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.

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