By Ronnie Andrew Gouge
The echo of metal doors scraping against metal walls as they sealed shut resounded through the empty corridors of the Agency’s westernmost containment facility. There in the foul depths, a young, up-and-coming Agent dusted off his hands as he closed and sealed the heavy doors to continue to keep what was in there inside.
“Alright.” Decker crossed his arms. “Well, clearly, that was not what we normally have going on down here. Looks like the nosferatu managed to escape and turn…basically all of my crew.”
Valeria couldn’t help but smirk. “Looks like you have a problem with your Agency.”
Decker didn’t smile, pushing his tongue against the inside of his cheek. “So it would seem. Well, what remains of it.” He walked over to Radcliffe.
“Please allow me to shake your hand! You’re John Radcliffe! You’re a legend! You’re part of the reason why I wanted to join the Agency in the first place!”
Radcliffe cocked his head to the side, raising an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“I thought you were dead!”
“Nope. Not dead.”
“Clearly quite alive.” Valeria gestured to the obvious fact that Radcliffe was standing right in front of them.
“This is THE John Radcliffe?” Clay looked on with narrowed eyes.
Decker spun around. “You know him?”
“No, but I don’t believe that people are who they are just because they say so.”
A match struck against a button, the flame lighting the end of a fresh cigarillo. Clint Ramsey looked at Clay with his one good eye, words squeezing out between his bite.. “Nah, this here’s John Radcliffe, though he ain’t the John Radcliffe you folks might think he is. He got a bit scrambled. Did a real number on himself with one of those Agency doo-dads.”
Decker’s brow furrowed. “A mnemonizer? You blanked yourself?”
Radcliffe paused for a long moment. “I guess. I don’t really remember much of anything. If you want me to show some proof…”
Decker shook his head. “If you say you’re John Radcliffe, and you knew about the entryway that I wasn’t even aware of. There must be some bit of you still knocking around in that head of yours.”
“This has been a lovely reunion,” Valeria interrupted. “But we’re still uncomfortably close to a facility full of nosferatu.”
Radcliffe produced two Gatling pistols. “Alright, let’s go.”
Decker’s hand flew up. “Woah, woah, woah. We got the containment door back in place, everything is locked down in there. And I’ve got a lot of families to notify.” He suddenly grew sullen. “With no Agents here, we’ve no real leads. Other than the telegram. I’ve never even heard of the House of Many Faiths.”
“I have,” announced Clay. “It’s right outside o’ Austin.”
“If it was just outside Austin, we’d know about it.”
Clay scoffed. “Well, maybe they moved it.”
“No, it’s still there. Definitely in Texas. Austin was the rumor.” Valeria stared into space through her glasses. “They recently put wards in place to prevent any supernatural creatures from breaching the grounds.”
“How the hell did you know that?”
Valeria just grinned. Clay stared daggers at her.
“Don’t surprise me, really. But, if we find this place, there’ll be plenty of Rangers there to help us. Wouldn’t be the worst place to head. One riot, one Ranger, so what you figure a whole bunch of us could do?”
Decker sighed. “Listen, I’ll be the first to begrudgingly admit you can certainly do some damage with those pistols of yours, but-”
“One riot, one Ranger, sure. But everything is topsy turvy now. This might be getting out of hand for even two or three Rangers.”
“Which is why I’m sayin’ the more Rangers, the better.”
Decker groaned, wiping down his face with his hands. “Alright. Well, listen, I have to remain here. There’s stuff we need to sort out here at headquarters, and a whole nest of God-only-knows how many of these bloodsuckers behind that door we’ve got to exterminate. I won’t be going along.” He started counting on his fingers.
“One, you all should get out of here. Two, You should forget you ever, ever saw this place. And three, if I hear word that this facility’s location has gotten out, and I see any tourists coming to get a look at what’s going on here, I’ll be coming for you. Do I make myself clear?”
“On my word as a Ranger.”
Radcliffe straightened himself, thumbing towards the lift. “Well, let’s go.”
Murmurs rippled through the small crowd that had gathered outside the abandoned building. They were certain they had heard the sounds of a battle coming from the area, the commotion having stopped only minutes ago. But there was nothing here, just a lonely structure, and nobody in sight, until the door burst open.
Clay peeked out, revolver in hand, and Radcliffe walked right past him, out into the mob. “Radcliffe, what are you doing?”
“Excuse me,” the agent started. “Can I help you folks?” Radcliffe scanned the faces for threats. The priest near the edge of the throng immediately caught his eye.
The townie closest to the door jumped, startled at the sudden appearance, stammering. “Oh, sorry, sir! We just heard a calamitous noise near here, so we came to see if everyone was well. We’ll be on about our business, if that’s alright. I see the badge there on the Ranger’s vest and we’re decent, law-abiding folk. So we’ll be on our way. Just goin’ to the general store to get, um, what was it, dear?”
The man’s wife spoke up from beside him “Flour?”
“Yep, that’s it, flour. Gonna bake a cake, right, dear.”
“Yes.” She nodded.
“And you just came this way because of the commotion?” Valeria pushed her glasses up her nose.
The husband leaned into Clay, whispering. “Is she a Ranger, too?”
“No, she ain’t”
Valeria huffed. “I have the same rank as a Ranger right now!” She was lying, and she knew it.
“You sure as hell don’t! Now, I’ll let you be on your way to get that flour.” Clay urged the man on with his eyes.
The couple hurried off, still assuring that they were just on the way to the store to get flour in order to bake a cake for their children. The rest of the crowd dispersed just as rapidly. The priest, however, remained.
Clay stepped forward, arms akimbo. “Father, you here for some flour, too?”
The priest approached. He stood upright, majestic, his coal black hair combed back, beard neatly trimmed, the glint of the silver cross around his neck contrasting against his black cassock. He spoke calmly, soothingly, in a Spanish accent. “No, I am not here for flour.”
Clay looked him over, certain he knew this man. “Don’t I know you?”
Padre Ernesto took Clay in, recognizing the Ranger’s badge, the man’s pallor, and the slight smell of death masked by the stench of alcohol. “I do not think we’ve met, senor, but I know you. You are Elijah Clay. Hank Ketchum spoke fondly of you.”
“Hank Ketchum? You know Hank Ketchum?” Clay was astonished.
