Candles of the Wicked

by G. M. Atwater


JD walked with no mind for where he went, taking hard strides that impacted his boot heels and vibrated in bones and joints. No. No. That was the only word that would form in his mind. No. White dust puffed underfoot, and the sunrise burst silently golden over the rooftops, and then he saw only desert. The edge of town.

Buck couldn't be dead. How could Buck Wilmington suddenly just . . . not be? How could the world just cough him right out of existence, a man who filled the space he lived in like a thunderclap in an outhouse . . . simply gone? The earth tilted crazily as JD's grasp on that thought slipped, and he felt his hold on that and everything else in his world wheel right out from under him. Abruptly his stomach heaved and his breakfast burst from his throat in a violent gush. His palm slapped rough adobe as he buckled forward, bracing himself against the ferocity of his retching. Then he leaned there and breathed, spat, breathed again, before pushing himself upright and away.

Last building and he left it behind. Street just died there. Nothing else out beyond but parched, shimmering miles of wasteland, all the way to the mountains, which rose like the great, dried-rawhide rib cages of decomposing monsters. A soft, hot breath of air puffed in from the desert, seeming to blow right through him like a curtain in an open window. He didn't know how his knees came to hit the ground, but it seemed best to stay there. Chest felt too tight to breathe, anyhow, and he was shaking strangely, all over shaking. Listen, kid, why don't you just go get a good night's sleep, hear? I'll take your shift -. Then he had let Buck walk away. In all his life, only one man had ever looked JD Dunne in the eye, and came right out and said, "You're my friend." And JD hadn't even been there to tell him goodbye.

He never moved, but he felt himself falling, plummeting into the bottomless eternity that gaped at his feet. This couldn't be real. This couldn't happen. That wretched, strangled squeak of sound could not have come from him. Oh, God, why, please why? Yet he found no God to listen, no Heaven to care. The closest to prayer that he could come was a childish plea; Mama . . . wherever he is, please take care of him. I'll take your shift -.

Chris found him there. Kid didn't move, didn't turn, even though Chris let his heels scuff and spurs jangle, to announce his approach. JD just sat there in the dirt, his hat in his lap, staring with fixed, empty eyes. Chris stopped beside him, and saw his face was streaked wet. No expression, though, just those thin tracks, like something bleeding out from wound too deep for outward display. He did not want to embarrass either of them, and so Chris turned his gaze out where JD looked. Whole lot of nothing out there.

After a moment, JD took a breath, let it out softly. Then he looked up. Would have been better if something showed on his face, but for once, nothing did. Just a blank hazel stare that the slanted morning sun somehow made look cat-amber. Still, it enabled Chris to voice the one thing his numbed mind had been able to fix on.

"We need to jog a bartender's memory."

JD's face registered awareness, and then he was on his feet and they were moving. Chris out-walked him in seconds, but JD sped up and lengthened his step. Matched long strides that drove dust from his dark companion's heels, and Chris did not look back. Their footsteps pounded out a single name. Calvin Bell. Calvin Bell. Who left Carmen's dead body drenched in the ghastly sacrament of her own blood. Who fractured the skull of Deputy Wiley, and left the best parts of an honest man to leak away. Who took another man's eye, and other people's money, and left ugliness wherever he went. Who had stolen the only certainty that JD owned in this world, that Buck would walk within it, until days unimagined had come and gone, and they could look up and laugh to see each other still there. But now that was eternally lost, and he teetered on the brink of the void that knowing left, and his hands and his soul wanted savage things.

Hard men stood along their path and yet they never paused. Men stepped aside and they never spared a glance. Dappled golden light washed sleepy adobe walls, soft morning shadows whispered beneath ancient sycamores, until at last, St. Martin forever leaned from his saddle, in the sort of selfless charity that this truly Godforsaken place never knew. Chris slapped the swinging door from his path and nearly off its rickety hinges, JD peeling off to one side, gun leaping to hand as they entered. Strange, how everything came at him from a distance, as if he watched from a high place and saw a stranger moving in his own body. Simon saw them, oh, yes, he did, eyes popping and hands diving under the counter -. Flame exploded from Chris' hand and a bottle burst at Simon's shoulder. Chris never broke stride, suddenly at the bar with the smoking black muzzle inches from Simon's sweating ferret face.

