Candles of the Wicked

by G. M. Atwater


"I beg your pardon?" Ezra literally sputtered into his coffee, staring as if the both of them had suddenly leaped up stark naked.

Heaving an exasperated sigh, JD said, "Why do you think we came here in the first place? We gotta find Calvin Bell."

Beside him, Chris sipped his coffee and stared back at Ezra's shock with what looked like veiled amusement. Ezra shook his head in bafflement.

"After the hell you've been through? Gentlemen, neither of you are in condition to do anything but get on that stage, and get home to some much-needed rest." His smooth features folded into a prim grimace. "Not to mention a much-needed bath."

"He sayin' we stink, JD?"

Both eyebrows raised, JD shook his head in mock perplexity. "I think so, Chris. Don't know where he got that idea."

With a mild harrumph into his cup, Chris let it slide. Throwing out both hands, Ezra leaned towards their leader in blatant supplication.

"Mr. Larabee, you are the elder and presumably wiser head, in all this. Please tell this young hot-spur that his mission is done. Why, Calvin Bell could be in Mexico, by now. Mexico being, by the way, the proverbial hop, skip, and jump just over the river."

"He's right."


"That IS why we came here."

With a strangled sound, Ezra dropped both hands to his knees. "Josiah, Vin, someone, please help me out, here."

"Man's got a right to make up his own mind." Vin lay back on one elbow, scooping the last of his bacon out of a tin plate.

"Well, I'm with Ezra," said Buck. He leveled a meaningful stare across the fire at his youngest partner. "We just barely got you two back from the dead, and now you want to dive right back in. That's like - like -."

"Bearding the lion in his den," said Ezra darkly.

"Right." The broad plainsman hat nodded in emphatic agreement. "And I'd as soon let the ol' varmint have the place, and get home."

"Seems to me you already bearded that lion, Buck." JD met Buck's chastising frown with gleeful stubbornness. "Way you fellas tell it, you bounced Dutch LeBeau all over his bedroom and left him huntin' his teeth. Seems to me that lion got no bite left!"

Grinning smugly at his own wit, JD settled back with his coffee in hand. Josiah leaned forward to the coffee pot, the movement drawing their attention to him.

Eyes on the cautious business of pouring the hot liquid, Josiah said, "We might ask 'em their reasons."

"Reasons?" Ezra's eyebrows jumped almost to his hairline. "The reason I see is that both of them are too obdurate and pigheaded to know when to quit."

"Maybe." Josiah rocked back on his heels and favored the gambler with an enigmatic look. "Maybe it's justice."

"Exactly!" JD thumped his hand on his knee, flinched and scowled at the resultant slop of hot coffee. "Bell almost killed you, Buck. He left that deputy in Eagle Bend addled and half-dead -."

"Dead now," Nathan added, and JD stared for an instant. The healer nodded somberly. "Man died just before we left."

JD's expression sobered, as he went on in a quieter tone. "And he killed that woman, Carmen, in Purgatory, too. Maybe he can't be made to pay for all of it, but I want to see him pay for some of it."

"Kid . . . ." Buck rearranged his lanky self, trying to find a reclining position that did not pull on his much-abused belly regions. "Sometimes we don't get what we want, no matter how hard we want it. Fact is, we're way out of our jurisdiction, and we don't even have a warrant."

"Judge Travis was gonna wire us back!" JD burst out. "It's probably sittin' down there in the telegraph office, right now. Buck, we can't just quit!"

With a patient sigh, Buck cocked his head and strove for a reasoning tone. "Son, I don't know about you, but I ain't got much chasin' around left in me." He chuckled dryly, and laid a light hand over his lower stomach. "Never been beat up so bad by a stage coach in all my life, and then I let ol' LeBeau get in his licks, too. I feel like a blacksmith's been shapin' horse shoes on my belly."

JD's eyes narrowed, however, and he gave his head a slight shake. "If you wanted him bad enough, Buck, you'd run right over the top of me, to get him."

"Well, I don't want him." Buck flung the dregs of his coffee into the fire with a spattering hiss. "I want to go home. I want you and Chris home. To hell with Calvin Bell, wherever he is. Man like him will swing sooner or later, anyhow."

