Pairings: implied past Aramis/Marsac, mostly gen. (I know! eventual OT3, but probably not until the sequel...)
Summary: Western AU. The town of Paris, Nevada is under siege by a gang of bandits. Mayor Treville hopes that appointing a notorious gunslinger as the new sheriff might give them the edge they need - but he'll need help.
A/N: Been posting this on the kinkmeme, but decided to post it here as well if only to give certain people a better opportunity to nag me to finish it...
The street, normally bustling at this time of day was deserted from one end to the other. Beneath the clock tower, a single solitary figure stood waiting.
He could feel the pressure of countless unseen eyes on him, peering from behind shutters and drapes the length of the road. He resisted the urge to look at his pocket-watch, or glance up at the clock face. Either the man he was waiting for would come, or he wouldn't.
Sure enough, at a few minutes to noon the sound of approaching hooves could be heard, and a rider appeared at the far end of the street. He approached unhurriedly and dismounted a short distance away.
"Sheriff. You're determined to see this through then." He sounded amused, and entirely at ease. The man facing him resisted the urge to go for his gun immediately, despite all his instincts screaming at him to do so.
"Vadim." He nodded in recognition that the other man had at least responded to his challenge. "Let's settle this here and now. A fair duel, that's what we agreed. That way no-one else has to die."
The newcomer nodded slowly, seemingly considering his words. Finally he looked up, a mocking smile on his lips.
"On the other hand, Sheriff, what's the point in a fair fight? I might lose." As he finished speaking, even before the other man had a chance to fully process his words or his intent, Vadim drew his pistol and fired three times. Every shot found its mark, and the sheriff toppled slowly into the dirt and lay still, his expression one of startled surprise.
Vadim was walking back towards his horse when the sound of a slamming door and running feet made him spin round, gun re-drawn in an instant.
"Aramis!" A warning voice bellowed from somewhere, but the newcomer didn't check his pace; nor did he spare Vadim so much as a glance, instead throwing himself down beside the crumpled and unmoving form of the sheriff.
Vadim fingered his gun thoughtfully, then shrugged and mounted his horse, riding away without a backward glance.
When it was clear he'd really gone, people started cautiously emerging once more, the first of them a grizzled looking man who strode purposefully across to the pitiful tableau in the street.
"Sheriff Marsac?" he ventured.
Aramis looked up from where he was cradling the still form in his arms, and bleakly shook his head. There were tears tracking down his cheeks, and Mayor Treville clenched his fists, seething with impotent rage at the pointless waste of life.
He'd tried to talk Marsac out of this from the start, knew too, that Aramis had tried the same. But the sheriff had been adamant, seeing it as a way of saving lives, and confident he could outdraw the outlaw in a fair fight.
A fair fight. Vadim had never given him the chance. Treville spat in disgust, and laid a heavy hand on Aramis' shoulder in silent commiseration.
The afternoon was wearing to a close when Athos came within sight of the town, and he reined in his horse for a moment to study the sunbleached, bullet-ridden boundary sign.
Paris, Nevada. It didn't look terribly welcoming, but then, that had never bothered him. He rode on slowly, feeling the stares of the few people going about their business boring into his back as he passed. A combination of curiosity and hostility, but that was nothing new either.
He tied his horse to the rail outside the saloon, which at least looked reasonably clean and hospitable compared to some of the places he'd drunk, and pushed in through the doors.
The saloon, like the street itself, was quieter than he'd expected. The piano stood silent and there was little buzz of conversation, the scattered handful of drinkers sitting in a hush that he sensed had nothing to do with his entrance.
The woman behind the bar at least produced a welcoming smile, and he smiled back politely. "Good afternoon. I'd like a room, if possible?"
Her smile went up a notch, into what Athos privately thought approached desperation, but he said nothing.
"Of course sir! Right now you can take your pick in fact," she told him with a rather brittle eagerness. "How long will you be staying?"
"Oh - just passing through," he said evasively, taking a seat at the bar and removing his hat. "Could I trouble you for a bottle of your best wine? I've been riding a long time, and my throat is mostly dust."
"Of course!" She produced a smile even more strained than the last one and watched surreptitiously as he poured himself a glass.
