Walking in the Promised Land

Introducing a priest named Atticus Moore who walks in the Deadlands of the Weird West. In this Savage World, Atticus persuades and cajoles to give solace to sinners and help others see the presence of the divine in their own life’s choices.

“You gonna’ try te’ stay my gun with some fire and brimstone sermon ‘fore you die today, preacher man? Don’t bother. I ain’t got no mind for yer high-soundin’ foolishness.”

As soon as Atticus Moore sat down on his barstool in the saloon, he’d sensed the stranger’s hostility. It couldn’t have been anything the priest had said; all he’d done was order a drink to help him endure what had turned out to be a blazing-hot day in the middle of the Southwest.

No, this grizzled cowboy had leveled his pissed-off gaze at Atticus the moment he’d made out the younger man’s pastoral suit and priestly collar. Inside of a Texas minute, the big sweaty man had escalated from unprovoked cussing to pointing his six-shooter in Atticus’  direction.

The traveling priest’s life flashed before his eyes.

He saw that time when he was ten years old, stealing the horse from his father’s barn. He felt the hard fall along the old creek bed and the snapping of his young leg on the slippery rock. The blood mixed with the water. The desperate prayers to the Lord to save him from dying out there in the wilderness as the night came on. The moment his father found him, relieved and smiling — later, cold and unforgiving. The rag they stuck in his mouth as he bit down to avoid crying out from the pain. They re-set his leg that would never quite feel right.

The Lord had saved his life. From that young age, he knew his purpose. He would learn to walk in the manner of their savior. He would spread the message.

His first convert was his own father, a hardworking farmer who had little use for the teachings of the Bible. Seth Moore’s heart had long been burdened by the pain of losing Atticus’ mother in childbirth; for that, he had a grudge against their savior that showed itself through random cruelties.

It took some years, but as Atticus grew, he turned his father to the right path. Seth finally gave up the hard drink that brought out the worst in his soul. He’d put away that hard edge in his voice. He could breathe in that fresh air of the American midwest, see his crops come in and appreciate the Lord’s gift. In his last years before the Lord stopped his heart on that blistering August afternoon, he’d made his peace with the world.

Atticus knew that the gates of heaven would be open to his father. It gave him some comfort to this day.

He remembered the days that followed; his time spent preaching at the local church. The impressed looks of the townsfolk, who were taken with this young man who quoted scripture with the skill of an elder; their gratitude for his even greater talent for reassuring them of their forgiveness. This handsome, youthful preacher had the common touch.

Not all were pleased. The face of the stern senior pastor flashed in Atticus’ mind. The young priest had refused to submit to the old man’s judgmental fire-and-brimstone style, or his secret, increasingly aggressive advances. It was a sign to Atticus that he could not stay where he was.

Atticus left the town to journey out among the people. The whole world would be his Church of the Promised Land; his flock were the people of the wild frontier.

The young priest went to the mining towns to give solace and comfort to those who dwelt in humanity’s own version of hell, deep in the dark shafts of modern industry. He ministered to ranchers and cowboys. When he came to the towns, he brought peace and redemption to the lowliest of sinners. It wasn’t easy. But it was the Lord’s work.

Now he was to be tested once again, in this dusty saloon.

The bartender had made himself invisible. The few customers in the saloon that afternoon were likewise sticking to the shadows. There would be no cavalry coming to save the priest.

“You aim to kill me?” Atticus asked.

“I reckon,” the cowboy said. He cocked his six-shooter and kept it trained on the priest.

“If you want to kill me, then go ahead and do it,” Atticus said. He opened his jacket wide, sticking out his chest towards the gun. “May Jesus have mercy upon your soul.”

The priest’s attitude made the stranger hesitate. “You would not try te’ change my mind about it?”

Atticus kept his eyes on the stranger’s face, away from the gun. “You do not know me, so there is no reason to commit murder. I can no more prevent it than I can stop a snake from biting me in my sleep if the Lord should will it.”

“I got reason enough,” the cowboy said. “You priests fill folks’ heads wi’ lies about God and heaven and salvation. Ain’t no salvation. I seen what happens. I seen my home burn. My wife, Clementine. My kids. They done died o’ the wasting disease. Now my guts are all rotten. Can’t keep nothing down. I got nothin’. Can’t work. Got to steal what I can to live. The things I’ve had to do… I’ve seen horrors. Done terrible things. If there’s a Lord, he don’t care about men like me.”

“You’ve got it figured out, then,” Atticus said. “Take vengeance upon me for this injustice. But be quick about it, lest you change your mind.”

The man held his fire. His hand quivered.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Atticus said. He put his hand upon the man’s gun and placed the barrel over his heart. “Murder me. Let the Lord hear your message.”

“Murder,” the cowboy repeated breathlessly. Some of the anger had gone out of his face. He would not pull the trigger. “Murder…”

Atticus inched forward, putting only a little distance between his face and the stranger’s. “The Lord sees you, stranger. He sees all. He understands your pain.”

“Liar,” the stranger whispered, though his tone made it clear he was no longer sure.

“Do what is truly in your heart, stranger,” Atticus said. “But know that Jesus died for our sins. He has seen everything you have seen. He understands your frailty. He forgives you.”

The man just stopped. He seemed even to have stopped breathing, frozen there in the saloon. Atticus could feel the cold steel pressed up gently against his chest. For a full minute, maybe five, they just stayed there. The world was just them, two men in a bar; one moment in time. A moment of decision.

Without saying a word, the man pulled the gun away from Atticus. Slow like a snake, he placed the gun on the bar and lifted his hand up from it. His hand went back to his side. The man had lost the raging fire behind his eyes. Now he seemed only pitiful. Defeated.

The man walked away from Atticus and was almost out of the saloon when he turned back to face the priest. He looked mournful. His shoulders slumped. But there was also something about him that gave Atticus hope.

The look reminded him of his own father, the day he’d let go of his anger, put down his strap he’d used on many an occasion to discipline his blameless son for imagined slights. That day Atticus had looked upon Seth Moore and his father had recognized him as he was, a humble servant of the Lord. A man like himself, but different. Touched by something not of this world.

“Go now,” Atticus said. “And when you go outside, you will see that you are not alone. Jesus walks with you now.”

The man nodded. He seemed to want to say something more, but his throat was caught. He staggered out of the saloon.

Atticus went to the door and watched the man go. The stranger’s shoulders were still brought low. But after a moment, his posture straightened. He breathed deeply. The stranger began to walk away, his steps becoming more and more sure as he went down the street. He held his head a little higher. And even though it was a hot day out there, the man held his head high for the first time in a long, long while and let the sun shine down upon him in all its glory.

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