The Lord in This
By Jeff Richards
One day his mother smiles at him over the dinning room table. He can see the love sparkle in her eyes like it's something he can touch. The next week she's laid out in a pine-box in the parlor, a frown on her lips. Eyes slammed shut for eternity. Two years later to the month his brother's thrown from a horse. Breaks his neck. Then Cindy Limon goes, the girl he was going to marry, caught in the influenza that roars through town. He is only fourteen and so much bad has happenned to him. He figures it's because he was doing something wrong. His mom said, you trust in the Lord, the Lord protect you. You do his bidding, He give you everlasting life. Asa Greer figures that his trust is wearing thin. He needs to work more on his bidding.
That's how he comes to the idea of aiding Reverend Lawrence Wilson who preached about how it is our duty to end the abomination of God.
Asa totes his rifle down the path below the Reverend's house. He puts on a bandana dipped in hog's blood to show he's in the Army of the Lord. He climbs a tree. Hides patiently behind the lush cover of leaves until the light comes on in the preacher's window and he seen Marshall Limon, Cindy's older brother, and Eliot Thomas slink out of the woods to a clearing. Marsh waves a lamp. The light in the window blinks twice. Eliot slinks back in the woods and a few minutes later the runaways slink out with him. Marsh slides down to the river's edge where he uncovers a flatboat beneath a tarp. They all clamber in the boat. Pole across. One of the runaways jumps out when they reach the Ohio side, hugs the ground, and shouts, "The Lord deliver me."
Marsh tells him to hush up. "He ain't delivered you yet."
Two days later, Marsh and Eliot appear on the opposite bank with eight runaways. They pole across. The minister crawls down the hill to greet them. Hugging each of the freed folk in turn. They all crying. Asa wants to leap out of the tree and cry with them, but he knows the Reverend Wilson would send him home. So he stays hidden as a kind of sentinel praying for a chance to prove himself.
That comes one early July twilight a runaway kid breaks through the forest and dives in the water. He ain't much of a swimmer, moving more sideways with the current than forward. But he's half way across when two strangers loop out in the open. Both blond. The one with a goatee carries a gun, the other clean-shaven, hair down to his shoulders. Same blue eyes. Same height. Same slouching demeanor like they was brothers. The clean-shaven one points out the kid flailing in the river. The goateed one shoulders his rifle and fires. The ball plunks in the water a few inches from the runaway's face. The second shot misses entirely and the third hits the kid in the wrist but only seems to hasten his progress across the water. What Asa's thinking is that this ain't much different than the Biblical days. He's heard the song in church, "Oh! Go down, Moses, Away down to Egypt's land." To him those fellows across the river, brothers or not, are like Pharaoh's army and the dark fellow in the river is like the Israelites. But there's no parting of waters. Only Asa with his gun and he ain't no Moses. He takes a bead on the goateed blond.
He's a crack shot. Been hunting since he was five. Killed many rabbits. A couple deer and once even a cougar jumped out of a tree near where Tom stood. He caught him in midair. The cougar flopped to the ground harmlessly. Asa saved his brother's life. Only to have it snuffed out when the horse threw him. Where is the Lord in this?
This is what he's thinking as he squeezes the trigger. Sees the sparks. Smells the black powder. Hears the echo from the explosion as it comes back to him like a clap of thunder at the same time he sees a red carnation puff out of the forehead of the goateed blond. The fellow throws out his arms. The rifle flies up in the air end over end. He staggers backward a few steps. Topples to the ground like a tree in the forest. The other blond flinches. Collapses on his knees next to his brother, shakes him but he don't awake. The blond jumps up. Raises his hands to the heavens. Yells a name. Rufus. Skedaddles off to the woods.
Rufus, Asa thinks. That's what you call a dog not a fellow human being. But when he thinks human being, he thinks about what he has done. For a moment he shivers at the thought, then remembers why he done it. His attention skips away from the blond with the red carnation splayed out on the ground. The twilight is fading. The river turns dark though he can see the white ripples of the current as it flows around the rocks near him. He can see a hand reach out of one of the ripples. Clutching the air. Then the hand disappears and he sees a head pop up beyond the rocks.
Asa leaps out of the tree. Stumbles along the embankment. Dives in the water. Swims out to one of the rocks. His eyes dart downstream. He sees no hands. Nor head. Nothing but a wispy, white mist rising from the water. He suspects the current dragged the slave kid under. The river opens up a half mile down. Plunges deeper. He probably sunk to the bottom and they'll find him in a couple of days when he floats up.
On the way home, Asa halts at the cemetery. Whispers a prayer to his brother and Ma. Sidles over to Cindy. The gravestone says,
Asa shudders, rubs his eyes. Feels the salty wetness of tears on the back of his hand mixing in with the wetness of the river. He remembers the time they strolled along the bank in the stand of trees where the river widens. The birds singing. Fluttering from tree to tree. He held Cindy's hand. She told him how the teacher kept her after school for slugging Robert Clutch.
"I don't see why," she said. They sat on the ground. Leaned back. Watched a hawk circle the treetops. "Robert pulled my hair. That's why I slugged him."
