Xena Alternative Fan Fiction
Murder at Besser Creek
Opening material and occasional interludes contributed by: Mark Alger
Alger and Dolly stuck their heads up, wondering about all the commotion on the raceway outside their offices. Hurriedly tugging their clothes into a slightly lesser level of dishabille, they stumbled out of Alger's office door and into a scene of frantic activity. A crew of uniformed EMTs from the Med Center had an area cleared and a stretcher down next to a seated and very pale Prof. Clotho, who was clutching a bleeding forearm with the other hand. One of the EMTs was reaching for the arm with one hand while the other unreeled gauze bandages from a large roll in her kit. Another had an eye flushing kit out and was gingerly instructing the professor to tilt her head back while she reached with a moist towelette to wipe off a clear, gelatinous substance from Lara's face.
"Lara!" Dolly cried, breaking free of Alger's frantic grab and lunging to the professor's side.
"Ma'am, you'll have to clear away from the patient," the heavier EMT said briskly.
"It's OK," came PatC's voice in overriding command mode as the Med Chief shouldered her way through the crowd. "She can help soothe the patient while you guys work." PatC gestured to Dolly, who knelt behind Clotho and told her to relax against her small but sturdy frame. "Alger," the Doc said, "Can you do something about clearing away this crowd?"
"Sure," Alger said, nodding numbly. He gulped and looked one more time at Lara, wondering what the hell had hit her. Then the responsibility hit him and in hitting him helped stabilize him. "OK, folks. To coin a cliche, the show's over. Everybody back to work." Almost everybody obeyed right away and drifted off at varying rates of speed. In short order there were only a few standees who apparently felt they were privileged characters. Alger knew he'd have to sort out the malingerers and the self-important from the true PC's. He did a quick scan of the dozen or so people standing on the raceway and started moving toward
them, taking elbows and shoulders and ushering those who -- in his judgement -- didn't need to be there. One of those was Callisto Dolly, who shook off his grasp and gave him a dangerous scowl. Judging that she could make more of a scene than it was worth to have to deal with if she were thwarted, he let her stay, tapping Mary on the shoulder and indicating the young Enforcer with a subtle nod. Mary accepted the tacit request to keep an eye on the dolly with an equally subtle touch of a forefinger to the side of her nose.
That done, Alger took up a position out of the way but handy to be able to divert any potential interruptions or further disturbances. He tucked in his shirt and fastened his belt while he was waiting and noted that Dolly looked more rumpled than was her wont and that in her rush to aid Clotho, she'd not had a chance to straighten herself out at all. Her brisk suit was all awry, the silk blouse untucked and half-open, her pants hiked down around her hips, the waistband unhooked and the fly half open, hidden by the tails of her blouse. Her hair was a red-gold cloud of flyaway tresses and her lipstick was smudged a bit. Her stockinged feet, sticking out from under her butt, reminded him that the doll's shoes were under his desk and he ducked back into his office to fetch them out for her, just in case.
As he emerged from his office, he ran into Xe Doll coming up the raceway with a sheaf of papers in her hand, a pencil behind on ear, and a distracted air about her. The tall woman reached behind him to dump the papers into his in-basket and glanced at the tableaux on the tiled floor outside the office. "Gabrielle OK?" she asked, demonstrating her priorities.
"She's fine. It's Lara that's hurt."
"Dunno. It just happened. I don't want to create any idle speculation, but they were wiping slime off of her, so I'd guess she was attacked by a free-moving apparition with a high PK factor and a good slime coefficient."
"Hmm." Xena nodded distractedly. "Well, tell her I asked about her," she said shortly and slumped off the way she'd come.
By which time, the EMTs had the Professor on the stretcher -- protests and all -- and were wheeling her toward the back elevator.
"Alger," Lara called, "Come down and see me as soon as you can. I've got something you need to see."
At the same time, Dolly rushed up and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. "I'm going down to Medical with her. Tell Cally lunch is off. I'll have to take a rain check."
"OK," Alger said. Things were moving too fast for him. All he could do was turn back into his office and try to get his clothing set to rights. He almost got to his desk when he realized he had Dolly's shoes in his hand. He got to the back lobby just as the elevator doors were closing. He held the shoes up questioningly to Dolly, who just shrugged and grinned at him. He sighed and turned back toward his office.
