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Groundhog Day

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“Don’t tell me you lost the groundhog!”

Brisco County Jr. – erstwhile bounty hunter, ex-lawyer, poker-player and gunslinger – tossed his faithful companion Lord Bowler an annoyed glare. “Bowler, I’ve been paying attention the whole time! He ducked underground and disappeared right…here?”

He turned about, but the numerous amount of burrows and hovels under his heels made it difficult to find purchase, and he ended up staring in complete horror at the pockmarked battlefield. Brisco lifted his dusty hat and scratched his forehead in confusion. “Well…he was right there.”

“Oh, Brisco!” Bowler complained, stomping the dust-strewn ground in agitation. “All I did was turn my head for two minutes!”

“You know what the ancients say, Bowler,” Brisco chuckled. “Never turn your back on a running rabbit when you’re trying to keep him from jumping the tracks.”

“That’s not even a moral,” groaned Bowler. He hunkered closer to the ground. “If we don’t find this groundhog in four hours, the world’s best and most efficient energy source is gonna be turned into liquid prairie poop!”

“Just relax,” Brisco encouraged Bowler. “All we need to do is apply a little bit of common sense to the situation.”

“Our get ourselves blow up playing whack-a-mole,” replied Bowler.

“Wack-a-gopher,” corrected Brisco. “But that’s not the point! Intellect and reasoning need to rule the day! After all, we’re smarter than any dawgone gopher in the whole territory!”

“That ain’t anything to be proud about,” Bowler declared, crouching closer to the ground. Brisco tucked his hands upon his hips and stared at his best friend; he had absolutely no clue what Bowler was trying to accomplish, but he wasn’t in the mood to stand in the other man’s way.

Bowler tucked an ear to the ground and Brisco immediately understood the purpose of his actions; he was listening for the underground vibration of a very large and angry gopher trying to run away from two large men with two medium sized guns. Brisco shrugged and – much as he had months ago with the Big – knelt and put his own ear to the ground. He crawled on his knees and kept crawling, until he felt a slight tremor under his lobes.

Attuned to the rhythm of the ground as he was, Brisco could still hear the mocking snorting of his beloved horse companion, Comet. Keeping on track of the gopher, he lifted his head briefly and raised an eyebrow. “Now stop that. This has nothing to do with fool’s gold. That little fella’s gotta be somewhere under our feet…” he turned, placed his head to the ground. Nothing. A quick check of the area around him revealed a small,, fuzzy brown behind hightailing it toward the thicket at the far left of their campground. “unless he decided to make a break for it!” Brisco flung himself to his feet and ran to mount Comet. “Come on, Bowler!”

“Oh, Brisco! You and your ideas are gonna get us both killed some day!” complained Bowler, but he didn’t hesitate to follow Brisco as they both loped toward the gopher.

Both of them were in for a shock, as the gopher had disappeared entirely. After much crawling, creeping, and shouting, they finally managed to dig up the little fella. Brisco reached down into its burrow with tongs, Bowler holding open a sack to better secure the little fellow in place.

It made an eerie buzzing noise as they dropped it into the sack, then into a special box made of reinforced steel.

Brisco surveyed the situation with his customary thoughtfulness, wiping his sweaty brow before considering the long ride before them. “Do you think it really got into the professor’s stock of plutonium?” he asked Bowler, who was busy clearing the dust and dirt from his sinuses.

“If it glows like a duck,” Bowler offered up quite decisively, “then it’s probably a duck.” He chuckled deeply while Brisco mounted up.

“Come on, Bowler,” he growled. “I don’t have any time for more setbacks! We’ve gotta get these little fellas to the professor’s lab before they blow up!”

“Do you think I’m going slow on purpose?” Bowler glowered at the horse, kicking it into a canter. They rode along at a speedy pace, and it didn’t even occur to Bowler to speak until they were ten miles closer to the nearest output. “Hey Brisco…you aren’t in a rush for another reason, are you?”

Brisco’s features crumpled thoughtfully. “No…hey, whatt’re you trying to get at?”

“Oh, nothin’.” Then, after a moment passed, he heard Bowler’s customary deep-throated chuckle.

“Cut it out!” Brisco said, gently spurring Comet into a trot. “If you’ve got something to say, go ahead and spit it out!”

“Well, y’know what they say, Brisco.” Bowler allowed Brisco’s name to linger in the air like a puff of French perfume. “Absence makes the heart grow awfully fond.”

“Oh, Bowler!” Brisco replied. “I can assure you I have my mind on the job.”

“Hah!” Bowler replied. “Then why did those little fellas get away in the first place?”

“I wasn’t distracted! I was just in deep thought.”

“Heh heh heh.”

“Come on, Bowler! Meditation can be very relaxing.”

“Did you learn that from your friends in the scarred foot clan?”

“Bowler, would you be serious.” Brisco scratched the back of his neck and released a long sigh. For the first time in his life he felt a thrill of relief as they slowed their horses before an inky stretch of train tracks. “I don’t know. Sometimes a fellow isn’t at his best when his mind’s somewhere else part of the time. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m absolutely starving; let’s make a pit-stop. Once Comet’s had his rest he’ll be greased lightning in hooves. We’ll make it back to Frisco in record time!”

“That’s what this is all about!” Bowler gently kicked his horse into a trot as civilization took shape before them, church steeples looming over them in the distance and the gleam of freshly-lit streetlights flickering in the metallic glow of their belt buckles.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Brisco had deliberately outpaced Bowler, so that the other man couldn’t see his face.

“I don’t think I need to spell it out. But we both know your mind’s over that ocean with Miss Dixie.” He chuckled again. “Did you two ever figure out what you’re gonna do with your time?”

Brisco hitched Comet and gingerly removed the chittering rodents. “We have an understanding. She’s experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime journey to a world she’s only dreamed about…and I’m babysitting gophews while I wait for her to come home.”

“Heh heh. Radioactivity just ain’t doing it for ya anymore, Brisco?”

