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Author's Chapter Notes:

This is the final chapter. Once again a huge thank you to mareel and EntAllat for helping me see this through.

The rotting wooden stairs led down into a rocky tunnel that turned sharply right into to a crudely carved out nook. A table with one pair of legs shorter than the other stood in the centre, the surface ragged with splinters and smeared with dark stains. The stench of the torch was overwhelmed by the smell of death.

Tucker covered his mouth with the back of his hand as he gagged. "Someone's definitely been finished in here."

Reed nodded. "Let's move on."

As they inched up the passage, their eyes and ears straining a few feet ahead, they began to hear the quietest of sounds, a muffled whimpering like a child crying into a pillow. When they turned a bend into another, wider space, they found three rusty cages barely big enough to hold a hound, illuminated only by the dim glow of an oil lamp in one corner. They all appeared empty on first glance, but as they drew closer the torchlight revealed a shape in one of the back corners, trembling violently, ragged tunic stained dark.

Tucker stalled as he noticed the body, far too small to be an adult. He drew his gun and shot the lock off, pulling open the door with a long, low creak and dropping to his knees. "Hello?"

The child flinched and scooted closer to the back of the cage.

"It's alright," the sheriff soothed. "We won't hurt you. My name's Trip Tucker. I'm a sheriff. We're here to get you out."

A frightened face turned towards him, eyes wide and sunken above prominent cheekbones. "Sheriff?"

"Yeah," Tucker answered earnestly. "See?" He flashed the badge on his jacket. "Where are you from, son?"

"Coal Valley," the boy replied.

Tucker glanced back at Reed. "Coal Valley is at least a day's ride east from here." He peered back into the cage and outstretched his hand. "We're going to get you out of here. What's your name?"

"B-Benjamin, sir," he stuttered, breath hitching as his eyes shot warily to Reed and returned to Tucker. "Ben Walker." He hesitated a moment before taking the sheriff's hand, letting the man pull him out of the cage and to his feet. Halfway out he tripped on the rock, legs collapsing under him, and stumbled into Tucker’s arms.

Handing the torch to Reed, Tucker lifted the child up as he stood. "Right. Ben. We're goin' to get you home. Can you tell me if you've seen a young woman with curly red hair or a man about my age with a stubbled beard and a little scar by his left eye?"

Ben shook his head. "No. I haven't seen anyone for days and days. They just leave you alone in the dark." He took a sharp breath.

Tucker rubbed his back. "It's alright, Ben. Can you tell me anything about who they are?"

Again, the child shook his head. "Never see them. Always dark. Then they leave."

Tucker turned accusing eyes on Reed, darkened by the flickering light of the torch. "I should haul you to the gallows right now for havin' any involvement in buildin' this place."

Reed turned around and stalked down the cells, checking for any other signs of life. "We didn't set up this fucking torture chamber," he snapped back. "We stored loot and hung our meat in here. Sometimes we'd use it as an escape if someone came riding towards the hollow, but I've never seen these cages before and we never kidnapped people."

"Right," Tucker muttered, unconvinced. "Let's keep moving."

"You can wipe that look off your face," Reed warned. "I don't take kindly to people calling me a liar."

"No wonder you don't have many friends," Tucker sneered. "Get us out of here."

Reed grumbled under his breath about murdering Tucker in his sleep, but otherwise returned his focus to the task at hand. The tunnel widened as they continued, allowing them the space to walk side-by-side with careful step after careful step over the worn rock, occasionally dislodging gravel that clattered down the sloping path and made them freeze until they were certain no one was coming.

Several yards further along the tunnel a cacophony of yips and howls made them both jump. They turned a corner to find another row of cages full of coyotes, their fur patchy where it had been stripped by mange, skin torn and bloody as they scratched at themselves and each other.

Reed and Tucker stood in the corner of the room, watching the rabid animals try to chew their way through the grates, until Reed took out his pistol and shot one dead.

"Are you crazy?" Tucker yelled, his own ears ringing as he belatedly shielded Ben's from the loud noise.