From: LZClotho <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Mark Alger wrote... a really great description of what happened. Guess the thing hit me in the head...
Leaning back against the stretcher, and finding Gab Dolly's hand on mine. I looked up into concerned green eyes. "I guess I scared a few people, huh?"
"Do you have any idea what it was?"
"I have a few ideas... Let me get my head sorted out a bit, and when you and Alger can both be here, I'll see if I can explain."
With that, Clotho closed her eyes and tried to rest and ignore the commotion. The remaining goo residue itched in her hair and she reached up to scratch, only to find her hand intercepted.
"I'll get that for you," Gab Dolly said. "Just relax." And so she did, firmly rubbing out the hardening flecks of goo, and massaging the Dean's temples, until the woman drifted asleep.
From: LZClotho <email@example.com>
It all started innocently enough. After viewing a photograph of an East wedding party, I recognized the son of a family I'd been researching in North Carolina before coming up here to join the Center's faculty.
Lewis Beaufort II was the only son of Lewis Beaufort, and his second wife, Chelle St. Clair Beaufort, of the St. Louis St. Clairs.
Theirs was not a happy marriage and it ended in tragedy, the details of which I am only beginning to uncover, when their son was seven years old.
But this story lies further forward in history. 1867 to be precise.
Lewis II was heir to the Beaufort fortune, the property and funds were held in trust by the plantation's overseer, until he reached his majority. These instructions were per his father's will, executed by the Collier County magistrate in September 1860, following Lewis I's death.
About a year before his majority, in September 1867, young Beaufort traveled to his cousins' wedding up here at the East holdings. He was staying as a guest of the family in the mansion, but following the wedding, unlike most of the guests, he did not immediately depart for home.
The wedding photograph led me to the next clue. Lewis was one of the cadre of attendants escorting the bridesmaids. The young woman on his arm in that photograph is Taylor Covington, of the founding family of Covington, Ohio.
The Covingtons were a well-to-do family, as were most of the families that the Easts knew. And Lewis had several chances during the weeklong wedding preparations, to get to know Taylor.
I uncovered notes the two exchanged through servants during that week and it does appear that the two were very close by the time the wedding rolled around.
There was one letter sent to the overseer at Beaufort, about two weeks into Lewis' stay with the Easts. Torn and aged, it reads in part:
"I think I may have found her, Mister Framp. The woman I would ask to be my wife. Kind-hearted and sweet of face as anything you could imagine, Miss Covington and I went riding again today.
A picnic at a creek on the property is a favorite spot. She is one of Cheryl's maids for the wedding, and brilliant eyes of green shine fresh and beguiling, beneath golden hair. Her face is piquant, beautiful to all who would see it.
I shall bring her home as soon as I have secured her father's permission to marry her.
I know we talked of the estate ere I departed. And I would have you know that you may continue on as overseer, no matter that I will now be making the estate the home it is meant to be.
I long to hear the laughter of children, and the bright face of a woman. No offense to your own kindly visage, sir, but the place sorely lacks the bright sunshine I know Taylor shall bring it."
Lewis asked after many other estate affairs in the letter, but this bit led to a connection with a servant's diary:
"Young Master Beaufort took her out riding with him again to-day. I packaged them a sweet lunch to tempt the mouth. But I suspect very little eating of food will take place. Miss Covington had a fetching blush when I commented last eve about their lack of appetite and the remaining food in the basket they returned. He took her hand and they scampered, as only young people can. To be Young and in Love, ah so, I miss my Edgevar deeply when I see it."
Looks like Lewis and Taylor were enjoying themselves.
It was soon October. And the weather shifted. Next time I was able to find Lewis or Taylor mentioned in the various estate diaries was a comment by Cheryl herself on the occasion of her wedding:
"Lewis, poor dear, looked pale as a ghost. Though he stood up well for my love at the ceremony. There was a pensive look in his eyes and a fear there. When I asked him, in the receiving line, before receiving his traditional buss on the cheek, he pshawed in that darling Southern way of his and said he had not slept well, so anxious was he for the wedding to be a success. I laughed and offered, "Tis a success should the day end with the bride and groom married, and we have done that."
It caused a smile, and then he moved away, his eyes scanning the mingling guests for, I knew, Taylor, one of my girlhood chums now grown and very beautiful. Obviously he is much smitten. Perhaps when I return from my honeymoon I shall find another wedding to attend."