“It’s not the mission, it’s the miles,” Brisco said enigmatically, only annoying Bowler further. The Gophers were placed in the cradle of Comet’s saddle, carefully secured to Brisco’s saddlepack, where both men could keep an eye on it. Brisco treated Comet for his patience with a trough filled with water and a pile of tender hay – and a shiny green apple he’d been carrying in his bedroll for days. “And I think we’ve had enough excitement for one day.” He watched Brisco ease his way toward the cheery restaurant. It had washed white walls with blue checkered curtains, tablecloths, with small lanterns lighting each and the clientele combined locals with travelers; clearly city folk, gently bred, on their way to San Francisco. Brisco studied faces as they passed, tipping his hat and smiling at babies; Bowler preferred a quieter approach, one that would get them to the safety of the table with all due speed. Their waitress was young and cheerful, a regular Harvey Girl, and her speedy deliveries kept taking the boys by surprise; she seemed to replace their beers before either thought to order more.

Brisco requested a thick steak for himself, then kept his mouth shut while Bowler decide what he wanted from the listing before them. Bowler’s choosing pheasant over a hind of beef was entirely unsurprising, but Brisco had to grin at his friend’s atypical largess. He sampled a glass of wine and made loud complaint about the vintage and quality of the glass – he always seemed to be making mental notes for his incipient wine vineyard, and Brisco was fairly certain that by the time they sat down to split his first bottle they’d be partaking of the finest drink the land had to offer. Beer and steak and pheasant and thick, warm bread with honey butter were also brought to the table; then a tub of home-made ice cream with fresh blackberry sauce. It was a momentous feast after a long, hard ride, and the twosome ate in happy silence for a few long minutes.

It was as good a time as any to make an announcement. “I’m thinking of making it official with Dix,” Brisco said, apropos of nothing.

Bowler raised an eyebrow, gulping down a mouthful of beer. “Brisco, after the kinda day I’ve had I’m not in a kidding mood.”

“Hey, I told you I’d tell you after I told Comet. The two of us spent the whole ride up arguing about cuts and clarity. That horse spent one week in the jewelry district and now he thinks he knows everything.”

“You’re really gonna pop the question?” Bowler grinned, slapped Brisco on the back. “I’d better be the best man.”

Brisco’s eyes widened for a moment. “The position may already be filled. Now Bowler, don’t be jealous…”

“Huh? Who’s closer to you than me? Who’s stuck by you through thick and thin?” He glanced over his shoulder. “You don’t mean…oh, Brisco!”

“You know how jealous Comet gets! If I don’t put him in the wedding he’ll throw a tantrum.”

“Thrown over for a horse,” growled Bowler.

Brisco held out his palm, begging for peace. “Now, don’t worry about it – we’ll figure something out. I need to stop putting my horses in front of the cart - heck, I don’t even know if Dix will say yes.”

“Heh. Brisco, that lady’s so far over the moon for you she’ll probably propose to you if you don’t get to it first.”

Brisco smiled shyly. “She’s a really special girl, Bowler – she deserves the best.”

“Then go get it for her.” He rubbed his belly. “Damn, now all I want is a nice, long nap.”

Brisco grinned. “It’s ten miles back to San Francisco. Sleep now, or you’ll be napping in your saddle.”

“Oh, it’s too much money for a room,” he complained. “We’ll ride back home. But you’re gonna be the one dealing with Wickwire. I’m gonna head home and catch forty winks.” He tilted his hat over his eyes and rested against the velvet-covered chair as they waited for their bill.

Brisco, too, leaned back to rest for a bit. “Bowler, you’re my best friend. You know that, don’t you?”

“Yeah. Why, whatt’re you trying to say?” he bit into a bit of gold coin and winced as its solidarity remained undented beneath his teeth.

“Well, I know you very well, and we’ve been all over this great country working for this government. And I swear, hand to Bibles, that all you care about is getting home safe to your grapes.”

“And all you want to do,” Bowler said, propping up his boots against the windowframe, “is to get back to San Francisco and have a little talk with little Miss Dixie Cousins.”

Brisco grinned and tilted his hat over his eyes. “Let me catch forty winks,” he said. “I’ll be right as rain after that.”

With a few winks under their belts, and also under the ghostly illumination of gas lamps, the two men rode together back to the relative safety of San Francisco with their chittering baggage in tow.

****

Wickwire was generous enough to give them cups of coffee while he put the gophers back into their proper cage. “Well, fellas, you did a fine job,” he said. “They all seem to be intact, healthy and accounted for.” He brushed his palms and rushed to scribble down a few fresh configurations into his records. “Now I’ll need you two to take these records to Breakstone in Washington.” Wickwire’s eyes glimmered as he handed off the information to Brisco. “After that, you’re at his mercy.”

Brisco packed the documents into the interior pocket of his jacket. “With our luck we’ll be stuck carrying something back to you!”

“That might just be in the card, fellas! Breakstone owes me a group of new lab animals!”

“Gophers?” groaned Bowler.

“No, snakes! The government is trying to figure out a way to transfer sensitive strategic information between our units, and one of Breakstone’s general friends said ‘let’s tattoo some snakes and train ‘em to crawl!” Wickwire chuckled, tucking his welder’s helmet back down over his eyes. “That was one wild Flag Day!”

“We’ll be back,” he informed the older man, and he and Bowler ambled out the door, to where their horses waited.

“There’s no way on earth you’re going to get me to ride out tonight!” Bowler growled.

Brisco was already in the middle of saddling up Comet. “Duty calls, Bowler.”

“Tell duty to go back to sleep,” he replied. Even his horse whinnied its sympathy.

“All right,” Brisco sighed . “Why don’t I do this one on my own?”

“And whatt’m I supposed to do? Sit around like a lump of mashed taters?”

“You can polish your crystal,” he suggested. “Orr….you could pick up my girl at the ferry tomorrow.”

Bowler’s eyebrow quirked upward. “And that’s all?”

“Nope! Nothing else. Dix is supposed to be coming in around noon. Or three. Depends on how the ferry runs. You guys could have a little tea, have a little chat, and I’ll be back in town before you know it! Now come to think of it - I don’t think you’ve ever really spent time together, have you?”

“No, and I’m not gonna force Miz Cousins to spend time with me if she’s not willing. A lady of her fine character doesn’t need to do anything she doesn’t want to do.”

“And I know that. But you know how special she is to me. She needs somebody to look out for her now and again – and you’re just the guy to do it – at least until I get back. You know she hasn’t written me a thing since her ship docked?”

Bowler tugged on the hem of his duster. “I’m only telling you yes because that means I’m getting six more hours of sleep.”

Brisco gave him a weak chuckle. “I’ll remember you fondly when I’ve been on the trail for forty hours. We’ll still be splitting things right down the middle.”

