Candles of the Wicked
The mountains looked down with neither passion nor care, as gunfire tore the afternoon apart. Smoke burst in staccato grey blossoms that roiled and spread, riven with the plunging dark forms of horses and men. Heavy bodies collided, grappled, and lurched apart, some crumpling to fall hard and broken, and others wheeling with harsh shouts of anger, dismay, orders that no one heeded. Shots stuttered one atop the other in ragged symphony, and smoke rose white in a bitter fog, as hooves scrabbled in gravel and broken stone. Beyond the ridges, the heavy bowels of the distant storm rumbled macabre echoes, and hard, moist gusts whipped gun smoke to tatters.
Now hurtling shapes turned and bunched and scattered outward, sharp cries yelping amid the chaos, as men chose to flee. Flee from the fury unleashed among them, their equal in number, but ten times them in ferocity. Frantic hooves pounded while strong haunches drove beneath the frantic spurs of their riders. Upward they fled, up again into the canyons, and the smoke and noise whipped away on the wind behind them. Now the fractured slopes echoed only to the scrambling rattle of hooves and the rasping, heaving breath of desperate horses and men. Yet behind them rode Death, driven like an onrushing flood that surged inexorably upon the heels of the vanquished. Neither lash nor spur could save them, as hoof beats drummed the approach of doom from behind.
However, there was after all a thin, fine thing which separated pursuers from pursued. It stayed fury by the merest thread, and held it simmering white in the faces of the men who plunged their mounts to surround those who remained in the saddle.
"Where'd you leave 'em?" A question asked low and brittle-edged by a man in a buckskin coat.
LeBeau's men stammered their uncertainty, and blue eyes widened to something as coldly heartless as the ugly muzzle of the sawed-off Winchester they faced.
"Boys," said that dry voice. "I can shoot little bitty pieces off you, until we get some answers."
Now they realized just how delicately the hand of mercy held them. The words tumbled over each other in haste, now, but the picture became clear. Chris Larabee and JD Dunne were still up there - and Death stalked the barren, storm-shadowed hills above.
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Chris would not so much as look at JD, right now. If he did, he might just reach over and knock the living snot out of him, in an effort to hammer a single ounce of sense into that thick head. Why, in all Heaven's sweet name, why wouldn't the little shit just do as he was told? What stubborn, stupid, deluded, dime novel set of sensibilities guided him to stay here and die like a fool? He had a chance, for God's sake, a chance Chris was glad to give him, to get the hell out of here and make some use of his life. Chris had known, for longer than he cared to think about, that this was likely how it would end for him. While the body and spirit rebelled stridently against it, there was in his heart a strange sort of weary acceptance. There seemed ever so much he would have liked to do, or undo, or maybe even do over, but this was probably how things were meant to be. Oh, he was not about to go easy, no sir, but he could accept what would inevitably happen.
But JD? Why? The damned little fool had everything in the world ahead of him, a girl back home and his entire life to build. That kid had the sort of spirit and tenacity and heart that the world needed in a helluva lot bigger supply than it had. And yet . . . he was throwing it all away. Throwing it away, and for what? God -. Chris fisted his hands into gritting sand and pebbles, and hurled his entire heart into the enormous, faceless, uncaring sky above. Why are You letting this happen to him? I know why me, but why him?
Dirt burst between them, a funny, angry little geyser of spitting dust that went thump and leaped and fell, and made no sense at all. Chris blinked at the tiny crater beside him in somnolent stupidity - as a small but meaty pow smacked his eardrums.
Chris flipped facedown between their rocks. "JD, get down!"
That was a rifle, all right, but it was someone shooting at them from an unimaginable distance. Whatever improbable chances that may have existed had just been snatched away. Another little spout of torn dirt jumped and fell, backed by the same distant pow. Just the damnedest thing, as if the bullet slapped the gunshot into being, deliberate as a man clapping his hands twice. As the echo of it boomed and boomed into infinity, he saw JD trying to wrap himself around his rifle. Get down? Hell, they would both burrow underground, if they only could. For that matter, he suddenly wished like hell that their neighborhood thunderstorm would crawl over onto their side of the ridge. However, a brief, sharp pattering of hailstones had been all it cared to toss them, and now the storm appeared to be subsiding.
A moment later, he saw JD twisting his neck to try to see past their suddenly feeble breastworks of barren mountainside.
"Chris!" JD hissed a sharp whisper, as if the shooter a thousand yards away could hear as far as he could shoot. "Where is he?"
"I don't know." Chris also tried to see, without exposing himself to their unknown assailant. "Out of range for us, though."
The heavy reports that had followed those bullets' strikes were proof of that. It was also proof that the caliber used was big enough to achieve accuracy with confidence.
"What the hell's he shootin'?"
"Buffalo gun, maybe. Sharps. Something big and long-range."
"Well, what do we do?"
