/ Language: English / Genre:sf_postapocalyptic,

The Zona

Nathan Yocum

Praise for The Zona: “The Zona is a brutal glimpse into a post apocalyptic world that is all too plausible… If you enjoy your apocalyptic fiction gritty and with a hint of the new old-west, The Zona will blow you away.” — Paul Antony Jones, Author of Extinction Point and Towards Yesterday “A striking, fierce, powerhouse of a book.” — Cheryl, Goodreads Reviewer “This is what we all fear will happen if we continue to abuse the Earth. Nathan does a phenomenal job of painting the bleakest environment we could face and showing us the path we are on. He can use words to paint such a grand picture and leave you astonished at the final act.” — Albert Robbins III, Amazon reviewer About the Book: Welcome to the Arizona Reformed Theocracy, otherwise called THE ZONA. Here the Church rules with power absolute. The laws are simple: all sin is punished swiftly. Preachers enforce the Church’s words like old West lawmen. But what happens when a Preacher refuses to kill? What happens when men of honor take a stand against their rulers?

Nathan L. Yocum

THE ZONA

For Amy

Prologue: 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, making 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 the 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.

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 mankind’s 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 feeling 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 wandered, 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 if 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. She lived now only in Lead’s dreams and memories.

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.”

I. 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 broken 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 the 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.

“I’m he.”

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.

“Choose.”

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 into a look of surprise, a cloud of pink mist hung suspended behind his back. Lead rolled him off. The knife snapped in Lead’s chest, leaving a shard buried deep.

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 heat of anxiety 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 coyotes 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.

II. The Mojave Desert, Yucca, and Cibola

Some days later, Lead rode into the Mojave. His sombrero kept the sun from burning his face, its cloth band kept the sweat from his eyes. His uncovered hands were slick and ruby despite the early hour.

Kingman was part of the aptly named Hell District. The unrelenting heat was punishment for its residents. Lead felt comfortable with this knowledge. The few good homes in Kingman sat in a straight line; tall, identical, cracked but still gleaming. Ruins stood as relics. The rest of Kingman tilted in jagged disrepair, like an old fighter’s teeth. Eyes peered from windows of homes both solid and destroyed. The hooves of Lead’s mule competed only with the wind.

One of the homes stood with a massive antenna affixed to its roof. Here lay the domicile of Radioman Smith. Lead dismounted at the front entrance. Misshapen crucifixes marked each of the double doors. Lead ran his fingers along a cross, feeling the grain of the wood under his fingers. He closed his eyes and listened for movement inside.

Lead opened his eyes and struck the wood. The door eventually opened to a waft of stale air and body odor. A fat, bearded man leaned against the frame. An aura of ill-temper hung about him, a companion to his stink.  The man wore no shirt, giving Lead the overall impression of soiled and ill-favored cherub.

“Lets see your silver, son. I ain’t standing near this sun for no reason,” said Smith. His teeth were yellow and slanted inward like a shark.

Lead held forth his crucifix.

“I come before you now as a vessel of the Lord and Savior to receive the information you so know and transmit. Allow me entrance and give me the knowledge I need to spread the word of the Holy Trinity upon this, our inherited Earth,” Lead recited.

Smith looked at the cross and Lead. His eyes squinted in the light. He scratched the hair on his bulbous stomach.

“Come in, Preacher. May the knowledge of man and the intent of our Lord and Savior purge our inherited Earth of sin and filth which brought us into these dark times,” Smith recited back.

Lead walked into the Radioman’s home, a two-story survivor of the Storms. It was a true house of the Broken Times with space and carpet and luxury now soiled by odor, dirt, and the habits of its resident.

Lead followed Smith through the darkness of the lobby into a room sunlit by glowing, opaque plastic sheets. The floor was composed of tile, still beautiful despite its many long cracks and years. Smith’s radio sat on a kitchen counter. Next to it was a metal basin and a faucet harkening to the days of automatic water. In his mind’s eye, Lead saw water flow from the contraption, unending and unearned.

Smith watched Lead stare at the basin and assumed he had a taste for things worldly. His mind calculated odds and profits.

“If you stand with any spare notes, Preacher, I’m sure we can come to an arrangement for you to pay bounty on contraband.” Smith opened a cupboard and pulled down a cardboard box. He beckoned for Lead to look into it. The box held bottles of spirits and ancient picture books, once called magazines, laid open to pages of fornication and scantily clad women. Lead’s stomach tightened at the sight of all the banished goods and sin.

“Radioman, I suggest you turn over your contraband to the Havasu Parish or in the very least burn such items under the sun and in the presence of your Lord. To keep these is a sin and an abomination.” Lead said, keeping his voice cold and unexcited.

Smith’s demeanor changed instantly. He realized his miscalculation regarding the worldliness of Lead.

“I apologize sir…er…Preacher. If I have offended you with the sight of this…” Smith stammered. “After your work here has run its course, I will be sure to submit all to the Havasu Parish or burn it to ash.” Smith forced his face to show no surprise or frustration; he smiled again, flashing those tilted, stained teeth.

“It’s alright and unnecessary, Radioman, I’ll dispose of them.” Lead said. He placed a hand on the box and the other to his chest, over the Van Cleef, a gesture serving as a reminder.

Smith’s face kept its neutrality.

“Of course, Preacher, I would be honored if thou would dispose of this contraband on my behalf,” he said.

The two stared at each other in silence. Lead tightened his grip on his Van Cleef; Smith shoved the box towards him and turned away. Smith kept the fake smile on his face and continued as though nothing had transpired between the two.

“Here is the information on thy hunted Mark.” Smith said with increased formality. He took chunk of cardboard from his pocket and set it on the counter.

Lead slowly translated the markings. The interpreting of symbols and letters had not been a strength in his training and any reading he did was performed in slow deliberation.

The mark was in Yucca, domiciled in a hermitage alone amongst the sand and beasts. Here was a man whose life had brought him to a shack in the middle of blighted earth, without reason committed to paper. Here was a fugee. Lead traced his finger over the map. Here was a man found wrong with the Lord and Church and thus needed to be punished or smote.

“What did he do?” Lead asked.

Smith leered at Lead’s lapse in etiquette.

“Tis not for you to know or inquire, Preacher, a mark’s offense is between himself and the good Lord.”

Lead looked at Smith’s smug and hateful face. The reek of Smith’s dirty skin permeated everything. Lead felt smothered by it. A hatred swelled within Lead for this petty officer of the Church, this sinful feudal lord of Kingman, with his fools’ technology and backsliding.

Lead’s hand shot out with trained speed. His fingers twisted into Smith’s beard. Smith let out a surprised yelp and jerked his head. Lead spun the Radioman into a head lock, and planted a boot firmly behind Smith’s knee. They both collapsed to the ground, with Lead’s arms wrapped tightly around Smith’s head and neck.

“Don’t toy with me filth! For what offense must I apprehend?” Lead hissed into ear.

Smith struggled against the hold. Lead noticed a tattoo of a drop of water at the corner of Smith’s mouth disappear into a dimple as he swallowed.

“Tis not for me or you, Preacher, but tis for the Lord, and the mark, and the parish to know, ask not of me which I know not.” Smith gasped. The drop of water again disappeared into a dimple.

Lead shoved the Radioman away and rolled to his feet. He felt soiled from the physical contact.

Smith scuttled like a wounded beast into a shadowed corner of the room.

“Tisn’t proper for a Preacher to question Parish,” Smith whispered from the darkness.

Lead took a pouch of silver notes from his belt and tossed it next to the radio. He took the box of contraband.

“If I hear you have defamed me to the parish, I will smite thee with no hesitation or remorse,” Lead said and left.

That evening Lead hunkered next to a tumbleweed fire in the sand between Kingman and Yucca regions. The heat of day was erased and forgotten by night’s chill and all the desert’s creatures for which day does not exist.

Lead contemplated the night, set to the tune of crickets who were legion and insatiable. He took the magazines from the box and poured the bottles of spirits onto the earth. The liquid fell through the sand as though it were without corporal presence, absorbed without stain. The spirits joined the earth, where they had once started, where all life and matter had once started at God’s behest. Lead looked over pages of naked women, of men and women engaged in intercourse. His face was warmed by the fire and feelings he did not trust within himself, guilt and excitement built at the sight of blatant sin. More than the fornication, he was fascinated by the physical locations of the lovers. Some did their act on lustrous red vehicles, versions of which Lead had only seen twisted in the dust. Others fornicated in rooms with large beds, which made Lead think of home and mother and the comfort of a childhood that lived on in flashes and dreams. Some pictures showed daylight with a blue sky. Lead often thought of a blue sky. His sky was various shades of yellow and orange, with a sunset shift to purple and pink fire.

Lead looked at the wrist of a naked tattooed man adorned with a beautiful jeweled watch. He had seen such luxury on the wrists of Bishops, but only from a distance. It was brilliant as though crafted from the stars and bits of what falls from heavens during the darkest nights. Lead touched the page, wishing that the watch would become real and fall out and be his.

He spent the long evening staring at the watch before flinging it and the rest of the sinful books into the fire. He slept with dreams of himself riding a white steed in front a crowd of adoring followers, a beautiful, jeweled timepiece on his wrist.

Lead stood at the wrought-iron door feeling his breath enter and leave his lungs. He had left his mule tied to an overturned car a half hour away to ensure a quiet approach. Lead closed his eyes and felt the rough texture of the door under his fingertips. The shack was constructed from scrap boards and planks of plywood, tin, and iron. An old mare stood saddled and tied to a stake. A wooden shingle propped against the shack named it CIBOLA in uneven tar letters.

Lead pressed his palm against the door. Heat radiated from the iron. He pushed lightly, silently. It did not budge. Lead pulled his hand back and opened his eyes. He watched the sweat of his fingers evaporate from the door’s surface. Lead took two steps and kicked out.

The door flung off its hinges and landed in a cascade of dust. An older man sat on a leather coach inside, turning the page of a book. The man contemplated the busted door with apparent disinterest then returned to his book.

“About time you showed up, Preacher,” the man said. “I was thinking they had forgotten me.”

The man dropped his book to the dusty floor and placed his hands, palms-down, on the polished wooden table in front of him. He lifted his face to examine Lead with rheumy blue eyes.

“I’m glad the waiting’s done just the same,” he said.

Lead raised his silver cross. “I am here under the authority of our Lord and Savior to speak with Terence Wood. Are you him?”

“I am him.” the man replied.

Lead strode to the coffee table and set down a rope and blanket.

“Choose,” he said.

The man’s eyes lingered on the rope and blanket. He looked back to Lead.

“That’s a funny proposition, Preacher.”

Lead stood, his right hand slipped under his shirt.

“If I choose the rope, you bind me and take me to the parish. I’ll then go to Purgatory, and God willing, I’ll be converted through influence, coercion, and perseverance into a Goodman.”

The old man spat in the dirt before continuing.

“On the other, if I pick up the blanket, you put bullets in me. The bullets achieve their goal of punching holes in my flesh, which in turn makes it impossible for me to conduct the everyday business of living and I’m found to be a Goodman posthumously, so to speak.” He spat again. “I guess you could say I’m a winner either way.”

“I’m not here to discuss your matter, tis between you and the Lord. I shall render no appeals.” Lead said. It was impossible to keep the trembling from his voice.

“Nor would I expect you to hear my appeals. I’m just putting voice to thought.” The old man said, palms still firmly pressed to his wooden table.  “It’s funny to me that the Church says I can only be good through submission or death.”

“I said choose, old man. Take one!” The anxiety fires flared in Lead’s chest.

“You ever read any Aristotle, Preacher?”

Lead remained silent.

“I suppose that’s probably not taught to the younger parishioners. Aristotle was a heathen. Anyway, he said a good man is a man who understands and pursues happiness, which is subjective, meaning up to the man. He goes on to say that the best life belongs to a man who can live a life of virtue, but get this, virtue is also subjective, not objective which is up to everyone but the man. Do you like that? He claimed good and virtue are up to us!”

Lead pulled the Van Cleef from his shirt.

“Oh good.” said the old man, “You’ve invited influence.”

Lead cocked the hammer; the snap of it was amplified in the confined cabin.

“You’re going have to choose old man, no delay.” Lead pointed the gun at Terence’s face.

“As I was saying, Aristotle said a good man is a happy man, and a happy man is one who realizes acting under subjective goodness is a reward unto itself. Do you know what makes you happy, Preacher?”

“Serving God makes me happy.” Lead said. His hands shook.

“Obviously,” Terence said with a wry grin. “When man loses his knowledge, he starts over again. We call this a Dark Age.”

Terence reached into the front pocket of his shirt.  Lead took a step forward, pistol muzzle inches from Terence’s face. Terence withdrew a Preacher’s cross from his pocket. He held the tip against Lead’s firearm.

“You’re a Preacher!” Lead said.

“I didn’t mean anyone harm, but I cannot do the Church’s work anymore. They’re not good.” Terence pushed the muzzle down with his cross, Lead let the gun drop. The Van Cleef swung to his chest. Terence set the cross down on the table and stood up.

“I don’t know anymore if there is an afterlife, but I know there is this life, despite all, I wish you well. I forgive the threat.” Terence turned and walked out of Cibola.

Lead stood frozen in place. His body shook uncontrollably. Sweat ran down his face and arms. He looked at Terence’s cross; the edges were rounded with time and use. Lead grabbed his pistol and fired twice into the couch, frightening critters living within and beneath. Lead’s anxious paralysis broke, he ran out of Cibola.

Terence’s short trail was marked with dust. He’d mounted his nag and beat a hasty retreat across the hardpan. Concealment was impossible in the open Mohave and Terence and his mount rode freely towards a sun both radiant and deadly. Lead fired his Van Cleef into the air. Terence did not pause or look back to the young Preacher. He rode on.

Lead let go of the Van Cleef and bit his trigger finger hard. Blood ran over his teeth. He yelled into the sky. His yell was primal, without words or form but true to the yell of all creatures consumed with frustration and indecision and the knowledge of what he set out to do had to be done, consequences be damned.

Radioman Smith smoothed out a burlap blanket on the ridge overlooking Yucca Valley. His binoculars focused and flashed. The mark rode west, the Preacher stood as witness to his retreat. The Radioman’s mind wondered and speculated. He filled in the blanks and formed a story. There was always words and news to transmit. The Church’s appetite for bad news was both profitable and insatiable.

Smith got up and rolled his binoculars into his blanket. He packed them into the saddlebags of his Lead’s mule, which he’d stolen as equity for yesterday’s loss.

“That boy will pay for what he took, by desert or by Church,” he said, and spat into the sand.

III. Topock, Crystal, and an account of savage peoples

An ancient street sign proclaimed TOPOCK. Lead looked to the depths of a dry riverbed. A rail bridge of the Broken Times stretched halfway across before crumbling to rust. It hung in the air, connected to oblivion. Under the rail bridge hung a child’s swing, impossibly high for the dry riverbed, put there for the amusement of children long gone and over water that would never return.

Lead opened the old man’s canteen and drank the last of his water. He remembered the river. He remembered how this place had once been cleared by a brush fire. His mind saw young men and women swinging into the river, playing. There was once a young boy in pink shorts and a younger girl with a sore on the corner of her mouth, holding each other, staring into the water. He wished the water was still there. He wished the children were still there and that he was again one of them.

Lead had spent the day walking to this riverbed with the promise of fresh water. He dared not go to Kingman. He had not done his job, to report failure was a sin. If the Church declared him a sinner, he would be purged.

Lead spent the evening before in Terence’s shack. He’d found the overturned car and hoof tracks leading to Kingman. His mule and provisions were gone. No supplies in the desert meant death, Lead held no optimism in that regard. Yucca contained nothing but abandoned fugee trailers, empty save scorpions and Gila monsters and dust. Terence’s shack was outfitted with a bit of jerky, a shallow ditch well that leaked brackish water, an old canteen and a stack of books. Lead slept on Terence’s couch, shut in against the nighttime. The night contained lizards and snakes with violent dispositions and poisonous bites. Man without fire or the sanctity of the Church’s blessing had no business out at night. Demons and poulters also preferred the night. Better to walk in the sun.

Lead looked back to the riverbed. A motorboat half lodged in the hardpan pointed to the sky like a finger accusing the heavens of not providing. Nothing existed in Topock that didn’t belong to the past.

Lead looked west to the setting sun. Over the far horizon hung thick clouds and tornado funnels illuminated with cobalt lightening flashes. Days away but fierce and lush lay the Abandoned Earth, the place taken by the Lord and the Storms.

Lead looked south. Hell continued on. Havasu Parish lay in that direction. Lead scanned the vast desert up to rocky hills. Heat waves rose off of rock and sand creating false lakes and shimmering ethereal towers of bent light.

Lead climbed to the edge of the broken rail bridge and took shelter from the impending night.

Dawn came with new light and new heat. A layer of dust coated Lead’s mouth. He followed the riverbed south, the sun beat merciless on his straw sombrero. The sand roasted his feet through the cracks in his boots which breathed stink in the otherwise scentless scrubland. Lead looked to the ground and focused on walking straight. He knew a man in the scrub without water tended to drift right and form a circuitous route. Lead was determined not to be that fool.

The omnipresent sun ate his strength through the early morning. The sweat on his hands and arms evaporated as soon as it beaded out. Lead smiled and whispered a prayer of salvation under his breath. This was penance. This was castigation for not apprehending the old man. He’d gone against God’s will and the Church’s will and had been set against by the Holy. It made him afraid but also relieved that he was within God’s vision and judgment. He might survive and be made clean again. He smiled.

The first time Lead fell was unexpected. He was deep in the mind, contemplating God and walking straight and he simply tumbled into the sand. One foot caught the other and he plunged. He held his face from the grit and breathed peppered air.

Lead pulled himself up. His steps took on an uneven sway. He drifted from left to right, spinning to avoid clumps of dead brush.

Lead fell again when the sun reached mid-sky. He dropped to his knees in a patch of tumbleweed. Lead rolled out of the brush and regained his legs. He picked thorns out of his left hand. The scar left by Century’s dinner knife was numb, would always be numb.

Lead promptly fell again shortly thereafter. His body had reached a place where the solidity of muscle ebbed and flowed and he could no longer trust functions taken for granted. He rolled to his stomach and looked at the sand. It was an ocean of quartz and pink gypsum flakes built into wave-like dunes by wind, then shifted by wind and shifted again into infinity. It got his mind wondering again about time and God. Lead pushed himself back to his feet and strode forward.

After the fourth collapse, Lead contemplated staying down. He looked to the sun and counted to one-hundred. He whispered a prayer to the Lord and found tenuous strength; enough to get up, enough to move forward.

Over the next dune a thin line of smoke crept and showed through the heat waves. Lead shaded his eyes and stumbled forward towards the smoke. He smiled again. God had spoken and revealed salvation. He wasn’t going to die.

Lead continued his jagged trek through the desert, past rock and dead brush. Over the dune he spotted tents set around a large cooking fire. The blurred images of people shuffled from tent to tent, a group in brilliant white robes walked towards him.

Lead held out his Preacher’s cross.

“Attention,” he croaked, his dry throat stung with the effort. “I demand sustenance and sanctuary. In the name of our Lord and Savior and on behalf of the Church I demand sustenance and sanctuary.”

Lead shook his cross at the approaching villagers. They were pale despite the intense sun. Each wore a robe cut from white linen, kept immaculate despite living outdoors. The faces of their young showed the inbred traits of kinship, they all bore the same sharp nose, cleft chin, and asymmetric eyes. An ancient woman stood with them, dressed in the same linen but with a rattlesnake skin tied around her forehead. She opened a black, toothless maw and barked into the desert wind, like an animal. The villagers surrounded Lead.

Lead fell hard to the ground, cross still clutched in his hand.

“Sustenance and sanctuary,” he whispered.

His head pounded. He waved his cross meekly from villager to villager, to each unknowing stare. One of the men lifted Lead to his feet and brought him to the elderly woman.

“You be of the Stormbringer?” She asked. Her breath was powerful. Lead tried to focus on her face though it blurred in and out of his vision.

“You be a harbinger? You know the Stormbringer?” She asked. The villager who had picked Lead up, wrapped arms around him from behind.

“You in Crystal. You look a wraith. You touch the Noumenal, we find you true or leave you to sand.” She nodded her head and hissed. The villager dragged Lead into one of the tents and dropped him into the embrace of its shade.

Lead woke in darkness. His tongue was large and heavy. Thirst and sun stroke tilted his world on an axis appalling and unnatural. Lead turned his head and vomited into the sand. The stench turned his stomach, he vomited again.

The tent’s flap rippled in the wind, revealing a flicker of firelight. Near the flap lay a wooden bowl of water. Lead tried to stand but couldn’t find his legs. He thought of going back to sleep but stopped by the knowledge that he would probably die if he did. He whispered a prayer for salvation and crawled out of the tent, dragging the bowl with him.

The sun had quite the day, leaving a darkness cut only by the firelight. Nothing was visible but the tents at fire’s edge and villagers scurrying in and out of the illumination like phantoms. Lead observed and took a small sip of water. His body wanted to gulp it down but his mind knew better. He watched a group of villagers erect an iron frame and cauldron over the fire. Lead took another sip. He saw no well but knew a water source must be near. The water tasted of alkali and minerals. Water from bottle reserves did not taste this sharp and earthy.

One of the villagers leaned back let out a long howl. Villagers answered the call and came into the firelight. They hovered near licking flames and watched the cauldron boil and hummed a song, some chorus from the Broken Times. They perpetrated a scene ancestral to all of humanity though sometimes forgotten and sometimes found again; food, and fire, and song to break the fear of the darkness. Lead watched them dance and sway to the wordless song. Arms flailed without rhythm. Feet kicked up clouds of dust which mixed with the smoke of the fire.

“End!” shouted the old woman with the rattlesnake headband. “End! End!”

The villagers stopped dancing, but the hums continued uninterrupted. The old woman pointed at Lead.

“You,” she said. She licked her lips with a large pink tongue.

“You walk from waste,” she said over the hums. “You come from land of No Man, like Stormbringer. You eat Jimson Datura. You touch the Noumenal. You people, you stay. You harbinger you become sand.”

Lead wanted to understand, but her words were alien and his mind was bruised by the sun. He brought the water bowl to his lips and finished it in a single swallow. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

“I’m here on behalf of our Lord and Savior,” he said.

The old woman smiled. A villager handed her a steaming bowl of stew. She offered it to Lead, who traded it for his empty water bowl.

“Jimson Datura,” she said.

Lead’s stomach clenched at the smell of boiled vegetables.

“I and the Lord thank you,” Lead said gratefully.

The villagers hummed in unison with crickets and cicadas and all the other creatures accustomed to night.

Lead watched villagers dip bowls and cups into the cauldron. He smelled the stew and took a sip. It tasted like water, dirt, and potatoes. On the surface, white petals of some native flower floated. Lead took another sip and chewed the petals which were thick and flavorless. The villagers danced around the fire without a break in the hypnotic humming. A primal chant rose from the dancers.

“Noumenal, Noumenal, Noumenal.”

Lead watched and ate.

Lead woke with sweat pouring down his face. It was deep into the night. The stars had shifted long on their sphere and those which Lead had seen before were replaced by other gods and constellations. The fire still blazed, still cut the night, but the villagers were silent. They all stared at Lead; a sea of large misshapen eyes with pupils dilated to black pits and mouths that gave no sign of friend or foe. One of the villagers barked. Lead got to his feet.

“You’re in violllaaa ub…” Lead’s tongue and lips were too heavy, his lungs felt tight. Words refused to take proper form in his mouth. One of the villagers smiled in the darkness, another barked. Teeth and eyes sparkled in the moonlight and all remained silent.

“Brooooooough!”

Gibberish spilled forth from Lead’s mouth. The villagers circled the fire, the old woman stepped forward.

“You of Stormbringer,” she yelled with an accusing finger pointed at Lead. A low chant rose among the villagers.

“Ohhhh, ohhhh, ohhhh, ohhhh…”

Panic seized Lead’s heart. He reached into his shirt and gripped the Van Cleef.

“You no good! You no righteous! You be sand!” the old woman shrieked into the night sky.

The chanting villagers stepped away from the fire, into the darkness. Their eyes dazzled ruby red and fierce. The teeth in their grinning mouths grew with an unnatural speed. Front teeth grew past their bottom lips and chins, enormous and sharp like rats.

“Homme Jesus Lord Gob!” Lead screamed as the creatures lunged at him. Their legs turned pencil thin in the shadows of night, like crickets legs, yet they held the weight of their bodies inexplicably. Their teeth grew past their chests and swung like bone swords with each stride.

One of the beasts grabbed Lead’s shoulder with a clawed hand. Lead pulled the Van Cleef and fired into the creature’s chest. The beast clutched the wound and twisted into nothingness. It burst like a sack of sand. Lead swung his gun at the next nearest monster and pulled the trigger. The crack of pistol fire broke through the villagers’ chants a second time. The wounded beast put a hand to its neck and gurgled blood before falling to its knees.

Lead was engulfed by the horde of monsters. He screamed and whipped his pistol across the face of another beast. A glint of light reflected on teeth and blood as they showered the desert sand. Lead smashed his gun against the skull of another beast and twisted through clutching hands and gnashing teeth. He broke free bolted into the darkness beyond the fire. Behind him demons giggled and crashed through the brush.

Lead ran with the strength of fear. He desperately tried to remember the Church’s teachings on the Devil and demons, but his mind refused to focus on anything but blind panic. Lead glanced over his shoulder. His eyes adjusted to starlight. Formless demons pursued him, their shapes bobbing like drifts of smoke, their eyes glimmered red though they had no business illuminating the darkness.

Lead jumped to the left, a demon crashed face first in rubble and dust where he’d been running. Another demon tackled Lead to the ground. The beast glared fiercely at Lead with its ruby eyes. It spit a long tooth into its hand and raised it to strike. Lead pointed his Van Cleef, but the pistol clicked in misfire. The demon drove the tooth into Lead’s shoulder. Lead swung the Van Cleef across the demon’s face. One of the ruby eyes winked out and the demon recommitted to the sand. Lead ran on.

The night lived a life beyond its natural duration. Lead ran past the demons and past the brush and past the limitations of his weakened body and mind. The yells and laughter of the beasts drifted away, but Lead did not slow. His vision tightened to a small distant tunnel. He repeated prayers in his mind but could not force his tongue to speak them. He prayed for safety, he prayed for God to smite all the sin and devils of this land, and when the sun’s light returned to the earth Lead was still running, fueled by fear and panic. His lungs and legs burned deep.

In the dawn’s light Lead arrived onto a broken street which marked the entrance to Havasu Parish. Regular men in parishioner clothing stood in front a general use building waiting for morning bread. They saw Lead filthy and wounded and dismissed him as another desert crazy, another rag man.

Lead’s legs buckled with exhaustion. He breathed long and hot and looked for aid among the men of the bread line. If he could find words, he would demand sanctuary as a Preachers’ right. Tears streamed down his face. A gun cocked behind him, its barrel pressed against his head.

“Greetings,” Terence said.

Lead looked up to see the old man holding a four barrel pistol looped with a rawhide cord, a Van Cleef.

“Thought you might come here, you look worse for the travel,” the Old Preacher said.

Lead looked down at his chest. He’d lost his shirt and sombrero and his bare torso was painted with a concoction of blood and filth; a testament to the evening’s violence. His pants were torn and ragged. A wood-handled kitchen knife stood with its blade buried deep into his left shoulder. He clutched his pistol, at some point the rawhide loop had broken. It dangled from the butt of his gun. Lead raised his hands and gun into the air.

“I have no qualm with you, mark. Leave me be and continue your retreat,” he said.

Terence kept his pistol pressed against Lead’s head.

“I got the drop on you. Your life is but a decision between me and this pepper box.” Terence looked up to the men in the bread line. “You gentlemen mind to your business,” he hollered at them. The morning parishioners made no move to aid.

“I’ve taken life, young man. I know the feeling and price.” The Old Preacher released the pistol’s hammer and slipped it back into his shirt.

“You won’t die by my hands. Not today.”

Lead looked up at the Old Preacher’s face, a leather visage of dirty creases and grey beard and yellow-blue eyes that spoke of humanity.

“Why was I sent to apprehend you?”

The Old Preacher’s eyes moistened. He rubbed them in irritation and looked back to the rising sun.

“I was what you are; I preached the word of the Church. They sent you to me because of killing.”

“What killing?”

The Old Preacher looked into Lead’s eyes. “Killing doesn’t make me happy. Killing doesn’t make me good. I can’t kill anymore. That’s why you were sent to apprehend. I’m a rusty tool of new use or value. I need to be disposed of.”

Lead tried to regain his feet but instead lost consciousness in the Arizona sun.

IV. Eliphaz the Crusader comes to Havasu Parish

Lead woke in a comfortable bed with sheets that smelled of lilacs and bleach. His room was painted a shade of green he remembered as glow-in-the-dark. The Old Preacher watched him from a stool in the corner. On a wooden plank table lay the parts of Lead’s gun, dismantled and oiled. The Old Preacher smiled.

