Holy Is as Holy Does

"None So Deaf spans the horror spectrum from fearsome to fun in the spirit of Skeleton Crew and Strange Highways, making it a great read for any fan of the genre!"—Matt Hults, Author of Husk

I had the pleasure of reading both "Holy Is as Holy Does" and "Barbicide"—another one of my stories—at StokerCon 2016 in Las Vegas. You can hear me read "Barbicide" in episode 27 of The Bare Knuckle Podcast.


He awoke knowing he was a different man than he had been the night before, that his life prior to this morning had been preamble. Today was a new beginning for Daniel Collier, and he breathed it in deep.
The early morning light streamed in through his window and he threw the threadbare curtains wide. He stood naked before the rising sun, which warmed his flesh through the glass.
There would be time enough for reverie at the top of the hill, so he quickly donned his rustic attire, fetched a light breakfast from the kitchen and was out the door. He hitched up the team, and as he rode off on his buckboard, the house felt large behind him, too much house for one man. But he vowed he would not be its only inhabitant for long. There was a wife in his future, and children. If one of those children turned out to be a boy, he would inherit an army of followers, because Daniel Collier intended to lead the pioneering people of America into a bright age of prosperity and greatness.
It would all begin on the hilltop.
Dandelions carpeted the crest of the hill, and he was tempted to lie down in their luxuriance, divest himself of his clothing and roll in them like an antediluvian god. Maybe later. He wasn’t at the very top yet. A voice had been calling him there in his dreams, but it had taken him until now to work up the courage to make the climb. Now he was so convinced good news awaited him that he couldn’t imagine why he’d put it off.
From the rocky summit, he could see to all corners of the prairie terrain. To the northeast, ranchland flourished. Cattle followed paths from one grazing pasture to another. In the west, fields of young wheat rolled like a wavering green blanket in the morning breeze. In the blink of an eye it would be autumn, and the healthy greens he saw before him would turn to brittle gold for the harvester’s scythe.
The sky cracked open and Daniel fell to his knees in spontaneous prayer. He trained his gaze on a bright figure that floated down from the rent in the heavens. His dreams had not lied. Here came the bringer of truth, angel of light. Tears poured out of his eyes, and his hands shook as he held them in ready acceptance of his Savior’s word.
The winged being halted in the air several yards above him, batting its wings to stay aloft. Its form was female perfection, naked yet chaste. The smile it wore showered grace down upon him. He knew that a lifetime of waiting was about to be recompensed as the angel opened its beautiful mouth and sang him his destiny.

*****

“The path to righteousness is not a gilded path!” he shouted to the dozen or so members in attendance at the prayer meeting. “Nor is it lined with fine-smelling flowers. That path exists, if you haven’t the stomach for the one true calling. Take, if you want, the beautiful and easy path that leads to an ocean of flames. I’ll take the uneven, bramble-strewn way that leads me unto the glory of God!”
As the barn filled up with the exuberant praise of its worshippers, Daniel wondered what it would feel like to get a similar reaction from a crowd of fifty or more.
“We will meet with resistance along the path that has been laid for us. Some will find our ways and customs odd. But there is no room for doubt that we are meant to rise to prominence among the competing denominations in this New World. Let those who oppose our subservience to the will of God tremble at the wisdom of His justice. Let them answer to Him for taking a stand against our piety.
“The good Lord has more in store for you and me than parrying the blows of the ignorant. He will watch over and protect us from the repercussions of men. We need only concern ourselves with the expansion of our church and our adherence to the will of the Almighty!”
He dabbed at his forehead and neck with a handkerchief. All of the cheering congregants were men. That would have to change. Already he grew tired of the wind-battered faces of these farmers. Where were the bankers, and the bankers’ daughters? He had certain ministerial claims over the women of this region, but he was the only one aware of the fact yet.
He paused dramatically after the cheers of support died out.
“Go out into the world now, and sing the new gospel. Enjoy your families in the coming nights. The church elders will have a mission for you soon. Great wealth wants to come into our church, but it is dependent on the absolute commitment of everyone present here today, and as many more as we can bring into the fold in a month’s time.”
The church elders consisted of exactly two members: Daniel and his faithful friend Theodore, who was seated in the barn with the other men, savoring every word that spilled from the minister’s mouth. These were humble beginnings, but Daniel was convinced that an undertaking was only small if it was handled small. This new church of his would have to grow to meet his expectations and ambitions. It would rise to meet him. He wasn’t about to shrink his ideals.

