Yonder dwells a prophet. Middle-aged and barefooted. His spine is crooked and his teeth are false. The emblem of a crucifix on his bolo tie hangs over his chest. Among his property is an unbroken Spanish stallion named Winged Death that was raised and once ridden by a Comanche war chief.
He is considered by many a thief and a bandit and pitiful criminal. There is a prospect yet held by a certain few who regard him as the flesh of Christ incarnate.
* * *
In early 1879 in Wild Yona County, Indian Territory, the prophet is brought to jail on charges held against him for the murder of God and will be sentenced to death by hanging.
He hires no attorney and the honorable Adam Herrod Adams allows for him to testify on his own behalf.
A sea of whiskers lay littered across the prophet's hollow cheek bones. His hair is slicked back with bear's grease and flower oils from a can of Buffalo Heart Pomade. A hollow and demented glare rifles through his sockets and a flea drowns in the blood of his left eye, where it had come to sup.
"It is your right to judgment," he says, "and I know I am not without sin. But hear this, hear it now. And understand it or don't. I am a son of God."
He says he has come far and wide, all the way from the east, then back again from the west, to preach the gospel and to save mankind from ruin.
His father was a slaveowner, a farmer, philosopher and painter, lawyer and gardener, former soldier of brave merit and a grand singer of poems, and would serve as mayor of Leotie, Georgia for eighteen years. Modeled almost perfectly after the Founding Fathers. His mother was one of the more brilliant minds the country had ever produced, though the world will not know her name, save through the blood of the prophet.
He studied theology at the University of Georgia in the class of 1859 before spending a year in India dedicated to learning the practice of animal medicine. The anatomy of a fish. Elephants and horses. He learned in this tenure the stuff of their hearts. Preaching often thereafter the significance of wild animals and kind-hearted animals and the role of the shepherd as written in the King James Bible, and that in India, in the middle-ages, kings could not inherit the thrown until they could stalk and kill a tiger, and then breathe into its soul life again.
He is hired as a medical assistant for the staff of King Hiram, the name given to a bear famous for gathering crowds by the thousands in San Francisco every Sunday to witness it as it fights to the death, bulls imported from Spain and dozens of wolves at a time said to be bred and raised out of Hell.
After the southern states secede from the Republic of America, he enlists in the Union Army as a chaplain and surgeon. He holds many prayers, many hearts in his hands. Amputates many limbs.
Hears a scream so horrid from the battlefield and in the hospitals, it never fades from within his eardrums so long as he lives, roaring amongst his visions each night while he lay sleeping.
His sermons from these years are published in books no longer in print. He becomes a well-recognized name amongst the ranks and is called in often to General U.S. Grant's quarters for prayer sessions which descent typically into drunkenness. Sharing whiskey and playing cards. Speaking seldomly and when they do speak, they speak of horses.
The prohpet has a spiritual crisis and gives up belief in this world when the Army suffers a two-month long starvation while occupied in Chattanooga, and can be found mumbling daily in drunken slumber, and by the time the Battles for Chattanooga are victorious he cannot be found at all, unconscious somewhere and accounted for in the causality report as dead.
When he is found finally, he is found by Confederates in Leotie, Georgia and they pick his ass up and carry him and then say, "One, two, three," before hurling him into the back of a wagon bound for a prison camp located in Andersonville, Georgia.
He is given one cracker per week, drinks water from a creek which the Rebel guards use as a toilet, is given no soap, and loses eighty-four pounds until he resembles a filthy wraith wandering through a chamber built beneath earth.
He offers sermons each afternoon and as consequence is beaten by guards with the butts of rifles ramming against the center of his spine, and is dragged away each time from the congregation. And comes crawling back, limp-legged with slouched shoulders like some soul lost from eternity and then found amongst us, again and again.
After nine months he collapses, dropping to his knees, then falling against his face upon the embers of a dwindling campfire, gasping one of those last-breath gasps, and does not rise up from the ashes for three days. And on the third day his body is carried off by guards who count out, "One, two, three," before swinging his ass into the back of a wagon filled with twelve other corpses and the stench of death and stained forever in their own feces and urine.
The wagon rolls three miles to a burial ground where in the night the dead are dumped to be buried come the morning. And come dawn the prophet does awaken and cough up clouds of dust and spurted blood, and rises in the darkness with his bones seeming to tear through the garment of his own flesh, appearing under the pale moon as a skeleton resurrected from under its own tombstone.
