The Devil's Night
Main Character(s): the Seven (but Ezra-centric)
Rating: PG, Gen
Spoilers: This takes place a little over two weeks after Serpents. Minor one-line references to the Pilot episode, Chinatown, The Collector and Vendetta.
Author's Notes: The idea for this came to me a while back after reading Heather F.'s great ATF story 'Apollyon' (I highly recommend it - she blends humor and creepiness so well). I wondered what it would be like if the Seven had met him before. Like 100 years before. (Hey, did you know the Bureau is now "Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives". Buck & Ezra will be so happy!) Huge thanks to Heather for letting me run with the idea. I purposefully paralleled parts of her story, so more thanks to her for allowing me that freedom. Thanks to Derry - beta extraordinaire. Debby - Posting Queen. And to Tidia - for everything else. Three More Things: Maude sold The Standish Tavern in 'The Trial', but for a bit in this I needed it with the same name, so we'll just go with the plot convenience that she still retains ownership. <g> And just so I don't get any flak for it - yes, Ezra's accent does sometimes make him pronounce the 'g' at the end of words, so those aren't typos. ;-) And finally, though it may not seem like it, Chris is in this; ya just gotta be patient.
Highwayman's Prayer (Appalachian folk song)
I heard the door slam behind me.
I felt the cold
I see only black around me.
Please - don't release your hold.
I fear this dark seems to know me.
Into me, it can see.
I hear its hiss and whisper
Don't, don't, don't lose your grip on me.
I've walked the line in my lifetime;
courted the Devil's brides.
But just as a man can be tempted
so can a man be rectified.
You, you are a strong man.
You've survived that demon's fire.
If I stand by your side will you keep me alive?
For I fear it's me he desires.
I believe the Devil's angry with me.
I believe my soul's at stake
But if you don't release your hold upon me,
He'll have, he'll have nothing to take.
Please don't release your hold upon me
and he'll have nothing to take.
(lyrics by mog)
Tendrils of cold mist snaked long white fingers across earth hardened and pock-marked by frost. Twisting like deposed demons between the trunks of Fall-stripped trees, it clung hungrily to exposed roots, as if seeking to drain life from the dirt-embedded limbs.
Across the plain, the town of Four Corners rose as an oasis battling the encroaching tide of nature's will. Small street fires burned against the engulfing black night, signaling there was life to be found despite harsh attempts by the elements to extinguish the energy.
A southerly wind sliced through tall dried grass. It forced out whispering swishes, as if the thin blades were trying to call a warning from strangled voices. The wind pushed south and the mist edged silently northward towards the town.
Vin Tanner stood in the open doorway of the jailhouse, his head cocked slightly to one side.
The autumn evening's wind lifted the ends of his long brown hair, spun dirt devils across the ground and whipped the small street fires into a dervish's frenzy.
He'd heard it, he was sure he had - a shriek, a distant keening wail that brought him from the warmth by the pot-bellied stove in the jailhouse to the edge of the boardwalk out front.
Yet when the tracker strained to listen, the night stole its secrets back.
"What're you doing? It's getting cold in here." JD Dunne's voice jerked Vin from his concentrated efforts.
"Did ya hear that, kid?"
"Like a scream."
JD rested his book face down on the hardwood desk he sat behind. "I didn't hear anything." Vin closed his eyes and listened once more, inhaling at the same time. He focused all his non-visual senses in the hope of catching even a whit of whatever it was that had grabbed his attention. He swore a faint acrid scent brushed past him, but it faded so quickly he wasn't even sure he'd smelled it at all.
Moving to his right, Vin crossed silently to the edge of the jailhouse building. The darkness that stretched into the alleyway between the buildings greedily absorbed the light offered up by the street fires.
He saw nothing, yet desperately wished he had. At least that would give tangibility to his uneasiness.
His hunter's instincts screamed at him. Something was out there. He could feel it, and whatever it was, Vin sensed it was big.
A tingle rushed up his arms. He looked over his shoulder toward the street but the instant he did his peripheral vision spun his attention back to the alley.
A flicker of movement? Something shifting in the blackness. His eyes, however, couldn't lock on to anything solid.
"Hey, it's getting colder in here." JD's voice floated out from the warmth of the jailhouse.
Vin maintained his visual fix on the mocking darkness of the alley. He backed towards the doorway, fully acknowledging that some part of him didn't want to turn his back on the night. His mind told him if he did then something - ripping claws, gouging teeth - would shred through his clothing and tear into any exposed flesh.
As Vin shut the door, JD marked his page with a matchstick and closed the book properly. "It was probably just a wildcat."
Vin stood by at the window to the left of the door and scanned the empty street. "If that were a wildcat, kid, it ain't like any kind I ever run up against."
JD pulled a small pocket watch from his brown, wool vest and checked the time. "Two past nine," he observed with a grin. "Maybe it was Buck getting lucky."
The joke garnered no response from the other man and JD slipped the watch back into his pocket and rolled his eyes at Vin's odd behavior.
"It's Him." The harshly whispered statement came from the figure lying on the cot in one of the jail cells.
JD glanced to his right; through the light of the lamps he could make out the form of their prisoner curled on his side, his arms wrapped tightly around his mid-section. This struck JD as odd, considering it was the man's left shoulder that had a bullet from the stage coachman's rifle pass through it that morning.
Nathan had bandaged the prisoner's wound but now the man seemed oblivious to the injury. Dunne knew from experience that a bullet wound hurt a hell of a lot more than an aching stomach.
JD didn't bother to rise from the wood chair he reclined in. "Halverson, what the heck are you talking about? It's who?"
The rough voice came again from the cell, louder this time but detached. "Iblis. He wants what's his. He told me I had to get it. But I was gonna take it and sell it. He knows that now. He knows everything. He's coming."
JD finally rose and passed through the open doorway of the middle set of heavy steel guard bars to stand in front of the prisoner's cell. Halverson's voice was strained and tight with fear, but the young sheriff's tone held no sympathy as he replied to the man.
"If you're talking about that old jar you killed the fella on the stagecoach for this morning, I don't see how it could belong to... Iblis, whoever he is. Mrs. Travis got word back this afternoon from that church in New Orleans; they confirmed it was stolen two weeks ago. They're sending somebody all the way out here to get it."
JD turned away and mumbled quietly to himself, "But by the time they get here the US Marshal will have taken you away for a trial and a date with the rope."
He crossed to Vin and stood at his friend's shoulder while Tanner maintained vigil of the outside world.
"That fella's loco," stated JD, in a low voice. "Not that this whole thing hasn't been crazy."
The young man rested his hands on the butts of his holstered pistols and cast a surreptitious glance toward their prisoner. "I mean, this guy, Halverson, kills a complete stranger for nothing more than an old vase. The coachman probably saved his own life when he winged him. Then we find out the dead guy stole it himself from that church in New Orleans and we can't even ship it back; they tell us we have to keep it in a church 'till they send somebody out to hand-carry it back. It must be pretty important to somebody for them to be making such a fuss."
Vin's gaze never shifted from the street. "I'll be happy when they come get it. I ain't felt right since this all started."
JD opened his mouth to respond to the superstitious inference but a harsh scream from the cell behind them caused the two lawmen to spin quickly, each drawing their weapons.
Halverson was curled in a tight ball, his arms clutching at his stomach. His entire body shook violently and he cried out again.
"HE'S COMING!! Please!! I didn't mean it!!" Halverson screamed again, his face taut with pain as he pressed his arms against his stomach. "I woulda given it to you! STOP!! PLEASE!!! I would have... I swear to Gaaa---"
A sickening gurgle came from the prisoner's throat. His body buckled on the cot and an instant later a stream of vomit spewed from his mouth. He collapsed on his stomach as JD grabbed the cell keys from the desk and raced to open the cage. Vin stepped forward, his sawed-off Winchester was up with a bead drawn on the now-still form on the cot.
JD shoved the key into the lock and turned it at the precise moment the front door of the jailhouse slammed open. A rushing wind blew a swirl of dust into the room, and JD's book and the few papers on the desk were swept to the floor by a strong, invisible hand.
The jailhouse door, full open, rattled and banged against the wall. The wind was sucked into the small space like a brutal vacuum bent on dragging all the darkness from the night into the lamp-lit room.
Vin spun to face the door, sure that the presence he'd felt in the alley was rushing up on them. He could almost smell the musky heat of a predator on the kill track. With his Mare's leg pressed tight against his body, he desperately sought a target. He found nothing.
JD rushed past him and slammed the door shut. A feeling of calm instantly settled on the room, the wind outside died down and only the soft rustle of shifting papers on the floor gave indication that something had just occurred.
Tanner and Dunne exchanged confused looks before turning their attention to the figure still slumped facedown on the jailhouse cot. The cell door was open wide, though JD didn't recall moving the heavy rack of bars. He took a tentative step toward their prisoner but an uneasy feeling waved through his body and he chose instead to place his hand on the handle of the front door.
"I'm going to get Nathan."
Vin's left hand dropped instantly over JD's. "No!... stay here... I'll go for him."
Tanner hadn't made a conscious decision to stop his friend from going out into the night. His body had reacted automatically to a protective impulse that flooded through him at the thought of JD leaving the confines of the jailhouse.
Dunne nodded, slightly confused by the tracker's behavior, and stepped back. Outside, two hard slams of boot heels against wood preceded the door bursting open. Both men immediately raised their firearms and took defensive steps back.
Ezra Standish stood in the doorway, breathing heavily. Though dressed as a gentleman in a vest and midnight blue dove-tailed coat, he gripped his Remington tightly in his right hand and a look of concern and fierce determination was in his eye.
The three men stared at each other for a few seconds before absorbing the situation. They lowered their weapons and a series of clicks signaled hammers being carefully released. Ezra found his voice first and spoke as he slid his pistol back into the low holster on his hip.
"I heard..." he cut himself off. He was embarrassed to say it was stark fear that sent him bolting away from a winning hand at the saloon and sprinting to the jailhouse because he'd heard a brutal scream and a man begging for mercy. The momentary thought that it could have been one of his friends in trouble had scared Standish intensely.
Vin and JD looked toward the still-open jail cell. Halverson hadn't moved. Ezra glanced at his friends and sensed that neither of them seemed too eager to check on the prisoner. He strode forward, pausing a second as he took in the puddle of vomit that darkened the wood plank flooring of the cell. Pressing fingers to Halverson's throat, Ezra searched for a pulse.
He turned to the other peacekeepers, his expression serious, if not a bit confused. "He's dead."
Vin gripped his Mare's leg tightly. "I'm gonna go get Nate. I'll be right back." He made eye contact with Ezra. "Stay here with JD."
The sharpshooter left the jailhouse, pulling the door securely closed behind him.
Nathan Jackson worked with the light from the lanterns held by Ezra and JD. Both men balanced a flickering oil lamp in each hand while shadows twisted, grew, and shrank in spirituous forms on the walls of the jail cell.
"These look to be fresh, any idea how he mighta gotten 'em?"
Halverson's dirty gray shirt was unbuttoned and opened, revealing reddish-purple bruises extending across his mid-section. Tanner and Dunne could only offer shrugs.
"Me and Vin took over the watch from Buck around five this afternoon," Dunne stated. "Halverson was kind of holding his stomach like he had an ache, but he never moved off the bunk since we brought him in. Never even talked till... well, like we told ya, he only said that stuff about some fella named Iblis coming."
Ezra arched his brows. "Perhaps the mysterious Mr. Iblis will arrive in town before our illustrious leader returns from Eagle Bend. It would be most convenient to infer he was responsible for this. I certainly don't envy whomever has to be the one to tell Chris that a prisoner mysteriously died."
JD looked apprehensive at the thought of upsetting Larabee. "When's he due back? Tomorrow morning?"
"Yes." Ezra couldn't help but tease the boy and added, "unless, of course... he decides to ride back tonight."
JD shot the southerner a dirty look and focused his attention back on Nathan. He watched Jackson's dark fingers palpate the bruised area of the dead man's torso and the area surrounding it, as if he could press answers from the lifeless form. Dunne held one of his lamps up higher and Nate glanced over his shoulder to address the young man.
"Ya mind movin' that light back here a little, JD?"
"It's a hand."
Nathan stared at the boy quizzically. "What?"
"It's like a big hand print." He nodded toward the dark marks across the torso. "See, the palm is across his stomach, and the fingers and thumb wrap around his sides. Like a huge hand just squeezed the life out of him."
Vin moved from his position by the door to view what the other three men were now studying. The tracker kept a secure grip on his Winchester and kept one ear to the outside.
Nathan shook his head. "It only looks like that, JD. My guess is he prob'ly had some bleedin' inside from his tangle with the coach driver. Maybe his body just shut down."
JD thought Nate could say what he wanted; to him it still looked like a black grip left its indelible mark on the corpse in their jail cell. He took an unconscious step away from the body but jumped when the heel of his right boot came down on something wet and squishy.
The young man did an odd, leaping hop and nearly toppled one of the lamps in his grip. A strangled yelp escaped from his lips.
Standing to the left of him, Ezra jerked in surprise at his friend's sudden movement. "What are you doin'?"
"I stepped on something. I thought you got rid of this stuff, Ez."
JD lowered one lamp to the spot on the floor where Halverson had vomited. Ezra had, with great protest and complaint, followed Nathan's earlier request and rinsed away the fluid and bile from the wood planks with several buckets of water.
"I did," replied Ezra flatly. "I assure you, I would not be standin' here if I was at risk of gettin' anything repellant on any item of my clothin'."
Using the oil lamp, JD cast light on a small, black shape shining with slick moisture. "What the heck is that?!"
Nathan withdrew one of his knives and, with the flat part of the glinting blade, gingerly scooped up the limp object. "Looks like a leech."
Three voices responded at the same time.
Nathan examined the three-inch long creature. "We used 'em in the field hospital. Sure never heard about nobody coughin' one up though."
Vin pointed from the doorway of the cell, his sharp eyesight focusing in on a second black shape in the area where Halverson had vomited. "There's another one."
JD and Ezra both stepped back quickly, looking disgusted. Standish defended his cleaning abilities. "Those were not there earlier."
Vin turned toward the door suddenly, his Winchester raised to a sound only he'd heard. A second later heavy footfalls clomped up the steps to the jailhouse. The door opened and Josiah Sanchez's large frame filled the entryway. He shook his arms and stamped his feet in an attempt to circulate blood through his limbs for warmth.
"It is the Devil's night out there to--" Sanchez stopped himself as he looked up and saw what greeted him. He raised an eyebrow at Vin and the sawed-off weapon.
"And a glorious welcome to you as well, Brother Vin."
Tanner lowered his weapon and realized he was getting a little tired of the repeated action. "Sorry, Josiah."
Glancing into the cell at his friends, Sanchez commented. "Seems things have been a bit livelier here than anything I had out on patrol."
JD offered a little explanation. "Halverson's dead. He got all worked up, started yelling, threw up and just collapsed right there."
Dunne had a tendency to forget that his thought patterns did not always translate well verbally. His closest friend, Buck Wilmington, summed it up best - the kid's brain moved a mile a minute and his mouth sometimes had trouble keeping up.
Josiah looked to the most reasonable individual in the room and shot a confused expression Nathan's way. Unfortunately, Jackson was not as forthcoming with an explanation as Sanchez had hoped. He actually managed to baffle the ex-preacher even more.
