Story Idea by Nikki "Gilfavor" Ramsey Biggers
Written by Nikki "Gilfavor" Ramsey Biggers
In a blinding flash of light, Brooklyn appeared in the middle of the darkened, empty grocery store. For a moment, he turned on his large feet, his jaw slackened in awe. "My luck can't be this good," he breathed, taking a large whiff of the mingled scents of baked goods and fish. He glanced down as his stomach growled, then patted it firmly. "Let's just hope it's not a mirage," he said in a low voice, looking around a little suspiciously. On a shelf in front of him sat a stack of canned peaches. As he lifted one gingerly, Brooklyn smiled - it was real. He hadn't had anything to eat for days, and now this. Too good to be true.
With one talon, he pried the lid off of the can, hurrying at the insistence of his now rumbling belly. He lifted it carefully to his mouth and was about to tip his head back when he stopped, grinning.
Brooklyn put the can down and picked up a second, prying open its lid. Then a third, fourth, fifth... At last, when he had a forest of small cans surrounding his feet, he stopped. Now he would have a feast.
The gargoyle had just begun to lift the first can when a light flashed behind him. Startled, Brooklyn spun. As he did so, he dropped the can he held, which clattered to the floor, splashing peach juice over his feet.
"Who's there?" came a feeble voice - the shopkeeper, Brooklyn guessed. He must have been alerted by some sort of silent alarm. The wandering light - a flashlight - was coming nearer now; any minute it would be casting its light down his aisle.
"Um, hey," Brooklyn ventured as cordially as he could, "Don't be afraid. You see, I'm really hungry, and..."
For a moment, the beam lowered, and the shopkeeper was silent. "Well," he said at last, stepping forward, "You should have come around to my door, young man. Margaret and I are always glad to help someone in need-"
"Wait!" interrupted Brooklyn. "Don't point the flashlight--" but it was too late. The beam settled directly on his beaked face, then raced down his body as its source was suddenly dropped.
"Oh -- oh, dear," the old man tried to begin, fumbling in the dark for his light.
"Don't be frightened," pleaded Brooklyn. "I wouldn't hurt you." He tried to take a step forward, but at that moment, the Phoenix gate decided that it was time to depart, and the familiar ball of fire lit up the startled face of the shopkeeper. "I'm sorry!" Brooklyn called before disappearing.
* * *
"Ooomph!" grunted the gargoyle as he fell several feet to rocky ground. It was always awkward, it seemed, for the gate to judge such things correctly. Brooklyn simply counted himself lucky never to have come out underground.
Sitting up, Brooklyn blinked his eyes, still blinded by the glow of the Phoenix Gate's fire. The first thing that hit him in this new surrounding was the incredible heat. He knew that if it was hot enough to bother him, a gargoyle, it was hot. After a moment, his vision began to clear of spots, and he found himself looking up at another sea of spots - the starry night sky. For a moment, he gazed at it. Back in Manhattan, it had been difficult to see many stars at night because of the glaring lights of the city below, and he enjoyed it when he could get a glimpse of them.
Brooklyn shook his head. This was no time to be thinking of Manhattan - he needed to find out where he was. It was a moonless night, and as he struggled to peer at the territory around him, he found that even his excellent night vision did not assist him much. He pondered the reason for this a moment, then realized the cause: there was not a light to be seen, other than the stars, anywhere. There were no settlements of any kind in the distance to provide a feeble beacon, no lighthouses, no bonfires. Nothing. "Great," he muttered, feeling his stomach rumbling. He cursed himself for not eating when he could have - next time, he would not try to enjoy it more by drawing things out. With the Gate, things were a matter of survival. It was ironic, he thought, having virtually "all the time in the world," and in the same reasoning, no time at all.
He sighed and pushed himself to his feet. Now that he was above ground level and able to view things by what little starlight was shed on them from above, his surroundings began to materialize before his eyes. He turned once in a circle, his brow ridge deepening in puzzlement. All before him spread thousands of lumps, each roughly twice the size of Bronx. "What the..." he trailed off, unable to discern what lay before him.
The gargoyle sniffed, and got his answer. Cattle. A huge herd of them, and he was directly in the middle. Faintly, in the distance, a lonely voice came drifting to his ears, though he could not identify the source.
"Come and sit by my side if you love me, Do not hasten to bid me adieu, But remember the Red River Valley, And the man who has loved you so true."
The simple melody was sung with such sorrow that Brooklyn found himself strangely touched. All at once, every loss he had ever sustained seemed to pour back upon him. Memories of Maggie, and especially Angela, came rushing into his mind, and wounds he had thought long healed burst open.
Then the song drifted into a whistle, ended, and was gone. Brooklyn sighed, rubbing the back of his neck in slight confusion, then attempted to determine from which direction the voice had come. "This way," he told himself, stepping to the right.
Sensing his presence, a cow near him lowed softly.
"Shhh," the gargoyle hushed, waving a hand and stepping forward once more.
That did it for the longhorn. It stood and called to its fellows nervously. It did not like the unfamiliar smell of the gargoyle.
"Wonderful. Lay back down! Come on," Brooklyn attempted to reason with the beast. Several other members of the herd were now wakened, and stood. A rust-colored hand went to the gargoyle's shock of white hair. The first cow skittered backward as Brooklyn tried to calm it, now "mooing" in earnest.
The herd stood, and rushed.
Caught among the pressing bodies and thundering hooves, Brooklyn struggled
to escape the dangerously sharp horns of the cattle while still attempting
to stay on top of the mass. However, the clouds of upturned dust and lack
of air soon defeated his limits and he gave in to unconsciousness. The last
thing Brooklyn heard before darkness reigned over his senses was a distant
voice calling, "STAMPEDE!"
* * *
"...How should I know what it is? Maybe we got too much sun."
Brooklyn regained consciousness to hear a smooth voice with just a hint of a whine to it, and realized at least two people were standing over him. Not wanting to frighten them, he lay still until he could decide what to do.
"Well, seein' that it's night-time, ah don't think that's the trouble," commented another, rougher voice dryly. "We're prob'ly asleep."
"And havin' the same dream?" the voice paused. "Maybe it'll wake up."
"Don't go near it, y'fool!" there was a scuffle as the second grabbed the arm of the first, and then the voice continued. "Ah sure hope it don't. Wake up, ah mean. Looks like some kinda demon to me, though I never held with none 'a that stuff."
"Yer faith might be changin' soon." There was a sigh. "Well, we better watch it for a while, anyway."
Brooklyn judged this to be the most opportune time to introduce himself. He attempted to push himself into a sitting position, but immediately his body screamed at him from a thousand different places. Groaning with pain, he flopped back to the ground, sluggish in the suffocating heat.
"Shoot it!" yelled the man with the scratchy voice. Immediately, both produced weapons.
Brooklyn raised a hand, palm out, too tired and hot and beaten to get up and fight - or run. Hammers cocked, and he shut his eyes, preparing for what was to come.
"Stop!" yelled a commanding voice.
There was a shot, and the gargoyle cringed, expecting to find himself suddenly dead. When at last he realized he was not, he opened his eyes. The moon had, by this time, risen, and he could see in some small detail the scene above him. Two tall, shirtless figures were frozen over his prostrate form, one with gun in hand. The second, shorter outline looked slightly startled, staring at his now empty palm. Brooklyn glimpsed, just behind them, a third shadowy figure which was now retreating purposefully into a cluster of bushes. The gargoyle gathered that this third man had knocked the gun from the other man's hand just as it had gone off, narrowly missing Brooklyn's head. As he realized what had happened, he let out his breath slowly in relief. Tentatively, he sat up, carefully not making any sudden moves that would alarm the men. They seemed to be waiting for something, so Brooklyn did no more than that.
A moment later, the third figure stepped back out from the bushes, leading a horse which had skittered away at the shot. "What d'you think you're doing?" he half-growled at the second man. "You want t' set off another stampede?"
"But Boss-" began the shorter man, the one with the rough voice, protesting and waving a hand in Brooklyn's direction.
The man leading the horse cut him off quickly. "What do you mean, 'but?' I see it. Now get back to work or we'll have to spend all day rustling strays out of the brush." At the man's hesitation, he pointed north, from which sounds of cattle and men could be heard plainly. "Get t'work or get your pay and get out!"