“What were you going to do with no ammunition?”

Lead mumbled about demons in the night. The sliver of metal left by Century’s knife was cold in his chest. In contrast, the knife wound in his shoulder was hot and puckered.

“Demons, boy, you should have given those Jimson eaters wide birth. That flower will make you blind or crazy as sure as it’ll make you high.”

Lead tried to sit up but his head was too heavy. Pain shot up his arms and legs. The air in the room was musty and hard to breath. He shifted his gaze to the old Preacher. Terence had shaved his beard and combed back his white hair into a thick main. His eyes flashed ruby red and then turned back to yellow-blue. Lead whispered a prayer.

“Preacher, you’re going to need a lot more than prayer, look at me. You’ve been poisoned. No demons. No smiting or plague. Your mind is not right and won’t be for awhile. You need to reckon this. You need to know that the wrong you’re seeing isn’t real. It’s the Jimson weed in your blood.”

Lead lifted his hand to his face. His fingers traced rainbow afterimages of themselves. He shook his arm and watched the images overlap, turn, and flex like wings of a bird with no feathers. Sweat streamed down his face. He closed his fist and felt the numbness across his palm. The old Preacher’s words were far away. Lead closed his eyes. His dreams brought him back to the demons in the desert and running blind into the night.

Terence examined Lead’s dismantled gun. The six-shooter was at least a hundred years old; a thirty-eight, maybe an old cop’s gun. Its barrel was scratched and pitted, the rubber grips were worn and showed metal patches. Terence reassembled the gun and slipped it into his knapsack. Somewhere outside, galloping hooves broke the silence of the day. Terence looked to the unconscious Preacher. He drew his Van Cleef and silently crept to the front door. The galloping stopped. Footsteps sounded on the front porch.

“Speak.” Terence yelled through the door. He pressed his gun barrels against the door just below head’s height. It was an old habit of his.

“It’s Philip, Philip Magenty, from the Dead. My news is urgent.”

“I know you Philip, are you alone?”

“Yes sir, I am.”

Terence cracked the door and looked upon poor ugly and marked Philip. A cross-shaped scar ran across his face vertically from forehead to chin and horizontally under the eyes. The scar dug misshapen canals into his nose. Philip held up a metal triangle.

“Be at peace sir, you know me.” Philip said.

“I never forget any who I’ve set free from the Church.” Terence slipped his gun back into his shirt. He touched Philip’s triangle.

“Whose idea was this symbol?”

“Twas Century’s, I’ve brought you one.” Philip reached into his pocket and withdrew another cobalt triangle.

“No. We shouldn’t be identified with symbols. Makes keeping secrets difficult.” Terence said.

Terence admired the triangle for its beauty and simplicity. He reluctantly handed it back to Philip.

“It didn’t help Century none. He’s dead,” Terence said.

Philip recoiled, “How?

“Preacher’s bullet, what’s your news?”

“I was at the South Parish when three strangers rode in with goodly bred horses and armored vests. One wears his Cleef out of shirt. It looked sharp, probably just pre-Storms.”

“Ah…shit.” Terence let the foul language slip out of his mouth for the first time in years. Philip winced as if struck.

“Those are Crusaders. Leave now with discretion, leave town, I’ll not have you taken by their lot.” Terence said.

Philip knew better than to question the panicked look in Terence’s eyes. He left immediately.

Terence ran through the house, checking the windows. There was no time. He returned to Lead’s room. In the distance he heard the hooves of Phillip’s horse fleeing and the gallop of more horses coming from the south.

“Shit,” he whispered.

Havasu Parish, like most of the towns in the Zona, was full of hunger and desperation. Information and morality were made cheap by despair. Crusaders paid silver notes. Terence knew their sanctuary was defiled. He hoped Philip remained untouched. He looked again at Lead.

Eliphaz the Crusader dismounted in front of the mark’s hideout. Terence’s horse stood tied to a pig iron fence. The creature whinnied and kept a suspicious eye on the Crusader. Eliphaz motioned for his men to circle the house. He thumbed the hammer of his Browning Hi-Power and looked to the weather-beaten front door. The house slanted as if the wind had tried to push it over and half succeeded. Eliphaz kicked the door open.

Terence peered through tattered curtains at the Crusaders down the street. He had moved his horse to a decoy house after Philip’s warning. Terence hefted Lead over his shoulders. His back crackled in protest. He sprinted through the back door into an overgrown cactus garden. Behind the homes of Havasu Parish a natural network of flashflood washes stood as a safeguard against monsoon rivers; a holdover from the Broken Times. The floods were all but extinct with the new scalding heat, but the washes stood as a testament to what was. Terence jumped into the ditch, the soft sand gripped his boots up to the ankles, and his knees joined his back’s protests. Terence ducked and plodded through the wash.

Eliphaz scanned each room with his Van Cleef pointed low, precise, and trained to hit sudden targets. By the second room he knew it was a ruse, an empty home, but he finished the sweep anyway. Better to be safe. Eliphaz exited the house and whistled loudly, the other Crusaders left their posts and returned to the front of the house.

“He’s not here,” Eliphaz said. “But they are or were here. Search each house up this block. Be ready for resistance.”

Eliphaz turned and shot Terence’s horse in the face. Blood painted the house’s exterior wall. The horse’s aquiline eyes showed confusion and hurt. The horse shook its head as though it were tormented by an insect both powerful and strange. The beast stepped backwards and slumped lifelessly against the iron fence.

The crack of a pistol shot echoed through the neighborhood. Terence quickened his pace. Running through loose sand with deadweight was a herculean task. His calves burned. The wash was intersected by an asphalt road. Terence broke into a run on the surer ground. Lead mumbled from his comatose state.

Terence kept out of the Crusader’s line of sight by running crouched next to houses long abandoned by humanity. He cut through streets and yards layered with sand on their return to nature.

Terence was past exhaustion by the time he laid Lead’s body down in a long abandoned mine shaft. A faded metal sign declared it BISON MINE. The shaded cavern provided cool relief. Terence took a drink from his canteen. He poured water into Lead’s mouth, over and past cracked lips. Terence leaned against the cavern wall and assessed their situation. He closed his eyes and rested. Fear warded off sleep.

Eliphaz pushed through the bat-wing doors of the Xanadu Inn. He entered alone; his companions remained in the suburbs hunting for the ex-Preacher’s trail. Conversation stopped. The iron shod heels of Eliphaz’s boots clicked against hardwood floors. He strode to a table full of men eating from a platter of hard bread and cheeses. The men abandoned their feast at the sight of the Crusader, giving him free reign of the table. Eliphaz sat and motioned to his informant. The man was small and hunched, giving the impression that he was somehow part beetle. The right nostril of his nose was missing, a wound of syphilis or combat, one as likely as the other. Eliphaz set a roll of silver notes on the table.

“He was in the neighborhood but not at the house. Thou led us to his horse and no better,” Eliphaz said.

The informant eyed the silver notes and licked his lips, he wanted to reach for them, but was unsure what the Crusader expected of him. Eliphaz drew his Browning and pointed at the informant’s face.

“Know this child, I know when lies are told to me and when sin is committed and had thee known better than what thee stated, thou’d be bleeding out on this floor.”

Eliphaz tapped the toe of his boot against the floor for emphasis. The informant did not move, his survival instincts were keen, he calculated the odds of quitting this situation alive and richer, and his mind told him to remain still, hold his breath, and for the love of God don’t look the Crusader in the eyes.

Eliphaz released the hammer. A small manic grin touched his lips. He waved his gun, beckoning the informant to come closer. The informant took a step and was suddenly grabbed and pulled by his collar. Eliphaz whispered into the informant’s ear.

“Go now child and let thy peers know more notes are to be had by those who find the marks, and a redemptive death will be claimed by those who assist marks.”

Eliphaz batted the roll of notes to the floor with his gun and released the informant. The beetle man let out the breath he’d been holding. He picked up the notes and pocketed them without counting.

“I witnessed a young boy name of Philip riding hard out east end not an hour ago. Stands to reason a boy fleeing these parts does so with reason. Good information or not I’m sure your Holiness will pay fair bounty,” the informant said.

The night winds added to the chill damp of the mine shaft. Terence dug a shallow pit and buried Lead to his neck. He could think of no other way to insulate the sick man from the cold. Lead woke in a half-conscious panic. He tried to reach for his chest but the sand prevented his arms from moving. Terence placed a hand over Lead’s mouth.

“Don’t make a sound. They’ve sent the Crusaders.” Terence kept his hand over Lead’s mouth until he ceased to struggle.

“Crusaders, the Church would not be so rash.” Lead whispered in disbelief. His mind reeled. Crusaders were the Church’s dogs of wars, sent to bring ruination on the heads of those who were too strong, too dangerous. They were the Churches arm against the armies of Satan. It must be a mistake that they’d been set to hunt this old mark. If they had, it meant that the Church had lost faith in Lead’s mission; that he too was out of favor with the Church’s holy influence. That he too might bear the Mark of Cain.

“That don’t matter, son. I’ve seen them, they’re here.” Terence said. He stared out of the cave’s opening into the mouth of darkness.

“We need to leave.” Terence said.

Philip formed a cocoon of blankets around his body. He hunched in front of a fire just off of the road to Kingman. His fire’s light created an island in a vast black sea of cloud-covered night. The night’s creatures chirped and scuttled and made small noises unappreciable by men. Philip sat in a void that could have been the desert, or hell, or distant starless space for all he could perceive within the sightline of his camp. Despite the comfort of blankets and fire, his body shook in the bitter wind. He carefully placed a wire tray over the fire and set a coffee pot on it. Philip clutched the blankets to his body. Out west, past the California border, lightening flashed and reflected blue on Philip’s saddle and coffee pot. Philip said a prayer for good weather.

From the darkness a small rock flew and struck Philip above the left eye. He cried out in mixture of surprise and pain. He touched his face and his hand came away streaked crimson; blood ran into his eye. Philip leapt to his feet, half blinded, and pulled a hunting knife from his belt. He leapt closer to the fire, a primitive notion for seeking safety.

A pistol report silenced the night creatures. A bullet tore through Philip’s calf, spinning him to the earth and sand. Eliphaz walked softly into the firelight, gun pointed at Philip. He circled Philip outside of reaching distance.

Philip beheld his attacker’s Van Cleef and armored vest with his good eye. He recognized the Crusader and tossed his knife out to the darkness. He bit his cheek against the pain in his calf and put forth a brave visage.

“I yield, sir! Why did you shoot me?” Philip said as he gripped his wounded calf.

“Why? Why?” Eliphaz emulated Philip’s voice and laughed. He kicked Philip’s hands away from the wound and pressed the tip of his boot against it. Philip yelled out and tried to twist his leg away. Eliphaz pressed harder. Lights flashed in Philip’s vision, thunder crashed in the distance.

“I’m going to let thou know a secret. It’ll save us both time and aggravation.” Eliphaz said. “God speaks to me. Not metaphorically. Not in my dreams or through fasting or prayers or any of that horseshit. God speaks to me just like I’m speaking to you right now, man to man, person to person. He comes down to earth and he…speaks…to…me!” Eliphaz pressed his foot harder to emphasize the point. Philip’s world was immersed in pain.

“God and I talk. We spoke today. Guess what he said?”

Eliphaz twisted his boot in the wound.

“Guess what he said!??”

Philip tried to answer, but the pain wouldn’t let him catch his breath. Eliphaz pulled back his boot. He spoke in a low, soothing tone.

“Guess what he said?”

“What did he say?” Philip said in desperation. His sweat shined in the fire light. He wanted to help, he wanted to talk, anything to ease the pain.

“He told me that thou art a liar. He told me that thou art a sinner and a backslider and that lies spew forth from thy mouth like a child’s spittle. So I made him a promise. I told our Lord that I’m going to hurt thee until thou tells me what I came to hear or God tells me thou speakth true or both and if neither occurs I will deliver you unto him and let him be the bearer of your misfortune.”

Eliphaz shot Philip in the foot and then kicked it mightily. A chunk of Philip’s boot holding the torn remnants of two toes flew off into the night. Philip loosed an animal scream beyond the range of what is sane and rational. His vision turned red and rain peppered the sand and everything became ethereal and unreal to him. Blood mixed with rain and fed the desert and scrub and life moved from one to the other as it always has. Eliphaz bent over the whimpering boy.

“Let’s begin again,” he said in a quiet, friendly tone.

“Shit!” Terence whispered again. He paced a tight circle in the mine shaft. Lead had long ago passed out and was mumbling in fever dreams. Terence thought about the Crusaders in Havasu. Crusaders were trained to track, investigate, interrogate. The world’s information was theirs to uncover. They would find his trail. He had to move, now.

“Oh, wake up.” Terence pushed against Lead’s head.

Lead woke swaddled in earth’s warm embrace. His mind swam and ached, the tracers had left his vision.

“Can you walk?” Terence asked.

Lead closed his eyes to stop the cave from spinning. He turned his head and vomited into the sand. Terence scooped mounds of dirt off of Lead’s body.

“For the time being you are in my care. I won’t leave a hurt man to Crusaders. Can you walk?”

Lead stood on one knee and pressed a hand to the cavern wall. His body was caked in dirt. Night air wisped cold through the mine. The wound on his shoulder radiated heat in contrast to the wind. Lead spoke a prayer of healing and pushed off of the wall. His legs wobbled like a new born animal. He took a step and then collapsed to the ground.

“Shit!” Terence said again and walked out of the cave and into the night.

Lead dreamt again of the Storms. His mother’s face loomed over him, yellow with sickness. He saw water turning streets into rivers fast and violent, powerful wind and shifting earth ripped apart buildings. People fled the buildings only to be consumed by the waters. All that death, images on a television screen watched while he sat next to his mother, who was ill and had not left their home in days and who would never be well again. Lead’s mind turned and he saw the face of the matriarch of the Jimson-eaters. He saw her wide bloodshot eyes transform into sparkling rubies while her followers hummed in the unseen distance.

Lead woke to find himself bound to a sled of palm fronds. Terence was dragging his body across the desert, through the darkness of night. Lead’s lower back was raw from rubbing against the sand.

Terence followed a rhythm. He sprinted a few yards, stopped, took in a few heavy breaths, and then sprinted a few more yards.

Lead looked up at the sky. The moon was projecting a ring onto the clouds. A light rain fell.

“Where am I?” Lead asked.

“Oh thank God,” Terence wheezed as he dropped the palm stems.

“You need to drink this.” He pressed his canteen to Lead’s mouth and tipped in water. The warm liquid hurt Lead’s throat, his eyes closed and his mind went back to dreams.

Terence took up the palm fronds and sprinted a few more yards. This was not the first time he wished for his body to be young again. As a younger man he could have run through the night and into the next day. He was too old and too tired and his back pain was only dampened by the distraction of the pain in his knees. Terence had been a strong man in his youth. He’d been a strong man in his life as a Preacher. He’d killed in the name of God, ended life at the word and command of the Church. He’d played a role at the razing and utter decimation of Las Vegas. He’d seen bodies staked and crucified to the luminous glow of neon lights.

Terence shook the image from his head and peered across the dunes. In the near distance, candlelight flickered in a cabin window. By the smell, Terence guessed it was the ranch house of a javelina farm. He took up the palm sled and dragged it a few more steps. Terence let go of the palm fronds and caught his breath. He pulled the cross from Lead’s pocket, having left his own in Cibola days past.

“Don’t go anywhere, Preacher.” He said to Lead’s unconscious body.

Pious Doland read by candlelight every night. Daylight hours provided no time for the enjoyment of books. The sun was for dealing with butcher merchants in Havasu, or tending his javelinas, or hunting woyote dens, or any of the other myriad tasks God burden men of farms and ranches with. Besides, reading books in the visible light of day might get people talking about Pious, questioning what it was that consumed his interest so.

Every night, Pious Doland lit a candle and read the old book he kept hidden under his bed. The cover was missing, but Pious knew they were plays by an English heathen named Shakespeare. He could tell the man was a heathen because some of his plays involved Jews or satyrs, but Pious didn’t care. The words were magical. They flowed with a rhythm that calmed his mind.

There was a knock on his door. Pious blew out his candle and flung the book under his bed. There was another knock, louder this time. Pious ran up to the door with his hunting ax in hand.

“Speak,” he called through the door.

“I come here on behalf of our Lord and Savior seeking sustenance and sanctuary” a man said.

Fear gripped Pious. That was the call of a Preacher. He eyed his living room for visible contraband. He didn’t see any, but he had no time to really search, to keep a Preacher waiting was to cast suspicion on yourself. Pious opened the door.

Terence stepped back and held up Lead’s cross to the farmer at the door. Terence judged the man before him. The farmer was not yet out of his twenties but his body was hunched and creased in a way customary of desert living. The farmer held a wood ax in front of himself like a walking staff.

“I come seeking sustenance and sanctuary,” Terence said.

The farm looked him over and nodded. “You’re welcome to my sustenance and sanctuary, Preacher. Be at peace in my homestead.” Pious propped his ax against a wall. “Let me get you food and water.”

“Hold on, good sir,” Terence said. “I have a man in my binding. I need to bring him in.” Terence ran back into the night.

Pious watched the Preacher’s shadowed form in moonlight pick up another man and carry him back. Terence had tied Lead’s wrists together with what remained of his leather cord to help the illusion of imprisonment. He was not proud of his dishonesty to the farmer or any dishonesty from which he was the source, but between deception and death, Terence counted deception as the lesser. Terence returned to the cabin with his false captive.

“This man is to be left alone. I will soon return. Please have food and water ready,” Terence said. He propped Lead’s unconscious body against a wall and tied his ankles together with braided palm fronds.

“This man is powerful sick, and as you can see, his appendages are bound. I want your word that in my absence you will not harm him. There will be no need to harm him.”

“You have my word, Preacher,” Pious said.

“The Lord thanks you,” Terence replied. He smiled as the old words left his mouth. For a moment he missed the pomp and authority of being a legitimate Preacher.

Terence left the farmer’s home and took up his palm frond sled. The trail of this rig was unmistakably easy picking for well-trained Crusaders. The drizzle of rain ended too promptly, the winds were too weak, nothing in nature favored the cover of his ingress. Terence dragged the fronds behind him and ran towards the distant hills.

Lead woke from fever dreams and found himself on a dry floor wrapped in a woolen blanket. A man with an ax hefted in both hands stood over him. The man stared with eyes like cracked river pebbles, misshapen and red.

“I recommend you not move, stranger,” the man warned.

Lead let out a strangled cough. He struggled against the rawhide and palm cords, but found no strength. His body ached and radiated fevered heat.

“Assist,” Lead whispered.

“No, Goodman,” Pious spit and wiped his mouth. “We’re just gonna wait here for the old Preacher. You need to sit still.”

Pious was anxious about the book under his bed. Was it hidden? Was it visible? What if the Preacher came back and discovered it? In his mind he swore to God that if his heresy escaped detection he would bury the book in the desert sand. He would leave all things unsavory and walk a path righteous with the Lord.

“I’m here on behalf of our Lord and Savior.” Lead whispered and turned back to the darkness.

Terence abandoned his sled in a hillside crevice. He split a palm frond and swept his footsteps. He felt ridiculous using the old trick, but now was not a time for innovative thought. The Crusader’s presence was imminent and the night’s obfuscation was closing. Old tricks traded for time and time traded for rest and nourishment and the hope of an actual escape.

Terence swept the path.

Pious lit a mesquite fire in his big-bellied stove and considered his problems. Would the wounded man need food? What about the Preacher? If Pious gave from his feedbox, would he have sufficient meat for trade? Was the old Preacher really a harrier; a thief in disguise? This was not the first time Pious wondered if the old man wasn’t some sort of road agent. He banished the thought from his mind. Any road agent falsely using the crucifix was hunted and eliminated with all the prejudice and might of the Lord and Church. It was one of the few laws everyone knew aside from the Commandments. Pious once saw a false Preacher sentenced near Quartzite Parish. The parishioners hung the scallywag from a Joshua tree and let the sun and buzzards carry out the sentence of execution. No rope or blanket, just three days of screaming and rocking and looking to unforgiving eyes, for the parishioners watched in shifts and none gave aid. The scene had left an impression on Pious.

The farmer took three javelina steaks from his salt box. The steaks were bundled in plastic bags of the type floating throughout the desert, accompanying tumble weeds in travels blind and chaotic. He placed the steaks in a battered stainless skillet and set them to sizzle on the stove’s hot plate. Pious retrieved a water pitcher from his pantry.

The prisoner had not moved. The smell of fried pork filled the cabin.

Terence entered Pious’ home without knocking. His right hand clutched his four-barrel pistol behind his back. Pious was startled and sloshed water on the cabin floor.

“If you don’t mind the inquiry, sir, where were you?” Pious asked.

The farmer set the pitcher down and gripped the frying pan with a false casualness, as if checking the meat required Pious to handle the metal and keep a sightline with Terence. His body tensed in a way both visible and animal. The old Preacher realized the threat and responded in kind. The click of the pistol hammer echoed off the close cabin walls. It was an unmistakable sound and issued a threat more credible than any words Terence could muster.

“Men are trailing me and mine. They would take our lives, opportunity given. I set a false trail.”

Terence and Pious spent a moment of stretched time staring at each other, regarding small and dangerous motions. Pious gripped the skillet. Terence gripped the pistol. Pious twisted his face into a disingenuous smile and released the panhandle.

“Please sit and eat,” Pious said.

Pious picked a steak out of the frying pan with calloused fingers. He laid it on a wood slab and offered it to Terence. Terence took the slab with his left hand and sat on the floor. He released the hammer from his pistol and strung it back around his neck. Pious plated the remaining steaks without acknowledging the firearm. He sat by the stove. A slab was placed near Lead, who remained unconscious despite the smell. Pious and Terence continued to regard each other with nervous apprehension.

“I can tell by your gray hair that you were a grown man before the Storms,” Pious said. “What was your livelihood?”

Terence picked up the steak, looked it over, and put it back on the slab. Pious poured water into an earthen mug. He pushed the mug toward Terence. Pious swigged from the pitcher directly.

“There isn’t time to tell it all, nor would I want to. I lived in a place called San Diego, a city empire near the old Pacific line. I was a school teacher. I had a family.” Terence smiled in the brief reflection of a good past. He drank the water and savored it. “All those things are gone and don’t matter and never again will. It’s not the life this one is,” Terence said.

“I apologize if my question brought harm.” Pious said.

The men ate in silence disturbed only by Lead’s dream whispers, urgent and incoherent.

“I said, I apologize,” Pious declared, agitated at Terence’s silence.

“I accept, no harm done. It’s just not a story I want to tell,” Terence replied. He worked on his steak with hands and teeth and then paused. “You ever hear the story of Job?”

Pious took a bite of his steak and shook his head.

“It’s a book of the Old Testament.” Terence said. “Job was a man who lived a long time ago, before the technology and knowing were created and lost. Job was a righteous man, a wealthy farmer who loved God true in his heart. God knew Job was his best man and was proud to have a servant so clean. One day God was talking with Satan.”

Pious’ face flushed crimson at the mention of the Devil. Terence continued.

“God and Satan were talking about what makes a man holy or unholy. Satan told God that it was suffering that made men unholy and comfortable men, men who lived life without worry, could afford to live a life free of sin. As an example, Satan spoke of Job. He offered a bet with God. He wagered that if he were to take away Job’s comfort, Job would curse God’s name and turn against him. Job would embrace sin and forsake God like the other sinners of low means and birth. God took the bet.”

The words made Pious nervous. The parish pastors never spoke of God and Satan consorting directly.

“So Satan waved his claw and destroyed Job’s life. His evil infected and slew Job’s children and cattle. His crops withered and turned to ashes. Coins and jewels vanished from his coffers. His soft robes unwound into brittle thread. His house collapsed into a pile of rotten timber and insects. His hair fell out and his body was plagued with hissing boils.

Job clothed himself in burlap sacking which hurt his tender skin and sores. He walked into his field and sat among the ashes and contemplated his undoing. Friends from distant lands visited Job, but when they saw what had become of him, they were upset.

‘What sin hath thou committed, Job? Why hath God smote thee?’ They asked.

Job replied, ‘To my knowledge I have committed no sin. If any of thee hath knowledge of my sin, please speak it.’

The friends looked down on Job, hideous, dressed in burlap, wallowing in ashes.

‘We have not beheld thy sin, but what God hath done to thee is proof enough of the evil thou hath committed. The righteous and innocent never need fear suffering and the wrath of God. Thou art an awful man to be stricken so.’

And with that they left Job to his misery. Job pondered and prayed but his suffering and agony was ceaseless. Finally Job raised his fist to the heavens.

‘Why have thou forsaken me Lord? Why must I, one righteous and without sin, suffer loss? Why must I live on in pain and be scorned and humiliated by my friends?’

Job had finally sinned; he’d questioned God’s infinite grace, which angered God. God came down to Job and stood before him.

‘Who are you to question me?’ He said. ‘I created the universe and all life. Everything you’ve see before, everything you’ve ever thought, everything that’s ever existed, everything that will be until the end of the days, tis all here because I say it is to be, for my own reasons. Who are you to question what I do? Who are you to question my infinite wisdom? Your mind is not able to understand all that I do. I know this because it was I who created your mind.’

Job was awestruck. Here he was, in the presence of his Creator, who was scolding him for complaining about suffering. Job said the first thing which came to mind.

‘I’m sorry my Lord, I did not mean to offend.’

God looked upon Job and smiled.

‘I forgive you.’ He said and swept his arm over Job and fields around him.

Job’s skin healed as did his lands. New cattle and crops sprung from the earth, and a new home fell from the sky. Over time Job and his wife conceived new children; daughters whose beauty was legendary.” Terence took a long drink from his mug. “Nobody knew what the wager was for, only that God lost.”

Pious looked at the uneaten remainder of his steak.

“Why did you tell me this story, Preacher?”

“You asked me where I’m from, what I used to be. I lived in a place that no longer exists. I had a wife and child who are dead. I don’t know why. I’ve never known why and I’ll never understand why. I am Job.” Terence stood up from the table. The early morning sun flooded the room with light.

“I must sleep now. I put you in charge of the well-being of myself and my bound.” Terence stretched his body on the hardwood floor. He slipped the gun back into his pocket.

“I trust your Christian judgment in keeping the safety of your guests.” Terence closed his eyes and immediately fell into a deep sleep.

V. The river border provides a means of escape and contemplation

Eliphaz discovered the sled trail just before midday. Philip hadn’t known much, but he’d known Terence’s starting point. He had screamed it into the night sky prior to his untimely demise. The information had provided the genesis of the Crusader’s search.

Eliphaz and his soldiers tracked Terence’s egress from Havasu to the mine shaft. From the mine, the sled trail was an easy pick. It ran a straight line through sand and brush alike. The trail ended abruptly at one of the desert’s numerous rock hills.

Eliphaz looked to the hill and the trail and the bits rock. His heart told him this was a dead end. He found the palm fronds stacked in a woyote den, safe from the wind.

“Comb the hill for signs of a camp, then circle the hill for an exit trail.” He commanded his men.

“Where did I lose them?” He whispered to himself.

Pious doused Terence with the pitcher of water.

Terence groaned and spat and rolled to his feet. His body ached. Terence’s blurred vision cleared to find Lead awake and sitting on the other side of the room. His wrists and ankles were still bound. Fever sweat glistened on his face and chest. Pious sat in a chair with the ax across his lap.

“Keep your hands out of your pockets, sir. I don’t want to commit error and if you reach for your gun I will strike you dead,” Pious said. “Your bound mumbles in fever about being a Preacher, you don’t talk like one. I’ll have the truth or both your lives with God as my witness. Are you a Preacher?”

Terence knelt and placed his palms on the hardwood floor. “Does it matter? You’ve taken us in. We were both Preachers but now we’re not. The men who pursue us are Crusaders. We are at odds with the Church who’ll see us as goodmen or dead or both.”

The news landed heavily on Pious. He stood and shifted the ax from hand to hand, not sure what to do next.

”I’ve sinned in giving you aid,” Pious said.

“That’s true, and I’m sorry for it,” Terence replied.

Pious looked around his house like a trapped animal.

“Be calm, son. I’ve meant you no harm in coming but know the harm I’ve brought. Listen to my words and take them as wisdom. Leave us here. Get yourself to the Havasu Parish in all haste and confess to the Pastor that you were tricked by a man claiming to be a Preacher. Tell them that we left heading south, for our trail leaving here will be in that direction. Tell them that you were forced to feed us under arms, for I am armed. Do this now and live a good life, for if the Crusaders find you here with us your life will surely be forfeit.”

Pious circled Terence, keeping frightened eyes on him until he reached the front door.

“I wish you Godspeed and forgiveness sirs. May your sins be resolved swiftly,” Pious said and backed out of door, the early sun shone behind his head a yellow cloudless sky. Pious flung his ax into a patch of tumbleweed, and ran towards Havasu Parish.

