Candles of the Wicked

by G. M. Atwater


Without words, they scattered to their places, quick footfalls puffing pale dust, as the sky grew luminous, and the bare, broken hills to the north donned crowns of golden sunlight. Straight in was the way Buck preferred most things, and straight in was the way they went, now. He and Vin took the front of the house, the tracker pausing only to slip his fingers under a partly open window sash. At a nod from Buck, he shoved it upwards with a long, dry scrape, then he ducked and pushed through a soft fall of gauzy curtain. He pulled his leg in after him, no sound followed, and Buck ducked in next.

Grey shadows and cold tobacco smells in a silent parlor room were all that greeted them. A surprisingly ordinary room, for a gangster chief. A clock tick-tock-ticked softly from atop a bookshelf, but that remained the only sound, as carpeting padded their careful footsteps. The walls shifted past as they moved, now a stale, greasy scent coming from what must be the kitchen, and Buck reckoned the man couldn't be bothered to clean up after himself, either. Down a brief hallway, a doorway stood open, the room lighter from two windows beyond.

A board creaked in the back of the little house, but it was Nathan and Josiah, the two of them stepping from the kitchen area. Josiah tilted his head towards a closed door next down the hall, and Vin nodded assent. As those two moved carefully that way, Buck slanted a glance at Vin, caught the tracker's eye and held his pistol before his chest, nodded. A tightening of Vin's mouth was his only response, his own mare's leg Winchester in hand, and they took those last steps towards the open bedroom.

Someone breathed in there, dry, rhythmic sounds that fell just short of snoring. A light coverlet lumped messily over the bulky form of a sleeping man, and Buck felt his galloping heart leap right up behind his tonsils. In one long stride they were in, and Vin signaled caution, concealed his mare's leg behind one hip. Here was the man presumed to be Dutch LeBeau. He laid all a-sprawl with his mouth partly open and his nightshirt twisted over a broad chest thick with curling black hairs, and blue shadows painting the hollows of his fleshy face. Buck stared at the sleeping man and hated him with towering clarity and that before he could even look the son of a bitch in the eyes.

"Wake up," Vin rasped. "Wake up, Mister LeBeau!"

A choking snort signaled returning awareness, and the body in those sheets moved, writhed, turned towards them. Narrowed eyes blinked up at them, and dark brows drew down tightly upon seeing them.

"Who the hell are you?" A dry, grating voice, no particular accent. "What are you doing in my house?"

"We got a message for you, Mister LeBeau."

"The hell you do!" This was LeBeau, the man himself confirmed that. Now his thick shoulders rose off the pillows, pallid flesh and black hairs flesh visible in the sag of his nightshirt. His gravelly voice roughened. "Did Dick send you? It had damned well better be good!"

"Oh, it's good." Vin quirked a small grin, and brought the blunt muzzle of his gun to stare Dutch LeBeau straight in the face. "We're friends of Chris Larabee. Remember him?"

"Blake!" LeBeau yelled.

Blankets exploded as LeBeau made a desperate grab under his pillow, but Buck rode the roar of his own rage past thought or fear or even good sense. He ripped LeBeau from that bed like a mongrel dog from a meat pan, heaving the whole, howling mass of him up and around and slam into a low bureau, felt his own fist strike bony flesh but he could not hit him hard enough, could not make the blows count. Buck felt the man surge forward, that dense weight smashing into him and driving him back, and his outrage soared, that this son of a bitch would even think about fighting back. He wanted LeBeau broken, wanted him down and crawling and spitting teeth in a bloody syrup, and he only dimly knew that he was being hit, in return. Felt it as no more than the strikes of hailstones, until dense softness impacted the backs of his legs. He toppled backwards onto the bed and LeBeau fell with him, on top of him, like a piano from a barn roof.

Heavy blows thudded into him then pain exploded white-hot from that half-healed belly wound. Agony shocked through him and drove splinters of black across his vision, sucking the air right out of him. Something cracked sharply in a jangle of wood and metal, and LeBeau collapsed upon him, yet Buck did not register that the man abruptly ceased to fight. Desperately, he bucked against that crushing weight, seized hold of meaty, cotton-covered flesh and heaved with all that was in him. In one back-wrenching twist, he was over and on top, and that quick he cocked and swung, and felt bone impact his fist. Once and again, and then something yanked hard on his collar and he wrenched around and swung - and checked himself with a staggered lurch, to see Josiah throwing up his hands, Winchester held as a barrier.

