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Murder with the Devil and Friends

Chapter Text

Michael was about six miles out of Achievement City when Gavin suddenly sat up and started sniffing. The horse flicked an ear back, apparently displeased. The sun was so bright it had left Michael snow-blind, even with the brim of his hat keeping the worst of it off. The ground was baked pale by a thousand too many summers, hot as an iron griddle, like a million gallons of sunlight had seeped through the dust and the cracks and soaked into the bones of the earth. That, or Hell was a lot closer underneath of Nevada.

"Oh, what the hell you got now?" Michael asked, glaring at Gavin.

Gavin growled, low in his throat, his whole body going tense. The end of his nose twitched. The red, sun-bleached bandanna around his neck slid onto his chest under the weight of the silver star pinned to it.

"I swear to God, if you light off after another goddamn lizard, I'm leavin' you for the vultures," Michael threatened. The horse shook itself, nickering, and Michael reached forward to pat its neck. "Don't you start."

Gavin barked and launched himself out of the saddle. The horse cut a sidestep and tossed its head, eyes rolling. Michael hauled on the reins to bring it around. Gavin was tearing across the landscape, barking his head off, kicking up a cloud of dust. Michael turned the horse onto his trail and kicked it hard.

"Gonna burn your damn fool paws!" Michael yelled after the dog. "C'mon, git, move, you stupid ninny!"

The horse, still rolling its eyes and gnashing its teeth, set off after Gavin at a trot, and then (when pressed) a canter. Michael caught up to Gavin at the side of the ravine, where the horse's eye-rolling and head-tossing got so out of control that he couldn't make it get close to the edge. Gavin was standing right up at the edge of the ravine, hackles raised, barking his stupid little head off. Michael backed the horse off until it stopped cutting up so bad, then dismounted and tied it to a joshua tree. It wouldn't hold the thing if it decided to run off, but it would at least drag a nice wide trail into the dust for him to follow.

At the insistence of the dread curdling in his stomach, he also drew his Colt.

"All right, boy," he said, sidling up to Gavin. "What the hell you got down in there?"

As Michael arrived at his side, Gavin settled to a low growl. He was staring down into the ravine, ears flattened back, all his teeth bared. The heat soaked up through the bottoms of Michael's boots. He could smell dust and hot rock, just a whiff of the sharp-iron scent of water. He was drenched in sweat under his clothes, his mouth dry as the dust. The sky was blue-white and cloudless. The heat of the sun was a physical force like a river current. Michael edged up to the ravine and looked down.

Far, far below, there was something that wasn't quite human-shaped anymore.

"Aw sheeit," Michael cursed.


 

Gavin barreled into the sheriff's office and immediately leapt up on Jeremy, wagging and wriggling and licking his face.

"Shit—god dammit, Michael, get your dog offa me," Jeremy said, sputtering and trying unsuccessfully to protect his face from Gavin's spotty tongue.

"He ain't my dog," said Michael, coming in and letting the door swing shut behind him. He hung up his hat near the door and went to his desk, dropping into his chair heavily. "He's a deputy, so technic'ly, he's the sheriff's dog."

Gavin sneezed, licked Jeremy's chin, then darted off to bother the sheriff in much the same manner.

"Oh hell," Geoff sighed, just barely managing to keep the mutt from jumping up into his lap. "You know good an' damn well he's your dog, and so does he."

"Naw he don't, he's an idjit," said Jack, her feet propped up on her desk. Gavin tried to jump up into the sheriff's lap and knocked a stack of papers off his desk. Jack pointed at him while Geoff cursed. "See?"

"Ain't that much of an idjit," Michael said, begrudgingly. "He found him a dead body on the way into town."

There was a shift in the air of the station. In the far corner, Ryan looked up.

"Oh hell," Geoff said again, tugging on his mustache. Gavin trotted off to give the same treatment to Jack, who scratched him behind the ears and shooed him off posthaste. "Where at?"

"Down in the ravine," said Michael.

"Somebody fall in?" Jeremy asked.

"I don't know," said Michael. "I ain't go look."

"How come?" said Jack.

Michael shrugged, glaring at the far corner of the room. "'Cuz I ain't like it. I wun't goin' down there alone."

"You wasn't alone," Jeremy pointed out. "Had you a whole 'nother deputy with you."

Gavin barked, somewhere under Ryan's desk.

"Shut up, Gavin," Michael snapped.

"You get the collywobbles?" Jack asked. "I ain't know you had any collies to wobble, Michael."

"Hey, shut the fuck up," he retorted. "You wun't there, and I wun't gettin' my dumb ass shot or pushed in. You wouldn't be makin' fun of me if I was dead."

"Sure we would," said Jeremy. "Prob'ly twice as much, 'cuz you wouldn't be near as libel to shoot us."

"All right, boys," Geoff said, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Coupla you head back on out there and check. Michael, you better go so you can show 'em where it's at. Take an extra mule or somethin' to get the damn thing back up."

"I get to pick who I'm takin' with me?" Michael asked.

"Oh damn, I'm sure as hell busy today," Jeremy said, looking despairingly at the paperwork on his desk. "Sorry, pal, but looks like I can't go out to Collywobble Canyon with ya today. Damn shame."

"I'll go," said Ryan, getting to his feet and smoothing his ponytail with one hand.

"'Course you will," Michael muttered under his breath. "As if it wun't damn creepy enough."

"He ain't gone hurt you none," Jack said, rolling her eyes. "'Sides, you can bring Gavin, too, then it'll be three of ya out there."

Gavin gave a halfhearted ruff.

"I ain't takin' him back out, he's done burnt his poor stupid paws already," said Michael, annoyed. "How 'bout you come with me?"

"Sure you wouldn't be suggestin' a lady oughtta be lookin' at dead bodies, Deputy," Jack said, pouting at him. "Might offend my delicate sensibilities."

"No it sure won't, 'cuz you got just about the most robust sensibilities of anybody in here," said Michael. "Exceptin' Ryan, who ain't got no sensibilities at all."

"Already said I'd go," Ryan mentioned mildly.

"Yeah, dumbass, we ain't arguin' that," Michael said. "I'm askin' Jackie over here to come with you and me so's the two of y'all can watch each other's backs while I'm watchin' the body."

"What, in case it gets up an' starts walkin'?" Jeremy asked, making a face.

"No, so it don't fall off the mule, dumbass."

"Would y'all quit fuckin' yappin' and go?" Geoff interrupted. "Jesus God, y'all're worse'n the damn dog."

"Sheriff, tell Jack to come on with us," Michael said. "You ain't gonna send me to pick up a dead body with just Ryan."

"Michael, get you out a big ol' deck of cards and deal with it," Geoff said, glaring at him. "I ain't sendin' three damn deputies for one damn body. Now go get the damn thing 'fore the ki-yotes eat it."

"Yessuh," Ryan said, hitting the Georgia drawl hard. He sauntered out, barely pausing to grab his hat on the way.

"I don't come back, y'all're gonna know who killt me," Michael grumbled, following him.

"He ain't gone hurt you none," Jack repeated.

"You do not know that," Michael said primly, jamming his hat back on his head, "and neither does he."

And with that, he stepped back out into the blistering afternoon heat.


 

It had taken almost half an hour to pick their way down to the body. They'd left both the horses up top and led the mule, which was less than pleased with the situation. By the time they got there, Michael's boots were full of sweat and his face and hands had gone crusty with salt. His legs were sore as hell, and he'd gone through half his canteen already.

The body was lying shattered on a narrow ledge about halfway down the ravine. It was well-dressed, dusty, and utterly motionless. A few beetles had hunkered down in the shade underneath it. Its left leg was turned completely backwards at the knee. Half the chest was caved in. There was a huge crack in the skull, showing brains inside. Even as Michael watched, a fat lizard scuttled into the gap. He stopped watching immediately.

"Wellp," said Ryan, pushing his hat back with one finger. "There he is."

"Looks like he hit damn near every rock on the way down," Michael said, peering back up the ravine. There were a few likely-looking scuff marks and broken scrub bushes.

"S'pose we'd best make some sort of investigation," Ryan said. Michael did not miss the hopeful note in his voice.

"You do it," said Michael. "I'm gonna keep an eye out. I still got a bad feelin' about this."

"You got it," Ryan said brightly. He hitched up the mule to a stunted tree and ambled over to the body. After a moment, Michael went after him. He put his back to the ravine wall and panned his eyes over all the empty space left, right, and above them. He drummed his fingers idly on the grip of his Colt. At least there was a little shade down here, staving off the most vicious of the sun's heat.

"He's real dead," Ryan said. He was crouched next to the body, elbows on his knees, looking it over with an unperturbed sort of curiosity.

"No shit," said Michael.

"Face all busted up, too," said Ryan. "Gonna make him hard t'identify."

"He got any kinda papers or somethin' on him?" Michael asked.

"You want me to go rootin' in his pockets?"

"Well I sure as hell ain't doin' it!"

"I'm only askin'," said Ryan. "On account of y'all gen'rally get mad at me if I go touchin' dead folks."

"That's 'cuz you're weird with it. Just check his pockets like a regular damn man and don't get weird with it."

"Sure thing," said Ryan. He started rifling through the dead man's pockets with entirely too much ease. Michael took the opportunity to squint around the ravine again, looking for anything or anyone out of place. It was deserted, silent. He shaded his eyes and squinted them almost shut and looked up. The top of the ravine looked just as deserted, the sky still clear and empty and pale.

"You find anythin' yet?" Michael asked, risking a glance at Ryan.

"Busted up pocket watch and about sixty dollars," said Ryan. He was methodically sticking his fingers into every pocket in the man's waistcoat. Michael looked away again, letting out a low whistle.

"Holy shit, sixty goddamn dollars?" he said. "Well hell, leastways we know it wun't a robbery. No papers or nothin'?"

"Nope. Wait, hold on, I got somethin' here." There was a crinkling of paper. "Huh. Now that's a funny thing."

"Funny as in peculiar or funny as in somethin' I, Deputy Ryan, pers'nally find amusin'?" He did not look, just in case it was the latter.

"Naw, it's just funny," said Ryan, sounding befuddled. "It's a train schedule for the Central Pacific."

Michael frowned. "Nearest railroad's twenty goddamn miles from here."

"I know," said Ryan. "That's how come it's funny."

"So how the hell'd he get here?"

"Don't know, but somebody busted him up real bad 'forehand."

Michael, discomfited by the dreamy quality Ryan's voice had taken on, risked a look back. Ryan was still crouched next to the body, staring at it with his head to one side.

"Droppin' a couple hunnert feet'll do that to a man," Michael said.

"Aw, naw, he was dead long 'fore he hit the ground," Ryan said pleasantly, still staring at the body.

"I am gonna ask you how you know that and I am gonna regret it," Michael muttered, folding his arms. Ryan looked up at him and smiled. His eyes were blue as the sky and equally unblinking.

"It's on account of there ain't near enough blood," he said. "Poor fella's head's cracked open like a pecan. Whole place oughtta be drenched in blood. The ground here ain't terrible porous. Naw, he was dead long 'fore he hit the ground."

"Oh boy, yessir, I sure do regret askin' you that," said Michael. All the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up.

Ryan turned his eyes back to the body, prodding its jaw with one finger. "Tell you somethin' else, he ain't been here more'n a few hours."

"And how in the hell you know that?"

"'Cause the coyotes ain't been at him, nor the vultures. Nor even any flies. If Gav could smell him from the road, sure bet the coyotes could. They prob'ly only ain't been at him on account of it's so damn hot, so he must've only been here since mid-mornin', at most."

"So how come we cain't smell him?"

Ryan considered this. He was still poking the corpse's jaw absently.

"Dunno," he said. "Maybe he done baked too dry to rot."

"This soon? Woulda thought he'd get smelly first, then—for the love of God, stop fuckin' touchin' him!"

"Huh?" said Ryan. He looked at his hand as though he hadn't seen it up until then. "Oh. Sure thing." He stood up, wiping his hand on his trousers. "S'pose we'd best wrap him up and haul him outta here. Doc can have a look at him and work out what killed him."

"Oh," said Michael. "Uh, yeah, s'pose she could. I could take him on over. To her. Once we got him outta here. Without you comin' along."

Ryan gave him a look six inches longer than he liked.

"Sure thing," he said. "I know you and Doc get on like a house on fire. Hate to get me all burnt up."

"Don't you ever blink?" Michael said, before he'd thought about it.

"Oh, sure," said Ryan, nodding earnestly.

"Then how come I ain't never seen you do it?"

"I dunno, Michael," he said. "Maybe I'm only blinkin' while you're blinkin'. You wanna get the canvas offa the mule so's we can wrap this fella up?"

"Gonna be a hell of a thing gettin' him outta here," Michael grumbled, stomping back to the mule. "Damn discourteous, leavin' a body all the damn way down the bottom of a damn ravine."

"S'pose that was the point," Ryan remarked.

"Naw, prob'ly the point was to not have nobody find him," Michael said. He hoisted the roll of canvas off the mule's back and lugged it back over to Ryan, dropping it on the ground next to the body. It let up a cloud of dust that settled all over the two deputies' boots and the body.

"You done this before?" Ryan asked.

"Maybe one time," said Michael, who had not. "You?"

"Oh, sure," said Ryan. "It ain't hard, I'll show you."

"You used to work for an undertaker or somethin'?" Michael asked, while Ryan unrolled the canvas in the opposite direction to the body.

"Or somethin'," Ryan said, noncommittal. "We're gone have to pick him up, just so's you know. Then we roll him up. Like spiders do."

"Jee-zus," Michael muttered. "I'm gonna get his feet, you can pick up the other end."

"You got it," said Ryan. "Just make sure that leg don't come off, it looks libel to."

"Don't you say that shit to me," Michael warned, choking down bile.

"Thought you'd like a warnin' more than a surprise," Ryan said, smiling. He came back and, after a moment's consideration, kicked the corpse's head. The lizard came dashing back out, darting under some other rock.

"That is just plain wrong," Michael choked, pressing the back of his hand to his mouth.

"Better now than when he's on Doc's table," Ryan said brightly. He crouched down and stuck his hands under the corpse's shoulders. "C'mon now, don't be shy. He ain't gone kick you."

Muttering under his breath, Michael grabbed the corpse's ankles. They weren't cold, but they certainly didn't have any life in them.

"On three," said Ryan. "One, two—"

"Wait, on three or after three?" Michael asked.

"After three, I guess," said Ryan. "So one-two-three hup, all right?"

"Right."

"Right. One, two, three, hup!"

Michael lifted. The left leg tore off at the knee. Michael screamed and damn near went the rest of the way down the ravine himself.

Ryan fell on his ass laughing.

Chapter Text

"Well," Doc Lindsay said, fists planted on her hips. "You sure do know what to get a girl."

"Hauled it all the damn way up from the bottom of the ravine," Michael said. "You better like it, I went to enough trouble for it."

"Ain't you just a gentleman," said Lindsay, wrinkling her nose at him. "He in two pieces when you found him?"

Michael swallowed. He rubbed the back of his neck.

"Uh," he said, "not exactly."

"How d'you mean, not exactly? Was he or wasn't he?"

"Well his leg was nearly off," said Michael. "Wun't my fault we had to pick him up. Wun't my fault the damn thing tore off."

"Huh," Lindsay grunted, turning back to the body. "How long you figure he'd been down there?"

"Deputy Haywood says not more'n a few hours, on account of the ki-yotes would've got him. Also said he prob'ly wun't killt there, on account of there wun't no blood."

"Deputy Haywood's half a goddamn doctor hisself, by the sound of it," Lindsay said. "Don't know why y'all even need me."

"'Cuz you ain't half as unsettlin'."

"I'm gonna take that as a compliment."

"Don't know that it was one, but I ain't gonna impede you."

"Thought it was part of your solemn sworn duty as a deputy to prevent folks from takin' things they wasn't supposed to."

"Are you always this ornery?" he asked.

"Are you always this dumb?" she countered.

He glared at her. She returned the expression in spades.

"You gonna look at that body, or we gonna be standin' here flappin' our jaws all day?" Michael asked.

"Much prefer the body I'm lookin' at now," said Lindsay.

"Damn sure hope you do," Michael said, although there was a heat rising under his collar that had little to do with the ambient temperature. "Leastways this one's all in one piece."

"You ain't hardly no fun at all," she tutted. She turned and folded her arms, looking over the corpse on the table. She made a face.

"Well?" said Michael.

"Closer examination leads me to conclude: he's dead," said Lindsay.

"Oh, hell with you," said Michael, rolling his eyes and fighting back a smile. He turned his back on her and stalked for the door, stuffing his hat back on his head. "Let me know when or if you come up with anythin' useful."

"I'll write it up in real short words!" she called after him.

He hurried out so she wouldn't hear him cussing under his breath.

It was only a short walk back to the sheriff's office, but Michael was burning up by the time he got there anyway. It wasn't much cooler inside, either, although the shade provided some relief. As he came in, the clock tower over the bank tolled four times, the solemn sound rolling in one window and out the other.

"What'd Doc say?" Jeremy asked, as Michael dropped into his chair and started fanning himself with the nearest paperwork. Gavin trotted out from under Ryan's desk and snuffled at his shoes until Michael nudged him off.

"Nothin', Jeremy, on account of she ain't had but three seconds to look at the damn thing," Michael said.

"Ryan got back a whole lot sooner'n three seconds ago," Jeremy pointed out.

"Yeah, well he walks fast," Michael said, bristling.

"Not that fast," said Ryan. Gavin, apparently, having smelled all there was to smell on Michael's boots, wandered back under Ryan's desk.

"You can amble on to hell, then," said Michael. "Where's the sheriff and Jack?"

"Some railmen was cuttin' up in ole Bragg's saloon," said Jeremy. "They went on to take care of it."

"What kinda railmen?"

"I don't know, Michael," Jeremy said, suffering. "The kind what cut up in saloons. At time of reportin', nobody'd been shot yet, but God only knows how long that'll last."

"Sheriff say anythin' about what we oughtta do if there was shootin'?"

"Come and shoot back, as per usual, and if you hadn'ta been caught up flirtin' with Doc, you'da been here to hear him say it."

"I wun't flirtin'!" Michael snapped. "I do not flirt. It ain't in my reppy-toyer."

"Repertoire," Ryan said, putting all the r's in the back of his throat.

"You French now or some shit?" Michael asked.

"Naw, I just know how to pronounce words," said Ryan.

"Don't nobody give a damn, you know what I meant."

"I am ever so sorry for flauntin' my education at you," said Ryan, pressing a delicate hand to his breast. "I forget how these things upset your cultivated all-American ignorance."

"I'm fixin' to upset your cultivated all-American ass," Michael threatened.

"Hardy-harr," said Jeremy, rolling his eyes. "Ain't y'all got shit to do? Or is all them papers on y'all's desks just for decoration?"

"I was workin' on mine," Ryan said. "Not terrible sure Michael's got his letters down well enough to get through his."

"I am gonna kick your jackass teeth down your dumbass throat," Michael said, while Ryan giggled.

Jeremy was about to say something else when twin roars of gunfire barreled in through the open window. Gavin's claws skittered on the floors as he leapt to his feet and barked back at the noise.

"Wellp," Jeremy said, leaping to his feet. "That's our cue, boys!"

"Ain't never a damn minute's rest," Michael grumbled. "Gavin, stay."


 

Bragg's saloon was a shithole, of the type that contributed to the entire town's shit-holiness. The door was already half off its hinges, so there was no point kicking it in. The place reeked of beer and rotted timber and, today, gunpowder.

Michael was the first through the door, and therefore the first to get shot at. The bullet took his hat off, and he dropped to the ground on the instant. Behind him, Jeremy and Ryan ducked back out of the doorway.

"You shoot my goddamn deputies, y'all're all dead men!" Geoff shouted, from somewhere by the bar. Michael risked raising his head a touch.

The saloon was a pretty thorough mess, with a whole bunch of tables upturned and broken glass littering the floor. Everybody was hunkered behind something or other—Geoff in particular was crouched behind the L-bend of the bar. Michael made a determined crawl for it and got up next to him.

"You ain't never gonna take me alive!" somebody cried. From the sound of it, he was immensely drunk.

"The hell's goin' on?" Michael asked.

"Three railmen, had them a few too many an' started gettin' rowdy," Geoff said. "Jack tried to talk 'em down and one of 'em grabbed her, so she shot him in the foot, an' then one of them tried to shoot her, and now we're havin' a goddamn Mexican standoff."

"Where's Jack?"

Geoff pointed. Jack was crouched behind a sideways table. There was gunpowder on her face, but otherwise she looked none the worse for wear.

"He missed," Geoff explained.

"Yeah, obviously," said Michael. "So what're we gonna do now?"

"Well, eventually we're gonna have to get the one dumb sonnuva bitch to Doc Lindsay," said Geoff. "Unless the other dumb sons of bitches sit here so long he bleeds to death!"

"Fuck you, lawman!" another, still very drunk, man shouted back.

"Psst."

Michael looked up. Jeremy was wiggling his fingers just inside the doorframe.

"Sheriff," Michael said, elbowing Geoff. He pointed. Geoff's mustache twitched.

"What, Jeremy?" he whispered.

"I'm gonna sneak around back, see if I can't conk 'em on the heads," said Jeremy. "But the floors in here is mighty creaky, so y'all're gonna hafta make some noise, got it?"

"You sure you can pull that off?"

"Hell yeah, I got it, Sheriff."

"Awrighty, but if you fuck it up, you'd best not get your damn self shot."

"I won't, Sheriff," said Jeremy.

"Hey!" Michael barked, as Jeremy's fingers slid out of the doorframe. "Which one o' you greasy fucks groped a deputy?"

"Iiiiii did it!" a third drunkard crowed. "Iiiii did it an' I ain't ashamed!"

"Shut the fuck up, Bruce!" one of the other railmen hissed.

"You're fixin' to get shot again," Jack snapped at the same time, cocking her revolver.

"You shoot that thing off, you're gonna kill the wrong idjit," Geoff said loudly. The stilted, performative cadence of his voice made Michael wince.

"Just yell like a normal person," he said, thumping Geoff in the back.

"I am yellin' like a normal person!"

"No you ain't! You're yellin' like a two-bit travelin' showman!"

"The hell y'all mutterin' about back there?" one of the railmen called.

"None of your fuckin' business!" Michael retorted.

"Y'all makin' some kinda plan?"

"Plannin' to throw y'all's dumb asses in jail!"

"How're you fellas doin' in there?" Ryan chimed in. Michael slapped himself in the forehead; he sounded even stupider than Geoff. "You need some help?"

A gunshot went off, and splinters exploded from the doorframe. Ryan yelped, and then laughed like a crazy person.

"Y'all stop shootin' up my saloon!" Bragg shouted from somewhere behind the bar. "It's gonna come down on everybody's heads, you put enough holes in it!"

"I'll shoot alla damn holes in yer damn walls I damn want!" the drunkest announced—Bruce, apparently. This was followed by a volley of gunfire into the ceiling, accompanied by shrieks from the assorted patrons.

"You goddamn idjit, cut that out!" one of the others yelled. Michael's ears were ringing from the gunfire. Dust wafted down from the holes in the ceiling, floating in brand new pillars of sunlight.

"One more damn gunshot, and y'all're payin' for the repairs!" Jack said.

"Hey fuck you!" said Bruce.

"Fuck you!"

"Surprise, jackasses!" Jeremy screamed, and there was a tremendous CRASH, followed by grunting, scuffling, yelping, and a single gunshot. Michael leapt up and sprinted across the room, vaulting over the upturned tables. He saw one man with blood on his face and a gun in his hand struggling to get upright, and punched him in the jaw as hard as he could. The man went out like a light.

"I gottem! I gottem!" Jeremy said. He was kneeling on another man's head, and had a third jammed up against the wall with his elbow. There was a red line on his forehead where a bullet had grazed him.

"Jesus God," Michael muttered. "Sheriff! Jack! Hope y'all brought some rope!"

"Oh hell yeah I did," Jack said, leaping over the tables with even greater alacrity than Michael had. She hauled the drunk out from under Jeremy's elbow and slammed him into the floor. She wrenched his arms behind his back and lashed his wrists together.

"My foot hurts," he blubbered, weeping big drunk tears onto the floor. "It hurts real bad! I cain't walk on it!"

"You keep carryin' on like that, I'm gonna knock you over the head to spare my damn ears," Jack said. "Come on, Doc's gonna see you in lock-up."

She hauled the man to his feet and dragged him out. He whimpered and sniffled and limped mightily the whole way. Jeremy hauled up the second offender and carted him out, too, although he was significantly more composed.

"You wanna pick his ass up, or should I?" Michael asked Geoff, gesturing to the third railman.

"You're the one who knocked him out, you carry him," said Geoff.

"You just don't wanna get blood on your vest," Michael said. He crouched down next to the unconscious railman and hoisted him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. After a moment to adjust his balance, he stood up again, although his knees complained at the extra weight. "You can clean up here, like a sheriff oughtta."

"Aw, hell," said Geoff. Sure enough, people were starting to emerge from their barricades. Bragg the barman was rising up like some kind of swamp monster, drenched in liquor, glass glittering in his bushy beard.

"Somebody's gonna hafta pay for all this," he said.

"Gimme that drunk," Geoff said to Michael.

"Nope!" Michael said, heading for the exit.

"Deputy. . . ."

"Nope! Nope! He's my drunk, you said. Good luck, Sheriff!"

"Michael, I swear to God!"

But Michael was already out the door, hurrying along as fast as his legs would carry him and snickering.


 

When all three of the railmen had been squared away in cells and Doc Lindsay called for, Michael headed back to the sheriff's station, despite the blood smudged on the back of his jacket. It had crusted dry almost the moment it had been deposited, so there was no advantage to cleaning it out straight away. There was only an hour left to the work day anyway, as proclaimed by the solemn tolling of the clock tower. Jeremy was already back, proud as a peacock, strutting and preening for an audience that consisted solely of Jack and Gavin.

"Didja see me, though?" he was saying, as Michael hung up his hat by the door. "Whack! Right in the face! They ain't never knew what hit 'em!"

"Savin' the one that shot you," said Michael, crossing to his desk and dropping into his chair.

"Firin' blind," said Jeremy. "He was goin' on pure instinct and just got lucky."

"You got damn lucky he ain't shoot your head off," said Jack.

"I did not," said Jeremy. Gavin barked. "Shut up, Gavin, you don't know!"

"Dog's smarter'n you are," Michael sniggered. "Gavin! Bark if Jeremy's a dumbass!"

Gavin barked.

"Hey, fuck you," said Jeremy, wounded. "Gavin, hey boy, now bark if Michael's a dumbass."

Gavin's spotty tongue lolled out, his mouth stretched into a big, lazy, doggy smile as he regarded Jeremy in panting silence. Michael cackled.

"Good boy, Gavin!" he said. "See, he's even smart enough to know who feeds 'im."

Licking his nose, Gavin heaved himself to his feet and trotted over to stick his face up the back of Michael's jacket, sniffing industriously.

"Quit that," said Michael, swatting at him. "Yeah, good job, you found the blood. It ain't—it ain't for you, fuck off."

"He's lickin' your jacket," said Jeremy.

"I am aware of that," said Michael. He put a hand on Gavin's flank and shoved him. "Gavin, fuck off, you piece of shit."

Gavin dropped into a play-bow, tail flailing wildly, then lit off like a wild thing and started careening around the station. He slammed into Geoff's desk and knocked down a whole stack of papers.

"Yep," Jeremy said. "I sure am dumber'n that dog, mmhm, sure thing."

Jack managed to snag Gavin by his bandanna, but just as quickly he'd wriggled out of her grasp again. He dashed back over to Michael and slammed his front paws down on the floor, grinning like an idiot.

"See, now you gone and got him all riled up," Jack said.

"All right, I can fix that," said Michael. He got to his feet, then slapped his hands on his knees, mimicking Gavin's bow. "Gavin! Where's the sheriff?"

Gavin tossed his head like a wild horse and sped around the station again. He leapt up on the door, scrabbling at it, then started barking his head off. Michael went to the door and pulled Gavin down, then put his hand on the knob. Gavin kept on barking, prancing in place with excitement.

"You ready? Go find the sheriff!" Michael cried, and flung open the door. Gavin tore off down the street, kicking up a cloud of dust behind him. Michael pinched his lips together to keep from smiling, then shut the door again.

"That ain't gonna keep him busy for long," said Jeremy.

"It ain't s'posed to keep him busy," said Michael, dusting his hands off and returning to his desk. "It's s'posed to make him not our problem no more."

"You taught that dog to bother the sheriff on purpose, didn't you," said Jack.

"I ain't teach him nothin'," said Michael, propping up his feet. "He ain't my dog."

"He thinks he's your dog," said Jack.

"He's fuckin' stupid," said Michael.

"I dunno, he's pretty smart, for a dog," said Jeremy.

"Yeah?" said Michael. "You're just sayin' that to feel better about bein' dumber'n him."

"I ain't dumber'n your damn dog!"

"Sure you're not," said Michael. He pinched down another smile. "Just like he ain't my dog."

Chapter Text

Geoff dropped a massive stack of paperwork on Michael's desk, so heavy it made his pencil jump up and fall off. Michael looked up at him, scowling.

"The hell's all this?" he asked.

"Your murder," said Geoff.

"Since when the hell's it been my murder?"

"Since you was the only deputy we could spare for it," said Geoff.

"It's a goddamn murder, Sheriff, we cain't spare more'n one deputy?"

"Awrighty, you can have Gavin to help ya, too."

"Go to hell."

Geoff gestured to the stack of paperwork. "That all's from Doc Lindsay. You need any help with the big words—"

"Shut the fuck up, Geoff," Michael snapped. "Just 'cuz you read ten thousand goddamn books a day don't mean the rest of us is illiterate."

"I'm just talkin' about medical jargon, ya idjit," Geoff said, "I ain't patronizin' you."

"You sure as damn hell was," Michael muttered under his breath. He pulled down the first paper on the stack and frowned determinedly at it until Geoff went away.

Letters had never got on too well with Michael, nor he with them. He'd gotten his fair share of learning, cooped up in a Kansas schoolhouse with twelve other farmer's kids, but he'd left as soon as he could. Numbers were all right, he could do numbers, and while the long and short of arithmetic was a little rough he could mostly handle it. He knew he was quicker on the uptake than just about anybody else in the schoolhouse, which was how come he'd decided to find somewhere to be a sheriff's deputy—that and the fact that at thirteen, manhood had hit him like a sack of bricks and within the year he could pick up most of his schoolmates and throw them two yards or more.

But letters remained cruelly ornery. They seemed to delight in squiggling around under his gaze like water beetles, spinning around and rearranging themselves. There was hardly any point in learning his letters when half the damn things kept changing all the time.

He focused hard on the first page, squinting and moving his finger along, bowed over the paper until his forehead dripped sweat onto it. His mouth moved with the words, whispered under his breath. He felt like the rest of the deputies were probably gawking at him, maybe even Gavin. He was half-tempted to stuff his fingers in his ears, partly so he could focus better and partly so he wouldn't have to hear them whispering about him.

Nobody was doing any whispering so far, but it was only a matter of time.

The first page took about ten minutes, and the second about nine, as he got used to Lindsay's handwriting. Most of the information so far was stuff he'd already known, and as he worked his way down the stack, there were a lot of drawings, too—skeletons with big cracks in them, close-ups of the teeth. That made things go a lot faster, because the pictures at least stayed still when he looked at them. The clock tower tolled out the hour twice and he barely heard it.

He was about halfway through when he found the first thing that made him stop.

"Uh," he said. He rubbed his aching eyes. "Hey, Ryan?"

"He left 'bout half an hour ago," Jeremy said.

"Aw, shit," said Michael. "You know where he went to?"

"Said he was gonna pick us up some somethin' from the butcher's for lunch," said Jeremy.

"Whatcha need him for?" Jack asked.

"He pulled some train schedule outta that dead fella's pocket," Michael said. "I wanted to see what day it was from, on account of Doc's report here says the fella was embalmed 'fore he got chucked down that ravine."

A moment of silence hung in the sheriff's station.

"The hell?" said Geoff.

"Who the hell throws a pickled body down a damn ravine?" Jeremy asked.

"Naw, that ain't the question," said Michael, frowning harder than ever. "Question is, who pickles a body, then dresses it, then sticks a watch and a train schedule and sixty dollars in the pockets, and then throws it down a damn ravine?"

There was another moment of silence.

"Hey Michael," Geoff said. "You want you an extra deputy to assist with the proceedin's?"

"Well Sheriff," said Michael, "I'd be just pleased as punch if one of y'all could read through the rest of this damn paperwork for me."


 

Jeremy made hideously quick work of the rest of the stack, going so far as to take little notes for himself. Ryan came back bearing corned beef sandwiches, which were heartily devoured by all (especially Gavin). When asked, he fished the dead man's train schedule out of his pocket.

Michael stared at it, pinched in Ryan's outstretched hand.

"How come you still got it in your pocket?" he asked.

"Where else was I gone put it?" Ryan countered.

"I dunno, not in your goddamn pocket? Jesus, Ryan, that thing was on a corpse."

"It ain't got nothin' nasty on it, I checked," said Ryan. He flapped the piece of paper at Michael. "You want this thing or not?"

Michael snatched it out of his hand. Ryan ambled off to his desk, whistling tunelessly. Michael smoothed the schedule out on his desk. It was heavily creased, like it had been folded and unfolded dozens of times, and there were some scribblings on it. Michael pursed his lips and squinted his eyes and did his best not to mutter along as he read.

The schedule was not dated, much to Michael's annoyance. There was a table of destinations along the Central Pacific, with departure and arrival times, east-bound and west-bound, for every station from San Francisco to Ogden, Utah. The east-bound entry for Hot Springs, Nevada, departing San Fran in the morning and arriving just before dawn the next day, had been circled. Something had been written off to the side in pencil, and Michael's eyes just about shriveled up and fell out of his head trying to read it. Eventually, he managed to get the letters to hold still for long enough to make it out.

Last Chance!!

Michael made a face. That wasn't too helpful. He flipped the schedule over, checking for other notes, but there was just an advertisement for a daytime rail journey through the Sierra Nevadas, obviously aimed at New England tourists.

"Helpful?" Ryan asked. Michael looked back at him. He was seated at his desk, watching Michael with mild but unwavering curiosity.

"Not so much," he said.

"Aw," said Ryan. "Shame."

"You look at it at all?" Michael asked. "All that time you were carryin' it around in your pocket?"

"Sure," said Ryan. "It ain't had nothin' helpful on it, though."

Michael grunted in acknowledgement, then turned to Jeremy. "Hey, Li'l J. What'd the rest of Doc's stack o' crap say?"

"We-yull," said Jeremy, sitting back in his chair. "A couple things."

"Oh, just a couple, huh?"

"She ain't terrible sparse with the words."

He snorted. "No kiddin'. So what was the couple things?"

"First off, she figures he got the crap beat outta him before he got pickled," said Jeremy. "Figures that's what killed him. Somebody busted him up real good, cracked his head open and that was it."

"How's she figure that?" said Michael. "Coulda been the fall down the ravine that busted him up. Looked like he hit damn near everythin' on the way down."

"Uhh, well, it's pretty technical," said Jeremy, scratching the back of his head. "Whole lotta four-dollar words in there. You might hafta just ask her, 'cuz I'm not sure I can explain it."

"Fine, what else?"

"She had a look at what teeth he had left, and he had him a coupla gold crowns, that's one thing."

"So prob'ly he was at least a li'l rich," Michael mused. "You sounded like there was somethin' else?"

"Well, uh, yeah," said Jeremy. He was looking a little uncomfortable. "It ain't strictly speakin' medical, but. . . ."

"But, what?" said Michael.

"Oh, I don't know, Michael, it's prob'ly foolishness," Jeremy sighed. "Says here, when she stripped him down, she found some kinda tattoo on him."

"What kinda tattoo?" Michael asked.

Jeremy plucked up one of the pieces of paper and leaned over his desk to hand it to Michael. There was a sketch on the paper, a sideways 8 with a diagonal slash through the center.

"The hell is this s'posed to be?" Michael asked.

"Beats me," said Jeremy. "Doc couldn't make head nor tail of it, neither."

Michael turned the paper upside-down, then sideways. The symbol didn't make any more sense.

"Where was it?" he asked.

"Uhh, hang on," said Jeremy, rifling through his papers. "The uh, the way she phrased it was uh, direc'ly above the ass-crack."

Geoff snorted, and Gavin's tail thumped against the floor a couple of times.

"Woman's got a way with words," Jack said, grinning.

"Why go to all the trouble of beatin' a man's whole face in," Michael wondered, ignoring all of them, "and leave him with his tattoo?"

"Maybe it was pers'nal," said Jack. "Whoever killed him wasn't tryin' to make him unrecognizable, just wanted to beat his face in."

"Maybe," said Michael, displeased. "Still don't get us any closer to figurin' out who he was and who killt him." Something occurred to him, and he asked, "Say, what railroad was them railmen from?"

"What railmen?" said Jeremy.

"The ones what was cuttin' up in ole Bragg's saloon a couple days ago," said Michael.

"Dunno," said Jack. "They didn't mention, leastways not where I could hear 'em. What're you anglin' for, Michael?"

"I'm wonderin' if they was Central Pacific boys or Union Pacific boys," said Michael.

"What'll that tell you?" Jeremy asked.

"What damn railroad they was workin' for, Jesus," Michael snapped. "I'm wonderin' what in the hell a trio of railmen, from any company, are doin' twenty miles from the nearest railroad. Apart from cuttin' up in saloons, so don't you gimme that shit, Jeremy."

"I wasn't gonna," Jeremy whined.

"I was fixin' to go check in on 'em anyhow," Jack said, getting to her feet. "You wanna come with? We can drop by ole Bragg's afterwards, see if he's got anythin' useful to add."

"Fine," Michael sighed, getting to his feet. "Ain't like I got much else to work with."

"Since I'm officially workin' your murder now, whatchu want me to do?" Jeremy asked.

Michael made a face.

"You know what, why don't you ask around, see if anybody knows what the hell that tattoo's s'posed to be," Michael said. After a moment's thought, he added, "Don't tell 'em where it's from, though."

"You think anybody here's gonna recognize it?" Jeremy asked.

"Naw," said Michael. "But it cain't hurt to check."

"It's four hundred degrees outside, Michael," Jeremy whined. "I don't wanna be out there knockin' on folks' doors all afternoon."

"Well, Jeremy," Michael said, going to the door and lifting his hat off its peg. "Get you a pack of cards, and deal with it."

He walked out to the sound of Geoff laughing.


 

The railmen had posted up in Badger Burton's inn, and it was to Badger herself that Jack went. She rang the bell on the desk and then leaned her elbow on it, waiting.

"Hey, why in the hell's this shithole town got an inn, anyhow?" Michael asked, while they waited.

"'Cuz the post road goes through here," said Jack. "Or otherwise, it did, before the railroad got finished. Which is how come now you gotta go all the way to Vernon with the mail."

"So why the hell's it still here? Cain't imagine too many folks come through."

"Oh, everybody's out lookin' for silver everywhere these days," said Jack. "Mica gets her plenty of suckers comin' on through to stay afloat."

Just then, the door behind the desk opened and Badger Burton stepped out, dressed in gray and white and looking somehow impeccable despite the heat. Michael touched his forelock in lieu of taking off his hat (which was already off, since they were indoors).

"Miss Burton," he said politely.

"Deputies," said Badger. "What can I do ya for? Don't guess y'all're rentin' a room or nothin'?"

The keenness of her gaze made Michael flush. Jack didn't seem to notice, or if she did, wasn't bothered.

"You'd guess right," said Jack.

"Social call?" Badger asked, fluttering her eyelashes at Jack.

Jack winced and inclined her head. "'Fraid not."

"You don't never come see me just to talk," Badger said. She put a hand on her hip and pouted. "I only ever see you when you need somethin' from me."

"It's a cryin' shame," Jack said.

"Next time I see you, it better be a social call," Badger warned, leveling a gloved finger at Jack.

"Whenever I have any time at all for socializin', you're up first on my list," Jack promised.

"I run me an entire inn, and I got time for socializin'," Badger pointed out. "Don't none of y'all deputies do jack-shit."

"How you figure that?" Jack asked, folding her arms. "Since the only time you ever see me is when I'm doin' work."

Badger pouted her lip out and wagged her finger, then snapped and hung her head in defeat.

"You got me, Jackie," she said. "You got me on that one. What's your lawful business today?"

"We was hopin' them rail boys might be here," said Jack.

"Much as I'd love to kick 'em out, they're still around," said Badger. She leaned in with a sly look. "They do somethin'?"

"Not since I shot one of 'em in the foot," said Jack, leaning in as well.

Badger laughed. "Atta girl! You lookin' to shoot 'em again?"

"Naw, hopefully not," said Jack. "We just wanted to ask 'em a couple things."

"What about?"

"That's uh, that's Sheriff's business," Michael said gruffly. Jack gave him a dubious look over her shoulder.

"Michael found him a body out in the ravine," she said, cocking a thumb at him. "Had a train schedule on it. We was hopin' they might know somethin', and if they didn't, I was gonna put the fear of Jack into 'em and squeeze 'em for cash to fix up Bragg's saloon."

"Well dang," said Badger, her eyebrows shooting up. "I heard y'all found a body, I ain't know it was funny business. Just figured it was some outta-towner who slipped and cracked his head open."

"Mighta been," Michael mumbled.

"Sure, sure," said Badger, the glint of gossip in her eyes already. "Anythin' I can help with?"

"A couple things, yeah," said Jack. "How long they been here, again? 'Bout a week, right?"

"Five nights," said Mica. "They came in just after that big ol' rainstorm. I remember, 'cause they was soaked to the skin and tracked mud all over my damn floors."

"Animals," said Jack, shaking her head. "You know if they're here now?"

"I ain't seen 'em leave, but that don't necessarily mean they're here," said Mica. "You can go back and knock, I put 'em in the Blue room so's they wouldn't crack their drunkard heads open on the stairs."

"'Preciate it, Mica," Jack said, nodding to her. "We'll letcha know if there's anythin' else you can help with."

"Uh, thanks," said Michael. He followed after Jack as she went back into the inn. When he figured they were out of earshot, he said, "You always gotta gab with that woman, don't you."

"It ain't gabbin', it's called a conversation," said Jack. "Try havin' one sometime."

"I'm havin' one right now, the hell're you talkin' about?"

"I spend all my days cooped up in that itty-bitty shitty station with no fewer'n four men and zero women, I am entitled to gab whenever I damn well please. Even the dog's male."

"Don't see how that matters any," Michael muttered.

"'Course you wouldn't," said Jack. "Now, you wanna do the threatenin' and I'll do the talkin', or the other way around?"

"You seem like you're in a talkin' mood," said Michael. "Why don't you do that."

"Believe you me, I can go from a talkin' mood to a threatenin' mood lickety-split in the presence of these jackasses," said Jack, pulling up outside a peeling blue door.

"Then I guess I'll pick up whichever mood you ain't in," said Michael. "We goin', or what?"

"We're goin'," said Jack. She thumped on the door. "Sheriff's deputies, open up!"

From inside, there was a scrambling clatter, and someone yelled, "Oh fuck!"

Michael and Jack shared a glance. Michael gestured to the door.

"Ladies first," he said.

Jack took a step back, drew her gun, and kicked the door in. Somebody screamed as she leapt through, with Michael hot on her heels. Inside, the three railmen scrambled over each other like a bunch of cats. Two of them huddled up in the corner. The third was stuck halfway through the window.

"We ain't do nothin'!" one of them squealed, trying to shove his parter between him and the guns.

"If we did, it was Adam!" the other cried, shoving right back.

"Fuck you!" snapped the one sticking out the window, kicking his legs. "Fuck you!"

"Boys, settle down now," Jack said, holstering her gun. "Elsewise my friend Michael here might start in on breakin' things. He's got him a penchant for breakin'."

Following her lead, Michael cracked his knuckles and his neck. None of the railmen were small, and in a three-on-one fight he'd be quickly overwhelmed, but at the very least the biggest of them seemed to be thoroughly stuck in the window.

"Hey, we're settled!" the only clean-shaven one said. "We're real settled, ain't we, Bruce!"

"So damn settled!" said Bruce, who Michael recognized as the one who'd got himself shot the foot a couple of days ago.

"Get me outta this damn window!" Adam shouted, struggling furiously.

The other two looked at each other, then at Jack.

"Go on," she said, tipping her head towards Adam. Bruce and James crept out of the corner and each grabbed a leg. With some grunting and yelping, they managed to get Adam back into the room.

"Now," Jack said, folding her arms. "I admit, I am pleasantly surprised y'all ain't skipped town yet. You didn't seem the type to hang around when somebody'd got a bill hangin' over y'all's heads."

"Yeah, well, uh," said James, glancing at the other two. "We's honest men, miss."

Jack laughed. "Oh, I like that miss. Funny how it's a miss now."

"I ain't gettin' shot in the foot again," Bruce said, wide-eyed. "I learnt my dang lesson."

"We learnt his lesson, too," said Adam. "Mmhm, we sure did."

"Good, then I'm sure y'all'll be real cooperative when Michael and me ask you a couple questions," said Jack. "Startin' off with: what're y'all doin' in this here town, twenty miles from the nearest railroad?"

All three of them looked at each other, a quick and decisive glance. Michael narrowed his eyes.

"Just passin' through," said Adam.

"On the way to where, exac'ly?"

"Empire, miss," said James. "Had business in Empire."

"What kinda business?"

"We's meetin' a friend of ours," said Bruce. "Name o' Sonntag. We got him a job, see, with the railroad, and we was gonna pick him up."

The way they talked was, Michael thought, a little bit off, though he couldn't place quite how. Their whole demeanor had changed, from a squabbling bunch of coyotes to a team of sheepdogs, and he couldn't account for the change. He was sure, though, that he and Jack were being herded.

"And what railroad's that?" Jack asked.

"Union Pacific, miss," said Adam.

Jack glanced back at Michael, and Michael clenched his teeth frustration. He saw the railmen look at each other again. The corner of James's mouth twitched.

"Much appreciated," Jack said. "If y'all could continue hangin' around until the bill comes in for the damages done to ole Bragg's saloon, I'd continue to appreciate that. Maybe you can find somebody to send word to your friend in Empire. Elsewise, now I know who to hand the warrant to if y'all skip town."

"Aw, darn!" said Bruce, slapping his knee. "Adam, you dumbass!"

"Yeah, dumbass, why'd you have to say it?" James cried, shoving Adam's head.

"You cain't keep secrets from deputies, y'all!" Adam whined. "Ain't my fault! You gotta be truthful!"

"We's gonna be broke, is what we's gonna be!"

"Dumbass fool!"

"You're a dumbass fool!"

"We're done," Michael said to Jack, and turned and walked out of the room. Jack tossed one final admonishment at the railmen before following him out.

"The hell're you so upset about?" she asked, as Michael stalked towards the front of the inn.

"They're hidin' somethin'," Michael said. "And now, thanks to you, they know we're suspicious, which is gonna make 'em clam the hell up, if they don't skip town the second we ain't watchin' 'em. Speakin' of which, you better tell Badger to keep an eye on 'em and let us all know straight away if they take off."

"Hold up, why's it my fault? What'd I do?"

"Forget it," said Michael. "I'm goin' back out to that ravine. You have you a little social time with Badger, or whatever."

"Thought we was goin' to talk to Bragg."

"My plans just changed," said Michael.

Chapter Text

Michael looked down at the dust at his feet, folded his arms, and clicked his teeth.

"Hell," he muttered.

The ground by the ravine was a mess, stomped up and kicked around by Michael and Gavin and Ryan and the various beasts of burden. Further from the edge, it had just been the occasional coyote or burro track and, in one place, something that looked disconcertingly like a puma's pawprint. Most everything more than five days old had been obliterated by a pop-up rainstorm that had flooded the whole area, a prelude to the coming monsoon season. If the killer had left a trace, it was long gone now.

Michael took off his hat and pushed a hand back through his sweat-slick hair. The sun was beating down heavy, but there were clouds gathering on the horizon, and he could tell rain was coming again soon by the way the sweat lingered on his skin. Although it would get cooler after the rain, right now the heat was oppressive, even more so than usual.

A breath of cool wind brushed the back of his neck as he settled his hat back on his head. He rubbed his shoulder, trying to ease the tension from it. The desert was silent around him, so quiet it made his ears ring. Nothing moved under the blazing sun—the wind wasn't enough to stir even a hair-thin scrub stalk. The ravine gaped to his left, howling with silence and empty space. A shadow flitted over the sun for a moment, and Michael looked up, squinting for the bird that had done it.

Something touched the back of his neck.

Michael spun so fast he lost his footing, falling into the dust. He ripped the Colt from its holster and flung it up to point at whoever was behind him.

There was nobody there.

Michael lay on the ground for almost half a minute, trying to catch his breath. The sun beat down. Sweat trickled down his face, his arms, the back of his neck. The barrel of his gun sketched figure-eights in the air. The silence remained undisturbed by anything but his breathing and the beating of his heart.

"Damn bugs," Michael muttered, picking himself up and stuffing the Colt back into its holster. He brushed the dust off his clothes, pretending he wasn't shaking. It must have been a bug, because there was nothing else out here. A really quiet bug. Maybe one that had crawled up off his collar—that would make sense.

More sense, at least, than a hand, which was what it had felt like.

Michael glanced back over his shoulder. His horse, which he'd left a couple hundred feet away to keep from further messing up the scene, was placidly munching on a shrub. He took a steadying breath and cracked his neck.

He ought to get back on the horse and go home—there'd be paperwork to do, and Jeremy might've found something out about the tattoo, and he ought to take another look at Lindsay's mess of crap anyways, and figure out what the hell the railmen had been lying about, and sooner or later get something to eat, and. . . .

He glanced the other way, the space that had been behind him when the touch on his neck came. There was a tugging in his guts that he knew better than to ignore.

"Damn stupid idjit sonnuva bitch," he cursed at himself.

Eyes glued to the ground, he slowly picked his way along the edge of the ravine. There wasn't much to be seen—just rocks, scrubby little bushes, the turbulent swirls left in the dirt by the rainstorm. The sun beat down on his neck, and he pushed his hat back to block it. The wind stirred again, the slightest push at his back. He kept going, for one minute, then two.

Four hundred feet from where he'd started, he finally found something out of place.

"Well I'll be goddamned," he said.

Cautiously, he squatted down and plucked up the splinter of pale wood from the dirt. He turned it this way and that, examining every side of it. It looked like pine, or maybe oak. He stuck it in his pocket. Five minutes' search brought up a handful more splinters, most of them caught up against a rock, apparently washed there during the storm.

Michael stood around for a while, in case inspiration struck again, but no bolt from the blue came down. He just had a bunch of pine splinters and a dry mouth and a sweaty back, and that was it. Chewing his cheeks, he went back and got back on the horse and turned it towards Achievement City. He almost wished he'd brought Gavin with him, just so he'd have somebody to talk to.

"What's made of pine?" he asked the horse. It flicked an ear back. "Coffins? Folks talk a lot about windin' up in pine boxes. Might go on with him bein' pickled—somebody done stole him before he could be prop'ly buried. Whatchu think?"

The horse didn't say anything. Michael nudged it with his heel, annoyed.

"Naw," he said, "that don't make no sense, he wouldn'ta been in a damn coffin with sixty dollars and a pocket watch on him, and especially not with a damn train schedule. So—what, somebody packed him up? Pried him outta his box and chucked him down the ravine? What the hell for?"

Tossing its head, the horse nickered. Michael wrinkled his nose and gave it a reassuring pat.

"I know, it don't make no damn sense," he said. "If he got pickled, it'd stand to reason folks knew he was dead, so why bother tryin' to hide the body? Why dress him back up and stick all that shit in his pockets? If he was packed up in a box, why unpack him onsite and leave splinters every-damn-where? Why—"

He stopped, sitting up straighter and blinking.

"Goddamn," he said. "He's been down there since last week. Them fuckin' railmen dumped him down there."

The horse flicked its ear again and farted.

"The splinters all washed up in an eddy," Michael said, his voice rising as the speed of his roll built. "All the footprints got washed away. The ki-yotes and buzzards ain't been at him 'cuz he was pickled, not 'cuz he ain't been there long, and that's how come he didn't smell when Ryan and me found him, neither! But Gav's seen pickled bodies before, he'd know the smell, and that's how come he went nuts! God damn, I'm stupid!"

At this revelation, the horse bent its head and tried to eat a shrub by the side of the path. Michael hauled on the reins and kicked the horse sharply.

"No ma'am," he snapped. "You better hurry the fuck up, 'cuz I need to catch me some damn killers!"


 

"It was them goddamn railmen," Michael said, breathless, barging into the sheriff's station.

"Oh?" said Ryan, looking up from his desk.

Michael wound down and stopped. There was nobody else in the station, not even Gavin. The afternoon had given way to evening, and the clouds on the horizon were swallowing up the sun.

"Uh," said Michael. He straightened his shirt. "Yeah. Pretty sure. Leastways there's enough to bring 'em in for a more uh, more thorough questionin'."

"What all'd you find?" Ryan inquired politely.

"Where's everybody else?" Michael asked. He did not go to his desk, staying in the middle of the room.

"Went on home," said Ryan. "What all'd you find?"

"Uh," Michael said again. "Just—well, mos'ly just a buncha splinters, but uh, it's a timin' sort of a thing, see, 'cuz they was all washed up by the rainstorm, and the railmen just got here right after that, so. . . ."

It sounded incredibly, stupidly flimsy now that he was saying it out loud. Ryan just watched him, unblinking. Michael's face flushed, and he fidgeted.

"I figure he got packed up in a box after he got pickled an' then they threw him down the ravine and the only reason the ki-yotes and buzzards ain't been at him is 'cuz he got pickled," he mumbled.

"And you figure the railmen was the ones to do it?" Ryan said, raising an eyebrow.

"Hey, I ain't see you doin' any detectin'," Michael snapped.

"Ain't sayin' you're wrong," he said.

"You was implyin' it. How come you're still here, if everybody else went home?"

"Had a couple things to finish up," said Ryan. His eyes narrowed and his chin lifted. "Somethin's got you spooked."

"No it don't," Michael said, bristling.

Ryan smiled a cold little lizard smile. His eyes glittered.

"Oh, sure," he said. "My mistake. You want me to come along and round up those rail boys so's you can interrogate 'em on your splinters?"

"Why the fuck are you lookin' at me likkat?" Michael blurted. His skin was crawling. All the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up. Ryan smiled wider.

"On account of I think it's funny to watch you squirm your way around the truth," Ryan said.

Michael's fingers brushed the Colt, drawing comfort from the familiarity of the hot metal. Ryan's eyes flickered—Michael couldn't be sure if it had been a blink, or something else.

"You callin' me a liar?" Michael demanded, struggling to keep his voice under control.

"If you're gone lie to me, I'm gone call you on it," said Ryan, laughing. "Don't get all het up, Michael. You want me to go and get those rail boys, or not?"

There was just the slightest wrong emphasis on get. Michael rested his hand on the Colt. His legs were screaming at him to run. He could taste lightning in the air.

"Not tonight," he said slowly. "I ain't that sure yet."

Ryan finally looked away, dropping his gaze back to his desk.

"Whatever you say," he said, shrugging.

Michael stood for a moment more, deciding on his next move before he made it. Ryan paid him absolutely no mind, penning in a document with careful, precise strokes.

"I'm gonna head on home, then, too," said Michael. "If anythin' comes up, uh. . . ."

"I know where to find you," Ryan said, and he told it like a joke.

It took every ounce of grit Michael had to turn his back on Ryan and walk out. He would've much preferred to back away.


 

Lindsay looked Michael up and down and folded her arms.

"You wanna tell me why you're turnin' up on my doorstep at this hour?" she said.

"Uh," said Michael. "Do I hafta?"

"If you don't want a door slammed in your face, you better," said Lindsay.

"I thought I might, uh, make you dinner," he said. "If you wanted."

"Most folks would arrange that in advance," said Lindsay.

"Well, most folks ain't had the kinda day I had," said Michael.

"What kinda day you had?"

"A real unpleasant kind," said Michael. "Doc, don't make me stand out in the street like this, c'mon now. Either shut the door on me or let me in."

Lindsay wrinkled her nose, then stood aside and let Michael in. He had to duck to get through the door, and stood holding his hat in his hands afterwards. There wasn't much precedent for this situation.

"I already had my dinner," Lindsay said, "but I got some leftovers you can have if you want."

"I wouldn't wanna intrude," Michael said.

"You're already intrudin', come on," said Lindsay, moving into the kitchen. Michael followed sheepishly. "Ain't like you to be polite. You got somethin' on your mind?"

"Oh hell, Doc, about a thousand things," Michael sighed.

"I ain't gonna talk to you about that murder, but if it's somethin' else, then you can pull you up a chair and unload," Lindsay said, gesturing to one of the chairs at her kitchen table. Michael lowered himself into it while Lindsay rifled through the cupboards. "You want some coffee or somethin'?"

"Got any gin?" Michael said, rubbing his forehead.

"Naw, but I got moonshine," said Lindsay. "Made it myself."

"Gimme one of them, then."

"Where'd all that politeness go?"

"Thought you didn't want it."

"Said it was uncharacteristic, not unwelcome. You could stand to be more polite, 'specially if you're gonna come bargin' into my house unannounced."

"Fine. May I have a drink, Doc?"

"Progress," Lindsay said. She got out a mason jar of clear liquid and poured some of it out into two tin camping cups. She set one of them down in front of Michael and then dropped into the other chair with the other. "You wanna tell me what's got you so outta sorts?"

Michael held up a finger and slammed back a mouthful of moonshine. It caught fire in his sinuses and he almost spat it all out again.

"Jesus Christ, what the hell'd you make this outta?" he sputtered, eyes watering.

"Corn," said Lindsay. She sipped hers and barely flinched. "Corn and sugar and yeast. And if you drank like a person instead of like a horse, you wouldn't be carryin' on like that."

"Hell with you," said Michael.

"Hell with you," said Lindsay.

Michael snorted the pain out of his nose and wiped it on his sleeve. He shook his head and had a small sip of the moonshine. His belly was already getting warm from it. He would have taken off his jacket if the company had been different.

"You know Deputy Haywood?" he said.

"'Course I know Haywood," said Lindsay. "And I told you, I wasn't gonna talk deputy business."

"It ain't," said Michael. He frowned at his cup for a while, thinking.

"What about him?" Lindsay asked.

"Where'd he come from?" Michael asked.

"Hell if I know," said Lindsay. "I don't hardly ever talk to the man, and never more'n small-talk."

"You musta patched up a few bullet holes, at least," Michael said.

"On Haywood? Never," said Lindsay.

"There's no way in hell that man's never been shot," said Michael. "I've seen him get shot, for God's sake."

"Hey, I ain't sayin' you're wrong," said Lindsay. "I just know I never patched him up. You want some kinda history, maybe you better ask the sheriff. He'd know, if anybody did. He givin' you trouble?"

Michael pursed his lips. He had another sip of moonshine. He shuddered involuntarily, even as the heat spread through his chest.

"Naw," he said.

"He givin' somebody else trouble?"

"Naw, Doc, I don't know of any trouble on any side," Michael said.

"Then what the hell's the problem?"

He thought about it. He had an answer, of course, he just wasn't sure he was prepared to share it. In the end, though, he decided that if anybody could be trusted, Lindsay could.

"There's somethin' wrong about him," he said. "And I cain't account for it, and I cain't put a name to it, and most days I think I'm the only person in the goddamn world who can see it, but there is somethin' wrong about him. In all the time I been workin' with the man, I have never seen him blink. Never, not once! He's too damn comfortable with dead bodies, he gets mighty unsettlin' from time to time, especially where lawbreakers is concerned, and—goddamn, half the damn time he looks at me like he's figurin' the size of my coffin! And nobody sees it but me!"

"He ain't what I'd call a comfortable fella," Lindsay allowed. "But hell, Michael, there's plenty of folks who ain't quite all there, and they ain't never hurt nobody. Just 'cause he's a li'l queer don't mean he's dangerous."

Michael shook his head, resolute.

"There is a mirage on that man's soul," he declared. "He's got you fooled, too. Used to have me fooled, but I ain't fallin' for it anymore."

"What is it you think he's up to?" Lindsay asked.

He chewed his lip. He sighed and rubbed his face. He had another sip of moonshine.

"I don't know," he said. "All I know is, if I could arrange it so's I was never alone with him again, I'd call it a blessin'."

This time, it was Lindsay who took her time answering.

"That why you came here?" she asked. "He unsettled you that bad?"

"I ain't wanna be alone," Michael mumbled, although it was mostly the moonshine talking. He never would've admitted it sober.

"Ain't you got that dog?"

"He ain't my dog," said Michael, then added, "Plus, the sheriff took him tonight."

"So I'm your backup dog?"

"Naw, Doc, you're . . . damn near the only friend I got," Michael said, rubbing the back of his neck.

"Aw shit, now you're gettin' mushy on me," said Lindsay.

A slow, sonorous tolling rolled in through the windows, the clock tower over the bank striking nine. Michael wrinkled his nose.

"I prob'ly better just go home," he said. "I got spooked out at the ravine and it's done made me nervy, that's all."

"Oh boy," said Lindsay. "What happened out at the ravine?"

"Murder business," said Michael, then sighed again. "I dunno, Doc, it was dumb. I was on edge 'cuz I knew I shouldn'ta been out there alone, and then a bug or somethin' lighted on me and scared me shitless."

Lindsay snorted. "Bet that was a sight," she said.

"Hey, shut up," said Michael, flushing. "Next time I go out to Collywobble Canyon, I'm takin' you with me, see how you like it."

"Collywobble Canyon?" Lindsay cried in delight. "Who the hell decided to call it that?"

"Jeremy," said Michael.

"Goddamn, that's stupid," said Lindsay. "I love it. There is no way in hell I am ever comin' with you out to Collywobble Canyon, you stupid sonnuva bitch."

"Fuck you."

"Fuck you."

He raised his cup to her. She clinked hers against it, although it was more of a plick.

"Stubborn ol' nag," he said.

"Dumb ol' mule," she returned.

And with that toast, they drank.

Chapter Text

"Boy howdy, you look like you had a fun night," Jeremy said, grinning at Michael as he shambled into the sheriff's station. Gavin leapt up from his spot by Geoff's desk and bounded over to jump on Michael and lick his hands.

"Fuck you," said Michael, fending off the dog on the way to his desk.

"You find a distillery out in that ravine?" Jeremy asked.

"I'm fixin' to distill your head."

"That don't even make any sense."

"Hey, Jeremy? Fuck you. Gavin, get offa me!"

"C'mere, Gavvy, leave Michael alone," Geoff said. As Gavin trotted back over to him, he looked up at Michael. "And you better not make a habit of gettin' drunk on worknights."

"Fine one to talk," Michael mumbled, lowering himself into his chair.

"I quit, and you damn well know it," Geoff said. "And the reason why I quit, is because—"

"You can't sheriff drunk," Michael and Jeremy chorused. Geoff pursed his lips.

"Exactly," he said, though he sounded miffed. "And you shouldn't be deputyin' hungover."

"It wun't my intention," said Michael. "And I don't intend to do it again, ever, if I get any say in it."

"Awright," Geoff said, dubious. "I'm gonna hold you to that."

"Yeah yeah," said Michael, rubbing his face. He wasn't sure how his face could be sore, but it was. "Jeremy, whatchu find out about that tattoo?"

"Oh," said Jeremy. He started rifling through the papers on his desk. "Uhh, hang on a minute, had my notes here somewhere—"

"Hey, Sheriff," Michael said, while he looked. "Where's Ryan and Jack gone off to?"

"Caleb came in complainin' about rustled cattle again," said Geoff. "They went out to have a look-see."

"Hm," said Michael.

"Ah, got it!" said Jeremy. He got up from his desk and came over to sit on Michael's. "So, I asked just about damn near everybody I could find—"

"You asked two hunnert and twelve people, and you only got two pages of notes?" Michael interrupted, looking at the papers in Jeremy's hand.

"Yeah, 'cause most of 'em only said no idear. You wanna hear what I found, or not?"

"Lay it on me," Michael sighed.

"All right," said Jeremy. He flexed his eyebrows and peered down his nose at the paper. "Mr. Denecour thinks it might be some kinda brand, like from a cattle ranch—not surprisin', given his profession. Scarcello, Werle, and Diaz said basically the same thing, with only a li'l bit of difference between 'em, also not surprisin'. Mr. Risinger said he ain't recognize it, but I'm not sure I believe him—you know how ornery he is. Miss Hardy said it mighta been a company logo, but not one she's ever seen come through. Matovina, Collins, Cook, and Bernard—you know them?"

"They the ones always out pannin' for silver like damn fools?" Michael said.

"Yep, that's them," said Jeremy. "They nattered on for a while, kinda throwin' ideas at each other, and eventually came to the conclusion it was prob'ly some kinda heathen cult shit. Now goofy as that sounds, I did follow it up talkin' to Father Sorola."

"And what'd he say?"

"That it was a load of horseshit and them boys had fried their brains bein' out in the sun all day," said Jeremy.

Michael snorted. "I think they was fried before that," he said. "Anybody who thinks you can get rich pannin' for silver's got more'n a couple screws loose. You happen to ask them railmen?"

"Uh," said Jeremy. "No. I ain't know I was s'posed to."

"It don't matter," said Michael, poorly concealing his annoyance. "That all you got?"

"Ole Bragg said about the same as Miss Hardy, about it bein' a company logo," said Jeremy, turning his pages. "Uhh, lemme see what else. That Shawcross kid said he'd figure it out for us if we'd let him be a deputy once he did."

"Jesus God," Michael muttered. "What'd you tell him?"

"I said sure thing," said Jeremy.

"What'd you say?" Geoff snapped.

"He ain't gonna figure it out, Sheriff," Jeremy said.

"You do not do anything to bring that li'l fucker anywhere near my station," Geoff said, going red in the face. "He'll climb up the walls like a damn lizard if you give him half an inch."

"C'mon, Sheriff, he's harmless," said Jeremy.

"He's a pain in my ass, is what he is," said Geoff. "And if he does figure it out and trots his ass in here demandin' to be a deputy, you're takin' him on, not me, and then he can be a pain in your ass."

"Sure thing, Sheriff," said Jeremy. He turned back to Michael. "That's about all I got of any interest."

"Anybody catch your eye in particular?" Michael said. "Somebody mighta been lying?"

"Other'n Risinger? Nobody."

Michael screwed up his face and sighed. "I'm gonna hafta talk to him, I guess," he said.

"I don't know that I'd bother," said Jeremy. "If he does know anythin', he ain't gonna tell you, and if he don't know anythin', he's gonna let you have it both-barrels for botherin' him. And you don't look like you can take both barrels today."

Shaking his head, Michael said, "Nobody's ever been killt by a sharp tongue, and I ain't gonna be the first. I gotta get on with my deputyin', no matter how hungover I am."

"Them barrels might not be metaphorical, Michael," said Jeremy. "One day that man's gonna snap, and it might be today."

"You wanna come with me, then?"

"Hell no."

"Sheriff, tell Jeremy to come with me to work on this murder case."

"Go with Michael, Jeremy," Geoff said, without looking up.

"Sheriff said it, now you gotta," said Michael.

"How come I gotta do what he says?" Jeremy whined at Geoff, gesturing at Michael. "I been here two years longer'n him!"

"You keep on like that, you ain't gonna be here much longer," Geoff warned. "And you gotta do what he says 'cuz he's the smartest person in the room."

Michael raised his head and stared at Geoff.

"The hell he is!" Jeremy said, offended.

"Yeah, what he said," said Michael, cocking a thumb at him.

"Yes he is," Geoff said. "Now quit slackin' off and go do your damn jobs 'fore I whup both y'all's asses."

In a huff, Jeremy got up and walked out, snagging a pencil from his desk as he went. Michael levered himself to his feet and started after him, then hesitated. Gavin lifted his head and sniffed, then set it back down on his folded paws when it became obvious that Michael wasn't waiting for him.

"Sheriff?" Michael said.

"Yeah?" said Geoff, fixing him with a penetrating gaze. Michael fidgeted.

"You was just sayin' that to piss off Jeremy, wun't you?" he said hopefully.

"No, I wasn't," said Geoff. "I took you on 'cuz you're sharp as a tack, even if you ain't half as shiny. Now you can believe that or not, as you please, but it ain't gonna change the fact that you're just about the smartest fella I ever met. Now go do your damn job."

"Yessir," said Michael, because he was too stunned to say anything else. He stumbled out of the sheriff's station, whereupon the sun stabbed him in both eyes like a pair of knitting needles. He had to take a moment to catch his balance and blink the pain from his vision. Jeremy was waiting for him, arms folded, one toe tapping.

"You gonna stand there blinkin' like an owl all day, or we doin' shit?" he demanded.

"Just gimme a goddamn second," Michael muttered, pulling his hat down and starting off towards the bank. Jeremy tagged along at his elbow, and for about a block, neither of them said anything. The mournful bells of the clocktower rang out, announcing ten in the morning.

"So how'd you wind up so hungover, anyhow?" Jeremy asked, as the ringing faded.

"The usual way, Jeremy," Michael said. "By drinkin' too damn much."

"Youuuuuuu was with Doc, wasn't you," Jeremy taunted.

"No I wun't," said Michael, going red.

"Yes you was, Kitty said she saw you loiterin' on her doorstep last night."

"She's seein' things."

"How'd it go?"

"It din't," Michael said staunchly.

"That bad, huh?" said Jeremy. "No wonder you got drunk."

"Doc is a good friend of mine," he snapped, "and I do not appreciate your insinuations concernin' the nature of our relationship!"

Jeremy whistled. "God damn, she has been rubbin' off on you," he said. "Them's some purty words, Michael."

"Fuck you, shut the fuck up."

"That's more like it."

"Go to hell."

Thus bickering, the two of them entered the First Bank of Achievement City.

The bank was by far the nicest building in town; it had the clock tower poking out the top of it like a skewer, unrotted wood for doors, clear glass in the windows and a roof that didn't leak. The floors were real stone, and kept shiny. There was an underground vault, too, dug out and lined with iron. Michael got the impression that whoever had built the town had spent every penny on the bank and left the rest to build itself out of spit and grit.

As they came in the front door, Michael had to take another moment for his eyes to adjust—despite the nice windows, it was much dimmer in the bank. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a door snapping closed. Jeremy continued onward to the main desk, and Michael trailed after him, squinting at the door. There was something written on it, but as always, the letters were being ornery.

"Howdy, deputies," the teller at the desk said, as Jeremy came up. There were a few other people in the bank, but they all seemed to be taken care of already. "What can I do for y'all on this fine Thursday mornin'?"

"Howdy, Miss Fielder," Jeremy said, touching his forehead politely. "We was hopin' we might talk to Mr. Risinger, if he's available."

"What'd he do?" Miss Fielder said, leaning in with entirely too much enthusiasm.

The writing on that door started with a B, and there were two words. The second one could've started with an M or a W, he wasn't sure which.

"Now now, Miss Fielder," Jeremy chuckled. "He ain't done nothin'. Just so happens he might have information pertainin' to a current case of ours."

"Oh," said Miss Fielder, disappointed. "Well he ain't in."

Beulc Wrangler? That didn't make any sense. Bank, the first word was Bank, it had to be.

"You sure?" Jeremy asked. "Seems a mighty odd time for him to be out."

"I know, but he's out. Sorry, sir, I dunno what else to tell you."

Bank what, though? Wrangler wasn't right, but he was pretty sure it was some kind of -er word. That g was pretty unmistakeable, too, unless it was a q, but he would put his money on g. Bank Something-er.

It hit Michael with a flash of inspiration that lit up cleverer parts of his head.

"Fact of the matter is, Miss Fielder," he said, "Mr. Risinger has done somethin'."

"He has?" said Jeremy, startled.

"I knew it," said Miss Fielder. "What'd he do?"

"Lied to a sheriff's deputy," said Michael. "And unless I'm much mistaken, coerced you to do the same. Didn't he? On account of he's hidin' in his Bank Manager's office over there, pretendin' he ain't at home to deputies."

"He—no, he ain't in there," Miss Fielder said. Michael looked at her. She wasn't nearly so confident anymore.

"I seen him close the door when we came in," said Michael. "You wanna tell him we're lookin' for him, or should I let myself in?"

"I'll . . . go and tell him, sir," said Miss Fielder, and slunk off like a wet cat. Jeremy gave Michael a dubious look.

"I knew he was in there," Jeremy said.

"'Course you did."

"I was just bein' polite."

"Uh-huh."

"I was! You always go bustin' in everywhere all hard-edge and fists swingin', and it makes us look bad!"

"I ain't swing a single fist, Jeremy," said Michael.

"You threatened to," said Jeremy.

"I did no such thing, I just asked if I oughtta let myself into Risinger's office. If somebody were to take that as a threat of violence, that'd be on their own head."

"Miss Fielder looked like she thought you was gonna use her for a batterin' ram."

"Then that's her hangup, not mine," said Michael. He pointed to the opened office door, where Risinger was scowling out at them from behind his desk. "We're bein' summoned."

"Knew he was in there," Jeremy muttered, as Michael headed off for Risinger's office.

It was a small, comfortable room, with a nice desk and a bookshelf and a grandfather clock. There was a plush red rug on the floor, and paintings hung on the walls. Risinger himself sat behind the desk smoldering like a day-old campfire. His dark hair hung loose like a lion's mane, his piercing gray eyes like a pair of silver coins. He was dressed sharply, and his fingers drummed out a fierce tattoo on his desk.

"Mornin', Mr. Risinger," Jeremy said as he entered. He stuck out a hand, which Risinger regarded with the utmost contempt. He didn't even rise as Michael and Jeremy came into his office. Miss Fielder shut the door on them quietly.

"What the hell do you want?" Risinger snapped.

"Mind if we sit down?" Jeremy inquired, putting his rebuffed hand in his pocket.

"Yes I mind," said Risinger. "You're already tracking dirt all over my damn rugs, I'm not having you ruining my chairs, too. If you're going to come in here looking like some half-dead barn rats, you're damn well going to stand. It's bad enough I had to deal with you—" he pointed sharply to Jeremy— "yesterday, and now you're coming back with the baby-face idiot to bother me yet again, like I don't have to work for a living. Now what the hell do you want?"

Michael glanced at Jeremy and inclined his head.

"Deputy Jones here is investigatin' a murder," Jeremy said brightly. "He can tell you all about it."

Michael ground his teeth, glaring. Jeremy smiled at him.

"I haven't killed anybody," Risinger said. "Which you'd damn well know, if you weren't complete buffoons. Someday this shithole's going to get real law enforcement, instead of you pack of—"

"We wasn't of the opinion you'd killed anybody, Mr. Risinger," Jeremy interrupted. "You remember that design I asked you about yesterday?"

"No, I totally forgot, because I don't have a goddamn brain in my head, just like you," Risinger snapped. "I told you, I don't know what it is. It's a scribble. What the hell's it got to do with anything?"

"It was tattooed on our dead body," said Michael.

Risinger went white.

"So?" he said, while his hands clenched on the edge of his desk. "I didn't kill anybody and I don't know what that stupid scribble is. Why don't you two leave me alone and go do something productive, like drown yourselves in the horse trough?"

Michael slammed both hands down on the desk so hard that everything on it jumped up in the air. Risinger jumped, too, about three inches out of his chair.

"Quit fuckin' lyin'!" Michael roared.

"I'm not—lying," Risinger said, choked.

"Yes you goddamn are and you goddamn know it!"

"Get—get your filthy hands off my desk."

Michael took his hands off the desk and instead grabbed Risinger by the lapels and shook him.

"Talk, you piece of shit!" he snarled. "You speak up right the fuck now! What the fuck ain't you sayin'?"

"Nothing! I don't know anything!"

"Oh you don't, huh?" Michael shook him again, yelling into his face. "Why the fuck you lookin' so upset about a scribble you don't recognize bein' tattooed on a man you ain't kill? Why the fuck you lookin' so upset, Jon?"

Risinger looked to Jeremy. "Get your damn attack dog off me," he said. Sweat was beading on his forehead. He was clutching the arms of his chair, white-knuckled.

"Nope, the dog's name is Gavin," said Jeremy. "That's Deputy Jones. You gotta learn these things, Mr. Risinger. It's always a good idea to know your local lawmen."

"I fucking hate you," Risinger hissed. "I fucking despise all of you lousy little shits. Someday you're going to get what's fucking coming to you and I'm going to dance on your fucking graves—"

Michael bashed Risinger into the back of his chair, and Risinger cut off in a squeak.

"And in the mean time," Michael said, "you're gonna answer my question!"

His eyes darted. His Adam's apple bobbed as he gulped. His lip curled.

"Had a friend by the name of Joel Heyman," he said, grinding out each word like it pained him. "He was a banker, too. Ogden, Utah. Had that thing tattooed on his ankle, never would tell me what it meant."

"You know where he is?"

"No," Risinger snapped. "Now get your goddamn hands off me."

"You sure?" Michael pressed.

"Yes, I'm fucking sure. The son of a bitch cut ties years ago. Are you going to fuck off now, or what?"

Michael considered it, then let Risinger go. He straightened back up while the banker brushed invisible dirt off his clothes and fixed his bolo tie.

"We sure do appreciate your cooperation, Mr. Risinger," said Jeremy. "We'll let you know if there's anythin' else you can do to assist with the investigation."

"Go to hell," Risinger snarled.

"Mornin'," Jeremy said, nodding to him. He turned and walked out, and Michael went with him. Neither of them spoke until they were clear of the bank.

"Good call," Michael said.

"Huh?"

"Figurin' that Risinger knew more'n he was sayin'," he elaborated. "Good call."

"Oh," said Jeremy. He wiped his nose with his thumb. "Thanks. Nice goin' gettin' him to squeal."

"It ain't that hard," said Michael. "You just gotta know where to press."

Chapter Text

It was about two days after the interview with Risinger when they finally got a lead.

Jeremy had written off a bundle of letters to other deputies in the region, inquiring about a Mr. Joel Heyman, banker, and a few of them had answered. Most said they didn't know anything, and a few said they'd heard of him or met him briefly. As Jeremy read through the list of respondents, Michael's ears picked up at one in particular.

"You said Hot Springs?" he interrupted, before Jeremy had even gotten to the contents of the letter.

"Yeah," Jeremy said. "What's special about Hot Springs?"

"That's where our dead fella was goin'," said Michael. He sat up straighter, coming unslumped. "What'd the folks in Hot Springs say?"

"They said a Mr. Heyman wanted to invest with their bank, and he was s'posed to come take a tour last week, only he never showed up."

"You send any letters to anybody further up the line?" Michael demanded, speaking so fast the words all slurred over each other.

"What line?"

"The line, the rail line, you fuckin' idjit!"

"All right, Jesus, settle down," Jeremy said. "Uhh, lemme see, I sent 'em to Reno, Clarks, and Wadsworth. Only Clarks answered."

"No, between Hot Springs and Ogden, didja send any between Hot Springs and Ogden?"

"If you'd meant that, you shoulda said it," Jeremy said. "Yes, I sent some to Carlin and Ogden."

"And? What'd they say?"

"I'm gettin' to it, God damn," he snapped. "Folks in Ogden said he left there more'n a decade ago. Ain't heard back from Carlin."

Michael cursed viciously, slamming a hand down on his desk. Gavin leapt up from where he'd been sleeping and scurried away to hide under Geoff's desk with his tail between his legs. Michael reigned himself in, taking a deep breath.

"So. Hot Springs," he said. "That's—Jesus, what, sixty miles from here?"

"Somethin' like that," said Jeremy. "Prob'ly fastest to go through Vernon to Lovelock station and take the train down."

"I ain't thinkin' of goin' there, Jeremy, I'm tryin' to work out why the hell it's important. What the fuck's in Hot Springs, Nevada?"

"Hot springs, I think," Geoff piped up helpfully.

"Fuck off, Sheriff," said Michael. "Heyman was s'posed to go there. Our dead fella had it marked out on his train schedule. Maybe they was gonna meet up?"

"Maybe they did meet up, and Heyman killed him!" Jeremy exclaimed.

"Give your knees a rest and quit jumpin' to conclusions," Michael said, leveling a warning finger at him. "But yeah, maybe that did happen, or somethin' of that ilk. But then why dump his body sixty goddamn miles away? There's gotta be shitloads of closer places to dump a fuckin' body."

"Yeah, I guess," said Jeremy, disappointed.

"Well, hang on a minute, though," Jack said.

"It ain't your case!" Geoff reminded her.

"If they'da dumped him closer to where they'd killed him," Jack went on regardless, "folks woulda been a damn sight more likely to recognize him. Take him sixty miles away, toss him in a gulch a handful of miles off from the nearest shithole town, and then even if anybody does find him, they ain't gonna know who he is."

"That's still a helluva lotta trouble to go through, Jack," Michael said, scratching the back of his head. "We got three big questions that I don't see any forthcomin' answers to. Them bein': why him, why here, and why Hot Springs?"

"I'da thought who dunnit mighta been higher on the list," said Jeremy.

"I got a pretty good idea of who dunnit," Michael said. Belatedly, he glanced at the back corner of the station. Ryan was not there. This was somehow less than comforting.

"Yeah?" said Geoff, perking up. "Who you think done it?"

"I got a hunch them railmen was the ones who dumped him down the ravine," he said. "On account of when I went out there, I found a buncha splinters all washed up by the storm, and Badger Burton said the railmen turned up just afterwards."

"That's mighty tenuous, Michael," said Geoff.

"Yeah, that's why I ain't arrested 'em yet," Michael snapped.

"And plus, if they had, why'd they be stickin' around?" Jack said. "If I'd come into town to dump a body, I'da got the hell out first chance I had."

"I don't believe for one goddamn second their bullshit about goin' to get their buddy in Empire," Michael said. "They'da been long gone by now, if they had somebody waitin' for 'em. In fact, with us danglin' ole Bragg's bill over their heads, they got just about every reason not to still be here. So they gotta have a damn good reason to stay."

"Oh, shit," Jeremy said suddenly. "Oh, shit, Michael, somebody done paid 'em to dump it! They're waitin' on their paycheck!"

"There you go jumpin' to conclusions again," said Michael, regarding him with muted approval. "But goddamn if it ain't a good one. How long's it take to get here from Hot Springs?"

"Uhhhh, on a good day? Lemme see—"

"Prob'ly two days, at most," said Geoff. "Been about a week since you found that body."

"And he was down there for prob'ly a week before I did," said Michael. "So where the hell's the money? If it's comin', why ain't it got here yet?"

"I bet them rail boys is gettin' mighty antsy," said Jack. "Maybe we oughtta have another crack at 'em."

"Naw, I don't think so," Michael said, speaking slowly, so he wouldn't talk faster than his thoughts. "I think we better let 'em stew in it. But keep a keen eye out on everybody who comes into town. Might be we tossed a wrench in their—shit, hey, those railmen sent out any letters?"

"What?" said Jeremy.

"The railmen," Michael repeated, tapping two fingers on the table. "They sent any letters out? 'Cuz Badger Burton knew we'd found that body, I bet it was gossiped all over hell and gone."

"You think the rail boys warned the killer not to come," said Jack.

"When'd the last mail go out?" Michael demanded.

"Ryan just took it out to Vernon yesterday, brought all this back," said Jeremy, indicating his stack of responses. "That's how come he ain't in here, he's takin' the day off."

Michael lit off on another explosion of cursing, although he didn't hit anything this time.

"Whose turn is it next time?"

"Mine," said Jeremy, raising his hand. Michael pointed at him.

"Whenever you go," he said, "you check for anythin' addressed to them railmen."

"I can't open other folks' mail, Michael, that's against the law," said Jeremy, sanctimonious.

Geoff muttered something, and Jeremy glared at him. Michael was just about to ask him to repeat it when Jack spoke up.

"You don't gotta open it, Li'l J, don't be dumb," she said. "Just keep an eye out for it, and who it's from and where they sent it from, that's all. That oughtta give us a name and a place, if we end up needin' one. And then if the rail boys take off, we prob'ly got a good idea of where they'd be goin'."

"Makes sense," said Jeremy. "I'm headin' out there day after tomorrow, should be plenty of time to get some sorta response. You want me to poke my head in that ravine while I'm out that way?"

"Don't know that you're gonna find anythin', but I ain't gonna stop you," said Michael.

"I'll see what I can see," Jeremy said, shrugging.

"Just—" Michael began, and stopped. Jeremy turned to look at him, cocking an eyebrow.

"Just?" he said.

"Don't fall in," Michael said lamely.

He snorted. "I ain't gonna stick my head that far in," he said.

"Yeah, well," said Michael, and that was that.


 

When evening rolled around and the clock had chimed six, Michael packed up his things and headed home. Gavin tagged along, smiling a big doggy smile and trotting ahead to sniff at every doorstep and pile of horse manure. Michael had to call him away from harassing citizens a couple of times, although most of them were plenty happy to crouch down and love on him.

"Don't let him lick your face," Michael warned them. "You don't know what he's been eatin'."

Most people said they didn't mind much, and from the way Gavin's tail wagged at the attention, he wouldn't have minded hardly anything, so long as they kept scratching him behind the ears.

Michael lived out on the outskirts of town, where buildings and roads gave way to scrub brush and coyote holes. He hadn't quite built the house himself, but he'd shored it up enough times that the work was at least half his own. The roof didn't leak anymore, and the stairs hadn't broken again since he'd fixed them up, and the doors creaked but at least they stayed shut.

As Michael mounted the stairs, he noticed that Gavin wasn't with him anymore. He turned back, expecting to see the dog with his head stuck down some old coyote hole, a playful admonishment on his lips.

Instead, he saw Gavin standing in the middle of the road, ears flattened back, hackles raised, braced like he expected a bull to come charging at him. All the hairs stood up on the back of Michael's neck. He looked at the front door of his house—closed, but it didn't have a lock on it.

Very slowly, walking sideways and placing each boot with the utmost care, Michael made his way back to Gavin. He knelt down next to the dog, put a reassuring hand on his back. Gavin growled, very quietly, then whimpered, leaning up against Michael's leg.

"What is it, boy?" he whispered. "You got a snake or somethin'?"

Michael peered around, looking under the steps, the porch. There was nothing there but shadow, growing ever deeper as the sky faded from orange to purple. Michael patted Gavin's back and got to his feet.

"Stay, Gavin," he said, keeping his eyes on the door. He sidled back up to the house. As he mounted the stairs again, this time he drew his gun.

The door creaked open at a push of his hand. Inside, it was dim, everything painted blue by the evening. Michael braced his wrist with his off hand, so the Colt wouldn't rip itself out of his grip the moment he pulled the trigger. He glanced back over his shoulder. Gavin took a couple tentative steps forward, and Michael hissed at him through his teeth. Gavin stopped again. His eyes were wide and wild.

Michael crept into the house, pointing the gun in front of him. The creaking of the floorboards under his feet was deafening. If there was anybody else in there, they knew he was coming. He whipped around the corner to the kitchen, sweeping the Colt from right to left. Nothing moved, or had been moved. He slunk onwards, his heart pounding in his ears. His skin was wet with sweat, going cold and clammy as the heat of the day faded. He could smell lightning in the air.

With another swift pivot, he threw himself into the living room.

The gun went off. The retort deafened him, the muzzle flash blinded him. Gavin started barking outside. Michael stayed frozen in place, wide-eyed, locked up like a broken wagon wheel. Gavin sprinted into the room and started jumping up on him, barking his head off. Numb and dizzy, Michael stuffed the Colt into its holster and knelt down to catch him, settle him down.

Burned onto his eyes was the silhouette of a man, dusty and broken. When he blinked, he could see the poncho, torn and ragged. When he shut his eyes, he could see the scraggly beard, the wiry hair. If he stared at the bullet hole in the far wall, he could see the blood-drenched face, the gaping slit in the throat.

Somebody knocked on the door, and Gavin went nuts again. Eventually Michael had to pick him up and carry him, just to be sure he wouldn't bite anybody. When he toed the door open, it was to see Miss Steffie Hardy, owner and operator of the town's General Store, frowning a mighty frown at him. Other people were poking their heads out of doors behind her, some with candles in hand.

"Deputy Jones," she said, looking him—and the squirming dog in his arms—up and down. "What on God's green earth is goin' on out here?"

"Uh," said Michael. He put Gavin down, and Gavin shook himself before running off into the back of the house. Michael cocked a thumb after him. "Had uh, rattler get in. Miss. It uh, it's gone. Now. Scared it off, prob'ly."

"You look awful shook up for just some ole rattlesnake," said Miss Hardy.

"Well," said Michael. He rubbed the back of his head. At some point in all the excitement, his hat had fallen off. "Well, uh, see, it . . . well, truth to tell, Miss Hardy, it almost bit the dog, and I. . . ."

He trailed off. Miss Hardy made a face at him.

"That's how come you're lookin' like you just saw the Devil hisself?" she asked, putting her hands on her hips. "'Cause a snake almost bit your dog?"

"He ain't my dog," Michael said automatically.

"Deputy Jones, may I come in?" Miss Hardy asked. There was a crowd starting to gather behind her, although most of them looked to still be out of earshot.

"Uh, see, not to be impolite, miss, but uh, I just got home, and uh, wun't expectin' company, so—"

"I don't mind," said Miss Hardy.

"Wellp, I do," said Michael, falling back on anger because it was familiar. "So if you got somethin' to talk to me about, you can either come into the station, or you can—uh, go away."

"Deputy," she warned, taking a threatening step forward.

"Ain't nobody hurt," he said. He looked over her shoulder and called out to the crowd, "Ain't nobody hurt! Just a damn snake, go home, you nosy fucks!"

"That ain't hardly appropriate talk for a lawman," Miss Hardy admonished, scowling.

"Complain to the sheriff," said Michael, and shut the door in her face. He promptly leaned his back on it, which turned out to be a good idea, because Miss Hardy first tried knocking and yelling, and then moved on to trying to force the door open. After about a minute, she went away, but Michael stayed up against the door for another five, listening, waiting. To his relief, she didn't try to get in any other way.

He made a slow circuit of the house, looking out all the windows and checking all the doors. Gavin came along with him for the second half. Fortunately, it seemed like he was alone.

At last, he returned to the living room. He stood in the doorway, trying to recall the moment, the instant before he'd shot. Surely, it had been a figment of his imagination, a trick of the light. Something—maybe an actual snake—had set Gavin off, and it had put Michael on edge, and because he hadn't been sleeping right and nearly all his waking moments had been filled thinking about the murder, he was seeing things.

That had to be it. The bullet hole in the wall was definitive. The dust on his floor was undisturbed by anything except his own feet and Gavin's paws. The house was silent.

Michael knelt down on the floor, and Gavin promptly squirmed up into his lap. Michael fisted both hands in his fur and buried his face in the dog's shoulder. He breathed the dusty, doggy smell, immersing himself in it, grounding himself in it. Gavin licked his ear a couple of times. Michael patted his flank and sat back on his heels.

"You're makin' me crazy, boy," he said, scratching Gavin behind the ear. "You know that? You're makin' me lose my goddamn mind."

Gavin sat down and thumped the floor with his tail, panting, eyes squinted shut in bliss. Michael untied the bandanna from around his neck and gave him a good rub down. Gavin flopped down on the floor and showed his belly, and Michael gave that a good rubbing, too.

"World's worst goddamn dog," he muttered. "You're the worst goddamn dog anybody ever had. How'd you get so bad, huh? Who made you so bad? Was it the sheriff?"

Gavin's tail thumped. Michael took his front paws in his hands and played with them.

"Mah name's Gavin, and I'm duh world's worst dawg," he said, putting on a goofy, clownish voice. "I bark at nuffin and jump up on everybody and eat poop."

Gavin batted at him, then wriggled over onto his feet. He shook himself, licked Michael's face one last time, then ambled off towards the kitchen.

"Guess you got yourself in order," Michael remarked. He heaved himself to his feet, joints creaking. "Someday I ain't gonna feed you. Someday you're gonna work for your dinner."

The only response he got was a soulful look over the shoulder and a hopeful wag of the tail. Michael gave him a piece of jerky from the pantry, and fed him scraps of sweet potato and bread crusts while he fixed his own supper. He made only the barest pretense of having "dropped" the morsels, mostly just enjoying watching Gavin run after them wherever they were thrown.

When it came time to blow out the candles and turn in for the night, he left his bedroom door open until Gavin came in and hopped up on the foot of the bed.

"You ain't s'posed to be on the furniture," Michael told him sternly.

Fixing him with the saddest puppy-eyes a dog possibly could, Gavin wagged his tail hopefully.

"Don't get used to it," Michael said. He blew out the candle and climbed into bed, shoving Gavin over to one side with his feet.

He lay awake for a long, long time, listening to every creak and groan, watching every twitch of every shadow on the ceiling. His heart wouldn't settle down, still thundering in his chest like the very moment he'd fired at the apparition. He spent half the night burning up and the other half freezing cold. He tossed and turned so much that eventually Gavin hopped down to sleep on the floor of his own accord.

Michael decided he was probably going to start keeping a knife under his pillow. Just in case.

Chapter Text

Michael got to work late the next day, mostly because he'd only really slept once the sky had started brightening with dawn. It was the tolling of the clock tower that had finally motivated him to get a move on, as first eight, then nine, then ten came tumbling in through the cracks in the walls. Gavin came with him, carefree as ever, as though last night's debacle hadn't happened at all. Michael envied him. It must have been nice to be too dumb to be scared.

When he came into the station, everyone else was already in there, and they all looked up at him together. He put his head down and pretended he didn't notice, while Gavin made the rounds trying to lick everybody's face.

"Jesus, Michael, you look like hell," Jeremy said. "You been gettin' drunk on Doc's moonshine again?"

"No," said Michael. He eased himself into his chair, determinedly not looking at any of them.

"You been doin' somethin' else with Doc all night?" Jack teased.

"Shut the fuck up, Jackie," Michael snapped.

"Been gettin' drunk on somethin' else?" Geoff asked, and he was not joking around, and he was not happy.

"I ain't been drunk and I ain't been with Doc, don't y'all got work to do?" Michael said.

"You expect me to believe—" Jeremy began, but Ryan cut him off.

"Aw, leave the poor fella alone, y'all," he said. "Sometimes a body just has a hard night. You won't fix nothin' by givin' him a hard day after it."

"Already missed half the day," Jeremy grumbled, but didn't belabor the point.

Michael glanced back at Ryan. He was watching him with an uncomfortably knowing look. As Michael met his eyes, Ryan winked. Michael turned back to his own desk.

"So what've I missed today?" he asked, trying to stuff down his unease. "Any news on anythin'?"

"Not much," said Jack. "Had a real pretty lady ride in this mornin', caused a bit of a stir, 'specially since she was alone. So far as I know she ain't done nothin', though, apart from get her a room at Mica's. Them rail boys still ain't taken off yet."

"They're gonna," Geoff said. "Soon as they hear Matthew's gonna contract 'em to fix his saloon for no pay."

"I almost think that'd be to their likin'," Michael mused. "'Specially if they're fixin' to get paid by somebody for somethin'. The longer they stick around here, the more sure I get they're waitin' on somebody. Maybe that newcomer woman. We know who she is? Where she came from?"

"I ain't been by to talk to Mica yet," said Jack. She shot a pointed look at Geoff. "Couldn't think of a good enough excuse."

"Do I gotta keep on remindin' y'all that this is Michael and Jeremy's murder case here?" Geoff said, exasperated.

"Sheriff, you know I can get more gossip outta Mica than any man in this room," Jack said. "I'm just playin' to my strengths. Jeremy can pick up whatever slack I leave by doin' it."

"Naw, I can go talk to Badger," said Jeremy. "She likes me well enough."

"She plays you like a damn fiddle, and you eat it up," said Jack.

"What, you jealous or somethin'?" Jeremy leered at her. Jack leaned out of her chair and feigned vomiting.

"Only person Jackie'd be jealous of in that particular situation would be Jeremy," said Ryan.

"Hey now," Jack said, reddening.

"Miz Mica is a lovely lady, Jack," Ryan said innocently. "Couldn't nobody blame you for a certain measure of affection."

"For your information, I am not available to certain affections," said Jack.

"You what?" Jeremy cried, delighted. Enthused by the tone of his voice, Gavin shoved himself upright and thumped the floor with his tail. "Since when? And who?"

"It ain't your business," said Jack.

"Naw, naw, if you're gonna bring it up, it's gonna be business," Geoff said. "Come on, now, Jack, 'fess up."

"Sheriff, not you, too," Jack said, wounded.

"You oughtta know by now, Geoff's a bigger gossip than anybody else in this room," said Jeremy. "That's how he stays sheriff. Now come on, Jackie, spill the beans!"

Jack rolled her eyes and put her feet up on her desk.

"I got an old friend who lives in Vermont, name of Caiti," she said. "Met her by chance when she was out doin' business in Reno. We been writin' letters for a few years now. Been talk of maybe someday cohabitatin', but I can't go to Vermont and I sure as hell ain't gonna ask her to come out here. She's ten miles too good for this shithole town."

"Awwwww," Geoff cooed. "Ain't you just the sweetest thing!"

"I will shoot you in the dick," Jack threatened.

"D'aww," Geoff said again, giving her a gooey look.

"I only feel sorry for poor Miz Mica," said Ryan. "You gone break her li'l heart, Jack."

"I'm gonna do no such thing," said Jack. "She's got friends and I got friends and she and I is just friends."

"Gossipin', gabbin', gigglin' friends," said Michael.

"At least I don't gossip, gab, and giggle when I'm s'posed to be at work, unlike some folks, you chuckleheaded fuck," Jack shot back. "Anytime you get anywhere near Doc somebody's gotta pry you off with a crowbar."

"Hey, fuck you," said Michael, his face going hot. "And yes you fuckin' do gossip with Badger Burton when you're workin', I seen you do it!"

"That is workin', Michael, gossipin' with Mica is a large part of how I get shit done."

"Uh-oh," Jeremy said suddenly, craning his neck to look out the window. "Sheriff, we got us a Shawcross situation."

"Oh, hell," said Geoff. He ducked under his desk, whereupon Gavin darted over and started bothering him. "I ain't here!"

The cloud of dust tearing through the streets resolved into a stocky kid, who ran right up to the sheriff's station and nearly barreled clean through the wall.

"Sheriff, Sheriff!" he squeaked, pounding on the window. "That outta-towner's robbin' the bank! She's menacin' Mr. Risinger with a shotgun!"

"Shit," Geoff said. He clambered out from under his desk. Gavin leapt up after him. "Come on, move it, let's go!"

The station moved as one man, sprinting out the door and down the street like a pack of wolves. Their boots thudded in the dust, kicking up a cloud behind them as they ran. The area around the bank was deserted, the air grimy.

Gavin and Geoff were through the door first, Jeremy nearly jumping over their backs in his haste to get inside. Jack went right after them, with Michael and Ryan hot on her heels. Michael pulled up with his gun drawn and had no trouble working out where to point it.

There was a dark-haired White woman in a purple dress, standing with one foot on Risinger's head, a sawed-off shotgun in each hand. Blood was oozing from Risinger's lip, and one of his eyes was swollen shut. He looked severely disheveled, and Michael suspected there were injuries to more than just his face. Most everybody else was cowering up against the walls. Gavin hunkered between Geoff's legs, growling, his hackles raised. The woman swung one gun around to point at Geoff, and the other leveled at Michael.

"Well howdy-do!" she exclaimed, as the five of them piled in and all pointed their guns at her. "We got us a party!"

Ryan, like a goddamn idiot, took his hat off.

"Mornin', ma'am," he said, his drawl protracted by such genteel courtesy.

"It's miss," said the woman, grinning at him.

"Mornin', miz," Ryan corrected.

"Ryan, what the fuck are you doin'?" Michael hissed. He raised his voice to demand, "And what the hell's goin' on in here?"

"What the fuck does it look like?" Risinger snarled. There was a pubescent crack in his voice. "She's robbing my goddamn bank, you shitheels!"

The woman mashed her foot into his face and he winced.

"Language, boy," she said.

"Fuck you, bitch!"

"You keep on like that and I'm gonna stomp you," she said. "And I wasn't robbin' anything. I came to make a lawful withdrawal, and this here jackass decided it'd be a good idea to disrespect me. So I returned the favor."

"Disrespect in what way?" Jack said slowly.

"Oh, Johnny Boy here was threatenin' all sorts of actions," said the woman. "So I hefted an extra gold bar and told him I'd shove it up his ass if he didn't gimme my goddamn money. Apparently he took offense to that, so I had to kick the shit outta him and then drag him up to make an example of him."

"How come we ain't shootin' her?" Michael asked, his eyes flicking between Geoff and the twin barrels of the woman's shotgun.

"Shit, Michael, 'cause she's a woman," said Jeremy.

"'Cuz I can't decide if we oughtta arrest her or give her a badge," Jack said.

The woman laughed. "See, I like her," she said. "What's your name, Deputy?"

"Don't you go gettin' amicable!" Geoff warned.

"Jackie," Jack said anyway. "But everybody calls me Jack."

"My pleasure, Jack," said the woman. "Everybody calls me Mad Meg."

"Gee, I wonder why," said Jeremy, through gritted teeth.

"Meg, you mind puttin' them guns down?" Jack asked.

"Depends, y'all mind puttin' yours down?"

"Aw hell naw," said Jeremy, redoubling his grip on his revolver and sighting down it.

"Hell with it, I ain't gonna shoot her," said Jack, and she carefully uncocked her gun and stuck it back in its holster.

"God dammit, Jack!" Geoff exclaimed. "She's terrorizin' our citizens!"

"Maybe they deserve it," Jack said, shrugging.

"Fuck you!" Risinger snarled.

"Mighty decent of ya," Mad Meg said with a wink, and turned the other shotgun on Gavin.

"You shoot that dog, I'm gonna kill you!" Michael snarled. His finger itched on the trigger. Gavin let out a rising growl that broke out into barking. His teeth flashed out white from his snapping mouth. His ears lay flat against his skull and his tail slapped Geoff in the thighs.

"How 'bout you tell him to stop carryin' on like he's gonna rip my throat out," Mad Meg suggested. She had to raise her voice over Gavin's insistent barking.

"Maybe if you'd stop pointin' a damn gun at him, he wouldn't be so het up!" Michael retorted. "Gavin, shut the fuck up!"

Gavin reigned himself in to a low growl, still bristling all over.

"Oh, like that dumb mutt knows what the hell a gun is," said Mad Meg, rolling her eyes.

"Hey, I got an idea," Ryan said.

"Aw shit, here we go," Jeremy muttered.

Ryan handed his gun to Jack and walked up to Mad Meg. He only stopped when his chest ran into the barrels of one of the shotguns. It was the one that had been aimed at Michael.

"The hell you doin'?" Mad Meg asked, perplexed.

"Just comin' over to say hi," said Ryan. "Also seein' t' it that you stop pointin' a gun at Michael's dog, so's he won't shoot you on accident."

"He ain't my dog," Michael said. Mad Meg's other shotgun swung around to point at his head. She rested her wrist on Ryan's shoulder to steady her aim. Geoff took a knee and grabbed hold of the bandana around Gavin's neck, keeping him nestled between his legs. Gavin kept growling, but less enthusiastically.

"So this fella," Ryan said, just as pleasantly as if he'd sat down to have a drink with the woman, rather than having a shotgun pressed to his heart. "He give you a hard time?"

"Not the hardest I ever had," said Mad Meg.

"Well God damn, what the hell'd you do to folks who gave you a harder time?" Jeremy cried.

"Oh, them I shot dead," Mad Meg said offhandedly.

"Son of a bitch!" Risinger squeaked from under her boot. Meg reeled back and kicked him. Risinger snapped out like a light.

Ryan's chin lifted just an inch. He went still. The first and middle fingers of his right hand pressed to his thumb.

"You an outlaw, Miz Meg?" he asked, very, very quietly. He sounded like a little kid, far beyond excited but trying to keep it secret. The door creaked in a hot breeze. A chill raced up Michael's spine. He shifted his grip. He wondered if he ought to be shifting his aim.