“Mighty generous of you, Brisco.” Bowler cracked a parody of a grin. “I’ll keep the home fires burning.”

Brisco tipped his hat, the slightest note of sarcasm in the gesture, then turned Comet toward the road out of town and cantered away.

***

A fully-rested Bowler waited for Miss Cousins to disembark the following morning, but Miss Cousins didn’t arrive – her trunks did. Those he had hauled to the Horseshoe Club before treating himself to a beer on the club’s floor.

For the hundredth time that day he wished he’d chosen to go with Brisco the previous evening. Whenever he strayed too far from the trail he felt the yawning ache of wanderlust, as if his wish for adventure was a real, living being buried deep inside of his being.

And yet here lay his real home; his sophisticated townhouse, his beautiful possessions, his dreams for a settled life growing grapes and distilling them into wine. He belonged to neither world and both worlds At the same time, to his endless frustration. He wanted to settle down, but he wanted to keep roaming, keep winning, keep fighting for what was right.

Then a clear, bell-like voice cut through his conscious. “You’re looking awful lonely, soldier.”

He knew the owner of that voice so well. It was a part of the woman who appeared in his dreams every night, the only woman in the world strong enough to be his partner. She was beautiful standing in the creamy morning light streaming through the barroom door, and the sight of her launched him into a protective stance. The love of his life, the best cook in California and the only woman who had ever managed to penetrate his gruff exterior and gotten to know the man under the cavalry uniform.

But his words came out in a rough growl. “Lenore, it ain’t proper for a lady to be seen in a burly house like this.”

Lenore’s eyebrow rose, and she glanced at the smoky tables scattered about the floor. It was mid-morning, and the only customers still lying about from the previous night’s debauchery had sunk low to the green velvet coverings and beautifully polished wooden bar. She seemed neither shocked by the colorful nature of her surroundings nor dissuaded by their roughness. “Is this a burly house? The man outside told me it’s a restaurant and, as far as I can remember, ladies are still allowed to eat indoors in San Francisco. They also said you and Brisco come here all the time.”

“Oh, all right. Settle down for a spell – but only a spell.” He didn’t want her to get hurt in some impromptu bar brawl or to be mistaken for one of the girls who worked the floor after their singing performances. Miss Dixie could take care of herself, but he worried about Lenore’s ability to do the same. With that in mind, Bowler hovered over her while she picked a table, settled gingerly downward and ordered a draught of beer.

“Why’d you come all the way out here?” he wondered at last, watching her sip. “I know it ain’t a social call.”

Her lips pressed thinly together, and then she gave him a little crooked smile. “I might’ve known that I couldn’t get anything past you.” She sipped the beer. “I’ve got a little problem back home.”

“Why didn’t you ask Viva to help you out?”

“He’s on vacation,” she declared. “There’s a convention in Reno and he rode out to take part in it.”

Bowler glanced into Lenore’s unusually perturbed eyes. “Is it Bart?”

She shook her head. “A lady passed through our town on the way back to San Francisco. She ate at my place every night. Nice gal, too – a little showy, a lot sassy, but I think that was all a big front to protect her heart. Y’know the type, James: soft on the inside, outside made of pure steel. This lady, she was loved to tell stories. Seems that she’s the toast of three out of four continents, and she’s been rambling round China lately. She told us all that she was trying to surprise her fella by sneaking into town early. Seems she’d just met the Emperor and Empress, and they gave her something pretty to remember them by – a mask made out of solid gold and covered with ostrich feathers. Apparently I wasn’t the only person who was allowed up to her room ‘cause when I came to check in on her on turn-down day, she was gone.”

Bowler felt a hitch deep within his chest, a burgeoning ache developing low between his ribs. He knew who the mysterious traveler was. “Did she call herself the golden angel?”

Lenore nodded. “Oh, she’s a big hit in China; she had all of these clippings from papers talking about all of the success she’d had with the people there. I did a little amature digging – it looks like she was swept up and carried out the bedroom window. They went East for four days, but then I lost them – made a turn west and headed to San Francisco to find you. If anyone can track her, you two could.” Then recognition dawned on her face. “You know her personally?”

“She’s Brisco’s girl,” said Bowler. “He’s off doing a…a favor for a friend of ours,” he said. “I’ll ride out with you to Hard Rock, try to see if I can help.”

“All right,” Lenore said. She insisted on paying, even though Bowler had money enough to feed them both on their way down to her little hardscrabble hometown.

He helped her mount up later, trying to settle her side-saddle. She quickly shifted position – she had learned how to ride astride years ago, she tutted, which was enough to draw a blush from Bowler’s cheeks.

“I’m starting to wonder why we split up again,” she said.

“I always wonder that,” he declared. Soon they were both on the trail, riding their way west, to the point where she’d lost track of Dixie’s marked path.

Bowler’s gut clenched. If he couldn’t get Dixie back safe and sound there would be hell to pay, and all of that hell would be dished out by a very angry bounty hunter named Brisco.
***

While Bowler and Lenore were riding out in search of Miss Dixie’s band of kidnappers, Brisco’s own thoughts were nowhere near as violent as Bowler feared they might be. In fact, he was lost in a private conversation that for once had nothing to do with Dixie – well, at least tantigently - with a certain opinionated equine.

“No, I don’t think the setting looks tacky.” Comet whickered. “Well, because a band is a band, but what matters is the diamond. And I believe I’m giving my gal one heck of a fine diamond,” Brisco told Comet, hand automatically going to the breast pocket of his coat. After hopping two train cars to cut down on the travel time necessitated by their cross-country trip, they had finished their business with Breakstone in fairly quick time. Now he was riding back to San Francisco, hopefully early enough that Dix wouldn’t be too terribly sore at his not being at the docks to meet her. They’d have a fine, quiet dinner in, and then enjoy a little private time. If everything went according to plan, by dawn the following morning he’d be an engaged man.

Then Comet abruptly came up lame.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” A few whinnies ascertained that the horse wasn’t hurt – or was stubborn enough to pretend he wasn’t hurt – but Brisco wasn’t entirely convinced of his health. “Was it a scorpion? A rock?” a neigh. “Well, how did you hurt yourself?” The horse nickered. “That’s impossible – if you’re not hurt, why are you limping?” A loud, firm whinny – followed by a shirt kicked eye-level by an angry hoof.