"Easy, Buck. We might want him alive, at least for a couple minutes."

Rage did not lie down on command, and Buck snarled aloud as he jerked an arm past LeBeau's lolling head, swept the pillows aside to reveal a short-barreled pistol. He grabbed and cocked it, and jammed the blued steel into the folded flesh of LeBeau's chin. Felt himself shaking as hurt crashed through him in waves that threatened to drown him, but he was not done, not done yet, dammit!

"You'd better talk to me," Buck said, and the velvet of his tone trembled with the force of emotion crowding like a black tide behind it, crowding and cracking the brittle walls of his control. "You'd better tell me where Chris Larabee is, and what you've done with him, and you'd better PRAY - ." He jabbed the pistol so LeBeau grunted tightly. "That he and that kid are still alive. You hear me?"

LeBeau made a gargling sound, and blood drooled onto the tangled sheets.

"Well, all right," Buck said softly. "Now, let's start with the basics. Where is Chris?"

"Ah - ah - heh -."

"TELL ME!" Buck's shout rattled the windowpanes.

"Better talk, mister," came Vin's dry comment from behind. "Else he might lose his temper."

"All - all right. All right." LeBeau waved his hands as if they were too heavy for his wrists. "All right."

A hand settled on Buck's shoulder, just a light press of it resting there, but it was the touch of a friend. Buck eased himself back, the mattress too soft under his knees for balance. It was just damned hard to stand up straight, right now, and Jesus loves us, his guts hurt.

"Easy, Buck," rumbled Josiah's deep tones.

"Indeed," spoke a wry drawl from the doorway. Ezra cocked an eyebrow and grinned. "There might be someone still asleep on this street."

"All right," Buck said, and was utterly unaware of the echo he presented.

He was ever so glad to accept Nathan's hand up, and wondered why his knees seemed to have turned slacker than dishwater. Hell, a little fight shouldn't take that much out of a man.

"Any trouble?" Vin was asking. "Feller here hollered for somebody named Blake."

"That who it was?" Josiah shrugged. "Man in the back bedroom fainted, before we got through the introductions. Must have a delicate constitution."

Nathan snickered and looked supremely pleased. Those must have been some introductions. Buck chuckled, then wished he hadn't, as everything around belt-level seemed to yank angrily at everything else.

"Ow. Nathan, that chair right there looks mighty fine. Oh, yeah. Thanks."

"Now, Mister LeBeau," said Vin conversationally, and propped one boot on the mattress, letting the blunt, deadly snout of his mare's leg Winchester sag towards LeBeau's crotch.. "You were about to tell us about Chris."

+ + + + + + +

They were, when one applied all possible analysis and logic, in a world of hurt. Literally and figuratively. Chris sat clenched tight against pain that gripped him like a chill, bone-deep and threatening to shake him all to pieces. Leg hurt, side hurt, new hurts; all wrenched together from everything last night, and now the damned sun was coming up. Here they sat atop a hill as bald as a billiards ball, and the goddamned sun was coming up. Beside him, JD sat hatless with his arms hugged around his knees and his head bent forward, so that the loose fall of his dark hair obscured his face. He still wore his gun belt, buckled snug below his vest and incredibly filthy shirtsleeves. Yet there was only one pistol in its holster - Chris had lost the other somewhere, last night - and no bullets, even if the kid had carried five guns. One rifle, that's what they had. One rifle and six bullets, and the sun coming up.

JD was hurt. Kid wouldn't let him look at it, seemed positively skittish about that, but Chris read it in the tight, clenched posture. He could see it in the way that one arm actually held the other, folded just so around his shins, and on the side away from Chris, the right sleeve clung stiff and black.

One rifle, six bullets, and the sun coming up. And now the silent, golden flood of the sun bathed the hilltop in glory and whispered soft, cool breezes - that tasted of mesquite smoke. Down there where the blue shadows of night still lingered gently, the men of Dutch LeBeau tended to their wounded and planned . . . what? Would they let it go, now? Would they count the fight as too dear to risk winning, and just walk away? Or would they know that numbers and time and the damned Texas sun would win out, in the end? The canteen was gone, too, and neither of them had the foggiest idea where or even when it had been lost. Below them, the tops of the sycamore tree and her siblings whispered softly, sweetly, their deep green shadows flickering with the gilding touch of the sun.

