Candles of the Wicked

by G. M. Atwater


City deputy John Meeks was found dead at his desk this morning, victim of a single shot to the head. A coroner's jury was promptly convened, and ruled the case murder, death caused from the effect of a pistol wound, by the hand of parties unknown. The air is full of speculations, but no hard intelligence is forthcoming, as to the assassin's motives or identity. Officer Meeks was a native of California, and leaves to mourn him a sister in Fresno and a brother in Visalia."

It is said, by parties who claim their ability to sustain it, that a band of festive fellows, under that notorious chief of El Paso sporting men, Dutch LeBeau, have arrived upon a strikingly reckless sport, that of hunting noted shootist Chris Larabee through the hills out of town, as well as one or two Larabee Gang members. A prudent man would suppose that, should they succeed in their ambition, matters would most likely go severely against LeBeau and company. No response by local law enforcement could indicate a consensus that bearers of the sword should be left to annihilate each other, and so save society and taxpayers the expense. However, lack of intestinal fortitude is more than likely the culprit."

Mary Travis' face looked absolutely alabaster white. The fact that Ezra again chose to read her missives aloud for her, and did so in a voice utterly devoid of expression, in no way lessened the dread in either her expression or the message her offering imparted. Very carefully, Ezra folded the pages of the newly arrived El Paso Sentinel, and faced his silent audience.

"It appears," he said, "that the murder of the deputy and the . . . predicament of our comrades are related."

Buck spoke, tone deep and hard. "How old is this?"

"Two days," Mary replied tightly, and fear shone white in her wide eyes. "I got the Mesilla paper in today's mail. I just telegraphed the El Paso city marshal, and he says he had no idea Mr. Larabee was even in the city."

"Either the man is lying," said Ezra. "And the deputy's death is incidental to our case, or the deputy was silenced, most likely for having dealt with Mr. Larabee. I am inclined to believe the latter."

"Larabee Gang, huh?" mused Josiah. "Sounds like somebody read that little fella's dime novel."

A sharp whisk of movement, like a hawk taking wing, was Vin pushing off from the wall behind him. "Looks like we're ridin'."

"Vin." The urgency in Mary's voice caught him, stalled him to pause with a sharp, fierce glance cast back over his shoulder. "You can't go back to Texas. If you go there - if someone realizes who you are -."

"Mary," said Vin quietly, and resolve hummed a low, steady tone in that single word. "I might be damned if I do, but Chris is damned, if I don't."

"But you can't ride there and make it in time. El Paso is over two hundred miles."

"Gotta try, ma'am," came Nathan's smooth reply, the healer already stepping off the boardwalk.

"No. I mean - the stage. Take the stage." Her expression beseeched them, and there was no shame in it. "It's faster. It will mean you have to wait until three o'clock, when it arrives, but then it's non-stop, all the way through." Her gaze flicked from one to the other. "I'll contact the station manager up the line, to make sure you'll all have seats."

"There'll be seats," said Buck darkly. "Even if we all ride on top with the luggage, we'll get there."

"Or," said Josiah, and his toothy smile had no warmth in it. "We'll just convince some folks that we have a higher calling."

"Amen, brother," said Vin.

Then they were moving, pacing away from her, Ezra handing off the newsprint sheets that spoke so evil. Ever the gentleman, he was, but in an instant, he had become an icy stranger. The five of them turned away and as they moved, their purpose wrapped around them like dark wings. Even in this, the bright light of morning, Mary felt cold brush against her, as if some implacable, elemental force were flowing around her, and she could but witness whatever it unleashed. This was not, she realized, five men riding to uphold the law. This would be vengeance.

She heard Josiah's deep voice speaking, and turned, breath caught tight in her chest, straining to hear words that brought no comfort at all.

"Well, boys, looks like it's time to get a little Old Testament."

The stagecoach driver may have never had a safer run in his entire life. Lord pity the poor fool who dared to try and hold up this stage. Hard it was, however, to rest entirely comfortable with the assurances of the lady editor. The five men seated in and on his coach were like none he had carried before, heavy with the trappings of war and charged with unspoken resolve. All were polite, oh yes, the big, grizzled fellow even tipping his hat to the sole lady passenger, while the gentleman with the fine blue coat and rich Southern accent handed her gallantly up to her seat.

