Trace and Sign

Non Sequitur

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Nathan and Buck arrived not a half hour behind Chris and together the three of them managed an elaborately tied harness that would lower Chris down and bring them all back up again without too much suffering involved. Vin leaned back against the dusty red rock of the wall and waited for them as patiently as he could. Ezra was gone by then, of course, and there wasn't a lot of talking to be done all by himself. He didn't mind the silence. He saved up the words he had because he had a feeling he might need them all and then some when Chris got down the side and found that Ezra had taken off. He curled his hand loosely in and out of a fist, looking at his fingers carefully and hoping that it would work again when he needed it to. Grab the light and push it as best he could.

He just wished that he still had that deep-set certainty that things were going the way they ought to go.

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The green snake—what had Vin called it? A ribbon?—was like a dying animal now, discolored by sunlight, drying and curling up on itself.

Ezra had started out at nothing more than a walk, maybe even a slink, the hot awareness in his head feeling more like a hard gaze on the nape of his neck. Don't ever run out on me again. He hoped most dearly that Vin would be able to explain it to Chris. He'd found a place here and he'd fight for it, if he had to, fight tooth-and-nail, even, if it came to that, but that didn't stop him from risking it. Because if his gamble paid off—Gibson, you son of a bitch, I'll have you. He hoped to have other things as well, he hoped to have something to return to once this was over, but this thing—this disgustingly right thing that he was doing—was worth the risk of losing everything else.

I had the better claim, he'd told Vin, and he had meant it—had believed it and believed it still.

And what else did he believe?

He was following a sliver of green light across the wilderness; what else did he believe?

"I haven't the time," he said, slowly and to himself, "to disbelieve."

In the empty echoes of the canyon, however, his words fell painfully short of what was needed, and he knew it—back with Vin, in the warm and filtered darkness, with Vin the only starlight he could see, he had been too stunned and addled to care if this green ribbon made any more sense than following Vin out knowing nothing at all. Ezra knew illnesses, knew the lights and shadows that men could see before the end—knew men that had died in the war with their fingers grasping around curling strings of light like their own souls floating up from their hearts—and had never trusted in them as anything more than illusions. Delusions. Fancies suitable only for those who could be readily fleeced.

His mother had made money off such fancies, when she could: she had, he knew, cradled JD's palm in her soft hands and exclaimed over the dangers of such a short life-line. He had done a turn or two at fortune-telling himself. Sometimes his predictions, through no fault of his own, were even proved true. He had hoped that Vin's winning hand would be no different—a simple trick of better eyesight or heightened perception, and perhaps that was all this was, but he hadn't foreseen this. No, this could never be explained to an amateur.

He had seen Chris Larabee burn like a torch, had seen Vin Tanner cloaked in starlight, both of them hard—even impossible—things to dismiss. But didn't he know better than anyone else how the eye could be fooled? And—he'd hit his head. There was no escaping that. Perhaps this was a concussion, or some shared delirium. Perhaps the green ribbon on the rocks was nothing more than a quirk of the eye or a confusion in his brain. Perhaps—perhaps he was following nothing at all, perhaps there was nothing to be found. It was madness, surely.

Except Vin had seemed familiar with all this and yet not mad—he could convince himself of his own madness but he could not convince himself of Vin's.

And—he thought of the clear silver beauty of that flare of starlight and the agonized worry he had felt when it was lost—if it were madness, it was a delicious madness, one that he could not easily convince himself to surrender. If it meant that he could find Gibson, even this far from any recognizable trail, he would foam at that mouth and rave before it all was done.

Gold. When you know you're doing the right thing.

He put the canteen to his mouth and drank deeply. He set himself again to the road.

Around noon, the white light of the sun became too bright for him to easily distinguish the trail—no wonder Vin had been so eager to push on in the dark!—and he had to walk in what was a stumbling near-crouch, bent double over the land, feet scissoring clumsily as he traced his way from splotch of green to splotch of green. Twice he confusedly wove from the dead fear to living tangles of grass, but this gave him hope more than it discouraged him—the clumps of grass, no matter how scarce, meant that he was finally heading out of the canyon. He would soon be following Gibson over sand and soil. There might then be footprints to supplement this quick-fading stain; even if there were not, being on easily-imprinted soil might again put fear into Gibson's heart and leave new traces on the ground.

By two o'clock, he could no longer see the trail, even at a half-crouch, even on his knees. The opening of the canyon throat was within view but also wide—if he could not find where Gibson had left, he would struggle to find even the most visible trace in the open area. Blinking at the fuzzy horizon of grass and crusted soil, he wiped the sweat from his forehead and stood stock still, thinking—or trying to think. The heat had baked into him by now, and he had not rested—had not dared to stop moving. If he had taken Chaucer . . . but it was too late for such useless wishes. He never would have gotten Chaucer down the canyon side, in any case, and the noise of taking him out might even have awoken the others and unleashed their pursuit much earlier.

He ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth, tasting the dust that had gathered on his teeth. Their pursuit. It would be his pursuit soon enough, if it weren't already—he had been gone for hours now and Chris would have sent them out after him.

Unless Vin had convinced him to do otherwise.

Vin, Ezra knew now from bitter experience, could be very convincing. He had soured towards Vin in the last few hours—it was hard to feel much wonder for a trick of eyesight when there was no longer anything to see—but he had to admit that one point in Mr. Tanner's favor. Calling up light in the darkness was a hell of a persuasive argument.

But there was no light left for him now, aside from what was beating down from the already oppressive sun. No light and, he thought, no hope. So what was there for him to do? He had followed Vin this far into the unknown but now there was nothing more to follow—which of them should he listen to now? Pray for a sign from Josiah's God? Think of how Nathan would scold him for risking sunstroke and dehydration? Share JD's rosy-eyed view of human nature and go back, simply trusting that everything would go all right? Shoot someone, as Chris would? Retreat to a whorehouse for comfort? None of it was right, though he was sorely tempted to try the second two simply for their own sake. None of it was right and none of it was enough. He could no longer count on Vin's advice to carry him through, and Josiah, Nathan, JD, Chris, and Buck offered nothing immediately useful.

Of course, he had other advice at his fingertips, although he had not considered it—had, in fact, done his best to stifle its voice over the years.

His voice nothing more than a husk, he said aloud, "Well, Mother, it would seem that I am losing no matter how I attempt to stack the deck. Any suggestions?"

