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By a Thread, By a String, By a Rope

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Crier's Rock was a little husk of a town that had sprung up right in the middle of nowhere on the northern edge of the Arizona territory. It was quieter than Faraday preferred, as a man who liked his life to have a certain amount of noise about it, but the sky was wide open for miles and he had always been good at making his own entertainment.

The solitary saloon was nothing to write home about, but the booze was cheap, and the bartender willing to let Faraday plant himself in one of the rooms upstairs for a nominal fee so long as he dealt cards a couple of nights a week. Even in a farming plot as small as this there were men willing to test their luck and soak their bellies. As Faraday had a tendency to come up tops wherever cards were concerned and liked to be within stumbling distance of his local watering hole if he could manage it, this arrangement suited him just fine.

He'd started off dealing earlier in the evening, a few rounds of poker for the handful of alfalfa desperadoes looking to unwind after a day breaking their backs in fields that flatly refused to grow anything but weeds and cactus. It was late enough now that most everyone had gone home. Only the barkeep, knee-deep in the evening’s tidying, and one dogged Irishman, hoping eternally for a better hand, lingered aside from Faraday himself, thoroughly submerged in whiskey, with his head down on the table in front of him.

The table was at least mostly clean, Faraday considered distantly, slumped over with his cheek against its slatted surface. He took a few deep breaths through his nose and willed his stomach to settle. He wasn't usually prone to sickness when he'd been drinking, but there'd been a bizarre sensation in his gut on-and-off all night. It didn't hurt, exactly, but it was uncomfortable, like someone was tugging at his insides, trying to get his attention. Over the past half an hour it had gone from moderately irritating to fairly impossible to ignore.

A particularly sharp pull shot through him and Faraday grunted in discomfort, shifting his head to the other side. Across the table, his gambling companion let out a startled laugh, asking delightedly, "Is that a noose, boyo?"

Faraday flinched at the grating tenor, its natural Irish lilt hammered into submission under the thick twang of the Western backwoods. He'd had a mind to rest just for a second, give his stomach some time to settle, but Clay Allen, the stubborn cuss, couldn't let him be for five goddamn minutes.

He opened his eyes barely a slit and groaned.

Clay was an ugly son of a bitch, Faraday thought, perhaps unkindly though it was undoubtedly true. The immediate assault of his freckle-pocked skin and gap-toothed maw was not the most enjoyable visage Faraday had ever opened an eye to.

"The hell’re you on about?" he demanded, mustering the energy to heft himself up into a seated position, vision swimming through a haze of whiskey.

"Talkin' bout your pretty little necklace there," Clay said, whistling a laugh through the holes in his grin. He reached out a hand, fingers streaked with dirt, and tugged at Faraday's collar.

Faraday leaned back with a frown, peering blearily down at himself. He wasn't wearing any jewelry that he could recall, and nothing looked to be particularly out of place – guns at his hip, lucky cards in his pocket, vest undone about halfway down as it tended to be after four or five rounds.

"I thought nooses were all stories, I gotta say. Never seen one before," Clay went on, mightily amused. "And I sure wouldn'ta figured you for the type."

Faraday scowled and waved a hand at him.

"It's like you're talkin' Chinese at me," he grumbled irritably. "Speak plain or shut the hell up."

Clay had been soaking in whiskey at least as long as Faraday, yet he still appeared to have full control over his faculties. Usually by this point in the evening he was drooling onto the tabletop while Faraday collected both the cards and the winnings, but there he sat - going on about a necklace that apparently had him in fits. Something was off about it, but whenever Faraday tried to settle onto a thought his mind slipped boozily to the side.

Clay rolled his eyes and pointed to his own throat.

"Your ribbon, Faraday," he said, clearly disappointed that Faraday was too pickled to rise to his bait. He tapped his finger against the line of his neck, just above his shirt collar, wiry eyebrows jumping toward his garishly red hairline. "Sits awful high for a ornery ol’ fox like you."

Faraday stared at him for a long second and then huffed out an incredulous laugh.

"That's gotta be the worst bluff I ever heard," he scoffed, shaking his head and gathering up his cards. They were different than he remembered; or maybe he was drunker than he thought. "I ain't got a ribbon. Everybody knows that."

"Sure you ain't," Clay agreed with a broad wink, grinning wide like he was in on some great joke. He gestured to Faraday's neck and added, "Only you might consider buttoning a little higher if that's the way you'll be playing folk."

Faraday frowned at his cards. He'd never been much for reading, but he had a head for suits and numbers and this hand was distinctly different than it had been last he'd checked. He was sure of it, even through the rolling, rocking sway of the thoroughly well-oiled.

"Now it's just gettin' to be sad, Clay," he said absently, talking to buy his brain a little time to slog through his whiskey-saturated thoughts. "If you got a bad hand just fold it, give me my money, and head on home. I'm sure Betty'd like to see you before sun-up."

