Main Character(s) : Chris, Sarah, rest of the Seven, Adam
A big thanks again to my wonderful beta, Tracey. She makes sure my mistakes don't all fall through the cracks but get caught and decently punished. That doesn't mean the story is flawless, because off course I had to read it one more time and make some small changes.
"All Hallows Eve tonight," Josiah said softly, looking outside.
"I beg your pardon?" Ezra looked up from the cards he was holding. "Josiah, we know, it is Halloween and the children of this community had a wonderful time with all the stories you told them, but I for one would prefer some more adult entertainment right now, like playing cards? A game that requires a certain... involvement of the players to make it the pastime it was meant to be? So I would take it very kindly if you finally decided whether you fold or not."
"No, no, not Halloween, All Hallows Eve is the proper name," Josiah told Ezra, looking solemnly at him. "The time of the year when the boundaries between the world of the living and the world of the dead crumble and almost disappear, to allow the ones who have died this year passage to the Netherworlds."
"Really? Like old Thompson?" Buck asked, frowning slightly while he was studying his cards. "And those two stupid jackasses we hung after they'd killed the Millers and kept partying on their homestead as if they owned the place? You saying they'll be roaming the streets tonight?"
Ezra heaved a deep sigh. "Please, Mister Wilmington. Looking at your cards for hours won't change them. You should be able to decide whether you fold or not?"
"Yep. They and all the other souls will be searching for an entrance to the Beyond. It is a dangerous night tonight, when the souls of the dead roam our world freely. Not only the newly deceased, but also those who will try and use the weakened boundary to come back in our world, for whatever reason."
"Aw J'siah, you don't really mean that, do you?" JD looked at the ex priest with round eyes.
"Some of the dead feel they have unfinished business here, son. Or they want to live again and try to steal a man's body."
"Or try and play a decent game of cards, uninterrupted by foolish talks," Standish muttered. "Gentlemen, please! Will you all decide what you will do before this Hallows Eve of souls is at an end and while some of my vast patience is hopefully still left intact?"
"The Indians know the boundaries between the living and the dead ain't always up to par,"
Vin put in his two cents. "Don't know if it's necessarily only this evenin' though."
"All nonsense if you ask me," Jackson stated. "Hey Ez'! I wanna change a card!"
"Please Nathan! We have passed that part of the game centuries ago!"
"Oh. Anyway, I don't think there's such a thing as the souls of the dead roaming the world. When you're dead, you're dead."
Josiah flashed his friend a huge grin. "Do you never wonder where your soul, your spirit, will depart to after your body has ceased to function, Nathan? I would think that as a healer you would wonder about this?"
"I ain't wonderin' nothing. When I cross that boundary, that's when I'll know where my soul's goin'. Whether to heaven or hell or somethin' else entirely, ain't nothin' we can do to change it."
"Aw Nate! Don't you believe you will go to heaven or hell?"
"Ain't important what I believe, JD. It's gonna happen like it's gonna happen."
"So eh... you don't think the dead will be roaming the streets outside?"
Buck laughed and gave JD a big thump on his back. "You've listened to Josiah's ghost stories too much this evening, kid! I swear, you were listening with more attention than the real kids in the audience! Now don't tell me you believe 'm!"
"Buck!" JD yelled with indignation, almost losing the grip on his cards.
"Oh joy!" Ezra sighed sarcastically, eyeing the kid's precarious grip on his tools of trade. "Wouldn't it be fun if those cards started roaming about?"
"I don't know Buck, I've seen things while I was livin' with them Indians...," Vin said softly, looking outside and shivering.
"I have seen very strange things in my time as well," Josiah nodded somberly. "And one thing I did learn, do not trifle with All Hallows Eve! It is dangerous out there tonight son and I for one tend to stay indoors."
"And maybe conclude this game I thought we had going?" Ezra asked.
"Really, Josiah? So you think the dead will be out there tonight?"
"... but of course I might be mistaken."
"All I can say is, people have known this night has been the night of the dead for hundreds, thousands of years, JD. For me that tends to mean there is truth in it."
"Maybe it is a mere figment of my imagination that we are all holding some cards in our hands?"
"Don't scare the boy with that nonsense, Josiah!"
"Oh hell, Buck, I ain't a boy!"
"Yes, that must be it. Just a foolish notion of mine. Of course these cards mean nothing at all."
"Amongst the Kiowa there was this woman who could talk with the dead. So they gotta be somewhere JD."
"She could? Oh, that's..., that's..... She really could?"
"Don't listen to him, kid! All nonsense."
Silence reined and five pairs of eyes looked with some surprise at the gambler. Ezra looked back in exasperation.
"Please gentlemen, could we continue this game sometime in the very near future? I would be beholden to you all."
"Why Ez, of course!" Buck boomed, throwing down his cards in disgust. "Me, I fold. I wish you'd quit giving me those lousy hands, it just ain't fair!"
"Are you suggesting that I cheat, Mister Wilmington? I never cheat! Moreover, I can assure you cheating would be completely unnecessary with a player of your caliber."
"Did he just insult me, or give me a compliment?"
"Knowing Ez, he prob'ly insulted ya, Buck. I fold too, these cards are a goddamn disgrace!" Vin threw his hand down with just as much disgust as Buck had done.
"Me, I raise," Nathan stated, grabbing some coins.
"I'm following you, brother. JD? Hey, JD?"
The young Bostonian tore his eyes from the window and the darkness he could see outside and blushed slightly. "Sorry guys. I... I'll fold. Hey, anyone any idea where Chris is?"
2. BRIDGET'S GROVE
Chris Larabee, the man in black, horseman, feared gunslinger with a reputation that had stretched even into the East and one of the seven peace keepers that held Four Corners safe and made outlaws quiver in their boots, was laying flat on his back in the mud, swearing fluently and passionately. The word 'horse' figured rather prominently in between the blistering oaths. Again he tried to stand on his twisted ankle, only to fall back down groaning.
God, don't let it be broken, just sprained. Please, just sprained!
Another piercing whistle came from his lips, followed by a "Dammit Pony! Get your ass back here!" No black horse came trotting out of the darkness of night surrounding the gunslinger.
Why in heaven's name had he decided to take this patrol and why had he decided he could take it alone, since nothing would probably happen on a festive night like Halloween?
And why, oh why had Pony done what he did?
His horse wasn't skittish, it had never been skittish. Its steadfastness and trust in its rider had saved Chris more than once. But the moment Chris had decided to take a shortcut right through Bridget's Grove, the horse had been more nervous than Milagro, JD's animal. When they had been halfway into the copse they'd come upon a dark hollow right alongside the path. Chris had paid it no mind, but as soon as they came abreast with it, Pony had gone wild.
Chris still wasn't sure how he had ended up on the ground, with Pony running away as if he had been possessed. He hadn't fallen from a horse since he'd been a kid, no matter how much it bucked and he had been stunned for a moment. Truth be told, he still was.
