Candles of the Wicked

by G. M. Atwater


It still might come to a killing. He knew that, as the silent seconds ticked by, and thought fumbled its way through that man's bestial head. Oh, God, this would be so idiotic, to kill a man over a stupid hat. Maybe Buck had a point about the darned thing . . .

The monster was laughing. Wheezing like a broken bellows, actually, but his ugly mouth gaped wide and his eyes squeezed shut, and his burly shoulders shook with convulsions. At last, he caught his wind, and let out a howl that shook every glass and bottle in the place. He laughed, he roared, he hooted and hollered like a crazy man, which JD now felt sure he was. Turning carefully, JD saw answering grins, heard echoing chuckles, from the shadowed figures around the room. He was beginning to feel like the only guy not in on a good joke, like an idiot with two guns aimed at people who seemed singularly unimpressed.

"By God!" roared the man. "By GOD! I like yer grit, kid! By God, I like yer grit!" Then turning to the room at large, he bellowed joyously, "Did you see that, boys? Did you see that? I never been so near dead in all my days! By God, I think I shit my pants!"

That sent him off into more paroxysms of hilarity. Now the giant lurched several steps backwards to lean on the bar, wiping tears of delight from his eyes. He whacked the scarred mahogany with such force that glasses jumped, all down its length.

"You shoulda seen your face, kid!" the man roared happily. "I swear, I can't remember the last time anybody looked at ol' Snake with such fer sure and fer certain damnation! By God, you scared the hell outta me! Two shootin' irons, no less! Whoo-EEE!"

JD slowly uncocked his pistols, cautiously dropped them back into his holsters. The man was insane. That's all there was to it. He was completely balmy. And JD was going to follow, if he did not get out of this place, immediately.

Too late.

"Hey, Kid! Belly up, here. Ol' Snake is buyin'. Hey, barkeep, this kid's money is no good!" Turning back to the watching room, he added forcefully, "Anybody jakes with this kid answers to me, you hear? No body touches the man that almost killed Snake Barnett."

Evidently they heard and understood, as no one moved to argue, and most avoided the man's suddenly angry glare. Satisfied, the big man whacked the bar top another cracking blow, and grinned like a broken rake.

"C'mon, kid. Drink to my health, seein' as how I still got it! Say, folks call me Snake."

"Yeah, well, I bet they don't call you very often."

Then JD braced himself, damning his own mouth, but Snake merely haw-hawed anew. "I swan, I do like your grit, kid. By God, you shoulda seen your face! C'mon, yer next beer is on me."

Drinking a beer with Snake Barnett would be about like having lunch with the bear who just tried to eat you, but the alternative . . . would probably mean shooting the big ugly so-and-such, after all. With a sigh, he moved to the bar, staying well out of reach of the man. Come to think of it, he really could use another beer. A rueful thought crowded past the tangle of jangled nerves and chattering kneecaps; so much for inconspicuous. Then another: would Snake know anything about Calvin Bell?

+ + + + + + +

Light meant pain. Blurred golden light and an iron fist that clenched tightly in his guts. Yet in that light . . . was something. A voice. Low, rumbling words that seemed to follow an easy cadence, and he wanted to follow that. Wanted to see where the words led, what they meant. His thoughts fragmented at a touch, like spilled ice on a saloon floor, but it was enough to hear the voice. There was immeasurable calm in it that reached past the steel grip of hurt, wrapped around the hesitant seed of self, and drew him gently forward.

Golden light, and shadows, but different shadows . . . movement in them. A dark form hunched beside him, a pair of hands that held . . . a book? He wished to speak a name, but his voice held no power, just a dry rasp of air. Yet that other heard, bent towards him with light reflected in deep-set eyes, a smile on a craggy face. Questions began to stir, bumping shapelessly into one another. If only he could grasp just one thought and give it voice. He couldn't see this friend's face clearly, but he felt the gentle weight of his touch, a rough-skinned hand that lay warmly on his forehead.

"Rest, brother," the deep voice said. And he felt peace, as he slipped softly into shadow again.

