by J. Brooks
A callused hand caught Josiah by the shoulder, startling him back to semi-consciousness. Father? Had he fallen asleep during his prayers again? Another sin to add to the litany of his faults, his faults, his most grievous faults. Confio en que me perdonaras, por tu infinita misericordia...
"Didn't quite catch that, Josiah. Say again?"
"Huh?" Josiah cracked open one eye to find Vin Tanner's smiling face hovering inches from his own. Huh. He let the heavy lid slide shut again.
"This is a damn waste of time." Chris Larabee's voice. Josiah frowned and braved the sunlight on the other side of his eyelids again. What was Larabee doing in Vista City? The preacher and the man in black had an unspoken agreement. Josiah kept his prayers and his platitudes about the Afterlife to himself, and in return, Larabee never asked him about his periodic absences from town. He squinted reproachfully at Vin.
As always, the glare rolled right off Tanner. "Josiah," Vin plunked a ceramic mug of water down in front of the preacher. "Josiah? Where's Ezra? We need to talk to him."
Ezra? Josiah blinked slowly. Where was that boy? He made a feeble attempt to push himself upright and felt the edge of something hard dig into his palm. Ah yes, the gold coin. Head still firmly pressed to the table, Josiah held up his prize.
"Ezra," he mumbled through what felt like a mouthful of wallpaper paste. "Ezra's buyin' the next round." The coin slipped from his lax fingers, catching the sunlight in blinding golden flashes as it tumbled down.
A flash of gold. And Josiah was sixteen, watching the sunlight halo Hannah's hair as she stood in the doorway of the mission, and waved him goodbye as he left for the seminary.
A flash of gold. And he was twenty-one, off to spread the Good Word among the California prospectors -- his vocation fading fast as he lost himself in the thrill of panning treasure from the stream beds. At night, he read the letters from home by lantern light in his tent: pretty pictures and gossipy letters from Hannah; impatient demands from his father. Joachim could not possibly send Hannah away to school until his son returned to take his rightful place at the mission. Josiah filled envelopes with gold dust and promises to return. Someday.
A flash of gold. And a long blonde braid, shorn off raggedly close to the scalp and mailed to him. A terse message from his father, demanding that he return to chastise his sister, the harlot, the fallen woman. Hannah's face, blotchy with tears but unapologetic under her close-cropped hair. Hannah, refusing to come with him back to California, refusing to leave Father, refusing to leave Thomas, who loved her, and who was going to leave his wife for her someday, she was sure.
A flash of gold. And India, where he'd drifted. Golden sunsets over the sacred River Ganges. Golden Buddhas in golden temples. Monks in saffron robes sweeping the roads so that even the insects would be safe from their passing. Great rajas, dripping gold as they were borne shoulder-high above the teeming streets. No letters from Joachim now. Just Hannah, charting the old man's slow descent into abusive madness. The unspoken plea bleeding between each line. Come home. Come home. Take care of me.
A flash of gold and it was gone, as Larabee's quick hand darted out to snag the coin out of the air.
"Ezra," Larabee echoed skeptically, raising the coin to eye-level for inspection. "Ezra left this with you? Gold?"
Josiah grumbled irritably into the tabletop, wishing they'd just put the next bottle on Ezra's tab and get the hell out of his way for the next twelve hours or so. Vin was poking his shoulder now, jabbering about something. Since when was the tracker such a chatterbox?
"Josiah!" A harder poke on his shoulder. "I said, where'd Ezra go? We need to talk to him about that telegram he sent yesterday."
With a groan, Josiah heaved himself up on his elbows, ignoring the unpleasant suctioning sound of his face detaching from the sticky table. "Ezra? He should be around here someplace," he said, swiping a hand across his tacky forehead. He squinted up at the two younger men, who were staring at him oddly.
"You check the stables?" Josiah sighed, resigned to the idea that he wasn't going to get another drink until the Ezra question was settled.
"His horse is there. He isn't," Larabee said.
Josiah frowned. A stranger's sightseeing options in Vista City were pretty much limited to the stables, the saloon and the outhouse. Even the working girls would have turned him out by this time of day.
He swiped at his forehead again and felt something flutter to the table. A playing card. He blinked in surprise.
