Helena woke in her hotel room. She lay still for a few minutes, just breathing in the aroma of ceder and pine that rose subtly from the furniture. It often took some serious work to move herself from the warm haven of her bed, and this morning, every saddle‑stiffened muscle in her body ached. She had always been healthy and physically active, but a life of walking had left her unprepared for exertions on muscles she had only known of through their mention in medical texts.
From beyond the wooden walls of the hotel she could hear the continual 'thump, thump, thump' of the stamp mills echoing throughout the valley. A bird whistled somewhere outside.
Helena remembered having had the strangest dreams, but she was somewhat at a loss to recall them. Regardless, she had slept surprisingly well, and she felt very well for the first time in a while. Then she began to churn with thoughts of the night before.
She vividly recalled the gunfight and the whole waste of time that they had spent at Marshal O'Neal's office. She was somewhat rankled by the fact that she had not been consulted before Yuvon agreed to leave town this morning. Yuvon was told to take her and go, and everyone assumed that she would comply. Such is the lot of feminity, she thought, we have no free will, regardless of what Doc Holliday and I were saying to one another.
Men have free will while women don't obviously centered on their possession of a little extra flesh. She smiled briefly as it struck her that men certainly seemed to to have their free will guided by that extra flesh.
She suddenly remembered Cord and his ilicit intent toward her. She was deeply bothered by the fact that Yuvon had killed the boy, as well as maiming his friends, with little or no apparent concern.
Quickly recognizing that she could do nothing about it at the moment, she flung the bed clothes back, and immediately fought the desire to dive back under the blankets. The room was bitterly cold. A lonely train whistle moaned far off down the valley.
Helena climbed out of bed and shed her nightgown. On a wooden stand in the poorly lit room was a large porcelain bowl and a pitcher full of water. Helena filled the bowl from the pitcher and washed her face in the icy liquid. Then, steeling herself, she splashed the water over herself, to wash up. She didn't bother with the large towel that hung behind the basin, but let the water run off her body in rivulets. Helena walked over to the window, leaving a trail of water droplets on the wood. She opened both the curtains and the windows, letting the morning air in to dry her.
The feeling was sensuous. There was a chilled, crisp quality to the air that at once left her refreshed and gasping as her body tightened and stiffened, as if in anticipation. The breeze was coming down from the high country where the snows still lay. The sun had barely crept over the upper horizon, sending its light through the veil of foliage. The canyon felt alive with promise.
Helena reveled in the chill of the morning. The breeze that was drying her skin made her bones ache. It sent her blood coursing and made her feel alive. The chill made her forget all else but the sensations within her. After a short while, she stepped away from the window, and shut the curtains. People were beginning to move about in the streets, and she felt that it would be improper to be seen exhibiting her charms to the world.
She dressed slowly, feeling in her movements each hour she had spent in the saddle the day before. She put on the longhandled union suit, tartan shirt, boots and trousers that she had purchased the day before. The warmth of the cloth was a pleasure against her skin. Looking down, she saw that the snug fit of the underwear made her almost as flat as her corset, although, she smiled, in a different direction.
She looked at her skirts and corsetting as she pulled her hair into a long pony tail, and paused. The clothes were piled where she had dropped them the night before. She hadn't appeared in public without dressing properly since she had been a girl. After a moment, she shrugged. If she were going to be on horseback all day, she knew that her comfort was going to be more important than propriety.
Helena gathered her things, and packed them in her carpetbag. She was preparing to take her bags downstairs when she heard a knock on her door. It was Yuvon. He was wearing a large, fleece-lined bright red leather coat over his black riding clothes.
"Well, are you ready to go?" he asked cheerfully.
"And a good morning to you, Yuvon," she replied. She wasn't certain if her mood this morning, though pleasant enough, was sufficient to defend her from the waves of cheerfulness pouring from him. She realized she was she was a bit irritated by his good humor. She felt that he should be ashamed of his behaviour the night before.
"Yes, I am ready." She looked at his coat. "You don't really think that it's cold out this morning?" She smiled to herself.
"It is a bit cool," he replied as he bent to collect her bags. "However, it was a trifle more brisk this morning about four, when I got up."
