Candles of the Wicked

by G. M. Atwater


There was movement, down below. Three times JD had heard rocks rattling somewhere unseen, down there where dusk cast the canyons in soft, deeply purple shadows. Only the gaunt ridges above them retained any light, now, their jagged spines glowing a rosy hue as if lit from within, as the rim of the world swallowed the sun up. A soft breeze ruffled past him, whispering the cool promise of the coming night, as if the darkening canyons breathed with life of their own. There! Visible movement, this time, half-seen in blue twilight, hidden in the tumbled folds of the hill they sat upon. High overhead, a hawk tilted a wing and slid slowly in a wide, unhurried arc, riding those same currents of air for one last hunt, before nightfall. What do you see, fella? JD wondered.

Again someone moved, this time in another place. Time to roust Chris. Carefully, JD slid back from his vantage point, and vanished into the thicket. Chris lay where he had left him, curled on one side near the little stream. Shadows lay thick beneath the trees, and for an instant, JD could not tell if Chris still breathed. Clear evidence of his exhaustion was in how the man did not stir, even when JD knelt right beside him. He reached out to touch Chris' shoulder, then decided against that, and pushed back so that he could tap the barrel of his rifle against his leader's booted foot, instead.

"Chris!" he hissed. "CHRIS!"

Chris came up quick and bleary-eyed, his rifle half-raised before his eyes were even open. "Wha - damn!"

JD saw the hurt hit him, clubbing Chris rigid in a gargoyle's grimaced pose, one hand clawed above the wound in his leg as if to rip the pain out by its bloody roots. JD found himself locked helplessly watching, until Chris gusted several tight breaths and slowly sat up.

All right, now he was awake, and JD could drop heavily onto his rump. "They're movin' around down there. Can't see what they're doin', but it's something."

Chris laid down his rifle, and made a noise somewhere between sigh and growl, as he ran both hands over his face, through his tangled hair. He looked awful. Dirty whiskers again blurred he sharp angle of his jaw, and the lines bracketing his mouth looked like someone dug them with a stick. Even his eyes looked bad; blood-shot and deep sunken, while his brows held a frown that seemed cast from a mold.

He must have felt JD's scrutiny, for he looked up through a lank fringe of hair and said, "Oughtta see yourself."

A faint snort was all the humor JD could muster. Likely if he saw a mirror right now, he would scare himself half to death. Chris pushed himself stiffly to kneeling, gathered his rifle and sat there an instant, staring at nothing. Alarm stabbed through JD, then, as it had not when Chris' pain had been something he could see and recognize. He hunched closer, reached a hand for Chris' elbow.

"Lemme help -."

"I got it."

Both hands bracing the rifle like a crutch, Chris pushed up, staggering as his height exceeded his carbine's length. Yet he caught himself, held himself tight against the slapping scream of tortured muscles and nerves. God, he hurt until he wondered how much a man could stand, but he had to stand it, and he had to walk, and he had to get a damned drink of water, is what. His feet were on fire, socks sticking and bunching at each step, as if the flesh had melted down there. That agony flowed up to meld with the blaze of the bullet gouge on his thigh, and flamed into the ancient, ripping ache of the wound in his side. A perfect stew of misery, it was, and as he clumsily knelt down, he almost pitched headlong into the little stream. JD appeared beside him, the canteen in hand. Without speaking, the kid sank it beneath a tiny cascade to fill, and Chris could read stark exhaustion in the tight set of the youngster's fine features, just as clear as newsprint. Chris bent - carefully - to splash water on his face, and to cool the parching thirst that suddenly clutched his throat.

Tonight. One way or another. This had to be finished tonight.

"JD." Chris eased carefully back on his haunches, then abruptly narrowed his gaze. "You know you got a hole in your hat?"

"I do?" JD reached up with one hand, flipped the brown bowler off to turn for study. One side of the crown showed a small rip, the torn felt protruding oddly. "Huh. Wonder how that happened?" Then he grimaced and plopped it back onto his head. "Well, it was a miss, anyhow."

With that, he pulled the canteen from the stream and thumped the cork firmly in place. Damn. The kid misses getting his head shot off by two inches, and suddenly that has become ordinary.

"JD, we need to take another look down there."

