by Sue Bartholomew
Disclaimer: The characters from the program The Magnificent Seven in this story are not mine and are owned by Trilogy, CBS and MGM. I am making no profit from their use. Honest.
Rating: PG-13 for language, violence, possibly disturbing scenes
Warnings: This is a vampire story. There is violence and a small amount of blood-drinking in this fic, so if such things bother you you're better off not reading it. I'd also like to add that Ezra is very definitely Not Nice in parts of this story. Just a warning!! :)
Author's Notes: This is a Halloween story I wrote in 2000. It was just released to web publishing, just in time for Halloween!! :)
This fic was previously published in the zine 'Legends of the Magnificent Seven #2', which is available from the excellent Demon Bunny Press. For ordering info, please go to the website or email Vickie.
Big thanks go to my betas Carla, LadyViper, Chris and KathyB, and to my sister Sarah for their help. I'd also like to say a huge 'much obliged' to Mary, who gave me some great ideas for pt. 10!
The name of Ezra's horse Chaucer was coined by Kristen. Thanks, Kristen!
Enjoy!! Feedback always greatly appreciated!!
The full moon glowed bright over the small frontier town of Four Corners, its silvery rays sweeping over the wooden buildings with a gentleness which tried to soften the bite of the cool autumn air. Night had long since fallen, and here and there some of the town's citizens scurried home through the darkness, eager for a hot meal to stave off the air's deepening chill.
At the end of town stood the old white church, battered and worn but still erect, its beaten wooden clapboards glowing softly in the pale moonlight. Those whose paths took them by the church would have been able to see its current resident, Josiah Sanchez, standing by the window, gazing at the moon as a frown creased his handsome face. They might have waved to the man who had shouldered the burden of the church's restoration, but he would not have waved back.
He was far too worried.
Josiah stood watching the night for a few more moments before moving away from the window and back into the church, his slow, thoughtful steps echoing loudly off the unadorned walls of the empty sanctuary. Several times he stroked his graying beard, or rubbed his lined face, or ran one hand over his short salt-and-pepper hair as he pondered the heaviness which lay over his heart this night. It was a strange feeling, one of deep foreboding, and it wrapped itself stubbornly around his soul and refused to move.
The large man shook his head, smiling at himself as he went to pick up his carpenter's tools. There was no reason to feel so uneasy; the town had been quiet lately, and he and the other six men hired to protect it had seen lots of scrapes in the past few weeks but nothing out of the ordinary.
Must be cause it's gettin' close to Halloween, he figured as he bent over to pick up his hammer and nails. I been hearin' JD talk about it so much he's beginnin' to get to me.
But it wasn't that easy to shake off. As he went back to work on the loose floorboards, the nagging feeling persisted, that something evil was in their midst and waiting to strike. As a preacher's son, religious student and former conveyer of the good word himself, Josiah knew what sort of forms evil could take. He had often seen its human form, but now he was getting the prickly feeling that its unnatural counterpart was nearby as well. But that sounded just plain crazy.
With a sigh he knelt and went to work, pounding the nails into the floor and hoping the activity would help clear his head. It was a big job, but that didn't matter. He knew he wouldn't be getting any rest tonight.
Far away from the church, on a crest of rock overlooking the town, a man sat on a large white horse and studied the small cluster of buildings before him, seemingly untroubled by the biting wind which whipped around him.
He was a slender man, tall and gracefully built, clad in the most stylish fashion of the day. The pale moonlight glinted off of his fine black coat and trousers, slid across his dark blue satin waistcoat, and lingered on his perfectly tied red cravat. His hair was white and very long, falling in thick waves to the middle of his back. The hair in his fashionable goatee was darker, with only a few snowy hairs blending in with the ebony. His face was strikingly handsome and youthful, in contrast to his white hair. Above his long, straight nose peered two sharp eyes of a deep blue, almost violet color, eyes which were now hungrily assaying the town of Four Corners.
This will be perfect, he thought as he studied his next destination. A small town full of drifters and rogues -- here there would be plenty of opportunities for him to find a new lieutenant. The demise of his last one had been unfortunate; they had been working together for a long time, and had been equals in strength. But his associate had gotten greedy, and it had ended there. He'd be more careful this time.
Even from this distance, he could sense the souls moving about the town, and could tell where the best hunting would be. Many he dismissed right away as too weak, too young, too troublesome. There was an art to choosing his right-hand man; he had to be someone strong yet controllable, intelligent but not overly ambitious. After two hundred years of doing this he had gotten pretty good at it, was able to find men quickly who had a taste for adventure and gain and didn't mind the darkness, men nobody would miss. They always seemed to be in the same places.
The white-haired man smiled slightly to himself, and spurred his horse onward towards the town.
"Is this what you were looking for, JD?"
Mary Travis opened another box of books, bringing the lantern closer so she could see into its dusty depths. The small back room they were in was dark, and the lanterns she and JD were carrying did little to dispel the gloom.
There was a clatter, and a slim young man stepped into the glow of her lantern, holding his own above his head as he made his way over. He leaned forward and peered into the box, ignoring the long strands of thick black hair which fell into his eyes.
"Sorry, Mrs. Travis, these look like cookbooks," he said in a tone of disappointment. They both stood, Mary sighing and brushing her long blonde hair back from where it had fallen into her face.
"Well," she said, looking around, "I suppose we'll just keep looking. There have to be some ghost story books around here somewhere, I know our library had some."
JD wiped his dusty hand on his pants and coughed. "Too bad they didn't rebuild the library after it burned. This'd be a lot easier."
Mary pushed a few boxes out of her way as she stepped over to a corner. "If the librarian hadn't decided to move to Eagle Bend he probably would have. But you know what it was like here before Mr. Larabee and the rest of you came, JD -- no one thought this town would survive."
A chuckle escaped JD's throat. "Well, we sure proved them wrong, didn't we!" he said proudly. "Now every desperado in the territory knows better'n to start anything here."
"That doesn't seem to stop them from trying," Mary replied with a smile as she opened another box. "Hmm, here's some mythology books, I suppose Mr. Crawford might have packed them in here."
JD hurried to her side, his lantern again held high. "Those look like them big religious book Josiah's always readin'."
Mary was picking several of the large volumes up and examining them one by one. "'Legends of Europe and the Orient' -- hmmm -- 'Russian Myths and Folk Tales' -- oh, here's one, 'Collection of Ghost Lore'." She handed him the slim blue book.
JD accepted it, smiling in surprise at all the dust. "Boy, guess these didn't get read much, huh?"
The handsome blonde woman shrugged. "I'm afraid Mr. Crawford overestimated the mindset of the people here. Probably why nobody's tried to rebuild the library." She closed the box and looked around. "I think he had some Poe here as well."
JD beamed as he wiped off the blue book. "That'd be great! Ma used to read 'The Raven' to me at Halloween every year. It was pretty eerie, but I loved it. That'd be perfect for the party Buck and I are puttin' together."
They moved out of the back room and into the warmer glow of the living area at the back of the Clarion.
As Mary locked the door, she smiled. "The children will certainly enjoy having a party to go to. It's been years since anyone put a fall celebration together." she sighed as she finished her task and put the key in her pocket. "But then we haven't had much to celebrate."
JD gave her an optimistic grin. "That's gonna be different this year, Mrs. Travis. Thanks for the book -- I bet the kids will love these ghost stories."
"You're quite welcome, JD," Mary said as she showed him to the door. "So while you're getting the children's part of the party ready, what's Buck doing?"
The young man laughed as he buttoned his wool coat in anticipation of the cold wind. "Seein' as how it's Buck, Mrs. Travis, he's probably trackin' down every pretty lady in town an' seein' she gets a personal invitation to the dance."
Mary nodded, amused as she opened the door. "I wouldn't be at all surprised. Good night, JD."
"Night, Mrs. Travis."
JD dashed out the open door and into the street, barely pausing before turning his steps to his boarding house room, his mind already whirling with plans for the party. In his haste to find warmth the young man barely noticed the tall man on the beautiful white horse who was slowly riding towards the saloon. After giving the stranger a cursory glance, JD hurried home, noting only that it seemed to be getting much colder.
Ezra sighed and scowled to himself as he gazed across the empty poker table at the sparse crowd milling around the saloon. He was in a sour mood tonight, and so far nothing had happened to ease it.
He sat back, bored and irritable, tossing aside the newspaper he'd been reading. There was little there to catch his interest, except for a curious story about the gruesome murder of some drifters over in Eagle Bend. But the horrific story had only served to darken his already dark mood; it only proved what animals men could be.
Idly he shuffled the cards in his hands, sending their thin stiff forms flitting quickly back and forth between his palms as he mused on his misfortunes. His eye glanced at his sleeve, and he frowned at how worn it was getting. But there was no help for that; mending clothes would only go so far before new ones were needed, and thanks to the piddling salary this job paid it would be a long time before he could afford a new jacket. The clothes had held up thus far but this would not be the case for much longer, and the gentleman gambler winced at how ragged he would soon look.
His arm twinged as he shuffled, and he stopped long enough to rub it, more out of annoyance than pain. He'd been shot there two weeks ago, and though the wound hadn't been serious, it had been painful. It had only been yesterday that Nathan had allowed it out of the sling, and it still bothered him. The healer had promised that soon the hurt would stop, but this did little to lighten Ezra's heart. If the bullet had gone in one inch over, Ezra would have been in serious trouble. Likely he would have lost the use of the arm, or perhaps lost the arm itself, a prospect which he found horrifying.
His restless green eyes wandered the bar where a few of the local townsmen were gathered, talking. He recognized one of them, the carelessly dressed Walter Felton who owned the local grocery store. Felton made no pretense at accepting Ezra and the six other men hired to protect the town, and often voiced his opinion of "hired guns" to anyone who would listen. Ezra had had words with him just the other day after Felton sold him what Ezra believed to be spoiled goods. It had been an ugly argument which had ended with Felton's invitation for Ezra "and those other six damned gunmen" to leave town if he didn't like what he was being sold. The gambler had managed to leave the scene without becoming unmannerly, but it had been a hard struggle.
Now as he stared at Felton, he felt the anger return. Why was he here anyway, wasting his time, being poor, and getting shot, all to protect a bunch of ingrates? It simply wasn't worth it. He'd have to talk to Chris...
But then the familiar hesitations appeared, and deep down he had to admit that he didn't truly want to leave, that he had come to enjoy the companionship of the other men and the novelty of working for the law rather than against it. The idea seemed to nourish some hidden part of his soul, even if it wasn't making him any wealthier.
He still couldn't deny the fact that he was feeling dissatisfied and restless, however, and he found himself facing a bothersome problem: he wasn't happy here, but he wouldn't be happy leaving, either. It was all very confusing.
"Excuse me, sir, are you perchance looking for an opponent?"
Ezra pulled himself quickly out of his reverie and looked up. Standing on the other side of the table was a tall, handsome, well-dressed man of about his age with long flowing white hair, a closely trimmed black beard and striking violet eyes. He was regarding Ezra with a pleasant, though distant, expression.
The gambler quickly sized him up: obviously well-to-do, probably skilled enough to be a challenge, at least it would be more interesting than stewing in his bad mood.
Ezra sighed and indicated the seat opposite him. "By all means," he said. "I must confess solitaire loses its charms after being played twenty times."
"I can well imagine," the other man laughed in a deep tone as he sat down and extended one white-gloved hand. "Gabriel Montreux, from New Orleans."
"Ezra Standish," Ezra replied, shaking the man's hand and feeling deeply envious of the fine clothing his new acquaintance wore. Every stitch was of the highest quality. He sat back and began to shuffle the cards. "You're far from home tonight, Mr. Montreux."
Montreux laughed as he removed his tall silk hat, his full head of silky white hair glistening in the golden candlelight. "My business takes me to many places, Mr. Standish," he said, the faintest hint of a French accent coloring his words. "Even to your charming town."
Ezra grunted as he began to deal. "Not my charming town, I assure you."
He looked up to see Montreux eying him very keenly.
"You don't live here, then?" Montreux asked as he picked up his cards.
Ezra pursed his lips and sighed deeply as he expertly fanned out his hand. "This is not my permanent residence, no, sir, a fact for which I am on my knees and thanking the Lord on a daily basis."
Montreux's smile did not fade as he regarded Ezra calmly. "You sound anxious to move on, my friend."
"Anxious does not begin to describe it," Ezra assured him as he picked up a shot of whiskey. "During my time here I have been subjected to the most heinous living conditions. My wardrobe, sir, is in a shambles, I am practically perforated with bullet wounds, and most of the citizenry are as uncouth a collection of rabble as I have ever seen." He downed the whiskey and set the empty glass on the table, going back to his cards with a resigned sigh. "Ah well, one must endure, I suppose."
"That is true, Mr. Standish," Montreux replied as they played out the hand, "but that doesn't mean one has to suffer while doing it. Suppose I were to offer you an opportunity to escape your existence here, and live the life you obviously deserve."
Ezra chuckled and shook his head as he rearranged his hand. "I would say, Mr. Montreux, that you would have to be more specific."
Montreux gave him a smile and sat back, laying his cards down long enough to reach into his coat and remove two cigars. He held one out to Ezra. "Care for a cigar, Mr. Standish? The very best, I promise you."
Ezra accepted the gift and studied the band, clearly impressed by what he read there. "Much obliged, Mr. Montreux," he said, genteelly biting off the end and spitting it out. "I see you have the proper taste in tobacco."
"It's a life you could get used to quite quickly, Mr. Standish," was the genial reply as the cigars were lit. He sat back, the smoke circling around his head as he talked. "I travel a great deal, and need an assistant to aid me in my business. Someone who doesn't mind taking risks and doing things in a, shall we say, unorthodox manner."
Ezra eyed him as he took a deep draw on the cigar. It was undoubtedly the finest one he'd ever tasted. He blew the smoke out and leaned forward. "That sounds rather illicit, my friend."
Montreux gave him a small grin and picked his cards up again. "Parts of the job may be illicit, Mr. Standish, but the rewards far outweigh such considerations. Such a risk provides wealth quickly, and I am a most impatient man when it comes to attaining my goals. Surely a man such as yourself is not afraid to step beyond the boundaries of society now and then, eh? I'm sure -- and this is not an accusation, merely a fact -- that you've done it before."
Ezra's head came up, his eyes sharp as he gazed at Montreux.
The other man appeared to sense Ezra's tenseness, and waved one graceful hand. "Oh, don't distress yourself, my friend. As I said, that is merely an observation. I don't blame you -- far from it, it takes courage to break from the petty considerations of conscience and take what is yours. Most people never do, and what's the consequence? They lead dull, safe, impoverished lives, never coming to the knowledge that life truly belongs only to those who disregard the rules -- all rules."
Ezra stared at him, then nodded a little, amazed. This was so unlike what he was used to hearing from his other friends, but it was the credo by which Ezra had lived most of his life. All this time he'd heard the healer Nathan Jackson, the tracker Vin Tanner, the former preacher Josiah Sanchez, all of them, chide him for trying to better his financial position. It had been a struggle for Ezra to abandon his old way of life, the cheating and the confidence games, yet lately he'd been finding the straight life oddly appealing. But the mood he was in tonight made what Montreux was saying sound quite attractive.
Of course, he knew it wasn't be that simple, he was in the employ of a Federal judge and could not just up and leave. And he would miss the company of the other men, although he would never admit that to them. But what could it hurt to at least listen to the man talk? The way things were going, it felt good to at least think that there was a possibility of a better life. Perhaps he could convince Montreux to wait until he was finished here before hiring him.
Ezra realized that Montreux was watching him, and cleared his throat as he leaned forward in his chair. "It sounds very appealing indeed," he said, smiling, the lamplight glinting off his gold tooth. "And as you say, there have been times when I have found the law to be rather, er, inconvenient."
The other man arched one thick black eyebrow. "Insulting, isn't it? That men such as you or I would have to kowtow to rules, while the rich and powerful routinely flaunt them and pocket all the wealth. But it doesn't have to be that way. Such things can be easily disregarded, if you agree to join me."
Ezra took another draw on the cigar, studying the other man through the smoke. "Your offer is quite intriguing," he admitted, "but you understand I am going to have to know more about what this is all about."
"Of course," Montreux said in a smooth, smiling voice. "My business papers are at the hotel down the street, they will explain everything. Shall I meet you there tomorrow evening?"
Ezra finished the cigar and glanced at Montreux. "Not in the morning? I thought that was when all of you businessmen conducted your affairs."
Montreux shrugged apologetically. "I find that I conduct my business the best during the nighttime hours. Much like you, I imagine."
The gambler grinned. "I concur with that sentiment wholeheartedly," he said, patting Montreux heavily on the shoulder.
They played a few hands, with each man winning; the talk died down, and more than once Ezra found the other man simply staring at him. He found it unnerving, but chalked it up to an eccentricity.
At length Montreux put down the cards and picked up his hat. "My apologies, Mr. Standish, but I must run. I have business to conduct back at my room."
Ezra nodded as he gathered up the cards. It had been an interesting night, even if he had won only a little money. "It has been a pleasure, sir," he said, shaking Montreux's hand. "I will see you tomorrow evening, then."
Montreux smiled. "Of course. Good night."
He gave a slight, graceful bow and walked out. Ezra watched him go, then shook his head as he collected his meager winnings and tapped the cards back into order. Mysterious fellow, he thought, but it had proven to be an effective diversion from his bad mood, and who knows? Perhaps he could have a promising opportunity lined up for the time when the job here was finally at an end. Mother would be happy, anyway.
He pocketed the money and the cards and looked at the clock; almost midnight, soon he would have to go out on patrol. Another part of the job he disliked, he sighed, but at least he didn't have the morning patrol this time around.
With reluctant but dutiful stride Ezra left the saloon and sauntered towards the livery, shivering a bit at the chill as the wind whistled down the street. As he neared the stables, he passed a long alleyway and glanced down it idly as he walked by.
Suddenly he stopped, listening. Had he heard something? Turning, he looked down the alley. It had come from there--
There! A strangled noise, almost a scream, coming from the shadows. Drawing his Remington, Ezra trotted down the alleyway, his green eyes searching. The sound grew louder the farther down he ran, but still he could find no source of the noise.
He reached the end and glanced from side to side, his gun glinting in the full moonlight.
Then his instincts shouted a warning in his ear. Behind him--
Before he could turn, someone grabbed the back of his neck, pressing quick and hard. A sharp pain erupted between his eyes, a pain quickly followed by deep blackness, and he was unconscious before he hit the ground.
The alleyway fell silent; no one was there to witness the gambler's fall, or the appearance of the tall, white-haired man who now stood over his crumpled form, the moonlight shining off his long, sharp teeth.
"My apologies for the rude behavior, Mr. Standish," the man said softly, gazing down at his prey, "but as I said, I am a most impatient man."
He lifted the gambler easily in his arms and disappeared into the shadows.
Buck leaned back lazily on his chair as he surveyed the passing afternoon scene from the porch of the saloon, a toothpick dangling from between his teeth.
"Looks like another roarin' day," he commented idly to JD, who sat beside him reading one of the books he'd borrowed from Mary.
The young man looked up at the mustached gunslinger and grinned a little uneasily. "If you're bored, Buck, you oughta try readin' some of these ghost books Mrs. Travis gave me. Some of the stories in here are really scary."
His friend grunted with amusement and switched the toothpick to the other side of his mouth. "Thanks, kid, I get plenty scared just doin' this job. Mornin', Josiah."
JD followed Buck's gaze to see the burly preacher stepping onto the boardwalk, a couple of large books in one hand.
"Hey, preacher," JD greeted his friend, looking closely at him. "You look mighty tired. You feelin' all right?"
A weary grin etched itself across Josiah's face. "Just had a bad night, son, that's all. Here." he held the books out to JD. "Found these in my personal library, thought they might help."
JD accepted the books and peered at their titles. "'Tales of Unusual and Fascinating Phenomena' -- I don't know, Josiah, this sounds kinda high-minded for a Halloween party. I'm just lookin' for ghost stories."
The preacher gave him a patient smile. "There's some of those in there, an' the author swears they're all true. I've found it pretty interestin' reading, myself."
The young man considered this and nodded. "Okay, well, thanks, Josiah. I can't wait to read it!"
"Just don't go scarin' yourself there, kid," Buck joshed with a smile. JD's response was a sarcastic laugh, after which he opened the book and began poring through it.
"Speakin' of ghosts," Josiah went on as he looked at his friends and leaned on one of the posts, "anybody seen Ezra? He was supposed to help me take some rotten shutters off the church this mornin'."
JD looked up. "Ain't seen him all day. He had patrol last night, must be sleepin' that off."
"Yeah, you know Ezra ain't no early bird," Buck added with a knowing nod. "But I figure he should be about rested by now. Want me to go throw 'im downstairs for ya?"
"Naw," Josiah waved it away with a sigh as he straightened. "I'm gonna just go in an' get some of Inez's coffee."
With that he walked stiffly past them and into the saloon.
JD watched him go in, then shifted back in his seat and threw Buck a worried look. "He didn't look so good, huh, Buck?"
His friend had leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. "Sure he's fine, kid. Could be the full moon's got him feelin' outta sorts, you know it gets some folks all turned around."
"Yeah, maybe," JD muttered as he began to read one of the more fascinating pages of Josiah's book. "Guess maybe that's what's gotten into Ezra too. It's that time of year, everybody's just actin' weird."
"Could be, kid," Buck replied casually as he relaxed. "Could be."
Montreux watched and waited. This was always a dangerous and difficult time, and he had to be ready.
His hotel room was dark, the sunlight blocked by heavy velvet draperies, but there was enough light from the glowing lamps for him to easily see the unconscious form of Ezra who lay unmoving on the large bed in the middle of the room. The gambler's hat and jacket had been removed, as well as all weapons, and now there was nothing to do but stand vigil at the bedside and wait.
Montreux eyed him carefully, slightly anxious; the man was pale, but that was to be expected after what had happened. It was the long time Ezra was taking to come around that worried the suave stranger; perhaps this one was too weak to be a good choice. It was always a shame when they didn't survive, though; the technique required to transform a victim rather than simply kill them was tricky, and when it didn't work he always found it personally disappointing. But Montreux had not lost a new convert in over a hundred years, and he reassured himself that Standish would prove as worthy a novice as all the others had.
The first few moments of consciousness was critical. The sensation of awakening to a while new way of life drove a few of them mad; it was distressing to some to have their soul and conscience simply gone, to suddenly have nothing holding them back from their most base and selfish desires. But normally they relished being able to do anything they pleased without remorse, and their glee over their newfound liberty was often highly satisfying.
It would be that way for this man; when Ezra woke up he would be deeply changed, free of the inhibitions which bound mortal men. Like all of their kind, Standish would now be able to indulge in every dark whim without hesitation; without his soul and conscience there would simply be nothing stopping him. There was no decency or goodness left in Standish now; they had departed with his soul, and Montreux was most interested to see what sort of man his new pupil would be once he made this discovery.
Suddenly Ezra stirred a little and moaned, clutching weakly at the fine bedspread. Montreux sat up, fully alert; now he would know if this was going to work out.
For a moment Ezra stopped moving, and the green eyes blinked open, staring in confusion at the ceiling. When that proved less than helpful, he lifted his head slightly and saw Montreux sitting at the bedside, watching him closely.
"Mm," Ezra groaned, one slender hand reaching up to rub his head very slowly. "What... happened?"
"Don't be alarmed, Ezra," Montreux replied in a low and friendly voice, rising from his seat and reaching for a bottle on the ornate bedside table. "Everything's going to be all right."
"That may be your assessment," Ezra replied in a groggy voice, shaking his head violently and blinking his eyes several times. "It does not appear that way from here. You know, I feel... quite strange..."
Ezra sat up on his elbows in a very slow and stiff manner, and reached back to rub his neck. Montreux saw him scowl in puzzlement as his fingers explored a rough spot on his throat; there were two small puncture wounds there, but Ezra couldn't see them. He looked up at his host, bewildered. "Have I been wounded?"
"It's nothing to worry about, I promise," was the sure reply, and Montreux handed him the dark bottle. "Here, drink this. You must be hungry."
Ezra considered this and took the bottle. "Now that you mention it, I am feeling rather famished." He looked around. "I see we're in the Ritz."
Montreux smiled. "In my room, yes. It was the best place to bring you. I gather you're familiar with it?"
The gambler winced, a bitter smile twisting his mouth as he raised the bottle to his lips. "My dear conniving mother used to own this establishment," Ezra replied, before putting the bottle to his mouth. He had no sooner tasted the contents than the vessel was hastily lowered again, the gambler coughing and gagging as he hunched over, bringing his free hand up to his mouth in shock.
"Dear Lord, Montreux!" he sputtered, sitting up and looking at the other man in horror. "What vile concoction are you poisoning me with?"
Montreux held out one hand to calm him. "It's perfectly harmless, Ezra. Just something to give you strength. It's not so bad, is it?"
Ezra glared at him as he whipped out one of his handkerchiefs and coughed into it, wiping off his mouth. "It is utterly repulsive," was the pronouncement, when he could talk.
"You'll soon overcome that belief," Montreux said with great confidence.
The gambler was breathing heavily from the coughing, and was shoving the handkerchief back into his pocket, still staring at the bottle as he did so. Montreux couldn't suppress a triumphant smile as he saw the doubt in Ezra's expression turn to confusion, then surprise as the realization grew. Soon, he knew, Ezra would drain the whole bottle.
Ezra's breathing began to come in gasps, and he turned his eyes back to Montreux, eyes full of complete bewilderment. His free hand reached up to rub his chest, as if trying to touch what was inside and discover what had changed about it.
"Perhaps," he said to Montreux in a tight, quiet voice, "you would care to explain all this to me, sir."
"It would be my pleasure, Mr. Standish," Montreux replied congenially as he sat down again, "but it may seem a bit fantastic at first."
The other man shook his head, running one hand through his chestnut hair as he gave a short, humorless laugh. "Believe me, Mr. Montreux, nothing right now would seem out of the realm of possibility. I have never felt so odd in my entire life."
A smile crossed Montreux's handsome face. "Quite an exhilarating feeling, isn't it? As if nothing on this earth is beyond your attainment. It's what freedom feels like, my friend, freedom and power. You feel as if you own the world."
Ezra stared at him, clearly absorbing the words, yet frightened at the understanding.
"Mr. Montreux," he finally said in a quiet voice, his green eyes wide, "what exactly has happened to me?"
Montreux continued to smile, and casually folded his hands as he leaned forward. "Mr. Standish," he said patiently, "are you familiar with the dark legends of Europe? The Rumanian region?"
Ezra scowled at him and rubbed his eyes. "Some, I confess," he said in a puzzled tone. "One of my cousins was deeply into spiritualism and the occult and scared me half to death with her tales of ghouls and monsters when I was a child."
Montreux's violet eyes glinted. "Did she ever mention vampires?"
The gambler glanced at him, his brows knit in thought. "A few times, perhaps. I believed her to be insane and paid little attention to what she was doing when she wasn't tormenting me."
"Truth often lies in insanity, my friend," Montreux assured him. "Your cousin's words were not as unbalanced as you might have thought."
Ezra stared at him, then chuckled. "You don't mean to say such creatures exist!"
Montreux sat back and shrugged. "As to the other monsters she mentioned, I have no idea. But in regard to vampires, Mr. Standish, that is exactly what I am saying."
They stared at each other for a moment, Montreux carefully watching Ezra's every expression. The gambler studied him keenly for a minute, then swung his legs over the side of the bed in a determined manner.
"Then, sir, I must sympathize with your deluded state and bid you good day," he said firmly, setting the bottle on the table and getting to his feet. No sooner did he stand up then he staggered a bit, gasping as he put one hand to his eyes.
Montreux was at his side at once, holding his elbow to steady him. "I know it's hard to believe, Mr. Standish--"
Ezra flung him off furiously, then sat back down on the bed, dropping his head into one hand and rubbing his eyes. "For God's sake, just tell me what's happening to me!" he pleaded angrily. "I feel as if I'm going mad!"
"It's not madness, Ezra," Montreux said quietly as he stood over him. "It's awareness, the only real awareness mankind has ever been granted. But we are not part of mankind any longer, my friend; we are above it, as far as the stars are above the earth. I know the legends are true, Mr. Standish, because I am living proof of it. And now, so are you."
Ezra's head snapped up, and for a long moment he stared at Montreux with eyes full of shock and disbelief.
"You're a lunatic," he whispered, and forced himself to his feet, pushing past Montreux towards the door. He stumbled and reached out, grabbing a marble-topped dresser by its edge and steadying himself, gasping. Sweat was beading on his brow.
Montreux moved carefully to stand behind him. "It's a shock, I know," he said in a soothing voice, "but you know it's true. You're not part of the dying mass of humanity outside those windows, Ezra. You no longer have to fear time; you no longer have a soul, or the bothersome conscience that goes with it. Search yourself, Ezra, and accept it. It will be your first step to liberation."
Ezra stood still, one hand still clutching the edge of the dresser, hearing him but still struggling to comprehend what he was being told. As Montreux watched, the gambler lifted his eyes to the large mirror mounted on the furniture before him.
His eyes met only emptiness. There was no reflection, either of him or of Montreux who stood behind him.
Ezra stared, amazed and dumbfounded, his green eyes wide. One hand slowly came up and gingerly touched the rough spot on his neck, on the right side of his windpipe, where two small, round wounds were rapidly healing.
"This can't be real," he murmured in a rough whisper, dropping his head to gaze with unseeing eyes at the floor.
"Don't fight it, Ezra," Montreux urged, seeing his comrade's expression of deep confusion. "Some would call it a curse, but you'll find it makes life much easier to bear. I understand you, Ezra, better than you might suppose; I know you have been plagued by doubts and uncertainties. But examine those questions now, Ezra; you will find the answers to them easy to find and understand. There is nothing holding you back now from attaining all you long for. All you have to do is accept your new life and all that it offers you."
