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The fifth rider new dama.., p.1
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       The Fifth Rider: New Damascus, p.1

           A Park
 
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The Fifth Rider: New Damascus
The Fifth Rider:

  New Damascus

  By Ashley Park

  Copyright 2013 Ashley Park

  Thank you for downloading this free eBook. Although this is a free eBook, it remains the copyrighted property of the author and may not be reproduced, scanned, or distributed for any commercial or non-commercial use without permission from the author, except for quotes for review purposes. No alteration of content is allowed. If you enjoyed this book, then encourage your friends to download their own free copy. Thank you for your support.

  ***

  NEW DAMASCUS

  ***

  “New Damascus was a place of desert and mountain. It was a town suffering from a sickness, where trouble always stopped by to holiday, and strange, perverted things happened and were endured with silence. Livestock gave birth to stillborn or deformed young. Blood appeared in the well. Children disappeared. Men were overcome by episodes of dark, manic rages not even found at the bottom of a flask.

  “It was the preacher man in the town who finally took matters into his own hands after a New Damascus woman gave birth to a strange, dead child that looked more like a coyote pup than a person. Some say it was the Preacher’s. Some say the problem was that it wasn’t. What is certain is that he went into the desert without any food, only one water-skin and a small pistol for rattlesnakes, and stayed in the wild for seven days and seven nights.

  “No one knows exactly what kind of praying he did in the sand and rocks, but what answered his call certainly wasn’t God. Most are convinced he was praying for help. But what came were the black riders. They didn’t bring a kind hand. They were there to euthanize New Damascus.

  “Sometimes they look like scarred gunslingers with wide-brimmed hats on their heads. Sometimes they look like ghosts of old Apache chiefs, though everyone knows they exist by no man’s creed. Most say they’re tall, with hooded black robes that cover their faces. Riding Death.

  “New Damascus was destroyed. The Preacher never found. Most likely, the black riders killed him as well in their cleansing of the town. He may have put a bullet through his head when he saw his home burning before him. Only a few whisper that when the deed was done, the black riders hunted him down, bringing with them a fifth horse for him to sit a top of and that he rides with them today.

  “Those who whisper that, say that it isn’t dangerous to believe in the black riders. It is dangerous when they notice you.”

  ***

  The man who sat by himself in the saloon struck a match off his boot heel and raised it to the rolled cigarette between his lips. The light that flared in his cupped hands revealed a hint of a hard stare underneath the brim of his hat for a second before the match was waved out. He inhaled deeply, plumes of smoke unfurling from his nose and between his lips as he watched the men sitting at the table nearby slam down their glasses.

  “You’re so full of shit, son.”

  The storyteller glared at his drinking companion with watery eyes. “It’s true. No man’s been there since, it’s all been swallowed up by desert.”

  His friend spat on the ground beside him. “So why haven’t I heard of this town from other men?”

  “There’s only ghosts there now, and I’m not one to disturb the dead. Are you?”

  His friend snorted, cheap whisky slopping over the table as he poured himself another drink with an unsteady hand. “You’d spook at the sight of your own shadow. You look like you’re even gonna piss yourself at your own spook story.”

  The lone man smoking laughed, interrupting them, and they cast a cursory glance to the stranger with suspicious eyes. He didn’t seem to notice the animosity from their direction; either that or he didn’t care.

  “Do we amuse you, son?”

  He flicked the ash off his cigarette before clamping it between his teeth again. “Aye.” He seemed unfazed by the click of revolver hammers as the two drinking men decided they didn’t appreciate being the butt end of a private joke.

  “You should keep to yourself before I fill you with holes and fuck ‘em.”

  The stranger still had the rumble of a chuckle in his throat as he leaned back in his chair. Nervously the two drinkers scanned his coat to see if he already had a gun muzzle pointed at them, but couldn’t make out much in the dim light of the saloon. The stranger tilted his head, the brim of his hat the only thing they could make out.

  “New Damascus isn’t a ghost town, son. There isn’t enough left for ghosts.” The stranger got to his feet, throwing down some crumpled bills onto his table and flicking his finished butt to the floor.

  “What the fuck would you know about it?” The story teller made to rise from his chair, but something about the way the stranger stood in front of them, like a solid shadow ready to strike, made his friend place a firm hand on his shoulder to keep him down.

  “Because I burned it.” The stranger tipped his hat to them slightly in a gesture that was more contemptuous than polite, and made his way out the swinging doors, swallowed up by the night.

  ***

  “In the name of the Father, amen.”

  Jacob Turner kept his eyes closed and his hands clasped together at the altar, feeling reluctant to open them again. In his momentary blindness he could feel innocent and small, like part of God’s great flock in a protective embrace. He could believe that perhaps today his congregation shared this moment of reverence. Perhaps today, their hearts were moved.

  Yes, and perhaps keeping his eyes closed would also make everyone forget he was too young to be their preacher as well.

