Candles of the Wicked
The line of the horizon shone brighter, now, the broken spine of the mountains etched stark black against pearl grey sky. They rested high on the steep, bony flank of a ridge, adrift in a sea of night, as if on the topmast of a sunken ship. Night still filled the world black to the rim, yet overhead, the steely blush of dawn slowly bleached the stars away. Here in this vast stillness, the simple fact of his not moving held the hurts at bay, and he was in no hurry to change that. A cool breeze washed Chris' face, scented with a mysterious, dry sweetness. Perhaps this was what Creation smelled like, before Man awoke to stir the dust of his doings. The mountains seemed wrapped in deep, velvet hush, in this hour before light and shadow, and the silence rang in its immensity.
Suddenly he thought of Vin, imagined him sitting motionless amid just such a moment, alone with the birth of a new day. Of all of them, the tracker would best understand this perfection of place, when it was only the great, drowsy swell of the earth beneath and the fresh-swept expanse of dark, silent sky above. Here Vin would feel the distant gaze of ancient spirits, watching from somewhere beyond their ken, and perhaps he would know the words with which to greet them. Surely it could not be in anything so coarse as their English tongue.
A dull patch of white and dark beside him was JD, the kid curled awkwardly between boulders, an arm bent under his head and his body wrapped around his Winchester, dark hair fallen in loose threads over his face. He appeared to be asleep, and Chris was loath to rouse him, just yet. His own body hummed with pressing weariness that his own broken sleep had done nothing to dispel, and held itself tight against the hurts waiting to explode with movement. Let the kid rest while he could. Somewhere down in the dark canyons, LeBeau's hired thugs must keep a skittish vigil. When JD awoke, there was tough work to be done. Chris tightened his hands around the cool wood and steel of his carbine, and felt his teeth set hard against each other. The job now had been simplified to their own continued survival.
A small sound turned his head, the soft sigh of a breath, squeezed off tightly. Now JD moved, his face rising as a pallid blur, with dark eyes open and the dark line of his brows pinched close to them. Cloth scraped stone briefly, as the kid slid a hip under him, sat up, then moved his rifle as he made a lap to hold it in. Awake, and ready for whatever came. In a flash of grim humor, Chris reflected that no shaving, no coffee, and no food damned sure simplified a man's morning routine.
"Should sleep more," Chris whispered.
"Can't," drifted the soft reply. "Ground's too hard."
The silver glow to the east intensified, erasing the dim glitter of the western stars with a smooth stroke, painting the world below in shades of shadowless grey. JD watched the pale dawn, also. In this half-light, his face was as spectral as the white sleeves of his shirt, bizarre contrast to the dark fabric of his vest and the hair that fell forward in ink-black strings to touch one cheek. Almost as if that vest and hair were all that actually existed here, and the rest of him was luminous smoke. For a split-second, Chris wished powerfully and foolishly for some color, dammit, did not like the brief, giddy sense that he might reach a hand right through the kid.
"I wonder," said JD softly, his eyes on the slow glory of dawn. "If the first morning on earth was as peaceful as this?"
Chris looked elsewhere, at fading stars and the jagged black rim of the world, and tried to breathe away an odd tightness in his chest. Then JD asked for some water, and he was all here, contorting his arms behind his head to work knots from his back, and taking the canteen, and waiting. Last night, JD had been a cannon loose on a pitching deck, and Chris had wished he could smack sense into his fool head, like a woman slaps peppercorns into a ham. Yet now, he would need that, would need to use this boy like a drawn sword. He must risk his frail mortality to save it, for they must be their own deliverance.
The light was now enough that they could just see. At Chris' first movement to rise, the kid uncoiled himself upright and onto his feet, and that eagerness struck a blunt fist under Chris' heart. Yet he jerked his mind roughly from the weakness of sentiment. The time was now. He shouldered the canteen, JD the saddlebags, and they set their boots to tumbled stone once more. The soles of Chris' feet screamed protest at the first step, and shocked pain to his ankles at every stride following. Every other hurt blazed to instant attention, as well. So be it. Today they would teach the hunters about being the hunted.
+ + + + + + +
"Buck? Wait, BUCK!"
The lanky gunslinger swung around at the shrill hail, and turned the pained wince of that sudden motion into a smile, as he saw Casey Wells' sunny features. The girl waved at him, then skipped into a quick run.
"Buck, I got a letter!"
"It must be good news, to set you a-runnin' like that."
He winked at her, as she all but skidded to a halt beside him. At least he hoped it was, just to make that wrench to his still-delicate midriff worth while.
