Candles of the Wicked

by G. M. Atwater


Late afternoon had begun to fill the streets with soft, cooling shadow, and painted weathered adobe walls in gentle pastels of gold. Purgatorio came more alive with the cool of the waning day, common folk moving about with lowered eyes, and bad men with hard stares and swaggering ways. Somewhere in hidden distance, the faint notes of a guitar rippled on a breath of air. JD cocked his head as they walked, listening to the liquid flow of music, and marveled that anything of beauty could exist in this place. Chris paced beside him, sunk into his own thoughts, but not radiating quite the same tension as before.

Testing the waters of Chris' mood, JD asked, "What's wrong with people like that, Chris? He plays his little games, and was willin' to risk you tearing his head clear off, to protect a - a criminal! I mean, all he had to do was tell us."

Chris lightly shrugged. "Man's maybe his friend. And he thinks we're the law."

Face registering disbelief, JD shook his head. "So what? Besides, it's not like we're wearing badges or anything."

"JD, men like him hate anyone who represents authority. What's more, we want something from a man of his own ilk, which makes us automatically the enemy."

"Well, I think it's nuts. We're the enemy, and Bell is his friend, which makes sense only until you realize he's willing to sell that friend out, for the right price. I'd rather be dragged by wild horses than sell out any of you boys."

"That's why they're criminals, and you're not."

Seeing that his companion was being relatively talkative, JD took the step into deeper water. "Say, Chris?"


"I, uh . . . I owe you an apology."

"You do?" Black hat brim tilted towards him.

"Yeah, I do. I . . ." Suddenly his heart thumped into his throat, and the words he'd planned to say blew right out of his head.

Chris stopped, and waited as JD turned two steps later. No anger in the man's face, just an expression of quiet patience. Yet JD swallowed hard, and wished he had Ezra Standish's gift for fancy words. If he got this wrong, if he plucked at a wound that could not heal, there might be no regaining Chris' respect, ever again. It took real effort for JD to look the taller man in those steady eyes, and dredge up the matters he needed to say.

"Chris, I said some things back at home - I said some bad things to you, and I was wrong. I shouldn't have said 'em. I -." He felt the words fumbling from his grasp again, took another breath, but Chris still looked back with nothing but relaxed composure. "Look, Buck was your friend long before he was mine, and I had no right to say anything to you. I'm sorry. I'm - just sorry."

Crap, that came out lousy. What the heck had he just said, anyhow? He sounded like a total idiot. However, he forced himself to NOT look away, and Chris' expression had changed, just a slight loosening of his features, but it gave him hope that -.

"It's all right, JD." Chris looked down into the kid's earnest face, and although a faint smile really only touched his eyes, he said again, "It's all right."

JD felt Chris Larabee's hand on his shoulder, felt the warmth of it run all down his spine and kind of pool up in his belly. In that moment, looking in that man's face, he knew there was nothing on this earth he couldn't do, if his deadly captain were there to lead him.

There were things too big for words crowding in him, so JD just grinned and said, "Well, do you suppose Texas is nice this time of year?"

"Hell, no." Chris half grinned and started walking, the kid falling in beside him. "Hot as the devil, and everything down there either sticks, stings or stinks."

Long shadows now filled the dusty streets, as the desert sky flamed golden. Ahead of them, a weathered sign hung at a weary angle, from the front of a low adobe building. As they drew closer, they could see the crudely painted the image of a black and red rooster.

"Horse he stole back home," Chris said. "Tall sorrel with no white on its face, short white sock on his left rear foot, white coronet band on right rear. Got a scar from an old cut on its chest."

The gaunt, brown man who kept the stable had few words, and even less of them in English. Yet Chris knew the description of the horse Bell had stolen in his flight from town, and walked past the scowling hostler to look. Three horses were housed in stalls, five out in the common corral. Among them, there stood a leggy, red-faced sorrel with a thin scar ridging its sleek chest.

"No sé," was all the man would say. "No sé."