The gambler didn't move, but Montreux saw his eyes flicker.
"You will gain the ability too, Ezra, the capacity to sense the thoughts of other men," Montreux continued in his soft, hypnotic voice. "I know how trapped you've felt here, frustrated and unable to fulfill your ambitions. Those barriers are gone now; you may do whatever you please to gain the fortune you seek. You need no longer concern yourself with the welfare of other men, for you see them in their true pitiful light. You no longer have to deny your own wants and desires; you can have them all, with no regrets! It's what you've always dreamed of -- take it!"
For a long time Ezra didn't move, standing perfectly still with his head bowed before the empty mirror. Montreux could see that his eyes were open, his mind working furiously, and waited to see how the gambler would react.
Several minutes passed. Outside, horses trotted by, carriages rattled down the dirt road, voices rose and fell in passing conversation -- all unheeded by the two figures in the room. The still air was moved by nothing except the gentle ticking of the delicate mantle clock.
Very slowly, Ezra finally lifted his head, his brow furrowed in amazement. He no longer appeared angry, only surprised and, to a large degree, relieved.
"I must admit," he whispered, "the idea is somewhat difficult to accept, but... there seems to be little point in denying the truth of it. I cannot refute the evidence of what I see and feel."
"The adjustment always takes some time, Ezra," Montreux said sympathetically. "But you will find it worth the effort."
Ezra stepped away from the dresser. "This is a rather severe adjustment, my friend," he remarked. "However, having heard your words, I must admit it does not seem so unwelcome, and this clarity of mind is... most astonishing."
The other man laughed a little and folded his arms. He had expected such a response; the part of Ezra Standish that would have been horrified at this turn of events -- the gambler's human soul -- was gone now, replaced by pure, dark rationality and impulses long held back by the powerful chains of conscience. Those restraints had now been lifted, and like all newborn vampires, Ezra would revel in the freedom such a condition provided. "There, you see?" Montreux said aloud in a fatherly voice. "Not so bad, is it?"
Ezra shook his head, an amazed smile tugging at his lips. His words were slowly spoken as he regarded his newfound insight. "It's -- well, Mr. Montreux, you have no idea how turned around my matters have been of late, but now -- it all seems so clear. It's... quite remarkable." He blinked a few times, his voice hushed with surprise.
"That, my friend, is because you are thinking with your head and not your heart," Montreux replied in a lively tone. "We have no hearts, you and I, but I haven't missed mine and I'm certain you won't miss yours. It gets in the way of pleasure, of achieving what we truly deserve."
Ezra nodded and ran one hand through his hair as he turned and stepped away from the mirror. "That it does," he said fervently. "Lord -- when I think how I've wasted my time here, let opportunities pass me by on account of my damned conscience -- it all seems so foolish now--"
Montreux sat down and held up one perfectly manicured hand. "No need for regrets, Ezra, you've got all of eternity to make up for lost time. Wealth, power, revenge, all are in your reach now, and you should be planning your future."
But Ezra was too restless to sit down; he was pacing back and forth now, his green eyes bright. "Yes, but you have no idea the wrongs I have suffered in this Godforsaken wasteland," he said as he walked. "I have borne them all quietly before, but Lord! Now I see what a fool I've been. Why on earth did I agree to this damnable job?"
Montreux looked at him, slightly startled. "Job?"
Ezra stopped, sighed, waved his hand dismissively. "Yes -- I'm currently employed by this shriveled excuse for a Judge to keep an eye on this miserable town. For a dollar a day! Was I insane?"
The elder vampire sat up, puzzled. "You mean, you're the sheriff here?"
"No, no," was the impatient reply as Ezra resumed his pacing. "There are six other men as well. We were hired together. How deluded I was to think that I was actually benefiting from that arrangement! I see it all now. It's been a colossal mistake."
Montreux was frowning, rubbing his lower lip with the slender index finger of his right hand. "These men may pose a problem, Ezra," he said at length. "I mean to be in San Francisco by the week's end, and they may try to stop us from leaving."
Ezra paused and considered this, then shook his head. "I assure you, they mean nothing to me anymore," he replied. "I suppose once I was sentimental enough to think we may have had some sort of friendship together, but now that merely seems to be a sad illusion." He let out a laugh and touched his forehead with one hand. "Lord! This new awareness is most astounding."
"As long as you have no compunction against killing them if necessary," Montreux said easily, sitting back with a small smile.
"Not in the slightest," was the prompt and bitter reply. "I can see now that they have only been abusing my services and preventing me from obtaining what is rightfully mine. I have endured their petty insults and mistrust and received nothing valuable in return. Now it would seem a little payback may be in order."
He smiled, and Montreux relaxed as he studied Ezra's expression. He saw what he wanted to see there, the beginnings of a totally ruthless nature, the green eyes hard and without any hint of compassion or humanity. This one had been a success; now all they had to do was get out of town.
"Excellent!" Montreux said aloud, sitting up. "You should rest now, Ezra, and I'll explain everything to you. We are strong but not invulnerable, and it would be best to leave town with as little attention drawn to ourselves as possible. You must break your employ at once."
Ezra sat down on the bed, his expression cold. "That will not be difficult," he promised, the muscles in his jaw twitching. "I have quite a few things I would like to say to Mr. Larabee, now that I see him for the cowardly bastard he is. And that sanctimonious darky Jackson as well..."
"However you manage it, as long as you do not arouse suspicion," Montreux advised. He glanced at the light leaking around the curtains. "The sun will be down soon, and I find myself quite famished. Perhaps when we are through here, you may tell me the places in town where the forgotten go and are not missed?"
Ezra peered at him, complete understanding in his soulless green eyes. Slowly he nodded, his face expressionless.
"Rest assured there are numerous back alleys here, and many drifters no one pays attention to," he said.
He almost looked eager, Montreux decided, but he wouldn't let Ezra in on the feasting just yet; it was all still too new for him. The cattle's blood in the bottle would satisfy him for now, but the time would come when Ezra would be unable to control the killing urge now growing unnoticed inside him. Montreux had to admit he was looking forward to that; there was something thrilling about watching a novice make his first kill. Perhaps it would be one of his friends; now that would be perfect.
"I rely on you, my friend," Montreux said aloud. "Now let us begin. I have much to tell you about the eternity which now lies in your grasp."
Ezra nodded, and without even thinking about it reached over and picked up the dark blue bottle from the bedside table. Montreux noticed this and smiled inside; they always succumbed, in the end. Some of them fought, some went mad, but there was no denying at last what the truth was, and what they had become.
He settled back in the expensively upholstered chair and began Ezra's orientation.
Vin sighed to himself as he trotted around the town's perimeter. Something wasn't right, but he couldn't put his finger on it.
The cool wind tugged lazily at his long brown curls as he glanced up at the full moon shining brightly overhead. The patrol had been quiet so far -- certainly not much was happening here among the desert rocks and sagebrush which lurked just beyond the efforts of civilization -- but his hunter's instincts were too restless to allow him to relax.
He gave a gentle touch of the spurs to Sire, who hastened himself a bit more as they both circled the town. Vin's sharp blue eyes scanned the area, looking for any hint of trouble, hoping to find the reason behind his strange sense of nervous anticipation.
A rider appeared on the town's outskirts, and for a moment Vin tensed. Then the figure drew closer, and the tracker's anxiety relaxed. It was Josiah.
The preacher was riding at a slow pace, and as he drew near to Vin it became increasingly apparent that the preacher was in a thoughtful mood. The other man felt oddly relieved at Josiah's presence; the eerie feeling which had dogged him all night seemed slightly alleviated by the preacher's company.
"Evenin', Josiah," Vin called when his friend was close enough. "Things gettin' too quiet in town?"
The other man looked up slowly, as if coming out of a deep state of contemplation. Vin saw a slight smile spread across his comrade's weary face. "Evenin', Vin," Josiah replied in a congenial but tired tone. "Town's just fine, just... felt the need to ride an' think a bit."
Vin nodded, shifting in his saddle. "Picked the right place t'do it," he said, glancing again at the deserted landscape. "Even the jackrabbits ain't hoppin' tonight."
Josiah chuckled. "Sounds right perfect," he observed softly, picking up his reins. With a nod, they parted, Josiah to ride and think and Vin to continue his patrol.
Several minutes later Vin was riding by the town's northern border when a sound reached his ear. He reined Sire in quickly and listened, one hand straying silently for his sawed-off Winchester. He had heard that grunting, snuffling noise often in his career as a tracker and hunter: it was soft but unmistakable.
A large animal was feeding nearby.
Vin looked around quickly, the weapon drawn now; if a mountain lion or other dangerous animal had come this close to Four Corners, he'd have to hunt it down and kill it before it began preying on the townsfolk. The noises continued, guttural snarls mixed with more muffled sounds.
After a few moments he saw it, dark and hunched over on a rock ledge fifty feet away and half-hidden by some brush. Swiftly and gracefully he dismounted, the primed gun firmly held in his hands as he inched forward, eager to survey his prey before deciding how best to bring it down.
It didn't look like a mountain lion, he decided as he drew closer; it was larger and had what looked like white fur. A wolf perhaps; if the brush wasn't in the way he could see more clearly. It was bent over its prey, so intent on its meal that it didn't notice Vin's approach. Whatever it was, it was too close to the town for Vin's liking.
He lifted the gun, preparing to take aim.
Suddenly the animal paused in its feeding, and Vin tensed; he'd been noticed. The creature made a snorting grunt of angered surprise, and Vin saw its head turn and look at him through the brush.
No you don't, Vin thought, and quickly brought the gun to his eye to aim and fire.
He heard the animal grunt, and then watched with astonishment as it began to stand in a perfectly human manner.
His blue eyes widened a bit as he stared at the crouched figure. That ain't no mountain lion, he realized, but pushed aside his surprise to focus on his target.
The creature let out a loud snarl, and suddenly Vin felt something strike him full force, knocking him to the ground and sending his gun spinning from his hands. The pain was overwhelming, and for a moment Vin thought he'd been shot. But it wasn't concentrated in one area; the agony consumed his entire body, and he found himself barely able to move beneath its crushing weight. He tried to lift his head and open his eyes, but something was immobilizing him, pinning him to the ground.
Vin grunted and struggled to breathe. Everything had gone quiet, and through the thudding of the blood in his ears Vin discerned a new sound. Footsteps, coming closer, and a smell he recognized, the stench of human blood.
Dammit, he's coming after me, he realized, but he was powerless to even open his eyes.
Then another, much more welcome noise reached his ears, coming up fast behind him. It was the pounding of hoofbeats.
"Vin!" Josiah's voice yelled out. A gunshot split the air, followed closely by another.
The assailant's footsteps stopped; Vin heard him give a furious sound of surprise and anguish. There was a rushing noise, and the suffocating weight lifted off of Vin so suddenly that the tracker gasped in relief. Gulping for air, he lifted his head as soon as its spinning stopped and looked around.
The creature was gone.
Vin took another deep breath and rolled over to see Josiah trotting up quickly, a smoking gun in one hand.
"Mighty good timin' there, Josiah," Vin gasped, dragging himself to his knees.
"Rabbits started hoppin', huh?" Josiah replied. "You all in one piece?"
"Hell, yeah, 'cept my head feels about ready to bust open," Vin groaned as he got painfully to his feet. "Did you get 'im?"
Josiah quickly dismounted. "Think so. Not sure where he went off to, it was like he just disappeared. I thought for sure you'd been shot."
"Sure felt like it," was the panting reply as Vin retrieved his hat and firearm. As he holstered the weapon he glanced over at the killer's victim and tensed. "Aw, hell! Look at this, Josiah."
The preacher came over to where Vin was standing. Before them lay the bloodied corpse of a man, not much past Josiah's age and wearing the tattered rags of a drifter. His white skin and the copious amounts of spilled blood pointed to the inevitable conclusion.
"Lord above," Josiah groaned sympathetically. "Looks like we got a killer on the loose."
"Yup," Vin nodded with a disgusted sigh. He stepped forward, undisturbed by the grisly sight, and took a closer look. "Seen this guy around town. Caught him beggin' outside of Mrs. Potter's last week."
"Well, looks like he's past worryin' about his earthly wants," was the preacher's melancholy response. "Best go get Nathan an' the undertaker an' start spreadin' the word for folks to be careful."
"He ain't just a killer," Vin said in a low voice, his expression grim. "I swear, Josiah, when I first saw all this -- I could swear he was eatin' the body. Thought it was a mountain lion with a dog or somethin'. Ain't never seen nothin' like it."
Josiah's face was sad as they hurried back to their mounts. "Neither have I, Vin, but man's capacity for evil is such that I can't say I'm too surprised to hear it."
They swiftly mounted their horses and galloped back to town.
Buck was in a light-hearted mood as he pushed through the doors of the saloon. It was a beautiful autumn evening, and he was determined to find a lovely lady to take a walk in the moonlight with -- and perhaps an even more interesting activity later on.
The crowd in the saloon was in full swing, and Buck took quick stock of the situation as he headed for the bar. Ezra was playing poker as usual, and seemed to be having an excellent -- and quite lucrative -- time. Buck gave him a glance as he passed, noticing the wide grin on his friend's face as he raked in another large pot. It was great to see his comrade so successful, but something in that smile bothered him; maybe it was because Ezra looked so pale. But then, maybe he was still feeling poorly from being shot.
Buck quickly shrugged it off and took his eyes elsewhere as he slid up to the bar.
"Hey there, Inez darlin'," he cooed to the pretty dark-haired woman standing behind the counter, "how about a whiskey for your dashin' hero?"
Inez smiled at him and pulled out a bottle and a shot glass. "Certainly, senor, when he arrives," she retorted, "but until he does I will be happy to pour one for you."
"That's a right chilly attitude there, senorita," Buck said with a jaunty grin as he handed her a couple of coins. "Maybe a walk in the moonlight later would warm you up a bit."
Inez gathered the coins with a good-tempered sigh. "Believe me, senor Buck, after closing up the saloon, sweeping the floors, counting the money and doing the books, I get plenty warm. Volunteer to wash dishes, and perhaps we'll talk."
She grinned and walked away, and Buck chuckled as he picked up the whiskey.
Buck turned to see JD standing at his elbow, an empty mug in his hand.
"Evenin', kid," Buck replied as he down the shot. "You find all them stories you were lookin' for?"
JD nodded. "I'll say! You should read some of them books Mrs. Travis gave me. This is gonna be one Halloween the kids at the party won't never forget. Oh, hey Inez, could I have another milk, please?"
Buck sighed as he leaned back against the bar, surveying the room. "Looks like a wild night."
"Yeah, me an' Nathan are sittin' with Chris over there." He pointed at the corner by the fireplace, where the healer and Chris were in deep conversation.
"That's great, JD, but I'm lookin' for some livelier conversation tonight, if ya get my drift," the other man said with a smile. "'Sides, I'd have thought you'd all be playin' poker with Ezra."
JD sighed and shook his head, a puzzled expression in his hazel eyes. "Well, we were, but he cleaned us all out."
Buck chuckled. "Aw hell, JD, that ain't surprisin', this is Ezra we're--"
"No, Buck, it wasn't like that," JD cut him off, and Buck heard the serious tone beneath the younger man's words. "It was -- well, you know when we usually play we're pretty friendly with each other?"
Buck nodded, looking over to where Ezra was gleefully gathering up another pot, much to the genuine dismay of the men around him.
"It wasn't like that tonight," JD continued in a softer voice, following Buck's gaze. "He beat the hell out of us, an' acted like he enjoyed doin' it -- I mean, really enjoyed it! An' some of the things he was sayin', real cold and mean. It was like all he wanted to do was take our money an' make us go away."
Buck thought for a moment, then shrugged. "Hell, JD, I reckon ol' Ezra's just in some funny sort of a mood, is all. You know how he can get when the cards ain't goin' right."
"But they are goin' right, Buck," JD observed, "so that don't explain it."
They watched as one of the losers, a ragged-looking farmer, made an obvious plea to Ezra. They couldn't hear the gambler's response over the din of the saloon, but it was clear from his furious expression, and the farmer's shocked and frightened reaction, that his entreaty had been brutally repulsed. Dejected, the farmer put on his hat and left the saloon while Ezra pocketed his money with a wide gold-toothed smile.
"There, you see? Even Ezra wouldn't take a man's last dime," JD said in a worried tone. "You think he's sick or somethin'?"
Buck studied his friend carefully, contemplating the sight. As a new group sat down to the poker table, Buck had to admit that the gleam in Ezra's eyes was a good deal harder than normal. But then, maybe this was what Ezra was like when he was winning big; who knew?
"I think we should go have a sit an' just keep an eye on things," Buck said, and they made their way over to the corner table.
They waded through the crowd towards the corner table, Buck giving his friends a smile as he approached.
"Hey, boys, where's the ladies?" he said in greeting.
"Ain't no ladies here, Buck," Nathan sighed, leaning on his folded arms. "Just a bunch of poor folk."
"Yeah, heard," Buck muttered, sitting down. "Guess we'll have to hit Ezra up for drinks later on."
"I'm feelin' like hittin' him up for somethin'," Chris said firmly, his green eyes angry. "Nathan was tellin' me Ezra didn't go out on patrol last night."
Buck looked at Nathan, surprised; Ezra griped about doing patrol but never shunned it. "That a fact?"
"Yup," the healer said in a faintly irritated tone. "I went to saddle up my horse to replace 'im an' Chaucer was still in the stall. He wasn't rode all night."
"Maybe he's still mad he got shot a few weeks ago," JD offered as he put down his mug of milk and picked up one of his books which lay in a small pile beside him on the table. "He's lookin' pretty pale."
Nathan's expression was doubtful. "Ezra's been shot lots of times, an' worse'n that," the former slave pointed out.
"Maybe he's just bein' a jackass," Chris suggested calmly, reaching for his shot of whiskey. "Lord knows that's happened before."
JD sadly shrugged and began flipping through his book, clearly unhappy with the topic.
Josiah's voice cut through the thick smoky air of the saloon. All of the men lifted their heads as he and Vin came hurrying through the crowds towards them. JD noticed that the smile had faded from Ezra's face as Josiah passed, and he seemed to wince in pain.
'That's weird,' the young man said to himself, but his full attention was soon given to their two newly arrived comrades.
"What is it?" Chris asked, his green eyes sharp.
"Killer's on the loose, it looks like," Vin replied, one hand resting on his Winchester as he talked. "Got some local drifter an' damn near got me."
"Get a look at him?" Buck asked, sitting up with a serious gleam in his blue eyes.
"The darkness made it hard to see," Josiah explained. "He musta got scared off when I rode up. Tall man with long white hair was all I could make out."
"Hey, I think I saw that guy last night!" JD exclaimed. "He was ridin' through the town."
"Probably lookin' for a victim," Vin said with a nod. He looked at Nathan. "Undertaker an' his partner are out gettin' the body. Reckon they could use your help."
The healer stood with a sigh. "I'm gettin' too used to this. Was it bad?"
"Bad enough," Josiah said quietly.
"All right," Chris said, standing up. "We'll--"
The sound of a chair being loudly pushed back cut him off, and they all turned to see a rotund, well-dressed city man with a balding head and white mustache glaring at the calm and seated Ezra. The two men were exchanging sharp and heated words, the city man pointing at Ezra several times.
"Looks like he might need some help if a fight breaks out," Buck murmured; the word "cheating" was clearly audible.
"We'll take care of this," Chris said in an angry tone, just as annoyed at Ezra as at the city man. "Josiah, you an' Nathan an Vin go ahead. We'll meet you over at the undertakers an' figure out a plan."
"Right," Josiah nodded, and he and his two friends walked out quickly, barely even noticing the altercation at the poker table. As Josiah passed Ezra, JD saw the gambler barely pause in his argument and flinch as if he'd been stabbed.
"We better break this up before it gets ugly," Chris said, looking at JD and Buck before turning to walk over to the poker table.
"Yeah, don't want to scare all the pretty gals away," Buck said, right on his old friend's heels with JD close behind.
"You, sir, have been cheating this entire game," the city man was saying loudly, his round face livid. "I demand my money be returned!"
"Sir, I could not care less about your demands," was Ezra's even response as he lounged in his chair. "The fact remains you are a sorry excuse for a poker player and lost fair and square."
"Need some help, Ezra?" Chris said as he came up behind the gambler, subtly brushing his long black duster away from his hips to reveal his gunbelt.
Ezra barely glanced at him. "Not unless you would care to lose some more of your money, Mr. Larabee," he said.
The city man glanced up at Chris. "Did he cheat you, too?"
Ezra laughed; it was an ugly sound, full of derision. "Sir, I hardly need to cheat when faced with the likes of Mr. Larabee's talents. They are as pathetic as your own."
Chris shot the gambler a furious look. "Careful, Ezra, or I might just let him shoot you."
"He is certainly welcome to try," Ezra said in a jovial voice as his cold green eyes studied his accuser. "His aim is likely as miserable as his card-playing. I would advise you, sir, to return to your obvious talents -- growing fat, old and bald."
The city man's eyes grew wide and he stepped forward, one hand going for the small gun he wore on his hip.
Chris's hand was on his weapon in an eyeblink, but before he could react Ezra had leapt out of his chair. With one hand he wrenched his opponent's arm behind his back, pinning it painfully, and with the other he held the gleaming barrel of his Remington shoved beneath the fat man's chin. The city man was paralyzed with fear as sweat broke out on his forehead.
"I must express my heartfelt gratitude to you, sir," Ezra said through gritted teeth as he pushed the gun even further into the man's flesh. "I was simply dying for you to do that."
He cocked the gun and put his finger on the trigger.
"Ezra!" JD yelled, shocked.
Chris lunged forward, grabbing Ezra's wrist and forcing the gun away from the city man's throat. The traveler gasped and staggered back, coughing and rubbing his neck.
"He's insane!" he choked, before grabbing his hat and running out of the door.
Ezra watched him go, his face wreathed in fury, and turned to Chris. "How dare you intervene in a private matter, Larabee!" he cried, his handsome face livid.
In a few steps Chris was right next to Ezra, staring straight into his face with green eyes filled with rage. One hand grabbed Ezra's lapel, holding it in an iron grip. "Have you gone crazy, pullin' your gun on a civilian?" he said in a angry whisper.
Ezra looked down in surprise at the fist clutching his jacket. One hand shot up and grabbed Chris's wrist. "Unhand me, sir!"
"Not by a damned sight," Chris shot back, pulling Ezra an inch closer and looking straight into his eyes. "You have any idea what would've happened if you'd killed him? The Judge'd have you swingin' by morning, an' the rest of us would get run out of here on a rail!"
Ezra's expression was growing lethal, his green eyes round and staring. "I don't give a damn what that shriveled excuse for a justice says," he replied in a deadly drawl. "I am warning you, sir, release me at once."
"What the hell's gotten into you?" Chris demanded, giving Ezra a shake. "You can't go shootin' every stupid bastard who gets under your skin!"
"Yes, well, you're certainly the one to preach that, Mr. Larabee," Ezra chuckled. "How many stupid bastards have you put into the ground?"
Buck saw Chris's eyes flicker. Chris's past as a dangerous gunslinger was not something he was happy about, and none of their number would dare throw it into his face like that, unless he was looking to get punched in the face.
For a moment Chris's mouth twisted in barely suppressed rage. He fought it back, however, and simply tightened his grip on Ezra's lapel.
"I'm gonna be puttin' you on the floor if you don't watch it," he snarled.
"A miserable drunk such as yourself? I think that highly unlikely," Ezra said, his green eyes blazing as a cold smile twitched the end of his lips. His expression was taunting and eager, daring Chris to begin the fight.
Chris saw it too, and gave his head a short shake. He didn't want to fight Ezra but the gambler was just asking for it. "Ezra--"
The other man inclined his head a bit, smiling. "Perhaps you're too much of a coward to throw the first punch? That doesn't surprise me, most bullies are. So allow me."
The words were barely out of his mouth when he slammed his fist viciously into Chris's stomach. The entire crowd watching gasped at the force of it. Chris coughed and doubled over, and Ezra wrenched the gunslinger's hand from his collar and twisted the arm behind Chris's back. His teeth clenched with rage, he grabbed Chris by the collar with his other hand, lifted him up a little, then slammed him face-first onto the poker table.
The table flipped over, and the crowd yelled and scattered as poker chips and cigar butts flew across the air. Chris collapsed to the ground, gagging and stunned.
"Okay, pard, that's enough!" Buck announced, stepping forward, his gun drawn. It was plain from the fiery gleam in Ezra's eye that he had not finished with Chris.
Ezra looked up at Buck, not the slightest bit intimidated, and in one lightning move lashed out, sending his fist crashing across Buck's jaw. The blow was considerable, and as Buck reeled from it, Ezra grabbed him by the shoulder and threw him with tremendous force against the nearest wall.
"Buck!" JD cried, watching in horror as Buck sagged to the floor, unconscious, blood running from his mouth. He stared at Ezra as he passed, too aghast to speak, but Ezra ignored him.
Chris was moving slowly to his knees, blood flecking his face and shirt.
"All right, Ezra, you want to fight--" he sputtered, giving his former colleague an incensed glare.
"If only you were an adequate opponent, Mr. Larabee," Ezra replied, before driving his foot viciously into Chris's ribs. Chris gasped and bent over, but as soon as he did so Ezra reached down and grabbed him by the hair, wrenching one arm behind him again as he hauled him up to his feet. Chris struggled, but Ezra's grip was as tight as iron bands.
"Buck? Hey Buck!" JD urged, trying to rouse his friend and keeping one eye on the fight. The rest of the saloon crowd was watching with varying expressions of horror and amusement; no one moved to break it up.
"Just as I suspected, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said, shaking his head as he tightened his hold on Chris's hair and arm. "You are as wretched at fisticuffs as you are at everything else. Perhaps if you had been more of a man your family might still be alive. But I suppose we shall never know."
Chris clawed at Ezra with his free arm. "You son of a bitch," he panted, barely able to breath.
Ezra sighed, a look of mock sadness creeping into his eyes. "Yes, regrettably, that is true. But don't worry, I'll be paying her a visit soon as well. When I'm through with you, of course."
He pushed Chris away, releasing his hold on him. Chris stumbled into the crowd who instantly backed away, leaving a wide berth. Chris tried to stand, blinking against the blood and the pain, but before he could gather his wits Ezra charged him once again, driving his fist savagely across Chris's bleeding face.
The gunslinger staggered and turned, his fists balled, but before he had completed his move Ezra grabbed his arm by the wrist, pulling it outward as he took hold of Chris's shoulder with his other hand. With a crash he slammed Chris down on the nearest table and held him there, ignoring the beer mugs and glasses which went spinning to the floor with a tremendous shattering noise.
"You have no idea how long I've waited for this, Larabee," he whispered, his face glistening with sweat. "All the injustice I've had to endure at your hands, the ill treatment and disrespect--"He gritted his teeth at the thought. "I remember everything, sir," he hissed into Chris's ear, his Southern drawl soft and deadly," and it is my intention that you will remember it for a long time as well."
He gripped Chris's arm firmly and gave it a quick and vicious twist. There was a sharp cracking noise, and Chris uttered a strangled yell of pain.
A sadistic smile on his sweat-soaked face, Ezra flung Chris's dislocated arm from his grasp and hauled him off of the table, taking a firm hold of his collar. Chris choked, his good arm reaching up to weakly grab a handful of Ezra's shirt as he stared at him with confused, foggy eyes.
"This has grown quite boring, I'd rather hoped you'd put up a bit of a fight," Ezra lamented before punching Chris once more in the gut. As Chris doubled over, Ezra spun him around, trapping his throat in the crook of one elbow.
"You'll be very happy to know I'm not going to kill you," Ezra whispered in Chris's ear as he tightened his grip. "I want you to suffer as much as you have made me suffer. Fair enough, wouldn't you say?"
Chris's face was turning red, and he grappled at Ezra's arm with his free hand as he gasped for air. Ezra merely grinned and gave him a quick pull upward, choking him even more.
"Oh, by the way, Mr. Larabee," Ezra finally said with a small smile when it appeared Chris was on the verge of passing out, "I quit."
Chris gasped a little, gurgled, then shuddered as his eyes rolled up into his head. There was a small groan, and the gunslinger's body went limp. For a few moments Ezra hung on to it, then released his grip and stepped away, letting Chris fall to the ground in a tangled, bloody heap.
At that moment Buck moaned and opened his eyes to see JD crouching next to him.
"What's goin' on, kid?" he grunted, rubbing his bloody jaw.
JD opened his mouth to reply, but at that moment Ezra stepped in front of them, hat in hand, sweaty and spattered with Chris's blood and looking immensely pleased with himself.
The younger man swallowed, anger flaring in his wide eyes. "Ezra, what -- why--"
"Kindly forgo your inarticulate questions, Mr. Dunne," Ezra replied, putting on his hat. "If anyone here tries to follow me you will meet a similar fate to that of Mr. Larabee's."
Buck struggled to a sitting position, wiping his mouth with one hand. "Ezra, you damn crazy fool! Have you lost your dang senses?"
Ezra laughed. "No, Mr. Wilmington, I've found them at last, and am ending our association in a much happier and richer state than when I was participating in it. I would bid farewell to the others, but I detest sentimental good-byes, so do pass them along for me, won't you?"
With that, he tapped the brim of his hat and walked out the saloon.
JD helped Buck to his feet, his mouth hanging open. "God, Buck, I never seen Ezra fight like that!"
"Never thought he'd be able to take Chris down, that's for sure," Buck muttered, going to his friend's side. Chris lay motionless and bloody, bruises beginning to form on his face, his dislocated arm limp at his side. Sweat pasted his blonde hair to his face, and one eye was beginning to blacken.
"He still breathin'?" JD asked anxiously.
After a moment, Buck nodded, his handsome face lined with deep worry.
