Candles of the Wicked

by G. M. Atwater


Another day passed, and dragged after it another endless night. At last, the morning brought sunlight to slash at tired eyes, and early burned the sweet coolness of night away. Chris Larabee and JD Dunne rode now in dirty shirtsleeves, coats tied behind their saddles. Beneath them, their horses moved at a steady gait, strong muscles bunching and flexing. Yet they were aware of the deepening hollows in the animals' dusty flanks, the hide drawing tighter on broadly sprung ribs. They buckled their cinches at shorter notches than when they'd started, and they knew they would have to change horses, soon. From stark, tumbled canyons and stony ridges, they rode with soft disbelief into the fertile valley of the Rio Grande. To the east, the Organ Mountains bared jagged teeth, but at their feet, the broad valley lay softly in morning sunlight, shimmering in long, hazy swatches of green. Although still several miles away, they caught brief glimpses of the river, like scraps of curling silver ribbon, beyond dry slopes spiked with ocotillo, yucca, and pungent creosote bush.

Somewhere down there was La Mesilla, a town full of strangers, and JD could not work up any enthusiasm for it. Maybe it was unmanly to admit, even if only to himself, but the fact was, things felt even worse with the others so far away. Off-balance, as Josiah might put it. He'd give anything to see them, all of them, to know that something in this world still fell in the realm of normalcy. What did they do, without Buck? It wasn't supposed to be like this. It wasn't supposed to be little pieces of them scattered apart, some home, some half way to Texas, and one snatched from them, with nothing but a pile of fresh-turned dirt and a painted board to mark his name, his whole life, all because JD got a sniffle and let Buck walk right into a footpad's knife. Please God, there would be word of Bell soon, and an end to this whole mess.

Fatigue rested heavily on men and beasts alike, pressing on their shoulders and tightening sweaty hatbands to a dull ache. It was with relief they saw the cozy sprawl of a small homestead, ahead. Young cottonwood trees leaned, whispering, to either side of a tidy little house, framed by equally neat outbuildings and corrals. Yet what caught their attention was a low, green-patched knoll, with the dark rectangle of a water trough set against it. They turned their horses, following a little lane in. As they drew closer, they noted a well-kept garden beside the house, and amongst rows of green plants, the calico-skirted form of a woman bent, pulling weeds.

She straightened at the muffled clatter of horses' hooves, morning sun framing her soft figure. Her voice rose in brief, clear summons, and two small children appeared in a scampering whirl of calico and curls. With quick gestures, she gathered them close, and stood to meet the newcomers. As they drew near, her hands gently hugged the eldest girl back against her womb, while the youngest, barely more than a toddler, hid behind her skirt.

Chris stopped his horse a dozen yards or so short, and dipped his head to touch his hat brim. "Mornin' ma'am. Sorry to trouble you, but may we water our horses, yonder?"

The woman's eyes flicked from one of them to the other, but she replied in quick, breathy tones. "Yes. Yes, of course."

"Thank you, ma'am. Much obliged."

With a nod, Chris turned his horse, but JD paused, smiling at the wide blue eyes that peered shyly around the woman's hip. Such a perfect little face, her little round cheeks so delicately plump that he imagined they must be soft as a fresh peach. The older child ducked her head under her bonnet, but she still regarded him with the bold, sweet curiosity of a fawn. JD felt his heart turn gently in his chest, and he wished to remember this image; the three of them back-lit in the gentle gold of morning, drifting calico, sun tracing the soft line of cheek and chin, and pale hair curling like corn tassels. Motherhood framed in the sweet magic of a new day.

"What's the baby's name?" JD asked.

The woman's hands tightened on the older girl's shoulders, and she stepped back. Stepped back from him and his words, and there was no missing the tightness in her face, the fragile stiffness in her bearing, like a doe facing a circling wolf.

"Please," she said, and her soft voice seemed squeezed from her. "Just water your horses and go."