"Ya ever hear 'bout anybody expellin' leeches, Josiah?"
Sanchez stared at his friend for several seconds. "I think it might be best if I leave and try coming in again."
JD and Nathan launched into a summary of the events. JD made it a point to indicate the 'hand' mark on the dead man; while Ezra made it clear he had not missed cleaning up two dead leeches. And all the while Josiah noted Vin keeping a hawk's eye on the street outside.
Nathan covered Halverson's corpse with a blanket and Ezra sensed the possibility of being drawn into helping with transporting the body. He exited the cell and rested the lamps he held on the jailhouse desk.
"Well, gentlemen, as... fascinatin' as this has all been, I still have winnin's and potential victims waitin' for me at the saloon."
Putting his hand on the door's handle, he turned back to his friends and offered a small salute with two fingers to the brim of his hat. "Ya'll enjoy the rest of your evenin's... I certainly plan on enjoyin' mine."
Wearing a flippant grin, he pulled the door open and was caught off-guard as a harsh gust of cold wind pushed the door inward with great force. Vin tensed briefly but Ezra only chuckled.
"Yes, I am most definitely glad my only responsibilities tonight lay in takin' care of other people's money while in the warmth of our home away from home."
The gambler left and Josiah drifted toward Vin. "Looking out for anything in particular?"
Tanner didn't take his eyes from the street. He monitored Ezra's retreating form until he saw the southerner push his way safely through the batwing doors of the tavern. "Ya said it yourself, preacher... it's the Devil's night out there tonight."
Vin's words triggered a niggling memory in Josiah's brain, he turned and addressed JD. "Son, who did you say Halverson was talking about?"
"He just called him Iblis. Said he wants what's his and that Halverson was supposed to get it for him. But Halverson said he was gonna sell it and this guy Iblis knew that. You figure he was talking about that jar you're holding over at the church?"
Josiah didn't answer. His blue eyes were fixed on the corpse in the jail cell. "Nate, let's get this man to a proper place for the deceased. And then I think I need to do a little reading."
Ezra's smile spread wide enough to reveal his gold tooth. The first hand played after he returned to the table from his 'responsibilities of the law' allowed him to pull a ten dollar and fifty-two cent pot across the green felt-topped table.
He silently admitted that he wasn't doing badly at all. Especially considering he'd utilized his 'God-given talents' only twice throughout the entire evening. And that was just for practice, it hadn't even benefited him.
Standish loathed admitting it but with each passing month he was in Four Corners he felt less and less desire to employ sleight-of-hand maneuvers. He was not ready to admit it had anything to do with the band of men he found himself amongst. He told himself he just didn't require such tactics as much anymore.
He did, however, keep himself sharp. Maude Standish had not bred a fool. But he'd discovered it was just as easy to deal an Ace to someone else at the table as it was to shift it to his own hand.
Why, just earlier that month the southerner made it possible for Milo Oswald to win enough for a new plow horse. Milo, nearly on the verge of tears after showing his cards, had repeatedly and profusely thanked the Lord above when the wild Jack of Spades afforded him a grand winning hand.
Ezra wasn't sure what gave him the warmer feeling - watching Milo win, or watching the braying ass of a man betting against Oswald lose so much cold, hard cash. Standish had made sure to fold early in that hand. He'd begun to embrace charity, but he wasn't about to use his own funds.
Besides, charity could be exceedingly painful. Just over two weeks earlier there had been that unfortunate incident requiring him to save Mary Travis's life from a hired killer and then watch Chris Larabee give away the ten-thousand dollars pay-off money, which really should have been distributed amongst the Seven.
That damned money. The six men Ezra rode with knew it was a bundle of those bills that stopped the assassin's bullet from killing him. With the cash stuffed haphazardly into the lining of his coat, they knew what he'd been trying to do, and he knew that they knew. But not one of them mentioned it.
It was an understanding, he hadn't gone through with it. He'd abandoned his attempt at absconding with the money and risked his own life to save Mary's - that's what mattered.
They each had a sense that Ezra would berate himself enough over the weakness he'd faced with the ten-thousand dollars. They each figured they'd just have to make sure they worked a little harder to keep temptation from hovering so close to the gambler.
The bruise on Standish's chest was still there. But in his chest was a twinge of pride remembering Larabee blessing him with a simple statement, 'Ya done good, Ezra.'
He couldn't recall anyone ever saying that to him; at least, not in the correct context of actually doing good. As a young boy he'd certainly had Maude tell him he'd done well as they were escaping in the night upon successfully fleecing another gullible mark. Chris's words, however, held a completely different meaning.
Money was quite nice, but the gambler was discovering there were other things that felt better and lasted longer.
A voice pulled him back to the table. "Deal me out, boys. I'm gonna go spend my cash on what I know I can get somethin' for in return."
Ezra watched the fourth player at his table rise and head for the bar. Inez had been serving up a deliciously-scented dish all night and Standish knew the wafting fragrance of Mexican spices was about to secure another customer.
A cold gust of wind whistled past the entrance of the saloon and the temperature in the brightly-lit tavern dropped. A well-dressed gentleman pushed his way through the batwing doors. Ezra's finely-honed ability to read people kicked in. If the southerner had been a dog his hackles would have risen.
The lean figure stood just over six feet and the strong aura about him made him seem taller. Draped in a finely tailored, camel-hair overcoat that fell to mid-calf and an equally well-cut black vest and suit, the newcomer looked out of place in the saloon of a backwater town.
He had a high forehead crowned by slicked back silver-blond hair that just brushed the top of his coat collar. Sharp cheekbones balanced a hard, strong jawline and a slim, straight nose. A quick, deliberate turn of his head to the left fixed icy blue eyes, almost white, on the gambler seated at the table on the landing.
Ezra's eyes met the other man's and he unconsciously pressed back in his chair, forcing the edges of his vertebrae against the hard wood. Subconsciously, he ran the tip of his tongue along his lower lip and swallowed back the saliva that had trickled under his tongue.
He hadn't been aware of the hypnotic gaze he'd been locked into until the newcomer stood at the edge of the table.
"You have room for a fourth?" It was delivered in a smooth low voice, more as a statement than a question.
Ezra's answer was fueled by an incredible urge to not let this stranger anywhere near his person. He showed an apologetic smile. "I'm terribly sorry, sir, but I believe the fourth member of our party is comin' right back."
The rancher to Ezra's right pushed the single empty chair away from the table. "Nah, he got himself some food. And we could use some fresh blood."
The stranger smiled and unbuttoned his overcoat, responding to the comment in a quiet voice. "Couldn't we all."
"I'm Marcus." The rancher nodded toward the man seated across the table from him. "That there is Clement. And Mr. Standish."
Taking a seat, the stranger introduced himself. "Shaytan Apollyon." He stared again at Ezra. "Standish... then this would be your establishment, sir?"
The southerner silently cursed his mother. She'd bought the saloon right out from underneath him. Why on Earth did she leave it with the name he'd christened it with?
"It's a... family venture." Ezra busied himself with shuffling the deck of cards Marcus had passed to him after completing the last deal. The gambler shook his fingers slightly; the cold temperature that had settled in the room already seemed to be stiffening his normally agile digits.
Apollyon cocked his head and stared at Standish. Ezra shivered inwardly. He felt as though the man had peeled back his defenses and was reading his soul. "Interesting... you don't seem the type to suffer gladly the irritations usually wrought on people by their families."
Standish forced a smile and small laugh. "Yes, well, we all have our weaknesses I suppose."
His breath caught in his chest. He was overwhelmed with the feeling that he'd just let slip a grave secret.
Shaking his head slightly, he focused again on the cards in his hands. It allowed him the opportunity to avoid eye contact with the man across the table from him. Thoughts tumbled through his mind.
'Just get up. The Fates have been quite generous thus far, you've won a palatable amount this evening. I'll just leave the table and let someone else take my spot. Yes, I can leave..."
A chill shook his lean frame and Ezra cursed the cold as he finalized his shuffle.
'I can leave right after this hand. One more deal can't hurt. And you know Clement has at least twenty dollars in that vest pocket of his, which would certainly do more good in the pocket of your vest. Yes, I can leave right after this hand.'
It was just like old times, target the vulnerable and leave before they got wind of your ruse. Standish called the game as he had hundreds of times in his past.
"Five Card Brag. Fifty-cent ante all right with everyone? Excellent. Minimum bet a quarter." The gambler flashed a cold smile. "Ace of Spades is our wild card."
In the warm, lamp-lit back room of his church, Josiah pulled a thick volume from one of his bookcases and flipped though the pages hoping this tome was the one he sought. After leaving Halverson's body with the undertaker he'd dragged Nathan back to the church to help with the search.
Sanchez wasn't willing yet to reveal the purpose of his quest. He'd simply asked his friend for help. The request was odd, especially to the healer's practical mind. But the look in Josiah's eye and the tone in his voice - worry? Nathan couldn't say no.
"The light shines on us, Brother Nate."
Jackson looked up from the book he was scanning and rubbed his eyes with one hand. "Good, does that mean you're gonna tell me now why we been searchin' your books for this Iblis fella's name?"
"I wouldn't quite call him a fellow."
Josiah crossed to Nathan and showed him an ink drawing in the heavy book that stopped their search. "This is about the Qur'an, the Holy Book of Islam. It tells about the religion and the stories in it. And this..." he pointed with a large finger at a grotesque creature engulfed, unhurt, in fire, "is Iblis."
"If I didn't know better I'd say that's the Devil."
Josiah stared at the picture. "Well I do know better... and I'd say you're right."
Buck Wilmington pushed his way through the swinging doors of the saloon and tried to figure out how it could feel colder inside than it did outside. Part of him wondered if he should have worked a little harder to stay in the warm arms of Elsie McGuvern.
Scanning the few occupants in the large room, Buck spotted Ezra at his usual table. Standish chose the position because it afforded him a clear view of anyone coming in and kept a solid wall at his back. Wilmington noted Inez behind the bar, polishing beer mugs. He flashed a smile at her and made his way lazily toward Ezra.
Two men were seated at the table with Standish, though one was clearly rising to leave. Buck couldn't help but notice the generous winnings in Ezra's possession. Wilmington jokingly addressed the ranch hand preparing to leave.
"Headin' out already, Clem? Don't tell me you're gonna let a fancy pants like this one get the better of you?" Buck crossed to behind Ezra and dropped his hands firmly on his friend's shoulders, shaking them gently.
"I ain't stupid enough to lose all my money to him. I should have followed Marcus when he left."
Buck grinned down at Ezra but was taken aback when the gambler's eyes flashed up at him. For an instant, Buck felt he was looking at someone else, the 'old Ezra' - the conman who called no one friend unless he could gain something from them.
"Excuse me," Standish drawled in a cold voice, "is there a reason why your hands are on my person?"
Ezra reached across his body to pluck at Wilmington's left hand as if it was a dead mouse to be removed by its tail. Yet the instant the southerner's fingertips brushed Buck's skin the icy look in his eyes faded.
For a brief moment Ezra seemed frozen, then he carefully opened his hand to cover the larger one on his shoulder, as if trying to root himself to his friend.
The look in the wide green eyes peering up at Wilmington startled him - a disoriented expression laced with unease. The mustached gunslinger pressed his right hand over Ezra's, only to discover the man was chilled to the bone.
"Damn, pard, you're colder than a debutante on Sunday." He lifted the soft hand to examine the fingertips. "You're practically blue."
Rubbing Ezra's hand briefly between his own two, Buck looked towards the bar. "Inez, darlin', you mind gettin' Ez here a cup a' that sweet black coffee of yours?"
Buck winked at his friend. "Maybe you should have been the one out with Elsie tonight... there's a spark that woulda kept ya warm."
Wilmington glanced down at the considerable winnings scattered in front of Ezra. "But I guess you got lucky in another way."
Looking at the bills and coins on the felt-topped table, the gambler seemed to notice the money for the first time. "Did I?"
Buck raised his eyebrows. If the southerner hadn't felt so cold to the touch, Wilmington would have checked the man for a fever. He wondered if his friend had drunk too much whiskey but immediately dismissed the assumption. It would have been far too out of character for the gambler.
It had taken the other men who rode with Ezra a little while but they learned soon enough that their southern friend worked very carefully to stay in complete control when at the gaming table. It wasn't something a casual observer would notice.
He kept a shot of whiskey or a beer next to him at all times, nursing it while he played. Buck assumed it was a studied habit developed over years of working confidence games. If your mark thought you were drunk they were less likely to suspect you of cheating. However, alcohol dulled senses that were necessary to run such cons.
Only within the last few months had Chris Larabee's men noted Ezra allowing himself the liberty of 'cutting loose', so to speak.
The southerner would lounge with JD in front of the jailhouse simply to keep the boy company, he let himself become ever-so-slightly inebriated while playing cards with his friends, he even helped Nathan move a new bed into the clinic and issued only two complaints.
He'd begun to feel comfortable around the odd group that Larabee had banded together. He'd started to form true friendships with men who pursued no gains from him other than protection and good company. And who worked to keep him honest.
Buck suspected it was all very new to the gambler. Wilmington had a natural instinct to protect. It was as much a part of him as his gregarious nature and big heart. Just as he'd taken JD under his wing and schooled the young man in what it took to stay alive in the west, he'd pursued a similar mission with Ezra. For the southerner, however, Buck worked to open up the sincere, lighthearted qualities that usually only surfaced when Ezra was around children.
Buck figured with Maude as a role model, Ezra never had much opportunity to be a kid. In Buck's mind that was something that should never be missed out on, no matter how old you were. Imparting wisdom to younger siblings was one of the duties of an older brother.
Inez appeared with a stoneware mug of hot chicory coffee and rested it on the table. Buck wrapped Ezra's hands around the cup and lifted it slightly, encouraging his friend to take a drink.
"It ain't as good as Elsie," he said with a grin, "but it should do the trick."
For the first time, Buck looked at the other gentleman sitting at the table. He struck Wilmington as someone whom even Elsie wouldn't have been able to warm up.
The stranger was dressed like an Eastern dandy, but radiated the cold, calculating cruelty of a hired gun. Buck spoke silently to himself as he recalled something Josiah once said. 'If the eyes are the windows to the soul, this fella is as empty as a corpse.'
Men such as this didn't come into towns like Four Corners unless they were after something specific. Buck made an introduction for no other reason than to get the stranger's name.
The lawman touched the brim of his hat. "Buck Wilmington."
"Shaytan Apollyon." The man's deep, smooth voice came across like the low growl of a mountain lion.
Buck did his best to smile congenially. "What brings ya to these parts?"
The other man glanced at the small amount of winnings in front of him. "At the moment, just a room to rent so that I may save face and excuse myself before I lose any more to your friend."
Wilmington responded quickly. "The hotel at the other end of town should be a good place for ya."
Buck didn't care how Apollyon took the comment. The question he'd asked had been smoothly side-stepped, the lawman saw no reason to be polite.
Shaytan methodically gathered up his money and tucked it into the inside pocket of his overcoat. "Mr. Standish here was telling me of the unfortunate death this evening of the prisoner in your jailhouse. These western territories seem even wilder than is thought of in the East."