Larabee pulled out a chair and settled himself beside Josiah. Vin followed suit on the other side of the table, reaching to pick up the fallen pasteboard square.
"You sure he didn't leave you a note?" Larabee pressed. "He wired us from Red River yesterday morning to say you'd found a lead on Elias Marsh."
Josiah frowned uneasily, nagged by a vague memory of standing in a telegraph office, one hand crumpling the message Vin had relayed for the nuns, the other brushing Ezra aside as the younger man tried to tell him ... something. He patted his shirt pockets, then the pants.
"No note," he concluded.
"I wouldn't be so sure about that, Josiah." Vin leaned forward and held up the playing card. It was the jack of spades.
The One-Eyed Jack.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra threw himself back from the mouth of the cave, watching with almost clinical detachment as the air above him went silver with flying bullets. The barrage ricocheted off the back of the cave, sending rock chips flying like shrapnel through the small space, biting into Ezra's scalp and shoulders. Damn One-Eye and damn whoever kept him well-supplied with ammunition.
Until this moment, he'd believed "hail of bullets" was nothing but a bit of purple prose dreamed up by dime novel authors. He'd have to remember to tell JD about this. Unless this encounter stayed true to the dime novel formula, where hails of bullets were usually followed by someone going out in a "blaze of glory."
Ezra tossed aside his empty pistols and rolled back to the cave entrance with the rifle. A gratifying number of corpses littered the ground around the old mission. But the number of outlaws up and shooting was larger still. He sighted down the barrel toward the mission walls, where at least half a dozen riflemen were in ideal position to pick him off like a duck in a shooting gallery. He fired two shots in quick succession. Make that, four riflemen.
Now officially out of ammunition and out of options, Ezra turned unhappy eyes on the crate he'd shifted to the most protected corner of the cave. With a muffled curse, he threw himself toward it, grunting as he felt something burn across his shoulder. Hail, he presumed.
Quickly, carefully, he eased an old miner's shovel into the crate, gently working under the closest stick of dynamite. He backed toward the cave entrance, hugging the wall as he fished for a sulfur match. The stick was so old and unstable that lighting the fuse was probably a redundant gesture, but he was Ezra P. Standish, and the P stood for Pyrotechnic Excess.
The fuse caught and hissed, burning down toward the dynamite with frightening speed.
Ezra closed his eyes and tightened his grip on the shovel.
One deep breath.
He stepped toward the entrance and swung the shovel with all his might, watching as the dynamite sailed up, up in a perfect arc toward the mission walls. Without waiting to see if it would reach its intended target, the snipers' nest, Ezra threw himself down on the cave floor, covering his head.
The explosion shook the ground beneath him, showering him with dust from cave ceiling. Coughing, he crawled back toward the entrance to study the smoking ruin where nitroglycerin met mud-brick wall.
He sat grinning at the charred rubble until the crack of a bullet against the cave wall sent him reeling back. The other outlaws were still out there -- and in a truly foul mood now.
Ezra retrieved the shovel and moved back toward the crate, calculating angles and trajectories. He'd caught a glimpse of Elias Marsh, pinned down near the front gates. With a bit of luck and a good tail wind, he might be able to lob the second stick of dynamite straight into the man's teeth.
He fished out another red cylinder and took up position near the cave entrance, fully aware that the gunmen were waiting below for just this move.
Ezra glanced over at his neatly folded jacket and its weighted pockets. If worst came to worst and the outlaws overran his position, he could only hope they would grab the gold and overlook the small notebook he'd tucked between crates of dusty vegetables. If any of his associates came looking for him later, he would like to leave them with some explanation. He always did like to have the last word.
One deep breath.
Ezra stepped into the sunlight -- and into the path of two bullets.
A third bullet snapped the shovel handle in half as his hands tightened in a convulsive swing. The unstable dynamite flew out of the cave to bounce, hissing and sparking, down the steep hillside. It detonated on the third bounce, the fiery explosion touching off an avalanche of boulders and loose rock that completely buried the cave entrance.
The last thing Ezra saw, through the curtain of falling rock and his own dimming vision, was a wall of fire, spreading through the tinder-dry grass and sweeping down on the outlaws in a blaze of glory.