On a second floor balcony, a dark man leaned his hands on the railing and hoped the Almighty could read his heart, as no words could give shape to the things pressing in his heart. On a rooftop, a man drew his hat from long, brown curls, and sent his own silent prayers winging far across the folded hills into the life-giving stare of the sun. At an empty table, a man turned an ace of spades over and over in nimble fingers, and stared deeply at nothing visible. And in a tiny, decrepit church, steady hands lit yet another candle, as a deep, quiet voice spoke; 'And they that know thy name will put their trust in thee; for thou, Lord, hast not forsaken them that seek thee.'

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee felt like an over-cooked fried chicken. Dipped in sweat, rolled in alkali dust, and left to sizzle. Even his underwear chafed sharply in most unpleasant places. Being in Purgatorio was one thing. Getting there was another, entirely, especially on the long trail down from Eagle Bend. He was sick unto death of white dust, stark, empty sky, and the blazing eye of the sun that never, ever blinked. The shortening shadows registered the time as about nine in the morning, but already the desert breathed furnace heat. Where was a nice, refreshing monsoon when a man really could use one?

Calvin Bell was gone. Vanished. Assumed bodily into Heaven, for all Chris knew, but he was damned sure not to be found by anyone in Sheriff Stain's celebrated posse. He had wasted the rest of a perfectly good day, waiting to see if that drunken tracker could find anything, but of course, that was an exercise in futility. Exercise which he most certainly did not need or want, and which left him with not another, single idea, except to ride hell-bent for leather a day late, and see if there was enough of JD Dunne left to identify. If there was, Chris fully intended to throttle the leftovers. Damned reckless little fool, willing to risk having his throat slit, just on the blind chance that Calvin Bell might miraculously appear in this armpit of creation. If he were lucky, maybe some poor, benighted fool would volunteer for throttling, and so save JD the hazard. Or perhaps Bell himself would walk out in front of him, and solve everyone's problems. Failing that, Chris decided he would settle for a drink and a bath, in that order.

He felt some satisfaction, when he saw JD's lanky bay horse still amongst those in the corral at the back-street livery stable. At least the kid had gotten here alive, yesterday. Still, the real trick in this town was always in whether a man could remain that way. A yellow dog in the street growled at him, he growled back, and soon he was sweeping aside a beaded curtain to enter the cantina's welcome coolness. A bartender who reminded him of some oversized amphibian shoved a beer his way, which Chris downed in four long gulps, and asked for another. Now a man could begin to think. And after this beer, he would begin thinking about whiskey. Plus a bath. Maybe both at once.

Where to start? Well, might as well find out if he was going to be taking Milagro back empty. Gesturing to the amphibious bartender, Chris pulled a dollar from his pocket and laid it on the bar, one finger holding it to the counter.

"Speak English?"

Eyes fixed on the dollar, the man nodded, once.

"I'm lookin' for a friend of mine," Chris said.

The bartender looked at the pinned dollar, looked at Chris with glassy, expressionless eyes. Chris almost expected to see him snap at a fly that buzzed between them.

"A kid in a bowler hat, black hair, kinda shaggy, stands about so high," he gestured with his free hand.

Chris felt movement behind him, turned to glimpse a monster of a man coming at him, then he was jerked bodily UP and off his feet. The edge of the bar slammed him behind the kidneys, shocking the breath from his lungs. Chris scrabbled for his gun -.

"Snake, NO!"

The giant froze. From his unhappily elevated vantage, Chris looked over the man's sweating pate to see JD - thank God! - plunging wide-eyed from a back doorway towards them, hollering as if at a bad dog.

"Snake, no! Put him down! It's all right!"

Chris had his hand on his pistol, need only lift it three inches to blow this big bastard's lights out. But the ugly behemoth was turning his head to look at JD. Like a trained bear looking for his cue.

"He's askin' about you," the creature growled.

"It's all right, really." JD glanced up at Chris in visible worry. "He's a friend."

A green miasma escaped on the man's hot breath, as he looked at Chris, grunted, then Chris' boots hit the floor with a jangling thud. He stared a promise of homicide into the giant's beady eyes, as he stepped away, but he was not at all sure it registered.

"JD," he said softly, as soaring relief and pure pissed-off waged a silent brawl in his guts. "You have some very interesting friends."