Chris watched the dark eyes come up level and steady. Same way the kid had always done, looking a man straight in the face, like there was nothing in this world that he wasn't delighted to grab, head-on. What twisted in the older man's gut now, was wondering, not for the first time, if that eagerness would be what finally got the kid killed.

"Sure, Chris. I'll do that."

"No, no," Chris corrected. "We both will. We can each -."

"Chris, no." And Chris found himself staggered by that blunt refusal, just long enough that the kid kept talking. "I ain't the one who's been shot twice. We need you strong enough to fight. I'll scout, and you save your strength until I get back. It's gonna be an awfully long night, as it is."

"JD -."

"Chris." Suddenly a cocky, knowing smile glimmered in the twilight. "This once, you know I'm right."

The hell of it was, the kid was right. A fight was coming, and the hours until daylight would be long, dark, and deadly. Chris knew damned well he could get down that hill and back, but the looming question, then, would be what was left of him, afterwards. If they had a fight to make, would he still be up to it? With every move he made, hurt grabbed hold and shook him like a dog shakes a rat, and pushing through that took everything he had, left him wrung out and trembling. JD had to be worn to a nubbin, himself, but the youngster still had reserves of strength that a wounded man did not. Yet when the hell had Chris Larabee become some godforsaken general, with the right to sit here on his ass and order people to -?

"What exactly do you want me to do?"

Come back alive, that formed the first thing that came to mind, but Chris said, "Just a bit of a scout. See if you can tell where they are taking position, and tell me what it looks like they're doing."

"All right." No hesitation. Never that.

"If you're not back in thirty minutes, I'll come lookin' for you. You don't want that."

"I'll be back before ya miss me."

"JD." The kid was fading into twilight before his very eyes, the growing shadows swallowing him, except for dirty white shirtsleeves. "You be careful. Don't take any chances."

The rounded bowler hat bobbed once. "I won't. Sit tight."

Then the kid was gone so suddenly it was startling, a scuffle of boots in leaves and a brief rustling of branches marking his passage. Silence followed. Somewhere beyond their leafy bower, the sky darkened, and probably the first stars now flickered. Chris could only wait, and pray he had made the right decision, and damn his own infirmities with scalding passion. I'll get him out of this, Buck. Then the silent promise mocked him, with the realities of fate and chance only too obvious.

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner was strongest in JD's mind, this night. Darkness drew across the sky like an indigo shroud, dotted sparingly with brief glimmers of stars, while a last, defiant explosion of gold burst silently from the west. Thin mares-tail clouds kindled to an incandescent blaze, which reflected back on the dry, skeletal mountains in shadowless amber light that was almost magical. Vin would be able to read something in that, he was sure, some hint of weather or changes to come.

What JD wished for most, however, was the tracker's woodcraft, the economy of movement and keenness of being that rendered him a virtual shadow among shadows. Under his own feet, he felt gravel slip, felt rocks start to turn. He moved with all the care at his command, tried not to even think too loudly, but he was afraid. Hell, yes, he was scared, his heart thundering along at a full gallop and his mouth suddenly felt like he'd been sucking on flannel. Yet Chris was up there waiting, depending on him, and he had a job to do. Taking a deep breath, he kept going.

He smelled them, first, again the acrid whiff of tobacco smoke. JD was further down the hill than they had dared go, before, but LeBeau's men were somewhere below him, a hundred yards or so. Now he could hear disembodied fragments of voices, once or twice the clank of metal on stone. Here, scraggly mesquite bushes studded the lower slopes, and agave and ocotillo stood as silent sentries. The lower flank of their hill lay deeply furrowed by eons of weather, and at its base tumbled alluvial fans formed gravelly beds for more mesquite. From this vantage point, JD could see where LeBeau's men formed their camp. Perhaps a quarter mile along the dry wash footing the hill, the white rectangles of canvas awnings caught the fading light, and the dark forms of some horses stood along a picket line. Tendrils of smoke arose from dying cook fires. Fires as in plural. Yet he saw little movement around them, which had to mean almost all the men were right here, somewhere on this mountainside. How many men were there? That was part of his mission, to find out. Crouched so low he almost walked on hands as well as feet, he moved out.