"I don't know," Mad Meg said, affecting a mask of innocence. "Why don't you tell me, Deputy?"

"It's mainly an internal state, Miz Meg," Ryan said, still in that voice of poorly restrained awe. "It's mainly me wonderin': who all's gone miss you?"

Mad Meg's smile dried up like spilled Tennessee whiskey. The bank was awfully quiet. Michael could hear his own heartbeat.

"You crazy or somethin'?" Mad Meg asked. "I could put a hole in you big enough to stick my arm through."

"Oh, sure," said Ryan, nodding. "And then all these other lawmen in here'd put lots of little holes in you, and I think that'd be none too pleasant for anybody involved. You an outlaw, Miz Meg?"

She regarded him for a long, long moment. Somebody coughed. A bead of sweat crawled halfway down Michael's face and dried up. A bit of glass went clink.

"Now you mention it," Mad Meg said, "I don't think I am."

"Great!" said Ryan, going loose again. "So everybody can put their guns away now, 'cause she ain't an outlaw, and only outlaws shoot lawmen."

There was a grinding of teeth, a darting of eyes, a shuffling of feet. Geoff was the first to put his gun away, freeing his hand to get a better hold on Gavin. Then it was Jeremy, and then, begrudgingly, Mad Meg. The two shotguns vanished into her skirts by some kind of magic.

"Michael," Jack said. "Come on, now, we just about got this thing de-fused."

"Fuckin' dog-shootin' harlot," Michael muttered under his breath, but he did put his gun away.

"Ain't nobody shot your dog, Michael," Jack said.

"Well she was gonna," he retorted.

"Hey, there's an idea," said Ryan, turning away from Mad Meg. He knelt down and extended a hand. "Gavin, hey, c'mere, boy."

"The hell you doin'?" Geoff asked.

"Oh, I'm just checkin' on this here poor banker under Miz Meg's boot," said Ryan. He beckoned to Gavin and made kissy noises. "Gav! C'mon, come an' meet the nice lady. Let go of him, Sheriff, you're inhibitin' the proceedin's."

"This dog's gonna light into somebody, I let him go," said Geoff.

Gavin licked his lips, looking at Ryan. His ears flicked up, then back again. He glanced at Geoff and licked his lips again. His claws clicked on the floor as he did an agitated little dance.

"Naw, he ain't, look at him," said Ryan. "C'mon, Sheriff, let him loose."

"That dog bites me, I'm shootin' it," Mad Meg declared.

"He ain't gone bite you," said Ryan.

"This's the most damn fool thing that's ever happened," Geoff grumbled. He let Gavin go.

Gavin wriggled out from between Geoff's legs and shook himself heartily. He looked at Ryan, and then around the whole bank. His tail wagged uncertainly.

"C'mon, Gav," said Ryan, peach-sweet. "She won't hurt you none."

Gavin considered him for a moment, sniffing, then turned and trotted over to Michael. He halfway stood up on his hind legs, trying to lick Michael's hand.

"Don't do that," Michael admonished. "I'm takin' your dumb ass outta here before somebody shoots you. Idjit."

Gavin's spotty tongue lolled out as he panted, his tail wagging. Michael turned his back on the whole bank and walked out.

"Damn buncha idjits," he muttered under his breath. "Damn stupid fuckin' pointless waste of time."

The Shawcross kid was waiting outside.

"Didja get her?" he asked, bouncing with excitement. "Didja arrest her?"

"Go away, kid," said Michael, brushing past him. He went about six more steps before he realized Gavin wasn't following. He turned back to see the dog standing pitifully on the threshold of the bank, looking at Michael with big, sad eyes.

"For the love of God," Michael sighed.

"I did pretty good, huh?" said Shawcross, planting himself directly between Michael and Gavin. "I came and got y'all first thing, first thing!"

"Wish you hadn't," said Michael. He stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled. "Gavin! Come on, you're wastin' time!"

Gavin whined, set one foot on the ground, then backed all the way up into the shade of the bank.

"The ground's too hot, sir," said Shawcross. "He'll burn his paws if you—"

"Would you shut up," Michael muttered, shoving Shawcross aside with one hand. He went back and hoisted Gavin up into his arms. Gavin licked his face, wagging his tail like crazy. "Spoilt goddamn rotten."

"But didja arrest anybody?" Shawcross pressed, tagging along at Michael's elbow as he headed back towards the station. "She was lookin' awful mean in there. I ran as fast as I could, sir, I really did!"

"Kid, you wanna be helpful?" Michael said. Gavin stuck his nose in Michael's ear and Michael jostled him.

"Oh, yessir! Yessir I sure do, I'll do anythin' you tell me to, you just say the word! You want me to carry your dog for you? I could do that, I sure could!"

"Go home," said Michael.

Step by step, Shawcross dropped back, until Michael was walking alone. He carried Gavin all the way back to the sheriff's station, then went out back and filled up a pail with water from the pump. He brought it back inside and set it down against the wall, and Gavin nearly dunked his whole head in it.

"Dumb dog," Michael said.

Since nobody was looking, he didn't bother fighting down the smile.


 

About forty minutes later, Geoff came by and poked his head in.

"Michael," he said.

"Huh?" said Michael, desperately pretending he hadn't been asleep on his desk. Geoff cocked a thumb over his own shoulder.

"We took that Meg woman in to ask a couple questions, but she won't talk to us. Figured you might wanna give it a shot."

"What, not even Ryan?" said Michael, climbing to his feet.

"Especially not Ryan," said Geoff. "We're all of us stumped."

"Whatchu been askin' her?" Michael said, heading for the door. Gavin heaved to his feet and Michael shot a quick stay, Gavin over his shoulder.

"Pretty ordinary stuff," said Geoff, holding the door for Michael as he went out. "Where she's from, what her Christian name is, what she's doin' here. Not a goddamn peep. I only started in on it 'cuz you said all that about her maybe bein' here to pay off them railmen, but I didn't think nothin' of it 'til she clammed up."

"And Ryan cain't get her talkin'."

"He's been doin' his shiniest most genteelest gentleman shit, and she ain't havin' none of it. Prob'ly 'cuz he went odd at her in the bank. He came over awful sheepish about that."

Michael paused, frowning.

"Hold up," he said. He jogged back to the station and opened the door. "Gavin! C'mon!"

Gavin sprinted out, delighted.

"You gonna get the dog to talk to her, or what?" said Geoff, regarding Michael sideways.

"Naw," said Michael. "The dog's to get Ryan outta the way."

"Or I could just tell him to leave."

"Trust me, Sheriff."

"God knows you don't give me a choice," Geoff sighed.

Chapter Text

Gavin came bounding into the room ahead of Michael, and it was only Ryan's quickness that kept him from leaping right into Meg's lap.

"Gavin, I swear to God," Michael said, with a put-upon affectation. "Ryan, can you get him outta here? He won't leave me the hell alone."

Ryan gave him a look altogether too interested.

"Sure thing, Michael," he said. The hand that wasn't holding Gavin had a hunting knife in it, six inches long and shiny and serrated. He tucked it into a sheath on his belt easy as breathing. "C'mon, Gav, let your ole pal Michael work. C'mon!"

He ushered Gavin from the room. As he passed Michael, their shoulders brushed against each other. Michael's whole arm broke out in gooseflesh. He somehow managed not to shudder.

The door closed behind Ryan, and Michael was left alone with Meg.

She looked composed, but stubborn, like a mule that had dug its hooves into the mud. She had her arms folded and her chin lifted, both boots propped up on the table. The little side room on the town jail never saw much use, and she'd scuffed a good many prints into the dust.

"You here to threaten me, too?" she demanded. "'Cuz if you are, I'm gonna save you the trouble and just go ahead and tell you to go to hell."

"Did he threaten you?"

"Just now, or earlier? 'Cuz if you're askin' about earlier, you're dumber'n you look, which is a damn feat."

"Just now," said Michael, through gritted teeth.

"Depends," Meg said airily. "He didn't say much overtly threatenin', but he said all of it while playin' with that big ole knife, so I don't hardly know what to think."

Michael took a deep breath.

"I am sorry he treated you like that," he said. Meg snorted.

"I ain't," she said. "I seen much worse. I'll take a polite lunatic over your average sane man any day of the week. You mind tellin' me why y'all're keepin' me in here? Folks keep on askin' me a bunch of stupid questions for no damn reason."

"Questions like your name and where you're from?"

"Of that type."

"You find them to be stupid questions?"

"I find them to be completely irrelevant," said Meg. "Why don't you bring the dog back in, he seems like the brains of the operation."

"He is," said Michael. That got a laugh out of Meg. She was, after all, very pretty. "I'll do my best not to ask you any stupid questions."

"I'd like it ever so much better if you didn't ask me any," said Meg, fluttering her eyelashes at him. "Can't you just put me in handcuffs and take me away?"

"No," said Michael. "I'm bound and determined to inconvenience you with questions."

"You ain't no fun at all," Meg said, pouting at him.

Moving slowly, Michael sat down in the chair across from her. He put his hands on the table, palm-down. He looked her in the eyes.

"Whose money?" he said.

Meg blinked. Her eyes narrowed and her face hardened.

"What d'you mean?" she asked.

"Whose money were you takin' outta that bank?" he said.

"Mine," said Meg.

"What for?"

"For spendin', what the hell else?"

"On what?"

"Whatever I damn well please," she snapped, taking her feet down off the table. "Y'all dragged my ass in here for no damn reason and you're keepin' me in here for no damn reason—"

"You pointed guns around, and some of 'em were pointed at lawmen," said Michael.

"And law-dogs," Meg said, grinning.

"And law-dogs," Michael said through his teeth. "If we wanted to, we could just plain arrest you and you could stay in jail."

"So why ain't you done it, then?" she asked, tossing her head. "And I'll warn you, if you put a hand on me, you ain't gettin' that hand back."

"Jackie already talk to you?" Michael asked.

"She did," said Meg, "and I told her the same thing I told the rest of y'all, which is that my business is my own, and it ain't yours."

"That's bullshit," Michael said, slapping the table. Meg didn't jump like he'd hoped.

"Oh, is it?" said Meg. "Or are you just makin' excuses to get mad? Bet you scare the hell outta folks, big as you are. You get a kick outta scarin' women?"

"What I get is the fuckin' truth," Michael snapped, bristling.

"Well you might as well calm the hell down, 'cuz you keep that up, the only thing you're gettin' is a kick in the balls."

Michael took a long, slow breath through his nose. Regular intimidation didn't seem to be working; he'd have to try something different if he wanted to shake her.

"I'll tell you why it's bullshit," Michael said slowly. "First of all, 'cuz this town's a shithole, and there ain't no reason to be makin' any kind of hefty withdrawal for spendin' here. Second, 'cuz this shithole ain't on the way to nowhere, so you wouldn't be takin' out cash for use later. And third of all, Miss Meg, third of all 'cuz I figure whoever hired you to take that money out also hired a team of railmen to dump a body."

Meg got very still. She didn't look quite so confident anymore.

"Nobody hired me to do nothin'," she said.

"You sure?" Michael asked. "'Cuz I don't know many women who go around with a couple sawed-off shotguns in their skirts. If I wanted somebody to handle a li'l bit of dirty business for me, I think you'd be the kinda person I'd pick."

"And why's that?" Meg asked, batting her eyelashes at him and leaning forward, exposing a fair bit of cleavage.

"'Cuz you do that shit," he said, gesturing. He kept his eyes firmly on her face. "And 'cuz you handle them shotguns like you know how to use 'em, and 'cuz you seem damn adept at gettin' yourself outta trouble. Did you know you'd been involved in a murder, or did that part come as a surprise just now?"

"I don't know what you're talkin' about," Meg said, pronouncing every syllable. "If you wanna arrest me for pullin' out guns in y'all's bank, fine, but just do it and get it done with."

"Where's the money now?" Michael asked.

"I ain't had time to do nothin' with it, so at the moment, it's still in the damn bank," Meg snapped. "Either arrest me, or let me go."

Michael ground his teeth. He sighed through his nose. He looked back over his shoulder.

"What'd Ryan say?" he said.

"Nothin'," said Meg.

"He threaten you?"

"You already asked me that, and I already answered. Why's it matter so damn much?"

Michael leaned in.

"Because, Miss Meg, you are the only person I have ever met who looks as scared of him as I am."

Meg was quiet for a moment. She put her hands on the table and leaned in, mimicking Michael's posture. His heart started to pound. His hands were sweating.

"Then you a li'l bitch," Meg confided. She burst out laughing. Michael breathed deeply, tonguing his cheek. He sighed.

"Get outta here," he said.

She got to her feet and gave him a coquettish smile.

"I am ever so much obliged to you, Deputy," she said. With an imperious toss of the head, she swanned out like she owned the place.

Michael sat there stewing until Geoff came in.

"You let her go?" he asked.

"Yep," said Michael. "And tonight them railmen are gonna skip town."

"Think we oughtta send word to Hot Springs?"

Michael chewed his cheek. Creakily, he got to his feet.

"No," he said. "I think we oughtta just get ready to follow 'em."

"They ain't gonna take you to the killer, Michael," said Geoff. "They're gonna go out to San Fran or somewhere and blow all their money on hookers and booze."

"They're gonna try," said Michael. "I don't think they're gonna make it there."

"Think the killer's gonna try and make his money back?"

"I suspect that may be the case."

"What if you're wrong?" said Geoff.

Michael sighed, rubbing his head. His thoughts were all fuzzy, like bread that'd been sitting for too long. He could remember the glint off of Ryan's knife with perfect clarity. His shoulder was still prickling.

"Then we got nothin'," he said. "Just a dead body and maybe some banker named Heyman who nobody's seen in two decades. One train schedule, sixty dollars, a tattoo, and that pickled body. Somebody did this, Sheriff. Somebody killt that man and dumped him out back of our town, and he don't even have the courtesy to show his goddamn face!"

"I know that," said Geoff. "And I'm askin': what if you're wrong?"

He fidgeted. He hung his head.

"Then we start over," he said.

"Now you got it," said Geoff. "So now assume everythin's dried up. Assume all these people go away and don't take you nowhere. Where do you start?"

"Sheriff, I don't need you to run me through how to—"

"Where do you start?" Geoff insisted.

"With the body," Michael sighed. "I just don't see any way to figure out who the sonnuva bitch was."

"You think on it, let it percolate, you'll come up with somethin'," Geoff said, clapping Michael on the shoulder. "If them railmen take off and you feel the need to take off after 'em, you go. You find somethin' else you think is gonna be more help, then go and get that instead."

"Sheriff?"

"Yeah?"

"How come you ain't workin' on this murder? Seems like somethin' this big ain't the kinda thing you hand off to deputies."

"Yeah, well," said Geoff. "There's gonna come a time when I ain't sheriff anymore."

Michael blinked.

"Sure, but . . . Sheriff, everybody else's been workin' with you a damn sight longer'n I have. Hell, even the dog's been here longer'n I have!"

"You look me in the eye and tell me anybody else in that station is fit to be a sheriff," said Geoff.

"Well, Jack is," said Michael, uncomfortable. "Assumin' she don't take off somewhere for her pen-pal. Jeremy could get there, with a li'l workin'."

"And maybe they will do," said Geoff. "But maybe also there'll come a time when you need to know how to be in charge of someplace. I didn't mean to throw you in the deep end like this, but it seems like the deep end came up and got you anyhow."

Michael pursed his lips, scowling.

"I'll do my best, Sheriff," he said.

"Goddamn right you will," said Geoff.


 

On his way home that evening, Michael dropped in at the General Store. Nothing further had come of Meg, and there had been no movement nor change from the railmen, and no matter how Michael had pored over Lindsay's notes and Jeremy's notes about Lindsay's notes, he couldn't make any headway on the body. Maybe it was just because he hadn't slept right, but his thinking engine seemed to have run all out of coal, leaving him stranded on the tracks.

If he was honest with himself, he was mostly at the General Store because the curiosity about what Miss Hardy had wanted to say to him was eating him alive, but he preferred to pretend he didn't want to be there.

The bell above the door tinkled as he entered, and the mothball-and-resin smell of the store washed over him. Sure enough, Miss Hardy was behind the counter, apparently taking an inventory. She looked back over her shoulder as he entered, and her eyes twinkled.

"Evenin', Deputy," she said. "What can I get for you?"

"Just lookin' for needle and thread," he said. "Got an awful lotta socks to darn and nothin' to darn 'em with."

"I can do that," said Miss Hardy. She bustled off, rifling through the shelves. "You in a hurry to get anywhere, Deputy Jones?"

Michael chewed his lip for a moment, curiosity vying against stubbornness.

"Not a terrible hurry," he said.

Miss Hardy returned with a bobbin of thread and a needle. She rang it up, he paid for it, and she handed it over. He stuck it in his pocket, having nowhere better to put it.

"How long you been workin' here again, Deputy?" Miss Hardy asked, not quite as casual as would've been normal for small-talk.

"Li'l over a year now," said Michael. Miss Hardy nodded.

"That's right, that's right, I recall now. You musta been loaded with cash, to get ahold of that ol' house you got."

"Not so much," Michael said, eyes narrowing. "I was told I could have it for the simple price of havin' to live in it."

"Mmhm," said Miss Hardy. "Didn't that ever strike you as bein' odd? There's plenty of folks 'round here who woulda loved to get hold of a nice li'l house like that."

"Figured it was deputy privilege," said Michael. "You gettin' to somethin', or you just lookin' to shame me for bein' housed?"

Miss Hardy folded her hands on the counter and looked up at him very seriously.

"You know what happened to your predecessor?" she asked.

"Narvaez?" said Michael. "Naw."

"Neither does anybody else," Miss Hardy said shortly. "And if you know what's good for you, you'll get outta Dodge afore the same happens to you."

Michael clenched his fists.

"You threatenin' me?" he said.

"Call it a timely warnin'," said Miss Hardy.

"From who, about what?" he pressed.

"From me, about hangin' around bad business," said Miss Hardy. "You will not like where this road goes, Deputy Jones. I'd find you someplace else to do your deputyin', if I was you."

"If you ain't gonna gimme a straight answer, I ain't gonna listen," Michael said. "You got a good reason why I oughtta leave, you tell me it. You got some kinda threat, you threaten it. Elsewise, save your damn breath."

"All right," said Miss Hardy. She fixed him with a sharp-ended look. "If you don't quit this town, you're gonna wind up dead."

"By whose hand?"

"I can't rightly say," she said.

Michael ground his teeth. He put his elbows on the counter and leaned in.

"Tell me about Narvaez," he said.

"Ain't much to tell," she said. "Worked as a deputy for about a year, went crazy and disappeared. Mighta wandered out into the desert and died. Nobody ever found no body or nothin'."

"So how you even know he's dead?"

"I don't," said Miss Hardy. "But I know he ain't come back, and I know he ain't take nothin' with him when he went. Folks cleaned that house out pretty good, but nobody wanted to live there. Bet you can guess why."

"You said he went crazy," Michael said, ignoring this last part. "Crazy how?"

"Sittin' out on his porch all night with a loaded shotgun, how," said Miss Hardy. "Seein' things, how. Talkin' 'bout demons and the Devil, how."

"So the man went crazy, it happens sometimes," said Michael, uncomfortable.

"I know you ain't shot at no rattlesnake, Deputy," she said. "You looked like you'd seen a ghost. So did you?"

"I ain't crazy," he snapped, fists clenching.

"I ain't said you was," Miss Hardy retorted. "Did you see a ghost, or not?"

"No such damn thing as ghosts," said Michael, his ire rising. "And so what if Narvaez went nuts and got himself killed? That ain't got nothin' to do with me!"

"Ain't it?" said Miss Hardy. "I'd get the hell outta town, if I was you, Deputy. I'd get as far away from this crap-hole town as I possibly could."

"I ain't goin' nowhere," said Michael.

"Fine," said Miss Hardy. "But don't say nobody warned you."

"Why won't you be straight with me?" Michael demanded. "Why're you bein' so goddamn cagy? If you think somebody's gonna hurt me, why won't you tell me?"

"Because I don't wanna wind up dead," Miss Hardy said. "Good evenin', Deputy Jones."

Michael stood there fuming for a moment, then turned on his heel and stalked out. The bell over the door tinkled at him as he went.


 

Lindsay planted both fists on her hips just as soon as she was done opening the door.

"Oh, what the hell now?" she said.

"I cain't go back to that house tonight, Doc," said Michael.

"So get you a room at Badger's inn, why you gotta come over botherin' me?"

"Folk's'd talk, Doc," he whined.

"Folks talk anyway, and at the moment, what they talk about is you and me," said Lindsay. "Ain't anybody ever teach you a sense of propriety?"

"No ma'am," said Michael. "And I don't intend to learn one."

"I'll let you in on one condition," said Lindsay. "Tell me you're scared."

"Doc, c'mon, that ain't—"

"If you ain't scared, there ain't no reason you can't go back to your own damn house," she interrupted. "So are you scared, or are you goin' home?"

Michael glanced back over his shoulder. He made a face.

"I'm scared, Doc," he ground out.

Lindsay stepped aside. Michael came in. She shut the door behind him.

"What's scared you?" she asked softly.

Michael nearly reached out and touched her. He fooled with his hat instead.

"What happened to Narvaez?" he asked.

"I don't know," said Lindsay. "Nobody does. What brought that to mind?"

He winced. "I cain't say," he said.

"Why the hell not?"

"'Cuz the person who told me said she might get killt."

"You damn fool idjit, you think I'm gonna kill somebody?"

"No," said Michael, "no! But I don't want it gettin' spread around, all right?"

"What makes you think I'm gonna spread anythin' around?"

"People talk, Doc!"

"Michael, if I spread every secret I knew, I could bring this whole goddamn town to its knees," said Lindsay. "You learn shit, bein' a doctor, and bein' a good doctor, you keep it to your damn self."

"It ain't important, who brought it up," said Michael. "But nobody ever told me I was livin' in his old house before now, and . . . I don't like it."

"Why, 'cuz there was a rattlesnake in it?" Lindsay asked dryly. Michael flushed.

"Where'd you hear that from?" he said.

"Afiya, who heard it from Carmen, who heard it from Emily, who most likely heard it from Steffie," said Lindsay. "'Course, the story was not that you had a rattlesnake in your house. The story was that you was goin' nuts, just like Narvaez before you."

"God dammit," said Michael. "Ain't folks got anythin' better to do in this damn town?"

"No," said Lindsay.

"I ain't goin' nuts," said Michael.

"So it was a rattlesnake?" Lindsay asked, eyes half-lidded and mocking. "You know you can just poke 'em with a stick and they get gone, you don't gotta shoot at 'em."

"Go to hell," said Michael.

"'Fraid my house ain't any more rattlesnake-proof than yours is."

"Go to hell."

She punched him on the shoulder, not terribly lightly.

"You want a drink?" she asked.

"Just one," Michael sighed. "Sheriff'll kill me if I come in hungover again."

"Shoulda thought of that before you came to my place," Lindsay said.

"You are a wicked woman."

"And you are crazy man, now come and get drunk."

"Yes, Doc," said Michael, fighting down a smile.

Chapter Text

Contrary to her initial demands, Lindsay had let Michael go to bed with only one cup of moonshine down him. He had therefore managed to wake up at a reasonable hour and get to work reasonably on time. He spent half the morning skimming through Lindsay's notes again, in case they provided any new insights, but truthfully he wasn't paying much attention. He was starting to come over sheepish about his actions the night before—now that the sun was up and burning all the color out of everything, Miss Hardy's dark and velvet implications had lost all their substance.

It took him several hours, therefore, to notice something off.

As the clock chimed eleven, Michael finally got tired enough of trying to read that he had a glance around the station. After the first, he had a second and more thorough one.

"Where's Gavin?" he asked.

"Huh?" said Geoff, looking up from his own pile of paperwork. "Oh, he's been followin' that Meg woman around since yesterday, for some damn reason. I think she musta fed him or somethin'."

"And you just let him?" Michael demanded.

"She ain't gonna hurt him, Michael, calm down," said Geoff.

"She damn near shot him!"

"She damn near shot all of us," said Jack. "If you're that worried about your dog, why don't you go get him, then?"

"He ain't my dog," Michael said, getting to his feet anyway.

"Yes he is, and everybody knows it," said Geoff.

"Why's she even still in town?" Michael asked, ignoring this.

"Risinger won't let her back in the bank and she said she ain't leavin' without her money," Jack answered.

"How'd you know that?" Michael asked, narrowing his eyes at her.

"Talked to Mica," said Jack. "Sorry, gabbed with Mica. Them rail boys ain't left, either. Seems like we're fillin' up our li'l shithole these days."

"You know where Meg's at?"

"Not currently, no," said Jack. She smiled at Michael. "Good news is, she's got a deputy keepin' a very close eye on her."

Michael rolled his eyes. He wanted nothing more than to pick Achievement City apart until he found Gavin, but everybody was already dubious about his sanity. If he went haywire over the sheriff's dog, it would only make things worse.

"I think I'm gonna go talk to Risinger again," said Michael. "See if I cain't get somethin' outta him today. Namely somethin' about Meg."

"I'll come with you," Ryan offered, getting to his feet. Michael looked him up and down.

"Why?" he said.

"I got a coupla things t' ask him, too," he said mildly.

"Uh, no," said Michael. "Jeremy's workin' on this case with me, not you. Where the hell is he, anyhow?"

"Gettin' the mail, and about that workin'," Geoff sighed. Michael's guts went cold. "As of this mornin', Jeremy's no longer workin' on this murder with you, and Ryan is."

"You mind tellin' me why in hell that's the case?" Michael said, rounding on Geoff.

"Don't take that tone with me," said Geoff. "Jeremy informed me that you was comin' over awful antagonistic, and he didn't feel he was up to workin' with you. Ryan volunteered to take over for him, so now you're workin' with Ryan."

"What the fuck d'you mean, antagonistic?" Michael demanded, fists clenching. "When the fuck have I ever antagonized anybody?"

"Comin' over somewhat antagonistic right now," said Geoff.

Michael ground his teeth, simmering. Ryan walked over and put a hand on his shoulder.

"Let's go and—"

"Get your goddamn hands offa me!" Michael snarled, shoving Ryan in the chest. Ryan stumbled back, nearly losing his footing.

Smiling at some private joke, Ryan raised his hands, pacifying. He pressed both palms to his chest, folded over his sternum.

"I will keep my hands to myself, from now on," he promised. His eyes glittered. "If it gets that far under your skin."

The back of Michael's neck prickled. The temptation to deck Ryan in his smug face was almost overwhelming. Instead, Michael turned on his heel and stalked to the door.

"Come on, then," he said, jamming his hat on his head.

As he walked out the door, he heard Jack ask, "You all right, Ryan?"

Michael slammed the door so hard splinters came out of it.


 

"You seem particularly short-tempered today, Michael," Ryan remarked, as the two of them approached the bank. "Somethin' happen?"

"None of your goddamn business," Michael snapped.

"Well, if you decide you want it to be my business, you just let me know," Ryan said. He held the door open for Michael, who brushed in past him. He could feel Ryan watching him and he hated it.

Once again, the Bank Manager's door was closed, but this time, as they approached the front desk, one of the tellers came out to meet them.

"Deputies," he said. "Mr. Risinger was hopin' some of y'all might turn up. He's in his office now. Y'all mind if I go and tell him you're here? Only he's come over paranoid since that woman stomped on his head, and he's hopin' to avoid a repeat performance."

"Sure thing, Andy," Ryan said, his voice sugar-sweet. "You go on and tell him we're here. We'll wait."

"Thank you," said Andy. "Won't be but a minute."

"Take your time," said Ryan. Andy bustled off towards Risinger's office, leaving Michael and Ryan standing in the middle of the floor.

"You wanna start with him, or may I?" Ryan asked, watching Andy's back.

"Depends, you think you can get him to talk?" Michael said.

"Oh, sure," said Ryan, nodding earnestly. "Jon loves talkin' to me. We got us a nice li'l repartee."

"There you go with that French shit again."

Ryan looked up at Michael, smirking.

"Jon likes it when I talk pretty at him," he said. "I'm just gettin' my tongue into shape."

"I do not ever wanna hear about the shape of your tongue again," Michael spat. He'd gone hot and sticky with embarrassment. The fact that Ryan was still looking at him didn't help.

"My apologies," said Ryan, laughing.

Andy came back just then and ushered them into Risinger's office. Risinger was sitting behind his desk, as last time, scowling and impatient as last time, but when Ryan came into the room on Michael's heels, his entire demeanor changed.

"Oh, thank you God and Jesus," Risinger said, sitting back in his chair, his face softening with relief. There was a big, boot-shaped bruise on his left cheek. "Finally, they send somebody reasonable."

"Hiya, Jon," said Ryan. "Good to see you, too. All right if I sit?"

"Please," said Risinger, gesturing to the chair. He pointed sharply at Michael. "But not you."

"Like I give a shit," said Michael, stung.

"Much obliged," said Ryan, settling in. "How've you been?"

"Apart from being assaulted and robbed?" Risinger said, cocking an eyebrow.

"Oh surely, a little thing like that wouldn't be near enough to rattle you," Ryan said, smiling.

"Not everybody's in a position to have gotten used to having guns pointed at them, Ryan."

"Not everybody's got our level of fortitude, Jon," Ryan responded. "I always did say you would've made a fine lawman, if you'd been so inclined."

"Unfortunately for you, I decided on a career more likely to spare my face," said Risinger. He rubbed his cheek. "Although apparently not guaranteed to, judging by recent events."

"Which no one with eyes in his head could blame you for," said Ryan.

Michael realized, as his rage simmered down, that Ryan was not just making idle conversation with Risinger, much as it might have looked like it. Something far more intentional was happening, something with a planned outcome and a methodology. He folded his arms, leaned his back against the wall, and started paying closer attention.

"You, sir, are a flatterer," Risinger said to Ryan, who pressed a hand to his chest.

"Me, suh? No, suh. I am a simple and honest man, with no propensity for activities as cerebral as flattery."

Risinger cracked the first genuine smile Michael had ever seen on the man.

"As your vocabulary indicates," Risinger said. "I could just as easily wonder why someone with a mind like yours took to law enforcement. That seems more the purview of dumb muscle."

He shot a pointed glance at Michael, who went red in the face and clenched his hands on his own biceps.

"Oh no, Jon, we only take the brightest and best of the muscle," Ryan said easily. "If you want dumb muscle, you have to look just a little farther afield. Say, towards Mistuh Denecour's ranch."

"Hah! You're not wrong," said Risinger. "Much as I'd love to continue this conversation, though, the presence of your brightest and best here makes me think we'd better continue it at a later time."

"Most likely," Ryan sighed. "Hope you don't mind Deputy Jones bein' here. It's all procedural, of course. We don't want anythin' slippin' through the cracks."

"Of course," said Risinger. "I assume you're here about that Turney woman?"

"Megan? Yessuh, we most certainly are," said Ryan. He affected a sad countenance, quirking his mouth to one side and folding his hands on his knee. "Unfortunately, there's been some complications. Little things, just a couple little things we need your help clearin' up 'fore we can properly arrest her."

"What could possibly need clearing up?" said Risinger. "She assaulted me, threatened everyone in my bank with—"

"I know, I know," Ryan said, holding up a hand. "It's all in the details. We just don't want her goin' free on a technicality. You know how these things go, it all comes down t' a jury, and they're terribly libel to do silly things like sympathize with th' accused."

"Fine," said Risinger. "I'll do my best to assist."

Ryan laced his fingers together and leaned his forearms on Risinger's desk, regarding him seriously.

"Now Jon," he said. "Miz Turney claimed you made some unpleasant conversation. That true?"

"I might have made an uncouth remark or two," Risinger said.

Ryan smiled like an alligator, slow and full of teeth.

"I think my least favorite habit of yours, Jon, is your unfortunate predilection for mendacity," he said pleasantly.

Risinger reddened, his jaw clenching. He exhaled slowly through his nose.

"I think my least favorite habit of yours, Haywood, is that fucking smug look you get whenever you think you're the smartest person in the room," he said.

"Guess that puts us just about even on annoyances," said Ryan. "Did you put your hands on that woman, Jon?"

"Barely," Risinger ground out. "Then she hit me in the head, pulled a gun on me, and proceeded to rob my bank."

"Mmhm, we were there for that part," said Ryan. "That does make my job just a little bit harder, of course. On account of she didn't have any money on her when we took her in, so we can't jail her for robbin' your bank."

"So lock her up for assaulting me."

Ryan shook his head sadly. "Can't do that either, I'm afraid, on account of she could make a very good case for you havin' assaulted her first."

"Bullshit."

Michael had to agree with Risinger on that one, but he kept his mouth shut. It was refreshing to see Ryan pointed at somebody else. Besides, Michael had a feeling he was going somewhere with all this, and wanted to see where it landed.

Shrugging, Ryan only said, "Seen it happen dozens of times, Jon. Folks love to pity a pretty lady. But if there was somethin' else she might've done. . . ?"

Risinger sighed. He folded his arms and wrinkled his nose.

"It wasn't her money she was withdrawing," he said. Michael had to restrain himself from punching the air and whooping. "She had a note, signed by the money's right owner, saying she was allowed to take it out. I'm sure it was fake."

"That so?" said Ryan, interested. "Whose money was she withdrawin', if not her own?"

"Not sure I should tell you," Risinger said, glancing at Michael.

"Why ever not?" said Ryan. "It ain't like there's anythin' us can do with th' information."

"No, I guess there isn't," said Risinger. "Woman by the name of Ashley Burns."

"I don't believe I know her," Ryan said, frowning.

"You wouldn't, she was before your time," said Risinger. "But she's on the records, and she's got money in here."

"So what tipped you off the note was fake?" Ryan asked. "Signatures not match up?"

"Exactly, the signatures didn't match up," said Risinger. "I checked, because I couldn't think of a reason why one woman would be taking out another's money."

"I know how you mean," said Ryan, nodding earnestly. "I can't figure why a banker would take a woman down into the vault if all she had was a forged withdrawal slip."

All the blood drained from Risinger's face. His throat worked. He licked his lips.

"Well—" he stammered. "Well, it—it wasn't until she got down near the money that I—I got suspicious. Had a second look at the note, and—"

Ryan unlaced his fingers and sat back in his chair, propping his ankle on his knee. He plucked the hunting knife from his belt and started turning it in his hands, very calm, very composed. Risinger broke out in a cold sweat.

"Uh," he said. "L-look, Ryan—"

"No no, don't mind me," Ryan said. "You got suspicious, had a second look at the note, then what?"

"I—I—Ryan, listen, there's no reason to get—"

"So you looked at the note again and discovered it was less than genuine," Ryan said, talking over him. "Maybe you brought the records down with you, so's you could check the signatures?"

"Look, I can explain, just—"

"Then for whatever reason you copped a feel, and then Miz Turney pulled out a gun on you. At which point the guard must've come runnin'. What'd Miz Turney do to him, to get him outta the way so quickly and cleanly? I don't recall there bein' a body count, nor do I recall Dr. Tuggey seein' t' any of your employees."

Risinger looked like he was going to be sick. Michael almost pitied the man.

"I . . . sent him away, beforehand," Risinger croaked.

"Honesty at last!" Ryan sighed. He tossed the knife into the air with a casual flick of the wrist and caught it without looking. "Care to start over from the beginnin' in that vein? Sure will make my job easier."

Risinger's eyes flicked to Michael again, and this time it was a plea for help. It suddenly occurred to Michael that Ryan could very easily have done this without any witnesses, certainly with less accountability. This performance, this twisty game of words that had been going since they'd walked into the room, was being put on as much for Michael as it had been for Risinger.

Ryan was showing off.

"Honesty's best policy, Mr. Risinger," Michael said gruffly.

Risinger bowed his head. He was trembling. Ryan had not stopped fooling with his knife, watching the banker with unwavering focus.

"There was nothing wrong with the note," Risinger admitted. "I just . . . thought I could get a little something out of her. If I pushed a little. Not—forcing her or anything, just . . . some leverage, that's all. She didn't take kindly to it."

Ryan set the knife, point down, on Risinger's desk, holding it upright with one finger on the back of the grip.

"Give me a number, Jon," he said softly.

"I—I don't know what you mean."

"Yes, you do," said Ryan. "Give me a number."

Risinger gulped. His eyes darted between the knife and Ryan's pleasant, smiling face.

"What do you want?" he croaked. "Name your price, I'll—"

"That ain't a number," Ryan said, amused. "Those're words. You oughtta know the difference, Jon."

"I don't—I don't know," Risinger said, and the panic was clear in his voice now, shivering like struck glass. Drops of sweat were sliding down the sides of his face, darkening the collar of his shirt.

"Make a reasonable estimate," said Ryan.

Risinger glanced at Michael for a third time. Michael cracked his neck. If Risinger hadn't been scared so shitless of Ryan, Michael would already have been kicking the tar out of him.

"Six," Risinger whispered. Ryan broke out into a grin again.

"There now, y'see, ain't you glad you told me!" he said. "I was imaginin' ever so much worse."

"What are you going to do to me?" Risinger asked. There were tears in his eyes.

Ryan sat there staring at him for three whole seconds, measured out by the ticking of the grandfather clock. He got to his feet and tucked the knife back into his belt.

"Much obliged for your cooperation in this li'l matter, Mistuh Risinger," he said sweetly. "We'll be sure to let you know if there's anythin' else you can do to help."

He touched his temple politely with two fingers, then took his leave. Michael went with him, not without throwing a dirty glare at Risinger over his shoulder.

"What are we gonna do to him?" Michael asked, as the two of them walked out of the bank. The heat was like a pall of smoke, making the air thick and hard to breathe, making his eyes sting.

"No idea," said Ryan. "I was just foolin'."

"Did you enjoy that?" Michael snapped. "Were you havin' fun?"

"Ever so much fun, Michael," said Ryan.

"We gotta do somethin'," Michael muttered, kicking the dust.

"Bless your heart," Ryan said, regarding him fondly. "You want him dead?"

Michael tripped over his own feet. He gawped at Ryan, flabbergasted.

"I—what? I never said that!"

"Nobody ever implied that you did," said Ryan. "But do you?"

"You better not be offerin' what I think you're offerin'," Michael said. He was a head taller than Ryan, half again as broad, but somehow the advantage of his own size failed to comfort him just then. The weight of the Colt tapping against his hip didn't help much, either.

"Michael, I am shocked and appalled that you even think I'd suggest such a thing," Ryan said innocently. His eyes twinkled. "Inquirin' minds would simply like to know where the balance falls on your implacable sense of justice."

"I ain't talkin' about this with you," Michael declared, severely discomfited. Having now seen the shape of Ryan's tongue, he was far more wary of its capabilities."I'm takin' it to the sheriff and he can decide what to do about it."

"All right," said Ryan, shrugging. "You get anythin' useful outta that li'l chat?"

Michael chewed on it for a while, trying to get his mind back on track. It would've helped if Ryan had been walking a little farther away from him—the nearness was making all the skin on his arm crawl. He was persistently aware of the knife in Ryan's belt.

"Ashley Burns," Michael said at last. "I bet she's involved in this whole murder."

"Why's that?"

"'Cuz Meg lied about what happened down in the vault, too," said Michael. "Dependin' on how far in advance this shit was planned, Burns mighta dropped her payout money here months or maybe even years ago. Nobody notices when a person puts money in a bank. Or else she got somebody to doctor the books for her, that coulda happened, too. Sends the railmen to dump the body, intendin' to show up and make the withdrawal herself. When the body gets found, though, she decides it's too risky and sends somebody else to do the dirty work, again. Only that got fucked up, too. If I'm right, we're gonna meet one Ashley Burns within the next week or so."

Ryan shook his head, enraptured.

"God, I do love to watch you work," he said.

Michael moved away from him, drifting leftward as they walked. He adjusted his jacket with his shoulders.

"I'm wonderin' if Risinger knew or knows Ashley Burns, same way he knew or knows Heyman," he said, tight-lipped. He glanced at Ryan. "You think you could get him to 'fess up?"

"'Fraid not," said Ryan. "Once you start really squeezin', they'll tell you whatever they think you wanna hear."

"I am not gonna ask you how you know that," Michael said.

"Then I will refrain from tellin' you," Ryan said. "Unfortunately I do believe I've ruined my relationship with Mistuh Risinger today, and anythin' further I get up to with the man is gonna be pure squeeze."

He did not look like he found it particularly unfortunate.

"If that man turns up dead, I will arrest you," Michael warned.

"I will keep that in mind," Ryan said, smiling.

Chapter Text

"There you are, you li'l traitor!"

At the sound of Michael's voice, Gavin's ears pricked up and his tail thumped the ground. Michael stormed over, more relieved than actually angry. Mad Meg plucked a piece of bacon off her plate and handed it down to Gavin, who took it very politely.

"Howdy, Deputy," Meg said, as Michael arrived at her table in Bragg's saloon. "You need somethin'?"

"I am only and solely here to get this damn dog," said Michael. "Gavin, c'mon, we're goin'."

Gavin gave him a big doggy smile, panting and wagging his tail. He did not make even the slightest pretense of getting up. The noise in the saloon had gone from a full-throated roar to a low murmur. Michael ignored it.

"Maybe he don't wanna go," said Meg. "Maybe he and I decided he's my dog now."

"He is not your fuckin' dog," Michael snapped.

"Hey, language," somebody nearby said.

"Fuck you, Collins, I know that was you!" Michael snarled, pointing an accusing finger at a wiry, sunburnt young man. Collins ducked behind his beer while his pals laughed at him.

"My oh my, cussin' like a sailor in front of a lady," Meg said, pressing a hand to her bosom. "I don't know that I shall ever recover."

"Go straight to hell," said Michael. "Gavin, come."

Gavin wagged his tail, and put his ears back, and looked up adoringly at Meg. She fed him another piece of bacon.

"Looks like he wants to stay!" Meg said brightly. "Which I don't know why you'd be upset about. He ain't your dog, either."

"Yeah, well it ain't your money in Risinger's bank, ain't stop you from tryin' to take it," Michael retorted. "Gavin, you don't get your ass up, I will drag you outta here."

Wuff, said Gavin.

"Knick-knack paddy-whack, leave that dog alone," said Meg, laughing to herself. "Maybe if you sit down and have a drink with me, I'll let you borrow him back for a while."

"Careful, Jones, she already done seduced one deputy, who knows who's next!"

"Trevor Collins, I will end you!" Michael roared. Collins dove for cover under his table. Michael became aware that every eye in the saloon was on him now. "And the rest of y'all, quit starin'!"

Everybody pretended to take an interest in their beer. It was still awfully quiet.

"You sure do know how to prevent a spectacle," Meg said. She was mocking him.

"That's it," Michael said. He dropped to one knee to grab Gavin's bandanna. He kept his eyes firmly on the dog, just in case Meg was feeling trigger-happy about men getting too close to her skirts.

That was probably why he never saw the gun.

He recognized the feel of a barrel well enough, hot and hard, pressing just behind his ear. He froze. His fingers rested against Gavin's back. He hardly dared to breathe.

"Now, Deputy," Meg said softly. "You're gonna get into that chair over there and we're gonna have a conversation."

"You gonna shoot me if I refuse?"

She cocked the gun and took a breath to reply.

Gavin leapt.

The snarl that tore from him was feral and vicious. He slammed into Meg's arm mouth-first. She screamed. There was a bang. Something grazed the back of Michael's neck. Gavin shook Meg's arm like he was going to rip it off her body. Meg kicked out. Gavin yelped in pain.

The next thing Michael knew, four men were pulling him off of Meg. There was blood on his knuckles and fire on his breath. He couldn't see straight. His skin was burning. Meg was lying on the floor with her face busted six different ways, unconscious. The four men holding Michael were cursing as he struggled.

He wasn't sure how he did it, but he finally managed to calm down enough for the men to let him go. He dusted himself off and settled his jacket back on his shoulders. He cast a baleful eye around the saloon.

"She shot at me," he said.

"Deputy, I think you better leave," Bragg said, standing staunchly behind his bar.

"She shot at me!" Michael said again, pointing furiously at Meg's unmoving body.

"And you beat her goddamn face in, Jesus Christ!" Bragg said.

"I think you really better go," Collins said meekly. "Somebody's gone for Doc Lindsay, you prob'ly don't wanna be here when she turns up."

Michael looked at Meg again. He looked at the blood on his knuckles. Most of it wasn't his own. He swallowed back the taste of bile.

"Where's that damn dog?" he said, tight-lipped.

"I think you better leave, Deputy," Bragg insisted. "With or without that damn dog!"

People were starting to mutter. All eyes were on Michael again. The heat under his skin was shifting from rage to shame. He glanced at Meg for a third time, fidgeting. She did have a tiny derringer in her bloodied hand, so at least there was that.

"Bitch tried to kill me," he muttered, and stuffed his hat on his head and hurried out as fast as he could without running.


 

"What in the goddamn hell were you thinkin'?" Geoff yelled. Michael sat at his desk, palms pressed flat on it, statue-still. Geoff loomed over him, red-faced and so mad his mustache was uncurling.

"She tried to shoot me," said Michael.

"I don't give a damn!" said Geoff. "I do not give one single shit, Deputy! What were you thinkin'?"

"I wun't!" Michael retorted. "That what you wanted to hear? I din't think! You happy now?"

"No, I am goddamn not! In front of the whole goddamn saloon, Jones! Took four fuckin' men to pull you offa her! What the hell am I s'posed to tell folks? How the hell am I s'posed to keep this town in check when I got deputies beatin' the shit outta women in public? Huh? How the fuck am I gonna explain this to anybody's satisfaction? Hell, it ain't even been explained to my satisfaction!"

"Bet you a quarter the Sheriff gets hit," Jeremy whispered to Jack. He must have only gotten back a few minutes ago, still dusty from the long ride to and from Vernon.

"You're on," said Jack.

"I don't know what the fuck you want me to say, Sheriff," Michael said. "She tried to shoot me, Gavin bit the shit outta her, she kicked him, and I got mad."

"She kicked Gavin?" Jeremy said, getting to his feet. "Aw hell naw, where's she at? I'm gonna pick up where Michael left off."

"Sit your ass down," Geoff snarled at him. He turned back to Michael, fire in his eyes. "And you. If you can't keep your damn temper under control, you ain't gonna be a deputy here much damn longer. You understand me?"

"Yessir," Michael muttered.

"Do you understand me, Deputy?"

"Yes, sir, I understand you," Michael said, digging his fingernails into the wood of his desk.

Geoff nodded and let out a slow breath.

"Are you hurt?" he asked.

Michael glanced up at him. The begrudging concern on Geoff's face was, somehow, worse than the anger.

"No," said Michael. "She only grazed me."

"Is Gavin hurt?"

"I don't know," said Michael. The words stung in his sinuses, and he sniffed and cleared his throat. "Bragg kicked me out before I could find him."

"Ryan, go find him," Geoff said.

"Yessuh," said Ryan, getting up out of his chair.

"And do not go anywhere near that Turney woman."

"No, suh, wasn't plannin' on it."

"And see if you can't get things smoothened. I don't expect this to go away, but maybe we can get it less dire."

"I'll do my best, Sheriff."

"Good."

Ryan left. Geoff went back to his own desk and halfway sat on it.

"What am I gonna do with you, Michael?" he said.

"It won't happen again," said Michael.

"That don't matter just now," said Geoff. "If it'd been anybody else beatin' the shit outta that woman, I'd throw 'em in lockup for the night, and that's just for starters."

"So throw me in lockup, I don't give a shit," said Michael, petulant.

"You can't work from in there, and you got work to do," said Geoff.

"Why don't you just put him on probation, Sheriff?" said Jeremy.

"'Cuz probation don't mean jack shit, and you and everybody else in this damn town knows it, after Ray," said Geoff. He rubbed his forehead, sighing. "But I don't know there's much else I can do. You ain't hardly got any privileges I can take away, and I ain't firin' you on the first offense."

"Throw my damn self in lockup," Michael mumbled.

"Will that help?" Geoff asked, exasperated. "Will you cool the fuck off in the absence of further stimulus?"

"I guess," said Michael.

Geoff sighed again. "Awright, fine. Jeremy, walk him over."

"I can get there on my own," Michael snapped, glaring at Geoff.

"For the love of God, Michael, shut up," said Geoff.

Michael shut his mouth, equal parts offended and hurt. He gathered up all of his notes he'd made on the murder case and stuffed them into his jacket. He didn't wait for Jeremy, just stormed out of the sheriff's station and trusted he'd catch up, which he did.

"Boy, you sure put your foot in it," Jeremy said, arriving at Michael's elbow. "Or your fist, in this case."

"I'll put a foot in you, you don't shut the fuck up," said Michael.

"See, this's exactly why I didn't wanna work with you," said Jeremy. "Always threatenin' shit, throwin' your weight around. Woulda thought you'd had enough of that by now."

"You sure as hell didn't seem to mind before now," Michael said, kicking the dust.

"Seem bein' the key word. And right right now I don't mind too much, 'cuz if you hit me, Sheriff's gonna kick you to the fuckin' curb."

"Since when do you hate me this fuckin' much?" Michael demanded.

"I don't hate you, Michael," said Jeremy. "I just think you're goin' nuts and I don't wanna get took down with you. Ryan's already nuts, which is why y'all're perfect for each other."

"Bullshit," Michael muttered. Jeremy didn't respond.

The jail was only a few blocks from the sheriff's station, close to the center of town. That way, there were always guaranteed to be eyes on it in case somebody tried something, and there was no quick and easy escape into the wilderness. Only one of the eight cells was occupied at the moment, and it was by Gibson, the town drunk. Thankfully, he was passed out at the moment. Jeremy at least had the courtesy to put Michael in the cell farthest from him.

After the bars had clanged shut, Jeremy hesitated outside the cell. Michael didn't sit down, waiting for him to say whatever he had to say.

"So uh," he said. "No mail. For them rail boys. Thought you oughtta know. I checked, there wasn't nothin'."

Michael grunted an acknowledgement. Jeremy fidgeted.

"And, hey, listen," said Jeremy. "I'm . . . real sorry. About all this. If I'm bein' honest, I prob'ly woulda done somethin' similar, if I'd been there. I think we all would. Except maybe Jack, I don't—anyways. I'll uh, I'll come by and let you know how Gavin is, whenever I find out. He's prob'ly fine, but I guess you'd wanna know for sure."

"Thanks," Michael said, begrudgingly. "While we're bein' honest, you mind if I ask you somethin'?"

"Shoot," said Jeremy, frowning.

"When you were decidin' you didn't wanna work with me no more," Michael said. "You talk with folks about it?"

"Well, yeah," said Jeremy. He shrugged, looking anywhere but at Michael. "Talked to the sheriff, obviously. Talked to Kitty some, just 'cuz she's got more sense than anybody else I know. Talked to Ryan, of course, 'cuz I wasn't gonna take off if nobody was gonna take over for me."

"Was it in that order?" Michael asked, a sinking feeling in his guts. Jeremy looked at him funny.

"I don't see that it matters," he said.

"I guess it don't," said Michael. He turned his back on Jeremy and sat down. Jeremy left.

Michael noted, with something approaching relief, that both Jeremy and Geoff had neglected to take his gun from him.


 

Michael had just started trying to read through his own notes when the jailhouse door opened again and Gavin came bounding in. Michael abandoned the papers immediately, heartened.

"Hey, boy, come on over here," Michael said, kneeling by the bars and sticking his hands through.

Gavin came right up and started wiggling like a maniac, licking at Michael's face while Michael rubbed him all over. He seemed, thankfully, in perfect health.

"That was some dumbass stunt you pulled," Michael said to him, scratching his butt. "Nearly got us both killed, ya idjit."

"Took a sizable chunk outta Miz Turney, too."

Michael looked up. Ryan was leaning on the wall across from his cell, arms folded, eyes bright with amusement. Michael suddenly wished he wasn't kneeling on the floor.

"What're you doin' here?" he asked, keeping his hands occupied with Gavin.

Ryan raised an eyebrow. "Bringin' Gavin by to see you?" he guessed. "I thought you'd wanna know he was mainly unharmed."

"Gavin, stop it," Michael said, yanking his hand away as Gavin licked his bloodied knuckles. He scratched the dog behind the ears instead, keeping his attention on Ryan. "Jeremy said he was gonna do it."

"I'm sure he would have," said Ryan, "had I not got here first."

"How'd you know I was even in here?"

"Rumor travels mighty fast in this town, Michael, you know that. I figured even if the rumors weren't true, it couldn't hurt to check."

Michael grunted. He didn't believe it, exactly, but he couldn't tell if it was because it seemed untrue in its own right or if it was just because Ryan was the one saying it.

"You're a li'l dumbass," Michael said to Gavin, playing with his ears. Gavin tried to lick his hands again. "Stop it. Swear to God, you'd eat me alive if I let you."

Gavin sneezed.

"Thanks," said Michael.

"I bet Jeremy came over awful smug, when he was lockin' you up in there," Ryan remarked.

Michael took a slow, deep breath. There was a note in Ryan's voice that he recognized. He'd heard it many times before, but it was only since the conversation with Risinger that he'd learned what it was.

It was the first move of a game.

"What makes you say that?" said Michael, keeping his eyes on Gavin. All the better to listen, all the better to not be distracted by those unsettling eyes, that disarming smile.

"Don't tell me you ain't noticed," Ryan said, mildly surprised. "After he up and abandoned you like he did, I thought it woulda been obvious."

"Abandoned is a strong word, ain't it?" Michael said.

"I was avoidin' sayin' he dumped you on me," said Ryan.

Michael looked up sharply, his ire rising. He bit his tongue—that had been a jab, and he was supposed to be provoked.

"Why don't you stop implyin' and just say whatever the hell you came in here to say," Michael said instead.

Ryan's eyes widened, just a touch. His smile widened, too.

"He's jealous of you," he said.

Michael laughed. It was such a sharp bark that it startled Gavin, who jumped in his skin and then barked back. Michael ruffled his ears and hushed him.

"That is goddamn ridiculous," Michael said to Ryan.

"Oh?" Ryan said politely.

"Yes. What the hell's he got to be jealous over?"

"I dunno, Michael," said Ryan. "Maybe the fact that the sheriff's showin' you unaccountable favor despite your inexperience. Maybe the fact you been given a good deal more responsibility than Jeremy's had yet." His eyes sparkled. "Maybe the fact he's finally caught on you're smarter than he is."

"Like hell," said Michael.

"Jack's jealous, too," Ryan went on. "Though by all accountin', she's got more right to be. Sheriff likes to think he's a fair man, but it ain't no coincidence that th' only woman in his employ is the deputy who consistently gets overlooked. She is better at hidin' it, though, I will give her that. More practice."

"That's got nothin' to do with me, and I don't even know why the hell you're bringin' it up," said Michael, who had a very good idea of why he was bringing it up, and refused to buy in. "Why don't you get lost? I'm s'posed to be coolin' off in here, and you ain't helpin'."

Ryan shrugged. "Sure thing, Michael," he said. He pushed off the wall and clicked his fingers to get Gavin's attention. "Gavin! C'mon, let's go get you some water, boy."

Gavin licked Michael's face one last time, then trotted off towards the door, his tail swishing placidly behind him.

"Hey Ryan," said Michael, as Ryan started to follow after him.

"Hm?" said Ryan, half-turning back.

"How'd you convince Jeremy to dump me on you?"

Ryan watched him for just a moment too long. He smiled his placid little smile, betraying nothing.

"I don't know what you mean," he said. "He'd already made up his mind by the time he got to me."

"Oh, sho-ah," Michael sneered, mocking Ryan's drawl. "And I'm John D. Rockefeller."

Ryan chuckled. "Well then, enjoy your stay in our quaint li'l jail, Mistuh Rockefeller," he said. "Somebody'll be by to let you out come mornin'."

"Hey, Ryan? Not you."

"Sure thing," said Ryan, laughing at some private joke. "I'll be busy workin' on your murder, anyhow."

He waved as he walked out. Michael sat for a minute, his hand resting on his gun. He breathed deeply. He waited for his head to clear.

"Murder case," he muttered at the closed door. "You oughtta be workin' on my murder case. You ain't sly."

In the far cell, Gibson snickered.

"The hell you laughin' at?" Michael snapped.

"He's got the Devil in him," said Gibson. Michael's heart skipped a beat, like he'd missed a stair in the dark.

"You're still drunk as hell, ain't you," he said. He couldn't quite keep the tremor out of his voice.

"Wanna know how you can tell?" Gibson went on. He was slurring significantly. "It's 'cuz he's left-handed. Eeeeeeeverybody left-handed, it's 'cuz they did them a deal with the Devil. Ssssssinisterrrrrr. You shake the Devil's hand, and it—and it pushes all the goodness outta your right hand, over into th' left. Th' left hand. Got the Devil in him. Y'see?"

"Yeah, you're still drunk as hell," Michael sighed.

Gibson's only rebuttal was to start vomiting loudly.

Chapter Text

Lindsay's face, when she came into the jail, was the single most terrifying thing Michael had ever seen. He shrank down into himself, pressing against the wall like he could sink straight through it. He was sore and achy from spending all night in the cell, but just then, he desperately didn't want to be let out. Lindsay folded her arms and lifted her chin and glared at him through narrowed eyes.

"Well at least you got the sense to look ashamed of yourself," she said coldly. "You mind tellin' me what the hell you were thinkin'?"

"She tried to shoot me," Michael said.

"And so have a hundred other idjits, but you never beat any of their faces in, goddamn! You nearly killed her, Michael!"

"She nearly killt me!"

"And?"

"What do you mean, and?"

"What do you mean, whadda you mean, and?" she retorted. "You know goddamn well what I mean!"

Michael shrugged and fidgeted. He was, for once, glad of the thick steel bars.

"She kicked Gavin and I got mad," he mumbled.

"That's your excuse?" Lindsay said.

"That's my reason, Doc, I ain't tryin' to excuse anythin'," he said. "I mean look at me, would I have got myself locked up if I thought I hadn't done nothin' wrong?"

"I think you most likely would have."

"Sheriff din't wanna put me in here," said Michael.

Lindsay made a face. She leaned a shoulder against the bars.

"So you wanna give me an account of what happened?" she said.

"Ain't much to tell," said Michael. "I went to get Gavin and she put a gun to my head and Gavin decided he din't like that and it all got real outta control real quick."

"You got any idea why she might wanna put a gun to your head?"

He shrugged again, distinctly uncomfortable.

"Maybe one or two," he said.

"Oh hell, Michael, what'd you do?" said Lindsay, exasperated.

"Nothin'!" said Michael. "And I mean it, nothin'! Ryan and me talked to Risinger about what happened, turns out the sonnuva bitch has been takin' advantage of young women for God only knows how long. Tried it on Turney and she kicked the shit outta him. Ain't hard to imagine why she'd be skittish now."

Lindsay stared at him.

"Risinger's been doin' what?" she said, and her voice was so dark and so cold it was like being snowed under.

"Uh," said Michael.

"Why ain't he in here?" Lindsay demanded.

"I was gonna tell the sheriff, but—"

"But? How was that not your first goddamn priority?"

"Doc, c'mon, don't go blowin' this outta proportion or nothin', it ain't—"

"Shut your goddamn mouth, Michael Jones," she said.

"What? What'd I do?"

"I will see you whenever the rest of those no-good cowards decide to let you out," Lindsay said. "Good mornin', Deputy."

"Doc? Doc!"

But she was gone, stormed out and slammed the door behind her. Michael slouched down, chewing his cheeks and fuming. There was a part of him, deep and vicious, that delighted in Lindsay's rage. Justice would be done, after all, and now with a surgical precision.

He might have enjoyed it more if Ryan hadn't called him out on it yesterday.

"Hoo buddy, you fucked that up but good," Gibson warbled from the far end of the jail.

"Shut the fuck up, Gibson," Michael called back.

"She's gonna give you a hidin' whenever you get home."

"I don't live with the woman, so no she ain't."

He snickered. "You think that matters? Naw, son, naw, you're that woman's fella and there ain't no gettin' away from it. She's got you tied on her apron string."

"You must still be drunk over there, otherwise you'd have the sense not to say dumb shit like that."

"Sober as the day is long, Deputy," said Gibson. "Just waitin' on your pals to let me out, same as you. Whatchu think's takin' 'em so long? I'm sure I heard that ole clock strike nine already. I'm gettin' hungry for my breakfast, ain't you?"

"Don't have much of an appetite," said Michael. What Gibson was saying was true, though—generally they let folks out of lockup by nine, or at least came by to feed and water them.

"Naw? But you sure had a busy day yesterday, didn't you."

"Not that busy."

"Uh-parrently you squeezed some truth outta Risinger, and also almost got killt by that Mad Meg woman, and then beat her face in, and then—"

"Shut up, Gibson!"

"Damn, you ain't cooled off at all, have you," said Gibson, chuckling. "Maybe I'll tell 'em that, when they come in to let you out. You spend another day in lockup, how'd you like that, Deputy Boy?"

"So long as you ain't in here, I'd like it just fuckin' fine," said Michael.

"None of y'all deputies spend enough time in your own cells," said Gibson. "They's nasty. Maybe y'all'd keep 'em cleaner if you spent more time in 'em."

Michael did not dignify this with a response. Gibson tried a couple more jabs, all of which Michael ignored, and then settled back into his customary quiet.

Fifteen minutes passed, then thirty. Michael got up and started pacing his cell. He stood on his toes and tried to look out the tiny window, but all he could see was the back of Misses Beauchamp and Drake's cobbler shop. A sense of dread settled over him like fog. Something was definitely wrong.

Forty-five minutes, unless his sense of time was screwed up. His stomach was growling, his hands starting to shake. If he hadn't been so on edge, he might have been tired enough to sleep. He could hear noises outside, distant voices. Something was off about the timber and pitch, but he couldn't place it—it just didn't sound like normal business.

"Somethin's goin' on out there," Michael said to himself.

"Well no shit, son," said Gibson.

The clock tolled ten, indicating Michael's accounting had not been off. He was just starting to come up with a plan to break out when the front door opened and Jack came in.

"All righty, Mr. Gibson, how're we feelin' this mornin'?" she said, with all the tedium of a well-rehearsed phrase. She looked tired, a little flustered, but none the worse for wear.

"Sober, Deputy Pattillo, real sober, but real scared, miss," said Gibson, laying it on thick.

"You motherfucker," Michael hissed.

"Scared of what?" Jack said, eyeing Michael.

"That other crazy man y'all put in here, miss," said Gibson. "He's been threatenin' me all night. Damn near kicked down the walls to get at me!"

"I goddamn well did not!" Michael shouted. "You lyin' son of a whore!"

"See? See! There he goes again!"

Jack sighed and took a ring of keys down off the wall. She unlocked Gibson's cell with a lot of clinking and clanging. Gibson shuffled meekly out, disheveled and waxen.

"Get outta here, Blaine," said Jack.

"Yes, Deputy Pattillo," Gibson said. He slunk off, shooting one triumphant look over his shoulder at Michael as he went.

"He's full of shit," Michael said, the moment the door was closed.

Instead of answering, Jack crossed to his cell and looked him up and down. She still had the ring of keys in her hand, holding it loosely. Her hair was slick with sweat, dark circles under her eyes. There was dust smudged on her face, dirt and maybe blood on her shirt. She looked like she'd had a very long morning.

"Is he, Michael?" she said.

"What? Yes! I'm cooled off, Jackie, now let me outta here, I got work to do!"

"I think maybe you already done enough," said Jack.

"The hell you mean?" said Michael, narrowing his eyes.

"I mean the reason I'm late comin' to get y'all," said Jack. "Namely, that about thirty-five women descended on Risinger's bank this mornin' and dragged him out into the street to beat the shit outta him. Couple of Denecour's cowhands tried to stop it and they got beat, too, one of 'em so bad he was pissin' blood. Turns out they were the lucky ones, 'cuz shortly thereafter somebody took a knife to Risinger's manhood. He's settin' up in Doc's office howlin' his head off 'cuz she won't give him no morphine or nothin'."

Michael stared at her. A sick, slick feeling coated his guts. He tried to swallow it down and it wouldn't go.

"What all's that got to do with me?" he croaked.

"Oh, I don't know, Michael, maybe the fact that you're the one who spilt it to Doc that Risinger was takin' advantage of young women?" Jack said.

"So?" Michael retorted. "So what? I ain't tell anybody what to do about it! He got what he deserved!"

"What he deserved was a goddamn prison sentence," Jack spat. "This ain't how we do things in the civilized world."

"I woulda thought you'd be all aboard for it!"

"Why, 'cuz I'm a woman?" Jack retorted. "Contrary to what you might think, we ain't all goddamn harpies, and we ain't all of one mind. Risinger shoulda been arrested, and tried, and sentenced, but you can't go twenty-four hours without lettin' blood, can you?"

"I didn't do nothin', Jack!"

"Four people!" Jack shouted, kicking the bars of Michael's cell. "Four people are on Death's doorstep! 'Cuz of you! Christ in heaven, outlaws got less blood in their justice!"

"I am not goddamn responsible for what happened to Risinger," Michael said, fists clenching. "Or to either of those folks who tried to step in. I will not be held accountable for that. If he hadn't been rapin' women, he coulda kept all his parts intact, and if those men hadn't been tryin' to defend him, they wouldn'ta got beat. I told the goddamn truth, Jack, and that is all I did!"

"Scarcello and Diaz didn't know what the hell he was bein' dragged out there for," Jack said. "They was just a coupla fellas tryin' to do right, which I guess you wouldn't know a goddamn thing about. Sometimes the truth gets folks lynched, Michael. And that ain't justice, and if you think it is, you ain't fit for polite society, let alone sheriffin'!"

Michael pulled up short. Rage and astonishment vied for pride of place in his chest.

"Holy shit," he said. "You are jealous."

"Go to hell, Jones," said Jack. She turned on her heel. Michael dashed across his cell and slammed the bars against their housing.

"Hey! You ain't gonna leave me in here, Jackie!"

"Sure am," said Jack, pocketing the keys. "For your own protection. There's several folks as think you oughtta be dragged out and beaten next. Namin' no names."

"Fuck you, Pattillo!"

The door swung shut behind Jack. It was somehow worse than if she'd slammed it. Michael kicked the bars of his cell until he hurt himself and had to sit down.

"God dammit," he muttered. "God dammit, god dammit."

He tried to hang onto the idea that what had happened at the bank had been fair and just.

He couldn't quite manage it.


 

Michael didn't get to eat until lunchtime, and he was dismayed to see Ryan bringing it. Ryan leaned up against the wall again after handing a satchel with a fair quantity of sourdough biscuits and bacon through the bars—definitely not standard prison fare—and watched Michael with an idle but unwavering curiosity that managed to dampen even his ravenous appetite. Michael was tempted to stay on his feet, but that would have been even more awkward than sitting on the little prison cot. Something was off about Ryan, even more so than usual, but Michael couldn't put his finger on it.

"How's it lookin' out there?" Michael asked, around a mouthful of biscuit.

"More ordinary than this mornin'," Ryan answered. "Still a bit of blood in the streets, but at least none's been added."

"Jesus," Michael muttered. "Y'all plannin' on lettin' me outta here anytime soon?"

"Would if I could," said Ryan. "Unfortunately, a certain Sheriff would be mighty displeased with me if I did." His eyes twinkled. "But I'm workin' on him."

"'Preciate it," Michael said begrudgingly. The more time passed, the more certain he became that something had changed. He was reluctant to look too closely at Ryan, though. It wasn't that he was particularly worried about what he'd see, it was just that he didn't want to be seen paying him that much attention.

He was acutely aware of the fact that they were alone in the jail.

"I do feel somewhat responsible for your current predicament," Ryan said.

"Why, 'cuz you wun't there to stop me beatin' Meg's face in?"

"Lord, no, Michael, if I'd been there, I woulda shot her," Ryan said. He flashed a smile. "But don't tell her that."

"Wun't plannin' on it," Michael said.

Ryan hooked his thumb through his belt and crossed one ankle over the other, settling in.

"No, I'm comin' over guilty on account of I never did mention to the sheriff what Risinger'd got up to," he went on. "Maybe if I had, it'd be him in that cell, 'stead of you."

It hit Michael with a flash, and then a sinking in his guts. His attention had been drawn by Ryan's hand, drumming its fingers idly against his hip.

"Where's your knife?" Michael said.

Ryan's mouth curled up, real slow.

"What knife?" he said.

"Don't you start foolin' with me," Michael warned.

"Oh honey, it is by far too late for that," said Ryan, gleaming.

Michael went red from his toes to his scalp. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. He couldn't have been more disoriented if Ryan had kicked him in the head.

"You—don't—don't change the subject," Michael sputtered. "Jack told me somebody took a knife to Risinger's parts, now where's your knife?"

"Aw, damnation," Ryan said mildly, looking down at his hands. "I get blood on me?"

"Ryan," Michael growled.

"No, it appears I did not," said Ryan, looking back up at Michael. "That'd prob'ly be on account of I wasn't there when the cuttin' was done, as multiple folks can testify. You might inquire with Doc, though."

"There is no force in Heaven or Earth that will get me to believe she did it," Michael said.

"Whoever said she did?" Ryan said, all big blue eyes and wounded innocence.

"Who'd you pass off your knife to, Ryan?" Michael said.

"Michael," Ryan tutted. "Listen to yourself, now. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to believe I had anythin' to do with what happened to Jon. Knives are not an uncommon item t' own, even for women."

"And you won't fuckin' answer me, and I know goddamn well there's a reason for it!" Michael snapped. "I ain't stupid, Ryan!"

Ryan smiled with his lip between his teeth, eyes crinkling up to crescent moons.

"And don't you forget it, now," he said. "I do believe I let Miz Dunkelman borrow my knife this mornin'. Don't know what she wanted it for. Guess I might wanna get it back from her at some point."

"When you neglected to tell the sheriff about Risinger," Michael said, barely keeping his temper in check. "Was that on purpose, too?"

"Now what purpose could that possibly have served?"

"There is nobody in this goddamn jail but you and me, you sonnuva bitch," Michael said. "Who the hell are you hidin' from?"

Ryan might have blinked at that—Michael wasn't sure.

"Sometimes," Ryan said slowly, "a person just wants to know the color of man's blood."

"It's all red, idjit," said Michael, clinging to his anger so he wouldn't have to feel anything else.

Ryan's eyes got very wide, and then he started laughing so hard he doubled over. Michael sat fuming in his cell, at least as ticked off with himself as he was with Ryan.

"You ain't wrong!" Ryan gasped. "Oh, yessuh, it sure is, ain't it? It's all—hah—oh, hell, Michael!"

"I don't see how that was in any way amusin'," Michael said.

Ryan straightened up, shaking his head, still laughing to himself.

"So," he said. "So when you told Doc about Jon's most unsavory activities, did you intend to bring down the hammer of Eve on him?"

"What? Of course I din't!"

"It's only you and me in this here jail," Ryan said, his eyes glittering like beetle shells.

"Fine," Michael said through gritted teeth. "All right, fine. I hoped she'd go to the sheriff, or—he'd get his name dragged through the mud, or somethin', but this—this was not what I had in mind!"

"Huh," said Ryan.

"That's all you got to say about it?"

Ryan cast his eyes skyward, making a show of thinking about it. Michael was tempted to throw the last of his food at him.

"Yep, think so," said Ryan. He turned his eyes back to Michael and shrugged. "Hope you weren't expectin' nothin' from me."

"If I was, I'm glad I din't get it," said Michael, which was true.

Raising his eyebrows, Ryan pushed off the wall.

"I'll see what I can do about gettin' you outta here in a timely fashion," he said. "No promises, though. Sheriff's in a mighty sour mood."

"Sheriff ain't the only one," Michael said, his lip curling.

"Boy, you sure do hate me," Ryan said, amused. "It's enough to break a person's heart."

"I don't hate you, I just don't like you," Michael said. "Which must be damn vexin' for you, 'cuz apparently I'm the only sonnuva bitch in this town who don't."

"Naw, Michael, not th' only one," said Ryan. "I don't guess Jon likes me very much anymore. Take care, now."

"You ain't always gonna get the last word," Michael shot, as Ryan sauntered out of the jail.

"Don't always need it!" Ryan sang back.

The door closed, punctuation on the irony.

"Yeah fuck you too," Michael muttered.

Chapter Text

Michael got out of the jail by five o'clock. Nobody had actually come to get him, but Gavin had mysteriously managed to get in through the door, with the jail's key ring mysteriously tied to his bandanna. Michael took the liberty of letting himself out, and then (since he was still alone in there), spent almost half an hour checking to make sure Gavin really wasn't hurt. There was a tender spot on the dog's right side, which made him whimper and flinch when Michael touched it, but overall he seemed healthy and happy.

"Hey," Michael said, playing with Gavin's ears. "Don't tell nobody I told you this, but you're a good dog."

Gavin licked his face. Michael spat and complained but didn't actually try to make him stop. It was doing more to cool his hot head than all the time alone in the jail cell had.

When he was satisfied that Gavin really was all right, he gathered up his notes—which he'd barely looked at—and headed back to the sheriff's station. The streets were populated, although not busy. Michael still found himself given a cautiously wide berth. Gavin didn't seem to notice at all, and just took it as an excuse to run all over the place sticking his nose in people's hands looking for food.

Michael let himself into the sheriff's station quietly, hoping that nobody was there. Gavin slipped in after him and trotted over to the only occupied desk in the room. He stuck his face up into Geoff's lap, snuffling and wagging his tail. Geoff didn't react.

He looked horrible. His mustache was drooping and disheveled. There were dark circles under his eyes. He was sweaty and grubby, his hair sticking up at odd angles. His eyes were bloodshot. His hands rested, palm-down, on his desk. He didn't look at Michael, or at Gavin, or at anything.

"Sheriff?" Michael said quietly.

Geoff took a slow, long breath through his nose. When he spoke, his voice was cracked and shaking.

"I need a goddamn drink," he said, despairing.

Michael bit his lip. He went to his own desk and sat down. He set all his notes aside. He looked down at his hands.

"I'm sorry, Sheriff," Michael said.

"You couldn't've known," Geoff said.

"Still a damn fool thing to do," said Michael. "I should've told you first. Before anybody else."

Geoff snorted. "I'm sure you would have, if I hadn't pinned your ears back the second you got here."

Michael shrugged. There was nothing to say to that.

"What're we gonna do?" he asked instead.

"Hell if I know," said Geoff. "Times like this, you start wonderin' what's the point of havin' sheriffs and deputies and all. If folks're gonna take the law into their own hands, what the hell're we here for? I can't arrest half the damn women in town, even if I knew for sure which half was doin' it. Even if I just knew who took the knife to him, or who kicked the shit outta Frankie an' Alfredo. But goddammit, I gotta do somethin'. I can't have folks thinkin' this is a—an acceptable way to solve their grievances."

"Why not?" said Michael, before he'd thought about it. He clapped his mouth shut and held his breath to keep anything stupider from getting out.

"'Cuz what if Risinger ain't done it?" Geoff said. "Or more what I mean: what if the next poor fool's had wrong rumors spread about him? Folks'll come over awful guilty for lynchin' an innocent man, but they ain't gonna know that 'til they do it. They're gonna see how damn well it worked on Risinger and they're gonna take it into their heads that it's just."

Michael fidgeted. "I can't say as I feel any sympathy for the man," he said.

"Hell, Michael, nobody does! That's the damn problem! It ain't about Risinger, it's about whoever's next."

Understanding started to filter through the callous self-righteousness Michael had armored himself in. He licked his lips and fidgeted some more.

"And about Scarcello and Diaz," he said. "Ain't it."

"Yeah," Geoff sighed. "And them, too."

A silence fell over the station. Outside, a couple of kids ran by, shrieking and laughing. Gavin came over and stuck his nose into Michael's pocket, just in case food had materialized there. When he found that none had, he flopped down next to the desk.

"Sheriff?" Michael said at last.

"Yeah."

"Uh," he said. "Don't . . . go and get drunk. All right? You cain't sheriff drunk, and this's gonna need a helluva lot of sheriffin'."

Geoff sighed. "Don't I know it," he said. "I can't make no promises, but I'll try. I'll try."

"What can I do to help?" Michael said.

Glancing up at him, Geoff said, "With the drinkin', or with the general shit-storm?"

"Either," said Michael, shrugging. "Feel like both are sorta my fault."

Geoff wrinkled his nose and wiggled his mustache.

"You mind if Gavin comes home with me tonight?" he said.

"I don't," said Michael. He leaned out around his desk. "Gavin, you wanna go home with the sheriff tonight?"

Gavin thumped his tail a couple of times.

"I guess that's a yes," said Michael.

"You better go on home, too," said Geoff. "You still got a murderer to catch."

"You sure, Sheriff?" said Michael. "You sure you don't wanna hand that off to somebody else?"

"This point, it's easier just to let you keep it," said Geoff. "And I'll take all the damn ease I can get."

"Oh," said Michael. "Sure."

"Go home, Michael."

"Yessir."

When he was almost out the door, Geoff stopped him again.

"Hey, Michael."

"Yeah?" he said, looking back over his shoulder.

"Who let you out?"

"Don't know, Sheriff," Michael said. "Somebody put the keys on Gavin and sent him in to get me."

Geoff grunted. He turned to Gavin and shook a finger at him. "You li'l ingrate," he scolded. "I told all y'all not to let him out. I'm gonna fire you, if you can't take instructions."

Gavin thumped the floor some more.

"Look at him, he ain't even ashamed of himself," Michael tutted, shaking his head.

"Disgraceful," said Geoff.


 

When Michael got home, there was somebody out on his porch. He braced himself for some kind of scolding, or threat, or something, but he didn't get any of them. As he came up the stairs, Lindsay got to her feet. She didn't say anything. Her eyes were red, her face blotchy from crying. Her hands shook. Her lips quivered. She and Michael just stood there for a while, neither speaking, neither moving, not quite close enough to touch.

Michael tipped his head towards the door, then pushed it open.

"Come on," he said.

Lindsay went inside, and Michael went after her. He didn't bother asking any questions. He just got every bottle of liquor in the house, and brought them to the kitchen, and set them all out for her. He settled into the only other chair and folded his hands on the table.

"These all for me?" she croaked.

"You can start with the whiskey," he said. "It was cheap."

Without a further word, she plucked up the bottle, unstoppered it, and drank.


 

It wasn't until morning, when Lindsay was nursing a hangover at the kitchen table, that they finally talked to each other.

"Is it 'cuz of Risinger?" Michael said, while he busied himself making coffee.

"Everythin' got so outta hand so goddamn fast, Michael," Lindsay said. Her voice was hoarse. "I went and asked Meg about it, and she said it was true, so then I went and asked a couple other folks I had suspicions about. I don't know what happened. One minute it was me and maybe four other women and the next, it was a mob."

"I suspect there mighta been some stirrin'-up done," said Michael. He could feel Lindsay's frown against his back.

"Why?" she asked.

He opened his mouth to say something about Ryan, about how he'd had the whole night to go around planting ideas in people's heads, but then thought better of it when he realized how crazy it sounded. He shrugged.

"It sure don't seem like it happened naturally," he said.

"I guess," Lindsay sighed. "Whyever it happened, it's my fault."

"No more'n half your fault," Michael said. "I'm the one who told you in the first place."

"Hell, Michael, I'm glad you did," she said. "Even after everythin'. Somebody had to get told."

There was a long silence. The two of them drank their coffee, not looking at each other.

"You want me to walk you back?" Michael said.

"We're both goin' that direction anyhow, might as well," said Lindsay.

Michael frowned into the dregs of his coffee, studying his reflection in the thin layer of dark liquid.

"Doc?" he said.

"What?"

"How uh . . . how're you feelin' about deputy-talk?"

"I don't care, Michael," she said. "So long as it's not about Risinger or Meg, I'll be glad to hear it."

He nodded. He drank the last of his coffee.

"Who's managin' the bank now?" he asked.

"Blanchard," said Lindsay. "Why?"

"Has to do with Meg," said Michael. "I won't trouble you with it."

She let out a put-upon sigh and slapped the table.

"Well God dammit, now you got me curious. Go on, tell me anyhow."

He wrinkled his nose. "If Risinger ain't there to keep her from withdrawin' that money, she's gonna do it. I might have to take off if she does what I think she's gonna do with it."

"Which is?"

"Payin' off the railmen for dumpin' that dead body in the ravine," said Michael.

"I don't think you need to worry too much about that," said Lindsay. "Meg's not gonna be goin' anywhere for a while. You busted her up severely, Michael."

He shrugged, keeping his eyes down. Anything he said was sure to make it worse. Lindsay set her cup down with a decisive thunk.

"Wellp, come on," she said, getting to her feet. "She and Risinger and those two cowhands are gonna need tendin' to."

"You uh . . . need any help with that?" he asked.

"Might do," she said. "You can at least walk with me there and see how it looks."

"All right," said Michael, rising as well.

"But do not get near Miss Turney."

"Why in the hell would I?"

"I don't know, but you better stay outta her line of sight, otherwise she might shoot you dead on the spot, and that'd be mighty inconvenient."

Michael ducked his head and rubbed the back of his neck.

"Yeah, all right," he mumbled.


 

Michael and Lindsay didn't talk much on the way to her office, mostly just commenting on the heat and the possibility of rain in the near future. Michael came in the front door with her, just for the sake of not standing out on the doorstep. The clock tolled nine just as the door closed, reminding him to keep things brief. The two of them hovered in the short corridor between Lindsay's office and the tiny ward where the gravely injured could rest.

"Guess I'll leave you to it," he said.

"Yep," said Lindsay. "Gilby's prob'ly had a long enough night of it."

There was a moment of silence. Michael stuck his hands in his pockets and rolled up onto his toes.

"Look, Doc, I'm uh . . . I'm sorry. About—" He gestured vaguely.

"Yeah yeah," said Lindsay, waving him off. "But you still owe me another two nights of gettin' drunk. Three, actually, 'cuz it takes a whole jar of moonshine to get you drunk."

"So now you're gonna take advantage of me 'cuz I can hold my liquor?"

"It ain't so much that you can hold your liquor as that you're a goddamn ox," said Lindsay, folding her arms.

"Least I ain't a cow like you."

"No, you're just a dumbass."

"You're a dumbass."

Lindsay had just opened her mouth to shoot back when there was a sound of staggering footsteps and the ward door burst open. Some kind of creature flung itself on Michael, tangled briar hair and clawing hands and a banshee shriek. Michael shoved it back and drew his gun, but Lindsay leapt into the way. She caught the creature around the chest and it thrashed wildly.

"I'll kill you!" Risinger screamed, struggling in Lindsay's grip. "You son of a bitch, I'll kill you!"

"Gonna rip all your goddamn stitches out, moron!" Lindsay said. "You don't cut that shit out, you ain't gettin' a lick of laudanum from me ever again!"

That settled him down in a snap. He stood still, seething, silver-dollar eyes fixed on Michael.

"You're a dead man, Jones," he hissed. His face was twisted up ugly with hatred. There were tears in his eyes. His skin was waxen and pale under the bruises and contusions, the greasy tangles of dark hair.

"You got what you deserved," Michael said, his lip curling. "So go to hell."

Risinger went for him again, and again Lindsay held him back.

"Michael, get the hell out!" she snapped, annoyed. "Gilby! Where the fuck are you?"

Michael turned smartly and left the office, Risinger's threats ringing in his ears.


 

"Apparently Risinger's gonna kill me," Michael said, hanging up his hat by the station door.

"That so?" said Jack. She, Jeremy, and Ryan were the only ones in the station. Geoff and Gavin were suspiciously absent.

"Apparently," Michael said again. "Where's the sheriff?"

"Question of the hour," said Jeremy, as Michael went to his desk. "He ain't been in and nobody's seen him. We're gonna give him another hour, then Jack and me'll go check on him."

"Hm," said Michael. He glanced back at the far corner of the room. Ryan was reading something, cheek propped on his hand. "Whatchu got there, Ryan?"

He looked up, raising his eyebrows. He flapped a sheet of paper listlessly.

"Written statement from Mistuh Denecour," he said. "Concernin' his cowhands."

"Pass it off to Jack, I got murder shit for you to look into."

Ryan brightened. He got up and handed the paper off to Jack, then returned to his desk and perched on the edge of it.

"What needs doin', suh?" he asked Michael, a twinkle in his eye.

"Don't call me sir, it's uncomfortable," Michael said, rolling his shoulders. "I heard Andy Blanchard's managin' the bank now, which means that Turney woman's ten times more likely to get her hands on that money. You go make sure we know about it as soon as it happens."

"That all?" Ryan said, disappointed.

"What a damn shame, you don't get to menace anybody today," Michael sneered.

"Naw, Michael, I'm all menaced out," said Ryan. "I was only hopin' it'd be somethin' more substantial."

"If you think of anythin' more substantial to do, you be sure to let me know," said Michael.

Ryan shrugged, got up, and headed for the door.

"Whatever you say, suh," he said. "I aim to please."

"Aim it at somebody else. And don't call me sir."

"Yessuh," said Ryan, and put on his hat and left. Jeremy snickered as he went.

"The hell're you laughin' at?" Michael snapped.

"Nothin'," said Jeremy.

"C'mon, Li'l J, it ain't that funny," said Jack, who was also fighting back a smile.

"What the hell are y'all so damn amused about?" Michael demanded.

"Nothin'!" Jeremy insisted. "Y'all're just cute, that's all."

"Cute? Cute? What the fuck kind of cute do you mean, Dooley?"

"Wouldn't know a snake 'til it bit you," said Jack, shaking her head.

"Why don't y'all go make sure the sheriff's not face-down in a bottle," said Michael.

"Hey now," Jeremy snapped, sobering instantly. "That ain't funny."

"I ain't jokin'," said Michael. "Sheriff himself said he was havin' a hard time last night."

Jeremy heaved a put-upon sigh and got to his feet.

"Wellp, here we go again," he said.

"Maybe," said Jack. "Maybe he's just sleepin' in. Don't go jumpin' to conclusions, now."

"Jump wherever I damn well please," Jeremy muttered. "C'mon, Jackie, let's get a move on."

Before they could go anywhere, the door opened and Gavin trotted in, spotty tongue lolling. Geoff came in after him. The station was silent as he made his way to his desk. Michael watched him like a hawk, keen for any sway in his step, any flinch from the light, any hiccup. Gavin jumped up and put his paws in Michael's lap, the better to lick his face.

"Get offa me," Michael said, shoving him away. Gavin just wagged his tail and went on to bother Jack.

Geoff lowered himself into his chair. His mustache was waxed, although his hair was messy. His eyes didn't look exceptionally bloodshot.

"Mornin', Sheriff," said Jeremy. "How're you feelin'?"

Geoff glanced up. He looked at Jeremy, and then Jack, and then Michael. He raised his eyebrows, dubious. Michael shrugged.

"Doin' all right," Geoff sighed. "Tired as all hell."

"Been a rough week for sleepin'," Michael said. "'Specially with Gavin lyin' on your feet all night."

"Mmhm," said Geoff. "I miss anythin' so far?"

"Well," said Jack, "apparently Mr. Risinger's gonna kill Michael."

"Oh, boy!" said Geoff, and laid his head down on his desk, and put a piece of paper on top of it. "I shoulda stayed in bed!"

"Amen," Michael muttered.

Chapter Text

"Michael!" Jack cried, nearly kicking down the door. Michael startled so hard he hit his knee on the desk.

"Jesus Christ," Michael grumbled, as Jack bounded across the station and slapped down a newspaper on Michael's desk. Gavin leapt up from his spot on the floor and jumped around crazily.

"I know who our body is!" Jack said, glowing. She tapped the newspaper with two fingers. "Says right there, Bern—get off, Gavin—Bernard Burns: Missing!"

Michael sat up. It was half past three and only he and Gavin and Jeremy were at the station, Geoff and Ryan having gone out to deal with Mr. Denecour and the issue of his injured cowhands.

"Read it to me," Michael said, too engaged to worry about pride. "Gavin, get back here, Jesus God."

Gavin bolted out the open door instead, cavorting.

"Should I—" Jeremy began.

"He'll come back when he's hungry," Michael said. "Jack, read the thing."

"You got it," said Jack. "Says here, Mr. Bernard Burns, Chief Executive Officer of the Star Oil company, has been missin' for two months. Last time he was seen was in Ogden, headed westward on the Central Pacific line! Nobody's been reportin' on it because S. O. don't want anybody knowin' Burns ain't around!"

"Holy shit," said Jeremy, standing up slowly, craning his neck like he could read over Jack's shoulder from his desk.

"Lemme see that," Michael said, snatching the paper out from under Jack's hands. He frowned at it, squinting and mouthing along until the words came into place. He slapped the paper down again. "This's a goddamn gossip column, Jackie."

"So?" said Jack. "Burns, Michael, Bernard Burns, as in Ashley Burns, it's all right there!"

"How the hell you know about that?" he demanded, bristling.

"'Cuz Ryan told us, idjit," said Jeremy, rolling his eyes. "You're the most suspicious sonnuva bitch God ever put on this earth."

"It's all right there, Michael," Jack insisted.

"It's gossip, it ain't reliable," said Michael, glaring at her. "Prob'ly written by some blind ol' cunt with no—"

Jack hauled off and slapped him. Michael's ears rang. He blinked the stars from his vision, working his jaw. Jack grabbed him by the lapels and shook him, rattling his teeth.

"I've had just about enough of that, Jones," she hissed.

"Jesus Christ, the fuck is wrong with you?" he cried, smacking her hands away.

"Hey," Jeremy said. "Don't you lay hands on her!"

"She hit me first!"

"And I'll do it again!" Jack retorted.

The door clicked shut. There was a long, put-upon sigh.

"I can't leave y'all for five goddamn minutes," Geoff said. Gavin stood at his heel, wagging his tail and staring adoringly up at him.

"Jackie hit me!" Michael said, pointing an accusing finger at her. The handprint on his cheek still stung.

"Don't seem to have hurt you much," said Geoff. He took a knee to ruffle Gavin's ears. "Thought I told you to keep an eye on these fools, Gav."

"Michael went and hit Jack, too," Jeremy growled. "Makes the second woman he's—"

"That's what she gets for hittin' him," Geoff said calmly, straightening up and going to his desk. "And it don't seem to have hurt her much, neither. All y'all simmer down. Jack, you bring the mail back?"

"I . . . yeah, Sheriff," said Jack, rubbing her forearm and shooting a dirty look at Michael. "Ain't much of note."

"Nothin' for Michael's railmen?"

"Naw," said Jack. "But there's this newspaper I got while I was out there. Had a story in it about some oil tycoon goin' missin'. Has the right timin' and moneyed-ness to be Michael's pickled body, plus sharin' the name of the woman whose money Mad Meg was tryin' to get at. He just don't wanna listen 'cuz the article might have been writ by a woman. Which is pretty goddamn funny, comin' from a man who can't fuckin' read."

"Fuck you," said Michael, his fists clenching.

"Simmer down," Geoff said. "Michael, take that paper and go meet up with Ryan. Y'all work out what to do amongst yourselves. Jack, go home and rest. Jeremy, you keep that gun in its holster whenever you are in this station."

"Were you gonna fuckin' shoot me?" Michael said, flabbergasted. Jeremy had his hand on his revolver, not quite drawn.

"Michael. Ryan. Now," Geoff said.

"Fuck all y'all," Michael muttered, and stormed out.


 

Michael ran into Ryan halfway out to Denecour's ranch, just far enough from town that it was uncomfortable. Ryan saw him coming and, instead of continuing on to meet him, stopped where he was and stuck his thumbs in his belt. That, more than anything, made Michael uneasy. He felt like he was being lured.

"Well now," Ryan said, pushing his hat back with one finger. "What brings you out this way?"

"Jeremy almost shot me and Sheriff sent me out because of it," Michael said.

"Huh," said Ryan. He nodded to the newspaper in Michael's hand. "Whatcha got there?"

"Paper," Michael said, foisting it on Ryan. "Jackie brought it back from Vernon. Thinks that gossip column says who our dead man is."

Ryan raised his eyebrows, then peered down at the paper. He stood in silence for a while, eyes flicking back and forth over the paper.

"Burns," he said at last. "That is interestin'. Worth lookin' into."

"It's gossip, Ryan, Burns prob'ly ain't even missin'."

"Prob'ly," Ryan allowed. "Still worth lookin' into."

"What lookin' is there to do?" said Michael. "Who the hell're we gonna ask? We gonna send off a letter to Star Oil wantin' to know if their See-Eee-Oh is missin'?"

"Boy, you sure are hot today," Ryan remarked, smiling a little half-smile. He folded the newspaper and tucked it under his arm. "How come Jeremy tried to shoot you?"

"Don't change the subject," Michael snapped.

"I don't see why that's so objectionable," Ryan said. "You said it yourself, there's precious little to be done with this here paper. You say somethin' that upset him?"

"Jackie hit me and I hit her back," Michael said. "You done? Can we get back to work?"

"No," said Ryan, and it was so decisive and direct that it kicked Michael's feet right out from under him.

"Why the hell not?" he asked, narrowing his eyes. His hand started to stray towards the Colt.

"On account of me not much wantin' to have this conversation with you where anybody's gone hear," Ryan said. His eyes glittered. "Why'd Jack hit you, Michael?"

"I don't know, Ryan, 'cuz she's crazy," Michael snapped. His skin was crawling. They were so far from town, probably nobody would even hear if there was a struggle. . . .

"Must be somethin' in the water," Ryan said. "Since I'm a lunatic, Jack's crazy, and you're shootin' at nothin'."

"It was a goddamn snake!" Michael burst out. "I told everybody in this goddamn town, it was a goddamn snake in my house!"

"Oh, Michael," Ryan said, grinning that alligator grin. "I sure do love it when you lie to my face."

Michael grabbed the bandanna around Ryan's neck and twisted it, yanked him up to choke out his voice. Something hot and very sharp pressed into his belly. He froze. Ryan dangled in his grip, standing on his toes to keep from being choked. Michael could feel Ryan's breath on his face, see every spindly blue filament in his eyes, see himself reflected in the pupils. Ryan's pulse raced against the back of his knuckles where they were pressed to his neck.

A breath of wind swept through from the mountains, bearing the smell of rain. The corner of Ryan's mouth turned up.

"You ever gut anythin', Michael?" he asked, very quietly.

Michael said nothing. There was a fury rising in his throat, an irresistible violence. He didn't dare let it get a foothold, not even in words.

There was not a doubt in his mind that Ryan would kill him.

"Gen'rally, you cut the throat first," Ryan went on. "On account of, if you don't, ohhh, they'll live for hours."

Michael swallowed. Carefully, he put Ryan down. The knife was back in its sheath in a flash. Michael stepped back. Ryan straightened his bandanna and tightened the knot.

"Don't like bein' called a liar," Michael muttered. His stomach was squirming. There was a pinpoint of pain lingering just below his bellybutton. He suspected it was bleeding.

"Then it might benefit you to lie less," Ryan said, completely unflapped.

Michael clenched his fists, breathing deeply.

"You tryin' to play me like you played Risinger?" he said, watching Ryan's hands.

Ryan laughed. "Oh, surely not, Michael," he said. "Jon's a cheap kettle drum. Any ole fool could play him."

"You tryin' to play me some other kind of way?" Michael pressed.

"I'm not nearly prepared to tell you what I'm tryin' to get up to with you," Ryan said. "And you're not nearly prepared to hear it. Let's go on back, Michael. I'm sure I could think up some way to check on this Mistuh Burns."

"Hell no," said Michael. "You wanted this conversation, you're goddamn well havin' it."

"Bless your heart," Ryan said fondly. "I already got what I was after."

"That bein'?"

Ryan twinkled. "Now why would I ever tell you that?" he asked.

"You sonnuva bitch, I'll—"

"I'm sure Jeremy wasn't gone shoot you," Ryan interrupted. "He's got a habit of reachin' for his gun when he's unsettled. Just like you!"

Michael realized that his hand was resting on the Colt. He let go, slowly, flexing his fingers.

"Not two minutes ago you was threatenin' to gut me," he said, "so I got every right to be unsettled."

"Never said you didn't," Ryan said. "But threaten's a strong word, don't you think? I was only makin' conversation."

"The hell you were," Michael said, rolling his shoulders. "Just about fuckin' stabbed me."

"And you were mighty close to stranglin' me," said Ryan. "A person could make the case that it was self-defense."

"Don't be dumb, I wun't gonna hurt you."

"Weren't you?" said Ryan.

Michael mumbled something noncommittal under his breath. He didn't like the way Ryan was looking at him. He didn't want to answer, even to himself.

"We really oughtta be gettin' back," Ryan said, rescuing him from introspection. "Folks'll wonder what we been up to. Allons-y, mon chéri."

"What's that mean?" Michael said.

Ryan picked the newspaper up off the ground and dusted it off. He adjusted his hat, smirking at Michael, then started off towards town, giving him a wide berth.

"Ryan? What'd you just call me?" Michael demanded, tagging along after him. "Ryan. Ryan!"


 

The mood was chilly in the station the next morning, conversation much more sparse than usual. Gavin had picked up on it and spent the first couple of hours hiding under Ryan's desk, which Michael thought was awfully stupid of him. On the other hand, it did keep him out from between Jeremy and Michael, who were producing most of the chill.

Michael, having nothing better to go on, went back to Lindsay's notes for the thousandth time. Maybe, he reasoned, there was something in there that could confirm or deny that the body belonged to Bernard Burns. He came to the tattoo again. Apparently the mysterious banker Heyman wore one similar enough for Risinger to have recognized it, but Michael could discern no connection between a banker from Ogden and an oil baron from San Fran.

He chewed on that for a moment. Something about that train of thought was important, but he couldn't figure out what it was. He rifled through his notes, hoping to find something that would jog his memory. Eventually, he happened upon the train schedule. The dead man had been departing from San Fran—was that important? Surely it was pure coincidence, there were two hundred thousand people in San Fran. Besides, the last time Burns had been seen was in Ogden, if the paper was to be believed.

Except. . . .

Michael squinted at the train schedule. He ran his finger down the lines and whispered under his breath. He clenched his jaw and sat back.

He'd read the damn thing wrong. The entry for Hot Springs was circled on the westbound line, not the eastbound. The dead man hadn't set out from San Fran at all.

"God dammit," he muttered. "Goddamn idjit sonnuva bitch. Moron. Dumb as a fuckin' post, you fuckin'—"

"Who're you cussin' at over there?" Geoff inquired.

"Me, Sheriff," Michael sighed. He cast a glance back at Ryan. "Dead fella din't set out from San Fran. He was goin' to Hot Springs from somewhere east."

"They do make those schedules overly difficult to read," Ryan said. "Struggled with it myself."

"How come you ain't tell me I was wrong when I said he'd set out from San Fran, then?"

"You never said that," Ryan said, shrugging. "I wasn't aware you'd got it wrong."

"Michael was top of his class in communicatin'," Jeremy said snidely.

Geoff sighed and put his hands on his desk. "Now don't y'all start this again," he said.

Without warning, the door to the sheriff's station burst open and a tall, well-dressed man swanned in like he owned the place. He had a neatly trimmed beard, a gold watch-chain dangling from his vest pocket, clothes that were un-dusty enough that he must have come in a wagon of some kind. He flashed around a smile so dazzling it almost blotted out the woman behind him. Gavin leapt up from under Ryan's desk and Ryan stuffed him back under quick as thinking.

"Well, isn't this just the most charming little place you've ever seen!" the newcomer exclaimed. He was a New Englander, either Massachusetts or New York, and his expressions were so animated he might have been made of clay. The woman's face remained stony. She kept her hands clasped at her waist.

"Can we help you . . . sir?" Geoff said, rising awkwardly. Ryan straightened up from under his desk with one leg ever so slightly off-kilter. Michael suspected he was standing on Gavin's neck to keep him docile.

"Hullum," said the man, darting over and shaking Geoff's hand heartily. "Mr. Matthew Hullum, damned pleased to meet you. Fine operation you've got here, damned fine operation, damned fine deputies."

"Oh, uh," said Geoff, blushing. "Well, much obliged to you, Mr. Hullum. I'm glad you find it to your likin'."

Hullum clapped Geoff on the shoulder and moved on to Jeremy, pumping his hand like he was trying to get oil.

"Hullum, pleased to meet you," said Hullum.

"Dooley," said Jeremy. "Pleasure's all mine."

"Dooley, Dooley, now that's a fine name. Irish?"

"Uh," said Jeremy, blinking. "I don't rightly know. My folks're from Louisiana."

"Ah, a bayou boy, I'll bet you miss the greenery!" said Hullum.

"Never once," said Jeremy. "Don't miss the gators, neither."

"I bet!" Hullum laughed. He moved on to Jack and swept her hand up to kiss it. Jack raised her eyebrows. "And who might this fine lady be?"

"Jackie Pattillo," said Jack. "And I'm a deputy, not a lady."

"Of course, of course," Hullum said smoothly. His grip shifted to a handshake. "And a damned fine deputy, by the look of you!"

"I'll accept that," said Jack, mollified.

He dropped her and skated on to Michael. His grip was crushingly tight. Michael crushed him right back, twice as hard. "Whoo! What a grip on you! What's your name, son?"

"Jones," said Michael, scowling.

"Good to meetcha, Deputy Jones!"

Then he was on to Ryan, perhaps driven off by the chilly reception.

"Ryan Haywood," Ryan said, preempting Hullum as they shook hands. "And this here mutt is Gavin. He's our mascot."

Gavin stuck his head out from under the desk, snuffling. His ears pricked forward and then flattened back. Ryan gave him a friendly nudge and he receded under the desk.

"He comes over shy with com'pny," Ryan said, which was the biggest fib ever told. "To what do we owe th' honor, Mistuh Hullum?"

"Now now, we'll get to that, I haven't even introduced my wife!" said Hullum. "Deputies and Sheriff, this is my wife, Mrs. Hullum."

"Good morning," Mrs. Hullum said politely. Her hands were still clasped at her waist, her face as composed as marble.

"You're a very lucky man, Mistuh Hullum," Ryan said. He smiled a well-oiled smile and added, "And she's a very lucky lady!"

Hullum laughed. "Damned right, Deputy Haywood, damned right! Both of us lucky as all get-out. But to your question—what brings me to this fine little town—well, I'll tell you. It's silver, boys, it's a whole lot of silver!"

"Oh, here we go," Michael muttered, folding his arms.

"See, I own my own mining company—Big Cock Mining—"

Jeremy spat all over his desk and clapped a hand over his mouth. Hullum turned to scowl at him. While his back was turned, Geoff stuffed his fist into his mouth and Ryan bit his lip hard enough to turn it white. Jack's mouth pinched in at the corners and her face turned red, but otherwise her composure was unshaken, probably because she was in Hullum's direct line of sight.

The humor was lost on Michael, who was preoccupied watching Mrs. Hullum out of the corner of his eye. Something about her didn't fit right. She was paying absolutely no mind to her husband, and instead was making a discreet canvass of the room.

"Something the matter, Deputy Dooley?" Hullum said.

"Nope," Jeremy wheezed. "No sir, nothin' at all. Swallowed a bug, that's all." His voice pinched off in a squeak and he pressed his knuckles to his lips.

"About your minin' comp'ny, Mistuh Hullum," Ryan prompted. Even he sounded a little choked.

"Yes, yes, Big Cock Mining, as I was saying—"

Jack suddenly got very interested in her paperwork. Jeremy looked like his head was about to pop off.

"We've had prospectors out this way, and it so happens, there's a massive silver vein not five miles from here," Hullum went on. "Now, of course I'm going to talk to your mayor about it, but I thought it'd be wise to go ahead and start in on the legal paperworkings, you know how these things go, don't want red tape holding up the operation. This little town's going to get rich, Sheriff Ramsey, you betcha! It's going to be something, really something! Say, where could a fellow find the mayor, at this hour?"

"City Hall, Mr. Hullum," Geoff said dutifully. "You'll wanna go west down Main from here, an' then it's right across from the bank. Can't miss it."

"Much obliged, Sheriff!" Hullum bombasted. "Why don't you all go ahead and rustle up the paperwork for my mining operation, and I'll drop back by here in a couple of hours to see how it's settling? Come along, Ash, time's a-wasting!"