The man lowered his head and walked in the direction indicated.
Now, the one whom had been referred to as "Boss" turned on the smooth-voiced man. "And you," he said disgustedly, shaking his head. "You should've known better. Put your gun away and get going. Why I trust you as Ramrod I'll never know."
"Sure, Boss," mumbled the youngish-sounding man, chagrined. Without another look at Brooklyn, he trod off, whistling a shrill note. A moment later, another horse emerged from the brush and he mounted it, riding off.
At last, the remaining man, still shadowed, turned his attentions to Brooklyn, who was more than a little stunned. He was used to humans being afraid of him, trying to kill him, and occasionally recognizing him as a friend, but this was an altogether different experience. Once this man had shown up, all desire to kill him seemed to have drained from the other men, and they had willingly left their boss to his "mercy." He could not figure it out.
"Well, well, well-well, well," muttered the human in the black hat with a hint of amusement to his deep tone. He stepped forward, further into the moonlight, but the gargoyle could not yet see his face for the wide- brimmed hat he wore low on his forehead. Suddenly, the man stuck out his arm. "You look like you could use a hand," he said. "Stampedes c'n get pretty rough."
For a moment, the gargoyle hesitated, then took the offered help to his feet. He took a moment to dust himself off, then glanced back up at the man, who again offered his hand, this time in a gesture of friendship. "Name's Weston Cord," he said roughly. "I boss this outfit."
"Brooklyn," returned the gargoyle, a half-smile beginning to light the confusion still present on his face. Was the man, perhaps, not altogether sane? He seemed to be ignoring the fact that he was a gargoyle altogether. But, other than that, more pressing questions came to Brooklyn's mind. "Uh, listen," he said, "This is a cattle drive, isn't it? And you're cowboys."
Cord cocked his head slightly. "Drovers, actually. Close enough."
The gargoyle paused a moment, awaiting the expected question of, "-And where did you come from, that you didn't know that?" but, surprisingly, it did not come. In a flash of insight, Brooklyn realized that Cord was not the kind of man to pry into anyone's business - evidently, it didn't matter what that anyone was. In a way, he was relieved. At the same time, he suddenly wished the man would take his hat off so that he could see his face. "Thanks, uh, Mr. Cord, for saving my hide back there. Your man was about to take my head off."
Cord cleared his throat. "Don't thank me," he said, his voice growing suddenly cold. "If I didn't think it would have set the beeves running again, I'd have let him shoot you."
"Oh," said Brooklyn flatly. What did one say to a statement like that?
There was a silence between them for a moment, and then Cord spoke. "If you want t' thank someone, you ought to talk to that boy, the taller one. He's the one headed off the stampede tonight. If it weren't for him, you'd most likely be dead by now- and all my cattle scattered to the four winds."
"Oh," repeated Brooklyn dumbly. The man's lighter mood seemed suddenly to have disappeared, and it was unnerving. He scratched his head, searching for something more to say. Nothing came.
"You look hungry," stated Cord. "Come on over to the camp and have some food."
At the mention of sustenance, Brooklyn's stomach growled demandingly - so much so, in fact, that he found it impossible to refuse the invitation.
"This way," gestured Cord, nodding and pulling his horse around. He turned slightly, and the moon's dim rays struck him fully in the face for a single moment before he again turned away.
Brooklyn had only glimpsed him for little over a second, but for a moment, he stood rooted to the ground before following the trail boss, examining the image which burned in his eyes. The man's right eye had been concealed with a simple black patch; this, while curious, was not the thing which held the gargoyle's attention. Instead, it was the other eye to which his own had been immediately drawn. The pupil, a black bottomless pit, had seemed darker than the night itself, glinting from deep within like some finely-cut jewel. And still, it was not the color of the eye, nor the way in which it shone that held him. It was, instead, the infinite sorrow which had seemed trapped within the dark orb, resting like lead under a furrowed, well-lined brow. Brooklyn, seeing that Cord had not turned to see if he were following, shook the image from his mind for now and hurried to catch up.
* * *
The cowhand's makeshift camp consisted of a chuck wagon and a glowing campfire over which hung a steaming coffeepot. Two saddle rolls, accompanied by their saddles, complimented the scene by the fire, and Brooklyn was immediately able to spot the owner of at least one of the small piles; a short, older man, rummaging through the wagon: the cook. Hearing the two approach, he climbed from the wagon and turned to regard them, revealing a face darkened partly by the sun and partly by his Mexican decent. He wore a dusty serape, almost in defiance of the soaring temperature, patched here and there with cloth of varying color. For a moment, he seemed to freeze, taking in the new element that was Brooklyn. He crossed himself the moment he regained his senses enough to move, muttering a low prayer in Spanish.
The old man was of a superstitious nature and was wary of such strange things - and he had seen many strange things in his time. His eyes told him a demon stood before him, but he was also forced to admit the fact that Cord seemed perfectly at ease. Either his boss trusted the thing, or he had sunk lower than the cook had imagined that he could, and made some sort of bargain with the devil. In either case, he was bound by long years of service and duty to abide by Cord's decision. "Welcome," he said at last in a heavily accented voice.
Cord strode to the back of the chuck wagon, keeping his face turned from the firelight, where a table hinged out from the bed; Brooklyn saw that it could easily be folded up against the side of the wagon for traveling. It was covered with dirty dishes, and the trail boss picked one of the tin plates up. Sniffing it hesitantly, he then let it fall with a clatter back into the mound of other dishes. "Olivar," he said shortly, "I don't pay you t' feed us what we didn't eat yesterday. Clean this up and get some biscuits ready. The men'll want somethin' more'n coffee in their bellies after workin' halfway through the night."
The cook - Olivar - nodded profusely. "Eet ees just - she-" he began.
"I don't care about her!" Cord barked, then, lowering his voice, "Just get this cleaned up."
"Yes, Capitan," Olivar ammended politely, (and slightly more pronounced than necessary) raising his brow and showing a hint of a smile at this outburst. He saw that his long-time friend and some-time employer, however, was not in the best of moods, and obeyed promptly.
Cord, now completely ignoring Brooklyn, helped himself to a cup of coffee from the fire and strode from camp into the darkness beyond.
For a moment, the gargoyle stood awkwardly in the middle of the small clearing, only the sounds of the crackling fire and clanking dishes in his ears.
"One meenute," called the cook, without looking at Brooklyn. "And I weel put the beescuits on."
"Uh, thanks," responded the gargoyle. Hoping to continue the conversation, he went to the table at the wagon and began to dry dishes as Olivar washed and scrubbed them. A few minutes later, the old cook looked up at him and smiled. "You are a nice di- ah, boy," he said pleasantly.
"Call me Brooklyn."
"A nice name. I am Olivar." He shook his head. "I see now, you are not el diablo."
Brooklyn furrowed his brow ridge, then decided to ignore the comment. "Is, uh, something bothering your boss?" he asked tentatively, careful to keep his voice low in case Cord had not wandered far from the fire.
"Ah, the Capitan? Life bothers heem; it has not been kind. You must excuse heem at times."
Brooklyn did not want to be nosy, but the cook did not seem to mind, - in fact, he seemed to enjoy the conversation - and so he let another question slip from his beak. "Why do you call him 'Captain'? He didn't say anything to me about it."
"Ah," declared Olivar, suddenly becoming more passionate. "I call heem Capitan because that ees what he ees, no matter if he likes it or not." He shook his head again, vigorously. "Any other man calls heem that, that man ees dead - or only mostly dead, if he ees young."
Brooklyn flinched slightly at this, and decided not to pursue that line of conversation any longer.
They finished washing the dishes in silence, then Olivar began to roll out some previously made dough, dividing it into a number of balls, which he placed in a pan over the fire to bake. At the smell which wafted up from the food, the rust-colored gargoyle's stomach complained loudly. The cook chuckled good-naturedly. "Your stomach, eet knows a good meal when eet sees one."
Slightly embarrassed, Brooklyn rubbed his belly. "I haven't eaten in a while," he explained dryly.
Still smiling, the old Mexican left the fire and went to the wagon. He returned with two empty crates, which he placed in front of Brooklyn. "Seet!" he commanded, and the gargoyle obeyed. Thereafter, he was poured a steaming cup of coffee, which he downed gratefully.
