It all started when I was a boy. Standing on the dirt yard in front of the cabin, my feet as dirty as if I had been standing in mud puddles, I saw the gypsies moving through the trees. They were migrating with the seasons. As the new dam had changed the natural flow of the river, in turn, the gypsies altered their route. I heard them first. The sound of metal against metal pulsing in a rhythm that eventually joined with voices. Shadows moved and in patches of sunlight were brilliant colors, mostly purple and crimson twinkling with gold. Nearest to me were the children who were my age. They skipped and ran from their mothers while playing what might have been some elaborate game of tag.
Two of them notice me, standing still and dumb in surprise. She was taller, as girls often are at that age. Her hair was copper-brown curls tied up in yellow ribbon. Her dress was pink and somewhat tattered at the bottom, which made her look like a fairy creature more than a simple girl. With her was a boy who bore some resemblance to her. A mask painted to look like a smile hid half of his face from me. His green clothing was patched with yellow stars.
"What are you doing here?" I asked, not knowing what they were. I swallowed a brief jealousy at what looked like great fun. I had no destination as my parents lived just for the sake of hunting or farming, and I had no siblings or near by friends for games.
"Do you own the woods?" the girl replied. She put her hands on her hips and cocked her head to one side. Her eyes challenged me to contradict her, so I did.
"My father owns this property!"
"Well, we'll be moving along and not fast enough!" she retorted, tossing her hair. In a brief glimpse, I saw large, gaudy decoration dangling from her ears.
"Yeah, just leave," I shouted back. How could I have understood the anger came from frustration, and that frustration from a deep yearning? I wanted that freedom, but even so—freedom exactly was not the same as what I desired.
Briefly, I saw in them completeness, joy and beauty.
My perspective changed as I grew older, and that original truth became more and less real as those children became familiar to me. Each fall as the leaves began to change color, and sometimes after they dropped from the trees, the gypsy's journey took them past my home.
I looked forward to it with some trepidation. At dinner my mother dropped broth in my bowl, somewhat sloppily as her attention went to the still open door. My father lingered there as he shouted into the distance, "Get moving! Next year I'll build a fence and if you try to cross it I'll be shooting you!"
"Is it them again? Pests." My mother pulled her hand back before overfilling my bowl.
I didn't have to ask. Gasping for breath, I ate as quickly as I could put the overheated soup into my mouth. I didn't want to miss them. Not again.
"We're low on firewood," I said, hoping my enthusiasm for the chore didn't tip them off to my plan. Catherine told the best stories, and I intended to walk with them as long as I could go unnoticed by my parents.
Like me, the local community had adopted an initial scorn for the seasonal travelers. Unlike me, they never came to find the gypsies charming in the least.
I reopened the door my father had closed, picked up the axe from it's place and left unhindered into the dusk.
Fifteen, I knew that what I felt for Catherine had changed into attraction. She had flirted with me two years before when she knew my intention before I did. But fully aware of the tug in my gut, I hurried into the woods, past the chopping block where I dropped the axe for later, and hurried toward the sound of voices.
My boots were too tight around my feet and each step ached as did my heart when I caught sight of her. Unlike the prudish girls in the nearby school, Catherine wore clothing that clung to the shape of her breasts and the material dipped so the shadow of their shape was the first thing I saw underneath the elaborate necklaces that she wore.
"My face, Nichol, is up here," she pointed at her broad, smiling lips. She no longer tied her hair in girlish fashion, but still it bounced with a life almost of its own. My mouth hung open and closing it seemed beyond my control. Then a hand pressed against my jaw, assisting the movement. I growled briefly, embarrassed.
Trowa didn't respond, just returned his fingers across his crossed arms. He had the beginnings of muscles tightening under those same fingers. I knew that their particular family performed stunts and animal tricks when they found hospitable communities, which mine was not. Trowa helped tear down and set up, day after day and his body shaped to the work. I wondered if I could still take him in a fight. We didn't have an opportunity with Catherine nearby, and I didn't want to lose in front of her regardless.
"I'll walk with you a while," I stated, afraid if I asked they would turn me away. They all must have known that it was my father who had shouted at them from the cabin.
"Do you want to walk or ride?" Catherine's question surprised me. In the past, I had struggled to keep up with their better practiced pace.
Shrugging, I deferred my answer. "Whatever you want."
"Did you hear that, Trowa? Whatever I want," Catherine laughed. "I will keep you forever." She looped her arm with mine, and I had no objections.