However, it was the courtesy of sated lions who felt no urge to hunt. They instead looked ahead with immensely composed patience for that moment when they would hunt again. The lady passenger seemed quite relieved to disembark at her destination. The colored man clambered down off the top of the coach, then, but even with a seat available, the longhaired fellow in buckskins remained up top, perched among trunks and carpetbags. At last, the driver beckoned him forward, to sit on the seat beside him where the shotgun messenger normally would, if they had carried a valuable cargo. Might as well. The young feller had more weapons stickin' out all over him than a navy gunboat.

+ + + + + + +

JD flinched at a sudden touch on his arm, and then settled under a light pressure of fingers. Chris' voice came from the dark as a bare breath of breeze.

"Try to sleep. I'll stand watch."

The touch remained an instant then was gone, as JD shifted his back against stone in no way shaped to accommodate a human spine. Sleep? He hugged his rifle against him, let the barrel's hard length lay back across the hollow of his shoulder, coolly touching the hinge of his jaw. His muscles seemed stretched loose and flimsy as old, wet towels. Real sleep had not been theirs in longer than he could remember, and weariness tugged heavily at the deepest bones of him. Yet they had caught up once more, LeBeau's men, sifting into the landscape below during the crimson moments of sunset.

He and Chris heard their steps clattering rocks, down there, and their voices clapping in brief, broken echoes. Settling down slope and out of sight, they posted themselves like scavengers awaiting a moment's weakness in their wounded prey. And they need only wait. Two men could not indefinitely watch the whole, black bowl of night or the blaze of day. Sooner or later, they would slip, they would become sloppy, or they would simply keel over from lack of all the things a human body demanded. JD stared at the vast, indifferent face of the glittering night sky, close enough to almost rake his hands through the stars as if they were diamond-black sand, and wondered if he could ever close his eyes again.

Around midnight, something moved in the whispering dark. A rattling slide of gravel jerked them both to tingling awareness, then Chris rose. "Stay," was his whispered word, and he ghosted off like a blade of blackness. Long moments ticked past, the stream gurgled, the trees whispered, and JD waited with his heart kicking his ribs. The whack of a rifle shocked him rigid, then another and another. The echoes ratcheted jaggedly away into forever, and JD waited with his rifle jammed to his shoulder and a fumbled plea circling his brain; please, please, please. Finally, a sibilant hiss spoke his name, and Chris' dark form resettled beside him.

"Stay close," Chris breathed. "Too dark."

Even though Chris could not see it, JD nodded. Getting separated could easily mean one might accidentally shoot the other. They had no friends in this place. A moment later, Chris leaned close to whisper briefly.

"They'll think a bit, before they try that again. Let's get out of here."

Then he was up once more, and JD followed. There was no moon this night to speak of, merely a dim sliver that rose tight against the bony skyline, as if fearing to expose itself. They moved with infinite care, slowly, no hurry at all. Uphill they crept, climbing steeply to the top edge of the thicket, where higher ground and cleaner fields of fire might help maintain their distance. There they waited listening for any further movement from the minions of Dutch LeBeau. None came.

Finally, Chris nudged JD again, and he followed, and they resumed climbing. Now the crown of the hill rose stark and bare, against the great bowl of black, glittering sky. JD could not help but cringe, thinking how exposed they were. If there had been a moon, the whole world would be able to see them, plain as a fly on a bald man's head. Nothing grew up here but scratchy desert vegetation which snagged at their pant legs, and now they could see the broken back of the horizon, jagged black against distant stars. What goes up must come down, as the old saying went. Likewise, the face of a mountain also had a back. If they could give LeBeau's men the slip now, it might be hours before they figured out where their quarry had gone.

Soon the tilt of the earth beneath their boots leaned the other way, downhill, and they stepped carefully as soft, broken clay threatened to collapse under an unwary step. In grey starlight, the mountainside steepened, and arroyos gouged its flanks like old wounds. Ocotillo and agave plants stood in stark black relief against the starry sky, clinging to the crumbling earth by the frailest of footholds. There were deer paths here, but they were thin grey ribbons that repeatedly narrowed to nothing, leaving the two fugitives to fumble their way, unaided.