"Furthermore," Ezra chimed in. "Just because we've vanquished his henchmen and left Mr. LeBeau in need of a dentist, does not mean we've broken his circle of power. He has friends here, gentlemen. He has the best influence that money and intimidation can buy."

"Killed that other deputy, probably," Nathan observed.

Chris frowned. "You're just full of good news. What other deputy?"

"Deputy town marshal in El Paso," Nathan replied. "Paper said he was found shot in the head, the morning after your last telegram."

"It give his name?"

"Don't recollect. Just that it said he was murdered. Right at his desk."

"Oh, no." JD's voice almost choked, and all of a sudden, his breakfast was not settling so good. "We talked to that man." He met Chris' dark look with an expression of utter dismay. "It has to be him. He's dead because we talked to him."

It wasn't over. It couldn't be over. Would never be over, so long as Bell walked the earth a free man. JD let his cup tip into the grass, and bowed his head into one hand, so that his fingers dragged slowly through his grimy hair. He had thought the deputy was the one who told Dutch LeBeau they were in town. He had spoken poorly of the man, for not offering more help. Damn it! Now he stared into the dying breakfast fire, as if he could wish Calvin Bell into it, and there toasted to a cinder. The poison that man carried with him just kept spreading like noxious oil, and JD Dunne seemed to help track it all over.

"JD, you listen to me." As if he could miss Buck's voice from only ten feet away. "You know damned well that if Bell is down there hidin' in LeBeau's skirts, it's because LeBeau wants him there, and the only way we're gonna get him is with a big fight."

"Maybe." JD resolutely focused his attention on his fingernails, hands in his lap, but he could hear Buck's exasperated sigh.

"JD, Chris . . ." Now Ezra's tone was devoid of sarcasm, almost gentle. "There is law in El Paso. Let them take it from here. They have one of their own to answer for, now. We can hand over the flag with no dishonor -."

"Dishonor?" JD's head snapped up, and his dark eyes smoldered. "This got nothing to do with honor, Ezra! Josiah had it right, it's justice!"

"Kid -."

"Shut up, Buck! Everything is not hunky-dory, now that you ain't dead. That's the ONLY good thing out of this whole mess, and if you don't care enough to give a damn, fine. I still do!"

"Dammit, boy, will you just listen to me?" Buck sat forward with a jerk - and his face went dead white.

JD's breath caught tight in his chest, and Nathan reached a long arm to lay a hand on Buck's bent shoulder. The tall man held himself there, curved forward in a tight arc with a hand at his waist, and not looking at his younger friend. He raised his free hand in a gesture for patience, breathed, then straightened with a sigh.

"Kid . . ." He looked up slowly, fingers splayed lightly across his gun belt. Across the near-mortal wound that Calvin Bell had left. The face he showed now was strained and serious. "There's a time to call it quits, JD. I reckon we got what counts, which is all of us alive and with no holes that can't be mended. There's nothin' else here that's our fight."

"Buck . . . ." JD found himself floundering, hating that he had riled his friend so, but not ready to concede his point. "That's not what I'm talkin' about. It's just not right to let a man like Bell get away with - with everything he's done."

"Sometimes that's what happens, though." The tension of old pain slowly left Buck's face, but not so the darkness in his eyes. "We came down here to pull you and Chris out of the fire, and that's all. We didn't come down here to get revenge and wipe out Dutch LeBeau's whole gang."

"Not what's gonna happen."

They both turned their heads towards that clipped tenor voice. Buck turned a hard stare on Chris.

"What IS gonna happen, then, Chris? Because wadin' through LeBeau may be the only way we'll ever get near Bell, and personally, I don't want him that bad."

"Guess we'll have to wait and see." Chris cocked his head and met Buck's hot gaze with a coolly opaque one of his own. "I'm not lookin' for more trouble from LeBeau, but there may not be a way around him."

"If there was one, would you take it? Hell, if there was another way out of this godforsaken backwater of creation, I'd as soon we never saw El Paso again!"

The listening silence around the campfire tightened, as the others wisely stayed out of this discussion. Arguments between these two were too much like family quarrels.

