Candles of the Wicked

by G. M. Atwater


Calvin Bell was dead. That was the first thought to form in JD's awareness, when he opened his eyes to the soft, silver-white light of morning. Even after having all night to digest the idea, it still plopped into his gut like a lump of cold oatmeal. The man had died as he had lived, vicious and ugly. Just deserts, Buck had called it, and JD was too tired to argue. Just or not, the startling end to their ordeal did not bring JD the relief he thought it should. Here he was, for the first time in three weeks lying snug and cozy in a real bed with real sheets, while he himself was now so clean-scrubbed he might just squirt out onto the floor, if he moved too fast - and he wished he felt better about it.

He was not sure how he felt, to tell the truth. The news hit him like a punch in the gut, but now he just felt just sort of empty, like . . . well, like something really important had gotten broken before he could use it, and now something important would never get done. Face it, JD, he told himself, and rolled his head on his soft pillow to stare gloomily past his blanketed feet. It's over. Nothin' left but to get on that eleven o'clock stage and head for home.

White curtains hung softly in the tall window beyond the foot of the bed, and through it, the muffled sounds of the street sifted to his drowsy ears. Wagons clattered past, a distant dog barked, an unseen hammer struck out the ragged beat of honest industry. The hotel room was silent, Buck already dressed and gone, although the scent of shaving soap lingered. JD had only the vaguest memory of hearing his friend get up, and this soft bed offered the wonderful temptation to roll over and go back to sleep. How long had it been, since he even dared to let go and just sleep like a log? This was simply a peaceful, ordinary morning like any man had a right to expect. Ordinary . . . how long had it been since he and ordinary had even been on speaking terms? Even now, he struggled to brush aside an odd sense of dislocation, ss if the reality of where he had been was so strong, that where he stood now could not completely register.

When the two Texas rangers had escorted them quietly in by a side street last night, sundown had painted the hills in pastel strokes of gold, and filled the arroyos with blue, waiting pools of the coming night. The first lamps glowed warmly in passing windows, and the adobe walls seemed to radiate ambient amber light. The whole town was so damned peaceful that every one of them had their heads on a swivel, expecting all hell to come crashing out at them. It never happened. Whether is was the constant, watchful presence of the rangers, or an unwillingness to engage in more trouble, Dutch LeBeau now seemed content to wait quietly until the Seven simply went away. Any purpose they may have had evaporated, with the utter invisibility of their erstwhile foe. Now they were little more than tourists, waiting for a ride home. No problem, Mister LeBeau. Just a little bit longer, and this place is all yours.

Morning was half over, judging by the light, and JD did want breakfast before they climbed aboard that stage. It might be the last decent meal until they got back home. He tensed to sit up - and cramping pain in his belly muscles squashed a tight gasp from him. Dang it, just getting out of bed was a chore. Granted, stopping a .44-40 rifle slug with one's belt buckle was a bit hard on a man. Carefully, he rolled onto his side then pushed himself up sideways on the bed, swinging his feet to the floor. Clean new clothes lay over a chair close by and an ironic grin quirked JD's lips. Trust Ezra to look at men languishing on their sickbeds, and instantly lament of the state of their wardrobe.

However, their gambler had been correct, in that there was simply no chance that he or Chris would ever crawl back into the gruesomely filthy clothing they had shed in the bathhouse last night. Then JD looked at the cushioned chair seat and frowned. Both his Colt Lightnings and his gun belt were missing, with a rather worn-looking Peacemaker left in their place. He picked it up and flipped open the loading gate to see the reassuring brass glint of a fresh cartridge. Sighing, he figured that Buck must have done something with his rig, and left one of the pistols they'd commandeered from LeBeau's men. For a moment, he was irritated to think Buck would take his guns without waking him up to say something, but then wondered if maybe Buck had tried, and he just slept through it. Well, whatever he was up to, so long as he came back with .38 bullets for the darned things, JD would be happy. Meanwhile, the day was wasting and they had a stage to catch.

He was dressed and contemplating how to bend down and pull on his boots, without wrenching his tender midriff, when the doorknob rattled. JD laid a hand on the old Peacemaker, as the door opened to admit the man he expected. Buck, who looked smug as a man who had just won a cake raffle - and who held one hand behind his back.