"Next, you die," Chris hissed, and the odor of spilled whiskey lifted in a sour fog around them.

Two rough men stood at the far end of the bar, and one stealthily turned, hand brushing his coat. JD saw it as if from afar, found his second pistol in hand as he stared across the sights. Your play, boys, he thought, and they froze in place. Silence fell, now, amid the sharp reek of gun smoke, and the pattering dribble of whiskey running off the bar.

"I want answers," Chris said softly.

Simon's tongue seemed to rattle in his head, as he stammered, "I - I - I -."

"DON'T lie to me!" A long arm shot out and jerked Simon thud against the bar, and the muzzle of Chris' pistol mashed his greasy cheek as if it were dough. "Calvin Bell stabbed a friend of mine, you son of a bitch, and he just killed a woman. He's still here! WHERE IS HE?"

"I don't know!" Simon wailed then gagged as the gun barrel jammed his own flesh between his teeth. "Ah shwere -."


Chris shoved the man back, hard, and a crash spelled the end of another bottle and more glasses. Pistol still aimed and mouth tight, Chris sidestepped back to the near end of the bar, and reached, left-handed, to pluck an oil lantern from a wall bracket.

"Got a question," he said, and his tone leaped to knife-edged congeniality. "You own this place?"

Setting the lantern on the bar, he blew it out with one puff, then his left hand fumbled briefly at the lantern's base. Simon opened his mouth, shut it again, scowled.

"Yeah, I own it. So what?"

Metal grated as Chris worked the fill-cap loose, and then he tossed it aside with a brief ping.

"Just seems a shame -." He held the lantern out to one side, then tipped it carefully . . . so that kerosene dripped onto the floor. "When a man loses his livelihood."

Simon's little ferret eyes suddenly looked about to burst out of his head. "Mister, I swear I don't know where he is! Damn you, I don't -."

Heedless, Chris walked slowly halfway down the bar, pouring kerosene along the top as he went. "Especially when it goes up just . . . like . . . THAT!"

His arm whipped forward, and the lantern smashed into the back bar, in a cascade of liquor and breaking and falling glass. Steadying his revolver on Simon, Chris' eyes lit in unholy mirth.

"Hey, JD, you got a light?"

For a split-second, JD blinked at the question, but then realization kicked in. Burning a saloon would be a first in his career, but right now, it seemed as good an idea as any.

"No, not on me."

"Mister, will you LISTEN to me? I ain't seen Bell in two days! I swear!"

"Too bad." Still left-handed, Chris reached in his pants pocket and drew forth a small tin of matches, bounced it once in his palm. "Here, JD. If he ain't singin' in thirty seconds, do what seems natural."

JD holstered one pistol and caught the tin match-safe from mid-air, still covering his two men, but now finding cold focus, waiting for his next cue from Chris. Simon's face colored to nearly purple, as the acrid stink of kerosene and spilled whiskey wafted ever stronger.

"Damn you, you can do what you want, but I swear I don't know where the hell Bell is!"

"That's a shame." Chris cocked his head, and madness danced in his light, almost humorous tone. "See, I don't believe you, Simon. And the kid, there . . . Well, he's got a problem. He likes fire. But I've found it can be useful, sometimes."

"Damn you, you can't just threaten a man with - What the hell is he doing?"

Now JD understood the game. He stared back at Simon with all the insolence he could command, as he thumbed open the sliding top of the tin. Maybe there were things a man like Snake Barnett could not do, but these boys would find out just what JD Dunne could do. One of the men down the bar shifted his feet.

