6:2 Islands of the Dead

FARALLONES ISLANDS, CALIFORNIA  |  1889

Boarding the steamship Pride of Jefferson with a tired and emotionally distraught eleven-year-old was easier than Fox imagined. It turned out that every adult he saw traveling with children had the same look of exhaustion and mortal dread that he himself wore. He wondered for a moment if they all were escaping the bloody scene of some equally Shakespearian drama; he hoped not, if simply for the sake of humanity in general.

Once he had the tired child and their collective meager possessions stowed away in a cabin below, Fox took the opportunity to walk the decks as the ship left the Golden Gate. The oppressive marine layer overhead began to dissipate as soon as the Farallon Islands came into sight. Fox wished with all his heart for a cigarette although he had given them up years ago.

“Isn’t that a sight, friend?” A husky drawl inquired from the shadows.

Fox flinched and turned to face his fellow passenger. A large man in evening clothes two sizes too small for his stout frame stepped into the light. A dapper silk top hat was rakishly balanced atop a head that looked as if it had been hastily assembled from spare steam engine parts. The man’s rubber grommet lips parted to reveal a mouth full of teeth that would put a combine harvester to shame.

“Isn’t what a sight?” Fox asked as he regained his composure.

“Why the comet, friend, just look at it!” The enigmatic gentleman pointed to a break in the fog with a cane topped with what looked like a baby alligator head. Fox followed the man’s gaze and truly noticed the engine of his delivery for the first time. “They say a piece of it broke off and came crashing down,” the man continued in a cadence dipped in hot tar. “Killed a preacher somewhere in the Central Valley. Isn’t that something? A preacher. I guess when the Lord calls his own back home, he very well means it.” The man began to chuckle quietly to himself.

“Where did you hear that, sir?” Fox fought to maintain his best poker face.

“Hell, son, it’s in all the papers! It’s the biggest news since Coca-Cola,” the man abandoned his chuckle and traded up to a full-throated laugh that sounded like someone filling a dry well with gravel.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you … ”

The man turned off the horrible laugh as abruptly as if he hit a kill switch. “I think you know exactly what I’m talking about, friend. We are two of a kind, you and I.”

“You can’t know that,” Fox argued reflexively. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

“True enough,” the man conceded, “but I would recognize a man in the business anywhere. Am I right?”

“What business is that?” Fox caged.

“Why the oldest business there is that doesn’t include lying on your back!” He exclaimed and gave Fox a knowing look. “Or does it? No matter. Oh hell, do I have to come right out and say it? Belief! We are both in the belief racket, padre. Granted, no matter how sublime the cast, some fish bite and some don’t, but in the end, it’s all the same. It’s the grand game, and you and I are regular masters, are we not?”

“No, we are assuredly not, Mr. … ”

“I’ve gone by many names, as I’m sure you have, or will. You can call me Mr. Sebek, or Puddin’ Tane, or John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt; I don’t give a good Goddamn, it’s not who I really am,” he confided. “But let me ask you a question, padre. Who might you really be?”

“That, I’m afraid, is none of your affair,” Fox shot back, visibly shaken.

The gentleman took no visible offense to Fox’s outburst and merely took advantage of the lull in conversation to reach into a waistcoat pocket and remove a solid gold cigarette case.

“Smoke?” the man asked, snapping the ornate case open with one hand and holding it out to Fox.

“No, thank you,” Fox managed, the rich smell of premium tobacco pulling at his will.

“You don’t mind if I indulge, do you?” The man did not wait for an answer, but placed a cigarette between his greasy lips and procured a lighter seemingly out of thin air. Oddly, Fox caught a whiff of sulfur as his companion lit up and took a single drag before expelling a huge cloud of smoke that obscured even the bright comet above them.

“You know the Indians around these parts thought these islands were haunted,” the man abruptly changed tack pointing out at the night with the glowing cherry at the end of his cigarette. “They called the Farallones, ‘the Islands of the Dead.’ Quite naturally, they made a point to not paddle out here. All except for one brave, distraught over the loss of his true love, he made the dangerous trip out to these rocks—it was quite a different undertaking without the benefit of a steamship, I’ll tell you that.”

“Does your story have a point?” Fox interrupted. “It is getting quite late.”

“Oh, I assure you it does, reverend. You see, the young man made the ultimate sacrifice for the worst reason imaginable—chasing a bit o’ wagtail. Of course, once he made it out to the so-called Islands of the Dead, he didn’t find his true love waiting to cross over, he found a bunch of seals and rocks covered in bird shit. Understandably disappointed, he paddled his sorry ass back to shore, where his friends—believing he had returned from the Great Beyond—wanted nothing to do with him. I believe they tried to stone him back to death as he slept. You see, nobody wants to die, but even worse, nobody likes to think that someone else can cheat death while they cannot.

