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

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