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Dust & Decay
Dust Decay 27
Benny cried out and tried to catch her while also trying to drag out his bokken. He failed in both attempts. The white man with the pig eyes grabbed Nix by the hair and pulled her away. Benny instantly stopped fumbling with the sword and punched the man in the solar plexus. The man’s torso was sheathed in hard muscle, but Tom had taught Benny how to use his whole body to put force into a punch. The little pig eyes bulged, and the man coughed and released his hold. Benny slammed him backward with a two-handed shove that sent the thug crashing into the black man. They both went down amid tangled limbs and vile curses.
Nix struggled to get to her feet, but she was dazed and bleeding. Preacher Jack’s blow had opened up some of Lilah’s fine stitchery. With a howl of rage, Benny whipped out his bokken and swung it with all his strength at Preacher Jack’s grinning mouth.
It never connected.
Preacher Jack was old—in his sixties, with a face as lined as a road map and a body as frail-looking as a stick bug—but he stepped into the blow and caught the wooden sword with one calloused hand. The sudden stop jolted Benny, but the shock of it, the seeming impossibility of it, froze him into the moment. He stared at the hand that gripped his sword and then looked up into Preacher Jack’s face. That smile never wavered.
“Surprise, surprise,” whispered the preacher. With his free hand he punched Benny full in the face. Benny reeled back, bright blood spurting from his nose and lips. He suddenly fell, and his flailing left arm struck Nix across the temple. They both crashed to the grass.
Worms of flame twisted through the air in front of Benny’s eyes, and his whole head seemed to be filled with bursting fireworks. Next to him, Nix groaned softly and rolled onto her side.
The two bounty hunters were on their feet now, and they glared down in fury at Benny. The big white man raised his leg to stomp Benny, but Preacher Jack stopped him with a small click of his tongue. “Digger, Heap—take their toys,” said the preacher. The two men seethed for a moment, their hands opening and closing. “Don’t make me repeat myself.”
They shot frightened looks at the old man and immediately bent to strip Nix and Benny of knives and anything else that could be used as a weapon, including their fishing line and storm matches. The men were rougher than they needed to be, and their searching hands were far more personally intrusive than necessary. Nix yelped in pain and indignation and kicked the pig-eyed man named Heap in the thigh, missing her intended target by inches. Heap snarled at her and stepped back.
Preacher Jack stood over them. “Oh, how strange the world must be to you young people. Strange, and wondrous and full of mysteries,” he murmured. Weird shadows swirled in his pale eyes. “I know what questions must be screaming inside your heads right at this very moment, indeed I do.”
Benny spat blood out of his mouth. “You don’t know anything about us.”
“Actually, my young buck, I know more about you than you know about me … and that’s going to be so unfortunate for you.”
“Tom will kill you,” said Nix with real heat.
“Oh … I pray he tries.”
Digger and Heap chuckled.
Nix wiped blood from her eyes. “Tom’s going to find us and—”
“Of course he’s going to find you, girl. Lord oh Lord but we’ve made it easy for him to find you. To find me.” Preacher Jack stepped closer and squatted down so that he was nearly eye to eye with Benny and Nix. “Mmm … didn’t expect that answer, did you? Tell me … what is it you think is going to happen? Do you think you’re going to be rescued by the big bad Fast Tommy? Tom the Swordsman, Tom of the Woods … Tom the Killer? Is that what you think?”
“Why are you doing this?” pleaded Nix. “Why can’t you people just leave us alone? All we want to do is leave this place.”
“Leave? And go where?”
Nix pointed east. “Far away from you and all this stuff. We don’t want any part of it.”
“You want to go east?” Something moved behind Preacher Jack’s eyes, and for a moment he almost looked afraid. Then his eyes hardened. “Oh, my foolish little sinners, you don’t want to go east. There’s nothing out there for you.”
“Yes there is,” Nix said. “There’s—” She stopped, cutting off her own words.
“What were you going to say? That there’s a plane? A big, shiny jet plane?” Preacher Jack shook his head. “I might be doing you a kindness to keep you from that path. Only thing you’d find east of here is horror and heartache.”