“You said, ‘tried to stone him to death.”

“Never underestimate the redemptive powers of bird shit.”

“I’m afraid I am going to have to say goodnight, sir.” With that, Fox left the man standing at the railing.

“Perhaps you will fare better, padre,” Sebek growled, staring up at the bright rogue star. “We shall see. Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight … ”

6:1 Leaving California

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA  |  1889

A wet, gray blanket lay over the bustling San Francisco waterfront as Fox and his ersatz daughter rushed to make the steamship that would take them across the Pacific Ocean to Hawai‘i. The pair had been traveling a day and night, taking the Central Pacific Railroad down from Sacramento where Fox had telegraphed ahead to arrange their passage but not before drawing a considerable amount of cash out of the local Wells Fargo.

The train would only take them so far, and they caught a waiting ferry at the terminus in Vallejo. Fox had plenty of time to ruminate on whether he was doing the right thing. He did not have the opportunity to speak with Urias before leaving and he wondered if his old friend would have tried to talk him out of whatever this plan would prove to be.

Philomena had been fast asleep against the cold window of the ferry and for the first time since the fireball had upstaged her father’s suicide, he took a good look at her. Her skin was olive-tinged, like his, and betrayed a Mediterranean ancestry of some sort, although Fox knew nothing about his family tree.

He, too, had been an orphan and knew what it would have meant to leave the girl in the hands of the state, or worse, the church. What kind of life would she have now? He wondered, watching the girl’s thin chest fill and fall with each exhausted breath. He carefully reached out to sweep a lock of Philomena’s dark hair from her face and found it to be as thick as his own, whereas the late Mortimer Gilliam’s hair was as blonde and fine as a hapless child in a fairy tale, and her mother’s hair was as red as the trail of the meteor that had cleaved the sky in two and set the pair on this path.

By the time the ferry put in at its berth in San Francisco, Fox had become more or less comfortable with the idea that he now had a daughter. As comfortable as a man on the run from possible complicity in a murder/suicide could be, that is; as comfortable as a man who was suddenly faced with waking a sleeping child who may or may not be in shock from the events of the past few days.

Fox bent down and nudged the girl who stirred not with a start, but with a recognition that warmed his soul.

“We are here,” he said, tamping down the riot of hair on top of her head.

“Hawai‘i?” Philomena stretched and looked around.

Fox laughed in spite of himself. “No, child. This is San Francisco. We have to catch a ship. Quickly. Can you do that?”

“Yes … what should I call you?”

Fox thought for a moment. “Philomena, I know you have been through a lot in the past seventy-two hours, but if this has a chance of working … that is, if I can keep what happened to me when I was your age from happening … well, you should probably call me father.”

Philomena’s eyes swam with emotions she was ill equipped to handle as she looked up at Fox. Did she love this man as she did her father? No. Did she hate this man for taking her away from the only home she had ever known? That remained to be seen. She was old enough to recognize that her life was never going to be the same. The girl burst in to tears as Fox stood by uselessly.

“Come on, dear,” he soothed, “we have to go.”

5:3 Becalmed

MILAKALE, KAUA‘I, THE REPUBLIC OF HAWAI‘I  |  1889

Jun was in the small taro patch he had cultivated just out the back door of his kitchen when Maleko Mahoe, the nephew of one of the native staff employed by the Lanthiers, came running up from the direction of the beach.

“Mr. Jun!” the breathless boy gasped. “Come quick; it’s Mr. Lanthier.”

Jun dropped the pitchfork he had been using to pry the large tubers from their swampy purchase and grabbed the boy by the shoulders, anointing his bronze skin with the iron-rich red mud of the island.

“Tell me.” Jun asked with an air of quiet authority that calmed the panicked Maleko.

“I was out swimming and saw Mr. Lanthier riding Lucifer along the surf as he does every morning when something spooked the horse. He got throwed pretty bad. I think he might have hit his head.”

“Listen, Maleko, go and find your uncles. Tell them to meet me at the beach.” The two figures were propelled in opposite directions as if by a repellent magnetic force. Maleko flew off toward the center of the compound while Jun turned to run down the well-worn trail to the water.

Emerging from the brush onto an expanse of sand as white and fine as a spilled bag of sugar, Jun saw Lanthier’s imposing black steed standing over the prone body of his employer at the water line as if guarding him until help arrived. The horse snorted and shook its massive head as Jun lifted its reins from where they trailed in the surf.