Yet that haven was lost with the canteen. Now there was motion in those trees, and Chris turned his face away. He looked across their meager breastwork of broken rocks, across the craggy backs of the hills and into the hazy distance. Now what? He could hardly even think, so bone-deep tired and used and wrung out, he'd swear his brain had turned to mud. Sure would be nice if they had saved the canteen.

"Water just right there." JD's voice, or the rasping ghost of it. "Right there, not two, three hundred yards down." His dusty shoulders rose, then dropped on a sigh. "Might as well be in Kansas."

"Sorry, JD."

He meant it, although why he said it, he had no idea, and Chris figured he earned the strange look JD cast over his shoulder. As the kid faced forward again, one quick hand absently swept back the dirty strings of his hair. Now the long rays of the early sun washed his face in soft luminescence, sculpted the planes of it smooth as alabaster, but for the patchy black growth of whiskers along his jaw. He'd narrowed his eyes into the slanting glare, but even so, the light caught them and reflected back the amber brown of old brass. Sweet Jesus. JD should be home. Should be fussing with Casey and getting tongue-tied and forgetting where he was walking, and sassing back at Buck, and swaggering around with that grin that said he was game for just any damned thing. Shouldn't be here.

Then Chris' gaze dropped to the gun belt tilted around the kid's hips, the pistol holstered under his good arm. Maybe it was just a matter of time, though. Just like it was for all of them. Most times, it seemed JD's boyish face hadn't changed since the day he dropped of that stage . . . or maybe it had. Maybe there was something darkening the kid's eyes that was always there, now, even without hurt and exhaustion throwing their shadows. For God's sake, that "kid" had killed grown men. Had nearly been killed. No, he was not the same. Couldn't be. Wonder if it was all worth it, to him? Too late now, no matter whether it was or wasn't. A man chooses the road he takes, and JD's had led him here. What hell of a thing. A stable boy from . . . wherever he was from, shows up green as grass and full of all sorts of notions of manhood, and here he was, probably going to die out in the middle of nowhere with Chris Larabee. Not much like the dime novels, is it, kid? Live by the sword long enough, and it's just a matter of time before the sword gets you. Chris had known that for a small eternity. He wondered if JD had ever thought of it, before now.

"Vin told me once that his Indian friends don't bury their dead." JD spoke suddenly, still staring into the sunrise. "They lay them out on a - a scaffold thing, and just leave them right out in the open, for the air and buzzards and all. I thought that was pretty awful, to just let somebody rot out where everybody can see, like that. But now . . . maybe it's not so bad." He shot a quick but haunted glance over his shoulder then looked outward again. Talking as if to convince himself of something that Chris really did not want to hear. "I mean, think of it. Nobody throwin' clods of heavy dirt in your face, smotherin' you. Just the blue sky up there, a straight shot to the Hereafter. . . . Doesn't seem that bad, at all."

Yup, he's thinking about it, now. Just like Chris was. Remarkable what a beautiful morning it really was. From here, it almost seemed like he could stand up and just tip right off this hill, and soar out into infinite space, out across those far, blue ridges and away in a long, swooping fall to . . . well, somewhere gentler. Sunrise painted the rugged ribs of the mountains gently in pastels of rose light and blue shadow, the horizon veiled as if in sheer gold silk. To his imagination, the rose caressed the mountains like a thin sheet over a bony old woman's sleepy frame, and blue lay in the canyons like leftover pools of night, evaporating and sinking slowly before the triumph of the sun. So many shades of color, more than a man could give name to.

What a conundrum, that a world which held such beauty could be the same world that housed ugliness and brutality. Maybe it was humans that brought all that, though, and not the world at all. Certainly, these ancient, drowsy hills did not care about the mortal blood spilled upon them. Life and death were all the same, here, just the natural cycle of things. However, it really did seem a damned shame that the day started out so pretty. Almost made it hard for a man to reconcile himself to bad things to come.

"Hey, Chris?" The kid's glance slanted briefly towards him then he tipped his head down, beneath the meager shade of that bowler hat. Like he was talking to his shoes, and the words were too shameful to look at, but too pressing not to be said. "You think it hurts after you're dead? I think maybe that's what scares me most. That it'll hurt, somehow, and I'll know it and be stuck with it in the dark, forever."