"It is!" Then her smile tilted off-center and her brow furrowed. "Well, I think it is - I'm not sure -." She abruptly grinned again. "But it's from JD! He sent it two days ago!"
"Well, that's a good thing. What's he say?"
"I'm not -." She lifted and dropped her shoulders in a helpless sort of gesture. "I don't know what to make of it. Here, you read it!"
Startled, Buck caught the page she almost flung at him, and realized the poor girl was wrestling with an awful confusion of emotions, there. He stepped to the edge of the walk, Casey close at his side, and unfolded the letter. JD's scrawling hand was instantly recognizable, but he hesitated over prying into his young pardner's private thoughts, especially when directed to Casey, who stared right at him. It was one thing to tease the kid in person, but this was different. Yet now her mobile features registered something very like pleading, as she looked up at him.
"He just doesn't sound right, Buck. He . . . well, read it."
That was enough. If there was something wrong with the kid, propriety be damned. Buck held the penciled lines to good light. JD's stilted attempt at the semi-formal language of letters did not sound like his usual speech, but these were his thoughts as he chose to write them, and Buck would pay close heed.
Messia NM Aug 31
Please pardon my bad writing as I must write in haste. To-day we are in Messiya. Every inteligence has shown us that Calvin Bell is still before us and we are detirmined to make him ours. We are boarding our horses here as they are used up and we are riding with the mails to El Paso any minut. Maybe the boys will tell you that we wired home but the wires have trouble and we can not wait for a reply if none comes in the next moments. Or we will miss the stage and be side tracked for another full day and the delay will not do. We will send further word as soon as we have any news.
We are in a strange country now Casey and with no friends at hand. If it were not for our purpuse here, I would rather be on my way back but I don't even know what that holds. We have had no true word of Buck and my heart wont let me say more on that but if he resides with angels now the angels got the better deal and be damned to them You will be the only fine thing left to me and I have no trust that bad luck wont take that too. Please keep kind thots for me. I am well and Chris also and he sends his regards to all. We will return when this is played out. Keep yourself well and safe and give my best to your Aunt and all the boys.
Yours as ever and always,
J. D. Dunne
P.S. Tell the boys we will either bring Bell or a remembrince of him.
Buck read the final paragraph twice, and the last sentence three times. Choppy grammar and hasty misspellings were not surprising. The heavy note of near-despair in those last passages was. He straightened to see Casey watching him intently, her expression doubtless mirroring the concern on his own face.
"He doesn't sound right, does he? Buck, what's he talking about? And what does he mean they'll bring a remembrance of Bell? Is that like a scalp or something?"
"Now, darlin', I don't think that's -."
"Well, he sure don't mean he's bringin' a curl of hair in a silver locket!"
Lord, how did the girl think of this stuff? The brief thought flickered through Buck's mind that he really needed to talk to that boy, about what sort of things were suitable to write to a lady. JD should not have troubled her like this.
Mustering a weak smile, Buck said, "Well, we don't rightly know what he meant, and I think it sounds like he's just a little blue and homesick, is all."
Casey's delicate brows tightened darkly. "He thinks you're dead, Buck."
Sometimes Buck forgot that this lively little wood sprite was Nettie Wells' niece, raised to look at things straight on and without blinking. He let go a long, weary breath and carefully refolded the letter, handed it back to her.
Soberly he said, "That might be so, Casey. But him and Chris got a job to do, and they know it. Chris knows better than to go at a thing half-cocked, and he won't let JD do that, either."
Still those bright brown eyes scrutinized him. "You're assumin' Chris is thinkin' straight, his own self. If JD thinks you're dead, then Chris does, too. What do you think would happen, then?"
Anxiety began to tighten cold little hands in Buck's stomach, and he spoke as much to appease himself as the girl awaiting his reply. "Now, just remember, we got their telegram from El Paso last night, which was sent after he wrote this. So, we know they're all right. Why, they might even have their man today, which mean's they'll be home before you know it."
"I suppose." Casey did not appear mollified, as she worried the creases of the letter's folds. "I guess I just won't feel better until I see 'em ride in."
"I know, I know." Buck nodded with gentle smile. "But whatever misunderstandin's there are will be all fixed up, in no time at all. Why, I reckon livin' to see my own obituary has to be worth at least a couple drinks, don't ya think?"
He was gratified to see laughter flit, however briefly, across her pert features. JD's mind-set had been far from ordinary, when he wrote that letter, but if one looked beyond emotions, there was really nothing to do but wait until their wanderers returned. At least their last telegram strongly suggested that this would happen soon.
"Now, just be patient a little longer," Buck said quietly. "Everything will be fine, you'll see." Then he coaxed a bit of mischief he did not quite feel into his voice. "Besides, he'll just be that much happier to see you."
