Candles of the Wicked

by G. M. Atwater

"How oft is the candle of the wicked put out, and how oft cometh their destruction upon them."

- Job 21:17


JD Dunne felt like crap. Not that anyone had ever explained just what crap should feel like, but right now it felt like his throbbing, over-stuffed head was about to explode, his muscles ached clear to the bone, and his throat burned as if he'd swallowed a big ol' dollop of hot tar. Feeling like crap in the pouring rain and dark was even worse. The steady, sloppy patter of an evening downpour on his hat and oilskin-clad shoulders was only matched by the steaming muck he could feel swelling in the back of his sinuses. It had got worse when the sun went down. Dark had come way too early, beneath the sullen black belly of the desert monsoon.

Mud squelched underfoot as he crossed a side street, and grated under his boot soles as he stepped back onto boardwalk. Who the heck got sick in August, anyhow? For that matter, who would believe it could rain in the desert for three days straight, in the middle of summer? If he could just arrange to shoot himself in the foot or something, his misery would be complete.

JD also abruptly decided that whoever had said, "Misery loves company" was a complete idiot.

"Hey, kid, looks like you got the town under control now, don't ya? Heh-heh, just hope your slicker don't leak!"

The boomingly cheerful voice of Buck Wilmington rang from the darkness. His tall form stepped into a pool of lamplight, accompanied by a gleeful rubbing of hands and a huge grin, which struck JD as positively obscene. He directed the blackest glare he could muster at his friend, but of course, Buck ignored it.

Wilmington's grin got even wider, despite water running off his drooping hat brim. "Aw, c'mon, just 'cause you're gonna miss out on the prettiest lil' songbird this side of the Pecos ain't a reason to get your bloomers in a knot."

Songbird? Ah, geez, Buck thought he was sore on account of he was missing the new lady singer, who would hold court at the saloon, tonight. One night only, the woman's manager had trumpeted, appearing on her way to San-Fran-cisco! You bet, by way of every cow town and mining camp in the territory. If this rain kept up, she might be stuck with an indefinite engagement, right here.

"Hey, after it's over, I'll even come and tell ya what songs she sung!" Buck beamed and waggled his eyebrows.

JD shook his head, water flinging from his hat brim, and resumed walking. On a lousy night like this, there wouldn't be much to keeping the night watch. Just rattle some doorknobs, and make sure nobody passed out drunk in the rain, or went to peeping in some lady's window. Few folks would even stick their noses out. What's more, the solitude would be vastly easier on his throbbing head, than a saloon full of lovesick fools. Still, what he really wanted was his own, dry comfortable bed. Not a chance of that, though, so he would gladly settle for some peace and quiet.

"Hey, whoa, now . . ."

A lanky frame suddenly blocked his path, and JD looked up sharply, weighing the fiery misery of trying to talk against the pleasure of telling Buck to get lost. Yet the tall man's expression now registered concern, as he looked down at his younger friend.

"Kid, you all right?"

JD stopped, sighed. Bracing himself, he croaked his private litany, "I feel like crap," and then cringed at the scalding rasp in his throat.

Buck reached out a hand to JD's shoulder, bending to peer more closely. "You look kinda peaked. Tired, like. You got a fever?"

"No," JD rasped. "Just a sniffle."

Dang, someone just pour a pound of molten lead down his throat, it couldn't feel much worse than this. Now Buck wanted to feel his head, like he was some fool kid. JD shrugged roughly out of reach, and scowled.

"I'm fine. Go see that girl sing."

"No, now you hold on. If you're ailin', you sure as hell don't need to be out here in the rain and dark, breathin' all kindsa night vapors."

Now, just what the heck was a night vapor? Exasperated, JD set his jaw and gave Buck a stiff shove - shut up, it said - and shouldered past him. There were few things more aggravating than being unable to tell Buck where to get off. If the big galoot kept pushing, though, he was about to accept the agony of talking, just long enough to get it said. He did NOT feel like being badgered, right now.

