“And now We roam in Sovereign Woods.—…”
“My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -”
e called him “Bolt.” Because of the bolt we put in his muzzle—stainless steel slipped through open flesh that eventually healed all ‘round. A daily reminder of the power of God, like a bolt of lightning come down from the sky, that can raise us up or strike us down, but leastways always shakes us up. Every time we’d call that dog in, every time we’d feed him or tramp the draws and ridges with him or just see him stretched out by the screen door on the “God Is Our Deliverance” mat, all shaggy head and matted fur—that bolt hung in his muzzle like the mark of the Almighty’s piercing power.
See, faith is not for sissies. And when God Above tests your faith, He doesn’t mess around with niceties and please. Then’s the time to look fear in the face and stand firm, always believing, like Daniel upright ‘mongst the lions. And if you can’t find your faith when that testing time comes, you might as well lay yourself down in the middle of the road and be done with it. Better to be run over clean than tussle with God’s wrath. Go ask Jonah in the belly of the whale, or Lot’s wife if she can hear through all that salt. They’d tell you—you got to follow Him and never let anything turn you aside, or that same awesome force what can save you can damn well destroy you.
Over a year ago, right after the biggest forest fire these parts had ever seen, we kept hearing strangers was asking about us in town–government people, we figured. The folks living in these mountains already know who we are. Who we serve. Course, that don’t mean we always see eye to eye. Some have come right out and said we was crazy. But crazy or not, they can plainly see, we’re peaceable types, not looking for any trouble, just trying every day to walk His way. Asking questions, lots of questions—that had to be the government wanting to stir up trouble.
Sure enough, not long after, the State Attorney General himself charged us with burning down God’s forest, accusing us of leaving the campfire lit that leveled thousands of acres of brush and pine. Even sent us each a bill for $3 million—“Please return check in enclosed envelope,” it said— and then tried to throw us in jail for pretty much the rest of our lives.
How could they tell for sure that our campfire was the one what started that forest fire, when there was plenty others camping all over those woods that dry August evening? Of course, the park rangers testified they traced it all back, found a flyer “in the suspect campfire” with the name of God on it. Like what we was handing out.
But that still didn’t make it our fire.
Our whole worship group had been out in the woods that night: me, my boy Ray, and old Bolt; the Arnolds with their three youngsters; Samuel Marston and Gill Browne from our same side of the mountain; and Jess Bellows and his boy, about Ray’s age, from the other side. All good Christians and good mountain folk too. All knew well enough how to put out a fire, ‘cept maybe the youngest ones, but still enough adults there pouring water on the coals. And several of us did check to see that they was as out as wet coals ever are.
None of us could foresee then how the smell of sizzling pine sap, like burnt tires, would stick to everything for months to come. How, for miles ‘round, ashes would float down like dark snowflakes every time the wind rustled, and even the farthest corners of our kitchen shelves would wipe black.
God has his mysterious ways. It was Apostle Paul said, “Fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.” So, could it have been a little Godly spark that set that forest raging? To clean out the underbrush, move the vermin ‘round, and just shake things up a bit? The way He sometimes does.
What I know for sure is that that trial cleaned us out of whatever money we had then and about all our future money too. Plus there was the enmity among our neighbors that those government types whipped up against us. Like, no matter what, they wasn’t planning on losing in the end.
Turned out they was more right than any of us could have known.
‘Cause winning wasn’t nothing compared to what we lost. When the papers was first served, Arnolds moved out during the night, with not a word from them since. Eventually, I hocked to the gills the little sawmill I had hoped my boy Ray would run someday. Samuel and Gill double-mortgaged their carpentry business building cabins and doing odd jobs. And Jess pretty much lost his whole inheritance that had been supporting him, his boy, and God’s Word.
For more than four months we sat at that defense table—Sam, Gill, Jess, and me—our backs to our neighbors, to our customers, to folks we had called friends. Listening to people tell how we had done this thing or that, how we wasn’t like the others, that we was there for sure that awful night. While all our gardens dried up and Gill’s and Samuel’s tools grew rusty and my mill stood useless. Jess’s boy and Ray jotting in workbooks, trying to keep up.
