“Purslane, ragweed, and pigweed, in mocking impudence, fill the schoolyards, befront the church doors, and speckle over the gravel path to the factory gates.”
SO PERTURBED was William Hudson of Cambridge Massachusetts over the sorry state of public yards in his city, that he felt compelled to write a letter to the editors of The Gentleman Cultivator expressing his discontent. A thousand miles and more away, it struck Pastor Hardwicke, an avid reader of that publication, that the very same weeds that “in mocking impudence” befronted the church doors of the great cities of the east, also grew in abundance in the yard of his own church in Nilson, Texas. The thought that followed was that sin, like those weeds, was also at home in every latitude and clime of the world. Hardwicke sat himself at his writing desk, picked up his pen, dipped it into his square glass inkpot, and well before supper, The Impudent Weeds of Sin was complete. He read it over, and did not change a word of it—it had sprung from his head like Athena from the head of Zeus: fully formed and ready to do battle. The following Sunday morning, the church windows were open, the air was warm and fresh, and Pastor Hardwicke had in his sermon case what he felt was the best sermon he’d ever written.
Stepping up to the pulpit, Hardwicke caught a whiff of the stench of a distant hog pen.
After the devotional exercises, Pastor Hardwicke, as was his habit, closed his eyes and said a quick, silent, prayer: Please, dear Lord, let me touch the heart of a sinner today. He put on his spectacles, opened his sermon case, and began to read. Though the subject matter was serious, he had some difficulty keeping himself from smiling with satisfaction when he read a particularly clever or well-worded phrase.
The stench of the hog pen grew stronger. It annoyed Pastor Hardwicke to think that this fine sermon had to compete with that for the attention of his flock. The sermon wasn’t overly long—far from it—but if he’d known he was going to be giving it in a hog pen rather than a church, he’d have pruned it back considerably. To counter the distracting effect the smell was surely having on his flock, he infused his speech and gesture with exaggerated passion, raising his voice, shaking a fist, and flinging his arms heavenward—but that smell!—how could anyone be expected . . . his eyes were watering, for Christ’s sake!
He admonished himself silently for his silent curse—but reading the sermon alongside that stench was like dragging a corpse that had started to ripen. The effort involved, alongside the fact that he was trying not to breathe through his nose, gave his voice a forced, oily, and flaccid quality, like ointment being squeezed from a tube.
He should give up. Find a good place to stop and cut it short. But what a shame—it was such a very good sermon—and maybe things weren’t as bad as he imagined. Under the guise of patting the sweat from his brow with his handkerchief, he removed his spectacles and looked over his flock, to assess to what degree he still held sway over them.
What he saw before him were sleepers, slumpers, surreptitious time-piece checkers, button-twisters, and glove-biters. He saw Mrs. Bailey, whose husband was out of town on business, engaged in ocular telegraphy with Mr. Nevitte, whose wife was under treatment at the asylum in Lester for morphinomania. He saw Boyd Stork, given a brief reprieve from the lockup for the purpose of attending church, pull a whiskey-flask out of his jacket pocket, unscrew the stopper, take a quick swallow, then close it up and hide it away again. He saw Miss Leaper staring at the back of Young Mr. Holland’s head with the intensity of a panther stalking a piglet, and when Young Mr. Holland took to probing the canal of his ear with his little finger, Miss Leaper’s cheeks flushed crimson, and her tongue darted out from between her fine, small, teeth, to wet her plump red lips.
Pastor Hardwicke looked quickly over to his wife. Mrs. Hardwicke was straining so hard to keep awake that her eyes had crossed. Desperate to find someone—anyone—actually listening to him, he even looked for Miss McCormick and Miss Zuckerman. Those old maids, at least, could be depended upon to hang on his every word, if for no other reason than the joy it gave them to catch him in some trifling scriptural error. But on such a pleasant fall Sunday as this one, they apparently had better things to do than attend a church service—their customary seats in the corner of the front pew were empty.
I will read this loathsome sermon to the bitter end, Hardwicke said to himself, though it take an age. He put his handkerchief in his pocket and settled his spectacles into place. He adjusted his tone and tempo to that of a chant for the dead, and as he read, he did not neglect to lavish every word with the utmost in gravitas and precision articulation.
The air in the church grew warmer. The stench of the hog pen grew stronger. The flock began to twitch and squirm as though beset with biting flies. Pastor Hardwicke was well-pleased. This hairshirt of a sermon—this pestilence of a homily—was exactly what they deserved.
Hardwicke droned on and on, until, after an age:
And where the impudent weeds of sin are concerned, may God grant us the strength to be the reaper that o’rtakes the sower. Amen.
Hardwicke did not remain at the pulpit to say the closing prayer, rather, he mumbled it under his breath as he made his way to the front of the church. When he threw open the doors, the flock shoved and pushed to get outside like dogs were nipping at their heels.
At supper that night, Mrs. Hardwicke recounted an “interesting” conversation she’d had with Boyd Stork after the sermon. Pastor Hardwicke pretended to listen but didn’t hear a word, except toward the end, when Mrs. Hardwicke said it was Boyd Stork’s contention that by the grace of God, even a fool of a preacher could save a soul.
As he lay in bed that night, dismal thoughts heaped themselves one after the other upon his mind like a plague of toads. When he could stand it no longer, he got up and dressed himself quietly, making sure not to wake his wife. He lit a lantern and walked outside to the stables. He had every intention of saddling up Zeke and riding out west to California, to join the filthy hordes that burrowed into the flesh of the earth and prayed Please, dear Lord, let me find a gold nugget in the dreck today. He felt certain God answered the prayers of men like that more often than the prayers of men like him.
He was not under the illusion that it was principle, rather than cowardice (and the rumble of an approaching thunderstorm), that sent him crawling back under the warm covers of his bed.
But as the night dragged on, and merciful sleep would not come to him, his conviction that God did not hear his prayers, or worse, heard and did not care, grew and grew in him, and with that conviction, his determination grew as well. Just before dawn, he swore an unbreakable oath, to his God and to his Devil, that whichever would send him a sign—some clear guidance as to how he was meant to live his life—that was the one he would follow devotedly for the remainder of his earthly existence.
He had his reply soon enough. He was reading the latest installment of Mildred’s Fate in The Dallas Weekly Herald, as he did every Tuesday, when he noticed a short piece in an adjacent column about digging for gold in California, where the towns had names like You Bet, Dutch Flat, and Red Dog. The article included a list of everything a man would need to outfit himself for that purpose, and along with the list, the cost of each item, neatly summed up at the bottom. The total was, to the penny, what Pastor Hardwicke had recently collected for badly needed repairs to the edifice of the church.
On Tuesday, Sarah Malone dug the hole. She had a little flower garden she could see from her kitchen window, and Hiram took no interest in kitchens or flowers or gardens, so that’s where she dug it. It took the better part of the day. When she was done, she went inside and into the kitchen to wash up. About that time the boy showed up with his bucket. First thing he did was look out the kitchen window and see the hole. He was at that age where a boy sees everything and understands . . . well, it was hard to say, exactly, what Joe Malone did or did not understand.