"Didn't you get any sleep last night?" she asked. "It was well after midnight when we retired. Or don't you require sleep either? Or were you just feeling guilty about last night?" She turned to close the door behind her.
"No, but," he replied, chuckling oddly. "Thank you for asking though. Your concern is endearing."
* * * * * *
She soon began to feel uncomfortable with the attention that was drawn by her attire as they ate their breakfast. People were staring at her, a woman in trousers. She tried to tell herself that it wasn't as bad as all that, but everywhere she looked she saw disapproval. She shrugged and decided it was too late to change now, but she would never put herself in this position again.
"The horses are at the livery stable," Yuvon told her while the waitress poured his coffee. The woman was ignoring Helena's motioned requests toward her cup. "We will need to collect them directly after breakfast."
"I suspect that won't be too much of a problem," Helena said, grabbing the waitress's arm, and pulling the pot over to her cup. "In here please. Thank you."
The waitress poured, then turned and left in a huff.
"Damned uppity little slut," Helena muttered as she looked back at Yuvon. "I'm sorry, you were saying?"
"I was just musing about our travel plans for today. I assume that you are still sore from yesterday."
"I certainly am, or did you mean from our riding here?"
"Actually I did." He smiled that enveloping smile, but Helena wasn't having any of it this morning. She was still in a good mood, but Yuvon's was starting to wear a bit thin.
"I'm just fine thank you," she continued. "But if we might take the occasional rest stop, this time, it would be greatly appreciated."
"There should be no problem whatsoever with that. It would be better for the horses as well. How do you feel about the North?"
"As a direction, a concept, or a political entity?" Helena was rewarded with a momentary look of abject confusion from Yuvon.
"A direction to ride in."
"That north is just fine. Do you have a preferred destination?"
"Not particularly. I just thought that we might stay here in the lowlands for a few days, before trying any of the high country."
"Yuvon, we are currently surrounded on all sides by walls of rock hundreds of feet high. Relatively speaking, we may be in just the foothills, but you can't call this 'lowlands.'"
He shrugged and continued with his breakfast.
On their walk to the stable, Helena's masculine attire drew more questioning glances. It was a rare day in Black Hawk when a woman strode about in trousers. She tugged her hat down about her face, and tried to ignore the stares.
The horses were ready for them. Nigel looked perfectly content to carry Helena for another day, to wherever she deigned to lead him. Erishkigal, on the other hand looked excited, and to Helena's mind, eager for blood. Helena also noticed Yuvon's guitar strapped to his saddle.
As she looked at Nigel, he seemed even bigger than he had the day before. She sighed and gracelessly crawled up into the saddle, groaning with pain.
After they were both mounted, they followed Gregory Street to the road that would take them north. The town was fully awake now, and there were people everywhere.
Helena saw Doc Holliday as they passed the stage depot. He was already aboard the west bound concord stage-coach that would take him eventually to Glenwood Springs. He sat all alone in the coach. In the daylight he was more gaunt and cadaverous than he had been the night before. His handlebar moustache seemed ridiculously out of place on the death's head his face had become.
Helena brought Nigel to a slow walk, obstructing traffic on the busy street. She raised her hand, about to call out to Holliday when the stage pulled out with a hard, squeaky jolt and was off. Helena watched for a moment, shrugged mentally and urged Nigel to catch up with Yuvon.
Outside of Black Hawk, the pair followed the road along the Front Range. Helena rode in silence most of the morning. She thought a great deal about herself and her life. They had been a few hours on the road before they saw their first fellow traveler, a red and gold concord stage heading north passed them and was soon swallowed up by its own dust trail.
Helena coughed, and reached over the side of her saddle for her cork‑ and‑leather covered glass canteen. As she took a swallow from it, she noticed Yuvon riding a short distance ahead of her. She watched him for a few minutes, thinking about two men she had spent the evening with, Doc Holliday and Yuvon, their seeming differences and their similarities. They each possessed a total surety in themselves, each confident in their powers to give and to take life, and finding in that confidence power. She was forced to admit that she found that confidence, that power, as exciting as it was appalling.
There was also the matter of how they dealt with that power. Holliday was very much the gentleman, although she had trouble applying that term to Yuvon. Whatever he was, 'gentleman' didn't describe it. Finally, she rode up next to him, and broke her self‑induced silence; a silence she wasn't certain that he had noticed.