They looked at his bent frame, the hollow wateriness of his eyes, and abandoned hope of answers there. Behind the man, an equally thin boy peered at them with blank, shadowed eyes - one shadowed by a reddening bruise. JD wished he'd learned how to spit with proper emphasis, and nearly trod on Chris' heels as they left.

"I really hate this place," he said. "Everybody here is miserable."

Chris made no reply, and JD recognized the tight set of his jaw, and fell silent. Moments later a quick, light patter of feet spun them around - the boy from the stable. He darted past them and into the shelter of a vine-shadowed wall, then glanced both ways. Furtive as a stray cat, he was. The boy beckoned sharply.

"Ssst!" he hissed. "Usted tiene dinero?"

When the two Norteamericanos hesitated over translation, the boy repeated, urgently, "Usted tiene dinero?"

Eyes narrowed, Chris said, "Yes, I have a little money."

The boy glanced sharply back over his shoulder, then held out his hand. Chris sighed, then dug a dollar from his pocket.

Holding it up, he said, "First, you talk."

Nodding quickly, the boy said, "El norteamericano tiene un caballo gordo negro."

He caught the dollar, quick as a cat swats a fly, and vanished in a flurry of cotton trousers and flying heels. JD watched him go then squinted at Chris.

"What did he just say?"

Frowning thoughtfully after the vanished boy, Chris said, "I think he just said that Bell is riding a fat, black horse."

"Oh." Then JD frowned. "But where TO?"

Chris cast him a speculative glance. "Your first hunch was pretty good. Got any others?"

Sighing, JD shook his head. "Texas?"

However, neither of them held any faith that the truth had ever resided in Simon the ferret. Kansas may be the only clue they had, and that from a whore, but it was so vague as to be no clue at all. Texas was just as bad, perhaps a bit more reliable, given the man's past, but still adding up to no more than being lost in another direction. Calvin Bell had left Purgatorio on a fat, black horse, and that was all they had. Greater the frustration, in knowing the man remained only short hours ahead of them. Yet where? No answers seemed willing to reveal themselves.

"Hey, Chris, you hungry? One place we passed earlier smelled pretty good."

+ + + + + + +

They heard the scream as they walked back from supper. A high, thin wail that almost sounded like cats fighting, but realization clamped icy claws in their guts. Chris and JD stopped, exchanged quick glances. A woman's shrill voice, in the near distance and keening on an endless note of despair. As one, they wheeled and ducked down a narrow alley, cut through to the next street back, and now the shrieking sobbed to an octave almost beyond hearing.

They knew the place in an instant, a tiny patio framed in dying vines, a peeling orange door that stood open, and before it slumped an old woman, skirted knees in the dust. From her bent form came that endless shrieking, a knife-edged climb up the scale of grief, as her black mantilla fell from her grey head. The boy who had first led them there now knelt with her, trying to capture her clawed hands, to offer futile support. He saw them as they approached, his young face twisting wetly with emotion.

"He killed her!" the boy shouted, and his voice cracked like brittle wood. "He came here and I left her alone and he killed her!"

The wailing choked off as old woman's reed-thin voice suddenly escaped her entirely, and she twisted her hands from the boy's grasp to clutch her head, bent her face almost into his lap. For an instant, JD wondered if the old lady would die, too. The muscles of Chris' jaw drew cable-tight when he looked at them, and let his glance flick to the ominously open door.

His voice came flat as steel, as he asked, "Who killed her?"

"It was him," the boy sobbed. "HIM! People saw him go - I should have been here!"

Calvin Bell. The boy lapsed into Spanish, now, withdrawing into the world of grief that reached to swallow him and the old woman. Chris stepped past them, JD at his heels. There was movement inside, and pistols sprang to both men's hands, as they flipped to either side of the door. Yet the only sound within was a single, ragged breath. For an instant, dread clutched at JD's innards, but then they saw him. Snake Barnett. That great behemoth of bone-crushing ugliness, now seated on the edge of a low-slung bed. Upon the bed lay a still, lumpy form, which his big hand caressed with impossible gentleness. As they stepped inside, the smell hit them like a hammer's blow, the sick, coppery reek of fresh blood. Lots of it.