"Better get Nathan on the double," he said. "An' find Ezra too, so we can find out what the hell's goin' on!"
With a light heart and bouncing step Ezra strode quickly towards the hotel, a pleased smile on his pale face. He had never felt so glorious.
Quickly he smoothed his clothes, putting every fold back in its proper place with a satisfied smile. Beating Larabee felt so wonderful; why hadn't he done it ages ago?
Because you were blinded by sentimentality and conscience, came the fast response. But that was no longer the case, and he reveled in his new understanding.
It was all so obvious, he marveled as he went down the street. How muddled his life had been when he had allowed trivial considerations to get in the way of his thinking, and how clear it was now! He felt like a new man. His former colleagues meant nothing; his mother meant nothing; all previous ties meant nothing now. There were only his desires, and the ways to satisfy them, and that was all. How could he have been so deluded, before?
Everything made sense now, and the liberation was intoxicating. There was no more equivocating, no more confusion, no more wondering about how to live his life and what path to take. The weight of his past was gone, replaced by cold certainty of purpose. He felt young and amazingly invigorated; every ache and pain was gone, replaced by limitless vitality. And he had plans for where his new strength would take him.
He would be rich; that was assured. Ezra felt a swell of anticipation surge through him and smiled. There were many ways to amass a fortune, Montreux had promised him, when one was endowed with such talents as theirs. With no concerns about morality to hold him back, the task would be simple, and Ezra would enjoy every minute of it. He'd earned it, after all.
A few townspeople walked by up the street, and Ezra glanced at them. It was so different, the way he saw them now, all of them, but it was so right as well. They were pitiful creatures, really, short-lived and short-sighted. Suitable only for one thing.
Ezra thought of the dark bottles in Montreux's room, and hurried his pace. A strange hunger was building inside of him, and only the substance in those bottles were capable of quelling the urge. Soon, he instinctively knew, even the bottles would not be enough, but that was fine. This was his life now, and it was everything he'd wanted, so becoming a killer seemed a very small price to pay and one that bothered him not at all.
He stepped into the lobby and hastened up the stairs. Of course, Montreux had told him, this new existence did have drawbacks, but his excitement was such that he easily dismissed them. Direct sunlight would kill him, but Ezra needed no urging to avoid the day; he had always loved the night and could easily live solely within its boundaries. He was damned now, having lost his soul, but what of that? Immortality lent a certain pointlessness to worrying about hell, and Ezra knew he would not be foolish enough to allow himself to be killed. Besides, he was having too much fun to care very much.
Now, he mused as he reached the top of the stairs and headed down the thickly carpeted hall, he could live the life he'd always dreamed of. He could revel in his selfishness, take all he wanted with no excuses or guilt, indulge in every whim and venture no matter how vain or greedy. Oh, the cons he could pull, the scams he could organize, now that he did not have to think about anyone's welfare but his own. He could hardly wait to get started.
He found Montreux's room and knocked. After a few moments, the doorknob softly turned and the smoothly painted door swung open.
Ezra took two steps inside, looked at Montreux, and stopped in surprise.
His mentor's face was even whiter than usual, and his shirt was gone. One hand was pressing a blood-soaked cloth to his chest; his fine trousers were stained a deep red, and his long white hair was disheveled and flecked with blood.
"Good Lord!" Ezra exclaimed as Montreux closed the door.
"Don't worry, Ezra," Montreux replied in a weary voice as he walked stiffly back to the bed. On the bedspread lay his blood-soaked shirt and a small tray of medical utensils, as well as a metal dish containing two smashed bullets. Slowly Montreux seated himself on the bed and checked beneath the cloth. "Have you succeeded in leaving your employ?"
"I would say so," the gambler said with a tiny smile, coming forward. "I doubt they will be wanting me around much after tonight. But -- what in the world happened?"
"Oh," Montreux spat, beginning to wind a bandage around himself, "merely a couple of bullets from a priest's gun. Deucedly painful wounds, but survivable for our kind. He came upon me just as I was about to take care of some meddlesome tracker."
A chuckle escaped from Ezra's throat as he shook his head. "That could only be Vin Tanner. He can be quite a bother at times. How were you able to subdue him with no weapon?"
Montreux snorted as if the answer were plain. "It is quite simple for our kind, Ezra. One of our most effective weapons is the ability to cause our prey crippling pain and blindness from a distance; it makes them quite easy to catch. All by using the mind, you see. It takes a lot of practice, but with your intellect I'm sure you'll master it in no time."
The gambler cocked his head. "Aren't you concerned I might use this weapon against you?"
His sire tossed away the notion with a wave of one graceful hand. "We are too strong to be affected by such powers, Ezra; it is only useful against those still cursed to be human. If you tried such a thing on me -- or if I tried it on you -- it would simply slide off like water. It also," he noted in a more annoyed tone as he neared the end of the bandage, "does not work against those who are ordained by God. Otherwise I would not have been shot by that blasted old priest!" He spat the final words out with immense disgust.
"It must have been Josiah Sanchez," Ezra murmured, rubbing his lip thoughtfully with one finger. "One of my former colleagues. He passed me in the saloon tonight, it caused the most annoying pain."
"You will find it the same with all holy objects," Montreux explained as he tied off the bandage. "God is the enemy now, Ezra, as well as everything touched by his servants. Proximity to them will only hurt and weaken you, so be advised to keep as much distance from them as possible."
Ezra grinned and leaned on the bedpost. "That should not prove difficult; the plans I am currently formulating have very little to do with the Church. Do you require any assistance?"
The other man had stood and was very carefully putting on a new, clean shirt. "Not at the moment, Ezra, and it would probably be wise if you and I did not meet for the day or two it will take me to recover. That tracker may have seen me, and the priest certainly did, and if they suspect our association things may become complicated. It is difficult for us to die but not impossible, and as we are both damned I am eager to avoid that fate as long as I can."
He finished buttoning the shirt, his violet eyes thoughtful as he picked up a fine silk vest from a chair nearby and slowly shrugged it on. "I should have most of my strength back in two days," he continued. "Meet me outside of town by the large split rock at dusk on Saturday evening, and we will depart for San Francisco. We will be joining some of my colleagues there."
Ezra sighed, a disappointed expression on his pale face. "It will be hard to bear two more days in this miserable backwater."
A wan smile flitted across Montreux's handsome features as he settled himself into an easy chair and reached for a cigar. "Oh, I won't let you be bored, Ezra; I have work for you to do. I am unable to hunt for now, and will be in need of nourishment before we travel. When you meet me Saturday evening, I should like you to not be alone. Do you understand?"
Ezra flashed his gold tooth as he smiled. "Dead or alive?"
"Alive is certainly preferable," Montreux replied as he lit the cigar, "but if you absolutely can't help yourself, don't kill him too long before we meet. I detest cold meals."
Ezra's green eyes were bright with contemplation as he walked over to where his comrade sat. "If you have no objection to taking a detour on our way to California," he mused, "I have a candidate in mind whose demise would be quite profitable."
Montreux shrugged as he tossed the spent match into the ashtray. "I have no objection in the world to gain, my friend, as long as the detour is not too great a distance," he said as gray smoke began to drift lazily around his head. "Bear in mind, however, that in my weakened state I will be unable to sense if you need assistance. You will be on your own until we meet again."
Ezra snorted slightly. "Not a problem, I assure you."
"Very well then," the other man said, taking a drag on the glowing cigar, "I'm sure we can manage a slight change in the route we take out of this wilderness. Where were you thinking of going?"
A cold smile tugged at Ezra's lips. "Have you ever heard of Tascosa?"
"You're sayin' Ezra did this?"
Nathan's incredulous voice echoed in the small clinic as he bandaged Chris's wounds. The gunslinger was conscious now, sitting up on the bed without his shirt, holding a cold, wet cloth to his swollen eye. His arm, fixed now but still extremely sore, reclined in a sling. The expression on his bruised face was one of pure fury.
"Yeah," JD exclaimed from his place in the corner, "an' he threw Buck against the wall too. It was like he went loco or somethin'."
Chris winced as Nathan checked his ribs. "I'll go loco on him when I get my hands on... Oww!" He groaned and grit his teeth.
Nathan shot Chris a look of annoyance. "Already tol' you, Chris, don't go talkin'! He done all but crushed your windpipe, an' you best not be sayin' much 'til it heals up. An' don't go movin' that arm neither."
Chris looked chagrined, mouthed the word 'Shit' and sat still.
"There's somethin' under his saddle, there ain't no mistakin' that," Buck agreed from his chair near JD. A dark bruise was forming on the right side of his face. "Never got a punch like that in my whole life, an' lemme tell you I been punched by some pretty tough hombres."
The door opened, and Josiah came in, his long face scored with weariness.
Nathan glanced over at him. "Undertaker all done?"
The preacher nodded as he closed the door. "He was almost finished when you left anyway, Nate. Said he understood the livin' taking precedence over the dead, at least sometimes."
"Well, there wasn't much I could do for that drifter," the healer said as he went back to Chris. "He was plenty dead."
Josiah leaned against the wall and removed his hat, rubbing his curled graying hair with one hand. "Strange kind of death, though," he sighed. "Man lost almost all his blood, but there wasn't that much on the ground when we found him."
"Maybe he killed him somewhere else an' dragged him there to finish him off," JD offered.
Buck moaned. "Either way, looks like we got a mad dog on the loose," he said as he sat up. "We know anything about this guy?"
Josiah shrugged. "Just what I said before, he was a tall fella with long white hair. I shot at him -- couldn't see clearly, but I think I might've at least winged him." He paused. "An' there was somethin' mighty odd about 'im too. A strange feelin' came over me when I was ridin' towards him, the air got real heavy an' cold like I was headin' into a thunderstorm."
"Could just be the fall weather settin' in," Buck suggested.
Josiah mulled this over. "Could be," he finally said with a nod. "Noticed it in the saloon too."
JD opened his mouth, hesitated, then closed it again, his hazel eyes pensive.
Silence fell as Nathan finished off the last of Chris's wrappings.
"Okay, you can go," the healer said, giving Chris a slight nudge on the shoulder. "Don't go gettin' riled until these come off, hear? I don't want to have to wrap you up again."
"No promises if I see Ezra anytime soon," was Chris's angry, rasping reply as he stood and reached for his blood-stained blue shirt. He looked over at Josiah as he very slowly pulled it on with Buck's help. "Where's Vin?"
"Went out to search the desert," Josiah said, putting his hands on his belt. "Thought maybe the killer might be out there an' wounded."
"Well, we all know how Vin likes a good hunt," Buck offered as he handed Chris his gun belt. "I say we all get some shut-eye an' tomorrow we'll see about takin' care of this lunatic we got runnin' around."
Nathan looked over at him as he began packing up. "You mean the killer or Ezra?"
"Both," Buck said seriously.
They started to file out slowly. JD and Josiah were the last to leave, wearing troubled, thoughtful expressions as they walked out into the night. The younger man appeared anxious, as if trying to decide about something important, while Josiah merely looked tired and not too optimistic that he would find rest anytime soon.
The full moon shone down on them all as they scattered into the street.
The pink blush of dawn was beginning to brush the eastern sky as Vin topped the rise just outside of town. He surveyed the area and frowned with worry, his blue eyes troubled.
It didn't feel right.
He'd hunted many animals and humans in his long career, he mused as he guided Sire down the gentle rocky embankment, but he had never come across a quarry that inspired a similar feeling to the one which now tingled his spine. He had first felt it when he came upon the killer; it was an odd, uncomfortable feeling, one of danger and death. It was clear that whatever had attacked him wasn't an animal, but a strange thought was nagging at the back of his mind that it wasn't human either.
He could still feel it, the horrible blinding pain which had struck him to the ground. No gunshot wound or animal bite had ever felt like that, heavy and agonizing, and searing his entire body at once. And then it had simply disappeared, leaving only its disturbing memory behind. There was no mark at all on his body, and yet he knew he hadn't imagined it; something had held him pinned to the ground in terrible anguish, and if it hadn't been for Josiah's appearance Vin would be dead right now.
It was all very puzzling, but Vin only mulled over the question for a few more moments before pushing the thought to the back of his mind. He was out here to track down a dangerous prey, and he could do that best by clearing his mind of all distractions, as he had always done before. If any answers could be found, he could ponder them at leisure when the danger was past. For now there was only the hunt.
Chasing all mysterious thoughts from his head, Vin studied the ground for clues, listened sharply for any sounds, kept himself keenly aware of anything which might betray the killer's hiding place. He became wholly absorbed in the search, lapsing into a familiar habit of acute awareness of everything around him.
As he scanned the landscape, a shape appeared, mounted on a dark horse and riding towards him. Vin tensed instantly, then relaxed a little as the figure neared, recognizing Ezra's red jacket. Perhaps Ezra had come to feel guilty for going off on Chris and was joining the search as a way of making amends.
Vin spurred Sire forward a bit and rode to meet his comrade. He had not gone twenty feet before hearing the sharp sound of a gunshot pierce the air. A bullet whizzed by him, so close to his face that he felt it split the air as it sped past.
Startled, Vin pulled his gun, looking around, expecting to see the killer firing at them from the rocks. Another shot was fired, nicking Vin's arm, and with a cold shock Vin realized that the person firing the gun was Ezra.
"Ezra, ya dang fool!" he cried, reining Sire in. "What'n hell--"
Ezra spurred his horse into a gallop and fired another shot, creasing Vin's shoulder and drawing blood.
"Aw hell!" Vin spat, pulling out his Winchester and firing off a round. He heard Ezra grunt, saw him reel in the saddle, and lowered the rifle with the intention of riding closer to find out what was going on. A hail of bullets stopped him; Ezra was still up and firing, despite being wounded.
Vin hesitated; what the hell was Ezra doing trying to kill him? But as he felt a bullet cut his leg he decided evasion was preferable to pursuit. Spurring Sire into a gallop, he cut a wide circle around Ezra and headed around him, intent on finding some good cover from which to observe and, if necessary, defend himself.
As he pounded over the rocks and up a small hill he heard more shots ring out and ducked down, turning occasionally to fire back. Ezra was closing in, and Vin could scarcely believe the situation. It seemed as if the gambler had truly gone insane.
He plunged down the other side of the hill and found himself in familiar territory. Before him sprawled the ruined walls of an old mission church; it was the one Josiah had been working on when they first met so long ago.
Good a place as any, Vin decided; the walls were high enough to afford an effective cover. He guided Sire through the crumbling doorway and reined in, quickly jumping out of the saddle and priming the Winchester. As he hunkered down behind a wall, he heard hoofbeats approaching, and soon Ezra appeared from around the hill.
Vin watched keenly from behind the wall, the Winchester in his hand. He saw Ezra near the mission, then slow and finally rein in. For a moment he stood still, seemingly lost in confusion, as if unable to go any farther. Even from this distance, Vin could see blood seeping onto Ezra's shirt, but the wound did not seem to be troubling the Southerner very much.
Finally Ezra turned, and Vin saw him studying the horizon; dawn was drawing close. Ezra sat for a few moments, then threw one last look at the mission, almost in regret, before sawing the white horse around and riding away into the desert.
Vin scowled, completely confused; if he hadn't seen it with his own eyes, and bore the bleeding wounds, he never would have believed what just happened. Ezra had tried to kill him.
Just to be sure, Vin sat waiting behind the wall. Ten minutes passed; the sun emerged, flooding the desert with pinkish-gold newborn light. After a while Vin slowly stood, his blue eyes keeping sharp watch as he stepped into the sunlight. But Ezra seemed to have vanished.
Cautiously Vin walked over to Sire and mounted up, holding the Winchester crooked in one arm as he began the ride back to town. It was then that he realized that all the while Ezra had been chasing him, he'd had that weird sensation again, a prickling feeling of danger all over him.
Just as he had experienced when he first saw the strange white-haired killer.
Drenched in the rays of the new day, Vin rode quickly back to town.
JD sat in front of the jail, an untouched coffee mug in one hand as he idly flipped through one of his books. The street was quiet and there was little to attract the young man's attention, but a moment's observation would reveal that he wasn't totally interested in the book either. His hazel eyes scanned the pages, but they did not seem to be reading one word.
"Mornin', JD. Catchin' up on some readin'?"
He looked up to see Nathan walking towards him, looking tired but awake. JD sat up, closing the book in a slightly flustered manner.
"Mornin', doc," he muttered, setting the book aside and taking a drink of his now-cold coffee. "Naw, just... wonderin' if I'm goin' crazy. How's Chris doin'?"
Nathan eased himself down on the chair next to JD. "Won't be talkin' much for a while, but he's mendin'." he peered at his young comrade. "Why you think you goin' crazy?"
JD sighed and looked down the street at nothing in particular. Finally he shook his head. "Oh, forget it. It's all them books I'm readin', puttin' ideas in my head."
Nathan smiled. "You see a ghost or somethin'?"
JD looked over at Nathan sharply, his face slightly pale and serious. For a moment he said nothing, then waved one hand as he directed his eyes away from the healer.
"No, it wasn't that, I was just... uh... Vin?"
Nathan followed JD's gaze up the street, where Vin was trotting quickly towards the jail, the leather flaps on his buckskin jacket flapping as he rode. As he got closer both men plainly saw the blood on his clothes, and stood in surprise.
"Vin, you been shot?" Nathan asked, stepping forward.
"Was it the killer?" JD asked as Vin reined in in front of the jail.
Vin's long hair danced as he shook his head. "That damn fool Ezra tried to ambush me in the desert," he spat. "Just scratches, but ain't no doubt he aimed t'kill me."
JD let out a gasp of shock as he and Nathan both stood up.
"What's that fool cheater up to?" Nathan wondered aloud in an angry voice.
"Ain't got no idea, Nathan," Vin said, a trace of sadness in his voice. "Reckon we can try an' figure it out while you fix me up. JD?"
The young man lifted his head, an expression of amazement still frozen on his boyish features.
"See if you can't round up the others," Vin continued. "Think we best all meet up an' try to decide what we do about this before one of us gets killed."
JD nodded. "We'll see you at Nathan's," he said, and ran off towards the church.
Nathan and Vin exchanged glances, and Nathan shook his head. "Well, let's go get started," he said in a tired voice. "Sure wish Ezra wasn't bringin' me so much business. It's like he's gone plumb crazy."
"Or been crazy all along," Vin said quietly, "an' just conned us all."
They went the rest of the way to Nathan's room in silence.
"I still say he's just plain loco."
Buck's voice bounced off the plain whitewashed walls of Nathan's clinic. the small room was crowded as the six lawmen sat or stood within its confines, Vin sitting hatless and shirtless on the bed while Nathan cleaned his wounds. The four other men were standing or sitting in various attitudes of contemplation around the bed, Josiah the farthest away in the corner by the door. He stood slightly hunched over, one hand covering his mouth in a pose of deep thought.
"The question is, what can we do about it?" Buck continued from where he was leaning against the wall, his arms folded.
"Might not be much we can do, Buck," was Chris' hoarse reply as he sat on a chair by Nathan's bed, holding his bruised ribs. "He's probably long gone by now. Might never see him again."
"But Chaucer's still in the stable," JD pointed out from where he sat on the floor next to Buck. "Ezra wouldn't go nowhere without Chaucer. An' Inez says all his stuff is still in his room."
"Well, if he does come back here he might get a warm welcome," Vin said through gritted teeth as Nathan stitched up his shoulder. "I ain't gonna let him shoot me again, that's for damn sure!"
"We should at least try t'get an explanation before you kill 'im, Vin," Nathan offered, tying off the string. "A lot of this just don't add up. Like, how could he beat Chris up so bad? I never figured Ezra to be much of a fighter when he could scam his way out of things."
"He told me he ran a boxin' con once," Buck replied. "Probably just stronger than he looks."
Chris was shaking his head. "You know what his punches felt like, Buck," he rasped. "It was like he was hittin' me with a sledgehammer. Never felt anything like it, an' you know I've had my share of fights."
Buck nodded, rubbing his bruised jaw. "Yeah, you're right there, ol' pard. He damn near broke my jaw."
"An' what about when he was chasin' me?" Vin added as Nathan dabbed some salve on his stitches. "He knew where I was, hidin' in them church ruins, but he just rode off soon as the sun came up. Seemed mighty strange after tryin' so powerful bad t'kill me."
JD cleared his throat. "I--" he began, then stopped and shook his head.
All heads in the room turned to him.
"What, kid?" Buck asked.
But his young friend sat back. "Naw, it's -- it's crazy. I was seein' things."
Vin sighed and looked at JD. "Kid, can't nothin' be crazier than what's been goin' on, so if you got somethin' to say don't be afraid to say it."
JD sat thinking for a moment, then ran one hand nervously through his thick black hair. "Well... when the fight was almost over an' Ezra was chokin' Chris, I was lookin' around the saloon to see where Inez was, to make sure she was safe. You know how riled folks can get in a bar fight. An'..." his voice railed off, and for a second it seemed as if he would not be able to finish. Finally he heaved a deep sigh and plunged ahead. "Well, when I was lookin' around I got a glimpse of Ezra an' Chris fightin' in the mirror behind the bar."
"Shoot, kid, if you'd turned around you coulda seen the real thing," Buck pointed out.
JD gave him an annoyed look. "Hell, Buck, I know that! But the weird thing was... well... I could make Chris out in the mirror plain as day, but... Ezra wasn't there."
Josiah, who had been silent up until this point, dropped his hand and stepped forward, a look of alarm in his blue eyes. "What?"
JD gave a quick sigh of embarrassment. "Look, I know it's nuts, hell, I feel nuts just sayin' it! But I looked as long as I could before the crowd got in the way, an' I'd swear it looked like there wasn't nothin' holdin' Chris up. He was in the mirror but Ezra wasn't." He gasped a little and slumped back against the wall. "It's been drivin' me crazy, an' I've been tellin' myself it ain't possible, but... I know that's what I saw."
Nathan peered at him closely. "Don't worry, JD, you probably just got excited by all the commotion."
"Yeah, I've seen some mighty wild things myself when I get riled," Buck agreed.
"But that wasn't all," JD insisted. "I noticed Ezra actin' real weird earlier when Josiah walked past him. He looked like he was in pain or somethin', an' I still can't see why that would happen."
They all looked over to Josiah for his thoughts. The preacher hadn't moved, and now stood rooted to the floor, his expression a mixture of concern and fear.
"Y'all right, Josiah?" Vin asked.
Josiah looked up sharply. "JD, I got to have back some of them books I gave you."
JD seemed puzzled by the grave tone in the preacher's deep voice. "Well... sure, Josiah. But do you think they'll tell you what's goin' on with Ezra?"
Josiah took a very long, deep breath. "Dear Lord, I sure hope not."
Ezra grunted as he tied off the last of the bandages and leaned his bare back against the cool cave wall to rest. That should take care of things until he had a chance to heal.
His soft gasps echoed slightly against the orange-gray rock as he sat as far away from the mouth as he could get. It was not a deep cave, but it was deep enough to afford a good hiding place for himself and the horse until nightfall.
He moaned a bit and touched his sore side; thank God the bullet went through, even if the blood did spoil one of his best shirts. Fortunately the wound was mending rapidly; by dusk he would be ready to ride again. Montreux was still too weak to find and help him, and he had to be more careful tonight. But tonight he would be successful.
Ezra settled against the wall and nervously directed his wide green eyes to the patch of sunlight slowly wending its way across the entrance to the cave. Even though the mouth was situated so that the light would only penetrate a few feet into the cave, and Ezra was far away from it, he still felt unnerved by its presence. He knew instinctively how lethal just the slightest touch would be, and huddled back even farther into the shadows.
One hand reached into his saddlebag and pulled out one of Montreux's dark bottles. It was almost full, and Ezra drank the liquid inside almost without thinking about it. Amazing to think he was once repelled by the taste of its contents; now it suited him very well, and seemed even more palatable than the finest brandy. Even better, it gave him strength, strength he'd need if he wanted to bring Vin Tanner down.
He sighed and wiped his lips on his bare arm, his eyes sharp as he planned. After the sun set he would ride out and find Tanner; he knew all the places Vin liked to go, every hiding place the tracker might possibly take refuge in. Tanner would doubtless be an obstinate opponent, but even the most skilled hunter would be no match for Ezra now.
He smiled slowly at the prospect of pocketing that five hundred dollars; why hadn't he taken Vin in before? It was so obviously the right thing to do. It would line his own pockets and rid the world of an illiterate fugitive. And how did anyone know Vin didn't really commit that murder, anyway?
Something twinged in him unexpectedly; Ezra frowned, tried to catch it, but it fluttered away like a frightened bird and was gone. A puzzled expression crossed his white face; it had almost felt like regret. But regret over what? Killing Vin? Vin and the other men were nothing to him now. He searched his heart thoroughly but found no traces of anything resembling remorse. There was only a bracing coldness, dedicated purely to his own desires. Perhaps it had simply been the dying gasp of some small part of him that remembered what it had been like to be human.
Good riddance, he thought as he took another draw on the dark bottle. It felt so much better to be causing the pain instead of suffering it.
He sat back and watched the blue sky, waiting impatiently for the darkness.
Vin and Chris sat silently together in the saloon, watching over the afternoon crowd as they played cards and shared a bottle of whiskey. They were both still stiff and sore, their bruise-marked faces plainly revealing their recent trials.
"You're lucky Nathan let you outta bed the way you're busted up," Vin noted with a smile as he threw down a card.
Chris grunted, the bruises on his face barely masking his restlessness. "I been beat worse'n this," he said in a low, rough tone, "an' danged if I'll lay around in bed while a killer's on the loose. At least here I can keep an eye on things an' be of some use."
Vin nodded, his blue eyes distant as he looked unseeing at the cards in his hands. "Soon as this hand is over I'm headin' back out. I done healed enough an' there's work to do."
Chris took a drink and set down the empty glass, shaking his head. "Could be deadly work, if Ezra's still out there."
"I can outride Ezra, I figure," Vin assured him with a sigh. "That's still a puzzle, though. Maybe it's all some sorta con."
"Or maybe what he was doin' all along was the con," Chris suggested with a scowl. "We don't really know what he was like before we all met."
The tracker considered this, then shook his head. "Naw, that don't seem right. There's somethin' weird about all this, Chris. When he was chasin' me my instincts were blazin' somethin' fierce. Hey, kid."
Chris turned to see JD walking towards them, wiping his dusty hands on his pants.
"Hey, fellas," JD replied breathlessly as he sat down. "I asked around at the hotels, there was a guy with long white hair stayin' at the Ritz named Montreux, but he left last night an' they didn't know where he was goin'."
Inez approached, wiping her slim hands on her colorful apron. "Buenos tardes, JD," she said with a smile.
"Afternoon, Inez," JD replied with a nod. "Could I get some beans an' biscuits please?"
Inez nodded and began to walk away.
Chris looked up. "Hey, Inez?"
She stopped and glanced back at him. "Si?"
"You ever see a man come in here in the past few days, tall guy with long white hair?"
Inez thought for a moment. "There was a man like that here the other night. He was playing cards with Senor Ezra."
All three men sat up a little straighter.
"That's damned peculiar," Chris whispered.
"Maybe they was cookin' up somethin' together," Vin mused.
Inez shrugged. "Hard to say, Senor. They sat and talked for a while, then he left. That was the only time I saw him."
Chris nodded. "Thanks, Inez. You see that man again, keep away from 'im an' get us. He's bad news."
Her expression was troubled as she eyed them all. "Do you think he had something to do with Senor Ezra's strange behavior last night?"
"Maybe," Chris said, rubbing his lip. "Now all we gotta do is figure out what."
She sighed and walked back to the kitchen, her expression still pensive.
"That's a few more clues, anyway," Vin muttered, putting down his cards. "But it don't get us no closer to what's goin' on."
"I found out somethin' else odd," JD said, taking off his hat and leaning his elbows on the table. "Chaucer's still in the stable."
Vin grunted. "Didn't think that was Chaucer Ezra was ridin', but why the hell would he take another horse?"
"I talked to Yosemite," the young man continued. "Seems he heard a fuss out in the stable last night, an' saw Ezra tryin' to mount Chaucer. But the horse wouldn't let Ezra nowhere near 'im. Said he was buckin' an' snortin' somethin' awful."
Vin sat back with a scowl. "That don't make sense."
"I'm afraid it does, Vin."
It was Josiah's voice, low and sad. The three men looked over to see the preacher approaching them, a couple of thick books in his hands, his face lined with deep worry.
"You got some answers, Josiah?" Chris rasped, looking up at the older man as he drew nearer.
Josiah heaved a long sigh as he lifted his head, and they could all see the profound expression in his blue eyes. "I think so, Chris, but it ain't somethin' I want to talk about here. Let's find Buck an' Nathan an' go on over to the church."
JD reached for his hat, the sooth skin on his brow wrinkling in puzzlement. "The jail's closer, Josiah. Why are we meetin' at the church?"
"Because, JD," Josiah replied, facing all of them with a perfectly serious expression, "I figure that's the best place to plan a holy war."
Josiah's slow and ponderous footsteps echoed against the bare walls and dusty floor of the old church as he walked among the worn pews where his colleagues sat. The slanting sunlight cut through the dusty air, creating translucent glowing shafts as they sifted through the sunlight towards the ground. The preacher moved between the light and the shadows as he spoke, his voice even and soft, his hands holding a large open book.
"This ain't gonna be easy to believe," he was saying in a somber tone as he strode across the room. "An' I know I'd be a lot happier if I didn't believe it myself." He lifted the book a little. "These books tell stories about the legends of ancient Europe. 'Bout demons that drank blood an' hunted after livin' men. Creatures without souls."
Buck shifted a little in his seat, one arm flung casually over the back of the pew. "That's right interestin', Josiah," he said, bewildered, "but we didn't come here to hear no ghost stories."