Chris opened his mouth, found it empty of words, and closed it. Shook his head in weary irritation. An absurd thought flitted through his head; where the hell was Josiah, when a man needed him? Nor was JD finished with that line of thought, as he abruptly turned his face to the sun, once more.

"I sure hope I just get to look at blue sky and stars and stuff, until I'm just . . . all gone. I think I'd like that. Just clean sky, forever."

Oh, for God's sake -. Chris bent himself forward, hissed sharply on the red eruption of pain, and seized on that as his strength, where he had none. He rode that hot, screaming, silent surge up to his knees and then his feet, staggering badly as the world tilted white around him. The kid was up with him, moving way too quick and almost falling himself, as he flung out a hand to help.

"We ain't dead yet," Chris snarled, and watched JD's face flinch from that. Hurt, startled, then cooling to something too damned old for that youthful face.

"No," JD said.

Then he stood there and watched, as Chris stumped his way out into the open, lurching like a drunken man and near breathless from hurt and the sudden dizzying craving for water. Yet he had seen something down-slope and he aimed to get it. A glance up showed him the muzzle of their rifle aimed past him, and JD's dark head behind it. Good boy. Damn, now if he could just - rocks rolled and his leg crumpled like paper, dumping Chris hard on hip and elbow. For a long moment, he watched spots drift across his vision, black and gold against the glowing blue above. Wonder why nobody down there had shot at him, yet? He still smelled campfire smoke, had no illusions they had gone. Maybe they could not quite see him, up here among the rocks. Maybe they were so sure of themselves that nobody kept watch.

Finally he rolled over, took deep breaths, and tried to find that brief surge of strength that had got him this far. Like trying to drink from an empty jug. Yet somehow, he crab-walked himself upright and got both feet braced under him again, and stood there weaving and breathing until the chorus of his hurts lowered a bit. Just a few more steps, to where sunlight glinted warmly on brass. God, if he could just get there -. Got it! Somebody's Winchester '66, lost in the chaos of last night. Chris dropped with a thud, more fall than sit, and drew the rifle to him. A single, fat-spined agave plant offered the illusion of cover and behind that, Chris worked the rifle's action. One by one, he levered out 8 fresh rounds. Good. Very good. With equal care he reloaded it, and levered one into the chamber. Hell. Now he had to get back up to JD.

That, he might never have got done. Might have taken his final spill and just lay where it dropped him, his leg throbbing bolts of agony that grated the very marrow of his bones. The old wound on his side was now screaming, and the whole of it spun him so that his stomach heaved up behind his teeth. Yet gravel clattered and spilled, and JD slid in beside him, eyes wide and mouth open.

"C'mon, Chris!" In a tone like Chris was late for an appointment and had been caught lollygagging.

Funny, Chris did not remember so damned many rocks, on the way down. Big rocks, dry, crumbling gouges from ancient rains, and finally, he just did not have another step left in him. Asked his feet to move, and what he got felt like his legs had fallen asleep, teetering him way the hell and gone off balance. Chris knew it was coming and just let himself fall. More the surprise when he fell on something other than rocks and heard JD's breath explode from him in an oath he didn't even know the kid had in his vocabulary.

Yet in the next breath, a heavy hand thumped his shoulder, and JD gasped, "Sorry. Lost my footing."

Right. So, here they were, the two of them, lying behind a tumble of boulders in about two feet of shade, and that was shrinking fast. Already the rising sun breathed the promise of furnace heat to come.

"JD, got your rifle?"

"Of course!"

Good. Then Chris almost laughed. Two rifles and fourteen rounds between them, and that was a good thing. Damn, but a man's perspectives changed, when he figured he was going to hell, anyway.

+ + + + + + +

They waited, but nothing happened. They watched, but no one came. The thin fragrance of mesquite smoke drifted away on the shimmering rays of the sun, as if the furnace heat of the earth simply overwhelmed fire's ability to burn. Now and then, they heard the faint, sharp echo of distant human voices, below, and once they actually heard a horse's thin whinny. Yet it was as if their foe had simply forgotten them. JD became restive, anxious, fussing at his hat to angrily shove back sweat-matted hair, and visibly chafed under Chris' order to remain motionless. They had already wasted too much precious time, waiting for opportunities that never appeared.