The first mouthful almost made him choke, and Athos swallowed with difficulty. "This is your best vintage?" he asked hoarsely, unsure if he'd been the victim of some impenetrable small-town humour, or if these people were in fact savages.
She put her hands on her hips and glared at him, although there was more than a touch of embarrassment in it.
"Right now I'm afraid it is. With the last three supply wagons being ambushed and the building of the railroad so behind on programme, we're down to the last of the cellar."
Athos frowned. "What? But that's outrageous. Why doesn't somebody do something?"
The man sitting next to him at the bar glanced up from his glass of whisky and gave Athos a sour look, though he addressed himself to the barmaid.
"Yes Constance, why doesn't somebody do something? As it would apparently be so easy."
"Oh hush Aramis." She flapped a hand at him and refilled his glass without being asked. "He's a stranger here, you can't expect him to know our troubles."
"I can expect him to keep his mouth shut on subjects he knows nothing about," Aramis growled. He'd been drinking for several hours, and was in a foul mood.
Athos shot him a look, although to Constance’s palpable relief it was one of curiosity rather than anger.
"I merely suggested that if you're having problems with bandits, it should be a simple enough matter to rid yourselves of them," he said archly. "If that's beyond the capability of your sheriff, perhaps you should consider electing another one."
Aramis was on his feet in a second, gun drawn and pointed into Athos' face. Behind the bar Constance yelled at him angrily, but he ignored her.
"Our sheriff was killed today trying to 'rid us' of them, as you so glibly put it," Aramis said tightly. His voice shook, but even after most of a bottle of whisky his hand was steady. "And you and I, sir, will finish this in the street."
Athos hadn't moved, hadn't so much as flinched when the gun was pushed into his face, and kept his hands carefully away from his own holsters. He put together the flushed face and reddened eyes of the man accosting him with his words and the amount he seemed to have drunk, and sighed inwardly.
"My apologies," Athos said quietly. "It would appear you have lost a friend today, and I meant no insult. I spoke out of turn, and I'm sorry."
"You won't face me then? Are you such a coward?" Aramis lowered his gun slightly and Athos cocked an eyebrow at him, stung at having his apology rebuffed.
"On the contrary. But it would be unpardonably bad manners for me to kill a man who is clearly grieving."
Aramis immediately levelled his gun at Athos again with a strangled noise of rage. Athos didn’t turn a hair, but it was Constance marching between them that made them both jump. She snatched the pistol out of Aramis' hand and glared at both of them.
"If men would just stop waving their weapons about for a second, maybe fewer would die round here!" she snapped.
"Give me that - " Aramis reached for his gun then hastily withdrew his hand when it looked like Constance might bite it.
"No. You can have it back when you leave." She strode back behind the bar and placed it on a shelf, leaving Aramis wrongfooted and embarrassed. He wondered whether to push the point, although suspected against Constance he would inevitably lose. He looked sideways at his erstwhile opponent, expecting to see derision at letting himself be bested by a woman. Instead, the man gave him a look of complicit sympathy.
"In some cases, discretion can be the better part of valour," Athos murmured into his glass.
Aramis felt his anger abruptly leave him and he sank back into his seat with a tired laugh. "I guess I'll drink to that," he sighed.
They exchanged a look that while not quite friendly was at least no longer openly hostile, and offered each other a slight smile of reconciliation.
They drank in silence for a while, until the swing doors were pushed open once more and a man walked up to stand at the bar. Athos eyed him incuriously, of real note only because there seemed to be so few patrons. He was tall and dark skinned, and wearing dusty workmen's clothes and heavy boots. He seemed ill at ease and yet defiant at the same time which further piqued Athos' curiosity, noting the way the man was twisting his hat brim nervously in his hands.
Constance moved towards him, but was pushed out of the way by a tall, stern looking man who'd been polishing glasses behind the bar but so far letting her do all the work with regard to the customers.
"We don't serve your sort in here. Get lost."
Athos, having returned his attention to his drink, looked up in sharp surprise. The would-be customer seemed to be warring within himself whether to object or not, his expression both angry and mortified. Athos felt Aramis tense next to him, shooting a longing glance at his gun across the bar in anticipation of trouble. Finally though, the newcomer seemed to realise it was useless arguing, and shrugged in bitter surrender.
