“Can we just start the shooting and get this over?” Ronnie asked as he gripped his rife anxiously.

“No,” Amos said. “It’s just like the old days. We wait for everyone to get into position.”

Ronnie grumbled as he looked up over the steps leading toward the lawn overlooking the abandoned courthouse. The dome had collapsed, the exterior white not speckled with black and gray. Vegetation ran up the side of the walls like a multitude of snakes constricting their prey. Where a statue once stood, the foundation remained, the unrecognizable figure collapsed on the pavement.

“Of all the places to hold up, he sure picked a strange one,” Ronnie observed.

Amos turned from his place at the back of their vehicle, still rummaging through for the last of his equipment. Even though the weather was mild, he shivered as though cold and rubbed his arms together. His habitual act was caught by Ronnie, who smiled.

“Still get those chills from time to time?”

“It comes and goes.”

“Or does my presence remind you of better times?”

Amos smiled grimly. “You have an odd memory.”

“Oh, come now. They were better times than these.”

“Maybe for you. Not for me.”

“They’ve burned down your home—again. Have things really changed?”

Amos’ smile vanished as he slammed the back door shut, shouldering his rifle as he approached Ronnie’s position. Beside him was Jedidiah, who listened intently but kept his thoughts concealed.

Scanning the upper section of the courthouse with high-powered vision glasses, Jedidiah took them off and shrugged. “I don’t see anyone.”

“They’ll be inside,” Amos said.

“You think they know we’re here?”

“It doesn’t matter at this point,” Ronnie replied. “They’re dead men.”

“Remember,” Amos insisted as he stared at the two men. “We want Meyer alive. Is that understood?”

“Of course,” Ronnie replied. “I have to wonder why his royal eminence wants him, though.”

“That’s none of your business.”

“Of course. Ours is to fight and die and let them take all the glory.”

Amos confronted Ronnie, shoving a hand into his chest as his face became dark “You liked the good old days, right? I don’t recall you ever questioning my orders then. Don’t start now, or you can stand back and let my men handle it.”

The harsh rebuke startled his friend, who nodded submissively. “I’m not used to this kind of mission—bringing a man in alive, that is.”

Taking Jedidiah to another position, Amos messaged Laurence for further information. “Anything new? I don’t want to find booby traps.”

“Your scans haven’t picked anything up. Either Meyer and his men are good at hiding them, or they haven’t had time to set them up.”

“Should we go in now?” Jedidiah asked. “We have the element of surprise.”

“Or we may be walking into an ambush,” Amos said as he studied the courthouse with the glasses.

“Could Meyer have the place rigged to blow up?”

“Not with him inside it. He’s too in love with himself to go down fighting for the ‘Good Old Cause.’ It was always someone else’s duty to sacrifice their life on his instruction.”

“But if we wait, we might lose an opportunity.”

Amos grinned. “That’s why I’m suspicious. Ronnie and I set up ambushes like this in our time.”

Jedidiah glanced at Amos’ old friend, then whispered softly, “Has he always been this kind of man?”

“Not when I first knew him before the Turbulent Era. He was the nice guy, the kind of guy people thought was a pushover.”

“I would have never thought it.”

“Well, that’s how I used to be, too.”

“You, sir?” Jedidiah asked.

Amos chuckled as he surveyed the courthouse grounds again. “That’s how it was for most of the men in our flying column.  The loud mouths, the braggarts, they were just all talk. Guys like Ronnie were quiet and nice, until the day they finally decided they had had enough. No one ever saw it coming.”

Sighing, Amos put away the glasses and messaged all the men positioned around the courthouse. “We’re going in as planned. Watch for booby traps and explosives. And don’t forget why we’re here: Meyer needs to be brought in alive.”

Cocking his rifle, Amos and Jedidiah rejoined Ronnie, looking directly at the front of the courthouse. On their left and right, the other puritans silently advanced toward the crumbled building. They moved from one improvised defensive cover to another, while their partner kept an eye on the entryways. As one of them was about to open the door on the right side of the courthouse, a blast from within sent it out across the yard.

“Take cover!” Amos ordered.

The puritan went to obey, but a bullet brought him down before he could act. His partner went to grab him, but another shot ricocheted inches from his feet. The others provided cover fire for him as he snatched his comrade and dragged him behind rubble.

Meanwhile, the puritans progressing on the left flank witnessed their companion fall. Avoiding a similar entry door, they noticed exposed brick on one section of the wall. Slapping an explosive there, they took refuge behind a small wall and set it off. The explosion easily shattered the part of the wall, exposing the building interior. One of them tossed a high-pitched sound grenade and covered their ears. When it had ignited, they rushed in.