"An' I didn't come t'tell one," Josiah sighed in response, dropping his eyes to the book. "Lot of these stories are just myths, but sometimes they got some truth in 'em. After thinkin' over what's happened to Ezra, I believe we might have one of 'em comin' true right before our eyes."
The other men stared for a moment, slightly stunned.
At length Nathan sat forward, a deep wariness in his brown eyes. "You sayin' Ezra ain't just gone crazy?"
The preacher drew himself up and slowly closed the book, its thick leaves coming together with a musty thud. "What I'm sayin'," he said calmly, "is that I've had a feelin' for the past few days that an evil has come among this town, and it is that evil which has trapped our brother and turned him against us."
Buck gave a slight nervous chuckle. "Aw c'mon now, Josiah," he said, "ain't that a bit much to believe? There ain't no such thing as ghosts an' goblins."
"No, wait, Buck," JD said from his seat behind the older man. He stood, his bowler hat held firmly in one hand. "He's right, I remember readin' about them legends. That's why Ezra wasn't in the mirror, an' why it hurt him when Josiah was near." He laughed a little and pulled one hand through his hair. "I mean, sure it sounds crazy, but it's the only thing that makes sense."
Chris turned piercing green eyes to Josiah, his face skeptical but patient. "What's this all about, Josiah?"
The preacher sighed and leaned against one of the pews, fingering the edges of the book as he talked.
"There's stories in here from Rumania talkin' about creatures that lived in the darkness, men who'd lost their souls but still lived, to prey on their brothers. Legend has it they rise at night an' drink the blood of the living, to satisfy their hunger an' spread their evil ways. Folks in Rumania called 'em vampires, an' as loco as it sounds, I think that's what we're facin' here."
The other men all sat up, looking at each other with mounting apprehension.
"Hold on there, Josiah," Buck said, still disbelieving. "You're sayin' Ezra's one of these things? That's just plumb crazy!"
"No, Buck, I think it's true," JD insisted. "Remember how Ezra rode off when the sun came up? The book says these vampires can't stand sunlight, it kills them. An' he felt pain when Josiah walked by him 'cause Josiah's a holy man."
"Why wasn't he in the mirror?" Nathan inquired, his brow still creased with doubt.
"Accordin' to the legend, it's a man's soul that casts his reflection," Josiah answered, looking up at his friends. "These demons don't have souls. That also explains why Ezra's become such a mean son of a bitch -- he's lost the part of him that held any kind of goodness or restraint. And," he added, looking at Chris, "bein' in this condition gave him the strength to beat brother Chris here to a bloody pulp."
Silence fell for a few moments.
"I'll be danged," Buck finally breathed, his blue eyes staring past them all in shocked realization. "This wild talk is makin' sense."
"I'm guessin' it was this Montreux who turned Ezra against us," Josiah said," an' it was him Vin an' I came across out in the desert with that drifter."
"Damn, yeah," Vin muttered, grasping the edge of the pew in front of him with one hand as he sat up. "I remember how turned around I felt when I got close to that guy, an' it was the same with Ezra. Maybe that's how he blinded me too."
"Could be," the preacher agreed. "Some of the older ones are said to be very powerful over the minds and bodies of others. I'm figurin' this Montreux is mighty strong."
Buck looked behind him to where his old friend sat. "What do you think, Chris?"
Chris was sitting quietly, listening to it all, his bruised face attentive and serious. He looked up at Buck with green eyes full of resolve.
"I think it's all the biggest load of bull I ever heard," he said in a hoarse but firm voice. "But nothin' else seems to fit."
Josiah sighed, one thumb running over the book's rough blue buckram cover.
"Josiah?" JD said, in a soft, sad voice, "Is there anything we can do t'get Ezra back?"
The preacher shrugged slightly, keeping his eyes on the book. "I found a few old rituals that might work, long as Ezra ain't killed nobody for their blood yet." He paused, then raised his head to look at them all with even blue eyes. "First we got to restore Ezra's soul to him, an' to do that we got to confine him in a sacred place."
Vin sighed as he shifted in the pew. "That ain't gonna be easy, if he can't take bein' around holy things no more."
"An' after what he did to Chris an' me, I don't figure it'll be easy to hold him there, neither," Buck added ruefully, rubbing his jaw. "He's packin' quite a punch these days."
"But if we could do that an' give Ezra his soul back," JD cut in, looking at Josiah hopefully, "then he'd be okay?"
Josiah began to pace a little, weighing the book in one hand. "Not quite, JD. His soul would be free but his body would still be under the curse. To completely release him, we also have to kill the vampire that changed Ezra in the first place."
"Who, this Montreux fella?" Nathan asked, knitting his brows. "That's gonna be even harder then gettin' Ezra into a sacred place. We don't know nothin' about him."
The preacher sighed and drew himself up. "My hope is that once Ezra regains his soul he'll be able to help us." He paused, then lifted his head. "I'm aimin' to give it a try. Like all of us, Ezra's got his faults, but he doesn't deserve a fate like this."
His eyes met each of theirs in turn. "I ain't gonna lie to you all, this'll be mighty dangerous. This ain't no drunk cowboy or ornery bank robber we'd be goin' up against, an' I won't think less of none of ya if you decide t'stay here in town."
The old church fell silent as the men considered what was being asked of them.
"I'm with you, preacher," JD said firmly. "Ezra's risked his life for ours lots of times, I figure I can do the same if it means we can have the old Ezra back."
"Dang, Josiah, you know we ain't about to leave that boy in a spot like this," Buck drawled, his blue eyes serious. "But somehow I got the feelin' he won't exactly be wantin' our help. He's already tried to kill Vin."
"Reckon he's after the bounty," the tracker said softly, the sunlight dancing across his golden-brown curls as he nodded his head. "An' now that he ain't got no soul there ain't nothin' to stop him from tryin' to get it."
Josiah drew a long, mournful breath. "Friendship, trust, loyalty -- these things mean nothing to him now, an' that's why we can't forget how dangerous he is," the preacher said sadly. "But if we work together we might be able to bring our brother safely home an' rid the town of the evil within it."
"If it'll stop Ezra from goin' crazy an' hurtin' folks, I'm willin' to do anything," Nathan said, looking at his old friend. "You got a plan, Josiah?"
The older man stood still for a moment, glanced at Vin, and nodded. "Yes, brother Nate, I sure do."
Ezra stood in the shadows at the mouth of the cave, fully dressed now and eagerly watching the dying daylight as the sun set behind the distant mountains. He stood beside his horse holding the reins, his weakness gone now, replaced with healthy, hungry vigor. As the glowing orb slipped behind the peaks, he licked his lips, an urgent gleam in his clear green eyes.
He had never felt so eager to get into the saddle; it was a strange and burning restlessness, born somewhere deep inside of him, and he reveled in the excitement of it. He wanted to ride, to hunt and pursue, in a way he had never had experienced before. It felt glorious.
A burning need was growing in the emptiness where his soul once resided, a craving as ancient as it was undeniable. He had no idea where it came from, but thought nothing of it; it simply was there, a part of him as natural and obvious as his need to breathe. Any prey would do, if necessary, but he truly had only one quarry in mind.
The sun dipped behind the hills, its last rays flickering off the desert rocks before giving themselves over to the encroaching shadows. A cold thrill surged through Ezra at their demise, and gleefully he mounted the large dark horse and picked up the reins. Once this task was done, he could bid farewell to his old life and begin this new one. He could scarcely bear the anticipation.
With a touch of the spurs he trotted out of the cave and went to hunt down Vin Tanner.
The old church stood dusty and nearly deserted in the gathering evening gloom, the candles blazing within its crumbling walls struggling mightily against the darkness. Only one figure moved within its confines, its movements slow and wary but firm in their purpose.
Josiah's soul was heavy as he shrugged on his leather coat. An infinite sadness clung to him, mixed with the dire solemnity of the task they all faced this night. The evil seemed all around him now, doing all it could to drag him down in its icy clutches. It was an ominous presence, but he did not flinch even as he felt its grasp growing ever tighter. He had a job to do.
He reached down for his saddlebag, now stocked with everything he'd need. He knew the others were similarly prepared, ready for the fight; they all had their instructions and knew where they had to be. They'd be waiting for him now; he had to go.
Questions haunted him as he did up the catches on the bags. Would he be able to do this? His faith had waxed and waned over the years -- could he trust himself that it would now be at hand when he needed it most? Did he have the strength to lead the others against such a deadly and powerful foe -- especially since that foe came in the shape of a friend?
With ponderous movements he slung the saddlebag over his shoulder, firmly putting the doubts behind him as he prepared to leave. They would all do what they had to, to the best of their talents, and leave the questions for another day. He steeled himself and turned to the altar, where a dozen candles glowed fitfully in the stirring autumn air.
Lord, he prayed as he stood in the growing shadows, I know we ain't be speakin' much lately, and there have been many times we haven't exactly seen eye to eye. But we sure do need your assistance on this one, an' if I ever asked you for anything from the bottom of my soul, it would be this. Be with us now as we go to reclaim our comrade's soul, and give us the strength to destroy the darkness that's now among us. But most of all, Lord, be with our brother Ezra. Before this is all done I'm afraid he's going to suffer most of all.
Josiah paused for a moment, then turned and walked out of the church. behind him the candles continued to flicker and burn, waging a stalwart battle against the oncoming night.
Dark clouds scudded across the sky, now and then blanketing the face of the full moon as it shone down on the rocky desert landscape. In its pale light rode a lone horseman clad in buckskin, trotting at a steady pace, now and then looking carefully around as he traveled as if looking for someone.
Vin's blue eyes gleamed in the moonlight as he watched, certain that the man he was waiting for would come. They all had their part to do, and this was his. He glanced with annoyance at the silver-lined clouds and listened as some of them rumbled forth with ominous thunder. A storm was coming.
Suddenly he sat up, his eyes wide and attentive. Hoofbeats sounded in the distance, drawing closer with a steady rhythm. Turning slightly in his saddle, Vin saw a familiar figure top a nearby hill, a red-coated figure mounted on a large dark horse.
Vin's breath caught in his throat; it was Ezra, hunting him down just as they all figured he would. Involuntarily he was filled with a sudden chill; the sensation was back again, portentous of darkness and evil. He shrugged it off, mindful only of the task at hand, and spurred Sire around and forward, directly into Ezra's path.
Dust flew up in bright white clouds as he pounded across the open valley of rock, making sure to guide his horse so that Ezra would see and pursue him. After a short time he veered away and dashed off through the rocks and hills. Soon he heard an expected sound: the pounding of pursuing hoofbeats.
The tracker leaned low in his saddle, hugging Sire's neck and doing his best to maintain a distance between them too great for gunfire to be effective. He could hear Ezra coming after him, feel the oppressive air closing in. But he couldn't let his former comrade catch him -- not yet.
Ezra bent over the neck of his steed, his green eyes gleaming with the thrill of the chase. He could not believe his luck, finding Tanner so easily; soon that five hundred dollars would be assured. As he guided his horse after his old friend, Ezra felt the hunger surge within him, excited by the pounding of the hooves and the swift motion. He could not explain or control it; he could only experience it, and yearn for its eventual satisfaction without even truly realizing what it was he craved.
They came to a small rise in the earth, and Vin mounted it swiftly, riding to its top. There, to Ezra's surprise, he dismounted and quickly jumped behind some large rocks, gun in hand. Ezra reined in his mount and jumped to the ground, smiling. This was getting better every minute.
He drew his Remington and crept up the hill, keenly watching the rock where Tanner hid. This was all such a new sensation; he could hear every sound, catch every scent, and be able to decipher it all with perfect understanding. What did it matter if Vin had years of hunting experience, and the sharp skills of a practiced hunter? His talents were no match for Ezra's now. The gambler grinned at the irony of such a thought, that his own skills now outweighed those of the tracker's. This was going to be so rewarding.
He was within ten feet of the rock when he paused, puzzled. Something felt odd...
He had only been still for a moment, but that moment was long enough for Vin to spring out of his hiding place with catlike swiftness and tackle Ezra to the ground.
Ezra let out a surprised grunt and reared back, striking Vin ferociously across the jaw. The other man grunted, blood trickling from his lips, but he held firm, seemingly oblivious to the gambler's powerful kicks and struggles. Vin knew he didn't have much time against Ezra; he'd have to move fast.
Grappling wildly, he clasped Ezra firmly around the middle and pushed off, sending them both rolling quickly towards the edge of the hill. The gambler writhed in the tracker's grip, but the move was too fast for him to have time to break free before both of them went toppling over the lip and onto the ground below.
The side of the hill proved to be a sheer cliff, dropping down some twenty feet to the desert floor. Ezra gasped as he fell, clawing wildly in an attempt to hold on to Vin. But now the tracker pushed him away, so that Ezra was falling freely through space while Vin found a handhold on the hillside. Unable to stop himself, Ezra fell the entire way, landing with a thud face down on the ground.
Instantly, he knew something was very wrong.
Pain lanced through him, dull but insistent. He shook his head, thankful that he now had the strength to survive such a fall, and planted the palms of his hands on the ground to lift himself up. At once he noticed the ground felt strange, very smooth and even. And there was a new sensation now, of several men very close, watching him.
He took a deep breath and lifted his head.
He was lying on the floor of a large ruin, one whose back walls butted up against the base of the hill. Everything was gone now but the foundation and a few uneven feet of wall, running in a large rectangular form before him. Several small fires had been built within the perimeters of the old building, their orange tongues greedily licking at the sky and bathing all around him in a dancing orange glow. And beyond the walls stood shadows, unmoving as their eyes bore into him.
Ezra gasped and sat up, his green eyes wide. He knew this place, had been here long ago; it was the church Josiah had been working on when they first met. The pain was sharper now, mixed with a growing animal rage; he could feel himself weakening already. He had to get out of here.
He got to his feet as quickly as he could, so that as little of him was touching holy ground as possible. Soft noises came from behind him; he turned and saw Tanner, a little bruised and bloodied but still alive, climbing down the rock wall.
He still held his Remington, and in a lightning-fast motion raised it and took perfect aim at Vin's head.
An explosion shattered the cool night air, and Ezra cried out as the gun was shot from his hand, clattering on the rocks as it flew beyond the barriers of the church walls. Furious, he looked up to see a dark figure standing nearby across the wall, a smoking gun held in one hand.
"You can thank me for doin' that when this is all over," drawled a rough, familiar voice as the figure holstered its gun.
A slow grin spread across Ezra's face. "Why, Larabee, how good of you to bring yourself out here so I can continue our discussion," he said lightly. "I'm afraid I will not be able to content myself with merely choking you this time."
He took a few quick steps towards the church wall, surprised that Larabee made no further moves, and seemed to be waiting for him.
Within three yards of the wall, he was suddenly brought up short by the most excruciating pain he had felt yet; it was as if he had walked into a wall of fire, searing his every nerve and holding him in place. He staggered back, shocked and gasping, looking around for the source. At length his eyes fell to the ground, and saw that he stood before a line of water which glistened on the smooth stones at his feet.
His gaze followed the water; it seemed to be all around him. Whirling, he saw Tanner closing the circle behind him, pouring a thin stream of water from his canteen onto the ground before hurrying over the wall to join the others.
Shit, Ezra thought, and ran for the cliff, determined to haul himself back up the side. As soon as he was within a few feet of the line of water the wall of agony struck him again, pressing him back as solidly as if a stone fortification has sprung up before him. He choked and stumbled back a few steps, bewildered and enraged. He was trapped.
"It's holy water, Ezra, an' it ain't no use your tryin' to cross it."
Ezra whirled, his red jacket whipping as he moved. A large shadow was moving towards him now through the ruined doorway of the church, and it stepped into the glow of the firelight, revealing itself to be Josiah, who stood regarding Ezra with sad, serious blue eyes.
The gambler stared at him for a moment, then gathered himself and straightened, a cold smile on his face. "I am impressed that you were all able to figure it out," he said. "I hope you realize I am not about to let you kill me."
"We ain't gonna kill you, Ezra," the preacher replied, standing well beyond the ring of water. "We're here hopin' to save you."
"Then I assure you you are wasting your time," was the quick reply. "I have already achieved salvation, to a far greater degree than your limited mentalities could hope to comprehend."
Josiah sighed. "I wouldn't call this life salvation, Ezra."
"Why not?" the gambler chuckled. "Surely you are all aware of the existence I now enjoy. Eternity is now mine, as well as tireless strength. The shackles which once bound my ambitions are gone. Once I would have scoffed at such things as impossible, gentlemen, yet here I stand, their living embodiment."
"But you ain't livin', Ezra," JD's voice said from the shadows. "You lost your soul."
Ezra waved this away. "In light of what I've gained, I consider it more than a fair exchange." He looked at Josiah, his eyes gleaming in the firelight. "You can have this too, Josiah." He looked around at the dark shapes surrounding him. "You can all have this. You won't believe how marvelous it is, the freedom, the strength. It's like being reborn."
"We're mighty happy with the lives we got, Ezra," Josiah replied softly, reclaiming the gambler's attention. "An' despite what you say, I think you were too."
"Ha!" Ezra scoffed. "I may have been deluded enough at one time to think so, but no longer. And all of your words and tricks will never persuade me otherwise."
Josiah studied him, then turned as if making ready to walk away. "We don't got to use tricks, Ezra, an' I'm done talkin'."
He began to stride back into the shadows. Angered, Ezra ran after him, a killing gleam in his eyes, before once more colliding with the invisible barrier. This time it struck him with tremendous, painful force, and he fell to his knees crying out in anguish and shock.
When he looked up again, Josiah had turned and was calmly regarding him, only faintly lit now by the flickering fires.
"I don't think this is the kind of life you truly want, Ezra," the preacher said softly, walking slowly back to stand within a few feet of the ring of water. "The Ezra I knew wasn't perfect but he would never have wanted to be a killer livin' under the shadow of eternal damnation, no matter how great the rewards. It's for that friend that we're here tonight."
Ezra took a few gasping breaths and glared at Josiah, sweat glistening on his pale brow. "That is extremely touching," he breathed, "but sorely misguided. I am no longer a fool, and will use all the means in my power to fight you."
"We don't got to fight, Ezra," was Josiah's quiet reply as he turned and walked back into the shadows. "All we got to do is bide our time."
Ezra watched him with angry eyes as the preacher walked away to join the others standing beyond the wall. He expected them to attack him, or try to kill him.
Instead, they simply stood by, and waited.
Hours passed. During that time, Josiah and the others kept their eyes locked on Ezra. For a long time the gambler paced the confines of his trap, now and then trying to cross the boundary formed by the large ring of holy water. Every time he was repulsed more violently.
Occasionally he would lift his face to the dark figures watching him, a wide smile on his pale face, and declare that he had decided they were right. He repented of his wrongs and would agree to whatever terms they declared, if they would only free him from the church. These words were spoken with the deepest sincerity, in a choking and halting tone.
None of the men made a move.
Anger replaced the pleading. Nathan and Vin fed the fires, keeping them burning and ignoring Ezra's sharp comments and threats. The pacing returned, but the steps were faltering now, and slower as they crossed back and forth. He removed his coat and hat, his face now dripping with sweat and growing still more pale. His breaths were coming now in short, shallow gasps, even as the deadly glare on his face became more and more pronounced as he stared at them across the darkness.
JD walked over to where Josiah stood silently, leaning on the broken wall. "Ezra ain't gonna die, is he?" he murmured in an anxious tone as he watched their friend mop his brow on his sleeve.
"No, JD, bein' on holy ground can only make him weaker," the preacher assured him in a soft voice without moving. "We can only hope he gets weak enough for us to help him before the sun comes up." He looked over at the man standing next to him. "What time you got, Buck?"
A tiny jingle filled the air as Buck fished his pocket watch out and read the time by the orange flames of the campfires. "Gettin' close to one now, Josiah." He sighed and looked at Ezra. "Reckon he oughta be wore out by three."
"Sure hope so," the preacher replied, and they returned to watching in silence.
At length Ezra stopped walking; his legs would no longer support his weight. He sat down in the center of the circle, dropping his head into his hands, gasping for air and trembling violently. His shirt was soaked through with sweat, his skin a ghostly shade of whitish-gray.
Ezra was seething and frightened. If only Montreux could help, he thought. But his mentor was still too weakened to reach out and find him, still too far away to know he was in trouble. Ezra would have to win this on his own; if only he didn't feel so damned weak...
Ezra had been still for half an hour when JD looked once more to Josiah, his hazel eyes troubled. In one hand he held a canteen. "He ain't lookin' too good, Josiah. Is -- is it okay if I give him some water?"
The older man eyed him cautiously. "He might look wore out, JD, but he's plenty dangerous."
JD smiled a little. "I know that, preacher, but -- well, he's still Ezra, even if he ain't right in the head. It don't feel right to just watch him suffer like this -- at any rate, I can't do it."
With that, he strode out into the circle towards the motionless form of Ezra.
"You gonna let him go?" Chris whispered to Josiah, a touch of anger in his rough voice.
Josiah was watching the young man draw nearer to the gambler. "There might be enough of Ezra left in there to be grateful for mercy," was the hushed response. "But best be ready, Vin, just in case."
Vin nodded and hefted his rifle.
JD walked up to his friend carefully, the canteen looped over his hand. The Southerner made no sign that he noticed JD's presence, sitting perfectly still with his head in his hands.
"Ezra?" JD said with hesitation, when he was within a few feet.
The other man shuddered and lifted his head to look at JD. His face was white and covered with sweat, his eyes apparently wild with fear and pain.
"JD," he gasped, wide-eyed and trembling.
He sounds so weak, JD thought with a pang of fear. "Yeah," he said aloud, holding out the canteen. "Thought you might want some water."
Ezra reached out with a shaking hand and accepted the vessel. "Much obliged," he whispered, before draining it in a few avid gulps. JD studied him as he drank; he seemed about ready to die, but something didn't feel right.
With a gasp, Ezra finished the canteen and wiped his lips on his sweat-stained shirt. "JD, please," he muttered, his head drooping with weariness, "please, you must listen to me. This is all a... horrible mistake."
JD nodded. "I know it is, Ezra."
The gambler shuddered and grasped the canteen reflexively, not looking at his young comrade as he spoke. "You don't understand what this is, none of you do. I had no choice, I was trapped, just as I am trapped now. He attacked me, forced me to adopt this existence." He swallowed and turned wild eyes to JD. "I had no chance against him, you must see that."
JD felt a tingle go up his spine. "I know, Ezra."
"Vin knows." Ezra went on, looking out into the darkness to where the others stood, watching him. "He's felt what this creature is capable of. If it had not been for Josiah, Vin would be dead now. What chance did I have, alone? There is no resistance possible against that kind of power."
A glimmer of sympathy crossed Vin's eyes, and he looked over to the others as his rifle came down a little, his face grim with understanding. The memory haunted him still, the horrific pain and utter helplessness, and he knew Ezra would have been no match for such strength.
Ezra noticed this, and an imperceptible smile twitched his lip. He hid it quickly, however, and turned sorrowful eyes to JD, who was still watching Ezra with a mixture of sadness and foreboding.
"Surely you can understand my agony, JD," Ezra said in a low, choked voice. "Every moment here is killing me. There is no cause for this, you know I am no evil monster. If there is the slightest shred of humanity in you, and I know there is, you will not abandon me here." He took a deep breath, and looked deeply into JD's eyes. "Please, JD, in the name of our friendship, release me."
JD stared at him for a moment, his expression confused and tentative. Then he seemed to come to a decision, and smiled a little.
"I will, Ezra," he said softly, and turning he nodded to Josiah and Nathan.
Josiah looked over at Nathan. "Ready?"
The healer eyed the seemingly weakened Ezra, hesitating. "What if it's another trick?"
Josiah sighed, and looked over to where Vin stood, one foot propped up on the low wall in front of him, his Winchester in one hand. Their eyes met, and the sharpshooter nodded once, his blue eyes grave.
"Then I reckon we'll have to get out of Vin's way," he said softly, and picked up a small bag which lay at his feet. "Let's go."
They each took a deep breath and entered the ruins.
Ezra watched their approach with dread. As Josiah got closer he shuddered, staring at both of them with naked hatred and fear.
"Get away from me," he said in a faint, furious tone as he pulled himself back a few inches. His eyes were riveted on Josiah; he did not even seem to notice Nathan.
Josiah stopped within a few feet of Ezra, gazing down at him with deep compassion. "I know it's causin' you pain for me to be near you, Ezra," he said, "but I got to do this if we're going to help you."
"I assure you, I do not want or require your help," Ezra rasped, drawing back as far as he could from them. "Leave me alone!" He looked over at JD with wet, pleading eyes, but the young man only watched him sorrowfully without moving.
In response, Josiah knelt down and opened his bag while Nathan walked over to where Ezra sat, shivering.
The gambler eyed Nathan ferociously. "You keep your distance, boy!" he coughed.
Nathan appeared unperturbed. "Ezra, will you just hush now!" he said as he stepped behind him. "We're tryin' to save your sorry ass, an' you best just accept it. I s'pose bein' a vampire didn't make you any less stubborn."
Josiah had begun muttering to himself in Latin, lifting first a long silk stole from the bag, kissing it and placing it around his neck. Ezra watched him in growing concern as he next removed a bottle of holy water, its contents glittering in the fire's orange glow.
Ezra let out a huge gasp and struggled backwards, even though the holy water prevented him from moving one more foot.
"Sorry 'bout this, Ezra," Nathan said, and grabbed the gambler around his shoulders.
Ezra let out a furious cry and began to thrash, twisting and turning in a violent attempt to break Nathan's grip. Loud cries and snarls issued from his mouth as he writhed about.
From beyond the wall, Vin aimed and was ready, even as his heart was gripped with regret.
JD stood riveted behind Josiah, his eyes large and staring.
"JD, please!" Ezra cried, locking his green eyes with those of the young man. "Help me -- they're going to kill me--"
JD swallowed. "Not you, Ezra, just the evil that's got into you," JD replied in a frightened whisper.
Ezra grunted. "Dammit, I told you, I'm not evil!" he cried as he intensified his struggles. "Let me go!"
Ezra nearly succeeded in escaping; even in his severely weakened state he was quite strong, and more than once both Ezra and the healer fell to the ground. But the Southerner did not have the power to fight for long, and soon his efforts ceased. He was breathing heavily now, his body shaking, new sweat drenching his face and clothes, flecks of foam at his lips.
"Easy now, Ezra," Nathan said, as he pulled them both up and gently but firmly pinned the gambler's arms behind his back. "We ain't tryin' to hurt you."
"Filthy darky liar," Ezra muttered back as he panted for breath. He lifted his green eyes to stare at Josiah. "I am not... going to permit you to touch me... with that foul substance."
"An' we ain't gonna permit you to become a killer," Josiah replied as he got on his knees before Ezra. "This won't change what you are, but it will give you your soul back, an' then we can work on the rest. We got a duty here, Ezra, to protect the town an' stop the man who did this to you. An' because you're our friend. Now hush up."
He began to recite in Latin once more, ignoring Ezra's pleas and weakly uttered threats. The gambler could barely move now, held as he was by Nathan and hampered by his own weakness. As the incantation continued, the wind grew stronger, whipping the flames of the fires. Clouds hid the moon and rumbled with thunder, wrapping the land in blackness save for the small abandoned ruins.
With a somber expression, Josiah reached forward and pulled open Ezra's shirt.
"Stop it!" Ezra shrieked, trying to pull away. "JD, for God's sake -- how can you let them violate me like this? Is this your gratitude for my friendship?"
JD stood motionless. "I'm sorry, Ezra," he finally said softly. "It'll be over soon."
Spent and trembling, Ezra could only watch with round green eyes as Josiah lifted the small bottle and dipped the first two fingers of his right hand into it. The small droplets of water on his fingers sparkled like stars in the firelight as he withdrew them, speaking more Latin as he reached for Ezra, his blue eyes sad and somber.
Ezra cried out and tried once more to break free; Nathan held firm, his lips pursed with the effort. The other men watched, Vin still ready with his weapon, Buck and JD wearing expressions of wonder and concern. JD crossed himself.
Josiah took a deep breath and leaned forward, continuing with his recitation of the Catholic ritual of baptism. The wet fingers brushed Ezra's smooth chest, and Ezra erupted into a horrifying scream as the skin turned a deep red and began to bleed from the preacher's gentle touch.
"Easy, Ezra," Nathan said quickly, tightening his grip on Ezra as the Southerner began to toss about as violently as he could.
Ezra's response was a burst of infuriated profanity. The faint smell of the burning skin drifted into the air, and as JD stared at the bleeding wound he went pale and backed away into the shadows.
"JD" Ezra screamed. "Don't leave me to die here!"
Working as fast as he could, Josiah wet his fingers once again and gently touched Ezra's forehead with the holy water as he continued the baptismal liturgy. Ezra lurched away, crying out once more as blood began to trickle from the small wound Josiah's touch had opened on his forehead.
"Murderers!" Ezra exclaimed in a voice thick with rage, and once more he tried to throw Nathan off, driven by pain and fear. Nathan's grip was coming loose.
"Hold on!" they heard JD cry, and Ezra's head shot up, his green eyes shining hard and triumphant in the flickering firelight. But his victorious smile faded when JD came into the light and Ezra saw what he was carrying.
A length of thick rope.
"Just hold 'im still, Nathan," JD said as he rushed over to the healer and knelt behind Ezra and began to tie his wrists together.
"Damn you, you traitorous little bastard!" Ezra gasped as he tried in vain to escape. "Little shit... you're going to let them slaughter me... after all we've been through..."
"Geez, Ezra, I ain't enjoyin' this!" JD replied heatedly as he tied the knots a strong as he could. "An' it's cause of all we've been through that I'm doin' it."
The knots were finished, and as Ezra lay gasping in exhaustion and pain JD stood and met his furious green eyes. A small amount of wetness shone at the edges of his own hazel eyes as he regarded the man who was once his friend.
