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Death Dealer

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They say whiskey got better the more you drank. They were fucking liars. All of them.

The rottgut in the saloon got worse with every minute and it didn’t help.

Vaquez poured another glass to the rim and dropped the bottle to the tavern floor. Empty. Nobody cared about the shards. Everything was shards around him. Mirror, windows, bottles, people.

“Guess you’ll go now,” he slurred to Jack beside him, the only other soul in Rose Creek’s saloon.

He knew the answer. It was just he’d be lying if he said he didn’t care.

He cared. That was the whole damn problem. People like him, they don’t care. Or they’d never find a moment of peace. And him? He never should’ve started.

Jack stepped closer, fingers curled around the brim of his hat as if he had taken it off to make sure Vasquez saw his sadness.

“There are things I miss,” Jack said and Vasquez nodded. Wasn’t like he didn’t understand.

He emptied the glass into his throat and wiped the tears away with a dirty, blood-specked sleeve.

Jack reached out but the motion never made contact. “What about you, son?”

“No.”

“It seems to me you desperately miss him.”

Vasquez growled, hand curling around the next bottleneck and this time he didn’t bother with a glass. “Is not important what I want. I can’t force him.” Vasquez swallowed a mouthful of bitter whiskey. “I won’t.”

“But how do you know? He is very wounded and if the good Lord…”

The bottle flew into the broken mirror. “He doesn’t call!” Vasquez’s yell echoed in the empty room. Outside, someone stopped.

Vasquez didn’t turn. Nobody would shoot him here and he didn’t want to see anybody.

“Billy burned into me.” He thumped his chest. “Demanded that I do it right the moment. Goodnight was still unconscious from his injuries and Billy forced me to bring him back.” He shrugged. “You’re here. Like a cold draft on a warm day. I feel you.”

Vasquez tapped his chest again, softer this time. He had too many bruises to go around beating himself and unlike Goodnight, he couldn’t survive any injury and heal within days.

He made a face that could’ve been a smile. Jack seemed to take it like one.

“I feel you when you touch my soul, you and Billy. Joshua...”

Josh lay in a cold grave up the hill under a cross that bore his name. His soul tethered to his body. Still there .

“I can feel him. He is there. But not here, not touching me. Does it make sense?” He threw his hands up. “It makes no sense!”

A cold draft wafted around Vasquez’s shoulders and when he looked, he found Jack there, close enough to touch. His face behind the well-groomed beard was drawn in sadness and empathy, his voice even softer than normal.

“My wife… I knew she was the only one. The only one there ever would be. Do you know why, son?” He waited for Vasquez to respond. “She touched my soul in a way nobody else ever did. I knew her for one day and no longer knew where one ended and the other began. There was nothing foreign between us anymore. I only realized which parts were hers when they were gone.”

Vasquez’s breath stopped, his heart stuttering while the thought trickled through his mind and past the alcohol he had used to cover the flickering part of himself that felt like it could fade at any mome-

Air rushed back into Vasquez’s lungs with a panicked gulp as he pushed away from the bar.

“SAM!” he screamed, barely avoiding broken furniture on his way to the door. “Saaaaaaaaaam!”

 

***

 

Not many people knew what Vasquez did, only that where he went, death happened. There were rumors that he possessed powers but the only ones who knew for certain no longer walked this earth.

The spirits knew the truth, both the innocent that had been harmed and those who harmed them. Especially those who harmed them.

 

The first one was Ana. She was the oldest of them and beautiful. They all were to little Rafa. His cousins, his sisters.

She smiled when he told her “No time to get up yet.”

“No, it's not. I came to say goodbye.”

Like she did every time she went to the market, she said goodbye and then she brought them sweets when she returned.

He’d smiled at her in the dark. “Goodbye.”

“When they ask,” she’d said after a long pause, “tell them it was Mateo Garcia. And Rafa?”

He’d stiffened at the tone, his fingers curled into the scratchy blanket. She wore a white dress. That was weird because Ana had no white dresses.

?”

She’d smiled and reached out, her fingers cold where they just almost touched his forehead. “There is nothing wrong with you, pequeño , but you need to let me go. And remember…”

He knew then. He didn’t know how, but he knew.

“Mateo,” he said with all the seriousness of a six-year-old.

Ana didn’t speak again. She left.