"Uch," JD said weakly.

Dark fluid pooled thick as syrup atop a green-painted chest, slopped in a broad stroke down the front, puddled like a hideous spill of purplish-red paint on the floor below and beneath it. JD's stomach leaped heavily into his throat, and he swallowed bitter stuff. No matter how many times he saw death, walking slam into it like this would never be easy. The thing was twice as bad, when it was someone who didn't deserve to be dead.

Chris bumped him from his thoughts, and stepped beyond him and into the room. Looked at the chest, the grisly floor beneath. Glanced at the meager furnishings, the calendar prints on the walls, a small tintype of an old man framed in a black silk tassel, and the image of a saint wedged into the corner of a small mirror. Last, Chris looked at the low bed, and Snake sitting there like a great, carved troll, and dead Carmen laid out, with her simple dress washed in a viscous, ghastly dye. Apparently, she had died while still sitting or being held upright upon that blood-drenched chest.

"How long?" he asked.

Snake never looked up, his gnarled paw smoothing her coarse hair. "About an hour ago," he rumbled. "Folks saw him come here, saw him leave. But nobody knowed about this, until her granny showed up."

An hour? JD blinked, shut his mouth, and gave his wits a hard shake. Calvin Bell was still here! All this time and he'd been right here, probably even watching them -. JD turned with his hands on his guns, shot a nervous glance outside, but common sense told him that there was no immediate threat. Calvin Bell did his work with a knife, and he would not expose himself to them, now.

Chris spoke again. "Anybody see where he went?"

The bowed bald head shook negative.

Mouth twisting irritably, Chris added, "Or they just won't say."

Boot soles scraped on the dirt floor as Chris turned to leave, and then Snake did look up.


JD turned from his survey of the street. Snake's face was in shadow, as he sat hunched on the edge of that ghastly bed. However, little light was needed to illuminate the wet tracks of tears, actual tears, which streamed down that ugly, passion-twisted face.

"You find him," Snake said, his rough voice spiking to sharp edges of pleading, and no shame in it. "You find him, and you kill him, hear? You break his back and make him bleed!"

If a stone gargoyle had wept, it could be no more dumbfounding. Chris' mouth tightened slightly, but he nodded, once, although whether in agreement or simply compassion was not evident. Then the tortured gaze turned past the tall gunman to fix on JD, and the kid almost flinched. No man should see grief so naked, in another, the tenderest parts of him laid raw to a stranger's eyes.

Snake's voice rasped from his barrel chest, as he said, "Find him, kid. Make him dead!"

There wasn't a thing a man could do there, not one damned thing, and JD was ever so glad to follow Chris out of that place. He breathed deep and exhaled sharply, in a futile attempt to clear that STINK from his nostrils. Damn, he'd be smelling blood for days, now . . .

Chris paced the nearby streets like a long black cat, simmering with tight-held fury that drove meeker eyes to look elsewhere. "No sé," was the mumbled reply, "No sé," as fearful dark faces lowered, turned away. In their bleak world, there was no one to care and no justice to be meted out, when their humble blood spilled. In a city of wolves, the dogs clung to the shadows of ignorance. He at last stopped on a corner, passers-by breaking around him as ice from a hot knife. JD felt grateful, when Chris finally unbent in a long, soul-felt sigh. Short of kicking in every door in town there seemed little they could do to find Calvin Bell. The man was but a single jump ahead, yet the common folk of Purgatorio were afraid to talk to them, and the bad men didn't give a damn.

What they had seen in that ghastly hovel did not bear silence, to JD's mind, but words defied easy grasp. Fumbling for anything to break the stiff quiet between them, he said, "Snake must have really liked that woman, huh?"

"Seems so."

"How come he asked us to kill Bell? I mean, a big guy like that can sure do it himself!"

"Not every man has killin' in him, JD. Not every man can do it."

That was something to think about. A great, hulking ogre of a man, who thought nothing was so grand as taking apart men and furniture in great, smashing exhibitions of strength . . . but who could not deliberately kill someone. Somehow, that understanding did not find a comfortable fit in JD's head.