The Padre nodded. “He was a good man, one of the better people I had the pleasure to meet.”
Clay froze. “You’re sayin’ that like he ain’t with us anymore.”
“Oh.” The priest cast his eyes to the ground. “I thought all of your organization already knew. I am sorry.”
Clay slumped onto a bench by the door, removing his hat to run his bluing fingers through his hair. He took in the news silently for a while. “How did he go?”
“I’m not sure how aware you are of what has been happening, especially in Tombstone. But from your demeanor, you are not innocent to the powers of evil that plague this land. Hank was shot through the heart. The killer even took his badge. There were some that tried to track this murderer down, but the rumors say that whoever did it vanished into a cliff facing.”
Clay clenched his fists, growling through gritted teeth. “Stone…” Radcliffe winced at the name. Valeria shuddered.
“Yes,” Ernesto replied.
After a lingering moment of silence, Radcliffe drew near to the priest. “I’m sorry for the loss of your friend, but, truth be told, we need to get going. You’re welcome to come along. You strike me as the sort that might be good to have with us, given the nature of the situation.”
“Speakin’ of,” croaked Ramsey. “Where is it we’re going, exactly?”
Valeria thrashed the dust from her skirt. “Austin, obviously. That’s where this Ranger stronghold is located, according to rumor.”
Clint grunted back. “Hold up, I’m not the one to question the knowledge of the Agency, Rangers, or…whoever the hell you say you’re with, Miss Batten.”
Clay rose to his feet. “Probably Satan.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me. But tell me, are we really going to book fare and travel all the way to Austin on a hunch? We’re not sure the House of Many Faiths is even there.”
“It is,” Padre Ernesto confirmed. “Ranger Ketchum spoke of it to me. What it is, I do not know, but it is there.”
“Alright, then.” Clay put himself together, checking his guns as he trod back to town. “I say we take a train from here to as close to Austin as we can, then ride out from there. We can pick up some horses here, that way we don’t need to waste time once we get there. And hopefully, once we’re in Austin, get some other Rangers to give us a hand.”
He turned to Ernesto, stone-faced and pale as death. “I appreciate you comin’ along, Padre. We could use all the help we can get, God or otherwise.”
On the train, Clay had stared at Valeria’s map for an hour, finally tapping his finger on a known railroad station. “We’ll have to stop here, ride the rest of the way along the Chisholm Trail.” The name turned bitter in his mouth. He knew what was there, and what one of them could do.
Radcliffe stepped over and sat beside the Ranger, looking at the map. “Chisholm Trail, you said? That’s a fairly dangerous stretch, what with ‘Peaches’ McKee robbing folks along that way.”
Radcliffe paused, thinking. “Nothing, never mind.”
Clay shook his head, returning to his careful consideration of the trail. Perhaps it was best to tell them about the Judges after they were already on the trail, he thought. He rolled up the map, handing it back to Valeria. “We should probably get some rest,” he scoffed. Pulling his hat down, he shut his eyes, remaining silent for the rest of the ride.
The time it took to disembark from the train and get onto the Chisholm Trail was unusually short, and unusually untroubled, and more than enough to put Clay on edge. Everyone had fallen silent as the Ranger and his horse led the way towards wherever the House of Many Faiths allegedly was, and none of them could shake the sensation that they were being watched.
Clay snapped his head left, sometimes right. Something just seemed to be right in the corner of his vision, somewhere up on the ridges to either side of them. A pale hand slipped toward one of his holsters. He looked around, catching a knowing look from Valeria.
She had seen it, too, fleeting glimpses of something. She scanned the land around them, spotting a lone, withered tree off in the distance. Three robed figures stood near its base. Valeria shuddered, chilled by the feeling that they were all looking right at her. Yet, just as quickly as she had seen them, they vanished with a shimmer. She had heard the rumors of this place, and of the unfortunate deaths of many travelers that rode this trail, many of which were found hanging from trees eerily similar to the one she had just beheld.
Clay kept his eyes on the terrain. He knew what was coming. “Yep?”
“Do you have any information about this path we’ve taken? I’ve heard many stories about people who ride this trail not making it out alive.”
“And it does seem we’re being followed.”
“Normally, I’d argue with you, but that’s a hundred percent true. I should have told you earlier, but I figured just to wait until we got on the trail.”
Valeria fumed. “You KNEW this was a dangerous place, and you kept it to yourself? Why?!”
Clay reached into his coat to pull out a flask, cracking open the lid for a swig. “If I’d told you sooner, you’d’ve changed your mind. Don’t fret. Between me and Radcliffe, we can handle it.”
Radcliffe called up to the Ranger. “I told you about ‘Peaches’ didn’t I?”
“Damn it…” Clay shook his head.
Clint rushed forward to join Clay and Valeria. “Perhaps you can educate the rest of us not truly inducted in either the Agency or the Rangers, or…dark arts. What the hell are y’all talking about? Is it just me, or are you also not in the know here, Padre?”
Ernesto shrugged. “I have heard nothing.”
Clay sighed. “Y’all know what a Hangin’ Judge is?”
Clint froze in the saddle, voice going icy cold. “I’ve heard stories.”
“Those stories might be a little more true than you thought.” Clay took another swig, swirling it around his mouth before spitting it onto the ground beneath them. “That’s all I’m saying. Just keep your eyes wide open, especially on these hills.” He motioned to the heights surrounding them.
Clint continued. “They the ones that show up when you least expect it, string you up from a tree after passing judgement on you?”
“See,” Clay chuckled sarcastically. “You did know.”
“Then why are we keeping an eye out for ‘em?”
“Because we might see ‘em coming. Don’t worry, if anyone among us could deal with ‘em, I can.”
“You might be pretty good, Clay, but you ain’t no Hank Ketchum.”
Clay twisted in the saddle to glare. Clint didn’t even bother to look back.
Valeria cleared her throat, pushing her glasses up her nose. “Do these Judges usually appear as black robed figures?”
“Yeah, most of the time. Why? Did you see one?” Clay was half joking.
“Yes, I think I did.” Valeria wasn’t joking at all.
Clay stopped his horse on a dime, pulling a revolver. “Where? Point ‘em out and I’ll start shooting!”