Downhill, and downhill some more, and now each stride sank and slid in the crumbling soil. Frequently their out-flung hands flailed for a thorny hold or braced against the mountain's sandy flank. Abruptly, JD's boot skidded sideways, pitching him heavily to one knee and one hand and sliding him three feet to a stop. Both of them froze, listening. A hushed patter of pebbles marked his fall, but they heard nothing else. Just the mere hint of a breeze, as if the earth itself breathed gently in sleep. He righted himself, and looked down-slope in growing trepidation.

"Chris . . ."

"I know!" That sharp hiss carried more loudly than was needed.

Yet the reason for their anxiety yawned starkly below. There was no way down. Not for any human creature, at least. Eons before, the backside of their mountain had given way to some great, geologic cataclysm; the whole of it sheered off as cleanly, as if by the blade of God's own shovel. The face-slapping truth of that had finally come clear. They had stubbornly kept putting one boot after the other, on a slope that threatened to drop right out from under them, but now it was teetering near to suicide. No grand fall, even, but an ignoble, tumbling, bouncing, rock-rolling mess that would likely beat a man to death, long before he dropped far enough to be killed, outright.

"Chris, now what?"

"Back up."

And up. They had come further, much further than they had reckoned. All that way, to no damned purpose at all. The hunched skyline of their ridge seemed to mock them, looming in black, complete imperviousness above their puny labors. They climbed, scrambled, and trudged until their lungs burned and legs felt like lead, then rested, gasped, and forge onwards again.

About half way, Chris stopped, and abruptly dropped his weary rear onto a rock for a good rest, and silent indulgence in the roundest curses he could conjure up. Curses for everything. Calvin Bell for being a miserable son of a bitch. Dutch LeBeau for his cockamamie ideas that put them in this place. Buck for being dead. And JD, just because he was there and refusing to squeak even one complaint, when Chris felt legions of his own just bursting for release. Fine. Damn kid was waiting for him to do something. Let's do it. Upright once more, he staggered at the assault of his hurts, then he picked up the first aching leg and set it in motion.

At least their spring in the thicket was something worthwhile to come back to. At least they could rest in hiding, and refill the canteen they had drained on their wasted hike. Now they sat among rocks above the high side of the thicket, and tried to recover a bit of their strength. Strange how everything seemed just boiled out of them, leaving muscles and bone feeling flimsy as over-cooked potatoes. Plus JD had a headache clamped permanently around his skull, although he was not at all sure when it started or why. He simply could not remember ever feeling this puny, without being sick, and he almost wondered if that ancient head cold were somehow coming back to him. Just a few minutes to rest, that's what they needed. Just fifteen minutes or so of sitting completely still, doing absolutely nothing.

The Big Dipper turned slowly in the heavily spangled sky, and a whiff of wood smoke drifted up to them. Those below were long since settled in, camp comfortably made. They would have coffee in the morning, and skillets bubbling with hot breakfast - JD wrenched his thoughts forward as motion swept across his vision, but it was only an owl, ghosting blackly across the stars and gone. He heard Chris exhale softly, and guessed that he had received the same scare.

Yet even as JD's heart hammered back to a normal pace, his head seemed to fill slowly with fog. It was getting so damned hard to keep his eyes open. His thoughts kept scattering like bars of soap on a marble floor, no matter what he chose to concentrate on. Half way through a silent recital of the lyrics to one of Buck's dirty ditties, he realized he'd entirely forgotten what it was that he was thinking about. Then he tried to remember the Lord's Prayer, figuring clean thoughts might be better suited to their situation. He found himself completely lost, after "as we forgive those who trespass against us." Deep breathing helped temporarily, but it also shortly made him dizzy.

Stars hung so heavy and close, like diamond dust blown across black velvet. Did anything or anyone look back at him, from up there? Then he wondered how fast the earth really turned, and if that rotation would be visible, if somebody could just get high enough. Stars, more than a man could count, even if he did no other thing for the rest of his days . . .

The jerk of his head falling forward snapped him awake with a gasp, and he flailed for his rifle, cracked a knuckle hard upon it. Beside him, Chris made no sound, a heavy, motionless presence. Cautiously, JD reached over and nudged the dark form. Heard a sharp intake of breath, just like his own, and then heard Chris sigh, with a growl behind it. Him, too, then.

