Nothing Left to Lose


(from a story by Kathy Keegan)

The sky had that heavy brown colouration that warned of a south wind, and the smell of dust was already on the air. Shutters were going up, mallets were beating a tattoo across Windrage as the word of warning rushed about: a storm was on its way in. Fear was as tangible as the icy wind.

The aged Katana superbike coughed and gargled as Bodie kicked it to life and knocked back the sidestand. He swung it around in a wide arc and took it across the road that arched over the hill above the town. The bike had seen better days. Then again, hadn't everyone and everything? It was still going, and that was a miracle. Most machines were breaking down badly and horses were as common on the road now as they had been two centuries ago.

Below the hill, Windrage nestled in a cleft, protected from the worst of the elements. From his vantage point, Bodie saw a hundred grey slate roofs and belching chimneys, and he knew every one of them individually. Morley the baker; Sawyer the gravedigger; Ashmole the teacher; Fawcett the electrician; Daley the doctor; Bradley the mechanic. Windrage boasted the best of everything, and its people were damned lucky.

The majority of the frontier towns were new and raw, with few more comforts than those enjoyed by the nomads who meandered from Lansdowne to Salisbury and back again twice a year, between late spring and early autumn. But ironically, Windrage's very wealth of people, services and safety, made the town a natural target for every biker tribe, every time the wind turned. The sky would begin to darken with airborne dust left over from what scientists termed 'the event,' and what ordinary people thought of as Armageddon, and the lookouts would be alert, weapons were cleaned and loaded. It was a matter of survival.

A north-west wind spelled clearer skies and peace. A south-east wind spelled nothing but trouble. Bodie's back gave him a stab of pain but he ignored it. It wasn't genuine discomfort, just phantom pangs, what Doc Daley called 'sympathetic pain.' Every time Bodie saw a brown sky he remembered that day, four painful months before, and the healed wound hurt.

The Katana gurgled down the road. The 1000cc motor missed and hiccupped, sounding more and more like old plumbing. He would have to get that seen to. It could be dangerous--it could be lethal--to get caught in the open on a machine that died on him. The Stone Angels were not in the business of handing out mercy, especially to men whom they despised. And they despised Bodie.

Occupational hazard, he told himself as he turned the big bike into Windrage and pulled it onto the centre stand just outside the lockup. The wind was whirling in the street now. Mini-tornadoes, or 'dust-devils,' got up and danced to and fro before they spontaneously dispelled. The sky was getting steadily darker, browner. No doubt about it, that was a south-east storm on its way in. Bodie's whole body shuddered.

"Hey, Officer Bodie!"

It was Mick Bradley, the mechanic who worked nights to keep Windrage's machines running. He was an olive-skinned little man with heavy eyebrows and a nervous manner. He reminded Bodie of a terminally worried ferret, but he was clever with machines. He had a way of diagnosing their ailments just by listening to them, the way a good doctor knew almost instinctively what was wrong with a patient. Bodie liked him.

He waved. "Yeah, I see the weather. You know if Fawcett's got the radio working yet?"

"You got to be kidding," Bradley scoffed. "There's no parts. You get him the parts, he'll make it work."

"Scavenging isn't my job," Bodie said acidly.

"And no bugger else is going to go out hunting for bits and pieces. Not in this." Bradley jerked his thumb at the dark sky. "A rider shot over from Yonderland...we've got trouble coming, Bodie."

Bodie groaned. "What kind?" he asked resignedly, though he could guess.

"Nomad bikers. A whole tribe." Bradley fidgeted. "Look, mate, I'd love to help you out, but--"

"But you've got responsibilities, I know." Bodie looked sourly at the sky. "This rider from Yonderland, where is he, when did he get in?"

"About an hour ago. He's in the pub." Bradley coughed as the wind spun an eddy of dust into his face. "Give it three hours, and there won't be much on the road. This could be a hard blow. Could last for days." Bradley pushed his hands into his pockets. "Maybe the bikers won't get here before it hits."

"You mean, maybe they'll descend like buzzards on someone else's town, and pick its bones clean instead?" Bodie gave Bradley a relentless look.

"Well, why not?" Bradley demanded belligerently. "We copped it last time--and you took half a shotgun blast in the back! You want to go up against 'em again?" He laughed, a short, humourless bark. "Christ, Bodie, not even you could be as bastard-mad as that!"

With those words he hurried away towards his house and workshop, a little way down the street. Bodie watched him duck inside and then, cursing and swearing every yard of the way, he manhandled his bike into the lean-to shed which had been tacked on the side of the lockup.

The jail was empty. No one had been imprisoned since Molly Parker's boy had got into a fight with Mayor Morley's lad, and beat him senseless, two months before. They had both been drinking most of the night. The White Lightning issuing from Ma Hancock's still these days was more potent than last year. Bodie would have to have a word with the publican, Josh Kelly, about watering it down, before Windrage's young bucks started ripping each other to bits.

The shed was dark and smelt of oil and grease. Bodie slammed the wooden door and padlocked it, then stepped out into the street and hurried toward the pub. Several townsmen doffed their hats to him, which was a nice gesture, but they wore worried, anxious faces and were quick to duck out of the way before he could perhaps petition for their help.

Representing law and order in this town bought Bodie a good deal of prestige and respect. But the downside to this was that when trouble blew up he was expected to get out there and earn their respect. And that was sometimes easier said than done.

The Earl of Aberdeen was stone-built and Josh Kelly had lately replaced the roof with the heaviest slate shingles he could get. He was out on the street with a mallet and bag of nails, hammering the shutters down. With them secured, the pub would withstand the storm better than any other place in Windrage. A large percentage of the townspeople would make for The Earl--and Kelly wore a wide smile, because he was going to do spectacular business during the next few days.

"Good day, Officer," he said through a mouthful of nails as Bodie approached. "You'll be wanting the rider from Yonderland, I suppose?"

"The thought occurred to me," Bodie said tersely. "Where would I find him?"

"Upstairs, taking a bath." Kelly spat out the nails and dropped his mallet. With both hands he smoothed down his huge white canvas apron.

"You know the man?" Bodie always believed in being prepared, and was not above paying for what information he could get. As a pub keeper, Kelly was frequently a rich mine of scuttlebutt.

", at that," Kelly admitted. He ran his fingers through his sparse greying-blond hair and bit his lip hesitantly for a second. "It's Ray Doyle. I'd swear to it, Bodie."

The name aroused a shiver along Bodie's spine. "You're positive about that? I mean, dead certain? You've seen him before, in the flesh?"

For himself, he had only ever seen the 'wanted' posters. Not that Doyle was wanted in Windrage, but in Seaview and Summertown he had put himself thoroughly on the wrong side of the Provincial Law, and if he ever set foot in those towns, he stood a good chance of not leaving them alive.

Provincial justice was arbitrary. What was a crime in one town was perfectly legal in another. It was easy to break the law, and some frontier settlements had a ruthless code of punishment that could make even Bodie shudder.

"I saw him, one time," Kelly said, hushed.

"Fighting?" Bodie was sceptical. It would take incredible luck to see Ray Doyle in action...then again, it would take incredible luck to bring Doyle to Windrage.

Kelly wore a bemused face. "I saw him blow a hole in a man, and I swear I didn't even see him get the gun out of his holster. He's got the strangest style. Did you ever know Roy Dreyfuss?"

"The loud-mouthed moonshine hustler from Summertown?" Bodie's brows rose. "I heard he got himself shot."

"He did." Kelly nodded towards an upstairs room, over the bar. "Was Ray Doyle that shot him, and I saw it done. Mind you, forty people in the street saw Dreyfuss hassle Doyle, give him a hard time and force him into it. Any local Summertown bloke would have backed off and let Dreyfuss have his own way, but Doyle was a stranger. Dug his toes in and didn't budge." Kelly patted his chest. "He uses a shoulder holster, left side."

That astonished Bodie. "That's got to be the slowest draw in the book!"

"Not the way Doyle draws that gun. I never saw anything faster, and I've seen some real professionals in my time. I've been on the frontier nearly ten years, got up here before Windrage even existed." Kelly snatched up his mallet and nails as the wind started to swirl again. "If I don't get this done we'll all regret it, Bodie."

Bodie watched him for a minute as Kelly attacked the shutters once more, and then he stepped into The Earl of Aberdeen's dark, humid interior. You could never trust the electricity, especially in a storm, so the bar boys and girls were hanging up two score hissing, glowing oil lamps, which gave the place a cheerful, almost festive aspect. With the shutters sealed the storm could rage around the building. Inside, music, gambling, beer and Ma's White Lightning would keep out the cold and pass the time.

The temperature always dropped like a stone when the sky turned brown, but conditions were better than they had been a few years before. One terrible year, when Bodie was twelve, the temperature never rose much above freezing from spring to autumn, and when winter struck it dropped to twenty below. Thousands of people died. When the late, cold spring arrived, the greatest problem was working out a way to bury the winter's victims in ground that had frozen as hard as iron.

The same memories haunted everyone over twenty years of age. Only the kids, born since 'the event,' had no memory of the world of yesteryear. But even those who, like Bodie , were adolescents or young adults when it happened, were not completely sure of what they had seen, lived through and survived....

He was eleven, just starting to think about getting out of school and working his way into a career, when suddenly the TV and radio broadcasts were filled with stories about something in the sky. Bodie was from an ordinary family, there were no scientists in the house. His parents were, by their own admission, poorly educated and neither of them knew what in the name of God the BBC representatives were talking about when they broadcast, over and over, that an object was coming.

Asteroid, comet, meteorite--what was the difference? Words like 'Tunguska' and 'antimatter' and 'nuclear winter' only confused simple people even more, and long before it hit, they stopped listening and started praying.

Bodie had the vividest memories of his mother, kneeling in the cupboard under the stairs with a rosary, a cross and a framed print of Saint Peter. But all his life she had been hiding under the stairs and praying every time there was a thunderstorm. As a boy, Bodie never questioned it, as if it was the proper thing to do when God grew furious and made the sky blacken and rumble.

At school, the teachers didn't want to alarm their pupils and not much was said about the comet. They called it Rodgers, and soon it began to take on a personality. Comet Rodgers was depicted in cartoons, and lampooned. Anything to defuse public panic before thinking people began to ask questions which might cause the establishment public embarrassment.

Behind the scenes, scientists were trying to predict where it would impact with the earth, and how bad the effects would be, but all this was a mile beyond Bodie's understanding. He asked his parents what was happening, but his mother was too busy praying and his father didn't understand enough himself to be able to explain it.

He asked his teacher, and Mrs Roaks told him there was a chunk of ice that was going to fall to earth and make a bit of a mess. She looked pale faced and smudged as she explained this, but at eleven Bodie didn't notice the woman's pallor or frayed nerves. With his mind set at rest he cut out the cartoons of Comet Rodgers, and laughed with his friends.

The laughter stopped one day in August when the event, the impact, took place. The hurricanes, earthquakes and tidal waves were engraved into Bodie's mind, like the brown-black sky that for years afterwards loomed over the whole country, perhaps the whole planet. And the ice-cold of the winter that started and never stopped.

The temperature plunged in six hours from a lovely August afternoon to a sub-zero evening. Houses were flattened by the quakes, all areas within ten miles of the coast were under eight feet of seawater. Bodie had been on his way home from school, on the bus, on the hill road. He was one of the fortunate ones.

When the blinding light flooded the sky, the bus driver roared at the kids to get onto the floor of the bus and put their arms over their heads. The hurricane that followed the sky-flare tipped the vehicle over on its side, but after that it was a cocoon of safety--probably the safest place to be.

When the hurricane had passed by, they kicked out the back windows and looked down off the hill to watch as the buildings tumbled in ruins. Houses, shops, blocks of flats, folded up like cardboard boxes.

Somewhere down there, in amongst all that wreckage and ruin, was Bodie's home. His mother would have been under the stairs, but God and Saint Peter wouldn't have protected her. Bodie was numb. His mind was not functioning. He stood in a herd with the other school children, watching, blank with shock, as the bus driver somehow fixed his shortwave and called for help.

The air was a jumble of radio signals. Everyone with a CB was pleading, begging for help, and only limited help was available. But forty kids under fifteen, marooned in a wrecked bus, drew assistance fast. A helicopter beat in from the south, and that night, Bodie was in a Salvation Army shelter, in a cellar under a collapsed building. He had soup, and a blanket of his own, stencilled with his name, and his child's mind realised the truth.

This was the new way of things. This was where the old world ended and the new began. In a month, they found his sole surviving relative, his Aunt Grace, but the lady was not young and like so many others she had been blinded by the sun-bright flare that burned up the sky. Bodie never questioned this. It was the way things were. He and his Aunt were the wards of the Citizen's Council, and life began again....

The howling of the gale around The Earl's steel-beam eaves brought back the fifteen year old memories, but Bodie discarded them fast. It was unhealthy to dwell. In the early days, when the winter went on and on, the people who brooded were the ones who put a gun to their head and blew their brains out--or worse, someone else's brains.

The trick was to focus on the present and wait. After a few minutes of suffocating blankness the memories would fade again, shuffle themselves back into the pigeon-holes of the past, like a well organised and obedient filing system.

He concentrated on the wooden floor under his feet as he walked through the bar room towards the stairs. Those stairs were carpeted, but the scarlet axminster was threadbare. Mice had [been] chewing on it. Vermin always survived. It was said--and Bodie believed it--that in the end the cockroaches would inherit the earth.

A maid was working on The Earl's second floor, polishing the mirrors and wiping the banisters. She smiled at him as he approached, fluttered her eyelashes. He returned the smile and ignored the coy invitation.

"Hello, Tina. You're in the best place today. Listen to that wind!"

"Do I have a choice?" She pretended to stuff her fingers into her ears to get away from the sound. "What can I do for you, Officer?"

"Which room is Doyle in?"

Her eyes widened. "For him? Nothing but the best! Room 7, what else?"

Room 7 had a bath, a view of the street, a hearth, a double bed, and the walls had just been painted. Bodie should have known publican Kelly would put Ray Doyle in that room. Where else would you accommodate the gunfighter? As if there was the subliminal impression that if Doyle was angered he was be likely to pepper the place with .45 calibre ironmongery before he got back on his bike and rode out.

Not that Doyle--or anyone else--would be going anywhere for a considerable while. The temperature was plummeting. The icy winds from Europe seemed colder than ever when the sky darkened with dust. The weather cycles had never been the same since the event.

Just a week before, when the radio was working, Bodie had listened to a pop-science broadcast from the BBC. Specialists were predicting that the high-atmospheric turbulence was beginning to settle at last. The dust was coming down, too, which ought to make the temperature return to a more normal level. Winter would be shorter, summer would be longer. Crops might even be grown in the open again.

Wonders would never cease and pigs might fly, but Bodie was prepared to wait and see, and be astonished. Anything had to be better than a man freezing his arse off nine months in the year. The BBC Boffins swore, by 2055, ten years down the track, the climate would be 'almost normal.' Whatever that meant. Bodie remembered childhood days, being warm under a blue sky, and seeing parks girdled by trees--natural trees, well grown, not anaemic saplings nurtured under glass.

He banished the memories again, determinedly, as he came to the door of the best room at The Earl, and applied his knuckles. The smart rap-rap rhythm was answered by a voice from within, and before he entered, Bodie examined his appearance in the long mirror opposite the door.

He looked much the same as always. Tall, broad, with his dark hair cropped fairly short for convenience's sake. He was wearing a battered leather jacket, scuffed biker's boots, blue jeans, tee shirt. It was almost the uniform of his trade. Out here on the frontier, so far from the stinking wreckage of the city, you dressed in clothes that would take the pace, hold together under rough handling, and to hell with elegance.

After a while, leather and blue jeans started to gain a style all their own. The feel of blue denim and the smell of leather, especially if it was well-worn, were evocative. Bodie knew people, men and women, who could turn on just at the sight or smell of jeans or leather or both. The mystique they aroused.

"Yeah, come in," called the voice from room 7.


The name made Bodie catch his breath. Ray Doyle was notorious in several towns along the frontier. He was not wanted in Windrage, but maybe it was only a matter of time. Over in Buckstead, an associate of Bodie's, old Matt Hayes, had tacked up a poster that promised he personally would pay a small fortune to get his hands on Doyle. The gunfighter had shot his brother after a gambling session that went tragically wrong. The trouble was, Sonny Hayes was an infamous cheat. Everyone knew he dealt off the bottom and kept half a dozen aces up both sleeves, so no one was likely to hand Doyle over.

Unless Hayes hired himself a bounty hunter, Bodie thought with his hand on the doorknob. Bounty men were so unscrupulous, they would hunt down an angel and hand him to the devil to get the fee. Hayes was offering a gallon of real scotch whisky, twenty gallons of genuine high-octane petrol--not the home distilled, chicken-shit, methane-banger brew that Bodie had been running the Katana on for the last two years--plus six sticks of gelignite and a hundred yards of detonator cord. For that kind of bounty, a lot of men would have a crack at Doyle.

Not being a fool, Doyle must be well aware of his precarious position, and he would be wary, every second of every day. New town, old haunt, it made no difference. The frontier was full of nomads, loners and tribes. Every one of them was hungry for a quick fortune.

Carefully, Bodie opened the door, showed his face and both his empty hands...and just as he had expected, he walked into the room to find himself looking straight down the black steel barrel of a .45 calibre magnum Smith and Wesson. Doyle's patented trademark.

The man was in the bath. The tub was parked in the middle of the room, and a dozen buckets stood beside it. When he was finished, The Earl's bellboys would troop up to bail it out. Green eyes flicked over Bodie from head to curls were dripping slightly around his neck...pale, perfect skin was almost iridescent in the lamplight.

God, Bodie thought as he shut the door--the first thought that raced unbidden through his mind--the man was beautiful. And dangerous. That was the second thought. He held his hands well out from his sides as the door clicked to. He was armed. Only a fool went around unarmed, and fools were so short-lived they were scarce and getting more so. Bodie wore his holster at his right side, with the butt of a sawn-off pump-action shotgun protruding

It was not a gunfighter's weapon, and he never pretended to belong to Doyle's precarious trade. But what no one knew was that he had another gun, a .38 calibre revolver, tucked into his belt under his jacket, and an even smaller two-shot .60 calibre 'Derry' pistol thrust in the outside of his right boot.

"Who the hell are you?" Doyle demanded. "I was expecting the boy with my dinner!"

"My name's Bodie." He raised his hands as the gunfighter's weapon followed him across the room. "Provincial Officer Bodie."

"Ah." Doyle pursed his lips, but the magnum did not waver. "And you want...?"

"A word," Bodie assured him. "They said you rode over with a message from Yonderland."

"I did." Doyle settled back in the tub. Hot water sloshed around him in a fascinating wave pattern. Bath oil slicked the surface. He propped his feet on the end of the bath. "You've got trouble coming, Officer."

"That much, I got from Kelly," Bodie said drily, folding his arms. "What kind?"

"Nomad bikers," Doyle told him. "Trash on wheels. The Stone Angels are riding this way. They'll be here some time tonight, before the storm hits."

Bodie groaned deeply. "Oh, Christ, that's all I need."

"What you need," Doyle said acidly, "is a small army. I saw the Stons a week ago. There's seventeen of the buggers. They were up in Davetown...or, what's left of Davetown after they finished busting it up." He set the gun aside but didn't take his eyes off Bodie as he soaped hischest. "Get your men together, Officer. A few hours' warning is all you're going to get before Erasmus Clay and the rest of the shite-hawks are all over you like a rash."

"My men?" Bodie echoed. "What men?"

"You action squad, deputies, constables, tin soldiers, whatever," Doyle said indifferently.

Bodie laughed shortly, not a sound of humour. "You're looking at 'em."