"Hey, JD . . ."

JD stopped, sighed. Aw, hell, he knew that wheedling tone of voice. Knew the look he'd see when he turned around, all soft-eyed and sincere. It would be a lot easier to stay mad, if the tall fellow kept being his usual annoying self. But he turned anyway, and let Buck lay a hand on his shoulder, let him peer under the dripping brim of his bowler hat again.

"Listen, son, why don't you just go get a good night's sleep, hear? I'll take your shift - no, don't you argue with me, now. I'll take your shift, and I can arrange to walk by that saloon just as many times as I want, so I won't mind." Buck straightened and put his grin back on, talking himself into what he'd just volunteered for. "Hell, be such a crowd in there, I couldn't hardly find a place to stand, anyhow. I'll likely have a better view from the sidewalk, as it is."

Great, now JD was supposed to run away home, on account of a little sniffle, and let Buck do his job for him. The body groaned a silent plea for acquiescence, but JD's pride shrilly demanded otherwise.

"Buck, I can finish my watch. I -."

"Nope, I don't wanna hear it."

"Buck, dammit, I don't -."

"No!" Iron in that tone, now. "You go get some rest. You'll feel better in the mornin'."

"I don't need you to -." and a painful cough sprang up to stifle him.

"The hell you don't! You're goin' to bed, if I got to throw ya." A grin abruptly became audible in the tall man's voice. "'Sides, I like it when ya owe me."

JD glared at the smug wink Buck directed at him. Much as he hated to concede to weakness, crawling in a warm bed was the most welcome choice he'd faced all evening. Just admitting that seemed to melt the starch right out of him, and he slowly, grudgingly nodded. Sure, he would owe Buck, and he would pay him back a favor ~ but JD wouldn't make it easy to collect. Nah, it would be more fun to let his friend gripe and moan about it, for a spell.

"All right, Buck, you win," he croaked.

"G'wan. I'll see ya in the mornin'."

Buck watched as his young friend sloshed off into the dark, a stubborn form in a wilting bowler hat and soaked oilskin slicker, and he sighed ruefully. Damned kid. A man could cut off his fool head, and JD would still insist on doing his job, whatever he thought it was. Anyhow, summer colds were the worst, and it was better he got some extra rest and stayed dry indoors.

Well, now . . . Miss Angelina wouldn't be on stage for another thirty minutes or so. Reckon he had time for a stroll to the end of town and back, at least.

+ + + + + + +

Calvin Bell had never been worth a damn. That was what everyone said, but Bell himself merely scoffed at their impotent assessments. People were weak, people were stupid, and it took a clever man to stand up and get what he wanted in this life. Right now, Bell was contentedly contemplating the stupidity of the hardware store owner, who did not empty his till at night, and how he wanted that cash for himself. Hunched at the alley-side door in a dripping canvas coat, he tested the knob, which caught at just a fractional turn. Locked. No problem, he had expected that much.

Reaching under his coat, cold fingers fumbled a thin length of metal out of his vest pocket, and he set it to the lock. Looking up and down the alley, he listened a moment, and heard nothing but the pattering hush of the rain. Carefully he slipped the pick into the keyhole, and leaned his sodden hat against the door, the better to hear the tiny >click< when the tumblers fell into place. Then the side door opened at a touch, and Bell slipped quickly inside.

The odors of kerosene, harness oil and damp, stale air filled his nostrils. The thief had scouted his destination by daylight, and had no trouble in the dark. His hands lightly touched on a bin of nails, a barrel of hinges, shelves with stovepipe joints and cast iron items. When the smooth counter top came under his hand, he reached carefully for the ornately scrolled metal face of the cash register. With quick hands, he rang the drawer open and scooped bills and coins into his pants pockets. Chuckling silently, he thought of the hardware man's face, when he rang up his first customer of the morrow. Damned fool, there's a reason people use banks. Bell eased the drawer shut, grimaced at the brief ding, and began retracing his steps back to the side door.