He told them, when they found her body, about Mateo Garcia. The priest beat him for lying.

Ana showed up again that night and, in the full moon, he saw the blood on her nightdress.

He didn’t know what she asked of him exactly, but he gave it to her. Because the dead knew no limits to their rage nor to their thirst for justice. Not even when they almost broke a little boy.

Someone found him the next morning, lying unconscious in a field, and Mateo not far with blood dripping from his nose and ears and eyes. He must have come after the boy, too, they said. God must’ve punished him, they said, and looked at Rafa funny.

 

The body in the corner was only the latest - a piece of scum caught in a neverending scream.

Vasquez listened to his whimpers, shoveling three-day-old beans into his mouth. He didn’t notice the flies anymore.

“Please!”

Vasquez shrugged. “Lady says no, so no.”

The lady flickered at the outer border of Vasquez’s consciousness. She’d go soon. He’d ask her to before her soul became twisted and her essence no longer found entrance to the heavens.

What they came to do was done, her jagged edges no longer cut against the shell of Vasquez’s mind. She looked at him and he could see the warm soul beneath her dark eyes, the friendly grandmother in the deep laugh lines fanning across her cheeks. She reminded him of his own and the way she had never quite laughed loud anymore after Ana went. Once, only once, she had asked him if he could have brought her back.

The dead rarely asked. The dead wanted justice. They did not want for a death dealer to reach over and yank them back into a life and the pain they had just left behind. Not if something good waited ahead of them.

The only ones who begged not to go were headed to Hell and Vasquez was the one who would send them. He opened the gates for those who had been wronged to enact their revenge. When they couldn’t because the monsters had left too little or there had been too little, to begin with, then he became their hands. He became their weapon.

The man in the corner had held onto his body longer than most, even now, he stayed close to his decaying corpse in the hopes of maybe, somehow, finding a way to convince the necromancer to revive him, to spare him the punishment for his sins.

Vasquez was still pondering if he should tell him that it was no longer possible when the woman’s spirit swiveled toward the door, all of her being directed to what was coming closer.

“For you,” the once friendly grandmother across the room said. It sounded like a promise and a threat in the same. Vasquez threw the plate with the beans onto the table in a smooth motion and let his feet drop to the floor. He grabbed his gun.

It took him a moment longer but then he, too, felt the crushing wave of despair slam into the little hut hidden in the wooded clearing

Death had come to his door once more. It looked like a young red-haired woman and a black lawman with a warrant.

They bartered and threatened him but they believed him when he said he hadn’t killed the man in the hut. Sam Chisolm and Emma Cullen didn’t know who and what he was.

The pained souls lined up behind them did.

With the way Emma kept looking over her shoulder in the direction of the people she couldn’t see, Vasquez assumed she carried an ability as well. She felt their pain - an empath, most likely.

Chisolm, though… Chisolm had a reputation. Every fugitive in the West had heard the stories of Sam Chisolm and what he did.

“Go,” said the old woman behind Vasquez, “God sent your destiny.”

At that moment, she reminded him of his own abuela so much it hurt. She, too, had seen him off talking about his destiny. They wanted to keep him but his own restless heart had driven him away from his village’s suspicious glances.

This time, though, as he looked ahead, he did not see a great world of possibilities, of adventure and heroism.

Luckily for them, Vasquez did not fear death.

 

Letting the souls in the hut go was easy. He said goodbye to her with a smile. Cut the cords that held the man on a long breath.

 

***

 

Vasquez had called Chisolm loco at the cabin and he’d been right. They were crazy, all of them. Every last one of them.

Goodnight Robicheaux was a legend that always lived with an eye over his shoulder, though there was nothing there. They said he walked battlefields like the Angel of Death himself, dealing bullets left and right and always was the last one, often the only one, standing.

But these days, he hid his fear behind too many words and his partner, who barely talked, just sliced up everybody with sharp eyes. Together they built a functioning whole except where they were a square in a round world.

Jack Horne needed no words. He was as famous as Robicheaux and trailed the same smell of death in his wake. When he talked, half the time, his words missed the subject by a good margin. Sometimes he answered questions nobody had asked.  

And Faraday…

Faraday was drunk, very, very drunk and he seemed to regard death like something that just happened to other people.

If Vasquez had to choose the one who seemed slightly less than totally loco , it’d be Red Harvest. There must be a reason his tribe sent him away but, so far, aside from the fact that he was Comanche and didn’t understand a word, he seemed almost normal.