He hung the cup on the accommodating rack, and sat back to watch Olivar sip at his own. "You're probably wondering what I am," he said at last.
Olivar grinned. "I would be a liar eef I deed not tell you eet has crossed my mind."
"Well, like you said, I'm not a demon. My kind are called 'gargoyles.'" Seeing the man's blank look, he scratched his head of snow-white hair, searching for words. He now attempted to recall every western movie he had ever gone to see with Broadway, searching for something that the man would understand. "Here," he began. "You've seen churches, right?"
The man nodded.
"Then you've seen the stone carvings - the angels and other things?"
Again the man nodded.
Brooklyn stood, presenting himself to Olivar for viewing. "Well," he said, "Don't I look kind of like some of those carvings? - Gargoyles!"
At last, the light dawned on Olivar. "Si! Si, senor!" he exclaimed, eyes brightening. "Thees I know! But-" he squinted, now suspicious. "They are not real - eet ees a curse?"
The gargoyle shook his head. "No, no. Some of us are real, but not all. We live all over the world. During the day, we turn to stone, so you can't tell."
The old man's eyes widened in wonder. "I see many strange theengs in my life," he said, "and you are not the strangest. But you are strange."
Brooklyn chuckled, and noticed the biscuits were turning a delicious golden color. "Hey," he said, pointing, "Are those ready?"
* * *
The first drovers to enter camp after rounding up the herd came with drawn, cocked pistols. Olivar waved them away, unconcerned as he served up biscuits and some sort of stew into the half-bowls, half-plates that served as dishes. "Thees ees Brooklyn - he ees a gargoyle," he announced knowingly. Then, more deliberately, he said, "He ees a friend of el Capitan."
At this, the wary men came slowly into the firelight, guns still drawn, but lowered slightly.
Brooklyn, though he didn't exactly appreciate it, understood the fear that humans felt initially at the sight of gargoyles. He was forced to admit that these men were faring exceptionally well, and he could only attribute it to the faith they had in their boss. He stood, showing his palms in a gesture of peace. "Uh, hi," he said, inching towards the man nearest him. He turned his hand and offered it to the drover, who narrowed his eyes, but took it limply. The gargoyle searched for something to say that would break the silence, and kicked himself mentally when he blurted out, "Sure is hot, huh?"
The cattlemen glanced at each other for a moment, as if puzzled. Then, in unison, the group burst into a hearty roar of laughter. Unbeknownst to Brooklyn, the heat had been the single most discussed topic for the last three days, and he had just shown himself to be part of the group by mentioning it. Slightly dazed, his jaw slackened as the man gripping his hand released it and slapped him on the shoulder.
"Whur y' from?" he questioned jovially.
"Uh, New York."
This reply set off another wave of laughter as the men attempted to imagine the creature before them walking down city streets. "Here, friend," offered the drover, shoving a plate of stew at his chest. Olivar had been passing them around as the crew gawked at the new guest.
"Thanks. The name's Brooklyn."
Introductions were in order all around. When they had finished, the group broke up, some sitting by the light of the fire (though not close enough to add its heat to their sweltering bodies) to eat their meals, and some milling around, setting out their saddle rolls for the night or leaving for the remuda to tend their horses. Brooklyn, who crouched with the others to eat his meal, wondered in passing where the two drovers he had first come in contact with had gone, as he had not yet seen them at camp, then realized that someone had to tend to the herd at night.
Momentarily, conversation lagged. Brooklyn looked up and found the cause to be Cord, returning from whatever darkness he had retreated to. Some distance behind him trailed a small boy; the gargoyle judged his timid, dirty face to be about nine. He skirted around the edge of camp to get to the chuck wagon, as far away from Cord as was possible without leaving the light. Olivar, gathering dishes, passed a hand over the boy's unkempt hair and treated him to a friendly insult. The boy smiled and dished himself a meal, all the while attempting vainly to cast sideways glances at Brooklyn. At last, the old cook finished for the moment and dragged the boy over to the gargoyle.
"Thees is Brookleen," he said, and promptly shuffled back to his work.
The boy stood, frozen before the terrifying form that was Brooklyn. The gargoyle smiled and chuckled lowly, taking the boy's plate before his arm relaxed completely and it spilled onto his boot. "Hi," he said. "What's your name?"
"Billy," said the boy automatically, wide-eyed.
"Do you have a job around here?"
"Olivar lets me tend th' remuda. I like horses."
"That's good." The gargoyle glanced up briefly to see the two missing drovers approach the camp. "Hey, just a minute," he said, handing both his and the boy's plates to Billy. He went to the men quickly, before they had time to shoot, and stuck a hand out, as seemed to be the proper thing to do. "Hello," he said. "My name's Brooklyn. Your boss said you headed off the stampede earlier tonight, so I, uh, wanted to thank you for saving my life."
The taller drover took a step backwards in surprise. He and his companion had been guessing all night as to what his boss had done with the strange creature they had found, but bringing him into camp was not something he had considered, let alone the fact that it could talk. He stared at it, finding himself at a loss. Then, he heard the mocking laughter of his comrades in the background, and looked up to find that it was directed at him.
"You look skeert as a bunny rabbit, Cody," called one, and a newly refreshed chorus of laughter burst out like an explosion in the still night.
The young trailhand set his jaw and narrowed his eyes; he was not about to be made out as a coward in front of anyone, least of all his friends. Almost viciously, he took the gargoyle's hand and shook it vigorously. "Cody Stanton," he drawled. "No thanks needed. Just doin' my job."
"Well, listen, if you need anything, I'd be glad to do you a favor in return."
Behind them, little Billy piped up. "Take Cora!" he offered enthusiastically. "I want my bed back!" The crew clapped and affirmed this request with a variety of comments.
Brooklyn looked at him, slightly confused. "Cora?"
Cord materialized, emerging from where he had been standing in the shadow of the chuck wagon. Before Brooklyn realized what had happened, he was escorted by the trail boss to a position beyond the firelight. He did not speak, sensing that the man would answer his questions when he wished.
"Last month," he began slowly, his deep voice quieted, "We stopped over at a town. While we were there, I ran into and old friend, one to whom I owed a favor. ...Cora was with him. He had promised to take the girl to a town by the name of Half-Dollar, just west of here, but he had taken sick and wouldn't be able to complete the journey for some time. I took the girl."
"...And you want me to take her the rest of the way," finished Brooklyn.
"You'd be doing the men more of a favor than you'd be doing me," he stated plainly. "She... doesn't get along with them, and they'll be glad to see her leave. With the cattle, it will take us another week to get to Half-Dollar. But flying-"
"Gliding," he ammended, "It shouldn't take more than a day and a half. She is bound for the Jameson Ranch, just outside of town."
There was a silence, and Brooklyn got the idea that Cord was not the kind of man used to asking for things, so he said finally, "All right, I'll do it. Uh, one question," he added. "Where is she?"
"In the wagon."
"The wagon?" repeated Brooklyn incredulously. He could not imagine why anyone would want to bottle themselves up in there for any length of time; with all the equipment and supplies, being in there had to be like being in a closet - at Elisa's place, not the castle. "Why?"
"I put her there."
Brooklyn's mouth fell open, both in surprise and disgust. "You- keep her in-"
"Will you take her, or not?" interrupted the man in a voice that was a savage growl.
The rust-red gargoyle was taken aback. "Uh, yeah. Sure. I guess." He cringed slightly, finding himself ridiculously afraid of this man with the patch over his eye.
Cord turned and strode purposefully back to camp, without waiting for Brooklyn. As the gargoyle trailed hesitantly after, he heard that same sharp voice saying, "Cody! Get her out."
* * *
Back in camp, Brooklyn soon found that Cord had his reasons for keeping the girl, Cora, in the wagon. There was a flurry of activity, and then a small, dirty ball of flying hair and limbs hurtled itself around a startled Cody and made for the darkness beyond. Before the gargoyle could make a move to help, there was a grunt, and Cord had her by the arm as she passed by. She struggled and made frustrated noises, kicking at him furiously, but the man's iron grip did not loosen. At last, she sank to the ground, exhausted, her one arm yet hanging limply from the trail boss's hand. Now that she had stopped moving, the gargoyle could see her clearly. The fair-skinned girl wore a tattered dress that had once been white, and her light hair hung in her eyes, uncut and unwashed. From head to toe, she was covered in dirt. Her lower lip stuck out determinedly as she pouted, but at last she conceded a look upward, and was met with Brooklyn's confused face.