+ + + + + + +
The first explosion reached Vista City as distant thunder that shook dust from the cantina's thatched roof and set the liquid trembling in the half-empty cups and bottles that littered Josiah's table. Old Emilio and the bartender searched the clear skies in confusion while Josiah rested his chin on the table to watch the whiskey dance.
Larabee, knowing the thunder for what it was, bolted out of the cantina, trying to pinpoint the blast as the echoes bounced crazily off the low hills.
"Northeast," said Vin, coming up behind him. "Back beyond that rise."
Larabee ran a hand through his hair, squinting in that direction. "Could be nothing," he said. Could be miners or a railroad work crew or any one of a dozen perfectly legitimate reasons for setting off dynamite in the middle of the day, in the middle of nowhere.
The two men exchanged a look. A dozen innocent reasons and only one that explained the uneasy chill that had been creeping up Larabee's spine since he touched that gold coin.
Vin nodded, understanding. "I'll saddle the horses." He tucked Ezra's one-eyed jack into his pocket and slipped away toward the stables, leaving Larabee staring off into the hills as if he could close the distance with his eyes alone.
And so he was the only person to catch the brief flash of flame that back-lit one nondescript hill, just before the concussion from the second blast rolled through town.
"What was that?" Josiah muttered, blinking in the sunlight as he leaned against the post that served as the cantina's north wall.
"Could be nothing," Larabee said again. The words sounded less convincing with each repetition.
"Like hell," Josiah coughed, walking toward him with the exaggerated care of a man worried that his head might fall off. "Some fool's settin' off dynamite."
The two stood silently, mentally reviewing the short list of dynamite-happy fools of their acquaintance.
"I'll go get my--" Josiah paused, looking around distractedly as he tried to remember just where he'd left his horse. "Stuff," he concluded lamely, turning toward the stables.
Larabee caught him by the arm. "You can't sit a horse," Larabee said, his tone carefully neutral. "Best you wait here in town in case Ezra comes back..." His words trailed off as a flicker of light to the northeast caught his eye. There was a glow behind the distant hill again, faint and orange. A smudge of smoke rose in the air to be caught by the wind and blown toward town.
"Shit!" Vin hollered from the stable, ducking back inside.
Larabee rounded on Josiah. "They got a river near here?"
Josiah nodded south of town.
Shit, shit, shit.
"Round everybody up, start 'em moving toward the water," Larabee gritted through his teeth, staring out over the two miles of tinder that lay between the village and the flashpoint to the north. Like a sheet of paper held over a flame, he could almost see the distant grassland curling and blackening, a moment before the fire burst through to ignite the next patch of ground -- drawing that much closer to Vista City.
Behind him, there was a babble of alarmed voices as the villagers tumbled out of their homes to stare in dismay at the fast-moving line of flames. Josiah was trying to make himself heard over the din. Larabee, who had picked up most of his Spanish in brothels and bar brawls, could only hope that whatever the preacher was shouting would get the people moving.
He closed his eyes, waiting for the breeze to carry the first whiff of smoke into the village.
God, how he hated the smell of smoke.
A hand on his back caught him before he could stray too far down that path. Vin stood waiting, three horses prancing nervously at the ends of the lead lines, rolling their eyes as they scented danger on the wind. Josiah's horse was nowhere to be seen. Larabee allowed himself a brief flash of hope that Ezra and the missing horse were off cooling their heels in the shade of some distant saloon.
"Think there'd be time to dig a fire break?" Vin asked, securing the horses as he watched the fire consume another set of foothills. Smoke darkened the skies above, billowing toxic and gray across the sun.
Larabee shook his head regretfully. "No time," he said, turning his back on the fire to take in the twenty or so ramshackle adobes that the people of Vista City called home. Wordlessly, the two men waded into the chaos.
+ + + + + + +
"This way! This way!" Josiah's booming voice cut through the noise and provided a lone point of reference in the swirling confusion. Men, women, children and dogs mobbed the town square, crying out in dismay at the wall of smoke and flame sweeping down on them.
Larabee thumped Vin on the shoulder and broke away to help a young man who was loading a mutinous-looking burro with what looked like the contents of half his house.
