Candles of the Wicked

by G. M. Atwater


Watching, Buck was vaguely aware that he now pressed his hand harder against the deep, electric warning twinges that he had been refusing to acknowledge. Old hurts being answered in more ways than one.

The tension unraveled now, more stands of it falling away as JD chuckled dryly and said, "You know, none of this woulda happened, if you'd just let us have Calvin Bell. You shoulda punched him in the nose the minute he hit town, and we'd have taken him and gone our merry way."

Let this be the end of it, Buck thought grimly. If the man whose crimes had brought them here was too dead for hanging, at least Chris and JD could take consolation in knowing they brought an even greater villain to his knees. Hopefully that would damned well be enough.

At a curt gesture from Chris' pistol, Dutch LeBeau found himself stumbling like a drunken man, indeed feeling so light-headed as to be almost drunk. Rummy with the colossal shock of what happened. Even beyond the immediate humiliation, this was the end. He saw it now. This was the loss of his power, his place in El Paso. Here is where it all came undone. Where all his years of work and struggle and clawing his way to what he had now . . . simply fell apart in his hands. And all because of Chris Larabee. Him, and these lackeys who followed him, the same sons of bitches who broke into LeBeau's own house, beat him in his own bed. All because that arrogant bastard came down here - after Bell? What was that damned kid babbling about, anyhow? A man like Larabee did not come all this way after a two-bit little sharp like Calvin Bell.

No, Larabee and his gang had come to destroy Dutch LeBeau, and here in the blinding brightness of a desert morning, everything he had was spilling through his fingers like dry Texas dust. For a moment, he had thought Larabee really would murder him or that his pup would break his leash and do it, instead. To survive until the real law could arrive seemed a priority, but now the trap snapped shut. Even living, LeBeau might as well be dead, for Larabee would see him sealed away in walls of stone and steel for the rest of his life, no matter how Larabee had to lie and connive to get the job done. What was more, that fat, sorry excuse for the badge of a town marshal would most likely help. They were all birds of a feather, carrion crows every one of them, and they had no faintest inkling how the lions of the world worked.

Now, they walked him, herded him, out of the alley and along the back street towards the Palace Saloon once more. Curious faces appeared in doorways and windows to see how low the mighty had fallen. Citizens gawked and grinned at a man they had hitherto passed with averted eyes. Yet LeBeau still had an ace up his sleeve, two of them, to be exact. Two nondescript men who were well-paid for being just that, workaday-looking fellows whom nobody ever glanced at twice, who lived quietly and unobtrusively - and who entirely lacked any shred of conscience, caring neither whom they killed, nor whether it was from in front or behind.

LeBeau saw them among the people who came to watch, those whose faces turned as he passed and sniggered as they would have never dared, mere moments ago. His eyes met those of the two ordinary men, and he saw the flat, unquestioning readiness that his coin so thoroughly bought. LeBeau slowly dipped his chin, just once, a deep nod that anyone else would have taken as a sagging expression of his defeat. One of them responded by the barest tilt of his head, as if shifting from the sun in his eyes.

Every nerve thrilled like a plucked banjo string, as LeBeau's heart rode high in his throat. As he walked among his captors, he fiercely, intently concentrated on not doing anything to tip his hand too soon. A roaring filled his ears as he passed by his two henchmen. They remained as inconspicuous in their demeanor as the barber who gaped like a fool beside them, or the shopkeeper who stared just beyond. Nor did his keepers give them a second glance, seeing no weapons, no threat. They were simply townspeople drawn to the spectacle of Dutch LeBeau in captivity. Perfect, just perfect.

He saw them move from the corner of his eye, stepping casually off the barber's back porch with heads ducked, for all the world like two men simply going back to work. LeBeau lengthened his stride, putting himself as forward of the coming crossfire as he could, not looking back. One deep breath, then he slid a hand under his frock coat, reaching around to the small of his back until his fingers touched what he sought. He closed his grip and slid steel and polished walnut from the heavy fold of fabric -.

