Candles of the Wicked
JD's horse was dying. He had felt that coming, as the animal's responses became leaden as an overstuffed sofa. Felt it for certain, as it folded like a collapsing bed beneath him, and he was just able to swing a leg free before the earth came up and hit him like a wall. JD laid there a blank, stunned instant, before pushing himself over, trying to brace himself with tied hands. Then he heaved himself to his feet, stumbled heavily, and heard the clumping tread of Chris riding slowly back to him. The horse lay with heaving ribs and blood foaming thickly from flaring nostrils. Its teeth were bared like old piano keys, as the soft eyes turned dull in the pale wash of daybreak. Now he saw the cause, dark blood soaking the thick cotton strands of the cinch, and caking the back of the horse's left front leg. How the poor thing had got this far was little short of an awful miracle.
Chris' voice sounded like a rasp of sandpaper. JD looked up at him, a dark horseman against the lemon glow of the early dawn sky.
"He took a bullet. I didn't know . . ."
JD looked down at the dying horse, and looked away as he clenched his teeth against the stiff rush of helpless frustration. Damn, he had never wanted any animal to die for him, for pete's sake. Golden morning came up like glory in the east, breathing sweet coolness and the promise of wonderful things - and meanwhile, they were quite thoroughly screwed.
He sighed, glanced at his fettered hands, and up at Chris again, sitting there on his nameless brown horse. In the grey light of dawn, the man looked awful, features drawn tight over the sharp bones of his face. The hidden sun had yet to break over the rim of the world and paint colors to life, and in that fey half-light, Chris bore the bleached appearance of an old rawhide left out in the weather. However, JD realized he probably looked no better, himself.
"I'll, ah, I'll try and cut us loose."
Chris merely nodded, jaw tightening as he turned his narrow stare away from the silent grandeur of pending sunrise, watching for those people to appear on their back trail. The darkness had been their shield, but now the mantle of night swept away, and they would have no grace but their own wits. JD could not help being aware of the strange lightness at his hips, pressed his elbows in on the unfamiliar expanse of bare cloth, and swallowed hard on the sick feeling the lack of those familiar guns brought.
He stumbled on rubbery legs to a tumble of broken stone, which cobbled the bottom of an ancient dry streambed. Nothing up here but shattered rocks punctuated with clawed brush and stunted cactus, as if the Creator had built these mountains of castoff rubble. It took time to saw through rough cordage on equally rough stone, time JD did not want to waste. Yet he clenched his teeth and recalled his flagging vigor, each time he heard that poor damned horse heaving for one more labored breath, just yards away. A hot, mute litany circled a bitter track in his brain; damn them, damn them, damn them. No mercy for a dumb brute, either. At least that wasn't his saddle, he told himself then wished he could stop his ears against the almost human groan of suffering.
JD grated his own skin, along with the rope, before the cords abruptly gave way. He hissed sharply as pain lanced from his wrists when his cuffs touched the rope burns, but he did not look at what damage might be there. Since he was down, he might as well help Chris, too. Chris still sat watchfully in the saddle, his horse standing with its head low and one hip cocked in obvious fatigue. JD couldn't blame him for not wanting to dismount, if his own tightly aching stiffness was any indicator. Without a word, Chris held his hands down for JD, and spoke not, while the young man sawed at his bonds. Nor did he object when JD swore vehemently and hurled the stone aside, and stalked off to find a sharper one. The instant the ropes parted, Chris drew his hands away, and nodded towards the tattered trailing end of his horse's lead rope.
"Can you make a hackamore of that?"
JD stepped quickly to tie the frayed rope into a crude rein, and laid it on the horse's neck, where Chris could reach. Chris took it, sighed, and nodded.
"Best get on up."
"What -." JD's voice came out a dry croak, and he cleared his throat. "What are we gonna do, now?"
That was a lot of help. JD stuck his toe in the stirrup Chris emptied for him, took hold the offered arm and swung up behind as lightly as he could. The horse shifted uneasily as he found his seat, perched awkwardly behind the cantle. It felt briefly strange to sit this close to Chris' back, but then the horse's hips lurched into a walk beneath him, and JD's attention swung to their back trail. No one in sight, yet, but his hands dropped to either hip, resting his palms on the deadly emptiness there. Keeping moving was the only chance they had. When his ear caught the faint but distinctive clink of a loose shoe hitting stone, he wondered how long this poor horse could give them that chance.