When it was over Jess said he had to give up and leave for a job in Boise, what with a child to raise and not a dime to his name anymore. God provides, I believe, but it wasn’t in my pocket to give, so, in the end, I couldn’t tell him to stay.
That left Samuel, Gill, me and Ray.
Samuel Marston never let go his shame. He couldn’t look the townspeople in their faces without thinking they was sure he had done it after all. “Gonna be no more work here for us either way,” he kept saying way before the verdict came in. But afterward, he and Gill still every now and again had some little project, almost putting together a living. Gill even tried joking with folks, see how they’d take it—like why on earth would he ever want to do anything’d raise the price of lumber?
I been more or less staying to myself, not even going to town much anymore. Our little sawmill has occasional odds and ends to do, but we’re just scraping by, Ray and me. And our lives ahead look like just more of the same. I’m glad my wife Effie didn’t live for any of this.
At least I got Ray. He’s a mighty good boy. No sass or deviling or sneaking ‘round when my back is turned. Truly a God-fearing boy. And in spite of whatever they think of the rest of us, the folks in town appear to like him.
Sheriff Randall seems particularly taken. “Gonna make a deputy out of this boy one day,” he’ll say to whoever’s there, laying his big hand on Ray’s shoulder.
“Even though God’s way don’t stand for killing?” I ask.
Then Sheriff shuffles his feet a bit, makes his eyes little, and walks away.
See, we’re not ‘mongst believers up here—we’ve known that all along. Folks roam God’s woods without knowing their Maker, without ever accepting the salvation what comes from His pain. But that don’t mean we don’t all belong here in these sovereign woods. Jesus Himself was no stranger to sinners—a friend of hookers, hit men, and loan sharks, the Bible says. “You love your neighbor” was His advice. Meaning no matter who your neighbor might happen to be.
Besides, none of us could throw the first stone. None of us.
So, after the trial, Samuel, Gill, and me took to talking about forgiveness and forgetness and just trying to keep to the straight way.
Wasn’t till awhile later that we took to keeping our .22s loaded and locking up our doors at night.
One evening Samuel come home to a brush fire near his barn where he stored lumber, a brush fire that smelt too much like gasoline. Wouldn’t a taken but one little gust to have finished off for good what leftover work he and Gill still had.
Then not too long after that, there come piercing through the night’s blackness outside Ray’s and my cabin the sound of shots—zing, zing, zing—from a pretty powerful gun too, like a .270 or an 06, and from not that far away. I woke up crazy dithered but figured it had to be some mistake. After a week or so of silence, though, those shots come again, and then another night and again another, ending with us sitting upright, bug-eyed for weeks afterward, waiting for the next shots that never came.
The last time I was in town for supplies, I turned ‘round in the feed store to find Johnny Bishop, a barkeep at The Oyster, right behind me, along with three or four of the guys he runs with, none looking very happy to see me.
“Hey, Johnny, how’s that lame paint of yours?” I tried.
He and his friends started closing in, me stepping back until I hit up against the feed bags, when Carl, the boy who works there during the week, comes over worriedlike, saying he wants no trouble, Sheriff’s on the way.
Not too soon Sheriff Randall’s walking Johnny and his friends out the door, them protesting they was there to buy feed, wasn’t their fault they run into vermin.
“God be with you, Johnny,” I call out and Sheriff Randall whirls round with “would-you-just-shut-the-fuck-up-when-I’m-trying-to-keep-the-peace-here?”
Lord knows it’s not been easy up in these woods, and particularly since that trial. Nobody’s been willing to give us any benefit, none of us three. They think the acres of char ‘n’ ashes somehow or other justifies whatever happens to us, no matter how bad. They choke down stinking air that churns their guts, burns their eyes, and they don’t care what some judge said, don’t care that the court didn’t quite find us guilty. They see the sawmills down, the farmers and ranchers suffering, the tourist folk way behind, and they think they know better.