Immediately, the girl gave a small yelp, startled, and began pulling at her trapped arm to get away. The snowy-haired gargoyle risked a step forward. "I won't hurt you," he said as gently as he could manage. He could not help but feel sorry for the girl, frightened and seemingly alone. She couldn't be more than fifteen. Glancing upward, he saw Cord's stern face watching them passively.
She looked up, and her face twisted. "Then help me," she demanded.
Brooklyn's brow-ridge lowered. "Are you in trouble?"
Cora jerked her head upward, indicating Cord. "Get me away from him."
"Well, uh," Brooklyn began, confused. Wasn't that what he was going to do? "...All right," he said, glancing cautiously at the man. It was odd to be talking about him as if he weren't there. The trail boss nodded once in approval at his response, so minutely that Brooklyn was barely sure he had. The gargoyle stuffed his questions in the back of his mind, telling himself that he could clear things up with the girl later.
She stood, and shook her arm, attempting yet again to free it. "You can let me go now," she told Cord, disgust filling her voice. "I'm not going to run away." He released his grip, and she backed away sullenly, rubbing her wrist.
"Well," Brooklyn said again. "I... guess we'll be going now..."
"Wait." Cody, who had left the odd scene, now trotted towards the gargoyle, a sizable bundle in his arms. "Here," he said, holding the pile out to Brooklyn. The gargoyle hesitated, then took it, examining it.
"They was Duke's," he explained, a faint shadow of sorrow crossing his face, "-only he won't be needin' 'em anymore. I figger you c'n have'm. I mean," he colored slightly, "You can't go walkin' around like that."
Brooklyn unrolled the bundle to find a pair of chaps and a leather vest. He smiled, appreciative of the gesture. "Thanks," he said, putting them on. Evidently 'Duke' had been a large man - the gear fit perfectly. For a second time, he offered his hand. Cody took it immediately, shook once, firmly, and walked away.
The gargoyle felt an insistent tap on his arm. "What?" he asked, turning to see Cora.
"Are we flying?" she demanded, hands on hips.
"Gliding," ammended Brooklyn. "Go find a big tree."
The girl ran off, eager to be gone. Brooklyn, alone with Cord, had opened his mouth to speak when Olivar came shuffling up. "I weesh you a fine journey," he smiled kindly, handing the gargoyle a pouch filled with biscuits. Brooklyn thanked him politely and attached it to his belt.
"Here!" called Cora, from further off in the brush.
Brooklyn hesitated only for a moment. "Well, uh, goodbye," he said to Cord, putting out a taloned hand. When the gesture was ignored, he dropped his arm awkwardly, and had turned to go when Cord spoke.
"Take care of her," he said, almost gently.
The gargoyle looked back over his shoulder as he moved into the shadows. "I promise," he said.
Cord stared after Brooklyn for a moment with a single, intense eye, until he felt the old cook move at his side. "You weel have to get over her sometime, Capitan," Olivar said softly, not referring to Cora.
Cord looked down at the Mexican over his shoulder. "Go to bed, old man," he whispered roughly.
Olivar smiled sadly. "Eef you were any other men, you would be dead right now. But for you... I go to bed." With that, he shuffled away, shaking his head, and leaving Cord alone in the darkness.
* * *
Cora had not only found the tree, she had climbed it as well. "Come on!" she prodded from up above, spurring the gargoyle to move faster.
"Listen," said Brooklyn when he reached the top of the tree. "Don't you have anything you want to take with you?"
She scowled. "No."
He shrugged. "All right. Here, I'll have to carry you around the waist." She looked at him suspiciously, and he shrugged again. "You'll have to trust me," he said.
"All right," grumble Cora. "Anything to get me away."
She fell obediently limp in his arms, and with a whoosh of air, they were off.
"Wow," she exclaimed after a moment, spreading her arms wide. "This is fun!"
Above, where she couldn't see him, Brooklyn allowed himself a half-smile. At last, she had let down her angry front and was actually enjoying herself. However, his curiosity got the best of him, and he decided to risk destroying her good mood. "Hey," he said, "How come you hate Cord so much?"
She was silent a moment, and Brooklyn could feel her body, hanging from his arms, tense. "I don't want to get married," she said through her teeth. Then, while the gargoyle was attempting to puzzle out her comment, her mood lightened and she said, "So, where are we going?"
"Uh, the Jameson place," responded Brooklyn automatically.
He was not expecting the violent reaction which followed. She struggled in his arms, trying to free herself. "Let-me-go!" she grunted, clawing at his hands.
Brooklyn swooped upward, giving himself enough room to safely be able to catch the girl, should she actually get free. "I don't think you really want me to," he said lowly. She glanced at the ground, far below them, and let herself fall limp once again. "Now," said Brooklyn firmly, "Please explain this to me."
"I thought we were going away!" she whined.
"But - we are, protested the gargoyle.
"The Jameson ranch is not 'away.' It's prison!"
Brooklyn shook his head in confusion. "Start from the beginning," he commanded. "All I know is that I promised Cord I'd take you to Half-Dollar. You wanted to get away from him, so I'm taking you. What's the problem?"
Cora sighed, as if to say, "How stupid can you be?" but began anyway. "I used to live in New York, with my family. Pappa was business partners with a man out west named Harold Waters. We were all supposed to move out west to this ranch they owned together. But Pappa came out before and decided it wasn't fit for six girls yet, - Mamma, me and my four sisters - it bein' so wild and all, and he sold out his share to Mr. Waters. Then, on the way back, the stagecoach Pappa was riding on was robbed, and -" she choked slightly, then went on firmly, determined not to cry. "And Pappa was killed. After that, we were real poor. Starving. Mr. Waters, being a friend of Pappa's, said he had a friend - Jameson - who was looking for a girl to marry his nephew. So-" her voice hardened, and she spoke iron. "So Mamma sold me. Put me on a coach with a man she knew who was heading west. Then he took sick, and gave me to Cord."
Brooklyn winced at the venom in her voice, and mentally glanced over his history. "But - slavery is illegal," he protested.
"Sure, try tellin' that to the law. It's called an 'arranged marriage,' and it's perfectly lawful. So let me go, huh? I can make it on my own. I don't need anyone."
The gargoyle warred within himself for a few moments. Then, "I can't let you go," he said. "You'd never survive by yourself. I only know the way to Half-Dollar, so that's where we're going. Anyway, I promised Cord that I would get you there safely. I can't break my promise."
Surprisingly, the girl was silent, and after a moment, he felt her thin form shaking in his arms. She was crying.
"Listen - I'm sorry-" began Brooklyn.
"That's what he said!" she burst out, wrenching herself suddenly from his grip.
Fortunately, the gargoyle had been prepared for this, and caught her by the leg as she fell. A moment later, she was back in her original position. "Who said?" questioned Brooklyn, completely ignoring the incident.
"Cord! He said he was just keeping his promise. Why?" she questioned. "To preserve his honor? What's his honor worth if he won't save someone's life?"
Brooklyn sighed, torn. He wanted to keep his promise to Cord, but the girl had a point. Yet, where else could they go? He didn't know the country. "Look," he compromised. "It might not be as bad as you think. Where I come from" -he spoke of Scotland- "there were arranged marriages all the time, and most of them seemed to turn out pretty well. People can learn to love each other."
She folded her arms, unconvinced.
"And-" he added, "I promise I won't leave until I know you're safe. All right?"
"All right," she grumbled.
With that, they whispered along silently throughout the rest of the night. At last, Brooklyn glimpsed the first pale light of the sun on the horizon, and began to look for a place to set down. The heat was still suffocating, and he hated to think what it would be like for the girl throughout the day. Straining his eyes, he searched over the now flat landscape for some sign of either water or shade.
At last, just over a small rise which cut off sharply into a small cliff on the far side, the gargoyle located both: a small, leafless tree next to a murky water hole. He sighed, knowing this was as good as it was going to get, and set down.
He released Cora, and, to his surprise, immediately, she began to run away from him. "Wait!" he called, knowing as he did that it was too late. He reached after her even as the first sliver of the sun appeared and clutched with warm yellow arms at his own form, and he froze.