"They're sick," Reed answered plainly. "It's the kindest thing. What else are we going to do? Release them so they can spread disease?"

Tucker gritted his teeth and turned away, carrying Ben further up the passage while the gunshots rang out. He released a tremulous breath when silence finally returned, suddenly deafening in its intensity. The boy in his arms was shaking, so he stroked his back in an attempt to soothe him, glancing up at Reed with a scowl when the outlaw joined them.

Reed's lips were pressed into a thin, nearly invisible line in the flickering torchlight, but his expression was otherwise carefully blank and unremorseful as he passed by. They rounded another bend and heard a scuffle, but it stopped soon after they paused.

With a gesture, Reed instructed them to wait. The gunslinger steeled himself with a sharp breath drawn between gritted teeth, holding his pistol ready, then slipped around the corner.

"Tucker!" He shouted back after a few seconds, looking up when the sheriff joined him. "Is this who you're looking for?"

In the back of the nearest cell, a pair of eyes Trip would recognise anywhere stared up at him through the gloom. "Ruby?" He set the torch aside and the little boy down on his shaky legs, then knelt down in front of the cage. "Ruby, darlin', you're alive."

Ruby scooted over, and when her fingers brushed his own around the bars, he sighed and softly caressed her knuckles. "I thought you were a goner."

"So did I for a moment there," she confessed, smiling weakly.

"Did you see who did this? Did you see anythin'?"

"No." Ruby shook her head. "I was pickin' mushrooms and somethin' hit me in the head, then I woke up here with Bobby." She tilted her head toward a second cage. "I haven't seen or heard nothin' except them damn coyotes since I got here."

Trip's eyes followed Ruby's gesture to his deputy. He sighed. "Whoever or whatever's doing this has some damn nerve. We haven't seen nothin' either, but we know it's been followin' us from town."

"I don't know if it's man or beast or somethin' else, but I've never been happier to see your face, Mr. Tucker."

"Nor I yours," he said. "Reed. Any sign of-" Another gunshot startled him from Ruby's beautiful eyes and he looked up to see Reed wrangling the padlock off the other cage.

"Who's your handsome companion?" Ruby asked, peering curiously at the stranger.

Tucker scowled. "Just some lowlife I roped into this little escapade."

"Ah, you must be the Reed fellow that preacher was mopin' about. Carter was tellin' me you're Charlie's secret weapon."

"I'd hardly call him that," Trip grunted. "Now sit back. I'm gonna shoot the lock." He stepped away a few feet and withdrew his revolver, keeping his hand as steady as he could as he shot off the padlock.

Holstering the weapon once more, he noticed Ben had stepped away, his back pressed flush against the cave wall and legs shaking, so Trip scooted closer and gently patted the boy on the back. "You alright? We're all gonna get out of here."

Trip watched Ben's Adam's apple bob in his throat as the child swallowed and nodded cautiously, eyes drifting past the sheriff to Reed. Tucker glanced over his shoulder to see the outlaw hauling Bobby out of one of the cages, the deputy's hair matted with dried blood, but he appeared to be breathing, snoring in fact. Trip almost smiled.

Ruby got to her feet and straightened out her skirt. "Bein' cramped up like that really doesn't suit me," she muttered with a frown.

Trip picked up Ben and the torch and gestured towards the room's exit, the way they hadn't come. "Let's get moving. Everyone stay together."

Ruby helped Reed haul Bobby half to his feet and the two of them began to drag the deputy through the tunnel. Trip noticed Ruby kept eyeing his companion; he wanted to tell her the man wasn't interested, but figured she'd work it out herself. Still, he couldn't deny the fierce sting of jealousy under his tongue.

Then there was a loud rumble and the ground shook, wood dust leaked from the old beams that helped reinforce the ceiling and a crash from up ahead sent a waft of stale air rushing up the tunnel to meet them.

Reed dropped Bobby and disappeared into the darkness.

"Reed!" Tucker called after him, voice echoing coldly as the rumbling stopped.