The blazing clouds burned out to grey ash, as the day slowly sank into darkness. Now the shadows of night filled the canyons like smoke, shape and color slowly blurring to human eyes. Yet the enemy was there, JD swore he could almost feel them, almost expected to hear them breathing right at his elbow. He tried to move like a coyote, like an Apache, tried to make himself a part of the great, silent swell of the earth itself. Lord, he wished he had Vin's skill and confidence. That man could probably sneak right into their camp and steal the pipe from somebody's teeth, and nobody would see or hear a thing.

Footsteps suddenly crunched across dry earth, and JD nearly gasped aloud. Silently he sank to the ground, trying to breathe without sound, although it felt like his ribs had suddenly shrunk too tightly around his lungs. One leisurely, crunching step at a time, a shadowed form strolled past just yards away. The rocks and sand still radiated warmth, even as the last, pallid sliver of day framed the skyline stark and black.

JD lay still a moment more, feeling his heart beat against the dirt beneath him, yet slow relief grew in him. They had no clue he was here. Nor would they. He might not be Vin Tanner, but he could do this. He breathed quietly through his open mouth, and pushed himself up to move again. Slow and careful, he tested each step before letting it take his weight. Every move he made, there were more sounds, and more shadowed shapes, more traces of tobacco smoke and fragments of conversation.

"- Need a new pair, I tell ya, or I'll be barefoot in a week."

"Well, Blackwell does good work. You might ask -."

JD slid on, now traversing the steep slope. Careful, careful, his heart leaping so high as to nearly choke him.

"- Got any extra?"

"Maybe twenty. Why, you short?"

"No, just checkin'."

Footsteps crunched in the dark, but they stopped, scuffed in place. A sudden scrape and flare revealed someone lighting a match, and JD crept on, as the man concentrated on lighting his smoke.

"- A cold beer, that's what."

"What, just one? I want the whole barrel!"

Low chuckles answered, there, more chuckles than he had heard voices talking, and JD sank flat behind the spindly shelter of a mesquite bush. This was not good. Too many men, far too many men, and there seemed no one left down the wash yonder, to keep those fires bright against the fast-falling dark. Which meant they must all be here, on that picket line Chris had referred to, but who would put all his men out on a picket line? Oh, God. He had to get back. Had to get the hell out of here, before it all happened, the catastrophe that loomed like a wall about to crash down on them. Chris was up there hurt and alone and JD had sworn he would be right back. Dang, he wished the others were here. Together, there was nothing they could not face, nothing that could beat them, and for a dreadful moment, the lack of that fierce brotherhood gaped like a missing limb.

A flash of white caught his eye, just a glint that captured the last, pallid light of day, but it stopped him in place. It was the dark silhouette of a man walking, slow and idle and only about fifteen yards from JD's hiding place, beyond a thin screen of mesquite brush. He wore only a vest and shirtsleeves, much like JD himself, but it was what he rested his hands on that created that glint. Twin pistols with matching grips, twin pistols in matching holsters, with a heavy, nickel-plated buckle holding the whole works in place, just under the man's bulging belly. There were a few other fellas around who carried two guns, but damned few of them packed Colt Lightnings with ivory grips.

For an instant, JD suddenly understood how Vin had been able to perfect the cold, impersonal art of a sharpshooter. For an instant, he held that man's back in his rifle sights, then his head, and JD's finger actually twitched against the trigger. Hot in memory was their hotel door bursting in, and the stunning shock of that attack in the dark, and now here was this sorry son of a bitch who had stopped to STEAL his guns -.

No. No, that was not the way to do things. Not to mention it would be suicide, with another two score guns just waiting to cut him to pieces. Instead, JD rose silently on the wave of his anger, scooted low from his shelter and then swept upright, knuckles white around the cool steel of his rifle. His steps grated fast and the man just turned, when JD brought the rifle up and slashed down again. He felt the impact crack in his own shoulders, as the man wheeled around and down like his strings were cut.

Damn you, DAMN you -. JD's breathing raked sharply in his throat, as he crouched over the fallen man, listened for anything, and fumbled for the buckle that pressed against cotton-covered flesh. Live or dead, he neither knew nor cared, only that the man stayed down for just one minute more. Damn you -. The buckle popped loose under his fingers, and it was the work of an instant to get the gun belt off, roughly rolling the man's heavy form over, to free it. Then he skedaddled for all he was worth, praying the darkness that increasingly smothered his vision would also foil theirs. Hard to be sneaky when a man is on the brink of just plain panic, but JD prayed he was doing something right, and wasted no time in looking back. He would know soon enough, if anyone spotted him.

