THE PREACHER by Mac McCaskill
“Hang onto your sister, son. This way the Preacher comes.”
– The Preacher, John Henry Jones
“I’LL TELL YOU,” HE SAID. “If you promise not to follow him.”
I nodded, knowing I’d break the promise. Anyway, he couldn’t do anything about it.
The overhead fluorescent lights reflected off the yellow jumpsuit he wore and made his brown skin gleam. Brown, like the desert. Brown, like mine. His was a round, moon-shaped face, with that Pueblo slant to the eyes. And even through the scarred and hazy safety glass, his eyes were a deep, black well.
The papers said he was from Taos Pueblo. North, over the gorge, where the car tires thump with the bridge seams. Through the city, and follow the Rio Pueblo up the canyon. It’s a small village, open for tourists. But they mostly stay to themselves. The way he kept looking down, the phone at his ear, I knew he was that way.
Even now, after I’d promised, I wasn’t sure he’d talk to me. And I needed to hear his story. Mina deserved it. I promised her, too. I was making a lot of promises.
“Where you from,” he asked, looking up through shaggy, bowl-cut hair.
“Big city, yeah?”
He meant Albuquerque, what passes for a big city in New Mexico. The Pueblo where I’m from is south from there. The casino’s neon sign is off the freeway, across from the golf course. And things are probably a lot different than what he’s used to in Taos. But outside the bright lights and tourists, I’m still from the rez. And nobody pays attention to the rez. That’s why the Preacher goes there.
He took a deep breath, his thick body lifting. When he pushed the air out, he looked smaller than before, like he’d expelled something living inside him. I didn’t have to wonder much about that.
I thought if I got him started, he’d talk. “He came in the summer?”
It was the hottest summer anyone remembers. Longest, too. It started early, before the Cottonwood’s puffy, white beards had grown. Before we’d harvested any of the tree’s buds for salve. People call it balm and use a Bible name for it. The lizards were still lazy, too, shaking off the cold. The sun stopped in the sky each day for too long.
His tent went up overnight in the foothills out behind the Pueblo, a new peak against the mountains. No one was sure who owned the land, and no one said he’d asked before putting his tent there. Someone said the Reynas lived there years ago. But they left in the dry years. The dust swallowed them up with everything else.
Ropes anchored the tent to the earth with stakes, like it might grow bigger if it wasn’t held down. The front flaps were pinned back on the side opposite the mountains. With the sun’s glare, the inside was a nasty shadow. The kind of darkness that moves.
We had revivals before. Never that early, before school let out for summer. And they never lasted more than a couple weeks. The Preacher, though, he backed in a truck with a fifth wheel over by the river. It was disconnected, and the tongue was resting on cinder blocks. Everything was set up by morning, and no one saw it all go up. Never saw anyone with him. Hard to imagine one man did all that in one night, without help.
In the purple morning, he was already visiting houses, inviting everyone to the first meeting, a few days off. Everyone stood in doors, watching him go from house to house, waiting for their turn. He shook hands and nodded, following families inside.
He was white. They were always white. But he dressed in black. Not like the priest with the white collar where my mom and everyone goes to mass on Sundays. He was in jeans and black alligator boots. Must’ve been hot, but it didn’t show on him. Didn’t sweat, or wipe his forehead. Just kept moving, shaking hands and nodding.
At our house, Mom invited him in. She invited everyone in. He ducked under the door, dropping his big blond head to miss the top frame. He was younger than the priest, younger than the others who’d set up tents before. He had a big, wide smile, with lots of bright white teeth. And his eyes were the blue the sky turns when the wind blows hard. Up close, he was darker than I thought, his skin coppery and rough from being outside.
He looked at the coffee cup in my hands but didn’t say anything. I offered him a cup.
“My only vice.” He sat down in a chair at the kitchen table. “Strong,” he said, sipping. He drank the rest in one swallow, his throat jiggling as it went down. Then, he held the cup up for a refill.
I refilled his cup and sat down across from him. He smiled, nodding like we’d agreed about something. But he stayed quiet for a long time.
Finally, he said, “Are you religious people?”
“We attend mass,” Mom said.
“The Roman Catholic Church has a long history here, I’ve read. Not all of it good.”
“We’re traditional, too,” she said.
“How does that work?”
