Candles of the Wicked
Near as JD could figure, the Big Dipper pointed to about two o'clock in the morning. At least, that's what he thought he remembered, about how Buck had told him to read time at night. That was how cowhands on trail drives knew when to change night guard on their herds. For JD, however, it just meant that everyone else was likely to be asleep, and hopefully his horse had gotten enough to eat.
Stepping quietly through semi-soft muck, JD spoke soothingly to heavy, curious forms, brushed a hand along one satin rump as he passed. Even through the sloppy stuffing in his head, the earthy fragrances of horse and hay filled his senses, along with the sharper ammonia reek of a muddy corral. The place would be several days drying out after the rain. Buck's big gray seemed to glow dull silver in starlight, and snuffled his pockets with a warm, friendly nose, earning a fond caress from the human intruder. The animal's kindly disposition was a close match for its owner's. JD's own horse jerked its head up from the water trough as he approached, and stared with sharp ears pointed warily.
"Easy, boy," JD murmured. "Just me. Don't make me step in a mud-hole, now."
The lanky bay gave a rolling snort and moved several paces away, but then halted as JD sidestepped quickly to block him. With an almost human sigh of resignation, the animal dropped its head and turned towards him.
JD grinned briefly in the darkness. "Sorry about this, boy, but we got some ridin' to do."
In the dark barn, JD saddled quietly, double-checking his gear by feel, alone. He dared not light a lantern and risk attracting notice, especially with Nathan in his clinic, just above. The damp night air seemed to shove wet cotton into tight globs in his chest and sinuses, but with effort, he kept the coughs and sniffles to a minimum. His Winchester '66 nestled snugly in its scabbard, a thin blanket roll lay behind the cantle, wrapped in a rubber gum blanket against more rain, and he tied his slicker down atop that. August or not, he knew the monsoons could return. In his saddlebags, he had stuffed extra ammunition, a spare shirt and socks, plus some string, a tin of matches, a paper-wrapped square of bacon, two raw potatoes, and a small tin skillet. No room for anything else and he already had more weight than should rightly be tied behind a saddle. So, if he couldn't buy food along the way, he'd have to hunt or go hungry. No matter. As long as a man had a full canteen, he could go a long ways.
As he reached the bridle for Milagro's head, the horse jerked away and snorted, and JD's free hand went to a pistol - as a two-note whistle softly sounded. Relaxing, JD nonetheless scowled into the stable's dark alleyway.
"Vin. Chris send you to stop me?"
"I look like a messenger boy?" The dry voice seemed to hold a smile, as Vin's familiar form passed before the lighter darkness of a window.
"Sorry. So why you here?"
Smell was one of the things Vin had taught JD to pay heed to, and now JD briefly scented leather, wood smoke. Tanner always smelled more Indian than white, unless of course he smelled of beer or whiskey.
"Couldn't sleep. Saw you walk down here."
Material scraped on wood, and JD envisioned Vin leaning against the near wall, although all he could see of the tracker was a shadow among shadows. Tanner remained quiet, as JD bridled his horse, but it was a calm sort of silence, no hint of impatience or anxiety about it. Draping his reins over his saddle horn, JD left his horse and stepped out of the stall.
"You think I'm being stupid?"
"No," came Vin's soft reply.
"Chris would. He'd rather let the same pack of idiots who let Bell escape try to recapture him, than go after him ourselves."
"Chris is ridin' out at first light."
Startled, JD stopped next to Tanner, could just make out the man's quiet features by starlight. "Are you goin' with him? Are all of you?"
"No, just him. He asked the rest of us to stay and keep an eye on things." Cloth rustled as Vin shifted position. "Nathan don't hardly sleep or eat, unless we take turns watchin' Buck's fever."
Aw, crap. He shouldn't have said those things to Chris. Heck, Chris had been Buck's friend since JD was in grammar school. Swallowing the sick feeling in his belly, JD took off his bowler, turned it around in his hands. Sniffled hard against the thick crud in his sinuses.
"Vin, I just gotta do something. Like how you were out lookin' for sign of Bell, before they caught him. "The breath suddenly jammed cotton-tight in JD's throat. "Buck's gettin' worse off, not better, and I - I can't just watch him and do nothing, Vin. I can't -."
He caught himself up tight, angry with the sharp hitch of emotion in his voice, the god-awful pressure of it in his chest, like he might explode into a thousand howling pieces, if he slipped so much as an inch. Thank God Vin did not do anything to crack that fragile control, but instead merely waited in empathetic silence.