Among men like them existed an unspoken rule: To never ask.

Everybody knew about Robicheaux and it only took one glance at Billy to guess what his deal was. Same with Horne.

Chisolm had to be gifted with something.

Red Harvest appeared out of nowhere whenever something interesting was about to happen and Faraday…

Faraday cheated at cards with nimble fingers and sharp eyes. He stared at death and laughed but he never gave the smallest hint at something more in him. Vasquez laughed with him and did the same.

Sometimes at night, while the others were sleeping, Vasquez sat and listened to the people following Emma.

 

***

 

The village of Rose Creek lay nestled between steep hills and wide open plains. At first glance,  it looked like every other little town in the west, people bustling about on mainstreet and a few small shops.

Everything seemed normal aside from the burnt out church and the restless, angry souls circling the sheriff's office.

As Vasquez looked to the side, he found Sam Chisolm’s keen gaze.

“Emma said they’d be at the Sheriff’s,” the lawman said.

Vasquez nodded. “They always are. Makes them feel powerful.”

Among the agreeing grunts of the others, Sam’s thoughtful hum and the little glance he cast Vasquez, barely held any weight.

Barely.

“Faraday, you are with Vasquez.”

Once more, Vasquez wondered what Sam’s power was.

 

They snuck into town like shadows in broad daylight with the spirit of Emma’s late husband guiding Vasquez’s steps. They shifted silently through side passages known only to someone who’d lived here.

The one time they came close to detection, Faraday stopped them in the shadow of a tool shed, safely out of sight from the mercenary relieving himself against a house wall three yards down. Faraday’s hand on Vasquez’s arm felt like it burned through the thin linen of his shirt, heated by the murderous intent in Faraday’s eyes. His free hand’s fingers danced over his colt, tapped out a silent heartbeat or maybe a countdown. Whatever it was, Vasquez’s breath hitched as he realized how eagerly he’d follow it.  

The incident remained the only snag in their plan. Chisolm drew everybody’s attention like a grand diva on a theater stage until they were in position, crashing over Bogue’s Blackstone mercenaries like a vengeful stampede.  

Between them and Red Harvest, who had appeared on the roof behind Bogue’s sniper practically out of thin air, they dropped the first four bodies before anyone else got off a shot.

Opposite the street from Vasquez, Faraday shot two men through the hotel’s balcony floor. Vasquez had once met a man on the trails who could move around and see by sound alone but he’d been different. Faraday showed nothing of the constant alertness, always listening like a bird twitching after every sound.

If anything, Faraday was too relaxed. He fought as if he already knew the outcome of the battle and death was a minor inconvenience at best. He did not move a millimeter when Chisolm had to shoot the man coming after Faraday from inside the hotel, or when two bullets thunked into the wall next to his head. Instead of ducking for cover, Faraday took aim with the patience of the saints and killed the shooter.

More men spilled from the buildings across the street, taking shots at everything that moved.

They tried to circle around Faraday and Chisolm, except they never made it past Vasquez. He met them halfway putting bullets into several and driving back the rest.  

The whole fight drew tighter toward the exit of mainstreet as the first Blackstones tried to flee. That was where Vasquez and Faraday came together again, back to back picking off enemies that came their way. Their backs touched from shoulder to hips, no words needed to dance in the same rhythm, dealing death.

The feeling lingered even as Vasquez was drawn away by Matthew Cullen’s accusingly outstretched arm - toward the bank and the men hiding there. Three. Exactly the kind of challenge Vasquez loved to accept.

For a moment, he pondered to let Matthew do it, but the man hadn’t been cut out to kill in life and that hadn’t changed in death. Not like this. Not like Vasquez as he dove in with a grin, two quick shots and a last one to clean house. Then: silence.

They met up in the middle of the streets they now owned to take stock and tally up the numbers.

Billy got five, moving too fast for any normal man to stop. Red Harvest likely didn’t understand the question. Goodnight got nothing but a blood dripping wound on his arm. He paid it no heed and it stopped bleeding a bare minute into their meeting, confirming the rumors about him as true.

Chisolm and Horne were way too dignified to compare their kills and Faraday…

Faraday was a lying, cheating bastard that needed an ass whooping.

