Rocky Mountain Interlude Prologue

by Char Chaffin and Tess

ROCKY MOUNTAIN INTERLUDE, Prologue
By Char Chaffin and Tess
MSR, Casefile, AU
Rating: Strong R
Spoilers: FTF, Most of Season Seven

Disclaimers: Clones on Loan

Thanks: To Sallie, Carol and Teresa for beta above and beyond the call of duty; to Robin, Donna, AlyC and Shelba for preview and advice! Ladies, you're the tops!

Summary: While vacationing in Colorado Mulder and Scully uncover disturbing evidence that reflects the history of the alien virus -


Prologue

Miller's Gold Mine Company
Millersburg, Colorado
1860

"Ben, make sure ya got that fuse long enough." Jack Sawyer leaned over to check the placement of the dynamite.

"Got it," Ben Nulty grunted. He ran his finger along the length of fuse dangling down the rock wall. "Plenty of time for even an old geezer like you t' run outta here." He faked a grimace as the older man cuffed him lightly across the back of the head.

"Show some respect for your elders, boy!"

"Yeah, yeah." Ben pushed himself to his feet and grinned impudently. "Ya ready?"

Jack nodded and struck a match against the rocks. "Fire in the hole!" he shouted as he touched the flame to the end of the fuse. Both men whirled and ran into the next chamber. They joined two other miners who were crouched behind a rocky outcropping for safety. Seconds later the chamber shook from the force of the distant explosion and dust filled the air. Coughing, the men cautiously stepped out from behind the protective barrier.

One of the younger men - a boy actually no more than sixteen years old - moved toward the site of the explosion.

"Hold on there, Bobby." Jack reached out and grabbed the young man by the arm. "Don't be in such an all-fired rush."

"What're we waitin' for?" the boy asked.

Ben leaned against the wall and shook his head. "Kids," he muttered.

"What are you talking 'bout?" Jack laughed. "You can't be no more than a coupla years older than Bobby, here."

"Few months down in this hole ages a man beyond his years," mumbled the fourth miner.

Jack and Ben grinned appreciatively.

"What we're waitin' for is the dust to clear and t' give the mountain a minute or two to settle before we go runnin' back in there." Jack stabbed a finger toward the chamber where the explosion had occurred. "Don't wanna be runnin' into a place where rocks are still fallin' down on your head," he explained.

Bobby's eyes widened and he leaned back against the wall, unconsciously mimicking the older men's stances.

A few more minutes passed and Jack deemed it safe enough to return to work. Silently, the men tossed their picks and shovels into a couple of wheelbarrows and followed him through the tunnel.

Several hours passed as the men cleared the debris left from the explosion. They strained their backs under the heavy weight as they lifted large chunks of rock littering the floor of the chamber into wheelbarrows.

Jack straightened up and pressed his hands against the small of his back, heaving a tired sigh. Taking a drink of water from his canteen, he grimaced at the warm, stale taste. He pulled a watch from his pocket and flipped open the cover, squinting in the dim light to see the time. They had been working for over ten hours now.

"Not long till quittin' time, boys," he called out as he tucked the watch away.

He hefted a long iron pole in his callused hands and went back to work at moving a particularly large and stubborn rock out of the way. He and Ben strained, pitting their strength against the rock and were rewarded when it finally shifted away from the wall. They dropped the pole and the two men set to work at breaking the rock into smaller pieces.

An hour later, Jack heaved the last chunk of broken rock into the wheelbarrow and nodded to Bobby who wheeled the load away.

"What's this?" Jack turned to see Ben looking at something on the ground. He joined the younger man who had dropped down onto his haunches.

"Looks like some kind of oil," Ben mused as he dipped his fingers into the sticky, black substance that had been revealed with the removal of the debris.

Jack lowered a lantern and peered closely at the black puddle that seemed to seep up from the ground.

"Never seen nothin' like it," he grunted as he pushed himself back to his feet. "There's all kinds of minerals and stuff down here. Whatever it is, there don't seem to be a lot of it," he murmured, noting the small size of the puddle.

A shrill whistle sounded in the distance.

"Time to go home," Jack smiled. "I'm gonna get some dinner, kiss my wife and kids and get some sleep," he groaned as he clapped a hand on Ben's shoulder. "Let's go, boy."

Ben glanced up and then back down at the small pool of the dark matter. "Is it just me," he asked, "or does this stuff look like it's moving?"

Jack laughed. "Probably just the light and shadows playing with ya." He reached out a hand to grab the younger man's arm and pull him to his feet.

"Come on," he urged. "Jenny and that baby o' yours are gonna be wonderin' where you are if you don't hurry up. And wipe that stuff off before you get it on me. These're new britches and Mary just made me this shirt. If I come home with an oily mess on me, she'll shoot me!"

Ben nodded and wiped his soiled hands on his shirt as he followed Jack through the tunnels and up to the surface.


The next morning, Jenny Nulty gathered up her husband's dirty clothes from the chair near their bed and threw them into a basket. She paused to check on the sleeping baby lying in a cradle near the stove and then carried the laundry outside, leaving the door open so that she could hear the baby.

She pulled Ben's work clothes from the basket. She plunged a shirt into the water of the washbasin and then ran a bar of soap over the wet material. As she scrubbed the shirt against the washboard, her thoughts turned to her husband. He had awakened, complaining of a headache and an unsettled stomach. She had wanted him to stay home from work, but he had brushed off her concerns and set off for the mine, reluctant to risk losing his job.

Jenny sighed as the dark stain on Ben's shirt stubbornly refused to come out. She ran her fingers over the stain and frowned at the tacky feeling substance. She rubbed the material harder against the washboard, scrubbing until her arms ached with the effort and still the stain refused to budge.

"Oh well," she grimaced. "It's just gonna get dirty again." She wrung the excess water from the shirt and clipped it to the clothesline. Turning back to the washbasin, she stumbled and almost fell. Looking down to see what had caused her to trip, she found a twenty-pound bag of feed for the chickens lying on the ground. She planted her hands on her hips and heaved out an annoyed sigh. Why would Ben set the bag in the middle of the yard? As she contemplated just leaving the bag there until her husband came home, she noted that the shirt she had just clipped to the clothesline was dripping directly onto the bag of feed. Muttering under her breath, she bent at the waist and used her apron to blot up the moisture. She grasped the edges of the burlap bag with both hands; straining, she hefted it into her arms and began to carry it across the small yard toward the barn. Three greedy hens squawked and fluttered around her, almost causing her to trip again, when a loud wail from the cabin caught her attention.

"Someone's up from her nap." Jenny looked around for a place to set down the bag of feed out of the way of the squawking chickens. She spied a low wooden barrel propped up against the side of the chicken coop. Upending it, she shoved the bag into the barrel. The baby's wails were growing louder and angrier. Jenny scooped up the wooden lid and slammed it on top of the barrel. She couldn't fathom the hens managing to get into the barrel, but for good measure she grabbed Ben's toolbox and set it on the lid.

"Shoo." She kicked a gentle foot toward the fluttering chickens. "You already had your breakfast." She wiped her hands on her damp apron and hurried in to feed her baby.


Ben Nulty staggered home beneath the lowering sun. The headache and upset stomach he had awakened with had only gotten worse as the day had passed. Now, every muscle in his body ached and his head pounded with a fierceness that threatened to drive him to his knees. He longed for nothing more than to lie down in the bed he shared with Jenny and sleep for the next ten hours.

He pushed open the door to the tiny cabin that was their home and found Jenny and the baby curled up on the bed. The baby whimpered fretfully and tears streamed down Jenny's face. Like Ben, they were both bathed in perspiration.

"Oh, Ben," Jenny cried weakly as she caught sight of her husband. "I'm so glad you're home." She held out a hand to him. "Sarah's sick. What're we gonna do?"

Ben stumbled across the room and dropped to his knees next to the bed. He lifted trembling fingers to the baby's cheek and then looked into this wife's frightened eyes.

"What're we gonna do, Ben?" she asked again.

He shook his head and rubbed his fists against his eyes. He blinked and tried to clear his vision, but suddenly it was as if he was looking at the world through mud-coated glass.

"Ben?" Jenny cried shrilly. "Ben! Ben!"

As he collapsed to the floor beside the bed, the last thing Ben Nulty heard before the world went black was his wife's desperate screams.



ROCKY MOUNTAIN INTERLUDE, Chapter One
By Char Chaffin and Tess
MSR, Casefile, AU
Rating: Strong R
Spoilers: FTF, Most of Season Seven

Disclaimers: Clones on Loan

Thanks: To Sallie, Carol and Teresa for beta above and beyond the call of duty; to Robin, Donna, AlyC and Shelba for preview and advice! Ladies, you're the tops!

Summary: While vacationing in Colorado Mulder and Scully uncover disturbing evidence that reflects the history of the alien virus -

Chapter One
Estes Park, Colorado
July, 2000

Mulder stepped out of the shower and briskly ran a towel over his arms and chest. He secured the towel around his waist and opened the bathroom door. He glanced around the hotel room and caught sight of Scully through the glass doors that led to the private balcony of their suite. Padding across the room, he slid open the doors and joined her.

"Breakfast should be here soon," she murmured as he slid his arms around her. She leaned her head against his chest and sighed contentedly. It was promising to be a spectacular day. The snowcapped peaks of the Rockies stood out in stark contrast against the brilliantly blue sky. Their balcony overlooked a clear, mountain lake and Rocky Mountain National Park.

"You glad we came?" He pressed a kiss against her cheek and she smiled softly. Eyes closed, she tilted her face upward, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her cheeks, the feel of Mulder's arms around her and the peacefulness of their surroundings. There had been so much upheaval in their lives in the last few months, beginning with the one-two punch of the death of Mulder's mother along with his acceptance of the permanent loss of Samantha from his life and culminating in their fruitless efforts to create a child.

When the last attempt at invitro fertilization had failed, she had been broken, beaten; he had picked her up and carried her through yet another crisis. And something between them... changed. Where once they had exclusively spent their evenings eating take-out and going over the latest case or writing up a report, they began instead to find time to relax and just enjoy one another's company without the excuse of work. A few tentative, almost shy kisses; eating popcorn and watching a few video rentals together - they learned to intersperse those moments into their lives. The intrusion of her past into their present leading her to the realization that all roads led directly to him... in the six weeks since, they had made the transition from friends to lovers with astounding ease.

They had cashed in two weeks of vacation time and had settled happily in the Colorado Rockies to relax and get to know each other away from all things familiar.

Scully opened her eyes and glanced back at him. "I'm very glad we're here," she smiled. "I've wanted to go away and spend workfree, alien-free, monster-free time with you for a very long time now," she admitted. She turned her attention back to the panoramic view before them. "What do you want to do today?"

"Weellll..." he drawled as his fingers played with the drawstring of her lightweight, cotton pajama bottoms. "I was thinking that we could..." Sneaky fingers dipped beneath the now-loosened material to trace a teasing pattern over the soft skin of her stomach.

She squirmed in a half-hearted protest. "Mulder, we've been here two days and we haven't left the hotel."

His teeth grazed her jaw in a nipping bite. "And that's a problem because...?" His hand slipped lower, encouraging her to his way of thinking.

"Breakfast will be here soon," she reminded him weakly.

He turned her in his arms. "That's good," he whispered. "You need to eat to keep up your strength."

Scully laughed and threw her arms around his neck. "Okay," she agreed. "But after breakfast, we're going out."

He drew her back into their room and eased her down onto the rumpled bed. "After lunch," he countered as he stretched out over her.

"We'll argue about it later," she murmured against his lips.


In the end, they compromised on a late breakfast and a stroll around town. Scully had been content to window shop but one store had drawn her attention and Mulder had followed her inside. The shop was filled with handcrafted leather goods and jewelry. Scully trailed her fingers over a beautifully stitched leather coat and then gravitated toward a glass case filled with Native American jewelry. As she poured over a display of silver and turquoise earrings, Mulder wandered around the shop. One small corner of the store was crammed with a clutter of postcards, maps and books dedicated to the area. He flipped through several travel guides and glanced with some interest at a map book of suggested scenic drives. He looked over his shoulder and saw that Scully was still raptly looking at the jewelry. He shoved the map book back onto the shelf and let his gaze wander over the rest of the books.

His eyes lit up at the title of one book and he drew it off the shelf. "Mysteries of Colorado: Hauntings, Ghost Towns and Other Strange Phenomena." He leaned against a wall and flipped to the table of contents.

"Hey Scully, listen to this." Book in hand he strolled across the room to her side. She smiled up at him as he leaned against the display case. "According to this book, there are a number of ghost towns in Colorado," he said as he skimmed through the book.

Scully immediately started to shake her head. Rising up on her toes, she brushed her mouth against his ear. "Work-free, alien-free, monster-free time," she reminded him in a whisper.

Mulder opened his mouth to protest, but then he remembered the 'nothing that goes bump in the night' pledge he had made to her when they were making their vacation plans. He stifled a regretful sigh and nodded in agreement.

"What do you think of these?" Scully tilted her head to show him the earrings she had chosen.

He tapped a finger against the jewelry. "Pretty," he agreed. He stroked his fingers over the curve of her cheek and turned away. As he wandered back to the other side of the store, he continued to flip through the book. On impulse, he veered away from the bookcase and carried the book to the counter.

"I'm going to take this," he told the old man working the cash register.

"There's a ghost town 'bout fifty miles from here," the man said as he tucked the book into a plastic bag.

"Yeah?" Mulder asked as he handed his money to the other man. "What can you tell me about it?"


The next day dawned as bright and beautiful as the previous day. After another late breakfast, Mulder and Scully decided to while away the rest of the morning hours relaxing by the hotel's pool. After slathering herself with sunscreen, Scully abandoned the idea of reading the book in her tote bag in favor of dozing in the warmth of the sun. While she slept, Mulder pulled out the book he had purchased and was soon engrossed in its stories.

Scully was startled from her sleep by the loud shrieking of two children as they cannonballed into the pool and the shrill sound of the lifeguard's admonishing whistle. She jerked awake and looked around blearily. "How long have I been asleep?" She sat up slowly and stretched her arms over her head.

Mulder tipped down his sunglasses to look at her. "About an hour," he replied. He tucked one finger into the book to mark his page and glanced over at her pinkened shoulders. "Do you think you need more sunscreen?" He reached toward the table next to his chair for the tube of cream. "I'd be happy to rub it on for you..."

"No thanks." A tiny smile quirked her lips upward. "I think I'm okay."

"Damn," he sighed mournfully.

"I will take a sip of your water though."

He handed her the plastic bottle and she smiled her thanks. She unscrewed the cap and took several long sips of the water.

"What are you reading?" She replaced the cap and rolled the cold plastic against her neck.

"Oh, just that book I showed you in the store yesterday."

She settled back against her chair. "The one about the haunted mysteries of Colorado?"

"Yep."

"Anything interesting?"

Mulder looked at her closely, trying to determine whether she was really interested or merely humoring him. Her sunglasses hid her eyes, but she seemed relaxed and the familiar tilt of her head told him that she was truly curious to know.

He shrugged. "A lot of the stories are your standard haunted house stories," he admitted. "But some of it's really interesting."

"For instance?"

He pushed his sunglasses up onto his head and rolled onto his side. "Reports of strange, hovering lights in the skies over the mountains," he said as he squinted against the sun's rays.

"Mulder, is there a reason why aliens are only interested in buzzing the most remote areas of the earth?" she asked dryly.

He laughed. "Don't use your Agent Scully voice with me," he warned.

She grinned. "Anything other than hauntings and aliens?"

"Well... there's a story about a ghost town not far from here."

"I don't get the fascination with ghost towns," Scully admitted. "I mean, a ghost town is just a place that was abandoned by its residents more than likely for economical reasons."

"Usually," Mulder agreed. "But according to this book, the residents of Millersburg didn't voluntarily move away..." His voice trailed off mysteriously.

"What happened to them?" she asked casually.

Mulder sat up and reached out to take the water bottle away from her. "I don't want to spoil it for you." He took a sip of water to hide his smile. He knew she was more interested than she cared to admit. "You can read the book when I'm finished with it," he offered generously. He pulled his sunglasses back down and settled himself more comfortably in his chair. He could feel her staring at him as he opened the book and began reading again.

She stood. "Maybe," she said, feigning complete disinterest. "If I'm finished with my own book." She glanced at her watch. "I think I'm going to run up to the room for a quick shower before we go to lunch." She collected her towel and tote bag. As she rounded his chair, he reached out and wrapped his hand around her wrist.

"Why don't you stay..." he tugged her down onto the chair next to him, "...and I'll tell you about the town of Millersburg."

Scully heaved a long-suffering sigh. "If it'll make you happy," she offered magnanimously. She stretched out on the lounge chair beside him and rested her cheek against the sun-warmed skin of his chest.

He set the book aside and tunneled his fingers into her hair. "It was a dark and stormy night..." he intoned in a solemn voice.

"Mulder." She raised her head and glared at him warningly.

"Alright." He urged her to lie back down. When she was settled comfortably against him, he began again.

"Well, the book says that Millersburg was founded in the early 1850's. The town sprang up around a gold mine. Men came out to work the mine. Some brought their families with them. Eventually, other businesses cropped up to support the families and soon enough Millersburg was a small, but growing town. They had a general store, a church, and a number of other small businesses. The mine was profitable and more and more people flocked to the area."

"If the mine was so profitable, and the town booming economically, why did everyone leave?" Scully traced her fingers over Mulder's ribs.

"That's what's so interesting," Mulder agreed. "The townspeople had every reason to stay."

"So, what happened to them?"

"No one knows. One day it was a vibrant place to live and then..."

She stacked her hands on his chest and propped her chin on them. "And then, what?" she demanded.

He stroked his fingers through the hair over her ear. "Then, they just..." he lowered his voice to a dramatic whisper, "...disappeared. One by one, until there was no one left."

"And no one knows what happened to them?" Her eyes widened in disbelief. "No one knows why they all left?"

"I didn't say they left," he contradicted. "I said they disappeared."

"Poof? They just disappeared?"

He nodded. "Uh huh."

"Just like that?" She snapped her fingers.

He nodded again. "Yep. Just like that."

She pursed her lips. "Maybe there was some kind of disease and they all died," she speculated.

Mulder fingered the silver and turquoise earring dangling from her ear. "There were no recent graves," he countered.

"But if a disease wiped out the whole town in close succession, they might not have had time to bury everyone..."

Again, he shook his head. "According to the story, there was a peddler who would come to the town regularly," he told her. "When the peddler returned to Millersburg - about a month after his last visit - he said that there wasn't a living soul to be found. No dogs. No horses or other animals. No people... and no bodies." He stroked his hand over her back. "The stores were still stocked with merchandise and all of their belongings were still in their homes. Tables were still set with dinner dishes. Clotheslines were heavy with laundry..." He felt a shiver run through Scully's body.

"Today, the only things left in the town are the remnants of the buildings and houses, the abandoned mine and the tiny graveyard by the church."

"Doesn't the book give any clues as to what happened?"

He shook his head. "No, but did you happen to see the man who sold me the book?"

Scully searched her memory. "An older gentlemen? He looked to be Native American."

Mulder nodded eagerly. "Yeah, that's him. He told me that his people have passed down a legend about the disappearance of the townsfolk of Millersburg."

She noted the sparkle in his eyes. "Uh, oh. I know that look!" She debated for a moment whether she wanted to hear the rest of the story, but in the end, as always, her curiosity won out over her trepidation. "Okay," she sighed. "What did he tell you?"

He grinned triumphantly. "Well, according to the legend, there were still small bands of Native Americans in the area around Millersburg. For several weeks in the year 1860, they noticed strange lights dancing in the skies over the town. When the last light had flickered away... so had all of the people."

"Aliens?" she scoffed.

"Well, not necessarily," he allowed. "According to the legend, the Indians believed the lights were the angry spirits of the earth taking their revenge on the people of Millersburg."

"Revenge for what?" she wondered.

"For the way the whites treated the earth. For stealing tribal land from the Indians. For blasting holes into the mountain and stealing her gold. For tearing down trees and polluting the water. For wasting the earth's bounty - killing more fish and animals than they could eat."

Scully sat up. "It's a pretty good story," she allowed with a smile.

Mulder rested his hand on her bare thigh. "You know," he said as he stroked his fingers over her leg, "going out there would really be more like a history lesson than anything else," he noted.

"A history lesson?" she said dryly. "Really?"

"Don't you wanna see how the pioneers really lived?" he asked. "First-hand instead of in some stuffy, old history book?"

"I'd rather see Rocky Mountain National Park," she waved a hand toward the nearby mountains. "You know... one of the reasons we came here in the first place?"

"According to the book, Millersburg is in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains." He sat up and ran the backs of his knuckles along the scooped neckline of her bathing suit. "For whatever reason, the area is pretty remote and undeveloped," he explained. "There are meadows filled with wildflowers, a creek that's fed by the snowmelt, small caves dot the hills. You can see hawks and eagles..."

He continued his campaign to wear down what he knew to be her token resistance. "We could take a picnic lunch, maybe a bottle of wine so that it's not too dull and boring a lesson." He dipped his head and pressed a warm kiss against her throat.

"God forbid we should be bored," she groaned.

"Fifty miles," he repeated. "We can check the place out today and still be back in time for a nice, romantic dinner this evening." He climbed to his feet. "What do you say?" He held out a hand.

She slipped her fingers into his hand and let him pull her up. "Okay. But I get to drive."



ROCKY MOUNTAIN INTERLUDE, Chapter Two
By Char Chaffin and Tess
MSR, Casefile, AU
Rating: Strong R
Spoilers: FTF, Most of Season Seven

Disclaimers: Clones on Loan

Thanks: To Sallie, Carol and Teresa for beta above and beyond the call of duty; to Robin, Donna, AlyC and Shelba for preview and advice! Ladies, you're the tops!

Summary: While vacationing in Colorado Mulder and Scully uncover disturbing evidence that reflects the history of the alien virus -

Chapter Two
Millersburg Mine
Rocky Mountain Foothills

They made good time on the back roads that wound through the foothills of the lower Rockies, reaching the turn-off to the Millersburg Mine roughly an hour after leaving Estes Park. Scully couldn't complain; the drive had been spectacular. Blindingly blue skies and an overload of green and flowering meadows, dotted with rocky hills and the lower mountain range in the background, the area was a visual treat. The narrow road had been almost deserted, and they'd only passed a few cars. Either Millersburg was relatively unknown or else few travelers on vacation were all that interested in ghost towns.

Well, leave it to Mulder... who caught her resigned grin as she slowed down and took the turn. He flicked his sunglasses off his nose and demanded, "What? You can't tell me you haven't been enjoying the drive, Scully. I know you better than that."

"I'm loving the drive, Mulder. Very picturesque. I was just noticing the lack of tourists in the vicinity, and thinking that we might be the only people in a hundred-mile area that care about poking around an abandoned mine. That's all." She parked in a sandy area nearby a large wooden sign that proclaimed they were 'At the Site of One of Colorado's Most Mysterious Ghost Mines.' Below those words was a smaller plaque that detailed Millersburg statistics: initial population, mining history, plus a list of notable flora and fauna that could be found nearby.

They climbed out of their rented Jeep and stretched stiff muscles, then clasped hands as they wandered down the rough path that formed behind the placard sign. There was a light breeze in the air, helping to ease the baking heat of the sun. In the lower foothills the climate was much dryer and hotter this time of year.

Scully peeled the damp shirt away from her back and complained, "I wish I hadn't let you talk me out of that tank top I wanted to wear. I'm already soaked to the skin." She eyed Mulder irritably, envying him the ability to tramp around in ninety-degree heat and barely break a sweat.

He grinned at her in mock-sympathy and lifted the damp hair off her neck, fanning her with his free hand. Scully sighed in relief and murmured her thanks; Mulder nuzzled her cheek before dropping her hair and propelling her back toward the Jeep. "Come on, SweatyGirl. Back to the air-conditioned interior of this prime rental vehicle. Let's drive as far into the mine area as we can and stay cool at the same time."

"Sounds like a plan to me. I'll even let you drive."

"Gee, thanks, Scully. You're too good to me," he deadpanned.

She swallowed a chuckle. "Damn straight, Mulder."

They piled back in the Jeep and flipped the air on full-blast, buckled themselves in and nosed their way along the pot-holed road. On either side, overgrown weeds and grasses were dotted with wildflowers and thin aspen trees stood out in stark contrast to the bright blue sky. The look of the town itself appeared as sparse buildings on the very outskirts, thickening into a rudimentary cluster of what might have been anything from a saloon to a post office or general store. They found themselves trying to guess aloud as they drove slowly past wooden structures in various stages of collapse, boards bleached and warped from almost a hundred and fifty years of sun, wind, rain and snow.

"That looks like the local beer joint, doesn't it? You can almost see the swinging doors, if you squint." Mulder pointed to a caved-in wooden frame that had one large side window and a gaping hole for a doorway. The raised sidewalk that ran along the front of the saloon was broken in pieces, especially around the window. "Know any good beer-drinking songs, Scully?"

She could just imagine a drunken miner getting tossed out through that large gap, after some kind of barroom brawl. Scully stared at the old structure, seeing it in just that way, and she couldn't help but smile. "As a matter of fact, I had a great-uncle who was fond of his beer, and was known to chug down a pitcher; then belt out a tune or two. I think his favorite was 'Behind the Swinging Doors'." She hummed a little, then quoted, "'the doors swing in and the doors swing out... where some pass in and others pass out...'"

"Hey, I've heard that one!" Mulder was delighted. "I remember one of the lines went, 'the story is told of a fool and his gold... behind the swinging doors.' How completely apropos, considering where we are right now. You continually amaze me with your knowledge of really old, really obscure tunes, Scully. I'm gonna have to get you to sing me to sleep again, one of these days."

She snorted, "Like that'll happen any time soon. Dream on, Mulder."

"You can bet I will."

They drove on through until the buildings thinned out again, which took very little time. They could have literally thrown a rock from end to end of Millersburg proper. Once past the town, the rutted road narrowed and steepened as it wound through the lower hills and the mine came into view.

"Wow. Check that out, Scully. I can't believe a place this cool isn't lousy with tourists and cheesy gift shops - and very glad it isn't. We should go up to that first hill and enjoy the view with our lunch." Mulder stopped the Jeep within a few yards of the collapsed mine entrance and they got out, reaching into the rear seat for the plastic bags they'd loaded with picnic supplies. With their hands full, they started up the incline toward the mining caves.

Despite the hot day, he was glad they'd worn jeans and cotton shirts, sturdy hiking boots. The ground was rough and there were low bushes full of prickly thistles. Although the incline wasn't unbearably steep, they weren't used to the over-bright sun and higher elevation, and found themselves out of breath by the time they reached the first large cave.

By mutual consent they stopped there and unloaded their bags. Scully had borrowed a small blanket that was obviously meant to cover the hide-a-bed in their hotel room. Since they had no intention of sleeping on it, she figured it would make an adequate tablecloth - and it did. She pulled it from her bag and began to spread it out; Mulder eyed it dubiously as he fished out plastic utensils and napkins.

"That looks suspiciously like the spare blanket from our room, Scully. Lay it down on the ground and it's gonna get all dirty and thistle-y. I hear the temperature is supposed to drop to fifty degrees tonight... what if I get cold in the middle of the night, and I need that blanket?" He turned a mock-worried glare on Scully and fought back a huge grin when she merely stuck out her tongue at him and continued to unfold the blanket.

"Well, Mulder... I suppose I could act as your blanket, in a pinch. I mean, I'd hate to see you freeze, and I certainly wouldn't want to be awakened in the middle of the night by your chattering teeth and shivering bones. So," she gave a dramatic sigh, "Feel free to use me. In any way you deem necessary." She peeped at him demurely from under her lashes as she added, "And there's no such word as 'thistley.'"

Mulder plopped himself down on the fluffy blanket and handed her a sandwich. "Doesn't matter if there is or isn't. Usage of said fabricated word got me what I wanted, didn't it? You, naked and covering me like my own personal blankee, Scully. Life is good." He leaned forward and caught her bottom lip in a nibbling little kiss, mouth curving against hers when she mumbled a suitable retort.

"Who said anything about 'naked, hmmm? I plan on wearing the ugliest flannel pajamas I own."

His tone was supremely smug. "You don't own any ugly flannel jammies, Scully - not anymore. I burned them all in the fireplace, the morning after our first night together."

"Ah, I thought I smelled smoldering cotton that day. At the time I assumed it was the inside of your sneakers, Mulder."

"Wise-ass."

They ate in the sun and traded good-humored insults and gentle sarcasm, enjoying the novelty of being able to spend time together away from work-related pressures. It seemed lately their daily grind had been especially heavy and could easily be compared to canal-water sucking. This vacation was going to be so good for them.

Mulder swallowed the last bite of his sandwich and took a huge gulp of lemonade from his thermos; then leaned back on his elbows and closed his eyes against the bright sunlight. The breeze had kicked up a little and the cooler air felt good. He could hear Scully rewrapping plastic and snapping lids on containers. When she curled next to him and laid her head on his chest, he brought a hand up and threaded his fingers through her hair, holding her close. The quiet of the day was broken only by an occasional bird-twitter and buzzing fly.

"I could get used to this kind of complete inactivity, Mulder - how about you?" Her murmur vibrated against his shirt. Mulder stroked her hair and smiled, eyes still closed.

"Definitely. Although eventually I'd like to nose around that cave over yonder, Scully. I've done my share of spelunking in my life, y'know."

"Well, when you did I sure hope you used the appropriate protection." Her voice was the ultimate monotone, and Mulder retaliated by rolling her on her back and tickling her mercilessly.

Over her shrieks of protesting laughter he growled, "That's two instances of 'wise-ass'; I should just spank you now and get it over with. But I'll be nice and hold off, if you'll get up off those adorable buns of yours and do a little unprotected spelunking with me. We got a deal?" He held her wriggling body close and blew noisy kisses into her neck, loving the giggles that erupted from her as she squirmed against him.

"Okay, okay! I'll do it! Just stop, Mulder, I'll do anything! I can't breathe!" Her giggles became hiccups as he gave her one final squeeze and released her, standing up and pulling at her hands until she gained her feet and leaned into him, holding her breath to stop the hiccups. She glared at him as she managed to get herself under control. "You're a sadist. And I'm going to get you back, one way or another, so watch yourself, Pal."

"Promises, promises."

They scooped up the remains of their picnic and locked it in the Jeep. Scully slung her leather carryall over her shoulder, adjusting it until it fit her like a backpack. Mulder looked askance at the incongruity of cave-hopping wearing a purse, and she shot one raised eyebrow his way as if daring him to comment. Shrugging and mumbling a teasing, "Not a word, honest," he grabbed their flashlights and they climbed up the short incline leading to the mouth of the cave.

It wasn't the largest of the four caves within view of the old mine, but it seemed big enough to stand up in and even Mulder only had to duck his head a few times. With both flashlights on, they could see dampness on the cave walls, indicating a possible water source somewhere within. There was no way of telling how far back into the hills this particular cave retreated, but they were both game to find out.

"Smells funky in here. I detect mold, mildew, basic root rot and something else indefinable. And it's NOT burning flannel, so don't even go there, Mulder."

He was all innocence. "Wouldn't even think it. And yet, I can't help but contemplate that maybe deep within the channels of this ancient cave, we'll find mushrooms. Yum, Scully... dinner."

"Oh, yuk." On a good day, Scully barely tolerated mushrooms, usually accepting their presence in her food only if they were sparsely sprinkled on a pizza and coated well with cheese. The idea of scavenging the nasty little toadstools from a dank cave was too repulsive to contemplate. "Good thing I'm not hungry, isn't it?"

"You're such a picky eater."

She readily nodded, "When it comes to eating fungus, yes I am."

They slowly made their way further into the cave, occasionally pointing their beams along the floor and noting dampness there as well. Luckily as yet they hadn't found any animal droppings, which was a relief. Although the cave ceiling wasn't very high, it was encrusted in places with bits of stalactite-like formations. As their progress within narrowed and they had to venture single-file, Mulder led the way with Scully holding onto the back of his shirt with one hand and keeping her flashlight steady with the other.

"I feel like a five-year old, hanging onto you like this... but the last thing we need to do is become separated, especially if the cave channels out into several corridors." Scully felt the need to rationalize her death-grip on his clothing.

Mulder was quick to reassure her. "Hey, if our positions were reversed you can be sure I'd have a fist twisted in your shirt, Scully. Better safe than sorry."

"Okay, but you'd better not breathe a word of this to anyone, Mulder. I've got a rep to protect."

It was his turn to mutter, "Oh, brother."

The cave corridor finally widened a bit and then made a fairly sharp curve to the right. Mulder, not expecting it, stumbled and Scully bumped into him and dropped her flashlight. She stuck out a hand to brace herself and her palm hit a wall of damp rock; she bit back a curse as the rough surface cut her.

"Ouch, dammit!"

Mulder shone his flashlight on her briefly, blinding her for a second, before he realized what he was doing and tilted the beam toward the ground. "Sorry, Scully. Did you hurt yourself? Where?"

She felt around on the floor of the cave with her uninjured hand until she located the fallen flashlight, retrieving it and shining it on herself. "I cut my hand on the wall. It stings but it's not a deep cut, Mulder. Just caught me by surprise. I've got a few bandaids in my backpack."

"You mean that stylish leather thing you've got slung over your shoulders? Looked like a purse to me." He chose teasing over worry, figuring she'd kick his ass if he hovered over her.

Scully's reaction was comfortably predictable. "It's not a purse, Mulder. You know I don't do purses. This is a small backpack and luckily for both of us, I stocked it with several necessities, before we left home. Band-aids. Aspirin and Tums. "

"What, no mint-flavored unwaxed dental floss?" When she didn't answer right away Mulder swung the flashlight a little closer to her face. "You did, didn't you? Dental floss. I can't believe you keep dental floss in your purse, Scully."

Her disgruntled, "It's NOT a purse," made him break out in a huge grin.

"Well, whatever. Turn around so I can reach it and I'll go digging in your... backpack... for the band-aids." Mulder spared her any further purse-grief as he shone his flashlight on the outer flap of her bag, rooting inside until he found the small package. With Scully holding the light for him, he made short work of unwrapping the largest band-aid he could find, examining her hand briefly and even carefully washing it with a little of the water from the bottle he'd had strapped to his belt loop. Thankfully there was very little grit embedded in the cut, and the bleeding had stopped. But who knew what kind of ancient crud and assorted bacteria could be found on the cave walls?

When he muttered this under his breath as he wiped her hand dry with a clean handkerchief and affixed the band-aid, Scully fought back an exasperated laugh. Mulder WAS being very sweet, taking such careful care of what really was no big deal. She kissed him on the cheek after he finished and had the satisfaction of seeing one of his cheeks flush pink, before she lowered the flashlight and sent it over the surface of the wall her palm had hit. She couldn't see anything other than a typical cave wall, stone and grit with moss growing - and carvings...

Wait a minute. Carvings?

While Mulder re-snapped his water bottle back on his belt loop and picked up his own flashlight, Scully stepped closer and shone hers in a wider arc. Sure enough, there were carvings all over the wall. She squinted a little, trying to decide whether she was seeing letters or drawings; murmuring, "Mulder, take a look at this. Carvings. Native American, do you think?"

She kept the beam trained on the markings as Mulder added his light and edged closer to the wall. He studied the markings, noting an odd combination of figures, letters and numbers. There seemed to be no specific order or pattern to the sequence; he tilted his head to the side, trying to imagine the age; the era.

He blew out a breath and shook his head, "I have no idea, Scully. Could be anything. There are numbers here, at least they look like numbers to me. And here," he pointed to a crooked 'A', "definitely a letter. Over here," he flicked the beam a few inches to the left, "this looks like an animal. There's a rudimentary tail, and that point on the head could be an ear. It's very crude but I'm sure to the one who carved this, it made perfect sense to him."

Scully raised an eyebrow at the use of pronoun. "'He?' What makes you think the creator of this 'artwork' was a man, Mulder?" As she spoke she reached out for his hand, squeezing his fingers to show she was teasing him; her other hand touched the wall to trace over the 'animal'...

As her bandaged palm pressed against the deep carving, suddenly it felt as if all the air in the world had vanished; she gasped and swayed, unable to breathe. Dimly she head Mulder coughing, his hand gripping hers so tightly it caused pain. There was a sound like a million mosquitoes circling her now-aching head; she fought to stand upright and instead found herself pushed to the cave floor by heavy, invisible weights. Unable to release Mulder's hand, she pulled at him and he came down hard next to her as she fell to the ground.

Her eyes felt glued shut; she couldn't open them. Her throat closed up in utter panic; she couldn't speak, couldn't scream. All around them the cave walls began to vibrate, then shimmer. Scully held on tightly to Mulder, there on the dirt floor... and her last conscious thought ripped through her numbed mind like a thunderclap.

"MULDER!"


He awoke with a raging headache and a sour taste in his mouth. Nausea hovered close by as well, and when Mulder forced his eyes open, pushing trembling fingers into his aching temples, the nausea advanced from hovering to full-attack-mode. Groaning, he rolled onto his side, raised himself shakily to his knees and was miserably sick on the dirt floor of the cave. As he expelled his lunch he was dimly aware of Scully stirring on the ground next to him... then moaning and retching as well.

Jesus, what the hell had they eaten that gave both of them food poisoning?

With one last heave, Mulder managed to sit up, swiping sweaty hair out of his eyes and reaching out a still-shaky hand to rub at Scully's shoulder as she gagged and coughed up her lunch. He could hear himself murmuring to her but the words sounded muffled and cottony to his ears. When she leaned against him in exhaustion, Mulder looped an arm weakly around her shoulders and eased her head down onto his chest. Scully sighed gratefully and rested, both of them fighting to get their stomachs under control.

"Mulder, God... what the hell did we eat?" Her voice was raspy from her ordeal. Mulder stroked the hair back from her damp forehead, noting even in the dimness of the cave the pale white of her skin. He was sure his face was just as pasty.

He took a cautious breath before replying, relieved to know his stomach was starting to calm down. "I don't think it was anything we ate, Scully. We'd still be suffering, and I don't know about you but my stomach is almost back to normal."

Scully sat up gingerly, rubbing sweat and grit from her cheeks. "Mine seems to be better as well. God, that was damned weird. Felt as if all the air had been sucked out of me, and I couldn't see or breathe."