When JD could breathe again, Vin's gentle rasp spoke from the shadows. "I know, JD. Just keep yer head. Times like this, it's too easy for a man to forget himself. Anger can make you strong or make you crazy. Don't get crazy."
With a short laugh, JD said, "Like Chris?"
White teeth shone dimly as Tanner replied, "Yeah, kinda like that. He's a little bigger and meaner than either of us, though, so he can get away with it. Most times."
Nodding, JD tried to draw from his friend's calm presence, and will his own head to clarity. That's what he liked about Vin. The quiet young tracker talked to him like he saw JD as another man, and not just some green kid several years his junior. Any advice or corrections Vin invariably offered as he did now, simply one friend talking to another.
"All I'm gonna do is catch up to that posse," JD said. The truth sounded pathetic even to his own ears, but it was all he had, now. A probably fruitless grasp at a peacekeeper's duties. "Maybe I can't do much, maybe they'll already have him caught. But I want the satisfaction of seeing Calvin Bell behind bars."
Vin was quiet a moment, and JD asked, "What are you gonna do?"
"Might ride out to the Seminole village."
Vin must have heard the silent question behind JD's acknowledgment. "I wanna talk to Tastanagi. Maybe they can . . . I dunno, make a little medicine for Buck."
Their beginnings, as peacekeepers, had been in risking their lives to defend that little band of exiles, but JD had small understanding of the Seminole people, themselves. Such a strange amalgamation of savage and civilized. Nor was there any way JD could pretend to understand the heathen streak in Vin. Something about Indian notions just plain unnerved him, made Sunday warnings about false idols whisper in the back of his head. Yet he would not dream of intruding his beliefs on his soft-spoken comrade, and so he said nothing.
Voice scarcely more than a sandy whisper, Vin said, "They told me how the Panther is the keeper of knowledge, how he knows about healin' and such. They, uh . . . they call him Coo-wah-chobee. Panther and Brother Wind get together and make medicine to heal folks. I reckon a panther would be a good spirit animal for Buck. Don't you?"
JD realized his mouth was open, closed it, and swallowed on something a bit more than a sore throat. Like a light coming on, he suddenly understood that Vin Tanner, who was afraid of nothing on earth, feared very much for Buck's life. What was more, baring himself with that awkward bit of pagan theology was his way of letting JD know it. Letting him know he gave a darn. Geez, JD, sometimes you are thick as a post.
"Yeah. I do." He reached out until his fingers touched a buckskin-clad shoulder. "That'd be real nice, Vin."
The silhouette of Vin's old slouch hat bobbed once, and he moved a step back. "Watch yer back, JD."
"I will. Hey, Vin?"
"In the morning, would you . . . I dunno, tell Casey where I went? Tell her I'll be back soon as I can?"
"I will. See ya."
Then Tanner turned away, steps soundless on the packed dirt floor. Little enough had warmed JD, since Vin's fist on his door turned the world upside down, but the realization of friendship eased just a bit of the coldness away.
Then JD settled his hat firmly on his head, and turned back to the business at hand. There was a posse of twenty determined men ahead of him, but he would be there to see Buck's would-be murderer run to ground. Calvin Bell, your days as a free man are numbered.
+ + + + + + +
Eagle Bend lay shimmering in midday sunlight, as JD rode into town. Green trees whispered of cool shade and comfort, yet it was false promise, for the air off the desert breathed like a furnace. Slowly the lingering ruts and mud holes baked to hard adobe, and JD was glad to get out of the saddle. Finding out about the posse proved no difficult thing. In fact, to JD's disgust, the whole affair soon seemed to have taken on a carnival atmosphere. Fat men sat around coffee and sausage, bragging how they'd ridden thirty miles in that first day, and what a grand chase it was. Even the day-old local paper trumpeted, albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek, about the gallantry of the town's bold legionnaires. What it really sounded like was some stupid foxhunt, with folks riding out and coming back like they were on holiday. The only comforting note was to hear that Sheriff Stains and two deputies remained out there on the trail. At least someone was serious about actually capturing Calvin Bell.
Although chafing at the delay, JD turned his horse onto feed at a livery stable, and crawled up in the hayloft to get a bit of rest, himself. His stuffy, sloshy head had somehow translated to a disgusting lack of energy, and the chance for a nap was welcome. The August heat baked steamily through the tin roof above, and JD's sinuses backed up with nasty goo almost the instant he lay down, but he dropped off to sleep, anyway. Awakening near four in the afternoon, he blew his nose until he thought his brains would come out, then brushed off the straw and went in search of something to eat.