The green eyes widened. "You mean, you're it?"

"Got it in one." Bodie rubbed his face hard. "Once upon a time, and not that long ago, there were three of us, and we could raise another four vigilantes from the town. The Stone Angels were here four months ago...Bill and Vince were shot dead. I took half a shotgun blast in the back and almost didn't make it myself. Now, no one will lift a finger to help and if I tell you the truth, I can't blame them." He sagged against the wall beside the sealed shutter.

The man in the bath was silent for a full minute, and then he said slowly, soberly, "The Stones are going to rip into this place like wild dogs into fresh meat. If I were you, Officer Bodie, I'd get out and start running, right now."

"Would you? You don't know a hell of a lot about local law," Bodie said darkly.

"Illuminate me," Doyle invited as he sluiced suds off his chest.

"Well, to begin with, there's nowhere to run to," Bodie told him. "There's only Hancock's Farm between here and Yonderland, and the road's impassable in the dark. It's a mass of craters. Put a wheel in any one of them, and you're off. Be lucky if you didn't break a leg as well as the bike. And then, when I took this job on, I signed a piece of paper. If I walk out and leave Windrage, I'll be as wanted here as you are in half a dozen towns along the frontier."

Doyle's brows arched. "You got a problem," he observed. "Wanted if you walk out, dead if you stay put." He stood, water cascading off him, and reached for a towel, but he didn't attempt to cover himself with it, and Bodie had the opportunity to look his fill while Doyle patted his shoulders and chest.

He was a little above average height, and surprisingly slender. He had that lean, hungry look that comes from running and keeping one eye open, watching over your shoulder. In many towns he was not safe, and Matt Hayes' wanted posters could appear anywhere, any time. His shoulders were wide, his legs were hard, the thighs long and smooth. His belly was flat, his arms round with hard young muscle. And his genitals drew Bodie's eyes the way magnets draw iron filings.

Nature had been generous. Doyle's balls were large, tucked up tight and firm, and his cock was long, thick even while it was at rest, golden and smooth. He was cut, which was Bodie's preference, and the very look of him made Bodie's mouth water. It had been a long, long time between drinks.

But Doyle was talking again, and Bodie forced himself to listen. "I said," the man barked, "come to the point--state your business or get out!"

A tingle kindled in Bodie's belly. "You're a gunfighter," he mused.

"You've heard me," Doyle said in a curious mix of the famous and the cynical.

"Everybody's heard of you," Bodie snapped. "Question is, do you ever hire out that gun of yours?" As he spoke, his eyes were drawn irresistibly to Doyle's cock, and damn, he saw it stir with a life of its own. Now, that was interesting. Did Doyle ever hire out that particular gun?

The man's remarkable eyes narrowed and Doyle stepped out of the bath. He tucked the towel about his waist and stood, hands on hips, regarding Bodie suspiciously. "Say what you mean."

"I never met a man yet who couldn't use a fortune," Bodie said brashly. "If you were for hire--"

Doyle's wide grin took him by surprise. Damn, but the man had dimples, and a cheeky, boyish smile that was insufferably cute. Bodie kicked himself hard and forced his mind back to the subject, but everything about Ray Doyle only reminded him of how long it had been since he had enjoyed that particular pleasure. Windrage was a small community, and there just wasn't anyone here whom he wanted enough to get involved in a permanent relationship.

"You want to hire me," Doyle said, eyes sparkling. "You want to wind me up like a toy soldier, and point me at the Stone Angels."

"For a fee," Bodie added. His mind raced, because he was fully expecting Doyle's next question.

"Okay, hot-shot, what are you offering?"

"Four-stroke fuel, twelve gauge cartridges, apricot brandy, good quality smoking grass, two phials of medicinal morphine--surgical quality, pure stuff, no rubbish--and a box of brand new needles, still in the wrappers."

"Phew." Doyle whistled. "Where the hell did you get your hands on that stuff?"

"Bit from here, bit from there. Even I get paid occasionally," Bodie said drily. "Well? You fancy the deal?"

For some minutes Doyle seriously considered it. He wandered about the room, sketchily drying himself, and came to rest in front of the hearth. He leaned both hands on the mantelpiece in the warm draught of the fire and looked into the mirror, meeting Bodie's eyes in the reflection.

"No," he said quietly. "Your offer's good, I'm not saying you're offering me junk, Sixteen of them, plus Erasmus Clay, on the rampage, and just you and me between them and this town? No way, man, I don't go for the odds." He threw down the towel and started to sort his clothes.

The black leather jacket and blue jeans drew Bodie's eyes. Both had seen better days. Doyle had been on the road a long time, and he had no chance of stopping. The longer he stayed in one place, the better the chance was that a bounty hunter would pick up Hayes' contact, and--

Bodie's heart squeezed, and his mind raced again. "All right, I'll up the ante," he offered. What did he have to lose? What did anyone have left to lose?

"Oh, yeah? What else have you got to offer?" Doyle was in his shorts, and had one leg in his jeans.

He was off balance when Bodie deliberately drew the sawn-off shotgun from the holster which he wore strapped to his right thigh. The sound of the hammer cocking made Doyle whirl.

"I can offer you your freedom," Bodie suggested.

Doyle looked from his face to the shotgun and back. "You bloody bastard."

"Call me what you like," Bodie said indifferently. "It's my survival, and the survival of this town I'm fighting for, and there's an old saying. Nice guys don't win ball games." He looked deliberately at Doyle's well-packed crotch as he said that. "Now, Officer Matt Hayes is one of my friends. I could hand you to him and collect the bounty on you. But I won't, if you accept the contract. You said your gun was for hire. I'm buying."

"Bastard," Doyle said between clenched teeth.

"You said that already," Bodie observed.

"What," Doyle demanded, "is to stop me waiting till the first time your back is turned and then putting a bullet in you and just walking out of here?"

"Two things," Bodie said cheerfully. "One, you're stuck here, the same as we all are. Listen to that wind. It's sub-zero out there. The Stone Angels will be here ahead of the full blow, and the storm'll leave before they do. You can't walk out before the whole show's over...and if you put a bullet in me, sunshine, you'll be wanted in Windrage too. Shoot me now, and you won't be able to hide the body for long enough to make it out of here without your name and your face being connected with my death. And then you really are dead in the water. You've never killed a Provincial Officer before. Take my advice, and don't. You wouldn't live the month out. Every bounty hunter on the frontier would be after you."

The gunfighter's eyes were ice-green, cold as a glacier, cutting as diamond. Bodie could almost hear his mind ticking over as he thought it through. And then reluctant, wry humour replaced the anger in Doyle's mercurial face, and the dimples were back.

"Damn you, Bodie," he said as he reached for his shirt. "You're a cunning old sod."

"Not so much of the old," Bodie said drily. "I'm probably younger than you are."

"Figure of speech." Doyle pushed his arms into the white shirt and tucked its tails into his jeans.

"You'll do it?" Bodie asked, and held his breath.

"You don't exactly leave me much choice," Doyle said ruefully. "I'll take your commission. Two conditions."

"Name them." Bodie let down the hammers on the shotgun and put it away. He had Doyle now. He was sure of that.

"You pay me a decent fee for the contract."

"You can have the four-stroke fuel and the brandy," Bodie offered. "Good enough?"

"Fair enough," Doyle agreed. "That stuff's like liquid gold. I've been running my bike on distilled chicken-shit so long, it's forgotten what petrol fumes smell like."

"And the second condition?" Bodie wondered as Doyle pushed his feet into battered biker's boots and stamped them.

Doyle swung on him, eyes wide, compelling. Dangerous. "I want you," he said, a tiger-husky purr.

Every nerve along Bodie's spine came to life as he wondered if he had correctly understood what Doyle had said. "I don't..."

"Oh, yes, you do. You know exactly what I mean." Doyle prowled around him, looking him up and down as he went. "Nobody--nobody--pulls a gun on me like that without paying the price for it."

"The price?" Bodie echoed as his heart thundered.

"Most men who pull a gun on me die for it," Doyle said in a husky, steely purr. He lifted his shoulder holster from the back of a chair and put it on. He took the magnum from the table beside the bath and slid it into the holster. "Now, I'm not going to kill you--"

"Magnanimous of you," Bodie said acidly.

Doyle looked sultrily at him. "You're a lot like me. You're a survivor, and your back's up against a wall. When a man finds himself painted in a comer, he does dumb-arsed things. Like trying to put the frighteners on me. I know why you did it, and the reason you're not picking your teeth out of the carpet right now, Provincial Officer Bodie, is that I reckon I'd probably have done the same thing, if I was in your place."

"Well, uh, I suppose..." Bodie said windedly.

"So I'll have you," Doyle told him roughly. "When all this is over, when Clay and the rest of that nomad biker trash are finished, it's you and me, Bodie. And you'll give me what I want."

"What...?" Bodie could hardly breathe for the beat of his heart on his ribs. "What do you want? I mean, exactly?"

Doyle's teeth bared in a smile, wolven now, neither boyish nor cheeky. "Your arse, sunshine," he growled. "Don't tell me you don't want me. You couldn't take your bloody eyes off me when you walked in here. There's been a hard-on in your pants since I stood up in that bath. "

Heat suffused Bodie's cheeks. He'd been half-aware of his erection since he first set eyes on Doyle. It was one of those stubborn, tenacious erections that refused to go away, and the longer he was around Doyle, the harder it was getting.

"I cannot tell a lie," he said banteringly, hoping he could defuse the explosive situation with a little well-placed humour.

"And I've wanted you about the same length of time," Doyle told him. With his flat palm he stroked the leather of Bodie's jacket, fondled his denim-packed backside. "Leather and blue jeans are just my style."

"So I notice." Bodie cocked a glance at the gunfighter's own clothes. His heart had begun to slow a little. "You don't talk like a frontiersman."

"Don't I?" Doyle turned abruptly and plucked a comb out of his bag, which stood by the bath. "What do I talk like?"

"Cityboy," Bodie guessed. "You haven't been up here long. You...." Now he was guessing, and prayed Doyle would not take exception. "You're not on the run, are you?"

The comb had been working through the luxurious red-brown curls. At Bodie's words, it stopped. "What kind of idiot would I be," Doyle said lightly, "to make that confession to an officer of the law?"

Bodie only shrugged. "City law doesn't carry any weight on the frontier. Windrage law doesn't hold good by the time you get over the hills to Yonderland. Every place makes its own rules and regs. Whatever they want you for elsewhere doesn't mean diddly to me, Doyle."

"In that case," Doyle said drily, "mind your own damned business." But he looked over his shoulder at Bodie and winked teasingly. "You're a fool," he accused.

The remark caught Bodie unawares. "Why do you say that?"

"Knowing who I am, and pulling a gun on me." Doyle clacked his tongue. "I've killed men for less than that."

"Not provincial legal-eagles. For killing men like Matt Hayes and myself, every bounty hunter on the frontier would band together and hunt you down. It would be a matter of survival."

"Point." Doyle tossed the comb back into his bag. "Besides, you may not like to believe it, Officer, but I'm not a criminal. I've never killed any man wantonly. Every time I use that gun, there's a bloody good reason, and I've done nothing I'm ashamed of. Mind you, a lot of these half-arsed county-mounties like Hayes would never see it my way, so I keep moving." He paused there, looking thoughtfully at Bodie, who was literally mesmerised by the monologue. Then Doyle stirred and settled his jacket about his shoulders, concealing the weapon. "I'm hungry. Get me something to eat while I look this job over and see if I can make a silk purse out of this particular swine's ear...or any other part of its anatomy!"

He was at the door when Bodie gathered his wits and said, "Thank you. Your help is appreciated."

Doyle turned back for a moment. "Thanks are unnecessary. I expect to be well-paid, Bodie--I'm only in this for the fee. And since it's essential that both of us survive for me to collect, I'll have to keep you alive. You're as snug as a bug in a rug till all this is over." He smiled, half teasing, half grim. "And then, Provincial Officer Bodie, you answer to me."

"Ray Doyle's law, is it?" Bodie said tartly, but he was disinclined to mock. Doyle was under his skin, itching there like glass powder.

Incredibly, one of those green eyes winked at him before Doyle was gone without another word. Bodie took a deep breath, let it out slowly and took stock of his situation. He was, in the same instant, the luckiest and the most unlucky man in Windrage. Not one of the townsmen would stand with him, and Erasmus Clay would only have to set eyes on him to see red. On the road, the biker chief would have been miles out of touch with the news, but soon enough he would know the truth.

His aim had been a fraction off, or the goddess of luck had frowned on him. A dozen pellets of heavy gauge deer shot had peppered Bodie, ripped his back wide open, and when he went down on his face, Clay was sure he was dead. Bodie shivered as he heard again that bellow of raucous laughter from the bottom of the biker's lungs before he kicked the big Triumph to life and wound the throttle out. Ten bikes roared away with him, sounding like a swarm of furious hornets receding into the distance.

In four months Bodie's body had repaired itself and he was ready to fight again, but with Bill and Vince buried, the Stone Angels stronger than ever and Erasmus Clay on the warpath, his chances of coming through the confrontation alive had stood at nil, until Ray Doyle rode into Windrage.

The storm had really begun to lash now. The eaves were lifting, the shutters banging. Josh Kelly had finished hammering, The Earl was closed up tighter than a spinster's corsets. The fires were on, the boilers in the basement were coming up to pressure and the hot water pipes had just started to gurgle. Soon the air temperature would rise, the smell of food would waft from the kitchen and Ma's White Lightning would be flowing free.

The Earl was the place to be. Anyone in the county knew that, and so did the biker trash. They would make for the pub like homing pigeons, belly up to the bar, cut a deck of cards and take charge of the place as if they owned it, to the terror and panic of the townspeople.

It had happened before. Bodie had the scars to prove it, and a quicksilver thread of fear stitched through him as he looked around Doyle's room and took note of the man's possessions.

His pack was open on the end of the bed, and Bodie saw the typical kit. Tea, sugar, a billycan; two matched magnums and an automatic with spare magazines; canned food, matches, gunoil; a set of knives and whetstones; ammunition boxes, tools, oilcan; a thick wad of tissues, surgical tape, latex gloves, iodine; spare spark plugs, points and puncture repair gear, condoms, lubricant and a few sex toys; soap, shampoo, toothbrush and straight razor; thermal blankets and pillow; decent quality smoking grass, half a bottle of whisky; three pairs of bluejeans, a carefully wrapped pair of good quality, hand-made boots, half a dozen shirts, shorts and socks, a fine suede jacket carefully sealed in a plastic bag; a length of rope, a pair of chrome steel handcuffs, a .303 rifle with a 70x 'scope.

The whole lot was rolled in an oilskin, and would tie down across the back of his bike. Doyle travelled light, but a man's gear told the careful observer a lot about him. Doyle was fastidious. He was clean, and he had good quality clothes, carefully packed. He looked after the bike himself, was his own cook, he liked sex, and he liked it safe; and the hardest dope he carried was mild quality grass. Bodie approved.

Satisfied, he left the room and followed the sound of voices back to the bar. The women were shouting, and the high-pitched sound of their protests assured Bodie of one thing: they had heard the news. The Stone Angels would be in by evening, and they were not safe here. Then again, neither were the bar boys. Clay's motley crew were partial to anything young and pretty, gender was irrelevant.

He swung down the stairs and stood for some moments in the shadows, watching Kelly trying to bribe the girls to stay. They had too much sense, thank God. Kelly was offering better pay, but what was a bottle of vodka, a dozen cans of kippers and a box of chocolate against the imminent threat of pack rape?

Big Dolly Flynn--taller than Kelly by a hand's span--grabbed him by the lapels and almost lifted him off his feet. "Listen, you thick-headed little runt, I'll say it for the fifth time: me and my girls and boys are leaving! If you've got some idea we're staying here and playing the cheese in the mousetrap, you're wrong! You want us to stay and keep that trash sweet?" Dolly dropped Kelly like a hot coal. "Not bloody likely. My kids may be whores, but they're not lunatics. What's the matter with you--don't you know the difference between a roll in the sack for laughs and a fee, and getting gang-banged on the ground?"

"He knows the diff, Dolly," Doyle's voice said quietly, "but he's scared. Aren't you, Kelly?"

The publican's face was white as a sheet. "Yes, Mr Doyle. Scared shitless, sir. Christ, sir, you should have seen what they did to my place last time! That was only four months ago, and it took a week to put it right. They killed four people while they were here."

"Counting two of your officers?" Doyle stepped closer to the bar and came into Bodie's line of sight.

"No, sir," Kelly admitted. "Six, counting them."

Doyle had seen Bodie on the stairs. A flick of his eyes acknowledged Bodie's presence, but he spoke to Kelly. "Why don't you count Bill and Vince among the dead?"

"Well," Kelly said awkwardly, "they were officers."

"They were men," Doyle rasped.

"They were officers," Dolly Flynn said in her enormous voice, which issued from an enormous body. Corseted into an hour-glass figure and dressed in white leathers, she was Doyle's height, and probably twice his weight. "It was their job to kick the biker trash right out of Windrage," she boomed at him. "And if they died--that's all part of their contract too."

"I see." Doyle folded his arms on his chest. "It's no wonder you can't find anyone to take the job."

"There's Bodie," Kelly said falteringly.

"Oh, yes, Bodie." Doyle regarded the group at the bar with a real, marrow-deep misanthropic look. "All on his own, all one of him, going to go out and surround seventeen of them. And when he's dead, what'll the rest of you do?"

"Well..." Kelly began, and stopped.

"You'll run, if you can," Doyle said cynically. "And some of you will make it out, and some won't. A few of you'll get caught and the Stones will eat you for breakfast. That little entertainment will buy the other runners a bit of time. A few of them will blunder out into the storm and either freeze to death in the cold or suffocate in the dust."

The whole crowd--thirty people, barmen, Dolly's boys and girls from the adjacent bordello, patrons--were stunned into silence. Bodie thought he could have heard a pin drop as Doyle turned on them, rebuked them, and because of who he was, what he was, they were compelled to listen.

"You're gutless," he told them. "If you stood together you could mop the floor with the biker trash, but every one of you is only interested in saving his own hide, and to hell with everybody else. The I'm-in-the-lifeboat mentality. You're pathetic."

He turned toward Bodie, thrust his hands into the pockets of his jeans and lifted his chin. "You want to take the Stones? It can be done. But you do it my way, Bodie, or your rabble can look out for itself, and I'll take my chances on the road back to Yonderland. By the time the tribe gets done with this place, there'll be no one left alive to tell the tale of what happened here."

For a full half minute the dead silence continued, and then the crowd erupted. Doyle was surrounded but he ignored them all, intent on Bodie. With a slow, measured tread, Bodie descended the stairs and physically pulled the assembly apart.

"I'm listening," he told Doyle.

The gunfighter shouldered his way through Dolly's hustlers. "They'll make for this place. It's safe, it's warm and it's got plenty of booze. There's only two doors, one front and one back. The windows are shuttered, the shutters are nailed down, they won't get out that way fast enough."

"Get out?" Bodie echoed. "What makes you think they'll be trying to get out?"

Doyle gave him a withering look. "With half of them dead, the other half will run. Or try to. Any way you look at it, it's going to be bloody, but if we're quick, the blood'll be theirs, not ours."

"There's going to be shooting?" Kelly said sharply.

"In here?" Dolly demanded.

"Get your kids out," Doyle said without even looking at them. "I don't want bystanders either getting caught in the crossfire or being grabbed as hostages." He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder. "Back door. Be on the safe side and block it. Park a truck across it if you have to. Keep the fish in the barrel."

"What about the stairs," Bodie warned. "You could end up fighting room to room."

"Not with you on the landing with a twelve bore," Doyle said coldly. "They'll try to run that way, and they run straight into a flak curtain. Put them down. You could get three or four that way."

