– CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN –
Spots fluttered in front of Clara’s vision as someone yanked off her hood. For a heartbeat, she believed the Field had returned to her. But no. Those blots in front of her eyes shrunk to pinpoints and then disappeared. The loss squeezed her heart mercilessly. Without the hood, the afternoon sun pressed hard on her sight. Clara shut her eyes tightly, turned her head to the side as if to bury her face in her shoulder, and waited for the disorientation to fade.
Rubbing her eyes against her shoulder, Clara blinked then began to survey her surroundings.
She was outside the compound. A gate crashed closed heavily behind her. Like the doors leading into the church building, the followers had carved a flourishing tree into the gate doors, the limbs spreading wide to welcome all visitors, the abundant fruit on the boughs made from some metal.
Out from the doors ran the defensive wall that surrounded the His Hand compound. The wall was so high a person would need to stand on a sizable hill to see over the wall and into the town. And there were no hills in the surrounding area. The land outside the compound was grated flat, slopping gently down somewhere between one or two hundred yards. The wall itself was pure white, from the stones to the mortar. The wall shined in the sunlight, projecting a glare when the sun hit the surface at the right angle. Merlons serrated the top, a row of teeth made for a giant’s mouth. In the crenels between the merlons stood dozens of white armored His Hand solders, rifles at the ready. It was as if Heaven itself had sent the angel-masked soldiers to stand with the His Hand.
Wendy stood beside Clara, her eyes puffy and red, yet her posture was rigid. The prospect of death shook anyone but standing firm despite your fear meant more. Clara was proud of her new friend and stood taller because of her strength.
The Reverend stood behind them both, as if using the two conduits as a shield. He had a small army of His Hand soldiers on the ground with him, his bodyguards. In addition to the pistol or rifle, the soldiers each carried a great sword strapped to their back. The weapon was as tall the man carrying it and had a cross guard and hilt larger than that man’s guilt. Clara doubted she could lift one of the swords let alone swing the blade. Croo stood amongst the soldiers’ ranks, at the Reverend’s right elbow. The lantern-jawed man wore no angelic facemask; he wore a helmet with a barred faceguard instead. He didn’t need the angelic facemask. Croo’s face projected the steely, stoic expression that the other soldiers’ facemasks offered them, a natural look for the big man.
The followers and the Reverend watched as two men stepped out of the unwanted visiting group and approached displaying empty hands to show they meant peaceful parlay. At first, Clara couldn’t see these two clearly, the glare from the sun in the horizon forced her to squint and see the two people as no more than blurry man-shapes. It was not until they were close that the taller of two blocked the sun for her. Clara’s heart leapt into her throat.
Uncle Marty grinned at her. And as he did, he searched her face. What did he expect to gleam? Whether the His Hand had injured or mistreated her? Or did he desire to find forgiveness in her golden eyes? Roos had likely reported to Uncle Marty about Clara’s animosity toward his attempt to help her escape the His Hand’s compound. Had Deseray received her father and revealed that Clara knew the truth about her father’s death and Uncle Marty’s role in facilitating the murder? That’s what the His Hand had done, committed murder! Clara was not going to call her father’s death anything less. Deseray had delivered to the Reverend the message of the visiting group’s arrival and their reason for coming. Behind the hopefulness on Uncle Marty’s scared and bearded face, Clara saw the heartbreak. Deseray must have greeted her father coldly, with cold remarks as sharp as a knife to open old wounds.
Clara tilted her head curiously. There was something else about Uncle Marty. Dark bags drooped under his eyes. He’d not slept—not well—for some time. He was sweating like a pig in a butcher’s shop. His flesh appeared tallow; a toxic sickness was draining from him in the most painful way. Yet Uncle Marty’s eyes were the clearest and sharpest Clara could ever remember. How long since he’d puffed on his pipe?
Regardless of how much space Marty dominated, the second man who came to parley considered every room his venue, the ground he walked on a stage for performing. Although he was slim as a reed and near to Marty’s bearish height, this second man filled out a room. His swagger and loose posture slipped across Clara like a scuttling spider. She repressed a shiver at the way Captain Kell regarded her, a tool for his use. Odd, she thought he would be pissed off at her for almost blowing up his bus golem. The metalfications in his cheeks and that wrapped around his bared arms—all cut into his flesh—gleamed with the sunlight, making him seem more machine than man underneath his skin. Clara fought down a wince at thinking about someone pushing pieces of metal into her body. Ouch. She didn’t understand how Kell and Junkers avoided infections or better yet, rusting.