He sighed. "I wonder what that makes us, then?"

Chris slanted a look at his younger comrade. "Keep askin' yourself that, JD. You'll be a better man for it."

The day had waxed old, while they searched, and now wispy mares-tale clouds flamed crimson, the sinking sun bathing pale adobe walls and white, dusty streets as if in a fire's glow. Beyond the rooftops, the bell tower of the old mission seemed to radiate light from within, an image of immense serenity. Yet as coolness finally filled the streets of Purgatorio, the wicked men who walked them knew no holiness, and JD kept his hands close to his guns. Not for the first time, JD wished he projected the air of silent menace that Chris exuded like a smell. He'd bet anything he owned that NO one had ever threatened to take Chris Larabee's hat.

With no ideas presenting themselves, they returned to the cantina. There was no sign of Snake, now, but they did not expect him. There Chris got a bottle, proclaiming he needed to think, and JD got a beer that he did not really want. Still, it was better to watch a beer go flat, than stand around empty-handed like an idiot, and meanwhile he tried to be patient. Calvin Bell was evaporating right in their grasp. Their only clues were a murdered whore, the dubious intelligence that he rode a fat, black horse, and that he might be headed for either Kansas or Texas - an awfully large chunk of territory, now matter how you sliced it.

The sickening realization that they might never actually catch the man crept into his mind uninvited, and sat in JD's belly like a lump of clay. It was a job that needed doing, which his uneasy conscience required a finish to, and yet it appeared no such fortune attended them. In this outlaw town doors closed swiftly on questions, and their meager cash could only buy so much, before the well of information went dry. This, it appeared, had already come to pass. All this work and running around, almost five days on the trail of that coward, and they were no closer than they had ever been. Bell kept squirting just out of reach, like a bar of soap on a bathhouse floor. Now, in the shadows between the ill-placed lanterns, there were men whom JD felt sure were covertly watching them. Most likely word of Simon's treatment at their hands had gotten around, and he remembered what Chris said, about such men hating authority. JD mentally slapped aside an unpleasant vision of Bell peering through a window and laughing at them. Best that he was here to watch Chris' back, especially since none of the others could be.

He missed Buck. That thought hit him on his blind side and slopped right in under his heart, to just sit there in a cold ball. JD tried to push it off, but it remained stuck. Chris stood staring at nothing, nursing his glass and being about as personable as a badger. The level in the bottle dropped slowly, JD was somewhat pleased to note, but given Chris' mood, he might as well have been standing here alone. Everyone else in the room made a business out of not looking at anyone but their own companions. Low voices rumbled, at least half in Spanish, but there was no laughter, no cheer. He'd give anything to see Buck come busting in the door, both arms flung wide as he made some loud, asinine pronouncement, while that stupid grin plastered itself all over his face. Chris would turn with a patient smile, and make some sly remark that should have cut, but which Buck would only laugh off, as always. Then Buck would sidle up to JD, looming over his shoulder, and JD would end up fending off whatever new bit of malarkey his tall friend tried to feed him. The absence of him in this bleak place felt like JD had been dropped alone on the face of the moon.

Meanwhile, that sorry, useless piece of crap, Calvin Bell, rode his fat horse off to happily-ever-after, with them not able to do a damned thing about it. Leaving in his wake a half-addled deputy and a poor, pitiful woman who had died horribly ... for nothing. What was more, JD had begged and badgered her into the very words that may have spelled her death. Oh, God ... I'm so sorry...

The cramped room JD had taken the night before was little more than a bed and bare walls, lit by a single lamp, but at least it appeared relatively clean. Chris was glad to shuck his boots and gun belt, and stretch out on the bed, even if the lumps became instantly apparent. This had been a hell of a long day. Nor could he see how anything was going to get better. No matter how he turned it in his mind, they were at a dead end. No one in this town would talk. The only leads they had were Kansas and Texas, either or both of which may be false. There was simply no way the two of them could hope to find Calvin Bell by blind guessing.

"Tomorrow," he said as he laced his fingers behind his head. "If we don't find anything solid, we might as well start back."

