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The Fall at Reichenbach, Revisited

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The fifth of May, 1891

Impossible to say how Professor Moriarty had induced Mary Watson to accompany him, to know by what cajolery or threats he had drawn her from her safe harbor in England. Enough that he was standing with her beside him beyond the bridge that led to the far side of the water, his hand tight around her elbow and the light of triumph in his eye. Enough that her presence had shattered all chance of Watson and I escaping his nets unscathed. We'd run all the way from Rosenlaui, abandoning breakfasts and alpenstocks; I to keep pace with Watson, and Watson relentlessly ignoring the strain he was putting on his leg, ignoring everything but the urgent need to respond to the message that had been delivered to him when we were not yet ten minutes from our beds.

"Come to the Falls to retrieve the other one," it had said, the scrap of paper wrapped around a single pearl earring.

The other earring dangled from its mistress's earlobe now, and even in the shadow of the falls it gleamed, showing its quality. The last of the Agra treasure and just as accursed as the rest. It trembled, though she was holding herself straightbacked with all the pride and determination of the soldier's daughter she was. She caught my eye and deliberately lifted her gaze to the rocks above us.

I turned my head to look, caught a glimpse of light glinting off metal. Moriarty had taken precautions. But Moriarty had not reckoned on Watson, and neither, I'm afraid, had I.

For Watson had not slowed for more than a moment -- was outpacing me still, even as he dismissed the threat from the hillside with a rude gesture. Perhaps that gesture was what made the hidden marksman miss, or perhaps that first shot was meant in warning. I saw the spray of debris as the bullet ricocheted from the rocks near Watson's hand. I doubt Watson even noticed. The day before he had treated the treacherously wet path that led around the cauldron of the falls with respect, avoiding the slick patches and moss-laden rocks. Now he barrelled over the ground as if it were as level and dry as a cinder track, laid down for a footrace far less desperate.

Moriarty's eyes widened in horror as Nemesis bore down upon him. He shouted something, but I was deafened by the falls, and by the pounding of my pulse in my ears, too deaf to hear whatever bargain he was proposing. If Watson heard he gave no sign, but cocked back his right arm, ready to deliver a blow. But the hidden marksman had recovered. A blossom of blood appeared on Watson's sleeve and he staggered. His swing at Moriarty was robbed of power -- barely grazed that worthy's temple -- but it made Moriarty step back, even as Watson fell to his knees.

Instantly, Mary Watson began to belabor the professor about the head, tugging him about so that he must stumble between her husband and another bullet. A young woman versus an elderly man, both of them desperate, and, I hoped, distraction enough that I might be able to do something about the man with the gun. I cursed the arrogance that had left me weaponless as I scrambled past rocks and trees. I'd so convinced myself that I would be happy to die at the pinnacle of my career that I'd forgotten that I might wish to defend others, and it was Watson who would pay the price.

My hand curled around a rock the size of a cricket ball, and I tried to pry it from the ground, but it was only the tip of a larger stone, and I abandoned the attempt as soon as I'd begun. A glance over my shoulder showed me that Watson had begun to recover from the shock of being shot and was trying to lever himself upright. A kick from Moriarty at the freshly wounded shoulder sent him sprawling again, just in time to be missed by yet another round from the gunman above me.
A part of my brain considered the significant delay between shots and the lack of a report even as I found myself fumbling for footholds on the increasingly steep cliff-face. I had no sooner formed the thought "air rifle" than the hypothesis was confirmed by the appearance of the very weapon and its master above me. I recognized him on the instant, and berated Patterson iin absentia/i for failing to report that Moriarty had not been the only shark to escape the net. Colonel Sebastian Moran was just as much a threat, or more, to the honest citizens of the world, for he still possessed the physical vigor which was failing in the professor. Had he not been preoccupied by the necessity of winding the air gun in his hands for another shot, I doubt I would have survived long enough to climb the final few feet to the base of the ledge where he stood, but the weapon slowed him. That and his driving need to protect Moriarty.

He put the rifle to his shoulder and pulled the trigger only moments before my hand closed around his ankle. I pulled him from his perch by the simple expedient of putting nearly all my weight on that grip, against which tactic the frantic windmilling of his arms could not restore his equilibrium, and he fell, jarring me from my own precarious situation. The pair of us slid and bounced down the mountain to the path as the air gun flew from his hands in an arc which had the chasm as the inevitable end of its trajectory. I knew a certain grim satisfaction, even as the impact of our two bodies on the muddy path drove the breath from me.

Moran fared worse than I -- by the blood on his brow he'd struck something harder than mud. But he was still alive and making small motions with his limbs. I forced myself to my knees and pulled my cravat from my pocket (there had been no chance to place it upon my neck) and pulled his hands together, knotting the cloth clumsily around his wrists so that I could devote my entire attention to Moriarty. My vision was strangely limited, as if I were seeing through a bright gap in a thick bank of fog. It was not until I'd staggered to my feet that I could turn my head and body far enough to see what was happening at the edge of the abyss.

Three of them were tangled there now -- Moriarty, Watson, and Mary -- but Moriarty had all the advantage. Watson's right arm was red from the shoulder down, and Mary's skirts were rapidly changing color to match. She was on her knees; Moran's final bullet had struck her, no doubt. A lesser woman would have fallen back to nurse the wound, but had she been a lesser woman her name would not be Watson. My friend, for his part, was in such a rage as I had seldom seen. Had he possessed even one good arm I think he might have strangled Moriarty. But old wound and new conspired to keep him from reaching so high, and when the professor struck at Watson's head, the blow could not be blocked.