+ + + + + + +

Ding? Buck paused, one foot off the end of the walk. Rain pattered on his hat as he stood half out from under an overhanging awning. What would make a noise like that? Frowning lightly, he stepped off into the mouth of the alley, straining to hear past the muffling rustle of the rain. He could see nothing but darkness and wet, dreary puddles of diffused lantern light, farther up the street. Just a few feet across the alley, the black bulk of the hardware store loomed silently. No light in the windows, there, no sign of life anywhere. Maybe he was just hearing things, or else it was someone monkeying with the piano in the saloon, getting ready for Miss Angelina's debut.

Yet wisdom ruled for caution, and Buck took another step, then another, head still turning warily. With one hand he eased back his coat to rest a hand on his holstered revolver. Nothing - Damn! A man suddenly RIGHT there, in the silver-black of the alley, from thin air and MOVING - Jesus!

"Hold it, mister -!"

Buck's fingers seized cold walnut grips, the weight of the old Colt springing up as his thumb clenched on the hammer. Familiar face - boarding house? A fist in his gut doubled him over, sledging the wind from him, even as he fought to bring the pistol to bear. What -? Buck's arms were suddenly heavy, his strength rushing away from him like grain from a slit bag - God! Cold muck splattered against his face, and rain now dribbled in his eyes, his open mouth, and he was down. Belly felt dead, sick. Oh, Buck, you are in it deep, now. The pistol lay like a rock in his hand, but he focused on that, on bringing it across his chest, aiming at the blind, black face of the weeping sky. An explosion lanced flame from his hand, threw the pistol back and almost out of his grip. Yet he clamped cold fingers tighter, brought both hands to cock it once more, and fired again.

Then he was done, the cold wetness soaking into his hair, the backs of his legs, spattering into his face. Don't let go, a silent voice whispered, as the thick, grey fog buzzed tighter inside his skull, around his consciousness. Not like this. Please, God, not like this . . .

They came, as he knew they would. He held on that long, long enough to see Josiah's sturdy silhouette bending over him, long enough to hear Vin's distant voice saying, "I'll get Nathan," before that presence vanished into the humming darkness. Long enough to see a golden lantern bring Nathan's dark face, his wide, stricken dark eyes, and Buck smiled. Or hoped he did. In your hands, ol' pard . . .

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee clamped both hands on the balcony railing, rain cascading blackly off his hat brim and the edge of the roof behind him. Out there in the drenched, deadly dark, Vin Tanner coursed like an angry wolf, hunting for tracks the rain would too quickly melt, searching for sign that the monsoons would swallow in a quick, wet gulp. Yet to attempt any less would be to give that son of a bitch a chance that he had not granted Buck Wilmington. Beside him, Josiah stood as a monolith in a sodden serape. Both men waited outside, but heart and soul remained beyond the door at their backs. There Nathan Jackson faced hand-to-hand combat with Death, armed with only the skills of a mortal man. That door clicked and Chris spun.

Nathan's taut features caught lamplight, as he said gently, "Chris, better come in."

Buck lay in shadowed light, his bare feet poking from the ends of long summer underwear, the uppers of which were bloody rags cut aside to expose his middle. His face gleamed a thin sheen of sweat or rain, hard to say which, with the wet clothes cut off him. The worst - God! - was that obscenity of a thing, that knife jutting cockeyed from a wad of bandaging on the man's pale, flat belly, like some ghastly growth. Chris felt things inside him shutting down, locking up, going numb. Shockingly, that pallid face moved, the eyes blinked.

"Want you to hear this," Nathan said. "Before I do anything."

While he's still alive. Chris heard the unspoken words, as he moved forward on wooden legs. He would never, ever in this life know a right way to approach something like this. Buck's glazed eyes caught him, something resembling a flicker of a smile appearing in them. Chris watched the Adam's apple slide up and down Buck's throat, as he swallowed. Felt like a damned fool towering over him, and knelt slowly.