Bodie swallowed. "Back premises? Same applies."

"Block their escape route." Doyle swung on Kelly. "You'll have to stand on your hind legs for once in your life. Wait till they get in here, and then cut off that passage. What have you got that'll block it?"

Mouth flapping, Kelly seemed blank for a moment, before he forced his brain into gear and said, "Freezer chest. Big, solid, heavy, on wheels. Tall as me, wide as the passage. I can dump down a couple of sacks of oats and corn to chock the wheels when it's in place, so they can't put it out of the way."

"It'll do," Doyle agreed. "Check those wheels for squeaks, and turn the lamps off in that passage. They might still see what you're doing, but if you're quick, by the time they do see, it'll be too late."

"Front door," Bodie prompted. "You'll look after that? >From which position?"

"Behind the bar. It's the best cover in here, solid teak, by the looks of it. Bulletproof."

"Does Erasmus Clay know your face?" Dolly Flynn asked, narrow eyed and shrewd.

Now, Doyle sighed. "Yeah, love, I'm afraid he does. And he thinks he's got a score to settle with me, so I can tell you now, it's going to be quick. I won't have to pick a fight, Bodie, leave that to Clay. He's been itching to have a go at me for a year."

"With reason?" Bodie asked piercingly.

Doyle accorded him a glare. "I put a bullet in one of his outriders, in Summertown. And before you ask why--it's none of your damned business." He stalked away, headed for the stairs and his room, and was half way up before he turned back to the stunned crowd. "Kelly, oil your wheels and block the back door, park something over it. Get these chicken hustlers out of here, and the rest of you...either get out, go home, or else keep your eye on Erasmus Clay. When he sees my face, he'll fight the fuse. Get down on the floor, get behind something. If you move before it's over and you get your heads shot off, don't try blaming anyone but yourselves."

He marched up the stairs like a drill sergeant on parade, leaving Kelly, Flynn and the others gaping like stranded fish. "Jesus, Mary and Joseph," Kelly whispered.

"Consider yourselves duly warned," Bodie said drily.

The woman grasped him by the arm, her long, blood-red fingernails digging into his leather. "Sounds like you've let him take charge of this town!"

"The town? No." Bodie withdrew from her grasp and stepped away. "But, take charge of this place, this evening, this tribe of nomad trash--sure, and he's welcome to it."

"But it's your job!" Dolly roared.

"Like Bill and Vince?" Bodie's lip curled. "Wrong, lady. It's my job to keep you people safe, but I can't do it on my own and there's not one of you will help me. Is there?" He glared at Bradley, Sawyer, Ashmole: the mechanic, the gravedigger, the teacher. One by one, they shook their heads shamefacedly and backed away, as if they could hide behind their fellows. "Then, how else do you think this is going to be done?" Bodie demanded. "It's catch or kill. And I can't catch them single-handed. Christ, even the addition of Ray Doyle only makes two pairs of hands!"

"So it's kill," Kelly said breathlessly.

"You want the Stones alive?" Bodie rapped at him.

"No, but--"

"Then stop being sanctimonious," Bodie scoffed. "You didn't turn a hair when Bill and Vince were killed. Luck of the draw, you said. It was their job. Same applies to Erasmus Clay's mob of jackasses." He looked for Sawyer and glared at him. "Better see you have plenty of body bags."

Without waiting for them to protest, tired of them, wearied of their timidity and their bloody-minded hypocrisy, he took the stairs two at a time. The air was warmer now. The hot water pipes had stopped gurgling, which meant they were full. Fuel enough to run the boilers for a week was stored in the basement, and The Earl could keep going on food and booze for that long.

In the doorway of Doyle's room, he paused and mutely watched the gunfighter making his own preparations. On the bed lay his four handguns: the magnum from his holster, the spares he kept in his pack, and a 9mm Baretta automatic. He was checking each one, and loading them. In all, the magnums gave him eighteen shots, and the automatic gave him fifteen, plus one up the spout. Thirty-four rounds were at his disposal without the necessity to reload.

He knew Bodie was there but did not look at him even when Bodie cleared his throat and said, "Thirty-four shots. Sixteen of them. Will it be enough?"

"I find that remark highly insulting," Doyle said acidly.

Bodie stepped into the room and shut the door. The bath was still full, the water gone cold and greasy. "Doyle, I want you to know, I'm grateful. I need you tonight. And I'm ready to pay the fee we agreed. All of it."

"Oh, yeah?" Doyle gave him a sultry look. "Well, I intend to collect, Bodie, all of it, so it's a good thing you're ready to pay the piper."

"You'd force me, if I wasn't ready?" Bodie asked quietly.

"I'd seduce you, dummy," Doyle rasped. "I'm not a rapist. I've never been a rapist!"

Something in the way he said that made Bodie's skin prickle. He cocked his head at Doyle, watched the fine, artist's fingers working with the guns, so deft and sure. How many thousands of times had Doyle done this? "You want to tell me about it?" he prompted.

"Tell you about what?" Doyle angled a glance at him as he loaded a spare magazine for the automatic.

"What started you in this trade?" Bodie nodded at the guns. "Why you erupted like a Roman candle when I asked if you'd force me, if I wasn't willing."

A sigh of exasperation hissed between Doyle's teeth and he slammed the magazine down onto the pillow. "Jesus, you love to pry! What's the inquisition in aid of? It's none of your fucking business!"

"I know it's not," Bodie admitted. "But I'm interested."

"Why?" Doyle demanded. His eyes were sharp as cut glass.

"Because you fascinate me," Bodie admitted. He could always try telling the truth, if all else was failing--and it was. Honesty was rarely the best policy, but as an eleventh hour stand he would give it a crack. "I fancy you. You won't have to seduce me, much less force me. I'd be happy to go to bed with you if you bought me a drink and propositioned me. And you interest me. The mystique, the charisma, the enigma. My God, the gunfighter! I've seen snapshots of you on wanted posters in three or four towns along the frontier. Makes me wonder who you are, what makes you tick, what got you into this. How you stay alive, when a legion of bounty hunters must be after you."

At last, letting go his anger, Doyle sighed and relaxed. He sat against the brass bedhead and closed his eyes to slits as he studied Bodie. "There are. That's why I shot Erasmus Clay's outrider. The man was trying to take me. That reward put up by Matt Hayes is enough to tempt a saint."

"I see." Bodie leaned on the door and let his eyes rove over Doyle's slender, whipcord-strong body. "And the time before? You shot Hayes' brother."

"Sonny Hayes was dealing jacks off the bottom and aces out of both cuffs," Doyle said drily. "I told him to stop and he pulled a gun on me. Nobody waves a .38 cop special in my face! And for your information, Officer, I shot three others between Hayes and Clay's man."

"With good reason," Bodie guessed.

"There's always good reason. I'm not a murderer. Whether you believe it or not," Doyle said tiredly.

Bodie hesitated as he watched Doyle, his face, his body language, the way he used his hands. Most of what a man had to say, he said with his eyes and his hands, the way he sat or stood, the way he held his head and shoulders. "I believe you," Bodie said slowly.

The green eyes widened. "You do?"

"I like to think I'm a good judge of men." Bodie took off his jacket as the room began to grow oppressively warm. "How long have you been on the road?"

"You mean, how long since I picked up a gun?"

"Same difference."

"Not quite." Doyle hoisted himself off the bed and returned to his work. "I picked up a gun for the first time when I was seven years old. My father was a gunsmith, that's where I learned what I knew. But I didn't put a bullet in anyone till four years ago. And you can believe or disbelieve as you see fit, I don't particularly give a toss, but it was self-defence."

Fascination piqued, and Bodie took a step nearer. In the soft yellow lamplight Doyle was gorgeous. The animal magnetism he exuded caught Bodie fast. "You killed a man in self-defence and had to get out of there?" he guessed.

"Something like that." Doyle snapped the magazine into the automatic and tried the fit of it in the holster.

It was not the same shape as the magnum, and did not fit perfectly. With his left hand, Doyle worked it around, to and fro, and then to Bodie's astonishment, he demonstrated the knack, the trick, which Kelly had seen--the trick that must have won him more than a few fights.

He was ambidextrous. When he faced a man in the street, his opponent would naturally expect him to be right-handed and draw the weapon by reaching across his chest. That was slow, wasteful. Bodie blinked as he watched Doyle flick the big automatic out of the holster with his left hand and draw aim on an imaginary target.

Still, he was not satisfied, and rummaged through his pack for a block of rosin, which he used to slick-smooth the holster. A lot of rosin, a dozen draws, and he was happier with it. Bodie was mesmerised. All this time, Doyle seemed to consider the question of how much he wanted to tell Bodie, or could say without damning himself.

At last, he thrust the gunoil, spare shells and tools into his pack and said over his shoulder, "Four years ago I was in the city. I was a gunsmith, had my own workshop. A lad from the local market was pestering me. Wanted to be lovers with me. I didn't want him. Not that I don't like boys, I do. But not him. He was just plain not my type. Came the day I turned him down once too often, and the kid squealed rape. I had half his family howling for blood , and they brought the law in. I stood no chance. The lad even had three witnesses, his mates, who were ready to swear I'd held him down and fucked his little arse while he screamed blue murder. If I stayed put I was going to end up castrated. I don't know what you do on the frontier, but that's what they do to rapists in the city. Best way to put paid to their antics, and it's the best short-term deterrent they can think of."

"It's the same here," Bodie said quietly. "So you ran?"

"Tried to. The lad's uncle got in my way with a double-barrelled duck gun. I was trying to nick him, put a bullet in him somewhere where it'd just put him down. I shot about an inch too low and hit his lung. He died." Doyle turned his face away. "And I've been running ever since. There, Provincial Officer Bodie, that's the whole confession. Now, what? You get on the shortwave and call London, they send a squad for me?"

But Bodie shook his head slowly. "I believe you. I also know, there's no way back for you. You'll never prove you didn't rape the boy, and even if you could prove that, you'll still be up against a wall for the 'murder' of the kid's uncle. City people are lame-brained. Cop-coddled. They never know what violence is about from one month's end to the next. Never see a dead body. Anything goes wrong, they howl for the law, and then hide their heads in a bucket of sand. You'd be surprised how many men on the frontier are on the run."

"I wouldn't," Doyle said acidly.

Fleetingly, Bodie smiled. "Perhaps not. Then again, Doyle, I also know there's no way forward for you, either." He nodded at the street, beyond the nailed-down shutter. "Bounty hunters, nomad biker trash, officers like Matt Hayes who have a score to settle with you. Young idiots who think they can pluck a gun out of a holster faster than you can and have to challenge you to prove it. You're on a one-way street, and it goes to hell."

"I...know." Doyle's teeth worried his lip and he rubbed his face. "I've been looking for a way out, every mile of the road. Trouble is, no matter how far I go, it only takes a couple of months before my fame follows me. Soon, Bodie, there'll be no place left to run to."

"And then?" Bodie asked, hushed.

"Then," Doyle murmured, "I'll be dead. One way or another. A firing squad for some so-called murder somewhere. Or will Matt Hayes change his poster to read, 'wanted dead or alive?' Or will a cityside cop squad come for me? Or will I buy it in a fight? Christ, it could be tonight." He closed his eyes, shook his head slowly, resignedly. "I haven't got far to go. I know that. It may surprise you, but I'm not a fool."

"I never thought you were," Bodie said gravely. His mind chewed at Doyle's problem, but no matter which way he approached it, there was no answer.

They were silent for a long time, until at last Doyle stirred deliberately and said, "I asked for dinner over an hour ago, and I haven't seen it yet! I don't fight well on an empty stomach, Bodie."

With a slightly guilty pang, Bodie opened the door. "You asked me to fetch you dinner, too. Sorry. Let's go down and eat in the bar. You lucked out with this place, at least. They have the best cook on the frontier."

Before he stepped out, Doyle collected the four guns, and his jacket. The automatic went into his holster, he tucked a magnum into his belt and slid the other two into the pockets of the jacket. "It's time we got ready. The Stones won't be far behind. We've got a couple of hours at most--and that long, only because they won't make fast headway in this weather."

With every windows closed up, the pub was getting humid. The gale howled down the chimneys and the eaves banged alarmingly on the south wall. But Kelly had been out there and chained them down and Bodie was not worried.

Enormous eyebolts were set into both the eaves and the ground, and a chain as thick as his wrist was attached to both. The ground was foot-thick concrete, and the eaves had been made of railway tracks. The steel was blood-red with oxidisation, but it was so thick it would take a hundred years to rust though, and so heavy it would hold the roof down in any hurricane.

Worse than the wind was the cold. The draught coming in through the gaps around the front door was like ice. It reminded Bodie of the glacial, arctic gales that had scoured the whole county, counties and cities alike, in the days after the event, the impact of Comet Rodgers. It was as if the Apocalypse had taken place, but instead of the world being ravaged by hellfire and brimstone, it was devastated by the kind of cold that would have been common enough on Baffin Island, but not in these hills, these cities.

Bodie glanced sidelong at Doyle as they went down the stairs and felt the ferocity of that draught. The mask-like immobility of Doyle's face assured him, the same thoughts were worming through his companion's mind.

"Where were you?" he asked--the old question. No one needed to have it clarified. It only ever meant one thing, given the context in which it was asked.

"Staying with my grandmother in the country," Doyle said quietly. "I'd been sick in the summer, I was convalescing, ready to go back to school. We were walking in the hills when it...happened. Penrith was shaken flat by the earthquakes. The lake got up out of its basin and drowned everything, for as far as we could see. My grandma was a country woman, she had the presence of mind to hit the deck and stay down till the hurricane had gone over, and when we picked ourselves up again there wasn't much of anything left. And the old lady was blind."

"She'd looked at the sky?" Bodie groaned. "The fool! The same thing happened to my aunt. Thousands of people were blinded like that. It was very common...horrible."

"Yeah," Doyle agreed. "She just had to look. She'd shoved me underneath her to protect me, so I was safe. But she never got her sight back. The glare, or x-rays or whatever it is, just burned the purple in her eyes away."

"So that left you as good as alone at age--what were you, twelve?"


"Okay, thirteen years old, and you were on hillside with a blind old woman, while the temperature went down like a brick and the sky went black as night at two in the afternoon," Bodie said hoarsely. "What did you do?"

Doyle's face was stiff as a mask carved out of wood. "Grabbed her, hit her in the face to stop her screaming when she found out she was blind, and got her moving. I knew we couldn't go down hill, the lowlands were underwater. So I took her up to a farm I knew. A sheep farm above the lake. It was flattened by the earthquakes, of course, but the farmer and his wife hadn't been in the house. They also had a shortwave in the 4x4. Not that there was anyone to call for help--there wasn't! But Bert Jones was a tower of strength."

"Kept you alive?" Bodie wondered, hushed, consumed by another's story of survival. Everyone had their own story to tell, and sooner or later when strangers met, the question would be asked, 'Where were you?' And the story would be told amid a breathless, horror-rapt silence.

"He helped me stay alive, and I helped him," Doyle said hauntedly. Fifteen year old memories had returned full force and seemed to have slammed him in the midriff like a punch. How well Bodie knew that feeling. "We set to, took the rubble of the cottage to pieces and built a hut. Slapped mud all over the inside and lit a fire in there to harden it off. Chipped out a smoke hole, got a hearth going, fast. Bert killed a dozen of the injured sheep, and skinned them. The skins cured over a fire, and by morning we were eating mutton and dressed like eskimos, huddled by the hearth. Every hour, we'd call on the shortwave for ten minutes on the offchance someone somewhere was listening."

"Any joy?" Bodie asked softly.

"Oh, sure. Six weeks later we were heard. I'd gone into Penrith with Bert while Mavis, his wife, looked after the old lady. We scavenged the ruins for tinned food, pots and pans, anything we could use. We were burning the timbers of the cottage in our hearth, eating mutton three times a day. Wearing three layers of sheepskins. We were cold, hungry, filthy, but we were alive when a jetcopter found us and took us into London." He closed his eyes. "My father was still alive, but my mother and sister were dead. The three of us, Dad, Gran and me, found ourselves a hole in the ground and tried to keep warm. Living on rations, dirty, getting lousy, tap-dancing on the cockroaches every morning to keep them down. But there was plenty of wood to bum for heat. The city had fallen down." He shook himself and shrugged. "Dad taught me his trade, and I was a gunsmith until..."

He turned his face away, and Bodie felt a knot of pain ball. up in his innards. For Doyle to have come through all that and then be trapped into an appalling no-win situation by a malicious boy, was enough to drive a man into the most bitter cynicism imaginable.

"Here, sit down, I'll get you a meal," Bodie said with rough compassion which was as awkward as it was sincerely meant. Less than an hour ago he'd been holding a shotgun on this man and offering to hand him over to Matt Hayes if he refused to sell his gun to a lost cause.

"Got work to do first," Doyle told him. "You order. I'll eat anything that isn't actually moving."

With a grin, Bodie clapped his hands and summoned young Ben, who waited on tables, swept the floor and washed the windows in return for room and board. "Two steaks, eggs, potatoes, pie and cream, and...tea" he ordered. He might have said beer, but many people likened the local beer to horse sweat, it was too damned cold to want freezing liquid today, and besides, alcohol in the blood was the one thing neither he nor Doyle wanted.

While the kid scurried out to the kitchen with the order, Doyle was behind the bar. First, he stood still and looked around in every direction, gauging the angle of his shots. He would get only once chance, so it had better be good. Then, with his angles judged and his calculations made, he salted away the three magnums, on the shelf under the bar, where he could lay his hand on them quickly.

Both elbows leaned on the polished black teak bar and he gestured at the shotgun Bodie wore strapped to his thigh. "You carrying plenty of spares for that? You'll need them. When they start to go down, they'll panic and run. I'll drop them before they can get through the front door--"

"I'll make bloody sure of that," Bodie assured him, "because I'll have Kelly lock it surreptitiously the instant they're all inside."

"Right. So then they'll run to the back," Doyle went on. "They'll see Kelly's freezer chest blocking their path and the only other way they might be able to get away from me is up those stairs."

Deliberately, Bodie drew the pump shotgun out of its special long holster. "They'll run straight into this. I've got four twelve gauge in the magazine. And this." He leaned forward and plucked the pistol from his belt, at the small of his back. "And this." From his right boot, he produced the .60 calibre 'Derry' gun. "Stop worrying about me, Doyle. I'm a professional. If I was any kind of an amateur I'd have been stone cold long ago."

At last, almost reluctantly, Doyle smiled at him, and this time it was a genuine smile. "I know. No aspersions intended." He put his fingers to his lips and issued a piercing whistle. Two dozen heads turned, right across the bar room. "Oi," Doyle told them, "listen up. There's three magnum revolvers behind this bar. They're loaded and the hammers are back. Touch them and you'll probably blow your brains out. Understand?"

A titter of laughter answered him, but the townspeople had got the message. They were laughing because they were scared. Doyle was content that he had got his warning across, and while the crowd returned to the cards and Ma's best quality sipping hooch, he circuited the bar and joined Bodie.

But one by one the people were leaving, drifting away as time ran on. The Stone Angels would be in Windrage by evening, and already the sun must be almost down, though it was difficult to tell with the pub so hermetically sealed. Doyle sat, and he and Bodie waited in silence until Ben rushed out from the kitchen with a laden tray. They regarded each other warily, with a lot of healthy suspicion, but Bodie was no longer concerned. He felt that he knew Doyle now. Shared danger was the fastest ice-breaker.

"So, where were you?" Doyle invited as the boy thumped down the tray and he tried the steak.

