Candles of the Wicked

by G. M. Atwater


JD awoke slowly, muzzily. First, he became aware that his hip ached, next that it was hot enough in there to paste the shirt to his back, and finally that he smelled both horse manure and stinky human feet. Turning his head, he saw his own boots, tipped over beside the coat he'd rolled as a pillow. With a stifled groan, he sat up, felt the leaden weight of weariness pull at every muscle, and raked his hands through his long hair. His scalp and hair felt slathered in glue and grit. In fact, more than just his boot stank. He exhaled sharply through his nose, and looked up at the dark rafters overhead, then at the unfinished boards to either side. The stage station attendants had been kind, in allowing them to put the horses in a corral and borrow an empty stall in which to sleep away the day's heat. Riding nights and sleeping days was best, to preserve their horses from the August heat. However, it made for broken, sweaty, unsatisfying rest, at best. Of course, that's how he would likely sleep, anyhow, no matter where he laid down.

Chris still slept, half-curled with his back to him, his breathing slow and steady. Seen in quiet profile, Chris' sharp-hewn features were dirtied with a stubble of beard, dark blond hair falling in strings across his forehead. JD had always thought of Chris as a tidy man, but now his blue shirt was soiled and grubby, the black trousers stained. He could imagine his own appearance, since his last bath had been in Purgatorio, days ago, and his last change of clothes before that. He ran his tongue over sticky teeth and exhaled in dry disgust.

"Tooth powder in my saddlebags."

Startled, JD looked back at the still-motionless form beside him. "Sorry, didn't mean to wake you up."

The shoulders moved, long legs straightened, and then Chris rolled over to look up at him. "Already awake. Can't breathe in here."

"You feelin' all right?"

"Yeah." The word pinched into a sigh, as Chris sat up. "Just dusty."

He reached for his boots, turned one over to give it a sharp smack, dislodging any unwelcome guests, and somehow made that simple act seem as blunt as turning his back. However, that was about as far as conversations went, lately. Not that Chris was ever gabby, but now he seemed almost a stranger. For that matter, JD was not a bit sure how much of his own self he had left. Heck, he barely remembered leaving Purgatorio. The hard-riding nights since defied examination, like trying to gather shards of a shattered mirror. He scarcely slept, and what little he ate he choked down like chunks of dry clay. He just felt so empty, like things had been scooped out of the middle of him, leaving a big, dry, sick-feeling hole that he fell into thump all over again, every time he woke up.

JD shook out his own boots, pulled them on, gathered his gun belt, and got up to go look at the day. The glaring blue dome of sky arced above him, its emptiness so massive that it almost had weight. The ringing silence pressed the valleys down flat, until only the ridged spines of isolated mountains lurched against the dusty skyline. Daylight, now there was another rare commodity. They spent most of their waking hours in nothing but shades of black and grey. Sort of like they had become those vampires he read about. Watching his long shadow spill across the sandy earth before him, JD idly wondered if it were somehow a bad thing, if a man went too long without a shadow. Maybe there was some sort of bad luck in that, and they'd be stuck with it until they could live in normal daylight, again. Then he shook off the thought, before it got too comfortable in his head.

Beside the barn, a large, tin-lined wooden water trough caught the small but perpetual flow of water piped from a nearby spring. Exhaustion pressed heavily on his shoulders, and JD thought of stripping down and falling headlong into that clean, blessed coolness. His luck, though, a stagecoach full of ladies would roll up, right then. So, he instead took off his hat, pushed up his sleeves, and contented himself with vigorously brushing his teeth, then dunking his entire head repeatedly under water. When he at last straightened to flip wet hair out of his face, he heard Chris' spurs chime softly behind him.

Turning to see the hint of a smile on Chris' face, JD offered his own uncertain grin. "Water feels good. You should try it."

"Sayin' I stink?"

Chris' frown lacked sincerity, and JD smiled as he sat on the hard rim of the trough and slicked his hands over his sodden hair, one last time. Stink enough to knock a fly off a dung heap, that's what Buck would say - and JD felt the wind punch right out of him. Felt everything in him cracking like brittle wood. But he fought it in rigid silence, concentrated on breathing without sound, so that Chris just four feet away would not know, so that he would not make a total idiot of himself. Damn, when would he just quit that, for godsakes quit it? He made sure Chris never noticed . . . but JD wondered how long it would be, before Chris could see the frayed edges just unraveling off him. That would be all he needed - here they were on a manhunt, and Chris was going to catch him acting like a pantywaist.