Straight into the lemon flood of sunrise they rode, the first long shadows taking shape, as the ragged skyline rose like stone teeth bared against them. The angled sweep of the new sun gilded the tops of stones and brush, breathed a sweet, dry scent that puffed coolly on their cheeks. Yet behind that coolness pressed the promise of another hot day. Strange how the emergence of daylight brought weariness to weigh heavy hands on his shoulders. Where in hell were they, anyhow? And where were they going? Trust Chris. He'd think of something. Just be awake and be ready for whatever might come. For come it would, as soon as LeBeau's men found their tracks. Even now, the growing flood of light washed the grayness to soft colors, and the rim of the sun shimmered on the horizon. Light enough and then some, to come after two unarmed and half-beaten men on a used-up horse, somewhere on the backside of nowhere.
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The brown horse was almost done. Under their doubled weight, it stumbled frequently and heavily, and the deadness of its responses revealed clearly that it had nothing left to give. That loose shoe had flung clanging off into the rocks miles back, soon after which it began noticeably favoring its left front leg. JD offered to get down and walk, but Chris refused the offer in no uncertain terms. In this heat and rough terrain, JD would give out long before the horse did. Better to drain its strength, first, and preserve theirs that much longer. Even so, the clawing craving for water was slowly expanding into almost the only thought they could hold in their heads.
Chris worried JD, also. When daylight found them, he had finally, truly looked, and had seen the black-on-black smear of blood, which had dried in frightening quantities down Chris' right pant leg to the knee, and stiffly pasted the shirt to his side. That single shot in their darkened room had found its mark. However, Chris refused JD's attentions for that just as brusquely as he turned down the suggestion of the kid walking. Instead, he latched onto a bull-shouldered determination that drove him mercilessly into whatever came next, and there was no favoring of self or friend in it.
They now lurched heavily up a stony draw, their goal a small cluster of green, which they spotted wedged between tumbled rocks. Perhaps this one would offer water, where previous green spots gave up nothing but weeds and damp sand. Finding good water had become as great a concern as the doom they felt shadowing their heels. Two hours before, they had seen movement, far behind. Just a glimpse, as they slipped over the spine of a bony ridge, but there could be no other reason for that wisp of dust to curl as it did, a faint but repeated puff of drifting yellow, along a route they had traversed earlier. There was almost an odd relief in that, in finally knowing their enemy's presence. LeBeau's men were working out their trail, now, and they would keep coming. That was as positive as the blazing hand of the noonday sun, which tightened its grip around JD's aching head. Chris' maroon shirt clung to his back in a broad, black V of sweat, under JD's nose, and it was hard to tell where the odors of men and animal diverged. The broad equine hips under him floundered, sank, and heaved up from another clattering stumble.
"Whoa, Chris," said JD.
The horse stopped, and JD slid heavily to earth, caught himself for a split-second against the animal's rump, and then pushed off. "I'll go check."
Stepping carefully amid rubble that wanted to turn underfoot, JD made his way towards the tangle of rank growth, ahead. As the draw steepened and the rocks got bigger, he reached cautiously for balance, mindful of snakes in the broken crevices. Now he saw dark dampness between the stones, and breathed a sweet scent of growing things. They had been this far before, only to be let down, but maybe . . . . As he carefully pushed aside a soft brush of green fronds, he heard the light, musical trickle of water, and sighed in vast relief. He turned his head to flash Chris a quick, smiling nod, then pushed a few inches ahead, to the shaded base of a scratchy bush.
Clear water ran in a thin trickle between lichen-clad rocks, within that tiny arbor, a flow barely as wide as a pencil, but sweet when he touched wet fingers to his tongue. JD swallowed reflexively, felt his dry throat try to stick. Thank God! With quick hands, he moved rocks aside, creating a small basin to collect the precious fluid. The sun lay a scorching cloak across his back, as he worked, heightening his sense of urgency. They should have enough for themselves, plus something for the horse, if they could get the animal in here. With no canteen and no knowledge of the country, they had to make the most of what fickle opportunity offered.