It was Samuel out cutting wood who first saw somebody on our part of the mountain last fall, right after the trial ended. Acting stealthylike, he said, a guy in a dark-brown cap, maybe another guy too. Not moving like a hunter or trapper, more like a stalker.
Just before the first hard snow Gill found 06 casings up on the east ridge above Ray’s and my cabin, not far from our makeshift shooting range. Casings from nothing we ever fired.
Then, not two weeks later, Gill’s waiting at daybreak behind a rock near there for a blue grouse he’s been salivating for, when somebody comes stepping heavy through the trees. Rearing up, Gill scares the wadding out of whoever it was, who took off runnin’, a brown cap on his head, but not before he dropped his gun—a short-barreled 06, one steel-jacketed handload still in the magazine.
Just like them shells Gill found.
Gill wraps that gun up in newspaper straightaway and gives it to me, ’cause he don’t want trouble if somebody comes looking for it. Under the sink skirt in our cabin it went. Behind the Ajax and sponges. Out of sight and out of mind.
A month later, during the worst cold spell of a winter we’ve had since coming to these mountains, Gill didn’t show up for our Friday-morning prayers. Sheriff said he couldn’t make any case but that Gill’d wandered out drunk and somehow fell in the dark against the corncrib, marking a real nasty knot on his head. Bad enough to knock him out till he froze to death, most likely. No fingerprints in that mess of a cabin he keeps. But drunk or sober, one or th’other, still no motive, no suspect, no case.
Now, Samuel and I wasn’t ever going to see it that way, and it sent us to our knees for days. Yes, Gill used to drink before he was converted, we all know that, but not a drop since then, not even during the depths of the trial. That next morning in his cabin, lying right out on the kitchen table, was his King James open to the Book of Job, a full kettle sitting on the burner. This is just not a drinking kind of picture here, we kept saying.
And the mess that’s there is not his usual mess, it’s a different one. Sure, stacks of newspapers and cabinet doors half open and dishes piled high. But in his bedroom there was all his drawers sitting on the floor and what clothes he had in the closet swept way back. Covers heaped high in the middle of the bed. A searching kind of mess.
“Somebody’s after us,” Samuel sighed as we stepped from Gill’s dark cabin out into the bright winter sun, blinking away the cold, the screen door clacking brittle behind.
Just three weeks later, high on the east ridge straight above our cabin, Samuel was likely surveying the black trunks of dying yellow pine, black silhouetted against white drifts that must‘ve been up to his knees. Making his weekly tally of what was ready to cut.
The way the sheriff tells it, some trigger-happy kid hunting for what few things are out that time of year either missed bad or mistook Samuel and didn’t miss a’tall. Either way, the bullet went in one ear and clean out the other side, and no one’s been able to find a trace of it. A good-sized exiting hole, they got to admit, obviously too big for a plain rabbit-hunting .22. Most likely steel-jacketed, I’m thinking right away.
There’s no talking sense to the sheriff on this one. He’s questioning the Williams boys and the Hayward kid across the mountain and says he put out an inquiry over to McCall ’cause of some hunting death maybe connected, or that might at least give him a lead. I can’t tell if he’s serious or just covering his rear.
Ray and I are at the jailhouse nearly all day three days running. “The same one must have done both Gill and Samuel,” I keep saying.
“Well, if you’re talking about the Devil, then you are damn right,” Sheriff allows, leaning toward me, smelling strong of snuff, “but other than that, I don’t got no evidence at all.”
“Somebody’s missing an aught-six that Gill picked off of him,” I swear, choke-voiced, without volunteering where it is now.
Sheriff pulls himself up, sweeps his eyes over Bolt, then says, for no reason, “You ever put hardware in Ray’s lip, or anywhere else, I’ll haul you in so fast, your head ain’t never gonna stop spinning, you hear?”
The Apostle Paul says that we are marked for Christ, and, of course, Paul should know, him being the most marked there was. He learned the hard way that He Who raises us up can also bring us down. Thinking he was doing right, not knowing God was gonna set him straight by laying him low, Paul was knocked flat when he took off in the wrong direction—terror like scales sealing off his sight.