Kell flashed Reverend Jimmy a showman’s grin that curved nearly to his ears but didn’t touch his dark eyes. “We are honored, Reverend. For sure we did not imagine you would escort the girls out yourself. And with angels no less! This is delightful.”
Kell’s hand reached out toward Clara, to take her into his care. His long-fingered hand moved barely an inch before she heard the clanking twitch of armor joints, the chambering of rounds into rifles, and whisper of swords sliding free of scabbards.
Crazy, stupid, or both, Kell chuckled as if his move and the drawing of weapons were a misunderstanding. To mock—probably—the His Hand, he pressed his hands together like he were about to pray. Then he bent a knee, spread his hands, and took a step back, sucking in a breath of air the way someone might after stung or burned.
“Our history is not what you would call brotherly,” Kell admitted. “I get it. I understand completely. So… I will stand here. Right here. And you can let the girls walk toward me.” He glanced around the armored and armed guard. “Send out the boy too. He must be short, I don’t see him anywhere.”
“What makes you think we have come out to bargain at all?” the Reverend asked, maintaining his charismatic air and shrugging off Kell’s flippancy. He believed he possessed control over the proceedings, not the road pirate.
“Again… we,” Kell pointed to the Reverend and back to himself, keeping his distance, “are not on brotherly terms. Okay. Fair enough. So, I figured events would play like this. I knock on your tree door there. You discover it’s little ol’ me and so you want me gone as quickly as possible. You hand over what I ask for, and then tell me to get off your burning porch. You blink an eye and we’re gone, you’re back to kneeling and praying and begging forgiveness for the sins of your fathers and grandfathers. Everyone is happy! No?”
“You’re on my doorstep, Junker,” the Reverend said. “No. I’m not happy… unless you’ve come seeking ministry…”
Kell looked like he really was considering that prospect. Had he forgotten why he and his small group of orphans—plus Uncle Marty—had come to the compound? Marty wore an impatient expression, a bear eyeing a honey pot just out of reach of his big paw.
Still wrestling with a thought that might break his mind open, Kell traced a thin line of metal that hooked around his sharp jaw line. “Hmm… nah. I’m pretty sure we’re here for the coppertops there… and any others laying around—like the ones you took from my boys and me—that you’re just going to hang, burn, or whatever you thumpers do to cleanse the world.”
Although Kell was here to liberate Clara, she wanted to punch him in his shiny flesh-metal face! She nearly snarled and was tempted to wheel on her heel and march back into the compound, straight to the gallows.
Hang me now…
While Clara indulged in her morbid fantasies, Kell and Jimmy argued. Clara understood the heated exchange as petty bickering. The Reverend quoted scripture. He quoted his father and his grandfather. He said humanity’s own ambitions destroyed the old world. Pollutants from the machines they created. They started wars over depleting resources. Nations dropped bombs on their neighbors and their own people. It experimented to create life without the aid God, gene splicing and cloning. Humanity fractured itself, doomed itself, by its inability to unite. All were arguments Clara had heard the soap box preachers use on crowds, missiles they used to hit targets, sticks to stoke angry fires. Kell spoke of his dream of building cities again, greater than the generations before Black Out Thursday. Yes, those generations had killed themselves. They’d blown themselves up. There he agreed and disagreed with the Reverend. Man had almost succeeded in destroying itself. The strongest survived. Now it was time to rebuild. Rebuild with resources left behind. Since most of the old world was dead… what did they have left? Conduits! Resources. Useful tools gathering rust.
“Do you want to stand still instead of moving forward with us, brother,” Kell explained, flashing his crocked teeth in a passionate yet angry snarl.
“How dare you call me brother?! You are not one of God’s children,” the Reverend condemned, gesturing with disgust at Kell’s metalfications and the wires and tech junk we wore as jewelry. It was the first time Clara saw the charismatically smooth leader loose his serenity. “You are road trash. You wallow in your own sins. You lay with the devil and eat from his mouth the temptations of the flesh! Move forward?! We shall stand here and care for what fruit God has left for us to tend. We shall not fail again!
“We shall not stay behind our walls and watch the world fall into chaos once more, road trash!”