He linked arms with Mrs. Hullum and swanned out, still talking loudly. There was a long silence in his wake.

"Big Cock!" Jack wheezed, and she and Geoff and Jeremy burst into raucous laughter. Michael glanced back over his shoulder at Ryan.

Ryan was not laughing, not even smiling. He looked pensive more than anything.

"How'd you keep Gavin from jumpin' all over 'em?" Michael asked.

"Got a tether and a secret jerky drawer under here," Ryan said offhandedly. "Sheriff ever mention his name to that man?"

Michael paused.

"I dunno," he said. "I guess he must have."

"I guess he must have," Ryan said slowly.

There was a pathetic whine from under his desk, and Ryan snapped out of whatever he was in. He ducked down and a moment later Gavin leapt out, snuffling at everywhere Hullum and his wife had stood.

"Who the hell names a company Big Cock Minin'?" Jack exclaimed. Geoff was folded over his desk, howling with laughter.

Michael sat back down, uneasy. Gavin took the opportunity to come jump on him.

"I don't like that man," Michael said to him, as Gavin tried to lick his hands. "I don't like his wife, neither."

Rawf! said Gavin, and bounded off to join the more exciting people in the room.

"Yeah yeah," Michael muttered. "But you like everybody."

Chapter Text

Just as Michael was getting ready to go to bed, he was disturbed by a knock on his door. Cussing under his breath, he stormed out of his kitchen and flung his front door open.

Ryan was standing on his doorstep.

"The hell're you doin' here?" Michael demanded, before he could think better of it. The sky was just barely still purple with the sunset, the mountains black and paper-flat against it.

"Wellp, I thought you might like to know that our railmen took off," Ryan said mildly. "Jack just came by to tell me."

"Aw sheeit," said Michael. "When?"

"Some point 'tween this mornin' and now," said Ryan. "Jack's at the stables, workin' out which way they went. I asked her to go on and tell 'em to get a couple hosses geared up, too."

"God dammit," said Michael. "You prepared to ride after 'em?"

"Yessuh," said Ryan. "Else I wouldn't be here. We got a few hours of moonlight to go by, should get us somethin' of a head start."

"Fine," said Michael. "I'll meet you at the stables, half an hour."

"Sure thing," said Ryan.

Michael shut the door in his face.

He made his preparations in a flurry, stuffing a couple sets of clothes and assorted travel necessities into a pack. It took about four hours to get to Vernon on horseback, if that was the way they had gone, and about the same to Empire in the other direction. From Vernon it was another nine hours to Lovelock station and the Grand Pacific Railway. Depending on when the railmen had set out and whether they'd decided to stop in town for the night, they could be halfway to Reno by now.

As Michael slung the pack up onto his back and stuffed the Colt into its holster, he heard a noise.

His blood turned to ice in his veins. His heart pounded like it was trying to bust out of his chest. His skin went clammy with sweat. All his hair stood up on end.

From behind him, there had come a wheezing rattle like an indrawn breath. It was wet, and pained, and alien, and yet there was a strain of humanity in it that made it terrible.

Slowly, Michael turned.

There was the ratty poncho, the scraggly hair, the blood-soaked face. He could see the wall through it. Its mouth gaped open, only blackness inside. There was a wide slit across its throat. The phantom lingered until he blinked, slightly longer than a second.

It had been pointing to the door.

"Stay gone!" Michael shouted, as the apparition vanished. "You stay—fuckin' gone. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck this. Fuck."

And with that eloquent denouncement, Michael got the fuck out.


 

"They lit out due south," Jack said, walking alongside Michael's horse as he and Ryan exited the stables. "Seems like they ain't goin' to Vernon after all."

"Where are they goin', then?" Michael demanded.

"My guess? They're makin' a beeline for Hot Springs," said Jack.

"That's fuckin' stupid. Why the hell would they do that? They're gonna run outta water and die before they get there."

She shrugged. "Dunno. Up to y'all whether you follow 'em or try and head 'em off."

"I think we'd best follow 'em," said Ryan. "Just in case they attempt some cleverness."

"Hm," said Michael. He looked up at the sky. The moon was just about half full, sliding down the western horizon. It provided enough light to see by, but only just.

"Up to y'all," said Jack. "I gotta stick around here and help out with the whole situation. But you bring me back one of them rail boys so's I can kick the shit outta him."

"Yes ma'am," said Ryan, smiling at her and touching the brim of his hat. "You want him dragged or carried?"

"Either," said Jack, smiling back at him. "Y'all take care, don't get et by nothin'."

"Yeah yeah," said Michael. His horse tossed its head and nickered. He patted its neck. "C'mon, sooner we get started, sooner we can get this over with."

He kicked his horse into a trot, leaving Ryan to catch up.

They picked up the railmen's trail about a quarter mile outside of town. The hoof prints were just discernible in the dim light, although more often than not Michael had to squint and lean out of his saddle to see them.

"Doc let Meg loose, then?" Michael said, when enough time had passed that silence was more uncomfortable than speaking.

"Don't believe so," said Ryan. "Hadn't heard anythin' to that effect, anyhow. I assume we woulda heard."

"Uh-huh, sure," said Michael. He sighed. "So why the hell'd they take off alluva sudden? If it wun't the money and nobody—oh God dammit!"

His horse snorted and sidestepped at this sudden exclamation. Ryan looked over at him.

"Was that the sound of somethin' bein' worked out?"

"Hullum!" said Michael, and he spat it like a curse. "Fuckin' Hullum and his fuckin' wife!"

"He called her Ash," Ryan said, with dawning realization. "That wasn't Missuz Ashley Hullum, that was Missuz Ashley Burns."

"Took her own damn money out and paid the damn railmen herself, God dammit!" Michael snarled. "I bet all that bullshit about silver was just to get us lookin' the other way, dumbass name and all. She walked right into our goddamn station, right under our goddamn noses! That's how come Hullum knew the sheriff's name without askin', 'cuz people'd been fuckin' communicatin' with him on it!"

"You want me to go back?" Ryan asked. "Let the sheriff know?"

Michael chewed his cheeks. The railmen's trail cut a straight path through the desert. They weren't more than a couple of miles from town.

"I can catch you back up," Ryan added.

"Don't know there's any point to it," Michael said begrudgingly. "He cain't arrest her, we got no evidence. Hell, I don't know that he'd believe you."

"He'd believe me," Ryan said.

Michael glared at him. Ryan shrugged and gave him a self-deprecating smile.

"It's th' only talent I got," Ryan said.

"Oh, bull-shit," said Michael, rolling his eyes.

"I do believe that was a compliment," said Ryan, sparkling. "Anybody'd think you were takin' a shine to me, chéri."

"There you go with that French shit again. What the hell does that mean?"

"I think," Ryan mused, "maybe I should go tell the sheriff. Just so he ain't in the dark about it. That way if Hullum and Missuz Burns take off again—as they most likely will do—somebody'll have eyes on 'em."

"You wanna go, then go," said Michael.

"I'll catch you back up," said Ryan, turning his horse around. "Don't get lost, now, or else nobody'll ever find you."

With a flick of the reins and a hup, he spurred his horse into a gallop and took off back towards Achievement City. The hoofbeats faded into the distance. The dust drifted away.

"Why's he gotta talk likkat?" Michael said under his breath. "Oah else nobody'll evuh find you. Sounds like a goddamn lunatic. Jesus Christ."

It got very, very quiet.

Michael kept the reins wrapped around both hands. The horse was getting jittery, tossing its head and rolling its eyes. He couldn't tell if it was because the thing was picking up on his own unease, or if it was something else. With every passing minute, it became harder and harder to keep his eyes on the railmen's trail. There were too many sounds out there, too many dark shapes in the darkness. The temperature was dropping precipitously, now that the sun was gone. A light breeze tousled the scrub brush and made it all shiver.

He wished he'd brought Gavin.

"Ain't nothin' out here but you and this horse, Michael," he muttered to himself. "Ain't nobody out here but you and this goddamn horse. Get ahold of yourself. You ain't crazy. You ain't gonna get crazy. Ain't nothin' out here."

He continued on, first one mile, then two. He jumped at every skitter and crackle. At one point a bat swooped past his head and he nearly fell out of the saddle. He had to take a minute to recover himself after that, hissing admonishments under his breath.

It was then that he heard the drumming.

His hand was on his gun quick as thinking. He wheeled the horse around. It snorted and danced and tossed its head. He peered into the darkness. The sound was indistinct, at first, coming only on gusts of wind, but then it resolved into hoofbeats, growing nearer. A plume of dust rose up in the moonlight. A dark figure materialized at its head.

"Just Ryan," said Michael. "That's just Ryan, catchin' you up. Damn fool."

This somehow failed to be comforting.

In another couple of minutes, Ryan was reigning in next to him, dusty and smiling. His horse was breathing like a bellows, its flanks shivering.

"Howdy," Ryan said, twinkling. "Miss me?"

"Go to hell," Michael muttered.


 

Two and a half hours later, they were forced to make camp as the moon slid behind the mountains and the railmen's trail vanished into the starlight. Ryan got a fire started while Michael tended to the horses, taking their packs and tack off and hitching them to a gnarled old tree that had wedged itself between two halves of a boulder. He got out some rations, which were shared wordlessly. Michael kept at least half the fire between himself and Ryan.

The night was loud and dark. There wasn't much to see but wide open space, freckled with scrubs and rocks and joshua trees. A great field of stars glittered overhead, chilly and distant. There were mountains on every horizon, and clouds behind all of them. Muted flashes of lightning flickered between their silhouettes. The fire was small and bright and crackling, more for light than warmth, although it was almost cool enough to be comfortable. Ryan had his boots off, his stockinged feet held up to the fire, legs crossed at the ankles. He was reclining on one elbow, whittling down a thick chunk of juniper with his hunting knife. He didn't seem to be making anything in particular, other than a pile of curly wood shavings.

"Somethin's got you unsettled," he said, his eyes still on his whittling. They were the first words either of them had spoken since deciding to make camp.

Michael opened his mouth to snap out something defensive, then bit it back. He shifted his position. The sky was huge overhead, glittering and empty. The Great Basin stretched out on all sides, devoid of cover but full of hiding places.

It was just them out here, all alone under the stars.

"You believe in ghosts, Ryan?" Michael said.

Ryan paused his whittling. He looked up at Michael, and Michael felt the shift in his attention like a change in the wind.

"Ghosts?" said Ryan.

"Yeah, ghosts, you hard of hearin' or somethin'?" Michael said. The night was too noisy for his liking, full of buzzing and whispers.

"Naw," said Ryan. "Ghosts ain't real."

"You sound awful certain."

"I am," Ryan said easily. "If ghosts were real, I'd never get me a moment's peace."

"Uh-huh, sure," he said, though his guts were trying to bunch up for protection like a herd of spooked cattle. "You done bein' cryptic? 'Cuz I—"

"But the Devil's real," Ryan said, his voice gone soft.

All the hairs on the back of Michael's neck stood up. He licked his lips. He wanted to look back over his shoulder. He didn't.

"I am gonna ask you how you know that," Michael croaked. He cleared his throat. His hand strayed to his gun, just for the assurance. "And I am gonna regret it."

"Ain't you ever heard of religion?" Ryan said, playful.

"Never pegged you for a religious man."

"I'm not," said Ryan. "Didn't suspect you was one, either, but there's plenty of folks as believe in the Devil with precious little evidence but the Good Book's word on it."

"Yeah, all right, I'm just gonna go to bed," said Michael, getting to his feet and turning to go, intending to get his gear out of the saddlebags. It was warm enough that he could camp far away from the fire, far away from Ryan. . . .

"You can meet him, if you want," Ryan offered.

Michael froze. He swallowed. Somewhere distant, far out over the mountains, thunder muttered under its blackened breath.

"Why would I wanna go and do a thing likkat?" Michael asked. The sweat had gone cold on his body.

"Oh now, that ain't none of my business," said Ryan. "But if you do."

Michael said nothing. He could feel Ryan's eyes on his back, prickling.

"You go up in the clock tower," Ryan said. "Round about two in the mornin' when the moon's just past full. You'll see him."

"Ryan?" said Michael.

"Yes, Michael?"

"You are one goddamn unsettlin' motherfucker."

Chapter Text

Michael woke up just before dawn, which in any other circumstance would've meant rolling over and sleeping another hour or two. Instead, he got up and very quietly got the fire going again. Ryan was still asleep, curled up with his back to the fire pit, his hair spilling loose over the rolled-up jacket he was using for a pillow. Michael watched him for a while, just to make sure he was actually sleeping.

On a whim, he snuck over and stood on his tip-toes and craned his neck. Ryan's eyes were, in fact, closed, thin blue veins scrawled across the lids. His lips were parted, his breath slow. A night's worth of stubble darkened his jaw. One of his hands was stuck under the jacket, and the very tip of his hunting knife was sticking out.

Michael took a judicious step back. Even if Ryan was flesh and blood—and strikingly handsome when he wasn't being creepy—it didn't mean he wouldn't put a knife through Michael's kneecap if he got startled. Michael crept back to the fire and bustled around for a while, until the sun burst over the mountains and Ryan finally stirred.

"Mornin'," Ryan said groggily, rolling over and propping himself up on an elbow.

"Barely," said Michael. "I was fixin' to leave your ass here."

"Too early for all that," said Ryan. He sat the rest of the way up and ran his hands back through his hair a few times, then tugged a leather thong from around his wrist and tied it all back. "I can't be playin' words with you 'til after I've had my coffee."

"How do I convince you not to have any?" said Michael. He'd already made enough for two.

"It is," Ryan said, "too early for all that."

He picked up one of his boots, peered into it, and casually dumped out a snake. The snake lit off for the nearest rock, and Ryan put his boots on. He got up and stretched, then came over to the fire.

"Too early for snakes, too?" Michael said.

"I like these boots," Ryan said, helping himself to a cup of coffee.

"What's that got to do with anythin'?"

Ryan shrugged. He had a sip of coffee, watching the fire.

"What if it'd bit you?"

"Then I s'pose I'd be bit, Michael," Ryan sighed. "Don't everythin' require a reaction."

Michael narrowed his eyes. He glanced down at Ryan's boots. They were not, as he'd suspected, snakeskin. He sat back and folded his arms, stymied.

"I guess it don't," he grumbled.

Ryan's eyes turned to him. The corner of his mouth turned up.

"'Sides," he said, lilting, "if I'd killed it, we mighta had to deal with your very worst enemy. Ghost snakes."

Michael threw his empty cup at him. Ryan laughed.


 

After another three miles, the railmen's trail turned sharply to the east. By Michael's reckoning, they were about fifteen miles from Achievement City at that point.

"Figure they got wise and decided to head to Vernon?" Michael said, because the silence and the heat were both becoming oppressive.

"Maybe so," said Ryan. "That, or they were tryin' to mislead."

"They were goddamn idjits, Ryan, they couldn't mislead a horse."

"There's not an insignificant number of folks who think you're an idiot, chéri," said Ryan. "And yet."

"And yet nothin', I'm dumb as hell and I like it," Michael said.

"S'pose that makes you one of the folks," Ryan said, smiling to himself.

"Why're you so goddamn invested in convincin' me I'm smart?"

"It's called a compliment, Michael," Ryan said, turning sparkling eyes on him. "Many folks find 'em pleasin'."

"Sometimes it's called manipulation," said Michael. "And even I ain't dumb enough not to know the difference."

Ryan's smile fell off. He turned his eyes back to the trail ahead.

"Yeah, that shut you up real quick, din't it," Michael sneered. "You ain't think I knew any five-syllable words."

"It wasn't my intention to make you feel manipulated," Ryan said quietly.

"Sure," said Michael. "I bet you woulda liked it just fine if I'd never caught on."

"Michael."

"Why don't you just stay shut up, Ryan?"

Ryan stayed shut up. It felt less like a victory than it should have.


 

They made it to Vernon by noon, by which point both of them were well dusted and very dry. The horses looked about ready to collapse, and stuck their heads in the first trough they came to. They could not thereafter be removed.

"I guess we're hitchin' up here," Michael grumbled, dismounting. "How well you get on with Suptic?"

"As well as you'd expect," said Ryan, following his lead. He took a moment to stretch, planting his fists in his back. "Steve's a pleasant enough fella."

"Uh-huh. So you wanna talk to him, or look for somebody else to be pleasant at while I do?"

"I don't see that there's a need to split up," said Ryan. "If the railmen are here, we'll know about them 'fore they know about us. If they ain't here, then there's no need to hurry."

"Maybe I'm just sick of bein' stuck with you," Michael muttered.

"Michael, you do wound me," Ryan said, shaking his head.

Vernon was markedly less shitty than Achievement City, but it was still a hole in the ground. The butcher doubled as a candle-maker, and there was no bakery or anything resembling a bakery, but there were two saloons, which put it squarely in big town territory for Michael. It was still small enough that people stared at Ryan and Michael as they headed for the sheriff's station.

Ryan tipped his hat to all the ladies and smiled at all the children and nodded to all the men. It was enough to make a person sick.

"Can't you go ten goddamn seconds without charmin' somebody?" Michael said out the corner of his mouth.

"Don't know what you mean," Ryan said, and waggled his fingers at a passing infant. The baby flailed its fists in response and Ryan chuckled.

"Layin' it on awful thick, ain't you."

"Honey, I honestly, genuinely, don't know what you mean," said Ryan.

"You got no business flirtin' with these women," Michael said, trying and failing to keep from turning red.

Ryan snorted. "I don't flirt with women, chéri."

"The hell you don't," Michael grumbled, as another pretty young lady hurried on her way blushing.

Fortunately, they arrived at the sheriff's station before Michael actually threw up in his mouth. Ryan held the door for Michael, which was just about the last straw, but since Sheriff Suptic and two of his deputies were inside, Michael kept his composure.

"Hey, uh, fellas!" Suptic said, getting up out of his chair and moving to meet them. He was a slender, effeminate man of forty, going gray at the temples and perennially squinting. "If it ain't our pals from ole Aggrievement City!"

"Steve, good to see you," said Ryan, shaking his hand. He leaned over and waved to the deputies as well. "Cib, James, you too."

"Hey Ryan!" said James. Cib was trying to fit a fist-sized pinecone in his mouth. Michael wasn't sure where he could've even gotten a pinecone.

"Pleasure's all ours, Roger," said Suptic. "Is it mail day already? And uh, how come there's two of you?"

"That'd be on account of it's not mail day," said Ryan, with an apologetic smile. "Steve, you know Deputy Jones?"

"Hah, of—of course I do, of course," said Suptic. He shook Michael's hand, then looked immediately back to Ryan. "Say, you doin' all right? You seem a li'l down."

"I'm just fine, Steve, don't you worry about li'l ole me," said Ryan. "I'm assistin' Deputy Jones here with an important case. He can tell you all about it."

"I'm sure I'd love to hear," Suptic said, suspicious.

"You had a trio of railmen come into town?" Michael asked. "Today or yesterday?"

"Eugh," said James. It was unclear if this was in response to the question or to Cib choking on the pinecone.

"Oh, them," said Suptic, his lip curling. "Yessir, we sure did. Cuttin' up awful rowdy in the saloon. I was given to understand they were plannin' on just passin' through, but they ended up just passin' out."

"They still in town?" Michael said, perking up.

"Far as I know," said Suptic. "We stuck 'em in the jailhouse 'cuz they was too drunk to stand up and we didn't want 'em makin' a mess in Scully's inn. Parker's lookin' after 'em just now. Which—hey, who thought that was a good idea?"

"Oo dih," Cib said around his pinecone, and promptly choked again.

"God dammit James, why would you leave Parker in charge of anything?" Suptic demanded.

"Me?" James cried, gesturing emphatically. "You! He just said you!"

"No he didn't, did you, Cib."

"Hnhh?" said Cib.

"You mind if we have a talk with 'em?" Michael interrupted, impatient.

"Now hold on, hold on now," said Suptic, raising a hand. "You gotta tell me what you want 'em for, first. You ain't said Word One about this important case of yours."

Michael ground his teeth. "Been a murder," he said. "Prob'ly."

"Oh, hell," Suptic sighed. "One of those. Who was it?"

Involuntarily, Michael glanced at Ryan.

"That's one of the many things we're tryin' to figure out," Ryan said. "He was in a considerable state of disrepair when we found him. It's our suspicion those railmen might've been involved with the transport and disposal."

"Christ on a crutch," said Suptic, his eyes going wide. "Just what the hell kind of murder was this?"

"Rich folk kind," said Ryan. "You know how they feel the need t' overcomplicate just about everythin'."

"Well, I—y'know, I'm rich," Suptic said, wounded.

"Oh, sure," said Ryan. "But you ain't like most rich folks, of course."

"Hahah, yeah, well," said Suptic. "I'll just . . . take y'all on over. They oughtta at least be awake by now, though I bet they're hungover as hell."

"Much obliged, Steve," said Ryan, smiling.

"'Preciate it," Michael mumbled.

As Suptic walked them over to the jailhouse, Ryan hung back by Michael's elbow.

"You wanna handle them, too?" Michael asked him.

"I handled Risinger," said Ryan. "Figure that does make it your turn."

"Oh, we takin' turns now?"

"Sure, Michael, that's what partners do."

"You are not my partner," said Michael.

"Tell that to the sheriff," said Ryan.

"Which sheriff?" Suptic called back. "Y'all—y'all talkin' about sheriffs back there? That ain't too polite, y'know."

"Any'll do," said Ryan. "Steve, you figure me and Deputy Jones here might be partners?"

"Sure look like partners to me, Robert."

Ryan turned back to Michael with a distinctly Gavin-ish look of adoration. "Look like partners to the sheriff," he said.

"He don't even know your fuckin' name!"

"And it's awful charmin'."

"You're in a goddamn mood today, ain't you," said Michael, scowling at him.

"Just happy to be here, chéri," said Ryan.


 

The jailhouse was suspiciously quiet when they got there. Only one person was snoring, and it appeared to be Deputy Parker, leaned up against the wall on a tiny wooden stool. All of the jail cells stood open.

"Parker!" Suptic barked. Parker tumbled out of his stool with a snort, then scrambled to his feet.

"Yessir!" he said, saluting.

"Where the hell those railmen at?"

"Gone, sir!" said Parker.

"Why the hell'd you let 'em out for?"

"'Cuz they was sober enough to go, sir! Said they had places to be and I ain't wanna hold 'em up!"

"How much'd they pay you?" Michael demanded.

Parker turned waxy. He gulped.

"Say what now?" he said.

"How fuckin' much did they pay you, to let them out?" Michael said, his fists clenching.

"N-nothin'! They didn't pay me nothin'!"

"Parker," Suptic warned.

"Five dollars, sir!" Parker squeaked.

"God dammit, Parker! How many fuckin' times I gotta tell you, never sell out for less than ten!"

"I'm sorry sir!" said Parker, while Suptic shook him by the lapels. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"

"When'd they head out?" Ryan asked, putting a restraining hand on Suptic's arm.

"Uh," said Parker, eyes darting. "Couple hours past dawn? I—I don't know what exactly time it is just now, but—"

"Shit," said Michael. "Shit!"

He kicked the little stool. It flew into the nearest cell and crashed into the wall. One of the legs broke off.

Parker screamed and clung to Suptic. Suptic shoved him off and slapped at him until he backed up a couple steps.

"We could still catch 'em," Ryan said to Michael.

"The hell we could," said Michael. "They got a four-hour head start on us, we chase after 'em, all we're gonna end up with is dead horses. They're halfway to Lovelock by now!"

"I never said we oughtta chase," said Ryan. "But presumin' we leave now, move a li'l quicker than usual and take no breaks, we could catch 'em. All it takes is a li'l persistence and determination."

Michael ground his teeth. He turned to Suptic.

"You got spare horses?" he asked.

"Sure do," said Suptic. "But do y'all—really have to go? It's just, uh—"

"Y'all can hang onto ours 'til we get back," said Michael. He stalked to the door.

"Much obliged, Steve," Ryan said to Suptic, shaking his hand and clapping him on the shoulder.

"Oh, but, you—" Suptic sputtered.

"We'll let you know how it goes," Ryan promised sweetly.

"I'm gonna leave your pleasant ass here!" Michael shot over his shoulder, shoving out into the blistering noonday sun.

"Comin', partner!" Ryan sang.


 

"You pulled this trick before?" Michael asked. It'd been two hours since they'd left Vernon, and they'd been alternating the horses between trotting and walking.

"Oh, sure," said Ryan. "It's how you catch anythin', when you got a trail. Nobody and nothin'll run forever."

"What if they make it to Lovelock before us?" said Michael. "Hop on a train and get long gone."

Ryan shrugged. "You got train money?"

"Not hardly."

"I'm sure we could figure somethin' out," said Ryan.

"I figure we'd go the hell home," said Michael.

"Could do that too," Ryan allowed, inclining his head.

There was a long, uncomfortable silence.

"What'd you hunt?" Michael said.

"Hm?" said Ryan.

"That you tracked like this," Michael said, gesturing. "What'd you hunt?"

Ryan took just a little too long to answer, watching Michael's eyes as a smile spread across his face. All the hairs stood up on the back of Michael's neck.

"Pigs," said Ryan, turning his eyes back to the trail ahead. "My family kept pigs, back in Georgia. Sometimes they'd get out, I'd have to go and get 'em 'fore the bears did. Smart things, pigs, but they won't run forever."

"Uh-huh," said Michael. And then, before he could stop himself, "That all?"

"What else would there be?" Ryan asked.

"Thought maybe you had deputyin' experience in this sort of shit," Michael said, which he thought was an admirable recovery.

"Naw, not really," said Ryan. "Never did have anybody that determined ridin' me. I do like it, though. I do enjoy your tenacity."

"Uh-huh," Michael said again. His ears were burning. Ryan was watching him again. "Least you complain less'n Jeremy."

"Like I said, chéri," said Ryan. "I'm just happy to be here."

Chapter Text

The ride to Lovelock was long and grueling. Their only good fortune was that, with the recent rains, many of the arroyos had some water left in them, and they didn't have to worry about dying of thirst. They never stopped long, only long enough to fill their canteens and let the horses drink, but the sound of running water always heralded a welcome respite.

Otherwise, it was hellish.

The heat was unbearable, the sun blinding. Dust got into every inch of Michael's clothes, coarse against his skin. Sweat crusted on his face and arms and in his hair. His body ached from the long, relentless hours of riding. He got down and walked for an hour at one point, but all that gave him was blisters.

They were about seven hours into it when the second stroke of good luck hit.

"Zzt!" said Michael, holding up a hand. Nobody had been talking, but it got Ryan's attention. Both of them reigned in their horses, and Michael listened in silence for a moment.

"You hear that?" he whispered.

Ryan tipped his head to one side, eyes narrowing to slits. His mouth curled up in a smile.

"Sounds like a trio of rowdy fools bickerin' with each other," he said.

"It sure does," Michael said grimly. "I expect this'll come to a fight. You prepared for that?"

"Oh, sure, Michael," said Ryan. Michael leveled a warning finger at him.

"Don't kill any of 'em," he said.

"Wasn't plannin' on it," said Ryan. "Not unless they made like they were gone kill you."

Michael shrugged, shifting in his saddle.

"Fine," he said. "I say we run up on 'em quick as we can, surprise 'em."

"I feel that's libel to get us both shot," said Ryan. "Why don't we just walk up like ordinary folks, and let 'em figure out they wanna shoot us, 'stead of makin' it obvious?"

Michael chewed his tongue, then nodded. "Sounds reasonable," he said.

As they drew closer, the sound of the railmen's bickering grew more distinct. After a few minutes, Michael could pick out their individual voices and confirm for himself that it was indeed the railmen and not some other band of idiots. Shortly after that came the sound of rushing water.

"There a river near here?" Michael asked Ryan, keeping his voice down.

"Not a river per se, but there's a drainage ditch and a pond," said Ryan. "Likely all swole up from the rain."

"How far from Lovelock you figure we are?"

"Couple miles?" Ryan guessed. "Been makin' pretty good time."

"Far enough that nobody'd hear a commotion."

"Most likely," Ryan said, his eyes glittering. "Though I'd not start shootin' frivolously."

"All right," said Michael. He rolled his shoulders. "I'll try talkin', but I don't expect it's gonna go too well."

"I got your back," Ryan said.

"Prefer you wun't behind me," Michael muttered under his breath, and set off at a light trot before Ryan could remark on it.

When they reached the tiny pond, Michael became intensely grateful that they'd stopped a moment to discuss. All three of the railmen were sopping wet and half-dressed, apparently having just climbed out of the pond. Two of them, James and Bruce, leapt to their feet as Michael and Ryan approached.

"Fellas," Michael said.

"Holy shit, what the fuck're you doin' here?" Bruce cried. He slapped his hip, and then he looked down at it as though betrayed.

"Forgot to put y'all's guns back on, huh," said Michael. He patted the Colt at his side. "I din't, though. Got some questions to ask y'all."

"Fuck you," Bruce spat.

"Followin' us all the damn way out here, what the hell?" said James.

"Damn crazy folks, everybody in that damn town's crazy," said Adam, fumbling around in a pile of cloth and leather.

Michael dismounted and approached the railmen. Ryan stayed on his horse, silent and watchful.

"Wellp, these crazy folks got some pressin' questions," Michael said.

"I got a pressin' question," said James. "Why don't you go fuck yourself?"

The other two hooted and hollered. Michael wondered how drunk they all were.

"If y'all got a problem," Michael said, cracking his knuckles, "we can hash that out first."

"Problem?" said Bruce. "Yeah, I got a fuckin' problem!"

He swung at Michael. Michael ducked and slammed a fist into his stomach. Bruce's breath all rushed out of him. James ran up screaming and threw himself on Michael like a wildcat. Michael clocked him in the head with an elbow. The scream cut off. Michael grabbed him by the collar and the belt and threw him. He landed in a puff of dust two yards away.

Bruce swung again. His fist caught Michael right on the jaw and staggered him. Bruce pressed his advantage, raining blows on Michael rapid-fire. Michael stomped on his foot and he howled.

There was a gunshot. Everyone ducked. James screamed. Michael grabbed Bruce and Bruce shoved him off. James came running up again and went for Michael's eyes. This time Michael threw him at Bruce. Both of them went sprawling into the dust, cussing at each other.

There was a choking noise from Michael's left. He whipped around, ready for whoever was next.

Ryan was standing on Adam's throat and aiming his gun down right between his eyes. Adam was clutching Ryan's ankle, his heels plowing ruts into the dirt. A gun lay in the dust ten feet away.

"Oh, honey," Ryan said, and there was a vicious exhilaration to him, a terrible electric hum. "You wanna play with toys, you gotta play with me and my Lover."

"Gkhhhk!" said Adam. His face was getting redder every second. He slapped Ryan's calf a couple of times. Ryan thumbed back the hammer on his revolver.

"Hey, get offa him!" Bruce cried, shoving James off and starting for Ryan. Michael caught him by the collar quick as thinking. Ryan's eyes didn't shift, fixed on Adam's swelling face.

"Fuckin' idjit, gonna get him shot!" Michael hissed at Bruce. He tasted blood.

"We're—all right, we're all done now," James said, raising his hands. He was covered in dust, but had gone pale as death underneath it. "Hey, all right, everybody's done doin' everythin', see? Now—now let him up 'fore you choke him to death."

"I'm not gone choke him to death," Ryan said sweetly, watching Adam writhe. "He's gone get too rowdy with his strugglin', and then I'll shoot him."

"Jones, call off your goddamn dog!" Bruce snarled.

"My what?" said Michael, aghast.

Adam thrashed and punched Ryan in the shin. Ryan's smile was spreading out wider and wider. His finger curled on the trigger.

"Ryan, get offa him!" Michael blurted.

Ryan looked up. For a moment, his eyes were so cold and so inhuman that it froze Michael up solid, even from five yards away.

"Yessuh," said Ryan. He stepped back. Adam gasped in a huge breath of air and then started coughing, clutching at his throat. James scrambled to his feet and ran to his side.

"You all right?" James said. "Oh, damn, Adam, oh damn!"

Adam swatted at him as he fussed. His coughs were hoarse and heavy in the chest, bordering on retching.

"Let go of me," Bruce said, shoving Michael away. Michael allowed himself to be shoved. His head was spinning, his heart struggling to find its rhythm. He put a hand on the Colt, just to have something solid to hang on to. He wiped his mouth with his other hand and it came away bloody. He licked his lip and found the split in it. His knuckles were stinging.

"Y'all feel a li'l more like talkin', now?" Ryan asked.

Bruce snarled and started for Ryan. Michael socked him in the jaw before he got two steps. He went down like a sack of bricks. James squeaked.

"Yeah yeah! Talkin'! We like talkin'!" he said, the words spilling over his lips in a rush.

"You dumb fuck," Adam spat. James slapped him in the chest repeatedly.

"What y'all wanna know?" James asked. "Anythin' you want, we're—we're feelin' real cooperative alluva sudden!"

"No the hell we ain't!" Adam said.

"Aw," said Ryan. He pointed his gun at Adam's head. "Bless your heart."

"Do not shoot that idjit," Michael snapped, stalking towards Ryan.

"Wasn't plannin' on it," said Ryan, still sighting down his pistol at Adam's head. James had gone very still. "Was gone ask a couple questions, first."

Michael stopped just out of arm's reach of Ryan. Whatever energy was illuminating him, whatever lightning had got into his bones, Michael could feel it pouring off him in waves.

"I'll answer," James said. His voice shook. "Anythin' you wanna know, I'll answer."

"Great!" said Ryan. "Michael, they're all yours."

Michael rolled his shoulders. Ryan was still aiming his gun at Adam.

"Did Mrs. Ashley Burns pay y'all to dispose of a body?" Michael asked James.

James bowed his head. Adam hissed threats and warnings at him.

"Yes," said James. "It was her husband. We wasn't s'posed to know that, but we knew. She killed him and put him in a box and shipped him out to Lovelock, and then we came and picked him up and dumped him out of the box."

"What'd you do with the box?" Michael.

"Burnt it," James said.

"And how much'd she pay you?"

James swallowed. Adam looked like he was about to shake himself to bits with fury.

"Thirty dollars each," James whispered.

Ryan let out a low whistle. "Well, damn!" he said. "No wonder y'all hung around so long."

Michael grunted. "Was Hullum involved?"

"Hullum?" said James. "I—I don't know, I don't—the name don't sound familiar. Honest. Honest, Deputy, I ain't—I don't—"

"That's all right," said Ryan. "I got one for Adam, though."

"Go straight to hell, you crazy motherfucker," Adam spat.

Ryan laughed. Michael drew his gun, very, very slowly.

"You an outlaw, Adam?" Ryan asked softly.

"The hell do you care?"

Michael watched Ryan's hands. They were rock steady. At his side, his fingers pinched together, thumb and pointer and middle.

"It's a matter of . . . personal accountin'," Ryan said.

"Say no," James whispered. "Adam, say no, please, God, don't do nothin' stupid."

"Fuck you," said Adam. "So what if I am? So what if we all are? Yeah, we're goddamn outlaws, fuck you and fuck your law! You ain't gonna shoot me, see if I give a fuck!"

Ryan grinned. Michael's hand tightened on his gun.

"I was ever so much hopin' you'd say that," Ryan said.

And then he pointed his gun at the sky, uncocked it, and stuck it back in his holster. He turned to Michael. The weight of his attention drove all the breath from Michael's body and kept it pressed out. He could smell lightning. All the hairs on his body were standing on end, all his skin prickling.

"There's our confession, suh," Ryan said. "Would you care for it in writin'?"

"At—at the station," Michael croaked. "We'll take 'em back with us."

"Like hell you will," said Adam, heaving himself upright.

"Yes, Deputy Jones, I think you better take us on back to the station, all three of us. I think we'd like that," James said. He sounded like he was about to start crying.

"Shut the fuck up," Adam said, shoving at him.

"Adam, for the love of God, stay down," James pleaded. "Stay down, don't say nothin' else."

"What the fuck are you so fucked up about?" Adam demanded. "You already done said everythin' there was to say! Who gives a damn if I say I'm an outlaw?"

James hissed a word. Adam went white and froze in place. Very slowly, his eyes turned to Ryan. Ryan smiled at him.

"Somebody wanna tell me what the fuck is goin' on right now?" Michael snapped. His hand was sweaty on his gun.

"I don't know there's terrible much to tell," Ryan said, holding Adam's gaze relentlessly. "I don't think there's any call to drag these fellas all the way back with us. We can just drop 'em off in Lovelock and let Sheriff Etika take care of 'em. They'll keep."

"Sure," said James. "Sure sure, let's do that. That sounds good."

"Fine," said Michael. "Ryan, why don'tchu get those jackasses tied up, I'll take care of the other jackass."

"Sure thing, Michael," said Ryan.

As Michael lashed Bruce's limp arms behind his back, he could hear the faint sound of James praying.

Ryan told him to hush, just once. After that, there was no noise from him at all.


 

Sheriff Desmond Etika was a tall, attractive man, with dark skin and eyes keener than a razor. He wore a neat mustache and goatee, a well-tailored wardrobe, and a permanently disaffected expression. He was gruff, sharp as a tack, and had little patience for anything that wasn't bare facts.

He was completely unimpressed by Ryan, and therefore Michael liked him instantly.

"We're very much obliged to you for hangin' onto those railmen for us," Ryan said. They were in Etika's office, near the railroad station, after having dropped off the railmen at the jail. All but one of the deputies was out on business.

"Uh-huh," said Etika. "We'll send y'all the bill."

"And we'll be much obliged for that, too," said Ryan. Michael figured it was only a matter of time before his charm slipped. Etika's onslaught of gruffness had been relentless.

"That all?" Etika asked. "Y'all done here?"

"That's all I had," Ryan said. He looked to Michael. "Unless you wanted t' impose on these fine gentlemen?"

"Nup, no sir," the deputy, Eacott, piped up. He was foreign, although Michael couldn't place where he was from. "Desmond's a gentleman, I'm a scamp."

"Don't help," Etika growled at him.

"Maybe a couple things," Michael said. "Y'all had somebody called Hullum come through here?"

"I get four goddamn thousand people a day come through here," Etika said. "No idea."

"Tall fella, rich as hell, loud as a jackass?" Michael said.

"I get four goddamn hundred people a day come through here just like that," said Etika. "No idea."

"Ashley Burns, that ring a bell?"

"No."

Michael chewed his cheek. "Lemme get a piece of paper and a pencil," he said.

Etika whipped out the requested implements and slapped them down on the desk. Michael made an attempt at drawing the dead man's tattoo. He then made a second attempt, and a third, cussing under his breath. He couldn't make it look right, no matter what he did, but he couldn't work out what was wrong, either.

Ryan touched his shoulder, just gently. Michael's whole body broke out in gooseflesh. For a moment he couldn't breathe.

"May I?" Ryan said.

Michael handed him the pencil and moved out of the way. With two quick swirls of the pencil, Ryan drew out a perfect reproduction of the symbol. He pushed the paper over to Michael and stepped back. Michael pushed the paper over to Etika.

"You recognize that?" he asked.

Etika frowned at it. He turned the paper around and frowned deeper. He scratched his nose.

"I'm not sure," he said slowly. "Lannan, get over here."

Eacott hopped up and lanked over. He bent over the paper and pursed his lips.

"I don't know," he said. "Could be familiar, but I've no idea where I've seen it."

"That's what I thought," said Etika. He looked up at Michael. "What is it?"

"Tattoo we found on the dead body them railmen dumped," said Michael. "No idea what it means, though."

"We'll look into it," said Etika. "Let you know if we find something."

"You mean Lannan's going to look into it," said Eacott.

"Don't. Help," Etika said through his teeth.

"'Preciate it," said Michael.

"That all?" Etika asked. "Y'all done here?"

Michael wrinkled his nose. He felt like he was forgetting something, but couldn't for the life of him remember what.

"Yeah, we're done," said Michael. "C'mon, Ryan, let's go the hell home."

"Yessuh," said Ryan. He offered one last pleasantry to Etika and Eacott, then followed Michael out. "Where to?"

"I think I want me a drink, before anythin' else," said Michael. "You got those confessions, all signed and everythin'?"

"Sure do," said Ryan, patting the pocket of his jacket. "Plenty detailed, too. I made sure."

"Hm," said Michael.

He didn't much like the sound of that.

Chapter Text

Lovelock was even bigger than Vernon, and while Michael had been comfortable up on his horse, walking around on foot was making him skittish. There was too much noise, too many people, not enough space. The streets were crowded and dusty and loud, and there were too many of them going in too many different directions. Ryan, of course, seemed perfectly at ease, and so Michael mostly just tagged along behind him until they managed to find a saloon. Michael wedged himself into a corner table as soon as he could, mostly so he'd have somewhere to put his elbows. Ryan waded back into the crowd, promising to return with beer.

Given a few moments to himself, Michael was finally able to think. He replayed the fight and conversation with the railmen, their confessions and unexplained mood swings. He thought over the ride into Lovelock, with Bruce draped over the back of his own horse and Adam and James led behind Ryan's. Nobody had said much of anything, except when Bruce had woken up and both of the other two had hissed urgently at him to keep his mouth shut. They'd seemed relieved to be thrown in jail, and had written out their confessions without a fuss.

He kept coming around to that fight, to Adam's sudden shift from aggression to terror. Drumming his fingers on the table, frowning at the sticky wood, he found his way back to the word that had triggered it. It didn't make any more sense in the retelling than it had at the time.

"What the hell's the difference?" Michael muttered to himself.

"Beg pardon?" Ryan said, sitting down across from him. Michael just managed to keep from jumping. Ryan set down a tall mug of beer in front of him, and Michael picked it right back up again.

"What's the difference," he repeated, "between an outlaw and a vagabond? And why the hell'd it matter to 'em?"

"I don't know, Michael," said Ryan. "I presume it's mainly a matter of style."

"Hm," said Michael, unconvinced. "Ain't seem like they was talkin' about style at the time."

"Never know what's important to a person," said Ryan. He sipped his beer. "For instance: good beer."

Michael drank as well. It was shitty beer. "Eugh, Jesus. You wouldn't know a good beer if it got up and slapped you."

"I admit you're correct on that account," said Ryan. He gestured helplessness. "It's all bad to me. Never did get a taste for the stuff."

"Uh-huh," said Michael. He looked Ryan over. He didn't seem off, or at least not any more so than usual. "You uh. You went a li'l odd back there."

"I know," said Ryan. He smoothed down his ponytail. "Wasn't my intention. I hope I didn't inconvenience you terribly."

"You wanna give me some kinda reason?"

"I don't know that I have one," said Ryan. "It just happens from time to time. I don't much choose when or where."

"You still feelin' odd?"

He shrugged. "Feel fine, Michael," he said.

Michael struggled with himself for a while, trying to decide whether or not it was a bad idea to ask.

"Why'd it matter to you?" he said at last. "Whether or not they was outlaws."

"Just a matter of personal accountin'," said Ryan. "Helps me to judge how libel they are to try and kill folks, whether or not they'll call themselves outlaws."

"Uh-huh," said Michael. "And what about that thing you do with your hand?"

Ryan looked up at him, moving slow, like a puma.

"What thing?" he asked.

Michael held up his hand, pointer and middle finger pressed to his thumb.

"This," he said, "thing."

Shrugging, Ryan shook his head.

"I don't know, Michael," he said. "I wasn't aware I did that."

"Wellp, you do that," said Michael. He turned his eyes back to his drink. He drank a good bit of it. "Next time somebody tries to shoot you, you can just knock 'em out, instead of fuckin' . . . whatever the fuck you decided to do."

"Oh, no, Michael, he wasn't tryin' to shoot me," said Ryan. "I wouldn't've minded so much if he'd been tryin' to shoot me. I do take a fair amount of exception to folks attemptin' to shoot you."

"Why?" Michael said, before he'd thought about it.

Ryan shrugged again and had a sip of his drink.

"Be a damn shame if somebody was to kill you," he said.

"You don't say," Michael grumbled. He drained half the remainder of his glass. He did not look at Ryan. He could tell he was being watched anyway.

"So we stayin' in town, or headin' back tonight?" Ryan asked.

Michael made a face. If they didn't stay in town, they'd be camping again; if they did stay, they'd probably have to share a room. The only thing Michael could think of that would be more uncomfortable than being alone with Ryan was being alone with Ryan in a confined space.

"I think we better head back soon as we can," Michael said. "We gotta tell the sheriff the railmen 'fessed up so's we can arrest Burns before she runs."

"Sounds sensible," said Ryan. "But I vote we at least finish our drinks, first."

He raised his glass to Michael.

Reluctantly, Michael clinked his glass against it.


 

"I s'pose we'll send for the railmen when a trial comes up?" Ryan said. They were about an hour out of Lovelock, both slightly more tipsy than they'd perhaps intended. The sun had just finished setting, leaving the sky blush-pink and the wind sighing. A silver half-moon hung overhead like the diamond in an engagement ring.

"S'pose we will," said Michael. "I don't give too many damns. They ain't my problem no more."

"Sensible philosophy," said Ryan. "You figure we'll get Missuz Burns to 'fess up?"

"Don't know," said Michael. "Ain't my problem."

"Ain't it?"

"Naw," said Michael. He smiled a sly little smile at Ryan and pushed his hat back with one finger. "It's your problem, 'cuz it's your turn."

Ryan grinned and stuck the tip of his tongue out between his teeth. "All right," he said. "But that makes Hullum yours."

"Good," said Michael. "I'd pay good money to watch that sonnuva bitch get took down a peg, let alone be the sonnuva bitch to do it."

"You figure he was in on it?"

"Maybe, maybe not," said Michael. "Don't matter much either way, 'cuz he's an accomplice no matter how you slice it."

"Meg too?"

"Meg especially," Michael said, with venom. "'S what she damn gets for kickin' my damn—for—for kickin' Gavin."

"Uh-huh?" said Ryan, grinning at him.

"Shut up," said Michael. "He ain't my dog."

"Be fair now, chéri, he did bite her first."

"So?"

"Ain't unreasonable to fight back in those circumstances."

"Shoulda known you'd stick up for her," said Michael. "Y'all crazy people gotta stick together, huh."

"Us crazy people do," Ryan said.

Michael snorted. "Bet the two of you'd make a fine pair, wouldn't you."

"She's a very pretty lady," Ryan allowed. He pressed a hand to his chest and added, "And I am certainly very pretty."

"You're a vain sonnuva bitch, 's what you are," said Michael.

"Aw, don't get jealous now," said Ryan. "You're pretty, too."

"Shut up," said Michael, going red in the face.

"Just not as pretty as me."

"Shut up."

"'Bout as pretty as Doc, which makes y'all a nice matched set."

"Hey now, you leave her outta this," Michael snapped.

"It ain't like y'all make a secret of it, Michael," said Ryan, leering. "Everybody knows."

"Don't nobody know jack shit," said Michael. "Or else they don't know what they think they do. Or—I think. You know what the fuck I meant."

"Oh, sure," said Ryan, nodding earnestly. "Everybody thinks y'all're fuckin', but evidently y'all're just cowards."

"I'm gonna come over there and kick your ass!" Michael snarled. His horse tossed its head and cut a sidestep. "You nasty motherfucker!"

Ryan laughed. "Naw, but ain't y'all? Coulda sworn."

"Go to hell and shut the fuck up."

"You wasn't gone say it, so I had to."

"I ain't a goddamn coward and neither's she. It's called bein' friends, I don't guess you ever heard of it."

"Oh, sure," said Ryan. "Ain't held me back much, though."

"Oh Jesus God, what the fuck's that mean?"

"You sure you wanna know?" Ryan teased. "I bet you could figure it out, you're smart."

Michael looked over at him in horror. Ryan twinkled.

"Jackie?" Michael said.

Ryan laughed so hard he nearly fell out of his saddle. Michael sat there and fumed.

"Bless your li'l heart," Ryan gasped, wiping at his eyes. "Naw, naw, I ain't gone tell you, you'd keel over dead from shock. Mon pauvre chéri, God bless your soul."

"I am gettin' goddamn tired of you not tellin' me shit," said Michael. He found an unexpected nodule of sneakiness in his head, uncovered by the alcohol. He leaned in towards Ryan and wheedled. "That ain't no way to treat a partner."

Ryan's eyebrows shot up. He looked Michael over, hat to boots and back again.

"Why, Michael," he said, delighted. "Is this an attempt at manipulation I see?"

Michael got even redder and resettled himself in his saddle.

"No," he mumbled.

"Ain't you just precious," Ryan cooed.

"Stop," said Michael.

"It's called a compliment, sugar, many folks find 'em pleasin'," said Ryan.

"First you're callin' me a liar, then you're accusin' me of—of—with Doc, and now you're just plain makin' fun of me," said Michael. "Ain't nothin' pleasin' in that."

"I called you pretty," said Ryan, pouting. "Don't that count?"

"That was the makin' fun part."

"I promise it wasn't," Ryan said. "Doc's a very lucky lady."

"Would you fuckin' lay off of Doc?" Michael snapped.

"All right," said Ryan, laughing. "Maybe I'll just try complimentin' you 'til we find one that sticks."

"You still ain't told me—whatever the fuck you was s'posed to tell me," Michael said.

"Did you forget?" said Ryan. He sounded hopeful.

Michael's brain halted completely for a second, like a train that had slammed on the brakes. When it picked back up, it was on a completely different line, headed somewhere else entirely.

"Aw, sheeit," said Michael, slapping his own thigh.

"That ain't entirely what I was expectin'," Ryan said.

"I knew I was forgettin' somethin'!" Michael went on, heedless. "I clean forgot to ask about Heyman!"

"Oh," said Ryan. "Seems mighty unlikely they would've known anythin' about him."

"No shit, but that don't mean I shouldn't've asked."

"You wanna go back?" Ryan said, reigning in his horse. "We ain't hardly an hour out."

"I'll go back," said Michael. "Catch up with you wherever you make camp at, if not before that."

"All right," said Ryan. "I'll wait up for you."

"You don't gotta," said Michael, turning his horse back towards Lovelock.

"Oh, I imagine I will anyhow," Ryan sighed. "In case I do, how long you think your askin's gone take?"

"It's one goddamn question, Ryan, how long do you think it's gonna take?"

"I s'pose that depends mainly on th' answer," Ryan said.

"Yeah yeah," said Michael, then kicked the horse. "C'mon, hup!"

As he rode back towards Lovelock, he couldn't shake the feeling that he was still missing something.


 

"Oh, hell," Etika sighed. "I thought you was gone."

"I was," said Michael. He was a little more sober now, and starting to feel incredibly silly. "Came back 'cuz I remembered somethin' needed askin'."

On the far side of the station, a young man was pleading with Deputy Eacott very earnestly. He was young enough that his voice cracked whenever he raised it too far. Eacott looked bored out of his skull.

"What's your question?" Etika said.

"Heyman," said Michael. "There's a third fella called Heyman. None of us ever seen him, but he's prob'ly involved. Sound familiar?"

"You gotta let me stay, please, you gotta lock me up," the kid begged, toppling out of his chair to kneel before Eacott.

"No," said Etika.

"You sure?" Michael pressed. "Nothin' at all?"

"Please, I'm beggin' you, I'm beggin' you, the Vagabond's gonna get me—"

"Yeah yeah, you and your ghost stories," said Eacott.

"Ignore all that," said Etika. "Anyways, Heyman, you said? Don't believe I recognize the name, but I can have somebody look into it. Along with Burns and Hullum, if it's that important to you."

"Yeah—uh, sure," said Michael, struggling to stay focused on him.

"It ain't a ghost story, he's real!" the kid whimpered on. "I'm tellin' you, if you leave me out here, I'm gonna end up like all the others, he's gonna kill me and—and afterwards he's gonna—he ain't human, he's some blue-eyed son of Satan, you cain't leave me out there—"

Michael turned, slowly. Something in his gut was tingling, the hairs on the back of his neck standing to attention.

"Lannan, get him outta here," Etika said. "Damn nuisance."

"Hey, boy!" Michael barked. The kid jumped, squeaking. "What's your name?"

"N-Nicholas, sir," he said. "But—but everybody calls me, uh, calls me Nick, sir."

"This Vagabond," said Michael. "What's he look like?"

"You seen him?" Nick cried, darting towards Michael. Eacott grabbed him by the arm before he could get far.

"I don't know, that's how come I'm askin' you what the hell he looks like," Michael snapped.

"He's a White fella," said Nick. "Long hair, wears a—wears a leather coat, but—but that's not what a person notices about him, naw, it's the eyes. Unnatural, unblinkin', they's like dead folks' eyes, like he's starin' right through to your soul, he can—he can paralyze you with a look—"

"See, he's just tellin' ghost stories," said Etika, scowling.

"He sound like he was from Dixie?" Michael pressed.

"He could be! He could well be, he sure sounded like he stepped right off a plantation. He did talk, he talked to me, while he was—while—but you seen him? He let you go, too?"

"That's enough from you, mate," said Eacott. "Come on, get out of here."

"He's real!" Nick cried, as Eacott hauled him from the station. "He's real, I'm tellin' you! I'm tellin' you!"

Eacott tossed him out the door and slammed it shut.

"He does this two or three evenings a week," Eacott said, cocking a thumb at the closed door. "Ever since we brought him in for trying to sneak on the train. Drags his sorry carcass in here begging to be arrested."

Michael said nothing. His intuition had already arrived at a conclusion, but the rest of him was fighting it hard. Dread was filling up his bones, leaving them heavy and slick. There was something else in his gut, something with locust wings and eagle claws, something that sapped the strength from his limbs and the clarity from his thoughts.

"Deputy Jones?" Etika said.

"I'll be right back," Michael said, and went off after Nick.

Chapter Text

Michael approached the fire, but stopped about fifteen paces away, outside the circle of brightest light. The dry soil crunched under his boots. The night was loud and lively, the moon hanging silver over the western horizon. His hands were sweating.

"Hey Michael," Ryan said, looking up from the fire. "You're awful late. I was about to come lookin' for you. Find somethin'?"

Moving slowly, Michael brought the Colt up and pointed it at Ryan's head. He had one finger on the trigger, and gripped his wrist with his other hand to steady his aim.

Ryan watched him placidly, unshaken, unblinking. A little smile turned up the corner of his mouth.

"Who told you?" he asked softly.

"Get up," Michael said. Ryan got to his feet, keeping his hands low, but visible. "Take your gun out and throw it away."

Ryan complied, tossing the gun aside without even looking. It landed with a soft thump in the dust.

"And the knife," Michael said.

Likewise, Ryan pulled the hunting knife out of his belt and tossed it away, in the opposite direction from the gun.

"There ain't no call for this, Michael," Ryan said. His voice was soft and soothing, like he was talking to a skittish mare.

"The hell there ain't," Michael snapped. "You killt people, Ryan? You killt folks and fucked up their damn dead bodies?"

"We really don't need to do this at gunpoint," Ryan said. He took a slow step forward, and Michael instinctively backed up.

"You stay where you are," he said.

"Why don't you put that gun down, and we'll talk about this," said Ryan. He took another step forward, then a third. Michael thumbed back the hammer on the Colt.

"I swear to God, I'll shoot you!" he cried. "You answer my goddamn questions, Ryan!"

"Easy, take it easy," said Ryan, patting the air in a pacifying gesture. "I know you got some grievances, Michael. I know this's gotta be mighty upsettin' to you."

"You're goddamn right it's fuckin' upsettin'! What the fuck did you do, Ryan?"

"Nothin' I regret," said Ryan. He inched forward, watching Michael's eyes. "And you don't wanna go doin' anythin' you're gone regret, neither. Ain't no call for all this."

"Stay back!" Michael yelled, keeping the Colt trained on Ryan's head. "You stay the fuck back!"

"Michael, put that gun down," Ryan said, still in that soothing voice. He took another careful step forward.

Michael fired. The gun roared, deafening and blinding. The kickback wrenched his whole arm. The shot went wide. He wasn't sure if he'd meant to miss or not. The horses tossed their heads and danced in place, shying from the noise.

"Don't you come any closer!" Michael ordered. His voice was muffled through the cotton in his ears. He was still blinking the muzzle flash from his eyes.

Ryan raised his hands, slowly. His mouth moved, but Michael couldn't make out the words.

"Speak the fuck up, you piece of shit!" Michael said. His voice was shaking, and so were his hands. He redoubled his grip on the gun.

"I ain't gone hurt you none," Ryan said, speaking slowly and clearly. His weight shifted, just a little, the prelude to movement. "Put that gun down, Michael. You're gone hurt somebody."

"I sure as hell will! You take one more fuckin' step, I'm gonna blow your fuckin' head off!"

"Naw, don't do that," said Ryan. "Ain't no call for that, now. Just take it easy."

"Stop fuckin' talkin' to me like I'm a horse!"

"Michael—"

He took a step forward. Michael fired.

Ryan leapt at him through the muzzle flash. His shoulder hit Michael in the gut and knocked the breath out of him. Michael drove a knee into his ribs. Ryan grabbed him by the jacket, hooked one leg around the back of Michael's and swept back.

Michael hit the ground so hard he saw stars. Ryan came down on top of him. He grabbed Michael's gun hand with both of his own and twisted. Pain shot through Michael's wrist. He clutched the gun harder, thrashing. Ryan forced the barrel to Michael's head.

Michael froze. His hand and wrist were a mass of pain. Ryan sat on his stomach, straddling him. His eyes were bright and unblinking in the firelight. Loose strands of hair clung to his face. His breath was coming short. He was smiling.

"Now Michael," he said pleasantly. "Put that gun down."

"Get the fuck offa me," Michael said. He didn't so much as twitch. He could barely feel his hand anymore, just pain, only pain. If he put a finger wrong, he'd blow his own brains out all over the desert.

"If you was any less muscular, your wrist'd be broken by now," Ryan said. "Fun thing about this grip, though, I can just keep on twistin' to my heart's content. But my heart's pretty content with things as they are. Let the gun go, Michael. I ain't gone hurt you none."

For three panting breaths, Michael didn't move. The moment he loosened his grip, Ryan snatched the gun from his hand. The cessation of the pain was so euphoric that he didn't move quick enough, and before he knew it, the barrel of his own gun was resting on the bridge of his nose. Michael froze again, his gaze locked with Ryan's.

"Great!" Ryan said. His eyes didn't blink, didn't twitch, fixed on Michael's. "Now we can have us a conversation, like civilized folks."

Michael swallowed. If he was quick, he could grab the gun before Ryan could squeeze the trigger all the way back—the Colt had a damn heavy pull, it was the farthest thing from a hair-trigger—

Ryan thumbed the hammer back.

"Ah-ah-ah," he said. "I see them fingers twitchin'. Don't do nothin' silly, now."

Michael took a deep breath, trying to calm his pounding heart. Ryan's weight on his belly made it impossible to get his lungs full. He took another.

"All right," he said. "What do you wanna talk about?"

"Aw, bless your heart," said Ryan. "I'm only recontextualizin' the conversation we was gone have anyhow! You had some questions for me, so you go on and ask 'em."

Michael clenched his jaw. The barrel of the gun was warm against his skin. If Ryan pulled the trigger, his whole head would explode like a firework. Ryan just watched him, unblinking, smiling.

"How many people you killt?" Michael asked.

"Forty-eight," said Ryan. The weight of that number pressed down hard on Michael's chest.

"All of 'em outlaws?" he said, hoarse.

"Self-proclaimed," Ryan confirmed. "I always make sure t' ask."

Michael swallowed again.

"What'd you do to the bodies?" he asked.

"Skinned 'em," said Ryan. "Made coats out of 'em. Sold most, kept th' ones I liked best. My Daddy taught me how to make leather, and Mama taught me how to make that into a coat. I told you about the pigs, didn't I? Turns out, pig skin's an awful lot like people skin."

Michael took another deep breath, trying to settle himself. His self would not settle.

"Why'd you stop?" he asked.

Ryan grinned a great big gleaming alligator grin and leaned in, his eyes narrowed to bright crescents. All Michael could see of them was the gleam, the orange firelight reflection. There shouldn't have been any reflection. His back was to the fire.

"What makes you think I did?" he whispered.

Michael's throat closed up. The gun was hot against his head. He couldn't look away from Ryan's eyes. His heart was trying to hammer out of his chest.

Ryan stuck the tip of his tongue out between his teeth and leaned back again. He pushed the sweat-slick hair off his forehead.

"You done with your questions now?" he asked.

"I got one more," Michael said, torn between fear and disgust, survival and spite.

"Shoot," said Ryan, amused. Michael swallowed again.

"You gonna kill me?" he asked.

Ryan laughed. "Naw, Michael, I told you I wasn't gone hurt you none."

"Then why in the hell you got a gun to my head?"

"So's you don't shoot me," said Ryan, as though it was perfectly obvious and sensible. "Now I got a couple questions for you, and then I'll be done."

"I don't guess I got any choice but to answer," said Michael.

"It'd be mighty discourteous, but I wouldn't hold it against you," said Ryan. "Who told you 'bout me?"

Michael ground his teeth. The gun was steady against his head. Ryan seemed totally at ease. His finger was resting on the trigger.

"James," Michael said. The word tasted like blood. "Said he'd recognized your voice. Apparently you killt three of his other pals while he hid in a cesspit."

It was a gamble, saying nothing about Nick, but Michael wasn't about to sell out two for the price of one. He would rather have died. By his best estimates, James was a dead man anyway.

"Surprised you thought t' ask," Ryan said, with a dangerous glint in his eye.

"It was that vagabond bullshit," said Michael. His voice barely shook. "I had to know."

Ryan watched him in silence for a long, long moment. Michael's heart just about beat itself to death. A smile curled out across Ryan's lips.

"I do admire your tenacity," he said. "Yeah, I let Jimmy go, on account of I didn't much feel like diggin' for him. But I did make certain he saw what happened to his partners. There's gotta be somebody to spread the rumors, elsewise it's all pointless. I was terrible disappointed to see he was back t' outlawin'. Woulda hoped he'd go straight."

"You gonna kill him?"

"Ah-ah, it's my turn askin' questions," Ryan said. "Now. If I let you up, are you gone shoot me?"

Michael thought about it. He was still finding it difficult to look away from Ryan's eyes, even now that they were moonlit, cold and pale. He could still see the orange spark glowing inside the pupils. He thought about lying again, pushing his luck, double or nothing. He thought about the great big splat his head would make on the dirt if Ryan pulled the trigger.

"Not tonight," he said.

Ryan laughed again. "I appreciate th' honesty!" he said. "All righty, last question, then I'll let you up. You plannin' on marryin' Doc?"

Michael gawped at him, caught completely off-guard. He blinked, his mouth opening and closing a couple of times as he tried to get his wits back.

"Not . . . at this time?" he said.

"You in the process of courtin' Doc with th' intention of someday marryin' her?"

"No, what the hell do you care?"

"Just wonderin'," Ryan said, smiling.

Michael's fists clenched.

"You better stay the damn hell away from that woman," he growled.

"It ain't the woman that's caught my interest," Ryan said softly.

"Get the fuck offa me," Michael snapped. His heart was trying to crawl up his throat.

Ryan raised the gun up towards the sky and uncocked it. He dismounted Michael like he would a horse, then got to his feet and brushed the dust off the knees of his trousers. Michael heaved himself up and put a good ten feet between him and Ryan.

"Where ya goin'?" Ryan asked, playful.

"I'm gettin' away from you," Michael said.

"You don't want your gun back?" Ryan said, holding it out to him by the barrel.

"You can throw it to me," said Michael. His knees were shaking.

Ryan inclined his head, then popped the barrel open and dumped all four remaining bullets onto the ground. He flicked it shut again, then tossed it onto the ground in front of Michael. Michael didn't dive for it. He wasn't about to go scrabbling in the dirt like a dog.

"Didn't want it to go off on accident," Ryan said, his eyes twinkling with amusement. "Somebody mighta got hurt."

"I'm gonna throw your ass in jail and have you hanged," Michael uttered.

Ryan raised his eyebrows, the very blue-eyed picture of innocence.

"How come?" he asked.

"How come? 'Cuz you're a goddamn killer, that's how come!"

"I never killed anybody who wasn't headed for the gallows anyhow," Ryan said. "Folks've been known to bribe their way outta hangin'. Nobody bribes their way outta the Vagabond."

"You're a goddamn lunatic," Michael said, vicious. "You're a goddamn freak."

"Oh, sure," said Ryan. "But I get the job done."

For a time, neither of them spoke. The crickets filled the silence, scraping their tiny fiddles all across the vast expanses of the Great Basin.

"We just gone stand here starin' at each other all night?" Ryan inquired at last.

"I sure as hell ain't sleepin'," said Michael.

"Whatever suits you best," said Ryan, shrugging. "I still do get the sensation that you ain't quite said everythin' on your mind."

Michael hesitated. Ryan watched him.

"You plannin' on hurtin' any of the other deputies?" Michael asked. "Or the sheriff?"

"Not unless they get around t' outlawin'," said Ryan. "And even then, only if they get unreasonable."

Michael swallowed.

"What would you do if I told 'em what you are?" he said. "What you done."

"I'm mighty intrigued by your use of the word if," Ryan said, tilting his head. "Is there a scenario wherein you don't do that?"

"I asked first," said Michael.

"That's fair," said Ryan. "Guess I might have to find me a new town and a new sheriff to hitch up with, dependin' on how they took the news."

"But you wouldn't do nothin' to us?"

"Naw, I'd prob'ly have to kill all of y'all," Ryan sighed. "I can't do my job if I got sheriffs and deputies chasin' me all over hell and gone."

"You said you wun't gonna hurt 'em!"

"I said only if they got unreasonable," said Ryan.

"Why don't you just kill me right here?" Michael demanded. "Shit, why you ain't kill me five minutes ago?"

"On account of there wasn't no call for it, Michael," Ryan said, put-upon. "And if by some miracle, Geoff and Jack and Jeremy did not decide to jail and hang me, there wouldn't be no call for me to kill them, neither. I don't mind folks knowin', honey, I mind folks gettin' in the way."

"Do not ever call me honey again," Michael growled. "And if you're gonna run around killin' and skinnin' folks, you're gonna get your ass hanged like every other murderer!"

"It ain't murder if it's in the name of the law," Ryan said. "But now you gotta answer my question: how 'bout that if?"

Michael clenched his jaw, flexed his hands. His wrist still ached from the twist Ryan had put it in, his back throbbed with bruises.

"In the event that I decide not to tell everybody else what you done," Michael said quietly. "They gonna be any safer?"

"Yessuh, they most likely will be," said Ryan.

"And are you gonna go on killin' folks?"

Ryan smiled.

"Yessuh, I most likely will do," he said.

Somewhere far, far out over the distant mountains, there was a flicker of lightning, muted and blue.

"If I ever catch you at it," Michael said, "I will shoot you dead."

"Mighty courteous of you," Ryan said. "To wait 'til you catch me at it."

"I ain't sure you actually done it," Michael said, although his gut was. "I ain't sure you ain't just fuckin' crazy."

"I don't believe I am," Ryan said fondly. "But I will not object to bein' spared the gallows on account of your misconceptions."

"Spared today," said Michael. "I'm gonna be watchin' you like a fuckin' hawk."

Ryan grinned that great big alligator grin again. The firelight danced in his eyes.

"Michael," he said, "you're gone see some wonderful things."

Chapter Text

Michael woke in the morning to find he'd fallen asleep.

He sat up with a jolt, drawing his gun. The morning was hot already, the sun beating down from a cloudless sky. The fire had burned down to embers.

Ryan's horse, and Ryan, were gone.

Michael got up slowly, attentive for any noise or movement. He searched the campsite, not even sure what he was looking for. What he found was a note, pinned to his saddlebags. After only a minute of puzzling, he managed to make it out.

Went on ahead. Sleep tight, mon chéri . —R

Michael cursed under his breath and kicked the dirt. He stomped around, fuming, pretending he was angrier than he was scared. He had half a mind to jump right on his horse and gallop all the way back to Achievement City, but he got the feeling all that would get him was a dead horse. There was no telling how much of a head start Ryan had, or what had prompted him to take off while Michael slept. He'd taken the time to collect his knife and gun, although he'd left the bullets he'd dumped out of the Colt.

It was possible he hadn't even gone back to Achievement City. It was possible he'd gone back to Lovelock to kill the railmen. It was possible he'd taken the opportunity to run for it, and Michael was never going to see him again.

That was, somehow, a less heartening thought than it might once have been.


 

Michael was about six miles out of Achievement City when Gavin came bounding up to meet him.

"Whoah, whoah!" Michael said, reigning in the horse as it danced and tossed its head. Gavin leapt around its stamping feet. Michael dismounted. He kept hold of the reigns in one hand and caught Gavin with the other.

"What the hell're you doin' out here, boy?" he asked, while Gavin wriggled and wagged and licked his face. "Somebody bring you?"

Michael looked around. There was no other horse, wagon, or anything anywhere in sight. So far as he could see, it was just him and Gavin and his horse.

His eyes turned, degree by degree, to the ravine.

"Don't tell me you found another goddamn body," he said to Gavin. Gavin just wagged and panted and then bothered the horse some more. "Cut that out, gonna get your dumb self trampled."

Michael led the horse to the nearest joshua tree and hitched it up. It was agitated, but probably not enough to bolt. Gavin was still bounding around like a wild thing. Michael drew his gun.

"All right," he said, under his breath. "Let's go see what you got."

He approached the ravine sidelong, ears and eyes pricked for danger. Nothing moved except for Gavin, who jumped up on Michael for a little while and then, when scolded, went off to snuffle around in the dirt for lizards. Michael edged up to the ravine, craning his neck. His toe sent a couple of pebbles skittering down the precipice, clattering and bouncing all the way down. He leaned forward as much as he dared, peering down towards the ledge where the first body had been.

Somebody shoved him in the back.

Time slowed to a crawl. The ravine yawned in front of him. The air was thick as water. He could see each grain of dust suspended. He could hear the roar of the river so many hundred feet below.

He thought: Oh, shit.

He overbalanced. The ground rushed up at him. He hit it once, twice, tumbling and bouncing. He tried to grab something, anything. His wrist snapped. Rocks and twigs clawed him. Dust filled his lungs and eyes.

There was a blinding flash of white light, and then darkness.


 

Slowly, Michael became aware of something licking his head.

Everything was pain, dull and red. He pried his eyes open and the inside of his head caught fire. He groaned and shut them again. The licking paused, and then something snuffled at his face. A tongue flicked over his lips. A warm, wet nose prodded his cheek.

"Gavin?" he croaked.

Gavin sneezed, then went back to licking his head. Michael could smell blood. He couldn't make himself sit up, couldn't gather the mental faculties for it. Everything was spinning, awash in blinding light. He was lying on the ground, he could tell that, and it was hot and dusty and awfully dry. His hand was up near his head. He tried moving his fingers, and that hurt like hell, but everything hurt like hell. It was all muted, all cotton-soft, like his brain wasn't quite in his head anymore.

He managed to get a handful of Gavin's fur. He didn't pull hard. He couldn't have even if he'd wanted to.

"Good boy," he mumbled. "That's my boy."

Gavin licked his face some more, then whined. Michael forced himself to let go, even though it was the last thing in the world he wanted to do.

"Gavin," he said. "Gavin. Where's the sheriff?"

He whined again, a needle-pitched noise that stuck right into Michael's ears. Michael swatted at him, weak and clumsy and slow.

"Go find the sheriff," he said. "Go . . . go get the sheriff, Gavin."

Gavin sniffed at his face, and whimpered and whined, and pushed on his head with his nose.

"Go," Michael insisted. "Gavin, where's the sheriff? Go on and—Gavin, go and get him!"

With one last lick at his face, Gavin hopped over his body and scampered off. Michael could hear his claws scrabbling on the rock, little landslides tumbling down the ravine in his wake—and then he could hear nothing at all.

He shut his eyes, and he prayed.


 

"Shit! Go tell Doc!"

Thudding hooves. Dirt raining down on him. Scuffing and skidding, cussing. Somebody touched his face, a hand on each cheek.

"Michael," Geoff said, his voice cracked in three places. "Michael, don't do this to me. Don't you dare be dead, you sonnuva bitch, don't you dare."

"Sheriff?" he whispered. His throat was bone dry. His head was all full of cotton. There were blisters on his lips, his face. He pried his eyes open, but all he could see was light and a vague silhouette.

"Jesus Christ, don't you ever scare me like that again," Geoff said. A couple drops of water fell on Michael's face. "Where're you broke at, what's busted?"

"Everythin', Sheriff," Michael mumbled. "Gavin—did Gavin—"

"He came and got me," said Geoff. "He's back at the station with Ryan now, he's all tuckered out, but he's safe. Jack's gone back to tell Doc we're on the way and Jeremy's up top, keepin' an eye out. You don't talk no more, awright? Here, I'm gonna get you some water, you think you can drink?"

"I got pushed," Michael said, despite Geoff's instructions. "Got pushed in, Sheriff. I din't. . . ."

"Hush up, Deputy, and that's an order," Geoff said. "Can you drink you some water, or not?"

Michael didn't have an answer, so he didn't volunteer one. Soon enough, Geoff was cradling the back of Michael's head in his hand anyway, lifting it for him while he touched the hot metal mouth of a canteen to his lips. Michael managed only a couple of sips before he was coughing it up again.

"That's awright, that's fine, you're gonna be fine," Geoff told him. "I'm gonna hafta pick you up and carry you outta here, now, and then we're gonna put you on Jeremy's horse with him and we're gonna head on back to see Doc. It's about six miles, so it's gonna take a couple hours, but we're gonna get there."

"All right, Sheriff," said Michael. He wished the world would stop spinning. It was upsetting his stomach something terrible. "You—you sure you can lift me?"

Geoff paused. When next he spoke, his voice was pointed away.

"Jeremy!" he yelled. "Get your ass down here!"

"Yessir!" Jeremy called back, echoing through the ravine. More rattling of pebbles on rock, more showers of dirt.

"Awright," said Geoff. "Now this's prob'ly gonna hurt like a motherfucker, so I'm sorry in advance, but we gotta get you outta here. You ready?"

"Yessir," said Michael.

Jeremy arrived and Geoff instructed him to get Michael's legs. Jeremy got down between them and gripped onto him just above the knees, like Michael was a wheelbarrow. Geoff wedged his hands under Michael's shoulders. Just that much jostling was enough to make Michael yelp in pain, enough to send a cascade of sparks swimming across the backs of his eyelids.

"I know, I know," said Geoff. "It's about to get worse, and then it's gonna get better. Li'l J, on three. Ready? One, two, three—"

There was a dynamite explosion of pain, and Michael whited out again.


 

For what seemed like days, Michael drifted in and out of consciousness. There was bright light, and heat, and sweaty hands and horse-smell and more pain than a body could bear. There were cool rags on his face, a lingering bitter taste, warm water dripped into his mouth past cracked and bleeding lips. There was Doc, looking down at him from the smeary fog, her voice indistinct and comforting. There was another voice, deeper, but just as calm, just as easy. Hands smoothed the hair back from his forehead. There was yet more pain. At some point, all his clothes had gone missing. At some point, they'd put stitches in his head. At some point, he'd well and truly fallen asleep.

At some point, he woke up.

The transition between sleep and consciousness was indistinct, blurred. Most everything was blurred. There was a sharpish smell in the air, somewhere between alcohol and wood polish. The walls around him were wood. The sheets on top of him were white. Sunlight poured through threadbare curtains. There were splints on most every part of him, and a lot of dots of pain and pinching that were probably stitches. There were some other little cots laid out in the room with him, four or five of them, none occupied. Somewhere distant, a clock tolled five. It sounded like home.

One by one, these details cohered. He was in Lindsay's clinic. That took some of the fear out of him.

He turned his head half an inch and saw the person sitting by his bedside, and it all came right back.

"The hell're you doin' here?" Michael croaked.

"Somebody made a determined attempt to kill you," Ryan said. His voice was quiet and cold, cold, cold. "I left you alone out there, and you almost didn't come back. This time, I'm stickin' by you so that, in the event that same somebody makes a secondary attempt, they don't get too far."

Michael's gaze drifted, as though on a river current, to Ryan's hands. They were turning his long hunting knife, round and round, the fingers steady and dextrous and strong. Michael looked back up to Ryan's face. It was grim, unsmiling.

"Don't believe I ever seen you angry before," Michael said.

"You haven't," Ryan confirmed.

"Why's this got you so het up, then?"

Ryan glanced at him. His eyes lingered for just a breath too long before flicking away again.

"Why's it seem so unreasonable to you that it might?" he asked.

It took him a moment to answer. The exhaustion was already catching up with him, the pain already clouding his thoughts. He wanted to be unconscious again. Maybe he could just sleep until he didn't hurt anymore.

"Figured you'da wanted me dead," he said.

Ryan blinked. He looked back to Michael with a wounded expression.

"I most surely would not," he said.

"How come?" said Michael.

Ryan turned his eyes back to the door.

"You know, Gavin saved your life twice over," he remarked. "Once, 'cause if he hadn't gone down there and licked your wounds for you, you most likely woulda bled to death, and twice 'cause if he hadn't run the six miles to get the sheriff, you woulda gone grim long 'fore anybody found you down there. I figure that does make him your dog, now. Ain't nothin' more tragic than a dog without his man. It'd just break my heart, to see the poor thing pinin' away."

"Don't you bullshit me," said Michael.

The tiniest smile curled up the corner of Ryan's mouth.

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you the whole truth," he said. "Or else you'd be twice as libel to shoot me. I do love that dog, Michael, why don't we just leave it at that."

Before Michael could say anything back, Lindsay came bustling in.

"Howdy, Ryan," she said. Michael clenched his teeth, his whole body going rigid. "Sheriff's askin' for you."

"Did he say what for?" Ryan asked mildly.

"Arrestin'," said Lindsay.

"Oh," said Ryan. He tucked the knife back into its sheath, then got to his feet. "Guess I'd best go on, then."

"Guess you had," she said.

"Much obliged, Lindsay," he said, nodding to her, and took his leave. Lindsay promptly took his chair.

"Since when're you on . . . first-name basis with him?" Michael asked, struggling to pull his head together.

"Since him spent about four hours helpin' to sew you up," said Lindsay. "It woulda got tedious, keepin' formalities all that time."

"He—you let him—he had needles in me?" Michael said, sickened, horrified.

"The man can sew a stitch," Lindsay said, shrugging. "They ain't what I'd call medical style, but they'll hold."

"Doc," Michael said, and stopped himself. She patted his shoulder, carefully avoiding the more painful areas.

"I know you don't like him, Michael," she said. "And I know he unsettles you. But he's a good man, and a good deputy, and if I can make a judgement, a good friend. He ain't hardly left your side, except to take care of your dog."

"Don't—Doc, just don't," Michael pleaded. "Don't get too close to him. Don't get close to him at all."

Lindsay fixed him with a penetrating look.

"I didn't know better, I'd think you was jealous," she said.

Michael just shook his head. There were too many places here he could put a foot wrong, and too many of them would put Lindsay in harm's way.

Gently, carefully, she took his hand. If he hadn't been so scattered, he would've known then that something was wrong.

"Michael," she said, "there's somethin' you oughtta know, and as soon as possible."

"What is it?" he said.

Lindsay took a deep breath and looked him in the eye.

"It's doubtful you're ever gonna walk again," she said.

Michael stared at her. A hole opened up in the core of him, like sand pouring into a sinkhole. He forgot how to breathe. He forgot how to think.

"Oh," he said.

"There wasn't much we could do," she went on, apologetic. "We did try, but . . . there's a li'l bone right near the bottom of your spine that's just . . . shattered. We was scared to move you, for fear of makin' it worse. But truth to tell, there ain't much worse it could get, 'specially after Geoff had you on that horse for damn near two hours."

"But I can still feel—" Michael began, and stopped. He could remember being able to feel his legs, down in the ravine, could remember the pain of shattered bones and deep gashes, Jeremy's hands gripping his knees. He'd assumed he'd been given something to keep the pain down, maybe laudanum or even morphine, but now that he was thinking about it, his arms and body and head and neck still hurt plenty.

He couldn't, in fact, feel his legs at all.

"Hey, so that's a good sign!" Lindsay said, regardless. There were tears in her eyes. "It ain't hard and fast, and I sure as hell don't know everythin', but . . . I figured somebody oughtta tell you. Just in case it was that bad. Just so any surprises you got from here on out would be . . . more pleasant ones."

Michael swallowed. He tried to wiggle his toes. Nothing happened. He tried to wiggle his feet. Nothing happened. He tried to bend his knees, twitch his thighs. Nothing happened. There was still no sensation, certainly no movement.

He swallowed again, this time pushing down a lump in his throat and a stinging in his nose.

"Well," he said, and his voice was thick. "Well, I guess somebody better get . . . get to work buildin' a ramp up into the sheriff's station. In case I—I wind up needin' it."

"Michael," Lindsay said.

"If you think I'm gonna quit doin' my damn job just 'cause my damn legs don't work, you got another think comin'," he snapped. "I still got both hands to shoot with and a head to think with, I don't even need my goddamn legs!"

"I know you don't, I know," she said, pacifying. "You just take it easy for right now, all right? You got a lot of convalescin' to do."

"Take it as hard as I damn well please," Michael muttered. He blinked and a pair of tears slipped out of the corners of his eyes. Both his arms were in splints, so he couldn't even wipe them away.

"You want any water or anythin'?" Lindsay asked. "If you're awake, you probably need another dose of the laudanum."

"I'm fine," said Michael.

"Michael."

"I'm fine! Go to hell, woman!"

Lindsay got to her feet, as grim as a thunderhead.

"I am going to get you a cup of water," she declared, "and your medicine. And you are going to take both of them, Michael Jones, or I will shove them down your ungrateful throat, so help me God."

Despite himself, despite everything, Michael cracked a smile.

"Aw hell, Doc," he said. "I was startin' to think you was goin' soft on me."

"I'll kick your ass whether you can kick back or not," Lindsay responded.

"That's 'cuz you're a mule."

"Least I'm not a jackass like you."

"'Course you ain't, I never met a jackass as dumb and stubborn as you."

"I guess y'all all flock together, don't you."

"Yeah, we laugh at all the dumb mules behind y'all's backs."

Lindsay swooped down and kissed him on the mouth. Michael froze up, more shocked than if she'd thrown a bucket of ice water on him.

"I'm glad you made it," she said, and walked out of the room.

"Bwuh?" said Michael.

It was a good thing Lindsay had left the room so fast, because as soon as Michael got done being startled, he blushed enough for two.

Chapter Text

It rained the next day.

Michael demanded that the window nearest him be opened, despite Lindsay's warnings that it would make him sick.

"Only thing I'm sick of is the goddamn sunshine," Michael told her. "It's good enough for the greenery, it's good enough for me."

"Your damn casts won't dry," Lindsay said, gesturing to the new plaster casts on every single one of Michael's limbs.

"Ain't like I'm in a hurry," he said.

"It's a good goddamn thing we ain't got that wheelchair yet," Lindsay said, opening the window and letting in the soft noise and the smell of wet dust. "Elsewise I bet you'd be out there gettin' soaked."

"Bet you I would, too," said Michael.

"Your damn wrists're both broken, you wouldn't have no use for the chair anyhow."

"I'd get you to push me."

"No the hell you wouldn't."

"Fine, I'd get somebody else to push me."

"Like who, Ryan?"

Michael clenched his jaw and looked somewhere else. Lindsay rolled her eyes and folded her arms and sighed.

"What?" she said.

"Where was he?" Michael said quietly.

"What?"

"Where was he?" he repeated. "'Cuz somebody did push me, Doc."

"Jesus Christ, Michael, give it a fuckin' rest," said Lindsay. "He helped save your life, God's sake."

"And I ain't terrible pleased about it, neither!" said Michael. "Where was he, Doc?"

"Far as I know, he was here," said Lindsay.

"How 'bout anybody else, how far do they know?"

"You'd have to ask, oh I dunno, anybody else," said Lindsay. Her eyes had gone flinty.

"Fine," Michael muttered. "Maybe I will."

"What the hell did he do that's made you so goddamn suspicious of him?" she demanded. "I'm listenin', Michael. I'm hearin' you, and I want to believe you, but goddamn, boy, you gotta give me a reason, 'cuz I know for a fact you hit your head awful hard."

Startled, Michael looked over at her. She was still sharp, still standoffish, but there was an exasperated compassion about her.

"Go and shut the door," said Michael.

With much sighing and rolling of eyes, Lindsay went and shut the door. She came back and sat down next to Michael's bed.

"Go on, then," she said.

"Back in Lovelock," Michael said. His voice shook. He didn't bother trying to stop it; he didn't have the time. "There was a young fella, name of Nick, robbed a Western Union car a couple years back. Said some . . . somebody callin' himself The Vagabond got the drop on him and his whole crew, killed everybody except Nick himself and then—and then did somethin' awful to the bodies. Couldn't bring himself to say what. Way he described him, it . . . it sounded like Ryan. Too much like Ryan."

"Michael, there's gotta be ten thousand people you could describe just like Ryan," said Lindsay.

"I know, I know," said Michael, wincing. "It was just—I had a feelin'. It was somethin' about the way he . . . I cain't explain it. I just cain't."

"Yeah, it happens like that sometimes," said Lindsay. "Don't quite know what that's got to do with you gettin' pushed down Collywobble Canyon."

"Well," said Michael. "Well, I . . . mighta confronted him about it."

"Oh God dammit," said Lindsay. "Of all the damn fool things you could possibly have done, that's gotta be the damn foolest. He denied everythin', of course? You'd have to be one helluva lunatic to 'fess up to some shit like that."

"Of course," said Michael, deeply uncomfortable. He had hit his head awfully hard. . . . "But—y'know, then when I woke up he'd gone ahead without me, and then once I got near town there was Gavin, and then somebody tried to kill me, so—"

"Yeah, so," said Lindsay. She sighed and sat back. "I hear you."

"You believe me?"

"I believe you been spooked real good, and maybe not for no reason," said Lindsay. "But I still don't think Ryan tried to kill you."

"Doc—"

"But," Lindsay said, holding up a finger, "I ain't sayin' I don't necessarily think he would. I just think if Ryan had tried to kill you, you'd be dead."

Michael opened his mouth. He closed it again. He tipped his head in concession.

"Now that, I believe," he said.

Lindsay patted his arm. "Good news is, you're gonna be laid up here for a while," she said. "Where either Gilby or me is always gonna be keepin' an eye on you. Hopefully that'll put you at least somewhat at ease."

"I dunno about ease," said Michael. "But . . . just don't—y'know, don't uh. . . ."

"Don't let onto him that you told me he might be a murderin' lunatic?" Lindsay said. "Aw, but that was the very first thing I wanted to do."

"I just don't want you to get hurt," Michael said.

"Hah!" said Lindsay. "Good goddamn luck to anybody who'd try."

"I—wouldn't go wishin' folks luck in that enterprise," said Michael.

"C'mon now, you don't think I can take care of myself?"

"Thought I could take care of my-self, look where it got me," said Michael.

Lindsay pursed her lips, then tipped her head. "But you're an idjit," she said, "and I ain't."

"Hey, uh," said Michael. "While we're talkin' about folks who might've tried to kill me."

"Thought we'd got done talkin' about that, but go on."

"Where's Mad Meg and Risinger?"

"Oh," said Lindsay. "Yeah, Meg let herself out the mornin' after you lit out for Vernon. Risinger I kicked out yesterday."

"Denecour's cowhands?"

"Day before Meg."

Michael gave Lindsay a meaningful look. Lindsay made a face.

"Huh," she said. "Hm. Now you mention it. Don't like that much."

"Plus there's Burns and Hullum," Michael said, mostly to himself. "Who- or what-ever Miss Hardy was tryin' to warn me about. Plus. . . ."

"Jesus Christ, Michael, how many folks you figure wanted to kill you?" Lindsay said, exasperated.

"Several," Michael said. He didn't mention Jeremy or Jack, although his suspicions had lighted on them. He sure as hell wasn't going to mention whatever thing might have been haunting his house. Lindsay already thought he was crazy enough for suspecting Ryan.

"You sure been busy," she said, shaking her head.

"You're tellin' me," said Michael.


 

Despite everything—or perhaps because of it—Michael insisted that Gavin be brought to see him that very same day. He made the request to Gilby, who was pottering in and out of the clinic while Lindsay tended to other business. He figured he'd made enough requests of the woman for one day.

"Mm, I dunno, Deputy," Gilby said, scratching his formidable beard. "You're busted up somethin' good, you really are. I wouldn't want him jumpin' up on you and breakin' you worse."

"He ain't that heavy," said Michael.

"He'll come in all wet, too, on account of the rain."

"Had the window open all mornin', it won't hurt me none."

"Could get your bandages all muddy."

"They're gonna get changed anyways."

"Mmmm, I dunno. . . ."

"Gilby, c'mon," said Michael. "It's my dog. I'd be dead if it wasn't for him, and the last time I saw him, I thought I was gonna be."

Gilby's eyebrows shot up.

"Oh it's . . . it's your dog," he said.

"That's what I said," said Michael.

"Well if it's your dog, then I guess I can't say no." His eyes twinkled. Somewhere behind that landslide of a beard, there was a smile.

"Shut up, Gilby," said Michael, rolling his eyes.

"Oh, hey, while I'm in here, 'fore I go," said Gilby. "Barb's gettin' you a wheely-chair made. Should be ready in a week or so. You—y'know, for while you got your casts on, and everythin'."

"'Preciate it," Michael mumbled.

"I prob'ly better go ahead and give you your medicine, too," said Gilby. "'Fore the dog comes in jumpin' all over you."

"Yeah yeah," Michael sighed.


 

Gavin tore into the clinic like a tornado, shedding mud and water everywhere. He took a flying leap up onto Michael's bed and hopped all around it like a jackrabbit, licking Michael's face with unbridled enthusiasm. Jeremy eased into the room after him, just as sopping wet and looking nearly as happy about it.

"My boy," Michael said, laughing. He was propped up on his pillows, courtesy of Gilby, but he still couldn't move much. The weight of the casts alone would have immobilized him. Right then, he couldn't have cared less.

Gavin licked his face two more times and then leapt off of him to sprint around the room. Michael did his best to wipe the dog spit off his face, hindered by the casts and bandages. Gavin jumped on all the beds, pausing only to bark at Michael and play-bow.

"Hey, yeah, come back over here, idjit," said Michael.

"He's gonna jump all over you and pull your stitches out," Jeremy said, watching Gavin with a pinched smile.

"So?" said Michael. "Gavin, c'mere, you big dumb fool."

Gavin jumped up on Jeremy, then ran over to Michael and barked, then ran back over to Jeremy.

"Yeah, I see him, buddy, I see him," said Jeremy, shaking his head. Gavin jumped back up on Michael's bed and started licking his face again.

"God dammit," Michael sputtered.

"Can't say as I blame him," said Jeremy. "He's been sick half to death, worryin' about you. Burnt the hell outta his paws runnin' all that way, too. Guess he's over it now."

"Aw," Michael said, nudging Gavin with his head. "Was you worried about me, boy?"

In answer, Gavin leaned his whole body on Michael's chest, staring at him adoringly and slapping his tail against the bed.

"We all was, truth to tell," Jeremy said.

"Yeah, well don't any of y'all start carryin' on like this," said Michael, resting his head against Gavin's. The water was already soaking through the sheets, the wet-dog smell overpowering. Jeremy snorted.

"Damn, just when I was about to start jumpin' up on you and kissin' all over your face," he said.

"Hardy-harr," said Michael.

"Naw, but . . . honestly, Michael," Jeremy mumbled. "Glad you made it. You—you really ain't look like you was gonna."

"Takes more'n a damn ditch to kill me," said Michael. He kissed Gavin's ear. "'Specially with my dog lookin' out for me. Don't it."

Boof, said Gavin.

"You're gonna spoil him rotten now, ain't you," said Jeremy.

"I always spoilt him rotten," said Michael. "How you think he got so goddamn rotten?"


 

Geoff came by later with some good news. The rain had let up, and the sun was already back out, turning the whole world into a sauna. It was so humid that Geoff's mustache was uncurling of its own accord.

"Howdy," he said, sitting down by Michael's bedside. He'd tracked a fair bit of mud in with him. "You're lookin' more lively, you feel all right?"

"Feel like I been guzzlin' laudanum for a couple days, so yeah, peachy-keen," said Michael.

"Yeah, that'd do it," said Geoff. "Came to tell you, we arrested Ashley Hullum née Burns yesterday."

"Wait, huh?" said Michael.

"Oh yeah," said Geoff, nodding earnestly. "'Parently the remarriage happened real quicklike."

"How'd you get 'em to stick around in town?"

"Now that, that's the cleverest thing I ever did do," Geoff said, twirling his mustache. "Since Hullum was so keen—Mr. Hullum, that is—since he was so keen on silver, I had Collins and his bunch take him all over hell and gone checkin' out their favorite locations. Collins stepped up real nice, too. There's an actor in that boy if only he'll quit with the silver bullshit."

"You arrest Hullum, too?" Michael asked.

"Naw, we couldn't," Geoff sighed. "That's the one bad piece of news. We got Missus, but Mister wasn't mentioned in no confessions and had no discernible connection to the victim, apart from replacin' him. He got real mad. On a train back to Washington by now, unless I'm much mistaken."

"Dammit," said Michael. "Why's he goin' there for?"

"I dunno, Michael," said Geoff. "But I had Jackie send for the Marshals, just in case. They're gonna take Mrs. Hullum off our hands and put her somewhere more secure. It's gonna be one helluva trial, I tell you what. Helluva lot of money involved already."

"Has Missus 'fessed up?"

"Nope, denies everythin'," said Geoff. "As you'd expect."

Michael chewed on it for a while.

"I wanna talk to her," he said.

"While you're all laid up in bed, after somebody tried to kill you," Geoff said, folding his arms.

"I cain't very well do it any other way, now can I?" Michael snapped. "Ryan talked to her yet?"

"Nope," said Geoff. "Seein' as it was your case, we figured you shouldn't oughtta be left out of it just 'cuz you was all laid up."

"Mighty courteous of y'all," Michael grumbled.

"Also I told him not to," said Geoff. "He fucked up bad enough with Turney, I thought you oughtta have first crack at this one."

"Oh," said Michael. A pang of fear lodged in his chest, quivering like a plucked string. "And uh . . . right. Sensible."

"Well hey, if you're feelin' up to it, we could bring her over now," said Geoff. "Sooner's better, but if you're all tuckered out—"

"Now's fine," said Michael. "But . . . don't bring Ryan."

Geoff made a face, but nodded. "Awright," he said, and heaved himself to his feet. "Gimme ten minutes."


 

Ashley Hullum (née Burns) looked just as composed, just as marble-hard as the last time Michael had seen her. Jack and Geoff came in with her and shut the door behind her. She stood for a moment, while Geoff settled into a chair next to one of the empty beds and Jack leaned up against the wall.

"Afternoon, ma'am," Michael said. He tipped his head towards the chair next to his bed. "Have a seat."

"Is this really necessary?" she asked Geoff. She had a hard voice, a midwestern accent tempered by New England overtones.

"Oh, rest you assured, Mrs. Hullum, Deputy Jones might be laid up, but he's still on the job," Geoff said. "Have a seat."

Mrs. Hullum took a slow breath, then moved to the chair and sank into it, stately.

"Deputy," she said politely to Michael. "I assume this concerns my wrongful arrest?"

"Concerns your rightful arrest," said Michael. "Hoped you might clear a couple things up for us, before it gets to a trial."

"I'll gladly tell you anything you want to know," she said. "I'm sure more information will only confirm my innocence."

"I'm sure," Michael said. "How long've you and Mr. Hullum been married?"

"Three months," said Mrs. Hullum.

"Dang, and already out in the middle of nowhere, prospectin' for silver," said Michael.

"Mattie has a business to run," she said. "I don't see that there's anything exceptional about the length of our honeymoon."

"Naw, I don't guess so," said Michael. "Mighty odd place to be lookin' for silver."

"I trust that my husband knows what he's doing," she said. "He hasn't steered himself wrong so far, and I doubt I've thrown off his aim terribly. I don't concern myself with the details of the business."

"Uh-huh," said Michael. "Said you'd been married three months. How long've you known your husband—sorry, ex-husband—was dead?"

"I still don't know that he is," she said coolly. "I divorced him six months ago. Had it not been for Mattie, I might've died destitute in a ditch."

"Like Mr. Burns?" said Michael. It was a clumsy ploy, but he figured it was worth a shot.

"As I said," Mrs. Hullum repeated, with infinite patience. "I don't know that Burnie is dead, or under what circumstances he might have met his end."

"Hm," said Michael. "Mr. Burns have a tattoo?"

The briefest flicker of expression crossed Mrs. Hullum's face, there and gone again too quick for Michael to place it.

"Not that I knew of," she said.

"Did you know the papers've been reportin' him as missin' for the last several weeks?"

"No," she said. "I stopped checking up on him some time ago. It was fruitless. I found it more rewarding to move on with my life."

"So you don't know if he mighta passed through Ogden, Utah a couple months back."

"I wouldn't have the first clue."

"Mrs. Hullum, does the town of Hot Springs mean anythin' to you?"

"Not a thing," she said.

"What about the name Heyman?"

Again, that flicker of expression, the tiniest flinch, as though from a bothersome fly.

"I can't say I recognize it," she said.

"Cain't you?" said Michael.

"No," she said, colder than a snowpack in January.

"So happens one Mr. Heyman shares a tattoo with the body we found," said Michael. "You're sure Mr. Burns didn't have no tattoos?"

"Positive," she said. "Maybe this Heyman is your dead body."

"Or maybe Mr. Burns got himself tattooed in the last six months," said Michael. "Funny, how that ain't occur to you."

"I suppose it's not impossible," she admitted, begrudging. "But Bernie wasn't the sort to go in for permanence."

Michael chewed his cheeks, trying to work out where the best place to start squeezing was.

"When'd you last come through Achievement City?" he asked.

"Never," said Mrs. Hullum.

"Huh," said Michael. "So how'd your money wind up in our bank?"

"I do believe that's how banks function, Deputy Jones," Mrs. Hullum said, patronizing. "It needn't be the same money, or even the same bank, so long as the note of promise is secure."

"Oh, sure," said Michael. "Except we got your name on a ledger."

Mrs. Hullum's jaw tightened. Something as sharp as broken glass flashed from her eyes.

"How strange," she said. "Perhaps it was someone else of the same name."

"You'd think," said Michael. "Except that note you sent off with Mad Meg Turney had your signature on it, too, and it matched the one in the ledger."

"Perhaps the other Ashley sent her, as well," said Mrs. Hullum.

"See, now, here's my issue," Michael said. "My issue is, no less'n three people have declared that you not only murdered Mr. Burns, but thereafter paid folks off to dispose of the body. Those same folks hung around in town 'til you showed up. A certain woman tried to take your money outta our bank. And then you show up, with your brand-spankin'-new husband Hullum, to a town in the middle of goddamn nowhere, talkin' crap about silver when everybody out here knows there ain't no silver within a hundred miles of here. What town just so happens to be the place where you just so happened to have at least ninety dollars in the bank, and where the aforementioned body was found scarcely two weeks ago. Even if I didn't lend no credence to the confessions we got, that's still mighty dad-gum coincidental, Mrs. Hullum. That still strikes me as mighty peculiar."

"I don't know what to tell you," she said, shrugging. "God works in mysterious ways."

"Sure," Jack said suddenly. "Like keepin' all the gossip about an oil magnate divorcin' his wife completely under the covers."

"I beg your pardon?" Mrs. Hullum said. If she'd been cold before, she was absolutely glacial now.

"Well, it's only I got somethin' of a bad habit," Jack said, rolling her eyes. "Readin' gossip columns. None of my men friends precisely agree with it, but what's a gal to do? Musta took some doin', keepin' it all totally hushed up."

"Yes," Mrs. Hullum said. "It did."

"How come?" said Jack.

"We didn't want to drag his name through the mud," said Mrs. Hullum.

"Now ain't that interestin'," said Jack. "Gen'rally I only see that when there's been some unpleasantness on one side or another. Violence, gamblin', affairs, that sort of thing. Why did y'all split up, anyhow?"

"That's none of your business."

"Mm-hm," said Jack, shameless. "Unfortunately for you, ma'am, it is my business to nose into things that ain't my business."

"If all you're going to do is pry into unrelated affairs, I believe I'm finished here," Mrs. Hullum said, getting to her feet. "I'd like to be taken back to my cell now, if you don't mind."

Jack pushed off the wall, shrugging.

"Yes ma'am," she said. "I s'pose it'll all come out at the trial, anyhow. Maybe best to save it for the bigger audience."

Mrs. Hullum said nothing. Jack escorted her out.

"Dammit," said Michael, once the door had closed. "God dammit. You saw that shit, din't you, Sheriff? You saw how—"

"Oh yes I did, Michael," said Geoff. "Don't know if it was for the money or somethin' else, but she sure as shit killed him."

"We gonna be able to convince a jury of that?" Michael asked.

"Wellp," said Geoff. "We're gonna try."

"What if we cain't?" said Michael.

Geoff pursed his lips and patted Michael's shoulder with his hat.

"Don't you worry about that right just now," he said. "I think we got enough to do. You especially."

Michael looked down at himself, casted and bandaged into almost total immobility, no sensation in his legs, his tongue tingling with the bitter taste of laudanum. He could still smell the dust and blood. He could still feel the hands on his back.

He could still see that alligator smile, gleaming in the moonlight.

"Yeah," he said. "I sure do."

 

END OF ACT 1

Chapter Text

"It's a mighty strange day when you turn up on my doorstep," Ryan remarked, leaning his shoulder against the lintel. "Where's Gavin?"

"At home," Michael said, tight-jawed with rage. "You heard?"

"I heard," said Ryan. He stood aside. "You wanna come in?"

Gritting his teeth, Michael wheeled himself inside. Ryan shut the door behind him.

The interior of Ryan's house was unexpectedly homey. There wasn't much space for personal touches, but what space there was had been almost completely filled up. There was a clumsy clay vase full of juniper shavings, pleasantly fragrant. On one corner of the kitchen counter was a collection of pretty stones, some of them almost jewel-quality. A picture from a newspaper hung on the wall, showing a large stone arch surrounded by well-dressed crowds. Some foreign flag was hoisted in the background, three vertical stripes whose colors were indistinguishable in the grainy, black-and-white photograph.

Other touches were less benign.

There was a rack of knives hanging on the wall, most of them more curved and jagged than was common for cooking. A needle and bobbin of white catgut thread sat out on the kitchen table along with two panels of leather, halfway through being stitched together. Leaned up against the wall, a well-used hunting rifle stood and shone. A coyote skin was draped over the back of a rocking chair under the picture.

"That's th' Arc de Triomphe," Ryan said, coming into the kitchen behind Michael. Michael turned around, struggling to get his wits about him. He suddenly felt very stupid and very, very vulnerable. He wished he'd brought Gavin. He was glad he hadn't.

"What?" he said.

Ryan gestured to the photograph on the wall.

"The Arc de Triomphe, in Paris," he said, putting all the R's in the back of his throat. "My Grandaddy's picture. Always wanted to go and see it in person. Paris always seemed like such a kind place." He glanced at Michael and smiled. "Maybe I'll get to go, someday."

"Huh," said Michael, who was still worrying about the leather and the coyote.

"You want anythin' to drink, or did you just come to talk?" Ryan said, moving to lean on the stove. "I'm sure either way you didn't come to hear about my Gallic aspirations."

"You got any whiskey?" Michael asked.

"Just gin, I'm afraid."

"That'll do."

"All right," said Ryan. "Set you up at the table."

Michael clenched his jaw and refocused himself around his anger. If he could hang on to that, he didn't have to worry about anything else. He moved over to the table and stuck a thick oak cudgel into the spokes of his right wheel to keep himself from rolling off. Ryan set down a wooden cup in front of him, then went back to his spot up against the stove. Michael drank the whole thing down in two swallows and slammed the cup down on the table. It was surprisingly high-quality gin.

"They set that bitch free," he said, even as his sinuses burned. "Hullum lied her an alibi, and now she's gonna walk the fuck away. She beat her goddamn husband to death and dumped him down a ravine, and she's just gonna walk away."

