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In the Depths of a Well

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Every choice is a crossroads that can go many ways — the moment when the free will of humankind irrevocably adjusts the course of history. For some, it is a small choice, a little change; for others, it is a choice that can drastically change the course of the world. For a man known as Robert Svane, his crossroad came at the side of a well, with a spool of thread and one hand and his own lifeblood coating the other. A witch had just whispered in his ear, and as he looked down at the man in the well who was more doomed than he was, Robert had a moment to contemplate his choices.

In one reality, Robert chose to offer the man in the well a choice — the man who had abandoned Wyatt and who, yes, Robert was jealous of, for holding such devotion from Wyatt — to either give him the ring that would grant him immortality, or be trapped for eternity, alone, in the dark, in a well. The man in the well chose poorly, in turn, and Robert damned them both by leaving him to die.

In another, Robert refused the witch’s offer — he still clung to the hope that he could be a good man, despite his inevitable trip to the one place he had never thought he would be sentenced to. She broke his neck, and left him lying in the snow, until the flames of hell devoured him and took his skeleton away.

In a third, Robert threw away the thread, and lowered a rope to the man in the well. He could not damn another, not to save his own soul — he could not betray the love he held for Wyatt Earp like that.

This third reality is one of interest, for when Robert made to free the man trapped in the well, Constance Clootie reappeared at his side and smiled, briefly, before placing one beringed hand over his still-bleeding wound, and toppling him into the well.

It was a short descent, really — a shocked intake of air that in a moment was expelled from his lungs by the force of his landing. Robert lay there, the cold water soaking through the wool of his coat and chilling his bones, and his eyes slipped shut as his tenuous hold on conscious was taken from him.

When he woke, Doc Holliday was crouched beside him, his ever-present hat resting on one knee as he poked at the wound on Robert’s shoulder.

“Please,” whispered Robert, but he wasn’t sure what his plea was for. To help him somehow, or to end his mortal suffering. He was dying — he had barely held on from the church to the well, and his will to keep fighting the call of death was fading.

Doc Holliday could have, at this moment of his own crossroad, chosen differently.

In one iteration, he gave the ring to Robert, preventing his death but ensuring his own — his illness was worse than he had thought, and Robert was left to watch his rotting corpse sink into the earth.

In another, Doc simply sat and watched the man die — the little mouse who had gone riding to Wyatt’s aid when Doc had not, and had paid the price for it.

But in the third — it always comes in threes, doesn’t it — Doc sat down in the mud beside a man he didn’t particularly care for, and said, “How did you know about the ring?”

“That’s your question?” said Robert, and a wheezing laugh escaped him — it turned swiftly into coughs that wracked his body and he groaned. Doc watched him, his face impassive, and Robert shook his head slightly — there was water on his spectacles, mixed with blood, but he didn’t have the strength to lift a hand to wipe them. “Clootie’s wife…” He coughed again, and it hurt enough that he lost whatever words he had planned to say next. Nonetheless, Doc nodded, as if that was enough for him to understand.

“That witch threw me in a well to rot,” said the gunslinger. “Didn’t think she would send me company.” He paused, his face twisting, and he said softly, “You ain’t long for this world, now, are you?” Robert didn’t have the breath to answer him, but he didn’t need to. “Did Clootie do this? Her or her husband?”

Robert struggled to breathe, tried to find the words. “Wyatt,” he finally said, and saw Doc’s eyes widen. “To get to Clootie. I was… in the way.” Soft-spoken Robert, always in the way. Never the one Wyatt would run to, no; it was always Doc. Doc Holliday, the man who had saved Wyatt’s life — there was nothing Robert could do to compare to that. “There’s a curse…”

“You don’t—” Doc took a deep breath, and tried again, and for some reason — through the fog of his glasses — Robert thought he could see tears welling in the other man’s eyes. “I should have been there.”

“Yeah,” said Robert. The sky seemed far away — a little circle of white and greys, setting a haloed outline around Doc’s head — and he couldn’t remember the last time he had seen a clear one. Not in Purgatory, anyway. “He was your friend, John Henry.”

Doc reached over and slid Robert’s spectacles from his face — the little hooks snagged in his hair briefly, but the pain was so minimal compared to his chest that he couldn’t be bothered to even wince — and wiped the lens on his shirt with care before settling them back on Robert’s nose, easing the hooks back over his ears. Robert stared at him, heart heavy in his chest, and the weight of his impending doom settled over him.

“When I come back,” he whispered, and Doc leaned close to hear him, “you and I won’t be fighting on the same side… not anymore.”

“Come back?” said Doc, his brow furrowing. “Have you an escape route from this blasted well?”

Robert laughed — a single, wheezing breath — and said, “Ain’t for you to follow.” Not now, not yet — not while Doc wore that ring on his finger — but one day. Doc Holliday’s life was not one free of sin, and his path to the afterlife would not be a path to Heaven. “Wyatt’s been… cursed,” he said. “Him and all he kills with Peacemaker…”

“There’s no such thing,” said Doc, but his eyes said he knew differently, as he twisted the silver ring around and around his finger. “Wyatt certainly never believed in it.”