"Better move," Chris whispered.

Downhill they edged, skirting their thicket and leaving it behind. They moved in an even slower, more cautious progress, now, in darkness so profound that only those hypnotizing stars offered the dimmest illumination. Each step they took carefully, each foot placement tested to be sure no rocks would roll to either reveal or cripple them. This pace JD found excruciating, and yet they had no other choice. Down there, unfriendly ears might be listening. Chris was a shadow himself, vanishing the moment he quit moving. Twice, JD alerted to his leader's whereabouts only by the brief whiff of body odor, a second before he would have collided with him. Another scent reached them, finally. A pungent odor, tasted as much as smelled. Tobacco, probably one of those Mexican rolled cigarettes. JD's heart thumped into his throat, and he reached a hand to touch the back of Chris' shirt.

"About out," a voice said suddenly, and both fugitives dropped to a crouch.

"Got more in camp," replied another. This to their left, and only a few yards away.

"All right."

That was all. Yet suddenly the darkness itself seemed alive, and JD realized there were more men out there, breathing, shifting, and making tiny sounds barely on the edge of hearing, but every sense he had suddenly electrified to their presence. Oh, God. Chris touched JD's sleeve, pressed a slight shove. Back uphill. Oh-so-carefully, trying not to weigh more than a passing breeze. At last, he stopped and leaned to breathe words in JD's ear.

"What I thought. Picket line down there."

"How many?"

"No way to tell. LeBeau's takin' this serious now, though."

Great. Now they had a cliff at their backs, and Dutch LeBeau facing them. They were treed up here, as surely as if run by hounds. Shoving off the black wave of despair almost required an physical act of will, but JD did it. Don't think about the things going wrong, just keep looking for the things to do right.

They stopped several times, on the climb back up. This worried JD, although he spoke no word of it. There were different ways of stopping, one being to listen to the night around them. But there was another, when the body simply ran out of steam, and JD began to fear this was what Chris silently fought. He wished he knew if Chris' wound was bringing on a fever, but he could just imagine the response he'd get, if he tried to find out. His job had always been to follow, and somehow worrying about Chris Larabee had never fallen under his job description. Well, unless somebody was pointing a gun at him, of course. That was easy to deal with. This was turning into something they needed Nathan for, and the feeling suited him as poorly as did the twisting complaint of his empty belly.

The damp, green scent of the thicket was as close to a haven as they would get, and it was with relief that JD slumped down next to Chris, feeling soft weeds crush beneath his settling bones. Why it was a relief begged definition, since no place on this mountain was any safer than the other was. They were waiting, and he did not want to think about just what they might be waiting for. They just needed a rest, that's all. Just another rest and at least they had plenty of water, and maybe his headache would go away.

Rocks crawled, at the first faint light of dawn. That's what it looked like, motion so dim that it blurred upon a direct stare. Form was lost in the featureless charcoal grey of the world, at this spectral hour. The horizon was but a thin, jagged blade of black etched against dully-glowing silver, where the stars began to bleach out. Yet movement it was, and Chris' hand clamped on his arm like a talon, pinching him hard to alertness. JD sucked a breath that went down like ice, and nearly choked on his heart. His hands were shaking, as he dropped flat and snugged the rifle to his shoulder. He saw crawling rocks, in the clean, sharp newness of a day not quite born, and all the moisture instantly wicked from his mouth.

The crack of Chris' first shot shocked him, but also freed him, and he squeezed his own trigger, felt the slam of it in his bones. His own pungent smoke rolled back on him, he levered another round, and the whole mountainside suddenly erupted sputtering bolts of flame. Angry pops snapped over his head and he rolled and slammed hard into a rock or log, and felt things pattering down on him, twigs clipped from branches above. Flashes in the rocks below seemed to come from everywhere at once. Chris fired again, no longer beside him, and JD fired into those spitting flames, fired and fired again. Aim, he silently chanted, aim.

With each thud of the rifle in his shoulder, he was mindful of their limited ammunition, but desperate to keep those flashes down there, not coming closer, not smacking sharp and ugly off rocks too close at hand, nor cutting a thin whine that raised the hair all down his neck. This was by instinct only, the front site of the rifle barely visible. He must trust his own muscles to remember the rifle, and to know how to shape his body, to put each shot where he wanted it. Or at least close enough to convince those miserable cowards that sneaking up here was a very unhealthy thing.