"Dr. Holliday called you one of the 'killer elite,'" she said, after bringing her horse alongside his. Yuvon looked at her.
"Your friend, Dr. Holliday, should know," he replied softly.
"So, you did recognize him then?" Helena asked, smiling slightly.
"No, but I saw him for what he was." Yuvon's tone was sharpening.
"And that is?"
"A person who lives by the deaths of others."
"A predator, then?" she asked ingenuously.
"I said, 'lives' by the deaths of others, not 'feeds on.'" Yuvon snapped. "Excuse me Helena, but is this leading somewhere?"
"Now that you mention it, I believe that it might be." She paused to reflect. "Going somewhere, that is." She continued more seriously, "Yuvon, why did you have to kill that boy last night? I was taught that doctors shouldn't kill."
He paused, obviously thinking, then said, "I would like to respond frivolously, and I would, but I think that you deserve more. There is a difference between the two of us. I was taught to believe that doctors shouldn't cause undue suffering. I am forced then to decide what is undue. I felt that maiming the boy would have been worse than merely killing him."
"What about disarming him?" she asked.
"That boy wanted to kill. Had I merely frustrated that desire, he would have either found another victim, or else he would have returned later to annoy me further."
"Annoy you! Of all the pompous ..."
"Helena, I am not going to pretty it up for you." Yuvon's voice was intense. "I don't like the fact that I killed him. I can only hope that my selection of his form of execution had a deterrent effect on his friends. As it was, it kept them from becoming further involved in a battle that they had little hope of surviving." He paused again. "In my youth, I would have killed them all to rid myself of the potential enemies. It pleases me to believe that I've grown more civilized with the passage of time."
"Yuvon, this isn't something that you should be facetious about. I really can't see that you had any need to kill him."
"Helena, when a man points a gun at you, your options become very limited: live or die. Sure, his gun may jam, or not really even be loaded, or perhaps you can dodge the bullet. But if you take time to think about that, you might as well start falling, because you're already dead. I just thank whoever designed this reality that there are so few life and death situations."
"Do you think that Cord felt that way? What about his friends?"
"Helena, combat is only engaged when there is an intent to kill. It is my belief that the killing should then be done as quickly and efficiently as possible."
"So, if you are going to kill, do it well?" Helena's sarcasm sounded a bit extreme, even to her.
Yuvon seemed not to notice it though, as he continued. "Exactly, but only as a last resort. My ideal motto, is that one shouldn't fight, even if you can win."
"'He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day?' What about in the army? Soldiers are sent out to kill, aren't they?" It occurred to her that this argument had gotten out of hand. She wasn't sure, but she thought she might be defending killing now.
"We're the Devil's Advocate today, eh? All right, I'll bite. In the military, there are different goals and ideals ‑‑ honor, glory and whatnot. These are based on the fallaceous concept that war is the ultimate expression of manhood." He chuckled bitterly. "The martial field is all too often the ultimate, as in final, expression of manhood.
"There is honor in combat only when your opponent is honorable, or if there are other factors, factors that are few and far between. Glory only exists in the past tense, and those who earn it almost never live to enjoy it. Therefore, if one must fight, one must fight fast, fight first and overkill your opponent.
"It must be remembered that fighting for an ideology or an ideal will kill you. If you actually desire martyrdom, then by all means do so, but never fool yourself into thinking that you are doing anything else."
"You feel very stongly about this don't you?" Helena flashed a pleased smile at him. "Still it bothers me to think that you, a doctor, can sound this violent. I refuse to believe that there are no other options than killing."
"If you don't like the ugliness of life, or at least, can't tolerate it, then leave off now. The worlds that I live in are ugly, populated by ugly, real people. In all modesty, I am, in fact one of the least ugly people that I know."
"Oh? Why do you say that?" Helena grew thin lipped.
"Because I don't claim to be anything that I'm not, and so when I make a promise, I don't fail to keep it."
"Excuse me? That doesn't make any sense."
"What that makes no sense?"
"'What that?'-- never mind. I'm not at all certain I follow your logic. You're the least ugly person you know because you make no claims to be anything that you're not, and because you keep your word?"