"Chris." The voice sounded like paper rustling. "Was Cal . . . Calvin Bell. Boardin' house. Think he . . . was robbin' the . . . hardware store."

Chris nodded, brain trying to click over and grasp the information. Calvin Bell. Something to do with the . . . Someone rooming at the boarding house? Files shuffled in the back of Chris' mind, even as he choked on fury and disbelief. Things like this just didn't happen to Buck. Everything could and sometimes did go to hell all around them, but he was never hurt bad, unless he deliberately put himself in a bad position - which usually meant a woman was involved. But this . . . Chris' hands shook, and something must have showed in his face.

"Go easy, pard," Buck whispered. "That head ain't . . . just for holdin' . . . a hat."

Emotion swept forth as a great logjam in Chris' chest - damn the man, anyhow! He felt teeth skid one off the other as he clenched his jaw, dropped one heavy, useless hand on his oldest friend's shoulder. It felt like everything in him rushed into that clasp, trying to physically force life back into the body under his hand. Somehow, he forced words past the tightness gripping his throat.

"Don't worry about me, Buck. Just you mind the doc, here."

Buck was fading; they could see it in the fluttering of his eyelids. Chris jerked upright, swept Nathan with a white-hot glare that demanded miracles, impossibilities - that pleaded with all the desperation in his soul.

"Chris," said Nathan softly, and stepped closer to almost whisper. "Could be his kidneys, his liver . . . I just don't know, yet. That's not as bad as if it were his bowels or intestines, and I don't smell nothin' that say that. But I can't promise anything. I don't know enough, we don't have enough . . . All I can do is try."

Nathan's mahogany features could hide nothing, in moments like this, eloquent dark eyes wide with fear, desperation, determination. Yet there was steel under that velvet brown voice, the will to give Death one hell of a fight. If Buck had a chance, it would be at Nathan Jackson's hands. Chris gripped the healer's shoulder with iron fingers.

"Whatever it takes," Chris said. "Whatever you can do."

Then he turned, collided with Josiah's solid bulk, and pushed past him, outside into the pouring dark. Somehow, the realization ticked through his numb mind that he would have to tell the owner that someone had robbed his store. Halfway down the stairs, he slammed into a single, cold thought; someone had to tell JD.

+ + + + + + +

Pounding, pounding - in his head or at the door? JD rolled over with a moan, fighting past the pressing fog behind his eyes. He'd only just gotten to sleep, or as close to sleep as his aching, miserable body would allow. The door leaped thunderously in its casing again, and he sat up with a jolt, one hand grabbing for the pistol under his pillow. Nothing good ever came of a knock like that.

"What?" he croaked.

The doorknob rattled, light spearing in from the hall, and Vin stood there, a soggy silhouette with puddles forming under his feet. His voice rasped tightly.

"JD, get dressed. Buck's been hurt."

Buck? Hurt? For an instant, JD's sluggish mind wouldn't grasp the thought. He'd just left Buck, so how on earth could he get hurt?

"Hurt how?"

"Stabbed. He's at Nathan's."

For just an instant it felt as if hot, buzzing cotton filled JD's ears and swelled his skull, and he thought he would pass out. He had left Buck out there taking his watch. Oh, God. And it had to be bad, or Vin wouldn't be here. JD's fingers wouldn't cooperate, as he stuffed his legs into his trousers, tried to button his fly, mis-buttoned, and had to try again. Vin stepped beside him, dripping all over as he helped pull JD's suspenders over his shoulders.

"Some feller broke into the hardware store next to the saloon," the tracker continued. "Buck must have surprised 'im, when he come out."

Listen, kid, why don't you just go get a good night's sleep, hear? I'll take your shift -. And JD had let him. Oh, God.

JD stamped his boots on, jerked his coat off a chair, and careened out the door before Vin could more than turn around.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan would not let them in, would not let anyone in, just him and Josiah, and every lantern the others could lay hands on. Shadows danced every which way, on the walls within, and the waiting men tried not to imagine what went on behind those too-bright windows. Nathan had tersely explained the situation, in blunt terms that left nothing to doubt. Internal bleeding, infection, damage and complications that mere human eyes could not see. Nor did anything say that Buck would live, even if he survived the initial doctoring. The sort of skilled medical help he really needed simply did not exist in this place.