Sweat rolled off them now in rivulets, trickling down their backs, their chests, dripping from their brows to sting tightly squinted eyes. Precious fluids that could not be replenished and flannel-dry throats forbade any but the briefest efforts to talk. Even the air became oppressive, seeming as a sodden weight that pressed on their shoulders, and felt thick in their lungs. Now they had no scrap of shade at all, save what they could make with bowed heads and bent arms. The metal of the Winchester under Chris' hand achieved stove-like heat, and he pulled it against his belly, to cool the breech in his own meager shade.

A lizard darted across open sand, pausing briefly with its pale throat pulsing gently, before it abruptly scuttled towards a boulder and vanished in a narrow, dark crevice. Damn, if only they could crawl in there with it.

"Chris, we can't stay here!"

"Got a better idea?"

And the kid once more settled back, with a dark and sunburned scowl. Of course, they couldn't stay here, but where the hell else could they go? The time was not yet noon, but temperatures had steadily soared, since the first hour after sunrise. The only coolness or relief was down there in those trees, and that's where their enemy lay in force. Probably they would survive the heat until sundown, but then what? What would be left of them? What about tomorrow? For a brief, crazed instant, the urge swept Chris' mind to just charge that green bastion and get it over with. Sure as hell would be better to go down fighting, than to slowly bake, wither, and die, like worms on a hot rock.

Yet he did not have the right to make that sort of decision for JD, and could not bear to bring the suggestion to speech. Damn it all, why couldn't the kid have stayed the hell home? Sure would be a lot easier, if it was just himself, out here. A man was weakened when he had the weight of other lives on his hands, he hesitated when he might otherwise forge ahead, and now the lack of choices burned like the scorching air Chris breathed.

Just make it until dark. That's all; just make it until dark, one more time. They'd think of something, then.

+ + + + + + +

JD was tired. Not tired that sleep would cure, but tired so deep he thought it must be how old men felt. Furthermore, his right arm hurt like hell, a bloody gouge halfway between elbow and armpit constantly burning as if someone held a hot iron to it. Body and brain alike had completely lost their head of steam, and he desperately wanted everything to just . . . stop. Go away. We don't want a damned thing with your stupid town, and I have no idea why you'd think we would. Just go away. Leave us alone. Damn you.

He dropped his head so that his cheek rested against the receiver of his rifle. The metal felt so warm that it seemed to radiate its own heat, like a live thing. The hurt in his arm smoldered sullenly up into his shoulder. What now? The answer returned like the distant toll of a heavy iron bell. There was no more what-now. Right here and now was all they had left. What a stupid, stupid way to die. All because some two-bit thief wanted to tip the till in a hardware store. The road back to that night now seemed impossibly long, incredibly distant. Calvin Bell. JD recited the name in his mind, just to see if he still remembered it. He could barely even call the man's face to mind. Was Bell here? Was he down there, laughing, gleefully shooting up the hill at his old tormenters? Or had he spread his lies like bad seed and vanished on the next stage south, totally unaware that Hell had set up a workshop, here on some nameless, godforsaken hill in Texas?

Are you sorry, JD? Sorry you ever set foot to the stirrup that carried you here? Hell, yes, he was. What he wouldn't give, to wake up tomorrow morning snug in his own bed, and head down for coffee with the rest of the boys. There would be Nathan with that big smile, and Josiah looking like he knew something the rest of them didn't, and Vin telling some brief little tale, using his hands as much as his voice. Chris would just sit back and half-smile, and then Ezra would finally show up, fastidiously fussing at his cuffs and making some droll remark, while Buck -.

Even grief could become something a man ceased to react to outwardly, other than dragging it along behind him like some dead thing.

'O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life.'

Maybe, however, this was his penance, for the things he had done in his life. Maybe that's why he was here. Live by the sword . . . He was not what Mama had intended for him to be, that was for certain. JD looked up at the wide, flawless blue Texas sky and saw nothing. Nothing at all.

+ + + + + + +

They had a location from Dutch LeBeau, he whom they had left bleeding and unconscious across his own pillows. Josiah had put him to bed with emphatic precision. They had directions from the hostler at the livery stable, and now they could only pray that they had time left. Vin led the way, riding straight as a hawk to the strike. He noted without a pause in their reaching trot when other tracks began to appear. Tracks leading into the mountains, no hesitation or delay. Not the tracks of men hunting others, but men traveling with purpose. What, then?