"That's essentially correct."
"How does a lack of false claims, and the ability to keep promises define being the least ugly? For that matter, how does one follow the other?"
"I see your confusion." His voice took on a lecturing tone. "While I know many people who make no false claims, and I know many people who keep their promises. I, on the other hand, do both. I take a certain amount of pride in that. And last night, I had no doubts whatsoever that I could fulfil the promises I was making."
"Why not? Couldn't he have gotten in a lucky shot, or even, Heaven forbid, he might be better than you."
"It was possible, but unlikely. As you said last night, the people who go hunting up a fight aren't usually as good as those who are ready for a fight."
"How horrible. Just remember that 'he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword.'"
"My, we are full of platitudes this morning, aren't we? Consider me a surgeon then." He was angry, though about what Helena couldn't be sure. "A surgeon removing a tumor before it becomes malignant."
He touched his heel to Erishkigal's flank, and the black leapt forward at the gallop, ending all conversation.
Helena was angry at being cut off like that, but she quickly swallowed her ire. She felt she had enough to consider without muddying the waters with emotion.
* * * * * *
As the sun approached its zenith, the silence was disturbed by another concord, this time heading south. Helena realized that she was hungry. The fresh air and the introspection were making her ravenous.
"Yuvon?" she called to him.
"Yes, ma'am?" He pulled Erishkigal to a halt.
"I would like to eat now."
"All right." He looked around. "How about over there?" He gestured at a flat outcropping of rock set a little up a hill, fifty feet from the road.
They neared the rock and dismounted. Helena could see that the slab was encrusted with various lichens that looked to her like shredded bits of colored parchment. The lichen and stone were dry and scratchy as she hoisted herself up onto the slab and sat down. But it was comfortable as well, warm and firm and not moving. She was glad to be out of the saddle, if only for a little while. Her change in attire had helped somewhat, but she was still saddle‑sore.
Yuvon left the horses ground tied, and walked over to where Helena sat basking in the sun. She looked down at him.
"Well?" she asked.
"Well, why don't you go fetch our dinner?" She smiled at his rising eyebrow. "Am I to understand then that you are leaving the choice of victuals up to me?"
"Well, now, I don't want want worms, if that's what you mean." She stretched and lay back on the sum warmed stone. "But I just feel too much the invalid to be of any use." She closed her eyes, and let the heat from the sun‑baked rock soak into her bones. She heard Yuvon chuckle and then the crunching as he made his way on the dirt and stones back to the horses.
"In that case," he called back at her. "I am off to get some more water." This was followed by the muffled chinking sounds of the canteens banging together, and then his footsteps fading off into the distance. Soon the only sounds that she could hear were the leaves in the breeze, and the occasional insect buzzing along. She smiled as it occurred to her that the mountains were only silent when they were seen from a distance. Up close, they were just brimming with sounds.
After a few minutes, a new sound entered her world. For all the world it sounded as if someone were gently pulling a rope through sand. It was a pleasant, comforting sound that blended nicely with the background. After a moment, the sound was joined by the sound of someone winnowing grain, trying to shake the husks away. Suddenly her eyes shot open, and she sat bolt upright as she realized what the sound meant. Quickly looking around, she saw that she was indeed correct. Right next to her, well within striking range, was a large dusty brown snake, and from the change in the noise it was making with its rattles, Helena suspected that she had startled it with her sudden movements. It had certainly startled her.
Helena immediately clamped down on the urge to scream and run away, or worse, to hit at it to drive it away. It looked hard at her, obviously searching for the most convient place to bite. She took a slow, deep breath and slowly began to ease away from the reptile. She froze as the snake hunched up, and its rattling grew more intense. The universe shrank to just the two of them.
Helena pursed her lips for an instant as the irony occured to her; just as the serpent had shown Eve the way to the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil, this particular serpent had given her the fruit of the Tree of Life in the firm knowledge that she didn't want to die. It no longer mattered to her if any one else in the whole world cared whether she lived or died. She was assured that she cared, and, at this moment, she desperately wanted to live.
Moving only her eyes, she looked around for something to use as a weapon, but there wasn't anything near to her, except for some lichen and the snake.