JD firmed his aim. "Oh, don't worry, boys, I can shoot with my left hand, just fine."

Veins bulged in Simon's forehead, as he howled, "You sons a bitches!"

A corner of JD's mind clinically noted that kerosene and whiskey, mixed, would probably go up just like a bomb. He shook a match loose in the box, pinched it with two fingers.

"ALL RIGHT!" Simon braced both hands on the bar, then jerked them back, dripping kerosene, and glared impotent hatred. "He was here. I saw him this mornin'. But I don't know where he is, now, and that's the god's honest truth!"

"Really." Chris dabbed a finger in puddled kerosene, and looked at Simon narrowly. "I don't think you'd know the truth if it bit you on the ass."

"By God, if I had a gun in my hand, you wouldn't -."

"You'd be dead."

Simon looked in those pale, fey eyes, and knew the truth. He swallowed visibly.

"Now tell me where he slept last night."


"Mister, I'm gonna find Bell, and I don't care who I gotta wade through, to get him. Now answer me!"

"I - I - I -."


"No!" Simon flung his hands up. The ferret breathed heavily, then said, "He stayed in a spare room I got out back. That's all I can tell ya. His gear is all gone, and I ain't seen him since this mornin'."

"Where would he go?"

"What? How would I know what - WAIT!"

Thunder exploded in Simon's face, and he fell crashing in a stuttering cascade of glass and broken shelves. No one else moved. The silence rang, and thin smoke lightly grated the back of waiting throats. Then something scraped behind the bar. A shuddering breath fought its way into a tight chest. Slowly, Simon's hands reached up to clasp the rim of the bar, and then the man himself stood, on rubber knees. Not a mark on him, unless perhaps one were to check his trousers.

"What - what -?"

"Try again, Simon." The hollow black eye of Chris' Colt revolver stared unblinkingly into Simon's sweating face. "Where would Calvin Bell go?"

Abject terror was seldom a good thing to see in a man, the naked, pitiful innards of him crawling desperately from light, like grubs beneath a turned log. Yet JD watched from some quiet darkness within, and felt nothing but mild clinical interest in the man's facial contortions. Simon's mouth seemed to writhe with the effort of producing words fast enough, and the whites of his eyes were red-veined and shiny, as a tiny muscle jumped spasmodically beside the left one.

"I - I said Texas! I already said Texas. I told you -."

"Very good," said Chris gently. Then his tone hardened. "Where in Texas?"

"Eh - El Paso. El Paso." Little ferret eyes almost crossed as they stared at the small, black mouth of Death, just inches away. "He - he knows people there. That's all I know, that's all I know, I swear -."

Chris looked at the man, then lowered his pistol, and his black hat brim wagged slowly back and forth. "Were you born stupid, or is this something you've studied on?"

"Wha - wha -." The power of speech failed him, and Simon's thin face swelled in his humiliation. Desperately he blustered, "He's got friends out there, you know! Big friends, who'll eat you alive!"

The gunman made no answer, as he backed away, the kid matching him step for step. Bloody possibilities swirled like smoke in their wake, and Simon's anguished mind wrestled with his fear and disgrace.

"You sons a bitches," he quavered in his impotent rage. "I hope you die!"

Chris was looking right at JD and saw the expression that froze his young face, knew what was coming, and knew he was not going to do one damned thing to stop it. Simon could only watch as that kid stuck a single match, and tossed a tiny, feeble flame to arc in irrevocable flight. Whump - Fire burst gently to blue and gold life, running in a quick, bright river down the bar, down the back of the mahogany to the whiskey-and-kerosene pooled floor below. Simon howled his outrage, but he now saw them as if through a shimmering veil, their dark forms turning away.

"Damn you!" he screamed. "Who the hell you think you are?"

The answer came from the kid, the shorter of two wavering black silhouettes, framed in flames.

"He's Chris Larabee," he said. "And I'm JD Dunne."