"You're fooling yourself, sis," Trowa said so quietly that possibly only I could hear. And while he spoke to Catherine, who was no more his sister than he was my brother, his eyes were pointedly on me.
I heard the sound of the lions in the distance. I knew what they were only because I'd been so afraid of their roars previously that both Catherine and Trowa had insisted I see how docile these creatures were under their command.
"Perhaps we should all ride on the lions." She ran her finger along my shoulder. I shivered in the cool of the evening, although my body blistered in every place where she rubbed against me. This time, we were almost of the same height.
Trowa had kept even with us. Then with a quick motion of his arm, he prevented Catherine or me from moving forward. "Wait," he cautioned.
"Who goes there? Damn gypsies. I have my rifle!" I recognized the voice of our nearest neighbor. The man had a gorgeous daughter, but Dorothy knew it and that knowledge made her difficult.
A warning shot was fired even though none of us had taken another step since his original outburst. I looked at Catherine who stared ahead at the attacker. Trowa wavered on his feet as if deciding, but I took my chance.
"It's me! Nichol!"
"You rascal! I might have shot you! Do your parents know you're out?" The man peered into the darkness. "Why do I see three?"
"My cousins came to visit," I lied. My gut felt hollowed as I suddenly imagined the chain of events if I got caught in an untruth. I hadn't tested the grey areas of the rules my parents set and knew enough that their sympathy did not extend to these false cousins.
Catherine lifted her arm to wave with an appearance of casualness, but I could feel her shaking.
"Be careful," my neighbor said, accepting me at my word. "Not too far that way, or you might be abducted by that filth. You know what they'd do to you kids…"
"Right," I hastily interrupted. "We'll be careful," I pulled Catherine away. Trowa hesitated but followed. His brows were pulled tight and I could make out his scowl even in the shadows.
"We need to tell our parents." Catherine sniffled as if she might cry, but I saw nothing but bright anger in her eyes.
"You should get home too," Trowa spoke then. "Something bad might happen to you."
I paused too long, not knowing how to respond. I ran my fingers through my hair, letting them get as tangled in the unruly curls as my emotions were trapped in the unresolved atmosphere. "I can take care of myself," I said at last. But our goodbyes were brief.
I expected to see them again, but my father built his fence. And the gypsies heeded his threat.
"More complaints from the Catalonias. And, get this, one from the Noventas." Hilde set the forms on my desk. She hadn't been working for me very long, but like everyone else in public service she learned those names quickly enough. The two of us managed the sheriff's office although I mostly guarded the drunks we locked up in the cell. Judge Kushrenada had been overseas for a month and Sheriff Une preferred to hunt bounty for rewards than mind the community's immediate safety.
Although, and Hilde picked this up quickly as well, most of the local disputes were petty and resolved with a hand slap or a fine. The kids liked messing around with the shop owners. The ranchers always accused the hunters of poaching. Hilde and I would investigate, ride around enjoying the weather or hide in the office during foul. It was all practice for actual crime, but nothing ever happened.
Without giving them even a glance, I put them on the corner of the desk. "Filing," I said.
"No, really?" Hilde chuckled. "But you might want to see this one."
The paper dropped between my eyes and the crossword in the newspaper. Setting down my pencil, I skimmed the document.
"This is my house." I set my finger under the writing to better follow the words. "How the hell could Dorothy see a stranger from all the way over where she lives?"
"Maybe you should file a trespassing complaint against her." Hilde failed to hide her smile.
"Job security." I repeated the words that were common enough in our town, except I didn't believe them whatsoever. Nothing good came from letting a few families call the shots, but I saw no way of changing that.
Then with a sudden blast of chilly air, the main door opened and Une stomped in. Her eyes surveyed the room with a dangerous flash. "Nichol. Schbeiker," she commanded. "Process the papers on Yuy and lock him up. I might have another one for you before nightfall."
"Who?" Hilde said, startled.
"Yes, ma'am," I hastened to add taking the papers and thrusting them into Hilde's chest. The girl scrambled to keep them from falling to the floor and the look of horror on her face indicated she realized her nearly fatal error. Une wore her glasses only after a long, hard chase.
"I'm going to get a drink at Sally's," she informed us. Then more noisy boots brought in two men. The one in handcuffs slumped forward, but his eyes missed nothing. I stepped between him and Hilde when I caught him looking too long.