A pretty young woman bumped into Vin, her eyes wild as she clutched a toddler in one arm and a massive blanket-wrapped bundle in the other. Without a word, she shoved both baby and bundle into his arms and darted back into her house. The tracker stared after her, open mouthed, as the child took one look at him and burst into tears.
"Uh, ma'am? Senora?" He called hopefully into the darkened doorway, bouncing the howling baby on his hip. The woman re-emerged with three small children and a goat in tow, every one of them weighed down by massive bundles. With an exasperated tilt of her head, she joined the straggling line of people moving toward the river. Vin blinked and fell in behind.
He looked up as Larabee galloped past, balancing an enormously pregnant woman on the saddle before him. An anxious-looking young man sprinted behind the horse, pushing a loaded wheelbarrow.
They found Josiah waiting for them on the north bank of the river, shepherding villagers across a broad plank bridge. Larabee blew out a sigh of relief as he studied the waterway. It was wide. They could only hope it was wide enough to keep the flames from jumping to the opposite bank. He slid out of the saddle and helped the young woman as she dismounted with surprising grace. Her husband pulled up, wheezing, and she led the way across the bridge to supervise as he emptied the cart and started back toward town for another load.
"No! Wait! Come back here!" Larabee called futilely, realizing that there were as many people heading back to Vista City as leaving it.
"Save your breath, Chris," Josiah sighed, sidestepping a family that was maneuvering an entire bed across the footbridge. "Let them salvage what they can."
Larabee shook his head incredulously. These people had their lives and they had their loved ones. Anything else could be sacrificed to the flames gladly.
The air was growing hazy, heavy with the scent of charred mesquite and the sharp tang of burnt grass.
Muttering darkly, Larabee started back toward town. A line of refugees struggled past him toward the river, weighted down by their household goods. He spotted Vin among them, balancing somebody's lumpy baggage and somebody's screaming baby.
"Cowboy," Vin greeted him as the child shrieked a protest directly in his ear.
Larabee winced in sympathy and held his arms out -- for the luggage. "How much time?" he asked, falling into step as the group trouped across the creaking bridge. He let the heavy bundle drop at the foot of a harried-looking young mother. The woman nodded distractedly and held her arms out for the baby, who, in an abrupt change of heart was now clinging to Vin's neck with all her might.
"Not much. Wind's picking up," Tanner said, trying to pry the kid loose. It took the combined efforts of mother and tracker before the little one popped off, wailing. Vin tipped his hat and backed hastily away.
The refugees milled uncertainly on the south bank, staring numbly back toward the doomed village and the broken line of men and women rushing back and forth through the thickening smoke.
Josiah stood slightly apart from everyone, shoulders slumped. Larabee approached him warily. "We need to get these people away from here, Josiah," he said. "We need to find shelter. You know of anyplace they can go?"
Sanchez's chin dropped onto his chest, as though the added responsibility was a physical weight pressing down on him.
"A few miles south of the river, there's a convent." It was Vin who answered, when it became clear Josiah would not. Larabee cocked an eyebrow at the tracker, who shrugged.
Larabee gritted his teeth and left the obvious questions unasked. "Right. You and Josiah, start the villagers moving in that direction. I'll round up the strays."
He started back toward town, swearing under his breath. A call from Josiah stopped him in his tracks.
Larabee half turned, knowing what Josiah was going to say and not wanting to look him in the eye when he said it.
"What about Ezra?"
He took another quarter-turn toward Josiah, still avoiding those weary, bloodshot eyes. Half a dozen glib reassurances came to mind. You know Ezra. Man knows how to take care of himself. More lives than a cat. Probably sitting in a saloon somewhere right now...
He opened his mouth to say something reassuring, then closed it with a snap and resumed his march toward town. "Get those people moving," he barked over his shoulder. The smoke was a solid wall before him, with Vista City nothing more than the occasional hazy shadow in the gray. Somewhere beyond, the fire raged unseen. Somewhere beyond that, in a landscape already burned black and dead, would be the blast site that sparked the fire. And somewhere near there would be the person who set off the blast -- or what was left of him.
A sudden clatter of hooves brought him back from his morbid thoughts. Larabee turned and stared incredulously at the preacher, mounted on his horse. Josiah galloped past him without a glance, ignoring Larabee's angry shout. In moments, he was lost from sight in the curling smoke.