"Hey, there, sleepyhead! Thought you were waitin' for Gabriel to toot his bugle."

"Horn, Buck. Gabriel blows a horn." JD eyed the grinning gunslinger with guarded humor, as Buck shut the door and still kept his hand behind him. "What are you up to, now, anyway?"

"Well, Ranger Townsend knows a saddle maker in town, and -." Buck presented a coiled snake-length of basket-stamped brown leather, which sagged heavily from his hand. "He just happened to have a new buckle to fit your gun belt. Course, we'll keep the old one as a souvenir." The rakish grin of old delighted JD, as his friend added, "You know how the ladies love a good war story, right?"

"Buck, sheesh." JD chuckled as he took his gun belt. "Do something useful and help me with my danged boots. Where's the rest of the fellas?"

"Downstairs havin' coffee with the rangers. Had a town constable and the marshal stop by, too." Buck knelt and scooped up JD's left boot, and his tone dropped to a crabby growl. "Reckon they're gonna baby-sit us until the stage driver hollers giddap. Man can't even get a drink, with them Rangers hangin' around like somebody's mama."

True, last night the Seven had been very cordially but firmly herded out of the hills and into tight supervision here in El Paso. Speakes and Townsend had practically smuggled them into a back street bathhouse, and then to an equally obscure hotel with restaurant. Plus the Rangers promised sternly they would handle the recovery of JD's and Chris' saddles and other things from the Ruby Hotel, abandoned when LeBeau's thugs dragged them from their beds. The implicit understanding was that all seven of them would be good boys, until they stepped aboard the first thing rolling west, today. However, JD rather liked both of the rangers, anyway.

"Aw, they ain't so bad."

"You wouldn't be sayin that, if you saw the pretty little filly I did." Buck let JD's boot sag in his hand, and smiled starry-eyed into empty air. "She moved like a summer breeze through silk curtains, and her eyes, oh, her eyes were just as blue and bright as sapphires." A theatrical sigh drooped the broad shoulders. "And I was denied the pleasure of so much as one of her lovely smiles."

"Buck, for pete's sake, you've never seen a real sapphire in your whole life. How would you know what they look like?"

With an impatient scowl, Buck grabbed JD's ankle with rather more force than needed. "Boy, I know things that you ain't even thought of, yet. Why, there was even a time when -."

Good ol' Buck. Dang, he had missed having this annoying galoot around.

When he finally buckled the familiar weight of his gun belt around his hips, JD felt a deep sort of quiet settling in him. Both Lightnings nestled there, now, comfortable and comforting in their angular presence just under his elbows. When JD drew one of his guns for examination, his fingers smeared on a light slick of fresh oil, and he knew that was also Buck's doing.

"They're loaded," said Buck's quiet voice beside him, and he now held a small box of .38 caliber ammunition. "Figured you could fill the belt loops, yourself."

He dropped the pistol into its holster, and looked up to give his friend a heart-felt smile. Maybe they were being given the bum's rush out of here, but he would be going on his own two feet, standing up like a whole man.

"Thanks, Buck."

"Yeah, just don't start gettin' full of yourself."

"Hey, Buck?"

Buck's expression became more solemn, matching his young friend's change of tone. "Yeah?"

"Sometimes . . . I guess sometimes you just don't really win 'em, huh?"

Buck's eyes softened, as he cocked his head slightly to study JD's face. "You did win, son," he said gently. "You survived. What's more, you stuck with it until you found your man dead and there was no more job left to do. Man can't do better than that."

"Well, it don't feel like enough."

"JD . . ." Buck's mobile features twisted into a cross between annoyance and amusement. "You and Chris are lucky you're not both out in the bone orchard, pushin' up daisies! And seein' as how Bell is dead as dinner, what more do you want?"

"But that's just it! Yeah, he's gone, but he didn't have to pay for nothin' he did! I mean, Deputy Wiley in Eagle Bend is still dead, that lady in Purgatorio is still dead, you're lucky you ain't dead -."

Buck eyebrows rose in weary patience. "Son, you stop to think that maybe he's meetin' his maker right now, and he ain't very happy about it?"

"Buck, that ain't the point!"

"Then, what IS the point?"