"It's the only way we can help you, Ezra," he panted, "an' I'm hopin' you'll forgive me for it when this is over."
"Never!" growled Ezra, dropping all pretense of civility as he strained against the tight ropes and glared at JD with murderous eyes. But he was thoroughly tired now, and the most he could do now was unleash another profane tirade as Josiah put down the holy water and picked up a second bottle from his bag.
Nathan found holding Ezra much easier now, even though the gambler still struggled and cursed. The healer glanced up at JD, who stood pale and sweating as he stared at Ezra.
"Thanks, JD," he said with a nod.
JD took the hint and backed out of the circle, his haze eyes still locked on Ezra's white, bleeding form.
"It's almost over, Ezra," Josiah assured the sweating gambler as he opened the second bottle and dipped his fingers into it. Ezra's stream of profanity broke off as he watched the preacher's motions with round eyes. The substance was anointing oil, golden and slightly thick, and as Josiah reached towards Ezra the Southerner gasped and began to tremble.
Josiah's own hand was shaking; it broke the preacher's heart to cause Ezra such fear and pain, but it disturbed him even more to know the suffering which would result if they were not inflicted. He had rarely seen true evil, and now it was staring him in the face, using all sorts of tricks to save itself. As Josiah gazed into Ezra's angry green eyes, he nearly wavered at the agony he saw there. But something else lurked there too, an emptiness far more dire than any wound.
He braced himself to continue. There was only one way to fill that emptiness, and it was up to him. If this ritual restored Ezra to them, it would be worth all of the suffering which now tormented them both.
The gambler weakly turned his head away, still cursing, but lacked the strength to make any further efforts at evading his fate. As Josiah finished the required words, his fingers quickly and gently brushed Ezra's forehead, marking his skin with the holy oil.
At the first touch Ezra emitted a choking cry; once Josiah was finished he burst forth with a shattering howl, and in one great effort threw Nathan off and fell to the ground, shrieking at the top of his voice. In the power of his agony he tore his arms free from their bonds, and his hands flew to his bleeding forehead.
The healer rolled out of the circle and leapt up, watching the scene with alarmed eyes. Josiah, his task done, got to his feet and backed away swiftly, his gaze locked on Ezra as he did so.
The gambler was twisting on the ground, clutching his head and screaming as his body arched and writhed in seeming agony. Cry followed upon cry as he thrashed on the ground, his comrades looking on in growing dismay.
"He sure didn't like that, did he?" Buck asked as Ezra's shrieks filled the desert air. His handsome face was filled with concern as he watched his friend's sufferings. "Did it work?"
"We'll know soon enough," was Josiah's hushed reply.
For a few more minutes Ezra continued to cry out, grabbing his head in acute anguish, his expression hidden as he twisted and groaned. Then with unexpected suddenness the screams broke off with a choking sound, and Ezra rolled away until his back was to them, his body growing limp, his hands still covering his head, his shoulders heaving as he drew in long, heavy breaths. In the firelight they could see he was shaking, but there was no sign as to whether they had been successful.
The other men stood straight and alert, surprised at how quickly Ezra's torment has ceased. JD took a step towards him; Buck stopped him with a firm hand to his sleeve and a somber look of warning. It could be another trick.
For a long time no one moved or spoke. Only the rushing sound of the wind and the distant roar of thunder stirred the night air. Ezra remained motionless, still holding his head with his back to them, but after a while they discerned a new noise coming from within the ruined church. It was the soft, choked sound of heartbreaking sobs.
Josiah glanced at Vin and nodded. The tracker returned the gesture and gripped his rifle, ready, as the preacher once more stepped into the church. The other men followed him now, stopping at the boundary of the circle of holy water while Josiah approached their fallen comrade.
Ezra still had not moved, and as Josiah drew nearer he could better hear the intermittent choking groans coming in gasping bursts from the gambler's throat. He walked around until he could see Ezra's face; it now lay buried in the gambler's hands. Josiah knew he couldn't touch Ezra without causing him pain -- even if his soul had been restored he was still a vampire -- but he had to see if the ritual had worked.
Slowly he knelt down and said as gently as he could, "Ezra?"
A new burst of muffled sobs burst from the Southerner, but there was no other response. After a few moments Ezra heaved a huge sigh, then another, as if steeling himself for a great ordeal, and curled himself up even tighter, his face still hidden.
"Oh, Lord," Josiah heard him moan quietly between gasps. "Oh, Lord!"
Josiah bent towards him, resisting the urge to touch his shoulder. Before he could say a word, Ezra choked and shrank away.
"Go away, Josiah," the gambler pleaded as he turned his face away. "Please... I can't..."
Josiah stood and took a few steps back, his eyes still on Ezra's concealed face. He stood motionless and said nothing, waiting to see what would happen next.
Ezra took a few more hitching breaths, then slowly uncurled himself a bit, lifted his face from his hands and looked at Josiah. His pale face was wet with tears and thinly streaked with blood, the hands trembling from strong emotions. But it was Ezra's eyes that Josiah was most anxious to see, and he peered into them deeply. Their green depths were wild and haunted, full of the deepest remorse which even the most skilled of con men could not duplicate, and Josiah felt a strange relief flood his heart. Half of their battle was done now; Ezra had regained his soul.
Ezra stared at Josiah, then at the other men, trying to speak but unable to form the words. At length he let out a strangled gasp and dropped his head back into his hands. He began to pant, wiping his face roughly with his open palms.
Josiah quickly stepped away so as not to cause Ezra more pain, looking up at the others and nodding. "Don't worry, Ezra, we're plannin' to bring you all the way home. You can rest easy now."
For several minutes no further words were spoken. The only sounds disturbing the cool night air were the pops and hisses of the bright fires and the whistling of the wind as it moaned through the cliffs and trees around them. Ezra very slowly sat up, as if every movement took great effort, until he was sitting cross-legged, his face still hidden in his hands. Then he was motionless, save for the deep heaving of his shoulders as he breathed.
The other men watched him silently, sympathy replacing the uncertainty which had clouded their eyes. Finally Ezra drew a deep breath and lifted his head, facing them all with an aspect of perfect sadness. His eyes were large and glistening with tears in the firelight.
"I... apologize," he gasped, his voice low and melancholy, "but... you can't understand what this is, how it feels to know... I believe I will never be able to rest easy ever again."
Ezra sighed and wiped his face, his voice breaking once again as he shook his head, his expression one of perfect misery. Taking a deep breath he pressed his face once more into his hands. "Please... I just... can't speak at the moment..."
"It's all right, Ezra," Josiah assured him.
The desert quiet returned as they waited, keeping a close eye on the gambler as he sat alone at the center of the ruined church. A full half hour passed, and Ezra did not move or make a sound. In the far east, the first pink touches of dawn were brushing the night sky.
Finally Ezra emitted a deep sigh and raised his head, looking at his comrades through clear but troubled eyes. "Well," he said in a tremulous voice saturated with weariness, "you... have succeeded in restoring my soul, but... I confess I am not sure whether to thank or damn you. How... did you know what to do?"
"Josiah found a ritual in one of his old books," JD said as he and the others drew near. "You're lucky you didn't kill nobody for their blood yet or else we couldn't ever have brought you back."
Ezra turned his face away from them, slowly gathering himself together but still profoundly shaken. "As you know it was not for lack of trying," he muttered in a voice full of self-reproach. He shook his head slightly, as if amazed. "You all took... such a risk, doing this for me, even after I..." He choked and shut his eyes, mortified. "I assure you none of you have to forgive me. I know I will never forgive myself." He sighed deeply and put one hand over his eyes.
"We can worry about all that shit later, Ezra," Chris said in a tight voice, eyeing the gambler sharply. "We still got a hell of a fight in front of us, an' we're gonna need your help."
Silence fell again for a few moments. "Yes, of course," he finally muttered, looking at them. "You have little notion of what it is we are truly facing here, and once I regain my strength I will tell you all I know. But..."
His voice trailed off, and he once more turned his eyes away from them. "I must ask your indulgence if I seem a bit distracted. I am finding the shame over my actions most profoundly disturbing." After a pause he bit his lip and looked at Chris, Buck and Vin very hesitantly, immense guilt in his clear green eyes.
"We know you weren't yourself, buddy," Buck said, his blue eyes somber. "An' hell, when this is over, I'll punch ya back if that'll make ya feel better."
"Ain't no use fixin' blame on yourself now, Ezra," Vin offered. "You got the chance to set things right by helpin' us end this for good an' all an' make you one of us again."
"Right," Chris added, his face hard as steel with determination as he gazed evenly at Ezra. "An' I'm bettin' you already know what we got to do."
Ezra paused, momentarily deep in thought. To his surprise, he did know; it was there instinctively, along with all of the other knowledge born in him when he entered into this new way of being. He nodded once, his handsome, pale face reflecting a mixture of dire apprehension and grim purpose.
"Yes," the gambler said in a sharp whisper. "We must kill Gabriel Montreux."
His eyes met Chris' serious gaze, and the gunslinger nodded. They all knew the difficulty of what lay ahead, but were ready to face it.
The sky brightened; dawn was approaching. Seeing this, Ezra attempted to stand, but the strain of his wounds and the powerful emotions surging through him sent him trembling back to the ground. As he sighed to himself and rubbed his eyes in complete weariness, he felt a sympathetic touch at his shoulder, and looked up to see Buck kneeling beside him, with Nathan behind him. The healer walked around and carefully lifted Ezra up, bracing him in his arms.
"Hey there, buddy," Buck said softly with a slight smile as he wet his bandanna with water from a canteen. "Didn't figure you'd want t'join back up without lookin' your best. Just take 'er easy, we got ya."
He put the canteen down and lifted the cloth up to wipe the sweat and blood from Ezra's forehead. The gambler winced instinctively.
"Now don't you worry, Ezra," Buck chuckled as he gently dabbed the cold cloth across the burned skin. "There sure ain't nothin' holy about the water that comes from Trader's Creek."
Ezra could say nothing in response at first, his eyes full of shame as they stared at the ground while Buck cleaned his face and chest. At length he was able to stammer, "Thank you, Buck -- all of you -- I... fear I am quite at a loss for words."
"Now that's a first," Nathan said sympathetically as he helped Ezra sit up. "Just hold on now, soon as we get outta this church you'll be okay."
The gambler groaned and rubbed his head as Nathan steadied him. When he opened his eyes he saw JD watching him with great concern, and he looked away almost immediately.
"Oh, Lord, JD," he moaned. "You have every right to think me a perfect bastard."
JD forced a crooked smile. "Aw c'mon now, Ezra, you know none of us is perfect," he joked. "I know you weren't yourself, it's okay."
Ezra was shaking his head, and finally dared to look JD in the eyes once more. "Someday, son, you must explain your seemingly boundless capacity for forgiveness to me. I scarcely deserve it after how I mistreated you."
JD paused, then shrugged. "You can make it up by helpin' us kill Montreux, Ezra. Then things can get back to normal an' we can all go home."
Ezra's jaw tightened as he thought about the man who had brought such anguish to their town. "With pleasure," he murmured.
Nathan and Buck carefully helped the weakened gambler to his feet. Ezra was unsteady but able to walk, and together they all left the abandoned church, striking out to find a nearby shelter in which to plan the coming battle.
The small house was aglow in the early morning sunlight, the pale golden rays setting everything it touched afire with pure radiance. Set in the remote country, far from civilization, the small clapboard dwelling nevertheless presented a neat picture to those who ventured by. A small stable stood nearby, sheltering one old horse who even now whinnied anxiously and glanced impatiently at the house, waiting for its master.
The old weathered door swayed and rattled as it hung open on its hinges, but no one appeared at the doorway. The windows were all closed and shuttered, as if against a dust storm, but the day promised to be clear and full of sunshine. And still the old man who lived there did not appear.
Inside, the house was small but hospitable, decorated with the sparse but lovingly preserved mementos of a long and full life. A few treasured photographs hung on the walls, of a man and woman surrounded by children, then another one of the same couple, older now but still content. A smaller photograph of the same woman, still older, in a silver frame twined with dried roses. Some books and papers scattered here and there, a few sticks of old but usable furniture, and an old fiddle stored in the corner. All in all, a quiet, comfortable home.
Gabriel Montreux thought it would be the perfect place to hide and wait until sundown.
As he walked slowly from the bedroom, barely sparing a glance back at the body now lying dead and drained on the bedroom floor, he looked around to make sure that all of the windows were securely covered. Even with his recent nourishment he had to be wary of the sun. However, everything looked secure, and he settled in to gather his strength.
He was certainly fortunate to find the old man, he mused as he sat at the spare table and removed a book from his coat to read. It would sustain him very nicely, and the fellow never even awoke before Montreux dispatched him. It was almost disappointingly easy, but then he could hardly have expected a challenge.
As he flipped through the pages, his mind turned to Ezra. Wonder how he's faring, Montreux mused, I certainly hope he manages to make that catch. Now that he had fed himself, Montreux was strong enough to check on his pupil, to sense how strong the Southerner was becoming. He sat still and concentrated; it was much more difficult than normal, but after a great deal of effort he succeeded in finding Ezra.
Montreux sat up with a start, his violet eyes wide with shock and anger. He had found Ezra, but something very unexpected as well.
Standish had regained his soul.
"Damn them!" he cried to no one, slamming the book on the table and leaping to his feet. He really had no idea who was responsible -- those men he worked with, perhaps, but he'd never heard of such men risking their lives that way, certainly not for a two-bit gambler like Standish seemed to be. Ezra must not have been strong enough to stop them.
After the first flush of rage, Montreux took a deep breath, assessing the situation. He would be powerless to venture outside until nightfall. but the instant the sun set he would ride out to find his errant protege. Perhaps Ezra could be persuaded to rethink his decision, but if not, the gambler would simply have to be done away with. Then it would be on to another town, and hopefully, greater success.
Ezra might be something of a problem to deal with, he thought as he sat back down; he still retained all of his strengths, and would likely put up a fight. His friends, if they were foolish enough to stay with him, would be much simpler to handle; Montreux barely wasted a moment's thought on them.
He nodded once to himself and picked up his book, thankful that he had found the old man and his house now. He would be able to rest and gather his strength for the coming fight. If fortune was with him, perhaps a friend or relative of the house's owner would chance by, and he could strengthen himself even further.
With that optimistic thought, Montreux opened his book.
"I ain't gonna let you do something that crazy, Ezra!"
"I assure you, Mr. Larabee, it is the only way we will all have a chance to survive what is coming."
The firm voices of the two men echoed faintly against the cool walls of the dusty desert cavern which now sheltered them and their five friends. In the bright sunlight outside, their horses nibbled on the desert grass and enjoyed the quiet, but within the confines of the shady cave the air was tense. While the others sat, or leaned against the walls, Ezra and Chris paced in the middle of the circle, eying each other sharply. Josiah stood the farthest away, watching intently from the shadows.
"Maybe Chris is right there, Ezra," Buck said from where he sat cross-legged on the floor. "Goin' up against this Montreux all by yourself is plain suicide, pure an' simple."
"You got to at least let us back you up," Nathan insisted as he stood leaning on a large boulder.
Ezra peered at the healer, his green eyes almost angry. In the reflected daylight the gambler's condition seemed apparent in the unnatural paleness of his skin and the dark rings which had grown beneath his eyes. His strength, however, had fully returned since they had left the church, and it was that strength which now snapped in his expression.
"I am most grateful for your offer of assistance, gentleman," Ezra replied, fixing them all with a riveting look, "but how exactly do you intend to stop this creature? Bullets will only slow him down, and before you got anywhere close to him he would merely blind or paralyze you as he did Vin. I alone possess the strength to fight him on his own terms; it is only logical that I alone must do so."
"I don't like it," Chris insisted, staring resolutely at the gambler. "I ain't about to go slinkin' back to town like a whipped dog."
Ezra sighed, frustrated. "Mr. Larabee, even the whipped dog lives to fight another day," he pointed out. "Montreux would think nothing of killing all of you, trust me, and can do so without the slightest effort."
"But you said he's recoverin' from bein' shot, Ezra," JD said from his perch atop a large rock.
"He is, JD, but even weakened he is quite formidable," Ezra replied. He hesitated, then looked over at Chris. "I know that had I wished it I could have killed Chris with no trouble at all, and I am still a neophyte. Montreux has been at this game for two hundred years, and has the power and skill to show for every day of it. I have already told you how he entrapped me."
"We got our ways of fightin' too," Chris reminded him as he turned and walked away.
Ezra chuckled. "Lord, yes, sir, you do. But this is hardly an ordinary foe we are dealing with."
Josiah shifted in the place where he was leaning on the wall and crossed his arms. "You got any ideas on how you're gonna fight him, Ezra?"
The Southerner pursed his lips. "Only that it must be to the death -- Montreux cannot be allowed to ride away. There are several charming ways to dispatch him -- I may decapitate him, or drive a wooden stake through his heart, and that will rid us of him for good. A bullet composed of some holy material would be ideal to paralyze him so that the job may be accomplished, but sadly we seem to be lacking one of those."
JD fidgeted and looked uncomfortable. "Well, actually, Ezra... we ain't."
Ezra looked at him, bewildered. "Ain't what, JD?" he asked in a dry tone.
"Lackin'." He pointed at Vin. "Vin's got a bullet like that in his gun."
The gambler looked at his comrade and said with arch surprise, "Really? And why pray would that be there, Mr. Tanner?"
Vin's even blue gaze didn't flinch. "We was savin' it, Ezra," he responded quietly, "in case you tried t'kill one of us before you got your soul back."
"Josiah made it from this ol' communion cup he had," Nathan added.
Ezra took a quick breath and licked his lips, his white face somber. "I see."
"It was gonna be a last resort, Ezra," Josiah reassured him from his distant place.
But Ezra quickly held his hand up. "Please, Josiah, you don't have to defend your decision. It was quite wise of you. I..." He paused, seemed to shiver a little, then pulled himself together. "Are you all quite sure that you want to risk your lives against Montreux?"
"That's why the Judge hired us, Ezra," Chris said in his rough, still-healing voice. "He's attacked the town an' killed a man there. We got to stop him."
Ezra eyed him dubiously. "Chris, you are hardly in top form."
A hearty laugh exploded from Buck's lips. "Better watch that, buddy," he chuckled. "I saw Chris take a miner down once when he was busted up worse'n that."
"Montreux is hardly a miner, Buck," Ezra observed with a slight smile before looking back at Chris.
"I don't care what that bastard is," Chris exclaimed, taking a step closer to Ezra. "He's asked for a fight, let's give him one."
"Even to the death?" Ezra asked after a thoughtful pause.
Chris nodded, his green eyes steely. "That's the way it seems to go out here."
The two men regarded each other silently for a moment, until a slight smile touched the edge of Ezra's lips. "Then let us gird for battle," he said quietly.
He turned to the others. "You should all go back to town and do what you can to prepare. Weapons will be most important." His gaze went to Vin. "That bullet may prove invaluable. If you can shoot Montreux with it before he senses your presence, we may have a chance."
Vin nodded once, his expression grim. "Reckon I can do that," he whispered with perfect, lethal confidence.
"Josiah," Ezra went on, looking to the preacher, "if there is any more holy water to be had, I would suggest gathering it at once. I shall also require a sharp wooden implement large enough to stab a man with."
"Think I can manage that," Josiah replied from his distant place.
Ezra sighed a bit and rubbed his hands together as he looked at the rest of them. "This will be a most pitched battle, my friends; while in town I would urge that you make all arrangements, in case..." He raised his eyebrows a bit. "...in case we do not survive. I will remain here, and when dusk comes we will travel to the split rock outside of town and meet whatever destiny has in store for us."
"Don't you worry, Ezra, it's Montreux that's gonna be meetin' his destiny," Buck proclaimed as they began their preparations to leave.
"This is gonna be somethin'," JD added as he slid off the rock. "Maybe we can sell the story to Jock Steele when it's all over."
Nathan shook his head. "Nobody'd believe it, JD." The healer glanced closely at Ezra as he passed him. "How you feelin', Ezra?"
Ezra's pale face took on a lopsided grin. "Never better, Nathan. You forget I have regained my full strength, which provides excellent regenerative abilities." He lifted his hat to reveal a perfectly smooth forehead unmarked by blemishes, and swiftly unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it aside. The burns were completely healed.
Nathan nodded. "Just wanted t'be sure, Ezra. Just think, if you stayed this way, you'd never have to drink no more of my tea. Bet you'd miss that." He smiled a little, his brown eyes revealing the concern which lay just beneath the lightly spoken words.
The gambler laughed a bit. "Be careful, Mr. Jackson, you may cause me to rethink this entire enterprise."
Nathan chuckled and gave Ezra a slap on the shoulder before following the others out of the cave.
Josiah was the last to leave; he was almost clear of the mouth when he heard Ezra say, "Oh, um, Josiah? A moment perhaps?"
The preacher turned to see Ezra standing with an uncertain expression on his face, as if he were wrestling with an uncomfortable decision. Josiah walked a few steps back in, careful to keep his distance from his friend.
"Sure, Ezra," he said, his blue eyes concerned.
Suddenly the gambler winced sharply and threw up one hand as if to ward off an attacker. "That's -- er, that's close enough, Josiah," he said quickly, the first word high and somewhat frightened. They were standing some ten feet apart.
Josiah halted in his tracks. "Sorry, Ezra, didn't mean t'hurt you," he said.
Ezra shook his head and sat on a rock. "It is not your doing, Josiah," he replied breathlessly, "I believe I can bear it for a short time. I have some matters in town which need attending -- would you oblige me by seeing that they are accomplished, should I meet my demise in the coming fight, and you survive?"
Puzzled, Josiah pursed his lips and nodded. "I'll do my best, Ezra, but you know you got the best chance out of all of us of livin' through this."
"I have learned not to trust chance, my friend," the gambler replied as he fished a large wad of bills and a slip of paper out of the inside pocket of his red coat. After checking the paper, he placed both on the rock next to him. "There is the total of all the money I won the other night, and the sums and parties to whom they rightly belong. I wish that it should all be returned; you may be able to find some of them this afternoon. The horse I am currently riding was stolen from the stable when Chaucer proved too smart to allow me near him -- he knew, smart fellow, that something was wrong. If you would return this horse for me, I would be most grateful."
A look of bitter remorse crossed his handsome features, and he looked away. "You may tell them all, particularly the farmer Mr. Stewart and Mr. Corning, the rather portly businessman, that I deeply regret my actions. They should not suffer for my insanity."
He rose and stepped away from the rock. After a pause, Josiah came forward and picked up the list and the money.
"I'll see it gets done, Ezra," Josiah promised in a solemn tone, looking right into Ezra's green eyes. "They'll know you didn't mean to be cruel."
An ugly laugh coughed its way from Ezra's throat, and he looked at Josiah with eyes full of self-loathing. "But we both know that to be a falsehood, Josiah," he said, shaking his head. "I did mean to be cruel, and found it to be quite exhilarating. I can honestly tell you I have never enjoyed gambling as much as I did that night. I was able to gain all that I went after, without the slightest hesitation. It was glorious."
His voice had dropped to a whisper, his eyes becoming distant and hard. "For a short time I reveled in the most vile thoughts, Josiah, against you, the others of our number, the town. Every dark urging and violent notion sprang to hideous light, and I gloried in every moment." He sighed deeply and looked back at Josiah. "It is a terrifying thing, my friend, to know the savagery one is capable of."
Josiah watched him without speaking for a few moments. "You ain't that way no more, Ezra," he finally said gently.
Ezra stood and began to pace a bit, removing his hat and running one hand through his hair. "Yes, Josiah, but as I said before it is a dubious blessing. My soul has returned, but the ability to know all of the hidden darkness in me, and remember how I used it against others -- against us -- Lord, it is nearly impossible to bear." He took a deep, shaking breath and rubbed his eyes. "You have no idea what it is to have this knowledge, Josiah, no matter how blighted your past may be. It is beyond description."
He took another breath, and sat down again, holding his hat loosely in his hands as he stared at the cave wall. "I realize, Josiah, that I could have asked anyone to deliver that money, but I wanted you for a reason."
"Thought as much, Ezra," Josiah said with a nod, steeling himself for whatever Ezra might ask.
Ezra hesitated, frowning to himself, then looked down at his hands. "It appears -- I know for a fact -- that despite your restorative efforts, my physical condition is unchanged, and that fact has rendered me irrevocably damned."
Josiah shrugged. "We ain't sure of that, Ezra -- I was thinkin' only them without souls, like Montreux, were facin' the fires of Hell. You got your soul back."
"That is true," Ezra replied, closing his eyes, "but it seems to be still in the grip of darkness. I know how insane it sounds, but there is a heaviness pressing upon me which I know to be damnation. It was there before you performed your ritual, but it did not bother me then. Despite the reclamation of my soul, all things sacred remain repellent, including, I must assume, heaven."
He swallowed, then laughed, twirling the hat in his hands. "Lord! This is undoubtedly the most insane conversation I've ever had with anyone. I can scarcely believe I'm saying these words; it all seems a perfect nightmare."
"We're in that nightmare with you, Ezra," Josiah reminded him.
Ezra sighed to compose himself. "Yes, indeed, " he said, and looked up at his friend, his green eyes shining with all sincerity. Hesitation was clear in his face, but fortitude won out. "Josiah, if I am killed tonight and you survive, I would, ah, be most grateful if you would... do..." He stopped, clearly flustered and ran one hand through his hair. "Lord, this is hard to articulate!" He sighed, composed himself, and began again. "Josiah, would you pray for me?"
His friend's weathered face drew up in a reassuring smile. "You don't got to ask for that, Ezra. You know I'd put in a good word for you."
"Yes, I realize that," was the uneasy response, as Ezra began to pace a little, "and I am quite grateful, although before all this I confess I was rather doubtful that there was anyone listening to your entreaties. But now..." He ceased moving and looked up at his comrade, his voice quiet and tinged with sorrow. "There is something at work here which I do not fully understand, Josiah. I only know that there is a great darkness over me, and should I die in this... condition I will sink into its depths forever. If there is a God, He will not hear my entreaties. But He may hear yours."
Josiah eyed his friend somberly. "You know I'll do what I can, Ezra," he replied. "Ain't gonna let any of us wind up in the Inferno if I can help it."
"A most wise resolution," Ezra whispered, a catch in his voice. "At the risk of being overly dramatic, Josiah, I can say that I have felt hell's shadow brush my heart. It was quite... horrifying."
The cave fell silent. Ezra stared into the shadows, thinking, while Josiah watched him sadly, wishing there were some way he could lighten his comrade's burden. But even a touch was impossible.
Finally the preacher sighed and straightened, looking carefully at the gambler. "Anythin' we should tell Maude?"
Ezra looked back at him. "I will write a letter to her while awaiting your return," he replied in a melancholy tone. "If I do not survive, she will think I perished of a bullet wound. No one must ever tell her of any of this."
Josiah nodded; that was best. Maude would find this all impossible to understand. "I'll let the others know," he said. "But you best be sure to rest up before tonight."
Ezra inhaled deeply. "I am quite fit, I promise," he said in a light voice. "Besides, I have noticed that I do not seem to require much rest in this condition. I have hardly slept more than a hour in the past two days."
The other man smiled as he put the money in his pocket. "Reckon we'll make a mornin' person out of you yet," he said.
"One miracle at a time," Ezra cautioned, pulling out his pocketwatch and glancing at it. "I would suggest you hurry; noon is fast approaching."
"On my way," was the response, but before leaving the cave Josiah stopped and gave Ezra a resolute glance. "Don't you worry, Ezra, once Montreux is dead you'll be back to your old self."
Ezra gave him a skeptical look. "First I must survive, Josiah, and then, what sort of existence will be waiting for me, when I must remember this for the rest of my life? Do we even know for certain that I will not remain as I am now, burdened with this curse forever?"
Josiah sighed and gave his friend a sympathetic look. "Reckon we'll just face what comes, Ezra. But we ain't gonna abandon you, you know that."
A small smile twitched the end of Ezra's mouth. "Yes, sir, I do," he said softly, before flinching slightly and turning away. "You should go, Josiah."
Josiah took a step away, somewhat alarmed at the pain in Ezra's voice. "Am I hurtin' you?"
Ezra took a deep breath, and when he spoke his words were tight, as if he were speaking under a tremendous effort. "Some," he replied, "but it is nearing the time for me to nourish myself, and I am fighting a terrific urge to kill the nearest available food source, which unfortunately is yourself."
"You gonna be all right?" Josiah inquired, as he backed out of the cave.
Ezra stood in the shadows, one hand loosely clutching his head. "Yes, yes, I have some of the cattle's blood which Montreux gave me," he said quickly. "It is just... there are aspects to this life which I am now finding more difficult to control. Please do as I ask."
Without another word he spun around and sped deeper into the cave, to the place in the back where he had his horse and saddlebag. Josiah walked back to where Prophet was waiting, and as he mounted up he looked back into the cave, eager to see if the gambler really was all right.
In the shadows he could make out Ezra's dark form, drinking with great urgency from a large, dark bottle. As Josiah watched he finished, and almost as soon as the empty bottle was away from his lips Ezra looked at it with loathing and threw it with violent anger against the cave wall. As it exploded into a hundred pieces, the gambler dropped his head into his hands and remained motionless as the shards rained down on the cavern floor.
Saying a prayer in his heart for his afflicted friend, Josiah turned his horse around and headed back to town.
JD pursed his lips with determination as he strode out of the hardware store. In one hand he held a long, sharp wooden tent stake, and his hand closed firmly around it. This all just had to work.
With a short hop he moved off the boardwalk and began walking down the street towards the boarding house to put his things in final order before leaving. He didn't notice much of anything as he walked, his mind totally absorbed with thoughts of what was happening, and what lay in the very near future.