Lead drifted in and out of dreams. His body radiated heat that refused to cool in early morning air. Dirt coated his chest and arms thick, like a tailored shirt. Terence tipped flat warm water into his mouth. Droplets ran down Lead’s chest, streaking the layers of dirt.

“We need to go now.” Terence whispered as he untied the binds. “Can you rise up, Preacher?”

“Lead, my name is Lead.” Lead leaned his shoulder against the wall and forced his legs to hold up his body.

Terence wrapped the remaining steaks in plastic bags and stuffed them into a knapsack. He pilfered a jar of water from the pantry and a trench coat from the bedroom.

“We’re going to the South Storm Boarder.”  Terence said, throwing the coat to Lead.

Lead heard the words but did not comprehend them. His concentration was dedicated to holding his body up against the cabin wall. Lead draped the trench coat over his shoulders and pulled his arms through the sleeves. Terence looped Lead’s arm around his neck and pulled him away from the wall. The two hobbled into the furnace heat of the desert.

Lead’s mind took him to a blissful place away from reality. He saw everything from afar, detached, floating in light winds while his body plodded along.

The sun shone warm. Distant lines of smoke gave proof of far away domiciles. Terence dragged Lead to the dry banks of the Colorado River. The river waters cut through the desert brush and layers of baked clay and mud. Terence dropped Lead onto the riverbed clay. He sat and caught his wind and scanned the riverbank for floatable logs.

Lead’s body burned and ached with fever. The wound in his shoulder was puckered and runny. Red lines crawled across his chest, reaching for his heart like demon’s fingers. The coolness of wet clay brought Lead back to reality.

“Where are we going?” He whispered.

“I know a healer not far from here. You need medicine.” Terence held his hand to Lead. “The water’s close.”

Lead took the hand and regained his feet. They stumbled to the river’s edge. The waters shown yellow from shallow mud and the sky reflected like filthy glass.  Sun bleached logs stood like teeth and marked high tides lines of favorable days.

Terence tied a rawhide loop around one of the driftwood logs and rolled it into the current. He tied his knapsack to a branch on the dry side and the two waded in. Terence guided Lead’s arm through the hoop.

“Don’t let go of the log,” Terence said.

Terence and Lead drifted towards the deep center of the river. The water was blood warm; it cleansed Lead’s skin and soothed his wound. The edges of Lead’s trench coat floated around him. His mind envisioned fish nipping at his boots.

The two floated south with the current. They passed through a canyon cut by older, stronger waters and glaciers before that. Lead stared at the canyon’s edge, at the silhouettes of boulders and brush. A mountain goat looked down at him, strong and unmoving.

“They’re beautiful because they can live on anything.” Terence said, looking at the same creature. “They lived here before we did, they’ll be here when we’re gone.”

Lead nodded off, the infection tapped his strength. Warm waters embraced him. He awoke coughing and sputtering, having dipped too low. The sun’s placement showed the time to be late afternoon. Terence floated next to him, both hands holding his knapsack over the water.

“Fall asleep again under water and you’ll wake in the Lord’s arms.” Terence said with grin.

“What do you know of the Lord?” Lead said. “You’re a Church deserter. The Church gave you Cain’s Mark. You are a sinner.”

Terence contemplated. The river current crackled. Stunted trees and shrubs at the river’s edge nodded with wind.

“Yes, but my sin wasn’t against God. My sin was against the Church. Church and God ain’t the same thing. From what I know, God’s perfect. The Church makes mistakes.” Terence kicked his feet to straighten the log in the current. “God’s about order, Church is about power, as best as I can figure, to be against one is not to be against the other.”

One of his Lead’s boots scraped against a river stone. He put his other arm through the rawhide loop.

“The word of God comes through the Church. If the Church were wrong, God would smite the Church and find a new hand to do his will,” Lead said.

Terence laughed. “By God! The great contradiction, if the Church is wrong, then God would fix the Church, yeah? But what about free will? God granted us free will; or rather we took free will when we ate from the Tree of Knowledge.”

“How does that fit?” Lead asked.

“Let me ask you, does Jesus sit on God’s right hand?” Terence asked.

“Yes.” Lead replied.

“And what does he do there?” Terence asked.

“He judges the quick and the dead.” Lead said.

“So Jesus, our Lord, judges us when we die, he looks back upon our lives and determines if we are worthy of the glorious afterlife, correct?”

“Yes.”

“But, according to the Church, if a person does wrong, the Lord will intervene through the Church, right?”

“Yes.” Lead replied.

Lead looked away from Terence, back to the canyon walls.

“So we’ve established that God and Jesus judge us for our actions and we’ve established that God interferes with our actions through the Church if we do wrong. So let me ask you, Preacher, why does Jesus judge the quick and the dead if he and his father step in and alter the bad behavior of man?”

“I don’t understand,” Lead said.

“If the Church is right in correcting our actions through the will of God, then why do God and Jesus still judge us in the afterlife? If we are properly controlled and checked by our Lord through the Church, then entrance into heaven should be assured without judgment, right?”

Lead was silent.

“The way I see it, they both can’t be right. Bible says you’ll be judged in the afterlife based on what you do in this life. The Church says its actions are right because God sanctions them and if God didn’t he’d smite them dead. But if God corrected every little wrong we committed in this life, he and his son would have nothing to judge later on.”

Lead looked back to Terence, the old man’s argument made his fearful.

“The Book says the Anti-Christ will speak of blasphemes,” Lead said.

“The Book says a lot of things, but if I were the Anti-Christ I sure as hell wouldn’t be strapped to a log floating down the Colorado fearing the bullet of a man who may or may not be tracking us down this river.” Terence shifted to get a better hold of his knapsack. “Believe me or don’t. Just consider my words, Preacher.”

Lead was silent again. The men continued floating past the remains of homes and the remnants of civilized life.

Lead woke to the stars and navy blue of the early evening sky. Terence was hauling them up a gravel shore. In the distance the winds of the Storm Border whipped trees and cracked stones over boulders.

“Stay put,” Terence said. He untied his knapsack and disappeared into the brush.

Lead lay on his back. He ran his hands over river stones. The waters had cooled his fever. His body was still strange and unbalanced, but the fear that he would die was gone. Lead smiled at the stars. He would live. He would continue on. The sky’s light ebbed and locusts chirped their songs from the brush. Lead lay still. The river stones and his drenched coat soothed his fevered skin. The locusts filled night with their alien callings.

Lead woke on a bed that shifted and rolled with his weight. His eyes scanned a room of white-washed walls and boarded-up windows. Cotton sheets scratched his skin. A lanky, gray-haired stranger stared at him from across the room. His were eyes hidden behind reflective lenses.

“Hi, uh, good morning,” the man said nervously, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

The man’s glasses sagged slightly on his face. The frames were squared off and wound with adhesive tape. Lead sat up and felt a dull pain in his left shoulder. He pressed his hand against his wound. It had been packed in a thick poultice.

“We beat the infection,” the man said. He pulled a brown bottle from the pocket of his blue jeans.

“Penicillin, I make it here. Makes you pretty lucky I guess.” The man’s face froze as he realized the error of what he said. The Church had long ago decreed that the use of drugs was offensive to God as it fought against his inclination to cull the sinner and save the righteous. Preachers put men to blanket for such offenses.

“What’s Penicillin?” Lead asked.

“It’s a drug. It kills infection. I’m sorry.” The man looked around the room, as though searching for a place to hide.

“Never heard of it,” Lead said. “Where am I?”

“C.R.A.S.S.,” the man replied. “Colorado River Aqueduct Science Station, California side. We monitor storms, look for patterns, chart strength or winds and the like.” The stranger was visibly relieved to change the subject.

Lead searched the room again with his eyes.

“So we’re out of the Zona?”

“No,” said the stranger. “We’re on the border, but not many come around here. The weather here is too savaged to be any good for colonists. Church doesn’t know about us.”

“Thank you for helping me heal,” Lead said.

The stranger bowed his head. His reflective lenses flashed in the light.

“Where’s the old man?” Lead asked.

“Terence? He’s here, I’ll get him.” The man pulled a cord hanging from the ceiling. A muffled bell sounded in a distant room.

Terence entered the recovery quarters. His appearance had changed dramatically in the days since his escape on the Colorado River. He had scrubbed the dirt of the wastelands off his face and hands until they glowed pink. His mane of gray hair was tied behind his head and rested on a new blue flannel shirt. He stood straight and strong as a man well nourished and well rested.

“Glad you’re back,” Terence said. He gestured to the stranger. “This is Eric the Dead, my friend.”

“Why do you call him ‘the Dead’?”

“By all rights he is a dead man. Years ago, the Church sent me to make him a Goodman, by rope or blanket. He chose the blanket.”

“It wasn’t as easy as all that.” Eric said.

“All humility aside, it was that easy. I stuck a gun in this poor, polite man’s face and asked him how he wanted to attain perfection. He had the nerve to tell me to shoot him dead.” Terence looked away from Eric. “That didn’t work for me. I had stopped shooting people long before. I couldn’t go against my word and bind him. It was a problem, a situation. I had no choice but to let him live. So instead of punishment I took from him an oath. He had to change his name and location. He had to help anyone I sent his way.”

“What was his offense? Why were you sent to apprehend?” Lead asked.

“No one told me, of course. Church doesn’t work that way, as you know. Far as I could tell it had to do with Eric’s profession. Man was a pharmacist before the Storms, sat on a pretty good stash of medicine and whatnots. He was doctoring in what remained of the Prescott Parish before being expelled for witchcraft.”

“I’m not a witch,” Eric said defensively. The accusation still held an obvious weight and pain with the doctor. “Ignorant peasants didn’t understand the workings of my medicine and assumed magic.”

“The order came, he was designated a mark, I was handed the bounty. Pretty sure that’s it, not unless he did something unsavory and didn’t tell me.” Terence looked at Eric and chuckled. “Wouldn’t that beat all, if you were really a murder or sex pervert or something gruesome, and I still let you go.”

“Why did you stop killing?” Lead asked.

Terence’s expression turned solemn. He looked to the boarded window.

“I was a grown man when the Storms struck. I lost a lot. Everything that made sense vanished. You may or may not get what I tell you, but that kind of thing puts a hole in a man. I joined up with the Guards in California, later we joined with the Zona Militia, Arizona at the time. I stopped trying to make sense and started following those who told me they understood what was happening. My life found purpose with the Guards and the Church. They ordered me to strike the cause of the Storms, to extinguish sin and make the world whole, to do my duty and earn my place in the lesser inherited Earth. I can’t say I believed them, but at the same time belief didn’t matter. With them I had purpose. With them I helped raze Vegas. With them I swept and crushed the Mexican scavenger parties in the Hot Zones. With them I hunted and murdered or imprisoned enemies of the Church, the marks. The killings didn’t fill the hole. One day I found myself facing a blanket Goodman in Saint John’s Town and I couldn’t pull the trigger. I lashed him in my rage. I beat him till he lay bleeding out on the floor of his cabin, but I couldn’t pull the trigger. Afterward, I nursed him to health. He became the first Dead. His name was Jackson Corning. I brought him back to life and he helped me keep alive the others who wouldn’t go to Purgatory, he renamed himself Aaron Century, though I always called him Aaron the Dead.”

Lead’s face turned white. He tried to swallow against the lump in his throat. Anxiety filled his chest with imaginary needles. Terence saw Lead’s panic.  He nodded knowingly at the Preacher.

“I put Century under the blanket.” Lead said. “I gave him the choice and he attacked me.”

Lead rubbed the numb palm of his left hand against the bubbled scar on his chest.

“I know,” Terence said solemnly. “Just like I knew they’d send you to me after Century was put down. If they figured out Century, they’d know about me. I don’t agree with how Century took after you, but I knew after he was laid low you’d come for me.”

Terence leaned against a wall.

“I didn’t know if you’d put me under until I saw you. One look and I knew. You’re not mindless, kid. You’re like me, a man with a hole, but not all the way empty. You’re a man who’s starting to figure that killing doesn’t fill that hole.”

Terence turned his attention back to Eric the Dead.

“We’ve got Crusaders scouring our trial. Anywhere we set becomes dangerous ground. I’m sorry, but you and yours need to move to another station.”

Eric nodded at Terence. Terence looked back to Lead.

“You get to make your choice now. If you ain’t had your fill of the Church, we’ll knock you out, blindfold you, and put you somewhere safe where you can continue your life until a Crusader or Preacher puts you down. Maybe you’ll go to Purgatory. If, on the other hand, you’re done with the Church, you can come with me. I’m headed to New Pueblo. It’s a hidden place. They live the old ways outside of Church jurisdiction. I can’t make any promises to what life there will be aside from different.”

Lead let the words sink in. He thought back over the years of wondering, hunting, and killing. He had killed under the name of God’s will, and every death bound him with an anchor of guilt. Every murdered face stared at him when his eyes closed. He whispered the prayer for wisdom and forgiveness. Terence remained silent.

“I’ll go with you.” Lead said.

“Good. We leave tomorrow. Get some sleep; I’ll come for you later.” Terence and Eric left the room.

The next morning, men parted ways outside of C.R.A.S.S. To the west of them, a churning wall of dust marked the winds of the Storm Boarder. The ex-Preachers journeyed south, the pharmacist and his mule wagon of lab equipment journeyed north. The men continued in their lives and in parting, unknowingly severed forever from each other, for there comes a point in all men’s lives when they see each other for the last, and this was that point for the ex-Preachers and Eric the Dead.

VI. That which occurred in Las Vegas

Lead pulled the cloth mask off of his face and watched Terence twist smoke and fire out of a nest of desert branches.

“That day in Yucca, I recognized you from Vegas. That’s what kept me from gunning you dead,” Lead said.

Terence stopped his twisting and blew life into the embers. He tipped the smoking ashes into a crushed pile of tumbleweed. The dry brush exploded in the heat. Dust hung in the air and reflected the firelight, enveloping the ex-Preachers in a luminous cloud.

“That was a bad bit. If there’s a Hell, my place in it was earned that day.” Terence looked back at Lead. “What part did you play?”

Lead shook out his face mask, giving the dust back to the air. He spoke.

Plague and famine were long standing residents of Zona Refugee Camp Three. They took their toll daily.

Military tents housed survivors and uncollected corpses in numbers not significantly favoring one over the other. The fugees who had yet to join the corpses did not survive by will but by chance. They spent mornings and evenings staring at the razor wire perimeter, watching well-fed guards stand and chat and smoke. The fugees were waiting for the virus, or for their bodies to finish its closing cycle from lack of nutrition and clean water. The dead were sometimes recovered and discarded onto a funeral pyre south of the perimeter. The wrong wind brought the scent; the fugees grew accustomed to it eventually. The water of the nearby river receded in the heat, returning to primordial muck as the climate became less favorable. The water the fugees took was thick with grit; it killed from the inside out, with coughs of blood and vomit. Every few days guards distributed rations, but it was never fulfilling, there was never enough to eat.

Over time guards were rotated less, which meant less supplies and food. They too became leaner, like jackals. The guards’ uniform changed twice in the seven years of Leonard’s confinement. The first was subtle, the second, not so much. One day new guards arrived without the stars and stripes patch. They were in uniform, but the American flag was gone. A discolored rectangle on their shoulder marked the absence. No one mentioned it, no one asked, no returning guards carried it. Months later, the guards took to wearing silver crosses around their necks. The discolored patch was covered by the Zona’s crucifix-in-star. They started referring to each other as brother. The female guards vanished from rotation. Then the Inspection Committee came.

Leonard had grown tall in the camp, but his body was meager and his stomach was distended from malnutrition. His arms and fingers were long and thin, his chest sunk in contrast with his bloated stomach. The muscles in his limbs developed like rope close to the bone. Unlike many others, Leonard still could walk and stand, and for this reason he was escorted by guards to the inspection. Leonard was placed in a line with other young boys of passable health. A tent at the end of the line housed the Inspection Committee, whose job was to conscript boys into the service. The Committee was tasked with leaving those who were dying of the Rot or New Malaria or any of the plagues, and to take those of use and promise.

Leonard entered the tent and stripped off his soiled singlet. The inspecting guard shined a light down his throat and tapped his teeth with a metal pick. Another inspecting guard shined a light on Leonard’s testicles and anus, looking for telltale signs of the Blossoms. Leonard stood still and forced himself not to tremble until he was told to exit the tent.

Outside a young guard gave Leonard a loose-fitting pair of camouflage pants, a beige T-shirt, and white athletic shoes. Leonard dressed quickly out in the open. Another guard handed Leonard a .38 caliber police revolver.

“What’s your name, boy?” The gun distributer asked.

“Leonard, Camp Three, number 2305.” Leonard said.

He knew what the gun was and it frightened him. He shifted its weight in his hands and tried to find a way to hold it without appearing menacing.

The guard scratched Lead’s information in a large leather-bound book. He looked at Lead’s nervous shifting.

“Boy! Pocket that weapon!”

Lead shoved the pistol in his pocket and instinctively held his hands out.

“You’re now in Lead Group Two, number 2305.” The guard handed Leonard six bullets from a box sitting on his table.

“Hold still.”

The guard uncapped a felt pen and wrote LG2-2305 across Leonard’s shirt. Another guard escorted Leonard to the back of a pick-up truck where he waited with a group of hollow-eyed fugee boys. No one spoke.

They drove out of the fugee camp, north along the river to a town called Bullhead. In Bullhead, the boys were unloaded and marched into a circus tent. A one-armed guard directed them to banquet tables where they were served warm bread and soup. While they ate, a barber clipped their hair ragged and short. More guards came and collected the hair trimmings in plastic bags.

The pistol bulged uncomfortably in Leonard’s pants. He had loaded it during the truck ride. He had considered the shape and weight of each bullet before loading it into the tumbler. Each new item was wealth unimagined, magic.

At the end of their meal, a man with a long salt and pepper hair climbed onto the center banquet table. An enormous silver cross hung down the front of his red satin robes. He stepped over plates and bowls, but paid them no regard.

“Boys!” He said extending his arms to the heavens.

He jerked his head skyward and shook as if in convulsion, when he looked back at the boys his face was smiling with joy and rapture. His eyes showed wild and crazed. His voice boomed and echoed throughout the tent with strength inexperienced by the pitiful fugee boys.

“Boys! Thou art lucky! Thou hath survived the Apocalypse! Thou hath survived the Rapture! Thou hath survived the Plagues and the Viruses! God hath judged thee!”

The man paused as though waiting for applause. When none came from the bewildered fugees, he continued.

“He hath found thee unworthy with the rest of us to be taken in the Rapture, but worthy like the rest of us to inherit what remains! Thou art lucky to be given the chance to prove worth! Thou art the meek! Thou art the meek who shall inherit this Earth!”

His eyes swept the room, pausing to look into each awestruck face of each fugee boy.

“God hath graced us with his divine wisdom, and in that wisdom he has granted us the means for redemption. Thou will be redeemed! We shall be redeemed!”

The man threw his hands to the heavens.

“Redemption!”

The guards in the tent immediately threw their hands in the air and repeated the cry. The man shook his fists.

“Redemption!”

 A few of the fugees caught on and slowly raised their hands.

“Redemption!”

The man was lifted off of the table by two stone-faced guards. The fugee boys kept their hands raised. Leonard’s belly was full for the first time in memory, tears rolled down his cheeks as a guard placed a small square of chocolate in front of him.

“I don’t blame you.” Terence said.

Lead covered his eyes.

“Don’t condescend to me,” Lead hissed. “Have you ever been so hungry? Have you ever so wanted for food, for purpose, for answers and direction?”

Terence looked hard at Lead. His answer was slow and deliberate.

“Yes, I have. Do not feel shame in what you say. Please go on.”

The days at Church Camp stretched to weeks. The fugees were separated into groups for living and training. Leonard was placed in Lead Group Two, which consisted of seven boys aged thirteen to seventeen. In charge of their group was a grizzled veteran everyone called Jones. The boys were from refugee camps all over the Zona, all with similar stories of hunger, plague, and abandonment.

Each morning Jones ran them through calisthenics. The boys were made to run around their dorm tent until the dust kicked up a slow cyclone; then they did stretches, push-ups, and sit-ups. Afterward they were given rations of broth and made to do the exercises over again. Those who did not complete the regimen were given no broth and were held out from the afternoon feed line. The fugee boys worked tirelessly to be fed. They were given two meals a day in addition to morning broth. The food made them feel like royalty. No one missed more than a meal during those first weeks.

Group Leader Jones showed them how to use their assigned weapons; how to field strip and clean. He pulled Leonard from the exercise regimen and showed him the trigger, the sight, the safety, and how to quickly reload. At night, Jones read to the boys from the Bible. He made hand gestures in the light of an oil lamp and the boys imagined they saw angels and spirits in the shadows. Jones told them stories of the old world and its evils. He took them to the crucifixion of the boy who had accidentally discharged his firearm. They watched the boy scream as the sun burned his face and blood dripped from his impaled wrists, to be swallowed in the desert dust. The lesson was not lost on them.

Leonard and the fugees grew stronger. They grew to love the guards who fed and commanded them, especially Jones. Once a week they stood in front of a stage with all the other fugee boys and guards to watch the red robed preacher testify. The guards referred to this as Group Meeting and the message was always the same; they were lucky, they should be dead or in Heaven, but God had both rejected them and saved them. The world had been destroyed by the storms and plagues, which had been brought by sin. Always the red preacher pontificated on the sins of man. Now was their time. They were the inheritors. The world was theirs to claim and the old mistakes could be righted. Redemption was at hand.

The routine went on unchanged for two months. Leonard was comforted by the structure of the day, in always knowing what was expected. During the Leonard’s ninth Group Meeting, the red preacher gave a new message.

“Thou art the survivors,” he said. “Thou art blessed in the Lord’s eyes if thy purpose is redemption and redemption is at hand. Children, the old world was a place of sin. The old world was a place of placation and disregard for right, for holy, for good.”

The red preacher thrust his right hand into the air for all to see. A black crucifix was freshly tattooed across his palm. It sweated blood.

“Children, thou will be saved and in claiming thy salvation thou will strike against the heart of the old world’s sin. Thou will be vessels of the Lord. Thou will be the flaming sword of Gabriel come to life in a swift fist that strikes the heart of the old world and all of its sin. Just north of us, children, just over the horizon lies the capital of sin, the city of sin, the gathering place for all that is sick and unholy, Las Vegas! Those old enough, those of us who were men before the Storms know without convincing. Las Vegas is the city of sin on purpose, the capital of whores, criminals, blasphemers, homosexuals, and race traitors!”

Leonard looked to the guards and fugees. They all watched silently, consuming the red preacher’s every word, held by the magic of his zealotry.

“Who wants to show God we’re grateful to be alive?”

One of the guards broke the silence.

“I!” Said the guard.

Then the others joined in. Slowly at first, but building upon faceless mob confidence. The voices of hundreds came together as a roar, the roar of animals.

“Who wants to earn this world? Who wants to claim this world!?”

The red preacher was no longer looking to the crowd. His face was lifted up and screaming to the heavens. The guards and fugees roared on.

“Who wants to tear sin asunder!? Who wants to tell the Almighty that we understand!? Goddamn it, we understand!”

The red preacher leaped across the stage waving his hands and shouting. The crowd had taken to chanting in rhythm.

“Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.”

The red preacher waved his hands at the floor, signaling for silence. The chanting died down.

“I’m going to Las Vegas.” The red preacher said in a whisper, just loud enough for the crowd to hear.

“I’m going to Las Vegas to purge its sin. I’ll welcome company, but if I have none, I’ll go alone.”

Leonard looked to see fugees shaking their heads, some mouthing “no.”

“I’ll go by myself, and I’ll pull each building down, stone by stone, if I must. And I’ll kill each sinner with my hands, if I must. I will strangle the life of every sin-born man, woman and child, alone, if I must.”

The red preacher looked into the eyes of the crowd.

“But I’d rather have thee with me.”

His gaze swept back across.

“Every one of you with me stands for another building razed. Every one of you with me stands for another sinner’s blood let loose on the earth.”

The red preacher’s face broke into a joyous smile.

“I will see thee there, just like I will see thee in Heaven with our Father beaming down on us and saying we’ve made him proud!”

The crowd erupted again in shouts and promises. Fugees fell to their knees and wept. They promised undying allegiance to the red preacher, to the provider of food and purpose, to this leader.

The training changed after that. Sticks and clubs were added to the routine. The fugees practiced fighting from inside the beds of pick-ups like tournament jousters. They were taken into the Bullhead ruins and taught to destroy buildings; showed what walls were foundational and what walls were secondary and what kind of power could render stone and steel. They made explosives out of pipes and powder mixtures. The red preacher continued his weekly sermons, but now he spoke of Las Vegas exclusively.

During Leonard’s third month in camp, the order came. Las Vegas was to be destroyed and guard units from the Eastern California and Utah territories were going to assist. The fugees were ecstatic. Food and training gave them a new strength and they were eager to prove their mettle.

Exercising gave way to planning. Group Leader Jones was selected as one of the frontline drivers in an elaborate ceremony. He named Leonard and six other boys as his riders. The team was assigned a twelve-passenger truck with the roof cut off. In a separate ceremony, they named the vehicle Michael and from then on only referred to it by that name. It was now considered one of their teammates.

Jones walked with his head held high. Guards who had not been assigned as drivers congratulated him publicly and held in secret jealousy and scorn.

Leonard too felt pride in his selection to vehicle duty, in his designation as a rider. He took to cleaning his gun twice a day. He even shined and polished his bullets. He took to assisting Jones in the training of new fugees.

The red preacher announced the plan in a private meeting for drivers and riders. Arizona would strike Vegas from the south, ignoring the suburban structures and focusing on the inhabitants and palaces occupying the region designated as South Strip, the Eastern Californians would strike from the west and focus on the region designated as North Strip, Utah Guard claimed responsibility for the destruction of the area designated as Downtown, which they would attack from the east. No armies would attack from the north so a path of retreat could remain clear.

“Let the sinners run into the desert, God will claim them either way,” said the red preacher.

Terence remained silent through the telling, but could not hold in his disgust at the mention of the plan.

“Utah,” he whispered under his breath and spat into the fire.

The days of reckoning came. Leonard and the other riders loaded up their Suburban. An older boy, Jet, was given an M4 rifle and titled Rider Protector. The army moved slowly north, those who weren’t honored as drivers or riders made the journey on foot. They moved as a human wave, riding a crest of dust that reached for the setting sun and painted the sky new shades of brown and olive. That night they camped in the ruins of Henderson.

With the dawn sun they rode into Las Vegas. The front groups drove while foot soldiers ran their hardest to keep up. The drivers were much quicker than the foot soldiers and were the first into Vegas proper.

Las Vegas was bright and crumpled, like an empty candy wrapper. The casinos stood without power or sound, covered in streaks of mud and grit, a gift of the elements. Even without power they stood as marvels of the last age. Their colors showed in bright contrast despite the dust and mud. Buildings bustled with life, like ant hills populated by survivors of the Storms and Plagues.

Leonard shouted and pointed to a group of people huddled in front of what had once been a diner. One of the Vegas residents, a man with curly gray hair, looked up at the truck. Jet lit the M4 and cut him in half. The other residents scattered like mice. Jet pumped his fist into the air in victory. Jones swerved the Suburban and ran down a fleeing woman; blood spattered under the truck and coated two wheels.

Chaos swept into Las Vegas like a thing living and hungry. The Zona’s cars and trucks swarmed the streets and alleys, killing those unfortunate enough to be outside. Small arms and rifle fire popped over the rumble of engines and the residents of Las Vegas fled to their casino shelters.

From the east, helicopters swooped in and drowned out the sounds of slaughter. The copters fired missiles into casinos, showering the streets with glass and concrete. The residents of Vegas fled the casinos. The copters strafed the streets with machine guns, murdering residents and Zona soldiers indiscriminately.

Jones jerked the wheel; a casino tower exploded overhead, showering the riders in debris. One of the copters changed course and pursued their truck.

“Return fire!” Jones yelled to his riders.

Jet fired at the copter. The gunships minis unleashed a stream of lead into the Suburban. One rider, Pots, collapsed gurgling and gripping his chest and face. Another rider, Ephron, erupted like a sack of blood. Jones wrenched the steering wheel and flung the Suburban over an embankment, catching air before landing in the first basement floor of a covered garage. The helicopter lost line of sight and turned away.

Jones pulled the emergency break and skidded to a halt.

“Fuck!” He yelled out over the sounds of war. “Fuck!”

Jones punched the steering wheel and closed in eyes. The boys watched in silence as Jones took long deep breathes. He turned to the riders.

“Head Count!”

Leonard and the living riders called out their names. Pots and what remained of Ephron were thrown out. The riders winced as a missile smashed a nearby building and the earth shook. They trembled in fear and confusion. Jones forced a smile onto his face. He took control of his fear.

“Alright boys, the Lord’s work seems to be well underway, let’s pull back to the southern troop line and let these anxious Californian bastards have their fill.”

Leonard and Jet nodded, the other riders sat motionless. They were incredibly young and incredibly lost and coated with the blood of their friends.