But how on earth was he supposed to get around it? Not a day went by, but he would be right in the middle of something, and find himself suddenly just standing there. Waiting, he would realize, for that familiar footstep behind him, that voice gibing in friendly bedevilment. Just now was certainly not the first time he caught himself thinking or speaking words that he had first heard from Buck's mouth. Heck, he had never realized how much he counted on Buck for stupid little things, like just being there every time something popped into his head to share, or ask or tell. But now there was nothing to say and no one to say it to, and trying to ignore that was like trying to not to stare at a man with a hole in his head where his eyeball should be.

Chris dipped both hands into the water, apparently noticing nothing of JD's silent struggle. However, those hands splashed onto a face in which the bones seemed too close to the skin, drawn in harsh lines that a stranger would think had never known a gentle expression. JD took a deep breath, and shook residual water from his head, hard enough to briefly dizzy himself. Nope, not much left of either of them. Chris almost never spoke, wrapped in himself tight and hard as the paper twisted around a stick of dynamite. JD found himself almost tiptoeing around the man, as if he had sprouted sharp edges that JD might cut himself on, if he brushed too close or the wrong way. Somehow, in those miles since Purgatorio, he and Chris had become blasted loose from the rest of the living world, like the little scraps of stuff he'd seen blown through the smoke of Fourth of July cannon salutes.

All JD knew to do was hang on to one purpose, one duty; capturing Calvin Bell. That, at least, was something right, something just, something he need have no doubts in the doing. He clutched that fragmented image of a near-stranger's face as a desperate talisman. But even if he and Chris caught Bell, what then? He could not even remember the last time they spoke Buck's name out loud, and suddenly he had no idea what he was supposed to do with the crowding memories.

A few handfuls of water would not, Chris decided, come remotely close to making him feel clean. In fact, the freshness of cool moisture sloshed around his face and neck made the sticky prickle of trail grime down his back seem that much worse. Still, it was better than nothing.

"Hey, Chris?"

Chris shook wet hair from his face, eyed the kid with water running past his nose. JD sat watching him over his shoulder, and seemed to take Chris' look as a reply.

"You know, when I first met Buck, I thought he was the most aggravating human being I'd ever seen."

Chris couldn't imagine where that thought came from. Could only reflect that, yes, the big guy certainly had his moments.

"I mean, from the first minute, he climbed all over me like - like fleas on a dog. Treated me like I was twelve years old and dumb as a box of rocks." JD hesitated, held himself carefully as he let the delicate, razor-edged claws of remembrance stroke him. "Guess he wasn't too far off. But there were sure times when I thought of just punchin' him in the nose."

Now the kid's forehead knitted in thought, and sunlight illuminated his hazel eyes, as he lengthened his gaze into somewhere ~ some-when ~ else. Been wondering when he would talk, Chris thought, as he sloshed a wet kerchief around his neck. The kid's silence of past days was not natural. He was too young to keep his thoughts hidden, and too open to keep them quiet, for long. Plus the long nights on the trail gave a man too damned much time to think. Something Chris tried to keep aimed in a forward direction, since anywhere else was -.

"Chris, I never - he ain't like anybody I ever read about. He's not noble or dashing or any of that other hooey. Heck, who ever heard of a hero who swills beer, and throws the fair damsel over his shoulder and packs them off upstairs? He . . ."

Chris smothered a sigh and waited, meanwhile wetly swabbing crud from his ears. Whatever was on JD's mind, all man could do was let him find his way around it.

"But he's the kind of man who could step out in front of a confounded SWORD, to save my life. I don't -."

The words suddenly seemed to stick in JD's throat, and Chris concentrated on the water's shimmering surface, as JD struggled for composure. He could only hope the kid ran out of words, before he ran out of endurance for them. Anything but this, for God's sake, JD.

