– CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE –
The Nites inside the man-golem lasted only so long before each evaporated back into the Field. Nite blue fumes trickled from the golem’s two upturned tailpipes, smoke from a doused campfire, the final embers flicking out. Everywhere the blue light had been emanating dimmed and snuffed out; the eye slits in the bucket head, the seams in the furnish-like chest. Albeit the Nites did last long enough to frighten the plate armor off what remained of the His Hand soldiers on the battlefield.
After gathering Wendy—who had been huddling in the wreckage of the wagon after the man-golem Woke and trampled on the wagon upon its exit—Clara sent through the Field a command for Tink to follow her in the man-golem.
Supporting Turnip between them, the conduits hobbled back to the compound where Kell and Uncle Marty had begun their peaceful palaver before the battle. Clara guessed hell broke loose in the His Hand’s front yard less than ten minutes previously—probably a lot less—and all so she and Wendy could escape to the wagon.
Clara didn’t know what happened when all but two Junkers rushed to stand by Kell’s side when the fighting began. Clara had been too occupied then with minor annoyances such as freeing herself from the inhibiting collar, Waking a golem using the Field itself, and unleashing that golem against an entire legion of the His Hand’s angel soldiers! Just a simple stroll in the afternoon sunshine.
The legion had possessed the largest threat to Uncle Marty and the Junkers, not the bodyguards surrounding the Reverend. The man-golem had made quick work of those soldiers first, sending them for their own god’s judgment—as they so easily did with un-convertible conduits—or scattering the injured and frightened.
Even from far away, the Waking of Clara’s man-golem had instilled fright in the Reverend and his surrounding follower soldiers.
As Clara, Wendy, Turnip, and the Tink golem approached, a small number of the Reverend’s bodyguards were on their knees, stripped of their weapons, gauntleted hands folded behind their heads, angel facemasks pulled off and tossed away. They were normal men after all, not Heaven-sent guardians. The soldiers were smaller seeming now to Clara, especially when they shrunk away from the lumbering man-golem as Tink rode the metal shell up to their captured ranks. And rightly so. The golem was garbed in heavier armor then they, was a giant in size, and its eyes were haunted by otherworldly flames. All of the soldiers pressed their faces into the dirt and grass on the road outside the compound when Nite fumes spewed from the golem’s tailpipes. They shook when the pipes shrieked with a sudden high-pitched whistling.
None of these soldiers mumbled prayers of protection half as loud—and as angry—as the soap box preacher who had tried to cut Wendy’s throat.
Without his knife, the man was a weakling in bulky rough robes. As a mercy—probably—the Junkers had allowed the man with the plucked as a chicken head his Bible. He held up his holy scriptures as a shield; Clara thought The Good Book an ineffective shield, though. She would have cackled at him, boasted about her freedom, except the holy man kept looking at her bare—un-collared—neck as he spouted about how unclean she was, damning her as a devil-rout child who calls forth demons under her control. To him, she was an untamed dog. No collar. No master. She was capable of anything. She would bite even the gentlest hand. Her reveling would only prove true the soap box preacher and the Reverend’s propaganda against her kind. Clara had to hold herself higher than those who would hate her kind.
Sadly, Clara turned her cheek to the lowly, sorry man and moved on with Wendy and Turnip Head.
Other His Hand soldiers stood about, their weapons still in hand. Their armor rattled nervously, just slightly, and their feet stepped back to give the man-golem a wide birth. Kell and Marty—unharmed except for scrapes and ripped clothing from the fighting—tolerated the soldiers, allowed them their weapons. They were not prisoners. Odd. For all of Clara’s wanting to be more righteous than the His Hand, she desired the men who represented the group’s angry fist on their knees, disarmed.
Marty approached Clara, Wendy, and Turnip. His eyes found Clara’s immediately, ignoring the injuries of her fellows. His eyes were clear for the first time in many years, though laden with guilt, and his skin was deeper with healthy color.
“You survived,” Clara joked lightly.
Her Uncle Marty snorted. “Are you disappointed?”
She rolled her shoulder, shifting Turnip Head’s weight. The Junker grunted with pain and glared at her, mumbling.