JD sat huddled at the top of the stairs, not caring that the rain hissed off the end of the eaves to soak his hat and coat. He felt movement behind him, felt his own muscles clench in anticipation. Chris would want answers.


The gentle tone of Chris' voice surprised him, and shame lanced red-hot through the stew of hateful misery that filled him. What he deserved was not kindness nor understanding, nor anything less than the hell that good man inside now suffered.

"My fault," JD said, pushing the words roughly past the fiery coals in his throat.

"How you figure?"

"I let Buck take my watch." The scalding in his throat forced a stifled cough. "My turn on patrol, tonight, but I got a sniffle, and I let Buck -."

He hated the trembling that seized his voice. Hated the hand that touched his shoulder, tightening there.

"NO!" he shouted. JD lunged up and wheeled to face his leader, that dark figure actually taking a step back. "That should be me, don't you understand? He's in there maybe dying, because I got a sniffle!"

"JD, there's no way you -."

"Don't TELL me what's no way, Chris!" Now JD was almost on tiptoes, right in Chris' face, did not care if the man tore his head right off his shoulders, and welcomed the raw blaze of his voice tearing through his sore throat. "That was MY job, my duty, and I welched on it, and he's in there because I didn't have the sand to put up with a goddamned SNIFFLE!"

Hard hands grabbed his lapels, hard strength shook him sharply, and JD was ready for the blow to follow. Yet none came. Chris' entire frame radiated fury, as he jerked the kid to face him squarely.

"SHUT THE HELL UP, JD! Buck is in there because of a son of a bitch named Calvin Bell! You hear me? Calvin Bell, not JD Dunne, not Santa Claus, not anybody else!"

JD hung in the taller man's grip, staring, knew his mouth was open. Calvin Bell? A face flitted through his mind - that new fellow who had moved in the boarding house last week? Why would . . . ? A robbery. Vin had said Buck interrupted a break-in at the hardware store. Now Larabee's grasp loosened, and JD felt himself shaking. He wanted to wake up, to turn back time, to have Buck there once more so he could say NO, I'm finishing my own turn on duty.

"Calvin Bell, JD." Now Chris' voice came low and tight as if forced through a vise. "Not you."

"Where's Bell now?"

"Don't know." Vin's shadow spoke, further along the porch. "Gone. He stole a horse from somebody's stable and gone." The tracker's sigh was audible. "Tracks washed out within five hundred yards of town."

JD almost fell, when Chris let go and stepped back. Another hand pressed against his back, briefly steadying him, and he glanced at Ezra's dim shape. All of them, then, waiting out here in the soaking wet dark, while rain poured off the eaves and across the porch, and ran like quicksilver down the dark street below. As a man's life possibly ran out, in the over-lit room, beyond.

His knees suddenly felt weak, and JD let himself lean back into the wall, then slid down it to sit on the porch. His hatband pressed cold and clammy around his forehead, so he set the bowler in his lap, let the rain patter wet fingers in his hair. Black trouser legs stood beside him, and JD inadvertently glanced up, met Chris' eyes. Even in that poor light, it was like looking at a man in Hell. My fault. My fault. Then, Calvin Bell. Calvin Bell.

+ + + + + + +

There were things a man could not let himself think. Things such as the fact that his hands were slick with the blood of another human being. Break it down to the simplest parts, flesh to hold together, sutures to tie, fluids to swab away. Don't think that this is a friend under your hands. Don't think how many times you've looked into that face, now so slack and ashen, and seen laughter and fury and the joy of life blazing there like a bonfire. Don't think of the terrible intimacy of holding a man's life quite literally in your hands, as you try to mend the path of that mortal blade.