"That, or we arrested an innocent woman," Ryan said mildly.

"I know they done it," he said. His rage was choking him. "The two of 'em conspired to commit murder, and they're fuckin' gonna get away with it."

"So," said Ryan. "What's to be done about that?"

Michael looked up at him. He could tell by Ryan's expression that he'd already been understood. He could also tell that Ryan was going to make him say it anyway.

"Ain't much I can do," Michael said slowly, tasting every word like blood on his tongue. "Seems like the sorta thing that's . . . more in the Vagabond's wheelhouse than a deputy's."

Ryan watched him for a moment. He came over and pulled up a chair to sit next to Michael.

"Are you sure?" he asked softly. "I can forget you said that, Michael, if you decide you want me to."

"I said it and I fuckin' meant it," Michael said. He was trembling.

"If these folks done the killin' like you think, they ain't gone stop," Ryan said. "They'll slip up. Somebody'll get 'em, even if it ain't you."

"And how many more folks are gonna die in the meantime, Ryan?" Michael demanded. "How many more bodies are gonna pile up before they get stopped? It ain't right. It ain't—it ain't fair!"

"Most things ain't," Ryan confirmed. "And sure, this one can be made fair. But it will not be made right, Michael, and you'd have to live with that."

"I don't care," Michael snapped. "I don't give a fuck, somebody's gotta do justice, they cain't fuckin' get away with this—"

Ryan got up abruptly and walked away. He moved with a swift purpose, taking Michael off guard.

"Where're you goin'?" Michael demanded, turning his wheelchair to follow. He got caught on his braking stick, and before he could unwedge himself, Ryan came back and shoved his revolver into Michael's hand. He sat down again and fixed him with a hard, cold look.

"Shoot me," he said.

Michael stared at him. The gun was cool in his hand, heavy as stone.

"What—why would I—"

"Since you want justice," said Ryan. "Since you wanna stop bodies pilin' up while a killer gets away with it. Shoot me."

"Ryan, I ain't gonna—"

Ryan caught his hand and pulled it up. He set the barrel of the gun against his own forehead. He did not look away from Michael's eyes.

"Shoot me," he said. "Or admit this ain't about justice."

For a time, neither of them moved. Michael's hand shook. He was sweating, despite the autumn weather. Ryan watched his eyes, composed, grim.

Michael shot him.

There was a click that shattered his nerves. Ryan didn't even blink. The gun dropped out of Michael's numb hand and Ryan caught it before it hit the floor. He set it on the table, got to his feet, and moved away.

Michael struggled to breathe. He couldn't feel his fingers. His chair was going to overbalance, dumping him onto the floor—everything was spinning, round and round, like a carnival ride. His ears rang like he'd been hit in the head.

"Forgot to mention," Ryan said, still so calm, still so together. "Got a letter from my sister today. Seems my Mama took ill over the week-end. I'm gone hafta go on back to Georgia, help with takin' care of her and whatever else needs doin'. Might be gone for a while, might not, depends. Will need to leave straightaway, though. I'll drop in and tell the sheriff, but he'll most likely ask for some sorta corroboration."

Michael didn't say anything. Ryan walked out of the room. For several minutes, Michael just sat there, trying to get his wits back together. When Ryan came back, he had a travel pack with him. He was wearing a brown leather coat with a fur ruff. He crossed to the table to pick up his gun.

"Why'd you make me shoot you?" Michael croaked, looking up at him.

"I didn't make you do anythin', Michael," Ryan said. "I asked you to."

"Why?"

A little smile curled up the corner of Ryan's mouth.

"Inquirin' minds simply wanted to gauge the depth of your faith," he said. He sketched a half-bow. "Inquirin' minds got their answer."

"You unloaded it," said Michael.

The smile got bigger. Ryan popped open the cylinder of the gun and tipped it up. Six bullets fell out into the palm of his other hand. Michael went cold all over. Ryan flicked the cylinder closed again and holstered the gun. He put the bullets in Michael's unresisting hand and folded the fingers closed around them.

"Well now I have," Ryan said, and patted Michael's hand. He moved to the door, stopped, and turned back. "I oughtta be back in two weeks or so. That's my guess. Two weeks or so. I'll see you when I get back, chéri."

"Sure," Michael croaked. His throat was bone-dry. His hand was tingling, his skin crawling all the way up to his shoulder.

"Take care, now," Ryan said gently, and then he walked out.

Michael looked down at the six bullets in his hand. He counted them, one two three four five six. One, two, three, four, five, six. Maybe Ryan's was a custom gun, one of those seven-shot revolvers that upstart outlaws liked to brag about. That would've given him one empty chamber to work with, one safe shot.

One, two, three, four, five, six. Michael lined them up in his palm. Maybe they were all dummy rounds, or something like that. He examined them more closely.

One looked real, or at least so close to real that Michael couldn't tell the difference. Two was real, too. Three—real. Four—real. Five—

Five had a dent in the primer cap where the firing pin had hit it.

Michael slapped the bullets down on the table. The leather and needle and thread jumped. The coyote skin on the rocking chair watched him with empty, gaping eyes. The knives gleamed on the wall.

Michael yanked the braking stick out of his wheel and got out as fast as he possibly could.


 

Gavin ran out to meet Michael as he struggled up the ramp into his house. He sniffed Michael's shoes and the wheels of his chair, almost getting himself run over in the process. He also took the liberty of pushing the door open so Michael could get inside easier. When Michael stopped to hang his hat up on the new, lower peg by the door, he also took a moment to scratch Gavin behind the ears. He was sore and achy from the bumpy trip back, a twitchy sensation knotted at the base of his spine. His legs were tingling all over, a sure forewarning of pain to come.

"Next time I'm bringin' you," he said quietly.

Gavin licked his hand, then stood up and put his feet on the arm of Michael's chair so he could lick his face. Michael shoved him off.

"How many times I gotta tell you not to get on my goddamn chair?" Michael demanded. "Get off. Get—fine. Gavin! You want dinner?"

Gavin reeled back, tossing his head. He sprinted for the kitchen at top speed, claws scrabbling on the hardwood floor. Tutting to himself, Michael went after him. He was distracted enough that he hit the slight bump between hallway and kitchen just a little too fast.

Pain shot down the back of his right leg, a line of fire from his thigh to his knee. He hissed through his teeth as the leg seized up and started jigging all by itself, shuddering with pain. He clutched at his thigh, even though he couldn't feel his own grip against it, gritting his teeth and waiting for the episode to die down. Gavin came over and sniffed his feet, concerned.

"It's all right, boy," Michael said, his voice tight with pain. "Give it a minute, it's fine. My own damn fault."

Gavin licked the back of Michael's hand, just once. Michael forced a smile and played with his ear.

"Good dog," he muttered.

Within a couple minutes, the pain and shaking subsided, and Michael could move again. He went to his kitchen table and wedged himself in. Even that brief episode had left him exhausted, residual pain still throbbing in his leg and back. The tingling sensation was getting worse, as though his legs, now reminded that they could feel pain, were going all-in on it. He put both elbows on the table and rubbed his face. Not for the first time, he wished that there had been spare laudanum for him to take home from Lindsay's clinic. It was the only thing he knew of that could actually make him stop hurting, rather than just dulling the pain.

He probably ought to feed Gavin, at least, even if feeding himself was looking daunting. He'd have to put fuel in the stove, and get water from out back, and find something in his pantry he could stomach, and. . . .

There was a knock at his door. Gavin started barking and ran off to see who it was.

"It's open!" Michael called, too tired to bother with politeness. He figured anybody who bothered knocking couldn't be up to too much mischief.

The door squeaked, and Gavin stopped barking. A quiet voice spoke to him. His toenails clicked on the floorboards. There was a two-knuckle knock on the kitchen doorframe.

"Hey," said Lindsay. "Thought I'd come by to see how you was gettin' on."

"'Bout as well as usual," said Michael, rubbing the bridge of his nose. Gavin stuck his nose in Michael's lap, just in case food had appeared there since he'd been gone. He left again as soon as he discovered that it hadn't.

"That bad, huh," said Lindsay, coming into the kitchen. She popped the stove open and chucked a couple of splints into it, then grabbed a match from the counter and lit it up. "'Bout what I suspected."

"You ain't gotta do this," said Michael, while Lindsay bustled around through his pantry and cabinets and Gavin trailed after her hopefully.

"Sure I do," she said. "It's my turn, ain't it."

"None of y'all gotta do this," said Michael. He hurt too much to be subtle about it. He wanted to sleep. Preferably for a couple of days.

"If we didn't, you wouldn't eat," said Lindsay. She looked back at him and scowled. "Goddamn, your hands are fuckin' filthy."

"It's from bein' on the wheels all day," said Michael.

"I figured that," said Lindsay. "Got it all over your face now, too. Why don't you go clean up?"

"Guess I better," Michael sighed. He didn't move.

After a moment, Lindsay came over and put a hand between his shoulders. Her fingers rubbed the back of his neck. Michael let his head fall forward, his eyes drift closed.

"So maybe a li'l worse'n usual," she said.

"No, it ain't," said Michael. "I'm just goddamn tired of usual, that's all."

"You still gettin' that bad pain?"

"Only every time I hit a bump," said Michael.

"So all the goddamn time?"

"All the goddamn time." He shook his head. "It shouldn't oughtta be this hard."

"Anybody'd be exhausted, Michael," Lindsay said. "That's just the nature of the beast."

Michael clenched his jaw and rubbed the arm of his chair absently. If he asked, maybe she'd allow him a dose or two of laudanum, just a couple drops, just one time. . . .

"You heard about the Hullums?" he said.

"I did," said Lindsay. "Which is how come I figured it was worse'n usual today."

Gavin came over and rested his chin on Michael's knee, looking between him and Lindsay with piteous brown eyes. His nose twitched.

"Somebody better feed this dog before he dies of sorrow," Michael said.

Lindsay patted his back.

"You feed the dog," she said. "And I'll feed you."


 

"Mornin', folks," Geoff said, striding into the sheriff's station. On his heels, Trevor Collins slipped in, looking around like a mouse in a barn. Gavin scrambled to his feet and started jumping around like a wild thing, mostly all over Collins.

"Oh, gee," said Collins, trying (and failing) to keep Gavin off him.

"Howdy Sheriff," said Jeremy. "Howdy, Collins. What're you here for?"

Gavin sprinted around the station and jumped up on Michael, who shoved him off. He immediately went back to Collins, who flinched back as Gavin pawed at his arms and legs.

"Ow," said Collins. "Ow. Ow. Hi, could you please—hey, pal, buddy, yeah, ow—"

"Wellp, since Ryan's took off for a couple weeks, I figured we might need us a provisional deputy substitute," said Geoff. He clapped Collins on the shoulder and wiggled him. "Trevor here made himself real useful a couple months back, I thought we might give him a shot at it."

"Howdy," Collins said, waving and smiling.

Gavin grabbed his sleeve and started pulling on it, wagging his tail so hard it kicked dust up off the floor.

"Stop it," Collins whispered to him, desperately trying to get his sleeve back. "C'mon, please, honestly—"

"You ain't serious," said Michael.

"Dead serious," said Geoff.

Gavin gave a mighty thrash of his head and tore half the cuff off Collins's sleeve. Collins whimpered.

"Gavin, no!" Michael snapped, backing out from his desk. Gavin dropped Collins's sleeve on the instant, drooping and pouting and looking awfully ashamed of himself.

"Uh, thanks," Collins said, nursing his torn sleeve.

"Yeah yeah, come here, Gavin," said Michael. With his tail between his legs, Gavin slunk over to Michael. Michael grabbed his face in both hands and scratched him behind the ears. "Awful dog."

Gavin instantly overcame his attack of chagrin and wriggled out of Michael's grip. He scuttled right back to Collins, although this time he reserved himself to sniffing his shoes.

"Somebody prob'ly oughtta let him out, he's gettin' rowdy," said Geoff.

"Got it," said Jack. She went to the door and whistled. Gavin perked up, then went sprinting out with reckless abandon. She shut the door again behind him.

"Now Sheriff, what the hell were you sayin'?" said Michael. "Damn dog distracted me. Collins a deputy now?"

"Provisional," said Geoff. He patted Collins's shoulder. "I thought he could help you out, since Ryan ain't here."

"What the fuck does Ryan bein' gone have to do with me?" Michael demanded, bristling. A white-cold node of fear burned the inside of his chest, dripping ice water into his stomach.

"Huh? Nothin'! Nothin'," said Geoff. "We're just short a deputy, is all."

Michael glanced back at Ryan's empty desk and rolled his shoulders. There was a bad taste in his mouth. He turned his attention back to Geoff and vowed to keep it there, no matter how much the back of his neck prickled. He kept his hands clenched on the arms of his chair to stop them from shaking.

"Why me?" he said.

"Well, uh," said Geoff, and blew his cheeks out. He shrugged. "Don't have to be you. Figured he could uh, he could just help anybody who needed helpin'. Kinda thing."

"Then why'd you say me?" Michael said. "You think I'm in particular need of helpin'?"

"Naw, naw," said Geoff, raising his hands. "'Course not! You had you a month to recuperate—which is less'n you shoulda had—and you been back at work a whole month now, too, and you been doin' . . . just fine! Just fine, Michael. 'Specially since you got the casts off."

"Then why the hell you think I need—"

"Give it a rest, Michael," said Jack, rolling her eyes. "You been complainin' nonstop how you can't get into hardly any buildin' in town. Just take the help."

"That ain't got nothin' to do with me," Michael snapped, leveling a finger at her. "That's got to do with everybody else bein' too fuckin' lazy to build a single goddamn ramp."

"I ain't said it was your fault," said Jack. "I just said you oughtta take the help."

"Fuckin' dumbass bullshit," Michael muttered under his breath. "Stickin' me with another goddamn crazy person, fuckin' stupid. . . ."

"Well hey now, I ain't—I ain't crazy," said Collins, squaring his thin shoulders.

"Yeah? You find any fuckin' silver out there yet?" Michael said, glaring at him.

"No," said Collins, wounded. "I gave that up, y'know. 'Cuz it wasn't goin' nowhere. A-and 'cuz of that Hullum fella."

Michael cracked his neck. He rubbed the arms of his chair, wiping the sweat from his palms onto the smooth wood.

"Still don't see why I gotta be stuck with you," he muttered.

"Just take the damn help, you stubborn piece of shit," said Jeremy.

"You're a piece of shit," Michael shot back at him.

"At least I ain't too proud to move."

"I'll come over there and kick your ass," Michael threatened.

"All by yourself?" Jeremy said.

Michael threw a pencil at him. Jeremy folded, clutching the side of his head.

"Right in the ear!" he cried. "Ow, goddammit, right in my goddamn ear!"

"That's what you get," said Michael, stifling a grin. Jack was cackling, Geoff snickering into his mustache.

"Hahah," said Collins, looking around nervously. Several long, red welts were rising on his hands where Gavin had clawed at him.

"Sheriff, why don't you just tell him what to do?" Michael asked, turning back to Geoff.

"'Cuz I already gotta tell all y'all what to do," said Geoff, moving to his desk and settling in. "Somebody else trains the new folks."

"So why not Jack? She taught me pretty good," said Michael.

"Yeah, and now I'm all teached out," said Jack. "Somebody else's turn."

"Michael, you been teached most recently outta all of us, you oughtta remember best," said Jeremy.

"Like I ain't got enough shit to do already," said Michael.

"You got nothin' to do," said Geoff. "Except teach Trevor how to deputy."

"Sheriff," he whined. "I did have shit to do!"

"It's just 'til Ryan gets back, Michael," Geoff said, exasperated. "And we'll hope to God nothin' excitin' happens."

"Ooh, yeah," said Collins, flinching. "I seen excitin'. Hah. Don't want none of that."

"Jesus," said Jack, shaking her head. "And I thought Michael was wet behind the ears."

"The hell you did," said Michael, offended.

"Pretty damn moist, Michael," said Geoff. "And anyhow, Trevor's seen plenty, he's got license to be nervous."

"My brother got beat up whenever that mob tried to kill Mr. Risinger," he volunteered. "Ooh, boy, it was nasty."

"Wait, you got a brother?" said Jeremy.

"Well yeah," said Collins. "Alfredo."

"Ain't Alfredo Mexican?" said Jack, frowning.

"Half," Collins said earnestly.

"Oh," said Jeremy. "Yeah, come to think of it, y'all do look an awful lot alike."

"Awright, do the gossipin' on y'all's own time," Geoff cut in.

"Yessir, Sheriff, sorry," said Collins, snapping to attention. "Uh. What oughtta I be doin'?"

"Why don'tchu ask Michael, Trevor?" said Geoff.

"Right right," said Collins. He turned to Michael and cleared his throat. "Uh. What oughtta I be doin', sir?"

"First, don't call me sir," said Michael. "Don't like that. Second, you know how to get to Vernon from here?"

"Aw Michael, now that ain't fair," said Jeremy.

"I—I think I do?" said Trevor.

"Good, 'cuz you're goin' first thing in the mornin'," said Michael.

"Cruel," Jack tutted, shaking her head.

"Thought y'all woulda been glad to have somebody else on mail duty!" said Michael, folding his arms. "Seein' as I ain't never gonna get to go again!"

"Sure, bet you miss the hell outta chafin' your ass to pieces twice a month," Jeremy said. "That's what I call a silver linin'."

"Yeah, boy, I sure do love bein' stuck in this fuckin' shithole town for the rest of goddamn ever," Michael spat. "Sure is fuckin' great, havin' fuckin' legs that don't goddamn work."

Jeremy buttoned his lips and looked down at his desk. Jack rubbed her mouth with her thumb and Geoff leaned his head on his hand.

"Oh boy," said Collins.

"Sorry," Jeremy mumbled.

"Yeah yeah," said Michael. He came out from behind his desk and headed for the door. "C'mon, Collins."

"Yessi—uh, right!" said Collins, hurrying after him. "Where're weeeeee . . . goin'?"

"Post office," said Michael, shoving the door open with the footplate of his chair. He put his hat on with one hand while he took the sharp corner onto the ramp that led up into the station. The morning was nippy, but not cold. "Gonna make sure they'll let you even take the mail."

"Oh!" said Collins. "Sure! Sounds good . . . Deeeeeeputy?"

"It's either Jones or Michael, I don't give a shit which," said Michael. He navigated the bottom of the ramp carefully, to keep from jostling himself too much. Gavin trotted up from behind the station and Michael paused a moment to ruffle his ears.

"Sure, sure," said Collins. "And uh, I—I don't mind if you call me Trevor. Also. If you want to."

"Uh-huh," said Michael, shoving off into the packed dust. "Keep up, Collins."

Chapter Text

"All right, lemme make sure I got this," Collins said. "East by southeast, four hours unless you stop. Bring it all to their post office across from the town hall and check in with Sheriff Suptic while I'm there?"

"And pick up the mail for us," Michael said. The clock over the bank had just chimed ten, and the morning was considerably warmer already. Wispy white clouds turned the sky to lace, doing little to diminish the sun's brightness.

"Yeah yeah yeah, of course," said Collins. "No, I think I got it all. I think I can do this."

"Prob'ly oughtta get somebody to go with you the first time," Michael said. He eased himself over the bump on the Post Office's front doorway. One of his wheels got stuck and he cussed at it.

"Here, I can—" Collins began, reaching for the back of his chair.

"Do not ever touch this fuckin' chair," Michael snarled. "I got it."

"Yessir!" Collins squeaked, leaping backwards.

With much cussing and slamming of the wheel, Michael managed to get over the bump. The impact with the ground jarred his whole body, and he gritted his teeth. Sure enough, his left leg started jittering only seconds later. The pain was bearable, if distracting, so he forged ahead, doing his best not to let it show on his face. Gavin trotted up from behind the Post Office and fell in behind Michael, happy and carefree.

"Hey, oh, uh," said Collins, tagging along in a similar manner. "Your—your leg's—"

"It does likkat sometimes," said Michael, keeping his eyes forward. "I ain't doin' it."

"Oh," said Collins. He paused. "Does it . . . hurt?"

Michael glanced at him. It was hard going, pushing the chair over the packed and rutted dust of the streets, so he had to keep his hands on the wheels.

"Sometimes," he said.

"Oh," Collins said again. "I'm uh . . . I'm sorry."

He sounded so candid and genuine that Michael couldn't help but roll his eyes.

"Yeah yeah," he said.

"And I'm sorry about . . . about, y'know, just now," Collins went on, wringing his hands. "It won't happen again. I just wanted to be helpful."

"You wanna be helpful, Collins?" said Michael. "Why don't you help me figure out who pushed me in the first place."

"Well, all right," Collins said gamely.

Michael pulled up short. He looked over at Collins again. Gavin took the opportunity to lick one of Michael's hands, which Michael promptly used to bat Gavin's head. Fortunately, Gavin got the message on the first telling and scouted ahead for other things to lick. Collins smiled and shrugged.

"If you want me to, I mean," said Collins. "I ain't sure how much I can actually do, buuuuuuut I'll sure try, if you want. Just . . . tell me what to do! Hahah."

"You're serious," Michael said.

"Yeah, well, yeah," said Collins. "I am here to help, ain't I?"

"Sheriff din't tell you not to?" Michael said, narrowing an eye.

"Nnnnnno?" Collins guessed.

"Hot damn," said Michael. He started off again, a little slower. He made sure to keep one eye on Gavin, just in case he got into something (or someone) he shouldn't. "I got a list of folks need talkin' to. Figure out where they were when the pushin' happened. How good're you at figurin' when folks're lyin'?"

"I'm all right at it?" said Collins. "Wouldn't say notably so, but prob'ly about as good as anybody."

"It'll have to do," said Michael. "All right, so you talk to all these folks, try and make it subtle, so they don't get too suspicious. Just figure out where they say they were, I don't want you tryin' to get clever or nothin'."

"I understand," said Collins. "Where's the list?"

Michael tapped his head.

"Oh," said Collins. "Am I allowed to write it down, or. . . ?"

"You got pencil and paper with you?"

"I think—hang on, lemme check," said Collins, rooting through his coat pockets. "Aha! Yessir—or uh, yep, I sure do."

"Good," said Michael. "Jon Risinger, Mad Meg Turney, Frankie Scarcello, Alfredo Diaz—"

"Alfredo?" Collins squeaked.

"Don't fuckin' interrupt," said Michael. "Scarcello and Diaz, Mr. and Mrs. Hullum, but they're . . . they ain't here. Plus. . . ."

Michael's mind slipped the rails. Mister and Missus, the Hullum pair. They sure weren't here, and neither was Ryan. The whole conversation felt like a dream, and maybe he had been dreaming. Maybe he'd just fantasized about what would happen if he made that request. Even Ryan wasn't crazy enough to do something like that, and he certainly wouldn't do it just because Michael asked. . . .

"Plus?" Collins said, looking at Michael with his eyebrows raised.

Michael steeled himself. He'd deal with all that later. His list of suspects was definitive. He'd gone over it enough times.

"Deputies Pattillo, Dooley, and Haywood," he said.

"Deputies?" Collins cried.

"Keep your goddamn voice down," Michael snapped.

"But—deputies?" Collins whispered, leaning in towards him. "You honestly think some other deputy mighta tried to kill you?"

"I don't know what to think, Collins, so I'm leavin' no goddamn stone unturned," said Michael. "Now can you handle that, or do I gotta find somebody else to do it?"

"No no, no, I can handle it, I sure can," Collins said hurriedly. "I'll be real discreet, s—uh, Deputy Jones, discreet as I can be."

"Uh-huh," said Michael. "Main thing you oughtta be is careful."

"Caaaaaaareful?" said Collins. He was sweating.

"At least one of those folks is a cold-blooded killer," Michael said darkly. "Don't want you gettin' killt."

"Oh," said Collins. "Uh . . . right. I—I figured already I was gonna have to be pretty careful with Mad Meg, I seen what she did to Mr. Risinger. And prob'ly careful with Mr. Risinger, too, he ain't been right ever since . . . well, ever since."

"Good," said Michael. "Hey, Collins?"

"Yes?"

"However careful you think you gotta be with Meg, I want you to be ten times as careful with Haywood," he said. "You understand?"

"Iiiiii understand what you're sayin', Deputy Jones, but I can't say I understand why," Collins admitted. "Anyhow, ain't he outta town?"

"He is," said Michael. That was a fact; better not to mention or think about why. "Don't matter much, I wouldn't want you talkin' directly to him about it anyhow."

"Wait, hang on now, I—I don't think it's that bad, hah, I mean, is it? I known him for a couple years, even, he's never been nothin' but civil to me. C'mon, it's—it's Haywood, he's got a couple screws loose, but everybody knows he's mostly harmless. Hahah."

"Oh, sure," Michael sneered. "Even if that was true, he could still lie circles around Satan. Wouldn't be no use talkin' to him regardless."

Collins considered this for a while. Gavin found a big pile of horse manure and was just about to stick his face in it when Michael whistled at him. He came slinking back with a look of utmost disappointment.

"Deputy Jones, I get the feelin' you mighta already made up your mind on who pushed you," Collins said at last.

"Naw," said Michael, rubbing Gavin's ears. "Haywood ain't even in the top three."

Very quietly, Collins said, "Oh geez."


 

Before any of that could be acted upon, there were still plenty of ropes that Collins needed to be shown. There was when and where being a lawman gave one the right to break the law (in Michael's opinion, never and nowhere), at what point public drunkenness became a problem (when it stopped being funny), and when he was allowed to start shooting (only if somebody really needed to get dead). There were the rules about when the jailhouse ought to be manned and when it could be left alone, where the keys were kept, and whose job it was to clean out the cells (yours, now). Just to balance the scales, Michael also introduced Collins to his favorite horse at the stables, which he could no longer ride.

"Aw, she's a sweet thing," Collins said, as the horse nibbled at his hair. He'd already fed it two whole carrots.

"Gonna be a fat thing if you keep on spoilin' her," said Michael.

"Wouldn't be the first time I've ridden a fat thing," said Collins, then hurriedly added, "Horse, a fat—a fat horse, I uh—gee, wow, it's sure stuffy in here, hahah!"

Michael looked him up and down.

"Uh-huh," he said.

"I think I made pretty good friends with this here horse, why don't we head on back?" Collins said, stroking the mare's velvet muzzle with a kind of frantic affection. "Sure there's pleeeeeenty of stuff needs doin'!"

"Plenty," said Michael, still dubious.

"So let's—go do that! Then," said Collins. His smile was thin, like the heel of an old sock.

"You're actin' funny," said Michael. "How come?"

"Ac—me?" said Collins, pointing at himself. "Naw, nooooo, no sir, this's just how I ordinarily act! Ordinary. Yep. That's me. Just a . . . God-fearin' Christian, same as you."

Michael rolled his eyes and spun his chair around. There was a slow pain creeping down through his legs, a prelude to something worse. He didn't have the time or the inclination to dig any further into Collins's weirdness.

"All right," he said. "I'm gonna hand you off to Jack whenever we get back, she can explain the paycheck side of things."

"I do like paychecks," said Collins. "I uh . . . are they substantial?"

"You can ask Jack," said Michael, heading for the door. Collins trailed along behind him. "Gavin!"

There was a thrashing, scuffling noise, and Gavin scrambled out from a pile of hay. He shook himself, then trotted up to Michael's elbow, smiling and attentive.

"Good boy," said Michael; and then, as the smell reached him: "What the hell have you been rollin' in?!"


 

As promised, Michael handed off Collins to Jack as soon as they got back to the station, and not a moment too soon. Scarcely two minutes after he got back to his desk, his legs were blistering with pain, like he was sat in a cauldron of boiling oil. He took deep breaths through his nose, keeping his face carefully blank. Much as he tried to work through it, he couldn't get more than a few minutes before he was staring off into space, using up all his brain power just to cope with the sheer amount of hurt. He'd have killed for just a couple drops of laudanum.

"You doin' all right, Michael?" Geoff asked, his voice cutting through the soup of pain.

"Fine," Michael said, tight-jawed. He wasn't sure how long it had been since he'd gotten back, only that it hadn't gotten any better yet.

"Y'know, I think you already done just about a full day's worth of work, showin' Trevor around," Geoff said. "You can head on home, if you want."

"I'm fine, Sheriff," Michael snapped.

Geoff sighed. "Michael, you look like hell on wheels. Either you go home of your own accord, or I'm gonna order you to."

"Give it a second, it'll. . . ." Michael said, and lost his train of thought halfway through. His right leg was starting to twitch.

"It's been half an hour, it ain't gettin' better anytime soon," said Geoff. "Only reason I ain't said anythin' 'fore now is 'cuz there was other folks in the room and I ain't wanna injure your pride any more'n necessary. You're done for the day."

"It ain't hardly even noon!"

"And if you keep on pushin' yourself, you're gonna be laid up for days," Geoff retorted. "Last chance 'fore I start orderin'."

Michael grimaced. He punched his jittering leg as though he could beat the pain out of it. He felt the impact like a stick of dynamite had gone off against his thigh. It was all he could do to keep from shouting aloud. He folded over slowly, hunched over his desk and swallowing down nausea.

"Where's Gavin?" he managed.

"Jeremy's out washin' him, or tryin' to," said Geoff. "We'll bring him on back this evenin'."

Michael nodded. It was a long way back to his house, over bumpy terrain and with a lot of watching eyes. If the pain didn't let up before he went, it would be excruciating. . . .

"Unless you don't think you can make it home?" Geoff said, concerned.

"All due respect, Sheriff, but fuck you," Michael spat. With that, he gritted his teeth and headed out.


 

Michael spent most of the rest of the afternoon wallowing in pain. There wasn't much else he could do. The journey back to his house had been the last straw, and the blistering, boiling sensation was relentless afterwards. His shoulders and arms and hands were all aching, too, the cost of pushing himself all over town with Collins.

The only small blessing was that he hurt too much to think.

He could faintly hear the sound of the clock tower chiming every hour, but he was too out of sorts to really keep track of the time. By sunset, he was in such a haze of unpleasantness that he didn't hear the person knocking on his door until they were pounding on it.

"Yeah, come—come in!" he called, struggling to pull his head together. The door squeaked open, and there was a clattering of claws on wood. Gavin charged through the house until he found Michael, at which point he took a flying leap up into his lap. Michael yelped as pain shot through him, and Gavin scrambled right back down again. He huddled on the floor, gazing up at Michael with the sorriest look any living creature could possibly muster.

"Gavin," Michael sighed. Although he was still reeling from the explosion of pain, he stretched out a hand to Gavin. "C'mere. Ain't your fault."

Gavin slunk over and sniffed Michael's hand, then licked it a couple of times. Michael scratched one of his ears.

"He jump on you?" Geoff said, coming into the kitchen.

"When's he ever done anythin' else?" Michael said.

"Guess I shoulda figured he would," said Geoff. "Sorry 'bout that."

"Yeah yeah," said Michael, shrugging it off. "Least he's always happy to see me."

"You had dinner yet?" Geoff asked. "Only I figured if I was already gonna be here, I might as well stick around for a li'l while. I wouldn't mind helpin' out, of course."

"No, I ain't," said Michael. Gavin sidled up closer to his wheelchair and sat down, the better to be petted.

"You eaten at all since I last seen you?" Geoff said, narrowing his eyes.

"I ain't a kid, Sheriff, you don't gotta mother me," said Michael.

"I know, I'm aware," said Geoff, pacifying. "I ain't motherin', or at least I ain't tryin' to."

"The hell you ain't," Michael muttered.

"Well anyhow, you mind if I stay over for dinner?" Geoff said.

"Don't see why you'd want to," said Michael.

Geoff pursed his lips and sighed through his nose.

"All honesty, Michael? 'Cuz I'm lonesome and tired and achy," he said. "And I'm lookin' for somethin' to ameliorate all that which don't come in a bottle."

"Oh," said Michael, blinking out of his ennui. "Well then sure, Sheriff. If you figure it'll help."

"Much obliged," said Geoff. "Be even more obliged if you'd let me cook. Devil makes work for idle hands and all that."

But the Devil's real.

Michael shut his eyes as a shiver ran through him. He shook his head, as though the thought was nothing more than a bothersome fly. Gavin poked his hand with his nose and Michael took up petting him again.

"If you insist," said Michael.

"I insist," said Geoff.

"Go on, then," said Michael. "Not sure what all I got that's worth eatin'."

"I'm sure I can dredge somethin' up!" Geoff said, rubbing his hands together. He stepped to the pantry and started rooting through it, remarking on the contents and prattling about what he could throw together from them. Michael let the noise wash over him, paying more attention to Gavin than anything.

"So which one of y'all brought the other?" Michael asked him quietly.

Fwuff, said Gavin.

"That's what I thought," said Michael. "So did you drag him, or did he come quiet-like?"

Gavin's mouth lolled open in a smile, his eyes squinting shut.

"Oh, the whole way, huh?" said Michael. "And you ain't even tired. Big ole strong dog, that's you."

"You havin' a conversation with that dog?" Geoff asked, while he struggled to light the stove.

"Don't act like you don't," said Michael.

"I talk to him, I don't know that I talk with him."

"He's a real good listener."

Geoff looked over his shoulder at Michael, shaking his head.

"I can't believe you ever expected anybody to believe that wasn't your dog," he said.

"He was your dog before he was my dog," said Michael. "I ain't wanna steal him."

"Naw, Michael, he was always your dog," said Geoff. "I just took care of him while y'all waited for each other."

"You're so full of shit," said Michael.

"Why don't you ask him?"

Michael turned to Gavin.

"Gavin, was you ever the Sheriff's dog?"

Gavin's only response was to lean up against Michael's wheel and tip his head way back, blissful, as Michael scratched his chin. Michael leaned down and kissed him on the nose.

"That's what I thought," he whispered.

Chapter Text

The following days passed without much event. Collins settled in, although he never got much less awkward. Michael settled in, too, looking over his shoulder less frequently and sleeping more. There was no change in his pain, but there hadn't been for weeks and at this point he'd given up on there ever being any. He thought, often and fondly, of the time he'd spent in Lindsay's clinic, benumbed and immobile. Although those days had been much better, the days he was having now were at least bearable.

Most of his nights were still bad, though. He would lie awake shivering until dawn, sick to his stomach and hearing phantoms in every creak of the house. Thoughts filled his head until it seemed it would burst, swarming around each other like insects, ugly and unbearable. Even the weight and warmth of Gavin on his bed couldn't quiet them. It was only when he started talking himself down from these episodes that he found a measure of peace.

The spiral always started in the same place, with Ryan being away. It would slide into their last conversation and then tumble down to all the associated miseries. The request Michael had made. The horrors of what Ryan had done. Gunshots and alligator smiles and fire-lit eyes, brilliant and terrible under the pale moon. Ashley Hullum's marble-cold face, her new husband's energetic prattling. Ryan sewing stitches into his skin.

Call off your dog, Jones.

Michael picked these things apart, one by one, the same way he would a nightmare. Ryan had helped to save his life by stitching up some of his wounds. Ashley and Matthew Hullum were long gone, out living their lives, innocent or guilty but either way not his problem. Ryan had gone to help take care of his sick mother at his sister's behest. And when Michael had confronted him about the mythical Vagabond, Ryan had. . . .

Had denied everything, of course, because you'd have to be one hell of a lunatic to confess to something like that. The confrontation had gone down peaceably. It must have. Everybody knew Ryan was mostly harmless.

And Michael had hit his head awfully hard. If there was a version of events that differed from the most sensible one, surely that was just an invention of his addled brains. It was no more real than the phantom he'd imagined in his house. There had been no evidence of either—the ghost or the Vagabond—over the past two months. They weren't real. There was no such thing as monsters.

The creaks and groans were just the house shifting in the wind and the cooling night. Gavin was peacefully asleep at his back. The house was empty, and he was safe, and he'd wake up in the morning with both those things unchanged.

It took a week and a half, but eventually he believed himself.


 

The others were not exactly subtle about their efforts to take care of him. Almost every evening, somebody would come by with some excuse or other, offering to make dinner in exchange for the pleasure of his company. It had been like this for several weeks already, but up until now it had been much more intermittent. Michael couldn't figure out what had prompted the change, so he had resolved to let them keep doing it until he could squeeze a reason out of one of them. When it was just Doc, that was fine and normal, and Jack had been teaching him to play guitar ever since his fingers were healed enough, so he'd have something to do other than mope. Even Geoff had plausible excuses, generally to do with the avoidance of strong drink.

Michael became certain there was some ulterior motive when Jeremy joined the rotation.

"So then Jackie," Jeremy said, his mouth stuffed full of bread, "she picks up the big ole sack of gold bars and just—whack! Fuckin' clobbers the damn fool with it."

"No the hell she din't," said Michael, scowling at him across the kitchen table. "I cain't hardly pick up a sack of gold bars, she sure as hell couldn't. Hell, the fuckin' sack would tear first."

"Naw naw, keep listenin'," said Jeremy. "So this Bolen dumbass, he goes down like a sack of bricks, and we're all, holy hell, Jackie! And she's all, what the fuck? So we open up the bag and yep, it's fulla gold bars, all right. So but then Ryan pops out that knife of his and carves off a chunk, and whadda you think he found?"

"Uh," said Michael.

"A damn toenail sliver of gold, and steel the rest of the way through!" said Jeremy. "The gold'd been stole already, and our robber-baron dumbass was too fuckin' stupid to know the difference!"

"So the real thief got away with it," said Michael.

Jeremy shook his head. "Naw, see, that's where it gets good," he said. He stuffed a bunch of jerky in his mouth and washed it halfway down with beer. "After that, we all of us looked all over the damn bank, 'cuz hell, that much gold? Couldn'ta gone far. Guess where we found it."

Michael drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. Gavin poked his nose up over the other side of the table and stole a piece of jerky off Jeremy's plate.

"Still in the vault," Michael said.

Jeremy looked impressed. "Hot damn, you are good," he said. "Took us half an hour to think of that. Yep, somebody'd made them a li'l hidin' place way back in the back, stowed four or five of the things in it. We never did figure out who."

"What'd y'all do, then?"

"Mm," said Jeremy, waving a hand while he swallowed. "We each of us took one. Ray's idea. Replaced the hid ones with the fake ones and each took one of the real ones. I still got mine, safe and sound."

Michael scowled. "That don't seem right," he said. "No way in hell Risinger ever woulda let y'all get away with that."

"What's Risinger got to do with it?" said Jeremy.

"Well, Jeremy, since it was his bank at the time, I thought he mighta been slightly involved," Michael said flatly.

"Oh," said Jeremy. "Uh, naw, that was—he wasn't managin' it, back then."

"Bullshit, he's been here longer'n all y'all." Michael narrowed his eyes, gears turning, pieces fitting together. "Unless he was here, and he just don't know."

"Yep, yeah, you got it, he sure don't," Jeremy said, shaking his head. "And I'd really like it if he never did. Or whoever's managin' the bank now, ole Whats-his-face."

"Then you better put them gold bars back," said Michael.

"Naw, but they're safe," said Jeremy.

"They ain't yours," said Michael.

"So? They ain't the bank's, neither. We're just hangin' onto 'em, keepin' 'em safe. Nobody's complained yet, it's fine."

"Uh-huh," said Michael. "And Sheriff was on board with all this?"

"Oh yeah," said Jeremy, nodding enthusiastically. "Hell, he just about talked us around to decidin' it was our bonuses for the year. Ryan ain't let him get all the way there, though."

"Ryan?" said Michael.

"Mmhm, yeah, I was surprised too," said Jeremy. "What with him bein' a—well, knowin' him. But anyhow, he figured it was all right if we kept 'em, either for safekeepin' or as souvenirs, so long as we didn't get around to usin' 'em, 'cuz that woulda made us just as bad as Dumbass Bolen."

"What'd y'all do with him?"

"Oh shit, we arrested the hell outta him," said Jeremy. "I dunno if he's still in prison or not, don't much care, neither."

Michael hesitated.

"So where's Narvaez's gold bar?" he asked.

Jeremy's face went stony. He had a long drink of beer.

"Don't know," he said. "Still hid somewhere, prob'ly."

There was a brief lull while Jeremy finished his dinner. Michael had gotten done a while ago, mostly because Jeremy had been doing all the talking. The sun had set, and Michael's house was growing dark around them.

"Hey uh, Jeremy," Michael said.

"Uh-huh?"

"You spent some time in Louisiana, din't you?" he asked. "You speak some of that French shit."

"Yeah, some," Jeremy said, eyeing him. "How come?"

"Well," said Michael. "There's somethin' I been wonderin' about."

"Somethin' French?"

"Yeah, prob'ly." His face was hot. He fidgeted. "Uh. What's monn sherry mean?"

Jeremy's eyes widened. "Where'd you hear that from?" he asked.

"Is it bad? It's bad, ain't it. I fuckin' knew it, that sonnuva bitch's been laughin' at me."

"What sonnuva bitch?"

"Ryan," said Michael. "Been callin' me that for months. What's it mean?"

"Oh," said Jeremy. He licked his lips and waggled his head. "It uh . . . it means like, uh, friend. Like how they do in the big cities, y'know, like a my good sir sorta thing. You know."

Michael narrowed an eye at him. "Does it?" he said.

"Sure thing," said Jeremy. "Ryan's prob'ly just been usin' it 'cuz he likes to sound fancy. And prob'ly also 'cuz it pisses you off."

"Uh-huh," said Michael, unconvinced. "You know anybody else around here who might know?"

"Michael, c'mon now, why would I lie to you?" Jeremy said.

"'Cuz you think it's funny," said Michael.

Jeremy opened his mouth. He closed it again.

"Well yeah, prob'ly," he admitted. "But in this case, I ain't lyin'! Folks call each other mon cher all the time. It's uh, it's like a respectful sorta thing."

"You just said it different," Michael said

"Wh—uhh, yeah," said Jeremy. "Yeah yeah. You can say it all kinds of different ways, means about the same."

Michael studied his face, trying to pick out any sign of deception. Jeremy certainly seemed excited, but Michael couldn't tell if it was because he was lying or just because he was enjoying Michael's interest.

"Sure," Michael said slowly. "Guess I believe that."

"It's just the same kinda thing as him callin' you sir," Jeremy expounded, twirling his hands. "He's prob'ly just doin' it in French so you won't tell him to quit."

"So he is makin' fun of me," said Michael.

"Prob'ly," Jeremy said. "That's all right, he does it to everybody. He likes foolin' with the clockwork, so to speak." He knocked on his own head. "Just means he likes you."

"Oh boy," Michael said flatly. "I'm so damn flattered."

"Well, you maybe oughtta be," said Jeremy. "He don't often take a genuine shine to folks. I bet you'll be gettin' a coat this year, even."

Michael's heart skipped a beat. The air turned to water. For a moment he couldn't move.

"What?" he said.

"Yeah, apparently his folks're leatherworkers and he picked it up before he took off," said Jeremy. "He made all ours—you've seen 'em, last winter? I can't wear mine 'til it gets colder, but they're damn good coats. He puts an awful lotta pride in 'em, sort of a labor-of-love sorta thing. He likes you enough, he's prob'ly already workin' on one for you."

"Oh," Michael said thinly. He shut his eyes and shook his head. There was nothing menacing about that, nothing unnatural or unclean. It was sensible, that Ryan should have some sort of trade other than deputying. Everybody knew he was mostly harmless.

"Hey, you feelin' all right?" Jeremy asked.

"Fine," Michael croaked.

"You don't look so good. You sure you ain't hurtin'?"

"I'm fine," said Michael, glaring at him.

"All right," said Jeremy. "If you say so."


 

On the eleventh day, the nightmares started.

Michael thrashed out of his blankets, drenched in a cold sweat. Gavin leapt down off the bed. Michael's heart pounded in his ears. His hands shook, his legs jittered, his chest ached and his head spun. There was a crawling under his skin, like someone had sewn up his flesh with a nest of ants inside.

Gavin tip-toed back over to the bed, sniffing solicitously. Michael propped himself up and reached down to him. Gavin smelled his hand, then climbed back up onto the bed. Michael scratched his ears, waiting to catch his breath, waiting for his heartbeat to slow. The dream was already fading. Only a few snatches remained, grainy photographs pasted onto the backs of his eyes.

A face drenched in blood. A gleam of firelight. A needle pinched between three fingers, sliding deep into his skin.

Wind hissed through the cracks in the walls and rustled the thatch. Bright silver light spilled onto the floor from a moon just past full. It was cold. The way the house creaked all around him, he could almost, almost hear what sounded like footsteps. . . .

Shaking himself, Michael kissed Gavin between the ears. Gavin tipped his head way back, licked Michael's nose, then settled down again. He rested his chin on his folded paws and sighed.

"You goin' back to sleep?" Michael asked softly.

Gavin looked up at him, expectant. One of his ears twitched, and so did the very tip of his tail. A particularly strong gust of wind rattled the house, and Michael's hand clenched on the sheets. Gavin licked his chops and wiggled into a more comfortable position. He shut his eyes and sighed again.

"Good idea," said Michael.

Carefully, he lay back down. He closed his eyes and breathed deep. His heart was still thudding in his chest, his pulse twitching in his neck and wrists. Every rattling, creaking, rustling gust of wind through the house made him tense and clench his jaw. His eyes drifted back open, staring at the ceiling unseeing. The crawling sensation had mostly relocated to his legs, but it wasn't abating.

"Hell with it," he said eventually.

Gavin watched him while he got out of bed and into his chair, while he struggled into a coat, woolen socks, and boots. When Michael headed for the door, he started to get up.

"No, you stay," Michael said to him.

Tilting his head to one side, Gavin thumped his tail a couple of times. He got down off the bed creakily and stretched.

"Gavin, stay," Michael insisted.

Gavin made a worried face and wagged his tail uncertainly. Michael sighed and rolled his eyes. He set out for the front door. After a moment, the clicking of Gavin's toenails on the floor followed after him. Michael paused only to snag his hat. When he got out the front door, he turned quickly and leveled a finger at Gavin, who stopped in the middle of the hallway.

"Stay," said Michael.

Gavin took an uncertain step forward. Michael shut the door.

The wind was stiff, sweeping down from the mountains and barreling across the plains until it was fierce and toothy. It bit right through Michael's night clothes, numbed his fingers and raised gooseflesh on his arms. Thin clouds scudded over the moon above.

Town was nearly deserted this time of night. Even Bragg's saloon was closed down, although a few drunken ne'er-do-wells still hung about outside it. Michael avoided the place by several streets, not wanting to be seen out in his shirtsleeves. The shouting and singing reached him distantly, like a phonograph recording. Dust swept through the empty streets, fleeing before the swift wind. The windows were all dark and shuttered.

He wasn't sure where he was going. He had a faint inclination that he was looking for something, or expecting something. His wandering path led him past the bank. The clock tower sat atop it, looming and dark, scraping the clouds with its spire. The moon shone onto the clock's white face and painted it corpse-blue. The angle of the light rendered the thing almost transparent, showing shadows of the rooms inside.

He did not look too long.

Maybe he'd head to the sheriff's station and spend a few hours there, dozing in his chair. That was a safe enough place, cozy and familiar. It would be better, at least, than staying out here getting sand-blasted. After that, maybe he could drop by Lindsay's, beggar some laudanum off her, just to get to sleep. . . .

Somebody grabbed the back of his chair and yanked.

He hit the ground so hard he saw stars. Pain shot through his legs. Something grabbed his ankles, red-hot. He struggled. He was dragged into an alley. He lashed out. There was another blinding blow to his head. One of his fists connected and there was a grunt of pain. He scrambled back, dragging his legs behind him. A shadow fell across the moon. He looked up, blinking dust from his eyes.

Risinger loomed over him, his silver eyes gleaming like knives in the darkness.

"Not so fucking tough without your little guard dog, are you?" he hissed.

"Sonnuva—" Michael choked, before Risinger kicked him in the throat, and then again in the stomach. All Michael's breath rushed out of him and he couldn't get it back.

"Apparently you think I tried to kill you," Risinger said through his teeth. Michael struggled to pull himself up out of the dirt. Risinger kicked him in the head and laid him out flat again. "Apparently! Now why the hell would I do that, Jones? Why the fuck would I want you dead?"

Risinger kept kicking him, for emphasis. Michael swung at him and his fist hit hard bone. Risinger yelped and leapt back.

"'Cuz beatin' up a cripple's still too hard?" Michael guessed, hoarse and breathless.

"You little prick," Risinger sneered. "You filthy fucking shitstain, I'll cut out your goddamn tongue."

There was dust caked in Michael's eyes, but he still saw the gleam off the real knife in Risinger's hand. His legs were aflame with pain, so hot and bright it was a wonder they weren't glowing. He braced himself.

"That the same one they cut off your cock with?" he said.

Risinger leapt on him. Michael caught him by the wrists. His head and shoulders slammed into the ground again. Risinger snarled. The knife jabbed towards his face. He shoved Risinger off. Risinger slammed into the wall and then launched off it. He landed heavy on Michael's chest. The knife struck into the dirt next to Michael's head. A line of pain flicked across his ear. He grabbed Risinger's wrists again. The empty hand clawed for his eyes. He twisted as hard as he could and Risinger yelped. The knife tumbled away.

Risinger's knee slammed into his hip and Michael whited out for a second. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't see. The pain was overwhelming.

Risinger's hands closed around his throat, thumbs crushing his windpipe. Michael shoved at him, but all the strength had gone from his arms.

"First you," Risinger hissed, "then your dog. First you, then that fucking dog!"

Michael punched him in the head. Risinger went sprawling in the dust. Wheezing and coughing, Michael hauled himself back until he hit something solid. He couldn't see straight. Risinger staggered upright, seething. Blood dribbled from his mouth. There was murder in his eyes.

"Hey!"

Risinger's head snapped up. His face twisted. He glared down at Michael.

"We're not done," he said, then turned tail and hobbled off, crablike.

Michael leaned back against the wall, trembling. He couldn't catch his breath. His neck and shoulders were aching, strained and bruised. Footsteps hurried towards him, and then the blurry figure of Mad Meg crouched down in front of him. Her hands were empty, and she kept a respectful distance.

"Hey," she said. "You all right?"

"The hell do you want?" Michael asked, trying to wipe the dust out of his eyes. He could taste blood in the back of his throat.

"Well, from the look of the thing, I may have just saved your life," said Mad Meg. She smiled. "So I might like a thank you."

"What're you even still doin' here?" he said. His head was still spinning like crazy, and he was ringing like a church bell with all the pain, so the most he could do was prop himself up on an elbow. Even that was arduous.

"I said I wasn't leavin' 'til I got my money, and I ain't got my money yet," Meg said. "Meantime, Badger was hurtin' for proper security, so I stepped in. She's a sweetheart and she pays well, so I ain't mind too much. Plus, somebody's gotta keep an eye on that crazy banker."

"He ain't a banker no more," said Michael, and coughed.

"I know," Meg said happily. "May I help you back into your chair, Deputy Jones?"

"No," Michael snapped.

"There's no call to be rude about it," said Meg, pouting.

"I don't need your goddamn help," said Michael.

"Seems like you might, seein' as Risinger just about killed you."

"Couple lucky hits," said Michael, and spat into the dirt. "The hell're you doin' out this late anyhow?"

"Might ask the same of you," said Meg. "It ain't illegal to be out after dark, now, is it?"

"No, but it's damn suspicious."

"As always, Deputy, my business is my own," Meg sighed. "And as always, I'm sure you won't be satisfied with that."

"What the fuck do you want, Turney?" Michael insisted.

Meg watched him for a moment. She reached out and plucked Risinger's knife up out of the dirt. She turned it in her hands, pensive.

"Where is Deputy Haywood?" she asked slowly, keeping her eyes on the blade.

"What?" said Michael, going cold.

"Where's Deputy Haywood?" Meg repeated. "Only I ain't seen him in a couple weeks."

"What the hell do you care?"

"You know how Risinger was talkin' about your dog?" said Meg.

"How the hell'd you hear that?" Michael snapped, his fists clenching.

"I was enjoyin' the show, Deputy," she said. "But you know he wasn't talkin' about Gavin. You know that, don'tcha?"

Call off your dog, Jones.

"I only got the one," Michael said. His voice shook.

Meg placed the tip of the knife against Michael's shin. He felt it like a lit match pressed to his skin. He gritted his teeth and kept quiet.

"If you think that," she said, "you ain't been payin' attention. Say, I wonder what Haywood'd do, if he found out how bad Risinger fucked you up."

"He din't, I'm fuckin' fine," said Michael.

"Mmm, well now, I dunno if that's quite true," said Meg. "You could be just about as fine as you are now, or you could keep on refusin' to tell me where Haywood's at. Hm?"

"Fuckin' bitch, I goddamn knew it," Michael spat.

Meg poked his shin with the knife. Michael flinched. It was just drop to the buckets of pain drenching him, but that amount was nearing unbearable.

"What was that?" Meg said, cupping a hand to her ear. "Didn't quite hear you there."

Michael ground his teeth.

"Visitin' family," he said.

"And when's he gettin' back?"

"Whenever the fuck he gets back, how the fuck am I s'posed to know?"

"Just thought he mighta told y'all. You, at least."

Michael just glared at her. She smiled and winked. The knife disappeared into her skirts.

"You sure you don't want a li'l help gettin' back in that chair?" she asked. "Seems like a mighty difficult thing to undertake alone."

"I'd rather crawl through a mile of red-hot shit than have your goddamn hands on me," Michael said.

Meg made a face and got to her feet.

"Well damn, fine," she said. "Good luck, Michael! And by the by: you're welcome!"

She strode off. Michael watched her go, held still until the night went silent around him.

Leaning his head back against the wall, he finally let the grimace twist up his face, the pain hiss like steam through his teeth. His eyes were stinging and damp. Whether or not it was from the dust, he couldn't tell. He sniffled and panted and shivered, languishing in agony. He would have sold his soul for some laudanum.

Dolorous and sonorous and very near, the clock tower tolled two.

Not his actual soul, of course. That was just a turn of phrase.

Shortly thereafter, his paranoia got the better of him. He shouldn't be alone out here. He had to get home. There, at least, he had some tools at his disposal.

As he dragged himself along the ground towards his upturned chair, he vowed to never leave home without the Colt again.

Chapter Text

"Whoah, holy cow, what happened to you?" Trevor exclaimed.

"Get inside, you fuckin' moron," Michael snapped. He moved aside, and Trevor scuttled in. Michael slammed the door behind him. Gavin poked his head in from the kitchen, read the room, and left again.

"What—what'd I do?" Trevor said.

"When I told you to look into shit," Michael said, fire on his breath, "when I told you to be fuckin' careful, fuckin' were you?"

"I—yeah, I mean, of course," said Trevor, fidgeting.

"Oh, really? 'Cuz Jon goddamn Risinger tried to kill me last night, 'cuz somehow he got the idea that I had the idea he'd already tried once!"

Trevor went pale. He gulped.

"Oh," he said. "Oh no, oh geez. I'm—I am so sorry, Michael, I'm so sorry. That's—are you all right? You ain't hurt too bad or nothin', or—"

"Trevor."

"But—but it's good though, right? If he did it this time, that meeeeeeeeeans he prob'ly tried to do it last time, too! We just gotta arrest him, and—"

"Who else," Michael said, "have you talked to about this? Who else on the list?"

"Uh," said Trevor, eyes darting. He flashed a hopeful, insincere smile."What—what list?"

"You fuckin' lost the goddamn list?" Michael cried. If Trevor had been standing any closer, Michael might've slapped him.

"Not—not lost, exactly, I—I just don't quite know where I put it down and—"

"God dammit!" Michael spat, slamming his fist on the arm of his chair. "God dammit, you fuckin' idjit! You goddamn numbskull!"

"But—but it must've been Risinger!" Trevor simpered. "Right? Must've been! Look, anyways, we gotta tell the sheriff so y'all can go arrest him."

"No," said Michael.

Trevor did a double-take. "N—what?"

"I said no," said Michael. He rubbed the arms of his chair. "Openin' our goddamn mouths got me into this mess, so from here on we're gonna keep 'em shut."

"But Michael, we can't just do nothin'! Not when somebody busted you up real bad tryin' to kill you!"

"Oh, sure," Michael sneered. "'Cuz that's never fuckin' happened before."

Trevor made a face of almost Gavin-ish piteousness.

"But look," he said, wringing his hands. "They're gonna ask what happened to you anyhow. Sheriff Ramsey and Jack and Jeremy. We're gonna have to tell 'em somethin'."

Michael gritted his teeth and sighed through his nose. He rubbed the back of his neck. There was a persistent crick in it, but all the muscles were so strained from the fight that he couldn't make it crack properly.

"Whyyyyyy don't we just tell 'em Risinger did it—'cuz he did—but then just . . . not say why?" Trevor went on. "He's got plenty reason to be holdin' a grudge, wouldn't seem unreasonable for him to just up and snap like this. Everybody knows he's been a few cards short of a deck ever since—well, ever since."

"And then when they go arrest him, he'll tell 'em why, and then you and me are gonna have to answer some mighty goddamn uncomfortable questions," said Michael, his lip curling.

"Naw, I don't think so," said Trevor."I think he'd just . . . deny he did any of it. 'Cuz that's what folks do, when you accuse 'em stuff like this. Don't they?"

Michael chewed it over.

"Mad Meg knows, too," he said. "She was there. Mostly just enjoyin' the show."

"Oh, no," said Trevor, putting his face in his hands.

"But I don't know that anybody'd think to ask her," Michael said, ignoring him. "She sure as hell ain't the type to volunteer information."

"Well . . . so what's the issue then?" said Trevor.

"It's still awful risky," said Michael."Risinger might 'fess up just to fuck me over. Ain't no guarantee he was the one to make the first attempt, neither, that still coulda been anybody."

"Sure," said Trevor. "But he tried to do it this time."

"I guess," Michael allowed. "I guess that's halfway sensible."

"I really am sorry, Michael," said Trevor, oozing sincerity from every wrinkle in his brow."I honestly am. I was just tryin' to do right by you."

"You ain't gotta apologize," Michael sighed. He rubbed his eyebrow, trying to push the blossoming headache back into his skull before it got worse."I shouldn't've asked you to do it. I shoulda known better."

"Well that—that's kind of insultin', Michael, if I'm honest."

"Everybody fucks up the first few, Trevor. Ain't an insult, just a fact. I shoulda known better. You couldn't've."

"I still feel like it's my fault you got beat up, though," said Trevor.

"That's 'cuz it is," said Michael.

"But you said—"

"Shut up, Trevor."

"Yessir."


 

Soon after, the two of them headed to the station, Gavin in tow. Michael kept his eyes peeled the whole way, watching for any glimpse of Risinger or Mad Meg. He didn't see either, which was less of a relief than it should have been. Once they got to the station, predictably, Geoff and Jack fussed over Michael like mother hens.

"What the hell happened to you?" Geoff cried, leaping up from his desk. Gavin ran over to him, delighted, and Geoff flapped a hand at him. "Go bother somebody else, goddammit."

"Risinger," Michael said shortly. Gavin took Geoff's order in stride and went off to bother Jeremy.

"How?" Jack said. "When?"

"Last night," said Michael, moving to his desk. "And by stupidity, mainly."

"You been to see Doc?" Geoff said. "What all happened? You ain't—"

"I'm fine," said Michael. "He kicks like a li'l girl. No offense, Jack."

"Just say like a baby and you won't have to stick on that last part," said Jack. "But Jesus, Michael, how'd he get you?"

"Stupidity, like I said. Went out alone at night."

"God damn," said Jack. "You ain't just shoot him?"

"Ain't have my gun," said Michael.

"I got mine," said Jeremy, drumming his fingers on the butt of his gun. Gavin judiciously moved on to greet Jack. "We goin' now?"

"You ain't gonna shoot him," said Michael.

"Yes the hell I will," said Jeremy.

The lack of an objection threw Michael off. He turned to Geoff.

"Sheriff, you—you ain't gonna let him shoot Risinger?" he said.

"For the beatin' of one of my goddamn crew?" said Geoff. "He'll be lucky if I don't shoot him first."

"Whoah, hey, hang on now," said Trevor, wringing his hands. "Why can't y'all just arrest him? I thought y'all was just gonna arrest him."

"Never in my goddamn life did I think I was gonna be sayin' this, but Trevor's got a point," said Michael. "When'd a back-alley roughin'-up get to be a shoot-on-sight offense?"

"Since it was you gettin' roughed up," said Jack, letting Gavin lick her wrist while she petted his ear. "And it wasn't just a roughin'-up, he coulda killed you."

"The hell he could," said Michael.

"And where were you?" Jack asked Gavin. He wiggled at the direct attention, licking her hand enthusiastically.

"Left him at home, too," said Michael. "And if y'all go out there and shoot Risinger, I'm gonna arrest y'all."

"Fine," said Geoff. "I guess we'll just arrest him. Jack, you come with me. Two of us oughtta be enough."

"Yessir," said Jack, getting to her feet.

"What about me?" said Jeremy.

"You stay here and hold down the fort," said Geoff.

"But—"

"And don't shoot anybody."

"But Sheriff—"

Geoff let out a put-upon sigh. "Jeremy, you're in charge 'til we get back," he said. "Awright?"

Jeremy blinked. His chest inflated.

"Yessir!" he chirped.

"Awright," said Geoff. "C'mon, Jack. We'll start out in the tent city, see who saw him last."

Gavin trotted out with Jack and Geoff, good-natured and enthused. Michael let him go without objection, but it still left him with a hole at his side.

"You figure Risinger just got lucky, or was he waitin' specially for you?" Jeremy said.

"Just got lucky," said Michael. "If he'd been after me, he woulda just come to my house."

"Oh, I dunno about that," said Trevor.

"Why not?" said Michael, looking him up and down.

"'Cuz that old house of yours is haunted," said Trevor. "Hah, you couldn't—you couldn't pay me enough to go near there at night. Well—well maybe enough, y'know, if it was a whooooooooole lotta money, hahah. I mean like . . . five dollars."

"Why ain't I surprised," Jeremy sighed. "Folks tell stories, huh Trevor? What kinda ghost stories they tell about the place?"

"That there's a ghost in it," said Trevor.

There was a moment of silence.

"That's . . . it?" said Michael.

"Yep," said Trevor, nodding.

"That ain't a ghost story! That—that's just—that's dumb!"

"Mmmmmm no, I don't think so," said Trevor. "Some folks think it's Deputy Narvaez, God rest his soul—" he crossed himself— "but I don't. I think there's been a ghost there way longer. It's—"

"You're so full of shit," said Jeremy. "We built that goddamn house. How the fuck could it've got haunted before we built it?"

"No no no," said Trevor. "It ain't the house, it's the land. See, 'cuz there was prob'ly some kinda injun grave or somethin', maybe y'all missed it when you were pickin' out the spot, but—"

"Jesus Christ," said Jeremy, rolling his eyes. "I knew you was loopy, I ain't think you was injun-burial-curse loopy."

"It ain't loopy!"

"Trevor, even I ain't hit my head hard enough to believe that shit," said Michael. He tried to crack his neck, but it was still too sore. He rolled his shoulders instead. "You done baked your brains out pannin' for silver all these years."

"Nuh-uh!" said Trevor, going red. "Listen, my brains're fine! I heard dozens of folks say the same thing, about injun death curses? Whole towns wiped out!"

"Name one," said Jeremy.

"I—well—the names in particular escape me just now," said Trevor. "But they exist! Or they did. Before they got wiped out." He sniffed. "Y'all're just skeptics, that's all."

"Naw, we just got brains in our heads," said Jeremy.

"Uncooked brains," said Michael.

"Y'all won't be laughin' when you get got," said Trevor, folding his arms. "But I will! Be. When y'all get—"

"Quit while you're ahead," said Michael.


 

Geoff, Jack, and Gavin were gone much longer than expected. As first one hour, then two, then three crawled by, Michael got more and more antsy. He didn't say anything about it, because nobody else was saying anything about it, but he couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong. Maybe Risinger had told the two of them about Michael's investigations. Maybe one of them had gotten hurt.

Maybe, God forbid, it had been Gavin.

Through all this worrying, Michael hadn't managed to get much done. He was supposed to be figuring out who owed reparations to Caleb Denecour, but the whole idea of the issue was so stupid that Michael couldn't make any headway. If anybody was owed reparations, it was the two cowhands who'd been caught up in the lynching. Geoff had been insistent that the man get paid, though, so Michael had to find somebody to take the money from.

Jeremy was doing something or other that required no consultation, while Trevor had settled down at Ryan's desk and was working on copying out Wanted posters. He didn't have quite the same artistic flair that Ryan did, but it at least kept him quiet.

During the fourth hour, Jeremy got up and sidled over to Trevor's workspace.

"Hey, Trevor," he said, rolling up onto his toes. Trevor looked up and blinked owlishly.

"Yessir?" he said.

"So uh, Ryan's prob'ly gonna be gettin' back soon," said Jeremy, "and before he does, there's somethin' you oughtta know about."

Trevor frowned, glancing around the station. Michael could just about see the gears turning in his head. He clenched his fists and willed Trevor not to say anything stupid.

"What is it?" said Trevor. Michael let out a breath.

"Well, here's the thing," said Jeremy. "Ryan's family beats on him like a dusty rug. Every time he goes to visit, he comes back busted up halfway to hell. So when he gets back, if he looks a li'l rough, just . . . don't say nothin' to him about it. All right?"

"Oh, gee," said Trevor, his face scrunching up. "Why's he go visit 'em, then?"

"Hell if I know," said Jeremy. "But we don't talk about it, 'cuz he don't talk about it. Ain't polite and it ain't wise."

"I—yeah yeah, I got it," said Trevor, glancing at Michael. "But—geez, that's awful. I can't—I can't imagine Deputy Haywood puttin' up with somethin' like that. Not even from his family."

"Folks get real strange about their families, Trevor," Jeremy said, patting his shoulder.

"Yeah," said Trevor. "I guess they do."


 

After four and a half hours, Jack and Geoff and Gavin finally came back.

All three of them were dusty and dispirited. Jack looked like she'd bit into a lemon, and Geoff was fuming mad. Gavin wandered over to Michael, sniffed his hands cursorily, and flopped down on the floor.

"Y'all get him?" Trevor asked, as the three of them settled in.

"No," said Geoff. "We looked every-goddamn-where, the fucker's just plain gone."

"Gone?" said Michael. "Gone where?"

"Nobody knows!" said Jack, throwing up her hands. "Last time anybody saw him was last night."

"Last—last night?" said Michael. His heart skipped a beat in panic. Should he have told them about Meg? Was it too late now? "What time last night?"

"'Bout two or three in the mornin'," said Jack. "Gibson smuggled him a couple bottles of whiskey outta ole Bragg's when he closed up for the night, and then Risinger took off."

"He did mention Risinger was lookin' a li'l rough, which is the only reason I halfway believe him about the time," said Geoff. "That your doin'?"

"Yeah, my goddamn fists still work," Michael snapped.

"Take it easy, Michael, nobody was sayin' they didn't," said Jack.

"Fuckin' implied it," Michael muttered.

"Anyhow, after that, Risinger up and vanished," said Geoff.

"Good, maybe he fell down a ditch and died," said Jeremy.

"Or he coulda skipped town," Trevor said hopefully.

"If he did, he did it on foot," said Jack. "No horses missin' anywhere in town, either."

Michael chewed his lip.

"Y'all check in my house?" he asked.

"Soon as we figured he was missin'," said Geoff. "He wasn't there, and nothin' seemed outta place. Checked all his other old haunts, too. He's just gone, poof. Up and vanished."

"Just like Narvaez," Trevor whispered.

There was a moment of absolute, deafening silence. Every eye in the station turned to him.

"The fuck did you just say?" Jack said. There was a threat in her voice.

"I—well, I said—I said just like Narvaez, ma'am," Trevor squeaked. He was sweating already, his forehead all creased up with worry. He crossed himself frantically. "God rest his soul! Uh, on account of, uh, well, Risinger's kinda lost it, these past two months, and—I mean we all knew he was gonna, sooner or later, but now—"

"Stop talkin'," said Michael. There was so much hostility pouring off of the other three that it made the air thick. Even Gavin had picked up on it, and was worming his way under Michael's desk.

Trevor actually put a hand over his mouth. He'd gotten very pale.

"Awright, Trevor," Geoff said. His voice was taut with strained composure. "What you're gonna do is, you're gonna go on home. You're gonna take tomorrow off, and the weekend. You can come back on Monday, and as of that time, the name Narvaez is never gonna pass your fuckin' lips again. You understand?"

Trevor nodded so fast it made his teeth rattle.

"Good," said Geoff. "Now get the fuck outta my station."

Without uttering a word, Trevor got the fuck out.

"Sheriff," Michael began.

"Is it about Narvaez?" Geoff said. His voice cracked.

"Never mind," said Michael.


 

The following evening, Ryan rode back into town.

Michael was just heading home from the sheriff's station when he caught sight of the lone figure, dressed in black with one hand on the reins. Gavin perked up, sniffing at the air. His tail wagged tentatively. Michael turned his wheelchair and waited.

Kruemcke from the stables intercepted Ryan about half a block from the station. They had a brief and apparently friendly conversation, which ended with Ryan dismounting and handing off the reins to Kruemcke. The two shook hands, and Kruemcke gave Ryan a friendly pat on the shoulder before leading the horse off, packs and all. Ryan pressed both fists into his back and stretched, then turned and started towards the sheriff's station again on foot. Gavin's tail started wagging in earnest. Michael took hold of the bandanna around his neck.

Ryan ducked around a gaggle of women—Steffie and her cohorts—and tipped his hat to them with some suave utterance that had them scurrying off all a-giggle. He had a black eye and a cut on his cheek, a harsh purple bruise on one wrist. As he resettled his hat on his head, he caught sight of Michael and met his eyes.

The moment hung from a hair-thin thread. Time itself seemed to have stopped. Michael saw not one, but two Ryans, overlaid atop one another like a switch in a railroad track; two smiles, two faces, a man and a monster. Everything else faded to a soft blur, as though all Creation was waiting to see which way the track would pull.

Ryan's eyes shifted. His face lit up like Christmas morning.

"Gavin!" he cried, and the spell was broken, and he was just Ryan.

Mostly harmless.

Gavin broke from Michael's numb grip and lit off for him. Ryan dropped to his knees, arms extended. Gavin leapt into them and bowled him over, licking his face and wiggling all around with boundless energy. Laughing, Ryan made only the most cursory attempts at fending him off. Eventually he caught Gavin in a headlock and started rubbing him mercilessly.

"Oh, I missed you too!" he said, gooey with affection. "I missed you too, boy, Lord, did I ever!"

Gavin wriggled out of his grasp and went right back to licking his face. His tail was wagging so hard it was a wonder he didn't take off.

"All right, all right, that's enough, now," Ryan said, catching Gavin again and hanging on to him until he settled down. He planted a kiss on the dog's head, then got to his feet and dusted himself off. He looked up at Michael and the blissful glow faded from his face.

"Uh," said Michael. "Howdy."

"What happened?" Ryan said, concerned.

"Oh, that," said Michael, blushing. He rubbed the back of his neck and licked his split lip. "Uh. Risinger."

Ryan's chin lifted half an inch. His eyes narrowed.

"I see," he said.

"Wellp," said Michael, turning to go. "I gotta be goin'. Welcome back and all. Gavin, c'mon!"

"What's the hurry?" said Ryan.

"I got uh, well—Doc's comin' over to do dinner," said Michael. "Don't wanna keep her waitin'."

"You mind if I tag along?" Ryan asked, pushing his hat back with one finger.

"It—it's a sort of, uh, sort of a. . . ." Michael trailed off. He wiped his hands on the arms of his chair.

Ryan smiled a knowing little smile and inclined his head.

"Sort of a two-person job," he filled in. "I understand. In that case, I won't intrude."

"Sure," said Michael. "Gavin, c'mon now, let's go."

Reluctantly, Gavin returned to Michael's side.

"I hope you'll at least let me make you dinner sometime soon," said Ryan. "Maybe do some catchin' up?"

"Yeah, sometime," said Michael. His mouth was dry as cotton. "Welcome back."

With that, he turned the rest of the way away and pushed off towards home.

He could feel Ryan watching him for whole minutes afterwards.

Chapter Text

Michael spent the whole weekend avoiding Ryan as much as he possibly could. Ever since Michael had been paralyzed, Geoff had insisted he take Saturdays and Sundays off. While Michael had objected stringently to this at first, he was now glad of it. He spent most of Saturday cleaning (as much as he could), and fooling around with Jack's guitar, which she had left with him for just such occasions. Gavin helped by howling along at all the worst chords.

"What are you, a goddamn musician?" Michael demanded.

Roooo, said Gavin.

After a while, Michael just started howling with him. It confused him enough to shut him up.

Geoff dropped by at lunchtime and mentioned that Ryan had offered to come by for dinner. Michael made up some excuse to prevent that from happening. Geoff twitched his mustache, but didn't object. Michael ended up having dinner alone, but it wasn't too unmanageable.

Sunday, he considered dragging himself to Father Sorola's sermon, but decided he'd rather not. Instead, he poked through some old newspapers Jeremy had rustled up that talked about the Star Oil company. Geoff wouldn't let him work on the Burns murder in the station anymore, so he'd had to make it a pet project.

Bored out of his skull by midday, Michael ventured out to see if he could find Trevor, intending to ask him what he knew about Narvaez. He barely made it fifteen minutes before he caught sight of Ryan, lounging against the exterior wall of Bragg's saloon and chatting with Mad Meg Turney. Michael kept his head down and thought invisible thoughts, cutting through a side street and looping back on his trail. He headed straight back home, much to Gavin's disappointment. He didn't leave again that day.

Unfortunately, Monday morning came, and Michael was forced to head to the sheriff's station. He fought to convince himself that it wouldn't be that bad—Geoff and Jack and Jeremy would be there, too, after all, and Ryan was unlikely to do or say anything incriminating in front of them.

Ryan was unlikely to do or say anything incriminating at all, Michael reminded himself, because there was nobody to incriminate. The conversation in Ryan's kitchen hadn't happened, nor the confrontation outside of Lovelock. Ryan was mostly harmless, as everybody knew. He'd just been visiting his family. There was nothing to worry about.

Nonetheless, Michael's hands dripped with sweat as he came into the sheriff's station. It was something of a relief to see that Geoff and Jack and Jeremy were all three there already, something less of one to see that Ryan was.

"Mornin'," said Michael, studiously not looking at any of them. Gavin trotted in and made his rounds, greeting everybody with multitudinous wags of the tail and licks of the tongue.

"Mornin', Michael," said Geoff. "How you doin'?"

"Fine," said Michael. "We got anythin' to do today?"

"Same old, same old," Jack sighed. "Ryan's gonna handle Denecour, God bless him."

"There's a particular way you gotta grovel," Ryan said. Michael could hear the twinkle in his eye.

"You gonna talk him outta gettin' paid for other folks' misfortune?" Michael asked. He made the mistake of glancing at Ryan and got his gaze stuck.

"Hell, Michael, I'm gone talk him into payin' for it," said Ryan, grinning at him. A chill raced up Michael's spine. Any second now, he'd blink, any second now. . . .

"Yeah, well," Michael said, shrugging. "You got plenty of slack to pick up. How's your uh . . . your mama and them?"

"Oh, my Mama's just fine," said Ryan, rolling his eyes. "She'd fistfight God 'fore she'd go quietly to her grave. I suspect Irene just wanted an excuse to drag me on down there. She's still determined she's gone marry me."

"Sh—what?" said Michael, going squirmy all over.

Ryan gave him a long look, somewhat uneven because of the swelling from his blackened eye.

"To somebody else," he clarified.

"Don't bullshit him, Ryan," said Jeremy. "Your sister's always been crazy as hell."

"She had considerably more reasonable aspirations this time," Ryan said innocently. Gavin trotted up to him, and Ryan leaned down to love on him. "Hey, ami. Good mornin'."

Gavin closed his eyes in bliss, his tongue lolling out of his mouth. Ryan clicked his teeth and stuck a hand under his desk. Gavin darted under and came out chewing something.

"You feedin' my dog secret jerky?" Michael demanded, while Gavin flopped down next to Ryan's desk to really dig his teeth into his morsel.

"It's the drawer that's secret, Michael, not the contents," Ryan said.

"That dog's gonna get fat," Geoff warned.

"Naw, Sheriff, look at him, he's skin and bones," Ryan said.

"He's athletic, and he's gonna stay that way," said Michael. "You cain't be givin' him food every time he makes eyes at you."

"Why not?" said Ryan, smiling. "Concerned he might come to like me more'n you?"

Michael snorted. "Sure, when hell freezes over," he said.

Just then, Trevor came in. He looked sheepish, and much better-scrubbed than usual. The silver star pinned to his chest was polished to a much brighter shine than when he'd gotten it.

Something in Ryan flipped like a switch. He straightened up, his eyes flicking to the star. His smile didn't shrink much, but it changed.

"Well howdy, Collins," he said slowly. "That's a fancy thing you got on your chest there."

Behind his back, Jack and Jeremy exchanged a look that could be summed up in a word: uh-oh. Gavin finished his jerky, took in the room, and very carefully stood up.

Trevor looked down at himself as though he'd forgotten he was wearing the star. He grinned and shrugged.

"Yeah!" he said. "Yeah, I been uh . . . helpin' out! While you been gone. Just, y'know, extra set of hands! For—for things, and stuff. Hahah."

"You plannin' on keepin' it?" Ryan asked, getting to his feet. Gavin shied away from him, his tail tucked between his legs.

"Iiiiiii was hopin' to," said Trevor. "If—y'know, if everybody thought I did a good job."

"Ain't you just precious," Ryan said.

"Thanks?" Trevor guessed. He rubbed the back of his neck. "I been tryin' real hard."

"And I'm sure they've been mighty glad to have you."

"Well mostly I been workin' with Michael," Trevor said, pointing at him. Michael could have strangled him. From the way Ryan's smile had gone sharp at the edges, he might not have been the only one.

"Lucky you!" Ryan said. "Might I ask what you've been workin' on?"

Trevor paled and gulped.

"W-well, just uh, y'know, just stuff," he said.

"I been trainin' him," Michael cut in, before Trevor dug himself any deeper.

"But he already does tricks," Ryan said.

"What?" Trevor squeaked.

"Awright, that's enough chit-chattin'," Geoff said. "Trevor, why don't you head on home. Now Ryan's back, we got enough hands. We'll let you know if anythin' comes up needs helpin' with."

"Oh," said Trevor. "All—all right. Well, uh, thanks for the opportunity, y'all! I hope I made a good impression!"

"If you did, you're screwin' it up," Michael said to him.

"Sorry," Trevor said. "Sorry, sorry, yeah, I'll just get on. Uh. Yeah. Uh. Do you want me tooooo keep doin' that . . . stuff, for you? Anyhow?"

Michael could feel Ryan's gaze on him, like a chunk of ice against his neck. He ignored it.

"I don't give a shit, Trevor," he said.

"Right right right, gotcha, I'm—I'm gonna go catch up with Freydo," said Trevor, pointing at the door. "Should I—should—should I just pick up my paycheck at the—y'know what, I'll just—I'll be seein' y'all!"

"Uh-huh," said Michael.

With a few more nervous grins and cringing half-bows, Trevor let himself out. For a moment, silence swirled in his wake like dust motes. The side of Michael's neck was starting to go numb.

"Trevor?" said Ryan. "Since when is he Trevor?"

"Since I been workin' with him for two weeks," Michael said stiffly. "Woulda got tedious keepin' formalities all that time. You got a problem?"

"Naw, naw," said Ryan, wrinkling his nose. "Trevor's a sweetheart. Love him death. He was just at the back of the line when God was handin' out the brains, that's all."

Jeremy hooted with laughter. Jack shook her head, smiling.

"Ryan, you're an asshole," said Geoff.

"I got nothin' against the fella," Ryan said innocently. "Sweet as a peach, and awful cute. If y'all had been lookin' for somebody to step in for Gavin, he'da been just perfect for the job."

"Ryan, Jesus, tell us how you really feel," Jeremy said, snickering.

"Go on and get it outta your system," Geoff sighed. "While he ain't in the room. And then the next time you see him, you better not say anythin' double-edged."

"Me? When have I ever," said Ryan. "Sheriff, I am in no way tryin' t' undermine your decisions. It's just that Trevor Collins, bless his darlin' heart, is a yellow-bellied bitch who'd be better suited to workin' in a whorehouse than a sheriff's station. I'da been insulted if you'd asked him to lick your boots while I was gone, and I am just plain livid you brought him on to replace me."

He said it all with a pleasant smile and a fond affectation that was belied by the sharpness of his gestures. Michael kept an eye on his hands, discomfited.

"You done?" Geoff said flatly.

"No, matter of fact, I could go on for hours," said Ryan.

"Awright, then I'm done listenin'," said Geoff. "You wanna keep bitchin', do it on your own time."

"Yessuh," said Ryan, and there was fire on his breath.

"Hell, I'll listen to this all day," said Jeremy.

"I thought you liked Collins?" said Jack.

"I do," said Jeremy. "But I ain't missin' Ryan goin' full-on plantation hypocrite for love nor money."

"I am ever so pleased you find my honest ire amusin'," Ryan said, turning on him. "I wonder if your wife would feel the same, Rémy."

Jeremy was on his feet with his gun drawn in a flash. Geoff jumped up, too, and Jack right after. Gavin backed up against Michael's legs, growling low in his throat and bristling.

Ryan grinned his slow alligator grin. The lightning was on his bones, electrifying the air all around him. His attention was fixed on Jeremy, a physical force that pulled at everything in the room.

"You better shut your fuckin' mouth, Haywood," Jeremy uttered.

"Oh," said Ryan, his eyes glittering like scorpion-shell. "She doesn't know."

"Jeremy, put that gun down," Geoff said. His hand was resting on the grip of his own revolver.

"You sonnuva bitch," Jeremy said. His voice cracked. His hands were white-knuckled on his gun. "You stay the fuck away from her!"

"Now Rémy," Ryan began, venomous and slow.

"Don't fuckin' call me that!" Jeremy snarled. Gavin's growl broke out into full-chested barking, and Michael grabbed him by the bandanna to keep him from lunging at anybody, shushing him frantically. Gavin settled back to growling, showing all his teeth.

"Jeremy, stop," Jack said, edging towards him. "You're gonna get somebody hurt."

"I am ever so sorry," Ryan effused at Jeremy. His hand pinched into that familiar, inscrutable gesture. "Would you prefer Mistuh Timm?"

"I will kill you right here and goddamn now, Haywood," Jeremy said, his voice shaking. "I'll shoot you right through your goddamn head."

"You'll try," Ryan allowed.

"Nobody's gonna shoot at anybody," Geoff said. He was gripping his revolver, taut as a tightrope. "We're all friends here, friends love each other."

"Shut the fuck up, Geoff!" Jeremy snapped, trembling. "You don't fuckin' drag that shit up here!"

"Jeremy—"

"Never, Jeremy," Ryan said quietly, "never forget how much you stand to lose, and never forget what you came from." His eyes gleamed. "'Cause I won't."

"Ryan, take a goddamn walk," Geoff said.

"Yessuh," said Ryan. He left the station, pausing only to grab his hat. Jeremy kept the gun trained on him the whole way. Even after he left, Gavin stayed pressed up against Michael's legs, shivering and growling.

"Jeremy, put that fuckin' gun down," said Geoff.

"He threatened my wife, Geoff," Jeremy said, glaring at the closed door. "He had the fuckin' nerve to threaten Kitty."

"And you know goddamn better than to poke him when he's already pissed off!" Geoff snapped. "We been through this a dozen goddamn times, Jeremy, you don't fuck with Ryan when he's mad!"

"I ain't scared of him," Jeremy said, petulant.

"You should be!" Geoff cried.

There was a moment of silence, ringing with the weight of these words. Michael swallowed, wiping his hand on the arm of his chair. The other was still holding Gavin. Geoff let out a breath and hung his head, rubbing his temple with two fingers.

"I'm goin' after him," Jack declared.

"No the fuck you ain't," Geoff said. "All y'all are gonna leave him the hell alone. He'll unwind himself and come back when he's fit for company."

"We shouldn't oughtta have kept him," Jeremy muttered, stuffing his gun back into its holster. "I told y'all he was bad goddamn news, we—"

"Jeremy, enough," Jack said.

"Enough is goddamn right," said Jeremy, and stalked out of the station.

Geoff turned to Jack. "Do not let him—"

"I know," Jack interrupted. She hurried after Jeremy. A silence hung in the air after her. Geoff sunk into his chair and pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Too goddamn early for this shit," he muttered.

Gavin wiggled in Michael's grip, and Michael let go of him. He immediately turned around and put his feet on Michael's knee, sniffing his face with a fastidious concern.

"I'm fine," Michael mumbled to him. He stroked Gavin's head a couple times, then ruffled one of his ears. "I'm fine, boy."

"You're the only damn one," Geoff sighed. Having confirmed that Michael wasn't in too much distress, Gavin trotted over to Geoff and made a thorough investigation there, too.

For a while, the only sound was Gavin's snuffling, the clicking of his toenails on the floor.

"Whose words?" Michael said at last.

"Huh?" said Geoff.

"Jeremy said, don't you drag that shit up," said Michael. "So whose words were you usin'?"

"Ray's," Geoff said heavily. "He did his goddamnedest to keep shit like that from happenin'. Guess it only worked when he said it, not me."

"Sheriff, I got a question."

"I got an inklin' of what it's gonna be," said Geoff. "And I want you to be real sure you wanna know the answer."

Michael chewed his cheek. Gavin came back to him and sat at his side. Michael started petting him absently.

"None of y'all are really lawmen, are you," Michael said.

Geoff hung his head. He smoothed his mustache and blew out a breath through his lips.

"Didn't start that way, no," he said. "I been tryin' to get us there, best I can."

Michael nodded slowly, staring at nothing.

"That's why you been playin' favorites with me," said Michael. "Tryin' to get me to replace you, 'stead of Jack or Jeremy. 'Cause I'm the only one of y'all who ain't an outlaw."

"The only one who's never been one," Geoff allowed. "We moved in here 'bout four years ago. There was uh . . . well, prob'ly still is a sort of . . . boogeyman. For outlaws."

A chill ran up Michael's spine. He gripped Gavin's fur and clenched his teeth. He didn't dare to interrupt.

"I got the sensation we'd got his attention," Geoff went on. "Figured it was time to get out while the gettin' was good. So I decided we was gonna go legitimate. Picked us out a shithole town in the middle of nowhere, ran out the last set of lawmen, and . . . set up shop."

"Why?" Michael asked.

"Oh, hell, Michael," said Geoff. "Some of 'em thought it was gonna be a payout, sooner or later. Some of 'em thought it'd be fun. Only one who never really took to it was Ray, but . . . he ain't get much of a chance to. Me, I was scared. I got us all the paperwork and the stars and everythin', got swore in by the U. S. Marshals even, 'cuz I ain't wanna leave anythin' to chance. So we are real lawmen, or leastways we are now."

"Before that," Michael said. "Who were y'all?"

"Small-time nobodies," said Geoff. "Still are, but at least now we get paychecks. Jack and I started out together, holdin' up stagecoaches for petty cash. My wife introduced us, 'fore she got. . . . Well, let's just say there's a reason I believe the Vagabond's real."

"Oh, Jesus," Michael breathed. His bones frosted over. He had a sudden and vivid vision of Ryan, standing on the throat of some faceless woman and grinning, grinning, grinning. He shook himself. It was exactly that kind of fanciful thinking that had been getting him into trouble for the past two months.

"Yeah," said Geoff. "Griffin got real good at her shit, got too big for the small-time, and then . . . well, then it was just Jack and me. We uh . . . stole Gavin on accident, when he was a puppy."

At the sound of his name, Gavin thumped his tail on the floor, his tongue lolling out in a big doggy smile.

"We picked up Ray when we started robbin' banks," Geoff went on. "He was damn good with a rifle. Jeremy mostly ran shit behind the scenes for us, y'know, pickin' out jobs and arrangin' getaways and all. He didn't really start workin' with us 'til . . . well, 'til Ray couldn't. Ryan started out a hostage from a hold-up gone bad, and then he talked himself onto the payroll, 'cuz he's a career con artist."

"Explains some things," Michael said. His voice was hoarse. His head was spinning.

Only if they got unreasonable.

He shook himself. That hadn't happened. He'd made it up. Sure, Ryan was a con artist, that made sense. His silver-tongued nature and relentless courtesy fit right in, as did his tendency to fool around with the clockwork in people's heads. That's all he was. The impression of ravenous violence coiled like lightning around his bones was a false one. The mirage on him hid nothing but dust.

"I'm sorry we ain't told you," Geoff said. "I hoped you'd never find out. I guess I shoulda known you was too smart for that."

"Shoulda known people in this town gossip too much for that," Michael said. "I picked most of it up from other folks. Wun't hard to piece it together."

"Well, evidently it is, Michael, because hasn't hardly anybody else done it," said Geoff. He rubbed his eyebrow. "That or we're good enough at playin' lawmen that they don't much care."

"How many people know?" Michael asked.

"A handful," said Geoff. "Most folks here wasn't around when we moved in, and those that were, we leaned on pretty hard to keep their mouths shut. Risinger's one of 'em. Gus is another. Caleb Denecour. Ole Bragg. Just to name a few."

"Steffie Hardy?"

"Not initially, but she found out," said Geoff. "She's been the damn hardest to keep quiet about it, too."

With a sinking in his guts, Michael asked, "Doc?"

"Doc, of course," Geoff confirmed. "Hell, this point I just about consider Doc to be part of the crew. She's twisted enough arms for us."

"Hey, Sheriff?"

"Surprised you're still willin' to call me that," said Geoff, smiling to himself.

Michael shrugged. "You're my Sheriff," he said.

Geoff stroked his mustache, sniffed and cleared his throat.

"Well," he said. "Well. How 'bout that."

"Besides, I got worse things to worry about," said Michael.

"You do?" said Geoff, looking up at him and scowling.

Michael fidgeted. He licked his lips.

Ryan is the Vagabond.

Except no, he wasn't, that was ridiculous. The similarities were coincidental. Michael had made up the confession while lying half-dead in Lindsay's clinic, had stitched together a fiction from nightmare tales and drug-slick dreams. Everybody knew Ryan was mostly harmless.

"Why'd you say Jeremy oughtta be scared of Ryan?" he asked. Whatever train of thought he'd started on, it was long gone now.

Geoff shook his head, his mouth pinched over to one side.

"Ryan puts on a real good show," he said. "Got damn near everybody fooled into thinkin' he don't get mad. But he does, and he don't always have a convenient place to put it. He'll be all right again in a few hours, but 'til then, he shouldn't oughtta be poked."

"He ever . . . hurt anybody?" Michael asked. He was shivering, although he wasn't cold. Gavin propped his chin up on Michael's knee, solicitous. "While—before y'all went legitimate."

"Well, he's done his share of the shootin'," said Geoff. "Never nothin' worrisome, though. Except. . . ."

"Except?"

"Once," said Geoff. "Got ambushed by another crew tryin' to hold up the same train. One of 'em took him, I don't like to think about why or what for. Let's just say he was young and pretty. I—"

He broke off. He glanced at the door and scooted his chair in closer to his desk.

"What?" said Michael.

"Jack and Jeremy don't know this, so you don't tell 'em," Geoff said. "I got your word on that?"

"Yessir," said Michael. He petted the ruff of Gavin's neck.

"I found him half an hour later," said Geoff. "Bullet in his leg and that big ol' huntin' knife in his hand. He was still stabbin' the one that took him, just—"

He raised his fist and thumped it on his desk, once, twice, three times, a slow and methodical rhythm that made Michael flinch in his chest.

"Scariest damn thing I ever saw," Geoff said. "Whole body was a bloody pulp, and him just about drenched in it. I came up expectin' him to be scared outta his mind—seen that sorta thing with young soldiers, back in the war—but he just smiled and said, Hey, Boss, seems I been shot. Calm as anythin'. Only thing I can figure is he had him a list of folks needed stabbin', and he was workin' through 'em all at once. Ain't done it again in the five years since, so I guess he got it all out."

"Sensible," Michael managed.

Geoff looked over at him and frowned.

"You doin' all right, Michael?" he asked.

"I—yeah," said Michael. "Just uh . . . just never woulda thought Ryan'd be . . . capable of somethin' like that."

"Jesus, me neither," said Geoff. "Good thing is, since growin' up a li'l more, he seems to've got a handle on it. Still goes odd from time to time, but he ain't hurt anybody."

"Yet," said Michael, before he could stop himself. Geoff looked over at him, pained.

"Yeah," he said. He turned his eyes back to his desk and rubbed his lip with his thumb. "Yet."

Chapter Text

Although Jack and Jeremy returned within the hour, Ryan never did. Michael eventually got antsy enough about it that he took off to find Trevor, just in case.

"Thought we was done with Collins?" said Jack, when Michael announced his departure.

"So did I," said Michael. "Remembered a couple loose ends. Won't take me long."

"You want me to come with you?" Jeremy offered.

"Naw," said Michael. "I got Gavin, he's enough."

He whistled, and Gavin hopped up smartly. Together, the two of them set out into the cool afternoon. The sky was blue as a sapphire, crystal clear. A breeze stirred the air, just on the near side of chilly.

Through about half an hour's worth of asking around, Michael tracked Trevor down to Caleb Denecour's ranch. It was a long haul for Michael, being nearly two miles from town. Gavin was content to tag along, in no rush to get anywhere except after the occasional bird. Michael didn't see Denecour or any of the cowhands around at the ranch, so he just went straight on in and figured he'd be yelled at if he wasn't supposed to be there.

Before he got up to the front door, however, he heard the sound of voices, low and urgent through the walls of the barn. He couldn't make them out until he got near the door, which was standing open.

"What're we gonna do?" Trevor demanded. He sounded panicked. "I made such a big damn mess of it. We're in real trouble now, Freydo, we're in real trouble now!"

"No, we ain't." That was Alfredo Diaz. He was much more together than Trevor. "Don't you worry your pretty head about it. We're gonna be just fine."

"But—"

"It ain't a disaster! You still got that gig at Bragg's, don't you?"

"I don't know that I do!" said Trevor. "I don't know, what if he tells somebody? What if—what if he spills to Mr. Denecour, or—or Father Sorola, or God forbid, the Sheriff!"

"Trey, calm the hell down," said Alfredo. "Just do the work, don't talk too much, and let me handle all the thinkin'. All right?"

"All—all right," Trevor said uncertainly. "Thank you. And I'm real sorry. I mean it. Seems like you always end up cleanin' up my messes no matter what I do."

"You did fine," said Alfredo.

With Michael's attention pulled away, Gavin took his opportunity to dart ahead. Michael hissed at him, but he trotted right through the door of the barn without a care in the world.

"Oh!" Trevor said. "Hey there, buddy, what're you doin' all the way out here?"

"Ain't that Jones's dog?" said Alfredo.

"Yeah, Gavin," said Trevor. "He's a—hey, no no, don't jump on Freydo—"

"Get off, dog," said Alfredo. "So where's Jones?"

There was a moment of silence. Gavin barked. Michael took that as his cue.

The barn was spacious, and mostly empty. Alfredo and Trevor were standing near the door, moving away from each other as Michael entered. Gavin bounced between the two of them, then ran back to Michael, then dashed off into the barn with his nose glued to the ground.

Alfredo Diaz was tall, hardier than his brother and with a darker complexion. Ever since getting caught up in the lynching of Jon Risinger, he'd had a kink in his nose, a bum finger, and a mild limp. He was missing a couple of teeth, but still smiled easily. He smiled at Michael with more nerves than sincerity.

"Afternoon," Michael said, coming up to the two of them.

"Hey! Michael. Uh, howdy," said Trevor. "You—you met Alfredo, ain't you?"

"Sorta," said Michael.

"Guess there's no time like the present!" said Alfredo. He stuck out a hand. Michael shook it.

"Pleasure," said Michael. He turned back to Trevor. "You seen Haywood lately?"

"Nnnnnno?" Trevor guessed. He glanced back over his shoulder. "Why?"

Michael shrugged. "He uh . . . threw somethin' of a tantrum after you left. Ain't come back yet, and we ain't sure where he went."

Alfredo and Trevor shared a look. Trevor raised an eyebrow and Alfredo gave an almost imperceptible shake of the head.

"That's a shame," said Trevor. "I'm sure he's fine, though!"

"Right?" said Alfredo. "He'll come back when he's hungry."

"Freydo," Trevor, scandalized and amused.

Before Michael could snap at the two of them for being suspicious, something clicked together in his head and gears started turning. The machinery moved and revealed a pocket of sneakiness.

"Well, it is a shame he took off, though," said Michael, feeling his way into the words. "On account of him bein' about ready to see to it Alfredo and Scarcello got a proper payout for that incident at the bank."

"He who what now?" said Alfredo, suddenly very interested.

"Oh, sure," said Michael, leaning into it. "Way we figure it, y'all are the ones who deserve reparations, not Denecour, but he's been pushin' awful hard to get 'em anyhow. None of the rest of us got enough silver on our tongues to talk him around, but Haywood swore up and down he could do it."

Trevor and Alfredo shared another glance.

"Maybe we could try and rustle him up," Alfredo said. "I got experience in that."

"Naw, naw, that'd be like herdin' cats," said Michael. "If he don't wanna be found, you ain't gonna find him."

"I think you might underestimate my skills, Deputy," Alfredo said, puffing his chest out.

"I think you might underestimate Haywood's," Michael said, before he could stop himself. It wasn't too much of a lapse; if Alfredo knew where Ryan had gone, as Michael suspected he might, he'd already been given more than enough incentive to bring him back.

"Uh—" Alfredo began. Trevor patted him on the shoulder, smiling a nervy smile.

"Michael's prob'ly right on this one, Freydo," he said. "But—but maybe you better get on back to work, now. Don't want Mr. Denecour firin' you before you can get your payout!"

"Trey," Alfredo said, suspicious. Trevor patted his shoulder again.

"Go on! I'll catch up with you later, hahah, just got a couple things to take care of, you know!"

"I catch you in that damn saloon again, I'll whup your ass," Alfredo threatened.

"Much more likely to catch me in church these days, Freydo, you know that," Trevor said, ingratiating. "Go on! You got a livelihood to keep!"

"Since I'm the only one of us who can keep a livelihood, I guess I will," Alfredo said. He chucked Trevor on the shoulder and left the barn. Trevor watched him go, wringing his hands.

"Now he's gone," Michael said. "I had somethin' I wanted to ask you."

"Is Haywood gonna kill me?" Trevor hissed.

Michael blinked.

"What?" he said.

"Only he was lookin' awful mean in there and now he ran off and nobody can find him and he's always been a li'l queer and—"

"Why in the hell would Haywood wanna kill you?"

"Jealousy!" Trevor said, hunched over like a miser. "You ain't seen it? Oh, he got so mad when he heard I'd been workin' with you, and then he got even more mad when he heard I'd sorta halfway replaced him—"

"You was eavesdroppin'," Michael accused.

"Shhh! No I wasn't, no I wasn't, my—my—I had a rock in my boot and I accident'ly overheard, that's all! I ain't overhear much, 'cuz—I got scared and ran, but—"

"And you think Haywood," Michael said, "Ryan goddamn Haywood, is jealous of you?"

Trevor paused, frowning.

"Well hey now, that's kinda insultin'," he said.

"Yeah, Trevor, 'cuz you're bein' a dumbass," said Michael. "He ain't gonna hurt you and he sure as shit ain't jealous of you, Christ's sake."

"Then—what're you doin' here?" said Trevor. "I thought you came to warn me, or—or check up on me. Didja come to check up on me? Only that's real sweet of you, Michael."

"No, I din't," said Michael, although the blush rising to his cheeks gave him away.

"Aw," said Trevor, regarding him fondly.

"Shut up," Michael snapped. "You're a piece of shit. I came lookin' for you 'cuz—because I wanna know what you know about Narvaez."

That was another wholesale lie, but now that he'd said it, he might as well get an answer.

"Uh," said Trevor, coming over nervous again. "You sure? Only Sheriff said I wasn't ever s'posed to talk about him again ever or else."

"He never said or else."

"He looked pretty or else, Michael," said Trevor, hapless.

"Well, I'm givin' you permission to talk about him right here, now, with me," said Michael. "Tell me everythin' you know."

Trevor shrugged. He glanced over his shoulder again.

"I don't know that much," he said. "He went crazy and then disappeared."

"See, everybody says that," Michael said. "Like a goddamn phonograph. Crazy how? Disappeared how? And when? And where from? Who was the last person to talk to him?"

"I don't know, Michael, I barely knew the fella!"

"You musta known somethin' about him," said Michael.

"Not—no, I ain't know nothin'."

Michael fixed him with the most threatening look he could muster. Trevor gulped.

"Trevor," Michael warned.

"I don't wanna speak ill of the—the prob'ly-dead, Michael," Trevor whined.

"Assume he ain't dead, then, and spill it," said Michael.

Trevor squirmed for a while, wringing his hands and wrinkling his forehead and looking all around the barn. At last he leaned in.

"Honest, Michael?" he said. "I hated Narvaez. Nearly everybody did. He was a bully and a cheat and a—a—just a real . . . bastard. He was a real bastard, Michael, to me and to Freydo and to just about anybody he could get enough leverage on."

"What kinda leverage?"

"Any kind," said Trevor. "He was always takin' advantage of folks, any way he could. He'd gamble and drink and start fights and all that, and he—he liked to scare folks. By shootin' at their feet from up in the clock tower with that rifle of his. That's how poor Bethany died. He hit her in the toe and the gangrene got her. Narvaez didn't give a damn, he kept right on doin' it, before the funeral, even."

"And Sheriff din't do nothin' about it?"

Trevor shook his head. "He tried," he said. "I believe he really tried, but it never took. Only thing that stopped it was Narvaez goin' crazy. We was all so relieved somethin' had turned him off that we . . . well, nobody ever really tried to help. And then he up and disappeared, and—we thought that was the end of it. Thought it was for the best."

"Implyin' it wun't?"

"Well, y'know, those that were his friends was awful busted up about it," Trevor said.

"You said you thought somethin' in that house drove him crazy," said Michael. "Why?"

"I—I dunno, Michael, I just heard it."

"From who?"

"I can't recall."

"What'd they say? Did they say any shit about injun curses, or did you make that part up?"

"That's just what I figured!" said Trevor, raising his hands in surrender. "Look, I really don't know that much about it, Michael, I swear I don't. Soon as he stopped bein' such a bully, I sorta . . . forgot about him. I was just glad to be rid of him. I only know what everybody else knows, which is that he went crazy and disappeared."

"You mind elaboratin' on the kind of crazy?"

"Sittin' out on his porch all night with a shotgun," said Trevor, shrugging. "Spent a lot of time in church, I guess. Got real weird about food and drink. Holed up and—and went crazy, that's all I know. He'd rant and rave about all kinds of shit."

"What kinds?"

"All kinds?" Trevor guessed. He shrugged again. "I really don't know, Michael, I never heard it firsthand. You'd have to ask somebody else."

"Who do you figure was closest to him?"

"Prob'ly one of the other deputies," said Trevor. "Maybe Sheriff Ramsey, but Iiiiiiii don't think he'd wanna talk about it."

"Hm," said Michael. He rubbed the back of his neck. "Guess that'll have to do."

"Was there . . . anythin' else you needed?" Trevor asked. "Only I ain't technically s'posed to be in here, and if Mr. Denecour finds me he'll give me a real hidin'."

"Huh? Oh. Sure, you go . . . do your thing," said Michael.

"I hope I was helpful," Trevor said, really tremendously pathetic.

"Yeah, Trevor, real helpful," Michael sighed.

Trevor grinned, luminous. "Thanks, Michael!" he said, and darted out.

Michael stayed for a moment, soaking in the cow-smell and the dusty air. Gavin was rooting around in the hay somewhere, snuffling and digging. Michael chewed his cheeks, rooting around in his own head in a similar fashion.

"What gig at Bragg's?" he muttered to himself. "All the dumbass ever did was pan for silver and get drunk. You'd think. . . ."

