I was ill company for days after riding away from Hammer Mine. There I faced another problem that demanded high resolve to resist the foul demon’s blandishments… and again my pace slackened, my feet drifted away from challenging the possessed miner. Once again I fled to seek the support of my boon companions, my fellow Dogs… without them, the town surely would have wallowed in filth unending. Without their efforts, the town would have neglected the children, continued to believe the heretical tale of the mine in end days, and turned their eyes from the King’s commands. The King is well served by Rusty and Dominicus. I must test my heart, my resolve, to see if the King and ancients have judged me truly fit to bear his word in this sinful world.
[A few months passed, largely uneventfully… now it is the edge of winter.]
Nestled against a mountain, surrounded by well exploited woods and mines, lies the prosperous township of Pine Forge. The town is large–one of the largest in the territories–and crowded with outsiders. As we rode into town, idly drifting snow fell ever more steadily…
We were met by one of our training class, Rusty’s friend Tobias. He led us to the Steward’s house, where we huddled against the cold and listened to Tobias and the Steward explain the problems of the town. Most vexing was the presence of Territorial Authority soldiers–currently a squad of six men–idle and prone to drunkenness. Just last night two soldiers made untoward advances on Sister Althea. Steward Wiley was describing his efforts to navigate the town through rapids secular and religious, when a shot rang out.
We all rushed to the door, hurriedly catching up our coats against the winter chill. The Steward led us unerringly to an inn… outside of which we found a tense gathering, A half dozen men, well armed–clearly the soldiers of whom we’d heard such ill tales–stood tense and well armed, liquor rolling off their panting tongues. Also already present was the sheriff, Brother Henry. One of the soldiers stood stunned, pistol dangling from his hand, glumly staring down at the red stained snow. One of ours, a boy of the faith, lay dead at his feet. Churned snow spoke of a large melee and several folk fled, spurred to flight by that fatal shot.
Rusty and I tangled with Sheriff Henry, who officiously claimed the shooting was a territorial matter–his jurisdiction, not the King’s. His voice burned with sour whiskey; ours rang with the King’s righteousness. Alcohol fueled his stubbornness, but we reminded him of his place–and ours. His shame shone through and his obstinacy collapsed. Steward Wiley led the sozzled sheriff home, to bed.
Domincus spoke with the leader of the soldiers, while I chimed in with a few apt quotes from the Book of Life… and other books the soldier was familiar with. Our discussion turned to the topic of responsibility and ultimate responsibility for our fallen Brother Jackson. Corporal John spoke passionately but fairly for his men; we continued to address him with respect and steadily earned his. Finally his wicked tongue was quelled–not of defense of his men, but of his reflexive slurs and insults of the King.
As our conversation reached a newly respectful silence, the murderous soldier named himself as Private Alex. He admitted to slaying Brother Jackson, though he claimed that it was in defense of his own person–and defense of his fellow soldiers, including the lecherous Private Boone. Reluctantly, the soldiers turned Alex over to our care, and we promised to protect him from hot handed justice.
With that resolved, we sprang into action. Our fellow Dog, Tobias, took charge of Private Alex, leading him to the Steward’s house where he was already encamped. Rusty squared his shoulders and stormed into the den of evil and spirits, ready to wrestle with the speakeasy’s proprietor. I ran to get the mortician, to address poor Brother Jackson’s battered and bloody body. It could do no good to leave his form steaming in the snow.
Rusty’s confrontation with the proprietor, Daniel, was sharp. Daniel was aggrieved by his ill-treatment by the faithful, and not just in this town. (Though he did not confess it, he burned with hatred after being driven from Bridal Falls City itself months ago… at Corbrum’s hands.) The King must have been strong with Rusty; his words persuaded that shriveled devil that continuing to serve liquor after it brought about murder would be foolish. With grave reluctance, he locked his liquor cabinet and handed the key to the King’s Watchdog. Ah, if only I could have seen that moment!
Meanwhile, I reached the mortician, who was in conversation with Steward Wiley and a brother of the fallen boy Jackson. I reined in my urgent feelings and fell into step with the solemn procession.
As I trudged back, Dominicus and Rusty spoke with the soldier, Boone, whose advances had provoked the altercation. His tale was one of a frank attraction to Althea, which she eagerly returned. His voice was steady with truth… both on that subject, and when he described Althea’s brother Jackson and a group of local toughs who seized him and drug him outside to beat him while he was too drunk to offer a solid defense. Fortunately (to his mind), his fellow soldiers rushed to his aid, then the scuffle became heated… and Alex’s gun slew one of his attackers.
The swiftly falling snow, backed by bitter wind, chased everyone to bed once we had brother Jackson loaded up for the mortician. Rusty would shelter in the Steward’s already full house (with private Alex and Tobias already lodged), while Domincus and I went unto Brother Ezikia’s home for a night’s rest. The King’s guidance rings in that decision to rest ourselves under his roof…
We were tired from our day’s ride, a day made long and weary by the senseless murder of Brother Jackson. We thanked Brother Ezikia for his family’s hospitality and soon slumbered. While we slept, the town was not idle… but we, as yet, had no way of knowing.
