Title: The Promise of Antioch
The Promise Of Antioch
By T. Dalton
One of the Creator's lamentable mistakes, repented in sashcloth and axes. Being instated as an archangel, Satan made himself multifariously objectionable and was finally expelled from Heaven. Halfway in his descent he paused, bent his head in thought a moment and at last went back.
"There is one favor that I should like to ask," said he.
"Man, I understand, is about to be created. He will need laws."
"What, wretch! you his appointed adversary, charged from the dawn of eternity with hatred of his soul -- you ask for the right to make his laws?"
"Pardon; what I have to ask is that he be permitted to make them himself."
It was so ordered.
-Ambrose Bierce. The Devil’s Dictionary
At best, humanity had months left. The Arkansaw Times, The Mountaineer, The Free Texan and even The Last Republic all offered the same bleak outlook. The vast majority would go during the coming winter. Those that survived? Well.
Papers said Indo, where the volcano continued to erupt, had transformed to a sea of fire and magma. The Arkansaw Times estimated one tenth of the planet was now uninhabitable. Kurt Lane had read the reports on his journey west, buying what paper he could at saloons along the way. It was out in Arkansaw where he read about the riots back in New York and the fall of the Qing Dynasty.
He supposed it made no difference that the Earth was dying. People drank and laughed and went to bed together all the same. He couldn’t tell if folks were more likely to kill one another out here, now that they knew it was all coming to end. They got hot heated and dueled as they always did. What demanded questioning more than anything was the noose. Even the sheriff of Folm, a small town he’d passed on through the week before, admitted to him over whiskey.
“The hell it matter?” the sheriff had began. “I’m to punish a man for murder? Death by hanging. Well, way I look at it is I’m out of a job. What reason is there for me to hang a man when we’ll all be dead in a few months time, anyway. Nature’s gone and sent Law to it’s grave.”
Kurt had made good timing, picking up her letters on the way between towns, writing back to her when he could. Trains were out of the question. Every Irishman or Italian from the East would slit a throat to get a last chance out West, were they thought the sun still shone. Likewise, every Chinaman or failed miner or Indo refugee on the Pacific would knife you in the back for your ticket East. Wouldn’t matter none, since the rail workers were all on general strike. They still held up in Nebraska, and last Kurt had read, Lincoln had called the troops in. Kurt didn't have the coin for zeppelins. No, the horse was the way of it.
Kurt settled in to Earl’s Tavern in North Texas. The sole form of architecture on a lonesome road, it was surprising that Earl was still accepting customers, let alone offering food. He smiled at the bar, showing rotten teeth. Past the prime of his life, but not yet dead, Earl gave a nod of respect and understanding to Kurt when he sat down. The kind fit for a person that’s witnessed the same brutality as yourself. A fellow onlooker to the insanity the world has to offer
“You a union man or a federation man?” Earl asked him. Kurt noticed the scars across on Earl’s cheek and the subtle but curious smile on his face.
“I’m like as may be the man who took your ear,” Kurt replied. Earl stared him down for a moment. Had Kurt misread him?
Then Earl broke into laughter. “And I may be the man who murdered your brother.” They laughed more. “Whiskey?” Earl didn’t wait for Kurt to reply. He didn’t need to. It was exactly what he’d wanted.
After small talk, Earl left to attend to the other customers and Kurt began reading, perhaps for the hundredth time, her latest letter. The writing was cursive, the ink black and thick. He held it against his nose, suffocating himself on the remnants of her perfume. Her words, solemn but thoughtful. He thought her a poet, fit for the planetary end-times. He imagined her voice, thirty years younger than she would be now. When he first met her before the war. She spoke to him.
I will wait for you in Antioch. The race ends there. They say you can still feel the sun’s light that far north. All this time, and I still haven’t forgotten-
The sound of heavy iron crashing onto a wood table broke his concentration. The whole tavern quieted down. Kurt knew the object, didn’t even need to turn his head to produce a perfect mental image of it. Shackles. Darby cuffs, the sound shot him back to Anderson. To the cries of hunger in the night. To the southern Georgia heat and the flies buzzing behind his tent. And for a moment, he smelt that immense swamphole of shit, boiling in the hot summer sun. And the corpses that floated.
A man’s voice brought him back. Two men had entered the tavern, now standing at a table occupied by a young golden haired lady. Both dressed in black frock coats and derby’s, Kurt didn’t need to see the iron cuffs or gleam of revolvers at their hips to know their occupation. These were wolves. Bounty hunters. Confident, one of them even let the gold chain of his timepiece hang out from his coat. This man didn’t worry about trouble. He was the trouble.
Don’t you get involved, Kurt Lane told himself. You don’t know her or whatever the hell she went it did. You owe her nothing.
“Your run’s up, Miss Higgins. You’re presence is required back in Chicago by orders of the State of Illinois. Mr. Beaty offers his condolences. Now you can come quietly and lady like, or-“
“Mr. Beaty can swim in the Indo Ocean,” the lady replied. “And I’ll be a corpse before you have me in those cuffs.”
“Lucky for us,” Goldchain said. “Our warrants states you’re wanted alive, or dead. And dead’s a whole lot easier.”
