The Devil's Night
". . .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 séance 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."