Right. Chris felt disgusted at his own advice. Just lie here and try to melt right into the bedrock. How in hell were they to know if the sharpshooter could see them, or not? Obviously he had seen something, to come as close as he did. With a gun that big, all he needed to do was hit an arm or a leg, and his target was helpless. For an instant, Chris imagined the man simply blowing him and JD to little bits, one piece at a time, and wished he could shrink away inside his own skin. Now that the sharpshooter wasn't shooting, the dread of the next bullet was almost worse. The silence settled so profoundly that it nearly rang, and Chris could hear the dull thump of his own heartbeat. No more bumps or booms came from the bulging clouds behind the ridge, and now the angry darkness was softening to the muted grey of a storm in retreat. The wind had likewise softened, bringing with it a sweet, pungent sent of new-fallen rain.
The kid was up to something, fishing his bowler hat to him, and sticking it on the muzzle of his rifle. However, it tipped at an angle too sharp to suit him, and so he balanced it on his fingertips, slowly, cautiously holding it just above his chest.
"Chris! Watch and see if he shoots."
Gingerly he raised his left hand, the hat visibly trembling against his resolve, but he clenched his teeth. Held the hat there, just inches up. Nothing. Slowly he raised it farther, trying to make it look as though his head were in it, as if he were trying to peer out. Careful, kid -.
A fusillade of bullets exploded dirt all over them, and shocked a strangled yelp from JD. The kid threw both arms over his head and jammed his face into raw gravel. Quiet shuddered in behind the chaos. That sharpshooter might not fall for a hat trick, but it was damned certain that LeBeau's entire contingent was still waiting below.
"JD . . ." Chris felt himself sigh around his words. "Our rifles won't shoot that far, anyhow."
Panicky frustration burst from the kid in a rush. "Well, we could have tried!"
What they did not voice was their new reality; that with LeBeau's men now pinning them tightly from below, the sniper was free to calculate his shots from just anywhere he wanted, way the hell and gone out yonder. God help them.
Chris could hear the kid's breathing, shaky rasps that sounded like they should make him light-headed. A moment later that changed and JD was whispering, words coming fast and jumbled, just under his breath. It took a moment for Chris to recognize it as some sort of prayer, which the kid repeated at least twice. Strange realization, since JD had never made much of being very religious. Now . . . well, maybe it was time to make his own arrangements with the Hereafter, too.
Chris sighed and closed his eyes, feeling the steel weight of the rifle lying against his side. Not long, now. Sarah . . . I lost the man you married, somewhere along the way. I'm sorry. I probably won't get to see you . . . but look out for JD, all right? And Buck. Please wait for them, at least. Please, Sarah . . .
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They rode like the Apocalypse, horsemen called Justice and War, Conqueror and Death, and likewise called Faithful and True. They spared no care for man or beast, not for hooves that scrambled or lungs that heaved, nor old wounds that pulled savagely and cut the wind short in a desperate chest. Another volley of gunfire reverberated through the ridges above, and tormented them with its distance. They spared no care when he who led flung a buckskinned arm upwards; "This way!" and they flogged laboring mounts into a steeply lunging climb. Rocks rolled and dry clay slumped beneath driving hocks and flashing hooves. The pace faltered, but never their resolve.
'If thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain, for he is a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.' Yet great was their terror that they would be too late, were already to late, and no victory could be had that would matter worth a damn.
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The great sky simmered, the mountain slept, and the fitful, muggy breeze seemed to whisper in spectral voices, suggesting things just beyond human hearing. The storm had indeed abandoned them, retreating away beyond the ridges, and now the heated air felt so humid it almost had weight. Meanwhile, JD could feel Chris' lingering anger like radiant heat in itself, but there was no help for it. It was not that JD refused to think of leaving, exactly as Chris wanted him to. He was scared, so scared that his bowels sagged heavily and he could hardly draw a deep breath. Hell, if there were anything left in him, he would probably throw up or mess himself. Yet he had spoken the truth. The wish to escape - to live! - screamed at him like a steam whistle, and the force of it shamed him, that there was a secret part of him craven enough to actually consider breaking and running, and be damned anything or anybody else.
However, crashing in upon that was the godforsaken awfulness of leaving Chris here, of just abandoning him, alone, to be shot to bloody bits and die under an enemy's heel. That would be the cost of JD's life . . . and he could not do it. Could not. Oh, God, if he only could. If he could just run away, all the way back to his life at home, and pack Chris right along with him, over his damned shoulder if he had to. But there were no miracles. He would never make it ten yards, anyhow, before those fellas down slope cut him down. His little hat trick had proven that. Even if he tried, the sniper put an end to whatever faint hope he may have had. He would be shot in the back while running away, and that, fellas, was not going to be JD Dunne.
JD let the immense, hushed presence of the desert wrap around him, so quiet he could hear his own pulse hum in his ears. A man could almost imagine that he might drift right out of his skin, floating away into all that shimmering space and distance. The Indians thought there were spirits out here, and certainly the sweeping valleys seeming to listen with infinite patience, whilst fractured mountains watched in postures of ancient, frozen violence. Maybe that's why he sometimes saw Vin just standing motionless, as if listening to a secret conversation. If there were spirits, he hoped they were watching, because this was going to be the last thing he ever saw.
God, why did You put me here, if You were just going to take it all away? It's just so unfair. I didn't DO anything yet. I never got to see San Francisco or kiss Casey, or even really be with a girl or have a family - I never got to do anything that mattered. Did I just do everything wrong in my life? Is that it?