Halfway back up the hill the silence wrapped around him as profoundly as the grave. There JD stopped, and collapsed to a sitting position. His chest burned for air, his legs were about to fold, but savage pleasure centered on the bundle of leather and steel in his lap. Even in near-darkness, he knew the sleek weight of those pistols in his hands. Hurriedly he slapped the belt around his hips and buckled it, settled the holsters to suit - and could have wept for the relief that feeling gave. Quick as thought, he spun the right-hand pistol out and around his finger, and plop into its holster again. Finally, he had something of his own back.

Chris was not where he left him, or perhaps JD simply missed the spot, in the tangle of deeply shadowed thicket. Remembering that his last attempts to find Chris in the dark almost got him shot, JD simply made a noisy show of pushing his way a little deeper into the brush, then sat down. Dang, that last push up the hill had left him weak as a baby. His head was thumping painfully again, and suddenly just breathing felt like a wonderful extravagance. Almost made a man think he was taking sick, although he really could not finger any particular sick feeling in him. Meanwhile, the rich, musky odors of damp earth and growing things soothed his jagged edges, and the muted gurgle of the stream seemed to cool the air that his aching lungs drew. Nothing remained of the day, now, but a thin silver ribbon along the western horizon, as the starry black lid of night settled down tight. Moments later, a twig snapped then weeds crunched softly underfoot.

JD recognized simply the sound of a breath Chris drew, and whispered, "Here."

A familiar dark form eased through a scraping rustle of branches, and settled carefully beside him. "Well?"

"Lots of 'em." JD stared down into that bottomless dark, that now filled the canyon below. "All across the bottom, there. All of 'em on a picket line."

"All of 'em?"

"Enough, anyhow. Nobody keeping their campfires stoked, down canyon. I think -." And the dryness of his swallow was audible. "I think they're fixin' to come up here." The words sighed away on a hush of breeze through unseen leaves. "All of 'em."

Chris absorbed that information with a long sigh, and metal rattled briefly, as he shifted his carbine. That prompted a thought, and JD reached for his left holster.

"Chris, I got these. Take this."

"Good boy." Cool metal left JD's hand, then Chris exclaimed softly, "Why, this is yours! How did you find this?"

"Some fella had my guns. I hit 'im in the head."

God, JD was tired. Fatigue had sunken into him until his very bones felt heavy and soggy, and here they had a fight shaping up. His fingers fumbled as if they did not really belong to him, as he reached to the loops spanning back of his gun belt.

"Hey, I think all my bullets are still here. Put some in your pocket."

Chris saved him the trouble, carefully pushing all the bullets free of the loops, while JD leaned forward bonelessly, his elbows on his knees. He sure hoped Chris was in better shape, after his wait, since two of them this used-up would be a pretty bad thing. Chris must have sensed that, for he emptied the belt loops, and gave JD his share to drop into his vest pockets. They tugged an odd weight there, but so long as he did not stand on his head, those bullets should remain where he could more easily reach them. However long they lasted.

Distant voiced yapped below, and the two fugitives paused to listen. Someone must have found JD's casualty.

"That's one," said Chris.

+ + + + + + +

Again, they hurtled through darkness as night fell once more, wheels clattering around spokes that blurred with the speed of their turning. Yet no speed could be fast enough, no coach quick enough to keep these passengers ahead of the hounds of their own fears. Somewhere ahead, an enemy they had never met led his own small army to hunt down - to destroy - two of their own.

Like all of his comrades, Ezra Standish felt the hot breath of dread steaming right on his own neck. Yet there was an awful excellence to what they did. It was a thing he could not shape with words, but there was nothing like the perfection of knowing one's purpose absolutely, without doubt or qualm or hesitation. In other days, that purpose invariably had to do with gain.

With these men, however, it was something else altogether. With these men, this company, there were those blazing moments when the entirety of his being focused on but a single objective. The cold clarity of it was remarkable, rare, and it liberated him. Liberated him, because for those moments he did not have to be civilized. Oh, no, on the contrary. The simple fact was, Ezra had never learned nor wanted to learn how to lose gracefully. And if he were to lose . . . anything . . . in this venture, civility would be quite at the bottom of his list of concerns. Thus, as the coach rocked and swayed beneath them, Ezra entertained his own, most uncivilized thoughts regarding one Dutch LeBeau.