Kell snorted. “Did I ask you to toss away the key? Take to the roads. My roads. Stay where you are. Leaves more for us to raid, more to fill our chests, to fill my boys’ bellies! Hah. Just give me the conduits, stay behind your walls, and let me be. Simple, brother.”
As they argued further with the blades in their mouths lashing out, Clara glanced at Marty. He was not stepping in. He was content to let the two leaders of opposite factions in a hundred year war bleed each other with tiny cuts.
Marty caught Clara’s wandering gaze. His one good dark eye darted to the side then back. Clara blinked. Then his black and his blind milky eye jumped together.
What is he trying to—
The third time Marty’s eyes darted off, he also nodded in that same direction. It said look.
Clara followed Uncle Marty’s eyes to the remainder of the group he and Kell brought with them. What is so important back there…?
About ten or twelve men stood around a wagon. One wore a red scarf around his neck… that was Roos. Considering all the tales of banditry that managed to reach up and down the river, Clara figured Kell’s crew might be bigger. Maybe Kell commanded a fleet of road golems that roamed the roads and this was one crew of many.
That was not important. Marty wouldn’t want Clara to consider the Junkers. He wanted her aware of what was inside the wagon. A difficult task since the wagon’s cargo was covered.
The Junkers had the contents of the wagon concealed underneath a tarp. Four horses had drawn the wagon here. Whatever hid beneath the tarp was heavy if it required so many beasts of burden to haul. A gust of wind sent Roos’ red scarf billowing, it and the tarp. Wait. no. Two tarps billowed. Together the tarps were straining to keep a lot of something concealed. The something under the wagon was tall, bulky, and had many odd angles. Anything could be underneath the tarp.
Clara raised an eyebrow at Marty, pretending she knew nothing about what the tarp hid. Yeah. I see a tarp with stuff underneath. So? What?
Except, she remember well her conversation with Roos the other night under the safety of orchard boughs.
Her and Uncle Marty’s nonverbal communication of head jerks and eye shifting didn’t go unnoticed. Although the Reverend was busy with Kell, Croo noticed the attempt at covert signals. He tugged at the Reverend’s arm, waited for Jimmy Boy to lend him a cocked head and open ear, and then whispered. The Reverend’s eyes darted to the wagon. Suspicion widened his eyes.
“What’s in the wagon, road rat?”
Kell twisted his upper body—the man was not only a stage performer but a contortionist—and looked where the Reverend was squinting to see. The Junker captain scrubbed a hand through his straw-colored hair then shrugged off the inquiry as minor and unimportant. “Meh. Party favors is all.”
Did Kell think the evasion would throw the Reverend off? That Reverend Jimmy would accept the brush off? Clara was as annoyed at Kell’s flippancy as the Reverend. The man didn’t take anything seriously! What was his plan?
He winked at Clara then rocked back and forth on his heels, grinning wolfishly at the His Hand group gathered before him.
“Religious differences aside,” Kell said, “you gonna hand over the coppertops or what? I’ll throw in a please if it’ll un-punker your ass, brother… hmm?”
Wendy brushed against Clara’s shoulder, nearly knocking the latter off her feet. The minor collision prompted Clara to peek over her shoulder to see if Wendy was all right.
A soap box preacher had grabbed Wendy by her throat and his Bible pressed tightly against her chest, possibly believing The Good Book would burn the dark skinned conduit. Just in case the tome did not, the preacher had a wicked knife out and the point held underneath Wendy’s eyeball, ready to stab.
“Clara? Clara, help me! Please.” Wendy spoke breathily as she tried not making any a sudden movement.
Clara vaguely registered Wendy’s pleas. She was too focused on the preacher. His eyes were aflame with the conviction of a person fully in the grip of his faith, armored by the belief that what he did was sanctioned and easily forgiven by a power higher than any law humans could create.
Another preacher made a move to grab hold of Clara but Croo stepped in his way. Reverend Jimmy ordered everyone to calm, using his best crowd-mesmerizing, brain-scrubbing voice. He directed his priestly leader mojo to the soap box preachers and then to the soldiers ready to draw and/or unsheathe their weapons.
“He had no right to refer to you as brother, Reverend,” the preacher holding Wendy said, pointing his knife and his glare at Kell. “You told him not to. He defies you. He defies our ways. He mocks us. A common road rat and he mocks Him by his disrespect.”
“We’re simply talking,” Kell said soothingly. “Talking… not stabby-stabby.”