He trailed off, then growled in frustration and shook his head. Alfredo and Trevor might have been talking about anything, and there was no reason to suspect it was at all important. He had bigger things to worry about.

"Gavin!" he barked instead. "C'mon, let's get on home!"


 

When Michael got back to the sheriff's station, Ryan still wasn't there, and apparently hadn't been. Michael would have been worried about this, if his legs hadn't started up their boiling-in-oil routine. As it was, he barely had the wherewithal to feel sorry for himself, let alone do anything else. Geoff recommended he go home, but Michael insisted on staying. It wasn't out of pride, although he made it out like it was. It was mostly because he didn't think he was physically capable of making the trip just then. He probably couldn't have even dragged himself to Lindsay's clinic for laudanum.

In fact, it took more than three hours for him to work up the gumption to get moving again. Everyone else had gone home already, with the exception of Gavin, who had curled up at Michael's feet and taken a nap. It was dark out, and windy, with clouds scudding over a bright gibbous moon. The air tasted of snow, and the stars twinkled like diamonds.

Michael made his way home slowly, wincing at every bump in the road. The journey was exhausting, to the point that he was sure he wouldn't be able to manage dinner that night. He'd just nab something out of the pantry and let Gavin have it, go straight to bed and pray he'd be able to sleep.

He had to take a break before going up the ramp. Gavin must have noticed his distress, because he stuck close to Michael's side, attentive and worried. Michael scratched him behind the ears and talked quietly to him. In the end, it was the cold that drove him to get moving again, nipping at his ears and his fingertips with needly teeth.

Gavin let Michael go inside first and hang up his hat, then trotted a few steps to get back to his side. The two of them made it about three yards in before both, simultaneously, noticed something wrong.

The door hadn't closed.

Michael turned, and Gavin turned with him. A cloud swallowed the moon outside, filling the house with shadows. Wind wheezed in through the open door, and for a moment Michael tried to convince himself that that was the only culprit. As he watched, however, the door swung shut of its own accord.

Ryan was standing behind it. Gavin went rigid at Michael's side and started growling low in his throat.

"You been avoidin' me," Ryan said quietly.

Michael froze up solid. His tongue clove to the roof of his mouth and could not be dislodged. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't even blink. Ryan's eyes were bright and cold—and in the darkness, that orange spark became visible, smoldering in the depths of them like hellfire. The shadows clung to him like smoke. There was a smell of blood and lightning.

"Any particular reason for that?" Ryan asked.

"Been busy," Michael said, his voice scarcely more than a whisper. Gavin bristled, the growl growing louder as his lips peeled back from his teeth. Michael fumbled for him, grabbed his bandanna and clutched it as tight as he could. He never took his eyes off Ryan.

"I do know you dislike bein' called a liar, Michael," Ryan said, smiling, showing teeth. "I don't believe I've ever mentioned how much I hate bein' lied to."

Michael's heart skipped a beat. His hands were shaking, sweating. Gavin was shivering in his grip. Every thump of his pulse in his ears was like a knife plunging into bloodied flesh.

"I . . . just. . . ." he said, struggling to breathe.

Ryan pushed off the wall. Gavin lunged for him, snarling. It was only Michael's hand that kept him back. Ryan stopped, then looked down at himself.

Slowly, the lightning faded out of him. Outside, the moon emerged from behind the clouds, spilling blue light in through the windows. When Ryan looked back up, there was no spark of hellfire in his eyes. Gavin settled, still bristling but now quiet. Ryan smiled sheepishly and smoothed his ponytail.

"If it's just that there's discussions you'd prefer we not have," he said, "I don't mind that."

"I—I think it's just that," said Michael, seizing upon this escape with immense relief. Gavin glanced at him, and then at Ryan, and then back at Michael. His ears flicked up and back again. He licked his lips and wagged his tail hopefully.

"Wish you woulda told me sooner," Ryan said. He laughed to himself and shook his head. "Got me goin' half crazy tryin' to work out what I did t' upset you."

"Only half?" Michael said, like an idiot.

Ryan raised his eyebrows.

"Sorry," Michael said. He pried his fingers off Gavin's bandanna. Gavin licked his hand, then went over and sniffed Ryan's feet. Ryan took a knee and scratched him behind the ears. Gavin licked his chin once, then trotted off into the kitchen.

"All's forgiven," Ryan said, shrugging and getting back to his feet. "I can understand how the broachin' of the subject might be uncomfortable for you. From here on out, though, I'd like it much better if you'd just talk to me."

"I don't know there's much talkin' to be done," said Michael.

"There's plenty!" said Ryan. "Thought we was partners, Michael. Friends, at least. Plenty of talkin' goes on with friends."

"Last time we talked, you made me shoot you," said Michael. That part could have happened. It was best not to think about why. He could get by without thinking about why. He rubbed his hand on the arm of his chair.

"Asked you to," said Ryan. "And there's no call to get so hung up on that. It ain't hurt me none."

"Yeah, well it scared the hell outta me," Michael said. He rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck, trying to ease the tension and discomfort.

"Ain't that funny," Ryan said, smiling to himself. "On account of the time we talked 'fore that, you declared you was gone shoot me dead. Several times."

Pain bloomed in Michael's chest. He winced and pressed a hand to it, but it worsened rapidly. His ears started ringing. Despite the fact he was sitting down, he started to come unbalanced, like his chair was about to tip him back onto the floor. He couldn't get enough air. Something was crushing his chest and wouldn't let up.

"Michael?" Ryan said.

"I—somethin's wrong—" he gasped.

"Michael." Ryan took a knee next to him, serious and urgent. "Talk to me, what's happenin'?"

"Don't know," he said, struggling to breathe. "I cain't—I cain't breathe, I—Gavin, where's Gavin?"

Ryan took his wrist, two fingers pressed to his pulse. He stood swiftly.

"Sit tight," he said. "I'm gettin' Doc."

"Wh—Ryan? Wait, where're you—what's—what's wrong with me?"

"You're gone be fine, Michael," Ryan said. The speed with which he left said otherwise.

Chapter Text

"Well, whatever it was, I guess it's done now," Lindsay said, straightening up. "Nothin' set it off?"

"Nothin' I saw," said Ryan, one shoulder leaned up against the wall. "We was just talkin', then all of a sudden, he went white as a sheet and started gaspin'. I was scared it was his heart, way he was clutchin' his chest."

"You check his pulse or anythin'?"

"Yes ma'am," said Ryan. "Couldn't hardly find it, it was that weak. That's about when I decided I'd better get you."

"Hm," said Lindsay. She turned back to Michael. "You're sure nothin' set it off? You wasn't overly agitated or nothin'?"

"Not . . . overly," said Michael. "I think—I think Ryan's right. It just up and happened, for no reason I could tell."

"You ain't hit any bumps right beforehand? Somethin' like that?"

"Naw, Doc, we was just . . . sittin' and talkin'," said Michael. He wanted this conversation to be over. He wanted to curl up and shiver for a couple hours and then sleep for a couple days. He'd sat just where he was after Ryan had left, terrified and dizzy and freezing cold. Even when Gavin had climbed up in his lap, he hadn't been able to stop shaking.

He wanted some goddamn laudanum.

Lindsay had made a thorough investigation, checking all his vitals and a few other things besides, asking him questions about what had happened that he couldn't answer. Ryan had observed the whole process, providing additional information when asked. Michael still hadn't moved from his spot in the entryway.

Lindsay sighed. "Wellp, maybe it was just a one-time thing," she said. "We'll hope. If it happens again, though, we'll . . . we'll get a li'l more thorough with it. Meantime, just try and take it as easy as you can."

"Sure," said Michael. He glanced at Ryan, who was watching him. A cold pit opened up in his stomach. He looked away again.

"If y'all don't need anythin' else from me," Ryan said, "I think I'd best go on home."

"Yeah, go on," said Lindsay.

"If I could borrow you for a moment, 'fore I do?" he said to her.

Lindsay's eyes narrowed. "All right," she said.

He put a gentle hand on her back and walked her to the door. Michael's jaw clenched so hard it was a wonder he didn't crack his teeth.

Surreptitiously, he eased along behind them so he could overhear what was said.

"How bad is it?" Ryan asked softly, just outside the front door.

"Hard to say," said Lindsay. "Coulda been just some kinda hysteria, or it coulda been his heart. The one's harmless but unpleasant, the other'll kill him."

"Any way to tell the difference?"

"Well, if he drops dead, it was prob'ly his heart."

"I don't find that particularly funny," said Ryan.

"Neither do I," she sighed. "Most we can do now is keep an eye on him."

There was a lull. The boards of Michael's porch creaked. He moved to the kitchen window, keeping his head down. Ryan and Lindsay's voices were fainter, but still audible.

"Could it be the same thing as got Ray?" Ryan asked.

"Oh, Jesus," said Lindsay.

"We never did find what it was. Maybe it took longer to set in with Michael on account of him bein' more robust, or maybe it's only hittin' now on account of him gettin' busted up so bad—"

"Ray never had any trouble with his heart," Lindsay said. "Damn near everythin' else, but never his heart. It ain't the same thing."

"You're sure?" he pressed.

She hesitated.

"Pretty sure," she said.

"Lindsay," he said, and his voice was soft and hurt. "I don't wanna lose him, too."

More creaking of boards. A shadow crossed the window. Michael held his breath—then, upon consideration, just tried to breathe as quietly as possible.

"Neither do I," said Lindsay.

"Oh," said Ryan. "You too, huh?"

"You're a goddamn scoundrel," Lindsay said affectionately.

"No no, far be it from me to get in the way of anythin'," said Ryan. Michael could hear the smile in his voice.

"Well, he ain't said nothin' about it, and knowin' Michael, he ain't gonna, so currently you ain't in anybody's way," said Lindsay.

"Might I suggest sayin' somethin' yourself," said Ryan.

"No and no," said Lindsay. "I got better things to do than go chasin' after men. Like makin' sure they don't drop dead."

"A fine and noble enterprise," said Ryan. "Which I'd be more'n happy to contribute to."

"I don't know what the hell you think you're gonna do, but I appreciate the offer."

"Well, I run fast and I know where you stay at," Ryan said. "Figure those are useful enough talents."

There was a clicking of nails on hardwood, and Gavin came up to stick his face in Michael's lap.

"Hey boy," Michael said, rubbing him behind the ears. "You ain't gonna tattle on me, are you?"

Gavin blew out a breath through his nose. Michael kissed his head.

"Yeah, that's a good boy," said Michael.

Behind him, the front door opened again, so he made himself busy pretending like he'd been finding something for Gavin to eat. Lindsay came into the kitchen and Michael glanced up at her.

"What'd he want?" he asked.

Lindsay rolled her eyes and shrugged.

"Who the hell ever knows what Ryan wants," said Lindsay. "But between you and me, I think you scared him half to death."

"Me?" said Michael, making a face. He found a couple biscuits in the pantry and handed one to Gavin. Gavin took it politely and then trotted off to tear it apart under the table.

"Well, somethin' did," said Linsday. "I've never known the man to run anyplace of his own accord, but he hauled ass to get me here."

"Don't see what that's got to do with me," Michael said.

"Of course you don't, 'cuz you're a dumbass," said Lindsay.

"Yeah, well," said Michael. He shrugged, keeping his eyes down.

"You sure you're feelin' all right?" Lindsay asked.

"I'm fine," he said.

"If you say so," she sighed. "Did y'all at least get a chance to eat somethin' beforehand?"

"Huh?" said Michael, frowning.

"Leastways I assume that's what Ryan was doin' here," she said, her eyes narrowing. "Though I note all your lights was out when I arrived."

"Uh—uh, well, uh," said Michael, going hot under the collar. "Yeah. No, there—I stayed back at the—the sheriff's station, 'cuz my legs was actin' up and . . . and I'd just got back, and we talked for a li'l while, and then. . . . So no dinner. Uh. Yeah."

For some reason, this didn't convince her. Lindsay folded her arms.

"Michael," she said, warning. "What happened?"

"Nothin'!" he said. "Nothin' happened. It's fine, I'm fine, I can feed myself, you can go away."

"Is there somethin' you wanna tell me?"

"No," he said, which was absolutely true. If he could un-tell himself, he would. It probably hadn't happened like he remembered it. It must have all been in his head, all the preternatural disquiet and the unspoken threat in Ryan's voice.

"If you say so," Lindsay said, shaking her head. "Have a good night, Michael. I'll be seein' you."

"Yep," said Michael. "You too."


 

When Michael got to the station the next morning, Ryan was loitering outside. Gavin went trotting up to him, and Ryan gave him a warm welcome before letting him inside to go bother Geoff.

"Mornin'," Michael said, fighting down his automatic discomfort.

"Mornin'," Ryan said, settling back in against the wall. "Feelin' all right?"

"Fine," said Michael. "What're you doin' out here?"

"Oh, I'm waitin' on Jeremy," said Ryan, pushing his hat back with one finger. "I assume he's gone have some grievances to work out with me, and I don't much want it done indoors. Sheriff's got a bothersome habit of tryin' to prevent folks from workin' out their grievances expediently."

"Ex-whatee-yently?" said Michael.

"Expediently; quick-like," said Ryan. "Talk's all well and good, but—ah."

His head lifted, his attention caught. Michael followed his gaze and saw Jeremy. He saw Jeremy catch sight of Ryan and make a beeline for him. Ryan pushed off the wall and unfolded his arms.

"Mornin', Jeremy," he said, when Jeremy was within earshot.

Jeremy stormed up to him and decked him right across the mouth, so hard it knocked his hat off. Michael flinched. Ryan staggered back a step. For a moment, he didn't move.

Slowly, he picked up his hat, dusted it off, and settled it back on his head. He wiped the blood off his lip with his thumb. He looked down at it, and then up at Jeremy, and then inclined his head.

"That's fair," he said.

"We all right?" Jeremy asked, tense but not angry.

"I'm all right if you're all right," Ryan said.

Jeremy shrugged, then fidgeted. "Yeah, I'm all right," he said. He smiled shyly. "Fightin' friends?"

"Always, Fightin' Friend," said Ryan. He presented the sheriff's station to Jeremy with a smile and an elegant sweep of the hand. "After you!"

"Yeah, glad you're feelin' back to normal," said Jeremy, rolling his eyes. He stomped up the ramp into the station. The door drifted shut behind him.

The moment his back was turned, Ryan's smile got a lot more smug.

"You look awful pleased with yourself," Michael said.

Ryan turned to look at him, eyebrows raised. His eyes glittered.

"Oh?" he said politely.

Michael swallowed. It wasn't real. He'd imagined it. This was just Ryan, just Ryan a little confused about why Michael would say something like that. The unblinking intensity of his gaze was not a threat. Everyone knew Ryan was mostly harmless. Everyone knew that.

Mostly.

"Well—well kinda, sorta," Michael stammered. "Sensible you would. I guess."

Ryan didn't say anything, but his smile curled out a little farther. Michael cleared his throat and gripped his wheels, then pushed off after Jeremy. He did not look at Ryan.

A hand closed on his shoulder and he froze. Ryan leaned down, slowly, slowly, and spoke so close to Michael's ear that his breath raised goosebumps on his skin.

"Not for no reason," he whispered. He patted Michael's shoulder, straightened up, and sauntered into the station, whistling.

Michael couldn't move for a good five seconds afterwards. Everything between the top of his head and his elbow tingled. He rubbed his shoulder absently, shut his eyes and let out a breath. He worked his jaw, trying to make himself stop clenching his teeth. It was suddenly a lot warmer out.

"What the damn hell," he muttered under his breath, and went inside.


 

The following days passed in a strange, awkward haze. While Michael could no longer avoid Ryan—because it was rude, he told himself—he at least managed to avoid being alone with Ryan. If Ryan noticed his efforts, he didn't say anything about it, and was generally pleasant, courteous, and slightly off-putting.

On the third day, somebody else brought it up.

"Hey, while he's out with the mail," Jeremy said, apropos of nothing. "Anybody else think Ryan's been worse ever since he got back?"

"Oh hell yes he has," Jack said immediately. "But it ain't since he got back, it's since he found out about Collins."

"Not a helluva lotta lead time there, Jackie," said Jeremy.

"Trust me," said Jack. "It's since Collins."

"It's none of our business," Geoff said sanctimoniously, "and so we shouldn't be gossipin' about him when he ain't here."

"Bullshit, you love gossipin'," said Jeremy.

"Only when I ain't in the room, 'cuz he knows I'll give him shit for it," Jack interjected.

"And you know Ryan ain't been right lately," Jeremy went on, ignoring her.

"He still handled Denecour like a champ," said Geoff. "Squeezed him for ten dollars each to Frankie and Alfredo and still left on good terms with the man."

"Yeah, I know he can still do his job, Sheriff, that ain't what concerns me," said Jeremy.

"You got a personal concern, you come talk to me in private," Geoff said. "You don't go airin' dirty laundry in front of the whole station."

"All right, so let's go on and talk in private somewhere," Jeremy said, getting to his feet.

Geoff let out a put-upon sigh and set aside his work. Muttering to himself, he took Jeremy outside and the two of them wandered off.

"I can tell you exactly why Ryan's upset," Jack said, "and exactly what'll fix it. If you wanna hear."

"Why me in particular?" said Michael, apprehensive.

"'Cuz you're the one who can fix it," she said. "You wanna hear?"

Michael chewed his lip. If it would lower the tension that had been lingering in the station for the past days, it was probably worth it. If it could make him less uneasy about Ryan, it was definitely worth it.

"Shoot," said Michael.

"He's still stung 'cuz we brought Collins on to take over for him," she said. "Insulted his pride. But more'n that, it's 'cuz he thinks you like Collins more'n him."

Michael made a face. "That's dumb," he said. "Why the hell would he even care?"

"Michael, for all Geoff talks about you bein' smart, you are one dumb sonnuva bitch," said Jack, shaking her head.

"So explain it to me, goddammit!" Michael snapped. "Any time anybody talks about me and Ryan in the same goddamn breath, it's like there's some fuckin' joke I ain't in on! Hell, even Ryan does it! I'm goddamn tired of it!"

"It really ain't my place to say," said Jack.

"Then why the hell're you bringin' it up?"

"Because, dumbass, if you go and talk to him, and make damn sure he knows Collins was a shitty replacement, it'll fix all this," she retorted.

"Why's it gotta be me? Why cain't you do it?"

"'Cuz he wants to hear it from you," said Jack. Michael opened his mouth and she held up a hand. "And if you wanna know why, you gotta ask him."

Michael sat there fuming for a moment, drumming his fingers on the arms of his chair. He glanced out the window. He wrinkled his nose.

"I'm gonna tell you why I find this all hard to swallow," he said. "It's 'cuz Trevor somehow got around to thinkin' Ryan was jealous of him."

"Even a stopped clock's right twice a day," said Jack.

"But it's fuckin' ridiculous, Jack!" Michael cried. "Why the hell would Ryan—Ryan—be jealous of Trevor? That'd be like fuckin' . . . Thomas Edison bein' jealous of some cowpoke!"

Jack's eyebrows lifted, and she leaned back in her chair.

"I will pay you four dollars to say that to Ryan's face," she said.

"What?" Michael said, going red from his hips to his scalp. "No way in hell, fuck you. And don't you dare tell him I said it, neither."

"Five dollars if you let me watch," Jack said, smiling.

"Go to hell," said Michael. "I don't want your damn money and I sure as hell ain't—he'd get a swelled head about it. You cain't hardly say nothin' nice about the man without him fuckin' preenin' at you all day. I'd never hear the end of it."

"You can't, sure," said Jack.

"Jackie," Michael growled.

Jack sighed and rolled her eyes and shook her head.

"Listen, Michael," she said, leaning her elbows on her desk. "I want this fixed just as much as the next gal, all right? It's goddamn unbearable, bein' stuck in here with everybody walkin' on eggshells all the time. Will you at least try talkin' to him? See if I'm right?"

Michael rubbed the back of his neck and shrugged.

"Guess it's worth a shot," he mumbled. "But if it goes to hell, I'm blamin' you."

"That's fine," said Jack. "If it goes well, I better get a thank-you."

"Yeah yeah," said Michael. "You're gonna have to wait at least 'til he gets back from Vernon."

"That's fine, too," said Jack. "It'll give you time to think up what you're gonna say."

"I don't make a habit of thinkin' about what I'm gonna say."

"Holy shit, really?" Jack said flatly. "Nobody ever woulda guessed."

"Oh, go to hell, Jackie."

"You want one more piece of advice?"

"No."

"Leave Gavin at home," said Jack. At the sound of his name, Gavin whacked the floor with his tail a couple times, without lifting his head.

"Hell no," said Michael.

"C'mon now, have a li'l faith," said Jack, smiling at him. "Ryan's never gonna be payin' full attention to you while that dog's in the room."

"Yeah, I like it that way," Michael said.

"And you're never gonna be able to pay full attention to him," Jack went on. "Which I bet you like a lot less."

Before Michael could say anything, Jeremy and Geoff came back in.

"Wellp, we got a conclusion," Geoff said.

"Which is?" Jack asked.

"Jeremy's a nosy li'l fucker."

"Hey!"

"That's the only conclusion I came to," Geoff said, settling into his chair.

"Fine, see if I ever ask you for help again," said Jeremy.

"I get that you're concerned, Li'l J," Geoff said, rolling his eyes. "I'm concerned, too. But there ain't much can be done about it just now, awright?"

"I don't want him goin' off again, Sheriff," said Jeremy.

"I understand that," said Geoff. "Bein' that you and me just had this conversation outside. So I'll go ahead and tell everybody else what I told you: just leave Ryan the hell alone, and let him deal with it, and it'll all come out fine."

There was a collective mumble of Yessir.

"What was that?" Geoff said loudly, cupping a hand to his ear.

"Yes, sir!"

Chapter Text

"Hey, I been lookin' everywhere for you," Michael said, pulling up to the corner table. Bragg's saloon was raucous around him. There was a Gavin-shaped hole at his side. "The hell're you doin' in here?"

Ryan raised an eyebrow and his glass. He had his feet propped up on the chair across from him, his back to the wall.

"Well, mon cher, through careful observation, a person might conclude I was drinkin'," he said, and proceeded to do so.

"Naw, but—fine," said Michael. "You got a minute?"

Ryan set his glass down immediately.

"For you? All the time in the world," he said, sitting forward and taking his feet off the chair. "What is it you need?"

"How drunk're you?" Michael asked, cautious.

"Caught me on my second," said Ryan. "So barely. Where's Gavin?"

Somebody bumped the back of Michael's head with an elbow. He glared at them, and they apologized profusely before melting back into the crowd. The noise was starting to grate on Michael's ears.

"You mind if we go someplace else to talk?" he asked Ryan.

"Not a bit," he said. "I'll go and ask ole Bragg if his private room's empty."

"Sure," said Michael.

Ryan got up and waded out into the crowd, taking his drink with him. Michael moved partway into the space he'd vacated to get further away from passing elbows. Presently, Ryan caught his eye through the crowd and cocked his head towards the back of the saloon. Michael nosed his way through the press of bodies, often having to tap people on the arm to get them to move. It took a good two minutes just to get through the crowd. Ryan was waiting for him, holding the door to the private room open.

Michael went inside and parked his chair at an empty space at the round table. A single red lamp hung overhead, dim and sultry. Ryan shut the door, muffling the hubbub of the saloon. He settled into the chair across from Michael's and put his elbows on the table. He sipped his drink and set it aside.

"So what'd you need?" he asked.

Michael licked his lips and looked anywhere but at Ryan. The intensity of his gaze was still uncomfortable, even after so much exposure.

"Felt like maybe I oughtta loop you in on uh . . . on Collins," he said.

"Oh," said Ryan.

He picked up his glass and began draining it. Michael tried to speak when he was halfway through, and Ryan held up a finger until he finished. He set the empty glass down with a definitive thunk, then fixed Michael with a hard look and a harder smile.

"So what about Trevor?" he said sweetly.

"He's uh . . . been helpin' me," said Michael. "With tryin' to figure out who pushed me in the ravine. I know Sheriff told me not to, but wasn't nobody else doin' it, so . . . yeah. Trevor's been helpin'."

"Woulda thought just about anybody else woulda been better for that job," Ryan said. "Pile of horseshit, maybe."

"Jesus, Ryan," said Michael, making a face.

"He's real pretty though, I'll give him that," Ryan said, showing teeth. "That's about all he's got, but I guess it's all he needs, ain't it."

"You really are jealous," Michael realized. Something lit up warm and pink in his chest.

"Perish the thought," said Ryan. "You mind if I go back for a third round? Only if it's gone be talk about Trevor all night, I'm gone need it."

"You said you wanted me to talk to you, so I'm goddamn doin' it," Michael snapped. "Had to leave my dog at home and drag my ass all over hell and gone lookin' for you, drag my ass into this shithole of a saloon and get elbowed in the head, so if you're gonna get catty about it, I'm gonna go the hell home and you can stay here and wallow. Get your head outta your ass and listen, goddammit."

Ryan blinked. He sat back and looked at the far corner of the room, pressing the backs of his thumbs to his lips. He thought for a moment, then rested his cheek on his clasped hands.

"Yessuh," he said. He flashed a smile at Michael. "I'm listenin'."

Michael rolled his shoulders and shook his head.

"All right," he said. "So I had Collins askin' around, tryin' to find out who was where when it was all happenin'."

"Which folks?" said Ryan.

"I got a list," said Michael.

"Am I on it?" Ryan asked, eyes twinkling.

"Yes," said Michael. Ryan was in some kind of a mood, and he didn't want to test it by lying. "So's Mad Meg, Jon Risinger, Scarcello and Diaz. . . ."

"And?" said Ryan.

"Couple other folks," Michael mumbled.

"Jack and Jeremy," said Ryan.

Michael rubbed the arms of his chair, looking anywhere but at Ryan.

"It ain't impossible," he said. "Just wanted to be thorough."

"On account of you bein' 'tween them and sheriffhood?" said Ryan.

"And on account of both of 'em bein' former outlaws," said Michael.

"Praise Jesus, you finally figured it out," Ryan sighed, rolling his eyes. "I was wonderin' how much longer it was gone take. Been drivin' me up the damn wall."

"Well I sure do appreciate you never fuckin' tellin' me about it," Michael snapped.

"Sheriff very much insisted you was not to be told," said Ryan. "Are Jack and Jeremy aware you know yet? Only there was a bettin' pool."

"The less Jack and Jeremy are aware of, the better," said Michael.

"I sincerely doubt either of 'em made an attempt on your life," said Ryan. "Neither one was ever particularly hard."

"Compared to what?" said Michael.

"Compared to who," Ryan said. "Don't guess you'll believe me if I tell you it wasn't me."

"Would you tell me if it was?" Michael asked.

"Michael, if I was gone kill you, I'd at least do you the courtesy of finishin' the job," Ryan said kindly.

Michael fidgeted in his chair. He rubbed the back of his neck.

"Sure," he said. "Anyways, I had Collins askin' around. He ain't found much, but I figured he could at least narrow down the list a li'l bit."

"And that he could inquire into Jack and Jeremy without raisin' as much ire," Ryan said.

"That too," said Michael. "He ain't found nothin', but he ain't got himself killt yet either, so I figure he's doin' all right."

"For a given value," Ryan allowed.

Michael ignored this. "Problem is, Diaz is his half-brother," he said. "So I cain't trust anythin' he says about the man."

"I don't know that you can trust anythin' he says about anybody," Ryan said.

"God dammit, Ryan, could you lay off for two fuckin' minutes?" Michael said, throwing his hands up.

"Naw, Michael, this ain't about my personal opinion of Trevor," Ryan said. "He's a sweetheart, and I like him just fine, personally. But you could genuinely buy the man for a silver dollar."

"I'm gonna ask how you know that, and I'm gonna regret it," Michael mumbled. He was starting to wish he'd had a couple drinks.

"Naw, you probably won't, on account of I'm not gone tell you," said Ryan. "Some things you're better off not knowin', chéri."

"Is whatever the fuck monn sherry means one of 'em?" Michael demanded. "'Cuz Jeremy wouldn't fuckin' tell me either, and—"

Suddenly, the door swung open. Ryan got to his feet, his hand going to his knife.

Mad Meg Turney slipped in and shut the door behind her. Although dim, the red lamp overhead was still brighter than the moon, and revealed just how much the beating a couple months back had rearranged her face. Her nose was crooked, one of her eyes skewed. There were pink scars on her forehead and cheeks, still swollen.

"Well!" she said, grinning at Ryan. A couple of her teeth were gold. "You sure are a hard man to find."

"I don't aim to be," Ryan said politely. "Was there somethin' you needed, Miz Turney?"

"Considerin' I did ask you to meet me, I'd think that was pretty obvious," she said.

Michael narrowed his eyes and kept his mouth shut. He watched Ryan carefully.

"My sincerest apologies," said Ryan. "Time got away from me. I wasn't aware it was urgent enough to warrant interruptin' other conversations."

"I dunno that urgent would be the word," Meg said, approaching him slowly. "But I do insist that my time be respected, Deputy Haywood."

"Which nobody could begrudge you for," Ryan said. He almost took a step back, then dug in his heels. "I'm willin' to finish my conversation with Deputy Jones at a later time, if it's that important."

"Good," said Meg. She came to stand too close to Ryan, cocking a hip out and touching his arm. "I been meanin' to get you alone."

Ryan offered an indulgent smile and tipped his head. He gently removed his arm from under her hand, backing away half a step.

"I s'pose now's your chance," he said, "if Michael doesn't mind too terribly."

"I couldn't give two shits what Michael wants," Meg said. She stepped forward one more time and put a hand on Ryan's chest, pushing him up against the wall. "He can stay and watch, if he wants. Though I'd prefer it if we could go upstairs, where there's beds."

"All right, hey now," Michael said, going hot all over. That pink light in his chest was turning red. "I ain't stickin' around, if that's the kinda damn meetin' this's gonna be."

"I'd sure like it if it was," Meg said, looking up at Ryan through her eyelashes, pressing ever closer to him now that he couldn't back away. "And I bet Deputy Haywood here wouldn't mind the company of a kind lady."

"'Fraid I already got a lady in my life, Miz Turney," Ryan said dolefully, casting his eyes heavenward.

"You do?" she pouted.

"You do?" Michael exclaimed.

Ryan drew his gun and set the barrel of it against Meg's temple. She froze solid. He smiled, holding her gaze.

"This here's my Lover," he said softly. "She treats me right, but she does get mighty jealous. Gen'rally content to stay quiet about it, but she's been known to cut loose, if a lady gets too friendly with me."

Meg made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a purr. She wrapped her hand around Ryan's wrist and carefully stepped back, out from the line of fire. To Michael's horror, she then leaned in and pressed a kiss to the gun's cylinder. She held Ryan's gaze the whole time, so she probably didn't see his other hand clench on his knife, white-knuckled.

"Maybe she'll come around to sharin'," Meg said. "Seems like she might be more woman than you can handle on your own, Deputy. Bet you we could work somethin' out, the three of us."

"Oh, sure," said Ryan. "We'd both of us love to have a piece of your mind, Miz Turney."

She patted his wrist and stepped back. He wiped the gun's cylinder with his sleeve and put it back in its holster, holding her gaze relentlessly.

"You just lemme know when and where," Meg said. Her smile was painted on. Her eyes darted to Michael. She curtsied and fluttered her eyelashes at him. "You can come too, if you want."

"Jesus God, woman, take a hint and fuck off," said Michael.

Meg's eyes flicked between Ryan and Michael. They settled on Michael.

"Oh," she said quietly. "Oh, Deputy Jones, I do most sincerely apologize for excludin' you from these proceedin's."

"Go to hell," said Michael, turning red.

Meg turned towards him. He shrank back in his chair, his lip curling.

"You know, I been wonderin'," Meg said, her eyes half-lidded. She took a slow, sinuous step. "How much of you's still in workin' condition. Easy way to find ou—"

Ryan grabbed her by the hair and slammed her face-first into the wall. She yelped. He jammed the tip of his knife against the small of her back and she went rigid. Her fingernails dug into the wallpaper. Ryan leaned in and spoke into her ear, quietly and at length. She didn't move until he shoved himself back from her and thrust the knife back into its sheath.

"C'mon, Michael," he said. His voice was perfectly casual. His eyes were fixed on Mad Meg's back. "I think we'd best be gettin' you home to Gavin."

"Yeah," said Michael, red-faced and shivering. He made his way out of the room, back into the hubbub of the saloon. Ryan came after him. Despite the crowd, a path cleared itself for the two of them, and soon they were back out in the streets. The cool air wicked some off the heat off Michael's skin, but not enough of it. His heart was pounding and wouldn't settle. The air was thin. It was dark out, lacy clouds diffusing the light of the moon.

For a while, neither of them said anything. Michael set course for his house, and Ryan ambled along next to him. He still had one hand resting on his knife.

"You all right?" Ryan asked at last.

"Fine," said Michael. "Uh. You all right?"

"Pissed off," Ryan said mildly.

"How come?" said Michael.

"I have a severe distaste for folks who refuse to hear the word no," said Ryan. "Besides, she had no right to be talkin' about you like that. Downright uncivilized."

"What'd you say to her?"

Ryan looked at him askance. "You sure you wanna know?" he asked.

Michael thought about it.

"I think so," he said. "Unless you think I'm gonna regret it."

"Told her if she wanted to know about workin' parts so bad, I'd cut her spine and let her find out firsthand," said Ryan. "Not in quite so few words."

"God damn," said Michael, and couldn't keep the approval out of his voice. Ryan smiled his first genuine smile since Meg had turned up. He took his hand off his knife to smooth down his ponytail.

"Hoped you wouldn't mind too much," he said.

"Not too much," said Michael. He made a face. "Kinda makes me feel like I shoulda done somethin' when she was, uh . . . gettin' up close and personal with you."

"Naw," said Ryan. "It was unpleasant, sure, but nothin' I couldn't handle."

"Yeah, I saw you handlin' it," said Michael. "Don't mean you couldn'ta used some backup."

"Well, if you feel so inclined, you may feel free to step in next time somebody gets up close and personal with me," said Ryan. "I promise my pride won't be hurt."

Michael snorted. "I don't give a shit about your pride," he said.

"No, you sure don't," Ryan said fondly.

"So how uh . . . how drunk're you?" Michael asked.

"Slightly more'n I'd intended to be," Ryan said. He looked at Michael sidelong. "Why?"

"Well," said Michael. He cleared his throat. "Well, it's just, I got a bottle of whiskey sittin' at home not bein' drunk, and . . . wondered if you might wanna help out with that. 'Stead of goin' straight on home."

Ryan grinned like sunrise on the first day of spring.

"Michael, I would be honored and delighted," he said.


 

"What d'you figure she was after?" Michael asked.

"Hm?" said Ryan. He had his stockinged feet propped up on Michael's knee, his elbow on the table and his chin in his hand. He'd had about as much whiskey as Michael and was considerably drunker.

"Turney," said Michael. "Why d'you figure she set up that meetin' with you?"

"Oh," said Ryan. He wrinkled his nose and shook his head. "She neglected to mention. Though I feel confident you and I saw firsthand what she was after."

"That bein' mainly you," said Michael, who wasn't sober, either.

"That bein' mainly me," said Ryan, his lip curling. "I'll tell you, Michael, I was aware she was connivin', I had no inclination she was up to playin' Jezebel."

"Then you wasn't payin' attention," said Michael.

"Mon chéri, it is one of the greatest delights of my life to pay no attention to women like Miz Turney," said Ryan, smiling at him.

"They sure don't make it easy for you."

"They most surely don't." He finished his latest cup of whiskey, probably either the tenth or eleventh.

"You don't ever get lonesome?" Michael asked.

"Oh, sure, Michael," said Ryan. "But that's what folks like—"

He broke off suddenly, buttoning his lip as his eyes went wide.

"Folks like who?"

"I oughtta be gettin' home," Ryan said. With some difficulty, he took his feet down off Michael's knee and started fumbling his boots back on.

"You always fuckin' do this," Michael said, scowling. "You always almost say some shit and then change the subject and walk off."

"And you got me drunk," Ryan said, tapping the air with one finger. "On purpose, don't lie. I can't be talkin' to you when I'm this drunk, chéri. Shouldn't be talkin' t' anybody, matter of fact."

"Naw, c'mon, Ryan," Michael wheedled. "Everybody says dumb shit when they're drunk. It ain't nobody but you and me here."

"It's the you and me that concerns me!" Ryan said glibly. "And it ain't the sayin' so much as the doin'."

"All right," Michael grumbled. He tugged the braking stick out of his wheel and started for the front door. He took the bump out of the kitchen carefully enough that it didn't set off his legs. He glanced back once he was in the entryway. Ryan was standing next to the table, one hand upraised, eyes squeezed shut.

"Ryan?" said Michael said, half-turning to face him. "You all right?"

"Tryin' not to throw up on your floor," Ryan said. He made a face, then pried his eyes open and made a concerted wobble towards Michael.

He tripped on the bump.

Michael caught him, one hand clasping his forearm and one flat-palm against his chest. Ryan grabbed onto his shoulder. His thumb pressed against Michael's neck, skin to skin. The two of them locked eyes. Michael went hot all over. Ryan's cheeks were flushed, his heart pounding under Michael's hand, his lips parted in surprise. For a frozen, timeless instant, neither of them moved. Ryan bit his lip and smiled.

"Oh, yessuh, I most surely do need to go home right now," he said. There was a hitch in his voice somewhere between laughter and breathless panic.

"How come?" said Michael, not so full of breath himself.

"I sincerely wish I could tell you," said Ryan, "but I'm concerned it might become more of a demonstration."

"Don't know if I like the sound of that."

"Which is why I oughtta go home."

Michael didn't let go of him. Ryan made no attempt to extract himself. His body was warm, his eyes bright. His tongue poked out and moistened his lips. His throat bobbed as he swallowed.

"Sure would be easier if you'd let go of me," he said helplessly.

"Oh," said Michael. With more care than was probably called for, he propped Ryan back upright and let go of him. A cold spot lingered on his neck where Ryan's thumb had rested. Ryan smoothed his ponytail down and took a few tottering steps towards the front door.

"I'll give you this," he said, amused. "You sure don't do nothin' by half measures."

"I never seen you drunk," said Michael. "I wanted to know what it looked like."

"Aw, Michael," Ryan said. Michael saw the shiver run up his spine. "That's downright manipulative. You been learnin' more from me than I thought."

"Turnabout's fair play," said Michael.

Ryan giggled, then pressed the back of his hand to his mouth. Gavin wandered in and looked up at him hopefully.

"Hey there," Ryan said to him. "You need somethin', ami?"

"He thinks you gotta kiss him before you can leave," said Michael. "It's 'cuz Doc loves on him on her way out."

Ryan knelt down and took Gavin's face in his hands. He kissed him on the forehead and stroked his ears.

"Au revoir," he crooned. "Mon petit chat. Chat? Non, tu n'es pas un chat. Qu'es-tu?"

Gavin licked his nose. Ryan grinned and laughed.

"Mon petit Gavin," he said. "Au revoir, je t'aime."

He kissed Gavin's forehead again and then got to his feet, one hand against the wall for balance.

"Sure you're gonna be able to get home?" Michael asked.

"Oh, sure, Michael," said Ryan, swaying where he stood. "I'm fine."

"How drunk're you?" said Michael.

Ryan leaned more heavily on the wall, grinning.

"I'm havin' a great time," he said.

"You don't gotta go," Michael said. "I got plenty of space here. Doc stays over, time to time, I got a spare room and everythin'."

"Sugar, darlin', baby, no," said Ryan, patting the air. "I really sincerely have to go home now."

"Well, all right," Michael sighed, his ears and cheeks burning from the outpouring of endearments. "I heard that no."

"Mon Dieu, je t'aime, toi aussi, chéri," Ryan murmured, doe-eyed and rosy-cheeked.

"What?" said Michael.

"Said good night, Michael," Ryan said. "Take care, now."

"Yeah yeah," said Michael. "Go on home."

Ryan offered him one last fond smile, then let himself out the front door.

"You and your goddamn French shit," Michael said, but he said it smiling.

Chapter Text

Michael spent the following morning hungover, but less miserable than usual. Jack dropped by at lunchtime in a supremely good mood.

"I bet I know exactly what you got up to last night," she said, the moment Michael opened the door for her. Michael went red.

"Huh?" he said.

Jack swanned in and made herself at home in the kitchen.

"And I'll go ahead and tell you: I'm gonna be handin' out the I-told-you-so's for the next week," she went on.

"God's sake," Michael muttered, rubbing his head.

"I'm not sure what all you said to him, but boy howdy, did it ever work," Jack said. "You fixed Ryan up but good. Leastways I assume you did. It might just be the hangover. But hey, that works, too!"

"Look, if I say you were right, will you shut up about Ryan?" Michael said. He pulled on his sleeves and the collar of his shirt. It was a lot warmer all of a sudden.

"Throw in a thanks, Jack and I'll consider it," she said.

Michael sighed and rolled his eyes and threw up his hands.

"Thanks, Jack, you were right," he muttered.

"There now, was that so hard?" she asked, teasing.

"Only 'cuz you made it hard."

She laughed. Michael rolled his eyes and paid a lot of attention to Gavin, mostly to cover up the fact that the pink light was back in his chest, brighter than ever. Jack took pity on him and changed the subject, chattering on about what all the women in town had been up to of late. Michael kept his comments to a minimum, partially because he was hungover and partially because he was wary of accidentally insulting Jack. He found most of it mundane and the rest boring, but there were enough useful tidbits thrown in that he managed to keep from checking out completely.

After a while, Jack ran out of things to say. The silence wasn't sudden, but it was prolonged enough that it got Michael's attention. He struggled to remember the last thing Jack had said, just in case it warranted a response.

"So uh . . . yeah," he said. "About that—all that."

Jack made a face and took a moment to respond.

"You mind talkin' a li'l business?" she asked.

"Depends on the business?" Michael guessed. His guts shifted with a premonition of dread.

Jack came over to the kitchen table and leaned a hip against it, folding her arms. She glanced back over her shoulder.

"I been lookin' into the Hullums," she said.

Michael went cold all the way to his bones. He gulped, then dug his fingernails into his palm. There was no reason to be nervous. He hadn't done anything wrong. She didn't know—she couldn't know, because it hadn't happened. He'd imagined it. The whole conversation had been in his head.

"Oh?" he said.

"Yeah," said Jack. "I felt like—I dunno, if we couldn't get 'em for the murder, maybe we could get 'em for somethin' else. And Michael, somethin' awful strange has been goin' on with the Mister."

"How so?" said Michael. He wiped his sweating palms on the arms of his chair.

"Well, first off, that minin' company he talked about? That's real," said Jack. "And he is one rich sonnuva bitch, I tell you what. Everywhere the man puts down a mine, he strikes a motherlode. Folks figure either he's a goddamn genius, or he's got the luck of the Devil."

"Which're you inclined towards?" Michael asked. His neck prickled.

"Neither," said Jack, "and here's why. Up until fifteen years ago, he was destitute. Poor as dirt. They love puttin' that in the columns, that he went from an ugly li'l prospector, pannin' for gold like all the other suckers, to this big-wig rich fella, pulled himself up by his bootstraps, all that bullshit. But nobody ever mentions how he did it."

"Foul play?"

"Had to've been," said Jack. "What I can't work out is how he's been keepin' the streak runnin' this long."

Michael chewed on this for a while.

"What about Burns?" he said.

Jack frowned. "What about Burns?"

"Was they friends? Rivals? The one married the other's ex-wife, that don't sound like total strangers to me."

"No idea," said Jack. "Nothin' I read ever mentioned 'em in the same breath. Part of what made me so suspicious about Missus. When rich women have troubles, usually everybody knows about it. Plus, her daisy-chainin' rich husbands like that looks mighty suspect."

"Yeah," said Michael. He took a slow breath through his nose and let it out again. "Naw, you're right, somethin' funny's goin' on with that. Just gotta figure out what."

"Hey, Michael?" said Jack. "Thanks for actually listenin'. Took you goddamn long enough."

Michael shrugged. "You was right about Burns," he said. "And right about uh . . . about Ryan. And you sure put the fear of gossip into Ashley Hullum. Even I ain't that stubborn, to ignore all of that."

"Nearly, though," said Jack.

"Hey, what, I try and say somethin' nice, and you're gonna be a jackass about it?"

"Don't act like you're doin' me no favors by takin' me seriously," said Jack. "You're payin' back a deficit, and don't forget it."

Michael sighed and muttered and fidgeted. A silence fell. He glanced out the windows, at the door, around the kitchen. His house was as isolated as ever.

"While we got the house to ourselves," he began.

Jack gave him a withering look. He raised his hands.

"All business," he assured her.

"Good," she said.

He fidgeted some more, rubbed the back of his neck, licked his lips.

"I wanna know about Narvaez," he said.

Jack's eyebrows shot up. She pushed off of the table to stand up straight.

"How come?" she said.

Michael took a deep breath. The house creaked in a gust of wind, and the front door rattled in its frame. From where he sat in the kitchen, Michael could just barely see the bullet hole he'd put in the far wall.

"I think he mighta been murdered," he said.

"'Course Ray was murdered," said Jack.

"You seem awful sure," Michael said, scowling. "Thought nobody ever found a body."

"Nobody ever did," said Jack. Her face was hard, her eyes flinty. "But I knew Ray. The last thing he ever woulda done is run off. Crazy or not. Naw, somebody killed him, I'm sure on that."

"Couldn'ta been a natural death?"

"If it was, then why ain't there a body?" Jack retorted.

"Maybe he wandered off. Fell down a ditch and died, somethin' likkat."

"We looked goddamn everywhere, Michael," Jack said heavily. "No sign of him. No footprints leadin' outta here, no blood, no bones. Nothin'. If he was crazy enough to be wanderin' off, he was too damn crazy to be coverin' his tracks that well."

"That's . . . fair," said Michael. "Then what makes you so sure he ain't run off, sane-like?"

"'Cuz Ray was the most loyal sonnuva bitch on God's green earth, that's what," said Jack. She smiled a wry little smile and shook her head. "Damn near only redeemin' quality he had."

"Were y'all uh . . . involved?" Michael asked.

Jack stared at him.

"Dear Jesus no," she said. "No, no, and hell no. No. God forbid. Not in—"

"I get it," said Michael.

"Ugh," said Jack, shuddering. "No. You wanna talk to somebody who was involved with Ray, you talk to Ryan."

Michael went hot all over. He rubbed his shoulder, then scratched the back of his head.

"Th—uh," he said.

"They was thick as thieves," Jack went on. "I ain't sure how involved they got, nor would I care to be. But the two of them for sure had some kinda connection goin' on, so you wanna know whatever there is to know about Ray, you ask Ryan."

"Right," said Michael. "Sure."

Jack regarded him with a measure of pity, which irritated Michael enough to get his mind unstuck.

"Quit lookin' at me likkat," he snapped. "Bet Ryan was pretty busted up, when Ray disappeared."

"And long before it, too," said Jack, which was not the answer Michael had wanted. "We was all of us hurtin' pretty bad in those days. It was near as bad as watchin' Geoff fall back on his drinkin'."

"Oh," said Michael. This gave him some pause. "That bad?"

Jack shook her head. "Bad enough," she said. "He wasn't . . . sensible. Much. Paranoid, hardly ever slept, always either mad as hell or scared out of his wits. It was rough, watchin' him hollow out like that, 'til there wasn't nothin' left but a shell.."

"Do you know what did it to him?" Michael asked. His skin was crawling. He glanced back over his shoulder for reasons he couldn't place.

"Some of us suspected poison," said Jack. "Somebody was puttin' somethin' in his water, or the like. He suspected it too. Landed him in Doc's clinic more'n once 'cuz he was too scared to eat or drink. We never did find out if that's what was happenin'."

"Y'all . . . did y'all uh . . . check? Or anythin'?" Michael said, shifting in his chair. The house seemed colder all of a sudden, the air thicker. He cracked his neck, trying to release some of the tension winding up it.

"Every damn thing we could get our hands on," said Jack. "Geoff even came and stayed with him for a couple weeks, drinkin' the same water and eatin' all the same food. Nothin' ever happened to him."

Michael's heart skipped a beat. Pain burst through his chest like a firework. He clutched the arms of his chair, gasping for breath. The room spun around him, so fast and at such an angle that it threatened to throw him to the ground. Jack caught him by the shoulders, saying his name, her voice muffled through the ringing in his ears.

"I—I don't—" he sputtered, dizzy and confused. "I don't feel right."

Jack said something about Doc. She touched his face and tried to look in his eyes. Everything was blurry, offset from itself. Michael fumbled for her wrists, trying to find something stable to hang onto. She extracted herself from his grip and moved away. Next thing he knew, Gavin was up in his lap, licking his face. Michael clutched his fur with both hands, hanging onto him for dear life. Jack said something else he couldn't make out.

"Gavin," he mumbled, while Gavin sniffed around his face and fidgeted under his grasping hands. "Boy. Hey. Stay—stay here, boy, stay with me."

Gavin sat down, leaning one shoulder heavily against Michael's chest. Michael pressed his face into Gavin's fur, breathing the dusty smell of him, clinging to the warmth of him. Gavin whined and licked Michael's ear.

"Good boy," said Michael. He couldn't shut his eyes, for fear that his dizziness would worsen. He stared at a knot in the floor, trying to pull it into focus, trying to make it hold still. "Good boy, Gavin."

Gavin's tail gave a tentative wag, and then he whined again, shifting in Michael's lap. Michael loosened his grip on Gavin's fur. He wrapped an arm around him instead, petting his chest and ears. The pain was starting to fade, but he was still having trouble breathing.

Long minutes passed. He learned how to breathe again. The pain left first, and then the fear, swamped by a leaden exhaustion. His left leg started jittering for no apparent reason, jostling Gavin enough that he hopped down out of Michael's lap. He stayed close by, though, and Michael kept a hand on him.

After a while, Jack returned with Lindsay in tow. Lindsay checked Michael over, more thoroughly than last time, but once again found nothing amiss. If Jack hadn't been there, Michael might have asked Lindsay to retrieve the laudanum from her clinic. He desperately needed a few hours of calm, of numbness, of rest. As it was, though, his pride wired his jaw shut quite firmly.

"Second time this's happened," Lindsay explained to Jack. "Did anythin' happen beforehand? Anythin' out of the ordinary?"

"Nothin'," Jack said helplessly. "We was just sittin' and talkin', and then bang, he goes white as a sheet and starts gaspin' like a fish outta water."

Lindsay turned to Michael. "How about you? You notice anythin' amiss beforehand? Inside or outside?"

"No," said Michael. "Same as last time, there was nothin'."

Scowling, Lindsay asked, "What were y'all talkin' about?"

"Just . . . stuff," said Michael, fidgeting.

"Ray," Jack answered. "We was talkin' about Ray, and what happened to him. Michael figured he was killed—which he's right about—and I was tellin' him what all I knew about it."

Lindsay pursed her lips and sighed through her nose.

"What?" Jack snapped.

"No, no, I ain't gettin' shitty with you about Ray," Lindsay said, waving a pacifying hand. "I know that's useless by now. I'm frustrated 'cuz it's startin' to look like it might just be plain ole hysteria."

"The hell it is!" Michael burst out.

"All right, take it easy," Lindsay said.

"Fuck you!" said Michael, choked up on his rage. "There's somethin' goddamn wrong with me, Doc! I ain't fuckin' hysterical, I ain't some—some faintin' bitch with a—"

The looks on Jack and Lindsay's faces silenced him instantly. He cleared his throat and tugged at his collar.

"What . . . what I meant to say, uh," he said, "was that that's a woman's illness. Hysteria. And I ain't . . . a woman. So it ain't that."

Jack turned to Lindsay, and Lindsay turned to Jack.

"You ever been hysterical, Jack?" Lindsay inquired.

"Not that I recall," Jack said coolly. "But surely you must've been."

"Never once," Lindsay said, matching her tone.

"Then you must've had woman patients that've been hysterical."

"Oh, some might call it that, but I never saw it," said Lindsay. "All my women patients always had legitimate grievances promptin' their problems. Like husbands."

"Or suitors."

"Or fathers."

"I get it," Michael growled.

"But Doc, hysteria's a well-documented phenomenon, though," Jack said, leaning against the kitchen table and putting a hand on her hip. "How'd that come to be?"

"Oh, mainly through men bein' doctors, I should think," said Lindsay. "Ain't sayin' hysteria ain't real, only that it's a symptom, not a sickness."

"Then why the hell—" Michael said.

"Symptom of what, though?" Jack asked.

"Generally? Of bein' a woman."

"Naw, I think it might be a symptom of a bad doctor."

"You know, I think you might be onto somethin' there," Lindsay said. Finally, she turned back to Michael. "I do believe there's somethin' wrong, Michael. Whether or not it's somethin' wrong with your head, now that, I don't know."

"What—what d'you mean, wrong with my head?" he said, thrown off-balance.

"I mean you damn near cracked your skull open when you went down that ravine," said Lindsay. "And by the look of you, Risinger landed a couple hits on that skull, too."

"This ain't all in my head, Doc," he protested. "And—how'd you know about Risinger?"

"Everybody knows about Risinger," said Lindsay. "It's been whole days. If your brain's busted, then it sure as hell is all in your head. But it ain't imaginary. I'm never gonna tell you it's imaginary."

Michael rubbed his face. The tingling was starting up in his legs, and something was squeezing his head in a vice. Surely, Jack wouldn't think less of him for requesting some relief from his pain, surely he could take one little dent in his pride. . . .

"Fine," he said. "Will y'all leave now?"

Jack and Lindsay shared a look.

"If you want," Jack said.

"I don't know that you oughtta be alone," Lindsay said.

"I got Gavin, I ain't alone," Michael said. He was too exhausted to bristle properly anymore. Gavin, hearing his name, came over and nosed around Michael's knee to see if there was food in it for him.

"I dunno," Lindsay said, uncertain.

"Doc, if I keel over dead, that's my damn problem," said Michael. "Would y'all fuck off now?"

"Fine, keel over dead, then," said Lindsay. "Hope the dog eats your stubborn goddamn face, too."

"Go to hell."

"Maybe I will!" said Lindsay, and made her exit.

"Uh," said Jack, her eyes flicking between the door and Michael. "Are y'all. . . ?"

"Don't finish that question, and go away," he said, scowling.

Jack shrugged. "All right," she said.

When she had gone, Michael subsided in his chair. That headache was only getting worse. The tingling in his legs was verging on painful.

"Gavin," he said heavily, "am I goin' crazy?"

Gavin's only response was to wedge the pantry open with his nose and climb in.

"God dammit," said Michael.


 

In the middle of the night, Michael was awakened by a loud thump.

His eyes snapped open. He went rigid in bed. Next to him, Gavin sat bolt upright, ears perked and nose twitching. Michael fumbled under his pillow and pulled out the paring knife he'd filched from the kitchen. It was laughably small, but at least it was sharp.

For almost a minute, he stayed perfectly still. His heart pounded in his ears. A cold breeze hissed through the cracks in the walls. Gavin kept sniffing the air.

"Stay," Michael told him.

He was shaking enough that getting into his chair was arduous. He kept freezing to listen, every ten seconds or so, when a particular creak of the house sounded too much like a footstep, a breath of wind too much like a whisper.

Slowly, and as quietly as he could, he made his way to the front door. He hesitated just inside it, listening, listening. All he could hear was the wind, the drumbeat of his own pulse.

With a steadying breath, he opened the door.

Michael screamed. He started so violently he almost fell out of his chair. Gavin ran to him, barking. Michael grabbed him by the scruff of the neck. He could do nothing else but stare in horror.

Lying on his doorstep was Jon Risinger's head.

Chapter Text

"Well holy goddamn shit," said Geoff.

He and all four deputies were gathered out on Michael's porch, staring at Risinger's head with varying amounts of confusion and horror. Gavin had been locked in Michael's bedroom to keep him from chewing on the evidence. Lindsay had been sent for, although nobody was quite sure what she was supposed to do. A crowd was gathering, keeping a judicious distance for the moment.

"Ryan?" said Jeremy.

"Hm?" said Ryan.

Jeremy gestured to the head. "Uh . . . you wanna have a look at it?"

"I was under th' impression we was already lookin' at it."

"Closer, though," said Jeremy.

Ryan gave him a meaningful look. Jeremy squirmed.

"It's just 'cuz you're the least squeamish outta everybody," he mumbled.

"Do it," Geoff said to Ryan.

With a shrug, Ryan slipped past Jack and crouched down next to the head. He studied it for a moment, then wrinkled his nose.

"Sawn off," he said. "From front to back, most likely while he was still alive. Musta let the majority of the blood drain out 'fore they brought him here, elsewise it'd make a neat li'l trail to follow."

"Can you tell how long he's been dead?"

Ryan reached out and laid his palm over Risinger's forehead. Jeremy gagged and turned away.

"More'n a few hours," Ryan said. "He's already cold."

"Shit," said Geoff. "Wellp, the rest of him's gotta be somewhere. Jeremy, start askin' around, see if anybody's. . . ."

His voice faded to a low background chatter. Michael was watching Ryan's hand with a sickened fascination. One thumb caressed the pale brow absently, sliding back and forth, back and forth, almost tender. Michael's scalp prickled.

"What the fuck are you doin'?" Michael hissed at him.

Ryan looked up and yanked his hand back like Risinger's head was a hot stove. He flashed a nervy smile.

"Ryan," Geoff said, before Ryan could say anything. "Go and keep that crowd from crowdin' any closer. Last thing we need's a goddamn spectacle."

"Yessuh," said Ryan. He got to his feet and strode off. He wiped his hand off on his trousers as he went.

"Michael, you got any kinda cheesecloth or somethin' we can wrap this thing in?" Geoff asked.

"Uh—yeah, prob'ly," Michael said. He shook himself. "Lemme go and check."

"You do that. I'm gonna stay here and make sure nobody gets bothersome."

It took a good ten minutes of rooting around, but Michael finally came up with an old raincoat he no longer had a use for. He brought it out front, and Geoff wrapped up Risinger's head in it.

"Where's Doc?" Michael asked. "Thought somebody had sent for her."

"Somebody was s'posed to, but I assume they was all too busy gawkin'," Geoff said, shooting a glare at the lingering crowd. "I went ahead and told Jack to go get her. She'll turn up soon enough."

For a while, there was only the distant mutter of the crowd, the low hum of the rumor mill at work.

"Michael," Geoff said. "While we got the porch to ourselves."

"Yes, Sheriff?"

"Can you think of any reason why somebody would throw Risinger's head on your doorstep?"

Michael chewed his lip. He could think of several. He picked the one that made him sound the least crazy.

"Mostly?" he said. "To scare the livin' hell outta me."

"Are you scared?"

Of course he was scared.

"Not a whit," he said.


 

Ryan came in half an hour late the next morning. He walked right up to Geoff's desk with his hat in his hands and a flawless composure. That alone made Michael glad he'd decided to come in today, even though it was Sunday.

"Sheriff," Ryan said. "I regret t' inform you that Jon Risinger's body is in my basement."

"What?" Jeremy cried, leaping to his feet.

"How the hell—?" Jack said.

"Everybody shut up," said Geoff, steely. His eyes were fixed on Ryan's face. "Did you put it down there?"

"No, suh," said Ryan.

"Did you kill him?"

"No, suh."

"Do you know who did?"

"No, suh."

Geoff let out a breath.

"How'd you find it?" he asked.

"Noticed the smell," Ryan said. "Thought some coyote mighta got in and died durin' the night, so I went to check. I presume it was placed there while everybody was preoccupied gawkin' over the head."

"What's it look like?"

"Looks like somebody had a grudge, Sheriff," said Ryan. "He's missin' several pieces, head included. Round about thirty arrayed pointy things jammed into him."

"Holy God," said Jack.

"Awright," said Geoff. "Awright. Jack, take Ryan on down to lockup and stay with him. Jer—"

"Pardon?" Ryan said softly. A chill ran up Michael's spine.

"I don't think you killed him, Ryan, I just need you to stay still so's I can find you later," said Geoff, getting to his feet.

"I'm very much capable of doin' that without a set of iron bars to press th' issue," Ryan said. Something was winding him up, something like the billowing swell of a storm cloud.

"Nobody said you had to be in a cell, goddammit," Geoff snapped. "Now get."

"Yessuh," said Ryan, inclining his head. He headed for the door. "C'mon, Jackie."

Jack shot a nervous look at Geoff behind Ryan's back. Geoff only offered her a grim frown.

"Now," said Geoff, when the two had gone. "Jeremy, Michael, you come with me. We're gonna take a look for ourselves."

"Me?" said Michael. "How the hell am I s'posed to get in his basement?"

"We'll figure that shit out when we get there," said Geoff. "Now come on."


 

In the end, Jeremy and Geoff had to carry Michael down in his chair. The staircase was narrow, but well-built, so while it was nerve-wracking and humiliating, it wasn't as terrifying as it could've been. Michael struggled to keep his composure in check the whole way down, burning in his skin and always a hair's breadth away from telling Geoff and Jeremy to fuck off and let him make his own way down.

He restrained himself, though, because it wasn't their fault that Ryan's basement was so inaccessible, and there were more important things to worry about.

There was something of a workshop at the bottom of the stairs; a dirt floor, a few clay pots sealed with pitch, a work table, empty tool racks on the walls. A mattress was leaned up by the door, and a few oil lamps had been suspended from the joists in the ceiling.

The most salient feature was the body on the table.

It was headless, pale, filling the room with the stench of rotting flesh. Knives and stakes and saws had been stabbed into it until it bristled like a porcupine. Flies buzzed around it, busy at their work. It was missing all of its fingers and toes, as well as certain other parts that definitively identified it as being Risinger's. Bruises mottled the skin. One of the arms was broken so badly that bone was poking out.

"Holy Jesus!" Jeremy choked, and pressed the back of his hand to his mouth. He dry-heaved, then turned away and went to the far wall.

"Do not throw up down here," Geoff said, wagging a finger at him. "If you can't hold down your breakfast, go and get Doc."

"I'm fine," Jeremy said thinly, turning back around. "Naw, I'm fine, I'm fine. I—"

He dry-heaved again, then flapped a hand.

"I'm gonna go get Doc," he said, and hurried back up the stairs.

Grimly, Geoff moved to the body. He stood looking it over, arms folded, mouth turned down. Michael made his way to Geoff's side, swallowing down his own revulsion at the stench.

"Tell me what you see," said Geoff.

Michael clenched his jaw and rubbed his hands on the arms of his chair.

"He wun't killt here," he said. "Ain't enough blood. All that shit stuck in him—I think that came off the walls. So that got done here, which . . . musta took some time. Got beat up before he died, though, otherwise there wouldn't be bruises. Been dead a while."

"No shit," said Geoff. "I don't guess he lived too long after his head got cut off."

"I'm—fuck you," said Michael. "I'm tryin'."

"You ain't wrong, though," said Geoff. "This amount of stink, he's prob'ly been dead at least two days. Keep goin'."

Michael shook his head and tried to focus. It was difficult. The closer he looked at those tools jammed into Risinger's body, the less he liked them. The whole room was unsettling him, but those tools in particular made him uneasy. What could a person possibly need that many knives for?

"Whoever killt him hated his fuckin' guts," he said. "And had somethin' to prove, too. Sendin' a message, or somethin'."

Geoff took a deep breath.

"Michael," he said. His voice was serious and strained. "Did Ryan do this?"

"Of course not," Michael said immediately. "He ain't a fuckin' idjit. If he'd done it, he wouldn'ta come in and told all of us this shit was down here."

"I ain't sure he wouldn't've," said Geoff. "I ain't sure he ain't that twisty. Of course he wouldn't tell us, 'cuz you'd have to be an idjit to do that. Or else you'd just have to figure that that's what we'd figure. So assume he didn't come tell us. Throw out all the goddamn mind-games and assume we just found this like this, and tell me: did Ryan do this?"

Michael swallowed. His head was full of fog. He couldn't breathe properly. His heart pounded in his chest. His skin crawled. The buzzing of the flies was like fingernails against his eardrums.

"I wanna say no," he said at last. "But I don't know that I can."

Geoff sighed and stroked his mustache, turning away from the body.

"That's the same way I'm thinkin'," he said. "I keep—Michael, when I look at that shit, you know what I see?"

Michael rolled his shoulders and fidgeted.

"I'm guessin' it's somethin' familiar," he said.

"I see Ryan Haywood, stabbin' some lustful outlaw bastard for half an hour," said Geoff. "Clear as goddamn day, I see it. All alone out in the woods, twenty years old and calm as anythin' with blood up to his goddamn elbows. I cannot get that picture outta my head, Michael. I don't wanna see it, but it won't go away."

Michael looked back at the body. He rubbed his eyebrow with his thumb. Something was tickling the back of his head, but he couldn't put a finger on it. There was something about the body that didn't fit right, something that didn't mesh with the image Geoff was conjuring.

"I don't think he did this," Michael said slowly. "Naw, Sheriff, the more I think about it, the more I think he din't do it."

"Thank God," said Geoff. "Now please, please tell me you got a reason."

Michael chewed his cheek. It was on the tip of his tongue, right in front of him, but it just wouldn't come into focus.

"Not yet," he said. "But there is one. I just cain't pin it down right now."

Geoff sighed and shook his head, folding his arms.

"That ain't gonna be good enough, Michael."

"I know, Sheriff. I'll get there."

A short while later, Jeremy returned with Lindsay in tow, their arrival announced by a thudding of feet on the basement stairs. Jeremy turned green again as soon as he came in the door, and Lindsay stopped dead in her tracks.

"Mother of God," she said.

"Yeah, welcome to the shit show," said Geoff, flopping an arm at the body. "That there's the main attraction."

"Where's Ryan?" Lindsay demanded.

"In the jailhouse, with Jack," said Geoff. "Come to think of it, Jeremy, why don't you go there, too."

"What? Why?" said Jeremy. "Sheriff, you don't think—"

"I don't know what the fuck to think, Dooley!" Geoff snapped. "Go help Jack! Right now, goddammit, that's a fuckin' order!"

"I—yessir," said Jeremy, stunned. He stood there reeling for a moment more before tottering back up the steps. Geoff squeezed his temples and then pinched the bridge of his nose.

"I need some fresh air," he said. "Just holler whenever y'all need me."

"Will do, Sheriff," said Lindsay. Geoff, too, went back up the stairs.

"I don't think Ryan did it," Michael said, as soon as Geoff was gone.

"'Course Ryan didn't do it," Lindsay said, coming over to the body and looking it over. "Ryan's left-handed."

Michael frowned. "What the hell's that got to do with anythin'?"

"Almost all this shit stuck in him," said Lindsay, pointing, "is tilted to the right, see? 'Cuz the person doin' the stickin' did it right-handed."

She demonstrated, raising her hand and making a stabbing motion. Michael frowned.

"Wait, I still don't get it," he said. Lindsay sighed.

"Look," she said. "Right-handed. Like this—" She repeated the stabbing motion.

"You're standin' between me and him, I cain't see what you're doin'."

"Fine," Lindsay sighed, rolling her eyes. She moved around to the other end of the work table. "All right, so now it's backwards, but watch: right-handed—" Stab. "And now left . . . handed."

From the head end of the body, the left-handed strike perfectly replicated the angle of the tools.

"Well shit," Lindsay said, leaning back and putting her hands on her hips. "Maybe he did do it, then."

Michael's stomach sank. He cracked his neck, then rolled his shoulders again.

"There's somethin' I'm missin'," he said to himself. "I know this ain't his handiwork, but I just cain't pin down why. There's gotta be somethin' else. . . ."

Pain bloomed in his chest, crushing. He gasped, clutching at it. The room started to spin. He fumbled for something to hang on to. Lindsay rushed to his side. Her voice was muffled, underwater. She pressed two fingers to his throat, checking his pulse. Her face paled. She started saying something, urgent, repeating it over and over. He struggled to focus, to hear her.

Cough. Michael, cough. Michael, cough.

He tried, and then tried again, until it took and he fairly hacked up a lung. The squeezing pain lessened instantly. The roaring in his ears faded out. He sucked down a breath, and then another, filling his lungs. He was shaking to his core. Lindsay's fingers skated to the back of his neck and felt around, pressing hard. They touched something that sent pain shooting down his back. He flinched.

"Holy shit," Lindsay breathed.

"What—what just happened?" Michael said.

"Michael, listen to me very closely," Lindsay said, stepping back and taking him by the shoulders. "Never, ever crack your fuckin' neck again."

"What?" he said, dumbfounded.

"I'm a goddamn idjit and so're you," she said. "You broke your fuckin' neck. When you went down Collywobble Canyon, you broke your fuckin' neck. When Risinger beat you up, he musta shifted somethin', and now every time you crack your neck—like you do whenever you get wound up—it stops your goddamn heart. Moron. Goddamn numbskull. You are the luckiest sonnuva bitch on this goddamn earth."

Michael's jaw dropped. He reached back and touched his neck.

"Holy shit," he wheezed.

Lindsay pulled him into a hug. He didn't have the wherewithal to shove her off. He was reeling enough that it was nice to have somebody hanging onto him. Besides, they were alone down there, except for the body.

"How—Doc, how ain't I dead?" he asked.

"I have no goddamn clue," she said. "That coughin' was to get your heart back up to speed. You happen to do that any other times?"

He shook his head slowly.

"Then I guess you're real goddamn lucky," said Lindsay. She let go of him and stepped back, straightening her shirt. She cleared her throat. "So. Don't ever crack your neck again. Doctor's orders."

"Cain't you . . . fix it?" he asked.

"Hell no," said Lindsay. "I'd kill you if I tried."

"Oh," said Michael. He glanced past her, at Risinger's body. He rubbed his eyes, wiping the smear and wetness out of them. Lindsay looked back over her shoulder, too, and folded her arms.

"You ain't gonna keep on tryin' to solve this shit now, are you?" she asked.

"The hell else am I s'posed to do?" he said.

"Go home and rest?"

"Takes two people to get me and this chair up the goddamn stairs," he said stiffly. "So I might as well, while I'm down here."

Lindsay threw up her hands and rolled her eyes.

"I guess you might!" she said. She shook her head, then glanced back at the body again. "You're . . . sure Ryan ain't done this?"

Michael shrugged. "Yeah," he said.

"But you got no idea why?"

"Call it a gut feelin'."

Lindsay sighed. "Well, he sure as hell wasn't the only one with a grudge against the man," she said. "I could count the number of folks who didn't hate him on one hand."

A dim light flared up in Michael's head.

"Doc," he said. "How big're your hands?"

"Huh?"

"About the same size as Ryan's?" Michael pressed. He held up a hand. "Check, c'mon, check."

"How would—"

"Check."

Lindsay pressed her palm to Michael's. Her fingertips came up to his third knuckle.

"Close enough," said Michael. "Go and grab one of those knives."

"One of—"

"Yes, one of the ones that's stuck in Risinger! And use your left hand!"

Lindsay made a face, but she did it. She had to shift around a few times to get a grip on it, and it left her hand at an awkward angle.

"Awful tight, Michael," she said.

"Exactly," he said. "Ryan couldn'ta done it 'cuz his hands are too damn big. Half that shit's too close together, he couldn't get it like that without scrapin' all the skin off his knuckles!"

Lindsay raised her eyebrows and blinked.

"Oh," she said. "Well I'll be damned."

"Fuckin' knew it," said Michael. He leaned his head towards the door and shouted, "Hey, Sheriff!"

"Michael, I'm gonna say somethin' to you I've almost never said to nobody else," Lindsay said.

"Huh?"

"I am impressed," she said, smiling at him.

Michael flushed. He rubbed the back of his neck, then pulled his hand away quickly and scratched his ear instead.

"Uh," he said. "Thanks."

For a while, neither of them spoke, both fidgeting and looking at the far corners of the room.

"Where the hell is Geoff?" Lindsay said.

"Maybe he din't hear?" Michael said.

Lindsay walked over to the door and yanked it open, then yelled up the staircase for him. Again, there was no response. She scoffed, exasperated.

"I'm just gonna go up and get him," she said.

"Uh," said Michael, but she was already up the stairs and gone. The door drifted shut behind her.

Just as slowly, Michael's eyes drifted to the body.

There were ways, he considered, that a person could jam a knife into a space too small for their hand. A person who was twisty enough, who knew that people would be looking at the corpse, might take certain precautions. They might stand at the opposite end somebody would expect, to give the impression of a right-handed killer. They might inform the sheriff about the body. They might even wedge the knives in too close in a few places, just in case somebody thought to check for that. If their victim was already dead, if they had time, if they were careful and methodical and real goddamn smart. . . .

He shook himself. Ryan hadn't done this; of that he was certain. His reasoning was as good as any, even if it didn't quite align with his gut feeling. His time would be better spent finding the real killer.

Lindsay and Geoff returned, sparing Michael from any more time alone with the body.

"Sorry," Geoff said, breathless. "Thought I'd be able to hear y'all yellin' from the front door, but uh, guess I couldn't. Michael, you wanna get outta here?"

"Yes," Michael said immediately.

"Awright," said Geoff. "We'll get you outta here, then Doc and I can get this body up to her clinic so she can check it over more thorough-like, and then we'll all go home, Ryan included."

"You gonna check the . . . hand-size thing?" Michael asked.

"I was plannin' on it," said Geoff. "You wanna be there for the proceedin's?"

"I'd prefer it," said Michael.

"You got it," said Geoff. "We'll see you there. But first, let's get you up all these goddamn stairs."

Chapter Text

The total lack of reaction from Ryan upon seeing the body could easily be explained by the fact that he'd already seen it once that morning. It still put Michael off, the comfort with which he approached the mutilated corpse. His gaze did not shy from it, his expression did not shift. There was no tension in his posture. He treated it like it was some totally mundane object, a model or a painting or an empty table.

"I hear you been workin' hard to clear my name," he said to Michael, smiling at some private joke.

"I'm doin' my job, it ain't a goddamn favor," Michael snapped.

"Much obliged all the same," Ryan said, sketching a little half-bow with his hand pressed to his heart.

"Your name wasn't much ever outta the clear, so don't start gettin' resentful," said Geoff.

"I do presume there's a reason I been brought here," Ryan said to him.

"Ask Michael," said Geoff, gesturing.

Ryan, obligingly, turned back to Michael. Michael gestured to the body.

"I want you to take all that shit outta him and lay it out on the table," he said.

His eyebrows raised. A smile curled out across his lips. He looked delighted.

"As you say," he said.

One by one, without any hesitation whatsoever, he started pulling the implements out of Risinger's body. Michael watched his hands like a hawk, noting where he had to shift his grip, noting where the angle was awkward. He looked away only once, and it was when Ryan braced his other hand against the corpse's chest to yank out a particularly stuck knife. Geoff made a noise of disgust, and even Lindsay clicked her teeth. The scrape of metal against bone was ghastly.

"It's a damn shame," Ryan remarked, as he went on removing the tools from the body. "I'm gone have to sharpen most all of these after this. Lucky they ain't break my burnisher."

"Your what?" said Michael.

Ryan yanked on a white, curved implement that was jammed in just above the body's bellybutton. It came out with a horrible sucking sound. Ryan held it up.

"Burnisher," he said, wiggling it. "For makin' leather waterproof. They gen'rally get better with use, and I wouldn't wanna have to make a new one, bein' that you make 'em outta rib bone. Had this one . . . oh, close on thirteen years, now. It's my Daddy's."

"Oh," said Michael.

Ryan set it with the other implements and carried on. Soon enough, Risinger's body was emptied of its load. The tools all sat on the table next to it, arranged neatly into two groups. One was considerably larger than the other.

"Did you see what you were lookin' for?" Ryan asked.

"Almost," said Michael. He pointed to the two groups. "Which set's yours?"

Ryan grinned, absolutely over the moon. He touched his fingertips to the table next to the larger set.

"These," the said. "Evidently somebody found my collection lackin'."

"Hm," said Michael. He turned to Geoff. "Sheriff, you satisfied?"

"Pretty well satisfied," said Geoff, nodding slowly. "I believe you, whoever did this prob'ly had smaller hands. Ryan, you can head on out, if you want. Michael, you too. I imagine Doc's gonna wanna do her examinin' in peace."

"Much as possible," said Lindsay.

"What're you gonna do, Sheriff?" Michael asked.

"Oh, I'm stayin' with this body," Geoff sighed, as though it was a regrettable but necessary duty. "Ain't havin' him disappearin' again."

"If you say so," said Michael. He headed out. Ryan fell in behind him, ambling along in companionable silence.

When they were a few buildings away from the clinic, Michael spoke up.

"You noticed, din't you," said Michael. "About all that shit bein' too close together. You was waitin' on me to figure it out."

"Nope," said Ryan. "Figured it out once you asked me to start pullin' things, but all I noticed 'fore that was that somebody had deposited a body in my basement without permission."

"You ain't gonna take all your shit back home?"

"I'll get it later," Ryan said, shrugging. "Lindsay'll prob'ly wanna have a look at it durin' her investigations. 'Sides, I'm gone have to give that basement a real thorough cleanin' anyhow. The smell does tend to linger."

"Uh-huh," said Michael. He rolled his shoulders, started to crack his neck, and then stopped abruptly. He cleared his throat.

"Somethin' wrong?" Ryan asked, looking over at him.

"Sorta," said Michael. He shifted his grip on the wheels and rolled his shoulders again. "Uh. Doc figured out what the hell gave me that episode. Episodes. Actually."

"She did?" He sounded excited. "What was it?"

"Oh, nothin' much, just turns out my neck's been broke this whole time," Michael said, rolling his eyes. "And crackin' my neck makes my heart stop, that's all."

Ryan halted dead in his tracks. Michael looked back at him.

It was the first time he had ever seen Ryan afraid.

"Lord have mercy, Michael," he said. "Are you . . . gone be all right?"

"Fine," said Michael, turning away again before Ryan saw him blushing. "So long's I don't crack my neck ever again."

"That could be worse," Ryan said. Michael started off again, and again Ryan followed.

"What the hell do you care, anyhow?" Michael said.

"This may come as a terrible shock to you, chéri, but I would be somewhat morose if you was t' up and die," said Ryan.

"Oh, what, like you was with Narvaez?"

The silence that followed those words was deafening. The chill that came off of Ryan was enough to make Michael's fingers go numb.

"I will say this exactly once, Michael," Ryan said quietly. "I am not gone talk about Ray with you. Now nor ever. Is that clear?"

"Why not?" Michael said, before he could stop himself.

Ryan didn't answer. By the time Michael looked back, he was gone.

"Right," he sighed to himself. "You wasn't kiddin'."

As he headed back to the sheriff's station, there was an ache in his chest that had nothing to do with cracking his neck.


 

"So," Jack sighed, scratching her ear. "Of all the folks who hated Risinger, we got a list of about ten most likely suspects. Mad Meg Turney, of course, sittin' up at Number One, followed by Diaz and Scarcello, then the six women he took advantage of."

"That's only nine," said Jeremy.

"Yeah, I said about ten."

"You don't still got Ryan on that list, do you?" Jeremy asked, craning his neck to look at her desk.

"No," said Jack, covering the paper.

"Oh, no, you sure don't," said Jeremy. "You got Michael on it!"

On any other day, that would have got Michael shouting. As it was, he just shook his head and sighed.

"Of course," he said.

"The logistics are somewhat implausible," Ryan said. He was at his desk, eyes on his paperwork. It was the first thing he'd said since getting back to the station. He hadn't so much as looked up all afternoon.

"Jack, take him off the list, you know good and damn well he couldn't've done it," Geoff said.

"Not without help," Jack said, resolute. "But the motive's there, and so's the opportunity, and I can't rule him out completely."

"But—"

"She's right," Michael said, cutting Jeremy off. "Keep me on the list, I oughtta be on it." He hesitated, then added, "Ryan, too."

"No, come on now, we cleared him first thing this mornin'," said Geoff.

"We got some evidence this mornin'," said Michael. "I ain't completely convinced."

"Mais bien sûr," Ryan said under his breath.

"You got somethin' to say to me, you say it so I can understand," Michael snapped, rounding on him.

"He didn't say nothin' about you, calm down," Jeremy said.

"The hell he din't," Michael said.

"Awright, stop it there," said Geoff. "We ain't gonna get nowhere like this. Jack, Jeremy, the two of you split that list and get everybody's alibis. Jack prob'ly oughtta take the female half."

"Half nothin', there's only two men on it," said Jack. "Apart from Michael and Ryan."

"Fine," Geoff said. "Jack, take the whole list. Jeremy, you and me are gonna have another look around, see if we can't find them fingers and toes. Ryan, you go check in with Doc, and Michael—stay here with Gavin."

"Doin' what?" said Michael.

"Whatever needs doin', the station's yours," Geoff said, getting to his feet. "And Ryan—"

"Stick with Doc 'til I'm sent for," he filled in. "I understand."

"Good," said Geoff. "Sooner we can get this cleared up, the better. I want all y'all on your best behavior. Don't give the rumor mill more feed than it's already got. Understood?"

"Yessir," the station chorused. Gavin barked.

"Awright," said Geoff. "Let's go to work."


 

About an hour later, just as Michael's brain was starting to melt out his ears from sheer boredom, the station door creaked open and Trevor sidled in.

"Michael?" he said, keeping his voice down. Gavin scrambled up and dashed over to him.

"Trevor," said Michael. "What're you doin' here?"

"I, uh, well, see, the thing is," said Trevor. Gavin jumped up on him and he winced.

"Gavin, get down," Michael snapped. "Trevor, whatever the hell it is, spit it out."

"Where's uh—where's Deputy Haywood?" Trevor asked instead, while Gavin snuffled industriously at his shoes.

"Off consultin' with Doc. Why are you here?"

"Oh, good," said Trevor, sagging. "All right, listen, 'cuz there's somethin' you really oughtta know."

"Be lucky if I hear it in the next year," Michael grumbled.

"I—I know you was awful upset about me losin' that list, uh, and I am real sorry for that, but I did remember who was on it, and I did still manage to do some askin' around. Still."

"You ain't even a deputy anymore, what the fuck're you still workin' for?" Michael said.

"I'm . . . not a deputy anymore?" Trevor said, pathetic.

"Forget it," said Michael. "What'd you find?"

"Well if I'm not a deputy anymore, then—"

"If it's good information, Trevor, I'll see to it you get back to bein' one," Michael interrupted. It was a baldfaced lie, but Trevor swallowed it whole.

"Oh!" he said, brightening. "Oh, all right, sure! Thank you, really, thanks, Michael."

"Spit. It. Out," Michael growled.

"Well, all right, so, there's only a few people who ain't got an alibi," said Trevor. "For the—the time when it happened. Far as I can tell. And that's . . . Risinger—who's dead now, so I don't guess it matters too much—uh, Mr. and Mrs. Hullum, I guess, and then, uh, then the ones you won't like, uh."

"Would you get the fuck on with it."

"Deputies Dooley and Haywood," Trevor blurted.

"Turney had an alibi?" Michael said, frowning.

"Huh? Oh. Y-yep, yeah, she sure did," said Trevor. "But I—I really don't think that's the most important part of that, what I just said, there."

"Where'd she say she was?"

"Bragg's saloon," said Trevor. "A dozen folks can testify."

Michael clenched his teeth and sighed through his nose.

"Damn," he said. "Guess that woulda been too neat."

"How d'you mean?" Trevor said.

"Forget it," said Michael, shaking his head. "And you're sure Dooley and Haywood got nothin'?"

"I talked to just about everybody, Michael, nobody knows where they were," Trevor said helplessly. "I—I really don't like to, y'know, speculate, but . . . but I mean, what if it was Haywood?"

"It wun't," Michael snapped, glaring at him. "Take that bullshit outta here."

"Michael, c'mon, you said yourself he's dangerous! You saw how crazy he got when—"

"If he'd tried to kill me, I'd be dead," Michael snarled.

"So what if he wasn't tryin' to kill you?" Trevor squeaked.

Michael pulled up short. He looked down at his legs, rubbed the arms of his chair. He rolled his shoulders and did not crack his neck.

"Then what the hell woulda been the point?" he said, mostly to himself.

"To get you outta the way," Trevor said. "M-maybe, I dunno, I'm just guessin'."

"Outta the way of—"

He didn't have to wonder what, actually. He was working with a band of outlaws, after all, outlaws playing dress-up with real silver stars. First the bank manager was ousted, then Michael was hobbled, both of them slowly but surely going crazy just like Narvaez. . . .

"I don't know what," Trevor said. "But somethin'. And . . . I really really don't like to say this, but . . . maybe it wasn't just Haywood, Michael. Maybe it was Dooley, too."

"No," Michael said. "No, they don't hardly get on at all."

"In front of you," said Trevor.

Michael looked up sharply. Trevor was slouching by the doorway, limp and awfully sorrowful, about as pathetic as a wet dog.

"The hell are you implyin', Collins?" Michael said. His hands clenched on the arms of his chair.

Trevor glanced back at the door. He slunk over to Michael's desk, rounded it, and put a confidential hand on his shoulder. He spoke in a voice so low Michael could barely hear it.

"You know about Haywood, don't you?" he said. "Pretty much everybody knows, but they don't say much of anythin' 'cuz he keeps mainly to himself. You know, though, don't you? You've worked it out?"

"No, what the fuck are you talkin' about?" Michael said. A sickness was arising in his stomach. His hands were sweating. The skin on his shoulder crawled under Trevor's hand.

"All right, but you can't ever tell nobody you heard it from me," said Trevor. "Haywood's uh . . . well Michael, Haywood's a sodomite. He don't make too much of a secret of it, but we all try and turn a blind eye anyhow, 'cuz it's unchristian to throw the first stone and all, but it's a real shame, y'know, about Dooley and his wife. Especially his wife, poor thing."

Michael went very still. The sick feeling in his stomach boiled over, sending heat flooding through his body. Some gunpowder ignition roared up through his bones until he trembled with the red fire of it.

"Get the fuck out," he said, very quietly.

"I ain't sayin' he killed Risinger in a fit of jealousy or nothin', but—"

"Get the fuck out!" Michael roared, slamming a fist down on his desk. Trevor screamed and fell over backwards. He scrambled out of the station on all fours like a dog. Gavin darted off and hid under Geoff's desk.

Michael sat there, trembling and fuming, for a good minute and a half. His lungs were full of fire, his head full of broken glass. When he was calm enough to speak, he kept his voice soft.

"Gavin," he said. "Pal. Hey. I ain't mad at you. You're all right, buddy, it's all right."

The tip of Gavin's nose poked out from under Geoff's desk.

"Yeah, hey, I'm sorry," said Michael. "I'm sorry for hittin' things. You can come on out, now, nobody's gonna hurt you."

Tentatively, Gavin slunk out into the open. He sidled up to Michael, piteous. Michael reached out to him and Gavin shrank back.

"It's all right," Michael said, aching right down to the core. "I'm sorry, Gavin, I'm sorry. You're a good dog, it ain't about you."

Gavin sniffed his hand, then licked his knuckles. Michael scratched him behind the ear, keeping every movement slow and gentle.

"You wanna help me rip Trevor's goddamn throat out, boy?" Michael asked. "Just a li'l, it won't hurt him none."

Gavin sneezed.

"Thanks," said Michael.


 

When evening came around, very little progress had been made on any front. Nothing amiss had been discovered around town, and Doc's investigations had turned up nothing of note. Michael had spent the whole afternoon doing nothing, and felt useless for it. The creeping bitterness on the back of his tongue was only worsened when Gavin picked up and left with Geoff at the end of the day.

"Guess I deserve it," Michael muttered.

"What for?" Jack asked, pausing on her way out. She and Michael were the last ones there.

"Oh, Collins came over and started talkin' shit," said Michael, making his way to the door. Jack held it open for him. "I got mad and scared him and Gavin both."

"What kinda shit?" Jack said, frowning.

"Vicious, mean, nasty shit," said Michael, whose bones were still crackling from the explosion. "It don't bear repeatin'."

Jack clicked her teeth and shook her head. "I'm sorry, Michael," she said. "Hopefully tomorrow'll be better."

"I ain't gonna hold my breath," Michael said.

"Yeah, that's sensible," Jack sighed. "See you around, anyhow."

"Yep," said Michael. The two of them parted ways with a wave.

The evening was chilly, growing only colder as Michael made his way home. The wind was high and biting, thin clouds painted pale gold in the light of the setting sun. The mountains were sharp and black, a few peaked with snow already. Michael resolved to dig a coat out when he got home, or at least a pair of gloves. It wouldn't be cold enough for long underwear for another month at least, but from what he'd seen of Nevada, they'd be hitting a stormy patch soon, and he'd need something to weather it. The thought of slogging through muddy streets in his wheelchair made him groan. He'd definitely need to dig out some gloves.

When Michael got home, the first thing he did was stoke up a fire in the stove, more to keep warm than anything. He found a few old socks—full of holes—and stuffed them into the biggest cracks in the walls, where the wind was wedging itself in most sharply. Unfortunately, that ended up taking more of his energy than he'd anticipated, and he had to forego his search for winter clothes so that he'd be able to make himself dinner. The house was uncomfortably quiet without Gavin in it, and Michael found himself looking over his shoulder enough to give himself a crick in his neck.

"Damn stupid sonnuva bitch," he muttered to himself, rubbing at the crick. "Can't even crack your damn fool neck, now you're gonna be stuck with it. Dumbass."

The house let out a long, low creak. The oil lamp on the kitchen table flickered. Michael moved closer to the stove, to the warm light of the fire inside.

"Shut up," he hissed to no one. "Shut up and go to hell."

He ate his dinner with his back to the stove. The wind continued to pick up as evening slid into night, until it was rattling the shutters on Michael's windows and banging the doors in their frames. He went around and stuffed a few more articles of clothing into the gaps to keep the noise to a minimum. It was making him jumpy, and that in turn was setting his legs to jittering. The clock tower's tolls were distorted by the gusting winds, leaving them alien and unsettling. He kept almost cracking his neck.

At last, it came time to go to bed. Michael was so worn down by then that he didn't bother changing clothes—an ordeal in its own right—and simply pulled off his boots and dragged himself into bed. He spent a full five minutes waiting for Gavin to jump up with him before remembering that he wasn't there.

The next hour was spent tossing and turning, twitching whenever a particularly vicious gust of wind rattled the house. His hand slid up under his pillow and found the little paring knife he'd pilfered from the kitchen. He gripped it tightly, for whatever cold comfort it provided. He shut his eyes and tried to breathe deeply.

The wind hissed and gasped, moaned and whistled. Michael's jaw started to clench, until his teeth were pressed so tightly together that it made his whole head ache. His fingers were going numb on the handle of the knife, sweat-slick and cold. His heartbeat would not slow no matter how he tried to calm himself. The room was freezing. The house creaked and rattled all around him, dry and brittle as finger bones.

There came a slow, hoarse, hungry sound. It was not the wind.

Michael's eyes snapped open. He lay perfectly still, scarcely breathing. He clenched the knife so hard it made his whole arm shake.

The noise came again, closer, and then closer again. Michael didn't dare to move. It was black as pitch in his room. He could barely make out the shape of the shutters, picked out in the dim blue light of a crescent moon.

Something freezing cold closed on Michael's shoulder. He tried to scream. He couldn't. He tried to thrash. He couldn't. His whole body had locked into place, every joint jammed like the brakes on a runaway train. The noise came again, right above him, and a gust of wind tore back the shutters and moonlight burst into the room.

The blood-soaked face loomed over him. The mouth gaped, howling like the wind outside. The eyes were black as death, hollow and empty and bottomless. Spectral fingers dug into his shoulder, piercing the skin, injecting ice into his veins. Blood poured from the slit throat, coursing up over the mouth and nose and eyes, wicking through the black hair and dripping up towards the ceiling. The thing leaned down, lips peeling back from shattered teeth, from the sucking void beyond, closer and closer and closer and—

Michael plunged the knife into his own shoulder.

He cried out, jolting awake. He tumbled out of bed and fell heavily on the floor. His shoulder burned bright red with pain, terrific pain. Hot liquid trickled over his skin. In a panic, he yanked the knife out. Blood gushed from the wound. Michael yelped, pressed his hands to it like he could possibly staunch the flow. It kept coming, soaking through his shirt. His hands were slick with it.

"Oh God," he gasped. "Oh God, oh God, oh God—!"

He clambered up into his chair, shaking so hard he couldn't see straight. Every thump of his racing heart sent another gush pouring out of the wound in his chest. Blood was on everything—his hands, his chair, his shirt, his floor. The metallic smell of it was overwhelming.

Barefoot, bleeding, and breathless, he lurched out into the bitter night.

Chapter Text

Ryan took one look at him and got out of the doorway.

"Get in," he said. His voice shook.

Michael pushed himself inside. He was dizzy and breathless. The front of his shirt was soaked with blood. He had no idea how bad the wound was. He couldn't go more than a few feet inside.

"May I move you?" Ryan said.

"I—yeah," Michael managed.

Ryan pushed him into the kitchen, then heaved him up out of his chair and put him on the kitchen table. He grabbed the front of Michael's shirt in both hands and tore it open, two sharp yanks and buttons scattering all over the floor. He shucked it off like a corn husk. He pulled the undershirt aside. Blood rolled down Michael's chest. Ryan hissed in a breath through his teeth.

"All right, it ain't that bad," he assured Michael. His hand flicked to his belt and the knife came out. Michael shoved at him in sheer panic.

"No—" he gasped. Ryan caught his wrist, refusing to be pushed away.

"I ain't gone hurt you," he said. "I gotta get this shirt off. I ain't gone hurt you none."

Michael kept a hand on Ryan's shoulder, but stopped fighting him. The shirt parted like paper under the knife's blade, and Ryan stripped that off him, too. He balled it up and pressed it against the wound. He guided Michael's hand to the shirt.

"Press hard," he said. Michael pressed, and Ryan mashed his hand against his chest. "Harder."

"I—I cain't, I cain't," Michael said. There was no strength in his arms. He could barely stay upright.

"Michael, breathe," said Ryan. He took Michael's face in his hands, holding his gaze. Blood smeared on Michael's cheeks. "Breathe. In for a count of seven, out for a count of eleven. Can you do that?"

Michael tried. The counts were so fast he could barely keep the numbers straight.

"That's good," said Ryan. "Press hard. Keep breathin'. You'll be fine."

Michael found some strength in him, after all. The shaking wouldn't stop, but the dizziness got a little better. In for seven, out for eleven. He'd be fine.

"Sit tight, now," said Ryan. "Keep pressin'. I'll be right back."

He went away, bustling. Michael sat still, pressing hard on the wound, breathing as deeply as he could. In for a seven count, out for eleven. In for seven, out for eleven, over and over, until Ryan came back. Michael watched as he threaded a long, white needle with practiced ease, tied off the thread and pulled it tight with his teeth.

"All right, now," he said gently. "You're gone need to lie back for this part."

"No," said Michael, going rigid. This wasn't right. Where was his chair? Where was Gavin? He shouldn't be here, not alone, not like this. "No, no—"

"Easy, chéri, it's all right," said Ryan. "You gotta lie back. I can't do it right if you're sittin' up."

"Why not?" Michael demanded. "Why not?"

"I need somethin' to bear down on," said Ryan. "C'mon, now, let me get this done."

He put a gentle hand on Michael's uninjured shoulder. Reluctantly, Michael lay back. A gush of blood rolled down his side and he winced.

"Much obliged," said Ryan. He pinched the blood-soaked shirt between two fingers. "You can stop pressin' now. It'll wanna gush, but you'll be all right."

"Just get on with it," Michael said. His voice was shaking. There was every possibility he was going to throw up.

"All right, here we go," said Ryan.

He peeled the shirt back. Michael hissed through his teeth as it tugged at the wound. More blood rolled down his side, tickling and warm.

"This'll hurt," Ryan told him. "But it ain't a long wound and it'll only take—five or six, I think."

"Get on with it," Michael growled.

Ryan inclined his head, then stuck the needle in his mouth and bent over Michael. His right hand pinched the edges of the wound together. His left elbow came to rest on Michael's chest. Michael shut his eyes and clenched his jaw and tried not to think about it.

The needle pierced through his skin, and an involuntary noise of pain escaped him. He clenched his fists and breathed through his nose. More than ever, he wished he'd gone to Lindsay instead; there, at least, he might have been given something for the pain.

"Sorry, sorry," said Ryan, pulling the thread through. It burned even worse than the needle, and it was all Michael could do not to shout aloud. "First one's always the worst, it'll be all right. Just try and relax."

"Would you shut up," Michael choked.

The needle poked in again, pulled the thread through again. Michael risked opening an eye. Ryan had the needle pinched between his thumb and first two fingers, the ring finger and pinky held delicately out of the way. There was blood on both of his hands. He was intent on his work, loose strands of hair falling across his forehead and cheeks. The tip of his tongue poked between his lips as he stitched Michael up.

He was, Michael noted, just breathtakingly pretty.

"Almost there," Ryan promised. "This's the last one."

The needle stuck into Michael's skin, hot and cold. The thread dragged through, stinging. Ryan pulled it taut and tied it off, murmuring apologies as Michael winced. He wrapped the remaining thread around his first two fingers, then leaned in and bit it off. His breath brushed against Michael's skin. Michael broke out in gooseflesh all over. His eyes came unfocused for a second.

"There, now all it needs is a bandage," Ryan said, straightening up.

"Didja have to use your teeth?" Michael grumbled. His voice was shaking. Ryan regarded him sidelong and smiled.

"I most certainly did," he said. "You already made it clear you didn't want another blade that close to you."

"You ain't got any scissors?"

"Not to hand."

Michael started to push himself upright, and Ryan leveled a warning finger at him. It was wet and red with Michael's blood.

"Not yet," Ryan said. "You're gone bleed all over yourself. Lie back down, now, Michael."

Grumbling, Michael lay back. It was, in all honesty, a welcome respite. If he'd been at Lindsay's instead of Ryan's, he might have just shut his eyes and gone back to sleep (especially with the aid of some much-needed laudanum). As it was, though, something fluttery in the pit of his stomach kept him from relaxing too much. He was still shaking, although not as much. The wound throbbed with every beat of his heart.

It took another five or so minutes to get everything squared away, between wiping up all the blood and bandaging the wound properly. When that was done, Ryan sat down on the table and folded his hands on his own thigh, looking down at Michael and swinging one leg placidly. Michael's chest was still twitching from the touches of Ryan's hands, the warm water from the washcloths turning cold in the night air. Something had moved into his head like a fog cloud.

"Doin' all right?" Ryan asked.

"Apart from bein' stabbed? Peachy-keen," said Michael.

"That's good," said Ryan, completely in earnest. "Sometimes the stitchin'-up's worse'n the thing itself."

"You say that from experience?"

"I most certainly do."

Michael could have sat up, but it would have put him much closer to Ryan than was comfortable, so he stayed down. Besides, he was awfully tired, now that the rush was wearing off, and his chair wasn't within easy reach, and sitting up now would probably set his legs to twitching again, and. . . .

"How come you don't let Doc stitch you up, like everybody else?" he asked Ryan.

"No call to go makin' extra work for the woman when I can just as easily handle it myself," he said. "Does make a person wonder why you didn't go to her."

Michael shrugged one shoulder, looking away.

"She'da asked me to explain," he mumbled. "I ain't feel like explainin'."

"I was intendin' t' ask, but considerin' that, I shall refrain," Ryan said. "Will you at least tell me if it's libel to happen again in the near future? Somebody I oughtta be lookin' out for?"

"Doubt it," Michael mumbled.

"Good to know," said Ryan. "You want anythin' to drink? I don't suspect you feel like eatin', you're still green around the gills."

Michael narrowed his eyes.

"Every time you're nice to me, I get more suspicious," he said.

"I had noted that particular trend," said Ryan, smiling. "I'm afraid it ain't gone stop me."

"What were you doin' up, anyhow?"

"It ain't that late," Ryan said. "Hardly past one."

"That's pretty damn late."

Ryan shrugged and smoothed his ponytail down. "I mighta got caught up readin'. Forgot how much I liked The Count of Monte Cristo."

"Sounds pretty highfalutin," Michael said.

"At times," Ryan admitted, making a face. "You never did answer me, about the drink."

Michael grunted. "You got any liquor?"

"Whiskey or gin?"

"Whiskey, if you got it," said Michael. "Am I allowed to sit up now, or you gonna yell at me again?"

"I never yelled at you," said Ryan. "And you may sit or lie accordin' to your preference."

"You gonna go, or what?"

"I will. Had one last thing to take care of first, 'fore you started in on the drinkin'."

"So take care of it, then."

For a moment, Ryan hesitated. Michael wasn't sure he'd ever seen him do it before. He didn't know whether to be interested or scared.

Ryan unfolded his hands and Michael picked both.

One hand cupped Michael's cheek. Ryan leaned in slowly. He stopped just shy of Michael's lips, warm breath, warm skin, warm body. Michael's heart raced, his skin all gone hot and tingling. Ryan was very still, like a rabbit waiting for a hawk to pass over. The whole world seemed to be waiting with him, breathless with anticipation.

Michael raised his head half an inch and closed the distance.

It had been a long time since he'd kissed anybody. That was probably why it was so damn good, probably the only reason. If it set his heart to pounding, if the warmth of it was intoxicating, if the taste of Ryan's lips was a sweeter relief than summer rain, that was all to do with Michael being lonely and nothing whatsoever to do with Ryan. He just so happened to be a damn good kisser, and Michael was already high off terror and pain anyhow, which would've made kissing anybody a pleasurable experience.

Or, admittedly, maybe it had something whatsoever to do with Ryan, because it wasn't as though Michael had never thought about kissing him before, but he'd eat red-hot nails in Hell before he'd admit to that.

Ryan pulled back first, although he didn't go far. His hand stayed on Michael's cheek, each breath still brushed against his face.

"The hell was that about?" Michael said. He was impressed by his own composure.

"Just wonderin' if you had a taste for it," said Ryan. There was just the slightest tremor in his voice.

"I sure as hell don't have a taste for you," he said.

"I'm an acquired taste," Ryan said. "You'll like it better if you go again."

"You are a vain and godless sonnuva bitch," said Michael, and put a hand on the back of his head and kissed him again. This time, as promised, it was a little warmer, a little deeper. Ryan slipped his other hand under Michael's head. The tip of his tongue brushed Michael's lips and Michael couldn't help but chase it. Chagrined by his own eagerness, he broke off the kiss. Both of them came out of it breathless.

"What'd I tell you?" said Ryan, giddy. "Gets better every time."

"What you oughtta be tellin' me is why the hell you're doin' this."

"It ain't terrible difficult to work out, darlin'."

"Do not call me that," said Michael, even as his skin flushed.

"You won't let me call you hardly anythin'."

"Don't you got better things to do than whine?"

"Oh, yessuh, I most surely do," said Ryan. He kissed Michael a third time. Michael just about melted into the table. He was now becoming intimately acquainted with the shape of Ryan's tongue, and found he quite liked it. He got ahold of Ryan's ponytail and wrapped it around his hand. Ryan's fingernails dug into the back of his neck. He pulled back slowly, lingering.

"Careful now," Ryan said. "You could break a person's neck that way."

Michael pulled, not hard, not sharply. Ryan's breath caught. It was satisfying in a way he hadn't anticipated. It had never occurred to him before that Ryan felt things.

"Inquirin' minds would like to know how hard a fella would have to pull," Michael said.

"Are you intendin' to break my neck, Michael?"

He said his name like a prayer. Michael reconsidered his stance on darlin'.

"I might do," he said.

Ryan dipped his head and kissed him quickly.

"You tell me what you want," he said, his voice soft. "And how much."

Michael had to take a moment to absorb this.

"I want my goddamn whiskey," he said. "And you can just bring me the bottle."

"Yessuh," said Ryan, amused. "But you're gone have to let go of me first."


 

Michael woke up in Ryan's bed the next morning.

He had a moment of abject terror, frozen in place and scarcely daring to breathe. Dreading the worst, he took a slow and careful inventory.

He was hungover. He was clothed from the waist down. He still had all his skin. Two out of three of those were pretty good. He was alone. His lips were chapped and tender. He was missing large chunks of the night before. Two of those were pretty bad.