Gunfire immediately erupted within.

“Is it our turn on the stage?” Ronnie asked.

Noting both sides fully engaged, Amos waved his two compatriots forward. Leaping up onto the elevated lawn, they quickly came upon the statue foundation. Pressed tightly against it, Amos eyed the closed front doors.

“Cover me, Ronnie,” he said. “Jedidiah, follow me.”

They ran out from their position and toward the front doors. With the ramming rod strapped to his side, Jedidiah took it and pressed it against the heavy frame. The rod sent a tremor through it that cracked the center. On the other side, they could hear old hinges cracking.

“Again!” Amos ordered.

A second blow with the rod sent both doors to the ground. Amos stormed the rotunda, finding a heap of broken marble and rock with three bodies lying on it; none were of his men.

Locating the others moving up the floors, Amos called in Ronnie. Together, the three men began searching room by room for Meyer.

“What if he tries to sneak out while we’re inside?” Jedidiah asked.

“We still have two men posted outside watching every possible exit,” Amos said. “If he tries to leave, they’ll disable him.”

More gunfire appeared, followed by cries and then a yell from Amos’ men. “Second floor clear!”

“How many prisoners?” Amos asked.

“None, sir!”

“I hope he’s here,” Jedidiah said worriedly.

“He’s here,” Ronnie replied.

“How are you so sure?”

The older man chuckled. “He would rather die than leave here. Do you how many lives he destroyed in these courtrooms back in the day?”

“Stay focused!” Amos said.

Suddenly, there was a fearful cry from the third floor. “Up here, sir!”

Hurrying up the stairs, they turned the corner and found a large group of their colleagues standing outside one of the old judge’s offices with their rifles held in an uncertain manner.

“He’s in there,” one of them said to Amos, gesturing at the door. “He’s got a gun to his head.”

“I thought you said he wouldn’t kill himself?” Jedidiah said.

“It’s a bluff,” Ronnie said.

“A bluff I’m not going to call,” Amos declared. He holstered his gun and approached the door. “There’s no way out of this, Meyer. Come out and give yourself up.”

On the other side of the door, his enemy offered a deep-throated laugh. “You really think I believe you’ll let me live, Cavendish?”

“It’s not my place to decide your fate.”

“No, you’re just here to do it.”

“He’s stalling,” a puritan muttered. “There’s got to be others around here.”

“Is there no one else with him?” Amos asked.

“No, sir. We opened it up and he had the gun to his head and ordered us to close the door.”

“If there had been anyone else, he would have flung them at us,” Ronnie said in disgust. “It’s all blood and guts with that man, just not his blood and guts.”

Amos grabbed the doorknob. “I’m going in alone.”

“What if he turns the gun on you?” Jedidiah asked.

“I’ll shoot first and wound him, if God wills it. If not, he chose his fate.”

Gripping the doorknob, Amos took a deep breath and then announced himself as he opened it slowly. His hands held above his waist, he walked into the room and over to the desk where Meyer sat. He was still dressed in his prisoner attire, his face unwashed and unshaved. He held a small pistol to his head with a relaxed arm.

“Put it down,” Amos said. “You won’t do it.”

“How do you know?”

“You would have done it already. You’re not fooling me.”

“I’m the one holding the gun, you know.”

Amos smiled amusingly. “If you think you’re that fast, give it your best shot. Of course, if you’re wrong, it’ll be quite the story for me to tell—and for the Commonwealth to include in the history books. I’m sure that is how you want to be remembered, the man who thought he was faster at the draw than I.”

Sweat drops appeared on Meyer’s forehead. He breathed heavily, but his demeanor was calm. Yet he did not lower the gun.

“This is an odd situation,” he said. “I’m not putting down the gun. But I’m not going to shoot you.”

“You mean you won’t try to shoot me, but your point is well taken.”

“I’m not letting you take me.”

Amos shrugged as he grabbed a chair. “Very well. We’ll wait until your arm grows tired or one of my men finds a way to get a shot at you that only cripples you.”

“Either way, I’m not talking to you.”

“You will talk eventually.”

“Not with you.”

“Why?”

Meyer spat at Amos’ feet, his eyes fierce and small as they glared hatefully. “You’re worse than those Commonwealth fanatics. You’re even worse than that bastard Archbishop Hughes. You think you’re a saint, with your self-righteous smirk. It’s insufferable. The Commonwealth does it for power, the Church for dogma. You do it because you think it makes you pious and holy. You’re disgusting just to look at.”