He closed his eyes and lowered himself down, feeling empty-headed and loose-limbed, wishing he had more water, and slowly letting himself drift out into the darkness. He thought fuzzily that he might again lose consciousness and simply bob like a cork out in the midst of whatever might wait for him in the silence—when he saw something ahead in that endless dark lake. Not a light—this was nothing of Vin's—but something bright and gaudy that moved like a buoy in this stillness of his slowing thought.

It was his mother's voice, not sugary sweet as it was when she only played at mothering him in front of her husbands, but simply warm and brisk, as it always had been when the two of them were alone—this was a well-remembered lesson reshuffled into something new.

It isn't enough to stack the deck and mark the cards, darlin', and anyway, you won't always have such a luxury of time. You have to learn to read faces as you would read the cards. You have to learn, son, that every man and woman on this earth has a tell, and more than one at that. If they're good and if they're lucky, they'll get them close to nothing, but there's no one that ever gets them gone completely. You learn to see that, Ezra, and you'll see everything.

"A tell," he said. His voice was rusty. "Oh yes indeed."

He stretched out over the ground, giving no care to how his now-tattered shirt scraped against the dust and the rocks, and put his eyes directly on the last fringe of fear.

"I found your ribbons, darlin'," he whispered.

Mixed in with the disappearing green were hair-thin stands of gold.

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"Goddammit, Larabee, hold up a minute and use those ears of yours for something other than keeping your hat from slipping down to your chin. He didn't leave. I sent him off."

Vin gritted his teeth to stifle the cry of pain that otherwise would have slipped loose when Chris tightened the bandages on his leg. Some sound still leaked through, though—and if he'd expected Chris to look guilty for it, he would have been disappointed. Chris just looked back at him, eyes smooth as glass and mouth a straight line. Not angry, Vin was sure enough of that by now, but he had the idea that anger might maybe be easier to deal with than this impenetrable, implacable calm. He could punch holes straight through Chris's anger if need be, but he had no idea how to respond to this glass-smooth indifference, this silence.

Chris secured the bandages now, tying knots where he could and tucking loose strands into the places where he couldn't. When his work was finally done, he said—in a voice as seamlessly cool as his face—"Never thought he just up and left. Reckon he grew out of that a while back, Vin, and even if he hadn't, I don't think he would have left you like this if he thought he had much of a choice. I just want to know what could have gotten under his skin enough to make him think he had to take off when he left half his blood smeared on the goddamn wall." His voice had been rising steadily since he'd started and now he sucked in a deep breath and jabbed his fingers at the wall, still looking just at Vin. "And I've got a powerful curiosity as to why you let him go!"

Disappointment. That coolness wasn't indifference or even some really dangerous kind of rage—it was steel-set disappointment that sunk Vin's heart down to his stomach.

Vin set his teeth now for a different reason. "He had to go on. Gibson's still out there."

Chris slapped his hand down against the ground. "Yeah, Vin, he is. And now Ezra's out there too, alone and bleeding like a stuck pig." His mouth contorted viciously, going from straight line to scowl to snarl all at once, too angry to stay still now. "And since when can Ezra track worth a damn anyhow? You wanted to do a midnight tracking session, why didn't you run off with JD? Or wake me up?"

He could think of nothing to say but, "Ezra had the better claim."

"He'll have a pretty good claim to a funeral plot if he doesn't get his ass back here before it gets too hot." Chris sighed. His anger wasn't dissipating, not quite, but he was pushing it back for the sake of the task at hand. "Don't suppose you two geniuses thought to keep enough water on you for that kind of trip."

Vin fell silent. Of course they hadn't. They hadn't thought of anything, not really—he had thought of Ezra and Ezra had thought of hair ribbons and the two of them had just gone off. He hadn't known how to reason with Ezra, so he'd gone and saddled him with eyes he couldn't trust and a disappearing trail, and Chris was right, even if he hadn't thought of the worst part yet—even if Ezra could find Gibson out there, how could he find his way back again? None of them made tracks of the kind that Ezra could follow.

"I got stupid," he said. "Wanted it too much."

It was an admission to himself more than it was one to Chris, but Chris grabbed at it with both hands and nodded savagely. "Yeah, you got stupid, and he got stupid, and I got pretty stupid myself, dragging everybody up and down this place at night trying to find your damn stupid selves. But what was it that was so important that you couldn't wait? That you couldn't even take all of us?"

He didn't ask specifically again why Vin had left him behind, but, then again, he didn't have to. Once was enough for them—hell, sometimes they never even got around to saying things that first time, and that even worked out fine—and twice would have just made it cut too deep for the both of them. Vin wanted to explain about the flash of red blood on the rocks and how the enormity of that almost-loss had gone through him like a shot; how the realty of it would have swallowed him whole. But he hadn't been able to explain Chris to Ezra—not the way he had wanted to—and he couldn't explain himself to Chris, no matter how much he fumbled again and again with that thought in his head, with the blood on the rocks that had jarred his own hands from position, with the sickening feeling that in taking Ezra instead of Chris, he might have made some awful kind of trade. One man for the other. Because what was it Chris had said? About Ezra's blood on the rocks, now?

Vin had made the trade and he guessed he wasn't sorry, not even now, because Ezra was still alive and Chris wouldn't have been—but not being sorry didn't mean it had been a good trade. And Ezra being alive now didn't mean he would be later. No water and no way back. They'd been right, all of them, always—he'd been stupid. Ezra had gotten addled by that crack on the head, none of this was his fault, but Vin should have known better and Vin had been stupid. It always came back to that. Mary could teach him his letters all day long and she'd never fix what they had always said was wrong with him—that there was just nothing up there. Nothing but fluff and tangles of branches, nothing but a half-breed and maybe even a demon between the ears. If his mother were still here, she'd look at him with Chris's same cold look, she'd never—

Chris took his shoulder and shook it, hard. "Shut up with that, Vin." His mouth was set hard but his eyes were still kind. "You ain't stupid. Well, you've been awfully stupid, but you've never made a habit of it. And whoever it was that told you otherwise ought to come here and see you now."

"Yeah, see me now, got my leg all busted up and my friend out in the middle of fucking nowhere. Head of the class."

Chris chuckled. "All right. Maybe not now. But maybe tomorrow."

"And Ezra?"