Shock struck like a fist in the belly, and JD had no reply. He had neither apology nor thought, as he shut his mouth and wheeled his horse away, and kicked him into a tail-wringing trot. Chris' horse already had its black muzzled submerged deep in cool water, and Milagro shouldered eagerly in beside his mate. JD snatched his canteen from his saddle horn and dropped to the ground.

"Give me yours, Chris, I'll fill it."

He took both canteens, sunk them under the dribble of incoming water, muttered to himself as bubbles gurgled up too slow for his liking. In moments, though, both canteens weighed heavy in his hands, and he slapped in the corks, tossed Chris' back up to him.

"You in a hurry, JD?"

"You might say that."

Yet JD offered no explanation, and swung himself into the saddle. He fixed his stare on the backs of Milagro's ears, until the horse raised his dripping muzzle. Nor did he speak or look back, as they trotted back out to the main road.

Finally, however, Chris said, "Mind tellin' me what's on your mind?"

"No," JD snapped. But he felt Chris' eyes on him, and sighed, a great breath that lifted his shoulders and dropped them sagging. "It's that woman back there. She was scared of us. You know that? Scared."

"Woman home alone, I don't blame her."

"Chris, I never . . . I don't want nobody afraid of me. Not like that."

"Don't worry about it."

"Dammit, Chris! I DO worry. It's one thing if some hard case thinks we're scary or something, but that's a woman! Why, I was just thinkin' how her and those little girls looked as pretty as a picture, and she looked at me like . . ." There were no words for it, and JD's voice dropped to a deeper tone of dejection. "Like I don't know what."

"JD, you gotta admit, we look a little rough. Just forget about it."

"Yeah, maybe you're right."

Yet JD would not forget. The memory lingered like a bruise. What on earth had that poor woman seen? Something more than just a couple dirty travelers, he was sure of that. Nor was she looking at Chris, when she reacted that way. She was looking at JD Dunne.

JD thought of himself, of that drunken cowboy in the tent saloon. He clenched a fist whose knuckles still ached, and felt again the hot, blinding joy of finding something he finally could lay hands on and fight - even if he did pick somebody two sizes too big. And he thought of staring past the sights of his pistol, as the idiot lay sprawled where Chris had thrown him. No question, he'd have shot that man, if the fool had actually managed to drag that gun out of his pants. JD would have shot a man, so as not to get shot himself, yes, just like he would have shot Snake Barnett in Purgatorio, but both had been stupid, pointless fights. Plus he had even made light of that poor deputy in Eagle Bend, as if it were somehow just deserts that Bell had left an honest man addled, maybe forever. God. Had that woman somehow seen this in him? Was he becoming something he never wanted to be? If a stranger saw something bad in him, how long before Casey saw the same? Like a knife-stroke came a vision of Casey's elfin face, those sweet dark eyes suddenly staring at him as he were a stranger, wide and fearful and turning away -.

"We'll probably be in Mesilla in another two hours, or less," Chris said. "Reckon Bell will get rid of that horse, there. We'll have to scout around careful. But I want a decent meal and a bath, too"

Yet no bath in the world could wash off whatever dark thing that woman had seen in them. JD felt coldly, clearly certain of that.

+ + + + + + +

The steaks were good. Everything was good. Eggs perfect, potatoes just right, even some fresh greens on the plate. This was the first hint of an appetite Chris had felt in days, so at least he did not waste it. An adobe complex wrapped around a quiet courtyard, the cozy ambiance of the Corn Exchange Hotel had been a fortuitous find. The small dining area lay squeezed tightly into what had been the old Butterfield stage company office, but the food and cool quiet were long overdue and welcome.