*****

At Daniel’s house, he and Theodore sat across from each other near a thriving fire, sipping at glasses of deep red wine. Daniel had been considering banning wine, for purposes other than libation, but the timing wasn’t right. With gold in the church coffers he would introduce an additional list of thou-shalt-nots, but for now he was happy to share in a bottle with his friend.
“The letters pour in, Theodore. Even the newspapers are against us. So much resistance to the idea that a modern prophet could be handed an amendment to established scripture.”
“They’re the ones who will pay the price for their folly, in the end,” Theodore said in his serene but firm manner of speaking.
“In the end, yes, of course. If only I had more like you. Such confidence in the future!” Daniel said this with a histrionic clenching of his fist. “But we have yet to carve that future, Theodore. We must bend it to our will. A party of settlers will be passing through our county next week. I understand they’ll be carrying gold. A lot of gold.”
“Uh-huh,” Theodore said.
“Paiute country, too. Sure would be a shame if those nice folks met up with a bunch of bloodthirsty savages.”
“That would be a shame. And all for a little gold.”
“For the good of the church, Theodore.”
“Won’t the survivors say it was us who massacred everyone? Or won’t there be any survivors?”
“Come with me,” Daniel said, exchanging his wine for a candle. He led Theodore to the back of the house, where a closed door stood at the end of a corridor. Daniel chose a key from a ring and unlocked the door.
The two men entered a small, windowless room. Everything in range of the candlelight was covered with white sheets. Furniture, crates… Daniel couldn’t even remember everything that was still waiting here to be unpacked since his arrival out west. He crossed directly to the tallest item in the room and smiled at Theodore.
“What do you suppose this is?” he asked.
“I’m sure I have no idea.”
“Remove the sheet.”
Theodore reached hesitantly for the sheet, as if pulling it away might reveal a caged animal. But once it was fully removed he exhaled loudly in relief. “Why, it’s a wardrobe.”
“Precisely. A wardrobe. But not just any wardrobe. This wardrobe is special.”
“What do you mean, special?”
“Look inside.” He knew Theodore would go to the ends of the earth for him, but it was good to reinforce the man’s allegiance from time to time.
With a glance at Daniel, Theodore stepped to the wardrobe and threw open its doors. Daniel purposely kept the light of his candle from revealing the contents of the tall wooden closet, but the dense odor of aged leather wafted out immediately. Finally he tilted his candlestick so that it illuminated the interior.
Theodore took a step back and looked at Daniel. “I don’t understand. This is Indian dress, is it not?”
Daniel smiled and nodded. “Easier to make our own Indians than convince real ones to join our cause, yes?”
“Where did you get these?”
“I’ve… been collecting them. You aren’t going cold on me, are you?”
“No, it’s just—”
“Good, I wouldn’t want to have to make public certain indiscretions from your past.”
“There’ll be no need for that. I’ll organize the ambush straightaway.”
“I knew I could count on you, Theodore. I am blessed to have you at my side.”
Theodore gave a perfunctory smile as Daniel shut the wardrobe.
“Our wine has had sufficient time to breathe, I should think,” Daniel commented as he led his underling into the corridor and locked up the room before returning to the fire.