He had not wanted to ask and he had known that Chris hadn't needed him to, that whatever they were going to do about Ezra would get done whether Vin asked or not, but he'd needed to ask in some funny way he couldn't really understand. He needed to get it all straight in his head. He remembered Ezra saying that he didn't need Chris to approve, he just needed him to understand; Vin thought this might be something like that. He was going to put his hand to Chris's eyes while they were down here alone no matter what kind of plan Chris had worked up for getting Ezra back—even if they could get Ezra back without following any trail stranger than a blurry footprint, he still intended to do it. He had left all of them back there but he had left Chris most of all and he needed Chris to understand why.

But first he had to take care of this mess he had made with Ezra. He had to know how he could put things right again. He had to know that Ezra would come back home again to gleam like steel in a gunfight and shine like silver at the card-table, to turn slowly and more permanently to gold. What a loss it would be to abandon all that treasure to the nothingness of the desert, all because of his better claim and Vin's own stacked deck.

"I found you," Chris said, "and Ezra's the easier one to follow." His voice was steady but that was when Vin thought everything might be lost—because that was no more a plan than Vin's midnight flight from camp. That was just desperation moving blindly ahead. Suddenly, without asking, he had the dread-sick feeling that Chris had stumbled across him only by dumb luck and maybe some vague impulse, some unknowing recognition of Vin's light.

Chris must have seen the way Vin was looking at him, because he met his eyes and said, "I won't stop until we find him, Vin."

Even if it's too late.

Damn Ezra and damn his better claim and damn himself three times over for not thinking any of this through.

Feeling hollow and half-cracked made it easier, he thought—there was so little left him at that latest thought that he didn't have to try as hard this time to make it happen. Everything in him was already ready to bleed out. He raised his hand to his eyes and for a moment almost saw it: a thin silvery-white light shifting like water over and around his fingers. It was—if he could forgive himself—kind of beautiful. Like starlight, Ezra had said. Like all the stars in the sky. And what else was out there?

Vin raised his hand and turned to look at the sun.

"Hey, cowboy," he said. He had to keep this quiet, he didn't want the others to hear—not yet, at least, not before he could be sure. "I can show you where to go."

He touched his fingertips to Chris's closed eyes and waited. He could feel his own light like a heartbeat, like he was standing in his heart.

When it happened, he thought he saw the sunrise.

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The strands of gold were almost impossibly thin and several times Ezra lost sight of them and had to endlessly retrace his steps. Unlike the ribbon-thick traces of jade-green fear, however, they stayed in place—little Addie, or what was left here on earth of her small spirit, leaving him something to follow as best he could.

There was no more water. He moved into his second day alone.

Sometimes he thought these signs were not golden but honey-blonde as her hair; sometimes he thought they looked like broken pieces of straw; sometimes like twists of golden wire. The one thing he was always sure of, with a certainty he would have found deeply troubling under other circumstances, was that they were hers. Not Maggie's or Josh's or Tommy's but Addie's, if for no other reason than that she had loved him enough to clamber onto his lap and run to him with slices of jelly cake and diligently study her hand of cards in Go Fish with the tip of her tongue sticking out. She had loved him and he maybe had loved her, at least as much as anyone in his family could manage to love a child, and the abomination her body had become after Gibson had touched it had gotten into him and hurt him worse than anything else he had ever known. What had Vin said? His light. His light had been nothing more than a flicker. That hardly meant anything to him at all, even with that startling forced context—but he knew that if grief were low it was also enormous, and its enormity had been the only thing Ezra could sense about it. It was everything and everywhere.

Of course, of course, he thought, the kind of love that could cause that kind of grief would leave some mark upon the land. Of course that could not fade away.

He would have to remember to tell Vin that.

There might be small constellations left on everything you've ever loved, Mr. Tanner. He shaped the words with his mouth but nothing came out. He had finally reached his limit. Cassiopeia and Orion, perhaps; stars shed like snakeskin. And if Mr. Larabee burns, why, so must we all. All of us together.

Except—and here he shuffled his thoughts around, unsure as to how to articulate it—they were not all together. He was alone and they were elsewhere. He had never done as well in such circumstances and even if he had spent years perfectly content with and confident in the powers of his own solitude, he knew better now. He had grown comfortable standing back-to-back and shoulder-to-shoulder and now there was no one here but him. And somewhere, out under the darkening inky sky, Archie Gibson. The man he would have to kill, if the shock of this heat and the blinding emptiness did not kill him first.

The toe of his boot struck against a rock and he stumbled forward, hands thrown blindly out. He landed hard, the gravel cutting into the soft skin of his palms. The fall took it out of him and he knew it immediately—his legs had bowed down and would not easily go upright again. He knew with a dreadful certainty that he would not be able to put himself back on his feet. And his hands—that was the lowest point—the dull scraped throbbing feeling of the torn and prickled skin. His hands hurt and he was alone.

Gambler's hands, he thought bitterly. In possession of a certain tactile sensitivity but rather deficient in the area of—

A feel for stacking the deck.

It came to him like a whisper. It was not as clear as his mother's voice had been earlier, but it was there nonetheless—Nathan. Nathan and the others. Something kindled in his chest. He had Nathan, still, whether Nathan was with him or not. Nathan and the others, because surely he had, at least, the memory of other times and other places. Memories, yes indeed, he could overturn the cards in his head even now and tell the scenes one by one. Memories and perhaps even more, because—because love left fingerprints and sometimes the marks were deep and lasting. He did not need Vin to tell him that more often than not, they were fleeting—he had felt his mother's affection wax and wane over the years, never constant or dependable, but always glorious when he could catch a glimpse of it—but he thought there might be a handful of connections in his life that were permanent. A scattering of sunbeams, a tiny constellation—whatever else the others could give him—he thought he might have them with him, even now.

And that was good. Some kind of saving grace, here at the end of everything.

He lay there, dusty in the gravel, scraped and bloodied, with his back burning like a firebrand and his head aching fiercely and unendingly. He sat there and smiled.

He also—rather distantly—thought that he might be dying. It seemed as if lying down would be the thing to do.

At least he would not die alone.

