An uncommon predicament
Lead woke with the sun peeling his eyelids back like the tips of God’s fingers. His vision shifted to focus on the haze of brown earth and the beige nothing of sand and grit. His wrists were bound together on the other side of a sandstone boulder, pulled to an excruciating limit, shoulders popped and throbbing. His beaten face felt like a mask worn off-center, swollen and repugnant.
Lead looked at the grains of sand and crystal pressed into the boulder. The morning’s sun shone fierce through a yellow sky, reflecting off every piece of quartz and desert’s glass a tiny pinprick of illumination. He turned his head and shut his eyes. His arms felt dead on the other side of stone, hugging the boulder like a fat friend. Lead shifted weight to his chest and face. He focused on his body, reaching out in mind’s eye for the lingering heat of infection. His body felt raw and skinless from grinding against the sandstone all night.
Lead opened his eyes. He squinted through the glare until outlines and images formed. On the other side of the boulder a car sat in the desert sand. Its husk was scraped clean of paint and rust by the eternal scour of sand and wind. It shown brilliant, a carriage from mans’ other time. Through the windshield Lead saw two skeletons holding each other, locked in an embrace, arms around each other like Lead’s across the boulder. Beneath the car, beneath the dirt, hidden from the curious eyes of man and beast lay a road. A road of black asphalt buried in sand that would never be shoveled away, buried in sand that would keep coming with the hot winds until the car was no more, until Lead was no more.
Lead shook the cotton in his skull. He pushed away useless wondering thoughts. Behind him rose the sound of pacing, impatient horses and men waking with the rising sun. Time was pressing. Lead pulled his knees up to the boulder and twisted his weight to the left, listening for sounds of cracks and breaks in the rock. When no noise came, he twisted to the right and strained against the boulder. A small scorpion crawled over the boulder’s top and stood still. Lead jerked his body back, exacerbating the conflict between the rope, his shoulders, and the bastard rock. His face hovered inches from the poisonous insect.
Lead whispered a prayer for protection to the Lord God. He pulled his head back until his neck shook and veins mapped its surface. The scorpion was young, its skin transparent. Lead knew bad fortune; small scorpions were more dangerous than the larger, older ones. The babies didn’t know how to keep their poison. When they stung, they stung with everything, every time. The scorpion scuttled down the boulder at a casual pace. It raised its claws and stinger into a boxer’s stance, contemplating Lead’s visage with blank alien eyes.
The shivers in Lead’s neck reached his jaw and chattered his teeth. He blew a stream of hot breath at the creature as an attempt to dissuade it from approach. The scorpion stood against the breath and moved closer to his body. In fearful imagination, Lead saw the scorpion crawling onto the bare skin of his chest and stinging him over and over again. The tip of the stinger would pierce his skin and a flood of poison would make his body hot and sick.
Lead closed his eyes and dragged his body further down the stone. He opened his eyes. The scorpion was now sitting at nose level, claws and stinger still in a boxer’s stance, still ready to inflict pain, misery, and death. Lead whipped his head forward with every muscle and tendon. His forehead caught the scorpion with a mighty crack that echoed off the nearby dunes. White light burst erratic in Lead’s eyes. The scorpion’s tail swung a lazy arc, its legs and body were crushed and made one with the rock. Lead hit it again.
In the darkness, a high-pitched whine of an engine sundered the emptiness. Though in a dream, Lead knew where he was. His fingers clutched the back seat of his mother’s motorbike. They fled the Great City. His eyes shut tight against unending wind, tears streamed and cold fingers ached for release.
Lead opened his eyes. His mother’s bike shot past cars and refugees. Men, women, and children wondered, dirty in nice clothes with eyes that had stopped questioning and just looked in the oblivion. Many rolled suitcases, some had the bad sense to still look for cell signals or carry heirlooms and beautiful technology, all of no modern value. Mother’s bike wove through the refugees, Lead’s hands shook, he wanted to wipe rain and hair from his face, but he knew that is he let go he might die. He held.
They left the Great City, and the lights, and smells, and so many people. In the Great City water ran into the streets where God called upon the ocean to smite man and the shining inventions of man. Storms, rain and waves had taken the City, consumed it in a rising tide that ate grand monuments. God saw their ways and reached out and was mocked, or ignored, or praised with false heresies. His rage brought the ocean and the plagues. So says the Church.