  Even with eyes shut he could still smell the sour tang of homemade corn mash whisky spilt onto the church’s rickety pews and beaten earth floor. He held back a sigh as the moment was over and people were already staggering to their feet and leaving the small chapel.

  There was some consolation in the few stragglers straying by the altar to receive a further blessing, and with kind smiles he greeted them.

  “May the Holy Father be with you, Mrs. Henry,” He placed a gentle hand on the old woman’s head before turning to the young woman beside her.

  “May the Holy Father be with you, Elspeth,” As he lifted his hand from her head he noticed the small annoyed turn of her lips and smiled wryly, “I’m sorry, Ellie. I always forget.”

  Ellie looked embarrassed for a second but smirked back. “No need, Father.” She always had to remind him she didn’t prefer her Christian name, but he always forgot. Perhaps on purpose. She was the only woman who came to his church that wasn’t stumbling on death’s door, and she took him seriously.

  “Father Jacob, please, if you remember…” Mrs. Henry was watching him expectantly with her wrinkled apple of a face, and he smiled apologetically at Ellie before redirecting his attention.

  “Yes, I recall you have a new chicken hutch in need of a blessing.” He held out his arm to Mrs. Henry, even though years of working a farm had made her much stronger in grip than he. Ellie gave him one last amused look before leaving as well to whatever Sunday afternoon duties she had.

  Jacob walked with Mrs. Henry back to the Henry ranch, as it was not far from the church, enquiring after her husband’s twisted ankle. She prattled on happily as his mind wandered and he looked about the outskirts of town.

  ‘New Damascus’, the sign at the town border read, a name he had come up with himself to bring the example of a holy land from far away to the American desert. There could only have been about eight families that lived properly in the town, a rather small one all told, but it lay along one of the main routes for the railway crews so that New Damascus seemed more like a vagrants’ town. The place was a collection of strays all choking on dust and sand between the first drink of the day to the last.

/>   The Henry ranch lay along the border to New Damascus, with only a few miserable work beasts to truly call it a ranch. But the Henrys’ had recently bought a few laying hens and were keen to have their preacher bless the hutch for prosperity. Jacob had tried telling them again and again that there was no need and that their own prayers were enough, but there was nothing for it.

  Jacob leaned on the porch rail of the house as Mrs. Henry went in to fetch him a cup of water, fanning himself with his hat as sweat beaded on his brow from the relentless sun. He patted the Henrys’ skinny old mare affectionately before making his way to the back of the house.

  “It looks finely built,” he remarked as Mrs. Henry appeared with a tin mug of water. It was warm but he drank it all quickly to get the taste of grit from his mouth.

  “Cost us four dollars and Albert’s old cart, but look at them. Plump as anything.”

  Jacob laughed as one of the brown hens tried to nip his fingers. “Lively too.” He pinned the hen’s wings to her side, gently lifting her up and Mrs. Henry gasped behind him at the rewarding sight of two eggs.

  “Oh!” She carefully picked them up, her eyes glowing. Jacob put the hen back down, thinking the freckled eggs a bit small. He couldn’t say anything though to ruin the beatific smile on Mrs. Henry’s face. There was precious little to celebrate in the dust bowl.

  She tipped one of the eggs into Jacob’s cupped hands. “Finally, Albert and I won’t have to worry. We’ll have eggs to sell every week to the general store.”

  Jacob clasped her hand fondly as he delicately held up the egg. “Couldn’t be a more beautiful sight.” Just as the words left his lips he felt the shell crack between his fingers. Alarmed, he had only a second to wonder how hard he had been gripping the small egg when he noticed dark, sticky blood coating his fingers.

  “Jesus wept…”

  Jacob ignored the oath spilling from Mrs. Henry’s lips, too disturbed by the growing mess in his hand. The egg shell, fragile and thin, disintegrated in his hand as more snot-like blood oozed from its center. Mrs. Henry gave him a stricken look and pierced the egg in her hand with a thumbnail. More dark matter spilled onto the dusty ground.

  “What…what did we do?” She was close to hysterics and Jacob clasped her hands, the shell dust and blood squelching between their fingers.

  “Anne, don’t,” he pleaded.

  “But it’s a sign.”

  “No. No.” He shook her hands. “Your hens just haven’t settled yet. You’ll have good, proper eggs in no time.”

  She sniffed and wiped their hands clean with the front of her apron. Jacob could see her eyes glazing over as she settled into the stunned, unhappy state of someone having suffered another misfortune too many. “Go inside where it’s cooler, away from the sun.” He ushered her into the house, unsure of what more he could do to comfort her.

  He glanced behind him to the chicken hutch, trying to believe his own words, and blessed it with a shaky hand.

  ***

  “I’m sorry about the mess, Father Jacob.”

  He waved away the apology settling into his seat. He looked wryly to the men collapsed unconscious on the floor, or the ‘mess’ as Bonnie had put it. “I’m sure the headaches they have are a far better lesson against drink than any of my sermons.”