"That he didn't have to pay for anything. That he just went off and got himself killed, and he never had to look at a judge and jury, and realize he was not walkin' away from all the things he done. It's like . . ." JD waved his hands in the air, as if trying to grab the right words. "It's like he got away with everything!"

"Kid, he's dead. Likely aggravated one man too many, and so he got beat to death."

"Yeah, and he should be in jail and lookin' at a hangman's noose! It's even his fault that the town deputy here got murdered, if you want to know. His lyin' is what got LeBeau on the warpath, in the first place."

"All right. I understand that. But since Bell's already in the ground and bein' tossed on the Devil's pitchfork, what is there you've lost, other than a little personal satisfaction? What is there that you're doin' without, because of this?"

Sighing, JD looked at the earnestness written all over Buck's mustached face, mirrored warmly in his eyes, and he knew that his friend was trying his darnedest to make him feel better. Whether or not it worked, JD appreciated the attempt.

A crooked grin pulled his cheeks as he said, "How about a thousand dollars and a beautiful girl?"

"Shoot, kid, you wouldn't know what to do with 'em, if ya did!" With a grin, Buck flapped both hands in a shooing motion towards the door. "Well, c'mon, now get a wiggle on. I want some breakfast before I lose all my natural stamina."

"Stamina for what? You were just complaining the Rangers won't let you have any fun." JD grinned wickedly as he opened the door. "Oh, wait, I forget that you're gettin' old!"

"Old enough to whip your ass, boy!" Buck's hand in his back shoved him roughly out into the hall. "Now, git!"

Although he would never tell Buck, JD secretly welcomed their old pattern of bedeviling each other, but as they clumped downstairs, he wished he could turn his private thoughts onto another track. Buck was trying to cheer him, and he did help, a little. However, that did not change the fact that Calvin Bell simply deserved a hell of a lot more than he got. Heck, thanks to Bell's lies, had things gone as planned JD and Chris both would have ended up just as dead as the rest, vanished, with no one the wiser. The dry hills would have swallowed up yet another set of bones, and that would be that, a mystery for some stray cowboy or miner to find years later, when there was nothing left but bare, grinning jaws and the mute, curled tongues of dried up boot soles. A job that dearly needed done would remain forever undone, and no amount of coaxing or badgering could remove the empty sense of failure that sat in JD's belly like a ball of cold porridge.

As it was, Buck was right about their badge-toting babysitters. The rest of the boys sat comfortably around two tables in the small hotel dining room, wrapped in a fragrant cloud of bacon frying, coffee, and something baking. However, what spoiled the bucolic scene were the watchful presences of Sergeant Speakes and Corporal Townsend, plus a rather rotund city policeman. At least nobody had been fool enough to try to disarm the seven. Light from the side-street window gleamed on the town officer's mostly-bald pate, as he industriously sopped gravy off his plate with a half-eaten biscuit. He looked up as JD and Buck stepped from the stairwell, and paused his sopping long enough to offer an apple-cheeked smile.

"Well, there's your young 'un! C'mon in, boy. Miz Bess has more biscuits just out of the oven, and you sure look like you could use some."

Boy? Young 'un? JD scowled and casually brushed his coattails back from one holster as he reached for a chair. The gesture was lost, however, as the officer returned his attention to the soggy biscuit he crammed past his black moustache. The chair abruptly jerked back from under JD's hand, and he looked down to meet Chris' stern look, saw a long leg drop from shoving the chair out.

"This is Josh Garcia," was all Chris said, however. "He's the town marshal. He's got somebody fetching our saddles and things from the Ruby Hotel, now."

"Good," said JD, as he sat, and did not care if his tone sounded petulant. "I don't know whose horse I rode back here, but their saddle was made for somebody with a square butt."

Snorting snickers rippled around the table, and Townsend's teeth flashed white in a quick grin, as he leaned forward across his plate. "Here, son. Chew on that."

JD reached out reflexively to catch the still-warm biscuit the ranger offered. All right, so he was being a brat. He gave Townsend a rueful half-smile of thanks.

"Them horses been returned to their rightful owners," Marshal Garcia said. His cheeks bulged with both a grin and a squirreled-away bite of fried potatoes. "Of course, some of them boys looked a might uncomfortable, when I asked how them horses come to be away out there, where you boys 'borrowed' 'em. Lot of intelligent men suddenly took to mumblin' and lookin' at their shoes."