The brown horse would not come down to water. He flinched, sidestepped, and clenched exhausted, trembling muscles under the prod of spur and the smack of rein-ends. Yet he would not move. He was done. JD saw that understanding in Chris' weary eyes, the frustration clamping his jaw tight. JD clambered up to help, but Chris was shifting his weight to dismount. He got there as the older man dragged a leg over the horse's rump, and sagged his lean length to earth. Chris hung there a moment, one hand clamped on the horn and the other braced against his side.
Concern sparked, and JD reached out a hand. "Chris?"
But Chris merely nodded, and flipped up the stirrup to begin working at the latigo. JD understood. They would be afoot from here on. The only kindness they could offer the animal was to turn it loose. JD carefully pulled the bridle from its drooping head, and drew an apologetic hand across the bony bridge of its nose. Then he raised his head to stare narrow-eyed down the stony canyon whence they had just come. Somewhere back there, LeBeau's men were coming. They had little time to waste.
Chris let JD drink first, crouching awkwardly with hands braced in the rocks, to suck drafts of blessed coolness from a pool only about two inches deep. Nor could he drink too deeply, lest he end up with a mouthful of sand. The little basin took a moment to refill, and JD sat watch, as Chris then took off his hat and drank. From where JD perched, the view was of the stark, dry shoulders of rugged mountainside, hunched silently against blazing blue sky. Barren slopes bristled with fractured rock, between which spiny plants clung to desperate life. The earth itself shimmered with incandescent heat, which seemed to breathe at him with invisible flames. Nothing moved, out there, as if the pressing glare of the sun battered all life to quivering, scanty survival. Even the horse stood where they left it, motionless as if made of wood and JD wondered if the poor creature would die, there. The very air they breathed seemed used and weak, as if the simmering heat cooked the sustenance right out of it. He looked at his own hands, saw evidence of his nosebleed caked darkly under his nails. Felt the grating rope burns hidden under his cuffs and the pressing ache of his battered cheekbone, the knot under his hat. Hell, how much worse could things get?
Questions crowded up into his throat, but JD was not sure he dared give them voice. It was a cinch that Chris had no better idea of where they were. El Paso lay an uncertain mileage to the south at the foot of these mountains; that much he did know. Yet their pursuers would expect them to try to get back, would be waiting for them, looking for them. And they had no means at all with which to defend themselves. Damn, he felt naked, without the familiar weight of his gun belt pressing the flat bones below his waist. Those boys back there were danged sure armed, which left him and Chris as hardly more than a couple rabbits ahead of the hounds. His gaze dropped to Chris' bent back, as the man waited to let the tiny pool fill a little more. Lord only knew how Chris felt, who possessed a leopard's savage instinct for survival.
"If we can hold out 'til dark," Chris said suddenly, "we stand a chance." Now he surveyed JD over his shoulder, sweat-tangled hair falling in his eyes. "Then we'll wait until they're set up in camp."
"What?" JD squinted at him, not following at all.
"We're going to get a couple guns." Something in Chris' eyes shifted, or maybe it was just the way the sun hit them. "I'm tired of this."
JD shut his mouth on unspoken comments while Chris reached down to unbuckle the spurs from his heels. Holy cow. He swallowed and slowly wiped his hands on his grimy trousers. Sneak into the bad guys' camp? Right in among them, with nothing but their teeth and fingernails? All of a sudden, he really wished he knew more of that Indian stuff that Vin Tanner did so effortlessly.
"Why are they after us? I mean, what were they talkin' about, our 'gang' and movin' in and all?"
Chris looked at him with flat, cool eyes, while carefully buckling his spur straps together, for ease of carrying. "They think we're competition, JD. They think we're either fixing to move in on their protection racket, or else they think we're the advance guard for some sort of hired vigilantes, coming to run them out of town."
That could almost have been funny. As if any of the Seven really gave a hoot about anything anybody did in El Paso. Heck, if things had gone as planned, he and Chris might be on a stage for home right now, with Bell neatly in irons, and they could leave El Paso to stew in its own misery.
"Bell told 'em that, huh?"