JD's voice dropped half an octave deeper, yet wobbled on a fine edge, as he spoke again. "Chris, I can't tell you how many times I've seen that in my head, that fight back at the Seminole village. There I am, jumping out like a damned fool, thinkin' I'm gonna be the hero or something, and then all of a sudden I got two empty guns, and that crazy colonel's coming right at me - I was so scared I couldn't even think! Then all of a sudden, Buck comes barreling out of nowhere, knocks me out of the way, but HIS gun must have been empty too, and - Chris, I've seen it a thousand times. The colonel's horse is right over us and his sword swings, and Buck just falls over."

JD stopped, pressing his mouth tight shut, eyes wide and dark with the horror of that instant. Chris frowned as he fiercely wrung out his kerchief, twisting it so water bled from tight cloth coils. He had never heard JD speak of this, had never even given thought to how their youngest partner had dealt with it. Since Buck had recovered just fine, the only real consideration Chris ever gave it was to hope the damned little fool learned something from such a stupid stunt. Now, the kid seemed bent on reliving it all, dragging them both into a crossfire of memories that Chris absolutely did not want to entertain. Damn, JD, just let it go . . .

"I thought he was dyin', Chris. I remember sittin' there by him, while Nathan worked on him, and I felt sick to my stomach. It was my fault, but I couldn't begin to understand . . . I still can't. Why would he do that?"

Chris did not want to breach the granite numbness he had drawn tightly around him. Did not want to feel that sense of something squeezing his heart. He almost blurted the first caustic thing that came to mind, that Buck had always been a damned fool in a fight, but the words died unspoken. They would be untrue, and JD did not deserve more cruelty.

What he said was, "That's just Buck."

That was an awfully weak response, but JD nodded as if it held wisdom. "Yeah, it is."

Then, JD fell silent, watching the afternoon shadows whisper through the mesquite. Chris dipped his toothbrush in the water and uncapped his little bottle of tooth powder. Might as well shave his teeth, even if he lacked the means to shave his chin. Ezra would be appalled at the degeneration of their personal hygiene. As he scrubbed his teeth, his belly snarled for attention, and Chris reflected that the two stage company hostlers probably wouldn't have any provisions to spare. So, they'd have either to shoot something along the road, or hope they came upon some other form of civilization tonight. After that, they would -.

A distant coyote wailed, far down the empty blue sky, and Chris paused. Felt his bones go hollow at the high, lonesome sound of it, which seemed to pull something out him to wisp away on an empty wind. Ah, hell, Buck . . .

+ + + + + + +

A saloon tent saw them next, a place scarcely worth calling a settlement, on the abandoned site of an old Butterfield stage stop. Another day had passed and now they awoke to ride with their backs to the sunset. The tent cabins ahead already glowed warmly with lamp light. Here rough men stopped, while traveling the unmapped ways from Mexico, bringing with them imported fruits, horses, stolen cattle, or perhaps liquor for the Indians. Stained canvas walls of the first structure were tied part way up, in a futile effort to allow cooler air to relieve the desert heat. Liquor barrels and boxes formed the only furniture inside, the bar itself made simply of unfinished planks laid across empty kegs. Those within held themselves carefully, when pale eyes under a flat, black hat stabbed each of them like a finger in the chest. As he quietly walked to the plank bar, it seemed best to ignore him, as one might the entrance of a tame panther. The mismatched youth at his heels was another matter, however, what with that brazen stare, black hair down past his collar, and a foolish little hat that would make even an Irishman blush.

"Hey, sonny, we don't have no sarsaparilla," one young man jeered, but the kid's cool gaze barely flickered. In fact, his entire demeanor dismissed the heckler as if he were a piece of furniture. The kid seemed most intent on playing watch dog for his older companion across the room, who spoke in low tones with the bartender.

"Hey, kid! Don't you know it's rude to ignore folks what's talkin' to ya?"

Digger O'Neal was a short, burly young bulldog of a man, generally known as a jolly, rowdy sport and a decent enough fellow ~ until, that is, he got into the whiskey. Tonight, he was already one bottle down and getting meaner by the minute. As of just now, he decided that he intensely disliked this cocky-looking kid in the stupid hat. Hell, the pup couldn't even grow real whiskers.

Dark brows arched upward, and the kid replied, "Oh, were you talkin' to me? I thought that was just you breakin' wind."

Sassy as a coyote, he was, and Digger felt heat leap in his belly. "I'll make you eat them words."