"But there isn't," Chris replied flatly. "And the livery stable's gonna want their horses back, unless you want to add horse thieving to your list of accomplishments."

"Chris," said Buck, in quiet intensity. "We'll be lucky if we can get those horses to the city limits, without LeBeau climbin' right down our throats."

"I know. That's why we'll have to be careful."

"Fine, but what if we do find out Bell is there, and LeBeau won't let you have him?" Buck's jaw tightened under his moustache, his entire demeanor frankly challenging. "You walk in there and start pushin', and you're gonna be takin' on his whole gang, maybe get more people hurt or killed, and all over some two-bit tin horn. Is that what you want?"

Mouth briefly pursed on whatever thoughts he maintained, Chris merely shook his head. "Not what I'm sayin', Buck. I'm just not writin' off the possibility of capturing Bell."

"Yeah, well, if that little possibility of yours includes shootin' at anybody BUT Bell, you can count me out. I didn't come down here to start a war."

Buck's scathing glare swept Chris, then JD, who frowned uncomfortably as he looked away.

"We'll see," was Chris' laconic reply. And so it stood.

+ + + + + + +

Near noon, they stopped at the same little spring they had found, coming in. The wisdom of that became quickly evident, when Chris and JD both staggered a few steps to sink prone, and without shame, in the shade of the single sycamore tree. Buck managed to keep his knees from buckling long enough to loosen his cinch and theirs, and water all three horses. However, once done, he also found himself woozy and weak as a half-drowned pup. He was only too glad to join them, bending and folding his lanky frame to sit with a grunting thump.

"Buck?" JD's dry rasp of a voice, as he briefly lifted the arm he had flung over his eyes. "How you doin'?"

"Fine, kid," Buck replied gently, their earlier discord forgotten. "Best get some rest, while you can."

The arm dropped back over the kid's forehead and he was still. Buck eyed him and slowly shook his head. JD was the embodiment of death warmed-over, his clothing rank with old sweat, dried blood, and slept-in grime, while a sooty bruise stained one youthfully stubbled cheek. Every time he sat still, his fine-featured, boyish face took on a strangely empty expression, like a man who had just heard too loud a noise, too close to his head. Chris looked just as bad, if not worse, seeming drawn down tight as dried rawhide over an old bone, and he carried his whole right side as it were brittle. Last night they had slept at least ten hours straight, but it would take more than a single night, to dispel the exhaustion that hung on them like sand bags.

They spoke few words, as the rest of them loosened cinches, watered themselves and their horses, and sought a few moments' respite from the saddle. The midday sun simmered and the broken hills shimmered, and a man wished sincerely for a breeze or even one little cloud. Josiah meanwhile took his rifle and clambered up the near slope, where he seated himself like a statue. Watching. Moses with a Winchester. Buck savored a brief smile then let his attention drift. The irritable buzz of crickets rasped from sun-dried weeds, and even in the shade, the breathless heat seemed to suck his strength right out through the seat of his pants and into the parched ground. Lord, he would be so glad when this was all over.

Now that they were nearing the southern end of the mountains, the sharply furrowed folds of earth resembled a vast, badly rumpled old bed. Atop razorback ridges, the arid fabric appeared to have frayed and split over the fractured limestone bones of the mountains' spine. It made Buck think of a thin blanket slowly rotting away from the skeleton of some huge, dead thing. Not an image that gave him much comfort. If they held to this route, it should have them in El Paso in time for supper, their current pace ever so much slower than the desperate race that had brought five of them into these mountains.

Buck sighed, and again studied the two supine forms sprawled in the dry twigs and leaves beside him. They were both hurting more than they would let on, and so used-up that a girl could probably whip them. Neither one of them could remember their last good meal or solid night's rest - but they could find their Winchesters from a dead sleep. As for his own self, hell. Once he quit moving and the mad wore off, Buck discovered that LeBeau had whupped on him a lot worse than he thought. All his hurts had come home to roost, and left him a lot more drained than a man rightly ought to be. He figured the best thing, now, would be for them to get into town where they could get some proper rest, get cleaned up, and that steak for supper Nathan had mentioned couldn't hurt, either. But that, he told himself grimly, would only happen if they avoided stirring up another hornets' nest.