Brisco’s eyes tracked a few inches downwind of the shirt…and there were a pair of pants. And a belt. And two sets of cowboy hats.

Worse yet – these articles of clothing clearly belonged to the notorious –and notoriously dumb - Swill Brothers.

He urged Comet to follow the path cautiously, and in the meantime he withdrew his father’s trusty gun and kept his eyes peeled for further disturbances. But there was no conflict to be had – indeed, instead of an ambush, he found three sunburned men in their longjohns tied to a tree with three lengths of scarf, balled-up lengths of bandana jammed in their mouths.

Brisco approached Phil and tugged the scarf from between his lips. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything, boys.”

“Interrupting? Hell, Brisco, you’re saving us!”

“I thought so,” he replied, getting to work ungagging Bill. “But who am I saving you from?” He was careful to keep the men’s hands bound behind their backs while working free the bindings that held them to the tree.

“We never got her name,” admitted Bill Swill. “She was tall and blonde and she kinda talked real slow like she had a yap full of honey.”

“And she was wearing this gaucho blouse and these high-heeled boots!” Phill added.

“And she was real sore about us kid which is why she tricked us into getting all tied up.” Gill frowned. “It ain’t like we even got to pawn that creepy mask of hers!”

“Consornit, Gil! Ya said the soft part loud!” Phil said.

Gill instantly started moping. “Aww, what difference does it make now? Some crazy blonde lady tied her up after we tried to take her mask! It’s just the truth! And we’re gonna go back to jail and he’s gonna punch us out for taking his ladyfriend no matter what we say.”

Brisco had already put together the entire plot in his mind by the time Gil stopped talking. “It’s ninety degrees out today!” he exploded. “If Dix keeps on walking into the desert she’s going to dehydrate!”

“That’s your problem, County!” Phill bragged. Then he squeezed his eyes closed and then opened one just a tidge when he didn’t feel the expected blow. “Aintcha gonna hit me?” he wondered.

Brisco gave the man a smarmy grin. “No, Phil, I’m not. I subscribe to a special philosophy – one that’s brought me great peace over time. “ Unfortunately for Phil. Brisco was an excellent knot-tier. Managing to bind the brothers into a pretty pattern right in the center of the dessert, he then tied them to the stirrups of the one remaining horse . Brisco noted that Dixie had left the beast water and food – more than she’d offered the Swills. He reminded himself never to upset her. He pointed the horse north and slapped it upon its hindquarters. “Sometimes you don’t have to kill the fly to teach it a lesson!” he shouted after the departing brothers, then swiftly mounted Comet.

“Come on, boy, let’s find Dixie!”

They raced off into the setting sun.

***

Bowler and Lenore, meanwhile, had been following Dixie’s aborted tracks for some hour. The sun beat down on them but they were equipped for the long trail ahead; when the sun finally started to go down Dixie’s trail picked up.

They made camp at the base of a tree, and soon they were eating hardtack and beans by a roaring fire. In spite of the danger Dixie might be in, Bowler couldn’t help but feel a little bit nostalgic for their old relationship, the days where this had been just one of the many beautiful ways they had spent their time.

“You’re thinking about Sagebrush,” she declared, sipping at the canteen of water he’d filled back in San Francisco. “And how hard it was to light those wet birch sticks on fire.”

“That was what I was trying to forget,” he declared.

“Then what were you thinking about?”

He kissed her earlobe. “This.”

Lenore pulled away slightly. “I thought we agreed this wouldn’t work out.”

“Yeah,” he echoed to her, nuzzling her neck.

“And that we weren’t going to put ourselves through it again. The heartache…too much?”

“mmm-hmm,” Bowler agreed pleasantly enough.

“And we already decided it wasn’t worth going through it again.” She pulled away. “I have a restaurant, you have a townhouse and a horse, and when you’re riding between them you don’t send me postcards from either.”

“A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, Lenore.”

“I’d rather,” she noted tartly, “that we do whatever we’re planning on doing together.”

He siddled a little closer to her. “That can be done.”

“Should I just snap my fingers and make you settle down?”

He gave her a grin. “The townhouse is part of settling in,” he said. “You should see it, Lenore. It’s big and shiny. I’ve got all the things any gal would want to homestead with.”

“What do you have down there? Plates of gold?”

“Nah. Porcelain. I’ve got a huge fancy grand piano to play Sunday songs on. I have crystal figurines from France and carpets straight from the Orient. There’s so much more – I stuffed it to the top with beautiful things. All the fancy crystal glasses my mama wanted when we had nothing but the clothes on our backs, and then some. I even hired a butler.”

“You with a butler?” she shook her head. “You always did wanna live high on the hog.”

“For just one reason: I thought it would make you happy.”

“Oh Bowler – I never cared anything for material things. What good’s an empty house without someone to share it with you?”

It was a question Bowler had asked himself all too often. “It can be peaceful.”

“But you miss the racket of living, don’t you?”

He kissed her hand. “Every day. Every single day of my life.”

She threaded her other arm through his and sighed. “Why didn’t we run away together all those years ago?”

“Cause my future was with the army. And you always wanted to make something of yourself, something nobody could ever take away from you.”

“And now I have it. But then…” she pulled back, her hand withdrawing, her arms tucked around her knees, “with you gone and me flipping sandwiches back home, I never did learn what it was like to have real love in my life, did I?”

Bowler nudged her gently. “Whatt’m I, chopped liver?”

“But I lost you,” she pointed out. “And I never did find a man who could stand up to you in my memory.”

He grinned. “I suppose I left an impression.”

“A big one.” She sighed. “What am I supposed to do with you?”

“A wise man once told me I oughta sit back and enjoy the moment more often.” He took her hand back. “Let’s just let the moon set and watch the sun rise.”

Lenore kissed his cheek. “I hope miss Dixie’s safe.”

Bowler shook his head, laughed softly. “Miss Dixie’s tougher than a bear. She’s probably gonna end up chasing us at the rate we’re going.”

Tucking her chin against his chest, she surmounted the gap between their bodies with a smile. “Then let’s think about the moonlight,” she agreed.

And so, under the star-strewn night, the two of them dreamed on, absorbing the cool night air and the indigo sky, the diamond dust stars and the pale brown sagebrush. They lived and breathed their desires and dreams, eyes closed against the soft heat of the evening and the threat that their untenable old attraction might blossom into something real.