"Suit yourself. My piss tastes better than what you've got on offer anyway." He glared round the bar at everyone and marched out again.
There was an awkward silence. Athos looked into his glass and pushed it away from him a little.
"They won't serve people of colour in here?" he murmured. "I'm not sure I like that."
Aramis shook his head. "It's not the colour of his skin that bothers Bonacieux. He'll take anyone's money, trust me. But that man's a convict." The surprise showed on Athos' face, and Aramis gave him a nod of confirmation. "He works on the railroad. There are gangs of them, they use them to clear the ground, lay the sleepers and rails. All the hard, dangerous work they'd have to pay anyone else too much to carry out, in other words."
Athos took this in, and frowned again. "They're allowed to wander about as they please?"
"Where would they go?" Aramis drained his glass and shrugged. "Anyone making a run for it - it's death by dehydration in hours, whichever way you go. You could risk stealing a horse, but then you'd be shot for your pains. Justice tends to be swift and harsh, out here." He sighed. "At least, it used to be."
Athos was about to press him for more details when the doors opened again to admit a tall gaunt figure with greying hair and a flowing priest's robe, coated with dust from the road.
"Here's more trouble," Aramis sighed.
"Who is he?" Athos asked in a low voice.
"Richelieu. Priest of this parish, and royal pain in the arse," Aramis told him, masking his words with his glass.
Athos watched with interest as the man approached a table not far from where they were sitting and accosted one of the men sitting there.
"Treville! What's this I hear about Marsac? Is it true?"
Treville got to his feet and nodded wearily. "Vadim shot him down before they even started the duel," he sighed. "He never stood a chance."
Far from looking sympathetic, Richelieu snorted. "I told you it was a stupid plan from the beginning, but would you listen? You're supposed to be the mayor of this place, but we fall further into perdition day after day. Perhaps it's time someone else took over."
"Someone like you perhaps?" Treville raised an unsurprised eyebrow. "Over my dead body."
Richelieu sneered. "The ways things are going that might not be long."
"Was that a threat?" Treville glared at him. "You may have support in this town, but you'd do well to remember you don't have all of it."
As the two men glared at each other, Athos made up his mind and walked over.
"I wonder if I might be of assistance?" he offered. "I understand you're having bandit trouble. I have a certain set of skills that you might find - of some use."
"Meaning you're a gunslinger I suppose," Richelieu scoffed. "Ten a penny round here."
Treville was looking him over with rather more interest. "What's your name, lad?"
Athos gave a slight smile. He was only in his early thirties but it had been a while since he'd been called lad.
"My name is Athos."
What noise there had been in the bar abruptly dropped into a dead hush and even Richelieu looked impressed.
"I've heard of you," he conceded.
Athos gave a tilt of the head. "I'd be disappointed if you hadn't."
Behind them Constance nudged Aramis, who was looking distinctly pale at the realisation he'd just tried to challenge the state's most notorious gunfighter to a duel.
"Good thing he turned you down, eh?" Constance asked in a stage whisper.
Aramis cleared his throat. "I could have taken him," he muttered, then flushed scarlet as Athos glanced round at him and almost smiled.
Ignoring all this, Treville had come to a decision. He wasn’t entirely sure it was a good decision, but it would take the wind out of Richelieu's sails in the short term and probably annoy him intensely, therefore it had at least some merit.
"You can help us?"
Athos nodded. "I'm not cheap," he warned.
"You rid us of this man and his gang, you can name your price," Treville announced, ignoring Richelieu's spluttering.
"I can do it," Athos confirmed.
"In that case, I hereby deputise you as temporary sheriff, until such time as we are freed of this menace," Treville declared, to the astonishment of the bar.
Athos hid his own surprise, and nodded cautious agreement. He expected further objections from Richelieu, but received only a cold stare before the man abruptly turned on his heel and swept out.
"Well." Treville scrubbed a hand through his hair, wondering distantly how big a fuck-up this was going to turn into. "Welcome aboard." He held out his hand, and Athos shook it. "My name's Treville, I'm Mayor of this town. I suppose whether I retain that position now rather depends on you."
"Then I will do my best not to let you down," Athos promised. "Failure would do little for my reputation either."
"Failure will do little for your life," Treville retorted. "The man's no respecter of authority."