"Ain't me he's worried about," said Casey sternly. Then she tossed him an all-too-knowing look, turned, and walked away with all the wise dignity of the female race.
The sigh Buck breathed seemed to come all the way from his feet. With one hand on a sudden twinge from his still-healing belly, he turned his unseeing gaze into the busy street. Damn it. Surely, Chris was smart enough to keep his head, no matter what he thought he knew. And surely, he would keep JD from doing anything terminally stupid. But then a darker thought arose; that maybe Chris would have no interest in holding JD back. Buck had never thought of what might happen, if both of those two went on the warpath, together.
+ + + + + + +
JD scrambled probably too close on Chris' heels, but nervousness did that to a man, pushed urgency high in his throat, and strung muscle and sinew so tight they almost trembled with an itching need for action. Following Chris Larabee into a fight was no new thing, but before, there had not been this darkness to what they did. This man, whose first, unequivocal words and lesson for JD had been that one never shoots somebody in the back, had never before led him to stage an ambush. The realization of that seesawed uncomfortably in JD's mind, as he planted boots to crumbling earth and drove himself higher up the broken slope.
Gravel abruptly slid and slumped, and skated one foot out from under him, dumping JD hard on one knee, and his rifle butt clattered against rock. Ahead, the straight, stern line of Chris' hat brim tilted briefly towards him. Yet he said nothing, and the man's shoulders heaved onward. Embarrassment biting sharply, JD scrambled up and pushed himself into a faster climb. This was a side of Chris that unnerved people, which frankly unnerved JD, too, simply because one could not honestly predict what Chris would or would not do. He carried with him the implacable cold certainty of fixed bayonets, the unfeeling, unblinking purpose of a hunting wolf. No matter what JD thought he knew about Chris, there remained a darkness in him that only rarely simmered to the surface. When it did, mayhem and chaos seemed to hang like thunderclouds at either shoulder. Any moment, lightning would strike, and something would go smash. Times like this, JD got the distinct feeling that he was strictly spare parts.
Not that JD had any real hesitation about what they had to do. Yes, on one hand, a corner of his mind skittered nervously from the idea of shooting into people who had no idea they were there. Whether a man shot another in the back, or from three hundred yards up a hill, the other fellow still never got a fair show. On the other, however, a hard, teeth-grinding surge of temper leaped fiercely at the prospect of finally hitting back. Every time JD looked at the gruesome brown-black stuff now drying and flaking off Chris' right side and pants leg, the memory of how in hell they got here slammed home, and JD figured be damned to dainty principles. Dutch LeBeau's boys had it easy, when they all they dealt with were two desperate, unarmed men. Now - well, fellas, looks like you got a tiger by the tail.
Suddenly Chris stopped, sinking down on his haunches, with eyes sharply focused on the broad V of the canyon below. Without looking to see if JD paid attention, he pointed downward, along their back trail.
"There. See where the wash narrows down at that cut-bank and willows? They'll be bunched up there when they come through. Not much room to maneuver, especially if we stir 'em up a bit."
JD saw what Chris did. Perhaps two hundred and fifty yards away and downhill, a scruffy green fringe of willows tucked itself beside the splayed, sandy fingers of an ancient watercourse. Having walked through there moments ago, he knew it was dry now, but there where a bulge of hill thrust a toe forward, the angry rush of past seasons had cut deeply, and the pale thread of sand bent a briefly narrow, curving path between high, sandy banks. A man could ride a scrambling course up and around, but the natural way of travel was right through the easy passage of that streambed. He and Chris had stridden through in no time, the narrowing of the wash barely worth notice. Hopefully it would not appear as a place a wary soul would expect trouble. And trouble was absolutely what he and Chris had in mind.
"I want you here," Chris said, and lifted the hard angle of his jaw tightly. "I'll be just up there."
"Do we, you know, yell first or anything?"
Chris just gave him a look. "Wait for my fire. And use your head. Don't waste your shots."
JD nodded once, a quick, jerky movement, and held still as Chris aimed one last, hard stare into his eyes. Then the older man lurched up and was gone. Rifle in both hands before him, JD squatted down then tipped forward onto his knees, folding himself into taut readiness. This he had also done before, but that was when there were seven. He took a breath that pinched through tight nostrils. Well, all right, then. C'mon, damn you. I know you're back there.
And the hunters came, just as the hunted knew they would. LeBeau's men first appeared as motion deep in the blue morning shadows of the canyon floor. Then a splash of white broke from the screen of willows below, a blaze on the bobbing face of the lead horse. JD caught himself to stillness with a jerk. One horse walked a steady four-beat gait into morning sunlight, its red coat catching shifting amber highlights and a single white foot flashing in its stride. Then another rider emerged and another and there were four, five, seven of them - when, dammit, Chris? They're in the open now, what are we waiting for?