Fact was, Chris had been right, in saying that there might not be a way around LeBeau. El Paso was the only way out of this corner of perdition, and while they may have scattered his gang like a pack of chicken-killin' dogs, nothing said those dogs could not lick their wounds and come back. Dutch LeBeau did not strike him as a man who gave up a grudge, and he could be setting up a nice little welcoming party, right now.

However, Chris' noncommittal attitude did not indicate that he was much concerned about it. That of course was as good as an endorsement, to JD, who seemed to have his mind all set on catching Calvin Bell the minute they hit town, or certainly within the hour thereafter. For pete's sake, Buck was the one who had taken Bell's knife in his gut, not anybody else. However, Bell was not the first desperado to try to snuff Buck's candle, and the way they lived, he probably would not be the last. If they never laid eyes on Bell again, fine, let somebody else shoot the son of a bitch, some day. All they should be concentrating on was getting the hell out of Texas, while they still wore their scalps. Irritation clawed its way over the weariness that clamped Buck's lanky frame, and he clambered to his feet.

"Somethin' up?" JD lifted his head from the sand, an anxious frown crimping his brows.

"Just gettin' another drink, son."

He could feel the kid's eyes following him as he walked away. Little turd was not about to let Chris or Buck, either one, out of his sight for more than a minute.

Nathan knelt in the weeds beside the small pool, the loose curve of his bent back suggesting a bow strung in readiness, latent strength waiting at rest. His attention was on the canteen he held under the water to fill, but the healer looked up at Buck's footsteps, a furrow appearing between his brows.

"Just gettin' a drink." Buck repeated his reassurance with a patient grin, and Nathan smiled wryly in return.

"You ain't much better off than them two. I just hope the three of you don't fall asleep and fall off your horses."

A dry huff of a chuckle escaped him, as Buck awkwardly let himself down to rest. "Thought about that. Wondered how I could be worryin' about forty things one minute, then jerkin' my chin up off my chest, the next."

"Well, we'll be in town, 'fore long."

Nathan held out the dripping canteen, and Buck took it with a grateful bob of his head. "Yeah, but that's one of the things I'm worryin' about."

Buck let a moment lag, as he drank deeply of the startlingly cold water. Then he wiped his moustache and handed the canteen back with a sigh.

"Thanks. I just wish I knew what Chris is thinkin'. Why are we even givin' Bell a second thought, anyhow? Goin' after that man now is like grabbin' a bull's horn. Fits in your hand all right, but then you got the other two thousand pounds of trouble stompin' all over ya." He snorted with rich disgust. "Damn fool JD isn't thinkin' at all. Gotta get Calvin Bell, he says. It's his job, he says. He's got the bit in his teeth, and there's just no whoa-ing or turnin' that kid, once he gets a notion like that."

"Well, he's had about three weeks for the idea to set, you know."

"Yeah. Doesn't feel like he's really back yet, either." Buck ran a hand roughly across his moustache, swiping away lingering dampness. "How about you? Do you really think LeBeau is gonna let us just ride into El Paso, and scoop Bell off some street corner?"

"Hard to say, Buck. We don't even know if the man's still there. Like Ezra said, he could be in Mexico."

"That's right. Chris has to know that, too. Hell, any other time, he'd have told the kid to forget it. It's like chasin' a coyote into a grizzly bear's mouth. Only a fool would walk up and try to pull him out." Shaking his head, Buck picked up a fallen leaf, and began rolling its stem between his fingers, idly watching the pinwheel blur of yellow and green.

His voice softened as he said, "Been thinkin' about when we rescued him from that prison at Jericho. He's got that same look in his eye, now." He looked up to watch for Nathan's understanding. "Know what I mean? Like he just shook hands with the Reaper, and he's still seein' him standin' there. We rode away from Jericho all right, but Chris made sure that crooked warden and sheriff were dead, too."

"Think maybe he's hopin' for an excuse to take LeBeau, too?"

"Could be. A man can only push Chris Larabee so far, and he's been pushed way beyond that point, now." Sighing, Buck let the leaf drop, fluttering in a brief, jagged spiral to earth. "Him and JD, both."