Mulder nodded, "I felt the same way. Utterly weird." No sooner were the words out of his mouth than they both felt the cave floor vibrate again, then a loud explosive sound shook the walls around them. Scully jumped and grabbed at Mulder's arm.

"What the hell...!"

They scrambled to their feet and both swayed dizzily as a cloud of what smelled like burning gunpowder wafted in from the direction of the mouth of the cave. Mulder sniffed and declared, "That's dynamite. Or something like it. Damn, Scully... someone's bombing around here! Maybe trying to reopen the mine? We've got to get out of here."

They retrieved one flashlight but couldn't find the other. There was no time to waste looking around for it. Scully's backpack was hanging off a shoulder but was still closed; she slipped the loose strap back into place and held onto Mulder's hand as they made their way back to the cave opening...

Only to find that while they'd been unconscious - or whatever they'd been - in the cave, life and the world as they knew it had been inexplicably altered, for outside that cave opening was daylight and bustle and a scene straight out of an Old West film.

They ducked back into the overhanging cave entrance, panicked, confused... and then peeped out, not believing their own eyes.

Men were pushing wheelbarrows full of rocks and dirt, wearing rough dungarees and homespun shirts, dusty hobnail boots on their feet. Some of them wore equally dusty cowboy-style hats. Some were barechested and others wore suspenders that held up their pants. Some were clean-shaven and others sported long and scraggly-shaped beards. They called out to each other in voices carrying a definite twang. They were grimy and sweaty as only miners can get, when hard at work. The scene was bustling and noisy, loud with the coarse language of the common man, peppered with the braying of what sounded like mules, or donkeys. It looked foreign and yet oddly familiar - and frightening as hell.

"Jesus, Mulder... where ARE we?" Scully's voice shook and her hand was gripping his so hard that he knew she'd leave bruises behind.

He swallowed audibly and his worried gaze coated her in fresh panic. His words reinforced the panic.

"I think the question might instead be... WHEN are we?"



ROCKY MOUNTAIN INTERLUDE, Chapter Three By Char Chaffin and Tess
MSR, Casefile, AU
Rating: Strong R
Spoilers: FTF, Most of Season Seven
Feedback: to Tnv099@aol.com; char@chaffin.com

Headers and summary, see Part 1

Chapter Three
Millersburg Mine
Rocky Mountain Foothills

They spent the remainder of the day hidden from view in the shadows just inside the mouth of the cave. As the afternoon waned, Mulder's panic and confusion gave way to a tiny niggling of excitement. In contrast, he could feel the tension pouring from Scully in nearly palpable waves. She sat on the dirt floor with her knees drawn tightly to her chest. She had barely said a word in the time since he had proffered the idea that they might have traveled back in time. He knew from years of partnership that Scully would not eagerly embrace this experience and that it would take some time before her natural curiosity asserted itself. While he fairly itched to leave the shelter of the cave and poke around the unfamiliar surroundings, he knew that they should take the very first opportunity to try to get back to where they belonged. He had promised her a relaxing vacation and judging by the barely perceptible way she was rocking back and forth, he was sure that this did not qualify as relaxing.

"Look at your watch!" she hissed. He jumped as her voice broke the heavy silence that had settled between them. He leaned into a stray beam of sunlight that had penetrated the vegetation hanging over the cave opening and peered at his watch.

"What am I looking for?"

"I don't know," she whispered. "Maybe we're missing time. It might explain what's going on." She flicked a hand toward the bustling activity of the miners mere yards from where they were hiding.

Mulder's eyes widened in astonishment and he lowered his mouth to her ear. "Since when do you believe in lost time?"

She jerked her head away from him. "If my options are lost time or time travel..." She shrugged bad-temperedly.

Mulder stifled a sigh and rubbed his hand soothingly over her back. "I didn't look at the time when we came into the cave," he told her. "But judging by the angle of the sun, I think my watch is correct."

She tapped her forehead rhythmically against her upraised knees. "I knew you were going to say that."

"Look," he began, "it'll be dark soon and things should quiet down around here. As soon as we can, we'll try to find some answers. Okay?"

She nodded and inched closer to him. "Sorry," she muttered. "I don't mean to take it out on you."

He wrapped an arm around her shoulder and dropped a kiss onto the top of her head. "It's okay," he soothed. "We'll figure it out. We always do."

She peered up at him doubtfully.

"Well," he admitted, "we almost always figure it out."

Scully huffed out a sarcastic laugh and leaned her head against his shoulder.

"Sometimes," he amended. "Sometimes we almost always figure it out."

She turned her cheek against his shirt and inhaled his familiar scent. Sometimes, she repeated silently. She didn't like the odds.


A shrill whistle startled them out of an uneasy doze. The sun was quickly sinking behind the mountains, bathing the sky in an everdarkening purple. The fading light couldn't penetrate the shadows where they'd hidden themselves and they crawled even closer to the mouth of the cave, watching as man after man streamed out of the mine.

"End of the shift." Mulder's voice was barely audible. Scully nodded silently, her eyes following the men as they dropped their shovels and picks into a large pile before they trudged down the hillside, presumably toward their homes.

They sat quietly and listened to the sounds of the men's voices fading away and waited an interminable length of time, straining their ears for any sounds of activity.

Scully tugged on Mulder's hand. "Let's go," she breathed softly. He nodded and they eased out of the cave. The rising moon was bright overhead and the stars were brilliant against the midnight blue sky. They paused just outside of the cave entrance and looked around for any sign of movement. They scanned the area, trying to get their bearings.

"I think we left the Jeep down there," Scully pointed. Mulder's head bobbed in agreement and clasping her hand tightly in his, they began to pick their way down the uneven ground of the hillside. They reached the bottom of the hill and found no sign of the Jeep. No tire tracks to indicate that anyone had driven it away or indeed to prove that the Jeep had ever been there in the first place. The potholed road they had driven along to reach the cave was little more than a narrow, crude path that showed only the heavy tracks of wagon wheels and booted feet.

"This isn't possible," Scully whispered angrily. She stalked down the path toward the place where the road had changed to blacktop but there was no paved road. No telephone poles or planes flying overhead. No sign of modern day civilization at all.

Mulder slowly followed her down the path, allowing Scully to work out the reality of their situation on her own.

"This isn't possible," she repeated as he stopped in front of her. She dropped her forehead against his chest and twisted her fingers into his shirt, grounding herself in him.

Knowing that it was important that she regain her composure on her own, he quietly offered his support. He rubbed his jaw against her hair and looped his arms around her waist, hugging her gently. He felt the warm exhalation of her breath as she blew out a sigh against his shirt.

"Okay." She stepped out of his arms. "Let's think about this. What were we doing when everything went black?"

He shrugged. "We were looking at the cave drawings, weren't we?"

Scully's eyes rounded. "We were touching them..." She bit her lip and searched her memory. "We were touching them," she repeated in a murmur, "and then suddenly it felt like all the air had been sucked out of the cave." She looked up. "Was that the way it felt to you?"

He dipped his head in agreement. "Yeah. My head started pounding and there was this buzzing noise and then all of a sudden..."

"All of a sudden, it was too hard to stay on your feet?"

"Yeah."

Scully looked over his shoulder at the cave nestled in the hillside.

"Let's go." She bolted past him, her booted feet pounding against the rocks as she raced up the hillside. Mulder took off after her, his longer stride allowing him to catch up with her quickly. Her feet skidded on some loose gravel and he clamped a hand around her upper arm to steady her.

"Careful," he warned. "The situation is bad enough."

She recovered her balance and slowed down. She was reminded of the high altitude as her lungs burned with the exertion of her headlong sprint up the hill. They climbed the last few yards in a silence broken only by the sound of their heavy breathing.

They reached the cave and instinctively recoiled at the unrelenting darkness. Scully groped for Mulder's hand.

"Do you have your flashlight?" she asked.

He patted his pockets and came up empty. "Check your backpack."

They stepped out of the cave again and in the light of the moon, Scully rooted through her backpack.

"Here it is!" she exclaimed with relief.

Mulder took the flashlight from her and once again, he led the way into the cave. Unlike earlier in the day when she had stayed connected to him by winding her hand into his shirt, this time she snagged his hand with hers. He squeezed her fingers reassuringly and they moved forward.

With only the one flashlight to guide their way, they moved cautiously. The small light danced over the walls and floor as they crept slowly through the dank corridor.

"I think we're close," Mulder muttered as the beam of light revealed the corridor's sharp curve to the right. They eased around the turn and Mulder played the flashlight's beam over the wall as they searched for the cave drawings.

"There!" The crude artwork was illuminated in the glow of the flashlight.

Mulder let go of Scully's hand and moved closer to the cave wall. "Do you remember what part of the drawings we were touching when it happened?" He lifted his fingers towards the drawings.

"Wait!" Scully yanked on his sleeve and pulled him back a step. Mulder tossed her a startled look over his shoulder.

"What's wrong?"

"I don't want you going anywhere without me," she said. "Weren't we holding hands when it happened?"

Mulder blew out a low whistling 'whew'. "You're right." He wrapped the fingers of his free hand around one of hers. "I'll hold the flashlight," he said. "You... you go ahead and touch the wall."

Scully nodded nervously and wiped her other hand against her jeans. "Okay," she whispered. She raised her fingers toward the cave drawings. "Here goes nothing." Their grip on each other tightened and she actually squeezed her eyes closed as she tentatively laid her hand against the damp wall, and...

Nothing. No buzzing noises in their heads. No vibrating walls. Just the sounds of their rapid breathing and the occasional faint drip-drip of water from somewhere deep inside the mountain.

"Maybe we should try another spot?" he suggested. She bit her lip and nodded. They worked their way from one end of the series of images to the other, every inch of the drawings covered by her hand and still nothing happened.

"Now what?" Scully dropped her hand away from the wall.

"I don't know," Mulder admitted.

"Are you saying that we're stuck here?"

He ran his hand over the rigid length of her spine. "For now, yes. It would seem so."

She nodded wearily. "That's what I thought."

He slipped his arm around her waist. "It's late and we're tired. Let's try to get some rest and regroup in the morning."

She shrugged her backpack from her shoulders and sank down to the ground. "Okay."

He squatted beside her and rested the flashlight on the ground. "I don't suppose you have anything to eat in that backpack?" he asked hopefully.

She propped the bag on her lap and began to rummage through it. A moment later she withdrew her hand and held out two cellophane wrapped packages. "Peanut butter crackers or cheese and wheat?"

Mulder snatched one package from her hand. "Definitely peanut butter," he said as he fumbled with the plastic wrapping. "Let's save the wheat crackers for breakfast."

They slowly ate the crackers and washed them down with the water left in the bottle snapped to Mulder's belt. Scully dusted her hands together and brushed the orange cracker crumbs from her shirt.

"I guess we should try to get some sleep," she said. She shifted around on the hard ground, trying to find a comfortable position and leaned back against the cave wall. Mulder settled in next to her and draped an arm over her shoulder.

"We should probably conserve the batteries," he commented and thumbed off the flashlight's switch. They were instantly immersed in complete darkness. The light flashed back on.

"Okay," Mulder breathed. "There's dark... and then there's DARK!" Scully looked at him and nodded in wide-eyed agreement. They grinned nervously at one another. They had spent most of their professional lives working and living in varying degrees of darkness, but they were both a little spooked by the impenetrable blackness of the cave.

"Maybe if we go back to the cave opening?" she proposed.

Mulder pushed himself to his feet and held out a hand to help her up. "Let's go."

They inched their way back and a few minutes later were rewarded by the faint glow of the moonlight as they reached the front of the cave. Mulder turned the flashlight off again and they both breathed a little easier as the moonlight seeping through the overhanging vegetation lent a soft light to their surroundings.

"Much better," Scully declared. She shivered a bit and ran her hands over her arms. The warmth of the day had been lost with the rising moon.

"Cold?" Mulder pulled her down onto the ground and they burrowed into each other, sharing their body heat. He rested his cheek against her hair; she tucked her face into the curve of his neck.

"What time is it?" Her breath puffed against his skin, warming him. His arms were wrapped around her waist and he peered over her shoulder at the illuminated face of his watch.

"A little after nine," he told her.

"It feels later than that," she admitted. "Doesn't it?"

"Mmmm," he murmured in agreement. She shifted again and this time found a more comfortable niche to rest her back against. She leaned back and pulled him toward her so that he was resting some of his weight on her.

"Better?" she asked.

He stifled a yawn and nodded. "Yes. But are you sure you're comfortable?"

She stretched her legs out and flexed her toes inside her hiking boots. "As comfortable as I'm going to get in here," she told him.

They tangled their legs together and tried to relax. He could feel the tension knotting her muscles and his hands slipped under her shirt and skated over her back in long, comforting strokes. She could feel his pulse pounding in his throat and her fingers sifted through his hair rhythmically. And as the moon rose higher and higher before beginning its descent, they slept.


The next morning greeted them with the watery light that precedes dawn and the chirping of the birds as they too awoke to meet the day. Mulder lifted his head from its resting place on Scully's shoulder and found her blinking awake.

"Oh," she groaned and stretched her arms over her head. "It would have been too easy for all of this to be a dream, huh?"

Mulder snorted out a soft laugh. "For us, yeah."

Scully climbed to her feet and winced as the aches and pains brought on from a night sleeping propped up against a rock wall made themselves known.

She scooped up her bag and pulled out a small travel-sized package of tissues. "I'm just gonna..." She jerked her thumb toward the cave entrance. He nodded, and feeling a pressure on his own bladder, followed her cue and stepped outside. He was watching a pair of birds fighting over a worm when Scully returned.

"There's a small creek around the bend," she announced as she approached. "We can refill the water bottle."

"You're not worried about any runoff or pollution from the mine?"

She frowned. "The water was clear and there's a lot of small fish and plant life." She shrugged. "My guess is that it's safe, but there's always a risk."

He followed her around the side of the cave and they settled in the grass near the creek. Mulder plunged the plastic bottle into the water. He lifted the bottle to his nose for a cautious sniff.

"Smells okay." He took a sip and shrugged. "Tastes fine, too."

"Just don't drink too much," she cautioned.

They split the remaining package of crackers for breakfast. The creek water cheerfully burbled over the rocks. Wildflowers dotted the lush grass on either side of the creek. Birds flitted overhead and two rabbits crept out and were daintily nibbling on their own breakfast about twenty yards away. The setting was absolutely tranquil and Scully couldn't help but think about the impromptu picnic they had enjoyed the previous day before everything went to hell.

She crumpled up the cellophane wrapper and stuffed it back into her bag.

"Mulder, what are we going to do?"

He took another sip of water and lifted his face toward the rising sun. "We can't stay here." He lowered his gaze to hers.

"But if this is where were when we... when it... when..." She shook her head in frustration, still unable to wrap her brain around the idea of time travel.

"I know." He plucked a blade of grass and twirled it between his thumb and forefinger. "But until we can figure a way out of here, we need better shelter, food..."

She propped her chin on her knees and absently watched the water flowing in the creek. "Ummm... I think that mining first started in Colorado in the 1850's," she murmured in a worried voice.

"Yeah..."

They lapsed into a troubled silence.

"Judging from the way those men were dressed yesterday, I'd say we're not too far off that mark," Mulder finally commented.

Nineteenth century, Colorado. It was too difficult a concept to imagine.

"We need to get away from the mine before the morning shift arrives," he gently urged. "It's early still; maybe we can poke around a bit, see what else is around." He stood and wiped off the seat of his jeans before pulling her to her feet.

They started down the rough, dirt road that wound its way through the foothills, unsure of where it would lead them. They had been walking for about twenty minutes when they heard the rumbling of wagon wheels in the distance. Slipping off the road, they hid in a small copse of trees as a group of men trudged up the road toward the mine.

"Morning shift," Mulder whispered. Scully dipped her head in response and counted approximately twenty men as they passed. Just as before, they were roughly dressed and the equipment loaded into the lone wagon showed no signs of twenty-first century ingenuity.

As the miners disappeared around a bend in the road, Mulder and Scully stepped clear of the trees.

"Maybe we should stay off the road," she suggested.

"Yeah. Let's keep it in sight though. It's got to lead someplace."

They walked through the thicket of trees running parallel to the road for another hour and stumbled to a stop at the sight of a cabin. They ducked down as a woman stepped outside to scatter feed to the chickens pecking in a small pen. Two children raced out of the cabin.

"Got yer schoolbooks?" The woman wiped her hands off on the apron tied around her waist.

"Yes, Mama," the children chorused.

"Well, let's get goin'." The woman herded her children away from the small cabin and they set off down the road.

"Scully, look."

She followed his pointing finger toward a clothesline heavy with clean laundry, including several dresses.

"Oh, no," she said in a low warning voice as she realized his intention. "We can't steal that woman's clothes," she hissed.

"Borrow, Scully. Borrow."

She shook her head. "Look at this place, Mulder. It's so small. She probably only has a few dresses. How can I take one of them? She'd know right away that one was missing."

"I know. But you stand out like a sore thumb dressed the way you are."

"Well... maybe we can just stay out of sight and it won't matter."

"No. We already said that we need to find food and better shelter. And besides, someone might know something about those cave drawings."

"We'll never blend in," she argued.

"Certainly not with you dressed like that," he countered. "I can probably get away with what I'm wearing, but you can't."

"Regardless of what we're wearing, anyone that we meet will know right away that we're out of place."

"Yes, but they'll just think that we're from another part of the country, or maybe a bit odd. No one is going to assume that we're from the future!"

"We're taking a risk."

"We're probably going to have to take several if we want to get back home."

She ground her teeth in frustration. "Let's make it quick." Despite her words, they cautiously made their way closer to the small homestead. While Mulder kept watch, Scully plucked a dress from the clothesline and they hurried back to disappear into the tree line. They waited a few moments to see if anyone had noticed them, but no one raised an alarm.

Scully sat on the ground to unlace her boots and then stood up to strip out of her jeans and shirt. She hurriedly pulled the dress over her head.

"It's too big." She plucked at the excess material over her breasts and looked down to where the hem was practically dragging in the dirt.

"It'll be fine." He stepped behind her and began fastening the dozen or so buttons that ran up the back of the dress and tied the sash into a haphazard bow at the base of her spine.

She smoothed her hand over the blue and tan checked material and pushed back the cuffs that hung past her wrists. She sat back down and stuffed her feet back into her boots and quickly laced them back up. As she stood, the skirt of the dress fell to cover her distinctly non-1800's footwear.

"I guess we should... I don't know, hide these someplace." She scooped up her discarded clothes and folded them into a neat pile. Looking around, she saw a small outcropping of rocks and stuffed her clothes into a crevice between the rocks. Mulder slung both straps of her bag over one shoulder and they set off again.

They continued their journey in near silence, each at a loss as to what to say. Scully tripped twice over the too-long hem of her dress. Cursing softly under her breath, she gathered up the skirt in one hand. Mulder caught her other hand in his and squeezed her fingers comfortingly.

Hand-in-hand, they plodded on.



ROCKY MOUNTAIN INTERLUDE, Chapter Four By Char Chaffin and Tess
MSR, Casefile, AU
Rating: Strong R
Spoilers: FTF, Most of Season Seven
Feedback: to Tnv099@aol.com; char@chaffin.com

Headers and summary, see Part 1

Chapter Four
Millersburg, Colorado

They crested a hill and the quiet suddenly dropped away. On the other side of the hill was a bustling town. They immediately recognized the basic structures as the same dilapidated buildings they had encountered on their drive the day before. But this was no ghost town. Millersburg was alive and humming with activity.

"Oh, my God," Scully breathed. "How? I really didn't believe... I still can't. But, oh. Look at this, Mulder."

He was looking and despite his more ready belief, still couldn't grasp what he was seeing. Somehow, some way they had been transported back to the nineteenth century.

Horses and wagons vied for space on the dirt streets with people darting from one establishment to another. A raised, wooden sidewalk connected the buildings. Their guesses from the prior day had been very close to the mark. A quick glance around the town showed a general store, saloon and telegraph office along with a number of other businesses.

Women in long dresses and prairie bonnets walked through the streets carrying baskets brimming with their day's purchases. Horses tied near a trough dipped their heads to lap up the cool water. Despite the pre-noon hour, a few men loitered outside the saloon door while others could be seen going about their jobs. At the far end of town, they saw children chasing each other through a field near a small schoolhouse.

So entranced were they by the scene, they forgot to keep out of sight and failed to hear the sound of approaching footsteps until it was too late.

"You're strangers 'round these parts." Startled, they turned to face the owner of the voice.

"Excuse me?" Scully tightened her grip on Mulder's hand and shifted closer to him. Although they had stolen the dress so that she wouldn't stand out in a crowd, they had hoped to lie low and stay out of sight for at least a little while longer. They had no plan in place. No cover story.

"I said you're strangers." A woman of an indeterminate age held her hand over her brow to shade her eyes from the sun. "I've never seen you around here before."

Caught off balance, they stared at her dumbly. The woman cocked her head to one side, her eyes flitting from one face to the other.

"You have names, don't you?" she prompted.

"Oh!" Mulder exclaimed. "Of course." Thinking quickly, he slipped his arm around Scully's waist and hugged her to his side. "My name is... William - Will Mulder. And this is my... my wife, Kate." He scrubbed his hand against his jeans and held it out. The woman hesitated a moment before shaking his hand.

"Where are you from?"

"Virginia, ma'am," he replied politely. "Just outside of Washington."

"That's a long ways from here. I don't see a wagon or any horses..." She glanced around and planted her hands on her hips. "Don't tell me you walked all the way from Virginia," she harrumphed disbelievingly.

"Oh, no ma'am." Mulder pasted his most charming and beguiling smile on his face and laughed softly. "We... we took the train as far as far as we could." He prayed that his knowledge of the history of the expansion of the country would hold up to scrutiny. "And we've been riding stage coaches ever since."

"The stage only comes to Millersburg twice a month." A note of doubt crept into her voice. "And it's not due here for another week."

"Yes, ma'am," he nodded his head earnestly. "We weren't traveling to... Millersburg, you say?" His lips turned down and he sighed heavily. A small part of him was enjoying creating this story. "We were traveling to Denver, but our stage was robbed."

The woman pressed her fingers to her mouth and gasped, "Indians?"

He shook his head. "No, ma'am. We didn't see any Indians. Just three men on horseback. They took everything we had, didn't they, honey?" His arm tightened around Scully's waist, prompting her reply.

"Yes." She fought the urge to send him a warning glare. "Everything."

He resumed the narrative. "We've been walking ever since. This town is the first sign of civilization that we've seen in three days." He was making the story up on the fly and hoping that it sounded believable.

The woman stared at them for another moment, lips pursed as she considered their story. Suddenly, her stern features noticeably softened and a friendly smile wreathed her face.

"Mercy! You must be exhausted." She patted a hand against Scully's arm; then her fingers plucked at the loose material in the waist of Scully's too-large dress. "Looks like you've lost some weight." She made a tsk'ing sound. "And you're such a tiny thing to begin with." Before Scully could take irritated exception at being called 'tiny', the woman gave Scully another quick once-over; then pointed to her hair. "Guess I thought Indians right off because it looks as if someone cut off all your hair." Though her words were innocuous enough, her tone held some lingering doubt.

Scully fought to keep blank panic from her face. She hadn't even given a thought to how odd her hairstyle would look in an era when a woman's crowning glory was long, luxurious hair. If only they'd swiped a bonnet as well as the dress...

Thinking fast, she passed a hand over her short hair and blurted out the first thing she could fabricate. "I had... a fever. I had to have all of my hair cut off to help bring it down." She hated lying to this poor woman, but didn't see any viable choice.

"Oh, you poor dear! No wonder you look as if a strong wind would blow you over! A fever! And having to lose your hair, too... Well, it'll all grow back, and be as pretty as ever. Such a lovely shade of red!" The woman gave Scully a reassuring smile and exclaimed, "Where are my manners? My name is Elizabeth Weston. Libby to my friends," she added. "I'm sure you could use something nourishing to eat." She began to make her way down the hill toward town.

"Oh, no," Scully protested. "We don't want to be any trouble."

Libby looked over her shoulder and squinted back up at them. "No trouble. No trouble at all." She continued down the hill. "Come along."

Scully's chin dropped to her chest, her hair swinging forward to obscure her face. "Will and Kate?" she asked from behind the coppery curtain. She lifted her head and raised wide eyes to him. "Seriously?"

Mulder gently smoothed her hair away from her cheeks. "I don't know," he shrugged. "Fox just doesn't seem to fit in nineteenth century Colorado." He huffed out a sarcastic laugh. "Doesn't fit in the twenty-first century either," he complained. "And I figured that if we were going to use my middle name, we might as well use yours."

She rolled her eyes. "Mulder, what are we doing?" She glanced down the hill where Libby was patiently awaiting them. "We can't keep spinning lies," she said in a low voice. "We don't fit in here."

He tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow. "I know. I just... I had to say something."

"But, Mulder..."

"Look, I don't like lying to the woman either. But it's like I said earlier. As long as we're here, we need to find shelter. Food."

Scully nodded in resignation. "Maybe someone here knows something that can help us find our way home..." she suggested doubtfully.

"Maybe."

She gathered up her skirt in her free hand. "Let's go get something to eat." With Mulder's hand at the small of her back, they followed Libby Weston down the hill.

"By the way, that was some quick thinking, claiming a fever took your hair. I'm impressed, Scully." His voice held just enough teasing inflection to take the edge off her nerves.

Scully responded without turning around, knowing her retort would make him grin like a goon. "Shut up, Mulder."


"Go on, sit yourselves down," Libby urged. They had followed her into the kitchen of a small house next to a church made of logs, near the edge of town. They seated themselves at the table as Libby bustled around readying the meal.

"Do you need help with anything?" Scully asked.

"Not a thing, my dear. Not a thing." Libby poured water into glasses and set them onto the table. "Lunch will be ready soon."

The door swung open and a man stepped into the house. He swept a hat from his head and blinked rapidly as his eyes made the adjustment from the late morning sun to the dimly lit kitchen.

"Libby, is that your vegetable soup I smell..." His voice trailed off as he noticed the two strangers seated at the kitchen table.

"Oh, excuse me. I didn't realize we had company." He sent a questioning look toward his wife who crossed the room to stand at his side.

"Dear, I'd like you to meet Will and Kate Mulder." She smiled at the younger couple. "This is my husband, Reverend Thomas Weston."

Mulder scraped his chair back and stood. "We're pleased to meet you, Reverend." The two men shook hands.

"Likewise." Thomas Weston waved at Mulder to sit down. He pulled out another chair at the table and sank into it, smiling a hello at Scully.

"Reverend." She dipped her head in response.

"It's nice to meet you, Mrs. Mulder."

Scully twitched at the unfamiliar name and the Reverend let out a booming laugh.

"Newlyweds?" he grinned.

"Ex...excuse me? Scully asked.

Thomas leaned against the back of his chair. "You seemed startled when I called you by your married name," he laughed. "I assume you've only recently been married?"

Scully had been uncomfortable enough in lying to Libby; she was having even more difficulty with the thought of lying to a man of the cloth and she managed a wan smile in lieu of a response.

Libby set a steaming pot of vegetable soup in the middle of the table. As she ladled the fragrant broth into bowls, she recounted the story Mulder had told her earlier.

"I thought we could help them." She sat down and clasping her hands together, sent an expectant look toward her husband.

He folded his own hands and lowered his head to offer a blessing for the meal. Mulder and Scully quickly followed suit and ducked their own heads.

"Amen," Thomas concluded. He reached for a plate of freshly baked bread and passed it around the table. "You're from Virginia?" He dipped his spoon into the soup and lifted it to his lips.

Mulder swallowed a spoonful of broth. "Yessir."

"What made you decide to head out west?" the reverend asked. "You got gold fever?"

That comment elicited a small smile from both of his guests.

"We just wanted to get away," Scully answered truthfully. "Make a fresh start." That had, after all, been the underlying reason for their trip to Colorado, she thought.

Libby nodded thoughtfully. "Living out here... we sometimes forget about what's going on back east."

Mulder and Scully both realized that she was talking about the rising tensions between the northern and southern states in the years and months before the Civil War.

"Y...yes," Mulder agreed. "And Kate and I have had a..." he glanced towards Scully, "... rough couple of months." He shrugged. That, too, was the truth. "Like Kate said, we wanted a fresh start."

Thomas tore off a piece of bread and chewed it thoughtfully. "Betcha didn't think that fresh start would include finding yourselves in a strange town with only the clothes on your backs."

Unexpected tears stung the backs of Scully's eyes. If only he knew, she thought. She glanced up to find Mulder's concerned gaze directed toward her and she summoned up a tiny smile for his benefit.

"You could say that," she said wryly.

Libby took the empty bowl from her husband's outstretched hand and ladled more soup into it before passing it back to him.

"Mr. Mulder?" She jerked her chin toward his bowl. "More soup?"

Mulder eagerly held out his empty bowl and Libby laughed delightedly as she refilled it.

"How about you, dear?"

Scully looked up and shook her head. "It's delicious, Mrs. Weston," she assured her. "But I have plenty."

Libby clucked her tongue reprovingly. "You'll need to eat more than that if you're going to make your life here in the West, especially after that nasty fever you had," she chided. When her husband glanced over at Scully inquiringly, Libby clarified, "She had a fever and lost weight, poor child. And she had to have her hair cut off to help bring the fever down!" The reverend's reaction was very similar to his wife's and his eyes were sympathetic as they rested on Scully, who by now was red in both cheeks.

Libby turned her attention back to her husband. "We can help them, Thomas. Can't we?"

Reverend Weston swallowed a last mouthful of soup and wiped his mouth with a red and white checked napkin. "Yes, dear. I believe we can." He propped his elbows on the table and leaned forward. "Maybe the Nulty homestead?" He posed the question to his wife.

She thought about it for a moment. "Yes," she said slowly. "Yes. I think that would be perfect." She turned toward the other couple.

"Jenny and Ben Nulty had a homestead just outside of town, about two miles from here," she related.

"Had?" Mulder asked.

Thomas leaned back and hooked an arm across the back of his chair. "They moved away about a month ago," he said slowly.

"Were they miners or farmers?" Scully's curious eyes darted back and forth between the minister and his wife.

"Both. Ben mined and Jenny - his wife - took care of the farm. They never told us they were leaving, just upped and took off one day," Libby explained. "Ben never showed up for his shift at the mine and when someone went out to their place to look for him, no one was home. He and Jenny and their baby girl were just... gone." She lifted her hands into the air; then shrugged. "Not everyone is cut out for this kind of life, and I know Jenny was having a rough time, especially after Sarah was born. It's a hard life for these young folk that start out in the mines, thinking they can make a fortune. And Jenny was from town; about a hundred miles east of here. But she seemed to be getting the hang of it; I thought she was doing better these last few months."

"They might be coming back," Reverend Weston picked up the narrative. "They left some of their things at the farm. Some personal items, some clothes. Traveling through these parts is best done with a light load. I'd hate to see that homestead go to ruin and the garden die. We've gone out there a few times, making sure the chickens are fed. Some of the other neighbors were willing to help out some, but there isn't much to do except feed the chickens and make sure the garden gets watered now and then. Don't see why you couldn't stay out there and take care of the place."

"It's a pretty little farm," Libby said enticingly. "And that garden will be overrun with weeds soon if it isn't already."

"Oh," Scully protested. "I don't know... I'm not much of a gardener..." Her voice trailed off helplessly and she shot a look toward Mulder.

Libby reached across the table and took Scully's hand into her own. She compared the soft, pale-skinned and well-tended hands to her own work-roughened hands. "I'm guessing that you probably don't have much experience with keeping a house at all," she commented shrewdly.

Scully flushed and bit back an indignant retort. She took impeccable care of her apartment and was proud of the cozy home she had created. She cooked and did the laundry and all of the other daily chores that go into a day... but she did it all with electricity. She was firmly out of her element here.

Libby gently squeezed her hands. "You're newlyweds," she said brightly. "And you were on your way to set up your very first household. You'll learn. And I'll help you."

Thomas scraped his chair back from the table and stood. "I have some clothes you can borrow," he eyed Mulder's frame.

"No. Sir, I couldn't," the younger man argued. He bit back another protest as the reverend held up a silencing hand.

"Nonsense. Just until you get back on your feet. Besides, Ben's clothes wouldn't fit you, son. He's not as tall as you and not nearly as wide in the shoulders. Might as well be wearing comfy clothes, right? And I have more than enough." He propped his hands on his hips and glanced at Scully.

"Jenny Nulty's a pretty little thing just like you," he commented. "I'm sure she wouldn't mind if you borrowed some of her dresses." He rubbed his hands together. He was a man used to taking charge and having others follow his lead. Woe to anyone who got in his way; he'd cajolingly ride roughshod over anyone's objections.

"Libby, why don't you wrap up some food and we'll take these young'uns out to the Nulty place."


Nulty Homestead
Millersburg, Colorado

The road was narrow and rutted, and the Reverend's wagon seemed to hit every single rut. Mulder kept his arm tightly around Scully's shoulders as she swayed against him, unused to such rough motion. Across the wooden seat, Libby Weston smiled at the way they sat so close together, no doubt thinking as newlyweds they couldn't keep their hands off each other even in the daylight hours and in front of virtual strangers. Mulder hid a smile of his own; in a way she was absolutely correct. He couldn't keep his hands off Scully; that was the honest truth. He had a feeling in this era, husbands and wives were still very circumspect with each other in public, regardless of how long they'd been together. He and Scully would have to remember where they were, and adjust accordingly. But in the meantime the wagon rocked over holes and plowed through muck, and it was as good a reason as any to hold onto Scully, enjoying the warmth of her at his side.

He knew they both needed maximum contact with each other right now. They were so far out of their depth. It would only get worse, too.

They rounded a slope in the road, past a thicket of low brush and a few trees that looked like some kind of evergreen, coming up on a roughhewn fence to the right. A dusty yard, an equally-dusty garden, a wooden chicken coop set in a dirt area; a pump well in front of a small cabin. To the right of the log dwelling there was a small barn and to the left an outhouse. Oh, goody... Mulder didn't dare look over at Scully; he could only imagine the expression on her horrified face. He'd lay money she'd never used an outhouse in her life - in fact, he could recall maybe twice in his entire life, having to do his business in one.

Maybe they were at the beginning of a great adventure, but there was no doubt in his mind they were going to work hard for every second of that adventure.

Reverend Weston pulled up sharply on the reins and his pair of geldings obediently came to a clopping halt. He jumped down from the high seat with the ease of a man who'd been doing it all of his life; walked around to the side of the wagon and extended both hands to his wife, then grasped her around the waist and swung her to the ground. Mulder watched him covertly then mimicked him on the other side of the wagon, helping Scully to gain her feet. They shielded their eyes from the bright sunlight and gave their new home a fast once-over.

The fence ran unevenly around what appeared to be several acres of land; in the shimmering glare it was hard to judge. As they moved closer to the house Mulder could see very few windows along the front of the cabin, and only one of them actually held glass. It wasn't surprising; he remembered enough about Frontier history to know glass was considered a luxury, imported from the East and probably costing a small fortune. The rest of the windows were covered with what looked like some kind of oiled cloth.

The door was made of wooden planks and so was the single latch that held it closed. Bits of twig, clumps of dirt and small pebbles were caught here and there in its rough surface, indicating the area might suffer strong winds. A rickety clothesline had been strung from the corner of the cabin to the nearest tree, a slender aspen. A rag and what appeared to be a faded and torn shirt hung from the line, moving stiffly in the morning breeze. There wasn't much grass in the yard, mostly dirt and small rocks and clumps of weeds.

It was definitely on the depressing side... and they'd yet to see the interior.

Libby reached out to grasp the wooden latch and raised it up, then pulled on the creaking door, opening it wide. "Haven't been out here in a few days, and then just to feed the chickens, so I can't say how dusty it is inside. But like I said, it's a nice little place. Go on in, see for yourself," she invited Scully, who pasted on a quick smile and stepped inside. And almost recoiled from the heat. She struggled to keep her face impassive and expressionless as she looked around.

There were only two rooms, and they were small. The main room held a wooden table and two chairs, an old cook-stove with a battered kettle resting on it and a blackened fireplace. The room smelled strongly of creosote, indicating a plugged chimney. An attempt to make the room cheery was evident in the faded yellow gingham curtains that hung at the small, cloth-covered windows and the matching fabric on the table. The glass window was bare of anything, including curtains, and was the only real source of daylight in the room. A handmade rocker sat next to the hearth and on three of the walls at eye-level old oil lamps had been nailed to the wood, awaiting their nighttime lighting. The floor was made of uneven planks that had been nailed together. Scully heaved a silent sigh of relief; she'd feared there would be nothing but dirt beneath their feet. What little she remembered about nineteenth-century prairie life had included earthen floors.

Mulder moved toward the bedroom, his hand clasping hers, and Scully hesitantly followed. Another uneven planked floor; a narrow bed frame, barely a double, with a single lumpy pillow sheathed in a flour-sack. Both mattress and pillow were rent with holes; to Mulder it looked as if mice had chewed at them. He suppressed a shudder, hoping it had been mice and not anything larger, like rats. Had rats even inhabited the western prairie? Of course they had; rats were everywhere, even a hundred or more years ago. He shook his head impatiently, and forced back the image of large rodents scurrying around gnawing on bedding, instead resuming his perusal of the little bedroom.

There was a tiny cradle in one corner and a wooden washstand in the other, with an enamel basin and pitcher sitting beside a chunk of homemade soap. A small shaving mug and brush shared space with a boar-bristled hairbrush and a comb with several teeth missing. At the end of the bed there was an area curtained off; when Mulder peeked behind it he found clothes hanging from wooden pegs, both male and female articles ranging from britches and suspenders to a corset and petticoats; a few dresses and a couple pairs of assorted shoes on the floor. A shelf nailed to the wall behind the curtain yielded several sets of neatly-folded undergarments and a few blankets. The room had one small window and two oil lamps affixed to the wall, one on each side of the bed.

Although the sun was high above, the interior of the cabin was dim, no doubt owing to the lack of windows. The bedroom was overly warm, as the other room had been. Summers would probably be a real bear to endure and Mulder had a feeling the winters would be tough as well. He stifled a frustrated sigh and resisted running his hands over his face and pulling at his hair. Now wasn't the time to lose his cool.