THUP! Another fountain of dirt burst next to Chris' legs, and both of them jerked in unison, as that distant report thudded after. They swung their legs to new contortions, rolled tighter into the gritty earth. Where the hell was he? Yet they dared not even raise their heads to guess the sharpshooter's angle. Just one shot, this time. The huge quiet afterwards seemed to mock them, as somewhere out there, a stranger took his sweet time in reloading and clambering around to find just the right field of fire. When he did, it would be over with the stroke of a trigger. And they would never know when that final bullet might come. They would barely even know what they died for, only that a big, gravel-voiced man seen once by lamplight, a man of whom they had never heard, before that night, had perceived them as a threat and thrown all of Hell that he could muster into assuring their destruction.
JD wanted to puke, his breathing harsh and ragged, almost in sobs, as he struggled with the enormous reality facing him. Death, that's what, as gut wrenching and implacable as a tidal wave, the most massive finality a man could ever face, and he had to do it with both eyes open, knowing exactly what was coming. He felt acutely aware of the scorching press of sun between his shoulder blades, the thud of own his pulse in his ears. Even the sullen burn of his wounded arm was yet another testament to one sure, clear thing; that he was alive. Yet right here where he lay, feeling the rough grit of earth with his hands, seeing brazen blue sky and the shimmering flanks of dry, folded hills, he was going to be made dead, and all he could do was lie here and wait for it. Any moment, any second now, that last bullet would smash into his living body. Bang, black, lights out. Every nerve and sinew in him trembled in frantic dread against that last, all-encompassing instant of finality. If there were tears left in him, he would have cried like a baby, but he found no such release, felt burned empty as a dry gourd.
'O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell . . .'
I'm sorry, God. I tried to do the right things. I tried. I tried . . .
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The sharpshooter was here to finish a job, and those below were here to ensure that his working conditions were optimum. That much became evident, as another ragged salvo from below coughed grit and pebbles over them. No chance for Chris or the kid to so much as take a piss, now, and meanwhile the man with the buffalo gun was at leisure to find just the perfect spot on his distant hillside. Once more, the echoes stumbled away into distance. Chris could see the motes in his own eyes against the blue overhead.
They both jerked tightly, as the wire-thin whistle of a ricochet keened away like a flight of razor blades. JD's ragged breathing took a while to steady. Not a damned thing Chris could say to help, either. Long moments passed, and the dry shriek of a distant hawk pealed down unseen currents of air. If a man wanted to be anthropomorphic, he could imagine that it as the angry voice of Nature, cursing those who desecrated her vast, ancient silences.
This time the cuff of JD's pant leg jerked with strange animation, as the handclap of the shot followed. What vaguely concerned Chris, however, was that this time JD never so much as flinched. He just lay there with his face in his arms, no longer mumbling. His filthy dark hair had fallen forward over a pallid face, which looked as ghastly as a corpse's beneath bruises and sunburn and dirty whiskers. Damn them. Damn them to a thousand deaths, and a thousand eternities in the darkest pits of Hell. Not like this. NOT like this, damn it all, shot to pieces while they just lay here, waiting to die like hogs in a pen -.
JD's voice startled him, in all that pressing silence. Chris turned his head to meet a very somber stare. Those clear, dark eyes seemed bottomless with such ancient weariness, yet their steadiness held him as if with iron bonds. Chris felt the effort to find words working at the chords of his throat, but he had nothing left to say. He had used all his words up, flung against the stupid, stubborn walls of this very kid's obstinacy only to bounce back with no effect, and he had nothing else left to offer. JD nodded, though, a slow dip of the boyishly stubbled chin, and his mouth pursed briefly, as if arriving at some unspoken understanding.
"Josiah once told me that a hero is someone who's willing to sacrifice their life for the greater good. I still don't know for sure how that happens . . . but you come close as anybody I've ever known. I'm proud to ride with you, Chris Larabee."
Chris heard, but for an instant could not react. Jesus, JD, how can you still even think like that? How can you say that, when all I've done is lead you to a lousy, shitty place to die?
And suddenly the kid shifted himself to free that wounded, bloody right arm, and held out his hand. Held out his damned hand, and kept it out there, waiting, the whole scene frozen like some fool thing he must have read about in a dime novel. What the hell did he think? That Chris would now say something gallant and bold in return, and laugh in the face of danger? Yet the kid's steady gaze looked right into him, mirroring all the earnestness and loyalty that had forever been JD's greatest asset . . . and suddenly Chris heard what the kid was really saying.
JD was saying goodbye.
It took all Chris had to force words past the tightness in his throat. Maybe they were not as fancy as the books would have had it, but his whole heart squeezed into them and into the handclasp he gave in return.
"You're a good man, JD."
The instant smile was the devil-may-care JD they knew so well, his whole boyish face suddenly alight with a burst of purest elation, that shone dazzlingly bright in white teeth and shining eyes. Yet Chris clenched himself tightly against the terrible emptiness that threatened to engulf him. So long, kid. Give 'em hell. See you at Fiddler's Green.*
Then he raised his face sharply to the blade of the sun, and to the blank, indifferent stare of mountain and sky and looming eternity. The one thing he could make sure of . . . neither of them would die alone. The brute certainty of that burned in his belly and skinned his lips from his teeth in savage, silent promise. Oh, no, Chris Larabee was going to lead a regular crowd into Hell, today.