"Oh, I have a couple of things he might be made to respect," Athos murmured, running his fingertips over the twin pistols slung at his hips. "Tell me more though. Who is this man, and where will I find him?"
Treville sighed. "His name is Vadim, other than that we know remarkably little about him. He has a camp somewhere in the hills to the north, the few people that have gone in search of its exact location have never returned. He has a gang of men at his command, outlaws and murderers for the most part. The first we knew of it was three months ago when the wagon train was held up, they took practically everything, and left the drivers for dead. One survived just long enough to tell of the attack."
Treville threw back the rest of his drink as if needing the strength to finish the tale. "A month later the same thing happened. Last month the wagons came with armed guards - and every man amongst them was killed. The death of our town won't be long after at this rate. The stagecoach and postal services also refuse to stop here any longer, and we're running out of supplies."
"The army - ?" Athos suggested.
"Doesn't care." Treville gestured with his empty glass, and Constance moved to bring him another. "They have more pressing issues, and we are only a small town. We've basically been told to solve it ourselves. Marsac - our sheriff - thought he had a solution. It cost him his life."
"Then let us hope I am harder to kill," Athos murmured. "The lady over there - Constance? - mentioned something about delays to the railway?"
Treville gave a mirthless laugh. "We thought it would be the answer to our prayers. It's a lot harder to hold up a thousand tonnes of screaming metal than a man and a horse. But there have been constant problems." He sat back in his chair and gave Athos grim eyes. "You have a reputation young man. I'm hoping it's deserved. Because right now? You may be our last hope."
Athos returned to his drink, reflecting that you really never knew how a day was going to turn out. Beside him, Aramis gave him an unreadable look before staring down into his glass as if it held all the answers.
After a while Aramis seemed to come to a decision, and slid something across the bartop.
"Guess you'll be needing this," he said quietly.
Athos looked down. It was a metal sheriff’s badge, presumably taken from the previous incumbent. He didn’t question why Aramis had had it in his pocket, but when he reached out to take it Aramis kept hold, and Athos saw the hesitation in his eyes.
"I won't bring dishonour to it," Athos told him quietly. "You have my word."
Aramis looked at him searchingly, then relented and let Athos pick up the badge.
"So where do you fit into all this?" Athos asked after a moment.
"Marsac - was my friend. I own a ranch just outside of town. Largest head of cattle in the county, best grazing, and sweet water," Aramis said with a note of pride, then sighed. "For all the good it does me. We're practically under siege here, they rob anyone coming in or out, and the railroad which was supposed to be our saviour seems to face setback after setback. It's like we're cursed."
"I don't believe in curses." Athos finished his wine, and signalled Constance for another bottle.
"Blimey, you can put it away.
Athos conceded the point, but smiled. "This one's not for me."
In the high heat of summer the river was barely a trickle, and the man who'd been turned away from the saloon was sitting morosely on a log, throwing stones at a bottle sticking out of the mud. He was mostly missing, and the cracked surface of the riverbed was pocked with the marks of his efforts.
When a stone sailed over his shoulder and hit the glass with a sharp click he was on his feet in seconds looking wary. When he saw the man standing above him was wearing a sheriff's star on his shoulder, his expression became even more guarded.
"What do you want? Or is minding my own business against the law now too?"
Athos slid carefully down the bank towards him and shook his head mildly.
"Actually, I've brought you a present. A bottle of Bonacieux’s finest piss." He held out the bottle, but the other man made no move to take it.
"Beads for the natives?" he suggested, scathingly.
Athos shrugged. "Well, if you don't want it..."
The man wavered, then snatched it with a sigh. "What do you want?"
"Information. I'm told you work on the railroad. It has been suffering setbacks, I want to know why."
"Why ask me? Why not the works captain?" came the suspicious demand.
"If you were in charge, would you want to tell me why things keep going wrong?" Athos asked.
"Nah. Maybe not."
"I've always found, if you want to get to the bottom of something, ask the people already at the bottom. The ones with nothing to lose. And no reason to lie, perhaps?"
The man regarded him thoughtfully then looked at the bottle. "It's not really piss is it?"
Athos shrugged. "Might as well be." He smiled slightly. "There you go, we have at least a common aim in getting the branch connection completed, if only for the sake of our palates."