With a groan, he propped himself up on his elbows. His chair was next to the bed, and he managed to get himself into it without tipping it over. Pain shot through the back of his right thigh as he settled into it, the muscles seizing up like a charley horse. He gripped the worst of the pain, but he couldn't feel the pressure of his own hand. He cussed through his teeth with his forehead resting on his knee, waiting for the spasm to subside.

There was a quiet knock. Michael lifted his head.

Ryan stood in the doorway, in a considerable state of undress, his hair spilling loose over his bare shoulders. There was a swath of purple bruises trailed over his neck and chest. Michael went hot from his scalp to his toes. The pain wouldn't go away, even so, and he had to grit his teeth just to sit up straight.

"Mornin'," he said. His voice was thin and shaky. It hurt like shit.

"Mornin'," said Ryan. "That leg givin' you trouble?"

"Yep," said Michael, unable to dredge anything pithy out of the soup of pain.

"Anythin' I can do?"

"Nope."

"Hm," said Ryan. He went away again. Michael folded over and wallowed for a while, until his leg finally unclenched and the pain receded to a dull ache.

On the nightstand, he found one of his own shirts, neatly folded. With some struggle, he managed to get it on and buttoned, although he didn't bother trying to tuck it in. There were also a pair of socks and his boots, which were even more of a struggle to get into. He could vaguely recall that Ryan had left at one point, after Michael had spent some time being loudly concerned about Gavin. He must have picked up the clean clothes while he was gone, although it seemed he hadn't retrieved Gavin from Geoff's.

When Michael got into the kitchen, he found to his relief that Ryan had put a shirt on, too. The first three buttons were undone, however, and his hair pulled back, preserving an ample view of the bruises on his neck. Something swam up out of the drunken fog of the night before, a vague and fevered memory, a gasp and a sigh and a shiver, fingernails dug into Michael's shoulder. He swallowed and rubbed the back of his neck, hot under the collar.

"You got me drunk," he said.

Ryan glanced at him.

"Yes, I did."

"On purpose?"

"Turnabout's fair play," he said, a small smile playing over his lips. "But it was also as per your request."

Michael pulled up to the kitchen table, keeping it between him and Ryan. Wordlessly, Ryan handed him a cup of coffee. Wordlessly, Michael accepted it. He took care not to touch Ryan's hand.

For a long time, neither of them said anything. The coffee was very good, strong and hot and bitter. Michael preoccupied himself with drinking it, letting it soothe the ache of his hangover. In the end, it was Ryan who broke the silence.

"Just t' avoid confusion," he said. "We ever speakin' of last night again, or was that all I'm libel t' ever get?"

"I ain't—I ain't all that clear on how . . . on what—uh. . . ." Michael trailed off, squirmy and flushed.

"No more'n when you was sober," Ryan said gently, then added, "though not for lack of tryin' on your part."

Michael made the mistake of looking at him. He was staring out the window, cradling his coffee in both hands with a wistful look on his face. Michael licked his chapped lips and looked away again. He'd forgotten what he'd been looking for.

"Well," he said. "Well, uh. Hang—hang on now, just a minute, 'cuz I got some things need clearin' up before I can make any kinda judgements or anythin'."

"Yeah?" said Ryan, hopeful. Michael sipped his coffee and cleared his throat.

"How uh . . . how long you been. . . ?" He gestured vaguely.

"Desperately infatuated with you?" Ryan guessed.

"Aw hell," Michael mumbled, going red as a tomato.

Ryan shrugged. "About six months now," he said.

"Six—six months?"

"Think it was about when you picked Gibson up and threw him outta ole Bragg's," Ryan went on, smiling. "He got awful mad at you for manhandlin' him, but I distinctly recall thinkin' you could snap me in half and I'd thank you for it."

"Oh," said Michael. He cleared his throat and scratched the back of his head. "And—oh."

Ryan looked over at him, the fond smile fading from his face.

"We don't have to do this," he said. "If it's makin' you that uncomfortable. I been mostly content to keep my mouth shut and my hands to myself, I can go on that way if need be."

"No," Michael said hurriedly, "no no, I ain't—lemme just . . . think about this."

"Take your time," Ryan said.

"You—uh, have there been . . . other. . . ."

"A few," said Ryan. "Never gotten anybody lynched yet. Except Jon, but that was mostly unrelated."

"J—Risinger?"

"Sometimes a person's gotta take just what he can get," Ryan said, and sipped his coffee.

"Jesus God," Michael said. "And you still fucked with him, even after—even though—"

"Even though previously he'd been fuckin' me?" Ryan supplied. "Sure. Ticked me off, the way he treated you. I figured it was high time for some good ol'-fashioned squeezin'. Thereafter I was rapidly cured of any sympathy I might've once had for the man."

"That don't much increase my comfort," said Michael.

"Don't tell me you feel sorry for him?"

"I feel concerned about my own future."

"So long as you don't take t' any similarly loathsome enterprises, I imagine you won't have to worry too much about it."

"That ain't what concerns me. I'm concerned you find it acceptable to start fuckin' with a person just 'cuz he ticks you off."

"If it makes you feel any better, you already been on the receivin' end of some high-quality fuckin'-with," said Ryan, smiling. "It ain't hurt you none."

"No, that don't make me feel any better at all," said Michael. There was an ache in his chest. He took slow, deep breaths, trying to stay calm.

Ryan wrinkled his nose. "Thought you might appreciate th' honesty," he said.

"I like it more'n dishonesty," said Michael.

"S'pose that's fair," said Ryan.

"While you're bein' honest," Michael said, and stopped.

"Hm?" said Ryan, looking over. Michael steeled himself.

"Did you intend for him to get lynched?" he asked.

"Yessuh, I most certainly did," said Ryan, shameless. "I was mighty upset with him. And besides, you had mentioned you wanted retribution on him, so I did what I could to get it for you."

Certainly not just because Michael had asked. . . .

"Did you kill him?" Michael said, before he could stop himself.

Ryan snorted. "'Course not," he said. "I ain't half that sloppy, Michael, nor a tenth that wasteful. Jon had good skin for leather."

Michael's breath fell out of his body, and he couldn't suck it back up. The feeling in his gut finally clicked into place, presented with the truth it had been gnawing at for days. Ryan's hands were steady and soft on the coffee cup. Behind him, the coyote skin was notably absent from the back of the rocking chair. The stitches in Michael's shoulder burned.

"I'm . . . gonna just pretend I ain't heard that," he mumbled. He rubbed the back of his neck. It hadn't happened. It wasn't real.

"You do that an awful lot," Ryan remarked. "Either pretendin' you ain't heard or refusin' to talk in the first place."

"I still don't see there's much to talk about," he said.

"Hm," said Ryan, gazing absently out the window. "Maybe not."

For a moment, there was silence.

"I oughtta be gettin' on," Michael said. "Sheriff'll be mad enough I been drinkin' on a work night without me bein' late on top of it."

"Don't let me keep you," Ryan said.

Michael didn't.

Chapter Text

Gavin was so happy to see Michael he nearly wiggled himself to bits, and then had to run outside to take a lap around the station. Michael made his way to his desk, every bump in the floor making his head throb.

"Mornin', Michael," Geoff said. His voice was too shrill, too loud. "Where's Ryan?"

"What? I don't know," Michael said, going red from his hips to the top of his head. "How—why're you askin' me?"

Geoff's eyes narrowed. "Well, since both of y'all are late this mornin', I thought maybe you'd run into him somewhere."

"Nope," Michael said, boiling alive. "Haven't seen him. At all. Today."

He could feel Jack and Jeremy exchanging meaningful looks behind his back.

"You're lookin' a li'l off this mornin'," Jeremy said. "You wind up gettin' drunk at Doc's again?"

"Nope," said Michael, pulling up to his desk. He kept his eyes down. Sweat was prickling all over his skin, despite the cold morning.

"You been gettin' drunk some other place?" Geoff said, much less jovial.

"Yes, Sheriff, I got fucked up 'cuz somebody threw a goddamn head on my doorstep night before last," Michael snapped. "I couldn't fuckin' sleep elsewise."

"Awright, now I understand the impulse, but don't do that," said Geoff. "Once you start drinkin' yourself to sleep, you'll get stuck drinkin' every night, and then it's all over."

"I won't, Sheriff," Michael said, already thoroughly done with this conversation.

"You be sure you don't," Geoff said.

"Yeah yeah," said Michael. He rolled his shoulders and rubbed the back of his neck.

"Uh, sorry for teasin'," Jeremy mumbled.

Michael gave him a sardonic look, and then got stuck before he could say anything.

Jack was wearing a brown leather coat with a black fur ruff, well-tailored and in good condition. All the hairs stood up on the back of Michael's neck. The wound in his shoulder throbbed, the stitches pinching his skin.

"That's uh . . . nice coat, Jackie."

The words came out of his mouth without consulting him first. They spilled onto the floor like incriminating photographs, out of his grasp and too late to take back.

"Huh?" said Jack, looking down at herself like she'd forgotten she was wearing it. She smiled. "Oh, yeah. Ryan made it for me, 'bout—what, three years back?"

"Somethin' like that," said Jeremy.

"It's barely cold enough for it, I just like the thing," said Jack. She shrugged. "Plus, y'know, what with all of us gettin' so suspicious of him yesterday, I thought it might be a nice gesture. Still friends and all that."

"Uh-huh," Michael managed. He shook himself, tore his eyes off of Jack and rubbed his shoulder. The bandages were starting to itch under his clothes. "Real sappy of you, Jackie."

"Well excuse the hell outta me for bein' the only fucker in this station with a sense of goddamn sympathy," Jack sneered.

"Got a sense of kissin' up," said Jeremy.

"I'll kiss my boot right up your ass."

"That don't even make any damn sense."

Just then, Ryan came in. He was wearing his bandanna around his neck, as usual, but the bruises poked out over the top of it. Michael looked away quickly.

"Mornin', y'all," Ryan said, hanging up his hat. "Sorry I'm late, I got a li'l caught up."

"Yeah, of course you did," Geoff said, shaking his head. "So long's you're un-caught now."

"Thoroughly, Sheriff," said Ryan, with a bland little smile.

"Got somethin' on your neck there, Ryan," Jack said, while Jeremy snickered into his hand.

"Oh?" Ryan said politely, turning to her. "What is it?"

Jack floundered for a moment, casting about for assistance. Neither Jeremy nor Geoff would look at her.

"Uh," she said. "Nothin'. Musta just been a . . . trick of light. I guess."

"Must've been," Ryan said, and continued on to his desk.

"Could've at least put some goddamn makeup over 'em if you didn't wanna talk about it," Jack muttered to herself.

"Gavin still out there?" Geoff asked.

"Didn't see him," said Ryan. "He prob'ly either ran off or went out back."

"Oh, hell," said Geoff. "Jack, go see if you can track him down."

"Fine," Jack sighed. She got up and shuffled out, already shouting for Gavin. The moment she was gone, Geoff slapped both hands down on his desk and leaned over bright-eyed towards Ryan.

"All right, quick now, spill it," he said, his mustache quivering with excitement. "Who gave you all them hickeys?"

Ryan watched him for a moment, a slow smile spreading across his face. He put his feet up on his desk and laced his hands behind his head.

"Don't know what you mean," he said.

"Come onnnnnn, Ryan!" Jeremy whined. "Everybody knows about everybody's sweethearts except yours!"

"Wouldn't go so far as to say sweetheart," Ryan said, grinning in earnest.

"Everybody in this goddamn station's a disgrace," Geoff grumbled. "'Tween you goin' out whorin' and Michael gettin' drunk, it's a wonder we got any reputation left."

Ryan turned sparkling eyes on Michael and pressed a delicate hand to his breast.

"Michael," he gasped. "I'm shocked and appalled. You could've at least invited me, you know how much I adore gettin' you drunk!"

"Shut the fuck up," said Michael, mortified.

"At least tell me both of y'all got it outta your goddamn systems," Geoff said, rubbing his temple. "We got fuckin' work to do, and it looks real bad when y'all start havin' revelries when dead bodies are turnin' up."

"Just the one," said Ryan. "Ain't nothin' like the specter of Death to convince a person to start livin'."

"Yeah, 'cuz my first thought on seein' Risinger's corpse in your basement was goddamn, I could use a good fuck," Jeremy said, his nose wrinkling.

"And then did you go home and kiss your wife?" Ryan inquired.

"Awright, nuh-uh, we ain't gettin' into wives again," Geoff said. "Off-limits."

"Says the fella who started the hickey gossip in the first place," Ryan said.

"So you admit they're hickeys!" Geoff cried.

The door swung open and Jack tottered in. She was white as milk, her eyes staring through the floor. Gavin trotted in behind her, his face covered in dirt. Jack had something in her hand.

"What's wrong?" Michael said, his heartbeat kicking up to a thunder. "Jack? What'd he find out there?"

Jack opened her hand. There was a dirty, bloody, slobbery finger in her palm.

"Found a couple more pieces of Risinger," she croaked.

"Oh, fuck," Jeremy said, turning away and shielding himself with his hands.

"Jesus Christ," said Geoff.

"Gavin already ate a couple," Jack went on numbly.

"Oh fuck!" Jeremy cried, and clapped a hand over his mouth. "No, no, no, no—"

"Is he all right?" Michael demanded.

In answer to his question, Gavin put his feet on the arm of Michael's chair and started trying to lick his face.

"Get off," Michael snarled, and shoved him harder than was necessary. Gavin stumbled back, then slunk off to hide in the corner. Michael instantly wished the ground would open up and swallow him.

Ryan got up and went to Jack. He put one hand on her shoulder and held out the other. She didn't move.

"Jack," he said quietly.

"Huh? Oh," she said. She tipped the finger into Ryan's hand. He gave her his handkerchief. She wiped her hand off thoroughly and gave it back. He wrapped the finger up in it.

"Any more back there?" he said.

"A couple," said Jack. "That one I got 'cuz . . . Gavin was chewin' on it, and. . . ."

Jeremy gagged. Ryan patted Jack's shoulder.

"I'll get the rest," he said.

"Why just the fingers and toes?" Michael blurted, before Ryan was all the way out the door.

"Huh?" said Geoff.

"Oh, simple," Ryan said over his shoulder. "On account of those bein' the parts you can cut off without it bein' lethal."

He walked out. The door swung shut behind him.

"Simple," Jeremy said thinly. "Sure. Gee, it's so obvious, why didn't you think of that, Michael?"

"Then why not his ears?" Michael muttered to himself, ignoring Jeremy. He chewed his cheek, then declared, "I need to go look at Risinger's head again."

"Jesus Christ," Geoff muttered. "Fine, I'll come with you."

"Sheriff, you don't gotta—"

"I," Geoff said, pinning Michael with a look, "am comin' with you."

"Yessir," said Michael.


 

"Well y'all look grim as hell," Lindsay said, as Michael, Geoff, and Gavin came into the clinic. Gavin was still slinking around looking sorry for himself, and Michael was feeling worse about it every minute. He was also exhausted and in pain—between the hangover, the usual leg pain, and the blood loss, he was about ready to sleep for a week. A little laudanum to aid the process wouldn't have gone awry, either. Maybe if he could get rid of Geoff for a few minutes, he could finally ask Lindsay about it.

"We found a bunch of Risinger's extremities," Geoff said to her. "Out back of the station. Gavin . . . ate a couple."

"Yep, all right," said Lindsay, rubbing her head. "That's the kinda day it's gonna be then. Y'all bring 'em with you?"

Geoff held up Ryan's handkerchief, tied in a neat parcel around the severed fingers and toes. Lindsay wrinkled her nose, then got up from her desk.

"C'mon, let's put 'em with the rest," she said. "Y'all need anythin' while we're there?"

"Michael wanted to take another look at his head," said Geoff, before Michael could answer.

"How come?" said Lindsay, leading them to a back room of the clinic.

"Hell if I know," said Geoff.

"I'm right fuckin' here," Michael growled.

"Sorry," said Geoff. "Michael, what'd you want his head for?"

Michael took a deep breath, simmering down. The three of them went into the room where Risinger's body was being kept. It was under a white sheet at the moment, but that didn't do much for the smell. Gavin trailed along behind them, dutiful and stoic.

"Ryan figures whoever killt him cut off his fingers and toes while he was still alive," Michael said.

"He's right on that one," said Lindsay. "From what I saw, anyhow."

Michael inclined his head. "I wanted to know why they ain't cut off his ears, too."

"Why would they have?" Lindsay asked, making a face.

"'Cuz they stick out and they ain't lethal to lose," said Michael. "You still got his head in here somewhere?"

"Yep, it's over here," Lindsay said. She pulled back the sheet and revealed Risinger's head. It was starting to sag like a rotting melon.

"Ugh," said Geoff, turning away. "That's nasty, goddamn."

"What exactly are you lookin' for?" Lindsay asked.

"Don't know," said Michael, moving to the table. "You mind checkin' behind his ears for me?"

"Why, to see if he was washin'?"

"God dammit, Doc," Michael said, exasperated. "Would you just look?"

"I already looked, dumbass," she retorted. "What the hell you think I been doin' for the past three days?"

"And?"

"There ain't nothin' there," said Lindsay. "I found out a couple other things that might interest—"

Two gears suddenly caught in Michael's head and the whole machine lurched into motion.

"Gimme a washcloth," he interrupted.

"What?" said Lindsay.

He motioned sharply. "Gimme a washcloth! A wet washcloth!"

"All right, all right, don't get your knickers in a twist," Lindsay said. She went to the wash basin and returned a moment later with a dripping washcloth.

Although it made his stomach churn, Michael took hold of Risinger's head and turned it around. Scrubbing behind the right ear did nothing, but on the left, the washcloth came away tan and powdery. Revealed beneath a thick patina of makeup, there was a very familiar tattoo.

"Well I'll be damned," said Lindsay.

"What is it?" said Geoff, crowding over Michael's shoulder. Michael turned Risinger's head so Geoff could see. "Huh."

"Huh, for sure," said Michael. He wiped his hands with the washcloth, then laid it down next to the head. "No wonder he got so spooked when Jeremy and me came askin' about that tattoo."

"Same one as on the canyon body?" Geoff asked.

"So far as I can tell," said Michael. He turned to Lindsay. "How many folks did you tell about that tattoo? Who woulda known what it was and where it was from?"

"Precious few," said Lindsay. "But I know Jeremy made a campaign of askin' folks about it."

"But he ain't tell 'em what it was," said Michael.

"You think Risinger's not the one who hid it?" Geoff asked.

"I ain't sure," said Michael.

"'Cuz of the ears," said Lindsay.

"'Cuz I cain't imagine why the man would have makeup to cover it with," he said.

"Not much use in checkin' if it matches his skin color," Lindsay said. "Since that's all gone to rot."

"He's been livin' in a tent for two months now," Geoff said. "Can't imagine a li'l thing like cosmetics would be on his list of necessities."

"It might," said Lindsay. "Dependin' on how bad he didn't want that tattoo seen."

"Naw, the more I think about it, the more I'm sure he din't cover it up," Michael said slowly. "He got kidnapped and tortured, and I wiped that shit off with a wet washcloth. He'da been sweatin' like a pig, all the shit he got put through. It musta been done after. It musta been somebody else coverin' it up."

"Makes sense," said Lindsay. "But why?"

"That's always the question," said Geoff, shaking his head.

Gavin, meanwhile, was making a circuit of the room, sniffing around at the tables and chairs. Michael clicked his fingers at him.

"Gavin! Hey, get back here," he said. Gavin started, then moped his way to Michael's side. Michael scratched him behind the ears. "You ain't in trouble, quit lookin' so sorry."

"Well," Lindsay sighed. "While y'all are here, you want a run-down of what I found?"

"Quick, 'fore Gavin eats anymore evidence," said Geoff.

"Leave him alone, Sheriff, he don't know any better," Michael said. "Yeah, Doc, give us what you got."

"Y'all know most of the highlights already," said Lindsay. "Fingers and toes came off while he was still alive. Most of the beatin' happened then, too, although I don't think all of it. He's been dead about four days, by my reckonin'."

"So he was dead a whole day before his head got thrown on Michael's porch?" Geoff said, frowning.

"Maybe not the whole day, but at least part of it," said Lindsay.

"Naw, that fits," said Michael. "It'd take a while to get all the blood out. Wouldn't it? Have to drain him for a while. Ryan said he must've been drained, otherwise there'd be a—a lot more blood."

"Ryan's half a goddamn doctor himself," Lindsay grumbled. "Yeah, anyhow. It was the head-cuttin' that killed him, I figure. All the stickin' of pointy things was done after the fact. They started with somethin' thin and sharp, then switched to a saw when it wouldn't go through the spine."

Frowning, Michael looked at the ragged edge of Risinger's neck.

"Sure looks like the whole thing got sawn off," he said, pointing.

"It did," said Lindsay. She pulled the white shroud a little farther back, uncovering the body's shoulders. She rolled it onto its side, keeping her hands on the shroud, and pointed at the back of the neck. "Started here, with a knife of some kind, I think. When that didn't work, they started over with a saw."

Michael's frown deepened. "So they went back to front?" he said.

"That ain't what Ryan figured," Geoff said, fooling with his mustache.

"Who is the goddamn doctor in this town, Ryan or me?" Lindsay snapped.

"Doc, I ain't—"

"It's me, goddammit," she said. "If you want my opinion on shit, as a doctor, you better fuckin' listen when I give it to you!"

Geoff raised his hands in surrender. "Yes ma'am," he said.

Lindsay took a deep breath through her nose. She turned her attention back to Michael, who only shrank a little under it.

"The other thing," she said, composed once more, "was them extra knives."

"Uh-huh?" said Michael.

"Seven of 'em," Lindsay said. "Over here, c'mon. Most of 'em are kitchen knives. Real big kitchen knives, but ordinary even so."

She led him to another table, where she'd laid out the knives. One of them in particular stuck out to Michael. He pointed to it.

"That one's Risinger's," he said. "He pulled it on me in the alley and dropped it when he ran. Last person I saw with it was Turney."

"How'd Turney get ahold of it?" Geoff asked, frowning. "Unless she was present for the uh . . . the proceedin's and you just failed to mention it up 'til now."

Michael flushed. He cleared his throat and rolled his shoulders.

"Din't seem important 'til now," he said. "Anyhow. You know who the others belong to, Doc?"

"No, but I got a guess, now that you say that about Turney," she said. "I'm bettin' there's six particular women in town who're missin' the biggest knife in their kitchens."

"Jack's already gonna talk to 'em," Geoff said. "I'll make sure she asks about the knives while she's there."

"Prefer it if they could just be left the hell alone, but I guess that ain't an option," Lindsay grumbled.

"You know Jack, though," said Geoff. "She does good work. She's got a strong sense of sympathy, it ain't never steered her wrong."

"Fine," Lindsay sighed. "Y'all have anythin' else you wanted to look at before you headed on? Only I do have shit to do."

"I seen everythin' I needed to see," said Geoff. "Michael, you satisfied?"

Michael chewed on it. "For now," he said. "I might come back later, if I think of somethin'."

"Wellp, you know where to find me," said Lindsay.

Chapter Text

Scarcely an hour after getting back to the station, Michael found himself alone with Ryan.

It had happened so smoothly that Michael could almost believe it wasn't contrived. Jack had gone off to conduct interrogations, Jeremy to canvass for people who might have heard or seen anything (like screams, or bodies being carried around). Gavin got restless, and Geoff took him out for a long walk around town, ostensibly to see if he'd dig up any more bits of Risinger.

The silence in the station now was palpable. Michael's hands had gone unsteady, and he was damp with sweat despite the cool weather. Eventually, he could bear it no longer, and broke the silence himself.

"Did you know about the tattoo?" he asked.

"On Jon?" Ryan said, looking up from his paperwork. "Naw. Never had occasion to find it."

Michael frowned at him. "How's that?" he said.

"Well, Michael, I spent the majority of my time with him face-down," Ryan said, amused.

"Oh," said Michael. His skin went hot while his insides went cold. He cleared his throat and rubbed his mouth. "You got any inclination as to why his head wound up on my doorstep?"

"Why do you think his head wound up on your doorstep?" Ryan asked.

Michael fidgeted. They were quite alone.

"I think it was a gift," he said.

"I'd be inclined t' agree," said Ryan.

"'Cuz of the tattoo?"

"On account of the delivery. Brought to you like a cat brings dead mice."

Michael grunted. "Think the body was a present for you?"

"Oh, no, that was to frame me," said Ryan. Michael glanced at him. There was a sharpness to his smile.

"You figure you know who did it?"

"Got somethin' of an idea," said Ryan. "You?"

"It's Turney."

"Most assuredly," said Ryan. "The pressin' issue would be proof."

"She was there, the night Risinger took a crack at me," said Michael. "She took his knife. I don't guess it's too much of a coincidence that was the same night he went missin', or that that knife ended up in him."

"I'd say not," said Ryan. "But that's a long ways from proof. Hardly even evidence."

"She was askin' about you when you was outta town, too," Michael said. "Wantin' to know where you'd gone and when you'd get back. She musta been plannin' to frame you from the start."

"It might also explain her embarrasin' attempts to get close to me," Ryan said. "But again: the weight of th' evidence is perishin'ly light."

"There's no way in hell she'll ever confess."

"Doubtful," said Ryan. "Even with significant squeezin', she—"

"Don't," Michael cut him off.

Ryan inclined his head. "I shall refrain," he said.

"I'm bettin' she'll have some kinda alibi for the time he was killt, too," Michael said, rolling his shoulders. "Doc said he's been dead about four days, but he was missin' a lot longer'n that."

"We know for certain she didn't up and vanish for the whole duration."

"Then she musta been keepin' him somewhere," said Michael. "Maybe she had an accomplice? Or more than one? Hell, if each of those knives belonged to one of the—the women he took advantage of, they mighta all been in on it."

"Might have," Ryan allowed. "Miz Turney seem like the sort of person to put her trust in others?"

"No," said Michael. "But she also don't seem the type to take dumb risks, like leavin' Risinger all alone for long stretches of time."

"Fair," said Ryan. "Unless she was confident he couldn't get loose on his own."

"We gotta find where she was keepin' him."

"Seems like a reasonable first step."

"It's the only first step," Michael said. "Every other track she'll have covered. She planned this for months—woulda had all her alibis ready to go, her scapegoat set up, her story straight. The location is the only thing she mighta slipped up on, 'cuz it's the thing she's had the least time to fix up. We oughtta check Badger's inn, she's been workin' there for a while. Plenty of space, prob'ly enough privacy. Hell, if she's been settin' herself up as a whore, folks might've just ignored the noise."

Ryan shook his head in awe.

"It never gets old," he said.

Blushing, Michael rubbed his nose.

"Yeah yeah," he said. "How well you get on with Badger?"

"Well enough," said Ryan, shrugging and looking back to his paperwork. "You'd most likely have better luck bringin' Jack, though."

"I ain't goin'," said Michael. "You and Jack are."

"How come?"

With a sigh, Michael threw up his hands.

"'Cuz there's a step, and I cain't get in," he said.

"That'd do it," said Ryan. "Anythin' in particular you want me to look into while I'm there?"

Michael chewed his cheek, thinking about it.

"See if you cain't work out if Badger was one of Risinger's uh . . . one of Risinger's six. And see what Turney's been doin' there for work. Check for—I guess blood, though she prob'ly woulda cleaned that up. Rope marks on shit, maybe."

"Jon wasn't tied up," Ryan said. "Wherever he was. No rope marks on him anywhere."

"Shit, naw, you're right," Michael said. He wrinkled his nose. "Damn. Then how the hell was she keepin' him from runnin' off? Ain't like he'd just lie still while—"

He broke off. Slowly, he reached back and touched his neck.

"Now that's a hell of an idea," he said to himself.

"I love this part," Ryan said, resting his cheek on his hand. "What'd you just figure out?"

"What made you say his head was cut off front to back?" Michael asked.

"Oh, just guessin', mostly," said Ryan. "I figure you'd hold him down, grab him by the hair, and saw through him while you watched him choke on his own blood."

Michael shuddered. He couldn't help but picture it; Ryan straddling Risinger's chest, one hand fisted in his hair, the other sawing his throat open in fountains of blood, grinning, grinning. . . .

"Sound enough," Michael croaked, and cleared his throat. He pushed the image from his mind, refocusing, recentering. "But Doc said it was back to front. What if y'all are both right?"

"Chéri, sometimes your intellect is just unbearably attractive," Ryan sighed.

"Would you focus?" Michael said, going hot all over. "God dammit, for five fuckin' minutes!"

"Sorry," said Ryan, who didn't sound it. "Big risk, cuttin' a person's spine that way. She'd have t' either be tremendously skilled or damn lucky not to kill him right away."

"She was gonna kill him anyways."

"But if she took him 'fore I got back, she'd wanna keep him alive 'til her scapegoat arrived."

"What if she din't take him before you got back?" Michael said. The gears were turning now, the machinery swarming to life in his head. "Last time anybody saw him was Gibson, givin' him a bottle of booze from Ole Bragg's. Maybe he went and disappeared himself for a couple days, layin' low 'cuz he knew we'd be after him for beatin' on me. But then Meg got to him before he could un-disappear."

"That's a mighty temptin' conjecture," said Ryan. "But it don't quite fit in with Miz Turney's supposed attempts to frame me."

"Easy way to work through that," said Michael. "We just ask her when the last time she saw Risinger was."

"And if she says it's after I got back—"

"But nobody else does—"

"Then we got her," said Ryan. His eyes twinkled.

"We'd still have to get real evidence, don't get too excited," said Michael. "This's just for. . . ."

"Personal accountin'?" Ryan guessed.

"Somethin' likkat," said Michael, not looking at him. "I'm pretty sure she killt him, but I ain't a hundred percent convinced. Figurin' this out, that's . . . just how I'm gonna convince myself."

"So I'll borrow Jack and talk to Miz Mica, while you hunt up Miz Turney?"

"Yeah," said Michael, tugging out his braking stick. "I'm bettin' she'll be hangin' around Ole Bragg's again, if she ain't at Badger's."

"You're not gone take Gavin?"

"Last time I brought Gavin, she kicked him."

"She might kick you, too."

"Hardy-harr, I don't give a shit," said Michael.

"You might at least take Jeremy with you."

"I don't have the time to go huntin' for him," said Michael.

"You don't trust him," said Ryan.

Michael didn't respond to that. He headed for the door, keeping his eyes down.

"Meet you back here afterwards?" Ryan said, hopeful.

"I guess," said Michael.

"Whatever suits you best."

Michael caved. He couldn't help it.

"Give it 'til five o'clock," he said. "If I don't turn up, assume I'm in trouble."

"These days, chéri, I always do," said Ryan.


 

The clock over the bank tolled three just as Michael got to Bragg's saloon. It was relatively empty this time of day, being that it had just opened, but there was enough of a crowd to make a reasonable hubbub. Michael went straight for the bar, although it was much too tall for him to comfortably drink at. He slapped a hand on it to get Bragg's attention.

"Oh," Bragg said, leaning over to look down at Michael. "Hey there. What can I get ya?"

"Mad Meg been in here recently?" Michael asked.

"Uhhhh, wellp," said Bragg. "Yeah, but you might hafta wait a bit."

Michael frowned. "How come?"

"'Cuz she's upstairs with Treyco just now," said Bragg.

Michael stared at him.

"She's where with who?" he said.

"Now now, don't get all ruffled, it's a longstandin' arrangement," Bragg said. "You want somethin' to drink? I could get you somethin' to drink while you wait."

"What exactly is the arrangement that's been longstandin'?" Michael demanded.

"Don't tell him, Matt."

Michael looked down to the far end of the bar. 'Shifty Larry' Matovina, one of Trevor's old prospecting pals, was eyeing him up something fierce.

"'Scuse me?" said Michael, turning to face him.

Shifty slugged back a mouthful of his drink and winced, then shook his head.

"Ain't your business," he said.

"Larry, c'mon now," said Bragg. "Ain't like anybody's breakin' any laws or nothin'."

"Exactly," said Shifty. "It ain't his business."

"Soundin' mighty goddamn suspicious there," Michael said, drumming his fingers on the wheels of his chair.

"'Cuz God fuckin' forbid anybody have any business that ain't yours, right?" Shifty sneered. "Nosy fucker."

"You wanna get your ass beat, Shifty?" said Michael. "'Cuz you're fixin' to!"

Shifty stood up. Up until then, he'd been more fat than imposing, but from Michael's new and lower angle, he loomed.

"Larry, sit back down, c'mon now," Bragg said. "Finish your drink."

"Still pickin' fights, huh," Shifty said to Michael. "I can't tell if you're stubborn, or just a dumbass."

"As if you got any room to be callin' people stupid," Michael spat. "How's that silver hunt pannin' out? Must be pretty shitty business, if Trevor up and abandoned y'all. Where's Cook and Bernard, they take off, too?"

Shifty cracked his knuckles and started for Michael. Bragg's hand snaked across the bar and caught him by the lapel.

"Larry, I mean it, don't start this," Bragg said.

"He started it!"

"Nothin's been started yet! Let it go!"

Michael had just opened his mouth to provoke Shifty further when movement on the stairs caught his eye. Trevor was making his way down, disheveled and unsteady. Michael spared Shifty a withering glance.

"Think I'll just go straight to the source," he said. "Enjoy your drink, Shifty."

"You—" Shifty growled, but Michael was already off. He intercepted Trevor at the bottom of the stairs.

"Hey, you wanna tell me what the fuck you were doin' with—" Michael began, and then stopped. Trevor had a dazed look about him, like he'd been hit over the head. He stood with one hand on the banister as though he needed it to stay upright.

"Huh?" he said.

"Come to think of it, I don't think I gotta ask," Michael muttered. "Turney still up there?"

"Tur—oh," said Trevor. "Yeah. I think."

Overwhelmed by a morbid curiosity, Michael asked, "How much'd she take you for?"

Trevor's face twisted up with pain. He shut his eyes and bowed his head. He was shaking.

"A dollar," he whispered. "But don't tell nobody, please, please don't tell nobody, I can't—"

"Trevor, Jesus, calm down," Michael said, severely discomfited. Sticky heat was rising under his skin. "It—I mean, folks . . . plenty of folks pay for . . . y'know. That. Plenty of folks as make their livin' off, uh—look, it ain't that much to be ashamed of, is all I'm sayin'."

Sniffling, Trevor looked over at him. He wiped his face clumsily, like a child.

"You mean that?" he quavered. "You really mean that?"

"Would you just go away," Michael said, rubbing his eyebrow.

"I'm gone," Trevor said instantly. "I'm gone, I'm already gone."

And with that, he fled the saloon. Michael watched him go, torn between pity and embarrassment. Before he could come to a consensus, Meg draped herself over the banister and plucked at a curl of his hair. Michael jerked back, almost upending himself. Meg grinned and waggled her fingers at him.

"Howdy, cowboy," she said. "You lookin' for somebody?"

"Don't ever touch me again," Michael snapped, his throat tight with disgust. His pulse throbbed in his hands.

"Aw, don't be coy, now," said Meg. "You give me a few minutes to get a drink in me, and I wouldn't mind showin' you a good time."

"Knowin' how cheap you run?" Michael said, his lip curling. "No thanks."

"Aw, Deputy," Meg sighed, shaking her head. "For somebody who's supposed to be so smart, you get awful dumb sometimes."

"Who the hell told you I was smart?" Michael said, before he could stop himself.

"Folks tell me all kinds of things about you," said Meg, watching him through half-lidded eyes. "Why don't you come upstairs with me and we'll talk about it?"

"Gee, I wonder why the fuck I don't," he spat.

"Oh, right," she said, resting her cheek on the banister and pouting at him. "You can't. What a shame. I don't guess Ole Bragg would mind if we used his downstairs room instead?"

"I will beat your entire goddamn face in again," Michael snarled, his hands clenching so hard that his knuckles popped.

"If you can reach that high," said Meg. She went for his hair again and he slapped her hand away. She laughed, then sauntered to the private room at the back of the saloon. Michael had half a mind to turn around and leave, just to spite her.

Instead, he gritted his teeth and followed her back.

"Oh, so you did want me for somethin'," Meg said, kicking her feet up onto the table as Michael came in. The door swung shut behind him. There were no windows in the room, only the single red lamp overhead.

"Just answers," Michael said tightly.

"Do I get to ask questions too?" Meg said. "I never did get to find out about your workin' parts."

"And you never will," Michael said, though his insides were squirming.

"Never's an awful long time," she said. "Sure I couldn't interest you in a li'l generosity?"

"No."

"Some other time, then."

"No," Michael repeated. The Colt was heavy on his hip. He wondered if she was armed.

"You'll change your mind," Meg said, waving a hand. "Go on and ask your questions, if that's really all you wanted."

Michael took a steadying breath. He just had to get through this, and then he could have the sublime pleasure of watching her hang by the neck until dead.

"When was the last time you saw Risinger?" he asked. "Alive, I mean."

"That night he tried to kill you in an alley," Meg said immediately. "I followed him a ways, 'til he headed out of town."

"Why'd you leave off followin' him?"

"Oh, reasons," said Meg, waving a hand. "The point is, I ain't seen him since."

"You're sure?" Michael pressed. "You ain't see him again before Ryan got back?"

Meg smiled and leaned back in her chair.

"It's funny you should mention that," she said.

"Is it?" Michael said, bristling.

"Mm," said Meg. "Tell me, Deputy Jones, when did Haywood get back?"

A pit opened up in Michael's stomach. He clenched his hands on the arms of his chair.

"Couple weeks ago," he said. "On a Friday evenin'."

"I'm sure that's what he'd like you to think," she said. "But I saw him that Wednesday night. Or Thursday mornin', I guess."

"The hell you did."

"You wanna know why I left off followin' Risinger?" Meg said. "It's 'cuz Haywood picked it up. I told him about what Risinger had done to you, and he said he'd take care of it."

"No he fuckin' didn't," Michael snarled. "You lyin' bitch!"

"Did he tell you I killed Risinger?" Meg inquired, unshaken. "Did y'all come up with a smart li'l plan to catch me out framin' Haywood for the murder? Seems a li'l convoluted, don't it."

"Shut up."

"Especially when the body turned up in Haywood's basement, with Haywood's tools all stuck up in it, after its cock was cut off with Haywood's knife. You remember that? I do. Basement seems an awfully convenient place to keep somebody, too. I bet nobody'd even hear the screamin'."

"Shut up."

"Hm now, I wonder, how might he have kept Risinger down there, though? Maybe by cuttin' his spine with that big ole knife of his? Maybe like he threatened to do to me?"

"Shut your goddamn lyin' mouth!" Michael roared, slamming his hand down on the table. He was shaking. He couldn't breathe right. There was an ache behind his eyes that was worsening with every thump of his heart.

"You been tricked, Michael," Meg said, and she was grimmer than he'd ever seen her before. "You had the wool pulled over your eyes. I woulda kept quiet, y'know, but apparently Haywood thinks he's too smart for blackmail. I'll admit, I was squeezin' him for cash. That's what I been meetin' with him about. Oh, he seemed content to just pay up, but next thing I know, I'm bein' framed for murder. What's a girl to do, I ask you?"

"A girl's gonna fuckin' hang," Michael said, so taut with rage he could barely speak.

"God damn, he's really got you in his pocket, don't he," Meg said, shaking her head and smiling. "Guess that's ideal, though. That much closer to his cock."

He drew the Colt so fast it nearly set the holster on fire. Just as quickly, he found himself looking down the barrels of a shotgun.

"I see that civil negotiations have broken down," Meg sighed. "I think I'll be headin' on out, Deputy. You feel free to come see me again when you're all cooled off."

"I'll see you in Hell," Michael said.

"Don't wait up for me," Meg said, getting to her feet. She blew him a kiss, then sidled out of the room. She kept the shotgun trained on him the whole way.

Michael sat for several minutes, waiting for the red haze to clear from his vision. His hands were shaking. He holstered the Colt because he was scared he'd pull the trigger by accident.

She'd been lying. Of course she'd been lying. Ryan was her scapegoat and always had been; she'd probably been prepared for Michael to come looking, probably had her story straight long before she ever made a move. It was far, far more likely that she was just lying about when Ryan had gotten back than it was that Ryan was lying about everything.

But Ryan had threatened to cut Meg's spine, and he'd done it before Risinger's body had turned up. It was an awfully suspicious coincidence. Michael couldn't help but think of that basement, buried so deep with all those sharp things arrayed around it. Geoff hadn't been able to hear Michael and Lindsay yelling from the front door of the house.

Nobody ever would have heard Risinger screaming.

He put his head in his hands. Trying to take deep breaths was futile; something had filled up the bottoms of his lungs and wouldn't let him inhale all the way. The stitches tugged and pulled at his skin. The wound throbbed with every beat of his heart.

"He din't do this," Michael said to himself. "He din't do this. Not that sloppy, not that wasteful."

But only according to Ryan's own account. There was an awful lot they had to take his word on; which knives belonged to him, how he'd known Risinger's body was in his basement, what Meg had or hadn't said to him when they were alone. Had the spacing of the tools in Risinger's body been incidental, or intentional? The casual caress of Ryan's thumb across Risinger's brow—an inattentive gesture from a former lover, or a deliberate hint at a future fabrication, dropped before Michael's watchful eyes?

You're gone see some wonderful things.

Michael dug his fingernails into his scalp. His head spun. He was shivering and couldn't stop. What if it was true? What if it was all true?

"Shut up," he hissed at himself. "Shut up, dumbass, that shit din't happen. Pull your goddamn self together, Jesus Christ, Michael. You let her get in your head. She's just fuckin' around in your head, and you're goddamn fallin' for it. Dumbass."

There was a quick knock at the door, which then creaked open before Michael could say anything.

"Deputy Jones?" Bragg said.

"Yeah," said Michael. It was all he could do to sit up.

After a moment's hesitation, Bragg came in. He shut the door behind him.

"You all right?" he asked.

"Fine," said Michael. "Just had a long day."

"Only I figured I prob'ly oughtta check, since you was talkin' with Mad Meg," Bragg went on. "I do recall what happened last time y'all had a conversation in here, and since she walked out unharmed, I thought—well, I thought I'd better check on ya."

"I'm fine," Michael said again.

"Good to know, good to know," said Bragg. "Guess I'll just leave you to it, then."

"Hey, hold up a second," Michael said. He turned to face Bragg, who was standing with his hand on the doorknob. "How uh—how long you been runnin' this saloon?"

"Me? Oh, fwew, close on . . . ten years, now," Bragg said. He scratched his beard and wrinkled his nose. "Only thing that's been here longer'n me is the bank."

Michael chewed his cheeks. "So you know about Geoff and them not really bein' lawmen," he said.

Bragg's eyes got wide. He guffawed, fidgeting.

"Well—I was here when they first got to town, sure," said Bragg. "Saw 'em get sworn in by the U. S. Marshals, too, so—so they are lawmen, of course."

"Why'd y'all let 'em stay?" Michael pressed. "If they ran out the last set of lawmen, why ain't y'all just run them out afterwards?"

"Well, y'know, Deputy, it's like this," Bragg said, folding his arms. He blew out a breath through his lips. "Those uh, unsavory folks you're joined up with now, they're the best damn set of lawmen we ever had in this town. The last set never did nothin' at all. Just sat on their asses collectin' paychecks and bein' bullies. We ain't run out the fakes 'cuz they're better'n the real thing."

"Huh," said Michael. "And they never got to bein' bullies?"

"Well, Narvaez did," Bragg allowed, wincing. "But he was the only one. The others settled in real nice, 'specially after Dooley fell ass-over-teakettle in love with Miss Katherine."

"When Narvaez went crazy," Michael said carefully. "What kinds of things did he talk about? Do you know?"

"I heard a couple tie-raids," said Bragg. "Mostly when he was blind drunk. Never did make much sense, but the gen'ral gist was devils and demons and all that. Seemed sure somethin' was comin' to get him. I guess somethin' did, in the end. You might talk to Gus, Narvaez spent half his wakin' hours in that church."

"He ever mention a Vagabond?" Michael said.

Bragg frowned. He wiggled a finger in his ear, then stuck that finger in his mouth and scraped the gunk off on his teeth.

"Yeah, but not durin' his tie-raids," said Bragg. "Mostly when it came up, he was fightin' with the others. Sheriff'd yell at him for gettin' up to his old tricks, dangle that Vagabond hoo-hah over his head, and Narvaez'd go off like a powder keg. Sayin' he wasn't scared, sayin' Ramsey was a coward, sayin' all kinds of shit. He cut it out once he went crazy. I guess he got around to bein' scared after all."

"Hm," said Michael. He rubbed the arms of his chair.

"Why? What's a Vagabond?" Bragg asked.

Michael glanced at him. His watery eyes were curious and bright.

"Just a boogeyman," Michael said. "'Scuse me."

And before Bragg could continue the conversation, Michael brushed past him out of the room.

Chapter Text

Jeremy, Geoff, and Gavin were already back when Michael got to the station. They hadn't turned up any other bits of Risinger, nor anything else of note. Gavin settled in at Michael's feet and was asleep in minutes. Jack got back shortly thereafter.

"Hey," Michael began, and was immediately distracted. "Where's Ryan?"

"Retrievin' his things from Doc's," said Jack. "He's gonna drop 'em off at home and then come on back here."

"Oh," said Michael. "Y'all uh . . . find anythin'?"

"Nothin' helpful," Jack sighed, going to her desk. "Searched every room. Nothin' outta place anywhere. Mica says Meg's just been runnin' security for the most part. Had a couple people over in the past two months, but never Risinger."

"Damn," Michael said, wrinkling his nose.

"You get anythin' outta Meg?"

"Nothin' useful," said Michael.

"Standard," said Jack. "She stonewall you like usual?"

"Naw, she just . . . din't tell me anythin' useful."

"Hang on, she gave you answers?" said Geoff, frowning. "That don't seem right. She wouldn't even tell us her Christian name."

Michael blinked. "It sure don't," he said slowly.

"You think she was lyin'?" Jeremy asked.

"Yeah," said Michael, and then more firmly, "yeah. Naw, I'm sure she was. I think she killt him, and now she's tryin' to frame Ryan for it."

"Hot damn," said Jeremy. "What'd she tell you?"

"That Ryan got back two days before he actually did, and that he was the last person to see Risinger alive," said Michael. A dim light came on in his head. "She also said she'd been blackmailin' him."

"A-ha," said Geoff, his eyes sparkling. "Now that, we can work with!"

"Not if she hasn't actually been blackmailin' him," said Jack.

"She don't need to have been," said Geoff. "We just need Ryan to say she's been. She confessed to Michael, one more account oughtta seal it and then we can arrest her."

"And thereby have Ryan admit to murderin' Risinger?" Michael said dryly.

Geoff opened his mouth. He shut it again.

"Oh," he said.

"Well hang on, though," said Jeremy. "If she ain't been blackmailin' Ryan, what's she been doin' with him? Accordin' to Kitty, they met up at Bragg's at least twice."

"I got an inklin'," Michael said. It came out darker than he'd intended.

"For God's sake, Michael, no you fuckin' don't," said Jack, rolling her eyes. "If there's one thing I'm damn certain Ryan hasn't been doin' with Meg, it's screwin' her, so you can calm down."

Michael went hot all over.

"I never said that," he said. "Whoever said that? And who says I'd give a damn if he was?"

"This is fuckin' unbearable," Jeremy said into his hand, which was currently propping up his head. "I can't take much more of this."

"Hush up, Li'l J, it ain't about you," Geoff scolded. "They're young, let 'em work it out on their own."

"Are you talkin' about me?" Michael said, rounding on him. The heat was only getting worse. He was starting to sweat.

"I was, and now I'm back to talkin' about Turney tryin' to frame one of my deputies," said Geoff. "How much evidence we got against her?"

"Sheriff," Michael growled.

"Risinger's knife, that's one," Geoff went on regardless. "You can positively say she was the last person to have it 'fore it ended up in his dead body. What else we got?"

"She hated his guts," Jack said.

"Not exactly evidence, but it's good to keep in mind," said Geoff. "Michael, c'mon, what else we got on Turney?"

Michael let out a slow breath and rubbed his hands on the arms of his chair.

"Not fuckin' much," he said. "Apart from the fact she's tryin' to frame Ryan, which makes her look awful goddamn guilty to me."

"Awright, we'll work on it," said Geoff. "What do we have on Ryan?"

Michael looked up sharply. "What do we what?"

"Sheriff, uh," said Jeremy, leaning back in his chair, his brows drawing together.

"I mean it," said Geoff. "What evidence we got against Ryan? We gotta know how the balances stand 'fore we can correct 'em."

"Wellp, the body turned up in his basement," said Jack. "With a whole bunch of his tools stuck up in it."

"Right," said Geoff. "He and Doc had differin' takes on how the head was cut off. Might be somethin' of misdirection in that."

"Sheriff, if he'd killed Risinger, he wouldn'ta come and told us the body was in his damn basement," Jeremy objected.

"I don't think he did kill Risinger, Jeremy," Geoff said, rolling his eyes. "I need to know what all we need to take into account so that nobody else thinks he killed Risinger, either. So what else is there? Michael, you got anythin'?"

Michael rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck. He fidgeted.

"We gotta take his word for it, which knives were his," he said. "We got at least one witness puttin' him as the last person to see Risinger alive. He had somethin' of a grudge against the man, too, 'specially—"

Pain swelled in Michael's chest. All the air went out of him and he couldn't get it back. He clutched at his chest as his head started to spin. Jack jumped up. Voices rose in a clamor. Panic swarmed him like a cloud of locusts. His heart wasn't beating. He'd cracked his neck, and his heart was stopped and he was going to die he was going to die he was going to die—

Cough, Michael.

He came to with Geoff's hands on his shoulders, gasping down air and still coughing. He was shaking from head to toe, prickling with cold sweat. Gavin had wriggled up halfway into his lap and was licking his chin.

"I'm fine," he said through numb lips, prying his hand off the arm of his chair to coax Gavin back to the floor. "I'm fine, Sheriff, I'm all right."

"Jesus Christ, Michael, what just happened?" Geoff said. Gavin stuck close, sniffing Michael's elbow and legs.

"I seen it before, I oughtta go and get Doc," Jack said, already heading for the door.

"I'm fine," Michael snapped, pulling himself together. "Doc and me already figured it out, it ain't nothin'. Leave her alone."

"You sure?" said Jeremy. "You look real bad, Michael, I mean real bad."

"Yes, I'm goddamn sure. Go to hell." He shoved Geoff away. "And get the fuck offa me."

"Awright, awright, if you say so," Geoff said, backing up. "Just worried about you, that's all."

"Well quit it," said Michael. "I can worry about my damn self."

Geoff threw up his hands and went back to his desk, grumbling into his mustache. Michael resettled himself at his desk and pretended to focus on his paperwork. He was shaking so hard it made his brain rattle in his skull, so he couldn't actually focus on anything, but it was important that nobody else knew that. He just had to keep breathing, and he'd be fine.

In for seven, out for eleven. Breathe. He'd be fine.

He was vaguely aware that the discussion about Meg, Ryan, and Risinger was continuing, but he couldn't pay much attention to that, either. Nothing sounded off enough that it caught his attention. He figured the other three were coming to the same conclusions he had, just a bit slower. The first thing to pull him out of his funk was the sound of the clock tower tolling five.

Michael looked around and found that Ryan still wasn't there. He glanced out the window. The sun had sunk behind a mound of clouds, bringing on a premature twilight. He shifted in his chair, tension winding up his spine.

"The hell's takin' Ryan so long?" he said, mostly to himself.

"Yeah, y'know, come to think of it, it has been awhile," said Jack, frowning. "I wonder if he found somethin'."

"Ehh, he prob'ly just got caught up cleanin'," said Geoff. "Too neat for his own good."

"Still," said Jack. "I wonder if one of us oughtta drop by and check on him."

"What for?" said Geoff, frowning.

"Uh, well, if he's bein' framed for murder, then that's maybe not a bad idea," said Jeremy. "I don't like to say it, but somebody mighta—well, he might be hurt."

"That's dumb as hell," said Michael. "He can take care of himself."

"Mmm, I gotta agree with Jeremy on this one," said Geoff. "If he ain't got back in another half hour or so, I'll head over there. Just in case."

Michael rolled his eyes.

As first five minutes passed, then ten, his confidence started to slip. What if Ryan was hurt? Or, worse, what if he'd run? What if he'd really killed Risinger and decided to skip town while he could? Worse yet, what if he hadn't really killed Risinger but had run anyway? The weight of the evidence against him was ponderous. He must have known that. Maybe he'd only been waiting to get his things back from Doc, the last items to pack up before vanishing forever. . . .

"Sheriff, we got a Shawcross incomin'," Jeremy said, peering out the window.

"Oh, hell," Geoff sighed. "Can you go out and deal with him? I ain't got the patience today."

"Yeah, I'll see what I can—"

The door slammed open and Shawcross fell on the floor. He was sobbing, covered in dust.

"Sheriff," he gasped, staggering to his feet. "Sheriff, Sheriff, he's killin' him, they—I couldn't—he's killin' him, he's gonna kill him—"

"Jesus Christ, awright," Geoff said. He came out from behind his desk. Shawcross staggered towards him and Geoff caught him by the shoulders before he could get too close. Tears and snot streamed down Shawcross's face. He wasn't breathing right.

"I couldn't do nothin', I'm sorry, I-I was just—the chicken was all—but I don't think they saw, I don't think they saw me," he said. "They—he—you gotta—you gotta do somethin', you gotta help, he's—he's gonna—and I didn't—but he—"

"Kid," Geoff said, trying to get Shawcross's attention through his panicked blubbering. "Shawcross. Kerry!"

Shawcross pulled up short. Tears were still rolling down his face, sobs still hiccuping through his lips. Geoff took a knee and held Shawcross's gaze.

"Breathe," said Geoff. "C'mon now, breathe. Panickin' ain't gonna help anybody."

Shawcross took a shuddering breath and let it back out. White was showing all the way around his eyes.

"Good, that's good, Kerry," said Geoff. "Now start from the beginnin'. What happened?"

"I—I was chasin' down one of our chickens," said Shawcross. "There was six of 'em, sir, they—six horses outside Haywood's place, they was all hitched up outside his house and I went in because—I didn't mean nothin' by it, I was worried, I was scared, I wasn't tryin' to—I wasn't, I'm sorry, I'm sorry—"

He was wheezing like a bellows, tears streaming down his cheeks.

"You're doin' good, Kerry," said Geoff. "What was inside?"

"They—they—I looked in the windows, sir," Shawcross said, shaking all over. "I-I-I didn't mean nothin' by it, I just—but there was nobody in, so I went inside, and I heard—and there was—he was screamin', I heard him screamin' down there. They—down in the basement and—I knew I shouldn't've but I was scared and I thought maybe—I just thought—he was hurtin' him, there was six of 'em, all—and one of 'em was hurtin' Deputy Haywood, he was—they were—Sheriff, there was so much blood—"

"We gotta go!" Geoff yelled, leaping to his feet. "Move, move, move!"

Jeremy was already out the door. Jack sprinted after him, and Gavin tore off after her. Michael started to go, too.

"Michael, stay with the kid!" Geoff snapped. He dashed out without even putting his hat on.

Michael was staggered for only a moment by this order. He gritted his teeth and went to the door. Shawcross tagged along at his elbow.

"What—what're we gonna do now, sir?" Shawcross said.

"We're goin' after 'em," Michael said. "Keep up, kid."

It was a mark of how shaken Shawcross was that he didn't try to talk. He stuck close to Michael, sniffling and scurrying and wringing his hands. Michael set off for Ryan's house as fast as he could. The others had already left him in the dust, even Gavin.

"Deputy Jones, I—I hate to say this, but—" Shawcross began.

"Then don't," said Michael.

"But we're never gonna get there in time to be any help!" Shawcross said anyway.

"So what do you think we oughtta do instead, huh?" Michael demanded. "Sit around doin' fuckin' nothin'?"

"I don't know," Shawcross said, starting to cry again. "I don't—I don't know, I'm sorry, I just—I was just—because you're all, and he's all, and they—and it's—"

Michael sighed and hung his head, letting his chair roll to a stop. He put a hand on Shawcross's shoulder and squeezed.

"It's . . . gonna be all right," he said. "Go on home now, Kerry. You did everythin' you could."

Shawcross sniffled and wiped his nose on his sleeve.

"What if it wasn't enough?" he asked, tremulous.

Michael's jaw tightened.

"Then I'm gonna kill somebody," he said.


 

By the time Michael got to Ryan's house, it was all over. He'd expected to hear gunshots at some point, but there had been none. As he came in the front door, Geoff, Gavin, Jack, and Jeremy were emerging from the basement. Michael's heart stopped.

Jeremy was carrying Ryan's body in his arms.

He'd been beaten, badly. Somebody had bundled their kerchief around his right hand. His head lolled against Jeremy's shoulder. His hair was in tangles, torn from its ponytail. He wasn't moving. There was blood. There was so much blood.

"Thought I told you to stay with the kid," Geoff said, haggard and subdued. Gavin plodded over to Michael and gave his hand a cursory lick.

"Sent him home," Michael said. The words barely made a sound.

Ryan's eyes fluttered open, and Michael remembered how to breathe. A lump rose in his throat. He swallowed it back down and coughed.

"Sent him home," he said again, blinking the blur out of his vision. "Figured he shouldn't oughtta be here any more'n he had to."

"I guess," Geoff sighed.

"Howdy, Michael," Ryan said, and flashed a smile. His voice was weak and thready. There was blood on his teeth. "Nice of you to come and visit."

"Jesus, Ryan, you can cut the act," said Jack, pained. "Save your goddamn strength."

"I'm fine," Ryan protested. "I'm fine, I've had worse."

"Bull-shit," said Jeremy. "You're busted all to hell. You can't even stand up!"

"Naw," said Ryan, leaning his head on Jeremy's shoulder and gazing up at him. "Just felt like bein' carried. Don't get carried nearly so much as I'd like."

Michael pulled up near Geoff, although he couldn't take his eyes off Ryan. Gavin tagged along with him, attentive and worried.

"What the hell happened?" Michael asked.

"Six sons of bitches snuck in and beat the livin' hell outta him, what's it look like?" Geoff said.

"Why?" Michael demanded. "And who? And what happened to 'em?"

"They're all dead," Jack said. The tone of her voice suggested that no more should be said on the subject.

"Very pretty shootin'," Ryan said. "Y'all could go on the road with it."

Jeremy adjusted his grip, and Ryan stiffened with pain. He kept his hand cradled against his chest. Blood was soaking through the makeshift bandage.

"I got half a mind to carry you straight on to Doc's," Jeremy said. "You're gettin' loopy."

"I'm fine," Ryan said again. "Just set me down somewhere, don't wanna inconvenience y'all."

"You're missin' two fuckin' fingers, you are the least goddamn fine you've ever been!" Geoff cried.

"They wasn't my favorites," Ryan said, and let out a helpless giggle.

"Li'l J, put him down," Michael said, moving to his side.

"But—"

"And y'all are gonna go get Doc, and bring her on over," said Michael. "The less distance he's gotta go, the better."

"All right, now that's sensible," Jeremy said. "Ryan, where you wanna go?"

"Oh, you can just hand me off to Michael, if he doesn't mind too much," Ryan said.

"Hey, well, now—" Michael sputtered, but Jeremy was already in motion. With some finagling, he deposited Ryan in Michael's lap. Ryan was as limp as a sleeping child, except for the hand that closed on the back of Michael's collar. That squeezed so tight the joints creaked.

"Bonjour encore, mon chéri," Ryan said, curled up against Michael's chest. His breath was warm on Michael's neck, raising gooseflesh everywhere it touched.

"Should we stay with y'all, or—?" Jeremy began.

"No," said Michael, blushing half to death. "Just send Doc."

There was some concerned muttering, but they all filed out without any further protest. Gavin paused to lick Michael's hand one more time, then trotted off when Geoff called for him. The front door swung shut. Silence swelled to fill the house.

"Hah," said Ryan. "Been hopin' to get you alone again."

"Well," said Michael, trying not to think about the bodies in the basement, trying not to think about the body in his lap. "You done it."

The shaking started in Ryan's chest and rattled up through him like an earthquake. He shattered, sobbing into Michael's shoulder, gasping and trembling and clutching Michael like he was the only thing floating in a flood.

"I ain't think y'all were comin'," he whispered, his tears soaking Michael's shirt. "I ain't—I ain't think y'all were comin' for me."

Carefully, Michael put a hand on the back of Ryan's head, an arm around his shoulders. Ryan curled into him, and Michael held him close.

"I should've assumed you was in trouble," he said. "Guess I din't think you could be."

Ryan coughed out a damp laugh. He was shaking like a leaf. At a loss for what else to do, Michael started combing his fingers through Ryan's hair, working out the tangles, the clotted blood.

"C'mon now," Michael said gently. "Pull yourself together. Doc's gonna get here soon, you don't want her seein' you like this."

Ryan sniffled. Since his face was pressed to Michael's shoulder, Michael could feel him smile.

"Astute observation, chéri," he said thickly. "Think you can get me to my kitchen?"

"Yep," said Michael. With minimal difficulty, he got Ryan into the kitchen. It took considerably more to get him out of Michael's lap.

"Do I have to?" Ryan asked.

"Yep," Michael said again.

"Hurts like hell, Michael," he said, and Michael believed him.

"Doc'll be here soon. She'll see to it you don't hurt for much longer."

"I don't much care," said Ryan. "Will you stay?"

Michael bent his head and kissed Ryan's temple, just once, just gently.

"I'll stay," he said.

Ryan let out another little laugh and turned his face away shyly.

"Put me down, I'm gone start cryin' again," he said.

Michael helped him into a chair, which looked ten times more painful than it needed to be, but once it was done, Ryan started breathing easier.

It was dark in the house, so Michael went and found matches and a candle while Ryan composed himself. Michael also took the liberty of finding a washcloth and a small wash basin. By the time he got back, Ryan was markedly more together, although he still looked like hell, especially in brighter light. His lip was split in two places. There was blood oozing out of his nose. Numerous small cuts and abrasions freckled his face. Whoever had been hitting him, they'd hit awfully hard.

Michael set the candle down on the table and positioned himself near Ryan. He dipped the washcloth in the water and started wiping the blood off Ryan's face.

"Who were they?" he said.

Ryan's mouth quirked, and he made a self-deprecating gesture.

"Old acquaintance by the name of Nick," he said.

Michael's stomach plunged into his boots. His hand clenched on the washcloth, sending a rain of droplets pattering onto the floor.

"Evidently he ran into James out in Lovelock and there was a certain exchange of information," Ryan went on. "I guess li'l Nicky found him some new friends and decided to settle his grievances with me more or less . . . expediently." His eyes flicked to Michael. "Bet you don't feel quite so sorry for me, now."

Michael was saved from responding by a pounding at the door, which he hurried off to answer. Lindsay barged in past him the moment he opened the door. Geoff and the others were behind her, but Michael didn't get much of a chance to appreciate their presence.

"Where?" Lindsay said.

"Kitchen," said Michael.

Lindsay made a beeline and then pulled up short in the doorway. Ryan smiled at her and waved with his mutilated hand.

"Evenin', Doc," he said.

"Jesus Christ," Lindsay said, bustling inside. "Michael, start some water boiling. Ryan, get that shirt off."

"If you insist," Ryan said. A person could have mistaken the hitch in his voice for amusement. Michael went off to get a fire going in the stove. He was about halfway through when his left leg started twitching, fire coursing down the back of it. He bit his tongue and grabbed his ankle to keep from drawing attention to himself, and managed to ride it out without Lindsay or Ryan noticing.

He was vaguely aware that Geoff, Jack, and Jeremy were carrying the dead outlaws out of the basement. He paid as little attention to them as possible. He caught sight of Nick anyway, young and pale and utterly lifeless. There was a bullet hole in his head. The sight left Michael dizzy, shaking. Fortunately, the others went away once they'd finished their grim business, so he didn't have to worry about making up some kind of explanation.

Meanwhile, Lindsay was keeping up a running litany of cussing in the background, and Ryan was demurely deflecting her concerns. There was a lot of it ain't that bad and looks worse than it is and, from Lindsay, bullshit, you lyin' whore. There was something comforting about the fact that both of them kept talking.

It took an hour and a good many bandages to get Ryan taken care of to Lindsay's satisfaction. Red welts bloomed over his chest and arms and back, some of them so vicious that they'd split the skin. There were ugly circular burns on his neck, four or five of them, about the size and shape of the end of a cigar. Whatever had been used to cut off his fingers, it must have been dull, because the wounds were ragged. Lindsay tried several times to foist a dose of laudanum on him, and he refused politely every time. Together, she and Michael did manage to get him to drink some watered-down whiskey, although it took a good deal of pressing.

Through coordinated effort, they managed to sneak a dose of laudanum into the second cup without Ryan seeing it. They scarcely had to wait five minutes before it hit him, and it hit him hard. He went from slurring his speech to flat passed out on the table in the space of about thirty seconds.

"I guess we better put him to bed," Lindsay said, heaving herself to her feet.

"You got him?" Michael asked.

"I got him," said Lindsay. With a grunt of effort, she hoisted Ryan up. His head lolled over her elbow and his eyes fluttered open. He tried to speak, but didn't make it any farther than M.

Wordless, Michael followed Lindsay to Ryan's bedroom. While she got him settled and tucked in, Michael hovered by the headboard. When Ryan's hand reached out aimlessly, Michael took it.

"Hey," he said. "You're all right."

Ryan looked up at him, hazy and sweaty, his eyes going in and out of focus.

"Will you stay?" he asked, searching Michael's face.

"I'll stay," said Michael.

"You'll stay," Ryan mumbled. His eyes drifted shut. "You'll stay."

Moments later, he was asleep again, his breath coming slow through parted lips. Michael stayed at his bedside for a while, watching, stroking the back of his knuckles with his thumb. As quietly as he could, he went back to the kitchen, where Lindsay had poured herself a sizable drink.

"I'll tell you what," she said, "he's the luckiest sonnuva bitch in all Creation."

"Makes you say that?" Michael said, pouring himself a drink, too.

"Two things," said Lindsay. "First, 'cuz if Shawcross hadn'ta come snoopin', nobody woulda found him 'til it was much too goddamn late." She slugged back a mouthful of whiskey without so much as flinching. "And two, 'cuz he's left-handed."

Michael wrinkled his nose, trying to work out why this was significant.

"It's his right hand?" he said.

"Yep," said Lindsay. "Figure either they didn't know, or else they were plannin' on havin' a real long night of it."

"Jesus," Michael muttered under his breath. He stared down into his whiskey. He didn't much feel like drinking.

"Anyhow," said Lindsay. "I hear you say you'd stay with him?"

"Yeah," said Michael. He fidgeted. "Only I been feelin' sorta useless, what with everybody else goin' and rescuin' him and all, and—"

"You don't gotta make excuses," Lindsay said. She drained her cup and got to her feet. "I understand."

"Well, wait, hang on now," said Michael, going red in the face. "I don't—I don't know that you honestly do."

Lindsay gave him a Look. Michael's insides shriveled up.

"I ain't stupid," she said flatly. "Don't insult me by assumin' I am. Good night, Michael. I'll come by first thing in the mornin' to check up on him."

Michael didn't say anything. Lindsay softened.

"You take good care of him, now, Michael," she said. "You got that man's heart in your hands. Be gentle with it."

Blood rushed to his cheeks, and he rubbed his mouth with his thumb.

"I . . . will," he said.

With a nearly-sincere smile, Lindsay touched his shoulder.

"He'll be all right," she said. "And so will you. I'd say I'm happy for y'all, but—it don't much seem like the time."

"Thanks," Michael mumbled.

"And while I'm sayin' things I shouldn't," she went on, a mischievous twinkle in her eye. "May I add: took you goddamn long enough."

Chapter Text

"You stayed."

Michael roused himself. Ryan was lying on his side in his bed, just like they'd left him, but his eyes were open now. They still weren't properly focused, but had at least managed to settle on Michael, who was set up against the far wall. He'd been dozing in his chair all night. Dawn had just gone from pink to gold, and the house was creaking as it warmed.

"'Course I did," said Michael.

Ryan halfway smiled. He shifted like he was going to sit up, then thought better of it.

"Doc still here?" he asked.

"Naw," said Michael. "Prob'ly will be soon, though."

Ryan nodded, subsiding against his pillow. He lifted his right hand, turning it this way and that, examining the thick and rusty bandages.

"Damn," he said mildly. "I liked that hand."

The corner of his mouth twitched. There were tears welling in his eyes. His breath came shorter. His hand shook.

Michael tugged his braking stick out and moved to the bedside. He grasped Ryan's upraised hand gently, by the fingers. He lifted it up and kissed the back of it.

"I still like it," he said.

"Oh, Lord have mercy, Michael," Ryan said. The tears slipped out of his eyes, but at least he was smiling. "I wasn't prepared for you to be sweet."

"Quit cryin'," Michael mumbled, looking away. "You already look like shit enough."

Ryan laughed thinly. "That's more what I expected," he said.

Before he could think twice about it, Michael leaned down and kissed him. Ryan melted on the spot, gripping Michael's hand. His breath still tasted of whiskey and laudanum. Michael rested his forehead against Ryan's, eyes closed.

"I'm gonna take care of you," he murmured.

"Blind leadin' the blind," Ryan said, a smile in his voice.

"What?"

"Nothin'," said Ryan. "But how 'bout you take care of your-self, and I'll take care of my-self, and if there's any carin' left over we'll split it 'tween the two of us."

"I guess," he said, begrudging. He sat back and rubbed his nose. He did not let go of Ryan's hand.

"You're just mad on account of havin' to take care of yourself," Ryan teased.

"I take care of myself just fine!"

"Oh, sure, chéri," said Ryan. "But I'd hate for you to slip on my account."

"There you go with that sherry shit again," Michael said. "Will you please tell me what the fuck that means?"

Ryan deliberated for a moment.

"I will if you kiss me again," he said.

Michael grumbled and rolled his eyes and blushed up to his hairline, but he did kiss Ryan again. His irritation evaporated the moment their lips met. It was, he decided, a very pleasant price to pay.

Ryan sighed as Michael sat back again. Absently, his thumb caressed the backs of Michael's fingers.

"It means," he said, "all the things you'd never let me call you. Honey, darlin', sweetheart." He paused, met Michael's eyes. "Lover."

"Oh," Michael said faintly. The warmth in his chest was joined by a heat in his belly. The gears in his brain spun for a while before catching. "Jeremy's a sonnuva bitch."

"What'd he tell you?" Ryan asked, amused.

"Said it was just the same as you callin' me sir."

"That, it is not."

"No shit."

"I'm only surprised you believed him."

"He said you were makin' fun of me. Sounded believable."

"To be fair, I have been."

"Hardy-harr, you're a goddamn riot."

"Michael, I tried my level best to get you to work it out on your own," said Ryan. "But you are, at times, not only willfully but impenetrably dense. It was torture."

"That why you felt the need to up and kiss me?"

"No, that was on account of me not bein' sure I'd ever get another shot," Ryan said. "'Sides, you were at that time somewhat incapacitated, and if you'd taken offense, I would've stood a much better chance of gettin' away unharmed."

This gave Michael some pause.

"Ryan, I wouldn'ta hurt you," he said.

"I didn't know that," said Ryan. "You did used to make somethin' of a habit of gettin' physical with me whenever I pushed you too far."

Michael looked away. He rubbed the back of his neck.

"Sorry," he mumbled.

"Naw, don't be," Ryan said. "I coulda stopped pushin' any time. You wouldn't let me touch you, so I made do with provokin' you 'til you put your hands on me."

"You twisty sonnuva bitch," Michael said, offended. Ryan smiled, his eyes half-lidded.

"Be fair now, chéri, I survive off bein' twisty," he said. The pet name brought Michael's blush back in full force. "Coulda saved myself a whole lotta heartache by bein' direct with you, but it goes against my nature."

"Bull-shit," said Michael. "There was never no heartache involved."

"There very much was," Ryan said. "You and Lindsay seemed like a sure thing. I'd all but resigned myself to losin' you to her."

"Don't—all right, don't go bringin' Doc into this," Michael said. There was a weight pressing on his abdomen, making it difficult to draw breath. He rubbed the bridge of his nose and rolled his shoulders.

Ryan gave him a look about six inches longer than he liked.

"So you do have a soft spot for her," he said. "More fool me, thinkin' it had to be one or th' other."

"What d'you mean?" said Michael.

"I mean I hadn't considered you might develop interest in either sex," said Ryan.

Michael frowned. "Don't everybody?" he said.

"Oh, bless your heart," Ryan said, twinkling.

"No, hang on, that don't make no sense," Michael said. "Folks wouldn't be so damn vocal about it if it wasn't a—a temptation for everybody."

"They would and they are," said Ryan. "Possibly on account of folks like me, who go wholeheartedly by the temptin' path."

Michael was still chewing this over when a knock came on the door.

"That'll be Doc," he said. "I better go let her in."

"By all means," said Ryan, releasing Michael's hand.

At the front door, Lindsay greeted him with a heft of her black doctor's bag.

"Hey," she said. Michael moved aside and she stepped in. "How is he?"

Michael wrinkled his nose. "Hard to say," he said. "He seems all right, but I don't guess that means much."

"No fever or nothin'?"

"Not that I could tell."

"Good," said Lindsay. "If those fingers go to gangrene, he could lose the whole hand. Assumin' it don't kill him first."

A chill ran through Michael. He rubbed the arms of his chair.

"Right," he said.

"You eaten yet?" she asked.

"Naw, I only just woke up ten minutes ago."

"Go and eat somethin'," said Lindsay. "You look like hell."

Michael opened his mouth to protest, then thought better of it.

"I'll . . . get somethin' for Ryan, too," he said, turning towards the kitchen. "While I'm in there."

"You do that," said Lindsay.

Michael scrounged around in the pantry and found it reasonably well stocked. He took the time to make coffee, since it was there—and it was real coffee, not the hickory concoction that usually passed for it out here. He figured Ryan wouldn't mind; he could use all the pleasantness he could get.

Once that was done, Michael headed back to Ryan's room with coffee, biscuits, and some peach preserves he'd found hiding in the back of a cabinet. Ryan was propped up on his pillows, shirtless, with Lindsay checking over all the wounds she'd bandaged last night.

In the light of day, he looked horrible. His chest and arms and back were a mass of purpling bruises. There were bruises on both his ankles, too, peeking out from under the cuffs of his trousers. His legs were half curled up to his chest still, even though he was sitting up.

"So you gonna tell me what happened, or what?" Lindsay said, peeling back the bandages on Ryan's hand.

"Oh, about what you'd expect," Ryan said, rolling his eyes. "I was down in the basement and didn't hear 'em come in. Almost got out, only that there were two more waitin' at the top of the stairs. I think that's where the majority of the bruisin' came from, was them draggin' me back down by th' ankles."

"Jee-zus," said Lindsay. "You don't sound awfully concerned about it."

"That wasn't th' awfully concernin' part," Ryan said. "That was the followin' hour and a half."

Michael swallowed. He crossed the room and set the coffee and food on Ryan's bedside table. He didn't much feel like eating anymore.

"Got breakfast for you," he mumbled. "Hope you don't mind I used the real coffee."

"Michael, you're a blessin'," Ryan sighed. He held out his uninjured hand and Michael gave over one of the three cups of coffee.

"You want some laudanum in that?" Lindsay asked.

"No, thank you," said Ryan. "No call to go ruinin' a perfectly good cup of coffee."

"Might be, dependin' on how much pain you're in."

"Not nearly so much as I'd be in if somebody ruined this coffee."

"Such a prissy bitch," Lindsay muttered. Ryan just smiled and sipped his coffee.

Michael briefly considered requesting some laudanum in his coffee, but decided against it. Compared to what Ryan was going through, a few persistent aches and pains were nothing.

The next ten minutes passed uneventfully. The clock tolled eight, the sun rose higher, Ryan drank his coffee and managed to eat one biscuit. Michael was forced to do the same, mostly by the pressure of withering looks from Lindsay and Ryan both.

"All right," Lindsay said, when all the wounds had been examined and re-bandaged. "I'm just gonna check on your knees, make sure they ain't too fucked up. Since you got yourself dragged down the stairs and all."

"Much obliged," said Ryan.

"Might hurt a li'l, so brace yourself," she said. She took one of his ankles in her hands and straightened out his leg.

Ryan screamed.

Lindsay dropped him on the instant, clapping both hands over her mouth. Ryan clutched at his bedsheets, head thrown back, eyes squeezed shut, gasping and whimpering. At a total loss, Michael touched his shoulder, reassuring. Ryan fumbled for his hand and grappled onto it, squeezing so hard it made Michael's knuckles pop.

"I am so sorry," Lindsay said through her hands. "Holy shit, Ryan, I'm so sorry, I ain't even think it was that bad."

"My fault," he choked. A smile flashed across his face, or perhaps it was a grimace. "What I get for—playin' stoic."

"Yeah, dumbass," Michael said to him. "How fuckin' stoic you think you look now?"

"Oh, go directly on to hell, chéri," Ryan said, but he said it smiling. Michael squeezed his hand.

"Is the other one that bad?" Lindsay asked.

"In th' interest of you not doin' that again, I'll go on and say yes," said Ryan.

"All right," said Lindsay. "I'll be more careful, but it's still gonna hurt like a bitch."

"Understood," said Ryan.

She took his other ankle, straightened out his other leg slowly and carefully. He threw his head back, screaming against his teeth, digging his fingernails into Michael's hand.

"Jesus, Ryan," said Lindsay. "You sure you don't want a dose of laudanum?"

"You know, upon consideration, I think that might be agreeable," he wheezed.

Lindsay whipped the bottle out quick as thinking, then passed it to Michael.

"One dropperful, no more," she said. "And he might throw it up, it's awful bitter."

Michael unscrewed the dropper-cap and made sure it was full. Ryan held out a hand. Michael put the dropper in it. Ryan emptied the whole thing into his mouth, then fell back coughing and sputtering. Michael took the dropper back from him.

"Had worse," Ryan choked, eyes watering.

"Everythin's a goddamn production with you, ain't it," said Michael. "Shoulda run off and joined the circus, 'stead of a band of goddamn outlaws."

"What—what do you mean by that?" Lindsay said, apprehensive.

"Sheriff told me," Michael said. "A while back now. I don't hold it against you for not sayin' nothin' to me."

"Well you mighta said somethin' to me!" Lindsay said.

Michael raised his eyebrows at her, putting a hand on his hip. Ryan snickered.

"You shut up," Lindsay said, wagging a finger at him.

"Brought it on yourself, sugar," Ryan said, eyes twinkling. He coughed some more.

"Would you hurry up and pass out?"

"Doin' my best."

"And I hope you don't like these trousers, 'cuz they're gettin' cut off in a minute here."

"It ain't that bad."

"You know what, Ryan? I'll decide how bad it is."

"Oh, all right," said Ryan, letting his head loll back against the headboard. "You're the doctor in this here town, after all."

"You're goddamn right I am."

Within a couple minutes, Ryan had gone quiet and limp, although his eyes were still open. His breathing got slow enough that it was worrisome. Michael kept hold of his hand while Lindsay cut his trousers open up to the thighs. Both of his knees were swollen up to the size of melons.

"Jesus Christ," Lindsay muttered. She glared at Ryan. "You're worse'n Michael."

"Hey now," said Michael, bristling.

"You wanna see if you can hunt up some cold water?" Lindsay asked. "No hope for ice, but we can at least get the swellin' down somewhat."

"I'll see what I can find," said Michael.

Ryan's hand tightened on his, ever so slightly.

"Be right back," he added, squeezing Ryan's hand. He moved off towards the kitchen. If nothing else, there was a water pump out back, and it was chilly enough outside that it'd be reasonably cold. Lindsay caught up with him before he even got to the front door.

"Hey," she said.

Michael's heart sank. "What?" he said.

"Look, about all that . . . outlaw business," she said, fidgeting. "I am sorry. Honestly. I shoulda told you."

"Why din't you?" Michael asked.

She shrugged and blew out a breath. "'Cuz Geoff didn't want you to know," she said. "You was like . . . the acid test. He wanted you trained up right so you could take over for 'em, and then Achievement City would have no—no pretenders in the sheriff's station. Guess he reasoned if you didn't know you was bein' trained by fakes, you'd be sure to turn out the real thing."

"And you thought that'd work?" he said.

"Hell no," said Lindsay. "But I thought it was—I dunno, Michael, I thought it was a respectable idea. Worth a shot, like."

Michael nodded, chewing his lip. He glanced at Lindsay, then away again.

"There anythin' else you wanna tell me?" he said. "Anythin' you shoulda told me before and din't?"

Lindsay rubbed her forehead and sighed.

"Yeah, I guess," she said. "I don't know if it's somethin' I shoulda told you before, but it's somethin' you oughtta know."

"All right," said Michael, suspicious.

"I know Jack and them all think Ray was killed," Lindsay said, "but he wasn't."

Michael stared at her, his eyes narrowing.

"How do you know?" he asked.

She made an awful face, like finding the words was causing her physical pain.

"'Cuz he ran," she said. "And I know he did, 'cuz I was the last person he talked to before he did. I went to check up on him and found him packin' his things. He begged me not to tell anybody, said he'd prefer they all thought he was dead. I helped him steal a horse and then made it look like the thing ran off on its own. Made sure nobody went to check on him for a couple days so it wouldn't look related. He ran, Michael. He just ran."

"Did he—say why?"

"No, and I didn't ask," said Lindsay. "All the shit he'd been through, it seemed reasonable enough to me. This place was makin' him crazy. It was makin' him sick. Nothin' else fixed it, so maybe gettin' the hell out did."

"You don't know what happened to him afterwards?"

"'Course not," said Lindsay. "It ain't like he's been writin'."

Michael rubbed the arms of his chair. "What've you been tellin' the others?" he said. "'Cuz it seemed like you and Jack had talked about it prior."

"I been tellin' 'em he probably ran," Lindsay said. "Don't none of 'em wanna believe it, though, so I've stopped tryin' to convince 'em. Seems like not only Ray would prefer they thought he was dead, they'd prefer it if he was dead. Anythin' else is damn near unthinkable to 'em."

"Well," said Michael. He fidgeted. "Thanks for tellin' me. Does uh—it does set my mind at ease on a couple things."

Lindsay patted his shoulder, right on the stab wound. It took every ounce of gumption he had not to wince.

"I am sorry, Michael," she said. "I was tryin' to do what was best."

"Yeah yeah," he said.

Lindsay took a deep breath and sighed it back out.

"You gonna stay here?" she asked.

"Unless you wanna."

"I got shit to do."

"Yeah, so do I."

"I'm sure Geoff wouldn't mind if you took a couple days off to look after Ryan," she said. "He sure didn't mind when Ryan did the same for you."

"Still prob'ly better talk to him," Michael mumbled.

"I'll drop by the station on my way back and send him out to you," said Lindsay. "He'll prob'ly be itchin' for an excuse to drop in anyhow."

"Fine," said Michael. "Send him on down."

Chapter Text

Ryan was flat passed out by the time Geoff arrived twenty minutes later. Gavin had come along, too, and Michael had to hold him back for several minutes to keep him from jumping up on Ryan's bed and walking all over him. They compromised by letting him put his front feet on the bed and sniff at every bit of Ryan he could reach. Fortunately, Ryan was still propped up on his pillows, the sheets pulled up to his waist, so Gavin couldn't reach too much of him.

"Jesus, he looks awful," Geoff said, while Gavin made an industrious investigation of Ryan's armpit.

"No kiddin'," said Michael. "You cain't see it, 'cuz he's got a shirt on now, but he's black and blue all over."

"I saw plenty," said Geoff. He twitched his mustache, then asked, "He at any point say who those fellas were?"

"Uh," said Michael. He swallowed, wiped his hands on the arms of his chair. He almost cracked his neck, but stopped himself just in time. "Not . . . not so much. Just somethin' about them bein' . . . old acquaintances, or some shit."

"Of course," Geoff sighed.

"Why din't y'all leave one alive, so you could ask?"

"Well, we woulda," said Geoff. "Only he got too close to Ryan and took a knife through the eyeball. Can't say I blame him—Ryan, I mean—after seein' what those sons of bitches did. I just wish he hadn't."

"He just up and stabbed the fella?" said Michael, his insides squirming.

"Naw, it was more like the fella decided he was gonna use Ryan as a bullet-shield, and Ryan made sure the dumbass knew how dumb that was."

"Oh. Right."

"Not to say it wasn't fuckin' stupid on Ryan's part, too," Geoff said. He shook his head, chewing on his lip. "If ole Dumbass had been a li'l quicker on the trigger, that woulda been adios, Ryan. But I don't guess he was thinkin' too clear."

Gavin stuck his nose against Ryan's wounded hand. Michael tugged him back, but the damage was already done. Ryan winced, and then his eyes fluttered open.

"Howdy," Geoff said, with a much brighter demeanor than a moment ago. "Kind of you to join us, Deputy."

"Mornin', Sheriff," Ryan mumbled, rubbing his eyes. "I must be awful late gettin' in to work today, huh."

"Awful late," said Geoff, shaking his head. "What'd I tell you about havin' revelries on work nights? Gettin' to be a habit with you."

"But it's just so much fun," Ryan said.

Gavin whined, then tried to lick Ryan's hand again. Ryan noticed him and tucked the wounded hand up against his stomach. To make up for it, he scratched Gavin's ears.

"Hey there," he said. "You come to scold me too?"

"I think mainly what he came to do was get dog slobber all over you," said Michael.

"Aw," said Ryan. He leaned down and let Gavin lick his face a couple times.

"Don't do that, you don't know what he's been eatin'," said Michael, tugging Gavin back again.

"Michael, if you wanna get out and about for a li'l while, I can hold down the fort," Geoff said. "I'm sure you could stand to get some fresh air."

"You sure?" Michael said, glancing at Ryan.

"Go on, I'm sick of you," Ryan said, with that little inside-joke smile.

"Fine, but I'm takin' my dog," said Michael.

"Oh, your cruelty knows no bounds," said Ryan, pressing a hand to his heart.

"Yeah yeah," said Michael, rolling his eyes. "Sheriff, you want me to do anythin' while I'm out?"

"Don't get almost killed," said Geoff. "We've had ee-damn-nuff of that shit. Next thing you know, Jack and Jeremy'll be pickin' it up, and my ol' heart can't take that."

Michael snorted. "I'll do my best," he promised. "C'mon, Gavin. Gonna need you to bite the hell outta anybody who tries anythin'."

Gavin gave Ryan one last lick on the chin, then hopped down and trotted off for the door.

"Shouldn't be more'n an hour," Michael said.

"If it is, I will hunt you down," Geoff said.

"That a warnin', or you tryin' to reassure me?"

"Yep," said Geoff.


 

The day was chilly, but bright, and Michael spent a pleasant time meandering around the vicinity of Ryan's house with Gavin. He never strayed too far, ostensibly because he was still sore and shaky from all the bleeding he'd done a couple days back. There was a secondary component that had more to do with being uneasy, but he preferred to ignore that.

He had a couple of brief conversations—mostly the immediate neighbors wanting to know what the hell had happened—and dropped by the General Store to see if they had any gloves. Unfortunately, he didn't get to find out, because he'd forgotten that there was a step up into the store. Rather than hanging around outside and making a nuisance of himself, he just passed on by. Gavin was content to meander along with him, sniffing the corners of every structure and the ankles of every friendly pedestrian.

It was just past eleven when he got back to Ryan's house, well inside his hour window. Gavin was happy as a clam, his spotty tongue lolling from a big smile. He made a beeline for the kitchen as soon as they got back.

"You always know where everybody's food is kept, don't you," Michael muttered, shaking his head. He followed along, wondering if Ryan would mind if he pilfered something out of the pantry for Gavin.

Geoff was sitting at the kitchen table, his hands clasped, his face pulled into a frown. Gavin was snuffling around the stove, being paid absolutely no mind. The shutters were closed, leaving the room dim and dusky. Something squeezed around Michael's heart and wouldn't let go.

"Sheriff?" he said. Geoff didn't look up. Michael cleared his throat and spoke a little louder. "Sheriff?"

"Huh? Oh," said Geoff. "Hey."

"Everythin' all right?" Michael said.

"Yeah, yeah, it's all fine," said Geoff. "Ryan's gone and passed out again. Prob'ly for the best."

"You don't look like everythin's fine," said Michael, apprehensive.

Geoff chewed his lip. He wiggled his mustache, then sighed.

"Come and set a while, Michael," he said.

Slowly, Michael moved to the kitchen table. He stuck in his braking stick, but kept his hands on his wheels.

"What is it?" he said.

Geoff steeled himself, then met Michael's eyes.

"I know you been lookin' into who pushed you," he said.

Michael's whole body tightened up. "So?" he said.

"Despite me tellin' you not to," Geoff went on. "You can't get into this, Michael. You ain't capable of keepin' a clear head about it. You're too involved, it's too personal."

"Hell with that!" said Michael. "I'm fine, Sheriff, I got it. I can keep a clear head about it."

"No you can't, and the fact you think you can convinces me you shouldn't be anywhere near it," Geoff said. "You're gonna get somebody killed 'cuz you're gonna go chasin' down the wrong rabbit hole without doin' your due diligence."

"What?" said Michael. "That's bullshit! When the hell have I ever not done my due diligence? When have I ever—"

"You got Trevor involved!" Geoff snarled, slapping a hand down on the table. Gavin jumped and scurried off to hide under the rocking chair. "Trevor! You coulda got him killed, Michael! He ain't even a real deputy!"

"And y'all ain't even real lawmen!" Michael retorted.

Geoff clenched his jaw. His eyes went hard and flinty. He sat forward, pinning Michael with a look.

"You listen the fuck up, Michael," he said. "It was goddamn irresponsible, what you done. All the rest of us, lawmen or not, outlaws or not, we're used to shootin' and bein' shot at. You do not, you do not ever, send somebody into the line of fire who don't know how to shoot back. I'm disappointed in you, Michael. I am damn disappointed in you."

It stung more than Michael would've thought possible. He dropped his gaze, gripping the arms of his chair. He couldn't take the look on Geoff's face.

"Then what the fuck am I s'posed to do, huh?" he demanded. "Just fuckin' let it go? Just fuckin' sit back and do nothin' while the sonnuva bitch who tried to kill me gets his next shot lined up?"

"You stay the hell outta the way and let us handle this," Geoff said. "We're workin' on it, we're doin' everythin' we can—"

"You're keepin' it a pretty fuckin' good secret, then."

"Of course we are!" he said, exasperated. "We don't want you tearin' off half-cocked and shootin' the wrong bastard! We don't even know for sure that you was pushed. We're gonna figure this out, Michael, but it's gonna take time. You just gotta trust us."

Michael scowled, grinding his teeth. He raised his eyes and glared at Geoff.

"What if I don't trust y'all?" he said. "You lied to me about bein' lawmen. You kept everythin' about Narvaez a secret, includin' the fact that I was livin' in his goddamn house. You been insistin' that I shouldn't try and figure out who tried to fuckin' kill me, and now you're tryin' to tell me that I wun't even pushed! What if I don't trust y'all to get the right bastard, 'cuz maybe one of y'all is that bastard?"

Geoff's face pinched with pain. He looked at the table, sniffed, and shook his head.

"I don't know what to tell you, Michael," he sighed. "So I guess I won't say nothin'."

He got up slowly, as though every joint in his body had gone to rust. He did not look at Michael as he headed for the door.

"C'mon, Gavin," he said.

Gavin glanced between him and Michael, cowed and distressed. Geoff clicked his fingers. Gavin got up and slunk to his side, casting apologetic looks at Michael over his shoulder. Geoff walked out with Gavin at his heels.

Michael sat at the table for a long while, sick to his stomach and shivering with rage. There was a stinging in his sinuses he couldn't blink back, a lump in his throat he couldn't swallow down. Geoff's words rang in his ears, a shrill and painful sound that wouldn't go away.

It took some time, but eventually he got himself moving again. He wasn't sure what he was going to do, just that sitting there stewing was doing him no good. He drifted back to Ryan's bedroom, simply because it was the only place that was likely to have anything of interest in it.

Ryan didn't stir as Michael entered. His eyes were closed, head tipped back, breathing slow and steady. Michael looked him over for only a couple of seconds before letting out a defeated sigh.

"How much'd you hear?" he asked.

Ryan cracked an eye open. One corner of his mouth pinched into a wry smile.

"Most of it," he admitted. "I was hopin' you'd think I'd slept through the whole thing."

"You sleep with your mouth open," Michael said. "You wasn't foolin' anybody."

An eyebrow quirked. "Funny thing to notice about a person," he remarked. "And I most certainly fooled Geoff."

"Well," said Michael, blushing. "He ain't—he don't—"

Ryan pushed himself a little further upright and winced, going tight with pain.

"It was th' only way I could think of to get him to leave me alone," said Ryan. "I'm sure he wouldn'ta let me outta bed. Speakin' of, you mind helpin' me get to my kitchen?"

"You ain't in no goddamn condition to walk, Ryan," said Michael, glad of the change of subject.

"Oh, not you too," Ryan sighed. "I can't be sittin' in here all day, I'll go stir-crazy."

"Yeah, and if you get up and walk around now, you'll make it worse."

"Doc never told me not to."

"I'd guess she thought it was pretty fuckin' obvious, on account of the screamin' and all."

"I've had worse," Ryan said, rolling his eyes.

"When?" Michael demanded.

Ryan glanced at him. "You sure you wanna know?"

"I asked, din't I?"

"Sometimes you don't think 'fore you talk."

"Hell, I never think before I talk. You gonna tell me or not?"

"Oh, sure," said Ryan. He let his head loll, staring off into the middle distance. His fingers picked idly at the bedclothes. "It was back in Georgia. I was . . . nine or ten, I think. 'Bout Shawcross's age. One of the pigs got loose and I had to go get him. Musta been out there . . . oh, four days, prob'ly."

"Wait, huh?" said Michael, a squirming in his guts.

"He'd been half et by the time I found him, 'course," Ryan went on, heedless. "Bears or bobcats, I never was quite sure which. I figured they could have the rest of him, too, on account of him bein' a good twenty miles from home, and still four times as big as me." He laughed to himself, shaking his head. "So then of course, Daddy beat me half to death when I got home, and Mama nearly took me the rest of the way. I sure learned not to come home empty-handed, I tell you what."

"Jesus, Ryan," Michael said, at a total loss. Ryan's eyes pulled back into focus, and he looked over at Michael.

"What?" he said. "Your folks never had to beat the sense into you?"

"I—I got caned once or twice, but. . . ." Michael said, floundering.

"I bet you got big fast, though," said Ryan. "That's what happened with Del—my oldest brother, Del. They stopped hittin' him once he started hittin' back."

"Yeah, well, sorta," Michael admitted. "I never . . . felt the need to hit back, though."

"Oh, sure, Michael, but you was prob'ly a good kid," Ryan said indulgently.

"No kid's that bad," Michael said. "That he deserves to get beat nearly to death."

Ryan got very quiet. He looked away. After a moment, he cracked a self-deprecating smile and shook his head.

"So anyhow," he said. "Not the worst I ever had."

There was a long, uncomfortable silence. Michael cast about for inspiration, for anything else to talk about. His gaze lighted upon an old, careworn book, tucked onto a shelf by the window.

"Uh, so," Michael said. "That . . . Monty Frisco book of yours."

Ryan made a face somewhere between a wince and a smile.

"You mean The Count of Monte Cristo?" he asked.

"Sure," said Michael. "What uh, what's it about?"

Ryan blew out a breath, raising his eyebrows.

"How much time you got?" he said.

"For you?" said Michael. "All the time in the world."

Ryan actually, visibly blushed. He turned his face away and ran a hand back through his hair.

"Well," he said. "Good, it'll take a while. So: there's this fella named Edmond Dantès. . . ."


 

Michael only fell asleep a couple of times during the hour-long exposition, nodding off in his chair without quite noticing. He got the sense he wouldn't have understood the plot even if he'd been wide awake for the whole thing, partially because it was that complex and partially because Ryan was a godawful storyteller. It was something of a relief, therefore, when Ryan got done with it and insisted that Michael get him to the kitchen, one way or another, so he wouldn't have to eat lunch in bed.

That was another ordeal, but it was at least one that Michael was equipped for. The back-and-forth of disparaging remarks (from Michael) and flippant deflections (from Ryan) was easy and well-worn. It was impressive, how Ryan was able to maintain his demeanor even when he was in obvious, excruciating pain. Michael had half a mind to rope him down to keep him from getting up and moving any more.

He might have tried it, too, had Ryan been less obvious about keeping his hunting knife to hand. Michael couldn't possibly blame him for that, although it was strange to consider any action Ryan took as being motivated by fear. As it was, he just let Ryan lean on his shoulder and bitched at him twice as hard for it.

While they were in the kitchen, Ryan offered to take Michael's stitches out before they became un-removable. Michael begrudgingly allowed him to, although it was painful and, in some ways, nerve-wracking. He kept expecting someone to come in the front door while he was half-shirtless and Ryan was tending to the highly suspicious wound in his chest. Fortunately, that didn't happen, and all Michael had to deal with was the tingling warmth left over from Ryan's skin touching his.

Before Michael knew it, the sun had set and the house had grown dark. He'd scolded Ryan back into bed a few hours ago and, for lack of anything better to do, had been allowing him to read The Count of Monte Cristo aloud. To his own surprise, he'd gotten invested in the story, and it was only when Ryan set the book down and complained of the strain the candlelight was putting on his eyes that Michael realized how much time had passed.

"Oh, damn," he said, looking out the window. "Uh. Yeah, it sure is late, ain't it."

"Somewhat," Ryan allowed. He marked his place with a thin leather thong and set the book aside. "You gone stay the night?"

"I sure as hell ain't gonna leave you alone," said Michael.

"Hope you're not plannin' on sleepin' in that chair again," said Ryan.

"Unless you got any other place for me to sleep."

Ryan smiled. "Perfectly good bed right here."

"Yeah, but you're usin' it."

Shaking his head, Ryan sighed, "Willfully and impenetrably."

Michael got it. He was suddenly, acutely aware of how close he was to Ryan, positioned as he was next to the head of the bed.

"Wait wait wait," he said, "hold on now, I cain't—you ain't askin' me to—"

"You've spent the night with me once already, it ain't like it's novel," said Ryan.

"I was drunk as hell!"

"So much the better that you're sober this time," said Ryan. His eyes twinkled. "There's certain activities I categorically refuse to get up to when one party's drunk."

"Jesus, Ryan, you're half dead," said Michael, so hot it was making him sweat.

"Oh, sure," said Ryan. "And my brush with my own mortality has thrown into exquisite relief all the things I'd miss out on if somethin' irreversible was to happen to me. I have wasted enough time with you, Michael. I don't want to waste any more."

"You're too goddamn busted up for—for activities, I ain't—I don't wanna wind up hurtin' you, or—"

"That can be avoided," Ryan said. "Don't you worry none about me."

"Yeah, but . . . but. . . ." Michael sputtered. He was rapidly running out of excuses.

"If th' answer's no," Ryan said softly, "then just say no. I won't press past that."

"It ain't—it ain't no, it's just—" He squirmed. He looked anywhere but at Ryan. He spoke so quietly he could barely hear himself. "I ain't never. . . ."

"I promise it ain't that much different than with women," said Ryan, a twinkle in his eye.

"No, I mean . . . with anybody," Michael mumbled, red in the face. "And I . . . don't wanna disappoint."

Ryan leaned over and cupped his cheek. He kissed him, tender and sweet and unhurried.

"Come to bed, chéri," he said.

For a good five seconds, Michael fought with himself about it.

"Hell with it," he said.

Chapter Text

For the next three days, things were good. Ryan convalesced rapidly, although there was no apparent change in his level of pain. He insisted on walking back and forth from the kitchen for meals, braced heavily on Michael's shoulder, despite the fact that it always left him pale and exhausted. He refused any more laudanum, although he relented on less extreme forms of pain management. Michael was certain the aspirin Lindsay had provided was doing absolutely nothing, and Ryan was just pretending it helped so that his nurses would lay off.

One thing that was not contended was Michael continuing to spend the nights in Ryan's bed. There was no resistance on that front from either one of them.

It became a sort of a game. Each morning Lindsay or Gilby would drop by to check the progress of Ryan's wounds. It was imperative that Ryan and Michael be dressed and separated before they turned up, although Michael suspected there would be no real consequence if they weren't. Lindsay, at least, was probably well aware of what was transpiring.

Michael only felt a little guilty about it. After all, she'd said herself that she wasn't interested in pursuing a similar path. If she was more subdued than usual, it was simply an unavoidable consequence of the circumstances, and not because Michael had done anything wrong.

On the third night, a storm rolled through. It was the wind that woke Michael, the way it rattled the windows and doors. Lightning flickered intermittently, trailed by distant thunder. Rain sputtered down on the roof.

He wasn't sure exactly when Ryan woke up; just that one minute he was curled up asleep against Michael's side, and the next his eyes were open and bright. A smile lifted one side of his mouth, his gaze turned to the ceiling. A burst of wind rattled the house and Michael twitched. Ryan looked over at him.

"All right, chéri?" he asked, keeping his voice soft.

"I'm fine," said Michael.

"Don't like the wind, huh?"

"If you'd grew up in a place that got twisters every summer, you wouldn't, neither," said Michael. It wasn't the reason, but it was plausible enough.

"I s'pose I wouldn't," said Ryan. "We had us an occasional twister, though. Never came too close. More often than not we just got the thunderstorms."

Another gust of wind battered against the window. Michael twitched again, and Ryan slid an arm around his waist. The warmth of him, the solidity, was comforting. Michael curled his arm around him to keep him close. Ryan rested his head on Michael's shoulder and sighed.

"That's th' only thing I miss about Georgia," he said. "The rain. I miss wakin' up, four o'clock in the mornin', to hear it patterin' down. Sound of it on the tin roof and the trees, like . . . applause. Miss those long, gray, chilly days, all muffled and soft, and the smell of green things. I don't miss nothin' else, but Lord, I miss the rain."

Michael snorted. "I don't," he said. "I like it out here. Except when it decides to up and rain anyhow."

"What do you miss?" Ryan inquired, shifting around to gaze at him. "About home."

"Nothin'," said Michael. "Ain't nothin' in Kansas worth missin'."

"Now that you've left, maybe," said Ryan.

"Oh, hell," Michael mumbled, blushing. Ryan kissed him on the cheek, which didn't help.

"There must be somethin', though," he said, twirling a lock of Michael's hair around his finger. "Even one li'l thing?"

Michael chewed on it for a while. It was difficult to think clearly, with Ryan so close and so handsy. He sighed and rolled his eyes.

"It's dumb," he said.

"I'm sure it ain't," said Ryan.

Still, Michael didn't answer right away. He had to look somewhere other than at Ryan, and when he spoke, he spoke in a mumble.

"Miss the wheat fields," he said. "Walkin' out and just . . . standin' in the middle of 'em. Miles and miles of nothin' but wheat, all the way to every horizon. And the wind rollin' through, makin' it all wave, like a great gold ocean. The sound of it, it's like . . . it's a sort of. . . ." He gave up. "I cain't describe it. But I miss that sound."

"Can't say as I've ever heard it," Ryan said. "But I think I'd like to."

"Yeah, well," Michael said, shrugging. "Ain't like I'm ever gonna get to again."

"Why not?"

"'Cuz I'm never gettin' outta this shithole town, that's why."

"They make wagons, Michael," Ryan said dryly. "It ain't like there's no way."

"It ain't like I'm ever gonna have the money for it," said Michael, who'd thought about this at length. "Plus, I'd have to get somebody to take me, and . . . hell, ain't nobody gonna do that."

"I will," Ryan said immediately.

"Naw, c'mon, don't kid."

"I ain't kiddin'," said Ryan. "Someday I'm gone take you back to Kansas and stick you out in a wheat field, just so's you can hear the sound again. I hope you won't mind if I come hear it with you. I wanna go sailin' with you, on that great gold ocean."

A lump rose into Michael's throat. He struggled to swallow it back down, blinking the blur from his eyes.

"You ain't—you ain't gotta do that," he said.