Larabee screamed threats and abuse into the hazy air until he ran out of breath and doubled over, coughing. He didn't notice Vin beside him until he felt someone thumping him across the shoulder blades.
He braced his hands on his knees and drew a few deep, calming breaths before straightening to face the only man left to order around. "Okay, let's try this again," he hissed. "You get these people moving toward that convent."
Vin's mouth tightened unhappily, but he nodded and headed back to the bridge.
Larabee took off running toward town.
+ + + + + + +
"Anybody in here?" Larabee pounded the flat of his hand against the last door in town, wryly amused that the owner had locked up -- as if that would keep the fire out.
Satisfied that the last of the villagers had fled, he groped his way back along the house wall, making for the river. In one hand, he tugged Chaucer and Peso's reins, sympathizing completely with the complaints of the spooked horses.
The smoke was so thick now, he could barely see his hand outstretched before him into the disorienting gray. It was unnerving, knowing how close he was to the fire and not being able to see it. He could feel it in the oppressive heat of the air. And he could hear it -- a low, terrible hiss and crackle through the unnatural silence that had fallen over Vista City. He stooped closer to the ground to confirm that he was still on the river trail and picked up the pace, leading the balky horses.
Until another sound reached him through the smoke. Not the dull roar of the wildfire or the shrill squeals of the horses, but something even more alarming.
Larabee froze, listening incredulously as a creaky old voice warbled through the smoke, crooning something in Spanish about a girl named Margarita and her enormous--
Ahem. The lawman shook off his stupor and started toward the sound, ready to throw the singer over his saddle. Right after he ripped out his tongue.
The cantina swam out of the smoke in front of him. Of course. It would be the cantina again. Larabee led the horses right into the shelter, peering through the gloom.
Old Emilio cackled at him from his perch on top of the bar. Unattended jugs of liquor sat heaped triumphantly around him.
"What the hell do you think you're doing??" Larabee hollered, reaching out to haul the old man away. Quick as a snake, Emilio whipped his cane around and cracked the lawman over the head, still singing.
"Ow! Cut that out!" Larabee yelped. The old man waggled his cane warningly in one hand as he reached for a jug with the other. Larabee took advantage of the distraction to swat the cane aside and tip the old man unceremoniously over his shoulder.
Emilio howled a protest, snagging a jug of mescal in passing as Larabee hauled him out of the cantina for the last time.
Outside, the smoke had taken on an ominous orange glow. The horses, pushed beyond their limits, snapped their reins out of Larabee's grip and bolted. Smoke blind and gasping for air, Larabee could only follow them in what he hoped was the direction of the river.
"Fuego." He heard the old man murmur over his shoulder, as if noticing the danger for the first time.
"Fire," Chris gasped in agreement, feeling the heat building behind them as he ran. "No bueno."
A pair o
hands caught him by the shoulders a few steps before he would have run both of them into the river.
"What's no bueno' mean?" Vin deadpanned. "The horses got here a few minutes ago. Figured you wouldn't be far behind."
Larabee gasped in relief as the old man slid off his shoulder in a flurry of knees and sharp elbows. Vin grabbed Emilio and hauled him across the dim shadow of the bridge.
The rough wood of the bridge railing felt reassuringly solid beneath Larabee's hand. He stood for a long moment, unwilling to take that first step across the bridge and away from the two men still missing somewhere in the smoke.
"Chris?" Vin's voice from the opposite shore.
"Yeah," Larabee whispered and stepped onto the wooden planks.
Once again, a clatter of hooves interrupted him. He whirled around in mid-bridge, hoping against hope.
A huge black horse, eyes rolling in panic, was barreling down on him. His horse. His riderless horse.
The empty saddle was the last detail he had time to notice before fifteen-hundred pounds of horseflesh plowed into him, sending him crashing through the guardrail and into fast-moving water below.
He landed badly, the force of the fall driving all the air from his lungs. Dimly, he could hear frightened calls from shore, as people peered through the smoke, trying to figure what had happened.
And then the water closed over his head. He had just enough time to marvel at the irony of drowning in a world on fire, before the current smashed him into boulder and everything went black.