Both eyebrows arched high, as JD blurted, "Oh, he's not my friend!"

"Hell no! This-here kid almost killed me!" Chris turned his head to meet an ecstatic - and ugly - smile, and the man nodded with great pride. "He did, he damned near blew my head off. With TWO guns! I shit my pants!"

Beyond him, JD was making a vigorous pantomime of shrugging and hand gestures, which seemed to suggest disavowal of the big brute's statement. Chris' back hurt like sin, where he'd hit the bar, and for an instant, he contemplating finishing whatever JD had left undone. Or maybe he'd just kick the kid in the pants for scaring the hell out of him. Instead, he clamped his mouth tight, and turned his back on them both.

"Whiskey," he barked at the bartender. "And tell me where a man can get a bath around here."

"Hey," said JD cheerfully. "There's a little place just two doors down, that - Oh."

He shut up, when Chris looked at him, then said plaintively, "Well, there is!"

+ + + + + + +

Chris Larabee sat up to his shoulders in hot water, with his head laid against the warm, copper back of the tub, and a whiskey bottle weighing friendly-like in his hand. He could just feel all the grime and dirt soaking off of him, and he was contemplating finding out whether the water would go cold before the whiskey ran out, or the other way around.

JD meanwhile edged through the bathhouse door, and took Chris' noncommittal glance as an invitation to come in. He spun a chair to perch astraddle nearby, propping arms crossed on its back and his chin resting there.

"So," said Chris. "What have you learned?"

Chris was visibly tired and cranky, and JD couldn't help eyeballing that bottle. He was almost undecided as to whether it was a good thing his comrade had arrived, or not. Well, if he needed anyone killed or seriously maimed, Chris might come in handy. Yet he sure would feel better if Buck were here to sort of smooth out the rough edges on the man, or at least keep JD from doing something totally stupid in front of him. Then he jerked himself upright, at the thought. What if Buck was lying home in misery, wishing his friends were there?

"Bell was here," JD replied shortly.

Chris rolled his head to look at JD. Damned if the kid's hunch wasn't right.


"And I don't know where he is, now. He had a - a whore named Carmen, but she threw him out. Nobody has seen him since before I got here, yesterday. What?"

Chris stared at him, shook his head. "You work fast, kid."

"No, I just asked Snake. He did the work."

"Snake. Your new friend."

"He ain't my friend."

"Not what he thinks." Then something resembling humor lit Chris' eyes. "You wanna tell me what happened, there?"

With an exasperated sigh, JD pulled off his hat and jammed the fingers of one hand through his hair. "There's nothing to tell. He was gonna take my hat, and I didn't want my back broke, while he did it. Look, Chris, what are we gonna do?"

So, JD was in a hurry, was he? Perversity jabbed stiffly, and Chris tipped up the bottle for a good pull, savoring the whiskey's smoky bite, and its heat flowing down his throat. He deeply enjoyed the way it formed a warm pool in his stomach, to match the luxury of the water he soaked in.

"I'm going to finish my bath." He took a second swig then exhaled sharply to the burn of it. "And I'm going to have a drink. And maybe I'll find me a woman."

JD slapped his hat back on and stared at Chris, as the older man set the bottle carefully beside the tub and became intensely engrossed in his bath. A woman? Chris wanted to just stop everything and find a woman? With effort, JD kept his thoughts behind his teeth, and pushed from the chair to stand up.

"Well, you do that. I got a room in the place across the alley, if you want me. I'll either be there, or out huntin' around."



Chris leaned an elbow on the edge of his tub, and his expression softened. He had to remember that JD took things to heart, rather than letting careless words roll off, as an older man might.

"I just want to talk to this gal, Carmen. See if she knows anything we can use." He paused, gauging the storm clouds gathering on the kid's face. "I'd be obliged if you can convince Snake to tell us where she is."

Swallowing, JD measured Chris' expression, then looked down as he recalled that he owed this man one hell of an apology. After what he'd said about Buck's friendship, he was in no position to judge anything Chris might do.

"All right. Hey, uh, did you hear any more about that deputy? The one Bell hit on the head, escapin'?"