Then they were gone, and glass popped in brittle explosions, flames leaping exultantly to grasp at wood and walls and Simon himself, in a fiery embrace.

Purgatorio had one last, humble voice for them to hear, as they heaved saddles onto patient horses. A boy's voice, with tears behind it, who spoke of a sister lost, and then said, "He go El Paso."

The boy watched rifles slap into scabbards, watched the older men tug hats tight, set foot to stirrups, and swing tall into the morning sun. Watched their eyes meet in stern, silent agreement, and something sprang tightly in his own small chest.

"I go with you!"

Yet the man whose rein he seized looked down, and spoke with eyes like flame and a voice soft as a benediction. "Let us do this for you, son. Your grandma needs you, now."

Dust burst from quick hooves and then they were gone, on the long trail east to Texas. In their wake, smoke belched and roiled skyward in a greasy black plume.

+ + + + + + +

They rode as shadows and myth, across the Chihuahuan desert of southern New Mexico. North they swung, as day turned to night, north just far enough to catch the old Butterfield Overland road, and then east, steadily as an arrow's flight. August fired the shimmering valleys to vast, blazing kilns for vindictive gods, and the hunters swiftly realized the prudence of riding in darkness. Without faces or names, they were spectral figures trailing moon-touched dust behind their horses' flickering hooves. Upon a stony hill, a little grey coyote started and froze, at the passing clatter of men abroad in the deep hours once his, alone. In a small mud hut, a goat herder crossed himself, for it could be only upon the Devil's work, that anyone rode thus at night. As dawn burst into the sky with a silent shout, a man who had just found his stray milk cow looked up, and wondered why he shivered, at what was after all simply two trail-weary strangers. Who stared at him with predators' eyes, and who asked quietly about another man. The honest granger felt his ribs deflate around a long-held breath, as the two grim horsemen trotted on.

+ + + + + + +

"You, sir, are standing at the cusp of man's rarest opportunity!"

Casey grinned happily at her companion's grandiose hail; the more when she could see that, yonder on the porch, Buck Wilmington's answering grin came paired with a wary look. She bounced a couple steps as she thought, oh, Buck was just gonna love this.

"Ez, whatever you're schemin' on now', I ain't buyin' into it. Just 'cause I'm stuck in this chair don't mean I'm easy." Buck slapped the arms of his heavy wooden wheelchair for emphasis.

"Oh, no such thing, no such thing!" Ezra fairly bustled onto the saloon porch, beaming a gold-toothed smile as he stopped before Buck's cumbersome mode of transportation.

Casey skipped past him to plop into the chair next to Buck, grinning like a pet monkey. She reckoned the whole town knew about Buck's return to the living. Although wrapped up in a couple miles of bandages, and probably unable to even get on his britches without help, the tall fellow still felt spry enough to become a genuine vexation. No matter how frail the body, his lungs were in dandy shape, and this morning, his yells for liberty had rattled glassware and crockery all down Main Street. Buck wanted outside, and he wanted it now. Nathan had grumbled that he hoped his patient would fall asleep again, soon, before he pushed himself to any other foolishness. For her part, Casey simply felt like the world had finally turned 'round right.

"Whatcha got, Ez?" Vin Tanner squinted up from the chair he tipped back against the wall.

Casey exclaimed happily, "We got Buck's obitchee-airy!"

"My what?"

With a sweeping flourish, Ezra presented Buck with a folded newspaper. "Obituary. You, my dear sir, have the extraordinary privilege of reading a report of your own death! Right there, under the blacksmith's advertisement. The exchange from the Ridge City paper. Of course, it's a few days old, but . . ."

"Where?" Paper crackled as Buck turned it in his hands, then squinted at the print.

"Right there." Casey reached across his sleeve to point. "See? Why, it's just the fanciest mess of words I ever saw!"

His mouth pursed carefully as he read, then a broad grin slowly creased his face. "Well, would ya look at that! Say, what's this peri- perry-ton - Hey!"