"Reinforcements," was Vin's brief, dark reply.

Nathan's chin jerked upwards, as if expecting the hills to suddenly bristle with guns. Nothing but blue sky, shimmering hot rocks - and the dark-winged arc of a raven above the cliffs. Raven, the big brother of the crow. The healer glanced sideways at Josiah, and the preacher's face was set in stone.

They had to slow when the way steepened and rocks turned underfoot, horses at times scrambling heavily, haunches bunching and thrusting in a sharp clatter of hooves. Yet the going was not truly bad, and the tracks before them remained as scuffmarks and clear semi-circles of dust, cut into the gravely rubble of the mountain's ancient flanks. At length, the tilting, gnarled crown of a single sycamore tree marked the tiny haven of a small spring. The five men spoke little as they refilled canteens, watered horses, pulled saddles to cool their mounts' backs. The trampled, dusty weeds all about were evidence that those others had done the same.

"How many, you reckon?" Buck slouched with hands at his belt, eyes dark under the shadowed tilt of his hat brim.

Vin settled back on his heels, his arms on his knees as he looked narrow-eyed across the nodding grasses of the small oasis.

"Looks like half a dozen or so, here. But figure there was more than that huntin' on the boys' trail." He gestured with the canteen he had just filled. "If this is the most direct way in, we ain't seen sign anybody's comin' out."

Buck's jaw tightened as he looked up, taut as if he could see, by sheer force of will, right through the ridges between them and their beleaguered friends. "So, the whole kit and caboodle is still up there, huh? How many men you figure it takes, to run down two men on foot?"

A sudden dry bark of laughter burst from Vin's chest. "Hell, with Chris and the kid? Likely take an army." Then Tanner unfolded his lean length, standing upright under Buck's sharp scrutiny. "Hard to say, though. Could be a dozen or fifteen men, could be more. Depends how bad LeBeau wants 'em, and how much a fight they've put up."

"Oh, they'll fight." Buck nodded with grim certainty. "They'll damned sure fight."

"We ready?" Josiah stood stolidly with his reins in hand, horse re-saddled.

"Reckon," Vin said with a nod.

Onward they rode, into the white glare of the Texas sun. The morning aged and slowly their shadows turned beneath them. A breeze came up, gusting fitfully down from the hills to them, but it was as the breath of a hot forge, cooking off the scorched, broken slopes around them. Fat clouds began to appear out of clear blue sky, grew and drifted, but beneath the brief shadows of their passage, the air felt thick and steamy as a bathhouse. No talk at all, just the scrape and clack of hooves in rocks, the heavy huff of their horses' breathing. Little chance for trotting now, and the slower pace grated like an endless scream.

By noon, heavy white towers of cloud had begun to billow and build beyond the ragged backs of the mountains. Rather than offering comfort, however, they blew heavy gusts of breathless humidity, and scowled the threat of deluge over the ridges towards them. Ezra's fine coat and hat took on a flour-y powder, and wind-blown dust clung grittily to lips and eyes, but for once, their dapper gambler voiced no hint of complaint. He rode with his Remington revolving rifle held naked across his lap, his eyes forever dancing along the stony skyline, keen for any dust or movement.

And dust there finally was, startling after riding for so long in the simmering, empty stillness. Vin flung up a hand, but the others had seen, and their halt was instantaneous. It was just a thin wisp puffing up like smoke, yellowish against the scorching blue of the sky, where the breeze snatched it away. Yet now that same current carried a distant rattling of stones, and then more faint dust rose and vanished. Someone, or several someones, were coming down the mountain towards them.

They waited, simply enough. Just waited there in a living dam of horseflesh and man, lined across the wide, shallow V of the canyon floor. Cloud-shadow slid silently, ponderously across the jagged slopes, and as quickly slid away. Soon they saw them, dark figures of riders and what appeared to be a two or three pack animals, picking a slow, lurching way down the dry fingers of ancient water channels towards them. The riders kept coming for several moments, hats nodded forward against the sweltering weight of the sun, shoulders bent in dull inattention. The hot breeze seemed to carry them forward, a furnace gust of air from the distant, waiting thunderheads that ruffled Ezra's collar, but nonetheless cooled the sweat trickling down his temples.