"Not good." Chris' gaze was level as a rifle barrel. "One side of him ain't workin' right, last I heard, and he don't see so good."

JD's thoughts fumbled over that, a law officer who had gotten careless, or perhaps simply found a split-second of bad luck. Just like Buck. Now he felt smaller for having had uncharitable thoughts about the man. Once again, it came down to a man's duty. Chris did what he thought was right. Buck had done what he thought he ought. Deputy Wiley had probably done the best he knew. Thoughts like that were enough to make a man wonder how different the world would be, right now, if he'd just not given in to a lousy sniffle.

"When you're done, come get me. Second door, straight across the alley."

+ + + + + + +

JD never would admit it out loud, but there was a certain comfort, in the idea of falling back into the familiar pattern of watching Chris' back, while Chris called the shots. The older man knew his way around places like this; heck, he even fit in, where JD was uncomfortably aware that he, himself, did not. Yet as soon as they got back to the cantina, Chris motioned to JD to take the lead. Chris followed quietly at JD's heels, as he pushed through the beaded curtain and spied Snake's ungainly bulk at a corner table. The big man's bald head lay on his arms, a three-quarters empty tequila bottle standing at his elbow. JD frowned with some trepidation, but as their footsteps neared the table, Snake's ugly mug rose and he blinked their way.

"Kid!" Green teeth bared in an awful, sweaty grin. "Here, have a snort!"

He shoved the bottle sloshing across the table, but with no glasses in sight, JD's stomach lurched at the thought of touching anything that man had laid a lip on. Shooting a squeamish glance at Chris, JD shook his head.

"Ah, no thanks, Snake. I'm kind of here on business."

"Bid'nes?" Snake's cavernous eyes blinked, then narrowed as he grinned wider. "Oh, you're still a-huntin' that other feller. Whatcha need?"

"Well, I - that is, we would like to talk to your friend, Carmen. In person."

The beetled brows drew down like a squall line. "He hurt Carmen."

"I know. That's why we want to talk to her. We want to find the man that hurt her."

Snake waited for that thought to roll through his head, then nodded slowly. Bracing himself on the table, he heaved himself ponderously to his feet, where he swayed a long, slow tilt. JD found himself holding a hand out in caution, although if that big galoot were to take a fall, the safest place to be was well out of the way.

"All right," said Snake.

He turned, somehow timing that movement with another weave, and took a step towards the door. Then he paused, scowling suspiciously past JD's shoulder.

"What?" Then JD realized the man looked at Chris. "Oh, he's with me, remember, Snake?"

The massive shoulders clenched, then shrugged. "He looks like a bad 'un, to me, kid. Best you be careful the comp'ny you keep."

As the goliath turned heavily away, JD could not resist sending Chris a quick, malicious grin of delight. The fact Chris that did not appear amused only tickled him further.

From the cool, dim shadows of the cantina, they emerged into a narrow, scorchingly hot back street. Plastered adobe walls reflected heat and sun with ferocious intensity, and even the leaning trees and dangling vines appeared crisp and frayed. Refuse lay in drifts against back walls, and the ammonia reek of urine belonging to several species grated their senses. Following Snake's stolid form, they made their way to another street, then down an alley faced by baked adobe. At a door bearing remnants of flaking green paint, their big guide knocked. Somewhat to their surprise, he rattled a quick inquiry in what seemed flawless Spanish. After a moment's silence, a voice answered from within, and the darkly suspicious face of a boy, barely in his teens, peered out at them through a tangle of shaggy black hair. Snake and the boy engaged in a quick flurry of more Spanish, then the boy stepped outside to eye the two Norte Americanos.

"Why you see Carmen?" he asked.

"We - ah -." JD glanced back at Chris, but he now seemed inclined to let him carry this part of the conversation. "We want to ask her some questions."

"Porqué?" The boy narrowed his dark eyes, as if these two strangers were something he'd found crawling on his plate.

"Because - it's about the man who hurt her."

"You are policía?"

"No, we're not police. We just want to -."

"You are not soldados. Porqué?"

"Why what?" Flustered, JD realized the kid was back to his original question. "Because the man who hurt her also hurt a friend of ours."

"You kill him?"