“We’re part of a kiva, with ceremonies.” Mom was friendly, but she wasn’t going to explain any more to an outsider.
“Jesus said, through the Holy Spirit, ‘No man can serve two masters.’”
“We don’t serve anybody,” I grumbled.
Mom slapped my knee under the table because it was disrespectful to talk to a holy man that way. She tried to hide it, but I think he saw. He was about to start talking again when Junie came in the room.
It was a school morning, and she was always running late. She was still wearing the clothes she slept in, shortcuts and a tank. The Preacher’s eyes traveled her whole body – up her long, doe-colored legs and over her barely-covered, heavy breasts. Her face was hidden under her dark hair as she leaned over the stove eating from the iron skillet. But he didn’t care. He saw plenty.
“Get yourself dressed for school,” Mom said, too embarrassed to see what I’d seen in his face.
“I’m hungry,” Junie said, catching eggs slipping from her open mouth. “Who’re you?” she asked the Preacher when she saw him.
“Don’t be rude,” Mom scolded.
“It’s fine. I’m intruding on everyone’s morning.” Still measuring Junie, he asked, “How old are you, sweetie?”
“Juniper,” Mom coughed out.
“I bet you are.” The Preacher’s smile came back, but now it was the coyote’s grin looking at a rabbit. “Reason I ask, when school’s out, I’m offering vacation Bible school all summer long. It’ll be a lot of fun.”
“Cool.” Junie liked anything that got her away from the house, even Bible school. She smiled at the Preacher, her lips damp from eating. He winked at her as she left the room.
Come sundown on Friday, pretty much the whole Pueblo squeezed into that tent. It was like walking into a fire. The air was thick from baking all day in the sun, and all the bodies shoulder to shoulder in wobbly folding chairs. More stood in the dirt against the canvas walls. Bulbs strung overhead flickered as the generator strained out back. But you couldn’t hear it over all the talk.
We have religion on the Pueblo. But whatever brand the Preacher was selling wasn’t the draw. Not much happens there, and what does takes a lot of work, everyone pitching in. All anyone had to do for this was walk to the tent. And everyone’s blood was up in the early heat. Winter’s long, and spring usually eases into the fertile summer. But earth and sky had raced past the buds. The Preacher channeled the fever in the tent that night.
He was dressed in black again, a suit with a thin tie this time but still wearing the pointy-toed boots. There was a keyboard up front, with some big concert speakers. The songs he played were sort of familiar, but everyone sang and clapped like they practiced for weeks. After a few songs, he started talking about Jesus and the Holy Spirit again, like they were coffee buddies down at the diner. He worked the crowd into a sticky lather, shouting and waving his hands in the air.
Toward the end, he waved all the kids to the front to sing, even the older ones. He taught them songs about a gospel chariot and a wise man with a house on a rock. There were hand movements for each song. Junie was right in the middle of it all. After he showed the little ones what to do, he sat her down next to him at the keyboard. By the time they were done the whole tent was singing and waving.
The crowd pressed in on him at the end of the service, eager to get their children’s names on his clipboard for Bible school. From the back, I watched Junie lean over and write her own name down. The Preacher couldn’t keep his eyes off her. When she stood up, he hugged her. Never saw the priest hugging on Junie.
Two months later, the sun stopped moving at all during the day, perched at the top of the sky for hours. The rays throbbed down, boiling everything. Even when the sun finally surrendered to the moon, the air was heavy. School had been out for a while, and Junie was gone early every morning before the other kids went to the tent. Helping the Preacher, she told Mom: “I never understood why they called it ‘Vacation Bible School.’ What kind of a vacation is that – rules and lessons, all that holy guilt?”
Mom was never happy about what she was wearing when she came home for dinner. But the necklace finally convinced her she should be keeping an eye on the Preacher, not Junie.
“What is that?”
“Nothin’.” Junie grabbed the chain around her neck, sliding her hand down to grip the charm at the end. I think it was a heart.
“Who gave it to you?” Janie didn’t answer, but Mom wasn’t done. “You’re only thirteen.”
“It’s not right.”
“He gave it to me for helping at Bible school. Like setting up. He said he didn’t know what he would do without me.”
Mom looked scared, but there was more on her face, too. She lowered her face when she saw us looking at her and scooted back from the table. Steam was still coming off the chili meat and beans in the bowl at her place when she left.