****

Brisco and Comet had ridden all night, following Dixie’s trail through the plains and over the desert. Being a world-class tracker had its advantages, and in Brisco’s case a perforated blade of grass or a kicked rock helped guide him along on the pathway to his girlfriend.

At around two he made camp – at Comet’s insistence – and let the horse drink and eat. Brisco helped himself to his leftover rations and took a long drink from his canteen. His dreams were fitful or ghoulish, and most of them involved Dixie sinking down into the belly of the China sea, her golden curls left bobbing behind her on the surface as she floated away. The stars seemed hard, sharp as glass dangling over his head, and the owls far more ominous in their fluttering flights than ever before.

He broke camp at dawn and drove Comet eastward. Minutes later, he came upon a clearing and Comet demanded another nosh.

“Only you would ask for lunch at a time like this,” Brisco lamented as he dismounted the horse. Between bits, Comet whinnied. “If you were missing the girl of your dreams you’d be racing across the plains too.” A stomp of a hoof. “I know Dixie can take care of herself! But she’s not perfect, and she DID get kidnapped by the Swill Boys at some point during her long trip.” More whinnying as Comet nudged him. “Tough girls like her are why milk of magnesia was invented, “Brisco smiled. “Yeah. I’ve missed her fierce too, boy. But I just hope we get to her before something bad happens.” He wouldn’t be able to live with himself if anything terrible happened to Dixie, and both he and Comet knew it.

An hour’s ride led to a trail. The trail led to a small outcropping of houses, a barn, a corral of horses.

The horse paddock led to a large white farmhouse that looked like a scene from a picture book, complete with a little girl skipping rope in its yard.

Brisco tipped his hat toward the humming girl. “Afternoon, miss. Have you seen a lady pass through here?”

Being called ‘Miss’ was apparently enough to turn the girl into a positive chatterbox. “I’ve seen lotsa ladies ‘round these parts. The train’s supposed to come through here in a month and my mama says that where there are fellas ladies are sure to follow.”

“But I’m looking for one particular lady,” Brisco said. “She’s blonde, very petty, very tall…has beautiful, clear green eyes and a very slow walk.”

The girl stopped jumping rope and clapped her hands together in pure glee. “You mean miss Dixie! She was just here! My folks and I had dinner with her last night, and she gave us this!” The girl dug into the pocket of her dress and pulled out a golden coin. As it glimmered in the light Brisco caught sight of Dixie’s profile; apparently the ‘Golden Angel’ had been worth a mint over in China as well, judging from the scrpt bordering her portrait upon the coin. “She was real nice and really pretty - she said she was gonna take a stage into San Francisco. She’s probably right there now!” She tilted her head. “You seem like you’ve gotta know her. Do you like her? Do you like-like her?” More squinting and head-tilting. “You look awful familiar. Like somebody Miss County was talkin’ bout earlier. Come to think about it, you really look just like the fella in my brother’s dime novels.”

“Oh really? Are you sure?” he couldn’t resist teasing her.

More curious bobbing of her head, and then, like a beautiful sunrise, clarity dawned in her features. “ Are you Mister County? Why, you are!”

“You’re a very smart little girl,” Brisco, giving her a big smile.

“That means you’re sweet on Miss Dixie! Do you miss her awful?” Her innocence twisted the knife of concern buried in Brisco’s heart.

“I happen to – but what you said made me feel a whole lot better.” He tipped his had toward her. “So the stage’s headed back west?”

She nodded. “Right back to San Francisco, sir!”

“Then that’s where we’re going!” He turned Comet in the right direction and nudged him into a run. “Much obliged!” he said, tossing the girl the only thing he could reach in his saddlebag – another dime novel, this one discussing the exploits of Brisco, his faithful “sidekick” and his wonderful horse as they tracked down Montana Slim. The girl caught it eagerly as he charged off to the coach platform and took a westward swing toward San Francisco, heading pel mel for the future.

****

Meanwhile, Lenore and Bowler had come across a lost horse, which trotted peacefully across the plain with three complaining brothers tied to its stirrups. Bowler rounded up the horse, then glared down at the familiar coterie of men.

“Why in the hell are the three of you out in the middle of the plains?”

“Nothing!” proclaimed Phil.

“And thanks to your friend Mister County, we ain’t got no britches OR no mask!” Bill declared.

“DAMN it, Bill!”

“What’s the next town over?” Bowler asked Lenore.

She didn’t need to think for very long to come up with the place’s name. “A mill town that just got its name; it’s called Harper’s Grove, it’s twelve miles east.”

“All right.” Bowler grabbed the horse’s reins and handed them to Lenore. “We’ll send these fellas to their jailer, then we’ll get back on Dixie’s trail.”

Phill laughed at the very notion – his confidence completely warented by the fact that he’d managed to break out of two jails in the span of three months. “Heh, if your buddy Brisco can’t find his gal, what makes you think you can find her?”

“Brisco’s trying to find her?” Bowler wondered.

“Hell, who do you think did this to us?”

Bowler tugged them into a quick jaunty walk. “Hell, with you fellas? I thought it might’ve been some kinda weird game. Like…underwear freeze tag!”

Phil glowered. “Hey, we’re thieves, we’re murderers and we’re kidnappers, but we ain’t weird!”

“We’ll let the judge be the one to decide that,” he declared. “You ready for a long ride, Lenore?”

She nodded. “They might lead us to Dixie!”

Bowler drove them both on, over the ridge and through the sun-browned pampas. If they kept up this pace they’d end up in Harper’s Grove before the noon bell rang.

***

Meanwhile Brisco was still on the trail of Dixie’s coach, and he found no further evidence of her distress, which gave him great hope.

Hope that was crushed when he spotted an overturned wagon several feet off the trail, only four miles from the next stage stop, its wheels still spinning against the clear blue cloudless sky.

Brisco’s heart jumped into his throat, and he rolled off of Comet’s back shouting Dixie’s name, staggering over the rocky ground to get to the sight of the crash as swiftly as he could. He crawled across the ground on his stomach and peered into each of the stage’s windows; there were two passengers sitting still as rocks within its crunched belly; an older man in a clerical costume, and a young man in a bandana with a light coating of stubble on his cheek; neither of them had pulses. The driver was lying broken under the overtuned body of his lead horse, and Brisco couldn’t even find an arm to test for a pulse. The overturned baggage belched precious possessions over the dirt and rock-strewn grass; white satin gloves, purple lace strung on ivory fingers to form a fan; a bottle of lily of the valley perfume glugging its contents into the cold, hard ground. Feminine finery too familiar to Brisco, too uncomfortably, indelibly linked with the woman he loved.