"Yup," said the waiter. "About forty five miles northeast of here, last I heard. Wild country out there, I tell ya. Apache country, you know. Man could get lost out there, and all they'd find is your buttons and boot heels. Coyotes drag lil' bits of you around, and nobody knows who ya were. I'd have rode with the posse, too, but I had to work, you know. Gotta make that Yankee dollar."
The man grinned and bobbed his bald head vigorously, and JD wondered what kept the half-dozen strands of hair he had pasted on top from falling loose. For once in his life, JD understood Chris Larabee's dislike of small talk.
"How do I find 'em? Other than riding generally northeast?"
"Oh, there's a road takes out of town that away, and you follow it for about two hours. Then you turn off at this wide, dry river bed, and go -."
JD listened and hoped the man's directions were correct, but even if not, likely he had only to follow the turnpike of tracks that surely marked the way, by now. Who needed to track Calvin Bell, if he could just follow half the town of Eagle Bend, instead?
"Say!" The waiter grinned again, and plopped companionably into the opposite chair. "I could ride with you. I mean, that Calvin Bell is a bad 'un. Why, he got the bulge on poor Wiley, and just about stove his head in. Young feller like you better be on his toes."
Poor Wiley must be the deputy who let Bell escape, JD deduced. Sometimes stupidity was its own reward.
"Well," said JD brightly. "Sounds like Wiley wasn't very wily, was he?"
Chuckling at his own joke, JD dropped his napkin in his empty plate. Then he swept his hat onto his head and cocked it to what he hoped was a jaunty angle.
"Nope, best you stay here, mister. You'd only slow me down."
He flipped a nickel onto the table, and walked off with no mind for the startled anger in the waiter's face. Confounded fool thought it was all fun and games. It took a man who knew his business, to catch someone like Calvin Bell.
Instructions from four erstwhile posse members resulted in four different sets of directions, but JD's concerns about joining the chase soon proved groundless. The rain-soaked earth held the posse's broad highway of hoof prints like so much wet plaster, which dried hard beneath the glaring August sun. JD held Milagro to a long trot as much as he could. The spring-fed sycamore and cottonwood groves near Eagle Bend swiftly gave way to dry grasslands, then to mesquite and yucca, as the terrain grew rough and rocky. Now heat shimmered from the fractured earth, and at random intervals he stopped to pull his saddle and let the horse's back cool, just as Vin and Buck had taught him. The searing afternoon sun swiftly peeled the coat from his back, and he rode in vest and shirtsleeves. Yet the recent rain left frequent pools of water, and JD gave his horse every opportunity to drink.
Free of the need to follow any painstaking trail, JD reached the posse's first campsite near sunset. Several cold fire rings lay amongst a maze of tracks, trash, - and numerous empty whiskey bottles. That last did not seem particularly reassuring. Frowning, he poked aside enough rubble in one of the fire rings to build his own small blaze, then hobbled his horse to graze, while he fried up half his bacon and one potato. After boiling the pan clean, he packed up, caught his horse, and resumed the trail. With the long, lazy hours of summer, he could still make a few more miles before full dark.
+ + + + + + +
Light meant pain. Light meant fiery claws twisting his insides, as a spool takes up yarn, and fragments of nightmare that smashed into tangled shadows and broken sounds. He felt sick, so miserably sick and hurt, and fumbled for return to the quiet darkness. Then he sensed a gentle pressure of hands upon him, coolness that caressed fevered skin in soothing strokes, and dully, sluggishly, he wanted to know more about that kindness. Who . . .? Something hard touched his lips, and cool liquid blessed a dry mouth so sweetly - until his throat seized in a sharp, blinding cough. He tried to get away from the hurt, to curl himself tight against its molten clutch. Yet agony dove crashing into him with gleeful abandon, and he felt himself falling, soaring in a great arc of anguish that burst silently into blessed darkness.
In a second floor room, a dark man's hands reached to work that he knew might be futile. In his tormented mind, fact and possibilities wrapped in a hellish dance, fever, infection, a drawing poultice, the fickle favors of time. In a patched-together church, a man sanded rough boards in long, digging strokes, but found no work hard enough to loosen the twisting knot of anguish within. On the porch before a quiet saloon, a man delicately fingered a deck of cards through intricate maneuvers, his eyes turned to a dark, inward place. And in the Seminole village, a white man listened to the elders sing ancient songs which he knew not, and closed his eyes to invite the power of the wind and panther.