Yet the kid's face never changed, and he was laughing, the little bastard -! "Oh, c'mon, mister, you can't be serious! I got no fight with you."

Now he was gonna show the white feather, was he? Recognition of his own power swept forward on a hot tide of liquor, as Digger growled, "The hell you don't. Yer a lap dog barkin' in a big dog's yard."

Laughter faded, as the youngster stepped back, light fingers smoothing his coat tails from ivory pistol grips. "Mister, you got no idea what you're gettin' into, here. Let's just laugh over the sarsaparilla joke and call it good, all right?"

The son of a bitch was heeled? Rage flamed through the haze in Digger's mind, awareness of a heavy pistol shoved through his own waistband. So this little bastard thought pretty guns made him look like a hard case, huh? By God, throwin' down on a man ain't like shootin' at tin cans and jackrabbits. Arrogant little piss-ant, why, he would -.

"I'm lookin' for a man."

Like the ring of drawn steel, the voice of the kid's partner cut conversation dead. His back against the raw plank bar, he casually faced the others, a full shot glass held idly in his left hand. Nor did he seem to spare any attention for his younger companion's troubles.

"Fella named Calvin Bell. He's on a black horse, probably came through a day or two ago. Horse been ridden hard, and he's likely lookin' a little rough, too. Forty-ish, average size, brown hair, brown eyes, got a busted front tooth. Ring any bells with you boys?"

One of the other men spoke. "What you want him for?"

"My own pleasure," he replied, and something colder than humor lit his eyes. "I want him because he's a sorry, yellow, murderin' son of a bitch of a horse thief."

"You the law? Or is this personal?"

The shot glass tipped up, then lowered empty. "Personal."

There was a rough sort of code that men like these understood. Here justice was no part of courts or books or high-minded words, but rather the brute, swift law of fist, gun, or rope.

"We saw him." Another man glanced at his friends, and nodded. "Reckon it was him, anyhow. Feller come in night before last. Tried to get another horse, but nobody had one for sale or trade. His looked about used up."

"He said somethin' else, too." One of the other men spoke up, and cast a sly grin around the room. "He said some fellers might be followin' him. Said as how he'd been set up for a robb'ry, and somebody wanted to kill 'im for what he knowed." The man blinked and pulled in his chin, as Chris' hard gaze pinned him. "Well, that's what he said. I didn't pay no never-mind, myself."

"Which way was he headed?"

"East, on down the road. Towards Mesilla, I reckon."

"Much obliged. Finished, JD?"

Still eyeing his would-be foe, JD replied, "I am, if he is."

Digger O'Neal's pride rode high in his throat, his strong hands clenching on the scalding desire to punish. He watched them turn, watched that kid start to walk away - and he lunged, seizing a fistful of shoulder and coat, and caught a millisecond's glimpse of blazing hazel eyes.

Once, years ago, Digger had made the mistake of grabbing one of his grandpa's half-wild barn cats. This was worse. A fist snapped Digger's head back, stars exploded, and then he hit the floor with a hundred and forty pounds of blind fury climbing right up the middle of him. Furiously he struck back, and as fast, the blows returned. Sledging strikes of fists and elbows jarred to the bones, and Digger felt his own punches clear to the shoulder, knew he hit and hit hard, but dammit, nothing would give, could not peel the kid away, and in furious near-panic he wrenched himself tight around the kid, got an arm barred hard across his throat -. Alligators had a gentler bite.

A hard forearm clubbed his skull, and his fists thudded into wool and cotton, thumbs gouging soft flesh, yet nothing would give, dammit, couldn't get the little bastard off. His head smacked hard again, this time on wood and he saw his chance, grabbed fistfuls of cloth and wrenched sideways with his whole strength, felt the impact that time, again slammed the weight he held, and felt the kid jerk and fall loose in his hands.

- And other hands seized him, hauling him off the floor in a horrifying surge of power, a black hat and the wild-eyed face of rage inches from his own. He spun crazily in air - and collided with wood and sharp edges and pain that slugged the wind from his lungs. Then stillness. Digger felt the floor pressing against his hips and shoulders, heard his breath sobbing harshly, tasted copper.