“As opposed to the good times and bunnies we have here,” said Benny. However, despite his snarky comment, Preacher Jack’s words—and that look that had passed behind his eyes—opened an ugly door of doubt deep in Benny’s soul. Had Nix caught it too?
“Why?” Nix demanded again. “Why are you doing this?”
Preacher Jack drove the tip of Benny’s bokken into the soft ground and leaned on it, laying one cheek against the polished hardwood. “Now that’s a wonderful question, little girl. Why indeed? Why did I come out of ‘retirement’? Until December of last year I was content to tend to my flock. I was at work in the fields of the Lord, seeing to the Children of Lazarus.”
“Zoms,” breathed Benny, wanting the word to wipe the smile off Preacher Jack’s mouth.
“Ah yes, the tactic of provoking your enemy. Did Tom teach you that? Or is it your own natural sinfulness that leads you to insult a servant of God? No … don’t answer, boy, because if I hear that word come out of your mouth, I’ll cut off your tongue and nail it to your forehead. Don’t think I’m joking, little Benjamin, ’cause it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve stilled the offending tongue of a sinner. Ain’t that right, boys?”
“Amen to that, padre,” they said.
Benny, wisely, said nothing.
Preacher Jack nodded approval. “When word came to me that Tom Imura had murdered Charlie Matthias and Marion Hammer, well … I knew that the Lord was calling me to do other work.”
“Tom didn’t murder anyone!” declared Nix. “Charlie Pink-eye was the murderer! He killed my mother!”
“Shhh, little girl. I believe you’d find it hard to speak lies with your lips sewn shut.”
Nix spat at him. Benny tensed, ready to throw himself between Nix and Preacher Jack’s retaliation, but the preacher merely laughed and wiped the spittle from the lapels of his dusty black coat. He shook his head, and his smile dimmed a little.
“Oh, child of the dust … you are just stacking up sins in the storehouse of the Lord,” he said softly. “You speak ill of Charlie, but he was a good man. Trusted by his men, good to his family, and a role model for everyone in these troubled, troubled times. Stupid and sinful people can’t see past their own inadequacies to understand the difficult choices a man like Charlie has to make in order to protect what’s his.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “To know that the man who murdered him still walks this earth is like a splinter in my mind. Tom Imura is an evil man. He’s been hounding the Matthias family for years, making spurious claims, interfering with authorized trade, and now he’s a bloody-handed murderer.”
Benny started to say something, but thought better of it. From the look in this man’s eyes, it was clear he wasn’t bluffing about his horrible threats. He briefly wondered if there was any value in telling Preacher Jack that Charlie might still alive, that he’d seen him in the field by the way station, but he held his tongue.
“I’ve seen Tom’s type in a hundred places around the world,” said the preacher. “Before First Night, before I heard the calling of the Lord that directed me to my sacred purpose, I was a different man. More like Charlie and White Bear. You see, I was a soldier once. A special operator, though I don’t suppose that label means anything to you young’uns. I served my country in black bag operations in Africa and Asia, in the Middle East and South America. We were the righteous ones, the hard ones. Heartbreakers and life takers.” He sighed. “Then things got … complicated. Too many regulations imposed on the military. So me and a bunch of my brothers
in arms went private. We became contractors.”
“You mean mercenaries,” sneered Nix.
“I’m not ashamed of that word, little girl. Mercs or contractors, it’s all the same … we served the best interests of the American people. One way or t’other.” Preacher Jack laughed again. “Surely you didn’t think I learned to handle myself in Bible school, did you? No, and I’m not saying I was a saint because I was loyal to flag and country. Nope, I won’t spit that lie into the wind. Truth to tell, I was a sinner back then, I’ll admit it and testify my sins, and yet still on the side of the white hats. Still proud to be an American, no matter where I was or on what piece of backwater land I stood.” He leaned closer. “Then came First Night. Ah … that was the miracle that opened the eyes of this poor sinner. The dead rose to claim the earth. Those who had been left to decay into dust rose instead and claimed dominion over the lands of the living. The Children of Lazarus rose, and in their purity they showed us the errors of our ways. Our sinfulness was revealed. That’s when I changed my wicked ways and took to preaching from the Good Book.”
