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The Counselor
       by George Thomas S.

 

 

 

    Cross Corner, with its one narrow dirt street, is a down-and-out cattle town far from anywhere and past its prime. Three years of drought had dried up the nearby Calhoun Creek and turned the surrounding farms to windblown dust. Ranchers had ceased driving their cattle through Cross Corner more than two years ago as the grasslands they relied upon for grazing had been burnt beyond use by the relentless blazing of the sun that dominated the cloudless sky and left behind scorched earth in every direction. Under the sweltering heat of that noonday sun, the remaining citizens of this decrepit clapboard community gather at the end of the only street in town, across from the Sheriff's Office. The gallows had been hastily erected the previous night while the Sheriff held the subject of the forthcoming hanging in the town's only jail cell. Almost everyone was there for the event.

 

    There's Elmer, the proprietor of the General Store, now only minimally stocked with the barest necessities, dried beans, flour, and salt among them, and possessing stacks of long overdue unpaid accounts. In his normal attire, he appeared for the occasion: a frayed bowler hat, wireframe glasses with round lenses, a pallid white shirt, a black vest, and pants. With hands firmly in his pockets, he stood at the very front of the crowd as beads of salty sweat streaked down his gaunt and wrinkled face, the most noticeable features of which were the dark gray bags beneath his sunken eyes and his protruding ears. Elmer had been, in a way, prescient in his belief that the drought that had begun so long ago would not end soon, and six months into the rainless episode, he had traveled some three days to the railhead with two wagons to stock up on dried goods, and nonperishable food items that he anticipated would carry his business for eighteen months if need be. It had turned out differently than expected. 

 

     Bull, whose appearance was typical of a town blacksmith and whose real name was Clyde, is there too. His appearance, having fists like sledgehammers and a large, chiseled, angry face bearing the scars of more than a few brawls, cried out for the more formidable name duly applied to him at age fifteen. He was his usual imposing figure, wearing canvass pants with no shirt and his leather, knee-length apron over his bare chest and with a leather skull cap providing the finishing touch; his arms, thickly covered with black hair crossed in front of him and every inch of his exposed skin dripping with sweat.   He stood beside Elmer, who was dwarfed in his presence.

 

     Bull had little work to do at his anvil these days. No horses remained to be shod, and no need to repair the idle wagons that, absent horses, now had no means of propulsion.   They sat, covered in the seemingly endless accumulation of windblown dust, in the street and the narrow alleys between the dilapidated buildings of the town. Some had already been stripped for firewood for cooking, another drought-affected commodity in short supply. In the glory days of Cross Corner, it boasted a dozen wells that provided an endless supply of freshwater that anyone could access at any of the dozen hand pumps alongside the water troughs and hitch rails that dotted the street.

 

Bull had dug and then drilled wells to a greater depth using a derrick and twelve-inch diameter drill bits that he had carefully and perfectly crafted in the days when the fire pit beside his anvil was constantly aflame. Two mules had provided the bulk of the labor. Now, all but one of the wells had run dry, and Bull had drilled the remaining one to a deeper depth without the benefit of the mules that had been slaughtered for meat months before. That act achieved a less-than-impressive flow, providing barely enough for minimal human consumption. Rationing was carefully monitored.

 

  Almost a year ago, the town had decided that there was insufficient water to provide for both humans and horses. With the Calhoun Creek being no more than a dry gully with not a trickle of moisture, the fifteen remaining horses competed with residents for what little water the last functioning well could provide. The situation was unsustainable, and one by one, the horses were slaughtered, the meat cured and dried, and the remnants of the carcasses hauled by wagon to a spot a few miles from town, where the vultures picked the remains clean. On the final trip, the horse tasked with pulling the wagon containing his brethren's leftovers was shot where he stood and left, wagon and all, among the bones that littered the area. The wagon driver and his helper walked the two miles back to town.

 

     The water troughs and hitch rails, no longer used, were dismantled to be burned in cookstoves. In retrospect, in their haste and without careful consideration of the consequences, the townsfolk had eliminated their only means of escape from this purgatory. Without horses to pull the wagons, they were faced with the unrealistic prospect of walking for more than two weeks to the railhead if they had any intention of following the path of the sixty-some folks who had called it quits and ridden out, children in tow, in overloaded wagons more than eighteen months ago. Such a journey in hundred-degree temperatures would no doubt result in the scattering of their corpses along the way, food for the vultures and coyotes.