One thing Buck Wilmington had long since learned, and that was to be nervy about strangers walking behind him. Even as his attention swept over passing doorways, faces, and the tumbled refuse of El Paso's back lots, his peripheral awareness noted the two men leaving the back of the barbershop. Just two ordinary fellows with not so much as a butter knife visible between them, who now headed into and across the street behind the Seven. They appeared completely harmless - and that was what drew Buck's attention over his shoulder a second time, what began to turn Vin's head, beside him. Seven armed men had the mighty Dutch LeBeau prisoner, marching him to jail right in front of God and country . . . yet these two barely seemed to notice.

Awareness slammed home like ice in the face, even as the two strangers spun. Guns sprouted in their hands, and Buck started to turn - too late! Yet he spun and Vin wheeled beside him in a whip of coat tails - as thunder and gunfire exploded in their faces. Buck's hat snapped off his head and Vin's mare's leg bucked in his hands. Guns boomed beside them, behind them, Buck fired, they all fired. Bullets battered like hail, until two bodies staggered, buckled, and collapsed to the hard caliche street. Vin snapped a shot high, and a startling third body dropped from the very sky, with a rifle tumbling after, and it took three more bullets before landing with a sodden thud that spurted brief white dust. Then the street shuddered in brutal stillness, and once-crowded doorways gaped empty. Yet seven men remained, caught tightly in postures of arrested violence.

Nathan moved first. The healer's eyes glittered storm-dark, as he followed his own gun muzzle to stand over the motionless body from the rooftop. One instant these strangers were the Devil himself, and now they were just piles of so much dirty laundry. An enemy they had never met, whose names they would probably never know. Some part of Buck's mind quietly shut a door on that reality, filed it away. Survival was all that counted.

His ears rang fearsomely, and then Buck realized it was someone howling - howling, and he wheeled with horror clutching his guts. Yet all still stood. All who mattered. Vin stood beside him, and Josiah and Nathan and Ezra. The howling, he realized, belonged to the ungainly heap that was Dutch LeBeau, now sprawled facedown in the dirt in his fancy frock coat. Rather more remarkable was that JD had a knee planted in the big man's back and a fist knotted in his coat, as if sitting atop a beached whale. Meanwhile Chris languidly dangled the muzzle of his Peacemaker just above LeBeau's sweating pate.

"Ahh, you sons of bitches!" LeBeau roared. "You sons a bitches! You whore sons, you -!"

"Shut up," Chris snarled. "You've got lots of unshot places left."

Pain and fury swelled the veins in his neck, as LeBeau's cries choked to gut-ripping growls and groans. Then heads turned, as spurs rang gently near. The dry voice of Ranger Townsend spoke in a tone of slow, boundless amazement.

"Well, I swan."

With a hand on his pistol, he stopped dead center of the battleground. As if unmindful of seven smoldering stares that silently dared him to gainsay them, Townsend swung a long leg sideways, and paced closer to the three dead men. There he cocked his head and stroked his goatee in thoughtful study.

"Damn," he drawled. "You boys are a mite sudden. Looks like they done been kilt dead all to pieces."

"Overcome by remorse, I believe," Josiah intoned from behind. "They suddenly realized they were too stupid to live."

One man lay with eyes already gone fixed and dull, dark blood oozing in a growing pool beneath his head. The second lay spilled haphazardly on his side. The third looked precisely like he had dropped from two stories up, head tucked under one out-flung arm, crumpled as no living man could bear. From beneath all three bodies, several dark rivulets crept out into daylight in slow, ghastly trickles, as stone dead as over two dozen bullets could make them.

"You're supposed to be dead, damn you!" LeBeau raged, and frothing malice tumbled in the gravel of his voice. "I paid good money to see you dead, but I hired IDIOTS to do the job!"

"Well, then," said Vin. "Smart man like you knows when he's under arrest."

"That he is," said Townsend with a wry smile. Then he looked over at Chris. His dark eyes narrowed slightly, as Chris seemed to weave slightly on his feet. "Anybody hurt that we should care about?"

"Don't think so." Chris cast a glance around, and the lines of fatigue again appeared etched deep in his face. "Not any new holes, anyhow."

"Looks like we're all right," Vin answered.