Maybe it was the fact that he sat at a real table, elbows on a real tablecloth, and ate off a real china plate, but Chris found himself actually looking at his young companion for the first time in many long days. JD looked, he thought, like his own ghost. Silent, eyes downcast, wet hair tucked behind his ears, he poked at the first truly proper meal they'd had in over two weeks with complete indifference. He had almost fallen asleep in his bath, which Chris could hardly fault him for, but the kid failed to revive even after they indulged in the bliss of hot shaves and a fresh-bought change of clothes. Granted, every step he had made so far, JD unquestioningly, unflinchingly mirrored. Yet now the older man felt the scraping edges of both impatience and chagrin. JD was not who he would have chosen to come with him on this. Nothing against the kid, personally, but take now, for instance. No matter how hard Chris might drive himself, he belatedly recognized that what his young partner needed was a good meal and a good night's sleep, and dammit, he would have to accommodate that. Buck would be all over them both, for not -.

"Eat," Chris said. "Food's gettin' cold."

"What?" Dark eyes stared at him blankly, then blinked. "Oh, sorry."

Chris shook his head, forked up another bite of steak. Give JD a shave, a combing, and a white shirt, and he looked all of seventeen years old. Throw in a good dose of exhaustion, and he acted even younger. Yet this was the same damned fool whom he had watched swarm all over some bulldog of a cowboy - Where did he get that crazy streak, anyhow?

"We'll get a room, right after we finish. JD?" Chris waited until the dark head came up again. "You all right?"

"Yeah. Just tired."

Kid never could tell a fib. Any other time, he looked a man right, square in the eyes. Now his glance slid away, focused intently on sawing at a steak that was actually so tender he could cut it with a butter knife. Damn. He'd been pushing JD too hard. He had no business taking advantage of his loyalty like this, loyalty like a good horse that would run until its heart burst.

"Speak," Chris ordered.

JD scowled sharply, but then Chris watched defiance melt right off his young face. The kid swallowed, seemed to gather himself, and met his gaze straight on.

"Well, Chris," he said. "I saw a telegraph office down the street. I reckon while you find us a room, I'll go ahead and uh, wire back home."

There, he'd said it. The simplest words, but the meaning behind them twisted Chris' belly into a hard knot. Somehow, JD still clung to a thin hope that Buck yet lived. That damned loyalty, again, and for a red instant, Chris wanted to reach across the table and shake the hell out of him. Hardheaded little fool wouldn't even give in to the Grim Reaper, himself. It was going to be tough, when the realities of life finally set in. Yet the young man's expectant stare never wavered, and Chris found himself looking down at his plate.

"No. I'll do that."

"All right."

JD nodded, once, acknowledging his leader's right to shoulder the greater burden. The bright clink of silverware on china was the only sound for a long moment. Then JD marshaled his thoughts and spoke.

"I'll get us a room, then. And I'll ask where any other livery stables are, see if we find anything of that black horse of Bell's. He's probably traded him off for a fresh horse, by now."

Chris nodded in reply, turned back to his plate. At least now the kid was thinking. Finally they both were. The time had come to make a plan, not just run like hounds after a coyote. While he was sending wires, he should also contact Judge Travis, and see that a proper warrant had been issued. Not the same as having the real thing in hand, but it would lend them the color of the law, when they finally got Bell under wraps. If JD uncovered something in his perambulations around town, all the better. JD was calling in his reserves for his leader's sake, Chris knew. But if the kid was going to ride this out, it was better he stayed focused on the task at hand, than lose himself in that damned Irish gloom.

Then a mouthful of potatoes went down like lead, as a cold thought hit him. What would JD do, if and when the reply confirmed that Buck Wilmington was truly gone? The possibilities were all ugly as a whiplash, and suddenly Chris wished mightily that he did not have to be the one to pick up the pieces.

+ + + + + + +


Buck Wilmington's bellow clapped off walls and storefronts, and Vin turned to see his friend striding down the walk towards him. One long arm sharply waved a folded newspaper over his head, and displeasure radiated off every inch of the man's tall frame. Nathan would not be pleased, if he saw Buck stomping around at this rate.

"Dos Colinas? This side of Mesilla," Vin replied warily. "Just a wide spot in the road. Why?"

"Because THAT is where Chris and JD are!" Buck fairly seethed, shoving the words through tight jaws. He came to a halt and stuck his chin out. "Or where they were, the last time they tried to get their fool heads blown off. What in HELL are they doin'?"