Scowling at the water-stained ceiling, Chris felt his innards curdle, just hearing his own words. Any second now, JD would explode in protest, and he wouldn't blame him. To be so damned close, yet unable to so much as lay a glove on that son of a bitch . . . Still, that was precisely why outlaws came to Purgatorio. Nothing could touch these men but a bullet in the head.

Chris continued wearily, "I figure we can take that stolen horse back - however we gotta get it - and then let the telegraph do some of our looking for us. Man's known in Texas, so maybe that's where he's headed, and someone down there will pick him up for us. Or maybe we'll stumble across something we missed, in the morning."

His young companion had been quiet on the walk to the room, but he only realized the depths of JD's distraction, when he got no reply. The kid seemed to have gotten stuck just sitting on his side of the bed, one boot dangling in hand.

"Somethin' eatin' you?"

"I don't know." JD let his boot drop, and ran a hand over his dark hair. Then the words came in a rush. "I just hate that feeling that I should have minded my own business."

"How's that?"

JD twisted to scowl over his shoulder at him impatiently. "It's our fault that woman's dead! If we hadn't gone to question her, she'd still be alive, right now!"

"You don't know that."

"The hell I don't! We go there, she talks to us, she's dead. That's pretty straight-forward, to me."

Frowning, Chris said, "JD, what did she tell us that was honestly worth anything?"

The kid stumbled briefly over that. "Well, I - nothing. I mean, she said Kansas, but everything we had on him, back home, points to Texas. She didn't tell us anything actually useful."

"Right. That's because she didn't know anything."

"Yeah, but Bell didn't know that." JD stood suddenly, hands jammed in his pants pockets. "He came back and killed that poor woman, just in case."

"Who's to say that he wouldn't have done that, anyway?"

The kid stared back at him an instant, mouth open before he could marshal words. "Chris, I -."

"Bell knew damned well what he had told that woman. He knew she was no threat to him."

"Then why kill her?"

"Because he's scared or pissed off, or both. He knows we're here, and he's not thinkin' straight. He wasn't even smart enough to trade off that stolen horse somewhere else, and now we know what he's riding."

"So, he's stupid! That doesn't make killin' her any better!"

Chris wondered how in hell Buck got around this kid's thick head. Scowling darkly, he said, "Don't go lookin' for hair shirts to wear, JD. They don't suit you."

JD scowled stubbornly. "Yeah, well, don't you go tryin' to make things all better, because it won't work. Us bein' here triggered the whole thing."

"Like HELL!" Chris jerked himself to sitting, and fixed JD in a hard stare. "I'm not about to shoulder the blame for anything Calvin Bell does! You're forgetting that he beat her black and blue, just for the hell of it, before we ever got here."

He watched the kid's face flicker through a tangle of emotions, obstinacy, frustration, and last softening to contrition.

"Chris, I didn't mean it like that. I -."

"Forget it. Just remember that you aren't responsible for the evil another man does."

With a deep sigh, JD dropped heavily to a seat on the bed. "I know. I just . . . doesn't it ever shake you, just a little?"

Chris was not sure exactly what JD meant, whether the gory scene of the whore's murder, or simply everything leading up to this point. Yet that should not matter, except that JD looked for the sort of support he usually could find from Buck.

"Yeah, it does. Man have to be dead, for it not to."

The youngster paused, that answer absorbing into some unknown place. Then he said wearily, "Y' know, Chris, sometimes I look back on when I first dropped off that stage coach in town, and I wonder who the heck that was."

"A good man, JD." Chris waited until JD turned his head to look at him, and allowed himself a small smile. "Now quit frettin' like a granny and let me get some sleep."

Chris was gratified to see a ghost of the old JD grin, and laid back, feeling better. The last, sharp whiff of the extinguished lamp reached his nose, when JD spoke again.

"Chris? If we don't have anything by noon, tomorrow, can we start back then? I just want to ..."

He seemed unable to finish the thought, but Chris heard it anyhow. "We will. We'll make it a short ride home."