There was too much Nathan did not know, too many things his hands could not accomplish. He worked from memory, the too-distant, brutal school of the battlefield, and from the books lining his imperfectly filled shelves. Books, for God's sake! When what this man needed was a real surgeon, someone who knew all the little, fatal things that could go wrong, and could identify them before they happened. Yet the healer had no choice but to try.

Buck had smiled at him, actually smiled, of all things, when Nathan found him there. Lying in that flat, bleached, boneless look of the mortally wounded, in a puddle of streaming mud, with the rain in his face and a knife in his innards. He had smiled up at Nathan as sweetly as a child. Buck, why you want to trust me so much?

Nathan glanced up briefly at Josiah, who bent beside him. Wherever the man got his strength, Lord be praised, but the healer counted on that as much as his own, frighteningly limited skills. Hope you're prayin', Preacher. We all gonna need it. We need one of your miracles. My hands can't do this, without.

+ + + + + + +

Gray dawn crept sullenly from a sodden bed. The driving monsoons had slowed from deluge to a mere, gloomy rain, but water ran in muddy rivers down streets and alleys, carving tiny canyons in the ruts, and pooled in shallow bogs in the low places. No wagons moved on roads turned to bottomless swamps, no stagecoach ran, no mails came, no freight arrived. The streets lay dark and virtually empty, and those who must be out moved in quick, hunch-shouldered strides. All the desert hunkered in somber, weary endurance, and only the desperate or determined ventured forth in it.

JD awoke slowly, a dry, sticky mouth testimony to the waterlogged state of his sinuses. The scorching blaze in his throat seemed to have settled into a more general burn, although now he felt about to drown inside his own head. Taking further inventory, he noted that the body aches had subsided to more bearable debility. Great, he had to live, after all.

The rain still came down, dribbling in dismal streams from the eaves and making a syrupy soup of the streets. Breakfast was out of the question, so JD shrugged into his still-damp slicker and slogged on down to the jail. There he pulled out old files, old papers, and sat himself at the desk. Calvin Bell. A man whose face he had seen, could call to mind, but with whom he and Buck had never so much as exchanged a word. He doubted he would even know Bell's voice, if the man spoke right behind him. Just a nondescript face they passed in the hall or saw on the street, as they did a couple hundred others, every day. A virtual stranger yet bound to them now by the fragile strands of Buck Wilmington's life. All right, mister, let's see who you are.

Later that morning, JD splashed a muddy path to the Clarion newspaper office. The presses stood silent in a warm, empty room that smelled of newsprint, gear oil and ink. He hesitated, and asked himself what he thought he was going to tell proprietress Mary Travis, anyhow. She probably knew more about the whole situation than he did. Buck had been hurt the night after the last paper came out, so certainly Mary had written an article for the second issue of her bi-weekly paper. She surely did not need JD stumbling around getting in her business. As he turned for the door, he heard another door rattle, and Mary's slender form stepped from the back.

"Why, hello, JD." Wheat-blond hair framed a warm smile, kind and sad, at once. "Can I help you with something?"

"Um, I just - well, I wondered what you were gonna put in the paper tomorrow. About Buck and all."

"Well, I've already composed a piece - I was in fact just adding some finishing touches." Mary picked up some sheets of paper from her worktable. "Would you like to read it? Perhaps you might have something to add? I'd be glad to hear any thoughts you have."

She held out the hand-written sheets, and JD felt his face warm, under the frank scrutiny of her pale green eyes. "Uh, no, ma'am. I don't know anything about articles. Whatever you write will be just fine."

He could read the amusement in her smile, and realized he probably sounded like an idiot. Hi, I want to know what you wrote, but I don't want to read it. Yet Mary set down the papers and her skirts brushed around the counter towards him.

"You look tired, JD. Are you getting any rest?"

"Some, ma'am." JD could barely face the honest concern shadowing her eyes.

"I'm trying to help however I can," she said softly. "I know it's not much, but in this article, I made it clear how much Mr. Wilmington, and all of you, have given to this town. And how much this man Bell has taken from it, with his actions. I know that the judge will issue a warrant for his arrest, as soon as he can."