+ + + + + + +

Memory of the night would never come in clear pieces, to Chris Larabee. He could feel the men of Dutch LeBeau down there, he swore he could, like a black tide rising, and beside him he heard JD's breathing rasping with soft harshness. That breathing had sped up in the past moments, until he wanted to tell the kid to slow down, before he passed out.

Instead, he leaned in to whisper sharply, "Stay close to me. You stay close!"

A hitch in the kid's breathing was the only response, but he reckoned that as a nod. Chris clasped his fingers around the borrowed pistol in his waistband, felt the strangeness of the blunt ivory grips, and wondered where his own stag handled .45 was, if someone down there had been shooting at him with it. Not that it mattered, really, since he was shooting back with one of their rifles. What he did not like was that they would be fighting in the dark, and a man could get turned around in no time. If he and JD got separated . . . well, that just could not happen.

"Chris! Hey, I think they're comin'!"

There was motion below, rocks that fell in a rattling tumble. Chris felt his own heart rate climbing, his throat suddenly like sandpaper. He reached out to clamp hard fingers on JD's arm, in warning and encouragement and a dozen other things that did not bear speaking. Then he shifted the weight of his carbine to both hands, pushed himself up to his knees, and pushed past pain and debility and doubt - and the door to hell exploded in his face.

One distant shout and gunfire shattered the night in a ripping volley. JD's sharp yell stabbed over the orange flame of his return fire, and muzzle-flash obliterated their night vision, yet Chris jerked his carbine to his shoulder and fired and fired and fired. There was no time for hurting or weakness, no time for thought, and no time to worry when JD went down. Then the kid was up again, and flame leapt from his rifle barrel. Darkness spat death in stabbing red winks that shredded tender leaves, and soon gun smoke raked dry throats like whiskey. Now they were moving, moving and firing, and there were just too many of them out there, too many bursting sparks in the darkness.

Uphill they were pressed, uphill, and the ground crumbled and turned underfoot, as they fired into the dark, and clawed tree limbs raked at them, tangling their legs. Chris racked the lever one more time, pulled the trigger and got a dry snap, the carbine now empty. He had only JD's pistol, but they were so close now, so close. Nothing to do but point into the spitting face of hell and pull the trigger, fingers comfortable around ivory and steel. The pistol emptied horrifyingly fast, his fumbling hands reloading and in moments reloading again, until he found only two lone bullets and pocket lint. JD yelled again, a harsh shout of Chris' name, and Chris wheeled and felt his bad leg flame and buckle, and he could have howled for rage as his last shot went wild. But it saved him, as JD's pistol spoke over the bark of a stranger's gun. Something - someone - fell heavily just beyond. A rough hand seized the cloth between Chris' shoulder blades and he heard the kid gasping something, felt him jerk away and gone, and Chris swore passionately. Yet in seconds the kid was back, shoving hard metal at him that cracked his up-flung forearm, but it was another rifle. He grabbed it with savage satisfaction, pushed himself up and into motion, and fired on the hot eyes blinking in the darkness.

Still they came, and JD was gone - God! - and Chris could not remember when the thud of a rifle against his shoulder had not been there, when the stink of powder smoke was not all he had ever breathed. Then that rifle clicked dry, and he was in the open, the trees had fallen away below them. The darkness moved, and the mortal world shrank down to that, to rage that soared white and drove Chris fast into a moving bulk that stank of bad tobacco and onions. Hard flesh burst against him with incredible strength and he fell with it, fell under that bludgeoning weight, and yet he roared his refusal to die just now. Fury collided with fury and Chris found flesh that gave under his hands, and hard bone and sweat-damp hair. He seized hold and threw himself into that body, into the power that surged and bucked under him. Then he twisted hair and bone until something crackled, deep and gristly.

Abruptly all that wrath dropped limp and they both collapsed, tumbling him away and hard into angled rocks. Breathe, dammit, breathe, and he clawed his way back to that dead form, pawed its sodden length for leather and steel, and found both. Then he heaved himself up on the black power that fueled him, sucking breath into him like lungs-full of fire. The fight had shifted away, bursting stars now stabbing to his left and down a bit, spitting back and forth from points low to the ground. JD. Chris was ten feet tall and took eight-foot strides, and they never saw him coming.