I send Ray in there by himself to talk to Sheriff Randall, seeing Sheriff’s so partial to him. “Tell him, Ray, that he’s gotta look for some guy packing steel-jacketed bullets.”
Ray comes out with a little carrot—if we find something steel-jacketed or anything else not from every kind of gun in these parts, maybe Sheriff’ll check into it.
So old Bolt and I start spending early evenings up on the east ridge, where Samuel went down—my heart stopping at every cracking twig—digging frozen hands and paws into the crusty snow. Till it ain’t light enough to do any good. Ray back at the cabin doing his homework, the lamp pulled close to his blond head, puzzling over ciphers.
Please, God, not him, I pray. Please, God, rather me.
I take to rereading the Book of Job, like Gill done. I can see why he was looking for comfort there—Job, Iyyobh, wrestling with the terrible majesty of the Almighty. The Sabaeans took all his oxen and horses, fire from heaven burned up all his sheep. Chaldaeans carried off his camels. Every one of his sons and daughters died in a wind so strong, it collapsed the whole house down. Still, Job prays, “The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” Then comes a whole bodyful of sores.
One afternoon in late winter Sheriff Randall walks right in our front door, his deputy in tow. I jump up from my reading, but Sheriff pushes me back down to the chair, saying he just wants to talk–he’s surveying the room, acting like he’s making little mental notes, sizing up my story.
I go straight through it all again. That night Gill died Ray and me was home the whole evening, studying the Bible—working our way through Genesis again. And we was both out, Ray to school, and me over to the mill, the morning Samuel went down.
“A shame Ray’s had to stomach all this dying,” Sheriff says when he finally turns to leave.
“The lot of God’s people, suffering,” I answer, and Sheriff starts muttering how most folks’d think Ray about got his belly full already, when he all of a sudden stops and turns, pointing at the single-shot .22 standing in the corner.
“Gill and Samuel and me all got the same one,” I tell him. “Bought them all the same day.”
“Strange,” he says, smiling back at the deputy and pulling down on his hat brim. “Didn’t find no twenty-two over at Gill’s. We’ll take this one off your hands for the time being.”
And the deputy picks up my gun as they walk out.
I wake the next morning feeling so down that I decide to devote the whole day to soup and Genesis, no milling to do anyway. Ray goes off in my parka, his old jacket barely big enough to cover him good anymore, and I watch from the window as he tramps down the gully and up the ridge toward school.
I remember one early morning, back during that trial, when we was all getting up from our prayers, readying ourselves to face the courtroom again, Gill says half to himself, as he’s brushing bits of carpet off his shiny pant legs, that he has to believe in his heart all our troubles is from the Lord staying His hand and not from Him raising it. Or he don’t think he could keep going.
But in his eyes was a question.
The afternoon sun starts to get a little low, and Bolt scratches hard to be let out, then heads up in a snowy shamble to the east ridge to wait for Ray. I eventually stop at the part in Genesis where Abraham binds up his only son, lays him on kindling, and puts a knife to the boy’s throat. Out the window I see Bolt still up there on the ridge, waiting.
What on earth is taking that boy so long?
Then, as God would have it, way up off from the left comes Ray, all bundled up in my blue parka with the hood pulled up against the cold. Just a boy, I’m always thinking, but with him out there in my jacket, I can see plain as day he’s become a man.
Bolt sets to vigorous barking, then turns tail and runs like fury away from Ray, off toward our shell-hunting place, digging for all he’s worth. Ray snowjumps after him, squats down to eyeball whatever Bolt thinks he’s found, stirs the snow a little, cuffs the dog’s head, then they both come marching, two bulky splotches, one twice as tall as the other and blue, from the ridge down toward our cabin.
I’m starting to turn back to Genesis, when, among the trees and chokecherries clustered at the bottom of the ridge, I see the setting sun brighten on a brownish cap—on somebody looking up, like me, at the two descending: Ray’s right hand cupped over his eyes to shield against the sun, him and Bolt high-stepping down through the snow.
My legs quivering, I am halfway to my knees, gasping, “Not my will but Thine be done,” like our Savior bent double in Gethsemane.
