Candles of the Wicked

by G. M. Atwater


They stirred a desk clerk from his Police Gazette, and dumped their gear in a small but clean second-floor room. Then Chris led the way to a cantina the stage company's shotgun messenger had recommended. With another decent meal pushing back the memory of too many days on coyote rations, he opted for a shot of what turned out to be good whiskey. Beside him, JD sipped a beer, but under the narrow brim of his bowler hat, the kid's eyes remained wary as a coyote's. Not much they could do until morning, but Chris' thoughts continued forward, as the smoky elixir burned a friendly path to his belly. Someone here would know Calvin Bell, or know of him. JD's demeanor must be contagious, as Chris found himself also surreptitiously noting faces around the room. No, Calvin Bell would not be right here, amongst lights and people and the chance of capture by the men he must suspect were following him. He'd apparently said as much, in that tent saloon at Dos Colinas. But Bell was close by. He would be lying low, planning his next move. As Chris should be planning theirs. An impulse whispered, and he turned to lean his elbows on the bar and flag the bartender's attention.

"Beer chaser?" the man asked, with a nod at the bottle beside Chris' elbow.

"Not just yet. Got a question. Didn't a fellow by the name of Calvin Bell used to work here? I'm trying to recall where I knew him." Chris aimed a bright grin at the bartender. "He mixed a mean Stone Fence."

The bartender shook his head. "Not here," he replied. "But he was down the street, think at the Alhambra."

"That's right." Chris nodded and smacked a hand on the bar. "He still around?"

"Nope, not in a while. Heard he was up in New Mexico Territory or someplace."

"All right, thanks. Oh, and I'll take that beer, after all."

Chris turned his back to the bar, holding a beer he did not really want. So . . . Bell was known, here. Probably had friends. That's what the bartender at Dos Colinas had thought For that matter, so had Simon, back in Purgatorio. Likely Bell was hiding among some of those friends, even now.

"He's holed up somewhere."

Chris turned at JD's comment, noted how tension tightened things across the fine bones of the young man's features. Lately the kid appeared so glued to his hip that he never missed a move Chris made, and now he chewed over what the bartender had said.

"Looks like that," Chris replied.

"Those telegrams I got back . . . Bell was run out of San Antonio, then had some trouble in Del Rio. That's south along the river from here." Dark eyes met Chris' solemnly. "This is just a little further along the same stage line. It makes sense he was here, last, then went on to New Mexico. Now . . . I guess he's just come on back where he's got friends."

Nodding, Chris absorbed that information, tried to build upon it. They needed to ask questions, but since they had to assume Bell indeed had friends here, they would have to be mighty clever about it. Ask the wrong questions, ask the wrong person, and Bell would be gone, again, just like in Purgatorio.

"Which means," JD added. "The trick will be to find him, without somebody tipping him off that we're here."

Chris sighed and sipped his beer, stared unseeing at framed lithographs on the far wall. Bell might not know for sure anyone followed him, but he would not take chances, and he would recognize their faces as the law from the town he had just fled. Probably the smart thing to do was go at this thing straight up, talk to whoever the law was in this town, and put a boot up Bell's ass before he knew the kick was coming. Meanwhile, however, they really did not need to be here, right in public view.

"We should try for some sleep." JD looked into his half-drank beer, then back at Chris. "Maybe we shouldn't be where people can see us, too much."

Chris met that clear-eyed gaze, felt the hair crawl on the back of his head. Damn, that was three times in five minutes.

"Finish up. I want to talk to whoever the law in this town is." Seeing JD's questioning look, he quirked a small grin. "We might as well parley with a brother officer. After all, you're in law enforcement now, too."

"Huh!" Dark eyes widened, and then kid straightened his shoulders. "Guess I am, at that."

Something in Chris hitched painfully, at that. Just a flash of the old, cocky kid, and he damned again the sorry fates that, in the next three paces, saw that youthful spark dim again to watchful stillness. Damn you, too, Buck . . .

+ + + + + + +

Darkness wrapped the desert in warm, velvet arms, as the two walked the quiet ways of El Paso. A narrow adobe building on a side street shone a single glowing window, upon which the letters "marshal" hung darkly silhouetted. Inside, the badly papered walls hunched around a clutter of file cabinets, weapons racks, desks and shelving, amongst which a lanky man sat poring over a newspaper. The man looked up, but never moved his elbows from the desk.