The most cursory look at Lanthier revealed that the master of the house had not done himself a service by falling from such an imposing animal. The man’s head lay in the sand with his face licked by gentle waves as his bony posterior stuck up in the air as if doing an esoteric t’ai chi ch’uan pose. As Jun watched, a roller filled Lanthier’s mouth with salt water and was expelled by an automatic fit of coughing.

At least he’s not dead, Jun surmised. But can he be moved?

“Jun!” voices called out from beyond the high tide mark. “Don’t move him! He could have broken his neck.” A group of three stout Hawai‘ian men ran toward him, their bare feet pounding a triad of tracks into the sand.

“He is still breathing,” Jun reported out. “We need to get him out of the surf before he drowns.” Jun knelt down by Lanthier’s head and gingerly felt along the man’s neck checking for an obvious fracture. Maleko’s uncles surrounded the pair without comment and awaited Jun’s diagnosis.

Jun looked up the beach for a place to move the man as the tide was coming in and soon would cover most of the beach.

“There,” Jun pointed toward the abandoned heiau. “We will carry him there.”

The three Hawai‘ians looked at each other, each willing the other to explain to the foreigner why that shouldn’t, or more emphatically, couldn’t, be done.

“Now! Help me move the master before he drinks the entire ocean!”

“Jun Jin, we cannot move him there,” one of Maleko’s uncles finally spoke. “It is kapu.”

“It would be better to let him die in the sea than to bring down a curse on his whole family,” another explained.

“Jun Jin, we are strong,” the third broke in. “We can carry him to the big house without causing him more harm. Let us do that.”

“Fools!” Jun exploded. “Enough of your superstition. I will carry him myself if I must.” With that, the cook squatted down and cradled Lanthier’s head close into his own abdomen. With surprisingly powerful core muscles, he slowly rose to a standing position, holding the supine man in his arms. “Out of my way, if you will not help,” he admonished the three men and staggered his way down the beach.

Maleko’s three uncles stood at the edge of the surf and watched as Jun climbed the ancient lava stones and laid Lanthier out on what was still one of their most sacred places on the island.

“We are doomed.”

“Not us, brother; this will bring sorrow to the house of Lanthier. Should he survive, or no, the sun has set on the master’s family.”

“He is no master of mine.”

“Nor mine. But, he was a fair man, for a haole.”

“Fair or no, he has now earned the wrath of the gods. Being fair will not change things.”

“Shouldn’t it be Jun that has earned the fury of the gods? He is the one who carried him there.”

“Jin Jun is a heathen. He is already damned.”

“I don’t think we are without blame. We should have stopped him.”

“Indeed, we should have stopped him.”

“We are doomed.”

Jean-Pierre_Norblin_de_La_Gourdaine_(after_Louis_Choris),_Temple_du_Roi_dans_la_baie_Tiritatéa_(c._1816,_published_1822)

5:2 A Place at the Table

MILAKALE, KAUA‘I, THE REPUBLIC OF HAWAI‘I  |  1889

The strikingly beautiful Anias Casey hadn’t yet turned twenty when she met her dashing young sugar baron at a society ball on San Francisco’s Market Street. The young Miss Casey had been busy making quite an impression in the rough-and-tumble city with disarmingly attentive eyes the color of the North Sea, seemingly endless red hair, and skin like melted Moon.

Lanthier, for his part, was tall, dark-haired, and comported himself with a bit of grace, something lacking in most of the men Anias had met in the heady days after the gold boom turned her sleepy backwater town into something resembling an ant hill stepped on by a draft horse. All other potential suitors simply faded away upon seeing the two together, ceding the contest to fate itself.

Anias had worked hard to make the distant island of Kaua‘i her home and Milakale was the envy of many of a ragtag parade of sea captains, missionaries, Hawai‘ian royalty, and fellow sugar families that graced, or she should say grazed, her table over the years.

The only people not impressed by the homestead’s opulence were the workers that spent their days in the sugar fields and their nights in the shantytown on the edge of the sprawling property, and the native Hawai‘ians who still considered the low, flat promontory of carefully stacked lava rocks that stuck out like an accusing finger into Milakale’s sheltered bay to be kapu. Forbidden.

The native Hawai‘ians entertained a legend that the heiau had been built by menehune, or the diminutive original inhabitants of the island who worked at night only to disappear with the coming of the dawn.