"You've raised me out, pard. Better deal that hand again."

"I'm talkin' about this!" Buck thrust the paper in Vin's face, and the tracker flinched back with a grimace.

"Easy, now. What you got there?"

"Oh, you're gonna love this. Listen to what Mary just gave me." Unfolding the newspaper and holding it stiffly before him, Buck began to read in broad, angry sarcasm. "Word around the town today is that local sporting man Digger O'Neal is joining the Temperance League. He testified to friends this morning that, during yesterday's foray to Dos Colinas camp, demon rum nearly induced him to commit suicide, upon the six-gun of noted shootist Chris Larabee and a companion known only as The Kid. While in the grip of delirium tremens, Friend Digger became enamored of a vision of himself as a pistoleer, but their extraordinary prowess in that art swiftly dissuaded him. Digger is earnest in his declarations of per- of perpetual sobriety, but the boys are laying bets as to how long his conversion will last."

In a swift gesture, Buck crushed the paper and slapped it against his leg. "That's what Mary got in the mail this morning. It's already a couple days old, a story in the Mesilla Independent. She's gonna put it in tomorrow's paper. Vin, what in hell are they doin'?"

Eyebrows raised, Vin offered, "Chasin' Calvin Bell?"

"By gettin' in gun fights every fifty miles?" Abruptly Buck jerked two fingers up, and dropped his voice to tense quietness. "That's twice, Vin. First they try and burn Purgatory down, now they're shootin' up saloons half way to -." He flung both hands in exasperation. "Where are they goin', anyhow?"

Shrugging, Vin said, "Texas, I reckon."

"Texas." With a thunderous frown, Buck dropped his arms to his sides and bent to peer at Vin, eye-level to the shorter man. "And why Texas, you mind tellin' me?"

"That's where JD found out Bell was from. Remember?"

Thumbs in his belt, Vin observed the irate gunslinger with mild patience. If he just let Buck sound off, soon he'd get back around to clear thinking. The crease between Buck's brows deepened, as he laid a hand to his injured belly and straightened up. Vin guessed there was as much physical hurt as mental aggravation, in that gesture. Temper and a healing knife wound weren't the best mix.

"So you think they're going clear to Texas, huh?" Buck turned his glance down the street, as if he might see Texas from there. "Hell, that's near two hundred miles."

"What it sounds like, to me. Unless Bell holes up in Mesilla or Las Cruces."

With a frustrated growl, Buck turned and glared out across the busy street. People and riders and buggies, and a wagon heavy with sacks of whatever, all passed before him in sturdy industry. The world went on about its business, while two of their own rode merrily off into God knows what trouble. Nor did those two seem in the least inclined to avoid it.

"They're big boys, Buck, and Bell is only one man. We know they got out of Purgatorio in one piece. I wouldn't worry about 'em, just yet."

"I'M NOT -!" He caught himself. "Worried."

"Seen a flyin' pig last week, too. Helluva thing."

Buck snapped his head around, jaw clenched under his moustache, but then saw the twinkle lurking in the tracker's blue eyes. His shoulders slumped, and his guts gave a protesting twinge, as he sighed around a grudging smile.

"Ah, damn, Vin, it's just that neither of 'em got a lick of sense. The thought of those two loose together, why, it plumb puckers me."

Tanner's white teeth shone in silent laughter, and he shifted to stand at Buck's shoulder. "I'm thinkin' we can send a telegram to Mesilla, see if we can catch 'em there."

"Yeah, we could." His broad hat brim dipped, as Buck met Vin's calm gaze. "I'd just as soon they come on back home. Those two been gone at least two weeks, now, and I reckon that's enough time wasted. If Bell's gone back to Texas, then let Texas have him. Man like that, I figure he's gonna meet a rope some day, anyhow."