Then abruptly, the chaos sputtered out. The ensuing silence rang heavily, bitter with gun smoke that drifted grey like an ugly fog, and JD did not trust it. His ears felt stuffed, but his heart pounded like a bass drum, had to be audible fifty yards away. Where were they? Where the hell were they, and where was Chris, and what the hell was he supposed to do, now?

The dark world seemed lighter now, a slight lifting of the darkness, an intensifying of the silver beyond the black skyline. No more crawling rocks. Thank God. He was so thirsty he could barely stand it, felt his tongue stick to the back of his throat when he tried to swallow. Where was Chris? He listened hard, tried to push past the cottony ringing in his ears. Nothing. Not a sound. For an instant he wondered if he had gone deaf, but then realized he could hear the distant burbling of the little stream. Best to head back there, maybe. If Chris were lying low, that's where he would likely look for him, and if not, it was too dark, yet, to try to find Chris, anyway. Would be a helluva thing to have his head blown off by his own partner. Carefully, JD pushed himself up into a crouch, and moved that way. Slow and easy, stepping softly in the weeds and gently pushing aside flimsy limbs. First thing he wanted was to drink water until he popped a button.

A fist seized his vest and jerked him hard against a gun muzzle, shocking a gasp from him that almost choked. Yet in the same instant, the hand shifted and clamped tightly on his shoulder, the sharp jab of the gun replaced by Chris' sibilant whisper; "Thank God."

JD just let himself hang there and shake, braced by a grip so tight it hurt, but feeling so thankful he could have wept. "Don't -." His whisper cracked in the middle. "Don't run off again."

Chris made a soft gusty sound that might have been laughter, and then somehow the two of them half-fell back. JD caught his own weight with both hands deep in damp grass, before letting himself lay down all the way, pulling his rifle close. Chris' boot touched against his, and now he could hear the older man's tight breathing.

"You all right?" he whispered.


Good enough. They were both still here. Regardless of what new disasters the daylight would bring, JD truly and fervently wished for the sun to hurry.

+ + + + + + +

The stage was as a phantom vehicle, boiling a ribbon of silvered dust behind it, and pounding forever up a looping track of ghostly road. All the earth laid cast in shades of black, a featureless landscape that defied the eye's attempts at definition, and lent the sense that they swept on a spectral plane somewhere between worlds, neither sleeping nor awake. On top, Vin sat beside a new driver, a silent man who had climbed aboard last evening, and objected not to the stranger waiting in the shotgun seat. Some word may have passed ahead, of their purpose, but whatever the case, Vin was grateful. Scents of dust and horse whirled from the driving bodies before them, cut sometimes with clean, cool drafts of the morning about to be born.

As Mary had pointed out, the stage hurtled straight through, stopping only for changes of horses or drivers, and sometimes a brief respite for hasty meals. Yet even then, it could not be fast enough. If anyone slept within the rocking coach, he did so lightly and in broken moments. Josiah leaned to watch the silvery line of the horizon ahead, the promise of the day soon coming. They moved quickly, but would they be too late?

From the seat opposite, Ezra could dimly make out their preacher's haggard face. They all wrestled the same angels of terrible doubt. No word had passed between any of them, in all the hours since the sun fled from the world, and those fears could only grow, in darkness. So tight did the dark hold them, he wondered if any of them would remember how to speak, when light had finally returned.

Irony teased a snippet of verse to mind, then, and Ezra intoned; "While you here do snoring lie, open eyed Conspiracy his time doth take. If of life you keep a care, shake off slumber and beware. Awake, awake."

Nathan was no more than the gleam of a pair of eyes, but those eyes fixed on him. Now the dim silhouette of Buck's head rose to regard him, also.

"Shakespeare," Ezra explained. "The Tempest."

"Got a quote for everything, don't you, Ezra?" Nor was Buck's deep tone at all pleased.

Yet Josiah's rumble came as if from the wheels beneath them. "Some of Man's finest thoughts were captured by the pen of the Bard. He merely gives shape to thoughts that perhaps our own words can't."