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More shooting - minutes ago they had heard more shooting, which had to mean those two were still alive, dammit, someone was still alive, please, God -. Buck felt near to strangling on panic, as the rented horse beneath him floundered and lunged in steep, crumbling rubble. The pitch of the ridge they traversed was steeper than a roof, and their horses were nearing exhaustion. One misstep now, and both horse and man would tumble in a shattering fall that might never stop - hell, the curve of this slope was such that Buck could not even see the bottom. Nor did this nameless animal have nearly the heart of his trusted grey back home. Instead, it lent its strength sullenly, and that only under a hand made brutal by desperation.
Ahead of him, Vin's horse likewise bucked a sliding path upwards, towards the now-vanished echoes of gunfire. Yet since the last ragged volley, the only sounds had been the slithering rattle of debris underfoot, and the heavy, hollowed-out breathing of their struggling horses. Even the hot, gusting breeze seemed intent on pushing them back, and the swollen, tattered grey back of the receding storm loomed as if in silent menace. Urgency shoved like a bulging dam - they're just up that draw, then over the ridge. Just right there -.
With a violent heave everything sank, the horse literally dropping from under him. Buck instinctively hauled hard on the reins to get the horse's head up, to halt the sliding fall that even now pitched them giddily sideways, wrenching his back and belly like the twist of a wet rag. Get up, damn you! He smelled green hay-breath as the horse gaped around the bit, but by brute strength he pulled the animal up, felt it lurch and stumble back onto all fours. You ain't done 'til I say you're done, and boy, I'm not even started.
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Sanity had fled from this place, along with most things that made a man human. JD thought virtually nothing, his mind wiped blank - by panic, desperation, and wild, terrible things that had no name - as both of them pushed themselves to their knees, then back on their heels. Taking a tight grip, JD awkwardly hauled Chris' stumbling weight towards him, and together they simply . . . stood up. For a moment, there no response came from the hired guns of Dutch LeBeau. Nothing but humming silence, blazing blue sky, and the massive, watching patience of the mountains around them. Winchesters in hand, he and Chris turned and faced outwards, downhill, suspended in an eternal instant between living and dying - then someone fired. As one, their bodies bent to the sweeping shift of rifles to shoulders - and the end began.
JD saw it as if from someplace outside himself, he and Chris walking now, in long, clumping downhill strides, the crack of shots one after the other, and the hillside below exploding into a bank of smoking blossoms. Like hammers striking a steady beat, they fired alternately, taking time to pause between strides, aim, and shoot, and then walk into the jerking action of levering in a fresh round. Things snapped past their heads, plucked at their clothes, kicked dirt at their feet, but still they came, and for a moment it seemed as if they might just keep walking, taking gigantic, ten-foot strides right over and through the bursting grey hedgerow of smoke below.
Yet a man is not ready, is never ready, even when all is lost. JD grunted sharply on the awful shock to his belly, like a hard fist slung deep. Sky and earth turned in a brilliant white spin around him, he was tipping away from his feet and away from all the world, and in that crashing instant, JD Dunne knew the despair of his life.
From a great distance, he heard a fast, lingering burst of popping sounds. Gunfire had become the only thing left in the world, and he was so alone that he wanted someone to come, anyone, but he was sinking away, away . . . .
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Chris saw them, and would see them again countless times, in jagged-edged memory. From thin air, they erupted into being around him, over a thousand pounds each of hurtling fury and desperately scrambling hooves. The gusting shock of their passage staggered the legs right out from under him, dropping him woozy-headed to one knee. Pain blazed up crimson at his fall, yet he stared in dumb disbelief, watching them punch quick, pounding smokes before them, plunging headlong down a slope where no sane man would even think to ride. Yet ride they did, five horsemen plummeting like an avalanche right over and right through the stupefied ranks of Dutch LeBeau's men.
He watched as Josiah reached down like a man plucking corn, and swung a flailing body clear off the ground. It kept flailing, through the brief flight that hurled it downhill, into a tumbling spill of dust and tangled limbs. He watched as Ezra spun his horse so tightly its forefeet never touched the ground, and the quick, slashing arc of his rifle butt dropped a man as if boneless. He watched as Nathan wheeled his gape-jawed mount back uphill, and then jerked himself upright in the stirrups to make a sharp, flinging gesture - which nailed a man's gun arm hard to the ground. And he watched as Vin swept among them like a Comanche, like a wildfire, men falling in his wake and he never glancing back.
Then there was one other, not on the familiar grey horse he knew so well, but it was him, sweet God, it was him . . . and Chris Larabee simply had nothing left. He was still wondering why he lay staring up at that damned empty sky when a fair chunk of it was blocked out by a dark silhouette, bending over him.
"Easy, now, Chris." A rich, brown voice, familiar and comforting as old flannel. "Lemme have a look at you."
Familiar hands gently gripped him, pushed him until they rolled him onto his good side. Nathan. He tried to speak the name, but his dry throat made only a small hacking sound.
"Now, you hush and be still. Don't look like you're shot mortal, but lord, you be a mess."