He turned his gaze towards the dozing horses, standing motionless in the stuffy heat but for the spasmodic flick of tails, the occasional twitch of an ear. Beyond them, Josiah still sat watch in the rocks.

"It was supposed to be simple. Just the two of them huntin' one man - hell, we've all done that, and it never came to anything like this."

"Nope." Nathan propped the canteen against one boot, and laid his arms over his knees. "Never would have thought some two-bit thief could lead to so much trouble."

"Thief and murderer," Buck amended.

"Which is why Chris and JD want him so bad, I suppose."

"You takin' their part, now?" Buck tried to soften the edge in his voice with a lopsided grin. "I'm hopin' to find some good sense around here."

"Nah, nah, ain't sayin' that." A dark hand raised in a soft, patting gesture. "Just got to remember that them two thought you WAS one the fellas Bell killed. Man don't let go of that sort of shock right away."

"Aw, I know that. Just . . ." Wearily Buck reached up and pulled off his hat, massaging his fingers over the lingering pressure the hatband left across his forehead.

Collecting his thoughts, he raised his head to meet the healer's sympathetic eyes, and his tone deepened. "Nate, I keep thinkin' how close it was. I keep seein' 'em both layin' up there in those rocks, lookin' like nothin' but lumps of dirty laundry, and I thought we were too late, after all . . . . I don't want to do that again. Not over some no-account like Calvin Bell. It just ain't worth it."

Sitting in the comfortable quiet of mutual agreement, Nathan took a deep breath, released it, and narrowed his eyes down the canyon. "Hard for me to understand, y' know? A man like LeBeau, willin' to hunt other men down like dogs. And for what? I seen it before, hell, I been one of them they hunted, but this . . ." He shook his head, and looked at Buck, his eyes clouded dark with troubled thoughts. "How's a man get his hands so tight in a whole town, and just ride over the top of people, and nobody does nothin'?"

"Not sure, Nate. Maybe it's just people hopin' that somebody else will do somethin' about it. Then while they're all waitin', it gets too late."

"Just don't make sense." The healer's jaw tightened, and he thumped the cork a little deeper into the canteen. "Ain't like back home, where we don't even have a real courthouse. Here, they got law, they got courts, they got it all, but they still got a man like Dutch LeBeau. And how come nobody's come out here to find out what's goin' on with Chris and JD, yet, when we read about it in the paper two days ago?"

Buck had no good answers, but he also understood that Nathan expected none. The healer was simply voicing the same frustrations they all felt, to one degree or another.

"No tellin'. Guess he just works like a weasel in the dark, and the only way people know he's there, is when they find feathers and dead things, in the daylight. Reckon he's got folks scared, or else bought 'em off, and the rest just don't want to be bothered." Buck shrugged uncomfortably, and gave a soft snort. "You ought to be askin' Ezra. He's the one understands all that left-handed dealin'."

With a brief chuckle, Nathan nodded ruefully. "Yeah, guess I'm just blowin' off steam. I don't -."

A whistle pierced the sultry quiet, and Nathan's gaze abruptly sharpened and narrowed, focusing over Buck's shoulder. Buck bent himself around to look, and froze. There were riders coming in. Nathan rose to his feet, and Buck accepted the dark hand that reached down to help him up. An eye-blink later, the healer was all warrior, pushing his coat tails free of his Remington pistol.

Appearing suddenly over the rim of a shallow arroyo, two distant forms jiggled across the swell of a gravely alluvial fan towards them. A thin, pale plume of dust roiled up from their horses' fast-moving hooves and wafted away behind them, framing them briefly in drifting gold. There were only two men, but they rode with purpose, trotting directly up the broad canyon towards the seven who waited. To the everyday eye, the strangers might have been common cowhands or perhaps small ranchers, dressed in range-riding men's broad hats, coatless shirtsleeves, and sturdy trousers. However, as the clattering rhythm of their hoof beats became audible, Buck could see the glint of sunlight on polished rifle stocks under each man's right knee, and their vests dropped to the small, angular bulges of pistol butts.