Bolt leaps ahead, chasing after some cottontail, veers off, then stops, his nose in the air for an instant, before he turns, slow-galloping back toward Ray.
I see the brown cap rising and then, alongside of it, a sun-sparkled barrel, a rabbit-hunting barrel like Gill’s and Samuel’s and mine, pointing at Ray.
Bolt suddenly stops, turns toward us below, sniffing into the wind, his nose better than eyes in this glare, and just as the report ricochets ‘round me, he leaps out toward the scent, barking first, then yelping when he catches it in the side, that mark in his muzzle of God Almighty’s awful power flashing in the sunlight as he falls.
I know exactly how long it takes to reload that .22, dropping the barrel while you lift the bolt and pull it toward you, the spent cartridge ejecting and the new shell falling in place with a catching metal sound that says it’s ready to go again. About the same time it takes to dive under the sink, scattering the Ajax and sponges, feel for the 06, and, in one long swoop, run out the door, peeling off newspaper, leveling the barrel on your forearm as you go.
All the while I’m calculating it’s almost a hundred yards to the brown-capped shooter, then from him to Ray more than 80 yards again. Him with a .22 that’s gonna be pretty slow and not so accurate. Though it got Bolt easy enough. But God willing, I’ve got both accuracy and speed.
Ray is standing startled in the snow, Bolt below him in a heap. He knows that, in a hunting situation, if somebody’s shooting at you, you jump round wild, wave your arms. But whether on account of old Bolt or this whole fearsome mess, Ray’s standing stock still, not moving an inch, staring straight out toward the shooter and me.
The barrel below is being raised again.
Where are the miracles God’s capable of? Where is the great collapse of Jericho, the devastation of evil Sodom? Where is the rising up like Paul from the near dead or Lazarus from the truly dead? Where is that saving Lord?
Or is this the Jehovah who stood by during Job’s scourge of sorrows, and again while His only Son was bolted to a cross—hands, feet, and side run through hard, head tilted upward, wearied from all that pleading for the pain to end?
This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
Only one shot in the chamber, and all I can see in my crosshairs, through the thick of the brush and pine, is the .22 barrel, the slightest edge of a brown cap settling on to the sights.
Only one shot.
Thou shall not kill.
I raise my aim up the hill toward Ray, trying for his leg—not so low down as will likely miss, not so high up as will cut him in two. The other bullet will be going 900 feet a second, while mine’s at three times that. Praying to drop Ray down. For at worse a shattered leg, a steel pin for life.
The just shall live by faith.
Then I pull the trigger.
The recoil of the 06 kicks back hard, wallops me fierce against the side of the cabin.
Within a breath I hear the report of the .22.
Blessed be the name of the Lord.
The sun sets in an instant, and the air turns sudden icy gray. The brown cap pops up and pivots ‘round, facing back toward me and the fading light.
I pull myself up, my shoulder throbbing, and start moving, searching for the blue spot that is Ray fallen down, hoping for those little clouds of breath. Hugging that 06 in my arms, I lift one trembling leg after the other, wobbling first, then crashing through the icy brush, slipping down into the gully, working my way up the other side, sliding in the slush, my eyes on the ridge.
As I get closer I can start to make out what’s on the face of that brown-capped shooter: it’s bald fear on his face—a big, wide fear that makes him throw one arm out as he fast swivels first up toward Ray, then back again toward me, his cap meanwhiles flying off sideways.
And even through the dense of the brush and woods, with the gray settling in deep all ‘round and me slow-motion thrashing my way up to Ray, I can make out exactly what kind of fear’s there on Sheriff Randall’s face.
The kind I know so well.
A graduate of Swarthmore College, I earned my J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law, and am currently the founder and principal consultant at Law People Management LLC. I served as associate editor of Whetstone for several years, and my short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Cadillac Cicatrix, The Ledge, Quiddity, The Southampton Review and Willard & Maple. I am also at work on a novel entitled The Evolution of Certainty about a Victorian trial. My non-literary work has garnered several awards and has been featured on LawPeopleBlog.com, a widely respected resource in the legal world.