“They’re gone now.”
“These judges,” Ernesto asked. “They are evil, no?”
Clay laughed out loud. “Oh, yeah. They are said to be judge, jury, and executioner out here on the Chisholm Trail.”
The priest scoffed. “Only God can judge. If they are beings of evil, I have tactics that will aid us.”
“That’s good to know, Padre. That’s good to know.”
By midnight, they had found a spot where they made camp for the night. It wasn’t the best, but it wasn’t the worst. A few rocks laid in a circle, large enough to take cover behind, with an outcropping behind them. Clint was the first to hop down, stretching and groaning. “Finally. I’m quite thankful to be off that god-forsaken horse.”
“God does not forsake horses,” announced Ernesto. “Unless they do something very wrong.”
“I dunno, Padre.” Clint thumbed over to the priest’s own animal, one of the ungainly looking things they bought in haste back in Denver. “Yours looks like it could’ve been quite the sinner early on in life.”
Ernesto laughed. “If he wishes to confess, then he may be forgiven. Just like anyone.” The man of God knowingly smiled at everyone.
As they unpacked for the night, Clay building a small fire, Radcliffe looked out at the land. “I’ll take the first watch. Who’s with me?”
Clay raised a hand. “I’ll do it. I don’t really need sleep anyway.”
“If you did go to sleep,” Valeria asked. “Wouldn’t you just die?”
“Maybe he sleeps like the dead,” joked Clint. Nobody thought it was very funny. “I’ll stay up with ‘Aces’. He’s got a tendency to wander if left unchecked. I was asked to keep a bit of an eye on him.” Radcliffe was already out of sight. Clint rushed off to find him. “I’ll be right back.”
The fire, while small, was enough to cook the meal they had decided to skip earlier. They ate in silence. Clay got up to fetch a bit more of the pork from the pan of beans that lay on a rock beside the flames, and with bowl and metal mug in hand, suddenly pitched backwards off the log he had been sitting on. The rest jumped to their feet to check on him, finding him lying there, motionless, lifeless, and cold.
Clint shook his head as he drew in from his cigarillo. “That is downright unsettling.”
“Quite interesting, though.” Valeria hovered over his body, analyzing him.
“Somebody going to take these beans off of him or are we just going to let ‘em sit?”
Radcliffe looked down at him. “Beans might be an improvement on the smell.”
Ernesto came to collect the beans from Clay’s dead form. “It is a sin to waste food,” he said calmly, returning to his seat to finish eating as the others just stared.
The fire was dying down, Valeria and Ernesto turning in, set to take up the later watches. Clint joined Radcliffe on a rock as they tried to scan the night. “How do you want to do this, ‘Aces’? One of us walks in circles, or should I stick around the back side of these rocks?”
Radcliffe looked behind them. “No, I can go around the backside. That’s fine with me.”
“Well, I don’t want to chill your old bones, is all.”
“Hey, there’s still plenty of heat left in these old bones!”
Clint looked at his friend awkwardly. Radcliffe could only do the same. “You know what, I’ll just go around back,” he said, wandering to the other side of the camp.
Clint shook his head. “Alright, sounds fair,” he replied, staring out into the dark.
The hours passed, and Clay sprang back up, sitting bolt upright to finish a meal that was no longer there. “Where’d my beans go?”
Clint glanced over his shoulder at the Ranger having returned to the land of the living. “Oh, you’re awake.”
“A whole lot of nothing. I reckon you might want to join ‘Aces’. He’s on the other side of that rock there. Just make sure he ain’t already wandered off.”
Clay rose to his feet. “Alright, I’ll go check on him.”
Clay rounded the rock, finding Radcliffe just casually looking around in the darkness, the diminishing light of the campfire barely illuminating him. Clay whistled softly. “‘Aces’!”
Radcliffe jumped slightly, turning to see Clay approach. “Hey!”
Clay stiffened. “What did you see?”
Radcliffe pointed off into the darkness. “Well, there’s a jackrabbit right over there, moon’s out, and apart from that, a whole lotta nothin’.”
“Ah. Are you really ‘Aces’?”
“Are you really John ‘Aces’ Radcliffe? I mean I heard stories, but…”
Radcliffe fished out a deck of cards from his pocket. “Are you willing to wager that I’m not?”
Clay looked at the cards with a raised eyebrow. “What’s that signify?”
Radcliffe returned to a group of rocks, sitting on one while shuffling the cards on the top of another. “If I win, I’m ‘Aces’.” He looked up, pointing to another rock slightly across from him. Clay saw what was going on and shrugged.
“As good a way to pass the time as any, I guess,” he murmured, sitting down to play.
Hands were dealt, hands were folded, hands were called and money changed hands. Clay and Radcliffe stared at their cards again and again, flicking a glance up to each other occasionally. Radcliffe’s ears listened to the gentle whistles of the breeze, pausing as he heard what sounded like a voice.
“Did you hear that?”
Clay looked up, glancing around. “Hear what?”
“Sounded like a voice. Said we were ‘interfering’. Never mind, probably just the wind. Anyway, it appears this pot is mine,” he replied, scooping the bills and coins into a pocket.
Radcliffe shot upright, glaring at the other side of the rocks they sat near. Clay turned, too, hand moving to the butt of a revolver. “Oh, I hear it now.”
Radcliffe finished dumping the pot into his vest, gesturing towards the rocks. “Come on, follow me.” He stood, walking over to the boulders, hands moving to grasp his own guns. Clay was right behind him, one long-barreled Peacemaker drawn and in hand. Radcliffe soon had his Gatling pistols at the ready.
With a silent nod, Radcliffe urged Clay to go around to the right as he continued left. Clay obliged, easing around the edge of the rock. Radcliffe came from the other way, the two of them emerging to see the rest of the camp, Valeria and the Padre, still asleep. Clint remained atop his rock, head down, light snores escaping out his nose, and none of it seemed out of place, except for the two smoky forms crawling along the ground. Whispers slithered from the darkness of their hoods, now only a few inches from Valeria and Ernesto’s sleeping bodies. Travelling South. Travelling South. Gloved hands reached forward, attempting to slip the nooses around each of their necks.