"Kill him?" Where on earth did this kid get these questions? But then again, look where he lived. "No, we're not going to kill him. Well, unless of course he forces us to."

Tossing his head in rich disdain, the boy said, "Ha. You no kill this man, your friend no much friend, eh? I kill for my sister. But," and now the boy made a languid shrug. "Maybe he make you kill him, eh? Venido."

As the boy flipped one hand in a indolent gesture for them to follow, JD clamped down on a surge of irritation. Who was this kid, to suggest Buck's friendship could only be measured by their willingness to kill Calvin Bell? However, as the Mexican boy set a brisk pace down the alley, JD shot a glance up at Chris' grim face, and decided that maybe shooting Calvin Bell on sight was not entirely out of the question.

They came to another ramshackle adobe, with a patio framed by tilting latticework, which groaned under the weight of a half-dead vine. Grapes, JD briefly wondered. He and Chris waited in the feeble shade, as Snake and the kid walked forward. The boy rapped sharply on another weathered door, this one flaking chips of orange paint. He rattled something in Spanish then listened for a reply. Snake loomed over the boy like a monolith, but the youngster seemed barely to notice. After a moment, the door cracked open, and JD could just see a glimpse of curling black hair, light clothing, and the edge of a colored skirt. The boy rattled more Spanish then Snake bent forward to rumble at her in the same tongue, albeit at a much slower pace, and gestured towards JD and Chris.

The black hair nodded, and a light voice said briefly, "."

Then a figure moved past the two at the door, stepped into the open, and JD almost gasped aloud. This plain, brown dumpling of a woman was no beauty on her best day, but now her blunt features verged on hideous. One eye was a mere slit amongst almost black, puffy flesh, while the round cheek swelled like some obscene purple-blue fruit. The dark eye remaining open showed a tiny, angry spot of red amongst the white, evidence of yet another blow, and reddish bruises mottled her forehead, behind a tumbled fall of heavy black hair.

In heavily accented English, her strangely misshapen lips formed the words, "What you want with Bell?"

"My God!" JD blurted. "Who did this to you?"

"Your man Bell did," growled Snake, arranging his ponderous self to loom like a thundercloud at the woman's round shoulder.

"But this - I mean -." JD found himself stuttering, choking on more words than he could speak, at once.

This woman was only a whore, he understood that. What's more, the way her flabby body pushed at her cotton dress, like potatoes in an over-stuffed sack, he could scarcely imagine that anyone would pay to lie with her. Yet he had never in his life seen a woman hurt like this, and no woman, whoever she was, deserved to be treated like this.

"It ain't right! Why, there must be something she could do! I -."

"Like what, JD?" Chris aimed a humorless smile. "Call the law?"

Of course not, this was Purgatorio. But still -.

"Bell was not happy," the boy said suddenly. "He say my sister not good enough." The boy shrugged. "So he beat her."

For an instant, JD could only stare in dumb disbelief. This was his SISTER, for heaven's sake, or so the boy said, and yet he stood here and talked as if beatings were as ordinary as coffee in the morning. However, the woman remained motionless, observing all with complete dispassion. JD saw Chris watching him, and he suddenly wished Chris would quit waiting and take charge of things. Whatever had happened to "I want to talk to this gal?" Sighing, JD looked again at the cracked adobe walls, the dying vine, the broken paving stones of the little courtyard. At the rotund little woman who still eyed him like a stuffed owl. Around this place, brutality was the norm.

Gathering himself, JD said, "Ma'am, we want Calvin Bell because he hurt a friend of ours. Hurt him bad. Maybe you can help us . . . I don't know, figure out where he might go."

The woman looked at him as she had remained throughout the entire exchange, with no expression on that battered face. "He gone."

"Yes, ma'am, I know he's gone. We want to find out where."

"No sé."

"No. . . Oh, you don't know." Darn it, how come a simple line of questioning was so complicated?

"Well, did he say anything about where he was from? His home? I mean . . ."