An equally familiar slouch hat blocked the light further, but the face under it was oddly tight. "Nate," said the dry voice. "Best you come quick. Kid's hurt bad."
JD? Sunlight slammed back in his eyes, as Nathan abruptly vanished from Chris' limited horizon. Chris tried to order his swimming thoughts, tried to make his battered, beaten, used-up self simply move . . . but could not. Despair howled silently through him, and came out as a throttled growl, or maybe a groan. He dragged an elbow under him, braced a hand in pebbly sand. Another hand settled on him, and this time it came with a voice warm as molasses in June, and drawled out just as slow and easy.
"You ol' war dog, I swear we can't let you out alone, without supervision."
"Buck . . .?"
Just a breath, but he spoke the name, and everything in him fell loose, body and soul. He collapsed and lay there, and looked up into a dark-jawed, dirty face, and eyes that shone down at him like a buried man's first look at sunlight. Chris flopped a hand into cotton fabric, gripped a fistful of it tightly.
"Damn you . . . ."
Not what he meant, but all he could think of. Yet the mustached smile centered in his now-tunneling vision told him that he was understood. Chris could let go, now, but did not. Not of that precious grip to a dusty shirt. He held onto what he had gotten back . . . against what he might be about to lose. JD . . . .
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LeBeau's men were gone, scattered and bloodied and gone as they could get. Five grim men allowed them to collect their damaged and dead, but the cold promise of violence in those men's faces was clear warning that this was in the interests of tidiness, not compassion.
"Take 'em all," the grizzled, granite-jawed one rumbled. "Dead man stinks somethin' fearful, after a day in this sun."
"But you wait."
This in another's voice, one as dry as the rasp of a rattlesnake coiling on stone, and the eyes behind it were unblinking, utterly cold. The hireling to whom this longhaired man spoke froze, his breath snagging high in his chest. He had already dropped his pistol, what more could there be?
The smooth, heartless purpose of a snake was also evident in how this man walked; an easy, circling stride that barely stirred his long, Indian-wild hair.
"The gun belt. Where'd you get it?"
The man's hands dropped unbidden to the length of black leather and silver conchos that wrapped snugly around his hips. Hell of a nice rig, one that had sang to him even when the silver was all he could see, glinting on a chair in Chris' dark hotel room. Time had worn the dark leather so subtle that it didn't just buckle around him, it embraced him, and the now-abandoned pistol worked as smooth and tight as a twenty-dollar gold watch. They were the tools of a man who wore his gun enough to take pride in both its exhibition and use, and until just now, they had made their new owner feel pretty distinguished, his own self.
"What, this? Oh, I ah -."
Then he saw something, in the flex of tiny muscles that hinged the buckskinned man's jaw, in the almost imperceptible flare of nostrils. In that instant, he knew with unquestionable certainty that his life depended on his answer. He was only a hired gun, a man of imperfect morals and limited imagination, but his sense of self-preservation was unimpeded. On this day, he was able to lie with spectacular artistry.
"I traded it from one of the other fellas. He - he said he took it from the hotel when they took Chris and the kid, but he got a big ol' hay belly, and it didn't fit him."
Blue eyes narrowed, and the hired gun swore that this man was looking right back through his own eyeballs. Right into where his true thoughts must be written in three-inch letters. Plain, bald-headed fear gave his voice the sharp, indignant edge of conviction.
"Well, hell, when a man says he wants to trade a purty rig like this, who 'm I to turn him down?"
The crack of a fist snapped his jaw shut, and bolts of light shot through his skull like shards of broken glass. The man landed on his back before he knew he was falling, and felt rough hands yank at his middle. Then a boot shoved him sideways, as the gun belt sucked away from under him. He blinked woozily up at blinding sun, and a shadow in a buckskin coat who leaned over him, speaking again in that sibilant snarl.
"Man who owns this leaves turds worth more than you. I see you again, I'll drop you where you stand."
The big, graying man took special pleasure in "requesting" the use of two of the gang's horses, as well. He was particular about it, too, choosing two of the best-looking mounts.
One of the erstwhile riders gaped, spluttered, then sucked in his chin to whine with near-suicidal complaint. "You 'spect us to walk all the way back to El Paso? Why 'at's gotta be -."
"A refreshing stroll." The big man nonchalantly swung his Winchester '66 across his chest to port-arms. "Besides, Moses walked around the desert for forty years."
Whether it was his religion or his rifle that persuaded them, they left with no further objection.
The last word came from the dapper Southern man in the astonishingly dusty green coat. The quiet drawl was at distinct odds with his eyes of glacial ice.
"Tell your master that he is through with us. Don't let us so much as lay eyes on him, when we get back. Tell him that if he comes at us again . . . well, he has to sleep sometime."
After LeBeau's men had gone, what was left of their encampment became spoils for the victor, which meant coffee, food, and blankets, and just enough good whiskey to ensure the injured slept soundly. As for LeBeau's sharpshooter, he had nothing left to fight for, and vanished as he had appeared, faceless and invisible. Nonetheless, Vin ghosted out into those broken hills, and kept his vigil as a mountain cat studies a barn yard.