Chris seemed to drop off to sleep in moments, but JD lay awake. Just the soft sounds of someone else breathing was a little bit of comfort, instead of the empty, staring dark of last night. Nonetheless, JD's thoughts skittered around his head and suggested all sorts of awful things, mocking him with a blackly dancing tangle of dire questions and possibilities.

Buck . . . JD whispered in his heart. Please don't be gone. . .

+ + + + + + +

"One less law-dog to worry about!" the jarring Anglo voice crowed, and two other voices joined him in raucous laughter. "Hell, all them sons a bitches got ten-pound badges!"

Chris stepped warily into the same restaurant as he and JD had eaten in, last night. Just inside, three rough men stood and tossed coins onto a table, and paid only cursory attention as Chris and JD entered the small dining room.

"Well, ain't like I'm gonna go pay my respects," a second man chuckled. "But can't say it hurts my feelin's, neither! I'll just drink me a toast - good bye, so long, and the devil take yer sorry ass!"

They laughed again, and one of them tossed a folded newspaper back onto their littered table, as they filed for the door. JD scowled after their retreating backs, as he and Chris surrounded a clean, empty table.

"I swear, it's a shame the U.S. Army can't just come down here and clean this place out. I bet every English-speaking soul in this town is wanted for something."

Chris cocked an eyebrow at him, and JD shrugged as he sat down. "Well, present company not included, of course."

In a town like this, the bill of fare was whatever the cook felt like throwing on the stove that day, and so Chris merely held up two fingers to the brown woman who peered from the kitchen. Whatever she was preparing smelled good, at least. A boy silently brought coffee, strong and flavorful. The two sipped quietly, until idle curiosity got the better of Chris, and he leaned from his chair to snag the abandoned newspaper off the next table. Someone had to have brought it here, as it was a cinch no American newspaper had subscribers in this place. Noting that the paper came from a town they seldom heard from, he scanned the usual run of local notices, advertisements, and news exchanges from around the territory.

//Gold Leaf Bourbon at The Palace Saloon.

W. J. Patterson and wife have gone to visit his ailing mother in Visalia.

Buy your shoes at Lyford's Emporium.

From the Ridge City Weekly Star - PEACEKEEPER DEAD - We are informed of the unfortunate demise of B. Wilmington, one of the seven peacekeepers amongst our neighbors to the south. Readers will recall that, on the 18th inst., Mr. Wilmington interrupted a nefarious villain's scheme to tip the till of the local hardware store, and when called upon to "throw down," said miscreant rewarded the officer's bravery with a knife to the chest. He is said to have rallied for a time, able to identify his slayer and converse with friends, ere Death's dark wings took him up. Peritonitis of the bowels was named as the cause of death. A warrant has been issued for the arrest of one C. M. Bell, who also viciously attacked a deputy at Eagle Bend, and determined men are on his trail.//

Something must have showed on his face. Chris found JD staring at him curiously across the rim of his coffee cup, when he finally looked up and remembered to breathe.

"Chris? What is it?"

Nothing he could say. If he could form a thought. If he could make a sound. A man couldn't just howl in a public place. No way to make this easy. So, he simply folded the paper to the article, and handed it across the table. Then he watched, as JD's young face drained completely of blood. Watched his dark eyes register the same mute incomprehension as a gut-shot deer. Watched as he tried to form words, but failed.

Finally the kid said, in a fumbling tone of complete bewilderment, "This - this paper's dated August 22nd. That's when I finally caught up with Sheriff Stains' posse. It's almost, uh, four days old. He's already . . ."

The paper abruptly trembled in the kid's hand, and he steadied it only with visible effort. In a low, measured voice, he said, "This . . . is a load of crap." A breath. "This is CRAP!"

Chris looked down, made no reply. Don't, kid . . .

"I mean, they don't even got their facts straight!" JD's voice began to rise. He dropped the paper and flung his hands as if it were something noxious. "Buck wasn't stabbed in the chest, and he didn't have a chance to tell the guy anything -."

"JD -."

"And what the heck is perita-whatsit of the bowels?" The kid fetched the offending page a dismissive slap. "This is an article that's a copy of an article, from a - a newspaper fifty miles from home. They don't know what they're talkin' about."