“Six,” said Vasquez, drawing even, and suddenly Faraday had seven.

And suddenly Vasquez forgot why they were here, why angry souls where buzzing around him and rubbing against the borders of his mind until he had to shut down everything. Nothing mattered but this guero’s challenge to even the score.

“Say when,” Vasquez said, delighted by the unholy, stupid joy in Faraday’s eyes.

They should fear death, all of them. Vasquez never had and neither, it seemed, did Faraday.

 

***

 

“Hey.”

Vasquez had expected Chisolm outside his door or, to be honest, nobody, but not Faraday with a bottle of whiskey in his hand and his cheeks ruddy from the sips he’d already had.

Vasquez had retreated soon after dinner to seek solitude. A dozen souls battered the borders of his mind and every spoken word had become too much.

Luckily, Rose Creek hotel had enough room to spare with Bogue’s men gone and Vasquez picked one with comfort equalling its silence. The first was a vanity, the second necessity as he sent souls to their final destination, making no fuss about their pleas or bargains.

He had yet to meet one he’d bring back and Bogue’s men didn’t present a convincing case.

Faraday waved the bottle in his face, his grin long since softened into a worried smile.

“You ok there, muchacho? Today must’a been rough for you.”

“Por que? ” In turning Vasquez snatched the bottle away and moved back into the room. “It’s not like I have never been in a firefight. I’m wanted for murder, I’ll have you know, Güero.”

“Yeeaah… may have heard ‘bout that one.” Faraday’s grin bloomed again and he dropped onto the sole chair in the room, his long legs stretched out without care. “I just… guess that many dead can be a lot to handle.”

Vasquez was in the process of taking a large gulp. Not all of it made it down his throat as he sputtered. “...how?”

“Heard ya talkin’ to Miss Emma’s dear departed husband.” Before he finished speaking Faraday’s already raised his hands. “I don’t mind. Jus’ came to see if you… You know?” He pointed at the bottle.

They said bravery was the better part of valor. Sometimes whiskey was the better part of a headache.

Sure, not everybody treated the likes of him like an outcast but even with those who were glad to see him, the welcome usually wore thin when they got what they wanted from their dead relatives or realized he wouldn’t raise them.

Nobody just shrugged off a necromancer.

The novelty alone would’ve intrigued him if the man hadn’t already.

Or what he could do. “How do you do it? People say seeing the future makes you crazy.”

At the word 'crazy' Faraday flinched a little but he didn’t comment on it, cordially taking back his bottle instead.

“It depends on what you’re seeing. How far. How. And never try seeing a future that depends on someone else’s decision. That’ll break you. Alcohol helps.”

He toasted and took a healthy swig. “Tell you what, amigo, you tell me yours, I tell you mine and then we drink enough to forget both. How’s that sound?”

It sounded like a headache in the morning, maybe worse than the one he had now, but it also sounded like human company and Vasquez hadn’t really had that in so long that he sometimes forgot how it felt.

 

***

 

They barely went separately in the days that followed, sticking together as the ones that understood the other even if nobody else would.

Whenever Vasquez wasn’t busy building fortifications or Faraday plan a war they came together with a bottle of whiskey and the others and they drank and laughed.

Every moment tasted sweeter for the knowledge of the inevitable end.

Vasquez watched the spirits of the departed linger near their loved ones, reaching out to touch, only to be denied by the irreversible fact that they had left this world.

In these moments, Vasquez inevitably found Emma’s deceased husband watch him with wistful understanding, the notion of what lay ahead and the price to pay

Sometimes Vasquez wanted to ask Faraday why he feared death so little, seeking out the most dangerous tasks, the dynamite, taunting fate with his cigarettes and his carelessness; taunting Vasquez.

“I know what’s not gonna happen,” was not a satisfying answer. It should have been but suddenly, when it came to Faraday, it was not.

When he spoke of forgiveness in the dead husk of the church, Vasquez had to remind him that there was no forgiveness for someone like them, no easy way into heaven for men who lived by the gun.

Faraday turned it around with frightening ease, turned it into a laugh for both of them.

And every morning Vasquez woke without memory of the previous night’s jokes, but a grin on his face nonetheless.  

They rededicated the church, put the bell back where it belonged, calling the righteous to Him. Maybe there was forgiveness after all. But not even Vasquez could know. He might have been given his gift but he hadn’t been granted that insight.

