A/N: Many huge, hug-filled thanks to devilberry, formerly known as the harlequin demon, for beta-ing the first few chapters of this silly thing for me. :) "Dust and Ashes" is a strange sort of adventure I've been scribbling on the sides to take my mind off the intensity of "Tick Tock, Enigma", but fear not if you haven't read that one - the two stories have nothing in common. Please enjoy; D&A won't be anything like what you expect. ;)
Pandora Hearts © Jun Mochizuki
It was another typical morning in Nowheresville, an uneventful little place situated firmly out in the middle of...nowhere. Energetic rays from a blossoming sunrise streamed through the middle of the lazily awakening street, giving light to those hardy few up to starting their day before the rest of the sun fully crested the horizon.
As the sheriff started his morning rounds, passing by the main establishments with a wave and a nod, he checked to make sure nothing was amiss this beautiful morning. Pausing a moment to watch the Belzarius' eldest son rub at sleepy-green eyes with a grimace and a yawn, the sheriff smiled to himself and noted the way Jack blearily set up shop in his father Oscar's jovial place. (Oscar was a hard worker, but if he'd been out drinkin' again, well, that would explain why Jack was filling in for him here instead of helping out at the saloon...gracious, the sheriff was hopin' Glen would forgive the lapse.)
Speaking of Glen, the sheriff hopped up the steps leading to the saloon and pushed his way through a mess of tables and chairs toward the bar. The place was thick with smoke, as usual, but Glen was already behind the counter. He gave the sheriff a brief nod of acknowledgement, letting him know he was already aware of Jack's absence and that it was all right for him to fill in today. (Glen owned the saloon, but didn't work it; that's what his best friend was for. His was a nocturnal job, scribbling music when all was quiet and he could think. Occasionally they'd get a real treat and he'd play some on the big ol' piano in the back corner, when the whiskey was good and the mood was just right.) With a nod back, the sheriff turned and strode onwards, spurs clink-clinking as his boots thump-thumped along the long wooden porch. (Glen was a quiet sort of dangerous. Talking to him was only safe if Jack was there to intervene in the event of trouble. Most folks had learned to keep their distance.)
The livery stable was already up and running, with Fred taking his own horse out, saddled and all; it looked as if he were to be about wandering again. Goodness knew that boy had a hard time hanging around, always looking for the excitement of gunfights. But that was the Nightray way. Either fighters, roamers, or bandits, the lot of them. At least this generation seemed to be staying on the right side of the law. (A miracle, considering the fame of their parents before both of 'em hanged. Well, on second thought, perhaps the hangin' had scared the kids straight? Naw, he couldn't quite believe that. The two youngest had gleams in their eyes that he found unnerving; especially that of the youngest-youngest.)
With a tip of his hat and a gracious nod to two passing Reinsworth ladies, the sheriff called out that mayhaps they'd best wait another minute or three before buying their morning goods? Jack looked ready to tip off his feet. Miss Shelly laughed. The sheriff felt his smile brighten at the sight of her daughter's shy, rosy-pink face peering up at him. Nothing like a little lady learning how to curtsey to brighten up a morning. He made extra sure to tip his hat for her as he left the ladies to their passage and moved on to complete the rest of his circuit.
The jailhouse was his own domain, and he stopped in to release the Nightray brothers whom he'd had to lock up the previous night for brawling in the saloon. They were good boys, Claude and Ernest, but temperamental and prone to fighting when they'd had a few too many shots of whiskey. The sheriff didn't jail them because of any breech of public order, per se, but more for their own protection: they had a habit of hurting themselves more than anything else around here. That, and to keep them from getting shot by Glen, but that was another story.
With a wave and a few words to keep out of trouble, the boys were off and Sheriff Reim finally had a chance to get to that paperwork he owed the mayor by high noon.
Sheriff Reim Lunettes had come from a long line of righteous men of law: his pappy a sheriff, and his grand-pappy before him a judge. The rest was a myriad mix, but each member of his family tree had been an upright, standing citizen with no blemishes whatsoever on their personal records. Reim worked hard to uphold the Lunettes' tradition. So long as he had been Sheriff of Nowheresville, there'd been no trouble. And he'd been here a mighty long time.
(Although, compared to the mayor, Reim was still quite the young'un. The mayor and his wife had been caring for this town since back before the dawn of time! Or so Little Miss Sharon told everybody. And Reim wasn't one to go disputin' the word of a lady.)
Today was like any other day, with trouble running at a minimum. Nowheresville was too small a place to be bothered by bandits, too far out to be harassed by rogues. There was only one cattle rancher in these parts, too: the good Mr. Kevin Regnard, and he didn't hardly bother nobody. Only came to town every once in a while, mostly to purchase feed for the winter or to borrow the Lady Reinsworth's carts if'n he had to go anywhere to sell said cattle. (Rumor was he was awfully fond of Miss Shelly, but then again, who wasn't?) But mostly it was she visiting him instead of the other way around. Regnard especially liked to let the Little Miss play with his daughter, the Sinclair child. The one orphaned when her family was shot by brigands five years prior. (It was pure dumb luck he had been in Thenexttownover when it happened, and offered to take the infant in right then and there. Even better luck the mayor helped it happen; seemed he thought having a little extra responsibility would keep Mr. Regnard out of trouble, livin' out there on his own.)