“I forgave you,” she reminded Marty. “That forgiveness was true.”
“You deserve to know—”
Holding up a hand, she cut him off. Did she want to know the truth? Had her father consented to Marty’s plan? Had Mo Danvers agreed to give himself up to the Reverend and his followers so his best friend could have his daughter back? Was it their plan, one that went terribly wrong in the end and cost her father his life? Clara was not a child and the decision to hear the truth was hers. The truth would hurt but she already decided her father would never hold a grudge and Mo Danvers would not expect his daughter to either. Taking back forgiveness was wrong besides.
“We can talk later,” Clara said with a tired sigh and a small smile without teeth, “when we get back at the shop. First, I’ll need a chance to see my mom and Leo.”
“They’re worried,” Marty said.
“How much do they know?”
He shrugged his massive blacksmith’s shoulders and smiled. His old scar tugged his grin into something near a snarl, though mirth was in his gruff voice. “Little. When I heard the code on an old radio I was putting back together, I knew I’d find you. I didn’t think to worry your mother too much.” Marty’s expression darkened and his voice cracked with guilt. “I wasn’t going to take another member of Jennie’s family away from her.”
No matter which way her father’s final adventure ended—with Clara’s fantasy or Marty’s betrayal—her surrogate uncle blamed himself for the outcome. “Tink found you then?” Clara inquired.”Good.”
Clara held up a hand and touched the cool metal of the man-golem’s armor. She reached out to the Field and sent a series of blips and pings.
Tink was irate. You thought I would let you down? No faith? You clearly underestimate my resourcefulness. Communication is easy for humans, everyone sees you fleshies. Hardly any one notices us Nites… except conduits. How the Nite transmitted a harrumph and a foot stomping was beyond Clara. Clara shook her head.
“And you managed to get the golem upstairs,” Clara cocked an eye at Marty and nodded appreciatively. “Not bad, uncle. And you didn’t break your back either. Impressive.”
Standing up a little straighter, Marty responded, “I used the lift. If you adjust the counter weights properly, well… it’s not much work at all.”
“How did you manage the soldiers while I Woke the golem?”
“We didn’t,” Marty explained with a shake of his head. “Not alone. Kell assures me we didn’t need help. Hah. The pup is full to bursting with hot air.” Turnip Head snarled at Marty for speaking ill of his Captain. The Junker attempted to leap up at the bigger man but squealed with pain and resettled himself between Clara and Wendy.
“Anyway,” Marty continued, “more of the His Hand’s men arrived. They marched right outside the gates to outnumber us, made me think we were goners unless you could Wake the golem as planned. They formed up, joined ranks, and then turned on their brothers. It was a surprise. The Reverend didn’t know what to make of the mutiny. I imagine he thought they were all possessed. The preacher said as much, blamed you, Clara, for placing Nites in the soldiers’ bodies and commanding them.”
Wendy gasped. “We can’t do that…” she trailed off, screwing up her brow before giving up and regarding Clara. “Can we do that?”
“Not that I know.” Clara said to Wendy. She shook her head. Wendy really doesn’t know much about her powers. Without having had a mentor—like my dad was for me—Wendy and other conduits have little practical experience beyond making light… little more than Sammy probably.
“What happened to Jimmy Boy?” asked Clara.
Marty nodded to a circle of soldiers. None of them wore surcoats; the soldiers had draped their white surcoats over a pile in the area they kept safe. Clara knew what—or rather who—was under the surcoats.
“How?” asked Clara.
“Accident,” Marty said, with little regret and more than a twinge of satisfaction. “He was trying to gain control of his rogue soldiers. A bullet caught him in the heart. He went down immediately.”
“Any idea why these other soldiers helped us?” she asked, more than a little curious. It’s not as if any of the followers treated conduits fairly and they had been calling for her and Wendy’s judgment not too long ago.
“Who leashed the dogs?” Turnip wondered with a cackle that he bit off quickly, his chest wound pinching.