The Suburban roared back to life and Jones drove through the rear exit of the garage. He let a group of helicopters pass before crushing the accelerator. Refugees fleeing the burning hotels and casinos flooded the streets and parking lots. Tens of thousands of survivors ran in horror and were crushed by trucks or shot by strafing helicopters. Jet emptied his clips gunning down men and women who clung to the Suburban in a failed attempt to flee the carnage. In the western sky Leonard saw a thick white streak of smoke reach out to the morning sky before bending and reaching back for Las Vegas with five smaller streaks, like fingers of a handmade of cloud.

Leonard pointed the smoke out to Jones. Jones was quiet for a second and then grinned over gritted teeth.

“Oh no! Oh God no! This thing is over! Time for prayer, kids!”

The Suburban screeched and rose to two wheels as Jones swung a hard left. A high pitch whistling filled the air and sky and drowned out the noises of copters and bombs and victims. Leonard gripped his ears against the whistling. The smoke fingers grew longer in reaching across the sky. Leonard pulled the pistol from his pocket and realized for the first time that he hadn’t fired a shot.

The Suburban shattered a plywood barrier and promptly fell into a blast hole.

“Get out!” Jones mouthed over the high pitch squeals. “Get the fuck out and run!”

The riders scattered in all directions.

The whistling grew sharper. One of the smoke fingers touched a faraway building and the world was coated in white light. Everything shook and hummed. Leonard ran as hard as he could from the light. Another finger touched the ground and the world turned brighter. Helicopters were flung into each other, into the buildings, onto the ground. A vertical rain of glass and wood and the remnants of mankind took to the air. Leonard ran. Another finger touched the ground. Leonard closed his eyes as tight as he could but the light penetrated his lids. The light could not be dampened. Leonard’s throat was raw with screaming he neither felt nor heard. Another finger touched the earth. Leonard’s feet left the ground and he was carried with the rest of the debris, carried into darkness.

“That was a Minuteman warhead.” Terence said. “A goody someone pulled from one of the Utah silos. They must have had a survivor with a command code or someone smart enough to get around them. Nuked Vegas, wiped out California’s air force, and took out most of the Zona’s walking army. They won that war before we even knew there was a war.”

Leonard woke under a pile of asphalt slabs. He opened his eyes. Flashes burned across his retinas. His ears rang in a pitch that muffled all sound and made the world seem distant. Leonard brought a hand to his ear and felt blood trickling down his neck. Three blast survivors ran past Leonard. They were coated in gray dust or ash, probably both. A long cloud followed them. Leonard pushed himself out the chunks of road and ran after them. He entered the cloud but the runners took no notice. Leonard ran in pure animal shock, following others who may know of food, shelter, help.

The runners ran towards a group of Zona guards. The guards looked at the gray runners casually. One of the guards shouldered his rifle and opened fire.

Leonard flung himself to the street, skinning his knees and palms. The gray runners twisted in a marionette dance as rifle rounds tore through their bodies. The dust cloud hung in the air as the last fell dead. The world was silent except for the ringing in Leonard’s ears, a ringing that would never completely go away. Leonard raised his head; one of the Guards prodded him with a rifle muzzle.

“Show us your script, kid.”

Leonard rolled onto his back and placed a bloody hand on his shirt.

“Lead Group Two number 2305, don’t shoot!” Leonard yelled between deep jagged breaths. He looked into the guard’s yellow blue eyes. A thoughtful look took to the guard’s face.

“We ain’t shooting none but Vegas and Cali folk today, kid. Don’t you worry.”

The guard pulled Leonard to his feet.

“Alright, you’re going to run south. That way.” He pointed. “Don’t stop, don’t scavenge. Utah just gave us the Fourth Horseman and if the wind shifts at all we’re all going to die slow and ugly.”

Leonard got to his feet and ran.

“The wind didn’t shift that day. I guess you could say God was smiling on us. Couldn’t you, Lead?” Terence said with a bitter smile.

Lead looked into the fire. In his mind the survivors slowly ran past him, the dust and ash of their homes streaming behind them.

“Why did we kill them? They were fugees like us. I don’t remember any of them putting up a fight.” Lead said.

Terence’s grin left his face. “We killed them because we were told it was the right thing to do. We were told we had a debt to God that needed repaying. We killed them because killing them was supposed to be the answer.”

Terence pushed a bark plate of prickly pears next to the fire. Lead watched licking flames loosen and split their skin. Terence pulled the plate back and peeled one of the fruit.

“God’s doing or not, man’s wrath ruled the day, and I pray each night never to see another day like it.”

The ex-Preachers ate in the silence of the desert.

VII. The story of Terence and how he came to the Zona

Terence and Lead spent nights crossing the desert. The moon was at the full end of its cycle. The clouds remained in the east. The night was illuminated by the lunar orb and stars and the occasional western lightning. Lead saw shadows in the distance, augmented by the traveling celestials, but he saw no demons or night spirits.

Lead walked behind Terence, watching his feet shift through sand, rocks, and brush. They trekked swiftly through the night. In the dawn’s light, Terence made a lean-to with brush and a reflective tarp he’d scavenged from CRASS. They slept until the sun retired. The men saved their endurance for the cool nights.

Lead’s body regained its strength. He was young and hardy and well-conditioned enough to keep in motion. He worried about his soul, about his severance from the Church. Through the silent nights he prayed for the Lord to understand and forgive on his day of judgment.

When the sun rose on the third day of trekking, Terence announced they were out of water. He dug two holes in the sand and placed empty jars in the center of each hole. He motioned for Lead to help him lift a large boulder. They wrenched it out of the sand with straining backs and grunts.

“Help me put this heavy bastard on top of that barrel cactus.” Terence said.

Terence smiled through the strain, happy in his wisdom. They heaved the boulder against the cactus and smashed it into large moist chunks. Both men collapsed in the dust.

“Can’t drink the liquid straight out of the pulp, it’s bitter poison. Takes more water and sick getting out of your system than it puts in. Killed more cowboys than the pox.”

Terence cut the cactus pieces into smaller chunks and tossed them into the holes with the jars. He covered the holes with folded plastic sheets from his pack and dug the edge of the sheets into the sand. He then dropped pebbles into their middle, making the sheets dip towards the mouth of the jars.

“The sun will cook the water out of the cactus, plastic will drip it into the jars. It’s clean, or cleaner at least.”

Lead crawled under the lean-to. He hadn’t spoken much since the telling of Las Vegas. Terence squatted next to the shelter and drew shapes in the sand.

“How long did you Preach for the Church?” Lead asked.

Terence thought in silence before speaking.

“Don’t suppose that matters; maybe twelve, thirteen years. I stopped counting birthdays and regular days.” Terence looked to the rising sun. “You know I was in the guard. When the states broke up I stuck to it and accepted the new boss. Got born again. How about you, you Preach long?”

“No.” Lead picked at the torn sleeve of his trench coat. “After Vegas I was put in a bible camp outside of Flagstaff. I kept the uniform shirt and pistol and they knew me for a veteran. I was assigned to guard the perimeter and keep out heathens. None came. The call to Preacher service didn’t come ‘till maybe two, three years ago.”

Lead snapped a twig between his fingers. He looked past the edge of the tarp, to the morning sun.

“I’ve killed a lot of men, a woman too.”

“I know,” Terence said. “That’s the service.”

“I don’t know how many I’ve killed in total, maybe twelve.” Lead’s voice trembled. “I haven’t been preaching long, but I can’t remember all the faces of the men I’ve killed or detained, or who got away.”

“They don’t retire us,” Terence interrupted. “In earlier days, Preachers worked together or at least knew each other. Church later realized we needed to be kept separate. Never knew a Preacher to leave service in any way but death or disappearance; at least it was that way when I knew Preachers.”

Terence shifted his back to the sun. “Preacher’s retirement is at the end of a mark’s club or under another Preacher or Crusader’s blanket. Make no mistake; you did right in following me out here.”

Terence laid his head under the tarp. The wind flung a plastic bag through their campsite.

“Do you know how many you put under the blanket?” Lead asked.

“No. Lots though. Not all my killings were put under blankets. I was a shooter in the guards. I’ve killed more than I can remember, more than what’s right for any man. I’m guessing a lot more than you.” Terence closed his eyes. “My soul is rolled up so there ain’t a way out of it. If I had another fifty years of saving men I couldn’t break even with the destruction I’ve wrought.” He looked at Lead’s back.

“I remember the first. Most nights if I remember my dream, it’s about that first killing. A man is not the same after he has killed another.”

Terence told his story.

The last year of San Diego was similar to the past years of San Diego in its wealth and splendor. People existed in beauty and opulence, except for those who were indigent; they settled for living near beauty and opulence. Highways stretched through miles of neighborhoods marked with greens and ocean views and weather that range from great to almost great. This was Terence’s home. He lived in an apartment a few blocks from Balboa Park, and a short walk from the zoo. He owned an annual pass to the zoo, which he and Christine, his wife, used almost every weekend. They walked the paths, weaving between tourists, to watch polar bears, orangutans, Meer cats; not so much there to observe the animals, but to be young and together and in love. When John, their son, was small they’d rent him a stroller. When John grew bigger, his child legs carried him through the zoo and park until he turned tired and cranky, then Terence would perch him on his shoulders and carry him like a Czar through the bird and monkey habitats. Some weekends they camped on the beach, or in the eastern mountains. The adventures were often repeated but never grew dull in their repetition due to the company. Their family was one held together in honest love.

Their apartment was a one-bedroom on the bottom floor of a three-story art deco building. The walls were painted white; the rooms furnished and trimmed in bamboo and sea green. Johnny slept on a racecar bed in the living room next to the kitchenette.

For work, Terence taught history at a charter school in El Cajon. The commuter traffic east on the Eight was always light; the serious commuters always came west from El Cajon to Downtown. Terence rode his morning commute for an hour each a day, five days a week, part of the inconvenience of city living.

Christine stopped working after Johnny was born. She had been a teacher. She preferred being a mother. Christine looked after the little one and kept house and planned the weekend trips her family lived for. They didn’t have much room at home, but it was enough. Terence worried about what they would do when John got older. They would have to find someplace bigger, further from the ocean and parks and zoo to stay in their price range. He did what he could. Teachers weren’t paid a lot. He worked, she didn’t. The concern lingered but was swept away in the good times.

The Storms started with rain. Talking faces on the television had argued about the weather for a long time, for decades. Some said it was getting too hot. Some said the heat was normal, that change in the weather was normal. They argued and argued and their voices became a steady drone that filtered into the background of all the other ambient noise of human existence. People stopped listening. Some never had.

The rain got worse and it brought winds and darkened days. The people of the coastal cities kept working, shopping, living. They watched their televisions and looked for answers, solutions, direction. With renewed attention they listened to experts argue about the cause of the weather and when it was going to end. The experts cried and moaned about God or science, some both. San Diego became less beautiful and buildings were damaged in petty floods. The beaches and parks closed. Many of the streets were closed, but people continued to live and to make the best of things, as the saying went.

Terence was at school when the first wave hit. It came as a wall of ocean pushed by Pacific earthquakes and what they later referred to as a sudden and unpredictable shift in the Earth’s polarity. The wave rode into the city of San Diego and broke the homes of man and creation and beauty. Klaxon alarms blared and radios and televisions switched to emergency messages, never to return to regular broadcasting. Terence abandoned his class. He ran out into the ceaseless deluge. He drove west, towards San Diego, towards the ocean and the waves.

The highways were rendered useless in both directions, loaded with cars first used and then abandoned by people who too late realized they could not navigate through standing water. People left their cars and walked in the rain, blank and confused, numb with tragedy. Terence opened his car door against the force of winds. He ran in ankle deep water towards San Diego, towards home. The horizon held funnels of tornadoes which ripped and tore and broke that which the waves hadn’t. Terence ran towards the horizon and tornadoes and destruction. He ran against the crowds fleeing and panicked. Blue bolts of lightning arced across the sky, illuminating clouds that would always remain. Terence broke from the crowds and waded through a runoff ditch. Somewhere in the sludge he lost a shoe. None of it mattered, Terence was going home.

“My neighborhood was wet rubble, unrecognizable. Buildings, landmarks, shopping centers, everything was ripped apart by waves and winds. The roads were choked with pieces of buildings, and overturned cars, and corpses. I found my home late in the night using street signs as the only remaining landmarks. I used my cell phone like a flashlight. The signal towers were not broadcasting anymore, but I kept my phone in false hope.

There was almost nothing left of my apartment complex. The top two floors were ripped clean away, like they’d been uprooted by the hand of God. I waded into my living room, which was open to the elements. Everything had washed out except my bed. In all that destruction, in all that devastation, my bed stood in its room, my last material object; a monument. I laid on it. Of course it was soaked but that didn’t matter. I waited for my family. I waited for Christine and Johnny to come home so we could leave together. I watched the sun peek through rain clouds. A rainbow formed overhead. The water rose to mattress level. I rolled to a sit and let my legs dangle in the water. From under the bed, a tiny hand reached for me.”

Johnny lay under the bed, peaceful, unmoving. In the panic of the tidal wave, he hid in the safest place he knew, under the bed of his parents. The wave struck and carried his mother and his home away and yet he remained, trapped under the bed in the water. Terence touched the hand. It was real. Terence’s chest clenched, his heart beat frantically. He pulled the boy out. Johnny was wearing his pajamas and blue galoshes. His skin was a similar hue of blue. Terence felt the boy’s necks and wrists. He shook Johnny and screamed and moaned at the boy and God in equal parts. Terence grasped the boy to his chest and rocked him, tried to force warm life from his own body to that of the child. His mind groped for direction, explanation, anything sane and rational. He lay down with the boy and closed his eyes. He whimpered, lacking words.

“I awoke to thunder and wind whipping itself back to life. Rain pelted my face. I looked to the body of my boy and knew for the first time, truly knew, that he was never coming back. I knew that he was gone, and Christine was gone, and my home was gone and the park and zoo and museums and all parts of a life I had lived within and loved.”

Terence rubbed has hands together.

“I was done with my beautiful life. I waded to what was left of my neighborhood market and scavenged cans of soup and bottled water. The shelves that stood were plentiful, there wasn’t enough life left in that part of the city to support looting. I packed a bag of supplies for Chris and Johnny and left it on the bed, like coins for the ferryman. I was that crazy with grief.”

Terence walked back into the bedroom. The water sloshed at knee level. He set the shopping bag next to Johnny’s body and touched his face for the last time. Terence slung his pack over his shoulders. He had planned to order pizza when he got home from work the night before. On pizza nights they usually played checkers. Johnny was old enough to play by the rules, though he showed no aptitude for the game. Terence stopped himself from thinking about it. He knew he should be crying but he couldn’t do it.

Terence wadded through downtown San Diego in the early morning light.

“The day before, when I left for work, I knew the storms weren’t right, that things were wrong with the Earth. I knew the world was ailing and we needed to move east, away from the ocean. It was in my head. I don’t know why I did nothing. A man’s job is to protect his family. He’s supposed to follow the right voice in his head, the one that tells him what’s wrong, what’s dangerous. I went to work like it was a regular day, like the wind and Hell of the Earth wasn’t blowing down the coasts. I ignored what was obvious. Before leaving, Chris asked me if I could take some time off, if we could go visit her relations in Arizona ‘til the storms stopped. I told her it wasn’t necessary. That the storms had to break up sometime.”

Terence turned away.

“I killed Chris and John. Nothing is right after that.”

Terence pushed the toe of his boot into the sand.

“You ever love anyone?”

Lead thought about it. “Jesus…my mother too I guess,” he replied.

“What about real women, not relation?” Terence asked.

“The ones at the fugee camp were older. Young ones were removed earlier on. Only ladies at Flagstaff camp were Marys or Goodwives. Preacher ain’t supposed to take a wife anyway; doesn’t fit the life and purity.”

Lead closed his eyes. He listened to the wind scour the tarp with sand.

“You didn’t kill your kinfolk,” Lead said. “It was the Storms. Storms killed lots of folk…”

Terence interrupted Lead. “A day later, walking the mountain roads to Julian town, seeking higher elevation, I killed a man with my hands.”

Terence looked to his clenched fists.

“He was middle-aged, simple-minded by the sound of his speech. He was scared, and desperate, and hungry. He wanted the food in my pack. I beat him with my fists until he stopped moving and breathing. I broke two of my fingers punching his face over and over and over. I beat on that man until he stopped moving and twitching and long past when he went over. I threw his body into a flood stream. I assumed I would feel bad about it, but at the time I didn’t. It didn’t matter. It was all part of my new tragic, empty life.”

Terence shifted.

“I hiked to Calexico where I met a group of guards tasked to hold the border against Mexican fugees. The Mexicans had it way worse than us with the Storms. The guards needed manpower to push back the hordes of men migrating north. I was young and able-bodied and American. I volunteered and that was that.”

Lead listened to the wind. He waited for Terence to say more, but Terence was finished. Lead drifted to sleep imagining cities filled with water.

They woke in the early evening. Terence folded his reflective tarp and placed it back into his knapsack. He pulled the jars from the water traps and handed one to Lead.

“It’s not going to taste right and it might hurt your stomach a little. The important part is to not let it out. Keep the water in you because that’s the only thing that is going keep you alive out here.”

Lead looked at the cloudy inch of water at the bottom of the jar. It smelled like cut plants. It tasted bitter and wrong. Lead held his breath in his nose and swallowed the rest. He handed the jar back to Terence.

Lead gagged and clenched his stomach until the nausea passed. Terence drank from his jar, gritted his teeth and sucked wind against the bitterness. Terence put the jars back in his knapsack. They began their nightly journey.

The ex-Preachers came upon a river of cars half buried in sand. In the distance, moon light reflected off of rows of windows reaching out to both horizons.

“That’s the Highway Eight. It starts under water in the Storm land and kind of runs through the ruin of mankind. From the old Pacific shoreline through the Zona, through kingdoms and lands I’ll never see,” Terence said.

The cars stood still and quiet and endless. Lead brushed the dust off of a windshield. A bleached white skeleton smiled back at him with its lipless eternal brilliance. Fleshless fingers rested on the steering wheel. A gentle breeze blew through the interior and shifted the tatters of the skeleton’s shirt.

“Don’t touch anything,” Terence said.

He gently pulled Lead away from the windshield. “Looks like virus sixteen or twenty-three, both were quick killers. Can’t see any other way someone would pass away clutched to a steering wheel.”

“What about a gunshot?” Lead asked.

“No. He would have lain down to bleed out, unless it was a headshot, which isn’t the case here. The skull is still intact.”

The two stared at the corpse for a silent minute.

“Come on, we follow the Highway Eight for a now. Don’t get too close to the cars. I don’t want to stir anything.”

Terence and Lead walked through the dunes next to the highway, past cars and trucks consumed by rust and dirt. The wind kicked up the earth and colored the air, making all things brown.

VIII. The Tucson Colony, a home for lepers and madmen

The border of Tucson was marked with burned-out house frames and punctuated with obliterated trailer parks. It reminded Lead of Kingman in its charred abandonment. Past the destruction, camp fires glowed and broke the evening black and attested to life in the town.

“We need to leave the highway now,” Terence whispered.

“Middle Tucson is a haven for lepers, resilient virals, and madmen. The Church dumped them here.”

Beyond the rows of buildings Lead looked to the bonfires and lit buildings. An inhuman whooping rode the night winds.

Terence pulled Lead’s six-shooter from his knapsack.

“In case there’s trouble you’ll want this.”

He handed the pistol back to Lead, handle first.

“You’re out of bullets.”

“I know.”

The gun felt comfortable in Lead’s hand, like the return of an appendage. He gripped the handle and felt its weight. He had relied on this tool for so long that it had become part him.

The ex-Preachers followed the edge of Tucson south, avoiding the noise and movement of the inhabitants. They lurked silently in the darkness. Lead clutched his gun and looked to the villagers circled in the fire light.

“We need to talk to them,” Terence whispered. “Without fresh water we won’t make it to New Pueblo.”

“What about plague?” Lead was worried. He had not forgotten his hard lesson about savage villages.

“No choice. We can’t live on cactus water. We need this.”

Lead followed Terence to the outskirts of a bonfire fueled by house lumber and furniture. His mind returned to the fire of the Jimson eaters near Havasu.

Around the bonfire stood men and women whose faces and bodies were cracked and twisted by mutation, radiation, and disease. They resembled the living dead; eating, speaking, and laughing in the flickering light. Faces stood without eyes, arms without hands, legs without feet. What skin showed was pocked and marred by sickness or scar. The villagers fell silent at Lead and Terence’s approach. Lead held up his gun, visible to the fire light.

“We mean you no trouble. We’re here on the Lord’s business,” Lead said. He rested his gun against his right thigh.

The nearby men stood up. Those who had hands clutched planks of firewood. One of them hefted a shovel. Terence stepped forward in haste.

“My friend misspoke. We are not here on the Lord’s business. We are men on our way south, looking to leave behind the Church. Let us pass without delay or violence.”

The man with the shovel approached Terence. He was dressed in dirty blue jeans and a red flannel shirt. Half of his face had lost shape and resembled melted wax illuminated by the camp fire. Thin arms held the shovel over his left shoulder.

“Look at these lovelies,” the man said over his shoulder in a strange, slurry accent.

“All dusty from the winds. Coming up from the sands like desert djinns. Who are you, rags?”

The man’s mouth twisted into a half smile, the disfigured side of his face remained solid, immobile.

“I’m Terence Wood, Terence the Dead if you recognize the name. This is Lead, he travels with me,” Terence said.

The twisted man’s face grew serious.

“We’ve heard of the Dead, but we hold none here. The ones passed through went south to New Pueblo or the grave.” His half smile returned. “What brings you to our gorgeous, God-given paradise, our Eden of monsters and half-men?” The man asked sarcastically.

“We’ve come to trade or barter. We’ll be headed south from here soon as we can,” Terence said.

“Good for you old man, we’re glad to trade. The Church won’t let a man who enters leave this camp. Says we’re unclean and they’re unclean, but that’s all bullshit. I say if God takes your life, in here is no more likely then out there.”

Terence nodded and held out his right hand. The leper let go of his shovel and shook Terence’s hand firmly.

“Be comfortable.” The man said and gestured to his seat near the fire. “Please, accept the hospitality I can give. I’m still human.” His face tightened in pain. “But please sit near my fire. Get comfortable. I’ll return with our representative and you can talk price and barter.”

The ex-Preachers sat on the ground and warmed themselves in the fire’s glow. Villagers stared at Lead and Terence with curious eyes. The men and women were horrifyingly misshapen, but something else separated them from the parishioners Lead was used to. He suddenly realized that they were not afraid. These men and women, bandaged, warped, and dying, creatures living in perpetual death had nothing to fear from the Church or gun.

Lead tucked his pistol into his jacket pocket.

“Thank you for your hospitality.” Terence announced to the villagers. “Thank you for the warmth of your fire and the comfort of this seat.”

Lead clutched the remnants of his trench coat closer to his body. The villagers continued watching the newcomers, making no noise. The man with half a face returned with an old ghoul, the obvious leader.

The ghoulish man was tall and lanky with a shock of white hair revealing his age in ways his rough horned hands couldn’t. He wore a black suit peppered with dust and sand. His black silk tie stood in contrast to a clean white dress shirt. The campfire’s light made the silk tie gleam. He faced Terence and Lead. A black silk cloth, the twin of his tie, covered his eyes. The blindfold also gleamed in the fire light. The leader’s face was a road map of burns and scars.

“I welcome you newcomers. My name is Reverend Richard Bell. Everyone here calls me Reverend Greek. You may as well. My associate tells me you’re here to barter.”

He held his right hand up in a welcoming gesture.

“I hope you find our accommodations to your liking, humble as they may be.”

Terence spoke. “We thank you for the hospitality. I did not imagine Tucson so civil and well ordered.”

“Aye, civil we are. We make the best of our abandonment and imprisonment,” Reverend Greek said.

“You’re prisoners of the Church, then?” Terence asked.

“The Church gives us supplies enough for survival. The Pueblo folk want nothing to do with our diseased, and we’re surrounded by miles of desert. We’re nature’s prisoners, not that I complain too terribly. We have food and water, and we busy ourselves with the care of the dying and infirm. A life of purpose and the means to continue it is more than I deserve.”

The man with half a face led Reverend Greek to the empty throne near the fire.

“What does that mean, Greek?” Lead asked.

The Reverend smiled. His smile was unnerving with his lack of eyes.

“It’s a type of people. They lived on an island on the other side of the world. Tan skin, big noses, kind of hairy, best warriors and philosophers for a big part of history. I’m Greek, or at least my ancestors were.”

The Reverend turned his face to the fire.

“What news do you bring of the world outside?”

“Don’t you have a radioman?” Lead asked.

“No, a radioman is too valuable to for the Church to risk on lepers and virals. We receive news from guardsmen sometimes, but most won’t come within speaking distance,” the Reverend said.

“My news isn’t fresh. The skirmishes with the Southern Utah militias ended a couple of months ago. Guards wiped out a few of large camps. There was talk in the Flagstaff Parish of pushing the Zona border north into Utah proper,” Lead said.

“Hopefully just talk,” the Reverend replied. “The Church would do well not to cross the border into Utah. The Mormons were one of the few groups ready for the end of the world, that being part of their belief structure and all. Soon as the Storms hit they circled up and closed off everything from Provo to Salt Lake. I’ll bet you a silver note they even got plumbing and electricity up there.”

The Reverend rubbed his hands together and turned his face to the night.

“South Utah militias weren’t nothing but non-Mormons. Found themselves excluded pretty quick. I’m surprised they only got put down a couple months ago.” The Reverend chuckled to himself. “I know all about Utah. I was in Las Vegas when Utah military regulars gave me this face.”

The Reverend took his blindfold off and turned his face back to Terence and Lead. His eyes were a milky white and without pupils.

“We were in Vegas,” Terence said.

“Everyone was in Vegas, or a part of it,” the Reverend replied and tied the cloth back over his eyes.

“Every man comes from his past, and often enough our lives cross paths. The world we live in was forged by the Storms, but the men who live today, those men are defined by what happened in Vegas, and I am no different.”

Christ Church of Equality was based in a walled-off compound outside of Rancho Cucamonga, California. Reverend Richard Bell’s flock numbered one-hundred thirty, but he only really counted fifty-three. They were the producers, the money-makers, the rest of the flock were just breeders and relations. The producers canvassed six days a week, spreading the holy word and collecting the holy dollar. They brought the funds; Reverend Bell converted the funds into food, guns, boats, cars, homes, land, necessities for his flock, and luxuries for himself.

In his heart, Reverend Bell was an atheist, a man of worldly possessions and lusts, but his words told a story quite contrary. He preached God’s love to the flock and they were happy to serve. They found order and purpose in the compound. Bell rationalized that he was providing a service, fulfilling a need to sheep who repaid him in labor and wealth. He rationalized it as being no different from any other business or religion. Anyway, the Reverend hadn’t started the Church of Equality; he had inherited it from his father, who had proclaimed Bell the next Messiah.

Every evening Bell preached to his flock. He followed his father’s model. He spoke of the horrors of the modern world, he spoke of murder and theft and rape and war. He also made up stories; conspiracies of the government and how powers behind powers were trying to control the flock or destroy them. The flock readily believed, for it is easy to believe the horrors of the world when they are listed in volume. It is easy to find the world frightening and without redemption and even unimportant men can believe they are center-stage to world-wide conspiracy, for every man is the central character of his own story, and holds the weight of that importance. Men of belief find it easy to believe, right or wrong.

Bell followed his horror stories with words of God’s will and love. He spoke of God’s decency to man, how Jesus preached equality and forgiveness, and how the flock will hold themselves separate from humanity until the world fully acknowledges equality and love for fellow men and women.

“My themes were simple. The world is bad, the government is bad, we are good; you are safe with us.”

The Reverend smiled again.

“I made so much money. The compound capacity was three-hundred, and I owned it free and clear. My dad built it with his first followers. The canvassers were told the money was to cover our expenses, with the rest going to help charitable causes furthering equality. I kept the money. The beauty of the church was that the outside world was as bad as I claimed. There was no real convincing required. Most of our members came to us from low and middle class neighborhoods of Barstow and Los Angeles. They had seen riots and violence.

After a similar church in New Mexico got torched by the old Federal government, we invested in guns and a first rate surveillance system.

I don’t have to tell you what happened next. Everyone knows this part. One day it started raining and it never stopped. The cities flooded, homes and hills slid off into the ocean, waves pummeled the buildings. Men and women fled the coast in droves.

It was funny to me, ironic if you think about it. I rationalized gun and food hoarding to my flock by hinting that end times were near, never expecting that the end times were actually upon us.

My dad once told me that people need convincing, and the end of the world is the best convincer.

He said, ‘Son, people are only going to follow what they fear or love, and by God we can give them both.’

So I had guns and I had food, and I had medical supplies, not because I needed them, but because I wanted my flock to think we needed them. And then the fucking apocalypse happens!”

Reverend Greek clapped his hands together.

“I didn’t know whether to shit or go blind, as they used to say.”