Cold fear locked Radcliffe’s body in place as he gazed upon these entities, and he could only watch as they were trying to hang his companions right in front of him. Clay made up for it, stepping forward, fanning the hammer at the two creeping figures. Gunshots echoed in the stillness of the night. Valeria and Ernesto woke up with a jump.
Bullets streaked towards the two hooded things. Six bursts of purple flame erupted as each shot disappeared harmlessly. Empty looking hoods raised to stare soullessly into Clay’s eyes. Clay’s unbeating heart sank, thinking to himself, That wasn’t supposed to happen.
Valeria slapped the noose away from her head and face, rolling out of her bedroll, scrambling to get away from this thing as quickly as she could, rushing toward Clint, now awake and gun in hand, staring out into the night at a third robed figure standing out on the plain, hands on two guns at its hips.
The two in camp drew their own guns, looking like Colt Army revolvers with brutal scythe blades affixed as bayonets. They turned towards the Ranger, leveling their guns at him, and fired.
Clay flinched as their shots streaked through the night air, breathing a confused sigh of relief as two of their bullets met in midair, deflecting each other to only land harmlessly at his feet. His sigh turned to a slight grimace as the next tore through the meat of his upper arm, leaving no lasting effects that the dead man could feel. A second ripped through close to his ribs, taking his attention away from the fight for the moment.
He shook himself back into reality, assessing the mess they were in. Based on what he knew, all of this was wrong. Hangin’ Judges never worked together. There was normally one, and only one, at any given time, and despite the badge on his vest, his bullets were doing jack squat. “Y’all,” he shouted. “I think we better run!”
The Judges’ whispers continued. Travelling South. Travelling South. Clint raised a shotgun towards the one in front of him, Ernesto calling out to him. “Wait a moment!” A quick moment of prayer later, holy light beamed from the cross in his hands. Streams of the same light flew to each of the group’s weapons, all of them watching as the light suffused them with a righteous aura.
“Thanks, Padre,” panted Clint, as he squeezed both triggers of his weapon. Fire belched from the muzzle as it roared thunderingly toward the Hangin’ Judge, thick smoke filling the space in front of him. Buckshot illuminated like fireflies as it sailed towards the Judge, vanishing into a dazzle of the same purple flame from before, the Judge completely unharmed. “Welp…that ain’t good.” He backed up, glancing over his shoulder to see two more Judges right behind him. “Uh, I don’t think this is a good place to remain, everybody!”
Valeria looked behind her, her feet having unconsciously carried her further than she initially thought, just in time to see Clint blast the figure with the shotgun, and the flame rendering the attack worthless. Magic, she thought. I’ve never seen this before.
Radcliffe screamed to the top of his lungs. “GET TO YOUR DAMN HORSES!” The rest of the group didn’t hesitate to flee. Valeria was the closest, leaping onto the animal’s back, looking over to see Clay now pale and misty. The Judge’s arms swung open wide, Clay using the opening to pass right through the terror’s robed body. It felt like swimming through a near-freezing lake in the dead of winter, feeling as though something was trying to yank him back, managing to somehow break free.
Cards appeared in the young woman’s hands, wisps of supernatural light flitting towards the nearby Judges in an attempt to stun them long enough to make an escape. As they drew near, one collapsed under the weight of her spell, driving its scythed pistols into the ground to lift itself back up. The other crossed its guns in defense, her magic waning in a wash of the same purple flame, the empty darkness of the hood staring into her soul. She cursed under her breath. Radcliffe trod slowly towards where the horses were tied, firing his Gatling pistols as fast as he could to provide cover fire, even if the bullets weren’t doing any damage at all.
Ernesto stepped forward, between the judge and the young Huckster, holding his cross high as he breathed the Lord’s Prayer in Latin. The glow returned to his cross, spreading and growing as it lit up the camp. Valeria’s breathing slowed, now feeling a bit safer than before. Clint shouted at the Judge that slowly trudged towards Valeria. “Hey! Don’t you know you shouldn’t pick on a lady?” Two fresh shotgun shells burst flame and lead towards the judge, purple flame scattering the shot in the air. It wasn’t much, but it was enough, just enough time for them all to jump onto their mounts, and ride furiously into the night.
A few days, and a few restless nights later, and they were in Austin, or at least very near it. Clint lit one of the few cigars that weren’t crumpled in their desperate flight from camp, rocking side to side in his saddle.. “So, Sergeant, seein’ as you know this area and all of it’s dangers and perils, would you mind explainin’ what the hell happened back there?”
Clay winced, closing his eyes in a scrunched-up face. “Honestly, Clint, I don’t know myself. Judges don’t act like that. At least, they ain’t supposed to. They usually attack alone, never in groups. What gets me is that I wasn’t even able to land a shot on ‘em.” He turned to look back at Valeria. “You got any ideas, seein’ that’s your…field of study, as it were?” He didn’t sound very happy.
Valeria removed her glasses, rubbing her bloodshot eyes and pinching her nose. “It was magic, most assuredly. The dark kind, but I’ve never seen anything like it, either. Something was protecting them.”
“That,” said Padre Ernesto, “sounds like to me that the attack was completely intentional.”
Clint grunted in agreement. “Well now that we’re here, Padre, where is this house of yours?”
The priest breathed a single heavy breath. “I am not sure. I will need to ask the churches here. There may be many denominations, but they are all connected together through the network of faith.”
“Well you inquire along the network of faith, I’m going to inquire along the network of saloons. I need a drink.” He motioned to the saloons in town as they rode in.
Clay coughed. “I’ll go talk to the sheriff’s office. They know me here, so it’s probably best if I go alone.” He turned in his saddle to the rest of them. “No offense.”
Clint spurred his horse up to Valeria. “Listen, Miss,” he whispered. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a good drink, so if you please wouldn’t mind keepin’ an eye on ‘Aces’ for me for a bit. He don’t get up to anything untoward, he’s just got a tendency to explore. Ain’t that right, John?”
Radcliffe looked at them, mildly confused for a moment, before realizing the nature of the question. “I just like seeing things,” he said with a shrug.
Clint removed the cigar from his mouth to grin. “He just likes seein’ things.”
Valeria looked ahead to see Radcliffe in the saddle, looking around as though he’d never been through this area in his entire life. She sighed. “Fine, but if he wanders off and can’t be found, it’s not my fault.”