"Looks like. Seems he knows his boss' soft spots, and hit this one just right."
Then Chris was up and moving, and JD scrambled to his feet, the two of them walking, stumbling up from that water, from the horse that still stood unmoving and head hanging. Heading uphill. Seeking the high ground. JD fixed his eyes on the rise and drop of Chris' heels before him, and his mind on just keeping up. He tried not to acknowledge the dryness that sucked into his throat within mere yards from the spring, or the thumping pressure in his head. That could be from having his brain tenderized the night before, or maybe just the sun slowly tightening his hatband until his skull popped. Something damned well had to get better, soon.
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They heard them, by the time the sun began its slide from midday. Heard a thin yelp of sound, the bark of the hunters, and they paused to listen above the thump of their own hearts, the rasp of their own breathing. JD's dead horse and Chris' abandoned one had marked a clear trail, and their pursuers could only feel heartened by the knowledge that their prey was afoot. Faint voices yapped again, distant and broken against the sharp shoulders of the mountain, but they also saw a quick wisp of dust, far below, and another. They exchanged blank looks of exhaustion and continued. One leaden foot after the other, with each breath sucked through open mouths gone dry as cotton sacking. Upward, where they hoped LeBeau's men would find it harder going yet, with horses to contend with. This country would quickly break an ill-set clinch, or rasp the head from a worn nail and finally wrench the shoes right off a man's horse. Once that happened, a rider was as good as done. Yet the bottoms of their own feet burned with a fine torment, and they knew that, at this point, they were in a race against time. Stay ahead until dark. Then . . . well, Chris had something in mind. They pushed on.
Finally, the sinking sun painted the fissured ridges in hard slashes of shadows and crimson. There was a raw sort of beauty in a landscape so devoid of softness, so stark in its aura of ancient disregard for anything as fleeting as mortal life. These mountains had risen eons before man walked, and within their eroded canyons were scattered the dry remains of many a man, since. The drama of living and dying touched them not, and a good wind or hard rain soon erased any signs that might remain. If LeBeau's human hounds got a hold of them, by next spring there would not be enough left to interest a starving coyote.
Chris paused and looked back at the youngster following him, watched the reach of a white-clothed arm for balance against a boulder. Used to be white, anyhow. He had thought of telling him to lose the vest, in this heat, but the glare of a plain white shirt in these mountains would be like firing off a rocket. Maybe some extra dirt would be a good thing, cut down on visibility. Now JD realized Chris had stopped, and glanced up at him and brought his own feet to a heavy stop. The kid looked beat, in more ways than one. A purpling bruise spread like a smear of soot over his left cheekbone, and an even darker stripe shadowed under one eye.
As JD stood and caught his breath, his scowl tightened over narrowed dark eyes that stared carefully into distance. There was no missing the weight of weariness upon the kid, holding him poised between rest and flight, like a harried coyote watching for the hunter. He panted lightly through an open mouth, the line of his chin softened boyishly, and Chris felt a blunt twinge near his heart. Damn, there were times when he hated to see so clearly just how young that kid was. Why in God's name hadn't he aspired to be something ordinary, like a horse rancher or a stagecoach driver, or even a confounded cowboy? Yet as Chris watched, JD squared his shoulders and straightened his back around a sharply exhaled breath. Now the bowler hat tipped up towards him again, and JD gave him a tight nod. Under a returning two-day stubble of dirty black fuzz, that youthful chin was once more set as stubbornly as ever.
With a smothered sigh, Chris dragged heavy muscles into motion, once more. God, he hurt. Nothing bled any more, but he hurt, the soles of his feet were on fire, and he was too damned old for this crap. Thirst had long ago clenched its claws around his throat, and filled his brain with a scalding haze that he fought back by sheer, dogged determination. Yet thus far, they were all right. They just had to pace themselves as best they could, and hold on until dark. Chris' jaw tightened until his temples ached. Then they would see about leveling the playing field.
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Chris watched the ruddy flicker of faint firelight, far below. Shortly before sunset, their pursuers had set up camp with no pretense at stealth, their confidence in the outcome of their hunt obvious. His hope now was that this confidence might prove careless, and give them the chance they needed.