He laid there an instant, dazedly noticed lamp-lit canvas sagging overhead. Took two deep breaths then rolled over. Pushing himself heavily to his knees, Digger shook his swimming head like a baffled bull. Sharp pain stabbed from both hinges of his jaw, and his whole body felt thick and numb. Damn that little son of a bitch! Damn them both! Digger slapped a heavy hand to his belt, groped for the weight of the old pistol nestled against his belly, curled his fingers around smooth wood and cool metal -.

"JESUS, Digger, NO!"

The raw shout struck him like a slap, shocked his eyes upward, first to the friend who had cried such a warning, and then to the strangers. There Digger froze, on his knees, staring up into the muzzles of their Colt revolvers.

"Mister," the kid said, and the breath heaved in his chest, hatless with black hair fallen wild over his eyes. "I'm havin' a really bad week. Might be best we just call this even."

His breath caught tight in Digger's throat. Suddenly, these two men, the one so young, the other fine-edged with hardship, were no longer two. They faced him now as the halves of a single force, gusts of the same black wind. Somehow, they had moved just so, and stood as if balanced to each other, dancers awaiting a deadly cotillion. Yet it was less the shock of staring into the muzzles of their guns, than the soul-clutching fact that, when Digger looked past the guns, he could see no light reflected in the kid's eyes, at all. All these bright lanterns, yet all he could see was flat, inky, soulless black . . . while the other - God! It had to be a trick of the light, the glow of lanterns hanging nearby, but the dark-clad stranger's eyes were filled with ruddy flames, flickering red on shadow, like the molten simmer of a blacksmith's forge, and they looked not at him, but inside him, and he stared back and felt himself sink inside his skin.

"Who are you?" Digger choked.

The bartender answered for them. "That's Chris Larabee, pard."

Digger may have nodded, or maybe his vision simply wobbled. He found only the strength to weakly slump back on his heels. Then they were leaving, the kid scooping up his hat as he backed warily for the door. His partner followed, but then Chris paused to add a gentle postscript.

"If you'd have pulled your gun, that kid would have killed you. And if he hadn't . . . I would."

The canvas flopped closed on darkness and while sitting there on the dirt floor, Digger O'Neal realized that, whatever they were, he was lucky to be a living man. This night, Death had bent and kissed his cheek.

Outside, Chris paused to holster his pistol. He waited with wary gaze on the glowing shape of the tent, as JD thumped his hat back into shape.

"You hurt?"

"No." The kid's reply came short and layered thickly with disgust. With a sharp gesture, he shoved the hair back out of his face. "Hell, it was only my head, and I don't use that, anyway."

Chris was silent, and JD clapped his hat back on, cast a hard eye towards those dully-luminous canvas walls. He felt a fine trembling against his bones, as his body slowly let loose of the hot blood of a fight. His gut remained clenched tight, and the scalding flush of embarrassment burned him in the dark. Real clever, JD. Get your ass kicked right in front of everybody.

"So," he said. "Did we get anything in there, besides some new lumps for me?"

No one seemed to be interested in following, and Chris turned towards their waiting horses.

"Bell was askin' how much farther to Mesilla," Chris said. "Bartender said he got the feelin' Bell was lookin' to run to ground amongst friends, before too long."

"Oh." JD's voice accompanied footsteps crunching at his heels. "Is that good or bad, for us?"

"Good." Chris reached a hand to the dark, warm bulk of his horse, gathered up bridle reins and a coarse hank of mane hair. "Means he might stand still long enough for us to shoot him."

Hooves grated on gravelly sand like hollow wooden bowls, then the two of them swung at a trot into the moonless dark, stirrups almost touching.

+ + + + + + +

Darkness is no friend, to a man with demons to fight. Nor is solitude and silence of benefit to the troubled soul. Where the moon hides her face and the stars watch without blinking, a man may easily find himself too much alone with thoughts that gnaw and distress. So it was with JD Dunne, the writhing tangle of his regrets giving him neither rest nor ease. Yet he had so long suffered them in silence, that the sudden yap of his voice over the steady, rhythmic rattle of their hoof beats frankly startled Chris.



"Been thinkin'." JD's voice came in a quiet tone, a strange, slow consideration to it, which was at odds with their brisk gait. "Chris, I know that, with the things we do, chances are we all got a bullet comin' with our name on it. But I guess, out of all of us, I thought Buck would be the friend I got to keep the longest."