Buck was caught completely off-guard. He glanced down at Ezra, who was wholly absorbed in the simple act of sipping coffee. Wilmington laid his hand on the southerner's shoulder. "Death?"
The touch broke Ezra from his reverie. He looked up at his friend. "What? Oh... yes, Mr. Halverson, um..." The gambler appeared to be struggling to concentrate. "He passed on. You'd have to talk to JD or Vin, they were there. Nathan and Josiah removed the body to the undertaker's."
Buck nodded. "Yeah, I think I'll maybe just go check in over at the jailhouse."
And if Nate hadn't gone back to bed he'd send the healer over to check on Ezra. The boy was definitely not right this evening.
Patting Standish on the arm, Buck gave his friend some advice before leaving. "Why don'tcha go on up to bed, pard, I'm thinking you may be coming down with something."
The southerner nodded dully as he focused on gathering up his winnings. "Yes... bed... that does sound like a wise idea."
Buck watched Ezra climb the steps to the second floor of the saloon and head towards his room before he himself turned to leave for the jailhouse. With two fingers, Buck slightly bent the soft brim of his hat towards the man at the table. "Mr. Apollyon."
A smile with perfect white teeth was returned. "Mr. Wilmington."
The lawman forced himself to study the cold, hard features. He was glad he'd encouraged Ezra to go up to bed. He was sure he would have been stuck with an uneasy feeling if he'd left his friend alone with Apollyon.
'Talk about someone being not right,' he thought silently.
After he found out exactly what had happened to their prisoner, Buck was going to do a thorough search of every "wanted" poster they had.
"Josiah, I know you're a might more schooled than me when it comes to this kinda thing but this sounds like nothin' more than superstitious plantation magic."
"You can't say evil is nothing more than superstition, brother. At some point in our lives we've all experienced it real enough in one form or another."
Nathan shook his head. "I ain't gonna pretend I know what killed Halverson, but I'd be hard pressed to say it was a devil."
"Not 'a' devil, my friend, the Devil." Josiah tapped the open book he'd laid on the table. "Muslims believe in him just like the Christians do. But their book says he was created from fire. When God made man from plain earth, ol' Iblis didn't want to play nice, thought he was superior to man. And that got him banished."
Nathan looked up at the man standing beside him. "So one fella's last name matches somethin' in one of your books. If you're tryin' to draw some kinda connection between that and Halverson dyin'... I ain't seein' it."
"Sometimes it's what we don't see that gives us the most trouble."
Josiah disappeared into the main part of the chapel and returned a moment later carrying a small brass urn wrapped in a heavy, white silk cloth. Resting it on the table where Nathan sat, Sanchez pulled the oil lamp at the center of the table closer and took a seat next to Jackson.
The container was a round, squat shape; almost ten inches high, eight inches around. Stamped into the dull metal surface Nathan could make out writing. The characters were a series of angular lines with most of them having one pointed end, reminding the ex-slave of railroad ties. A lid with a rippling pyramid contour was firmly secured to the body of the urn by a metal band around a tight wax seal and four brass latches.
"That fella in the coach got killed over this?"
"Men have been killed for less."
Nathan found himself staring at the small jar, drawn to it and repulsed by it at the same time. It pulled his unblinking gaze to its dull surface.
He watched as the sides of the urn swelled slightly and shrunk back as if it had taken a faint breath. His heart quickened and a flush of adrenaline-fed warmth ran through his body.
He snapped his gaze away and looked to Josiah. Surely the man had seen the same thing. Sanchez, however, did not appear disturbed in the least. Nathan admonished himself. 'A trick of candlelight reflection.'
He forced himself to look again at the urn. Brushing a finger along the strange writing, he was surprised at what he discovered. "It's cold."
Josiah grasped the container with one large hand but pulled back quickly from the icy metal. He'd recalled the urn having a slightly chilled surface when he'd first taken charge of it that afternoon; even through the thick silken fabric he'd felt the cool exterior. Now, however, it seemed much colder.
The jar had been locked in the tabernacle behind the church's pulpit since earlier in the day. The stage coach death that morning forced the lawmen of Four Corners to ask questions. Mary's investigative talents produced a few answers via telegraph as well as a serious, cryptic request from New Orleans to secure the stolen brass jar in the confines of the town's church and await the arrival of a representative from the Louisiana city's Mortuary Chapel.
Nathan studied the finely-stamped angular lines that made up undecipherable words. "Mighty detailed metalwork."
Shaking his head slightly, Josiah scrutinized the markings and murmured aloud to himself. "I know this. Where do I recognize this from?"
The ex-preacher rose and crossed to one of his bookcases. From the light of the myriad of candelabras around the small room, he scanned the volumes' spines, dragging a large finger across the stiff clothbacks. He finally stopped on one. "Here you are."
Nathan gazed appreciatively at the books. "You really read all these?"
"A couple times over. They're hell to travel with, but they do make for good old friends."
Sitting again at the table Sanchez flipped though the book. "I knew I'd seen this writing before... Zoroastrianism."
" 'scuse me?"
Josiah repeated the word, then elaborated. "I met a young fella some years back in India who was doing research for a book, this book as a matter of fact, on an ancient religion that originated out of Persia - it was Zoroastrianism. Quite a lot of it would probably sound familiar to you.
"One God, One Devil, Heaven, Hell, salvation, final judgment - and in between it all, the fight for men's souls. Now, their devil is Angra Mainyu, he sprang like a snake from the sky to the earth; and he looks to overtake a man when that soul is weak in the moment of temptation."
Josiah skimmed through the pages of the book. "The writings and the symbols on this urn were used by that religion."
Nathan shook his head at his partner's retentive abilities. "You have been blessed with an impressive memory."
"It would only be a blessing, brother, if I remembered the good things and could forget all the bad."
The remorse in Josiah's voice made Nathan wonder about all the regrettable actions that he suspected formed part of his friend's past. Nathan didn't know much of the large man's history. None of the peacekeepers in Four Corners talked much about their lives before they'd met. Yet, with every month spent in each other's company, each of them let slip another fact, another unguarded moment. It was something that drew the web of trust and reliance tighter around the group.
Josiah had once called it 'confessions to sinners'. Larabee's men each had their secrets, but secrets were burdensome. It was safe for one sinner to confess his transgressions and failings to another. There would be no judgment, only a release of culpability and remorse.
Nathan nodded towards the jar. "So can ya tell what the writin's say?"
"It might take a little bit, but I think so."
Nathan's brow furrowed. "And Mary don't know why it's so important for it to be stored here?"
Josiah shook his head. "If its value was monetary you'd think they would have asked for it to be put in the bank." He glanced at his friend with a knowing expression. "Kinda makes ya wonder why Halverson's friend, Mr. Iblis, wants it."
Nathan's lips pressed tight together and it was clear to Sanchez he was receiving a disappointed look from his friend.
"Josiah, there could be a hundred reasons why--" Nate cut himself off and rephrased his argument.
"On the plantation I seen people in need of real medicine die 'cause the only help given to 'em was from a gris-gris bag or the chants of a priestess.
"Over these years I've worked hard to help people by usin' real medicine. And while I was raised up to believe in the good Lord and the falsehoods of the Devil, I wouldn't be no better than those folks in the shacks if I believed Satan somehow killed that man tonight and was on his way here to Four Corners to collect a brass urn."
Josiah pursed his lips and cocked his head slightly. "A brass urn that, for no apparent reason, is ice cold to the touch and is sought after by a man with the Devil's surname." Josiah let a small grin show. "Your curiosity is roused, Brother Nate... admit it."
Rolling his eyes, Jackson responded to Sanchez's comment. "Did you hear a word I said?"
"Every one," replied Josiah with a smile. "But since I know that mind of yours can't leave a puzzle alone I figure I'll have a little company while I try to figure out these writings. And if the good Lord is willing, Mr. Iblis won't show up before then."
Buck dropped the final tattered poster back into the desk's bottom drawer and closed it.
"No luck?" asked JD. He'd already worked his way through the stack Buck doled out to him. Wilmington had dismissed the few individuals that Dunne thought matched the characteristics Buck gave for Shaytan Apollyon.
Running a hand through his black hair to clear away unruly bangs, JD thought about the description Buck had given. "How could he be a hired gun if he wasn't even carrying a gun?"
"I didn't say he wasn't carrying one, I said he wasn't wearing a hip holster."
Buck continued and gave his young friend something to think about. "If Ezra wasn't showing his Remington, you think you'd still wanna tangle with him?"
JD realized what Buck meant. Their companion's penchant for being well-armed would not be obvious to a casual observer.
"I can't say nothin' for certain, kid. I just know what my gut tells me. I'm not as good at reading people as Vin or Ezra but I've been around enough gunslingers in my time to know trouble when it rides in."
JD thought over what Buck said. "When did he ride in?"
Wilmington shot his partner a confused look. "What?"
"Apollyon. I mean, there's seven of us, well, six if you count Chris being out of town. You'd think if he gives off the stink of trouble as bad as you say then one of us should have noticed him."
Buck realized his friend raised a good point, unfortunately, he didn't have an answer. He watched Vin turn for the hundredth time and pace slowly back to the other window. "Ya know, I don't mind staying here."
It was obvious the tracker was coiled tight. To a certain degree, Buck knew how he felt. Wilmington hadn't experienced the odd events surrounding Halverson's death, but he'd had his own full dose of strange via the Easterner in the saloon.
Buck and JD exchanged a glance and the younger man spoke up. "He's been like this all night. Can't say I blame him."
Vin ignored their talk. He had only one focus - keep whatever was out there from getting close. He didn't dare share his intuition with his friends. It would just sound like a greenhorn's ghost stories.
It didn't matter. He stared through the window glass, listening to the sharp whistle of the wind. It was like a taunting call, a dare to come outside.
Vin fought with the feeling of being watched. The tingle that crawled up his back could have been a scorpion the way it clung and pricked at his flesh.
He'd stay there till morning if he had to. Keeping himself between his friends and whatever waited out in the night.
Ezra's eyes moved rapidly behind closed lids. The warm blankets on his feather bed enveloped him in layers of heat, causing a fine sheen of sweat to lie across the gambler's fine features.
A pressing darkness trapped him hovering on the hazy line between sleep and consciousness. Insecurities and self-doubts clawed him toward the dark void while memories of true voices drew him to waking reality.
'...ya done good...'
'...and then there is the third kind...'
'...It's not like you, ridin' off alone to save the day...'
'...I cannot abide the fact that my associates don't trust me...'
A pounding thunder rattled the glass of the oil lamp on the table beside Ezra's bed. His eyes jerked open as his body took in a quick gasp of air.
Lying still, he scanned the room while his vision adjusted to the dark. He was thankful for the waking, rude though it had been. It was a far better alternative to the nightmare he'd been smothered in.
A burst of light from outside left him counting the seconds. 'One... two... three... fo-'
Another shake of thunder determined the distance of the storm. Ezra pushed away the warm cotton and wool covers, exchanging the sweet, musky scent of his sleep for a rush of the cool air in his room.
He had no desire to fall back asleep. Myriad things that one couldn't defend one's self against lay waiting to crawl forth from Queen Mab's dark court. Waking life was easier to control.
A wind whistled past his second-story window and he darted a glance toward the glass, half-expecting to see a set of eyes fixed upon him.
'It's a wind storm, for heaven's sake.'
Sitting up and swinging his legs to the floor, he felt about for a match. Striking it against the nightstand, he tipped the globe of the oil lamp and created just enough light to dress by. The pocketwatch on the dresser showed him he'd been asleep for less than an hour.
'Perhaps Chaucer's in the mood for some company.'
Ezra knew the beast wouldn't greet him with any more affection than a cold-eyed fish, but he definitely needed to find something to do other than sleep. And after enduring the company of the fair-haired gentleman at the card table, he would certainly be avoiding the saloon.
What was it about Apollyon that had rattled him so? He wasn't prone to superstition and he'd only consulted the Bible in times of need. Such as when he'd needed money and staged a fire-and-brimstone revival to scare tithings from gullible marks.
That man tonight, however... there was something behind those pale blue eyes. Or perhaps it was just the opposite that unnerved Ezra. There had been nothing at all in the depths of the man's eyes.
Nothing but a hollow shell waiting to draw in the unsuspecting and trap them, mute for all eternity, in the confines of cold, black space.
He pulled on a white cotton button-up shirt, heavy wool trousers with suspenders, and boots, before grabbing a casual tan coat from the closet. A box of matches in the jacket's right-hand pocket reminded him affectionately of one of the last times he'd worn the coat - his and Buck's attempted distraction with a stick of old dynamite at Guy Royal's ranch some time ago.
Despite the mood of the current evening, he smiled. It hadn't been till he'd become acquainted with the uncouth group he now rode with that Ezra realized what a delightfully joyous time one could have with explosives.
Over a decade of habit took over a small part of the gambler's brain and he strode from his room with a Remington at his right hip and a Colt Richards conversion strapped under his left arm.
He hit the street with a light hop down from the boardwalk in front of the saloon; yet almost immediately he questioned the wisdom of his midnight walk. An oppressive feeling bore down on him and he scanned his surroundings.
Wind whipped at the street fires lining the dirt road through town. Dozens of freed sparks floated into the dark sky but the night's shadows snapped them up and crushed the life from them before they could even crest the tops of the town's buildings.
Walking towards the stable, Ezra pulled his jacket tighter around his body and attempted to shake off a cold feeling that seemed to spread from deep within his chest.
His breath quickened with his footsteps. He felt a very real need to get off the street.
There was a skittering, clicking sound to his left and he spun towards it, laying a hand on the butt of his Remington. His eyes strained against the dark.
The shadows, however, gave up nothing.
His heart pounded in his chest as he turned and forced himself toward his destination. He tried to recall which of his friends was on patrol that night. Not that it mattered, Ezra would have been eternally grateful to have any one of them at his back at that moment.
'Would they really be there, though? For you?'
The cutting thought came out of nowhere; a harsh whisper that used still-fresh, self-depreciating nightmares to slice through his defenses.
The same shifting scurry came again, like scorpion's claws against rock. Closer this time.
'There's nothing there. Just keep walking. Nothing there.'
He quickened his pace, reaching the stable and heading for the barn's smaller 'non-equine' door. Feeling in his pocket for the box of matches he'd discovered there earlier, he placed his left hand on the stable door and froze.
Clicking, needle-sharp taps against granite. Behind him this time, just to his right.
His pulse raced. He wondered if he would be able to get his hand out of his pocket and onto his weapon quickly enough.
A hissing whisper came out of the darkness. "Mr. Standish."
Ezra spun sharply, slamming his back against the stable door while reaching for his pistol.
Shaytan Apollyon stood only a few feet behind him.
The southerner barely managed to keep his Remington holstered. His eyes were wide and he stared at the figure before him. Silhouetted by the light of a street fire some yards behind him, Apollyon's form seemed to waver, as if not wholly solid.
He addressed Ezra in a soft voice, taking a step toward the southerner. "Mr. Standish, you said earlier the urn that Mr. Halverson had in his possession was moved to the church. It would be very helpful if you could show me where that is."
Shaytan stood a good half-head taller than Standish, forcing the gambler to look up into the pale blue eyes focused on him. A protective instinct pushed Ezra away from Apollyon, and the smaller man's shoulderblades pressed hard against the wood planks of the stable door.
