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BLOOD ON THE MOUNTAIN

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: March 02, 2018

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Submitted: March 02, 2018

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Martha looked at her watch. Henry was never late to church, not in the forty years since her husband had taken over as the local preacher. Today, he had reason to be. She held back her tears of sadness with anger. It was the worst day of her life.

Fellow parishioners leaned together, speaking in nervous whispers, waiting for their shepherd to arrive. At three minutes after the hour, the double-doors opened, and a snowstorm blew in with Martha’s man, the preacher.

Henry had shaved, reminding her of Robert, their son. Martha felt the tears well in her eyes. Her husband walked down the aisle, cheeks flushed, eyes bloodshot and downcast.

The absence of their shepherd’s missing red-beard drew gasps from the gathering, followed by further whispering. Most had never seen the preacher without his facial hair.

Martha couldn’t remember the last time she had seen him without a beard: their wedding? The night her baby had been conceived? 

She began to openly cry, the tears dripped down her cheeks. She wished she wouldn’t have come now, but she had never missed mass in her life and today it seemed most important that she be present.

Henry stopped at the first pew where she sat and bent down to kiss her.

Martha pulled away, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. “You better give the best sermon of your life!” she sobbed drying her tears.

The flock sat in wide-eyed astonishment.

Henry stepped up to the pulpit. Not a sound came from the gathered as he collected himself.

His blue eyes suddenly swept the room with an emotional gaze.

Martha knew he was close to tears.  

“Brothers and sisters in the Lord,” he paused, “before you, stands a man guilty of sin. As you look at me, you look at my shaven face and wonder what has happened? Why I’ve been crying? Why Martha is crying now?” 

Henry took a deep breath. “Will you judge me? Do I deserve your judgment?” He pursed his lips and nodded.“The good Lord only knows, but I am going to ask all of you for forgiveness. I’m asking my son, today, and my wife.”

Outside, the storm blew against the church and the snow collected on the stained-glass windows.  

“I am going to share with you a lesson the Lord taught me last night.” Henry’s jaw quivered; a tear slid down his pink cheek. “It begins with a lost son, one who had finally found his way back home, and a father who wouldn’t stop trying to teach him one last lesson.”

 

***

 

The potatoes were mashed, the peas and carrots cooling in the steamer, and the table was set, as Martha sat in her favorite green rocking chair. She hummed along with the radio, knitting a stocking cap to pass the time until the alarm for the roasted venison.

She dropped the knit and turned her head to the sound she knew would come.

“Someone’s here,” she announced. Her stomach felt queasy, and she groaned. Who could it be, she wondered. Worry set in her heart like the beginnings of a cold?

Henry grumbled, stuffing the magazine between the arm and the cushion of his recliner. He stood without question and walked to the door, he’d long ago learned she was always right.

As Henry reached for the handle, a knock sounded through the small house.

Her husband opened the door.

For a moment there was silence.  

“Well, well. Martha! Look who we got here. I hope you and God finally come to terms in the big house, boy.”

Martha slipped out of her chair feeling like a ghost, holding the armrest as if it were her soul’s last preserver. She leaned over for a look through the triangle of her husband’s arm.

It was really him... Her son was out of prison. Robert wore a full red beard and mustache on his manly face. His blue-eyes shinned, and his nose made him look a bit like his father, but it was his imposing size and flowing red hair that marked him as a descendent of the Celts, like herself, and his father. 

Martha reflected on how long it had been since he had been home for Christmas.

“Please, Henry. Let him in,” she pleaded.

Martha watched Robert holding his father’s gaze. “Pop, how you doin’?”

Henry nodded his own head of carefully combed and parted-on-the-side, red hair. “Fine. You didn’t become one of those Nazis in the pen, did you?” Her husband’s huge body blocked the doorway. She could feel the tension between the two men, a tension that had come to blows many times in the past.

“How’s Mom?” Robert had ignored his father’s Nazi question but held Henry’s gaze. 

Martha waved to her son, rocking back and forth.

He didn’t even blink, but adjusted his jaw, staring back at his father.

“She's doing well, considering her first born ended up in prison. Can you imagine the talk around town for the last six years?”

“You gonna’ to let me in Pops?” Robert moved his arm to open away.

Henry’s barrel body pushed forward to block the entrance.  “Why should I?”