* * *
Brooklyn awoke with a shatter of stone and the familiar feeling that he had just missed the sun. As always, he shrugged the odd sensation away and turned to regard his surroundings. Seeing the vast plain around him, he sighed. "For a moment..." he said aloud to himself, "for just one moment, I thought-"
"Thought what?" came a small, tearful voice from behind him.
Brooklyn turned to see Cora, huddled in a small pile at the bottom of the scrawny tree. He could tell even in the darkness that her face had been burnt by the sun. He stepped over to her, brushing stone fragments from his skin casually. "Oh, nothing. ...It's just lonely being away from home, sometimes. So, you came back."
"So?" she challenged, her tears gone. Cora would have never admitted it, but when she had finally realized the beast was not following her and returned to the water hole, she had thought him dead. The rest of the day she had spent curled up at his feet, crying - at least, until he had begun to shatter. "We're not so different. If you were in my place, you'da done the same. I had to try."
Brooklyn nodded tiredly and went to get a drink. "Sure," he said. "Now, we might as well get going."
"Wait," she said, and followed him down to the murky water. The gargoyle watched in silence as she carefully cleaned herself as best she could, dunking her dirty face and hair into the water and scrubbing with slender hands. "There," she said at last, standing.
"What was that for?" he queried dryly, beginning to climb to the top of the small rise.
"Well..." she said slowly, "I thought maybe you might be right. He might not be so bad after all."
Brooklyn chuckled lowly to himself, careful not to let Cora hear. She would be furious if she knew he found her so amusing. "All right," he said at last. "Let's go."
The raggedly dressed girl scrambled up after him, and they were into the air.
"Hey," she said after a while, "Do you do- that often?"
"What, turn to stone?" Below him, she nodded. "Every day."
Several hours later, a dim speck appeared on the horizon.
"There," indicated Brooklyn as it came into view. "Either that's the Jameson place, or there is no Jameson place. There's nothing else out here."
As they neared, the dot split and formed two distinct regions: the Jameson Ranch and Half-Dollar, the small town. Brooklyn set down in the "front" portion of a field which surrounded the ranch. "We'd better walk," he said, answering Cora's unvoiced questions. "They'll be scared enough of me as it is." He stepped forward, then stopped, feeling Cora's small hand slip into his own. He looked at her oddly.
"I'm... scared," she explained, almost shyly. Her thin voice was no more than a whisper. "I was just mad before, but now that we're here..."
"Don't worry," assured Brooklyn. "If you don't like him, you don't have to stay. I'll help you."
"...Okay. Brooklyn? Thank you."
The gargoyle gave a wry half-smile and hoped everything would be all right. Somewhere inside, a small, lost piece of him rejoiced as he remembered Maggie's fear and rejection when he had once attempted to help her.
About ten yards from the front porch, Brooklyn cleared his throat. "Hello?" he called, then, "HELLO!"
There was a dull thump to be heard from within the house, and a moment later, a bleary-eyed, slightly overweight man in his late fifties stomped out the front door. He was wearing only a pair of long-johns, but loosely slung in his arm was a large rifle. For a moment, he peered into the darkness, then, as his vision cleared, spotted Brooklyn. He growled something to himself and raised the gun.
"Wait!" said the gargoyle, raising his arms to show that he would do nothing. Cora skittered around behind him, hiding. "I'm here on authority of Weston Cord-"
The man cut him off. "Sure, n' I'm Buffalo Bill. I don't know what y' are, but yer trespassin'. Git off my land or die."
"Then I guess you weren't the one expecting a bride for your nephew," Brooklyn returned dryly, beginning to turn. "Come on, Cora. Let's go look for the Jameson place." Cora began to protest as he turned her, but he silenced her with a reassuring look. They walked slowly away, while the man on the porch deliberated silently.
At last, he grunted a resigned sound. "All right," he called, "I'm Jameson. Bring the girl, but make sure y' don't pull anything, or I'll shoot'cha dead."
Brooklyn smiled, shrugged, and turned around. As they walked together to the house, an upper window become suddenly illuminated in the darkness. The gargoyle peered at it for a second, thinking he saw a shape in the window, but then shook his head and resumed heading for the rancher.
Jameson didn't have the slightest clue as to what was stepping up onto his porch with a girl in hand. What he did know, though he would never admit it to anyone, was that he was not a smart man, compared to educated city folk. He could survive out in the wild, for certain, but for all he knew the beast which stood before him might be completely normal in another area. To conceal his ignorance, he decided to play along calmly, though he was still on the wary side.
Inside, Cora stared about wide-eyed, half in fear and half in curiosity about what might one day be her domain. She still wound herself firmly about Brooklyn's arm.
The gargoyle felt the cold touch of the rifle on his back, and stepped forward cautiously into a rather bare dining room, empty save a large, oval table and six crude chairs. "Siddown. We'll git some breakfast," said Jameson roughly. Before leaving for the kitchen, he used the barrel of his rifle to nudge Cora, prompting her to turn his way so that he could view her. "Hmph," he said.
Left to themselves, the girl and the gargoyle obeyed, sitting next to each other. Brooklyn looked at Cora questioningly, and she raised her eyebrows and her shoulders in an undecided manner. "Can't say I blame him for acting suspicious," she whispered. "I mean..." she looked at Brooklyn despairingly, but he nodded.
"Yeah, I understand," he answered lowly. "But I think you're entitled to meet your husband-to-be."
"What's that?" barked Jameson from the next room. His clanging about in the kitchen had stopped momentarily, and he had heard Brooklyn's voice.
"I'd like to talk to the boy Cora's engaged to," spoke up Brooklyn. "Where is he?"
There was a clatter of pots, and the rancher entered the dining room with a steaming pot and four bowls. With a thump, he set the large pot in the middle of the table and tossed a bowl to each of his guests. "Don't know why you'd care," he said, "if you're just supposed to deliver her. She's got here, now you can go. Whatever you are."
Brooklyn looked up disdainfully, serving himself and Cora each a helping of some sort of mush. "I care because she's not property." The gargoyle realized that he had to be careful with this man. If he came out and said that he didn't want her left in the wrong hands, he was asking for a fight; but there was no way he was leaving Cora without being certain she was okay.
"Bought and paid for."
Brooklyn decided to ignore the response. "I'd like to see her fiancée," he said in a final tone.
For a moment, Jameson seemed to consider, then, deciding he didn't want to pick a fight with the creature if he didn't have to, shouted: "JACKSON!"
Immediately, there was a scuffle on the stairway which led upward from the entry, and a lean boy of about eighteen or so emerged from around the corner, head hung. His tousled blonde hair played in sharp contrast to his leathery skin, darkened by the sun. He glanced up nervously, and, seeing Cora, snapped his gaze back down.
The gargoyle guessed that this was whom he had seen in the window when they had first come; otherwise, he couldn't think of an explanation for why the boy wasn't scared out of his wits at seeing him. Deciding after an awkward moment of silence that the only way to get anywhere was to do something himself, Brooklyn stood, pulling Cora with him. "I'm Brooklyn, this is Cora," he stated, holding out a hand. The boy took it, looking with wonder at the gargoyle, but still unwilling to look Cora in the face. Brooklyn suddenly noticed that Cora was no better; shaking his hand, she carefully kept her eyes pinned to the floor.
"'M Jackson," the boy returned.
With that, they seated themselves silently around the dining table, and Brooklyn experienced the most uncomfortable meal of his life. He kept watch on everyone as best he could, to judge how things were going. He was also aware that the situation might be a little more relaxed if he were to leave, but he wanted to be sure Cora was okay.
Jameson's own eyes seemed to be split half-and-half between sizing up Cora and watching Brooklyn suspiciously. The gargoyle watched him back, and decided that he did not like the man at all, especially from the way he was looking at Cora. But then, Cora would not be marrying Jameson.
Brooklyn had made sure that Jackson and Cora sat together. Over small, quick spoonfuls of mush, they snuck quick glances at each other, testing the water. At last, chance had it that they both looked up at the same time, and, faces reddened, they stifled nervous giggles. Hesitant to break the ominous silence provided by Jameson, they whispered, smiles widening at every word. Brooklyn knew it was a match, and smiled slightly.