And all the while he remembered his mother’s cries, the sound of his own mother’s body hitting the sod as their wagon overtuned on its way to the ground.

He crawled through the wreckage, checking under and around the overturned vehicle with desperate, scrabbling fingertips and wildly-searching palms.

But while her things were here, Dixie was not.

Brisco was decent enough, even in his fear and grief, to make note of the others’ names and the place in which he buried them in the deep, dark earth. Then he road back to the town he’d so recently left to let the folks at the telegraph wire know that three of their citizens would not be returning to the warm, peaceable confines of Harper’s Grove.

Unlike his mother, Dixie Cousins had gotten up and walked away from her travail. The only question was, where to.

***

Only Lenore would spend time cooking up dinner for the jailers who were stuck processing the Swill Boys’ felonies. Bowler soaked in the scent of hot coffee, frying eggs, pancakes and rashers of bacon; it was like being served caviar after two days of dried-for-the-trail food. She served it up to all of them on tin plates before settling down to her own meal.

“So these boys are really murders?” The Jailer’s disbelief doubled within Bowler; The Swills weren’t as muilti-lived as Pete Hutter but they had a way of surviving that was somewhat appalling. All three of them had fallen asleep, sporting borrowed pants and shirts over their long johns, their bellies full of jail grub. None had fought their bookings, and all were happy to have a roof over their heads after spending hours in the hot sunlight. They were less than intimidating while passed out in a pile like a bunch of puppies.

Between swallows and bites, Bowler told him, “believe it or not they were a prime part of John Bly’s plan to kill Marshall County.”

The jailer whistled. “THE Marshall County? Hell, everyone around here’s been talking about that case for years. Didn’t his son Brisco bring them all in a couple of months ago?”

“Yes he did. WITH my help,” pointed out Bowler.

That just made the jailer study him more closely. “Well I’ll be a son of a mule,” laughed the jailer. “You’re THE Lord Bowler?”

There was a sarcastic snort. “Yeah, the ‘faithful sidekick’.”

The jailer enthusiastically crowed. “Faithful smaithful! Without you, Brisco wouldn’t’ve been able to get the job done. You’re a master of disguise and one of the fastest guns in the West!”

“Watch it with the flattery,” Bowler snorted. “You don’t wanna write a check my body can’t cash.”

“Oh, my lips are sealed, Sir! Nobody in town will ever find out that the famous Lord Bowler is staying in our town tonight!” Then, aside, “this arrest shall be a fine feather in our caps. San Francisco still want ‘em?”

Bowler nodded. “Send ‘em a wire. They might be hospitable to working out an agreement.”

The jailer’s dark pushbroom mustache wiggled while he studied Bowler. “Well, that can be attended to in the morning….” He trailed off at the sight of somebody standing in the doorway. “Can I help you, mister?”

There was a nod. “Wagon overturned out on the soddy. Five miles that way. There are three dead bodies.”

The sheriff was on his feet, was moving toward the doorway. “Can you lead me there?”

“Yeah,” the man said. “But I can’t be staying.”

That was when Bowler leaned forward in the chair, throwing himself out of the shadows and into bold relief. “Brisco?”

Brisco’s eye lit up for just a second. “Thought you were going to be hanging around back home?”

“Change of plans. Remember Lenore?”

Brisco tipped his hat. “Ma’am. Sorry I can’t stay for too much longer. I can’t claim I won’t miss whatever it is you’ve cooked.”

“They’re steaks made out of ground beef, seasoned with mushrooms,” said Lenore quickly. “I’m thinking of calling them moo lumps.”

Brisco cringed. “They certainly smell good,” he declared. “But for the moment I need to concentrate on getting Dixie back.”

“Did you find anything at the crash site?” asked Bowler.

“Some baggage,” he said, gesturing to the valise he held. “She was on the stage, but not in the crash. Somebody might have her.”

“Or she might have left it to go find help on her own.”

Brisco frowned. “And I can’t let myself trust either option. I’m gonna take the sheriff out to the crash site, then I’m gonna ride west. I should make it to the next town over by midnight, but if I don’t I’ll camp out for another night.”

“Let me go with you,” Bowler said.

“I appreciate the gesture, but whatever’s happened to Dixie I need to see with my own two eyes – completely alone.”

“I’ll keep you in my prayers,” said Lenore.

“Thank you, ma’am.” Brisco gave Bowler a wan smile. “Thanks for bringing the Swills in. They got me so mad I couldn’t see straight.” Then, confidentially, he added, “ I kind of left them to walk the plains alone tied to a horse.”

But the sheriff overheard them, and he gasped aloud. “Hey,” Bowler protested. “even heroes aren’t perfect.”

“I think we’d better get going before I destroy any more of his illusions,” Brisco asked it in the form of a question, earning himself a nod from Bowler. “I’ll be seeing you soon. Take care.”

“We will.” Bowler shook his head as he heard Brisco leave, heard him talking to Comet. “Damn fool. Ought to let me go with him.”

“He must love her an awful lot if he doesn’t want anybody to see him when he sees her.”

“Those two love more and they love harder than any other set of humans in the world,” said Bowler. “Almost as much as you love me,” he pointed out.

“Well, likewise, Mister Bowler,” she sighed. “We still haven’t figured out what we’re going to do about that.”

“We’ll figure it out later,” he suggested. “A lady has a right to rest under the stars.”

“After we finish dinner.”

She bobbed her head. “After we finish dinner.”

Suddenly Bowler heard laughter echoing in the doorway and turned his steely glare on a bunch of giggling children from town. They ran off into the streetlamp emblazoned light, trailing fireflies behind them and into the marble blue evening sky.

***

Four hours later, Brisco and the Sheriff were piling bodies and possessions into a wagon.

“I can take it from here,” the man said. “Are you positive you want to be alone?”

“Absolutely. Dixie’s always been able to take care of herself,” Brisco declared. “And I don’t think tonight will be any different. What she and I have is so special that I don’t want anyone else to see her, if something’s wrong. It’s just common decency.”

“But…”

“Just keep us in your prayers,” he requested.

