came from both men simultaneously as they turned to look at her.
"I heard THAT you WERE the no 'count slow elker THAT shot Cord Burdett." She said as she moved the chair out of the way and stepped between the combatants. "If you want to grow up to be a big time gun fighter, you need to learn to speak properly. Do you want to appear ignorant in the dime novels?"
"Get out of my way, lady. I got business with this here man." the stranger said ominously.
"Certainly, if that's what you would like, but I do feel that you need to know. You have been misinformed. He didn't shoot Cord. I did."
"What?" the man was confused, and looked down at her. "What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that I shot him. I blew his head off with a pistol."
"What are you doing?" The man looked over the top of Helena's head at Yuvon. "You hiding behind a woman's skirts?"
"Not in the slightest." Yuvon said. "If you want to die, I'll be perfectly happy to kill you, but if the good doctor says that she did for Burdett, who am I to nay say her?"
Helena sharply poked the stranger in the stomach. When he glanced down, she spoke low and sharply. "If you ignore me like that again, you will make me very unhappy."
"So?" he paused for a moment. "If you really done it, hows it I heard was a man what done it?"
Helena smiled sweetly. "How would you like it to be known that a woman shot you in a gun fight? I advise you to think quickly about it, should you wish to avenge your friend."
"He weren't no friend of mine."
She jabbed him in the stomach again, punctuating her words. "Then. Keep. Your. Nose. Out. Of. My. Business."
The stranger stepped back. "Listen here now, woman. Don't you be telling me what to do."
"Or what? You'll shoot me?" Helena sighed in exasperation. She said, looking behind her, "Yuvon, I'll have to borrow your pistol again. I suppose that I'll have to take care of this boy as well. Unless," she turned back toward the stranger, "You're afraid to fight a woman."
"I ain't afraid to fight anybody. It's just that ..."
"It's just what. Come on, hurry up, I don't have all day. My coffee is getting cold."
Yuvon held his Lemat over her shoulder, gripping the weapon by its barrel. She reached up and took the weapon. She held it for a moment, testing its grip and heft. The weapon was heavy. She stuck it into the waistband of her skirt
"Let's get to it." She said, staring deeply into the stranger's eyes. "Do you want it in here, or will outside be all right with you?"
"Lady, it wouldn't be right, my killing a woman an all." He was backing toward the door away from her. "But you all remember, you ain't heard the last of Kyle Cousins."
Helena watched Cousins depart, then turned back to Yuvon. She handed his pistol back to him.
"You know that you only postponed the inevitable." Yuvon said, as he calmly holstered the weapon. "Someday, someone's going to have to nail his hide to a wall."
"Perhaps." Helena's tone was cheerful, as she sat back down at the table. "But it won't be today, and his blood won't be on my conscience."
"Perhaps." Yuvon sat down as well.
She looked at him for a moment. "You know, I do want to thank you, Yuvon."
"Oh? What for?"
"For backing my play, as it were."
"About killing Burdett?"
"The least I could do. You obviously had a plan, and I really don't enjoy killing children." Yuvon picked up his pipe and relit it. "Just out of curiosity, what would you have done if he had taken you up on it?"
"Lost, more than likely. I'm tolerably accurate, but I just can't draw with any speed." She picked up her coffee cup, and, looking at its cooling contents, muttered, "God, I could use a cigarette."
Yuvon's lips twitched with the flash of a smile.
The noise in the room had returned. Helena knew that this was a story that would be told again by the witnesses, but she would just have to live with that. As it was, all of the eyes watching her were more than she could bear.
"Yuvon, could we get out of here, please?"
"Feeling a bit conspicuous?"
"Of course not. Where ever would you get that idea?"
"Do you believe in God?" Helena asked softly as they sat in front of the hotel, basking in the warming afternoon sun. The day had blossomed into a lush green highlit by the aroma of wild flowers in the breeze. Birds were singing their songs of life i n the distance.
"I beg your pardon?" she asked, somewhat startled by the easiness of his tone.
"Which god did you mean?" He puffed away on his pipe for a moment, and looked around at the few people near them. "Listen, Helena, if we're going to discuss this, let's walk. I don't want to offend any more people than absolutely necessary."
"If you insist." She wasn't exactly certain that she wanted to follow up this question. She had intended to compare his response to Doc Holliday's, but Yuvon had headed off in a totally new direction.