He could see the lamps turning on above his body and saw that beneath them, his skin looked cracked and hauntingly pale. The lights, though, were beautiful enough, and he turned all of what was left of his attention to those. He saw that they were golden, as Vin had said—and the more he looked at them, the more he thought that they looked like something singular, like a long sheet of gold hammered thin. Anything could be cut from that, he thought. Why, just about anything at all. A most versatile element. Very valuable. But when he reached up to stroke his fingers along it, he hesitated and touched not the gold but the single star set deep into the metal. He moved his lips.

My sincerest apologies, Vin.

He saw something glitter to his left and he turned his head, not sure whether to expect the shine of lights on the pearly gates or the first tentative glow of the coals in hell, and saw something else all together, something that made the gold above him disappear in a blink.

Archie Gibson brought the knife down only an inch away from Ezra's cheek.

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The air in Nathan's clinic was so close and hot that Vin couldn't breathe. He had no real hope of escaping, though—if the bum leg wouldn't have slowed his plans, Buck's near-constant presence would have shot any hope dead in its tracks. He and JD had been good enough company for the first day of Vin's imprisonment but when Vin had slept and woke again to find Ezra still missing, things had started to deteriorate between the three of them.

Vin knew that most of it was his doing. JD was a little sore about being stuck in town while the others had gone off after Ezra, but that five-pointed star he carried around had to mean something to him, or else he never would have taken it, let alone kept it. Buck had been a sensible second choice—good with JD and good with Vin even when he was hurt and apt to snarl like a bobcat at anyone who came too close. Good enough with stitches and bandages when it came to that, too. Ordinarily, they would have left Nathan with Vin, but this time, no one had even suggested it. Everyone had the feeling that Nathan might be more badly needed elsewhere.

So Buck was the right choice for the other man to stay with Vin and the town and Vin didn't doubt that he knew it, too. Bucklin wasn't the type to make a fuss about things. He bore patiently enough with the mild edginess of the first day and even the snappishness of the early second, but somewhere around noon he broke.

He had caught Vin's eyes drifting to the door again and he had said, too quickly to stop himself, "You just better hope that when you see Chris coming, he isn't dragging a body behind him. You think Ezra has a chance out there? You should never have—" He had clamped his mouth shut then and flushed dark, apologized almost under his breath, and been painstakingly kind for the rest of the afternoon and well into the evening, when they had started to grate on each other again enough for things to be normal.

The remark had hurt, of course—no man was made of stone, to stand a thing like that without flinching on the inside, at least—but he had known that Buck hadn't meant it, which was sort of unfortunate, it being true and all. He had also spent the whole morning knowing that something was going to come at him from that quarter. For a man with such an open face, Buck had a surprisingly hard-to-read light; something, Vin reckoned, to do with his mostly even temper. Josiah might cloud up like the sky before a storm and Ezra might go hard and dark as iron, but Buck mostly stayed the same, with one very notable exception.

There hadn't been any sparks.

Normally, Buck was too friendly to keep his light to himself like everyone else mostly did—he was always crackling like a firework and sending little sparks of light off his fingertips and off his smile. Vin privately thought that those sparks might just be what animal magnetism looked like. He did it to the ladies, of course. They got right pretty shows sometimes. But he also did it to the others, if not in such a spectacular fashion—JD more than anyone else, but still he did it to all of them, from time to time. Vin could rarely make out his own light but he had always been able to see Buck's sparks disappearing into his skin. It was a warm, kind of shocky feeling—good but surprising.

And there hadn't been any sparks. Not for him, at least. Buck had smoldered all to himself without giving anything away, and Vin hadn't seen him look like that since Chanu.

So he had known that it was coming; had guessed easily enough that Buck's worry for Ezra had been quietly mounting all day, worsened by Vin's sullenness and quiet non-explanations. He had been glad when the moment had finally come and passed again, because he and Buck had been all right afterwards—though it had taken JD a little longer to reconcile their friendship with their temporary pissing-vinegar anger. He had done it, though, and now they were good again. Yep. Everything good.

Except they still didn't have Ezra.

And the room was so small and so hot. If he could only open a window . . .

"And just where do you think you're going?"

Buck's voice was pleasant enough, but Vin had spent enough time hunting to know a trap when there was one being laid right in front of him.

He jerked his head at the window. "Just gonna open a window, let in a little breeze. It's boiling in here, Buck."

"I know it is, Vin. I been here all day, too."

Buck could smile an awful lot like Chris when he wanted to.

"And since I've been here all day, which you very well know, and since I am, in fact, here right now as we live, breathe, and stand here talking—stand, Vin, if you see where I'm going with this—you think that you just maybe could have asked me to open a window instead of trying to do something so damn foolish as trying to stand on a broken leg?"

Tell the truth and shame the Devil, his ma used to say—Nettie said it sometimes, too, which always made a funny little prickle go down his back. He said, "I thought you were asleep."

"I bet you did. Get your scrawny ass back in bed."

He did. Buck, true enough to his word, opened the window for him. It didn't do much good. The air coming through was just as hot and, in its own way, just as stale and dead. He hadn't been thinking of Ezra—he'd been trying all day not to think of Ezra, to the point where not thinking about Ezra was all he could think about—but now he did, because Ezra was out there, and he was out there alone, with nothing but that dead air for company. He felt his eyes tingle alarmingly and he turned his face into the pillow, not crying—he hadn't cried much ever, over anything, and he didn't want to cry now—but just trying to escape the stale emptiness of that air. It was like the desert was mocking him. It knew too well what it had eaten whole.

But so did you. You knew when you took him out there that he might not come back and you knew when you made him go that there was almost no way he would.

"There, now," Buck said. He settled his hand on Vin's shoulder and squeezed gently. Vin felt that unexpected pleasant jolt of sparks going under his skin. Buck sounded comfortable now, for the first time since Ezra had gone missing—he had someone to look after. "I never meant it when I said it was your fault. My mouth just gets in the habit of saying stupid things, just like your legs get in the habit of doing stupid things, like climbing down canyon-sides or getting out of bed when they ain't working so well."

"You were right, though," Vin said. He turned his face to Buck so Buck at least see that his eyes were clear. If he'd cried, he didn't think he would have been too ashamed of it, but he hadn't, and he wanted Buck to see the level clarity in his eyes and know that this wasn't some hysterical mistake. "I took him out there and I let him leave alone. I thought I knew what I was doing."

Can't tell you, Bucklin. I wish like hell I could, but I can't. Not yet.

Not after Chris.