“All right, Mister County. I’ll pray for you,” the sheriff said, tipping his hat as he left the scene. “You’ve survived time-travelling gunfighters and death itself. I don’t think fate will give you a worse hand.”

“Thank you,” he said. “I’ll keep hoping you’re right.”

The sheriff mounted up his caravan of corpses, and Brisco watched it retreat before he mounted back on Comet and headed westward, then toward the northeast.

His eyes ever peeled for a sign that refused to come as he trotted closer to the bronze canyons that rested near the Nevada border.

“What if I never get one?” he asked Comet. Comet snorted and Brisco just shook his head. “Go back to the way it was? Date other girls? I can’t go back to that, Comet – not now that I know what it’s like to be with a woman who understands me like Dix does. She’s a rare jewel – a gem beyond compare. She deserves to know how wonderful she is and to be treated like a queen for every single day for the rest of her life. And if there’s a god up there, and if he’s listening in on our talk right now, I’m gonna have to ask him to wait before taking that woman. Wait until I tell her how important she is and how much she means to me, and how she makes that moon shine and the stars sparkle. And that I’ll never be able to replace her. That the second I saw her up on that stage back in the Horseshoe Club Amanda Wickwire vanished into thin air. And that every other woman since her – even Jessie – they’ve all been poor substitutes for her warmth and sass and humanity and personality. And that no matter where I go, no matter what I see, I believe that I’ve been luckier to have her than she’s been to have me. She’s the most special woman I’ve ever been with – she makes me HAPPY. Can you imagine how that feels? That I might not get to tell her that, and that she might’ve died without knowing it?”

Comet nickered.

“No,” Brisco groaned. “It’s not like the time you lost your apple in a pile of mud.”

The wind went still as Brisco tracked closer to the caves. An owl hooted, a cat growled. Just moments after he cast his eyes toward the stars in hope of finding some sort of illumination on the rough plains, something white caught his eyes.

White and suspiciously frilly.

They were pantaloons.

And as he followed their trail up the side of the hill, Brisco found more articles of clothing pinned out to dry on the rocks. A red lace corset. A blue overdress. A red feathered cap.

And by the entrance of one large red rock cave, a pair of black high buttoned boots with pearl closures.

Brisco nearly charged the entrance of the cave, led deep within its belly by a golden glow.

Then he heard the click of a revolver and automatically drew and turned toward the sound.

He was met with a wry look from Dixie Cousins, who stood in a white slip and not much else beside a large roaring fire.

“You always pick the finest of times to rescue me,” she declared, giving him a little crooked smile.

The bone-crushing hug she received cut off any further thoughts from Dixie for quite a long time. But when he released her he got a kiss for his troubles. “I missed you too,” she said, patting his cheek.

“Dix,” his voice cracked. Then he started to smooth his fingers over her arms, her back. Aside from some developing bruises she seemed whole. “Are you okay?” he worried frantically. “That crash!”

“Oh, that’s just one little part of the long, terrible day I’ve had,” she declared. “Did you get them help?”

“They’ll be making their way home,” he said. “The sheriff has them.”

“I hope you saw the fan,” she said. “It was the brightest thing I had left.” She sat down on the rocky floor with great dignity, and Brisco automatically settled down in the spot beside her. “You know about the Swills?”

“They broke into your room at Lenore’s inn,” Brisco said.

“They did more than break – they tried to burn me out!” She shook her head. “But their mama didn’t tell them one thing – water isn’t fireproof.” She finally scared a laugh out of him. “They held me at gunpoint and I went along with them under the lie that I’d have one of my souvineer masks melted down for spare change and given to them in exchange for my going free. But I wouldn’t go anywhere without my travelling costumes – they ARE so very hard to replace, you know – French lace doesn’t grow on trees – anyway, two of them carried my trunk and they let me ride their horse over the next few miles.” She smiled. “I couldn’t believe that they’d really be willing to carry my trunk, but they did it.”

“There’s a sucker born every minute,” Brisco observed.

“And the Swills have always been suckers,” she agreed. “After a few hours running around in the sun with no supplies they started to get cranky. Then they started picking on each other – fussing about how hot it was, whose job it was to carry the trunk or protect me. I talked them into calming down and splitting a peaceful bottle of my special sake.” She smiled. “In ten minutes they were flat on their backs, fast asleep. After that it was easy to tie them up with a few lengths of cloth I had grabbed back in China.”

Brisco’s forehead crinkled. “I have only one question Dix – why were they in their shorts?”

She smiled. “Do you know a better way to keep them from overheating AND from going to get help?” Dixie leaned back against the cave wall and gave him a rather sharp look. “So I set out on my own on one of their horses. But my sense of direction got all turned around – and the horse was tired after dragging that trunk all that way – so I stopped in the nearest town I could find.”

 

“Harper’s Grove.”

“That’s right. There was a little girl skipping rope out by the store, and she took pity on me. The trail she led me down led to her pretty little homested and her very big, very loud family. I spent all night telling her about China, about all the places I’ve been to, about how I performed for the Emperor. Her eyes lit up like a junebug in a well.” Then Dixie admitted, “I gave her one of the coins the Emperor had minted for me as a token of thanks. Anyway, I ended up trading the Swill’s horse for enough money to get out of town.”

“And then you took a stage out of town.”

“I tried to,” she agreed. “But then we took a fast corner and the coach ended up rolling. I tried to help the men who’d been traveling out with me, but they’d all broken their necks during the fall. I left some brightly colored things scattered around as markers.”

“Like your fan…”

“…In the hope that somebody would find them. I walked away without a scratch,” she said ruefully. “My clothing was soaked with sweat from the ordeal, so I staked it out to dry, and then I built a fire in this cave…”

“I didn’t know you could do that.”

A sanguine look. “Brisco, just because I’m not one with nature doesn’t mean I don’t know how to add sticks and sparks together and make a fire.”

“So you don’t,” Brisco noted. “But you also don’t like to rough it.”

“When in Rome, Brisco. Anyway, here I am, drying my clothes and polishing my mask,” she said, giving him a sassy shrug. “If you hadn’t found me I would’ve taken the horse back to town in the morning and gotten on the next stage home – yes,” she added, unnecessarily, “clothed from head to toe. But I’m glad you found me after all,” she added. “There’s nothing in the world like better than being rescued by you.”

Her long arms slunk around his neck and Brisco leaned into her, his own arms wrapping warmly around her waist and anchoring her there. He clung to her for the longest time before Dixie protested.