Gingerly the blond put a hand to his chest, prodding carefully. Yes, he hurt as much as that time when he'd busted his ribs. However had that happened? He had landed on his ass after all, damn that ornery stupid horse of his!
He didn't want to think about the fact that when Pony went wild it had seemed as if something hard and heavy had hit him in the chest, pounding him off his horse. It simply wasn't possible, nothing had been there.
Carefully Chris tried once more to gain his feet, this time avoiding at all costs putting weight on his ankle. Holding onto one of the stunted trees growing right beside the dark hollow, which seemed to have spooked Pony so much, he tried to make it hold his weight.
He wasn't going to stay in this cold and damp grove, that was for sure!
Pain flashed through his leg and left a fiery trail right into his brain. Shit, this was worse than the hangover he'd had last Sunday! The one that had had Mary Travis all riled up and Buck grinning at him with a far too smug expression.
Right, not important, he had to find some way to get out of here. See if he could reach the nearest homestead, the one the Sutters owned. He got tired just thinking about their row of kids, but it would be better than spending the night here. Definitely!
After a few steps, Chris knew he wouldn't get far this way and he started to look around for a sturdy branch to lean on.
Ah, there, just at the edge of the dark hollow. Damn, but that hollow was truly sinister in the dead of night. He couldn't remember it ever having looked this sinister.
Pony had never liked passing through here. If he was truthful, he had to admit he didn't like the grove much either and at first had wanted to take the round about route they usually followed while on patrol. But then a little voice inside had started nagging about the peace and quiet everywhere and about the warm saloon where his friends were having a lazy evening and he'd changed his mind.
He shouldn't have, he thought, looking at the small, stunted trees around him and shivering slightly. This place was downright spooky, especially in the cold, grey light of the moon. Although, he wouldn't have minded a little bit more of that grey light right now, to tell the truth.
Larabee, stop thinking like that! You've listened to too many of Josiah's tales this evening!
That had been fun though, Josiah could sure tell a story. Originally Chris hadn't wanted to be a part of it. He'd planned on hanging out in the saloon with a bottle of whiskey for company, so he could keep his mind off the last Halloween with his family. Little Billy Travis had decided differently and had dragged him along, wanting to sit with Chris during the stories. Afterwards the kid had kept a tight hold on his hand all during the town Halloween meal of pumpkin soup and fresh bread they were having in the grain exchange.
The questions of that boy! He'd wanted to know how it was possible for people to turn into wolves and where the extra parts went, because wolfs were so much smaller. Or if there really were such things as blood sucking bats. And had Chris ever, ever seen a ghost, like Josiah had?
With Mary Travis close by to keep a stern eye on things, he'd had to refrain from making some stories up himself and he'd stuck to the dreary truth of it all. He hadn't wanted the boy to get scared, but even without really scaring a kid you could keep some of the stories alive, hell, that was part of the fun!
Yes, he'd actually had had fun with it all. That more than anything was what had driven him to take the late evening patrol instead of Buck and Nathan. Waving them away, he had left on his own, needing some solitude after having been with so many people.
Needing some time with his own family, with Sarah and Adam and all the memories he had of them.
Yeah, well, look where that had gotten him! Limping like an idiot with a branch for support! It was a damn big branch and truth to tell, he was happy for that. He'd felt as if someone had been watching him when he was hopping around and he had tried not to turn his back on that black space between the trees.
There might have been a reason it had spooked Pony so bad. There was no way of telling if that dark place was empty, or if maybe there was something in it, some animal or other.
Not wanting to brood anymore, this grove was brooding enough on its own without him adding to it, Chris started to limp away from the center of the grove and that sinister black space. To his immense relief some of the pain in his ankle had ebbed away and he could even tolerate some weight on it now.
Yep, sprained, no more. But it was still slow going.
To top it all off, it had just gotten even colder! The temperature had dropped without warning and suddenly he found himself shivering. He wasn't particularly happy to see tendrils of mist slowly rising from between the trees. Last thing he needed while trying to find his way to the Sutters, was a thick mist on top of the darkness to try and make him lose his way.
He wished Vin was here.
Yeah, when had wishing ever brought him anything? He was better off trying to walk as fast as he could. Maybe Pony would be waiting on the other side of the grove. Chris managed to pick up some speed when suddenly he heard it, coming from behind him.
Screaming. The all out screaming of someone in terror.
Chris Larabee, fearless gunslinger, the black element, shivered and hurriedly turned around to try and see what was there in the mist. Shifting the branch to his left, he held his right hand ready above his Colt. Whoever was screaming was running right at him, over the path through the grove. It sounded like a girl, a girl in terror. It was. Suddenly she burst from out of the darkness and growing mist, almost constantly peering behind her, screaming non stop. The next moment she collided with Chris, who couldn't hop out of the way fast enough with his hurting ankle. Both fell down in a heap of arms, legs and irritating strands of very long hair, the girl still shrieking.
She sure had a penetrating voice, Chris thought annoyed. And sharp hip bones. Damn, this night got better and better.
"Miss, are you alright?" he asked through gritted teeth.
She didn't answer, only shrieked again, while she pointed a trembling finger towards the swirling mist. Chris frowned, looking at it. Why would she be screaming about the mist? And then someone else came running out of it.
Chris immediately understood why the shrieks of the girl went an octave or two higher and a lot louder. What came out of the mist was a bear of a man with a frightening grin on his face. He was brandishing an enormous axe, an axe that was dripping blood. Upon seeing the two of them the man stopped and stared. His eyes seemed almost to glow in anticipation.
"Another one," he whispered with a frightening glee in his voice. "I will have a new soul tonight!" Brandishing his axe he attacked.
Chris shoved the girl, who didn't seem capable of anything but that awful screaming, away from him and hastily sat up. The man was fast though, a lot faster than he'd expected. There absolutely was no time to stand up first, so he pulled his gun while still sitting and simply shot the son of a bitch.
You can wave an axe around as convincingly as you liked, that sort of thing just didn't impress a good old fashioned gun or the bullet that comes flying out of it. Not by a long shot!
Well, normally, that is.
Wouldn't you know that this had to be the one time where, however impossible, the bullet appeared to lose the argument. Because the bastard sure kept running on as if nothing had hit him at all. He couldn't have missed, he never missed! Anxiously Chris shot again, seeing the bullet clearly entering the chest of the big guy waving his axe at him, right where the heart is.
The guy still didn't topple over. In fact, the bullet didn't even slow him down.
The girl didn't stop screaming. God, he wished she'd stop that awful penetrating noise!
Desperately Chris shot all his bullets into the oncoming fury, not even making the giant falter. Then the axe was coming down on him - fast like lightning.
3. THE REAPER OF SOULS
Disgusted Ezra threw down his cards.
"Gentlemen, I have the distinct feeling you all lack the concentration necessary for a satisfying game of poker," he stated. "I for one find the manner in which you all are conducting yourselves during this game extremely distasteful."
