"I will praise you, Lord, with all my heart and tell about the wonders you have worked. God Most High, I will rejoice: I will celebrate and sing because of you. I prayed, and you rescued me from my enemies. Death had wrapped its ropes around me, and I was almost swallowed by its flooding waters."
Richard, Beth, and Matthew sat in the First Church of Our Lord, a Greek Orthodox Church with history behind it, as old and firm as the settlement it was built in. Here they came to pray, to thank God for saving their existence from that false deity they had so foolishly served before. Redemption had come upon them, salvation was at hand. Truly a miracle was upon them this day. Thou shalt worship no other idols before Him, quoth the bible.
"We have a lot of enemies, Lord. Many fight against us and say 'God won't receive you!' But you are my shield, and you give me victory and great honor. I pray to you, and you answer from your sacred hill. Come save me, Lord God! Break my enemies' jaws and shatter their teeth, because you protect and bless your people. Amen."
They paused in reverence, their eyes closed, breathing shallowly, not making a sound.
"You know, you got every reason to pray."
Richard turned to see who was talking to him. His eyes bugged as he noticed the person beside him, as if he had just appeared. He hadn't a clue that someone had sat down right next to him. He must have been very involved in praying this morning.
The man was wearing a black scarf around his neck to keep from the balmy windy fall weather out and a long brown coat with a snap brim hat. He seemed tall and tan and old.
"I'm sorry?" Richard asked.
"I said you got every reason to pray," he answered in a gruff voice behind his scarf. "A lot of evil out there. A lot of... bad people. You gotta get protection any way you can. You can't get it from the law, can't get it from the government. So where you gonna turn?"
Richard looked at Beth and Matthew, rather confused at this stranger's sudden and unprompted praise for God that had no origin or reference. But they certainly agreed with it so they smiled and nodded.
"S'why you gotta come here, cause faith is all you have. Faith will show you the way. The only real protection is here. This is the only place where thieves like Linwood Lee Cody stay away from."
"Who?" Beth asked.
"Who?" the man mimicked. "Only the most vicious cutthroat sneak-thief this side of the Grande. Been lurking in the north woods out back, waiting for unsuspecting folk like you and me to come walking around la-dee-da and then..."
The three almost fell over the backside of the pew when the voice came. It was a small woman who sat on their other side by Beth. Again, without them even seeing her come in. She had on a gray hooded cloak that shadowed her face to keep her warm, but they could see a few red strands of hair hanging down.
"L.L. Cody's one mean son-of-a-gun," she said. "Killed seven people, I heard. Robbed 'em blind. Heard they never saw it coming. Wouldn't bet he wasn't raised in a Godless home, not hearing the word of the Lord. The word of Satan has a place in his heart. If only he had the word of the Lord incurred upon him, he might mend his ways. See the light."
Upon hearing this last statement, Richard's interest spiked. The situation was very similar to his own - a dark chapter in life that seemed never to have an end. And when he had found the holiness of Jesus Christ, the savior, all that had changed. Perhaps he could find Cody and imbue upon him the word of goodness. It had happened to himself so easily, surely it could be just as effective on anyone else.
"You said he was in the woods?"
"Last I heard he was," the man responded. "He ain't got no home. Just one more reason to live that kind of life."
"Excuse us, please."
The three stood up and moved over the woman who graciously tucked her legs in to let them pass. Before leaving the church, they lined up before the altar, Richard first, kneeled and made the cross upon their breast. If they had looked back they would have seen the two strangers smiling at each other.
Once outside the church, where business could be discussed, Richard turned to his wife and brother. "Are you thinking what I am?"
"I think I am," Beth said happily and excitedly.
"Are you sure we can do it?" Matthew asked.
"I think so. It happened so well to us. We can impart our beliefs unto him. We can show him the truth of the Lord. We can do His will in such an active role, it will surely grant us great favor. If we believe, if we have faith, then the good Lord will lead us the way."
"Then let's go, let's go right now!" Beth said excitedly.
"Right, the woods aren't that big," Matthew added.
"Should we get any protection?"
"No need. The shield of faith is all we require," Richard said. "Our love of God and the light of Jesus will protect our souls."