At last, Jameson sat back in his chair and cleared his throat. The young couple silenced. "Well," he announced, "I guess come mornin' me n' Cora'll go t' town and git us some weddin' clothes."
For a moment, there was a dead silence. Cora gripped Jackson's arm in alarm.
The snow-haired gargoyle stood, attempting to give himself the most threatening air possible. "Cora is going to marry Jackson," he stated.
"Don't know why," answered Jameson in a slow, mocking tone. "I'm the one decided t' git him a wife. I guess I can change my mind if I want." His voice seemed to dare Brooklyn to challenge him.
Brooklyn paused for a moment, preparing his argument. "Cora's mother was under the impression she was going to marry your niece. So was Weston Cord. Neither of them knew a thing about her marrying you. Cora will marry Jackson."
"We'll see about that." Before Brooklyn could move, he found the barrel of a rifle pressing against his chest.
"Whoa," he said, raising his hands. "Hold on a sec."
"Git out the door or I'll shoot'cher friend, girl," growled Jameson.
Cora obeyed quickly.
"Now..." mused the man, his adrenaline pumping. "You jes' sit tight there and don't think about comin' after us." At his own comment, he seemed to consider. "On second thought," he ammended, "I don't like the thought of you havin' a pair 'a wings to come after us on. Jackson, git some rope."
Brooklyn glanced at the boy, whose head was hung. He shuffled shamefacedly up the stairs to, evidently, secure some rope for his uncle. "Don't let him do this to you, kid," called Brooklyn. "He knows you're scared and that's why he can- omph!" Brooklyn grunted as the barrel of the rifle struck him square-on in the stomach.
"Shut up or I might not be s' nice."
"Yeah, right," grumbled Brooklyn lowly, rubbing his stomach. He had no doubt he had received a large bruise for his words.
After a few minutes, Jameson began to get edgy. "JACKSON!" he hollered.
"No," stated a slow, firm, and very determined voice.
Jameson spun to see Jackson at the bottom of the stairs, pistol in hand. Given his chance, Brooklyn lunged, ripping the rifle from the rancher's grip and taking the man to the ground with a grunt in one movement.
Jameson struggled until Brooklyn pinned his arms behind his back. "All right, kid," the gargoyle said through his teeth, "give me the gun - and this time, really get the rope."
"Sure." As Brooklyn stood, pulling Jameson up with him, he took the gun from the boy, who ran upstairs again, and held it to the man's back.
"You move, I shoot," he said. "I like it a lot better, switched around this way. How do you feel about it?"
Jameson provided Brooklyn with nothing but a sullen silence.
"That's what I thought. Oh- here, kid, tie his hands. Turn around, Jameson," he explained as if he were talking to a small child, "so Jackson can tie your hands behind your back." Brooklyn glanced out the window to see Cora staring in, eyes wide. He also saw the first lights of the rising sun. "Uh-oh," he said. He reached to hold out the gun, saying, "Take thissss..."
* * *
When Brooklyn awakened, he was greeted with the muffled cries of Jackson, bound and tied to a chair. He sighed and cut the boy loose with a swipe of claws.
Jackson shrugged off the ropes gratefully and ripped the gag from his mouth. "He took her!" he exclaimed, chest pumping up and down. "I - we have to get her. That is, if you'll help me."
"I was in it from the beginning, kid."
"Don't call me kid," he said stubbornly. "Jack's what people usually call me. Other than 'kid,' anyway."
"No problem." Brooklyn half smiled - evidently the kid - Jack, he corrected - had found his courage and was in no way reluctant to use it. "Come on, we'll get her back."
"Wait." The tall boy ran from the house, and Brooklyn followed more slowly. He disappeared into a barn and returned a moment later with another, older-looking pistol and a horse.
"You won't need the horse," called the gargoyle, sizing up the young man's lean figure. "I can carry you."
Jack shoved the gun under his belt and trotted back to the gargoyle. Without preamble, Brooklyn grabbed the boy around the waist with one arm and lugged him to the top of the two-story house. Jack expressed no fear, and if he was afraid, he was in too much of a hurry to show it as they leaped from the building.
"So what does Jameson think?" queried Brooklyn as soon as they were on their way towards town. "-About me."
"I'm not really sure he thinks anything. When he saw what happened to you, he took the gun, Cora, and a horse and headed for town as fast as he could." With this last, a hint of worry crept into Jack's urgent voice. "I hope he hasn't - I hope they haven't- I mean-" he broke off, unable to say the words.
"Yeah, I know what you mean. But don't worry, we can get it annulled if they have."
Below, Jack nodded and regained composure. "I- never thought I'd like her," he said. "Jameson just came to me one day and said I needed a wife, so he got me one, but I never really wanted to get married."
"She was in pretty much the same situation. I'm glad you guys turned out to be a match. I'm not sure what I would've done if you hadn't," he added under his breath.
"So, um, what did happen to you?" asked Jack.
"I turn to stone during the day. It heals me, so most of the time it's a plus, but sometimes it can be a real pain, you know?"
"Uh, I guess."
"You're not from around here," Brooklyn stated, suddenly noticing the lack of drawl in his voice. "You're a city kid, like Cora."
"Yeah. Influenza killed my parents when I was nine, and I had to move out here with my uncle. He used the money my parents had left me to buy the ranch, and I've been... serving him ever since." These last words were spit out with venom, as if anger bottled up for years was finally being let out. "But I won't do it any more. With just me, it's fine, I don't care. But I won't let him do it to Cora."
"That's the right attitude, ki- Jack. When this is over, marry her and don't ever let her slip away. I was only with her for a couple of days, and I know she's special already."
"I was only with her for a few hours and I know."
What are you doing? Brooklyn asked himself. Every romance you've ever attempted has been a flop, and you're advising a kid on what to do to get married? He shook his head, but did not regret his statement. Sure, he was no good at falling in love, not to mention staying there. But he knew what it was, what it meant.
There had been silence between them for a few moments, when Jack spoke. "So... you really know Weston Cord?"
Brooklyn's brow-ridge lowered in slight confusion. "Yeah... so?"
"So he's only the biggest legend that's ever been!"
"What?" Something wasn't connecting.
"Sure!" exclaimed the young man with almost childish delight. "He disappeared a few years back. Nobody really knows what happened to him, but some say he runs a cattle drive to Abilene."
"Well, that fits..." Brooklyn trailed off. He didn't understand - Cord, some kind of hero? He wondered why it didn't seem to fit, then remembered that Macbeth hadn't exactly turned out to be the equivalent of his own legend. "Tell me more."
Jack took a deep breath, preparing to tell a well-worn tale. "Well, he was a captain back east, the kid of a rich southerner. He fought for the south in the war, killed a bunch of Yankees and saved a whole troop of his men to boot. After the war was lost, he went home, but the yanks had burned his family out. So he came west and joined the Texas Rangers. They say he never really joined, but they paid him anyway because he could out-shoot and out-track any man ever was, even the Indians. There's lots of stories about what he did then, but I don't have time to tell you. Anyway, they say he got into a mess with a bunch of Comanches who burned out a whole tribe of Kickapoo. They say there was only one survivor, a half-breed Kickapoo girl. ...They say he fell in love.
"After that, he took her and went east again to make a life for them together. But in the battle with Comanches, he had killed the only son of the old Indian chief. Now that the old man didn't have any son to pass his leadership to, the only thing left for him was revenge, I guess. So, he followed Cord and captured them. Cord got away and eventually killed the chief and his braves, but not before the girl was killed. After that, he pretty much disappeared. You hear things about him now and then, but mostly people just tell stories about when he was with the Texas Rangers or fighting the war."
"Hmm..." Brooklyn mused. Things were beginning to drop in place, and the strange behavior of the trail boss now made more sense, especially the enmity between him and Cora. "Did the Indian chief do anything to Cord while he had him?"
"Well, some stories say he killed the girl in front of Cord because it was the thing that would hurt him most, like he had been hurt by his son's death. Then, the chief took Cord's eye so he would always remember what he had seen."
"Ugh. Nice. Well, it was the real Cord, all right. He wore a patch- whoa. I almost forgot," he interrupted himself, descending suddenly through the night air. "We better land here, that way you can walk into town and check things out before I have to go in. How does that sound?"