Across the table Clay frowned, confused.

"You serious?"

Faraday rolled his eyes.

"Well I assume," he said waspishly. "She married you, after all, even with that dime's worth of dog meat on the end of your neck. Stands to reason she'd want to see you."

"Faraday, that whiskey wash all the sense outta your head?" Clay demanded hotly, goodwill evaporating at the insult. He jabbed a finger in Faraday's direction, face all screwed up and gone unpleasantly ruddy with anger. "You got a ribbon 'round your neck, right there! Plain as the nose on your face!"

Faraday cut him a cold glare over the top of the piss-poor hand splayed out in front of him.

"Once was funny," he said slowly, keeping his tone purposefully light, "twice was irritating. Now you're makin' me mad."

Clay scowled, his chin sticking out, purple and quivering like an overripe plum.

"Barty!" he snapped, red-faced and furious, waving a hand at the impressively mustachioed bartender. "Barty c'mon over here and tell Faraday he's got a lover's noose strung up around his gullet!"

Barty, who didn't care a whit to be involved in town gossip and liked Faraday better besides, thankfully ignored him. Faraday reached out and slapped at Clay's hand.

"All right, all right!" he snapped. "Cut that shit out." He pushed himself to his feet, stalking over to one of the long mirrors hanging on the wall and glaring over his shoulder as he went. "I swear to God, if you touch those cards, Clay Allen -" he grumbled, but Clay waved him off, looking meanly satisfied.

Faraday narrowed his eyes at Clay and then turned to face the mirror.

"Aw, hell," he said, because it was the first thing to pop into his mind.

There was no mistaking it, even through the layer of dust and tarnish. Hovering beneath his ashen face, probably too high for his collar to cover even if he had cinched it all the way up to the top, was a thin band of bright red. It was no wider than a matchstick, ringing his neck as far as he could see. His stomach dropped down to his toes, chest clenching painfully as sobriety washed over him in a cold wave.

"Goddamn," Faraday breathed, reaching up to touch the mark with shaking fingers. It felt no different than the rest of his skin, warm and slightly damp because even the nights hereabouts were the sort of hot that crawled under your clothes and settled in to stay. He swallowed, and the red line moved with the motion, like it had been inked in place. He thought he might be sick all over his boots.

Behind him, Clay started snickering.

"I told you!" he hooted gleefully. "I done told you, Faraday! Some pretty little Angelica got you all strung up with a lover's noose and you ain't even noticed!"

“Shut up, Clay,” Faraday muttered. He let his gaze linger on the red mark for a long second, the hard white buzz of shock rattling his thoughts to pieces and sending them spinning.

His stomach twisted as he recognized the peculiar tugging sensation that had been plaguing him all night for what it really was – a magnetic pull toward whatever poor bastard was on the other end of this tie, some mystical accident of biology trying like hell to draw Faraday into the distant promise of a soul-mate.

Faraday swallowed the cold knot rising in his throat, the saloon tilting in a way that he was positive had nothing to do with his mostly liquid dinner. Behind him, Clay, who had probably had a ribbon wrapped neatly around the fourth finger of his left hand since long before he’d dragged his lovely bride to settle in this pitiful place, continued chuckling to himself.

“Oh how the mighty have fallen!” he crowed, wiping at his eyes. “Was it one of ours, Faraday? We got a lot of fine workin’ types in these parts.”

“Shut up,” Faraday said again, hoarse and low. He let his hand fall to his side. He felt sort of scooped-out and hollow, nauseous and a little dizzy. He’d hoped that he'd dodged this particular bullet, crossing over his last birthday with no inkling of a ribbon on any part of him.

The world was full of pesky notions like that - if you strung a red thread three times between you and your beaux you were ensured a ribbon tied to one another; if your ribbon was in the same spot as your soul-mate's, you were especially well matched; get to thirty without one and you were destined to be alone for the rest of your life, which, frankly, Faraday would have preferred. The ribbon itself wasn't so much an issue, though the fact that it existed at all made Faraday feel like he'd been plunged into an icy creek with no warning. The placement, on the other hand, was already proving to be trouble, as Clay continued to holler from the table.

“And a noose too!” he said around his wheezing laugh. He cocked an eyebrow. "I didn't know you had that kinda softness in you, boyo. You rattle mean as a diamondback but you're just a little corn-snake, ain'tcha?"

It had never quite made sense to Faraday, even as a child, that having a ribbon around your neck was taken to mean you were weaker in some way; tied more deeply to your soul-mate than someone with a ribbon in a more common place.

He vaguely remembered a little girl from the days before his ma passed on, standing in front of them at the general with a red line just barely peeking out from underneath her crisp white collar. She'd been the first person Faraday had ever seen with a ribbon somewhere besides her fingers or wrists. To this day, he could count the number of those on one hand - himself now apparently included. People had whispered, and pointed, and the little girl had stared despondently at her toes the whole time.