The faces below were in shadow, hats bobbing leisurely above swaying shoulders, and once the pale oval of a face turned outwards. JD felt his ribs tighten around his chest, and his palms were slick on the polished wood of his rifle. Those were the enemy, but right now they just looked like men quietly riding, and he was about to shoot into them, all unawares. There was no talking among them, or none that carried the twice-hundred yards or more uphill. Clean sunlight spilled into an empty space behind those riders, dust briefly spiraling up and hanging, fading. Was that all? Then he saw more movement and more riders and - hell!
The crack of a rifle shot jerked JD's finger on the trigger, and recoil slapped chagrin into his shoulder bones. Yet the explosive, scattering shock of surprise drove the hunters back on their tracks, like buckshot in a pack of coyotes. The echoes clapped to taut silence as horses and men burst apart from each other, spinning and shouting in tight-twisted desperation to pinpoint where, dammit, where? All that high-chinned arrogance down there, those men just riding up the canyons, but now he and Chris had the high ground, the sun at their backs, and it was about damned time. An instant passed, as JD snugged his cheek to the rifle stock, and carefully framed the blue blur of a man's shirt in his sights. Then Chris' Winchester spoke again and his own answered, and JD swept into the sharp, heartless focus of the fight.
Again and again, his rifle thumped steel plate into his shoulder, gun smoke whipping a flying white haze across his vision. Smoke burst below, as well, as their enemy returned fire, but it was ill aimed and harmless. Fragmented shouts rang out, as they leaped from saddles to lead mounts to cover, or let them fly. Twice JD saw men buckle in the broken, spastic way of a solid hit, but never knew whether it was his shot or Chris'. Like stomping bugs, he drove deliberate rounds into them, or as near as he could make it. Take that, you bastards, and see how you like it.
Men vanished, fell back, dove into willows and shadows and behind the cover of sandy creek banks. Dutch LeBeau might hire a man's guns, but money alone did not hire away his sense of self-preservation. They were fish in a barrel, and a dead man spent no gold. One, then two more riders bolted in flying retreat back down the wash and out of sight, and JD gave a sharp, joyous yell to see it. Chris' rifle boomed odd syncopation to his own. That, for all the infernal misery and aggravation they had gone through. That, for Calvin Bell and Buck Wilmington and a dead woman bathed in her own blood in a back-street hovel. That, for too many days of dirt and exhaustion and going hungry, and just every damned thing ever done wrong against them.
Nor did the enemy below fail to notice that here was no wild, hectic fusillade of bullets. Instead, rather carefully deliberated messengers of death thudded among them with awful care. Their quarry had turned, and the intent facing them was clear and precise as each shot that cracked among them. Misses there were, but those snapped through air so close the bullets almost scorched their targets, and the men of Dutch LeBeau realized how huge a mistake their confidence had been.
At last, strange surprise, the two fugitives realized they faced a battle with no one to shoot at. The descending silence seemed to shudder, as the echoes ricocheted jaggedly to rest. Smoke and dust drifted thinly in an evaporating fog below, yet he could no longer see anyone. Not horse nor man. JD found himself breathing hard through a mouth gone dry as canvas, and the barrel of his rifle felt warm, although from sun or firing he could not guess. Where were they?
Cautiously he raised himself from his elbows, just enough to peer upwards towards Chris' position. A glimpse of sun-touched yellow was Chris' bare head, and then JD could just see his leader's sharp profile, angling downwards in the same perplexity that he felt. As if feeling his gaze, Chris looked towards him, met his eyes and gave a brief shake of his head. Caution, uncertainty, both seemed mirrored there, and JD nodded in reply. Then Chris' awareness shifted, the whole of the man turning and bunching tight behind the sights of his rifle and he fired once. JD snapped his attention towards a distant yelp, and saw motion flicker in the willows below, then nothing. Either another man was down, or somebody was now seriously reconsidering his luck.
Long moments ticked past, the rising sun painting the back of JD's shirt with heat that intensified, when small movements shifted the lay of cloth against skin. He could taste the acrid rasp of gun smoke in the back of his throat, smelled its sulfuric pungency on the fingers he ran under his nose. A lizard popped out from under a stone, its tiny tongue flickering, tasting the chaos that had only moments ago rocked its world. As quick as he noticed it, the lizard blinked from view. Smart lizard. A whinny suddenly wavered dolefully from below, one of the horses calling for a pal who apparently had deserted. Then rocks clattered in near distance, and JD narrowed his scrutiny of the canyon. There! Dust wafted up in a thin, yellow fog from beyond the shoulder of a low hill then drifted to invisibility. A moment passed then more dust rose and sifted away. Were they?