Well, Cheryl never did see him again after that day. Four days later, Lewis was found in Besser Creek, his neck broken and his life ended. There was evidence in the investigation that perhaps Taylor had been there, but no body was ever found. She, too, never returned to the bosom of family after that fateful day.
Murder at Besser Creek Part 2
The Dean settled back further into the pillows, wiping her face in agitation, trying to keep herself awake. She focused on the young, interested eyes of Gab Dolly and smiled faintly as she reached a hand out.
"You should rest," Dolly said.
"Can't. Someone has to know. That's what he doesn't want."
"He? Who? The ghost?"
"The ghost, yes. But a more conniving person never moved through these hills, I promise you." She gestured for the water jug on the nearby table. "Some water, please?"
While Dolly poured, the Dean collected her thoughts. Finally, steeling herself with a long draught, she closed her eyes and then continued her revelations:
"I was able to track down information on two of Lewis' last four days. The evening after the wedding and two afternoons later. The day he died is still much a mystery, but if I could get out to Besser Creek, I think I can determine the events that day as well."
Dolly settled and put on her most interested face. Best to let the dean get it out of her system. Obviously she wasn't going to sleep until she had said some bit of the tale. "All right, I'm listening."
On the evening after the wedding, Lewis dined at the Covington home in Covington. There is a letter by Taylor's mother, to her sister in Groveland, describing him, impressed with his carriage and manners."
"So he secured permission to marry Taylor?"
The dean nodded. "It appears that way. However no notices were posted, no invitations set. That takes time and in very short order both the Covingtons and the Easts were in mourning."
"Because both Lewis and Taylor were dead."
Gab Dolly crossed her arms over her chest and replied, "So you've said. But who?"
"Mister Framp, from North Carolina."
The dean nodded. "The same. I found a series of passenger lists for the train for six days before and after the wedding." She fished in her pocke. Though gooey, she pulled out a half sheet, torn from a ledger. "Framp boarded the C&O line in Raleigh. Destination: Columbus."
"So he was here at the wedding?"
Again, Clotho confirmed the guess with a nod. "He had arrived in town the morning of Cheryl East's wedding."
The dark lanky young man scooped up his tie and settled it around his collar, checking his hair in the long mirror in the corner of his room. The early sun filtered in the sheer drapes, casting an orange glow around the room's decor. The house maid, a little woman of African lineage, sung to herself as she tidied his linen.
"Will that be all, Mister Beaufort?"
Blue eyes studied his reflection in the mirror and then caught her looking and smiled. "That'll be all, Tela. Thank you."
"Will you be joining the house for breakfast, sir?" she asked, pausing at the door with her hand on the knob.
"My stomach's a mess," he confided. "Would you just bring up toast and coffee? I'll nibble here while I write another letter home."
"Yessir, I'll do that." She started to turn the knob, only to feel it already rotating in her hand. The door swung inward and she planted herself between the new arrival and the young man standing by the mirror. "Mister Beaufort's not receiving," she stated flatly.
"He'll see me," came the sharp, deep reply.
Beaufort paused in the task of tying his neckcloth and looked past Tela at the door. "Mister Framp! What a surprise!" The man dropped his hands from his neck and strode quickly to the door, taking Framp's meaty hand in his own, quickly pumping it.
Framp's brown eyes were dulled, his face unsmiling. "Excuse me. You've had a long triFelicity Please, sit down. I am only getting ready for my cousin's ceremony. I won't be but another moment."
Tela looked from Framp, who frowned at her, to Beaufort and asked, "Will your guest be wanting anything, sir?"
"You. Out," Framp replied. "The boy's my responsibility."
Tela carefully schooled her features though she was frowning inside. Briefly she wondered if she should tell her mistress, Cheryl, about Mister FramFelicity Lewis's smile however gave her pause.
"It's all right, Tela. Mister Framp is Beaufort Oaks' overseer." He glanced at the big, muscled man settling on the bed and then back at the maid. "No doubt he has business to discuss."
Tela nodded. "I'll bring your toast and coffee," she said quickly, then backed out the door, eyeing each man one last time before pulling it shut and quickly moving down the hall to the back stairs.
Murder at Besser Creek Part 3
Another guest reported loud voices from the room just before Lewis stormed out, meeting Tela on the stairs with his coffee and toast.
