That evening the Zinter house on U Street was turned into a ransacked mess. A hooded invader held Gabriel at knife point while two others searched through it, but they didn’t find what they were looking for. Gabriel was grateful his wife had seen this all coming and made herself scarce. She had already laid out the broad outline of how it would go. “This attack is important to Michael’s plans,” Robyn had told him. “You should just let things happen.”
After Gabriel’s attackers had searched the house che was taken into Robyn’s backyard and hung by small ropes wrapped around hez arms from a basketball hoop. Despite hez great height, Gabriel’s feet, tied together around the ankles, dangled a few inches over the concrete of the patio.
“Cut his shirt off so he’s not wasting my time.”
Gabriel recognized the voice as belonging to that of Johnny Sunkel. When hez shirt fell away in strips another voice said, “Look at that, he’s got little titties!” Gabriel knew that voice too. It was Larry Porter.
“Where’s the Golden Gift you fucking fairy?”
“It’s in the Temple, Johnny.”
“You don’t know our names!” There was a whistle and a crack. Gabriel grunted. It took about a second to fully disconnect from the sudden slash of astonishing pain.
“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard,” said Larry. “Of course it’s in the Temple. But we just came from there and we turned that place upside down too. So where in the Temple is it, exactly?”
“I don’t know, Larry. When I need it for the Last Rites, Kim just gives it to me.”
“You ain’t staying hitched to that Zinter gal,” another voice growled, and Gabriel identified him as Scott Hilling
“After I pass out, Scotty, make sure you fellows keep going until I bleed out. Then hide my body, because I’m in this sort of club, see. Red Wingers. We look out for each other. If they find out you did this to me they’ll pick over your feet for two or three days with a sledgehammer, blowtorch and knives like they were leftover turkey.”
“This is gonna pinch some.”
Johnny hurled his whip at Gabriel’s back again, two more times, whistle and snap. The boys kept waiting for Gabriel to scream, but instead they started to see a white layer of fat underneath the bloody split skin on hez back. Scott and Larry turned away and started puking.
With hez right hand Gabriel reached into the space-time pocket that always tracked with him and came back out of it holding the Golden Gift. Che extended the shaft long enough to cut the rope binding hez left hand. Then che switched the relic to his free hand and cut hemself down from the basketball hoop.
Johnny swung the whip right at hez face but Gabriel let it fly into the relic while it fully deployed as a shield. The black dome simply ate the whip, leaving little more than a riding crop for Johnny to swing. Then Gabriel cut hez legs free. All three of the boys ran away, but Gabriel was in no condition to run after any of them. Fortunately the neighbors had heard and seen the whipping and called it in, so the boys who attacked Gabriel only just made it away in time before deputies arrived.
At the single small hospital that served all of Headwater Sheriff Roddy Walker asked if Gabriel saw who it was that messed up him up.
“I don’t know, sir. They wore black hoods over their faces.”
“Did they tell you why they were doing it?”
“They didn’t like me marrying one of ‘their’ white girls, sir.”
“How do you feel, Gabriel?”
“Not any better than the last time it happened, sir.”
“The last time? You’ve been flogged before?”
Gabriel nodded, and stared at Doctor Wahkan, who could confirm.
“It’s a Kuwapi thing, Sheriff Walker. The young men of the People camp out on the plains overnight and have at each other to see how much they can stand. But I suppose they grew tired of the game when they found out you were cheating.”
“They found a better game. Cousin Remiel called it Peace Pipe.”
Three days later Klaus Hansen came to the same hospital. Certainly it was not to visit Gabriel, who had been released the same day he checked in, but instead he came to see Gabriel’s attackers. Doctor Wahkan was still muttering about the “animals” who had slowly turned all six of their feet into just so much ruined hamburger, requiring a clean amputation of each one.
Every time the three boys were visited after their operations, first by their parents, then by the sheriff, and later by Klaus, they took to sobbing miserably. It was not so much from the pain they were still suffering but from the memory of the hell they had already suffered. Their tormentors worked day and night, just like Gabriel told them would happen. The perps wore no hoods and used their real names as they went about their bloody business, yet even now their victims refused to identify them at all, other than to say they were “Indians”.
“Where’s the Golden Gift?”
“Gabriel had it the whole time.”
“You searched him, strung him up like a pig, and horsewhipped him, but Gabriel had it on him the entire time? So where did he have it hidden, Johnny, in his asshole?”
“I don’t know!”
“Did you mention he ought to forget all about the Zinter girl, or did that slip your mind too?”
“I did tell him,” Scott Hilling whined, “but I don’t think he listened to me! What’s the world coming to when you can’t even get a little respect?”