The meat was old, but the cook here was a gem. Rick first beat the steaks with a mallet, then treated them with some kind of herbs, then washed them and grilled them slowly for half an hour before finishing them off on the pan. The end result was the same as the best quality fillet money just could not buy. You didn't kill cattle for food, not when they ploughed and fertilised your fields, provided you with milk and another generation of cattle to continue the tradition. But when one of them died of sheer old age, not one part of the animal was wasted. Waste was the only real sin.

As they ate, Bodie told his own story and Doyle listened in the same horror-rapt silence in which Bodie had heard Doyle's story. No one had had it easy. Every story was different, and yet they were all the same. Somewhere in the middle of the jumble of fear, pain, cold, hunger and grief were ordinary human beings struggling to survive and somehow managing it against the odds.

Their plates were clean and they were drinking a third cup of tea when Doyle suddenly cocked his ear to the wind and said quietly, "Hear that?"

Bodie began to listen and swore beneath his breath. The wind moaned, rose to a shrieking howl, dropped away to dead calm and then wailed like a banshee. Anyone on the frontier knew that sound. The full storm was less than an hour away. Erasmus Clay would be in no doubts.

The Earl of Aberdeen was warm, oil-lamp dim, humid, with air that smelt of frying onions and simmering dumplings. Cards and dice rattled, and if it was kicked in the right place the old jukebox in the corner would jangle out the tunes of yesteryear. On any other night the atmosphere would have been congenial, the bordello's friendly girls and boys would have been mingling, and Josh Kelly's eyes would be sparkling at the consumption of liquor.

Tonight, the front door opened every couple of minutes as first this man, then that one slunk away. Some of them gave Bodie a shamefaced glance, perhaps even a quiet word of apology or excuse. 'I've got a family to think about...' or, 'I don't know one end of a gun from the other, Bodie, I'd be no use to you anyway.... Others just scuttled away and didn't look back. In the street tomorrow they would flush beetroot-red when they met the officer and had to look into his face.

If he lived. And any way Bodie calculated the odds, they were stacked against him and Doyle. Not that Doyle looked worried. His eye was on the time, his ear was cocked to the wind, and as The Earl was suddenly empty he pushed back his chair and called for Ben to take away the crockery.

The kid loaded up the tray, but before he could make off with it Doyle dropped a hand on his shoulder. "Have you got a home to go to, son?"

"I live here, Mr Doyle," Ben said, flushed, flattered that the renowned gunfighter should take an interest in him.

"Then, you get yourself into the kitchen, put a solid brick wall between you and this bar," Doyle said sternly, "and when you hear Erasmus Clay's trash come through the front doors, get down on the floor under the table and cover your head."

Ben nodded vigorously. "I'd love to watch," he said wistfully.

"No!" Doyle barked. "There's going to be more stray bullets than mosquitoes over a swamp! Clear off, kid, and get your head down!"

The boy hurried away, and Bodie watched as he slipped by Kelly in the passage. The publican shuffled forward and cleared his throat hesitantly.

"The lamps are out in the corridor, Mr Doyle, as you said. I can't get a bartender for tonight. The usual one, George Parkes, just left, and he says he won't be back."

"He's got a lame wife and a sickly kid to look after," Bodie said quietly before Doyle could make any protest. "Under normal circumstances, Mary and Titch would be here, where it's warm and safe. If they're going to spend the night at home in a storm like this, they'll be scared, they want him with them...and if we get George Parkes killed, who's going to look after them?"

Doyle had opened his mouth, probably to say something contemptuous about Parkes in particular and Windrage's men in general, but he closed it again and shrugged indifferently. "I'll tend the bar myself, Kelly. But if I were you, I'd move the good stuff out of here. And I wouldn't count on selling much. As soon as Clay sees my face it'll start. And in the following three minutes, it'll be finished."

"What..." Kelly swallowed repeatedly before he could find his voice again. "What do you want me to do, Mr Doyle?"

"Stand beside the door," Doyle said, low and cynical, a tone of voice Bodie had heard once before, while he had been holding a shotgun on the man. "Distract the Stones as they come in. Talk, babble, anything at all, make sure they keep looking at you, not at me, till they're all inside. I'll be behind the bar. I'll keep my back to them as long as I can. When they're all in here, turn the key in that lock, take it with you and then get out. Go and look after Ben. The kid's going to be peeing himself when it starts."

Kelly's eyes flickered to Bodie. "Is that what I'll do?"

"Yes, it's what you'll do," Bodie told him tersely. "It's the only plan that makes any sense." He scraped back his chair and leaned both palms flat on the table as Kelly hurried away to find his keys.

The pub was so silent, it could have been a church or a courthouse. In the terrible quiet, over the noise of the wind, Bodie could hear his own heart beating, slow, steady, a loud drum in his ears. His mouth was dry and he noticed Doyle was licking his lips repeatedly.

"You okay?" he asked very quietly.

The other man pulled his shoulders back, worked his neck to and fro to ease its tension. "Stage fright."

"What?" Bodie took a step closer.

"Stage fright. You know, sweaty palms, itchy feet, heart going bang-bang," Doyle said drily. "I don't want to die, Bodie. Nobody does." He looked sidelong at Bodie, eyes wide, pupils dark in the dim light. "And if you're not scared, you're mad."

"I'm scared," Bodie admitted, and thought as he spoke, how strange it was to make that confession. He had never made it to another human soul. "It won't be long," he murmured.

"I know." Doyle took a deep breath, inhaled it slowly and then turned to Bodie and thrust out his hand. "Thanks a whole bunch for inviting me to this little shooting party of yours, Officer. And good luck."

Bodie shook his hand. "Call me Bodie."

"Oh, I will." Doyle looked him up and down with such a sultry expression, Bodie could scarcely breathe.

A moment later he was moving, getting in behind the bar. He took off his jacket, and as Bodie watched he whisked the automatic out of the shoulder holster with that strange left-handed draw, so quick, the onlooker was left speechless.

In the passage, hovering nervously with his bunch of keys, Kelly swore quietly. Doyle ignored him and methodically checked every gun he had salted away under the bar. Bodie drew the shotgun and, checked its load, checked the pistol and the sneak gun in his boot.

At the foot of the stairs he gave Doyle a look that spoke volumes. Doyle nodded mutely, and without a word Bodie climbed on, up to the landing. From there he had an excellent view of the door, and if he knelt on the stairs, just around the comer, he could use the heavy wooden banister for cover. When the shooting began stray bullets and ricochets would be as deadly as on-target rounds.

He lifted the shotgun from its holster, cocked its trigger and set it carefully on the landing beside him. He drew both the revolver and the sneak-gun, cocked them too, and tucked them carefully aside, where he could put his hand on them as easily as Doyle could reach his own weapons.

Then they waited, and the following half hour plucked on Bodie's tight-strung nerves like a musician picking the strings of a banjo. This was the time he hated. The waiting. Erasmus Clay could not be far away now. Every minute brought him closer. Inactivity invited introspection and Bodie knew no means by which he could stop his thoughts turning inward, and backward to the past. His feet had been on this path for more than a decade, and it would be ironic for it all to end here, tonight, like this....

The wind screeched, ripping at the shutters, and across Windrage people would be huddled by their fires, tying to keep warm and worrying about their roofs. Windrage was protected by the hills which girdled it on the south and east sides, but the farms and crofts dotted across the slopes between here and Yonderland were not so fortunate as to have that cover. Farmers dug out enormous basements, and when the sky darkened, giving an afternoon's warning that a storm was about to hit, they took their families, animals and most valuable possessions underground. If the cottage above was wrecked they would rebuild.

Very few actual towns existed, because of the ravages of the weather, and the constant threat of assault by nomad tribes like the Stone Angels, the Comancheros, the Vikings. Not many people were willing to invest so much time and resources in building and consolidating, which in the end only made a village into a town, and a town into a rich, irresistible target for land-pirates.

Why Erasmus Clay's tribe called themselves 'Stone Angels,' Bodie had not known until a survivor of one of their rampages of violence limped into Summertown, where Bodie was staying the night. The young man had been brutally raped and tortured. The skin of his back was in tatters after a merciless whipping, his face was a mass of bruises and his genitals were a mess. Still, Summertown's surgeon, Doc Levison, had worked miracles on the boy and he lived. He told his story to the local law, which in Summertown was personified by Provincial Officer Harry Kirk, and Bodie listened as the kid rambled, half delirious and scared to death.

The nomad tribe had ridden in the day before, drunk every drop of alcohol, eaten every bite of food and taken whatever they wanted, including the young people. In the midst of the carnage, Clay explained to an old man, just before he killed him, why the tribe called themselves by that name.

Stone Angels soared above the graveyard, marking the resting places of the dead. Clay's tribe was the new order of the world. They were the future, he claimed, and they marked the graveyard of the old world, over which they soared.

The thought made Bodie's blood run cold. Erasmus Clay had always been an anarchist. In the days before the event, he was one of those young shaven-headed 'Skins' wearing swastikas and goose-stepping in the street. He freely admitted, then, he had bombed law courts and army barracks, shot politicians and kidnapped soldiers, in an unremitting attempt to drag down The System and bring about the total anarchy that had been threatening for most of the troubled Twentieth Century, but never actually happened.

When Rodgers impacted, to Clay it was a sign from God. Fire from heaven. Heavenly judgement raining down out of the sky. He seized on it, and in the very early days when the sky was dark as midnight he made a lot of converts. By main force, he seized a supply of food, drugs and booze, and people flocked to him. He doled out the means of staying alive, and while people ate he force-fed them his new doctrine.

It was Armageddon. It was the time of Judgement. The army, governments, the churches, the police and lawyers and teachers, all those in authority, had corrupted the world and everything in it, into a parody of the truth, and they had paid the price. Now, the old order was going to perish, and out of the ashes would arise a new world.

But Erasmus Clay was disappointed. Within a year, groups of people were starting to get themselves organised. Citizens' vigilante committees drew up new laws and enforced them; teachers started to work again, although the skills they taught now were different. Of a sudden, it was criminally foolish to spend hundreds of hours drilling algebra and trigonometric functions into the protesting brains of thirteen year olds, when the kids could be learning to build a survival shelter out of scrap, make a safe fire, ascertain if the water was pure enough to drink and the food was still edible. How to splint a broken leg, how to recognise frost-nip, treat frost-bite and snow blindness. How to make a sled, and harness, and handle a team of dogs....

As people began to pick up the pieces and start again, Clay lost his supporters. The world had been purged, and the governments, churches, armies and police were gone. Most people said, good riddance to them, they were the ones who'd caused most of the pain in the old world. But the pattern of the new world was taking shape, and it wasn't Clay's vision of anarchy and savage tribalism, where the strong preyed on the weak and only the brutal survived.

In his fury, Erasmus Clay left the city and took with him the few followers he had managed to keep. They were men like himself, who had been savages before the event, and almost all of them were fugitives. They headed north and roamed the frontier at will, wreaking havoc, leaving a swathe of destruction behind them wherever they went.

Periodically, Provincial Officers would hire what guns they could and mount a full-scale search for them. But fuel was too limited to range far afield, and ammunition too scarce to waste it in the sort of firefights that were so common twenty years before. Bodie recalled seeing television, perhaps fictionalised, he wasn't sure, where cops and gunmen blazed away and wasted a year's worth of bullets in thirty seconds...where two cars or bikes, or worse, 'copters, would chase each other for many minutes, burning off real, genuine petrol. It was ridiculous--didn't they know that genuine petrol was like liquid gold, harder to come by than brandy or morphine?

So Clay remained at liberty, fifteen years after the impact event. But his days of freedom were numbered, Bodie was sure. The frontier was becoming more populous as living conditions got better. A few more families drifted into Windrage every couple of months, and in another cleft in the hills, only fifty miles north, another town had begun, Kate's Farm.

Kate was a pillar of the community. She was a good herbalist, she brewed the best chickshit 'top fuel,' she bred the best milk cows, and she had begged, borrowed and stolen enough glass to built greenhouses big enough to get two crops a year and feed a hundred people in the merciless cold of the north-east.

Bodie respected and admired her hugely. He knew her well, and she had offered him a job on her property, if he would take it. Kate's Farm was starting to become known as a centre of light and life. Erasmus Clay, and other outcast tribal trash, were aware of it. Now and then, the Farm's vigilante militia fought a terrible, bloody battle with raiders, but so far they had always won out.

As the Farm grew, it needed a stronger militia to protect it, and Kate was always recruiting. She offered Bodie a crate of genuine Irish whiskey, and three sheepskins, twenty gallons of top-fuel that would push his bike to eighty or a hundred miles an hour.

If Bodie had been able to convince someone, anyone, to replace him at Windrage, maybe he would have gone. Kate understood when he told her, he couldn't take the job. It was in the fine print in his contract that the Provincial Officer could not walk out--if he did, his face would appear on a wanted poster, and the penalty for leaving a town without any protection was a firing squad, no defence argument permitted.

The stupidity of it all made Bodie dizzy. How much 'protection' did one man represent? And that one man could not expect any help from the citizens of Windrage. Every man here was out to secure his own interests. They had wives and kids, homes and businesses to protect. Good excuses. Pat excuses. In the end, the bottom line read the same: Bodie was on his own.

And yet, not quite. Down below the landing on the stairway, Doyle was behind the bar. He was leaning on his elbows, reading a magazine--the new one, only brought up from London two months before, a whole thirty-six pages of news and interviews and advertisements. A treasure trove. Like everyone else in Windrage, Bodie had relished that magazine.

He read about the election of President Judith Camden, and her Vice President, Barbara Wainwright...about the twelve babies that had been born in the last three months, while only nine people had died, which represented a tiny but promising rise in the population...and the new glasshouses were finished, providing tomatoes and corn as late in the year as August, when the cold became too fashions, leathers so tight, they moulded to a man's body like a second, shiny black skin. A clothing factory had opened in the vault of a tumbled cathedral, and the looms were running again, making denim and fine cotton for blue jeans and shirts. In the back of the magazine were ads which lured and tantalised. A woman wanted a bicycle generator, would pay a dog sled, an ice axe and three assorted spades, or sex three times a week for three months. A man wanted spark plugs for a 4x4, would pay a bolt of carpet, or a leather jacket plus rainproof oilskin, or sex 'on call' for a month.

The city was a land of golden opportunity, but for men like Bodie and Doyle it was out of bounds. Doyle could not go back. If he did he faced a firing squad. And Bodie would not return. Getting out of the city was all that had saved his sanity five years ago. Going back would drive him to the edge, and perhaps this time he would go over it.

In the ten years after Rodgers, he grew up from boy to youth to young man. His family were gone. His last surviving relative was his Aunt Grace, and she never regained her sight after the airburst that flooded the sky with some kind of rays, at the time of the impact. Like Doyle's grandmother and thousands of others, she gazed at the sky as Rodgers dove into the atmosphere, and that was the last thing she ever saw.

When Bodie turned fifteen years of age the Citizens' Council passed into his young hands the responsibility for caring for his aunt, now that he had legally attained his majority. He could vote, own a gun, operate a machine, be conscripted for the militia, smoke dope, get drunk, get married and procreate. For years he had looked forward to being an adult, but his fifteenth birthday came as a shock.

The Council support for his blind aunt was cut off, since he was now a man and responsible for her. Two days after his birthday Bodie found himself on the street, looking for food and fuel. It was easiest to beg, but not particularly profitable. He was given a few supplies, but drew a lecture at the same time.

Why was an able-bodied, healthy man, almost fully grown, begging? And Bodie had to admit, the people who said all this were right. He looked for work, and found it the same morning...but the pay was rock bottom and the work stank, literally. The work was readily available because no one wanted it.

He shovelled out the sties and coops, feeding pig- and chick-shit into the fuel stills. A day's pay was a dozen eggs and a piece of smoked pork, half of which he paid the baker for a loaf of bread, and the dairyman, for a pat of butter and half a pint of milk. He and Grace ate that night, and for a month he kept the job, until he couldn't get the reek of the sties and coops and methane-poop fuel stills out of his head or off his clothes.

People in the street noticed it and gave him a wide berth. Bodie flushed scarlet with shame. A storm of freezing rain hit one night, and he stood out in it for an hour until he was blue with cold, shuddering...and clean. He never went back to the fuel factory.

The next morning he was in the nooks and crannies between the ruins, looking for easier pickings. He stole a can of beans, a bag of bread rolls, a piece of cheese, two potatoes, and a pint of fuel oil. When he went home early and smelling clean, Grace knew full well he hadn't worked for them. She sighed sadly, but she ate. She wasn't stupid enough to turn down the food and fuel.

For a week Bodie scavenged this way, while he looked for a decent job in the afternoons. He found a few hours' work around midday, each day, minding a 'shop,' which was a cellar filled with every item he could imagine. His pay was a can of peaches and a piece of chocolate. He was so famished, he ate the chocolate, but the peaches, he took home. With the stolen bread and milk, they would do. This could not go on, and he knew it.

One day, he got caught trying to make off with half a dozen eggs and a tin of sardines. The penalty for stealing food was not as high as that for stealing drugs, booze or top-fuel. Those items were like solid gold, they could change hands a hundred times like currency, before they were used. Food was life, so the penalty for its theft was not so harsh.

Instead of a heavy flogging with a horse whip, he drew a drew 'a half hour of leather.' This meant, he was tied face-down over an old bed frame, and the man from whom he had stolen was given a broad leather belt and permission to hit Bodie as much or as little, as hard or as lightly, as he wanted to, for the space of half an hour.

Bodie was lucky. The man worked out his fury in the first five minutes and after that the beating was only sporadic and not terribly hard. After twenty minutes the man was satisfied and justice was done. Bodie had counted eighty strokes so hard he was left whooping for air, and another forty that were just tickles by comparison, but which hurt a lot, because they fell on pre-pulped flesh. But though he was black and blue from shoulders to ankles, right down his back, his skin was whole. If the man had been mad with rage, Bodie could have been cut to pieces, and no one would have stopped it. This was his first bit of luck that day.

His second came as they released the handcuffs and let him go. He was so stiff and in so much pain, he could hardly move. He fell to the ground and lay there gasping while the crowd milled about and walked past him, sometimes stepping over him. Then a man's hands grasped his arms and lifted him up, and Bodie blinked dizzily into the face of his helper.

Food was forthcoming, and a brandy bottle with a couple of inches left in the bottom, and a pint of kerosene. These were delivered to Grace, while Bodie was taken elsewhere, to be bathed and put to bed. That day, he was too sick to even realise where he had been taken, but he groggily heard that Aunt Grace would receive more food and fuel the next day, and it was all going 'on the slate.'

There was a price to be paid, of course. Bodie never expected something for nothing. Only fools believed in miracles. The day after the beating, he realised where he was. It was a bordello...of course. He was fifteen, he was a lovely boy, as everyone had been saying all his life, with his glossy black hair and his long, curled eyelashes, and his brilliant blue eyes. Those were the gifts with which Nature had endowed him. Time to put them to work.

He was still a virgin, but that didn't last long. His virginity was sold at enormous price, to a rich man who returned to 'Samarkand' many times, to have him. The price of Bodie's virginity was a mink coat that smelt of mothballs. The man who 'broke him in' was called Donald something-or-other. It happened in a dark bedroom with red wallpaper and black sheets, and Bodie was so scared he had to smoke a lot of grass before he could go through with it. Maybe the grass dulled the edges, but he scrambled through. The soapy enemas and greasing he endured beforehand were just as bad as the fucking, and in future he vowed to do all that business for himself

Samarkand belonged to the man who had picked him up in the street when he was beaten. Jim Logan was a decent guy, and Bodie never resented him. Jim always sent Grace the food and fuel, and a blanket now and then, or a coat--it all depended on the work Bodie did. The 'rough stuff' paid best. If he could put up with that, Grace would get something special, or Bodie would have 'a bit extra' on the side. Something for himself, to stash away, against the day when he had enough to walk out of Samarkand and not come back.