Jesus, kid! Chris' hand flinched reflexively on the reins, his horse bouncing its nose sharply in protest. Where the hell did he come up with that? Then in the next instant, Chris' thought slanted all the way back to that tent saloon, and suddenly he dearly wanted to go back and pound that drunken fool of a cowboy into jelly. Because of him, JD had almost shot a man over nothing more than a few hard words, and now it was sinking in. The kid didn't need to be thinking like that, didn't need to know mortality so well.

That seemed all JD had on his mind, however, and the following silence left Chris with his own echoes to chase. Damn the dark miles that let a man's mind turn and gnaw on him like the ache of old wounds, with no glib words or bright ray of daylight to slap them away.

Hardest thing Chris could do, these days, was to try and think of Buck Wilmington without anger fisting red fingers around his heart. Anger that he was ridden down to raw bones, and so filthy that his skin crawled in his own clothes. Anger that he was out here in the dark, chasing some son of a bitch for no purpose he could even name; hell, they didn't even have a warrant. He and Buck had known for a long time that this is how it would likely end, for either or both of them, and there was to be no surprise in it. Only surprise now was that Buck's demise didn't involve a woman.

And last, mad as almighty hell that Buck would leave him stuck with this mess, with a clear view of the human wreckage in the fugitive's wake, including a very young man who held grief tightly to him like a bomb with a sizzling fuse, waiting for him, Chris Larabee, to somehow make things magically work out right. What right did Buck have, to get himself killed, and leave Chris standing amongst the broken pieces? What in hell DID Buck think, most of the time? Few things infuriated Chris more than to know that Buck could do better, but simply didn't give a damn, seemingly content to just laugh and whore and carouse his way through life. What a conundrum it then was, that Buck put so much effort into making sure that kid did not make a waste of his own life. As their horses' hooves clattered on the grey ribbon of road beneath, there was a time a-plenty for his mind to worry at that puzzle.

Chris had often wondered if Buck had seen a younger image of his own self, in JD. The same high spirits, the same reckless joy of life, and the same headlong approach to the things they thought mattered. From the first day, it was apparent that Buck loudly and vociferously strove to hammer home, in a space of days or weeks, what had taken him a lifetime to learn. Hard lessons, which might save the reckless youngster from a whole lot of hurt and trouble. If JD had only gotten off that stage in some civilized place like Denver or San Francisco, he would simply know the normal hurts of ordinary men. People didn't die violently at your feet, strangers didn't die by your own hand, and you didn't watch innocents fall under the blind, brutal juggernaut of fate. But no, JD had to come out here, had to plunge blithely onto a trail of what he once thought was high adventure . . . and Chris had let him. Now he wondered just how many little pieces of that good, decent heart and soul chipped away, each time JD pulled the trigger.

"JD . . ." The kid's head jerked up at the sound, the pale oval of his face turned to warily regard him across one shoulder. Chris held his gaze and said, "I miss him, too."

And the words laid there, mirrored in the shock in JD's wide eyes, in the sharp shudder of Chris' own heart. Yet Chris reached right down in his gut, savagely pulling out the one thing that might, just might put a patch on some of what that young man had lost.

"He's a good man, JD. You're right about that. It just was sometimes hard for me to remember."

JD's watchful silence asked why, and Chris faced forwards. For a moment, he was silent, letting the swinging stride of his horse propel him towards the black, distant bones of the dark mountains.

"Lookin' at him was to see every birthday, every Christmas, every Thanksgiving and Fourth of July my family ever had . . . and to know I'd never have them again." Chris paused briefly, and the rhythmic thud of his horse's stride seemed to pound into the long bones of his legs, and jar soft things way up inside. "Because he was always a part of it."

The brief silence shivered with the echoes of a thousand unspoken questions why, with the ache of all the things that could never and would never be. A scuffling of hooves through a sandy dip in the road preceded JD's quiet comment.

"He had nightmares about it, you know," he said.

Chris did not know, felt that knowledge hit and wobble uncertainly inside him. The kid eyes were on him, trying to read the older man's dim profile.

"Not often, I don't think, but . . . a couple times. He'd had a little too much to drink, and I went and woke him up."