Klaus Hansen and Paul Bergin returned to the Temple, but not, as it turned out, with their tail between their legs.
“I agreed to see you fellows again,” Robyn said to them, “but if you act like a couple of high school students and storm out again when you don’t get your own way, it will be the last time we ever meet.” And Robyn was perfectly able to follow through on that threat. Seeing the future, she could simply avoid going anywhere they went.
“It is you, rather, who have one slim chance to reunite the Church,” Hansen said with his trademark insufferable arrogance. “Paul and I must get our old jobs back, or the reunion will never come to be. That point is my nonnegotiable.”
Robyn sighed and turned to her husband. “Will you, Gabriel, resign the office of Deacon?”
“I will not.”
Hansen shrugged, said, “You can’t push a rope.” He prepared once more to leave the office with Bergin, muttering a string of curses that completely obscured what Dory quietly said.
Robyn asked Dory to repeat harself.
“I said, I will resign as Apostle of the Church.”
The foul language coming from Hansen trailed off to silence. Robyn opened the Printer’s Manuscript of the Green Book once more and penned the following entry: APOSTLE DORIEL SHYBEAR, RESIGNED, JAN. 20, 1943. Dory signed it, and Robyn entered her initials.
“It’s done,” Robyn said. “The office of Apostle is vacant. Will you, Klaus Hansen, take har place, or is Paul not getting Deacon still a non-negotiable sticking point?”
Klaus turned to Paul and said, “A temporary setback, Paul, nothing more. It will be remedied soon enough.” Paul nodded. Then Klaus faced Robyn once more. “Very well, Mrs. Shybear, make the appropriate entry.”
She wrote KLAUS HANSEN, APOSTLE, JAN. 20, 1943 and turned the book for his inspection and signature. When he was done, Robyn applied her initials.
Looking at all the recently entries she said, “I just had a sudden image of someone in 2043 reading this and wondering what it must have been like, this whole sudden flurry.”
Hansen said, “The Reformed Church is gathering this morning to meet down at our own temple. Will you meet with them, Prophet Shybear, and affirm our schism has reached an end?”
“And I would have them meet the new Deacon. One of our parishoners passed away. I would have the Deacon perform the Last Rites.”
Dory was incredulous. “The Last Rites in that barn?”
“It would do much to bring healing between the Red and White Wings of the Church,” Bergin put in.
“Can it not wait a week until Gabriel can perform the Last Rites properly in the actual Temple?” asked Robyn.
“It has already been two weeks,” replied Hansen, “and the corpse is beginning to grow . . . unpresentable.”
Robyn nodded her head. “We should do it, Gabe. Everything leads up to a blank wall for me. But the Lord showed us that we always need to trust God with the faith of a little child and when it is necessary we should take that leap into the dark.”
“I’m glad I don’t have to see it,” said Dory.
“You wouldn’t be much welcome down there anyway,” said Paul.
“I have to retrieve the Golden Gift,” Gabriel said, “and I would not have our former Deacon Paul Bergin know where I keep it, as he is no longer an officer of the Church.”
Paul said, “This is not a problem. I can drive the Prophet to our own temple, and Apostle Hansen can bring you along in his own truck after you fetch the Relic.”
To this Robyn and Gabriel agreed, and they shared a farewell kiss before they parted, knowing that it was indeed farewell.
As Hansen drove Gabriel down off the mountain he said, “The sight of you kissing that girl was disgusting, do you know that? You’re not cousins. Hell, you’re not even the same species!”
“Sir,” replied Gabriel who concealing his own disgust over Hansen, “the Bible and the Book of Green Dome acknowledge only ethnicities. We read only of peoples and kindreds and tongues, not Whites and Blacks and Red Men. Races are artificial things.”
“What the hell do you mean artificial? Are you asking me to doubt what I can see with my own two God-given eyes?”
“Sir, consider the aborigines in Australia. They have Caucasian and Mongoloid genes, but they are as dark as Negroids. Even our Lord Yeshua is a lovely coffee-with-cream brown.”
Hansen grew angry at that last remark and pulled the truck over to the side of the road. “Get out. I can’t stand to be anywhere near a blasphemer, let alone one who entices our women to become traitors to their own race.”
“I still need to round up the Golden Gift,” Gabriel objected. “What about the Last Rites?”
“Fuck the Last Rites. What would be the point of sanctifying a body if the minister of the Rite is a blasphemer? The Lord is brown like coffee? Get out.”
Gabriel did as he was commanded, and Klaus Hansen peeled out in the snow, leaving Gabriel stranded on the side of the road halfway down the mountain. Che decided to hoof it back up to the Temple where Dory was waiting. Still, the move was entirely expected. It wasn’t like Klaus was going to let Gabriel be witness to what came next.