Lead shifted his weight and grasped his mother’s sweatshirt. His hand had turned bluish. They would be delivered unto the Camps; his mother would die burning of the plague, mumbling nonsense and leaving sadness in Lead whose meaning was enveloped in the sadness of a thousand other tragedies. She was of the times before preachers and marks and crusaders and the Church, before the world got hotter and everyone died screaming of Hell and damnation.
Lead woke. His forehead throbbed. A shallow stream of blood trickled down the side of his nose and littered droplets onto the sand. A shadow reached across the sand and shaded Lead’s face. Feet shifted and knees popped, a man knelt down behind him. Lead smelled decay on the man’s breath. He remained at the edge of Lead’s peripheral vision, a phantom.
“You’re ours, Preacher.” The man said. “You belong to us.”
The Preacher and the Mark
Some months prior, Lead halted his mule at a road sign proclaiming ASH FORK. The sign was twisted with rust and shown a shade of green no longer produced by man. A boar’s head was skewered on top of the sign; all but the snout concealed by a cloud of flies and coagulated blood. Lead escorted his mule past the sign. Pieces of tar and rock popped under the beast’s hooves, startling birds who were otherwise accustomed to the desert silence.
After a time, Lead heard music emanating. It was an ancient, forbidden song, something from the Broken Times. Lead stopped. Like many of his time, he was fearful of old things; music, books, reminders of times when men were soulless. He contemplated what hearing such throbbing lustful music would do to his soul. What forms of tarnish and stain would he have to endure?
Lead walked his mule to a sign adorned with pictures of a dining plate, a gasoline pump, and a bed. The sign pointed to a tar lot with two leaning structures. One structure was broke down and crumbling into scrub brush, the other vibrated with music. It was a building with a pulse neither man nor animal, but visceral and wrong.
The Radioman’s directions had been precise.
Lead’s mule brayed and twitched its ears. Anxiety built in Lead’s chest. The music was not gospel. A cleansing would be required upon his return.
The vibrating structure was a single story rectangle coated with mud and dust. One side was made of glass entirely, a craft lost to man. Inside the glass wall was lined with plastic shopping bags whose presence in desert was constant and plentiful, like bones and scrub. Portals shaped as stars and moons were cut into the bag layer.
Lead tied his mule to a water trough and pulled a rope and blanket from his saddle bag. He adjusted the heavy pistol resting against his chest. His finger traced the outline of the barrel, cold against his skin.
Lead opened the door to an assault of the forbidden music. Gas lanterns and star shaped sunlight illuminated interior dust and smoke. Men and women the color of dirt laughed and shouted over the din and haze. They grew quiet as whispers announced Lead’s entrance. Lead thumbed his straw sombrero back. He looked to the inhabitants, eyes lingering on each face. The owner, a man of indeterminate and forgotten race, turned switches and gears behind a stained pine bar. The music stopped. The room grew silent in a way both frightening and impressive. Some inhabitants returned Lead’s gaze, some didn’t.
Lead withdrew a silver crucifix from his pocket and held it forward as his badge and ward.
“I’m here under the authority of our Lord and Savior to speak with the one who calls himself Aaron Century,” Lead declared.
Whispers stopped. The inhabitants stood still. One spoke.
A middle-aged man dressed in brown jeans and a leather vest stood up from his table and gestured to an aluminum and canvas chair. His skin was darkly splotched with layered sun damage. His hands were thick and heavy indicators of lifelong labor. His eyes sparkled with intelligence. Lead pulled the seat out and sat down.
“I got no qualms with the Church, Preacher.” The man said. He sat behind a dinner arrangement of roasted pork. He kept his eyes on Lead.
Lead laid the blanket and rope on the table.
“Your violation is between the Almighty and thee. I’ll hear no appeals.” Lead recited by rote. Anxiety pierced his chest with a thousand little flames. He steeled his face against the fear.