Benny found his voice and very quietly asked, “If you’re so holy, then explain Gameland. How’s that part of God’s plan?”
Preacher Jack shrugged. “This world may be paradise for the Children of Lazarus, but to snot-nosed little sinners like you … this world is hell. How’s that for a cosmic paradox? Heaven and hell coexisting out here in the Rot and Ruin, and the two of ’em forming a brand-new Eden. The towns—why, you might consider them limbo, where souls are just waiting for judgment. As for Gameland … now it would be God’s own truth to say that Gameland is purgatory. It’s where you have a chance to expunge your sins.”
“By fighting z—” Benny caught himself before he said the word. “By fighting the dead in pits?”
Preacher Jack nodded. “When a person faces one of the Children, both are being tested for their worthiness. If the Child wins, then it has shown that God’s power is alive within it, even though the vessel is dead … and the sinner himself gets elevated to a higher being as he joins the Children. If the sinner wins, then by God he’s just shown that he is more righteous in the eyes of heaven, and by striking down one of the Children he has removed imperfection from the holy landscape.”
What a bunch of crap. Benny’s inner voice yelled it, and he almost said it aloud, but he knew that those would be the last words he would speak. He wondered if the old man believed this or if it was some kind of crazy con game. Charlie had tried to justify his actions by saying that he’d earned the right by helping to establish the trade routes that kept the towns alive. Was this more of the same kind of rationalization?
He cut a glance at Nix. The bleeding had slowed, but her eyes were wild with hatred and terror. It made him wonder what lights burned in his own eyes. Aloud Benny said, “What are you going to do with us?”
“I think we all know the answer to that question. Purgatory awaits all sinners.” Preacher Jack rose and nodded to his men. “Bring them.”
LILAH FELL ASLEEP WITH THE CAT IN HER ARMS AND WOKE TO FIND HERSELF alone. She looked out the window and saw the Greenman working at a picnic table outside. The old man looked up briefly, saw her hesitating in the doorway, smiled, and bent over his work once more. Lilah came tentatively out of the house and stood on the far side of the picnic table, watching him. The table was covered with bowls of herbs and leaves, bunches of flowers, a small flower press, and piles of pine-cones and other items that Lilah did not recognize. There were various tools around. Knives, a cheese grater, carving tools, sewing stuff, wire, and cutters.
“If you need to use the bathroom,” said the Greenman without looking up, “there’s an outhouse behind that row of pines.”
Lilah drifted away and came back in a few minutes. When she did, she found a fresh cup of tea at the far end of the table. The Greenman was shelling nuts into a small wooden bowl. He paused and pushed a bowl of water, a bunch of flowers, and a pair of tweezers to within her reach, always careful not to move quickly or get too close.
“If you want to help,” he said, “I’ll tell you how.”
Lilah looked at the flowers and then at him. She nodded.
“Use the tweezers to remove each petal and place it in the water. Let it float. Be careful not to get your skin oil on the petals. We want them pure. Once you fill the bowl, we’ll cover it with cheesecloth and set it out in the sunshine for four hours. We have that much sun left. After that, we’ll strain the water through a coffee filter into some jars. I’ll add a little brandy, and we’ll set it in my root cellar.”
“Why?” It was the first word she had spoken in hours.
“We’re making flower essences. We’ll add walnut and Mimulus ringens.” He nodded to the thick bunch of large purple flowers with yellow centers. “It’s very rare for those to bloom this early. Usually don’t see them until June or later, but we needed it now and nature provided. Funny … but I didn’t know why I picked them yesterday. Now I understand.”
“What is it for?”
The Greenman smiled. His face was heavily lined, but when he smiled, all those creases conspired to make him seem much both younger and timeless. “For courage, Lilah,” he said.
Lilah tensed. “You know my name?”
“Everyone in these hills knows your name,” he said. “Lilah, the Lost Girl. You’re famous. The fearsome zombie hunter. The girl who helped bring down Charlie Pinkeye and the Hammer.”
She shook her head.