What came next was murder.
In 1943 the White Wing of the Church of Green Dome bore little resemblance to what it was like in 1862.
Muskets fell like two rows of dominoes atop stone walls built on the banks of a quiet creek. Reaching the horizontal they fired, burning eyes with the pungent smoke of spent powder.
Downstream the walls became the rails of a stone bridge. Union and Confederate soldiers converged on foot, shouting as they merged. The fighting deteriorated to bayonet thrusts and even fisticuffs. Here the federals had the greater initial momentum and nearly reached the other side of the bridge before a rebel rally bounced them back.
The boys in blue trod in reverse over a layer of bodies one deep. Some were dead, others writhed with broken bones or lead balls lodged in their innards. A few of the fallen had survived the battle of Shiloh where the war attained a high but stable plateau of savagery. A tube loaded with canister shot was lined up on the long axis of the bridge and mowed down counterattacking rebels like grass to form a second layer of bodies. Some of the fallen boys in gray had survived the artillery hell at Malvern Hill during the Seven Days.
Two guns on the Confederate side of the creek upstream maimed the Union gunners with bursting shells and another fired several rounds of solid shot. The Union gun became a pile of splinters and dented steel. Then followed another Rebel attack. The men in gray gained most of the bridge, which had become an abattoir.
A colonel on the Union side was shot, but to the wonder of his men he stood up again with a lead ball lodged in his Bible. With this apparent divine sanction the colonel led yet another attack. Men standing on the mounting pile of bodies swapped empty muskets for loaded ones handed up to them like water in a fire bucket brigade.
Inevitably the Confederate infantry ran low on gunpowder. They saw the bridge was lost, so they switched to saving their two pieces of artillery, with fresh troops firing in a rearguard action to cover the retreat. The federal general commanding the attack on the bridge saw the retreating gray backs and ordered a lieutenant to report to headquarters that the bridgehead had been secured.
But the junior officer saw the bridge was stacked with bodies and refused to desecrate the dead. Instead the messenger dropped to the creek bed and splashed across the stream on foot, bypassing all the carnage on the bridge. In so doing the officer suffered little hardship. After all, as the local farmers well knew, the water in the creek was only knee deep.
At the end of the day the Army of Northern Virginia was bottled up against a bend of the Potomac. All the next day the federal commander watched from the long slope rising north of the river and refused to advance, even with a two-to-one numerical advantage. Were the numbers ten-to-one he would yet wire Washington to say he didn’t have enough men.
The meetinghouse of the local German Baptist Brethren had been pressed into service as a field hospital for the Union army. Dried blood stained the interior walls, only to be overlaid with sprays of new blood. One doctor sedated men with chloroform while another sawed off their limbs and threw them into a pile. Daylight intruded through stray bullet holes in the walls.
A messenger arrived by horse with orders to get the wounded out by wagon. The pile of amputated limbs was set ablaze. Horse-drawn ambulances carted the wounded away with every bump in the road eliciting screams from the men inside. No one who witnessed the convoy of pain and the carnage that was left behind would again say they craved the glories of war. Certainly none of the Christian Brethren did.
Three days prior, when they first heard the sound of artillery on South Mountain the Brethren had thought it prudent to move their work horses by circuitous routes to a place far away from the men of either army who might like to “borrow” them. Upon their poor leftover mules they rode out, when it seemed safe, to bury the dead. For this task the United States paid a dollar for every man they laid to rest. There was heard a rumor that one fellow, who was not of the Brethren, took the money and dropped sixty dead men into a dry well.
Many hundreds of bodies lay near the house of prayer of the Brethren. They found their labors to be a hateful thing that, but more bitter was seeing their beloved meetinghouse riddled with holes made by bullets and even solid cannon shot, and how the interior had come to resemble a slaughterhouse. The Long Table was covered with blood, and both the east door, where the menfolk entered, and the south door, where the womenfolk entered, had been removed from the hinges and converted into operating tables. The expensive Bible gifted to the congregation by Daniel Miller was missing.
Chief elder David Long, forty-two years of age, inspected the meetinghouse thoroughly and said, “Do not grieve overmuch, my friends. We shall bury the dead and make our meetinghouse like new. If God is willing, soon all this will be but an unhappy memory.”
Deacon Mark Lange objected to Elder Long’s words of hope, saying, “Nothing will stop the same thing from happening once more, Brother David. Virginia lies over yonder river and last month there was a second battle of Manassas. This is an easy spot to get across the water. We should build anew at my uncle’s farm north in Pennsylvania. By his leave our horses have already been moved there to guard against thieves.”