“Mister Radcliffe? Mister Radcliffe? ‘Aces’!” She practically had to shout to get his attention. Radcliffe’s head shot around to look at her. “You and I are going to see what information we can find while we’re about town.”
“Great,” he loudly replied. “Let’s go to the gamblin’ hall!”
“Why…the gambling hall?”
“How is that going to help us find information?” Valeria looked at him like an upset schoolmarm.
“Gamblers know things.” He seemed quite confident in his answer.
She stared him down, eyes narrowing. “Perhaps you just want to gamble?”
His eyes narrowed right back. “…That, too.”
As upset as she was becoming, she couldn’t fault him for being as honest as he was. “Alright, fine,’ she relented. “Let’s go to the gambling hall and see who we can talk to.”
The two left the others to their own devices, walking into the nicest casino Radcliffe was able to find. It smelled of drinks and smoke, full of the murmuring voices of the men and women seeking their preferred vice. Radcliffe sat in an open chair, asking what the game was and what the stakes were. He pulled some money out of his pockets.
Valeria wandered throughout the hall, checking out each game as she passed by, bored in moments. She rolled her eyes, walked to the door, and stepped outside. Minutes later, she walked into the newspaper office, knowing that paper pages were far friendlier to deal with than most people. Escorted to the archives, she sat at a table and began to dig through every old issue she could find from the past months.
Elsewhere, Padre Ernesto stepped into a wooden church, its walls and floor bare and unexciting. Tending to the sconces which held the coal oil lamps that lit the pews, there was a man dressed in vestments similar, though slightly different, from the ones he wore himself. The man turned to greet him.
“How can I help you, Father?” The wizened, old minister peered over his glasses at the Padre, words puffing out through a large bushy mustache.
“I am a man of faith, yes. I must not hide it very well.” Ernesto smiled warmly. “I’ve come here on something of a journey. I am looking for a place, though I am not sure if it is a true place of worship. It is called the House of Many Faiths.”
The preacher searched for his words. “Are you here alone?”
“No. I am traveling with men from organizations known as the Agency and Rangers. We come for the sake of all mankind.”
The old man narrowed his eyes, raising an eyebrow. “That’s quite some strange company you keep. The Rangers I know. The Agency I don’t.”
“I keep the company God provides me.”
“Amen. If this Agency and Rangers are working together, then these must be dark times. The House of Many Faiths is near here. Ride North of the city, just over the hill, and you will find it there. I feel you may be too late, though. A few days back a whole company of Rangers set out to the east. I don’t know how much aid you will find, if aid is what you came looking for.”
“If it is God’s will, and we are there on time, then aid we shall receive.”
“I hope that will be the case. Go with God, Father.”
“And you as well, my friend. You as well.”
Clay looked up as he saw Valeria approach. He didn’t seem very happy. “Anything?”
She shook her head, looking disappointed as well. “Neither with you, I see. Did nobody find anything?”
Clay thumbed over to Clint. “Oh, yeah. He found Radcliffe in a gambling hall with less money and more people with hurt feelins, that is, after finding about a bottle’s worth of whiskey first.”
“Hey, hey, hey,” stammered Clint. “I made myself quite clear where I was going and what I was going to do. The information was just gonna be gravy.”
“So now we’re back to nowhere, having ridden this entire way while also nearly murdered by three Hangin’ Judges, spending an entire day nosing around Austin, and nothing to show for it at all.” Valeria flopped onto a nearby bench. “Wonderful.”
“Looks that way. Here comes the Padre, maybe God told him where this place is.”
“God did not,” Ernesto intoned. “The servant of God at the church, however, did. I have some information.”
Clint drunkenly began shushing the others, swaying from side to side. “Hey, Hey, Hey, shshshshsh. Padre has some information.”
Clay rose. “What did you find?”
“A group of Rangers rode out there about five days ago, but the minister believes they have already left. I only hope he is wrong, and the Rangers are still there and are willing to help us.”
Clay began to answer. Clint decided to interrupt. “Wait, wait, wait. I think we should go, Padre. Tha’s what I think we should do.”
The Padre smiled slightly. “Then, are we all in agreement?”
Clay sighed. “Yeah, let’s go.”
Clint staggered over to Clay, poking him in the arm. “See? I made that decision. I don’t even have a badge!”
Clay pointed towards the end of town where the stables held their horses. His stare turned steely and colder than his own body. “Just go.”
“Alright, I’m goin’. Been a while since I had a drink, that’s all.” Clint stumbled towards the stables, and the others followed.
It was a large structure, utilitarian in design, and clearly meant to house many people. It gave off more of the sheen of a house of holiness, a facade. It was adorned with a cross on top, windows replaced with stained glass representations of holy figures, certainly giving it the appearance of a place of worship, but the Padre could immediately tell it wasn’t. No smoke rose from the chimney, most of the windows shuttered and dark.
“Well, let’s go see if anyone’s home.” Clay spurred his horse forward first down the hill, with the others slowly coming down after.
“Are you sure we should just walk right in,” Valeria asked. “It could be dangerous.”
“A bunch of Rangers just left the place, what could be in there?” answered Radcliffe.
“If I’m rememberin’ right, place’s got wards all over it to protect it from bad stuff.” Clay rode on.
“Maybe you should hang back, then?” Radcliffe looked over to the Ranger with concern.
Clay had to stop and think about that for a moment, eventually shrugging and continuing forward. “Brain’s sayin’ a lot of maybes, but I should be fine. Got somethin’ I wanna try, anyway.”
At the entrance, Clay dismounted to proceed up to the door, his body once again becoming misty and gray in appearance. He floated straight through the door, running headlong into a young woman dressed as a nun approaching the door, giving her a sudden jolt of fright.
“Oh, my Goodness! Sound the alarm, spirits have made it through the wall!”
Clay’s incorporeal form began shaking his arms furiously in an effort to calm the girl down. “Wait, wait, I’m a Ranger. I got a badge! I got a badge, see?”
Her excitement waned, her breath slowing. “Oh, oh. You startled me.”
“I’m terribly sorry about that. We thought the place was locked up, and we just needed to know where the other Rangers went.”
A hand flew to her mouth, covering it. She looked at Clay, aghast. “There’s more of you?”