This had to sound stupid, he knew. A man like Calvin Bell was not likely to engage in pillow talk, with a whore whom he had just beaten to a pulp. Yet he knew no other questions to ask. As she continued to stare at him, expressionless as a stack of bricks, he wondered if she even understood him. The woman looked at him with that one, bloodstained eye, and then spoke in soft Spanish to Snake, who leaned to hear her. The big man nodded his bald head, then replied in gentle tones, at some length. She replied, then turned again to face JD and Chris.

"He say cans ass."

"He what?" JD felt his eyebrows going up. "Cans ass?"

"Think she means Kansas," Chris interjected.

"Oh. Aw, hell, I hope we don't gotta chase him all the way to Kansas!"

The woman again turned to Snake, talking lowly as the ugly leviathan bent to listen. Something in his stance struck a chord in JD, and he tried to figure it. Somehow, he had never imagined the man as being capable of an ounce of gentleness. Snake rumbled an incomprehensible answer, and she shook her head, vigorously, took a step away, reached back for the door. That was it? Just one word, Kansas? Kansas what? Everything they had found before coming here pointed to Bell being from Texas.

"Wait!" JD exclaimed. "Senorita, we need your help to find this man." Earnestly, he added, "He hurt you, miss. That ain't right. And he's hurt other people. Don't you want him caught?"

She looked at him, one brown, Indian eye that showed nothing at all. "He is gone. I been hurt. No trouble now, he gone."

Frustration fairly clawed its way up JD's throat. "Look, miss, even your brother, here, said he'd gladly kill him. You've got to know something besides 'Kansas'!"

"You kill him?"

Was that all these people could think about? "No, we're not gonna kill him. We're takin' him back to face justice, is what. We - hey, wait!"

He might as well have been talking to an ant hill. The woman bowed that battered face behind the coarse fall of her tumbled hair, and turned a shoulder to them all.

"Dammit, lady!" The words exploded from JD before he half thought, seeming to rip from his chest. "That man tried to kill a friend of mine - left him lying in the mud like a dog! For God's sake, will you please help me find Calvin Bell?"

He would have taken hold of the woman, were it not for Snake's barred arm, and he did not remember taking those steps between them. Yet she turned to face him. Gave him that same opaque stare.

Softly he said, "Please, miss. We can't just let him go on hurtin' people."

Snake's hand touched her ruffled sleeve, but she took a half step past him, so that she and JD were face-to-face. He could see a fine sheen of sweat on her blunt nose and cheeks, and noted smaller contusions on her face, lost in the thick hair of her brow. Her one open eye was hard to look at, with that brilliant red spot in one corner.

"You friend," she said. "He maybe die?"

JD swallowed hard on a lump of coldness, pushed it aside with a sharp, mental shove. "Yeah, he might."

She stared at him as if trying to guess his suit size, a most uncomfortable scrutiny, and he firmed his chin to stare back. Yes, he thought. Buck might die. And I am sick of playing games in this sorry shit-hole of a town.

"You have good friend," the woman said suddenly. "I tell you, now. There is a man Simon, he friend Bell. Cantina that way. You find big picture San Martín outside. You look there." Then finally, something flickered in that dull brown eye. "No tell you talk to me."

"No ma'am, I won't. I swear."

Nodding slowly, the woman eyed him an instant more - and for a fleeting second, JD almost thought he saw a hint of a smile. Then she turned away, and Snake's big hand fell lightly, protectively on her back. JD touched his hat in farewell, but he did not think anyone really noticed. Chris fell in beside him, as they regained the alley once more.

"You know, Chris, you could have jumped in just any time, back there."

"No need. You did fine."

"Yeah, like pullin' teeth."

"Better you." Chris glanced down at his young companion. "I figured she'd feel easier talking to you, than me. You got a face women can trust."

A short laugh burst from JD's chest, as he replied sarcastically, "Oh, you bet. That's why they all come flockin' after me."

"Not what I meant. I said 'trust.' She had no call to be afraid of you."

Maybe there was something to that. Everybody here seemed wrapped around either fearing or being feared. Geez, he was really learning to hate this town.

+ + + + + + +

Buildings seldom had names, in Purgatorio, but it was hard to miss the garish splash of paint on the wall of a corner adobe. Portrayed in broad, childish strokes and mostly primary colors, a man in a Roman soldier's tunic, sword and sandals bent from a prancing steed, offering what appeared to be a length of cloth to a man sprawled pitifully on the ground below. A golden halo circled the soldier's head.