Libby had followed them into the bedroom and stood just inside the door, observing the reaction Scully couldn't hide as she'd looked around the little room. Libby sent her eyes over the sagging bed and the small window, sighing aloud when she saw the holes in the mattress and pillow. Dang rats... thankfully she and Thomas weren't using the extra mattress they kept in their spare room; she'd have him bring it over later on that evening. Glancing at the newly-wed Mrs. Mulder, she could tell the poor child had also seen the holes and was no doubt scared to death of encountering vermin in her sleep. Trying to envision it the way it might seem to a lady from back East, Libby spared another look at the younger woman and her expression held sympathy.

She hadn't forgotten what it was like to come from a fairly civilized place into a life as hard and rough as a gold camp town. It wasn't an easy way to live, but it had its own rewards. There was a sweetness to the spring mornings, when dew glittered on the prairie wildflowers and the air smelled of fresh night rain. Summers were hot but the sun was such a bright yellow and the sky the deepest blue. The people of Millersburg were hard workers, friendly and helpful. Folks here shared when they had enough to share and weren't afraid to ask for help when they needed it. In her ten years living in town with Thomas, she hadn't regretted a single day.

At that moment, watching the worry and the tension flow into Kate Mulder's face, Libby Weston vowed to do whatever she could to teach her to become the kind of prairie wife that would be a helpmeet to her husband.


"I refuse to wear that thing." Scully gave the cotton corset a dirty look. Mulder traced a finger over the mean-looking set of hooks and crisscrossed laces and smothered a grin. Too late; she caught it and snorted, her hands on her hips. "I suppose you think it's sexy, Mulder. That's a nineteenth-century torture device, worthy of any Spanish Inquisition. In this heat I'd have it on a grand total of two-point-eight seconds, before keeling over."

Mulder gave in to his urge and flashed her the grin. "Maybe so, but think of how tiny your waist would look as you went down for the count." He waited for the expected retort and wasn't disappointed.

She threw him a look of feminine affront. "Oh, bite me, Mulder." She then spoiled the effect of her words with a resigned chuckle. Mulder picked up the corset and hung it back on its little wooden peg; then pulled out a thin cotton dress with a full skirt and loose, three-quarter-length sleeves. He tossed it to Scully and she caught it with one hand, noting the soft pattern of peach-colored roses on a pale blue background. The dress looked a lot smaller than the one she was currently swimming in; Libby Weston had mentioned Jenny Nulty was petite. Scully shrugged and began unbuttoning the dress they'd 'borrowed', with Mulder leaning back on the bed and enjoying the show. As he watched, he thought back on the last few hours.

As soon as the Westons had left the little homestead, promising to send the reverend over that evening with a spare mattress, Mulder and Scully had indulged in a more thorough investigation of the cabin. They'd found a piece of wide wood, hinged on one side, in the main room's floor; upon pulling up on the rope that served as a handle they discovered a kind of crude larder, with steps cut from the hardpacked earth. Mulder ventured down, holding his flashlight aloft, and found a small room lined with wooden barrels and shelves. The air was much cooler down there and he decided the Nultys had probably used it as a sort of refrigerator. He hadn't nosed around for very long but had noticed some tin cans and a small wooden bin full of potatoes. He didn't open any of the barrels but figured they held various foodstuffs and maybe even some preserved meat. At least they wouldn't starve.

As the day lengthened and the sun rose higher, the cabin brightened and didn't look as grim as they'd originally thought. Jenny Nulty had obviously tried to make her small home as happy a place as possible, with precious little to work with. Mulder had wondered aloud what the Nultys had done for things like milk and butter, when there wasn't evidence of them ever having a cow. He started making a mental list of questions to ask the reverend.

After Scully wriggled her way into the dress Mulder had found for her - appreciating the more comfortable fit - the rest of the day was spent nosing around the barn and the chicken coop. They'd opened the little door of the coop and had stepped back in amused surprise when a gaggle of noisy hens streaked by them, headed for whatever sustenance they could peck off the ground. A wooden barrel with a crude lid sitting next to one side of the coop yielded a bounty of coarse feed for the chickens and they'd amused themselves by sprinkling some on the ground and watching the greedy hens dive-bomb for it. An arrogant rooster strutted out of the coop and over to the piles of feed, scattering his feathered harem with a few well-placed pecks as he asserted his right to steal their food.

With the leftover soup and homemade bread the Westons had left them, they'd had an early supper, preferring to eat room-temperature food rather than attempt to add heat to an already-warm room by lighting the stove. Scully had found some chipped china in a cupboard nailed over the cookstove; a few plates and bowls, some mismatched mugs and silverware. There was a small sack of salt and one of pepper sitting on the table, and another sack leaning up against the wall yielded a decent supply of flour. Thankfully the sack looked intact, no little rodent gnaw-marks anywhere.

They'd eaten in relative silence, both lost in their own thoughts, occasionally catching each other's eyes and sharing small smiles.

Early evening found them accepting a new mattress and pillow from Reverend Weston, plus a well-washed and soft looking linen sheet. The reverend had waved away their stammered thanks, assuring them they'd kept the spare bedding for emergencies such as this. Apparently homeless people coming out West were not that much of a rarity after all, Mulder thought wryly.

He'd dragged the ruined mattress off the frame and out to the yard, and Thomas Weston had helped maneuver the new bedding into place. They'd all sighed in relief when it fit with only a little overhang at the sides. The borrowed pillow was longer than a modern standard and looked as if it would cushion both their heads easily enough. The reverend had hopped back into his wagon and waved at Mulder and Scully as they stood in the doorway of the cabin, telling them that he and Libby would see them in the morning. As the older man rode away down the bumpy and dusty road, they'd both offered up a thankful prayer for running into the Westons, who were proving to be a real Godsend.

After he'd helped Scully make up the new mattress with the sheet and the homespun blankets they'd found in the curtained-off closet, they decided to investigate the barn. This netted them the discovery that the Nultys had once owned a team of workhorses; they found harnesses and bridles and what appeared to be a fairly new plow.

"If the Nultys moved away then it's reasonable to think they took the horses, wouldn't you agree?" Mulder tapped a finger on one of the harnesses thoughtfully. "Of course, why they didn't take the hens as well is a mystery."

Scully sat on a bale of hay and loosened the laces on the highbuttoned boots she'd found in the closet. "Well, those are some damned obnoxious birds, Mulder. If I had to choose between a team of horses and those stupid chickens I'd sure know what to leave behind." She stretched out her legs and sent another look around the barn. There were more bales of hay propped up against the empty water trough and a pitchfork sticking up out of one of them. The barn smelled surprisingly decent; it was apparent someone had mucked it out recently. She wondered aloud, "Any guesses as to why the Nultys just 'upped and left', Mulder? The mine seemed to be doing well, judging by what little we saw of it before we snuck out of the cave. And this place really isn't all that bad. Not to mention all the personal things they left behind."

Mulder rubbed at his eyes tiredly. "Well, maybe it's just what the Westons said. Tough life and all, the wife can't hack it and talks the hubby into leaving. Unless..." He thought for a moment, hesitant to voice what had just popped into his mind, "unless they somehow shoved their hands all over those cave etchings and got sent to God-knows-where, I have no idea, Scully. I probably shouldn't joke about it, you know? Maybe that's exactly what happened. Obviously their departure was hurried and unexpected."

He moved to the hay bale and she obligingly scooted over to make room for him. He flung an arm around her shoulders and she leaned into him, grateful for the support. She was exhausted and so was he. An early night would do them both a world of good; they needed to turn their brains off and get some decent rest in a real bed. They could hash it over better in the morning, with clearer heads.

With a groan, Mulder stood up and pulled Scully to her feet. "Come on, Laura Ingalls Wilder, let's hit the sack. Tomorrow's gonna be one hell of a long day."

She allowed him to drag her toward the cabin. "If I'm Laura Ingalls then who does that make you, Mulder?"

His reply wafted back to her on the still evening air and made her laugh out loud. "Why, Nellie, of course..."

In the kitchen they found a box of sulphur matches and lit the oil lamps in the bedroom. Earlier in the evening he'd filled about half a bucket of well water from the old pump in the front yard; he poured most of it into the basin and they took turns washing up. The soap had smelled vaguely of vanilla, and Scully had vowed to ask Libby Weston how to make more of it, knowing they'd go through the softmilled bar very quickly.

The bed was surprisingly comfortable, albeit narrow. But the length was decent; Mulder found he could stretch out easily enough. He turned on his side and gathered Scully close; they'd both deigned to sleep nude, which would have probably shocked the hell out of the Westons, he thought with a grin.

Scully felt the curve of his mouth against her throat and queried sleepily, "What, did you tell yourself a joke?"

"I was just imagining what our benefactors the Westons would think if they knew we were sleeping in the nude." He ran his hands up and down her smooth back, enjoying the feel of her skin against his palms.

Scully wriggled appreciatively under his caresses. "I refuse to believe the Reverend and Mrs. Weston have never slept together au natural. I'd bet they have a very normal marriage. Probably quite open-minded for this day and age."

"You think?"

"Uh-huh." She nestled closer to him and let her fingertips drift over his chest, knowing how sensitive he was right around heartlevel. It had been a few days since they'd last made love, and she missed him. They usually made love every night and her body had rapidly become accustomed to the frequent intimacy. After years of deprivation, it was amazing how quickly she'd found herself needing him, craving him. Her hand slipped over his stomach muscles, teased lower still.

Mulder stifled a groan, his voice a low rasp in her ear. "So, Scully... whatcha got on? Your mind?"

She snickered. "You're a simpleton. And as to what I have on... besides my mind... why don't you take a few guesses?"

In one quick maneuver, he snagged her beneath him, and pressed eagerly into her softness. He kissed his way down her smooth throat, mumbling between kisses, "Don't have to guess. I know what you want. It's what you always want from me, when we're nekkid in bed together. You want to have sexual relations with me. I suppose I'll just have to submit to your insatiable demands." His lips closed over one small nipple and Scully's breath caught on a moan.

She fisted her hand in his hair and held him against her; beneath his cheek her heart pounded. She managed a shaky, "Sex-u-all relations? You make me sound so... greedy and deviant, Mulder. I think I like it."

Without releasing her breast, Mulder curled himself over her, then slipped into the cradle of her body and slid inside her with one smooth thrust. Several snappy comebacks blurred into one long groan of want that vibrated against her skin, as they moved together in the narrow old bed. In this century or any other, what they had formed between them was simply the very best. They'd get through their current predicament as they'd survived every obstacle in their pasts... together.

The night air formed a breeze that stirred the faded curtains at the window, as they made familiar love in an unfamiliar time and place.


"Oh, hell. We're still here. I was hoping we'd dreamed it all."

The resigned rasp of Scully's voice woke Mulder from a dozing sleep; he stretched and opened gritty eyes. Outside the window dawn had already broken and daylight was slowly working its way over the little cabin. Mulder forced his attention away from the window and stretched again, noting his back felt a little stiff, but no more so than how it usually felt after sleeping in a strange bed. And for certain, this bed was one of the strangest he'd ever slept in. He turned his head, searching for Scully; she sat next to him with blankets pooled at her waist, hair sticking up on end and eyes heavy with sleep.

He reached out a hand and stroked it over her tangled hair, yawning, "Morning, Sunshine. And yes, we're still here. I wonder why the rooster didn't crow at sunrise and wake us? Aren't roosters supposed to crow at sunrise?"

Scully flopped back onto the mattress and rested her head on Mulder's shoulder. "Yes, roosters crow at sunrise, usually waking the dead. Maybe he was too busy engaging his... harem to bother with his other duties."

Mulder chuckled. "Well, we're gonna have to dock his pay, then. Horny little cock."

She laughed with him for a moment; then sat up again, eyes now serious. "Actually, Mulder... you've got a point. Why isn't he crowing? Maybe he took off? There weren't any holes in the fence that I could see. Maybe he's sick? I looked him over yesterday and he looked healthy enough, but what do I know of roosters? We need to have a rooster. We have to eat eggs; we need the protein. And if we end up stuck here for any length of time we'll have to breed more chickens, for the meat they'll provide."

Mulder was quick to reassure. "Well, let's get some clothes on, and we'll go investigate. As you say, we need eggs. We can collect a few, and then figure out how to cook them. The Westons said they'd be back this morning, so I suppose we can't laze around in bed, pretending we're on vacation." He jumped up from the bed and yanked her up after him, ignoring her grumbling remarks about how their adventure had begun as a damned vacation...

They donned the clothes they'd worn the day before and hand-in-hand, walked out the door of the cabin; Scully taking note that in the early-morning light the small kitchen looked rather cheery. The air felt cool and the ground was dewy on the sparse grass that grew in irregular clumps around the front yard. Scully needed to relieve herself, badly, but balked at using the tiny outhouse. She decided she could hold it a few minutes more, and she stepped ahead of Mulder, rounding the corner of the house nearby the chicken coop...

"Oh, my God. Mulder, look at the chickens."

In the dirt around the opening of the chicken coop lay several chickens, and even from a distance Mulder could tell they were dead. Stretched out, their legs and claws already stiffening, it was impossible to say when they'd died - or what had killed them. At first glance they rather gave the appearance of being asleep, if one could overlook the obvious telltale positioning of the carcasses. Birds usually always nested; they didn't lie on their sides like the family dog.

Near the small water trough the rest of the chickens lay, and a few of them were moving sluggishly, trying to gain their feet, only to flop sideways onto the ground. Also near the trough the rooster lay limp and unmoving. A few handfuls of feed could be seen scattered over the well-pecked dirt. One chicken's lifeless head was buried beak-first into the larger pile.

Mulder squatted down next to one of the felled chickens and reached out a finger to prod at it, then thought better of it and glanced around for a stick, murmuring his thanks to Scully when she handed him a piece of slender kindling from the nearby woodpile. He turned the bird gently, looking for anything suspicious. "You got any ideas why some of these cluckers are dead and others appear to be dying, Scully?"

She knelt alongside him and took the stick from his hand, beginning her own careful examination. "I have no idea. By no stretch of the imagination can I claim knowledge of basic vet skills - or whatever sort of vet takes care of chickens - but these birds looked healthy yesterday, in fact seemed to be thriving. They ate what we fed them and I can recall hearing them rattling around the yard last night. If they came down with an ailment between last night and this morning, obviously whatever got to them did so very fast. Maybe a virus of some kind, something only chickens get. I just don't know, Mulder. I suppose in this era almost anything could make livestock sicken."

She straightened and tossed away the stick, careful not to wipe her hands on her dress. She rubbed them together to dust them off instead, cautioning, "We should scrub our hands and probably wipe down our shoes. Maybe get rid of that chicken feed. Until we can acquire more chickens, we sure don't need it, especially if it's tainted. God knows how old it is, especially with no preservatives to speak of. We need to talk to the Westons, find out if they've noticed any sickness centered around the local chickens."

They walked back to the cabin, careful not to touch their clothes or each other. The wooden bucket Mulder had used the night before was still sitting on the tiny stoop; they took down the old rag pinned to the clothesline and used it to wipe off their shoes. Mulder managed to pry open the front door with the toe of his boot and followed Scully inside, both of them headed for the bedroom and the basin of water they hadn't yet thrown out. As they stood side by side scrubbing at their hands, he commented, "The chickens that were still alive probably won't be much longer. I'll talk with Reverend Weston and find out where we can get more, and another rooster. I'll also ask him if he's noticed any other farm animals becoming ill and dying."

Scully nodded as she dried her hands on a small flour-sack towel. "Sounds like a plan. Suddenly I'm not very hungry, Mulder. I'll fix you something if you want it -"

He interrupted her quietly, "I'm not hungry either. Let's just lie down for a while, and wait for the Westons. I'm really tired." He took her by the hand and pulled her down onto the bed; she came willingly, snuggling in next to him and resting her head on his shoulder. She was weary, too...

As the sun rose higher and the morning lengthened, Mulder and Scully dozed fitfully in the heat of the small cabin, finally awakening when the sound of clopping hooves and creaking wagon wheels signaled the arrival of the Westons. They yawned and stretched, both stiff and still very tired, and straightening their clothes went to greet their benefactors, their hands clasped in comfort and support.

Outside Reverend Weston was standing near the coop taking in the sight of deceased chickens, while Libby Weston held a large straw basket in one hand and covered her mouth in shock with the other. As Mulder and Scully approached she turned to them and exclaimed, "Are you both all right? Are you feeling ill? Your chickens..." She paused and stared down at the fallen birds. When she raised her eyes they held confusion and worry. Livestock ailments were fairly common and there wasn't anyone that knowledgeable in town, at least about fowl. Chickens weren't the cleanest of birds, either.

Mulder's sharp gaze locked on Libby's pale cheeks and distressed eyes, understanding why she would be upset but thinking her reaction was perhaps a bit too pronounced. He added, "Is there a reason why we would be feeling ill, Mrs. Weston? Is this some kind of illness that befalls humans as well as animals or birds?"

Libby sighed and looked for a place to set down the heavy basket she carried, murmuring her thanks when Mulder dropped Scully's hand and took the basket from her. She rubbed at her temples and seemed to struggle for the right reply. "A few of our neighbors out here have mentioned losing some livestock; chickens, hogs, milking cows. Animals just sickened, then upped and died. We don't have much of a farm doc around here, and Doc Henson - he's the closest thing to a medical doc there is in town - said he couldn't figure what they died from."

Scully was curious. "What do these people think happened to their animals?" She directed the question to Libby Weston, who looked to her husband helplessly for an answer.

Reverend Weston was quick to take up the narrative. "They didn't know. Some are young married folk like the Nultys, and had no money to buy more stock. Last time I talked to a few of the men, I tried to reassure them that the congregation would pitch in and most likely give a few chickens here and there, maybe even a cow. I didn't want to see these young folks leave like the Nultys had. Lord knows we need them to stay in Millersburg, not give up and move back to the bigger towns. Guess they couldn't take the rough life out here. And not all the miners stay on."

Somehow they'd gone beyond talking about sick livestock and were now discussing the apparently-fickle Nultys. Going with the conversational flow, Scully asked gently, "Did they take their belongings with them, or did they leave most of it behind?" She watched Libby carefully for her reaction to the query, and nodded perceptively when the older woman's face registered surprise at the question.

It was Thomas who answered the question. "I think some of them left a lot of their stuff behind. We've been so busy working with the congregation, I've missed checking on some of the younger folks. I'll be sure to do it in the next few days. They must have left for a more civilized place. I don't think there's any shame in admitting you're not cut out for prairie life. And we already talked about how hard it is to travel with a passel of trunks." He smiled at his wife and she latched onto that smile like a lifeline; Scully observed the relief in Libby's face and remained quiet, thoughtful.

Mulder was quiet too, and his mind was busy processing data and possibilities. But now wasn't the time to get into it, not until he had a chance to discuss his thoughts with Scully.

Maybe the Nultys and others left under their own steam. Mulder hoped that was the correct explanation for their abrupt departure. And maybe, just maybe... their departure was involuntary. Perhaps they'd ventured too close to the cave and its drawings.

Keeping his musings to himself, Mulder shifted his attention to the Westons and inquired brightly, "So, what's in the basket, Mrs. Weston?"

She smiled at him just as brightly. "Please call me Libby, Mr. Mulder!" She glanced down at the basket in his hand. "Just some more bread and preserves and a few other things I thought you might need." She smiled at Scully. "Of course we'll need to go into town to get y'all some supplies. Why don't we get out of the morning heat, and I'll show you what I've brought and we can make a list of what else you'll need?"

Mulder shifted the basket to one hand and snared Scully's fingers with the other, pulling her gently toward the house. "It's Will and Kate, Libby. And that sounds like a great idea. Thank you for your kindness."



ROCKY MOUNTAIN INTERLUDE, Chapter Five
By Char Chaffin and Tess
MSR, Casefile, AU
Rating: Strong R
Spoilers: FTF, Most of Season Seven
Feedback: to Tnv099@aol.com; char@chaffin.com

Headers and summary, see Part 1

Chapter Five
Millersburg, Colorado

It was just past noon when Thomas Weston pulled back on the reins and eased the wagon to a halt. He set the brake and both men swung out of the wagon and helped the women to the ground.

"Kate and I will get the things we need from the store," Libby Weston told her husband as she reached into the back of the wagon for the two large baskets she had stowed there earlier.

"Well now, that sounds fine." The reverend patted her hand and escorted her up onto the wooden sidewalk that ran past several small businesses. "We'll meet you back here in a couple of hours?"

"Oh, yes. That should give us plenty of time to buy all the things we need." She turned to see Will brush a kiss against the corner of his wife's mouth.

"Go on with you now, young man," she admonished. "There's work that needs doing." She handed one basket to Scully and drew the younger woman toward the general store.

Mulder stood in the dirt street and watched the two women walking away. He turned suddenly at the sound of the minister's voice.

"Come along, Will. My Libby will take good care of your pretty bride." He clapped a hand on Mulder's shoulder. "I'll introduce you around town and we'll see what we can do about finding you some good, honest work."


Scully trailed hesitantly into the store in Libby Weston's wake. The mercantile could best be described as organized chaos. One large room housed all of the necessities for frontier living. Shelves brimming with dry goods and groceries were mounted on every available wall. Bolts of cloth spilled across a table at one end of the room. A nearby shelf housed bobbins of thread, boxes of needles, straight pins and various sewing notions. Hammers, saws and other tools were displayed on hooks driven into the walls. Candles and cast iron cookware, oil for lamps, rakes, shoes and brooms, tobacco and suspenders all vied for space on the crowded shelves.

Libby paused in her march across the room to reach out and catch Scully's hand in her own. "This way, Kate," she murmured. "I'll introduce you to the store owner." She tugged the younger woman toward the far end of the store.

"Silas!" she called. A man turned from stocking canned goods onto a shelf behind the counter. He had dark hair, liberally sprinkled with threads of silver, and lively green eyes. Scully judged him to be in his early fifties.

"Mrs. Weston," he greeted her warmly and climbed down from the ladder on which he had been perched. "What can I get for you today? I've got a sale on sugar - five cents off a five pound sack."

"Well, that sounds dandy, Silas. And I am running low on sugar. But first, I want you to meet someone." She drew Scully forward. "This is Kate Mulder. She and her husband, Will, are new to town." She patted Scully's hand once before letting go. "Kate, I'd like you to meet Silas Cranston. He's the owner of this store and a dear friend to both the Reverend and me."

"Mr. Cranston." Scully reached out a hand to shake his. "It's nice to meet you."

The shopkeeper seemed a bit startled with her forthrightness but he recovered quickly and wiped his hands on his apron. "It's surely my pleasure." Leaning over the counter, he folded her hand between both of his and gave it a gentle squeeze.

"Well, what can I do for you ladies?" he asked as he released her hand.

"The Mulders were on their way to Denver when their stage was robbed."

He stepped out from behind the counter. "Robbed!"

Libby nodded emphatically. "Yes, robbed! And the thieves took everything these folks had to their name, except the clothes on their backs," she confided.

Struggling against the urge to roll her eyes, Scully instead let her head fall forward in what she hoped was a despairing pose and listened as the conversation between the two townsfolk rolled on.

"The Mulders are going to be staying at the Nulty place, for now."

"I don't know, Libby." Silas shook his head. "What if the Nultys come back? They might not be too happy to find squatters on their land!"

Suddenly anxious to exclude herself from the conversation, Scully stepped away from the others and began to examine small bottles of cough syrup and other medical supplies that were grouped together at one end of the shop's main counter. Curious, she uncorked a bottle labeled 'cold medicine' and took a cautious sniff of the yellow liquid inside. Tears sprang to her eyes and she instinctively jerked her head back and looked down at the label.

"Cures what ails you," she read softly. Judging by the fumes, alcohol was the main ingredient. It was an easy guess that while the 'medicine' wouldn't likely cure anyone of a cold, it would sure go a long way toward helping a patient not to care. She jammed the stopper back into the bottle and studying the label of another bottle; then reluctantly turned back to the conversation going on behind her.

"Tsk!" Libby was wagging a finger in the shopkeeper's face. "I'm sure Jenny and Ben will be happy to know that someone is taking care of their property."

Silas shrugged. "If you think it's best, Libby."

Libby beamed at him. "Precisely!" She lifted the basket in her hands. "We're here for some basic supplies to get them started keeping house."

The shopkeeper folded his arms across his chest. "Who's gonna pay for all these... supplies?" he wondered gruffly. He dropped his voice to a whisper. "I thought you said that everything they owned was stolen by the stage robbers. I ain't running a charity and you don't know 'em well enough to be loaning them money."

Scully knotted her fingers together until the knucklebones showed white through her skin. The truth was that until they could find their way back home, they were dependent on the kindness and charity of others to survive. She struggled to maintain the posture of what she imagined would be that of a demure lady of the nineteenth century. Inside she was squirming with a feeling of helplessness that was unwelcome and frustrating.

"Silas Cranston!" Libby Weston admonished. "Is that any way to greet a newcomer?" She shook her head angrily. "Why, you'll have Mrs. Mulder believing that Millersburg is an inhospitable town!"

"Now, Libby..." He held his hands up in front of his chest in a defensive posture. "I was only..."

"You were only being rude!" Libby took a deep breath. "I'm embarrassed, to be sure. Here I've been telling these young folks about what a nice town this is and you..."

The indignant Libby broke off in a gulp when Scully laid a hand on her arm. "It's all right, Mrs. Weston."

Dana Scully had spent a lifetime forcing people to look past her gender by using her intellect, education and experience to get what she wanted and to move ahead in life. But intuition was telling her those methods would be wasted in the world in which she now found herself. She couldn't help but to instantly think of Scarlett O'Hara and how that character had often hidden her intellect behind feminine wiles to get what she needed. She dug deep for her inner southern belle and lifted glistening blue eyes toward the storeowner.

"Mr. Cranston IS running a business, after all." Scully favored him with a sweet smile. "Reverend Weston is helping my husband to find work and Mrs. Weston suggested that we might want to open an account in your fine store." She glanced around at the crammed shelves with an approving nod. "As soon as my husband is paid, the very first thing we'll do will be to settle our bill here."

Libby glared at her old friend. "Of course, the Reverend and I will be happy to vouch for the Mulders," she said stiffly.

Silas flushed and dropped his head forward. "My apologies, Mrs. Mulder." Once again he gathered her hand between both of his. "I truly did not mean to offend." He looked helplessly between the two women and tried a timid smile. The female species had always been somewhat of a mystery to him and maturity and experience - and twentyseven years of marriage to Edna Cranston - hadn't changed that a bit.

He let himself capitulate without any further struggle. "Just tell me what ya need and I'll be happy to open an account for you and your husband." The woebegone expression on his face had Libby throwing her hands up in the air.

"Oh, get on with you." She lifted her chin into the air and whirled away from him with a disapproving sniff. As the chastened man hurried back behind the counter, Libby favored her charge with a conspiratorial grin.

"Kate and I will just help ourselves to whatever we need and you can put it all on her account," she called out as she led Scully toward the shelves filled with foodstuffs.

"You'll need eggs." She lined a small box with straw and nodded toward a crate filled with brown eggs. "Choose a dozen - and be careful that none are cracked," she instructed. "Thomas and I raise chickens as a small side business and we'll be sure to bring you a couple of good laying hens and a rooster to replace those that died."

"Oh, no. That's too generous," Scully protested as she imagined their cost to be more than a few pennies.

"Nonsense! We're neighbors." She patted Scully's hand and moved on. "Out here, neighbors help neighbors." She looked at the younger woman gravely. "It's the only way to survive this far away from..."

"From civilization?" Scully ventured softly.

Libby sighed. "Well, the town is growing, but... yes. It's still a rough and sometimes dangerous life out here and we have to rely on one another to make it through." She lifted her shoulders in a shrug and turned back to the task at hand. "Anyway... Silas carries most things that you'd need," she murmured as she watched Scully gaze around the store. "But if there's something you want that you can't find here, chances are the peddler will have it or be able to get it for you."

"Peddler?"

Libby nodded and kept her voice low so the shopkeeper couldn't hear her. "Comes through with his wagon about once a month or so. You just missed him but he'll be back in a few weeks. Come along now, let's get started."

Scully obediently followed her through the store.

"You've got salt and pepper enough and a good sized sack of flour. But you're low on soda and I didn't see any lard." She added a can of bicarbonate of soda to one of the baskets. A tin of lard followed, as did yeast, molasses and a four-pound sack of coffee beans. She paused and leaned a hip against a bin filled with vegetables.

"Let me see..." Libby tapped a finger against her chin. "As I recall, Jenny put in carrots and green beans. Tomatoes... although I'm not sure how they've fared without proper tending. We've had a decent fall of rain, so I'm not worried about that. I'm more concerned that they've all rotted on the vine..." Her voice trailed off thoughtfully. "Oh well, we should have checked the garden before we left. There are plenty of young, new potatoes in the cellar - and they'll be more in the garden still which will have to be harvested come fall. But you'll need onions." Libby nodded toward one of the bins and Scully duly chose half a dozen white onions and placed them in her basket, listening to the older woman's mental garden checklist as she continued, "There are peas and squash in the garden and I think Jenny put in some cucumbers as well."

Libby kept up a running commentary as she browsed through the groceries. "Why don't you pick out a dozen or so apples, honey?" Scully quickly obeyed and added a head of lettuce as well.

Libby propped her basket up on a table. "I've been thinking about those chickens out at your place. I'm still trying to figure out what could have happened to them. Did you take any notice of them last night?"

Scully nodded. "They seemed fine when Mul... when Will and I fed them."

The minister's wife frowned. "You fed them?"

Scully nodded again. "Yes..." she said hesitantly. "Shouldn't we have?"

"Hmmm. It's just, when we heard that Ben, Jenny and the baby had... gone, Thomas and I hurried out to their place. The chickens were squawking up a storm - acting like they hadn't had a bite to eat for weeks! We looked high and low and couldn't find their feed anywhere. I've been tending to the chickens ever since with the feed from our own place. She frowned again. "Where did you find the chicken feed?"

Scully shrugged. "We were poking around the place, and came across a barrel near the chicken coop. We took off the lid and there was an unopened sack of feed inside. We tore open the sack and scooped some out using a tin cup that was hanging from a nail on the side of the chicken coop."

Libby looked thoughtful. "Well, that's gotta be it, then. That feed is probably tainted somehow. It's not unheard-of to sometimes get a sack of bad feed. You'll need to burn it all and scrub out that barrel with lye." She reached up onto an overhead shelf and pulled down a package of lye soap. "It's likely just the feed that made them sick but to be safe, you'll have to muck all of the straw out of the coop and burn it as well and then scrub down the whole coop with lye before laying fresh straw inside. When you've finished that, I'll bring the new chickens and a fresh bag of feed."

She hefted her basket again. "All right. Let's finish up." They selected a tin of tooth powder, two toothbrushes and a new hairbrush and dragged their merchandise to the counter.

"Silas," Libby called as the women set their purchases down. "We need a few things from the cold cellar." She explained to Scully that the Nultys hadn't kept a milking cow at their homestead. "Couldn't afford one. But you can get what you need here." She told the storekeeper that they would need two pounds of butter and some milk.

"I wish I could give you enough chickens so that you wouldn't have to buy the meat, but I can't," Libby said regretfully. She placed an order for two large chickens, a pound of beef and a slab of bacon. Scully noted a jar of peppermints on the counter and asked for a nickel's worth of the candies. Silas wrapped them in brown paper and tucked the package into one of the baskets.

He pulled a ledger book from beneath the counter and opened it to a fresh page. Using the stub of a pencil, he carefully wrote "Mister and Missus William Mulder, care of the Nulty place" and then listed each item and its cost beneath their names.

"That comes to five dollars and twenty-four cents," he told Scully. She nodded and distractedly made a rough guess as to how much these same groceries would cost in her own world.

"Thank you, Silas." Libby's smile was friendly and forgiving of his earlier behavior. "We'll see you soon."

The two women exited the store and lifted the groaning baskets into the wagon. While they awaited the arrival of the Reverend and Mulder, Scully hitched herself into the back of the wagon while Libby stood to the side in the shade.

Legs dangling over the edge and swinging idly beneath her long skirt, Scully glanced at the baskets brimming full of their purchases and thought of the cook stove back in the cabin with trepidation.

Libby had taken note of how out-of-place the younger woman had seemed in the store and again she wondered at her background. She leaned against the side rails of the wagon and looked up.

"I hardly know anything about you," she murmured. "If we're to be friends... well, I think we should get to know each other better."

Damn, Scully thought inwardly. Where was Mulder when she needed him? He was much better at spinning a story than she was, and seemed less perturbed at having to lie to folks in order to stay safe and survive...

"Oh, there's not much to tell," she stalled. "What would you like to know?"

Libby smiled gently, mistaking the hesitation for shyness. "Oh, just little things. Who are your people?" she asked. "Where are you from?"

Stick as close to the truth as possible, Scully cautioned herself. "My father was a captain in the Navy," she began. "We lived not far from Washington."

"Your mother?"

"My mother ran the house while my father was out to sea. I have two brothers - one older than me, one younger, and an older sister." Her smile was wistful as she thought of Melissa.

"And you?"

"And me...?"

"I know you're newly married and you'll forgive me for saying this again... but you don't seem to have much experience at keeping a house." Libby noted the stiffening of Scully's back and held up a calming hand. "You seem a very well-bred young woman from back East... perhaps your mother had household staff?"

"No," Scully sighed. "She tried to teach me. But I never devoted my full attention to it." Her smile was self-deprecating. "There were always other things more interesting to me."

Libby's smile was sly. "Like young men?"

Scully laughed aloud. "No!"

"Come now. I'm sure you went to many parties and had many beaux! Is that where you met Will?"

Scully grinned. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, Libby, but you have it all wrong." She shook her head and tried to imagine herself as a party girl - the image didn't fit in either the nineteenth or twentyfirst centuries. "I'm a bookworm," she admitted. "I would rather read - and learn from books - than do anything else."

"Including paying attention to your mother?" Libby laughed.

Scully glanced back down at the baskets and sighed softly. "I'm afraid so." Of course, the truth was that although she would rather have her nose buried in a book than do housework, her mother had taught her, and taught her well to take pride in a well kept home. Unfortunately, very little that she knew was of use to her now. Pleading ignorance seemed at hell of a lot easier than trying to skirt around the real truth.

"Well, if you didn't meet Will at a party," Libby persisted, "where did you meet him?"

Scully shaded her eyes with her hand and searched the street, but there was no sign of Mulder anywhere. She sent up a silent prayer that men - regardless of the century - were less interested in ferreting out a person's history than women and that Mulder was not spinning an entirely different story for the minister.

"I was working as a volunteer at the library. He was sitting at a corner table pouring through a stack of books. He was wearing a pair of glas... spectacles and he looked up at me and there was just something so..." Her voice trailed off and she tipped her head forward to hide a rising blush. It was true enough. There had been something about the expression in those earnest - yet guarded eyes - looking at her from behind the frames of his glasses on their first meeting that had sucked her right in.

She shrugged her shoulders. "Well... that's how we met."

"That's the way it was when I met Thomas." Libby smiled reminiscently. "I loved him at first sight." She peered intently up into the younger woman's face. "What made the two of you decide to leave what sounds like a comfortable life to come out here?"

Scully thought of everything she and Mulder had been through in the last six months - good and bad. She shook her head. "Just a fresh start. My family... well... my older brother doesn't like Will very much." A massive understatement. Hoping to change the subject before it went in other, more difficult directions, she looked down at their purchases. "Libby, are you sure that you have the time to help me with all of this? I know you must be very busy."

"Child," Libby clapped a hand against her bosom, "I am the preacher's wife. Folks would be scandalized if they thought I left a tenderfoot like you on your own! Besides, this is what I do, as the Reverend's helpmeet. It's my pleasure and I enjoy it, truly!"

Scully laughed as the other woman had intended. "Then, thank you." She drew in a deep breath and blew it back out. "I can certainly use the help."


While Scully whiled away a good hour or more with Libby Weston, purchasing supplies with non-existent money, Mulder was discovering that finding 'good, honest work' in 1860 Colorado was easier said than done.

Thomas Weston had introduced him to most of the local shopkeepers and business owners, and he'd been welcomed with friendly, if curious, smiles and hearty handshakes. Everyone had been more than happy to offer helpful advice and ideas, once they understood that young Mr. Mulder was a city boy transplanted to the prairie and newlywed to boot. The men had slapped him on the back in a congratulatory way and the few women he'd met had sighed with nostalgic sentiment.

Once it was plain that Mulder needed a job, however, the tune changed, and fast.

Mr. Jasper over at the barber and apothecary had young Freddie Stone who came over every day at four o'clock to sweep out the store and stock whatever new items had been received by coach delivery. Freddie was a mite clumsy but only got paid a quarter for three hours of work. Jasper had scratched his head and pulled on his ear as he'd regretfully added that a few quarters a couple times a week was all he could afford to pay, right now.

Mrs. Mollie Hathaway at Millersburg Supper House was responsible for all of the cooking, baking and serving. On Friday nights the little restaurant got busy but her daughter Emma Sue and her son Johnny helped out in the kitchen and out front, serving dinners to hungry miners who had a bit of extra pay in their pockets. Neither of her children received anything except whatever tips they could collect for themselves, and they ate all their meals at the supper house. Mollie had smiled regretfully at Mulder, perhaps sensing that he'd be a better worker by himself than both of her feckless children together. But she couldn't afford to pay him since the supper house was barely making ends meet as is. She'd shaken his hand and wished him luck finding work, and had sent Mulder and Rev. Weston on their way with a handful of fresh-baked molasses cookies.

And on it went.

The tavern had more than enough young men hanging about at closing, when the bar shut down and the girls all left for the night. Barely of legal drinking age - at least in his time zone, Mulder realized - these smooth-faced boys were willing to slop rags over the sticky tables and smear mops on the rough-planked floor for free. They were happy to empty overflowing ashtrays and sweep up broken glass in order to have a few flirting words with the barmaids who worked for tips downstairs and for actual gold coins upstairs. Truthfully, Mulder knew he'd have been too uncomfortable working in a place like that, especially when he got his ass pinched no less than five times by two of the daytime barmaids. The lusty gleam in their tired eyes was enough of a warning, he figured.

"Well, this hasn't been too productive, has it?" Thomas Weston stood outside the doorway of the tavern in the hot sun and wiped his face with his handkerchief, smiling apologetically at Mulder. "Here I promised I'd find you some work, and so far nobody seems to be hiring."

Mulder reached in his pocket for his own handkerchief, noting with relief that in almost a hundred and forty years, the basic design and material of men's hankies hadn't changed. He ran it over his neck, commenting, "Well, I had a feeling work wouldn't be all that easy to find. This is a small town and most jobs should be filled with local help, right?"