But he had nowhere to go.
Scanning the pages of the volume that Josiah had put before him, Nathan looked up when he heard the rattle and creak of one of the church's double doors. Sanchez was engrossed in a large book of his own, oblivious to the sound. Jackson watched the man's lips move with silent words as he poured over a particular passage.
Nathan stood and crossed to the main part of the chapel. "Ezra?"
The surprise and curiosity was evident in the healer's voice. Standish, in his own right, looked startled to see anyone other than Josiah in the church, but he covered it quickly and addressed Nathan in a light tone.
"Mr. Jackson... I never took you for one who participated in midnight mass."
Nathan raised an eyebrow. "I never took you for one who participated in any kind of mass."
"Well, as Josiah is always pointin' out, it's never too late to repent."
Nodding, Jackson showed a hint of a grin. "Yeah, but I woulda figured you might be worried about burstin' into flames if you came onto holy ground... so, uh, why are you here?"
A deep voice came from the front of the church. "Ezra! Didn't even hear you come in." Josiah leaned in the doorway of the chapel's small room. "What brings you here?"
"Question of the evenin'," added Nathan quietly.
Ezra glanced around the small church and wandered forward, answering in a distracted tone. "I confess, the initial events surroundin' Mr. Halverson and his death this evenin', well, it's been weighin' on my mind quite heavily."
He regained his focus and favored the two other men with a wide-eyed, earnest expression.
"The sad, pointless murder of that poor gentleman on the coach this mornin'... well, I... I can't help but wonder why an innocent, God-fearin' man--"
Nathan interrupted, "He couldn't a' been too innocent and God-fearin' - he's the one who stole the urn from Mortuary Chapel in the first place."
Ezra ignored the comment and continued. "Why such a man should be wrenched from this good Earth for little more than a simple brass pot."
Nathan and Josiah exchanged a glance and waited for the punch line. The only time Ezra saw fit to spout sympathy and sorrow for a total stranger was if he was working an angle. The corners of Nate's mouth turned down slightly.
Just when he saw the spirit begin to emerge of a man with integrity and principle it seemed Ezra's old ways would creep back in and prevent the gambler from lowering the carefully built walls that guarded him against trusting and being trusted.
Jackson never hid his irritation with Standish. On the outside, it seemed to stem from obvious situations. In truth, Nathan's frustrations were linked directly to the potential he'd seen in Ezra. An honorable heart was buried under that scheming exterior. It was just a shame that Nathan sometimes had the desire to beat the gambler soundly until it came to the surface.
Ezra was unaware of his associates' reactions. He leaned on the edge of a middle pew and wondered why he suddenly felt so hot. He'd been freezing shortly before entering the church, now it was all he could do to not fan himself.
Nathan crossed his arms. "Uh-huh. So, why are you here?"
It took Ezra a few seconds to answer. He blinked heavily and stared at the floor. For a moment, Nathan thought he was going to respond with 'I don't know'.
The dazed expression passed and Standish looked at the other two peacekeepers and relaxed his hands on the belt of his holster.
"The victim of this senseless crime must have family. It occurred to me it may bring some much welcomed peace to those poor unfortunates if we could reason why their loved one had to perish."
He crossed to Josiah. "Now... my entrepreneurial history happens to include business transactions involvin' artifacts of an ancient and holy nature. Perhaps if I study the stolen urn I might be able to shed some light on its history and thusly, on Mr. Halvorson's reason to resort to murder to obtain it."
" 'Artifacts of an ancient and holy nature'?" Sanchez cocked his head slightly. "Ezra... you sold false reliquaries?"
Standish deftly slipped past Josiah. "Is this it here?"
He stood at the table, stared at the brass pot and frowned. "Well, that's... ugly."
Josiah and Nathan joined the southerner in the small room but stood back a few feet, like two doctors observing the behaviors of a madman. Leaning forward, Ezra reached to pick up the urn for closer study. His fingertips barely brushed the dull metallic surface before he yanked his hand back. "It's cold!"
He examined the tips of his fingers in the lamp light, half-expecting to find the topmost layer of skin stripped off. He glanced at Josiah then back to the container. "What in Heaven's name is that?"
Sanchez couldn't help but notice the look in his friend's eyes. The southerner seemed genuinely confused, his brow furrowed and Josiah thought he saw a shade of fear slip through green irises. Lowering his own hand toward the urn, Josiah brought his palm close to the surface.
It was two inches from the metal when he stopped and looked to Nathan. "It's colder...a lot colder."
Jackson looked doubtful but came forward to test the perceived temperature change for himself. He mimicked Josiah's action. "Temperature is droppin' outside. It's metal, it's prob'ly just changin' with the air."
Sanchez thought his friend sounded like he was trying to convince himself more than them. Josiah responded to Ezra's question.
"You've heard of the Devil's brew? This could just be the pot it was steeped in."
"Josiah..." Nathan's voice resonated with a reproving tone. Sanchez reacted only with a hand up, requesting patience, before explaining.
"Nate and I have been doing some reading and there seems to be some curious facts surrounding this little container." He rested a foot on a chair at the table and leaned his forearms on his knee.
"JD told us that right before Halverson died he said someone named Iblis would be coming to collect what's his. Now, Iblis just happens to be one of the names bestowed upon the Devil. It's from the Muslims."
Sanchez flipped through a book on the table to locate the picture he'd identified earlier for Nathan.
"They say he tempts humans through whispers and false suggestion. He has several names, some used more frequently than others. You'll see 'Iblis' in writings about his relationship with God, 'Shaytan' is used in relation to his interactions with humans."
Engrossed in his own lecture, Josiah missed Ezra's reaction to the second name. The southerner's head snapped to Sanchez and he began listening in earnest.
Josiah vaguely waved a hand toward the urn. "The imprinting there is writing, used by another old religion, Zoroastrianism. Their devil is Angra Mainyu. He's a real nice one. He doesn't call victory just by depriving a man of his life. He wants that fella's wife, child and fortune. And nothing satisfies his voracity so much as the capture of a human soul."
As Josiah spoke Ezra lowered himself to a seat at the table. The flush of warmth that assaulted him earlier once again enveloped his body. He shrugged out of his short, tan coat and tried intently to focus on what Josiah was saying but found it difficult to concentrate and hear through the rush in his ears.
"By looking through a couple of my books, Nathan and I matched up the writing on the urn to the names of six chief demons created by Angra Mainyu. Our brother found a myth that tells about those six demons being crushed into ash and sealed in a brass jar by God... their version of God anyway, Ahura Mazda.
"The problem was their spirits escaped before their bodies were completely crushed. So the evils each of them represents - falsehood, evil mind, cowardice, false pretense, misery, annihilation - are all still out in the world; just to a lesser degree.
"That myth also says if the jar is opened the ashes can be reconstituted so the demons could take physical form again and wreak havoc on the world."
Ezra leaned his elbows on the wood table and roughly rubbed his eyes. He responded to the information in a tired voice. "Fire-and-brimstone stories always do work best to frighten the natives."
The rushing sound had grown louder and Ezra closed his eyes and pressed his fingers to his ears in an attempt to massage away the hiss. He was supposed to be doing something. What was it? Retrieve something, wasn't that it? A hand touched his shoulder and he jerked upright.
Nathan looked down into a pair of green, glassy eyes. "You alright?"
Ezra pushed himself up from the table. "I don't see how that urn can be as chilled as it is when it is so warm in here."
With an unsteady gait the southerner made his way to the main part of the chapel. Nathan and Josiah exchanged confused looks and followed. Reaching the front doors, Ezra laid his hand on the knob but the cool glass set in the doors suddenly seemed so much more inviting.
Pushing one thin window shade aside he rested his forehead on the cold transparent plate and closed his eyes tightly against the swirling rush in his head. A rumble of thunder poured across the sky.
He wanted to leave, to go back to his featherbed. But he couldn't leave yet. Why couldn't he leave? Was there something in here? Something out there?
A crack of lightening flared overhead, illuminating the street outside for a brief instant. Ezra opened his eyes and saw a tall, silhouetted shape standing at the foot of the church's steps. Gasping sharply, he jerked away from the door.
He turned toward his friends, scanning their faces to see if they'd seen the figure outside. No, they hadn't been close enough. Rain began smacking against the roof of the church; small drops pelted the windows but soon gave way to larger beads.
"Ezra...?" Nathan took a step toward Standish.
Earlier he'd been sure the southerner was up to something. The overly earnest concern for the family of a stranger, the interest in the mysterious brass urn, it was... just not self-serving enough. Now, however, all Jackson could see was a startled, confused look blanketing the other man's face.
It was a bare display of emotion that the healer was not used to seeing from the southerner and it troubled him. Nate knew Ezra worked hard to keep his feelings in check and show only what he wanted others to see. The security found in constant control was something the gambler had turned to all his life, until recently. Lately, he'd begun to find security in outside forces; more accurately, a force of six.
Josiah stepped in close. "You alright?"
Wincing, Ezra pressed his right hand to his ear and wondered why a steam engine was in Josiah's church. The hissing in his head became increasingly insistent; it was apparently a very angry steam engine. He looked up at Josiah.
"I... I think I don't feel-" Sanchez watched as the color drained from the southerner's face and his knees buckled, dropping him toward the floor.
Josiah caught the smaller man under the arms and prevented him from collapsing to the ground. "Whoa... hold on there."
Nathan was behind Ezra in an instant. Taking some of the weight from Josiah they managed to maneuver him to the floor. Jackson lightly slapped the southerner's ashen face. "Ezra... hey... come on."
Heavy lids lifted, revealing glazed eyes focused on nothing. He didn't appear to be aware of his surroundings and directed a quiet whisper to no one. "...he knows it's here..."
His eyes closed again and Nathan looked to Josiah. "What's he sayin'?"
Sanchez shook his head but his expression suggested he was puzzled by the distracted mumbling for another reason. Nathan again gently patted his friend's face. "Ezra..."
Standish responded more readily the second time. He opened his eyes and his brow furrowed as he struggled to focus on the two men crouched beside him.
"What're ya'll doin' in my room?"
Nathan cocked an eyebrow at Josiah as the large man answered. "We're not in your room, we're in the church."
Ezra scanned his surroundings. "What am I doin' in the church?" Before he could receive an answer he let his head lull to one side, looked back up at his friends and asked another question. "What am I doin' on the floor?"
Josiah eyed Standish. "I think we were kinda hoping you could tell us... you feel like sitting up?"
Ezra closed his eyes briefly but nodded. His friends helped him into an upright position, with his back against a pew.
"You been drinkin' tonight?"
Standish cast a slant-eyed stare toward Jackson but the healer merely held his hands up in an innocent gesture. "I'm jus' askin'."
"I assure you, anything I may have imbibed earlier this evenin' is certainly not affectin' me now." Ezra rested his elbows on bent knees and briefly massaged his forehead. "I couldn't sleep, thought I'd go to the stables and I..."
He raised his head and stared distractedly at the floor, trying to remember. "I was at the stable and..."
Green eyes, filled with a deep concern, fixed on Josiah. "How long have I been here?"
"No more than ten minutes." Sanchez laid a hand Ezra's shoulder. "You don't remember coming here?"
Standish didn't answer, nor could he hide the worried expression that flashed across his face. Struggling slightly, he pushed himself up from the floor and away from his friends just as a burst of thunder rattled the windows of the church.
Lightening flashed and released a violent crack close enough for the three peacekeepers to feel the electrical charge in the air.
Ezra jumped slightly at the sound and stared with wide eyes toward the doors of the church.
"Something out there, brother?"
Standish broke his focus from the entry. "What?"
"That's the second time in as many minutes you've looked like the Devil was on your trail."
Ezra ran the tip of his tongue quickly along his lower lip but forced a disinterested expression across his features and walked toward the back room.
Josiah's deep voice froze him to the spot. "He knows it's here."
Standish didn't turn around, only cocked his head slightly over his shoulder.
"That's what you said when Nathan was trying to bring you around... Who knows it's here?"
Ezra's white shirt glowed in the flickering light of the candles, marred by the straps of his shoulder holster and the dark 'X' of black suspenders criss-crossing over his back. He answered in a dull voice, as if speaking from a heavy sleep.
"Who?" Josiah's tone made Nathan wonder if the ex-preacher recognized the name.
"Nothin'," snapped Ezra irritably. "No one. Where's my coat?"
He stalked toward the back room but only made it several feet before his legs threatened again to give way. Steadying himself on one of the long benches, he heard Josiah question him in a gentle tone.
Ezra leaned against the heavy wood pew and answered but kept his back to his friends.
"There was a man in the saloon tonight. Buck saw him. Shaytan Apollyon is what he called himself."
His head shot up as he recognized the same thing that Josiah had just a moment earlier. "Apollyon... New Testament." He forced out a laugh, throwing off the uneasiness that clung to him despite his attempt at rational thoughts. "Nice touch, I must say."
Shaking his head, he elaborated. "I've memorized enough Revelations passages. They come in handy." He finally turned towards the other two men. "'Apollyon'... Angel of the Bottomless Pit. And 'Shaytan' - you said that was someone else's name for the Devil?"
Josiah nodded. "The Muslims. They also use 'Iblis', and that's who Halverson said was coming to get the urn."
Ezra barked another harsh laugh. "Oh, that is rich. I've impersonated a few people in my time but it never occurred to me to pose as the Devil himself."
Josiah didn't answer. With a pensive expression he crossed to the front of the church and stood at the window to the right of the double doors. Thunder sounded overhead and the rain fell in fat, threatening drops as Sanchez scanned the street. Lightening illuminated the area for a split second, revealing a tall figure standing in the middle of the main thoroughfare.
Sanchez stared at the man silhouetted by the street fires. Ezra moved to stand beside him, while Nathan took up position at the window on the left. Standish answered an unspoken question.
Josiah glanced at Ezra. For all the gambler's dismissive talk the tension now radiating off him was palpable. Sanchez ventured a guess. "You saw him at the stable, right before coming here?"
Ezra kept his focus on the figure in the street, replying only with a slight nod. Nathan eyed him sharply. "Is that why you came by here? Did you make some kinda deal with that fella?"
Green eyes flashed at Jackson. "How appropriate," Ezra tersely replied, a sarcastic smile playing on his lips, "a deal with the Devil. Just what you'd expect of me, is it not?"
A large hand squeezed his shoulder briefly. "That's not what he meant." Josiah shot Nathan a warning glance and redirected the questioning in a gentle tone. "You don't remember coming here... do you remember him talking to you?"
The southerner's jaw clenched tightly and a rush of warmth, fueled by embarrassment, colored his cheeks. Rain spat against the glass he stared through. He felt like a fool. A manipulated fool. Nathan was right, he had come for the urn. And he had no idea why.
Ezra pushed down the fear of feeling out of control. He folded his arms tightly across his chest and refused to look at Josiah. "I... he was at the stable..." Frustrated, he closed his eyes briefly. "...he was right in front of me... I don't recall..."
Thunder and lightening cracked simultaneously.
"...bring it to me..." The voice was a hissing half-whisper and Josiah turned to his companions, unsure if the words echoed in the church or only in his head. The look on their faces made it clear it wasn't just imagined.