Elder Jacob Reichard said, “For a decision of this import we must let the Lord make his will known. So let us pray on it, each one of us. And there is no prayer better than work.”
After the Brethren finished burying the dead soldiers Elder Long insisted he would stay at Sharpsburg, as did the Sherrich family. Also Samuel Mumma, the farmer who had donated the land on which to build the meetinghouse, was intent on restoring the farm the armies had demolished. The men who were originally deeded the plot for the Mumma meetinghouse also chose to stay.
But Daniel Miller sold his corn field for pennies on the dollar, as it was now really just a battlefield cemetery. Joining him, ten other families joined Mark Lange in seeking a quiet new life in Pennsylvania far from the threat of war, or so they hoped.
Before the battle the horses of the Brethren had been taken to Gettysburg by five male cousins from Lange’s father’s side. As the families prepared to move the horses were returned. It was Mark’s cousin Joanna who brought them all back, and this she did entirely by herself. Joanna’s own horse was groomed better than she was, yet Mark fell stone in love with her at first sight. But he persistently had four-legged competition.
On the way north when the weather turned bad Joanna let her horse have the tent while she slept outside. Joanna spent more time cleaning her horse than helping her mother clean the house. Mark thought the house was a pigsty but the barn was as neat as a pin. Her mother said Joanna needed a male companion to quiet some of the rumors going around, so she got a stallion. Joanna’s father looked askance when Mark began courting her, but his wife was overjoyed at Joanna’s new interest in something other than equines. One time he grew jealous at finding a strange hair on her coat but Joanna was easily able to produce the horse to match. At her bridal shower Joanna received a large number of gifts. Most of these were actual bridles.
When the happy day finally arrived and it was time to show up for her wedding Joanna came in late because she took too long cleaning the stalls. Mark married her anyway.
The following summer the Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River once more, but federal movements in response forced the Confederate commander to concentrate his forces at Gettysburg, which was a dense node in the road network, and this brought on the biggest battle of the war.
On the third day of the conflagration Mark Lange walked to the meetinghouse and found all the pews scattered outside. Union officers were seated upon them idly smoking cigars and playing tic tac toe on them with pocket knives. Inside the meetinghouse the Army of the Potomac’s commander poured over maps laid on the Long Table and concluded the next hammer blow would land on the center. The short-tempered commanding general angrily demanded who he was. Mark said, “I’m the the pastor of this church!”
The general replied, “The hell you say, sir! This is the headquarters of the Army! Now get out of my sight, parson, or I’ll put a musket in your hand and stand you up on yonder stone–”
His tirade was interrupted by a crash as the church filled with flying wood splinters. Confederate artillery had opened a furious barrage. He ran out of the meetinghouse picking splinters out of his skin and barking orders. His officers on the pews began to scatter as shells burst nearby.
Union artillery was brought up to answer Confederate guns but Lange remained inside. Perhaps he thought his presence would move God to spare the building, but solid shot made gaping holes in the walls. Mark clasped his hands and prayed, “Lord, forgive your stiff-necked servant. Now I know your will was that we move west, not north!”
Two shells from the rebel’s main battery burst over the roof of the church. It was dark and Mark felt enormous pain wracking his entire body. He heard a male voice say, “Take great care, Anael. There is a man alive in this pile of wood and he is injured.”
Another voice acknowledged him. With each painful motion of debris the light seemed to increase. A last huge pine beam was removed and Mark saw this Anael was not a woman as he first thought from the sound of the voice, but perhaps a very tall boy. Anael moved the wood as though it weighed very little.
Then Mark saw who was speaking in the more masculine voice. He was much shorter than Anael, with a face filled with compassion and dark eyes that glittered in light filtering through trees that surrounded him.
No one among the Brethren disputed the house of prayer of the Five Corners Free Congregation was demolished by two shells that burst overhead while Mark Lange huddled within. But after he crawled out from the pile of timber unharmed it became a matter of faith that he had literally met the Lord Jesus Christ, as he solemnly claimed to have done.
Lange told his fellow parishioners his leg had been broken by falling timber and a large splinter of wood had become lodged in his kidney, but he was healed by Christ himself. This claim Joanna readily believed, not merely because she knew her husband was not a liar, but she saw a new scar in Mark’s back where previously there was none. Still, some of the Brethren thought some of the timber in their ruined Meetinghouse had perhaps fallen on Elder Lange’s head.
Lange never spoke of one peculiar thing, not even to Joanna. To Lange, it seemed he had been away for at least a year, yet he was deposited back in the ruins of the Meetinghouse just moments after it was struck by the two artillery shells.