When her husband first acquired the property that was to become the Lanthier estate, a Hawai‘ian healer, or kahuna lapa’au, lived out on the short constructed peninsula in a hut built of thatched palm fronds. The local chief would make his way down the trail from the cliffs surrounding the bay and confer with her whenever matters of a metaphysical nature arose in the village. The path he walked had been traversed by generations of leaders before him and the spirits of those ancestors were said to still walk to the point when the moon and tides were right.

Alexander Lanthier had originally come to the islands as a missionary in the 1860s and, like many, gradually shifted his focus from saving souls to making money. Even after beginning to develop his estate he still retained enough of the missionary zeal to be able to convince the locals to turn their backs on traditional custom and spend their Sundays in the brand new clapboard church he had built for them. Soon after, an unfortunate “fire of unknown origin” finally cleared the healer’s pier for more secular uses, or at least those with more of a Protestant bent.

Most of the locals considered the landing cursed and would not set foot on it. When Lanthier began to unload boats full of lumber and building materials from all over the Pacific islands, he first tried to hire the Portuguese who were immigrating to the islands from the Azores. He found the stout men to be hard workers, but also quickly learned that they knew what their toil was worth. Lanthier found the Chinese more willing to work for a pittance and relief from the brutal cane fields, and soon a grand mansion began to take form on the ridge.

From what would become the Lanthier’s parlor—an opulent room paneled in radiant koa wood with rolling walls that could control the intimacy of any gathering—French windows looked out over the reef and gently breaking surf below. A wide, white sand beach marked where Lanthier’s property ended and God’s own realty began.

When the house was finished, Anias Lanthier busied herself playing hostess to whomever came through their island that mattered. When talk of annexation by the United States began to take on more of a strident tone, it was often the Lanthier’s table that was the setting for such sedition.

While her husband predictably sided with other sugar interests in pushing for the larger nation to subsume the monarchy, Anias remained nonpartisan and would entertain members of the royal family with as much welcome and grace as she would any American opportunist.

The Lanthier’s dining room table, set in crystal and the finest bone china, often meant a safe place for champions of any cause to meet and attempt to influence the future of the Hawai‘ian Islands. Discussions, while often pregnant with portent, rarely became heated at Mrs. Lanthier’s table lest a guest receive a withering glance from the matron herself and lose future access to the inner sanctum.

Of course, not every guest that sat at the Lanthier table was a politician or carpetbagger at heart. Those with an interest in dining well for its own sake were never disappointed. Anias had interviewed nearly a dozen chefs hailing from all over the globe before deciding on an ageless culinary wizard named Jun Jin.

Jun, a Chinese national originally from Shanghai, ran the Lanthier kitchen with a ruthless efficiency. Although no one would guess it, Jun had already reached his thirties when the British opened the port city up to the West at the end of the First Opium War in ’42. Already well established as a kitchen prodigy, the subsequent influx of British, French, and Americans flooding the International Settlement in Shanghai allowed a quick study such as Jun to learn how to cook for just about anyone with a mouth.

Since relocating to the Hawai‘ian Republic, Jun took it upon himself to master the art of wrapping a pig in taro leaves, burying it in a pit, and slow roasting it until it became so tender that the smoky meat would abandon the bone at the merest touch. He also taught himself how to properly transform the underground corm of the taro plant into the native Hawai‘ian staple poi, one of the first non-natives to care to do so.

5:1 The Big House

MILAKALE, KAUA‘I, THE REPUBLIC OF HAWAI‘I  |  1889

The Lanthier House at Milakale, which everyone on that part of the island simply called the Big House, lounged atop the ridge overlooking a verdant sloping valley running all the way down to the ocean. The dazzling white two-story main structure was surrounded with expansive lanais, or porches, that allowed residents and guests a shady sanctuary at any time of day. The feature that usually caught the attention of visitors, however, were the two windows of the attic level that shone like the eyes of a predatory cat—also at all times of day—or so it seemed.

What helped give the Big House carry off its impression of a jungle feline in repose was the single-story wing of the servant areas that the house seemed to curl along side of it. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine the whole structure leaping into action lest unwary prey wandered too close without a proper invitation.

Anias Lanthier, the matron of Milakale, made it her business to rise early enough to watch the sun rise out of the Pacific Ocean to the east every morning. It made her feel less isolated to know that it had just kissed the brown hills of California and inspired the morning birds of the distant country of her girlhood. No matter how early she got out of bed, however, Anias always found her husband Alexander already taking his coffee on the lanai.

“Good morning dear,” she said, pulling up one of the wicker chairs beside him to watch the sunrise. “Are you well this morning?”