Vin snatched the paper from Buck's hand, and began silently sounding out the words to the article. Eyes on the page, he stifled a grin and easily leaned away from Buck's painfully limited grasp.

"Peritonitis." Nathan's broad grin greeted them, as the healer appeared at Ezra's shoulder. "It's a sickness of the inner linings of the abdominal cavity. Damn, they almost made you sound heroic."

"Why, of course they did!" Buck beamed at them. "I mean, look at the fine figure of a man they're talkin' about! Hey, Ezra, did I get a nice funeral? Lotsa ladies to cry over my grave?"

He cast Casey a broad wink, and she clasped her hands around a giggle.

"Absolutely." Ezra's green eyes widened in mock solemnity. "All the local soiled doves threw themselves en masse upon your coffin. Plus, all the bartenders wept in your funeral cortege, mostly on account of unpaid saloon bills, and there were two brass bands, nine fist fights, and flags all over the territory flew at half-staff. Oh, and of course we held an Irish wake, and put it on your tab."

Chuckles rippled around them, and Casey watched their smiling faces with the relief of having finished digging a whole well by herself. Having Buck with them just about put the sun back in the sky, and all she wished for, now, was JD to share that gladness with.

Yet in the next blink, Buck went white and froze in his chair. Breath snatched right out of him in one red yank, and it was remarkable how the street sort of dipped to one side, out yonder. Lord, he'd only leaned an inch just so -.

"Buck?" Casey caught his sleeve, brown eyes wide and anxious. "What's wrong?"

"Easy, Buck," Nathan cautioned. "You're down here only so long as you don't do nothin' foolish."

"I'm all right, folks, don't get your knickers in a knot." Buck got a breath, waved them off, smiling again, albeit tightly. Until this, he never realized how every little thing in his body was somehow connected to his midriff. "Just can't laugh - ow. Say, any word of Chris and JD, yet?"

"No," said Casey disconsolately, and all knew with whom her affections rode.

"Nary a peep," Ezra echoed, and sighed. "Nor has Sheriff Stains heard anything, since they left Eagle Bend. I believe the sheriff has been hoping for good news, as his deputy, Wiley, still suffers from the head injury Bell dealt him." Frowning slightly, Ezra added, "Wherever they are, I do hope they practice a certain amount of prudence, in their investigations. I'm not sure which poses the greatest hazard, Mr. Dunne's ardor for action, or Mr. Larabee's delight in mayhem."

Shaking his head ruefully, Nathan said, "That do make an interesting mix."

"I just wish they would have wired back home, before they left Eagle Bend." Casey's brow creased in a delicate frown. "It ain't right they just run off like that."

"Now, darlin'." Buck mustered a brotherly smile. "You know how them two are, when they get their teeth in somethin'. Like dogs after a bone. We'll hear from 'em, just as soon as they get Bell back in custody."

"Least they found something I couldn't," Vin said, with a light frown. "Time I got out there, that posse had trampled the countryside plumb flat."

"Well," said Buck with a wink. "You're supposed to stay here and baby-sit the rest of us, anyhow. You still got to push me down to have lunch with Miss Pansy, you know."

Vin snorted and shook his head, but Nathan's expression had turned thoughtful.

"I just wonder," he said. "What those two have gotten into?"

"That's why they should write, or something," Casey asserted tartly. "They got folks here to home worryin', and they just took off without so much as a howdy-do."

"Aw, now, you know JD was thinkin' of ya." Buck favored her with his most winning smile. "Vin told you so, himself."

Her brown eyes spat sparks that made even Vin lean back out of range. "Well, JD darned well could have told me so, himself, instead of just runnin' off like that!"

"At two in the mornin'?" Head cocked, Buck raised his eyebrows at her. "Now, lil' sister, don't you think that might start some folks talkin', just a mite?"

Just as quick, Casey's temper deflated, and her little shoulders slumped. "Oh, I just wish I knew," she sighed.