Wonder how Ezra's doin', he said to himself. A shiver ran through him as he remembered how Ezra was the night before, the awful words he'd said. He'd never heard anyone swear like that, or talk with such hatred. It had all been very frightening, and now that he had time to think about it, he marveled that he'd been able to bear it. But there hadn't been time to think then; maybe that was it. He'd been too busy worrying about Ezra to be bothered by what he said. But it would be worse tonight; tonight they faced Montreux--
"JD! Look out!"
Blinking, JD stopped, coming back to himself with a rush and grimacing as he knocked his right shin against the rough hard surface of a horse trough. He gasped just a little, deeply embarrassed that he had almost tripped over the dang thing, and looked up to see a young girl of about sixteen, clad in jeans and a rough shirt, staring at him with wide brown eyes.
"Hey, Casey," he muttered, still gathering his wits.
"Best take your head out of them clouds, JD, it's kinda late in the year for a swim," she said with a laugh in her voice as she walked over to him, her long brown hair bouncing beneath the wide-brimmed hat she wore. Her clothes were covered with dust, and in one arm she held a heavy-looking burlap sack.
JD smiled, chagrined. "I'm a pretty good swimmer, even in a horse trough," he replied lightly to hide his embarrassment. "You in town with your aunt?"
She shrugged. "She's back at the house peelin' apples for pies. Sent me into town to get some flour, ours went an' spoiled. Hey, what's this I'm hearin' about Ezra?"
JD glanced up sharply. "Why, what'd you hear?"
"Oh," she said, sitting down on the edge of the trough, putting down the flour and digging into one pocket, "some folks at the grocer's was sayin' he's actin' crazy, real mean -- like, an' that he took this poor farmer's last dime an' almost shot some fat ol' city feller. An' then he beat Chris up somethin' awful. Is that true?"
The young man hesitated. "You know better than to listen to store gossip, Casey," he chided her, unwilling to feed her curiosity.
"Oh, I know it's probably just hen-cacklin'," she admitted," but I saw Chris over by the livery just now, an' Lord, JD, he looks about half-beat to death!"
Dang! JD thought. "Well, okay, Chris an' Ezra had a little fight, but it's gonna be all cleared up soon. Nothin' to worry about."
She fished a near-empty bag of lemon drops from her pocket and opened it, popping one into her mouth as she stared down the street. "You fellers an' your fights," she muttered, shaking her head. "If you ain't shootin' you're punchin'. What'd they fight about?"
"That ain't important no more," JD insisted, slightly irritated. It was getting late.
She peered at him, frowning. "You're mighty jumpy, JD. You all right?"
"Oh, sure," he shot back. "Just -- uh, worried about that party comin' up."
"Oh." She accepted this explanation completely and stood. "Want a lemon drop? Maybe that'll calm you down some."
"Sure, thanks," he said quickly, pulling one out of the bag as he looked at her.
"You do seem rattled," she noticed as she put the bag back into her pocket. "Ain't you found no scary stories yet?"
JD grunted as he put the candy into his mouth. "Ooh, that really hasn't been a problem," he replied, looking away and thinking about the real-life horror he was involved in. A horror Casey could know nothing about.
"Oh, well, that's good," she said casually as she stooped to pick the flour up. "Best be gettin' on home, Aunt Nettie's waitin' for this. See ya, JD."
She turned and began walking away.
JD looked after her, suddenly seized by a cold fear; there was no knowing what might happen tonight, he might never see her again.
"Hey! Casey?" he yelled.
She stopped and turned, eyeing him with bewildered expectance. "Yeah?"
JD thought fast. What could he say? "Uh... you... you take care of yourself."
He immediately kicked himself, aware of how stupid he sounded. She didn't seem to mind, however, and smiled at him as she shifted the heavy bag of flour in her arm.
"Don't you worry, JD, I won't let the goblins get me," she said lightly, an d smiled again before heading off to the livery.
The young man snorted softly to himself as he glanced down at the stake he held. "We'll probably be fightin' them next," he whispered ruefully to no one. He watched Casey as she hurried away down the street until her slim form disappeared from view, then turned his own steps in the opposite direction, grimly resolved to stop Montreux's evil and protect his friends, no matter the cost.
The sun was setting, its brilliant rays fading into a gentle orange glow as they slipped over the cooling rocks of the rough desert floor. Seated safely in the depths of the cave, Ezra watched the coming dusk with increasing apprehension, well aware of what would occur once the day was ended. There was little time now.
He sighed and turned his attention back to the letter he was writing; he'd been working on it all day, but it was proving to be a very difficult missive to compose. How could he say goodbye to his mother in one short letter when there was still so much to say to her? And why couldn't he find the words to commit any of it to paper?
Perhaps because it was couched in a lie, he thought to himself as he put down the pen and sat back, running one hand through his hair as he watched the shadows lengthen outside the yawning mouth of the cave. According to the letter, he was dying of a bullet wound. Lying usually came so easily to him -- he'd based his entire career upon it -- but this time, it felt awkward and wrong.
But then, he chuckled as he studied the words he'd written again, the truth would completely confound her. ‘Dear Mother, my apologies for all this, but I've become a blood-sucking monster and will soon be dying in a battle against the bastardly villain who made me this way. You'll be happy to know I'll soon be in hell, which should actually be a relief after the day I've had, contemplating the suffering I've caused and the horrific things I never thought myself capable of until now. I hope you're not too disappointed. Love, Ezra.'
He smiled to himself, appreciating his own dark wit as he imagined those words on the half-blank page before him. No, he could not burden Mother with the truth; he was only now beginning to believe it himself, and could never hope to explain it to her. Thinking about what had happened to him was bad enough; trying to put it into words, impossible.
Ezra rose from the rock he'd been sitting on and began to pace, trying to collect his thoughts. How could he tell his mother what he'd done, the terrible joy he'd felt at causing others pain? It still sickened him to remember -- as he knew he would, always, even if he survived this -- the shameful glee with which he had caused ruin and contemplated the most heinous crimes.
Unbidden but unstoppable, the awful memories came back. He had beaten Chris for no reason other than he had tried to stop Ezra from killing someone -- he still felt the joyous thrill which had accompanied every brutal blow. He'd struck Buck, of all people, cheerful easy-going Buck who had been his partner in card games and joking around. And JD -- God, the things he'd said to JD, that poor kid, who still showed him mercy despite all he'd done and was repaid with the worst possible savagery. He'd tried to kill Vin -- Vin, his comrade and ally, an honorable man, one he could even call friend -- tried to kill him, and truly enjoyed it!
The shame was almost crushing him.
The worst part was knowing that the darkness still lurked within him, eager for a chance to break free yet again. It had been driven deep into his heart by the return of his soul, but it still prowled the edges of his consciousness, whispering its demented urgings into his ear. He could control it now, ignore its enticing words, but it was undoubtedly there, boiling just beneath his self-control, looking for a chance to erupt and consume him once more.
He lifted his head and stared sadly out into the desert twilight; night was fast approaching, the sky bathed in a purplish-pink as the sun neared the western horizon. Damn it, Ezra thought as anger swelled through his heart, why did they restore his soul? It was better to be without it, and not have to suffer this unrelenting anguish. To know the depths of one's own depravity, to feel the searing pangs of remorse -- this had to be even a worse hell than the one which still yawned before him, should he not survive the coming battle.
And even if he did survive, what then? He wiped his eyes and gazed over the dry rocks and barren trees beyond the cave's doorstep. If Montreux died, and he regained his humanity, he would still carry this terrible burden the rest of his days, still be forced to go back to town and try to rebuild the shattered trust between himself and the townsfolk. They'd seen him beat Chris, cheat the other poker players, punch Buck. When the Judge heard about it -- doubtless he'd been wired already -- there would be little recourse. Ezra would have to go.
He sighed, steeling himself, the anger rising again. No, he wouldn't let that happen, damn it, not after all this. He'd found a home there, and he was going to keep it, even if he had to throw every card game and even do menial labor -- labor? yes! -- to win back their trust. Montreux's evil had cost Ezra his pride, he was not going to take this from him as well. After this, it would be all he had left.
Another scene loomed, and Ezra shivered to contemplate it, but he had to study all of the possible outcomes, as any gambler worth his salt would. What if they succeeded in killing Montreux, but this did not release him from his terrible condition? Already he could sense the savagery growing within him, struggling to overcome the steadying influence of his soul. It was a pitched struggle, one he would not be able to win forever. The violent, angry thoughts broke to the surface now and then, the lethal urges grew harder to brush aside.
He looked back at his saddlebags instinctively as the call within him began to intensify. But all of the cattle's blood was gone now. What would he do, when the hunger grew intolerable? The thought of being driven into the desert to live alone forever, preying on the beasts of the wilderness so that he did not have to bear the agony of becoming a murderer, was horrifying to him. Even more terrible, however, was the thought that one day he might not be able to still the killing impulses within him. He would become a beast himself, slaughtering for blood, apart from the rest of humanity for the rest of his life except for his dark and suffering soul.
Ezra shuddered, appalled at this vision. Never, he could never live like that. He would ask one of his friends to dispatch him, or allow the morning sun to consume him, before allowing himself to sink to such depths. Even the fires of perdition were preferable to such a fate.
Suddenly he shook himself, frustrated at his own helplessness. How had things come to such an intolerable pass? he mused as he stood and walked back further into the cave. This was most absurd, he never would have thought such a nightmare could enter his own life. Four days ago he was happily pursuing his dreams of wealth and a good game of poker, now he was living a cursed life and fighting thoughts of murder and suicide. He had definitely had better weeks.
But a gentleman did not allow despair to cloud his purpose, Ezra told himself as he sat down once again, the letter before him. A gentleman faced adversity and overcame it, or went down fighting. Self-pity was a weakness, and Ezra could not be weak when so much depended on his strength.
He took a deep breath and picked up the pen with one hand, while with the other he tossed aside the half-written letter and began a new one. With time running out and his focus clear, the words came quickly, and when he finally finished he read them over and smiled a little. Perhaps one day they would help her forgive him.
Looking up, he saw that the sun was almost behind the mountains. Quickly he stood, folded and sealed the letter in an envelope, and gathered his things. Uncertainty and a little fear brushed his heart, but Ezra did his best to set them aside; he almost anticipated the coming fight, if for no other reason than to lay his hands on the bastard who did this to him, to all of them. Montreux deserved a good thrashing, at the very least, and Ezra felt ready to give him one.
The last light of the setting sun slid over the dusty ground, fading at last into the pale glimmering of twilight.
It was time for battle.
Ezra saddled up his stolen mount, and as the last cinch was checked and tightened he heard the noise of several hoofbeats nearing the cave. Taking the horse by the bridle, he gently led it outside. There he found the six other men, his friends, all mounted and ready for the coming fight, waiting only for him. For a silent moment they regarded each other, their faces reflecting the sensation of grim purpose now encircling their small group.
"Ready?" Chris whispered as he gazed evenly at the gambler.
"As I will ever be," was the firm reply as Ezra swung himself into his saddle. He ducked his head as he gathered up the reins. "I cannot adequately express my gratitude to all of you for facing such a risk on my account."
"Hell, I wouldn't miss this fight for anything!" Buck replied heartily. "Ain't too often we get to whip a vampire's ass, an' we are gonna whip 'im, pard. You can bet on that."
"Here, Ezra," JD piped up, pulling the wooden tent stake from his bed roll and handing it to the Southerner. "It was the biggest Mr. Watson had."
"My thanks, JD, it should prove quite sufficient," Ezra said as he accepted it, studying the sharp point before storing it away.
"You'll be wantin' to get 'im here, Ezra," Nathan offered, indicating a point on his chest just below his left pectoral. "That's where the heart is."
"I will endeavor to aim true, Mr. Jackson," Ezra said with a nod.
"I got some holy water for ya too, Ezra," Josiah added, indicating the canteen slung around his shoulder. He began to remove it before a sharp noise from Ezra stopped him.
"You may hold on to it for now, Josiah," the gambler said quickly, a nervous edge to his voice. "I fear I cannot have it close to me without suffering some rather inconvenient ill affects. I'll... take it when the proper time comes."
With understanding in his solemn blue eyes, Josiah nodded.
Ezra sighed and studied them all in turn. "I would suggest you follow at a distance and set yourselves up far enough away from me so that Montreux's suspicions are not aroused. With any luck, this entire affair will soon be over." He paused, his smooth, pale face working against the efforts of strong emotion. Finally he simply looked at them and tapped the brim of his flat-crowned black hat.
"Gentlemen, I will see you on the field of battle," he said softly, and turning his horse's head to the east, spurred the beast into a gallop and rode away.
The other six men watched him go. He had diminished to a small, indistinct speck against the barren desert landscape before Chris finally turned to them and said with gritty resolution, "Let's go."
The six horsemen said nothing in response, but picked up their reins and followed after their accursed comrade.
Night was well on its way by the time Ezra reached the split rock. The sky was a deep bluish-purple, fading quickly into black, its expanse cloudless. Stars were beginning to appear, and the full moon's gentle white glow already illuminated the wide, dusty wilderness before him. There was still no sign of Montreux.
Ezra resisted the urge to look behind him. He knew Chris and the others were camped out on a ridge some twenty yards behind him -- though not too close, hopefully, for Montreux to notice them. Vin would be preparing his sights; the moment Montreux was in range, the sharpshooter would fire, paralyzing the vampire long enough for Ezra to begin his attack. Ezra had full confidence that even in the moonlight, Vin would not miss.
He took a deep breath and fidgeted in the saddle, impatient. Hunger assailed him; he tried to ignore it, thankful that his comrades were too far away to be in danger. He could feel the animal savagery stirring within him, the nearly irresistible urge to hunt and kill fed by the darkness now settling around him. Was it always this way for them? he wondered idly, marveling at the powerful craving. Did every night bring this terrible violent longing? It was far worse than any desire he had ever experienced, but with stern will he pushed it away, hoping that soon it would be done away with forever. If not, he felt he would either stoop to murder, or go mad.
Something made him look up, and he saw a figure riding towards him, still far away but discernible in the pale moonlight. A tall, darkly clad shape on a white horse. Ezra froze, a tingle going up his spine. Montreux.
Mr. Tanner, he thought quickly, if you ever made an accurate shot in your life, make it now.
"There he is!"
JD's whisper went along the lip of the ridge where Chris and the others had placed themselves. As the others crouched down to hide, Chris glanced up at the tall outcropping of rocks to their left. Vin was perched at its apex, his rifle aimed and ready. The rest waited and watched.
Vin shifted in his place; he was standing on a boulder near the apex of the outcropping, his rifle laid across the smooth surface of the rock which hid from view. It was a beautiful long-range weapon, the bequest of an assassin whose career had ended in Four Corners. Vin ordinarily shunned the weapon as the tool of a killer, keeping it stored and unused in his wagon, but tonight he had decided that a good use had finally come for it.
He looked carefully down the telescopic sight as Montreux neared; Vi could see the man's handsome face and flowing white hair plainly in the pale moonlight. His nimble finger danced on the trigger as he aimed for Montreux's head; just a few more yards...
Then suddenly, everything went black.
"Shit!" Vin breathed, but the word had scarcely left his lips when the pain hit him, crushing in its weight and blinding in its intensity. He felt as if he'd been shot in the head. Reflexively he dropped the rifle, his hands flying to grab his eyes as he heard the weapon clatter away onto the rocks. The most appalling cry shattered his ears, and it an instant before he realized that the frightening sound had been torn from his own throat. A powerful wave of dizziness crashed over him, and before he knew it, he was falling, tumbling roughly over the sharp rocks of the hill towards the unforgiving ground of the desert several hundred feet below. He heard someone yell his name and felt the painful force as his body slammed helplessly into the cold rock; then, nothing.
Ezra felt a coldness rush over him as Vin's scream pierced the desert air. He knew what it meant, knew that Montreux had found them and that Vin was probably dead, but before he could think of what to do, Montreux was upon him.
"So, Ezra, I see you were punctual," the tall man purred as he rode up to the gambler, his long white hair dancing slightly in the chilly autumn wind. The vampire appeared much stronger than when Ezra saw him last, and regarded his protege with a cool smile. Ezra could only stare at him, his green eyes wide with anger.
Montreux only laughed. "Oh, come now, Ezra, did you really think I was going to let him shoot me? Did the return of your soul mean the losing of your mind?"
Ezra licked his lips. "Our accounts are between ourselves, sir," he whispered urgently. "There is no need to induce further suffering on their part."
"Lord, how sentimental you are now!" was the amused reply. "Could these be the same men you spoke so casually of slaughtering the other day? I thought they meant nothing to you."
"The other day I labored beneath the curse you inflicted on me," Ezra shot back, rage creeping into his voice. "Today I am a bit more clear-headed."
Montreux sighed and crossed his hands over the pommel of his saddle, shaking his head. "Oh, Ezra, Ezra! It breaks my heart to see how they've crippled you. You had such promise. You must remember how much your new life thrilled you, the glories of power, the miracle of immortality?"
"Indeed I do, sir," was the cold response, "and I will carry the horror of those memories to my dying day. I have become an animal now through your dealings, and mean to see an end to it here, tonight."
"No, Ezra, it's they who are the animals, not us," Montreux replied with a smile. "We are their masters; you felt that, and know it to be true. Just as you feel the impossibility of living on as you are now, with the chains of soul and conscience dragging you down. They did you no favors, did they, giving you the ability to feel the shame of your deeds? Beings such as we cannot live with that burden, Ezra. That's why we cast it off, and live as truly free creatures."
Ezra eyed him evenly, wary of every move. "It is not easy, I admit, but it is far preferable to mindless barbarity."
"But it isn't mindless," was the quick answer. "It's pure rationality. Besides, you know you can't stay this way; eventually you must hunt and kill, or go mad. It is the way we live, Ezra, and you can't deny it forever. Even now it must be driving you near insanity, to feel the lure of the hunt and be unable to answer it."
Ezra stared at him, speechless, wondering wildly what was happening behind him at the cliffs.
Montreux spurred his horse to ride closer, his expression mild. "I can help you calm those screams inside you, Ezra," he promised. "Those men trapped you, gave you back what you didn't want, but that can be changed. It can all be yours again, the power, the wealth, and best of all, the ability to pursue it without the pangs of your soul. Then we can kill them all and ride away, and you will never suffer like this again."
"No," Ezra said without hesitation, sitting up straight in his saddle. "That life holds no further charms for me, Montreux. I will not consent to entering it a second time."
Montreux looked at him and chuckled. "Brave words, my friend," he said smoothly. "But as I recall, I didn't need your consent then. What would induce you to believe that I need it now?"
They were gathered around the tracker's bloodied, motionless form where it lay at the base of the outcropping, Nathan doing his best to revive the tracker as the rest watched in horror. Only JD remained at his place, watching the proceedings at the split rock.
"C'mon, Vin," Chris whispered from his place at the sharpshooter's shoulder, his good hand resting on Vin's torn buckskin sleeve. Blood trickled from places where the rocks had raked his skin, and bruises were beginning to color his flesh.
Suddenly Vin groaned and stirred, one hand going to his head.
"Aaaah, shit! Shit..." he breathed.
"Easy, Vin, just lay still!" Nathan commanded, squeezing Vin's shoulder.
Vin completely ignored him as he tried to sit up. His blue eyes blinked open, but focused on nothing. "I been shot?" he rasped.
"I said lay still, dammit!" Nathan replied. "No, you ain't been shot, but you mighta broke somethin'."
Vin shook his head. "Nothin' feels broke, but -- God, Nathan, I can't see an' my head feels like it's been split open," he moaned.
"Ain't surprised, from that fall," Buck observed.
"No, it's that bastard, Montreux, he's doin' it," Vin spat as he very slowly sat up. "He done it before. Aaah... What's happenin' with Ezra?"
"He an' Montreux are talkin'," JD said from his lookout perch.
Vin sat still for a moment, then said, "Where's my rifle?"
"Didn't see it fall, must still be up on the rock," Josiah said, craning his neck upwards.
Vin's breathing was heavy as his sightless blue eyes darted back and forth. "One... Shit, that smarts!... One of you fellers got that rifle to me. I can still get 'im."
"Now how you gonna do that?" Buck wondered aloud, amazement in his voice. "Thought you said you can't see!"
Vin shook his head. "If I can hear 'im, I don't need to see. Now we gonna sit here jawin' or is someone gonna get me that damned rifle so's we can end this!"
Ezra's green eyes stared at Montreux as the implication of his softly spoken words quickly sank in. He guided his horse back a few steps, steeling himself.
"It would only be against my will that you would take my soul again, Montreux," he said fiercely. "And I promise you, this time I will defend myself with all of the strength available to me."
Montreux sighed and took off his tall hat, tossing it aside with seeming nonchalance. "If that's the way you want it, Ezra," he said lightly, with a slight smile. Then, with the suddenness of a mountain lion, he sprang from his saddle with a savage growl.
Ezra had prepared himself for it, but was still unable to prevent his opponent from sinking his fingers into Ezra's shoulders and dragging him to the desert floor. Sharp teeth sank into his shoulder, drawing blood, and Ezra let out a yell of pain and rage as they dropped into the dust. The raging animal roared to life within him, and he saw now that he could put its power to the best of purposes: ridding the world of Montreux. The urge to kill could not be stopped now, but he would use it against his attacker, and by doing so silence it once and for all.
The other men watched in horrified fascination as Ezra uttered an unearthly howl and tore himself from Montreux's grasp, jumping to his feet and whipping off his jacket and hat. Reaching down he grabbed Montreux and hauled him to his feet with seeming ease, fairly snarling with rage. His green eyes were wild and blazed with savagery; his newest and deadliest weapons -- a pair of razor-sharp fangs -- glinted in the autumn moonlight.
JD saw this and almost ducked behind the rock, terrified at what he was witnessing. That can't be Ezra, he thought, just can't be.
"What's happenin'?" Vin demanded to know, as he slumped against a rock holding his head in agony.
"They're fightin'!" was all JD could say.
Chris looked at Vin, his friend's anguish clearly visible in the pale moonlight.
"Stay here," the gunslinger said in a sharp, no-argument tone, and without hesitation raced for the outcropping and began to climb the jagged boulders to the top where Vin's rifle still lay.
Vin's head shot up, his sightless blue eyes searching in vain. "Chris! You can't climb with that arm!" he gasped, before sighing in frustrated resignation, "Dammit, Larabee!"
"You go on, Chris, we'll make sure the odds stay even!" Josiah urged as he stood, eyeing the contest keenly. Around his shoulder was looped the canteen containing the last of the holy water.
"Reckon it's about time we got this to Ezra," he muttered, and began to make his way around the ridge, closer to the battle.
"Wait, Josiah!" Nathan said, standing up. "You go over there, Montreux's bound t'notice. Ain't no good you gettin' killed -- let me go."
"Now hold on there, doc," said Buck as he stepped forward, "you got to stay here an' look after Vin."
"I ain't dyin'!" Vin protested, his voice thick with pain.
"Yep, an' I'd like to keep it that way," Buck responded, taking the canteen. "I can run mighty fast when I need to, reckon I can get this over to Ezra with no problem."
Before anyone could argue, Buck trotted away.
Montreux shook himself fiercely from Ezra's grip with a vicious cry, his violet eyes burning as he glared at the Southerner, his own fangs bared now.
"I'll gladly oblige if it's a battle you want, Ezra," he said as they circled each other. "But I have two hundred years behind me."
"Then I'd say you're about due for a thrashing, Mr. Montreux," was the cold reply, and Ezra leaped forward, smashing Montreux against the side of the massive split rock.
The taller man let out a yell and lashed out, striking Ezra squarely in the face. The gambler's head snapped back, red gashes now standing out against his ivory skin. As he staggered back a step or two, Montreux pounced, his weight carrying them both to the hard desert floor where Ezra landed with a dusty thud.
Ezra gasped as Montreux began to choke him, clawing at the other man's face in an attempt to stop the assault. As he gasped and coughed he turned his eyes to the ridge, and saw the dim form of Buck making his way towards them. Their eyes locked, and Buck stopped in his tracks, crouching down behind a rock.
The gambler understood at once; Buck was trying to get him the holy water, but could come no closer without alerting Montreux to his presence. Ezra would have to break Montreux's hold on him quickly.
Ezra's right hand shot out, swiftly gathering up as much sand and pebbles as he could and flinging the entire handful into Montreux's face. As the vampire let out a cry of pain and surprise, Ezra drove his fist into his stomach, then heaved him to the side and scrambled to his feet, giving his former mentor a vicious kick to the head for good measure, knowing that at best it would only stun him.
The dust billowed in silvery clouds as Ezra dashed towards the rock where Buck lay hidden. The gunslinger's head suddenly appeared, and when he saw Ezra running in his direction, Buck hurriedly tossed the canteen at him.
Deftly Ezra snatched the vessel from the air, ignoring the stinging pain in his hands, but as he did so a broken groan reached his ears. He looked over in horror to see Buck slump to the ground, his face screwed up in pain. He hurried to Buck's side, his green eyes anxious. As he ran he threw a hateful glance at Montreux, knowing full well that it was he who was tormenting Buck, using the strength of his mind. The only way to end it was Montreux's death, a feat Ezra hoped to soon accomplish.
He bent over Buck, grasping his friend's shoulders to steady him in his agony. Buck gasped and waved him away. "Don't fret on me, pard!" he panted, his voice tremulous with strain. "Take care of Montreux!"
Ezra stared at him for a moment in wild indecision, then looked up to see Montreux, dusty and bleeding but fully recovered, getting to his feet and glaring at Ezra.
"Really, Ezra," Montreux panted as he shook his head, his long white hair now hanging in dusty strands, "these associates of yours are positively disappointing."
Ezra stepped a few feet in front of Buck to protect him and pulled open the canteen, but within an instant Montreux was upon him. The gambler was knocked roughly against the unforgiving rock, the canteen wrested from his hand and flung out of reach, its precious contents spraying onto the ground in a glittering stream as it spun away. It hit the ground with a thump some distance away, rocked a little, and settled into stillness.
Desperately Ezra made after it, hoping that a few drops might still linger in the canteen, enough to at least cripple Montreux. Iron fingers closed around his arm, pulling him back, and in one lightning move Ezra spun around and buried his teeth in Montreux's arm.
The other man burst forth with a yowl as they fell to the ground. For a moment Ezra tightened his bite, reveling with pure animal savagery in the thrill of the attack. During the span of that surreal minute, his entire being gloried in the brutal sensation of sinking his teeth into his victim. It was his entire reason for existing, the one goal whose sanguinary call he would be forced to heed irresistibly for the rest of his immortal life.
But unlike the rest of his kind, he could choose another way.
The moment passed, and he pushed it away with all of the force his outraged, disgusted soul could muster. He tore his teeth from Montreux's arm and whipped up his head to stare furiously into his opponent's eyes.
To his surprise, the man was laughing.
"There, you see, Ezra?" he gasped as they grappled. "You're not so immune to this after all. Soul or no soul, it's what you are. Take it!"
Ezra stared at him evenly. "Much obliged," he panted in reply, "but I believe I'd rather not."
This did not seem to bother Montreux. "In that case," he said, tightening his grip on Ezra, "I hope you enjoy your eternity in hell."
Chris gritted his teeth as he slowly climbed up the sharp, cutting boulders of the outcropping. He had to hurry; Ezra would be able to hold Montreux for so long, and from the sound of things the fight was becoming vicious.
His healing shoulder screamed in protest with every movement; it almost felt as if it were becoming dislocated again. Chris bit down harder and ignored the pain; he wasn't going to be soft enough to give in to his agony when so much was at stake. As long as he could still move it, he had to continue.
The rocks were sharp and dug relentlessly into his hands as he pulled himself up the steep incline. Every few minutes he would glance down at the others waiting around the base of the outcropping. In the bright moonlight he could see Nathan crouched over Vin while the tracker sat on the ground, holding his head in mute agony.
The sight of his friend and brother in such pain spurred Chris's resolve, and he resumed his climb, determined to see Montreux dead and Vin and Ezra -- all of them -- freed from this evil for good.
Buck could barely see through the waves of pain as he tried to make out what was happening between Ezra and Montreux. His entire body felt as if it were on fire, the searing sensation seeming to come from everywhere.
"Buck!" Josiah's voice called, and in an instant he felt the preacher's strong hands on his shoulders, pulling him back to safety behind the rocks and away from where the two men were fighting.
"Much obliged, Josiah," Buck gasped, scarcely able to talk as he slumped against the cool rock. "Dang, feel like there's a burnin' stove on my chest! What's goin' on?"
Josiah peered over the rock. "Can't rightly see. But we still got a fighting chance." He patted Buck's arm carefully. "You did good, brother. Just take it easy now."
Buck grunted. "Damn hard t'take it easy when the Union army's ridin' through your skull," he said with a grimace, grasping his head with one hand.
JD ran up, his hazel eyes wide. "Buck, you okay?"
The older man chuckled as he rubbed his eyes. "I'll live, kid. What's goin' on with Chris?"
"He's still tryin' to get Vin's gun," JD replied, looking back to the outcropping where Chris's dark form could still be seen inching up the face of the rocks. "Vin's hurtin' pretty bad, though. This better end soon."
Josiah was watching Ezra and Montreux. "I think it will, JD. One way or the other."
Ezra tightened his grip on Montreux, using all of his rage at what he had become to strengthen him in his fight. Montreux's blood still flecked his lips, the bitter taste in his mouth reminding him of the depths to which he had descended. Shame and revulsion filled his soul, and fueled his efforts against the creature who now struggled in his grasp.
Despite the wound, Montreux's fighting spirit remained unabated, and he quickly bared his fangs and leaped at Ezra, driving them both back to the ground. Before Ezra could stop him, his opponent buried his teeth into the gambler's shoulder, which erupted in a burst of blazing pain.
Ezra let out a cry of agonized anger, and was surprised at how feral it sounded, almost like an animal's scream. With more strength than he had ever dreamed of possessing he grasped Montreux and wrenched him away before he lost more of his blood.