Then one of those hats tilted up, and the horse's head jerked, at the startled yank of the hands on the bridle reins. There were five riders and two packhorses. The lead man spoke and his fellows straightened to attentiveness. The sunlit ovals of their faces gleamed under their hat brims, as the group fumbled to an uncertain stop.

Ezra touched heels to his horse, rifle still across his lap. The animal picked up on his tension, and minced several spring-legged steps forward, jaw tight on the bit.

"Do you work for Dutch LeBeau?" Ezra's curt hail clapped sharply from the fractures slopes above.

The lead man's horse also shifted nervously, turning sideways under his rider's hand. Dust ruffled briefly from the animal's scuffling hooves, swirling on the breeze towards the waiting gambler and his friends.

"What if we do?"

Josiah noted the long, soft shapes of the packhorses' loads, limp and sodden under stained canvas tarps. Dead men. Three at least. White shone briefly among the clothing of some of the others. Bandages. Three dead and five men hurting. No pity awoke in Josiah's breast, though. Just a hard, hot surge of emotion that summed itself up in one savage word; good. Chris and JD were not going down easy.

"Well, we've been sent to find you," Ezra replied easily. "We just came from Mr. LeBeau."

Only a fib if you looked at it a certain way. They had come from LeBeau, but they had sent themselves.

"Oh," the man replied, and glanced back at his companions. He and his pards appeared confused, not understanding who these men were, but not seeing any badges, either.

Ezra somehow kept his tone light, as he asked the question that shrilled silently between him and his companions. "Where's Chris Larabee now?"

"He's still back there."

The man gestured over his shoulder, up into the hills. He seemed to relax at the mention of Chris' name, as if he figured that LeBeau had indeed sent them to help.

A man with a bandage visible under his hat added his comment, a sneer audible in it; "Gone to hell by now, most likely."

"Well, then," said Buck with steely softness, "I guess you won't mind joinin' him, will you?"

Alarm whetted a sharp edge on the next query; "Who the hell are you?"

Many answers they could have spoken, but there rode with these five men, within them, something furious and reckless and kept too long on a leash. Josiah's face brightened with a huge, toothy grin.

"Well, boys, we ride with Chris Larabee."

Time froze for a quivering instant, two bodies of armed men facing each other at nearly point-blank range, the certainty of blood and death humming electric between them. Then, far up the canyons, the first deep, muffled grumble of thunder tumbled from the dark bellies of the waiting clouds. In that instant, a single shot whacked and echoed and echoed - and two more followed. A growl surged into a roar from Buck's throat, and he and Vin palmed their guns at the same instant.

+ + + + + + +


The sudden low voice jerked JD to awareness, back from a rambling contemplation of just how much heat the human body could stand, before melting or something. The ominous black bulge of clouds had deepened beyond the ridge behind them, sulking and grumbling deeply, but so far the storm seemed content to stay over there. Now heavy gusts whirled exuberantly from those clouds, but served little more than to blow handfuls of dust in their eyes. The gouge in his right arm had decided on its favorite level of pain, a sort of thumping burn that shivered from shoulder to fingertips. Moments before, some damned fool down there had woken up and decided to amuse himself with a few pot shots. While his aim was lousy, the spray of sand and pulverized grit had effectively pinned him and Chris both belly-down, like two worms baking on a hot rock. In short, this situation just plain stank. He turned his head to peer at Chris' gaunt, sweat-streaked face, and found his leader looking back at him.

"You need to get out of here."

A heated gust rushed across their backs and down the canyon, hot as if the Devil himself breathed on them. JD squinted at Chris.


Chris jerked his chin upwards, up the ridge that lay etched brilliantly in sunlight, stark against the bruised-blue bosom of the gathering storm. "You can still move well enough to make a break for it."

Still not comprehending, JD scowled. "Chris, we're sittin' ducks out here, if we so much as stick our heads up."

"I'll cover you."

"Then how do you get away? You can't hardly walk."

"Leave me both rifles. You head up, move fast, you can get on top of the ridge and make a run for it, while I keep their heads down."

If Chris had suggested that JD flap his arms and fly off this hill, it would have made no more sense. "What, leave you here? What'll you do, then?"