"So do I, darlin'. So do I. But why don't you keep a pretty smile on, there ya go, and a happy thought for him, all right? He'll be home before you know it. Just you watch and see."

"A young lady of your irrefutable charms?" Ezra grinned and pressed a hand to his vest. "I'm sure the dear boy is even now mourning your separation, and counting the moments until his return."

They chuckled at the sudden sweet flush of color that rose in her cheeks, and laughed as she kicked at the gambler's nimbly dodging ankle. Yet she smiled still, at the thought. JD had left word with Vin, that was true. Just especially for her. He would be back. He was all right.

+ + + + + + +

During the sun's slow, molten passage, they slept but lightly, damp in their own drowsing sweat, as their horses rested and grazed. They moved when long shadows breathed coolness onto their faces, once more. In the rough, honest camp of a freight wagon train, the drowsy captain and a half-asleep banjo player jerked awake, to the sight of two strangers standing over their campfire. Why hadn't their sentries notified him of their arrival? He who spoke was a lean, blond man sketched in fire and shadow, with a soft, flat voice and gunmetal eyes that stared right through a man, and who frankly ignored the blustering, apologetic arrival of an embarrassed night guard. With him stood a youngster hardly more than a boy. Yet that boy bore twin guns boldly at his hips, and a taut, reckless eagerness about him that jangled a prudent man's nerves badly.

Yes, they had seen a man of that description, night before last. Yes, he rode a black horse, and he spent the night in their camp. He kept to himself, and left at sunup. Nor did the captain fail to note the loosening of the taller man's features - relief? - or the same air echoed as the kid tightened a delicate grip on his pistol butts. Somehow, neither expression reassured the captain. He felt pleased when they politely refused his offer of hospitality. There seemed far more danger in these two, than in the sullen, nondescript man who had shared the teamsters' fire, before.

A Mexican man got up from his squash and beans, to meet the two dusty riders trotting in from the morning. Yes, he told the blond man, he had seen such a man. He rode a caballo negro, like yours, senor, but not so kindly used. He had pitied the poor horse. The Mexican's plump wife fixed carne asada and tortillas, with one egg each. She studied the men with her heart, and saw the shadows of great sorrow, and was glad when her generosity startled them, so that both smiled like weary boys for what she had cooked. If a man's stomach is happy, his heart is thus also lighter.

Then they slept on the dirt floor, while the children curried the horses to satin, and the eldest son guarded the door of their guests. The woman looked in, once, saw the youth of both strangers in their sleeping, and promised herself to make a special supplication to the Blessed Virgin, for relief of whatever dark burdens they carried. With the dying sun painting their backs, they left upon the eastbound track. Lightly their horses stepped, with precious corn in their bellies from stores their riders never knew those humble folk had sacrificed.

More than once, the overland stages passed them in those no-man's hours of darkness, east and west. The passengers jolted unaware in a numbed fog of half-sleep, but the drivers and shotgun messengers tightened their suddenly clammy hands upon the tools of their trades. Yet each time, the two shadowy riders swung wide of the road's pale track, and let the stage hurtle darkly past, falling back only when the fading silver trail of dust drifted alone.

Something JD was learning, the value of the humble folks, and so another morning found him with his hat in hand, gazing into an ancient pair of muddy brown eyes. Please, could the abuelo help them? The old man's shoulders itched upon seeing them, for he had known much of trouble in his many days, and his old bones craved peace. But then he saw the young one sway, saw the fair-haired man slumped bonelessly on his saddle horn, and recognized the exhaustion that softened their features. Guileless as tired boys, they now looked, plus he rather liked being called "grandfather."

Thus, they found another meal, another rest, at a small adobe with chickens all around. Here an old man with the map of Mexico etched in his face told stories in a language they could not understand. When they had eaten, and sipped his potent mescal, he nodded his toothless smile and motioned to the cool back room. Then he spent his slow day braiding horsehair by his door, whilst they slept.