Amos was unaffected by the accusation. “And you, Meyer? What did you do it all for?”

“Because I’m in the right, and I won’t stop until you all accept that I’m right.”

Rising, Amos went to the door, turning to Meyer. “I’m bringing you in alive. If you shoot me now, my men will also bring you in alive. But you won’t be brought in a real man, if you understand my meaning.”

“How very Christian of you.”

“Not of me. I’ll be dead.”

Stepping outside, Amos confided with Jedidiah and Ronnie. “He’s playing this rather well. He won’t come out, and we can’t make him come out. But he’s got the gun to his head. He won’t shoot us, but I suspect he will shoot himself if we try to take him. Or, he will shoot at us if we try.”

“What do you suggest?” Jedidiah asked.

“One, let’s contact Archbishop Hughes and let him know. Then, we keep him talking. As long as he talks, he won’t shoot either himself or us. That way at least we can find out what the Archbishop wants from him.”

Unusually reserved, Ronnie cleared his throat. “I think I can solve one of those problems.”

“Which one?”

“This one.”

Without another word, Ronnie boldly entered the judge’s room. Unsure of what he had planned, Amos and Jedidiah ran in to find him standing confrontationally before Meyer. Then, Ronnie grabbed Amos’ former chair and sat in it, placing his feet up on the desk.

“We got a problem, Meyer. I figured you could help me.”

The other two men watched in disbelief as Meyer lowered the gun from his head and placed it on the desk. Suspiciously, he grinned.

“Good to see you again, Ronald.”

***

Amos shoved Ronnie against the wall inside one of the side rooms, struggling to contain his emotions. He slammed the door shut and then confronted Ronnie. His breaths were so heavy that each heave from his chest made his old friend instinctively wince. Nevertheless, Ronnie seemed unafraid.

“I haven’t seen this side of you in a long time,” he remarked. “I always liked it better. This stoic façade you put up for your men doesn’t suit you as well.”

Looking frantically at the door to confirm it was securely shut, Amos grabbed Ronnie by the scruff of his shirt. Fortunately, he had been able to remove them both from the judge’s room and have Meyer kept silent under threat of being shot before anything further could be revealed. Whatever it was, Amos didn’t want it spread around.

“I need to know what the hell is going on here, now!” he ordered.

“Temper, temper!”

“Are you working with Meyer? Answer me!”

Ronnie chortled. “Of course not! Don’t be a fool!”

“You both seem to know each other well enough.”

“You want Meyer to give himself up? Let them me do the talking.”

“Not until you explain yourself to me.”

Shaking his head sadly, Ronnie brushed aside Amos’ grip on his shirt. “How much do you really want to know, Amos? I mean, how much of the little world you built up in your head do you want me to destroy?”

“Stop being coy.”

“I’m being serious. I’ll tell you. But remember, I warned you. You’re going to hate what I say, probably hate me, too. But it’s the truth. Do you want it?”

Amos took his time responding. His chest suddenly leveled out as he stepped away from Ronnie. When he approached him again, Amos held himself resignedly with his hands held behind back.

“I want to know what is going on, no matter how unpleasant that may be,” he replied. “All I ask of you, as someone who fought with you and saved your life many times, that you not deceive me.”

“I would never lie to you. You’re the only friend I’ve got now. Keep in mind that I may be the only one you have before this is all over. No one else understands us.”

Amos didn’t protest. “How do you know Meyer?”

“I sold him information. I suspect he still has it, and why you’re meant to bring him in alive.”

“What information?”

Ronnie hesitated. Now, he began to show fear. “Before, when I said the Commonwealth didn’t want me as a puritan, I wasn’t lying. But the truth is, they did hire me for some unofficial enforcement work. The government needs money. All these black-market dealers have it. Shutting them down gives them one-hit sums of cash, but it’s not a reliable revenue stream. So they made a deal. We’d find out about some manufacturer and shake them down. They pay us a good monthly sum; we don’t shut them down and lock them up.”

He paused to gauge Amos’ reaction.

Amos remained unaffected. “Continue.”

“The bounty, if you like, was lousy. The gents paying me knew they could starve me out, because I couldn’t find work elsewhere. Our country loves to prattle about how bravely we fought, but nobody wanted to hire them.”

“Who were these men who hired you?”

“Christoph. Others, too, but he was the ringleader of them all. They’re not part of the same faction. All they have in common is they want the money and the power.”