"I help you?" he asked. A twanging Texas drawl stretched the words like a pull of taffy, to, "Ah help yew?"

Chris stopped before the desk, aware of JD posted watchfully near the door behind him. "I'm lookin' for the town marshal, or chief of police, or whatever you got here."

"Reckon I'll do." The man sat back, his chair squeaking painfully on its swivel. In that same jaw-popping twang, he drawled, "I'm Officer Meeks, senior deputy in town. Marshal's likely in bed, by now."

The ruddy face crinkled in a web of crow's feet, the features of a man who had seen long days under a desert sun. Perhaps a one-time cowboy who had turned to the better wages of town, Chris supposed. As a man got older, the prospects of bronc horses, long hours, and lousy pay held less appeal.

"Name's Chris," said Chris. "I'm expecting a wire that will authorize me to arrest a man we've trailed to this town."

"Authorized by who?"

"Territorial Judge Orin Travis, of New Mexico." Chris raised a hand to stave the protests he saw forming in the man's eyes. "And I know a territorial judge got no jurisdiction in Texas. But it's a murder warrant, and I'm here to ask your help. Seein' as how this is your town, I figure you would know best how to find the man."

Tiny crow's feet creased the high bones of Meeks' sunburned cheeks, as he surveyed them narrowly. Likely it was to their favor that they had cleaned off the trail dirt while in Mesilla, or they would look at least as bad as the man they were following.

Apparently they passed muster, for Meeks then asked, "You bounty hunters?"

"No. Judge Travis just hired us to keep the peace in our town."

After a slow nod, Meeks asked, "Well, who is this fearsome feller of yours?"

"Man named Calvin Bell. Word is he used to live here."

The officer's expression soured and his gaze narrowed again. "Him? He's back?"

"You know him?" JD pounced on that notice with a half step forward.

"Yeah, I know him," Meeks growled. "Two-bit footpad, and lackey for the bigger coyotes in town. So, he's finally graduated to murder, eh?"

"Twice," JD said, fingers tightening on his gun butts. "A woman in -."

"And a deputy sheriff back home," Chris interrupted, shooting a warning look over his shoulder. No need to let on it was a whore in Mexico, or that Buck was a personal friend. "Plus he stove in the skull of a deputy at Eagle Bend, when he broke out of jail there."

Meeks sighed and pursed his lips, as if contemplating a mess that would be odious to clean up. "I'm kind of surprised he's back. He skedaddled ahead of a burglary and assault warrant, and word was that his boss was mighty unhappy. Bell brought attention they didn't want."

"This boss of his . . .?" Chris cast the man a questioning look.

"Bunko-steerer by the name of Dutch LeBeau."

"Dutch LeBeau?" JD snorted derisively. "Makes about as much sense as 'Mexican Jones'."

Ignoring that aside, the policeman continued. "Word is he was run out of San Antonio a couple years back. Had some sort of racket going, there, and the big bugs finally put the squash on him. Bell was supposed to be one of his boys. Like I said, he vamoosed a few months back, on account of a burglary and assault charge. As for LeBeau, since comin' here, there ain't much we can pin on him, but it's common knowledge he and his boys got a finger in most every pot in town. Nobody out and says anything, but word is, there ain't a game played or a pot won in this town, but they don't get something from it."

Meeks tipped his head back, eyeing them with an eyebrow raised. "Word is, he can make unfortunate accidents happen to people. Word is, the folks with money pay him to make sure no 'accidents' happen."

Chris was not impressed. "That worry you?"

"Nope." Meeks leaned back to indulge in a smirk, and laced his fingers behind his head. "Hell, ain't no man bullet-proof. I ever get anything that says I can put LeBeau in a poke, I'll step right up to the scratch."

Chris noted JD stood half-turned and slowly shaking his head, but he kept his attention on Officer Meeks. "Well, soon as I get a wire off to Judge Travis, I'll have something that'll ruin the day for at least one of LeBeau's boys. That set right with you?"

"Right as rain." Meeks shone a toothy grin. "I got a nice, empty cell with Bell's name on it."

Chris digested that with no comment. Sometimes it was best to just let the yard dog bark until the master came home.

"Will the marshal be in, if I drop by in the morning?"

"You bet. I'll make sure he knows you're comin'."

"Good. Your telegraph office open this time of night?"