+ + + + + + +
The deepest circles of Hell were reserved for the betrayers.
Face to the inferno, Josiah tugged his bandanna higher in a futile effort to protect himself from the scorching heat and smoke. For a quarter of a mile now, he had been weaving through narrow corridors of unburned grass, flanked by roaring walls of flame, hot enough to redden and blister his skin through his clothes.
Reckless with alcohol and remorse, he barely flinched as a resinous creosote bush exploded beside him with a sound like a rifle shot. He brushed absently at the sparks that showered down to smolder on his jacket sleeve.
Dante had it all wrong.
He remembered the well-thumbed copy of The Inferno in his father's library. Remembered that when the poet finished describing the torments of the murderers, thieves and adulterers, he turned his pen on the betrayers. The traitors. Those who had failed their families, their friends and their God.
But Dante's Hell was a frigid place. A realm of bitter, pitiless cold, where the betrayers of family suffered eternal torment, frozen head-down in a river of black ice. And those who broke faith with a friend were stretched out flat on the ice, their eyes sealed shut with frozen tears.
A sudden shift in the wind sent flames shooting across his path, forcing him back a few steps. Josiah gasped in a lungful of cinders as he watched the flames twist and twine before him like a living thing.
The fire roared. Roared. Why, in all those years of lighting candles, of filling his church with hundreds of flickering tongues of flame, had he never noticed the noise a fire could make? He'd spent a lifetime huddled beside campfires, listening to the sleepy crackle of the burning logs, feeling safe because the fire was burning. Trusting the fire to keep the dangers of a dark world at bay.
The wind shifted again and the fire danced away, clearing Josiah's path. He crunched forward across the scorched earth, feeling every ember through the soles of his boots.
He wondered what Dante would make of this hellfire, or the sinner who had cast himself into it.
Josiah had stood on the bank of the river, torn between two broken trusts. He was damned, he knew that. Had been damned, he supposed, since that bright afternoon when a 15-year-old boy first began to think of his little sister as a burden.
Try as he might, he would never be able to atone for that original sin. He would never be able to fix what he had broken in his sister.
But he might still be able to make things right with Ezra. Ezra, who had come to him twice for help, and twice Josiah had turned his back.
He tripped and fell to his knees, coughing, coughing. The updraft from the fire carried the worst of the smoke skyward and it was actually easier to see here than it had been in Vista City. But it was getting harder and harder to breathe the stifling air. The ground radiated heat like a stove, burning through the rough fabric of his trousers.
Hannah would be terrified when all those strangers turned up at the convent, he knew. She'd cry out for Josiah, Josiah to come and protect her. And once again, Josiah would be nowhere to be found.
Take care of her, Vin.
He forced himself back to his feet and pressed on, ignoring the heat, ignoring the flames, ignoring the blood trickling down the side of his head, from when he had fallen after Larabee's sensible horse threw him and bolted for safety.
His thoughts were drifting again, trying to recall who actually burned in Dante's Inferno. There were the heretics, locked in flaming tombs for all eternity. Who else? Blasphemers and usurers, wracked forever on burning sands Oh, and the false counselors, of course. The ones who held themselves up as wise and righteous men, while steering others down the path to their doom. Those, the fire consumed utterly.
Josiah's eyes lit upon a rocky stretch of ground, safe from the flames. The flames might consume him someday. But not today.
He leapt over a burning log and made his way from rock to rock, heading northeast.
+ + + + + + +
Vin heard Chris's startled shout a second before the great black horse materialized out of the smoke in the same spot on the bridge where Larabee was supposed to be.
He threw himself out of the panicked horse's path, dragging old Emilio with him as the big animal gathered itself and jumped up, over the two of them and the wheelbarrow someone had overturned on the path behind them. Vin rolled on his elbow and stared as the riderless black raced away, presumably in search of bluer skies and greener pastures.
"Chris!" he scrambled up and onto the bridge, expecting to find Larabee swearing up a storm on the other side. He groped blindly through the smoke, feeling along the bridge railing -- until his fingers brushed across sharp splinters and the two-foot gap that hadn't been there the last time he crossed.