+ + + + + + +
JD found them at late morning the next day. Found them by the white glare of several canvas awnings and one Sibley army tent - what idiot would bring a big ol' Sibley on a manhunt? - and by the fact that the entire camp showed no signs of going anywhere. Unsaddled horses stood dozing on picket lines between several scraggly pinion pines, fires smoldered, and men lounged in various patches of shade. This was the much-vaunted posse?
They looked up lazily as he trotted towards them, some of them grinning and nudging each other. A fresh-faced kid in a funny bowler hat - hey, look fellers, see what's comin'. JD spared them no second glance, his eyes peeled for Sheriff Stains. His morning had started with a sinus headache and a rib-cracking coughing attack, and the day appeared set on a downhill plunge from there. Even a dead man could not avoid the certainty that things here had somehow gone completely to hell. Stains saw him as he reached the middle of camp, and stuck his hands in his gun belt as he strolled to meet their newcomer.
"Well," said the sheriff, grinning up with narrowed brown eyes. "What brings you to our corner of the world? A little out of your jurisdiction, aren't you? Or is this a social call?"
"Why are you all just sittin' here?" JD did not attempt to conceal the fuming impatience in his voice. He had found no liking for Sheriff Stains, when the man had led a de-facto lynch mob to stand as jurymen in the murder trial of Nathan's father, and found no reason to love him, now.
"Well, we -."
"We lost his trail. Ow! What?" A thin, sunburned man scowled at Stains, and rubbed the arm that the sheriff had just hit. "We did!"
Stains scowled back at the man. "Shut up, deputy, I'll handle this."
"You LOST him?" JD came up in his saddle, and heads turned as his voice rose. "What do you mean, you lost him?"
"I mean he's gone, kid," Stains said. "Out there, somewhere." The sheriff waved a hand broadly northeast, towards the distant rimrocks and pinions. "Lost his trail yesterday. He could be anywhere."
"Well, why ain't you out lookin'? Why are you all just sitting around?"
"We're waitin' on -."
"Our tracker got drunk," said the sunburned man. He looked again at Stains and said, "What? He did!"
JD appreciated neither the deputy's unfortunate penchant for honesty, nor Sheriff Stains' completely lackadaisical attitude about the whole affair. He opened and closed his mouth a couple times, before he could even think of a response.
"So now you just sit around and drink whiskey with the boys, while that son of a bitch gets farther every minute! I don't see how you can -."
"Listen here, boy." The smile vanished from Stains' face, as he stepped closer. "That was my deputy he put in the hospital with a busted skull, and that man has a family to feed. We're out here to catch Bell, make no mistake."
"By sitting here? Why, a girl could -."
"Boy, that's Apache country out there. He could be holed up out there anywhere, up in the rimrocks, and pick us off like a turkey shoot. I'm not going gallivanting off every which way, until I know what I'm gettin' into. You hear me?"
JD clenched his mouth tight against anger that surged nigh to choking him. Inhaling through tight nostrils, he said, "Call me 'boy' once more, mister, and you'll wish you hadn't."
"Listen, you smart-mouthed little -."
"Hey, Sheriff!" Another voice hailed the officer's attention. "I think Pete's waking up."
Under a nearby pinion tree, a grubby man in fringed buckskin coat and dirty trousers rolled slowly over, groaning. As JD watched, the man abruptly heaved himself to hands and knees, and threw up - vigorously. God help them, this must be their tracker. Why, he wasn't fit to empty Vin Tanner's chamber pot.
Shaking his head, JD said in deep disgust, "You people are pathetic."
Stains swung back around with fury in his face, but since shooting a sheriff was probably bad politics, JD pivoted his horse away. Past Pete, who continued retching with marvelous volume and gusto. He should have known. He just should have guessed. Posse, hell, this was just a frolic for a lot of fat storekeepers on rented horses.
Reining in his horse at the edge of camp, JD heaved an angry sigh, which instantly choked into a phlegmy cough. That done, he leaned on the saddle horn. So, this was how it ended, huh? A drunk tracker, an inept sheriff, and a posse with a hangover too big to move. Meanwhile, Calvin Bell just kept on escaping. He would not need any fast-talking witnesses to lie and save him, this time, when he had Stains and Pukin' Pete, there, to speed him on his way. Geez, he wished Vin were here. No matter how clever Bell had gotten, JD felt sure Vin could find the trail. He could try to find the man, himself, except that the odds of his stumbling across the trail of one, lone fugitive were not good. Heck, he had no idea where to start looking.