“What’s the hole for?” he said.
“I’m fixing a bed to plant roses.”
“You gotta dig that deep to plant roses?”
“I don’t know exactly how deep it should be—I’m concerned it’s not deep enough—but I’m wore out, so it’ll have to do. What did you find for us today?”
The boy handed her the bucket. She looked in. A tangled mess of cleavers—and gone to seed.
“That’s a fine bunch of cleavers, Joe,” she said. “Tell you what—your pa’s been catching rats at Mrs. Binney’s hotel. I’ll see if he brought home any leftovers from her dining room that’ll go good with those cleavers.”
“You gonna look in the rat shed?”
“That’s right,” she said.
“You shouldn’t,” he said. “Don’t you remember what happened the last time you stole from his rats?”
“Don’t you remember what happened the last time all we had for supper was a heap of boiled cleavers? I’ll see to it he don’t find out this time, so don’t worry so much.”
Pastor Hardwicke began writing his last sermon, Forsaken by God, by candlelight before dawn on Wednesday morning, and by midafternoon had finished a first draft. The sermon began with the story of Job—a sure-fire start for a sermon, as everyone loved the story of Job. He asked if it was fair of God to give his faithful servant over to the tempter out of morbid curiosity, as a child might catch a fly and drop it into a spider’s web, simply for the pleasure of watching the horrors that would follow. He left the question hanging, and moved on to Babylon and that terrible, disembodied hand, writing the unfathomable text on the wall of the palace: Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin. He asked why God would forsake an entire city and everyone in it. Were they all truly beyond redemption?—beyond the reach of even God’s infinite power, love, and grace? He left that question hanging as well. He ended the sermon with Jesus Christ crying out in despair to his father in heaven: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
He read it over to himself and had to admit that Forsaken by God was superior in every respect to The Impudent Weeds of Sin—but the best part of the sermon was what would happen after he gave it. He would look up at the congregation—let a moment of silence pass—let the tension build as they awaited his answer to Christ’s question—and then he would turn his back on them and walk away. He’d be halfway to You Bet before they realized the sermon was over.
A sabbath or two would pass, then they’d find a new pastor. As for Mrs. Hardwicke . . . it was regrettable.
Feeling strangely calm, he stood up from his writing table, stretched, and stepped out onto the front porch. The house that Pastor Hardwicke rented from Mr. Bailey was across a horse path and forty paces west of the church, and from where he stood, Pastor Hardwicke could see a boy, barefoot and dressed in ragged clothing (the word urchin came to his mind) digging up weeds in the churchyard with a case knife, and tossing them into a bucket.
Pastor Hardwicke felt an instant of staggering terror followed by a gradual denouement into relief, as a man does when he realizes he has narrowly escaped a horrifying and violent end. He was, finally, overwhelmed with joy. Though he had demonstrated unequivocally that he was not deserving, God had shown him mercy, and saved him from ruination in this life, and eternal damnation in the next. Pastor Hardwicke pulled his handkerchief out of his pocket, dabbed at his eyes and blew his nose. At the sound, the boy paused in his labors and looked up. Pastor Hardwicke waved. The boy made no returning gesture, but turned his back and squatted down, continuing to dig up the weeds and toss them into his bucket with the single-mindedness of a saint–or for that matter, a child.
Pastor Hardwicke went back inside to get his wife. When he returned to the porch in the company of Mrs. Hardwicke, the boy was no longer alone. From out of nowhere it seemed, a thick-necked man in a greasy black hat, riding a tall black horse with one white forefoot, had appeared, and he and the boy were engaged in conversation, though too far away for the pastor or his wife to hear what was being said.
“That must be Hodge Cogswell,” Mrs. Hardwicke said, “the man who rode into town on a blind horse last week. Everyone is talking about him. I heard he was staying at Mrs. Binney’s hotel—I wonder what he’s doing out here.”
“Yes, yes, it must be Cogswell,” Pastor Hardwicke said, “but what I wanted you to see was the boy–he was digging up weeds in the churchyard–he has a bucket-full there. He must have heard my sermon last Sunday. He took it rather literally, but surely I have . . . he has been set on the road to salvation.”
“The Impudent Weeds of Sin . . . you remember.”
“Oh . . . yes . . . of course,” Mrs. Hardwicke said, “but that’s Joe Malone—Hiram’s boy. Joe Malone has never seen the inside of a church that I ever heard of. I doubt Hiram would allow it—if the boy went to church, he’d soon learn to despise his father for his wickedness. May God bless Joe Malone for digging up weeds in the churchyard—but he didn’t get the idea from you.”
“Hiram Malone,” Pastor Hardwicke said, “he’s the rat catcher, isn’t he?”
“His daughter passed away not long ago—”
“Almost a year ago now. Poor little Evaline. Such a sweet child.”
“Kicked in the head by a horse—”
“That is what the men in this town say.”
“And what do the women in this town say?”
“There are chores to do.” And with that, Mrs. Hardwicke went back inside, leaving her husband alone on the porch.
With women, Pastor Hardwicke thought to himself, smiling, if it is out of sight, it is not just out of mind, it is entirely out of the realm of possibility. She does not recall that the windows of the church were wide open last Sunday morning. No doubt the child, grown weary of his wild ramblings, chose to rest himself a moment in the shade of the edifice his earthly father forbade him to enter, and there he heard my words. I may be a fool of a preacher, but by God’s grace, I have saved this poor child, and this poor child has saved me.
“What are you doing?” Cogswell said to the boy.
“Gathering pigweed,” the boy said. “What are you doing?”
“Looking for a property I heard of—the old Toomey place, people call it.”
“I decided I like this town. If the old Toomey place suits me, I think I’ll buy it and stay awhile. You know where it is?”
The boy pointed.
“Okay, thanks. What are you gathering pigweed for?”
“For my ma to cook for supper.”
“Pigweed’s gonna be your supper? That’s all?”
The boy shrugged.
“What’s your pa think about that?”
“Think about what?”
“Pigweed for supper.”
“He don’t care. He don’t eat.”
“Is he dead?”
“Naw, he ain’t dead. He drinks his supper from a bottle, is all.”
“Ah,” Cogswell said. He reached into a pocket of his jacket, retrieved a coin, and flipped it into the boy’s bucket. The boy dropped his knife, dug around in the bucket, and pulled out a quarter.
“That’s for showing me the way to the old Toomey place,” Cogswell said. “Now you go right to the butcher’s and buy as much beefsteak as you can get for that quarter. Take it straight to your ma. Don’t you go buy candy with it, you hear me?”
“What are you going to tell your ma when she asks you where you got the money?”
“I’ll tell her that the man who rides a blind horse gave it to me.”
“Naw, don’t say that. She’ll think it’s charity and it’ll put her off her vittles. You got any kin up in heaven?”
“My meemaw and my sister.”