"What? Ezra, are you mad? Why? We were only talking!" JD looked genuinely puzzled at the gambler. The cards in his hands sagged and everyone could see what he was holding.
It made Ezra sigh, he had lost count of how many sighs that made during this evening alone.
"JD, it is customary for a player to keep the other players unaware of the cards he is holding."
"I know that Ez! I just thought we'd quit the game! You don't seem to be playing anymore!"
Another sigh, but Ezra knew he couldn't deny the point the kid had made. He had been the one to throw in the towel.
"I've had enough too," Vin said softly, throwing his cards on those of the gambler. He looked outside again, at the darkness and he seemed to shiver.
"Something amiss, brother?" Josiah asked.
"No, no, guess not. Jist a bit antsy."
Nathan and Buck threw their cards down as well. Frowning Ezra started scooping them up, while Buck signaled Inez for more beer.
"Could do with a bite ta eat," Vin said hopefully when she came over with six mugs, three in each hand, her hip deftly bumping a few slow costumers out of the way. One earned himself a swift and painful kick against his leg when he tried to grab her.
"Oh yes!" JD seconded Vin's remark, eyes opening wide in anticipation.
"Why boys, didn't you have a Halloween meal over in the grain exchange?" There was mischief dancing in the warm brown eyes of the feisty Mexican woman. "I would think you don't need my nachos anymore!"
"Aw Inez, that was no proper food," Vin exclaimed. "I mean, it was nice 'n all, but it was only soup! Wasn't hardly fillin'." JD nodded vigorously, while the other four stared at them.
"Oh hell, they do have a point," Josiah finally gave in. "I have to admit I could do with a bite myself. Anyone else? My treat." That made even Ezra agree to some late night snacking and soon contentment reigned.
"Sure wish you'd tell another story, J'siah," JD sighed, finally feeling full enough. He surreptitiously opened the top button of his pants and leaned back. "You had some great stories! Do you know any more?"
Josiah smiled a chilling smile. "Oh yes JD, I know plenty more! As a matter of fact, I know one that has happened right here, close to Four Corners."
"Really? A real Four Corners ghost story? Wow, that's neat! Why didn't you tell that one to the kids?"
"Come on JD, I don't want the kids to be scared about the place where they live! Not that it actually happened in Four Corners, mind you, it took place in what these days is known as Bridget's Grove."
Buck shivered. "That dank place? Oh yeah, I can just see the ghosts hovering there."
"Dismal place," Ezra agreed.
"It wasn't always. Once it was a very nice grove, with lovely trees and in between the trees you could find the prettiest flowers in the spring and summer, while during the fall, like now, the leaves changed in every hue of yellow, gold, orange and bright red. It was one of the loveliest places around here."
"Sure ain't now," Vin stated. "Not a place I'd ever think to camp."
"Why's it called Bridget's Grove, Josiah? Was it after a girl?"
"Yes, JD. After a beautiful girl. Her long hair had the color of spun gold and she had a body... a body.... I think she was even more beautiful than Mrs. Travis. Or Maude...."
Coughs and snickers followed that statement, furtive glances darting to Ezra. Ezra decided that ignoring it all would be the best strategy with this savage bunch. Why ever he had decided to throw in his lot with the likes of them was beyond him at moments like this.
"So is that why they named the grove after her, Josiah? Because she was so pretty?"
"No, no, JD. It was because she died in that grove. She was murdered there in a most horrifying manner."
"Really. She was killed and chopped to pieces by the Reaper of Souls. Are you all sure you want to hear this story?"
"Oh yeah, this ought a be good," Nathan laughed. The others made affirmative noises as well and soon the whole saloon fell silent, listening to Josiah's tale.
"It happened almost twenty years ago, when there was no real town here, only the first ranchers out in the far fields and the shacks of the first settlers who just started to make a life in this place. The land seemed beautiful and peaceful to these people and they liked this place, despite the heat of the summers and the fierce storms that can rage over these lands. One of the most favorite places for everyone, but especially for the younger people, was a small but lovely grove, with the most stunning trees and a clear brook running through it. The group of settlers enjoyed making a home for themselves here, until the day an old Indian rode into their settlement. He told them he had seen the young ones were running around by themselves and warned the people for their safety.
"Do not let them roam free," he told them. "There is a killer out there."
When the settlers wanted to know who or what this killer was, the old Indian told them it was the 'Reaper of Souls'. The settlers huffed at that and refused to believe him. A week later they found the body of a boy that had gone missing. He was dead, chopped to pieces. Another week later they found the bodies of two young sisters, hacked to pieces as well and everyone became afraid. It seemed this killer only targeted the youngsters, so they were no longer allowed to roam around at will, they now had to stay in the settlement or could only leave when accompanied by enough adults. The killer still managed to murder another boy, while he and his father were asleep in their camp after a hunting and fishing trip. When the father woke up the next day, his son was laying dead beside him and he himself was covered in the blood that had splattered around when the boy had been hacked to pieces."
"Geez, J'siah, that's gross!" JD exclaimed.
"That's how it happened though," an old geezer called out from the back of the saloon.
"Keep yer traps shut," someone else yelled. "Come on Josiah, tell us the rest!"
Josiah smiled and cleared his throat. "Mighty thirsty business this talking," he mused. "I'm afraid my throat is parched." His remark made some mugs of beer appear before him miraculously fast. After a long swig from one of them, Josiah sighed and nodded he was ready to proceed.
Everyone settled back in his chair.
"Now, Bridget wasn't too happy with the fact that she wasn't allowed to go wandering about on her own anymore. I'm afraid her beauty had made people spoil her and she wasn't very good company to live with. She was a real pain in the ass about the fact she wasn't allowed to go where she pleased anymore and made that very much known. You see, she was in love and she and her beau had been meeting each other in secret. Being used to getting what she wanted, Bridget decided she wasn't going to settle for the restrictions she now found herself in and managed to arrange a meeting with her lover. She slipped out of her parents' shack, there weren't many real houses around just then, and she made her way towards the beautiful grove. Suddenly she heard a noise behind her. Turning around she saw the most frightening vision. A bear of a man was stalking her, in his hands an axe, colored brown by all the blood that had dried on it. With a shriek she started to run, calling out for her boyfriend. She heard the heavy steps follow her and getting closer and closer. With her last strength and shrieking at the top of her lungs for her lover, she ran into the grove. Only, there was no one there. Her lover had chickened out and wasn't there to save her. By the time she entered the grove, the man was close and almost had her."
Josiah emptied another mug of beer and looked at his audience. No one said a word, no one believed the story ended there. Smiling, he resumed talking.