"CHRIS!" He crouched down, peering futilely through the smoke toward the river rushing unseen below. He could see nothing but the same formless gray that choked the rest of the world and he could hear nothing but the choppy rush of water and the alarmed cries from the riverbank as the villagers worked out what must have happened.
"Damnit, Larabee!" Vin pounded his fists against the wooden planks, wanting to throw back his head and howl at the unfairness of this day that was snatching his friends away, one by one.
Without another word, Vin rose, braced his hands against the splintered edges of the bridge railing and took a blind leap.
+ + + + + + +
On the still-smoldering hillside above the bandits' hideout, a rock tumbled down-slope, breaking the utter stillness left in the fire's wake. A shower of pebbles followed, and another rock. And finally a hand, soot-blackened and blistered, thrust into the open air.
More rocks skittered downslope as a second hand shoved enough debris away to free a head, plastered with rock dust and ribboned with dried blood.
Coughing, the survivor stared around, trying to take in the devastation. The dun-colored landscape of straw grass and dried shrubs had burned away to a grayscale wasteland of charcoal black and ash white. The charred skeletons of trees stood silhouetted against the smoke. The charred corpses of the Marsh gang lay twisted before the mission gates.
How could a single decision, a simple invitation to a game of cards, have led to such ruin? With a groan, he heaved himself free of the debris and limped down the hill.
Moving methodically, he searched the killing field for the man responsible. Eight dead before the gates, six very dead in the smoking crater in the wall where the lookout post used to be. Fourteen.
The survivor's one good eye narrowed.
Callously toeing one of the corpses aside, he uncovered what was left of the gang's treasure. Metal strongboxes, warped by the same heat that had converted the dollars within to so much charcoal. The crates that had held the gold coins had burned away completely, leaving the treasure in fused, awkward lumps.
With a roar of frustration, Elias Marsh delivered a vicious kick to the closest corpse.
"Where are you, gambling man?" he screamed, spinning in a full circle. The cave on the hillside where he'd last seen the cocky little bastard was gone completely, buried under the same landslide that had caught One-Eye and screened him from the worst of the fire.
He'd seen the man fall. Hell, he'd put at least one bullet in him himself. If the shot didn't kill him, the rocks surely finished the job. Marsh didn't care. He'd dig -- what had he called himself? Edward? Ephraim? Something with an E. He'd dig old E out of the hill with his bare hands just for the pleasure of cutting out his cheating heart.
A noise from above brought him whirling around, reaching for the guns he belated realized he'd lost in the landslide. Marsh shrank back around the corner of the mission courtyard, waiting.
A figure crested the hill, covered head to toe in ash and soot, all but invisible against the burned ground. In spite of himself, Marsh felt a thrill of superstitious dread at the sight of this creature that had walked through the fire and come for him.
Then the demon coughed, stumbled, and fell, tumbling down the hill in a painful tangle of limbs. Not a demon then. Just a man with the luck of the devil.
Marsh cast about for a suitable rock to bash the lucky man's brains out, then realized the man had staggered back to his feet and was weaving straight toward the mission, crying and mumbling hoarsely to himself.
Marsh withdrew deeper into the shadows, curious now, as the stranger threw himself down on his knees beside the first body. Gently, he traced the outline of what remained of the face, checked the clothes, the boots, the hands, before dragging himself away to repeat the process on each of the other corpses.
"Ezra?" The call came out as a strangled croak as the man stepped back from the dead bandits and looked around frantically. He lurched toward the burned-out mission, still calling.
Marsh easily evaded the search, watching from the shadows as the stranger gently examined the gruesome remains beneath the wall.
This was convenient. He'd let the crazy stranger find Ezra the Gambler for him, sparing him the effort of the search and leaving him the pleasure of cutting out both their hearts. The man stumbled back outside, calling for Ezra in that pathetic smoker's croak. Marsh rolled his one eye and remained in the mission, searching for any weapons or supplies that might have escaped the fire.
And so he missed the moment when the raw despair on Josiah's Sanchez's face gave way to an expression of desperate hope.
+ + + + + + +
Moving faster than he would have believed possible, the preacher scrambled straight up the side of the hill, slipping on the loose scree of rocks until his blistered fingers closed over object he'd spotted.
A gold coin.