“Okay, so what you’re gonna tell your ma is, you were digging up pigweed for supper in the churchyard when your sister came along and showed you where to dig. And you dug up that quarter, right where your sister pointed to. And your sister told you to buy beefsteak with it, and not candy. Can you do that?”
The boy nodded.
Cogswell looked at the boy for a moment, then said, “Would you like to earn another quarter?”
“Can you sneak out of your house at night, without your ma knowing?”
“You know how to heap up your blankets, in case your ma peeks in on you—”
“I ain’t stupid,” the boy said.
“Well, alright then,” Cogswell said. “Wait for me here after dark. I’ll have some work for you. Now go get that beefsteak, before the butcher’s shop closes.”
Hardwicke droned on and on, until, after an age:
And where the impudent weeds of sin are concerned, may God grant us the strength to be the reaper that o’rtakes the sower. Amen.
After the service, Mrs. Hardwicke, Widow Murray, and Mrs. Bailey collected in a knot in the churchyard. The topic of discussion was the notable absence of Miss McCormick and Miss Zuckerman. They were doubly concerned as the spinsters had also been absent from the previous Wednesday’s meeting of The Nilson Ladies Methodist Class. They had sent a note to Widow Murray, who hosted the weekly class, stating they would be unable to attend as they were “feeling somewhat all-overish.” Clearly, they were still laid up, and Mrs. Hardwicke was delegated to ride ‘round and check on them. Accordingly, Zeke was hitched to the Pastor’s gig, and Mrs. Hardwicke set off in the direction of the little cottage that Miss McCormick and Miss Zuckerman, out of financial necessity (or perhaps only spinsterly frugality), had shared for many years.
When Mrs. Hardwicke caught up to Boyd Stork, who was travelling the wagon road on foot, she believed that she would soon pass him, and that the distance between them would increase as steadily as it had decreased before their convergence. But the two did not part ways, and Mrs. Hardwicke couldn’t tell whether it was because Zeke had slowed down, or Boyd Stork had sped up. For his part, Boyd Stork stepped off the wagon road into the weeds to let the gig pass, but was otherwise so lost in his own thoughts that when the gig did not pass, he merely continued to walk along beside it, seemingly unaware of the awkward predicament he shared with Mrs. Hardwicke.
Mrs. Hardwicke longed to shake the reins, rousing Zeke to trot on a little quicker, but she dared not, for fear of giving the impression of rudeness, and besides that, she couldn’t help but recall that at the last meeting of The Nilson Ladies Methodist Class (the one Miss McCormick and Miss Zuckerman had missed), the topic of discussion was whether or not it was possible to hate the sin and love the sinner. Not only possible, she had said with conviction, it is a fundamental requirement of our faith. It occurred to her that God, in his infinite wisdom—and with his usual sly sense of humor—was testing her resolve on that subject.
“Mr. Stork,” she said finally, “as we are both going the same direction, and there may well be serpents hidden in the weeds, if you would like, you might . . . I mean, I would find it . . . there is room here . . .” Her words trailed off. Boyd Stork looked at her, for a moment puzzled, and then he smiled and said “Why thank you, ma’am. That is awful kind of you,” and in a moment, he was sitting beside her.
The two rode together in silence for some time, then Stork said, “Did you know I once preached the word, like your husband?”
“I didn’t,” Mrs. Hardwicke said.
“It was some years ago now,” Stork said. “I didn’t have a church of my own, but I rode all over Texas, preaching wherever I could find folks willing to listen. I am pleased to say, that by God’s grace, I converted well over a thousand souls. And I have not just their word for it—I have their signatures on paper! Well, I used to, I used to have . . .” Stork stopped speaking and looked down at his hands.
“You have done wonderful work, then, Mr. Stork. I never knew . . .”
“All credit is to the Lord, Ma’am,” Stork said.
“Yes, of course,” Mrs. Hardwicke replied. “How did you come to be a preacher?”
“It’s a long story, Mrs. Hardwicke.”
“It’s a long way to town, Mr. Stork.”
“That’s true, Mrs. Hardwicke. Well, I guess I should start with my father. He was a rather unsuccessful sheep farmer near Corsicana—an unhappy man who felt himself constantly antagonized and swindled by what he called the ‘self-appointed authorities.’ These ‘self-appointed authorities’ were legion, and included politicians, lawyers, surveyors, and neighbors. Even worse than the ‘self-appointed authorities’, in my father’s estimation, were their ‘fart-catching lackies’, chief among them County Sheriff Jesse Henderson, with whom my father had had many an unpleasant encounter.
“My father had little interest in education, either for himself or his children, but my mother insisted that my brother and I be taught to read and write, and my father allowed it. We had one book in the house, a Bible, and that was our lesson book as I grew up. I was a quick study, and by the time I was nine years old, I could cite chapter and verse with the best of them. But it was all just fanciful tales and fine-sounding words to me—I had no inkling of their deeper significance, where my immortal soul was concerned.
“One day my pa went to cut a fence, and took me along to help. The fence belonged to Ike Clark. Ike Clark was Meyer Clark’s father, and Meyer Clark was my very best friend. Mr. Clark was out at the fence that day, replacing some posts. My father went to cutting the fence, right under Ike Clark’s nose, and Clark said, ‘You know the law has ruled in my favor, Stork, and you can’t cut this fence.’ ‘I have come here to cut this fence,’ my father replied, ‘and I will cut this fence, and there ain’t a damn thing you or that fart-catcher Henderson can do about it.’ And with that, my father drew a pistol and pointed it at Mr. Clark.
“I had learned early on that if I wanted to avoid a whooping, I should not speak to my father unless spoken to, and never give my father any suggestion for a course of action—especially not a course of action clearly at odds with his intentions. But I was concerned that Meyer Clark might not wish to be my friend any longer, should my pa shoot his pa, so in desperation, and resigned to whatever punishment I might get for it, I cried out, ‘Please, Pa, don’t shoot Mr. Clark!’
“My father instantly turned his anger—and the pistol—in my direction. ‘I guess it’s true what they say,’ my father said, ‘a man’s worst enemies are the men of his own house.’
“Seeing that my father was momentarily distracted, Mr. Clark took the opportunity to knock him in the skull with a tamping rod he was holding. My father fell to the ground, writhing and groaning. He still clutched the pistol in his hand, but it seemed to me he had been rendered harmless, at least for the moment, and perhaps that should have been the end of it. But Mr. Clark was a kind and gentle man, and unaccustomed as he was to meting out blows with tamping rods, he was uncertain as to how much was a full measure, and how much a surfeit. He proceeded to tamp my father’s head into the dirt, until nothing was left of it but a muddy slurry of brains, bone, and blood.”
“Oh, terrible! terrible! Mr. Stork!” Mrs. Hardwicke cried out, “to see such a thing, and at such a tender age!”
“You have grown quite pale, Mrs. Hardwicke. It would be wrong of me to continue. In fact, I’ll just jump down here and wait on the path until—”
But Mrs. Hardwicke, horrified as she was, was at the same time already considering how best to bring up the subject of the remarkable and edifying story of the rise and fall of Mr. Stork at the next meeting of The Nilson Ladies Methodist Class.
