By Jo Anzalone





Elizabeth was just coming out of the barn, wiping her hands on the old apron she wore during chores, when the ground shook beneath her feet. Startled, she looked off in the direction of the small town about two miles away. Fireball after fireball lit the horizon as dull booms roared their way across the flat expanse between where she stood and Redemption.

"Benjamin!" she yelled, trying to locate her son.

"I'm up here, Ma!" the seven-year-old boy called down from the loft, his mass of chestnut hair glowing in a mote-filled beam of light.

"You go find Frank," she ordered. "Stay with him till I get back!"  Frank was her lead ranch hand and she knew he was shoeing a horse in the shed that served as a small blacksmith's shop. "NOW, Benjamin!"

Untying her apron, she went back into the barn and saddled Darcey, a mixed-breed mare that bore a strong resemblance to the old Indian pony dozing in the shade at the back of the barn.
She didn't get into town that often, hadn't been there for at least three weeks, in fact. The control John Herod had over the place was distasteful to her and over the years, she tried to make her ranch more and more self-sustaining so she had as little need as possible to go anywhere near the place. Whenever she did go, it seemed Herod went out of his way to be wherever she set foot. She hated his fox-like smile, hated the way his eyes roamed her person.

He wanted her. He'd made no bones about it. Wanted her, wanted her land.

But the whole town seemed to be exploding all at once and she had to find out what was going on. As she rode toward Redemption, she wished again for heaven only knew how many times, that Ben had been here to handle Herod. Someone, some time needed to handle the man. She slowed as she came close to the outskirts of town, picking her way carefully between two buildings that were still standing, then dismounting so she could look down the main street.

The explosions had stopped, but the air was still filled with smoke and bits of floating debris

and ash. Fires licked the remains of five buildings in a row on the left-hand side of the street. Several on the right had been completely blown away, leaving not much more than foundations. What in God's name could have caused something this huge?

A few people were venturing back out, warily crossing the street, mouths agape. The smoke cleared more and she could make out a solitary figure standing at the end toward the fountain. He was turned sideways to her and seemed to be staring intently down at something in his hand. She had no idea who he was. Frank had told her the town was full of gunslingers, here for one

of Herod's stupid contests. He was probably a left-over from that.

She started to turn away when something about the way he held his head, the way his hair hung forward, made her throat go all thick. Walking slowly through the rubble, she came closer to him. He lifted his head, looking almost bewilderedly down the street as though his eyes were trying to follow some form he could no longer see. Why was he just standing there like that? Everybody else was in motion now, running, yelling, pointing, grappling with rubble, looking

in the remnants of buildings. But this man seemed entirely detached from all that, like he was standing someplace far away. Curious, she walked up to within about five feet of him and stopped.

He didn't even appear to notice her, but had let his gaze return to the object in his hand. He turned it over several times with his fingers and she could see that it was a lawman's badge. Interesting. They hadn't had a lawman in Redemption since before her arrival almost eight years ago.

"Mister?" She kept her voice low.

Still he jumped, startled by her presence, and blinked several times as though his vision needed clearing. "You ok, mister?"

When his gaze met hers, she gulped. She hadn't seen eyes like that, not since....

"Sorry," he said. "What did you say?"

"I asked if you were all right."  He didn't really look that all right. He looked quite beaten up, in fact, and utterly weary. When he raised a hand to comb his fingers through his hair, she noticed the wide, raw bands around his wrists that only manacles could make. Those marks alone, could easily brand him as an escaped outlaw, but yet he had the badge in his hand.

"Yeah," he replied absently, his mind still someplace else. "I think maybe I just need to sit down." He saw her then for the first time, really saw her. Large brown eyes were watching

him, eyes filled with compassion, concern, and something unreadable. He stuffed the badge in

a pocket and turned toward the nearest set of steps, his gait unsteady. Sitting heavily on the top step, he buried his face in his hands.

She stood there, watching him, aware she hadn't seen anybody so open with their emotions in a long while. The man was simply not all right. He was battered, yes. That was easily evident from even a casual look at him. But there was more. He was battered inside, too, and she felt a distinct
movement of her spirit toward him.

Her first step toward where he sat was interrupted by a man yelling something. She turned to look and saw someone lying face-down in the dirt street, loose paper currency fluttering nearby. "Herod's dead!" the man was hollering, a definite note of glee in his voice. More people came running, scrambling for the bills skipping here and there in the breeze.

Herod dead? She looked past him to where his huge house had loomed incongruously at the end of the street. Only a bit of the stone steps and foundation remained. What had happened?  She looked back at the man on the steps again. Did he have something to do with all this? If so, he
surely wasn't paying any attention to the results all around him. She thought he was possibly

the she'd ever seen. Nearly magnetically, she found herself drawn to the steps.

"Mister," she tried again. "Is there anything I can get you?"

He lifted his head briefly. "No," he sighed. "There's nothing I need that you could get for me."

Now what did he mean by that? He'd tipped his head back down, his left hand over his eyes, his right resting on his thigh. She was close enough to see that his right hand looked really damaged, as though someone or something had smashed it. "You're hurt."

"It's all right," he said, his voice little more than a hoarse whisper. "I'm fine."

"You are hurt," she insisted. "Your hand...."

"I said I was fine." It was almost an irritated snap, the way he said it. He shifted his body more to the side, away from where she stood. "I'm fine," he repeated.

She stepped so she was in front of him again. "I don't believe that's true."

He wiped his left hand roughly across his face before looking at her again. "Look, ma'am." 

He was struggling for some semblance of politeness. "You've never laid eyes on me before.

What can it possibly matter to you how I am?"

"I don't know," she replied honestly. "Maybe it's because you remind me of someone I...knew

...a long time ago."

"Well, go ask him how he is. How I am can't possibly be of real interest to you."

"Why?" she asked.

"Why?" he repeated, not having expected her to say that.

"Yes, why can't it matter?"

He stared at her, slowly taking in her simple tan homespun dress, the way her long, dark hair had come loose from her nape bun, letting long tendrils blow around her face. He opened his mouth to reply, but suddenly lost his words. He was so tired they just sank back into him and were gone. "I just need to rest, that's all," he managed to mutter.

"And where would that be? Most of the town is in ruins."

For some reason he glanced at the fountain, its many candles now lying scattered in the dirt.

An odd smile quirked the corners of his mouth. "My usual bed seems to have survived quite nicely."

Her gaze followed his to the fountain. Again he'd said something that made no real sense. She studied his face. He was three, maybe four years younger than she was, quite handsome despite the grime and abrasions. And his features reminded her very much of Ben's, or the way Ben's
might have looked in his younger years. Enough so that her heart ached with memories. Her eyes stung suddenly, and she turned her head.

He saw her tears, though, and thought he'd caused them. "I'm sorry, Ma'am. There isn't enough left of me to mind my manners right about now."

"Elizabeth," she said quickly.


"Not Ma'am. Elizabeth. Elizabeth Wade."

"Oh, sorry, Ma'am. Um, Mrs. Wade." He still seemed slightly dazed, but smiled a bit, adding, "Cort, Cortland Wells."

"Are you the new marshal, Mr. Wells?"

His left hand went to his pocket. "No. Maybe. I don't know."

She smiled, moved by his confusion. "Sounds like you've got a lot of thinking to do, Mr. Wells."

He nodded mutely.

"I've got a big bunkhouse about two miles out if you'd care to do your thinking there. You got

a horse?"

He looked past the ruins of Herod's house to his untouched stables. "I know where I could get me one."

"Will you come, then?"


"Why not?" she grinned.

He had no answer for that. So the two of them walked around the debris to Herod's stable.