JD was glad for Buck's response, as he sat. "What makes you think any of 'em was intelligent?"

Marshal Garcia accepted that with ready amusement, and was even good-natured enough to pour JD's coffee for him. Seconds later, Garcia hollered cheerfully to the waiter to bring breakfast for two more hungry boys. Any other time, being served by a town marshal might have been funny, but JD decided that his mood this morning was too sour to appreciate it. He could almost agree with Buck's grumpy assessment of the two Texas Rangers, as he watched Townsend and Speakes lounge or saunter around the small dining room. It was obvious they had satisfied their cravings for breakfast and coffee, and now lingered in this cramped room for only one purpose; overseeing the Seven until they got on that westbound stage. Wasn't that rich? Better than being run out of town, they were being run out of the entire state. LeBeau must be having a horselaugh over that.

Not that it mattered. It was over. That's all. El Paso was a bust, and it was time to go home. He looked forward to having his own good horse back, and hoped the stable in Mesilla took as good care of him as Buck had said. And, well, it would be kind of nice to see Casey, again. Wonder if she was put out with him, for writing such a stupid letter?

He and Buck were about half way through their eggs and fried potatoes, when the door of the restaurant crashed open. Townsend, Speakes, and five of the seven had their guns aimed dead-on the struggling fellow in the doorway, when the man looked up with a scowl of pure exasperation.

"Would somebody give us a hand here? You can just damned well shoot me later."

A heavy flop of leather and wood punctuated his words, as he dropped Chris' saddle, bedroll, coat, and saddlebags in a heap on the threshold. Behind him, another town officer precariously balanced JD's saddle on his hip. He peered inside at the array of personal artillery with wide eyes.

"Dang, fellers," he drawled. "You're welcome, too."

"They had it all in the cellar," the grouchy officer said, as Chris and JD quickly went over their gear, now stacked against one wall of the dining room. "Damned desk clerk didn't want to get dirty, I reckon, so we had to go down there in the scorpions and vinagaroons to fetch it ourselves."

At the mention of poisonous bugs, JD gingerly held his rumpled old coat out at arm's length, and gave it a cautious shake. Maybe he would just wait until they got home, before he got too familiar with it. A good laundering couldn't hurt, either.

The second officer tipped his hat forward to scratch the back of his head, as he regarded his boss. "Say, Marshal, what time you got?"

Marshal Garcia obligingly fished a fat silver watch out of his vest pocket. "Comin' up on ten o' clock. Why?"

"Well . . ." The officer's slow Texas twang seemed to deepen. "Let's keep our eyeballs peeled for the next hour, 'til the stage gets here. LeBeau is down there at the Palace, allowin' as how he'd rather burn the town down, than see Larabee's gang get nothin' from it."

The only overt movement was Vin shifting in his chair, the sharp clink of JD's fork on his plate. Yet a silent wash of tension flooded the room like an invisible tide, and the policeman found himself on the receiving end of seven very dark, steady stares.

Chris cocked his head to look the officer in the eyes, and his tone was mild as milk; "That so?"

However, something panther-cold glinted in that look, which belied Chris' easy tone. The cords of the policeman's throat sketched the up-and-down movement of a hard swallow, and he gave an embarrassed, wordless shrug.

"You see many of his boys out and about?" Garcia's plump face arranged itself in stern lines, as dark eyes stared across his coffee cup. "It look like he's musterin' more trouble?"

"Well, no." The officer's laconic drawl may have been discussing nothing weightier than the price of pork rinds. "Just him and his bodyguards in that back poker room of the Palace. Mostly he's just havin' his blow, I reckon, so's to look like he's on top of things amongst the rest of the local desperados. But no offense to you boys -." The officer cast the rest of his silent audience an apologetic grimace. "I'll breathe easier when y'all are gone. Well, chief, reckon we'll go stroll around town a spell, keep the natives from gettin' restless."

With that, the two policemen were gone in another window-rattling whack of the door.

"Are you lettin' him get away with that?" JD exploded.

"Who?" asked Garcia.

"Dutch LeBeau, who do ya think?"

"Man runnin' his mouth ain't a crime, son," Garcia replied evenly. "If it was, I'd have to lock up half the folks I meet."