“I won’t hear of it, Mr. Stork,” she said. “I mean, I will hear of how you became a preacher, and I will not hear of your walking so far on such a hot day, when there is room on this bench beside me, and we are both going the same direction. If I did, I could never again call myself a Christian. Please continue, Mr. Stork.”
“As you wish, Mrs. Hardwicke. I was sure Mr. Clark would hang for my father’s murder, and afraid that I might accompany him on the gallows as an accomplice. But Sheriff Henderson spoke to Mr. Clark, and to me, and was satisfied that Mr. Clark had only acted in defense of his life and mine, and declined even to hold him for a hearing.
“As my mother had flown to heaven some years earlier, when my father followed after her—or went the other way—my brother and I were left orphans. Feeling terrible about what he’d done, Mr. Clark thought it only right that he adopt us. So my brother and I soon had a new family, which included my best friend, Meyer Clark. Mr. and Mrs. Clark loved the three of us all alike, and showed ‘their boys’ nothing but the utmost kindness and affection. I look back on those years as among the happiest of my life.”
“And was it the Clarks,” Mrs. Hardwicke said, “who furthered your spiritual development?”
Stork laughed and shook his head. “Oh, no, Mrs. Hardwicke. Mr. and Mrs. Clark were heathens through and through—Mr. Clark especially. The only thing I ever saw that put him on the prod—short of having a pistol shoved in his face—was anyone who tried to convert him, or talk to him about what a blessing the Lord was in their lives. He would grow red in the face and thunder away at them for their ‘savage superstitions’ until they retreated in alarm.
“Oddly enough, it was my mother who ‘furthered my spiritual development’, as you put it. I went often to the grave-yard to visit her. I liked to think I might one day see her again in heaven. I was worried, though, as I had no clear idea how to reserve my place there. She came to me in a dream one night, bewinged and surrounded by a host of attending angels, and explained to me exactly how it was done. But when I awoke, I couldn’t remember a word she’d said, and I was devastated.
“Naturally, I didn’t mention any of this to Mr. Clark. I did, once, in a joking manner, ask my brother if he was at all concerned about where his soul would spend eternity. He said even if there was a heaven and a hell, which he doubted, all the best sort would go to hell, so who would want to go anywhere else?
“Regardless of Mr. Clark’s disdain and my brother’s apathy, my religious feelings grew and grew in me, an itch I couldn’t scratch—at least, not in public. I would sometimes run into a field of corn, or into the thick brush near a creek, so I could pray unseen. I had not even been taught how to pray properly, Mrs. Hardwicke. I would get on my knees and raise my eyes to heaven and say, I’m not as bad as some. You should let me into heaven when I die, so I can see my mother. To pray like that afforded me some relief, but I always had the feeling it wasn’t enough.
“Then one day when I was seventeen, an acquaintance of mine, a youth of enviable health and vigor, was killed by bees. It struck me then, Mrs. Hardwicke—how tenuous is our hold on this world!—how perilous to tarry in making preparations for the next! The following Sunday found me attending a church service for the first time in my life.
“As I seated myself in a pew towards the back, I had high hopes of learning how to reserve my place in heaven. What I got instead was a parable about a crawdad burrowing through an earthen dam. It required a herculean effort on my part to stay awake to the end of it, which I only did out of hope that at some point, I would receive the instruction I had come for. I did not. So great was my disappointment that when I walked out of church that morning, I swore to myself that I would never walk into another.
“But the good Lord had other plans for me. A few days later, Mr. Clark said that he had heard of my attendance at church, and since I loved sermons so much, he was going to take me to one. That evening, he took me to a place called Lem’s Saloon. The tables were all pushed aside, and the chairs set in rows before a lectern. Had I ever been in a saloon before, the arrangement might have struck me as peculiar. We took a seat near the front, and soon, every seat was occupied—a boisterous crowd that fell into an expectant silence when a well-dressed gentleman walked up to the lectern. He was a big man—a powerful man—and I recognized him at once. He sat next to me at the service I had attended the previous Sunday. He had been quite attentive, and I had observed him taking copious pencil-notes during the entire sermon.
“Now he stood before us and gave us what was, in essence, the very same parable I had heard the previous Sunday, with the addition of many humorous asides, and great exaggeration of the preacher’s habits of poise and gesture. And unlike the preacher, whose delivery had been restrained to the point of being dainty, this muscular imitator had the oratorial vigor of a locomotive, and he put his powerful voice to good use. He turned red in the face and pounded his fist on the lectern as he excoriated the crawdad for undermining the hard work of honest, god-fearing men, and for sending a miller, his wife, and his ninety-seven children to the poorhouse.
“The ‘flock’, which had been drinking resolutely since before the sermon began, were howling with laughter, and it seemed impossible they could be more amused—until a man dressed as a crawdad appeared, and hopped, tail first, towards the lectern. When he got there, he began a vigorous defense of his right to provide for his family. The discussion soon devolved into a violent scuffle, with the muscular gentleman howling in feigned terror and pain when the crawdad placed a giant felt pincer around his neck.
“And as if that weren’t enough, a third figure introduced himself into the drama—a preacher waving a pistol. ‘I will not suffer the chalice of my righteousness,’ the preacher exclaimed, ‘forged by my own hand in the fire of my own faith, to be assaulted by the cruel sledgehammer of mockery, and beaten into a sword to be wielded by the armies of the devil!’
“As I had learned when I attended his sermon, Mrs. Hardwicke, this preacher had a tendency towards longwindedness.
“The unruly flock quieted down considerably—all except for Mr. Clark, who continued to guffaw loudly. I believe Mr. Clark thought this preacher was simply another player in the panto. The preacher turned his pistol towards him. ‘Shut your mouth, heathen, or you will laugh yourself straight to hell’ he said, but Mr. Clark only laughed louder than ever. ‘Let’s see if you can laugh yourself back out again,’ the preacher said, and shot him.
“Mr. Clark’s death was so instantaneous that his features had no time to relax, and the look of idiotic amusement on his face at the moment the lead ball passed through his heart was perfectly preserved there, as immutable as a photograph.
“By the time Mr. Clark was laid to rest—a laughing corpse—the transformation in me was complete. I had surrendered myself, my entire being, everything I ever was or ever would be, to the Rightful Prince.”
“No wonder,” Mrs. Hardwicke said, “having seen close-up the hand of God at work in the judgement of heaven upon an impious man.”
“Oh, no, Mrs. Hardwicke. That’s not what I saw at all. I loved Mr. Clark. He was more of a father to me than my real father had ever been. What I saw that evening was murder most foul, perpetrated by a preacher who could discourse for hours upon a crawdad burrowing its way through an earthen dam, and never see how vanity had so riddled his soul with corruption that he would rather break God’s commandment, and soak his hands in the blood of an innocent man, than be the butt of a harmless joke. Have you ever heard the saying, Mrs. Hardwicke, that by the grace of God, a foolish preacher may save the soul of a foolish sinner?”