*****

Standing atop a bluff overlooking the site that was about to go down in history—the good Lord willing—Daniel Collier had doubts. Not about the nature of his plan or the justification for it, but doubts about whether or not his men could be relied on to carry out their orders. They all seemed to be behind him in this, but he knew that when the wagon train was stopped, and women and children began spilling onto the road to see what was going on, the men would have second thoughts.
He ducked behind a nearby cottonwood and sat down with his back against the knotty trunk. The smell of prairie grass, slightly sharp, was strong, and he found himself twirling errant blades of the stuff around his index fingers. A small group of men was huddled nearby and Daniel could see how ridiculous the disguises looked. It was one thing to have the appropriate attire and quite another to know how to fit it properly. They would fool some of the settlers, but others would see right through them. He had thought it would be a good idea to leave some survivors behind, to spread the word of what happened. He knew the incident would grow in scope with each retelling, which might keep outsiders from moving into the area in droves. But maybe they would have to kill them all, as Theodore had suggested. His church wasn’t yet strong enough to shoulder the blame for something of this magnitude.
The rattling grind of wagon wheels on dry earth came with shocking suddenness. At the first sound of the settlers’ approach he was up like a shot, crouching as he went from man to man and issued the command to take up battle positions. He knew it would be no battle. It would be a slaughter, a decimation. But it could do his men’s fighting spirit no harm to have them think this wagon train was a threat to their personal safety. That’s how he’d sold it, and that’s how they’d bought it. Stolen gold it was in those wagons, according to his story. And each and every member of the Blackert party was as cold blooded as they came. Only he and Theodore knew that the Blackerts and their associates had come upon their gold through the sale of prime land farther east. They’d simply pooled their income, joined forces, and pulled up stakes in search of warmer climes.
Daniel and his men set themselves up along the edge of trees that gave way to a steep drop leading down into the meadow the Blackert party would soon be passing through. Theodore and his contingent manned a ridge opposite, armed with bows and tomahawks for the sake of realism. Some of the men on the bluff side also carried Indian weapons, but everyone had a rifle slung at their side for good measure.
The settlers came snaking into the meadow presently, trailing great plumes of dust. It was a holy vision, almost as holy as the angel who had visited Daniel on the hilltop all those months ago. He yearned for the means to preserve the next hour for eternity. The Bible itself contained no scene more memorable than what was about to unfold on the plains of the Utah Territory, before his very eyes.
He let out a holler, which passed among the men until it reached Adam Jacoby, Lance Hartly and Jules Warren, the party assigned to stopping the train. Daniel watched with wide, hopeful eyes as the men thundered down the hillside on horseback, whooping in their best imitation of a Paiute war cry and swinging tomahawks above their heads. Daniel let out a second holler, this one signaling the remaining men to descend upon the rest of the stalled wagon train. Their descent was a visual signal to the men on Theodore’s side to do likewise.
It was at a leisurely pace that Daniel navigated the slope down to the meadow. He had no interest in partaking of the violence, but he wanted to bear witness. His horror mounted, however, as he neared the scene on foot. There was no beauty here. The screams of women and children being dragged from the backs of wagons by their hair filled his ears. The men folk were quickly dispatched with rifles, but women were cruelly slain in front of their children. Young girls were stripped naked and beaten to death. Boys were forced to take it all in before meeting with similar fates.
Daniel circled the mayhem in disbelief, as if he were Dante being led through a ditch of hell by an unseen Virgil. What kind of monster had he created? It wasn’t supposed to feel this way. Here was Lance, tearing chunks out of a woman’s neck with a hunting knife. There was Jules, tying a boy no more than twelve to a wagon wheel by the neck and striking the flank of the horse at the front of the wagon. The horse whickered and fled, and the boy’s throat took the full weight of the wagon at each rotation of the wheel. Daniel clearly heard the boy’s broken screams, but he probably only imagined the blump, blump of his head smacking the uneven earth as the wagon charted an erratic course across the meadow.
He spotted Theodore in the madness and went to him.
“Theodore, what goes on? They carry this thing too far,” he said, laying a trembling hand on his friend’s shoulder.
Theodore’s eyes were dead coals. “Do not ever speak to me of this day,” he said. To Daniel’s dismay, the man returned to the fray and began clubbing children to death with the blunt end of his tomahawk.
“Theodore!” he screamed, but his friend was lost in a hurricane of bloodlust. Disgust rose up in Daniel, and he turned away from the bloodshed he’d called for. His great religious moment felt more like a badge of shame as he wound his way back into the hills toward home, terrified and alone.