Heat burned up from JD's collar, as there was more than one way to read that statement. "Yeah, well, it's no wonder LeBeau has this whole town treed."

The cheer left the marshal's ruddy cheeks, and he stared back with eyes hard as obsidian. "Walk a mile in my shoes, boy. I can only uphold the law when I got the tools to do it with, and people with the spine to back me."

"Speakin' of tools . . ." Chris' even voice cut through any further outbursts from JD. "The rangers here told us you boys are workin' on a telegrapher to help build a case against LeBeau."

"We are." Garcia nodded, once. "Man's offered a lot of good information."

"Got anything firm to pin on LeBeau?"

"Not yet. But we will."

"Figure to make an arrest soon?"

"Soon as we can. Takes a while to get all the pieces fit together, with an operation like his."

"Well, unless your ordinances are lackin' a few details -." Chris' glance lazily shifted to JD, who held his look with expectant curiosity. "I reckon me and the kid can help you."

"Oh?" Garcia waited, as Chris frowned thoughtfully at his youngest comrade.

"JD, you get a good look at the man standin' in the door of that stable, the night they took us?"

Recollection swung into place with stunning force, of a big man in a swallow-tailed black coat, broad shoulders, and a tall top hat. A gravelly voice whispered in memory; "Make sure even the devil can't find the bodies . . ."

"I sure did."

"Would you know him if you saw him again?"

"From a sound sleep."

"Well, then . . ." Chris favored the marshal with a questioning and almost smug look. "Marshal, would kidnapping do for starters?"

Garcia rubbed his thumb over his moustache and cocked an eyebrow. "Suppose you've got a plan in mind?"

"Why, sure," said Chris, and his grin looked about as pleasant as a pile of broken glass.

"Same plan as always," said Ezra flippantly.

Garcia's mouth crooked sideways. "And what's that?"

Josiah answered with a laconic shrug. "Thump heads, break things, bad guys lose."

"Well, hell." A broad grin abruptly gleamed between the black brackets of Ranger Dan Townsend's goatee. "Might as well let the head-thumpin' commence."

+ + + + + + +

There stood ten of them all together, seven plus the rangers, plus town marshal Garcia. No time to gather more men, but in the present humor, it mattered not. Those seven would have carried the entire business on the dark tide of their own grim determination, but they allowed recognition of those badges to temper them somewhat. At least so far, anyhow, as to give Marshal Garcia the first authoritative step through the batwing doors of the Palace Saloon. Moving with hushed efficiency, Garcia, Speakes, and Townsend sorted off the half-dozen souls gathered at the bar, grabbing shoulders and hustling these harmless bystanders quietly out of harm's way. The bartender froze and stared with wide, startled eyes, but if his allegiances were uncertain, they reverted instantly to self-preservation, upon meeting the iron stare of Josiah Sanchez. He made a little squeak of protest, but no other sound, as a big hand seized his collar and bodily rushed him outside.

This was mere house cleaning, however, as Garcia saw his seven new allies flowing around and past him as if with one mind, silent as wolves with the game afoot. He stood for an instant feeling like no more than abandoned furniture. Then he found himself hastening upon the hunters' heels, their goal the private gaming room where Dutch LeBeau held court. At little more than a glance and a jut of the chin from Chris, they separated. Some slid down a brief hall towards rear entry, some to the gaming room door, and the buckskinned one poured himself out a window and gone. It seemed almost an afterthought, when Chris glanced over his shoulder and gave Garcia a little tilt of the head; Well, you comin'? The rangers behind him merely grinned and were patient.

Doorknobs were too easy a thing, evidently, for Josiah reared back with a leg cocked, and splintered the door inward with a thunderous bang.

"Nobody moves!" boomed Buck, as JD slid in beside him, both guns sweeping the room.

"Or move," quipped Ezra. "I'm flexible."

Eight startled faces gaped at them from around a smoky table, or standing along the wall. Yet nobody moved, other than one fellow who carefully brought open hands up, chest-high and palms out. If anyone did not grasp the situation fully, that was cured by those appearing in windows and doorways, and at Marshal Garcia's elbows. Suddenly the astounded minions of Dutch LeBeau found themselves staring into what seemed like whole batteries of Colt's revolvers - but LeBeau himself was not to be seen.