"In the mean time her parents had discovered that their eldest daughter had gone missing and her father had immediately started a search party. The boy admitted that she had wanted to meet him in the grove and a group of men thundered away. They heard her shriek and saw her run into the grove, followed by a huge man wielding an axe. Desperately they let their horses run even faster and thundered into the grove. Alas, they were too late for poor Bridget. When they surrounded the murderer, he had just caved her head in with his axe and she was laying lifeless on the ground."
"Oh no," JD breathed.
"I'm afraid yes, son. But at least they had the killer. Soon every man was firing on him, but hear this. It took all of their bullets, and I mean all, all the bullets of the guns and rifles of twelve men, to kill the enormous man. It terrified them and some of them later said that the eyes of the fiend had been glowing a sinister red. They made sure he was dead and then they decided to bury Bridget right there, in that grove, under the most beautiful tree of all. They also buried the murderer in the grove, his axe with him. Both graves weren't marked."
"Aw, Josiah," JD finally said when Josiah stayed silent. "That ain't a ghost story, that's a normal murder story! A bit gross, but nothing strange about it!"
"Aaah, that is where you are wrong, JD. Because would you consider Bridget's Grove a beautiful place?"
JD shook his head. "Ugly as sin," Buck agreed.
"It turned this ugly overnight," Josiah told them. "In the evening the men had buried the wayward daughter in the most beautiful place around and the next morning the grove had become the twisted and scary place it is today. But what was worse, the killing didn't stop. Whenever someone young, young and foolish because soon everyone was warned, decided to go through the grove alone, he or she never came out again. The grieving families would find the body in the middle of the grove, all hacked to pieces."
"Aw, that's nonsense," JD scoffed.
"Oh no it ain't!" someone yelled from the vicinity of the bar. "The priest told it 'xactly as it is! That brute ain't dead. He couldn't die 'cause he weren't 'xactly alive, so he went on with the killin'."
"No, no, he was killed alright," someone else shouted. "But that was only his body. He's an evil spirit now, caging the souls of the poor kids he killed so they can't go to the afterlife!"
"Yeah, old Misty's seen them!" Talk erupted between the patrons in the saloon about who was killed when by the terrible killer of Bridget's Grove.
"And don't forget the spirit of poor Bridget herself! Wandering through the grove, always running from the murderer and his axe, hoping that her lover will be there to save her."
The six listened amused, but soon more and more people started hollering for another story. Josiah grinned, held up one of his empty beer mugs and waited until enough new ones were put on the table in front of him to quench even the worst of thirsts.
"Talking about this reaper of souls I have found myself thinking about another reaper of souls... and heads," he started. "The headless horseman. Surely some of you have heard of him. He roams the streets on his enormous horse, hacking off his victims' heads with his sword and taking their head with him, thus binding the soul of the one he killed to him. Alright, here is the story of the headless horseman and how he would suddenly gallop into a town...."
At that moment the sound of a wild galloping horse could be heard thundering through Main Street. Someone inside the saloon shrieked.
"OH HELL!" Vin, who had been staring outside most of the time, yelled. He was gone from the saloon in a flash and suddenly the remaining five peace keepers understood how worried Vin had been for a while now. If Vin was so worked up, there was only one person that could be involved and that was....
"CHRIS!" Vin hollered, slamming open the batwing doors. "IT'S CHRIS' HORSE!"
Without Chris himself, they all heard as plainly as if he had said it aloud.
With a string of curses the other five peace keepers ran out of the door as well.
4. MEETING WITH THE DEVIL
Shit, shit, shit!! Yep, this night kept getting better and better! Disgusted Chris looked at the slash in the left sleeve of his duster. He loved that duster and now see what had happened to it! An enormous rip, and bloodstains too. Cursing fluently to cover the pain he felt, he got his arm out of his duster and pulled away the equally ripped shirt sleeve.
Damn, but he'd been lucky! That could've been a lot nastier. The 'sorry, you'll never be able to use that arm again' kind of nasty. Muttering about no good traitorous horses who ran off with canteens full of water and saddle bags full of bandages when you needed them the most, he twisted his arm to try and get a good look. Bleeding a lot right now, but that wasn't necessarily bad, because it cleaned the wound. Just as well, considering the state the axe had been in. The thing hadn't been too clean with all the blood on it and he didn't think all those other stains had been rust either.
Maybe he shouldn't think about that axe, it made him a bit nauseas.
Right, first things first and that was stop the bleeding. He looked at the girl who was anxiously hovering nearby on her haunches. "You sure you're alright?" he asked for what felt like the tenth time. She didn't look like she was wounded, but she acted mighty peculiar.
"You saved me!" she breathed out, also for about the tenth time. After a curt nod that yes, she was alright, it was about all he had managed to coax out of her.
Warily he looked around. The trouble was that they might not be safe yet, because the guy had disappeared. Six bullets straight through the bastard's heart and then he'd pummeled the idiot down again and again, having no compunction whatsoever to use the big and strong branch he'd found in this horrible copse. After all, the maniac had wanted to do the same to him and the girl, only with the axe.
Those results would have been a lot messier than what he'd done to the guy with his branch, his fists and his feet. Not that what he'd done to the guy wasn't messy, because it was. He had thought he'd killed him more than once, but it wasn't until he'd been able to knock the axe out of the killer's hand that the man had toppled over for what seemed the final time.
Somberly Chris looked at the blood still visible where the bastard had ended up. Dead, Chris had thought. He'd even checked for a pulse and definitely hadn't felt one. Yep, it was unbelievable that the would-be murderer had managed to get away. A moment of looking to the side, to see how the girl was doing and poof, he'd disappeared.
The axe too, unfortunately.
Chris looked at the girl again and decided he would probably be better off trying to tie his bandana over the still bleeding wound himself. He was just struggling awkwardly to tie of the makeshift bandage with one hand and his teeth, when the girl suddenly materialized beside him.
"I... I'll do it," she said hesitantly, taking over. Soon she had the bandana in place, neatly knotted off.
"Thanks," Chris mumbled, striving to ignore the fact that her fingers had been so cold it had almost hurt having her touch him. Shock, probably, he reasoned. He'd heard you could get mighty cold from a shock. He should have more patience with her, really he should. It was just that for some reason she made him nervous. The way she looked at him didn't help either. She looked at him as if he was some... some.... Aw hell! He couldn't put his finger on it, only that it somehow conveyed more adoration even than JD pestered him with from time to time.
After having checked his gun and reloaded it, he grabbed the branch that had saved his life. "Could you... help me up?" he asked her through gritted teeth, hating the fact that he had no choice but to ask. Of all the humiliating.... It was just that the brute had gotten some real good kicks through himself as well and he really hurt.
"OH YES!" she breathed, grabbing him by his good arm and practically lifting him up in one smooth pull.
WHOA! Even Josiah would have had more trouble with getting him up! Deciding not to think about it, Chris gingerly tried his ankle. Nope, still painful. Tucking the branch back under his shoulder he started to limp towards the exit of the grove again. The girl followed close by. The girl... maybe he should ask her name, he mused. Only, he didn't particularly want to know her name, he wanted to get out of here.