They awoke with the swallows, rising into the sweet shadows of evening, and he gave to the youngest one a finely hitched black cord, made of hair from the manes of both their horses, he indicated. It would carry a watch, he tried to tell them, which surely such caballeros must have. They did not know that this was a word meaning both horseman and gentleman. Yet they did leave two silver coins on the matting where they had slept.

+ + + + + + +

"Hold on there, son." Josiah clamped a steadying hand on the tall man's shoulder. "Got to take this a step at a time. A small step at a time."

Buck nodded breathlessly, one hand braced on a handy roof support. Who'd have thought just walking downstairs from his room would leave him feeling flimsy as a boiled sock? Sweat simply poured down his back, and now he was stuck here on the sidewalk, with his knees locked so that he didn't fold up on the spot. Puking up breakfast seemed another option to consider. Meanwhile, everybody and his brother gave him those oh-the-poor-fellow looks. Wouldn't be so bad, if they were all pretty ladies, but they weren't. Damn, this was hard on a man.

"Just gotta get my strength back, Preacher. Won't be but a second, here."

Behind him, Vin's dry voice said, "You over-do it, Nathan will stick you right back in that wheel chair."

"Right now, wheels and chairs don't sound half bad. All right. I'm ready, again. Let's try for the saloon."

With Josiah close enough to shoulder his tall frame, if needed, and Vin shadowing behind in case he keeled over, entirely, Buck willed his legs to move. One foot, then the other. See, he had the rhythm of things. Hell, he'd been doing it since he was a baby. Still, it would help a whole lot, if he could just get that three hundred pound invisible man off his shoulders. Made a body feel puny as a day old calf. When a man bled out as much as he had, it took most everything he had in him with it. Helluva thing, to think a man amounted to little more than a bucket of runny red stuff. Plus, somebody must have been doing a taffy-pull with his insides, while he slept. Hurt, oh hell yes, but he kept that ruthlessly pushed down, the lid clamped tight. If Nathan read that in his face, Buck would never see the sun.

Nathan stood on the shaded walk before the saloon, watching his patient's slow progress. Buck tried to make it look like he was just strolling leisurely, even hooked his hands in his belt. But there was no mistaking the tight set to the tall man's body and jaw, or the warily watching attitudes of the two friends "strolling" with him. Ten days had passed since they found him bleeding in the mud, but it would take a hell of a lot longer than that for a human body to recover from the sort of trauma and sickness Buck had endured. Good thing he was such a stubborn man. Another may have given up the fight. The healer did not think Buck should be up and walking so soon, but perhaps sometimes the spirit needed healing, as much as the body that housed it.

Simple fact was, Buck would just wither away, if kept closeted indoors. He needed to sit on a saloon porch, and let the August heat put him to sleep in his chair. He needed to hear his friends talking, and protest them poking fun at his infirmity, needed to see life rolling past on the dusty white streets before him. Some folks prospered on solitude. Buck Wilmington thrived on commotion. God love him.

Now Buck was here, and Nathan made sure a chair stood angled to catch him. Evidence of the cost of his exertion came when he let Josiah and Vin ease him bodily to his seat. He laid back with a long sigh, eyes closed and legs sprawled before him, and willed his stomach to lie down and quit rolling around in there.

"Well, you happy now?" Nathan asked, with tartness he really didn't feel. "I suppose we gonna have to carry you back to bed, later."

Buck opened his eyes then grinned. "Aw, Nathan, I'm just playin' for the gallery. I saw a couple ladies down yonder by the grocery store that -."

His grin widened at the chorus of muffled groans in return. Hell, he'd been so busy trying not to collapse or throw up, he wouldn't have noticed a woman unless he tripped over her skirts, but they didn't have to know that. He didn't want Nathan to know he was right, but the trick now would be simply to try and stay awake for a little while. Simply getting here rendered him so washed-out that even Casey could whip him.

"Any word on the boys, yet?" Vin asked.