“My love is infinite, but my ribs are weak,” she joshed him, and Brisco took the opportunity to stare down into her eyes. “What’s wrong?” she asked, self-consciously fluffing the neckline of her hem.

“I thought I’d lost you,” he admitted. “Dix, it was a really long trip to get here. I spent a lot of time in the saddle, all alone with my thoughts…”

“What about Comet?”

“He was a help, but it wasn’t like it was when you were with me. You know that, Dix – there’s nobody in the whole wide world like you. When I was out there riding all by myself, I had to confront what it would be like to live without you and Dix, and dawgone it, I hated what I saw…”

“You know how to flatter a gal, Brisco,” she said agreeably. “Keep going.”

“When I saw that wagon, I thought of my ma.” Her arms tightened around him briefly. “It made me do a lot of thinking about us. It was fine when you were in China, but living without knowing where you are felt like torture. I don’t want to live that way, Dix, not ever, not in a million years.”

“That’s a mighty long time.” She was ever-so-good at pressing emotions out of his mouth. Too good. He almost felt silly trying to express his emotions in such violet terms.

“I’m never gonna clip your wings,” he said. “I promise you that. I’ll never try to fence you in or keep you from going where you want or need to go.”

“I wouldn’t ever do that to you, either,” Dixie pointed out.

“But that’s the eternal key to this relationship, Dix – we’re good for each other. We know how to act like adults around each other…”

“Brisco…” she leaned into his shoulder and sighed. “What are you trying to say?”

He bit his lip and stared into the fire. “All right. Guess there’s no getting around it. You know how I feel about you.”

“No I don’t,” she replied dryly. “But I could probably fake it.”

Brisco cleared his throat. “I have intentions. Good, strong, hopeful intentions.”

“Intentions won’t keep me warm on a winter morning,” she pointed out. “Be a little more specific, honey.”

Brisco again cleared his throat. “And I believe that, because we…love one another…and because we’ve missed each other so greatly over the past few days…” he eyed her. “I presume.”

“Correctly.” He knew she’d tease him later for being presumptuous, but he wanted to feel needed by her. “Oh, Brisco, I wish I’d written, but they kept me going from sun up to sun down, running to the emperor’s functions, having a high tea there, taking prayers there. I have pictures and souvineers, but the words I wrote wouldn’t do justice to the true beauty of the place.”

“And it’s about time I settled down. Started taking care of people and helping them, instead of running gophers across the country for the government.” She laughed. “I’ll tell you about that later. But I feel as if I’ve been getting away from what really matters to me, and when I’m close to you…everything gets clearer.”

In silence, he took her hand. “Dixie, I want you to be my wife. I want to be there every morning when you wake up, and I want to be there every time you close your eyes at night. I want to have a family with you, even if that family’s just made up of you, me, Comet, Bowler and Soc. I wanna have an address…and I want you to share it.” He rubbed the back of her hand. “I want all of that – and you’re the only woman I want it with. So will you marry me?”

Dixie couldn’t help but smile. “Have I ever told you no?”

“A hundred times,” he replied boyishly.

She reached for him, her hands rubbing the back of his head, her face stroking against the side of his cheek. “It was always you. It’ll even be you when they lay me out in the prairie to rest.” She kissed his neck, gently smacked his shoulder. “Where’s my ring?”

He shook his head, reached into his vest pocket laughing aloud. “I thought you’d appreciate the gesture,” he said dryly.

“I’d appreciate the band, too.” He produced the ring and she gave him a champagne bubble laugh. “It sparkles. I do love it when they sparkle.”

“I love it when YOU sparkle.” He kissed her cheek, and they settled in by the warmth of the fire to enjoy the warmth of the fire.

“I love you,” she sighed.

“You too,” he replied. And then, “why don’t you tell me all about China?”

In the warm glow of the fire, Dixie began her story…

***

They took the time to gather up the rest of Dixie’s things –and put her belongings on the first train to San Francisco – before traveling back to collect Bowler and Lenore in Harper’s Grove. While the newly-affianced couple were happy to be getting on with their travels, Comet was inordinately sore over having to leave behind the Swill boys’ ex-horse in the town.

“…I know, Comet,” Brisco replied fondly, “you were like two buffalo passing in the night.” Comet gave him a sad nicker, sad enough that Brisco detoured their entourage to the nearest grocery store, where he picked up two green apples for Comet and the upcoming journey.

Bowler was less than pleased to see Brisco, though he was obviously thrilled that Dixie was both healthy and well. He and Lenore said an inordinately long goodbye on the steps of the post office before she boarded a noon steamer to Hard Rock.

“What happened?” Brisco asked.

“They’re the differences we had before. She’s got her place and I’ve got mine.”

Bowler trudged back to his horse, and Brisco tried to offer his comfort. “Cheer up, Bowler. She said she’d right, wouldn’t she?”

“That’s what she said last time we parted,” Bowler declared. He gave Dixie a quick once-over and said, mounting his own horse, “y’all better treasure what you’ve got. It’s rare.”

“What you have is rare too.” offered Dixie. “ Don’t make the same mistake I did. Write her.”

He shrugged. “Maybe.”

“All you need to do is charm her,” Brisco said. “There’s enough room to raise a family up right in Frisco,” Brisco added. “There’s a brand-new school and a theatre that’s three stories high. There are kids there, people, and – even more importantly - wide-open spaces for grape vineyards and fertile soil to grow them in. And there’s a jail and an office, and a station with no lawman. They need a justice strong and regular, Bowler, and we’re the only two men who can deliver it. Someday, Lenore will get that.”

“And you said you have no ego.” She nudged him as Brisco brought Comet to a trot. “C’mon, sourpuss. Heroes eat on me this time.”

“Long as there ain’t eggs. Don’t think I could look at eggs without thinking about her…”

Comet promptly gave a pathetic whinny, earning a groan from Brisco. “Don’t you start up, too!”

The freshly-hewn family whined its way to the restaurant, where they were the good people of Harper’s Grove got their first major scoop on the dime store novel people and learned Brisco County Junior and Miss Dixie Cousins would soon be wed.

The difficulties attached to that would be dealt with later. For now, they were content. And as long as they had one another, they would remain that way….as long as they didn’t pay attention to the groundhog-like chittering echoing up from the ground under their feet….

THE END