Vin nodded, then his brows slowly drew together. Paper rustled and crackled, as Buck tried to reshape the wrinkled page into flat folds, but a suspicion began to take shape, in the tracker's mind. Finally, he lifted his chin to look at Buck. He could see the weight of weariness again bowing those broad shoulders, and knew his injured friend had about used his strength up, just in this bit of temper. A shame he had to add to that weight, but . . . .

"Those papers . . . They always send news to each other? Like Mary gettin' this from Mesilla?"

"Yeah, somethin' like that. She calls it the 'exchange' or some such. They send each other papers, and look for news from around the country and other parts of the Territory, or stuff that just sounds interesting."

"And all papers do this?"

"Pretty much, I suppose, yeah." Buck frowned in puzzlement. "Why you askin'?"

"What if . . .?" Now Vin turned his gaze off down the street, into sun-baked distance. "What if they seen that Ridge City article about you bein' dead?"

Shock widened Buck's eyes, when Vin looked back, but then doubt etched itself large across his face. "Well, you'd think they'd at least ask. I mean, send a wire or somethin'."

"Maybe they couldn't. Ain't no telegraph in Purgatorio. Ain't any in lots of places."

Skepticism and concern shaped the grimace now on Buck's face. "Aw, they wouldn't believe something like that. Newspapers say all sorts of stuff, and I hardly believe half of it."

"How bad you reckon you looked, when they saw you last?"

"I don't know. I wasn't even awake to . . ." His hand again went to his belly, a delicate touch reminding him of just how close it had been. "Aww, damn."

"Guess we'd best send a telegram." Vin stepped off the porch, with Buck right behind him. "How you spell 'Chris,' anyhow?"

+ + + + + + +

Mesilla drowsed in the sweltering glare of mid-day, an hour that JD had become unused to seeing. Normally they were holed up and sleeping, by now, and his body reminded him of that. A bath and an honest meal like to have done him in. Who'd have thought a man's own legs could get heavy? Heck, all of him felt pounded with a mallet, muscles rendered down to such tight weariness that even his brain seemed to float numbly in his head. Random spots under his clothes still ached, from that stupid fight in Dos Colinas, and the heat clamped around him like a vise. Easier to just not think, to focus on one small thing at a time. Two livery stables thus far knew nothing of Calvin Bell or his horse, but this town was big enough that JD anticipated an afternoon's search.

The Corn Exchange Hotel was one of the more imposing adobe buildings that fronted the broad town square, and JD found himself once again standing at its front door. Probably their rooms would be a bit rich, but what the heck, he and Chris were due a clean room and a soft bed, at least for one night. The front door creaked and jingled under his hand, and the coolness of high ceilings and whitewashed walls embraced him, as he let the door fall closed, behind him. He saw no one, not in the sleepy parlor by the entrance, nor behind the carved desk. A little brass bell sat there for summonsing the invisible desk clerk, but he felt reluctant to act that impatient. Maybe if he just waited a few minutes, someone would show up. The guest register lay open, and JD turned it, idly scanning the myriad of names and handwriting samples. Someone was actually named Percival P. Pemberton? He imagined a thin man with no chin, spectacles, and a bow tie that was always crooked. Wow, and E. C. Eyres had come all the way from someplace unpronounceable in France. What on earth had he been doing here?

The door jangled and JD turned. Chris stood framed black against white sun beyond.

"Ticket agent says Bell caught the last stage to El Paso, afternoon before yesterday. The next one leaves in forty minutes."

Thud. JD's belly congealed to lead. "Did you get a reply from the boys?"

"Not yet. Operator says trouble with the lines today. If we don't hear back soon . . . Well, the next stage east is day after tomorrow."

"We could rent fresh horses -."

"El Paso is still about fifty miles away. Stage is quicker, and we'll be better rested."

Suddenly there was too much to do, in the short time left to them. First, they made sure their horses would be cared for, a week's board paid in advance. Then they gathered their belongings and tramped back to the other end of the village square. There a scrolled sign read "San Antonio-El Paso Mail," outside a narrow adobe. Inside the cramped office, a man in a green eyeshade sat amid a pile of papers.

"Two of you?" he drawled.