When Red Harvest came racing into town, the bearer of the news of their last stand, Vasquez turned to Faraday seeking not comfort but maybe understanding and distraction. But Faraday had already turned away.

 

***

 

Faraday caught him that night sitting behind the saloon, watching the wide grassland sway softly in the moonlight. People talked or yelled behind them. Someone sang a soft choral in the church.

“You know we’re gonna die tomorrow.”

Vasquez looked up at his friend’s words, a nonchalant answer withered on his lips. He couldn’t fear dying. He had lived with it and walked in its shadow his whole life. There was nothing foreign about it for Vasquez.

He saw Faraday’s self-deprecating grin, the bottle easily dangling from his hand, catching the light from the windows behind him, and suddenly, Vasquez feared death.

“Joshua…”

“We can die, or we can live a little first, amigo . What will it be?”

Faraday leaned against the railing, his thumbs easily hooked into his belt loops. He liked to stand like that and convince the world he was just a dumb boy.

Vasquez wondered what he saw that had him turn to drink, what he was seeking distraction from. In the end, it didn’t matter. If Faraday needed distraction, Vasquez was happy, so very happy to provide it.

They fell into bed with hands tearing at clothes, lips searching, hungry and desperate. Vasquez licked the salt off the hollow of Faraday’s throat and whispered his name against the stubble on his jaw. He’d wear the bloody streaks of Faraday’s fingernails like a badge of honor come morning. A reminder to fight to live.

 

He woke and for the first time in years, another person’s scent did not register as ‘foreign’ and potential danger.

Faraday stretched against Vasquez’s side, his breath cooling his drool where it dripped on Vasquez’s shoulder. Both of them were naked under the too small blanket and Vasquez had instinctively turned toward the other man’s heat. None of it felt strange.

Nobody saw Vasquez’s helpless grin in the darkness of the first hour of dawn except God, and He, so Vasquez hoped, would forgive him the foolishness and see that it was not to challenge His plans.

His fingers caught in Faraday’s thick hair, eliciting a grumpy “Time’s it?”

“Time to get up. There is not good fighting on an empty stomach.”

“Coffee.” Faraday peeked up from under his sandy lashes, most of his face still buried against Vasquez’s shoulder.

Vasquez's stomach did a flip, a stupid little move so unexpected that it rocked his world.

“Yes, Güero , there will be coffee.”

 

***

 

And then he died.

A short moment of inattention on Vasquez’s part as they raced to safety. A shot far too close. Faraday’s choked grunt.

Vasquez put the shooter into a casket with six bullets, dealt death with an ice-cold hand. He still couldn’t undo one, single bullet.

None of what came after truly mattered. Faraday stuffed his bandana over the wound - over his liver - and avoided Vasquez’s eyes.

That was the most of an apology Vasquez would ever get from him.

There was no apologizing for running into the fire, for facing a Gatling gun. For the dynamite.

For anything.

For the silence that followed the explosion.

 

Vasquez stared at the charred wood punctured by bullet holes that once had been the church.

Around him, people moaned or coughed, were dragged or scrambled to safety or were left behind because nothing could be done for their bodies.

Something sharp and uncomfortable if not painful, seared across his mind.

From above, blood dripped onto his boots and as he looked up, he stared into the eyes of a true angel of death. Not Goodnight. Goodnight lived. Goodnight would survive this like he had survived everything and he would add the guilt onto his heart like he always had done.

He would load Billy onto his heart.

“Do it,” Billy snarled. In his hand, he held something that looked an awful lot like Goodnight’s flask, shining silver and whole and about as corporeal as Billy’s spirit. The real flask came crashing down with deadly aim at Vasquez’s head if he had not stepped out of the way at the last second. “Vasquez! You can’t make him live like this.”

Without me.

Out in the field a flame flickered and died.

“Can’t I?”

He had yet to find a reason to bring anyone back from the dead. Maybe he might have done it for Matthew Cullen, but by the time they arrived, it had already been too late.

He had yet to meet anyone better alive than dead.

Another spirit flickered into existence next to him while Sam’s voice yelled outside. Jack Horne had already cut the connection to his body. He smiled.

“The Lord has blessed you with a gift, son. Condemning Billy to death means condemning Goodnight to darkness. He is healing already. He can’t yet scream for his partner but having to do so might yet well break him.”