“What?” Junie barked at me. “He’s teaching me piano, too.”
“He’s not interested in the piano.”
“You sound like Sara. She thinks he’s pervy. But he’s just being nice, and they’re jealous.”
Sara was the Mirabal’s girl. She and Junie never got along, probably because Sara was prettier, and smarter. And her dad was War Chief. If Sara thought the Preacher was acting wrong, there was something to it. Probably, she’d told her dad about it, too.
Junie could see me working through it all. She said, “He’s been so many places all over the world. Seen things. He knows so much stuff.”
“Is he teaching anyone else piano, or anything?”
“You don’t care about anything more than a mile from the river. And your precious cottonwoods.” She shoved her chair back and stormed out of the room.
Maybe Junie was right about me. But she was my little sister, and she was one of the things I cared about there on the Pueblo.
I cleaned up the dishes and put some of the leftovers on a plate for an offering at the stove out back. Later, I found Mom in her room, holding a picture from the day I was born. She wasn’t much older than Junie was now, maybe a couple years.
We sat on the bed, looking at photos from that day. My grandparents were there, my aunts and uncles, people who'd helped raise me, been important in my life. But there was not one picture of anyone I could call, “Father.” Mom never said who he was. Everyone thought it was some townie boy because I was so light-skinned. But she never told, and no one ever showed up to claim me. At least Junie knew who her dad was, for all the good he ever was. I wondered if she would tell me now, after the way she looked at my sister, afraid for her. But she just put her arm around me and cried into my neck. By the time the collar of my shirt was wet, she was ready to talk, but not about who my father was.
She told me she was going to talk to the priest. What could he do? It wasn’t a religious debate. As far as I could tell, the Preacher didn’t have anything to do with the Catholic Church. What about the police, she wondered. For what? Bringing the Holy Spirit to the rez. Teaching children about Jesus and giving piano lessons. Police meant more white people, and the Preacher was one of them. They wouldn’t understand. She said maybe one of the Pueblo elders, then. So, I told her about the Mirabal girl, what she’d said. When I’d finished, she nodded, picked up her purse, and left to tell Randall Mirabal.
When she got back, her eyes were red as boils. Other families had been to see the War Chief about their daughters and the Preacher. He’d given jewelry to Myra Toi, a bracelet. Myra was a couple years older than Junie, but shyer. Her parents said she was different, even more quiet than usual and crying a lot. Randall told Mom he would handle it. Now, I’ll never know what he was going to do about it.
That was after Junie changed, too. A couple weeks later. I found her in the kitchen swishing a spoon around soggy cereal. It was the kind with the rabbit on the box, and the milk was grainy and neon because she’d been stirring it so much. This was the first morning all summer long she was still in the house at that hour. She was wearing thick sweatpants and one of my hoodies that was way too big for her. The bottom of it was down past her butt, and the hood was pulled over her head. The sun wouldn’t reach the top of the sky for a few hours, but it was still hot because the house didn’t cool off overnight. She had to be sweating.
“No Bible school?”
“Leave me alone.” She pulled her legs up in front of her in the chair.
“What you said before. I do care about you.”
“No, you don’t. Just wanna prove you’re right.”
She dropped her head onto her knees. Her hair fell around her head, hiding her face.
“What did he do, Juniper?”
But her whole body was shaking. She couldn’t even breathe, she was sobbing so hard. The kind of crying that leaves you with the hiccups. I went around the table and put my hand on her back. She whipped her arm out and slapped it away.
“You know what he did. Everyone does by now.”
She looked wild. Her eyes were wide across her wet face. Hair stuck out in every direction, and her mouth had narrowed into a thin line.
“Nobody knows,” I said, even though I knew she was probably right. It’s a small place, and people talk. Even when they don’t know what they’re talking about, they talk. Until it doesn’t matter what the truth is, because what they’re saying is more true from getting said over and over.
“Just leave me alone.”
And I did. Because it wasn’t her fault, and she didn’t need me making her feel worse than she already did. And would the rest of her life. She’d never forget. Wouldn’t forget his hands on her, in places where they weren’t supposed to be. His breath in her ear as he whispered to her. His smell.
So, I guess I knew, too. Just like she said. And with those things in my head, everything inside me was on fire.