He once calculated, if the average dick was six inches, he sucked a quarter of a mile's worth in the eighteen months he worked for Jim Logan. House rules were--he only got bumfucked three times a night, and he was grateful. Jim wanted to protect his investment, and he believed that any more would 'ruin' Bodie. But all this was bread-and-butter stuff, and Bodie realised, if he didn't get into the well-paid work, he would be at Samarkand forever.

One night, he took on two men at once, and that was an experience. He'd never been done, both ends simultaneously. He got a pair of lady's earrings for that, which he hid away carefully. Another night, he took part in a game. Two customers drew targets around each of his nipples and threw tiny darts at him, competing to get a couple of bullseyes. He yelped and ouched and swore for an hour while the customers turned his breasts into pin cushions, but Jim paid him a pocket calculator that did square roots and percentages, and ran off a solar battery.

Another night, he let a customer leather his backside black and blue, and Jim paid him a brand new pair of bike rider's gloves, still in the plastic bag.

By the time he was seventeen he had stashed away enough to be independent. Dressed in his best sheepskins and leathers, he packed a briefcase with his best gear, and knocked on doors up in Bright Lights.

'Bright Lights' was the top-end, where the 'rich-bitches' lived. They had either got rich by crime and prostitution (which was usual), or they had been rich before and enough of their lackeys and servants and bodyguards had survived Rodgers for them to keep up their act in the aftermath. Their avaricious eyes lit on Bodie's goods--ladies' earrings, a wrist watch, gloves, silk underwear, a nick-cad battery charger, a bottle of vodka--and he did great business.

Trade was good enough to move Aunt Grace into a better class of hole in the ground, get a girl in to look after her, get himself a new pair of boots, and go out again to trade off the remainder of the wages of sin.

He was free of Samarkand, and when Jim Logan met him in the street, he shook Bodie by the hand and praised him for his courage and ingenuity. If he ever needed a job, there was a place at Samarkand for him--not hustling, though. He was starting to get too old for that. His beard was coming in, he was growing muscles, and he was taller than Jim now. The customers wanted younger meat, but Logan could sometimes use a bouncer or a barman. For that also, Bodie was thankful.

For three months of glorious freedom he traded door-to-door from one end of Bright Lights to the other, and the rich-bitches were always delighted to see him. They got to know him, invited him in for tea when he arrived with new wares. Some of Bright Lights' men knew him from Samarkand, too, and he sucked a few cocks, ploughed a few pussies, and was ploughed, for which he was well-paid.

Things were beginning to look good, and he was considering moving Aunt Grace to even better accommodations. By then, Rodgers was seven years in the past, the sky was brighter and between eleven in the morning and two in the July afternoon you could take your jacket off and not freeze. The glass houses were set up and fresh food had started to re-appear. For a dozen tins of sardines you could get two whole red tomatoes and a palmful of crisp lettuce. Bodie thought he had never tasted anything so good. Nothing like it had passed his lips since he was eleven years old.

And then the axe fell, as it must.

Nomad biker tribes raided the ruins of the city, up on the north side, where the gravediggers were slowly working their way through the legions of frozen victims of the comet. Often working in darkness, they had been burying hundreds a day for years. Now that the weather was starting to warm up again, it was vital that the job be finished, but it was doubtful that they would be able to manage it. They were having to clear the wreckage to even reach the dead, and it was getting harder and harder.

At fifteen, Bodie could have got a job working with them instead of trying his hand at thieving, but he knew without even attempting it, he couldn't. It took a stronger stomach than he possessed, and he'd heard horror stories about that work. People went mad. More and more often, chain gangs were doing it. When a criminal was caught, instead of getting a whipping or a firing squad, he was chained on one end of a work gang and sent out on 'clearance detail.'

As the sky grew brighter, because the mantle of dust thrown up by the comet in what they called 'the nuclear winter' started to settle, the weather grew steadily warmer. People were noticing that the miles and miles of rubble, all that remained of the city, demolished in the earthquakes, were starting to become...aromatic.

For seven years, rats had been counted as vermin and killed on sight. Some Councils put a bounty on them, and if you brought in enough dead rats you could be paid in chocolate or packets of biscuits, whatever the professional scavenger crews had found in the frozen ruins the week before.

Amateurs fossickers were discouraged from going into the ruins, and it was not an idle warning: the rubble was unsafe, roofs collapsed, cellars fell in. People were killed routinely, trying to excavate in search of food or fuel, clothes or gadgets. Professional speleologists were the only people qualified to go down there, and their dangerous trade was highly respected.

Now, rats once again earned a bounty--but only if you brought them in alive. The rat farms were special cellars that were kept warm, filled with wood shavings or old paper or straw, and the rats nested there, were fed, and consequently, they bred. They were netted by the thousand, taken out to the increasingly aromatic ruins, and released. In four or five years they would account for the millions of dead who were unreachable by the 'clearance crews,' and the whole problem would be solved. Then, once more rats would be trapped and a bounty paid for dead ones, but in the meantime, the carnivorous rodents were the best bet the city had.

This was the situation when the nomad biker trash appeared out of the north and swooped on the city like demons. They were the Firebrands, the Vikings, the Comancheros, Barbarians, Apaches, the Eagles, the Mustangs...and the Stone Angels. Erasmus Clay was back in the city. Older, wiser, more bitter and much more dangerous.

His face was on posters, a bounty was on his head. For the man--or woman, no one was fussy--who brought him in, dead or alive, the city would pay ten pounds of precious powdered milk, a case of assorted tinned fruit, thirty packets of condoms, a bottle of wine and a bouquet of the most beautiful artificial roses. The bounty was so rich, only fear of the nomad savages kept people cautious.

When it swiftly became clear that the bounty was not going to give them Erasmus Clay on a plate, the Citizens' Council responded by throwing out the blanket conscription order. The BBC was back on the air in those days, and the news was broadcast every hour. Every male between fifteen and twenty years of age was to report to the draft office, which was marked with green flags. Any male who dodged the draft would be treated as a criminal, and would draw five years' service with the gravediggers.

By five o'clock that afternoon, Bodie was in a queue at the barracks. He thought the officers would give him a medical or test his IQ, but all he received was a 'tattoo,' in indelible ink, painted onto his chest. His service number. He was 3412/Bodie. They were not interested in his state of health or mind, but they should have been.

In fact, Bodie had the family tradition for it. His Aunt Grace had told him scores of stories of his grandfather, who had been a mercenary, fought in African bushfire wars, returned to the home country and worked first in the Queen's army and later for a security department dedicated to the safety of citizens. As a child, Bodie had always romanticised his grandfather and his occupation. He had played soldier games, and if Comet Rodgers had not reduced the whole world to ruins, he might have chosen to enlist in one service or another.

Now, he was sure the militia was not the place for him, but the draft authorities turned a deaf ear to his protests. Anyone paying attention would have known, Bodie was near the end of his rope. He had been hovering on the edge since his fifteenth birthday. Stress, work, the mental and physical strain of serving at Samarkand, the constant worry that he would end up there again, or hustling on the street, all this took its toll. Angst had been a constant companion for too long. What would become of Aunt Grace while he was in uniform, he asked, and was brusquely told, 'his old lady' could apply for Council support, now she had lost her supporter.

By that night Bodie was dressed in blue jeans and a leather jacket, biker's boots, gloves, and he had been issued the weapon of the service. The barrel had been sawn off the six-bore shotgun so that it fit a holster, and a dozen precious cartridges were slotted in the bandolier he wore around his waist.

He slept in a barracks with twenty other men, and as he had more than half expected, the sergeant came to his bed after lights-out. Bodie just rolled over and told him to get it done and be quick, because he was dog-tired. The sergeant was big and powerful, and it was painful, but it was also swift, and then Bodie was asleep.

With morning, he drew training, and for the first time in his life he swung his leg over the saddle of a bike. It was a 250cc four stroke Honda. An instructor taught him which was the throttle, which was the brake, how to change gear. A vast area that had once been a car park had been cleared, and along with the rest of his unit, he rode round and round, getting the feel of the machine.

In the afternoon, they put him on a 450cc Suzuki. It felt different and roared like a demon. There was more power, better acceleration. He had to get used to it all over again, but by evening he was doing 'slalom' exercises between the concrete posts, and he felt as if he'd been riding a bike all his life.

That night he was stiff with pulled muscles, his forearms were scrubbed, where he'd fallen off twice, and when the sergeant came to his bed, all Bodie did was roll belly-down and groan.

Morning. They put him on a 750cc Honda and by the time the bell called him to eat at noon he had ridden the bike at sixty miles per hour. Satisfied with him, the instructors told him to practise two hours a day, and assigned him to the 'shooting gallery.' There, his ears were stuffed with wax plugs, and he learned how to use the shotgun, and hand guns, and a .303 rifle.

By the evening of that second day, he was given a black helmet with the militia badge on the front, and told that in the morning he was being 'sent up on the line.' The sergeant came to him again after lights out. Bodie was wide awake as he was fucked, but by now he was so used to the man, he didn't much care. He was not even mildly aroused himself. He was too preoccupied with the threat and promise of tomorrow.

Dawn: a bell rang, and when he and his unit trooped out into the ice-cold July morning air, they saw a truck waiting for them. They ate breakfast on the way north while the day grew warmer. Through the open back of the ancient canvas-topped truck, Bodie watched the ruins go by.

This part of the city was largely uninhabited. The work had only just begun to clear the rubble. The professional scavengers came up here, looking for canned food, or a tank of propane, or a fridge that could be drained of freon, or an underground tank of petrol that had survived. But even the scavengers did not like working this area.

The permafrost of the 'nuclear winter' had at last started to abate, and as the sun rose the whole place stank. That odour was beyond description. Bodie knew what it was, and it horrified him. The faces of his colleagues were just as pale as his own. Even Big Bob Lynch, the opportunist sergeant was tight-lipped, chain smoking. Bodie gripped his militia-issue shotgun and tried to concentrate on something else.

The new barracks was on the edge of the field of ruins. It took almost all day to get there, and they had hardly enjoyed the chance to take a look at the cellar where they would sleep before the alarm was raised. In the darkness of the premature July night--twilight was four-thirty, full dark at six--they saw the fires of the nomad biker tribes, heard the revving of engines, the war whoops, the screams of prisoners.

Bodie fought his first action that night, and another before dawn. He killed six men, and was astride a tall, hornet-howling offroad 'scrambles' bike when he chased a seventh man into the ruins.

Far from the barracks, he lost sight of the lights as the Viking he was chasing led him further and further away. At last, the biker lost traction on the rubble and went down hard. As the howling engines stalled out, Bodie finished him with one shot.

The silence of the night closed in around him. The sky was overcast--you hardly ever saw the stars, there was still too much dust in the upper atmosphere. The cold was intense, the ground was crisp with frost. The stink of the ruins, which had thawed during the day and were now starting to re-freeze, turned his stomach. And he was lost.

He kicked the bike two, three times before it started. He flicked on the headlight and turned back the way he had come. But the Viking had cut a haphazard course through the wasteland of rubble, he had no real idea where he was going. Most of the buildings were just flat, only the occasional wall still intact, standing taller than himself. He rode for half an hour before he reached a structure big enough to give him a vantage point.

He clambered up, stood on a section of roof that creaked ominously beneath his weight, and looked around in all directions. Rats squeaked and scuttled around his feet as he peered around, and then he saw the distant flicker of fires. He had ridden more east than south before he shot the Viking, and if he had continued on the way he was going, he would never have reconnected with his unit. God alone knew where he had been going

His flesh crawled as he jumped down off the wall. This place felt haunted. He realised, the inhabited part of the city was just a tiny little oasis of semi-civilisation, an island in the midst of decay. His mouth dried as he kicked the bike and prayed for it to restart. If it did not, he would have to walk out of here, and if the Vikings or the Stones did not get him, madness would, as he picked his way through the handiwork of Comet Rodgers.

The bike started and he swung in a big arc, back towards the firelight. The barracks was only two miles from the nomad camp. The battle was over when he made it back, and as he dragged himself into the cellar his mates grabbed him and embraced him, thankful to see him alive. They had believed the Comancheros or the Eagles had captured or killed him.

That night, Big Bob Lynch did not come to his bed, and Bodie lay awake, feeling himself suffocated by the miles and miles of ruins and disintegration which surrounded the city. He could not get out of his head the impression that all the survivors of Comet Rodgers were no better than maggots. The city was the dead body of an enormous animal.

An hour after midnight, he crept into the sergeant's bed, shoved him over to make room for himself and grabbed the man's cock in his fist. He needed human contact--any human contact, even this. He needed warm, living flesh pressed against him, enfolding him, shoving inside him, making him remember he was alive, driving out the nightmare images.

Lynch was so surprised, so delighted, he stroked Bodie, bit him quite gently in the shoulders and nipples, and for the first time tried to make it pleasurable for him too. That night pleasure was impossible, but Bodie didn't need the physical release of orgasm. He needed the warm, hard, tangible human presence of another living person against him.

The days that followed were the same. They skirmished with the tribes, some battles were won, some were lost. A group of officers came out in a 4x4 and a map of 'North Outbound One' was tacked to the cellar wall. It was the first map Bodie had ever seen, and he studied it with fascination. Outbound One cut a line, arrow-straight, for 'the frontier.'

He had heard the frontier spoken of in hushed voices for the last year. He understood that it was somewhere a long way distant, a place where people had gone feral, turned savage in their fight for survival. But here and there a small group of individuals had begun to carve order out of chaos. The air was clean up there. The water was fit to drink, and if you could find a sheltered valley that acted as a wind-break you could built a house, a real house, above the ground.

To Bodie, it all sounded like some fabled promised land. He had almost forgotten the years before the impact event. Sometimes it seemed that his younger life was nothing but a dream, a comfortable fantasy he had invented when he was a frightened little boy, because the world was too terrible to be borne.

While the others were drinking 'dishpan tea,' he edged closer to the map, stole a piece of paper and carefully copied it. He had no idea when he would be released from militia service, or even if he would survive long enough. But the day he was let free, he knew where he was going.

The frontier may be savage, but at least it was free and clean. He could not take any worse risks than he was running with the militia. Four times in the first week, he was almost killed. In the second week he was injured, and he prayed the doctor would reckon his wound bad enough to send him back to the city. But all Doc Hargreaves would do for him was give him a shot of heroin, dig out the bullet, bathe the wound in iodine and cauterise it with a glowing-hot poker.

Bodie was out of the action for another ten days, and the stultifying boredom of sitting in the barracks, counting the cockroaches and chain smoking when he could get a packet of tobacco and paper, almost drove him out of his mind. When he was cleared to return to duty he was glad to get back on the bike and go to work, if only to have something to do.

After five months of this, it occurred to him that he might never get out of the militia. One night, after he had been ploughed and was resting in the sergeant's bed, where he was a welcome guest now, he asked Big Bob in a barely audible whisper,

"When do we get rotated home?"

The shock was delivered after Bob had taken a deep drag on his cigarette. He offered it to Bodie, and Bodie was dragging when the sergeant said, "It's a two year hitch, kid. You got nineteen months to go."

Numbness and cold seeped through Bodie's nerves. He laid back against the other man's big, hard body and closed his eyes. He would be well turned twenty years old when he was free to walk. If he survived. The old wound smarted sharply, reminding him of his mortality.

Fair enough, if that was the way things were, so be it. He must be careful. He must be the best in the unit. He was a survivor--he was getting out of the rubble, the ruins, the stink and the rats. He was going someplace where the wind and water were clean, and men did not live in cellars.

Winter might have been the worst, but in fact it came as a blessed reprieve. Eighteen hours of darkness per day kept them in the underground barracks almost all the time. The cold was arctic, and they were issued with the thickest sheepskins, oilskins, thermal blankets, extra fuel. But the winter was far harder on the tribes. Where they went, Bodie did not know, but for months on end he and his unit only rode patrol around the designated perimeters, and saw nothing. And the winter cold froze the ruins, so that it was easier to be in the vicinity of the wasteland.

In spring, Big Bob was killed when he rode into an ambush, and Bodie was the next natural candidate for the job. By then he was hardened, inured. He put a set of chevrons on his helmet and took command of the unit without hesitation. They had lost a few men and were running short-handed, but summer brought out another batch of grass-green replacements.

He was marking time, waiting for his demobilisation papers, and his weekly reports from that year made for a bitter journal. After Big Bob was killed he made no other real friends, but he connected with a kid called Larry Quinn. All he had to do was go to the kid's bed after lights-out, and put a hand on his shoulder. Bodie would not have forced him, but from Quinn's immediate reaction he knew he didn't have to. Quinn groaned, rolled belly-down and growled something about making it quick, because he was bloody tired.

That night, Bodie lost another kind of virginity. He had never had the opportunity to fuck a man before. He was just short of twenty years old now, and he mocked himself. First time for everything? He groped himself with a palmful of gun oil, nudged Larry's thighs apart, got in between them, positioned himself and shoved as hard as he had to, as gently as he could. Larry whimpered, grunted, then sighed and relaxed. Bodie set up a quick rhythm and it did not take long. Afterward, with trembling knees and a back that ached with tension, he climbed back into his own bunk and tried to sleep.

In the morning, Larry grinned brashly at him, and Bodie knew he would be welcome in the kid's bed. He was grateful enough to do Larry small favours, because he had months to go before he could expect his de-mob papers, and he recognised the warning signs of trouble in himself. He had been close to the end of his rope when he was conscripted. That rope was now expanded to breaking point, like overstretched elastic.

Summer came, and he started to look for his release papers every time a dispatch rider arrived. The hours of daylight lengthened, the sun grew warmer. Nine years after the impact, the sky was often quite blue and for a few hours a day the south-west wind was even what Bodie would call warm. The ruins became totally unbearable.

During the entire two years, Bodie had not seen one scrap of pay. A militia man was given his clothes and food, a ration of booze, cigarettes and drugs. But his pay accrued until he was either killed, invalided out of the service or de-mobbed. The understanding was, if he did not have it, he could not gamble it. Gambling was a flogging offence, and anyone found writing notes of hand, or IOUs, was severely punished. In the case of a fatality--and there were many--the two years' accrued pay went home to the family. The cripple had his two years' savings to ease his life back home. And the man who was lucky enough to walk out on his own two feet was modestly wealthy.

The day Bodie's papers came through, there had been savage fighting. A dozen biker tribesmen were dead, and three of Bodie's men were done for. Bodie himself was suffering a badly twisted ankle, following a come-off. But when he limped into the barracks and saw his de-mob certificate pinned to the noticeboard, he hardly felt the ache of it.

The truck came out from the city with supplies the next morning, and a new sergeant was aboard. Bodie tousled Larry Quinn's blond hair affectionately as he got into the wagon, but five minutes after he had farewelled the camp on the southern end of North Outbound One, he blocked everything and everyone associated with it out of his mind. He was never going to do that kind of service again...and he was not going to sit and rot in the ruins of the city with the rest of the maggots.

His pay was waiting for him. He had a choice between a case of pocket watches, cuff links, rings, brooches, earrings and bracelets, which would have put him in business as a trader; or he could choose a fully reconditioned, serviced, fuelled Kawasaki 1000cc Katana.

He took the bike. Where was the decision? Everything he had owned before his conscription had been kept for him, and he traded the lot for leathers, blue jeans, boots, gloves, sheepskins, thermal blankets; a shotgun and ammunition, tools and a first-aid kit, some canned and dried food, matches, a billycan, and a bottle of Grandpa's World's Finest Firewater, which was guaranteed to grow hair on a bowling ball.