 

     The whores of Bell's Saloon were there, Beth, Sue, and Mary, a cornucopia of faded color in lace adorned red, blue, and purple dresses that were frayed and patched in various places as best could be with material that bore no resemblance to the original fabric.   Their outfits were accompanied by yellow and white feathers in their hair and tattered parasols to protect their already lackluster and coarse complexions from the sun's relentless rays. These were the only three that remained from the days when there had been some fifteen. The others, more attractive, in their prime and suspecting that they would find a future in a place where the cowboys still came to town, where whores were well occupied, and money could be made, had taken leave long ago.

 

     On this afternoon, Bell had remained in the Saloon, a once-thriving enterprise and the most elegant building in town but which was long ago devoid of the alcohol that had flowed so freely in the good old days. An imposing two-story structure with a high peaked roof and an upper balcony overlooking the street, its once bright blue facade with the white railings, shutters, and window trim had faded to a dull shadow of its former self.

 

The once glittering finish of the solid oak bar had become dull and drab from lack of attention. Love seats and sofas upon which the whores had enticed their clients to accompany them upstairs had seen their bright floral print fabrics become soiled and frayed. The maple tables and chairs that had seen so many poker games and bouts of intense alcohol consumption had suffered the same fate as the formerly elegant bar. In this decrepit environment, Bell stood, somewhat gloomy, peering out through the grime-covered window with the faded words 'Bell's Saloon' that overlooked the street. She had always had her misgivings about the event and had made her feelings known in her usual gruff manner, to no avail.

 

     Otis, the undertaker, was present, well to the rear of the crowd, dressed in black, wearing his top hat and with his hands folded in front of him as if in some solemn reverence for the event, wondering, one would assume, who would pay for the burial in the tumbleweed infested cemetery with the poorly made crosses and rocks for headstones with names and dates crudely painted in black, and knowing that no one would. His had been a quiet business as of late, with the last burial taking place more than a year ago. How he longed for the days when a gunfight between a few drunken cowhands fighting over a whore or a gambling matter, usually a weekly event, would result in his services being required and paid for. He had always taken pride in his work, and even with no prospect of payment, he was eager to practice his craft once more.

 

     The rest of the crowd was comprised of the remaining residents as well as the fewer than half dozen farmers from the surrounding area who had not abandoned their idle fields for greener pastures, fields that were devoid of any crops or the ability to grow them without rain, fields that were nothing but hardpan in the absence of the rich soil that had long ago blown away in clouds of dust. In all, the crowd numbered three dozen, give or take, the remnants of a place drawing its final breath gathered together to witness the last breath of another.

 

     The crowd was quiet, almost reverent, but with a few murmurs of dissatisfaction that the event had not been conducted in the morning to avoid the intense and debilitating heat of midday and 'Why hadn't it begun yet?' There was a degree of impatience, even if it was evident they had nothing else to do but escape the sun and, of course, when all was said and done, to discover if the Counselor had been correct in his advice.

 

     The Counselor had arrived in Cross Corner a mere six days before, a stranger wandering into a place that hadn't seen an outsider for more than two years. He was an unusual sight, not solely because of the rarity of any visitor, but due to his physical appearance. He stood a mere five and a half feet tall, wearing a brown cotton robe reminiscent of a Friar's style, a straw hat firmly planted on his head, giving shade to his gaunt face with the hollow cheeks. He had a hair lip and one eye blinded by a cataract and was walking in sandals unsuited to the terrain. He was an odd sight, to say the least. He carried with him nothing more than a small sack slung over his shoulder, the contents of which were, to this day, a continuing mystery to the townsfolk.

 

     The blacksmith's shop being at the very edge of town, Bull was the first to see the Counselor approaching in the distance. As surprised as he was to see a visitor of any sort, he was more surprised at the westerly direction from which he came. While a two-week walk to the east would lead to the railhead, to the west, there was nothing except a few long-ago deserted farms, the last of which was the terminus of the crude road that connected it to town. Beyond that was a stretch of barren mountains that lacked so much as scrub brush and which, while not excessive in altitude, were steep and inhospitable to anyone who would think to traverse them. Beyond the mountains lay naught but hundreds of miles of desert crawling with deadly snakes, sidewinders being the most prevalent, scorpions, and sparse cacti that yielded little in the way of stored water and absolutely no shelter from the sun. It was inconceivable that any human would think to travel in that unwelcoming environment, on foot or otherwise.

 

     Bull approached the General Store, occasionally glancing over his shoulder at the approaching stranger. His massive hand thrust the door open so forcefully that it nearly escaped the hinges, causing Elmer a serious fright. Bull blurted out the unthinkable. "Someone's comin'!" He glanced in the direction of the approaching outsider again and then stated, in an incredulous tone, "From the West!"

