by Lady Grey

He had such a lovely voice. Surely someone who sounded like that couldn't be the mad dog that Mother Rachel said. Surely John had been telling tales--and little Pearl was too young to know the truth of things; little girls only ever saw what they wanted to see.

He was misunderstood. Mother Rachel said that God was a God of love and caring, that no God would ever demand senseless cruelty for anything. But Ruby knew. God did that all the time Her pa had been lost in the mines, with nothing ever found of him but the buckle off his belt. Ma had taken to the bars and the clubs, talking to the men there, letting them buy her a drink and slip her a dollar so they could eat another day. But the preacher called Ma a harlot, and the landlord agreed with him and turned them out. None of the men who liked Ma so much at the bars liked her anywhere else. So Ma went east, and Ruby stayed at Mother Rachel's and helped care for the young'uns, and kept in mind that God was watching her to make sure she didn't go the way of Ma.

The night he came to the house, she heard him singing outside. His voice sent a shiver clear down to her toes, so she lit a candle and crept downstairs, hiding the light. Mother Rachel was sitting by the window with her shotgun, and Ruby had a feeling she'd fire at the first thing outside that moved. She waited just outside the back door until he stopped singing, and she heard him walking towards her. Then she uncovered the candle.

It was more and less than she'd expected. His hands didn't go anywhere, like the boys outside the drugstore tried for, just held onto her waist, the letters etched on his knuckles flickering in the candlelight. It hurt, but Ma had talked about that. He was dark and warm behind her, looming, and she felt safe. Protected. In the everlasting arms. When his breathing slowed, he pulled her around to face him, and she thought he might kiss her. He was staring at her wild-eyed, and his hand--his L-O-V-E hand--was in his pocket. Then Pearl's piping voice echoed faintly, and Mother Rachel's answered. He let go of her and walked away real fast, back where he'd been sitting. And Ruby went back inside, listening to the two of them harmonizing.

She thought she loved him. He'd said she was beautiful, told her so twice, surely that was love? But she sat in court with the young'uns, and Mother Rachel, and listened to the stories of what he'd done. And she remembered the look on John's face when he'd come to the house, and Pearl's big sad eyes, and started to wonder. When the mob came, she thought for a moment of saving him, proving her love and winning his by freeing him from his cell in the courthouse. Then she saw the policemen dragging him away, and saw his face snarling and spitting like the mad dog Mother Rachel had named him, and knew that wasn't love, not in the least. She'd been naturally bad, like her Ma.

Christmas came and went, but her monthly visitor didn't, and she knew she was in bad trouble. Mother Rachel would forgive her, but God never would. She was a harlot, a whore of Babylon, and she'd never be able to put it right. She stayed quiet around the house through the winter, claiming a persistent case of grippe for her uneasy stomach. After the first thaw in March, she slipped crying out of the house with her saved milk-and-eggs money, and brought cheap passage on a riverboat going south to New Orleans.

It was a long trip, and a hard one. Ruby ended up having to pay the last leg in trade, and stumbled off the boat in New Orleans with a swollen eye and a bruised mouth, feverish. Some kind souls, learning from her babble that she had next to nothing and nowhere to go, took her to a charity hospital. The sisters there cared for her, but their eyes were hard and their hands rough. They knew her for what she was, and she didn't protest their handling. She didn't deserve anything else.

The baby came early, and took everything she had into him. She never laid eyes on him, but was taken to her judgment during the last of labor. The sisters, sighing at yet another burden laid on them during these rough times, called him Daniel, 'God is my judge'. Maybe he'd rise above his sinful beginnings, but maybe not. Man is born to trouble.

He was raised in the orphanage, administered by the good sisters and two priests to supervise. The sisters found fault with him in everything--his drawling speech, his lazy ways, his slow reading, and most of all with his handsome face, his gold-sprinkled hair and dark eyes and dimpled chin. Pride and vanity were unbecoming in a parentless orphan, he was told, as was the way he seemed to draw people in to him. He was switched plenty of times for simply talking to the other children in a particular way.

Then the man came. He scared the little girls, because his knuckles were scarred awfully. He said he'd burned them in the fire, in repentance for long-ago sins. His voice rang and growled and purred and murmured, soothing the good sisters until they nodded agreement. Surely Daniel might go with Mr. Powell. See their chins, just alike--and their voices too, though Daniel used his for luring his playmates from their chores while the man used his for praying and singing.

He taught Daniel a lot of things. Women were vessels of sin, he said, and they simply couldn't help it. The only thing they did for redemption was bearing children, and even that could be corrupted into lust. The sisters dressed in habits and wimples to guard against that lust, and yet they fought it every day. They'd pretended to see it in Daniel, when he was merely using the gifts the Lord had given him, and so punished him for their own inherent wickedness. Trash and trollops, all of them, and the Lord would judge them, using His chosen instruments. Daniel was one, now. When the knife slid across the dancing girl's throat and she collapsed at his feet with a cry, Daniel felt the hand of God, and knew his calling was certain.

They crossed the country, back and forth, doing the Lord's will in secret so as not to be prideful. On one trip through the Smokies, Daniel's temptation bit down deep. The sweet girl he'd thought might be different proved herself a sinful thing, and drew him down into her depravity before he could stop himself. He'd left the town in shame, Powell's denunciations and scripture ringing in his ears. His dreams had echoed his shame, with a woman mocking him, her face shifting between that of the mountain temptress, and a beautiful golden-haired girl with folded arms and a saucy air. She told him that his sin might well be the salvation of the world, providing he raised up right. But she vanished before he could slap the truth out of her. It wasn't until they passed through again next year, and a grim-faced man handed Daniel a wailing boy baby and stalked away without a look, that he began to understand.

So he and Powell raised his son Caleb up right, teaching him about the willful sins of women, the harsh justice of the Lord, and their duty to be His hands, His soldiers, in the fight against corruption. When the Bringers came, who had gouged out their eyes that they might not be tempted and cut out their tongues that they might not be lured into sinful speech, he watched proudly as Caleb went to them without fear. When those first twisted things walked out of the night (the Scriptures say that angels are frightening to look upon), Caleb commanded them without blinking, and they obeyed like little lambs. On the last night, as they were about to set out for Knoxville, Caleb sat him and Powell down. He explained to them that he'd struck a bargain with one of the dirty girls. She was a liar, like all her kind, but he knew he could turn her intentions to good. All he needed was a little something to start the opening of the way.

The knife didn't hurt at all going in. The blood flowed smoothly, and colored the silver seal on Caleb's ring with scarlet. Powell and Daniel leaned back, into the darkness of the everlasting arms, and watched the golden girl behind Caleb smile.


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