The thought of Chris made his throat close up again and he turned his face into the pillow again, screwed his eyes shut, and tried to sleep. His eyes felt hot but dry. Buck was kind enough now to go back to his chair and open one of JD's dog-eared dimestore novels, just as he would have if he'd really believed that Vin could fall asleep so quickly and with so little fuss.

Vin lay there shut up in his own darkness, remembering the way Chris had flinched away from him when he had reached out the second time. It helped little enough to understand that the look on his face had been fear and not disgust; he hadn't been about to hang Vin from the nearest tree. He had taken what Vin had given him and used it as best he could.

But he hadn't wanted to be touched. Not after that.

Not that they'd ever exactly been in the habit of lassoing their arms around each other—Buck was the touchy one who caught them all up in bear-hugs from time to time—but there had almost always been something. He had gotten used to Chris's hand on his shoulder and Chris's hand on his arm. He tried hard to imagine years ahead in which there would be none of that, in which they would only circle each other at arm's length, and his mind snapped shut on the idea. He wouldn't take that kind of wariness. He'd hit Chris if he had to. He'd spent long enough being afraid to get his hands used to anybody else's and he had thought, finally, that he didn't have to worry about that anymore. That the seven of them had grown into a loose circle; that they could break and reform if they really wanted to, but that there wasn't going to be anymore fear for any of them.

He'd be damned if he'd see any of them put an end to that, even Chris—and he supposed that, if anybody bothered to figure out such things, Chris was the one he most needed to keep. He would not lose them and he would not lose Chris, not if he could help it.

Soon. When he comes back with Ezra. We'll take care of this soon.

Thinking about Ezra hurt, too.

His last look at Ezra had been Ezra disappearing over the overturned bowl of the horizon, nothing but a dust-splotched golden glimmer on the clay-dark stones.

But what a trick you have, Vin, Ezra had said, back when he had been fading out, his eyes wide open and his pupils blown out so far that Vin could only see tiny slits of green on either side. His voice had been slow and almost liquid, a shuffling whisper like sleep-talk. Your winning hand.

Some winning hand. Ezra was missing and Chris had flinched and the rest of them were good men, they were all good men, and this was a good town but they might not forgive him for Ezra lying dried out and bloody in the desert. For Gibson gone for good. All because Vin had had a pair of twos and thought that he could follow a glittering trail at midnight without anything bad coming of it. Without risking such a great loss.

All that gold in the desert, he thought. Ezra, I'm sorry. I never should have talked you into this, into any of it. I'd take it back if could.

I'd go out there with you.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra cried out when the blade of the knife thudded an inch deep into the soft sand, but not because of the surprise of the blade or even the unbearable knowledge of how close Gibson had come to extending his smile up to his ear. He screamed then—some short and animal-like bark of surprised pain—because he had the sudden and undeniable feeling that being this close to Gibson was like having worms crawl all over his bare skin. He could not even see Gibson, not yet, but he had known instantly that it was Gibson that had come upon him—not because there was no one else out there but because no one else, surely, could feel like that. Like worms still damp from loose garden soil, long and dark and blind, set loose over his hands and face and eyes. The sticky crawling sensation was enough to edges his mind close to the border of madness.

If he touches me, I don't think I'll survive it.

That got him moving again, rolling clumsily over the sand and struggling to his feet. It wasn't the knife. It was Gibson and the thought of what he might do if Gibson lay a hand over his bare skin—or, God help him, over his face.

He pushed himself up onto his feet again with an awful tearing sensation all along his back. His head felt bowed down by some unbearable weight attached to the back of his neck and when he could finally get himself to look ahead again, what he saw was almost worse than what he had felt when Gibson had gotten close.

Gibson had felt like nothing but a wormy darkness and that was what he looked like, too.

Ezra was dimly aware that anyone else but Vin would have seen nothing more than a man standing before him, and a rather dull-looking man at that—one with a slight sagging paunch of a belly, a grayish cast to his face, and scabs set deep into the palms of his hands. He was a ruin of a man, shambling along on madness and some hopeless hunger, and hadn't Nathan said that he was dying? Was this what sickness looked like? No—it couldn't be that, because Vin had said that was just low light, like candles flickering before burning out completely.

Gibson was nothing. Gibson was a dark and writhing hole in the world. The dead space between the stars.

The gorge rose in his throat and he put his hands down to his knees and coughed, a low and burning cough that stung him all the way down his throat and into his stomach. If he'd been eaten anything in the last day, he was sure that he would have lost it then. His eyes were watering fiercely. He hadn't even known that he had that much water to lose. He knew that he had to stand again, that he had to get his gun, just a simple flick of the wrist, but he was paralyzed—how did one shoot at something like that? How did you kill that kind of emptiness? He saw, in a second stained glass layer of vision, Gibson as nothing more than a man—but the darkness was stronger, the darkness was overwhelming, the darkness was going to defeat him. What did he have to use against that? A golden shine? A single star?

Gibson came at him again and Ezra moved more out of horror than self-preservation. Sweat and tears dried on his face.

Please. He almost spoke the words. If he had, everything would have been over. Please, kill me if you want, shoot me if you want, but don't touch me.

Instead, he hardly heard what came from his mouth. "She was only a child, you goddamn son-of-a-bitch. Only a child."

There was something all around him. Something like starlight. Something like sunlight.

Absurdly, he thought: I'd go out there with you.

The emptiness that was Archie Gibson stood without moving. Somewhere in Ezra's double-vision, he saw the wind blow a new part through Gibson's hair. That was all.

"The hair ribbons," he said. "I want them."

Ezra had braided Addie McKenzie's hair once—hairdressing was hardly a task he was familiar with, but his fingers were nimble enough and the pattern was simple. He had tied her hair with swatches of plaid dishcloth worn too soft and thin for use and she had tilted her head back and smiled at him wide enough that her dimples had set in along her spattering of freckles. He did not know what ribbons she had been wearing the day Gibson had stolen everything away from her but they might well be those—those thin little strips worn soft as butter and frayed to tatters on the ends. Her favorites, she'd said.

Gibson finally spoke. His voice was even weaker than Ezra's. It was as dead as the rest of him. "Please. You're burning me."

Starlight and sunlight. He licked his lips. "Give me her ribbons." He tried to look at the blade of the knife because he could not look at anything else. If the sight of him burned Gibson, the sight of Gibson tore him open. "Give me her ribbons and I'll make it stop."