"Help Barton, will you, Nichol?" Une sighed, forever disappointed in me in ways I could never predict let alone understand. "I want to hang this gypsy in the morning."
I didn't see Une leave.
Perhaps it was the slur on the word, but I might have recognized him regardless. When Une said 'gypsy' she meant Yuy. But the man who stood freely with her, I knew with breath-taking shock. He hadn't been Barton then.
I meant to say his name, the long unutterable syllables were forming in my mouth, when Trowa now Barton spoke first.
"You should be able to handle this much," he said and walked out.
"He… that was…" I started, but Hilde's shriek captured my full attention.
"How are you alive?" she calmed herself. Blushing in embarrassment, she clarified, "Yuy has so many wounds!"
"Gypsies are dead or alive," I explained, not speaking too loudly. I checked him over briefly, the blood from his insignificant head wound had gone everywhere but he seemed able to walk. I guided him to the cell and locked him inside. "I've seen worse."
"Should we…" Hilde looked around helplessly. I kept my purposes in the immediate; other matters were pushed from my thoughts.
"Une will check the papers are proper and filed. She doesn't like errors, even if no one checks in these cases," I glanced at Yuy who had chosen to sit on the floor instead of the thin mattress.
"What cases?" asked Hilde, already getting the ink ready for a lengthy form.
"Gypsies," I said softly, hearing the word repeated in my own thoughts in a dozen different voices and inflections of disgust. I hadn't seen many, but the accusations were always elaborate in these cases. Molesters or thieves, or threats thereof, I had never seen a gypsy go free. Sometimes I knew them to be guilty. But every single one we took to the gallows haunted me like the ghosts of memory lingering in the woods by my cabin.
"What did he do?" Hilde had sat down, but hesitated before her quill even touched the parchment. In the delay of my answer, she put the question to the prisoner. "Hey, what did you do?" When she got no answer she turned back to me, "Isn't this what that other guy was supposed to tell us?"
That other guy…was a gypsy too. I swallowed my confusion, "Just put down whatever."
Hilde, still a good person, gasped, "You're kidding."
"I'm not," I said, too harshly. I rubbed my forehead and found it slippery with sweat. The room was too warm. I needed to get outside.
I fled, but didn't go far. I couldn't leave Hilde with that prisoner, who might have done everything and exactly the crimes for which he was accused. So I put my shoulder against the window where I could see inside, but suffered the brisk cold of the night air.
I fought the urge to find Trowa, but his voice came from the shadows soon enough.
"What kind of deputy leaves his prisoner unguarded?"
I hardly recognized his voice, or him. But my memories refigured the sometimes friend of my childhood into this much taller man. His face watched me without a flicker of emotion. Then a violent heat throbbed in my chest and all of it was directed at this man.
"You're fooling her, aren't you Barton. You're the gypsy," I said. "But somehow you've convinced Sheriff Une that you're what…? A bounty hunter?"
"Ah, well, I have you to thank for that," Trowa replied, not taking a step closer or further away. "She must respect you a little in so much that I mentioned your name and suddenly the whole of the law welcomed me inside."
"I didn't vouch for you," I said, turning away from him long enough to check on Hilde. The gypsy still sat on the floor. At first, I had thought he knew the bed was filthy. But perhaps all gypsies did sit on the ground like wild creatures.
"I have no compliments for you either," Trowa kept his responses simple and curt. "I see you can't even be entrusted with the job Une gave to you…"
"Gave to you!" I corrected, then abruptly pushed away from the window. "What's your plan here? Are the two of you in on this?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," Trowa shrugged. He reached for the door meaning to go inside. "But I certainly wouldn't tell you."
"Wait." I stepped forward in alarm as Trowa turned the handle. I heard the click as it opened. "You don't belong in there."
"That's not for you to decide," his lips might have turned up in the corner, and that confused me more than anything he had said or done before.
'A witness?" Une repeated Hilde's assessment.
My respect for Hilde grew exponentionally as she survived Une's unyielding gaze that could shred lesser souls with one appraisal.
"It's true," Trowa said from his place in the farthest corner. It seemed as if everyone forgot him, but I struggled not to choke as his presence to me might have filled the entire room. As soon as I could get Une alone, I would explain to her that Barton was a spy. He might have fooled her in more ways than simply hiding his origins.
"How so?" Une asked, without looking away from Hilde.