Meeks nodded. "Should be. Night operator comes on at nine. Two blocks up thataway, turn left. Can't miss it."

"Thanks. G'night, then." Chris touched the brim of his hat, and turned away, with JD at his heels.

Once outside on the dark boardwalk, Chris said quietly, "Figure we'll see the marshal tomorrow, early. Figure then we can get some real cooperation. Hell, maybe the town law can just scoop Bell up on his way to the privy in the morning."

JD nodded, accepting that course of action. "So, what next?"

"Get a wire off to Judge Travis, let him know we likely got Bell cornered." Chris cast a sidelong glance at his young companion. "Well?"

Passing lamplight revealed a blank look. "Well what?"

"You don't think much of Officer Meeks."

Statement, not question, and JD did not protest. Rather, he gave a crooked grin and exhaled sharply, as if clearing a bad smell from his throat.

"He's barkin' at the fence," JD pronounced. "But he don't dare go out the gate."

Chris opted for no comment, but the silence prompted JD to scowl up at his partner, with his thumbs hooked in his gun belt as he walked. "Heck, you saw him. Talks tough, but did he offer to help us? No. All he said was he had an empty cell. If LeBeau's such a bad man, why don't they just lock him up or run him out of town?"

"Man like LeBeau, with a pack of hard cases following him, he could be real trouble. Make accidents happen. If a man's got a family, that's something to think about."

"Maybe so," JD conceded, although the stubborn tilt of his chin indicated other thoughts. "But Officer Meeks wasn't wearin' no wedding ring. All he's got to save is his own hide."

Chris let the conversation die there, having frankly no interest in debating the merits of Officer Meeks any further, when the morning promised a good talk with the man's boss. They found the telegraph operator elbow-deep in a file cabinet, crammed into a tiny office off the main plaza. The congested room looked as if a whirlwind had just blown through, but the portly little man gave off an air of attacking the chaos with bustling determination. He handed over two telegraph forms and a pencil with brisk efficiency, and returned to his filing, until he as quickly swept up the notes Chris scribbled. Pudgy fingers rattled over the key faster than would have seemed possible.

"Mr. Larabee, will you be expecting a reply from either your Judge Travis or Mr. Standish?" The little man peered up at them from his key.

From the corner of his eye, Chris noted the little electric jolt that straightened JD, at the mention of Ezra's name. Here they were again, hanging on the telegraph wire.

"Probably not until morning," Chris replied, as much for JD's benefit as the operator's. "I'll check back."

"I can send a boy to notify you, soon as it comes in."

"Fine." Chris nodded. "We're at the Ruby Hotel."

Outside again, their boot heels thumped on hollow boards for a moment, and JD watched his toes pace ahead of him. Chris slanted a glance at the kid, saw the stiffness fixed on his face. He needed the kid to focus on the job at hand, and it troubled him that he could neither read nor predict JD's state of mind. Not knowing things was what got a man killed, and given present circumstances, he could not help but feel that JD was a wild card.

Meanwhile, he had to weigh the facts at hand. LeBeau had carved himself a neat little niche here, probably with a mix of veiled threats, and operations kept too discreet to goad the law. However diligent a man the town marshal might be, with no proven crimes, or no witnesses willing to testify, there would be little he could do. That might be the pattern LeBeau used in San Antonio, according to what they had learned back home. Unquestionably, he was the sort of wolf a jackal like Bell would follow. It remained to be seen whether the local law could simply scoop up Bell, on that outstanding burglary-assault warrant Meeks had spoken of, or whether LeBeau's protection would prove a larger obstacle. Chris could only hope the kid kept his wits about him, now. The game had suddenly acquired new and unknown players, and that was an uncomfortable feeling. He wished Vin were here. That man brought inconspicuous to a high art.

"Best we get some shut-eye," Chris said. "We'll want an early start in the morning."

Chris almost dared hope the end was in sight, as he blew out the lamp in their room, and seated himself by the window to think. Dark streets swallowed the shadows below, a few lamps gleaming along the walks, but no one moved within his view. However, he was too much in the habit of nighttime wakefulness, now, and rest would not come easily. Settled comfortably in an upholstered chair, he glanced over at the motionless figure stretched on the bed, mop of dark hair on the pillow. JD did not sleep, either; he sensed that in the electric stillness that clung to the kid like a fog. Both of them were tired, damn tired, with only a few hours broken sleep on the stage ride down. However, their minds refused to let their bodies rest.