The waterline on the coast rose and tornadoes chased tsunamis through Los Angeles. The National Guard did their best in rallying the hordes of survivors. They raided supermarkets and gas stations for food and supplies. The soldiers pulled back to Orange County and set up tent hospitals and refugee villages above the waterline, but then most of the guardsmen were pulled away to repel the Mexicans near San Diego and Calexico. Everywhere was descending to chaos and the nation’s protectors were spread thin. Los Angeles and the surrounding suburbs went lawless in the course of about twelve days.

“There were about eight million people in the greater Los Angeles area and something like thirty percent of it was completely underwater. A lot of people died in the Storms, but there were survivors trapped under the waterline, too.

Elders in my flock suggested that we use my boat to hunt for people marooned on their roof tops and apartment buildings, to do God’s work in a real and tangible way, to act like Christians. For the first time since I was thirteen, I actually thought maybe there was a God and he was playing his hand. That maybe it was a good time to start acting outside of self-interest, just in case.

So I left with the stronger men of my flock, the long-distance canvassers. We loaded up a van with rifles, ropes, food, and first aid supplies and hitched my boat to it. We launched at the waterline. Huntington was like an all-access marina. You should have seen my craft, a beautiful sixty foot fisher with all the bells and whistles.

We spotted our first castaways about a half mile in, poor folk on their rooftops, half dead from exposure and dehydration. The water stank like sewage and oil, which was a large part of it. The top layer glistened oil rainbows in the sun.

At our third rescue a fat blond guy in a wife beater pulled a .38 and demanded we jump ship, like he was a pirate or something. Before I could get a word out, Jericho Ericson, one of my flock, put two 30-06 rounds in the guy’s chest. The stranger spun and sprayed and hit the water. The funny thing was nobody flinched. Not my flock, not the castaways we’d just taken aboard, no one. Everyone was sort of numb, like nothing could surprise us after the days of storms.

We went through the day like that. We filled the boat. We ferried the castaways back to Huntington. They waded through the filthy shallow water up to our van, where the flock was waiting to taxi them to the compound. Order was easy to keep, the flock had guns, and the refugees didn’t.

Out on the water we saw other boats rescuing folks, same as us. You wouldn’t believe it. Row boats, yachts, wave runners, fishing craft. Whatever was not destroyed in the tsunamis or storms. At one point I saw a yacht, a full-on luxury craft, with a famous movie star. Can’t remember his name, he played a cop in all those action movies, not the disgraced governor but the other one. And there he went, pitching in with the rest of us. Sometimes we saw people too far gone for help, people dried out and waiting to die. Jericho shot and killed three more men that day. He had developed a knack, I guess.

For me, it was a long day of work in contrast to what had been a pretty soft life. I refueled the boat at the van, set back out, and the boat filled up in an hour or so. The whole thing was like spitting in the ocean. I saved all the people I could, but before turning back I saw thousands more, laid out on their rooftops. They moaned and called for help, some fired shots at the boat, some shot flares into the sky, but there was just too many of them. I remember one family refused to get on board, said that they would rather wait for a military rescue operation to come. They’re probably still out there, their dried out bones waiting for what don’t come.

We worked through the day and into the night. We took the castaways who shined flashlights from their roofs. We worked until there was no spare fuel, until we had just enough to get ourselves home. On the last run I watched flashlight beams and torches extended to the horizon, a thousand specs of light from people who I’m sure died waiting.”

Reverend Greek’s hand shook in front of the fire.

“We returned to the compound. The flock sang hymnals to the refugees. It seemed like a good idea, though the refugees didn’t sing along. They looked empty, like the world was over and they were caught in a dream. We made a tent city in our courtyard and converted the main house into a kitchen and eating hall. All in all we saved three-hundred forty-six people. One of them died that night. He was far gone with fever and infection when we found him.”

Reverend Greek spat in the fire.

“We had a lot of food, plus generators, guns, and tall concrete walls. This gave us an incredible advantage over the rest of humanity. Tornadoes landed north and south of us, but Rancho was left largely intact. What nature left alone, scavengers and gangs stripped bare in weeks. But scavengers couldn’t touch us. The best thing about old, pre-Storm California was its restrictive gun laws. They’d done such a good job keeping the citizens gun free in good times that scavengers had little to work with in bad times. Gangs came to breach our walls with maybe a couple of handguns, or a rifle or two if they were lucky. Jericho equipped our tower guards with scopes, night vision, and Barrett rifles that could explode a man within a mile. Our security ran like clockwork. A gang would come for our goods, our boys would erase whoever was the loudest, whoever looked like the leader, and the gang would move on to easier meat.

After the rains subsided a bit, Rancho heated up. Not a normal heat; a moist, sweaty heat. Like a swamp. The sand turned green with algae and muck. Then came locusts, mosquitoes, flying bugs I couldn’t name if I wanted to, eating everything leafy that wasn’t covered up, or sucking the blood off the animals.

We had greenhouses and water catchments. Rain came and went. The first few months were actually pleasant aside from occasional skirmishes with gangs. The refugees for the most part integrated with the flock. We took in lone survivors and refugee families if they came to our walls looking sane and safe. Many adopted our religion with the understanding that those who didn’t were free to go when the federals restored everything. Television and radio were still up with emergency broadcasts, but the messages were old. Cell phone service, internet; they all went out with the collapsed infrastructure. The news we got was from wandering refugees and the occasional people we took in. News in those days was all about hope. Everyone wanted to believe that the rebuild was coming. The government would come back and relocate the refugees, rebuild the economy. They would reclaim the United States and regain their happy lives.

The seasons changed with no word from the federals. Everything was so hot and balmy with goddamn bugs everywhere. It was in the first summer that the sick broke out.

One day our gate guards let in a family that had come from the south, Chula Vista or Del Mar. They carried a little boy, eight or so, covered in angry red bumps. The boy was pocked and feverish and the family swore it was chicken pox. We put him in the medical tent with other refugees, those with heat stroke or broken arms; the parents were fed and housed as best we could.”

“Was it small pox?” Lead asked.

“Of course it was,” Reverend Greek said bitterly.

“It was new small pox, virus one on the Zona list.

It tore through the compound for two weeks. Sickness moved like the devil’s snake, eating men and women whole and all we could do was isolate the virals and watch them die. We lost eighty-three. We buried them out past the south wall of the compound. The dirt was like muck and clay. The graves were wet, but we dug them as deep as the land allowed and, prayed over them. We stopped taking new refugees after that.

The scavengers just about vanished after the pox really took hold. The wild men were too sick to throw rocks at our walls or swing clubs. Even cut off from other humans, even after the new pox had run its course; we’d still get sick. I guess it was the bugs; mosquitoes, lice, God knows.

From a rifle tower I watched the smoke of funeral pyres run three hundred and sixty degrees. All those roving gangs and wannabe villages fell sick and burned their dead. I swear to Christ it got so bad the clouds rained ash and everything reeked of smoke and burnt meat.

I fought for the lives of my flock. Every sickness was like a challenge from God. I received these people and sheltered them and I felt the obligation of leadership. We had no doctors. Two of my flock were registered nurses before conversion. They ran the sick tent. One of them died four months into the calamity. She caught pneumonia and it took her apart. On her last day it sounded like she was breathing through glue. She whispered words we didn’t catch and then closed her eyes forever.”

Reverend Greek pulled a silver flask from his jacket pocket and took a sip.

“She was one of my wives. Her name was Ellen Dannon Bell and she was a believer. She was thirty-five years old, pretty face, thick-bodied but still good to look at; a real solid woman.”

Reverend Greek put the flask back into his jacket.

“I’d offer you some of this hooch, but I probably have leprosy and it’d be a shame for you to leave here with that.”

Lead looked past Reverend Greek out to the navy blue morning sky. The sun would soon come.

“How did you come to Tucson?” Lead asked.

“I walked.” Reverend Greek said with a laugh. “Though not straight away; we stuck it out in Rancho for about eight years. Aside from the viruses, it wasn’t difficult to stay put. We’d been an isolated community before. The refugees tolerated our religion and we tolerated them, lest they broke our laws. Families were formed, children were birthed. People worked together. The one punishment was exile. It didn’t take long for everyone to get in line. Plagues reduced our numbers pretty quick; the deaths bonded us, surviving bonded us, belief bonded us. We gardened in the compound. We rationed food and water best we could, but our stores dwindled. I told the flock to still themselves and wait for God’s deliverance. We’d given up on the government.

Worry rippled through my people like a current. Then came murmurs and whispers and quiet words of fleeing, of starting somewhere else. I refused to discuss the abandonment of my compound. From where I stood, the outside world was populated by feral men and animals. From the towers I watched them scavenge through the husks of the old world like coyotes, lean and desperate. There was no proof of better grounds. Humans stayed behind stone walls, to risk our safety was to risk those of us who had rightfully earned our lives by enduring the days of plague and sick.

Then one night I dreamed a dream. I was sitting on a hill immersed in long grass. The sky was blue again, not the dusty mess it had become. Out of the grass a rabbit appeared and sat next to me. The rabbit cleared his throat and I looked down at him.

“There’s not going to be any rain,” the rabbit said. “The weather is broken. Take your people across the desert, for they will die here.”

I woke happy. God had revealed himself to me. I gathered the flock and told them of my divine message. We were to cross the desert east. Las Vegas was the logical choice. City like that was built to accommodate three million, maybe more. Shelter wouldn’t be a problem. All those resorts were bound to have canned reserves, bottled water, swimming pools. We were destined to turn the city of sin into a city of holy gathering.

Preparation took very little time; we had been idle in our shelter and took enthusiastically to meaningful labor. We repaired our vans and got them to running condition. We hallowed out the cabs to better fit people and supplies. We stuffed the vans with sixty-three of my flock plus scant provisions. Twenty-four, including Jericho Ericson stayed in the compound to await our eventual return. The waiters trusted that God would provide or accept them into heaven shortly. They were martyrs in their minds. They’re probably still out there.”

Reverend Greek barked a sudden laugh and took another drink from his flask. He wiped his suit sleeve across his chin.

“I’ll bet Jericho is standing in one of my towers, old and mean, that same 30-06 strapped across his shoulder, waiting to shoot the devil himself.

Highway Fifteen to Vegas was an absolute mess. The parts that weren’t clogged with derelict cars were broken to rubble by bad weather and lack of upkeep. We traveled at a near crawl in the dirt next to the highway. We had eight vans in a line, like cowboy pioneers on the Oregon Trail. We’d cut portholes into the roofs with mobile platforms for riflemen. I was in the lead van, standing out on the platform, swinging a birch staff I’d fashioned from a table. I was Moses leading the chosen to the promise land.

We got to Barstow as the sun dipped into the horizon. The light refracted orange through a dusty sunset, and all was quiet except the hum of our engines.

Unfortunately, our calm didn’t last. A horn blast cleaved the evening stillness. The blare echoed off of empty cars and buildings and drowned out our engines, and then Barstow came alive.

Hundreds of men and women ran out of broken homes and buildings. I hesitate to call them men and women; they were caked in filth and rags and looked the very jagged edge of humanity. They were barbarians without leader or direction; they just swarmed us in a dead blind run over broken cars and debris.

My riflemen did their work. They opened fire without hesitation. It was like firing into the ocean. The bullets did nothing. A man would fall dead to the ground and the crowds would implode around the body while others ran past. Each implosion was a collapse of hungry mouths and hands; they were eating the dead and wounded.

I yelled for the vans to punch it. We bounced through the rubble and rocks, swerved around overturned cars. I waved my staff at the sky and yelled to God for deliverance. Rifle shots punctuated the mindless screams and that infernal horn and they just kept coming, and coming. One of the rear vans overturned and was overrun. I watched as those monsters pulled members of my flock from the shattered windshield and tore them apart. The van’s rifleman gave up on the attack and pumped rounds into his own people to save them from the barbarians. The scavengers stripped him of his rifle, his clothing, his flesh, all in a matter of seconds.”

Reverend Greek spit again into the fire.

“His name was Frank Holister. I found him on a roof in Inglewood eight years prior. He’d converted and took a wife in the flock. Her name was Elise James Holister. She was in that van. They had a little boy named Richard Bell Holister. He was also in that van.

We didn’t turn back. We didn’t try to save them. We kept driving,” Reverend Greek grimaced in the dying firelight. “The human swarm consumed everyone and everything in that van and we fled. We took off and left them to a brief and horrible fate.”

Reverend Greek was silent for a moment. The heat of the rising sun touched the back of Lead’s neck. In the distance, a steady thump signaled the start of the corn grinder workday.

“We made it to Vegas the next morning. We drove into the part of the city once called the Strip. The hotels stood tall and intact, a monument of what was.

Our road was soon blocked by the stalls of an outdoor market. The Vegas folk looked at us cautiously but no one rushed the vans. They looked fed. They looked like humans. We stopped near the market. A black man in a cop’s uniform approached us. He held out his palms to show he had no weapon. He explained to us that a lot of people lived on the Strip, but if we were looking for shelter, the Downtown area was still pretty empty. He explained how the market was for food and sundry traders, for people who hunted in the hotel stores and traded their wares with residents and other hunters. He showed us the operational town wells and warned us not to approach them armed. He introduced Vegas militia men who guarded the wells. He was a good man. His name was Anthony Jackson. The Vegas militia had designated him as an ambassador to new people, a sort of greeter for Las Vegas. It was his job to contact the new residents and direct them to a part of town that had room. Fifty-three of us arrived in Vegas. Anthony told us about ten-thousand lived on or around the Strip.

We chose the Vesper Hotel, a golden twenty-story structure. The lobby was a massive casino floor of white marble, buttressed with red velvet walls. Slot machines, hundreds of them, were smashed open. Silver dollar coins coated the floor; whoever broke the machines left the money. I guess the destruction was done for its own sake.

The children of my flock invented a game of who could throw the coins the farthest across those vast empty halls.

From the roof of the Vesper, I saw the desert on all sides. Anthony followed me and my people up there. He told me the story of his people. He told me how Vegas was empty when he and division of the California National Guard came here years ago. The streets, the hotels, the homes, were full of dead bodies, dried out by the desert air and heat. They removed the bodies. They made room for a civilization.

One of my flock spoke, a quiet young man named Joseph Barnes, who asked, ‘What about Barstow? Are we safe here from them?’

Anthony gave a long silence to this. He looked us over. I’ll never forget the shake in his voice.

‘You went through Barstow?’ He asked.

‘They took one of our vans, and everyone in it,’ I replied.

‘There are no people in Barstow,’ Anthony said.

His jaw got real tight, so you could see the muscles working in his chin.

‘No one in Barstow, but if an animal comes to us from the desert, we’ll shoot it dead soon as anything else.’

Anthony drove a stare right through me. He looked to the flock.

‘Don’t go telling anyone you drove through Barstow. People here have funny ideas about that place.’

Anthony left us to get settled in. We rifled our way past the hotel room mag-locks. More times than not the room had a body, sometimes two or three; dried husks of men and women settled into bed. We burned the bodies in the street. I said a prayer for each one.

The basement of the Vesper was a kitchen of volume and expanse, like a warehouse. The pantry made my eyes water. Canned hams, bags of dry beans, any kind of canned fruit or vegetable, row after row after row. I saw that and knew the flock could live here, in this hotel, for years. We were safe. God’s prophecy had come true. We’d crossed the desert and been tested and found salvation.”

Reverend Greek stood up from his throne and stretched his arms and legs.

“Come, follow me to the shade. It gets so hot I can’t work my head right.”

Reverend Greek limped around the ashes of the fire; nimbly avoiding sleeping lepers and debris. Lead and Terence followed him into a mission church. Reverend Greek felt his way to a couch in the reception lobby.

“Not what I expected, being blind,” he said.

“I always imagined I’d see nothing but darkness, black. Instead I see nothing but white. Why do you think that is?”

Neither Terence nor Lead responded.

“So, the condition of our lives was much improved in Vegas. The wells pumped clean water. The well guards demanded food for use, but there was so much food in the Vesper and all the other hotels that it was no loss for us to trade. The people in Vegas were friendly, mostly just wanted to be left to themselves, they were rattled by the end of the world and sought peace in response. The residents rarely fought, if they did Anthony and the guards would exile them, which was the punishment for most offenses. The guards would round up the offenders, give them a jug of water, some food, and send them north, east, or south. They never sent them west; never towards Barstow.

Our daily lives eventually fell into routine. Every morning I gave a sermon on the roof. The flock created jobs for themselves. Some scavenged books and magazines, some acted as traders, and some foraged for food and supplies. We even had a team who appointed themselves beautifiers of the Vesper. They were equal part artist and janitor.

Vegas residents intermarried with our flock, and our numbers swelled. Everyone was from desolation, a lot of people had lost family members to the storms or plagues or hunger. Vegas was quiet, peaceful, a place to rebuild lives. When I was a kid my dad taught me about the idea of utopia, a perfect society. Vegas after the storms was the closest thing to a utopia I imagine I’ll ever see.”

“How long were you there before the attack?” Lead asked.

“About a year and a half. We had no idea they were coming. There was a guy in town, Jack, who owned a functional two-way radio. He caught chatter about governments reforming in the ruins of the states. He told us about the Reformed Arizona Theocracy, later renamed the Zona, North and South Utah, the Peoples Republic of Northern California, the Colorado Colony, the Revised Confederate States. It didn’t matter to us. Whatever was not within our immediate sphere seemed not to exist at all.

Everything was broken; cars, planes, trains, cell phones, computers, television, they were just garbage. One of the beautifiers built a wall of flatscreens in the courtyard of the Vesper. He cemented them together in a twelve by twelve cube with screens facing out. It was impressive. Kids used it for shade on hot days.

We didn’t think anyone would threaten us. The thought of war never entered my head. After the beating humanity took in the apocalypse, why would any man wage war? How can you justify the loss when there were so few of us left?

I found out later that the states attacked Vegas to purge sin from the world. We were without sin, our society was pure and good, or as close to it as I can imagine. That slaughter filled me with a rage so all encompassing that I haven’t felt anything else since.

I was on the roof performing a sermon when we heard the helicopters. I hadn’t heard the sound of a chopper in so long I assumed it was weather, but there they came, up the Strip, a swarm of black helicopters. Their engines churned and blades spun and the noise of it disturbed all peace far and wide.

One of their numbers detached and hovered in front of the Sedgewick Hotel, north on the Strip. The chopper stood there for a moment, like it was in contemplation, and then its guns went off. I couldn’t hear the gunfire over the swarm’s cacophony, but I watched the muzzles flash and the side of the Sedgewick imploded and glass rain down upon the earth. The keepers of the Sedgewick fled out onto the street and were run down by men in trucks, who seemed to slip in during the distraction of the helicopters. They looked like ants and toy cars from where perched. It was ugly, a butchering. The Sedgewick held thirteen families, all survivors of the Plagues who had traveled together in caravan before they settled in Vegas. They joined the Vegas colony two weeks before my flock had.

I looked back to my flock. They stood in still shock at the carnage. I broke the spell with a call to arms. I screamed and slapped and shook men and women alike.

‘Go to arms! Defend the Vesper!’

I thought for certain they had come to take our beautiful city. I thought they had come for our food and buildings and our wells. I could not imagine they would kill us for some antiquated imagined debt.

My flock took to action. The world had gone so bad for them, and then to find peace, and then to lose it again. They left me on the roof, swinging my birch Moses staff in the air, screaming commands to the wind. A helicopter took notice of us and flew over. It fired into the broadside of the building with missiles, punching holes across the front. The air filled with return fire of my flock, pops of rifles, the shouts of the wounded and dying, and glass, fucking glass raining to the streets from all those majestic shelters. The helicopter hovered and pounded the Vesper relentlessly. I strode to the edge of the roof and pointed my staff at the helicopter, willing it to fall apart. It just kept tearing into our beautiful building, with all of my people inside. I shook my staff at the sky and yelled at God. I remember that. I yelled at God. I thrust my staff at the helicopters strafing the families on the Strip and swung it to the one hovering just below me. I commanded the Lord to strike these murderers from the sky, to smite the slayers, to slay them!”

Reverend Greek wheezed and fought to clear his throat. His face darkened and his hard breathes turned into a ragged cough. He slumped over the side of the couch and let his lungs regain the air to breath. Terence and Lead watched the Reverend. They both were lost in the memories of Vegas, in the memories of the roles they had played.

Reverend Greek gripped his bench and pulled himself into sitting position.

“I’m sorry,” he gasped. “I asked God to smite the helicopters and the trucks, to destroy the machines of war. Of course my wish was granted in the worst possible form, you know what happened next.”

“The nukes,” Lead said.

“Yes, the nukes,” Reverend Greek said.

“I shook my staff at the helicopter and yelled to God and the sky was suddenly illuminated. The chopper was washed in a light so white and pure that it was literally the last thing I ever saw, or rather, it’s the only thing I see anymore.

The helicopter crashed against the side of the Vesper, it screeched and twisted and dropped out of the sky. A scorched air blew against my face and everything rumbled and vibrated. I dug my staff into the ground and leaned against the winds.

Another explosion took me off my feet. I spun directionless in the air; the skin on my face and arms tightened and blistered. I was flung into a stairwell and struck my head.

I awoke to silence, nothing. There were no noises from my flock, or from helicopters or guns or bombs or trucks or anything but wind. The wind whistled in the stairwell and through broken panes of glass and across the desert, ignorant of what was and what became.

I picked myself up. My eyes saw nothing but pure white light. The skin from my hands and face felt torn off. I imagined pink sun burnt flesh. I was sore to the touch of air. To my surprise, the staff was still in my hands. I used it to guide myself down the stairs, over human bodies and rubble. As I said, the hotel was silent, everything was silent. I found my way to the pantry and locked myself in. I ate canned food. I drank from our water barrels. I sat and thought, and sometimes I slept. Nobody came for me. I stayed in the pantry for a long time, eating, drinking, and thinking for days and days and days.  Eventually I grew tired of sitting and listening for ghosts. Apparently, the destruction was complete. I packed food and water, and I walked away.

I traced roads with my staff. I traveled south, guided by the heat of the morning sun. I walked for days. I walked in the sun and through the night. Eventually I came upon the town of Needles. Quiet men took me in. I didn’t speak so they assumed I was mute as well as blind. They couldn’t tell if I was viral given my eyes and scars, so they restocked my supplies and sent me on my way. I followed the roads and the sun and eventually came here. I give leadership to lepers and virals. Once a week I give a sermon. That’s it. That’s my story. So you tell me, in Vegas, were you soldiers or were you people?”

Terence spoke.

“We were soldiers. I would ask for your forgiveness, but it is not required. Just know that our acts were the acts of men lost and hungry, and no more a dangerous thing exists than men who are lost and hungry.”

Lead sat silently. His mind listened to memories of helicopters firing upon his truck and friends.

“Forgive me,” he said.

The Reverend was thoughtful and somber.

“I don’t bear a grudge against either of you. Any payment for sin is between you and the Lord. I’m sorry to bring old memories better forgotten. Let’s trade goods. If you’ll be traveling in the night you can sleep in this church.”

“Offer the man your gun, Lead,” Terence said.

Lead pulled the pistol from his pocket and reluctantly placed it on the table in front of the Reverend.

“We offer this for water and food, we don’t have anything else,” Terence said.

Reverend Greek traced the gun with his fingertips. He felt its grip and pocked barrel.

“Oh my,” the Reverend said. “You must be a couple of hard cases.” His hand brushed what was left of rawhide grip. “At least one of you is a Preacher, was a Preacher, or killed a Preacher.”

“We,” Lead began but was swiftly cut off.

“Don’t tell me,” Reverend said. “I don’t want to know. I’ll take the gun. I can give you supplies for a couple of days, which is all we have to spare so there’ll be no haggling.”

Reverend Greek hefted the gun and rolled the cylinder between his hands.

“We don’t have any bullets to give,” Terence said.

“I didn’t ask for any,” Reverend Greek replied.

The Reverend stood and pointed the gun up to the church ceiling with a straight arm. He pulled the trigger and listened to the dry click.

“Like I said, you can bunk here; your supplies will be rounded up and left at the door before sunset.” Reverend Greek licked his lips. “You’re going to New Pueblo, right?”

“Yeah, what do you know about it?” Terence asked.

“They turn away any of my people who wander too far south. They want nothing to do with the virals. I don’t know where they are exactly, just that they appear in the wind and turn us away. They don’t offer barter, don’t socialize, most of my colony thinks they’re magic folk; spirits or such,” Reverend Greek said.

“Does the Church know about New Pueblo?” Terence asked.

“If they do it’s not by our doing. Like I said, most Church guards don’t want to get close to virals. Anyway, it’d hardly be kind of us to give away the knowledge of a people so secretive,” Reverend Greek said.

“Where do they turn your people away?” Terence asked.

“They show up down the Highway Nineteen. Follow it south. The signs are there, the cars are still lined up and it’s easy enough to follow.”

Reverend Greek put the gun in his pants pocket.

“I’ll leave you to your rest.”

Reverend Greek exited the church in his slow deliberate manner.

IX. The southern walk near what was once Mexico

Terence woke in time to catch the setting sun. He stretched and witnessed rays cut through the church which holes which were once windows. Lead already lay awake on a nearby pew.

“Time to go?” Lead asked.

“Yeah,” Terence replied.

“Do you think New Pueblo will welcome us?” Lead asked.

“I don’t know.” Terence replied.

“I assumed you’d been there,” Lead said.

“I never said I had. I heard about it from a man I found near Phoenix some years back. He said he was scavenging farm equipment and got himself waylaid by road agents, probably Purgatory guards. I was on an unrelated hunt for a mark and just happened upon him in the desert.

I tried to save him, but he was too far gone with infection and dehydration. The road agents strung him up to a Joshua tree. Its thorns riddled his back. I cut him down, pulled him off the thorns and gave him water. He was too weak to stand. We both knew he was gone for this world. I stayed with him until he died and buried him at the foot of the tree. Before he passed, he spoke of New Pueblo, how they lived the old ways. How only the good are tolerated there, whatever that means. They live outside the shadow of the Church, hidden in the hills and brush. He told me they were south of Tucson, in the fields near Nogales on the border of what used to be Mexico.

I never went. I was occupied with the Church’s business, or by then the undoing of the Church’s business. I was afraid it was a vision, a dying man’s dream. Sometimes I spoke of it to my Dead, my escapees from the Church. A few went searching I’m sure, but I never heard from them. You understand; I have no place to go. The Church will not stop its hunt for me. Utah, California, Colorado, these places are no better than the Zona. I have nowhere to go, so it doesn’t matter what New Pueblo is like. I’ll make a home of whatever I find or die in the effort.”

“What happens if their people don’t accept us?” Lead asked.

“I guess we keep walking. Come what may we don’t have a many choices,” Terence replied.

Terence and Lead strode out the church into dusk. The lepers and virals prepared their early evening fires. They gathered innumerable scrap remains of homes to burn as though slowly cremating their city over the course years and years.

The ex-Preachers found a plastic bag with bottles of water, dried meat, and pomegranates resting against the ornate doors.

The residents of Tucson observed Terence and Lead from their shacks and tents with eyes hidden in shadows. No one acknowledge the ex-Preachers out in the open as they walked through town. Word had gone around that these were dangerous men, possibly men of the Church. They were observed from afar and fitfully ignored in close proximity. The ex-Preachers noticed the difference in civility and understood the cause.

“Come on, lets use what light we can,” Terence said.

He handed the grocery sack to Lead. The ex-Preachers left the camp of the virals and continued on their path.

“The Nineteen,” Terence proclaimed with arms raised.

By dim moonlight the ex-Preachers came upon the line of cars and hangdog signs of the Highway Nineteen. They strode silently through rows of broken relics and artifacts. They moved at a slow, deliberate pace to avoid the sharp edges of crushed automobiles and hooked vines. The night lived in a chorus of locusts and crickets.

“What are you going to do in New Pueblo?” Terence asked.

“I hadn’t thought it through. What are you going to do?” Lead asked.

“I wouldn’t mind teaching school again. I was a terrific history teacher in my better years. If New Pueblo is advanced maybe they have a school, or would like me to build one,” Terence said.

“That sounds nice,” Lead said. “For me, it seems like I’ve been holding a gun for too long, either as a guard or preacher. I don’t want to hold a gun anymore. I don’t want to take life. I don’t want to threaten men. I’d like to try farming,” Lead said.

“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore,” Terence said.

“What’s that?” Lead asked.

“It’s from the Book of Isaiah; it’s a passage about warriors who become farmers, killers who become providers of life by destroying their tools of war and forging tools of prosperity. The passage fits; I think you’ll do well.”

Terence stopped and rummaged through his knapsack.

“Here’s something to get you started.”

He pulled a wood handled kitchen knife from his bag.

“It’s yours anyway. I pulled it from your shoulder in Havasu. I assume a jimson eater put it there.”

Lead raised the blade to the silver moon light. The wound in his shoulder still ached whenever he raised his arm above his neck.

“Thanks,” Lead said.

He slipped the knife into the pocket of his jacket.