“I’ve got a posse with me outside.” There was a knock on the door. “See?”
“Alright, but could you not be…” She gestured to Clay’s ghostly body.
“Oh, sure,” he said, returning to a solid state. She shrieked.
Radcliffe’s muffled voice came through the door. “Clay! Clay, open the door!”
“And those are your friends?”
“Yes, sister. If you wouldn’t mind lettin’ them in…”
“Yes, just wait here, please. C-can I see your badge?”
Clay pulled his duster aside, showing the small star inside a circle, gleaming in a bright silver. She leaned in to look at it, getting a sudden spark of recognition. “You’re Ranger Clay. I’ve heard of you.”
“Yes I am. Can we let them in now?”
She ran to the door, lifting the large wooden bar that held it closed. She opened it slightly, peering around it to the party waiting outside. “You’re friends with the g-ghostly Ranger, here?”
They all nodded, Radcliffe tipping his hat.
“Then, please, come inside with my blessing.”
They all entered, looking the place over. The small, meek nun welcomed them. “Welcome to the House of Many Faiths. How may we…well, I assist you? I guess it’s just me.”
Valeria sneered at the little nun. “Why is it just you? Is that normal?”
The sister shook her head. “No, the whole posse of Rangers that were holed up here rode East just a few days ago in search of something or other. I don’t really know. I’m just a caretaker.”
Padre Ernesto looked her over, spotting a small, slight undulating movement under her habit, near her shoulder. “Sister, what order are you from?”
The nun tucked her hands into her sleeves. “I am from no particular order, Father. I’ve given my fealty strictly to God and the Rangers. I’ve abdicated any official placement within any order so that I may serve the greater good.”
Ernesto nodded in agreement. Her story made sense to him, to a point, but he watched her closely, once again seeing the slight movement under the fabric. In fact, they all saw it. Radcliffe’s ear turned towards the sister, picking up the miniscule sound of a hiss. He shot a glance at the Padre.
“Suspicion,” Ernesto began, “is unbecoming, I admit, but, what is that on your shoulder?”
The nun’s eyes widened. “OH! I’m so sorry about that. It must have startled you,” she replied, pulling back the hood of her habit slightly to reveal a snake. “This is Aloyisius.” She pulled the serpent from around her neck, holding it gently in her hands as the snake’s tongue would periodically dart in and out of its mouth. “He’s a bit of a mama’s boy, as it were. He doesn’t like being very far from my side. It’s okay Aloyisius, these are just visitors,” she cooed, stroking the snake’s head with her fingers.
Radcliffe looked at the snake oddly. “A little weird for a nun to have a pet snake, given what the bible says about snakes.”
“No weirder than a Ranger able to turn into a ghost.”
Clay chuckled. “She’s got you there.”
The sister stuffed the snake back into her habit. “I’m sorry if this discomforts you. He just likes to stay warm.
Clay shook his head. “It’s quite alright, sister. It probably gets mighty lonely out here all by yourself.”
“Oh, yes. What aid were you looking to find here?”
“We were hopin’ the other Rangers.”
“I’m afraid it’s too late for that, but is there something I can do for you?”
“If you can point me in the direction they went, or know where they went, we can go find ‘em and be out of your hair.”
“Like I said, they struck out East several days ago. I’m sorry that I’m not privy to the inner workings of the Rangers.”
“Well, where’s a map? What’s East o’ here?”
The sister shook her head. “Please, you all look a bit tired and dusty. Perhaps you could use some food, some water with which to wash your faces?”
Clay started to disagree but, looking at the others, he changed his mind. “Alright, we’ll take you up on that offer.”
Clint smoked a cigar near the door. “Sister, you don’t mind, do ya?” She shook her head.
She led them to a washroom, allowing them to avail themselves of the basins and pitchers of water to freshen up, passing by a large, reinforced oaken door, chained and padlocked. Valeria took immediate interest. “What’s in there?”
“I believe that’s the armory or something. I’m not quite sure.”
“Is it always so secure?” Valeria wondered, thanks to the time she spent with the Fourth Ring, if that many locks were needed to keep something out, or something in.
“Not when it’s open.”
“But it’s closed.”
The sister waved towards the door, as if waiving it away. “Yes. The Rangers are very protective of their secrets.”
“Just making sure you haven’t come upon any infestations lately.”
The sister looked puzzled. “Infestat-should we have?”
Clay wiped off his face with a nearby cloth. “The wards are still up, ain’t they?”
The nun nodded in assurance. “Of course. Everyone is protected here.”
Valeria sneered over her shoulder at the Ranger. “I’m pretty sure the Agency’s facility was also quite protected. I guess that was coming from the inside, though.” She pushed her glasses up her nose.
The nun raised both of her hands. “I don’t know much about that. All I can do is offer you some food and some rest.”
Clay approached her, dousing himself with something to cover his smell. “What did you say your name was?”
“Elijah Clay. This is John ‘Aces’ Radcliffe,” he said, patting the white-beareded Agent on the shoulder, then motioned towards the Huckster. “Valeria Batten, and that’s Father Ernesto de Diaz.”
The sister nodded to the Padre. “A man of the cloth, I see. Well, you are all welcome here. Shall I prepare a brief respite?”
Clay scratched the beard that remained on his lifeless face. “Some food? Yeah, that’d be good. Thank you.”
Sister Frances nodded along. “Well, you remain here, and make yourselves at home. I’ll be along shortly with some food,” she said, bustling off down the hall.
Valeria turned to the group as the door shut behind the nun. “Anyone know what’s East of here?”
Clay looked at Valeria sternly. “That’s kinda what I wanted that map for.” She huffed, pulling it from her satchel of things, handing it over to Clay, who spread it out on the table that stood in the center of the room. His finger traced along the most direct road that led east of this place, finding no place in particular. “Well there’s nowhere specific they’d head, so it sounds like to me they were called into action. No cities or towns in particular that are dedicated Ranger outposts out that way.”
Radcliffe joined to gawk over Clay’s shoulder. “Say, Clay, is it normal for one person to be here alone, running the whole show like this?”
“Dammit, ‘Aces’,” he sputtered through his cigar. “Why you gotta be complainin’? We got a nice, lil’ nun bringin’ us some food, gettin’ to sit in these nice, comfortable chairs. I ain’t gonna look a gift horse in the mouth.”