They were here, in the same town, breathing the same air, as Calvin Bell. He felt certain of that. If trouble had run Bell out of Del Rio and San Antonio, it made no sense that he would keep going to get back in it. No, it made sense that he would stay here, where he had some hope of security, and perhaps LeBeau to shelter him. Yet, with any luck, once they talked to the town marshal in the morning, they might have Bell in custody and get this whole thing wrapped up. After all, their murder warrant post-dated and certainly outweighed El Paso's old charges, and it would benefit the town to simply be rid of the man. Then they could leave El Paso and Dutch LeBeau to enjoy each other's company. Damn, wouldn't that be something? To be done with it, by this time tomorrow. There was no joy in that thought, however. Just the suturing of wounds that would ache long after visible scars were gone. He need only look at that too-quiet youngster he'd been riding with, to see the truth of that.

The darkness crept closer, and Chris at last lay down to court the fickle embrace of sleep. He held himself from tossing, lest he disturb JD. Yet he almost dreaded sleep's claim on him, for now his wretched dreams included a tall friend with laughter in his eyes, and a mustached grin as broad as a Texas horizon . . .

+ + + + + + +

"El Paso?" Ezra exclaimed. "Good lord, at this rate, they'll be in New Orleans by mid week."

The telegrapher's boy bounced briefly on his heels, on the edge of the board walk, waiting while Ezra absently fished in a pocket. Then he snatched the coin that Ezra offered, and scampered away into the warm summer night. Anxious eyes watched from standing or seated poses on the saloon porch, as the gambler studied the two thin slips of paper in his hand.

"What's it say, Ez?" Vin's edged tone bespoke impatience for the usually-quiet tracker, and Ezra raised one eyebrow gently.

"Well, the first one is marked this morning, in La Mesilla. It appears they've been having some trouble on the lines, for it to be so delayed." Carefully holding the telegram to light spilling from the saloon window, Ezra read aloud. "Bell in El Paso. Stop. Wiring Judge Travis. Stop. Inform of conditions home. Full stop."

Shuffling to the next yellow slip, he noted, "This one is from El Paso, just sent." Holding it up, he read, "Bell capture soon with help local law. Full stop."

Looking up at the anxious faces around him, Ezra added, "And that, gentlemen, is the sum total of Mr. Larabee's intelligence to us."

Chuckling softly, Vin said, "Don't waste words, does he?"

"No, but that's good news," said Nathan, and his smile shone like a slice of silver moon in the shadows.

"Damn straight it is," Buck said, and nodded firmly over his beer. "Means they'll be home in two shakes of a coyote's tail. They should have got our wire by now, too. Best make sure we got a bottle of the good stuff waitin'!"

"Well," said Ezra, briskly folding the paper in half. "It appears our illustrious leader wishes to be advised as to whether the town has remained standing, in his absence." He touched his hat brim. "If you gentlemen will excuse me?"

As the gambler's footsteps thumped into shadowed distance, Josiah peered at his remaining comrades thoughtfully. "With Judge Travis pavin' the way, I'd say the transgressor's return to judgement will be swift, indeed." Then he favored them with a craggy grin. "And then maybe we'll let those two buy the beer, for makin' us worry for so long."

"I'll drink to that!" Buck said with a grin. And he did.

+ + + + + + +

Darkness brought fragments of dreams with sharp edges and half-seen images, wrapped twisted sheets too tight, and jerked the mind to a fogged and heavy half-waking. JD's hands pushed thin cotton away, fumbled to crush a flat pillow into some comfort. Shadows wrapped close and sultry, and lapped dully at consciousness. Sleep, just go back to sleep, dammit, please . . . Small sound. Chris snoring? No . . . nothing. Awareness faded thickly into a dream-state that heaved like a black sea, muffling him in fragments of thought.

There! What -? Like crawling from under a great weight wet cotton, he tried to identify that hint of something - sound? Nothing -.

The door exploded and motion and shards of half-light fractured into hurtling forms -.