Under the sycamore, Chris and JD made a briefly pitiful spectacle of helping each other stagger to their feet. Once up, however, Buck did not miss how the kid deliberately took up a protective station, squaring himself slightly ahead and to one side of Chris, with his Winchester in both hands. They had been too damned long as just the two of them. Then JD turned his head and looked right at Buck, and his impatient scowl bore a clear and surprisingly elder-brother message; Buck, get your butt over here. Ah, hell. His feet were already in motion, as he tucked his own coattail behind his holster in readiness to stand beside them.

As the two riders closed in, the seven waited in silence, cutting their eyes periodically upwards to the gaunt hills, wary for any hint of furtive movement, or glint of sun on a gun barrel. About a hundred yards out, the riders slowed to a jog, then to a walk. Buck's gut tightened, when sunlight touched a glint of silver on the lead man's vest. What new trouble had LeBeau sent upon them?

Both men were cool customers, Buck gave them that. Neither one of them displayed any more concern than if they rode up to greet a ladies' tea, rather than seven armed and war-ready strangers. One of the riders rested a hand on his holstered pistol, but his posture remained relaxed, while the other touched languid fingers to his hat brim.

"Afternoon, boys." The lawman halted his horse some twenty yards from them, and his partner swung abreast and stopped. The lazy drawl of Texas spoke again. "One of you Larabee?"

Something hard and sharp raised itself in Buck's chest, as he watched Vin take a smooth step forward, cut-down Winchester dangling easily in his right hand. No, Vin Tanner would not let a little thing like a five hundred dollar, dead-or-alive price on his head deter him from sticking by his friends.

"Who wants to know?"

"Sergeant Tom Speakes and this here is Corporal Dan Townsend." The man gave Vin a single nod. "Comp'ny B, Texas Rangers."

Horses moved restively, and now the seven saw those badges clearly, the round insignia of a star inside a circle, which some said were cut from silver Mexican pesos. Buck felt more than saw JD's reaction, the kid going wide-eyed as his rifle sagged downward. But then he caught himself to grasp the rifle sternly. The faces above the badges were the honest-seeming visages of men in their late-thirties, early-forties, Speakes square-jawed with a big sandy moustache, the other man sporting a dapper black goatee. However, likely all the seven shared the same memory, of another man with a stolen badge who bore an equally honest face and businesslike manner - phony "Marshal" Yates, who happened to be the right hand of Vin's nemesis, Eli Joe.

"LeBeau send you?" Vin's next question came short and sharp.

Speakes looked down at him, and one corner of his moustache twitched with what appeared mild amusement. "Mister, Dutch LeBeau don't send me nowhere and he don't tell me nothin' but 'good mornin'.' Now, I'd like a word with Mr. Larabee, if it pleases you."

Footsteps grated on gritty sand, the uneven stride of a wounded man. "Reckon you're lookin' for me."

Chris stopped at Vin's side, squinting up at the two Rangers with what almost could have been a smile. He stood easily, weight leaning lightly onto his good leg with both thumbs in his gun belt, but there was a hard recklessness glinting in his eyes.

"What can I do for you boys?"

To their surprise, Ranger Speakes suddenly chuckled, and laugh lines creased his weathered cheeks. "Damn, man, have you had a look at yourself lately?"

Then Chris did grin, with lots of teeth and his eyes not truly softening, but he had to concede the point. He and JD both looked like something the dog dug up to roll in, and they were not getting any prettier.

"Not many mirrors out here," he replied.

Chuckling, Speakes said, "No, reckon not. To answer your question, though, we're here to investigate a little shootin' trouble we heard about, 'round these parts."

"Really?" said Buck, and he let sarcasm lace his smile and tone as thickly as cold molasses. "Why, that's right neighborly of you. Where were you about three days ago?"

"South a fair piece." The second man spoke up in a slow, dry-voiced drawl that seemed in no hurry to get anywhere. "Reckon yonder must be the kid I heard tell was runnin' with Larabee, then." He leaned to spit a quick, decisive arc of brown stuff then raised one eyebrow above a sudden smirk. "We heard plenty about the two fellers Dutch LeBeau was tryin' so hard to kill, but I swan, y'all ain't what I expected to see."