Yes, Judge Travis would do that. That tough old bear swung a swift and powerful paw, when it came to justice in his jurisdiction.

"Thank you, ma'am. I appreciate that."

"It doesn't seem like nearly enough." The delicate line of her brows knitted sorrowfully. "Buck Wilmington is a good man. And a good friend."

Well, now. To hear a sure-enough lady like her say something like that - why, Buck would never believe it. Swallowing hard against the sudden thickness in his throat, JD nodded.

"Yes, 'm, he is."

"JD . . ." Her voice sounded like how silk felt to the touch. "I know Buck is very special to you. As much as all this distresses me, I can't imagine how hard it is for you. If you find you want a - a place to sit and talk, or just a quiet cup of coffee, please know that you are welcome here."

The compassion JD read in her soft gaze seemingly had no bottom, and he fumbled for a response to that unexpected kindness. Kindness that he did not deserve. Then his eye caught the papers she had left on the counter, and an idea struck.

"Miz Travis . . . how far away do you know other newspaper people?"

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee sat where JD thought he would be, nursing a cup of coffee, hollow-eyed, in the damp, stale-booze silence of the saloon. Vin Tanner occupied a chair opposite, soaking in the fitful warmth of the wood stove while he slowly turned his cup in a small slick of spilled coffee. His sodden coat hung draped on the back of his chair, drooling a small, dark puddle on the wood floor, and the bottoms of his pant legs dragged heavy and wet. He also had been in motion at first light, riding out on another fruitless attempt find some sign, any sign, of where Calvin Bell had slithered off to. The monsoons of August clogged up everything, including the work of peacekeepers.

There were no other customers and no sign of Ezra yet, but then the gambler had been up until the wee hours of the morning. Just like all of them.

"He's from Texas," JD announced, as he slapped a small handful of papers down on the table between Chris and Vin. A wanted poster, several telegrams, a page of notes scrawled in pencil. His voice wanted to stick, so he cleared his throat - ouch - and tried again.

"Calvin Bell. He usually works as a bartender, seems like. He's wanted there on a pretty messy assault charge. This wire says he was in a poker game, and pistol-whipped a man so he lost an eye. Claimed self-defense, but seems like he always comes up with helpful witnesses, so nothin' sticks. Plus he's been picked up on charges of breakin' into the vault of a hotel where he worked, and is wanted on a couple counts of forgery, fairly big money. Plus, the town marshal from San Antonio wired back that, a year or so ago, he ran the son of a bitch off on general principles. He said Bell was just too close to too much double-dealing. There was a gang of fellows there at the time, connected to rigged card games, crooked betting, even some kind of protection racket amongst the saloons. But nobody could really prove anything. San Antone finally ran 'em all out."

Chris looked up, set down his coffee. It could have been muddy ditch water for all the pleasure it gave him. He had not slept, needed a shave, and currently spent his full strength clamping down hard on every jangling nerve, to keep from pounding up those stairs to Nathan's clinic. No news had to be good news. And where in hell had JD gotten all this energy?

"I thought the telegraph was down."

"The wires were up, for a couple hours this morning."

JD sniffled noisily, pulled out a chair, and sat down with a heavy sigh. Vin watched with his usual silent attention, and JD looked back at Chris.

"First, I accidentally found this old Wanted dodger on the assault, stuck in old files at the jail. Too bad we didn't know about it when he hit town. Anyhow, that's what mentioned Texas, although it's about three years old. The rest Mrs. Travis helped me dig up. She wired to some newspaper fellas in Texas, and got these old items from two or three towns, there." He paused to sniffle again, dabbed his nose with an already nasty handkerchief, and continued. "The hardware man swears he locked his store up, so looks like Bell had to pick the lock. Seems to me he's a town man. I mean, no country work like cow thievin' or stage holdups, nothin' like that. You suppose he just ran from here to another town?"