“Then what happened?”

“One day, I went to collect the dues from one of our ‘customers’ and he offered to buy me out and have me work security for him. How could I resist? But in this kind of career, you don’t give a two-week notice. The problem is, Christoph didn’t care for me leaving like that. He was also scared stiff I’d be a liability. Not the most absurd assumption to make. That’s why he called for the raid: to have me knocked out along with everyone else. I guess he didn’t realize you and I were part of the same flying column back in the day.”

“That doesn’t explain how you know Meyer,” Amos remarked.

“Ah, yes. During all my transactions with the Commonwealth’s finest, I secretly documented the transactions and conversations, as well as the payments. Once I realized I had earned their ire, I collected the records and sold them to Meyer for a handsome sum. He wanted the info as much as I needed a bargaining tool, in case they came for me directly.”

Amos was aghast. “Do you realize what this man could have done with that information? Do you have the slightest notion of the damage he could do to this country? He could publish it; he could have done it the other day! What in the name of God is wrong with you?”

“Have you lost your wit? Meyer wouldn’t publish it for the same reason I didn’t. It keeps you alive only if it stays secret. How do you think he escaped? You think that moron dug a hole under his cell or tricked the guards? No. He blackmailed Christoph to let him go by threatening to have it published; he likely bluffed and said it would be published unless he stopped it. Now Christoph wants him dead, just like me.”

Throwing a dismissive hand Ronnie’s way, Amos opened the door and called to the guard overseeing Meyer. “Has he said a word?”

“Not one, sir.”

Amos closed the door and addressed Ronnie again with a low but trembling voice. “I don’t know what to do with you right now. Or him. You’ve betrayed everything we fought for.”

“I betrayed? Tell that to Christoph and all the other members of your precious Commonwealth. And before you question my story, didn’t I tell you that you would hate me for it?”

“You’re a brother to me, which is why I feel betrayed.”

“I did what I did to survive, just like we did when we massacred those globalist forces outside Farmington. Remember when you blew the head off that one kid who begged for his life? I’m sure that’s a story you don’t tell your family over supper when they ask about the ‘good ole days.’ I’m sure if your boys heard it, they would feel the same way about you as you do about me right now.”

Without warning, Amos struck Ronnie in the chest with a clenched fist. Surprised by his own violence, Amos fell back and recomposed himself while his friend heaved painfully. He then left the room and called Jedidiah over to his side. Taking him by the arm, he led him away from the others.

“Is Archbishop Hughes on his way?” Amos inquired.

“Yes, sir. He should be here any minute.”

“Let me know as soon as he does.”

Jedidiah eyed the closed door behind them. “I know he was your friend, but if he is in league with Meyer, he has to pay for it. Justice demands it.”

“I’ll decide that.”

The distressed look on Amos’ face startled Jedidiah, who apologized immediately. “I didn’t mean to speak out of turn, sir.”

“Just keep the men ready to leave. And if you need to reassure Meyer that if he opens his mouth without my consent he’ll be shot, do whatever you think is needed to convince him.”

“Yes, sir!” Jedidiah said with a grin.

Amos went back into the room and found Ronnie still recovering on in one of the chairs. He looked at Amos with a smile and coughed. “You used to hit much harder.”

“We don’t have time of this. Hughes will be here soon. What I am supposed to tell him?”

“Perhaps what I told you: the truth.”

“I can’t pass along hearsay.”

“But you know it’s not gossip.”

“My opinion doesn’t change that. I have no proof. You have no proof.”

Ronnie pointed in the direction of Meyer’s room. “He has the information somewhere in there, which is why he has the gun to his head. He knows you’ll want it.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s power. With it, you can get rid of people in the Commonwealth who stand in the way of your precious Church. With them out of the way, that upcoming vote on the new constitution would easily go in your favor.”

Amos clenched his jaw. “I’d never stoop to that level, and you know it!”

Ronnie raised his eyebrows. “You? No. But I wouldn’t be so sure about others.”

“Like who?”

“Sir!” Jedidiah said as he opened the door. “Archbishop Hughes has arrived.”

“Let his bodyguards know where we are,” Amos replied.

“But, sir…he’s come alone.”

Amos turned to him, bemused. “Well, then have one of our men escort him in here.” When Jedidiah left, he glanced over his shoulder at Ronnie. The man seemed too self-satisfied.

“You were saying?” Amos said.

“I’ve said all I need to say. I suggest you ask his royal eminence any further questions.”

***

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