* * *
In his travels he does not know where is going, and in his travels he offers blessed prayer to homeowners in trade for a cot and quilt to sleep each night and a day's labor for shelter and food. In his travels he lives to see the Confederacy defeated and their slaves emancipated and then a heightened hatred for the newly freed that exceeded even an anger held against Satan.
Once the prophet fully recovers his health, he volunteers again, as a preacher and doctor for the U.S. Cavalry in a new war, this time with the orders from the nation's capital reading, The Only Good Indian is a Dead Indian.
He is given boots and decent wages, proper rations of food every day, and he shaves his face with a knife. Sharpens the blade with stone. Washes off the blood on his cheek in creeks. Gives sermons each night by firelight.
There are soldiers whose life in prison was pardoned, and were given freedom under the terms they pledge to hunt down and obliterate Indian savages, and these men, many of them, cannot read and these men, some of them learn from the prophet the words written down in the King James Bible.
The prophet will mark a tombstone with a wooden cross and give a eulogy to all who die in the desert, American soldier and American Indian. Burying men by the hundreds, in the name of American expansion, and burying women and children too.
One night while all the soldiers lay sleeping, they awake finally to the itching sensation of blades gliding across their faces, opening their eyes and they see, that their hands are tied in manger knots by the rope used for their horses, and their mouths gagged with cotton sheets torn from their own shirts and lubricated in buffalo grease where flies swarm within their lips, knives fastened against their cheeks each of them by a Comanche warrior, and they see in the middle of the circle their chief who asks among them who is the one here that claims to speak to your god, and the soldiers scream, Ermm and Arww, stabbing their heads and pointing their gazes upon the prophet who is pushed down to his knees with the chief standing behind him, peering down the manacled soldiers how a priest dwells behind the pulpit.
The chief says he lets them live this night so they can live rest of their days in nightmare, even when they wake shall they see this image for all of time: And he takes out his knife, and presses it into the crown of the prophet's head and the prophet can hear in his own mind clutched thunder, and once his scalp is loose upon his head it is bitten off and completely severed from him by the chief and the warriors ride off with the scalp between the chief's lips.
The prophet will forever be known along the western plains as the Scalped Word of God. In the morning he uses a pocket mirror to see and a steel file to dig into his head, piercing the instrument against his dipole so that the skin on his head will grow back again.
Eight days later, while the warriors are on a hunting party and in their village only are the women and children and a few of the older men, their village is ransacked by the cavalry and burned and its dwellers are killed and massacred mercilessly and violently and savagely.
This is where the prophet first meets the horse Winged Death and it is deemed deaf and demented and dangerous, and when he tries speaking to it, the horse kicks him in the jaw until his teeth are knocked loose from his mouth and crown his head where he lays in the dust as they were the stars of his own constellation.
A soldier molding a tobacco pouch out of one of the dead girl's breasts points to the prophet and to the horse standing over the prophet and laughs, saying, "Call that horse the gait of God, or call it a whore. It don't know no better, no-how."
* * *
From his time in Tennessee during the Civil War the prophet has learned a recipe for moonshine, and after sweeping over the raided and burned Indian villages in North Texas and New Mexico he has discovered in their homes the plant and the uses of the plant called peyote, and through the duration of his time spent in the U.S. Army he has developed a partial addiction to morphine.
From these ingredients, he does develop-by the time he arrives in Wild Yona County in 1871, clad to near nothingness save for a buffalo hide painted in images of Navajo moons-a medicine that he will bottle and distribute as The Holy Ghost.
Sketched into the label are doves descending from clouds possessed with facial features, coming out from the lips, and coming toward the cupped hands of a prisoner on his knees, who is being swarmed by a shadow-wave cast across the desert, and his own shadow manifests the form of a monstrous creature with horns and shark teeth and fire breathing out from its mouth, and eagle's wings spawned from its shoulders spanning the length of its legs and body.
The prophet builds a stage over the grounds of buried buffalo bones and human skulls, hammering boards together left behind of abandoned wagons and old churches.
Framed withing an awning above the stage is a sign that reads, The Altar of The Holy Ghost. Come and See. Come and Hear. Be Wedded by God in the Flesh.
It had been well-known by the citizens of Wild Yona that in their county, for as long as they could remember, there existed no god.