"Where's Taylor?" he asked in a heavy voice. Then he realized who he was speaking with. "Miss Covington?"
"Oh, the misses are all dressing for the ceremony. But Mister Beaufort, you can't be disturbing them."
"I have to talk to Taylor," he rubbed his hands together then on his pants. "Excuse me." He took the plate of toast and coffee cup He bit hastily into the one and scalded his mouth slugging down the contents of the other.
"Slow down there, my boy." A broad-shouldered man wearing a Missippi steamship captain's uniform, stepped out of his room and slapped the younger man on the back as he coughed. "What's got you in such a hurry this morning? It ain't you gettin' the cow bell."
"Cousin Lycus." Lewis collected himself and shook the man's hand as Tela continued up the stairs. "Oh, I'm just anxious to see Cheryl married."
"I've seen you taking Miss Covington on the rounds. Bit o' fluff there, or a serious matter?"
Lewis considered something very quickly. "I have dined with her parents but once. Tomorrow I hope to ask her father though. I could use some advice how to go about it."
Lycus Chase, homeport New Orleans, was a confirmed bachelor, loving his boats more than he could spare for any woman. "Ah, a permanent affliction. Can't abide them, son. You're askin' the wrong man," he said finally. "But you need advice on boatin' anytime, just come see me."
"Oh," he answered, slightly deflated. "Yes sir." Chase adjusted his collar, having narrowly escaped the kind of mushy talk he assiduously avoided, and watched the brunette Lewis with dark, worried blue eyes, hurry off toward another wing of the house. Then his stomach growled. He put the young man from his mind and went in search of breakfast.
Gabrielle Francesca was just walking onto the veranda. "Good morning, Gabrielle," he offered with a flourish.
"Lycus Chase, you old salt. Who let you onto the property?"
"Beautiful women, beautiful day. A bounty in wealth and society. Where else would I be, my dear?" He bussed her cheek with a polite kiss and pulled out a chair for her.
Making a point to smile at him as she did so, Gabrielle pulled out another chair and settled herself in it instead. Then she tweaked him, picking up a dish of jelly. "Scone?"
He laughed, brushed his moustache smooth and settled in the chair he held. "Don't mind if I do."
"Who was the young man?" she asked amiably over their food.
"Lewis Beaufort, one of the young people in the wedding party," he remarked. "Quite taken with Taylor Covington."
"One of Cheryl's friends from school, I understand," Gabrielle added thoughtfully. Then she asked, "Do you know him well?"
"Not very well. Met his father once or twice in business when the boy was terribly young."
"Long time ago then?" Thinking of her ward's friend, she prodded. "Where's the family now?"
"Oh you need not worry he's a fortune hunter. He's plain in love with the girl. Besides the family estate in ... somewhere in the Carolinas, I think... is his now. Parents are dead."
Gabrielle mused on that and nibbled her scone. "Still wouldn't want to see one of Cheryl's friends hurt." She saw someone pass through the house and started to her feet. "Who is that?" She could make out few features of the big man, who matched the description of none of her guests.
Lycus turned and looked at the man. "Certainly has the look of the gardener about him," Lycus remarked. "Probably looking for Cheryl to get her input on the flowers. They're all over these sorts of things." He shook his head.
Gabrielle sighed. "I know that," she pointed out. "I'm throwing this bash, remember?" She got to her feet and collected her dishes. "Take your things to the kitchen when you're finished," she said. "See you at the festivities," she added.
"Good then." He offered her a tiny wave with his scone and turned away to scan the land from the veranda's elegant vantage.
Lewis found Taylor, just finishing her preparations, in one of the rooms, a peach-flounced affair with a four-poster canopied bed and ruffles everywhere.
"Lewis, what are you doing here?" she asked, tucking her blonde hair back from her face when she opened the door.
"I had to see you," he said, moving inside and shutting the door quietly.
Turning back around he studied her with a gradually widening smile. "You look wonderful." Impulsively he pulled her into an embrace and tenderly kissed her cheek.
Taylor flashed him a smile when they parted. "We were only apart for sleep, Lewis," she chuckled.
"Too long," he replied, kissing her again. "Let's promise not to be apart again."
"You have to speak with my father first."
"And I shall. Can you have me invited to dinner tomorrow night?"