We broke our fast with Ezikia and his family. Ezikia stands at the right hand of the Steward, a swift rise for a man in his early 20s. He burned with passion and disgust for “outsiders”. (I can still hear the sneer and malign twist of his mouth as he spat the word.) Ezikia’s rhetoric was passionate; outsiders were filth who had been presented with strong examples of true faith by our community. If they persisted in their willful neglect of the King… he had no patience for them, no tolerance.
The territorial authority has long passed through Pine Forge; for years, they were little enough a disturbance. That changed when Daniel arrived and opened a distillery. The bad example of outsiders has led even faithful men, like Sheriff Henry, to indulge in forbidden spirits. Now, complained Ezikia, the Sheriff sides against the faith.
We turned the conversation to the altercation the night before at the speakeasy. He turned evasive, protective, when we asked who had been present beside Brother Jackson so we could speak with them. The names spilled out–Newton, Obidiah, and Jackson. His face twisted as I spoke; he heard the taint of eastern education as I deployed my words. Then revelation forced his hand; “I saw Virgil too,” he said, to a quiet prompt from Dominicus.
Aha! We readied ourselves to find out his role in the confrontation when a knock at the door interrupted. The Steward stood framed in the door, his words compelling our attention: “Brother Tobias was caught in the act of smashing the inn’s liquor.” Fortunately, he continued, Tobias didn’t resist when the soldiers rushed down the stairs to investigate the disturbance. “He’s been hauled off to the jail,” he said, so we three Dogs joined him, walking briskly.
The Sheriff, somewhat surly as a result of his tipple the night before, did not want to allow us to speak with Tobias. He barred the way with his body, backed by soldiers who idled about the jail, clearly anticipating our interference. We spoke, at first calmly, with the Sheriff. He pushed Rusty, but Dominicus clamped his powerful hand on the Sheriff’s shoulder before they could give into the call of violence. While Dominicus held the Sheriff, I walked through the soldiers and into the jail. Dominicus and Rusty soon followed, while the Steward remained outside to straighten the Sheriff and counsel him on navigating the demands of faith and world.
Tobias… his tale is sad. He awoke filled with a passion. He urgently drew on his clothes, abandoned his charge Private Alex, swiped a key from slumbering Rusty, broke into the inn and began smashing liquor. We spoke quietly, so our voices would not carry, as we sought to divine whose voice urged him to his reckless act. After probing questions, his doubt made itself manifest and he realized that the passion had been his, not the King’s. “Rusty, you helped me find the King before…” he cried out. At Rusty’s hidden sign, Dominicus and I fled that scene of broken searching, leaving two Servants of the King to wrestle with faith.
Dominicus and I made haste toward Obidiah and Althea’s house. There, we felt, we would better understand the root of yesterday’s tragedy… but we were too late. When we arrived, their sister told us that Ezikia had come by just after breakfast and gathered them to visit the Steward’s. Dominicus and I blanched; Private Alex had been abandoned there while Tobias smashed liquor bottles–the soldier we’d pledged to protect was undefended. We broke into a jog…
The vigilantes didn’t expect us to come at a run. At my appearance, Newton was startled from his watch and ran to cry warning to his compatriots. He slid across the smooth floor boards of the Steward’s entry hall and pivoted to shut fast the door behind him… but I lowered my shoulder and slammed into the closing door, throwing it back open. Only a step behind was Dominicus, charged with the King’s fury.
Even the mildest of men would have been sickened by the bloody wreck that had been made of Private Alex. Obidiah clutched him under his arms, steadying him for Ezikia’s blows. And worse than blows; Ezikia had a pistol in his hand, its handle slicked with blood. Dominicus and I commanded him to stop in the King’s name, but he was unheeding; the pistol flipped, the bloody grip coming to rest in his hand, ready to fire. “Leave this place,” I commanded him, but his hand was unwavering, the pistol leveled at Alex. “After we take out the trash,” he said, and fired at the private.
Dominicus cowed Ezikia’s followers; first Newton dropped his hands to his side, then Virgil slid out the open door. Sister Aletha rushed forward to cast her body between Ezikia and his target–her bravery bought us time. Obidiah could not be dissuaded, but he fell to a savage punch that I unleashed, toppling him to the floor. Ezikia was unable to breach Althea’s selfless guard of the soldier; unwilling to shoot her or us, he eventually surrendered. Althea turned to treat the fallen soldier while we secured that once faithful man, Ezikia. He was unbalanced by his hatred of others: of outsiders, of the faithless. Of his neighbors.
The remainder took a great deal of discussion with many people. In the end, we allowed the soldiers to take Private Alex with them; Ezikia had taken vengeance’s cloak and delivered a punishment that would have been death had the King wished it. Steward Wiley was dismayed that his student Ezikia’s passion had been in service to hatred. As faint salve, he could count his guidance of Sheriff Henry back to the faith as a success.
The soliders also took Ezikia with them, back to their fort, where he would face a trial for the attempted murder of Private Alex.
Rusty counseled Tobias; they rode together back to Bridal Falls.
Dominicus and I set off for Bridal Falls a day later, delayed to escort one called to be a Dog. In her selfless defense of Private Alex, Dominicus and I saw the spark of the King; we asked Sister Althea to come and learn from the teachers and ancients at the temple. In her shines the spark of justice, her compassion true even when staring down the barrel of her mentor’s bloody pistol. We hope that she will join the King’s Watchdogs and bring her gifts to the faithful. Amen.