“I haven’t,” Mrs. Hardwicke said.
“Another thing that is sometimes said is that the weapon most effective against the devil is his own. So it was in my case.”
“What weapon are you referring to, Mr. Stork?”
Boyd Stork pulled the whiskey-flask out of the inner pocket of his jacket, and held it up for Mrs. Hardwicke to see. It glinted in the sunlight.
Mrs. Hardwicke shrank back. “Liquor, Mr. Stork? I hardly think liquor . . . !”
As the opportunity had presented itself, Stork took a drink before returning the flask to his pocket. Mrs. Hardwicke, who could smell the fumes, looked away, scowling.
“I understand your skepticism, Mrs. Hardwicke,” Stork said, wiping his mouth with his sleeve, “but I assure you, it’s the truth. A short while before the crawdad showed up—that is, the man dressed as a crawdad—”
“Mr. Stork,” Mrs. Hardwicke said firmly, “I’ve heard enough. Intoxicating liquors are a poison that has ruined the lives of millions, and never once saved a soul—of that I am certain. To say otherwise—even to listen to such dangerous nonsense—is tantamount to taking food from the mouth of a starving child, and speeding some poor soul to its eternal damnation. I will have nothing to do with it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Boyd Stork said softly.
“I understand you will be residing in the lockup tonight.”
“We are nearly to Green Hill. We will part company there, as you may walk through, but I must ride around.”
As Mrs. Hardwicke believed that silence would best express her disapproval of Mr. Stork and his loathsome habit, she resolved she would not speak a word to him until they got to Green Hill, and then only May the good Lord watch over you, Mr. Stork, or some such. Whatever it was, it would be said very coolly.
On Wednesday, Sarah Malone sharpened the axe. The axe was rusty, the grindstone dusty. No telling what Hiram would do to her if he caught her in the tool shed—he’d certainly want to know what she was up to. The cart had a squeaky wheel—she’d hear him coming and clear out. But would she hear the cartwheel over the grinding? If it came to it, she’d tell him she was sharpening the axe to kill a skunk. He’d believe her, because going after a skunk with an axe was just the sort of stupidity he’d expect of her. He’d laugh at her—then probably beat her for spoiling his tools.
She went back inside the house and returned to the tool shed with a tea kettle. She sat at the grindstone with the axe in her lap, and plying the treadle with her foot, poured water from the tea kettle onto the spinning stone. When the stone was slaked, she set about sharpening the axe. It surprised her how quickly the rust gave way before the stone, revealing bright, fresh steel just underneath. There was something satisfying about it—something that gave her hope. She ground out the nicks and cleaned the bit from heel to toe, then took her foot off the treadle and tested the edge with her thumb—plenty sharp enough for any ordinary axe-work.
She brought the axe inside the house, and sitting at the kitchen table, gently worked the edge across the oil stone she used to sharpen her kitchen knives. Her heart thudded painfully in her chest when a figure appeared in the doorway—but it was only Joe, with his bucket.
“What are you sharpening the axe for?” he said.
“I mean to kill a skunk that’s been coming around and stinking the place up.”
“I ain’t seen a skunk around here.”
“I ain’t smelled one, neither.”
“I don’t know if I would go after a skunk with an axe.”
“I don’t plan to get close—I’m going to throw it at him. Now, show me what you found for us today.”
Joe stepped forward, thrust his hand into his bucket, and pulled out something wrapped in butcher’s paper. Blood that had soaked through one corner dripped onto the floor.
Mrs. Hardwicke was a strong woman—a determined woman. When necessary, she could even be a hard woman, but she had a weakness, and she knew it, as her husband often pointed it out to her: she was overly fond of gossip. He called it gossip, she called it enlightening conversation. To be in the company of a person with an interesting story—even a dissipated person—and not converse—it was a trial for her—a torment—but she would bear it. For Boyd Stork’s own good.
Clop clop clop clop clop
Mrs. Hardwicke noted with pride that her husband kept his gig in excellent repair. The axles were well-greased—the wheels turned without a sound.
Clop clop clop clop clop
How strangely quiet the prairie was this morning. Not a bird singing or a cicada buzzing. The only sound she heard was the steady clopping of Zeke’s hooves on the hard-packed dirt. Such a soothing, tranquil sound.
Clop clop clop clop clop
How ominously quiet the prairie was this morning, as though a panther was slinking through the tall grass—or an Indian! Alarmed, she almost voiced her concerns to her travelling companion—but what help would a sot like Boyd Stork be, in a time of peril? She calmed herself, looked around, and saw nothing out of the ordinary.
Clop clop clop clop clop
Soon enough, Mr. Stork was bound to attempt to engage her in conversation. She would ignore him. Then he would understand the disdain a respectable woman has for . . . that sort of talk.
Clop clop clop clop clop
She glanced over at Mr. Stork, who was staring off into the distance. No doubt he thought himself very clever, pretending he didn’t know he was being ignored.
Clop clop clop clop clop
How peculiarly quiet it was! Not even breeze enough to rustle the grass! She smiled to herself triumphantly—the whole prairie had silenced itself in sympathy with her cause!
Clop clop clop clop clop
How quiet the prairie was. How
Clop clop clop clop clop
Clop clop clop clop clop
QUIET IT WAS “It is some miles yet to Green Hill,” Mrs. Hardwicke said.
“On reflection, I believe my abhorrence of intoxicating liquors caused me to speak to you with unnecessary harshness.”
Mrs. Hardwicke gave Boyd Stork a sharp look, then returned her gaze to Zeke’s sleek, auburn ears. “Though I remain skeptical, I would hear how you believe liquor was used as a weapon against the devil,” she said.
“Are you sure, Mrs. Hardwicke?”
“Please continue,” Mrs. Hardwicke said.
“Yes, ma’am,” Stork said. “Well, as I was listening to the mock sermon, I happened to look down and saw in my hands an uncorked, full-to-the-neck bottle of Texas whiskey. I don’t know how I came to possess it. It must have been handed to me at some point. Perhaps I was meant to pass it along. However it happened, it was there, and it was hot in that saloon, and I was terribly thirsty, so I took a drink—a substantial swallow. Until that moment, I had never before tasted a drop of intoxicating liquor of any sort, and I was unprepared for the effect it would have on me.
“It burned, Mrs. Hardwicke—burned something awful—and I could feel the fire spreading throughout my anatomy—scorching my innards like a torch thrust into the darkest recesses of my being. And when next I looked upon the mock preacher, I saw him appareled in a celestial light. Every word that mock preacher spoke, though in essence the same as I had heard with complete indifference the previous Sunday, plucked at my soul like the ivory fingernail of an angel upon a silvered string of her harp.
“I understood him perfectly. We allow our small sins to go unchecked at the peril of our immortal souls. They weaken our moral fortitude like a crawdad burrowing through an earthen dam, and yet, we refuse to take notice. In our deliberate ignorance, we see only the calm and unruffled surface of the waters until it is too late, and it all comes spilling out, and we are lost in the flood.