“He does now,” said Robert. It took him a long moment to get his breathing steady enough to continue. “Revenants, she called them. That’s what we’ll become… all who died by his cursed bullets.”

“That witch,” hissed Doc. “She knew more’n she let on, didn’t she?”

“Her plan… was always… to hurt Wyatt,” said Robert. He felt numb, the pain beginning to fade, and he knew that wasn’t a good sign. “When he dies… we all come back. Everyone… but him…” He blinked, staring at something over Doc’s shoulder. “Do you see her? The angel…” There was a pause, a long pause where his mouth moved but no sounds could be heard by the immortal by his side, and on a final breath, he whispered, “Waverly.”

Robert Svane let out a sigh, and said no more; glassy eyes staring up at a sky that was blue, bluer than the eyes of the man no longer able to see its colour. Doc Holliday bowed his head, at the bottom of a well, with the body of a man who had given his life for Wyatt when Doc hadn’t been strong enough to.

After a day, as the Robert’s body cooled and Doc could no longer bear to look at him, the gunslinger dug with his hands in the dirt and the mud until half of the little circle of earth had been disturbed, making a hole big enough that he could heft the dead man’s body into its depths and hear the splash of the water pooled there. Doc sat there, filthy and sweating, and leaned down to straighten the little round spectacles, lopsided from Doc’s rough handling of their perch.

Then he shifted all of the displaced dirt back into the hole, burying the past and praying for his own escape. Robert, at least, had taken leave of their prison.

And so Doc Holliday sat in the mud, and waited…

 

 

It had been years. Doc had counted each day, had marveled first at his lack of hunger the mourned his endless boredom. The seasons had changed and he had frozen with the winter and thawed with the spring, sweltered in the summer, and dreaded the slow creep of fall’s chill.

He was napping when it happened — he slept more than he should, simply for lack of anything to do — and he sat up, feeling tremors under his feet. Doc stood, hands resting on the butt of his guns, and let out an unmanly noise of surprise when a hand clawed free of the earth, followed by an arm and then a head, and shoulders, and so on and so forth, until Robert Svane stood in the well and wiped the earth from his face, dislodging his spectacles with a careless sweep and staring dispassionately at their descent to the dirt.

“Mary, Jesus, and Joseph,” breathed Doc, and the other man’s head lifted — icy blue eyes watched him for a moment, then flared an angry red that affected the skin around them with an unholy glow. “Robert?”

The demon who had once been Robert Svane closed his eyes. “He’s dead, then,” he murmured, tilting his head back to look at the sky, and it took Doc a long moment to remember a conversation from over a decade ago.

“Wyatt’s…?” he said, unable to even speak the word, unwilling to face the truth of the other man’s words, but before him stood an impossibility.

Hell, he was an impossibility; still living after all these years.

“Then there is a curse,” he said, because what else could he believe, when a man he had watched die — had buried with his own hands — stood living and breathing just as he had all those years ago? Even his clothes were undamaged, besides the dirt they had accumulated.

But his eyes — those had changed. Even as they lost their hellish gleam, their was still something awful lurking in those icy blue depths. Something wicked.

“Are you a demon, then?” said Doc, although he already knew the answer — no human being could crawl from the earth years after their death and still be intact — and the unimpressed look from the other man confirmed his suspicions. “Hell has made a different man of you, Robert Svane.”

The man — no, the Revenant — smiled, but there was no humor on his lips, no levity to the predator’s grin. “Somehow I doubt that’s who I am anymore,” he said, and looked up at the sky again. “Did you know,” he said, the words a relaxed drawl, “that in hell there is no sky? No sun, no stars — no moon.”

“I did not,” said Doc, and carefully took his hands away from his guns. The Revenant looked at him, and Doc knew that he knew — Doc was afraid.

“No need to fret, John Henry,” said Robert. “I have no more need of your magic ring.” He smiled. “Do take good care of it, mind. It’s more powerful than you know.”

Doc believed him.

 

 

They tried, once, to escape the well. Robert had returned to life with incredible strength — he could win any arm-wrestling match with Doc, no contest — and had lifted Doc on his shoulders, gripping his ankles to keep the gunslinger from falling. Doc had stretched for the circle of sunlight, brighter and larger than he had seen in years, but his fingers only scraped on mossy stone, over a man’s length still too short to draw them to freedom.

They had sat in the mud for a long time, after that, not speaking.

Conversation loses its joy when neither had much to say to the other; when all topics of common conversation had been picked dry.

Doc knew that Robert had once planted tomatoes, dozens of varieties, and given them away at his church one Sunday — all of the unwedded girls had brought him jars the following week, blushing as their mothers watched on sternly.

Robert knew that Doc had lain under the floorboards of his mother’s bedroom, confined to the dark and listening to her labored breathing, until the breaths had ceased to sound.