“Hang. Burn. Stab. God will be the one to judge her soul,” the preacher promised.
“Settle yourself, Brother Rensford,” the Reverend command gently. “The Junker is correct about one thing,” he turned his attention back to Kell, “we’re talking, for now.”
“No stabby-stabby,” Kell agreed, flashing his crooked grin.
“Reverend, let the girls and their friends go,” Marty jumped in, seeing that the Reverend was clearly tired of dealing with Kell’s obnoxious roundabout play and wanting to defuse the recently aggravated hostage situation.
“Here we are again, Mr. Tully,” the Reverend said amusingly, turning his attention.
Old resentments rose to the surface and Marty looked near to swiping a bear paw at the Reverend for his smug remark. He restrained himself visibly, after malice flickered brightly in his good eye. The Reverend wanted this reaction from Marty, Clara could see the intention on his face.
“Another daughter behind my walls,” the Reverend said, “and once more you come to take her away. Except this time… you have no barging chip. You have nothing I want.”
Marty glanced at Clara. Croo was helping her to her feet. Her eyes found the Reverend again, doubt darkening his stare. “You gave Deseray a choice before. Give that same choice to Clara.”
“I would, Mr. Tully, but there is a problem… Sister Deseray had opened her heart to God all those years ago and became a member of the His Hand. Any member is free to come and go at their will.”
“This coppertop here has admitted her sins and refuses to repent, to walk toward God,” a soap box preacher looming behind the His Hand soldiers interrupted passionately. “She has left her fate in the hands of our Lord. He shall judge her.”
“In death,” Marty snarled. “You left that little nugget out.”
“He took away the cancer of the old world with the Flood,” the soap box preacher said as if quoting scripture… entries from passages written by the first Reverend, a New New Testament. “As He scrubbed the old world, He will cleanse the remaining blotches in their time.”
“Only those who confess and renounce may repent here in the Second Chance,” the Reverend finished much softer than the branded zealot spoke. A wave from the Reverend quieted the soap box preacher, doubt less the man wanted to thump Marty and Kell a few more times with scripture. “So you see, Mr. Tully, Clara and her coppertop friends are to meet God. They have made their choice… just as your first daughter did all those years ago.”
Marty appeared crushed. His broad shoulders rolled forward, his posture bent in defeat, his long arms close to dragging his blacksmith scared knuckles across the ground, eyes on his boots. His face had the same expression she’d seen thousands of times, every time he had the itch to reach for his pipe.
His only daughter had rejected him, likely twice now. His best friend lost his life because his misjudgment, his betrayal. Marty’s self-imposed guilt boiled in Clara’s belly, her anger toward him rising to her heart. Let Marty feel awful. Let the guilt eat him away. Let the weed gnaw at his reality and cloud what life he had left because he doesn’t deserve any of the leftovers Clara’s father should be enjoying.
Dad is gone, Clara reminded herself, trying to hold close the floodgates with all her will. Nothing I do will bring him back. It’s okay that I’m angry. Uncle Marty will let me be angry with him. At some point, I’ll need to forgive him or the anger will eat away at me as anger did him. I won’t forget but I can forgive.
Besides, all those years ago, Clara’s father could have known about Uncle Marty coming to compound searching for his daughter. Mo Danvers could have agreed to Marty bargaining a conduit—his best friend—for his only offspring, the last of his family. Clara chose to believe her father had planned with Marty some daring escape from the holy clutches of the His Hand. The meant to deal for the captured daughter, do a quick trade. Then Mo Danvers planned to bust out and leave the thumpers speechless, as if they’d witnessed an angel preach to them from the heavens. But everything went wrong. She couldn’t blame Marty for her father wanting to be a good friend. That’s how Clara chose to remember Mo Danvers and Martin Tully on their last adventure.
“Uncle Marty…” Clara said softly, loud enough for him to hear.
He looked up at her, his beady dark eyes full of remorse.
“I forgive you, Uncle Marty. And I love you.”
Marty wetted his dry lips. Hope beamed from his damp eyes and he rose back up to his full six-five height.
Good. Clara looked around at the motley group parlaying around her, philosophizing over her fate, her death, her worth. The soap box preacher still pressed Wendy close to his person, ready to slit her throat and pray over her corpse. Things are going to get hairy right… about… now…
Wanna read more? Turn the page to Chapter Thirty-Eight by clicking here.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved