The preacher knew he was in trouble when he saw the first buzzard circling lazily overhead. It was late in the morning on the third day of his trek across the harsh barren land of southeastern New Mexico and the heat already pressed down on him with an oppressive weight that sapped his energy. The scavenger flew straight for him out of the eastern sky with the blinding, early morning sun behind it like a fireball exploded up from the pits of hell.
* * *
Jedediah McNeel squinted against the glare, studying the uneven terrain. Scrub Oak and Yucca dotted the land as far as he could see. The sandy brown clay of the desert was too hostile to sustain more than that. Twice yesterday he'd stumbled toward a shimmering oasis to find it not there, an illusion brought on by the heat and his own delirium.
Removing his frock coat, which he'd worn against the freezing cold desert night, he realized he no longer had complete control over his mind. A single thought repeated on an endless loop. "I'm going to die today." A dry wind called out his name as it whispered across the wasteland. Jedediah's head snapped up and he spun in every direction. The wind came from the East, rolling over a small rise, picking up a thin cloud of loose dust. The fine silt congealed in the corners of his eyes and tasted coppery in his mouth as if blood had been spilled here.
He stumbled forward from sheer will of spirit. The pressure in his skull made thinking difficult and his eyes were overly sensitive to the blinding harshness of the sun. His blistered feet swelled within his boots and what little sweat there was dried instantly in the unrelenting heat. At the base of a small, sandy hill, he wiped the salt from his forehead and, leaning forward, scrambled up. Digging his hands into the hot clay, he sunk his fingers deep and pulled himself slowly toward the summit, lunging forward with his feet but dropping to his knees over and over as he climbed.
From the sun-bleached sand to the west, a pair of yellow eyes followed the preacher's progress. Unblinking and intently focused, they followed the man's stumbling, fitful ascent up the small incline. When finally the man topped the rise and disappeared down the far side, the sand shifted, became flesh and followed.
"Test yer faith, Padre." The man with the split lip and lazy eye smiled, showing random teeth yellowed by neglect. He shoved a pistol into Jedediah's face. "Now's yer chance. How much do you believe?" The man cocked the gun and placed it against the preacher's temple. "You choose. Die quick with a bullet and meet God right now, or suffer for days in the desert and trust God to save you."
He had chosen the desert. Moses and the Israelites survived 40 years in the desert on faith alone. Perhaps God was testing him as he had Moses. Or perhaps he had forsaken him.
At the top of the hill, Jedediah spied a small cropping of yucca, bunched together in an otherwise barren landscape. They would offer scant relief from the heat, but it was better than the alternative. He started carefully down the slope of the hill, but gravity and momentum got the better of him and he tumbled headlong down the side. A jagged rock halted his progress and knocked the breath out of him. Dark spots floated before his eyes. His lungs screamed for oxygen. For a moment the world grayed and he closed his eyes against it. And it felt good.
'Take me now, Lord,' he thought. He felt himself slipping, surrendering to heat sickness. Relief washed over him. Death was coming to claim him and he was ready. His heart began to slow as his body succumbed. Images of blood flashed in his mind. Memories of distant towns and past deeds flowed like a river through him. He hadn't always been a preacher, and God was reminding him of that here, in his final moments.
At the top of the rise, the sand shifted and settled without a sound. The yellow eyes glowed golden, reflecting the intense rays of the sun as they stared down at the preacher and waited.
"Tularosa's three days ride that way." The outlaw used the barrel of his pistol to point the direction. "Probably a week on foot." He tossed a nearly empty mule skin of water on the ground at the preacher's feet and swung the gun around toward Jedediah's face. "Unless you changed yer mind. It'll be quicker my way. Some of the boys are scared about killin a man of the cloth. They're afraid for their souls." He glanced at his men and then back to Jedediah. "Just so you know, I ain't scared of nothin'. My soul's already been sullied. Now git if you're goin'."
Jedediah looked the man square in the eyes and with seething calm said quietly, "The righteous man is rescued from trouble, and it comes on the wicked instead."
As the heat of the sun assaulted him, he dreamt of an enormous beast rising up from the earth to blot out the sun. The creature's body was made of the earth from which it was born. A screech filled the air as its eyes glowed with some inner fire. It rose to an impossible height and raised one earthen arm. With a great, bellowing howl it brought one huge paw crashing toward him, its great talon-like claws extended to shred him to doll ribbons.
In the darkness another screech broke the vision and Jedediah opened his eyes. The light had shifted to the west and taken on an orange glow. While still oppressive, the heat had lessened and the earth cooled begrudgingly. Jedediah was suddenly aware of movement beside him and he bolted upright.