JD did, however. He would forever and always see Chris Larabee rise up black against the stars. Would remember looking up from his belly in the rocks, with his rifle long empty and his pistol nearly so, and there was Chris. Him but not him, a familiar shape coming and a familiar hat, but JD saw him black with stars behind him, stars shining right through him, and that black figure had only to point his fingers and fire burst from his hands. He pointed and men screamed and men fell, and JD was afraid to the deepest part of him.

And then . . . nothing was left but the echoes of gunfire. Echoes that stayed and stayed and JD heard them even through the thick, buzzing fog in his ears. Heard them bounce down the canyons and off the stars, and stutter softly into infinity. Before him, Death stood straight as a blade and tall as God, and JD did not - dared not - move. Then that figure turned and seemed to stoop a little, and JD was almost surprised to hear gravel grate under actual human footsteps.

"JD . . ."

Just a dry croak, but it was Chris. Just Chris and he came and bent, and painfully folded himself over. With a heavy grunt, he plopped down at JD's side.

"You hurt?"

"I - ." Thick glue seemed to coat his mouth, and JD swallowed stickily. "I don't know."

He felt a hand come to rest on the back of his shoulder, and JD dropped his head onto one bent arm. Tried to breathe, tried to get air into lungs that felt like they were starving. Felt that hand slide up to clasp sticky-warm and almost too tight on the back of his neck.

"Can you sit up?"

JD could do that. Maybe. He felt numb all over, everything sort of humming and quivering, but his parts still took orders, however grudgingly. JD gathered his will and pushed against the gritty earth, shoved his body to half-sitting, legs bent to one side. That seemed what Chris wanted to see, however, proof that JD was not about to keel over dead. The hand still rested on his neck and now tugged at him gently, and JD gave with it. Felt his shoulder thump into and press against a body that radiated the heat of exertion through thin cotton. Too hot for comfort, yet he had no inclination to pull away. Better to just lean there and try to breathe, until he quit feeling like he was suffocating.

He had the funny sense he should be hurting somewhere, but right now he just could not focus enough to find out. Stars and darkness were all they saw now, sitting high enough that they could see the jagged spine of the world etched black against glowing diamond dust. Somewhere down below, a man groaned, deep from his belly where agony held him prisoner, and then a voice called out in question. Now JD felt the shakes coming on again, inside where sinew lay against his bones. He shifted himself, pushed back so that a startlingly chill drift of air passed between him and Chris. Moments later, another thin cry drifted up, another weak voice that grated harsh and high and helpless. Down there in that bottomless dark. Down there in Hell. Oh, God.

+ + + + + + +

Buck awoke first, pushing himself up on one elbow as he opened his eyes stickily to grey half-light and the dry rasp of someone snoring. Damned floors never got any softer. The San Antonio - El Paso Mail had rolled them into El Paso at 12:45 a.m., way the hell off-schedule, but in one piece. All the town was asleep then, except for a groggy postmaster there for the mail, and an even groggier hostler. Bone-tired and half-staggering, the boys had been ready even then to beard the lion in his den. However, at that dark, dead hour, there was nary a soul in sight to ask where the lion lived, and the whole damned business came to a screeching halt, for simple lack of direction. Only grudgingly had they conceded to a few hours sleep, driven well beyond their bodies' pleas for rest. Nor did the pudgy little hotel clerk seem a bit inclined to argue, when they asked for one bed, and came toting their own as well. Maybe the hotel would lose money on five men crammed into a two-person room, but the clerk was not inclined to lose anything more valuable to his own personal self.

Not that anybody had really slept. During the few hours of repose given them, the best anybody could manage was a fidgety dose, what with the crowds of troubles and worries all romping around in their heads. Now they seemed well and truly out, and Buck briefly wished he could at least lie still, just a little longer. Seemed like he had left his strength back home with his Sunday shirt, no more than half the man he usually was. Of course, most times he wasn't nursing knife holes in his gut. Yeah, a little sleep would be a real fine thing.