The laughter faded. After the hunt out of Eagle Bend, Chris and JD seemed to have dropped off the face of the earth. In the six days since Sheriff Stains last saw Chris Larabee heading south, not so much as a whisper had reached them. Nathan shook his head.

"Nothin' that I've heard. I don't -."


A cheery hail from the street turned their heads, and the briskly striding figure of Ezra Standish made its way towards them. Beside him hastened the willowy form of Mary Travis, the both of them smiling as if they had just won a lottery.

Waving a folded page briefly overhead, Ezra proclaimed, "We have news!"

As the gambler sprang lightly onto the porch, Nathan snorted and grinned. "Damn, Ezra, since when you take out a newspaper subscription?"

"Well, I haven't, actually." Ezra halted to clear his throat apologetically, and Mary smiled impishly.

"It couldn't hurt," she said, then turned to the others. One delicate eyebrow arched, she added, "This is yesterday's paper, which just came in the mail from Eagle Bend. It . . . well, it appears our boys have been making friends."

The wry turn of her smile suggested quite otherwise, as did Ezra's raised eyebrow. Beaming at his audience, Ezra held the paper up, struck a pose and began gleefully reading aloud.

"September 28th. Justice; A Well-Struck Match - Purgatorio, Mexico has long been known as a haven of villainy, to which the meanest classes of cutthroats and desperados may flee with impunity. We have fresh intelligence that only mere chance saved that town from the sort of fiery eradication it so richly deserves. It appears two men, Messrs. C. Laramie and J. Dun -." Ezra glanced up to add, "Both names misspelled in the original - reportedly in pursuit of a bad man, braced the swarthy residents of a low saloon for certain facts, aided by the gentle persuasion of Colonel Colt. Upon their reticence to speak, Laramie and Dun commenced to perforate the glassware, and thoroughly baptize the place in flammable emollients. The proprietor escaped with only the loss of his dignity, yet his saloon is said to be rendered most dolorous in its appearance. A pity the conflagration could not have consumed the whole of this Mexican Gomorrah."

"Hell, Ez," Vin said, eyes twinkling. "All them ten-dollar words sound like something you'd write."

"Oh, them editors just love to hear themselves talk - Due respect, Mary - Ow." Buck gingerly laid a hand on his bandaged belly, as another deep twinge protested his amusement. "But that sounds like our boys, all right. Almost burnt the place down, eh? Must have been Chris. He's got that knack for pursuadin' folks."

"At least now we know their whereabouts," Ezra said lightly. "Or rather, where they've been. Just follow the pillars of smoke and piles of rubble."

"Purgatorio . . ." Vin lifted a now-solemn gaze to stare off down the street. "Not rightly the kind of place you want to last hear from a man."

Quietly as they were spoken, his words plunked a heavy boot on the breast of good cheer. Ezra glanced worriedly at Mary, whose brow furrowed in gentle concern.

"I've been watching for any other word of them," she said. "I've heard nothing."

"Yeah, and that's because there's nothin' else TO say," Buck said, with stubborn gaiety. "Why, I'll bet those two come ridin' back just any day now, with ol' Calvin tied across his saddle like a Christmas elk. Yeah, I bet that's just what 'll happen."

"Let us hope so," Mary replied uneasily, and met Vin's somber expression with one of her own. "I'll be sure to let you know, the moment I have any news."

"They'll be back in no time. You'll see." Buck nodded firmly, refusing to listen to the small, nagging voice of his own concerns, and waggled demanding fingers towards the newspaper. "Now, let me read that."

Chris and JD would be just fine. They were big boys, and they would watch each other's backs, as always. It was everyone else who'd better watch their step, when Havoc and Confusion rode together. They were just fine, dammit.

Vin didn't believe it either. Fifteen minutes later, he was horseback. In passing, he caught Buck's eye, exchanged deep looks and knowing nods. Then bore with him the silent consent of his friends, as he turned his horse down the street, southbound towards Purgatorio.