"The paperwork for immediate public execution without a judge is an eyewitness," Trowa's voice plugged up my ears. I rubbed my temples, pushed away from my desk and began to pace the far wall. Yuy watched, silent and attentive. I did not know the details of the conspiracy, but I had no doubts one existed.
"Get me an eyewitness," Une stated, plainly and as if pained by fools. Then she blessed Trowa with a warmer smile and sounded almost approving when she added, "Or we will consult with the judge. Yes, I would like that."
"Indeed," Trowa nodded. "And when does his Excellency return?"
I heard nothing more but the overwhelming notion of rushing currents of water, as if a dam had been destroyed and everything became obvious to me. These men, these two… gypsies had a quarrel with not only the local law—but also Judge Kushrenada.
"Two weeks," Une answered, giving the information freely to all who could hear.
"Sheriff," I hastened to interrupt her from saying more.
"Perhaps I should go out to meet him first, explain the situation," Trowa suggested. "That is, if we do not have an eye witness."
"Sheriff Une, send me instead," I moved then as if I could shove him away but Une stopped me with a lifted hand.
"What Barton says makes sense," Une nodded. Then she looked at me with a coldness I had never faced before. It undid me completely as I saw no way to reason with her if she had already dismissed me, and absolutely at that. "Nichol, I expected better."
She would not be logical. I stepped closer to her. She had to listen. "Ma'am, Trowa Barton is a gypsy." I kept my voice low and filled with every ounce of confidence in truth. I had never been so pained by such pure honesty as in that moment.
"Really, Nichol?" Une forced me back with the movement of her raised brow and indignation. "I will have you behave professionally and not throwing out such foul accusations."
She left the office to return to her favorite tavern. Hilde would not look at me and I didn't care to see Yuy's smirk. I fixed my gaze on Trowa and wondered what right he had to look betrayed.
He was the traitor.
Once Dorothy Catalonia had shot a gypsy on her property. She had hurried to fetch me and when we had returned to find the man still choking on the blood in his lungs I had seen enough to know the man had been helping himself to the water in her well.
Kneeling, I had wished him to die—not because I hated him. But because he had looked so much like the gypsy children that I remembered.
The likelihood he had been an actual relative to either Catherine or Trowa had been slim. Every adult claimed every child as their own. Even I had quickly learned that Catherine considered every gypsy woman her mother and every gypsy man her father. The concept had been as bewildering to me as much as it held me enticed with desire. The way they belonged to each other seemed so much better when compared to the stilted emotions of my own parents.
My mother had left us when I turned sixteen. She never wrote letters and my father did not mourn her. I had often found other women in the cabin. They would share his bed for a season before they disappeared as well. I had given up learning their names. Later, I learned that no one in the village knew of them either. Before I could become suspicious, my father had wandered off himself. Although, I believed that he still had breath somewhere above ground. I could not say the same for those women or my mother.
A week after Trowa returned and the gypsy Heero Yuy took up space in our cell, I managed to return to my home. The big, friendly dog, which never quite left for good, thumped his tail against the porch of the cabin.
"Can't even stand up to greet me properly," I said. I bent to scratch the beast behind the ear when I heard a sound from inside my home. "Dorothy?" I inquired. Rather stupidly not considering the possibility of an intruder, I entered my own home only to be roughly shoved to the ground.
I twisted to kick the knees of my attacker, but he fell on me first, putting his forearm into my throat and securing one of my arms with his own.
"Trowa! Trowa!" a woman's voice shouted.
My vision blurred and refocused on Trowa Barton's face. Ludicrously, I thought, I always wanted to fight him. My breaths short and gasping, I focused on the regret that I was losing.
Then my next gasp filled my lungs with air and clarity soon followed. Trowa still sat over me, but I had the freedom of both arms again and my fingers instinctively went to my sore neck.
"Let him up. I thought you said he was going to help us and then you go and…"
"I hadn't explained to him, Catherine," Trowa said to some point beyond my recovering vision. "Besides, the way he talks…"
"Let him up," Catherine repeated, then I saw her shove Trowa away and I was undone by the greater beauty she had become with age. In an effort not to only embrace her breasts with my eyes, I saw that she wore slacks like a man and from there I resolutely kept my gaze on her face. She scowled at her brother, to my good fortune as she did not notice my initial, appreciative distraction.
"You need help?" I croaked, blushing at the ridiculous sounds coming from my own throat.
"We do not," Trowa replied.