When the prophet arrived, it was in response to a vision he had after sipping from the very first remedy of The Holy Ghost, while living for a year, alone, in the Painted Desert in near death and nailed all over in cactus needles, where he saw the words come from God telling him to track down this land which does not know his name, and he emerged there and could be seen, far off scaling the desert, approaching through waves of dust against the horizon saddled to Winged Death, like a dime-book hero with a rifle and a bible in his saddlebag.
His services open and he appears from behind a curtain which when drawn, is drawn in the image of a red ocean with waves parting.
In the beginning, he speaks to a congregation of seven souls, who buy his medicine and spread his word amongst the townsfolk and eventually he preaches before a flock over one thousand in number.
They say they have seen God come from the skies and also, his image dwelling before them, speaking to them. That is right, they say, God speaks to them through The Holy Ghost as delivered by this prophet come to them as a sign and a thing of miraculous chance.
Many lost souls, then, wandering across the deserts of America, find themselves gathered before the prophet's stage, drinking from his sup claiming to witness God and saying they are found.
He becomes known as a mystical healer, he becomes known throughout a thousand-mile radius and he becomes known as the prophet.
There is an orphanage in which he visits often run by Madame Georgette who teaches the children residing there, whose parents they've lost to Civil War, grammar and writing, arithmetic, daily chores and how to build a fire. The prophet speaks to them the stories of Christ.
Next door is the brothel also run by the same madame where he spends his time playing cards and drinking whiskey, and spends his earnings upstairs in a room where a lady named Beatrice Della lives whose blood is comprised from many lineages, the ancestry of slaves and Cherokee, whites and Hispanics.
On a cold and dreary Easter morning one of the orphans named John Hazel Paul searches for the prophet, after waiting a half hour for him to arrive and give service, looking throughout the town square where men and women shrug and say, "Haven't seen him," and the orphan finally walks up the stairs of the brothel and knocks on Della's door. The hinges creak and the door cracks open. The prophet is naked and still drunk, and falls out of bed, struggling to put on his trousers, trips over his feet and falls upon his face, the sunlight blading through the window pane, and he is moaning with his teeth in a cup of water on the bedstand, and the child stares at him where he is sprawled out on the floor. The child whispers with a hardened breath, asking if he is their new daddy.
* * *
In his time the prophet writes and performs many stage plays and musicals as part of his sermons, titled, Shall He Suffereth Divine, and Jesus was an Outlaw, and Coming Home to Heaven on the Union Pacific Rail Road, all inspired and adapted from Christian scripture, applying Jesus in a Western setting, singing that Jesus came high and low, and in between, and far off in the desert and the desert was mean.
He hires one of King Hiram's cubs to be a dancing bear for his show, and in a few performances the bear is witnessed speaking to the crowd in plain English.
Della portrays Mary Magdalene, Mother Mary and the wife of Moses and in one show, after Jesus is crucified by hanging, she goes to defend her husband's tomb-with the epitaph reading, Moses: Still Waiting on God-from the devil and the devil is singing and the bear is dancing and Della's character bites the devil's throat until blood spurts from his neck, and she drinks it and eats his Adam's apple from her palm and he who was in the tomb rises.
The prophet's church becomes know from either coastline and is considered the most exciting spectacle in the West, rivaled only by the town's fantastic hangings.
Over forty men are hanged in Wild Yona in the 1870's, and two women too, and at least one child not thirteen years old, and the prophet tries to save them each from eternal damnation for the small price of all the currency they have left on their person, or in the bank, or buried somewhere on their property.
Among the convicted is Gabriel Finch, who in 1872 claims to kill the notorious outlaw named Rintrah 'Rinny' Hoover-wanted in five states for a variety of murder and robbery charge, and when Finch comes to collect the price on the outlaw's head he realizes he did not shoot Hoover but a fourteen year-old boy named Johnathan Kyd after he had just finished a school-play production of American Outlaw, where he portrayed the outlaw in an accolade performance, and even as he lays dead in the dust with a black hole through his mind outlined by a trickling red circle, his resemblance to the outlaw Hoover is uncanny.