A His Hand soldier strode up to Clara then. The armored soldier was near six feet, much taller than she was. His armor was dented and scuffed in a few places, his surcoat with the church’s palm and cross emblazoned on the front tattered and ruined. The pauldron on his shoulder, shaped like a hand, had a couple of fingertips cut away, probably the result of a blocked sword strike or two.
Reaching up, the soldier unclasped the angel facemask from his helm and lifted the helm from his head. Clayton tucked the faceplate somewhere behind his surcoat, toward his back, and placed the helm under his arm. His squared faced dripped with sweat. His damp hair pressed closely to his head and stuck to his forehead. He tasted fresh air, sucked in a long breath while a cool breeze blew across his face.
Clara turned to Wendy and told her to help Turnip over to the other Junkers, to where his people could tend to his shoulder/chest wound before it festered. Wendy quickly eyed Clayton, taking in his armor and the sigil of the His Hand proudly worn on his chest. She raised an eyebrow questioningly at Clara. You sure you what me to leave you with him? Nodding assuredly, Clara shifted Turnip’s weight on to Uncle Marty. Turnip leaned against the large man’s forearm, the latter too tall to support the Junker under his shoulder. Wendy grunted and continued on with Marty’s aid, both now holding up the painfully hobbling Turnip, heading toward the mass of Junkers who were all gaping with wide-eyed wonderment at the man-golem Clara Woke. They glanced at her too, wondering.
She tried to look as impressive as possible, brushing off their adoration as no big deal. Yeah, that’s right, I built it and I Woke it. Hands off! Her attention avoidance was more obvious than she realized. Roos openly watched her, fawning and impressed, but not over the golem…her. Clara forced cooling thoughts on her mind to keep from flushing.
The sound of a throat clearing brought Clara’s attention back to Clayton. He was lowering a gauntleted fist from his mouth.
Clara flashed the young man a grateful smile. To her, this act of rebellion by the rancher’s son surely meant the he had had a change of heart. All her arguments, the yelling, revealing her sore feelings, had pierced through the calloused skin Clayton had grown over his heart since his mother’s death. He had also stood up against the Reverend and the His Hand when they were about to hang her and Wendy, a first act of turning.
“Thank you,” she said meekly. She reached out tentatively but immediately withdrew her hand, unsure if the move was appropriate. All eyes outside the compound seemed locked on them. “Clayton, it means so much to me that you came out for us.” For me, she wanted to say boldly. “That you put aside your fear, realized that conduits are not to be feared, hated, or placed outside of society. It’ll all—”
“I didn’t come out because my mind changed, not really,” he said, talking over Clara.
Those words took the wind from Clara’s sails, popped the hope she’d blown into a delicate bubble. She dropped flatly to her feet and realizing she’d been poised on her tiptoes like some silly girl wanting a kiss. Shock unsteadied her.
Clayton’s hard eyes quickly measured the man-golem standing guard behind her. Coming away, his expression showed disapproval. The same look she remembered on a younger version of Clayton, the day the tractor accident took his mother from him.
“Then why did you help me?” she asked sharply. “Did Rose…”
He waved a gauntleted hand to dismiss the idea that his younger sister had any part in his betraying the Reverend. “Rose shouted at me, sure. She told me if I didn’t help somehow she would stop calling me brother. That was not why I ordered the gates open so I could lead men out against their leader.”
“Then why did you help me?” she repeated, more hotly this time.
“This can’t be the way,” Clayton said with surety, loudly, as if he wanted the soldiers he brought out with him to hear his words and know them well. “Humans killing each other is not God’s way, Clara. It should not be our way. He took away that which made us demigods, electricity, but it was those machines that took lives when the Flood came.” His eyes shifted up to the golem and then back to Clara. “Without the machines falling from the sky, crashing us in to each other, decimating entire cities in an explosive blink, the Lighted from before the Flood would have died natural deaths and went to meet God. We all deserve a chance at life, to prove ourselves to Him. That is our right. What is not our right is too choose death for another.”
“That’s why you tried to stop Jimmy from hanging me,” Clara said. She knew now; Clayton could never accept her but he would not bring about her death. “Of course,” she rolled her eyes, “if I trip, fall, and bang my head against a rock, then die… well, Clayton, then you’ll cry for me.”