Aaron contemplated the items on the table in a manner both slow and deliberate. He picked up a piece of pork and chewed it, as though mastication assisted the decision making process. Lead stared at Aaron’s face, watched the jaw muscles flex with each chew. Sweat slipped past Lead’s eyebrow and stung his left eye. He kept both eyes on Aaron, but his ears pricked for sounds of rear ambush. Aaron’s chewing and smacking lips echoed in the breathless room.
Suddenly, Aaron leapt from his seat and over the table with a dinner knife clutched in his fist. The larger man knocked Lead and his chair to the ground in a sweeping tackle. Aaron’s fist flashed, Lead felt a sharp, quick pain in his side. He smelled the meat on Aaron’s breath as the man’s face loomed enormous. Aaron tore the knife from Lead’s side and swung out. Lead caught the blade in his left hand, and twisted it, but failed to free it from Aaron’s grasp. Aaron shifted the blade and forced the tip into Lead’s chest. Metal dug into Lead above his heart, the knife’s tip scratched bone. He kept his grip and the two struggled. The room was occupied with grunts and screams from both men, though no inhabitant could tell one from the other. Blood ran down Lead’s left hand, coating the blade protruding from his chest.
All the noise of man was cut-off by a sharp pop.
Aaron’s grimace turned to look of surprise, a cloud of pink mist hung suspended behind his back. Lead rolled him off, breaking the knife’s tip in his chest.
Lead’s shirt smoked from the discharged firearm, an old six-shooter tied with rawhide loop around his neck and hidden under his shirt; a rig some called a Van Cleef.
Aaron clutched his chest with both hands, the knife clattered to the floor. The inhabitants continued their silence.
Lead pulled himself up with the edge of the table. He levered his weight against the table and wrenched his right arm, tearing his shirt and freeing the Van Cleef.
Aaron convulsed on the floor. He opened his mouth wide and tried to fill his lungs, but the hole in his chest issued a sucking wheeze. Blood bubbled out. He had neither the strength nor the ability to consume air.
Lead swung his gun in a wild parabola at the other patrons, an unnecessary warning.
Aaron died with a crimson face. His hands slapped his body in search of air that would never be found.
Lead unfurled the blanket with one hand, the other clutched his pistol. Blood from his chest and hand speckled the floor.
“What was done here was the Lord’s work.” Lead said to the inhabitants. “If any of you seek appeal on behalf of Goodman Century’s soul, you will be heard at the Flagstaff Parish.”
Lead laid the blanket over Aaron’s body and backed out of the front door, pistol waving at man and furniture alike. He rode his mule out of Ash Fork with the .38 clutched to his wounded chest. The anxiety heat burned worse than the stab hole.
Halfway to William’s Town Lead let go of his pistol with stiff bloodless fingers. No one was coming for him. Lead slumped off his mule and gathered dead wood and kudzu for his campfire. His wounds burned cold. A straight line had been cut across his palm through what the heathens called the head and life lines. Lead wrapped his hand in strips torn from his shirt and said a quick prayer of healing. He pressed cloth bandages against the puckered wounds of his chest and side. He searched for the broken knife tip with clumsy fingers but could not venture deep enough. He said another prayer.
Lead’s anxiety reduced with time and quiet in front of the fire. He felt soiled, worn, an old man in his middle twenties. He turned to the heavens and gave a prayer of attrition.
“Lord God, my Father. Lord of Earth and Heaven. Forgive me for breaking a commandment you set forth clearly. Forgive me for spilling the blood of man onto the Earth. Forgive me for all was done in your name and on your behalf. All was done to cleanse the Earth which we the meek and unworthy have inherited. Forgive me and if you have any dispute with my actions please give me a sign or smite me where I sit if thou finds me unworthy.”
Lead listened to the wind rustling through dying pine trees and dried jungle vines, to the crackling of the fire behind him, to the distant woyotes howling at the moon, to the humanless nothing of nature. He hunched near the fire and wrapped himself in blankets, a guard against the curious, hungry insects. Lead took a flaming branch from the fire and lit a paper of tobacco to ward off spirits, to pass the time. The stars above rotated in shapes named and renamed and named again by the variations of man both civilized and barbarous. Lead ignored the infinite and changed the dressing of his wounds.
He drifted into sleep, his mind drifted to dreams, which turned to the Storms, death and, as always, the Broken Times.
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