She brushed her fingers through his hair, enjoying the rich dark locks soft against her fingers. She'd never known a man to have such soft hair, Taylor thought. And his skin. She brushed her fingertips lovingly against his jaw. Inhaling she caught the scent of his shaving cream mingled with his natural musk.
She considered a moment. "Who are you said to favor, Lewis? Your mother or your father?"
"Mother," he said. "At least until I grew up."
She chuckled and rubbed his forehead where a small furrow began to form. "You miss them?"
"They didn't love each other very much," Lewis murmured. "But at times I think they both at least loved me." He grasped her hand. "But I love that house. And I want you to be Beaufort Oaks' new mistress, Taylor."
"I can't think of anything I'd love more," she replied. "Wherever you are, would be home for me." Tenderly they sealed their promise with a kiss.
The door to the room moved slightly, closing again with an inaudible click.
Murder at Besser Creek Part 4
The ceremony was blessedly short. Cheryl breathed deeply, still shaking a little on her new husband's arm.
Another minute and I surely would have collapsed, she thought, girding herself for the gesture from Gabrielle Francesca to form the receiving line. The ballroom had been decorated in burgundy cloth bunting and the drapings hung from every surface. The effect considerably shrunk the East home's largest space, creating an intimate area, rather than the cavernous opening it truly was.
Finally a light pressure on her arm from her husband and Cheryl turned to see Gabrielle Francesca standing with her friend. The older woman gestured and the newlyweds joined her at the entrance to the dining hall.
"Time for the greetings, my dear," Gabrielle Francesca said quietly. "Do you wish anyone else with you in the line?"
"Just the two of you please," she replied. In a low confessional-quality voice she offered, "I doubt I'll be standing at the end should it be more than that."
The unconventional admission made Gabrielle Francesca chuckle. "I knew there was a reason I liked you, dear."
Gabrielle Francesca and Felicity were first, the newlyweds next. The line formed and gradually everyone moved past into the dining hall. Each shared a word or two of congratulations and then a chaste kiss for the bride or handshake for the groom.
Lycus Chase followed a stodgy society gentleman and boldly kissed Gabrielle Francesca under her partner's slowly raising eyebrow. "Top notch, Gabrielle Francesca," he concluded, then turned to wink at Felicity who scowled, so he laughed.
"Nice job," you two," he offered the newlyweds. "Next time, skip the priestly thing and go straight for the party, huh?" He gallantly kissed Cheryl's hand and shook her husband's.
He looked down the remaining line and spotted Lewis Beaufort and Taylor Covington a few people back. Conspiratorially he told Cheryl, "Get your friend wed to the boy already. They fawn worse than you do."
Cheryl smiled at him then looked back toward Taylor. Her school chum was in a protected embrace from Lewis as a big man broke into line to speak with him.
Gabrielle Francesca mused, "Isn't that the gentleman from this morning?"
"What?" asked Cheryl. "What man?"
The East woman looked significantly at Lycus and then shrugged. "I'm sorry my dear. What were you saying?"
While Cheryl had her eyes diverted, Lycus slipped from the line and blended into the dining hall crowd.
Gabrielle Francesca saw Beaufort grow agitated but then the line moved again and the gentleman speaking with them disappeared once more.
Cheryl and Gabrielle Francesca did not remark on, though they did not miss, the distracted, worried look on Beaufort's face when the couple made it to them. He held Taylor close as she hugged Cheryl, wishing her happiness. Then he ushered the woman quickly into the dining hall.
Gabrielle Francesca watched Lycus go up to them and wished the line at an end so she might go and know what was being said.
Lycus stopped the couple in the buffet line. The simple method had been chosen due to the property's small staff. The East family might be well off, but they weren't ostentatious, nor were they above doing their own work. There was a cleaning staff--the floor maids--and a cooking staff--two cooks and a pair of scullery maids. The rest worked the land alongside the family members.
"Hello, cousin," Chase offered to the young man. "Acquitted yourself nicely. You worried about it?"
"I--well, no sir. Not exactly, sir."
He cut quickly to the heart of the matter. "That fellow bothering you earlier?"
"Well, no. Not exactly, sir. My overseer, you see. He--um, had a bit of bad news for me."
"No, no, sir. Just, I--well. Nevermind. Um, would you pardon us, sir? Miss Covington's quite famished and I--well, I am as well, sir."