"Boys," the marshal announced. "I'd admire to see everybody's Sunday manners, just now."

From the back of those statuesque poses of frozen shock, only one man broke away. He crashed right through a faro table and plunged desperately for a back door. He slammed comrades aside, bowled over a spittoon - and slammed chest-first into the rigid right arm of a very tall and coal-eyed black man. Nathan simply closed his fist on the front of the would-be escapee's vest, and propelled him backwards as if mounted on wheels.

"Where's your boss?" growled the marshal, and the pudgy little lawman now reflected the solid, unyielding stance of a vexed bulldog.

"Upstairs, I think." One man pointed towards polished banisters that angled up into dimmer shadows beyond the ceiling.

Chris was moving before anyone else could react, breaking for the stairs and up - and after him flashed a lighter form, JD swift as a fox on his leader's heels, and blued steel glinted briefly in one hand. Buck almost ran over Ranger Townsend, in his frustrated haste to catch up with those quick-drumming footsteps now receding above them. Varnished wood slid fast under his hand as he pounded up the dim stairs, and caught himself on the banister at the top, where diffused daylight spilled from windows at both ends of a narrow hallway. His head popped up, and Chris' shout speared from some unseen source.

"JD, look out!"

WHAM, a gunshot slammed hard in that tight space. Buck ducked with ringing ears as another shot exploded, then a third clapped over a fourth, and thudding sounds underwrote the chaos. Up Buck popped once more, eyes sharp over the sights of his pistol, but the multi-doored hallway was empty. Another hallway made a T halfway along, and Buck burst towards it, as footsteps hammered there, just out of sight. A misshapen shadow briefly danced on the wall as he rounded the corner, and the thunder of more feet on more steps rattled the building. Two more shots whacked from somewhere outside and below, a third booming answer from inside the building - Damn!

"JD, dammit, WAIT!" Chris again, but a door slamming either open or shut was the only response.

The sharp reek of gun smoke burned his nose, as Buck jerked to a halt atop a narrow set of back-street stairs. He tossed a quick glance down over the banister to assure no further unpleasant surprises, and saw Chris, his back pressed to one wall and eyes riveted out the half-open, slightly-swaying back door, with gun in hand. There was also a stranger's body, lying crumpled at his feet on the landing - surely one of LeBeau's guards. Yet Chris moved before Buck could more than draw breath, wheeling to bolt outside and gone. LeBeau had fled, then, and JD was already barreling after him like a runaway train, the damned little fool. For God's sake, wasn't there supposed to be someone watching out back? Down the stairs Buck pelted, and nearly smashed the door off its hinges, bursting past a town cop crouched behind a rain barrel and into the saloon's back lot.

"That way!" the officer yelled, and saved Buck the trouble of shaking the teeth out of his head for answers.

Maybe the man followed, maybe half of El Paso followed, but Buck did not give a damn. Another form now raced in hard-hooking strides ahead of him, and he recognized Vin. Ahead of the tracker ran Chris, staggering and catching himself as he ducked off into another alley. Around the corner and suddenly there was Chris again, lagging badly with the drag of his wounded leg. Two shots cracked one atop another, hard echoes clapping beyond buildings ahead, and Buck's already hammering heart nearly leapt up his throat. Damn that fool kid -!

Chris' head snapped around for a quick glance over his shoulder. Seeing Vin catching up and Buck trailing, he made a sharp gesture ahead of him - go on! Buck sprinted past Chris as Vin lengthened his lead. JD remained nowhere in sight. He must be right on LeBeau's tail, and Buck knew the only way LeBeau could shake him would be if he flew off over the rooftops - or put a bullet in the foolhardy kid's head. Buildings, sheds, and back porches jolted past in a ragged blur. Vin's dodging figure was now the only marker Buck had, and his breath burned tightly in his chest. How the hell far could a big ol' boy like LeBeau run, anyhow?

The answer came seconds later, as a familiar shout slapped from just ahead; "Stop right there!"

A beat, then JD yelled in a higher pitch, "You touch that door, and I'll blow you right through it!"