In 1875, Cecil Blevins is one of the passengers in a train when it is robbed by a man in a black bandanna disguising his face and claiming to be Rintrah Hoover-discovered later to be Earl 'The Squirrel' Byrl. After he leaves with the money, Blevins trails him quoted by his wife in the papers as saying, "I just need to find a place in the woods for a breath of fresh air right quick and relieve myself. I'll be right back before you can say, We was just robbed by Skinny Rinny Hoover." He saddles his horse and it leaps outside the train cart, tracking the robber back to his house and killing him, saying, "I'm a kill your skinny ass," before realizing the man he kills is not the wicked outlaw Hoover, and Blevins confesses later to the prophet that as he was about to pull the trigger, the man said, "I ain't Hoover. It's me, the Squirrel. I only wanted the cash." And Blevins killed him anyway. When the prophet tells him he can be saved so long he gives the prophet all that he owns, Blevins says he's as broke as a little ole pitiful pony horse.
"What about the money from the train robbery?"
"I shot him before I asked where he hid it. I never did find it."
The prophet digs up the property, tearing up floorboards and knocking down walls, destroying the house but the money is never found.
In 1877, John Hazel Paul, who had left town for six years and wandered in the desert, returns for Madame Georgette's funeral and commits only the crime of resembling Rintrah Hoover so much he could have passed as an identical twin and the town along with the town's lawmen are convinced he's the outlaw Hoover in the flesh and will be convinced none otherwise. In bringing him to justice, three men are killed in a fight over the reward of $10,000, and Hazel Paul will be the only man to hang in Wild Yona to spit on the prophet's face instead of asking from him forgiveness.
* * *
During the service following Hazel's Paul's hanging, Della comes to the stage leaning on her knees and panting, with skin so sensitive if she is touched she swears someone is cutting her or striking fire upon her flesh, that her vision is blurred and she vomits all hours of the day.
It is demons possessed inside her, declares the prophet, saying that Satan has seeded her with his sperm. He passes around a gold chalice filled with The Holy Ghost and all partake and he lays Bella down on the floor and touches her belly and pretends to play a piano just above her soul and her face.
"Now be still," says he, "and get thee behind me."
The congregation watches in silence as The Holy Ghost settles within their stomachs.
"Death and Hell begone from you woman," the prophet demands. "You abominable creature and foul seducer. Foe of virtue. Monster, give way to Christ. Everlasting damnation waits for you."
He breathes into her face, down her body. Speaks a whispered and chanted prayer just above her womb. He speaks then to all the congregation there with tremendous treble, and almost trembling, saying, "I said for your soul be rid of Death and Hell."
As he speaks they can see, his clouded breath shrouding her form, her screaming, and the fangs of some monstrous creature departing from her womb, a pool of blood upon which stands the prophet, throated death-cries sounding as demons, and fleeing through the cloud as it disintegrates are the screeches and hairy wings of a hundred bats fluttering out from within her and flying away into the sky where they drown.
The prophet is on his knees and is holding his hands spread above his head. "The demons fear her now," he says, "as they would God."
The collection plate is passed and he peers down those who gather from their pockets and give currency, and those who do not, and he says, "Do not be shy now. Have I not made you a witness to God?"
* * *
Three days after Christmas in 1878 there is a new child taken in by the orphanage. He is twelve years old and intellectually inadequate, burdened with a feeble mind that he has been stunted with since infancy, who breathes as a frightened mule and can only make grunting sounds with his mouth. His name is Joshua.
He is brought to the prophet to be healed and cured. The prophet says he shall be saved or Jesus Christ dies here, tonight, and he draws a crowd of thousands, leading Joshua to the river where they walk until waist deep and he holds the child's head by the hair and pinches his nostrils shut. The child squirms and squeals retardedly while being pulled down and held underwater.
The prophet says, "Do not show unto him your justice, Lord. Give him mercy. Save this child from his own flesh. Let nothing hurt him anymore. Touch his heart, Lord. Come inside him."
Tree branches sway on the river banks, pulled and plucked by the winds. Nearby is a chime pealing with silver echoes. Birds learning to sing and learning to fly. Clouds come overhead and the sunlight bleeds through, and shines directly above the prophet. He speaks as though angels lift and carry his words from God and deliver them to the flock.
By the time he lifts Joshua's head above water and releases his grip from his face, the child's face slaps against the river where his legs rise and he floats, with the calm current, bobbing up and under the surface, dead.
The prophet is arrested and brought before a jury where he says it was not he who drowned the child but God who took him up.
The last words he speaks from his lips before the dark mask is put over his head, before a crowd of thousands, the scaffold under his feet breaking as does his neck, him there dangling from the noose, like a church bell clapper that sways without touching the bell's lip: This world is nothing. Even Jesus Christ was killed in it.