“Couldn’t be better if I was rolled in butter,” Alexander stated as a plain fact. “I thought I might take Lucifer out for a ride down to the beach this morning. It’ll be good for us both to get some exercise.”

“Do be careful, darling,” she entreated. “I don’t like how spirited that animal still is. I do wish you had named it something else.”

“Well, my dear,” Alexander laughed, “that is exactly why I love that horse. He keeps me on my toes! It makes me feel young again.”

Anias didn’t grace her husband’s willful injudiciousness with further comment, opting instead to fully take in the dazzling show put on by the dawning sun.

“I almost forgot,” Alexander interrupted his wife’s reverie. “There is a wire from Wells Fargo in California. We are to have visitors.”

“Visitors?” Anias turned her attention from the solar display. “More of your politicians drawn like fruit flies by the talk of annexation?”

“Not this time,” Alexander laughed, knowing how tired his wife had become of hearing about all the wonderful things the United States was itching to bring to the sovereign island nation. “I think you will be delighted by this guest! The Good Reverend Fox has finally answered our invitation. He and a young charge are steaming out of San Francisco as we speak.”

“Oh, Alexander!” Anias jumped up and embraced her husband. “That is glorious news! I shall go ready some guest rooms now! Tell me, who is traveling with him?”

“A young girl,” Alexander grinned. “The wire mentions the Reverend is coming out with his daughter.”

“His daughter?” Anias practically choked. “Well now, this will be an interesting visit!”

4:2 Is There No One?

FIESTA, CALIFORNIA  |  1889

The preacher followed Philomena’s instructions to a dusty blue clapboard house on the main street of town. The girl jumped down from the horse and ran across the hard, sunbaked yard.

“Hold up!” Fox shouted. It slowly dawned on him that there might be something in that house that a child shouldn’t have to see. “Stop where you are, girl!”

Philomena stopped before reaching the wood-framed screen door hanging from a single hinge. Out of all the crazy things she had already witnessed that evening, perhaps the broken screen disturbed her the most. It wasn’t like her father, who took pride in his home—and happened to own the local hardware store—to let something like that stand unrepaired even for a moment. She was also not used to being shouted at and stood fast with a look of defiance that said at any moment she was going to continue on and nobody was going to stop her.

“I’m going to go in first and I’ll give you the all-clear if it’s safe.” Fox removed Gilliam’s instrument of self-destruction from his belt and carefully moved the broken screen. “I am deadly serious, child. Do not come in until I tell you that it’s all right.”

Philomena nodded her consent and Fox quietly stole inside the house, careful not to bring any attention to himself. He held the dead man’s gun in front of him, unsure of what he might be walking into.

Although he recognized the trappings of a comfortable merchant-class life, Fox couldn’t say that he admired them. The acquisition of glass hurricane lamps and white Irish doilies was not anything he had ever been interested in. Did these people not know material things would merely weigh them down? Did not the Son of God himself say it was easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle … ?

Fox’s reverie was cut short by the discovery of the former Mrs. Gilliam laid out on the parlor floor. Her delicate features were unmarred but a rich puddle of blood had pooled underneath her head. Her head … that face. Removed from the ill-fitting disguise of a shopkeeper’s wife and mother of a precocious young lady, Fox remembered Emilia Gilliam for who she once was. He chided himself for not remembering her earlier when she came to him, as so many did, for a private spiritual consultation.

On a night not unlike this one in many ways, the beautiful young woman had visited Fox after an impassioned sermon had driven them both to distraction. Fox was younger then and so filled with the Spirit that it often manifested itself in earthly ways that were traditionally seen as less than divine.

“Mother, where are … ?” Philomena stopped in her tracks and let out a scream that could be heard for miles.

“I told you to wait outside!” Fox admonished the girl out of pure reflex. He lowered the gun and went to her to comfort her as well as shepherd her back into the entryway. He was holding her as she shook into his black woolen vest when voices outside the house reminded him that for the second time that night he was standing over a prostrate body and holding the very weapon that, more than likely, was responsible for the sorry condition of both.

Fox crouched down to better look the distraught girl in the eyes. “Listen to me,” he searched the girl’s panicked face for connection. “Is there anyone I can take you to? An aunt or uncle?”

Philomena’s eyes struggled to focus on the lanky preacher’s face as her mind struggled to understand what he was asking.

“Anyone?”

“My father,” the girl began.

Fox took a deep breath and once again considered his options. He decided the situation, unlike many he found himself in, called for unvarnished truth.