"Right," Chris replied.

The man peered up at them, pencil poised. "How much baggage?"

"How much it cost?"

JD tapped his fingers on his gun butts impatiently, as the man laboriously went about figuring their fare, baggage weight, and droned on about times of departure, et cetera. Beyond the dirty window, across the street another plain sign announced "Telegraph Office." Chris had already sent a short message. Any moment now, they should be getting a reply back. JD tried to picture a runner from the telegraph office back home, tracking down Ezra or Josiah or whoever was handy. Surely, it could not take long for one of the boys to be found, and to make his reply. Maybe it had already come in, and waited over there for them to walk in the office. Abruptly his stomach clamped into an iron knot, and his mouth went dry. Then they would know. Buck was either -. Chris was talking to him, and JD dug in his pockets, pulled out crumpled bills, dropped a nickel that rolled off somewhere out of sight.

"Sorry," he mumbled, and counted out his fare. He fumbled that, too, and the clerk gave him a patient look, handed back over-payment. Before long, he would be flat broke.

When Chris turned to leave, JD almost trampled on his heels, then hop-stepped around him to reach the door first. Their boots clomped hollowly on board walk, then Chris grabbed him, hard, and JD looked up as a buggy rushed past in a clattering blur.

"Watch where you're going, JD."

Across the street they went, in glaring sun and into another tiny, stifling office. The telegrapher looked up at their entrance, pencil behind one ear.

"No reply yet, sir," he said to Chris, and his grimace turned apologetic. "The wires have been up and down, though, and messages are just stacked up. Some truly dreadful thunder showers to the west. We've got men working on it."

Thundershowers? Outside again, JD looked up at the scorching, brassy sky, and wondered how on earth a cloud could survive, anywhere. A body would think any rain would instantly transform into steam.

Chris meanwhile hunkered on his heels outside the express office, where they had piled their gear. He became engrossed in double-checking how his stirrups were tied up, preparing his saddle for transport. JD, however, could not sit still, and paced a tight circuit on the walk, with his hands braced on his guns. If he could just grab hold and move something - hell, he'd be glad to fix that stupid telegraph line, himself. Soon Chris had a cheroot lit, and appeared lost in that small pleasure.

"Don't it drive you crazy?" JD burst out. "Just sittin' here, waitin'?"

Chris looked up, let smoke drift in a soft wisp. "Not near so crazy as your pacing."

"Ah!" With that brief growl, JD turned, and slid down the wall to sit next to Chris. "Sorry."

Taking a deep breath, he tried to school himself to patience. Found his fingers drumming on his knees. Hell! Finally, he reached into his saddlebags and pulled out a pencil.

"I wonder if they got an extra piece of paper in there."

"Have to ask."

Up he bounded, strode into the express office, and was back in a moment. Then he sat down, and propped his saddlebags as a makeshift writing desk. At least he could write to Casey, let her know where he was. He noticed Chris eyeballing the sun, probably watching the time, and bent over the paper, licked the pencil tip. But what could he say? In his mind's eye, JD saw her bright, pixie face, felt things in him sort of sigh and relax. Saw the sweet, stubborn line of her little chin, that funny, dainty nose, and those beautiful brown eyes that laughed and snapped fire and scattered his thoughts every which way. And her smile, oh, he could see that, the most perfect white teeth, and her lips so delicate - he really should just kiss her, some day. Truly kiss her. Then maybe she'd let him hug her, again. Hm, now there was a thought to warm a man's belly, in most interesting ways . . .

The dark aroma of Chris' cheroot pinched his nose, jolting him back. Once more, JD's attention strayed to the telegraph office across the street. Two weeks. It had been almost two weeks. If Buck was going to live or die, the condition was definite, by now. Did he still have hope? JD had tried not to allow it, had tried to be prepared for the worst, and thought he was. Yet his insides sank like a steel ball, every time he thought of what that incoming message might say. He felt himself teetering on the brink of a bottomless cliff, and it was just him and Chris, and a whole town full of people who had no reason to give a damn. Oh, Casey, it was never supposed to be like this . . .