Where in the hell was Bell going, anyhow? Vin had once said that, when tracking a man, the hunter sometimes had to figure out where the hunted was going, and get there first. To the east and northeast lay miles of Apache country, just as Stains had said. Pinions and malpais rocks, lions and gila monsters. Yet Bell was a town man, not a plainsman. There were no towns out there, no mining camps or stage stations. Bell had no earthly reason to go this way. It just didn't make sense.
JD straightened, steadied Milagro, as the horse moved under his shift in weight. There was nothing to the east and north for anyone but wild Indians and darned few cowboys. However, if Bell were to bend southerly, from here . . . if he were to leave his pursuers floundering on a false lead, and make for some refuge . . . JD's breath caught in his chest, and his heart sank, as his head slowly turned to the south. There was one place, one town, where a man like Calvin Bell could seek refuge, and few would ever dare follow.
Purgatorio. The outlaw border town, where the Devil himself tipped his hat to the locals.
Damn it all! This was not the way he wanted to it to end. The fact JD suddenly had to blow his nose again, wetly and loudly, lent punctuation to his feelings on the matter. Well, he could ride all the way back home, and see if the rest of the boys would want to risk that hellhole. However, nothing said that Bell would still be in Purgatorio when they finally got there - or that he was even really there, now. All JD had was a guess, and not even a very good one.
Defeat and failure sagged heavily in his guts, and raised bile in his throat, as JD stared southward. Just a whole lot of nothing out there. Dry washes and arroyos drew thin fingers of shadow in shimmering distance, and blue mountains shrugged furrowed shoulders against a brassy sky. Far out on a rising thermal, a hawk tipped a wing across wide, blue forever. How he wished he could borrow that hawk's sight, to spy the empty expanse before him.
JD picked up the reins then stopped. Sniffled, coughed thick stuff, spat. Dammit, Calvin Bell was out there! Somewhere, that man maybe looked at the very same sky. Hell, it wasn't as if he had turned to a puff of smoke or something. If JD could just get his hands on him . . . Could he get his hands on him?
All right, JD, time to think. Returning to Eagle Bend to telegraph the boys was out, as he would lose far too much time backtracking, and he certainly did not want to wait another full day them to reach him. Chris, on the other hand, was almost here, probably less than half a day behind him. However, waiting for him would still be more wasted time. For heaven's sake, JD, do you need your big brothers, just to catch one, solitary, cowardly man? Answer; he did not.
Oh, no. No, JD, you are out of your mind to even think about Purgatorio. Chris will kill you, and Buck will nail your hide to-.
Buck. Emotion swept through JD with a gale force that drove heels to his startled horse's side, and plunged him beyond doubts or second-guesses. Chris and Buck would never quit on a thing half-done. JD Dunne would not allow himself that weakness, either, ever and forever again.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee found anything but a posse of twenty determined men. What it very soon looked like was a large and ugly picnic, with liquor being the main dish. He started meeting them along the trail shortly before noon, straggling groups of unshaven, bleary-eyed men who spoke only of homes and baths. A lone, over-loaded pack mule passed him at a determined trot, more interested in a stable and grain than whoever his missing owners might be. A little while past one o' clock, the camp came in sight, or what remained of it. Several men lay snoring on bedrolls under a canvas tarp, oblivious to the heat and flies, while perhaps half a dozen more milled around saddled horses. He spotted Sheriff Stains about the same time Stains saw him. The sheriff did not look pleased.
"Don't you people have anything to do at home?" he said in rough greeting.
"Where's Bell?" Chris replied, matching rudeness with rudeness.
"How the hell should I know?" Stains scowled mightily, although Chris was not impressed. "Pete's out trying to find his trail, now. Am I supposed to expect your whole damned town to show up, next?"
"Nope. Just me."
"Yeah, you and that smart-mouthed kid."
That described JD, all right. Yet Chris had seen no sign of him, on the way in. Vague unease prodded him, as he glanced around the bedraggled campsite. No JD here, either.
"Where did you last have Bell's trail?"
"Out there, somewhere." Stain's flung an arm generally northeast, in a large gesture of disgust. "Headin' out into nowhere."
"When did you lose him?"
"I didn't lose him, our tracker did. I'm just the damn fool who's been pourin' coffee into the son of a bitch all morning."
At least the sheriff had the grace to look chagrined as he replied, "Yesterday afternoon."
Chris felt his jaw tightening, and stared off towards the distant rimrock country, as if he could conjure Bell before him by sheer will. "Where's JD, now?"
"Damned if I know."