 

    Elmer was aware that it had become a common occurrence for some folks to experience what amounted to no more than heat-induced mirages and that so frequent were these apparitions that most had taken to ignoring anything they saw that was out of the ordinary, chalking it up to being in the sun too long and heading for the only slightly less sweltering confines of the indoors. He assumed this was another such case and responded dismissively, "And I just got in a fresh shipment of chocolate ice cream. Care for some?"

 

     Bull strode into the store and bellowed, "I'm serious! This ain't no mirage' as he glared menacingly at Elmer. Knowing that it was best to humor this occasionally ill-humored behemoth before he ripped the door from its moorings, Elmer rose from his seat behind the counter where he had been, for the thousandth time, tallying up the stacks of unpaid accounts that he knew only too well would never be paid. Yet, the businessman in him could not ignore it. That prescient idea of stocking a vast supply in the early stages of a drought that he figured would be longer than expected, but not this long, had resulted in steady sales, albeit on credit. As a result, more than ninety percent of that stock had been depleted, with no revenue, and the remainder would disappear within a few months. He had resigned himself to the facts at hand. No point in being delusional about it. But tally, he would, unable to break the habit.

 

     Elmer came out from behind the counter and walked slowly to the door where Bull, once within reach, grabbed him by the arm so forcefully that he nearly wrenched it from his body and pulled him into the street, pointing to the West and almost screeching; "See? Look! See?" Elmer, trying to shake off the pain the blacksmith had caused him, casually looked in the direction of Bull's pointed finger and, seeing exactly what Bull had described, stopped rubbing his painful shoulder, removed his glasses, wiped them with the handkerchief he kept in his vest pocket and returned them to their usual position, low on the bridge of his nose and hooked firmly around his protruding ears. "Son of a bitch" were the first words that came to mind. It was true!

 

A stranger was indeed coming and from the most unlikely of directions. The blacksmith and the storekeeper, the brawn and the weak together, began their hasty traverse of the street, throwing open the doors of each building and reporting the news to the undertaker, Bell, and the three whores, the dentist whom every day asked himself why he hadn't departed with the last caravan to head east, various other residents with no occupation or status and, finally, the Sheriff. At each place, they met with disbelief and an occasional laugh, but curiosity being what it is, soon the street had filled with every living soul, all looking West through the waves of heat that gave a distorted view to anything in the distance. A stranger was indeed coming. The entire town couldn't possibly be under the influence of a mirage.

 

     Walt Holliday was the Sheriff of Cross Creek and had no relation to the famous gunslinger Doc Holliday. However, in the past, on occasion, he had claimed to be his brother until Doc was rumored to be looking for the liar soiling his family name. Walt was a shade over six feet tall, slender with slicked-back red hair atop a narrow face with high cheekbones, a cleft chin, a smattering of freckles, and steel blue eyes. Despite a scar that ran from the corner of his left eye to his chin, the result of having bottom dealt himself a winning hand against a knife-wielding drifter, he was a handsome sort. He was wearing a tarnished tin star pinned to the soiled gray shirt tucked firmly into his black pants that fell loosely over the tops of his snakeskin boots.

 

He had slipped into the role of a local peace officer because no other would accept it in the days of wild gunfights and brawls common in cow towns. In truth, he hadn't contributed much to reducing such problems. More often than not, he hid in his office and peered out the window until the violence ceased. Only then did he appear to supervise the hauling away of the body or bodies to the undertaker.

 

 It was six years ago that he had made his way to Cross Corner to hide from his less-than-illustrious past and the justice of the State of Missouri, which sought to hang him for shooting a fellow gambler in the back and stealing his horse, the very horse upon which he rode into Cross Corner. None here knew of that indiscretion and warrant for his arrest and relied only upon his false claim to have tamed a few wild towns in the Arizona Territory, a place so far removed from this location that no news or details about Arizona ever made its way here. In truth, it was in Arizona that he had received that scar before making off to Missouri or, more accurately, fleeing the territory and the numerous folk hankering to string him up for one reason or another.

 

     He had been hired based on his braggadocio, given that tarnished badge, residence in the Sheriff's Office, and a salary of thirty dollars a month, a sum he rarely did anything to earn, avoiding any hostile confrontation at all cost. Bell had taken a fancy to him, although not sexually or romantically, but rather because they were the only two residents who claimed some Irish heritage and had the commonality of red hair. As a result of that affinity, she had instructed the more desirable whores in her employ to service his needs gratis whenever he asked, and he asked daily for both sex and whiskey. His demands became so frequent that the whores became mutinous. "He does more screwin’ than Sherrifin"- was the common refrain, and Bell resorted to paying them from her pocket for the services they rendered him and for the copious amounts of whiskey he drank in the days when it was available.