His new acquaintance laughed, and sat back down on the log, waving to Athos to join him.
"What's your name?" Athos asked.
He got a long, intent look from dark eyes before the man answered. "Porthos. Porthos du Vallon." He gave a dry laugh.
"It's been a long time since anyone bothered to ask me my name, that's all." Porthos considered him, then uncorked the wine and took a drink, wincing slightly at the taste. "So who are you then? Or do I just call you Sheriff?"
"My name is Athos."
Porthos looked impressed. "The gunslinger? I've heard of you."
"I get that a lot."
"And they made you sheriff?"
"Makes sense I suppose. Set a killer to catch a killer."
"There have been a lot of deaths, it seems?"
"Oh yes. On the railroad too. Accidents, they called them." Porthos looked disgusted. "I know better though."
Athos looked surprised, and Porthos shook his head. "You ask me, they weren't accidents. We should have had the line up and running into Paris this last winter, but it's been one thing after another. Men have died." He looked away. "Last month, a load of staging collapsed, crushed five men to death." He looked back at Athos, sharp and intent. "I worked on that staging myself. No way would it have gone like it did. One or two beams not fixed properly, sure, you'd get a problem, but a wholesale collapse? Nah. And it was the engineers that copped it. Put the programme right back." He sighed. "I don't understand it."
Athos looked thoughtful. "At the moment this Vadim seems to have the town sewn up. But the railway - the completion of the line's going to screw his plans. It's a lot harder to hijack a train than a coach."
"You think there's a connection?" Porthos asked, surprised.
"Who else stands to gain? And you said it yourself, they don't seem to be accidents." He stood up. "Will you do something for me?"
Porthos nodded warily. "Depends."
"Just - keep your eyes open? For anything that seems out of place. And let me know?"
"What's in it for me?"
"A deep and satisfying sense of inner virtue?"
Porthos snorted and Athos smiled. "Or how about knowing you've helped put a stop to the deaths of innocent people?" he said more quietly.
"You trust me?" Porthos asked, wonderingly.
Athos shrugged. "I don't trust anyone yet. Which is possibly why Treville hired me. No vested interest, you see."
"You don’t want to know what I did then? To end up here?" Porthos called after him as Athos made his way back up the riverbank.
"Not especially. Do you have a burning desire to tell me?"
"Not especially." Porthos grinned up at him, and Athos nodded.
"That's alright then."
Athos passed the rest of the evening in the saloon bar, interviewing the few patrons who were willing to talk to him and trying to build up a picture of what was going on.
Despite his initial reservations about the establishment, he passed a comfortable enough night and was breakfasting the next morning when Treville pushed through the swing doors from the street.
"Athos." He tipped his hat back and settled into the opposite chair at Athos' invitation. "So. Have you a plan yet?"
Athos gave a slight smile. "I've been here less than a day. But a few things seem to suggest themselves." He steepled his fingers and looked consideringly at Treville. "What happens if they're not stopped? Long term, I mean?"
"I'd be out of a job for one thing," Treville said with a humourless laugh. "I don't know, people would leave I suppose, those that could afford to, anyway."
"But not everyone could," Athos suggested. "Those whose money was tied up in businesses and land here. If the town lost confidence, voted you out, and someone else came forward - "
"Who else would be daft enough to take on a poisoned chalice like this?"
"Say it was someone who could make the problem quietly go away."
"You think Vadim is being paid by someone?" Treville looked shocked as he caught on to Athos' train of thought.
"Why else is he hanging around? There can't be many pickings left now the stagecoaches have stopped coming," Athos mused. "And why kill your sheriff? He had no real reason to risk himself like that. A less honourable man than Marsac would have had him picked off from a window as soon as he was within range."
"Is that your Plan A?" Treville wondered with a snort. Athos smiled.
"Plan B perhaps."
"You seriously think there's a bigger conspiracy behind all this?"
"Just thinking out loud." Athos shrugged. "Might be all fairytales. But if it wasn't - just suppose. Get you out of the way - we're not talking about stealing a few goods any more. We're talking about stealing the whole town."
Treville shook his head. "What you're suggesting - it's preposterous."