As he spoke he looked across the dusty street, and saw a large log cabin with no windows but sporting a wide front door. Over the doorway was a sign that said, 'Millersburg Livery and Iron'. The front door was propped open and the interior was dim, but even from across the street Mulder could sense the heat and almost smell the sweat that poured from that wide entrance.

He jerked a thumb toward the cabin. "What about the livery place? You think they'd need some help?"

Thomas stared first at the livery, then at Mulder as if he'd lost his mind. "A blacksmith? Will, you can't really want to work there. No offense, but have you ever done that kind of work? It's as hard, if not harder, than mining." He glanced over at the livery again, shaking his head as he added, "And Angus McLean, the owner, is a... pardon the expression... miserable person to work for. He's gruff, foul-mouthed and a bona fide curmudgeon." The reverend shook his head regretfully at his own non-Christian attitude and added, "I know it's bad of me to speak of the man that way, and for sure Angus is one of the hardest-working men in town. But he's difficult and mean. Nobody in town will work for him and the younger men are all going to the mine where they can earn a better wage under a fairer boss."

Still staring at the livery across the street, Mulder felt his lips curve into a faint smile as he murmured, "I've dealt with difficult and mean all of my life, Reverend. I grew up with it. And the jobs I've had in the past may have been citified but that didn't make them any less time-consuming and tiring. I'm healthy and strong - and I learn fast. I'm willing to give it a shot."

With those words, Mulder started across the dusty street toward the livery, and with one resigned shrug Reverend Weston followed, thinking to himself that if nothing else a meeting between the polite and well-spoken Will Mulder and black-hearted Angus McLean should provide him some much-needed morning jocularity.

"What the hell d'ya want there? By Christ, git outta my light, ya jackass! Weston, is that yew? Thought I told ya yer goddamn shovel wouldn't git done fer another week!"

Throughout his diatribe, Angus McLean's anvil never stopped ringing. He was pounding out what appeared to be the lid of a large iron kettle. He was tall and built like a mountain, with wild red hair liberally sprinkled with gray that curled all over his head. A shaggy, equally curly red beard covered most of his face and sprawled over his thick neck.

Shirtless, his skin dark with soot and gleaming with sweat, he sported a ragged pair of dungarees held up with a single filthy suspender. His massive feet were stuffed into unlaced hobnail boots and his ham-sized hands were covered with scarred leather gloves that protected his arms up to the elbow. When he bared his teeth in a low growl and aimed it at the men who dared to stand in his light, Mulder could see that some of his bottom teeth were missing and his top teeth were crooked and stained tobacco brown. A heavy leather apron - presumably designed to be worn during dangerous smithy work - lay in a heap on the floor. Obviously Angus McLean was tough enough to disdain that level of protection.

Undaunted by the man's outward appearance and manner, Mulder stepped forward and addressed him with firm respect. "My name's Will Mulder, Mr. McLean. I just moved here, and -"

He was rudely interrupted with a loud clang of the hammer and Angus's furious, "What th' good fuck do I care who th' hell ya are? Ya need a job done, prop it over in th' corner and wait yer turn! Else git the hell outta my place!" Angus turned his back on Mulder and resumed pounding. Thomas Weston shrugged at Mulder and nodded toward the door, but Mulder shook his head. He understood rude and boorish. He understood mean, just as he'd said to the reverend.

Mulder purposely moved closer to the swinging hammer and his voice got louder. "I said I just moved here. I'm also looking for work, McLean. Looks like you've got it piled up." Knowing Angus couldn't see him doing it, Mulder pointed to the large stack of a variety of items that appeared to be in different stages of repair. Another pile of miscellaneous iron and what-not looked as if it had yet to be touched.

With a snarl, Angus whipped around, the hand that held his hammer arcing over his head. With vague interest Mulder noted the man had bright blue eyes and impossibly long eyelashes; then before the smithy's arm could swing that hammer down on his head Mulder grabbed it with both hands and hung on tightly. His voice was low and definitive; the gleam in his own eyes a threat in itself, as he cautioned, "Don't even think about it, Mr. McLean." It was all he could do to hold the man's arm steady and fight against his anger and brawn, but Mulder persevered.

And won out... for the smithy lowered his arm and contented himself with a foul glare at Mulder, who released him and stepped back. Satisfied to have the smithy's attention, he again pointed to the piled-up jobs waiting for completion and repeated, "I need a job; I have a wife to support. You need someone to help you here. Why don't you give me a shot at being your apprentice?" Angus worked up a noisy hawk of tobacco juice and spat it on the rough dirt floor in front of Mulder's feet. "Who th' fuck might ya be, t' tell me what I need in my own place? Didja see a sign on my door sayin' I'm lookin' fer some asshole t' fuck up my work and no doubt cut off his own leg on my saw?"

Mulder remained cool and polite. "No, I didn't. I took a chance when I walked over here. But I've got eyes, McLean - and I can see you need some help. Reverend Weston told me you've had no assistant for a long time. I learn fast and I work hard. I've never done a smithy's job but I'm more than willing to try."

Angus looked the tall, slender man up and down, considering. For sure, he'd held on right good enough to his arm and the hammer, too - there had to be strength in that skinny frame. And fuck him, if he didn't have more work than he could handle, what with those hackhanded miners always breaking their tools and needing them fixed! Besides, what the good Christ was money worth having if a body couldn't spend it now and again? He'd been cooped up in this shithole of a livery cabin for months without a break. Angus rubbed his beard contemplatively, scratched at a grimy ear.

Then dropping the hammer from his free hand, Angus latched onto Mulder's bicep with ten fingers all the size of sausages, and dug in. It hurt like hell but Mulder managed to maintain a cool expression and decent muscle control, although his arm felt like it was on fire.

Angus held him like that for a few more seconds, as if testing his strength and resilience, then abruptly let him go and eyed him carefully for signs of pain. Seeing none on the younger man's face, he nodded to himself and spat out another stream of tobacco juice between the gap in his front teeth. "Ye'll do, I reckon. Ain't had any help 'cause th' boys around here are weak lil assholes who'd drop a hammer on their toe and go cryin' home t' their mama. 'Sides, most o' them are workin' th' mines anyway." He bent and picked up the hammer, holding it out to Mulder. Jerking his bearded chin toward the anvil, Angus ordered, "Let's see ya swing that iron, sonny."

Mulder took the hammer in both hands, stepped closer to the anvil and aimed at the flattened lip of the iron lid clamped there - and swung with all his strength. The hammer whistled through the air and landed square on the same spot Angus had been pounding just a few minutes ago. The impact sang along his arms and into his muscles like flames but Mulder ignored it and lifted the hammer to swing again, this time bringing the head down a scant half-inch to the left, to continue the hammered pattern that Angus had already started. With satisfaction he raised the hammer and noted his mark was exactly the same size as Angus's previous work. He propped the hammer against the base of the anvil and turned to face his new employer...

Who actually grinned and stuck out his black-sooted hand, exclaiming, "I'll be fucked. Guess I got me a new 'prentice! Three days a week. Ya git here by six in th' mornin' or don't come t' all. I don't care what days, that's up t' yew an' yer wife. Ya work till seven, an' yew 'member t' eat lunch. Don't want no pissy-liver fallin' over from th' heat 'cause they ferget t' eat. Pay ya fifty dollars a month t' start. If yew do all right by me, I'll pay ya more after three months' 'prenticeship. Deal?"

Slowly Mulder took the huge hand extended toward him and shook it firmly. As Thomas Weston chuckled in helpless admiration, Mulder smiled with his eyes as well as his mouth, and nodded. "Deal. And you'll be paying me more in just a month, Mr. McLean - I guarantee it."



ROCKY MOUNTAIN INTERLUDE, Chapter Six
By Char Chaffin and Tess
MSR, Casefile, AU
Rating: Strong R
Spoilers: FTF, Most of Season Seven
Feedback: to Tnv099@aol.com; char@chaffin.com

Headers and summary, see Part 1

Chapter Six
The Nulty Homestead
Millersburg, Colorado

Later in the day, the Westons brought Mulder and Scully home. Libby helped Scully put their purchases away and gave her a detailed lesson on the workings of the cast iron cook stove.

"You want to keep an eye on your stove," the preacher's wife cautioned. "You have to rekindle the fire every morning and make sure that you don't let it burn out until the end of the day."

"Keep the stove going all day? In this heat?" Scully protested.

Libby nodded vigorously. "Yes. And in the winter you'll never let it go out, of course. You'll be cooking three meals a day, plus baking, heating water for laundry and washing dishes... a dead fire can set your entire day back." She pulled open the door of the cold stove. "You want to keep the stove kindled so that you don't have to start the whole process more than once a day. Now, the first thing you want to do every morning is to get rid of the remains of the last fire." She removed the stove lids and raked the ashes and cinders left behind presumably from the last time Jenny Nulty had used the stove. From a tin box nailed to the floor next to the stove, she took some small shavings and sticks of wood. "Open the drafts, light the kindling," she took a box of matches from a shelf above the stove and struck a match against the side of the box. She touched the flame to the kindling. "Kate, hand me some bigger pieces of wood." Scully looked around and found a box of wood shoved into the corner near the stove. Libby took several larger chunks of wood from her, fed them to the growing fire and closed the dampers.

"There!" Libby dusted her hands off. "Now, do you think you'll be able to do that tomorrow morning?"

Scully looked doubtfully at the cast iron contraption. Starting a fire in it was the least of her concerns. "How do you know when the oven is at the right temperature to bake anything?"

Libby smiled ruefully. "Trial and error, honey."

Scully stifled a groan. She had suspected as much.

Libby glanced toward the open door of the cabin and studied the angle of the sun. "It's getting late," she noted. "Let's get started on making dinner - something simple that we can do on top of the stove," she mused and instructed Scully to get the package of beef from the cold cellar.

"Oh, but there's only a pound of beef," Scully protested. "I don't think that will be enough for all of us."

Libby steered her toward the cellar. "Don't worry about it, dear. I've got a lovely cold ham at home. On a warm evening like this, my Tom loves nothing better than ham sandwiches with slices of tomato from the garden. Now, go."

Scully obeyed and tugged on the rope to lift the door to the cellar. She picked her way down the stairs to retrieve the package of beef she'd purchased earlier in the day, climbed back out of the cellar and carried it over to the table.

"I'll bring some of my recipes over tomorrow," Libby promised. "But for now, I'll just walk you through a quick beef stew." Under the older woman's watchful eye, Scully cut the beef into small pieces and sprinkled them with salt and pepper. She took a heavy cast-iron stewing pot from a shelf and set it on top of the stove.

"Take a spoonful of lard and melt it in the pan," Libby instructed. "Add some onion slices and let them cook for a minute." As the onions softened in the hot lard, Scully slid the cubes of beef into the pot.

"Add water," Libby poured water into the pan, "just enough to cover the meat. You want it to cook slowly - about an hour." She clapped a lid onto the pan and took off the apron she had tied around her waist earlier. She wiped her hands on the apron and laid it on the roughhewn table.

"Keep an eye on it and if too much of the water stews away, add a little more. Then, roll some pieces of butter in flour and add them to make a nice, rich gravy."

Scully nodded. "Well, that sounds easy enough," she said with a nervous glance at the bubbling pan of stew.

"It'll get easier and easier," the other woman promised. "Now, you just serve that stew over some of the bread I brought earlier today and you'll have a tasty, filling supper!"

The two women spent some time familiarizing themselves with Jenny Nulty's kitchen before Libby picked up the two baskets they had used for shopping and carried them toward the door.

"I'll be back tomorrow," she said. "Hopefully, sometime before lunch. Don't forget to clean out the coop with the lye soap and I'll bring those hens and a rooster, like I promised." She swept Scully into an impulsive hug and then stepped out into the yard.

"Tom!" she called as she walked toward the wagon. She looked around the small homestead and found her husband and Mulder crouched in the vegetable garden.

"Coming, dear." The men pushed to their feet and ambled across the yard toward the women. Tom climbed into the wagon and held out a hand to assist his wife.

"See you tomorrow," Libby called and waved as they drove down the rutted dirt road.

Mulder draped an arm around Scully's shoulder and led her back into the cabin. "Something smells good." He crossed the room and lifted the lid of the pan, inhaling the fragrant aromas of stewing beef and onions. "How long until it's ready?"

Scully glanced around the kitchen for a wall clock before she realized where - and when - they were. She gave herself a fast threesecond chastisement lecture, before replying, "I have no idea, Mulder. There's no clock around here. Maybe twenty minutes, best guess."

Mulder nodded, thinking it was a shame he couldn't wear the wristwatch he'd stowed away in the nightstand drawer. "I'm going to wash up. Be right back." He picked up the pitcher and headed toward the front door.

"Mulder, wait." Scully scooped up two wooden buckets from the floor. "I need to heat water to wash the dishes later. Could you bring some in?"

He left the pitcher on the table and took the buckets from her. While he was at the pump, she set out dishes and descended down into the cold cellar to retrieve the butter. Using a tin mug, Scully scooped some flour out of the sack and dumped it into a bowl. She cut several small pieces of butter and dipped them into the flour. She stirred them into the beef sauce and had to admit that it did smell good.

Mulder returned and set the full buckets on the floor near the door. He scooped water into the pitcher and stripped out of his shirt to wash up before dinner. Finished, he wiped his face with a cloth draped over the side of the washstand and turned to find Scully struggling to lift the heavy bucket high enough to fill a large pot that she had set on one of the burners.

"Let me." He hurried to take the unwieldy bucket from her hands. "Do you want all of this water in the pot?"

"Ummm..." She glanced down at the second bucket to make certain that there was enough water to rinse the dishes after washing them. "Yeah, go ahead."

She cut thick slices of bread and put them onto their plates, then ladled the beef and the now thickened gravy over the bread. She filled another pitcher with water and set it on the table along with two mismatched drinking glasses and they sat down. While they ate, they discussed the events of the day.

"Mulder, I know you have an unbelievable amount of useless knowledge and trivia stored in that head of yours," she began, "but do you know anything about working as a blacksmith?"

Mulder scraped back his chair and walked over to the stove for a second helping of stew. "Do you want some more?" he asked.

"No thanks." She tore off a small piece of bread and swirled it through the gravy remaining on her plate. She popped the morsel into her mouth and watched him dig into his second helping. Her brow creased in worry, she mused, "Working as a blacksmith is a backbreaking job and those fireplaces they use - forges, I think they're called - can be dangerous."

Mulder took a sip of water and eyed her over the rim of the glass. "Scully, life in general around here seems to be dangerous, which is why the phrase 'only the strong survive' was probably coined in the first place. I figure that I know as much about being a blacksmith as you do about being a frontier housewife." He downed the water and then rubbed tiredly at his eyes. "All we can go by is just what we've seen in movies, on television or read about in books, and what the Westons and Angus McLean can teach us from here. We need the money; besides, it was the only job I could find," he reminded her.

She pushed her plate aside and propped her elbows on the table, folding her hands. "Shouldn't we be concentrating on figuring out how to get home?" she asked. "How can we do that if you're going to be working from sunrise to sunset as an apprentice blacksmith while I chase chickens around a coop and lug water back and forth from the pump to the kitchen?"

"McLean said he only needed me three days a week," he countered. "We'll have plenty of time to work on getting back."

Scully shoved away from the table and began stacking the dirty dishes, struggling not to let her frustration show. "Getting out of here should be our priority," she said as she scraped the dishes. She dipped a hand into the pot of water heating on the stovetop and judged it hot enough to wash the dishes. Bending down to retrieve two basins that she and Libby had found earlier in the day, Scully divided the hot water between them. "We should never have come into this town," she muttered as she dropped the dishes into the hot water and grabbed soap and a washcloth. "We should have stayed near the cave and concentrated on how to get the hell out of here. Instead, we're playing pioneers." She plunged her hands into the hot water and scrubbed the plates vigorously.

Mulder stepped up behind her and laid his hands on her shoulders. "We discussed this already," he chided gently. "We couldn't stay at the cave. We'd be trapped there during the day hiding from the miners and it was too cold to stay there at night. We needed food and better shelter and we have that here."

He was right, damn it all. Scully's shoulders slumped beneath his hands and he leaned forward to press a kiss against her cheek. "I want to get home as badly as you," he promised. "We'll figure it out."

They finished the dishes together and then stepped outside to enjoy the cool night air. It was only nine o'clock but once again, they found themselves exhausted. Scully checked the stove to make sure that the fire Libby had lit earlier in the day had burned out. The embers still glowed red but with no more wood to fuel the flames, she knew they would wink out soon. She opened the tin of tooth powder, took one of the new toothbrushes and scrubbed her teeth. The tooth powder tasted awful, so she hurriedly rinsed her mouth; then made short work of removing her remaining clothes and boots.

Cleaning up as best as she could at the washbasin, Scully couldn't help but think longingly of her bathtub at home. Crossing to the bed, she found Mulder already stretched out blinking at her sleepily. She settled onto the mattress next to him and sighed with the relief of being off her feet. Mulder stretched out an arm to extinguish the oil lamp burning on the bedside table when she abruptly sat up.

"Damn!"

He sat up next to her. "What's wrong?"

Her chin dropped down to her chest. "I have to go to the bathroom," she said in such a mournful tone of voice that he had to fight to keep from laughing. She hated using the outhouse every bit as much as he'd imagined she would.

Scully took a sleeveless, cotton nightgown from a hook on the wall and pulled it over her head. She shoved her feet into her boots and grabbed the oil lamp from the nightstand. Mulder grinned as she clomped across the room, swearing under her breath on her way out of the cabin. Upon her return a few minutes later, he made sure that the smile was carefully wiped from his face.

She kicked off her boots and plopped back into bed with him. "Remind me not to drink anything in the evenings," she muttered as she turned off the lamp. "It's bad enough using that thing in the day. I hate going out there in the dark!" Her tone was so aggrieved that he lost his bid to hide his amusement from her and laughed out loud.

"Shut up." She shoved him with one hand and stole the pillow from him. She curled up on her side with her back to him. "Good night."

Mulder grinned in the darkness and then rolled onto his side behind her. His fingers trailed over her hip as he tested the softness of the cotton nightgown. "I liked what you wore to sleep in last night better," he mentioned casually.

"I'm sure that you did." She punched the pillow into a more satisfactory shape. "But it's cooler tonight and I'm quite comfortable in this," she told him tartly.

Mulder sank back down onto the mattress and curved his arms behind his head in a makeshift pillow. He shifted several times in an attempt to get comfortable. Sighing loudly in the darkness, he called her name.

"Scully? Are you asleep?"

"Almost," she murmured.

He tugged on her hip and rolled her onto her back. "If you're not going to share the pillow..." He scooted down in the bed a little and rested his cheek on her stomach. Her fingers sifted affectionately through his hair.

"Go to sleep, Mulder."


Scully was pulled from a deep sleep early the next morning as the mattress shifted beneath her. She pried her eyes open and peered at Mulder's shadowy figure as he sat on the edge of the bed.

"It's still dark out," she murmured in a raspy voice. "Why are you up?"

Mulder ran a knuckle over her cheek. "I have to go to work," he whispered. "Go back to sleep."

She scrubbed her hands over her face and rolled her head toward him. "What time is it?"

Mulder opened the drawer of the rickety bedside table, withdrew the watch he had tucked away and studied the glow-in-the-dark dial.

"A little after four." He drew the covers up to her shoulders. "Go back to sleep, Scully," he ordered again.

She flung back the covers and shivered as the cool morning air hit her bare arms. "No, I'll get up with you and make breakfast."

"You don't have to do that, Scully. Stay in bed, there's no reason for you to be up this early."

She ignored him and crawled out of bed, yelping as her bare feet hit the cold floor. "Would you light the lamp?"

He fumbled on the nightstand for the box of matches and a moment later there was a flare of light as he struck a match. He touched the flame to the wick of the lamp and a soft glow filled the small room.

At the washstand, she splashed water over her face and neck. She was peering into a clouded mirror hanging above the washstand and running her fingers through her sleep-mussed hair when Mulder walked up behind her. He dipped his face down next to hers and ran a hand over his bristled jaw.

"I should probably shave," he mused. "But I don't think I'm awake enough to deal with a straight razor."

She turned and stretched up onto her toes to rub her cheek against his. "I like you with a little bit of stubble," she admitted. Her movements reminded him of a cat marking its territory and he wrapped his arms around her in a tight hug. They stayed that way for a few moments, awakening more fully and enjoying the quiet of the new day.

"Seriously, Scully," he said when she stifled a yawn against his shoulder. "Why don't you crawl back into bed for a few hours?"

She dropped back onto her heels and stepped away from his embrace. "Can't." She picked up her toothbrush and the tin of toothpowder. "Libby is coming over sometime this morning with some recipes and to help me get a handle on things around here. I have stuff to do before she arrives." She made quick work of brushing her teeth, again frowning at the foreign taste of the toothpowder and wishing for a bottle of mouthwash. She remembered the peppermints she had purchased the previous day and made a mental note to leave a handful of them near the washstand.

Mulder dressed in the work pants and shirt borrowed from Thomas Weston; then he rooted through the tiny closet until he found a pair of suspenders. He pulled on socks and shoved his feet into the hobnail boots the reverend had lent him, thankful when the fit proved to be adequate.

"I'll be right back." He lit a second lamp and carried it with him to the outhouse.

Scully found a green and blue checked shirt and a blue skirt with wide gathers; she was struggling with the hooks and buttons at the waistband when she suddenly remembered the dress they'd borrowed from the farmhouse just down the road from the mine. She turned back to the little closet and dug around until she found it, still lying in a heap on the floor. She shook it out and thought it a bit wrinkled, but otherwise relatively unscathed from the wearing of it. She'd ask Mulder to return it on his way to work; one small kernel of guilt removed from the ever-growing weight she could feel settling on her shoulders.

While she waited for Mulder to return, Scully tugged stockings over her ankles and grimaced at the faintly scratchy texture of the lightweight wool. There had to be something cooler available than wool in the summertime. She poked through the contents of the undergarment shelf and crowed softly in triumph when she unearthed several sets of plain cotton stockings. She rolled a pair of them up her legs before putting on her boots and making her own trip outside.

Back in the kitchen, Scully tried to remember Libby's instructions for lighting the stove and did her best to mimic the other woman's movements in raking out the ashes left from the previous night. She used an iron handle to lift the burners; quickly adding some kindling. Taking a deep breath, she touched a match to the kindling and then put in a few larger pieces of wood. She watched the flames lick at the wood for a moment and frowned at the small fire. With a shrug, she dropped in a few more pieces of wood and set the burners back into place.

While the stove heated, she climbed down into the cold cellar and brought up butter, several eggs and the slab of bacon she had purchased from the general store. She was doing her best at cutting even slices of bacon when Mulder came into the small kitchen.

"What can I do to help... besides button you up?"

At his words, Scully twisted around to see she'd forgotten to button the skirt, which was now in danger of falling off her hips. "Oh, for... fasten me, would you please? And I think we need more wood," she replied. "And if you could bring in some water..." She held still while he buttoned her skirt; then smiled at the little kiss he brushed over her neck before he headed back outside for the wood and water she needed.

Scully found two heavy skillets and set them on the burners. Buoyed by the success of last night's meal, she laid the strips of bacon into the larger skillet. While the bacon cooked, Scully cracked the eggs into a bowl with a chipped edge and began beating them into a froth. Dropping a pat of butter into the smaller skillet to melt and then pouring in the eggs seemed familiar enough to her and for the first time since awakening that morning, she began to relax a little. While the eggs bubbled and cooked, she pulled out two plates and poured water into a couple of glasses. Indulging herself for one small moment by looking out the kitchen window into the morning sunrise took her a few steps away from the stove, but Scully was too enchanted with the pearly sky to worry overmuch.

Mulder appeared in the doorway with an armful of wood. "I think something's burning."

Alarmed, Scully turned back to the stove to find that the eggs were scorching. She grabbed the handle of the skillet and hissed as her fingers brushed against the hot metal. A nearby dishcloth made a decent makeshift potholder and Scully wrapped it around the handle, lifting the pan from the burner. She scraped the eggs into a bowl and then quickly took the bacon from the pan and divided it between their plates.

They sat down at the table and she eyed the meal with dismay. Breakfast was a disaster. The eggs were scorched and smoky tasting. If possible, the bacon was even worse. The uneven slices had cooked to varying degrees, the thick ones rubbery and undercooked, the thin pieces breaking into black crumbs at a touch. In her opinion, nothing on the table was remotely edible. The entire meal was an unappetizing mess.

"I can try again," she offered, doing her best to keep a lid on her temper.

Mulder shook his head and manfully shoveled a forkful of eggs into his mouth. "No time," he said. "I've got to be at work by six." She had to give him credit. He ate the meal without once grimacing or gagging.

"It's that stove. I don't know how to regulate the heat." She gave in to her frustration and glared at the offending iron contraption. "I'll ask Libby again," she promised.

Mulder scraped his chair back and stood. "It's okay, Scully." He gulped down a glass of water. "I'm sure I won't be any better at my job today." He drew her to her feet and she walked to the door with him. He dropped a kiss on her lips and ran his hand over her hair.

"I'll be back sometime after seven," he told her. "Have a good day."

He took a few steps across the yard and then abruptly stopped in his tracks when she called to him. "Mulder! Wait a minute; I need you to do something for me!" Scully darted into the house and grabbed the borrowed dress off the bed; then ran back outside and handed it to him. "I'm relatively sure you'll pass their farmhouse on your way to town; can you please put this back for me? I can't bear the thought of that poor woman being without her dress."

Mulder nodded and tucked the folded dress under his arm. "I'll try to do it this morning while it's still dark out and I can sneak in and out without fear of being seen."

He started back down the road but halted again, this time turning to gaze at her in sudden longing. Returning to her side, Mulder reached out a hand and tugged her close. Suddenly loath to be parted, they clung to each other. With the exception of the brief time they'd spent in town yesterday, they hadn't been parted since the beginning of this ordeal. His mouth moved over hers in a long, deep kiss and her fingers curled into the material of his shirt as she pushed herself closer.

"Scully," he whispered as he broke the kiss. "Promise me something."

She opened her eyes to peer up into his face.

"What?"

"Promise me the first thing you'll have Libby teach you is how to make coffee."

She knew that he was trying to lighten the mood, and playing her assigned part, she rolled her eyes and shoved her hands against his chest.

"Aren't you supposed to be going to work?"

He grinned and waved at her as he trudged backward toward the road. She watched from the doorway until he disappeared around a bend, then turned back to deal with the mess that had been breakfast.



ROCKY MOUNTAIN INTERLUDE, Chapter Seven By Char Chaffin and Tess
MSR, Casefile, AU
Rating: Strong R
Spoilers: FTF, Most of Season Seven
Feedback: to Tnv099@aol.com; char@chaffin.com

Headers and summary, see Part 1

Chapter Seven
Millersburg Livery and Iron

Mulder resisted the urge to wipe the sweat from his brow and tried to ignore the stinging drops as they ran down into his eyes. With both hands occupied pumping the bellows to force air through the forge's bank of coals, it wasn't as if he'd had a spare one to swipe across his forehead, anyhow.

Jesus, it was hot. He'd never in his life been this hot.

Angus had met him at the door of the livery with a pair of scarred leather gloves and a snarling, "Git yer ass over t' that forge, boy, and start pumpin'!" The surly blacksmith obviously wasn't one for morning amenities, Mulder decided. He'd eyed the long forge and huge set of bellows with an uneasy respect for the amount of fire it could fan. Made of what appeared to be some species of tanned hide, the bellows sported a thick set of handles that Mulder could barely fit his fingers around. The leather gloves hampered his usual dexterity but he didn't have to be a blacksmith to understand the consequences of trying to pump the bellows with his bare hands.

Working the bellows proved to be one serious exercise in bicepbuilding. It was cold and stiff, almost impossible to open and just as difficult to close. It took ten arm-breaking minutes of working it, a little at a time, until the hide warmed and softened enough to maneuver with some degree of finesse. Mulder caught Angus glaring at him once or twice as he manned the opposite end of the forge; he knew the grizzled smithy was impatiently waiting for hotter coals. Mulder redoubled his efforts and was rewarded by a short grunt of what could have been approval, as the bellows began opening and closing easier and the temperature of the coals visibly rose.

As the sun crept higher into the sky and the interior of the livery lightened, Mulder could better see the day's jobs piled up on a low bench near the anvil, larger pieces scattered along the floor. There seemed to be a little bit of everything. A crude box held horseshoes in varying sizes, another, smaller box held nails. There were several shovels, one Mulder knew belonging to Thomas Weston; there were fireplace tools and various pickaxes from the mine. There were several hoops that looked as if they were meant to fit onto a stack of wooden barrels sitting near the doorway. Mulder counted five hammers and even some pieces of wagon wheels.

It was going to be a busy day.

Under Angus McLean's growling instruction, Mulder learned not only how to pump the bellows but how to turn a horseshoe to extend its usefulness, how to sharpen the edges of a half-dozen deadly-looking farm and mining implements, how to repair broken hammers and axes and how to make nails. To his credit, not once did Angus bring up his apprentice's apparent ignorance concerning iron work in general, though to him it had to be as obvious as hell that Mulder was just following directions and had no real grasp of the job at hand.

Yet.

The men worked in relative silence for several hours, Mulder copying Angus's moves with his tools and implements. The veteran smithy seldom slowed down as he demonstrated the fine art of pounding and turning. A ragged chunk of blackened iron became the base of a candelabra, showcasing a streak of artistic talent in Angus McLean, although Mulder knew he would probably get his ass kicked if he tried to compliment his mean-tempered employer. Dull axes became sharp again, knives were honed to a deadly point and an old set of fireplace tools belonging to the mining boss Jack Sawyer were tempered, straightened and polished to a high gleam. The pile of finished jobs grew steadily, under Angus's approving, if grudging, eye. By noon, Mulder was beyond exhausted, sorer than he'd ever been in his life, and proud as hell that he'd managed to more or less hold his end up, making a decent dent in the livery's endless workload.

Now Mulder leaned against a wooden post, trying to ease the stabbing pain in his lower back, and finally gave in to wiping off his face with a handkerchief he pulled out of his back pocket. He'd long since removed his shirt in deference of the sweltering heat and his upper chest shone with perspiration. Long smudges of soot and sawdust ran up both arms and across his back and his face was liberally coated with it as well. His hair was soaked to the scalp with sweat and water, as he'd dunked his head several times over the course of the morning in an attempt to cool off. His suspenders were almost as grimy as the ones Angus wore.

Angus still hadn't said much to him other than his half-grunting, half-snarling style of instruction. Surprisingly, the smithy had dropped his hammer at least four times during the morning and had dragged Mulder over to the outside water pump, making him drink a large tin cup of water each time. Grateful for the prompting, Mulder had already begun to update his initial impression of Angus McLean, now pegging him for a caring, if rude, gruff and foul-mouthed man. Someone who was that considerate of his employees couldn't be all bad...

"Hey, yew! Asshole! Din't I tell yew t' bring some lunch? Where th' fuck is yore food? Yew think I'm gonna scrape yew off'n th' floor after yew puke up from th' heat an' fall over, ya dumb fuck?" The loud and grinding tones of Angus broke into Mulder's thoughts like nails over a chalkboard, and he quickly snapped out of his new summation of the beyond-grouchy smithy. Mulder straightened and met Angus's bad-tempered, mean expression as placidly and respectfully as he could muster up.

"I didn't have time this morning, Mr. McLean. I'm sure I can find something to eat over at the Supper House -"

Angus strode over and got up in Mulder's face, both fists clenched by his side. "Yew think yer gonna set yerself down at th' Supper House like a goddamn sissy-fied dandy, with a fuckin' hanky over yer lap, an' eat lunch? Ya stupid idjit, ya send over fer yer food an' yew eat it here! I ain't got time t' stop fer lunch an' yew don't either! Jesus bark at th' moon! Do I hafta tell yew ever'thang?"

Mulder blinked in confusion. "But you told me the other day that I had to eat lunch -"

Once again he was rudely interrupted. "Yeah, I did, but in here, ya rube! I ain't payin' yew t' stop 'prenticin'! Yew eat with one hand an' pound with th' other. Goddamn sonabitch fuck, we got too much work t' do!" Angus stomped to the door and yanked an old, torn shirt off a hook nailed to the wall, shrugging it on and not bothering to button it. He sent one last snarl toward Mulder as he strode out the door. "Yew eat what I getcha. Make yerself useful an' finish that fuckin' pickaxe like I showed ya, while yer waitin'."

Mulder shook his head as he watched Angus clomp across the street and disappear into the Supper House. The man was a mass of contradictions and meaner than a rattlesnake, but he was taking care of his apprentice in his own fashion. It was damned weird. It was rather like having a dad around, in a strange, creepy way - without the sappy stuff. In fact, it felt almost normal...

Mulder grinned to himself as he picked up the pickaxe head with a set of heavy tongs and thrust it into the coals, watching it gain heat and start to glow. He chose one of the heavier hammers and started to pound out the long end of the axe head, as he waited for his lunch.


Scully lifted a heavy pot from the stovetop and poured heated water into a galvanized tin pail. Dashing her sleeve across her sweaty forehead, she lugged the pail outside and across the yard. This was the ninth or tenth or one hundredth... she had lost count... such trip she'd made that morning. Glancing at the sun, she estimated that it wasn't quite noon, yet she was fast approaching exhausted.

"There's got to be a better way," she muttered as she thought of the endless loop from the pump to the kitchen to heat the water and then back outside to the chicken coop. Following Libby's instructions, she had mucked all of the straw out of the small building and had raked it into a neat pile near the barrel containing the feed they suspected of being tainted. Unpleasant a task as that had been, it was easy compared to the chore of scrubbing out the coop itself. Scully stepped back into the henhouse and plunked the pail down onto the dirt floor.

She picked up a rag and winced at the thought of putting her hands into the hot water. Her skin was raw from hours of contact with the harsh lye soap, and the half-healed cut on her palm throbbed. She tried to comfort herself with the thought that the strong soap would have killed any infection but she was not feeling in a 'glass halffull' kind of mood at the moment.

The walls and ceilings having already been scrubbed, Scully went to work on cleaning the shelf running the length of one wall that normally held the bedding for the straw nests where the hens roosted and laid their eggs. When she was finished, she made one last trip to the pump for a pail of fresh water to rinse away the soapy residue.

She stepped out of the building and let the pail fall to the ground with a clatter. She propped the door of the coop open with a piece of wood and pushed open the shutters on the two small windows to help air out the small building.

Scully was pumping clear, cool water over her stinging hands when the sound of an approaching wagon caused her to look up.

"Kate!" Libby waved as she pulled back on the reins and brought the horse and wagon to a halt. Scully shaded her eyes with one hand and walked across the yard to greet the other woman.

Libby gathered up her skirts and carefully climbed down from the wagon. "I brought my recipes, just like I promised," the preacher's wife offered Scully a sunny smile. "I see you've been cleaning the coop." She noted the pile of soiled straw and wandered across the yard; then ducked her head into the henhouse.

"Looks real good," she praised. "We'll let it air out another day and then I'll bring those chickens." Libby reached out and squeezed one of Scully's hands with her own. She frowned at the sound of Scully's pained hiss and clucked over the chapped and reddened skin.

"Lye'll do that," she intoned in a knowing voice. "Gets to a point where you don't even notice it anymore." She stroked a tender finger over Scully's palm. "I've got some liniment at home... I'll bring it tomorrow and it'll help fix you up."

"Thanks." Scully tucked her hands behind her back. "Can I get you something to drink? A glass of water?"

Libby followed her into the cabin and looked around approvingly. The kitchen was tidy with the exception of a plate holding the scraps left over from breakfast. With no garbage disposal and no trash can, Scully had been unsure of what to do with it.

"There should be a barrel near the fence." Libby picked up the plate. "Oh dear," she sighed at the sight of the remains of the scorched eggs and undercooked bacon.

"It takes time to get used to the stove," she commiserated. "Why, I don't think I cooked an edible meal the first two months Tom and I were married," she lied kindly. She bustled out of the cabin with the plate in her hand. As she had predicted, a squat wooden barrel was propped up near the fence. "The Connellys - just on the other side of that hill," she jerked her chin toward a rise of ground in the distance, "Eileen and Donald are their names." She tapped the plate against the rim of the barrel and let the scraps of food fall inside. "They raise pigs." Libby clapped the lid back onto the barrel and lowered her voice in conspiratorial whisper. "Sometimes, when the wind is right... you can smell them." She laughed at the grimace that crossed Scully's face.

"Anyway, they come around a couple of times a week and collect any garbage that's left over and use it to slop the pigs." She led the way back into the cabin and set the plate down. "Why don't we sit for a spell and have a cool drink."

Scully nodded and brought over two glasses and a pitcher of water. She sank gratefully into a chair and sighed with the relief of being off her feet for a few minutes.

"It's not what you're used to, is it?" Libby murmured.

"Far from it." Scully's smile was wan. If the other woman only knew...

"Well, it takes some adjusting, but you're healthy, you got a strong back... you'll get there." Libby frowned and touched her fingers to Scully's sun-kissed cheeks. "You should be wearing a hat," she admonished. She rose and pulled a sunbonnet from a hook near the door. "Pretty, white skin like yours! You'll be freckled in no time." She sat down again and thrust the hat into Scully's hands.

Scully fingered the flower-sprigged fabric of the bonnet and tipped her head in acknowledgement. "I'll be sure to wear it."

"Good." Libby sat down and took a sip of her water. "Now, let's get to work!"


Millersburg Livery and Iron

After the second time Mulder dropped a hammer on his toe, he began to appreciate the benefits of wearing hobnail boots.

Inside the borrowed work gloves his hands felt blistered and were stiffening up; there wasn't a thing he could do about it. Unused to clenching items like bellows handles, heavy hammers and iron tongs, his fingers were screaming at the misuse and his arm muscles were quivering in protest of being overworked. Mulder had never considered himself the strongest man alive by any means, but he worked out with weights every day and ran several miles each morning. He played basketball a couple of times a week unless he and Scully were in the field. His job in general was very active and if nothing else he knew he was aerobically-fit and healthy for his age. He was well-muscled and toned, for his size and build. But nothing had prepared his mind and body for life on the prairie, circa 1860.

Jesus, how could he have possibly known this bizarre little 'jaunt' was in his future? How would he ever have been able to train for something like this?

