Amos sat on a makeshift stool inside the bombed-out chapel. The scarred rock and charred wooden pews make it clear the devastation had been wrought long before the Commonwealth bomber had appeared.

It was located less than a mile away from the courthouse, which had been thoroughly destroyed by the most recent raid. There was no doubt Meyer had perished. However, for Amos, that was of little consolation as he smoked his clay pipe. Hughes stood beside him while Jedidiah paced back and forth anxiously.

Ronnie was reclining on one of the pews that could still hold up any weight. He seemed undisturbed as he noted the bloodstained cushion further down the pew. While the others had their heads cast down, he grinned from ear to ear. Sipping from a hip flask he pulled from his coat, he chuckled.

“What’s so funny?” Jedidiah asked suspiciously.

“Nothing. I’m excited, not amused. The game’s afoot again.”

“What game?”

“War. Fighting. All the things that make life worth living.”

Jedidiah ceased pacing and turned to Amos. “How was this man ever your friend?”

Ronnie answered first. “I was his friend when you weren’t a glimmer in your daddy’s eye, boy. I saved his life on more than one occasion—certainly more times than you have.”

“That was then, this is now.”

“And the ‘then’ will soon be the ‘now.’”

Hughes raised his eyebrows. “What are you babbling about?”

Ronnie got up and put his hands on his hips, still smiling broadly. “If you think your little scheme isn’t going to backfire, you’re wrong. We’ve seen this so many times it’s like an overdone comedy routine. You’re going to try to control Christoph, and he won’t let you. Then what? You’ll push harder, and then he’ll push back. None of you will back down, because you’re too stupid and proud to let someone else have it their way, even for a little while. When all of you have nothing left to say, that’s when everyone will grab their guns, and we start the whole thing over again.”

“I won’t let that happen!” Hughes said.

Ronnie fought to restrain a laugh. “You people are so funny. You think you have control, but you don’t. It’s an illusion. You’ll find out. Don’t worry; when that happens, I’ll be there to do the killing that will need to be done. Don’t kid yourself, your eminence: you’ll need men like me before this is done.”

“Nobody will let things go that far. After everything this nation has been through, do you really think we’d so easily allow more bloodshed?”

Amos pulled his pipe away from his mouth as he exhaled slowly. “Things have already gone too far, sir.”

“I know how you feel.”

“No, you don’t. You want to. You’d like to. But you don’t. This is not what I fought for. It’s not what Ronnie fought for, either.”

“If we can establish the Church as the new, permanent government, things will change. Reforms will take place.”

“And who will reform the ‘reformers?’”

Hughes was quiet for a while. “What would you have me do?”

Amos rose and snuffed out his pipe before putting it away. “Nothing. You’ve already done enough.”

“If we do nothing at this point, Christoph’s faction within the Commonwealth Council will approve another government, his government. He has all the independent votes in his pocket. The fight will then go on within that realm, on his terms. Is that what you want?”

“No.”

“How did it come to this?” Jedidiah asked with moist eyes. “Was this really what it was all about? Was it all just a lie?”

“No,” Amos replied as he glared at Hughes. “It’s because men who didn’t have a hand in the fight want a hand in controlling things afterwards. If they had known what it cost to put them in that position, they might have been humbler and less interested in their own personal ambitions.”

“Your people didn’t want to get involved in the process,” Hughes responded. “Did I not beg you to join the Church Council?”

“I thought I could trust others to finish the work we started. I was wrong.”

“Now it is too late. You won’t be permitted to vote on the matter, and even if you could, you wouldn’t be able to make any alternative proposal that might split the vote on their side.”

“Indeed,” Ronnie said as he inspected his pistol. “Now, it’s back on. We start all over again.”

“Enough!” Hughes. “There’ll be no more discussion on that.”

“The way I see it, your eminence, you don’t have a choice. See, Meyer didn’t give you the files I sold him. That means you’ve got diddly-squat on Christoph. So, unless you want to try another route, you’re fresh out of luck.”

“We can’t let him gain power.”

“But he will. Then what? Are you going to appeal to his humanity, his faith?”

Hughes didn’t answer. Jedidiah had since sat in one of the pews with his face in his hands, trying hard to not let them see his tears.

“Cheer up, kid,” Ronnie told him. “You’ll feel better when all this politicking goes out the door and the shooting starts.”

“There’s not going to be any war,” Amos declared.

“You too, Amos? I would have thought you knew better.”

“Better than anyone, including you.”

“You don’t have a choice. Unless Hughes and his high-minded friends are willing to let go of their dream, which is unlikely.”

“We’ll still be the county government,” Hughes said.

“How long will that last before the Commonwealth starts imposing itself on you? You think Amos and I haven’t seen this before? This was our youth. Everything always got worse.”

“We wouldn’t be here if that was the case,” Amos replied. He wiped the dust off his feet and picked up his equipment lying on the floor. He then approached Jedidiah and brought him back to his feet. The young man was still crying.

“Don’t lose heart,” Amos said reassuringly. He then spoke to the other two men. “Let’s grab our things and go. I’ll have a message sent out to pick us up here.”

“What are we going to do?” Jedidiah asked.

“Wherever we’re going, it’s not backwards.”

“Going forward doesn’t look too pretty, either,” Ronnie said.

“Then we’ll have to find another way.”