Gibson let out a dry, barking sob. "I've been seeing demons. Demons in everyone. Why won't you leave me alone?"

He had seen Chris Larabee burn; Ezra knew something about fear and surprise commingled into the darkest horror. If he had seen that without Vin, if there had been no reason for that burning and no words to fit to it, what would he have done? Addie McKenzie and her family must have burned so brightly. Starlight like Vin, maybe, or Chris's sunlight; something that Gibson could not ignore and could not stand. An unwilling wave of sympathy broke over him and he almost wanted to go to Gibson and take him in, tell him Vin's secrets, tell him that there were no demons here, just souls shining out and getting poured through different lampshades. But. There could be no reason for those badly broken bodies, for Addie's ruined dress, for her missing hair ribbons. That was not madness or desperation. That was what had turned Gibson's light to darkness—what had left all of his flesh as just a ruined pit in the goodness of things.

Demons. What business did a man like that have talking about demons?

Ezra drew his gun. He had no idea what good it would do him, he was unsure whether a bullet would even carve a hole in that festering shadow, but he felt better with something to hold and something to point—some decided weapon, some sanity against the insanity of the rest of this. He leveled it with Gibson's head and Gibson did not flinch back.

"You are dying, sir," he said. "And so am I. Give me the ribbons and we can do it here, together. No more demons for either one of us."

The world in front of him was growing wavy and streaked with shade—all of the light that reached him had to drain first through what had been given to him by Chris and Vin. He closed his eyes and thought that he might see even more that way: firecrackers erupting somewhere in the distance, cool water pouring out, warm and constant lamplight, sweet and pearly grace. He saw them and named them: Buck, Josiah, JD, Nathan—but they were far away. With him but far away, and this was the place where he had to stand.

His mother. How would she shine? Like jewelry, most likely, like diamonds and rubies and glittering sapphires.

Gibson still had not moved towards him and Ezra knew that he was fading fast. Faster even than Gibson because it maybe took more strength to stand and burn than to stand and drown. Ezra had always known that acts of charity made men die young.

Only one thing left to do. He had done it their way. Now he did it his.

He extended his hand. "Give me the ribbons or so help me God, I'll have you live forever. No rest. No darkness. It'll be like standing in the center of the sun for all eternity, all those bright and lovely demons burning around you—and you with nothing. Nothing forever." He knew that he had snared Gibson now—and he had known exactly what bluff to make—but somehow he couldn't stop talking. He couldn't stop, because he was dying here, and he had never thanked Vin or explained himself to Chris or said goodbye to the others. So many things he had never done and never said, so many stupid unfinished things, and all for Gibson? For his madness? His tongue grew sharper. "It hurts you. Not because they burn and because I burn but because you don't, and somehow you know it. There's nothing human left in you anymore. If you die, I'll give you darkness, but that's the only way you'll ever sleep through the night again."

Don't, Ezra. Sometimes enough is enough. He gets the point. No use belaboring it.

That was Chris's voice, not remembered but somehow awakened. He struggled against it for a moment, not wanting to stop, wanting to press and press until he simply made Gibson's heart burst like a rabbit's from the fear—but what good was there in that? He would suck the light all out of himself. And what would be left to them then? What would that do for any of them? Ezra believed in few things—too few, Josiah and Nathan were apt to tell him—but he knew that he at least believed in skill, friends, and kindness. Conmen were, by nature and by training, optimistic about the human condition. It would have been impossible to fleece marks if most of them didn't believe that the world was a good place willing to do them a good turn—most people were greedy, true, but most people were also good. All those things. All of that humanity. Civility and subtlety, tact and diplomacy, and the men that he stood with. He had not come all this way because he believed his eyes, he had come all this way because he believed Vin, and it had been enough.

He believed Vin and he believed Chris; he believed little Addie, who had kissed him on the cheek with her lips still wet from her cup of buttermilk. All of that could be enough. He did not have to believe Gibson, as well—he did not have to become the demon Gibson saw in him.

His hand was still out in the motionless air. He wriggled his fingers back and forth.

"The ribbons, please. I'm sorry for what you saw."

Slowly, Gibson put his hand into his pocket and came up with a tangle of plaid cloth. "I didn't think they were real. I didn't think they were human."

"The McKenzies," Ezra said, but the heat had gone from his voice. He took the ribbons from Gibson and wound them carefully around his wrist and tied them there. "And their children." He looked away: Gibson was shuddering back into ordinary flesh now and Ezra thought that meant that he might die. He was achingly human once more, just a sad and thin man with reddened eyes and tear-streaked cheeks. Ezra could not see the light all around himself anymore, either. Whatever had come between them, whatever strange interaction of matter and nothingness, had ceased. They were simply alone.

The plaid ribbons were faded but, yes, they were the same ones he had tied into Addie McKenzie's braids that day. He saw this with no surprise whatsoever.

"I ought to bring you back to town to stand trial," he said, "but I don't believe either one of us will ever last long enough to grace the streets of that fair town ever again."

Gibson shook his head. "I can't go back. I can't see them again."

Ezra stroked the ribbons tied at his wrist. "Then I suppose we should—"

"I won't go back. I won't."

The thick noise surprised him.

Gibson had brought the knife up to his own throat and turned the edge inwards. Before Ezra could even step forward to grab his arm, Gibson had sliced himself open. The sand in front of them was suddenly dark red. Gibson dropped forward to his knees and the knife fell from his hand. It was all over in less than a minute and then his eyes stared up sightlessly, finally closed to whatever light or darkness there was in the world to see. Ezra looked at him for a long time but there was no rising light, no ascension of the soul to heaven or elsewhere—but perhaps that act, if it could happen, had happened long ago. What burned in Gibson had gone out long ago, after all. Maybe Vin was right. Maybe he wasn't quite human anymore.

The air around him was thick and glittering. Ezra walked away a little from where Gibson's blood had soaked into the ground. This time, he fell even without tangling up his feet. He simply went down to his knees and stopped. The ribbons were warm on his skin. He closed his eyes and fell into uneasy sleep, dreaming of sunrise and sunset and relief from the night. Sometime in those bright and confusing hours, they began to give him water. He took it eagerly and without question, too transfixed by the sight of the sun on the ground. He did not even know that he had been rescued until a day later, when he awoke in a wagon with Chris's hand tight around his.