Lange did say Christ had commanded him to lead his flock away to settle far in the west. But for the time being the matter was set aside. The Brethren were preoccupied with burying the fallen soldiers of both armies, as they had done once before in Maryland. They were adequately compensated by the United States for their labor, if not for the loss of much of their farm land to many hundreds of burial plots.
The following Sunday when the Brethren met in a tent on the grounds of their ruined meetinghouse Mark read aloud from a book he called the Printer’s Manuscript, which he had written during that missing year. The Sunkel, Clark, and Martin families decided he was trying create new scripture from his own mind. A new bible was something they simply could not accept. These three families returned to Sharpsburg, Maryland where Elder David Long welcomed them home as prodigal sons and daughters.
After the work of burying the fallen soldiers of both sides had been completed the nine families who remained in the congregation made preparations to sojourn west. Some of them sold their homes outright, while others deeded them to kin who would remain behind. It took until the end of the war for the Porters, Bergins, Henrys, Zinters, Hillings, and Krauses to rovision themselves for the pilgrimage. But the Savitts and the Brannens dwindled in their ardor. After Atlanta fell, just before the presidential election, they deemed it safe to return to Maryland, and this they promptly did.
Mark Lange took his flock first to the state capital in Harrisburg, a little to the northeat, and thence by a hodgepodge of rail lines across the Appalachian Mountains all the way to Pittsburgh. These railroads were laid of wrought iron, and the maximum speed permitted on them was a mere twenty-five miles per hour, lest they wore out in just one year rather than ten. And setting aside the fact the mountains were a barrier to east-west travel in general, there were many stops along the way. It took most of the night and the better part of the next morning to cross Pennsylvania.
At Pittsburgh the congregation switched from rail to steamboat, which, despite moving with the current down the upper reaches of the Ohio River, made no better speed than a sustained brisk walk. But unlike the train, there were staterooms to occupy on the upper deck. The ladies were segregated to the stern.
Lange’s group was not so destitute as to be relegated to sleeping on the first deck amid the bales of cotton and other cargo, as many of the walk-ons did while the steamboat made its way downriver. From their rooms the members of Lange’s flock looked out with contentment upon the ever-changing scene along the river as it sliced through the forested hills.
They spent three days steaming first north, then south and west, stopping at times to board and disembark passengers or to take on firewood for the boiler that churned, ever so precariously, it seemed to them, under the very flammable decks.
At Cincinnati Mark Lange’s group disembarked from the steamboat and again took to rail, as they had come to the end of the mountains and had passed through an odd corner of the country where terrain and circumstance had not yet conspired to make the railroad network complete. But again, at East St. Louis, after crossing the states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, they briefly took to the water once more. At that time the only bridge lay far to the north in Davenport, Iowa.
Once the travelers and their luggage were safely on the western shore of the Mississippi River they resumed riding rail once more. The track in Missouri was laid of Bessemer steel, permitting travel at a breakneck forty-five miles per hour. The line going west came to an end just a few miles past Independence, Missouri. And Mark Lange, glancing at the train platform even as they were rolling to a stop, saw someone he recognized waiting for them, the extraordinary tall Anael, who was standing next to someone he didn’t know who was even taller. He raced up to greet them as soon as he disembarked.
“We meet again, Mark Lange,” Anael said, “and this time in much better circumstances than the first! I trust your journey has so far gone well?”
Mark said, “Very well indeed, Anael. Imagine my immense relief to find you waiting for us here.”
By this time some of Mark’s followers had gathered around, marveling that at least one of the strangers knew their pastor. These were the nucleus of hardcore believers who never wavered in their faith, yet it was comforting to hear confirmation of what Lange had frequently told them. Still, they were dismayed to find the strangers were rather swart, and each wore a decorative headdress with white horns. The one who was taller than Anael said to Mark, “Did you fear you would reach the end of the line and find yourselves to be castaways?”
“This is Raphael,” Anael said to Lange. “He is here to help you with the animals.” Lange greeted Raphael with the mutual forearm grip that he knew was the custom in Kemen. Mark said, “I dreaded the hard looks and harder questions from my flock should we arrive here with no one to greet us. Perhaps I feared it would be a sore test of their faith, and mine.”
“The journey you just made was the test of your faith,” Raphael said, “and that you are here, all of you, says everything. But the simple truth is that Anael and I have been working since dawn bringing all these mud-wagons here, and riding back by turns to bring more.”
“Are there, then, only two of you?”
Anael nodded. “Just we two. And I hope these seven wagons will suffice, Mark, for you and all your people, and of course your luggage. Come, ride with me in the lead coach, Mark, you and your wife, and I will speak of the place that will be your home for this fall and winter.”