He finished the letter. Folded it carefully. Wondered where the post office was. Wondered when the stage would get there. Wondered when the telegraph would be back up. Realized he was tapping the folded paper repeatedly on his saddlebags, when Chris spoke.


He stilled his hand, turned to see Chris eyeing him patiently. Then Chris leaned back to dig into his pockets, pulling out change.

"Why don't you find some place to make us a couple sandwiches to take along?"

Grateful for something that kept him in motion, JD got up and set off down the walk, glancing at signs along the street and across the plaza. A small restaurant announced its presence with a colorfully lettered window, and JD entered to succulent scents of baking and something beef. Certainly, they could have sandwiches for him in just moments. He almost smiled at being called "sir."

Outside again, with lunch wrapped in paper, he squinted into the white glare of the desert day. The plaza shimmered as if under a fine layer of water, a cruel bit of trickery played by a heartless sun. The only real shade seemed to be at the near end of the square, where trees whispered to the tiled roof of the San Albino mission, and squads of grey-purple pigeons marched a jerky sentry-beat before the sturdy walls. In his imagination, that cool, sweet shade breathed invitation like a waterfall breathes mist. However, JD felt himself tighten, narrowly eyeing that promise of gentle sanctuary, and knowing that for him, there would be no peace there. God had turned His face away, and JD would only be hammering against a barred door, no matter if every lock on the building was open.

He pivoted sharply away, turned his back towards the church, walking up the flowing ripple of his shadow but never treading on it. People brushed his elbows in passing, but he was a stranger, here, and no smiles waited to be framed around his name, in greeting. Stores breathed varied scents as he walked, one smelling strongly of coffee and spices, another of tobacco, yet another exhaling the rich, warm fragrance of leather. JD stopped. The gleaming square of window beside him reflected his own image. Strange, that he looked no different from when he had left his own town. Same too young face, same hair down to his collar. Maybe kind of tired-looking. Studying his solemn image, he watched that other face scowl, and abruptly shifted his vision to note the display shelf inside the window, where several pairs of boots stood in brief, orderly ranks. Handsome work, with the rich patina of a skilled finishing hand, and the smooth lines of a master craftsmen. Each pair was unique in details and color, yet a sameness caught his eye - each boot had somewhere on it a black star, artfully worked into the leather.

The breath left him, and JD leaned one hand on the glass, flinching back as the pane bonked his hat brim. Black stars. Just like Buck had on his boots. He raised his head, looked at the painted lettering on the gleaming glass surface, just above eye-level. Copely's. Best boots a man can put on his feet. Trust me, kid, your toes will smile, you ever get down there and get a pair of Copely's. The man knows boots.

"Help you, son?"

JD jerked back, knew he gaped at the man in the doorway. Saw a stained canvas work apron, honest features, but JD would never remember what the shopkeeper looked like, never had any inkling if this was Copely, himself.

"No . . . no, I just - I had a friend with a pair of these - 'Scuse me."

Finish it. That's what Chris would say. Ride this thing out and see it done. See Calvin Bell get whatever justice the moment called for. And just then, JD Dunne had no particular qualms about how pretty the packaging on that justice should be.

He joined Chris with their gear by the stage office, pretending not to notice Chris' questioning glance, as he dropped the wrapped sandwiches in his lap. A clattering rumble and a ringing shout brought their heads up, moments later. They stood, as the stage hurtled down the street in a heavy rush of wood, iron and horseflesh. Dust and confusion wrapped around the arrival of the stage, and JD looked again across the street.

"Chris, do we -."

"Once more," he replied.

Nothing. Sorry. The wires are still down. The telegrapher looked up with a small, sympathetic smile. If they wanted, when the lines were working again, he would pass along a personal message to the telegrapher at their home office that they had been unable to wait for a reply. Chris agreed, but JD swallowed hard on a dull, sick sensation. What else had he expected? There was nothing to learn, nothing to know that they did not, already.