Even as the near-scream burst from him, the cool hardness of a gun was under his hand, but the ceiling fell in, a thunderous blow of weight and muscled power like God himself smote from above, and Chris was shouting, a shot detonating white-orange in the dark. JD struck out, hit cloth and bone and his head exploded in a stunning burst of whiteness and vertigo. No - NO! Neither up nor down existed in a world that spun him and threw him hard, his jaw cracking wood, and a blow smashed his face, and copper burst thickly in his mouth - NO! Again, that weight fell upon him, a blow sledged against his skull and he spun once more, the whole room whirled with him, and still he struck blindly, savagely - CHRIS! God -. Crushing slams of fist against cheekbone and bone against wood, and again and again, and he was spinning, spiraling downward, and he feared that darkness, with a clawing terror which followed him down and down into oblivion . . .

Jolting movement. Darkness jerked in patches of grey and motion. Hurt - sharp pain of hands clamped cruelly tight to either arm, slinging him like a dead deer, other hands had his legs and he bounced crazily in air, swinging him off into spinning darkness, once more . . .

A shock of cold slapped him, and wrenched air into lungs that did not know they still breathed. Voices burst around him, sharp and battering, and the gloom jolted with spears of yellow light. He was on the ground. How -? Like swimming in glue, but his mind seized on that light, slanting dimly across rough boards.

"- to, after all," a voice said.

Vast blackness of shadow loomed, and another voice took shape. "Well, we just need him to sit a horse. Don't have to be pretty."

Cold. Cold that tickled his face, dripped - water? Cloth tightened wetly across his shoulders as he tried to move, heard a guttural sound. Felt it vibrate in his chest. Had he made that noise?

"Yup, he's comin' to. How about the other one?"

Chris -. Where was he? What -?

"Yeah, he's movin'. Let's get 'em ready to go."

"I don't know why we don't just finish 'em off right here. Son of a bitch nearly broke my jaw."

"Easier to move live bodies than dead ones, and less mess. Get that one mounted."

Panic arced white-hot in him, as hard hands seized him, hauling him up and into another sweep of vertigo, legs buckling, and a silent screech of pain greeted the iron grips on either arm. Fight! his mind screamed, but the wires seemed to be cut somewhere between his head and the rest of his body. It took everything he had just to get his legs under him, to untangle one foot from the other. He felt liquid dribbling down his upper lip, thick and dropping darkly into the scattered straw the yellow light showed underfoot. Then a furry wall loomed before him, a horse's steady brown shoulder, and a shove staggered him into that solid warmth.

"Get up there, you."

JD grabbed a coarse hank of mane, the other hand grasping at hard leather. He braced himself like a ladder, trying to lock his knees, and was sure of only one thing. He was in an absolute world of shit.

"Chris?" Knew he spoke aloud, that time.

A stiff push slammed him chest-first into fur and bone again. He felt the horse sway a long step sideways, but he matched it, kept his footing. Heat flared dully in him and he looked over his shoulder, into shadowed men and a single lamp hanging, and rough board walls.

"Where's Chris?" His voice, but rasping and raw, and he saw his answer, just beyond the lamp.

A dark form hung between two men, long legs a-straddle and the heels dug in, as the roots of a falling tree cling, resisting, to earth. Lank hair and hard-etched shadows hid Chris' eyes, but there was no mistaking the sudden heave of fury, like a bow being drawn, as his back straightened and an arm slashed, a sharp shout of inarticulate fury slapping the board walls. Yet stronger hands slammed the long form into the near wall, and JD lunged, even as his own outraged shout collapsed around a fist driven into his belly. The thick shadows spun as JD dropped to his knees, the breath sucked right out of him.

But his fingers clamped onto the stirrup dangling above his head, and he pulled up, hard, sobbing for air, desperate for strength his body could not muster. He drew himself painfully upright - and found himself staring square into Chris' face. The scant yards between them were as good as miles, and deep shadow slashed Chris' face into a cadaver's gaunt lines. Yet those burning eyes caught JD like a stab in the chest, demanding answers and holding him tighter than their captors' hands ever could. Still here, the drunken thought formed, and he nodded. He was not sure what he was nodding to, but he watched Chris' head bob once, under its tangle of lamp lit hair, and he had that to hold onto. They were both still here.

The horse stepped back under JD's grasp, and a heavy hoof caught the tip of his boot. He stumbled and jerked his foot free, and those hands seized him tightly, wrenched him around like a terrier with a rat.

"Damn you, mount up, boy, or I'll cut your throat, right now!"

Sour breath assaulted him, and inches away a stranger's contorted face snarled at him, cast deeply in weird shadows. JD stared past the fists bunching his collar, stared the creeping heat in his belly into that man's eyes, as hard as he could.