He felt JD right behind him, and glanced briefly across his shoulder to see wide eyes gleaming wetly in the darkness. However, he knew the kid, and knew it was not fear that brought a rasp to his soft breathing. Chris still was not sure whether it was true bravery, or equal parts courage and fear of failure, but Lord knows the damned little fool would charge Hell with a bucket of ice water, given half an excuse. Movement near the fire below reclaimed his attention. There were more men in the hunting party, now. Likely someone had gone back to report their escape in El Paso. During the day, reinforcements had swelled the ranks of LeBeau's forces to perhaps a dozen or so men. It seemed Dutch LeBeau was serious about his defense of Calvin Bell. This again begged the question of what Bell may have told LeBeau to excite such a drastic response. A manhunt of this scope for a lone pair of peacekeepers, who were merely after a small-time crook simply did not make sense. Chris' interpretation of their enemies' few, cryptic words must be correct. The racketeer chief saw them as a genuine threat to his enterprises in El Paso.
JD's whisper hissed from behind him. Again the question, "What do we do, now, Chris?"
"Wait," Chris replied.
He drew back into the shadows, and found a shelf of rock that braced his weary spine in relative comfort. As if he could ever relax, with pain nagging like a mother-in-law, and he dare not let an ounce of it show. JD sighed audibly, but made no further comment, settling at Chris' side in a soft whisper of cloth on stone. The kid took off his hat, ran one hand through his tangled hair, and settled his arms on his knees. Then he was still.
Nodding to himself, Chris reflected that his young confederate had come a long ways, since jumping off that stagecoach in search of adventure. The boyhood dreams of glory and adventure probably died hard, and perhaps even lingered yet. JD was nothing if not resilient, and he took the hard blows of experience to each time land on his feet. That was something he and Buck shared, that refusal to let fate or circumstance keep them down, along with a readiness to laugh off the shadows of misfortune. All the peacekeepers had taken a hand in schooling this overeager green pup in the arts of survival, but suddenly Chris saw with painful clarity just how much of Buck was in this kid. Maybe JD had been born with it, but now was the first time that Chris saw this mirror of his old friend in JD Dunne. That same ebullience and animation, the same quickness to anger or laughter, the same unflinching loyalty. And now, he recognized an aching familiarity in the silent patience waiting beside him. Just as Buck would have done. Steady as a good horse. When had JD learned that? When had he shed the twitching anxiety of impatient youth, a hound trembling to be let off the leash? Or was this something new, the cost of all they had lost in reaching this place?
Chris turned his face from the pale shadow that was JD, set his jaw firmly against the tightness in his chest. Damn Calvin Bell and damn Dutch LeBeau, with him. They were going to get out of this, and someone was going to be sorry they did.
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Arrogance, that's what it was. That was the only reason Chris could think that their enemies posted but a single guard. One man who wandered an idle path around camp and past the picket line. Arrogance and stupidity. They could put both to their advantage, however.
Beside him, JD lay flat and still, hat placed at his elbow. The white of his shirtsleeves glowed even in the dark, which was another reason why Chris chose to wait until the moon was long gone, and the stars hung in a chilly black net overhead. He eased himself back down behind the brief shelter before them, a flimsy bulwark of brittle weeds and the crumbled banks of a small arroyo. Were it not for the cover of night, their foes would spot them in a moment. However, the shallow defile had offered the only approach to the makeshift camp, and now they must make their next move.
He saw the pale orb of JD's face turn towards him, and touched cautioning fingers to his sleeve. About fifty yards away, the low clutter of the hasty camp lay around the dim flicker of a near-dead campfire. Irregular heaps were sleeping men, scattered at random distances around the fire. A dull thump marked the position of the picket line, where the horses stood warmly drowsing. They appeared as an uneven black chunk of wall, against the lighter gray beyond, their only movement the flick of a tail or shift of a heavy hoof.