“Listen, my dear, I don’t know what exactly happened here tonight, but I do know that your father is not coming back. Is there no one?”

The girl shook her head no.

“What about your little friend, the one you were with tonight?” Fox fished. “Can you stay with her family?”

Philomena shook her head, knowing all too well that the Narcisse household could barely afford to keep food on the table as it was. She didn’t need to add to their troubles. The girl began to realize how suddenly alone she was in the world.

“It’s settled then,” the preacher suddenly stood. “You can come with me, but we had better get out of here.”

The girl was not expecting that sort of offer and it caught her off-guard. “Why can’t we stay here?” she exclaimed. “It’s my house! My father … ”

“Listen, child. Your father is dead, all right?” Philomena’s trepidation began to erode his nerves. “Short of some kind of miracle, of which, I believe we’ve had our quota tonight, he is not coming home. Your mother … your mother cannot help you either. The longer I stand here with this … ” Fox tossed the pistol away into the corner and doing so helped calm him immeasurably. “The longer we stay here, the more likely I will be called upon to answer questions that have no good answers.”

“Where can we go?” The reality of the situation became clear for the girl and her natural sense of curiosity came to the fore.

Fox thought for a moment. “We are going to Hawai‘i. I have been corresponding with a woman out on one of the islands for some time. I believe she may give us sanctuary.”

Philomena, for her part, had only thought of Hawai‘i in the most abstract terms, if at all, and a flood of questions came tumbling out of her mouth driven primarily by an inability to deal with the present. “Do they speak English there? Are there headhunters?”

Fox laughed in spite of the gruesome night they were having. “Yes, of course they speak English. The Queen of Hawai‘i is a very cultured woman. She would never allow headhunting. I think you are confusing it with Borneo.”

“What about monkeys? Are there monkeys?”

“I really don’t know. I guess we’ll just have to find out.”

“I hope there are monkeys.”

4:1 Smoke and Ash

FIESTA, CALIFORNIA  |  1889

What Philomena considered her second life began with a fireball streaking across the night sky, an apt metaphor for the way her adoptive father Mordecai approached the world. Fox hadn’t so much adopted the young girl as he had grabbed her as one would grab a valise before escaping out the window of a burning hotel, although it wasn’t a building that had been collapsing down around the itinerant preacher’s ears, it was his poorly-constructed life; and obviously, a twelve-year-old child was more trouble to carry than a piece of luggage.

Fox had been more or less entrusted with the pretty black-haired and olive-skinned Philomena by her father, Mortimer Gilliam, a man who possessed neither of those traits and seemed quite upset that Fox enjoyed both; a jealousy that Fox felt unwarranted, at least to the degree that Gilliam apparently held it.

Moments after talking his way into the caravan that served as Fox’s mobile sanctuary, the distraught man took out the pistol he had hidden in his belt, and subsequently dispatched a bullet through his own head.

One would think this act would have brought an ignominious end to Fox’s predilection for moving freely about the country, but to hear Fox tell the tale—and he would practically found his own religion on it—it was the hand of God that delivered him and his unexpected charge from the sticky situation in which they found themselves mired, through no obvious fault of their own.

The group of concerned worshipers drawn toward the caravan by the pistol’s report was understandably distracted by the uncanny sound of the very heavens above coming unzipped. Every pious head that had gathered in the field to receive the Word, as interpreted by the charismatic and self-indoctrinated Fox, turned toward the ether as a ball of flame plowed spectacularly over a ridge of scrub oak, drawing a smoking furrow in the stars.

As the meteor careened across the sky, destruction followed in its wake. When the object made impact just over the hillside, the surrounding grasslands spontaneously ignited adding the unseasonal aroma of summer to the tumult and fume.

The late Mortimer Gilliam could not be moved to stir, by deus ex machina, or anything short of the actual hand of God, but Fox, considering himself a curious man in all manner of the word, gathered his considerable wits and stepped over the unfortunate man to see what the commotion was about.

Fox’s flock had been unnerved and dispersed by the rare, but perfectly natural, phenomenon. The faithful, uncomforted by their marathon immersion in the snake handler’s singular interpretation of Scripture, scattered like a shattered glass jar of marbles.

No man alive would ever find fault in Fox’s ability to read a situation and quickly and unerringly exploit it for his own good, although perhaps the newly-minted corpse behind him had its own feelings on the matter. Fortunately for Fox, Gilliam’s opinions were permanently off the table.

The preacher took a moment to take in the sight of frightened farmers running back and forth before the burning hillside as if hell itself had opened and spilled out upon Jackdaw Junction or whatever the locals called their fallow, weed-choked lot. One thing Fox was sure of—as a student of both the writings and natures of men—was once the lid was off of hell, it was always a son-of-a-bitch to get it back on again.