Vasquez looked up, into the face of pure, unadulterated fury that was Billy Rocks and sighed. He should care more what he was about to do, should feel something but the numbness subduing his mind. He should debate the decision, maybe think that it mattered.

It mattered to Billy and it would matter to Goodnight in a way nothing mattered to Vasquez right then.

“I need to get up into the tower.”

It came as no surprise that Red Harvest showed up at that exact moment, flickering into existence within the faint image of Billy and the next moment, Vasquez was beside him.

There was no strange feeling of dissolution, just the faint electric prickling of a storm approaching and a moment later he rematerialized where Red Harvest wanted him, looking into the Comanche’s smugly proud face.

“You’re not as subtle as you think you are,” Vasquez snapped, “we know what you can do.”

Red shrugged and flickered out of existence.

“The reckoning draws night,” Jack spoke below just as Sam kicked Bartholomew Bogue in through the door, followed by a march of death that Vasquez knew all too well by now. Matthew glanced up, the only one to acknowledge Vasquez, but his attention was drawn back to Bogue immediately.

Vasquez was alone with Billy, with his anger born of desperation, and the knowledge that he had no idea how to do this.

“Heal. Anchor. Pull,” he whispered the words an old man had once told him. He did the anchoring well enough and the less be said about the two instances where he had had to heal a body, the better…

Shaking his head, Vasquez brushed aside Billy’s vest to reveal the single bullet wound in his chest. Without a heartbeat to distract his efforts, the damaged flesh knit together easily and it took less than a minute for the bullet to drop to the wooden floor of the steeple.

Easy. Easier than to feel. Easier than to think. Billy stared at him like a sideways image superimposed over his body. He couldn’t move far, most of the connections still intact.

Below them, Bogue pleaded for his life.

Heal.

Anchor.

Vasquez closed his eyes and dug into Billy’s will to live, into the brightly flaming forge of love that drove the taciturn man, fear, too, for his partner and how he might suffer alone.

Below, a shot bellowed.

“A soul is not meant to fit into a body, that’s why it’s tearing the body at the seams until it breaks,” the same old man had said. Trying to shove Billy back where he still belonged proved him right. His anger alone burst the borders of what he was supposed to be, only reigned in by his love. This love was what Vasquez dug into, curving his senses around the flame that was Billy, like a hug, like he sometimes sheltered the littlest ones.

Then he pulled.

Billy snapped back into the form of his being and out of Vasquez’s touch with the painful crack of a whip over every inch of their beings.

When Vasquez opened his eyes, he found himself in the weak scrutiny of the most ruthless killer he knew. Billy’s bluish lips parted on words he had no strength to say.

“No,” Vasquez cut him off. “Don’t move. Knowing you live will have to be enough for Goodnight for now.”

To his great surprise, Billy acquiesced. His lips curved up into the faintest of smiles and he released a long breath as if he hadn’t breathed right for ages.

Relief quickly faded into nothing. Billy lived. Below them, Bogue lay dead. Jack’s hand came down softly on Vasquez’s shoulder.

Beyond that…

Vasquez turned his gaze out over the battlefield and found Red Harvest kneeling over a lump a little ways off the torn up remains of the wagon that had carried the Gatling. There was no urgency in his movements, no need to try and save one of their own.

Nothing. There was nothing.

Vasquez smothered Bogue’s soul on his way out of the church.

 

***

 

He climbed the stairs to their room with an old man’s heavy steps.

People were calling his name but he ignored all of them, living and dead. He avoided the creaky floorboard in front of the door, didn’t want to think of the way Faraday had kept stepping on it in a very obvious rhythm, cackling like a 13-year-old that had never touched a woman.

Inside, he found the same chaos they’d left: oil and cloth to clean their guns strewn over the small table, saddlebags on the floor, Faraday’s bed rumpled and sweat soaked because apparently, they both were pigs that couldn’t keep one room in order.

Vasquez reached out to straighten the blanket. He sat down on the edge instead.

The half-full bottle of whiskey stood on the nightstand. He grabbed it.

Then he started to drink.

 

***

 

“SAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAM!”

He burst through the swing doors, stumbling down the steps to mainstreet, only faintly aware that Red Harvest had been leaning against the outer wall and was now gone.

“He’s fading fast,” Vasquez screamed as he tore toward the stables, leaving it to the others to make sense of his words.