"You meanin' Ezra or Shakespeare?"

One broad shoulder shrugged. "Take your pick."

+ + + + + + +

This was not a good day. Chris made sure of that before the sun was even up. What he didn't tell the kid until daylight was that he had been shot. Again. Probably a ricochet, judging by the angle, but it had taken a chunk out of his right thigh as if raked by a giant claw. Hurt like a son of a bitch, too, every damned move he made pulling tortured nerves and muscles as tight as fiddle strings. If he sat still, it at least settled down to a bone-deep, throbbing ache. JD began to get a little shaky about the doctor business, and so Chris did most of the work himself. At least until he saw the stricken look on the kid's face, then he laid back to let him finish the bandaging. Nathan would have a fit if he saw them using dirty old shirttails for dressing wounds, but at least JD rinsed the material off in the stream, first, as best he could. What a hell of a world, when a man sat in a thicket with his britches around his knees, letting a half-grown kid horse-doctor on him, while somewhere down below, a couple dozen bad guys sharpened their knives, or whatever it was bad guys did.

The heat of the day grew, and their thicket soon took on the atmosphere of a hot house. Granted, it was probably twenty degrees cooler than out there among the rocks and cactus, but the air under that green canopy felt thick as cotton. Bugs buzzed or whined unseen and the stream gurgled to itself. From somewhere below, a faint whiff of mesquite smoke drifted fragrantly across their senses, and JD inhaled it gently. He thought he tasted something cooking in that scent, and his stomach twisted queasily. They were so hungry as to be almost past hunger, now, and the weakness of that pulled queerly at elbows and knees. JD took off his hat, and rubbed idly at his forever-aching temples. A waiting game, that's what it was. But waiting for what? He sat and peered through the shimmering leaves at patches of white-hot sky beyond, and wondered what the heck those people down there were waiting for. If they weren't going to fight, what was the point in just sitting down there? If they were hoping that he and Chris would just give up, they would sure have another think coming. Not a chance of -.

A ripping explosion of gunfire shattered the sultry stillness and JD dropped before thinking, a rock jamming into his ribs, and he angrily crushed tangled briars away from his face. Things snipped hotly through the leaves, and JD rolled onto his belly and elbows, rifle in hand. His teeth clenched on a scalding wave of impotent fury, that they were pinned up here like rats under a melon crate -!

"Damned cowards!" JD spat, and jerked his rifle to his shoulder, shoving its muzzle forward through the leaves. His sights framed white puffs of smoke below, which vanished in the smoking bark of his own rifle.

"Don't -!"

Chris shoved him down, just as the rocky slope opened up in another rippling blast of gunfire, this time spattering viciously just inches over their heads.

Chris' breath burned JD's ear, as he hissed, "They can see our smoke, JD! Wait 'till you have a clear target."

Silence fell again, but more than gun smoke lent a bitter taste to it. Chris was right. The sun now shone full upon their verdant refuge, and the white puff of a rifle was a clear beacon to the hunters below. Maybe LeBeau's hirelings dared not come up, but neither would they go away, and evidently they had ammunition to spare. JD dropped his head into his arms, and clenched tight, futile fists around his Winchester.

That became a pattern, at any given moment more rifle fire popping raggedly from the boulders below, splattering into the sheltering trees with meaty thuds. A strange thing was when JD noticed green leaves falling, drifting in soft, spinning tumbles, for all the world as if Fall had come early. Then long moments of quiet would pass, sometimes lasting over an hour. Lest the fugitives become too complacent, however, periodically those ragged volleys raked in low and hot, chipping rock shrapnel and flurries of debris. JD started to look white-eyed and twitchy, pale skin drawn tight over the angles of his cheekbones. Not fighting back went against everything that boy had in him, but they could not afford to engage in open battle with a superior foe.

"Then what the hell DO we do, Chris?" the kid hissed angrily. "Sit here like little school girls, until they shoot us full of holes?"

"We wait," Chris replied shortly.

"For what?"

"For the right time. Now be quiet!"