"Lord, Michael," said Ryan, pained. "How much care you been missin' out on, that this's so exceptional to you?"

"Just shut up," said Michael, in a sort of distress that was far beyond his means.

"If you say so," said Ryan. He snuggled up to Michael and let out a contented sigh. "I'm just happy to be here."


 

In the morning, they went through their usual routine of staying in bed for as long as possible, and then scrambling to get dressed before Lindsay or Gilby turned up. Michael was just strapping the Colt on, and Ryan tucking his knife into its sheath, when the front door opened.

"Shit, early today," Michael said, halfway to a joke.

"Lindsay's tryin' to catch us so she can be sure to never let you live it down," Ryan whispered. He fumbled with the last few buttons on his shirt, hindered by the bandages on his hand.

"Hardy-harr," Michael hissed.

The bedroom door swung open, and Trevor Collins slipped in.

He was carrying a gun.

"Trevor?" said Michael. "What the hell are you—"

The gun jerked up. Trevor stared at Michael in horror. Ryan stared down the barrel of the gun.

"Oh, no," Trevor whispered. "Oh, no. You wasn't s'posed to be here."

"Trevor, put that gun down," Michael warned. "You don't wanna shoot nobody."

"You don't understand," Trevor said. "Michael, listen to me, you don't understand—"

"Don't involve him, Trevor," Ryan said softly. He didn't sound scared.

"You shut up," Trevor snapped, rounding on him. "You don't talk, not a word! Don't talk, don't move, or I'll shoot you!"

"No the hell you won't," Michael said, easing his way towards Trevor.

Ryan swung his legs out of bed. Trevor cocked the gun.

"I said don't move!" he cried.

"Trevor, stop it," said Michael, inching closer, closer. "Whatever you think you know, it ain't true. You been bamboozled, kid, now put the gun down."

"Oh, there's been a bamboozlin' done, all right," Trevor said, teary eyes fixed on Ryan's face. "Get up, Ryan, you and me are takin' a walk."

"You may as well shoot me here, Trevor," Ryan said, still perfectly calm. "I don't feel like indulgin' you any farther'n that."

"Trevor—" Michael said, reaching for him.

Trevor moved fast. The gun pressed behind Michael's ear. Ryan went rigid.

"Get up," Trevor said, and there was steel in his voice. "Or I'll kill him."

Slowly, slowly, Ryan got to his feet. Only the faintest flicker of pain crossed his face before it was snuffed out. He stood tall, hands raised in surrender. They barely shook at all.

"All right, Trevor," he said, pacifying. "All right. Just take your finger off the trigger, and I'll go wherever you want."

Michael held absolutely still, not even daring to breathe. The gun shifted, ever so slightly. Ryan inclined his head.

"Much obliged," he said. "Lead the way."

"Hell no," said Trevor. "You're goin' first. Outside, and head south, and if you make any kinda fuss, I'll—"

"Understood," Ryan said, still in that gentle voice. "There'll be no fuss."

"Ryan," Michael hissed, hands clenched on his wheels.

Ryan met his eyes and gave him just the smallest hint of a smile. Keeping slow and careful, he edged around Trevor and towards the front door. If a person wasn't looking for it, they might have missed the pain that every step caused him. Trevor prodded Michael in the back of the head with the gun.

"You're comin' too," he said. "Get a move on."

"Trevor, stop it," Michael said. "Whatever you think is—"

"Do not talk, Michael," Trevor ordered. "Today, you're gonna listen. Now follow him."

Michael gritted his teeth, and followed.


 

They'd been going for nearly an hour, and Ryan was dead on his feet.

Nobody had spoken the whole way. Ryan had not so much as glanced over his shoulder. At first, it was part and parcel with his dogged stoicism. Lately, Michael suspected it was because he couldn't spare the energy. His bare feet dragged and stumbled. His balance was unsteady.

Trevor had kept the gun pressed to the back of Michael's head the whole way. There wasn't much Michael could do about that. Both his hands were occupied with shoving the wheels of his chair though the desert pavement. His legs were starting to burn and jitter. His arms and back and chest were all aching.

Another storm was gathering overhead. The clouds were thick and heavy, muttering with distant thunder. The air was thick with the smell of rain and the tingle of unstruck lightning. Michael could feel it sizzling in the wheels of his chair, the barrel of the gun on his scalp.

"That'll do," Trevor said at last. He pulled Michael to a gentle stop. They were a long ways from anywhere, in an open plain dotted with scrub and joshua trees and craggy boulders. Trevor had stopped Ryan about a body's length away from one such boulder, pinning him in on one side.

Ryan swayed on his feet, then turned, slowly. His eyes were unfocused, his face tight and pale with pain. As Michael watched, though, he drew himself up and pulled his eyes back into focus. They focused on Trevor.

"Who told you?" he asked. His voice was thready, exhausted. Michael's chest ached.

"Meg," said Trevor. "She told me what you done. What you tried to do to Michael."

"She lied to you, Trevor."

"You think that ain't occur to me?" Trevor snapped. "I done my own investigatin', Ryan! Into all of y'all! I know not a single lawman in this town is clean!"

"Exceptin' Michael," said Ryan.

"Oh, no, includin' Michael, 'cuz he's done been known about all this, too," Trevor uttered. "They call that complicit, Ryan. I call it corrupted."

"You got this all wrong," said Michael, his heart in his throat, his stomach churning. Thunder rumbled in the heavy clouds overhead.

"No I don't," said Trevor. "I made sure. I played the shiny li'l idiot for y'all and y'all ate it up whole. And what do you know, y'all thought I was so stupid I wouldn't see what was goin' on right in front of my face!"

"To be fair," Ryan said, "you are."

"I know what you did, Ryan!" Trevor cried. "I know why those outlaws came for you! It stops today. It goes no further."

Ryan inclined his head.

"All right," he said. "But point the gun at me, Trevor."

"No," Michael blurted. A fat, heavy raindrop splashed down on his hand and he twitched.

"Hell no," said Trevor, shoving the barrel of the gun against the back of Michael's head.

"Think about how you want this t' end," Ryan went on, never looking away from Trevor's face. "You don't wanna go home with Michael's blood on your hands. He's got nothin' to do with this. Point the gun back at me, Trevor."

For a trembling, breathless moment, Trevor did nothing. Michael could feel him shaking.

The gun whipped up, and Trevor took three quick steps away from Michael. All the tension went out of Ryan's shoulders, despite the fact that he was now staring down the barrel.

"Thank you," he said to Trevor.

"Trevor, you don't gotta do this," Michael said.

"Stop talkin', Michael," Trevor said. A peal of thunder rolled through, louder than the last. "I told you, you're gonna listen today. You don't get to talk me outta this. You don't know what he is. You don't know what he's done."

"Neither do you!" said Michael. "Whatever Meg told you, it's a lie! Look at him, Trevor, he cain't—"

"I am lookin' at him!" Trevor snarled. "And for the first time in my dang life, I'm seein' him! He's got you fooled good, Michael, but he came straight outta Hell!"

A flash of lightning whited out the world for an instant. Thunder cracked like a whip, so loud that it shuddered in Michael's chest. Another raindrop burst on his hand, and one on his head.

"I wouldn't say straight," Ryan said, as the rumbling died down.

"Shut up! Shut up, you demon! You think I'm such an idjit, and you got everybody else convinced—you had me convinced—but I ain't fallin' for it anymore! I ain't fallin' for anythin' anymore!"

"You are, though!" Michael snapped. "You fell for that lyin' whore and all her bullshit! She's framin' him, dumbass!"

"Don't you talk to me like that," Trevor uttered. His hands were shaking. "Don't you take his side, Michael."

"'Sides," Ryan said, smiling. "Meg ain't the whore of the pair, is she, Trevor."

Tears were welling in Trevor's eyes. There was another flash of lightning, another roar of thunder.

"I coulda been somebody," he said, choked and tremulous. "I coulda made somethin' of myself. For the first time since I got here, I had the chance to put food on my table without havin' to sell everythin' I have for it! Only you decided you was gonna throw me right back into the gutter, just 'cuz you could. Well I got some news for you, Ryan, I'm gonna get outta there anyhow, and it's draggin' your evil carcass back that's gonna do it."

"You'd be better off stickin' with Meg," Ryan said kindly. "Way I heard it, she was payin' you somewhat generously. Still cheap, of course, but generous for the services offered."

"She paid a hell of a lot better than you!" Trevor cried. Raindrops were thudding into the dust all around them.

"Honey, I paid you twice what you were worth," Ryan said.

"You never paid me at all!"

His eyes gleamed. The grin spread out wide and wicked.

"Twice nothin' is still nothin'," he said nastily.

The gunshot was deafening, the flash blinding. Michael yelped. Ryan staggered back and fell, clutching at his side. Horrified, Michael could only stare.

"Trevor, you dumb son of a bitch," he said numbly. "What did you—"

Ryan propped himself up on an elbow. He looked down at the blood covering his hand, soaking through his shirt. He looked up at Trevor, standing there whey-faced and shaking. Slowly, he got to his feet and spread his arms. Not a single twitch of pain crossed his face. The sky flickered with uneasy lightning. Raindrops tapped on Michael's head and shoulders, freezing cold and heavy as lead.

"You wanna try again?" Ryan asked, and there was thunder in his voice. The orange spark blazed in the depths of his eyes.

"Oh, shit," Trevor whispered, backing away. "Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!"

Ryan took a step forward.

Alfredo hit him like a train from behind the boulder.

The two of them tumbled into the dust. Ryan's knife flashed. Alfredo grabbed his wrist. They struggled. Alfredo slammed Ryan into the ground and bore down on him. One hand held the knife at bay. The other was clenched around his throat.

"Shoot him, Trey!" Alfredo cried.

Trevor stood frozen. Ryan kicked hard at Alfredo. The knife lifted an inch out of the dirt and was shoved back down again. Lightning snapped through the clouds and thunder roared like a gunshot.

"Our Father," Trevor whispered, "who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name—"

Ryan snarled, thrashing. Alfredo held him down, riding him like a rodeo bull.

"Trevor!" he insisted.

"Thy kingdom come, thy will be done—"

Ryan's face was turning red. He clawed for Alfredo's eyes. Alfredo drove his knee into the bullet wound. Ryan twitched, gasping. Lightning cracked the sky in two. Thunder shook the ground.

"On Earth as it is in Heaven!" Trevor squeaked. He gripped the gun with both hands. Ryan plunged his thumb into Alfredo's eye. Alfredo screamed, recoiling. The knife flicked up and tore across his biceps. Ryan snatched a single gasp of air before Alfredo shoved him down again, blood pouring down his face and arm.

"Stop," Michael said, hoarse and numb. "Stop it, stop it—"

"Give us this day our daily bread," Trevor said, "and forgive us our trespasses—"

A joshua tree exploded in a flash of blinding blue light, splinters and flame, a deafening retort. Michael cried out. Trevor did not waver.

"As we forgive them who trespass against us!" he cried, his voice muffled through the ringing in Michael's ears.

"Trey!"

"And lead us not into temptation!" Trevor screamed. "But deliver us from evil!"

Another bolt, so near that the shock of it threw Michael to the ground. Trevor staggered and did not fall. Sparks and flame crackled over his body, over the gun. Ryan's face was turning blue, his struggles weak.

"For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory—"

Ryan's fingers clawed into Alfredo's other eye.

"For ever and ever—"

The smell of lightning and blood and gunpowder.

"Amen!"

And the gunshot.

And the second gunshot.

Trevor crumpled. Ryan shoved Alfredo's body. The knife struck like a viper, two-three-four times before Ryan had even drawn his first gasp. He fell back, coughing, still clutching the knife buried in Alfredo's back.

Michael stared at the smoke curling from the end of the Colt. His hand started to shake. With one last crack of lightning, the dam burst. Rain poured down, drenching him in an instant. It was so cold it drove the breath from his body. Ryan was not getting up. His fingers slid from the knife.

"Ryan," Michael said through numb lips. He dropped the gun. He dragged himself over. There was no time to get back in his chair.

Ryan's whole side was soaked in blood. He wasn't breathing right. Michael took his face in his hands and it was several seconds before Ryan focused on him. He reached for Michael. Michael grabbed his wrist and pressed it to the bullet wound. The rain left his hands slick and clumsy.

"No, you gotta press, press on it," Michael said, frantic.

"Michael," he mumbled. His voice was hoarse. "You all right?"

"Am I—? Yeah, I'm fine, you damn fool, I'm fine! You're not! C'mon now, press on the damn thing, you ain't gonna—"

"Of all the people," Ryan sighed. He was terribly pale, lips turning blue in the freezing rain. He touched Michael's face with trembling, bloodied fingers. "Trevor Collins. God's gone get an earful."

"No the fuck He ain't, shut up, shut up—"

His eyes rolled back.He was barely breathing, his pulse fluttering in his throat. He was cold, he was so cold, and the rain was washing the last of the warmth from him.

"I din't mean it!" Michael cried. "Keep talkin', you goddamn—you fuckin'—Ryan, please, please—"

Ryan didn't respond. Michael clutched him to his chest. He pressed Ryan's limp hand against the bullet wound, as hard as he could. Ryan flinched, just a little, just slightly.

"Stay with me," Michael begged. "Ryan, stay. Ryan, chéri, please, stay."

The hitch of Ryan's breath could have been a laugh. It was immediately followed by a mouthful of vomit.

"Goddammit," Michael said. "Goddammit, goddammit, goddammit!"

White light flickered overhead, washing out all the color from the world. Thunder grumbled through the pouring rain. Michael squeezed Ryan close, kissed his head, and steeled himself.

"I am gonna take care of you," he said through his teeth.

Shaking and freezing and soaked to the skin, Michael started dragging the both of them back towards his chair.

Chapter Text

He wasn't sure how he made it back.

Everything faded to a gray blur, to cold and rain and the smell of blood. The sight of Ryan's house provided no relief. He went some ways through the streets before somebody saw him, before there was shouting and movement and somebody took Ryan. Once the weight of him was gone, all Michael's machinery wound down. He sat in the rain for a long while, no telling how long, before Jack emerged from the gray blur, her hair like a candle flame. She spoke, but Michael couldn't make out the words. Somehow, the two of them ended up indoors.

There was a fire, and lots of blankets, and a hot drink. At some point, Michael started shivering again. The fire was bright and orange, crackling and popping. Rain drummed on the roof. Michael was soaked to the skin, caked with mud and blood. As the numbness faded, pain came to replace it.

"Jack?" he said. His voice was rusted through.

"Hey," she said, taking a knee at his side. "Welcome back."

He managed to look at her. Her face was grim, the lines around her eyes and mouth deepened by worry.

"Where's Ryan?" he croaked.

"He's at Doc's," Jack said. "Jeremy and Geoff are with him."

"Is he. . . ?"

"I don't know."

Michael looked down, and was startled to see Gavin lying on the floor at his feet. Gavin's ears perked up, and he wagged his tail tentatively.

"Hey," Michael said to him. "What're you doin' here?"

"We're at Geoff's place," Jack said. "It was closest."

Gavin hoisted himself to his feet and started sniffing Michael's legs. He, at least, looked warm and dry and uninjured.

"Michael," said Jack. "What . . . happened?"

A headache was blooming behind Michael's eyes. He rubbed at his forehead. His teeth were chattering. There was a tingling in his legs that heralded the approach of worse pains.

"I ain't sure," he said. "Trevor—Trevor and Alfredo, they—he said Meg told him . . . somethin' or other, he said—I don't know. I don't know."

"It's all right," Jack said, putting a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "It ain't that important. Should we send somebody after 'em?"

Something cracked in Michael's chest. Tears spilled out of his eyes before he could stop them. He couldn't breathe. Gavin climbed up into his lap and started sniffing his face, whining quietly. Michael grabbed hold of him and buried his face in his shoulder, shivering and crying and sick. He shook his head.

"They're dead," he whispered. "They're dead, Jack, both of 'em, I—I—"

"Oh, Michael," Jack sighed, squeezing his shoulder.

That was all there was to be said.


 

By mid-morning, the rain let up. Michael was out of his mind with worry, sick with guilt. Jack assured him, over and over, that he'd done only what he had to, that he wasn't to blame for what had happened to Trevor and Alfredo, that Ryan would pull through.

Michael couldn't bring himself to believe any of it.

Around noon, his legs finally caught up with him. They flared with such blistering pain that it completely incapacitated him. He could neither move, nor eat, nor speak more than a few words at a time. It was so bad that Jack decided to go to Lindsay's clinic and see if any laudanum could be spared. Michael didn't want her to go, mostly because he knew she would return with news on Ryan—alive or dead, a dichotomy too vast to comprehend—but he couldn't find the words to say as much, so he said nothing.

Gavin stayed. That was as much comfort as Michael dared hope for. He stayed at Michael's side, and Michael kept a hand on him, toying absently with his fur. He stared into the fire, hoping that the light would bleach the awful images from his eyes like the sun bleached bone and cloth.

It was to no avail. He could still see Trevor, lying dead on the ground with only one glassy eye left, half his head blown apart into a bloody pulp. He could still see the dark red blood pooling beneath Alfredo, swirled like paint by the rain. There were no eyes left there. Ryan had gouged them both out. There hadn't been much head left, either.

His hand had not shaken. His aim had not wavered. He had fired two shots and snuffed out two lives. He was a good shot. He knew that he was a good shot.

Beneath it all, beneath the mud and the blood and the lightning, there was something else, a faded afterimage on old newsprint, a smudged photograph buried in the dust.

An alligator grin and twin sparks of orange light.

Michael only realized how hard he was shaking when Gavin started licking his hand and whining.

"Hey," he said, fumbling his way back to the present. It was just as he'd left it—full of terrible pain and more than a measure of fear. "Hey, boy, I'm all right."

Gavin leaned a shoulder up against the wheel of Michael's chair and rested his chin on the arm. Michael played with his ears.

"Shoulda brought you," he mumbled. "Hell with the gun, I shoulda brought you."

Gavin only sighed. Michael leaned down and kissed his head.

"Good boy," he said.


 

The moment the front door opened, Michael's heart stopped. Gavin ran to meet whoever it was. The most Michael could do was turn his chair around to face the door.

Jack was there, expressionless. She met Michael's eyes.

"He's alive," she said.

Michael put his face in his hands and breathed for the first time in hours.

"Christ," he gasped. The shivering was back, all the way through his heart and soul. Jack came over and stoked the fire, which had been burning low.

"Doc says the cold's what saved him," she said. "Otherwise he woulda bled to death. Bullet missed anythin' vital, which is a damn miracle, but it tore him open pretty good."

Michael nodded, too overwhelmed to speak. Jack put a gentle hand on his arm.

"You saved his life, Michael," she said softly.

"'Course I did," Michael choked, and sniffled hugely. He wiped his face and sat up. Gavin returned to his side, and Michael got a hand on him as quickly as possible. "Couldn't leave him out there."

"That ain't what I meant," Jack said, "and you know it."

Michael sniffled again. The pain was catching back up, addling his wits. He winced.

"You bring any, uh . . . any of that. . . ."

"Laudanum? Yeah," said Jack. She retrieved a dark glass bottle from her coat pocket. "Doc said no more'n three drops, no more'n every four hours."

"Yeah yeah," said Michael, holding out a hand. Jack hesitated.

"You sure you don't want somethin' to drink it with?"

Michael ground his teeth. "Got any whiskey?"

"Absolutely not," she said.

"Oh, hell with you!" he snarled. "I been hurtin' every hour of every fuckin' day for the past three fuckin' months, I'm done with it! I'm fuckin' sick and goddamn tired of hurtin', Jackie!"

"All right, all right," she said, raising her hands. "But there ain't gonna be any whiskey in here, 'cuz it's Geoff's house."

He pulled up short. His face went hot. He cleared his throat and looked away, rubbing the arms of his chair.

"Fine," he mumbled. "Then whatever he's got."

"Sure thing," said Jack. "I'll be right back."

Michael turned himself back towards the fire, his jaw and hands clenched. Gavin settled down near him, more attentive than relaxed. Jack was gone a long while, long enough that Michael started to worry.

When she came back, she was grimmer.

"Found some coffee," she said. "Went ahead and put the laudanum in it for you."

Michael didn't bother asking questions. He accepted the clay mug from her and drank it down as fast as he could bear. It burned his tongue and made him cough, bitter enough that he was convinced Jack was telling the truth about adding laudanum.

But how much laudanum, he wondered, ever so much too late.

"Jack," he said. His tongue was tingling. His stomach didn't feel right. "What took so long?"

"Had to brew it," she said.

"Bullshit! What the fuck were you doin' back there? How fuckin' much laudanum did you put in this shit?"

"Calm down, Michael, Jesus," said Jack, taken aback. "I put in three drops, that's all. It bothers you that much, you can do it yourself from now on."

"You did somethin' back there," Michael uttered. His mind was starting to go fuzzy. The pain was dulling to a prickle. "You ain't come back lookin' like all you did was three drops."

Jack rolled her eyes and let out a sigh. She threw up her hands in exasperation.

"When I was pokin' around, I found a bottle," she said. "Still full, unopened so far as I can tell."

It took him a long time to absorb this. His heart was still pounding, his head growing muzzier by the second. His lips were numb, but his legs were following, and it was a profound relief.

"Sheriff's been . . . drinkin' again?" he said.

"Maybe not, but he's right on the edge of it," Jack said. She paused, then added, "I shoulda told you that first. I didn't think about how it'd look from . . . your side. I'm sorry."

"My crazy side," Michael mumbled.

"Since you said it, yeah," said Jack. "But it's still on me, and I'm still sorry."

Michael just shook his head. He was immensely tired, like his bones had been filled with lead shot. He could barely keep his eyes open. Jack touched his shoulder.

"You just rest, Michael," she said. "You had a hard enough day of it. Whenever you get to feelin' up for it, we'll go and see Ryan. I'm sure he'll wanna see you."

"Sure," Michael mumbled.

The word had scarcely left his lips before he was asleep.


 

"Bonjour encore," Ryan said, as Michael made his way into the clinic. He was sitting up, pale as death but bright-eyed.

"You son of a bitch," Michael spat, hurrying to his side. Ryan grinned and leaned his head back against the wall. He never took his eyes off Michael, like there couldn't possibly be anything else worth looking at.

"You sure got a way with words, chéri," he said.

"I thought you was dead!"

"Oh, sometimes a body just has enough and quits on you," Ryan said demurely. "I'm fine."

"Had worse?" Michael sneered, even as tears blurred his vision and stopped up his nose.

"No," Ryan said, "no, all together, I think this just about takes the cake."

"Dumb sonnuva bitch," Michael said thickly.

Ryan held out his hand. Michael took it without hesitation.

"That right there is the luckiest pair of jackasses ever to set foot on the earth," Lindsay said, folding her arms and cocking a hip out.

"We oughtta sell tickets," Jack said, adopting a similar pose.

"Step right up, watch these two dumbasses get into twice as much trouble as they're worth and still come out the other side!" said Lindsay.

"You figure we'd make good money?"

"Right up until the luck ran out."

"How long you figure that'd take?"

"Mm, maybe not so long," said Lindsay. "Burned through a good measure of it already."

"Maybe it grows back."

"Might do. Don't know if I'd be willin' to test it."

"We'll give it a couple weeks," said Jack. "But who to test it on?"

"Don't matter, they're both about equal on luck."

"Guess so."

"Ladies, I must object," Ryan said. "Clearly, of the two of us, I'm a good deal luckier."

"Oh, and humble, too," said Jack, rolling her eyes. "Doc, how many times over should he be dead?"

"Three at least," said Lindsay. "So he ain't necessarily wrong. Just conceited."

"Got every right to be," said Ryan, twinkling.

"Just 'cuz you got the luck of the Devil don't mean I won't smack you upside the head," Lindsay threatened.

"I think you already pushed your luck far enough," Michael said to Ryan. His ears were ringing with a strange and unsettling resonance. He put it down to the laudanum.

"No such thing, chéri," Ryan said sweetly.

"Everythin's a goddamn production," Lindsay sighed. "Jack, I got a couple things need takin' care of, and I could use a spare set of hands. You busy?"

"Huh? Me?" said Jack. "Not especially. What kind of things?"

"Just things, hon," Lindsay said. "Things that require two folks to get done."

"Oh," said Jack, and then, "oh. Uh, sure, yeah, I got nothin' better to do."

"Shouldn't take more than about half an hour," Lindsay said, enunciating clearly.

"Sure thing," said Jack. "We'd best get to it, anyhow."

The two of them left. Michael sniffled and scrubbed at his eyes.

"Where's—where's Geoff and Jeremy gone off to?" he asked.

"Cleanin' up the mess," Ryan said. His voice was much weaker all of a sudden. His hand was cold in Michael's. "Figured it'd be unseemly to leave poor Trevor and Alfredo out there."

Michael clenched his teeth and looked anywhere but at Ryan. The shaking was coming back, the sickness. Ryan squeezed his hand.

"Hey," he said.

"Don't," said Michael.

"All right," Ryan sighed, defeated. "Other reason Geoff took off is on account of me givin' him too much to think about."

"Oh, hell," said Michael. "I prob'ly don't even wanna know. You know Jack found a bottle in his house?"

Ryan clicked his teeth. "Disappointin', but not much of a surprise. Empty?"

"Full," said Michael.

"That's somewhat hopeful."

"You gonna tell me what you told him, or not?"

"If you wanna hear it."

"I don't guess I got much of a choice."

"Meg's gone try and skip town tonight," Ryan said.

"Tonight?" said Michael, frowning. "She's prob'ly already done it."

"She don't know what Trevor and Alfredo said or didn't say t' us," Ryan said. "She doesn't know how much we know. She runs off now, it'll make her look suspicious. She'll wait for nightfall, try and give herself a better head start."

Rubbing his brow, Michael shook his head.

"And there ain't nothin' we can do about it," he said. "God fuckin' dammit. We still got fuckin' nothin' on her. If she paid to have you killed, the only folks who'd be able to testify are—ain't—"

"They ain't available," Ryan filled in for him. Michael swallowed and shook himself.

"And we got nothin' on her for Risinger, neither," he said. "God dammit."

"Not at the moment," said Ryan.

"Oh, Jesus, what the hell's that mean?"

"Means I can get her to confess," Ryan said.

Michael stared at him. He was gleaming.

"You're gonna stay your ass in bed," Michael said.

"Naw, Michael, naw, 'cause I figured it out," Ryan said, exhilarated. "Soon as Trevor started talkin'. We knew Jon's head was a gift to you, but the body, Michael, the body was a gift to me."

"The fuck are you talkin' about?" said Michael. His hand was going clammy in Ryan's. "You said she was tryin' to frame you!"

"Oh, sure," said Ryan. "But it was a gift, too. Five minutes, Michael, I can have her singin' like a bird."

"And what if she shoots you instead, huh? What're you gonna do then?"

"She won't shoot me," Ryan said, with absolute surety.

"I bet you thought the same thing about Trevor," Michael snapped.

"Yeah, but Michael, she won't shoot me," Ryan said. His grip was tightening by slow degrees, like a vice. His eyes were fever-bright.

"What the hell're you gonna do to her?" Michael said, chills crawling up his back.

"Just talk," Ryan said innocently. "That's all it'll take."

Scowling, Michael said, "You're bound and determined to do this, ain't you."

"Absolutely and entirely," Ryan said.

"What if Sheriff says you cain't?"

"I'll do it anyhow."

"What if Doc says you shouldn't?"

"I'll still do it anyhow."

"What if I say you shouldn't?"

"Don't say that, Michael," Ryan pleaded. "You got the last confession. It's my turn, now. I want to do this. I can do this."

Michael squirmed and made a face. He was losing circulation to his fingers.

"I guess you got some kinda idea?" he said.

"I most certainly do," said Ryan. "Sheriff already heard it. He thinks you shouldn't be there, but I think you should."

"If Sheriff says I ain't s'posed to be there, I cain't be there," said Michael.

"Sure you can," said Ryan. "He don't have to know. I want you to be there, Michael. I don't wanna go without you."

"We'll just . . . hope he don't say nothin', then," Michael mumbled. "What's your idea?"

"Ever so glad you asked," Ryan said, finally relaxing his grip on Michael's hand. "Goes a li'l somethin' like this. . . ."

Chapter Text

"Headin' out?"

To Meg's credit, she didn't jump. She glanced back over her shoulder, flashed a smile at Ryan, and finished tying up her saddlebag.

"Thought I might," she said. "This town's a li'l too small for me."

"That's a shame," said Ryan. He was leaned up against the wall of the stables, although perhaps propped was a better word for it. He looked casual and in control, which was the important part. He was also still incredibly pale, and bruised all over, and bandaged six ways from Sunday, but whatever strange electricity he ran on didn't seem to care about any of that. He kept his mutilated hand in his coat pocket, close to his knife.

"I don't think it's a shame," said Meg. She yanked on the knot a couple of times, then patted the horse and moved towards Ryan. "I think gettin' out of a town that's too small for you is a good thing."

Ryan inclined his head. "Can be," he allowed.

"You could come with me, if you wanted," Meg said, approaching him slowly. "You and me both know you're much too big for this li'l town."

"I don't know about that," said Ryan. There was a gleam in his eye, a smile playing around his lips. "I got more'n one thing tyin' me down here."

Meg clicked her teeth. She came to stand an arm's length away from Ryan. The way she was looking at him made Michael blush.

"You got more'n one thing holdin' you back here," she said. "Man like you don't belong in a place like this. Must be awful hard to get any work done."

"I manage," said Ryan.

"You could do better."

"I might could," he said. He smiled. His head tipped back ever so slightly. "But not with you."

"Aw, you're gonna hurt my feelin's," Meg said, pouting. "You don't like me?"

"Never said that," said Ryan. "But I did say I got a few things tyin' me down here. So convince me."

Meg watched him for a moment, then slid up to him and put a hand on his arm.

"What kind of convincin' were you lookin' for?" she asked, watching his eyes.

"You're a smart woman," he said, watching right back. "Figure it out."

She stood up on her toes and kissed him. He made no move to pull away, and indeed took his hand out of his pocket to lay it on her hip, bloody bandages and all. Michael clenched his teeth so hard it made his neck ache.

"Convinced?" Meg asked, breaking off.

"Not hardly," said Ryan. "I can get that from just about anybody I so choose. Impress me, Meg."

She bit her lip. Her hand slid up his arm to toy with the bandanna around his neck.

"You saw my work with Risinger, didn't you?" she said quietly. "I made you a present outta him."

"I saw you attempt to frame me for killin' him," Ryan said.

"You ain't the only one lookin' to be impressed, Ryan," Meg said, fluttering her eyelashes.

"And here I was, thinkin' my reputation preceded me," he said fondly. "How'd you get him?"

"Waited for him to get blind drunk, then led him off to Denecour's barn," Meg said. "Nice and remote, all I had to do was stuff a cloth in his mouth to keep him from screamin'."

"None of those as worked there objected to that?"

"Only one of 'em had occasion to find out, and he kept nice and quiet once he'd got paid," said Meg. "Shame I won't get the chance to tell Michael how much I appreciate him takin' care of Diaz for me. That coulda got messy, but fortunately between Michael and Trevor, it all got fixed up real neat-like. Pretty fools, the both of 'em. They deserved each other."

"Shame one of 'em's dead, then," said Ryan.

"I imagine Michael could catch up soon enough," Meg said. "With adequate encouragement."

"I'd imagine so," Ryan said, smiling a cold little lizard smile. "How'd you keep Jon from runnin' off?"

"Cut his spine, much like you threatened to do to me. Nearly dug your own grave with that one."

"Far from it," said Ryan. His eyes glittered. "Tell me what it was like, Meg. Tell me how it felt to kill him."

"Better than anythin' else in the damn world," Meg said, pressing against him, curling her fingers around his belt. "I can't wait to go again. I'm itchin' for it. You know what I mean, don't you?"

Before he could answer, she kissed him again. His free hand drifted to his gun and rested there. It took Meg some time to pull away.

"Yeah," she said, exhilarated. "You know what I mean."

"Just one last question, Meg," Ryan said, keeping his voice soft. "Would you ever take credit for another person's work?"

A flicker of nervousness crossed Meg's face. She tittered and ran a hand down Ryan's chest.

"Of course not," she said.

Ryan smiled.

"That's all I needed to hear," he said, and shot her.

The retort was deafening. A firework of blood exploded from the back of Meg's head. Michael nearly jumped out of his skin. The muzzle flash was burned into his eyes. Meg fell. She did not move again.

Ryan burst out laughing.

There was blood spattered on his face, smoke curling from the barrel of his gun. He folded over, gasping with mirth, then leaned back against the wall.

"God, that's been a long time comin'!" he said, exultant.

"Jesus fuckin' Christ, Ryan!" Geoff cried, storming out of his hiding spot. "What the fuck d'you think you're doin'?"

Jack and Jeremy crept out, too, both white-faced and wide-eyed. Jeremy grappled onto Jack's arm for support, although he never took his eyes off Meg's corpse.

"I was just doin' my job, Sheriff," Ryan said, all blue-eyed innocence under the blood. "You heard her confess to the kidnappin', torture, and murder of Mistuh Jon Risinger."

"And then I saw you shoot her in cold blood! What the fuck, Ryan?"

"You never told me not to," said Ryan. He tucked his gun back into its holster, unconcerned. "'Sides, you know she woulda run, and then we woulda had to shoot her anyhow. I was just expeditin' the process."

"Jesus Christ," Jack said. "Jesus Christ."

"You don't get to expedite this fuckin' process," Geoff snarled. "You don't get to shoot folks dead just 'cuz you know they done wrong. You are a deputy, goddammit, not judge, jury, and fuckin' executioner!"

Ryan went very still. His eyes glittered. He pushed off the wall, not at all moving like someone who was half-dead.

"Does it scare you, Geoffrey?" he said softly. "Knowin' the sort of marks you got on your record? To think that somebody could—"

"I ain't playin' this game with you, Ryan," Geoff interrupted. His hands were tense at his sides, but neither was touching a weapon. "Go home."

A slow smile curled out across Ryan's face. He bit his lip and inclined his head.

"Yessuh, Sheriff," he said. He lingered just a moment before turning and walking out.

"Oh Jesus," Jeremy wheezed. "Oh God. What the fuck. What the fuck. What the fuck!"

"Jeremy, get ahold of yourself," Geoff said. His voice was as sharp and cold as steel. "Jack, go find Max and Mariel and keep 'em outside. A crowd'll be comin' any minute now. If anybody asks, Turney tried to shoot him first."

"Yessir," said Jack. She pried Jeremy's hand off her arm and hurried outside.

"He just shot her," Jeremy said numbly. "He just—shot her! Just like that!"

"That's enough of that," said Geoff. "Get it together, we gotta get our story straight 'fore folks come around askin'."

"What story, Sheriff? He murdered her!"

"No," Geoff snapped. "That ain't what happened. Convince yourself that ain't what happened."

"But—"

"Word cannot get out about this, you understand me, Dooley?" Geoff said. "It cannot. Word gets out about this, we are done for."

"Only if we try and cover it up!" Jeremy cried. "Geoff, he murdered her! I can't abide that, I can't—what the fuck am I s'posed to tell Kitty? What if he—what if next time—"

Geoff grabbed Jeremy by the shoulders and shook him.

"He ain't gonna hurt her," he said. "I won't let him. Hell, I'll shoot him if it comes down to it. But you listen to me, Jeremy, and you listen good. The Vagabond's still out there, and I am scared to goddamn death of what'd happen to Ryan if the truth got loose. I'm scared of what'd happen to us."

Jeremy sniffled. His face was scrunched up with fear, with distress.

"What the hell are we gonna tell Michael?" he asked, so quietly Michael could barely hear him.

"The same goddamn thing we're gonna tell everybody else," Geoff said. "She tried to shoot him, he shot her before she pulled the trigger. Awright? She was gettin' ready to skip town 'cuz she knew we knew she killed Risinger. Ryan tried to stop her, she pulled a gun on him, and he shot her in self-defense."

"Sheriff—"

"Say it back to me, Li'l J," Geoff said gently.

"She . . . she was tryin' to skip town," said Jeremy. His voice shook. "'Cuz she knew we was onto her. Ryan stopped her. She pulled a gun, and he shot her."

"He shot her in self-defense," said Geoff. "Say it again."

"Turney was tryin' to skip town," Jeremy said, with more confidence this time. "Ryan stopped her. She pulled a gun on him, and he shot her in self-defense."

"Gettin' there," Geoff said, clapping him on the shoulder. "You just keep sayin' that 'til it sounds true to you. Don't embellish, don't try and change it up. Just the facts, Li'l J. Just those facts."

"But what're we gonna do about Ryan?" Jeremy asked.

"You let me worry about Ryan," said Geoff. "For that matter, you let me worry about Michael, too. Keep yourself together, we're gonna be fine."

"Sheriff?" Jeremy said. "I need to go home. I need—I need to go see Kitty, I gotta—"

"Go," said Geoff. Jeremy nodded, then hurried out with his head down.

For a long time, Geoff just stood there. His breathing was slow and deliberate. Michael couldn't see his face, just the back of his head. He could tell Geoff was looking at Meg's body.

He moved to her and fumbled around with her skirts. He came up with a shotgun, then dropped it on the ground near one of her hands. He stepped back, considered, then adjusted the angle of it with his toe.

"Goddammit," he said under his breath. "God dammit, Ryan."

Shaking his head, he, too, walked out.


 

Ryan was sitting in his kitchen, drinking something out of a wooden cup. He had his feet propped up on the other chair. He'd cleaned off the blood. He looked up as Michael entered and cocked an eyebrow. He was pale in the midnight darkness. The light from the single candle on the table flickered in his eyes.

"What's the story?" he inquired.

Michael swallowed. He was still covered in itchy bits of hay. The clock had tolled two just before he'd gotten here, and he was exhausted. It had taken him well over an hour to sneak out of his hiding spot in the hayloft and get clear. He'd been lucky, in that nobody had seen him leave. It was just about the only luck he had.

"That she tried to shoot you first," he said.

Ryan made an approving face and sipped his drink. "That's good," he said. "Simple. One of Geoff's?"

"It's a lie," said Michael.

"Not entirely," said Ryan, amused. "If she'd tried to kiss me again, I mighta just shot myself."

"Why'd you make me watch?" said Michael, ignoring this.

"I didn't make you do anythin', Michael. I asked, and you obliged."

"Then why did you ask?" he burst out.

"I wanted you to see," he said. He sipped his drink, totally unconcerned.

"You knew you was gonna kill her," Michael realized. "You planned to kill her. That was always the plan. Wun't it."

Ryan met his eyes. "Yes," he said.

Michael lost his footing. It was getting hard to breathe, like the room was filling up with smoke.

"Why?" he asked. "Why? We coulda just arrested her and had her hanged! She confessed and everythin'!"

"She attempted to get you killed," Ryan said calmly. "At least once, perhaps more'n once. I suspect she's why Risinger came after you, and I'll bet she was bankin' on you bein' here when Trevor showed up. Said herself she'd like to try again. I wasn't gone let her get that next try."

"No," Michael said. His lips were numb. "No. You did not do this 'cuz of me. Don't you say that. I cain't have that on my conscience, I won't."

Ryan watched him for a long moment. With great intention, he set his drink down.

"You look cold, Michael," he said slowly. "You're shakin'."

"I'm fine," Michael said, a reflex action that had nothing to do with truth or lies. Ryan got to his feet and Michael froze solid. He clung to the knowledge that Ryan wouldn't hurt him, that Ryan cared for him, that Ryan's bouts of oddness weren't dangerous.

The firework of blood that had burst from the back of Meg's head was still burned onto his eyes.

"Sit tight," Ryan said, and left the room. He was gone only a short time before he returned.

On the table, he laid down a finely made, fur-trimmed, brown leather coat.

"Early for Christmas," he said, in that same quiet, slow voice. "But I figured you could use it now. Try it on for me, Michael, won't you?"

Michael stared at the coat, his skin crawling, his guts in tangles. He couldn't stop his lip from curling, his teeth from chattering. But no, it wasn't real. It hadn't happened. Everybody knew Ryan was mostly harmless. It wasn't what he thought, it couldn't be what he feared. It was just a coat, a gift, a labor of love, Ryan was—Ryan was—

Ryan was a monster.

"Who is that?" Michael croaked.

"Ashley and Matthew Hullum," Ryan said. "As requested. There was some difficulty gettin' sufficient undisturbed skin, but it woulda been a shame to separate 'em anyhow."

"Jesus Christ, Ryan," Michael said, horrified and nauseous and dizzy. "What the fuck is this?"

"This is what you asked for," Ryan said. "Try it on, I wanna see how it fits on you."

"You're crazy! You're fuckin' sick! I never—"

"Put on the coat, Michael!" Ryan roared, thunderous. Michael jumped so hard he nearly fell out of his chair. His heart leapt up into his throat in abject terror. He could only stare at Ryan, scarcely able to breathe, completely unable to move.

Ryan settled back on his heels, the lightning in him going quiet.

"I told you," he said slowly, softly, "that this would not make things right. You asked for it anyhow. You will wear that badge. I don't care whether you're proud of it or not, but you will wear it."

"I won't," Michael said, his voice shaking. "I didn't ask anythin'."

"But you wanted it done," said Ryan. "And now it's done. I am not your dog, and you don't get to set me on folks like one. Put on your coat, Michael, I worked very hard on it."

"This ain't—I din't—" he stammered. His head was spinning. Ryan pulled up a chair and sat down. Michael wanted to crawl out of his skin.

"Let me give you an analogy," said Ryan. "I did not push you into that ravine. You and I both know that."

"I sure as hell don't know that," Michael snapped. His mind was crumbling, sandcastles before the flood. All the walls were caving in, revealing the vicious truth. Ryan carried on as though he hadn't spoken.

"But because I left you alone," he said, "and let it be known that you was out there alone, you got pushed. I carry that. I wear it. I am responsible for it. You did not kill Ashley and Matthew, but you are responsible for their deaths. You will wear that, just the same."

"That ain't the same," he croaked.

"You're right, it ain't," said Ryan. "I never intended for you to get hurt. You most definitely intended for those people to die. Put on your coat."

"What if I say no?" Michael asked, looking up at Ryan through tear-stung eyes. "What if I tell you to go to hell?"

A flicker of orange light gleamed from the darkness inside Ryan's pupils, an ember kindled.

"Then we will be here for a while," he said quietly.

Michael swallowed. He couldn't make himself touch the coat. He couldn't make himself move at all. Everything was swirling in his head, silt and ruin and debris. The corpses bricked up in the walls of his delusions were drifting to the surface, bloated and pale. He wanted to forget. He wanted so desperately to forget again. Anything would have been better than the fetid guilt drowning him, any excuse to shift the blame.

"I thought—I thought you only killt outlaws," he said. "Self-proclaimed."

"They proclaimed it," Ryan said. "Eventually."

He was going to be sick. He wished the earth would open up and swallow him whole. He couldn't move. He couldn't move.

"Michael," Ryan said, more gently. "Come on now. It won't hurt you none."

"I cain't," he whispered. His vision blurred with tears. He shook so hard it rattled the wheels of his chair.

Ryan got up. He picked up the coat in one hand and put the other on the back of Michael's head. He pulled him forward and draped the coat over his shoulders. He took Michael's face in his hands and kissed the top of his head.

"I can't always be doin' the hard work for you, Michael," he murmured. The coat was heavy on Michael's shoulders. His skin crawled like it was full of ants.

"I won't ask you to," he said.

"You can," said Ryan. His thumb stroked Michael's jaw. "If you want. I aim to please, chéri."

As though his bones were made of lead, Michael pried his hands off the arms of his chair and stuck them through the arms of the coat. He shrugged into it, swallowing down bile, biting back screams. It was warm, and fit him well. Ryan took a step back, leaving just his left hand on Michael's cheek.

"There now," he said. "Was that so hard?"

"Yes," said Michael. He couldn't look at Ryan. The coat was holding him in place like a dozen strong hands, fingernails biting into his skin.

"It'll get easier," Ryan promised. He stooped down and kissed Michael, just briefly.

"Easier?" Michael said. The word tasted like blood. Everything was spinning, spinning. A pair of tears slid down his cheeks. He couldn't lift his arms to wipe them away.

"Oh, sure," said Ryan, smiling. "By my accountin', we're bona fide partners, since we've each killed two people for th' other. Never had me a real partner 'fore now. I think I like it. I think I'm gone like it a whole awful lot. Take a look at the sleeves, Michael, I did the sleeves special for you."

He couldn't. Ryan knelt and took Michael's hands in his own, turned the wrists upwards.

On each sleeve, on the inside of the wrist, there was a very faint mark, blurred by the tears in Michael's eyes. Ryan's hands were warm on his, Ryan's eyes bright in the candlelight, Ryan's smile soft with quiet madness.

Michael blinked, and the marks resolved themselves. Each wrist bore a sideways figure-eight with a slash through the middle, matching symbols, matching cufflinks.

Matching tattoos.

"I worked real hard on it, Michael," Ryan said. "Do you like it?"

Michael met his eyes, and swallowed down the scream welling in his chest, and forced himself to smile.

"It's . . . perfect, Ryan," he managed. "Thank you."

Ryan smiled at him, and got to his feet, and kissed him.

"Gettin' there," he said. "It's gettin' there. We'll make a fair liar of you yet. Won't we, partner?"

"Yes," Michael whispered. "Partner."

 

END OF ACT 2

Chapter Text

Michael was alone.

It was the coldest night of the year so far. A fine dusting of snow lay on the ground outside, a mirror of the thin clouds above. Pale stars lent a blue and soulless light to the landscape, washing out all color, all warmth. Michael lay in bed, buried under five layers of blankets, wishing he could wrap his solitude as tightly around himself. His chair stood by the headboard.

The Coat was draped over the back of it.

He wasn't able to get out of it much, and even when he did, he was never able to get away from it. The thing had become a second skin to him, a more constant companion than Gavin or even Ryan. It followed him into his dreams. He could see the shadows of the twin tattoos on his bare wrists.

The crack of a rifle shot snapped through the window. Michael went rigid. He held his breath while his heart pounded in his ears. Silence closed around the noise like deep water. For a long time, there was only that silence, only Michael and the Coat, alone in the dark.

Eventually, he heard boots squeaking in the snow. The front door creaked open. Toenails clicked on hardwood floors, and there was a flapping noise as Gavin shook himself. More clicking, and then he hopped up onto the bed and stuck his freezing nose right in Michael's ear.

"God dammit," Michael grumbled. He had not been sleeping. There had been no laudanum that evening, and therefore there would be no sleep.

From the kitchen, the thunk of wood on wood. Some movement, quiet footsteps. Gavin hopped down again. A heavier weight settled onto the bed. A three-fingered hand touched Michael's hair.

"It was a wolf, all right," Ryan said softly. "Big ole gray wolf. Out by herself, poor thing."

"You kill it?" Michael asked.

"Oh, sure," said Ryan. He leaned down and kissed Michael's forehead, then started to undress. "Strung her up out back. Figure she'll keep better out there. I can fix her up in the mornin'."

"Thought you was takin' the mail tomorrow?" Michael said. It was hard to keep his voice level. It was hard to keep the frantic pounding of his heart from making it shake.

"Day after," said Ryan. "Tomorrow we got all t' ourselves. You have any experience skinnin' things, Michael?"

"I don't," said Michael.

Stripped to the skin, Ryan slipped under the covers with Michael. He pressed another chaste kiss to his forehead. His hands and nose and feet were cold, his body warm.

"It ain't hard," he said. "I could teach you, if you wanted. Maybe not on that ole gray wolf, she's too good to waste on teachin'. Might be too good to waste on me and my bad hand. But somebody else, maybe. I got a few in mind. Mostly I just gotta decide who deserves that ole gray wolf. Wish I'da had her for yours."

Michael kissed him. This was, he had discovered, the quickest and surest way to shut Ryan up. He had to be careful about when and how—mid-sentence was annoying, and roughness was heavily discouraged—but it worked like charm when he got it right.

It was also, despite everything, very pleasant.

He would have liked to pretend it was all part of the act; that it was pure manipulation, solely for the sake of keeping Ryan complacent, but lying to himself was what had gotten him into this mess in the first place. The truth was, he did it mostly for himself.

In these moments, these soft seconds of darkness and warmth, Ryan became nearly human again. All the hellish disquiet, all the steel and lightning of him, all vanished like barbed wire under a thick morning fog. For a moment, he could be flesh and blood, hands and lips and breath. For a moment, he could be small enough to hold. For a moment, Michael could sink into that ignorant bliss, all the way up to his eyes, and he was not afraid and he was not alone and he wanted for nothing.

But he could not drink too deeply, because he knew that he would drown.

"There's . . . somethin' I been wonderin'," he said, as Ryan settled back onto the pillow.

"Oh?" said Ryan.

Michael braced himself.

"What makes skin good for leather?"

Ryan watched him for a moment, a breathless second, and then smiled.

"Couple things," he said. He touched Michael's back with two fingertips, feather light. "May I?"

"I . . . guess?" said Michael.

"First thing to look for is minimal defects," said Ryan. His hand trailed from Michael's shoulder to his spine, up to his neck and down to his hip. "Moles can be took care of, but scars tend to screw up the stretch of it. Discolorations don't matter too much—they'll mostly disappear once you get to tannin'. And of course, you don't want nothin' too distinctive."

"Uh-huh?" said Michael. About half of him wanted to crawl out of his skin right then and there, while the other half was dopey over the touching.

"Also generally helps if it fits a li'l loose," Ryan went on, pinching Michael's side. "Most everythin' out here don't get enough water, which does that for you."

"Makes it . . . easier to take off?" Michael guessed.

"Yes," said Ryan, and kissed him. "You don't want 'em too dry, though, or else they'll crack. Only other thing is a personal preference. Don't matter much for actual quality."

"And?"

"Bigger's better," said Ryan. His thumb eased along one of Michael's ribs, slow and lingering. "Makes it that much easier to piece together at th' end. Don't have to go makin' sleeves outta legs."

Michael swallowed. His legs prickled. He was finding it difficult to draw breath. Ryan snuggled up to him and kissed him again. He put his hand on Michael's shoulder and pulled him close, closer.

"For instance," he murmured, lips touching lips, chest to chest. "I could slide right into you."

A shudder ran through Michael, obvious and involuntary. His body shrank from Ryan of its own accord. His heart skipped a beat in panic. All Ryan did, though, was play with the hair at the back of Michael's neck until he unclenched a little.

"I can see you don't appreciate the double entendre," he said.

"I don't even know what the hell that is," said Michael.

"Prob'ly for the best," said Ryan. "It's all right, I don't much care for talkin' business in bed anyhow."

"Sorry I brought it up, then."

"Oh, don't be, I started it," said Ryan. "Coulda just let that ole wolf howl, though I imagine Gavin mighta run off and joined her. Might at least have let you sleep."

Gavin, right on cue, hopped onto the bed again. He shoved a few of the blankets up with his nose and wriggled underneath, then flopped down and curled up. He let out a long, satisfied sigh.

"It ain't much of a sleepin' night," Michael said.

Ryan kissed him again, toyed with the hair behind his ear. Michael was losing his anchor, slipping away from that white-cold bead in his chest that kept him grounded. There was too much warmth here, too much tenderness.

He shouldn't have kissed him, goddammit.

"Mon pauvre chéri," Ryan murmured. "There anythin' you need?"

"You—naw," Michael said. He leaned into the touch, eyes half-closed. "Naw, you got . . . stuff in the mornin', you oughtta be sleepin'."

"I got nothin' at all in the mornin', exceptin' what I feel like," said Ryan.

"Oh," said Michael. "But you're still . . . you ain't all the way well, yet. You did a helluva lot of bleedin'."

"Mm, and so did you," said Ryan, touching the bandages on Michael's chest. "Ain't slowed you down much."

"That ain't comparable, and you damn well know it," said Michael. The self-inflicted stab wound was more a nuisance than anything. It had started to get itchy as it fleshed over. There had been a minor infection, which probably contributed to the itchiness, but fortunately it had remained confined to the wound and was healing quickly.

Fortunately, there had been no return of the nightmare that had caused it, either.

"On its own, maybe," said Ryan. "Lord knows you got more'n your share of pain to deal with daily."

"Yeah, but I ain't in need of convalescin', 'cuz I ain't gonna get better," Michael said.

"If you're not sleepin', I'm not," Ryan said, decisive. "Up to you what to do with it."

There was another kiss, longer and deeper and warmer, hands on bare skin, hips against hips. It was easier than breathing, sweeter than wine. It was a simple and dangerous game, like playing checkers with the Devil.

Gavin swam up the bed and flopped down right in between them, sniffing their faces and wagging his tail. Ryan laughed, sputtering, as Gavin licked his chin.

"Oh, I am ever so sorry, were you excluded from the kissin'?" he said, squishing Gavin's face between his hands. "How unfair!"

Gavin wriggled out of his grip and gave a similar treatment to Michael. Michael pushed him, but not hard.

"You dumb dog," he said. "You dumb fuckin' dog, get offa me."

"This is why he's always botherin' you, Michael, you don't love on him enough," said Ryan. "If you paid more attention to the poor sorrowful thing, he wouldn't feel the need."

"There ain't no amount of attention in the world would turn this dog less fuckin' annoyin'," said Michael, while Gavin licked his ear.

"Aw, he just needs a pal," said Ryan, playing with Gavin's ear while he was slapped in the face by the wagging tail. "Oughtta find another dog somewhere, get him a buddy. He's lonesome, that's all."

"The hell he is," said Michael, pushing Gavin down the bed. Gavin came right back, like he was on a string.

"Why you think he started up howlin' at that wolf?" said Ryan. "Tryin' to make friends. He just—"

Ryan broke off sputtering and spitting as he got a mouthful of tail. Michael snorted.

"Good boy," he said to Gavin. "Hit him again."

"Cruel and unusual," Ryan said. He picked a piece of dog hair off his tongue. "Unconstitutional. Utterly unforgivable. Come here, you mongrel whore."

He grabbed Michael's face and gave him a long, sloppy, hairy kiss. Michael shoved him in the chest and stuck out his tongue, disgusted.

"God dammit, you fuckin' piece of shit—"

"Taste of your own medicine, chéri," Ryan sang. "Awful bitter, ain't it?"

"I'm gonna cut off all your goddamn hair and shove it—"

Gavin took this opportune moment to step right on Michael's face. Michael pushed him completely off the bed, fed up. Gavin leapt right back on, delighted by this new game.

"Would you get the fuck off?" Michael snapped, as Gavin tried to stick his nose in his mouth.

"You want me to put him out?" Ryan offered, laughing.

"Naw, he'll just scratch at the fuckin'—get off—the fuckin' door all night," said Michael. He grabbed Gavin with both arms and squished him against his own chest. "Hey. Cut it out now. That's enough."

Gavin wriggled, then kicked, then flopped down and whined. Michael scratched him behind the ears.

"That's better," he said. "You gonna stay calm now? You gonna be good?"

With a heavy sigh, Gavin put his head down. Michael kissed his nose.

"Good boy," he said.

Gavin gave a cursory wiggle. Michael let him go. He stood up, shook himself, then went back to his spot at the foot of the bed. After turning three circles, he lay down and stuck his nose under his butt.

"Never a dull moment," Ryan said fondly.

"Never a moment's peace," said Michael.

By some inevitable current, they pulled together again. The kiss went on for some time before Ryan pulled away.

"Still got dog hairs in my mouth," he hissed, and plucked one off his tongue.

Michael snickered, and Ryan glared at him.

"Don't laugh, you're gone be sharin' 'em all night," he said.

"Yeah, but I'm used to it. You're makin' it a goddamn production."

Ryan scoffed and rolled his eyes and threw his head back. Whatever dramatics he'd been planning were interrupted when Michael kissed his exposed neck. The shiver that ran through him was palpable, and quite satisfying.

"Now just to be sure," Ryan said, his voice gone soft, his hand on Michael's shoulder. "You wasn't plannin' on sleepin' tonight?"

"Plan or not, it ain't gonna happen," said Michael, his lips still brushing Ryan's throat. "You got somethin' else in mind?"

"Oh, sure," said Ryan. His hand slid down Michael's chest to his hip, stopping just at the edge of sensation, warm skin and strong fingers.

"Mind tellin' me what?" said Michael, although he had a pretty good idea, and he certainly didn't mind.

Ryan lifted Michael's chin with one finger and kissed him. He pressed close, slowly pushing Michael over onto his back.

"Well, chéri, I thought I might start by tellin' you what a double entendre is. . . ."


 

Michael spent the morning fuming.

This was the third time it'd happened in a week. Once again, he'd let his guard down, let himself be charmed, sunk into the warm bathwater of delusion and just about drowned himself. People were dead. Forty-eight goddamn people were dead, and here he was having revelries.

Fifty, the Coat reminded him, as he went through the arduous task of putting it on.

Fifty-one, he reminded himself, because Mad Meg Turney was rotting in her grave behind the church.

Fifty-three, something in the back of his head hissed. It had Trevor's voice.

"I been thinkin'," Ryan remarked, as Michael wheeled himself into the kitchen. "About what I'm gone do with that ole wolf. Obviously she needs skinnin', and soon, elsewise she'll rot. Or I s'pose the coyotes might come and get her. Either way, can't be leavin' her out there."

He handed a cup of coffee across the table. Smooth as machinery, Michael accepted it. There was also bacon and eggs and sourdough biscuits, warm but no longer hot. Ryan's plate was untouched. Gavin was making eyes at it from under the table.

"Huh," said Michael. From the pocket of the Coat, he withdrew the small bottle of laudanum Lindsay had given him. He unscrewed the cap and measured one, two, three drops into the coffee.

"Michael, I swear to God," Ryan sighed, exasperated. "If you keep on ruinin' good coffee that way, I'm gone stop givin' it to you."

"Fine, I'll take the bad coffee then," said Michael. He slugged back a mouthful. It burned his tongue, and was bitter enough to make him choke. Gavin came over and poked him in the knee with his nose. Michael bared his teeth at him, pushing his plate back from the edge of the table.

"That'd be highly discourteous," Ryan said. "Just as it's discourteous for you to be ruinin' good coffee. It's an abomination, Michael, it's a sin."

"Then I'll be guzzlin' laudanum in Hell," said Michael, and took another gulp.

Ryan let out a long, slow breath through his nose. His fingers tapped on the table, a sharp and rapid tattoo that set Michael's teeth on edge. Gavin circled around the back of Michael's chair, keeping his head down. Ryan clenched his fist and then settled again.

"Anyhow," he said. "I figure we can do the skinnin' out back, so's you can be present for the proceedin's. You could try your hand at it if you wanted, but I think you'd do better to just observe for the first one."

"No thank you," said Michael.

"Have I done somethin' t' upset you?" Ryan demanded.

Michael's heart leapt into his throat. He washed it down with another mouthful of hot coffee. Gavin padded off into another room, not quite hurrying.

"Naw," Michael said. "Din't mean to get snappish. Just a . . . bad mornin' for pain."

Which was true, if not honest. He just had to hope Ryan wouldn't distinguish between the two.

"Not on account of me, I hope?" Ryan said, concerned.

Michael shrugged, mostly to cover up his relief.

"If it is, it was worth it," he said, which was closer to being honest than it was to being true.

"Still," said Ryan.

"Just don't bitch at me for puttin' laudanum in my coffee, and call it even," said Michael. "Your breakfast's gettin' cold."

Ryan spared it a cursory glance and then returned his attention to the window.

"Snow's already all melted, so I don't s'pose we're long on time," he mused. "Have to do somethin' with all th' insides. . . ."

"Would you quit talkin' about insides while I'm tryin' to eat?" said Michael. Any minute now, the laudanum would kick in, and he wouldn't be so irritated. It was easier to be unbothered by Ryan when everything was a little hazy, and the sound of his voice was pleasant enough, if not the words.

Ryan wrinkled his nose.

"Naw, they don't make particularly good eatin'," he said. "Unless Gavin wants—"

"No," Michael snapped.

"Michael, please refrain from talkin' to me like I'm a dog," said Ryan. Michael didn't even need to look at him to know he had his hand on his hunting knife.

"Sorry," Michael mumbled. "But you ain't feedin' my dog fuckin' wolf guts."

"Not necessarily the guts, there's other assorted parts," said Ryan. "Need the brains for tannin', of course, so that's that taken care of. Could just leave 'em out for the coyotes, I s'pose. . . ."

Blessedly, it was about then that the fog rolled in. The pain in Michael's legs drained away; he hadn't even noticed it was there until it was gone. He drank the rest of his coffee and started in on the bacon. Ryan was still talking; mostly to himself, if his tone was anything to judge by. Michael was used to it by now. He'd spent enough time with Ryan to know when his attention was and wasn't wanted.

It wasn't as though Michael couldn't leave; it was just that he only felt secure when he had one eye on Ryan. Ryan certainly didn't seem to mind his constant companionship, and continued to convalesce with unsettling speed. He'd spent the morning after Meg's murder laid up in bed, frail and exhausted, but after seven days of rest, he seemed almost back to normal again.

Michael watched Ryan's hand toy with the hunting knife next to his untouched breakfast. There were still bandages wrapped over the missing fingers, the movements stiffer and less deft than before.

Almost back to normal.

The food was good, although the laudanum lingering on Michael's tongue made it taste a little funny. Right about when Michael got done eating, there was a knock at the front door. Gavin shot like an arrow from the back of the house, barking his head off. There was a thud as he impacted against the door.

"Expectin' somebody?" Michael asked, as Ryan got to his feet.

"Naw, but I expect I know who it is," he said. He walked out, and there was a brief and bubbly conversation at the door. He returned presently with Lindsay in tow, Gavin trotting along at her heel.

"Mornin', Michael," she said. "Early start today, huh?"

"Early enough," said Michael. This was a prefabricated interaction, a conversation they'd had a dozen times before. It was easy, and he'd take all the ease he could get.

Gavin returned to Michael's side and gave him a hopeful look, licking his chops. Michael rolled his eyes and put his plate down on the floor. Gavin fell to licking it clean, industrious. This, too, was standard.

"Keen as a razor, our Michael," Ryan said, settling back into his chair. "Can't keep a good deputy down."

"So then what're you doin' up?" Lindsay asked him. He laughed.

"Well, somebody had to make breakfast," he said, and raised his coffee to her.

"Somebody'd better eat his goddamn breakfast, before I stuff it down his throat," Lindsay said, folding her arms.

Ryan glanced down at his plate again—still full—and heaved a sigh.

"You're ruthless, Lindsay," he said. "Utterly merciless, it ain't hardly fair. I'd be lost without you."

"Damn right you would," said Lindsay. "Mind if I pull up a chair?"

"Please," said Ryan, setting about his breakfast at last.

Lindsay pulled up a chair and sat. She rested her elbows on the table and crossed her arms.

"Can I get you anythin'?" Ryan said. "Most likely there's enough coffee left for you, or otherwise I could start—"

"Eat. Your goddamn. Breakfast," Lindsay said, holding up a warning finger. "Swear to God, you'd starve to death if I didn't look after you."

"And you do take such good care of me. Sure I can't get you anythin' for all your trouble?"

"Since you mention it," said Lindsay. "It's been gettin' awful cold these past few winters. I wouldn't mind havin' one of them signature coats of yours."

Michael's vision narrowed down to a pinpoint. His heartbeats were minutes apart, the space between filled with a roar like a tornado. His hands clenched on the arms of his chair, so tight his fingers started to go numb. There was no air in the room. A thousand fingernails dug into his skin. The Coat was heavy as lead on his shoulders, hot as molten steel.

"It'd be my pleasure," said Ryan, twinkling. "Any requests in particular?"

He was going to pass out. He was going to scream. His jaw was wired shut. Any second now, Lindsay would notice him, notice his pallor and his tension and his shivering, and that would be it. . . .

"I like big pockets," Lindsay said. "And twice as many of 'em as you'd usually put in."

"Inside or outside?" Ryan asked.

"Inside, I don't wanna look stupid."

"Your sense of style is positively refreshin'," said Ryan.

"Much obliged," said Lindsay. "Now finish your breakfast, or else I'll tell Geoff you ain't well enough to go to Vernon tomorrow."

"Ruthless and merciless!" Ryan cried.

Chapter Text

"Holy shit, it's huge," said Lindsay, staring at the dead wolf. It was strung up by its back paws from the yew tree a ways out back of Ryan's house. Its throat had been cut, and the underside of its chin was thick with dark red blood. There was a sticky puddle on the ground underneath it. Crows had been picking at it already, but they hadn't gotten very far. Gavin had been left inside, lest he get too excited about the matter.

Michael would have loved to stay inside with him.

"Li'l small, honestly," said Ryan. It was longer than he was tall. "Ain't you ever seen a wolf?"

"Obviously not," said Lindsay. "Where was he?"

"She was makin' eyes at the poor Shawcross chickens when I popped her," said Ryan said proudly.

"Doubtful, since you couldn't hit the broad side of a barn."

Ryan gestured to the wolf, the bullet hole right through its head. His gloves were leather, the two empty fingers stuffed with wool.

"And yet," he said, grinning.

"So you got lucky," said Lindsay. "I don't believe you got more'n about three hundred yards lucky. Even Ray couldn't shoot like that, and he was a goddamn savant with a rifle."

"Up to about three hundred yards," Ryan allowed.

"Michael, tell him he's full of shit," Lindsay said, turning to him.

"You're fulla shit, Ryan," Michael said automatically. He'd had a little time to pull himself together, and had decided that aiming for normal would be best. If Lindsay didn't notice anything amiss, she wouldn't be in as much danger.

Ryan pressed a hand to his chest and made a wounded face.

"Michael, you wouldn't be accusin' me of mendacity, would you?" he said. His eyes sparkled, his smile grew by one tooth. "When you know how terribly it pains me to speak untruths?"

Michael couldn't look away from Ryan's eyes. The gears in his head were spinning, finding no purchase against one another, jostled out of alignment by the laudanum. What was he supposed to say, how was he supposed to play along with this? What would he have said if he hadn't known?

"Gettin' more full of shit by the second," said Lindsay. From the house, Gavin let out a loud and piteous whine, and she cocked a thumb at him. "If you don't deal with this thing soon, Gavin's gonna go up in smoke."

"Can't have that," said Ryan. "Might need some assistance cuttin' her down. Wish we had some kinda slope around here, but I s'pose you can't have everythin'."

"Why don't you just leave her hangin' up?" Lindsay asked.

"I do so much appreciate you tellin' me how to go about my own trade," Ryan said, with that particular flavor of sweetness in his voice that was distilled from genuine anger.

"Everybody in this town seems to think you're a goddamn doctor, so maybe I'm gonna take up bein' a skinner to even up the odds," said Lindsay.

"I'd be just delighted if you did," Ryan said, grinning.

"Can we quit standin' around runnin' our goddamn mouths in cold?" Michael cut in. He couldn't take much more of this, even with the laudanum dulling his fear. "I'm gonna lose all my toes at this rate."

"Oh, now we can't have that," said Ryan.

The knife flicked out so fast it was nothing but a gleam of light. Michael tensed up, but Ryan only turned and cut the wolf down. It took him mere seconds to saw through the thick rope. That knife was kept sharp.

With a thump, the wolf fell to the ground. Gavin barked and whined, scratching at the back door of Ryan's house. Ryan tucked the knife back into its sheath and turned to Lindsay.

"You wanna start learnin'?" he asked. "Michael came over squeamish about it, but I'm still in a teachin' mood regardless."

"I do got actual work to do," she said.

"Can't even spare an hour?"

Lindsay sighed and rolled her eyes and shook her head.

"Fine," she said. "But only 'cuz you look so damn hopeful about it."

Ryan lit up like Christmas morning. He squatted down next to the wolf, tugging off his gloves. He stuck them into his coat pocket and beckoned Lindsay.

"C'mon over," he said. "Maybe not too close, if you like those shoes. First part's the messiest."

"Yeah, 'cuz I never get messy in my line of work," Lindsay said, getting right up close with him and the wolf. He pulled it over onto its back and moved all the legs out of the way, exposing its belly.

"Fair," he said. "Now. First thing's to make a cut tail-to-head, not too deep, just to get her open. Don't want to cut through any of th' insides."

Lindsay nodded, watching closely. Ryan made the cut with practiced ease. The knife slid back in under the skin, splitting it from the meat as Ryan pulled it back from the cut. Michael turned away, sickened.

"Why're you peelin' it back like that?" Lindsay asked.

"Don't want fur gettin' on the meat," said Ryan. "Still ain't quite decided what I'm gone do with it, but it'd be a shame to have it wasted on account of carelessness."

"Uh-huh," said Lindsay. "And what—"

"God dammit," Ryan snarled, with such sudden vehemence that it made Michael's heart skip a beat. He looked back just in time to see Ryan recover with a laugh and a smile, shaking out his right hand. The other was clenched on the knife. Both had blood on them.

"You all right?" said Lindsay.

"Hand slipped," he said. "Only thing I cut was the hide. Just frustratin', that's all."

"You want me to take a try?" she offered.

"No," said Ryan, with strained patience, "you don't know what the fuck you're doin'."

Lindsay raised her hands and leaned back from him. "Just thought I'd offer," she said.

Ryan's hand clenched as he took a deep breath, then relaxed as he let it out again.

"If you'd like to try crackin' her ribcage open," he said, back to his standard pleasantness, "that you can do."

Gavin let out another piteous whine, scratching at the door until it rattled. Michael seized upon this with some relief.

"I'm gonna go see to it the dog don't explode," he said. "And that I don't freeze my toes off."

"You sure?" Ryan said, all bright blue eyes and cheeks rosy from the cold.

"Yeah," said Michael. He cleared his throat and glanced back over his shoulder. "Ain't like I'm bein' much help here."

"All right," said Ryan. "Sooner or later we'll have to take this lady down to the basement, anyhow. It'll help to have somebody keepin' Gavin out from underfoot."

"Sure," he said.

"So," Ryan said, turning back to Lindsay and holding the knife out to her by the blade. "Go on and take a crack at it."

Michael turned away and headed back towards the house. The sickening snap of breaking bone still made him flinch. Lindsay made a noise of disgust and surprise. Ryan laughed.

"Go on!" he encouraged her. "You ain't hurtin' her none."

"I'm startin' to understand why you don't get squeamish with dead folks."

"Lindsay," he said, terribly pleased with himself, "you ain't that far off."


 

Things were quiet in Ryan's house now, if not exactly peaceful. Gavin was sleeping in front of the basement door, leaving Michael just a hair shy of solitude. Michael was glad of his presence; he still hadn't calmed down after Ryan's return to the house. There had been a ten minute span of steadily increasing panic after Lindsay had helped him carry the disemboweled wolf down the stairs and hadn't come back up. In every creak of the house, Michael had fancied he could hear the cracking of ribs.

But Lindsay had emerged from the basement none the worse for wear, making faces and disparaging comments about Ryan's sense of humor, and then had gone on to work. After that, it had all been quiet.

He supposed he could have gone home. It was a Sunday, so he wasn't technically supposed to come into work, but he didn't think anybody would take issue with him if he did anyways. It might help him to get his mind off things, and would certainly be better than sitting around here stewing in his worries.

The Coat prickled his skin with nettle-hairs. He rubbed his wrists and shivered.

On the other hand, the longer he could put off being seen in this thing, the better.

For a long while, he just sat in the kitchen, staring out the window and thinking. The wanderings of his mind were grim, and brought him only more unease. He had some half-formed plans, but he couldn't make them come together. There was too much that could go wrong, and he kept getting hung up on it. What if this put someone in harm's way, or that got somebody killed, or another thing worsened his situation in some unthinkable way? The more he tried to work through it, the more problems he thought up, until he was nearly buried in them.

Eventually, drawn by the currents of his mind, he found himself staring at the rifle leaned up against the wall.

It was a carbine, he was pretty sure, and a good one at that. It was well-used, but also well-loved. Ryan kept it polished and sitting out in the kitchen, like it was on display. It didn't seem to have been cleaned since last night, a bit of gunpowder splashed on the stock. The wood of the grip was worn down from the passage of many hands.

Michael glanced back at the basement door. Gavin was still sleeping in front of it. There was no sound whatsoever from below. He looked back to the rifle.

Slowly, he moved across the kitchen. He glanced over his shoulder again, although he could no longer see the door from where he was. Still no sound, still no movement. He picked the rifle up like it might explode in his hand.

It was heavy, and cold. It had certainly seen a good deal of use. Michael looked it over, front to back and top to bottom. On the left side of the stock, he found something carved into the wood. He squinted and turned his head, then turned the rifle, trying to make the squiggles resolve.

There were two letters, worn down. They'd probably been there for a good long while. Michael stuck his tongue between his teeth. They looked pretty similar, but he didn't think they were both the same letter.

R. The first one was an R, he got that pretty quick. The second wasn't that—it could have been an H or maybe an N, possibly a U if the carving was as bad as he thought it was. Michael rubbed his eyes. R. H. would have made sense, for Ryan Haywood. It was his rifle, after all. Really there was no reason to be concerned about it.

Michael kept squinting at the rifle. He rubbed his thumb over the letters. He glanced at the doorway again and bit his lip. Ryan had said it would take him several hours. . . .

Right on cue, Gavin hopped to his feet and started snuffling.

Michael fumbled the rifle back into place. He swiveled his chair and cast about frantically for some excuse to be where he was. The pantry was nearest, and he got to it just as the basement door opened and Gavin started bouncing around excitedly. Ryan came in a moment later and leaned his shoulder on the lintel. Michael looked up like he hadn't heard him coming.

"Still here?" Ryan asked, pleasantly surprised. Gavin came trotting in and, seeing the pantry open, made a beeline for it. Michael caught him before he actually went into it and shoved him back.

"Ain't like I got anyplace better to be," Michael said.

"S'pose that's fair," Ryan said. He came in and sat down, then toed out of his boots and stretched out his legs. He clicked his fingers and Gavin spared him but a glance before continuing his quest to get in the pantry. "If I'd known you was plannin' on stayin', I wouldn't've left you all alone up here. Must be bored outta your skull."

"I uh—I mean it's my own fault if I am," said Michael. It was too hot under the Coat. He was sweating. He shoved Gavin back again and bared his teeth at him. Gavin looked insulted.

"Well, if you get too bored, you could always go and sit in on Father Sorola's sermon of the week," Ryan mentioned, a twinkle in his eye.

"Ain't been to one of them in months," Michael said. "Prob'ly over by now anyhow, it's goin' on noon."

He shut the pantry and nudged Gavin with the footplate of his chair. Gavin scampered back, then looked to Ryan, appealing.

"That's all to the good, then," Ryan said. He clicked his fingers again, and Gavin came to him. He became instantly preoccupied with smelling Ryan's hand. "They was gone have the services for Trevor and Alfredo afterwards."

"Jesus, Ryan," Michael said, sickened. "I ain't gonna turn up to the funerals of the men I killed."

"Why not?" He sounded genuinely puzzled.

Michael clenched his teeth and steeled himself. Gavin was still fascinated with the smell of Ryan's hand—probably all the dead-wolf scent—and Ryan was watching Gavin with a fond smile.

"Listen," Michael said. Ryan looked up and met his eyes, and that was worse. "I'm glad you ain't dead, but I sure as hell ain't proud of what I did out there, all right? And I ain't gonna show up like I had nothin' to do with it, neither."

"All right," Ryan said. "Just thought I'd mention it. I know you liked Trevor a good bit, just thought you might care to pay your respects."

"Doubt he'd want 'em from me," Michael muttered.

"Michael," Ryan said. "Nobody could blame you for doin' what you did."

"Nobody?" Michael said, annoyed. "Really?"

Ryan made a face and shrugged. "Nobody who matters, anyhow," he said. He treated Michael to a small, affectionate smile. Michael rubbed his eyebrow and looked away.

For a while, neither of them said anything. Ryan pulled his feet up into his chair and wrapped his arms around his knees. Gavin tried to follow his hand, then resigned himself to sniffing Ryan's shoes.

"I don't believe I ever did thank you," Ryan said softly. "For all that you did."

"Yeah, well," said Michael, fidgeting. "You helped save my life, I helped save yours."

"That ain't exactly how I'd account it," Ryan said. "I helped save your life, sure, but you just plain saved mine."

"Doc did," said Michael. "I just got you there."

"That ain't quite what happened, Michael."

"Ain't it?"

Ryan paused, chewing his lip, like he was deciding whether or not to say something. In the end, he sighed and shrugged and wrinkled his nose.

"She was most likely not afforded th' opportunity to leave me to die," he said, "nor is she aware of enough of the truth to make her choice particularly significant."

Neither was I, Michael wanted to say, but he didn't. He rubbed his palms on the arms of his chair.

"I owe you everythin', Michael," Ryan concluded.

"You don't owe me shit," said Michael, intensely uncomfortable with his sincerity.

"Fine," said Ryan. "In that case, you don't get to raid my pantry anymore. And no more of the good coffee."

Michael didn't take him up on the lightheartedness. Instead he fidgeted some more, and bit his lips, and fiddled with the bottle of laudanum in his pocket. Gavin noticed his distress and came over to poke him in the knee with his nose. Michael petted his head absently, more to reassure himself than Gavin.

"I've asked you half a dozen times now," Michael said, "to leave offa Doc. If you think you owe me somethin', you can repay me by doin' that."

Ryan's face fell. He pulled his arms tighter around his knees.

"I thought it might help," he said. "Havin' her around. I know you're fond of her, I just thought—well, I thought maybe, eventually, it could be the three of us. Four, if you count Gavin. I want you to be happy, Michael. I know you ain't been happy, and it's breakin' my heart."

"Well, it'd make me a hell of a lot happier if you wouldn't drag Doc into this," Michael said.

Ryan looked away and rubbed his arm with his thumb. He shrugged helplessly.

"Then I shall refrain," he said.

Michael let out a breath. Some of the ice melted off the inside of his chest, leaving more space for air. If only for a moment, the Coat became less heavy on his shoulders.

"Thank you," he said.

"Anyhow," Ryan sighed. "I been thinkin' about what I'm gone do with that wolf. It's a matter of deservin', of course. I don't know that I've run across anybody I'd consider deservin', thus far."

And just like that, the relief was gone. It was back to this nightmare game, back to the harsh and untenable reality of his situation. There was nothing to do but play along.

"What do you consider makes a person worthy?" Michael asked.

"Hard t' explain," said Ryan. "It's a shame I had to give up Meg. She woulda made a good match, though a li'l on the small side. Maybe Trevor and Alfredo, though they were a touch too righteous for my likin'."

Michael had no clue how to respond to this. Fortunately, Ryan had gone distant and was talking mostly to himself.

"S'pose it's to do with gumption," he went on. "Or somethin' of that sort. Though now I think of it, the two of 'em had a pathetic streak I don't believe I like much, and Meg was just plain obnoxious. Naw, I'd want somebody impressive for that ole wolf. I think that's what it comes down to. I think I'd like to be impressed."

"What, like . . . Billy the Kid, or somethin'?"

"He's already dead," Ryan lamented. "Though it's a cryin' shame. I was workin' my way up to him. I was lookin' forward to him. I s'pose there's still Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, though they might be too good for it."

Again, Michael didn't respond. Ryan sat and mused and drummed his fingers on his shin, while Gavin took the initiative and started trying to open the pantry door himself.

"Maybe James," Ryan said suddenly.

"Who?" Michael said, his heart leaping into his throat.

"James," said Ryan, waving a hand. "Steve's deputy over in Vernon. Seem to recall he's a Union deserter, or somethin' of that ilk. I'll have to see what I can wring outta him while I'm over there."

"I didn't know better, I'd say all your outlaw bullshit was an excuse," Michael said, with more venom than he'd intended. Ryan just smiled at him, although there was the glimmer of an inside joke in his eye.

"It's an itch, Michael," he said. "Meg at least was right about that."

"Thought you woulda had enough, killin' her," Michael said.

"Is a taste sufficient when you're cravin' a meal?" Ryan asked. "It's fine. I don't expect you t' understand yet."

"Yet?"

"Oh, sure," said Ryan, his toes tapping with delight. "Next one's gone be a joint project. Bein' that we are partners, now."

"A. . . ." Michael wheezed. His hands started to itch. His ears rang. Ryan grinned.

"Why'd you think I wanted to start teachin' you?" he said.

Chapter Text

Lindsay's face went grim the moment she opened her door to him. He must have looked a complete wreck. He hadn't slept the night before, and not on account of anything pleasant.

"Come in," Lindsay said, standing aside. She was mostly dressed, although still in her stockings. A bit of shaving cream was stuck to the underside of her jaw. Michael counted himself lucky that he'd caught her at home. He entered, although he didn't go far. There wasn't anywhere to go. One place was as bad as another.

"Gavin ain't with you?" Lindsay asked.

"Naw," said Michael. "He decided to go on to Vernon with Ryan."

Lindsay came to stand in front of him and folded her arms. When she spoke, her voice was quiet and laced with anger.

"Did he hurt you?" she asked.

"Wh—what?" said Michael, taken completely off-guard.

"Michael, I'da had to be goddamn blind not to see you flinchin' all yesterday mornin'," Lindsay said. "I ain't rock the boat while I was there 'cuz I didn't want it to get taken out on you. Did he hurt you?"

"He din't—he ain't—Doc, just. . . ." It was too late to turn back. He wasn't sure he'd ever get another chance. "Take a look at my sleeves."

Lindsay frowned, but then bowed her head and looked. Michael turned his hands over, turned the Coat's cuffs around with them. He couldn't watch her face. He couldn't do anything more than sit and hope.

"Jesus goddamn Christ!" Lindsay cried. She grabbed the Coat and yanked the whole thing off of Michael in a terrific frenzy, then threw it down the hall. The moment it was gone, Michael gasped in a breath and started shaking like mad. Lindsay clutched him close, buried his face in her shoulder and squeezed. He clung to her, shivering and breathless and sick, and she stroked his hair and kept her arms around him, strong and warm and shaking, too.

She didn't speak, and Michael was glad for it.


 

"So it was all. . . ." Lindsay said.

"Yeah," said Michael.

Her kitchen table was like a gulf between them. He had managed to start breathing again. He had not managed to stop shaking.

"Jesus," Lindsay said, for the millionth time. "God damn. And I just up and asked him for—and everybody else's are prob'ly—hell. Shit! I helped him gut the goddamn wolf! He was laughin' at me!"

"At everybody," Michael said. "For years."

"Holy shit, no wonder you been lookin' so fucked up. Jesus."

Michael had nothing to say to that. The horror was still too fresh. He could only imagine what Lindsay was feeling. At least Michael had had time to come to terms with it a little ways.

"How long you been stuck?" she asked.

"'Bout a week now," he said. Stuck. That was a good word for it. That summed it up nicely.

"Jesus," said Lindsay. "Michael, I'm so sorry."

"Don't be," he said. "I knew. He confessed. I just convinced myself it din't happen 'cuz I ain't wanna believe it."

There was a silence. Lindsay stared into her drink. Michael hadn't dared to have any.

"Meg didn't shoot first, did she," Lindsay said.

Michael swallowed and bowed his head.

"No," he said.

"Did she even kill Risinger?"

"I . . . don't know," he admitted. He was going to be sick. His skin wouldn't stop crawling, even with the Coat farther away than it had ever been. His hands itched.

"Jesus," Lindsay muttered. "And he confessed? When? When you got the coat from him?"

"No," said Michael. The words were poisonous. "No. I knew. I—I knew, ever since . . . ever since we went to Lovelock, I—"

He put his face in his hands. His teeth clenched so hard they ached. The air had gone thin around him, the taste of bile thick on his tongue.

"Michael, take it easy," said Lindsay. "It's all right, ain't nobody gonna hurt you here."

"I killed Trevor and Alfredo," he whispered. "I killed 'em both, for him, I—I—"

He was shaking so hard it was rattling his chair. He couldn't breathe. He reached for the laudanum in his pocket and remembered it wasn't there. His vision was starting to blur, his thoughts racing so fast he couldn't keep up with them. Lindsay got up and went away. She returned with a cup, a bottle of moonshine, and the bottle of laudanum.

Three fingers of moonshine, three drops of laudanum, and she handed it to him. He slugged it all back as fast as he could and then folded over coughing. Lindsay just sat in silence, and Michael just sat there shivering and panting, until the slow fog rolled over him and he could breathe again.

"Meg musta found out, somehow," he said. His tongue and his voice were both numb. He could not raise his eyes from the table. "About Ryan. She told Trevor and Alfredo and they . . . they tried to kill him. And I killed them." Something between a laugh and a scoff passed his lips. "I saved his goddamn life."

Lindsay poured herself another drink.

"Why?" she said.

"The hell you mean, why?"

"If you knew," she said. "And if they made it clear they knew. Why'd you do it?"

Rubbing his eye, he shook his head. He was so tired. He was so goddamn tired. Maybe if he just laid down, the ground would have the courtesy to swallow him up.

"I don't know," he said. "I—I guess I'd convinced myself none of it was true. Convinced myself it was all in my head. 'Cuz I din't wanna believe it. Except I couldn't anymore, once . . . after Meg, and then. . . ."

He gestured towards the hallway, where the Coat was still lying on the floor. Lindsay glanced back over her shoulder. Her face was pale and waxen.

"Do you know . . . who?" she asked, tremulous.

Michael swallowed. He clenched his hands on the arms of his chair.

"Yes," he said.

"Oh, Jesus," said Lindsay, putting a hand over her eyes. "Do I wanna know?"

"It's . . . Ashley and Matthew Hullum," said Michael.

She nodded slowly. "Could be worse," she said, with a desperate sort of optimism.

I asked him to.

He couldn't make the words come out. He couldn't make himself say it, and he hated himself for it.

"It's . . . I feel like it's my fault," he said instead. He kept his head down, so he wouldn't see whatever look Lindsay pinned him with, so he could focus on keeping his face together.

"Jesus Christ, Michael, no," said Lindsay.

"I—I said some shit, Doc. I wanted them to wind up dead. I said—"

"Did you kill them?" Lindsay demanded.

"No, but—"

"Then it ain't your goddamn fault! Let yourself off the fuckin' hook, for God's sake!"

"Four people are dead because of me!" he blurted, his breath thick with laudanum and moonshine.

"What the hell kind of shit are you talkin', Michael?" Lindsay said, exasperated.

Michael buttoned his lip. He had to tell her. He had to say something, one way or another, had to make her understand. He couldn't lie to her about this. If she was to hate him, let her hate him now and get it over with.

He picked up the jar of moonshine and poured himself another drink. He drank it all. He shut his eyes and dug his fingernails into his palm until the pain, even dulled by the laudanum, was enough to make the words come out.

"I asked him to," he said.

Lindsay took a long, slow breath. Michael kept talking, because if he didn't say it now, he never would.

"I wanted them dead," he said. "And I knew he could. So I asked him to. And he—he gave me the chance to take it back, and I din't, I just—I was just so goddamn mad, about them goin' free, I was so goddamn angry, I. . . ."

She said nothing. He bowed his head, his face twisting up with pain, with guilt.

"Now I gotta wear the Coat," he said. "'Cuz it's my fault they're dead. 'Cuz I don't get to make believe about—about who he is anymore. About what I done."

The silence stretched long. Michael's head grew progressively fuzzier. It wasn't pleasant, but it was better than clarity. Anything was better than facing the truth, facing Lindsay's inevitable wrath with nothing to cushion the blow. She would hate him, of course. He couldn't begrudge her that; he hated himself. Maybe if he was lucky, if he was so, supremely lucky, she'd see to it that he and Ryan were both hanged. . . .

"So what're we gonna do?" Lindsay asked at last.

"We?" Michael said, snapping from his grim musings.

"You dragged me into this, I ain't leavin' now."

Michael already knew what had to be done. He'd figured it out days ago. He'd figured it out the moment the word partner first dribbled over his lips. He simply hadn't wanted to accept it. Still, he feigned uncertainty, for Lindsay's benefit and for his own.

"I think . . . Doc, I got an idea, but I think it's the worst one I ever had."

"That'd be one hell of an idea, Michael."

Michael took a deep breath. It was easier to speak now, with the fog keeping him from thinking too much about every word. The worst had already passed, after all. If ruin was to come, it was already on the way. He rubbed the arms of his chair.

"He thinks him and me are partners now," said Michael. "So I think I gotta stick to that. I think I gotta stick as close to him as possible until he . . . until he kills again. Which he will. And I gotta be there when he does, so I can make goddamn sure we got all the evidence in the fuckin' world. And then I'll see him hanged, just like I said I would."

Lindsay stared at him.

"All offense meant, Michael, but are you out of your goddamn mind?" she demanded.

"I know, I know, it's gonna get me killt, but—"

"Killed? It's gonna get you hanged!"

"So?" said Michael. "Maybe I deserve it. Maybe that's how I—"

"Shut the fuck up," she snapped.

"Well what the hell else am I s'posed to do, huh?" he said. He was having trouble keeping himself in check. The pressure of his rage, his despair, was overwhelming. Tears prickled in his eyes and he hated them.

"Start runnin'?" said Lindsay.

"He'd catch me."

"Shoot him."

"I've tried."

"Fine, then I'll shoot him."

"It wouldn't do no good. Trevor shot him, and it barely laid him up for half a day. All that shit he went through, and he's already—already fuckin' ridin' out to Vernon! It ain't natural! It ain't human!"

It sounded intensely, indisputably crazy, now that he'd said it. Dizziness was starting to overtake him, and his vision was blurring. His breath was coming slow and shallow, uneven. He shouldn't have had that second cup of moonshine. Or the first. Or the laudanum.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

"And I s'pose hangin' would work?" Lindsay said, gentle and indulgent.

"No, I'm just—I'm talkin' crazy, I'm talkin' crazy shit now, I ain't mean any of that," Michael said. Maybe he'd have another cup of moonshine, and then another. Maybe he'd drain the jar. Maybe he'd drain the bottle of laudanum after that, and all of this would just go away. . . .

"All right," Lindsay said. "I wasn't gonna say it, but since you did. This whole thing's gone pretty goddamn crazy. I mean, what the hell are we talkin' here, Michael? Did we somewhere decide we was gonna murder Ryan?"

Despite himself, he laughed. "Jesus, Doc, I dunno," he said. "Maybe that's what it'd take. Somebody's gotta stop him. Somebody's gotta fuckin' . . . put him down. Otherwise it's never gonna stop."

Lindsay opened her mouth, then stopped. Slowly, she picked up the bottle of laudanum and examined it.

"Michael," she said. "I just got a much worse idea."


 

The hardest part, by far, was putting the Coat back on.

Lindsay wouldn't touch it, wouldn't even come near it, so Michael had to go it alone. She watched him the whole time, arms folded and lips pinched down to a thin line. His hands were clumsy. He was seeing double at that point, so tired he could barely keep his eyes open. The combination of laudanum and alcohol had proven to be much more potent than he'd anticipated.

How uncomfortable was he supposed to look? She would've seen him wearing it all this past week, every time she'd come to check on Ryan, so it wasn't as though she didn't know. But she'd never seen Michael put it on, never seen how he touched it, treated it, moved with it and into it. She was watching him put on dead people's skin. What was he supposed to feel, and how much? What if he misjudged?

And then the Coat was on, digging its nails into his shoulders and needling his wrists. Lindsay walked him to the door, a little unsteady herself. She didn't speak. Neither did he, until they were on the threshold and she was reaching out to open the door for him.

"Doc?" he said.

"Yeah?"

"You don't . . . think any less of me, do you?" he said. He sounded like a goddamn child. His voice wouldn't come out any other way. "Knowin' what I—what I done?"

Lindsay's face was stony.

"Of course I think less of you," she said, and it was like a slap in the face. "You got four people killed 'cuz of your own goddamn selfishness."

He turned his face away, sick. She batted his head, just hard enough to make him wince and look up at her.

"So now what're you gonna do to make it right?" she asked.

Michael sniffled, and swallowed, and gritted his teeth. He took a deep breath and let it out. A tightness remained in his chest, like there was something trapping an extra breath of air at the bottom of his lungs.

"I'm gonna hang the bastard," he said.

"Goddamn right," said Lindsay. "Now go do your job, before you get fired."

"I cain't—naw, Doc, I cain't go into work now," said Michael. Something was building in his chest, something trembling and vicious. "Sheriff'd skin me alive if I came in drunk."

There was a beat of silence, and then Michael was laughing, helpless with laughter. He clapped a hand over his mouth and folded over. He couldn't get a breath in edgewise. There was no hope of regaining his composure.

"For God's sake," Lindsay said under her breath. "I'm just gonna go tell Geoff you ain't well enough to work."

He shook his head, biting his knuckle to try and get himself back under control. It was useless. His eyes were filling with tears and he was choking on his gasps of air. His vision was starting to go dark at the edges. He really, sincerely couldn't breathe now, and it was hot as a furnace under the Coat, and he was so dizzy and he could taste blood and his ears were filling up with roaring. . . .

The darkness closed around his vision, and he blacked out.


 

When he came back around, Lindsay was still with him. She was just putting the cork back in a bottle of some white salt, the sharp smell of which was prickling the inside of Michael's nose. He wiped his face and was startled to find his hand sticky. He stared down at it. There was blood all over his finger. It took him a while to figure out that it was from biting his own knuckle.

"You back?" Lindsay said.

"Yeah," Michael said. His voice was rusty, his vision still blurred, his head still muzzy. "How . . . what happened?"

"Well, you had yourself a little crazy-spell and passed out, and then I woke you back up," she said. "And you are not goin' to work today. You're gonna stay here and sober up and calm down."

"No—no, I cain't," said Michael.

"Michael," she warned.

"No, Doc, 'cuz if Ryan—'cuz when Ryan gets back, he'll—I don't want him knowin' or—or even just thinkin' he knows I been talkin' to you. That ain't safe, that ain't—"

"You," Lindsay cut him off sharply, "are stayin' your dumb ass here. Doctor's order. I'll tie you up if I gotta, but you ain't leavin', not in the state you're in."

"But—"

"For one day, one day, Michael, you let me worry about Ryan," she went on. "I'll handle it. He know about your heart thing?"

"My. . . ?"

"The thing where your heart stops if you crack your neck."

"I think so. I think—I'm pretty sure I told him. Some point."

"Good," said Lindsay. "That's our excuse and we're gonna stick to it. You had you an inattentive moment and you're restin' up after almost keelin' over dead."

Michael pursed his lips and did his best to focus. It took him a while, but he did manage to dredge something coherent up from the fog.

"It's uh . . . what, 'bout nine 'o clock?" he said. "Why don't we uh . . . see how I'm feelin' around one or two? If I can be there by the time Ryan gets back, that'll—simplify things."

Lindsay rolled her eyes and made faces and waggled her head, but eventually she sighed.

"We'll see," she said. "Meantime, you stay here and cool your heels. All right? And take that goddamn coat off before it makes you any crazier."

Michael looked down at himself. He was, indeed, still wearing the Coat. He was so befogged with exhaustion that he hadn't noticed.

"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, all right. Are you. . . ?"

"Headin' to Ryan's, then on to the clinic," said Lindsay. "I'll come check on you at lunchtime."

"All right," said Michael. He took a deep breath. "All right. Just—be careful. Be real goddamn careful, Doc."

She snorted. "Naw, thought I'd just go stompin' around willy-nilly and get myself killed, I thought that'd be fun."

"Don't joke," said Michael.

"What, you don't think I'd make a good—"

"Doc," he interrupted. "Don't. Please, God, don't."

Her face softened. She touched his hand.

"I'll be careful," she promised.

He supposed that would have to do.

Chapter Text

Shortly after Lindsay left, Michael passed out in his chair. He couldn't be sure if it was because of the moonshine-and-laudanum cocktail or because he'd barely slept in a week, but it was sorely needed all the same. All too soon, Lindsay was shaking him awake again, pulling him out of a dreamless slumber.

"Good, you ain't dead after all," she said.

"Hey," he said. He winced and rolled his shoulders, trying to work out some of the stiffness. "You get everythin' taken care of?"

"Yep," said Lindsay. "You feelin' any better?"

He was feeling much worse, but only because he was mostly sober.

"Clearer-headed," he answered. "I uh . . . sorry. For goin' odd on you."

"That wasn't odd, Michael, that was crazy," said Lindsay. "What Ryan gets is odd spells, and those don't involve laughin' like a lunatic."

Michael rubbed his forehead, thinking of the stables and the big red firework Meg's head had made.

"Not that you've seen," he muttered.

"Fine, I ain't gonna argue with you about it," said Lindsay. "You all un-odded now? Clean and sober?"

"Enough," he said. "What time is it?"

"'Bout half past one."

He nodded, chewing his lip. "Good, we got some time, then. You tell Sheriff and everybody why I wun't there?"

"Jeremy came pokin' around lookin' for you and I told him," said Lindsay. She paused, then added, "The untruthful version, of course."

"It don't matter much, I'm gonna be the weakest link in the dishonesty chain anyhow," he said.

"We oughtta tell 'em, Michael," she said. "The whole story, top to bottom."

"No."

"And why the hell not? This better not be about your goddamn—"

"He'll kill 'em," Michael interrupted.

"What, all three?" Lindsay said, folding her arms.

"Yes."

"And you too, I s'pose."

"And anybody else who got in the way! What the hell makes you think he'd be reasonable about it?"

"Nothin'," said Lindsay. "I think he'd get shot fulla holes and then we could all sleep easy."

Michael ground his teeth and flexed his hands. He let out a slow breath through his nose and refocused himself.

"Could you just indulge me on this?" he said. "Could you just trust that I know what the hell I'm talkin' about? I know him, Doc."

"I'd expect you do, since you been fuckin' him for the past two weeks," Lindsay said. Michael went hot and sticky all over. "I expect that might also have somethin' to do with your reluctance to just shoot the bastard."

"I told you, I've tried," Michael snapped. "Shit, I put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, and all I got was a fuckin' hang fire!"

"So why didn't you pull it again?" Lindsay retorted.

Michael came up short. The gears whirred in his mind, finding no purchase, making no progress. Lindsay watched him with a keen eye as he floundered.

"I—I don't know," he said at last.

"I do," said Lindsay. "And I'll tell you what, you better get over your li'l infatuation before somebody else gets killed. Got it?"

"Doc—"

"The only reason, Michael, the only reason I ain't out with a rifle preparin' to blow his fuckin' head off the moment he gets within three hundred yards, is outta respect for your desire to hang him," Lindsay said. "If at any point I suspect you ain't gonna go through with it, I'm gonna take care of it my damn self."

"Why the hell wouldn't I—"

"Shut up and leave," said Lindsay.

"Yes, ma'am," said Michael, and left.

He was three blocks away before he realized he'd never taken off the Coat.


 

"Hey," Geoff said, as Michael came in. A fire was going in the grate, making the station warm and homey. "What're you doin' here? Thought you was all laid up with—with bustedness."

"Yeah, wouldn't you know it, came down with a real bad case of bustedness," Michael said, rolling his eyes. "It's been goin' around."

"Naw, but you shouldn't oughtta be here, though," Geoff went on. "You oughtta be restin' up!"

"I'm fine," said Michael, pulling up to his desk. The Coat was sitting poorly on him, uncomfortable and cumbersome. What was worse, though, was that all three of the others had matching ones draped over the backs of their chairs. There was Jack's, with its black fur ruff; Jeremy's, which was buckskin and coyote; Geoff's, which was older and clumsier and crowned with something that might have been bobcat. Michael had seen all of them before, last winter.

He'd thought they were quite nice, back then. At least nobody seemed to be taking particular notice of his coat, now.

"Fine, hell," said Jeremy. "Doc said your ticker crapped out on you." He patted his chest for emphasis.

"It does likkat sometimes," said Michael. "I'm fine. Ryan back with my dog yet?"

"Nope," said Geoff. "Nor's Gavin got back 'cuz Ryan's dumb ass fell off his horse and died."

"Sheriff, are you feelin' all right?" Michael asked, eyeing him up. He looked a little more disheveled than usual. Maybe it was just his coat.

"Me? Yeah," said Geoff. "Peachy keen. Just gettin' all my doin's did. Done. That's all."

Michael glanced at Jack and cocked his head at Geoff. She shrugged, making a face.

"Sheriff, uh," Michael said. "You ain't been drinkin', have you?"

"What?" Geoff cried, instantly livid. "Hell no! What d'you think—"

He broke off, letting out a frustrated growl. With a sigh, he ruffled his own hair and winced.

"No," he said. "I ain't been drinkin', and I appreciate y'all checkin' in on me. I ain't sleep so good last night, and my head's gone all mushy, that's all."

"That's a relief," said Jack. "Had me worried for a minute there."

"Yeah, I know," Geoff said. "Sorry or whatever."

"If you wanna go home and take a nap, we can man the station," Jeremy offered.

"Rather be here," said Geoff, shaking his head. "Been a—a hard time lately. Just in general. I'd rather be with y'all. 'Sides, I don't know that I'd get any rest, even if I did go home."

Jack and Jeremy nodded, their mouths turned down. Geoff wiggled his mustache and scratched his head.

"Been a rough week for sleepin'," Michael said, before the silence could stretch too long.

"Yep," said Jeremy.

"Absolutely," said Jack.

"Ever since Meg," Michael went on. He couldn't help it. The button was too big and shiny not to press.

Right on cue, the temperature in the station plunged. Jeremy gained a sudden interest in his paperwork. Geoff pinched the bridge of his nose. Jack, on the other hand, took it with admirable composure.

"'Specially for you, I bet," she said. "Must be extra nerve-wrackin' to have Ryan outta town, after he almost got himself killed three times in a row."

"He can take care of himself," Michael said stiffly. The Coat prickled his wrists, tickled his neck with nettle-hairs.

"Last time you said that, it turned out to be pretty goddamn untrue," Geoff said.

"Ain't the time, Geoffrey," Jack warned.

"'Scuse the hell outta me," said Geoff. "I'm just worried about the fella, so sue me."

"And speakin' of," said Jack, turning back to Michael. "He doin' all right? He got a li'l odd after he had to shoot Meg, and I know he's been seemin' fine and all, but—"

"How the fuck should I know?" Michael snapped.

"'Cuz you been spendin' the most time with him," Jack said, pacifying. "And 'cuz he's more likely to be honest with you than anybody else."

Michael clenched his teeth and breathed through his nose. That shivery thing was back in his chest, pressure building behind a dam. He couldn't let it get loose again, especially not here.

"Well, if he ain't fine, I ain't heard about it," he said. This was, at the very least, true. "S'pose it ain't the first time he's killt somebody."

"No, but it's about the closest he's prob'ly ever come to gettin' killed," said Jack. "Rough few days for him."

"Not all that rough, since he's already up and gone to Vernon," said Jeremy. There was just the faintest note of fear in his voice, disguised as joviality but definitely there.

Michael almost burst into tears. He put a hand over his eyes, overwhelmed, hoping like hell it would look more like exasperation than relief.

Finally, finally, somebody else had noticed.

"Li'l J, you know for a goddamn fact Ryan'd keep his face on 'til the moment he keeled over dead," Jack said.

"Awright, that's enough gossipin' for one day," Geoff said.

"Who was gossipin'?" Jack demanded, bristling.

"Everybody, Jack," Geoff said. "And now everybody's gonna quit it and get back to workin'."

Jack muttered something about hypocrites and Geoff ignored her.

Meanwhile, the gears in Michael's head were whirring. Whatever was going on with Ryan, Jeremy had noticed it. Jeremy was just that little bit afraid. He'd been afraid back at the stables, too, after he'd seen Ryan kill Meg in cold blood. Maybe if Michael could talk to him, maybe if he could get him alone, he could explain everything, and maybe Jeremy would believe him, and then—

And then maybe there'd be one less deputy and one more coat.

Michael jammed that wrench into the gears of his mind, bringing the machinery to a screeching halt. It wouldn't do to think about such things. There was a plan in motion, and he could only screw it up by bringing more people into it. He'd already caused enough trouble by telling Doc.

With that dire sword dangling over his head, he forced himself to get to work.


 

Their first indication that Ryan had gotten back was Gavin bursting through the door and tearing across the station to Michael's side. He leapt up into his lap with muddy paws, knocking papers and pencils off Michael's desk with his tail and licking his face all over.