"I might beg to differ." Ezra's aggrieved drawl caught their attention, as he mournfully held out one side of his elegant coat. Daylight shone through ragged twin bullet holes in its skirts. "I have suffered a rather expensive injury to my wardrobe."

"Hell, Ez," Vin responded. "Ain't nothin' a little patchin' won't mend."

Ezra's eyes widened in horror. "I beg your pardon! One does not, sir, simply patch material of this quality, as if it were a pair of overalls."

"All right." Townsend nodded, and cast a glance up the street, where faces were cautiously beginning to reappear. "Marshal and his boys are on their way, I reckon, soon as they get them other fellas tucked into jail."

"Hey, Ranger!" An aggrieved shout burst from the ground. "You gonna just let me lay here and bleed?"

Looking down again, the ranger's white smile widened as he quirked one eyebrow. "Nah, reckon you can stand up to do it. Say, son, you think I can have him, now?"

JD shoved down hard on his fistful of frock coat, although the effect was rather like shoving an oversized mattress. Thus, he pushed himself off LeBeau's body to stand.

"All yours, Corporal Townsend."

"Damn you!" LeBeau roared, as the ungentle hands of Townsend, Vin, and Josiah hauled him bodily back to the vertical. "AAGHH! My lawyer's gonna hear about this!"

Chris shook his head, and exchanged a look of weary forbearance with Vin, but said nothing. Yet in one quick step, JD faced the big man squarely, his chin jutting in the fiercely stubborn mien of a terrier facing a bear.

"You still don't get it, do you, Mister LeBeau? Me and Chris Larabee just punched your one-way ticket to Yuma." JD let a crooked grin crinkle his cheeks, and he chuffed a dry sound of derisive amusement. "Dang, you sure oughtta be smarter about the kind of enemies you make."

LeBeau's response was sulfurous and obscene, and utterly ignored. Any other time, such comments could easily have been dismissed as no more than youthful bravado, along with the broad disdain now marking the slow wag of the kid's bowler hat. Yet as JD turned away, Townsend met Chris' veiled humor with a slow grin of his own, which a man could only read as one of clear approval.

Dutch LeBeau had indeed made the wrong enemies. More than townsfolk who merely resented or hated him, he had aroused the ire of men who, pure and simple, did not and would not quit, so long as life and chance remained. The steel that was Chris Larabee lay visible for the eyes of any man smart enough to see, but even though just a young 'un, JD Dunne had proven his own stern mettle. LeBeau had made foes whose caliber he had utterly failed to grasp, and worse yet, those enemies chose to let him live to face unyielding justice.

At that moment, Ranger Speakes' tall form and City Marshal Garcia's rotund one appeared, walking briskly. Seconds later, several town deputies scuttled to catch up, and brisk officiousness took over the scene. Now the seven could begin to relax, unbend, put weapons away. Time to let the local law have this mess.

"Where's Larabee?" Marshal Garcia abruptly appeared at Buck's elbow, all a-bustle and moving as his eyes answered his own question. "Stage is in, and the driver's holdin' it for you boys."

+ + + + + + +

And that was it for El Paso. Vin and Ezra lent their shoulders to Chris' flagging strength, while Buck stayed near should JD's pride finally lose the fight to simple exhaustion - even though his own strength felt boiled nearly dry. Curious faces stared as they walked, but none spoke, and none barred their way. Although flanked and escorted by the majesty of Texas law, the street buzzed with one thought; nobody would cross the seven men who had just toppled the rule of Dutch LeBeau.

"We'll want you to come back and testify," said Marshal Garcia. "Your depositions will get the indictment, but when LeBeau comes to trial -."

"We'll be there," Chris said.

Now six half-bronc mules danced restlessly in their harnesses, jingling trace chains and testing the patience of the hostlers, as the others loaded their gear aboard the waiting stage. From the sidewalk JD watched, absently clasping his left arm, tender with the hidden bump of clean bandages. The two rangers were also still with them, Townsend just now heaving Chris' saddle up to Nathan. Speakes stood at Chris' side, and his relaxed, casual pose almost made JD smile. The rangers liked Chris, that's all, liked and respected him, which pleased JD to no end. A man could do a lot worse than to ride with someone like that.