"Guess that's it," Chris said.

"Yep, Saint Martin of Tours, givin' half his cloak to the poor, freezing stranger on the roadside." Eyeing the sun-cracked mural, JD commented dryly, "If Saint Martin showed up here, nobody in this town would settle for just half. Why, they'd likely gut-shoot him, take his cloak, his horse, and everything else he's got"

Casting a sidelong glance, Chris briefly wondered at the kid's recognition of Catholic imagery. Undoubtedly, there were a lot of such things he did not know about JD, and the thought might have troubled him, but now their boots rang on board walk. An open door led to a long, narrow room with a bar the length of one wall, and lamps flickering in dirty glass chimneys here and there. A ferret-faced little dark man watched their entrance with narrow suspicion.

From the corner of his eye, Chris noted that JD stationed himself carefully to one side, and was pleased. He would rather have a more seasoned man like Vin or Buck with him, in a place like this, someone who knew how to balance on the fine line between bluff and fight. However, he would trust JD's pride to keep the kid keenly alert to anything done within these dark walls. His concern was never if the kid would fight, only if he could judge when not to.

This time Chris Larabee took the lead, stepping up to lean both hands on the scarred wooden bar top.

"Lookin' for Simon," he said.

The ferret-faced man tilted his sharp nose up, squinting. "Who's askin'?"

He looked dark enough to be Mexican, but his accent seemed American. Chris stared back at him, coldly.

"I am. We have a mutual friend."

"I have lots of friends." Simon, for it seemed this was he, lifted a narrow shoulder in a languid shrug.

Chris dropped his left hand to his pocket, let the muffled jingle of coins sharpen the man's attention. "This is a special friend. His name is Calvin Bell."

The man's beady eyes narrowed to crinkled slits, and he grinned with both front teeth missing. "Some friends are more . . . valuable than others."

Chris cocked his head and pulled a silver coin from his pocket. "First, you talk."

"Calvin Bell . . ." The ferret squinted at the sooty ceiling and stroked his chin, a foolishly theatrical gesture. "Maybe I know him. Yes, I think I've heard that name . . ."

Mouth pursed in thinly-veiled disgust, Chris laid the dollar on the bar. Instantly, Simon's face brightened.

"Ah, yes, now I recall! He was here, yes, he was. Not long ago . . ."

Another dollar followed the first, and Simon the ferret scooped it up in a quick hand. "Day or two ago, yeah. He was here. He left after his woman threw him out."

"Where'd he keep his horse?"

Simon made a face meant to look deeply thoughtful, although it more rightly resembled a man with constipation. Another dollar appeared on the bar.

With an unctuous smile, Simon palmed the dollar and said, "Stable down that-a-way, with a rooster painted on the sign."

"He say where he was going?"

"Oh, maybe Texas." Grinning with yellowed teeth, Simon nodded as he thumbed the coins in his hand. "Yeah, I think maybe Texas."

Eyes narrowed, Chris said, "Where in Texas?"

Simon shrugged. "Hell, I don't know. I just remember him sayin' Texas. Do I look like his keeper?"

Chris' fists slammed into his shirt and the bar slammed into his chest, but Simon still had breath enough to gasp, as his feet left the floor. He hung sprawled half across the bar, and stared into a pair of the most berserk eyes he had ever seen.

"You look like a weasel," the man in black said, and his tone held no more inflection than if he observed the color of the sky. "And if you cross me, if you've lied to me, I'll come back and spread your guts all over your bar. Understand?"

Simon stared back, wheezing past the stricken muscles of his abused chest. He had seen this madman before, knew him from somewhere, and he felt the cold fist of mortality clutching at his throat. His head nodded almost of its own volition, anything to get this man's hands off him. Chris stared back at him an instant, than simply opened his hands. Simon slid roughly backwards and caught himself against the back bar in a crash of broken glasses.

JD shook his head in clear disgust, as Chris caught his eye and signaled withdrawal. Talk about a man who would sell his own mother. Behind them, Simon the ferret rubbed his aching chest, and realized he desperately needed to visit the privy out back.