"And what, pray tell, did you gentlemen expect?" Ezra cocked his head, his Remington rifle laid over his arm like a goose hunter - but easily brought into play. "Eye patches and missin' teeth, perhaps? Or scalps hangin' on our bridles?"

"Well, no, not exactly." Townsend, for it was he who enjoyed his tobacco, brushed light fingers over his goatee and squinted thoughtfully. "I reckon I don't know who the hell the rest of you boys are, but I guess I just figgered them two would be . . . bigger. Or somethin'."

Buck was not going to let JD live that one down; he filed that away for a certainty. However, one look at the kid's shining eyes, and he would not as much as peep, just now. JD Dunne was finally meeting his first, real live Texas Rangers. Not that the kid would act anything but cool and collected, mind you.

With a reproving frown, JD answered, "I guess we're big enough to handle ourselves."

Nobody said a word, no sir, except for Chris, who merely permitted himself a small smile. "Might as well light and set, boys."

"We been down to Del Rio for the past few weeks," Speakes elaborated, as he settled himself with a sigh in the shade of the sycamore tree.

He and Ranger Townsend were tall men once dismounted, easy moving and sharp-eyed, and appeared completely at ease with the fact that they were outnumbered roughly three to one. While the rangers may have relaxed, however, the others did not, and Vin, Josiah and Nathan remained on watch against any further, less-amiable surprises. Buck was as pleased that Vin put some breathing room between himself and those badges, anyhow.

Now comfortable, Speakes pulled off his hat and dragged a sleeve across his brow. "Some smugglers been runnin' us ragged, down there, and we didn't hear of the trouble up here, directly. When we did, lord, I just hoped we'd get here fast enough to see what or who could get LeBeau's knickers in such a knot. Who was it yanked the ol' boy out of bed, anyhow?"

"That was Buck," said JD proudly. "Well, him and Vin - actually all the fellas - but it was Buck who put a mouse under both his eyes. Drug him right out of bed and whipped him to a frazzle."

"Ah-huh." Speakes looked at Buck and grinned.

Buck ruefully shook his head. "Lost m' temper, is all."

With a reassuring nod, Speakes replied, "Been a long time comin'."

"Too damn long," echoed Townsend grimly. "Best part of that man got washed out of his diapers."

JD threw out both hands, as if waiting for the obvious. "Then, how come nobody's done nothin' sooner?"

"Because, son" said Buck with weary sternness. "A badge don't mean you can just go 'round thumpin' on folks, just because they need it."

"I know that, Buck!" Dark brows lowered into a straight line of annoyance.

"Trouble was -." Speakes cast a quickly apologetic glance, as he interrupted. "We can never get anything that will stick in court. Nobody will talk, or witnesses suddenly move to Louisiana, or -." He gave a shrug. "Once or twice, they just plumb evaporated."

"What, everybody's that scared of him?"

"With good reason. People have a way of runnin' into accidents, if they cross him."

"Well, why don't somebody say something? I mean, there must be something somebody could do!"

Speakes gave a weary shake of his head. "I'm with ya, kid. But he's slippery as they come. To see him on the street, he's a model citizen. Wears good clothes, tips his hat to the ladies, donates to the firemen's fund, hell, he even give five hundred dollars to the school district. Pinnin' anything on him is like trying to hang wallpaper on cobwebs."

"Might change now, though." Townsend nodded sagely, as all eyes turned to him. His drawl deepened, as a smug smile stretched the dark brackets of his goatee. "The other day, the night telegrapher came in and started singin' like a bird. Says he didn't want to get murdered dead with his brains blowed out, like poor Officer Meeks, and Dutch LeBeau was gonna get hisself killed to pieces anyhow, so there went his wages on the side, so he figgered he'd come on over to the side of the Lord."

Baffled, JD shook his head lightly. "He what?"

Ezra supplied the translation. "The night telegraph operator was working for LeBeau, on the sly, and has volunteered himself as a witness." Then his eyebrows rose in droll appreciation. "Rather a tidy arrangement, actually. He had a pretty garnishment, and LeBeau had a finger on the pulse of just about anything that happens in or around El Paso."