"Well, JD." Josiah's voice nudged him from his thoughts. "About ready to spend the next day and a half crammed with all of us, in a rollin', bouncin' cracker box?"

"Oh, you bet," JD replied, beaming an instant grin. "Never been more ready in my life."

JD laughed softly, as Josiah's big hand gripped his neck in a playful squeeze. They were going home. All of them, together. God had heard him. The Almighty simply was not in the habit of revealing His plans as He worked, is all. Since Josiah remained beside him, and none of the others stood close by just then, JD decided to voice some of the thoughts crowding his head.

"Preacher . . . I thought - up there, I thought God had given up on me."

"Happens to all of us, son."

"But He didn't, did he? I mean, He sent you fellas . . . ."

That sounded hopelessly foolish, making out like they were some sort of Divine messengers. Fat chance of that and JD gave a self-conscious grin and shut up. However, Josiah paused for a long moment, just standing there with deep-set eyes shadowed in thought.

"The Lord is my light and my salvation," he finally quoted. "Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?" And JD felt those mellow tones surround him like a warm embrace. "When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat my flesh, they stumbled and fell. Though a host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war should rise against me, in this I will be confident."

Then he looked at JD and smiled the strangest, saddest little smile. "Remember that, JD. It's too hard to call it back, once you forget."

Sometimes it felt just blamed hard to understand exactly what Josiah meant. But this time . . . Well, JD got the feeling that maybe he understood better than he realized.

Moments later, they were boarding, the coach lurching and swaying to their weight and the restless tugs of the team. Vin took his seat on top, narrow-eyed as a hawk with his mare's leg cradled across his lap. The others climbed inside. JD settled next to Buck, not minding when his friend steadied his movements against the aching protest of his abused stomach muscles. It would just be awfully nice to finally quit moving and let someone or something else do all the work.

"Chris." Townsend's face appeared at the window of the stage, and Chris reached out to grip the offered hand. "You get ready to head back this-a-way, be sure to give me a shout."

"'Fraid I'll get in trouble again?" Chris grinned.

"Nope." Brilliant teeth again flashed above Townsend's trim black beard. "I just wanna give you boys the chance to buy me a beer."

"You got it."

"JD." Now Townsend tilted his face towards JD's window, and he extended his hand once again. His smile softened, for there was in him a keen understanding of the minds of very young men. "Good thing you're quick on your feet, son. That ol' mossyhorn might have took to the brush and give us the slip, complete, back there."

JD's grin widened with pleased embarrassment. "Aw, all I did was get mad. Lucky I didn't get my head shot off."

Townsend favored him with a cheerful wink. "Well, sometimes all it takes is for one good man to get a righteous mad on."

Then Townsend clapped a hand on the varnished window frame, and his black goatee framed one last wide grin. "Damned shame it comes at you boys' expense, but we're happy as spring brides to finally have the nails to start buildin' LeBeau's coffin. Y'all keep yer powder dry, and we'll see you in the near someday!"

Settled comfortably on the leather cushions, JD looked across at Chris, trying to gauge his leader's thoughts. As the driver shouted to the mules from his seat outside and above, Chris' head turned in profile, taut features faced outward. Nor did he change his pose as the coach jerked heavily, then they were moving, iron and wood wheels rumbling beneath them and El Paso sliding past at an ever-increasing rate.

Adobe walls, weathered board storefronts, barrels and wagons and horses and blurred faces, and beyond all that loomed the bleak, desolate, weather-corrugated shoulders of the mountains that had almost claimed them. For a number of miles they would skirt close against the flanks of those barren hills, but Texas would claim them not. They lived, while Dutch LeBeau grappled with an ugly bullet wound in his leg, and the even uglier prospect of prison - or worse. That much they had seen to, and would see to as the law requested.

"Done with Texas," a deep voice commented.

Chris turned his head, gave Josiah a small, tired smile. "Done with Texas," he echoed.

Somehow satisfied with that, JD laid his head back on the cushions and closed his eyes, letting his awareness sink into lassitude and swaying comfort, and the constant rumble of the wheels. Together, the seven rolled towards home.