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Light . . . air . . . was he still breathing? Something tugged at him, pulled oddly and hard enough to make his whole body lurch. Did dead people have bodies and breathe air? Someone pulled at his clothes. His vest, someone pulled his arm out to one side, and his vest slid off and away. There was a thick, sodden fog in his head, like he was dreaming, but he knew someone else was there. Felt hands on him again, pulling at him so the ground pressed the backs of his shoulders and hips. Who -? Fear stabbed like lightning from the dark, and he struck out, or tried to, felt hard warmth seize his wrist and halt it. No! Easy, JD. Let the man work. Hold still, now, I'm just takin' a look at you. Got him? Yeah, he's all right.
Voices . . . voices he knew, but which could not be here. This must be dying. Like dreaming, only without pictures. Not so bad. No hurt, just numb, heavy . . . Not so bad. But that light . . . He opened his eyes. He had eyes to open, which was a vague surprise. Saw blue sky; that same damned blue sky, and he squinted from its infernal brightness.
Sudden shadow fell over him, and a clear, dry voice asked, "That better, kid?"
JD looked up - into the blurry underside of an old slouch hat. He dazedly traced his gaze up the arm that held it, to meet blue eyes that absolutely twinkled.
"Vin?" His was a frog's voice, but the other heard and white teeth shone in a slow, warm smile.
"Right here, JD."
There was more tugging going on, down around his waist. He didn't want to look, remembered the slam of the bullet.
"Am I dying?" It seemed a man should know, but everything was so hazy and confusing.
"Not if I got any say."
At that voice, JD did look down, to the man bent over his mid-section, the man doing all that tugging and bothering. He saw a mahogany-dark face that leaned forward with keen intensity, and dark eyes that suddenly lifted to meet his, solemn and yet ever so kind.
"Doc . . ." Then a thought rose sluggishly to the surface of his mind, and found voice in but a single word. "Chris?"
"He's all right. Pretty banged up, lost blood, dehydrated, but he'll make it."
Thank you, God. Relief like nothing JD had ever known poured into him, lightening the strange, numb heaviness that bound him to earth. He smiled, or thought he did, and let his eyes close again. Let those strong, sure hands do their work. Nathan and Vin were here. How, that remained a puzzle that his mind fumbled at like a wet bar of soap, and could not grasp. No matter. If he was going, now, it was all right. They were here, and Chris was all right.
He drifted in humming grayness for a measureless time, hearing voices, vaguely aware of shifting shadows beyond his eyelids. He felt pressure on his belly, a vague ache, but little else. Felt cool, dry fingers touching gently, heard more voices. Just too hard to try to make out what they said, though. Strange that he just hung like this, neither here nor there.
Then he heard laughter. Real laughter, so bright and jangling that he swam forward from his stupor. He tried to open his eyes. There were the voices again, punctuated by a sharp whoop and more laughter. - of the Irish, kid. Damnedest thing I ever saw.
Talking to him? Brilliant light sledged his eyes, then he felt himself being joggled, the hard bar of an arm sliding under his back and tilting him up. Someone else grappled around his legs, pinched them together like a bundle of wood.
He heard yet another voice, deep and warm; "Watch his arm."
Josiah? He was here, too? Then another voice spoke, mellow as corn bread with the rich drawl of Dixie.
"Now, sir, I've got him. You are scarcely fit to carry your own self. You might see to his rifle and hat."
Ezra. Even with eyes closed, JD smiled in relief. Suddenly he was rising, and the surprise of that swaying ascent shook him further into daylight, into a blurred vision of sun-blasted mountainside and someone's shoulders and chest. Ezra was carrying his legs, while JD's head bumped back against Josiah, who carried him from behind. His horizon swung giddily in a bright pinwheel of sky and pale stone, and for a moment, he just let them jounce him along. One strange thing - when he glanced down into his lap, he saw his bedraggled shirt tails all pulled loose, but no blood. An entry wound didn't always show much blood, but shouldn't there be at least some? The blue above him blurred to dark, and became green. Soft leaves slapped him in passing, rustled around him, and then he was sinking again, settling back against someone who then let him down flat. Shade. Sweet, blessed shade. They were back down by the spring.
"Here, take this to Chris. Make sure Vin knows, too, don't give him too much, at first."
That was Nathan again, and in his out-stretched hand was a dripping canteen. The healer spoke to someone who knelt at JD's head, and he heard a low response say, "Got it." He felt that unseen someone rise, and then footsteps scuffed away.
"Ready for some water, JD?" Now Nathan's attention returned to him, as the healer swung a second canteen from a strap over his shoulder.
The mud of JD's thoughts permitted at least that certainty. Were belly wounds supposed to get water? The healer slid a strong arm under him and sat him carefully upright, once more. JD reached for the dark hand holding the canteen, but was gently rebuffed.
"No, now just a little bit. Too much and you'll be sick."
It was only water, but it went down as cool and sweet as cider. As parched tissues soaked the precious fluid in, JD felt like his whole life seeped back in along with it. His mind began to clear with each careful sip. Such aching disappointment it was, when Nathan pulled the canteen away.
"That's enough," said Nathan firmly. "You'll get more, in a little while. Let's just make sure that stays down, first."