The man he had picked out lay apparently sound asleep, a dark lump on the ground, perhaps fifty feet from the horses. For whatever reason, this fellow had chosen to bed down farthest from the fire, and hopefully his proximity to the horses' random movements would deaden his awareness to any other small sounds in the night. They had watched for perhaps fifteen minutes, and the man made neither motion nor sound. What most held their attention, however, was the dark glint of a rifle leaning beside him, propped against the saddle which lay in an untidy heap at his head. Fully loaded, the Winchester saddle carbine could hold 12 rounds of .44-40. Chris would rather have both pockets full of extra bullets, to go with that, but he would just be damned glad to get a hold of anything with more authority than a thrown rock. Well, time to toughen up, be damned the aches and pains, and get it done.
Leaning close to JD's shoulder, Chris spoke in a whisper that was little more than a breath. "Be ready."
He felt the kid flinch up, and pressed down on his shoulder, hard. No more words, now, but he wanted his warning for caution clearly understood. The dark mop of JD's head nodded that he was ready. With that, Chris eased his grip, made it a light pat, and slid away. Hell, the kid was wound so tight, he could probably hear a bug fart. Wryly Chris reflected that he would much rather JD had his cherished Colt's Lightings in hand, but he had to trust in the young man's capacity for improvisation, if something went wrong.
JD watched Chris' black form ease away into the shadows, and kept watching until the man blurred from sight. Carefully, he breathed through his mouth, for greater silence. They had already talked it out, before moving in. Not much to plan, really. Chris would creep in and lift a gun or two, while JD kept watch. If it looked like Chris was about to be discovered, JD would create a diversion, and both would run like hell. Not terribly scientific, but he figured they had both long since lost patience for anything as dainty as subtlety.
Long moments ticked by, and the night leaned close with inky weight. JD heard the dull thud-thump of his pulse in his ears, and clenched his empty fists, felt grit in the sweat of his palms. Geez, he would give anything to feel the smooth weight of his twin Colt's in those hands. Yet they were gone, taken, and for all he knew, they might be somewhere in this camp, waiting to be used against him. That was an almighty peculiar thought, the idea of catching a bullet he himself had loaded into one of his own guns.
He neither heard nor saw anything of Chris. That had to be good, though, as it should mean no one else could detect him, either. The solitary man with the rifle remained asleep. The sentry strolled in a slow, lackadaisical patrol around camp, and finally JD noted a brief red glow at the man's face. After a bit, the sweet scent of pipe tobacco brushed his senses. Soon JD found the urge to shift his position growing. Just move a few inches that way, just straighten his legs so, just edge a bit to one side, so as to see better - Breathe, JD. Keep sharp.
There! One of the horses, then two and three, swung their heads up, their sharp ears pointing as surely as compass needles. JD's belly lurched - God, Chris, don't move! He darted a glance at the sentry, now on the far side of camp. The man stood with his back to the distant picket line, and the pipe glowed again. A gentle chuckle of throaty sound rippled from the darkness, as a horse softly whickered an inquiry. Electricity flashed along JD's nerves, and he caught himself in a tight jerk, froze himself still. Wherever you are, Chris, just don't move. The sentry glanced over his shoulder, but then set his ambling pace forward, on around the perimeter and further from the horses. Relief flooded through JD, and he let go a silent, wilting sigh. Thank God the fool was too stupid to recognize when a horse was asking someone for a handout!
Now JD saw movement, a low, dark shape among the heavier bulks that crowded the picket line. In his imagination, he saw Chris stroking a warm shoulder or hip, perhaps whispering a word of reassurance. Long moments ticked past, as the animals settled quietly, content that an ordinary human did strange but harmless things among them. Closer to JD, bundles of men and bedding remained silent. Yet he studied each one in turn, watching for that sigh, that restless movement which would signal awakening.
He also passed covetous eyes on another rifle, which gleamed coldly beside a stranger's empty boots. The man camped like a pig, his gear scattered around him every-whichway. Starlight shone coldly on casehardened steel, a Winchester '73 rifle, not a shorter saddle carbine. What JD wouldn't give to lay his own hands on that. However, it would mean crawling right in the damned middle of them - not a tactic with a high chance of survival. A pinpoint of light flared again, as the sentry applied another match to his stubborn pipe. Good, thought, JD thought, as a fragment of something Buck had taught him burst to mind. Ruin your night vision, you idiot. Perfect.