  Her little cookshop was the only place in New Damascus to sell homemade whisky and beer, so it was essentially the working saloon for the railway crews. Some of the men in town had grumbled about how improper it was for a woman to sell drink, but those grumbles were forced to die away as Jacob made a point to eat there every day for lunch. He couldn’t hold it against her, even if as a man of the cloth he preached against the sale of vices. The railway crew money was keeping her three children red in an unforgiving land. And in turn she always laid out a table for him and fed him humble fare.

  “Get up, get up.” She was busy prodding the drink men with a broom as if she could sweep away every kind of filth. Jacob tried to hide a smile as he quietly said grace before tucking into the coney stew.

  The door chime jingled and Jacob glanced over curiously to see Ellie walking in, trying to tuck away some stubborn wisps of her hair back underneath her hat.

  “A cider, Bonnie.”

  Jacob motioned to the empty chair at his table and gratefully she sank into it. There were smudges of dirt on her face so she must have just turned in after some morning work on her father’s ranch. He was about to smile at her when he noticed the frayed sleeves of her shirt and the runs in her skirt.

  “Your clothes are torn.”

  Her eyes flickered downward briefly and she just shrugged. “My father keeps mean cattle.”

  She was being too dismissive and Jacob frowned slightly. “I’ve already asked Alton on your behalf to escort you home at night. You wouldn’t be troubled by the railway crews then.”

  “Alton Hutchison couldn’t keep a stray cat away from his dinner.” She avoided his gaze as Bonnie set down a glass of chilled cider at the table and some dried apple slices before shooing out the rest of the drunk stragglers.

  “Elspeth…” She glared at him then and he smirked, knowing that would get her attention. She blushed at being caught so easily and devoted herself to the welcome, cool drink instead. While he was glad to have teased a smile out of her, Jacob still lingered over the rips in her clothing with a gnawing feeling in his stomach. Most of the women in New Damascus were like the tired, skinny mares in town: hardened and worn out by childbirth and hard work. But Ellie was still young and pretty like her mother had been. A true English rose that had come over to the new land for adventure and a fresh beginning, but had withered away and died quickly after Ellie’s birth. Only the tough, gnarly roots of weeds could grow in the sand and rocks here; it was no place for flowers.

  “Have any of them hurt you?” Jacob flushed as she quirked an eyebrow at him. He hadn’t meant to ask so boldly. She let him squirm for a moment longer before shaking her head.

  “They’re just a pack of drunk fools tripping over their own feet. It isn’t too much of a task to send them on their way.”

  Jacob looked down into his bowl, too watery to really be called a stew, and worried at his lip. Mustering some nerve he finally managed to say, “Come by the church tonight. On your way home. I have something for you.”

  She looked at him curiously but must have taken pity on his painfully diffident manner as she finally nodded. She drained the last of the cider in her glass and excused herself with a pretty smile before going back out into the hot, unblinking sun.

  ***

  Jacob blew out the last candle and the church was suddenly engulfed in darkness. He waited a moment for his eyes to adjust and he could navigate by the moonlight alone.

  The door to the church creaked and for a second his hand strayed to the small sickle he kept hidden behind his podium. He saw a wave of blonde hair as Ellie ducked in through the door, and he breathed a sigh of relief.

  “You're later than I expected.”

  She strode quickly over to him. “Surely you aren't afraid of the dark, Father?”

  “Perhaps only what men thinks it possesses them to do.”

  Ellie glanced to the floor with a downcast turn of her eyes, a look at once coy and bashful. Jacob felt his stomach churn and suddenly grasped her hand. She met his eyes, startled at the familiarity and Jacob knew he should drop her hand, but held her in his grip firmly, quivering inside like a scared child. Reaching into his cassock, he brought forth a small pistol and placed it into her hand.

  “Father-”

  He hushed her with a wave of her hand. “It was my father's pistol. Simple... only a sheep bone handle and of a crude make, but it shoots straight and true. A preacher should not keep instruments of death, it is only for One to end the lives of men.”

  Ellie held the pistol in her hand, awkwardly closing her fingers around the steel and polished bone. “I have less right to this than you.”

  She tried to hand it back to him, but Jacob
closed her hands over it with a slight shake of his head. “God gave us the right to defend ourselves, to do whatever we must to keep that sacred gift given to us precious. In this way we honour Him.”

  Ellie finally tucked the pistol into the pocket of her work slacks. She wore her father's clothes at night to hide her shape in darkness. She gave him a wry smile. “You could just say you worry about me, Father.”

  Jacob felt heat swoop through him like sickness, and folded his hands into his sleeves. “Go now. Be safe, Elspeth.”

  He moved one hand to cross himself and she mirrored his movements. Ellie thanked him silently with a slight bow of her head and slipped out of the church as quietly as she had come in, her passing marked only with the waning of moonlight as the door opened and closed behind her.

  ***

  “Come over here, girl.”

  Bonnie ignored the call, furiously wiping spilled beer off a table with an already drenched cloth. The rail line worker, stained and unwashed, waved a dollar in the air. His laugh was like the burble of molten iron, thick and stupid with drink.

 
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