Other coins, untouched by the flames, lay glittering on the smoke-blackened rocks nearby.
"Ezra?" he tried again, his voice barely carrying to his own ears.
In reply, a gold coin sailed out of a gap between the rocks and bounced off his head.
+ + + + + + +
Chris Larabee returned to consciousness in much the same condition he'd left it -- in pain and soaking wet.
Water, shockingly cold, splashed his upturned face and trickled past his lips, turning his groan of protest into a gargle. He rolled sluggishly on his side, feeling something cool and clammy slide off his forehead.
"Rest easy, my child." A voice. Unfamiliar, unthreatening and therefore unimportant.
He swiped feebly at the hands that were trying to roll him flat again. The hands withdrew and were replaced by a blanket, hot and scratchy but wonderfully dry. Larabee lay still, trying to collect his scattered senses.
There were other voices, talking softly all around him, the hum of conversation punctuated by coughs. A small child was wailing somewhere nearby and there was a steady scuffle of footsteps and the scrape and thud of heavy objects being moved around.
Again, cold water splashed his skin. The back of his neck this time. Again, he tried to move away from the dripping cloth. He was sick to death of water -- he remembered that, even if he couldn't quite remember why. Water and ... smoke. Smoke and water. A swirl of disjointed memories. A riderless horse. A card missing from its deck. And fire, consuming the world again.
"No!" He bolted upright, only to double over again in a vicious coughing fit.
"Easy," the unfamiliar voice and hands were back again, easing him down, rubbing his back as he coughed and choked. Blinking furiously through tearing eyes, Larabee found himself glaring into the serene face of a middle-aged nun.
He blinked again, confused. He and the woman crouched nose-to-nose, her hands bracing his shoulders as he gasped for breath. He jerked back, searching frantically among the other faces that came crowding around him.
Smoke and soot were the great equalizers. There was a curious sameness to the faces in the small crowd. Young and old, men and women, all so smudged and filthy it was almost impossible to make out individual features beyond red-rimmed eyes and white teeth as people flashed him quick, relieved smiles and returned to their business.
They moved around him, shadowy gray shapes against a gray backdrop of thinning smoke. Larabee turned his head, searching through the figures as they moved here and there, arranging the belongings they'd saved from Vista City. Chairs and tables, pots and pans, shapeless bundles stacked in neat rows, following the remembered room plans of their abandoned homes. Belatedly, Larabee realized that the soft surface beneath him was a bed that someone had hauled across the bridge and reassembled under the open sky. In the center of the chaos stood a sturdy stucco compound with bars on the gate and a cross on the roof. The convent.
Larabee squinted again at the nun, whose pink cheeks and starched white wimple stood out in stark contrast to the filth around her.
"The fire did not cross the river," she assured him, planting a hand in the middle of his chest and pushing him inexorably back toward the mattress. "It's burning itself out as we speak."
"Vi--?" Larabee rasped out, his breath hitching painfully.
"Your friend pulled you from the water and brought you here," she said, understanding. "He's by the river now, waiting for the fire to die down so he can cross and search for Father Sanchez and the other missing man."
Hell. Larabee rolled into a sitting position again, hissing as the movement set his head and ribs throbbing. He sensed someone moving behind him, a moment before a dripping wet cloth slapped against the back of his neck.
Larabee saw the nun's eyes widen as she stared over his shoulder. He reached up to touch the wet cloth, holding it in place against his neck -- willing to put up with the unpleasant damp if it would help his headache. Slowly, he turned to find a strange woman crouched beside the bed, her gray hair tangled over hollow, haunted eyes.
The woman cocked her head, evaluating him, then smiled -- a broad, oddly familiar grin. She patted his cheek gently, her smile widening as she studied the smudge that transferred from his skin to her fingers. She held the blackened fingers up for him to admire, then brushed the soot across her own cheek in ashen streaks, like war paint.
"Thank you, Hannah," the nun said. Larabee nodded mutely, still staring at the woman's pale blue eyes. Hannah bobbed her head in return and scuttled away.
"She loves to take care of people," the nun sighed, watching her go. "But she's usually so afraid of strangers--" The woman broke off, realizing she was talking to empty air as the injured man made his unsteady way back to the river.