"Perhaps," Athos conceded. "Maybe it really is just a simple case of banditry, and I'll clean them out and everything will be fine. Which brings me to another point - I'll need help. I'm good, but there's a point it comes down to weight of numbers. Are there no deputies?"
"Marsac had two. They both left on the last stagecoach out." Treville considered. "You could do worse than approach Aramis. He's a good man, and he could do with something to keep him occupied right now."
"He and Marsac were - close?"
Treville nodded. "His death has hit Aramis hard. I'd consider it a personal favour if you'd look out for him."
"I'm hardly a babysitter," Athos warned. Treville snorted.
"He can handle himself, don't worry. You don't last long out here if you can't. Here." Treville pushed a pair of rather tarnished and dented badges across the table to Athos.
"I have free rein?" Athos clarified. "I can deputise whomsoever I see fit?"
Treville nodded. "You may have trouble getting anyone to volunteer. This is a frightened town. Aramis I think is in danger of doing something rash on his own account, but otherwise - " he shrugged.
Athos gave him a ghost of a smile. "I'm sure I'll think of something."
Treville hadn't been long gone when Bonacieux stalked across the floor like a disapproving heron and peered out of the window, glaring down into the street.
"What's he doing back? Looking for the opportunity to steal something, I'll be bound."
Athos leaned back in his chair to see who he was looking at and spied a figure hesitating across the street from the saloon, clearly unwilling to enter.
"Let me deal with this." He scraped his chair back and walked unhurriedly outside, to the surprised gratitude of his host who was starting to think that perhaps there were advantages to having gunslingers around after all.
Outside in the growing heat of the morning, Athos pulled his hat down to shade his eyes and strolled across to where Porthos was watching him approach.
"Good morning," Athos said, receiving a grunt in reply. "You have something for me?"
Porthos looked at him for a long moment, apparently weighing up whether to trust him.
"Last night. There was a light on in the site offices when everything should have been locked up. When I looked in the head supervisor was there with a group of men, nothing to do with the railroad. Some kind of secret meeting."
"Did you see their faces? Would you recognise them again?"
Porthos shook his head. "Didn't dare stay too close. And they all had scarves tied over their mouths when they came out."
"Which is suspicious enough in itself," Athos mused. "There was no wind to speak of last night."
"They were all on horses, so I couldn't follow them," Porthos added. "But I can tell you something, they didn't head back into town. They rode north."
"North! Towards the hills."
Athos nodded slowly, considering. Porthos watched him.
"There were a lot of 'em. All armed. You really gonna sort all this out on your own then?"
"No." Athos half-smiled at his look of surprise. "I shall need help. How would you fancy being a deputy?"
Porthos stared at him incredulously for a second, then creased up laughing. When he could breathe again, Athos was still watching patiently.
"I'm a convicted criminal. Is that even legal?" Porthos asked, bemused.
Athos shrugged. "It wouldn't be permanent. Once this is over I intend to move on, but for now I have been granted full powers. If it goes well, I could get Treville to put in a good word for you with the judge. As rewards go that's all I can offer, but it is a promise."
"And if it doesn't go well?"
"Then we will all be too dead to worry about it."
Porthos looked at him with a tinge of amusement. "What's to stop me taking the horse and gun and doing a runner? Why should you trust me?"
"Because were you to betray that trust, I should find you and kill you," Athos said simply.
A slow grin spread across Porthos' face. "I like the way you think."
"I find a direct approach brings its own rewards," Athos said dryly. "Does that mean we have an agreement?"
Porthos nodded. "I'll do it. Don't exactly have anything to lose, do I?"
They shook hands, and Athos cocked his head thoughtfully. "Have you eaten yet?"
"Will you join me?"
Porthos cast a wary eye at the front of the saloon. "He won't serve me."
"He strikes me as a man of expedience." Athos held out his hand again. In his palm lay one of the deputy's stars that Treville had given him. "I think he will now, don't you?"
Athos was proved right, and despite an initial amount of spluttering protest, Bonacieux saw the way the wind was blowing fast enough and retreated from the field of conflict, leaving his wife to serve up a respectable plateful that made Porthos' eyes gleam.
He was halfway through, Athos nursing a coffee, when the doors swung open to admit Aramis. He looked pale and drawn, as if he'd slept badly.