At that moment, the stable doors burst open and Red Harvest came galloping toward him on his apple grey. He shifted slightly, his hand looped into the horse’s mane as he leaned to the side and reached out for Vasquez.

Vasquez started running down the road until their paths aligned and he could grip that hand and catapult himself upward. The same electric prickle from the day before, a weightless pull, then hands held him safely on the horse’s back.

Preacher stood and stared at them with his mouth opened in shock as they blasted past him and up the hill.

 

The ground on the hill was still fresh and soft where Vasquez dropped to his knees. Dark and fertile soil crumbled between his fingers as he dug his hands in pushing armfuls away. Red did the same on the other side.

Words fell from Vasquez’s lips that he was barely aware of.

He didn’t care if Sam heard him pleading as he reached the hilltop. He cared even less if Jack did, his faint presence kneeling next to the cross they had torn out of the ground first thing. The light faded over the horizon, like the warmth in Vasquez soul slowly blinking out, leaving behind only that endless empty chasm.

"Stay, Cábron. Hold on."  He tried to find the uniqueness that was Faraday, but even knowing he was there, around him, Vasquez couldn’t tell him apart. He had superimposed himself over Vasquez's heart and mind like a coat of paint, like the first kiss or the first love, changing the landscape of his being. Like grass changed a dessert, slowly, inexorably; unnoticed if you didn't know it happened.

His fingers struck wood when the darkness crept in on the corners of his vision and the nothingness threatened to hurt.

The walls of the grave were too steep to haul the casket up. He distantly heard Sam calling for more hands, for ropes and shovels, as if they had enough time.

Vasquez jumped in. His hands were not enough to grab the crumbling dirt, so he shoved it aside and out of the way. Broken pebbles cut his palms and fingers, the blood slicking his hands and the wood. He needed three attempts to pry open the casket’s lid, it kept slipping from his hands.  When he finally managed, he revealed a pale, death-still face, even to him death-still already. The last flicker of a firefly in the darkness, fading fast in the rhythm of a stilling heartbeat.

"Joshua!" His scream echoed through the narrow walls that closed in on them and far over the meadow.

"Joshua, please." The whisper that followed the outburst of power, of raw, desperate need, sounded softly between them. A gentle touch, fingers curled around the little light. "Por favor, Güero. I got you."

He bent over Faraday’s body. His lips breathed life onto lips, like air fanning a vulnerable flame back to life. His mind knit flesh like hands carefully adding wood to a fire. Small at first. A tear in a heart and a lung. Bullets stuck in a body.

He couldn't fix him, not everything. The little flame was fighting still, but a fire died with nothing to feed it and Faraday was running out of time. He needed to go back.

Earlier, when there still had been time, Vasquez could have fixed all of it. Not well; Vasquez only ever knew how to kill, but he could have. As it stood? "Lo siento."

Billy, he had shoved back, against the resistance of a strong soul and a strong body. He had had to fit them into each other again, make the soul fill a hollow it hadn't yet fully vacated. Faraday? Faraday fell into what was left of his mortal hull, barely big enough or strong enough to fill the void. Bigger than the one in Vasquez's heart. And Vas could make him fit there easily, carry him with his own life for whatever little time it'd give them both.

But Faraday was stubborn. Prideful and spiteful and stubborn and he would not go gently into the night, not when he saw a faint glow of morning.

"Come on, Güero." Vasquez prayed for the first time in a long while to the god who had made him what he was. The god that had planted him on the brink of death and enabled him to cross the threshold.

“The Good Lord is mighty and merciful,” Jack’s breathy voice said as the cold draft of his soul filled the tiny space between the walls of the grave. He smiled. “There are things I miss, my friend. And I shall have them again if the Lord so shall allow.”

Vasquez looked up to tell Jack off, just in time to see him reach for Faraday. His meaty hands, roughened and scarred by a life in the wild and on the hunt, shimmered like the air over a sunburnt noon on the plain, all ochre and the warmth of sand baking in the heat. His fingers brushed the hair back from Faraday’s forehead.

“Let’s pray,” he said, beetle eyes finding Vasquez. He smiled. The light within him flared, engulfing both Vasquez and Faraday’s limp body in his arms brighter than any flame anybody on earth could have invoked.

Then the dark returned.