They knew each other’s secrets, their hopes — their fears. They knew enough of each other that loathing was no longer an option, only acceptance that they were trapped in the same prison for an indefinite amount of time.

Possibly forever.

   

 

It wasn’t always peaceful, or playful. Knowing someone so well means knowing all the ways to hurt them, and Doc had finally realized that he’d been the favorite of Wyatt’s, that Robert’s jealousy had nearly left him alone, had damned him to the eternal well.

“If you hadn’t been so selfish,” spat Doc, “if you hadn’t spent all your time trailing after Wyatt like a lost puppy, maybe he would have believed in you. If you had been worth something.”

Robert had leveled a glare on him that promised pain. “If you hadn’t abandoned your — our — friend, when he needed you most, then maybe,” he hissed, “maybe we wouldn’t be stuck in a well at all.”

“I would’ve died without that ring!”

“Maybe you should have!” Robert spat, and his eyes flashed red as he rose to his feet, and Doc did the only thing he knew.

He drew his gun.

The bullet never left the chamber, no — the gun was ripped from his hand by an unseen force as Robert wrenched his hand through the air, and Doc scrabbled until his back was against the stone as the other man doubled over with a cry of pain, tearing and clawing at his jacket and shirt until his torso was bare, and Doc sucked in a breath.

A long, fiery mark caressed Robert’s skin, tracing along his spine and swooping across his shoulders and the small of his back, gleaming with the same unholy light of his eyes, the edges of the mark raw and burning like embers. After a long moment of Robert’s ragged breathing reverberating in the silence of their well, the man slowly straightened, eyes returning to their former blue.

“Mercy,” whispered Doc, and removed his hat, and Robert stared at him — Doc pointed to the puddle of water that never truly drained, and Robert peered into its surface, the closest to a mirror they had.

“What in hellfire…?” whispered Robert, raising a hand to touch the patch of white that had spread on the left side of his beard, reaching up to brush against the patch of white marring his right eyebrow. “What is this?”

“What in tarnation was that?” said Doc, picking up his gun and holstering it before Robert could do more than tense his muscles. “Enough, Robert. Enough.”

Robert lowered his hand.

“That was a neat trick, however you did it,” said Doc, taking a tentative step forward. “Although perhaps your back is of more interest than a change in hair colour, old man.”

“Fuck you,” said Robert, but twisted around to check his reflection in the water, grimacing when he saw the light reflected there. “Fuck.”

Doc placed his hat back on his head and grinned.

 

 

They experimented.

Metal responded best to Robert’s call — a crook of his finger could have Doc’s guns flying to him in a heartbeat — and the minerals in the earth shuddered if he focused hard enough. Small items were the easiest to move — belt buckles, nails from their boots — but larger ones took more effort. And it hurt, oh, it hurt — any use of his newfound powers sent a tingling rush of pain down Bobo’s spine, the mark on his back flaring in response, and his temperature soared if he used them too long. His hair stayed the same colour it had been — no more new patches of white — but his control and finesse grew stronger with every day.

It had been decades by then, since Constance Clootie had pushed them down a well, and they were comfortable in each other’s space.

 

 

That was the day the rope came down.

Robert was the first to his feet — he always was, anytime an unfortunate bird or beast fell into the well (and both of them refused to discuss the Sheep Incident of year thirty-two) — and Doc scrambled up beside him as the Revenant yanked on the rope and found it solid.

“Is it real?” whispered the gunslinger. “Am I dreaming?”

“If it’s a dream,” said Robert, “then don’t wake me up.” He glanced at the rope, then at Doc. “You first.”

“So if it’s cut, I'll be the one to fall?” griped Doc, but he took the rope in his hands as Robert stepped back. “You’ll catch me.”

“Don’t bet on it, John Henry,” drawled Robert, and Doc laughed as he hauled himself up the rope, hand over hand, one foot at a time. He grasped the edge of the well and hauled himself over, tumbling into the grass and laughing in wild ecstasy to feel something other than the cold and the damp, and he drew himself up to peer into the well, a wide smile on his face fit to bursting.

“Robert, get up here!” he called, and the Revenant risked letting go with one hand to cast a rude hand gesture in his direction. “Hurry up!” The Revenant’s progress was slower than his, and Doc was losing patience — he wanted to run for the trees that had grown since their imprisonment, to see what lay beyond them.

“Patience,” said Robert, but didn’t complain when Doc hauled on the rope and then hauled him by the arms as soon as he was in reach, the two of them collapsing into the grass and lying on their backs, staring up at the cloud-studded sky.

“Unreal,” whispered Doc, relishing the warmth of the sun on his skin, and he turned his head to grin at Robert. “After all these years…”

Robert’s face shuttered. “There are still Earps living,” he said quietly. “And others, like me, whom Wyatt put in the earth.”

“We’ll deal with them as they come,” said Doc, lifting himself up and holding out a hand to Robert. “Perhaps there’s a way to break this curse of yours, Robert Svane.”

Robert tilted his head, a slow smile creeping across his face. “Perhaps,” he said, and Doc pulled him to his feet.