"All right." Yet there was still one question that was beginning to thoroughly confuse him. "Doc? Am I dying?"
Nathan's white teeth shone in a half-moon smile. "No, you ain't. But I reckon your gun belt won't never be the same, again."
An arm clad in dusty canvas appeared before him, and with it Josiah's toothy grin. From the preacher's hand dangled JD's gun belt, the holsters sadly still missing his other Colt's pistol.
"Took a bullet right in the belt buckle, son," Josiah said. "Looks like it killed it dead, too."
JD squinted, then blinked, then reached out for the reward of that leather and steel weight plunked into his lap. He fumbled unsteady fingers for the bright, nickel-plated brass of the buckle, and frowned at what he felt. At what he saw. In the heaviest part of the buckle, where the tang of the buckle was supposed to rest, was imbedded a hard, smeared-looking grey blob of . . . lead? He scratched at it with a dirty fingernail, felt the soft metal give slightly. Then he turned the buckle to various angles, noting how the thick, silvered brass now bent like a big spoon.
"I'm not dying." JD thought he ought to be perfectly certain about that.
"Nope." Josiah looked as pleased as if he had just won a whole pie. "Wasn't your day to die."
"I'll be." JD let the heavy leather fall back on his lap. He was not dying.
"You gonna have to take it easy, though," Nathan said. "Prob'ly you'll have a bruise as big as a dinner plate, and things gonna be mighty tender down there."
Clarity was returning in a slow, steady flood, and now JD did want to look. Chin tucked to his chest, he pushed aside the gun belt and pulled up his shirt, and examined where the fly of his trousers was still unbuttoned. There was pale skin and sparse black hairs - and a big, red blotch that looked like someone had stuck a hot flatiron right under his belly button. Only it didn't burn, just felt sort of . . . achy and numb. Weird, like it was partly asleep. He tilted his glance from that to the mangled buckle lying over his knees.
Josiah reached to turn the buckle for further examination. "Prob'ly you'll have to replace this, but I'd keep it as a trophy. Luck like this, a man ought to hang onto it."
A breathless, woozy laugh escaped through JD's sudden grin. He had been so set on being dead -. "Yeah, guess I could. Hey, Preacher, think it's too big for a watch fob?"
Amid their answering chuckles, JD bent forward gingerly and reached for the belt - and gasped in a shocking wash of pain. He stared blearily at the blood-black stiffness of his right sleeve, having forgotten entirely about that other hurt.
"Damn, Doc. I got all kinds of holes."
"JD, I ain't even half-started on your list of injuries, and Chris is no better off. Why you ain't both dead is beyond me."
"Hell, Nate," boomed a cheerful voice. "Only way to kill them two is by cuttin' off their heads and hidin' 'em."
JD saw. He saw, but could not make his mind grasp what his eyes told him, could not comprehend the reality of the tall figure now walking through the green weeds and nodding branches towards him. A tall man with a wide-brimmed hat, and a broadly grinning, mustached face that was three days' dark with whiskers and dirt. That smile burned like sunlight through a lens, and freed some surviving atom of JD's mind to blurt a name he had not thought to speak again, this side of dying;
"None other, kid. Who were you hopin' for?" That lanky frame arranged itself in a wonderfully familiar, slouching stance before him, and Buck grinned as he cocked his head quizzically. "Damn, boy, you look like hell!"
"You - you - what - ?" JD's head reeled, and his breath caught tight and jammed on the tangle of things that nearly choked him, wish and want and the towering marvel of still being alive. Then it all burst in a torrent. "Buck, what on earth are you DOING here?"
"Well, who you think fetched that fool hat of yours? I could've left it up there, y' know."
"You were almost DEAD, Buck! You shouldn't even be out of a wheel chair, and here you are in the middle of a gunfight! Where is your sense? Tell him, Nathan! What the hell do you -?"
Buck was here, right here, kneeling down not an arm's length away. Yet JD could not stop the words tumbling out of his mouth, as if to stop talking would mean his friend might vanish.
"JD, nothin'! You could have hurt yourself! You could have been shot! What were we supposed to do, if a big galoot like you -?"
"JD, shut up."
But the words were gently spoken, while a friend's smile shone brightly into places that had been dark for far too long. Blue eyes looked at him with tiny creases marking the corners, silently laughing at him, and a familiar hand came to rest on his shoulder, squeezing there. A touch that JD had thought was forever and always lost. Mutely, JD stared back at his miracle. Without even thinking about it, he reached out with his left hand, pushed it out until fingers and palm pressed on dusty cloth, and the heart still beating beneath.
And that was all. Just the feel of flat muscle and dirty cotton warm under his hand, and of emotions that crowded within him too great to name. The sun blazed white on a broken, bloody hill, and beyond their tiny haven, all of Texas simmered away to the far haze of the horizon. Yet they sat there, the two of them, grinning at each other like fools, and there was a sense of things settling right, of balance shifting slowly, ponderously back towards what should be, and not what had been. Buck's hand came up and lay warmly over his own, pressing it in place. That simple contact might have been all that kept them both from a display completely unbecoming to grown men and gunslingers.
"Yeah," Buck said softly.
