by Lucas Cook. To be published in our forthcoming Spring 2021 edition.
Dust was everywhere in Cottonwood Falls, Kansas. There was dust in the floorboards, dust in the cupboards. Dust lined the windows of the general store. After a long day at work, dust found its way into the socks of vaqueros and cowboys, who dumped it out between the barstools in the saloon. Three of the four wells outside of town brought up nothing but dust of different colors. On Sunday mornings in the old evangelical chapel, dust rolled in with the parishioners.
The Reverend scratched the back of his head, a vain attempt to rid the dust from what was left of his hairline. It bit and dug at the silvery strands and made preaching to the masses more a lesson in endurance than a lesson in the Word. His knees and knuckles ached as he made his way to the pulpit. The dust was harder on him than anyone else, he figured. He coughed once to rid the phlegm that rose up after the snake oil pills.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let us be thankful for our health. Through our suffering we will be made strong enough to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, by God.” This earned a delighted sigh from the twelve or so in attendance.
The Reverend smiled and continued, his hand resting on the worn King James set on top of the makeshift pulpit that had since become permanent. “While I may never have saved a soul, the Lord Jesus has given me the words to help direct you all towards salvation, even in this heat and dry. Let us open with a prayer.”
His hand slipped through one of the pockets in his tweed jacket, retrieving the thin wireframes he needed to see through yellowed eyes. On a sheet of paper, wedged in the Bible in front of him, a prayer scribbled across the page, along with the rest of the sermon notes. Through his peripheral vision, he watched with authority as the heads in attendance bowed. Even little Thomas, the more ornery of the two children in attendance, had found some way to be quiet.
“Heavenly Father, today we come together to worship you in the midst of a horrendous drought. We pray, as the Israelites did outside Rephidim, for water. Strike these rocks and flood our souls with the water of life, dear God!”
Somewhere outside came the sound of thumping hooves. A horse, maybe two. His brow furrowed. Hadn’t William already shut the chapel doors? Ten o’clock every Sunday morning. This was the only church in town, and the only meeting place for those of the faith in miles. Everyone knew when the doors were open and when they were closed. “We thank you for your watchful hand over us and your continued strength.”
Light conversation infiltrated the space in the sun-bleached doorframe. He could hear the voice of William and some other man. Surely William was informing the man of future times of worship, or perhaps times when he could schedule a meeting with the Reverend. He paused his prayer for a second, a light grin tugging at the corners of his face. He did so love to impart his wisdom on members of the faith. “Now, dear Lord, we ask for that strength and unity in this trying time, as we go out into our world and become the salt of the—”
A gunshot, loud and harsh against his oration, tore the small room in half. Heads rose in near unison towards the creaking front door. The Reverend’s face fell, then contorted into a frown. Cottonwood Falls was not the most lawful of townships. Rowdy cowboys and drunkards had found their way into gunfights often, so this was not out of the ordinary. “Excuse me? Hello out there? We are having congregation at the moment. If you could refrain from—”
The doors slammed open. A woman screamed. The Reverend couldn’t tell if it was Miss Annie or Missus Redd. He caught a glimpse of little Thomas diving behind his father, who fumbled for a gun that wasn’t there. A second or so passed before the Reverend’s eyes affixed on the offender. He was slight and slim, with slick black hair hidden behind a bowler hat. His sleek moustache betrayed a coy smile of yellowed teeth, rotten from tobacco. One gloved hand held a cattleman’s revolver, still smoking. Looking past the new attendee’s brown leather jacket, the Reverend caught a glimpse of old William, keeled over in the orange dirt, rump square in the air.
A solemn wave of dust blew in with the new arrival. He slowly glanced around the room, making his way towards the Reverend. The slat floor creaked underneath his boots. “Can I help you?” The Reverend’s voice lilted as he dropped the written prayer.
The newcomer sized up his prey. “I do believe you can, preacher. Could you be a good fisher of men and bring the tithe box to a man in need?”
The Reverend’s lips quivered, fighting him on the words to say. He must protect his flock. “Sir, I apologize, but those funds are for the church, the hands and feet of Christ. Though if you asked the good folks here, they may be willing to—”
An ear-splitting crack, and a bullet whizzed past his head. Through the ringing, the Reverend heard the wooden crucifix crafted by dear Miss Annie splinter feet behind him. “The church is a scam, Reverend. Here you are, claiming to care for the people, and yet you hoard their money for yourself. As far as I see it, that money ain’t belong to you anyways. What does God need it for?”
The bandit aimed the barrel of the gun straight into the Reverend’s chest. “He ain’t gonna buy himself these fancy clothes you’ve got on.”
