For earlier chapters in The Book of the Prophet Joshua, look here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. The empty space of the new graveyard yawned across the hillside. The workers cleared it as if generations would lie there, but
The empty space of the new graveyard yawned across the hillside. The workers cleared it as if generations would lie there, but for now there was only a single grave. They were tossing dirt on it, patting the last clod with their spades as the prophet looked on. Most had left after the prayers were said, but he remained. They left him to his silence.
Joshua had not been young in many years, but he had never yet been weary. Alfred would say he had gone to sleep, to enjoy a final rest from all the work they had done in the long months since the LORD had raised up Ramah in the wilderness. He would say that, but his corpse now lay in the wet earth. There was no rest for Joshua.
Bernard Matthis stood beside him. He did not look at the grave, or at the simple wooden cross casting a lonesome shadow over it. He looked at the prophet. He had watched him throughout the service, and watched him while the grave diggers plied their trade. He watched the prophet, but said nothing. Not until the deed was done and they were alone did he utter a single word.
The prophet did not answer.
“It wasn’t an accident. A man like Alfred doesn’t fall on his knife.”
“You weren’t there, Bernard.”
“I didn’t have to be. The rest will blind themselves to follow you, but I won’t. I want the truth, Joshua.”
Silence fell again on the graveyard. Except for the three men, two living and one dead, it was as if the whole earth were empty. No bird sang, no wind blew, no distant cry carried through the still air to disturb them.
“He told me,” Joshua said at last, “to consider it an accident. Before he died. He swore–in front of witnesses–that if anyone else were involved, he released them of all responsibility. We were to consider that he had died by his own hand.”
Bernard spat. It landed on the fresh-turned earth.
“That’s false witness, Joshua. You know it. Murder isn’t something you can set aside. It pollutes the land that tolerates it. It brings a curse.”
Joshua did not have the strength to fight.
“Soon people are going to notice that Buck and Lafitte left the same night he died. That girl at the abbey did already. You think they won’t put two and two together?”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Do? I don’t want you to do anything. You should have done it already. You could have stopped it from happening. You’re the prophet of God. That’s your job. You should have killed those men the moment they set foot in Ramah.”
The prophet did not answer. The prophet had no answer.
Bernard Matthis left, and he never came to a service again.
Joshua held the repeating rifle close as he stepped carefully across the wet ground to firmer footing in the midst of the Great Jaleena Swamp. It had been the old lawman’s task to patrol the further shores, looking for the faithful fleeing the Serpent’s grasp and seeking shelter in the wilderness. Samuel and the others could handle it, but the prophet insisted.
These days, it did not matter much who went out to look for refugees. Rumor said that the Justices were enforcing the law, and until that law changed the temples would be shut down. The High Priest did not like it, but he called his faithful to High Jasper, to await the coming of the new order. Without that violence, few went in search of Ramah.
But the word of the LORD had not changed, so Joshua squelched his way through the muddy swamp, restlessly looking.
In the heat of the day, he rested beneath a cypress. The knobby knees were uncomfortable, but they kept him out of the water. It was a dead tree, probably eaten away with termites, but the broken trunk gave him just enough shade to escape the light of the sun. He rested, but did not pray.
Water sloshed somwhere off to his right. Someone was wading through the swamp. Joshua’s eyes opened, but the newcomer was still hidden around a bend. As the splashing drew closer, he heard the man’s labored breath. Then he saw who it was, wandering alone in the wilderness. It was Gavin Buck.
The rifle lay across Joshua’s chest, still dry and still loaded. He did not move it, but he watched Buck draw near. When he reached the prophet, the big man fell to his knees, and the water almost engulfed him.
“I’m here, father.”
Joshua did not know what to say to that.
“What do you want?”
Buck’s head was bowed.
“To give myself up. To pay for what I did.”
Now he looked up, and his face was puzzled.
“I know it won’t make it right, but it’s what I need to do.”
There was a struggle in Joshua’s heart, a struggle between the friend of Alfred West and the anointed of the LORD. His knuckles grew white as he tightened his grip on the rifle. Then the struggle ended.
“You don’t need to. As far as the law’s concerned, Alfred died from an accident. He forgave you, and he made us swear to do the same.”
The water lapped at Buck’s shoulders as he wrestled with the idea.
“He forgave me?”
The forgiven murderer blinked. Some of the water in his eyes was salt.
“What do I do?”
Joshua clenched his jaw, but he gave the answer he knew he had to give.
“Go back to Ramah. Marry Ruth. Never do the Serpent’s work again.”
Buck started to thank him, but Joshua cut him off.
“No. Just go. Go now.”
Gavin Buck rose from the water and went in search of the town he had lost. He had a new life, and he meant to live it.
The hour grew late, and the sun sank low behind trees draped in Spanish moss. The prophet ought to have turned back long ago, but he welcomed the night. He had nothing to fear from the darkness and wanted only to be alone. The last rays of light slipping through the branches were red as blood.
It was then the prophet began to pray.
“Is that it?”
The only answer was the buzz of insects.
“Is that it, God? Do I sit and wait while they kill your people? While they kill your servants?”
His finger traced the line of the trigger in the shadows.
“Alfred was a good man.”
The buzzing was loud and the silence deep. The loneliness he sought was on him.
“Was Bernard right? Is that the kind of god you are? Too cold to save your people? Or too soft to do what need to be done? That’s what he thinks. Maybe that’s what I think. What should I tell him? What’s Your answer?”
Across the water, on a fallen, rotting log, something moved. Joshua’s eye strayed to it, peering at it in the deepening darkness. It was a snake uncoiling.
“What should I do, God? What do you want from me?”
“You know what He wants.”
The voice, as always, came from an unseen speaker. This time, Joshua did not rebuke it.
“He wants you to wait. He’ll tell you His day is coming, and he’ll tell you to be patient. And you’ll listen. You’ll wait like you always do.”
“And why do I always wait?”
“Because His day is always coming.”
Across the way, the serpent slid into the water.
When the next day came, no prophet returned to Ramah. Joshua was headed south. He had left the Great Jaleena Swamp.
He went to confront the Serpent.