"I'll keep 'em busy."

JD met those hazel green eyes, sunken now and yet fever-bright. Chris was very clearly omitting any mention of how he himself would escape. He felt his own jaw sagging, shook his head at growing realization.

"Oh, no. No, I'm not gonna do that."

"JD -."

"I'm not gonna run out on you."

Stifled irritation tightened the fine muscles of Chris' haggard face. "It's the only chance you have!"

"The hell!" Anger burst within JD's chest, flaring hot and fast, as the realization of what Chris proposed took root. "What kinda chance is that? Run out and leave you here to get shot? You don't think -."

"You listen to me, JD!" The kid flinched from the sharp, brief lurch of Chris' body in his direction. "You will die here, too, if you don't use your God-given sense and take the one chance you got! Now quit arguing with me, and start thinkin' which way you're going to go."

Something very akin to panic clutched at JD's throat, fogged the workings of his exhausted wits. "Chris, you can't - no! I won't. Chris, that's just -."

"JD, we're not going to hold hands and fly into Heaven together. Now, give me that rifle."

Thunder bumped and thudded beyond the ridges, rumbling as if the mountain itself growled deep in its granite belly. JD reflexively hugged his Winchester and its six bullets to him.


Fury widened Chris' eyes to blazing moons, and his teeth bit down white on his frustration. "JD, damn you -."

"I'm not doin' it, Chris!" His breathing felt squeezed to near smothering, and JD had no control over the sudden wobbling of his voice, but he knew only one certainty existed for him. "It ain't over yet, all right? You don't know what's gonna happen here, and I can't just run off and leave you."

"Why the hell not? I'm TELLING you to!"


The shout ripped from him and choked him, and echoed flatly before the hot wind snatched it away into silence. It took all JD had to shove words through a throat determined to seal shut on him.

"How do I live, then, Chris? How do I look at Vin or Josiah, or even my own self in a mirror, knowin' I ran off and left you to be shot to pieces? How can I just run away, knowin' that you were still back here alive, and that I left you to those people? Chris, I just can't -."

"You fool." The lines in Chris' face deepened as if cut with a dull knife. "Don't you understand that you are going to DIE, if you stay here? Has that sunk into your thick skull, yet?"

The reply was a hoarse whisper. "Yes."

"There is no other way out of this, JD. They come at us one more time, and we're through. Understand?"

"You don't know that." JD swallowed hard, thought he'd gag.

"What's the matter with you? Dammit, you can't help me by staying! Who CARES how I die? Dead is dead, and I don't want to take you with me."

"Well, I care." The burning in JD's eyes blurred his vision, maybe dust on that damned hot wind, but he clamped his jaw tight, facing Chris squarely although he could barely see him. "I can't do it. I won't. And you can't make me."

Chris simply stared at him for an instant, not making a sound. Then with visible effort, he schooled his voice to a gentler, if strained tone.

"JD, there's a time and place for loyalty and bravery. I've seen it in you a hundred times, and I've been grateful for it. But this is the time for survival. I want - I need you to survive."

Closing his eyes, JD sucked in a long, half-strangled breath, and then looked outwards again, across the shimmering distance of sun-scorched ridges and empty sky. Felt coolness as the wind cuffed the sweat-damp hair against his neck. Again, thunder whacked and rolled from behind, tumbling dark threats into the blazing blue sky before them, and he smelled the rich, damp spice of distant rain.

"Chris . . . if it was me, could you go off and leave me here? Could you leave me here, hurt and alone with the bad guys, if I told you to go?"

The silence that dropped between them held razor blades and hammer blows. Chris inhaled a tight, hissing breath, but did not immediately answer.

Then; "Yes."

JD turned his head, looked over his shoulder at the haggard, whiskered, desperate face of his leader. His friend.

"You're a lousy liar, Chris Larabee. You'd have never followed me to Purgatorio, if that's how you really think."

He turned away, but JD heard the clash of wood and metal on stone, as Chris slammed his rifle butt against the ground in bottomless anger and frustration. JD could only bow his head into his wounded arm, into the tiny puddle of muggy shadow there, and shake. A whirling gust slapped up whirls of sand and cuffed his back, rushing past him and on down the ridges. Deep within the black clouds behind them, thunder boomed and bumped heavily once more.