Ruby sagged against the wall with the deputy, who stirred a little, groaned, and went limp once more.

"Everyone stay where you are," Tucker ordered, covering his mouth as he choked on the dusty air.

"Don't have to tell me twice," Ruby said through coughs.

Reed emerged from the darkness with one dwindling match lighting his solemn face, the darkness burrowing deeply into the lines around his eyes and mouth. Against his chest, he clutched a hat, flattened on one side and unmistakably Archer's.

"The way has collapsed. We have to go back," he said flatly, marching past them.

Tucker glanced at Ruby and shrugged, turning around and walking after Reed as Ben's grip tightened around his neck. Though she struggled to carry Bobby by herself, the madam didn't complain at all, a hard determination setting her jaw as they followed the dim flicker of Reed's matches.

No one said a word as they journeyed back through the cave, coughing on dust and the stench of death as they passed through the coyote room. Finally, they arrived at the creaking stairs back up into the cabin.

When Tucker turned around to watch Reed close the door behind them, he noticed the gunslinger was still clutching the hat against his chest with a haunted darkness in his eyes. As Reed's gaze turned on him, Tucker fought the urge not to shiver.

"If he's gone," Reed said slowly. "You will pay for his life with your own." He turned and walked away, his gait unusually awkward as he held himself from running.


Making his way slowly up the hill and fighting the tightness in his chest every step of the way, Reed stared down at the ground, his knuckles turning white as he gripped Jon's hat. He recalled his cynical derision of Jonathan's faith and bit his tongue with regret, wishing he had even half the man's optimism, wishing he could set aside his pride for just a moment and glance heavenward with a prayer. But he couldn't. He kept his head hung and walked faster.

When he reached the hunting blind, he found two horses hitched to a post. They appeared in good health, but not recently ridden. Still, he armed himself and checked the lookout thoroughly. As always, no sign of their pursuers, so he gave up and headed into the caves, a more important task on his mind.

The air was still thick with disturbed dirt as Reed left daylight behind him, his hands beginning to tremble.

"Get a hold of yourself, Reed," he muttered to himself, teeth clenching as he heard only silence. "Archer!" His call echoed and faded. "You better show your damn face or so help me I'll-"

A cough startled him from his rant. He picked up his pace but placed his feet carefully, not wanting to trip another wire like the one that had probably caused the cave in. Through the murky air, he glimpsed the vaguest outline of Jon's figure and heard his uneven footsteps.

"Reed?" Archer asked weakly.

Forgetting all about traps, Reed fumbled for his friend, only taking a breath when his hands settled on the man's shoulders and ran down his arms. "Are you hurt?"

"Scratched and bruised, that's all. I tripped a wire and the whole thing came down."

"I know," Reed replied dryly. "Come on." He grabbed his hand and yanked him back towards the sun, his grip tightening with every step.

When they finally reached the outside, Reed grabbed Jon by his collar and kissed him hard. He shoved Jon's hat back on his head as he pulled back. "Let's get my pardon letter and get out of here. I'm not riding with that bastard a second longer."

Jon was left dazedly standing there, blinking slowly as he adjusted to the light and watching Reed stride off towards the camp. Once he was certain all his limbs were still attached and the rock to his head hadn't been serious, he sighed and followed after his friend.


Bobby was conscious, if a little bleary-eyed, when they reached the cabins. Ruby was sitting in the dirt with Ben while the boy took a drink, rubbing his back awkwardly.

Reed marched up to Tucker. "Give me my pardon letter. I did what you asked. I got you your floozy back."

"I can't take four people on my horse." Tucker straightened up. "You're gonna have to help me get them back to town."

"No." Reed shook his head. "I'm in no mood for your games. There are two horses up there - you take them. We part ways now."

"Fine." Tucker dipped into the inside pocket of his jacket and handed over the letter. "I'm sure this won't be the last time I get to manipulate you into helping me, but... so long for now, Reed."