Montreux, his white hair swinging wildly and now spotted with crimson, got to his knees for a moment, staring at Ezra with blazing violet eyes, then struck again with a furious snarl and catlike swiftness. The two men tumbled back into the dust, their cries and groans mingling into a cacophony of brutal combat.
Gritting his teeth in rage, Ezra grasped Montreux's collar tightly, rolling over and slamming his opponent into the ground. Rearing back, he crashed his fist across Montreux's jaw. As he brought his arm back to repeat the blow, Montreux's head snapped back, and he stared at Ezra with devilish fury before letting out a crazed roar and grabbing Ezra's arm, stopping its descent. With inhuman strength, he wrenched then gambler's arm aside and tossed him off of him, kicking him to the ground. Before Ezra could brace himself for the attack, Montreux was upon him.
Montreux assaulted his apprentice savagely, clawing and biting at every opportunity. The blood flowed freely, the pain almost blinding. Ezra felt each bite and gash and returned as many as he could, but his strength was beginning to ebb before the merciless onslaught. If he only had a moment to rest he knew he could recover, but Montreux was relentless, raining blows down on him with the ferocity of a mountain lion.
Then, suddenly, the blows stopped, and as Ezra gasped for air he saw Montreux sitting back and staring at him, now drenched in sweat and dappled with blood. One slender hand was tightly grasping Ezra's collar.
They stared at each other for a moment, Montreux wild-eyed and triumphant, Ezra dazed and bloodied. Ezra braced himself; if Montreux was going to kill him, why didn't he just get it over with?
Then he looked into his sire's eyes, and suddenly realized why. Montreux wasn't going to kill him after all; he was planning instead to reclaim Ezra's soul, knowing that this was the fate Ezra feared most. His green eyes widened at the same instant Montreux bared his fangs and dove down, intent on plunging them into Ezra's throat.
"No!" Ezra screamed, strength rushing back into his arms as the horror at the thought of returning to that cursed existence flooded his being. They struggled, Montreux's fangs grazing Ezra's neck, before the desperate Southerner flung the creature to one side and rolled away.
Ezra's fists dug at the dust as he lay, trembling and spent, trying to gather together the power to keep fighting. He would rather die and face hell than become like that again, but there seemed no way to prevent it. He needed time to regain his strength and there was no time.
He braced himself for another attack, but instead another pain struck him, sharp and searing, as if a thousand knives were piercing his skin. But this pain was oddly familiar, and with an effort he opened his eyes, frowning. It felt just like... like...
Oh, Lord! he thought.
With a gasp, he pulled himself up on one elbow and raised his head, straining to see. The full moon still flooded the rocky plain with light, and in its silver glow he could see Montreux standing some twenty feet away, glaring at Ezra like a baffled tiger. But he made no move towards him, and after focusing his eyes Ezra saw the reason why, with a mixture of concern and amazement.
Josiah was standing between them, his huge hands balled into mighty fists as he stared the vampire down.
Ezra coughed, a tight feeling constricting his heart as he realized the severity of Josiah's actions. "Josiah," he gasped, his voice rough and weak, "for God's sake, don't... This is... not your fight..."
"Any fight against evil is my fight, Ezra," the preacher replied in a loud, firm voice as he stared Montreux in the eye. "You just get your wind back. I reckon I can hold this demon til then."
Montreux laughed as he paced back and forth. "Is that what you think, holy man? I've slain your kind before, you know. You may be immune to my more intangible abilities, but you can still bleed and die."
Josiah regarded him with a quiet smile as he shucked his coat and put up his huge fists, being careful to stay between Montreux and Ezra. "So can you."
The creature snorted a little, his violet eyes watching Josiah's every move. They watched each other for a few silent moments, Josiah tensed and ready, Montreux pacing with the leisurely stride of a jungle cat sizing up a dangerous victim.
Behind Josiah, Ezra pulled himself up against a pile of rocks and rested, feeling the strength flow back into him as his regenerative powers healed his torn, bruised flesh. As he waited, his wide green eyes remained riveted to the scene before him, awed by the fact that Josiah was facing down such a deadly foe for his sake. Resolution flooded his healing frame; he had to stop all this, no matter what. He couldn't let the suffering and sacrifice of his friends be in vain. Even if he died in the attempt, it had to end.
He fixed his eyes upon Josiah and Montreux, and kept alert for his chance to continue the battle.
Chris finally reached the top of the outcropping, panting and covered with sweat. His hands were cut and bleeding, his shoulder on fire with agony, but he ignored their ceaseless throbbing as he looked about anxiously for Vin's rifle.
All seemed silent below, and Chris couldn't tell if this was a good sign or a bad one. This thought, too, was quickly set aside; if Ezra was dead, well, they could use the holy bullet to avenge his death, and go down fighting.
His green eyes quickly scanned the uneven surface until the glint of moonlight on metal caught their attention. At the far end of the plateau before him, the gun lay where it had fallen, its glittering muzzle pointed at the sky.
Chris hauled himself up and crawled over to the gun, his bloody fingers curling quickly around its cold barrel. From here he could see the whole scene below, and felt his heart go as cold as the icy metal when he saw Josiah facing down Montreux, with Ezra sprawled behind him, apparently motionless. Buck was behind some rocks nearby, bent over double as if he'd been wounded, with JD trying to support him.
"Shit!" he muttered, and whirled. He couldn't risk tossing the gun down; if Nathan or JD went to catch it and missed, Montreux would hear it strike the ground, and probably kill Vin to prevent him using it.
Tucking the gun under one arm, Chris began to climb back down, his heart hammering in his ears, his injured shoulder so stiff and painful now he could barely move it. They had to hurry.
Montreux took a deep breath and paused in his restless movement, his gestures becoming increasingly agitated as if he were preparing himself for a costly decision. But his expression was gleeful, almost triumphant, as he regarded his holy opponent.
"This will cause me no small amount of pain, as you know, holy man," he finally announced in a pleased whisper, "but for the pain it will inflict upon you, and Ezra, I believe it will be completely worth it."
With that, he sprang at the preacher.
Josiah stepped back, surprised at Montreux's agility. The vampire swiped at him with one hand, the sharp nails raking across Josiah's face and drawing blood. Both men cried out in pain, Montreux staggering back to clutch his hand with its burnt fingertips while Josiah turned his face away to collect himself. It quickly passed, and as Josiah looked back up Montreux was leaping at him again, a flashing knife held in one red-smeared hand.
Instinctively Josiah reached out, grabbing Montreux's hand as it descended. The momentum of the attack pinned them both against a nearby rock, Josiah straining to keep the creature's hand from going any farther while Montreux, eyes full of as much hatred as pain, strove to drive the blade into Josiah's chest.
"Ain't a knife a little ordinary for you?" Josiah gasped, his body trembling from the strain. The vampire was much stronger than he'd anticipated.
His enemy laughed as he stared into Josiah's blue eyes. "Whatever does the job, holy man."
The blade dipped lower, its razor-sharp tip touching the shirt covering Josiah's shoulder.
Josiah returned the vampire's stare and tightened his grip on Montreux's arm, knowing that even through cloth his touch would hurt his attacker. Montreux's expression didn't flinch, but his breath grew faster, and his lips curled even tighter over his fanged teeth.
"Why are you all doing this?" Montreux hissed as they stared each other down. "He's just a gambler, hardly important enough to bother about, yet you risk your lives for him!"
Josiah shook his head as the sweat dripped into his eyes. "Sorry, Montreux," he muttered, "but you traded off the only part of you that'd ever let you understand."
Montreux began to tremble violently as he glared at Josiah, sweat dripping from his smooth white brow. Finally with a demonic howl he overcame Josiah's grip and plunged the knife downwards, forcing its blade an inch into the preacher's shoulder.
Josiah cried out and wrenched his other arm free of Montreux's grasp, grabbing Montreux by the face to stop his assault. At Josiah's touch Montreux howled, and the smell of burning skin instantly filled the air. The knife flashed again, slicing Josiah across his chest and breaking his grip on Montreux. As Josiah fell back to the ground, grasping his wounded shoulder and panting for air, Montreux stumbled a few feet away, one trembling hand covering the burned side of his face.
Vin lifted his head, trying to see through the pain and darkness. It was Chris, coming closer.
"Chris? You get it?" he asked, trying to sit up despite the dizzying anguish. He received his reply when he felt the cool, welcome weight of the gun settle in his hands.
Vin smiled with vast relief. "Thanks, pard," he muttered as he tightened his grip, his finger sliding with smooth familiarity onto the trigger. "Now gimme a hand up so's I can see about endin' this. I just need to hear him make some noise t'know where to shoot."
Chris helped him to his feet, turning him in the general direction of the fight and settling him behind a sheltering rock.
"You sure you can do this?" Vin heard Chris mutter.
Vin settled the rifle on the rock and crouched down, placing the butt of the weapon in its usual position against his shoulder.
"I'm bettin' our lives on it, ain't I?" was the soft reply, and they fell silent as he waited for a chance to aim.
Josiah was panting for breath, keeping a sharp blue eye on Montreux as he kneeled panting in the dust. He could tell he was bleeding badly, and the wounds in his shoulder and chest were throbbing painfully. But he dared not take his attention away from the vampire who now stood motionless some ten feet from him, his hands covering his injured face.
A cold dizziness assailed him, but he could not give in to it; his battle was still before him, and he could not waver. As Josiah grasped his blood-soaked shoulder, he grit his teeth and bit back the groans which threatened to escape his lips. They needed him to hold Montreux at bay until Ezra was strong enough to fight once more, and he would not abandon the field to evil.
He tried to move his arm just a little, and was immediately seized by a ferocious agony. As he bit back the cry rising in his throat, he glared at Montreux, thinking, Lord, just give me the strength for this one fight. Just this one, and then you can have what you want from me. We'd all be much obliged.
Finally Montreux moved, slowly, as he lifted his head. The skin on his face was healing rapidly, but it was still red and inflamed where Josiah had touched it. His violet eyes locked with Josiah's, and the preacher felt a shiver run through him; if ever he had stared hell in the face, this was the time.
"You're going to pay for that, holy man," Montreux finally whispered, his lilting drawl permeated with pure hatred. He drew his knife once more and gripped it tightly as he began to advance towards the wounded lawman.
Josiah began to stand, aware that he could do little to stop the demon but unwilling to die in the dust. He stumbled backwards a bit as he gained his feet, but before he could straighten fully Montreux was nearly on him, the blade flashing in the silver moonlight. Montreux reached for Josiah's arm, determined to pull his enemy to him and drive the knife into his gut. His fingers touched the bloody sleeve--
A loud cry exploded in Josiah's right ear, and a blur raced past him, knocking Montreux to the ground with a tremendous crash. As Josiah fell backwards, he saw Ezra, now revived enough to continue the fight, rolling over the desert rocks with Montreux locked in his arms.
As Josiah and the others watched, Ezra grabbed Montreux's arm, pulling it straight and sinking his teeth deep into the vampire's arm close to the shoulder. Montreux howled, the knife falling from his hand, before he pulled free of Ezra's grip and gave the gambler a solid blow across the jaw.
A hand fell on Josiah's unwounded shoulder, and he looked up to see Nathan bending over him.
"Thought we'd best get you outta the way," he muttered, kneeling down and draping Josiah's arm over his shoulder. A small smile crossed his face. "Dang, Josiah, why you got to be so brave all the time?"
"Just ain't learned better, I guess," the preacher grunted, and together they rose slowly, Nathan guiding his bleeding friend out of the arena. Josiah finally regained enough wind to ask, "How we doin'?"
"Vin an' Buck ain't so good," was the anxious reply, "an' I can't do nothin' for 'im. Looks like it's all up to Ezra now."
Chris looked at Vin. "Can you get 'im?"
The tracker's unseeing eyes were staring ahead, his hands coiled on the rifle as he strained to hear. He shook his head. "I got to be sure it's him I'm aimin' at," he whispered. "He's got to yell or somethin'."
His friend looked out at the raging battle. "Will you know it's him an' not Ezra?"
Vin's jaw tightened as he gripped the weapon. "I'll know."
The two vampires fought savagely across the rocky desert floor; all niceties had been set aside, and the duel was now to the bloody death. Teeth flashed and bit, nails clawed and tore, each one determined to emerge the victor. Ezra had never done such savage fighting, but now he indulged in it with fierce abandon, using every ounce of his inhuman strength to inch his way closer to humanity. He had seen Chris hand Vin his rifle, knew the time was at hand for this to be over. All Vin needed was a chance, and Ezra had an idea how to give it to him.
Montreux, however, was not in a generous mood. He had fully abandoned all of his sophisticated manners of fighting, and had devolved into a raging beast, with only one goal in mind: to conquer Ezra. Death was not his plan; since Ezra had attacked him, Montreux had made every effort to sink his razor-sharp fangs into the Southerner's neck, knowing that this fate would be even worse than death to his former comrade. It would be the perfect revenge.
At this point, it had become difficult to tell the two combatants apart; both were now covered with dirt and blood, distinguishable only by Montreux's long, now-filthy white hair. As they struggled, Ezra broke free and rolled away, keeping his eyes locked on Montreux as he did so. The gambler had only gone a few feet when Montreux was on him again, kicking and biting with great ferocity. Ezra twisted, cried out, and once more retreated, scrambling madly over the rocks.
"What's goin' on?" Buck asked JD from the place where he crouched, still in pain.
JD swallowed, disbelieving. "It -- it looks like..."
"What?" Buck gasped, worried when JD said nothing.
The younger man gripped the rocks he was peering over and shook his head. "Can't be, but -- I think Ezra's givin' up."
Ezra was on his back, surrounded by boulders, staring at Montreux as the vampire advanced on him. Green eyes met violet as Montreux laughed a little, swinging his tangled, dust-caked hair out of his face.
"Don't worry, Ezra," he whispered as he drew near, "you'll thank me for this, just like last time."
He was only a few steps away, walking faster now. Ezra tensed, seemingly unable to move.
Faster than the human eye could see, his right arm suddenly whipped up. In his hand was the canteen, lifted from its hidden resting place among the large rocks; Ezra had seen it there and maneuvered the fight to bring him within its reach. Montreux had no time to react as Ezra swung his arm through the air in a large arc, the vessel's remaining contents streaming out in a glittering spray straight into Montreux's eyes.
Montreux let out a terrifying scream and staggered back, his hands going to his injured eyes. Ezra quickly threw away the empty canteen, wincing as a few drops seared his fingers.
Vin straightened, his keen ears focusing in on the horrific sound of Montreux's wails. As Chris watched him, his quickly nestled the rifle's butt against his cheek, waited, listened, and fired.
The bullet struck Montreux between his shoulder blades, and he stiffened and choked before collapsing to the ground.
Vin and Buck each let out a cry and fell back, grabbing at their heads.
Chris grabbed Vin's arm as the tracker gasped and blinked. "Is it gone?"
"Yeah," Vin panted as he slowly lifted his eyes, shaking his head and massaging his temple. He slowly straightened and looked at Chris, his blue eyes now unclouded, and gave a tight nod.
Reassured, Chris looked over to where JD was crouching beside Buck. "Buck?"
"I'm fine, pard!" was the vastly relieved reply. Chris watched as JD helped a slightly wobbly Buck to his feet. "Whew! Feels like a thousand pounds just got lifted offa me. Thanks, JD."
His young friend nodded, unable to speak.
Chris pursed his lips, thankful that his friends were now released from Montreux's grip, but as he turned his eyes back to the scene before them his jaw tightened. They had not completely won just yet.
The dust had barely begun to settle before Ezra stumbled to his feet and ran to his horse with staggering steps, throwing cautious glances back at Montreux's motionless form every few feet. With trembling, bloody hands he retrieved the wooden stake and hastened back to his sire's body, knowing that with every passing second Montreux was regaining his strength.
All eyes were on Ezra as the gambler reached Montreux. The vampire still lay where he fell on his back, gagging and twitching as he watched Ezra approach. His eyes had healed enough now to stare at his protege as he stood over him, stake in hand.
"It's not too late, Ezra," he gasped as they locked eyes. "Don't be a fool and throw away everything you've ever desired."
They regarded each other for a moment, then Ezra's hand tightened around the wooden post.
"Quite excellent advice, Mr. Montreux. I will certainly follow it," Ezra said softly, and in one swift motion, he reared back and plunged the stake directly through the vampire's heart.
Montreux let out a horrific screaming roar as his body arced upwards, the noise seeming to echo from every rock and splitting the air with its strength. There was a loud rushing sound, as if all of the surrounding air was being drawn with tornadic force to the spot where Montreux lay dying. There was a deep, booming sound louder than the loudest explosion any of them had ever heard, and the air rushed out again, blooming in an enormous circle as it rushed back out into the desert. A final, shattering cry, and the creature's body shuddered and broke into an uncountable number of dusty fragments.
As Montreux's earthly remains fell to the earth, Ezra felt the most remarkable sensation consume him. There was no pain, only a strange, quick pulsation which surged through his entire body. Something dark and heavy seemed to lift away from him, and the resulting relief he felt was so strong he gasped aloud. He fell to his knees, oblivious to the howling wind around him and the pain of his bleeding wounds, his eyes filling with tears of joy. There was only time for one thought to cross his whirling mind -- Free -- before the darkness bore him away.
The wind rushed away, and with it came a tremendous, unearthly feeling, a crushing pressure which swept over all of them. The pent-up mass of Montreux's power, accumulated over two hundred years, had been released with his death and was now billowing away in a mighty, invisible surge. It passed over them quickly, knocking all of the men to the ground with its irresistible force, then rolled out into the desert, over the rocks and brush, growing wider and weaker as it went, until it finally slowed, faded, and died out.
The dust then settled, and all was still.
Josiah stirred and groaned. If he was dead, he thought, he was going to be mighty disappointed because he didn't think you could feel like hell in heaven.
He drew a deep breath and tried to move. His shoulder protested strongly, and he grit his teeth with a grunt. What had happened? Then everything came rushing back at once, and he opened his eyes with a gasp.
He was shocked to see that it was nearly dawn; the sky was very light, the eastern horizon pink-gold with the approach of the sun. Josiah braced himself and began to sit up, still woozy but determined. Noises reached his ears, groans and gasps similar to his own, and he looked over to see the other men rising as he was, all blinking and looking around in confusion.
"Dang!" Buck gasped, shaking his head. "What'n hell was that?"
"Ain't rightly sure, Buck," Nathan moaned as he ran one hand over his head. "Y'all all right? Josiah?"
"I been worse off than this, Nate," Josiah assured him as he hauled himself to his knees. "Few bandages, I'll be fine."
"I feel like I been knocked into next week," JD commented as he very slowly got to his feet.
"How long we been out?" Vin muttered, squinting at the horizon.
"I'm guessin' several hours," Chris replied in a hoarse voice as he stood, rubbing his face.
JD shook his head, then looked out towards the desert and gasped. "Ezra!"
Instantly the other men followed his gaze, getting to their feet with renewed purpose. Ezra still lay where he had fallen by the place where Montreux had died, his bloodied form unmoving.
"Heavens above," Josiah muttered, and as quickly as they could manage it, they went to their friend's side.
Of Montreux, there was nothing left but a small pile of dusty ashes and the blood-smeared wooden stake. A dark, charred spot marked the place where he had perished, but none of the men gave it more than a glance.
Nathan reached Ezra first, and crouched behind him as the others gathered around. Every wound inflicted by Montreux still marked the gambler's body, the gashes and bruises ugly in the dawn's growing light. His clothes were caked with dried blood and dirt, rendering his appearance frightful, but his expression as he lay unconscious was as peaceful as that of a sleeping child.
The healer put a hand on Ezra's shoulder and very gently rolled him back until Ezra's head and shoulders were resting in his lap. After a few moments announced, "He's still breathin'. It's mighty slow, though."
JD studied his friend's pale face with mounting anxiety. "Did we... I mean, is Ezra... all right now?"
Josiah looked to the horizon; the sun was almost up. If Ezra was still accursed, they had to know now.
As the other men watched solemnly, Josiah knelt in front of Ezra. Slowly, with some hesitation, he reached out for Ezra's hand and very lightly touched the back of it.
Nothing happened. There was no blistering, blood or evidence of the slightest pain.
The small knot of men breathed a simultaneous sigh of relief. As they exchanged exhausted, happy looks, the first glimmer of morning sunlight brushed over them, and they turned their eyes to see the gleaming rim of the sun now cresting the eastern horizon. The blazing orb rose slowly, its precious light growing stronger as it cleared the mountains.
After a moment the men all looked to Ezra as the Southerner felt the first touch of the sun in several days. It appeared to cause him no discomfort at all as its warm rays caressed his pale, bruised features. He stirred a bit, took a very long, deep breath, then seemed to relax into a deeper sleep and became completely still.
Silence fell for a minute or two.
"Looks like it worked," Vin murmured.
"Sure seems promisin'," Nathan agreed, "but we best get 'im back to town fast. That fight took a lot out of 'im."
"He gonna make it?" Chris asked, frowning at the Southerner's pale complexion.
Buck helped Nathan up, both men lifting Ezra carefully as they got to their feet. "Can't rightly say, Chris," was the healer's anxious reply. "These wounds didn't vex 'im too bad when he was strong, but now that Ezra's human again they might be too much for him. But I'll do all I can for him."
Vin brought his horse over, and with great caution they lifted Ezra onto the saddle. The gambler was now completely limp, utterly unaware of anything around him. As Vin climbed into the saddle behind Ezra and wrapped one arm around the Southerner's waist, Buck helped Josiah onto his horse.
"You okay to ride, Josiah?" Buck inquired with a frown.
The large man nodded as he gathered up the reins. "Sure am, Buck," he answered, gritting his teeth. "Winnin' over evil does wonderful things for a man's constitution. Reckon I can make it back to town just fine."
"I bet you can," was the reassuring response, as Buck grinned up at the preacher. "You sure done good tonight, Josiah. Ezra's gonna be buyin' you the steak dinner of a lifetime."
Josiah glanced at the unconscious gambler and pursed his lips. Even if Ezra survived, a long road of regret and guilt still lay ahead for him, and Josiah could not help recalling Ezra's angry, frightened words in the cave spoken to him the day before. Would Ezra be happy to live, with the burden of remembering he would now have to bear?
He sighed and looked down at Buck with a nod. "Guess we'll see, Buck," was all he could think of to say. The other man seemed to understand the dark tone in the preacher's voice, and he gave a nod himself and went off to mount up.
Montreux's horse had disappeared, but JD had managed to find the mount that Ezra had stolen from the stables, and walked it back to where the others were preparing to leave. As the young man walked by the spot where Montreux had died, he could see that the vampire's ashes were smoldering slightly in the sunlight, the gray wisps of the gray smoke dancing restlessly in the clear morning air. After a moment's thought, he stopped, picked up the bloody stake, and shoved it behind the saddle of the stolen horse. Then he continued his journey and rejoined the others.
Soon the small band was riding away from the split rock, back to home and healing. Behind them, the last of Montreux's ashes dissolved into a feeble plume of smoke. The next hard rain would rinse away the blood now staining the rocks, and a traveler riding by the spot in the future would not have been able to tell that anything momentous had occurred there.
Few of the townspeople were about as the men rode back into Four Corners, and those that were paid little attention to the group. One rough-looking man, who had witnessed Ezra's beating of Chris in the bar, glanced at the gambler's injuries and chuckled at the men as they trotted past, "So, decided to take 'im outta town an' teach 'im a lesson, huh? Good for you!"
To his surprise, he received a murderous glance from Chris, and the men rode on.
"Y'all get Ezra on up to his room," Nathan said as the others reined in in front of the Standish Tavern. "I'll go get my kit."
"Ezra ain't gonna like his sheets gettin' bloody," Vin observed as he eased the gambler off his saddle into the waiting arms of Buck and JD.
"Reckon he wouldn't like bein' hauled up two flights of stairs neither, pard," Buck gasped as the full weight of Ezra's body sagged in his grip.
They carefully carried the Southerner into the tavern while Nathan spurred his horse up the street towards the livery.
"Easy there, Josiah," Chris said in a rough voice as he helped the preacher to the ground.
"I'm all right, Chris," Josiah assured him, despite the sweat beading on his forehead. "Figured I best be with Ezra now, he might be needin' my help."
Vin got on Josiah's other side as they mounted the steps into the saloon. "Reckon we can fix you up while Nathan's seein' to Ezra, then," he muttered, helping to steady the wounded man as they all followed Buck and JD inside.
Within fifteen minutes Nathan was at Ezra's side, cleaning and binding his friend's injuries. The map of wounds on the gambler's body told a vivid tale of the battle's ferocity; there seemed to be an endless array of gashes, bite marks and bruises on his chest and arms, some of them very deep.
"How's he lookin', Nate?" Josiah asked quietly from one corner of the room, where Buck was busy winding a long white bandage around the preacher's injured shoulder.
"Ain't too sure yet," the healer replied as he finished sewing up one of the more serious cuts. "Montreux didn't go easy on 'im, he might be bleedin' inside. Only way to know is to wait an' see."
Footsteps sounded on the saloon steps. The men tensed. After a few seconds, a knock came at the door.
"Senor Chris? Are you in there?" It was Inez.
Chris rose from where he'd been leaning against the wall and went to the door, shooting a warning look to the others: Inez couldn't know what had happened. He opened it only a bit and slipped outside.
Inez stood in the hallway, her dark eyes concerned as she watched him step into the corridor and close the door. "Mr. Parker said you beat Senor Ezra, but I am sure this is not true. What happened to him? Is he all right?"
He nodded, a flicker of anger flashing across his face. "He ran into a bit of a dust-up, an' Parker should keep his damn gossip to himself. Nathan's doin' what he can for 'im."
"I am sure," Inez said with a nod, then gestured towards the stairs. "Mr. DePaul from the bank wants to see someone about his vault. He believes it was tampered with during the night."
Chris glanced back at the room, paused, then gave her a quick glance. "Tell 'im we'll be right over," he said, and with a parting nod he opened the door and disappeared inside.
Nathan looked up from his work as Chris quietly closed the door. "Anything wrong?"
"Just somethin' at the bank," Chris replied, pursing his lips for a moment. "Inez was askin' questions, though, an' other folks will too, so we best be ready. Ezra was in a fight, that's all they need to know."
"We won't be lyin'," JD pointed out.
"Vin an' I'll see what the trouble is," Chris continued, pulling his wide-brimmed black hat on.
The tracker straightened and ran one hand through his long curls. "Hell, after all this, goin' after bank robbers sounds downright easy."
"Just let us know," Chris said as he put his hand on the knob and looked at Nathan. The healer nodded, and Chris and Vin sped out, each man sparing one last glance at the still, pale figure lying unconscious on the bed.
"There ya are, Josiah," Buck announced as he tied off the last of the bandages. "You ain't gonna be dancin' the two-step no time soon, but you'll heal up."
"Thanks, Buck," Josiah said in a low, gasping voice. During the procedure he had rarely taken his eyes from Ezra's quiet form.
Nathan shot a quick look back at his friend as he worked on Ezra. "You best just sit a while, Josiah, you're lookin' mighty pale."
"I'll go get us all some of Inez's coffee," JD offered, standing up. "I feel like if I don't do somethin' I'll go nuts just sittin' here worryin'."
"Reckon I'll join ya, kid," Buck said, standing up stiffly and picking up his hat. "See if I can't get Inez to make us up some biscuits."
JD nodded, and they both walked out as lightly as they could. Nathan said nothing more as he concentrated on his work, and Josiah remained silent as well, preparing his weary soul for the sad possibilities of the day ahead.
The hours wore on. JD and Buck returned with the food and coffee, which was eaten with gratitude but without great appetite. Chris and Vin investigated the bank, asked some questions, and found that the bank teller had been preoccupied with an argument with his wife and had simply forgotten to lock the vault at the end of the previous day. Leaving DePaul to deal with his errant employee, the men left the scene and went back to check on Ezra.
By the time they arrived, Nathan had finished. All of Ezra's wounds, including his fingers burned by the holy water, had been tended. There was nothing to do now but wait. A clean nightshirt was pulled over Ezra's bruised, bandaged body, while his bloody clothes were gathered up and taken away. The gambler had still not regained consciousness, and as they settled him back into the bed an air of deep anxiety filled the room.
"Josiah," JD asked, stepping close to the preacher, "it said in that book I was readin' that if a vampire dies, he always goes to hell."
"Reckon so, JD," was the solemn reply. They were both looking at Ezra while Nathan arranged the quilt around him.
"But that won't happen to Ezra, right? He's not one of them no more." A fearful tone ran through JD's every word.
Josiah sighed. "It's hard to say, JD, but I'll do my best to see that it doesn't."
JD looked down at the bowler hat in his hands and juggled it a little. "Uh, well, if you don't mind, I might... just stop at the church on the way over to the jail. Light a candle or somethin'."
A smile creased the preacher's tired face. "The matches are on the table by the altar, son. Help yourself."
The young man nodded and walked out.
"Reckon we best get back to work," Chris muttered. "It's best if folks don't see anything unusual goin' on."
"I'll get that stolen horse back to the stable," Vin said. "Bet his owner's lookin' for 'im."
"I'm gettin' some breakfast, " Nathan said, rubbing his face and looking over to where Josiah was settling into his chair once more. "You stayin'?"
Josiah nodded a little, his blue eyes somber.
The healer smiled slightly. "That promise, huh?"
"I'll bring you back somethin', then," Nathan said as he went towards the door. "Ezra'd be right happy knowin' you was bein' so true to you word."
The older man leaned back with a sigh, getting as comfortable as he could. "To be honest, Nate," he said quietly, "this is one promise I'd really hate to have to keep."