"God dammit, you dumb fuckin' mutt," Michael sputtered, trying to shove Gavin off without actually hurting him. "Get off. Get the fuck offa me!"

Gavin took a flying leap off Michael's lap and cavorted over to Geoff, who was waking up from an impromptu nap and wiping the drool off his face.

"Oh," said Geoff, while Gavin did his best to climb up his nose. "Hey there, buddy. Hey. You back already?"

"You fell asleep, Sheriff," Jeremy said helpfully. At the sound of his voice, Gavin bounded off to greet him as well.

The door pushed open again and Ryan came in, bearing a handful of letters. He looked worn-down, his movements slow and exhausted. The journey must have taken a toll on him.

"Howdy, y'all," he said, hanging up his hat. He brandished the letters. "Took the liberty of extractin' our mail from the lot."

"Sweet of you," said Jack. "Anythin' for me?"

"Matter of fact, yes," Ryan said, dredging up a smile and a twinkle for her. He thumbed through the letters as he crossed to her desk, then handed her one. "From one Miz Ward."

"Thank you," Jack said, plucking the letter from his hand. Gavin trotted over and she petted him with one hand while she opened her letter with the other.

"Couple for you, Sheriff," Ryan said, handing them over as well. "One for Michael."

"What about the other two?" Jeremy asked, peering at them while Ryan passed Michael a thin, square envelope.

"Irene," Ryan said shortly.

"Oh, hell, what's she want now?" said Jeremy.

"Don't know yet," said Ryan. "Ain't read 'em. I assume it's some pressin' issue, considerin' she's sent two."

"Hope nobody's got sick again," said Geoff, slitting open his first envelope with a rusty old letter opener.

"I hope somebody has, and I hope it's Irene," said Jeremy.

"Or Delmar, or Aidan," Jack put in, engrossed in her letter. "Got just as much reason to hate the brothers as the sister."

"Maybe they all got the 'flu again," Jeremy said, brightening.

"Ma and Pa too?" said Jack.

"God willin'," said Jeremy. "Though I don't s'pose it'd take 'em all out for good."

"Coulda been et by gators," said Jack.

"It'd be bears, that area," Geoff said.

"Y'all always gotta be wishin' ill on my family," Ryan sighed, rolling his eyes. He went to his desk and shrugged out of his coat, draping it over the back of his chair.

"Gee, I wonder why," said Jeremy, his lip curling. "I don't know why you don't."

"On account of them bein' my family," Ryan said. He lowered himself into the chair as though he might break. "Blood's thicker'n water, and all that."

"Y'all's blood must be goddamn molasses, then," Jack said. "They're gonna be the death of you someday."

"Naw, I doubt that," said Ryan. "Nobody's libel to do me that much harm."

"Apart from those fuckers who tried to kill you two weeks ago," said Geoff, scowling at him. "Which I still ain't gotten a real explanation for."

Ryan's right hand clenched until the bandages creaked.

"Isolated incident," he said, and there was something not entirely sane about the way he said it. "And personal business, besides. Wouldn't wanna gossip, Sheriff."

"Personal business, hell," said Geoff. "Anybody who tries to kill one of my crew—"

"They're all already dead, Sheriff, let it go," said Michael.

Geoff growled into his mustache and shook his head. He returned his attention to his letters. Ryan's hand unclenched. Michael glanced a question at him. Ryan just smiled and inclined his head.

I'm fine, the gesture said.

Michael rolled his eyes. He turned to the letter he'd been handed and tore open the envelope. Inside was a single square of thick paper, a card of some sort. It was glossy to the touch, and slid slickly out of its envelope. There were four words written on it, which it took him only a short time time to puzzle through.

Get here.

—D. Etika

Frowning, Michael turned the card over. On the other side was a photograph. He stared at it. His eyes could see the image, but his mind refused to make sense of it. The blood drained from his face. His stomach shriveled up inside him while his lungs filled with snow.

The image was taken from high up, like somebody had been standing on a ladder. Three naked bodies lay on the ground below. Michael could make out just enough of their features to tell it was the railmen. James and Bruce had been hog-tied, their backs arched at unnatural angles, facing opposite directions. Adam lay stretched out between them diagonally, pinned down at the wrists and ankles.

The symbol their bodies had been shaped into was unmistakeable.

"Sheriff?" Michael said weakly. "We got a problem."

"Hurrah," Geoff sighed. "What is it?"

"Now ain't that a cryin' shame," Ryan said, mere inches over Michael's shoulder. Michael froze solid from the chill in his voice. His right hand was resting on Michael's desk. Blood had soaked through the bandages again, spotting them with rusty red. His left hand was nowhere to be seen. The back of Michael's neck prickled, and tension wound up his spine.

"What is it?" Geoff insisted.

"You recall those railmen?" Ryan said. "Somebody done made a spectacle outta their corpses."

"Oh boy!" said Geoff, annoyed. "Oh good! Just when I was startin' to get bored! Yippee! It's Christmas already!"

"Where and when?" Jack asked. Gavin, having noticed something amiss, snuck away from her desk and came over to see what the issue was about. Michael reached down and petted him absently. That made it a little easier to breathe, even with Ryan looming over his shoulder.

"Somewhere near Lovelock, I guess, and don't know when," said Michael. "Sheriff Etika's note ain't much help."

"What's it say?" Jeremy said, with a morbid curiosity.

"Says get here."

"It's no wonder the two of y'all get along so well," Ryan said. "Cut from the very same, very coarse cloth. When're we leavin'?"

"We?" said Michael, frowning over his shoulder at Ryan. This was a mistake, since Ryan's face was about six inches from Michael's, his lips curled in a smile. It was enough to completely derail his train of thought.

"You was plannin' on goin' alone?" Ryan said. He raised an eyebrow, a twinkle in his eye.

"Thought you . . . woulda had enough of travelin'," said Michael, struggling to keep himself together. It was very warm in the station. Ryan took pity on him and straightened up.

"Yeah, Ryan, you prob'ly oughtta go home and rest up," said Jeremy. "And Michael, you definitely should, after this mornin'."

"What happened this mornin'?" Ryan inquired.

"Michael damn near killed himself again," Geoff said.

"Don't make it sound so fuckin' dramatic," said Michael, starting to shiver with tension. "I had a dumb moment with my busted-ass spine and Doc made me stay home on account of it. I'm fine."

"Hey, don't worry about it, Michael," said Jeremy. "I can go on down to Lovelock, if—"

"If he don't mind you throwin' up all over the bodies," Jack stuck in. Jeremy glared at her, and she wrinkled her nose at him.

"You volunteerin'?" he demanded.

"Sure, I'll drag my ass out to Lovelock," said Jack.

"Y'all are sweethearts, but I think we're both fine," Ryan said demurely. He turned to Michael and added, "Unless you'd like to stay?"

"Well," Michael said, fidgeting. He wasn't sure how he was supposed to answer, if there even was a right or wrong answer. Was this some kind of test that he could pass or fail, some subtle gauge of his loyalty, or—

"Mmmm, I'm gonna say no," Geoff said, before Michael's spiraling thoughts could get any further. "None of y'all're goin'."

"None?" said Jeremy. "What'd I do?"

"Nothin', and you won't do nothin', 'cuz you ain't goin' to Lovelock."

"Sheriff—" Michael began.

"Nope!" Geoff interrupted. "Nobody's goin' to Lovelock, least of all you!"

"He's askin' me for help, I cain't just ignore it!"

"Michael, quit backtalkin' me and listen up," Geoff snapped. "This is a closed fuckin' discussion. Nobody's goin', period. Etika and them can handle it their damn selves, you understand?"

"But—"

"No buts!" said Geoff. "None of it! We got more'n enough to do here without some other sheriff draggin' off my deputies. I been givin' all of y'all too damn much free rein, and it's fuckin' us over. We stick to our business, in our town, and we play by the damn rules from here on out. That goes for everybody."

"Well . . . but Sheriff," Jack began.

"I ain't losin' any more deputies!" Geoff burst out. His voice cracked with the force of his emotion. "We've come too goddamn close too many times! Y'all just settle, for one fuckin' month, y'all just let me make it through Christmas without anybody dyin'! Awright? Please. I can't take any more."

For a while, nobody said anything. Geoff sniffled and cleared his throat and wiped his eyes. Gavin went to his side and put his chin on Geoff's knee. Geoff rubbed his head and sniffled some more.

"Yessir, Sheriff," Jeremy said, mousy and apologetic.

"Prob'ly the best plan," said Jack. "Michael? Ryan?"

Michael looked down at the photograph in his hand. He clenched his teeth, torn. Ryan put a hand on his shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze.

"Of course," he said gently. "I'll only go where I'm needed. If there's any objections, I'm sure I can get 'em smoothened."

It was said at least as much to Michael as it was to Geoff. Michael shrugged the shoulder under Ryan's hand, halfway between an acknowledgement and a get-your-hands-off-me. The fingers tapped once, the gesture understood, and Ryan let go of him. A tingling warmth remained where his hand had rested.

"Fine," Michael said, begrudging. He set the photograph aside, face-down.

"Michael, I mean it," said Geoff, fixing him with a look of such raw distress that Michael had to avert his eyes. "I don't want the next body that turns up to be yours."

"I said fine," Michael snapped, slathering anger on top of the guilt to suffocate it.

Geoff looked to Ryan. "Don't you let him—" he began.

"I'll keep him outta trouble, Sheriff," Ryan said.

"Like hell you will," Michael said, before he could stop himself, glaring back at Ryan again. Ryan just smiled and went back to his own desk.

After another long, awkward pause, Jeremy said, "So what'd Irene want?"

"I was hopin' you'd forgot about that," Ryan sighed.

"I'd love to, Fightin' Friend, but seein' as you don't get to, I martyr myself for the cause."

"God bless your poor misguided soul," Ryan said fondly.

"So. . . ?"

"The moment we've all been dreadin'," said Ryan. "She's gone and got herself into a particular condition."

Jack looked up sharply. Jeremy's jaw dropped. Geoff's face twisted into a melange of horror and disgust. Even Gavin, who had settled in by the fire during the lull, lifted his head with an expression of grave concern.

"Who the fuck knocked up your goddamn demon sister?" Jack demanded.

"Oh, now that's somethin' that'd better stay in the family," Ryan said, with a particular distaste that gave everything away. Jeremy dry-heaved, apparently having picked up on it.

"Ryan, your family's all goddamn kinds of fucked up," Geoff said. "I assume she wants you to show up?"

"Demands might be more accurate," Ryan said mildly. "On th' other hand, my Sheriff has just very clearly stated I was not to go runnin' off any time soon, so alas, I am forced to decline."

Geoff pinched his lips together, turned a little pinker, and nodded.

"You're uh . . . you're welcome," he said.

Ryan gave him his most winning smile. "I am ever so much obliged," he said.

Chapter Text

First thing in the morning, Michael went down to the stables.

He and Ryan had conspired to send Gavin home with Geoff the night before, and then Michael had contrived to spend the night alone, for once. Ryan had seemed content to let him do this, perhaps because of the seamless and unspoken collaboration earlier that day. It was obvious where Michael would be in the morning.

And here Michael was, pushing his way inside with a travel pack hanging from the back of his chair and frost crunching under his wheels. The Coat was still prickling him, perhaps irritated at having been left on the floor all night. The sky was just lightening with dawn, the color of dust on fine silver.

Mariel Salcedo was up and about, giving the horses their morning feed. She looked up as Michael came in and raised her eyebrows.

"Mornin', Deputy," she said. She craned her neck, then added, "Where's Gavin?"

"With the sheriff," said Michael. "Uh . . . he ain't comin'."

"Comin' where?" Mariel asked. She finished up with the feed and turned her full attention to him, dusting her hands off.

"Lovelock," said Michael.

"Dang," Mariel said. "Who's goin' to Lovelock today?"

"I am."

"You are? How?"

"Was . . . hopin' we could, uh . . . we could borrow that wagon you got."

"Depends on what it's for," she said, narrowing her eyes and planting a fist on her hip. Michael looked somewhere else and fidgeted.

"Sheriff's business," he mumbled.

"Uh-huh," said Mariel. "You wanna tell me what Sheriff's business?"

"No."

"You wanna give me some kinda inklin', maybe?"

"It's Sheriff's business, not stable-girl's business," Michael said.

"Stable-hand," Mariel corrected. "I'm five years older'n you, so don't go around callin' me girl or else."

"Or else, what? I'll throw your ass in jail, you come within five feet of me."

"You'll throw my ass in lockup, and then Sheriff Ramsey'll kick your ass to next Sunday for bein' frivolous and aggravatin'," said Mariel.

"And even then, I won't tell you shit, 'cuz it ain't your business."

She lifted her chin and looked over Michael's head. "And how 'bout Deputy Haywood? Does he wanna tell me what this's all about?"

Michael spun on a dime. Ryan was lounging in the doorway, hands in his pockets, looking utterly delighted.

"Not a bit," he said. "Deputy Haywood's findin' this all mighty amusin'."

"Deputy Haywood's gonna get his ass handed to him," Michael snapped.

Ryan grinned and sauntered into the stables. The door swung shut behind him. The bang of it slamming made Michael jump, and left his ears ringing. He turned, just a degree, to put the corner of his footplate between Ryan and Mariel.

"There's been a highly unfortunate incident down in Lovelock," Ryan said to Mariel, pulling to a stop next to Michael. "Deputy Jones here's been asked to come and have a look at it."

"That so?" said Mariel, approaching the two of them. "I ain't heard nothin' from Sheriff Ramsey about that."

"Never said which Sheriff's business it was," Ryan said, twinkling.

"If it ain't our Sheriff's business, y'all're payin' to rent the wagon like anybody else," said Mariel. She stopped just out of arm's reach, entirely too comfortable with the proximity. Michael kept glancing at Ryan's gun hand, just in case.

"Miz Salcedo, have mercy," Ryan said, ingratiating. "It's for the cause of justice."

"Oh, is that what they're callin' it these days," Mariel said.

Michael went red. Ryan put his hand on the back of Michael's head, which did not help.

"I've no idea what you could possibly mean," Ryan said, all big blue eyes and total innocence.

"Would you quit fuckin' around?" Michael snapped at him.

"Never," Ryan said, twinkling.

"Ugh, y'all're unbearable," said Mariel, rolling her eyes. "I'm halfway tempted to hand over the wagon just so y'all'll leave."

"You're only jealous," Ryan said smugly. "How's Max doin', by the by?"

"Max is Max," said Mariel. "Gossip queen of the whole damn town, and mighty pleased with himself besides. How's Jackie?"

"Still utterly infatuated with her pen-pal, I'm afraid," Ryan reported.

"Argh!" Mariel cried, gripping the air in anguish. "It ain't fair!"

"My heart bleeds for you, sugar," Ryan said. His hand was still on Michael's head, toying absently with his hair. It was making it very difficult for Michael to keep up with the conversation, which perhaps was the intended effect.

"Easy for you to say," Mariel pouted at him. "Fellas throwin' themselves at your feet like roses, you lucky fucker."

"You make it sound as though it's entirely unintentional on my part," Ryan said. "When I assure you, I do a fair bit of pickin' of my own roses."

"You sure seem to get lucky in the pickin'," she grumbled.

"That, I will concede," Ryan said. "But surely there must be more than just one rose in town that might catch your interest. Somebody who's less than ten years older'n you?"

"She's Jackie, Ryan," said Mariel, anguished. "Nobody else compares."

"Oh, sure," he said. "But sometimes a person's just gotta make do 'til the incomparable come around."

He gave just the slightest tug at Michael's hair. Michael elbowed him sharply in the leg, so embarrassed he couldn't even speak. Ryan nudged him back and then stuck his hand in his pocket. It was the outcome Michael had intended, but he quickly discovered that it hadn't actually been what he'd wanted.

And not just because the hand was closer to the gun now, either.

"Like I said: lucky fucker," Mariel said, folding her arms and glaring at the both of them.

"Heard it through the grapevine Miz Mica might be amenable to certain affections," Ryan mentioned.

"Look, pal, not everybody can go around just havin' liaisons with folks," Mariel said. "It takes four months of dancin' around like damn fools just to get two women in the same room together, you know how I mean?"

"Well, maybe," said Ryan. "If the ladies in question are left to their own devices."

"The ladies' devices are the only ones fixin' to be used, you weasel," Mariel retorted.

"Fair and reasonable."

"Though, it'd be easier to employ them devices if that li'l Farmahini prick would quit askin' me to marry him," she said.

"Oh, I believe that can be arranged," Ryan said, twinkling. "Supposin' you let us borrow that ole wagon of yours for a couple days."

Mariel squinted at him, then nodded decisively.

"Deal," she said, and stuck out her hand.

Ryan stared at it for a good three seconds, a bevy of expressions chasing across the underside of his face. Reluctantly, he extended his own, mutilated, right hand.

"Deal," he said.

Mariel, to her credit, had only the briefest moment of panic before she recovered. She swept Ryan's hand up and kissed it firmly on the knuckles. Ryan looked not only startled, but quite taken with the gesture.

"Oh," he said, going pink in the cheeks. "I s'pose that works, too."

"You're charmed," Mariel said, breaking out in a grin as she dropped his hand. "Ooh, boy, I got you good, you're fair charmed."

"I, Miz Salcedo?" Ryan said, pressing that hand to his chest. "Never once in my life have I been charmed by anyone. It goes against my nature. I am only and solely a purveyor of charm. You may as well shine a lantern at the sun and call it brightened."

"Jones, I don't know how the hell you can stand him," Mariel said to Michael, rolling her eyes. "Is he this insufferable at home?"

"Naw," said Michael, seizing this one singular shining opportunity to strike back. "Once you get him into bed, he's pretty well whipped."

Mariel hollered with laughter, slapping her knee and folding over. Ryan stood there dumbfounded, blinking, while his mouth struggled to form a word.

"Oh!" Mariel cried. She thrust a finger at Ryan, triumphant. "Oh, I knew it! Iiiii knew it!"

Ryan floundered for another moment before simply throwing up his hands and walking away, red in the face. Michael met Mariel's eyes and cocked his head after him.

"See?" he said, immensely pleased with himself.

"Deputy Jones, you're my goddamn hero," Mariel said, grinning her head off. "Lemme go and get that wagon hitched up for y'all."


 

They almost made it all the way out of town without getting caught.

It was still early, barely past seven, and the onset of winter had most people in town waking up late. Geoff didn't usually get to the station before eight o'clock, and he was almost always the first one in. They'd been banking on this, and the fact that nobody would take off after them.

Unfortunately, there was no accounting for Gavin.

Michael first spotted him as a distant tan speck, tearing through the streets at breakneck speed. From his position in the back of the wagon, he had an unobstructed view of the road behind them, and therefore of the dog rapidly gaining on them.

"Aw, sheeit," he said.

"Hm?" said Ryan, glancing back from the driver's seat.

"You'll see in a minute," said Michael.

"If it's as much a problem as it sounds, I'd rather know now."

"Gavin's comin'."

"Bless his heart. Alone?"

"So far."

"Small mercies."

Right about then, Gavin caught up with them, and took a flying leap up into the back of the wagon. His claws scrabbled on the wooden floor for a moment before he managed to get all the way up, and then he bounded over to Michael and jumped up on him, trying to lick his face.

"You goddamn sonnuva bitch idjit," Michael said to him. "You just cain't leave me the fuck alone, can you."

"Oh, you're glad to have him, don't lie," said Ryan. Gavin bounded off to jump all over him, too, and Ryan greeted him with a sticky-sweet voice that made Michael's teeth ache. "Hey! How's my best boy? Didja decide you was gonna come with us? Didja decide you was not to be excluded from the proceedin's?"

Wuff, huff, said Gavin. He made as though to leap onto the horses' backs as they trundled along, and Ryan took him gently by the bandanna.

"Naw, naw," he chuckled. "Leave those ladies alone, now. Go bother Michael some more, he ain't had enough of you yet."

"We ain't gonna drag this damn dog all the way to Lovelock and back," said Michael, while Gavin did as he was bid and returned to Michael.

"Why not? Plenty of room."

"What're we gonna do with him when we get there?" Michael demanded.

"He can stay in the wagon. Or in Etika's station, if he prefers."

"Uh-huh," said Michael. "And how's Sheriff gonna get on without him?"

"Oh, Sheriff'll be fine," said Ryan, dismissive. "He's got Jack and Jeremy to look after him, it won't hurt him none."

"He's gonna kill us when we get back."

"Not if we bring Gavin back with us," Ryan said, twinkling over his shoulder at Michael.

"I'm gonna come up there and knock that fuckin' smug look off your face," said Michael. The threat was somewhat defanged by the fact that Gavin was standing in his lap and licking his chin.

Ryan let out an exaggerated gasp. "Gavin, he's threatenin' me!" he exclaimed, back in that candied voice. "Oh, you better bite him, boy! You better bite him 'fore he gets me!"

Gavin nearly wiggled himself to pieces, excited by the tone of Ryan's voice. Ryan laughed as Michael alternately got a face full of tail and dog slobber. Michael pushed Gavin off his lap and Gavin cavorted around the back of the wagon, crashing into most everything (including Michael).

"Good boy," Ryan cooed. "That's a good dog, Gavin!"

"Shoulda left you at home," Michael grumbled.

"You'd be bored to tears without me," said Ryan.

"Gavin!" Michael barked. Gavin crashed into his chair and then pulled to a stop, wired. Michael cocked his head at Ryan. "Get his hat."

Gavin tore off and launched himself at Ryan's back. Two paws landed on his shoulders and the other two kicked off his spine, doubling Ryan over with the force of the impact. Gavin bounced off him and hit the ground sideways, then scrambled to his feet and shook himself. He bounded back to Michael with Ryan's hat in his mouth.

"Good dog," Michael said to him, accepting the hat and ruffling Gavin's ears. Ryan glared, his hair all messed up and his mouth fighting a smile.

"When," he said, "did you teach him to do that?"

"Had a lotta free time," Michael said, smirking.

"That so? Who'd he practice on?"

"Uh," said Michael. Ryan grinned.

"Gavin!"

"Ryan, no—"

"Get his hat!"

Wild with glee, Gavin leapt up on Michael's lap and launched off his chest, snaring his hat in his teeth as he went. Michael slammed into the side of the wagon, while Ryan folded over laughing. Dutifully, Gavin brought him Michael's hat.

"Oh, you're such a good dog!" Ryan said, taking the hat and ruffling Gavin's ears. "You're the best dog in the whole wide world!"

"Gimme back my hat, goddammit," said Michael, rubbing his chest where Gavin's claws had dug into it.

"Naw, you already got a hat," Ryan said. He put Michael's hat on his own head. It sunk down around his ears, much too big for his head. "This one's mine, now."

"Salcedo was right, you are fuckin' insufferable."

Ryan looked back over his shoulder, glowing like the sun.

"Right up 'til you get me into bed," he said.

Heat flooded from Michael's hips to his head, turning him red and sweaty all over. He sputtered, trying in vain to find any kind of response. Ryan laughed at him again.

"Turnabout's fair play, chéri," he said.

"I hate you," Michael grumbled.

"Aw, je t'aime, aussi."

"Gavin, bite him 'til he talks English," Michael said.

Gavin stuck his nose in Ryan's face, wagging his tail and tap-dancing on the seat. Ryan scratched him under the chin.

"Si tu le fais, je te changé en manteau," he said sweetly.

"Fuckin' insufferable," Michael sighed, smiling to himself.


 

A couple hours after they passed through Vernon, snow began to fall from a heavy, steel-gray sky, although it wasn't cold enough for any of it to stick. The flakes were large and clumsy, tumbling down like aspen leaves and melting as soon as they touched the ground. The soft hiss of their descent insulated the wagon against the world outside, thickening the solitude of the Great Basin until it seemed that all other life had been left behind on some distant white shore.

As the temperature fell, the snowflakes became smaller and started to stick. The mountains faded into a gray mist, and the scrubs and rocks grew thin white highlights on their edges. Gavin came into the back of the wagon and curled up in Michael's lap for warmth. The horses' breath rose in clouds before them like steam from an idling locomotive. Ryan took Michael's hat off and let the snow fall into his hair. He stared around with a wide-eyed wonder, as though every brushstroke of the world had been painted afresh before him.

"Don't get much snow in Georgia, huh," Michael said. He'd been pretending to be asleep for a while now. Ryan glanced back at him and ran a hand over his ponytail.

"Not too much," he admitted. He picked Michael's hat up, sheepish.

"Leave it off," said Michael.

"Pardon?"

"Leave the hat off," said Michael, then hurriedly added, "if you want to. I don't care."

Ryan watched him for a moment, then set the hat on his knee.

"You wanna sit up here in the snow with me?"

"Not sure I can."

"If you get outta the chair, you can."

"That'll take five goddamn minutes."

"We got time."

"The dog's in my lap."

"Then he can come, too."

Michael clicked his teeth and rolled his eyes, then began the long process of encouraging Gavin to get out of his lap without insulting him. Gavin was insulted anyways, and moped off to huddle under the horses' blankets. After that, Michael finagled his way up to the front with Ryan, although it took some doing. Eventually, though, he was seated with his legs in front of him and Ryan's too-small hat perched precariously on his head. Ryan leaned over and took it off him.

"You look like a damn fool in that thing," he said. Half-melted snow sparkled in his hair. It was unclear whether the rosy tint of his cheeks was from the cold or not.

"So do you," said Michael. Ryan grinned, sticking the tip of his tongue out between his teeth. Michael leaned the rest of the way in and kissed him, and Ryan put an arm around his shoulders.

"Why do you always make me wait so long?" Ryan complained, resting his head on Michael's.

"'Cuz if I din't, I'd never get to come up for air," said Michael.

Ryan kissed him again. The horses plodded along, and the snow fluttered down, and for the first time in days, the tension in Michael's shoulders eased.

"You ain't wrong," Ryan said softly.

"We're gonna end up in goddamn Humboldt 'cuz you're too busy kissin' on me to steer the goddamn horses," said Michael, red in the face and really not too put out about it.

"Would you mind that terribly?"

"No."

"Then I shall very gratefully continue kissin' on you, and steerin' be damned."

And he did, and it was very nice.

"It's a good thing you're pretty," said Michael. "Elsewise you'd get yourself into more trouble'n you could ever get back out of."

"Pretty and charmin'," Ryan corrected. "And smart, and skilled with my hands—"

"And humble, too."

"That too," said Ryan, grinning. "Which is fine, on account of you bein' likewise handsome, and brilliant, and witty, and courageous, and—"

"Would you fuckin' quit?" Michael said, his ears burning. Ryan pecked him on the cheek.

"Only if you want me to," he said.

Michael fidgeted. They were very, very alone out here. Even Gavin was ignoring them, hoarding his warmth under the blankets. Besides which, Michael supposed, he was a dog, and had very little understanding of the concept of vanity.

"Maybe one or two more," Michael mumbled.

Ryan grinned his biggest, sunniest grin and kissed him on the mouth, pulling back with a wet smack.

"Oh, my time has come!" he crowed, clutching Michael to him. "Where'd I leave off at? Courageous, and steadfast, and of indomitable spirit! Not to mention an absolute delight 'tween the sheets, as—"

"Ry-an!" Michael cried, scandalized.

Ryan just laughed.

Chapter Text

It was even worse up close.

The sun had set before they even got to Lovelock, and the lantern light made all the shadows sharp and garish. The wagon stood some ways off, because the horses had spooked at the bodies. Michael couldn't blame them; he was feeling pretty well spooked himself. The ground and bodies both were covered in a dusting of snow, but even that couldn't soften the horror of the spectacle.

James and Bruce were in worse shape than Michael had thought. Broken ribs stabbed out of their abdomens like knives. Their shoulders had been dislocated, their feet twisted to unnatural angles. Adam was bruises all over, every last one of his joints swollen and purple, like he'd been pulled apart. There were railroad spikes driven through his hands and feet to affix them to the ground. All three men had their eyes open, all of their mouths gaping in expressions of horror.

"Jesus Christ," Michael said, sickened.

"Sums it up," said Eacott.

"They been like this for four days?" said Michael. Etika and Eacott had given a briefing on the wagon ride over, which had been about five minutes of conversation and then ten minutes of awkward silence. They'd left Gavin back at the station, just so he wouldn't chew on anything important. Everybody but Michael was carrying a lantern, since the night was cloudy and moonless. At least it had stopped snowing.

"No, we had them all packed up and ready to be buried, but then decided we'd put them back out here, just for you," Eacott said, flippant.

"Not helpful," Etika snapped at him. "Yes, they've been here four days."

"Crows ain't been at 'em," Ryan said. His voice was distant, his expression pensive. "Nor the coyotes. Y'all had somebody out here keepin' 'em off?"

"Hell no," said Etika.

"They don't smell, neither," Michael said.

"Embalmed?" said Ryan.

"Just like Burns. How long you figure they been out here?"

"Couldn't tell you," said Ryan. He turned to Eacott. "How did y'all come across these poor souls?"

"Er," said Eacott, looking between the two of them with a lost expression. "Colton came out to check the pond outflow hadn't iced over. But these sorry cunts only made bail six days ago, like I said."

"So six days at most," Ryan said, returning his attention to Michael.

But Michael's mind had taken off in a completely different direction.

"Sheriff Etika, you find out anythin' about those folks I asked about last time?" he said.

"Some," said Etika. "Ashley Burns and Matthew Hullum are both dead."

Michael's skin prickled. The Coat was heavy, heavy, heavy on his shoulders, too warm, like the skin was still fresh. He nearly managed to take it in stride, nearly managed to carry it off without giving anything away.

"That so?" Ryan said, interested and surprised. He tipped his head to one side. The lantern light gleamed on his eyes. "Since when?"

"About a month back," said Eacott. "Horrible, nasty business. Nobody ever would've recognized the bodies if their train tickets hadn't been left with 'em. Right mangled, they were."

"Lord have mercy," said Ryan. "How so?"

"Ooh, properly ruined," said Eacott, getting into it. "Skinned like beasts, eyes and tongues cut out, insides strung up like bloody Christmas—"

"Don't get sensational," Etika interrupted—mercifully, since Michael was about to be sick. "They were murdered about a month back. Leave it there."

"Did they catch whoever did it?" Ryan said. Michael could have strangled him, if the Coat hadn't been pinning him down with the weight of its horror. It was the sheer, careless ease with which he carried it all off. It was hideous. It was evil.

"Not yet," said Etika. "Point is, they're dead, and they've been dead. Heyman isn't."

"Good news at last!" Ryan sighed. "How ever did you manage to track him down?"

"Oh, no, the news isn't that good," said Eacott. "We know he's alive, no clue where he is. Some idea where he's been, though."

"Impressive nonetheless," Ryan said, turning a dazzling smile on Eacott. "We've turned up nothin' at all in—what, four months, Michael?"

"Somethin' like that," Michael managed. Between the weight of the Coat and the sickness roiling in his stomach, it was difficult to say anything at all.

"So where all's he been?" Ryan asked Eacott.

"Reno," said Etika. "Y'all seen everythin' here?"

"Nearly, Sheriff," Ryan said smoothly. "If y'all could give us just a moment? Then we'll happily go back somewhere warm."

Etika frowned. "Why?" he asked.

"It pains me to say so, but y'all do make the suspect list," Ryan said. "We wanna make an independent investigation, just in case."

Etika rolled his eyes and stomped off towards the wagon. After making faces for a moment, Eacott followed him. When they were out of earshot, Michael glared at Ryan, burning with fury and shame.

"You son of a bitch," he hissed.

Ryan grinned and leaned down to drape an arm over Michael's shoulders, pressing the Coat against him, pressing with his own leather coat and leather gloves.

"Call it vanity, but I do love hearin' the reviews," he said, and kissed Michael's cheek. "C'mon, I wanna see this fella's handiwork up close."

"Are you havin' fun?" Michael demanded, trembling in Ryan's grip. "Are you enjoyin' this?"

"Ever so much," Ryan effused. "But whenever I do find who ruined these poor boys, I'm gone enjoy them a hell of a lot more."

Michael decided not to say anything. There was an edge to Ryan's voice that was sharper than his hunting knife, a faint smell of lightning. His hand was painfully tight on Michael's arm.

"Now let's have a look at this li'l oeuvre," he said.

He kissed Michael's cheek again and deposited the lantern in his lap, then moved away. His gloved hand trailed over the back of Michael's neck, feather-light and cold. Sparks skittered up and down Michael's spine and he had to take a second to recover from them. There was a tingly spot on his cheek where Ryan had kissed him, a heat in his chest. He fumbled with the lantern to distract himself.

Ryan, meanwhile, was making a slow circuit of the bodies, his hands in his pockets and a pensive expression on his face. His boots squeaked in the snow, breath clouding before his face. In the dark, and with the angle of his head, all that could be seen of his eyes was the yellow-white gleam from the lantern.

"You figure it was Heyman?" he said, nudging Adam's face with his boot as he went by.

"That was my first thought," Michael allowed. He didn't want to be doing this. He wanted to be somewhere warm, alone with a cup of whiskey and a bottle of laudanum and Gavin. He certainly didn't want to be anywhere near Ryan. The laudanum, at least, was in his pocket, but he needed his wits about him right now, so he'd just have to bear it. He kept the lantern pointed at the bodies, kept his hands on the warm and rusty metal of it.

"They ratted on his pals, and he killed 'em for their troubles," Ryan said, mostly to himself. "S'pose word's got around the Hullums' clemency was brief."

"S'pose he might come after you?" Michael said.

Ryan flashed a smile at Michael. Light reflected from teeth and eyes, too bright in the darkness. Somewhere in Ryan's pocket, leather creaked around a clenching fist.

"Why Michael, how on earth would he know?" he said, stopping next to James and putting a foot on his head. "Unless, of course, somebody put him in contact with some other person who mighta run into me prior, who'd happen to know me by my face and name and what town I'd settled in."

All the blood drained out of Michael's face. His whole body tried to shrivel up into his stomach, like if he curled up small enough he'd be safe. The cold air stung his nose and filled his lungs with needles. The Coat dug hot fingernails into his skin.

"It was, admittedly," Ryan went on softly, "some very pretty lyin' on your part. Took me 'til I mentioned Nicky to you to figure it out. Even so, I wasn't sure until right just now, with you makin' that guilty face."

"I . . . I ain't mean for you to get hurt," Michael said, choking on the words. Etika and Eacott weren't that far off, but it was dark and they weren't paying attention, and Ryan had his gun, and all it would take was three lucky shots. . . .

Michael wondered, in delirious terror, which of the three of them had the best skin for leather.

"Oh, I know you didn't, Michael," Ryan said. His smile was sweet, indulgent. His eyes were like glass. "I don't begrudge you anythin'. It was a compliment!"

"It—what?" said Michael, thrown for a loop.

"Very convincin'," said Ryan. "And under significant duress. If only you could lie like that all the time." He wrinkled his nose and wiggled James's head with his foot before continuing his circuit. "Figure Heyman did th' embalmin' on Burns, too?"

"Uh," said Michael. He struggled to get back on track, to move past the locust-winged creature digging claws into his guts and start thinking again. He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his forehead. The Coat chafed his wrist as he moved. "Him or—I guess somebody he knows. Last we heard, Heyman was a banker."

"Some folks do take up multiple trades," Ryan said, a little joke that wasn't funny.

"Ain't exactly ordinary," Michael said. "Be pretty damn odd for a banker to go around picklin' folks on his weekends."

"Maybe so," said Ryan. "But everybody's gotta have a hobby. What d'you figure the symbol's about?"

"What do you think it's about?" Michael asked, tired of doing all the thinking.

Ryan pulled to a stop and put his head to one side, considering the railmen's bodies.

"We've had, what, five folks now with the same tattoo?" Ryan said. "And now this business, somewhat ostentatious. Clearly meaningful, to them as know what it means. Time to time you get bands of outlaws markin' themselves up like cattle, so's they can tell who belongs to whom at a glance."

"How many outlaw bands you know go around doin' shit like this?"

"Precious few," Ryan said, rolling up onto his toes. "Most of 'em don't have nearly so much panache. I'll give him this, if it was Heyman; at least he's got style."

"And you figure he was involved in killin' Burns, too?"

"Seems likely. Makes sense he woulda kept well clear of the trial. If Jon was tellin' the truth about him—doubtful, at best—then he was adept at stayin' far off from his more ill-fated friends."

"Why?" Michael said.

"Pardon?" said Ryan, looking over his shoulder at Michael.

"Why?" Michael repeated, gesturing to the bodies. "Why help kill Burns? Why go to all the trouble of makin' this fuckin' spectacle? Why was Risinger's tattoo hidden?"

"You seem like you're workin' your way up to somethin', so I won't guess."

"Naw, and you shouldn't, 'cuz it's crazy talk," Michael said. He met Ryan's eyes. "Why in the hell does a shithole town like Achievement City have a goddamn clock tower?"

Ryan frowned, turning towards Michael. "I don't follow," he said.

"The bank," said Michael, annoyed. "Risinger's bank. Why the hell is it so much nicer than goddamn everythin' else? Ashley Hullum had money up in it, and Risinger gave us Heyman's name, and he had the same tattoo as all these other fuckers. Hullum had unaccountable good luck with puttin' down mines, and Burns was rich as hell, too."

"Still not followin'," said Ryan.

"Burns turns up dead," Michael said. He couldn't care less if Ryan wasn't following, because he was getting somewhere. "Couple months later, so do the Hullums. Couple weeks after that, Risinger. What's Heyman gonna think? That somebody's comin' after him and his. All these folks who had miles better luck than they oughtta, all these folks all connected up for no damn reason, all turnin' up dead, and Heyman runnin' outta friends real goddamn quick. This wun't just revenge, it was—it was an affirmation. A show of fidelity, a presentation, an offerin'."

"Sure," said Ryan, enraptured.

"Trevor and them were right," Michael concluded. "It's a goddamn cult."

Ryan stared at him for a beat, eyes wide with shock, then burst out laughing. He clapped both hands over his mouth to stifle the sound, glancing at Etika and Eacott.

"What the hell're you laughin' at?" Michael demanded, burning from ears to chest.

"This's th' absolute funniest thing that's ever happened to me," Ryan said into his fingers, and had another fit of giggles.

"Would you quit it?" Michael snapped.

"Sorry, sorry," Ryan said, fanning himself, his cheeks rosy with mirth. "Oh, Lord, Michael, I'm just—I'm plumb delighted."

"Fine, so it was a dumb idea, it ain't that funny."

"Dumb? Who said anythin' about dumb? I'm laughin' on account of the situation, chéri, not your accountin' of it."

"Wait, you—believe me?" Michael said, blinking.

"Oh, sure," Ryan said earnestly. "Even I ain't so much of a hypocrite as to scoff at th' idea of makin' covenant with the Devil."

Michael shrank back in his chair. Ryan shrugged.

"Worked for me, after all," he continued.

"Y'all done yet?" Etika yelled from the back of the wagon.

"Nearly, Sheriff!" Ryan sang back. He turned to Michael. "Got anythin' else you wanna look at while we're here?"

Michael chewed his cheeks. His legs were starting to tingle. The constant jostling in the wagon all day had taken a toll on him, and it'd been over three hours since his last dose of laudanum. He'd be in agony by the time they got back to the Lovelock sheriff's station.

"Naw," he said. "If they had pockets, I'd say to check 'em, but they don't."

"Fair," said Ryan. "You wanna see what you can get outta Etika whilst I chat up dear Deputy Eacott? Seems our sensibilities are well-paired."

"Yeah yeah," said Michael. The tingling in his legs was insistent. It was easier to focus on that than on the conversation that had just happened. He didn't feel well. He really wanted to be alone, and to have Gavin with him, and to take this fucking Coat off.

"Then let's us go," said Ryan, and turned smartly back towards the wagon. Michael trailed along after him, only half-present through the fog in his brain. The lantern rattled in his lap as he pushed himself over the uneven ground, snow crunching under his wheels and sticking to his gloves.

It took two people to get Michael up into the wagon, in this case Ryan and Eacott. They settled him in back with Etika, and then both went up to the front. Eacott started the horses towards town, and Ryan struck up a conversation.

"Deputy Eacott, I cannot help but wonder," he said, "and do forgive me if I'm oversteppin' my bounds, but I am enamored with your accent, and if you wouldn't mind divulgin': where is it you're from?"

"Oh," said Eacott. "Er, Sydney. Australia."

Ryan let out a low whistle. "Lord have mercy, but you're a long way from home. What brings you all the way out here?"

"Eh, you know," said Eacott, settling in. "Same thing that brings anyone across an ocean."

The two of them shared a glance, and then simultaneously said, "A boat."

They both cracked up, and Eacott elbowed Ryan affectionately. Ryan grinned and stuck his tongue out between his teeth.

"So then what brought you to deputyin'?" he said. "Can't imagine it was your first choice."

"Nup," said Eacott. "I was aiming for—well, it's silly."

"No no, not at all," Ryan assured him, turning big earnest eyes on him and scooting just a hair closer on the wagon's seat. "I'm sure I'd love to hear about it."

"Ah, well," said Eacott, rolling his eyes and making faces. "I . . . for a bit, y'know, when I was just a tyke . . . wanted to be a concert violinist."

"Aw, that's precious," Ryan cooed. "But—now I look, I can see it. You've got wonderful hands for it. Do you still play?"

Eacott's ears turned red. Michael's hands tightened on the arms of his chair.

"Not much, anymore," Eacott admitted. "Er—but what about you, Deputy Haywood? Have you got . . . other things? That you do?"

"It's Ryan, please," Ryan said demurely. Michael clenched his teeth so hard they creaked. "I do so detest formalities amongst friends."

"Yeah? Right," said Eacott, grinning. "Well then it's Lannan to you, sirrah."

Ryan laughed again and touched Eacott's arm. "Lannan it is, suh. But Lannan, how did you come around to deputyin'? Seems like an odd profession for a musician to take up."

"Got a goddamn charmer on our hands," Etika rumbled. Michael started—he'd forgotten the man was there.

"Yeah, well, that's Haywood for you," Michael said, rolling his shoulders and flexing his hands.

"You got theories about those bodies?" Etika asked.

"Think it was Heyman."

"How come?"

"Connections with other victims. That symbol's a tattoo, on Heyman and on the body we found back in August. Plus one other fella who turned up dead."

Plus two more, the Coat insisted, scratching at his wrists.

"Hm," said Etika. "Maybe it was him who paid the bail."

"You get a look at him?"

"No. Money came by mail."

"Damn."

"Could've killed by proxy, too."

"Coulda, bet he din't."

"Why not?"

Michael pursed his lips. Eacott had just made Ryan laugh again, and the sound was getting under his skin. The two of them were sitting nearly shoulder-to-shoulder now, chattering like magpies.

"'Cuz it was personal," Michael said to Etika.

"On account of?"

"Them sellin' out the Hullums."

"Who went free."

"So?"

Etika made a face. "Justifiable," he said.

"Still got that letter the bail money came in?"

"Not on me."

"It have anythin' useful in it?"

"Other than money? No."

"Handwritin'?" Michael said.

"Typewritten," said Etika.

"Return address?"

"No."

"Damn."

"You said it."

"Lannan, sugar," Ryan was saying, absolutely oozing affection. "You have no idea what a breath of fresh air it is to finally have somebody to talk to. When we get back, let me buy you a drink, so's the conversin' can continue."

"No, couldn't possibly," said Eacott, with the kind of inflection that said he was absolutely going to. "Desmond's very clear there's to be no imbibement of strong spirits while on duty."

"It's late enough, you oughtta be done with duties by the time we get back," said Ryan. "We'll run off somewhere nice and private where nobody'll get gruff with us about havin' an ordinary conversation."

"Right?" Eacott exclaimed. "It's all gruff this and short that and don't help, Lannan, goddammit."

Ryan laughed. "Lord, I feel your pain! I can't hardly string two words together without bein' told to shut up. Your elegant elocution is a balm to my poor stifled soul."

"Would you quit fuckin' flirtin' up there?" Michael snapped.

"Right on cue," Ryan said into Eacott's ear, and nudged him, and the two of them had a little giggle fit.

"Maybe we could trade," Eacott whispered. "Jonesy can stay, and I'll go back with you."

"No no no, sugar, it'd fair break our poor Sheriff's heart if he had to lose Deputy Jones," Ryan said.

"Then you could stay!"

"No," Michael cut in, fuming.

"Aw," Eacott pouted. He put an arm around Ryan's shoulders and gave him an affectionate squeeze. Ryan leaned his head on Eacott's and Michael's blood boiled. "Can't we keep him?"

"Not unless you both want to get strangled," Etika muttered, hunching his shoulders and pulling his hat down lower over his eyes.

Michael was inclined to agree.

Chapter Text

As Michael had predicted, the pain hit about five minutes out from the station. Ryan was well enough preoccupied with Eacott that Michael was able to sneak a dose of laudanum without him seeing. He took an extra drop, because it had been that kind of day, and passing out sounded pretty damn good.

Etika and Eacott helped Michael down out of the wagon, and then Eacott went off with Ryan to get the horses squared away for the night. Michael was thoroughly befogged by then, but he still managed to fume about it. The worst part was, he could think of no reason why Ryan shouldn't be flirting with other people. No promises had been exchanged, after all. It was no business of Michael's if Ryan wanted to go off drinking with Eacott. It was no business of his if they talked and laughed and got drunk together, alone, somewhere private and quiet, nor if Ryan decided to get all handsy with Lannan, sugar like a goddamn—

Maybe he'd have another extra drop of laudanum once he got to the inn, just to take the edge off.

Such was his aggravation that he couldn't even be happy to see Gavin when he came flying out of the station to greet him and Etika. Gavin jumped all over Michael, as usual, about ready to burst from the sheer excitement of him being back. They'd barely made it inside the door before Michael shoved him off roughly and snapped at him. Gavin took it like an arrow to the heart. He slunk off, looking horribly guilty and confused, and Michael immediately felt like the world's biggest monster.

"I'm just gonna go . . . head on to the inn, for the night," Michael said, as Etika did something or other at his desk.

"You want that envelope?" Etika said.

"If you got it," said Michael.

Etika whipped out the envelope and handed it over. There were two splotches of writing on it—the main one, typewritten and black, and a second in red on top of the stamp. Michael squinted at it for some time, struggling to puzzle out the words through the fog in his head.

6-DEC-1887

CITY OF REHO P.O.

He spent another long minute trying to work out where the hell Reho was before he realized that the H was in fact an N, and the damn thing had come from Reno.

"You need somethin'?" Etika said, cutting through Michael's musings.

"Huh? Naw, just . . . nothin'."

"Good night, then."

Michael hesitated. Gavin was hiding under Lannan's desk, absolutely the most pitiful creature in all Creation.

"Uh," said Michael. "They let dogs in that inn?"

"No," said Etika.

There was an awkward silence. Michael rubbed the arms of his chair. Etika let out a long, put-upon sigh.

"He can stay with me," he said.

"What?" said Michael, blindsided.

"He can stay with me," Etika repeated, annoyed. "For just tonight. And I won't be happy about it."

"Oh," said Michael. "Uh . . . much obliged, Sheriff."

"Weren't you leavin'?"

"Yep."

Michael wheeled himself out the door. The brain-fog caught him just as the cold did, and he had to take a moment to remember what he was doing and where he was supposed to be going. At the insistence of a gnawing anxiety in his gut, he peered back through the crack in the door.

Etika was already kneeling on the floor, making piteous faces at Gavin and petting his head. Gavin leaned into him with a dejected sort of gratitude, and Etika buried his face in Gavin's fur.

Comforted, Michael headed off for the inn.


 

Michael woke with a start in the middle of the night. For a moment, he wasn't sure what had woken him, why his heart was pounding and his ears ringing as they strained to hear a sound. He pushed himself up onto his elbow, struggling to get his wits about him. The bitter taste of laudanum still lingered on his tongue, and wisps of fog drifted through his head.

"Hope I didn't wake you," Ryan said, near the door. Michael jumped, his heartbeat kicking up to a thrum and his palms breaking out in a cold sweat.

"The hell're you doin' in here?" Michael said, scowling at him. "Thought you was gonna sleep in the wagon."

Ryan's smile was like a crescent moon in the darkness.

"Had an inclination I might be wanted," he said. "If I was wrong, of course, I'll leave."

"God dammit," Michael muttered.

"Am I wrong?" Ryan asked, playful.

"Shut up and get over here, you conceited jackass."

"Yessuh," said Ryan.

The moment he was within arm's reach, Michael grabbed him by the back of the head and yanked him down. Their teeth cracked together, but it didn't matter, because if he didn't kiss Ryan right then and there he'd keel over dead. He needed it like air in his lungs, with the same squirming urgency of a breath held too long.

Ryan climbed into bed with him, and thank God, those hands undressing him, and thank God, those lips against his, and breath and touch at last. Ryan's tongue tasted of gin, his skin flushed and warm, a less-than-sober enthusiasm to his ministrations. It was too much and it wasn't enough and Michael was so fucking furious at him for making him feel like this, for all his taunting and teasing and his cruel little jokes with himself, for the sparkle of his eyes and the blush of his cheeks and the dazzle of his smile. How dare he play such havoc with Michael's heart.

Before he could think about it, Michael gripped Ryan's shoulder and flipped him onto his back, pinned him down with all the strength of his body. Ryan squeaked and then laughed, delighted. Michael pulled his hair until he squirmed and then bit his neck, hard, harder, until the fingernails dug into his shoulders and the first helpless moan escaped Ryan's lips. Only then did he ease up, only once it was clear who was putty in whose hands.

He kissed the hickey he'd left, letting his weight press Ryan back down to the mattress, flattening the needy arch of his spine. Ryan's heart pounded against his chest. Idly, Michael found a new patch of neck and started in on a second hickey while he disentangled his hand from Ryan's hair. Ryan melted.

"Don't encourage me, chéri," he said, breathless and amused. "Elsewise I'm gone start teasin' you in public all the time."

Michael unsuckered his mouth from Ryan's neck just long enough to spit, "You do and I'll kill you."

Ryan laughed again. One hand found its way to the back of Michael's neck, the other to his chest. While they had a moment, Michael started getting Ryan's clothes off, a fun and interesting task made all the more rewarding because of the way Ryan squirmed.

"You ain't upset about Lannan, are you?" Ryan asked.

Michael yanked on Ryan's shirt and bit down just a little harder, wordless and possessive. Ryan hissed in a breath through his teeth, tangling a hand in Michael's hair.

"It was all business, chéri, I swear," he said. "Though I'll admit, he does have awful pretty hands."

A red fire lit up in Michael's chest, and he grabbed Ryan by the jaw and kissed him roughly. Ryan bridged against him, a pleased little hum on his lips.

"I have to hear one more goddamn word about Lannan fuckin' Eacott, I'm gonna snatch you bald-headed and throw you out the window," Michael threatened.

Ryan grinned and then kissed him again, and both of them got back to work getting each other undressed. Ryan settled down, going soft and pliant, and that simply wouldn't do, not after he'd been torturing Michael all day. Michael took hold of his hair again and went in for another hickey—third or fourth, he'd lost count, it didn't matter—and soon enough he had Ryan writhing again, strung-out and panting.

"Lord," Ryan breathed. "If only it'd been like this the first time we came through here!"

Michael kissed his way up to Ryan's jaw, keeping him pinned down. His chest was full of pink light, his head full of fog, his belly full of heat. It was better than laudanum, it was better than anything, and all he wanted was more.

"I woulda nailed you to the fuckin' wall," he growled into Ryan's ear.

The whine that came out of Ryan was such a pretty noise that Michael decided he wanted another right away. He pulled Ryan's head back, dragged his fingernails down his neck and chest.

"Woulda had you beggin'," Michael continued, relishing every word. Ryan made the noise again, only better, wordless and needy. Michael tugged on his hair and started yet another hickey just under his ear, toying with his nipple. Ryan's hands were desperate, clinging, his whole body wound up tight like a spring about to snap.

"Michael," he gasped. Michael dragged his hand down further, returned his mouth to Ryan's ear where it was so clearly wanted.

"Woulda had you screamin'," Michael said. His roving hand caught against a bandage, and Ryan made a very different noise, one of pain, and Michael had a sudden and vicious impulse to jab his thumb into the bullet wound, to make him scream and thrash and bleed. How sweet the agony would be, how quickly it would all be over, if he just wrapped his hand around Ryan's neck and squeezed. . . .

He laid his palm on Ryan's hip and let go of his hair. Ryan's breathing was shallow and erratic, the trembling of his body suddenly taking on a different meaning. There was blood on Michael's hand, warm and sticky.

"Jesus, Ryan," Michael said, reeling from his own visions of violence.

"I'm fine," Ryan protested. "I'm fine, chéri, the bandage just slipped off, that's all. It ain't—it ain't nothin' to worry over, don't—don't you worry about me, I—"

Carefully, Michael laid down on his side and pulled Ryan to him. Ryan curled up against his chest, shivering. Unsure of what else to do, Michael rearranged Ryan's shirt to cover him more fully, then started combing his fingers through his hair.

"Startin' to get the feelin' maybe you had some other reason for comin' in here," Michael said.

Ryan scoffed and shook his head.

"Take whatever I can get," he said. "I just . . . didn't wanna be alone. Wouldn't want it to be less'n worth your while to keep me company."

"That's the dumbest fuckin' thing you've ever said to me," said Michael.

That actually got a laugh out of him. Michael kissed his head, still working the tangles out of his hair. Several minutes passed this way, although Ryan kept shivering just as hard.

"Talk to me," Michael said at last.

"You sure?" Ryan said. His breath was warm on Michael's chest. "Ordinarily you're tellin' me to shut up."

"That's 'cuz nearly everythin' that comes outta your mouth is bullshit," said Michael. He kissed Ryan's head again. "Talk to me, partner."

Ryan lay there and shivered, as though he was struggling to find the words. When he spoke, his voice was quiet and frightened.

"I can't stop thinkin' about . . . what you said, back there," he said. "About—folks comin' after me. There's so many, Michael, there are so many, just like Nicky and James, and—and what if they do find me, what if. . . ."

He trailed off. The shivering came in waves with his breath, worse on the exhale.

"What if next time, they kill you," Michael said softly.

Ryan laughed, a helpless, despairing sound.

"No, Michael, no," he said. "What if they don't?"

The full weight of this statement took a moment to settle over Michael. He pulled Ryan closer. The bruises and abrasions still hadn't fully healed. On the other side of Ryan's neck from the hickeys, the cigar burns lingered, ugly and peeling. There were thin bandages wrapped around the mutilated hand that clutched Michael's lapel.

"I'm here," Michael said, because it was the only assurance he could give that was true. It still filled his stomach up with sludgy guilt. He had no right to provide comfort, especially not for this.

Ryan sure as hell didn't deserve to be comforted.

"I'm sorry," Ryan said. He sniffled and shook his head. "I'm sorry, I—I never mean to go to pieces on you like this."

"Rather have you goin' to pieces like this than goin' to pieces any other way," said Michael.

A crazed giggle escaped Ryan's lips, and he pressed his forehead to Michael's chest.

"That ain't funny," he whispered.

"Oh," said Michael. "Oh, no, I ain't—I ain't mean it like that, I—shit, uh—"

Ryan nudged him with his head. "I know," he said.

A silence settled over them like a thin dusting of snow. Michael went back to stroking Ryan's hair. As conflicted as the whole situation left him, he couldn't deny that there was something truly satisfying about having Ryan so vulnerable. Thus stripped of all his malice, of all his glimmer and shine, he became a solvable problem. He was like a machine laid bare, all the wires and pistons exposed for the tinkering.

On the bedside table, the empty envelope sat, with its postmark stamp and the capital N that looked very much like an H at first glance.

"Ryan," Michael said softly. "There's somethin' I need to ask you."

Ryan pulled back from him and met his eyes, concerned and earnest.

"Anythin', chéri," he said.

Bracing himself, Michael said, "Why do you have Narvaez's rifle?"

Ryan turned to ice on the instant, confirming Michael's suspicions. The chill of him numbed Michael's fingers. He pulled back further, just shy of extracting himself from Michael's arms.

"What did I tell you," he said, his voice gone quiet and dangerous, "about askin' me about Ray?"

"I ain't askin' you to talk about Ray, I'm askin' why you have his rifle."

"It amounts to the same thing."

"It don't need to be detailed or nothin'. One sentence, and I'll never ask again."

"Fine, here's my one sentence: I am not gone talk about this with you."

"Will you at least tell me why not?"

"On account of not wantin' to," Ryan said coldly.

"Ryan, please," Michael wheedled.

"No," he said.

Michael fought with himself for a brief eternity. If he angled his words just right, if he twisted in just the right place, could he push past that no? Did he have enough leverage to pry it out of the way, and if so, did he dare face the repercussions?

Letting out a frustrated sigh, he looked away from Ryan. He rubbed his eye, withdrawing further, seeing what he could drag along with him. Ryan stayed exactly where he was, teetering on the brink of anger.

Michael decided it wasn't worth the risk.

"Then . . . I'll just skip to why I'm askin'," he said. "But I'm gonna need you to answer."

"I'll see what I can do," Ryan allowed.

Michael took a deep breath. He curled his fingers in Ryan's hair, readying a stronger grip in case it was needed.

"Am I safe from you?" he said quietly.

"Yes," said Ryan.

Nodding, Michael swallowed. The immediacy of the response was comforting, the lack of embellishment heartening. There was no of course, no scandalized exclamations. Even if Ryan was lying, he at least had the courtesy to acknowledge that Michael's fears were not unreasonable.

"All right," said Michael. "That's all I needed to know."

For almost a minute, neither of them said anything. It was Ryan who broke the silence, and Michael knew from the first syllable that it was going to be bad.

"Michael?" he said, small and vulnerable again. "Am I safe from you?"

If he'd had the Colt to hand, he might have shot himself right then and there. It would have been easier than having to live in a world where that question had been asked.

"Yes," he lied, before he could think about it, before the silence stretched too long.

Ryan let out a breath and moved in close to him again, warm skin and gentle hands. He rested his head on Michael's shoulder and draped an arm over his chest.

"Thank you," he said. "That sets my mind at ease."

Michael tugged on his hair. Ryan lifted his head, attentive.

"Said I was gonna take care of you," Michael said, holding his gaze. "I meant it."

For a single heartbeat, Ryan's expression didn't change, and Michael thought for sure he'd given himself away—but then the smile curled out, and the eyes sparkled, and lo and behold, he'd gotten away with it.

"Careful pullin' on my hair like that, chéri," said Ryan. "Might end up losin' a fair bit of sleep to get properly took care of."

Michael considered this for a moment, and then, very deliberately, pulled on his hair again.


 

Unsurprisingly, the two of them had a late start to the morning. Between the late night and the usual difficulties prying themselves off each other, it was nearly half past nine before they got down to the Lovelock sheriff's station. Gavin just about lost his mind when the two of them came in, overjoyed to see them.

"Yeah, hey," Michael said, while Gavin frolicked all around him like a baby deer.

"Mornin', y'all," Ryan said, as chipper as ever. "Apologies for the tardiness, somethin' came up."

Michael covered his blush by grabbing Gavin and mashing him up against his legs to settle him down. He did not dare to make eye-contact with anybody in the station, especially not Eacott. Gavin leaned into him, absolutely over the moon.

"Y'all ready to work?" Etika asked.

"Oh yessuh, most assuredly," said Ryan. "We thought we might take another look at those fellas in daylight, 'fore you haul 'em off to be interred. Likewise if you've managed to locate their clothing, we'd sure appreciate bein' allowed to take a gander at it."

"And whatever you got that's worth draggin' us all the way out here for," Michael stuck in.

"That'd be the bodies," Eacott said. He was sounding significantly less chipper than the day before. Michael eyed him up and decided that he was probably just hungover.

"Lannan," Etika warned. Eacott cocked a thumb at him.

"He didn't want 'em kept here."

"Well, we got the wagon already," Ryan said. "May as well haul 'em back with us and spare y'all the trouble of disposin' of 'em. I'm sure our good Dr. Tuggey could tease somethin' out of 'em, if given th' opportunity."

"Er, right," said Eacott. "And you've already got the, er, bail envelope?"

Michael patted his breast pocket. Gears were turning in his head, and the machinery pulled the corner of his mouth up.

"Had a couple points to clarify with Sheriff Etika, though," he said. "Ryan, you mind if Deputy Eacott here helps you load up them bodies?"

Eacott turned positively green. Ryan's eyes twinkled.

"If he doesn't mind," he demurred.

"I—" Eacott began, but Etika cut him off.

"Go help, Lannan," he said. He was almost, almost smiling.

"But—"

"Lannan," he said. "Go help."

"I hate you," Eacott said pitifully.

"C'mon now, sugar," Ryan said. "It'll be fun!"

Eacott stared at him, aghast. Ryan winked and grinned and sauntered out, whistling. Eacott gaped for a moment before trailing after him. Gavin wavered, then leaned his head up against Michael's knee and sighed.

Michael looked at Etika, and Etika looked at Michael. Through the closed door, there came a very faint, very Australian cry of dismay.

Simultaneously, both of them cracked up.

Chapter Text

"What the fuck is wrong with y'all?" Geoff howled. He hurled his paperweight across the room. It slammed into the wall like a cannonball, throwing splinters. Jeremy dove for cover under his desk, then immediately peeked up over it to watch the show.

"Mornin', Sheriff!" Ryan chirped, sauntering to his desk. "I missed you, too."

"Don't you fuckin' gimme that shit, Haywood," said Geoff, fire on his breath. "Don't you dare walk into this office spewin' that shit outta your mouth!"

"I don't know what all the fuss is about, suh," Ryan said innocently. "We're both of us back home, safe and sound. No ill's come of it, after all."

"No ill?" Geoff raged. "No fuckin' ill? When I been worryin' myself goddamn sick over y'all for two fuckin' days, you got the nerve to come in here sayin' no ill?!"

Gavin quietly hid himself behind Michael, who was hanging around by the door. Maybe if he held very still, and didn't move into the line of fire, the storm would blow over before he got his ears pinned back.

"We're awful sorry to have worried you, Sheriff," Ryan said.

"Oh, we are, are we?" Geoff said. He turned on Michael like a tornado. "And when did we fuckin' conspire with each other to go runnin' off like goddamn hotheaded idjits, Michael?"

"Hotheaded ain't quite the word I'd—"

"Shut the fuck up, Ryan!" Geoff interrupted. Ryan raised his hands and turned his face away, surrendering.

"I got no excuses," Michael said, sweaty and sticky with shame. "But we brought the bodies back with us, so there won't be call to go runnin' off again."

"You're lucky I don't take your goddamn badge, you irresponsible—you selfish—argh!" Geoff broke off in frustration, pounding his desk with his fist. "I can't fuckin' believe you!"

"It had to get done," said Michael.

"Oh, caterin' to your fuckin' dumbass detective-complex had to get done, huh? Disobeyin' direct fuckin' orders from your goddamn sheriff had to get done. Is that what you're tellin' me? You tellin' me that when shit has to get done you're gonna go insubordinate? This gonna be a repeatin' pattern of behavior, Jones?"

"I go where I'm needed, Sheriff," he said stiffly.

"Well I need you here! You got a fuckin' responsibility, Deputy, and unless you found somethin' of fuckin' earth-shatterin' importance out there, you done fucked that up!"

Michael took a deep breath, kept his eyes fixed on the far wall, and braced himself against the bead of cold in his chest.

"Ashley and Matthew Hullum were killt by the Vagabond," he said.

The station went dead silent.

Jack got to her feet, slowly, slowly. All the blood drained from Jeremy's face. Geoff stood there blinking and swaying like he'd been hit over the head with a lead pipe.

Ryan's gaze was like liquid fire against Michael's face.

"What did you just say?" Jack croaked.

"I said the Vagabond killt Ashley and Matthew Hullum," Michael repeated.

"How—what—how do you even know about—" Jeremy stammered.

"Explain," Geoff said, and his voice was freezing cold. "Now."

"The railmen knew it," said Michael. He'd rehearsed this a hundred times in his head on the long journey back, just him and the cold and three dead bodies in the back of the wagon. "Willems had run into the sonnuva bitch once before. Told Deputy Eacott he recognized the . . . methodology. Eacott din't believe it, but I do."

"Seems a li'l . . . tenuous, Michael," Jeremy said carefully. "I don't know if—if you're—"

"I believe him," Ryan said.

Michael did not look at him. He kept his eyes forward and his face expressionless even as he shivered. His hands were clenched on the arms of his chair. Gavin was still hiding behind him.

Lannan had never said anything about the railmen's knowledge of the Vagabond. Considering his easy camaraderie with Ryan, they'd probably never even mentioned it in front of him.

"How come?" Jack said darkly.

Ryan shrugged. "Well, you get three outlaw fellas sayin' they know who the Vagabond is, and then they all three turn up dead shortly thereafter. Seems to me they mighta been somethin' of a legitimate threat."

"He got the rail boys and the Hullums?" said Jeremy. There was fear in his voice.

"Well, the methodology don't lie, or so I've heard," Ryan said.

"What methodology?" Geoff said. He was trembling where he stood, deathly pale, his eyes full of tears.

"Geoff, nothin' good's gonna come of this," Jack warned.

"What fuckin' methodology?" he snarled.

Ryan watched him for a long, breathless moment. Michael's ears rang.

"Tortured," Ryan said softly. "Mutilated. Bodies left in a state of considerable . . . dishabille. I'm given t' understand the Hullums were nigh unrecognizable, once the Vagabond was done with 'em."

"That's enough," Jack snapped. "That is enough of that. I don't wanna hear another word."

Ryan inclined his head. His hand was resting idly on his knife.

"Where?" Geoff said.

"Sheriff, hey now," Jeremy began.

"Y'all quit fuckin' interruptin' me! Tell me where the fuck he was! Tell me where to find the sonnuva bitch so I can rip his goddamn lungs out! Michael, where?"

Michael realized, with a horrible sinking feeling, that he didn't know. The bead of cold in his chest bristled with rime ice, stabbing into his heart and lungs. Sweat was soaking through his shirt, slicking the hairs on the back of his neck. He clenched his jaw and sucked it up and took the only option available to him.

He played along with Ryan.

"For the Hullulms, I cain't recall," he said. "It don't matter much, though, 'cuz that was well over a month ago. But . . . between this week and last week, he was in Lovelock. Killin' them railmen."

"Oh, shit," said Jeremy. His eyes flicked to Ryan. "Are we—you don't think he's comin' here, do you?"

"I don't know what the fuck to think," Geoff said. "But I know if he shows his fuckin' face around here, if he so much as looks sideways at any of y'all, I'm gonna—"

"I doubt that'll happen, Sheriff," Ryan cut him off. "Those railmen had no idea of our less'n spotless pasts. It's most likely coincidence, and lightnin' don't strike the same place twice."

"Ryan," Jack said, and stopped. She glanced at Michael. Ryan flashed a bland little smile at her.

"If it's me y'all're concerned about," he said, "there's no call to be. Everybody knows what happened with Meg was self-defense."

"Uh, yeah," said Jeremy, and laughed nervously. "I mean, of course it was. Just—well, y'know, it's just a question of . . . whether or not the Vagabond would see it that way. Uh. Y'know."

"Don't you worry none about me, Fightin' Friend," Ryan said, indulgent. "I got nothin' to fear from the Vagabond."

"It's exactly that goddamn cocky attitude that's gonna get you killed," Geoff said. "This is too goddamn close to home. I told y'all not to go runnin' off alone, and I was goddamn right. Jesus Christ, what if you'd run into the fucker in Lovelock?"

"Maybe we did," said Michael.

Again, he could feel Ryan glaring at him. It was like sitting next to an open stove. The ice in his chest steamed under it, filling his head with fog.

"We'd have no way of knowin'," he went on. "Could be damn near anybody."

Jeremy shuddered and hugged himself. Jack's jaw and fists clenched, her eyes hard as flint.

"Jesus Christ," Geoff muttered. He rubbed his forehead and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Jesus fuckin' Christ. Awright. Easy on, now, Geoff. Use your brain. What're we gonna do? What in the honest, actual, genuine fuck are we gonna do?"

"If I may offer a suggestion?" Ryan said.

"Please, God," said Geoff, spreading his hand to cover his eyes.

"Seems to me, your original idea of layin' low and keepin' t' ourselves is the best course of action," he said. "If we are on somebody's list, all we'll have to do is watch for 'em to come rollin' up into town. And if we ain't—well, then we can stay off any lists."

"No," Jack said.

"Beg your pardon?" said Ryan, the slightest edge creeping into his voice.

"No," she repeated, turning to look at him. "I've had enough of cowerin' in fear. I've had enough of layin' low while that fuckin' demon runs loose. There's been too many goddamn bodies. If he's comin', let him fuckin' come. I got a score to settle."

"Jack," Geoff said, hoarse and hollow. "Don't."

"I'm tired of runnin' scared, Geoff!" she snapped. "I'm fuckin' sick of it! If I'm gonna die, I'm gonna do it with my goddamn dignity on!"

"You're not gonna die. Nobody's gonna die. I ain't losin' any more goddamn deputies!"

"Michael?" Jeremy said. "What do you think we oughtta do?"

"Me?" said Michael, his heart freezing solid. "Why're you askin' me?"

"'Cuz . . . you're the smartest person in the room," Jeremy said, shrugging.

In other circumstances, he might have been flattered. As it was, all his brainpower was going towards figuring out what the fuck to say.

"I think . . . Jack's right," he said.

The lightning came, just like he'd known it would, and he was braced for it. Ryan straightened up slowly, his fist clenching white-knuckled at his side. Fury poured off of him in waves, making the air shiver, bending the very light itself. The sun dimmed outside. The fire struggled to stay lit.

"The Vagabond'll come," Michael went on, fighting to keep his voice from shaking. "And when he does, we'll be ready. Like Ryan said. All we'll have to do is watch for him. And, 'til then . . . we lay low."

Whatever energy had been distorting the air in the room dissipated. Ryan slouched back against his desk. Michael breathed again.

"I don't like it," Geoff said. "I don't like none of this shit."

"Nobody does, Sheriff," said Jack. "But God willin', this'll be the end of it. Whatever happens, this'll be the end of it."

"Don't . . . say it like that," Jeremy said to her, fidgeting.

Meanwhile, Geoff subsided into his chair. He put his face in his hands and groaned.

"I need a goddamn drink," he mumbled.

Michael risked a glance over his shoulder. Gavin was still hiding behind his chair, hunched up and sorry-looking. Michael reached out a hand to him and Gavin sniffed it.

"Go get the Sheriff," Michael said softly.

Dutifully, Gavin got to his feet and crept to Geoff's desk. Geoff heaved a sigh and reached down to pet him. Jack shook her head and sat down, eyes lowered. Ryan was staring at nothing, his thumb caressing the grip of his hunting knife.

"So uh," Jeremy said, with a desperate, hopeless levity. "Good mornin'."


 

The one thing Michael had not been prepared for was just how committed to maintaining a grudge Ryan would be.

Throughout the entire day, he gave Michael a shoulder so cold it numbed his ears and made his teeth chatter. Michael tried a couple of times to nudge him into the old begrudging banter, but Ryan was resolute. He did not look at Michael once through the eight hour workday, and barely spoke ten words together to him.

Michael started to wonder if, in this matter of personal accounting, his arithmetic had been off.

Unsurprisingly, the whole station had been subdued and tense, to the point that Michael assumed nobody else would notice Ryan's particular chill. However, when he lifted his head at the tolling of four o'clock, Jack caught his eye.

She tipped her head towards Ryan and frowned. Michael glanced over. Ryan was bent to his work, copying out a stack of Wanted posters. He was bearing down a little harder than usual, and as Michael watched, his pencil tore through the paper. His hand clenched like a bear trap. The pencil snapped in half.

Michael swallowed and turned his eyes back to Jack. He shrugged, arranging his face into a baffled expression of concern. Jack ground her teeth and wrinkled her nose, dissatisfied.

At his desk, Ryan methodically balled up the torn Wanted poster and dropped it into the wastebasket. He pulled the broken halves of the pencil apart, then set the unsharpened end aside. He took out a new sheet of paper and started over.

"I bet Gavin could use a walk-about," Jack mentioned. Jeremy started at the sound of her voice. Gavin lifted his head and thumped his tail on the floor.

"Don't know there's much point in it," Michael said. "Nearly time to be headin' home anyhow."

"Well then, I could use a walk-about," Jack said, getting to her feet. She stretched and groaned. "These old joints get creaky in the cold."

"Old, hell," said Jeremy. "You're barely forty."

"Give yourself another five years, Li'l J, you'll understand," said Jack. "Michael, you wanna come along and bring Gavin?"

Michael glanced at Geoff, who twitched a shoulder and rolled his eyes. He risked a look the other way. Ryan was still intent on his work, ignoring him.

"Ain't like I got anythin' better to do," Michael said.

After a few minutes to get hats and gloves and coats situated, Michael and Jack headed out into the cold evening with Gavin trailing along at their heels.

"Still can't believe y'all up and ran off to Lovelock," Jack said, as they meandered away from the station. Her breath clouded the air in front of her. She had her hands stuffed into the pockets of her fur-trimmed leather coat.

"Y'know," Michael said, trying not to think about it. "Lookin' pretty fuckin' dumb, in hindsight."

"I'm just impressed you still got a job," Jack said. "Geoff's been cursin' y'all's names ever since y'all took off."

"Yeah, well, Ryan's got a talent and he ain't afraid to use it," said Michael. "Seems to have smoothened everythin' up."

A silence fell between them. Gavin galloped ahead to bother Miss Beauchamp's spotty little mutt. The two of them leapt around each other, ran in circles around Miss Beauchamp's skirts, and then tore off like maniacs through the streets.

"Evenin', Afiya," Jack said, as they got close.

"Those dogs," Miss Beauchamp sighed, planting a fist on her hip. "Evenin', Jackie. Evenin', Deputy Jones."

"Hey," Michael said.

"If we catch up with Gavin, we'll be sure to bring Missy on back," Jack promised.

"Don't bother," Miss Beauchamp said. "It'll serve her right to get stuck out in the cold for a night."

"We'll just hope she don't come home bearin' puppies," Jack said, cracking a smile.

"Oh, Lord," Miss Beauchamp sighed. "Don't even. That's the very last thing I need."

"Hopefully it don't come to that," Jack said. "You take care now, Afi."

"You too, Jackie," Miss Beauchamp said warmly. "And you, Deputy Jones."

"Thanks," he said.

He and Jack moved off again. Neither of them spoke for almost a block.

"Do you wanna talk about it?" Jack asked softly.

"About what?" said Michael.

"Ryan."

"Nothin' to talk about," Michael mumbled.

"He's furious with you, Michael," Jack said. "I've never seen him this mad."

"So?"

"So—" she began, and broke off. She shrugged, glancing back over her shoulder. "So, I just . . . I'm worried about you. Both of y'all, honestly, but . . . you especially."

"I'm fine," said Michael. "It ain't nothin' to worry over."

Jack chewed her cheek and didn't respond. Something sickly bubbled up in Michael's guts. The Coat prickled the back of his neck, tugging on his shoulders as he pushed himself along.

"Unless . . . you got some reason to worry that I don't know about," he said.

"No, no," said Jack, shaking her head. "I s'pose I just . . . got a feelin'. Intuition. That somethin' ain't right with y'all. I woulda expected . . . I dunno. Thought it was gonna be a good deal more joyful than it's been. Guess that's just the fault of my expectations."

"It ain't," said Michael. His sinuses prickled, and he sniffled, cleared his throat. "I . . . mighta had those same expectations."

"I'm sorry," Jack said. She hesitated, then asked, "Did somethin' happen in Lovelock?"

"Jesus, did somethin' ever," Michael muttered, scrunching his eyebrows against a soreness in the center of his forehead.

Ten steps passed in silence.

"Did he hurt you?" Jack asked softly.

"No."

"'Cuz if he hurt you—"

"He's never laid a hand on me," Michael interrupted. He felt compelled to add, "Unprovoked. I mean unless I started the—the layin' of hands."

"Michael," she said, pained.

"Listen, Jack, I'm fine," he said. "Ryan's pissed off at me 'cuz I . . . asked him about Narvaez even after he told me not to. I mighta got sorta . . . pushy about it. That's it."

He thought that was a beautifully plausible lie. Jack's face smoothened with sudden understanding, and he only felt a little guilty about it.

Mostly he felt like he'd just thrown away an opportunity. He had to remind himself that it was only an opportunity to get Jack killed.

"That'd do it," she said. "You mind if I ask what you asked?"

Michael chewed it over, the clockwork in his head whirring. How much trouble could it cause, to loop Jack in on this? What could go wrong? Moreover, was it possible that she might have some answers?

"I wanted to know why he has Narvaez's rifle," he said, watching her face closely. She winced.

"Oh, shit, no wonder he's pissed off at you," she said.

"What?" said Michael. "Why does—why's that make sense?"

Jack heaved a sigh, a cloud of white vapor shrouding her face for a moment before being left behind.

"That rifle was like Ray's right arm," she said. "He never went nowhere without it. Ryan used to say . . . look, this don't go no farther than us, all right?"

"Right," said Michael. There was a shivering in his chest, a metallic taste on his tongue.

"He used to say it was the proof that Ray was dead," Jack said softly. "Since he never woulda run off without it. But also that . . . so long as he took care of that rifle, so long as he kept it close and used it time to time, Ray'd never really be gone. 'Cuz that thing was part of him."

"Awful . . . sentimental of him," Michael said, hoarse. His shoulder itched, but he couldn't take his hands off the wheels long enough to scratch it properly. Jack shrugged and rolled her shoulders to resettle her coat.

"I don't know that he ever really got over what happened to Ray," she said. "I mean, we all went out lookin', of course, but . . . I dunno. Most of us gave up after a couple months or so. He'd still ride out on Sundays, up 'til about—well, a li'l while after you turned up."

Despite himself, Michael blushed. It threw him off enough that he couldn't think of anything to say. It would have been so much nicer if this little diversion was the truth and the whole truth of the situation. It seemed like such a neat, solvable problem.

"Can I give you a piece of advice?" Jack said.

"Uh—sure," said Michael.

"Just tell him you'll listen," she said. "If he ever wants to talk. And make sure he knows that you're all right, and that you're gonna stay all right."

Michael frowned. "Why?" he said.

"Michael," she said. "Every single man he's been involved with in this town is dead, exceptin' you. He's scared, hon. He don't ever show it, but—"

"Naw," said Michael. "Sometimes he does."

They walked in silence for a while, starting to loop back around towards the sheriff's station.

"Jack?" Michael said.

"Yeah?"

It was hard to find the words, harder to spit them out, but he managed.

"Did he ever hurt Narvaez?"

Jack let out a slow, heavy breath, like the weight of the question itself had pressed it out of her.

"Not that I knew of," she said.

"Did you get any . . . gut feelin's about it?"

"The impression that I got," Jack said carefully, "which ain't fact, and shouldn't be taken as such—but the impression I always got was that Ryan was so desperate for somebody to love him that he decided not to mind bein' used."

Michael had to take a second to absorb this. The cold was starting to seep into his bones and make his face ache.

"Oh," he said.

"In which light," she added, "it ain't too surprisin' that he gave up lookin' for Ray shortly after you came along."

"I—all right, wait, no, hang on now," said Michael, now thoroughly derailed. "When I first got here, I avoided him like the fuckin' plague, 'cuz he creeped the hell outta me, and then after that I barely said ten words together to him for—for months!"

"Yeah, Michael," Jack said indulgently. "But they were none of 'em unkind words."

"He's talked about this with you, ain't he," Michael said.

"He was cryin' on my shoulder for months," she said.

"Oh, bull-shit," Michael mumbled.

"Michael, why do you think I was always unavailable when it came time to pair off?" Jack said.

He opened his mouth. He shut it again.

"I always thought y'all were doin' it to . . . mess with me," he said lamely. "'Cuz he was creepy and all."

"Well," Jack admitted, as they came back around to the sheriff's station. "That, too. Especially since while you was bein' creeped out, Ryan was over the moon just to have a moment of your attention."

"God dammit, Jackie."

Her eyes sparkled, and her face split into a wide, dazzling grin.

"It was fuckin' hilarious," she said.

Chapter Text

Michael was the last to go home that evening, although it wasn't entirely intentional. He'd meant to hang around until everybody but Ryan was gone so they could have some kind of conversation, but this was foiled when Ryan up and left exactly at the stroke of five. He said good night to everyone but Michael. It was so petty that it would've been funny, if Michael had been less nervous.

Because of those nerves, he spent quite a while just sitting at his desk and thinking, and before he knew it, Geoff was leaving, too. Gavin tagged along with him, apparently having had enough of Michael's company. That, or he had picked up on how subdued and unhappy Geoff was, and figured that was where he was most needed.

It didn't help with the nerves.

Shortly after that, Jack headed out, and then Jeremy. He hung back in the doorway for just a moment and Michael's heart leapt into his throat.

"Hey, uh . . . Michael," he said, one foot out the door.

"Yeah?" said Michael.

"Um. A-about this Vagabond stuff, um. . . ."

Michael held his breath. Jeremy gulped and looked at his feet.

"There's somethin' you should know," he said. "And it's why we're all so—so fuckin' worried about Ryan, and—but you cannot tell anybody I told you, all right? Sheriff'll kill me if he finds out."

"All right," said Michael.

Jeremy bit his lip and fidgeted. He glanced over his shoulder, then stepped back into the station and shut the door.

"It wasn't self-defense," he said. "Meg never even tried to shoot him."

Michael let this hang for a moment. He took a slow, deep breath, rubbing his hands on the arms of his chair.

"I know," he said.

"Michael, I don't think you understand just what—"

"No, Jeremy, I know," said Michael. He met Jeremy's eyes. "I saw. I . . . was up in the hayloft."

Jeremy paled. "So you—Michael, honestly, what Geoff said about—"

"About y'all lyin' to me?" Michael guessed. It came out much more accusatory than he'd wanted. "Yeah. I expect that's why Ryan wanted me to be there."

Squirming, Jeremy said, "I'm sorry."

"Yeah yeah," said Michael. He sighed. "Thanks for bein' honest. Finally."

Jeremy glanced up at him. "While—uh, while I'm bein' honest, Michael?"

"What?"

He looked over his shoulder again, and moved away from the door, and when he spoke it was in a hoarse whisper.

"I'm scared," he said. "Not for Ryan, or at least not just for Ryan. I—back before I joined up with Geoff and them, back in Baton Rouge, I. . . ."

A hazy vision swam up in Michael's memory, three fingers pinched together and an alligator smile.

"You killt somebody, din't you," Michael said.

"There was a shootout," Jeremy said. The words tumbled out of his mouth like water. "Bank robbery gone to hell, I ain't mean for anybody to get hurt. I was younger and dumber and I ain't think about it and . . . Michael, I've killed four U. S. Marshals. I left town, I changed my name, the only people who know are Geoff and them, 'cuz I knew—I always knew someday the Vagabond'd come after me, but—but Jesus, Michael, I'm just scared for Kitty, I don't want nothin' to happen to Kitty, she don't even know I used to be an outlaw!"

Michael set his jaw and breathed deeply. He met Jeremy's gaze and held it.

"Jeremy," he said. "Nothin' is gonna happen to you or Kitty."

"But—"

"I will make goddamn sure of it," he interrupted.

Jeremy looked for a moment like he was going to object again, but then he just shut his mouth and nodded.

"Thank you, Michael," he said. "It—that means a lot."

"We're gonna get him," Michael said. "Before he gets any of us."

Jeremy cracked a smile and shook his head. "Well you ain't gotta worry about gettin' got, Michael," he said. "You've never been an outlaw."

"Well," Michael said, uncomfortable. "I guess not."

There was a brief and awkward silence. Jeremy sniffed and put his hat on.

"Good night, Michael," he said. "And—sorry again. About . . . y'know, everythin'."

"Night, Jeremy," said Michael. "And uh . . . no hard feelin's."

Jeremy smiled, then headed out. Michael rubbed his forehead and let out a breath.

"Hell," he muttered.


 

It was long past dark when Michael got home, the mud under his wheels whitened and crunchy with frost. He was starting to get that slow, boiling pain in his legs, and was looking forward to a nice long drink of whiskey-and-laudanum, and a night finally spent alone.

He was so distracted by this mundane fantasy that it took him five whole seconds to notice the lit lamp on the kitchen table.

"Jesus Christ!" Michael exclaimed, nearly jumping out of his skin. "What the fuck're you doin' here?"

"Waitin' on you," Ryan said. He was leaned up against the far wall of the kitchen. His voice was quiet, his arms folded. The lamplight gleamed off his eyes. He was not smiling.

"All right, I ain't think I had to say this outright, but apparently I do," Michael said, trying to cover the fear in his voice with annoyance. "Don't fuckin' wait around in my house for me, it's goddamn creepy."

Ryan said nothing. He stood very still, watching Michael with a keen eye. Michael's hair all stood on end. The Coat sank needle-teeth into his wrists and the back of his neck. He swallowed.

"What?" he said.

"Would you care to tell me," Ryan said softly, "why you thought it'd be a good idea to bring up the Vagabond in front of Geoff and them?"

Michael went cold all over. He struggled to breathe—in for seven, out for eleven, he'd be fine, he'd be fine—and picked out his lie from the tumult in his head.

"I . . . din't think," he said, turning his face away sheepishly. He rubbed his hands on the arms of his chair. "It just—I dunno, Ryan. I'm sorry. Just sorta slipped out. I tried to fix it up as best I could, but. . . ."

"Oh, Michael," Ryan sighed. Michael let out a breath, but kept his composure tightly in check. Ryan came over and cupped his cheek, kissed the top of his head.

"It was a dumb mistake," Michael mumbled, leaning into the touch. "I am sorry."

"No, honey," Ryan said, indulgent. His hand moved to Michael's shoulder, gentle and lingering. "Th' only dumb mistake is the one you're makin' right now."

Terror hit him like a swift punch in the chest. He had only enough time to realize just how badly he'd fucked up before Ryan shoved.

The chair slammed into the ground and knocked his breath out. His head cracked on the floor. He saw stars. Ryan's boot pressed on the stab wound in his shoulder and he yelped.

"Since you seem to be incapable of tellin' the truth when asked nicely," he hissed, "why don't I rephrase: what the fuck do you think you're playin' at, boy?"

Michael couldn't move, frozen by pain and panic. His head spun. Ryan dug in his heel, the lamplight blazing in his eyes. Pain lanced through Michael's chest like lightning. He gasped as the world whited out.

"Answer me, Michael," Ryan said, showing teeth. He shoved down with his foot and Michael yelped again. "Or am I gone have to start squeezin'?"

"Ryan, stop," he whimpered, in desperation.

Ryan paused, and then the light in his eyes blinked out. He stepped back, and Michael pressed a hand to the wound in his chest, struggling to catch his breath. His whole body rang with the force of the fall, jittery with fear. He could smell lightning and blood. His hand itched for the cold metal of the Colt.

"I'm sorry," Ryan said, sounding baffled and horrified. "Michael, I'm—I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me."

"You fuckin' said I would be safe from you," Michael snarled, fear filtered through anger, vulnerability masquerading as strength.

"And you said I'd be safe from you!" Ryan cried. His voice cracked. He took another step back, wrapping his arms around himself, reigning himself in. "Were you lyin' then, too?"

Michael bit back his automatic retort. Here, again, was the machinery, the pistons and wires with the casing thrown back. It was an opportunity, if only he could keep his temper in check long enough to exploit it.

"Help me up," he said.

For a moment, Ryan hesitated. He came to Michael's side slowly, sidling up as though he expected to be struck. Michael propped himself up on an elbow and reached a hand up to Ryan. Moving with the utmost care, Ryan took it.

Through some heaving and delicate balancing, the two of them managed to get Michael upright again. Ryan backed away once it was done, out of arm's reach. Michael touched the back of his head gingerly, thinking through his next move. As much as he wanted to get rid of Ryan right away, to curl up and shiver and drown himself in laudanum, there were things that needed doing.

"I said before," Michael said slowly, "and I'll say it again now: I never meant for you to get hurt."

"At some point it stops matterin' what you meant, Michael," Ryan said.

"Oh, does it?" he snapped, glaring. "'Cuz you sure as hell meant to hurt me just now."

Ryan shrank into himself, looking at his feet. It was so hard to believe that this small, sorrowful thing was the same creature of lightning and steel that had borne Michael to the ground not two minutes ago. The dichotomy seemed impossibly vast.

"Ryan," Michael said softly. "Look at me."

Ryan raised his eyes, and Michael held his gaze.

"It was a dumb mistake," Michael said. "And I'm sorry that I scared you that bad with it. I thought you'd pick up on what I was gunnin' for, but I shoulda talked about it with you beforehand."

"What do you mean?" Ryan said, apprehensive.

"I mean Heyman," said Michael. The gears in his head were whirring so fast, it was a wonder there wasn't smoke coming out his ears. "You and me both know these folks—whoever the hell they are—are too goddamn good at coverin' their tracks to be arrested the usual way. I ain't lettin' it get as far as it went with the Hullums again. We're gonna figure out where Heyman is, and we're gonna get him to come here, and we're gonna convince Geoff and them that he's the Vagabond."

Ryan stared. His chin lifted, just an inch.

"I don't know if I like that idea, Michael," he said quietly.

"Listen, it solves two problems in one," said Michael. "First, it gets Heyman gone, which I want, and second, it takes all the heat off you. If Geoff and them think they've caught and killed the Vagabond, they'll never look at you sideways again. They're awful skittish, after what you did to Meg."

Ryan considered this for a long, long time, while Michael's heart thundered in his ears and his shoulders throbbed with rising bruises. He kept still, and kept his mouth shut, and hoped like hell.

"You were lookin' after me," Ryan said at last, his voice little more than a hoarse whisper.

"Yeah, dumbass," said Michael, fighting to stay annoyed, to not let his relief and astonishment show. "'Cuz that's what partners do."

Ryan bit his lip and averted his eyes. His fingers were digging into his side, right about where the bullet wound was. He looked frightened.

"I'm not gonna let Geoff or anybody else hurt you, Ryan," Michael said gently. "You just gotta trust me. All right?"

Nodding, Ryan dropped his gaze and hunched his shoulders. It took him a moment to find his words.

"Did I hurt you?" he asked.

"Yes," said Michael, who was all out of pity for the day. Ryan winced and half-turned away, his head bowed, his face twisted with guilt.

"Do you want me to go?" he said, even more quietly.

"I think that'd be for the best," said Michael.

Ryan glanced at him. He was blinking back tears.

"I'm sorry, Michael," he said. "It won't happen again."

"It better not," said Michael.

With one final tearful glance, Ryan hurried out.

Michael gave it to the count of one hundred before collapsing into a shivering wreck. A goose-egg was rising on the back of his head, bruises swelling on his back. There was a wet heat beneath the wound in his shoulder, like it was bleeding under his skin. The center of his chest was so cold it ached, so cold he couldn't breathe.

"Oh, shit," he whispered to himself, rocking back and forth, wallowing in pain. "Oh, shit, oh shit, oh shit. . . ."

In that moment, more than anything, he hated Geoff for taking Gavin away.


 

Ryan didn't come into work the next morning, and Michael was only half glad. At ten o'clock, Jack went to check on him, just in case something was really wrong. She returned about half an hour later.

"Wore himself out with all the runnin' around," she reported, hanging her hat up on a peg by the door. "He ain't feelin' well, but he's . . . y'know. Not in any trouble."

"Sure," Geoff sighed. "At least he ain't libel to get himself into any more. For now."

Michael kept his mouth shut and his eyes down. He couldn't help the twinge of guilt that shot through his gut, the icy crackle in his chest. There was no turning back now.

He couldn't help the burst of vindictive satisfaction, either.

Served the bastard right.


 

The church was one of the few buildings in town that was equipped with a ramp for wheelchairs, although today was the first time Michael had used it. Like the rest of the building, it was shoddy, and haphazard, but built with a sort of reckless enthusiasm that was endearing. Michael struggled with the doors for a little while, but eventually managed to get inside.

Since it was a Friday morning, the church was mostly deserted, which was fine by Michael. Rows of empty pews faced a lopsided pulpit. Watery sunlight filtered in through grubby windows, drawing white-gold columns through the air. There was a smell of frost and dust and old sweat. The floorboards creaked alarmingly as Michael traversed them. Gavin was not with him, because certain parties had insisted that there would be no dogs in church, and Michael hadn't come looking for an argument.

Behind the pulpit, there was a large cross, hewn from a pair of pine logs and held together with thick hemp rope. It loomed. There was a desperate energy to it, like at any moment it might rip itself from its moorings and topple down to crush the unsuspecting parishioners. That damn cross alone had just about made an atheist of Michael. It was the main reason he'd stopped coming to services here.

The secondary reason was loitering outside the sanctuary, setting down the broom he'd been pretending to sweep with.

"Ah, my son," the Reverend Gus Sorola effused, spreading his hands. "Come in, set a while, let the Lord take some of that weight off your shoulders."

"Cut the crap, Padre," Michael said, smiling despite himself. He stopped between the front pews, since after that there were a couple steps up to the pulpit.

Sorola's entire demeanor turned on a dime. He folded his arms and pouted like a schoolboy.

"Oh, what?" he said. "I ain't allowed to be a li'l sanctimonious, time to time?"

"You sound like a g—a dad-gum idjit," Michael said, mincing the oath at the last second.

"You have just an exceptional way of instantaneously becomin' a pain in the neck."

"Keeps me from bein' the only one with a pain in my neck. Misery loves comp'ny."

"I see that for once, you've left that filthy, flea-bitten mutt at home," Sorola said approvingly.

"He couldn't make it," Michael said, clenching his teeth on his temper.

Sorola made a face and sighed. He came over and sat on the pew nearest Michael.

"Well, and so what did you want, then? I don't s'pose you're here lookin' out for your immortal soul, unless you had a change of heart recently. I ain't seen you at a single sermon in the past . . . what, six months?"

"Ten," said Michael. Sorola clicked his teeth and Michael ignored him. "Had a question you might could answer, though."

"Oh, business, business, business," said Sorola, his lip curling under his bushy mustache.

"You was the one who started proselytizin' the second I came in the door, you started the business," said Michael.

"Since we are in a church and I am a pastor, I thought it was reasonable."

"Well, and this is reasonable church business, too," said Michael. He pulled the photograph of the railmen's bodies out of his pocket. "Have a look at that."

Sorola took the photo from him. His entire face drew out long with horror and disgust. He shoved the photo back into Michael's hands and crossed himself.

"Holy shit!" he cried. After a second's awkward pause, he glanced up at the ceiling and added, "Beggin' your pardon. But what in the name of all that is holy is that abomination?"

"You remember them railmen that came into town a few months back?"

"Oh, Lord have mercy," said Sorola, paling. "No, I—I recall now, that symbol. Jeremy came by askin' about it, way back when, talkin' some talk about cults that, uh. . . ."

He trailed off. Michael frowned.

"What?" he said.

"Well, that poor Trevor Collins had put into his head, God rest his soul," Sorola said gently.

Michael swallowed and dropped his gaze. He rubbed his hands on the arms of his chair. The Coat creaked like hanging rope as he moved. There was a crawling sensation under his skin, the feeling of being watched. His eyes flicked to the cross. Sap had run down its sides like blood, frozen there in a gruesome tableau. He shivered and looked somewhere else.

"If you'd like to move into the confessional—" Sorola began.

"No," Michael said. "I just wanna know if this—if the cult crap's real. In your opinion."

"Michael, I don't think that's hardly relevant."

"Three men are dead," Michael snapped. "Maybe four, maybe five, if Burns and Risinger were a part of it."

Maybe seven, the Coat reminded him, pressing into his wrists like manacles.

"I don't aim to let there be any more," Michael said, as much to that niggling thought as to Sorola. "If you won't help, I'll just be on my way."

"I don't know what help you want me to be, Michael," Sorola said, throwing up his hands. "Cults ain't my area of expertise. Completely the opposite! A symbol's a symbol, the meanin' is arbitrary. I can't tell you anythin' you don't already know."

"You know how cults work, don't you?"

"In only the most abstract fashion," said Sorola. "Sacrifices are made in exchange for boons. They worship Satan the Opposer. Their souls are condemned to eternal damnation and you shouldn't join up with 'em. That's all I got, son."

Michael clenched his teeth. He glanced at the cross again. The Coat dug into his skin.

"There's one thing you could help with," he said. "Not . . . cult-related."

"All right, so go on then."

He hesitated just a moment more before asking, that perennial refrain that was never quite answered to his satisfaction.

"What happened to Narvaez?" he said.

Sorola got very quiet. After a moment, he got up and moved to the pulpit. He returned with an old, ratty Bible in hand.

"You got a few minutes?" he asked.

"As many as it takes," said Michael, his heart thumping in his ears.

Sorola sighed, his lips pinching together until his mustache tickled his chin. He set the Bible in his lap and folded his hands on it. He addressed all his words to the pulpit.

"Ray was not a good man," he said. "And for most of his life, I doubt that bothered him. He had many, many sins weighin' down his soul. At a certain point, he began to feel that weight. Unfortunately, it . . . distorted his mind. Somewhat."

"How so?"

"Most men," Sorola said, "when they find that their immortal soul is in peril, fear the wrath of God. I don't know that Ray held much truck with God, nor feared Him as much as a man should. But somethin' put the fear of hellfire into him, I'll tell you that."

"Do you know what it was?"

He shook his head. "Hard to say," he said. "It started with small things. Bumps in the night and unsettled dreams. He started comin' to sermons, lookin' for some peace of mind, but it only got worse. There were demons plaguin' that man, though whether literal or figurative I doubt I will ever know."

"He talked to you about it."

"At length," said Sorola. "Went through many a confessional with him, stayed up many a sleepless night. For a time, he only felt safe in this church. He said it was the only place the demons wouldn't dare come to. And he was right about that, at least."

"That changed?"

"To some extent," said Sorola. "Eventually he became convinced that he didn't dare come here, either. Maybe it was me talkin' wrath of God, or maybe he lost all hope of forgiveness, but at some point he gave up on unblackenin' his soul."

"Did he ever . . . say what the demons were?" Michael said. "Describe 'em in any way?"

Sorola looked up sharply. Michael flushed, but didn't flinch away.

"Scattered accounts," said Sorola. "Most of 'em standard. Glowin' red eyes, hooves and horns, bat wings and tails and fire."

Michael breathed a sigh of relief. "Right," he said.

"Couple times he said he'd seen the Devil himself," Sorola mused. "He was far gone by then, nearly insensible. It was a cryin' shame, really, 'cuz it was so painfully obvious he was just describin' Ryan."

Michael's heart skipped a beat. His hands tightened on the arms of his chair. He was sweating under the Coat, like coals had been sewn in with the lining.

"Ain't surprisin', of course," Sorola went on, with an expression of distaste. "Considerin' how much time they spent together."

"What—" Michael began, but his voice was scarcely a croak, so he had to clear his throat and try again. "What'd he say the Devil . . . did? Or said?"

"You are gettin' awful specific about this, ain't you," said Sorola. "Is there somethin' you need to talk about, Michael? Somethin' you've seen?"

"I'd really appreciate it if you'd answer mine first," Michael mumbled.

"Well," Sorola said helplessly, "nothin', really. Ray just said he was there, up in the clock tower. Which I s'pose is sensible, since it's where he did all his reckless shootin' from. Told him he might have an easier time of things if he'd stop livin' in sin with Ryan, but—oop, sorry, hah, you did not hear that from me."

Michael was too preoccupied to give much of a damn, but it did still sting. There was no accounting for the stupidity of his heart.

"Sure," he said. "Padre . . . do you—what I mean to say is . . . are ghosts real?"

Frowning, Sorola patted the Bible in his lap.

"Well, there's one in particular that springs to mind," he said. "That bein' the Holy Ghost. Presumably others are less holy, unless there was a gunfight."

He stuck out his pointer fingers and fired off a few jovial shots, chuckling. Michael did not laugh. Sorola's mirth fizzled out.

"See you ain't in a jokin' mood," he said. "So. Plenty of ghosts throughout—Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes. Shouldn't have anythin' to do with 'em if it can be avoided. Nothin' you can ask a ghost that you wouldn't get a better answer from God."

"Well, I ain't seen God in my house, Padre, but I think I seen a ghost three whole times," said Michael.

"All right, so there's that," said Sorola, making a face. "You want me to get rid of it for you? Ain't often I get to flex my holy power."

"I don't—I don't know," said Michael. "He ain't—I don't think it's ever tried to hurt me, and I don't know that I got any more right to be in that house than it does. Maybe less."

"What do you mean?"

"I wish I knew," Michael sighed, throwing up his hands. "I thought—for a while I thought, you know, it mighta been Narvaez. His house and all. But that—but I don't even know if Narvaez is dead, so it's—so I'm—I just don't know. I don't know what to do, or what should be done, or what can be done, even."

"I'll tell you somethin', Michael," Sorola said, with a sort of patronizing kindness that set Michael's teeth on edge. "Ghosts exist, yes, but they are not the shadows of our loved ones. They're demons doin' poor impersonations."

"Why the hell—sorry, why on earth would anythin' impersonate a man I'd never met at me?" Michael demanded.

"Oh, very simply, to deceive you," said Sorola. "Maybe Ray ain't dead at all. Tell me, has this shadow frightened you? Driven you to take actions you wouldn't have otherwise?"

"No," Michael said stubbornly, though there was a knot of uncertainty growing in his stomach, mirrored by a twinge in his shoulder. He rubbed his mouth, not looking at Sorola.

"Let me come and get rid of the thing for you," Sorola said. "The longer you stay exposed to it, the worse it'll get."

"No," Michael said again. "It ain't—there ain't a goddamn demon in my—"

"Ahem."

"Sorry. A dad-gum demon. There ain't one in my house."

"Yet you think the spirit of a man who may not even be dead is more likely?" Sorola asked. "The agents of Satan are all around us, Michael, and they are wily. You'd do better to—"

"I'm startin' to see where Narvaez got all his material from," Michael said coldly.

Sorola pursed his lips. "I am providin' comfort and aid," he said.

"You are providin' crazy talk," Michael retorted. He turned his chair around. He could feel the cross looming behind him, the pressure of it against the Coat. "Good mornin'."

"So you're just gonna leave?"

"I'm just gonna leave. Thanks for nothin', look forward to not seein' you again for another ten months."

Michael was halfway to the door before Sorola threw out one last hopeful hook.

"Are you a God-fearin' man, Michael?" he called.

"Only thing that scares me about God is that He might be real," Michael said, without slowing down.

"Because of what it means for your immortal soul?"

"No," said Michael. "'Cuz of what it'd say about God."

And with that, he left the church.

Chapter Text

For two days, Michael saw neither hide nor hair of Ryan. It was like having an arm cut off, in the best way possible. He hadn't realized how much he'd relied on—and feared—that presence at his side until it was gone. Much like laudanum, solitude managed to salve a pain he hadn't been consciously aware of.

Nonetheless, the more time went on, the more anxious Michael became. Jack dropped by Saturday evening to report; Ryan was still laid up in bed, and the other three were taking it in turns to check in on him. Although she didn't ask why Michael wasn't with him, he could tell she wondered. He halfway wished the bruises all over his back and the goose-egg on the back of his head were more visible. Jack would probably understand, just seeing those, although there was no telling what she'd do about it.

He was glad none of it was visible, though, because he had no idea how to talk about what had happened, and didn't want to, either.

On Sunday, once the clock tolled noon and he could be sure Sorola's service had well and truly let out, he made his way to Lindsay's clinic. He wasn't sure what he was going to do there, just that he needed to be around somebody, and preferably somebody who knew the kind of mess he was in. Gavin tagged along, as carefree as ever.

"C'mon in," Lindsay said, opening the door to him. Gavin trotted right on inside, and Michael followed. "How's your laudanum supply holdin' up?"

"Uh," said Michael. He scratched his ear. He wasn't wearing the Coat, which felt like a grave risk, and the nerves were making it hard to focus. "It's . . . runnin' a li'l low."

"Thought it might be," said Lindsay. "Come on back to the back, we'll set you up with a refill."

Michael followed her to