They started down the street. Yuvon waited for a long while before answering.
"Perhaps this is the answer that you were looking for. In all my travels, I have seen many different cultures, many different religions. Even practiced a few. But the one thing I have learned from them all is that they are all right. They are all convinced that they are the one true path to ... whatever. Heaven, if you will."
"So you are an atheist?
"Let's just say that I'm not judgmental."
"So what do you believe?"
He stopped and tapped his ashes out onto the street. He crushed them with his boot heel.
"I believe in this." He waved his arm around him. "The beauty of nature. I believe in life and death. I believe that any sentient race will find in these things a religion to comfort them through the long lonely nights. I believe that any deity that demands unconditional obedience and worship needs to be looked at with skepticism."
"Why should an entity that is all powerful need the worship of lesser life forms like us?"
The blasphemy of the question bothered Helena. "I'm not certain that you understand, Yuvon. God doesn't need our worship."
"Then why do it?"
Helena froze, dumbfounded. The question had never really occurred to her before.
"I don't know," she said finally. "I know that there are a great number of people who do so because either they are afraid of what might happen to them if they didn't. And, of course there are others who do so because they are afraid of what their neighbors might think."
"Where I grew up," Yuvon said, slowly, " the prevailing belief of the natives was that mankind was created to be the slaves and playthings of the gods. The only reason to propitiate, to make sacrifice was the hope that by appeasing these gods, they would ignore you."
"How horrible." It occurred to Helena to wonder how many people today simply to avoid God's notice?
"I thought so too, for a long time. For the longest time, though, I truly believed that the gods allowed you the ultimate excuse for avoiding responsibility for your actions."
"What do you mean?" This line of thought sounded somewhat familiar to Helena, but she couldn't quite remember from where.
"Well, for example, if I were to see a beautiful woman whom I find to be desirable, and I go up to her and convince her, by whatever method, to come with me for a bit of illicit carnal recreation, then neither of us is to blame."
"Oh, really? And why ever not?" Something about his example made her uncomfortable.
"You see. All such feelings originate with whichever god whose governance such things is, er, are. If you are familiar with the Roman theism, this would be the goddess Venus," he pronounced the name "Winoos." "So, Venus would have possessed me, and made me do it. Ergo, it wouldn't have been my fault."
"You don't actually believe that?"
"No. But as I said, I thought that it was a beautiful rationalization. And, as long as people are willing to hide behind 'god's will' and the 'work of the devil,' it still is. A beautiful rationalization, I mean.
"However, I know that there are entities, greater spirits, if you will, who call themselves 'gods' who try to solicit worship, by virtue of their 'divinity' and their powers. They do often interfere in the affairs of men."
"But where does the True God fit into this scheme of yours?"
"I repeat the question from earlier, Whose?"
Helena looked at him, confused.
He continued, "After all, your god, that of the numerous Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Catharic, Nestorian, and Coptic Christianities, merely to name the most common; as well as the god of the Hebrew and Muslim peoples, are the same divinity, the god of Abraham and Isaac. But you all worship him differently, as though he were different entities. Then of course, we can, simply keeping to the monotheistic cults, examine Amon, the god of the pharaoh Ankh‑n‑aten, who some suspect to be the earliest form of what later became the cult of Yahveh. Now, while the Zoroastrians view their gods as two individuals, one good, one evil, in much the same way the Yahveh/Samael or Satan ..."
"I meant the Lord as revealed by the One True Church, founded by Jesus Christ," her tone was intense.
"Correct me if I'm wrong, Helena, particularly as I've never made any claims to being a Christian of any form. But it has always seemed to me that Jesus never actually founded a church. The church of which you are a part was founded by Saul of Tarsus, or rather, Paul."
Helena stopped and stared at him. It wasn't as if his cavalier attitude towards something very important had offended her as much as confused her. Unfortunately, she couldn't quite put her finger on why exactly she was offended, but she was damned if she was going to let him know that.
"How fascinating," she tried to keep her voice sounding pleasant and full of awe, but she suspected that she really sounded angry instead. "How on earth do you know all of that?"
He looked at her for a moment, his left eyebrow twitched.
"Research," he said after a moment's pause.
"I hope that you won't feel too upset if I don't don't wholeheartedly agree with you."
"Of course not. I believe that the Constitution of the United States allows you some freedom of Religion."
"Yes, it does," she paused for an instant. "I thought you didn't know anything about the government?"