The ex-preacher stared out the window. Apollyon now stood only feet from the church steps. Sanchez hadn't even seen the man move. He replied in a loud, firm voice that penetrated through the window glass and the pouring rain.
"It's not yours."
Without warning, a massive boom echoed through the small chapel and the three peacekeepers recoiled as the double doors buckled inward with the shriek of cracking wood as if something huge slammed against them.
"BRING IT TO ME!!"
Nathan stared at the doors, amazed the windows were intact. "What the hell was that?!"
Josiah offered a sudden realization. "He can't come in here."
"And may I say how eternally thankful I will be if that's true." Ezra sincerely wished he'd never left his featherbed.
The slapping of rain against the church windows lessened to a gentle patter and a deep, smooth voice called from outside.
"I can make it well worth your while... Money for medical equipment - think of the people you could help... or perhaps building supplies. A place of comfort for those less fortunate would be most welcome as the cold months of winter approach. Remember... the Lord helps those who help themselves."
Josiah breathed a harsh laugh and stood squarely before the window. "Well, Apollyon, or are you going by Iblis this time? While I'm sure you and God go way back, I think I'll keep making my promises directly to him. You don't have anything we're interested in."
Icy blue eyes fixed on Josiah and the ex-preacher couldn't suppress the feeling of cold that slithered up his spine.
"That's a broad assumption, Mr. Sanchez. I have access to a great many things... you'd be surprised. We will reach an agreement."
Apollyon stepped away from the foot of steps and though the peacekeepers tried to track his movements, the tall figure seemed to be absorbed by the night.
Nathan strained his vision into the darkness. "Where'd he go?" His voice held elements of confusion and relief.
"Perhaps he's returned to his handbasket with intention of headin' home."
"Now Ezra, don't you be startin' with that nonsense too."
Standish shot Nathan an amused look. "Of course, how right you are. There's absolutely nothin' curious about a man whose eyes glow in the dark and who can bow in four-inch thick wood doors without breakin' the glass or even gettin' close to them."
Ezra sighed lightly, rolling his eyes. "No, Nathan, I do not believe that man is the Devil. I believe he's merely quite adept at parlor tricks."
The southerner was not about to admit there were no sťance cons he'd ever heard of or witnessed that involved what he'd experienced since first meeting Shaytan Apollyon. He was also fine with concealing the knowledge that it would take something of serious worth to drag him out of the church before daylight.
Josiah silently wondered why he had to be stuck with the two most pragmatic individuals of Chris Larabee's band of men. "There are more things in heaven and earth--"
Ezra cut him off. "Yes, yes... than are dreamt of in our philosophies. Thank you, Hamlet. But seein' as I don't believe that was the ghost of the king out there it's more likely that the forces at work are of the earthly sort, such as greed. I'm rather curious as to what makes that urn so desirable."
Nathan unintentionally interrupted with a thought of his own. "Josiah, what did you mean 'he can't come in here'?"
"As bare and simple as this place may be, this is still a house of God." Sanchez didn't miss the dubious expression on his friend's face. "Then I ask you this - why didn't he just walk in here?"
"We figure he's lookin' to get his hands on somethin' that ain't his. There's three of us, one a' him. And he wasn't wearin' a gun belt," observed Nathan.
"Brother, something tells me he doesn't need to."
Ezra arched an eyebrow and walked toward the back room. "I'm goin' to study that ugly pot a little closer. I'll just leave you children here around the campfire with your stories."
Josiah followed him. "I think the stories we're interested in are in these books." He glanced over his shoulder with the hint of a smile. He knew full well Nathan's curiosity would keep the healer there, but Sanchez couldn't resist needling his friend. "Well, don't just stand there. I'm going to need your help too to find what I'm looking for."
"...bring it to me."
The half-whispered voice echoed into the back room of the church. The three peacekeepers exchanged serious looks and left the books that were scattered around the table. Nathan and Josiah headed for the door while Ezra slipped into his coat and followed.
They made it only halfway when the words came again, louder and more taunting.
A soft thump sounded as something struck the church door and the three men froze.
A mocking voice penetrated the walls of the church. "I have something you're interested in... come find me when you're ready to reach an agreement. I'm sure you'll be able to figure out where I am."
Nathan crossed to the left window as Josiah split for the right. Ezra strode directly for the front doors, pushed aside one of the shades and scanned the top of the steps.
Jackson studied the street and surrounding shadows. "I don't see him."
Making a quick sweep to satisfy himself, Ezra cautiously opened one of the double doors. A tight voice whispered back to Josiah and Nathan.
"Oh Lord." With a tentative hand, Ezra picked up JD's bowler first. It rested atop Buck's weathered wide brim which, in turn, covered an equally familiar tan Calvary hat. He passed them off to his companions and leaned heavily against the door, closing it securely while supporting himself at the same time.
Nathan's stomach tightened as his eye caught a large dark stain on the brim of Vin's hat. Dabbing at it with two fingers, he withdrew his hand knowing full well what closer inspection under a nearby candle would reveal.
"This is insane," spat Ezra.
Nathan shook his head. "I don't believe it. It woulda been three against one. He couldn't have."
Josiah gently rested the two hats he held on the seat of the pew closest to him. "The same way he couldn't have influenced Ezra to try and steal the urn without him remembering any of it? The same way he couldn't have nearly broken down those doors while being ten feet away? The same way he couldn't have disappeared into the dark without us seeing him move?"
A scattering of something wet slapping against the church windows interrupted their discussion.
Nathan's brow furrowed. "Is that rain?" Cautiously, he opened one of the double doors and the sound grew louder. "What the hell?"
His friends moved closer as he inspected something on the landing. Picking up one of many small, dark objects Nathan eyed it but quickly flung it away and wiped his fingers on his pants.
Josiah didn't look nearly as surprised as his companions. "It's raining leeches... I'd say that's a damn impressive parlor trick."
The unnerving patter gradually fell silent. Jackson closed the door harder than he meant to and stood to face the ex-preacher.
"There's gotta be some natural explanation for this." His voice was far from convincing. "What about water spouts? A fella once told me he saw a twister comin' off the ocean in Louisiana drop fish right on the shore line. Like it was rainin' 'em."
"Brother, if we were on the shores of Louisiana, I might give an ear to that explanation. But Four Corners isn't exactly tornado country."
Ezra ignored them both and strode toward the back room. Josiah sensed what the southerner intended and moved with a quickness belying his size. The large man made it to the doorway before Ezra and filled the frame with his bulk.
With a defiant eye, Standish looked up at the man towering over him. "Watch me."
Sanchez softened his expression but answered firmly. "You know what he is. You know. You experienced it first hand. If Apollyon was just a conman I don't believe for a minute he would have been able to pull anything over on someone with your experience.
"I told you the stories Nathan and I found in the books. We can't give him that urn. There's a reason why the folks from Mortuary Chapel wanted us to keep it here till they could send someone to collect it. Whatever is in that pot is a force the world needs to be protected from."
Ezra held his ground. "Frankly, Josiah, I don't believe there could be anything in that ugly little container that is worse than what is currently in the world. Whatever evil thing you seem to believe is in there couldn't possibly do much more harm than what humans already do to one other.
"In addition to that - I don't care about the world. It's certainly never cared much about me. What does matter most to me, what I do care about... well, let me just say the only pressin' concerns I have at this moment are over in the jailhouse."
The two men stared at each other for several seconds before Ezra finally broke the gaze.
"Fine." He stepped back, spreading his arms in a placating manner. "What would you suggest we do?"
Josiah leaned in the doorway. "I read something in one of those books tonight. It says Angra Mainyu, the devil who created those six demons, it says he's a coward, and a righteous person of firm resolve can put him to flight. That means he can be beat.
"I know both of you think I'm crazy." He let a proud grin show. "I'm all right with that. All I ask is that you trust me. If we give in to Apollyon's demands, we're gonna lose in more ways than one. And lemme tell ya, brothers, I have no intention of losing anything to that son of a bitch."
He stared earnestly at his friends. "He's waiting for us to make a move. Let's make him wait a little longer. I have an idea of what we need to look for. I'm going to start searching."
Josiah headed back to the table littered with books, listening with half an ear and smiling when he heard Nathan's heavy sigh and resigned admission. "I can't believe I'm doin' this."
Ezra's voice followed. "You and me both, my friend. I'll be along. Just give me... I'll be there in a moment."
Nathan sensed the southerner wished to be alone so he merely nodded and joined Josiah.
Ten minutes later they realized Ezra wouldn't be joining them.
"How's the wrist, kid?"
JD sat at the end of the bunk in the cell adjoining Buck's and cradled his left forearm. Vin lay on the same bed, his booted feet laying unceremoniously across Dunne's lap.
"It's all right."
Buck snorted a laugh despite a raging headache. "Yeah, and Vin's head probably feels good enough for him to go break a couple of broncs too.
Tanner's eyes were closed but it didn't stop him from responding. "Fuck you, Wilmington."
"I almost got him," stated JD introspectively.
Buck flashed an appreciative smile at his best friend. "That you did. I swear them reflexes of yours are almost up on Chris's."
"And I would have gotten him if..." The young man trailed off, not particularly wanting to voice the impossible things he'd witnessed.
"I hear ya, kid."
Shaytan Apollyon had burst through the jailhouse door at ten minutes to midnight. Vin, keeping watch at the window, had a split second to wonder how the man approached without being seen. After that, the tracker felt himself flung backwards into the wall by an unseen force. He'd struck hard and crumpled to the floor, stunned.
The ten-high Spades Flush that JD held against Buck scattered during the same fraction of a second Vin's mind was working. Dunne, however, wasn't thinking at all. Reflexes took over and his Colts were drawn, cocked and locked on target.
Vin's body hit the wall and an invisible hand wrenched JD's pistols from the young man's grip. The rest was a blur.
Buck and JD launched themselves toward the man with his back to the front door. They would have fared better against a grizzly. A right hook thrown by JD was effortlessly blocked and the boy's subsequent left jab resulted in an iron grip clamped around his forearm. Dunne could only yell and drop to his knees as a vicious red welt in the shape of a hand burned through his jacket and shirt and onto his skin.
Wilmington had struggled against the assault only to find his breath, quite literally, caught in his throat. A tightening sensation gripped his chest and stopped him cold. He stared wide-eyed at Apollyon as the man casually immobilized JD and made a vague hand motion toward Buck.
The lawman stumbled back into jail cell bars as his windpipe narrowed and his body screamed for oxygen. Blackness with pinpoints of white sparkling stars clouded his vision and when he awoke he was on the floor of one cell with Vin and JD secured in the other. Apollyon was gone.
The front door of the jailhouse opened and JD shivered at the wave of cold that rolled in. A part of him didn't mind having the heavy steel bars between them and the tall man who entered.
Vin didn't bother opening his eyes. His hunter's instincts lit off every nerve in his body. He maintained his calm, reclining position and stretched his legs out a bit further, as if the small amount of physical contact he shared with JD could protect the young man.
"Your friends don't seem to value you very much." Apollyon shut the door hard and Buck didn't try to hide a cocky grin. Their captor appeared frustrated and Buck would be damned if he didn't relish in it.
Apollyon didn't miss the smirk. Adjusting his long camel-hair coat, he took a seat on one corner of the jailhouse desk and fixed Buck with a cold smile.
"I took Halverson earlier tonight. Left my mark... you may have seen it."
He casually stretched the fingers of his left hand and slowly began curling them back in.
Buck hitched in a breath as a tight pressure enveloped his chest. JD thought he saw Apollyon's eyes flash a faint scarlet the instant his friend gasped.
The worry in Dunne's voice was obvious and Vin came to attention, swinging his legs to the floor and sitting up. Wilmington's fists tightly grasped the rough wool blanket on the cot. The unseen force constricted his ribs, barely allowing him even a slip of breath. His upper body trembled as his lungs fought to secure air.
JD called his friend's name again and crossed to the bars dividing the two cells. He stretched to lay a hand on Buck's shoulder, but a well of helpless frustration rose in him when Wilmington grabbed hold of the boy's arm and squeezed tightly, desperate for a release from the slow torture.
That's when they heard the singing. A tenor peppered with a distinct southern accent.
"Do you remember sweet Betsy from Pike..."
Apollyon's head snapped to the door. Buck gasped and put a hand to his chest as the pressure disappeared. JD looked at his friend with wide-eyed concern but Wilmington waved him off with a whisper. "It's all right."
Vin couldn't help but grin in response to the voice outside.
"...crossed the wide prairie with her lover Ike..."
He shook his head despite his skull's protest and muttered to the men closest to him. "Cocky son of a bitch."
"...two yoke of oxen and one spotted hog..."
Buck responded in an equally low tone, his voice breathy. "Shit, you expect anything less?"
"...a tall Shanghai rooster and a big yellow dog..."
The door swung open and Ezra stepped cheerfully into the room. Shutting the door with more flourish than was necessary, he shook off a light layer of rainwater, crossed to the wood stove and rubbed his hands together while tossing out a greeting.
"Gentlemen. What on earth have you gotten yourselves into this time?"
He made a quick, careful inspection of each man, noting their conditions. Buck sat on his bunk with one arm wrapped protectively around his ribs. In the cage next to him, Vin leaned forward on the bunk; the right side of his forehead and cheek were stained a faint red and dried blood from a bruising gash matted some of the hair at his temple. JD stood at the bars separating the two cells and was obviously carrying his left arm in a guarded manner.
But they were all conscious with no serious injury and that was all that mattered to Standish.
Vin drawled a greeting from his seated position. "Hey Ezra. You, uh... didn't come to 'parlay' now, did ya? 'Cause ya didn't seem to have much luck at it last time."
"Ah, but if you will recall, Mr. Tanner, last time I was dealin' with a most uncouth clan. We have a prince amongst us now."
Ezra remained beside the wood stove, warming his hands and keeping himself between his friends and Apollyon.
"Josiah seems to believe we have in our midst the Devil himself." He shook his head in a reproachful way. "I attempted to tell him that sad tricks fit for a child's birthday party hardly warranted such a belief, but you know how he can be when it comes to matters of theology... a bad coon hound on the neck of a chicken, if I've ever seen one."
Shaytan hadn't moved from his position on the corner of the desk. "Where is my urn?"
Ezra showed an expression of surprise. "Your urn? I'm... I'm sorry... you said, your urn? That's curious, I believe Josiah told you it wasn't yours."
He spoke to the men on his left, but kept his focus locked on Apollyon. "As ya'll know, there is a rather ugly little pot currently bein' housed in Josiah's church. A pot that was stolen just recently from a church in New Orleans and which the late Mr. Halvorson, in turn, stole per the direction of one 'Mr. Iblis'. Well, apparently he has arrived." Ezra gestured casually toward Shaytan.
"And while you boys were here rough-housin', our companions were diligently scourin' up stories from Josiah's literary collection to explain the unfathomable interest in that unsightly brass trinket."
The southerner's tone dripped with obvious ridicule as his lips curled into a smile and he continued. "Would you believe there is some absurd fairytale about that pot holdin' the ashes of six demons, which, if reconstituted could rain immeasurable woe and dread down upon the world?"
Vin roughly rubbed his eyes and muttered to himself. "Knew I shoulda gone out to the reservation this week."
Apollyon stood and leveled his gaze at Ezra. "I did not come here to play games."