Before he left the city, he asked where he could find his aunt, and was sent to the Citizens' Committee Blind Home. He rode over, getting the feel of a more powerful bike than he had ever ridden before. The gargle of the big engine aroused attention and a bevy of nurses met him at the door.

He was shown into a nice, clean room, comfortable and warm. Music was playing, a caged pet canary sang constantly. Every fifteen minutes a lady with a nice voice read the home's news, and poems or prose which had been written by the residents. Every hour, the BBC came on the air with the city news, and the tea trolley rattled around continually. Bodie smelt something good cooking, while the residents amused themselves with braille playing cards and scrabble, and a set of musical instruments.

Aunt Grace had gained a lot of weight. She was sixty years old, like a barrel now, and settled here. Bodie saw all this at a glance as soon as he walked in. He was awkward and she was worried...worried that he would take her out of a place where she was cared for by the Committee and put her back in a private apartment where she would have to do everything herself. If Bodie remained in the city, she would lose her Council Relief, and be totally dependent on him for everything.

For half an hour she seemed to be trying to find a way to tell him, she was pleased he had come to visit, and she hoped he would visit again, often, but not stay. Not that Bodie needed to be told.

He kissed her forehead, tucked his helmet under his arm and walked out of the home. It was still morning, he had the hours of daywarmth, and if he put the bike on North Outbound One he could put the city behind him by evening. He had a map, and he was headed for a place called Scotty's Crossing, where travellers said you could get a decent meal and a warm corner to sleep in.

He swung his leg over the bike and hit the self-starter. The machine roared to life, he revved the powerful engine and swept back the sidestand. As the Katana gained some forward momentum he lifted his feet, nudged into second gear and opened the throttle. She sounded like a supercharged hornet as she took to the road, and he speared out of the city without a backward glance....

The angry hornet roar of bike engines returned Bodie to the present with a start. Down below, Josh Kelly fidgeted nervously, shuffled from foot to foot. He had his keys behind his back, and unless he was clumsy with fear he would have those doors locked in moments as soon as the sixteen Stone Angels were inside.

On the landing, Bodie bobbed down to get a clear view of the bar. Doyle was leaning on it with his back to the door. He was pretending to polish a bottle with a rag, while his face wore a mask-like expression. As Bodie moved he looked up, their eyes met, and Doyle's eyes said unspeakable things.

In that moment, he could probably have killed Bodie for shoving him headlong into this. When it was over there was going to be hell to pay.

"Ready?" Bodie asked quietly, reaching for the shotgun.

"Get on with it," Doyle rasped. "I'm--"

The door burst open, admitting a freezing, screeching howl of gale-force wind that banged it back on its hinges. Two men wrestled with it. A flurry of dirty 'brown rain' slicked the floor. That was rain mixed with 'atmospheric dust.' Tomorrow, the whole town would be crusted with red-brown.

"Get that fucking door shut!" roared a voice from inside the sheepskins of the tallest, broadest of the bikers.

That sound made Bodie's blood chill. He would have known that voice anywhere, any time.

Erasmus Clay always sounded furious. Having his dreams of anarchy shattered had laid waste to his whole concept of a new world order. Like his men, he was dressed in sheepskins which covered every inch of him, including his boots and helmet. Without those skins, when a storm hit a man was dead in an hour. Temperatures could get down to thirty below in the middle of the blow, and a mobile biker was riding into the teeth of air that seemed to be moving at the speed of his machine, which increased the wind-chill factor a hundred percent.

Fourteen...fifteen...sixteen. One by one, they shouldered inside. Bodie grimly counted heads. Seventeen in all, including Clay. He flicked a glance at Doyle, who was still behind the bar with his back turned, shoulders hunched against the cold. Then he watched Kelly, who was edging towards the door. His feet slithered on the wet floorboards and the keys jingled as he searched for the right one.

"What are you doing?" Clay barked at him, making Kelly jump out of his skin.

"Going to lock up," the publican stammered. "Otherwise we'll have that door busting open in the wind every five minutes. It's either lock it or wedge it shut, and it's easier to lock it, chief."

For a second Clay didn't budge, as if he was mulling this over, and then he turned his back on Kelly, took down his immense sheepskin hood, and lifted off his helmet.

He was forty. When Rodgers reshaped the world he had been twenty-five, already a dangerous young man. Now, he was powerful indeed, exuding physical menace and subjecting lesser mortals to psychological terrorism just with his appearance.

His head was shaved, and his skull was tattooed with red, blue and green snakes and reptiles. He shed his sheepskins, and his enormous, brawny body was revealed. He was dressed in battered, scuffed, road-dirty black leathers. His hands were like tanned brown hide, his face was deeply creased, the lines etched like scars. He wore two holsters, one over his shoulder and the other at the small of his back, sheathing a pump shotgun similar to Bodie's and a magnum almost identical to Doyle's. Two long knives were slid into each boot.

Every one of the Stones was similarly armed, and Bodie groaned soundlessly as he counted over forty visible guns among them. Against all of that, Doyle was standing behind the bar, alone, still as a statue, waiting. Poised. Bodie could hardly breathe.

"Barman!" Redbeard was Clay's right-hand man these days. He had been with the Vikings for two years, and still looked like one of them. He thundered his fist down on the counter, making glasses rattle.

Josh Kelly scuttled away fast. In thirty seconds, after the passageway was blocked off, he could be in the kitchen with his head down. Bodie's palms prickled with sweat on the butt and barrel of his own weapon. He settled on one knee in the cover of the banister and focused on Doyle.

"Barman!" Redbeard bawled. "What's the matter, are you deaf? What happened to the usual man?"

The Stones were piling their wet, smelly sheepskins in a mound by the door. Half of them were struggling and cursing with the heavy, rain-sodden garments, some were laying out their skins, flat on the floor, to dry. Bodie knew most of these men, either personally or from the posters that appeared in towns right along the frontier. One or two, he had arrested in years gone by, when they were little more than big, dangerous kids.

They were at a supreme disadvantage, and there would never be a better moment for Doyle to make his move. Heart thudding, Bodie watched as the gunfighter turned slowly, deliberately to face Erasmus Clay. A cold, bitter smile was on his mouth and his left hand was already going for the gun as he said,

"George went home, he was a family to think of. You're stuck with little old me. Ray Doyle at your service, gentlemen."

Time seemed to run slow, and stretched like elastic. In a split second that assumed the characteristics of an hour, Doyle turned, both Clay and Redbeard recognised him, and Clay roared, "Son of a bitch. Doyle!" He scrabbled for the shotgun with his left hand and the magnum with his right, but Doyle was far, far faster.

The automatic was out of the rosin-slicked shoulder holster like greased lightning. The first shot slammed into Clay's shoulder, spun him around and threw him to the ground. The second spread scarlet across Redbeard's chest. Doyle did not even pause to breathe, but pivoted like a dancer and aimed into the middle of the wolf pack.

His primary targets were those men who were reaching for weapons--the first of all was the skinny little whippet, Jojo, always the quickest, always the most vindictive, because he was undersized and nursed a bottomless grudge against anyone who was taller. His weapon was an American police .38, and the revolver was habitually loaded with dumdums.

If Jojo had been a better shot he would have blown a hole in Doyle the size of a bucket, but his first round went wild and he did not get the chance for a second. Doyle dropped him with one shot, low down in the belly, which slammed him against the locked door.

Stone Angels were diving in all directions, looking for cover. Most simply hit the floor and scrabbled for their weapons. One tried the door handle, tore at it and screamed, "It's locked, man, the fucker locked us in, I'll kill him!"

Before the threat was finished, the automatic in Doyle's steady, level hands had roared twice. Sam Two-toes had levelled his pride and joy, a pearl-handled antique revolver that must have been a hundred and fifty years old. He did not even make a shot before Doyle dropped him.

His mate, nick-named 'Chickadee' for reasons Bodie had never known, managed to trigger a single round which clipped Doyle's shoulder close enough to go through the cotton of his shirt though it missed the flesh beneath by a whisker. Doyle had only to shift aim by a few degrees, and his fifth round was dead on target, a foot beneath Chickadee's grimacing face. In the confines of the bar room, the 9mm Baretta made a roar which made the ears ache.

Five down. Bodie's finger rested lightly on the trigger as his ears filled with the Stones' screams of rage and fear. They could never before have been cornered like fish in a barrel. This was something they did to other people. With the boot firmly crammed onto the other foot and Erasmus Clay lying in a scarlet heap on the floor before the bar, the surviving dozen were far from happy.

That bar was made of teak, and would stop anything short of an artillery round. Doyle had gone down behind it as he lost his element of surprise. Now, the whole match became a shooting gallery, and the trick, Bodie guessed, was in the accuracy of his aim in a single split second.

The difference between the professional and the rank amateur became obvious in a moment. Doyle bobbed up and a dozen shots skipped across the bar toward him, shattered the glasses behind him, exploded the bottles of White Lightning, but every round was wide of the mark by at least a foot. Doyle's own aim was unerring.

Like a fool, Billy Joe Padget had wasted the only chance he was going to get, trying for a head shot that missed badly. He toppled off his knees, thrown backwards with the impact velocity of a single round, and was dead before he hit the greasy floorboards. Doyle dove back into concealment. Six down. The eleven remaining Stone Angels were howling for blood.

Twice more Doyle bobbed up, drew aim and dropped the Lind twins in order of seniority. From his vantage point on the stairs, where he had not yet been spotted, Bodie watched the gunfighter duck back behind the bar. What Doyle could not possibly see was that blond, gangling Troy Hooker was worming along the teak barricade on his knees and elbows, hugging it, working his way around to the open end. From there, he could surprise Doyle, and it would all be over.

When the gunfighter bounced up for another lightning-fast reflex shot, Bodie leaned out with his revolver, and as Doyle fired to put down a man called Rhemmy, Bodie put one shot into the broad target of Hooker's back.

Seven of the Stones were uninjured, and in the chaos they had not even seen Hooker go down, much less heard where the shot that killed him came from. Panic had caught them by the throats like a terrier with a rat, as Bodie had known it would. Moses Callum was on his hands and knees, tearing at the doorknob, but barrel-fat Frank Dougherty, called 'Dough-boy' by one and all, had other ideas.

He was up, and in a headlong dive flung his huge body into the passageway which was solidly blocked by Kelly's freezer. Bodie listened, heard the tub of lard run smack into the freezer chest in the darkness, and Dougherty howled blue murder as he rebounded.

Behind the bar, Doyle turned to follow the line of his flight, and as Dougherty bounced off the fridge he put a round into him...and another, and another. All that body fat would soak up bullets like a sponge, better than a suit of armour. Bodie swore as the Baretta automatic clicked empty, and Doyle switched quickly to the nearest of his magnums. He triggered three ..45 calibre rounds, and at last Dougherty fell onto his face and stayed down.

Sweat glistened on Doyle's grim face. Bullets whisked by him like mosquitoes as he stopped Moses Callum in his tracks with a single body shot, and he dove again as a shotgun levelled on the bar's polished surface. Both barrels erupted, flinging a welter of bird shot, and broken glass exploded off the shelves, raining down on Doyle's back.

Only five of the Stone Angels were in any condition to run. Callum had demonstrated that the door was securely locked, and Dougherty had died to prove there was no escape through the back. Only the stairs remained, and Bodie was panting lightly as he waited for the survivors to try the only escape route left to them.

Wild-eyed, Rob Harris and Trent Beckwith peeled themselves off the floor and flew headlong at the stairs. Doyle was down behind the bar, extricating himself from the hail of broken glass with all the haste he could manage when he must move with exaggerated caution. If he was too fast in any direction the razor-like shards would cut his hands to tatters, and that would be the end of him. If Harris and Beckwith had known this, they would have run at the bar, leaned over and pelted him with every round they had left.

So much the better that they knew nothing of Doyle's situation and instead threw themselves in a frenzy at the stairs. Bodie had only to level the pump twelve gauge and pull the trigger. One round, two, and the two men were tossed backwards like rag dolls into the littered, ravaged bar room.

In those few seconds, Doyle was on his feet again, crouched under cover, and he snapped a fresh magazine into the automatic. His voice was a steel-hard roar as he kept his head down and addressed the survivors of Erasmus Clay's tribe.

"Knock it off, for Christ's sake! Do you think you can get out of here alive? There's no way out. Who's left--Tino Gabardini, is it? Kiveris? Throw down the guns, do yourself a favour!"

"So Provo-Pig Officer Bodie can put us up against a wall tomorrow?" Gabardini was a tall, lanky man, no more than twenty years of age, not very good with either handguns or rifles, but he had been Clay's most staunch supporter. Now, he was merely foolish with terror.

He spun on his haunches, levelled a sawn-off .303 rifle at the door and tried for the lock with three shots. Bodie ducked down, took his own revolver in both hands and put one round in Gabardini's thigh. He was right--he was looking at a municipal firing squad in the morning. Provincial law, city law, it was all the same. Perhaps Gabardini did not care how he died, so long as he was not executed. Howling with pain, he rolled over on his back and struggled to get the rifle into line on Bodie. As usual, his aim was lousy. A second round from Bodie ended his struggle.

Silence. Someone was still alive, the panting and gasping from the other side of the bar signalled a survivor, but by Bodie's reckoning two of the Stones were unaccounted for. He coughed on the choking, cordite-heavy air, cleared his throat and barked, "That's enough. Both of you, get out here where I can see you, throw down the cannons and put your hands on your heads. Now, I said!"

He might have known. It was Beresford and Hobson, and they seemed to have one thought in mind. If they were going to die, they were determined to take Bodie with them. They hurled themselves at the stairs, wasting the precious ammunition they had left on shooting that was ridiculously wild.

But luck was on their side. Bodie had his finger on the trigger of the twelve gauge and was pumping the barrel, priming for a shot, when he felt the white-hot sear of a hit in his left side. Fiery as a brand, sharp as a dagger, it cut through him, and his hands went through the motions of making the shot without his conscious control. The twelve gauge cartridge stopped Beresford and Hobson dead in their tracks, but Beresford was still moving, fingers clawing for the age-old Luger which had done Bodie the damage.

Bodie's vision was blurred, he shook his head desperately to clear the white cotton wool that filled his skull, but before he could take care of Beresford he heard a single bark from the room below and the last of the Stone Angels sprawled on his face.

When Bodie's eyes cleared it was over. His side was wet, hot as a poker, and he focused on the pain, used it to sharpen his thoughts as he hauled himself to his feet and clambered carefully over the two bodies which blocked the stairs. His ears were ringing after the deafening barrage, but nothing in the bar room was moving now.

Broken glass crunched underfoot as Doyle went around collecting the fallen weapons. Not one would be wasted. Every gun would be serviced and put to good use. Some would be traded to other Provincial law offices in Summertown or Yonderland. There was never enough of anything on the frontier.

Rifles, shotguns, revolvers and automatics were arranged along the bar as Bodie limped down the stairs. His left hand was pressed tight to his side, his head was swimming, but he stood unaided in the middle of the bar room and when Doyle turned toward him, he gave the gunfighter an irreverent grin.

"That was pretty nice work, Doyle."

"Pretty nice?" Doyle surveyed the scene of devastation and shook his head. "Haven't you ever heard of karma? There's no way I'm going to get through the Pearly Gates, mate. Not at this rate. I didn't take up this profession deliberately."

"Never get into heaven, after the service to Mankind you just performed?" Bodie looked around at the dead. "They were vermin. Human cockroaches. Sunshine, your ticket on the Heaven Express is punched."

"You think so?" Doyle reholstered the automatic and stood, hands on his hips, in the middle of a floor littered with glass, blood and brass cartridge cases. "You know, my grandfather used to do this for a living. He was something similar to a city cop, but a bit more army-style. Public security or something. I was never a hundred percent sure of the details. When he retired he became a gunsmith--he taught my father the trade. And then dad taught it to me." Doyle drew his shoulders back and massaged his neck as if he was aching. "That's all I wanted to be, you know? A gunsmith, specialising in antique weapons like Sixteenth Century pistols or Civil War muskets. Christ, how did I blunder into this?"

"You were shoved into it, bulldozed into it by a city law office, which wasn't vaguely interested in listening to your side of a case, and a little shit of a boy who lusted for you and couldn't forgive you when you turned him down," Bodie said hoarsely. "But by God, Doyle, I'm glad you were here."

Doyle turned to face him, head cocked. His eyes flicked from Bodie's face to the wound in his left side and back again. "Looks like you've picked up a nick. How bad is that?"

"Flesh," Bodie said tersely.

"You're bleeding like the proverbial stuck porker."

"I said, I'm all right," Bodie wheezed. "I've had a damned sight worse than this one. I could show you scars you wouldn't believe."

"Oh, I expect to see them. One by one, in intimate detail. Remember?" Doyle pursed his lips. "You were good, Bodie. I mean, better than I expected. Most Provincials are useless. Counting paperclips is about as far as they're trained."

"I was militia trained. Two years. A nasty little war on the edge of the city." Bodie leaned heavily against the bar.

"Damn, I should have known you were a professional," Doyle said ruefully. "Okay, so you know your stuff. I'm glad. If you'd been an amateur I'd have bought it once or twice myself. You saved my hide, and I owe you...but I'm still going to collect my fee."

"And my arse?" Bodie's head was spinning. The whole world seemed to have contracted to the pain in his side and the wetness that was gushing in slow, steady spurts over his fingers.

"Oh, yeah, that too," Doyle's voice said from many, many miles away. "I've been fancying you for hours, cowboy." He paused, and his frowning face swam closer, distorted and misty. "Bodie, you look like hell. Are you sure--"

"I said, I'm all right," Bodie gasped, trying to shout and managing a pneumonic whisper.

And then he lost his grip on reality, the floor slid smoothly over the ceiling and he felt the ground hit him hard in the shoulder.

His mouth tasted of whisky...he smelt iodine and coffee...he moved, felt the mattress under him, the sticking plaster and dressing on his side, and he heard somebody yell out loud. Several moments later, he realised it was his own voice that had shouted, and he prayed to God for the mercy of swiftly returning to sleep.

No chance of that--the wicked were never so blessed. Bodie cracked open his eyes and looked at the room. Doyle's room, the best in The Earl of Aberdeen. The shutters were open, the sky was blue, the air was still. The coffee percolator bubbled away to itself, and Doyle was stripped to the waist, whistling softly as he shaved before the mirror over the fireplace.

He was finished with the razor before Bodie came fully awake, and tipped his mug of hot water back into the bath, from which exuded the fragrant smell of cedar oil. Bodie took a breath, held it and shoved himself up against the pillows. Pain stitched through him, but nothing he couldn't tolerate, which meant the worst was behind him. Maybe the wicked were blessed now and then after all.

His movement caught Doyle's attention, and the gunfighter turned toward him. "Back among the living, are you, Officer? You gave us quite a scare."

"How...?" Bodie's throat felt glued shut. He coughed, winced as his side pulled and tried again. "How long?"

"Three days." Doyle gestured at the window. "Storm's gone. Sawyer's taken the Stones out for a decent burial. Not that they deserve it, but they're getting the whole sermon read over them this afternoon. Doc Daley should be here in about another half hour. He's been coming in every couple of hours since we carried you up here."

Bodie's head was spinning. "Three days?" he echoed. "I don't believe it! Three days?"

"Believe it." Doyle sat on the side of the bed and peered into Bodie's face. "You bled about a gallon, then the wound got infected and you spent a day and a night raving, out of your mind. The Doc's stitched that wound twice, and cauterised it three times. You're going to have one devil of a scar. Every time we got it closed, you'd try to throw yourself out of the bed, and you'd bust it open again. We'd have to give you a whiff of ether to knock you out and start again."

"We?" Bodie demanded groggily. Now he bothered to notice, he could still smell ether.

"I wasn't going to walk out on you," Doyle said with a self-mocking grin. "For a start, I haven't been paid yet."