+ + + + + + +


It was a long hour before the relief of that would stop circling through his head; he kept bumping into it wherever his thoughts turned. They had dragged another bed in from God only knew where—Chris had made that haul himself and they'd all learned by now not to ask questions if Chris didn't offer an explanation—but it wasn't one any of them knew. They had propped Ezra up in the bed and wet his mouth over and over again with water while Nathan buzzed around him, white light spooling off his hands in long ropes, long bandages, as he examined and scolded Ezra all in the same anxious breath. He was relieved, too—relief was coming out of him like long and bright porcupine quills—and was relieved enough that Vin could set his mind at ease a little. There was no dim cast of worry over Nathan's light. And as he kept saying, if Ezra had lasted as long as he had out there, he could make it here.

Though all of them had to admit that they weren't sure exactly how Ezra had lasted as long as he had—Vin guessed that a good, thorough summary of what had gone wrong with him would be enough to fill up one of Nathan's thick medical books. His skin had been about scorched off by the sun, his mouth and throat cracked and dry, his whole body near about falling down around him from exhaustion—and then there had been the crack on the head and that gash on his back, both much worse than Ezra had hinted at. The other legacies of him cushioning Vin's fall were mostly bruises, varied in size and severity, but most of them dark purple and about the size of mismatched saucers. Buck had even picked out the places where Vin's elbows must have thudded back into Ezra's chest—without even knowing it, he had come damned close to cracking Ezra's ribs along with his head.

"How far out did he get?"

Chris shook his head at first and then he whistled through his teeth. "He was a couple miles into the desert when we found him." He looked Vin over and then closed his eyes. "Gibson was with him. Looked like he decided to do practice his wood-hewing on his own throat. Cut himself a new mouth from ear to ear."

"Jesus. You bury him?"

"As far as I'm concerned, the buzzards are welcome to him. I'm just glad it wasn't Ezra he decided to carve up."

Vin would have chosen Ezra's life over Gibson's in a second—would probably even have chosen killing Gibson over Ezra getting a scratch on his little finger—but the thought still rattled him. He had known men before who'd had more than a helping hand in their own deaths, but they usually picked cleaner, quieter methods. Something painless. Gibson must have only thought of speed. Of how to rush headlong into death before Ezra could drag him back. What could have scared him so badly? What could Ezra have done to him that would be worse? Ezra knew hundreds of tricks, sure, but none of them were the tricks that Vin knew—how to take the blade of a knife and turn it into a question. How to do awful, unmentionable things in the dark, until the smell of blood was thick in the air. He knew it, even if he sometimes wished he didn't, and he had always hoped that none of the rest of them would have to.

He thought of all that blood-encrusted sand and the lighting buzzards, all spreading out in circles around that empty shell of a man, and worried for Ezra, who had stood so close to all of it and come out alive—but still sleeping. Chris said he had stirred a little on the wagon, but that was all. Vin didn't need Ezra to stir. He needed Ezra to wake up full and proper.

He had other things he needed back full and proper, too. He locked his eyes on Chris's and said, "How did you find him?"

Chris looked around briefly and then lowered his head. "Followed your green trail as long as I could, which wasn't much more than about a mile, and then did a lot of guesswork. Truth is, I wouldn't have found him if the whole place hadn't gone up like a bonfire. I still don't think Josiah and Nathan have worked out why I took off for that place like a shot."

"They asked yet?" He didn't think they would. They had found Ezra, after all, and that was what mattered. And nobody asked Chris many questions anyway.

"No, and that's my good luck, because I don't know what the hell I'd tell them. It was like the sky caught on fire. Took me a minute to realize that they didn't see it, too. I couldn't figure out why Josiah hadn't said anything about the Second Coming." He laughed—a shrill but not unpleasant little chuckle—and put a hand to his face. "I thought he might be dying."

Like the sky caught on fire. Vin had never seen that before with waking eyes, but he thought that he knew it anyway—the sky had burned in his dream, too, when Gibson had touched him and stripped his light away. Gooseflesh broke over his skin. What had happened out there? What had he sent Ezra to face? His stomach rocked. Too many falls. Chris would have fallen and died on the canyon-side, Vin had fallen instead. Vin would have fallen in his dream, Ezra had—fallen? Stood?—taken his place. He rubbed a hand over his arm, trying to get his skin to stop trying to leap off his bones.

"Had a dream like that," he said hoarsely. Quietly.

"Dreams, too?"

He thought, bitterly, that he could claim anything now, and Chris would believe it all, dread it all. Sure. Dreams, too. And not just the dreaming, the seeing, or the getting feelings—no, he could poison wells just by looking at them, if he wanted, and he could read minds and fly at night and crack eggshells by pointing his fingers at them. Everything. Why not? Everything demonic and everything angelic, too, everything celestial, and maybe he'd just passed it all onto Chris like typhus. His winning hand. His sickness.

His mouth had screwed up tight while he'd been thinking it and he'd been ready to spit out the words, ready to gather up what they had made between them and just rip it in two, when Chris put a hand on his arm.

"Just need to know what to expect, Vin," he said. His voice was perfectly level. "You gave me a scare earlier. I guess you know that."

Yes. He knew. And maybe he should have thought about that. Ezra had been dizzy with blood-loss and half-crazy with desperation by the time Vin had slid his hand over Ezra's eyes; he had probably gone along with it so easily not because it didn't startle him but because there hadn't been enough left of him there to be startled. Probably, if he'd just gone up to Ezra during a card game and slapped that light into him, Ezra would have gotten just as skittish. More, maybe. So maybe he should have thought about what it must have been like for Chris, to suddenly see folks lighting up around him like candles, and not even have a knock on the head to make things go down easier.

"I know it," he said, but he didn't apologize. Not just then. He'd forget that little flinch—he could do that much—but he wasn't sure that he could forgive it, not even now.

Chris sighed. "I can't see mine. Can you see yours?"

"Not much and not often. Got a glimpse of it when I was helping you and Ez along, and Ezra told me a bit about what it looks like."

"Yeah?" Chris grinned. "He tell you that you look kind of like one of those angel pictures Josiah hung up for the Sunday school?"

Vin's eyes widened in horror. "He said starlight."

Chris tilted his head back and looked at Vin curiously, as if trying to decide. "I could see that, maybe, but mostly you just look sort of peace-on-earth, goodwill-to-men. It's sweet, Vin."