Buck careened around one last corner and skidded to a staggering halt. Vin stood motionless with his mare's leg trained on an elevated target. Twenty yards beyond him, stood JD in a short, dead-end alleyway, both pistols also aimed upwards and bright sun spilling over his shoulders and bowler hat. Cornered at the top of a flight of outside stairs was Dutch LeBeau, his heavy frame braced on wide-straddled legs and his back to a closed door. This was the first Buck had seen of LeBeau out of his nightclothes. In daylight he presented himself as a well-dressed businessman, clad in an impeccable black frock coat and vest. But his top hat was gone, his thinning black hair frizzed wildly, and his eyes literally bulged in a gasping face contorted with desperate emotion. For an instant, it struck Buck that a lunatic had been dropped into a respectable man's clothes.

"JD!" he hissed.

"Buck, I got him. He threw down his gun."

Indeed, sun glinted on a pistol lying in the dirt below the stairs. LeBeau was disarmed, perhaps, but not out of tricks, and JD's own guns wisely remained fixed on the heaving figure above.

"No - no more!" LeBeau gasped roughly, hands held splayed open before him, wavering with the heavy gusts of his breathing. "No more!"

"Get down here." The kid's voice was rough with exertion, or perhaps anger.

Vin, on the other hand, sounded positively relaxed. "Don't reckon you want us to tell you twice, mister."

Thankfully, the big man began coming slowly down, taking ponderous steps and gripping the railing as if grown suddenly frail. JD's twin Colt's followed his every thumping stride. The building appeared to be the back of a hotel or boarding house, nobody else in sight. Buck just hoped that no damn fool inside the structure would suddenly open that upstairs door, and trigger the wrong set of frayed nerves.

Boots scraped dry earth, and Chris appeared at Buck's side. A shave and bath seemed only to lay bare, rather than soften, the harsh lines of fatigue and long-simmering anger worn into his face, like earth eroded away from stones. LeBeau saw Chris as his feet hit the bottom of the landing, and he raised empty hands again, still wheezing for breath.

"Don't shoot. I'm through."

"We-ell," said Chris, and the cold pleasure in that single word could have frozen mercury.

"I'm through," LeBeau repeated.

Chris did not reply, but the thin, grim quirk of his lips clearly said just how through LeBeau really was. He moved past Buck and Vin, his painfully-hitching gait carrying him unevenly into the alley towards JD. As he reached the kid, Chris lightly, briefly touched his shoulder and JD eased back a pace, eyes never leaving Dutch LeBeau. The kid's features seemed drawn far too tight over his fine bones, showing angles to cheek and jaw that Buck did not remember. An odd pang thumped in the tall gunslinger's chest and he looked away. Teeth clenched, he swept a cautious glance along the sun-drenched back street, then back again.

Now the two faced their enemy together, standing perhaps halfway between their friends and the gang chieftain. An instant's pause, then Chris began taking slow, limping strides towards the panting man, not directly towards him but on a shallow diagonal.

"Where's -." LeBeau's gravelly voice almost choked on his breathless gasping. "Where's Garcia? Where's the rangers?"

Nobody answered. Chris' silent circuit never faltered, each grim, lurching step a denunciation, and a fey hunger simmered in those unblinking eyes. Buck had seen a wolf circle a crippled buffalo bull just like this, once, and had felt this same cold dribble down his spine.

"I'm not armed." Cautiously LeBeau reached down, spread his coat open at the waist. "See?"

Indeed, no gun belt circled his hips. No suspicious lump marred the smooth, satiny fall of his vest.

Still nobody replied. A soft grate of boot soles was JD, as the kid stepped into a slow mirror of Chris' pace, cutting gradually towards LeBeau's other side. His twin Colt's glinted blue-black in either hand, now held dangling at his sides, but Buck's chest abruptly clogged with more than simple lack of air. Suddenly he had the bizarre sense of standing outside himself, and seeing his young friend as a total stranger. A stranger with midnight in his youthful eyes and guns in his hands, and he would - Buck realized with numbing certainty - do exactly and whatever Chris Larabee wanted him to do. Oh, my God, JD -. Yet too much had happened that was beyond his knowing. Too much that neither JD or Chris had told him, that they might never tell him, that was only between them and whatever happened during those long, desperate days on the mountain.

Now, two sets of boots crunched softly, slowly in a deadly course around Dutch LeBeau. Two sets of unblinking eyes watched him, just as that wolf had watched. Buck found himself pressing his free hand to the strained, stretched pang deep in his own belly.