“And when the ‘crawdad’ arrived on the scene to make his case, I recognized him at once for what he was—not a man wearing the shell of a crustacean, but the devil wearing the shell of a man. And oh! he made a clever argument in his own defense—doesn’t he always, Mrs. Hardwicke? Isn’t it the case that a mere speck of cleverness is all that is ever needed to justify the most egregious sin?
“For seventeen years, the good Lord had been trying to get through to me, and I finally heard him. By the grace of God, and with the help of the devil’s own weapon, a fool of a preacher saved the soul of a foolish sinner. After a brief stint with the Texas Army during the war, I went to Hampden-Sydney in Virginia to prepare for the ministry, and when my education was complete, I returned to Texas to spread the gospel on the frontier. And it may please you to know, Mrs. Hardwicke, that after that first taste of liquor at Lem’s Saloon, I never took another drink—not for . . . not for a very long time.”
“That is indeed a remarkable and edifying story,” Mrs. Hardwicke said, “and, Mr. Stork, you tell it very well. It is the sort of story others should hear. Have you ever considered taking up preaching again?”
Boyd Stork smiled sadly and shook his head.
“That fire still burns in you, Mr. Stork—of that I’m certain, and you don’t need liquor to fuel it—if you’d only try—”
“That is awful kind of you to say, Mrs. Hardwicke, but this town has all the preachers it needs, and if I were to find employment elsewhere, what would Mrs. Clark do? She depends on me very much these days. Ever since her sister went to her reward, Mrs. Clark has no one but me to care for her.”
Mrs. Hardwicke, who prided herself on knowing everyone in Nilson, could not recollect a Mrs. Clark—and then she did—though she had never actually met her, and it had been many years since she’d even heard the name. Mrs. Clark was an invalid cared for by her sister—a Mrs. Tilbury. Mrs. Clark was never seen, and Mrs. Tilbury had only spoken of her when extricating herself from a conversation, which she was in the habit of doing almost as soon as one was started. Usually she would say, Well, Mrs. Clark will be expecting her supper, though sometimes she would say instead, Well, Annie Faye will be expecting her supper—in either case, she would say it and then hurry away. When Mrs. Tilbury passed, it had not occurred to Mrs. Hardwicke to wonder what became of the invalid. The truth was, she had come to doubt the existence of Annie Faye Clark.
“You take care of her?” Mrs. Hardwicke said.
“And when you’re in the lockup?”
“I worry. She can’t do a thing for herself now, and is in constant decline. Dr. Sutton says her brain is melting like lard in a cooking pot, due to heat generated by the incessant gyrations of the syphilitic virus, which has taken up permanent residence in her cerebral cavity.”
“Oh dear,” Mrs. Hardwicke said. “You do a great kindness in caring for her. I can only imagine how difficult it must be.”
“We have good days and bad days,” Boyd Stork said. “A good day is when she thinks I’m her son, Meyer Clark, finally returned from the war. A bad day is when she thinks I’m Boyd Stork, and I murdered him.”
“What in the world would lead her to think you murdered her son?”
“One of her more persistent delusions, Mrs. Hardwicke. I have tried to explain to her that it is simply impossible that I could have shot him on purpose, as I was in my tent, and he in his, forty yards distant. I have shown her the papers—the records of my court-martial—wherein it is clearly stated that I failed to discharge my weapon upon being relieved on the picket line, resulting in the accidental—the accidental—death of Captain Meyer Clark, when the rifle was discharged accidentally, as I set it down upon a crate in my tent. I have shown her those papers repeatedly—but to no avail. Her mind is too far gone to understand.”
“Is that why you drink, Mr. Stork—because of the bad days?”
“It’s another long story, Mrs. Hardwicke, and we are very nearly to Green Hill anyway, and I have taken more advantage of your kindness than is proper already. I’ll jump down here—”
“Please, Mr. Stork,” Mrs. Hardwicke said.
There was only a sliver of a moon, but that was light enough for a blind horse.
“Get off,” Cogswell said. “You can walk the rest of the way.”
Joe Malone slid off the back of the horse.
“You know what’ll happen to you if you tell anyone.”
Joe Malone held out his hand, palm up.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Cogswell said.
“Give me my quarter.”
“I already gave it to you.”
“Sure I did—when you were digging up pigweed in the churchyard.”
“You said you’d give me another.”
“I never said that, you little liar. You know what I oughta do? I oughta . . .”
In the distance, a horse snorted and shook its reins. Cogswell listened. He could hear the regular creak of a wagon wheel turning. Hours after midnight, practically pitch black, and someone was driving a wagon down this wagon road out in the middle of goddamn nowhere. Just his luck. He reached into his pocket and tossed a quarter to the boy.
“There’s your goddamn quarter,” Cogswell said. “One word out of your mouth about any of this and I’ll cut your damn tongue out—you understand me?”
“Now get the hell outa here.” Cogswell turned his horse and disappeared into the darkness.
Joe Malone, who knew from the sound of the approaching wagon that it was his father’s, crouched down in a patch of high weeds just off the wagon road and waited. When the wagon was close enough for Joe to see that no one was sitting up on the bench, he stepped forward, and whispering to the horse, he caught hold of the reins and brought the wagon to a gentle halt. He climbed carefully and quietly up onto the bench and looked in the bed of the wagon. His father was curled up in the back in drunken slumber, completely covered over in a moth-eaten woolen blanket, except for one arm that stuck out and was slung protectively around a cage full of agitated rats. “Go on, Bonnie,” Joe whispered to the horse, and gave the reins the most delicate of flicks. Bonnie dutifully continued her journey towards home.
Shortly before they got there, Joe jumped down from the wagon, and let it precede him by a good twenty paces.
“You’ve probably never heard of Geranium,” Boyd Stork said, “but maybe you’ve heard of Hearne—Geranium was just a few miles north of Hearne. I had the coziest little house in Geranium, and was married to the sweetest little wife, and we had the cutest little girl—and I was hardly ever home. Like I said, I didn’t have a church of my own, but travelled all over Texas, saving souls. I was in high demand. Anywhere there was a church where the congregation was drifting away bit by bit, I was called upon to preach, because it was well-known that I could bring in a crowd and get ‘em all fired up about our savior again. And I always got a good number of converts, and I wouldn’t take their word for it—I’d make ‘em sign a paper promising to surrender everything they ever were and ever would be over to The Rightful Prince, just as I had done, that fateful evening at Lem’s Saloon. I never asked for money for my preaching, but gladly took what was gladly given, and Providence saw to it that it was always enough.
“I was at supper one night with Dr. Daniel Baker, with whom I was boarding while I preached a series of sermons at his church in Ennis. I’d been on the road for some months by then. Dr. Baker was an old friend, and knew me well, and he noted with concern how reserved I was at the table. Without thinking, I blurted out that I missed my wife and daughter so badly I thought my heart would break. He told me it was time for me to go home. I told him I couldn’t possibly—I had made so many commitments—had so many souls yet to save—but he and his wife spoke to me with great compassion backed up by sensible thinking, and in the morning, I was packing my bags for home.