Lycus paused then stepped back, letting them pass. "My apologies for detaining you. Enjoy yourselves."
With a fleeting smile, gone too quickly in one so young, Beaufort moved himself and Taylor along.
Lycus felt Gabrielle Francesca come up on his shoulder. "I've no idea," he murmured. "But he's rather rattled. I might have a word with the other gentleman." He glanced over his shoulder and caught her green eyes. "His overseer, apparently."
"Ah, estate business then. Probably nothing we can do about it then," she concluded.
Lycus rubbed his chin and toyed with his moustache. "Hmm, probably not."
Felicity stepped up and he bid good evening to the women, vanishing into the crowd quickly.
Murder at Besser Creek Part 5
Lewis rounded his mount and reached for the lead rope dangling from the cheek strap of a dun-colored gelding's bridle. He smiled across at the celadon-eyed compact blonde settling herself sideways on the horse's back, biting back a chuckle as she slid down the leather seat landing feet first back on the ground, a dark frown crossing her features for the third time. He pitched his voice low as he guided his gelding alongside. "Hold yourself long enough, all right, Taylor? Once we're out of sight you can settle astride."
Finally with his assistance, Taylor Covington, his amore, kept her seat. "What a ridiculous way t ride," she commented, taking up the reins. "Some man must have designed this as a torture for some woman he hated." With a deep breath as she ignored his stifled smiling countenance, she added with complete sincerity, "Let's go before I fall off again."
At a careful walking pace they left the East stables and moved toward the northern woods on the sprawling East property.
A fast-moving rider, all in dark colors, guided a lampblack horse over the inner stable fences, wrapped hooves barely causing sound over the springy earth. Turning more eastward, horse and rider entered the woods, disappearing in the shadows of evening.
"I can't wait for you to meet Mama," Taylor said. They rode side by side, occasionally reaching out a hand to each other in the peace and quiet of the dusk. A light drizzle started, and Lewis offered his coat and hat to Taylor, who shrugged into one and pulled the other tightly down over her ears. "Thank you."
"Anytime, love," he answered, grasping her hand as she held it out. He glanced over his shoulder and, relieved, pointed out, "We could stop now and let you change."
The look of gratefulness she blessed him with squeezed at his chest like a vise he never wanted to release him. Within a handful of paces, she had stopped her gelding and dismounted. He as well, reaching out and catching the reins she tossed toward him. He fished through his saddlebag and retrieved the pair of trousers he had stashed there. She offered up her lips to him as she took the clothing, then disappeared behind a thick tree trunk.
"I hope that she takes to me," he confessed, with a gentlemanly turn of his back toward the tree as he rubbed the horses' muzzles.
"There is never a doubt of that. She only need see how much you mean to me and then I will be yours."
"And your father?"
She laughed and then sobered, her chuckle dying as the rain picked up, catching them even there under the canopy of trees. "Well, if I don't fall ill from this weather, I will persuade him."
"Tears?" he asked.
"Never fails," she replied, stepping out from behind the tree. "How do I look?" She settled her tied back hair over one shoulder and preened at the bulk of skirt garishly bundled at her waist, held back by suspenders capturing the top of Lewis's dark trousers.
He smiled and chuckled. "A dream," he assured her.
"Nightmare more likely," she countered.
"I have never seen my trousers look more lovely," he answered back, gallantly offering her a hand to mount up once again. "You however will be decidedly more comfortable. And that is what matters."
She tossed her hair at him in a fancy mockery of airs and walked over to him. The crinolin and muslin crushed between them as she fell into his embrace for a fiery kiss.
Nibbling her lips briefly before speaking, Lewis asked, "Need help mounting?"
She tugged away from him and grabbed her horse's reins. As she placed a foot in the stirrup and swung herself aboar, she triumphantly replied, "Not anymore!" Settling herself now astride, she settled her other foot into the opposite stirrup and pushed her heels down.
From her higher perch she looked down on him and nodded toward his horse. "Come on. I want to race."
"You have a reckless streak, Taylor Covington." He swung into his saddle and turned his gelding alongside hers. "I like it." He dug his knees in strongly and the brown horse leaped forward beneath him, springing into a loping gait. Over his shoulder he called back, "Now, keep up!"
She gave her response as she brought her lighter steed alongside, passing him on the right. "Better stretch your legs then, Lewis. A race, it is, to the vale."