Padre Ernesto had remained silent during the whole conversation, stoic and stiffly upright at the utterance of each word. He walked around the room, looking at every detail and decoration it had to offer. The snake was still on his mind. As he gazed at the walls, he noted the oddities, things such as masks that bore striking resemblances to those worn by ancient Aztecs or Mayans. Other items of religious significance to a broad array of cultures were everywhere, and among them a number of occult symbols painted on the wall, ranging from Chinese characters to Celtic crosses, his eyes lingering on a handful that appeared to be smudged out, as though someone had tried to remove them.
He suddenly put two and two together.
Ernesto rushed back to the table where Clay, Radcliffe, and Valeria were quietly studying the map, Clint sloppily lounging in the chair he was now so very comfortable in. He continued to yammer. “Listen, I’m not sayin’ we shouldn’t investigate it. I’m just sayin’ we should at least have a meal.”
“Everyone,” interrupted the Padre, his voice so calm but carrying with it the obvious burden of gravity the others immediately stopped to listen.
“While Sister Frances was busy elsewhere, I took a look around this place. I fear the wards you spoke of, the ones to protect this place from evil, have been undone.”
Valeria straightened herself anxiously. “What makes you think so?”
“I’m not certain, but the walls are adorned with many symb-”
Sister Frances burst into the room, holding a small tray of food. “I don’t have much,” she said. “I found a loaf of crusty bread and some butter, and a handful of…I believe they are pecans. The larder’s been depleted of late.”
“Sister Frances,” Ernesto asked.
“I am sorry that I feel I must pry so much, but I have a fascination with religions of all sorts.”
Ernesto waved to the walls. “The symbols. Those written on the walls. I could not help but notice them,” he began slyly. “What is it that they do?”
“I am not sure,” the sister replied meekly. “It’s hard to say. The Rangers are fond of their secrets and I am but a humble caretaker. I assumed they were part of some sort of glyph or arcane symbol that I am not privy to.”
Clay stood, now clenching his jaw in mild suspicion. “Sister, who was the Ranger in charge here?”
“Oh, they come and go, that’s how the Rangers are…”
“Surely if you were listenin’ you’d’ve gotten a name or two, at least.”
The sister began spouting off names, Valeria taking this moment to reach into her wellspring of arcane power. Under the table at which she sat, phantom cards slowly flickered into existence, at which she peered downward at, feigning interest in the food the sister had just brought. Her mind, like a wisp of smoke, slithered from inside her brain and over to the sister, trying to slip inside the nun’s recent past.
As her spell, Hunch, attempted to pry its way into the aura around the holy woman, Valeria began to feel that there was much more to her than she initially suspected, as though what the sister seemed was not the same as what she was, as though her body were being inhabited by two people at the same time. Valeria’s heart fluttered. There had been people like that back at the Circus.
“Sister,” the huckster said quietly. “Is there anyone else here?”
The sister looked stunned. “No, just me and Aloyisius.”
Valeria’s glare turned razor sharp. “And?”
“Nobody else? Not even HERE,” shouted Valeria as she rose to her feet, finger racing to poke the nun sharply in the side of the head.
The sister shook with a jolt, her hand flying up as if she were about to slap Valeria’s hand aside. Regaining her composure, she laughed it off, taking a step back. “Whatever do you mean?”
Clay cocked his head to the side. “Batten, what are you getting at?”
“I believe,” she answered, “that this one has someone else riding along.”
Sister Frances looked around wildly. “I’m sorry, but I think I’m getting a bit confused,” she said, shooting a look out the window towards the West. Ernesto followed her gaze, watching at the sun as it slowly began to sink past the horizon, the sky, and the countryside around them, beginning to flood with night.
Radcliffe, however, had enough, pulling both of his pistol-sized Gatlings from their rigs.
“‘Aces’, what are you doin?” Clay shouted as he attempted to put himself between the sister and the very well-armed Agent. The nun began to cry.
“I don’t understand what’s going on!”
“Sister,” soothed Ernesto, calming the tension building in the moment. “I found the religious symbols along the walls had been defiled. If there is no one else here, who could have done it?”
She scrambled around the room, racking her brain for an answer. “Well I..I can’t sa-oh to hell with this. This is taking too long!”
As the character of the goodly nun melted away, so did her face as what appeared to be layers upon layers of thick carnival makeup turned to thinning rivulets staining the nun’s black habit with streaks of white and pale pink, then the habit itself began to melt away, pooling in a puddle of black streaked with white.
Laced-up ankle boots stepped out of the muck, as slender legs clothed in striped stockings disappeared under a short ruffled skirt that circled the bottom of the corset that made up the core of the dingy black costume of a dance hall girl. Wispy white hair rested atop a head with deathly pale skin and dead eyes ringed in star-shaped makeup. The woman’s pale throat had been grossly slit, as if with a serrated blade. A glistening black snake curved around her shoulders like a feather boa, slinking down the lady’s arm to rest in the palm of Avie Cline.
“YOU!” shouted Clint, reaching for his revolver.
As he went for his gun, purple spectres of playing cards fanned out in the air in front of Avie, and as the last hint of sunlight disappeared to give way to darkness, she slipped backwards into the shadows of the room with a knowing smile on her face, and winked out of sight.
Clint spun around to face the group. “That’s Cline! What’s Cline doin’ here? This place is supposed to be warded!”
Ernesto urged them towards the exit. “We are not safe here.” An eerie howl sang in the night, filling the room with sound, in an almost response to the priest’s concern.
From just outside came an airy giggle. “Well, well, well, that’ll be my reinforcements Adler sent along. I do invite you to stay inside if you’d like, but as you already noticed, the wards are gone. So, once my lupine friend arrives, it won’t be long before you all meet a…hairy demise.” Avie giggled at her own horrible joke. “But what do I know? I’m just a performer!”
Clay pulled a revolver, looking around for the source of the howl. “We gotta get to the horses, now.” He frantically checked the windows, looking for signs of movement.
Ernesto pointed to the padlocked door. “Perhaps there is something within there? They are protecting it for a reason.”
Clay nodded. “Yeah, the armory…”
Valeria nodded towards it. “Can you get through that, Clay?”