The lower valley of the Blue River, where it dumped into the Missouri River, divided Kansas City from the town of Independence. Anael and Raphael led Mark Lang and his flock seven miles from the train station up the Blue River valley, past many small farms, crossing the river now and again, until they were come to a large structure snuggled hard against the west side of the valley. The building was a single-story pile of large interlocking limestone brick, built without the necessity for mortar. Anael said che hemself had assembled the twelve foot high walls and Lange did not doubt hem for an instant.
The building did look sound, with a good roof, but Lange thought it could do with a coat of whitewash. It lay inside a larger fenced area with a small herd of oxen. The animals had grazed the grass to nubbins and now subsisted on bales of hay.
Led by Raphael, and assisted by Joanna Lange and the men and older boys, the fourteen horses that had been used to drive the pilgrims to this place were unharnessed from the mud-wagons and led into this area to mingle with the oxen and feed on alfalfa, which was spread out just for the steeds. The animals considered it to be candy. Anael gestured at the oxen and said, “Here are the beasts that will pull your wagons, Mark. At least for part of your journey. Alas for them, they will go no farther west than Fort Kearny. After that the poor worn-out things will head for somebody’s dinner table.”
Following Raphael the thirty-six pilgrims stepped through the double doors to look inside the structure. They saw a large bay with ten prairie schooners under assembly. The hoops for their bonnets reached nearly to the ceiling. At one end of the bay was a common dining area. Along the walls were set private rooms of diverse sizes for each of the seven families.
Raphael said, “I welcome every one of you to this place which has been prepared to carry out the will of our Lord. There is much yet to do, and much for you to learn to do, before you will be ready to finish your journey. But by then it will be, I think, too late in the year for you to arrive at your destination with time to make ready before winter sets in.
Anael said, “Raphael and I have been granted the privilege and the honor to help you make all the necessary preparations. Take no thought of money! This room and board, these animals and the wagons they will pull are all gifts of the B’nei Elohim, freely given.”
“The Lord himself gave me much money to make this pilgrimage possible,” said Lang, “and half of it yet remains. Did he, perhaps, give us too much?”
“Not at all,” Raphael said. “The oxen you saw will only take you for half of your trek, and then you will have to trade them for fresh ones. The money you were given will make up the difference. Also, if I am not mistaken, your followers have only brought such clothing and family heirlooms you could not bear to leave behind. You will, over the next several months, make many overnight trips to Kansas City to purchase whatsoever new items you may need.”
And to himself Raphael thought the people who had come to that place needed a less awkward name to know them by than to just call them “Lange’s followers”. In the weeks to come a child among them named Linda Bergin would learn that some oxen were not easily turned by the touch of a pole. They were called “stiff of neck” and this was the source for many references in the Bible which referred to the children of Israel as a stiff-necked people. But Anael said such stubbornness was really a good thing if it was desired to move toward a single goal without turning to one side or the other. Linda took to calling all the pilgrims “Stiffnecks” and it quickly caught on.
The flock led by Mark Lange grew larger by two individuals while they wintered over near Westport. The first to arrive was baby Megan, born to Gary and Marge Bergin in the fall of 1865. The second was Miss Tamara Brannen, who arrived by rail from Maryland to be wed to Lee Henry in the twilight days of the same year. But it wasn’t until the following spring before the roads, knee-high in mud, had become solid enough to begin the pilgrimage west.
It was a Sunday when the Sticknecks spent their last full day with Raphael and Anael, and for the final time the two B’nei Elohim worshiped with them, though they both found the practice to be odd and had frequently commented to that effect. Some of the Stiffnecks remarked in turn how this made them appear heathenish. But Anael said to them, “Have we not shared our meals together three times each day, and offered praise and thanksgiving to God? The Banquet of God is the only thing resembling ‘services’ the Lord Yeshua ever conducted with his disciples.”
At the end of the worship service Raphael rose to say a few words from his heart to the people he had lived with an served for nearly a year. “Have no illusions. This will the the most difficult thing you have ever done. But do not be afraid! The Lord Yeshua came to teach men to live together in peace, and in the beginning it was so. With God willing, your labors will make the Lord’s aspiration present in the world once more.”
It took all the next morning for the oxen to toil just three miles up a ravine feeding the Blue River to intersect the infant Oregon Trail running south from Raytown. There the twenty oxen pulling the wagons were released from their burdens, and the twenty beasts that made a leisurely walk out of the Blue River valley were put under harness. After another eight miles the Oregon Trail bent sharply to the west, and in another half mile they stopped.