When Faraday - who had still been called Joshua then, though there was barely anyone left alive who knew him by that name - had asked, his mother had turned a sad smile on him, petting gently at his hair.

"It can be a terrible thing," she'd explained quietly, "for another person to have you by the throat like that."

The line in his stomach pulled, hard, and rage burst up through the frigid panic in a searing geyser. He wasn't sure whether it belonged to him or to whoever was on the other end of the damned ribbon, but he didn't particularly care in that moment.

He turned on his heel, gritting his teeth, and stalked back to the table where Clay had almost fallen out of his chair at the apparent hilarity of the situation.

"You really didn't know, didja?" He wheezed, cards clutched in his fist. "Damn Faraday, you're havin' a hell of a night!"

"Shut up!" Faraday spat, drawing his Colt in the space of a blink. Clay yelped, scrabbling up out of his chair so fast that he knocked it over onto the floor.

"N - now Faraday," he stuttered, with a weak imitation of a smile, both his hands up in front of him with his cards still tucked under his thumb, "I didn't mean nothin' by it. Just a bit of fun, you know? I've never seen a noo - uh, a ribbon that high, is all."

Faraday glared and stepped into Clay's space, tucking the barrel of his Peacemaker up under the shorter man's chin. For a farmer, Clay was a little scrap of a man, all knobby angles and limbs run lean with hard times. Faraday, who stood taller than most men he knew and was well aware of precisely how intimidating he could rightly be, allowed himself to loom.

"Show me your cards," he said, voice low and dangerous.

Clay's hands were shaking. He cast a desperate glance toward the bar, eyes rolling like a horse. Faraday used his gun to nudge Clay's chin back over.

"Don't go lookin' for help now," he laughed darkly. "This is your mess, you get the honor of cleanin' it up." He glanced to one of the mirrors positioned sparsely along the walls - though Barty was watching them critically with his shoulders drawn up high and tight, he had made no move to get involved, methodically wiping down a glass. When Faraday caught his eye he dipped his chin in a nod.

Clay swallowed, beads of sour sweat gathering at his temples and on his long upper lip.

"'C - 'c'mon now, F - Faraday," he started, but Faraday cut him off, pointedly pulling the hammer back to half-cocked.

"Show me," he said again, slow, "your cards."

Clay licked his lips and miserably held his cards out, shaking like leaves in the wind. Faraday plucked them up with his free hand, fanning them out, jaw going tight when he recognized the faces staring back up at him. He threw them down onto the table while Clay flinched and whimpered.

"That was foolish, friend," Faraday growled, smirking. "Do I look like a man who takes kindly to a rooking?"

"N - n - no," Clay whimpered.

Faraday pushed forward a few inches, reaching up to tug his collar open further and tap a finger against the mark he now knew was there.

"Does this," he pressed, with a grin like a knife-edge, "make me look any more likely to roll over while some lily-livered coward switches hands on me?"

Clay squeezed his eyes shut, but didn't answer.

"Does it?" Faraday demanded, hissing like a snake through his teeth. Clay whimpered and shook, and there came a little, warning noise from the bar. Faraday glowered over at Barty, who shot him a hard look, one eyebrow raised.

"He's just a farmer, Faraday," Barty said in his deep, rasping voice, eminently calm. "He got a little big for his britches but he's learned his lesson, ain'tcha Clay?"

Clay let out a high wail and nodded.

"I h - have!" He gasped. "I have, I sw - sw - swear!"

Faraday growled, a deep animal noise, and Barty clicked his tongue, reprimanding.

"Son, you recall that there's someone on the other end of that, don't you?" he chided, nodding pointedly to the ring circling Faraday's throat. "You really want all this to be the first thing she feels from you?"

Faraday's gut pulled again, stomach rolling at the thought of some unsuspecting soul experiencing the brunt of his animosity. He was angry, and Clay was maybe the stupidest son-of-a-bitch who'd tried to fleece him in years, but whoever had been dealt the terrible hand of being tied to Faraday for the rest of their life shouldn't have to carry that. After all, they hadn't asked for it any more than he had himself.

"The money's mine," he snapped, brooking no argument. Clay nodded desperately, head bobbing like a rag doll.

"Y - yessir," Clay whimpered. Faraday tucked the hammer back down, and lowered his gun a few inches. Clay very nearly collapsed with relief, heaving great, hiccuping breaths, his entire body trembling.

"Oh," Faraday added casually, bringing his gun back up, "and Clay?"

Clay stared at him, wild-eyed and terrified.

"You're gonna keep this dry for me, right?" Faraday asked coolly, gesturing to his neck. Clay swallowed, chin trembling.