What was that? Screaming?
God, tell me it ain't screaming!
The girl beside him screamed as well when she heard it and hastily stepped behind him. Chris braced himself for whomever or whatever would come out of the churning mist this time, putting most of his weight on his good left foot. He freed his gun again from his duster, only now he held the branch ready as well.
This time it was a boy, a young boy of about fourteen, fifteen years. He ran straight at Chris, but at least he didn't throw himself on top of him. Staring blankly up at the gunslinger he gasped "H... help! He's gonna... kill me!"
And yes, right on cue, there he was again, the bastard with the axe. Still bleeding and battered from their previous fight. He stopped when he saw them, Chris this time standing with two kids behind him.
"You wanna try again?" the gunslinger asked softly.
His answer came when the man rushed him. Chris planted his feet, ignoring the stabbing in his ankle and the pain in his ribs and left arm and held his branch ready. This time he went immediately for the axe, wanting to have that murder weapon away from the maniac first thing. So he ducked underneath the swinging blade and instead of hitting the man full in the belly, he pivoted, cursing when he felt his ankle almost give and brought the branch up in a savage swing, aimed at the killer's hands. The impact was brutal, jarring through his arms and Chris thought for a moment that he heard the sound of breaking bones coming from the murderer's wrists. The axe fell down out of the suddenly lifeless hands and again the man toppled over. Ignoring his revulsion, Chris kicked the axe out of the way. Then he bent down to try and feel a pulse for the second time that night.
Gingerly he felt again, but yes, really nothing. And damn if the guy wasn't as cold as a day old corpse.
With a groan Chris righted himself, frowning while he looked at the man. It didn't make sense, any of it. Then his eyes fell on the axe.
The axe... there was something about that axe. It was a beautiful piece of equipment, its metal shining through the bloodstains even in the faint light of the moon that managed to filter into the grove. It looked razor sharp. For some reason the thing made him very uneasy though and instead of picking it up like he had planned, he stepped away from it.
"Why don't you take it?" a deep and soothing voice suddenly asked. "Take it and chop that murderer's head off?"
Chris pivoted, branch at the ready since he seemed to have more success with it in this strange, god forsaken place than with his gun. Biting off a curse when he felt his ankle protest again, he searched for this new player. The two kids were already back to hiding behind him.
Where a moment before no one had been visible, he now saw a handsome man with jet black hair to his shoulders and dark eyes, leaning casually against a tree. He was dressed like Ezra, in a fancy jacket and expensive looking clothes. The only difference was that this man wore only black. A stark black, unrelieved by any other color, not even grey.
The man was watching him with an intense look that sent shivers down Chris' spine. The look was almost... hungry. As if Chris was a tasty morsel he couldn't wait to bite into. He made Chris feel more uneasy than even the axe did, or the strange brute wielding it.
Well, the best defense was still attacking straight on, in Chris' book. "Who are you?" he asked menacingly, narrowing his eyes and taking on a fighter's stance.
The man shook his head and tsk-, tsked when he heard Chris' angry question. "Come on Chris, don't tell me you don't know me anymore. That really hurts my feelings. After all our meetings...."
"Oh, I'm sure we never met, I would've remembered something like you."
"Temper, temper! Does your temper still get you in so much trouble? Why, I remember you and Ella when you were young and still together and how that temper brought you very close to murdering some men, didn't it?"
In a flash Chris' gun was out, pointing unerringly at the stranger. He suddenly felt cold all over.
"Who are you?" he hissed.
"But no, you had to keep all those fights fair after all. Never went too far, despite her goading. And then you up and left her! I thought I had you with her, but you left! You just rode off!" The man's dark eyes flashed with anger.
"WHO ARE YOU?"
"At least Ella came through for me. What's more, she almost managed to deliver you back to me as well, by murdering your family. Yes, she really is something else!" The man shook his head in admiration.
Chris fired, having the bullet whisk right beside the stranger's ear. The man didn't even flinch, but for a second it seemed as if his eyes glowed red.
"And then, when I was sure I had you, I lost you again! You kept being this righteous prick, even though the loss of your family devastated you. I would never have thought you would manage to come out of that one and here you are... a man of the law!" He said the last words in clear disgust, almost sneering them.
The gun Chris kept on him didn't waver, not even for a second. Chris' eyes followed his every move.
"I decided to bide my time again, I was pretty sure I'd get you in the long run, but then you had to go and say it, didn't you, to Billy. What were the exact words again? Oh yes, 'I've met the devil, more than once. And he ain't beat me yet.' That's what you said to the boy. Now, I couldn't let that go, could I? So I sent John Blackfox your way with his tale of who had killed your family to finally make you lose it, make you lose your temper enough to do something irreversible, something that would mark you as the bad element forever. It would have worked too, if those damn friends of yours hadn't showed up and kept you in line! But tonight, tonight it's All Hallows Eve. Tonight I'll finally get your soul."
"You're mad," Chris hissed. He didn't understand how this stranger could know so much about him and he sure didn't understand how he could know what he had said to Billy that one night, when he had been protecting the boy and it had only been the two of them. He wasn't going to fall for it though.
"Mad? Oh no, I'm not mad at all. I'm the devil, Chris Larabee, and I'm here to claim you. After this night you'll finally be mine. You won't be able to leave this grove or escape my henchman." The raven-haired man made a deprecating gesture towards the corpse still laying on the ground. "Incidentally, he's called the Reaper of Souls and tonight he's going to reap yours. There is only so much battering a body can take, so I have every confidence he'll kill you in the end. Then your soul will be locked in here forever with all the other souls he's harvested over the decades. Part of my army forever."
Chris couldn't help himself. He grinned menacingly at the stranger, that cocky smile he knew infuriated the hell out of people. "He ain't beat me yet," he stated confidently. After all, he'd beaten the axe guy into a pulp twice, hadn't he?
This time there was no mistaking the red glow coming from the dark eyes. Chris suppressed a shudder, he wasn't going to give the irritating guy the satisfaction. Not even if it was the devil himself.
The man stepped forward menacingly, reaching out an arm that suddenly seemed too large, with a hand that resembled more a claw than anything else, a very sharp claw. In a reflex Chris shot. Again he managed to get his bullet right through the heart of his attacker and wouldn't you know it, again there was no effect whatsoever. Chris was getting really disgusted with the way his bullets just didn't seem to have any impact this night. Nevertheless he tried again, this time with a shot through the head of the man.
The skin of the stranger's head immediately closed around the wound and made it disappear as if it had never been there. "Enough!" the now sinister apparition hissed. "Enough is enough, I'm going to take you now!"
"Fuck," Chris whispered, abandoning his gun once more for his branch, although he had the feeling the wood would have about the same effect on this... this thing as his bullets. He wasn't going down without a fight though.
The apparition smiled, a smile more menacing than Chris could ever hope to cultivate and two big claws reached for his throat....