Whenever the wagon train stopped for the evening it was the responsibility of the head of each family to raise his wagon with a jack, remove one wheel, and paint the hub with a mix of pine tar and tallow carried in a bucket slung from the rear axle, as they were solemnly instructed by Raphael. This they were to do as though it were a ritual, before they even took their evening meal, on a revolving basis, one wheel per night.
When they crossed into the state of Kansas the Stiffnecks dipped into the stash of salt pork stored under a false floor in their wagons, and ate them with dried peaches.
To cross rivers the bottoms of the wagons were painted with tar to make them waterproof and they were floated across after the animals were safely on the other side. But sometimes the pilgrims were brought to a halt by a severe afternoon rainstorm and had to huddle inside their wagons. Still, everyone remained in good spirits. Most of the younger children had ridden by pairs on the backs of the fourteen horses, while the adults and older children switched between riding in the wagons or walking on foot beside the oxen pulling them to lead them along the track at a stately two miles per hour. Breakfast frequently featured eggs laid by the chickens the people had brought along, but on Sundays some of these chickens were slaughtered and roasted for a midday feast.
They reached the eastern edge of the regions crossed by migrating bison. Ida Porter, Roy Hilling, and Robert Krause began collecting buffalo chips to use as cooking fuel, and they made it seem so fun the other children pitched in. When they reached streams or rivers Alfred Porter and his son George angled for catfish and caught enough for everyone to have a baked fish for lunch the next day. A family living in a farmhouse sold the pilgrims a meal of boiled beans and chipped beef, served with fresh bread and topped off with oven baked pies. But on most days the pilgrims had begun open their cans of cheese and sardines, and consumed these with hardtack bread and tea. But when they reached the Hollenberg farm there were nine boarding rooms available. The men among the Stiffnecks were glad for the change from sleeping outdoors on the ground. Breakfast was bacon, eggs, and gooseberry cobbler.
A war party of some two hundred Pawnees crossed the trail from the south, passing Lange’s group quite by chance. Most of the plains Indians knew settlers on the Oregon Trail were just passing through and in the main they did not go out of their way to antagonize them, lest it brought down unwanted retaliation from the United States Army.
“Make no threatening moves,” Lange cautioned his followers. “Touch no rifle. Trust the Lord to protect us.”
The Pawnees swarmed around their wagons out of pure curiosity, inspecting the hatchets and mallets they found within and took turns to lie on the feather-bed mattresses one-by-one. They took no food or tobacco, and eyed the weapons stored inside but let them be. Some of them took a very close look at the women, perhaps the first white females they had ever seen, but they kept their hands to themselves. If such were the orders of their chief they were a very disciplined force at the very least.
When they had mounted their horses once more the chief scanned the whole scene, drew himself up in his full battle regalia, crinkled his face, and plugged his nose. All the braves broke into laughter, then they all rode away. When it was clear they would not return, Lange led his congregation in a prayer of thanksgiving to God.
When there was no local water for the oxen and horse the pilgrims watered the animals from cisterns in the wagon. One of the oxen in the trailing wagon had thrown a shoe and no one could guess how far back along the trail it might be. Joanna Lange applied to the ox’s injured hoof. He was released from pulling the wagon and two of the horses were set in his place.
After passing the future location of Kenesaw, the trail drew near to the Platte River in another seven miles, with the smell of cottonwood trees in the air. The water was silty, but let still in a bucket for an hour it grew clear. The oxen were less discerning.
At length the Stiffnecks reached Fort Kearney, the last outpost of civilization they would find until they built their own settlement. They telegraphed messages to family members left behind in Gettysburg and traded their worn-out oxen for rested ones. At the general store they obtained more chickens and many of the sundries they had consumed on the trek, but prices were dear. Two days were spent at the fort. Taking their rest, they witnessed several other wagon trails passing through. Blacksmiths willing to labor on Sunday put new iron shoes on the horses and oxen. Lange’s money was depleted that much more.
During the following week the Stiffnecks passed south of the future townsite of North Platte. Had they left Gettysburg only two years after they did North Platte would be the western rail terminus and they could have begun their pilgrimage that much closer to their final destination.
Mark Lange led the wagon train off the Oregon Trail entirely. They struck north, cross-country, to reach a vast wilderness called the Nebraska Sandhills. This is a sea of sand dunes anchored by grass and dotted with innumerable small freshwater lakes. There was plenty of green stuff for the animals to graze, but the going was slow. No sooner did someone wonder, aloud, where the water came from than they were inundated by the first of frequent rainstorms that slowed their passage even more. The way twisted between the hills but sometimes a ridge twenty miles long and two hundred feet high lay directly across their path and they were compelled to go over it. Other times they would reach brush in draws which had to be cleared by men using axes and scythes. The Stiffnecks were to spend as many days traveling off the Oregon Trail as they had spent traveling on it.