Chris flowed out from the horses like liquid shadow, so quiet JD almost missed him, until he was right by their slumbering target. A flicker of motion and the Winchester slid away, absorbed into that length of mobile night and gone. Yes! Silent exultation swept a smile across JD's face, and he jammed a fist hard against the sand beneath him. C'mon, Chris, let's get the hell out of here, now!
A woody knocking sound turned JD's head - the sentry, again. He stood oddly for an instant, one foot held up, using his rifle like a crutch. Then he dropped his foot and muttered to himself as he turned around. JD scowled in puzzlement, until he saw the man stuffing something into his vest pocket. Now he realized the man had just tapped his pipe empty on his boot heel. Where was Chris? The sentry was deviating from his hitherto routine circuit, picking his way among slumbering bodies towards an empty roll of bedding. Was he about to wake his relief? Chris, c'mon, where are you?
And then the sentry tripped. Tripped like a damned fool, floundering for balance and JD thought he would drop his rifle right on another man's head. What he did do was drive a toe right into the sleeping man's side, which brought the fellow up with a sulfurous oath.
"What the hell are you doing, Jack?"
"Sorry!" came the stage-whisper reply. "I stumbled."
"You about stove in my ribs, dammit!"
"I didn't mean -."
"Shut up, would ya?" growled a third voice. "People are tryin' to sleep!"
"Tell him! He's the one who can't watch where he's going."
Now there was movement among those bed rolls, like the squirming of large, wool-wrapped larvae. JD felt panic scampering right up his throat on sharp, pointy feet.
"Hey, I said I'm sorry!" The sentry's whisper rose to a harsh squawk. "Hell, you're up, you want next watch? I'm gettin' some damned sleep."
Hurry, Chris, geez. No, DON'T hurry, don't move - Oh, God.
"Ain't my turn on watch. It's Dave's. Hey, psst, Dave!"
This place was getting far too lively. He should get out of here. He should just pull back, nice and slow, and let Chris catch up where it was safe. It's still all right, JD. Nothing has happened, just a bunch of idiots falling over each other -.
"HEY? Who's that?"
A blunt shadow-shape rose up from the ground, a man still bundled in his bedding, but now his hand reached for what could only be a gun. The clumsy sentry and the man he had kicked both turned from their bickering.
"Speak up!" The sentry's voice suddenly clapped loud and clear, and his rifle came up.
JD was moving before he thought. He let fear and rage and plain desperation boil him up out of that dry wash, with a wild yell raking through his chest, and his legs going like the drive arms on a speeding train. Tongues of white-red flame burst in the dark and he tried to shrink in mid-leap, bounding over blanketed forms that writhed and rolled as he passed, almost running on all fours until he saw his quarry. One hand seized metal and wood in a flashing grab, and the other caught - almost dropped - a flapping weight of leather.
Then he was scrambling and running, shoulders clenched against the slam of a bullet that miraculously never came, before he pitched headlong off the edge of the dry ravine that had guided them there. He tumbled in a fast roll of sand and pricking burrs, lost his hat and found position. JD yanked the rifle to cheek and shoulder, racked the lever, and saw brass flicker over his shoulder - oops, already had a round in the chamber. Then he stroked the trigger and the rifle kicked sharply, and he set his teeth hard on the sweet, booming slam of finally making an even fight. His night vision vanished in the flame of the first shot, but all he wanted was them down, them ducking, them to pee in their cowardly, good-for-nothing pants -.
A black form hurtled over the edge of the wash and to him, and Chris' rifle boomed once, over his head. Then a heavy hand smacked the back of his shoulder and JD obeyed that rough summons without thought. He grabbed his hat and stolen booty, and lunged into a run that was almost falling. Up the wash they plunged, in deep sand that sucked heavily at each stride, and past the flimsy, false cover of thin willows, and onward still. Behind them, pandemonium tumbled voices and men in the dark, and JD savagely hoped he had hit somebody.
They ran without thought or pause, distance now their goal. Upward into the rocks, where lions and coyotes laid their claims, and little owls peered from holes in the cactus with wide, solemn eyes. They were now armed, but the fact remained that they were outnumbered fully six to one, and their ammunition was limited. The odds had improved, but not to a winning hand. JD had no idea that Chris could move as he did, forging on as tireless and sure as a wolf. His own lungs burned in his chest and his throat felt like crepe paper, and countless times, he wrenched his ankles and shins when the rocky ground collapsed and turned underfoot. Yet he would not cry to quit, and kept himself glued to his leader's heels.