"You want," Asa whispered. "I'll head over to Robert Clutch's house and beat him up for you. Then I'll throw him in the river."
"You don't have to do that." She laughed. She leaned up on her elbow and kissed Asa on the cheek, her touch as light as a feather duster.
His heart felt like it was about to explode and he couldn't help but profess his love for her.
She wasn't the kind to take things lightly. "Why do you love me?"
"You're beautiful. You're wonderful. You got a tender heart," he said, counting with his fingers. "But most of all, you're as tough as nails like no other woman I ever saw. You won't let no-one push you around."
But he was wrong. God pushed her around.
Asa slogs through the rest of the cemetery with his head down, squeezes between the rails of the wrought iron fence, and slinks past the barn behind his house. The light's out so his daddy's not mending wheels. He's off to the spinster's house. Doesn't give a darn about Asa.
Asa climbs the stairs to his room, pulls off his wet clothes, and jumps in bed. He thinks about the old days when everything was perfect. He thinks about what he has done. Is he justified? Even with the abominations. One time Reverend Wilson preached to the congregation about the slaveholder with his hands dripping in blood, the man who plunders cradles. The man who, to gratify his lust or anger, whips the woman with the lash until the soil is red with her blood. It doesn't matter that the woman is dark-skinned. She is a human being. And you oughtn't to treat human beings like dirt.
Lewis Morgan waits for the fellow in the red bandana to clear the hill by the preacher's house before he slinks out to the clearing. He grabs Rufus by the armpits and drags him in the woods, stopping every few seconds to wipe the tears from his eyes. He stashes him in a hole where a tree had fallen. Covers him with leaves and branches, retrieves the rifle, and stumbles down the path to the road. He races down the road as fast as he can, halting to catch his breath, his mind a complete blank. When he reaches the farmhouse, Lewis creeps up the steps so as not to wake his Ma. Shakes Raymond awake.
"What's a happening?" asks Raymond in a tired voice.
"You must dress. Come downstairs. Something awful to do."
Raymond struggles into his clothes, grumbling the whole time. They creep down the stairs. Outside.
"What the hell so awful you wake me this time of night?" hisses Raymond between his teeth.
Lewis tells him about Rufus.
"What were you doing down there anyways?"
"We planned to go hunting with Duncan. So we looked for him by the cabins, but he wasn't there. But we saw him running down the road and took after him thinking maybe he was playing a game. But when he saw us, he ran fasterů"
"That's when you ought to have turned back," says Raymond, shaking his head. "There's people do the chasing for us."
"Well, we didn't," says Lewis, sniffing. He can feel the tears coming on. "We chased him all the way down the road and when we reached the clearing, we saw him in the water. Rufus took some shots at him just to scare him back to our shore and that's when he got himself killed."
"You're a couple of idiots," says Raymond. They hitch the horses to the buckboard and toss a couple blankets in the back. Climb in the seat. Trot off down the road.
When they're far enough away from the house, Lewis yells above the rattle of the buckboard, "I'm sorry, Raymond. I mean it's not like Rufus's our brother or something."
"No, he's our cousin, our Ma's sister's only boy. You realize how upset Ma's going to be, not to speak of Aunt June," says Ray, taking a whip to the horses to make them canter. "Besides Rufus was your best friend. You been hunting together ever since you could handle a gun. And Duncan been going with you. I can't believe you damn fool idiots."
They pull the buckboard off the side of the road. Ray grabs the blankets. Follows his younger brother down the dirt path through the woods. They can see fairly well because the moon's out. A gentle breeze comes up from the river shaking the tree limbs, casting shadows over the path. They hear the sound of twigs snapping in the woods. See a couple deer nibbling the grass next to the fallen tree. The deer run off.
Ray climbs in the hole. Pulls the twigs off and tosses them behind him. He lifts the body. Lewis grabs the legs. They tote Rufus over to the blanket and ease him down.
An animal had torn a hole in his arm. An army of Ants crawls all over the wound.
Lewis runs off to the woods. Leans over. Pukes.
When he drifts back, Ray has covered him with the blanket. "Ain't you seen a corpse before?"
"Sure I have. But that's my friend." He starts to sniffle again.
"Sorry, Buddy." Raymond claps his brother on the shoulder. "I know how you must feel. But it's part your fault."
They lug the body through the woods slowly. It's as heavy as a feedbag. Lewis can't handle the legs because they're stiff as boards and twisted up. His back hurts. It takes his last ounce of energy to flop Rufus on the buckboard. Rufus bounces. The dust flies off him. The blanket folds open, exposes his face. Rufus's eyes are open staring at Lewis, penetrating his skin to what's behind him. He jumps back. Looks around at the gray light spreading across the horizon and at the waning moon. Hears a cock crow nearby.
"I'm scared," he whispers to his brother.
Raymond pulls the blanket over Rufus's face. "Will you stop acting like such a baby?" But he's teary eyed himself and, also, as angry as a cornered barn cat. He guesses nothing will come of this considering the relationship with the people on the other side of the river. He and Lewis'll have to do something themselves. He helps Lewis on the buckboard.