"Back off," he spat. "First chance I get, I'll put a bullet in your head!"

But the stranger laughed a short, rancid gust of breath and sound. He flung JD bodily around, with force that folded his traitorous knees, and sent his hands again flailing for the patient horse.


Chris' voice, like a blade through chaos, and JD heeded. Quieter now, Chris said, "Now's not the time."

All right. All right. JD fumbled for his stirrup, no reins in reach, and those hands pushed him again, almost toppling him over, on his upward swing. Rafters and posts spun darkly as his butt met a hard saddle seat, not at all his own familiar rig, and his legs straddled a horse notably wider than Milagro. A hand reached towards him, flapping something large and dark that he flinched from, and a hat was crammed onto his head. His own hat. The horse stood still, and he awkwardly tried to set his hat right. Finally, the gears in his head began to turn. Not the time. Would they have time? And who in hell were these people?

LeBeau. The name dropped into his knowing like a stone, and sank his innards with it, as near-panic sprang up behind. LeBeau had reached out a great, dark hand, like some evil jinn from an Arab tale, and snatched them right out of their beds. Oh, no. Chris, what do we do -? Then his head came up and he looked among their captors for that face, for Calvin Bell, the son of a bitch who started all this -. Rough hands grabbed his wrists, he yanked back, and that grip snatched him forward so hard his teeth cracked together. So damned scared, and angry in the blind way of absolute fear, the weight of it clutching his stomach and pressing his bowels. When is the time, Chris? What the hell do we do? The man wrapped a coarse twist of hemp around both of JD's wrists and jerked them cruelly tight, crushing the fine bones against each other, biting into the joints. Bell was not here. Not here. Why, then, was this happening?

The horse moved under him, swaying him giddily, and he fumbled his cramped grip onto the saddle horn. Hard to sit up straight, with his belly plunging sickly and brains sloshing in his aching skull, but the habits of horsemanship took over. Then they were moving, brief words clipped off short in tightly clamping shadows, as the lamp was doused. Out into chill night air and blurred stars, they clopped quietly, and there they stopped. There was an answer of sorts waiting, a man who stood in the watery spill of lamplight, looking as big and broad-shouldered and heavy-browed as God, in long black coat tails and a tall plug hat.

"You picked the wrong town, boys." His was a dry, gravelly voice, as if the man gargled daily with sand. "Nobody takes a town from Dutch LeBeau. If the rest of your gang comes lookin' . . . well, there's plenty of old mine shafts, out in those hills." Then the tone abruptly shifted to sharp and businesslike. "Boys, take 'em out and get rid of 'em. Make sure even the devil can't find the bodies."

Then the muffled clatter of hooves carried them onto the grey-silver ribbon of a road, which stretched before them to the black unknown. JD felt like his heart was kicking the hell out of his lungs, his breath coming tightly, and his eyes sought out Chris. Ahead of him, Chris' lean form swayed in the saddle, yet the erect posture was gone, the flat black hat bowed almost to the hunched shoulders. How bad was Chris hurt? Moisture splattered on his hands, warm and syrupy. He looked down at that, saw wetness that was black in starlight, black washing the dark wool of his vest, and he realized he could not breathe through the thumbing numbness that was his nose. How bad were they both hurt? Please, God, help us.

+ + + + + + +

Five riders rode with them, total strangers, every one, no names, barely with faces, just silent, black forms of horses and men that thumped steadily along on either side, before and behind. Taking them out to die - God! He snatched his mind from that thought, tightened his legs for balance on the horse, so he could raise his bound hands and press his sleeve to the sodden flow from his nose. Didn't think it was broke, but could a man bleed to death from a whack on the nose? They swept along in darkness amid a steady clatter of hooves on hard-packed road, occasional sparks flashing from the strike of iron shoes on stone. JD tried to guess direction, but his head spun when he looked up to seek the Big Dipper and North Star, and he grabbed for the saddle horn, again.

Chris wasn't doing anything, simply bobbing along just ahead, all slump-shouldered, and JD remembered the quick boom of that single shot ~ was Chris shot? Oh, damndamndamn. He tightened his heels into his horse's sides, felt no response - nothing like Milagro - and prodded a little harder, until the animal grudgingly lengthened its stride. The man beside him held his halter rope, but JD rode quietly, trying to appear harmless, defeated. Now he was beside his captor, his knee at the hip of the man's horse. The stranger's head turned, face lost in darkness but his eyes visible as two wet sheens. He said nothing, and JD ignored him, leaning forward instead for some glimpse of Chris' face, ahead of him.