"You can't do this!" LeBeau bawled. "There's too many witnesses! You'd never get out of town!"

Crunch ... crunch ... crunch. Somewhere beyond the rooftops and adobe walls, a child's thin, bright yell of exuberance rang out, yonder in that parallel world where ordinary life still went on.

"I surrender!" cried LeBeau hoarsely, and the pregnant silence mocked him. "You hear? You HEAR ME? I SURRENDER!"

He raised his voice to a harsh shout, aimed at him, Buck realized, and at Vin who also waited. Yet neither of them moved. Buck was vaguely surprised to note this in himself, but events were spiraling well past his meager ability to affect them, anyway, and so he stood as Vin did, and observed. Watched, as the wolf and the keen-eyed pup following him broke this old bull down.

"You never gave us that option," Chris' sudden response seemed one of mild affront. He stopped, and JD halted, opposite. "Wonder why that is?"

"Not really fair," JD said.

"Where's Marshal Garcia?" Desperation now tightened LeBeau's repeat of his first query. "Where's the rangers?"

"Don't know, Mister LeBeau." White teeth shone, but that was no true smile on Chris' face.

"Way you skedaddled, think we lost 'em, Mister LeBeau." Glib was JD's response, but a cold sharpness lay just beneath it.

"I want to see the marshal. And I want my lawyer. I have a right to my lawyer."

"Funny," said Chris. "That wasn't one of your concerns, when you came after us."

The broad chest heaved for another breath, the big man's color deepening steadily. The thought shoved hard at Buck, that these two were not content with merely seeing fear crawl naked and angry across that man's face. From Chris he could expect that, but not so the same seething darkness he now saw mirrored in the eyes of his youngest friend. Yet in a grim corner of his heart, it was not pity that troubled Buck, so much as the wish that LeBeau would simply give them a little more clear-cut excuse for blowing his lights out.

LeBeau shook his head, heavy features twisting with stifled emotion. "I know why you're here, Chris. But this is my town, damn you! MY town!"

"Your town?" Chris echoed, and his tone was soft and frigid as a razor being stropped. Then the storm broke.

"WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?" His Colt snapped up to point across those scant yards towards LeBeau's face, and the battering force of his rage slammed from wall to window to ledge. "Your town, you mewling, gutless, yellow son of a bitch? You think you own this town? You think people are yours to buy and sell and throw away on a whim? You're NOTHING, LeBeau! You're a spineless coward who isn't good enough to sit in the same jail as the town drunk!"

LeBeau visibly trembled, now, his coat tails shivering with it, his voice grating deep with his fury. "Damn you."

"Already done," Chris replied. Abruptly his expression hardened. "Now toss out that hideaway gun in your shoulder holster."

"I don't have -."

"He said drop it!" A brittle snap to that command, backed again by JD's own guns, and the hatred in the big man's hot glare met his own head-on. "Ain't nobody comin' over there to take it, while you're still breathin'."

The wolves had closed in, and proof of the old bull's weakness shone in his next words.

"Wait. Listen -." He paused, hands still held open, graveled voice lowering to a conspiratorial growl. "Whatever you boys are paid, I can better it. Just walk away, and believe me, I'll make it well worth your time."

"Worth our time?" JD's voice cracked sharp-edged with angry disbelief. "How about us nearly dead because of you? Can you buy that back?"

Jaw tightening, LeBeau merely looked at JD, and then averted his gaze off over the kid's head, deliberately dismissing him as he sought Chris' answer. JD's eyes narrowed warningly, his chin coming up, but Chris spared him the trouble of answering.

"Guess you can take that as a no, Mister LeBeau. Now, toss it."

Buck began to breathe, again. Chris was thinking, now, coming out of the darkness. JD still followed his lead. A brief thud signaled the fall of a small pistol to earth. Good, LeBeau was throwing in the sponge. All right. All right. Damn, that sprint had tuckered him. Anxious wariness bid Buck to turn once again, eyes and gun muzzle scanning nearby windows and crannies for any movement or sign of a hidden enemy. Yet he saw only the silent presence of Ezra and Josiah, who watched on a nearby back porch, and Nathan, who eased from an alley, gun in hand, and gravely nodded recognition.

"All right, step away," Chris ordered. "Towards us. Move!"