Chris looked down at the man. Sheriff Stains may have had some good points, but he did not make a business of advertising them. However, what aggravated Chris, now, was finding not a posse, but a big, backcountry debauch and a damned fool of sheriff running it all.
"You don't know too much, do you?"
"Look, Larabee, this ain't your county! But if you think you can do better, have at it, and welcome to it!"
With a final scowl, Stains turned his back and stalked back towards the horses. Chris glared the grin off a bystander's face, and then called after the sheriff.
"Which way did JD go, when he left?"
Without looking back, Stains snarled, "To hell, I hope."
Stains heard an explosion of gravel and motion behind him, and turned to narrowly miss collision with a thousand hurtling pounds of horse. He yelled as he sprang aside, stumbled, then found himself staring up at a black horse's tossing head, and astride him a crazy-eyed devil in a flat black hat.
"I don't have time for your crap!" Chris snarled, as the horse shied heavily under him. "Now, you tell me which way that kid went!"
"Damn you!" Stains yelled angrily and hop-stepped back from those dancing hooves. "What the hell is the matter with you people?"
"Bell stabbed Buck Wilmington and left him to die! Or have you forgotten why you're after that man, in the first place?"
Stains stared up at him an instant, visibly deflating, and Chris read the honest shock and dismay in the man's face. Wilmington stabbed, Stain's deputy knocked in the head, both still flat in hospital beds. Bell left his mark, wherever he went.
"He - the kid went south," the sheriff said, and swallowed. "He lit off south like his coat tails was on fire."
"Late this morning. That's all I know."
South? Chris fumed for an instant, and contemplated spurring his horse right over the top of Sheriff Stains. Then he wheeled his horse in a spray of dirt and was gone.
Chris was no tracker, but when a man spent enough time out here on the back of a horse, he learned a few things. JD was heading south, no doubt about that. His clear hoof prints showed a steady trotting pace, the gait of a rider with a goal in mind, and no need to hide his path. Chris rode just the few moments it took to confirm the direction, and then stopped. Probably he should not have gone off half-cocked at Sheriff Stains, but what was done, was done. Regardless of whatever JD was up to, Chris needed to get back, just in case Stains' tracker could find Bell's trail. Even a blind hog found an acorn, once in a while.
Sighing, he touched rein and heel to his horse, but stopped at half a turn. Obviously, JD had some sort of idea working, but what? The kid had been pulling a hell of a load of guilt down on himself, since Buck got hurt, and wouldn't even talk to Josiah. Chris gave a mental groan, as realization had set in. The damned kid was doing the exact same thing as he had, when poor Annie Nechaus had died at his hands. Turning inward, shutting himself away from everyone else. Choosing a solitary course, no matter how destructive or dangerous it might be. Damn. Yet the day Chris gave that wide-eyed greenhorn the nod of acceptance, he had also promised himself that he was NOT taking JD Dunne to raise. The kid endured his own knocks, made his own choices. There was a fine but definite line between what could be taught and what a man had to learn on his own.
Nonetheless . . . Chris narrowed his eyes into the harsh glare of mid-afternoon, and wished he could see across the hours between himself and their errant youngest. Had someone told JD something? Yet nothing around that camp Chris had just left showed any sign the search was veering this way. Why would he go south?
Then Chris swore softly and passionately. JD was trying to go after Calvin Bell. He knew that as surely as if he had tapped a telegraph line to that foolhardy youngster's head. And what was more, if a man held more or less to this course he could make it from here to Purgatorio in about a day and a half's ride. An image of JD Dunne riding alone into that den of human vipers set Chris' teeth on edge, and tied his belly in an iron knot. Damn him all to hell, for forcing such a mean choice between duty and personal loyalty. His job, his purpose for being out here, was to bring in a would-be murderer and footpad. JD's recklessness was throwing a complexity into the job that was unnecessary, and that Chris absolutely did not like. Hell, for that matter, even if he did go galloping after the kid to cover his ass, JD might puff up mad as a bobcat, for the interference. Well, kid, my job is to see if Stains' tracker can sniff out Bell, and bring him back for trial. You hired on to do a man's work. Just don't make me have to drag your dead ass back to bury beside Buck.