He tugged off the leather gloves and tried to work the kinks out of his fingers, taking advantage of yet another water break. He was waiting his turn at the pump; Angus was still guzzling water. Mulder shook his hands out and reached for the tin cup as Angus finished up... and instead of handing him the cup, Angus instead stuck out one massive paw and grabbed at Mulder's hand, turning it over to study the damage on his palm.

"Jesus Christ an' th' saints! Are yew plumb stupid, boy? Why din't yew tell me yer hand was torn up? I got liniment'll take care of that! I'll tell yew what," Angus dropped Mulder's hand in disgust and pushed him back inside, toward a wooden cabinet nearby the fireplace, "I can't be thinkin' o' ever'thang, yew damn fool! Yew git yer hands infected an' yer worthless to me! Here, yew rub this in." Angus pulled out a bottle and unscrewed the cap, dumping some of the contents on Mulder's sore and blistered palms. The liniment stunk to high heaven and stung like crazy; Mulder sucked in a harsh breath but refused to whimper, even though he wanted to. He worked the liniment into his hands while Angus clomped around in circles and called him all sorts of insulting, albeit inventive, names.

Once the liniment soaked in, Mulder had to admit his hands felt a lot better. Angus dug into the cabinet once more and came out with some torn pieces of cotton, wrapping them around each of Mulder's palms. With the cotton in place and the liniment still tingling, the idea of picking up the hammer once more or manning the bellows didn't make him cringe as much as he'd thought it would. Mulder smiled his thanks, grinning wider when Angus merely snarled at him. He moved into position at the bellows, ready to go back to work.

Angus, however, seemed to have other ideas. He drew a dull-looking pocket-watch out of his britches and opened it, taking note of the time. He peered out of the open doorway at the sun that was starting to lower in the sky; then glared over at Mulder. "Ferget it, Boy. Yew need t'let those blisters set a bit an' it's near sunset anyway. No sense in pickin' it up again an' makin' yer hands worse."

He spat tobacco juice onto the floor, by accident or on purpose missing the spittoon sitting at the end of the forge. Angus rubbed a hand over his face and if possible managed to add another layer of grime to cheeks already sooty. "Yew come in tomorrow. I got a load o' stuff needs t' be taken up t' th' mine. Yew take my wagon an' deliver it. Yew see Sawyer, he's th' boss. He'll pay yew. Git here at six t' help load th' wagon or don't bother showin' yer face here t'all, ya hear?"

Mulder nodded gratefully and removed the gloves, stacking them on a shelf nailed to the far wall. "I'll be here. And thanks, Mr. McLean. I appreciate you taking... care... of me." He glanced at the grizzled smithy as he spoke, and swore he could see steam hissing out of the curmudgeon's ears.

Angus growled out a few choice expletives, strode to his first-aid cabinet and snatched up the bottle of liniment, thrusting it into Mulder's bandaged hand. "Yew put more on tonight, before bed. Have yer wife rub it in good. Come mornin' yer hands'll be right as rain again. 'Course, they's still purty sissy-fied lookin'. But I reckon they'll toughen up, build up some nice calluses." He gave the younger man an approving once-over. "Yer okay, boy. Ya held yer own today. Jest as well, too, else yew'd been tossed out on yer ass, first thang!"

The grudging praise gave Mulder an absurd sense of pride, but he refrained from thanking his new employer too effusively. Instead he nodded once, shrugged back into his sweaty shirt, and left the livery with a wave and a promise to be back promptly at six in the morning. He took off down the road with a smile on his tired face.


"It's best to get on a schedule," Libby had advised. "You do the laundry on Monday. Now, I know that Sunday is a day of rest and as a minister's wife I shouldn't encourage you to do any work, but... most folks do their washing on Mondays. So, you want to sort and soak the wash the night before. Then on Tuesday, after the washing is nice and dry, you can do your ironing. Do your baking on Wednesdays and Fridays. Pull weeds and tend the garden on Thursdays. Give the house a good scrubbing on Saturdays - you won't BELIEVE how much dust and dirt can get inside in a week's time!"

She'd taken a deep breath and started ticking items off on her fingers. "And, of course, you'll cook breakfast and supper everyday. Likely, you'll cook something for lunch too on the days when Will isn't at work. Feed the chickens, do your mending, clean and fill the oil lamps, gather eggs... you'll want to come into town a couple of times a week for fresh meat and milk..." She'd smiled at the shellshocked look on Scully's face. "Maybe you should write some of this down."

Now, hours later, Scully's head was spinning from the wealth of information Libby had shared with her over the course of the afternoon. The older woman had driven off with a promise to bring the new chickens and then check back in on her new neighbor a couple of days after that. Scully glanced down at the hastily penciled notes she had taken.

"Ironing - after clothes are dry, dampen them." She felt a headache brewing and rubbed her forehead with the tips of her fingers. "Let them dry and then dampen them. Oh, just fabulous." She continued reading. "Rub the irons with beeswax and heat them on the stove." She dropped her head down onto her arms and moaned. "God, Mulder's right. It's like we stepped into an episode of 'Little House on the Prairie'!"

She rubbed wearily at her eyes, pushed sore fingers through her hair. Mulder would be home in a couple of hours and she had to figure out what to make for dinner. Scully drew the sheaf of papers containing Libby's recipes towards her. She thought of the chicken she had purchased at Silas Cranston's general store.

"Guess we're having chicken tonight." She flipped through the recipes rejecting one after another for being too difficult. "Chicken pie... nope." She flipped to the next page and screwed up her face in distaste. "Boiled chicken. Yuck." She paused. "Chicken soup?" She read through the recipe and shook her head. "We don't have any rice and I can't even contemplate making my own noodles or dumplings!"

She finally settled on fried chicken, determining that she could cook it a little early and they could eat it cold. Nervously, Scully approached the stove and lifted one of the burners. The fire was low and she cautiously added a few pieces of wood before setting the burner back into place. She retrieved the chicken from the cellar and brought it back to the kitchen.

"Clean and wash the chicken," she murmured as she consulted the recipe. "Cut it up into pieces and sprinkle with salt and pepper, to taste." She grabbed a large knife and quickly sectioned the chicken into pieces. "Okay, that was easy enough." While she preferred her meat to come on a Styrofoam tray covered in plastic wrap from a giant supermarket, she didn't bat an eye at the thought of dissecting a chicken. "Melt butter and lard in a large skillet." While the greasy mixture melted, she dusted each piece of chicken with flour. Vowing not to let the meal burn, Scully stood guard over the stove, poking and moving the chicken around the skillet, frying them until each piece was a golden brown as described in Libby's recipe.

"Ha!" She heaped the chicken onto a plate and set it aside to cool. The recipe suggested making a quick gravy by adding a little water, butter and flour to the pan of drippings. She ventured back into the cellar and brought up some potatoes. She'd boil them and serve them with the gravy...


"There's the little woman!"

Scully had dragged a chair out of the warm cabin and was snapping the ends off a pile of green beans she had harvested from the garden when she heard Mulder's voice. She dumped the beans into a bowl and wiped her hands on the apron tied around her waist.

"Mulder!" She stood and pulled him into a welcoming embrace. He smelled of sweat and soot, but she burrowed closer and tightened her grip around him. It had been a long day and she was simply glad to see him again.

She leaned her head back for a kiss and he happily obliged. Breaking away, he fingered the edges of her sunbonnet. "I don't know, Scully." He played with the ribbon tied beneath her chin. "There's something about this bonnet of yours... it's turning me on." He dipped his face beneath the brim of her hat and stole another kiss. When they parted again, he dropped his forehead onto her shoulder and sighed.

Scully reached for his hand and frowned when she encountered the cotton wrappings still in place. She pulled his hand closer to inspect it and demanded, "What did you do to your hands, Mulder?"

He sighed again and pressed his cheek to her neck. "I developed a few lovely blisters. It's nothing, Scully. Par for the course, really. Angus gave me some liniment and the stuff works wonders. My hands feel much better. I brought the bottle home; you'll have to rub some more on me, later on tonight." He raised his head and leered at her, spoiling the effect somewhat by yawning hugely in her face.

Scully threaded her fingers through his sweat-stiff hair, soothing his scalp. "Long day?" she asked.

"Oh, God." He dropped his head back on her shoulder. "I'm so sore, even my hair hurts."

She thought of that damned chicken coop. She could sympathize. "Dinner will be ready soon." She stepped away from him and picked up the bowl of beans. "Why don't you get washed up and then we'll eat. You can tell me all about your day and I'll tell you about mine."

Mulder nodded and watched her walk back into the cabin. She really did look pretty in that bonnet, he thought. If only he wasn't so damned tired... He pumped cool water over his head, using his handkerchief to scrub away the worst of the day's grime and sweat before dinner.

Twenty minutes later, Mulder entered the kitchen with an armful of wood and a small burlap bag slung over his shoulder that she hadn't noticed when she'd met him out in the yard. Scully smiled her thanks as he dumped the wood into the bin near the stove; then her grin got bigger when he handed her the bag and she saw what was inside. "My clothes! You found them. I'm so glad to see something of mine, something familiar, Mulder." She hugged him for good measure, chuckling when he returned her hug with a giant squeeze.

She pressed a kiss to his cheek and wriggled out of his arms, set the bag down on the floor next to the stove; then handed him the plate of chicken. "Here, make yourself useful." He complied eagerly as she carried bowls filled with boiled potatoes and fresh green beans to the table.

Mulder wasted no time in sitting down and filling his plate. "Looks good." He stabbed a crispy breast onto his fork while Scully lifted a chicken leg to her mouth and took a bite. Not bad, she congratulated herself silently. She sampled the green beans and thought they were a little overcooked, but all in all... Feeling victorious, she looked up and smiled at Mulder. The triumphant grin faded as she caught him trying to surreptitiously spit a mouthful of food into his napkin.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing!" He swirled a chunk of potato through a puddle of gravy and popped it in his mouth. "It's great!" he mumbled as he chewed.

Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. "What aren't you telling me?" She used her fork to spear up the chicken breast from his plate. She studied it for a moment before dumping it onto her own plate and shoving it aside in disgust. As with breakfast, the meat had cooked unevenly and while the smaller pieces were fine, the larger pieces had needed more time on the heat and were pink in spots and undercooked.

"It's practically raw inside!" she exclaimed angrily.

"Two days, Scully," he reminded her. "It's only been two days and learning to cook on that thing takes time." He pitched his voice into a soothing murmur. "It takes practice and besides, it's not like you do that much cooking at home so it'll probably take you even longer..." His voice trailed off as she looked at him in irritation.

"Not that either of us has time to cook at home," he amended quickly. "I'm sure the rest of it is fine." He carefully selected a couple of smaller pieces of chicken from the platter and made a show of tucking into the meal with gusto.

Scully knew he was right, but she was not used to failing in anything, let alone something as mundane as preparing a simple meal. The day had been a long one and she was tired and frustrated. They finished the meal in relative silence and worked together to quickly clean up. She dried the last plate and set it into the cupboard. Turning, she draped the damp towel over the back of a chair and saw Mulder standing near the fireplace. He reached up with one hand, rubbed his shoulder and grimaced. Scully remembered his complaint about being sore and took concerned note of the cotton wrappings still in place on both of his palms. Now would be a good time to rub that liniment in, she thought, before they both dropped from utter exhaustion.

"Come here, Mulder. And bring your bottle of liniment." She beckoned him to sit back down at the table. He pulled the bottle out of the pocket of his work shirt and plodded across the room. Scully turned a chair around and guided him down to straddle the seat. She took the bottle out of his hand and plunked it down; then helped him to strip out of his shirt. There was still a pot of hot water left on the stove and she dipped a clean cloth into the water. She squeezed out the excess and draped the hot, wet material over his neck and shoulders. She repeated the task over and over, allowing the steamy heat to draw some of the tension from his muscles.

Scully lifted the now cooling cloth from his neck and tossed it onto the table. Stepping close behind him, she smoothed her hands over his back. Ignoring the aches and pains left from a day of scrubbing out the chicken coop, she dug her fingers into his shoulders. Mulder groaned in appreciation and his head dropped forward to rest on the back of the chair. She rubbed and kneaded and massaged until she felt his knotted muscles begin to loosen. By the time she was finished, he was half asleep and sagging in his chair.

"Your hands, Mulder. You can't fall asleep yet," Scully admonished. He nodded wearily and stripped off the cotton wrappings, baring his hands to Scully's examination. To her they looked a little raw and the blisters had bubbled up and then burst, but she also knew the liniment had worked wonders, for his hands should have appeared much worse. She unscrewed the bottle cap and poured some of the liniment into her own hand, wrinkling her nose in disgust at the pungent odor. She massaged each palm thoroughly with the powerful liquid and this time Mulder didn't even wince; he was too exhausted to react. An added benefit to rubbing the medicine into his hands became evident when Scully noticed a marked improvement in the condition of her own sore hands and fingers.

Deciding to leave his bandages off, Scully drew him out of the chair. They walked outside to complete their nighttime ablutions and trudged back in, both almost asleep on their feet. Mulder bolted the door while she checked the stove to make sure that the fire was dying out. They fell into bed and this night sleep did not elude them.



ROCKY MOUNTAIN INTERLUDE, Chapter Eight By Char Chaffin and Tess
MSR, Casefile, AU
Rating: Strong R
Spoilers: FTF, Most of Season Seven
Feedback: to Tnv099@aol.com; char@chaffin.com

Headers and summary, see Part 1

Chapter Eight
Nulty Homestead

Four AM came much too early, Mulder thought with a groan of protest at his stiff muscles. He sat up in bed, stretching, doing his best not to awaken Scully who slept soundly beside him. He'd seen the nowclean and neat chicken coop in the twilight as he'd walked home the night before, and he knew she'd had to be beyond sore herself when she'd taken such good care of his aches and pains and his blistered hands. He'd wanted nothing more than to make love to her last night, but they'd both been too wiped out to do little more than snuggle as they fell asleep.

This morning, however... Carefully Mulder eased up on one elbow and fumbled for a match, lighting the bedside lamp and trimming the wick until it sent a soft glow over the small room. He slid back down onto his side; his body seemed to be able to handle that position without his muscles and joints screeching at him. Scully had fallen asleep on her side as well, and Mulder had a feeling she hadn't moved an inch all night. He stretched and wiggled his fingers; they felt a bit stiff but the blisters didn't hurt at all and in the dim glow from the lamp he could see a big improvement in the healing process. At least his hands would be able to 'handle' a bout of early-morning nookie... Mulder moved in closer on the pillow; face to face with Scully he trailed a gentle finger over her cheek and then her lips, watching her stir and awaken at his touch.

Her eyes fluttered open and in the dim light he could see the shadows underneath her lids, exhaustion still lining her features. Mulder smiled at her and she smiled back; then tried to sit up as she realized it was morning and she needed to start breakfast. Mulder curled an arm around her and easily pinned her to the bed.

Scully squirmed and mumbled sleepily, "I need to get up, Mulder. I have to fix your breakfast."

He pressed a kiss on her cheek and then added one to her soft mouth. "Nope. I'm not hungry. I'll bring some of that chicken to work, I promise. Besides, all I have to do this morning is deliver a wagonload of finished tools up to the mine." He strung small kisses over her jaw and down her neck, smiling against her skin when she sighed and stopped wriggling away from him. Mulder slipped his other arm around her and brought her up tightly against his body, loving the feel of her bare skin. As exhausted as they'd both been the night before, Scully had forgotten to put on a nightgown and Mulder had been too dead to notice. He was certainly noticing, now.

"Mulder, you can't bring the chicken anywhere; I tossed it out! It was undercooked, remember? And with no way to refrigerate it, I had to get rid of it."

"Well, damn! And here I was thinking I could pop it into the fireplace over at the livery, and have it for lunch. I can't believe I forgot so easily that we don't have a fridge," Mulder admitted sheepishly.

"It's really understandable, Mulder. Several times in the last few days I've found myself looking around the kitchen for the fridge, only to remember where and when we are." Scully reluctantly moved away from him, enough to see his face. In the dim room his hair was tangled, his cheeks bore one hell of a five o'clock shadow and his eyes were heavy with residual weariness.

He looked absolutely edible... but she needed to get up and figure out something for him to take for lunch, since he seemed determined to ignore breakfast.

Mulder easily read her mind and clamped her body against his again. "Scully, stop worrying about feeding me. I'm sure I'll survive." He slipped a gentle hand between her thighs and trailed his sore fingers over her silky hair. "There are other needs I have, besides food. Some of them involve nudity and much handling of our respective naughty bits."

Scully smothered a chuckle against his shoulder. "Naughty bits, huh? I'm afraid I'm too stiff and sore to do your 'bits' much good, Mulder. I can't even lift my arm." She demonstrated by lifting her right arm a scant two inches and struggling to hold it aloft, before the slender muscles started quivering in protest and she dropped it back onto the bed. Her bottom lip trembled into a pout and she looked so adorable Mulder ignored his own aches and squeezed her tightly, then ruined the gesture somewhat by cursing under his breath, "Owww, dammit! There has to be a way we can do this without causing ourselves further muscle spasms."

He pondered for a moment, one sore hand running up and down her back soothingly; then smiled in triumph. Of course! It made perfect sense. Besides, they were already in position...

Carefully, Mulder slid the back of his hand under her knee and raised her leg high enough to rest on his hip. This brought more of her lower body in contact with his, and aside from a tiny groan of protest for her aching leg, Scully seemed comfortable. He drew her arm over his shoulder and eased her upper body closer; now they were touching in several places, torso to torso. Their faces were very close together on the pillow; Mulder leaned in and Scully did the same, until their lips could cling and kiss.

Ignoring morning breath and cricks in their necks, they kissed slowly, thoroughly. For both of them, kissing had always been an important aspect of foreplay. There had been a time or two since the onset of their intimacy that kissing alone had been enough to arouse them, no other physical foreplay necessary. Thankfully this morning appeared to be one of those times, and Mulder threw himself into the kissing with gusto, feeling Scully do the same.

His palms may have been messed over but there wasn't a thing wrong with his fingertips, and Mulder used them to his advantage, trailing them lightly over her shoulders, down her back, then up again, to trace a delicate ear and tap over a collarbone. Scully shivered and pressed closer, her teeth nipping at Mulder's lower lip until he thought he'd go mad. Scully loved to use her teeth when she kissed and nothing whipped Mulder into a frenzy faster than the feel of those tiny love bites she inflicted. This morning was no different.

Mulder slid a hand between their bodies and stroked her gently; she was hot and wet, shuddering when he pressed against her and let a finger slip inside. The feeling was as always indescribable; this was Dana Scully at her most potent, her most powerful. Never one for saying very much during lovemaking, she simply allowed the demands of her body and the impact of her kisses tell him she was more than ready. When she reached out an impatient hand and grasped his penis, pulling at him until he met her soft flesh and thrust inside... Mulder chuckled into her mouth and got the end of his tongue bitten lightly for his impudence.

He whispered, "You're so bossy, Scully..."

In answer she pushed her hips into his as hard as she could and dug all ten fingers into his shoulders as he slipped in the rest of the way.

The feeling of being inside her in this position was so perfect that Mulder knew he wouldn't even have to move, to gain his release. She was tight and pulsing all around him; he could feel her muscles quivering as much as his were as they both fought to maintain maximum contact with minimum body aches. He caught her mouth in a series of deep, scorching kisses and his hand pressed against her lower back, the blisters stinging a bit as he held her steady. He refused to let it bother him, and with the fingers of his free hand he found her hard little clit and began stroking it, tugging on it in the same rhythm as his mouth on hers, his tongue against hers... the same rhythm his hips would have loved to mirror if only his goddamn muscles would obey.

This morning, however, it was enough. The combination of deep kisses, flicking fingertips and a thick and eager penis embedded deep in his lover's body all worked together; Scully tensed and then cried out into Mulder's mouth as she convulsed around him, an orgasm brought on by no movement but a whirlwind of love. It was perfect. It was maddening. It gave him one hell of a release, which he gratefully embraced a scant three seconds after Scully's shudders subsided.

"Good God. That was... well... I have no words for what that was." Scully was stuttering and the sound of her climactic confusion made Mulder laugh aloud.

He remained on his side intimately joined with her, though he knew the connection wouldn't last much longer. Mulder dropped a sweet kiss on her mouth and several over her jaw; then sighed in utter contentment. "That was the power of sedentary sex, Scully. That was the ultimate in lazy-morning loving."

She snorted softly. "That was the result of hours of backbreaking work versus all-American horniness. The body is weak but the spirit could give a rip. I think I gave myself a hernia on that final descent, Mulder. We'll have to check to see if my navel is still in place." She giggled when Mulder duly sent an index finger poking into her bellybutton, assuring it hadn't slid off her tummy and landed on the floor.

"Thankfully the horniness won out, Scully. I couldn't have done my usual piston routine if my life had depended on it. But I do find much satisfaction in knowing my johnson can fire without too much gunpowder." Mulder sent her a cheeky grin and she retaliated by pinching a rather sensitive area of his anatomy; then grimaced as she eased away from his body and her leg fell back onto the bed.

"Oww. Oh, I ache all over, even inside both ears. I may learn to hate chickens as well as their damn coops, if mucking them out gets to be a frequent chore." Scully lay back on the bed and tried to relax every sore muscle.

Next to her Mulder remained on his side, fearful of moving around just yet, and having his aching spine give him grief. "Speaking of chickens... what did you do with all that half-cooked fowl? It's not like we have a garbage disposal."

She snickered, "Oh, yes. We do, in fact, have a disposal of sorts. One of our neighbors raises pigs, and according to Libby visits farms several times a week to collect the scraps to feed their oinkers. All we have to do is dump our edible garbage in a barrel outside. The Connellys - their first names escape me at the moment - will come by and pick it up. Nice and neat."

The idea of pigs chowing on hens was just too much to contemplate - or resist teasing about, and Mulder deadpanned, "You mean the Connelly's hogs eat chickens? I wonder if they prefer legs or breasts. Sounds awfully kinky to me. I'm sure it's a perversion against nature and some kind of offense in at least three to five frontier states."

She was too sore to physically retaliate for his goofiness, and instead retorted, "You should be very glad I'm incapable of tossing you out of bed, Mulder. Otherwise your ass would be making contact with the floor. Now, which one of us is going to attempt rising from the bed first, and help the other up?"

"I have no idea. But I sure wish I had a camera, to record the moment."

"Idiot." The insult was said lovingly, as Scully pressed one final kiss to his mouth and then sat up, groaning at her protesting muscles. She managed to scoot to the side of the bed and ease herself to her feet, swaying a little as she reached out a hand and tugged at Mulder's arm, until with much moaning and other pathetic sounding noises, he got to his feet as well. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and teased, "One foot in front of the other, Scully... and I got dibs on the privy. As soon as I light the frigging lantern."

Her smarmy, "Be my guest," had him laughing all the way to the outhouse, trying not to stumble in the early-morning darkness.


Millersburg Livery and Iron

Mulder and the draft horse eyed each other with mutual suspicion and dislike. In the morning sun the animal's coat gleamed with health; it was obvious that Angus McLean took excellent care of him. Or her... Mulder couldn't tell. Nor did he want to check down there to satisfy his vague curiosity, not with the way the horse was rolling those huge brown eyes at him, and showing a mean set of yellowed teeth. Mulder's experience with horses started and stopped with the summertime pony rides at Martha's Vineyard, back when he was a kid. At Oxford he'd been too swamped with classes and mountains of homework to partake of the university's popular equine program. It wouldn't have mattered if he'd had the time, anyway, since women - one in particular, Mulder wryly admitted to himself - had occupied most of his sparse free time. But that was neither here nor there. Right now he had a horse to hook up to a wagon, God help him - and a ton of tools to drag out of the livery and load.

Mulder wracked his brain in an attempt to recall how Thomas Weston had his horse and wagon set up. The bridle on Angus's horse looked the same to him, and the brackets attached to each side of the wagon seemed to resemble the reverend's rig. All he had to do was connect the two, and he'd be in business... Warily, Mulder approached the big animal, crooning nonsensically under his breath, hoping the horse would pick up on the sound of his voice and not bite his fingers off - or kick him in the ass. He placed a hand on the horse's harness and the beast snorted and sidestepped, almost taking Mulder's arm out of its socket.

"Jesus, that hurt!" Scowling at the snickering horse, Mulder rubbed at his shoulder and quickly glanced around the dusty street, relieved to see that no one walking along the wooden sidewalk or loitering in doorways seemed to have taken any notice of his ineptitude. He needed to figure this out, and fast. It was one thing to acknowledge ignorance of frontier life by pretending to be an upper-crust city boy, but even city boys in nineteenth-century America knew how to harness a goddamn horse and wagon.

Didn't they?

"Well, fer Christ's sake! Ain't yew ever hadda hook up yer own rig, dumbass? Or did that citified livin' yew did back east take all th' man outta yew?"

Mulder groaned under his breath as Angus stomped out of the livery and toward him as he stood in the street trying to look as if he knew what he was doing with the huge draft horse. He hadn't fooled his boss, who must have been watching from the doorway.

Shit.

Angus reached his beast's side and laid a leather-gloved hand on its glossy mane, earning him a loving snicker and a nuzzle on his shoulder from the traitorous animal. He patted the horse affectionately, but the face he presented to Mulder held its usual mean-looking snarl. "Yew don't know mucha anythin', do yew, boy? What th' fuck did yew do in yer fancy city, growin' up? Sit on yer mama's lap an' eat outta her hand?"

Mulder silently counted to ten and forced his expression to remain suitably humble. "I went to school and then to university, Mr. McLean. I'm ashamed to say I was driven everywhere when I was a child, and at university I never got out much because I had no spare time for riding. After I graduated I went right to work in the city and again I was driven where I needed to go." It was actually not far off from the truth, if taxicabs could be substituted for horses. Mulder looked his employer straight in the eye and added, "I see now that I should have learned more than just what's in books, sir. I should have learned about life."

The humble-pie attitude must have worked, because the smithy's eyes actually appeared to soften a little, and he removed his big hand from the horse's mane and slapped Mulder on the back, almost knocking him to the ground. "Well, yer honest, boy. I can 'preciate that. If'n I asked anybody else a question like that, they'd pro'bly fuckin' lie t' me. Ain't no shame in not knowin' how t' do somethin'. They's more shame in pretendin' yer a know-it-all, an' then fuckin' up th' works." Angus grasped hold of the horse's head harness and pulled the large animal closer to the waiting wagon; then ordered gruffly, "Yew watch me. Then we're gonna unhook ole Bess here, an' yer gonna do it yerself."

Bess, huh? Well, that answered the gender question. Avoiding the chomping teeth of the big draft horse, Mulder edged closer and took careful note of everything Angus did.

A half hour later he was on his way, the clopping rhythm of Bess and the swaying wagon almost soothing in the morning sunshine. It had taken Mulder one try to hook up the wagon to Angus's satisfaction, earning him another spine-numbing slap on the back and a surly grunt of approval. To the horse's credit, she'd only tried to bite him twice. Angus had cautioned her in a low, firm growl and she'd subsided reluctantly, standing meekly enough as Mulder completed the final harnessing. Then they'd dragged out all the finished tools for the mine delivery, heaping them into the wagon carefully to avoid uneven weight distribution.

Angus had wiped off his face and commented, "Yew git yer ass movin', boy. I ain't payin' ya t' lollygag in th' street, lookin' purty." He snorted at his own joke and headed back to the livery, tossing over his shoulder, "When yew git back, we got horses t' shoe. I reckon yew never done any shoein' either, so yew git back here fast. I ain't got all day t' teacha ever'thang!" Angus had disappeared into the wide doorway of the livery and Mulder found himself chuckling as he snapped the reins and urged Bess out of town.

Although the mine was only about five miles from the edge of town, it took Mulder longer than he'd expected to get there. A horse pulling a wagonload of heavy tools made for slow going. He wasn't complaining. The ride was a pretty one; the lower hills dotted with a variety of wildflowers and the air sweet and warm. He relaxed in the high seat and looked around at the countryside.

He knew that civilization would encroach upon this pristine land very soon. In 1860 the frontier was still wild and sparsely populated, but the move west had already begun in earnest. As more mines - silver, gold and other ores and minerals - were staked out and developed, more and more people would flock to the Midwest and western territories, seeking their fortunes. More towns like Millersburg would spring up and prosper; grow in population, until the big-city troubles and woes found a way through the back door of America. It was sad but inevitable.

As desperately as Mulder wanted to find a way to whisk Scully and him back to their own time, he still counted himself fortunate to be able to experience something this once-in-a-lifetime amazing.

The narrow road up to the mining area and caves came into view as he rounded a curve and Mulder snapped the reins, anxious to get the tools unloaded and head back to town. There were men everywhere, leading work horses, pushing wheelbarrows, walking in and out of the main entrance of the mine. Mulder nodded to several of them and pulled on the brim of his hat as he'd seen other men in town do, and got a few waves of grimy hands and some curious nods back. He hadn't had an opportunity to meet any of these rough miners since, according to Thomas Weston, they stayed either out at the mines or at their own lodgings and farms in the evenings. By the time any of the men came into town for the night, Mulder was already headed for home.

He pulled on the reins and stopped Bess near the entrance, swung down from the wagon seat and took a chance on patting the horse's mane. Bess stood placidly and let him touch her, offering no reaction at all. Mulder took that as a good sign and walked into the entrance of the mine, searching for someone who looked as if they might be in charge.

A young boy that couldn't be any older than maybe fourteen hurried by him with a pickaxe balanced on his shoulder and Mulder stopped him. "Can you tell me where I might find Jack Sawyer?"

The boy spat a sloppy chaw of tobacco onto the ground and wiped his mouth on his sleeve before answering, "He's in th' hole. I kin git him fer ya, if'n yew want." Mulder nodded and thanked him; the boy laid down his axe and ran deeper into the entrance, hollering, "Mr. Sawyer! Yew got a feller wantin' t' see yew!"

A few minutes passed and Mulder took advantage of the time by examining his surroundings as casually as possible. The main entrance was fairly large, with enough head room to lead in a work horse. He figured the horses would be necessary to haul the larger boulders and rocks from the mines. Kerosene lamps hung on nails that had been embedded in the rocky sides; a few crude tables had been set up and what appeared to be a set of weights and measures sat on one table, along with small burlap bags. In the dimness of the lamp glow Mulder could see several holes in the ground; as he squinted at the back recesses of the mine, a man hoisted himself out of a far hole and dusted himself off, then walked toward Mulder.

Jack Sawyer appeared to be about ten years older than Mulder and sported a full head of gray hair. Apparently working in these mines aged a man quickly. He was dressed roughly, as all the miners were, in a homespun shirt and trousers. Wide suspenders crossed over his shoulders and his hands were large and covered with calluses and dirt. He took a grimy bandana from his pocket and wiped his face off, nodding to Mulder. "Mornin'. I'm Sawyer. What can I do for ya?"

Mulder pointed to Angus's wagon, just visible from where they stood. "My name is Will Mulder. I work with Angus McLean. He sent me over with some repaired tools you've been waiting on."

Jack broke into a grin, heavy creases at his eyes almost obscuring them, and exclaimed, "Well, it's 'bout damn time! I was fixin' to head on over to the livery an' give him a hard time, for takin' so long." He regarded Mulder with a curious expression. "You new in town? Ain't seen you around. If you're workin' for ole Angus then you got my sympathy. He's the meanest, most crotchety son of a bitch that ever lived." Jack wiped at his face again. "How long you been workin' for him?"

"About a day and a half. He only beat me up once, yesterday." Mulder's serious tone was belied by the twinkle in his eyes, and Jack Sawyer chuckled as he walked over to the wagon and peered in, then gave Bess's rump a familiar pat.

"Well, I'll tell ya, if you can handle more n' a day with that cranky bastard, you're tougher than I am. Good luck to ya." Jack called to a few men who were busy emptying out a wheelbarrow full of small rocks and gravel. "Petey! Cal! Come on over here and bring the wheelbarrow. McLean finally sent over our tools!"

As the men hurriedly dumped the wheelbarrow and pushed it over to the wagon, Jack motioned Mulder into the entrance of the mine, out of the sun. He walked over to a large bucket filled with cloudy water and dipped a cup into it, drinking deeply, then refilled it and offered it to Mulder who gratefully drank it down. It tasted a little stale but he was too thirsty to care.

Jack wiped off his mouth and gave Mulder the once-over. "Where ya from... Mulder, did ya say?"

"Virginia. My wife and I... came west to start a new life. We arrived in town with nothing; our stagecoach got robbed and we were on foot for several days until we found Millersburg." The fabrication was coming easier to Mulder; that in itself was an upsetting thought. Once again he was lying and hated having to do it.

Jack shook his head in disgust. "Goddamn thievery! Decent folks can't fight it. Well, ya come to a nice town. Quiet, mostly. Every now an' then some of my boys whoop it up when they get a little silver in their pocket, an' come to work the next day with busted heads an' pukin' whisky. Ain't got a bit of sympathy for 'em. Even hung over though, they're hard workers. 'Cept a few, but it's like that all over." Jack gulped down another cup of water, and confided, "I lost another one this week. Asshole didn't even warn me, just up an' left. Now I gotta find me a replacement. Shit."

Mulder could feel the hairs on the back of his neck start to twitch. "Do you know what happened? Why he left?"

"Well, could've been anythin', I reckon. A man's wife gets fidgety an' thinks she can't hack it out west no longer, talks her man into takin' her home. Had that happen before. Lost one of my best miners, Ben Nulty, just that way. His wife Jenny had a rough time, I hear tell, an' talked Ben into leavin'. Never got any warnin' from Ben, so leastways that's how I figure it happened. Probably the same with Abe. Abe Franklin, he's the one that ain't shown up yet this week." Jack's voice was laden with frustration.

Mulder didn't like the direction his thoughts were heading. "This Abe just left? Did he take his belongings with him?" Please say he did, please...

Jack shook his head. "Nope, not that I know of. Nobody in town recollects seein' them leavin' with a passel of trunks and such. My wife wants to go out to their place - they live 'bout a mile or so north of the Nultys, right off the same road - but I told her screw it. They'll come back when they're good an' ready, I said to her. Seen it happen before. But it's goddamn rude, I'll tell ya. I suppose he'll come slinkin' back to the mine, an' I reckon I'll take him back on, since he's a damn good miner."

The mine boss stuck out a hand and shook Mulder's, claiming, "Well, I'd best get back. I thank you for bringin' the tools. I'll get you Angus's money, if you wait just a minute. And you do your best to ignore that bastard's grumpy ways, y'hear? He's got a right to be mean, I guess."

Mulder was curious. "Why do you say that?"

Jack rummaged through a strongbox sitting to one side of the largest table and pulled out a leather bag, before he answered. "Well, Angus used to be one happy son of a bitch, when he was younger. Known him nigh on ten years, now. He came to Millersburg a month or two after I moved out here, when the town was brand new an' strugglin' to survive. He worked a bunch of odd jobs, do anything ya need done. He was the hardest workin' man I ever seen. Still is.

"Well, 'bout six years ago his daddy died an' he went to Scotland to see the ole man got a decent burial; he was gone the longest time, 'bout six months, I guess. I didn't think he'd come back, to tell the truth. Well, Angus came back to Millersburg with a wife, of all things. The prettiest little gal you ever did see. Said he met her in Ireland. Ireland! Don't that beat all? Can't recall her name but she was a sweet young thing."

Jack paused for a moment and counted out coins under his breath, while Mulder tried to imagine the grizzled Angus with anyone sweet and young. Try as he might, the image eluded him.

Satisfied with the count, Jack poured the coins into one of the small burlap bags and tied it off, then handed it to Mulder before he continued with his story. "Anyways, there was Angus as proud as punch that he'd up an' found himself this pretty little gal. He said he'd come to a decision in Scotland, that he'd be a smithy like his daddy had been. He'd brought back some of his daddy's things an' he set up his livery under an old waxed tarp, shoeing horses an' makin' tools. Poor as can be but they sure seemed happy, an' it wasn't a year back in town, that he was passin' out cigars an' boasting his wife was gonna have a baby. If you'd met him then you'd never know it was the same man you see workin' at the livery today.

"Well, that little gal died in childbirth, Mr. Mulder. It was a heartbreakin' thing. She just couldn't birth that baby, she was so little an' Angus is a big son of a bitch. Th' baby was big, too. She lost too much blood an' died, right after deliverin' the child. It died a few hours after she did. Saddest thing I ever heard. Angus changed that day, an' he's been black-hearted ever since. I never had a broken heart, but I'd say it can do powerful hurt to a man."

Jack Sawyer walked Mulder back to the wagon, now empty. Mulder was pensive as he thanked the older man and shook his hand, promising to return soon with his set of fireplace tools. "Angus hasn't quite finished them, Mr. Sawyer. But I'll bring them to you as soon as he does. Thanks for telling me about Angus's loss. It helps me to understand him better, and I appreciate it."

"Well, now... you're welcome. Ya might do me a favor, an' spread the word in town that I need a few more men at the mine, to take the place of the fellers that took off. Angus'll know which ones are good workers an' who's a slacker. Just ask him. An' if your wife don't mind a bit of company, I'll tell Mary - that's my wife - to go visit her, soon."

"She'd enjoy that. Thanks again, Mr. Sawyer." Mulder clucked at Bess and snapped the reins, and she obediently clopped off, the empty wagon swinging from side to side on the rutted road. All the way back to town he thought about Abe Franklin, Millersburg's latest missing person. He'd have bet money their homestead wasn't missing a thing, except them. Mulder sighed wearily as he drove along, swaying in the seat. He was almost at the town limits before he realized that Sawyer had no idea where he and Scully lived.

Well, they had bigger concerns now than a visit from another frontier wife. Maybe it was time for him to take another look at the cave, and see if anything could be deciphered from the immediate area. Maybe the cave drawings held some sort of key; he and Scully hadn't really pursued that possibility, yet. Mulder pulled up on the reins, thinking he'd just turn around and check the cave right now...

Then he remembered how many miners he'd seen swarming around the site. In and out of more than one cave and mine shaft, there was no way of knowing for sure if he'd be discovered were he to go snooping around in the middle of the day. Besides, he'd be in serious shit with Angus if he came back to town late. And with no flashlight - he'd left it hidden at the farm - it wasn't as if he'd be able to see anything much. He might as well wait until later, after dark. Maybe he and Scully could chance going there after dusk when the workers were gone for the day.