She swiftly considered her options. There was no weapon to be had, and she knew she couldn't move to fetch one. That meant unless Yuvon showed up and saved her, she would have to either wrestle it with her bare hands; wait until it got bored and left of it own accord; or try to run, which would probably provoke it to bite her. Of the four options, but it was obvious that waiting and patience were her best bet for survival.
Unfortunately, the snake had other plans. With no warning, it struck out at her. As she instinctively flinched away from the fangs, she saw a black blurring motion over her left shoulder. She rolled as far away from the snake as she could, as quickly as possible. She stopped only when she fell off the rock into the soft dirt below.
She lay on the gravel and dirt, feeling the tension bunching her muscles. She clamped down harder on her urges to scream.
After what seemed like an eternity or two, she finally felt relaxed enough to move. She forced herself to sit up slowly, then to stand shakily and stare over the edge of the rock, wide eyed.
Erishkigal stood there with the snake clamped between her teeth, the serpent flailing as it tried to free its head. The horse had caught the serpent in mid-strike. Helena climbed up on the rock and stepped nearer. She looked at the horse, the snake, then the horse once more. Erishkigal stared back with an impatient stare.
"What's your problem?" Helena asked the animal. The horse lashed her tail, perked her ears forward and looked more impatient than ever.
"Oh, yes, of course." Helena jumped off the rock and ran over to where she had left Nigel. She untied her medical bag from her saddle. She opened it and fumbled around inside. A few moments later she returned to Erishkigal and the snake with a large pair of shears.
"Hold on for just a moment. This won't hurt a bit."
It actually took her a few moments to saw through the snake's spine, decapitating it with the scissors. Both she and the horse hopped back from the flailing fangs of the still biting head as it dropped to the ground. Erishkigal dropped the still twitching body. A moment later, the snake lay still.
Helena stared at the snake's body for a short while, trying to decide whether to be ill or not. The sight of death didn't bother her as much as the after‑effects of the adrenalin flowing through her veins.
Erishkigal broke Helena's trance by nikkering and returning to where Yuvon had left her. Helena watched the heavy rhythmic motion of the horse then returned her attention to the dead snake.
She kicked the snake's head off the rock, into the bushes. She muttered as she dragged the body off to one side the rock and hung the body over the side of the slab to drain the blood. It was bad enough that Yuvon was perfect, but now even his damned horse was unbelievable. She had never heard of a horse that could catch a snake in mid-strike, let alone one that could sneak around like that.
She chuckled as it struck her, of course his horse was unbelievable. After all what other kind would someone like him ride? The stupid animal probably did all kinds of tricks when he whistled.
"What about you?" She hopped down off the rock and walked over to Nigel. "What sort of things do you do?"
Nigel tore up a clump of scrub from the dirt and chewed on it. Helena sighed, and patted him on the neck.
"That's good. I suspect that's just about all I want in a mount." She looked around for a moment for something to clean the scissors with before wiping them off on the snake's body, and returning them to her medical bag. She retied the bag to the saddle. She looked around for her canteen for a moment. She really wanted to wash the taste of fear from her dry mouth. Then she remembered why Yuvon had left in the first place.
Helena checked the place where she had been sitting, and covered the blood that had spilled there with dirt from the base of the rock.
By the time that Yuvon returned with the canteens, she was sitting, calmly smoking a cigarette, and watching a pair of birds circling in the distance.
"You're back," she said when she saw him coming through the brush. "I must say that I was starting to worry about your safety. Did you have to walk all the way back to Black Hawk for the water?"
"No. I got into a conversation with a man panning for gold down by the creek. Was I gone that long?"
"I suppose not. How do you feel about snake for dinner?"
"I thought that you said that you didn't want worm."
"I don't want worm. I asked you about snake."
"It depends on what kind of snake." He stepped up onto the rock.
She waved toward the edge of the rock. "Rattlesnake."
He looked at the snake, then at her, "Hmmm. Shouldn't be too bad. Has a taste reminiscent of Tyranosaur, doesn't it?"
"I wouldn't know. I've always heard that it tastes like chicken."
Yuvon looked at her in horror.
"You mean to say that you actually eat chicken?"
Helena wondered if he were serious, then she caught the glimmer of amusement in his eyes, and kicked him.