Lewis is thinking about when he, Rufus, and Duncan were kids how they used to play down by the river. Rufus was king. Duncan was the black knight. Lewis the white knight. One time the older boys caught them wearing their wooden swords and capes. Made fun of them. Rufus whacked Raymond in the small of the back. Raymond grabbed Rufus by the cape. Swung him around. Threw him to the ground. Jumped on top of him. The other boys piled on top of Rufus. Lewis and Duncan whacked those boys on their backs until they got distracted. Jumped up. Ran after them. Caught Lewis. Knocked him down. Then it was Rufus and Duncan whacking the boys on the back. It finally ended up that they chased the older boys off. They laughed. Crossed swords. Put their arms around each other. Sang a song they heard when the minstrel show passed through town. About them being the Three Musketeers. "All for one. One for all."
They found the slave boy tangled up in the limbs of a tree that overhung the river and would've thought nothing of it if it wasn't for the gunshot wound to the hand. The sheriff inquired across the river, found that the slave escaped from a farm about three miles up, that two boys chased after him and one of them got murdered by a bullet from the Ohio side of the river. There was an investigation. But nothing came of it.
Asa Greer doesn't feel relief that he hasn't been found out. He doesn't care. He cares for Rufus and the slave kid who lies in the potter's field next to the town drunk. He cares about his eternal soul. But mostly he cares about what he must do next.
One night at the dinner table his Pa announces that he is going to marry the spinster.
"Why you doing that?" asks Asa, leaning across the table. The shadows flicker on his father's face. "Ma wouldn't like it."
"Your Ma's been dead for four years. There's only you and me. And you need someone to take care of you. I can't let you run wild."
"I'm fourteen. I can take care of myself. Besides I don't want that spinster lady to be my ma. She's mean. One time I was crossing her property, she shooed me off with a broom. Nobody likes her."
"She needs a man," says his father, firmly.
Asa clomps upstairs and prays to the Lord. He thinks about when his father marries the spinster, he'll start a family. She isn't that old. Probably twenty-five. Not bad looking. His Pa doesn't need him anymore. He digs around his bureau drawers. Finds the red bandana he hasn't worn since that night. Ties it around his head. Feels the power surge through his whole body like he's been struck by lightning. He thinks of his Ma, his brother, and Cindy Limon and how they are no longer underground in the cemetery but up in Heaven watching his every move. I'll make you proud, he whispers under his breath. He grabs his gun. Tiptoes down the stairs. His father is asleep. He slips outside. Past the barn, through the cemetery, and down the dirt road. Follows the path to the river. He hides.
He waits three days until Marsh Limon and Eliot Thomas appear. They pull the flatboat from behind a clump of reeds. Pole across the river. Hide the boat under the tarp. Disappear in the woods.
Asa strips down to his skivvies. Tosses his clothes, his gun and powder on a couple pieces of driftwood he lashed together. He slides quietly in the water. It is twilight, the sun setting downriver turning the sky a washed out orange color, a line of bright red on the horizon. The trees and river itself seem to have caught fire. Asa kicks upstream around the rocks. Kicks harder when he reaches the main channel. The driftwood turns sideways. Nearly sucks him downstream. He is exhausted when he reaches the Kentucky shore. Crawls out on his hands and knees. Lays back a moment, but he can't wait long least he'll lose Marsh and Eliot. He stands up. Jumps in his clothes. Checks the powder and gun. Dry. I am in the Army of the Lord, he hisses in a low, angry whisper and is about to set off when he hears a twig crack no more than forty feet off. He looks up. Sees two figures saunter out of the woods, one, the shorter of the two, is delicate featured, hair down to the shoulders. The other who looks to be twenty or so, he doesn't recognize. He's pointing a rifle at Asa's chest. Asa lifts his piece, but before he can finger the trigger, a tongue of fire reaches out from the dark center of the taller one.
Asa Greer staggers back with the impact. Reaches for his chest but doesn't find it. He crashes to the ground, head cocked sideways as though he's listening to the two boys talking as they approach his body.
"Damn, you killed him with one shot," says Lewis Morgan, shaking his head. "You didn't even give me a chance."
"If I gave you a chance," says Raymond Morgan, gently probing Asa's side with the butt of his gun, "it would be one of us is dead. That boy's a crack shot. That is if it is the boy you said shot Rufus."
"It is. I'll swear on a stack of Bibles," says Lewis, raising his hand solemnly. "You see, the bandana."
"Yeah, but anyone can wear a bandana."
"But not anyone with a bandana's going to swim across the river unless he's up to something bad. Like those other two fellows we saw. You know what they're up to."
"I don't know anything for sure," says Raymond. "Now you stop your jabbering. We got to get rid of this body before someone comes along."
They toss Asa's gun as far out in the river as they can. Kick the driftwood off shore. Then roll Asa down the embankment until he plops in the water. They push him off and watch as he slides downriver, his head still above water as if he's looking up at the orange sky at a hawk circling lazily around and around like in a dream.