“Henry!” Martha pleaded, raising her voice. She remembered when they found marijuana in Robert’s room when he was fourteen.

Henry sighed and dropped his arm from the door and stepped back. “There better not be any drugs, ever."

Robert squeezed by his father.

“Just comin’ to see you Pop. I don’t deal or do drugs anymore. I’m done. And I ain’t a Nazi. I just want to get a job and find a wife like you have.”

Martha smiled.

Robert gave her a hug, lifting her off the ground.  "Missed you, Mom.”

“You can sleep in the barn, boy,” Henry pointed to the big red barn. 

“No thanks, Pop. I have a van. Just have to roll my bike out the back and drop my bed.”

Robert set her down. “Missed you, too.”

Henry glared at the back of Robert’s jacket.  

Martha rolled her eyes.

“I see you’re still with those Hell’s Angels.”

Here we go, Martha thought. She prayed it didn’t turn into a fistfight.

“They’re Banditos, Pop. Once a Bandito, always a Bandito."

“Once a criminal, always a criminal.” Henry shot back.

Robert turned to his father with a cooled look. “Pop, I got caught selling pot. It’s barely illegal anymore. Not like I was sellin’ coke, or meth, or guns.”

Martha shook her head. It had been six years, since their last argument.

“Don’t you be bringing your pride into this house young man.  Drugs are a crime in God's country and always will be.” Henry took a step toward Robert. “They didn’t teach you any respect in the big-house, did they?” His fists were clinched.

“No, sir, but they did teach me to keep my mouth shut.”  Robert starred into his father’s blue eyes. "Look Pops, I don’t want to fight with you. I came here to start over. I came here to say I love you. You’re right about everything." The young man adjusted his jaw. He was ready to take another beating.

Her husband cleared his throat. “I don’t want any funny stuff going on. I’ll call the sheriff. You hear me?” Henry pointed a big finger.

“No funny stuff, Pop. I’m turnin’ over a new leaf.”

“I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Martha stepped between them. She caressed Robert's hairy face with a soft hand. “You need to shave.” She gave the beard a playful tug. “Hiding your handsome face under there isn’t going to get you a pretty wife.”

“How you been, Mom? Whatever’s in the oven smells awesome!”

“Really good, with the blessings of the Lord,” she added.  “Well, other than dealing with your irascible father." Martha winked at Henry and turned back to her son.  "It’s good to have you home. You’re staying for dinner, and breakfast, if I get my way tonight.” She winked again, this time playfully.

Martha turned to her husband. “Forgiveness, Henry, is something Jesus taught.”

“I’ll forgive him when he shows me he’s joined the church, and not a moment sooner.” Henry drew his hand down his beard.

"Maybe he’s changed if you’ll just give him half a chance." Martha moved from between them.

Robert took another step into the room. “Well Pop, I was hoping you would go hunting up on Mystic Mountain with me?  Derrick’s wife gave me her deer tag.”

Martha stopped breathing. Please, please, she prayed.  Go hunting with him.

A flick of desire moved over Henry’s face, but he pushed it away with a blink of his blue eyes. “I have some things to do before I give the sermon tomorrow.”

“Like what, Pop?” Robert bit his lip. He cocked his head to the side, clearly fighting back his anger. He wiped his nose with his fist. “Come on.”

“Like write a sermon, boy.” Henry's face turned beet red when the Epistles came into his conversation with the Holy Spirit.

“You’ve been writing those things since I was a kid.  Can’t you just whip something out?” Robert waved a big, white, freckled hand.

Lord help his big mouth, Martha prayed again. She was ready to jump between them.

Henry stretched his back. He stood as tall as Martha had seen in ten years. Her husband clinched his fists. “The Lord’s work is serious stuff, and I’ll not have your taking it lightly.” Her preacher husband’s voice lifted into a tone of fire and brimstone. “I expect to see you in the pew come Sunday.” He loosened his fingers and slipped his hands under his suspenders.

“Come on, Pop. Write the Lord’s work later. Come hunting with me.” Robert showed his palms, his eyes open, brows pleading.

Henry shook his head. “Maybe I’ll write something about forgiveness and how hard it is to turn the other cheek when your son turns out to be a criminal.”