He felt bad, for a stabbing instant. Poor kid slumped back in the weeds with his mouth turned down tight, and stared fiercely up through the flickering green canopy above them. JD was scared. Hell, Chris was scared, himself. Wait for what, indeed? They were boxed-in just as pretty as you please, with LeBeau in front and a precipice behind. With him twice wounded and his own mobility cut by half, their chances were narrowing with each passing moment. Blood loss and unyielding hurt ripped at him with fiery claws, and exhaustion hung weights on them both. They had water, they had shade, but after last night, they only had about forty rounds of ammunition left, out of the two boxes taken from LeBeau's camp. That would not last long, when fed into two Winchesters that held twelve and fifteen rounds, respectively. Further, they had not eaten a single bite in two and a half days, nor slept soundly in much longer than that, and barely dared stop moving, at all. Much as an open fight sounded good, their only real hope lay in escape or outlasting these sons of bitches.

Tonight. Whatever happened, it would have to happen tonight. Otherwise, they were like cats in a tree, with the hounds below, and sooner or later, they would fall to the ravening pack. Chris' glance slid again to JD, and he saw that the young man's features were relaxing, eyes closed and face turned slightly to one side. That bruise on his left cheek was turning wonderful dark colors, and even at rest, a tiny crease marred his forehead. Just a kid. A damn fool, gutsy, greathearted kid, with a dumb, patchy growth of black whiskers he seemed determined to cultivate, as if it would somehow make him older and harder than he really was. Why do you want to do that, JD? Why get old before your time? Why not cherish those days when life is simple, and your worst worry is whether your girl is speaking to you? It don't last, son.

He watched the young man's chest heave briefly in a sigh, but JD never moved, otherwise. Asleep again. Exhaustion now held them balanced on a mighty fine edge. Damned little -. How old was, he, really? Then Chris' eyes slid to the length of blued steel and wood that lay loosely in JD's hands, tilted across the flat angle of his hips. Maybe it was already too late. Maybe the time when JD could still be a kid had already sifted through the hourglass of his days, and the last few grains were about to fall, forever.

Maybe. Chris looked away, and caught himself tight, against the red blaze of pain even that small movement raked up his whole right side. His lips skinned back from his teeth, set hard on the thought that formed. Maybe. But if it took the last breath he had, the last bullet he could shoot, he would make sure JD survived to become whatever came next. If it was the last thing he did in this life.

He owed Buck that much, at least.

+ + + + + + +

Mesilla watched them as if they were big circus cats, warily trusting these strangers to be among them, but not enough to come close. Here they must transfer to the service of another stage company, and the next San Antonio-El Paso Mail stage was late, the agent now informed them. An upset further down the line had necessitated a delay, while stage station hands made repairs. They were five men waiting quietly outside the stage company office, which would have been ordinary, were it not for the bristle of weapons, and the way no soul passed by without their careful notice. They made people nervous, simply enough. Josiah could see this in the sidelong looks, the second glances of passers-by. The boys' conduct was exquisite, stepping aside for the ladies, nodding politely to the few gentlemen who made eye contact, and addressing a worried town constable as "sir." Yet Josiah realized that menace clung to them like a smell, and even Buck eyed the world darkly from beneath a lowered hat brim, with no smiles for the ladies this day.

"They said they left their horses here, somewhere," Vin noted, finally.

Of unspoken accord, Buck started walking and Vin fell into step with him. Josiah watched them go, almost matching strides, the one man tall and hard-edged, and the other soft walking with a cat's intensity staring back at any who watched. Yes, they carried it with them, an indefinable and silent something that swept people discreetly from their path, even though they in no way forced themselves. Thou shalt tread upon the lion and the adder; the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet. Josiah could only hope that, if angels did not bear up this company, they at least would favor Chris and JD until more earthly help could arrive.

In fifteen minutes, Vin and Buck were back.

"Find 'em?" Nathan asked.

"Yup," Buck replied, and hooked his hands in his waistband, bent slightly over the stifled hurt of his exertions. "Both horses, fat and sassy. I paid for four more days' keep."

What they did not say, but what was visible in them all, was the stark void of the horses' missing riders. Josiah was almost relieved he had not gone to see that, a strange corral with Chris' big black all round and slick, and JD's bay ambling to the fence. Both horses would be glad of a familiar voice, a familiar hand to scratch the places that only a friend would know. Buck stood a moment simply staring down at the boardwalk, and Vin pulled off his hat and became preoccupied with wiping down the sweatband. Army toasts spoke sadly of the empty chair. Here, it was two empty saddles.