“Thanks for saving my life. Thanks for helping me get away from the Church. Even if we don’t get to New Pueblo, I feel better now. I feel like I’ve done the right thing.”

“It’s nice to hear.” Terence said. “I didn’t do it for you, I’m paying a debt I owe the world, but gratitude is nice all the same. A lot people out there are like us, they just want to live. Good people will outlast the rule of the Church. No rule of law lasts for long, and there is nothing that can wholly destroy the good and evil that lives in man. It’s ours to own for the duration of time and whatever exists beyond.”

The ex-Preachers hiked through the evening and made camp at sunrise. They slept in the flat bed of a semi truck with Terence’s reflective tarp as a tent cover. They rose again at sunset and ate what remained of their pomegranates in silence.

“We should make it to the outskirts of Nogales before early morning if we walk through the dawn.” Terence said after they finished their meal.

They continued on Highway Nineteen, accompanied by the taps of their boots and the thirsty chirps of locusts and crickets. They progressed slowly and methodically through hills of rubble. The rubble eventually gave way to somewhat intact blacktop road.

“If no one contacts us we’ll make camp in the ruins of Nogales,” Terence said.

The morning sun revealed dense thickets of trees on both sides of the Highway Nineteen. The highway slimmed from eight to four lanes. Wind blew through the trees, filling the air with twirling purple flowers and seeds gliding on wings. Lead and Terence stopped and stood in flowers like rain. Lead plucked a spinning seed air out of the air.

“It’s beautiful,” he said.

The delicate wings crumpled in his fingers.

“Jacaranda trees; they grow all over these parts. The seeds float to their homes on fairies wings,” Terence said.

“Is that true?” Lead asked.

Terence looked at Lead incredulously.

“Not all of it.”

The ex-Preachers continued down the road through the shower of seeds and flowers.

The rising sun forced Terence and Lead to hike in the shade of the Jacaranda forest. The ex-Preachers searched for signs of active men and civilization, foregoing their usual daytime sleep. Miles ahead a tower of light stood inexplicable. The men walked towards it, though neither speculated as to its cause or material. On approach the source of light became clear; it was a telephone pole displaced to the center a pasture and coated in shards of reflective mirror. It stood fifteen feet over the men and fired the morning’s light in a thousand directions.

“This has to mean something!” Lead said.

Terence observed in thoughtful silence, as was often his way.

The ground erupted into clouds of dust. The ex-Preachers were suddenly surrounded by men coated in mud and dead grass. Terence and Lead turned back to back, Lead gripped the handle of his knife and Terence pulled his Van Cleef from his knapsack.

“Stay your hand, Preacher,” a strong voice commanded.

Six men stood around the ex-Preachers and light tower as though summoned from the very earth. The leader swung a charged crossbow to his shoulder in a rifle stance; another man leveled a rust-speckled revolver to Lead’s face. The wild men reeked of soil and looked more animal than human. Each was brimming with stone-tipped javelins and belt clubs to augment the threat of homemade or antiquated firearms. The leader was ornamented by a string of human ears around his neck. Each ear held a jeweled earring, which twinkled in the sun to match the light tower.

Terence pointed his gun at the ground.

“We’re no Preachers,” Terence said.

“Who are you, then?” The leader asked.

“My name is Terence Wood, this is Lead. Have you heard of me?”

“Aye,” said the leader, “I know of you, there are people in my city who have spoken your name.”

Terence smiled in relief. He released the hammer of his pistol and slipped it into his knapsack.

“Can you take me to New Pueblo?” Terence asked.

He looked to Lead and remembered his omission.

“I’m sorry. Can you take us to New Pueblo?”

The leader lowered his crossbow. His men lowered their arms.

“It is an honor to meet you and any of your company, Terence Wood,” the leader said.

“Please follow us into the trees, we must talk in cover and we have not much time.”

Terence and Lead looked at each other, the unanswered question hung heavy between them. They followed the wild men into the darkness of the forest, the winged seeds crunched under their feet. Two of the wild men stayed in the pasture to collapse the light tower.

“Can you take us to New Pueblo?” Lead asked.

The party stopped. The leader turned to Lead. He peered through the ex-Preacher with eyes like gun metal.

“No,” the leader said. “You cannot enter New Pueblo.”

Terence and Lead moved to speak but were silenced by the leader’s raised hand.

“We’ve been monitoring you since last night. You were followed here. There are two men on foot, armed and armored, three miles up the highway. A third man keeps their horses further back.”

Terence balled his hands into fists.

“Those men are hunting us, you must give us sanctuary!”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Wood. I understand your concern, but you have brought dangerous men to my house. You will not enter New Pueblo in the eyes of Church agents.”

“What do we do, then!?”

Terence punched the side of his leg.

“What do we do!?”

The leader kept his calm demeanor.

“That’s up to you. You are not coming to New Pueblo with followers. My people will not be endangered. You will not lead trackers to New Pueblo. I’m sorry.”

The leader cut the air with his palm and the wild men silently retreated into the forest. The leader grasped Terence’s shoulder.

“I know you are a good man, Terence Wood. I will accept you and any friend of yours into New Pueblo.”

The leader nodded at Lead.

“But to enter here is to enter clean; you must be free of the world outside. Resolve your problems, or leave forever.”

“I understand,” Terence said.

Terence’s face was a red mask of rage. His eyes were murderous.

“We’ll come back clean,” Terence said.

The leader grasped Terence’s wrist, nodded, and then silently vanished into the forest.

Terence walked back to the Highway Nineteen, to the center of the road. He closed his eyes to the afternoon sun and faced north. Terence stood motionless. He opened his eyes and scanned the distance for movement, for signs of trackers.

“What do we do?” Lead asked.

Terence sat in the road and crossed his legs.  He pulled his Van Cleef from the knapsack and removed each of its four bullets. He took to polishing a barrel with the scrap of an old shirt.

“What do we do?” Lead asked again.

“I don’t know, Lead! What are our options!?” Terence’s voice was tired, angry. “What are our options? Walk more? Let our bodies run out of moisture while we eat bugs and drink cactus pulp? Wander into New Mexico and pray we don’t stumble through a radioactive zone? I’m an old man, Lead! How much time do I have?

“I don’t know,” Lead whispered.

“I don’t either, so I’m going to sit here and wait for them. And when they come, I’ll convince them to go away, or let them finish me, or add the sin of more killings to my soul!”

Terence tilted sunlight through the four barrels of his pistol. He reloaded the bullets and clicked the barrels back into place. Lead walked from the tree line to the middle of the road. He sat next to Terence.

“You’re welcome to leave,” Terence said. “If we divide they may be forced to divide as well. Even if they don’t split up, one of us could occupy their group while the other gets a head start, maybe a couple hours.”

Lead smiled for the first time in a long time. He saw the futility of their situation. Once more, he was without real choices.

“You know, I don’t really have anywhere else to go.”

Lead took the last piece of jerky from his plastic bag. He set the bag on the street and watched the wind take it away.

“You think we’re going to die here?” Lead asked.

“I’d say there’s a pretty good chance of it.” Terence said.

Terence’s lips drew tight and colorless. “I guess here’s as good a place to end as any.”

Lead chewed his jerky. The salt stung the malnutrition blossoms in his mouth. The wind slid the grocery bag down the street; winged seeds took to the air again and floated past the ex-Preachers.

“If you could choose, where would you die?” Lead asked.

“That’s easy,” Terence said. “The day the tsunamis hit San Diego, when I lost my wife and son. I wish I had taken the day off from work. I’d wake up first and watch them rise. I would surprise them with breakfast at the Park Café, near the zoo. Christine loved their banana and brown sugar pancakes, which she would have ordered and shared with Johnny. I would have ordered eggs over medium with wheat toast and coffee with cream and sugar. We’d eat breakfast together and walk home. The café was only a block away, but it was a lush, grassy part of town. It’d be raining, so Christine and I would be holding each other while we walked under my umbrella. Johnny liked the rain, so he’d be splashing puddles in his blue galoshes, and we’d have to towel him off when we got back to the apartment. Christine and I would get settled in, turn on the television, and share a glass of shiraz. You know, I haven’t found a single intact bottle of shiraz in all my journeys since the Storms. We’d share a glass and we wouldn’t talk. We’d just hold each other and watch Johnny play on the carpet, and let the television talk to itself. Sometime near noon, we’d all go to my king sized bed and lay down for a nap. I’d fall asleep holding Christine and Johnny and the three of us would drift into the oblivion together. We would never wake, or if we did, it’d be together in the hereafter.”

Terence took a deep breath and slowly let it out.

“I should have gone with them and skipped all this fucking nonsense.”

Terence rose to his feet and yelled to the north.

“Did you hear that!? This is all fucking nonsense! The Church, the Zona, the Preachers and goodmen, sins and laws, it’s all fucking nonsense!”

Terence sat back down in the street. He shoved his pistol back into the knapsack and rubbed his sleeve across his nose. He looked self-consciously at Lead.

“Sorry,” Terence said.

“Where would you die if you had the choice?”

Lead was thoughtful for long minutes. His mind drifted in the formation of his narrative.

“I think I would have died with my mom in the fugee camp. Not how she died. She died burning with plague and seeing men and shapes that were not there. I would have liked to have died with her, but with me having the pneumonia. A healer in Flagstaff once told me dying of pneumonia is like slipping into a pool of warm water. That sounds alright, as far as dying goes.

Maybe I should have died in Vegas. I’ve seen things that I wish I’d never seen on the road, crucifixion, butchery, men feeding on men. The fugee camp was a horror show too, but I had never been part of anything as ugly as Vegas. Everything changed with Vegas. If I’d been closer to downtown, the nukes would have dusted me. I imagine that’s a relatively quick and painless way to go.”

“I like my answer better.” Terence said with a smile.

“Yeah, I like your answer better,” Lead said.

Terence scavenged the trees for dry wood and tinder. He dug a fire pit between slabs of asphalt.

“Do you think they’ll come tonight?” Lead asked.

“I don’t know. They’ll come at us at night; I just don’t know which night.” Terence dumped his twigs in the pit and went to collect more.

Eliphaz observed the ex-Preachers with his field glasses. He handed the glasses to his assistant.

“They know about us. The wood Indians must have tipped them off,” Eliphaz said. “I suppose there’ll be little surprise in our confrontation.”

The assistant placed the field glasses back in their case. He knew better than to speak to Eliphaz.

Time shifted in its constant worldly crawl. The sun drifted behind the trees and blessed the earth with color and receded to darkness, leaving the ex-Preacher’s campfire to take up the burden of providing light. Terence and Lead sat in front of the fire and waited. The moon had yet to make its appearance and the darkness outside of their fire was absolute. The ex-Preachers sat in silence, listening for the inevitable.

Lead woke to the sound of gravel popping underfoot; he suddenly realized he’d been asleep. Exhaustion and the stillness of night and the hypnotic hum of locusts had turned his body against his will. He had drifted off and now the camp fire was burning low. Danger was present.

Lead scanned the darkness for the source of the noise. He saw Terence slumped over onto the street, the firelight reflected off the tarp wrapped about his body. Terence breathed the shallow breath of sleep. Lead heard another pop from the darkness. He reached into his jacket pocket and gripped the handle of his knife.

A chunk of asphalt whistled in flight and struck Lead above the eye; he yelled as a camouflaged soldier leapt out of the darkness and tackled Lead to the ground.

Terence threw off his tarp, grabbed the soldier by his collar, and yanked him off of Lead. The soldier whirled around, pulling the cord of his Van Cleef. Terence caught his wrist and pressed the barrels of his gun against the young man’s nose.

“Let that Cleef hang, Crusader,” Terence said.

The young Crusader dropped his cord.

“Raise your hands and turn around,” Terence commanded.

Terence spun the soldier and pressed his gun against the back of his head. Clapping sounded from the darkness.

“Congratulations,” Elipaz said from cover. “My assistant assumed Lead would have put up the better fight. He doesn’t understand, when attacking two marks you must spend more time assessing the situation. Lead, though younger, was obviously asleep until a minute ago Terence, though older, was obviously faking sleep and waiting to ambush us. The older man was craftier, and thus should have been taken first.”

Eliphaz strode into the edge of light. He was dressed simply in a flak vest and camouflage pants. Both hands gripped a Browning Hi-Power. Terence turned his hostage to face the Crusader.

“I’m willing to barter if you are, Crusader.” Terence said from behind the assistant.

“I do not want to shoot your man, but I will.”

The Eliphaz pointed his gun at Lead, who was on the ground clutching the gash over his eyes, blinded by blood.

“I don’t want to kill your man either, old Preacher,” Eliphaz said. There was joy in his voice, Eliphaz relished confrontation.

“We’re at a stand-off. One man gets to shooting and none us of will live,” Terence said. “You turn back, everyone here lives.”

“You assume too much, old Preacher,” Eliphaz replied. “I see things differently. I’m holding a Browning loaded with armor piercing shells. You’re holding an Engholm four-pipe. Assuming your gun is not a toy replica, they haven’t made one of those since the eighteen hundreds. You might shoot my assistant in the head, or you might blow up your hand, or you might misfire. Even if you’ve taken care of that gun, and it was in firing condition, I’d be shocked if it was even loaded.”

Eliphaz took one hand off of his pistol and reached into his backpack. He pulled out a blanket and threw it on the ground. He then pulled a bundle of yellow nylon rope and tossed it next to the blanket.

“You know the routine. I present the question to both of you, blanket or rope? I’ll see you to Purgatory or I’ll see you to your grave.”

“It doesn’t have to…” Terence started when Eliphaz fired his gun at the assistant.

Two rounds tore completely through the young man and pierced Terence’s stomach and chest. The assistant yelped in confusion and collapsed on the road. Lead jumped to his feet at the sound of pistol fire. He pulled the knife out of his jacket and lunged for Eliphaz. The Crusader twisted into a fighter’s stance. Lead drove his knife into Eliphaz’s forearm. The Crusader hissed and clubbed Lead in the face with his pistol. Lead fell to all fours. Eliphaz clubbed Lead again. He collapsed in a heap.

Before blacking out, Lead looked into Terence’s yellow-blue eyes. They showed the embers of the dying campfire. Terence’s breath was short and labored, his lips streaked red. His hands clutched wounds that bled out into the dirt and sand and road. Eliphaz put his knee on Lead’s back and pulled his arms behind him; rough nylon rope wrapped around Lead’s hands and wrists.

“Like I said, old man. You assumed too much.”

Eliphaz pulled Lead’s knots tight. Terence struggled to breath. Blood roared in his ears like waves against rocks. Terence closed his eyes and saw things that were not there, or perhaps had always been. On the Highway Nineteen, outside of New Pueblo, Terence Wood took his last breath.

“You shot me!” the assistant screamed in panic. His hands gripped his wounds, his fatigues showed dark and wet with blood.

“Boo hoo,” Eliphaz said sarcastically. “Maybe if you’d done a better job, I wouldn’t have had to shoot you!”

Eliphaz gagged Lead with rope.

“Say a prayer for healing and another for forgiveness. If God can find it in his heart to forgive a shitty Crusader, maybe you won’t have to die of blood loss.”

Eliphaz finished tying Lead and struck him again with his pistol. It was unnecessary. Lead was already unconscious.

X. Lead is held captive by Eliphaz, as mentioned in the beginning

Lead woke tied across a horse. The sand and brush bobbed up and down in his vision. His head was numb and swollen. It felt misshapen. His wrists burned from rubbing the ropes which held his hands and feet across the horse’s belly. Lead look up to see Eliphaz’s boots.

“Bon Jour,” Eliphaz said.

He tugged the reigns of Lead’s horse.

“Welcome back to the world. You are Leonard Marchez, age twenty-six, five foot nine inches, brown hair, brown eyes, medium build, and discernable scars on the left hand, right hip, left pectoral, right forearm, and chin. You are otherwise known as Lead, which is short for Lead Group Two, number 2305, your identifying number and unit.”

Eliphaz squinted at sun. He took a long swallow from a canteen and spat onto the sand.

“You are the only survivor of Lead Group Two or any other Lead Groups. This earned you the distinction of salvation upon your return to the Zona, despite your lack of confirmed kills and claim to any at the Battle to Purge Las Vegas. You were taken to Flagstaff Parish and given the post of Regular Guard, an honor for a boy out of the fugee camps. You served with distinction, discharging your firearm on three occasions to keep the peace, though again, no confirmed kills. Seven years of service as a Regular Guard, you were promoted twice, first to Veteran Corporal, then to Preacher, still without a kill. Do you know why they made you a Preacher?”

Lead remained silent. His head pounded. Eliphaz raised his boot and kicked Lead between his shoulder blades. Lead’s mouth opened in muted pain.

“Answer my question, Goodman. Do you know why the Church made you a Preacher?”

Lead tried to bunch his shoulder against the pain, but his wrists were bound too far and straight. He could not move.

“No!” Lead spat out between gritted teeth.

Eliphaz laughed. “Good! I don’t know either. You were a glorified security guard, sent to the Lord’s trusted work. You were inexplicably promoted to Preacher and assigned to track a mark, Erin Briggs of William’s Town. You turned the mark into a goodman in three days, the dead kind of goodman. My report said you put five rounds in his chest.”

Eliphaz held five fingers to Lead’s face.

“Five rounds, all over the torso. You shot the man in his shoulder, stomach, hip, and chest. You know what that makes you, Leonard?”

Lead remained silent. Eliphaz kicked Lead in the shoulder, heat and pain blossomed in Lead’s back.

“I don’t know,” Lead said through gritted teeth.

“I do. I know what that makes you,” Eliphaz said. “That makes you a nervous killer, an amateur. I guarantee that was the first man you killed. Five wild shots, spread out like you were shaking your gun and shooting with your eyes closed.”

Lead twisted his head towards the sun. Past Eliphaz, the assistant lay slumped over another horse. Dried blood covered the assistant’s hands. A third Crusader led the injured man’s horse.

“Despite your nervous predilections, you made a passable Preacher. In three years you converted thirty-seven marks, twenty-five by the rope, twelve by the blanket. A decent record of service, I’ve seen better and I’ve certainly seen worse. Things changed with mark thirty-seven, Aaron Century. Tell me, Leonard, what was different with that one?” Eliphaz asked.

Lead turned his head back to Eliphaz.

“I’m not sure…”

Eliphaz kicked Lead’s shoulder; Lead’s body was a nation of pain.

“Think harder!” Eliphaz yelled.

Lead bit his lip. Speckles flashed in his vision. He struggled to stay conscious.

“We fought,” Lead said.

“You’re right,” Eliphaz said. “You fought Goodman Century, receiving the aforementioned scars on your left hand, hip, left pectoral. During your fight with Goodman Century you came pretty close to having a steak knife put through your heart.”

Eliphaz held up his left forearm. His knife wound was wrapped in a stained linen bandage.

“You were stabbed, kind of like this, but in your hip and over your heart.”

Eliphaz kicked Lead at mid spine. Lead wheezed. The boot drove the air from his body.

“And then what? Church sends you to apprehend the mark Terence Wood, and you…?”

“Don’t,” Lead wheezed.

The bobbing desert floor was disorienting. His tongue was thick and swollen with thirst.

“Correct. You don’t apprehend. You let your mark go free before the eyes of the Radioman Smith of Kingman. Smith alerts the Church, I come to apprehend and find what?” Eliphaz asked.

“I don’t know,” Lead said.

“Wrong. You know what I find. I find sin. I find your sin and iniquity and incompetence. I find Preachers who disobey that which they have sworn themselves to, and I cannot accept that.”

Eliphaz kicked Lead in the ear.

Lead woke to the assistant’s moans. He turned his head and watched the young man clutch the reigns of his horse with hands still caked in blood. The assistant’s lips were bluish. Lead turned his head the other way and watched Eliphaz guide his horse around an overturned van.

“Look who’s up and squirmy,” Eliphaz said.

“Why did you kill Terence?” Lead asked. “He hadn’t submitted to the blanket.”

“You were there, little Preacher. He threatened my man.”

Eliphaz gestured to the assistant, slumped over in his horse.

“He put a gun to his head. That’s about as dangerous as things can get before someone’s life is snuffed.”

Eliphaz’s voice took on a tone of mock solemnity.

“It’s unfortunate that Terence was so entrenched in sin and wrongheadedness. He really was too good for all that.”

Elipahz recited Terence’s file from memory.

“Terence Wood, fifty-seven years old, five-foot ten, white hair, formally brown, blue eyes, medium frame, discernable scars on left calf, stomach, left and right wrists, and forehead near the hairline. He joined the California National Guard during the first Storms with thirteen confirmed kills in the Battle for Calexico. Of that battle he was one of the eight surviving guardsmen. Also, he was suspected of unleashing the chloride gas cloud that rendered Calexico lifeless after the guardsmen were overtaken. No confirmation, no admission. His unit was absorbed by the Arizona National Guard in Yuma where they continued to repel the Mexican horde. He was promoted to Sniper Sergeant First Class where he racked up another thirty-two confirmed kills. When Yuma was abandoned, Goodman Wood was transferred to Flagstaff. After the Zona Reformation, Wood was conscripted by the Church and resigned as a sniper in the National Guard. He swore his allegiance to the Church and the Bishops and all their infinite wisdom. He was immediately promoted to the rank of Preacher, making him one of the first. In his first three years he converted eighty-two Marks, twenty-three by blanket, the rest by rope. They sent him to Vegas with the forces in Bullhead, where he earned another twelve confirmed kills. He should have been promoted to Crusader, but after the Battle to Purge Las Vegas he earned a demerit for abandoning his post after the Utah bombs dropped. He was relegated to the first ring of Purgatory, the Hall of the Unclean, for six months. Upon his release he was reinstated as a Preacher and sent back out to do God’s work. His record states three-hundred eighteen conversions, two-hundred fifty by the blanket. Unfortunately, marks that Wood had registered as deceased started appearing in other places. The dead were walking, so to speak. In particular, Jackson Corning aka Aaron Century, a known sinner and anarchist, was spied in Ash Fork. You were sent to apprehend, and when it was confirmed that Goodman Century exist and fit the description of Goodman Jackson Corning, a Preacher, you, were sent to apprehend Goodman Wood.

I can see why you were swayed by him; he was obviously a man of power and resource. Three hundred and seven confirmed kills, with maybe a few hundred unconfirmed.”

Eliphaz shook his head and whistled.

“There was a killer in God’s good grace. And yet, sin and doubt cloud his judgment. His mind and actions became unclean.”

“You shouldn’t have killed him,” Lead said.

“Don’t blame me, little Preacher. God pronounced him a dead man and I acted as His hand. You of all people should understand the grace and wrath of our Lord,” Eliphaz replied.

Daylight burned the back of Lead’s neck. His arms and back ached. Eliphaz stopped the party.

“Set up camp,” he commanded.

The assistant raised his head, his eyes rolled to whites. Eliphaz glared at him.

“Jarrod, set up camp.”

The assistant fell out of his saddle and struck the earth like a sack. One of his feet caught the stirrup and twisted his ankle at a sharp angle. The assistant did not move or breathe. Eliphaz walked over to the body; he grasped the assistant’s face and neck.

“Dig a hole,” Eliphaz told the other Crusader.

Eliphaz untied Lead and gave him a sip of water and wedge of road bread. Lead was in too much pain to give resistance; he let himself be led docilely. Eliphaz allowed Lead to urinate before hogtying him to a boulder for the night. Eliphaz and the other young Crusader buried the assistant in a shallow grave. Eliphaz recited the Lord’s Prayer and then bowed his head in silence.

Lead and the Crusaders continued in silence for days. At each sunset, the Crusaders untied Lead from the horse and lashed him to a boulder or tree for the night. Lead’s body betrayed him with pain that would not subside. He swore to himself he would not cry out and gritted his teeth against the agony. His mind stayed with image of Terrence, and his mind burned with picture of his friend’s body bleeding out on the Highway Nineteen. Lead himself was coated in small wounds and insect bites and wracked with hunger. He forced his mind away from Terence. He thought of escape. He thought of Church’s prison, Purgatory, his destination. On the third day of their journey, Lead and the Crusaders arrived at Purgatory.

XI. Purgatory, the Zona’s representation of biblical punishment

Lead woke as his body was untied from the Crusader’s horse.

“We’re here,” Eliphaz announced as he dropped Lead’s inert body on the ground.

The sun’s radiance burned Lead’s morning eyes. His vision cleared and revealed the entrance to Purgatory. A chain link fence, standing over twenty feet and crowned with razor wire circled the entire complex. Trailers and portables speckled the sandy grounds and acted as the secondary standing structures. Towards the front of the grounds, a courthouse stood as the primary building. In front of Lead stood a gate, above which a scratch-iron sign proclaimed:

“Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter!”

Beyond the gate and the courthouse and the portables and trailers was nothing but desert, as imposing and restrictive as the prison fence and razor wire. Lead had been here before. He had delivered bound marks to this very gate. The same dead smell of rot touched his nostrils.

Eliphaz pulled a bell cord and waited for guards. Two eventually arrived, shuffling their feet in a combination of formality and haste.

“I’m Crusader Eliphaz, I deliver on to you the Goodman Leonard Marchez, of Flagstaff,” Eliphaz boomed for all to hear.

He held up the cross tattoo on his forearm, the sign of the Crusader, for inspection and then handed folded papers and Lead’s knife to the inspecting guard.

“Let the magistrate know, Goodman Lead resisted apprehension and should be shown no mercy or absolution. So says I.”

The inspecting guard, having been satisfied, nodded and pocketed the knife and papers. The guards lifted Lead by his bound arms and carried him through the gate. Having delivered their captive, Eliphaz and the young Crusader abruptly left, waiting neither for reward nor praise for their capture.

“Where are we going?” Lead whispered.

The guards did not respond. They were cloaked in black robes cinched with belts, the uniform of Purgatory guards. The guard to Lead’s left was marred with a scar running from forehead to neck.

“What’s inside?” Lead whispered.

He had heard rumors, but no one in the Church spoke specifically of what happened in Purgatory. Law forbade it.

“You’ll find out soon enough, sinner,” the scarred guard answered. “Make no stir or trouble. You’ll know the insides of this place soon enough.”

The guards carried Lead through an arch and into the courthouse of Purgatory. They traveled through an enormous hallway of stucco walls, worn and smoothed by time and bodies. At the end of the hall, a long white table stood in front of a towering ivory podium. All was colored white or gray. The black-robed guards stood in stark contrast. Guards busily shuffled through doors and passages, but none looked to Lead as he was dragged to the table and made to sit and wait.

Eventually a judge in billowing red robes appeared behind the podium. The judge looked older than any living creature Lead had ever seen. His skin was yellowed and crinkled like parchment. His fingers protruded from hanging sleeves like tree branches. What hair he had stood as tufts of cotton on his scalp. When the judge spoke, all guards stopped and stood in silence.

“Stand, sinner. Stand to hear the words and judgment of this court,” the judge rasped.

Lead was propped up and held by the guards. He was barely strong enough to stand on his own. His mind filled with fear.

The judge unraveled a scroll with his spindly fingers. He held the scroll at arms length and squinted at the print. He raised a finger and a guard brought a lit candle to the podium. The judge’s cracked lips silently worked themselves up and down as he read each line to himself. Eventually he looked up at Lead.

“You are hereby accused of the crimes of treachery and heresy. You have gone against the Church and our Lord in failing to complete your duties as a designated Preacher of the Church. Your charge is exacerbated by the fact that upon the commission of your sin you chose to flee the divine judgment and wisdom of the Church. Do you have anything to say in your defense?”

Lead scanned the judge’s face. He tried to think of a defense, he tried to think of precedent or Church wisdom to act as mitigation for his crimes. He wanted to find saving words but could not think past the pain in his body, the hunger in his belly, the dryness of a mouth which had received little water in many days.

“Your Holiness,” he started and then paused, looking for more words. “I’ve committed sin against the Church. I did not shoot the mark Terence Wood.”

Lead tried to gain his feet. It felt important to stand straight. He looked into the judge’s eyes.

“I did not shoot the mark, I had him under the choice, but he refused the rope. I could not make myself shoot him.”

The judge looked back at his scroll. He jabbed it with his finger.

“It says here, Goodman, that you slew twelve marks under Church command. What made this one different?”

“I don’t know, your Holiness. I lost the killer inside me. I couldn’t put a bullet to him.”

The judge leaned back in his chair; he drew forth a scrap of paper and read out loud.

“Crusader Eliphaz supplemental report: Mark Leonard Marchez passed through a village of nomad heathens on the outskirts of Havasu Perish. One heathen was slain by two gunshot wounds from mark Lead’s .38 caliber pistol. Two more nomads sustained injury by blunt force, possibly the mark’s pistol or a club, or a rock.”

The judge held the scrap of paper to the candle flame. It blackened and curled and turned to ash on his podium. It caught and burned to nothing. The judge stared through Lead. He spoke slowly, letting each articulated word echo in the courtroom.

“You are a hypocrite, Marchez. You claim the Lord stayed your hand from committing violence and yet you commit violence against heathens outside of Havasu a day later. What say you?”