Perched on the rock against which he rested was a vulture, its feathers in a constant state of molting, one eye dangling from the socket by tendons. It seemed to regard him for a moment and then screeched again so loud and long that Jedediah was forced to cup his hands over his ears. Beneath his palms, he could feel heat blisters that had bubbled on his cheeks while he was unconscious.
Satisfied, the bird hopped down and skittered over to the fresh carcass of a rabbit. Dipping its beak to the animal, the bird tore free a strip of bloody flesh and gobbled it down. Screeching again, it swung a bloody beak toward Jedediah and, with a short hop, took flight.
"Thank you, Lord." Jedediah scrambled over to the rabbit. Salivating heavily, he found a sharp edged rock and used it to strip the meat away from fur and bone. The work was slow and exhausting and the muscles in his arms ached for nourishment. By the time he finished, his hands were bloody to the wrist. Too hungry to try and start a fire, Jed tore off a chunk of raw meat with his teeth and closed his eyes while he chewed, like a man in the throes of ecstasy. Warm blood trickled off his chin as he chewed the meat into manageable bites. He felt his body react instantly to the fuel, which only made him dip his head for more. For the moment he was more animal than man.
In his frenzied eating, he became slowly, dully aware of a dark presence. He felt the weight of a constant stare bearing down on him. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end as a sudden stench permeated the desert air, a putrescence that overpowered even the smell of the dead rabbit in his hands.
A low rumble came from every direction at once. Nearly imperceptible, the sound was broken by a series of short chuffing sounds, like the sound of a scythe whipping through wheat. Slowly, Jedediah turned his head, glancing up over his shoulder to the top of the rise behind him. The low position of the sun turned the land blood red as it relinquished its hold on the earth while the new moon peeked like a lover over the top of the dune. In that moment of twilight, between day and night when spirits roamed the land, Jedediah thought he saw a shape in the heat vapors. At the top of the hill, he could just make out the faint outline of the creature from his nightmare, the long talons silhouetted against the dying light. There was a sudden flash of golden glowing eyes and then the creature was gone, back to the sand and clay from whence it came.
He walked away from certain death at the hands of the gunmen into the unforgiving terrain. Their laughter followed him, rising on the heat waves dancing all around, like demons taunting him further. He knew his chances of survival were slim indeed, but there was a chance nonetheless. The first day on foot as the full intensity of the sun bore down on him, he'd conjured gruesome punishments for the outlaws, injuries and tortures unbefitting a man of the cloth. But he hadn't always been a preacher, and the old ways sometimes reared their heads in times of crisis. He'd stopped carrying a gun years ago, but if he'd had one when they rode down on him things would be different now. His hands still held the memory of a pistol, his fingers the trigger. If only he'd had a gun.
Far overhead, the moon hung lazy in the desert sky bathing everything in cool, blue light and casting elongated shadows across the land. Scrub brush and sage dotted the earth and rustled in the constant chill wind. Jedediah stumbled onward at a quick, unsteady pace, choosing his direction at random. He threw worried glances over his shoulder every few seconds and mumbled constantly to himself, reciting bible passages amidst a running conversation with his long dead father. His fingers picked absentmindedly at his blistered face, creating slow streaming rivulets of pus and blood.
For the last hour, something large stalked him through the underbrush. If he listened closely, Jedediah could hear the soft, shuffling footfalls of a large beast moving quietly in the night. Always keeping pace with him, shadowing him, no faster and no slower. Half blind with the desert sickness, he stumbled into an outcropping of Devil's Grass, which wrapped itself tightly around his ankles and pulled him hard to the ground. Rolling onto his back, he lay breathing heavy and listening to the shuffling footsteps which drew closer before stopping. A faint, high-pitched growl emanated from the dark.
Jedediah closed his eyes in desperate prayer. His heart raced, ratcheted up by fear and fever. "Lord," he pleaded. "Deliver me from evil. Show me a sign that you have not forsaken me in this time of tribulation." From somewhere close by came the familiar soft chuffing sound of his dream. Untangling his feet, he stood. His weak legs threatened to buckle under the weight but somehow he remained upright. "The Lord helps those who help themselves." Leaning forward, he broke into a headlong, stumbling run.
For a mile or more, the land sloped upward at a gradual angle, steep enough for his leg muscles to burn as he climbed. From high above him came a long, sustained screech. Silhouetted against the moon, awash in that soft halo of light, the vulture floated, nearly motionless on some unseen draft. Squinting, Jedediah could make out the molted feather tips, and dangling eyeball of his old friend. "He is my shepherd,' the preacher thought. With an intense rim lighting etched around edges of the outstretched wings, the bird soared like an arrow pointing the way. "And God divided the light from the darkness," he said. Moving faster, his eyes skyward, Jedediah followed his savior.