Reed grunted in response and checked the letter, before sliding it into his vest. He tipped his hat to Ruby and the boy and then mockingly bowed his head to Tucker with a sneer. "Well, this wasn't remotely enjoyable. Goodbye." Setting his hat back on his head, he turned around and walked off.

"I wouldn't say you're a good guy," Tucker said reluctantly to Jon as they both watched Reed stalk back into the trees. "But I will never understand why you travel with him."

"I'm fine with that," Jon replied as he brushed dirt off his shoulders. "And if you threaten to hang him again, I'll be the one skinning you."

"It's a crime to threaten a lawman," Tucker said.

"Then call me a criminal," Jon said flippantly. "I hope we never see each other ever again but, unfortunately, life is never that kind." He flicked the brim of his hat, adjusted his jacket and headed off. "Good day."

"You sure can pick 'em, boss," Bobby grumbled, clutching his head.

"He got the job done, didn't he?" Tucker sat down between his deputy and the madam and glanced at the little boy. "Are you okay?

Ben nodded, a little colour returning to his cheeks as he sipped his water. "Yes, thank you, sir."

"We're riding to Divergence for now, but I'll get you a carriage back to Coal Valley as soon as I can." Tucker turned to Ruby. "Are you alright?"

"You know me, Mr. Tucker. I'll be the last thing left standin' when God gets sick of us little people."

Tucker nodded slowly and rubbed his face, abruptly feeling the stresses of the last couple of days. "You sure will, Miss Bird."

Ruby leaned in and kissed his cheek, her hand resting lightly around his bicep. "But I do appreciate the rescue immensely, Charlie. I won't forget it."

Trip glanced at her with a shy smile, taking off his hat. "You're very welcome, darlin'." He stared at her a moment longer and then dropped his head. "But we should probably get out of here before those bastards come back. God knows who they are or what they're messin' with around here. I'll find out another day, send a marshal up here with some men." Hauling himself back to his feet, he extended a gentlemanly hand to her and helped her up as well, taking a deep breath when she hovered a little too close.

"That's truly the most wonderful thing anyone has ever said to me," she said, smiling at Ben as she helped him up and rested a hand between his shoulder blades, looking back to Tucker. "I need a long hot bath and a brand new dress."

Trip watched the gesture with a vague smile, trying not to remember those bittersweet dreams he had where she was the mother of his children and it was Charles Tucker IV she was comforting. A deep sigh of relief exploded from him as he began to realise she was safe. With or without him, that's what he wanted for her most of all, but he still held out hope that one day she'd look at him the way she'd looked at Reed.

Tucker glanced off into the distance as they prepared to leave, watching the criminal and his preacher mount their horses and head off in the opposite direction to the way they'd come.


Reed started leading he and Jon northwards out of the Stillwood, both of them eager to put as much distance between themselves and Tucker, and the unnerving forest, as possible.

"There's a hot spring a few hours from here, in the valley between the northern edge of the forest and the reservation," Reed shared after they'd escaped the thicker trees, lighting a cigarette. "Feel like taking a break? The boys and I used to ride out there every few weeks to unwind."

Jon lifted an eyebrow. "Hot springs? Sounds good. After the tumble I took in the tunnels, I could use a rest."

"Good." Reed nodded, and didn't say anything more on the matter.

They rode mostly in silence from then on, though Archer couldn't tell if it was awkwardness or anger that kept Reed's jaw tight and his brow furrowed, but both of them let out an audible sigh of relief when they were out of the trees, sharing the briefest of glances to just reassure themselves the other was alive. Life and sound abruptly returned to the world around them. Birds flew and cawed overhead, the white tails of deer bobbed in the scrub and rabbits hopped amongst the weeds.

Just before sundown, with the sun lit up like a paper lantern from the orient, Reed slowed them to a halt in a secluded corner of the valley. A few scraggly trees provided cover from anyone travelling through, and a little shelter under which they could pitch a tent and set up their bedrolls.