“It might be easier for you,” Old Earl said from behind the bar. “But not for me. I’ll not be having you treat my customers like that. Not in my place of business, no sir. Ain’t no place for derby Pinkertons to come and shoot a lady dead.”
The barkeep stood proud behind his counter. He’d walked half pace up the bar and Kurt knew the man had rifles and pistols ready out of sight. So it’s going to be Texans versus Chicago, then? Kurt glance around the room. He saw two Chinamen and counted them out. A few other hard looking fellas, figured ‘em for texans. Darker skinned folk he couldn’t make out and then the rest nameless travelers. Either way, the Pinks had a fight laid out for them.
He looked back to Goldchain who seemed to share the same thought. “We’re currently vested with the powers of the Federal Government-“
“That so?” Earl said, cutting him off.
“Straight from the hand of President Robert Todd Lincoln himself,” the Goldchain said. “And anyone who interferes with our duties will be impeding the interests of the United States. That is, they will be committing a treasonous act.” He eyed the occupants of the bar, taking time to stare into the eyes of each one. “Imagine spending the last of your days in penitentiary,” he added.
The partner, a man with dark circles beneath his eyes and shaved skin that looked to be made of mud instead of flesh, cleared his throat. He spoke with a softness that was unbecoming a man his size. Childilke in its sensuousness, the man sent Kurt’s skin shivering. “In these dark days, where even a gleam of sunlight is a gift from our Lord, is a bleak cell really the place you wish to spend your final hours?”
Mighty fine point, Kurt thought. I’ve got places to be and a lady to meet. He folded the letter and put it into his coat pocket.
“You there!” Goldchain shouted at Kurt, revolver in hand. Fast as lightning, this one, Kurt thought. Mud, his partner, waited with his hand inside his coat. “Don’t move that hand from your pocket,” Goldchain said.
Son of a whore on Satan’s day. Kurt froze and cleared his throat. He glanced over to Earl, who stood ready as ever. “Aye,” Kurt said. “My hand is in my pocket.”
“You reaching for a gun? Thinking of drawing on me, boy?”
Kurt licked his teeth. “No,” he began. “I’m not reaching for my pistol, which is at my side and not my coat pocket. And I’m not a boy, son. So, kindly cease aiming your pistol at my gut, Pinkerton.”
Kurt’s hand remained on the letter. What he didn’t bother telling the Federally empowered bounty hunters was that he preferred using his left to draw. And his left waited patiently on the bar counter for the silver Colt SAA at his hip.
“I’d suggest you do as the man asks,” Earl said. “He’s a simple patron. A veteran, like myself, of a war you were too busy shitting in the street to fight in.” Goldchain didn’t move an inch.
“Seems we’re at an impasse,” Mud said.
“What’d this lady do?” Kurt asked. “She kill somebody?”
“That’s not your concern,” Goldchain said.
“I disagree,” Kurt replied. “So long as you’v’a pistol aimed at me.”
“So long as your hand’s hidden in your pocket,” Goldchain said. His eyes bulged.
“You ordered me not to move my hand from my pocket, son,” Kurt said cooly. “Now I’ve stated this twice. You’re aiming at me, and I intended to stay well out of this situation. I’ve no idea who that woman is, and no idea what she’s gone and done. I’ve had my fair share of fightin’. I done already signed up for the draft. Took scars for it and took life for it. Got my medals for it and my nightmares, too. I figured I gave enough to the first Lincoln, and don’t much see why the next deserves a second round. So I’m going to clear as sunlight, if you can remember what that is, Pinkerton. You stop aiming that God damn pistol at my gut or, as certain as this world is to die, I’ll leave you in the dust with a hole where your tiny brain was.”
Kurt couldn’t expect what’d happen next. The gold haired lady, Miss Higgins, had since stepped away from the table. The moment Kurt finished speaking, she’d turned and ran. Goldchain and Mud both turned for her, and that’s when Earl reached for his rifle. Maybe in his younger days, the old barkeep would have had a chance. Sure as hell’s real, the man had quite a shot. But he didn’t have the speed. The Pinkerton’s unloaded on him holding the rifle in both hands. The shots rang. Bursts and explosions. Glass shards flew and liquor burst into vapor. Earl collapsed back against the wall and as he slid down and died, he fired a shot straight into Mud’s neck.
Kurt, meanwhile, had leapt behind a table and, like all the others in the room, hid. He heard the Pinkertons speaking to one another, and what bothered him the most was Mud’s calm. The man had just taken a Winchester in the neck. He shouldn’t even have a head attached. Yet, in a quiet voice, he suggested to Goldchain that they go after the girl. Kurt heard them leave, peeked out to confirm, then crept out from the table. He looked down at Earl. “You ain’t missing much, fella,” he said. “Thanks for the whiskey."
Turning to the open door, he heard the screams and shouts of the golden haired woman as the two men cuffed her. Kurt thought about the letter in his coat pocket. About her and the day’s they’d had.
Miss Higgins screamed again, begging for someone to come to her aid and Kurt couldn’t help but return to Anderson. To the weeping men. To those armies of hungry skeletons and what they did to each other at night.
Kurt’s left hand slid down to the handle of his revolver. He licked his teeth, damned God for the situation he found himself in, and made his way for the door.