Now, the hero everyone loves to hate prepares to do battle…
Part 1 • Part 2
|Photo credit: Keith Survell, Flickr (Creative Commons)|
“Do my eyes deceive me,” the preacher asked, “or are those trees growing in circles around yonder hill?”
“That’s the place.” Sally’s voice was almost a whisper. “It’s like that, so you don’t walk up it unawares.”
Dower pressed his lips together. “Well, we are aware. Let us go.” But he made no move forward. “It would be best if you stay well clear of the field of battle, Sally Harper. Remember, the devil is the Father of Lies, and this is one of his unclean children. If it speaks to you, answer it not, for in deceitful words it will seek to trap you. And in the mouth of a demon, even the truth can be a mighty lie. If I fall, run. Run with the Lord’s Prayer on your lips, and your hand on a crucifix. That may be enough to keep it away from you—but better you drown yourself in the foul waters of the swamp, than to find yourself in its clutches. Understand you?”
“Yeah, preacher, I understand. But I’m done runnin’ and hidin’ from this thing out here. That’s my town back there, and so it’s my fight, too.”
“We face worse than death this night.” Dower gave her a stern look.
“You think I don’t know that?” Sally put her arms on her hips and looked up, staring Dower in the face. “I know worse than death. Worse than death is hidin’ in your house like a frightened rabbit on new moon nights. Worse than death is livin’ among men so afraid of their own shadows, none of them dare to court me, because I ain’t a mouse like them. Worse than death is starin’ at your life ahead, seein’ no family in it, no children.” She swallowed. “No purpose. Tonight, I got a purpose, and I ain’t gonna stand and watch it go by.”
Dower returned her glare with his own, but finally nodded. “Then kneel, Sally Harper, and be consecrated unto this task.” Bent over almost double, he dipped a finger in a vial of holy water and drew a cross on her forehead. “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I consecrate thee, Sally Harper, and charge thee to be true to the Word. Now arise.”
“You’re the leader now,” she said, standing. “Tell me what I need to know.”
“First, we gather firewood.”
Standing just inside the inmost ring of trees, the two stared at the altar. Its builders had chipped off the tops and bottoms of each stone, so they lay flat upon each other. Three sides were steep slants; the fourth was straight. Its top was a slab of solid stone.
“An altar of sacrifice, I warrant,” Dower whispered, as they laid out the firewood they carried. “Such a dark purpose would, even after centuries, be a fertile garden to nourish the evil spirit.”
“There were rumors,” Sally replied. “This one band would sacrifice their enemies here. Even the other Indians don’t like to tell of it, they say it shames them that their own would do such a thing. But after the white man came, they’d snatch any of us they could, and carry ‘em out here, too. So the whites and the other tribes made an alliance, and killed every last one of ‘em they could find. That was like a hundred years ago. Then, a-course, we run the rest of ‘em off, too.”
“Aye. That is good to know. But speak no further of such things, in this place. This is a night of cleansing.” Dower knelt, took out his tinderbox, and put spark to the dry tinder at the bottom of the pile. As the sun went to slumber, unseen behind the clouds that had hidden it all day, the fire grew. “Prepare thyself for the battle to come, Sally Harper. Put on the gospel armor, as described in the Word, that ye may withstand the onslaught that is to come.”
Sally nodded, and took a flintlock pistol out of her bundle. “Maybe you should consecrate this, too,” she said, loading and preparing it with expert hands. “And if it don’t do for this thing here, maybe it’ll do for me.”
Dower nodded, and said a quick prayer over the weapon. “And I myself did not come unarmed,” he said, drawing a sword from under his cloak.
“Nice pig-sticker,” said Sally, looking over the shining blade and wide cross-guard. “Where did you get that?”
“It came to pass, that in my travels, I was led to preach the Word in a seaside tavern. A drunken Spaniard bade me hush, but I obeyed only the Lord. He drew this sword, and ordered me to smite him, that he might strike off my head in turn. But when I struck him, the Lord Himself smote him as well, and he fell dead at my feet. His companions were sore when I took up his weapon, but none dared press the matter. I carried the blade to one whom I trust, one who preaches the True Word, and he consecrated it to the use of the Lord.” He held it up. “It makes a fine crucifix as well. I had a blacksmith blunt the blade, just below the cross-guard, that I might use it as such. I have found it often as effective in this manner, as for its intended use.”
The dusky gloom deepened. “Ready yourself,” said Dower. “The battle is soon joined.”
“Joab Dower. My old friend.” The voice was oily and a little repulsive.
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