JD swallowed hard, hesitated, and then hissed sharply, "Chris!"

His muscles tightened in anticipation, but no word or blow greeted that sound, and he tried again. "Chris!"

Chris' hat came up, the lean form straightening and JD could almost see his face in the darkness.

Still in that harsh stage whisper, he asked, "Are you hurt?"

"I'm all right."

"SHUT UP, damn you son of a bitch!"

JD flinched at that battering voice, felt shame flush hotly, and aimed his best glare towards the shadowed figure ahead of him. It was a gesture lost in darkness, as the man turned in his saddle, eyes forward once more. A hard chuckle drifted from the other strangers around them, but no more. Damn them. DAMN them. When is it time, Chris? What in hell do we do? What can we do? And he realized his thoughts were racing in circles, and breathed deep and tried to will himself to courage.

Yet Chris' voice spoke again, a slow drawl that almost held humor. "What do you care, mister? Nobody out here to hear us. Why begrudge a man his last words, anyhow?"

"You already said plenty," growled that voice from the lead.

Now there was barely-concealed laughter audible in Chris' tone, wry and mocking. "To who? Hell, I don't even know who you people are."

"Might say we're protectin' our interests, Larabee," the man replied.

They knew Chris' name? Alarm tightened JD's back, and he peered again at the dark riders around them. Somebody had welched on them, but who? Had Bell seen them? But they had only just gotten in town. The deputy. Anger curdled slow and dark, within. The damned deputy, probably with one hand stuck firmly in Dutch LeBeau's wallet.

Yet Chris continued to fish, asking, "Interests in what? You got nothing I want."

"El Paso, pard," the man said airily. "You done woke the wrong passengers, thinkin' you could move in down here."

"Move in?" The astonishment in Chris' voice echoed JD's own. "What in hell would I want with this armpit of creation?"

"We like the way things are around here, Larabee. We don't cotton to some high-and-mighty hired gun, thinkin' he's gonna come down here and stir things around."

Then Chris did laugh, just a sharp exhale of air, but the disdain was clear in his voice. "That what Calvin Bell told you? You work on the word of a lyin', murderin' horse thief?"

Yet the stranger remained unruffled. "Larabee, we already know who you are, and what you and them pards of yours do. You might have things your way up in your country, but we run another kind of game, in Texas." Leather creaked above the clatter of hooves, as the man looked back over his shoulder. "You and your two-gun boy, there, just made your worst and last mistake. When we get done with you, the rest of your gang will know to stay the hell out."

The same thing that forbidding figure of a man had said, that Dutch LeBeau had said. And none of it made sense. The clatter of their passing swallowed most other sounds, then, as JD tried to turn his thoughts to workable shape, in a head that thumped pain with every beat of his pulse. His nose finally quit bleeding, but it felt swollen like rising dough. He could still taste blood, felt it stiffly caking his shirt, rasping his collar. The rest of their gang? The way his thoughts swam, he felt as though someone had handed him parts from two broken dishes, and told him to make them match.

How could a two-bit hoodlum like Bell excite this level of effort? At most, JD would have expected a shot from the dark, a knife from behind, when it came to Calvin Bell's style of work. But half a dozen men kidnapping them from their beds? What had Bell told LeBeau, anyway? It was now plain to see that they were being taken out of town to be killed. Dutch LeBeau himself, for he had to presume that had been him, had ordered it. But why would these people think Chris had any "gang" would give two hoots about this place?

A hard jolt flung him forward, the horse buckling under him, then surging up from its stumble. The man holding his lead rope swore and gave a jerk, and the horse moved thereafter with a lighter stride. God, if he could only talk to Chris. Chris' manner of moments ago suggested he was in no way ready to go easy, but what could they do? Hands tied, control of their horses belonging to those who led them, no weapons, not even any idea of where they were, or where help or safety might lie.

"Steady, JD."