Scrubbing his soaked hair with gloved fingers, Clayton let out an exasperated breath. “Geez, Clara! Why do you have to make this hard? Everything is hard with you. If your death was okay with me I would’ve left you out here alone and allowed fate to choose. I instead stepped in, went against a man—who I respect even in death—and intervened in a way I knew would tip the balance.”
“Your confidence must be as hypnotic as Jimmy’s charisma was,” Clara teased mercilessly, “because there was no other way these thumpers would follow you, Clay. Not to help a couple of sinful conduits.”
“Slinging mud doesn’t build bridges,” Clayton chastised.
“Burn you, Clay! I didn’t throw the first clod.” Clara leaned forward and whispered to her former childhood friend. “Underneath those masks, Clay, the thumpers snarl like wolves instead of going baahh like in those scriptures you put so much stock in. What made the wolves in wool in to toothless pups, huh? Whatcha say?”
He drew himself up, adjusted the posture of his shoulders as if resettling a great weight. “I made a bargain.”
Head tilted, Clara tried to read Clayton’s firmly held expression. He was holding back a flood of emotion. “With whom, Clay?”
The ring of soldiers around the former Reverend’s body parted and Clara watched as Warty the soap box preacher stood from where he had been crouching next to the shrouded body. Upon exiting the broken circle, the ring of soldiers closed tightly again. Warty advanced with confidence to where Clara and Clayton stood in heated debate.
“The Lord shines his light on Brother Clayton,” Warty intoned ceremoniously. “Though young, he is full of wisdom and will lead the His Hand well.”
Clara gaped. She wanted to smack herself, to make sure she was still awake and not dreaming. “What—” She looked from Warty to Clayton with disbelief. If Clayton continued to posture himself like a rooster about the yard then he might start moulting. “Eve Powell… What about her? Her husband was the Reverend. She should be leading, right?”
Warty cackled with amusement. “Afraid not. Our laws, handed down by the first Reverend, state succession is passed through the male line. Eve Powell has not born our former leader heirs, may the Lord take him into His bosom and judge his light.”
“And you’re not tempted to grab for that ripe, juicy golden apple yourself, Warty?” Clara sneered, seeing in her immediate future the swaying shadow of a hangman’s noose hanging in the macabre gazebo.
Mouth twisting down in to an ugly frown, teeth ready to snap, Warty bit off his words so he kept his cool. “My office ministers and advises. It was our first oath, pledged at the feet of the Reverend. To reach for the fruit would be to give into the serpent’s whispers. And my name is not Warty or Adam… it is Michel!”
Warty’s name sounded too angel-like for Clara’s liking, and Warty was no angel… unless the celestial ranks of guardians and heralds included torturers and interrogators.
Clayton grabbed Clara by the arm roughly, made gentile apologies to Warty, and pulled her off to the side—away from preachers, soldiers, and out from under the ginormous shadow of her golem.
“Look! This was the only way I could help you,” Clayton said harshly. He inhaled long and moderated his tone. “All I’m doing is protecting you, Clara. Let me protect you, for once.”
“Unless you’ve decided to infiltrate this church, make them accept and leave conduits alone, then you’re not doing me any favors,” Clara corrected.
“Don’t be stubborn,” he hissed. “Life is God’s gift to bestow and take away. Not mine. Not the Reverend’s. And it’s not yours either, Clara!”
She yanked her arm from his grip and took two steps away before speaking. “When you came to the gazebo… the gallows,” her head shook as she corrected herself, “I thought you’d changed your mind about me. Moments from my hanging, I thought you would save me. And if you couldn’t, at least you would’ve tried. I’d die knowing you still liked me… Clara the girl, Clara the conduit.”
When did she start sobbing? Clara wasn’t sure, but she hid her face, wiping salty moisture from underneath her eyes.
Pity cracked Clayton’s once firm voice. “Clara, what you do… what all of you do… it’s not God’s will. He took electricity away. He wants us to live better, as servants, not as our own gods.”
Again he sneered at the golem, a blemish on his near perfect world.