The stop came abruptly, Chris suddenly and simply no longer in motion, and then dropping to his heels with his rifle across his knees. JD floundered to a halt, and a rock rolled underfoot in the dark, to dump him, hard, right on his rump. Might as well sit here, the dull thought flickered, and he scooted back to place the hard, angular brace of a boulder at his back. Who would have thought just plain breathing would feel so good?
A fist slammed in the front of his vest, jerked him forward with a choking gasp, and Chris' eyes glittered like a snake's in the darkness.
"Don't you EVER pull something like that again!" The sharply whispered words blasted his face like a steam valve. "You hear me?"
"Wha-? But you -."
"EVER!" Chris shook him hard, again, that iron fist holding him a prisoner inside his own clothes, and JD swore he felt heat on that hissed word. "That was the most stupid thing I've ever seen you do!"
Shame and anger flamed fast, and JD barely kept his own voice to a whisper. "They saw you, Chris! You told me I was supposed to -!"
"I had a gun by then, JD." A brief rattle of the carbine in his free hand punctuated this. "Your job at that point was to get the hell out, and not get yourself killed."
"I couldn't even tell where you were! And if you think I'm gonna just sit there, when some guy is pointing a gun at you -"
"They were shooting at YOU, JD!" The stifled exertion of whispering drove the pressure of Chris' temper to near explosion-point. "Did you stop to think what the hell I was supposed to do with you, if you took a bullet during that little escapade? No, you didn't!"
With a final shove, Chris let him go, but the humiliation did not. Angrily JD slapped a hand to what he had laid beside him, fumbled for hold of the small but awkward bulk.
"Yeah, well, I got us another gun, and I probably got us some extra ammunition, to boot. Here!"
Leather slapped dully as JD angrily thrust his prize across that small, charged space. Chris caught it, looked at the saddle bags in his hands, but his rigid posture did not unbend. However, the silhouette of his hat brim dipped, as he reached into the leather bags. Still sucking air into his starved lungs, JD scowled deeply as he watched Chris rummage the contents. Obviously, there would be some personal junk in there, but you would think -. Ah, hell, if all he had done was lift some guy's underwear and toothbrush, Chris was going to kill him.
JD breathed easier, when he saw Chris withdraw his hand, and in it was a small, rectangular box. A muffled metallic rattle assured him that it was indeed cartridges. A moment later, a second box followed the first. There was no helping the sigh that slipped from JD's chest, and he bent forward over the cold length of his stolen rifle. At least if he had screwed up, he had managed to salvage something good from it.
He looked up. Dimly he could see Chris' face, the lines of it etched starkly in strokes of shadow. Yet the older man's words now came gently, in another tone entirely.
"Don't do that again."
"Believe me, I won't."
And that was all. The moment evaporated like a passing smell.
A minute later, Chris leaned across with something round and heavy in his hand. A canteen. He had not been the only one grasping at blind opportunity, down there. JD drank gratefully, yet held back from drinking his fill. They might have to make that last. Handing back the canteen, he stretched his senses for any sound of pursuit. Stars glittered in silvered clouds amid a silent black sky, and somewhere the thin, despairing wail of a coyote rose and drifted and died. However, those men somewhere below would not be completely stupid. They would likely be awfully wary about blundering off into the moonless dark in pursuit, given the shock they had just received. For the moment, the fugitives dared rest and catch their wind.
As he relaxed, JD could feel that fine trembling setting into him, a deep quivering as if each strand of his muscles had drawn tight and snapped loose. Happened every damned time, and he wondered if Chris ever got the shakes, after a fight. As always, JD steeled himself to ride it out. He took a deep, silent breath, and from the corner of his eye, noted Chris sitting there like a stone monolith. Heck, that man probably didn't have a nerve in his entire body. Meanwhile, JD tightened his grip around the cool, polished wood of his rifle; let his fingers stroke the oily smoothness of the metal. Come what may, at least now they had teeth.