The Reverend’s chest tightened as the hot steel from the barrel burned into his thin skin. Another man with a shotgun entered quickly, probably a member of the posse, ushering the rest of the congregation out. The Reverend never saw his face, only that he was dressed similarly.
Little Thomas’ sobs pierced the silent Sunday afternoon. Miss Annie’s skirt rode up as she hustled. Old William hadn’t moved. “I will not allow thieves in my church, sir.”
“And yet Jesus sat with the sinners, didn’t he?” The man pushed the barrel into his chest, searing him, jettisoning him from his perch at the front of the chapel. The smell of burnt cloth stained his nose. “You’ll take Silas MacCoy to that damn tithe box, now, preacher, or I’ll send you to meet that Jesus a lot sooner than you’d like.”
The Reverend’s eyes never left Silas MacCoy’s as he kneeled, aching knees creaking with the rafters. His trembling hands lifted the small rug up from underneath the pulpit, revealing a lockbox. At the suggestion of another bullet, he dug said key out from his breast pocket and unlocked the box. Twenty yellowed dollars and a pile of dust. “Here it is, Mr. Saul. All there.”
“That’s it?” Quickly, Silas MacCoy’s free gloved hand shot in and retrieved the crinkled papers and rusted coins, stashing them roughly in a knapsack. The gun returned to the Reverend’s chest, eliciting a sharp inhale. “You must be getting senile, old man. I told you, the name’s Silas. Silas. Now where’s the rest of the money?”
“There is no more. That’s it, Mr. Saul.”
The Reverend felt his throat tighten, and he lifted from the floor. Silas MacCoy had grabbed him by his neck. How could such a thin man be so strong? His knees scraped against the wooden floorboards, catching imperfections in the oak and tearing his pant legs open. He gulped for air like water and clutched at his assailant’s wrists in a vain attempt to find freedom, but found neither oxygen nor a chance to escape. His weak, desperate moans for help were drowned out by grunts as he was pulled towards the doorway. The sky was white.
Once outside, Silas MacCoy threw him to the dirt next to old William. A puff of orange dust clouded his vision. Gasping for air, the Reverend choked on his own breathing. His arms burned, and he could not feel his knees. He had to escape. God, please let me escape. Looking up, only the dark silhouette of Silas MacCoy was visible. “Mr. Saul, please.”
“It’s Silas, got-dammit.” A hot flash of pain split the Reverend’s face as Silas MacCoy brought the butt of the pistol down. Though his vision was clouded and his forehead throbbed, the Reverend blinked a few times through the clearing dust. He glanced around as quickly as the aching joints in his neck allowed. No Miss Annie, no Missus Redd. No little Thomas or his father. They were all safe. A relieved sigh escaped his heaving lungs.
“Thank the Lord for this day.”
The sky grew dark, and he was filled with a peace he could not place. A cool breeze caressed his wrinkled face. The dust underneath his head felt shockingly soft, like a fine feather pillow. He exhaled. A broad smile dug at the corners of his mouth. He could no longer feel his knees or hands, so he raised his eyes towards the One Most High. The face of Silas MacCoy and the other man faded into obscurity. Behind them, he could see through to the back of the church, where Miss Annie’s crucifix still hung on the wall. Distant thunder rolled.
One final time, the Reverend met the barrel of Silas MacCoy. He did not shrink away. He could not feel the intense burn of the gun-steel against his exposed neck. His yellowed eyes met the darkened ones of his neighbor, his brother. Silas MacCoy said nothing.
The gunslinger’s finger hovered over the trigger. The Reverend could see it wavering, jittering in the hot summer air. A single drop of water tapped his crown—a light comforting touch from the Almighty. The Reverend offered a small, truthful smile. “It appears my ministry is done earlier than I thought it’d be. I have fought a good fight. I have finished this course. I have kept the faith.”
Silas MacCoy’s finger faltered, falling from the trigger. The Reverend did not notice his own hand come to rest on the man’s wrist, just behind the butt of the pistol. He took one deep breath, and the skies opened up. Light rain drizzled the three men, mixing with the blood running down the Reverend’s face from the new wound on his forehead. His voice was still and small. “There is still time. All who sin are born anew by the blood.”
Silas MacCoy’s lower lip quivered. His eyes were pained, and they darted from side to side. He was looking for something that the Reverend couldn’t quite place. He hoped that he would find whatever it was someday. Rain poured like wine from the sides of his hat onto the new mud around them. The Reverend exhaled, softly smiled one last time, and closed his eyes.
“Grace be with you, Paul.”
Silas MacCoy pulled the trigger.
“Elderly man reads ‘Readers Digest’ in the living room” by simpleinsomnia is licensed under CC BY 2.0