+ + + + + + +
Purgatorio nestled in the broken country of far northern Mexico, like an aging whore in a bed of thorns. That's how the border town had first struck JD, when he had ridden down here with the others, long months before. Once upon a time, it had been another place, entirely. The graceful arches of an ancient mission dominated the village square, a vision of serenity embraced by patriarchal sycamore trees, which whispered above the clay tile roof. However, one drew near to see that white plaster flaked in chunks from the old adobe walls, as if from a leprosy of the soul, while more tiles slid from the roof to shatter with each rain, and the silent chapel held only the distant memories of worshipful voices singing Ave Maria. If the Savior came down to see what men now bartered and sold at the steps of His house, He would do more than rough up a few moneylenders. Perhaps some little padre ministered to the timid poor of this town, but if indeed he existed, he was but a ghost of decency, in what Josiah would likely call a Babylon of the desert.
Riding alone into this place made a man's innards pucker up, JD noted, as he held his horse to a slow jog down the hill towards town. He felt the afternoon sun like a fiery robe across his back, the air like inhaling a furnace's breath, and he wondered if it was actually getting hotter, the closer he rode. Just any second, now, he would see a hairy, cloven-footed fellow, tossing souls on the end of a pitchfork. The absence of the others felt like a hollow space about half the size of Texas, with him the only thing rattling loose in it. Ezra's broad Southern drawl echoed gently in his mind, and he smiled a little; Courage, JD.
Milagro's ambling gait rocked his hips and clapped softly on hard clay, as the soft brush of palo verde trees closed about the roadside and squatting adobe huts. Chickens pecked idly in the dust, here and there, and a burro slept beside a stone wall. With the shadows sprawling listlessly beneath a scorching midday sky, most people kept indoors, although a woman drawing water from a well pulled a black mantilla about her face, as he passed. Two Mexican men walked along the road, but both glanced quickly, furtively down from his examination. JD scowled unhappily at the realization that even a face as benign as his could be seen as cause for trepidation. In this place, an unwary look could bring calamity upon simple folk such as they.
As he slowed his horse to a fast walk along the dusty, drowsy streets, dark figures stirred furtively just at the edge of vision, and he fancied he felt cold, hard eyes noting his passage. Watching, measuring. Like sleepy cats eyeballing the new mouse in town. With great determination, he tried to ignore the shrill voice of his common sense, as it screamed, "JD, what the HELL are you doing?"
JD remembered a small stable on a side street, run by an old Mexican man who noticed nothing, remembered no one. Putting both feet on solid ground after two long days in the saddle brought home just how tired he really was. The sore throat was finally gone, but his head still felt thick and heavy as a pot of half-melted glue. Add to that stiff shoulders, weary knees, and a headache from the past day and a half of riding in the hot sun, and he felt more than ready for a reprieve.
Leaving his horse to a well-deserved rest, he slapped ineffectively at trail dust that coated him like flour, then set his course for the cantina they had visited, before. Like every building in town, it was built of ill-kept adobe, whose plaster had weathered to the same, dead color as the dust that sifted over everything. Heat radiated off heavy walls as he walked, and he began thinking of a beer. As he recalled, the beer in this place was actually not that bad. A yellow dog lay in his path, and looked up apologetically, but when he tried to step carefully over the animal, it sprang up with a yelp and scuttled into the street.
"Sorry," he said, as the dog cast an injured look back over its shoulder.
Movement beyond a shadowed doorway caught his eye, and he kept walking. Apologizing to a dog. He really needed to get out of the sun.
Whether the floor to the cavernous old cantina was wood or dirt, only the worms and the original architects knew, for sure. As JD pushed aside a beaded curtain, dust puffed from his shoes, clung to his already-filthy trouser legs. The dim coolness within wrapped him in a welcome embrace, as the searing sun was left crouching, glaring, beyond the arched doorways. That would be, however, all the welcome a man could rightfully expect in this place. Someone cooked something in a back room, but the aroma drifting forth was decidedly charred. A fat, greasy man with Aztec features and a thready black moustache sat hunched like a toad behind the bar. At tables and in dim corners, skulking figures watched the newcomer sidelong, and met his passing glance with gimlet eyes.
More than mere thirst dried JD's throat, as he leaned on the bar and said badly accented Spanish, "Cerveza."
Most places had bar tenders. This one - JD wished he could share the joke - had a bar-toad. The bar-toad looked at him, and then heaved itself up to lumber to the tap. Drink and coin swapped hands with no pleasantries offered or expected. Exhaling a long breath, JD took a deep, cool swallow, then leaned both elbows on the bar and tried to look inconspicuous. Well, now what? Turn around and ask everyone if they know where Calvin Bell was hiding? Not much. Somehow, he had hoped to have this part worked out, before he got here. However, since he did not, he'd just have to think on his feet. After all, being the kid in the outfit didn't mean he couldn't fend for himself.