The incline grew sharper as he neared the top. His fingertips were bloody from scraping the dirt and rock as he pulled himself up the slope. His shadowy companion still paced his movements, moving closer each time Jedediah stumbled. If he could only gain the summit, he was sure salvation waited on the other side.
The first rays of the sun lit the sky as they stretched across the desert. Jedediah hardly noticed. Just short of the top of the rise he fell, face forward and there he lay. Every fiber of his being cried mercy. His addled mind whispered that now was the time to give up. Now was the time to lay still. Now was the time to die.
Overhead, the vulture screeched and made a spiraling nosedive for the ground and Jedediah pushed himself up once again. He was ready to die, but not here just short of his goal. At the summit he would rest. A steady, thunderous rumbling built until it resonated in his skull. Behind him the footfalls of the devil who'd chased him through the night picked up speed.
Jedediah lunged forward, feeling the warmth of the sun's rays—and yet not feeling the warmth of the sun's rays. The end was near and drawing closer with every breath. But the summit was nearer. The footfalls came on. Thunder drowned them out. Behind him the vulture screeched and Jedediah whipped around.
The beast, born of the earth, stood on massive legs, swatted the air with sinewy arms while the vulture darted and weaved and attacked. Letting out a piercing bellow, the creature dropped low to the ground, avoiding the outstretched talons and gnashing beak of the vulture. Two powerful forces locked in battle, at war for Jedediah's soul.
With a mighty clawed paw, the beast lunged from the ground, swatting the bird from the air. The steady rolling thunder grew to a fever pitch. Jedediah threw himself backward up the hill. To reach the summit was all that mattered. The earth began to shake. As he watched, the nightmare vision pounced on the vulture. With one final, terrifying screech the fight was over.
Jedediah topped the rise. He could feel the beast closing in. Careening down the other side, Jedediah was deafened by the unrelenting roar of thunder. Above the sound, the beast's cries found him as it too came over the hill and moved like a locomotive toward him. Jedediah bent and picked up a sun-beaten long dead yucca staff and turned to face the demon.
Backing away slowly, Jedediah crossed a bare rocky path. His body vibrated with the rumbling earth. Still fifteen feet away the beast leapt. Jedediah planted his feet, wielding the staff before him like a sword. The beast slammed into him and his foot found a deep rut. They tumbled together as a louder clap of thunder sounded. The sound reverberated off the surrounding landscape. And everything stopped.
He came to with thunder still rumbling in his ears. His body was being jostled about and he slowly opened his eyes on the interior of a stagecoach. An angel was dabbing his forehead lightly with a cool cloth. With all his effort, he pushed himself up, but her soft hand on his shoulder was enough to hold him.
* * *
"There now," she said. Her voice soft and lilting was pure heaven to his ears. "You just lie still. We'll be in Tularosa in a few minutes. Everything will be alright."
Jedediah lay back and closed his eyes. "I have fought the good fight," he said in a low, raspy whisper. "I have finished the race. I have kept the faith."
The angel leaned in closer. "The stage driver said that was the biggest mountain lion he's ever seen." Her smile lit the dark interior. "Lucky for you he's a good shot."
It took nearly eight months but he had tracked them here to this small border town in southern New Mexico. He rode with the stiffness of an injured man though there was not a scratch on him. There were four saloons in this town, and he started with the closest. He entered the murky saloon and saw the man he'd been tracking as soon as his eyes adjusted. Adjusting the weight of his gunbelt, he walked right up to the man. "You Rafe Carrington?"
The man at the bar turned slowly toward him. Even in the darkness of the saloon, his lazy eye and split lip were recognizeable.
"Well, I'll be damned." His words were slurred from too much whiskey. "Preacher?"
Jedediah's expression didn't changed.
Carrington laughed, a phlegmy, deep sound. "I guess you had the faith after all." He turned back to his bottle.
Jedediah spun him back around and wih his free hand, moved the lapel of his coat revealing the star pinned to his chest. "Care to test your own faith?"
Carrington clawed for his gun but Jedediah's came up first. He pushed the barrel into the big man's stomach and squeezed the trigger twice. Carrington stumbled drunkedly before pitching forward on the floor.
Un-pinning the badge, he placed it on the bar and then pulled a folded parchment from his coat pocket. "Sorry about the mess. That should cover it." He tossed the wanted poster down next to the star.
He hadn't always been a preacher.