"Oh." The gambler attempted to look put out as he reached to the inside pocket of his coat. "Well... now that's a shame," long slim fingers withdrew a sealed deck of cards, "because I did."
Buck leaned toward Vin, ignoring the bars that separated them. "Tell me he's not about to do what I think he's about to do."
Standish smiled wide at Apollyon and his friends couldn't miss the glint of lantern light off his gold tooth.
Wilmington massaged his forehead. "If we get out of this, so help me, I'm gonna kill him."
"Don't worry, pard, you'll have help."
JD dropped down beside Vin on the bunk. Ezra's explanation unnerved him though he didn't want to admit it. He glanced around Tanner. "Buck... do you really think Apollyon is--"
"Kid, I'm pretty much beyond any rational thought at the moment... lemmee get back to ya on that one come morning."
Ezra carefully cleared the desktop of the remnants of JD and Buck's card game, except the small pile of matchsticks used for betting. He pushed everything into a top drawer before breaking the seal on his own deck, pulling it from the box and laying the stack of Stutz playing cards in the middle of the desk.
"Five card draw. Nothing wild. Best three out of five. You win - you take the urn and be on your way. I win - you take nothin'... and just be on your way."
Buck shook his head. "I take that back. That ghost story of his has got to be true. You think Ezra would miss the chance at bragging rights for being able to say he beat the Devil at cards?"
Apollyon seated himself in a wood chair in front of the desk. "I'll be happy to take the urn." He cast a sidelong glance toward the men in the cell. His gaze settled on JD and the young man felt his skin crawl.
The attention focused on the energetic youth did not escape anyone's notice. Ezra's pulse quickened at the perceived threat and he responded automatically. "Only the urn."
Shaytan's lips drew tight in a cold smile. "Oh, that's right... we do all have our weaknesses, don't we?"
The other three men hadn't been witness to Ezra's first meeting with Apollyon; consequently, the remark was lost on them, but there was enough of a mocking edge to their captor's voice for them to know the comment was meant to hit Standish close to home.
Apollyon continued, and when he spoke his tone held an up-down melodic quality. "Do you wish to play the game, or not?"
The southerner's eyes darted to his friends just for an instant before he put on an emotionless expression and forced himself to look at Apollyon.
"Fine... but we use my ante."
JD sensed something was going on but he wasn't sure what. A quiet voice beside him drawled a slow warning. "Ezra..."
Buck straightened up from his slumping position against the back wall. "Whatchya think you're doin' there, pard?"
Ezra looked once more at his friends but he held the gaze longer than before. A bittersweet smile played on his lips. In those few seconds each man understood exactly what the gambler intended.
Maude Standish's boy had played his first mark at age five. In the twenty-five-plus years that followed he bilked, scammed, cheated and lied his way through most of the southern American states and half the eastern seaboard.
Ezra had long assumed that upon his death his time in the afterworld would be spent in a climate equal to, if not greater than, the worst Deep South summers.
Consequently, he decided if there was even the slimmest chance that Shaytan Apollyon was whom Josiah believed him to be, then Ezra would, quite literally, be damned before the Devil claimed JD's soul as a trophy.
Apollyon smiled. "An interesting prospect. It has increased in value as of late. Though honestly, what's it worth... really?" His eyes narrowed and he studied the gambler. "You're a cheat. A liar and a conman. Not to be trusted."
Ezra felt as though Apollyon had reached into his mind and plucked out his thoughts. He reminded himself of his more recent history.
The Fates had seen fit to play right by him and guide him to Four Corners and Larabee's makeshift family. He'd been given a second chance here and so much more. He concluded it would be only respectful to trust once more in those three daughters of Zeus to see him and his friends through the night. Ezra would play a clean game; it was all he could offer.
He steeled himself and offered a hint of a derisive smile. "I can't figure out if you're talkin' so much because you're afraid to lose... or you're just afraid to even start playin'."
JD rose to his feet. Part of him didn't believe what Ezra said about Apollyon. Dunne could not, however, deny what he'd seen, experienced and felt in his soul. The individual that Standish was challenging scared JD more than anything he'd faced since being in the west.
The young sheriff's fear was not just for himself. His adopted brothers had helped him develop many parts of his character over the last two years; a fierce protective spirit was one of those traits.
"Ezra, stop it! Call it off!! Buck, Vin, make him stop!"
Standish favored the boy with a gentle look. "Son, if you keep up that caterwaulin' I won't be able to concentrate."
"I'm sure we won't be interrupted," commented Apollyon, cryptically.
JD spun and violently pushed at the frame of the bunk with one foot. Even with Vin's added weight, it slid several inches. He dropped onto the cot, elbows on his knees, and ran his hands through his hair. "This is stupid!"
Ezra ignored the outburst and shuffled the cards with expert fingers. He laid the deck in the middle of the desktop. "Cut for first deal?"
Apollyon lifted half the deck up and showed a six of Clubs. Ezra flipped the next card, revealing an eight of Hearts. Gathering up the cards for a fresh shuffle and the deal, he tipped his head to his opponent. "Let the games begin."
"Where did he go?"
Nathan stood in the doorway of the church's small room and voiced the question, though he suspected he knew the answer.
Josiah came up behind him and sighed heavily before commenting in a quiet voice. "Perhaps one day our brother will learn that going at things alone is rarely the best solution."
"Well, for once, I think the fool southern boy has the right idea."
Nathan made it two steps before a solid grip secured his upper arm.
He yanked free and turned on Josiah, his brown eyes flashing.
"No! I spent my life... my whole life bein' forced to stand by and watch while people I loved got hurt or suffered. I've had to close my eyes and turn my back too many times! The day I got my freedom I swore I'd never do it again... Never."
Josiah looked at their healer with a soft, serious expression. "You're a smart man, my friend, I've known that since the first day we met. But just as much as you open your eyes, you need to open your mind. We're not going to beat Apollyon with guns. The weapon we need is here, in these books. We just need to find it."
Nathan answered sincerely. "Then you find it... because I can't stay here."
Pulling his Remington from its holster, he checked the chamber and replaced the pistol solidly as he walked to the door. He grabbed the handle but yelled sharply and jumped back as a bluish-white arc of electricity enveloped both doors.
He massaged the numbing tingle pulsing through his fingers and exchanged a shocked expression with Josiah. "What on earth was that?"
"I'm not sure 'on earth' is the phrase I would have used."
Nathan glanced around the church till his eyes landed on an appropriate tool leaning in the corner.
With the handle of the broom pointed towards the door he jabbed experimentally at the knob. A loud crack echoed as the broom handle elicited another electrical charge.
"There's gotta be some explanation for this." Nathan crossed to one of the windows as Josiah watched.
"I'd be right glad to hear it."
Frustration radiated off Jackson as he gripped the broom tightly. "This ain't happenin'!"
On the last word he swung hard at the window glass. The result was the same and Nathan angrily flung the broom across the church. It bounced off a front pew and clattered to the ground. Neither man spoke for several seconds but Jackson composed himself, embarrassed by the outburst.
"No need to be. That broom's been getting mouthy lately anyhow." Josiah crossed to his friend, laying a big hand on Nathan's shoulder and squeezing it briefly before letting go. "I know it's not in your nature to stand by when someone's in need of help. And you don't have to.
"There's some mighty powerful forces at work tonight and we're not going to beat them playing by our rules." Josiah fixed his friend with a sincere gaze. "I need your help so when the time comes we'll be able to fight fire with fire."
It was obvious that Nathan was not happy with the option given him, but he nodded and followed Josiah back to the stack of religious tomes.
"The broom's been mouthy? Josiah, you been spendin' far too much time by yourself."
Vin didn't think he'd ever heard so much talking. The rain on the roof was like a staccato accompaniment to the monologue.
Ezra started in the moment the first card hit the table and he'd yet to stop. The first topic was sťance cons and parlor tricks. All the tools used by confidant players and gypsy tricksters to part fools from their money.
"...It's all really quite simple, there isn't much talent required for such deceptions..."
Vin had a fair idea of what the gambler was doing. 'Leave it to Ez to needle the Devil himself.'
Then again, he thought, it's not as if the behavior was anything new. How many times had he watched the southerner get under Chris Larabee's skin, often for no apparent reason other than to see how far he could go without provoking physical harm to his person.
Standish had then moved on to the ways in which to spot another card player's tell.
"...it's the arrogant, overconfident ones that I find so amusin'. Their signs are usually the most obvious..."
Buck now sat in his cell, maintaining an air of casual calm. He commented quietly to his companions. "The boy's got more wind than a horse in an apple orchard."
One corner of Vin's mouth lifted in a smile. "Yeah, but ya gotta admit he's damn good at what he does."
Tanner had meant not only the southerner's gift for gab and misdirection but also his natural talent with cards. Ezra won the first two hands, losing the third to Apollyon's Full House of Jacks and nines.
JD's nervous energy transferred into vocal support for Standish and he joined in on needling their captor. He stood close to the bars of the cell and spoke at a volume slightly louder than was necessary.
"Hey Ezra, what was the name of that fella that came through a couple months back? You know the one, real sissy clothes, all preened up like a peacock. Thought he could play cards." JD breathed a laugh. "You sure sent him home with his tail between his legs. But I guess it's easy to do with those types that are so full of themselves."
Standish exchanged a quick glance with the young man and was a bit surprised when JD winked at him. In Dunne's mind there was no doubt Ezra would come out on top.
Buck and Vin had each found their way to their feet as Apollyon dealt the fourth hand. If Ezra took this one the game was his.
Ten cards landed alternately between the two players. The hands were viewed, a bet was made. Shaytan called and raised. Ezra discarded one from the five he held and responded without a hint of emotion on his face.
"I'll see you and take one."
Lightening flashed close by and a crack of thunder rolled overhead to grab the attention of the three men in the cells.
The single card that Apollyon had dealt lay in front of Ezra but the gambler dropped the hand he held face down on the desk. "Gentlemen, this game is over."
His companions exchanged confused looks but it was JD that voiced their thought. "What are you talking about?"
Ezra stared determinedly at his opponent. "Rules vary from game to game but there has always been, and will always be, one standard... cheatin' results in automatic forfeiture."
Apollyon's focus was fixed intensely on the southerner and Ezra forced himself to not flinch away from the icy pale stare.
Dunne's eyes were wide. "What?!"
The gambler maintained his attention on Apollyon and answered in a cool voice. "Where I come from it's a 'push-off second'. The thumb of the dealin' hand is used to push off two cards makin' it appear as if it's only one. But the individual's other hand deals the second card while the top one is pulled back into formation with the rest of the deck.
"I will credit you this - it was very smooth. However," he stood slowly and looked down at Apollyon as he threw the man's earlier words back at him, "you're a cheat. Not to be trusted."
A burst of laughter came from Buck's cell. "Whoo hee, looks like ol' Ez is a huckleberry above your persimmon. Mister, I would say you met your match... 'cept for the little fact that you just got your butt whupped. So I guess that means you just met your better."
JD was still stunned. "You gotta be kidding. He cheated?!"
Apollyon rose abruptly from his chair and Ezra's instincts nearly had him dropping his hand to his Remington.
Ezra felt his heart racing in his chest but he forced himself to remain neutral. He addressed Apollyon in a low, even tone. "You know you tried it, and you know I spotted it." His eyes flicked to the door then back to Shaytan. "There's the door."
The subsequent reaction caught them all by surprise. Apollyon's face contorted with anger. The icy eyes flashed crimson. His upper lip lifted to an animal-like snarl and he flung out one hand toward Standish, defying them all.
"I don't LOSE!!"
Without being touched, Ezra was pushed backwards with terrific force. His body slammed against the wall of the jailhouse hard enough to crack the thinly plastered surface, but a sharp exhalation of breath, as the air was forced from his lungs, was all the sound he made.
He struggled to pull in another breath. Two endless seconds ticked by and just as he was able to inhale, another attack came.
Neither Buck, Vin nor JD could comprehend how the blow occured. It was as if three invisible claws raked downward from collar to breastbone, tearing through the fabric of Ezra's shirt and cutting just deep enough to draw blood. The precious breath he'd managed to capture escaped in a harsh yell at the slicing pain.
He crumpled downward and Apollyon crossed to him in a few steps.
Vin and Buck shouted in unison.
"Leave 'im alone!"
"Son of a bitch!!!"
Apollyon ignored them. The sole target of his anger was the gambler who had subtly mocked him for nearly the last hour. Standish's companions watched, stunned, as Shaytan wrapped his left hand around their friend's throat, lifting him off his feet to eye level while keeping him pinned to the wall.
Ezra's limbs were paralyzed. His brain screamed at him to lash out but he was frozen in place. Apollyon released the choke hold at the precise second he struck the southerner with a vicious backhand. Ezra's vision exploded with a white flash as his body smashed into the corner of the room.
He landed hard but a protective instinct forced him to move to his hands and knees in a desperate attempt to get away from what he knew was coming. He could hear the voices of his friends, yelling at his attacker, shouting at him to get up, to get away.
The first kick caught him harshly in the ribs and curled him into a fetal position with his back against the wall. The second kick glanced off his cheekbone but snapped his head backwards to make contact with the wall, causing him to see stars once more.
JD's voice cut through the rushing sound that filled Ezra's ears. He sounded shaky but the words were clear.
"Ezra was right! You're a cheat!! You're weak!!"
Standish remained protectively curled into himself but a part of his brain thought he really should get after the boy to mind that mouth of his. Ezra could attest that the individual whom JD challenged was most certainly not weak. No, not at all.
"The only power you have is what you steal from people when their defenses are down. Why don't you challenge all of us? Then we'll see if you're anything other than pathetic!!"
Apollyon spun to face the young man. A vicious expression, dark with rage, caused Dunne to take an involuntary step back. "Your loyalty will get you killed, child!"
A popping arc of bluish-white electricity ribboned around JD, driving him to the floor as his body convulsed from the attack. Vin tried to grab his friend but a fierce shock snapped his hands away. Cursing violently at Apollyon, Buck reached through the bars towards JD, desperate to stop the screams that sliced deep into his heart.
Thunder exploded in rolling succession, coinciding with repeated gunfire.
The shots came one right after the other and Vin and Buck watched Apollyon's body jerk like a macabre marionette as each bullet penetrated his back.
The tall figure collapsed face down as the thunder outside quieted and the only sound was the dry clicks of two empty pistols.
In a faint haze of blue smoke Ezra knelt on the floor, his weapons still aimed where Apollyon had stood.
The southerner's fingers tried to fire several more times, stopping finally when he registered that the chambers were empty and the threat to JD was gone.
Ezra's face was pale and covered with a fine sheen of perspiration. His right cheek and the soft tissue around his eye already showed signs of swelling and redness. Swallowing hard, he stared at Apollyon's prone form and listened to JD's heavy breathing.
Buck's arm still reached through the bars, his protective instincts refusing to calm until he was able to physically touch the young man. "Kid...?"
Dunne lay on his side facing the cell door. His eyes were wide and his body twitched once or twice in reaction to the electrical charge that had coursed through it seconds earlier. Vin helped him up and seated him on the bunk.
"JD... ya alright?"
The young man nodded, looking first into Vin's eyes, then swinging his head in a dazed fashion to the right to meet Buck's gaze. Wilmington's hand rested at the middle of JD's back and both of them were comforted by the contact.