Thinking around a growing sinus headache made for unpleasant work, but the glimmerings of an idea took shape. There were only so many white men in this banditos' border town, and only so many places a white man would go, one would think. Thus, it stood to reason that, if JD kept his eyes and ears open, he might simply see Calvin Bell, or hear his name. One benefit was that he knew who Bell was, while Bell might not have any idea who JD was. Nothing of note had happened while Bell lived in that boarding house, and the two of them had never met or spoke. However - and here JD's idea crumbled - the odds were that a man like Bell made a point of knowing who the law was, in any town, and likely, he knew exactly whom JD was, along with all the others. Which meant that JD's just being there might send the man scurrying for deeper cover. Sighing unhappily, he downed the last of his beer, motioned to the bar-toad for another, and wondered why his headache kept getting worse, instead of better.
"I like yer hat."
Well, then he'd have to try to be clever, as well as inconspicuous. If he hoped to catch Calvin Bell, he'd have to be just as sneaky, if not more so.
"I said, I like yer hat!"
JD straightened, turned, and wondered when they had begun stacking that much ugly in one pile. In fact, the man standing several yards down the bar was a walking, talking monument to just how many things could be mishandled in the human form. For starters, he had no neck, his shoulders sloped under layered muscle like a buffalo bull's, the only hair on his bald head seemed to sprout from his ears, and a bulging belly lapped completely over his waistband. His powerful arms hung almost to his knees, and he could suck up whole beans, without ever parting his teeth.
"In fact," the man said, with a truly hideous, snaggled grin. "I like it so much, I want it. Gimme."
Those must be human eyes, under that jutting brow, but JD felt at a loss as to how to communicate with such a creature.
"I - I'm sorry, but you can't have my hat."
"Yeah, I can." The man pushed himself ponderously away from the mahogany, and braced both enormous feet. The effect was rather like seeing a giant oak tree move, roots, rocks, and all. "Gimme."
JD found himself almost laughing, at such a childlike response. Perhaps the big man was simple.
"Mister," he said, smiling patiently. "I'm not giving you my hat, all right? It's my hat. You already have one."
"All right, I'll trade ya."
Looking at the limp, sweat-greased thing that perched on the back of the man's gleaming head, JD felt goose pimples crawl even under the day's heat. Lord knows what forms of life lived in there.
"No," he said firmly. "I don't want to trade. I'm sorry."
"Not near as sorry as you're gonna be." The man grinned all the way to his green gums, and raised his huge paws to begin cracking each knuckle in slow luxury. "I'm gonna break your back across my knee, and then I'm just gonna take your hat."
JD stared at this sneering brute in shock. He became aware of many things, of the bar-toad behind him, sliding further away down the counter, of a stranger's muffled cough, on the far side of the room. Of the monster before him, and of how he could snap JD Dunne in two like a match stick. He could almost hear Buck's voice, saying, "Now, see, kid? You weren't payin' attention."
"Mister . . ." His heart kicking against his ribs, JD took a slow step to the side, out of reach in case the bar-toad pulled a club from beneath the counter. Further from the man-mountain facing him. "I can't let you do that."
The monster read his stance, and grinned in evil, broken-toothed delight. With a great guffaw, he bellowed, "Scared, sonny boy? You gonna shoot an unarmed man? You'd best make that first shot count, then, as I'll feed you them guns like they was peppermint candy sticks. And then I'll still take your dandy lil' hat."
Panic skittered about JD's head, scattering his thoughts - what the hell was he to do, against a man the size of a house who was completely unarmed? Nor was there a soul within a hundred miles to back his play. Maybe if he kept talking, he could just back away from this mess.
"Listen, this is really a stupid thing to do -."
The man moved, one ponderous step towards him, then two, and JD gave way - then he read the man's eyes, and a familiar, cold certainty swept over him. Oh, yes, he would shoot, until his gun was empty or that monstrosity went down. Time stopped, as the man surged forward like an avalanche of muscle and bone. JD kept back stepping, palmed his Colt's revolver, pointed it like his own finger, watched in slow motion as the man's eyes bulged wide and his great arms wind-milled, his massive form lurching and swaying in a conflict of mighty forces, stop or go forward, live or die. JD sensed more than saw the bar-toad move - oh crap! - snapped his second pistol up and out as he side-stepped wide, both men now in his line of sight. Yet the bar-toad merely froze with a towel in his hand, no more, and JD swung his attention back to the human mountain.
"Mister -." The words clawed their way from a paper-dry throat. "You'd better stop, right now."