“What if the Field is God? Or what if it’s His work, something for us to admire, a gift?” Clara asked Clayton.
“Like the Tree of Life, with its fruit?” Clayton shook his head and exhaled an exasperated sigh for this next argument.
Clara settled her gaze on Clayton. She saw in his eyes an unshakable rock, as enormous as any mountain range, as crushing as an ocean wave. His faith stared back at her. He believed himself right in his actions and words. She would not move that rock today, maybe not ever.
It’s not me who picked the fruit from the bough, Clara mused inwardly, not wanting to carry on the argument.
“Are you expecting me to walk back through those gates?” She pointed at the compound’s open gates. Many followers were huddled within the protective boundary of their world, fearful of the golem on their doorstep, trusting in their angel soldiers to protect them.
Shaking his head, Clayton said, “Only if you want, Clara.”
“And Wendy? What about Sammy and the other conduits taken from the Junkers earlier in the week?”
Clayton hesitated. He favored Warty with a glance. The soap box preacher loomed nearby, out of earshot, as disapproving as a father overseeing the meeting of his rebellious child and a potential suitor he could not trust. Warty answered with a shake of the head, as if he knew what Clara had asked. Or maybe Clayton had bargained for more than the opening of the gates and the soap box preacher’s allegiance.
“They will have the choice to leave,” Clayton finally answered, turning to walk back toward his armored soldiers. “Our doors are open if any wish the ministry.” That sounded like a comment meant more for Clara, a backdoor her former childhood friend was leaving open. He would have conditions, though, ones Clara could not submit to.
Something else begged asking. Clara jerked forward, raised a hand, and at first meant to run after Clayton. Wrong impression. She righted herself instead and shouted for his attention.
Clayton’s footsteps halted and he turned his head.
“Why you, Clay? I know over the years you’ve immersed yourself in the scriptures, committed them to your heart. But… these are not your people. Why did they choose you over any number of their own, especially the gideons?”
“They are not my people,” Clayton answered reverently. “Nor were the followers Reverend Jimmy’s or his father’s or his grandfather’s people. Those of the His Hand are His people.”
The capitalized H rang in Clara’s ears like a church’s bell.
He went on. “The Reverend declared his intentions to have me proclaimed his heir. That’s why the gideons came together, as witnesses. Sister Eve was barren. She bore no children because she could not. I turned the Reverend’s offer down days ago. My place is on the ranch, at my father’s side. But the gideons forced my hand when they said I could step into the battle; I had to accept the heir pronouncement, though. There was little choice. The Reverend fell and the followers needed a leader. You, Clara, needed me.” Under the weight of the armor, Clayton managed a small shrug that clinked under the plates and rings.
Shock nearly rocked Clara off her feet. It was her. She was the reason Rose’s brother would never return to the ranch, to his family. Deep down he wanted this, to be with the people whose faith in a god, in a reason for the new world, was as strong as his own. Desire for family came close to tearing him. But Clara had pushed Clayton. She forced down the returning tears.
“Perhaps I can bring people together in my new position. Maybe I can stop the isolation the ranchers created by controlling so much land and production and never uniting the people who live in the towns and cities outside their ranch borders. We should all come together.” This he said with hope, rather than the resigned tone of someone who possessed little choice of his own.
“What about Eve? Where did she…”
“Gone,” Clayton said despairingly. “She fled when her husband fell, along with Deseray.”
Clara thought of the conduits within the walls, still collared. Without Eve Powell or another un-collared conduit, they would never be free. If there was any time to reveal the secret Eve Powell and her husband valued, Clara decided the reveal was needed now.
“She was a conduit,” Clara said. She sighed heavily and shook her head slightly. “Eve Powell could tap the Field, Clay. That’s how the collars work. If you want the conduits who decide to stay…” Why any would was beyond Clara’s comprehension. “… to trust you, you should let me disconnect their collars. Don’t force obedience if you desire peace and change.”
For a short time, Clayton didn’t answer. She didn’t know how he would convince another conduit to clamp the collars on those conduit followers he wished to cut off from the Field for fear of temptation overcoming them.
