Hey! I know it's been a hot minute since I've posted on here. I hope you're coping well with all the crazy stuff happening in the world right now. I'm hanging in there, keeping busy with house renovations for the most part. But there's no escape like writing, and I really have missed you all. It's been so fun to write Carmen again, and I hope you enjoy reading about her again! Enjoy!

The sun hung low in a molten sky, throwing purple shadows across the canyon floor. A lone wren, perched atop the spines of a saguaro, preened its feathers in the cool of dusk. The serenity of a desert evening was soon interrupted, however, by a clatter of hooves echoing against the stone walls. The wren flitted away, squawking its disapproval.

A wagon rounded the nearest corner, flanked by two riders on horseback. The riders had obscured their faces with red bandanas and black, wide-brimmed hats, but the coachman knew their type well enough. He shouted to his team of horses, whipping the reins wildly in a desperate bid to outrun the bandits.

One of the riders, the smaller and lighter of the two, pulled her feet up into a crouch. She balanced deftly atop the saddle, biding her time until the back corner of the wagon came within reach. The coachman yanked hard on the reins, veering to the left just as she made the leap from saddle to wagon. She slammed against the wooden side with a groan and, slipping and straining to keep hold of the edge, lifted her feet to keep them from dangling beside the speeding wagon wheel.

The coachman veered to the right now, trying to shake her loose. He twisted in his seat, pulling a rusty revolver from his waistband, and fired off a shot. Splinters of wood exploded above the bandit's head.

"A little help would be nice!" she shouted to her partner. He said nothing, but she knew he was rolling his eyes beneath the brim of that big, black hat.

As the coachman turned to make a second shot, a boot struck the gun from his hand. The second bandit was upon him, grappling for the gun and for the reins. The wagon jostled along the canyon floor, speeding out of control.

One well-timed kick and the coachman found himself booted from the wagon. He landed hard on the stony ground, rolling along the desert floor like a tumbleweed before finally coming to rest in a cloud of dirt and dust. He could only watch helplessly, muttering under his breath, as his wagon barrelled towards the blood-red sunset.

Evening spread over a sleepy little town on the edge of the canyon's shadow. Dust hung in the air, lingering like the afternoon's heat, as the usual crowd gathered for drinks at Al's Saloon. A few card games picked up. Two men started a drunken, heated exchange. A man played the piano at the far end of the bar.

Then the doors swung open with a heavy-handed push. Silence fell across the room. All eyes turned to the tall, broad-shouldered man making his way inside. He tugged on a red bandana that covered the lower half of his face, revealing a dark beard that followed the line of his jaw.

The bartender, a young man with soft, brown hair that matched his soft, brown eyes, reached under the counter. But before he could close his hand around the shotgun lying near his feet, he saw a flash of steel from the man's waistband. "We aren't here for trouble," the stranger growled, a Colt 45 catching the light of a nearby lamp . "Just a drink. What do you say?"

"Sure," the bartender replied, raising both hands in surrender. "A drink. Wh-what would you like?"

"Whiskey for me!" A woman breezed in behind the bearded man, pulling herself up to the counter and making herself at home. She untied her own red bandana, using it to wipe a streak of dust from her temple. "What about you, dad?"

"I'll take that whiskey, and she'll have some water," he said, stepping over the stool directly in front of the bartender.

The man at the piano started up again, a clumsy attempt at something light and playful. The card games resumed, as did the drunken brawl. The bartender filled a glass from the water tap and, after setting it on the polished counter, gave it a push in the young woman's direction. It slid right into her waiting hand.

"Nice trick," she beamed.

"Yeah? I've been practicing." He flashed her a quick and eager smile.

"Whiskey, son," the father reminded him in a voice that made his smile wilt. "I asked for whiskey."

"Coming right up, Comman-I mean sir."

Behind them, the saloon doors opened again. The music ceased. The conversations fell to an uneasy hush. The bandits swivelled on their barstools.

A woman stepped inside, her long, dark tresses tied up in a ponytail. She opened her jacket to reveal a star-shaped badge, its lettering cracked and its gold surface faded to dull yellow. "Stop right there," she ordered.

"Or what?" the man taunted.

"Yeah, or what?" his partner echoed.

The sheriff eyed them warily, one hand hand poised and waiting beside her hip for the slightest of movements. The tension was suddenly shattered by an ear-piercing screech. From a sling across the sheriff's back, a baby bounced up and down. "Da! Da!" the infant cried. Two pudgy hands reached towards the man at the bar.

A crack appeared in his stony visage. "Hi Ella," he rumbled gently, and the baby screeched again, delighted to have her father's attention.

"Look here," the sheriff said, ignoring the baby's interruption (and a glob of drool that fell onto her shoulder). "We can do this the easy way, or the hard way."

"Those the only two options?" The outlaw tapped his fingers rhythmically against the side of his holster. "The way I see it, there's two of us, and only one of you."

"Wrong, mister!"

A little boy ambled into the saloon, coming to a stop at his mother's side. He wore a matching badge on the front of his cowhide vest. A crop full of dark hair came bursting out from beneath his hat, curling wildly around his ears and over his forehead. "You're under arrest, Calico Canyon Bandits!" he declared.

"What for?" the man retorted.

"For stealing that-that-" He looked up at his mother with a sheepish smile. "What's it called again, mama?"

"A stagecoach," she whispered.

"For stealing that staged-coach!"

The young woman kicked her stool out of the way. "That stagecoach is ours! We stole it fair and square!" she said, drawing her gun. The piano man and the card players ducked for cover.

"Not so fast!" the little boy barked. "I've got a gun, too!" He fumbled under his jacket for a minute, finally locating a green piece of plastic with a shiny red tip. "One bad move and I'll blow you to smithereens, you yellow-bellied flea bag!"

"Billy," his mother scolded. "Watch your language."

He looked up at her innocently. "Carmen taught me that!"


"Can we get back to the scene?" The young woman grumbled out of the side of her mouth.

Her partner cleared his throat. "Hey, hey, there's no need for all this violence," he said, lifting both hands in the air. "We'll go with you, nice and easy."

"You will?" the woman asked, settling back into character.

"Sure. The truth is, we did steal that stagecoach." He began to sidle towards her with slow, cautious steps. "And the truth is, we're here to steal again."

She drew her brows together suspiciously, but held her ground. "You are?"

Closer and closer he inched until at last, he was standing right in front of her. "Yes. I'm here to steal...your heart."

He grabbed her around the waist, pulling her straight to his lips. She threw her arms around his shoulders, kissing him back with equal fervor. Carmen and Billy chorused a groan.

"Again?" whined Carmen.

"More smooches?" whined Billy.

Riker pulled away from Troi with a laugh. "Oh I'm sorry, did you want some, too?"

"No!" the boy shrieked. "Your beard tickles too much!" And off he dashed, with Riker lumbering after him.

Carmen heaved herself onto one of the barstools. "Computer, freeze program!" she called. The fans overhead stopped whirring. The card players froze where they were, still huddled behind a makeshift wall of tables and chairs. Sighing heavily, Carmen rested her chin on a balled-up fist. "We'll never finish, you know. Not if they keep going off-script."

Allan Sheppard, the bartender, shook his head with a grin. "That was pretty funny, though."

"Funny? Come on. He could at least come up with something clever."

They laughed together softly, resignedly. But as their laughter trailed off, the silence that followed made Carmen shift in her seat. It was like a wall had been broken and they could no longer hide behind bars and bandanas, stools and scripts.

"So uh...how are you doing?" she asked.

"Oh, I'm fine," he said with a paltry attempt at a smile. The overhead lights seemed to accentuate the dark troughs beneath his eyes. "What about you?"

"Me? Fine. Yeah, I'm fine."

"That's good."


Sheppard took the rag from his shoulder and started scrubbing at a smudge on the counter. At the far end of the saloon, Riker finally managed to corner the tiny sheriff. He lifted Billy into the air with a roar, flipping him over his shoulder to tickle him without mercy. "Carmen!" the boy pleaded between fits of laughter. "Carmen, save me!"

"Coming, coming," she grumbled, secretly relieved for the excuse to pardon herself. But instead of helping him down from their father's shoulder, she pulled his shirt over his head and joined in the tickling. The boy's hat fell to the floor as he hung upside down, red-faced and laughing.

"Bridge to Riker," came a disembodied voice.

The outlaw faded away and in his place stood a commander. He set Billy down, tapping at the communicator pinned to his black, fringed jacket. "Go ahead."

"Ten minutes until we are in position, sir."

"We'll be right there." Riker took off his hat and placed it on top of Billy's head. It sank down over his chin, muffling a cry of protest.

"We?" Troi repeated.

A guilt-ridden smile crawled across Riker's face. "Didn't I tell you Carmen was coming with me? I could have sworn..."

"William Thomas Riker!"

"What are you so worried about?" the young woman chimed in. "We'll be fine."

Troi scowled at her skeptically. "The last time your father was on that base, he nearly didn't make it back."

"That was ten years ago! And besides, we have Geordi. He found a way to beam through the planet's distortion fields. Allan helped him reprogram the transporters-tell her, Allan!"

Sheppard gulped from behind the bar. "I mean, uh, yes. At least for twenty-six-"

"See? It's completely safe," Carmen interrupted. "Now we have to change and gear up-"

Troi stopped her in her tracks with a mere look. "I'm sorry, Allan, what were you saying?"

He gulped again. "Uh...well you see, the transporters will only work for small windows of time," he explained.

"How small?"

Sheppard tugged at his collar. "Twenty-six minutes."

"Twenty-six minutes?" Troi despaired.

"Imzadi," Riker crooned, taking hold of her hands. "All we have to do is find and retrieve the database. Twenty-six minutes is more than enough time. We'll be back before Billy can find his way out of my hat."

Behind him, Carmen nodded earnestly. "See? Nothing to worry about."

Troi shook her head, but conceded with a sigh. "Just...be careful, okay?"

Riker kissed her quickly, then pinched the baby's cheek. Her blue eyes shone up at him in utter adoration. "What do you mean, 'be careful?' Aren't we always?" the commander quipped.

"NO," came the resounding answer from both Sheppard and Troi.