Against his will, Vin laughed. They could do this, then, forgiven or not. That wasn't one of the strong, inevitable feelings, like water running downhill into his thoughts, but hell, those hadn't been working out too well for him lately anyway, had they? He could do with a few more guesses. A few more moments of ordinary certainty when the only light that really mattered was whatever sun was shining in through the window. No more burning skies, no more empty men. Just the seven of them and what they had left to heal.

He lifted up his good foot and kicked it a little at Ezra's bed. "How's he doing?"

The smile drained away from Chris's face. "Still not awake. I've got no idea what he did out there, besides get himself banged up and half-scorched. All he came back with was that thing on his wrist. Nathan couldn't get the knot undone."

Vin struggled up a little, trying to shift his hips without putting too much weight on his leg. "What thing on his wrist?"

"I don't know, Vin," Chris said, all dangerous false-patience. Like Buck and Nathan, he didn't really truckle much with Vin trying to move around. "Probably that's why we're all calling it 'that thing on his wrist.' It's just some strips of cloth. Don't know why he'd have it or why Gibson would, come to that. Little bit of plaid cloth, but Ezra tied it on tight enough to hold his hand to his wrist if his parts were in the habit of falling off."

The last few days had been bad enough that Vin didn't grab at the right idea at first, not until Chris said how tightly and carefully Ezra had knotted the pieces of cloth. Then he knew.

"They're hair ribbons, Chris. Addie McKenzie's ribbons. He got them back from Gibson."

That was what they had wanted all along, after all. That had really been the best that any of them could do. There was precious little justice in the world as it was, and the men that had already burned out of it didn't profit much from getting killed a second time around. What Gibson had done to himself, in those last dry and sun-baked hours in the desert, didn't matter—not to the McKenzies. Probably not even to God. But what Ezra had managed—to regain those stolen ribbons—meant more. It maybe meant maybe everything. It ought to be enough to keep the man pure gold for weeks to come.

"Ribbons," Chris said. He sighed and for a long time said nothing. Then, so softly that Vin had to keep himself propped up to hear, he said, "Most everything burned up. I tried to go back for Adam's toys, but they were just ashes. I only got to keep this little splinter of one of those horses I carved for him. It's good that Ezra got those ribbons. Children ought to have their little things, no matter what happens to them."

These times, when looking at Chris was the hardest thing in the world to do, were the times when it was most important to meet him head-on. Vin stared straight into that endless burning light and thought: I'll never tell you what you look like, not even if you ask me. You shouldn't have to know that I know. I'll lie if I have to, but I won't tell you this.

He said nothing, though. What was there to say? There weren't words to shake off that kind of loss or slake that kind of burning.

At last Chris said again, "It's good that Ezra went back."

"Yes, and very good that you came back, as well, Mr. Larabee." The voice was as dry and coarse as sandpaper. "Thank you."

"Ezra. Should've known we couldn't expect you to wake up until the afternoon."

His voice was even enough, but if Chris thought that meant that he'd kept everything hidden, he was sorely mistaken. Vin had the advantage over Ezra here. After all, he could see Chris's face and all the taut lines of worry and fear around his eyes and mouth that had suddenly smoothed out, the tiny half-smile, and the warm relief in his eyes. Even without seeing Chris's face, though, Ezra had to be smart enough to pick up on the other signs. His light had been all jagged spikes and wild flames a minute before, a burning headed directly for an inevitable flare-out, and Ezra had turned that fire into a more gentle sun. Something right pleasing to the eye. Maybe not as nice as one of Josiah's angel-pictures, but pretty enough.

Sure enough, Ezra studied Chris's back for a moment before a smile curved his mouth, too. His eyes were still sleepy and Vin had the feeling he'd drop off again soon enough—protesting every minute he was kept awake between now and then, too—but for now, he was with them.

"I'm afraid it had been so long since I'd spent any time in the company of dear Morpheus that I had to waste several hours simply making my apologies." He looked them both over, the pleasant humor slipping away from his eyes and replaced by a barely perceptible unease. "I take it—everything here worked out for the best? No complications?"

One day, Ezra was going to come right out and ask whether or not Chris was pissed at him, and all of them could give up these stupid half-questions. Folks—even Ezra—ought to talk plain when it really counted. At least Chris had spells of good sense now and then, because Ezra was downright hopeless when it came to figuring out what most people already knew. Chris had one of those spells now, thankfully: he slid his chair back until the legs squeaked on the floorboards and went to Ezra's bedside. He put one hand down hard on Ezra's shoulder—not an accident, either, that he'd picked that spot. Ezra's shoulders were about the only part of him that had come through the whole mess intact.

"No complications, Ezra," he said. "You did what you had to do. Did a good job of it, too."

Ezra's eyes were already slipping closed again. "I had no intention of abandoning Mr. Tanner before I was absolutely certain that help had arrived."

God Almighty, when Chris rolled his eyes, he just about rolled the rest of himself along with them. Vin swore that everything from the man's shoulders down swiveled with that comment. There was a loud and noisy breath. "Yeah, Ezra, we know."

"Thank you," Ezra said. His voice was already thick with sleep. "For standing with me."

He was out like a light after that. Vin guessed they could have woken him up again to ask what he'd meant, but neither of them had the heart.

Thank you for standing with me.

He thought of Ezra following him out into the dark, Ezra catching him when he fell, Ezra holding him in the canyon, Ezra refusing to leave him until he was sure. Maybe he did know what Ezra meant, after all, even if he didn't quite know why Ezra meant it. After all, it wasn't like they'd been there to stand with him when it had really mattered, was it? He had wanted to be, of course, but surely wanting wasn't enough—

"How long do you figure it'll be before there's a rash of new poker games where he tries to figure out all these new tells?"

Vin boxed up his questions for another time. No reason to spoil the moment. Chris was smiling again. Ezra was doing fine. In the morning, they could take Addie's hair ribbons down to the cemetery and see what they could do about finding a place for them. And once they'd made their time for the dead, they could make a little time for the living. None of them had shown any signs of going light-blind yet and maybe he'd finally have a chance to tell them all those things he'd never even put into poems. That would be good. More than good, really. That would be as near to perfect a thing as Vin could imagine.

After all those years of walking alone, it would be real good to finally have some company on those unseen paths.