They headed out into the forest, located behind the church, conveniently enough. The forest was dark, green, and lush. A single winding dirt path had been carved through the woods, weaving through Black Firs with bark as ebony as night. An occasional bird chirp or crow call disturbed the peace, otherwise it was deadly still silence. The smell of maple sap and sweet-smelling pine cones pleasantly drifted around their noses.
"Following this path should bring us to him eventually."
"Lest we be attacked," Beth warned cautiously.
"In such case, even better, he will be brought to us."
The three walked and walked for near ten minutes until they encountered a point where the path divided in two.
"Oh dear," Beth said.
"Where shall we go now?"
"Hmmmmm..." Richard thought for a moment and put a hand to his chin. He hadn't expected this. They could divide into each path, but then they would lose the strength of their numbers. If they chose a single path together they wouldn't cover as much ground.
Richard looked up and saw a man walking in from the left path, apparently taking a morning constitutional. He wore a closed grey overcoat that covered most of his body. He had deeply tan skin and a smoothly bald head. He walked with his hands clasped behind his back, head tilted up as if regarding the sunny sky through the green and brown leaves.
Richard did not think he was the thief. He looked too stately, too regal to be a cut-throat. The way he walked casually said he was a professional. Perhaps a business-man from the East vacationing. Although he looked somewhat familiar, Richard was too focused on his mission to pay much mind to it.
"Excuse me, sir," Richard said, "Don't you know that it's dangerous to be traipsing in the forest? A lethal sneak-thief stalks these woods."
"Oh, is that so?" he spoke in a British-Indian accent. "Then that would explain the stockpile of riches that I just happened upon. I was just going to alert the proper authorities about-"
"Stockpile of riches? Where?"
"Why directly in the way I came from," he said as he pointed down the path behind him. "You'll find the horde under a large oak tree in the middle of the path."
"Thank you kindly, sir. You'll be in our prayers tonight."
"Mm, yes." The overcoated man continued on the path, smirking a little.
The three continued down the center path, walking briskly, quickening their pace. Since the man had not seen the thief, and had apparently survived the encounter with his hiding place, that meant they had time before he would return. They would wait him out, and once he came back they would begin his borning again, his conversion to the light of good.
It wasn't long before they discovered it, just like the stranger had said. Horded at the bottom of a thick Black Oak was a pile of pure gold and silver, gold coins, jewelry, pots, vases, bracelets, necklaces, cutlery. No doubt the treasure horde was worth a great, great fortune, capable of making their family very very rich.
"In the name of the good lord! Praise Jesus!" Beth exclaimed and made the cross on her chest.
Matthew clutched his rosary. "Hallelujah," he said softly in amazement.
"What a fortune," Richard exclaimed. Then an idea popped in his head. "I have an idea. What if we were to take this treasure away with us, then we would do well for both him and ourselves. By taking his livelihood, we'd lay siege to his career so that he'd have even more motivation to start his life anew. We need not tell him what we'd done with it. And in this, the money we'd bring to the church would aid thousands of poor souls in need."
"A fantastic suggestion," Matthew said.
"Beth, return to the village and bring back some potato sacks and drink to quench the thirst brought by this journey post haste."
Beth nodded and spun on her heel, walking out of the forest.
As soon as she was well out of earshot, Richard whispered to Matthew, "Brother, I am struck with another idea. Instead of sharing this wealth among the poor and down trodden, let us keep it for ourselves. None would be the wiser, and our mission would still accomplish its primary goal."
"Your argument strikes me wary of your motives."
"Hush quiet. Hear me out. Have we not deserved this reward? We have survived the trials of fire and faith. Multiple trials proving our devotion. We have proven our commitment to God. Now I believe He has smiled upon us as reward. This is that reward. Have we not suffered more than most other human beings on this Earth? Have we not been called, nay, drawn to this very spot? I believe it is decreed we should take this as our own. Don't you think so?"
"We live in poverty to show our humility. God has given us good fortune, let us use it."
Matthew stroked his chin. "But if we were to do so, what would become of Beth? She would not be so respondent. Nay, she would oppose what you speak."
"Beth, hmm... we'll have to deal with her in a different way."
Beth had selected a jug of wine and a loaf of bread as comestibles to bring back with her and brought them to the counter, along with some empty burlap potato sacks lying near the vegetables outside. A very large, very muscular Negro man was tending the register, which seemed unusual, but the bible taught to accept all races.