Up in the closet, on top of some boxes and wrapped in a blanket, was a rifle. I don’t think Junie even knew about it. And Mom had forgotten about it. Back when Junie was a baby and I was barely walking, she used it to scare off a coyote. I hadn’t ever used it. Never even took it down to look at. But ever since the Preacher visited our house, his eyes roaming Junie’s body, I’ve thought about it. Sitting up there, waiting for me.
I took it down and unwrapped the blanket. I slid the chamber catch back. It was loaded. Didn’t know how many bullets, but I only needed one.
No one saw me leave the house and walk through the cottonwoods. No one saw the rifle, awkward and tilting forward in my hand. No one saw me knock on the Preacher’s trailer door. And, when he didn’t answer, no one saw me climb the hill to the tent. No one saw me standing at its mouth, looking into the darkness.
The Preacher was talking to Randall at the front by the keyboard, his back to me. But time for talking was done.
I raised the rifle’s stock to my cheek and held the barrel’s long end up at the Preacher. Randall raised his hands. The Preacher turned, his face wide and pale. No more smiling and nodding. I aimed for his chest. I was gonna put a bullet right through his heart. I squeezed the trigger but it didn’t move. Lowering the rifle, I saw the safety button on the side. I pushed it and lifted the rifle again, sliding my finger back onto the curved trigger.
I’d hardly squeezed on the trigger before I heard a twhack, and another when that sound hit the canvas walls, and another when it echoed off the mountains outside. Didn’t hear anything when the bullet hit Randall. He had stepped in front of the Preacher and was coming toward me. Maybe he thought there was still time for talking.
The Preacher was shouting, begging me not to shoot him. I had to step over Randall to get to where he was hiding behind the keyboard. His hands were waving in the air, but he was looking at the ground. Like, if he didn’t see me, or if he distracted me with his hands, it wouldn’t be real. Standing over him, I slid the barrel under his chin and nestled the end over his ear. I wasn’t going to miss again. But when I pulled the trigger, nothing happened. I checked the safety again, and pulled the trigger again. Nothing.
When the shot didn’t come, the Preacher looked back up at me. His smile was back, like he knew something I didn’t. And he was nodding again.
I dropped the rifle and went back to where Randall was laying in the dirt. He wasn’t moving, not even a little. It was hazy inside the tent, and it smelled like burned metal. And like an outhouse. Think Randall crapped himself when I shot him.
He put the telephone down on the counter in front of him then. He looked even smaller now, like there was nothing left in him. He shook his arm out, tired from holding the handset up to his ear while he told me his story.
When he picked it back up, I asked, “What was wrong with the gun?”
“Never anything wrong with the gun.”
“No more bullets?”
“Nah, cops said it was fully loaded, working fine.”
“But you meant to kill the Preacher?”
“No one believes me. Not even my own attorney. Says if I was after him, it’s premeditated or something.”
It made sense now, why the paper barely mentioned the Preacher, saying it was some kind of tribal dispute. “He’ll do it again,” I said, knowing from experience.
“You got a sister?”
“If he’s in Isleta, you need to look out for her.”
“She’s dead.” That confused him. So, I told him my theory. “Guess he decided it was risky leavin’ ‘em alive.”
Then, he understood why I wanted to hear his story. “You promised,” he said.
But guards had come in behind him. “Come on, Souza. Time for the Santa Fe shuffle.” One of them took the phone from him and hung it up. They wrapped chains around him, sliding them through the cuffs on his hands and connecting them to the shackles around his ankles. With his steps shortened by the chains, he shuffled his feet to the door, the guards holding his elbows to steady him. He stopped and turned, shaking his head at me.
Yeah, I promised. But I promised Mina, too.
In the parking lot, sitting in my car, I held my dad’s pistol. It was the only thing he left when he took off. I unlocked the cylinder and rolled it across my fingertips, watching the bullets spin. Heard the Preacher’s working Navajo now, up near Crystal.
MAC McCASKILL is a law school graduate, former U.S. Army bomb disposal tech, and an FBI special agent of 20 years. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Sixfold Fiction, Bosque, Carve Magazine, Voices de la Luna, Torrid Literature, West Trade Review, The MacGuffin, and Dark Ink Magazine. He won an Honorable Mention in the 42nd New Millennium Awards and was shortlisted for The Fiction Desk’s 2017 Newcomer Prize. He’s also finished his first novel.