Couldn't do that, though. Daylight was coming and Chris and JD were out there. Out there being hunted and run like - well, like things he didn't care to think about, on account of it riled up a whole lot of dark and ugly thoughts. Made the old hurt in his belly tighten like a big fist, squeezing out the hot, black urge to feel things break in his hands. His friends were out there - his friends, a damned good man and a helluva fine kid. Buck Wilmington had never been a man to look for trouble, on account of trouble just naturally came in its own good time. There were pleasures in life that he could much better spend his attentions on, since the dark and bad things had a way of coming along when least expected and most unwanted. But there was just a time when a man had to stand up, and do some smiting of hips and thighs, as Josiah would say. There was just a time.

He shook his head short and sharp, carefully rolled his long frame up to sitting, and twisted to un-kink the tightness in his shoulders. They had cut cards for the bed, and a living marvel was that Ezra did not win the cut. Instead, Josiah sprawled up there, making the curtains flutter with his gusty snores, while the rest of them lay on their bedrolls on the carpet. What had that newspaper called them? Larabee's Gang? He grinned in dark satisfaction, over that. Hello, El Paso. Guess what? We're here.

"'S time," a whisper rasped, and Buck had not even heard Vin awaken.

"Yup," he replied.

Then breathing rhythms changed and stiff bodies moved, and boots scraped on the floor. What few words they had were spoken short and low, and Vin was first to open the door, a black silhouette against a lamp in the hall. Here we go, Buck thought, and the tightness in his belly had nothing - and everything - to do with the wound that had nearly left him dead.

"So, what was it Mary last said?" Buck asked, as their boots clumped heavily onto boardwalks still grey with early morning shadow.

"That Mr. Dutch LeBeau has himself a tidy little racket here," Ezra replied. He looked past the adobe walls and rooftops, and screwed his face into an expression of distaste, at the pallid, watery blue of too-early dawn. "Thus, I propose we look for the money."

Vin swept an arm forward. "Reckon that's your department, Ez."

Ezra's nose proved true, leading them down the still-silent walks towards what appeared the most prosperous - or at least largest - saloon on the main street. A wagon rumbled slowly past, a drayman going about his deliveries, and here and there, folks made the motions of beginning an early day. However, there were few enough people visible that no one seemed to pay mind to five strange men, walking the hushed morning streets.

Lantern light shone dimly through the Palace Saloon's front windows. As they pushed through the doors, the room smelled big, cold, and empty at this early hour, full of the ghosts of spilled liquor and old cigars. A man in there cleaning the mirror turned to give them a bit of a scowl. Buck reckoned they made a perplexing sight, a cowboy, a buffalo hunter, a black man, a granite-jawed former preacher, and a dapper little dandy in a frock coat. The Mexican swamper also in there glanced at them, and with the instinctive caution of the little folks, he quietly propped his mop in its bucket and scooted on out the back door.

"Gentlemen," said Ezra pointedly, and held up a hand to his companions in supplication. "If you'll allow me?"

Buck could not help slanting a narrow look at him, and said, "You gonna try some of that diplomacy of yours?"

"Something like that," replied Ezra, with a wry smile.

Fine, Buck told himself, as he gave the gambler a dubious nod. You try some fast talk, and if that won't work, I'll just start taking things apart, until the right answers do come.

"We're not open yet," the man behind the bar announced.

Carefully he stepped down from his stool. Down where he could drop his wad of damp newspaper, and reach beneath the bar, if need be. Buck cocked his weight onto one hip, and rested his hand suggestively on the butt of his holstered pistol.

Ezra chuckled as he approached the bar, and raised both hands placatingly. "Now, now, sir, just a moment of your time is all I ask."

He smiled as he placed his fingers on the polished mahogany top. "We'd like to know where we might find Mr. Dutch LeBeau."

"Find -?" Befuddlement warred with something more wary, in the man's expression. "I'm sorry, sir, I don't where he is."

The man may not have been lying, but he was shying well clear of the whole truth. Buck could see that from twenty feet away, and it took a mighty tight swallow, to hang back and let Ezra do his diplomacy thing.

"Very well. Then perhaps you can tell us where he lives? We have business with him." Ezra held his smile, but he shifted his posture so that he could meet his friends' gazes in a brief, sharp glance.

Footsteps clomped on the walk outside, drawing closer. Buck stepped back, as did the others, and the doors swept inward.

"I -." The man's head turned and he jerked an arm out rigidly, pointing. "Ask him!"