"You're on!" he replied as they both leaned close over their horses' neck and encouraged speed with voice, hands and knees.
Almost even they splashed one then the other through the creek.
A rider straightened in his saddle turning his head to catch a fleeting sound. Laughter! Eyes turned toward the left of his position hidden by a broad hat pulled low. Finally gloved hands guided the dark stallion down a northward fork in the path.
He guided his mount carefully around the creek bed.
"I think Miss Gabrielle rides here," Taylor contemplated as they rounded a bend in the path and found the first of several jumps along a path leading up out of the vale. "But most of the time I never see anyone using it. Except once," she added thoughtfully. "I saw Miss Felicity take a big black mare over them. She's really quite the horsewoman."
"Miss Felicity and Miss Gabrielle have traveled a lot haven't they?" Lewis mused, thinking about the vastness of the estate and the money it would have taken to keep it up.
"I think so. Have you see all the exotic things in that house? It would take me ten lifetimes to see all the places they came from!"
"I'll take you anywhere you want to see," Lewis promised, catching up her hand as he trotted his gelding alongside and then guided them both to a stop. He reached out and cupped her shoulder in his palm.
She lifted her face to receive his kiss, her right palm pressed against his vest. Beneath that warm fabric she felt his heart pounding and smiled up into his cobalt gaze. "I know you will, Lewis."
His lips brushed over hers as he whispered, "I love you, Taylor." His other hand brushed her side.
She shivered in remembered pleasure at their picnic a week past when they had not stopped there. "Lewis, I--"
A crack exploded the air around them, parting them in surprise.
Lewis's gelding stamped the ground, backing up.
Given more space, Taylor's mount jumped and reared. The young woman was hard pressed but kept a grip on the reins and her seat as the horse tossed his head and kicked up his heels. The rain was making it worse, splashing mud into the gelding's face as he kicked and startling him further.
"Hold on!" Lewis leaped from his horse's back and grabbed for her horse's bridle. "Whoa, boy! Easy now!"
The gelding reared again and Lewis's now free mount reared, his hooves connecting with Beaufort's hip.
It was a glancing blow to be sure, but it staggered Lewis. Taylor managed to slide from her horse's back even as he reared again. She grabbed his reins from Lewis's hands as he stumbled aside, disoriented.
Another shot cracked over their heads and the reins were torn from her grip as the horses bolted.
Pitching into the dirt, she looked up to see Lewis being dragged by his horse. "No!" she shouted.
He hung on, feeling the path beneath him as the horse dragged him painfully over rocks, branches, dirt and twice he left the ground and was dragged through a bush. Hearing Taylor's screams he unclenched his fingers forcibly and felt the reins tear free, burning his palms.
Thudding to a stop he stumbled to his feet. Torn shirt hanging from his arms, he raised his hands to brush back his hair and clean himself with the help of the drenching rain.
"Lewis!" Taylor screamed again and he jogged through the growing darkness toward the sound of her voice.
He turned toward the deep calm voice and froze.
"You're an idealistic idiot, Beaufort. Make one more move to join your woman and I'll blow a hole right through your empty head."
From his mounted position, Carter, the Beaufort Oaks overseer, slid a hand free of a thigh holster, wielding a six-shooter. "Now, sit your carcass down and I'll make myself clearer than I did yesterday."
"You're not my father, Carter. You can't tell me who I can or cannot marry."
"You can't marry at all, you thick-headed... Haven't I told you that enough?"
"Come on, Carter. The line's got to continue. I can't do that without a bride."
"Don't I handle things at the Oaks well enough for you? You don't need help."
"I need heirs, Carter!"
"You ain't gonna have 'em, Beaufort. Not while I'm living!" He fired, his deadly aim catching the shocked Lewis squarely in the left thigh, dropping the man to the ground with a clutching scream. "Next shot'll make you whimper like a babe, boy."
Motion to the man's left caught Lewis's attention. "Why, Carter?"
"I work it hard enough! Damn land should come to me," he hissed, cocking the gun once again.
"Put down the gun, Mister Carter." An intense, deep command came from off to Carter's right.
The gun swiveled toward the source of the voice. Two flashes went off at the same moment. Instinctively Lewis dove for cover, falling behind a low bush, but he felt fire spread across his chest and dully looked down to see crimson spreading.