Watson fell, and Mary shifted position to protect him from a second blow. Still several yards away, I had nothing I could do, or so I remember thinking. But my hand, so recently in my pocket, dove there again without consultation, and came up with the silver cigarette case which Watson had gifted me one Christmas. As a missile, it had little to recommend it, but I threw it all the same, and by some miracle of desperation it struck Moriarty on the elbow.

Distracted from the helpless prey at his feet, the professor turned. His high forehead gleamed with effort and his eyes were dark and bright with fury. He saw me and for a moment his face twisted into a rictus of hatred, but then he must have assessed my condition all too accurately, for he threw up his head and began to laugh.

My lungs and legs protested as I tried to drive myself forward, but for once mind could not overcome flesh, and it was with no small sense of dismay that I saw Moriarty draw a derringer from an inner pocket with leisurely disdain. He laughed again as my foot slid sideways in the mud and I nearly fell, cocking the weapon with a motion so deliberate and cold that a man of far less intuition than my own could easily deduce that he he was drawing out Death for the pleasure of it. As the eye of the gun was raised to meet me, I made the last possible move in my repertoire, dodging to one side, even though it meant falling, into the scant shelter of a rock beside the path. And yet the gesture was wasted, for Moriarty failed to take the bait and did not waste his bullet. He stepped forward, right to the very brink, and aimed again.

Behind him, I saw a flash of movement. It was Mary Watson, white with fear and pain, her hands stained crimson. Somehow she had gained her feet, was crouched like a lioness about to spring; but she did not have that grace left in her. One step. Two. No more, but that was enough. She flung her whole self at the fool who had thought her out of the game and he was caught unawares.

Not even the roar of the falls could muffle entirely the scream which was torn from Moriarty's throat. His finger tightened on the trigger, for I heard the shot as well, but by then the gun was aimed into empty air. He fell like a tree that had been toppled in a storm, and Mary, like some sheltering wild thing caught beneath the roots, was dragged along. It seemed certain she must follow him into the maelstrom, but at the last moment her skirts were caught in the crevice between two rocks and she was left dangling, head down, her hands clutching at mist and shadow in search of a safe hold.

Watson, scarce recovered from the blow that had felled him, twisted around to his knees and crawled after his wife, calling her name and mine. Under that goad I did much the same, though I had farther to travel. I have never known it harder to concentrate. A broken finger, a hand and knee scraped raw, and worst of all the slow sharp torment of each breath were all against me. Crossing the wooden bridge behind the falls gave me an opportunity to use the rails and find my feet again, although having that curtain of water between me and those I most feared for near unnerved me. But as I emerged I found that they had not fallen. Not yet.

God knows how we pulled Mary back to the safe path. I remember almost none of it, except for a band of pain around my chest, and the sound of Watson's voice, cajoling, cursing, praying, all at once, and in several languages. The great effort made, I fell into a kind of daze and dreamt I heard him singing a Hindustani lullaby. How long it was before I came back to myself I do not know, but when I did I opened my eyes to see Watson kneeling beside Mary, pressing a wad of cloth against the wound in her abdomen with his right hand, and so much blood between them that I could not tell where his left off and hers began.

In his other hand he held a toffee tin, and when he saw me try to shift position he reached it over to me. "Move carefully, Holmes," he said. "I think you've broken some ribs. But I need what's in that kit." Curious, I pried it open, only to find a curved needle, already threaded with a silk suture, more sutures, a folded bandage, and two corked ampoules of liquid. Watson took the smaller bottle and pulled the cork with his teeth. "Here, love," he said, holding it to his wife's lips. "Try to drink a little. It will help you with the pain."

She pushed it away after a few drops. "Keep it for yourself, dear," she said, with a terrible practicality. "Your arm must hurt you so. And I can't feel anything down there, not even pain."

Watson closed his eyes for a moment, but he sipped at the stuff and then passed it back to me. "Just a swallow," he ordered, a military rasp creeping into his tone. "I'd prefer that you stay awake."

The bitter opiate numbed gums and teeth on its way down, even in such tiny quantity, and I waited for that abeyance of sensation to spread. A temporary anodyne, to be sure, and far more a blessing than the numbness that had claimed my best friend's wife. How long before her numbness would spread? How had she even managed to attack Moriarty, given the damage the bullet must have done to cause such torpor? Would she succumb quickly, or linger for hours? And what would Watson do when she was lost? Would he follow Moriarty?

No. As long as I was injured I could be sure that Watson would not abandon me, no matter his grief. And things were not so dire yet-- surely something could be done! Otherwise we would be stranded here until some tourist decided to make a side trip to the Falls. I forced myself to a sitting position, and paused, gasping with the effort. "I'm not sure I can go for help," I warned my friend.

"Sherlock?" Mary asked, reaching blindly for me.

I took her hand. "Yes, Mary," I answered, for at the precipice there is neither time nor value in false formality.

"Take care of John," she said. "Promise me."

"For all our lives," I said. "I promise."

"Very touching," said Watson, acerbically, "but unnecessary."

"Unnecessary?" both of us echoed, looking to him.

"Unnecessary," he said decidedly. "Holmes, I'll need your pocketknife. And your hands."

"But what do you mean to do?" Mary asked, bewildered.

"What I know best." Watson smiled at her, with the confidence that only a battle-veteran could have mustered, and I was struck anew with the knowledge that I would never, could never find the limits of the man whom I was privileged to call my only friend. "Trust me, my dear, you're going to live."