“I know, I know,” said the Greenman with a gentle laugh. “No one is really who people think they are. It’s unfair. When they give us nicknames and create a story for us, everyone expects us to be that person and to live up to that legend.” He went back to shelling walnuts. “Tom knows something about that. Out here, people see him as either a hero or a villain. Never anything in between, not for Tom. He hates it too. Do you know that? He doesn’t want to be anyone’s hero any more than he wants to be a villain.”
“Tom isn’t a villain.”
“Not to you or me, no. Not to the people in town. But to a lot of the people out here—people like Charlie and his lot—Tom’s the boogeyman.”
“That’s stupid. They’re the villains.”
“No doubt.” He nodded to the flowers. “Those petals won’t jump into the bowl by themselves.”
Lilah stared at the purple petals for a moment, then picked up the tweezers and began pulling them off. She tore a few before she got the knack. The Greenman watched, nodded, and picked up another walnut. “Who are you?” she asked. “I mean really.”
“Most of the time I’m nobody,” said the Greenman. “When you live alone, you don’t need a name. I don’t need to tell you that.” She said nothing, but she gave a tiny nod. “I used to be Arthur Mensch—Ranger Artie to the tourists in Yosemite. That was before First Night.”
“When the world changed and everything went bad,” she said.
“A lot of folks see it that way,” said the Greenman, “but it was death that changed. People are still people. Some good, some bad. Death changed, and we don’t know what death really means anymore. Maybe that was the point. Maybe this is an object lesson about the arrogance of our assumptions. Hard to say. But the world? She didn’t change. She healed. We stopped hurting her and she began to heal. You can see it all around. The whole world is a forest now. The air is fresher. More trees, more oxygen. Even in Yosemite the air was never this fresh.”
“The dead—,” she began.
“Are part of nature,” he said.
“How do you know?”
“Because they exist.”
She thought about that. “You don’t think they’re evil?”
She shook her head. “People are evil.”
“Some are,” he admitted. He set the walnut shells aside and began shaving the walnut meat with the cheese grater. “People are all sorts of things. Some people are evil and good at the same time. At least a
ccording to their own view of the world.”
“How can people be good and bad?”
His dark eyes sought hers. “In the same way that people can be very brave and very, very afraid. They can be heroes and cowards from one breath to the next. And heroes again.”
Her eyes slid away. “I did something bad,” she said in a tiny voice. “I ran away.”
“I know.” It was acceptance of information but in no way a judgment.
“I—I haven’t been afraid of …” Lilah swallowed. “I haven’t been afraid of the dead for years. Not since I was little. They just … are. Do you understand?”
“Last night, though … there were so many.”
“Was that it? Was it just that there were a lot of them? From what Tom told me, you used to play in the Hungry Forest. What was different about last night?”
The cat came out of the woods, jumped up on the table, and settled down with its legs tucked under its fur. Lilah began plucking more petals. “I left Benny and Nix behind at the way station. I just … ran.”
“Were you running from the dead? Because there were so many?”
“I—I don’t know.”
“Yeah,” he said gently. “You do.”
Lilah looked at the purple flower petal caught between the iron jaws of the tweezers. “This stuff gives courage?”
“Not really.” The Greenman smiled. “It helps you find where you left the courage you had. Courage is tricky, oily. Easy to drop, easy to misplace.”
“I thought that if you had courage you always had it.”
The Greenman laughed out loud. The cat, who had been dozing, opened one eye and glared at him for a moment, then went back to sleep. “Lilah, nothing is always there. Not courage, not joy, not hate or hope or anything else. We find courage, lose it, sometimes misplace it for years, and sometimes live in its grace for a while.”
She digested this as she worked. “What about love? Is that elusive too?”
“I have two answers for that,” he said, “though there are probably more. One answer is the big answer. Love is always there. It lives in us. In all of us. Even Charlie Pink-eye, bad as he was, loved something. He loved his friend Marion Hammer. He had a family. He had a wife, once. Before First Night. Everyone loves. But that’s not what you meant and I know it. The other answer, the smaller answer, is that when we love something we don’t always love it. It comes and goes. Like breath in the lungs.”