 

These days, Beth, Sue, and Mary took turns visiting the bed in the back room of the Sheriff's Office for no other reason than to have something to take their minds off the daily depression of life in a derelict and dying town. In terms of payment, they considered the opportunity to relive the past, those days when they had their youth and were in demand by countless sex-starved cowboys, as sufficient compensation. As for the thirty dollars a month in salary, that disappeared long ago, but the Missouri noose still waited, and Walt had decided it was better to safely remain, unpaid, in Cross Corner.

 

     The Counselor approached casually while the townsfolk stood in the street or sat on the boardwalk and gawked at this unexpected sight. Finally, Lou, the regretful dentist who wished he could turn back the clock, spoke up. "You'd best be goin' to see who that is, Sheriff," he said, to nods of agreement from the rest of the crowd. Walt wouldn't normally consider venturing up to a stranger and demanding to know his business. That sort of thing can get one shot. With the Counselor now near enough for everyone to observe his diminutive size and non-threatening appearance, Walt hitched up his pants, adjusted his dusty gray Stetson, and headed toward the blacksmith shop in long, confident strides.

 

Upon reaching the end of the street, he stood, hands on his hips, and waited for this strange visitor to approach from what was now less than twenty feet away. Walt found himself speechless as the Counselor came within a few feet of him and, as best one can with a seriously deformed hair lip, flashed a gentle smile. Perhaps the milky cataract-covered eye had taken Walt's power of speech at that moment, being so out of place, with the other being the most brilliant blue and seemingly filled with compassion. Whatever the reason for the Sheriff's silence, the Counselor walked slowly past the dumbfounded figure and directly over to the only functioning well in town, the hand pump for which stood in front of Elmer's store. He sat on the boardwalk, where he removed his straw hat, allowed his gray hair to fall to his shoulders, and then used his sleeve to wipe the beads of sweat from his forehead.

 

     Within moments the rest of the townsfolk had made their way to Elmer's store and stood in the street staring at the Counselor, who neither looked up nor paid them any mind for what seemed like an hour. Finally, he spoke in the gentlest of voices, still without raising his head. "Might I trouble you for a bit of water and any slight morsel of food you can spare?" Without hesitation, Elmer rushed into his store and returned with a few pieces of jerky and a cup, into which he frantically pumped some water and handed them to the stranger seated at his feet. The crowd remained silent as he nibbled at the jerky and sipped the water. More than ten minutes had passed, and, with the jerky finally eaten and the water drunk, the Counselor spoke again as he handed back the cup. "I owe you my gratitude. My journey has been long."

 

 Having finally found his voice, Walt inquired, "Journey from where? Where are you from?"

 

The Counselor, finally looking up at those gathered before him, replied, "I am from the same place we all are, a mother's womb, and life is my journey."

 

The citizens looked at each other quizzically. Perhaps this stranger was 'touched in the head.' It was possible, given that he had walked some vast distance under the unforgiving sun.

 

"What's your name?" Walt asked.

 

 "Counselor is the only name I know, the only name by which I am called. Counselor is what you can call me."

 

"And what is your business, Counselor?"

 

"As my name suggests, I provide counsel to those who seek it.

 

"And for that, what are you paid?"

 

"My counsel is for the asking, with no payment expected nor asked for. Although I would always be grateful for a daily morsel of food and a cup of water if it is no trouble."

 

      Fifteen minutes passed as the Counselor sat motionless, and the crowd continued to stare at this odd little man in their midst. Finally, Elmer spoke. It would be best if you move on with your journey. I will provide you with a bit more jerky and a canteen of water for the trek." Elmer entered the store and returned a few minutes later with a small bag of dried meat and a canteen which he filled from the pump. He placed them on the boardwalk beside the Counselor and returned to his store. By now, it was early evening, and the sun was beginning its descent behind the rugged mountains to the West, and the crowd slowly moved away, heading to their respective abodes.

 

The Counselor, sitting motionless, had drifted off to sleep. Some wondered if it was the right thing to do, sending this diminutive man away with no rest for what they assumed must have been a weary body. They consoled themselves with the belief that anyone who had journeyed through hundreds of miles of desert, traversed the mountains, and survived with no apparent harm could continue on to the railhead. Periodically, some would peer out their window to discover the Counselor had not moved so much as an inch. Why, they wondered, would he not walk in the coolness of the night without the unbearable heat of the sun beating down on him?