Once their panic had subsided to a low simmer, Fox knew the rabble was bound to remember what had drawn their attention in the first place. A great believer in signs, when a burning oak bough fell out of the sky in front of him, he took it as just such a portent, grabbed the cooler end of it, and walked back to his wagon.

Philomena and her friend, who had stood perfectly still as the crowd dissolved around them, watched wide-eyed as Fox disappeared into the caravan and re-materialized carrying his well-worn bible while tucking a pistol into his belt. Behind him, the material trappings of his life took flame and added its own smoke and ash to the soot-filled night sky.

“Hey preacher!” Philomena called across the distance. “Where did my father go?”

Fox led his horse, an elegant black-legged bay, away from the smoldering wagon as if he did not hear her, or was taking his time to consider an appropriate response. The preacher mounted the bay and, finally, motioned to the girl, extending his long-fingered hand, an image from that night that would stay with her for the rest of her life. Philomena was drawn toward the preacher as if moved by an invisible force.

“Philomena,” Lucette hissed. “What are you doing?”

“Where is your mother, child?” the man cooed.

Philomena reached up with her own supple fingers, took the man’s hand, and was lifted up behind him on the horse. She merely pointed toward the small town that was the center of the agricultural community currently watching the burning valley as if hypnotized. Fox set off without a glance back as was his want. If there was one person in the Bible who got it wrong, he always said—besides Pilate, that is—it was Lot’s wife. Never bleeding look back.

“Phil!” Lucette shouted. “Where are you going? You can’t leave. We have to find your father!”

Behind the girl, the grass fire had found the area that one of Fox’s local pyromaniacs had set up to launch the fireworks finale. Whoever had manned the station was smart enough not to stick around as the shells exploded on the ground with a shocking ferocity, sending vividly colored streams of sparks in every direction.

The eight-pound Prize Comet had been placed in its own mortar tube and self-launched once the conflagration reached its lifting charge. For a brief, expectant moment, two bright comets shared the night sky.

By the time the dazzling flash faded from Lucette’s retinas, Fox and Philomena were gone.

3:4 Tortured Shadows

FIESTA, CALIFORNIA  |  1889

The girls were amazed at the size of the crowd amassed on the edge of town. Nearly every adult they had ever met was in attendance, awaiting the Golden Light of Jehovah’s Word.

“How are we supposed to find your father in this crowd?” Lucette lamented.

“I have no idea,” Philomena shouted to be heard over the sound of excited believers. She scanned the field to find a policeman or someone in charge, but being young had its disadvantages. All she could see was the backs of people’s heads, their necks craning to see what was happening on the raised wooden stage.

“Hey, Phil, isn’t that your father over there by that wagon?” Lucette motioned through a temporary break in the humanity toward the edge of the lot where a few stunted oak trees threw tortured shadows in the moonlight.

“Father!” Philomena called out. “Heck, he’ll never hear us.” The girls could see the merchant talking to a tall man wearing a leather duster before the gap in the crowd closed tight. “Come on, Lu, let’s go.” The pair began to elbow their way through the crowd but their actions were hardly noticed by the throng and soon they were mired in the crush.

The unmistakable sound of a gunshot put both girls into a panic a quickened heartbeat before the entire fabric of the night was ripped apart like an old worn-out bed sheet.

3:3 Almost Showtime

FIESTA, CALIFORNIA  |  1889

The empty field where Fox held his annual revival was packed solid by the time night fell. To the west, back toward town, a sea of faces—familiar and not—floated and were illuminated by the moon and myriad hanging lanterns. Above them all, stretched an anomaly to the night sky: a brilliant comet had appeared as if to portend significant events not yet defined as either beatific or satanic.

Philomena had wildly underestimated the number of her fellow town folk who must be feeling the need for a spiritual overhaul. The Good Reverend Mordecai Fox, the evening’s guide out of the wastelands of sin and dissolution had contracted for a hundred and fifty chairs to be set up under the large white canvas tent. It was already standing and swaying room only.

Fox had been in business long enough to have built a network of like-minded—that is, anyone with a interest in making a good little piece of change—laborers and security types, so that by the time he rolled into town, the show was practically ready to go. Fox reflected back that this year’s performance would be the lucky thirteenth time he had stopped into this little knuckle drag town to bring them the glorious Word.

“It’s almost showtime, boss,” Urias knocked on the side of the Gypsy wagon.