***

Amos opened the door and entered quietly so as not to disturb his son Thomas as he slept in his cot. He silently took a chair and sat beside the cot. In his hand was a prayer book. He opened it and softly recited a passage as he listened to his son’s chest slowly rise and fall. During the recitation, he paused and covered his mouth with his hand. He bowed his head and prayed wordlessly before wiping his eyes.

Eventually, Thomas woke up and saw his father beside him. He groaned as he tried to move slightly in his bed.

“It’s alright,” Amos said. “You need to rest.”

Thomas’ breathing quickened. He looked around the room, then at his chest. He tried to speak, but Amos stopped him. “Try not to do anything except rest. I can get you anything.”

“Is…everyone…okay?”

“Yes. The rest of the family is fine. The person who attacked us is dead. But you need to rest.”

Beneath the bandages, Amos sensed a frown on his son’s face.

“What’s wrong, Father?” he asked.

Hesitating at first, Amos sighed as he brought his chair closer to the cot so that Thomas didn’t have to turn his head. He placed a hand on the bed as he tried not to contemplate what scars would greet him when the bandages were finally removed.

“There are things that are happening I might have stopped,” he admitted. “After the Turbulent Era ended, I wanted to be done with it all. I had a family. I wanted peace. I thought I had gotten it, finally. But it seems we didn’t get peace. We got a ceasefire. I don’t want it to begin again.”

“What…can you do?”

“I don’t know. But I know what will happen if I do nothing. I can’t let that happen. You and your brothers and sisters deserve something better. You didn’t deserve this.”

Against Amos’ urging, Thomas pulled himself up in his bed. “Is it safe?”

“The painting? Yes. Son, why did you save it?”

“Did you…did you not look at…the back?”

Puzzled, Amos got up and abruptly left the room. Returning to his office, he retrieved the painting and brought it back to Thomas’ room. He placed it on the bed, the back facing the ceiling. He suddenly realized there was a flap in the corner. Pulling it back, he discovered several family heirlooms behind the painting and placed against the frame. As he took them out and placed them in front of Thomas, his eyes fell on a small, tattered Bible with a bullet hole in the upper right-hand corner. He took it and held it close to his chest.

“I knew…you wanted it,” Thomas said.

“My flying column gave one to each of us. I carried it with me the entire time.” He opened the Bible to a spot where the bullet holes found on the previous pages ceased. There, embedded in the other side, was a small caliber bullet.

“I always kept this in my coat pocket,” he said. “It stopped that bullet from hitting my heart. I never could take it out. It reminded me of others I fought with who were not so blessed.” He then took his son’s hand, one of the few areas of his upper body not bandaged. “You were very brave. I’m sorry I brought this on you.”

Thomas’s trembling arm reached out and touched the scars on Amos’ face. “No, Father. I understand now why you fought, and why you must fight.”

***

When Amos went back to his office, Ronnie was sitting in his chair. He ignored the breach of etiquette as he placed the heirlooms on the bookshelf, though he kept the Bible with him as he took over the chair. Ronnie stood against the bookshelf with his arms crossed. He glanced at the burned plastic doll and shook his head.

“Did you ever tell your kids about the others?” he asked.

Amos answered calmly. “At what age is it appropriate to tell them that I had a family before them? How do I explain to them how that family was killed because of me, and the only reason I lived was because I just happened to be called away right before the house burned to the ground?”

“It seems now would be the most appropriate time. But then again, I’m not a husband or father.”

Amos made a little church with his hands. “When they died, you were the only one there to help me. You know I’ve never forgotten that, right?”

“Disloyalty is not one of your flaws. It never has been.”

“But now I may have made a fatal judgement call that could ruin everything. Perhaps you’re right; we will have war. And it’s my fault if it happens.”

The despondent comment had a remarkable effect on Ronnie. Solemn, he picked up Amos’ Bible and thumbed through it. Noting the bullet still stuck between the pages, he patted Amos on the shoulder. “Here’s the thing: everything went to hell last time because nobody who had the power to do something did a damn thing. We saw them as they sat and watched. Or they didn’t do enough. They didn’t go all the way. We can’t make the same mistake they did.”

“I’m not sure what that means for me.”

“Hughes won’t be able to keep the peace. Neither will any of those blowhards in the Commonwealth. They’ll fight because they don’t remember how bad it was. When it finally starts, it’ll be too late for them to call it off. Your boys will get dragged into it. And who will win? Anybody but them. They’ll end up like me. This is all I know, but I wish it wasn’t.”

“We can’t go back to that.”

“We’re too far into this for anyone to back out. But the situation can still be salvaged.”

Amos stared at the Bible, then took it from Ronnie. They left the office and walked down the hallway into the planning room. He then entered the armory and found Jedidiah inspecting various weapons placed on the table in the center of the room.

“I’m ready for what’s about to come,” Jedidiah declared. “As the Psalm says, ‘Praise be to the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war.’”

“There won’t be a war,” Amos replied. “At least not yet.”

Jedidiah was putting down one of the rifles when Amos stopped him. “You may need that before this is over.”

“Why? What’s going to happen?”

A clever smile appeared on Amos’ face as he clasped his hands behind his back. “Summon everyone here, immediately.”

***

For all installments from The Pilgrim’s Digress, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Prologue
  2. Chapter 1
  3. Chapter 2
  4. Chapter 3
  5. Chapter 4
  6. Chapter 5
  7. Chapter 6
  8. Chapter 7
  9. Chapter 8
  10. Chapter 9