"Good," grunted Jack as he fell a couple feet to the ground. Brooklyn circled once, doubling back, and landed himself.
"All right. See that barn?"
"Yeah, that's the stable."
"Horses? Great," muttered Brooklyn. He hated horses. "Anyway, I'll be in there."
"Shouldn't take me more than ten minutes - this town's so small news travels like wildfire."
"All right, go on."
With that, Jack loped off silently towards the little one-street town, and Brooklyn made his way stealthily for the stables. Inside, Brooklyn cursed his choice as the horse nearest him whinnied in alarm, catching a hint of the gargoyle's scent. Quickly, he scaled the none-too-sturdy wooden wall and made himself comfortable in the loft.
It was no more than three minutes later when Jack approached. "Brooklyn?" he called softly, staring uselessly into the pitch-black room.
"Up here," called the snowy-haired gargoyle.
Jack stumbled blindly to a ladder which he knew from memory was there, and managed at last with a minimal amount of clunking to reach the top. Up in the loft, he ceased his fumbling, as moonlight shone dimly through an open window. "All right," he whispered excitedly. "The preacher was out visiting the sick today, so he won't be back before tomorrow afternoon; they didn't marry! Meanwhile, Jameson's got her in the saloon next door- you probably heard it. Anyway, he's playing cards with some other guys, but he's got a hold on Cora."
"Listen," said Brooklyn. He had been thinking. "Don't you have some sort of... sheriff?"
"Oh, sure," snorted Jack. "But you won't get any help from him."
"We should at least try. I'll go. Maybe he'll do something if I... persuade him. ...Do you have a better idea?"
"Well, no," the boy admitted.
"It's settled, then. You find someplace where you can watch Cora and make sure she's okay. I'll get the sheriff."
"Good luck," Jack returned, an eyebrow raised. "Three places down on the other side of the street."
* * *
Looking into the "sheriff's" bleary eyes, Brooklyn came to the conclusion that Jack had been right. But he had to try.
"Look," he said, "There's a girl who's gonna be forced to marry Jameson tomorrow, and she doesn't want to. Right now she's being held hostage at the saloon."
The underweight man wearing the silver star on his chest worked his mouth dryly several times and reached again for his bottle of whiskey. "Been done b'fore," he dead-panned.
"But this time, you're gonna do something about it," commanded Brooklyn, jaw clenched. He pushed the bottle another few inches away from the man's hand and grabbed him by the collar. "Right?"
"I go in there, I might get killed."
"Isn't that a risk you take when you put on the badge?"
"Don't argue with me. Gimme that!" he snatched at the bottle, and, this time, secured it. He held it protectively to his chest.
Brooklyn growled menacingly, showing both fangs and talons. His eyes glowed, illuminating the dim room more than the single lantern which sat on a nearby cabinet.
"Agh, you don't scare me," the sheriff declared brashly. "I know I hallucinate; nothin' I see surprises me. S' don't bother trying."
"I. Am. Not. A. HALLUCINATION!" roared Brooklyn. He slammed his jaw shut on the last syllable, suddenly aware that he didn't need to have the whole town come running to see what the matter was.
The sheriff nodded amiably and murmured a conceding agreement.
"I'm serious!" Brooklyn hissed, attempting one last time to rouse the latent sheriff.
"Come back later," mumbled the drunk, taking a swig of the bottle. "Maybe I'll feel up to it then."
Brooklyn snorted in disgust and exited.
* * *
"Back so soon?"
"So he wasn't as noble as I imagined. What's happening?" They crouched together in the dusty crevice beneath the wood plankings of the sidewalk, peering up through the cracks at the gaily lit windows of the saloon above. Jack had found a vacated knothole, and was peering through it.
"Not much," he murmured softly. "He's got her in a new dress - red - and has her sitting on his knee while he plays cards."
There was a distant chorus of laughter from the men at the game table, and suddenly a slightly-out-of-tune upright plunked to life, sounding like a row of glasses being played with a spoon. A voice rose over the men's laughter; a very familiar voice. "Hey - I know that voice," puzzled Brooklyn as the tune of the pianist unfolded clearly in their ears. The melody differed, but the source was clearly the same.
"Why has thy merry face Gone from my side, Leaving each cherished place Cheerless and void?
"Why has the happy dream, Blended with thee, Passed like a flitting beam, Sweet Lau - ra Lee?"
Brooklyn found tears in his eyes. "Here," he said. "Let me look." Jack moved aside, and Brooklyn peered with one eye through the knothole. In a moment, he took in the gambling table and the men surrounding it, along with a very angry-looking Cora on Jameson's knee. At last, his gaze found the piano. There were several women clad in bright, showy gowns crowded around it, so for a moment he could not clearly identify the player. At last, one of the women moved reluctantly aside, called by another man across the room. As she left, she ran her hand smoothly through the golden-brown hair of the smiling - Cody?
The gargoyle blinked, and looked again. His eyes were not deceived - it was the ramrod. But what was he doing in Half-Dollar? He couldn't be with the herd, Cord had said it would be at least a week. He must have been sent ahead, for mail or supplies. With sharpened eyes Brooklyn surveyed the room again, and was able this time to pinpoint several familiar faces he knew from the group of drovers. "Look," he whispered urgently to Jack. "The man at the piano. I got Cora from a herd a ways east of here, and some of the men are here now, in the saloon. If there's a fight, I'm sure they'll side with me."
"Good, because the rest of them are Jameson's ranch hands, or friends of his," returned Jack.
"Wonderful." He counted quickly. "At least we should be about evenly matched. But maybe we're going to far. If we walk in there, Jameson might give her up."
"I wouldn't count on it. He doesn't give in to any man - and I'm pretty sure that rule applies to you as well."
"Nice to know I'm included for once, anyway. Ready?"
Jack pulled the gun from his belt and checked the bullets once. He bit his lip. "Yup."
Brooklyn saw the nervousness in the boy's eyes. "Don't worry," he said. "If we're lucky, no one will get hurt. If we're not, it'll be in self-defense. Just remember Cora's in there- and our goal is to get her out."
Jack nodded sharply, and they ducked out from under the walk. They strode, side by side, up the stairs, without bothering to dust themselves off. At the sight of the gargoyle, half of the population of the bar acquired shocked expressions and drew pistols. The other half broke into grins and crowded to greet the gargoyle. Those now bearing guns looked puzzled and holstered them, not willing to shoot through a mob of rowdy drovers to wound the monster.
Brooklyn put up a hand, silencing the excited crowd. "Not right now, guys," he said. He pointed to Jameson, who had frozen with his large hand firmly enclosed around Cora's arm. She struggled, but could not get away. "I brought Cora, but that's not who she's supposed to marry - although he'd like to think he is."
The lean ramrod stood from his place at the piano bench, and the women surrounding him clustered behind his back, giggling and twittering nervously. "You want her back?"
"No," interrupted Jack. "I want her back, because I'm going to marry her."
"You don't have a say in the matter, boy," growled Jameson. "She's mine."
Cody was now standing next to Brooklyn, his flock of women shrugged off. "Gee, sorry," he apologized softly. "We'd 'a done something earlier if we knew, but she just always looked unhappy-"
"That's okay," the gargoyle interjected, watching the entire scene carefully. He saw one of Jameson's friends edging around towards Jack, and was about to alert him when Cody yelled, "DUCK!"
Brooklyn obeyed instinctively, feeling a whoosh of air as the ramrod's fist passed through the space in which his head had been. A moment later, a man which he had not noticed coming up behind him slumped against the wall.
There was a chorus of excited yelps from the drovers, and pandemonium broke out. Guns were forgotten; in this kind of fight, it was instinctively recognized that if weapons of higher caliber than the fist were used, every last man would wind up dead. Instead, tables, chairs, and walls were utilized for the purposes of defeating the opposition.
Brooklyn found himself to be a prime target among those allied to Jameson, being the most easily recognized in the saloon, and found himself thrashing back and forth to throw men surprisingly inexperienced in the art of hand-to-hand combat from his back, tail, and arms. Within a few minutes, he had knocked out half of the opposition's fighting force.