While Jon performed the menial tasks of cooling off the horses, kindling a fire and starting a kettle of coffee, Reed tried his luck at hunting in the dwindling light, but returned empty-handed. Jon tossed what remained of their supplies into a pot, their attempt to buy more having been thwarted in Divergence when Reed had been arrested.

As he stirred the fledgling mixture, he looked up to see Reed stripping off his clothes. His movements slowed as he watched Reed shrug off his vest and unbutton his grimy shirt, exposing the scars on his back.

Unable to help himself, he got to his feet and drew closer until his fingertips brushed against the man's skin. "You never told me how you got these, though I have a pretty good idea."

"Spare the rod, spoil the child," Reed said coldly, not shying from his companion's touch as he started unfastening his pants and reluctantly removing his holster.

"I think this is rather spoiling the rod," Jon murmured with a frown. Reed rolled his shoulders, so he took that as a sign he should back off.

"Aren't you coming in?" Reed asked as he stripped off, glancing nervously at his pistols as he set them aside.

"Well aren't you just as defenceless as a newborn," Jon muttered with a smirk.

Reed shot him a scathing look and walked towards the spring, dipping his toes in first before he waded in deeper and found a suitable spot to sit down. With a sigh, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes, letting his guard down.

Somewhat more modest, Jon turned away to shrug off his jacket and kick away his boots. Removing his shirt and pants, both stained with trail dust, he joined Reed in the warm water, sinking in up to his neck and groaning quietly under his breath.

"God does bless us with wonderful things," he muttered.

"He does indeed," Reed commented as his eyes slid down Jonathan's neck to the pulse he could see pounding near his clavicle. "Riddle me this, how does a half-wit preacher like you get a body like that?"

"A year of chasing after you, getting shot at and picking up your broken teeth will do that to a guy," Jon replied as he washed off some of the grime on his arms.

"Maybe you should be thanking me, then, if I've helped sculpt you to look like that." Reed snickered to himself. "Mind you, I'm the only one who ever gets to enjoy it. Perhaps I should be congratulating myself. When was the last time you even bedded a woman?"

"When was the last time you bedded a woman?"

"The day we met," he said nonchalantly, washing his chest. "I met a lovely young girl called Rose in the brothel at Carriage Station. It was only when I tried to bed the barman too that I got myself kicked out and caused a brouhaha."

"Well, the life of a preacher doesn't afford you many indulgences," Jon muttered. "Neither does our life between civilisation and the wilderness."

"No wonder we had a close encounter there in the forest. That place comes over you strange."

"A close encounter?" Jonathan looked unimpressed. "Is that how we're terming it now?"

"How else would you describe it?" Reed glanced at him expectantly.

"You're the one who asked me to speak plainly, so I think you owe me the same respect. This tension between us has been brewing for months now and finally we're on the precipice of exploring it, and all of a sudden you're skittish? Is that right?"

Reed took a deep breath as he heaved himself up and sat down next to Jon. He took Jonathan's hand, almost tenderly, under the water. "I wanted it. But I have to reconsider my position after the events of today."

Jon's brow furrowed more deeply. "What do you mean?"

"This life is madness." Reed looked up at the sky and released Jon's hand. "You don't belong here. I will get you killed."

"How does that change anything between us?" Jon shook his head. "You know I ain't going anywhere."

"I'm well aware. More fool you," Reed sneered. "And more fool me for testing you. I've decided we should keep things as they are."

"Ah, back to our days of awkward unresolved tension?" Jonathan rubbed his face. "Sounds delightful. I didn't realise you were only testing me." Feeling tenser than ever, he got up and returned to his bedroll to dry off.

Reed snorted and turned away from the sulking preacher, determined to enjoy the rest of his bath.

Later, in the dead of night, as they huddled together for warmth, Reed examined Jonathan's face by the light of the half-moon. As he was staring, the man's eyes opened and they shared a long look, each of them sensing a disappointed restlessness in the other. They probably wouldn't get much sleep tonight.

"Let's get some rest," Jon murmured anyway, outstretching a hand to rest on Reed's shoulder. "We have many more long days ahead of us."

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