"Give me a whisky," he said, voice hoarse and scratchy, as if he'd been shouting. Or crying, Athos thought. "Make it a double."
"It's barely eight o' clock," Constance told him indignantly.
"What do you care?" Aramis shot back, then winced. "Sorry. Sorry, that was rude." He rubbed his eyes. "I just need it, okay? Hair of the dog."
Constance relented somewhat. "You can have it," she said. "But only if it's in coffee."
Aramis sighed and nodded agreement.
As he looked incuriously round the bar, mostly deserted at this hour, Athos caught his eye.
"Will you join us?" Athos invited, pushing out a chair.
Aramis hesitated, then came over and sat down as curiosity got the better of him. "You have interesting taste in friends," he murmured.
Porthos looked up briefly from his breakfast, decided Aramis was of less immediate interest than the bacon, and calmly continued eating.
"I'm glad I've seen you," Athos said. "I have a proposition to make."
"It's not bank robbery is it?" Aramis suggested, nodding thanks to Constance as she brought over his coffee. "Because I'm not entirely sure there's much left in there worth stealing at this point."
Athos gave a tolerant sigh. "This is Porthos. He has agreed to act as one of my deputies for the duration of my tenure. I would like you to be the other."
"Me!" Aramis looked startled. "Not entirely sure I'm qualified." He shot a dubious look at Porthos. "Although the requirements are clearly - basic."
Porthos pointed a fork at him. "Have you ever been stabbed in the eye with a piece of cutlery? No? Would you like to be?"
"Gentlemen," Athos murmured reprovingly. "Play nicely."
Aramis sighed, taking a sip of his coffee and immediately making a face. "There was supposed to be whisky in this," he grumbled, and held it out enquiringly. Athos took an obliging sniff and shook his head.
"I think you've been done."
"Hope you didn't pay already," Porthos grinned, wiping his plate with a piece of bread and sitting back contentedly.
"Clearly not going to be my day," Aramis sighed. He fixed Athos with a hard look. "You're going after Vadim?"
"Then I guess I'm in."
Athos nodded, and slid the second badge across the table to him.
"No objections to the company you'll be forced to keep?" Porthos challenged.
Aramis shook his head. "I want him dead. If you can assist me in that aim, then you have my full backing."
Athos cleared his throat. "I feel I should point out that technically the aim of this is to apprehend Vadim and return him for a fair trial." Aramis and Porthos stared at him and he gave them a slight smile. "Yes, well. I guess we'll see how that pans out."
When breakfast was done and Aramis and Constance had finally stopped arguing about the coffee, the three men made their way down to the site of the new railroad.
In the dry summer heat the air was full of choking dust, as men and horses heaved wooden sleepers and iron rails into place. Further up, the trackbed itself was still being excavated, and construction of the station building and platform was also underway. The hammering and shouting of organised chaos surrounded them, steam belching from the traction engine driving the thick belt of an enormous timber saw.
A man stepped out of a cloud of vapour and with a cry brought his stick down across Porthos' shoulders before anyone could react.
"Where have you been, you worthless cur?" he exclaimed. "You're so desperate to rejoin the men in chains?" He raised his stick again for a second blow, and yelped in surprise when Athos caught hold of it on the downswing.
"Who the devil are you?"
"My name is Athos, I am the new sheriff," Athos said calmly, giving no indication that stopping the blow of a wooden cane with his bare hand must have hurt considerably. "I apologise for removing Porthos from his duties, but as you can see, I have temporarily deputised him into my employ, and any problem you have with that, you may therefore take up with me, not him."
The man gaped at him, mouth hanging open to display stained and uneven teeth. "You can't do that," he announced finally.
"Well, I can and I have," Athos said dismissively. "And given that he will henceforth be underneath the sheriff’s, that is to say my, direct supervision, you can hardly argue that he is any less in the grip of the law than he was whilst working here. Now, I suggest you take us to the man in charge, because I'll take a wild stab in the dark and hazard that it isn't you."
Whilst the overseer was still trying to work out whether he'd just been insulted or not, a man appeared from the station frontage on a wooden platform at first floor level, and stared down at them.
"That's him," Porthos murmured. "Captain Alleyn. It was him and his cronies I saw last night."