The bartender, dismayed at the wreckage which was being made of his establishment, groaned and ducked behind the bar as various inanimate - and animate - objects flew his way. On the other side of the bar, completely oblivious to the ruckus, sat a man, carefully pouring golden- brown liquor into a shot glass out of a half-empty bottle. At the opposite end of the bar, Cody struggled on the losing side with an exceptionally large man. At the moment, his hands were around the drover's neck, pressing him over the edge of the bar. "Whiskey," croaked Cody, arms flailing.
The drunk looked up. "Oh..." he mused. "Certainly." He slid the bottle down the bar, and Cody caught it. Immediately, the bottle was smashed over his opponent's thick skull, and the giant went down.
"Thanks," nodded Cody, rubbing his neck, and he was back into the fray.
The disheveled man looked dimly surprised, but reached confidently over the bar and helped himself to a new bottle.
Jack surveyed his situation. He had been struggling valiantly to make his way over to Jameson and Cora, and had been partly successful. No one seemed to view the thin boy as much of a threat, so he hadn't been assaulted much, but it was also a challenge to get through the mess. Now, the fight was beginning to wind down, and he saw happily that the drovers seemed to be winning. At about ten feet from his destination, his eyes widened in horror: Jameson pulled a gun, and held it to Cora's head.
"No!" yelled Jack, in spite of himself. "Don't do it, please!"
With this, most of the remaining fistfights died down. The crowd backed away, all eyes now focused on Jack and Jameson rather than who they had been fighting.
"Drop your weapon," commanded the rancher coolly.
Jack looked down at his hand, surprised to see the weapon still clutched there, unused. He let it clatter to the floor. "Just don't hurt her," he said.
Jameson began to back up, pulling Cora with him and glancing quickly to make sure he was judging the position of the back door correctly. In an instant, the girl took advantage of her situation. She stomped on his foot, then shoved her elbow deep into his gut. He groaned in pain and released her. She ran quickly to Brooklyn, who hugged her tightly. "Good girl," he said.
The rancher had released Cora, but the gun was still firmly gripped in his palm. He and Jack faced each other in the center of the saloon, now more of a garbage heap than a place of business.
"You wanted to beat me?" he hissed. "Well, here's yer chance. You just try'n reach for that gun, and we'll see who puts a bullet in the other faster. Well - go ahead, reach, or I'll shoot anyway." He laughed. "I may not get the girl, but I'm not gonna let you get the better of me. Not as if you could," he added in a mocking voice.
Jack's face reddened in anger, and he lunged for the weapon - he didn't care anymore. Jameson had kept him bottled up for years on that ranch, buying things for himself with his brother's money while Jack tended to the horses, or cleaned the house. Now, he simply did not care. Cora was safe, and he wasn't going to back down from Jameson any more.
There was a shot, and Jameson's gun jerked to the floor, five feet away from him. The rancher looked at his empty hand in surprise, then looked up at the equally surprised face of Jack. The boy held his own weapon loosely in his palm - and it had not gone off. He dropped it.
"Y- you can't shoot that good," stammered Jameson, for once at a loss.
"No," half-rumbled a deep voice. "But I can."
The tall, dark figure that was Weston Cord let the swinging doors snap back behind him, coming fully into the saloon. Boots thumping purposefully on the floorboards, he walked straight past Jack, across the expanse of the saloon, until he stood just inches away from Jameson. He looked down at the man intensely with his single burning eye, but spoke to Jack. "Pick up the gun, boy," he said. When Jack, frozen in shock, did not respond, he repeated himself. "Pick up the gun."
Jack obeyed, and stood awkwardly, waiting.
Jameson, sensing death and realizing he had nothing to lose, reached up impossibly and tore the patch from Cord's eye.
The trail boss did not flinch, holding his gaze with the other man for another long moment. When at last absolute fear floated in the foreground of Jameson's own eyes, Cord stepped past him, into the dim shadows of the back of the saloon. He turned at last, his face shadowed; Jameson alone had witnessed whatever lay behind the black cloth, still lying on the floor.
"Reach for it," commanded Cord, then again, more harshly. His voice acquired a dangerous, low tone. "Reach for it."
"N-no," stuttered Jameson, completely unnerved. "P-please..."
"Boy," Cord addressed Jack. "Shoot when you want." Brooklyn, watching with Cora from the side, could not be sure, but Cord's voice seemed to become more taut; strained, almost.
Jack raised the gun, anger flaring in his eyes. He could do it, he knew. He should do it, for all Jameson had done to him. He cocked the pistol, and aimed, looking into Jameson's frightened eyes.
Jack lowered the gun. "I can't," he said. "I'm sorry. Just - just get out," he told his uncle disgustedly. "Go and never come back."
Slowly, realizing that he was not to die, Jameson backed towards the far exit. Three feet from it, he turned and ran, like the coward that he was. Jack breathed a sigh of relief. In the shadows, Cord did the same. The boy had made his choice - a choice that no one else could have made for him, and he had chosen correctly.
The dark man took a slow step forward towards the light, head down, moving to retrieve his eyepatch.
Before Brooklyn knew what was happening, Cora had wriggled from his arms and scampered over to the center of the room. She bent quickly and secured the small piece of cloth, then stepped over to Cord carefully, holding it out to him. He took it, and for a moment, raised his face to the girl before securing the band around his head. She smiled; not the shocked expression he had expected. "Thank you," she said quietly, and retreated before he had time to consider answering.
Brooklyn, Cora, Jack, and Cody soon found themselves drifting out into the street with the rest of the triumphant drovers. Jack, Cora clinging tightly to his arm, shook hands with Brooklyn, then introduced himself to and thanked Cody.
"Don't mention it," he drawled. "Th' boys are always lookin' t' git into a good fight anyway."
"Well," joked Jack, "I'll be sure to invite you all the next time it happens."
Cora released her grip on Jack, and went to Brooklyn. "Thank you, too," she told him quietly. "For everything." Quickly, she stood on her tiptoes and, taking the gargoyle's face in her hands, kissed him on his rather large beak. If it were possible, Brooklyn reddened beyond his natural rust color.
"Yeah," agreed Jack. "Listen - I think we'll be staying at the ranch, for a while anyhow, and we can always use a good hand. You could-"
"Thanks, but no," interrupted Brooklyn, smiling. Suddenly, he felt the Phoenix gate, in the pouch on his waist, begin to prod him gently into the stream of time. "Maybe next time I pass through, I'll take you up on that offer," he called through a ball of flames, regretting that he had not the time to tell Cora how much he had appreciated the short kiss.
Alone in the street, the three remaining companions looked at each other, startled.
"Any time," answered Jack to empty air.
"Why do I think folks round here'll be talkin' about this for a looong time?" mused Cody. Dusting off his hat, he headed back towards the saloon- and the piano.
* * *
Silently, Cord led his horse from where he had tied it out to the edge of town. It was considerably worn out from the run between the Jameson ranch and Half-Dollar; unable to rest until he had made certain that his promise of seeing Cora safely to her destination had been fulfilled, Cord had left the herd to check on things. Finding Cora - and everyone else - absent, he had ridden as hard as his horse would allow to the town, and there stumbled into the scene in the saloon.
Though the horse was tired, he did not want to stay in town for the night, among people, while it rested; neither did he want to wear it out any further by attempting to ride it back to the herd. So, he walked it slowly out of town.
Suddenly, the dull sound of running footsteps thumped into being behind him. He turned to face a neatly-dressed man whom had most definitely not been in the saloon during the altercation. "Sir, sir!" called the man breathlessly as he approached. "Sir, I am the mayor of Half-Dollar. I saw you in the saloon tonight, and was very impressed."
Cord bored into the man with his gaze.
"What I mean is - I was wonder- Would you, perhaps, consider taking the position of sheriff in our town?" He waited, but Cord was silent. Nervously, the small man began to ramble. "I - I can assure you the job offers better money than trail bossing does, and considerably more comfort..."
Cord remained silent, but not because he was angry. He was considering. Maybe old Olivar was right - he would never forget the one woman he had loved, and he would never love again, but hiding from his reputation might not be the answer. He had seen tonight that he could intimidate those who would do others harm simply because of who he was - might he not use that to help others from suffering the same fate he himself had been dealt? Maybe, someday... After a moment, he answered quietly, "Perhaps another day... Right now, I have a herd to move."
With that, Weston Cord led his horse off into the darkness.