"Oh. I remember," Bodie said dizzily as he leaned back into the pillows.

"And then again, I didn't want to walk out," Doyle added. "I like you, Bodie."

"Fancy me," Bodie scoffed.

"Like you, too," Doyle added. "You're good. You're far better quality than the typical frontier legal beagle. I mean, some of them--like Matt Hayes--ought to be in the city, polishing chairs with their bums. But you're good. Then again, after two years with the militia, you ought to be."

Thoughts drifting incoherently, Bodie could only grasp half of what Doyle was saying, but he thought he had captured the salient points. "The Stones?"

"Done for. I took Erasmus Clay with the first shot. The rest of them would fall to pieces after that. I know most of those bastards from years back. They didn't have enough brains to give themselves a headache, they just did what Clay told them, and when Clay was down they ran around like chickens with their heads cut off." He looked Bodie up and down critically. "Still, they gave us one hell of a run. You're feeling better, by the looks of you."

"Yeah." Bodie pressed his hand to his side. "I owe you."

"Rubbish," Doyle said offhandedly. "I told you, I like you. Kelly offered me another room so we could let you thresh about in this one, but I told him I'd stay put. Not that you let me get much sleep! This bed's been hell since I put you in it."

"You...slept here?" Bodie froze as, all at once he realised he was naked.

"Slept?" Doyle's curly head shook. "Not a chance. You didn't let me." His eyes glittered with mischief. "You're blushing, Officer."

"Fever," Bodie said bluffly. "Help me out of bed."

"Doc Daley said you have to rest."

"Screw Doc Daley. I want to take a leak," Bodie snapped.

"I'll get you the jug. Tie a knot in it for ten seconds." Doyle crossed the room, swiped up a large ceramic jug from behind the bath tub, and fetched it to the bed. He pulled down the bedding and surveyed Bodie shrewdly. "You're thinner," he judged as he put the jug between Bodie's thighs and delicately, deliberately took hold of his cock and angled it into the jug. "Feel free."

His bladder was bursting, which meant it probably hadn't been emptied in days--not since the last time he drank enough to fill it. The fevers would have dehydrated him, too, but Daley would have left the jug, knowing what the first thing on Bodie's waking agenda must be. Good old Doc Daley. All Bodie had to do was relax and let the relief just happen.

A full minute later, Doyle removed the jug and patted him dry with a handkerchief. "Better?"

"Much." Bodie tried to catch the bedding and cover his nakedness, but to his chagrin Doyle only laughed.

"Too late for modesty, my son. I've bathed you, shaved you, changed your dressing, held you down while you tried to fling yourself all over the room. There's not much of you I don't know."

Bodie blinked at him as he felt his face flushing. "Why?"

"I...wish I knew." Doyle emptied the jug into the tub full of waste bathwater, where its contents would be too dilute to be aromatic. "Who knows why chemistry happens between two people?"

"Chemistry?" Bodie echoed. His mind was coming back on line, his thoughts were clearing.

Sitting on the bedside, Doyle stroked his chest and belly. "I've spent three whole days looking after you, even shaving you, while Doc Daley's told me all about you, every little thing. He never left, the first night after the shooting. You had such a fever, we weren't sure you'd live to see morning. He told me a lot about you."

"Loose-mouthed bastard," Bodie said, but it was sighed philosophically. The truth was, he didn't much care that Doyle was privy to his secrets...even closer to the truth, he was pleased that Doyle knew, and took a personal interest in him. It was flattering. Seductive.

"You're something of a local hero," Doyle said drily.

"Then again," Bodie added, "after the shooting party, so are you. The people of Windrage should have been all over you like a rash."

A cheeky grin replaced Doyle's musing look. "They were. Two proposals of marriage, three proposals of sex, and the offer of a job."

"A job?" Bodie's brows arched.

"Yeah. I've been meaning to ask you about that," Doyle said carefully. "It's a bit sticky, and it's going to take your co-operation, or nothing's doing."

"What do I have to do with it?" Bodie struggled to sit up against the pillows. "Christ, help me, will you? I'm as weak as water."

Doyle helped him, half-lifted him, punched the pillows into shape and arranged the bedding around him. "Comfortable?"

"You're kidding." Bodie pressed his hand to his side. "It'll be days before I'll be comfortable." Then he permitted himself a very small, very tired smile. "But...better. Thanks. Now, what the hell is this job the Windrage Citizens' Committee has offered you?"

"Well, I'd be doing pretty much what I did the other day," Doyle began a little awkwardly. "With you. Only, instead of it being under protest, as a hired gun coerced into the job for a day, for a fee, it'd be permanent."

"You mean--" for a second Bodie wondered if he had heard correctly. "You mean, you'll take my job? You're crazy!"

"Take your job and be a one-man Provincial law office, single-handed, all on my lonesome?" Doyle shook his head emphatically. "I may be certifiable, but not I'm that loony."

"From what I saw," Bodie grumbled, "you don't need any help."

Doyle leaned over and put a hand on his forehead. "You getting another fever? You saved my hide three times that night!"

"Did I?" Bodie was flustered.

"That's the way I remember it." Doyle tilted his head at Bodie, frowned over him. "I like you and we work well together. Your mates here in Windrage have been begging on bended knees for me to stay and keep on doing what I did. With you." He paused, teeth chewing thoughtfully on his lip. "That is, be your partner."

"You...can't," Bodie whispered.

"I know." Doyle looked away. "I'm wanted in three or four frontier towns. Those I can duck, but the City legal office has a memory like a whole herd of elephants. I'm still wanted there. They'd love to put me up against a wall."

"You were innocent!"

"Tell them that," Doyle said tartly.

"I will, if you give me half a chance," Bodie rasped.

The gunfighter's frown deepened. "You believe me. Now, why would you believe me?"

"Like you said, chemistry," Bodie growled. "Instinct. Hunch. If you were lying to me, I'd bloody know. But you're not, and I know that too."

"Thanks." Doyle stroked his chest lightly. "Then, you'd be inclined to give the nod to the plan cooked up by Daley and Kelly and Mayor Morley, and the rest of them?"

"I...might. What plan?" Bodie asked shrewdly.

For a moment Doyle bit his lip and studied the ceiling. "They want to keep me here. Public hero and all that macho bullshit. The idea is, they put up a headstone, marking an empty hole in your graveyard, with my name on it. Seems Ray Doyle was killed in Windrage at a shooting party where the Stone Angels were the guests of honour. Erasmus Clay put a bullet in him. Doyle fought valiantly, wiped the floor with the Stones, but his wound was beyond Doc Daley's miraculous powers of healing and he succumbed a day after the shooting. He's buried here, and there's his headstone for all the world to see."

It was beautiful. It was perfect. Bodie felt a smile settle over his face and nodded as he regarded Doyle with half-closed eyes. "I'll cover for you, sign the papers, if that's what you want me to do. You'll have to change your name, keep out of the towns where you're wanted until people forget who you ever were. I'll circulate the news that you were killed...nobody in Windrage is going to betray you. Not when they want you."

"And what about you?" Doyle asked darkly.

"I'm not likely to betray you," Bodie protested.

"Do you want me?" Doyle asked in a sultry tone.

Though he was feeling like hell, Bodie registered a kick through his nerves. "Oh, yeah," he murmured. "I want you. I've wanted you since the first time I set eyes on you. About a lifetime ago. Trouble is, it's going to be a couple of days before I can do anything about it."

"I'm patient," Doyle said easily. "I mean, I'm not going anywhere, am I?"

"No." Bodie smiled tiredly at him. "You're not, at that." Weariness overtook him and he closed his eyes. "Just let me rest for a while."

Doyle got to his feet and straightened the bedclothes. "It's food you want, and some deep breaths. I'll send down to the kitchen, get Ben to bring you up something you could manage. Eggs and toast, hot chocolate, bit of bacon, oats?"

"Yes," Bodie agreed as he settled.

The gunfighter chuckled. "You're mending!"

"I know," Bodie assured him as his heavy eyes followed Doyle around the room. The pale, slender body was half clad in blue jeans. Holster and leather jacket lay over a chair, the guns were safely packed away. Out of sight, out of mind. With luck they would remain packed for months. As soon as the word got around of what had happened to the Stones, nomad trash would avoid Windrage for months or years.

Tired but already feeling better, stronger, Bodie relaxed and let himself look forward to what was to come. Having a partner would be a relief--a real partner, not half-arsed back-up like Bill and Vince, who had been enthusiastic but no good. Doyle was the best, and when his skills were coupled to Bodie's, they were both in a winning position. And then, being in Ray Doyle's bed was going to be interesting. To say the least.

Minutes later, young Ben was knocking, and Bodie's stomach growled as he smelt food for the first time. He had expected to have to force it down but in fact wolfed the whole plateful to the last crumb. With the inner man accommodated, he felt half mended.

He slept then, and it was an hour later when he woke. Doyle was gone, and Doc Daley was at the door. He had been a GP in the days before the event, but after Rodgers he had been compelled to learn everything from obstetrics to surgery. He was still limited, but he did better than many of the frontier quacks and his patients never complained.

Short, stout, bald, with an asthmatic voice, a florid complexion and large out-thrust ears, he gave the impression of a worried mouse. Bodie liked him, and Daley was gentle even when he might confess he was really only feeling his way and trying to find a cure by a Holmesian 'process of elimination.'

For Bodie, he prescribed food, fresh air, gentle exercise, and a warm water enema 'to get his insides going again' after three days of unconscious immobility, and the high fevers that had dehydrated him. With a sigh, Bodie admitted, Daley was probably right, and he submitted with good graces. Afterwards he had to confess, he felt better.

As Daley was packing his bag ready to leave Bodie asked, "Do you know where Ray Doyle is?"

"In the lockup, signing papers," Daley told him. "They have to be signed, and you're not up to working yet."

"Papers?" Bodie fumbled with his clothes, determined that he wasn't going to get back into that bed.

"Burial orders," Daley amplified. I signed the death certificates, Sawyer's got the hole prepared, the Parson is ready to say something profound over them, and we want to get it done, then forget it ever happened."

"Doyle can't sign the burial orders!" Bodie protested as he pulled up his jeans and carefully zipped them. "He doesn't have the authority."

"He does if he works here." Daley didn't sound bothered. "He told me you're going to cover for him. All he has to do is put his name on a Windrage law contract, what difference does it make whether he signs it today or tomorrow--and in any case, the paper hasn't been prepared. Craig's still working on it. Where's your rush, Bodie?" Daley snapped his bag shut. "He should have the planting orders done by now. He's signing them 'Billy Shane.'" He chuckled, highly amused. "Quite clever, when you think about it--providing you've got a long enough memory."

He left the room, and Bodie puzzled over the peculiar name Doyle had chosen until his wilful memory supplied the references. Two gunfighters popularised by commercial video in the days before Rodgers almost obliterated the past. Bodie allowed himself a chuckle. So Doyle had a sense of humour too, did he?

The storm was well gone. The Earl of Aberdeen was under repairs after the shooting, and the rest of Windrage was a dirty brown colour--the colour of the rain, which carried more and more of the dust out of the upper atmosphere every year. People complained bitterly, but every time the rain fell the sky was scrubbed a little cleaner. Eventually, so the scientists and BBC broadcasters swore, the rain would be clean, the sky would be blue and the temperature would be warm enough for a man to cast off his sheepskins for nine months in the year.

As he stepped out of The Earl, Bodie could believe that. The sun was warm, the air was still and calm. People were out, working assiduously to polish Windrage with mops, buckets, brooms, rags. Even roof slates were washed. A little civic pride went a long way. And these people had everything to be proud of.

Windrage had a population of almost three hundred, it was the biggest, safest, most prosperous town on the frontier, and the Citizens' Committee were pressuring for the right to call it a city. London scoffed, but Mayor Morley, who was also the baker, had posted the official notice that Windrage would declare its independence if it had to. What did it ever receive from London, except excuses for why food, medicine and replacements for the law office were unavailable?

The law office--or lockup, which more correctly described it--stood a block east of the pub. On the short walk, Bodie nodded hello to the townspeople, allowed his hand to be shaken a dozen times, let the women kiss him. A little girl gave him a live flower, which was so precious a gift Bodie could scarcely believe it. Flowers were almost unknown, and what rare, cherished blooms survived at all were nurtured in the house and cared for like invalid relatives. He thought this one might be a violet, and held it to his nose as the child scampered away.

The bell over the door rang as he stepped into the lockup. On the right was the chained gun rack, on the left, the officer's desk, the unreliable shortwave and a pushbike generator. In the back was a single cell, which was never occupied from one month's end to the next. The Stone Angels' cache of weapons were secured in the racks and the shortwave was turned on. Surprisingly, it was actually working today. Some magician must have found the parts.

Doyle was sitting at the desk, thumbing through a new magazine. Only two months old, this one, and a full thirty pages of glossy black ink that came off on the fingers, and golden, yellowed paper. He looked up as Bodie appeared and arched his brows.

"Should you be out of bed?"

"Should you be sitting behind my desk?" Bodie demanded.

"Our desk. I'm right where the people want me," Doyle said drily. "They put me here, and Mayor Morley stopped by about half an hour ago with my lunch." He gestured at an empty basket on the floor at his feet. "The burial orders are signed. If you want to represent the law, we can amble out and listen to the Parson. Can't imagine where he's going to find a prayer for human trash like Erasmus Clay." He tossed down the magazine and stood, head tilted at Bodie. "I've spent the last hour thinking."

"About what?" Bodie moved to and fro, trying the wound, feeling out his muscles. Now that he was moving again, he felt much stronger.

If it wasn't for a slight weakness left by the fevers and a hot, sore stiffness in his side, he would have said he felt marvellous. Or was it simply a greater pleasure than usual to just be alive?

"I've been thinking about you," Doyle said darkly. "I just realised. I ought to give you a black eye."

Bodie recoiled. "What the hell for?"

"For pulling a gun on me and shoving me right into the line of fire," Doyle said flatly. "You're damned lucky. I don't know what came over me that day. If I'd had my wits about me, you would have been out cold, with a black eye that'd win prizes."

"You can always make up for lost time," Bodie said brashly. "You reckon I owe you?" He thrust out his chin. "Go on, then. Don't let debts dangle. Get it done."

To his astonishment, Doyle's right fist drew back to his shoulder and lashed out, and too late Bodie realised the blow would only feather past his ear, almost like a caress across the side of his face.

He moved too fast, the residual dizziness cost him his balance, his side gave a pang and he stumbled back against the wall. He slid to the floor, winded and dazed, and was still blinking to clear his vision when Doyle knelt astride his legs and grabbed him by the collar of his jacket, fingers digging vengefully into the leather.

"You idiot," Doyle accused with some mix of roughness and tenderness. "You really think I'd hit you, after I've just spent the last three days busting my buns to look after you?" He gave Bodie a shake, and then his hands relaxed, moved up and cradled Bodie's face. "You bloody know what I want from you. I'll take it as soon as you're well enough, but for now I'll have a little down payment. You're mended enough for least, that mouth of yours is working well enough for you to shoot it off again."

He leaned forward, and Bodie licked his lips as Doyle's mouth descended on his own in a kiss that could have been hard, remorseless, relentless, but instead astonished Bodie, left him breathless with its gentleness. He rested back against the wall, totally passive, a little dizzy, hardly conscious of anything but the other man as he let Doyle enter his mouth with a questing tongue. He sucked it readily, invited its exploration. Gently but just as ruthlessly, Doyle took everything Bodie would give and at last, when he was released his lips felt bruised.

The gunfighter's eyes were dark and smouldering. He also was breathless. "You're one of a kind, Bodie."

"I could say the same," Bodie panted. His hands spanned Doyle's narrow waist, in the warmth of his jacket. "You can have me tonight."

"You're not well enough," Doyle said sharply.

"The hell I'm not," Bodie scoffed. "I had a worse wound than this when I was nineteen years old, and my left shoulder was dislocated. They put me back on the bike in two days and told me to go and earn my oats."

"Christ, that was vicious." Doyle rocked back on his heels, sat down on the floor between Bodie's legs and cupped his hands at the nape of his new partner's neck. "One day you're going to tell me about that. Everything."

"Same as you're going to tell me every single thing about yourself," Bodie said quietly. With one fingertip he traced Doyle's luscious mouth. "We're survivors, Doyle--"

"Call me Ray."

"Shouldn't," Bodie said wryly. "I ought to get used to calling you Billy. Billy Shane. Funnily enough, I don't mind the name. It pulls all the right levers."

"I liked it." Doyle nodded at the stack of burial orders. "That's what I signed. Your teacher, what's his name?"

"Craig Ashmole. His 'mates' call him Asshole."

"That's him. He's making up my law office contract." Doyle leaned in and kissed Bodie's forehead, then hoisted himself to his feet and gave Bodie his hands to help him up too. "Head office down south is going to want a potted history of my life, but we can write them one. Will they send anyone to investigate me?"

"Not a chance." Bodie found his feet and grunted as his head spun a little. Hour by hour, he was steadier, and the wound was no worse now than a hundred others he had suffered. "The only communication we ever score from them is a dispatch to tell us why we can't have a shipment of ammunition or baked beans or a tank of liquid octane to make our home-made chicken-poop fuel burn with some guts."

"Then I'm safe," Doyle whispered.

"Until or unless someone arrives in Windrage who knows your face," Bodie added. "And we'll cross that particular bridge when we come to it. Like I said, we're survivors. The odds were dead against us both, and yet here we are."

He had taken a breath to continue but paused as a shadow fell from the window and the chimes over the door rang. Doc Daley's face appeared, wearing its customary flush-cheeked, cheerful grin.

"I thought you'd be here, Bodie! The Parson's on his way, if you want to watch 'em put the Stones in the ground. One of you two heroes ought to be there, show the official face."

"We'll both be there, Ron," Doyle assured him.

The doctor looked Bodie up and down but spoke to Doyle. "The boy's on his feet, I see. Any problems, Ray?"

"Not so far," Doyle said with a dark, smouldering intent that could mean nothing to Daley but made Bodie's temperature rise several degrees.

"Well, if there's any trouble send for me," Daley said sternly as he ducked back out and clattered the door shut.

From the comer of the desk, Doyle plucked up the big automatic Baretta that had scythed through the Stone Angels with such deceptive ease, and slid it into the holster he wore by habit. He opened the door and stood aside to usher Bodie through it before him.

"Shall we?"

Windrage's 'marble orchard' was on the north side of the hill, with the hill itself separating it from the town. The ground was still as hard as iron, even in summer. A few hours of warmth every afternoon was not enough to thaw the permafrost down below ten or twelve inches, and every time a north-east storm blew up the surface refroze.

Sawyer was a big man who had been a construction worker before Rodgers arrived. He had been using a jackharnmer more than half his life, and after the upheaval of the event he had excavated his tools from the rubble and found them more or less intact. He had an Ingersol-Rand on the back of a cart, and two horses between the shafts. The compressor burned chick-shit/octane 'top fuel,' while the horses grazed a hundred yards away, out of both its din and the noise of the pneumatic drill.

A single hole had been dug out, measuring eight feet by fifty, five feet deep, and the bodies of the Stone Angels were already in it, each one wrapped in a couple of industrial plastic garbage bags, sealed down with electrician's insulating tape.

At the head of the grave stood the Parson. Harry Staples was not really a priest, but he was the only person in Windrage who attached any importance to the rites and rigmarole of baptism, marriage and burial, and he had elected himself Parson. He had a Bible, but he never read from it. Most of his sermons and lessons were based on private, personal revelation. He said, every holy book in the world was obsolete after Rodgers, because they predicted Armageddon, told man how to live before the great judgement, promised a swift passage to Heaven or Paradise...and didn't say one word about how the corporeal survivors of the Cataclysm were supposed to make their peace with the Almighty. Philosophers from Summertown to Yonderland had postulated that all the worthy human beings had been gathered up in the great hand of God and spirited away to Heaven, while the survivors of Rodgers were the Damned, and the world as it had become was in fact Hell, or Purgatory.