Then something white flashed between him and the darkness and a sweet voice said, "I don't think so!"
This time it was Chris who screamed.
5. THE LITTLE BOY
"Ezra, you finally ready?"
"Yes, ah am Mister Tanner. Please cease your hollering, it isn't me who is the latest. That would be our healer, Mister Jackson."
"Nathan? What the hell's he doin'? I'm ridin' out now!"
"Hold yer horses, Vin. I've been getting supplies. You know as well as I do I'll probably be needin' them. I always need them when one of yer horses runs into town without its rider on its back. So keep yer temper where it belongs, don't throw it at me."
"Sorry Nate, but can we please GO? Aw hell, I should've left immediately."
"No you shouldn't Vin. Not on All Hallows Eve," Josiah stated morosely. "Chris was out there alone. I'm not going to see someone else caught in the horrors of this night."
"Aw J'siah, stop it! He prob'ly jist fell off...."
"Chris never falls off a horse, Nate," Buck grated. "Dammit, this is taking way too long!"
He whirled his horse and went after Vin, who had given up on them and had galloped off. The young tracker was cursing loudly about the bad light and the impossibilities of tracking in the dark.
"Buck?" JD had come abreast with him, looking up at his big friend with earnest eyes.
"Have you... have you seen Pony? I've never seen a horse so scared and Pony ain't scared easily. He's one of the most levelheaded horses I know. But now he was rolling with his eyes and there was foam at his mouth and he was trembling...."
"Yeah, well, there's plenty out there to scare a horse, JD. 'Specially at night."
They reached Vin, who had stopped his horse and was staring into the night.
"Something wrong, Vin?"
"How we ever gonna know where he's at, Buck? All we know is Pony came from this side of town. So all that out there," he made a wide sweep with his arm, "is where he could've come from!"
"We know he was on patrol," JD said.
Both men looked at him.
"WHAT? He was, wasn't he? On patrol?"
Buck and Vin looked back to town and the other three peace keepers catching up with them, then at the darkened landscape around them.
"Night patrol. Not long prob'ly."
"Nope, would've gone round in a circle like we always do."
"So? We ride the patrol route we usually take?"
"Seems our best shot."
"What are you talking about, friends? Care to enlighten the rest of us?" Josiah asked pointedly of Buck and Vin.
"Just that he was out on patrol, Josiah," Buck said.
"So we figured ridin' the normal patrol route might give us the best chance of spottin' him."
"In that case we would be better off splitting up," Ezra stated. "Three of us can follow the patrol route to the left, the other three to the right and we can meet at the other side of town, each having covered half of the route. Hopefully long before that meeting one of our groups will have found our missing leader."
"That ain't a bad idea," Nathan nodded.
"Adam?" Buck suddenly called out. Five pairs of eyes looked at the ladies man imploringly.
"Buck?" JD asked worried. "What did you just say? Buck? What's wrong?" The ladies man was staring into the distance and seemed to be shaking.
"There, do you see him?" The rogue pointed with a trembling hand to something on the road. The others looked to where he was pointing.
"I don't see nothin'," Nathan said, perplexed. "Buck? What is it?"
"I have to admit that to all of my senses the road seems utterly abandoned, Mister Wilmington."
"Nah, I don't see anything either, Buck," JD said softly, while Josiah just shook his head.
"A boy!" Vin breathed. "A small boy, what's he doin' here?" He immediately nudged his horse forward. "Some of us better get him home," he called to the others, "while the rest of us go and find Chris! Shit, he's running away! Hey boy, stop, I ain't gonna hurt ya! Damn! Alright, who goes after 'm?"
"I am," Buck called back grimly. "Right now! That's Adam!"
"Adam? You mean Chris' Adam? Buck, that ain't funny!"
"Look Vin, he stopped. Damn it, that's Adam, I know that boy like... like.... God, I could never mistake another boy for him, not even in the dark!"
"Will you two cut it out? What boy, what are ya talkin' about?" Nathan called out irritated from behind them.
"Yeah, what's going on?" JD wanted to know as well. Soon the six peace keepers were together again.
"Don't you guys see him? Adam? Over there?" Buck pointed again at something on the road. "Vin sees him!"
"No brother, we don't. Will you please tell us what it is you see?"
Vin rode forward slowly now, his eyes on the small boy with dark hair and huge eyes. "Please wait, I ain't gonna hurt ya!" he called out. Without result, because as soon as he came closer, the boy started moving once more. He stopped and the boy stopped, looking back at them, waiting.
"He eh... he moves as soon as Vin goes to 'm, but now he's waiting again, like...like...."
"Like he wants us to follow him," Josiah said softly, nodding.
"Yeah, well, maybe. He's hopping from one foot to the other, like he's real impatient now. Josiah, what should we do? I mean, we gotta find Chris, but Adam...."
"We are going to follow Adam," Josiah stated.
"You believe me? Eh, us?" Buck asked, looking at Vin who was staring hard at the little boy.
"Please Josiah, do not tell me you are going to feed the fantasies of our two colleagues by humoring them in this! There is nothing there! We should be focusing on finding Chris!"
"That's what I'm focusing on, son. This is All Hallows Eve, the night the dead can roam the earth." He did't see Ezra mimicking 'All Hallows Eve' behind him in disgust and continued, "I think Adam has come forward from the Netherworld to help us find his father. To help us save him from whatever has befallen him. Now, Buck, Vin, since the rest of us can't see him, we will need you two to lead the way. Come on, what are you waiting for? Let's find Chris!"
While Ezra and Nathan rolled their eyes, Buck and Vin locked theirs, then nodded. Together they rode up to the boy, who smiled a huge smile, waved at Buck and then turned around to trot away.
"Damn," Buck hissed, wiping a sleeve over his eyes.
"Buck? You alright?" Vin asked anxiously.
"Yeah, yeah I am. It's just... seeing Adam again, it hurts you know. It just hurts. He's... he's exactly as the last time I saw him.... Don't matter, let's hurry."
The two peace keepers increased their pace, only to find they couldn't catch up with the little boy. Adam didn't seem to jog any faster, but the distance between them and the boy stayed the same. Soon they were galloping, ignoring the curses from behind them.
It didn't sit well with the two men that a ghost had come to take them to Chris. It made them fear something really ominous had happened to their friend.
6. A GATHERING OF GHOSTS
"Chris? Chris, are you alright?"
"S... Sarah?" Chris didn't want to open his eyes, he didn't want to hear that voice. It hurt too much. He huddled in on himself even more, legs drawn up and arms clasped tightly around his head.
He almost wished that that devil thing was back, it was much less painful to deal with. Seeing Sarah again, hearing her voice, had brought his loss back to him full strength. It was cruel, crueler than anything else that bastard could have come up with. Only, the guy had screamed in anger when Sarah had come between them, so he didn't think Sarah had been part of the man's plan.