So it wasn't unexpected when Miss Shelly dropped by the sheriff's office later that afternoon to give her report on the wellness of the Regnard Ranch. The sheriff liked to know each citizen of Nowheresville was still doing well and didn't need no extra assistance. But the look on Miss Shelly's face was one he hadn't expected to see. He immediately rose to greet her, and found her hands clutching his forearms with a grip stronger than he thought she was. There was panic in her eyes and her words came out in a frantic jumble. He tried to soothe her, calm her down, but in the end it didn't work. She stopped him in his tracks.
"Kevin," she breathed, soft and low despite her hurry; she didn't want nobody overhearing this, "is gone."
Reim stared, bewildered. "Gone, Ma'am?"
"Gone," she confirmed. "The ranch...it's empty. The bulls got loose. None in sight."
"Was it them cattle rustlers?"
"No; I don't think they got stole. I think they got let loose. Everything's trampled outside."
"The gate was left open?" He couldn't believe this. He removed his glasses and rubbed them vigorously on his shirt, more out of nervous habit than any real need to see more clearly.
"Yes. And his little girl...," Miss Shelly choked on her next words.
"What?" Reim prompted urgently. "What about the Miss?"
"She's dead!" Shelly wailed, covering her sorrowful face behind muddy, once-white gloves.
Reim sat back in his chair, horrified. He felt sick. Had Kevin Regnard killed his very own daughter? No, he wasn't like that. Kevin adored that little girl, doted on her, spoiled her rotten. He'd never do anything so heinous. But who? And why? And where in blazes was Kevin now? Reim finally managed to take a deep enough breath to look the Reinsworth woman in the eye and ask, "How'd she die?"
"No. I don't think so. There was boot tracks out there that wasn't his. I know because when I stepped out I thought they was awfully funny lookin'. His shoes ain't that big."
Grimly, Reim stood and placed his hat on his head. Turning around, he let the Miss take his arm and said, "We ought to see the mayor. Then I'll do a thorough investigation."
"There was blood everywhere," she said quietly. Then she said no more, but covered her face with her hands and sobbed.
Reim removed his glasses and cleaned them.
The mayor, Rufus Barma, could smell trouble brewing a mile away. But the look on his sheriff's face was something new and unexpected, brief as it was, and quite non-accusatory...but still. Further judging by the paleness of the woman clinging to the sheriff's arm, Barma would hazard a guess that something had happened to the Regnard boy. This guess was solidified in full when he saw the fury ignited anew behind his sheriff's normally warm and friendly eyes as he seated Shelly Reinsworth in a chair and cleared his throat. Barma raised an eyebrow and sat back to listen.
"Mayor Barma, sir," he began without preamble, "there's been a murder."
Barma's mind immediately analyzed the possibilities. Regnard had no outstanding debts. Never started a brawl. Settled things quickly and fairly, avoided gunfights. Didn't drink. Gave without question. Never borrowed. Kept to himself. The only cause of conflict was his possible relationship with the widowed Shelly Reinsworth. If someone else in town had had his eye on her...there may have been a pretense for altercation.
"Miss Sinclair's dead," Reim said.
Barma's eyebrow raised. "Miss Sinclair?" That didn't make sense; why would someone murder an innocent child? "Are you certain?"
"I'm just about to ride out there, sir. But I thought I'd leave Miss Shelly with you."
"Of course. I shall hear the story from her."
Reim nodded and was out the door quick as a flash. Barma's eyes slid to the shadowy corner of the room where his wife sat, calmly watching her daughter fight to remain in control of her emotions.
"Shelly," Cheryl said. "Where'd you leave Sharon?"
"Good. Come here."
Barma sighed and left the women to their silent embrace.
Glen crouched, looking over the busted lock which once held some few hundred head of cattle. "Been shot out," he muttered in that quiet, half-distracted way of his which made every word seem as if it either took effort or simply wasn't meant to be heard by anyone other than himself.
Oscar sighed and eyed the empty range. "Where'd they go?" he mused aloud, scratching his head.
Glen snorted, gesturing to the multitude of tracks leading anywhere but inside the corral. "Wherever they damn well pleased."
"I don' get it. I just don' get it," Oscar said, shaking his head. "This ain't right."
"No, it ain't. But it happened and we have to deal with it," replied Shelly, her eyes hardened and heart steeled once more in that headstrong way the Reinsworth womenfolk were famous for.
Reim remained inside, sitting cross-legged by the bloody stain that had formed beneath the body of a sweet little girl. He remembered her bouncing curls, her wide, bright grin. The ribbons in her hair. The way she would laugh when she saw her daddy, the way she loved to ride horses with him. The softness in Kevin's eyes as he held her close, tucked her in, kissed her forehead while she slept. The way he showed her off, telling everyone she was the purdiest thing to have ever set foot on this earth, and nobody denied it. She was his little angel. And now she was gone.
But so was Kevin, Reim's closest friend. Gone, without a word. The girl's body had been left on the floor, and Reim only had to look at the blood to know something awful had happened to Kevin for him not to have buried her. Or at least burned the whole ranch as a funeral pyre. He'd do that for her, Reim was sure.
Reim was also sure the body of Kevin Regnard wouldn't be found too close to the house. He was a skilled gunslinger, that one, but light on his feet. He could take a fight anywhere, and probably headed out to the trees to lure danger away from his home. Away from his baby girl. There must have been two. But Reim didn't know. And didn't know how to find out. But he was damn certain the rotting corpse of his friend would be discovered sooner or later. Sooner or later, indeed.