His decision made, Mulder snapped the reins and got Bess moving again, toward the town.


"You up for a little evening spelunking, Scully?"

They were finishing up dinner; Scully had used up the last of the bacon, some potatoes and snap beans from the garden and had made up a tasty cream of potato soup. She seemed to be getting the hang of the cook stove and had even tried her hand at making soda biscuits. The meal had been filling and Mulder had complimented her lavishly, earning him a blush, a grumble and then a kiss on the cheek all simultaneously from Scully, who'd had another frustrating day on the farm. He could really sympathize, since his afternoon with Angus had been packed full of horses that refused to stand still while he learned how to shoe them, and the snarling, profane verbal abuse that only Angus McLean could dish out. Plus he'd hammered his thumb several times.

It was good to be home, even if 'home' was a hundred and forty or so years from where it used to be.

Now Scully cocked her head at him as he picked up the bucket and prepared to head outside to fill it for her. "You want to go caveing again? Tonight? What do you think we'll find, Mulder?" She stacked the dirty dishes in the wash basin and waited until he came back in with the water and dumped it in the heating kettle, before adding, "You said this Jack Sawyer mentioned Abe Franklin never showed up this week. If he went to the caves and accidentally stuck his hand on the drawings, then wouldn't his wife be at home and worried about him? Sounds like they both took off, doesn't it?"

"I don't know. Sawyer was pissed off at Abe Franklin and Ben Nulty. He said his wife wanted to run over to the Franklin place but he wouldn't let her. If nobody has gone to see if the wife is still home, then anything could have happened. Abe Franklin COULD have gone up to the cave, for whatever reason, and discovered the drawings; touched them. His wife could have been with him. Or she could be at their homestead, worried sick about him."

They cleaned up in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Outside the sun had set and soon night would firmly settle in. Mulder glanced out the window; if they went up to the mine now, they could poke around and still make it home before it got too black to find their way. He tossed the damp flour sack he'd been using as a dish towel on the table and cautioned, "Scully, if we're going to do this, we have to go now. Tell me what you want to do."

She pushed at her hair and her eyes were troubled as they met his. "Much as I hate to go out there, I think you're right. I think we should check out the cave. Maybe we'll find something. If we don't then we have to discuss our next course of action, Mulder."

He nodded. "We will. I don't have to work tomorrow. My first day off." His grin was infectious as he took her hand and pulled her into the bedroom. He dug in the little closet and came up with a shawl for her; then rummaged around until he found the flashlight they'd hidden the first day they came to the farm. "Let's get this over with."

It took them roughly a half hour to walk up to the mine. Scully had forgotten they were so close to it; even walking at a slower pace owing to the darkening sky outside, it didn't take long to reach the cave. They climbed the small incline that brought them to the entrance, and Scully held tightly to Mulder's hand as they walked single file into the depths of the cave.

In the absolute blackness the flashlight was a welcome reassurance. Dark places had never really bothered Mulder; as a young child he used to hide in his parents' bedroom closet and indulge in any number of wild, youthful scenarios that involved being in a small, tight area. The cave, however, was a different kind of dark, another sort of enclosed space. When they returned to their own time, Mulder knew he'd be steering clear of caves for a very long time.

They ventured deeper into the narrowing chamber, the flashlight bobbing comfortingly before them and the utter ink of the night closing in as they moved through it. Mulder recalled a sharp bend to the right, with the wall carved in drawings also on the right side. They should be coming up on it; he didn't think they'd moved this far into the cave before they'd stumbled upon it.

"Scully, did we take a wrong turn somewhere? We should have seen that right bend by now." Mulder shone the flashlight in a wide arc and saw nothing but a narrow, straight passageway and no rock carvings.

Scully squinted in the small beam, silently bemoaning the loss of her eyeglasses. She sighed worriedly, "We might be in the wrong cave. For some reason it just didn't feel right coming in, you know? Did you feel it, too?"

"No. We're in the right cave. At least I know that much. We must have moved into a different chamber. This isn't the way we walked before, Scully. I think we should just give it up; it's too damned dark and it's getting late. If we don't leave now we're going to have a hard time finding our way back to the farm."

They turned around, their feet shuffling carefully along the dirt floor, the flashlight held steady in Mulder's hand. Scully was gripping his other hand so tightly that she was inadvertently causing him pain, but Mulder didn't complain. His hands had improved significantly using Angus's liniment, but they were still sore. It was worth the hurt as long as he didn't lose his grip on Scully.

Both of them heaved a sigh of relief when they saw the mouth of the cave looming before them, and they scrambled down the hill and found their way back to the road. Under a half moon they walked to the cabin, quiet, pensive. Mulder slipped an arm around Scully's shoulders and kept the flashlight trained on the ground before them so they wouldn't trip or step in a rut.

They made it to their cabin in one piece and hurriedly entered, securing the latch and immediately lighting the wall lamps in the kitchen. Scully sank into one of the chairs while Mulder poured them both glasses of water from the pitcher that still sat on the table.

Mulder gulped down half a glass; then set it down and wiped at his mouth. "Well, that was a wasted effort. I can't believe we almost got lost. We need to go back in the daylight, Scully. I think we also need to check out the Franklin farm."

"You want to see if his wife is still there." It was a statement and not really a question.

Mulder nodded, reaching across the small table to grasp Scully's hand. "I think we have to know. Don't you? If she's there, then possibly she might be able to tell us something. Anything. If she isn't, well... then what other choice do we have than to believe and accept that people have been going to the cave and disappearing for the same reason we did? We'd have to accept they'd traveled elsewhere... to another year, another era. Somewhere."

Scully rubbed her free hand over her face, tiredly. "Mulder, I'm exhausted and so are you. Neither of us is thinking straight right now. I'm definitely not working with a clear head, at least not clear enough to attempt imagining people from 1860 time-traveling to God knows when. It's too frightening to contemplate, not without a decent night's sleep." She rose from the old wooden chair and pulled at Mulder with the hand he still held clasped in his. "Let's try getting some of that decent sleep, okay? We'll think about it again in the morning. We can wait until then to decide what to do next, can't we?"

Her eyes were pleading as they gazed into his. Faced with her worry and feeling it feeding his own, Mulder reached out for her and curled her into his arms, holding fast, giving and taking comfort as best as he could. "Yes. We can wait until tomorrow. You're right. We can't do any more thinking tonight. Let's sleep on it, Scully. We'll talk about it again in the morning."



ROCKY MOUNTAIN INTERLUDE, Chapter Nine
By Char Chaffin and Tess
MSR, Casefile, AU
Rating: Strong R
Spoilers: FTF, Most of Season Seven
Feedback: to Tnv099@aol.com; char@chaffin.com

Headers and summary, see Part 1

Chapter Nine
Nulty Homestead

The insistent crowing of a rooster ruined Scully's plan to sleep late. She pushed up on one elbow and rubbed her eyes tiredly while Mulder grunted and tugged the pillow over his ears. She looked toward the small window to see pearly gray light beyond the glass and judged it to be about six o'clock. With Mulder not having to go to work, they had gotten two more hours of sleep than they had in the last few days, but she found herself wishing that Libby Weston hadn't dropped off the promised fowl yesterday. She plopped back down onto the mattress and buried her face against the warm, bare expanse of Mulder's back, trying to ignore the racket coming from the chicken coop.

"Don't those things come with a snooze alarm?" she grumbled against his skin.

"You could always cook it for dinner tonight," Mulder suggested sleepily from beneath the pillow. "I'm betting that would be a pretty effective way to shut him up."

Scully huffed out a tired laugh. "Sorry, I draw the line at plucking my food before eating it."

The rooster crowed again and Scully flung back the covers and crawled out of bed.

"Where are you going?" Mulder mumbled.

She pried up one corner of the pillow and found his eyes stubbornly closed against the intruding light. She brushed her lips against his bristled chin and let the pillow fall back into place.

"Outhouse," she groaned miserably. She ignored the muffled snort of laughter coming from beneath the pillow and dragged on yesterday's clothes for the trip outside. She guessed that the outhouse was state-of-the-art for its time but she still found the experience repugnant and longed for the gleaming porcelain fixtures of the spotless bathroom in her apartment. She returned to the cabin to find Mulder asleep again. Quietly moving around the small bedroom, Scully brushed her teeth and quickly washed up. She changed into clean clothes and stifling a yawn, wandered into the kitchen.

Although soft light filtered through the glass of the window, she struck a match and touched it to the wick of an oil lamp. With the improved lighting, she tied an apron around her waist and set about starting breakfast. Less intimidated by the cast iron stove, Scully built a small fire beneath the burners and carefully added kindling before replacing the metal lids. As the stove heated, she reached for the small sack of coffee beans, pouring the beans into a wooden grinder and turning the brass crank until the beans were ground into a fine powder. Setting the coffee aside, she picked up a bucket and headed out for what she had now learned would be the first of many trips to and from the pump.

Stepping outside, Scully took a deep breath of the fresh mountain air. As she walked to the water pump, she noted how the rising sun bathed the mountain peaks in a soft, pink glow as the sun rose higher. She cranked the handle of the pump and cool water gushed into the bucket at her feet. As she carried the sloshing bucket of water back toward the cabin, she remembered the chickens. She walked toward the coop and set the bucket of water down near the fence that ran around the perimeter of the small wooden building.

Opening the burlap sack of feed that Libby had brought the prior day, Scully scooped a measure of corn into a metal pie plate. She stepped into the small yard of the coop, amused at the way the rooster squawked once or twice and strutted around the fence line, careful to keep his distance from her. When she scattered a handful of corn onto the dirt, however, the rooster qyuckly moved closer and began pecking at his breakfast. She could hear the quiet rustling and clucking of the hens; she peeked inside and in the dim light could make out the three hens nesting in the straw piled on the waist-high ledge.

"Guess I should probably check to see if there are any eggs," she muttered. Libby had told her that it was likely that the hens might not lay any eggs for the first day or so until they had settled into their new home, but suggested that she check anyway and let the hens grow accustomed to her. Scully edged toward the roosting hens and stopped about a foot away from the ledge. She studied the chickens and pondered her options. Did she just slip a hand underneath and feel around for an egg, she wondered. She realized that was probably something she should have thought to ask Libby.

"Here goes nothing," she murmured. She took two more steps until she was within reaching distance of the ledge. "Good morning, ladies." She stretched out a cautious hand and gingerly slid it toward one of the hens. The chicken let out a loud squawk and fluttered her feathers indignantly. Scully drew in a bracing breath, determinedly slipped her fingers beneath the plump, feathered body and was rewarded with a sharp beak pecking at the back of her hand.

"Ow!" She snatched her hand away and sent the pie plate clattering to the ground. The feed scattered across the dirt and the hens instantly flapped their wings and swooped toward the dirt floor of the coop. Cradling her injured hand against her breast, she nodded knowingly.

"Note to self," she mumbled. "First, distract the chickens with the feed." She found the nests empty. "Obviously, you girls need a little more time in your new home." She scooped up the metal plate, quickly let herself out of the pen and latched the gate behind her. Securing the rest of the sack just in case the arrogant rooster decided to grab a bit more chow, Scully grabbed the bucket of water and lugged it toward the cabin.

She could hear Mulder's soft snores coming from the bedroom and decided to let him sleep until breakfast was ready. She would have to get back to town sometime that day or the next for provisions, but she had enough to get through the day. She poured water into a pan and set it on the stove to heat. While she waited for the water to come to a boil, she went into the cold cellar and brought up the remainder of the butter and eggs that she'd purchased earlier in the week. She cracked one egg into a bowl and beat it with a fork. She added a third of the beaten egg to the ground coffee and mixed it with a small amount of cold water; then put the mixture into the blue-speckled metal coffee pot and added the now boiling water.

While she waited for the coffee to come back to a boil, she cracked the rest of the eggs into a bowl and set it aside, sliced tomatoes on a plate and placed it on the table along with the rest of the soda biscuits left over from last night's dinner. Scully peeled a potato, cut it into thin slices and fried the slices in a cast iron pan. Taking a long handled spoon, she stirred the boiling coffee.

"Do I smell coffee?" She turned to find a bleary-eyed Mulder propped against the bedroom doorway.

"It'll be ready in about ten minutes," she told him. He nodded and ducked back into the bedroom to wash up and get dressed for the day. He returned a few minutes later and stepped up behind her to wrap his arms around her waist.

"Need help?" He nuzzled his face into the crook of her neck and she lifted a hand to tangle her fingers into his hair.

"Keep an eye on the coffee and stir it every once in a while," she suggested. "Don't let it boil over." He kissed her neck and stepped away to stand guard over the precious pot of coffee while Scully scooped the fried potatoes onto a plate and poured the eggs into the hot pan. A few minutes later they were sitting down to breakfast.

"I guess we should get back to discussing what our next move is going to be," Mulder said around a mouthful of eggs. Scully sprinkled a bit of salt and pepper on her potatoes, thinking about their options.

"Well, we need to get back to the cave in the daylight but we can't do it while the mineworkers are there," she replied.

He nodded and took a sip of coffee. "Yeah, we'll have to wait until Sunday."

"I guess we could go out to the Franklins' homestead. You know, it's likely that he's just home sick or something. Every person who doesn't show up for work hasn't necessarily traveled through time," she pointed out.

Mulder shrugged and shoveled a forkful of potatoes into his mouth. She knew how his mind worked - that he automatically leapt to the conclusion the missing miner had somehow found himself in another time and place. And while their present circumstances wouldn't allow her to dismiss the possibility out of hand, she naturally looked for a more pedestrian explanation.

"Well, hopefully we'll know more once we get out there," she sighed.

They lapsed into silence as they finished their breakfast and cleaned up, each lost in their own thoughts. Scully wiped the last dish dry and watched through the open door as Mulder dumped the scraps of their breakfast into the barrel along the fence. She couldn't help but worry that she had angered him with her suggestion that perhaps something less nefarious had happened to Abe Franklin to cause him to miss work this week. Over the last few months they had come to find a good balance between their viewpoints. While she would never be as willing to accept the implausible and embrace it the way Mulder did, she knew that she had become somewhat more openminded. Her relatively swift acceptance of their current predicament was proof of that.

Then again, she thought derisively, she had little choice but to accept their current circumstances for what they were - regardless of how unbelievable they still seemed to her. Still, she had found herself more willing to listen to and consider the possibilities of Mulder's theories and in turn, he was more respectful of those times when she hesitated or dug in her heels in disagreement. But he had been so quiet after she offered her theory...

Mulder returned to the cabin and settled his hands on his hips. "Are you ready to go?"

She nodded and reached behind her back to untie her apron. Her fingers fumbled with the bow and she craned her head over her shoulder as if she could somehow see the knot that stubbornly refused to come loose.

"Let me." His fingers brushed hers away and he dipped his head down to study the knotted ties. She could feel each warm exhalation of breath against the back of her neck. The apron's ties slipped loose in his deft fingers.

"This has been kind of nice, you know?"

Scully tried to turn to face him, but he held her in place by holding fast to the material in his hands. She tilted her head back until her hair brushed against his shoulder and looked up at him questioningly. "What's been nice?"

"This." He gestured around the small cabin with one hand. "You know, coming home to you every day. Talking over home cooked meals instead of take-out..."

Her previous worries over his mood evaporated and she paused to consider his words. "Maybe it's something that we should think about doing more often when we get back home," she suggested with a smile.

He brushed his lips over her cheek. "Definitely." He tossed the apron onto the table and held out his hand. "Let's go visit the neighbors."


They had been walking for about twenty minutes when they finally came upon the Franklins' homestead. The small but sturdy cabin was nestled in a clearing in a towering stand of pine trees. Laundry flapped on the line that ran between the side of the house and the barn. Wildflowers grew in abundance in a field of tall grass behind the cabin and birds twittered overhead. The setting was tranquil. Quiet.

Perhaps too quiet. Other than the snapping of the laundry in the wind and the chirping birds, there was no other sign of life on the property. Mulder tightened his hand around Scully's and they moved toward the cabin. He rapped his knuckles against the cabin door.

"Hello? Mr. Franklin? Mrs. Franklin!" Mulder's voice seemed unnaturally loud in the quiet of the morning. His fist thudded against the wooden door again. "Anyone home?" He shook his head. "I don't hear anything."

"There could be any number of reasons why they aren't at home." Scully ignored the look of exasperation on his face and grasped the door latch. The door gave way easily and creaked open to reveal the dimly-lit interior. They eased their way into the front room of the cabin.

"Hello?" Scully called out. They separated and she moved toward the bedroom. She glanced inside and found the bed made, clean clothing hung neatly in the closet in the uninhabited room.

She glanced toward Mulder. "No one's here."

He looked around the cabin. It was as small as the one he and Scully were sharing and there were no hiding places. He saw her looking toward the trap door that led to the cold cellar and shrugged. He lifted the door and cautiously stepped down. Nothing struck him as out of the ordinary other than the faintly sour smell of spoiled milk.

Mulder climbed back up to the main floor. "Nothing."

Their gazes swept around the room again, looking for clues as to the whereabouts of the Franklins.

"It's just like at the Nulty place," Mulder commented. "Everything in the cabin seems to be in its place with the exception of the folks who live here." She knew he was more firmly convinced than before that the Nultys and the Franklins had met a fate similar to their own and while she still thought that there could be a more simple explanation for their whereabouts, she couldn't completely dismiss the thought. Scully found herself wondering whether the two couples had gone back in time... or forward. Was Jenny Nulty marveling at the wonders of electric dishwashers and indoor plumbing? Impatiently she shook off the thought of the frontier woman enjoying the fruits of twenty-first century invention, and moved closer to Mulder's side.

"Let's check outside," Mulder suggested. "Then, if we don't find anything, we'll go back up to the cave."

She queried, "What about the miners?"

"If we get there right around quitting time, we'll still have an earlier start than we did yesterday," he reasoned as he led her outside. He poked open the door of the outhouse before catching up with Scully as she made her way toward the barn. She pushed open the door; they stepped inside and were immediately assailed by a horrific stench.

"Oh!" Scully instinctively jerked back and covered her nose and mouth with her hand. They exchanged distressed looks and reluctantly turned around again, bracing themselves for what they would find. Mulder grabbed a pitchfork and used it to prop the door wide open to allow some fresh air and light into the barn. They crept forward and in the gloomy interior saw a cow - or what was left of it - lying in its stall. Scully swallowed hard and offered a silent prayer that the bovine's owners had not met a similar fate.

A few steps further into the barn and she knew her prayers had not been answered. Two people - presumably Abe Franklin and his wife - were lying in a heap in a corner. Mulder pushed past Scully and dropped to his knees near the bodies. He reached out a hand toward the woman's shoulder, intent on rolling her onto her back.

"Wait!" Scully's hand shot out and she grabbed his forearm. "Don't touch them!"

Mulder shot her a quizzical look. "What?" he protested. "We have to see if they're still alive."

She tightened her grip on him. There was something about this... She shook her head. Something not right. Something...

"No, no, no," she whispered. It felt desperately wrong. Felt familiar. What? She had seen death, had stood over bodies in crime scenes and labs hundreds of times. Why? What was it about this scene that had her heart pounding frantically against her ribs?

She planted her feet against the dirt-packed floor and yanked on his arm. "We need light," she ordered. "Grab that lamp and bring it over here." She pulled him to his feet and pushed him toward the door. Her eyes darted around the barn and she snatched up a rake propped against one of the stalls. She heard the scrape of a match and the smell of sulfur briefly overpowered the stench of death and decay. She used the tip of the rake's handle to gently roll the woman's body over and onto her back. In the glow of the lamplight, they both recoiled at the sight that met them.

"Oh, God," Scully breathed. She could hear Mulder's ragged breathing near her ear. Each frantic exhalation matched her own.

"What is that?" he asked. "It looks like..."

Scully closed her eyes against the sight and felt a terror rising in her unlike anything she had ever known before.

"Scully!" Mulder squeezed her hand and called her name, demanding her attention. She reluctantly lifted her lashes and met his terrified gaze with her own. He chanced a glance at the bodies and then looked back at her.

"Is that what... am I seeing what I think I'm seeing?"

She nodded jerkily. "Yes." She yanked free and pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes. "It's the same as those firefighters from the bombing in Dallas. From what I can see, Mrs. Franklin's tissue..." Her voice wavered, refusing to even put a name to it; she hesitated before continuing. "I can do an autopsy of sorts but of course I don't have the equipment to run any tests to see what's happening on a molecular level." Scully dropped her arms to her sides. "But I don't... I've only seen this type of cellular breakdown once before."

"On the firefighters."

Her expression was grim. "Yes." She looked at him and the wild expression in his eyes frightened her more than the grisly discovery of the bodies. He nodded once, as though he had arrived at some decision before taking her by the wrist and hauling her toward the door.

"Mulder!" She struggled against him, but for the first time in their partnership, he exerted his greater size and strength to manhandle her into submission. He pushed her out of the door and began to drag her across the yard of the Franklin homestead toward the road.

"Mulder!" She tried to dig her heels into the ground, but was unable to impede his forward momentum. She briefly considered just dropping to the ground like a child struggling against its parent's firm grip, but dignity prevented it. Instead, Scully swung her free arm and cuffed her hand against the side of his head. He stopped, surprised but unhurt by the glancing blow and she took advantage of the moment to try to free herself from his grasp.

"Let me go," she growled, twisting her arm in an attempt to loosen his punishing grip. Mulder grasped her by both arms and hauled her against his chest.

"What did you tell me in that field office in Dallas?" he ground out.

She shook her head in confusion. "I don't know..." She squirmed and pressed her hands against his chest, pushing as hard as she could to dislodge his grip. "You're hurting me!"

"Then stop fighting me!" His eyes blazed with fury and she shrank back in confusion and worry.

"Mulder..."

Suddenly the expression on his face changed from fury to fear and then to contrition. "I'm sorry." He pulled her close and wound his arms tightly around her waist. When he buried his face in her hair, Scully hesitantly curled her own arms around his back. Pressed against him like this, she felt the tiny tremors racing up and down his spine and could smell the ripe tang of fear on his skin.

"It's okay." Scully's hands skated up and down his back in long, soothing strokes. They stood, wrapped in each other's embrace in the late morning sun for several long moments before Mulder lifted his head from her shoulder.

"Do you remember what you told me in that field office?" he asked again.

Scully frowned in confusion. "I don't... I told you several things."

"You said that what those firefighters were infected with contained a protein code that you had never seen before." He repeated her words nearly verbatim. "You told me that what it did to them, it did extremely fast."

"Yes." She looked back toward the barn and pictured the two people lying inside, remembered what she'd seen before, several years ago. "Yes."

"You also said that you didn't know how they contracted the infection."

"I didn't. I still don't."

"So don't you think that we should limit the amount of our exposure?"

Her mouth gaped open and she stepped out of his embrace. "Oh, God. Oh my God!" She began walking quickly down the road. "You're right. You're right."

Mulder hurried after her and once again caught her by the arm, but this time to hold her in place, not to drag her along behind him.

"Where are you going?" He flung his free arm out and pointed in the opposite direction. "Our cabin is that way!"

Damn it! Scully was getting tired of him grabbing her and pushing her around. "I know, but the town is this way!" She looked down the road that led to Millersburg. She squirmed once in an effort to free her arm but knew from recent experience that it wouldn't help. Instead, she stood quietly until he loosened his hold.

"I remember that I also told you that whatever those men were infected with could cause a serious health threat," Scully reminded him. "We need to get into town to warn people."

"We can't."

Her voice rose shrilly. "What the hell are you talking about, Mulder? What do you mean we can't?" Once again, she was fighting in earnest to free herself. "We've got to warn them. Mulder!"

"Scully, we can't." He let her struggle for several more minutes against his implacable hold. Although she twisted and squirmed and yelled, she never used any of the self-defense measures that she had learned in training to free herself. Finally, she slumped in his arms and he lowered them both to the hard ground.

"I don't understand, Mulder." She lifted pleading eyes to meet his. "Why can't we warn them... try to help them?"

He stroked his hand through her hair. "Do you remember that book I bought - the one that led us here in the first place?"

"Yes."

"Remember the story about Millersburg? One day it was a thriving, vibrant place to live and then suddenly all the people disappeared, leaving no trace of their whereabouts until eventually the only things left to prove that they ever existed were the remnants of the buildings in the town?"

"Yes, I remember. But I don't know what you're driving at."

"I mean that it's history, Scully. It already happened and we shouldn't do anything to change that."

"Mulder! This isn't some episode of Star Trek with their code, directive... whatever - about interfering with other cultures and history. These are people! People we've come to know. Libby... and the Reverend." Scully's voice broke. "We can't just..." She shied away from the thought of doing nothing. It went against everything she had ever been taught, everything she believed in.

"I care about them too, Scully. God, don't you know that?" He leaned forward until his nose was practically pressed against hers. "I want to help them, but we can't. If we alter one thing that happened here... who knows what the ripple effect will be?"

Her head fell forward until her chin was pressed against her chest. "Haven't we already altered things just by our very presence here?" she asked in a small voice.

"Yes. And there's nothing that we can do about that now. Thankfully we haven't done anything out-of-place here, other than just learn to survive." Mulder cupped her chin in his hand and tipped her head back until she looked up at him. "But Scully..." He ran his tongue over his dry lips. "It's more important than ever that we find our way home." His voice was filled with foreboding. "Remember what else the book said?"

"No, what?"

"The peddler," he prompted.

Her eyes widened in comprehension. "In the month between one visit and his next... every living creature in the town had disappeared."

Mulder nodded grimly. "We don't have much time left."


Back at the cabin, morning slipped into afternoon as they slumped at the kitchen table in exhaustion. Upon their return, Scully had busied herself by making fresh coffee and they had consumed almost the entire pot as they tried to make sense of what they had seen.

"How do you think... what do you think caused the infection?" Scully finally asked.

Mulder traced his thumbnail over the edge of one of the wooden planks that made up the tabletop and shrugged. "I'm not sure."

They lapsed back into silence. Scully's nerves were jangling from a combination of adrenaline and too much caffeine.

"Have you... have you seen any bees?" she asked hesitantly.

Mulder's gaze shot up to hers and he saw the fear and worry etched on her face. "I don't... not really. I mean, I haven't really taken any notice."

"I haven't either."

Mulder sipped his now cold coffee and let his mind wander back to that awful time when he had been frantically looking for his missing partner. Suddenly, he shot out of his chair. Scully jerked her head up in surprise.

"What?"

"That old British gentleman, the one who gave me the vaccine and coordinates to your location in Antarctica!"

"What about him?"

He rubbed his hand over his eyes. "What did he tell me," he muttered. "What did he say?" He remembered driving in the car with the man, his head aching from the bullet crease. He tried to piece the conversation back together.

"He told me that the virus was extra-terrestrial." He saw her head jerk back in instinctive denial. "Just listen!" he demanded. He began to pace around the small room. "He said that it was living in a cave, underground... mutating into an evolved pathogen that would be used to colonize the earth by using humans as hosts." He stared at her, hard, willing her to understand - and he knew the moment she made the connection.

"The mines. You think it's in the mines."

Mulder dropped back into his chair and clutched her hands in his. "It's got to be. It makes sense. Both Abe Franklin and Ben Nulty worked in the mines. It's a common denominator."

"And they brought it home to their wives?"

"Yeah. And to their livestock. Their cattle, and their fowl." He thought of the dead chickens in the yard that first morning; somehow it had gotten into the feed. Miners, coming into contact with the virus, not knowing what they might be stepping in, touching... bringing it home to their wives and family. Their animals. Bringing death home on their clothes, their hands.

Jesus.

"Scully, if I'm right... there's nothing that we can do to help these people. The best weapon against this virus is a weak vaccine..."

"...that's a hundred and forty years away from being created," she finished for him. She dropped her cheek onto their joined hands and he bent his head over hers.

"Yeah."

She lifted her face and tears welled in her eyes, spilling over her lashes and down her cheek.

"I want to go home, Mulder."

He kissed her tears away. "I know, Scully. Me too."

They lapsed into silence, each caught up in their own private whirl of thoughts and fears. Scully could feel the beginnings of a headache brewing behind her eyes and it seemed that every muscle in her body ached from the tension that held her in its rigid grip. Her gaze was fixated on the rough-hewn planks that made up the tabletop as if the old wood could offer up some sort of answer.

"It's been a while since breakfast," Mulder's voice interrupted the stillness. "Maybe we should eat something."

"I'm not hungry."

"We might feel a little better after we eat," he encouraged.

She gave a weary shake of her head. "I'm too tired to make anything."

"I can put something together." Truth be told, he wasn't really hungry, but he was looking for some kind of busy work.

Scully lifted her gaze from the table. "I'm too tired to eat."

He stood and held out a hand for her. "Let's lie down and take a nap." He helped her to her feet and she followed him into the bedroom where they curled up on top of the covers; her back pressed into the curve of his body. The warmth of his body was comforting but she couldn't settle down.

"Relax," Mulder whispered as he rolled onto his back. She turned to follow him, resting her head on his chest and crooking one leg over his thighs. She rode the steady rise and fall of his chest and tried to match her breathing to his. Up and down. One deep inhale followed by a long, slow exhale. He stroked his hand from the crown of her head to the small of her back, hypnotic and calming and she could feel sleep beckoning her but she couldn't relax enough to fall under its spell. The scratchiness of his shirt chafed her face, irritating her. She flicked open each button and spread his shirt wide.

Scully nestled her cheek against the warm, bare skin of his chest and scratched her fingers through the silky hair sprinkled over his skin. Pressing her mouth against his breastbone, she centered herself in the steady thrumming of his heart and the warmth of his flesh, grateful for the solid, comforting bulk of him around her, beneath her, beside her. She closed her eyes and reached out for the respite from her thoughts offered by sleep.

Against his side Scully's slight weight was both a comfort and a point of arousal for him; he'd never been able to lie beside her without wanting her, needing her. But Mulder sensed that the comfort was as important as anything else, and he was content to hold her and try to coax both of them into sleep. He continued to soothe his palm over her hair and down along her spine, calming them both even as the feel of her skin stimulated his senses.

Scully trailed her knuckles up and down the length of his ribs and absentmindedly traced a circle around the rim of his navel. She hitched her leg higher on his thighs and felt him stir to life. His heartbeat quickened beneath her ear and his hand faltered for a moment before resuming its steady path along her back.

Suddenly, it wasn't the respite of sleep Scully wanted, but rather the sexual relief offered in the joining of their bodies. She shifted in his arms, trailing a line of soft kisses across his chest, eliciting a gasp from him as her warm mouth closed over a flat nipple.

"I thought you were tired." He tightened his fingers around her hip. The touch of her lips against his sensitive nipple was quickly replacing his thoughts of sleep. He needed her, but not as simply a sleepmate. Not right now.

Scully didn't want to sleep. She wanted the distraction and comfort that she knew they could find in their lovemaking. She shook her head and changed directions, the line of tiny kisses now moving upward. She lapped at the salty taste she discovered in the hollow of his throat and closed her teeth over his jaw in a delicate bite. Mulder instinctively turned his head toward her, seeking her mouth. She nuzzled his lips, tasting him and with little coaxing, drew his tongue into her mouth. He sat up and braced his back against the wooden headboard. Perched on his lap, she opened her eyes and found him watching her as they shared gentle kisses. She struggled to keep her eyes open but lost the battle when his mouth moved from hers to press against the soft underside of her jaw. She tipped her head to the side and hissed out his name as he scraped his teeth over the tendon running up the side of her neck.

As always the scent of her was as addictive as the need for her touch, her kiss. Mulder was fighting a base need to grab onto her with two fists of utter greed, and let the loving take everything else away. Their future was shakier than anything they'd thus far encountered in their lives together. In their own time they had better leverage, could fight their foes and face their tribulations with matched strength and fortitude. But here in the past, where their intelligence and knowledge was sometimes worth so little... here the war was unfairly tipped. And the feeling of helplessness was unwelcome and frightening.

Her heart was thumping against her breastbone and the desire to take him in fast, needy gulps - to join her body to his in a frantic mating that would drive all thoughts of death and despair from her mind - was powerful. Scully enjoyed those sometimes mindless, passionate encounters of racing hands and hungry mouths but that wasn't what they needed now.

Instead, she pushed her hands against his shoulders and drew the shirt from his body. His response was to hurriedly begin to undo the buttons of her blouse but as he fumbled with the first one, she grasped his hand and slowed his movements. There was no hurry; she wanted this to last. Feeling the first frisson of urgency ease a little, he nodded and leisurely worked his way down the line of buttons. He brushed the blouse from her shoulders and she reached behind her back to unfasten the hook of her skirt. As she tossed the clothes aside, Mulder took a moment to admire the picture she made in a muslin camisole and matching ankle length pants. She scooted back on his thighs and began to work on unfastening his homespun trousers when his hand stayed hers. Scully lifted questioning eyes to him and saw that his attention was diverted by the split crotch of her muslin drawers.

"Convenient," he croaked, drawing a tiny grin from her. It felt good to smile. She savored that small moment of lightheartedness and sat still while he ran an experimental finger along the opening. She knew he was considering the various merits of the garment and she decided not to ruin the fantasy by pointing out the practicality of the opening when one was hiking up yards of skirt and petticoats when making use of the outhouse. She knew he had made a decision when he began to tug at the bow of the drawstring. When the last of their clothes fell to the floor, he tried to draw her onto the mattress beneath him, but she shook her head.

"Like this," Scully whispered, maintaining her place in his lap. She closed gentle fingers around him and guided him into place. She bit her lip and buried her face in his neck, panting with the exquisite pleasure/pain of his body invading hers. She lifted her head and their lips met in an ardent kiss. God... how she loved this man.

In his mind they had all the time in the world to love this way, but in their own era, their own world. Mulder found himself pretending that they were in the familiar bed in Scully's apartment, windows open to let in the light and warm summer air. It was her soft cotton sheets beneath their bodies instead of woven muslin; it was her firm yet giving mattress instead of one made of straw and coarse feathers. He held her hips tightly against his as she melted down onto him, as she took him deep and then deeper still.

Scully looped her arms around his neck and grasped the headboard for leverage as she began a slow rise and fall over his body. The rough wood chafed her palms as he lifted his hips to meet the descent of hers. She shivered when Mulder's restless hands roamed over her body, skating over her ribs, fingers digging into her as he pulled her down to meet his upward thrusts, then sliding his hands upward, palms cupping and molding her breasts. A cry escaped her lips when his mouth closed over the tip of her breast in a wet, tugging kiss. She dipped her head next to his and whispered words of love into his ear.

Mulder refused to think their time was shortening at an alarming rate, but as usual his brain - the sensible side of it - screamed at him to take it fast, do it, harder, more and more, hurry, hurry... He fought against that swamping need and concentrated on the feel of Scully as she surrounded him, the way her inner heat cloaked him; the taste of her skin on his tongue. How much he loved it when she wound a hand into his hair and clung to him, forcing him to take a larger bite of her, wanting to feel the ridge of his teeth on her tender nipple. How it excited him to hear her gasping into the air above his head when he nipped harder. He had to give her more, make her feel more... not because of any reason other than love. Not anything else, not worry or fright or uncertainty. He shoved it all back and instead thrust up deeper, reaching further.

She both welcomed and fought against the rising tide of pleasure, wanting the release but reluctant to leave this world where only the two of them and their enjoyment of each other existed. Too soon - or not soon enough - Scully felt the familiar tingling in her toes and fingers. With a hoarse moan she gave into the driving need, grinding her hips into his until with a similar cry, he surged into her one last time before they both collapsed onto the mattress.

Exhausted, she eased onto her back and drew Mulder's head down to rest against her shoulder. She stroked one hand over his trembling back in a long, soothing glide. Clamping an arm over her waist and crooking his leg over hers, he bound her quivering body against his own. Without words they both affirmed not only their love but their determination as well, to push forward, to do whatever it took to find their way back to the life that awaited them.

Anchored together, they slipped into a dreamless sleep.



ROCKY MOUNTAIN INTERLUDE, Chapter Ten
By Char Chaffin and Tess
MSR, Casefile, AU
Rating: Strong R
Spoilers: FTF, Most of Season Seven
Feedback: to Tnv099@aol.com; char@chaffin.com

Headers and summary, see Part 1

Chapter Ten
Millersburg, CO

It was a beautiful Monday afternoon that found Scully walking along the road toward town. Although they had fallen asleep early on Saturday evening, the combination of their discovery at the Franklin homestead and their lovemaking had left them exhausted and they had slept almost fourteen hours. They had awakened on Sunday morning hungry and they prepared a quick breakfast. As they ate, they once again discussed the events of the previous day. Deciding to take advantage of the fact that the mine would be closed, they had set off for the cave armed with their flashlight, two oil lamps and a coil of rope. Before they had left the cabin, Scully had dug through the closet for her leather carryall.

"I don't want to leave it behind if we get lucky and figure a way out of here," she had said in response to his questioning look.

Upon arriving at the cave, Mulder had secured one end of the rope to a tree near the entrance and coiled the other end around his hand. "I'm tired of worrying about taking the wrong turn in there," he had explained. He had taken Scully's hand in his own and started into the cave, turning in surprise when she balked and refused to step inside.

"What's wrong?"

"If you're right... if whatever killed the Franklins is in the mine... what's to stop it from being in the cave as well?" Her question hung in the air as they contemplated the new danger that the cave now represented.

"You make a good point," Mulder acknowledged, stunned that they hadn't thought of that before now. They'd stared at each other for several long moments, feeling helpless and undecided. Finally, he shrugged and turned to look back into the cave.

"We've been in and out of this cave several times now," he pointed out reasonably. "Nothing's happened to us."

"Yet."

He nodded in silent acknowledgment of her words. "I don't see that we have any other choice, though."

"I guess not," she sighed. "Let's just go."

Using the flashlight and one of the lamps, they had set off into the inky interior of the cave, moving cautiously at first, jumping at every shadow. They had spent hours exploring the cave, once again pressing their hands to the walls, searching fruitlessly for a way back home.

"I don't know," he had complained. "We've tried everything that we can think of."

"Maybe we have to be here at a certain time or on a certain day..."

He had shrugged and after taking a cautious glance around, sat down heavily on the hard ground. "Maybe." He scraped a hand through his hair. "I just don't know."

"Do you think the drawings on the wall are a clue?"

He had shrugged tiredly but looked up at the wall with renewed interest. "Could be."

Scully had plopped down onto the ground beside him and balanced her backpack on her lap. As she had rummaged through the bag, he looked down at her curiously.