JD shifted his focus to Ezra and spoke in a raspy voice. "Thanks."
Vin called out to the southerner. "C'mon pard, get them keys. Get us outta here."
Standish still knelt; he'd lowered his arms but he maintained a tight grip on the two pistols. His eyes were locked on Apollyon and a look of confusion passed over his face, replaced nearly instantly by pure shock.
Tanner's whisper broke the silence.
The four peacekeepers watched as the body on the floor began to move. Rising first to his hands and knees, Apollyon drew in a deep breath and finally rose to his feet. He turned slowly toward Ezra. The others saw only bullet-torn clothing. There was no evidence of blood, and the skin visible through the damaged fabric was now unmarred.
From the position on his knees, Ezra was forced to look up at the figure standing in the middle of the room.
Apollyon nodded his head toward Ezra and showed a mocking smile. When he spoke his voice was low, mixed with the growl of a predatory cat.
"Let the games begin."
A jolting crack of thunder and lightening broke the heavens open. The howling wind and deluge of rain from the clouds in the dark sky covered the harsh scream that echoed through the jail house.
"You think that's it?" Nathan looked across the table at Josiah.
Sanchez nodded slightly and glanced over the passage once more. "Combined with what you found... I believe it is."
"So you got enough of your own fire to fight with now?"
Josiah displayed a wolfish grin. "I believe I may be falling under the influence of Buck and Ezra... I'm wanting dynamite."
Jackson lifted his head slightly, realizing the pounding rain that had battered the small church for the last ten minutes had suddenly lightened up, taking the shrieking wind with it.
A growling, unnatural voice penetrated the walls of the church.
"It's time we reached an agreement."
The two men were at the front windows in seconds. Their earlier experience with attempting to escape the confines of the building kept them from getting too close to the glass.
Nathan's intake of breath came at the same moment Josiah spoke.
"Lord, be with us."
Apollyon stood in the wide dirt street in front of the church. His right arm was outstretched and he held the iron chain of wrist shackles in one hand. The slim figure secured in the manacles slumped in the mud on bended knees.
Though his arms were pulled taut above his head, Ezra's chin brushed his chest and he seemed oblivious to his surroundings.
Apollyon let go of the chain but in the same motion stepped behind his prisoner and secured another hold on him. The tension of the shackles had been the only thing holding Ezra up. His body began to collapse forward until an arm wrapped around his throat and strong fingers grabbed a fistful of hair, yanking his head up.
The flames of a nearby street fire cast light on the gambler's pale face, giving Josiah and Nathan a clearer view of their friend's condition.
Several long slices were evident across his upper chest. Blood stained his lips and unnaturally colored his teeth but it was impossible to tell if it came from the mouth, the nose or both. The tender skin covering both cheekbones puffed with swelling. The blows that had been delivered had not been guarded against.
Icy fingers raked Josiah's stomach. The voice in his head cursed him for not listening to Nathan and Ezra. He'd been stupid to stay in the church, hiding behind medieval beliefs. And look where it got him. Or more precisely, look where it got his friends.
Ezra had willingly faced Apollyon alone. They didn't even know if Buck, JD and Vin were alive.
In his left hand Josiah clutched the book he'd been holding when Apollyon called to him and Nathan. His thick fingers held it closed but marked the place of the passage he'd been convinced would help them.
He'd been sure this was the way. This was what his heart told him, what his faith told him, would be the way to fight fire with fire. If he was wrong the flames might just engulf them all.
Apollyon leaned forward to accommodate the hold on his prisoner. He stared at the church, his eyes piercing the darkness with a white glow.
"You had your chance! You've lost this one now. It's the price you pay."
He released his hold and stepped back, ignoring Standish as the man collapsed into a hunched position on the muddy ground. "Three left... You might be more fortunate with the next!"
The shadows seemed to swallow Apollyon and he shifted unseen into the night.
Nathan moved to the double doors without thinking. He managed to grasp a knob before the air popped with electricity and a flash of light. The voltage coursed through his hand and knocked him back several feet. Dropping to his knees, he clutched his arm.
"Damn it!" He was on his feet before Josiah even had the chance to help him up. Crossing back to the window, Nate stared at the unmoving figure.
"We gotta do somethin'." The healer hoped the glass window pane wouldn't muffle his voice too much as he shouted to his friend.
"Ezra!! Move! For once do what you're told and get your lazy ass up!!"
Standish heard the voice and tried to will his body to respond to the orders. His body, however, was afraid. The pain inflicted on him the last time he'd tried to fight back and get away had been excruciating. It had been like fire, pressing in tight bands around his chest, cutting off his air and burning the skin.
No physical marks had been made but each successive attack had increased in strength. It had forced screams from his throat that left it raw and drained him until finally Apollyon shackled his wrists and hauled him, unresisting, from the jail house. Now his muscles refused to cooperate with the orders his brain was giving.
The idea of moving seemed so easy, yet his aching head and body would not obey.
"You hear me?! Get up! Ezra!!"
Standish forced his eyes open. His forehead was resting against the wet ground and he decided that was a very unseemly position for a gentleman. He tried to sit up but a wave of dizziness struck him and a second later he found himself lying on his side, he determined this was a perfectly acceptable place for a civilized man in his condition.
"Josiah!" Nathan shouted over his shoulder toward the back room where his friend had disappeared to. "If you got that dynamite now's the time to light it!!"
Sanchez reappeared holding a second book open and thrust it at the healer. "Don't lose that page!"
The two men watched as Apollyon dragged Vin into view. Tanner's hands were bound behind his back and Shaytan maneuvered him with an iron grip on the tracker's upper arm and a powerful hand around his throat.
Josiah stood beside Nate in front of the window. He lifted the thick volume he'd been holding and pointed to the passage he discovered earlier. "Read!"
Nathan stared at the foreign words. "I don't know what it says!"
"It's a prayer to God, brother. Trust me. Have faith it'll work and keep reading it till I say otherwise."
Josiah started, his tongue tripping over the strange combinations of vowels and consonants. "La ilaha illallahu wah-dahu la sharika lahu..."
Nathan faltered as well, but followed his friend's lead, reading aloud so they were in unison.
"...lahul-mulku wa lahul-hamdu wa-hawa'ala kulli shay'in qadir."
Sanchez started the brief prayer again. "La ilaha illallahu...," but he only heard his own voice. "Nathan, READ!... wah-dahu la sharika lahu."
Two voices worked together, falling more and more in synch each time they read from the Qur'an.
Shaytan kicked at the back of Tanner's legs, dropping him to his knees. While his nose was obviously bloodied, he was in far better shape than Ezra. Vin recovered quickly from the kick and struggled against his bonds. The resistance earned him a hard punch to one kidney. The young man folded against the pain, leaving him defenseless when the sharp-toed boot slammed into his ribs.
A thick southern drawl worked past a swollen lip and spat out a warning. "Get 'way from him!"
Despite shaking limbs, Ezra tried to push himself up and get to Vin. Their captor leaned forward and grabbed Standish's jaw hard with one hand. Strong fingers pressed painfully into his skin.
Only inches separated them and Ezra blanched at the proximity. Evil radiated off Apollyon. There was no other word for it. It struck a primeval nerve in the southerner. A slow smile spread across Shaytan's face as he fed off the palpable fear. He spoke in a slow, hissing tone.
"The only reason I've let you live this long is so you may watch. He's my bargaining chip. You're just for sport."
Apollyon snapped the southerner's head to the side as he released his hold on him. Ezra felt fingertips brush against the sliced skin at his collarbone. It was like salt in the wound. He jerked away, ending up on his side again, gasping against the pain.
He could only watch as Apollyon stood over Vin and called out to their friends in the church.
"Three lives for one urn..."
Chris Larabee's long black duster clung to his legs like a protective skin as he rode into town. The trip in from Eagle Bend had been uneventful. The road was familiar to both him and his dark gelding, and the stars and three-quarter moon gave more than enough light to travel by.
He'd told his men not to expect him back for another day, but the supplies he'd needed in Eagle Bend had come in earlier than anticipated. Chris was more than happy to get home sooner, even if it meant moving by starlight.
Besides, he liked the meditative solitude of the midnight ride. It gave him a welcome respite from the clamoring crew he ruled over. He loved them like family, but Lord, those boys could try the patience of a saint.
The storm clouds over Four Corners were obvious even miles away. The thunder and lightening didn't seem to move with the winds, but rather, clung spitefully above the town, waxing and waning during the last leg of Larabee's ride.
Chris was surprised to see light through the windows of the jailhouse. There hadn't been any trouble in town since the Stutz incident. He knew it could be nothing more than one of the boys minding a drunken cowboy. Yet, the intuitive sense that developed from surviving as a gunslinger made Chris guide his horse toward the jail and tether the animal out front.
He approached cautiously, peering in through the window. He was not pleased with what he saw.
The expressions that passed over Buck's face as Chris came through the jailhouse door ran from confusion to surprise and finally, pure relief. He grabbed the bars of the cell he'd been pacing in.
"Damn it all, you old wardog. I don't mean this funny or nothin', but I swear I could kiss you right now."
"Chris!!" JD had been curled on the bunk of his own cell. He sported a split lip and a blackening right eye but it didn't prevent a huge smile from lighting up the boy's face.
Larabee stared at the disheveled room and his two men. His voice was deadly. "What the hell is going on?"
"Hell is about right, pard. The keys are in the bottom drawer, grab our guns too. We gotta get to the church. I'll give you the short version."
They moved with quiet efficiency. This was their town; they knew the best positions to take up.
The three men paused briefly to survey the situation, pressing themselves into the darkness beside a building. Chris didn't think he comprehended half of what Buck and JD explained to him; but in his mind, he didn't need to.
One thing mattered. Take out the son of a bitch who'd gone after his men. He whispered instructions to the two beside him.
"I'm going to the other side of the church. There's too much risk of hitting Vin or Ezra from this angle."
Apollyon stood behind Tanner and pulled the tracker up to his knees. Chris could see Ezra lying on his side, unmoving, a few feet away.
JD grabbed their attention. "You guys hear that...? Like praying."
The foreign words spoken in unison penetrated the glass pane of the church window. They each recognized the voices. "What are they doing?"
Buck shook his head. "If it helps us, I don't care."
Chris didn't acknowledge them. "JD, stay here. Buck, get to the alley behind Apollyon. If either of you have the shot - take it."
JD almost spoke up to tell Chris of Ezra's failed use of bullets against their opponent, but the man in black had already disappeared into the shadows.
Vin swallowed hard against the tight hand gripping his throat. His captor's strength was incredible. Tanner had felt like a rag doll when Apollyon dragged him from the jail cell to the church.
The ice-cold fingers pressed hard against his windpipe but Vin shuddered against the touch for another reason.
This was what he'd sensed earlier in the evening. The scorpion's claws down his back, the acrid odor, the threat of sharp, gouging teeth. That dark untouchable threat now maintained a very real hold on him.
He tried to get a glimpse of Ezra but the angle at which he was being held made it impossible. It was a miracle Standish hadn't been killed back in the jailhouse. Now Vin knew why. He'd heard what Apollyon said to Standish. 'You're just for sport.'
The pain-filled gasp that followed that statement caused a fury to rise in Vin. Tremors shook his lean frame and abolished the fear that only moments earlier had threatened to paralyze him. He swore he would personally gut Apollyon and carve flesh from bone if he had to.
Vin could see Josiah and Nathan through the window of the church and his instinct for survival made him question what the hell their plan was. The unintelligible words they repeated didn't seem like the most viable way of getting him and Ezra away from Apollyon.
He suddenly felt the grip on his throat loosen and he wondered if he'd have to eat the curse he'd just muttered silently toward Sanchez and Jackson.
Apollyon took a faltering step back and focused his attention entirely on the church. Though Vin was still on his knees, he pressed back slightly, trying to work the balls of his booted feet into the muddy earth. His breath caught as the movement pulled against his battered ribs and kidney, but if there was a shot at disrupting Apollyon's plans Vin had every intention of taking it.
An ugly voice came from behind him. It reached his ears and Vin realized it seemed more like two voices speaking in unison. An inhumanly deep tone coupled with a piercing screech. The wind picked up and Apollyon shouted toward the church.
"You hide behind a worthless faith, preacher!! If your words were truly a weapon would they not allow you to pass through the doors of your temple?!"
Vin watched wide-eyed as tiny bolts of electricity sparked and danced around the door and window frames of the church. The voices from inside, however, only grew louder.
The windows rattled violently. Nathan's voice wavered but Josiah kept his focus wholly on the page they read from. Jackson didn't know how many times they'd repeated the foreign prayer, but the dark energy that pricked at the skin of his arms and the back of his neck made him continue on with Josiah.
Sanchez added volume to his deep base as the vibrations intensified. A sudden realization struck Nathan, he grabbed his friend and, with strength born from protective instinct, threw them both to the floor as the windows shattered inward, raining glass down around them.
The instant the windows blew, Vin was on his feet. With his hands tied behind his back he struggled to find his balance as he sprinted for cover to the side of the church.
His heart pounded, pushing blood and oxygen through his body in a desperate attempt to get away from Apollyon. He put his head down and ran, ignoring the hair obstructing his view.
Two strong arms caught him as he cleared the outer wall of the church but his momentum carried both bodies to the ground. He yelled against the unknown attacker, and tried to scramble away.
"Vin! Hey! It's me. It's Chris!!"
The wild look in the tracker's eyes melted to relief. "Oh, but you're a sight. Swear to God, I could kiss you, pard."
Chris shot his friend a look. "I'm starting to get a little uncomfortable with that."
"Never mind." Larabee pulled out his knife. "Rope?"
Vin nodded and shifted positions to expose the material binding his wrists. He spoke rapidly as he felt the knife chewing its way through his bonds.
"We gotta get him outta there, Chris. Ezra's still out there. We gotta--"
"We will." Larabee's tone left no room for doubt.
A final jerk and Vin was holding his arm out for Chris to pull him to his feet. Larabee glanced up at the broken church window closest to them. "What the hell caused that?"
"More like to say what from Hell caused it."
"You and Buck need to stop hanging around each other."
To their right, the church doors banged open and Josiah and Nathan burst through. They leapt over the railing of the steps, landing a few feet from Vin and Chris.
Josiah smiled broadly, "Welcome to the fight." His face, like Nate's, was peppered with red marks, a few showing blood.
Chris nodded. "Helluva welcome it is too, preacher. But I don't want to hear a word about you wanting to kiss me"
Larabee and Tanner answered in unison. "Never mind."
Chris eyed the older man. "Buck and JD spun me quite the story when I sprung them from the jail house."
"There's more to it than you know, brother. They close by?"
The gunslinger nodded and pointed to the positions he'd assigned to Wilmington and Dunne. "Buck's behind him, JD's got his left."
Josiah risked a glance around the corner. He could see Apollyon standing in the same spot, but his head hung low. Sanchez couldn't tell if he was recovering or recharging. "Nathan, you have the book?"
The healer answered with a quick nod. "And still got the spot saved that you told me."
Chris didn't know what they were talking about but at the moment, he didn't care. His attention was pulled to the street and his remaining downed man. "What's he doing?"