"We came here because of Nichol," Catherine reminded Trowa, then she added for my benefit, "I came here to explain, but Trowa said you're the deputy now?"
I nodded, not trusting my voice.
"Isn't that good news?"
"He's part of the system that murders us, Cathy. I've researched it…"
"What?" I did exclaim then. "I'm part of the law… we don't murder people." But even as I tried to fool myself, I knew why Yuy had been kept prisoner without a witness for that time when another man would have been allowed to leave.
"Your name is on the papers," Trowa shook his head. "I remember how you called us when we were children. This culture you were bred in birthed a likeminded…"
"Stop." Catherine grabbed Trowa by the front of his shirt. Even as her fingers gripped more tightly, her voice remained level. "What's with you? Where is this coming from?"
I watched as Trowa visibly calmed himself and the clever traitor dissolved. I didn't know how to read this new expression, but it pried a phrase from me, "I'm sorry."
"What?" It could have been either of them.
"The fence that went up… I never saw you again, and not one thing got better after that."
I don't know what else I said in the uncharacteristic confession, but Catherine didn't let me push her away even when I meant to apologize to them. She was the one trying to soothe me.
I wish I could say that the story had a happy ending.
We did the best we could.
Heero Yuy was a gypsy. He had been going from one place to the next when he found himself traveling in the company of a certain person. Yuy's instincts were uncannily keen. He didn't trust the man and after killing him in his sleep, discovered Catherine tied and trapped in the craftsman's cart.
Trowa had arrived just late of Sheriff Une arresting Yuy for the murder, and for good luck or bad Catherine had fled on foot. She didn't trust justice for a gypsy girl any more than Heero Yuy stood a chance for killing the man.
When he'd earned Une's trust and stealthily reconnected with Catherine they'd remembered the one person who they knew in this hostile territory.
Yes, that was me.
"Hey, Hilde." I went into the sheriff's office the next morning fully knowing that I was having one of my last conversations with the pleasant girl. Even for all that, I didn't have anything particularly memorable to say.
She lifted her head from the desk and blinked at me with a weary expression. "I can't do this anymore," she whispered.
"How come?" I asked, glancing at Yuy who seemed indifferent to my coming or going.
"He's… well," Hilde rubbed her nose which was more pink that usual. "I kind of like him. When I took his official statement, if that's true… I mean…"
"I understand," I consoled.
"But just because of him being, you know…" she couldn't bring herself to say the word. Even from a friend it bore the full significance of disdain.
"I understand," I repeated, ready for her to leave so I could do what I said I would. What we no longer could say in words had to be proven by our actions. And for too long, my actions were saying something quite different from what I felt in my heart.
She rubbed her cheek where a crease had formed in her dozing. "I meant to stay awake, but then I started crying…" she said it all very quietly, but I knew no sound was lost in that open room. "We're not supposed to fall asleep."
I touched her shoulder briefly while saying, "Go home. I've got it from here."
Hilde found a shaky smile for me before closing the door behind her. I tried to fix it to my memory before letting out a ragged breath.
"You finally in?" Yuy said, standing at the front of the cell with his arms lazily looped through. His finger touched the lock.
"I'm not doing this for you," I clarified, turning to approach the cell. I already held the ring of keys in my hand.
"Of course not," Yuy tilted his head back to watch my face while I undid the only barrier between himself and freedom.
"I don't suppose this absolves me either," I muttered as the door creaked open.
"It's a start," Yuy conceded.
I meant to tell them that I'd fallen asleep when Yuy escaped. But the long night had left me exhausted and I did actually drift away when I put my head down on the desk. I don't know when he arrived, but as I sprung awake I found Trowa standing just in front of me. Watching.
"You fell asleep," he said.
"Can't get anything past you." I couldn't conjure up even the semblance of irritation. I motioned toward the empty cell, "And if you haven't noticed already, by some mystery Yuy escaped on my watch."
"I'll have to report you," Trowa nodded.
A resolute calm replaced my previous remorse. "You'll watch out for Une, right?"
"Worry about yourself, first," Trowa replied, almost fondly. I did fix him with an unspoken question in the tilt of my head. I didn't know about this part of the plan.
"I'm pretty sure that I'm liable for this loss. Yuy's still guilty"
"You are," Trowa agreed. "But I'm not letting you go anywhere without me. Not this time."
"No fence you won't climb?"
"Between you and me?" Trowa shook his head. "What fence?"