Dawning realization drew JD's scowl down tighter. "He's that chubby fella, right?" The kid swung a quick glance at Chris for confirmation. "That's the man who sent our wire to Judge Travis, and the other one to the boys, here, tellin' 'em that we were closing in on Bell. Damn it!" JD whipped off his bowler and smacked his knee with it. "We even told him what hotel we were staying at, in case somebody sent a wire back for us. That's how LeBeau and his men knew where to find us! He must have run right to him, the minute we left the telegraph office. That sorry, no good -."

"Easy, son," chuckled Speakes. "He's in protective custody, now, tellin' us a lot of names from LeBeau's outfit. Looks like we'll finally be able to build a case, with the information he's givin'. He's probably out of a job, for violating the responsibilities of his office like that, but if he can help us nail down Dutch LeBeau, he's a valuable no-good."

"Well, I sure hope so." JD drew himself up in his strictest pose. "Man like him is a complete disgrace. What are you snickering at, Buck? He is!"

"What we're kinda curious about, though," spoke Townsend's strident drawl. "Is what 'zactly you boys are doin' in these parts?"

Townsend pinched another wad of tobacco to stuff in his lip, as casual as the cowhand he may well have once been. However, as he sealed his pouch and pocketed it, his dark eyes held the keen glint of a man who was, after all, an officer of the law.

"Nothin' much," said Buck with a lazy smile. "Just fetchin' the boys out of trouble, is all."

"Ain't what LeBeau thinks." Speakes propped his elbows on his knees, and wiped a forefinger down one side of his moustache. "What we hear, the man thinks you boys are movin' in. Lotta talk in the saloons about how LeBeau is about to become old news." Blue eyes narrowed slightly. "You fellas wouldn't be lookin' to make more trouble now, are ya? Sort of balance the scales a mite?"

"Oh, for pete's -."

JD barely stifled his exasperation, but he read Chris' glance and let Chris take the lead. Buck was interested in hearing the answer to that one, himself.

"No trouble," Chris replied easily. "Just want a bath, some whiskey, and a hot meal. And more whiskey."

Speakes answered that last with a grin of his own, but his eyes remained thoughtful, as he put his hat back on. "Hope not. I've heard good things about you seven, up there in New Mexico. Just want to be sure you don't make this too personal, is all."

"Nope," said Buck, and cast Chris a hard look. "Nothin' personal about it. I already got what I want out of the man. Him and El Paso can have each other, far as I'm concerned. No offense."

"None taken." Smile lines appeared around Speakes' eyes. "So long as we understand each other." The ranger straightened slightly, placing his hands on his knees. "We wish we could have got here sooner."

Now his expression sobered, as he looked at Chris, then JD. "Ain't right, them doggin' good men all over these hills and us chasin' our tails down at Del Rio. I'm right sorry about it." His gaze lingered briefly on JD. "Right sorry, indeed."

"Well!" Speakes clapped both hands on his knees. "How's about we ride in with you boys, help keep the monkey off your backs? Then we'll see about gettin' you started safely home."

"Much obliged," said Chris, and it was evident by the wry slant to his grin that he read it just as the others did; these rangers would be as much guards as escorts.

If there was any doubt about that, the next exchange laid it to rest. A slow step crunched in dry twigs, as Josiah strolled near. He paused with his face composed in an expression of deep contemplation.

"Be tough to find an empty stage to carry all seven of us, at once," he remarked thoughtfully. "I heard they finished renovating the old mission over at San Elizario, though." Then he flashed them a broad grin. "Think I might lay over a day or two, take in a few cultural attractions."

"No, no," said Speakes, with a dry chuckle. "We'll find you boys a stagecoach, never you mind that."

Then everyone was standing up, un-kinking stiff backs and knees, tenderly pampering assorted aches and pains. JD stood up slowly, but for another reason.

"But, Chris . . . what about Calvin Bell?"

"Bell?" Already walking to his horse, Townsend glanced back over his shoulder. "That tinhorn? Hell, he got killed stone dead as a pickled herring."


JD's shock froze him in place, jaw agape, and Speakes favored him with a kindly smile.

"Sorry, son. Bell turned up dead a couple nights ago. Beat plumb to suet, out behind the wheelwright's shop." Then the ranger cocked his head. "What you want with a coyote like him, anyhow?"