Chris shook his head. Shook off the image of that, Buck twisting in whiskey and damp sheets, while a green kid with sleep and scared mixed in his face tried to roust him. Did Buck come up swinging, as Chris likely would, or was he just infinitely and forever lucky that he did not wake up in that hellish dark, alone - as Chris always did? Chris pushed off that thought, too, quick and sharp.

"It's never been his fault. I just . . . I couldn't carry guilt for us both." Then he frowned, as he turned a newborn truth in his hands. "Buck was the only one strong enough to do that."

Chris could not abide the soft-eyed understanding that filled the kid's face. He turned his spurs into horse's sides and welcomed the surge of power that carried him ahead, alone. Give me a ride, Buck, give me a ride. Over the drumbeat of his horse's hooves, he could still hear Adam's piping voice, followed by Buck's playful assent, his crooning encouragement. Chris saw again the unabashed affection shining in his tall friend's features, as he held the child snugly on the saddle before him. Strange to realize that he could not remember anything of Buck's reaction, the day they returned to find his world - their world - in ashes. Buck was there, he knew that, but recollection seemed lost in the black, bottomless horror of that waking nightmare. He had almost hated Buck, then, for being there, for offering anything remotely like compassion. This was his Hell, of his own making, and he needed to be - his place was to be - alone with his torment. Then he glimpsed a fleeting fragment of memory . . . a distant figure kneeling hatless and alone at the raw graves, slowly doubling over . . . and Chris had turned away.

Just like he put his back to JD, now, feeling the earth under his flying horse tilt on its axis, wobbling in a crippled orbit. The last piece of his past, of who he had once been, was forever lost in a darkness that rose up around him like a black mist. Whatever Buck Wilmington had believed true of him . . . might have lived only in the believer. Perhaps Chris Larabee was also dead, and this was his Hell. He would remain trapped here forever, while all that he loved blew from him like ashes on a whirlwind. Damn you, Buck. Damn you for leaving me with this.

He felt startled by the voice right at his horse's heels. "Hey, Chris? . . . Whatever you want to do with Bell is fine by me."

Somewhere out in the mesquite, a coyote wailed a thin, mad song, and the long night slowly wearied and died. Calvin Bell . . . can you feel us, behind you?

+ + + + + + +

"It's just a feelin' I got, is all."

Casey sat slumped with her heels idly thumping the boardwalk, and hands clasped in her lap. Beside her, Buck gingerly adjusted his seat on the hard bench they shared. Getting out into the world was no longer a large problem, but doing anything once he was in it was another prospect, entirely. Just the simple stroll to get himself here this morning sucked the sand right out of him, and he averaged about ten hours sleep a day. It had been a week and a half, now, and as the old joke said, he was sick and tired of being sick and tired. Hell, as things stood, he was damned near useless. Never mind that Nathan said that fatigue was a normal part of healing, there was precious little work for a peacekeeper who couldn't even fight his way out of a wet paper bag. As it was, sitting around in the shade with a little girl for company was about his best speed.

Buck smothered a sigh, and put on a coaxing smile. "Now, darlin', don't you go thinkin' like that. You get that lil' wrinkle right there -." He lightly touched between her brows. "And you're too young and too pretty for that."

With an irritable twist of her shoulders, Casey ducked away from his hand and glared at him. "Don't you be treatin' me like a kid, Buck Wilmington. A woman knows when to listen to her intuitions, and mine says that things ain't -." She found herself fumbling over the explanation, and the starch wilted from her again. "I don't know, I just got a bad feelin' about JD. And Chris, too, I guess, since they're together."

"All right, all right." Buck nodded concession. "Just sayin' you do. Now, what do you think could be so bad, hm?" He raised both eyebrows, lowering his head to make earnest eye contact with her. "They're both grown men, and they've been through a lot of scrapes, before. What you got to remember is that they're used to workin' together. Now ain't that right?"

"Yeah." Casey's reply lacked enthusiasm. "He says you all watch each other's backs. But -."

"No 'but,' little girl. Listen to me, now. All they're doin' is goin' after one escaped prisoner. That's it. He's just givin' 'em a good run, is all. You've seen 'em go up against a whole lot worse, with nary a scratch, haven't you? Haven't you?" He waited for her reluctant nod, before going on.