"JD -."

"Well, it's TRUE!" JD clamped both hands on the table, emotion vibrating in his sharp voice, as the words kept tumbling out. "I mean, just because some damned editor felt like he had to use his pencil, that don't make it so! Why, it - they got half their facts wrong - hell, it could all just be a stupid mistake! It don't -."


The kid stopped, breath heaving in his chest as if he had just run a mile.

"Don't . . ." Chris couldn't find anything else to say.

"Chris . . ." That stricken hazel stare fixed on him, begged him. "You can't believe it! You - how can you just give up on him, like that?"

Chris felt his voice grating from him, as if dragged half-dead across a dirty floor. "Because he was almost gone, when we left. Because people really do die."

Damn wide-eyed, guileless young face that couldn't hide a thought, if life depended on it. Chris turned his eyes away, had nothing he could give the kid. From where he sat, all the world was a desert, and the wind of it scoured right through the middle of him. Hope. She was a fickle bitch that only whispered a man falsely then slapped him until he bled. Better not to let her in, so that if ever a miracle happened, a man will know it for what he's got.

Yet the kid still pushed him, pleading, "Please, Chris. Just . . . until we know. For sure."

Please? He couldn't recall that word ever coming out of JD's mouth. The kid never begged for anything, he just jumped in and went for it, and be damned the consequences. It made no sense to plead for a miracle, for a man whom they'd left clinging by life's frailest thread, when he might already be four days dead in the ground. No magic kept any of them alive, and if he knew one thing, it was that the wrong people died as easily as the right ones. Heat rose within him, burned into his belly like cheap whiskey, and then he did turn his gaze to the young man staring across at him, wanting impossibilities.

"You're a fool," he said.

Chris watched things die, in that kid's face. Watched the expressive eyes go shuttered and bleak, and the youthfully unshaven chin set in rigid lines. JD shook his head, whether in denial or rebuke, Chris could not tell. Then he simply got up . . . and left.

+ + + + + + +

"Buck, what do you think you're doin'?"

The tall shadow of authority filled the open doorway, but Buck Wilmington was too busy trying to breathe to bother meeting the shocked healer's eyes.

"Good mornin' to you, too, Nathan. What's it look like I'm doin'?"

Buck sat with both hands braced on the uncertain support of the mattress, felt his arms trembling, as red bolts of pain shot from his gut to the roots of his hair. Sweet heaven, just give him a minute, just a second to catch his wind.

"You look you're tryin' to kill yourself, is what." Long strides carried Nathan to the bedside, where he clamped a firm hand on the man's rigid shoulder. "Now lay down, before you tear things open and bleed yourself dry."

"NO!" The word came out an explosive grunt, and Buck moved again, sliding one long leg off the bed.

"Buck, now you quit this!"

Nathan tightened his grip, adding pressure, fearing to hurt Buck more than the damned fool was hurting himself, but not knowing how else he was going to stop him. Now Buck slid his other leg over, and Nathan felt that, felt the electric jolt under his hand, the muscles going hard as rock with the struggle to ride out the pain. He glanced up as another shadow filled the doorway, saw Vin's wide-eyed astonishment.

"No." Breath heaved sharply from him, and sweat gleamed on Buck's brow from more than the muggy August heat. His tousled head raised, blue eyes darkening. "I'm gonna stand up."

"Buck, you're hurtin' because you ain't healed! This is gonna take time. You need to stay down, stay still, and let your body take care of itself. You push it now, and I can't help you."

Vin stepped carefully in from the doorway, one hand held out in caution. "Buck, easy -."

"Easy, hell, I'm already pissin' blood!" Buck's cheeks trembled, his face suffused with effort and emotion. "Now if I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die standin' up."

"You ain't gonna die!" Nathan's voice sharpened to a slash of exasperation. "Not if you quit actin' like a fool and let yourself heal!"

Buck's low voice grated like wood pulled through gravel. "Either you help me up, or stand back while I do it myself."