How could he resist the pleading in that voice he loved so much? He couldn't, not when she had been alive and not now. Reluctantly he opened his eyes. There she was, kneeling in front of him, her beautiful face frowned in worry. Yes it was her, oh it was definitely her....
"Sarah," he whispered.
A smile bloomed on her face. God, he loved her smile. He reached out one hand tentatively to touch her cheek.
He couldn't, he couldn't touch her. It was as if he couldn't reach her.
"I'm sorry Chris. We can see each other this night and even talk, but... but I'm afraid you can't touch me. You see, I'm not really here. I'm dead, remember?"
"NO! You're here now!"
"I'm still dead, my love. I'm sorry, I'm so very sorry for that. Me and Adam, we both are. It is so hard to see you grieve, Chris, so very hard."
"See me... see me grieve?"
"You don't think we had really left you Chris? We haven't, we're always there for you, always! Trust me on this."
"Yeah? Well, it's not the same as seeing you and holding you!"
"I know," she whispered. "Oh, how I know!"
"Why... why are you here now? You protected me, didn't you? You protected me against... whatever that was."
"Yes, I guess I did. He was out of line there. He could put the Reaper of Souls on you, but he had no right to try and snatch you up himself. Your soul still isn't his, so he couldn't come and take it. It's why I was given permission to intervene."
"Oh. Well." Chris didn't really get what she was talking about. He did know the guy with the axe, this reaper person, was gone again. And so was the axe. Slowly he clambered back on his feet, searching for his branch. He had the bad feeling he was going to need that branch a lot more this night. Looking around he saw the girl and the boy standing a little off to one side. "You alright?" he asked them gruffly.
The boy nodded, the girl crossed her arms before her chest and glared. "Who's she?" she asked icily. "Why is she here? She's not supposed to be here!"
Chris could only stare at her. Now what was wrong with the girl? She really was strange. Sarah's pealing laugh made him instantly feel better. He turned around and looked at her, at the curves beneath her dress, at the long auburn curls.... Wait, auburn? How the hell could he see colors when it was this dark?
He could though, he saw Sarah just as well as during a bright sunny day. There seemed to be a light glowing around her, a light from inside herself. He'd always known she was carrying a light inside.
"I'm his wife," Sarah told the girl amused.
"His wife?" the girl shrieked. "NO! No, he can't be married! He's my savior, mine!"
"Oh, shut the hell up!" Chris barked at her, his annoyance getting the better of him. He looked at her angrily, only to feel his mouth drop open. The girl had shut up after his shout and was looking at him with huge, hurt eyes. And if that wasn't enough, she seemed to swirl slightly, as if she was made of a thick mist.
So was the boy.
"Oh no," he groaned, shaking his head to see if it would change what was happening right before his very eyes. It didn't. "Damn, what's wrong with them?"
"Don't you know, dear? Haven't you figured it out yet?"
"Figured out what?"
An enormous shriek cut any answer she wanted to give instantly short. Resigned Chris took up a fighting position again, this time before his wife, branch ready.
"Remember how he fell down instantly when you got the axe away from him," Sarah whispered behind him. The girl and the boy suddenly were behind him as well. How that had happened Chris didn't know, because he hadn't seen them move, but he couldn't think about it just then. This time a young man in his early twenties ran out of the mist, his eyes wide open in terror.
"Please, help me!" he choked out.
"Just go stand with the others," Chris told him with a sigh. He was beginning to get the feeling this was going to be a long, long night. "They're dead, aren't they?" he asked his wife, in the mean time keeping his eyes on the mist, where soon this Reaper of Souls would appear. "Just how many are there of them?"
At that moment the man with the axe burst out of the mist and Chris needed all of his attention to fight him.
Soon it was clear the Reaper wasn't going to give up his axe that easily anymore. He held his weapon in both hands, holding the handle in a death grip. Chris battered at those hands time and again, but the brute didn't let go. Chris dived and ducked, until his ankle gave and he fell down hard. The axe followed him immediately and he could barely roll out of the way in time. Before he could stand, he saw the axe descend on him again. Vaguely he heard Sarah scream and it gave him the extra strength he needed to get out of the way once more. Not entirely though, as a searing pain in his side told him. Ignoring it he managed to get back on his feet. Behind him he heard the girl shriek, Sarah call out in warning and the Reaper's feet running towards him. Looking over his shoulder, he pushed his branch back savagely, right into the belly of the monster. The man made a strange sound, a surprised look on his face. His axe wobbled in his hands and quickly Chris turned and slammed his branch upwards.
The axe flew out of the big hands and instantly the monster toppled over.
Chris was starting to really love that branch.
He hobbled over towards the shining blade and looked at it. It might be the sensible thing to do, pick it up, but again something inside him warned him not to. Then he sensed Sarah's presence behind him and for a moment it felt as if she was all around him.
"You are right Chris, you could pick it up and keep it away from him, but then you would be doomed. You would become him. You see, the power of damnation is in that axe and it would instantly grip your soul."
Chris hastily stepped back, away from the vile thing. He turned to his wife. "You stopped that strange guy, monster, whatever it was," he said softly, "but not this one. Why not?"
"That strange guy was the devil himself, Chris and he had no right to be here. I was infused with power to keep him away from you. That was all I was permitted to do, Chris. I can't fight the Reaper of Souls, this is his domain and you entered it. All you can do is hold out against him every time he appears."
The devil? THE devil? Was Sarah telling him that this man who knew so much about him was really... Satan himself? Oh God, he couldn't think about that, it was too much.
So he laughed ruefully, deciding to keep his mind on the here and now and shoved aside his duster to look at his bleeding side. "If only I could shoot that monster," he hissed, while carefully trying to pull his shirt out of the wound. With a grimace he looked at the deep gash and the blood pouring out. Then he let his branch fall and tore a strip from his shirt. Folding the piece of cloth into a pad, he pressed it into the wound.
God, that hurt!
The girl ambled up and hesitantly looked at him, clearly wanting to help. He looked back and finally nodded. "You hold it right here," he told her. "Press hard!" With a smile she hurriedly did as he asked. Chris couldn't stop a moan when he felt those ice cold hands against his warm flesh, but he managed to ignore it long enough to tear another strip from his shirt. Deftly he tied it around himself, bandaging the wound with the pad still on it.
The girl awkwardly stepped away a few paces, staring at him. "Thanks," he said softly and instantly a smile bloomed on her face. She nodded eagerly and almost danced back to the boy and the young man.
"I think she likes you," Sarah whispered. "A lot!"
Oh, great, just what he needed, a ghost in love with him. Why couldn't anything ever be simple!
Like it had been when Sarah and Adam had still been alive.
No, he wasn't going to think about that, he couldn't use the pain of remembering right now.
"If she's dead too, how come I can feel her?" he asked Sarah, who stood close by looking at him with worry in her beautiful eyes.