Lead forced himself to stand straight.

“I admit I fired upon the heathens. They attacked me, I defended myself.”

“Terence Wood attacked the Church. He stopped apprehending marks. He stopped purging sin from our precious society, even worse; he let the sinners roam free in hiding. The fabric of our society is based on civil rules, Mr. Marchez. That which undermines our rules undermines our society. Terence Wood was a harbinger of chaos and his sins were unforgivable. Sin hurts society, sin hurts the Church, and as such, sin hurts you, mark. Sin brought our society to despair. Sin destroyed the first world nations, and it is sin that you were charged to fight.”

The judge drew forth another scrap of paper.

“Crusader Eliphaz supplemental report: Upon apprehension Goodman Terence Wood refused the rope and was brought under the blanket. In the ensuing combat Crusader Jerrod Black was shot and killed. I was wounded when the mark Leonard Marchez stabbed me through the left forearm with a knife.”

The judge held up the knife, the blade was still stained with Eliphaz’s dried blood. He put the knife down and held the Crusader’s report to the flame. Ashes scattered across the podium and drifted to the courtroom floor. One of the guards collected the ashes in his hands and laid them on the table in front of Lead.

“You are not an innocent, Marchez. You make claim to losing the killer inside; your very words of defense. And yet you stab a Crusader in the course of his work. Not only have you broken your accord with the Church, Mr. Marchez, you act as an enemy combatant of the Church. You sir, are treacherous.”

The judge raised his hands and the guards tightened their grip on Lead. One put his hand on the back of Lead’s neck while the other kicked out his left knee. Lead sprawled onto the table. The scarred guard twisted Lead’s head around so he faced the dome ceiling of the courthouse. Another guard pressed his jaw muscles until his mouth puckered open, and a metal pipe was forced past his teeth and into his throat. Lead tried to yell out but his words were muffled by the gagging pipe.

“You were a trusted Preacher of the Church, and you became an enemy of the Church, a lover of sin and treachery. You are a traitor against God and country and there can be no worse crime.” The guard with the pile of ashes approached Lead. He held the ashes above the pipe.

“For the foulest of crimes you are to be banished to the foulest of places. You are to consume the ashes of your sins. Eat your sins and pray that they will sustain you, for you are going to the Pit of Traitors. There you will be given no sustenance save the Earth’s clean water. Let your sin fill your belly, for the Church has no will to.”

The judge raised his hand and the guard poured the ashes into the pipe. Lead’s throat was instantly coated, his body tried to cough, but the gagging pipe and ashes blocked his air. Lead convulsed and lights flashed before his eyes when he was suddenly released by the guards. Lead pulled the pipe out and coughed a wet black mess on the courtroom floor. The judge sneered in disgust.

“Remove this creature from my sight.”

As Lead was being dragged away, a guard leaned in and whispered.

“Listen mark, you’re going to be rolled into the Pit. Stays in the Pit are short but few survive. You will be given no food. If you partake of the flesh of man, you know, eat people, you will never be removed. If you take in no sustenance but water, you will be absolved and survive your trial.” The guard smiled and nodded encouragingly. “Pray God be with you and cure you of your sin.”

The guard stripped the remains of Lead’s trench coat and tied a length of cloth over his eyes. Another guard pulled Lead’s arms back and tied him to a long plank. He was lifted and taken out of the courthouse. In the distance men whispered, desert birds chirped, the wind stirred grit.

“Good luck, sinner,” the guard said.

Lead’s binds were cut and his body thrown end over end. He tumbled over loose dirt and gravel for short seconds that stretched long in his fear and panic.

Lead impacted solid dirt and immediately tore off the blindfold. The sun stung his eyes; his lungs breathed air thick with human stink. The Pit was massive, perhaps twenty yards across. At the end farthest from Lead stood a shack cobbled from planks and rope bindings. The Pit squirmed with life. Innumerable emaciated men crawled on hands and legs to find shade against the sun’s blaze. What showed of their skin, what wasn’t caked in dirt and blood, was burnt and bubbled.

The Pit’s shack was its only structure. Three men stood in front of it. Their bellies were pouched in malnourished distension and their skin was a dark shade of gray, but aside from Lead they were the only men in the Pit with the strength to remain on their feet.

“Oy, give us your wood, new man,” shouted one of the gray men.

They approached Lead together, slowly, like predators accustomed to overwhelming prey. They ignored the moans of the emaciated men they stepped on or over.

Lead searched the ground for the plank he’d been thrown in with. Behind him, one of the emaciated men had wrapped his body around it and gripped it like a serpent. Lead tried to reclaim the plank, but could not pull it loose. In frustration, Lead stepped on the starving man’s hip to wrench the board free. He turned to the gray men, clutching the plank in both hands like a sword.

“Come on, lovely,” the gray man said. “Give us your wood.”

A gray man charged Lead with hands raised like claws. Lead sidestepped the man and swung the board into the back of his skull. The gray man collapsed, the emaciated men around him crawled away like frightened sloths.

“Right, tough one we have,” said one of the standing gray men.

“You like to fight, we like to fight too,” said the other gray man.

They moved to circle the ex-Preacher. Lead leapt back and pressed spine against the Pit’s edge. He held the board high over his head, ready to strike.

“Leave me be,” Lead said. “Let me serve my time to release and I will leave you be.”

The gray men paused just out of striking range.

“You are to learn,” said a gray man.

“That no time here is served out. The Pit consumes all who enter. No man leaves,” said the other.

The gray men retreated, pulling their unconscious compatriot back into the shack. Lead slumped against the dirt and watched them. One of the emaciated men touched his leg. Lead raised the plank above his head.

“Hold, new man,” the emaciated man pleaded with hands raised. “Please let me sit near you,” he whimpered.

Lead looked the man over. He was ageless in that he might be old or very old. Sun blisters and filth masked the man’s features, creating a creature both disgusting and pitiable.

“Sit where you are and talk if you will, I just want to serve my time,” Lead replied.

The creature crawled closer to Lead.

“There’s no serving here, sir. The cannibals did not lie to you. I’ve never seen a man leave this Pit, nor has anyone I’ve spoken to,” the man whispered.

“Cannibals?”

“True, they that possess the shack do consume men’s flesh. They have been here the longest for they do not starve. They will consume us all eventually.”

The emaciated man rolled until he faced the shack.

“They hide their deeds from the light, but all know; those who are captured and brought in are consumed.”

He turned to Lead. Pleading eyes peered through scars and seams.

“They whisper that my time has come. I’ve been with out food for ten days and have no strength to stand or fight. Please help me.”

Lead looked into the man’s eyes. He looked across the Pit at the other pathetic creatures, at men rendered into worms by need and lack of sustenance.

“What was your sin?” Lead asked.

“I am a traitor to the Church, same as all in the Pit. I assisted a couple of Marys in escaping Globe Parish. They were young and scared and were to be married to men of ill and violent temperament. I guided them to the New Mexico border. I was declared a traitor to the Church for this action. I was captured and bound outside of Globe. I do not regret what I done; but I don’t want to die like an animal.”

The emaciated man looked again to the shack.

“I need to sleep. I’ve been vigilant for days against the gray men. When I awaken, you must get sleep. I promise to keep watch over you and cry out if they stir.”

Lead nodded in agreement. The emaciated man crawled up against the dirt wall. Lead rubbed moist dirt onto his skin to try to ward off the sun. Both stared at the plank shack.

“I was a Preacher. I’m not anymore,” Lead whispered after the emaciated man had risen.

“One of the grays was a Preacher, too,” whispered the emaciated man. “So I heard.”

Lead woke to hoarse screams. His stomach was caved and empty. His skin was hot from the relentless sun.

“Say nothing, do nothing,” the emaciated man hissed.

Across the Pit, the gray men lifted a skeletal man by his arms and legs. He did not struggle, only let out a hoarse scream against the attackers. The gray men dragged the skeletal man into their shack. The creatures of the Pit squirmed to clear a path. Lead tightened the grip on his plank and stood up.

“Don’t!” The emaciated man said. He clutched Lead’s ankle but his grip was a weak reflection of his dying vitality. Lead pushed has hand down with the plank.

“I have to,” Lead said.

He walked away from the emaciated man’s whimpered protests. The skeletal man’s screams radiated from the shack. Lead walked slowly, imagining where the gray men would be in the shack. He wanted to form an attack plan, but found it almost impossible to think past the hunger in his stomach and the fear of the impending fight. The screams were suddenly cut off by a wet slap. Lead ran to the entrance.

Inside the shack two of the grey men held the skeletal man down while the third struck his face with a fist-sized rock. The rock was painted in blood. The skeletal man’s face was caved and not recognizable as human. The floor of the shack was strewn with the fleshless bones of men. The gray men looked at Lead.

“What do you want to do here, new man?” Asked the gray man holding the rock. “Care for a bite? The meat is terrible raw, but we have much.”

“You can’t eat that man,” Lead said, holding the plank in a fighter’s stance.

“He’s not a man,” The gray man said and stomped on the skeletal man’s face with a loud crunch. The man’s body shook with convulsions and just as suddenly stopped.

“He’s sin. I feed off sin. You feed off of sin, that’s our punishment.”

The gray man stepped over the corpse, the other two stood. Lead backed away from the entrance. Panic gripped his chest in a thousand cold needles; his breaths came out as shallow gasps. He backtracked slowly to the center of the Pit, plank raised over his head.

The gray men stood at the entrance of the shack.

“If you’re not a sin eater, you’re not allowed in our house,” the lead gray man said. “Only survivors are allowed in this house. You’re not one of us. Me and mine will feed on you soon enough.”

The gray men backed into shadows of the shack.

Tears streaked the dirt on Lead’s face. He relived the scene in his mind, replayed the foot snuffing the starving man’s life, imagined himself crushing the gray men’s heads; doing anything but retreating in fear and panic.

Lead yelled out in frustration. He screamed and shook his board at the shack, like an animal. Inside the gray men laughed and the Pit was soon filled with the wet sounds of tearing and gnashing.

“You will kill no one else!” Lead shouted at the shack. “Every man here is under my protection and the Lord’s protection and you shall eat no one else!”

There was a pause in the wet sounds. The leader of the gray men appeared at the entrance.

“You do that. Protect these men. We’ll just wait for you to wither and weaken and we will take what is ours.”

The gray man stepped back into the shadows. The sound of men eating man again filled the air.

“Get up! Get up!” The emaciated man croaked as he tugged on Lead’s arm.

Lead sprang awake, the plank in both hands. His eyes cleared in time spot the gray men approaching from across the pit.

“Aw,” the leader of the gray men said. “You have an alarm. How very cleaver, we’ll come back later.”

The gray men backed into the darkness of their shack. Lead looked around himself. He was surrounded by creatures of the Pit. Innumerable men, all on or near the verge of death, surrounded Lead with their bodies. Lead’s stomach clenched, the creatures reeked of sweat and decay and their proximity made Lead woozy. His last meal was days away. At mid afternoon, the guards had lowered water buckets into the Pit, but the liquid did nothing to dissuade his hunger. The plank shook in Lead’s hands.

“I feel weak,” Lead told the emaciated man. “Please tell me there’s something hidden away to eat, some bread or meat. I’ll protect you, but I need food.”

“We have nothing, though God has cursed me with dreams of banquets and rivers of liquor, I truly have nothing,” the emaciated man said. “Please hold strong, Preacher. I’ve been here so many days, maybe they’ll let me out. They have to release someone; otherwise what would be the point? Why punish for sin without a possible redemption?”

The emaciated man raised his hand to the waxing moonlight. His fingers were twigs, his arms were sticks and skin and veins. He wept shamelessly.

“Why punish me just to have me die? It does not make sense.”

Lead put his hand on the emaciated man’s shoulder. The man’s skin was loose and knurled like burlap.

“I don’t know why. I’ll protect you.” The words gave Lead strength though they felt like a lie. How could Lead protect any of them with the fading strength in his arms? How long did he have before the gray men came and consumed him like the rest of their cattle?

Two days passed with no stirring from the gray men’s shack. They remained in their protective hovel, gnawing on bones and letting time do work they wouldn’t have to.

The hunger in Lead’s body grew and whittled away at his reason. The afternoons were spent burning in the sunlight, staring at the shack that neither stirred nor gave noise. One of the creatures near Lead died; none of the creatures took action to move the body. All waited.

On the fourth day the gray men came out. Lead was still awake from the night before. Black-robed guards had descended in the night and removed the dead creature. Lead rose to his feet but was met with the muzzle of a rifle. He’d stood awake since.

Lead’s legs shook, he hefted the plank but its weight was almost unmanageable, like it was dipped in gold. It swayed with a life of its own.

The gray men were still, without hunger. They watched Lead stand on unsteady legs and swing an unsteady board.

“What say you, holy man? Do you have strength to protect yourself?”

The leader of the gray men strode forward with a fist-sized rock in his hand.

“Can you lift that wood to save yourself?” He asked.

Lead took a deep breath. He lifted the plank with both hands and held it in a fighter’s stance. His arms shook, but the plank finally stood steady. The hunger dimmed his fear.

“If you want me, come to me then,” Lead said.

The gray men separated and approached from three sides. The leader held his arms and rock outstretched to the sky. He twirled his wrists and the two others ran for Lead from the left and right. Lead closed his eyes and swung with his shoulders and back. The plank missed the first gray man, who ducked, but struck the second soundly across the ear and temple, snapping the plank into two pieces. The struck man dropped to the ground clutching his head. His ear had tripled in size from rushing blood under the skin. The second man tackled Lead to the ground. Instinctively, Lead’s hand went to his chest, for the Van Cleef that was not there. The gray man gripped Lead’s neck in both hands and squeezed his throat.

Bursts of light danced across Lead’s vision. The gray man’s eyes were wide and crazed with excitement. Spittle hung from his white lips. Lead’s vision tunneled with dark edges. Time slowed. He saw flecks of brown in the grey man’s teeth; the yellow coating of his eyes. Lead balled the fist near his chest and rabbit punched the gray man in his Adam’s apple. The hands on Lead’s neck tightened and then suddenly slipped off as the gray man sputtered and rolled.

Lead dragged himself into a crouch. The leader of the gray men gave a primal cry and struck Lead across the cheek with his stone. Lead’s mouth filled with shards of broken molars. He flew back in a full circle. Lead pushed himself up into a crawl. Blood from his face dripped into the dirt, fragments of teeth slopped from his open mouth.

The leader of the gray men struck Lead’s head. Lead’s scalp split open and sprayed blood on the attacker. Lead rolled back to the earth, both hands holding his head.

“You are a sinner!” The grey man yelled and kicked Lead’s ribs. “You are weak!”

The gray man kicked Lead in the chest. The impact ruptured scar tissue over Lead’s heart. Lead put his hand over the bleeding fissure and felt a sharp edge.

“You can’t save these worms!”

The gray man kicked Lead in the back. Lead pulled the tip of Aaron Century’s knife from his chest and looked at it dumbly. The gray man cocked his foot to kick Lead in the back again when Lead rolled and wrapped himself around the gray man’s leg.

“You can’t beg your…” the gray man started to say but was interrupted by his own animal shrieks.

Lead dragged the tip of the knife through the tendon behind the gray man’s ankle.

The gray man released another warbling shriek and fell to his knees. Lead pushed the knife tip into the gray man’s left eye. The grey man dropped his rock and clasped the ruptured cavity. Lead pushed himself back to his knees. He picked up the grey man’s killing stone and brought it down over the leader’s forehead. Both Lead and the gray man collapsed with the force of the blow. Lead got back to his knees and struck the gray man until his screaming stopped.

Lead crawled to the gray man he’d punched in the throat. The man was on his hands and knees, struggling to find his wind. The gray man looked pleadingly at Lead. Lead felt no emotions. His body ached and moved with the strength of adrenaline and nothing else. He brought the killing stone down on back of the gray man’s head and again on his jagged spine. Lead turned to look for man he’d struck with the plank. A tranquilizer dart pierced his left shoulder.

Lead woke in a bed, clothed in white linen. He was in a medical tent with rows of beds like his but empty. A door flap whipped in the breeze; canvas walls glowed with sunlight and breathed with wind. Lead tried to sit up, but his hands and feet were tied to the bed with thick leather straps. He looked up at the clicking of solitary steps. A beautiful Mary dressed in white robes approached him. A red cross crowned her white paper cap.

“How are you this morning?” She asked in genuine kindness.

Lead was unaccustomed to speaking with women, especially attractive ones. He remained silent.

“Be at peace,” she said. “I have bound your wounds and said a prayer on your behalf.”

She reached out and stroked his forehead.

“You have a strong will to live. You will keep living as God wills it.”

Lead looked into her blue eyes. She was beautiful in a way he had never seen. She was middle-aged, maybe seven years older than him, but not damaged by the sun. She was dark-skinned, with dark hair, but her eyes were bright and shone brilliant through the darkness of her features. He tried to speak but his throat caught. He tried again.

“What is your name?”

“Beatrice, you may call me Beatrice,” she said. Beatrice reached down and felt his wrist. She looked up and counted silently with moving lips.

“You’ll be fine, Goodman. Just keep living and breathing.”

Beatrice checked Lead’s bandages.

Lead’s chest stirred, he wasn’t sure what to say when Beatrice finished and started to leave.

“Come to see me again, soon, please.” Lead said.

Beatrice responded with a smile.

Lead woke to Beatrice looking down at him again.

“You need to eat now, Goodman,” she said.

The tent was saturated with the aroma of roasted beef and vegetables. Lead’s mouth salivated uncontrollably.

“Here, just one bite at a time,” she said, lifting a spoon to Lead’s mouth.

Lead tried to open his mouth, but the movement erupted pain. His tongue traced the empty gums along the right side of his jaw. His entire mouth swelled and throbbed.

“Please,” Lead whispered. “My teeth…”

Beatrice dipped the spoon into the bowl. She gently pushed broth past Lead’s lips. His stomach twisted and fought the strange food. His eyes watered. He suppressed a retch, partly to keep the food and partly to not embarrass Beatrice. Beatrice rubbed the stitched seam where Lead’s forehead had been sewn together.

“You poor Goodman,” she said

Lead woke in the night air. A stoic man in white robes was undoing Lead’s restraints. The man lifted Lead out of the cot and onto his feet. He presented Lead with a waste bucket and watched him empty his bladder. Lead looked around the empty tent. The white-robed man gripped Lead’s arm and led him to a different bed.

“Why are you feeding me?” Lead asked on his third day in the medical tent.

Beatrice smiled at him. She put the spoon of warm stew back in the bowl.

“So you won’t die,” she said cheerfully. “You are my charge and I’m to take care of you.”

“Am I to be released?” Lead asked.

“I don’t know,” Beatrice replied. “I don’t think so. You come from the traitors. I don’t know of any traitors who’ve ascended to freedom.”

She spooned more stew into his mouth.

“It’s all fine. Your body can be purged here and ascend to Heaven in spirit.”

Lead chewed the food with left side of his mouth. The stew was the best he’d eaten since joining the Church.

“Why are you here? This seems no place for a Mary.”

“Ah, Mary I am not, Goodman. My husband resides in the hereafter awaiting my return.”

Beatrice spooned more stew into Lead’s mouth.

“I am a Goodwife and will be until I too pass on.”

Lead woke to black-robed guards unbuckling his restraints. They held his shoulders and guided his feet to the floor.

“Come, Goodman. You’ve another day in court,” one of the guards said.

Lead recognized the scarred face guard from his first day in Purgatory.

“You need to stand for your charges.”

The guards held Lead in the same courtroom with the same judge.

“Do you know why you’re here?” The judge asked.

“Am I to be released?” Lead asked.

The judge smiled and covered a stifled laugh.

“Released? What have you possibly done to be released? You are a traitor. You were assigned to serve your penance in the Traitor’s Pit, the Ninth Ring. You were in for less than five days when you slew two men in wrath. You caved in their skulls front of the eyes of watching guards, in the open, with no mercy or remorse.”

The judge held forth the tip of Aaron Century’s knife; it glistened in the judge’s candlelight.

“You smuggled a weapon into the Pit and used it in the assistance of murder.”

“They were cannibals!” Lead said defiantly. “I fought them to save myself and the others!”

“They were eaters of the dead. They slew no man. They consumed that which was already passed,” the judge said.

“I witnessed them slay a goodman in their house. They crushed him with a rock.” Lead said. “They were murderers and deserved to die. I fought them in the defense of myself and the others.”

“And yet no guard corroborates your story. Oh, so now the guards, men in the holy charge of witnessing the actions of the Pit, hold false? Is that it? All holy men are liars but you, a slaughterer of men?”

The judge flung the knife tip across the courtroom.

“All men in the Pit deserve to die, but they die by the Lord’s hand, not yours. You are a murderer, a slayer of men, a sinner. You’ve indulged yourself in the gluttony of sin and violence and as such you will be treated as a glutton.”

The judge struck the podium with his fist.

“You are to spend five days in the Hall the Gluttons, after which you will be returned to the Pit of Traitors. May God have mercy on your soul!”

The guards dragged Lead out the courtroom and across the Purgatory grounds. They waded through long grasses which rolled like the ocean in wind to a portable near the back of the complex.

“Hold,” said a guard.

The men paused in the field. The guards affixed cloth masks to their faces. The masks wafted scents of cinnamon and clove. Lead struggled against their iron grips.

“What are the masks for? What is the Hall?”

“Strip down,” a guard commanded, his voice was muffled by the mask.

The guard leveled a .45 caliber pistol at Lead.

“I’ll have your silence, goodman, unless you want me to hit that fragile face of yours.”

Lead stopped struggling.

“I realize you have questions, but the answer is in the doing and there’s no getting out of this. Strip down.”

“What?”

“Strip down goodman, no prisoner enters the Hall clothed.”

Lead looked at the two guards. He stripped off his hospital gown and stood naked in the sun.

The guard motioned forward with his pistol and the party continued. The men walked past trailers and buildings with latched doors and blackened windows. The wind carried moans and screams and the clack and whir of old machinery still in use. The party walked past the edge of the Pit and Lead wondered if the emaciated man was still alive. The wind shifted and Lead smelled something new, a putrid, human waste, like the smell of a cesspool.

“That’s ours.” The guard pointed his pistol at a single-story log cabin. The party walked up a short stair case to an ornate door. The door was oiled redwood carved to show a hailstorm raining down upon men chained like dogs; the men wallowing in garbage.

“Had that door made special. In we go then,” the guard said, leading the party through the door.

Inside were raw wood floors and four white doors, set against badly carpentered walls. The air hung thick and impenetrable with the scent of human waste, Lead’s stomach clenched and heaved. His vision wavered and he fell against the scarred guard.

“Don’t let any of your wounds touch the ground,” the scarred guard whispered as he pulled Lead to his feet.

“If your wounds touch the filth in this hall, you will surely die of infection before your sentence is complete.”

One of the guards opened an interior door. The stench doubled in potency. An orchestral chorus of buzzing flies emitted from the room. The armed guard placed a chair and rope behind Lead.

“Sit down,” the guard commanded.

“No, please,” Lead pleaded.

Lead’s stomach unclenched and he vomited on his feet. The stink permeated all; it layered on Lead’s skin and coated his tongue. The armed guard pushed Lead into the chair.

“It’ll be alright,” said the scarred guard. “Survivors of this hall speak of getting used to the smell. Just don’t let your chair tip over. The corpses we do find tend to be laid out in the muck.”

The scarred guard coiled the rope around Lead’s body, feet, and wrists. Two guards lifted Lead and the chair through the open doorway. The floor of the room was an ankle-deep swamp of human waste. Countless flies covered all things wet and gave the room a disorienting illusion of motion. Lead vomited again, this time down his chin and chest. The room was small; the only light beamed down from a window in the ceiling. The guards set Lead against the wall furthest from the door. Lead’s feet dipped into the slime. His placement disturbed flies which clouded up like thunderheads.

“Don’t leave me here!” Lead yelled in fear. “Please, take me back to the tent, or the Pit, anywhere!”

“Tis good for your spirit, goodman. We’ll come back for you in five days time,” the scarred guard said.

Both guards shut the door. Lead whipped his head from left to right and shook his body. He tried get away from the ubiquitous stench. He tried to give the flies no territory to claim. But the smell was overwhelming and the flies were legion and panic blacked his vision and rationality.

“Noooooo!” Lead yelled at the closed door. “Let me out, let me out, let me out!”

Lead bucked his chair against the wall. The floor creaked and groaned through the muck.

“Nooooooo!” Lead yelled.

He struck his head against the wall. The stitches across his forehead broke loose. Blood ran down his face.

“Noooooo!” Lead yelled and struck his head again.

The door opened. A masked guard walked in. Lead tried to open his eyes, but could only squint against a mask of flies. His head throbbed with the beat of his heart.

“Let me out,” Lead said, holding himself against animal panic.

The guard looked up at Lead and then walked back into the hallway. Lead whispered a prayer under his breath but stopped when the guard reentered with a waste bucket.

“Sorry, I didn’t know you were in here. I got to keep these fresh,” the guard said. His voice betrayed him for a simpleton.

The guard heaved the bucket of piss and excrement onto the floor, disturbing the flies. He went back to the hall and retrieved another full bucket.

“Please let me out,” Lead said. “I’ve learned. I’m better now, please release me.”

“That’s not up to me,” the guard said and dumped the bucket onto the floor. “That’s for judges and God to decide.”

The guard brought in another bucket.

“You be good and they’ll let you go. Just be good.”

The guard heaved his last bucket into the room and closed the door.

“No, come back!” Lead yelled. He jerked his body and struck the back wall.

“Come back, let me out!” Lead’s voice was ravaged from yelling and panic and the soiled air.

Lead roared and struck the wall again with his head. He levered his toes against the floor and rocked the chair back and forth. The flies and horror stench erased all vestiges of a rational man. Lead’s entire being converged on motion, escape, freeing itself from that which was unendurable.

The floor creaked under the rocking chair. Floorboards saturated with years of urine and feces warped and cracked. Lead whipped around, throwing off flies and making the chair dance three-legged. A crash broke through the cacophony of buzzing. The boards under his feet cracked and fell into gaping blackness. Lead and his chair were swallowed into the hole.

Lead dropped into the crawlspace beneath the cabin. He landed in mud fed from the old drippings of the Hall of Gluttons. He squirmed in retreat through the muck. He flexed his body against the chair, which groaned and cracked against his straining muscles. Lead flexed his body again. The chair back snapped and Lead’s ropes loosened. Lead pulled himself from the mess of knots. He crawled through filth, head pounding. In his hand he kept a chair leg, still connected to the chunk of seat; a weapon.

Lead pulled himself out from under the Hall of Gluttons and stood. His naked body was coated with human waste. His toes clenched the long crab grass under his feet; before him stood the razor wire fence separating Purgatory from the Zona. Lead bit his tongue against the urge to yell out in joy. He fought the urge to scratch the filth covered skin from his body. Lead gripped the chair leg and pegged his way up the fence. His toes found purchase in the chain-links. The higher he rose the less he smelled the hall, the less he smelled his own body, the fresher and tastier the air became. From the distance alarms sounded and men shouted. Air horns pierced the early evening landscape and the voices of men were soon accompanied by the yowling of hounds.

Lead focused on the fence. Slowly he ascended, driving the chair leg into the higher and higher links. Lead lifted himself up to the bushel of razor wire. In some other world rifles fired and bullets severed links near his hand. Lead balanced himself and shoved the chair leg against the razor wire. A space grew between links and the deadly bushel. A bullet cut the edge of Lead’s ear. He squeezed through the new space and tumbled to the earth.

Lead was embraced by loose sand. A bullet kicked up the grit next to his face. In some far off place Lead knew that his ribs and back and legs hurt, but his body was numb. He rose to his feet and loosed a wild scream at Purgatory. Lead turned and ran into the desert. He was outside, he was free.

XII. The Pima desert is a land of sand storms and rare sanctuary

Lead ran barefoot against the backdrop of a burnt orange and bruised sunset. Rifle shots peppered the sand and dogs barked with men, and all of it focused and pursued Lead; it all belonged to a world Lead was no longer a part of. He had detached, dissociated. He felt no pain, or rather, that which created pain inside him had broken. He looked at the brilliant setting sun and bolted south, towards Tucson, towards New Pueblo, towards the grave of his friend, Terence Wood.

Lead’s bare feet carried him over sand and rock and brush. From the southern horizon loomed an enormous sandstorm, charging up from the Pima. In the far distance, black-robed guards poured out of Purgatory gates astride horses. Lead ran with strides like leaps. He tilted his head and bounded through the storm wall and into the blinding miasma of howling wind and earth.

The interior of the storm was otherworldly; an alien atmosphere populated by tornado worms and air that could only be ingested through gritted teeth. At the storm’s edge, horses whinnied and bucked and threw their riders, for sometimes animals show wisdom beyond the want of man. Black robes whipped like bats wings and guards struggled to control their beasts, to find fellow guards, to flee the storm before they were consumed like the escaped sinner had been. The storm swelled and reached across the desert into Purgatory. It scoured the structures and swept sand into the pit of men more dead than alive. The residents of Purgatory, freemen or not, fled for cover and more than one contemplated mans’ futility in the face of nature and the unquenchable wrath of God.