"Say, mister?" JD held the letter he had written to Casey across the desk. "If I give you the money, would you please post this for me?"

"You bet, son."

He held himself in careful stillness, until he saw the shotgun messenger give the baggage a final mash and shut the boot, until he hear the call, "All aboard." Chris embarked first, and JD settled on the worn cushions beside him, both ignoring two other passengers. The emptiness yawned in him again, crowding painfully up under his heart. Nothing had changed, saving only their mode of transportation. Calvin Bell remained somewhere ahead of them, and suddenly finding him was like the need to cure a belly cramp. Finish this. Finish this, dammit -. JD tried to visualize the man's face, and swallowed the clutch of panic, when he could not call it to mind with clarity. Brown eyes, busted tooth . . . but he would know him. Oh, yes, he would know him.

The coach jerked and rumbled forward, then shuddered to faster and faster speed, as Mesilla swept away to either side. Buildings and trees, drowsy adobe walls and blank human faces at last gave way to broad fields and dust. Chris Larabee noted JD's surrender to exhaustion, how the kid's head lolled against the back of the seat in a way that could not be comfortable. That observation came with a wash of irritation at being crammed into a damned hot stagecoach, with an unconscious body that was bound to sag over on him, eventually. Then he kicked himself, that he would begrudge the kid rest in any form he could get it. The sun blazed outside, but somewhere along the way, he and JD had become frozen in a perpetual twilight of the soul. Hell, let him sleep. In moments, Chris was just as gone. As they slept, the stage rocked steadily southeast, along the valley of the Rio Grande.

Behind them, the telegrapher peered out his office door, with a yellow slip of paper in his hand and a mild frown on his face. Then he sighed, knowing the intended recipients were long gone.

+ + + + + + +

The corrugated dry hills lay bathed in gold, but the lavender haze of evening slowly filled the valley, by the time they rattled down the foothills of the Franklin Mountains. Windows blinked the first brief squares of lamplight as the stage surged into its final, homeward rush into El Paso, trailing a cloud of pink-gold dust. JD leaned his head back on the jiggling coach wall, but straightened as the coach whapped through a pothole. Then the driver bellowed his halt, the brake ground painfully, and talc-like dust rolled around them as the coach shuddered to a halt. JD flipped the door latch, let another gentleman step out first, and waited while the man handed his wife to the street. Then he used the space to begin collecting things, his rifle, his hat, his sense of balance.

Only a station attendant appeared to greet the stage and its cargo. As JD's feet found solid ground, amber dusk and warm evening air embraced him and filled his dusty lungs. The sleepy adobe walls gathered shadows that spilled softly across the boardwalks, spiced with the fragrant scent of mesquite smoke from unseen cook fires. El Paso, Texas. Apparently asleep on its collective feet, but here Calvin Bell may have run to earth.

He caught Chris' saddle as the shotgun messenger handed it down, and then his older companion was beside him, awaiting the rest of their gear. Chris asked the messenger about hotels, decent food. In moments, they were walking, with boots clumping hollowly and the weight of saddles, weapons, and bedrolls pulling at their shoulders. This was it, Calvin Bell's presumed destination. Would he stop here? Was he already running again, forever the fox ahead of the hounds? Or, was he even now slinking through the dim alleys like a mangy cat? Eyes searching the sidewalks along the drowsy street, JD began mentally rehearsing exactly how he would drop everything and bring his rifle into play, if he saw the least hint of trouble.



"He's not the bogey man."

JD scowled up at Chris' sly look, and wondered if Chris was turning into a mind-reader. "I never thought he was."


An unbidden chuckle snorted its way out, and JD shook his head. "Aw, heck, Chris, I'm just payin' attention to our surroundings."

"Good man."

JD was unsure whether Chris meant that, or if he was still teasing, but he made sure he kept his scrutiny of the purpled shadows keen. After all, they had both seen trouble explode out of dead quiet, before this. Then he startled himself with the slashing force of a wish that Bell would just give them the chance.