*****

Theodore would come to him. Sooner or later his trustworthy companion would deliver a report of the afternoon’s proceedings. Someone would come to him. They couldn’t just leave him to suffer his burden and puzzle out the next steps by himself.
But it grew dark all around him, and still no one came to put his mind at rest. Did they not understand how keenly he felt the impact of the day’s events? Did they not appreciate the responsibility he shouldered?
“Come to me!” He flung his empty whiskey glass into the fireplace and fell into his chair.
A knock at the back door. A single knock. Odd.
“Well, it’s about time.”
He dragged himself out of the chair and stumbled his way to the back of the house. “Been a long time since you’ve been good and drunk, Daniel,” he slurred to himself and laughed. “Can’t hold your liquor.”
He released the latch of the back door, but the door wouldn’t budge. Looking up he remembered bolting it. He’d be bolting his doors from now on, he had a feeling.
“That you, Theodore?” He fumbled with the wooden bolt. “Good idea, coming to the back door. Can’t be too careful.”
Another solitary knock, followed by silence.
Finally the bolt slipped out of its notch and Daniel was able to open the door. At first all he saw was the boughs of a couple of old oak trees in the distance, cradling the crescent moon as a cool evening breeze blew through them. But when he looked down, his eyes met the stolid faces of two small children, a boy and a girl.
“This is one of my faces,” the boy said, “but I have another one.”
“Wha—”
Whatever Daniel meant to say was cut short by horrified disbelief as he watched the boy reach up to his own forehead with both hands and peel the skin of his face downward until it hung from his chin in a loose, gory flap.
“You did this to me.” The boy’s voice was wetter now. He turned his head toward the girl, as if giving her a cue.
“Do you want to see what you did to me?” she asked, too sweetly.
Daniel shook his head but no words would come.
The girl looked over at the boy. “He doesn’t want to see.” She gave an exaggerated pout and looked back up at Daniel. “But he’s going to.” Something dark had come into her voice, and she set about undoing the middle buttons of her dress, which he noticed was bloodstained. A bullet had ripped through the center of her little body, apparently, leaving behind the hideous wound she now flaunted at him.
“You have changed us,” the children said in unison. “Now it’s our turn.”
He tried to slam the door on them, but they were too quick. They shot around him and ran upstairs, giggling all the way. Daniel teetered for a moment as fear squeezed out the dregs of his whiskey drunk. When he finally managed to shut the door—and refasten the bolt—it was on sober but wobbly legs that he gazed at the foot of the stairs.
“I’ll teach you to cut my face off with your Indian axe!” The boy’s voice could have been coming from any of the upstairs rooms.
“Shoot me in the tummy, will you?” the girl’s voice charged. “We’ll just see about that.”
“You’ve got the wrong man,” Daniel said, mounting the stairs. “I swear I didn’t touch either of you. I harmed no one.”
The children giggled some more.
Don’t go up there, a voice in the back of his mind cautioned. But he knew he had to. What else could he do, run? Flee from his own house? Never. If only his guiding angel would come to him now, tell him what to do, the way she had told him of his destiny. How later, in his dreams, she had wiped away his doubts and shown him the wisdom of murdering the Blackert party.
But wait, that hadn’t turned out to be so wise. He was confused. Why had the angel misled him?
The last step groaned under his weight and brought him out of his thoughts, back to his predicament.
“Okay, children. Where are you?” He tried to sound calm but didn’t. “Come on out, and let’s talk this through.” He contemplated going back for the candle, but he decided it wouldn’t be of any real use. The feeble moonlight would suffice. That and the flickering firelight from below.
“You’re a bad, bad man.” It was both voices together again, but he still couldn’t tell which room they were in.
Two rows of doors ran parallel to the staircase. He had hoped at least one of these rooms would be home to a child one day. How had he lost sight of that simple wish?
He stepped to the first door on the left side of the stairs. It popped free of its latch with ease and he steeled himself for a lunge into the dark room.
But something caught his attention at the far end of the hall. Where moonlight stole in through a grimy window, he could make out the dead-still outlines of the two children. His blood seemed to drain away at the sight of them, so smug in their accusatory stance, their fearless communion with the dark. He envied them that, and he hated them for seeing more than he saw. For knowing more than he knew.
“Wretched spawn!” he shrieked.
As he ran full speed down the length of the hall he could see the shapes of their heads turn to look at each other, and again they giggled. Their laughter crescendoed and echoed in his brain, but he would soon put a stop to that!
He leaped into the air, wanting to pounce on the little brats, but in midair he realized they had vanished beneath him, and he had overshot anyway. The window shattered in a spray of broken glass as he sailed through the casement. For an elongated instant he caught the leer of the moon, obsequious yet damning. Then, just before he fell to the ground, it was the face of an angel.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Contents

Crisscross Purposes

A Pound of Flesh