Robert closed his eyes to calm himself before he spoke.  Martha had seen it so many times, but patience was never his strength. “I’ll be there Sunday morning, Pop.  Promise.” His voice was steady and sure.

Martha smiled. "Thank you, God." Robert’s perfect white teeth showed. He nodded to assure her he really intended to be in church.

Henry smirked in doubt. “Your rifle and knife are in the cabinet. If you get home in time for supper, you can eat your mother's cooking. But you’re sleeping in the van until I see you in church.”

“Thanks, Pops.” Robert turned to her. 

"Mom, you don't feel like going hunting, do ya?  Your secret spot...It’s a lodestone for big bucks. Remember, you taught us it was a magical place."

Martha laughed, slipping her arms around her rotund belly. She returned for a moment to the day when she killed the granddaddy buck, an eight-point, White Tail. Little Martha looked up at her own father that day long ago as he spoke to her. “The Lord gifted you with insight,” he had said.

Martha peered into the eyes of her son. “I’m too fat.”  She recalled the secret valley she’d discovered as a girl on a hunting trip when they first had moved to Idaho. The valley was protected from the wind by its natural bowl shape that many animals found refuge in its deep shadows and fed on its tender shoots.  

She’d, in turn, taught Robert and his younger brother to stalk and kill their dinner. “I'm not a little woman anymore, Robert. I’d make too much noise. Besides, my old feet will just complain, but I’ll clean, cut, and jerk anything you bag."

Henry interrupted. “If you’re serious about straightening yourself out, I’ll bet your little brother would hire a brute like you to pull green-chain at the mill."

“Thanks, Pop. I’ll talk to Johnny first thing Monday morning. Now, come on. Come hunting with me.”

“Go hunting with the boy,” Martha begged.

“I’ll be back for dinner later, Martha.” Henry stepped into the cold afternoon for his wood-house, where he claimed to do his best work. He turned back, “Good hunting, son.”

“Thanks, Pop.” Robert sniffed the air for the wafting roasted elk as the door shut behind.

Martha made a clicking sound with her mouth. “Hungry, are ya’?”

“Starved! I’ve been dreaming about your cooking. The food sucks in the pen.” 

 “Well, let’s get you something to eat. You got a lot of muscles to feed.” 

Robert grabbed the ties on the back of her apron and danced behind her like a child again, their combined weight shaking the small house.

 

***

 

“I think you should go find him!” Martha’s stomach was taut with worry. “It’s late.” 

“He’s okay. He’s been on his own for a while now.”

“I have a bad feeling, and my intuitions are almost always spot on, you know this. It’s nearly ten o' clock." Martha twisted her blue housedress between her wringing hands.  “And it’s a fine time to think he’s all grown up now, Henry.”

She saw her husband’s shoulder’s slump. Seldom was her intuition wrong, and he knew it. “I tell you, he’ll be fine. He was a Marine.” He moved around like he was starting to disbelieve himself.

Martha tossed a dish-towel she had been wringing to the table. “He should have been here hours ago.” Her eyes stared with a blazing green intensity. She brushed back her red hair as if she was ready to go to the mud room and dress up and begin a search.

“Martha, let’s have another piece of gooseberry pie. I’m tired of worrying about the boy.”

“You give him another chance. You always preach about second chances in everyone but your own.” She stepped to the counter to get him a piece of the pie.

“Martha. I’m trying. Get me a big piece of the pie, woman. He’ll walk in the next few minutes.”

Martha was agitated like a female grouse when her nest is threatened. She glared at her Henry.

He was wrong tonight, something was different; something felt bad. She had never had a propensity to over-react to her psychic events and was lucky to have a husband that knew it. Even so, Martha began to shake the dishes and slam the cupboards. He was being overly stubborn with their son and would have no more to do with it.

Henry said grace for the gooseberry pie and he ate in silence. He ate. Martha looked out the window at the winter storm. Her face was set in a frown. He avoided her angry eyes.

Henry pushed the plate away and looked up at the clock.  “Okay, you’re right, the boy should be home. But, I’ll bet I find him at the Trout Creek bar showing off a Boone & Crocket buck.”

“I’ll get your warm jacket.” Martha stood in an instant.

“I’m going. Thank you, I can get my own clothing.

Martha gave him a grateful smile. “Thank you, Henry.”

