The Devil's Night
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. And to Tidiafor 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.
| 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.
-Highwayman's Prayer (Appalachian folk song)
The Devil's Night
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 séance 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."