Finally, Clayton answered. “Do it. Do it for everyone, Clara. For those who wish to stay with God and those who decide they want to walk the darkness of the road.”
Nodding in agreement, Clara watched Clayton walk back toward the compound. Warty fell in beside the younger man, head tilted down in a way so he—the taller and older of the two—could advise in Clayton’s ear. Clara could not help seeing the puppet strings tied to the His Hand’s new Reverend, Clayton Mathers. The soap box preacher had each string looped around one of his spindly spider’s fingers.
Once the new Reverend—probably not officially, Clara was sure Clayton’s induction required a formal ceremony before holy alters, with big lofty words to on high, gallons of holy water—retreated back inside the compound, a procession arrived.
Women from the follower ranks, dressed in somber white from neck to foot, came to retrieve Reverend Jimmy’s body.
They arrived with solemnity and left in silence. No white woman shed a tear. None spoke a word. It was as if the women mimicked the former Reverend’s corpse, an empty husk incapable of final words or shedding emotion.
Their work had the appearance of ritual, long practiced and held sacred.
There was no one available to her to ask about the death rites in the His Hand’s religion. Clara could only guess.
After the women in white bared the former Reverend’s body back inside the compound’s walls, likely to prepare the bloody body for later honors, Clara, Marty, Wendy, and the Junkers were left outside.
Not long after the solid wood gates closed, someone opened the small door in the gate on the right, which was big enough for a horse and rider to pass through. Rose and Merlyn came through the open door, the older man’s arm still in a sling. The ranch hand clearly had never found a chance to ride for the Mathers ranch to beseech Rose and Clayton’s father for men and arms against the His Hand. Walking directly in front of Rose, her arms crossed over his chest in a comforting way as they strode together, was Sammy.
When Sammy saw Clara, he shrugged away from Rose and ran to her. Rose waved enthusiastically at Clara, though Clara detected stiffness in the greeting. Rose knew her brother had accepted the His Hand’s offer and she was not pleased. Likely Rose would inherit the family holdings and run the business. Clara knew without a doubt her friend would love the workers as her own family, would seek the guidance of trusted council but would manage the operations with her heart. Yet Rose would remember that the head position had been—at one point—her brother’s of virtue of his age and gender. And no matter how well she lead the ranch, she would wonder how Clayton would have decided on issues that had left her with doubts.
It took some doing but Clara managed to unwrap Sammy’s arms from around her. Letting go frightened him, as if letting go might mean he’d lose the last person in the world who cared about him as a person and not as a conduit.
Clara noticed the fresh bruises on one side of Sammy’s face. Anger bubbled inside her until she realized Sammy would never have to set foot inside the His Hand compound again.
The golem shadowing Clara quickly became Sammy’s sole focus. The machine was the biggest toy he’d ever seen! In that moment, he forgot about Clara, forgot how she had almost dangled from a noose not two hours earlier. Clara left Sammy to ogle the man-golem and shifted her attention to Rose.
The two girls embraced hard, holding tightly. Touching, concentrating on the physical things like a real solid person, helped divert a person’s attention away from the insubstantial emotional stuff in their mind’s trunk. Rose wanted to forget about her brother, his decisions, and the concerns over what her life would be like when she returned to her family’s ranch. Right now, there was only a friend, Clara. She squeezed Clara until the conduit teen thought she might fail to draw another breath. But she allowed Rose. Friends do that.
Off to the side, Merlyn greeted Marty like an old friend, trading grips in a way that showed old bones had not turned to dust and muscles remained strong. Men! They’re always measuring each other.
Pulling out of their hug, Rose offered Clara a forced smile that busted into a fit of uncomfortable giggles. She wanted to be happy to see Clara with her neck not stretched. But there was stuff in their mental trunks. Clara grinned helpfully in return, to say she understood, then she rubbed her friend’s shoulder softly.
That’s when Clara peered over Rose’s shoulder and at the gates. The door in the right gate was open again and a wave of people was pouring out.
Wanna read more? Turn the page to Chapter Forty by clicking here.
© 2015 Clinton D. Harding, All Rights Reserved