He realized he breathed through his mouth, as if to inhale the truth of what was happening. Habit turned him again to Chris, a searching glance that showed his leader also watched with keen interest. JD let Chris' body language be his guide, watching as the dark form loosened and the carbine lowered to rest.
"Chris!" he hissed. "Are they gone?"
Blond brows pinched themselves into tight furrows, as Chris slowly wagged his head, caught somewhere between yes, and I have no idea. However, the certainty of it was becoming apparent, and glee grew in JD like an irresistible urge to shout. He could feel the first real grin in ages blooming across his face. They had done it! LeBeau's hired stooges were bold as roosters, when it came to dealing with a couple unarmed men on foot, but it was a whole other kettle of fish, when the hunter became the hunted. Whatever LeBeau paid them was not enough to face the likes of Chris Larabee, that's for sure, and Chris was not alone up here, either.
Leather boot soles grated on gravel, as Chris shifted to a low crouch. He obviously still did not trust what he saw, but the evidence spoke for itself. After another long, narrow-eyed scrutiny of the silent ribbon of stream bed below, and the impassive swell of low dry hills, Chris bent himself forward and stoop-walked his way down the slope to JD. He shook his head indulgently, at the wide, breathless grin JD greeted him with, but allowed a faint, wry smile of his own to make a brief appearance.
"C'mon, kid, let's get the hell out of here."
Once again, they set their faces forward and began trudging along the flank of their hill, although casting many a backwards glance along the path of LeBeau's vanished men. It seemed that, at last, the tide had turned. Life had abruptly simplified itself, the job now being to survive these damned mountains long enough to recoup, and then continue. There were miners pecking away in these hills. With any luck, they would stumble into a friendly camp, and at least get a decent meal and a good night's sleep. Maybe even find a way back to town, besides walking there. El Paso waited on their back trail, with law and people and a reasonable margin of safety. Maybe it was just time to go home, is all.
Home . . . so distant a place that JD stopped, and stared across the raw spines of the ridges between them and it. Home without Buck. Home without Calvin Bell, too, but there was a point where a man just had to say, enough. JD shook his head, as he resumed plodding after Chris. How could it be, that they could work so hard, and a man like Bell just gets away? Couldn't there be better justice in the world than that? Didn't God make special arrangements for guys like him?
"JD, GET DOWN!"
The shout slapped him in the same instant a blizzard of pulverized rock and sand burst at his feet, and he spun to greet an tidal wave of thundering horses and men punching cracking white puffs of smoke before them -. JD's hip hit the ground hard then his elbow and his rifle, as his body reacted before his brain did. He heard a wild yell rip from him as he rolled to get the rifle into play, twisting as the riders split and swung wide in a scramble-legged rush, vanishing briefly around the shoulder of the hill.
Without thought, he obeyed, plunging in a scrambling leap for his feet and flight. Things snapped past his head and he realized that now they were taking fire from below, from the willow thicket they had thought abandoned. Nor did he give a damn if they were at extreme range for a Winchester now; those bullets still had to stop somewhere. Rocks rolled underfoot and dirt caved under leaping strides, but they never slowed, and now the rumble of hoof beats drummed again.
"This way!" Chris' face whipped towards him, taut and white-toothed. "Too steep for horses!"
And they ran.
+ + + + + + +
Vin Tanner walked softly, in deference to the quiet of early morning. He breathed the fragrant scent of mesquite smoke, as unseen breakfast fires began to warm the stoves in drowsy homes. In his imagination, he could see beyond glowing windows good wives and sleepy husbands talking quietly, warmly over coffee, before the young ones awoke and daily chores called. The silvered sky washed slowly to gold, and a sharper tang caught his senses, as he passed the smoldering remains of one of last night's street fires. Somewhere beyond the rooftops, a meadowlark suddenly pealed brilliant, liquid notes, and he paused to listen. Three times the rippling song repeated, as full-heartedly joyous as the paean of all creation, and he breathed in the lyrical tones as if they had substance. When it did not come again, he held still enough to sense his own heartbeat, reluctant to move from that place into which such brief beauty had cast him.
Finally, he walked once more. Lamps glimmered in windows here and there, and as he neared the saloon, a dark silhouette took shape on the shadowed porch. A man sat there, slouched quietly in a chair with long legs spilling before him. Buck. It was not often that first light found the tall man up and about.
A smile quirked Vin's lips, as he drew near. "She throw you out of bed, Bucklin?"
It did not matter who the "she" was, Buck Wilmington would never leave a woman's bed early, unless the summons were dire indeed. A low chuckled rippled from beneath the broad hat brim, as Buck tipped his head back to look at him.
"Aw, now you know that'd never happen."
Vin chuckled, and caught a whiff of the rich fragrance of coffee. "Who's got the pot on?"
"Mary's up." Both men glanced across the street, where lamplight gleamed warmly in the newspaper office window. "She saw me and figured I'd hurt myself, if I didn't get some coffee, soon."
"Know the feelin'. Think I'll see if she's got an extra cup."
"Vin . . ." The tracker paused at Buck's soft hail. "Vin, now you know I'm not one to get nervy, but . . . I can't get JD's letter out of my head."
"What Casey showed you?"
"Yeah. There's too much we're not seein', and those boys are just too far away."
"I'm tellin' myself it's only been a day since they got to El Paso, and maybe it's takin' a bit of doing, to get Bell rounded up."
"Besides that, they got the local law there helpin' 'em."
The gusting sound of Buck's sigh coupled with the wet splat of him tossing the dregs of his coffee. "Tell me to quit frettin', huh?"
Cloth and leather rustled softly, as Vin leaned to take the cup from Buck's hand. "Stay put. I'll get you a refill, while I'm over there."
Buck watched the lean figure stride away, and settled back in his chair with one hand on his tender belly. Too many things a man could not see and none of them felt good. Damn. Just . . . damn.
+ + + + + + +
Neither one of them would dare take off their boots, now. JD could feel his socks sticking in ways that socks never should, although everything from the ankles down hurt so bad, there was no isolating one particular pain. In his mind's eye, the soles of his feet looked like tenderized steak, and he knew there was a danged good reason he preferred riding to walking. A man simply was not meant to walk, out West, and sure as hell not out here where the ground was hot as a skillet and the rocks themselves felt like hammer blows. All yesterday they had scrambled and run, and most of the night, too, trying to grab hold and stretch every second they could get, between themselves and the men of Dutch LeBeau. Now, here was another day, and if a blacksmith turned him upside down and used his feet as anvils, he could not feel much worse.
Chris looked little better off. The tireless wolf grace was long gone, replaced instead by the careful skittishness of an over-hunted cat. Even his eyes had that same look; hazel-green now catching the late afternoon sun in bright keenness, which at the same time seemed oddly thin-edged and brittle. Chris was hurt worse than he had let on. JD knew that for fact, now. It was so easy to believe in Chris' invulnerability, to follow that iron-willed resolve to forge onward, no matter what, that JD had been able to ignore all the little warning signs. Now, however, while they may have escaped without being killed or even hurt, older hurts were catching up with them. Fresh stickiness had seeped thickly into the reddish brown already dried on Chris' right side. Even though Chris still would not let him look at the wound, JD watched every stumble, every lurch of that lean frame with growing unease. At some point, the bleeding must have stopped again, as the dark maroon cloth stiffened in the heat with no new blood to wet it. However, the gouge from that bullet had to have taken a lot from the man, was still taking from him.
JD could almost feel them, back there, like the hot breath of some relentlessly pursuing animal. LeBeau's men now appeared to be following them in relays. Judging by distantly glimpsed horses, hats, and colors of clothing, it appeared there were now two parties of men. One bunch would track them for three or four hours, then at some point, he would catch a glimpse of their pursuers and see another bunch. They could not come fast, in this rocky terrain, and with the added burden of tracking. Yet they did not need to. They need only keep coming steadily.
Twice burned by letting their quarry get close, they could afford to bide their time. These desert mountains would do much of the work for them. The two fugitives had played bloody havoc with their pursuers' resolve, but now the game was changing. Only plain, dumb luck had pulled their fat out of the last fire. A ridge too steep for horses to navigate, and an enemy who had shot too hastily for accuracy, those were the only reasons he and Chris were still here. They had gained a fair lead on LeBeau's men, as the gunmen hunted another way around, but the effort had damned near killed him and Chris, and JD was not so sure they could maintain it.
They had learned several dark and sobering things, since yesterday's ill-fated ambush. On foot, they could not move fast enough to maintain an effective running fight in the daylight, and LeBeau's minions did not stampede easily. They fought back like men who felt they had something at stake, and now JD realized Chris' understanding was correct. LeBeau and his men believed their El Paso racket was threatened, and they would fight to prevent that.
Chris carried the canteen, again, thumping heavily against one hip. By some mercy, they found water, another tiny, seeping spring. It had tasted green, but it was cool and wet. After filling the canteen and their bellies, JD nearly choked on not laughing, when he turned to see Chris pissing in the spring. A childish sort of vengeance, but one could always hope their enemy got there in time to get a bit of the extra flavoring.
That was the last of Chris' gestures, however. Now the whole, whip-lean length of him seemed held tight to but one thought, the grim business of moving forward. Once again, they were running until they could reach the shelter of darkness, wherein lay their only hope. Not that their pace could honestly be labeled running. A pained plod seemed more like it, one leaden foot dragged after the other, while the breath rasped furnace-hot in their dry throats, and the sun clamped iron straps around their skulls. Both of them had soaked their hats in that spring, for added coolness, but now warped brims and a vague dampness in too-tight sweatbands were all that remained. Rocks scraped and rattled suddenly, as Chris misstepped, staggering hard to catch himself by luck or act of will. JD found himself with one hand flung out, but short of touching, as his heart hammered in his ribs.
"Chris." Voice no more than a croak, now, speech long since abandoned. "Wait up."
Evidence of the true state of things came when Chris merely nodded once, in response, and stood still. JD paused beside him, reached for the canteen strap over Chris' shoulder and pulled the canteen up between them.
"Take a sip," he said.
Something flared diamond-hard in Chris' eyes, but JD had no energy left to react, and merely waited. The black hat brim dipped, as Chris took the canteen, uncorked it, and took a brief swallow. Then he held it out in indication that JD should also drink. He did. It was like drinking warm, green syrup, but at least it was wet. For a moment, they both just stood there, with the heat pressing heavily on their shoulders, as if the Devil himself rode astride. Finally, JD turned and heaved himself into motion, but Chris stubbornly pushed past him, taking the lead once more.
They aimed uphill again, traversing a long, bony slope with a faint game trail as a guide. The tiny, twin points of deer tracks went before them, with the powdered dust occasionally revealing passage of other small animals. Vin would know what they all were, but JD's mind refused to even grasp the puzzle. Keep moving. They were in no condition to outrun their pursuers, nor even to lay a false trail that might mislead them. Exhaustion, heat, and lack of food, all dragged weights on their every move. All they could do was keep moving, stay ahead, wait for dark, and then pray they had something left to fight or think or maneuver with.
JD was not even sure he was seeing right, when he peered past Chris into the blaze of the afternoon sun and saw . . . green. Not a little green, but green like the poets wrote about, like something he had forgotten existed, here in a world of shimmering, fractured stone and scalding sky. Like a schoolmarm surrounded by children, a sycamore tree stood full-leafed and glorious, whispering to a close-huddled thicket of lesser, brushier trees. The sinking sun backlit them into shimmering, incandescent gold and emerald, and deepened the flickering shadows to a rich Irish green. To JD's eyes, it was a tiny fragment of Paradise, which must have dropped from God's own pocket and been forgotten here, tucked high in a narrow crease in the breast of the mountain. Like the deer whose tracks they followed, the two fugitives instinctively sought its shadowed recesses.
The slope steepened dramatically, as they drew near, the ravine that clove the mountain's bony flesh plunging steeply in tangles of brush and weeds. That narrow thread of green petered out some three or four hundred yards below, where the bounty of the hidden spring was recaptured by the same stone that birthed it. However, the sycamore's tiny kingdom beckoned sweetly, and the wonder was that this vision did not cruelly vanish before their fevered eyes..
As they bent to push through the narrow, brush-choked deer paths, coolness breathed against their fevered bodies as if the little grove had a life of its own. Places like this made a man think the Indians knew the right of things, that some places were magic. There was no true clearing at the center of the thicket, but beneath the sycamore and its smaller companions, a brief patch of green grass waved frail spears above half-hidden stones. There the gurgle of clear-running water was quite literally music, and it sang them at last to rest.
No ambrosia could have been sweeter than the cool, blessed bounty of that little stream. The two of them sipped carefully, savored blissfully, and imagined dried up parts of themselves plumping up like cooked rice, as the precious liquid soaked into their parched bodies. After slaking their thirst and refilling the canteen, they sat amid half-hidden stones and tangled greenery, and dumbly watched the water tumble past. Just a thin freshet no wider than a man's forearm, but it sparkled and gurgled as if perfectly delighted with simply everything in the world, and JD found himself foolishly smiling at it. Where they sat, a little cascade poured in a fountain from one pool to the next, splintering light and liquid shadow in its downward rush.