"I - I promise, Faraday, I - I ain't gon' tell n- n - nobody!" he warbled desperately. Faraday nodded.

"That's good," he said amiably, dropping his gun again though he took care to keep the barrel loosely angled at Clay's shivering torso. "You were a mostly okay sorta fella, exceptin' the last hour or so. I'd hate to have to kill you."

Clay heaved a dry sob.

"I swear! I swear I won't tell!"

Faraday stared him down for a few seconds longer, just to be safe, and then tucked his gun away.

"Go on," he muttered. Clay didn't even wait for him to finish before scrambling off toward the door.

Faraday busied himself with scooping up his so-called winnings, giving Clay's glass a cursory sniff - there was whiskey in it, but not much, as he had cut it thickly with weak black tea, the jackal - and trying to settle his nerves. A warm, soothing pulse rolled through his chest and Faraday dropped the glass, eyes wide, whiskey and tea splashing all over the table and the cards strewn therein. He pressed gingerly at his sternum and nearly jumped out of his skin when Barty spoke from just over his shoulder.

"Startles you the first few times," he said knowingly, setting the glass to rights and mopping up the mess with a sad scrap of a towel. Faraday glanced down to Barty's wrist, the burned-black mark therein - an indication that his wife had been lost to time, or illness, or some other distant tragedy - and frowned.

"Sorry about the spectacle," he said, for lack of anything better to offer. Barty shrugged.

"Any man fool enough to get cheated by Clay Allen probably deserves it," he responded beatifically. He paused for a moment and shook his head. "But he shouldn'ta said a word about your ribbon. Ain't right, that."

Faraday flinched at the word, hunching his shoulders and tugging his collar up even though he knew it wouldn't do a damn bit of good.

"I'm leaving town tonight," he said. Barty nodded.

"Probably for the best," he agreed.

"What do I owe you for the room?"

Barty shook his head, gathering the glass up and heading toward the bar.

"Don't worry about it, son. You've got larger things on your plate at the moment."

It felt like pity, and it set Faraday to bristling. He scowled at Barty's retreating back with half a mind to pick another fight, when that same calming heat resonated through him.

"Goddamnit," Faraday muttered irritably, digging his knuckles into his chest and stalking moodily toward the stairs. "Would you cut that shit out?"

Behind him, he heard Barty huff a laugh.

Faraday didn't carry much as a general rule, saddlebags being what they were, so packing his things took all of five minutes - his hat, a spare shirt and drawers, an emergency bottle of whiskey he'd pilfered from downstairs earlier in the week. He wiped his palms against his thighs and gave a cursory glance to his belt. There was little in life that couldn't be replaced but Faraday would eat his own boots if he ever left Ethel behind. Seeing that both his sidearms and his knife were neatly in place, he raised his eyes to the washbasin against the wall, the little mirror glinting in the dim light of the oil lamp.

Even from this distance, he could see the thin red band that had started all this trouble. He took a few steps closer, turning his head this way and that, studying it. Though he couldn't see all the way around to be sure, Faraday had never heard tell of a ribbon that didn't go full circle. He half-heartedly splashed a little water on it, scrubbed at it with a hand just in case it might have been some harebrained part of Clay's scheme. It stayed firmly put, and Faraday scowled.

A goddamn lover's noose.

He sighed through his nose and tried buttoning his shirt. Like he'd suspected, the damn thing hovered just slightly above the top edge of his collar, patently refusing to be hidden. Faraday glared at it, and cast around the room for something to put around his neck. No way in hell was he wandering back out into the world while it was visible. He might as well draw a target on his back and carry a sign that read "Easy Pickins."

There was a red bandana tucked away in the back of a drawer - some forgotten piece of another man's wardrobe. Faraday looped it over his mark, knotting it securely in the front. He tugged it down with a finger, just a bare inch or so, and scowled at the ribbon in the mirror.

"You'd better be damn well worth all this trouble," he told it, tucking the bandana back up and sparing an extra second to make sure it covered every part of the ribbon he could see.

Clay Allen was halfway to the town drunkard already, so it was likely nobody would believe him even if he did decide to loosen his jaw and Barty wasn't the type to speak on such things. Breaking Jack out of the livery stable would be a simple matter of timing and speed, and by sun-up Faraday and his ribbon would just be another of those tall tales that sprang up beside the weeds in these prickly little farming settlements.

Faraday paused just beyond the doorway of the saloon, Barty having disappeared to the stockroom or some other mysterious proprietor's knothole to spare them both the indecency of a second goodbye, and briefly considered heading directly opposite to whatever direction his damned ribbon wanted him to go. There was a sharp, painful tug in his gut, and Faraday grunted.

"All right fine, you stubborn sumbitch," he grumbled, stomping down the pitch-dark street and kicking up clouds of red clay dust. He twirled a finger in the air, adding sarcastically, "California, here I come."