It seemed they had entered a purgatory and only Mark Lange’s diary entries prevented them from losing track of the days. But at last they reached what Mark Lange hoped to be the Squaw River and the pilgrims turned west to follow it toward its source.
When Fort Price was overrun by the Kuwapi it was witnessed only by pronghorns, badgers, coyotes and prairie dogs jumping up to check out the cacophony of hoofbeats. Ten Kuwapi women had been used as sex slaves at the fort. While were being set upon horses Jashen began to smell something strange, as did his wife Leliel who walked beside him. After that he grew filled with wonder when he saw the ten wagons of the pilgrims of the Five Corners Free Congregation plodding west along the north bank of the Squaw River. But they were still too far away to identify.
“It’s not a respectable wilderness anymore!” Jashen’s wife muttered to herself in the language and idiom of the whites when she saw how exasperated her husband was over what seemed to be a sudden infestation of white soldiers and now white settlers.
The Stiffnecks saw the Kuwapi approach and pointed rifles at them, but Jashen saw the lead wagon was driven by a man he recognized from his vision quest several years prior. Jashen smiled, dismounted, took off his headdress and he was recognized in turn. “We meet again, Pastor Mark Lange,” he said, “just as The Teacher foretold.”
And the settlers were entirely thrilled by his words, even as they had been when two other B’nei Elohim met them in Missouri.
“Jashen! Leliel!” Mark brought his own wagon to a halt and jumped down to embrace the young man. The rifles among the wagon train were all lowered and put out of sight.
Jashen voiced well-wishes to Mark and his fellow travelers. Lange pointed to the prominent butte a few miles upriver to the west and asked her, “Is that Green Dome?”
“Yes,” he said, “but my father calls it the Island in the Sky.”
“Then we have reached our destination!” Lange said triumphantly. He gave thanks to God not a single member of his flock had been. lost to disease or misadventure .
Jashen said, “The army of the whites have taken to hunting the People, but now the hunters have become the hunted. I must hasten to see if my father is well, but I bid you to continue upstream until Green Dome lies at your feet. When we meet again, Mark Lange, we shall make you more than welcome.”
A short distance northwest of Green Dome was a place where the borders of the states of Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska all came together in a little fenced-off lot. When Hansen arrived he saw that only Paul Bergin’s truck was parked there, and only Bergin could be seen standing in the little corral. ‘
A bloody lump of dead and naked girlflesh lay at his feet, covered with much blood that was nearly cool enough to freeze. Paul stood there staring at Robyn’s body, not quite believing that he actually did it. He kept repeating to himself, “I’m going to hell!”
“Shut up, Paul,” Hansen told him when he drew near. “You’d only go to hell if you didn’t do it. Is that the knife?”
Paul nodded. He had entirely forgotten about the murder weapon, but it was still grasped in his gloved hand.
“We can’t afford to be caught anywhere near that thing. Throw it away right now. Anywhere, but throw it as far as you can.”
Paul hurled the blade on the snowy wastelands lying off to the west somewhere in Wyoming. The blade flashed once in the morning sunlight and disappeared from view.
“Now help me lift her on this.”
There was a short post and a little sign about chest high that marked the exact place where the three states came together. The sign was canted at a forty-five degree angle. They draped Robyn’s body across the sign, letting her head and arms bend backwards and her legs droop down. It looked positively New Testament.
After that, Hansen circled the area a few times to make sure Paul hadn’t dropped anything. Good. Even the snow splattered with the girl’s blood was clear.
“Walk with me to my truck.”
Hansen dropped the tailgate. In the bed of the truck were two sets of coats, clothing and boots laid out beside a cardboard box. Hansen took off the boots he was wearing and threw them in the box, along with his blood-stained coat, shirt and trousers. In the cold of high plains January he quickly put on new outer garments, then sat on the tailgate to put on new boots.
“Throw your gloves in the box, Paul. Then do exactly what you just saw me do.”
“How are you going to get rid of the box?”
“Trust me, I’ll have it done in such a way that nothing, absolutely nothing will remain to tie this back to us, as long as you don’t forget to dispose of the set that knife came from when you get back home. Cheer up, Paul, we just saved the Church, you and I. Shybear couldn’t see it, but if that girl had children it would have meant the end of both the White Wing and the Red Wing. There wouldn’t be anymore wings, just an unholy hodge-podge growing like a cancer until it ate everything.”