The morning ripened into afternoon. The town went about its business, pausing only to gossip about the fact that the hired guns had beaten up that red-coated gambler to teach him a lesson. The other men squelched the rumor where they could -- Chris and Vin somewhat angrily -- but still it flew. Other than the upcoming Halloween party, there seemed little else to talk about.
JD went about the pretense of preparing for the party, helping Mary make the decorations for the dance hall and decide what games the children could play.
"Sure doesn't seem like Halloween is only a week away, does it?" Mary asked him with a smile as they cut out some orange paper jack-o'-lanterns.
JD's reply left her a little puzzled. "Oh, I dunno, ma'am, seems to me it's right on top of us."
Vin rode the perimeter of the town and came upon a hysterical man riding from the north. Slender and gray-haired, he frantically told Vin of a murder scene he'd come across while returning from Eagle Bend. There was a cabin by the road, he said, he'd passed it a hundred times before, but this time something made him stop and see if the occupant was all right. Good thing he did, the man insisted, because the old man inside had been brutally slain. Really strange thing, too, looked like all his blood was gone, and the visitor had found some very weird long, white hairs clinging to the body.
Vin followed the man back to the cabin and discovered that everything he'd said was true. Hating Montreux more with every passing minute, Vin and the rider solemnly gave the old man as much of a Christian burial as they could. Having found no information as to next of kin, they located a key, locked the cabin, and rode away, Vin promising to turn the matter over to the proper lawman as soon as he was able.
As he rode back to town, Vin contemplated the brutality of Montreux's actions. He wasn't sure if he thought there was a hell, but at the moment he found a great amount of satisfaction in indulging in the belief.
Afternoon waned into evening. Buck had kept an eye on Ezra while Josiah caught a nap on the floor. The preacher seemed reluctant to leave, and spent most of his time either silently praying or closely watching Ezra's bruised, eerily tranquil face for the slightest sign of awareness. The vigil proved frustrating. Every once in a while the gambler would toss into a new, more comfortable position, but there was no sign that he was awake, and, after settling down, he would not move again for several hours.
As dawn broke the next day, Josiah was still by the bedside, his head bowed in earnest prayer, when a small sound from the featherbed drew his attention. Lifting his tried eyes, he saw Ezra stirring a little, his expression puzzled as his eyelids fluttered open.
The preacher drew closer, a burning dread forming in his stomach. It wouldn't be easy to see Ezra shoulder the burden of remembering the past few days, but at least he could try and lighten the load a little.
There was a gentle rustle as Ezra shifted in bed, lifting his head from the pillow and blinking with confusion at Josiah's hovering form. "Mmph... Josiah?"
"Yeah," was the quiet reply, as Josiah tried to guess Ezra's state of mind. "How you feelin'?"
Ezra let out a small gasp and collapsed back onto the bed, his head plopping onto the down pillow with a soft poof. "Remarkably confused," he sighed, rolling slowly onto his back and frowning at the ceiling, "but otherwise my health seems to be in an agreeable state. What happened?"
"You were in a fight," was the calm reply. It was hard to tell how much, if any, of his ordeal Ezra remembered, and Josiah did not want to shock his friend with more information than he could handle.
Ezra accepted this explanation with complete credulity. "Yes... Some cretin jumped me in the alley," he murmured with a weak nod. "How long have I been asleep? It feels like days."
"Just one day," Josiah assured him.
"Hmm," was the pensive reply. Then he stretched and breathed an enormous, comfortable sigh. "I confess I slept quite well, but... I had the strangest dream," Ezra mused as he settled back in the bed and reached up to scratch his chin with his bandaged fingers. As soon as the gauze brushed his skin, he stopped and pulled his hand away from his face, staring at it in surprise. His green eyes were wide, and Josiah could almost see the dark memories flooding back into his mind.
"Oh, Lord," Ezra whispered as he regarded his burned fingers. He turned to look at Josiah. "I... presume it wasn't a dream after all?"
Josiah leaned towards him, anxious. "How much do you remember?"
Ezra's gaze darted about as the images danced before his mind's eye. "Most of it, I'm afraid," he said softly. "Some of it is merely a dark blur." After a few moments, a quick gasp escaped his throat, and he looked back at the preacher. "Montreux?"
"Just a grease spot on the desert floor, now," Josiah said, "thanks to you."
The gambler's pale face split into a slight smile. "I believe it was a team effort, Josiah," he observed, before the smile disappeared beneath a more serious expression. He looked at Josiah's bandaged chest and shoulder. "Are you... recovering sufficiently?"
Josiah smiled, rubbing his shoulder carefully. "Take more'n this to slow me down," he replied. "Nate says I'll heal up, an' I ain't gonna argue with 'im."
His comrade nodded, clearly heartened. "And... the others... Vin, Buck...?"
"All fine," the other man said, laying a reassuring hand on Ezra's shoulder. "Worried about you, is all. Soon as Montreux died, his hold on Vin an' Buck died too."
Relief flooded Ezra's expression as he regarded Josiah from the depths of the down pillow. He sighed and turned his eyes towards the ceiling.
After several moments of silence, Josiah leaned forward. "An' how are you feelin', Ezra?"
The gambler continued to stare straight ahead. "If I had the ability, Josiah," he said in a very quiet voice, "I could tell you how it feels to rejoin the living after being consigned to the depths of the damned, to be free of the monstrous urges which have tortured me incessantly for the past two days."
There was a long silence as Ezra lay gazing upwards.
"However," he finally whispered, "there are no words sufficient to describe such a release, so let us just say... I am quite pleased to be home."
His last words were so soft that Josiah had to strain to hear them, their tremulous quality revealing an emotion too strong for Ezra to voice further.
Josiah's gentle grip on Ezra's shoulder tightened a bit. "Want me to get Nathan?"
"Not just yet," was the thoughtful response, as Ezra lay unmoving, still overcome by all that had happened to him. "As you know, Josiah, I... have suffered some wounds that are beyond even Mr. Jackson's healing abilities."
Josiah nodded, his expression sympathetic. "Nobody's gonna expect you to get over this in a day, Ezra. But you'll be glad t'know I gave all that money back you wanted, an' Vin returned the horse. So some of the wrongs have been put right."
"That is indeed reassuring, my friend," Ezra sighed, shifting a little in the bed and finally looking back at his comrade. "Perhaps the citizens of this town will eventually forgive me. There are other concerns, however, that I am afraid will not be so easily remedied."
"You know you don't got to carry that load alone, Ezra," Josiah reminded him.
Ezra bit his lip and shook his head, looking away once more. "I fear that is not the case, Josiah," he said quietly. "I alone have walked the paths of hell, and I alone must face the shadows which that journey has left upon my soul. It is not a burden any of you can have the slightest comprehension of, a fact which I fervently hope remains forever true."
"If we can keep fightin' like we did the other night, I think it will be," Josiah assured him.
Ezra met his eyes and nodded, a slight smile touching his lips. "Yes," he muttered. "I owe all of you a debt far greater than I can ever repay, and you particularly, Josiah. I am sure I would be dead now if you had not intervened."
"Well, I never was one to walk away from a good fight," the preacher admitted with a wry smile. "An' for repayin', don't worry about that. Gettin' you back to the tables again will be payment enough."
The gambler laughed; it was weak and punctuated with a cough, but its honest tone was pure music to Josiah's ears. "You may come to regret that wish, my friend," Ezra grinned.
Josiah smiled too, relieved to see that the heaviness in Ezra's heart had not crushed his spirit. "Reckon I'll go get Nathan an' let the others know you're up," he said, and rose.
"Very well," Ezra sighed, stifling another cough. "I'm sure he cannot wait to start pouring that tea down my throat."
"It's what you wanted, Ezra," Josiah said lightly as he walked around the bed towards the door.
The gambler drew another deep breath as he turned onto his side and settled back into the featherbed. "Yes, that's true," he murmured, "and no matter how much of that damned brew I have to ingest, I promise you, it is a desire I will never regret."
Nathan was quickly summoned, and before long Ezra found himself staring into the eyes of not only the healer, but the other men as well.
"I assure you there is no need for such overwrought concern," Ezra told them in a weak, slightly annoyed voice while Nathan checked his pulse. "I have had a most refreshing rest and am firmly on the road to recovery."
"Guess we just wanted to see for ourselves, Ezra," Buck announced, his face wreathed in a wide grin. "Don't fret, we'll be back to ignorin' ya in no time."
"He ain't gonna be that lucky just yet," Nathan warned as he released the gambler's wrist and stood. "You're gonna be restin' up for a while, Ezra, an' like it or not we got t'keep an eye on you 'til you're up an' around again."
Ezra sighed and pulled himself up in bed a bit. "Does anyone in our fair town know what happened?"
"All they know is you got into a fight," Chris replied, his voice still low and rough. "An' that's all they're gonna know."
"Not that they'd believe us if we told 'em the truth anyway," JD added. "Hell, I wouldn't, if I hadn't seen it myself."
"I would strongly urge against letting any of this get out," Ezra advised as he stifled a yawn. "It would either cause a panic or land all of us in a lunatic asylum."
"Don't think you got to worry 'bout that, Ezra," Vin assured him. "Folks here'll likely just forget all about it, once you're back on your feet."
"An' the sooner we get on out of here, the sooner that'll happen," Nathan advised them, packing up his kit. "I'll get some tea ready for you, Ezra, an' you best drink it."
The gambler groaned. "The great price of returning to mortality, I suppose."
"Can't say I didn't warn you," was the healer's amused response.
Ezra chuckled feebly, then cleared his throat, his face assuming a pensive air as he looked around the room at his comrades. "Before you go, gentlemen, I... should convey my deep gratitude for your assistance through this whole nightmarish endeavor. I promise you, I will never be able to sufficiently express my thanks to you."
The other men all stood silent for a moment.
"That sounded pretty sufficient t'me, Ezra," Vin drawled with a slight grin. The other men nodded.
"Maybe you'll be thankful enough to start lettin' us win every once in a while," Buck added.
The gambler's bruised countenance lit up with a smile. "I said I was grateful, Mr. Wilmington, not insane."
"You'll be exhausted if'n you don't get some rest," Nathan chided him, "an' then I'll be lookin' after you right through Christmas."
He shooed them all out of the room as Ezra settled back into the bed.
JD was the last to leave, and he looked back at Ezra, his expression a mixture of relief and concern. "It's sure good to see you back again, Ezra."
"Thank you, JD," Ezra said as he looked up at him from the bed. "You were quite brave during all this, son. When I am well enough to venture into the saloon, you must allow me to buy you a beer."
JD grinned with delight. "You bet," he said brightly, overjoyed that his friend was truly with them once again. He waved a little and followed the others out.
"You rest up, now," Nathan warned as he turned down the lamp and began to pull the door closed. "I'll be back in a while."
Ezra yawned and nodded, listening as Nathan closed the door and descended the stairs into the saloon below. As he situated himself within the snug, warm confines of the featherbed, he knew that, as weary as he was, it would be a while before he would be able to sink once more into the soft arms of slumber. There was much to contemplate.
How strange it felt to be himself again, he mused as he arranged the quilt. The animal darkness which had tortured his heart was gone, the horrible urges no longer whispering in his ear. He would not be driven to madness, or murder, by unholy hunger; the blackness of damnation that had lain over him had disappeared. The nightmare was over, and he was free.
The realization was overwhelming. Normally Ezra prided himself on the tight rein he held on his feelings, but there was no stopping the rush of warm emotion which swept over him. As he covered his face and began to weep with profound relief, Ezra sincerely hoped none of the other men would come back at that time to check on him. He would have a devil of a time explaining this.
Good fortune was with him, however; no one disturbed his quiet rejoicing, and it was some time before Nathan returned with the tea. When the healer appeared, Ezra had curled up in bed and fallen asleep once more, his expression weary but calm.
Nathan paused, studying Ezra to make sure the gambler was not in pain, then quietly slipped back out, deciding with a smile that there would plenty of time for tea later.
Several days passed; Halloween drew closer. While Ezra recovered, the other men went about their daily routines, breaking up fights, collaring lawbreakers, and playing cards and drinking whiskey in the saloon. The gossip about Ezra died down, due in part to the angry responses such rumors garnered from the gambler's six friends, and in part to the fact that folks got tired of talking about it.
For his part, Ezra spent most of the time resting, obeying Nathan's advice with minimum grumbling. The wounds began to heal, the bruises faded, the sleep became lighter and less prolonged. He proved amiable enough when the other men stopped by, but it was clear that his mood was distant, his mind preoccupied with thoughts and dark memories.
On a bright autumn morning ten days before the Halloween party, Chris, Vin and Nathan sat together in the saloon, drinking their morning coffee and enjoying the rare tranquility.
"Shoulder back to normal, Chris?" Nathan asked as he idly perused the front page of Mary's newspaper.
"Mm-hmm," was the reply as Chris swallowed some of his coffee. "Ain't felt a twinge in days."
"Must be 'cause he ain't gone mountain-climbin' for a while," Buck grunted as he flipped through a recently acquired dry-goods catalog. "Dang, these Remington six-shooters are nice, think it's about time I bought me a new piece."
"Too bad you gone broke courtin' Miss Millie," Nathan chuckled.
Buck grinned. "Well, now, it ain't that bad -- oh, hey there, JD."
The other two men looked up to see JD, looking a little out of breath as he approached their table. He was holding a small piece of paper, which he quickly handed to Chris.
"Ezra's gone," JD panted, bewilderment in his voice.
Nathan and Buck sat up, surprised, while Chris read the note.
"What?" Buck spat out, hastily putting aside the catalog.
"I went in to saddle Hero for patrol, an' found Chaucer gone an' that tacked up to the post next to his stall," JD said, nodding at the note.
"What's it say?" Nathan asked, frowning.
Chris glanced at him and handed Nathan the small, yellow square of paper. Written there in fluid, artistic strokes were the words: "Will return. E. P. Standish."
Nathan read it, and handed it to Buck. "Thought he might head out for a while, he's been mighty thoughtful the last few days."
"A man who's been through what he has, has got a lot to think about," Chris muttered, leaning back in his chair and folding his hands. "The desert's a good place to do it."
"'less he decides the tables at Ridge City are more to his likin'," Buck observed, reading the note before putting it on the table.
"Then it ain't nothin' to worry about?" JD asked, uncertain.
"Ezra's got most of his strength back," Nathan assured the young man. "I don't like it, but I s'pose he knows what he's doin' without us doggin' his heels."
JD nodded, wanting to believe the healer's words, and looked at Chris. "What do you think, Chris?"
The gunslinger sat silent for a few minutes, then reached for his tin coffee cup. "The note says he'll be back," Chris said quietly, "so when he's ready, he'll be back."
During the following days, Four Corners prepared for the upcoming Halloween celebration, and warmed the chilling air with flying rumors over the gambler's disappearance. His comrades knew and understood the truth -- all of them could sympathize with the need to be with one's thoughts, especially after such a hard experience -- but to those in their charge they could offer only shrugs and reassurances that Ezra would return.
Gossip explained his absence in a number of ways; some tongues insisted that he had simply lit out for good, while others contended that his six comrades had gotten even for his cruel behavior by taking him out of town, shooting him through the head and burying the body. Before long, the town's children were frightening each other with sworn testimony that they had seen the gambler's bloody ghost haunting the desert rocks and swearing revenge on his former associates.
The night before the party was clear and cold, and as the remaining six men left the dance hall, the midnight stars were shining brightly through the crisp air.
"Mary's gonna be mighty happy with the way the hall looks," JD proclaimed as he shrugged on his coat.
"Don't guess we did too bad a job," Josiah said in agreement. He had been out of the bandages for a week, his shoulder and chest now bearing only slight vestiges of soreness.
"I thought it looked downright festive, myself," Buck insisted. "It's amazin' what you can do with a bunch of punkins an' some paper an' glue."
JD laughed. "You was just lookin' to see where to hang the mistletoe when it comes time to put up the Christmas dance, Buck."
His friend grinned, then looked thoughtful. "Hmmm, wonder if that stuff works this time of year, too?"
Vin blew on his hands and rubbed them against the chill. "Think I could do with a gutwarmer before headin' out on patrol."
"I was thinkin' on some hot cider, myself," Nathan admitted as they turned their steps towards the Standish Tavern.
Chris walked with them and said nothing, puffing on a thin cheroot and trailing tiny clouds of smoke as they moved along. His expression indicated that he was deep in thought.
They walked down the street, their boots crunching on the dirt road, trading talk back and forth. The tavern appeared quiet and comfortable, the perfect place to relax after three hours of placing chairs and hanging miles of paper-chain decorations, and within moments they were stepping through the batwing doors into its glowing warmth.
"Looking for a game, gentlemen?"
Six heads all turned at once at the drawling, welcome voice, to see Ezra sitting in his usual place in the raised area of the near-empty saloon, shuffling his cards and grinning at them.
"Ezra!" JD exclaimed with joy, walking quickly over to join the gambler. The others followed him, relieved that Ezra had returned. The Southerner was still a little bruised and pale, but a calmer air had settled over him now, and a brighter light shone in his green eyes.
"Hey, buddy, good to see ya!" Buck said as he loped up the steps to the table.
"Likewise, I'm sure, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra replied, glancing around at them all as he continued to shuffle. "Mr. Larabee, Mr. Sanchez, I hope my return finds you in good health?"
"Good as always," Chris said in reply though the cheroot smoke, studying the gambler carefully.
"Same here," Josiah added, sitting next to Ezra. "Might ask the same of you."
"Sure gave us a start, you ridin' off like that," Nathan said as he sat down. The others took their chairs too, filling the table.
Ezra's smooth face wore a thoughtful expression as he met their eyes. "I apologize for any discomfort my departure caused, my friends," he said quietly, tapping the cards gently on the table to even them out. "There simply came a time when I felt it necessary to indulge in some private contemplation."
"No need for that, Ezra," Josiah assured him, leaning forward in his chair. "Some of history's greatest men have found solace wanderin' in the desert alone with their thoughts."
"You spent this whole time out there just thinkin'?" JD inquired as he crossed his arms, leaning his elbows on the table.
Ezra sighed a little as he cut the cards. "Yes indeed, Mr. Dunne, I did."
"An' what'd you find out?" asked Vin.
With expert agility Ezra palmed the cards and began dealing them out, their cardboard forms flashing through the soft yellow light as they fluttered and slid into place before each of the seven men. "That thinking is not nearly as financially rewarding as poker. Five-card draw, gentlemen?"
The others chuckled a bit and settled in.
Buck stood and plopped his hat into the table. "I'll go ask Inez to draw us up some beers," he offered, and trotted down the steps towards the bar.
Josiah looked over to Ezra, his expression serious as he regarded the Southerner. "You come up with anythin' else out there, Ezra?" His tone was soft and laden with concern.
The dealing done, Ezra picked up his cards and arranged them, his own face set in more sober lines. "More than I expected, I must confess," he said quietly, his eyes staying on his cards but clearly seeing something else. "Much of it will remain private, but I will tell you that for a short while I questioned my continued presence here. I was fearful that my previous actions would greatly jeopardize the town's trust in myself, and in all of us."
"Hell, Ezra, they already forgot about all that," Buck said as he returned and sat down, picking up his cards. "Now they just think you're dead."
Ezra smiled. "They shall soon be dissuaded from that notion, Buck. I'm afraid it will take longer for them to decide I am not a rampaging lunatic, but in the end I decided it would be worth the effort."
"That the only reason you came back?" Nathan asked, lighting a cigar and watching his friend closely. "To save your reputation?"
The gambler regarded them all with an even gaze. "I am hardly a prime candidate for a holy crusader, my friends," he admitted in a low, even voice. "But I could not in good conscience abandon my duty to defend this town against evil, particularly after witnessing the sort of power it can attain. We know Montreux was not the only member of his species to pollute this region, and if any of his kin decide to pay us a visit, you will need all the knowledge available to fight them -- knowledge which I alone possess."
"You wouldn't be fightin' that fight alone," Josiah reminded him with a slight smile.
Ezra returned the smile and nodded a little. "That is true, Josiah, and I am quite grateful. And make no mistake, this was not a lightly-made decision -- personally, I would rather indulge in the worst sort of menial labor than ever have to undergo another trial like the one just past. Without my assistance, however, one of you, or the townsfolk, might face the same fate I almost suffered. As self-serving as I am, I could not endure the thought of that."
"Maybe there aren't many of them things around," JD said hopefully as he leaned back in his chair and looked over his cards. "We might never see another one again."
Ezra lit a cigar and blew out the silvery smoke. "That would meet with no objection from me, son. After dealing with the undead, I swear, I will never complain about going after bank robbers and horse thieves again!"
Chris grunted around the cheroot in his mouth. "We'll see how long that lasts," he muttered, tossing in his ante.
The others laughed, and as Inez appeared with the drinks and joyfully welcomed Ezra back, the game commenced, amid much good-natured talk and banter. Soon the air was filled with cigar smoke, fluttering cards and tossed money, and the playing continued into the small hours. By the time it broke up, Inez had long since retired, trusting the men to lock up.
The men said their goodnights, some with considerably lighter pockets, all expressing their relief that the entire unpleasant incident seemed to be finally behind them. They had all gone, and Ezra was in the process of making sure the liquor was secured for the night, when the doors opened once more. Startled, Ezra looked up to see JD, walking towards the bar and holding something wrapped in a small, dusty green blanket.
"Ezra?" he said, somewhat hesitantly, "I got somethin' here I think you should have."
The old church glowed in the beautiful fall morning sunlight, its ancient dust swirling and sparkling as it danced across the beams pouring in through the windows. Josiah smiled softly to himself as he finished rolling up his sleeves and knelt before his tool box, ready to continue work on the loose floorboards in preparation for the upcoming holiday services. He could already tell this was going to be a good day.
His mind drifted back to the Halloween party as he began sorting out the nails he'd need. It had taken place the night before, and had turned out to be a huge success. The dance hall was full of townsfolk there to celebrate the autumn harvest, drink hot cider, partake of the many cakes, pies and cookies baked by the women, and watch their children play games and listen to JD's ghost stories. The hall had been full of noise and laughter, and all who attended had agreed it was a first-rate party.
The preacher had to chuckle to himself as he remembered the consternation caused when Ezra showed up. He could still hear the shocked whispers of the gossips, especially when the other six hired guns appeared to have no problem with his presence, and actually treated him as if he were still their friend! The fact that the gambler was still alive was amazing enough, but his continued acceptance as a lawkeeper by the men he had so ruthlessly mistreated was downright astonishing.
And it hadn't stopped there. As Josiah tried to decide which hammer to use, more images flitted through his mind. Ezra had made it a point to approach and personally apologize to everyone he could find whom he had offended. No explanation was offered, but his words were so diplomatically phrased that none seemed necessary.
After the party, many of the men Ezra had spoken to had followed him back to the saloon, and Josiah had learned that morning that the resulting poker game did not break up until two o'clock. Ezra bemoaned his bad luck over breakfast, claiming that the cards were against him all night, which was why the men had all left with so much of his money. His comrades had smiled, nodded, and gone on with their eating, knowing full well the true cause behind Ezra's 'bad fortune'.
Josiah selected his tools and found one of the loose boards to be fixed, kneeling on the dusty wooden floor and holding the remaining nails in his mouth while he positioned the one to go in first. So, I guess it's back to normal, he mused as he began pounding. Evil has been routed once again. This will certainly be a Thanksgiving with something to be thankful for.
He had been intent on his work and making a lot of noise, so he didn't notice he had a visitor until the man was almost upon him.
Startled, the preacher stopped hammering and looked up to see Ezra standing five feet away from him, hat in hand, looking at him with a bemused expression.
"Oh! Howdy, Ezra," Josiah said with an embarrassed laugh, taking the nails out of his mouth and getting to his feet. "Didn't even hear y'come in."
"I can't imagine why," was the dry response. The Southerner still looked pale and a little bruised, especially in the full sunlight flooding the church, but Josiah was happy to see that he seemed to have regained his strength. "The spirits have only recently gotten back into their tombs until next Halloween, yet you're in here making enough noise to rouse them yet again. Most discourteous, I'd say."
Josiah chuckled. "I'm guessin' you didn't come here to help me pound nails," he said with a small grin as he tossed the hammer into the tool box and put the nails into his pocket.
Ezra took another step forward. "An accurate assumption, my friend," he replied, and removed a long object wrapped in a blanket from under his arm. "JD was kind enough to give me this, but after some consideration I have decided it would be safer in your possession."
He pulled back the musty folds of the old blanket to reveal the long wooden stake used to kill Montreux, the vampire's red blood still staining its sharp tip and already turning brown. Surprised, Josiah glanced at Ezra, who was regarding the relic with obvious discomfort.
"I believe he felt that since I have had experience using it, it would be best left in my care," the gambler continued, his green eyes riveted to the object. "However, I fear I am... not quite ready to take permanent possession of it, and I feel it would be safer here anyway." He looked up into Josiah's face, his expression hesitant yet pleading. "If you will accept it?"
Josiah paused, saddened at how troubling the event still was to Ezra; from the disturbed light in his eyes, it seemed possible that the gambler would never fully be at peace with certain aspects of it. But this was a simple enough request. "Sure, Ezra," he said quietly, and wrapped the stake back up again before easing it out of the Southerner's hands. "We can keep it here. Best place to store the weapons of righteousness, I reckon. With any luck we'll never need it again an' it'll just rot to pieces."
Ezra's mouth twitched and he looked away, turning his hat nervously in his hands. "I pray that is so, Josiah, but I wish I could say with certainty that it will be the case. Montreux spoke of others as close as San Francisco."
There was a muffled thud as Josiah placed the wrapped object on one of the pews. "Maybe they'll stay there," he offered as he straightened.
"I do hope so," Ezra said with a sigh, dropping his gaze to the hat in his hands. "I am not sure..." he paused, then looked up. "That was not an experience I would care to repeat, you understand."
Another deep breath escaped the gambler's lips as he began to pace the sanctuary, coming at last to stand by one of the sunlit windows. His voice was soft and puzzled. "As you know, I have spent a great deal of time mulling over this event, yet much of it is still a sealed mystery to me." He paused, allowing the warm light to flood over him, before turning to his friend. "Do you recall when I told you that I could sense some indefinable power at work in all this?"
"Yes, Ezra, I do," Josiah replied softly, leaning against a pew and regarding his comrade with great sympathy. "You weren't sure if it was God or what, but you knew it was there."
"Precisely," Ezra said with a nod, turning back to the bright sunlight of the window, "but now that it is all over, I would dearly love for whatever brought it about to provide me with some reason for it." He slowly shook his head. "I cannot fathom why this all happened to me, Josiah. I am hardly a candidate for martyrdom, I have no desire to wage holy war on the minions of hell. I have spent most of my life running with demons, not away from them, and have been perfectly content to do so. Yet here I am, seemingly a triumphant warrior against the vanguard of Satan, who has been to the mouth of hell and returned alive again." He chuckled a little and turned back to Josiah. "Could there possibly be a rational explanation for how I came to be in this ludicrous position?"
Josiah had listened patiently, watched Ezra's pensive countenance as he spoke, and now stood to walk over to his comrade with slow, measured steps. "Sure wish I had an answer for you, Ezra," he said with a deep sigh. "The Almighty's ways have puzzled mankind for centuries. I reckon the Lord just knew you were the right man for the job. You could've run, or taken the power an' riches Montreux offered you, but you had the strength to refuse it an' do what was right."
"If only I knew where that strength came from," Ezra mused, glancing up at the preacher. "I suppose you men and your ideology have had a corrupting influence on me. If I had met Montreux a year earlier, this all might have turned out very differently."
"Well, I'm glad he waited, then," Josiah remarked, clapping Ezra gently on the shoulder. "I got all day here, so you're welcome to stay an' talk some more, if you've a mind to."
Ezra looked around and shook his head. "I appreciate the offer, Josiah, but right now I am rather anxious to hasten over to the Tavern. It is my desire to forget this whole cursed enterprise ever happened and return to normal life as expeditiously as possible."
"Well, now, I wouldn't try to forget it," Josiah advised, picking up the hammer once more. "Just accept it as a divine mystery. An' if any more of them folk decide to make trouble here, I bet you'd find that strength again to help us take 'em down."
The other man glanced at him, his countenance a jumble of hesitation and appreciation. Finally he squared his shoulders and put on his hat. "Perhaps, Mr. Sanchez, perhaps," he said thoughtfully. "But it will always remain my fondest hope that we shall never have cause to find out. I am much obliged to you for your advice. If you are still in a wagering mood later on, I will be at my table all day."
"I'll likely be there," Josiah answered with a grin as he fished the nails out of his pockets. Ezra nodded, tapped the brim of his hat once with one elegant finger, and walked out into the glorious morning sunshine.
Josiah watched him go, wondering at the mysteries that they had all had to cope with during the past few weeks. If only he could give Ezra the answers he was seeking; if only he knew why the gambler -- why any of them, really -- had been singled out by fate or chance or God to shoulder the responsibility they now shared.
Of course, many would argue that there was no need to find any deep meaning in any of it, their coming together to protect the town was merely by chance, their duty only a job ordained by the judge and nothing more. One day it would end and they would part, going on with their lives as they had before this all started; it was as simple as that.
But as Josiah resumed his task, he reflected that it had never seemed as simple as that, especially now. His faith often waxed and waned, but he knew what he had seen and felt as they worked together to vanquish Montreux. The strength Ezra found was the strength they all had, and it did not come about by coincidence. Josiah was certain of that much, if nothing else.
No more answers seemed to be forthcoming, however, Josiah thought with a smile as he smoothed over the finished nail with his rough palm, admiring how smoothly it had gone in. Why they had all come together here, now, and what lay in store for this small group of theirs, remained to be seen. He was content to leave it in the future; for the time being, the evil had been banished, the lost brother returned home, and the night driven away. If the evil came again, they would face it together again, and leave the rest for destiny to figure out.
Josiah smiled, picked up another nail, and continued his work in the glow of the luminous new day.
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