"We are gathered here today," Staples was saying as Bodie and Doyle ambled up behind the crowd, "to consign the souls of these poor savages to Judgement. In life, they were the legion of the damned. In death, let them face the Creator and pay the price for their evil. The fires of hell await them, but out of the agony of atonement will be born bliss everlasting."

The speech went on, but Bodie stopped listening. From the top of the hill they had a view of Windrage in one direction and the rainbrown landscape towards Yonderland in the other. Two major roads cut north and south, east and west, and these days most of the smaller, side-roads were open again. One had been ripped up by the earthquakes at the time of the event, and the repairs were never good enough for it to be used by heavy traffic, but the main north-south corridor was quite acceptable.

As Bodie watched, he saw a distant column of wagons and buses heading towards Kate's Farm, fifty miles further on. Kate did a lot of horse-trading. The medicinal drugs produced at the Farm were the most pure in the county, and coveted in the city. When the Farm had a surplus, they traded drugs, wool, booze, sometimes fresh food, for spark plugs, ammunition, octane, battery acid, the things that could not be grown or made, but which were mined out of the city ruins by professional scavengers, qualified speleologists employed by the Citizens' Council.

At last Staples wound down into silence and threw a spade's worth of mud into the hole. Several men clustered about Sawyer, ready to fill it in. Bodie turned his shoulder on their industries and would have urged Doyle back to the town, but a man called them back.

"Mr Doyle? That is, Mr Shane?"

Chuckling, Doyle turned toward the voice. "Yeah, Leo?"

It was Leo Tomlin, who fancied himself as an artist and consequently got the work of preparing anything from headstones to the facia of the town hall. He was a jovial little soul, sixty or sixty-five, hard-bitten, frayed about the edges but still working. He was in denim overalls, sheepskin boots and rabbitskin gloves. He bred table rabbits in his workshop and art gallery, where it was bright and warm. The bunnies ate the discarded greenery of the cauliflowers, cabbages, carrots and turnips grown in the Windrage Municipal Glasshouses, and Tomlin traded them for chickens, eggs, fuel, Ma's best quality joyjuice, whatever he wanted or needed.

"Got something to show you, Mr...Shane," he chortled. "Finished it in a hell of a rush, but it's good quality. Step this way, and see what I knocked up for you."

He led the way past the Stone Angels' last resting place, and immediately Bodie picked out the new headstone. Sawyer had been sensible enough to turn over the earth as if it were a real grave, and Tomlin's work was hastily cemented in place at the head of the empty hole. He had used a piece of golden sandstone, probably a leftover from the facia of the town hall, and on it was chiselled, in something more or less like Times Roman, 'Here lies Ray Doyle, gunfighter and hero, came to defend Windrage against the tribes, died in the service of his fellow man. He will be remembered.'

"That's just the ticket," Doyle approved, and shook Tomlin's hand in thanks.

An elderly woman had joined them as they admired the stone--Mrs Rutherford, a widow whose fingers never ceased to knit. She made the socks and jerseys worn by almost everyone in the town, and as Bodie had fully expected, she was holding out a pair of beautifully done grey wool socks, offering them to Doyle. "You'll be staying then, will you, Mr Doy--Shane?" she asked hopefully.

"I guess I will." Doyle took the socks and touched her shoulder. "Thanks for these, love."

"No need to thank me," Mrs Rutherford said emphatically. "The work you did...well, you and Bodie, but from the way Josh Kelly told it...well, anyway, after what you did for us, we're proud to have you here. And we're disgusted by the way you were treated in the city." She spat into the grass. "City people never did have the sense they were born with. You're better off out of there."

"Can't disagree with that," Doyle said wryly as he examined the socks and Mrs Rutherford prattled on.

Weariness was overtaking Bodie. Preoccupied with his own woes, he was no longer listening and gave a start of surprise when Doyle's fingers sank into his shoulder and Doyle spoke to him, probably for the third or fourth time.

"Bodie! You've gone grey, what's the matter?"

"Tired," Bodie admitted. "Just tired. Let me go home and lie down."

"In my room at The Earl," Doyle insisted. "I've seen the rat hole you call a bedroom behind the lockup. I wouldn't garage my bike in that. And that's another thing, partner, if we're going to live and work together--"

"Sleep together?" Bodie added hopefully.

Doyle gave him a sidelong look as they began to make their way slowly back over the hill.

"Well," Bodie said reasonably, "we've been sleeping together for days, but I've been too comatose to know it."

"True," Doyle admitted. "All right, if we're going to pitch in together, we're going to have a proper place. I refuse to sleep in a room the size of a foot locker that smells of old boots and wet newspaper!"

"Deal," Bodie said tiredly. "Just get me back to a mattress, any mattress, and let me lie down for an hour."

It was mid-afternoon when he put his spine on the bed. He only intended to close his eyes and rest, not to sleep, but he went out as if he had been drugged, and when he woke he knew before he was fully conscious, hours had gone by. He could hear the hiss of lamps, the shutters were closed and a fire was crackling in the hearth. Coffee was stewing, and soft metallic noises came from the table.

He prised open his eyes and saw Doyle working on a folded cloth, with tools and oil servicing his guns. Experimentally, Bodie yawned, and nothing hurt. He swung his legs off the bed and stretched his right arm over his head. He did not stretch the left as far, but the wound was no more than a nuisance which had already started to itch.

"You look better," Doyle observed. "You've been asleep for four hours. I didn't disturb you. You needed it."

"I must have." Bodie rubbed his face and discovered himself beard-stubbled.

The kettle was bubbling on the side of the hearth, and while Doyle finished his work with the tools of his trade, Bodie poured a mug of hot water and helped himself to Doyle's straight razor, soap and towel.

The guns were put away and Doyle had poured coffee when Bodie patted his face dry. "I sent for a meal half an hour ago," Doyle told him. "It's rabbit pie tonight. Chicken last night. You people do all right here. I got the guided tour of your glasshouses while you slept this afternoon."

"They're not bad people," Bodie said with a vague gesture at the town. "They're just...."

"Ordinary people," Doyle finished. "Scared rigid when trash like the Stones rolls in here. Oh, Mayor Morley took charge of their bikes. Seventeen reasonable quality machines. Your mechanic--Bradley, is it?" Bodie nodded. "He's going to break down a dozen of them for salvageable spare parts, and the other five are going to be serviced and spray-painted and go on the market. Seems we need a reliable shortwave, a set of tyres for the municipal 4x4 and a decent oxy-welding set." His eyes sparkled.

"Something amuses you?" Bodie wondered, but Doyle's humour was infectious.

"This place." Doyle wiped the smile off his face. "I was just remembering what the old Rutherford woman said. I'm better off out of the city. "

"Amen to that," Bodie breathed.

Before Doyle could answer, a knock announced their dinner, and Ben tried the doorknob. Finding it unlocked, he looked into the room, and Doyle swept the table clear. The smell of rabbit pie only ten minutes out of the oven, with fresh red cabbage and a jug of beer, tantalised the senses.

Bodie had not realised how hungry he was, but he fell on the food and ate ravenously. Doyle seemed just as hungry, and the pie dish was down to bones and crumbs before they spoke again. Then, Doyle's whole manner had changed and Bodie's hair almost stood on end.

He was the hunter again, and Bodie was the hunted. The prey. Without a word, Doyle snuffed out the lamps to save the oil, leaving just one burning. The generator was still not working reliably enough to dispense with the lamps, but Bradley swore he would have it back 'in the pink' by the end of the week.

Deliberately, Doyle straightened the bed. Bodie had only got out of it an hour before and it was still warm. He fluffed the pillows and searched his bag for a tube of lubricant and a box of condoms. These, he placed on the pillow, and turned back to Bodie with an expectant face. Only the swift rise and fall of his chest betrayed his excitement.

The dimness covered Bodie's flush. Doyle was waiting, just watching, not making a move to rush, or force, or to help. Slowly, with a little lingering clumsiness, Bodie took off his shirt, hung it over the back of a chair, and unbuckled his jeans. The heat turned up as he dropped them. Underneath, he was wearing plain white jockey shorts, and the front of them was stretched by an enormous erection which had been growing since Doyle cast himself in the role of the hunter.

He palmed himself through the briefs and looked at Doyle as he felt a rush of absurd awkwardness. Doyle had slept in that bed with him, buff-naked, for days. He knew what he was getting. Resolutely, he whipped the shorts out of the way, threw them at Doyle, who fielded them deftly, and covered his momentary awkwardness with a brash display. Hands on hips, he aimed the weapon at Doyle.

"You're supposed to say 'stand and deliver,'" Doyle quipped. "Although, in your case you're going to be on your knees when you deliver the goods."

A shiver shook Bodie. His skin prickled with gooseflesh and he passed the flat palm of his hand over his belly. "If that's how you want me."

"Sunshine," Doyle said, a purr in his throat, "I want you every way you can imagine, and some maybe you can't."

"Don't be so sure of that." Bodie sat on the bedside, reclined against the pillows and spread himself provocatively. "You know a cityside bordello--called Samarkand?"

"I know it." Doyle's brows arched. "It was your favourite playpen, on leave from the militia?"

Bodie's head shook minutely. "It was a place for escaping from. I used to work there when I was a kid."

That surprised Doyle, and he whistled through his teeth as he undressed and brought a fresh towel from his pack.

He was vastly aroused, his cock a mouthwatering lance of rose-gold, musky seduction. Bodie could hardly get his eyes off it as Doyle returned to the bed. His fingers itched to stroke it, his lips longed to suckle, his arse ached to have it. All in good time, he told himself. Patience. This time around, the show was Doyle's. He had earned the right to call the shots here. Bodie had called some much more dangerous shots three days before.

"You're full of surprises, Bodie." Doyle sat on the side of the bed and sketched a one-fingered caress up one side of Bodie's bobbing cock, around the flared, helmeted head and down the other side. "How long has it been?"

"Since I was done?" Bodie sniffed disdainfully. "Stop worrying, get on and do it."

"Okay, you're on." Doyle smiled, and climbed over to kneel astride the larger, more heavily muscled body.

He kissed Bodie's mouth, his throat and both his nipples. There, he stopped and bit, gently at first and then more sharply, making Bodie surge up as an arrow of pure lust raced straight for his balls. Doyle chuckled and moved down. His tongue traced a wide circle about Bodie's navel before he moved down again, and began to rub the super-sensitive underside of Bodie's cock through the dark, silky pelt of his chest hair. Bodie groaned helplessly and clutched his side as he began to thresh.

His balls were first tickled, then kissed, then squeezed lightly and tugged down. Two scissorlike fingers separated them, pushed them up on either side of his cock, rolled them to and fro in the velvet-soft skin, and he was out of his mind. Where the hell had Doyle learned all this? Was this what he liked to do to himself? Who had taught him?

Flying, Bodie was hardly likely to protest when he was urged over onto his belly. Doyle's hands helped him, and he sprawled crossways over the bed. The pillow tucked under his shoulders and he expected to be lubed and filled at once, but to his surprise and delight, Doyle walked around the bed and stood before him.

The gunfighter's beautiful cock caressed around Bodie's whole face, traced the lines of his brow and nose and chin, and then pushed at his mouth. As his lips parted he was invaded, and a slow, steady rhythm began. Doyle smelt pungent, musky, male, and tasted clean and salty. He was hard as a rock, hot as a poker, the fine skin stretched over such rigidness that Bodie could have believed it was moist velvet over a bar of forge-hot iron. The clean young-male scent, Bodie had always loved, and he took Doyle by the hips to hold him there, control his thrusting rhythm, in case he try to finish this too soon. But Doyle had no intentions of that, and minutes later Bodie was still eating him alive.

At last Doyle withdrew his cock and moved in a little to place his balls against Bodie's mouth. They were tight, high, swollen with excitement, and Bodie mouthed them eagerly. He slipped first one and then the other into his mouth, careful of his teeth, and used his lips to tug on them, his tongue to press. The dual sensations plus the heat of his mouth drove Doyle wild, and Bodie felt a thrill of satisfaction as Doyle forcibly extricated himself from Bodie's hands and mouth.

"God, you're good, Bodie," he gasped. "You learn that lot in Samarkand?"

"Uh huh," Bodie said smugly. He spread his legs. "I'm ready for you."

"You're not, but you soon will be," Doyle said drily as he began to get his breath back. He plucked up the box of condoms, tore one out of its foil packet and set it into Bodie's hand. "Put that on me." He stood close, with his cock bobbing inches from Bodie's face.

The white latex sheath rolled down over him, greasy with pre-lubrication, and Bodie shivered as he ran his fingers over it. It was ridged, with rings and little bumps and nodules, and tiny, malleable, soft/firm spines. An expensive condom, packed more than fifteen years ago, under the brand name of 'Rough Rider.'

When that went into him, Bodie was going to feel every little nudge and tickle, and his heart beat faster. He tried the ticklers with his tongue, spat out the latex taste of the condom and spread his legs as his arse began to ache, begging mutely to be filled. How long it was since he had been so keen? He could not even remember the last time.

Doyle walked around the bed, and with slitted eyes Bodie watched the heavy, wanton sway of his cock in that white latex covering. He could almost count the ridges and nodules, and the sight of them made him itch inside. Doyle moved behind him, and he closed his eyes as he heard the cap being removed from the lubricant. His cheeks were kneaded and spread; the towel was tucked under him, between his cock and the quilt. He hissed at the cold touch as a generous amount of the lubricant was spread around outside, and then the applicator nozzle was intruded gently into his anus and Doyle squeezed.

Full of the cool, smooth juice, Bodie tensed. The bed dipped, his hips were taken between Doyle's hands, his buttocks were spread wider and flattened under Doyle's palms, and then he felt the first pressure, the first painful shove, a gut-wrenching burn of stretching muscles and skin.

Sweat broke from his pores and he bit into his arm to keep silent. This was unavoidable, there was no other way--no 'kind' way. To go more slowly only dragged the agony out. It was like pulling a tooth: the fastest way it was yanked, the kinder it was. Agony dulled into discomfort...discomfort bloomed into pleasure. The pain was still there, hiding behind the pleasure, but he didn't care to notice it.

Doyle was thrusting strongly, deeply, and the condom worked its own magic. Bodie humped and panted, cursed and huffed into the pillow. He pressed down into the towel, rubbed and rolled and pushed until there was no turning back. Point of no return. Glory. Angels' wings and heavenly violins. Fireworks...exhaustion.

He came before Doyle, and yelped sharply as Doyle continued to move in the too-sensitive moments right after climax. Then Doyle paused, hands clenched into his shoulders to hold himself until Bodie had relaxed again. In a few moments, Bodie grunted his permission to proceed, and Doyle began again with renewed, desperate vigour.

Bodie had only to brace himself, open himself, give of himself, and then absorb Doyle's pagan howl of anguish like an accolade. Sore, aching a little, he smiled into the pillow as the gunfighter collapsed on his back, spent and trembling. He turned his head but could not see Doyle's face, and for some time the other man was unable to move, save to gasp for breath.

At last Doyle took his weight on knees and hands and slowly, carefully withdrew. Bodie ouched and sighed. He propped his eyes open with an enormous effort to watch as Doyle sat in the middle of the bed and, clumsy with fatigue, peeled off the priceless condom.

"You," he said breathlessly, "are incredible."

"Thanks," Bodie purred, deep and bass. "So are you. I haven't been fucked like that in years."

"Not since Samarkand?" Doyle guessed as he dropped the spent, messy condom onto the floor and went down in a winded, sweated heap on the pillows.

"Not since I got out of the militia," Bodie corrected. "There was a sergeant, used to do me every night after lights out. Not that I minded, I suppose. Big Bob Lynch never hurt me any more than he had to, and we got friendly after a while. You wouldn't call it rape, though I could have turned it into rape by being dumb enough to refuse."

"But you were as smart then as you are now," Doyle said astutely. "You're no man's fool, Bodie."

"There are no fools left in the world," Bodie said in a weary, philosophical tone as he carefully worked himself around on the bed until he was aligned with Doyle. He put his head on the pillow beside Doyle's tousled one and laid the flat of his hand on Doyle's still heaving chest. "All the idiots died in the early years," he said thoughtfully. "It took guts and brains to survive. Natural selection."

"Natural?" Doyle shoved the towel, lube and condoms onto the floor and pulled the quilt up to cover them, keep in the shared body heat. "You call the anarchy that happened after the impact event natural--?"

"Totally," Bodie affirmed. "I heard it broadcast by the BBC, a dozen times. A comet is a gigantic chunk of ice, mostly hydrogen, some methane, that sort of stuff. It goes around the sun in a long, elliptical-shaped orbit and if anything--like a planet--gets in its way, too bad. We had near misses dozens of times. Hundreds of times. Then one day, back around the turn of the century an astronomer called Rodgers in some place called Arizona...I think that was a country near America...saw this chunk of ice coming for us, off an orbit so long, the last time it had crossed the earth's orbit, the telescope hadn't even been invented.

"Now, if humans had stopped fighting sixty different wars at once, every decade of the Twentieth Century, we might have had the time or resources to invent a spacecraft good enough to go out there and blow this chunk of ice to hell. But our ancestors, in their infinite wisdom, only ever invented bigger and better ways to kill more humans. So, when Comet Rodgers came to earth like the wrath of God, there was nothing to stop it. Work of nature, Ray. Classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Doyle propped himself on one elbow and looked into Bodie's face. "You're hiding quite a brain behind that pout of yours."

"Thanks." Bodie smiled smugly. "Not really, though. I just heard it on the radio the other day."

"You've got a proper radio that works?" Doyle was surprised. "That is, not like that piece of garbage at the office?"

"It worked up till a few days ago." Bodie stretched carefully. "If we're going to trade half the Stones' herd of bikes, I'd be surprised if we couldn't come up with a good, working shortwave, and maybe even bribe a radio technician to live here." He rubbed his back on the mattress and clenched his toes. "Christ, I feel good. I feel...fucked, is how I feel."

"Surprising," Doyle said drily. "Hurting?"

"Nah." Bodie leaned over and kissed his neck. "Just a bit sore. The great thing about using a condom is, you don't have to rush away to use the can. Fantastic condom, that one. I felt every little tickle. It was bloody marvellous. You always use a rubber?"

"It's cleaner that way," Doyle said delicately. "The day you give some sober thought to where you're shoving your dick, you lay in a good supply."

"Right." Bodie traced a spiral pattern around Doyle's right nipple. "You like it that way?"

"You mean, do I like to be bum-fucked?" Doyle wriggled down in the bed and closed his eyes. "Sometimes. So long as it's the right person."

"Meaning, me?"

"Oh, yeah." Doyle turned over and laid one arm across Bodie's chest. "In my game, I have to be careful. There's two kinds of challenges I can meet. I can face a gun in the street, and I'll probably mop the floor with the punk who pulled it on me. But the gun you turn your back on in bed is the one that might just take you out."

"Profound." Bodie took the opportunity to caress his companion's soft, tousled hair. "You can trust me, Ray."

"I know I can." Doyle smiled faintly, tiredly at him. "That's what I'm doing in this bed with you."

Bodie mirrored his smile. "Partners?"

"In every way." Doyle punched his pillow to comfort.

"Welcome to Windrage, Provincial Officer Shane," Bodie said ruefully, and turned out the lamp. In the warm lick of the firelight, he turned his face into the strong curve of Doyle's shoulder and closed his eyes.

-- THE END --

Circuit Archive Logo Archive Home