“Ennis isn’t far from Corsicana, where my brother lived with his wife, and eager as I was to get home, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to visit him, as a year and more had passed since I last saw him. As an added incentive, a train depot had recently been built in Geranium, and it was possible to board a train in Corsicana that would take me all the way to Geranium—near a hundred miles in less than four hours! I had never been on a train before, and I was looking forward to experiencing this marvelous new mode of transportation.
“When I arrived at my brother’s house, late in the afternoon, he wasn’t home. His wife told me he had gone to meet with some comrades of his, who were gathering to fire off a cannon, to mark the occasion of the death of Major William Dowling, under whom they’d served in the war.
“I sat on the porch with my sister-in-law while we awaited my brother’s return. We talked mostly of my travels around Texas, and the great success I had had in saving souls. She told me of her fear that the one soul she cared for most in the world would never be saved—my brother’s. It was a fear well-justified. When Mr. Clark died at the hands of a vainglorious preacher, my brother’s apathy towards Christianity hardened into loathing—so much so that even I had long ago given up on converting him.
“Our conversation was interrupted by a thunderous boom. My brother’s wife smiled and said, ‘My husband will be home soon.’
“Indeed he was. A quarter hour later his companions brought him home on a stretcher. They told us he was ramming a charge into a rifled gun when the charge went off. The blast blew off his hands, blew an eye out of his head, and shattered the bones of his arms in a thousand places.
“A physician examined my brother and gave him morphine. He told us my brother would not live through the night, then he left us, and his wife and I were alone with him, with nothing to do but to watch over him and keep him as comfortable as possible in the last hours of his life.
“When my brother’s companions brought him home on the stretcher, he had between his knees a small wooden box made to resemble a clapboard church. When I assisted his companions as they lifted my brother off the stretcher and onto the bed, I took the box and placed it on a chest of drawers, then promptly forgot about it. Now I saw it again, and wondered what its significance might be.
“Upon examining the church, I saw that the roof was hinged, and I knew then it was a child’s toy. I had seen some like it in my travels—a thing often given as a reward to a child for an exemplary recitation at Sunday-school. Such a toy would generally come with a dozen or so little wooden worshippers, and one little wooden preacher. You can imagine the terrific effect it had on me, when I tilted back the roof of this church, peered into it, and saw that it contained my brother’s ‘effects’, arranged in the only manner the dimensions of the box would allow: his hands, palms together and set on edge as though in prayer, left just enough space in the box for his eye, which looked imploringly heavenward.
“I don’t know who it was who deprived some child of its beloved prize, in order to meet the pressing need, or what became of the little wooden congregation that must have been precipitously evicted from their place of worship in order to make room for mutilated flesh and bone. All I can say is, I was never more certain that this was providence at work, and I knew instantly what I was meant to do. I informed my brother’s wife of my reasoning and my intentions, and she was in perfect agreement.
“I pulled a chair up next to my brother’s bedside on one side, and she on the other. She put a gentle hand on his shoulder, and I began to preach. He became angry with us, and demanded that we leave him alone. When we refused to leave him, he argued with us—told us that science had taken the place of religious superstition in this modern, enlightened age. When his arguments failed to deter us, he wept and begged us to let him die in peace—but that was something I could not do—not when God himself had enlisted my help in saving his immortal soul from eternal damnation.
“There was but one moment when I doubted myself. I had all but forgotten that my brother had learned his Bible at our mother’s knee, just as I had. When I told him that his many sins in this life would be a terrible burden in the next—a weight that would drag him down into the flames of hell, he replied:
How long will ye vex my soul, and break me in pieces with words? Have pity upon me, have pity upon me, O ye my brother; for the hand of God hath touched me. He hath destroyed me on every side, and I am gone.
“I faltered. I hesitated. Was I no better a friend to my brother in his time of trouble, than Job’s ‘friends’ had been to him? Should I comfort him, rather than rebuke him? Had the light of my righteousness illuminated my brother’s sins—but blinded me to his suffering?
“I looked to his wife. She knew my thoughts exactly. ‘It is clearly the design of providence,’ she said, ‘that you were sent here to be with my husband at this time, for this purpose—indeed, it seems to me your whole life was but a preparation for this moment, and however much you must torment your brother now, he will thank you when you meet again in heaven.’
“Thus reassured, I redoubled my efforts, and shortly before dawn, I could feel the tide of the battle had turned in my favor. Just at sunrise, my brother swore to me that he was converted. His wife and I wept for joy, and thanked our Lord for his mercy. I told my brother his suffering would soon end, to be replaced with eternal bliss, as he joined our mother in heaven.
“He made no reply.
“I assisted my brother’s widow with the funeral arrangements, gave the oration myself, then boarded the train for home. I grieved the loss of my dear friend and brother, though it was grief tempered with the certainty that we would meet again in glory. I felt concern for his widow as she faced the difficult days ahead. I felt wonder—and more than a little trepidation—at this marvelous beast, humbly designated Regular Passenger Train #8, with its carapace of iron and its heart of fire, as it whisked me and my fellow passengers across the plains at a terrifying velocity. But above all else, I felt a joyful contentment, knowing I would soon be home, reunited at long last with my wife and daughter.
“Late in the evening, as we were passing through a high and rolling prairie, our encounter with a violent storm caused night to fall upon us with great suddenness. Lightning flashed all around us, illuminating low and roiling clouds, and the passenger car was lashed with rain and pelted with hail. Every so often, a gust of wind would jolt us with such force that I feared it would blow the car off the tracks. My fellow passengers, no doubt more experienced with this mode of transportation than I was, seemed to take little notice.
“I soon had worries of another sort, when the train began to slow, and I heard a brakeman cry out ‘Hearne Station!’
“I stepped off the train fuming—determined to find the engineer and demand an explanation as to why he had failed to stop at Geranium. It turned out I wasn’t the only one who wanted to know. I found the engineer on the platform, in the company of the station master, conductor, fireman, and two brakemen, in heated discussion upon that very subject.
“When I approached the railroad men, they ceased their deliberations and looked on me, an outsider, with annoyance and suspicion, until the conductor took my elbow and said, in a commendatory manner, ‘He’s the one,’ meaning, I suppose, that I was the one passenger who was supposed to disembark at Geranium. These credentials were sufficient to admit me into their inner circle for the moment, and the conversation started up where it left off, unhindered by my presence.
“The engineer insisted he had seen no Geranium Station mile post, no Geranium Station whistle post, and no Geranium Station. The first inkling he had that he had missed Geranium Station was when he saw the Hearne Station mile post. He said no fog or smoke had obscured his view. He swore he had not nodded off. As there seemed to be no use in pursuing the matter further at the moment, the conversation turned to what was to be done with me. The station master said I could sleep on a cot in his office that night, and in the morning, a wagon would be procured to take me and my belongings back to Geranium, all at the expense of the Texas and Pacific Railway Company.