They could not know how it was, to feel things pulling inside that should not be pulled, to see the chamber pot fill in an ugly orange, to know that parts of him he could not see were conspiring to quit and kill him dead. Nor did they carry the brilliant memory of awful, jagged fragments of fever-dreams that had thrown him helplessly and alone around his own, private perdition.

"Aw, hell . . ."

Vin's growl signaled surrender, and he and Nathan stood on either side of the stricken man. He took a firm grasp on their arms, gathered himself, his courage, and tucked his legs just so. One big push and he was half up, his friends trying to shoulder the strain, but his piercing gasp froze them all, mid way. Buck's face washed bone-white, every long, tall inch of him shuddering.

"Buck -."

He ignored Nathan's caution, clenched his jaw, and with one pull stood upright. Swaying, seeing a hot swirl of winking black and silver spots, while he stood wrapped in a humming fog of hurt that drove the wind from him. Yet he could still breathe, and he did so. His vision cleared, as the tide of agony slowly sank, and he saw before him two sets of eyes, blue ones wide with worry, dark ones soft with trepidation. No way would he let go of their support, with every muscle trembling like plucked banjo strings.

However, he mustered a wobbly grin and said, "See? I'm up, and I'm still with the livin'."

"All right," Nathan said. "All right, you proved your point. Now let's get you down, again."

"No." And this time, it was not stubbornness, not defiance. What they saw in his face was fear, and something very like pleading. "Let me stand here, just for a minute. I know how close to dead I've been. Just . . . let me stand up."

So they held him there, he clutching fast to their united strength, drawing from it, trusting in it. Nathan spoke to him quietly, telling him yet again that blood in his urine was expected, given the nature of his wound, and that it would cease, as the damaged organs healed themselves. Not nearly soon enough, for Buck, who could not help choking on panic, each time he saw red and orange dribbling into that chamber pot. Yet he listened, and finally he felt things sagging, sinking, energy running out of him like spilt sand.

"All right. Reckon I better sit down, now."

Not surrender, merely a pause to retrench for the long fight. Despite their gentleness in laying him back, hurt slashed a white-hot blade through the middle of him, and his own strangled squall seemed the yell of a distant stranger. Yet he stayed, and when he could open his eyes, the ceiling swung in slow circles above him. There also, Nathan's steady gaze bent over him, as the healer asked if he wanted something for the pain. Nope, not that damned morphine, which made him feel like a passenger in his own skin. Not yet, anyhow. Nathan grumbled to himself as he clattered around a cold pot of herbal tea, but that Buck thought he could stomach.

A shape blocked window light, and Vin settled in the bedside chair. Light eyes looked down at him from under a floppy hat, humor glinting in them.

"All right, now?"

Buck nodded, watched the room slow to a stop, took a deep, clean breath. "Yeah. I just had to know I can get off this damned bed."

"Damn fool," Nathan grumbled.

"Nah," Vin replied softly, and aimed a small, warm smile at Buck. "He had to grab holt his spirit. Make sure it didn't wander off, again."

A muffled grunt told them what Nathan thought of that, but there was still gentleness in the hands that raised Buck to sip from the offered cup. Damn, his throat had gone dry.

As Nathan reclaimed the cup, Buck looked up sharply, one more request. "You tell me when the boys get back, hear? I wanna know."

The last word of Chris or JD was from Eagle Bend four days ago, but Nathan nodded. Anything to get his patient to use his God-given sense.

"I will. Now, you get some rest."

Buck lay back with a grateful sigh, closed his eyes on the sagging weariness that now weighted him to the sheets. Hell, at this rate, it would be Christmas before he'd be up to putting on his own pants. He felt a warm hand press his shoulder and looked up. Vin. Now that was something, a gesture like that from their quiet tracker.

"Think I'm gonna shut my eyes a spell," Buck told him. "You see my spirit wanderin' around anywhere, you send the son of a bitch back. I ain't half done with it, yet."

Chuckles warmed the room, and Buck heard Nathan's order to go to sleep. Yet he also heard the smile behind it, and carried one of his own into a darkness that no longer seemed as dark.