Pray

"Vice is the spice of life, reverend," said Sutherland, smiling around his cigar like a Cheshire cat. The black-clad minister sighed and slid a weathered pamphlet across the table, and Sutherland toyed with it for a few moments.

"Sometimes bland is better. I'm trying to save you, young man," the minister explained wearily. His wrinkled hands shook from the effort of bringing a glass of water to his parched lips; Sutherland's alcohol stayed in its crystal decanter, waiting to slip into the master's good graces when the cigar lost his favor.

Outside the hotel, the noon train roared in the distance. The minister almost let go of his glass in a fit of trembling. "We fear the Lord in this sleepy little stop, Mr. Sutherland," he pleaded. "You'll find no takers for your gambling and no clients for your prostitution. You've wasted your time coming to this town, and you'll waste more if you stay to Sunday. I suggest you take the next train out of town. If you stay, I beg you to change your ways. You will let something horrible consume you."

Sutherland would have none of it, though he privately admitted a great amusement that the priest had finally offered to pay his train ticket if he left. He showed the old man out and went back to his drinking. The hotel was damnably understocked; he was forced to smoke and drink from this private cache. When he took over, that would be the first thing to change, he told himself.

The days came and went. Sutherland found the minister's words distastefully accurate. A few attempts to strike up a game of cards at the hotel were rebuffed. The promise of attractive young women — a few of which Sutherland had brought on the train with him as a teaser — failed to catch even the interest of the young hired hands or the farmers' sons who accompanied their fathers to the general store.

The cattlemen were no more accepting of what Sutherland was selling, and even less gracious about it. "Git out o' here or we'll git you out," one had advised him sternly, and the gambler didn't feel like taking his chances with lariat or branding iron when held by such capable hands and looked at by such hard eyes. Yet even men such as this weren't relieving their stresses. Curious indeed.

Sutherland awoke Sunday morning to see the town moving, like waves of ants, up the hill to the dilapidated church. Churches he'd seen in plenty, and plenty of those had adjacent graveyards. This one, he realized, had headstones as high as a wagon in some places, with a curious regularity of spacing.

The sound of the church doors shutting had an unsettling finality to it. Sutherland realized why: he was literally the only person in the hotel. The entire town had somehow packed itself into the church. With nobody to speak with, he busied himself by shuffling cards and dealing, eyes fixed on the structure, noting its irregularities. The stones weren't part of the graveyard, they were a ring around the whole building. And wouldn't a church have a cross somewhere?

He was staring still when the eight-fingered claw, itself large as a prairie bison, came through the roof of the hotel in a shower of splintering wood and seized him. And then he saw, and knew the magnitude of his folly. "Oh Lord!"