First, there was a heartbeat, jumping out of synch, too shallow, too fast, then a gasp of musty, earth damp air. Then the faint flutter, like a hummingbird’s wing, against Vasquez’s neck.

Vasquez closed his eyes and curled forward, stretched his body to cover Faraday's vulnerability.

A soft ‘thud’ against his chest. Nothing. A pained breath. Another ‘thud’.

His fingers dug into blood and dirt streaked hair, held on for dear life. Fingers pressed into Faraday’s neck to miss not one sign of his life.

Ta-dum. Ta-dum. Ta-dum.

"Keep going, Güerito . I’ll wait." For you...

As if he heard it, Faraday finally opened fluttering eyes, only a sliver of blue and the sliver of a smile. "I knew, you'd miss me."

His heartbeat picked up, synced again, before Faraday's soul and mind picked up on the state of his body, stretched until they arrived fully back where they belonged.

Emma came running up the hill with a lamp, Teddy and the schoolteacher in tow, carrying a stretcher. Light fell over the bruised mess of Joshua's face, illuminating the grotesque mask it morphed into right before everything clicked into place and he found the air to scream.

 

***

 

Sun tickled Faraday awake to the warmth of a strong body stretch alongside his, their fingers tangled together on his bed partner’s chest. Deep afternoon light painted golden streaks into the fine dust swirling in the room. Someone outside was hammering.

A pair of tired brown eyes watched him.

"Am I dreaming?" Faraday asked and got a clipped shake of a head as an answer.

"Am I dead?" he tried again and immediately followed up with: "Are you?"

"No, Güero . Not dead." Vasquez made a face that looked like a misshapen attempt to smile crossed with constipation.

Something scratched at the back of Faraday’s mind. It wasn’t quite a memory, more a faint understanding of cold and loneliness, something he wished for but didn’t dare ask. If he had to explain, he’d compare it to an impression of a future that didn’t yet exist, the faint image of a decision not yet made. The same it had felt before he had ridden out over that field to face the Gatling.  

"I was," he noted.

"." Vasquez sighed and untangled his right hand to brush it through Joshua's hair. 

He looked haggard, in desperate need of a bath, sleep and food. His soft eyes looked so much deeper for the exhausted shadows surrounding them and the lines fanning through the bronzed skin.

"And you brought me back.” Faraday grinned with sudden glee. “Because you can't live without me."

Under his cheek, Vasquez’s chest rose with a sharp breath.

"The big bad necro caught feelings.” His grin softened into a smile. “I thought maybe, but I wasn't sure..."

Vasquez's fingers stilled and Faraday could practically hear him thinking, his eyes flitting over the shadows on the ceiling. "Did you gamble with your life on my ....feelings? Did you do ...what you did in hopes I brought you back?"

"It sounds crazy if you put it like that."

"Joshua, I never awoke anybody in my life! I almost let you fade! Are you insane?!"

Faraday twisted his head and leaned back to catch more than just a glance at Vasquez’s face. Moving was surprisingly ok, mostly. But only mostly. "I had to come up with something on short notice. The next salve of that thing might've just as well shredded you.”

Red splattering the soot-black and dirty-white of the church's walls. A choked gargle. Dark eyes glazing over. The last jingle of too much decorative silver.

Faraday released a long, shuddering breath. “It would’ve.” He’d known since the moment they found the dynamite. It had been for him. I’ve always wanted to blow something up.

Faraday had mapped the path up that hill by horse and by foot, hoping by God he wouldn’t need it. But the closer the morning of the battle had drawn, the clearer it had become. He’d watched Vasquez sleep that last night, stared at his face in the pale light of a bright half moon. He’d felt the strong heartbeat against his body and seen a clear path mapped out, no twists or uncertainties. A straight path leading to one decision that had only been his to make.

“Taking a little chance with your hang-ups is still a better chance than watching you die. Cut me some slack, hombre , I’m handsome."

Vasquez didn't look like he wanted to cut anything in the near future, except maybe Faraday's throat... except where he deflated and carefully, so carefully wrapped his arms around the gambler's shoulders and caged him safely against his body.

"Never. Ever. Do that again, Güero . I almost let you die. You almost were gone.” He shook his head. “Emma had to keep you under for almost a week because the injuries are so bad."

"I'll look repentant when I am less relieved to be snuggling with you, a’right? Next year maybe."