Then JD sighed, a long, easy release of . . . just everything. Buck dropped his hand to JD's shoulder again, pushed lightly on him, urging him to lie down. Down was all right. It was awfully nice to lie down, actually, knowing he could get up again. JD let himself settle into the same green weeds in which he and Chris had found refuge, what seemed ages ago. Buck's hand remained as a gentle weight on his shoulder, anchoring him to earth and living. Meanwhile, Nathan began plucking at him again, laying JD's right arm across his own knees to roll up that ghastly sleeve, and made disapproving noises at what he found. Things seemed to be getting sort of vague and blurry again, but JD felt no fear, now. No fear at all.
+ + + + + + +
Sleep was the tonic most desperately needed, and sleep is what their three wounded got. They lay at rest in the small, now-trampled green space beneath the sycamore and her sisters. Buck found himself included among the casualties, when, once the action was over, he discovered he had become prone to sudden nauseating, knee melting spells of vertigo. Three weeks ago you was dyin', Buck, that was Nathan's tart reprimand, and Buck just beamed a sunny, a-miss-as-good-as-a-mile grin, as he nonetheless gave in to the healer's demands.
As they slept, the sun sank into a golden haze, then lavender twilight, and the first stars came bashfully peeping. Those who maintained their vigil ate from the confiscated stores of the enemy, but no one disturbed the soft breathing of sleep, yonder in the warm shadows. Then blue twilight gave way to night, and the ancient hills leaned to hear the sounds of peace. On one of their appropriated blankets, Buck's lanky length sprawled in the disarray of utter exhaustion and complete comfort. He had only to lift his head to reassure himself that his long-missing friends were still alive and . . . at least mostly well. After the exertion of past days, none of them would be up to much more than sitting in rocking chairs, for a while, but that was fine by him. Hell, they could have a whole row of rocking chairs installed on the Saloon porch, and they'd drink beer and tell lies, and be happy as spring brides that they were all still here to do it. All they needed was a good rest, and then they would go home.
Chris curled loosely on the side not caked in dried blood, those ghastly clothes now bulging with clean bandages. Nathan had done a lot of tongue clicking at the old bandages he found there, and more at the redness beneath them.
"Lucky these ain't septic, by now. You got some infection here, and it's a wonder it ain't gone to blood poisonin' or gangrene."
"Hell, Nathan, I was a dead man. Didn't think Saint Peter was going to check my doctorin'. Besides -." And then Chris' careworn face softened. "The kid did a good job."
There were layers of meaning in that, and Nathan nodded soberly.
"That he did," the healer replied. "That he did."
Now JD lay bracketed between Chris and Buck, flat on his back, unmoving since he first lay down. So complete was his collapse that he slept right through all the times when one of the others roused him to drink more water. He simply took it in like a baby, and was gone seconds later. What did awaken him later, much, much later, was the gentle murmur of voices. Consciousness came slowly, a comfortable lethargy that let him drift into waking slow and easy. His eyes opened to ruddy, flickering darkness, and he realized he saw firelight glimmering on the leaves above. That same mellow light cast the spreading limbs of the sycamore in shadowed bronze. A bright laugh rang out, echoed by a deeper rumble. Ezra. Josiah. Then a low voice spoke that he recognized as Nathan's, and more quiet laughter rippled on the fragrant scent of mesquite smoke.
JD could not make out what they talked about, their voices kept low out of deference to their sleeping injured. Yet the sound of their voices filled him with something still and wonderful. Peace. That was the word. Here in this dark, bloody place, now the leaning shadows were held back by the dancing glow of a friendly fire, and more so by the warmth of much-trusted voices. They had come. They were a gold-plated wonder, because somehow, for whatever reason, they had come. He still did not have the full story, none of them had really wanted to rehash recent weeks, just yet. At this point he was still marveling that there had been a confounded gunfight just down the canyon, and yet storm and wind currents and the mountain's own perverse acoustics had kept him and Chris from realizing how close their salvation was. That . . . had been way too close.
Now, what JD found most comfortable to contemplate was the fact that he was danged thirsty, again. It seemed like he would never get enough to drink, lately. Did anybody leave a canteen handy? He took a deep breath as he shifted position, trying not to disturb Chris or Buck, and caught himself on a deep, warning pang low in his belly. Oh, Nathan was not foolin', that was going to hurt like the dickens, in the morning. When he cautiously sat up, his upper right arm felt slightly strangled in its bandages.
However, with all the dirt and gunk cleaned out of it, the slashing hurt of that wound subsided to a sort of blunted burn. Well, he'd had worse. There were two full canteens laid at their heads, right next to Chris' rifle. JD drank with deep pleasure then set his canteen back. Carefully he resettled himself, and felt the solid bulk of a body at his back. Buck. Thank You, God. He listened closer at hand, heard nothing from Buck, but a dry, slow rasp of breathing on his other side told him that Chris was still out like a lamp. Finally, not only were they safe, but he had everything - everyone - back. Sleep tugged at him again with heavy velvet bonds, and he did not fight that gentle pull. Everything was as it should be.
Well, almost. He stared with abrupt keenness at the shimmer of darkness and firelight overhead. There was still one bit of unfinished business left.
* Fiddler's Green - The mythical Hereafter for the souls of dead cavalrymen.