Donovan Ransom is the Preacher; a Civil War veteran in an era when the Church works to turn Tom Sawyers into Little Men. Don bucks the trend to answer “The General’s” call after being grabbed by the nap of the neck by divine grace. A Badlands rebel turned frontier preacher he is confronted by the consequences of his past forcing him to hammer out a masculine spirituality true to both himself and his faith when his black revolver is no longer a solution to his or his congregation’s problems.
Deeds Done in Darkness
It was no ivory grip. Fancy pistols collected dust in the holsters of rich men. Cattle barons, oil men, and rail tycoons had glinting guns with delicate handles. His hand fell across the wood grip like an old friend’s handshake and just as firm. The handle knew his hand and it ushered his index finger to the trigger. The trigger, smooth along the right side, greeted the calloused tip with the ease of broken-in boots. The black iron peeked from the faded leather home. The cylinder grooves, like crazed eyes, surveyed the scene. The hammer opened slightly and erratically like a young congressman trying to get in a word among senior statesmen in heated debate.
If the pistol had had eyes it would have seen a leather-faced sheriff and the deep dark of a shotgun barrel. For the kind of men whose last view on earth was this black hole, it must have been a fitting contrast to the light reserved for the likes of nuns, protestant missionaries and school marms at the end of their days. This was the express rail to hell. Donovan knew it.
“Don.” The sheriff’s legs were full of tension like a bow string ready to spring. His eyes, though, seemed as calm as a late summer shower. He was tired; weary from young guns and new laws and old age. The tone of his voice communicated that he was not interested in a gun fight. Body language made it clear he wasn’t afraid of one.
“Don.” The slow meter of the sheriff’s voice was as much an appeal as it was a challenge.
“Can’t imagine what business you got here Randall,” probed Donovan.
“What business do you think I’m about, shotgun raised?”
“If you’re here about them Braxton boys, it weren’t me.” Donovan spit. The tobacco juice was piling up faster in his lip over the last several minutes.
“Don, you’ve killed twelve men and three deputies. It was holy hell convincing the town to let you settle back here on your family land. Now I got some questions about something and your name keeps coming up. You’ll understand my position. You’ll understand why my gun is cocked and my temper isn’t... yet.”
“Randall, I seen a man with a shotgun standing on my porch as I was comin’ around. If I was still that guy who kilt those men, er if I had somethin’ to do bout them Braxtons you’d be dead now. But here you stand. Here we talk.”
“Don, I need you to put your gun-belt on the ground...gun in it...”
“I tell ya, I ain’t in it. I was ridin’ fences all day.”
“I work better that way.”
“Well, that’s no help Don. No one can confirm your story.”
“I ain’t lying Randall! You got a lotta piss in yer whiskey to come round here calling me a murderer and a liar!
“Don,” Randall’s eyes narrowed. His grip went tighter on the shotgun.
“Don, how do you know I’m talking about murder? Didn’t you say you was riding fences all day... alone? For a man who hasn’t seen anyone all day, you sure know a lot about the Braxton boys.”
Randall took notice of Don’s horse. The saddle bags were full.
“Want to explain to me, Don, why it is a man comes back from a full day ridin’ fences with saddle bags full?”
“I could if I thought it was any of your business.”
Randall saw Don’s shoulder move.
“Don’t Don! Don’t make me carry you back to town. This property has too many graves for too few generations as it is.”
“You don’t give a damn. Stop acting like you do.”
“You’re not your brother, Don! You got nothin’ to prove! He’s no better a model for you than your father. If your father could have cheated at cards as well as he could drink, you might be living on a riverboat instead of suckin’ mud from a dry river bed!”
“You son of a –“ Don’s black revolver was in its holster and then next moment it wasn’t.
“Don! No!” The shriek erupted from the dark doorway.
She meant to grab him in an embrace. She meant to put herself between the sheriff’s gun and her brother’s witless aggression. She inherited the tormentor’s fire with which Don’s dark demon spoke.
“Sheila!” Don cried, dropping the black pistol with the dark walnut grip. His shoulder erupted from the avenging fire of Randall’s instinctive actions.
Both of them fell to the ground. Don grabbed for Sheila.
She didn’t answer. She had turned sixteen just three days before. It was on her birthday that she had looked him in the eyes and made him swear. She made him swear that no more Ransom men would die prematurely. A man of the house, a father, some Ransom man had to stand up and be a man for the family’s sake. Neglect, abuse, and absence had allowed the Ransom property to fall into arrears. Unproductive and unmanaged it was only a matter of time before the land would become someone else’s.
Don promised but he had other ideas for how to make the money to keep the land. He was no farmer and the cattle and horses were nearly all sold off. Even as he looked in his sister’s eyes and swore to be that man she needed in her life, the knock on the door beckoned a meeting with a man in the shadows. It was a job. The kind of job Donovan knew well. Somebody got wronged or thought they did. Justice was too slow or never coming. Someone gets dead. Someone gets revenge. Someone gets paid. The best part of the revenge business is that each new job created another one. In the glow of cigarillos and the smoke of tobacco a contract was struck.
Now, in the glow of gunfire and the smoke of gunpowder a promise was broken. Sheila had found and followed the light. Don looked up straight into the deep dark of that express rail to hell.