Another man stepped inside, his face registering surprise, as the saloon doors whacked shut behind his black coat tails. His eyes cut left and right, to the five men he realized were all staring at him like wolves.

"Ask me what?"

The stranger looked like a gambler, what with his tailored coat and silk cravat, and a gold watch chain spilling from the pocket of his satin vest. He also looked like he had just stepped into something he couldn't get out of, without splashing.

"Ahh, good morning, sir!" Ezra turned from the bar and strolled towards the newcomer. "I was just telling this gentleman that we have a business appointment with Mr. Dutch LeBeau. Perhaps you could direct me to him?"

"What sort of business?"

There suddenly seemed a lot of white around the stranger's eyes, like a horse that might explode at any wrong move. Yup, Buck would bet a five dollar gold piece that this was one of LeBeau's boys. He leaned onto his leading leg, eyes hard on the man.

"That, I'm afraid, is personal," said Ezra with a depreciating smile. He stopped just two paces from the other gambler, and raised both eyebrows expectantly. "But, an address, if you please? Or just directions would do. I'd be obliged, as we are rather pressed for time."

Scowling, the stranger took a half step sideways, away from them. "Hell, I don't know where he lives."

"He's lyin'," Buck growled.

The stranger's hands dropped towards his coat and Buck went for his gun. But Ezra's hands shot out first to seize both fists full of the man's elegant lapels. In one wheeling heave, Ezra flung the gambler bodily onto the painted green felt of a faro table, slammed him flat on his back across it, and pinned him there like a shirt for ironing.

"Yes, he is," said Ezra, and his breath drew hard through clenched teeth. "Lying like a Roman politician."

All that Southern gentility had vanished like a cobweb in a campfire. Ezra bent over the man he held to the table, one quick hand patting, pulling, flipping a short-barreled pistol out of a hidden holster. Another deft move and he shoved the cold metal hard into the hollow of the man's throat.

"You sir, had better acquaint yourself with the truth, or my friends and I will become impatient. And trust me; you do not want that to happen."

The stranger's face seemed to swell into his collar, and his hat had fallen away to reveal a prematurely balding head. His eyeballs rolled like clams in sauce, but Ezra's manicured hands held him firmly as a steel trap. Not for the first time, Buck wondered at the contradictions layered in Ezra Standish. Peacock and wolfhound, all in the same package. It surely pleased him, when he saw the ol' boy's teeth.

"Well, sir?" Ezra purred.

"He - he lives two blocks past the blacksmith shop. LeBeau has a little yellow house on the corner. Damn, mister, I -."

"Will he be alone?"

"I don't know. I swear! He - he sometimes has a gal with him, but he lives alone. AH -!"

The man's yell cut off short as Ezra gave him a shove, and he and the gaming table toppled with an ungainly crash. In one long stride, Ezra stood over the man, and Buck swore he saw that trim frame vibrating. For an instant, he wondered if Ezra would shoot the stranger with his own gun.

"Your master's days are numbered, sir," Ezra said, and his smooth drawl had gone flat as steel plate. "If you have an ounce of prudence in you, you will sever your misguided loyalty to him - now. Or I'll personally come back and cut your heart out."

"Who the hell are you?" Dismay widened the man's eyes to the size of boiled eggs, as he stared up from the floor.

"Ought to read your newspaper more," said Vin. The tracker's cheeks creased in a crooked smile. "Ever hear of the Larabee Gang?"

He touched a finger to his hat brim and they followed him, filing outside in a muffled parade of clumping boots.

A little yellow house. Just like the man had said. Glowing softly in the pearly light of dawn, why, it even had a tidy little front porch, and green trim on the shutters and windows.

"Would you look at that?" said Buck, his soft tone razor-edged with sarcasm. "Pretty enough for a woman."

Vin spoke over his shoulder, as they walked. "Reckon a woman would at least pull the weeds around the place."

And it was so, weeds grown thin but tall in the dirt yard, and pressed in bent, dry stalks against the painted walls, as if seeking shelter from the glare of the desert sun now rising. Somehow, that made Buck feel better. LeBeau couldn't even pull the weeds in his own front yard, but he could hound two good men all over Hell's half acre, men who had left turds worth more than he was. Buck welcomed the tight, hot surge of emotion he felt welling in him, pressing and filling his insides so that old hurts and weakness just mashed into a corner and stayed there.

"Let's do this."