Lead shielded his eyes with his hand and squinted through fingers. Every attempt at vision was thwarted by grains of sand inevitably peppering his eyes. Lead waived his chair leg like a blind staff and continued short steps against the storm’s winds. Sand tore at his bare skin and scoured off much of the filth he’d carried from the Hall of Gluttons. His feet stubbed against rocks and cactus as he stumbled first without sense, then without direction.

Lead pushed on against the storm. All sense cut away, he saw nothing, his ears filled with the ubiquitous howl of wind, he felt nothing but sand against his skin and rocks at his feet. Lead was alone.

A dark image peered before him, a shelter against blinding sand, a black obelisk jutting from the earth. Lead knelt against object and cleared the grit from his eyes. It was a limousine, flung upside down and half-buried in earth.

Lead leaned against the body and propped his back against black glass. Above him the sandy winds ebb and flowed. Lead put the hand against the window. It was warm and smooth in a way alien to his touch. He pressed his face against it but saw nothing through the heavy tint. Lead swung his chair leg, the window imploded and little shards of glass like rice scattered into the dark unknown.

The air inside the limo hung thick with death, like a mausoleum. Velvet upholstery crumbled in Lead’s hands as he pulled himself into the shelter. At the back end of the limo, just visible at light’s edge, sat a body mummified by time.

Lead crawled to the mummy. Its skin had converted to leather, snug against skull and hands. The mummy was clothed in a lavish business suit, dress shirt and a blue silk tie; all items Lead recognized from magazines he’d seen. It was the uniform of rich and important men, men of influence who had won and then lost the physical world.

The corpse’s left hand was fused to a revolver. Tiny glass bottles littered the floor around the body. Lead touched the man’s cheek. The skin rasped like tree bark, the eyelids hung low over empty sockets. The back of the man’s skull was an absent and obvious victim of the revolver.

“Why’d you swallow your muzzle?” Lead asked.

He pulled the gun out of the man’s hands, fingers snapped and rolled and were lost in the compartment. The piece was a hulking .44 caliber, coated in rust and patina. Lead thumbed the hammer, but it was fused to the frame and would not budge. He laid down the gun down.

“This car was yours. This gun was yours, why did you snuff your own light?”

Lead turned from the corpse, the passenger compartment was lined was storage bins. Lead opened one and three water bottles fell out. Lead opened another and found bars of chocolate and bags of peanuts. Another compartment held tiny bottles of spirits, cans of soda, and more bottles of water. Lead’s heart raced; here was a bounty of food and water, sustenance to battle his rampant hunger and thirst.  Lead piled his bounty in front of the corpse and bowed his head.

“I thank you, and God thanks you. I pray that you are in Heaven, and that I may someday meet you and thank you for what you have left behind,”

Lead greedily devoured the candy bars. He drank one of the bottles of water. Lead lay uncomfortably with a full stomach. The winds outside whistled through the shattered wind, grit sprayed across the opening. His eyes grew heavy and his mind drifted to dreams.

When Lead woke, the wind was still whistling and a pool of sand had grown through the shattered window.

“I have to go, sir,” Lead said to the corpse. “Please forgive me for what I’m about to do.”

Lead took a deep breath and started stripping the clothes off the corpse.

The suit jacket and pants hung on Lead’s body. Malnutrition gave him the look of a man succumbing to illness. Thankfully, a belt of fine, black leather was still attached to the pants. Lead pulled the belt tight and cut a hole with a collapsible corkscrew he’d found in the pants pocket. The corpse also wore ornate dress shoes, stiff and cracked with age and natural decomposition. Lead removed them carefully and slipped them over his bare feet. They fit, though the low cut and thin soles were not ideal for the desert.

The corpse’s shirt was threadbare and stained. Lead tore off a sleeve and ripped it lengthwise to the cuff. He wrapped one end around the handle of the broken gun and covered the useless hammer and cylinder. He then threaded the neck tie through the trigger guard and tied the ends behind his neck, like a Van Cleef.

Lead cut out a leather seat cover and used it to bundle the remaining food and water. He exited the shattered window and rose into the desert winds.

The winds shifted, the sands settled. Night had fallen and the stars stretched out to infinity, tracing their slow spiral through the moonless sky. Despite his many and varied travels, Lead had never seen the evening sky so radiant. It felt to him as though God were reaching out with hands that comforted and yet proved conclusively what a diminutive and insubstantial creature man is.

The limo stood alone, empty save the mummy and trash; an oddity in a world of rocks, cactus, and sand. Lead’s eyes traced the sky until he found the North Star, Jesus’ Star. Lead followed the orb, used it to orient himself. He traveled through the night desert, fearing no monsters or demons, his mind cleansed of doubt and fear.

XIII. A nomad treks through life and shortly leaves thereafter

Lead wondered through valleys and dunes. He stayed low, out of the sight line, avoiding the men and dogs of Purgatory he knew must be following.

Lead trekked through dawn and dusk, always moving south. He sheltered in the daytime. Sometimes he slept under brush, though without fear of snakes or demons. Sometimes he slept in cars, though with no fear of the dead or their viruses.

Lead had been purged. All the sin, all the fear, all the doubt in his mind had been burned asunder by the shit and grime and horror of Purgatory. God did not speak to him with voice, but he felt God’s hand control his fate. His unbalanced mind found causes and reasons. Why had he met Terence Wood? Why had he suddenly decided to stop killing, to betray the Church? How had he survived the Crusaders and cannibals and filth? Lead incurred the belief that he was God’s true soldier. That he was protected from on high and had come to deliver His will.

God’s hand pressed itself in all he did. The early mornings and late afternoons were filled with divinities and shadows made clear in Lead’s addled mind. Lead traveled without fear. Things natural and old became to him an acknowledgment from God. Sunsets lit burning bushes. Boulders gave life to the faces of Moses, Jesus, Job, and the Apostles.

Lead giggled to himself. He contemplated the necessity of signs. God did not need to give him a sign; his constant survival was his sign. His inability to die was Abraham’s Angel or the Immaculate Conception or the parted Red Sea.

He ate all the candy and peanuts scavenged from the limo and his hunger drove him to capture bugs from under rocks. The fear of consuming poisonous venom and the sin of the desert’s mean creatures left his mind. At dawn of the third day he uncovered a rattle snake and crushed its head with a stone. He consumed the meat raw, without worry of illness.

Lead’s face and hands turned crimson in the unshielded sunlight, but he did not feel them. He had long ago scoured the filth of the Hall of Gluttons from his skin with desert sand, though it did nothing to erase the musk of excrement and insanity that wafted from him.

On the fourth dusk of his trek, Lead caught a smoke line in the distance. Lead crouched to the sand and stealthily crested the dune. A rag man sat shielding his meager fire from the wind; his skin was glowed yellow and sick in the fire’s light. Lead saw no markings of the Church, so he stood up and walked to the fire with hands raised. The rag man looked up at Lead.

“Evening stranger, no chance of you sneaking up, I smelled you long ago. You are welcome none the less.”

The rag man looked back to the fire.

“Please join me, company is rare here.”

Lead sat at the fire. The rag man’s face was as aged and tanned and wrinkled as a brown bag paper. The rag man pulled a dead lizard from his sleeve and skewered it on a metal wire. He held the lizard over the fire.

“Who are you?” Lead asked.

“I should ask first. It is you at my fire,” the rag man replied. “You’re dressed strangely. You have what almost could be taken for a Preacher’s Van Cleef around your neck and you smell worse than any man, woman, or child I’ve ever encountered. So I ask you good sir, who are you?”

“I am Lead.”

“That’s it, just Lead? No grand story, nothing to explain yourself?” The man said.

Lead thought for a moment. He gave gentle contemplation to the torrents and rage running wild in his mind. He looked to shapes shifting in the sand and the early stars smiling and realized the task of explaining himself was overwhelming.

“No.” Lead replied.

“At least you can tell me where the name came from. Last I remember mommas weren’t naming their babies Lead.” The man said.

“It was my regiment name in the Church Guard,” Lead replied.

“Well then that explains the Cleef. I don’t suppose you still preach with that shabby rig?”

“I don’t preach anymore, I’m…” Lead contemplated again. “I’m a pilgrim, I guess.”

The rag man smiled slyly. “Sure friend, you’re pilgrim, I’m a pilgrim, I think all us wanderers are pilgrims. Where is your pilgrimage to?”

“New Pueblo,” Lead said.

“Boy, I’m pretty sure that place doesn’t exist.”

Lead spit in the sand. “I’m pretty sure it does,” he said.

Lead let his finger drift to the handle of his Cleef. The rag man cleared his throat and shifted his seat.

“I’m on my way to New Mexico, maybe Albuquerque if it’s still there,” the man said nervously.

“I’ve heard there’s a lot of radiation zones out there, hot enough to kill a man pretty quick. You should consider New Pueblo,” Lead said.

The prospect of a traveling companion excited him; to have someone to talk to, another human being to interact with instead of silence or the rustling of hidden animals and desert winds. He could share the light of God.

“If it’s all the same to you friend, I’ll keep traveling my way,” the rag man said. “I don’t believe in radiation, anyway. All that nonsense about invisible beams killing you, government made it all up.”

The rag man turned the lizard in the fire. The smell of sizzling meat was intoxicating to Lead.

“No offense to your pilgrimage, I just plan to go my own way.”

Lead was briefly disappointed, then he rationalized that it was God’s will to let the man pass.

“Why are you leaving the Zona?” Lead asked.

“Lots of reasons. Were I to pick only one, I reckon one large one in particular, it would be the fact that I’m a drinker. When I find spirits and alcohol I consume what I can. When a young man, I used to joke that I was just trying to kill the beast inside me. As an old man I recognize it as the truth. I got a beast in me that demands I drink, and there’s no fixing or distracting it.”

Lead rationalized divinity again in his mind. He unraveled his car seat satchel and produced eight tiny liquor bottles. Lead held the bottles up to the fire’s light. The colored liquids radiated warmth. The rag man forgot his discomfort and drifted closer to Lead.

“You truly are a holy man. I tell you my problems and you bring me the solution and more problems. If you don’t mind sharing your wealth, I don’t mind sharing my dinner.”

The rag man’s eyes flashed eager in the fire light. He wet his lips with a brown tongue. Lead placed four bottles in the man’s palm. The rag man’s hands shock as he unscrewed the first bottle and held it up to Lead.

“Cheers, brother pilgrim,” he said and swallowed the contents in one swig.

The rag man closed his eyes and slowly shook his head in ecstasy. He held the now empty bottle over his heart.

“Scotch whiskey. Scotch whiskey is the patient man’s reward. It tastes silkier with age, and I tell you pilgrim, this little bottle has aged.”

The rag man licked his lips again. He opened his eyes and gestured to Lead.

“Please, I don’t want to drink alone. Have a drink with me. It will stoke your appetite.”

The rag man motioned for Lead to drink. Lead unscrewed a bottle and sipped the contents. Instantly, his mouth and tongue burned, Lead coughed and his eyes watered. The liquid spread warmth throughout his limbs but left the tasted of burnt toast on his tongue.

“That was not silky,” he croaked.

The rag man laughed and downed another bottle.

Lead steeled himself and drank the rest of the bottle. His body shook and more warmth spread to his chest and stomach.

“Where’d you find such goods?” The rag man asked; he sipped his next bottle of gingerly, savoring the taste.

“A big car. A limo, I think.”

Lead pulled the word “limo” from his childhood.

“A few days back I found a limo, these were inside.”

Lead’s words were somehow heavier and harder to get out of his mouth.

“That makes you lucky, these have value,” the rag man said.

Lead grabbed another bottle. The label showed a man in a dapper suit, much like the mummy from the limo. Lead twisted off the cap. The liquid smelled distinctly of juniper berries and fluids used to clean metal. Lead drank the liquid and steeled himself again for the bitterness and inevitable shakes. The rag man watched Lead with open amusement.

“I’m guessing this is your first time drinking?” He asked.

Lead nodded his head; he did not trust his mouth to speak properly.

“Well that was gin. I’m not a gin man, but if memories serves, that was a good brand you just drank.”

Lead ran his tongue across his lips. His mouth had grown numb. The rag man pulled the burnt lizard from the fire and cut strips of meat off with a rust speckled kitchen knife. He handed Lead three of the greasy strips.

“Hope you don’t mind eating with your hands,” the rag man said.

Lead devoured the charred meat. It tasted better than anything he had ever eaten.

“Sss good food,” Lead said, his words slurred together.

He finished his food and reclined in the sand.

The rag man licked grease from his palm and fingers.

“I got another good reason for leaving the Zona, if you want to hear it,” the rag man said.

Lead lifted his head off the sand; he had been drifting into dreams. He smiled and nodded at the rag man, the hot food and intoxicants made him cheerful.

“This place is fucked, that’s why. I’ve been in Arizona my whole life and this place has always been fucked.”

The rag man nodded his head as though agreeing with himself.

“Storms come in and kill men, viruses come in and kill men, and after all that, man goes and blames himself for all those deaths. There ain’t a lot of people living and breathing but we go around murdering each other just the same. I’ve never known or heard of a time when man wasn’t committed to one war or the other. That’s fucked.”

The man nodded to himself again.

“I don’t care if New Mexico or Nevada are nuclear hot zones, or if Utah is a haven of murderers and bandits, or if California is flooded, ravaged and a breeding ground for the new and particular diseases. The Zona is fucked and I’m leaving it.”

The man stirred his fire with his meat skewer. Sparks drifted up into the night sky.

Lead nodded again. His mind swam in liquor, his eyes drifted back to the stars.

Lead woke alone next to the cold ashes of the campfire. The rag man had left in the night, after Lead had fallen asleep. Lead slept through the morning into the late afternoon. The sun shone bright and dangerous. Lead’s face and hands were coated in sweat and sand. He searched the camp site for his belongings. The rag man had stolen his leather satchel with all his liquor and water bottles. Lead searched for a foot trail but the shifting sands had covered the passage of all men and beasts through the night. Lead took shelter from the sun in the shade of sage brush. He accepted the loss of his goods as God’s punishment for drinking. When the sun dipped low enough, Lead left the camp and continued south.

XIV. An account of Lead’s second visit to Tucson and the violence done therein

Lead stumbled upon the outskirts of Tucson at the dawn of his sixth day out of Purgatory. As before, the dilapidated structures were alive with the shifting and shuffling of lepers and virals. Lead walked down a street of dirt and blacktop rubble kept clean and pressed by the constant influx of hooves, wheels and feet. He arrived back at the church that had briefly housed the ex-Preachers. Lead stared hard at deformed faces peering out of windows and doorways.

“Bring me Reverend Greek.” Lead demanded to the invisible crowd. He hefted the broken .44 and shook it.

“Tell him Lead is here and has goods to barter for food and water.”

A man with half a face exited a building. Lead recognized the twisted man from his last visit to Tucson.

“The Reverend thought you may be returning, please follow me, quickly.” The twisted man sprinted into an alley between the church and another building. Lead ran after the man, ducking clothes lines and weaving around trash heaps to keep up. They left the populated part of the city and went into an area long ago reduced to rubble and black char. The Reverend sat at a plastic lawn table, sipping tea. Lead caught up to the twisted man and stopped, heaving at the effort of running so fast.

“Welcome back, Preacher. I’m sorry that you did not reach your destination,” the Reverend said.

He took another sip. The teacup was brilliant white porcelain, thin as paper.

“I’m also sorry to hear that your friend was robbed of his mortal life.”

“Where…did you…hear…that?” Lead said between gasps.

The Reverend frowned and placed the teacup back on the table; he lifted his left hand from under the table and placed it next to the cup. It was wrapped in white cloth, stained red and seeping with blood. For the first time Lead noticed how much paler the Reverend’s face was.

“I heard it from the man who came through here following you to New Pueblo a few weeks ago. From the very same who came here last night and demanded that I release you to his custody. The same man who took my middle and ring finger for his keeping after I told him I had not seen you.”

The Reverend lifted the teacup back to his lips.

“The Crusader,” Lead said.

“He said his name was Eliphaz. I told him that was not possible. Even after everyone changed their names, after the theocracy formed, they picked good Christian names. Jacob, Nathan, Lazarus, Matthew, Saul, Abel…no one would pick Eliphaz for himself. Don’t get me wrong, Eliphaz is biblical, but Eliphaz was a traitor, a nonbeliever, a villain. It was Eliphaz who mocked and scorned Job, who had done nothing to deserve his fate. You know what he told me?”

“What?” Lead asked.

“He told me Eliphaz was his father’s name, and then he took my fingers. He didn’t ask any questions after cutting them off. Just took them and walked away. I would have told him where you were if I knew, and he knew I was being truthful about not hiding you. I told him everything I knew prior to the cutting, but he took my fingers just the same. Not in malice or in rage, just to do it, I think. Why would God make a man like that?” Reverend Greek took another sip of his tea. “Why are you back here?”

“I came to trade for food and water. I’m going to New Pueblo and I need supplies,” Lead said.

“And what have you brought to trade, a man escaped from Purgatory can’t have much?”

“I’ve brought this,” Lead said. He untied the broken pistol and set it on the table.

The Reverend’s good hand caressed the .44 caliber.

“You’ve brought me a broken firearm in exchange for precious supplies. This is not a very good trade, Preacher. Not to mention I count you part of the reason my hand is less two fingers. I’ll give you supplies, but you must repay the debt of my hand. I’ll make you a deal. Throw your broken gun away.”

The Reverend drew a six-shooter from his jacket pocket. It was the same pit barreled .38 he had carried from Las Vegas to the end of his preaching days. It was the gun he and Terence had traded for food and water so many days ago.

The Reverend placed the six-shooter on the table next to Lead’s broken gun.

“I’ll give you your .38 plus ten rounds. That’s a hefty sum, goods whose value can be measured in scarcity.”

“The gun won’t sustain me, all I want is supplies and the freedom to go on my way,” Lead said.

The Reverend laughed. “Well said, Preacher. The gun won’t sustain you to New Pueblo, but the Crusader Eliphaz and his fellows won’t allow you to reach New Pueblo either. They are camped on the roof of that building.”

The Reverend lifted his hand and the twisted man grasped it and pointed it at a building on the edge of the burn zone.

“If they are keeping three-hundred sixty degree surveillance, then chances are you’ve already been spotted and they’re coming to kill us all. If they’re focusing south, and no one has traded your whereabouts for silver, then you are still unknown to them. Eliphaz told me he knows you. That he knows your soul. That you are going to return to the Highway Nineteen to bury your friend. He said the souls of sinners are to be read like street signs, and yours was no different.”

The Reverend turned his face to the building.

“There are three of them; they’ll be on the roof, where visibility is best.”

The Reverend pushed the six-shooter forward with his incomplete hand. His face grimaced against pain both sharp and fresh.

“You could surprise them. You could stop them from stopping you.”

Lead picked up the gun, all six cylinders were loaded. Reverend Greek withdrew an envelope from his pocket and placed it on the table.

“Four more rounds. You are now the possessor of every single .38 caliber bullet in all of Tucson.”

Lead tested the weight of the gun. He rolled the cylinder against his palm.

“I’m not a killer,” Lead said.

“I beg to differ, Preacher,” the Reverend said. “It doesn’t matter if you are a killer or not. We live in the age of the killer. Killers are the only people left in the world. You’re a killer by the very nature of standing here, and if you don’t fulfill your duties as a killer, other killers will see that you cease to exist. Peaceful men don’t live anymore. Good men don’t live any more. We’re just winding down the clock until the Earth finishes us all off with weather and viruses or we finish ourselves with our own viciousness. But that’s all philosophical. You owe a debt. Eliphaz owes a debt. If you want supplies, I’ll see my debts be paid in full first.”

Lead picked up the envelope and put it in the pocket of his suit pants. He placed the gun in his jacket pocket.

“I’ll go to them and let God decide,” Lead said.

The Reverend smiled broadly.

“You do that, Preacher. You go to them and let God decide.”

Lead entered the building through a bar-knobbed double door. Rusted remains of lockers stretched east to west, revealing the structure to have been a school before the world had ended.

Lead gripped the gun in his pocket. It comforted him. He padded silently on the balls of feet down the western hall to a corner stairwell. Lead pressed the release bar of the stairwell door. The door’s click echoed up the stairwell and put Lead’s teeth on edge. He held the door and waited for the sound of alarm or gunfire. Everything was silent. Lead stepped into the stairwell and let the door click again behind him.

The stairwell was shadowy and musty and spiraled on for five stories. The only illumination came from sunlight through cracked doors and an opaque ceiling dome that glowed auburn in the daylight.

Lead crept up the stairs accompanied by long drawn out breaths and a hyper sensitivity to any noise. Every footstep and shift, no matter how muted, found purchase and echoed against the endless concrete. Lead climbed five stories and stopped at the roof door. He pressed his hand against it. The metal was soothingly cold. When he pulled his palms back the sparse light revealed outlines his hands had made in fear sweat. There were no voices in his head. No words, not God’s, not his own. Lead pushed the door open and stepped into the sunlight.

The three Crusaders turned as the door flew open. Eliphaz raised his gun as though it had always been in his hand. Lead saw everything in slow motion. He stepped to the left and crouched, drawing his .38 in the process. Eliphaz was the first to fire. The barrel of his Browning flashed and a round tore through Lead’s left wrist. The force of the blow spun Lead flat to the ground. Lead fired his gun, and the Crusader next to Eliphaz collapsed with blood gushing from his neck. Eliphaz fired again, chips of cement exploded two inches from Lead’s face, blinding his left eye.

Lead sprung to his hands and knees and fired a second shot, striking nothing. Lead rolled back into the stairwell as a Crusader bullet tore into his shoulder. Lead kicked the door shut and pointed his pistol at it. He counted the loud steps running towards him. A young Crusader kicked the door off its hinges and Lead opened fire. Four rounds punched through the young man’s body. He dropped lifeless in the door frame. Eliphaz stood in the doorway and lowered his gun. Lead knew all the rounds in his gun had been fired. By the look on his face, Eliphaz knew it too. Lead focused his mind. He pictured the rounds in the envelope in his pocket entering the chamber of his gun. He begged for God’s help, for divinity to reload his firearm.

“Looks like you’re going back to Purgatory, little Preacher,” Eliphaz said, stepping over the dead Crusader.

Lead forced the image of the bullets from his mind. It was replaced by an image of the spiral staircase; he saw ledges and doors, a simple idea took root. Eliphaz took another step. Lead hauled himself to his feet and vaulted over the stair’s guardrail.

Lead spread his hands and legs and flew through the air like a creature acclimated to gliding. He landed hard against the guardrail two stories below. Eliphaz yelled from his high ground. Lead flipped over the rail and landed on both feet, the forward momentum drove him headfirst through a door. Both the door and Lead collapsed into a sunlit hallway. Eliphaz’s boots pound the stairs above him. Lead pulled himself back to his feet and almost fell over. He was disoriented from his head striking the door. He took two uneasy steps and fell against a wall. Lead pushed himself off of the wall, the boot stamps grew louder. Lead swung open a classroom door. Inside, the classroom stood largely untouched by time. Rows of desks, a chalk-stained board and ornate bay windows with Venetian blinds gave the room an air of intellectualism. Lead picked up a desk and threw it overhand at one of the large windows. The desk exploded the pane of glass. Both shards and desk spun to the depths below. Lead sprinted to open window; Eliphaz entered the doorway behind him, gun spitting rounds through wood, glass, and flesh. A bullet punctured Lead from behind but he did not slow down. Lead grabbed a fistful of blinds and leapt through the window. The Venetian slats uncoiled in their mechanism as gravity yanked Lead’s body towards terminal velocity. Lead felt a tug of resistance from the mechanism and then it broke free. The uncoiled slats flapped in the wind and wrapped themselves around Lead’s twisting body and then all collided with the earth below. Lead fell deep into thick untended hedge brush, the blinds cloaked him.

Lead fought to find his breath. The brush had broken his fall but the wind had been knocked out of him. Lead took quick panicked breaths. In the darkness he drew his gun. He pushed open the cylinder and expelled the spent cartridges against his leg, panting like an animal and fighting the black spots in his vision. From above gun fire popped and bullets punched holes through the blinds and branches around him. Lead pulled a bullet from the envelope and loaded it into the cylinder. Through the bushes he saw Eliphaz in the window above, leaning out with arm extended, bullets raining, and lips peeled back from his teeth. Lead locked the cylinder and drew the hammer back. He pushed his hand through the blinds and fired.

Eliphaz let go of his gun, it hung limply against his chest, held always by its leather cord. He looked down at the blinds and hedge brush thirty ought feet below. He wiped his face and looked astonished at the blood coating his fingers. Something was missing, something was wrong. His thoughts returned to Lead, six shots, Preachers don’t carry reloads. His mind grasped the error of his logic while his blood spread out onto the floor. Eliphaz sat down and tried to whisper a prayer for healing. The hole in his face made garbled noises. The lower half of Eliphaz’s jaw, a lump of bone and muscle, lay under a nearby desk.

Eliphaz sat and listened for God’s voice. He sat listening for the word that would put him back together, the voice that would not fail him in his moment of need. Eliphaz died waiting for a voice in a school room in Tucson, Zona.

XV. Lead completes his journey

Lead woke in the hedge brush. Rough hands pulled him free and laid him out onto grass. Reverend Greek stood with his head in front of the midmorning sun. The light provided him with a holy aura of grace and tears streamed out of Lead’s eyes at the site of it. Warm water was pored into Lead’s mouth, across his head and the bleeding wounds on his torso and wrist.

“My friends tell me you’re hurt. I’m sorry for that, but I’m glad you accomplished what you set out for. Some men need to be culled from this earth and there’s no moral justification against it. Some men need murdering.”

Lead pushed away the man with the water. He sat up.

“We’re done talking, Reverend. Give me what I asked for,” Lead said.

Lead stumbled along the husks of cars along the blacktop, following the signs of the Nineteen. He stumbled through and among the husks and corpses of the old world. He walked through the day and night. His wounds soaked their bandages, his head throbbed. His left eye was swollen shut and would never regain sight, but still he walked on. Lead walked past buildings and gas stations, restaurants, and parks; all lifeless places. He walked along the endless highway, touching windows and windshields which shielded smiling corpses. He whispered prayers to himself. Blood loss and fatigue exacerbated his delusions. Sometimes Lead fell over, but there was always a car or overturned machine to cling to. He always found something to pull himself up with. Eventually, Lead arrived at the Jacaranda groves, at the trees with winged seeds. He sat hard on the blacktop. His jacket was heavy with blood. In the distance a solitary man walked towards him. Lead steadied himself by pressing his hand against the street. The man strode up to Lead and stood before him. The light of Lead’s vision was fading but he still recognized the man. It was the leader from before.

“Welcome to New Pueblo,” the leader said.

Lead looked up at the man. He looked past him to the Jacaranda groves and the Nineteen and mountains and horizon beyond. Lead looked down the highway to the place where Terence was gunned down, to the place where he had been captured. Lead looked to his hand and saw sparkling chunks of glass in the cracks of the road. He saw ants running around the cracks, infinitely small. His blood ran into the cracks, creating rivers for the industrious ants to perplex over. Lead smiled at the creatures, for he understood that there is no difference between them and us in our wanderings and labor. Lead smiled and bled and clutched the earth outside of New Pueblo.

Thank you for reading.

© 2011 Nathan L. Yocum

http://bit.ly/nathan-yocum

Curiosity Quills Press

http://curiosityquills.com

Please visit http://curiosityquills.com/reader-survey/ to share your reading experience with the author of this book!

More Praise for The Zona:

“It did not surprise me to learn that Nathan Yocum, author of The Zona, is an award-winning screenwriter. As I was reading this, his debut novel, I could not stop picturing it as a movie. (I will honestly be very surprised if it isn’t optioned, especially with the popularity of dystopias generally and the upcoming Hunger Games specifically!)”

— Taryn, Bookwanderer Reviews

Fans of The Zona should be sure to check out more titles from Curiosity Quills Press:

• For paranormal mystery in the highest levels of US Federal Government, search for The Department of Magic by Rod Kierkegaard, Jr.

• For excellent cyberpunk-fueled dark sci-fi, look for Shadow of a Dead Star by Michael Shean

• For a high-concept action-packed technothriller, seek out The God Particle by Rod Kierkegaard, Jr.

• For lovers of detective noir with a horror twist, look up Michael Panush’s Stein & Candle Detective Agency series

About the Author

Nathan L. Yocum is an author, teacher, and entrepreneur living in the jungles of Hawai’i. As a writer Nathan’s inspirations include Kurt Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Charles Bukowski, but admits that the list goes on and on. Nathan is also the editor-in-chief of SpecLit Masters Magazine, an eZine featuring the best in new speculative short fiction, as well as an award winning screenwriter for Catbrain Film Factory. His first novel, The Zona, was published via Curiosity Quills Press in February, 2012. 

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