“I’ll give the boy a piece of my mind for making us worry again.”

“Be nice. Treat him like a man. He’s not a child anymore.

“Then why am I going out to look for him?”

“Because I want you to!” She slipped her hands over her hips.

 

***

 

Martha tried to clean but ended up watching the clock.  It was two in the morning before she could sit in her chair, and despite her worry, she fell right to sleep.

The dream began with a vision of a hunter stepping carefully on the snow. He moved slowly to not alert the sharp-eared deer, gripping his rifle, crossing a loose barbwire fence, passing through a clearing, and then entering a forest of bull pine heading toward Martha’s secret spot.

Falling snow muffled the hunter’s footsteps. He kept low as he stalked one foot at a time straight down into the bowl of Mystic Mountain. The hunter stepped into a copse of blue spruce.

He stopped and wiped the sweat from his brow.  A branch snapped in the distance. The hunter froze, his eyes searching. The antlers appeared first, the nose, and then the black eyes. The buck must have sensed him, because the White Tail deer turned its head, nose sniffing, huge ears searching like radars. In one perfect jump, the big buck sprang into a thick brush.

The hunter crouched, watching the falling snowflakes as he waited. Martha could smell the spruce forest as a drab sky moved in from the west trying to cloud her vision.

A deer, even a wise elder male, will stop within a quarter of a mile unless it was shot at of course. All creatures run, stop, look, run again, then stop. They’ll repeat the process again and again until they feel safe enough to relax for a bite to eat.

The hunter stood. He began to move up the small hill, sweeping around in an arc to flank the animal where the game trail eventually led from the bowl down the mountain side.

Martha followed the hunter, turning her head to the other side of the chair, and falling comfortably into the reverie of them stalking his prey. 

On the lip of the Mystic Mountain bowl, darkness closing in, he spied the deer pawing and nibbling for the grass beneath the snow. He slipped the buck in the cross hairs of the rifle scope. The White Tail was an old male with an atypical, six-point rack, crowing its head. 

The hunter breathed out slowly, stopped with half a breath, the aim was true, and he pulled the trigger.

A single shot ripped through the bowl; echoing away straight up into the grey sky. Martha jumped in both her dream and her favorite green chair but fell back into the vision immediately.

 Through his scope, she watched the deer run no more than twenty feet.  The hind-quarters fell to the ground as it pawed with its front legs for life and the buck tumbled over.

  “Yes,” she heard the hunter. He slipped the rifle over his shoulder and Martha slipped into the chair, clinging to its familiar comfort and falling deeper into the vision.

The deer’s tongue lolled outside its mouth.  The brown eyes stared, and the hunter pulled out his knife.  The shiny surface gleamed in the dim light. 

The deer's blood spilled out onto the ground as the hunter pulled the guts out, tossing them on the snow.  A raven cawed excitedly from a nearby tree.

The hunter son dipped the sharp knife for another cut and the deer twitched, knocking his hand aside. Martha could see herself on the blade’s surface as it sliced deeply into the flesh of the man’s leg. He was shocked and gazed at the heavens with a flush of fear.

The hunter was her son.

 

***

 

Martha was awakened by Henry's strained voice, "Martha!" She knew something everything the moment she had her wits. She also knew one of them should have gone hunting with Robert. Henry.

She opened the door and Henry stood with the loss evident in his eyes, their son over her husband’s shoulder like a cross.

"Robert’s, gone.”

Martha pulled them both into the house. She knew she would have to be the strong one.

He gently set Robert down on the couch. “He cut himself.

"You can sleep in the woodhouse." Her voice shook with rage and sorrow.

Henry gave her a look of anguish and slumped in ruin.

"Write another God, damn sermon!”

 

***

 

"Arrogance!" Her husband's softened eyes moved to John, their youngest son. He was in the pew on the other side of the aisle from Martha. Like the rest of the men with families in the congregation, his arm was around his wife, who held their two young children between them.

"I lost my first-born today. I used to think of myself as a teacher.  As your preacher. But today, the Lord has taught me a lesson. It cost me the life of my son.”

Henry stepped away from the podium, reaching for her.

She slipped her hand into his and gave a soft familiar squeeze.

 

The End


© Copyright 2018 Tim Arnzen. All rights reserved.

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