On impulse, he slid forward and pampered himself with hatfuls of water poured slowly and repeatedly over his aching head. He envisioned the bones of his skull hissing like a hot horse shoe being drenched, and closed his eyes to the blessed tickle of water dribbling over his eyes and down his face, and soaking into his shirt and vest. The coolness soothed the tight aches of his battered head, and poured down his back like a benediction. The sensation was so exquisite, he finally reached over and plucked Chris' hat off his head. Chris jerked to attention and scowled, but JD merely laid the black hat aside, then dipped his own hat full once more, and poured the contents gleefully over his leader's matted head. The scowl never changed, but neither did Chris move, and JD doused him twice more, before Chris finally signaled enough.
Dripping pleasantly, Chris ran a hand thoughtfully over his wet face, then over his tangled hair. Breathing a soft sigh, he looked up through the flickering leaves to the fragments of white-hot sky above. Something glittered in his eyes, or perhaps it was just the light, but there was no mistaking the clean, hard set of his jaw.
"We wait here," he said. "Wait and rest until dark."
"But they'll catch up to us, again!"
That was all. Just yes, and a lot of bloody possibilities. Yet JD curbed his thoughts from going beyond that, and pushed himself up.
"Best place we'll have for me to look at that." He gestured towards Chris' right side, which the man still guarded like something precious.
"Leave it," Chris replied stiffly.
"No." JD stepped to him, knelt down. "It needs looked at."
"Leave it alone!" White teeth bared, in brief promise or threat.
JD merely looked at him. "You get sick, what good are ya to me?"
That jerked Chris up tighter than he wanted to, wrenched pain like white fire all across the middle of him. But that was not the half of it. The true shock was hearing those words, and seeing that flat matter-of-factness staring back at him from the kid's bruised face. Damn. He'd laugh if he had anything to laugh with.
"When did you start talkin' like that?"
The long-missing boyish grin reappeared in one burst, and knocked that coyote look well and gone. "Geez, Chris, you know we have been keepin' awfully close company, lately."
Chris let him. Just curled up on his good side, there, with the sharp, green scent of crushed plants beneath him and whispering leaves above. Getting Chris wet seemed the order of the day, since soaking his caked shirt, and the kerchief he'd stuffed beneath, was the only way to prize the blood-stiff cloth free of that old wound. However, the brief chill of each sousing was nothing compared to the blessedness of finally feeling cool. His hide must steam like a hot rock, after two days in the infernally damned, doubly cursed, thoroughly malevolent Texas sun.
He wondered if JD knew he sounded just like a man doctoring a horse, murmuring brief, calming noises each time pain jerked the breath sharply through his patient's teeth. Even the hand that once or twice found his shoulder had that same impersonal firmness, and Chris hid an ironic smile. Doctoring horses was probably all JD knew of healing, but likely a lot of folks could swear to what a mule-headed son of a bitch Chris Larabee was. Yet the kid had a gentle touch, albeit without the calm skill of Nathan, and he did his best.
"Looks ugly, but not dangerous." JD's voice came from just over him, and the sly edge of a smile crept into his tone. "Looks like the bullet took a good bite out of your love handles, there, is all."
A dry snort was the only response Chris dignified that with. Love handles, hell. Neither of them had enough fat left on them to fry an egg.
"When did you get shot, anyhow?" JD asked. More water drizzled over Chris' raw flank.
"Back at the hotel."
"I remember a gun went off. I thought they wanted us alive to pack out here."
Damned kid. Too smart for his own good.
"Guess I shot myself. Tried to get a shot off at them, but somebody damned near twisted my arm off."
Chris peeled his eyes open, and looked up past JD's busy elbow. "You say one word . . . ."
"Aw, hell, Chris." The kid's gaze and tone both came back dark and weary. "If I live to see anybody I want to tell anything to, embarrassing you will be the last thing on my mind."
If. Chris let his eyes close, then hissed and jerked tightly, as the kid dabbed once more at that raw gouge in his flank.
"'S all right." He lifted a heavy arm, tried to reach up and pat the kid, but missed, as JD pulled away and stood.
"Think I done all I can, Chris. It looks pretty red and nasty, but I got all the gunk out I could see. Maybe you just lay there and let it dry a bit, get some sun on it."
Chris nodded against the bent stems, sighed, and curled one arm under his head. Rest. Metal rattled briefly and JD's voice now came from a few feet away.
"I'll keep watch. You just rest a spell."
To his own, vague surprise, Chris did not object. He was spent. Plain and simple. JD, on the other hand, still had some steam in his boiler. Chris would need his wits and his strength tonight, when their pursuers again drew near. Then he could let JD rest, and resume his turn on deck. Well enough. Leaves whispered things that almost sounded like distant words, and the stream gurgled merrily. Here was gentleness, where they had known none in what seemed a dark eternity. Chris Larabee slept.