Chris' voice was hardly more than a whisper, but JD heard, and seized hold of that faith with both hands. Chris had never failed them before. He would trust Chris with all he had, now. There was nothing else. JD felt something trickle into his bones, his gut, and he sat a little straighter. Noticed the sagging net of stars, glittering on the ink black of night sky. Saw the Big Dipper tilting at an hour near 3 a.m., and the North Star shone ahead and to his left. They were going north and east. Ahead of them loomed the black, broken backs of mountains, and soon they rode a narrower track, rocks rattling and rolling in their passage. Chris' hat dipped as his head bobbed loosely between his shoulders, again, but JD clung to stubborn hope. He had to be ready. Chris would depend on him for that. This time, he would not fail when time came to do his job.

+ + + + + + +

Rocks fell in a rattling rush as a horse slipped, and a rider cursed. A slap of reins on horsehide brought a snorting fart and a scrabbling surge of energy. Now they were off any roads, folded between black shoulders of mountain, riding single file along a path only the lead man could see with any dim certainty. Chris still rode ahead, JD separated from him only by the rider who led his own horse.

JD's hurts had finally condensed themselves to identifiable points. His nose felt stuffed and numb. His left cheekbone ached all the way into his eyeball from bouncing repeatedly off the hotel room floor. His wrists sparked raw complaint from the grating of the ropes, but that was in good part because he'd been wrenching at them to loosen his bonds, somewhat. His right temple throbbed as if with its own heart. But he could not adjust his hat so as not to make his head ache, and finally screwed the damned thing down and said to hell with it. His left side decided it, too, hurt with a raw, scraping edge, but he had no idea when or how he'd been hit there. His right ear probably smarted worse, former numbness wearing to a shockingly sharp protest of the fist that had done the head smashing. Probably a good thing there hadn't been an anvil handy, he thought sourly, or they'd have reshaped his head, entirely. What he wish he knew, however, was whether Chris was hurt, and how badly.

The stony slope tilted steadily steeper to one side, as they gained elevation. An odd, flat-topped ridge loomed blackly against the starry skyline, which soon proved to be the tailings of an old mine. Even by dim starlight, the signs of man's industry gleamed as grey scars of torn and tossed earth. Abandoned mines. What better place to dump a body? Or two bodies, for that matter. JD's heart leaped into a tight, choking knot just in the back of his throat, while his guts seemed to sag the other way. Dammit, Chris, what are you waiting for? The next thought to leap forward was the blinding fear that Chris was too hurt to do anything, no matter what he had said, that holding onto his horse might be all he was capable of, and -. Another clattering scramble marred their progress, as someone's horse stumbled and recovered behind them.


Shouts exploded into a heavy avalanche of rock and downward motion that was CHRIS -! JD slammed both heels to his horse, his raw shout ripping from him, and the horse under him lunged and collided with the frantically pivoting animal ahead, staggering heavily as voices shouted, and panic clutched high in JD's throat. For an instant, he and his captor were face to face. Then he yelled without words as he drove his heels again and again, and his horse wheeled and dropped headlong off the tumbled side of the mountain.

Down he plummeted, in a back-snapping, gut-wrenching slide that was nearer to falling, plunging through the dark in a sullen roar of gravel and stone. He clung tightly with his legs, and with cramped hands onto a saddle horn that twisted horribly with each wrenching stride. No idea of Chris, where he was, only black, hurtling night and the perilously lunging power of the horse's near-falling pace. The saddle horn rammed up and into his gut, and the horse's hindquarters pistoned into a flat run. At last, here was a level pace he could maybe hold onto, with his hands and balance still crippled by hempen bonds. Hold on he must, and JD rammed heels to heaving ribs once more. He had to trust that Chris was ahead, that his horse would follow its runaway mate, and pray that the next stride in utter darkness would not crash him into broken ruin.

There! Ahead of him, a dark, racing shape puffed silver-grey underfoot and JD tasted dust as he drew near. He felt heaviness slowing his horse's stride and could NOT allow that. Savagely he drove the animal on, for life and hope and their only chance, until he pounded at Chris' heels, at last. Something snapped angrily past his head and he risked a quick, twisting glance back - how long had they been shooting at them? Yet those up there dared not risk the suicidal plunge they had just made, and those moments it would take them to find a sane way down might give him and Chris a chance to survive. He felt his horse jerk and stumble, hard, then again, and he tried to lean and capture the whipping end of the lead rope, which fouled the horse's stride. Yet with both hands tied, he felt himself pitch dangerously off-balance, and his lungs leaped into his throat. And they thundered onward into the tumbling dark.