"Damn!" Lewis heard running heavy steps and opened his eyes against the pain to see a hawk-
like face peering down into his own. "Uncle? Lycus?"
"Just take it easy, kid. He's dead."
Pressure shifted on Lewis's chest and he blindly grabbed for the older man's explorative hand. "Taylor," he breathed.
"Get. Taylor. Away."
He though he shook his head. Pain erupted in his neck. "Taylor!" he bit out in a quick burst of breath.
The young woman heard her name and dashed up. Carter, not quite dead yet, moved suddenly. Caught off guard, Lycus Chase spun on his crouched heels and fire. Two flashes erupted and illuminated Taylor falling backward.
"Son of a--" Lycus leaped to his feet and blew a hole in Carter's chest as the man looked at him with a smu smile. He bent and examined Taylor's shoulder and guessed his own bullet had grazed her.
Glazed green eyes locked with his. A hand slapped the ground behind him and Lycus jumped backward but kept his firearm to himself this time.
It was Lewis, reaching for Taylor. "Duel," he muttered, blue eyes focusing for a long moment on Lycus's face.
An illegal duel? What did that mean? Lycus watched as Lewis exhaled a final breath. Taylor then surprised him with the explanation. "Witnesses to duels are hounded," she said.
"This wasn't a duel!" Lycus retorted, then softened his voice when she winced. "He tried to murder you both."
"I can't stay," she responded. "My family will never understand."
"What do you want me to do? This isn't my place, y'know. I'm just a ship captain. Friend of the family."
"Get me out of here," she urged.
Dawn broke. From her vantage on the porch, sipping from a delicate teacup, G.F. shaded her eyes and saw the gamekeeper's signal.
Lewis Beaufort's body was found, a pistol caught in his hand. A blood trail led away but no amount of searching found the man who had obviously exchanged fire with the young Carolinian. The Covington family inquired after Taylor and it was then realized the young blonde woman was missing as well.
A week after Lewis was buried, a letter arrived at the estate, delivered by a messenger who said only, "No one must know."
The note was signed "L."
As a result of the letter, G.F. never erected a gravestone for Lewis Beaufort and sent word to the Covingtons that their daughter Taylor was dead.
In the manner of the day, the mourning period was observed and the families moved on."
"But if the letter proved it was murder, and Taylor was safe, why the secrecy?" Gab Dolly wiped the moisture from her cheeks. "G.F. would've never hidden the truth."
"She would if knowledge that Taylor was alive would have harmed the young woman."
"Carter would then know there is an heir to Beaufort Oaks," Clotho explained quietly. Evening light illuminated the private room in the medical center where she had been resting as she told her tale.
"Taylor? They weren't yet married though."
"No. Beaufort's son. Lycus took Taylor into hiding as she requested. When they heard only Lewis's body was found she feared Carter was hunting her down. Two days after they reached Lycus Chase's docked boat she found out she was pregnant. He kept her safe and delivered her of a son.
"Carter had resurfaced twice appearing at social events as the new master of Beaufort Oaks."
Gab Dolly shook her head. "Still it was the boy's birthright."
"Without papers to prove it, Lycus convinced her to abandon pursuit of justice."
"Where did Taylor, Lycus and the baby go?"
"Lycus took Taylor back to Louisiana and raised the boy as his own son."
"So the real heir to Beaufort Oaks thinks he's a descendant of Lycus?"
"Young woman," Clotho corrected. "Currently it's a young woman who thinks her family line extends back to Xena through a Greek immigrant fisherman."
Gab Dolly's eyes lit up with understanding. "Well in that case she's gotten back the family estate. She was raised at Beaufort as a matter of fact."
"Exactly. It's Melinda Pappas," they finished together.
"Fate strikes again." Clotho reveled in a chuckle.
Lightning erupted outside the window and a storm gathering steam from the west opened the skies with torrential rains battering at the windows.
"I think someone better tell Melinda to watch herself," CFXS director Mary suggested. "I'll send out a letter tonight." She smiled at the professor. "Quite a piece of research, professor."
"Thanks, Mare." Satisfied that her story was complete, the enigmatic dean laid back against the pillows and closed her eyes. "Now if I can just figure out the whole story behind Lewis's parents."
Send me your thoughts on this story. LZClotho@aol.com