“How is the crowd, Aaron?” Fox spoke through the thin wooden door of the trailer.

Urias glanced back toward the mass of humanity, taking little notice of the late addition to the starry firmament. Signs and omens were Fox’s business, not his. “Well, boss, what I saw of the opening act wasn’t half bad. I think they are going to be ready to be feeling the healing.”

“That’s what I like to hear. I’m going to let them stew in their own juices for a few more moments, and then we’ll throw in some spice.”

“I’m ready when you are,” Urias answered and turned to meet a solitary figure approaching him at a concerning clip. His right hand automatically fell to his holstered Colt. “Good evening, friend. Is there something I can help you with?”

The figure stepped out of the shadows into the circle of light thrown by the lantern hanging above Fox’s door. Urias immediately recognized the man as Gilliam, the hardware man.

“’Evening, brother Urias,” Gilliam spoke and held out his good hand. “Keeping the good reverend here safe and sound?”

Urias hand hovered naturally above his leather for a moment before clasping the man’s own in a friendly shake. “Well, brother Gilliam, what a treat to see you out from behind that counter. I have to thank you for delivering the crate this afternoon. Are we to have the pleasure of your lovely wife’s company as well this evening?” An expert study of the human character, Urias noticed a small twitch in the man’s countenance before it was quickly and consciously hidden from him.

“Not tonight,” Gilliam apologized. “I’m afraid she is feeling a little under the weather. Tell me, is the good reverend available?”

“Sorry to hear about the missus, I hope she recovers soon,” Urias shifted his eyes to the Gypsy wagon. “You know how Reverend Fox gets before his sermon, I don’t … ” Urias noticed a sheen of sweat dripping from the man’s forehead. “Have you been running this evening?”

Gilliam raised both hands in a gesture of full disclosure. “I so wanted to have a word before … I promise, this will only take a minute of his time,” he angled. “I know how precious it is.”

“Make it quick then, brother. I’ve got to go make sure that our snake handler is still with us on this mortal coil.”

“You have my word,” Gilliam’s eyes flashed in the lantern light. “And please, call me Mortimer.

Urias hesitated before knocking on the wagon. “Reverend Fox, brother Mortimer Gilliam would like to have a word with you if it’s all right.”

“Mortimer!” Fox’s disembodied baritone rang the wooden walls of the caravan like a guitar. “Of course; send him in.”

Urias motioned for the man to mount the stair, and waited as Gilliam was welcomed inside. Something doesn’t feel quite right, he thought; still, he knew both men pretty well, and what was the worst that could happen? Now about that blasted snake handler.

3:2 Don’t Look Back

FIESTA, CALIFORNIA  |  1889

After playing countless rounds of Reversi, the two girls tired of trying to flip each other’s discs from white to black and back again and took to watching the dust motes lazily drifting through the light cast by the gas lamp in Philomena’s room as her mother banged around the house in an apparent frenzy. The last thing Lucette remembered thinking before dozing off was why don’t we have gas lamps?

The girls awoke to the sound of two people arguing.

“Darn it, we probably missed the snakes,” Lucette protested as she rubbed her eyes.

“Shhh,” Philomena hushed her groggy, yet still eager friend. “Something’s going on.” The two girls each held their breath waiting for another round of shouting. Instead, the sound of a door slamming shut like a pistol shot, echoed down the empty street.

“What was that?” Lucette mouthed, her eyes as round as the full moon rising up over the house.

“What do you think that was?” Philomena hissed. “That was the front door.” Her entire being was poised to either fight or flight regardless. She got up and started toward the door as if moving through one of the jars of molasses in her father’s store.

“No, Philomena, I think it was a shot!” Lucette’s panicked tone stopped her in her tracks. “We have to get out of here.”

Philomena hesitated for a second. Every fiber in her body was on full alert as she considered confronting whoever might have had the nerve to fire off a gun in her family’s house, but the sight of her best friend making toward the window snapped her out of her reactionary panic.

“Maybe you’re right,” she whispered. “As soon as you hit the ground, start running. We’ll go to the revival and get my dad.”

“Your dad?” Lucette wheezed as the sash pushed into her abdomen while she lowered herself backward out of the window. “We need to get the police.”

“Just go,” Philomena resisted the impulse to push her friend the rest of the way out of the window. “Where else do you think we are going to find the police tonight?”

As soon as the two girls hit the dusty street, they both took off running.

Don’t look back, don’t look back. Philomena ran and repeated the directive in her head until it crowded out all other thoughts. The cold night air seared her lungs although she took no notice of it. She did not look back.