Nathan finally urged them to get something to eat at a nearby restaurant, which Josiah had to agree was a sensible idea, even if nobody had any appetite. There the waiter eyed them as if the tight silence over their meal was a sign of something possibly indecent. Josiah felt sure the man would heave a very deep, relieved sigh, when finally they paid their bill and left. Outside once more, Josiah decided to sit, squatting on his heels beside the stage office door. Ezra paced. Buck strode repeated circuits down to the corner and back. Nathan alternated between sitting and pacing. Vin slouched as motionless as a wooden Indian, with his eyes fixed in indefinable distance.

Twice Buck whipped off his hat, as if to burst out with something, who knows what, but each time he caught himself, clenched his jaw, and stalked down to the corner once more. And each time, Vin nodded as if to some silent conversation. Eventually the uneasy town constable was joined by two of his fellows, all of whom watched from a discreet distance. Josiah could not blame them, and reckoned what they must think. Whoever these five men were, some place would not be glad to see them arrive.

Blue shadows crept softly into the alleys and slowly into the streets, lapping up the ancient adobe of San Albino's silent walls like an incoming tide of coolness. Somewhere doves chuckled and cooed, and a sweet perfume of unseen blossoms sifted over a garden wall. Rooftops and the bony ribs of the distant hills caught the gentle golden flame of sunset, folded softly with shadow like a baby's blanket. Yet these things brought no more comfort than had their meal, to the five who waited with guns in their hands. All their thoughts, all their sensibilities, fixed on the white ribbon of road south, towards Texas.

Josiah watched, as Buck turned on his heel from yet another pass down to the corner. Determination measured the tall man's strides back towards them, each impact of his boot heels having to jar his bones clear to his hips. Pacing like that, Josiah reflected, must be jostling things that should not be jostled, in Buck's still-green wound. However, such hurts the man lived with, visible only in the stiff set of his jaw. It was nothing compared to what clenched like an iron glove around all their hearts.

Next to Josiah, Nathan once more leaned his back to the wall, and every so often his boot heel scraped adobe, as he braced himself to a slightly more comfortable position. Nearby, Ezra stood poised in brittle composure, and even now, he wheeled in a flurry of coat tails, to duck back inside the office. Once more, he would pester the station manager for any updates on the overdue stage, although they all knew damned good and well that no word had come, from the telegrapher across the street. And Vin - Vin stood like a hawk on a fence post, sharp profile pointed with unerring certainty, unswerving intent . . . and barely-stifled desperation. The thud of Buck's stride on the boardwalk drew near, and now Josiah watched him falter, pace slowing. He watched the broad hat tilt slightly and Buck's keen eyes narrow, fixing on Vin. Ah, then he read it, too, in the rigid set of the tracker's lean frame. Do what you do best, Buck.

"Hey, pard," Buck said softly, as he came to a halt.

Vin straightened from the post that braced him, turned an opaque blue gaze to look sideways across his shoulder. Opaque if you did not know the man, and could not see the knife-stroke of dread that ran right down through the middle of him.

Buck cocked his head, eyes serious and quiet on Vin's face. "Y' all right?"

"I reckon," Vin answered, and the corner of his mouth twitched slightly.

Yet it was what they did not say that mattered most. Buck held his place there beside Vin, their sleeves not quite touching. Nor did Vin step away. Josiah felt it radiating between them, a vast, deep sense of gathering, as a man readies to lift a great weight. It had not been there, when they stood apart. Now Ezra stepped back out onto the walk, his lack of animation relaying the obvious answer to his queries. His slow steps brought him close, also, and absently stopped him beside Buck and Vin. Josiah smiled privately as he shifted his own weight, rolled himself forward at the hips and stood. He knew Nathan would follow, as sure as spring follows winter. This was how it had become, with them, all the edges of them somehow fitting together like stones settled into the bed of a stream. Together, they were their own strength, and the power of it was so nearly a physical thing, that Josiah wondered if the others could feel it, as well. Absolutely they felt the absence of the two missing. Thus, they would need everything they had, to make their number whole again. For now, they stood together and waited. Waited to descend upon El Paso.