"May I help you?" he said in a very thick bayou accent.
"I'd like to purchase these," Beth answered as she dug for silver pieces in her pocket.
"I trust you've kept out of de thief near here's way?"
"Actually, we have found his shelter in the woods."
"And all his treasure as well, a pile of gold and silver. We are going to use it to fuel the church."
"...Is dat so? Do you tink dat's a good idea?"
"Do you not know? De church here is corrupt. I heard de pastor has been takin' money off de collection plate. You give a pile of money dat huge to de pastor, you probably jus' end up wit no pastor. If you wanta use the money, I suggest a place other dan de church."
"If I were you, I would keep it for myself. In fact, dat's exactly what you should do. No better cause den de ones you choose. Besides, money is de root of all evil. I can tell you gotta good soul. Better you take it 'fore someone else uses it for a bad purpose."
"But my husband and brother-"
"Men be suckered by the glory of gold easily. All de men have de money and dey only use it for evil. You a strong woman, you gotta stand up for yo'self. They probably intend to keep it for demselves. In fact, dey probably be plottin' against you right now."
"It's true, I say."
"Then... what should I..."
"It's simple. Jus' take de money away from them and run." He reached under the table and brought up a small green vial with some company label on it. "Dis here be a sleeping potion. You put dis in deir wine and dey be out like lights. Dat's when you make your move."
"How long will they be asleep?"
"Oh, a very, very long time. You ain't need to worry, you'll have plenty of time to gather up all de money."
She picked up the bottle and anxiously put it in her pocket, insecure and unconfident.
"Trust me," the storekeeper said. "You jus' remember what I tell you. You be all right."
Beth warily exited the general store, unsure of what just happened, but with the purpose implanted in mind.
The storekeeper smiled at her as the little bell on the door chimed. "Have a nice day," he called out after her. He felt something brush up against his leg and looked down. The leg of the real storekeeper, gagged with a white handkerchief and tied up in thick yellow rope, had fallen limp on its side. It had made a little trail in the puddle of blood the body was laying in from the shotgun wound to the chest. The man smirked and turned back to watch the counter, whistling a tune.
"She returns," Richard said to Matthew, looking up from the bottom of the tree trunk he was crouching against, mentally preparing for what he was going to do.
"I have brought what you asked," she said.
"Bring forth the wine, for we have much thirst to quench."
Matthew approached her, going behind her back. Beth curiously eyed him, but thought little of it as Matthew came round to her front.
"What's going on?"
Richard grabbed a sack from behind her and pulled it over her head. Matthew pushed her into Richard who wrapped his arm around her neck and squeezed. Beth tried to grasp for something, but the sack kept her little arms down. Richard squeezed tighter. He had braced himself for the struggle so she moved very little. Beth writhed and squirmed but it only made her weaker as her delicate airway was cut off of precious oxygen. Her little hands thrashed from their pinned points under the sack. Her strength dwindled until she went limp. Richard lay her prone body gently on the ground with the sack still around her head.
"It is done," Matthew said.
"Then let us drink... to the memory of Beth."
Matthew popped the cork off the jug and took a large swig. Wiping his mouth, he handed it to Richard. "Does it taste a little funny to you?"
Richard drank and smacked his lips. "Perhaps. It seems a touch bitter."
"Oh," Matthew exclaimed, holding his stomach and grimacing. "Something's wrong..."And he collapsed on his side. "Ow." Then he closed his eyes and curled up, shaking violently.
Richard also began to feel his stomach turn. A queasy indigestion that grew into searing pain like a thousand razor blades eviscerating his stomach. He fell to his knees and doubled over from the anguish. His vision began to blur and the forest seemed to darken before him while fiery agony ripped through his torso.
He blinked once. Through his squinted eyes he saw four silhouettes slowly walking towards him, the lead one wearing a long coat. He bent down in front of Beth's body and dug in her dress pocket for a vial. He brought it up in front of Richard's eyes and peeled the label off, revealing another that read "ACME RAT POISON."
Richard looked up at the man who tilted his fedora back to show his beaten, roughneck face grinning sadistically, red eyes gleaming at him, handing down a death sentence.
"Where's your messiah now, Richard?"
And then everything went black.