"What are you doing?"

"I think I've got a pen and some... ah!" She had pulled out a small notepad. "Would you stand up and hold the light closer to the wall?" He had lit the second lamp and set it down on the ground next to her, then stood and held the other lamp over his head to illuminate the drawings while Scully carefully copied them into the notepad. When she had finished, they packed up their things and followed the rope guide back to the mouth of the cave.

"Well, that was a waste of time," she had commented as they stepped out of the cave.

Mulder had shielded his eyes against the sudden, bright light of the late afternoon sun. "It's getting late," he commented. "Let's go home."

As they walked away, Scully glanced over her shoulder toward the gloomy interior of the cave. Home, she had thought. If only it were that easy.

They'd spent the evening going over the copies of the drawings until their eyes were heavy-lidded with exhaustion, before giving up. The images and symbols seemed random, the same as most cipher-type codes. Viewed separately they made no more sense than when viewed as a whole message. The longer Mulder stared at them the more frustrated he'd become, until he just threw up his hands.

He rubbed at his tired eyes. "I've got to get up early tomorrow for work." Mulder closed the notepad and stood. "Let's go to bed." Scully nodded and forced herself to her feet, stretching her stiff muscles.

In the gloom of a single lamp, they had undressed and poured themselves into the soft mattress, for once so tired that even washing up was too much of a chore. Beneath a single blanket they snuggled, wrapped around each other, holding fast. With a few murmured words of love, they had fallen asleep within minutes.

After seeing him off the next morning, Scully had gone about the routine chores of feeding the chickens and gathering eggs. This time not only had she found a few large brown eggs in one of the nests, but the hen responsible had actually let her remove them without much fuss, squawking or beak-pecking. Scully took that as a good sign.

She had cleaned the kitchen and gathered all of the soiled laundry and bed linens. She hauled bucket after bucket of water from the pump to the cabin until her arms and shoulders ached. After heating the water, Scully lugged it back outside and poured it over the dirty laundry sorted by color in two galvanized tin tubs to soak overnight. She dreaded the thought of doing the laundry tomorrow. Putting the overwhelming thought out of her head, she went inside for a bite to eat only to realize that she still had to go shopping.

The work had kept her busy - busy enough that she'd been able to put aside her worries about what was seemingly happening around them and the growing depression that pressed down on her. However, alone on the walk to town, there was nothing to occupy her mind. Eager for the distractions an afternoon of grocery shopping could offer, Scully quickened her pace.

She arrived in Millersburg a short while later and was heading toward Silas Cranston's general store when the sound of metal clanging against metal caught her attention. Scully turned away from the store and walked toward the livery, suddenly impatient to see Mulder. She ducked under the overhang and found him hard at work.

His back was to her and he was striking a hammer against a metal pole that he was holding in place with a long-handled pair of tongs. He was shirtless and she watched the muscles of his back and arms bunch and loosen with every strike of the hammer. A rivulet of sweat ran down the column of his spine to join the others that had already soaked into the waistband of his pants.

He was all the distraction she could ask for and she was reluctant to break the spell, but she wanted to talk with him... see his face.

"Mul... Will!"

Startled, Mulder turned, almost dropping the red-hot pole. He hastily set his hammer down and smiled at her. "Hi, this is a surprise!" Holding up one finger to caution her against coming any closer, he carefully plunged the metal pole into a bucket of water near his feet. There was a hiss of steam as the hot metal met the water and he released the pole. He removed his heavy gloves and wiped his damp forehead with a sweaty hand, leaving a smear of soot behind.

Mulder tossed the tongs onto a long workbench and walked toward her. "Are you on your way to the store?"

"Yeah. We need a few things and..." She jerked her shoulder. "I just had to get out of there for a little while. Too much time alone with my thoughts, you know?"

He nodded. "I know. I've kind of been doing the same thing, this morning. It's a wonder I haven't dropped the damn hammer on my toe," he smiled ruefully.

She tipped her head to one side and met his smile. "I was standing over there watching you for a few minutes," she admitted. "You're surprisingly adept at this already."

"Ooooh, watching your man sweat and strain, huh? Want me to flex something?" He was close enough that she could smell the sharp tang of sweat. He pressed the palms of his hands together and began to strike the classic pose of a body builder. He mugged a silly face at her and she felt a smile curve her lips. He could be so goofy sometimes, usually when she needed it the most. Like now.

"Uh... no, that's okay." She trailed an index finger along his forearm. "Let's leave something to the imagination."

Mulder grinned. "Party-Pooper. Well, at least you're smiling, Scu, um, Kate. I'm glad to see it. Glad to see you in the middle of my morning, that's for sure." He caught her errant finger and gave it a gentle squeeze; then picked up her hand and raised it to his lips, pressing a kiss there. Her fingers were chilled and he retained hold of them, adding, "As long as you're here... would you like to meet Angus McLean? He's in the back."

She sighed and looked down at her feet. "Considering everything that we know... I'm not sure that I want to meet anyone else." She couldn't bear the thought of another face in her mind, another person's life on her conscience.

Mulder could certainly relate. As frustrating as his crotchety employer could be, when they left here he'd miss Angus McLean. He'd mourn the inevitability of this town's ultimate fate. He slipped an arm around her waist and gave her a reassuring hug. "Baby, I know. And I wish like hell we could do something, anything. But even if we did have the means to eradicate this, we still couldn't. We both know that, painful as it is."

He curled his thumb and forefinger under Scully's chin and tipped her face up to his. "Listen, you'll get a kick out of meeting Angus, I guarantee. He'll probably only swear at you a few times. At the very least."

He made it sound so inviting, she thought, grateful for his attempt at levity. "Ah... something to look forward to."

He grinned at the wry look on her face. "You bet. Wait here and I'll go get him. Okay?"

"Okay."

"I'll be right back," He walked toward the back of the shop. "Angus!" he called out. "There's someone out here who wants to meet you!"

Scully glanced around as she waited; taking note of unfinished tools and mean-looking equipment that gleamed with either oil or sweat, depending on whether or not it had been recently used. The heat was stifling as it belched from the forge. Even the buckets of water on the uneven floor seemed to give off steam. She could almost feel the humidity curling her hair underneath the half-bonnet she was wearing. She impatiently tugged it off and hung the tied ribbons on her arm, running fingers over her scalp to loosen up the waves and curls that were forming. Absently she listened to Mulder's voice murmuring to his boss, and she couldn't help smiling at the grouchy responses of McLean.

In the small room beyond the main work area Mulder was doing everything he could not to bust out laughing at Angus's reaction to being asked to put down his work and meet the 'little woman.' It was as if he'd been asked to burn down the Livery and never pound another hammer, ever again.

Angus was fuming. "What?? Yew think I ain't got better things t' do than drop my work an' come out there an' socialize, yew dumb idjit?" He brandished the hammer held in his meaty hand. "Send 'em away! We're busy! Christ on a goddamn haystack!"

Swallowing excessive mirth, Mulder adopted a contrite look. "Um, it's my wife. Kate. She was on her way to the grocers, and -"

Angus spat a stream of tobacco juice onto the floor in disgust, accompanied by several choice expletives. "I don't care if'n God hisself is out there! We got work, boy! Tell 'er to go shoppin' an' leave us be!" He spun away and stalked though the doorway into the main shop for a tool he needed... and caught a glimpse of a small woman standing near the doorway. The sun was at her back, casting her features into shadow and setting her glorious red hair ablaze.

"What th' - Maureen?" He rubbed his hands over his face and took a second look, not trusting his eyes. "Who th' hell is there?"

Puzzling over the smithy's dumbfounded expression, Mulder hurriedly moved next to Scully and laid a hand on her back, leading her away from the doorway and further into the livery. "This is my wife. Kate." He glanced down at Scully lovingly. "Kate, meet my employer, Mr. Angus McLean."

Mulder had done a wonderful job describing his employer. Angus McLean was exactly the way she had pictured him. She held out her hand. "Mr. McLean. I'm pleased to meet you."

The sound of her soft, cultured voice snapped Angus out of his bemused daze and he rubbed his dirty palm against his pant leg before gingerly taking hers. He stared at their hands, mesmerized by the way her small fingers were engulfed in his grip. Just like Maureen... He became aware of the fact that he was still holding her hand and quickly let go, feeling his face grow warm.

He found himself stuttering, "Oh. Yew... Um. Missis Mulder. Ah, fer a bit there, yew reminded me... um, pleased t' make yer 'quaintance."

She looked at him closely, a little unnerved by the intense way he was scrutinizing her face. "I'd like to thank you for giving my husband a job."

Angus didn't know what to say to her. Such a delicate little lady... he managed to grind out a flustered, "Oh, well... he's a real hard worker. Best 'prentice I ever had. Never late an' never complains. An' I work him hard, too. He's learned a lot, Ma'am." He clamped down on his rambling, aware that he was almost babbling.

Scully found his shyness endearing, and she gave him a gentle smile before aiming a wider one at Mulder. "Well, he's tired when he comes home, but I think he's enjoying the work."

Angus readily agreed, "Damn fuckin' right he'd be tired, I make sure t' get a full day o' work outta him!" His words ground to a halt as he realized he'd cursed in front of her, and aghast at his bad manners, added humbly, "Beg pardon, Ma'am, fer th' coarse words. I'm not used t' havin' a fine lady in my shop."

There was absolutely no way she could possibly take exception to his remarks and Scully's response was sincere as she reassured, "No offense taken, Mr. McLean." She watched in fascination as his cheeks flushed rosy above the wild tangle of his beard. "Please, don't worry about it," she urged.

An awkward silence fell over them for a moment, before Angus cleared his throat, unwilling to end the conversation and thus have no reason to remain in this lovely woman's company. "Uh, are yew from... that is... where are yew... are yew Irish, Missis Mulder?"

She beamed at him. "On my father's side, yes. My great-grandfather came to America from County Cork. And you... with a name like Angus, I feel safe in guessing that your people are from Scotland." Her eyebrow lifted inquiringly as she spoke.

Angus replied eagerly, "Yes'm, they's all from Scotland. I sailed over t' th' States, oh, been 'bout twenty years now. Went back t' see 'em all, 'bout six years ago. Came back with... well... yew see..." He stuttered to a halt, suddenly miserable.

He looked so unhappy; obviously whatever memories had been stirred to life with her questions were not pleasant ones. And suddenly she knew exactly what - or rather, who - this bear of a man had brought with him when he returned to Millersburg. Scully guessed softly, "You came back with a bride?"

"Yes Ma'am. I got myself wed to a lil Irish gal. Purtiest lil gal I ever did see." Words spoken gruffly, with so much emotion. So much sadness.

Oh, no...

Scully could see his eyes shining with love for his wife even after all this time and she knew; she just knew that something had gone terribly wrong. "I'm sure she was," she said gently.

"Her name was... Maureen." This offered in a hushed rasp, as the grizzled smithy stood before the much-smaller woman who looked up at him with compassion in her blue eyes.

'Maureen.' She mouthed the other woman's name and queried softly, "How long were you married, Mr. McLean?"

The memories were coming faster and he could see her once more, standing next to him wearing that white gown, bright eyed and happy as she held his hand and promised herself to him. He cleared his throat again, managed to formulate an answer. "Nigh on two years, Ma'am. Th' ship home took a few months, yew see, an' lil Maureen was sicker'n a johnny pukin' up his first whiskey. Beg pardon," this said sheepishly.

When Scully waved his apology away, he smiled a little and continued, "We came here, an' I built this smithy from a tarp an' a broken anvil. We was dirt poor but happy. 'Bout a year after we left the Isles, my lil Maureen came t' me an' says Angus, yer gonna be a pappy. Can yew beat that? Me, a pappy!" Beneath the bushy beard his lips curved up in remembrance of that happy time, but Scully saw the sadness that shadowed his eyes. It was the same look of sorrow and longing that she occasionally saw on her own mother's face.

"I'm sure you would have been a wonderful father." She inched closer and laid a gentle hand on his arm. "What happened..." She interrupted herself, aghast at her inquisitiveness. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to pry."

He patted her small hand awkwardly. "Nah, it's alright, Ma'am. Jest a mem'ry that hurts, now an' then. An' yew, well..." Angus took a deep breath, "My lil Maureen had red hair, y'see. Long and red. Her eyes were blue. An' she was jest a lil bit, I could pick her up with one hand. Yer a lil bit too, Ma'am, if'n yew don't mind me sayin'."

Scully rolled her eyes ruefully and he flashed a shy smile. Seeing that smile, she knew exactly what it was that had attracted pretty, young Maureen to this rough man.

She had just taken note of how much younger and handsome he looked with that smile when his face sobered again. Haltingly, he confided, "My Maureen, well... she died an' my child with her. She din't make it through th' birthin'."

So tragic, Scully thought as she struggled to speak around the lump in her throat. "And you miss them still."

"I never stopped. I never had nobody afore 'em, and nobody since." Angus swallowed down the pain as he'd done many times before and would do again in the future. Some loves were meant to last a lifetime. He'd had just such a love.

Scully felt her heart break wide open for this lonely man. "I'm so sorry." She wanted badly to offer some comfort to him but her throat ached with unshed tears. Her breath hitched as she whispered, "I know they're just words but... I truly believe that the people that we've loved and lost never really leave us." Her eyes pled with him to believe her.

Angus nodded slowly, fighting back the emotion himself. He hadn't cried in... Christ, not in a damned long time. He wasn't about to start now, and risk upsetting this sweet young lady. "Well, I got more in those few years of lovin' my lil Maureen than lotsa folk git in they's whole lives. I reckon seein' yew standin' in th' sun kinda brought it all back. My Maureen, she loved th' sun."

The tears she had been trying to swallow back spilled over her lashes. "Forgive me." Embarrassed, she brushed the tears from her cheeks. "I just..." Scully looked up at Mulder who had been quietly standing near her during her exchange with Angus, his eyes dark with compassion. "I can't imagine..." She sniffed. "Well. I'm sure Maureen was lucky to have you."

"I was th' lucky one, I reckon. An' beg pardon, Ma'am if'n what I tole yew upset yew. I din't mean t' make yew cry." Angus twisted his beefy hands together in misery as he stared down at her damp face.

"Oh, no. Not at all. Please, Mr. McLean, I am honored you wanted to share your memories of Maureen with me. I won't forget her. Or you." Scully sniffed hard and offered a watery smile, which Angus returned with a sweetness that again revealed the handsome man he had once been.

He shuffled his feet like an overgrown boy, suddenly shy once more, and gestured to the back of his shop. "I'm gonna git back t' my shoein'. I'm right proud to meet yew, Missis Mulder. Right proud."

"It was a pleasure to meet you too, Mr. McLean," Scully managed, in a voice laced with genuine affection.

"Yew take care o' yer man here, keep him from gittin' sick. Last thang I need is some lily-liver chokin' an' fallin' over they's own boots." The grizzled smithy arched a purely Angus-ridden look of disdain at Mulder and then spoiled the effect somewhat by actually chuckling.

Finding himself having to swallow more than one lump of emotion during the exchange between his curmudgeon of a boss and the woman he adored, Mulder sent a fervent prayer to heaven that somehow, this man would be spared the agony of the virus that hovered over this town. Meanwhile, he schooled his features into a suitably chastised expression and had the satisfaction of hearing Angus chuckle once more.

Scully held out her hand again and Angus caught it between his own. He stared at it for a moment, small and white against his large paw. He leaned forward in a manner so completely at odds with his gruff appearance and brushed his lips over her knuckles, surprising her with the courtly gesture.

Emotions threatening to choke her again, she cleared her throat. "I'll do my best but he tends to find trouble, despite my efforts." She smiled at him softly. "I hope we meet again, Mr. McLean."

Angus bobbed his shaggy head once in acknowledgment and turned toward Mulder again, grumbling at him, "Yer a lucky sonabitch, boy. I hope yew know it." He slipped an apologetic glance at Scully. "Beg pardon, Ma'am, fer my rough words. An' maybe yew'll come by again. Yer always welcome here."

"Thank you." Scully watched the older man walk away, head bent and shoulders slumped; then she moved closer to Mulder and sighed when he wound an arm around her comfortingly. "Oh, Mulder. Such a sad story."

Mulder swiped his thumb under her eye, picking up the tear that trickled down her cheek. "Yeah. I heard some of it the other day when I met Jack Sawyer. He told me that if Angus was mean and grouchy most of the time, that he had reason. But I didn't know his wife was petite and had red hair and blue eyes."

She turned her head and watched Angus, her own eyes sad, as he picked up his hammer and went back to work. "The way he was looking at me..."

"Yes. I think he was seeing his Maureen. And I hope the vision he saw afforded him some comfort, Scully. I think it did."

She tipped her head back and looked up at him. "If we're right..." she said sorrowfully, "he'll be with them soon enough, won't he?"

Mulder gave her a loving squeeze. "Yes. He will. I think he's just going through the paces right now, waiting. I doubt he'd ever do anything to rush it along, but I feel certain Angus will welcome death, when it comes for him." He'd never seen a sadder man; that was for sure. Amazing, how quickly he'd grown fond of his crotchety employer. Not surprising, the level of respect he'd already established for Angus McLean. Not surprising at all.

Scully moved forward and rested her cheek against his chest. "I don't know if that brings me much comfort but I think you're right. Some people... they never recover from that kind of loss." She wrapped her arms tightly around him. "I don't think I could," she whispered.

Pressing his lips against her smooth forehead, Mulder confessed, "Me neither, Scully. And, God willing, neither one of us will ever have to, at least not anytime soon." He leaned back and gave her a reassuring smile. "Now, maybe you should get going, head over to the grocer's. I need to get back to my smithy-ing. We still have a lot of work cut out for us tonight. I'll try to be home as early as I can."

"Okay." She drew in a steadying breath and pressed a final kiss against his warm mouth; dropped her arms from around his waist. "I'll see you tonight." She began to walk toward the door but stopped and turned back.

"Mulder?" she called in a low voice.

"Yeah?"

"I love you."

His smile lit up his entire face. "I love you two." He held up two fingers.

Recognizing the childish game, and not to be outdone... "I love you three," she replied, holding up three fingers.

He grinned. "I love you four..." That many fingers waved at her, his eyes glowing hazel and filled with quiet pride.

She cherished this man and his determination to leave her smiling tugged at her heart. "I love you more." Scully held up all five fingers and waggled them, remembering the way the game always ended. "Bye, Mulder."

He blew her a noisy kiss. "See you tonight... 'Missis Mulder.' I do like the sound of that."

Scully watched him turn aside, pick up his hammer, bend once again to his work. With a soft sigh, she walked out the door and started across the street.

She liked the sound of it, too. And God willing, as Mulder had vowed, they'd live long enough to make it a reality.



ROCKY MOUNTAIN INTERLUDE, Chapter Eleven By Char Chaffin and Tess
MSR, Casefile, AU
Rating: Strong R
Spoilers: FTF, Most of Season Seven
Feedback: to Tnv099@aol.com; char@chaffin.com

Headers and summary, see Part 1

Chapter Eleven
Millersburg Congregational Church

The metal saw cut through the rough plank with surprising ease. Mulder paused momentarily to adjust his grip and wipe the sweat off his brow before it could drip into his eyes. He repositioned the plank on the sawhorses in front of him and worked the saw the rest of the way. The plank fell to the ground, neatly severed in half. Mulder picked up both lengths of wood and tossed them into a nearby wheelbarrow, then reached for another long plank and laid it across the sawhorses.

He'd cut a lot of planks but was only halfway through the lot, and the sun was creeping higher and higher in the sky. It was going to be another scorcher. Mulder fished his handkerchief out of the pocket of his britches and walked over to a large wooden water barrel that had been thoughtfully provided by Libby Weston. He poured a tin cup of the cool liquid over the handkerchief and wiped at his face and neck. He had a feeling he'd be repeating the procedure many more times before the day was over.

Thomas Weston walked slowly over as Mulder headed back to his work area. With a broken wrist and most of his arm in a makeshift sling, the reverend was frustrated that he couldn't accomplish anything more than overseeing Mulder and a handful of other volunteers who were all assisting in the church building's restoration. On the repair agenda were warped boards in several pew seats, three broken window frames and a hole in the roof of the church, compliments of the last bad windstorm that had roared through Millersburg. A damaged front door, courtesy of a randy bull run amok, was also scheduled for replacement.

"How's the wrist, Tom?" Mulder shoved the damp cloth in his back pocket and reached for the saw.

Thomas shrugged and leaned against the side of the building, cradling his arm. "Hurts like the dickens. Honest to God, I don't know how on earth I could have been so dang clumsy! Of course, having to deal with a stubborn, lovesick bull didn't help matters much. Idiot animal."

Two days ago Thomas had been leading his prize bull, Lucas, into the cow pen, hoping that one of his 'girls' was ready to breed. Scenting female cow, the normally placid bull had jerked hard on the chain around its neck, forcing Thomas to stumble to the ground beside the suddenly aroused animal. He'd been so focused on regaining his feet before Lucas could hurt itself on the chain that he'd failed to keep his hands and arms out of the way of the beast's dancing hooves. Lucas's back hoof had come down on Thomas's wrist, breaking it. Luckily the bull was off-kilter enough that only its partial weight had been behind the hoof; otherwise his wrist would have been completely crushed. Freed from Thomas's grip on the chain, the bull had kicked up its heels, swung around in the opposite direction from the cow pen and instead had run full-tilt through the churchyard and into the front door. The impact had dazed poor Lucas, who then staggered around drunkenly; hooves churning up Libby's newly planted primrose bushes. Thomas had lain on the ground and alternately laughed at the pole-axed bull and groaned from the pain in his wrist, until Libby had run out of the rectory and rushed to her husband's aid.

Mulder had heard the story earlier when he came into town to see if Angus had anything he wanted delivered to the mine. Angus had told him what happened in clipped, expletive-laden sentences, informed him that Thomas needed his help more than he did, and had sent Mulder over to the church. Halfway out the door of the livery, Angus had gruffly called Mulder back and had handed him a newly sharpened saw, waving away any thanks with a snarl and a frown. Mulder had headed over to the church with the new saw over his shoulder and a large grin on his face.

"I wonder if that rotten-smelling liniment of Angus's would help with the soreness. I could get some for you," Mulder offered innocently, then chuckled at the look of horror that crossed Thomas's face at the mention of the pungent liniment.

"Will Mulder! I thought you were my friend! I think I'd rather be in pain." Thomas rubbed at his arm. "I remember Angus slapping that stuff on my hands the first time I ever helped him out at the livery, shoeing horses for the mine hauling. Stunk so bad my eyes about crossed, and stung like a thousand bees. Libby made me eat my lunch outside that day, in the rain. Said she wasn't gonna let me stink up her clean house. I picked up a chicken leg with my sore hand and got liniment all over it; I can still taste the nasty stuff. Put me off eating chicken for quite a spell, I can tell you!"

Mulder grinned as he sawed through another plank and tossed it in the wheelbarrow. "Yeah, I went through it my first day, Tom. Angus dumped half a bottle on my hands, swearing up a storm at me. Kinda like having a mother scold you, except this mother is hairy, crotchety and spits obscenities as well as tobacco juice." Mulder paused to wipe at his forehead again, adding, "Angus McLean is the meanest, grouchiest man I ever met. And has a heart as big as a mountain. You know, I introduced him to Kate the other day; she stopped by on her way to the grocer. Angus treated her like spun glass. I didn't know his wife had been a redhead with blue eyes."

Thomas nodded, remembering the young Maureen McLean vividly. "You're right! I'd almost forgotten. Your Kate does resemble Maureen. Small and fair-skinned. Sweet as honey, Maureen was. And loved Angus something fierce. I've never seen a more broken man, the day he lost her and the babe. You knew about that, didn't you?"

"Yes, in fact Jack Sawyer up at the mine told me. And so did Angus, the day he met Kate. She cried for him. I about did, too." Suddenly feeling emotion tug at him again, Mulder took a few minutes to stack the cut wood in the wheelbarrow. Each day they remained here in Millersburg bound him closer to these people he now called 'friends.' Knowing what was going to happen to them - all of them - made it that much harder to remain composed; calm. He wanted so badly to warn them, tell them all to get the hell away from the mines, move away from the town. And he couldn't do a damned thing to change their fate. It was a hell of a thing to have to live with.

He looked around the churchyard, seeing the spurt of activity, hearing the buzz of men's voices over the hammering of nails in wood. Everyone pitched in, all the males who lived in town that didn't work each day at the mine. Boys that were between school and work age, their narrow shoulders and thin arms just beginning to fill out with muscle, bustled around importantly, their excitement at being included in adult-type chores visible on their young faces. Local farmers who usually couldn't be enticed from their land and their livestock had come to town to help, prying up boards and offering various levels of advice and instruction. In the shade of a large evergreen a makeshift table had been erected out of three sawhorses and an old barn door, covered with a muslin sheet. In an hour or so, women from the town would bring lunch and the spread they provided would no doubt feed a small army.

It was, in its own way, small-town life at its very best. It was wonderful. It was heartrending... for all of these people would be gone in just a few weeks. All of the life that made Millersburg what it was, made this a happy place to live, would disintegrate like the bodies he and Scully had found at the Franklin farm. And in that moment Mulder found himself wishing fervently that the disappearing act they'd thought involved time travel had indeed been just that. At least these folks would have lived on, somewhere - sometime - else.

Meanwhile he had to act as if nothing monumental was going to happen. He couldn't take any kind of chance that even a small action of his, one tiny attempt to inform or warn, would somehow affect the way the past had to play out. And that was what hurt most of all. Mulder picked up the saw and hefted another long plank, pushing his thoughts down deep inside where they couldn't run rampant.

Over the course of the day, Mulder sawed more planks, yanked umpteen slivers out of his fingers and helped hoist the new front door into place so that the hinges could be positioned. He ate a huge lunch, sitting with Thomas and a few of the farmers, listening to them swap tall tales and reminisce about the 'old' days, ten years ago when the town was just beginning to develop. A younger Reverend Weston, newly arrived in the area, had understood the need to have a house of God and had begun the Congregational Church, which started out as little more than a lean-to with a few tree stumps and rocks for seats. The Rectory had been built at the same time the church walls had gone up, thus providing Thomas and Libby with a place to live. Mulder hadn't been surprised at all to learn that Angus McLean and Jack Sawyer had been instrumental in finishing off the interior of the church, and in fact had designed and built the pulpit.

"Well, Mr. Mulder. You've been here a few weeks now and seem to be settlin' in. What d'ya think of our town?" Mollie Hathaway heaped another helping of apple crisp on Mulder's plate, leaning over his shoulder and smiling down into his face. Such a handsome young man, and such a hard worker, she was thinking. And able to work side by side with Angus McLean, of all people! Surely he had the patience of an angel.

She patted Mulder's shoulder as she straightened up and he returned her thoughtfulness with a smile and a murmured thanks. He scooped a large spoonful of the crumbly dessert into his mouth and chewed a moment, before answering. "It's a very nice place, Mrs. Hathaway. Kate and I are very glad to have found ourselves here. Everyone has been so good to us."

Mollie beamed at him. "Well, now, it's always good to have new blood in town! Keeps the rest of us young! You eat up that crisp, y'hear? Put some meat on your bones!" She eyed Mulder's lean frame, clucking under her breath at what she no doubt thought was an undernourished soul. As rotund as she was tall, Mollie Hathaway obviously believed in sampling her own cooking.

Mulder obediently cleaned his plate and pushed back from the table, stuffed and now sleepy. The food had been wonderful and the company pleasant as well. Under different circumstances, he could have seen himself living here with Scully, quite willingly... if they'd been of this time period. If there wasn't a deadly threat hanging over this town, just waiting to absorb all life and leave an empty husk behind.

If, if, if... too many of them to count. With a smile at Mollie Hathaway and a nod to the men who were rising from the table, no doubt as overfull as he was, Mulder plunked his hat on his head and went back to work. Keeping busy was the best way to digest the meal he'd gobbled down. The best way to take his mind off things he'd rather not think about...


Nulty Homestead

After seeing Mulder off for the day, Scully resigned herself to tackling the small mountain of laundry that had accumulated since their arrival. She had drained the water from the tubs where the dirty laundry had been soaking since the previous day and replaced it with hot, soapy water. She set another wooden tub onto a rickety table near the side of the cabin, poured a measure of hot water into the tub and propped a washboard against the inside rim. She fished one of Mulder's work shirts from the suds bath, slicked a bar of soap over it and rubbed it against the washboard, grimacing as she plunged her hands into the hot water over and over again.

When she was satisfied that the shirt had been scrubbed clean, she rinsed it in a tub of clean water, wrung it between her hands, rinsed it again in another tub of water that contained a bluing agent and carried it to the wringer. Scully worked the crank with one hand and fed the shirt through the rollers with the other until all of the excess water had been squeezed out; then pinned it to the clothesline.

Scully dropped her arms to her sides and watched the shirt dance in the slight breeze for a moment before starting the process all over again. As the hours passed, she hauled endless buckets of fresh, boiling water from the kitchen, submerged her hands into hot, soapy water until they were red and raw, scrubbed and rinsed, wrung and pinned laundry to the clothesline... all the while welcoming the work. She used the routine and the physical exhaustion that came with it to keep at bay the dark and depressing thoughts and fears that plagued her.

She dashed a forearm over her sweaty face and impatiently brushed back the stubborn tendrils of hair that had curled from the steam. As the morning lengthened into the noon hour, she was still hard at work. She drew a sheet from the suds bath and stuffed it into the washtub. Her shoulder and back muscles burned with fatigue as she scrubbed the sheet over the ridged washboard and she fumbled with the bar of soap that slipped through her aching fingers. While feeding the material through the rollers of the wringer, she failed to notice that one end of the long sheet had fallen from the table and was trailing over the hard packed dirt of the ground. Scully let out a low shriek when she finally noticed the foot wide smudge of dirt coating the end of the sheet.

"Shit!" she muttered as she fingered the now muddy hem of the sheet. She balled the sheet up and flung it to the ground. "That's it," she growled. "I'm done!" She tore off the apron she was wearing and lashing out with one foot, knocked over a bucket of sudsy water.

Scully had never shied away from hard work in her life but this was too much. She couldn't stand it another moment, she thought as she toppled another bucket with a well-aimed kick. She didn't know how women did this day after day, accepting it as their lot in life; cooking and cleaning and mending and hauling water in a never-ending, backbreaking cycle.

How did women like Libby Weston do this all their lives and still maintain their sanity? How did she maintain her cheerful and generous nature?

Libby. Oh, God.

Heedless of the dirt, Scully sank down onto the ground and covered her face with her hands. She had bumped into the older woman in town while coming out of the general store the day before and had been trying to shove the memory of that meeting aside ever since...


"Kate!"

Scully looked up to see the minister's wife hurrying across the street. Her composure had been shaken by her encounter with Angus McLean a short while earlier and she had quickly gone about her shopping with the hope that she could get out of town without meeting anyone else. The sight of Libby Weston bearing down on her had dashed those hopes.

"Kate!" Libby flashed a broad smile at the younger woman. "I was hoping to see you in town soon."

"Hello, Libby." She hefted the basket in her hands. "We needed a few things, so I thought I'd better come to see Mr. Cranston."

"I hope you weren't planning on leaving town without stopping by for a visit," Libby scolded good-naturedly.

"Well, I..." Scully glanced longingly towards the road that led back to their cabin. "I have a lot to do and I'll need to start supper soon."

"I had hoped to see you and Will at church yesterday," Libby chided gently. "I wanted to introduce you to some of the townsfolk."

"Oh! We... uh... overslept," Scully stammered out an excuse.

"Perhaps next week."

Scully gave a weak smile and nodded. "Yes, next week."

Libby linked one arm through Scully's. "Since you're here, come along and I'll introduce you to some of the ladies of our town."

Scully dug her heels into the ground. "I can't," she protested. After meeting Angus, she didn't want to meet anyone else. With the knowledge of what she and Mulder suspected would happen to the people of this town, she simply couldn't bear to make any new acquaintances, couldn't stand the thought of looking into another face and lying to them by her silence. She didn't want any other faces to haunt her dreams. Her dreams were tortured enough.

"It's just a few women," Libby encouraged with a gentle tug of Scully's arm. "Some ladies closer to your own age," she said invitingly.

"Oh, no, I..." Desperate to avoid the introductions, Scully cast about for a believable excuse. "Please, Libby," she pressed a hand to her cheek. "I look a mess."

Libby frowned at the other woman's jumpiness and took a closer look at her face. She noted the dark circles under Scully's eyes and attributed them to tiredness. She knew the younger woman had been having trouble adjusting to her new life on the frontier and decided not to press her further about meeting some of the townswomen.

"Next time you're in town then," she said and noted the look of relief pass over Scully's face.

Before Scully had a chance to move away, Libby tightened her grip on the other woman's arm. If nothing else, she did want to sit with her for a few minutes to see how she was getting along.

"Surely you have time to stop for a visit with me," she encouraged.

"Oh! That would be lovely, but..." Scully shifted the basket in her hands. "I really should be getting back..."

"Nonsense." Libby insisted in a tone that brooked no disobedience. "We'll have a cup of tea and some of the applesauce cake I baked this morning."

Scully wavered under Libby's cajoling smile and no-nonsense tone and allowed herself to be led to the Westons' house, where she spent about thirty minutes chattering nervously as she entertained the minister's wife with descriptions of her housekeeping mishaps.

Libby's sharp ears noted the forced gaiety in her new friend's voice. She quietly observed the way she cradled the cup of tea between her hands as though drawing comfort from its warmth and nervously toyed with her slice of cake without ever really taking a bite.

"Is something wrong?" She laid a gentle hand over Scully's to stop her from crumbling the cake into dust.

"Of course not," Scully protested with a falsely bright smile.

"I know it can be overwhelming... a new marriage, new life in a strange town," Libby began. "You know that if you need help..."

Scully looked down and shook her head furiously. "No, you've been a tremendous help already."

"Is it Will? Did you have a fight?" Libby asked. "Sometimes newlywed couples find it..." Her cheeks grew pink with embarrassment. "Maybe I could... do you have any questions about..." Her voice trailed off hesitantly.

"Oh no," Scully protested quickly. "It's nothing like that!"

"What then?" Libby squeezed Scully's hand. "We haven't known each other very long," she said, "but I'd like to think that we've become friends."

Scully breathed shallowly, willing the tears burning her eyes not to fall. She wanted badly to warn the other woman of what was to come. She wanted to encourage her and the Reverend to leave town now, while there was still time. But she couldn't. "We are... you are... You've been a wonderful help to me, Libby. "

"Then tell me what's bothering you," Libby pleaded.

"It's nothing," Scully repeated. "I'm just... it's like you said. I'm a little overwhelmed and tired." It was half a truth, but true nonetheless. She scraped back her chair and stood. "It's a long walk back home," she demurred as she picked up her grocery basket. "I should get going."

Libby's instincts, honed by years as the wife of a minister, told her to give up for now and address the situation again in a few days. She nodded and reluctantly walked her guest to the door. "I've got some things that will keep me busy in town for the next few days," she said. "I'll be out to see you towards the end of the week, but if you need me for anything before then, you make sure that Will tells me, you hear?"

Scully nodded and started to step out into the front yard. She stopped abruptly and whirled back around. "Thank you for all of your help." She brushed an impulsive kiss over the other woman's cheek. "You take care of yourself, Libby."


Scully had been aware of Libby's concerned gaze following her as she walked down the road that led out of town. At the time she'd managed to keep her head up and the tears at bay. But now she allowed the tears to fall. Sitting in a puddle of muddy water, she cried for the Reverend and Libby Weston, for Angus McLean and Silas Cranston. And she cried for herself and Mulder, for her fears that they wouldn't be able to find their way home; that things would end for them here in this unfamiliar time and place.


With dragging steps, Mulder rounded the curve in the narrow, rough road that led to their cabin. He was getting home a little early for a change. He had a basket in his hands, filled with delicious food that had been leftover from the lunch everyone had shared during the church work-party. A whole beef pot pie that hadn't been touched, some crumbly biscuits and blackberry jam. He had a couple of ripe pears and two large chunks of Libby's applesauce cake; a veritable feast. They wouldn't have to cook dinner for at least tonight.

He'd had a day full of hard yet rewarding work in the company of men, the laughter of children and the gentle fussing of women as they'd fluttered about, serving, smiling and blushing at the compliments they received for the wonderful lunch they'd provided. He'd had an especially good talk with Thomas Weston, one that he knew he'd always remember, always cherish. He should be feeling great right now. He should be running to the farmhouse with basket in hand, eager to share the day with Scully and ask after hers, the way couples do when they've been apart this way.

Scully would have enjoyed being with the women, he thought. There had been a few close to her age; it would have been good for her to meet them. Libby had stopped by as well, dropping off cake and helping to serve. She'd kissed Mulder's cheek when he complimented her lavishly on her delicious cake, then had blushed when she caught her husband's eye and he'd winked at her. Mulder had been enchanted by her impulsive action; he knew how rare it was in this era for a woman like Libby Weston to show outward affection to a man who wasn't her husband or blood relative.

Mulder's steps slowed even more as he reached the path in front of the yard and simply stood there, staring. This could very well be where they'd end their days, in this rough little cabin, this way of life, this year, this era. It wasn't theirs. Had never belonged to them; moreover, they'd never belonged to it. Yet, here they were. Stranded in a time that seemed so foreign and dangerous; feeling as if they'd never make it to their other home, the one waiting for them a hundred and forty years from now. Mulder set the basket of food on the ground and pressed his fingers into his tired eyes, rubbing hard.

He had to wonder: would it be so very bad, if only evidence of the virus was absent from this scenario? They were as safe from the machinations of the Consortium as they could be. There was no Spender here, no conspiracy, no dark and grisly plans to use him, use Scully. None of that existed here. Yes, it was a hard life, the hardest he'd ever experienced. It was fraught with its own level of danger, though the town itself was small, safe, friendly. Though they had a roof above their heads and food on their table; a job, friends; in a way had more than they'd ever owned in their own world... it wasn't theirs. They couldn't live here, make their marks or influence anyone's lives; leave behind any kind of legacy. Not here. Not in the past, where stepping the wrong way could irrevocably alter the future.

All the people they'd met so far, all of the men and women, the smiling children and the hard-working miners, would be gone in a few weeks' time. As would they, unless they found a way to get the hell out, and go home. That, in itself, was the most daunting thought of all. How did they find their way home? And, having found it, how could they live with the sadness and the guilt of knowing the fate of these new friends?