"The victims of the Reaper of Souls are still bound to this earth," she told him softly, looking at the three bedraggled youths. "They never made it to the beyond. They are bound to the Reaper, who won't let them go but keeps them here, forever hunting them and killing them over and over again."
"Yes, it is. It is a small hell all in its own. It is what will happen to your soul if he manages to kill you, Chris. You would forever haunt this grove with them, relive your death again and again."
"GREAT! Just great! And how often do I have to defeat him before he finally stops trying to add me to his collection? Up to now he's been attacking me every time he was chasing one of those poor souls. You said there were fourteen, so that's eleven left!"
"That's...a lot, Sarah."
"Yes, I know, but Chris...."
"Don't worry, I won't give up. Luckily my ankle is just sprained, it's getting better already. But this...." He stared at his side. Then he picked up his branch again, resigned to a long, long night.
"To bad you can't make him leave as well, like you did that black guy, that...." He couldn't say it. He still couldn't get his mind around who that had been, it seemed too much attention from the higher powers for one lonely, lousy gunslinger. He looked at the three young people standing close by instead, staring at him with unreadable eyes. "Eleven more?" he asked softly. "Eleven more that creep's got imprisoned here? Sarah, isn't there some way to get them all free?"
"Oh Chris," she whispered, her eyes and voice full of the love that had been there for him always. "And you wonder why the higher powers fight over you? You really would like to try and save them, wouldn't you?"
"Aw, come on Sarah. Don't.... Everyone would.... Hey, don't tell me you can read my mind now?" He was suddenly very embarrassed.
"No, not really, my love. This thought wasn't hard to get though. And no, not everyone would think about these lost souls at all, most would just think about running." She looked down at his throbbing ankle. "Although I see that black bastard has taken care of the running part, that... that misbegotten, rotten, no good, devious...."
He grinned. It felt so good to be with her again, with this feisty lady who wasn't scared of anything. "You gonna swear now? Don't think that's allowed for an angel."
"Angel? Chris, I'm not...."
"Yes, you are," he said with force, all his love in that statement.
"Oh Chris, now you make me blush! Have you ever heard of an angel that blushes? I'm just..., I'm just dead, Chris, a... a ghost I guess. Now, stop this nonsense and focus. You have to get out of the grove! The Reaper can't follow you out, he can't leave this place. Maybe the souls you have freed can leave with you."
"Leave the grove? And that's it? Well, hell, why didn't you say so immediately?"
Her hands settled in fists on her hips and her eyes flashed. "I was trying to, but someone thought it necessary to keep interrupting me!" she told him indignantly.
Chris had to close his eyes for a moment when he saw her do this. It was one of the things he remembered so well about her, her feisty nature and how she would stand there exactly like she was now, when they had an argument. Sometimes he would just start one to see the fire ignite in her. Oh God, he loved her so, so very much. When he opened his eyes again the flash of anger in her was gone, and the worry for him was back. He couldn't help it, despite what she had told him he walked to her and tried to take her in his arms.
He couldn't do it, he couldn't grab her. She didn't exactly disappear, but it was as if she couldn't be in the same place as he was, as if they couldn't share the same space anymore.
"Shit," he mumbled, trying to keep himself composed. This time he was glad when he heard the next victim scream. He grabbed his branch and limped to the place where he or she would come hurrying out of the mist. He was almost hurled over by a sturdy boy on fast pumping legs and only a fast jump to the side could save him. It played hell on his ankle and he bit his lip to keep from letting out a yell. When the axe wielder came out of the grove right after the kid, he wasn't waiting placidly, but with all the pent up frustration inside him he immediately rushed the monster, wielding his branch and letting out a blood curdling scream.
The Reaper's eyes widened in surprise and then Chris had already knocked the axe out of his hands. This time the murderer kept standing for a moment, his mouth forming a large 'O'. When he toppled over, Chris couldn't restrain himself and gave him a solid kick.
Stupid, stupid! His ankle was not happy with this action at all. He breathed in and out heavily, leaning on the branch and trying not to pass out. While he stood there hunched over, the axe at his feet, he suddenly got an idea. Grabbing his branch with both hands he used it to push the axe in front of him, further and further away from the huge corpse.
"Jesus, was this guy only targeting kids?" he asked Sarah, looking his charges up and down, the fourth being a kid as well of about sixteen.
"I'm not a kid!" the young man who had been the third victim coming out of the mist immediately yelled out indignantly. It reminded Chris of JD and that made him instantly feel better for some reason.
"Oh yes, you are," he told the young man with an evil grin. "Now, KIDS, let's move. We're gonna see if we can get you all out of this grove."
"What are you doing with the axe, Chris?" Sarah asked curiously.
"I'm gonna try and take it with me without touching it. See?" He pushed it forward with his branch again. "The maniac don't seem to be anything without it."
"I hope it can be done," she said dubiously. "It's worth a try though, I'll give you that."
"I'd give anything to kiss you again," he whispered softly.
"Gross!" the girl huffed. With her nose in the air she swept past him, walking towards the edge of the grove. Grinning and nudging each other the three boys followed.
"Great," Chris murmured. "Just what I need. Dead kids with an attitude." He looked down to push the axe along, only to discover the thing was gone. Again.
Shit! Giggling kids and that maniac on the loose once more! "Hey, you didn't answer my question lady, about their age."
"I know." She sighed with regret. "I'm afraid they indeed are all young people, Chris. Young people with the flaws and the arrogance of youth. On the crossroad to either grow up into a decent human being or... or turn bad. Those souls are his prey, the ones that aren't good or bad yet." She looked at him. "Like you, Chris. You have all this good in you, but also a deep rage which can make you turn completely the other way, Satan's way. You haven't yet, so he can't claim you like he wanted to and that is what made him think about the Reaper. He got you here by nudging your thoughts, made you think about needing a short cut. Maybe even made you feel a need to be alone and outside of town. Although heaven knows those are feelings you have often enough all by yourself."
Chris swallowed and nodded. She knew then, knew about the darkness that had settled in him once more after her death. He didn't like her knowing about it, but hell, when had he ever been able to keep something from this lady? Deciding not to go into this particular subject with her, he limped on, behind the four disappearing kids.
Ghosts, he better remember they were ghosts, they were dead.
Sarah's soft, sparkling laugh made him look at her. There was no condemnation in her eyes, only love and a sardonic kind of laughter. "Satan may have his hopes up," she said fondly. "But he's just a fool. I know better. There's no way you would succumb to his lure."
He swallowed, remembering all the things he had done in his life, lots of things he wasn't proud of, especially not after her and Adam's deaths. "Sarah," he started, softly.
She only shook her head and firmly stated. "Don't be daft, Chris Larabee. I know you, I have seen you. No way can he get you!"
A desperate scream made him turn around in resignation.
"Do you think rushing him will help again?" she asked, concerned.
He grinned and brandished his weapon. "Let's find out, shall we?"