They watched as Apollyon crouched beside Ezra and laid a hand on the southerner's head, settling his fingers in the dark hair. Standish flinched away from the touch but Shaytan only smiled and began speaking to his prisoner in a low tone.
The wind kicked up and a thunder cloud overhead spat down rain.
Ezra lay on his side, his heart pounding in his chest. He moved his arms and legs in a futile attempt to push away from the threatening entity. The iron chain that held the manacles together moved with his hands and he only managed to smack himself in the jaw.
He would have been thankful if that was the only pain he felt. An instant later, a jolting burn shook his frame. Nerve endings throughout his body attempted to process the electrical shock. A harsh scream scraped his throat and just as suddenly as the torturous sensation began, it ceased.
Larabee had his pistol out and aimed before the echo of the pain-driven yell died out. Vin grabbed the Colt with both hands and barked a warning.
Chris's head whipped toward the tracker and he leveled a deadly gaze at him. The look in Vin's eyes, however, stopped Chris cold.
"It won't work," Tanner blurted.
"Ezra tried. We saw him, Chris. Me, Buck and JD watched him empty both his pistols into Apollyon's back. He...It...whatever, got right back up. And then he just about near killed Ez."
A dark voice called from the street. "Mr. Larabee!"
Chris holstered his weapon and focused on the tall man. The rain was falling harder now but the gunslinger seemed oblivious to it. He stepped away from the church's outer wall and walked a few meters toward where Apollyon crouched beside Ezra.
He heard Josiah say something, then there was a rustling of pages and two voices spoke the words of a language unfamiliar to Chris.
"Yatha ahu, vairiyo atha ratush ashat chit hacha..."
Larabee tuned out the quiet chanting as Apollyon addressed him.
"You lead these men. You have a choice... bring me the urn I came for and I'll let the rest of them live. Disregard me and this one won't be the only one I take tonight."
The foreign prayer resonated in the background.
"...Vangheush dazda manangho shyaothananam angheush Mazdai..."
Chris radiated a calm coldness and took a step forward. "I don't go in much for choices."
Apollyon broke his stare with Larabee just for a moment and shook his head, as if trying to clear his mind. Chris caught movement out of the corner of his eye and saw JD and Buck cut to his left toward the church.
All the while, Josiah and Nathan continued reading. Chris didn't understand the words or the point of the activity, but there was something about it that made him feel grounded.
"Khashathremcha Ahurai a Yim drigubyo dadat vastarem." The two voices paused briefly and then the prayer started again from the beginning, but with increased volume.
Apollyon steadied himself against the ground with his free hand and studied Chris. The corners of his mouth lifted, showing a sardonic expression. "And why would that be? Perhaps you've made some poor choices in the past?"
His voice took on a sing-song quality. "...on the border in Mexico... should we stay or should we go...?"
Apollyon's mocking smile didn't faze Chris. The gunslinger cocked his head slightly and stared into his challenger's eyes.
"Why don't you go back to Hell... before I send you there myself."
Apollyon grabbed a fistful of Ezra's rain-soaked hair and yanked his head off the ground. Standish could feel the man studying him and he shivered as icy fingertips and pointed nails brushed across his temple. The southerner pulled away from the grip in his hair but the hold only grew tighter.
The laugh started low and quiet and Apollyon didn't attempt to rein it in. Blue-white eyes that seemed to glow in the darkness fixed on Chris.
"Did you know that Mr. Standish here believes he can endure the torments of Hell? And he believes he has... to the benefit of this entire town. But it seems the fact is - his associates don't trust him."
Apollyon flashed a smile at Larabee. "You don't even trust this one," he hissed.
Nathan's voice faltered. He broke focus from the book he shared with Josiah and exchanged a sickened look with JD. They'd been with their friend when he'd made those comments a few weeks earlier. Neither of them had realized Standish was that serious.
Jackson forced himself to concentrate on the readings again, following Josiah's lead and speaking in a louder, firmer voice.
The harsh grip released Ezra and his head sunk to the muddy ground. Standish however, felt a stronger pain. He curled tighter into himself as the words that Apollyon plucked from his memory rolled through his mind. He'd tried, he'd truly made an effort to overcome the person he'd been raised to be; yet the words just spoken split his fears wide open and laid them out for all to see.
He begged silently to be wrong, yet strained to hear what possible response could be given to Apollyon's final statement.
"Hell, no," answered Larabee.
Ezra no longer feared what Apollyon could do to him. That kind of pain was an empty threat compared to the one that had just crushed the breath from his chest.
"Not sure I'd ever trust Ezra with my money."
Then, in a voice as steady as granite, Chris added, "But you're Goddamned wrong if you think I don't trust him with my life... You're not taking him... you're not taking any of 'em."
Apollyon rose from his crouched position and seemed to stand even taller than before. His lips tightened away from sharp teeth that were now dark, as if stained with old blood. Fine features sunk into shadow and the once-pale eyes flared with a shimmering crimson fury.
Spreading his arms wide, his long coat snapping in the wind, Apollyon shouted across to the gunslinger who challenged him. "Then by all means, Mr. Larabee... COME AND GET HIM!!"
Flames leapt up from the ground, encircling Apollyon and Ezra. A ten-foot wall of fire shot towards the sky, defying the rain that continued to pour down. Apollyon backed away from Standish's curled form, and he passed untouched through the circle of flames.
Ezra could feel the intense heat surge around him, yet shivers racked his lean frame. All he could manage to do was make his body as small as possible. He couldn't think any more, couldn't move, exhaustion and fading adrenaline drained him.
A peaceful calm passed through his soul as Chris's final words of trust floated with an ethereal echo through his mind. The gambler had found a home. He silently apologized to his friends for failing and prayed earnestly to a God he'd never sought to watch over his six brothers. Closing his eyes tightly, Ezra gave himself over to death.
For every step Apollyon took out of the ring of flames and away from Standish, Larabee took one towards the fire circling his downed man.
JD's hand moved slowly to grasp Buck's forearm, desperately searching for an anchor. "What's he... what's he doing?"
Wilmington didn't look at JD, just whispered an answer. "Doin' what he's always had to do... facin' down the Devil."
Larabee felt no heat from the flames that moved in a mocking dance around the still form of Standish. The cool rain lightly slapped Chris's skin and a breeze brushed past him from behind, pushing him closer to the fire.
Through the deaths of his wife and only child, Chris had been hurt by fire as much as a man could be. In his mind, it couldn't do anything worse to him. Apollyon's tricks were just that, carnival illusions.
Without a hint of hesitation, Larabee passed through the wall of flames as if it didn't exist.
The sudden grasp Ezra felt on his left upper arm felt solid and secure, but most importantly, he instinctively trusted it. He forced his eyes open as Chris wrapped his other hand around his waist and carefully lifted the smaller man to pull him up across his shoulders.
Ezra allowed his eyes to close again when he heard a gentle, serious voice close to his ear. "Let's get you outta here."
Chris held Standish's form securely across his shoulders and turned back to face the flames that licked skyward. Larabee's face remained impassive as he stepped toward the wavering fire and it fell before him, sucked into the cool, muddy ground.
Five men were in front of the church to meet them. Buck and Nathan eased Ezra onto the steps. The gambler could only slump against the railing as the others turned to face Apollyon.
Josiah called out to the lone figure in the middle of the street. "You brought this fight to our door. We neither desired it nor sought it out. But we have the strength to stop it. Ahura Mazda, Asha, Vohu Monah, Kshathra, Haurvatat, Ameretat, Armaiti."
Apollyon flinched but screamed back a reply. "I am eternal! Do you think you can beat me forever??!!"
Chris leveled a cutting stare at his opponent and answered with an air of firm confidence and the hint of a smile.
"I'm not interested in forever. But when you get done lickin' your wounds, you come on back... and we'll beat ya again."
A horrific crack shattered the night and a bolt of lightening electrified the air. Larabee and his men recoiled from the strike but they stood again as quiet descended around them. The rain had stopped and six pairs of eyes scanned the street.
JD spoke first. "I don't see him."
"I don't think we'll be seeing him again for quite some time," responded Josiah.
Chris crouched down in front of Ezra, who was still leaning against the railing of the church steps. Shivers shook his frame and Chris could hear light clicks as the southerner's teeth chattered together. Larabee wasn't comfortable with the glazed look in the green eyes.
Shrugging out of his duster, Chris handed it to Vin who wordlessly draped it over Ezra's shaking shoulders. Standish responded to the residual warmth of body heat that clung to the coat's lining and shifted slightly to pull the jacket tighter around himself.
Chris shook his head; there wasn't much of the gambler that wasn't covered in bruises, blood or mud. He gingerly pressed at the southerner's right cheekbone, which seemed the most swollen. "Doesn't feel broken."
Ezra winced sharply and flinched away. "To you."
Chris grinned, that was the Standish he knew. "Now why am I not surprised it was you who managed to piss him off so bad?"
Ezra blinked several times and focused on Larabee. He attempted a smile. "It was not my fault... he was a poor loser."
Larabee nodded. "Uh-huh." He gently pushed one of the metal cuffs encircling Ezra's wrists out of the way so he could inspect the tender skin underneath. "JD, go get the key for these damn things. Meet us at Doc's place. Come on, Standish."
Chris lifted the smaller man to his feet and was quickly helped by Josiah. Ezra gasped against pressure unintentionally applied to his bruised ribs and torso.
He quickly breathed an alternative. "The church is closer."
His voice was tight and the flash of panic in his eyes was not missed by Chris or Josiah. Larabee wasn't sure he understood, but Josiah did.
Sanchez guided him up the steps. "The church it is."
Buck moved ahead of them but turned when he hit the landing to look at Ezra. "We been ridin' together two years and you've managed to slither your way past everything but a few bruises in a bar fight... now look at ya."
Nathan stood at the foot of the stairs with his hands on his hips. "Now Buck, you know our Ezra don't do nothin' small if he can do it big."
The southerner leaned heavily on Josiah but responded in a strong voice. "Grandiose, Mr. Jackson... I prefer the term 'grandiose'."
A peaceful quiet had settled through the church. Though no one vocalized it, each of the Seven decided they'd be spending the night there.
They'd split the necessary duties without discussion. Nathan cleaned and bandaged the myriad of cuts, scrapes and gashes. Chris disappeared briefly to care for his horse. JD took it upon himself to gather dry changes of clothing for those who needed it.
Vin wondered how the hell he ended up being the one to sweep up the glass. It's not like he was some kind of broom expert. Josiah and Buck nailed up boards over the windows. And Ezra commandeered a bottle of whiskey and Josiah's bed.
They'd each found a spot in the back room of the church. Chris sat at the table, sipping a shot of whiskey as he studied the resting face of their resident gambler. The man looked awful. Damn conman would be milking this one for weeks. But Chris figured he'd let it slide. Well, most of it anyway.
Standish took 'give an inch - take a mile' to new heights. But he'd earned it this time. Larabee had spoken to his other five men and gathered enough information about the strange events of the evening to get a feel for what Ezra had been through.
Chris was glad to see the man letting that guarded noble character come out, but did he have to try to get himself killed every time he did?
It had just been over several weeks earlier that he'd put himself in front of a bullet meant for Mary. A hint of a smile pulled up one corner of Chris's mouth. Maude would be so disappointed.
Vin sat beside his friend and took the glass of whiskey from his hand for a drink before passing it back. He followed Chris's gaze and spoke quietly. "Looks like shit, don't he?"
Larabee cast a sidelong glance at Tanner and noted the dark bruises under his eyes and a small patch of hair still matted with dried blood. "You taken a look in the mirror yourself, lately?"
Vin just made a face at Larabee and nodded toward Ezra. "You really think he ain't yet learned we trust him in what matters?"
"I think he's still learning to trust himself. We'll keep drilling it into that thick southern head of his. He'll get it eventually."
Josiah walked in from the front of the church and JD's voice broke the stillness.
"Hey, what was all that stuff you and Nathan were reading earlier?"
The young man sat on a bedroll against one wall with a bottle of beer and sharing a loaf of bread and some butter with Buck.
From off the table Sanchez scooped up one of the books he and Nathan had read from and eased himself down onto the pile of blankets he'd set up. He passed a cigar and matches to Nathan who was standing at the book case reading.
Jackson glanced down at him. "Yeah, what was I reading?"
The ex-preacher puffed at his own Levy Brothers tobacco roll and watched the smoke curl upwards.
"The first was a Muslim prayer. It's protection against Iblis, also known as Shaytan. 'There is no God but Allah, alone, without any partner, His kingdom, and His is the praise, and He has power over all things.' When repeated in the morning it provides protection till the evening."
He flipped through the book he held until he found the page he wanted. "The second was Zoroastrian. This book is where Nathan found the legend of a brass urn that houses the ashes of six demons."
He read aloud the translation of the second prayer. " 'Just as God is to be admired, so should the servant on account of his righteousness. Benefit of Good Mind is for those who work selflessly in the name of God. That man develops moral courage who helps his fellow beings.' It's described as a formula for defeating evil. It says here - '...when one of the three parts was uttered, the evil spirit constricted his body through fear, and when two parts of it were uttered he fell upon his knees, and when all of it was uttered he became powerless.'
Buck took a long drink of beer. "Preacher... you know too much spooky shit."
Josiah smiled broadly. "Thank you."
JD swallowed a large mouthful of bread and questioned Sanchez once more. "And what about that stuff at the end? Whatever that was, it really worked him up."
Josiah nodded. "Very astute of you, John. Those were names. Ahura Mazda is God, well, his Zoroastrian name anyway. Think of him as the one who rules the roost. The other six were archangels who helped guard against evil. Each one represents a positive attribute - Justice, Goodness, Strength, Health, Immortality, and Faith.
"The six of them with Ahura Mazda are what can beat Angra Mainyu, the Prince of Darkness, and his six demons."
"Yep," stated Buck. "Spooky shit."
JD sipped his beer. "Well I've had my fill of all that stuff. For the rest of my life."
Sanchez grinned. "You know, JD, there are some who believe that we don't just live one life. That we come back to improve ourselves and to learn lessons we didn't complete in the previous life. Some people theorize the same souls travel through those different lives with each other."
A dry voice with a thick southern drawl cut in to the conversation.
"If the good Lord does see fit to place us all on this earth again together, someone please promise me it will not involve careers in law enforcement."
Vin cast a look at the man on the bed whose eyes were still closed. "How long you been awake?"
"I was never asleep. How could anyone possibly sleep with ya'll prattlin' on?"
Buck shook his head. "You're looking at it all wrong, Ezra." He tipped his bottle of beer toward his friend before taking a long drink. "Maybe we can be in charge of laws governing alcohol."
Nathan smiled and took several long puffs off his cigar. "Or tobacco."
Vin tapped the Mare's leg he'd collected earlier, which now rested close to him on the table. "I'm thinkin' firearms."
Ezra had yet to open his eyes but put in his suggestion with a wishful smile. "Explosives would be nice."
Chris shot back the last of his whiskey. "I'll tell ya one thing, if you all are together again in a future life I sure as hell am not going to be in charge of you. Like the kid said, I've had my fill of all that stuff. For the rest of my life."
If you enjoyed this story, we're sure that Mog would love to hear from you.
HOME | MOG'S FIC | TITLES | AUTHORS | UNIVERSES
This website is maintained by Donna and Barb
with corrections and additions