Mulder sighed in frustration, feeling depression settle on his shoulders like an overwhelming ache. He picked up his basket and slowly walked up the path to the door, hoping that Scully had at least enjoyed her day somewhat and had managed to keep the ghosts at bay, for a few hours.


After indulging in a good, long cry, Scully had mopped her face on her apron and pulled herself out of the mud. She had resolutely shoved her emotions aside by once again burying herself in hard, physical labor. She had spent the rest of the day putting the cabin to rights. The laundry had dried quickly in the heat of the summer day and she had carefully folded and put away every piece. She had emptied the ashes from the stove and scrubbed its cast iron top, swept the floors and refilled the wood box. The bed was tidily made and the mismatched crockery was neatly stacked on the shelves of the small cupboard. The oil lamps had been washed and refilled, their wicks trimmed. The meager pieces of furniture had been dusted and the glass in the window gleamed in the late afternoon sun. And while she cleaned... she planned.

She had stuffed Mulder's watch and her silver and turquoise earrings into her leather carryall and set it on the kitchen table along with two lanterns and the flashlight. Mulder's jeans and the shirt he had worn when they first arrived in town were laid out on the bed. Her hiking boots peeked out beneath the hem of the long skirt she wore; underneath the frontier clothes she wore her blouse and jeans.

While she waited for Mulder to come home, Scully pored over the notebook in which she had copied the cave drawings, hoping to discover some clue as to how to get home but again finding nothing that made any sense.

One thing was certain. Tonight, come hell or high water, they were leaving Millersburg. No more trips into town. No more making friends and lying to them by omission. No more faces and lives on her conscience.

She tucked the notebook into the pocket of her skirt when she heard the scrape of Mulder's boots along the dirt path that led to the front door and looked up expectantly. She watched as he stepped over the threshold and saw his eyes sweep over her and the now spotless cabin. He glanced at the items she had set out on the table and then met her gaze with his own.

"You want to go back to the cave tonight."

"I think that we need to leave this town." Scully rose to her feet. "Whether we get home or not, we can't stay here. If we do, we'll die with all the others."

The puffiness around her eyes and the red blotches on her cheeks bore silent witness to her earlier outburst, while her clenched fists and the studied composure of her voice indicated the stranglehold she had on her emotions.

"Okay." Mulder felt a sense of calmness and purpose settle over him. She was right. They would give the cave another try, but if they still didn't find a way home, they had to leave Millersburg. Staying was suicide. They had to get home or settle someplace else. Someplace safe. The solution was so stunning in its simplicity that he couldn't believe that they hadn't thought of it before. He set the basket onto the table. "Libby and some of the other women sent food home with me." He glanced toward the window. "We have a little while before it gets dark. Maybe we should eat now."

"I laid your clothes out on the bed," she told him. "I thought you might be more comfortable in your own things." Scully reached into the basket and pulled out the beef pie. "I'll take care of this while you get changed."

While Mulder changed clothes, she busied herself by setting the pot pie onto the table along with two plates and some utensils. She placed the biscuits, fruit and cake into the center of large, clean cloth and loosely knotted the edges together, setting the bundle down next to the lanterns.

A ghost of a smile trembled on her lips when Mulder returned dressed in familiar clothes. They ate the potpie in silence; then cleaned up the remnants of the meal. While Mulder put the dishes away, Scully methodically rinsed out and dried the washbasin before returning it to lower shelf of the cupboard. She took a look around the small cabin and gave a tiny nod of approval. Everything was in its place; she was leaving it behind neat and clean.

"Are you ready?" Mulder grasped the handles of both lanterns. She nodded and scooped up the bundle of food and slung the straps of her backpack over one shoulder. When Mulder swung the door open, she hesitated and glanced around the room.

"Maybe..." Her voice cracked and she hastily cleared her throat. "Maybe we should leave a note for Libby and the Reverend."

There was compassion in his eyes but his voice was firm. "What would we say?" he asked. "How could we possibly explain?"

"I know... but it doesn't feel right - our leaving without any explanation; without warning them."

He cupped her cheek in the palm of his hand. "This is their destiny, Scully," he reminded her gently. "But it isn't ours - it's not supposed to be ours." He curved his palm around the back of her neck and tugged her closer. She nodded and rested her cheek against his chest.

"I know. But, that doesn't stop me from feeling guilty."

Leaning against each other, they stood in the doorway and watched as the sun began the final leg of its descent behind the mountains. They could hear the gentle rustling of the chickens in the coop and the chirping of the birds as they settled into their nests high in the branches of the trees. They stepped outside as the shrill pitch of a whistle signaling the end of the shift at the mine was carried on the wind down from the hilltops. Mulder pulled the door closed with a decisive click and they headed off down the road, leaving behind the small cabin and the town that had become their haven.


Millersburg Mine

In the darkness the flashlight bobbed before them, their only source of light. Obscured by clouds, the moon would not be of any assistance to them, not tonight. On the rough path Scully clung to Mulder's hand and held up her long skirt to avoid tripping. The bundled cloth containing the food they'd brought from the cabin was looped over her arm. Her stomach was churning; she knew she wouldn't be able to eat. But they had to have some supplies, in case they found themselves on the road the next morning, searching for a safer town... still living in the past.

Her backpack was slung over Mulder's shoulder; she'd filled the water bottle with water from the outside pump and had secured it in the pack. It wouldn't last very long if they had to travel in the morning. They'd have to find more water along the way; perhaps even stop at a farmhouse wherever they could find one, and ask for a refill. The thought of traveling on foot in this untamed, summer-hot terrain was daunting, to say the least. But they couldn't stay in Millersburg.

They hadn't thought it would be so hard, so painful, to walk away from that little cabin. They hadn't taken more than a dozen steps when Scully turned and stared back at the farm, just visible in the darkening gloom of twilight. She'd stopped and looked, just looked. Beside her Mulder turned as well and let his somber gaze follow the lay of the land, the small chicken coop and the uneven fence that ran around the property; the outhouse and small barn. In the silent evening they could hear the chickens clucking softy, heard the answering crow of the rooster as he sought to settle and calm his brood.

Had he been happy there? With complete honesty, Mulder realized he had. For the first time in his adult life, as well as since he and Scully had known each other, they'd had friends, real friends. They'd gotten to know another couple not far off from their own ages, two people who had already come to mean so much to them. They'd found a place to live that was warm, caring, safe. The work had been hard, but in its way no harder than what they'd both had to endure, working as Federal agents. No harder than fighting the scum of the earth, investigating the paranormal and weird... no harder than staying alive in a world where a higher and darkly dangerous power constantly threatened them. No harder than that. Mulder had in fact enjoyed the physical challenge of their life here.

He glanced at her as she stood next to him holding his hand and watching the dark overtake the twilight. He'd heard her sigh, had felt her squeeze his hand. Mulder opened his arms and gathered her close, laying his cheek on her soft hair and breathing in the comforting scent of her skin. They stood there in the dark on the narrow path, and neither spoke. There really wasn't much to say.

Scully closed her eyes and pressed her cheek to Mulder's shirt, feeling the steady beat of his heart under the soft cotton. Would she miss this place, the constant backbreaking work, the harsh life, the hot summers and what she knew would be hard and freezing winters? Would she miss awakening in the dark morning, groaning her way out of bed, fighting with that old cook stove, enduring the outhouse, sponge baths instead of showers, lugging bucket after bucket of water to the house, to the coop, to the stove and back outside again to dump into the laundry basins? Would she miss scrubbing until her hands were raw and her cuticles split and bled?

No, she wouldn't miss that. Not the massive inconveniences that frontier women had to endure. Perhaps if she'd never known anything more, if she'd been born to the life, then she'd miss what was familiar to her. But Scully was a modern woman. She never thought she'd find herself longing so fiercely for the ease that modern invention had given to her; like most twenty-first century people she took most of it for granted. More importantly, she missed her family and wanted desperately to get back home where her phone would ring and bring with it the sound of her mother's voice inviting her over for dinner and filling her in on family news.

Would she miss making love to Mulder on that soft, narrow mattress, in the morning when the dew hung thick on the wildflowers... in the evening when the breeze fluttered the faded yellow gingham curtains at the window? Would she miss that sense of them being all alone in a sort of rustic oasis, away from the kind of dangers that only their modern world could inflict on them?

Yes, she would. Oh, hell yes. More than she could say, more than she could have ever known.

A few tears spilled over her lashes and soaked into Mulder's shirt; he didn't say a word, but stroked her hair and held her tightly. Once or twice she heard him sniff. It brought a small, placating smile to her face to know he seemed as affected as she. Scully drew away slowly and smiled up at the man she'd called 'husband' for the past few weeks, suddenly aching for the term to be real. And with determination she pushed away her unwelcome thoughts and concentrated on the job awaiting them at the cave. They parted slowly; she wiped her cheeks. They joined hands again and continued walking.

Twenty minutes later they left the path and clambered up the incline to the cave, shining the flashlight over the entrance. Once inside they stopped for a moment to catch their breath and Mulder gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "Okay. We veer right, first thing. That's what we did wrong the last time we came back here looking for the drawings, remember? We walked straight ahead right away, instead of veering." He leaned in to press a gentle kiss to her lips, whispered, "Ready?"

She nodded. "Yes. Let's go home, Mulder." She was determined in her belief that this time it would work, that this time they'd make it home. The alternative was unbearable.

They linked fingers and ventured into the inky-black darkness, grateful for the strong beam of the flashlight.

Keeping to the right they edged along the wall, Scully following closely behind Mulder, her hand fisted in his shirt. When they reached the small cavern that housed the drawings, he lit one of the oil lamps for extra light. He shone the flashlight beam over the rough surface, looking for the start of the drawings, sighing in relief when he found them. "Here they are, Scully! The beginning of them, anyway. Don't let go," he cautioned, as she stepped around him to get a better look at the carvings.

She nodded and hung onto his shirt, dropping the long skirt from her other hand and running her fingers carefully along the ridges of the carvings. She commented wryly, "As I recall, we did this the last time, with no success. Do you have any other ideas, a thought as to what we may have missed doing?"

Mulder kept the flashlight beam steady on the wall as Scully moved her fingers over its surface. "Well, we could try and recreate the circumstances, as best as we can recall them; as we did the last time we were here. You held one of my hands and your palm pressed against the carving. I have no idea which carving; I'm really hoping that isn't part of whatever equation we're trying for."

Scully dutifully pressed her palm flat against the nearest carving and they held their breath and waited. Nothing. She muttered in mounting frustration and tried again a few inches to the right, lifting her hand and then palming the wall. Nothing. She moved a few more inches and tried again, with Mulder gripping her other hand and holding the flashlight aloft. She could feel herself beginning to perspire in the strong beam of the light that shone over her shoulder. She tried again. And again. Again...

"Nothing. Damn it, NOTHING! We're forgetting something, Mulder. We have to be forgetting something really important!" Her voice rose and echoed dully in the cave. She was fighting to remain calm but seemed to be losing the battle.

Scully's eyes snapped to Mulder's face and locked on him, noting the worry in his own eyes, the way he was chewing at his bottom lip, the sweat on his own brow. She ground out an impatient, "THINK, Mulder! What is it? What have we missed, each time we've tried this?"

Mulder could feel his own frustration level rising and he did his best to keep it out of his voice. "We're doing everything right, Scully. Your hand on the carving. Holding on to one another. It's exactly what we did before."

His attempt at soothing rationale failed miserably; Scully could feel the panic bubbling up inside her along with a decent dose of desperation and good old-fashioned fright. She retorted, "It's NOT exactly what we did before, goddamn it! If it was, we wouldn't BE here right now! We'd be on the ground in the twenty-first century, vomiting up beef pot pie! We'd be HOME, Mulder. We'd be safe!" Scully threw the bag of food against the far wall on the other side of the cave, hearing glass break as the jar of jam shattered inside the linen wrapping with a satisfying crash. She whirled, yanking her hand from Mulder's and faced the wall, beyond angry, far from any semblance of calm, and all her fear and worry, all the exhaustion brought on by days and days of hard work and little sleep... it caught up with her. She'd never in her life felt this level of fury and fright, utter desolation and depression. It bore down on her like some overwhelming weight.

But instead of sending her to her knees as it should have, it sang through her body in an adrenaline rush that shook her to her bones. She found herself screaming incoherently, screaming at the wall, at their circumstances, unable to hear Mulder's anguished pleas of, "Scully! Stop! STOP IT!" She never felt him grabbing at her arms, didn't know she tore herself away from his restraining hands. She raised her arms and her tightly held fists pounded against the wall, against the carvings, and she screamed... Her hands were cut, the sides of her palms bleeding on the wall, on the drawings...

And all the air suddenly whooshed out of her body, out of Mulder's. In the split second that he realized what was happening, at last happening... he grabbed hold of one of Scully's injured hands, just as she fell to the ground and he followed her down, both of them choking, unable to breathe, unable to think. His head was pounding, throbbing; his ears were filled with the buzzing of a thousand bees, a million flies. His eyes were sewn shut, his brain was compressing...

This time the last thing he heard was his own voice, shouting for her, to her.

"SCULLY!"



ROCKY MOUNTAIN INTERLUDE, Chapter Twelve By Char Chaffin and Tess
MSR, Casefile, AU
Rating: Strong R
Spoilers: FTF, Most of Season Seven
Feedback: to Tnv099@aol.com; char@chaffin.com

Headers and summary, see Part 1

Chapter Twelve
Millersburg Mine

With a pounding headache, Scully awoke to total darkness. She rolled her head to the side and instantly the taste of bile filled her mouth. She swallowed hard and took shallow breaths, willing her stomach to settle. Mulder's weight was pressed against her hip and she felt him begin to stir.

"Mulder?" she called out softly.

She heard him moan and felt his hand clutch her leg.

"Don't move. Lie still and breathe slowly," she cautioned.

He followed her advice and several long moments passed as they lay quietly, fighting the nausea and willing it to subside. Finally, Mulder cautiously lifted his head.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

"My head hurts." Scully rolled over and gingerly pushed herself to her knees.

"Mine too."

They sat up slowly and Scully reached out blindly, searching for Mulder in the unrelenting blackness. Her hand brushed his arm and she clutched it tightly.

"Do you have the flashlight?" she asked urgently.

He patted the ground around him. "It's around here somewhere," he muttered. "I dropped it." On their knees, they searched the ground around them with their hands, desperately searching for the flashlight. After several minutes, Mulder's fingertips brushed against the hard plastic casing.

"Here!" he crowed with relief and clicked on the light. He played the light briefly over Scully's face and then swept the beam around the cave, illuminating the drawings on the wall.

"Do you think it worked?" Scully asked worriedly. "Do you think we're..."

Mulder shrugged. "Only one way to find out." He aimed the beam of light down the passageway that led to the cave entrance.

He stood and held out a hand for Scully. As he helped her up, he moved the small circle of light across the ground around their feet. "Do you see the oil lamps?" he asked.

He shone the light over every corner of the small cavern but the lamps were nowhere to be seen. "Weird," he muttered. "They should be around here somewhere." One of the lamps had been burning when they collapsed. He had no way of knowing how long they had been unconscious, but the lamps should still be nearby. Had it worked? Did it make sense that the only things that would travel through time with them would be those they were touching or wearing at the time? He felt a bubble of excitement rise up. Maybe... just maybe this time they had hit upon the right combination of elements to send them back through time. But what? What had they done this time that they hadn't done in either of their previous attempts?

"Forget the lamps." Eager to be on the way and to find out whether they had made it back home, Scully interrupted his thoughts as she scooped up her backpack and hooked it over her shoulders. "Let's just get out of here."

They started down the tunnel toward the cave entrance and the tension mounted with every step they took. Scully felt an odd combination of anticipation, hope and worry twist her stomach into knots. She winced in remembrance of her earlier meltdown and didn't know how she would react if they exited the cave and found themselves still trapped in the nineteenth century. She had done her level best to adapt to the life they had been living, but always it had been with the belief that their stay was only temporary. The alternative was unthinkable. If this last attempt hadn't worked... if they had to leave Millersburg in order to escape the coming plague... If they didn't have continued access to the cave where it had all started - how would they ever find their way home again?

At last the entrance came into view. Mulder turned to look at her. "Here goes nothing," he said solemnly.

"Here goes," she repeated. She tried to summon up an encouraging smile but she knew the worry etched on his face was mirrored on her own.

They each took a deep breath and plunged through the opening. They stood for a moment, frozen in place as they looked around. There was nothing to indicate whether their attempt to return home had been a success. Same hillside, same cave... same moon shining brightly overhead. Scully felt a childish urge to wish on a star. She stared upward, a silent prayer on her lips - and suddenly her eyes widened.

"Oh my God!" She frantically clawed at Mulder's arm.

"What?" His head whipped from side to side as he looked around for an unseen danger.

"Look!" She pointed a trembling finger toward the sky. "Do you see it?" she asked urgently.

His gaze swept back and forth across the heavens unsure of what she was trying to show him. "See what? Scully! What?"

She stabbed her finger toward the sky. "That... star - do you see it? Is it moving? Or am I imagining things?"

He followed the path of her finger towards the sky and felt his heart slam against his breastbone. He flung his arms around her waist and lifted her into a hug.

"No! You're not imagining it," he said with a grin. "That's no star... it's a plane!"

She slipped her arms around his neck and held on tightly. "Thank God," she whispered. "It really worked."

Mulder set her back onto her feet and clutched her hands with his. "Well, we're definitely not in the nineteenth century," he agreed. The thought occurred to him that they still weren't sure they had arrived back in exactly the right time. They could have overshot or undershot the mark by any number of years. He squeezed her hand and saw from the cautious smile on her face that she had arrived at the same conclusion.

"Are you ready?" Mulder asked. She nodded and together they began to pick their way down the hillside. Halfway down the slope, he pulled her to a stop. "It's still there," he said. His voice was shaky with relief as he spotted their Jeep. They had made it back to the right time and place. They scrambled the rest of the way down the hill. Mulder was fairly dancing around the Jeep and Scully thought he looked like he wanted to throw his arms around the vehicle in an embrace.

"I was afraid that even if we did manage to get back, the car would be gone," he admitted as he ran his hands over the hood. "I mean... it's fairly deserted out here, but the way our luck has been running..."

She barked out a nearly maniacal laugh and clapped a hand over her mouth in surprise at the sound. "Do you have the keys?" she asked from behind her fingers.

A panicked look crossed his face as he patted his pockets. Keys? "Oh, no. No, no, no," he whispered. He dug his hands deep into the front pockets of his jeans, shaking his head at the thought that something as mundane as a missing set of car keys could be the final impediment on this long journey home. He was cursing the fates and muttering about their bad luck when a sudden memory sparked. He jerked his head up in remembrance. "Your purse. I gave them to you when we parked." He bit his lip. "I think."

Scully pulled the pack from her shoulders and urgently dug into the main pocket. She gave the bag a little shake and was rewarded by the jangling sound of metal against metal. Her fingers brushed against the jagged metal edges of the keys and she drew them from the bag and dangled them over her head triumphantly. Mulder rounded the Jeep, snatched the keys from her fingers and pressed a smacking kiss against her lips. He opened the passenger door and guided her inside before climbing in behind the wheel. He stuck the keys into the ignition and they looked at each other with wide grins when the engine turned over without hesitation. They laughed and leaned across the gearshift to kiss with giddy relief.

"Let's get out of here," Mulder murmured as they drew apart.

"Yes, please," she assented fervently.

Mulder flipped on the headlights and put the Jeep into gear. He negotiated a careful path along the rutted road and though they both watched the hillside grow smaller in the mirrors, and their moods became more pensive, they said nothing. When they reached the smooth asphalt of the paved road, he stretched a hand across the center console and wrapped his fingers around hers.

"Home again, home again," he said.

"Jiggity jig," she whispered.


As the miles markers flew by, signs of civilization began to crop up with more frequency.

"I bet I know the first thing you're going to do when we get back to the hotel," he said, striving for a light tone.

"What's that?" She stared out the window and studied the signage and lighting along the road with newfound affection and appreciation.

"You're going to set up camp in the bathroom and run back and forth between the bathtub and the toilet." His teeth flashed white as he grinned at her.

Scully made an indignant sound and swatted one hand against his shoulder. "Like you aren't going to be happy to see indoor plumbing." She joined him in his lighthearted banter.

He laughed. "I'm right, aren't I?"

"You're pretty close," she admitted ruefully.

When they were about three miles from the hotel, the familiar sight of golden arches rising out of the darkness came into view.

"Room service?" he asked. "Or fast food?"

She usually tried to talk him out of fast food, but the idea of a greasy burger and crisp fries was too much to resist. "Fast food now and room service for dessert."

"I like the way you think." He swung the Jeep off the road and into the drive-thru lane. A few minutes later they were roaring back down the highway and gorging themselves on fries and cheeseburgers.

"I didn't realize how much I missed ketchup," Mulder moaned as he bit into his burger. Scully simply nodded in reply as she stuffed fries into her mouth with rapid enthusiasm. Comfort food had taken on a whole new meaning for them.

They were feeling pleasantly stuffed and perhaps just a little sick from inhaling their meal when Mulder whipped the Jeep into the parking lot of their hotel.

"We made it," he reaffirmed as he killed the engine.

She stretched across the gearshift and wiped a tiny smear of ketchup from his bottom lip. "Yeah," she said with fervent relief. "We made it." She turned to open her door and stopped at the restraining feel of his hand on her arm.

"What?" she asked.

"Your clothes." He pointed to the dress she was wearing.

"Right." She unbuttoned the front of the dress and braced her feet against the floorboard as she arched her hips from the seat. Mulder helped draw the long skirt up and together they worked the dress over her head. Scully cradled the material against her breasts for a long, quiet moment before carefully folding the dress. She smoothed her hands over her jeans and tucked the dress under her arm.

"Ready?" she asked with a soft smile.

"Let's go."


The rest of the evening was a blur of both giddy relief and melancholy. Upon reaching their room, Scully had indeed made a beeline for the bathroom where she set about filling the oversized tub with gallons of hot water, while Mulder immediately cranked up the air-conditioner. After sharing a long soak in the tub, they had bundled into robes and ordered dessert from room service. When they'd had their fill of chocolate raspberry torte, they collapsed onto the bed.

Mulder propped his back against a mound of pillows and picked up the remote control. Scully rested her head against his chest and curled an arm around his waist, drawing comfort from the familiarity of lying in bed with him while he flipped from one television station to the next. When he finally settled onto a sports station, she let her eyes flutter shut.

"We have another full day before we have to fly home." She felt the rumble of Mulder's voice beneath her cheek. "We never did get a chance to visit the national park."

She shook her head. "I don't want to leave this room." She tightened her arm around him. "Let's just stay here until it's time to go home."

He smoothed a hand over her still-damp hair and cupped the back of her neck in his palm. "Sounds like a good idea," he agreed.

Scully crooked a leg over his hips and snuggled closer. "What do you think happened?" she whispered. "What was different about tonight?" She asked the question they had both been avoiding since their escape from the cave.

Mulder had actually been giving it a great deal of thought. They'd tried several times to go back to the cave, struggled with deciphering a who-knew-how-ancient cipher in the form of cave etchings that may or may not have been created by human hands. He'd heard the stories and seen his fair share of the reports of mysterious hieroglyphics on the walls of caverns, in dungeons, in ancient tombs. Some believed they were the leavings of extinct races, and others were convinced otherworldly visitors who'd wished to document a record of their time on earth had left them behind. Mulder hadn't decided for himself what he believed, other than the gut feeling that the carvings on the wall of that cave held the key to their return. He'd believed it from the very first.

The discovery of the alien virus in nineteenth-century Colorado, very likely in the Millersburg mine itself, seemed to be a separate mystery; Mulder wasn't going to drive himself insane trying to make a correlation between the carvings and the virus. It was enough to have to accept that time travel existed and they'd experienced it firsthand, had tried again and again to return to their own era. When their attempts to recreate the moment of travel had failed, he hadn't been sure what to think.

But this time, it had worked. This time they'd made it happen.

Mulder lifted Scully's hand from his chest and studied the scrapes and shallow cuts marring the tender flesh where she had beaten her fists against the cave wall. She'd really pounded herself on that wall, he thought to himself, bringing her hand to his lips for a gentle kiss. So much anger, fury, desperation; the same fury and desperation he'd been feeling as he'd stood by helpless to stop her from taking out those feelings on a rock wall in the year 1860. She'd made her poor hands bleed.

Wait a minute.

Blood...

Oh, shit. She'd bled before on that wall, hadn't she? In the year 2000. She'd slipped and her hand had hit the wall, she'd cut her palm. They'd bandaged the cut and then they'd found that section of cave that held the carvings. Scully had reached out her hand to touch those carvings, hadn't she? With her injured palm. Yes, there'd been a bandage between the wall and her wound, but still the blood had been there. Tonight the blood had touched the wall again, this time with no bandage intervening. Had it been enough of a recreation? It had to be. It was the only thing that made sense.

Mulder pressed another kiss to her hand, murmured, "I think it was this. When you were hitting the wall with your fists." He smoothed a gentle thumb over the raw abrasions. "Remember... you had cut your hand the first time we went exploring in the cave. I washed the cut and bandaged it. But the blood was still there, behind the bandage. You pressed the wound against the carvings, and, for want of a better description, poof! 1860, there we were."

She stared up at him with eyes gone wide with sudden comprehension. "And then, I, um, went slightly berserk, started flailing my hands all over the carvings and got them bloody, and... poof? 2000, we've come back?"

He nodded, "I think so. It does sound ridiculously simple, doesn't it? I suppose time travel ought to be shrouded in scientific drabble and the ability to make that trip should be dependent upon mathematical equations and what-not. Or at the very least, we build a time machine, like H.G. Wells. Or a souped-up DeLorean." He offered a wry grin and was pleased and relieved when Scully echoed it back to him.

Scully tucked her head in against his chest and laced her fingers through his, thinking about his explanation. It made about as much sense as anything else that had happened to them these past few weeks.

The scientist in her balked in disbelief at all of it. The woman she was remembered the never-ending, backbreaking work, the way her entire body had ached at the end of each day. There was a halfhealed cut on her palm to remind her of that first instance of blood, and her knuckles were still raw and reddened from the hot water and lye soap, from scrubbing everything from chicken coops to Mulder's borrowed britches. The evidence of what they'd lived through was etched on their bodies, locked in their memories. As a scientist she had all the proof she needed, and she'd already accepted they'd somehow survived the impossible. Faced with that, additional acceptance - that blood took them there and blood brought them back - seemed easy enough.

For long minutes they lay snuggled together in the comfortable bed, each lost in their own thoughts. They'd left a lamp on, glowing softly on a side table near the bathroom. Mulder reduced the volume on the television until the voices on ESPN were a low murmur. He laid the remote on the nightstand and pulled the covers up over their shoulders, turning on his side to ease Scully's body closer to his. She slipped a leg in between his and rested her head on his shoulder.

"We're going to have to tell Skinner about this, aren't we?" she asked. "About what we think happened to the Westons and..." Her words hitched in her throat and she drew in a steadying breath. "We'll have to tell him about what we think happened to the town of Millersburg."

Mulder stroked his fingers through her hair soothingly as he mulled over what they'd have to face the day after tomorrow. "Yeah," he agreed. "We're going to have to tell him. We'll sit down and plan it out, but not tonight, Scully. We'll worry about it in the morning. Right now I just want to hold you in a real bed with real sheets and two pillows. I want to fall asleep with you in my arms and think about nothing more strenuous than ordering breakfast in bed. Sound like a plan?"

She turned her lips into his neck and let them linger against the warm skin, his beating pulse. "Sounds like a plan to me, Mulder. But first, I think we should celebrate a little. Nothing major, my energy level isn't up to it. But I'd sure like to do a bit of cuddling, maybe some necking. Hear a few sweet nothings whispered into my ear."

He grinned and bent down to her ear, rumbling a breathy, "Nothing, nothing," into it; then kissed the delicate outer curve and added, "Whatcha got in mind? Can I doze through it?" His voice was thick with weariness yet still managed that old familiar tease. Scully eased away and gazed up, into eyes shadowed and tired, ringed with dark smudges that she knew had to be mirrored on her own face. A day's worth of stubble darkened his cheeks and to her loving eyes, he'd never looked more desirable... more beloved. He smiled sleepily and clasped her closer; Scully raised her lips as his descended, and they kissed softly, tenderly. Bare limbs pressed together under the light blankets, hands caressed slowly, easing residual aches and pains left from days and days of unusually-hard manual labor.

When Mulder slipped his hands over her back and cradled her hips, Scully sighed into his mouth in utter satisfaction. She could feel herself sliding down into slumber, could feel it rushing up to meet her as her eyelids grew heavy and her body went limp against him. He eased onto his back and brought her with him, until she lay partially on his chest with her head tucked beneath his neck. With fingers threaded in her hair and his other hand running up and down her spine, Mulder relaxed every muscle, sinking into slumber. One of her hands drifted over his abdomen and found him, warm and full in her palm; she held him gently and he breathed a low, "That feels so good..." into the air above her head. She nodded and yawned in sleepy agreement.

His hand came to rest against one sweetly curved cheek; he left it there. A softly-whispered set of 'Love You's' lingered between them as they lay so close to each other. Lulled by the comfortable hum of the air-conditioner, they slept.


To be concluded in Epilogue



ROCKY MOUNTAIN INTERLUDE, EPILOGUE
By Char Chaffin and Tess
MSR, Casefile, AU
Rating: Strong R
Spoilers: FTF, Most of Season Seven
Feedback: to Tnv099@aol.com; char@chaffin.com

Headers and summary, see Part 1

EPILOGUE

FBI Headquarters
Washington, DC

He wore the dark gray summer-weight wool, the one he'd bought two weeks before they'd left on vacation. It hung a bit on his frame; Scully had circled him once, commenting, "You've lost weight. That suit was a perfect fit when you brought it home."

Mulder nodded, his fingers plucking at the waistband of the tailored slacks. "I'm going to have to do something about it. Maybe buy a smaller belt... or start eating a hell of a lot of pizza." He flashed a grin at Scully and she echoed it back to him, happy to keep things light and slightly silly, at least for now.

She tugged on her own suit, realizing it too was somewhat baggy. "We both built up muscle, Mulder. We toned up. The Bowflex Company can boast all they want about the kind of workout you can create on their equipment, but obviously nothing beats swinging an iron hammer or lugging endless buckets of water."

"You got that right." He leaned up against the desk next to her, scooted in close and wriggled his hip against hers teasingly. Scully favored him with one raised eyebrow and a half-smile; then rested her head on his shoulder. Even after a day of doing nothing much beyond eating and sleeping and bathing, she was still tired.

They'd spent their last day in the Rocky Mountains safely behind locked doors, needing nothing more than each other. They'd slept a lot, eaten room service, and taken another bath together, then later on, a shower. They'd made love, once with utmost tenderness and later with unrestrained passion. They'd talked, too. About Libby and Thomas, about Angus. They'd kept the reminiscing lighthearted and more than once Mulder had made Scully laugh aloud with a deadly accurate impersonation of Angus's gruff voice and expletive-laden language.

They'd come down off their initial high of relief and thankfulness that they'd made it back to their own time without major incident, and had found themselves unable to banish the guilt of leaving Millersburg behind and uninformed of their fate. Their sensible and practical side demanded reinforcement that nothing different could have been done; history needed to play out in exactly the manner it had. The emotional, more human side of both of them couldn't help but wish that somehow the little mining town and all its inhabitants could have been spared the virus and its ultimate destruction. It was a conflict of emotion they would ultimately have to come to terms with.

Glancing at her watch, Scully sighed and reluctantly got to her feet. "We should talk, Mulder. We only have ten minutes before the meeting. We need to figure out what the hell to say to Skinner. I confess I'm at a real loss here."

Mulder caught one of her hands and squeezed it reassuringly. "I am too, Scully," he admitted. "I thought it would be so cut-and-dried. Back to the future, eat massive quantities of modern food, take threepoint -seven showers and come to work, ready to discuss time travel and deadly alien viruses." He straightened and tugged at her hand until she came into his arms and pressed close to him. "We have to make Skinner understand and accept, concerning the virus. I'm still convinced he was humoring me the last time I tried to explain it all to him. Right after Antarctica, in fact. As I recall, the PTB dug a hole and buried it all up. We can't let that happen this time." At her inquiring frown, Mulder clarified, "Powers-That-Be."

"Ah."

Scully tucked a thick strand of hair behind her ear and thought a moment, trying to put herself in Skinner's shoes, imagining what sort of a reaction she'd have if someone came to her and told the kind of tale she and Mulder had to present to their boss in just a few minutes. It was a daunting and depressing feeling... Then she remembered what she'd folded inside her briefcase before they left her apartment a few hours ago, and she brightened a bit.

"I've got Jenny Nulty's dress. I brought it with me. This morning when I looked at it, I found one of her handkerchiefs in the pocket. It has hand-tatted lace around the hem and her initials in the corner. All hand-made. I also have the notepad with the sketches of the cave drawings." She handed him the small notepad and he tucked it into his breast pocket. "Think that would help to convince Skinner?" Scully's voice was light but her eyes were over-bright. Her smile trembled, just a little.

Mulder reached out and cupped her cheek, brushed a thumb over her lips. "Yes. I think it'll help. The dress is proof positive that we did indeed travel to another time. I hope. Otherwise how on earth could we have obtained it? It's not something you can buy on Ebay and we didn't rob a frontier museum. Maybe if we turn it inside out and Skinner gets an eyeful of how it's constructed..." He grinned at her and almost sighed aloud in relief when she nodded and smiled in return.

"I agree. We have some visual proof. I admit I'd feel a lot more confident if we'd had some way of recording the physical condition of the Franklins. Photos, cell samples... something. I suppose a hundred and forty-year-old dress, an equally-old handkerchief and a notebook of cave drawings are better than nothing, though," Scully shrugged.

"We'll tell him everything, Scully. All that we saw, what we experienced. The cave and its drawings, the town, the evidence of virus that we found. I put that book I bought, the one that told the story of Millersburg, in my coat pocket last night before we hit the sack. We'll show him that, too. Hell, I suppose we could always kidnap Skinner, fly back to Estes Park and force him to go spelunking with us." Mulder paused, waiting for her reaction, and chuckled when she shuddered and shook her head decisively.

"No, Mulder. No more caves. No return to our little Rocky Mountain interlude. We'll tell Skinner the truth as it happened to us. We'll present all the proof we have, and I know it's not much. If he chooses not to believe us, that's his choice. As for where we go from here," Scully met her partner's steady regard with firm resolve, "we stay alert. We watch for signs and we take nothing for granted. And we fight. Together."

"Together." He echoed it back to her; then pulled her into his arms and held on tightly. In the quiet of their dusty little office they clung to each other, reluctant to put a name to what the future seemed to hold, yet knowing they'd face it, no matter the trials or the danger. They kissed softly and Mulder kept hold of Scully's hand as they stepped away from each other and walked to the door.

The elevator ride upstairs was quiet, pensive. In Mulder's coat pocket the little book he'd bought at the gift shop in Estes and Scully's notepad were small weights that might or might not be accepted by their AD. Over Scully's arm Jenny Nulty's dress was a reassuring presence that something amazing had happened to them. Something only read about in books; something impossible. Yet again, its influence was only as strong as Skinner's objectivity, his open mindedness, and his ability to believe.

Their AD had spent several unwilling years as some kind of underling to the mysterious CGB Spender. After all this time Mulder still wasn't sure why. He and Scully had each had occasion to mistrust Skinner and his ultimate loyalties, thanks to that association. Yet overall, their AD supported them. He believed in their work. Still... time travel? Alien virus? Skinner could be persuaded to accept the latter; he'd probably be less receptive to the idea of his agents spending several weeks in a different century.

Mulder could relate... so could Scully.

They stepped off the elevator and walked to Skinner's office; nodded to Kim as she smiled and waved them through the door. Their AD sat behind his desk, shirtsleeves rolled up and glasses removed, pinching the bridge of his nose as if fighting off a headache. He looked up at the entrance of his two best agents and motioned them to sit; then slapped his glasses back on his face and stared at them silently. He'd expected them to look tanned and rested, bursting with health; instead they appeared to have lost weight and both had dark circles of apparent exhaustion underneath their eyes.

What the--?

"Agents. Nice to have you back. I'd say it looks as if your vacation agreed with you, but I'd be lying through my teeth. Mind telling me what the hell's going on?" Walter Skinner was his usual blunt self.

Mulder shifted in his chair and briefly met Scully's eyes; she nodded and stood up, placing the antique dress on Skinner's desk. While their AD's eyebrows snapped together in a confused frown, Mulder pulled the books from his pocket and laid them next to the dress. He cleared his throat and found himself reaching for the supporting clasp of Scully's hand.

"Sir... there's something we have to tell you, and it's not an easy story to listen to, but hear us out, please..."

END

END NOTES:

This is the first time Tess and I have attempted to write a fic with this much of a historical base. In researching the mid-nineteenthcentury frontier we found several excellent guides; they are listed below in a brief bibliography:

Strasser, Susan. NEVER DONE: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN HOUSEWORK. New York: Pantheon, 1982.

Beecher, Catharine, and Stowe, Harriet Beecher. THE NEW HOUSEKEEPER'S MANUAL: EMBRACING A NEW REVISED EDITION OF THE AMERICAN WOMAN'S HOME. New York: J.B. Ford and Co, 1873.

Peterson, Hannah Mary Bouvier. THE NATIONAL COOK BOOK. Philadelphia: T.B. Peterson & Brothers, c1866.

We also took advantage of the seemingly-endless supply of web information and found links on everything from how to build chicken coops and repair wagons to blacksmithing. We also remembered our 'Little House,' and our 'Dr. Quinn!' Even those sites had a lot of very useful information. I'm also happy to admit that I drew from my own family for the character of Angus McLean: my brother-in-law Ray, who lives high on Cameron Ridge in Fish Creek, West Virginia. Ray is just as cantankerous and with a heart as big as the mountain he lives on... and, cussin'? I think Ray invented it!

Lastly, we'd like to thank everyone who emailed us with so much enthusiasm as we were posting each chapter, and of course our wonderful betas and previewers. We'd also like to thank AlyC for maintaining Tess's website.

Our websites: http://char.chaffin.com, and http://www.tessfiles.com

Thanks for reading!

Tess and Char




If you enjoyed this story, please send feedback to Char Chaffin and Tess