"I know things been kind of upside down, what with me bein' laid up, and JD and Chris both bein' gone, and no word from those boys. This is the longest JD's been gone from you, isn't it? See, I thought so. So it's natural to worry."

"Well, that don't mean I have to like it, now does it?" Again, fire lit her eyes, and Buck raised a pacifying hand.

"Casey," he said gently. "It just means you care. That's what friends do."

Her delicate features registered narrow scrutiny. "Do you worry?"

"Why, sure I do. But I don't let it run away with me. I know those two can take care of themselves, and that they'll be home, soon as they can."

With a thunderous scowl, she snapped, "Not near soon enough for me."

"Aww, now, Casey . . ." Buck softly took one small hand in a brotherly clasp. "Let me tell you somethin', sweetheart. It's all right to miss him. Y' hear?"

He watched the pert features tip up to meet his eyes and he smiled. "Missin' someone you care about just means your heart is gonna be that much happier, when you meet again. So don't let missin' JD make you cross and out of sorts. Missin' somebody is . . ." Buck rolled his free hand as if pulling inspiration from the air. "It's when you think of all the things you like best about 'em. It's when you think about how they smile or somethin' nice they said, or maybe even -." And he grinned as he wagged a finger at her nose. "The last time you kissed 'em!"

"I never!" she gasped, but giggled as she jerked her hand free and swatted his sleeve.

Laughing, Buck sat back. "Well, then you'd darned sure better, just as soon as he gets home!"

"Now, just how am I supposed to do that?"

There was sweet wickedness in her arch smile, and for an instant, Buck saw the woman she would soon be. That pretty, feisty face alight with fire or tenderness, determination or joy, fight or the soft light of love - but only for one man. Buck's vision of perfection was JD and Casey growing old together, with a house full of kids and grandkids, and his most fervent prayer was that JD was awake enough to see it, also. Sometimes he thought the kid did, but others . . .

"Well, that boy's a mite slow, so you might just have to grab him by both ears and lay it on him."

"Buck Wilmington, you are awful!"

She hopped up in a show of outrage, stuck her little chin at him and whirled away - but not before he saw the brilliant smile blooming on her pixie face. Nor did he miss the spring that lightened her step, all the way down the boardwalk. Ah, young love. You'd better get your tail home, JD. There's things a lot more important than what happens to one mangy thief.

As the girl disappeared from sight, a soft step turned his head. Buck's smile faded, as he looked up at a lean, slouching form in buckskin coat and layers of trail dust. Vin dipped his hat brim in greeting, sighed, and hooked his hands in his belt. To the casual eye, his lanky form simply looked relaxed, but Buck saw the tightness in him, like a bow drawn and held there.

"Nothin', huh?"

"Nope." Vin shook his head, narrowed his eyes into the glare of sun beyond the porch roof. "Purgatorio was sealed up tight as Ezra's wallet. Whatever happened down there, nobody wants to talk."

Frowning in puzzlement, Buck asked, "What, Chris booger folks that bad?"

"Not that." Vin's expression softened, vaguely apologetic. "From what I could get, there was a woman killed as part of it, and the boys weren't none too gentle in their dealin's."

"What woman killed?" Buck's expression darkened. "What do you mean?"

"Reckon she knew somethin' she shouldn't, and it seems Bell killed her for it. Folks are either scared, or mad." The tracker shook his head lightly. "Those two made some enemies, this trip."

"Damn." Jaw set, Buck tried to imagine where his two friends could be.

"One big, ugly cuss, he said they promised to kill Calvin Bell. Reckon that dead girl was his."

"Oh, now, that's not right." Buck shook his head firmly. "Chris has his moments, but he's not gonna up and kill a man, just because somebody asks him to. There's more to it than that."

"Reckon so." Shoulder set wearily against the near wall, Vin added, "All that's for sure is they left Purgatorio, and they're still after Bell."

"Well, he's only one man," Buck said. "And at least they got out of Purgatorio in one piece."

A brief snort preceded Vin's wry grin, as he said, "They did pretty well burn that saloon to the ground. Paper didn't lie about that."

"That's our boys," Buck said with a wide smile.

Yet he couldn't help looking down the street yet again, for what he didn't see; a tall, straight form on a handsome black horse, and a shining grin atop a leggy bay. Any day now, boys. Just any day. I'm not any good at missin' you, either.