“I can try,” he said, leading them in a rush to the heavy armory door. His form went smoky and pale gray once again, the mild light from the candles in the room shining through his translucence. He stormed toward the portal with intense purpose, rebounding off of it as if slamming into a solid wall. He reached out a hand to it, his ghostly touch feeling the sensation of solid matter.
Their ears tuned to the muffled conversation outside, then to the creaking of the front porch of the place as something heavy began to make its way to the door. They could hear the sound of something raking slowly down the building’s front door.
“My friend is here to play,” Avie shouted. “You should let him in!”
Valeria reached out to place a hand on Radcliffe’s shoulder. As ghostly cards appeared in her hand, Radcliffe felt a surge of speed ripple through his body. Suddenly splinters showered the group and littered the floor as the door exploded inward, a large, hulking, hairy form shambled inside. Its eyes glowed with rage and hunger, as drool dripped from fangs inside its open, snarling muzzle. Claws tipped the ends of its fingers and toes as it ducked under the door frame, stepping inside.
Clay looked back at the armory door. “I sure hope they’re silver bullets in there!”
Out of near-instinct, Ernesto grabbed his cross, and without uttering a word, the holy symbol thrummed with light, auras appearing around him and the others just as the werewolf lunged for Clint.
“Aw, hell,” Clint screamed. “What did I do to deserve this!” Claws raked across his arm, the ghastly tips grazing harmlessly over his skin. He looked at the lack of damage, then to the priest. “We live through this, I’m followin’ you to church on Sunday.”
Radcliffe heel-turned toward the armory door, pulling both Gatling pistols and leveling them at the lock. He squeezed the triggers with unearthly rapidity, blowing holes in the door so quickly they almost seemed to appear from nowhere. The door shredded, the lock dropped to the floor.
Valeria’s hand pushed forward, another hand of ghostly cards appearing between her fingers. A dazzling blast of light flashed in the werewolf’s eyes, magical energy streaming forward, set to stun the creature, intercepted in midair as a phantasmal, ruby red playing card sailed through the destroyed front door and sliced into it, causing it to vanish.
“Oops,” giggled Avie.
Valeria turned to scream out the door at the harrowed huckster. “I never liked you, Avie Cline!”
“Just because you’re envious,” Avie lilted in response.
Clay made use of the distraction provided by the exchange to storm into the now open armory. His eyes scanned the shelves frantically until they landed on a dusty old box of .45 Long Colt rounds, the text on the side scratched out with charcoal pencil and replaced with the lone word, ‘Silver’. He snatched the box quickly, a few of the cartridges spilling on the floor. Thumbing back the hammer of one of his Peacemakers halfway, flipping the loading gate aside, he dumped out round after round of mundane ammo, slipping silver ones back into the chambers. With a half step backward and a twist at the waist, he thumbed the hammer back to full, and fired.
The revolver thundered as the silver projectile tore through the monster’s ride side, ribs shattering and blood splattering out of the exit wound in a spray. It screamed in pain, a clawed hand reaching to nurse the wound.
Clay stepped forward, the palm of his left hand slapping back the hammer to chamber and fire another round, and another, and another until five more bullets ripped into the creature’s torso. It staggered back, the last of the rounds catching it cleaning through the heart as one final splatter of blood streaked across the floor, ceiling, and walls. It crumpled to a heap at his feet with a whimper.
Avie cursed from outside. “Damn it! Fine, just a minor setback! I helped Curly Bill deal with the law in Tombstone, and the four of you are going to go the exact same way!” There was a shimmer, and a sudden pop, and Avie was gone.
Clint rose from under a collapsed bookshelf, cigar in his mouth. “Dammit, there are five of us! Why does everyone keep forgettin’ about me?”
Clay blew the smoke away from the barrel of his red-hot iron. Emptying the spent brass on the floor, popping in fresh rounds from his gun belt, he looked to the others, saying, “What did she mean by dealin’ with the law in Tombstone?”
Hot sun beat down on the riders’ nearly spent horses. They had rode hard and hell bent for leather all the way from Austin, breaking camps as quickly as they made them. They made the trek as quickly as they could, contemplating cutting across Northern Mexico, but now they were tired, burnt, and thirsty.
Radcliffe took a sip of water from his canteen, passing it back to Valeria, who passed it to Ernesto, who passed it to Clint. Clay was not really any worse for wear, riding point. Ahead he could see the rise of a small plateau, and upon it, a single rider.
The rider sat motionless in the saddle, tall, gaunt, wearing a black hat and darkly smoked glasses that glinted red in the sun. He waved merrily at the travelers as they approached.
“Howdy, stranger,” Clay began. “Anything we can help you with?”
The man spoke, and when he spoke, giggles littered every sentence. “Are you, hee hee, the four Miss Cline said were coming this way? Hee hee, hee hee hee…”
Clay looked unimpressed. “There’s five of us.”
Drawing closer, Clay and the others grew even more apprehensive, and more than a bit uneasy. They saw how pale the man was, his grin spread wide across his face, looking almost impossible.
“Well, hee hee hee, I’m sorry but you must not know what sort of trouble you’re…hee hee, hee hee hee hee, you’re riding into. I’m, hee hee hee, supposed to stand in your way. At least, that’s what Mother says would be best.”
Color drained from Valeria’s face as her heart felt as though it dropped deeply into the pit of her stomach. Her heart skipped a beat as she took only a moment to recognize the ghastly pale, giggling man that stood before them on the trail. In the distance they could hear the thundering of hooves as riders approached from a different direction, wondering if they were friend or foe.
“Don’t worry, hee hee hee, I’ve prepared a little welcoming gift for you.”
From the ground burst two gangly hulks of rotting corpses somehow attached and melded together. Within each hideous walking mound of the dead, Clay, Valeria, Radcliffe, Ernesto, and Clint could see faces of people they knew, old friends or old foes, loved ones, and other important people from their pasts.
They recoiled in shock and horror, unable to move as these terrifying things stalked towards them. The pale figure giggled and laughed maniacally “I thought I’d make things a little more personal.” He raised his hands and, in a flash of purple flame, disappeared, forcing them to come to grips with the hard, unforgiving truth that unfolded before them.
The Cackler had come to Tombstone.