“But such a feeling of foreboding had settled in me by then that I declined the generous offer of the Texas and Pacific Railway Company and asked the station master instead for a lantern, and said I would walk the seven miles back to Geranium that night—my belongings could be sent after me in the morning.
“‘Seven point two three,’ said the station master. He counseled me against walking to Geranium in the middle of the night, but I insisted, and eventually, with grave misgivings, he gave me a lantern, telling me that if I would be so kind as to leave it—unlit, mind you!—in the coalbin at Geranium Station when I was done with it, it would find its way back to him.
“I took the straightest possible path from Hearne to Geranium—in other words, I walked the crossties of the Texas and Pacific Railway Company. The storm had mostly moved on, the sky clear, except for an occasional cloud that seemed to be in as great a hurry as I was, making its way under its own lamplight—that of a pale half-moon.
“When I walked across the trestle over Geranium Creek, I knew I couldn’t be far from Geranium—but I might have passed it by anyway, just as the engineer had done, if I hadn’t heard the cries of the trapped, the injured, and the dying. The storm that rocked the cars of Regular Passenger Train #8 had spawned a cyclone, and that cruel child had plucked the town of Geranium from the earth, then tossed it down again.
“I left the tracks and walked into what was left of Geranium. Every step I took was difficult and treacherous, as the ground was strewn over with boards, shingles, and slate blasted from houses, all churned together with branches stripped from trees. I very nearly stepped into the middle of an enormous writhing tangle of rattlesnakes, the shed or outbuilding they were sheltering beneath lifted up and tossed aside by the cyclone. I saw a horse lying dead in the street, the unfortunate creature impaled through the heart by the spire and vane that had graced the roof of the Geranium Baptist Church.
“Where my house once stood, there was nothing. I shouted out the names of my wife and daughter, and heard no reply—no reply from them, anyway. I confess, Mrs. Hardwicke, that as I continued my search, I ignored piteous cries of help from those who heard me calling out, or saw the light of my lantern.
“When the sun rose in the morning, I found myself in a pasture some miles outside of town, and how I got there is more than I can tell. I still gripped the lantern, though it had long ago grown cold. Underneath a particularly large and thorny bois d’arc tree, which the cyclone had stripped of leaves, I succumbed to exhaustion. When next I opened my eyes, the sun had risen considerably higher, and the shadows cast by the thorny branches of the bois d’arc were all around me. Caught up in those shadows I saw two dark shapes—shapes that might, in the mind of a man nearly out of his mind with worry, be construed as elongated silhouettes of his wife and child.
“I did not look up, Mrs. Hardwicke. Perhaps that seems strange to you. But I believed that as long as I didn’t look up—as long as all I saw were those shadows, the horror they represented was not realized. They could mean one thing . . . or something else entirely. A shadow can be like a mighty king upon a stage—in truth, nothing more than a tin crown resting upon the head of an insignificant pretender. Reality remained malleable—the word of God, unspoken—as long as I didn’t look up.
“I got on my knees before those shadows and I prayed. I wracked my brains to recall any sin, no matter how small, that I was guilty of, and begged God for his forgiveness and mercy. As the sun rose in the sky, and the long shadows condensed into figures that increasingly resembled those of my wife and daughter, I prayed ever more fervently. Around noon, I was approached by two men—a couple of hardware drummers who had been at work in a nearby town, heard of the disaster in Geranium, and had come to see what they could do to help.
“They thought I was injured, and attempted to help me to my feet. I begged them to leave me alone—to let me pray in peace for just one more hour. I begged them, above all, not to look up. They thought I’d gone mad—they thought the terrors of the storm had robbed me of my sanity. Perhaps they were right. And naturally, as soon as I asked them not to look up, they did so, and the die was cast.
“‘Buck,’ one of the drummers said to the other, ‘go see if you can find a ladder.’
“Buck went to find a ladder. The other drummer sat down next to me. He put his arm around my shoulder as I wept. After a while, he reached into his jacket and pulled out a whiskey-flask and handed it to me. I unscrewed the lid and took a drink—the first taste of intoxicating liquor I’d had since that evening at Lem’s Saloon. When I tried to return the flask to him, he held up his hands and said, ‘Why don’t you keep it, mister—you’re gonna need it more than me.’
“I kept it, Mrs. Hardwicke.”
Boyd Stork once again pulled the flask from his pocket. He took a long drink. “I say a little blessing for that gentleman every time I take a sip,” Stork said, “though I never learned his name. I say, Dear Lord, bless that hardware drummer that gave me this silver flask in my time of need. I bet he must be the most blessed man in the world. Here we are at Green Hill. Thank you, Mrs. Hardwicke, for your kindness today. May the Good Lord watch over you and yours.”
When Sarah Malone heard Bonnie kicking at the gate, she got up, lit the lantern, and dressed herself. She quietly peeked into the room where Joe slept. He was a motionless lump under the covers. Evaline’s appearance in the churchyard made perfect sense to her now: after a hard day of scavenging, a dinner of hot beefsteak was a sure-fire way to see to it that the boy would sleep like the dead. Sarah Malone went outside, opened the gate, and let Bonnie pull the wagon through. Then she unhitched Bonnie from the wagon and led her into the fenced-in pasture. She went back to the wagon and gently lifted the cage of rats away from Hiram and out of the wagon. Hiram’s arm disappeared under the blanket with the rest of him. After putting the rats in the rat shed, Sarah Malone went to the tool shed and got the axe, then climbed into the wagon with it, pulled the blanket off of Hiram, and threw it aside. Hiram opened one eye.
“What the hell are you doing with my blanket?” Hiram said.
Had she hesitated for a moment, Hiram could have—but she did not hesitate, not even for a moment.
Hiram raised his hands before him. Had the axe not been so sharp, perhaps—but the axe was terribly sharp.
Had the blows not fallen so swiftly, Hiram might have—but the blows did fall swiftly, one after the next.
Had Sarah Malone rested after a half-dozen blows, maybe Hiram—but Sarah Malone did not rest after a half-dozen blows. In fact, she did not stop until she had delivered a full score of blows, and only then because she buried the axe in Hiram’s shoulder bone with such force that the handle broke.
Just as she rolled Hiram into the hole in the flower bed, the boy stepped into the light of the lantern.
“Joe . . .” Sarah Malone said.
Joe stepped up to the hole and threw some fingers into it, then picked up the shovel Sarah Malone had set nearby, and with the single-mindedness of a child—or for that matter, a saint—set to work shoveling dirt over Hiram.
“What do you think?” Pastor Hardwicke said.
Mrs. Hardwicke handed the pages back to him. “It’s very good,” she said, “maybe your best.”
“That’s what I thought,” Pastor Hardwicke said, pleased.
“How are you going to end it?”
“You can’t ask the question and not answer it.”
“No,” Mrs. Hardwicke said emphatically.
“I suppose you’re right,” Pastor Hardwicke sighed. “Well, I’ll think of something.”