Chris frowned, tightened his lips. Hell, here he was, stewing in his own juice, while JD went ahead and did the job HE should have been doing.

"It's possible."

"Well, I thought so, too - ." Another moist snuffle. "So, do you think we should wire a few towns around, like Eagle Bend, Ridge City, Bitter Creek? In case he shows up in one of those places?"

"Yes, I do," Chris replied, and felt something ease in him. A step to take, anyhow. "Soon as the wires are back up, I'll get on that."

Vin stirred, set his cup down as he leaned forward. "Reckon I'll get some dry britches on, take another turn around out there. See if I can find anything."

Frowning across his cup, Chris said, "Won't be much to find, with all this rain."

As he stood in a fluid motion, Tanner merely nodded. "Reckon so."

Then he touched his hat brim in salute, and walked away. Chris and JD both understood. One moved to be doing something, anything but sitting still.

Chris turned his attention once more to the young man across the table, noted how tired he looked. JD was not well, he knew that. Furthermore, the kid couldn't grow whiskers worth a damn, and now two days' worth of black, patchy chin-stubble lent the boyish face an even more haggard cast. Unbidden sprang the image of the youthful features as he'd seen them last night, twisted with agonized self-hatred.

"You done good," Chris said quietly.

Wrong thing to say. Hazel eyes snapped up sharply, and dark brows drew down in a straight line.

"No. I didn't. But it needed doin'."

Chris could have read that as an accusation, but he knew it was not aimed at him. JD stood and pushed the papers across the table. It seemed he might say something more, but then the kid abruptly turned and strode for the door; back out into the storm again. Absently pulling the thin sheaf of papers to him, Chris knew there should have been something he could do, something he could say. Both of them climbed their private walls in fear for the same, shared friend. But the well of his own soul was dead dry, and he let the saloon doors clap shut on a thousand unspoken things.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan finally let them in, but it was only for their benefit, as Buck knew nothing of their stilted, graceless attendance. Josiah had the only gestures, a touch to an immobile brow and silent hands. Vin came to stand at the foot of the bed, and in his eyes flickered a darkness that left no room for displays of compassion. When he left, a chill lingered that had nothing to do with the rain outside. Ezra sat for a few moments in the bedside chair, the gentleman guest with his hat in his lap, and smooth features as still as marble. He left with a courteous nod, and shut the door with such exquisite care that Nathan almost wished he had instead slammed it. Chris . . . Chris came as if to face execution, standing beside the bed with the perfect stillness of a torpedo, needing only one unwary touch to precipitate explosion. Last to come was JD, dark hair slicked behind his ears like a kid come to Sunday church, and all his heart in his eyes. He said nothing, did nothing but stand and stare at that long, inert form on the bed. Finally he glanced at Nathan, opened his mouth, but no words came out.

"I done all I know, JD," Nathan said softly, and hated that this confession meant his own failings could ultimately prove their comrade's death. "Reckon it's up to Buck and the Almighty, now."

Lord, he hated to see that look in the kid's eyes, that same, wide, hopeless stare as when Annie Nechaus had died, from JD's misguided bullet, in this same room. Like the world was crumbling right under his young feet. Nathan had heard how Buck had taken JD's turn on watch last night. If only he had some assurance to offer, some promise to ease that expression from the kid's face.

"JD, I -."

"It's all right, Nathan." Now JD's chin came up firmly, and his dark eyes cleared as they met Nathan's, level and steady and seeming to see right into the healer's weary heart. "There's only so much a human man can do. And you do more than most."

The door closed quietly behind him, before Nathan could think how to react. The kid truly was growing up. Trouble was, there was far too much heartache and bloodshed in the manner of it.

A soft knock on the door startled him, and Nathan sighed and stepped to answer it. Clear green eyes, lovely as sunshine and shadowed with care, looked up from beneath a damp, hooded cape outside.

"Nathan," said Mary Travis' gentle voice. "Let me watch him. You need to sleep."

Thank God. If they had an angel, it would be her.