 

     When morning came, and the now hated sun began to climb in the Eastern sky, the Counselor was still sitting in the same spot. Surely, he would be on his way soon. Or had he died in his sleep? It wasn't out of the question, and Otis, the undertaker, was the first to enter the street and approach him. Optimism, of the morbid sort, must have been in control of his mind because he had the forethought to carry his measuring tape to measure the Counselor for what would need to be a much smaller than usual coffin. As Otis stood in the street sizing up the odd little man, the Counselor looked up, smiled.

 

"Not yet, undertaker. Not yet."

 

Otis, embarrassed, turned on his heels and hurried back up the street to the Sheriff's Office. Walt, now having been duly informed that the Counselor remained alive on his perch in front of the General Store, gathered up the other town residents, and everyone headed out to confront the visitor about why he had not yet departed. At eight in the morning, the scene in front of the General Store was a carbon copy of the previous night. Before any of the townsfolk could speak, the Counselor looked up and began to deliver a history of his travels.

 

      "The journey that has brought me here began at the very Southerly tip of South America. Throughout my travels, I have sought out those communities in dire situations and in need of my counsel. I walked through the land of Chile and conquered the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth before I crossed into Peru, where I walked the coastal roads to the City of Lima and then up into the highest peaks of the Andes Mountains, land of the ancient Inca."

 

     By now, the gathered crowd was both enthralled and confused. The truth is that the townsfolk knew nothing of a desert called the Atacama or of any civilization called the Inca. The fact is they weren't sure they even knew where Peru was. The Counselor continued.

 

"I traversed the length of Peru to the City of Iquitos in the Peruvian jungle, the beginning of the mightiest river on earth, the Amazon. From there, I canoed, for six months and with numerous stops at isolated villages along the way, encountering tribes that had never seen a white man, more than fifteen hundred miles to the ocean. Making my way up the coast, I entered the land of the old Mayan empire and then to the land of the ancient Aztecs in Mexico before crossing into the Arizona Territory."

 

     "Arizona Territory?" piped up Elmer. "Then you must have heard of the amazing feats of our Sheriff, Walt Holliday." Walt suddenly appeared visibly ill at ease as he shuffled his feet in the dirt and stared at the ground but recovered his composure when he heard the response.

 

"No," said the Counselor, "I can't say I have. But I am sure they were legendary." At this point, everyone in the crowd wanted to know what dire conditions existed in these communities for which he provided his counsel. The Counselor answered the question before it was asked.

 

"Along the way, I encountered communities and villages that were the victims of such harsh conditions as floods, droughts, disease, and pestilence. In every case, when my counsel was given, the floodwaters receded, the rains came, or the pestilence was halted. Such was my counsel."

 

     In the wake of the Counselor's words, the murmur of conversation among those gathered was like the dull hum of a cloud of mosquitoes. Could this odd little wanderer be the solution to their years of suffering? Could he really bring the rain? Or were his words merely the ramblings of a disturbed mind? Bull stepped forward and planted his size fourteen boot firmly on the boardwalk beside the Counselor. "You must see that things are more than dry here."

 

"It appears so. The worst drought I've seen, I'd think," the Counselor said as he peered at Bull through his one good eye.

 

"So, what do we do?" said the crowd in virtual chorus.

 

"Are you requesting my counsel?"

 

"Yes," came the chorus of voices again.

 

 "A morsel of food and a glass of water daily until you decide. I have been clear on that.

 

 "Yes, yes, of course," Elmer chimed in. "But what decision are we to make?"   The Counselor replied, "The decision of sacrifice."

 

  There was silence among the gathered. "Sacrifice? What sacrifice?" asked Bell.

 

The Counselor responded, "Nothing comes without sacrifice. Life is a continual sacrifice. Would you sacrifice one among you? One to save the many?"

 

The silence was now palpable. Sacrifice one among them? What sort of strange question was that? 

 

"I will leave you to ponder that possibility while I partake of the dried meat and water your storekeeper so kindly provided me last night. Best that you gather together and discuss what you have heard and make a near-unanimous decision. I accept nothing less than unanimity minus one. Time is of the utmost importance. I need to continue my journey as soon as possible." The Counselor opened the bag of dried meat and uncapped the canteen as the crowd, without a second thought, dispersed in the direction of Bells Saloon.

 

      It was time to digest what the Counselor meant. Could he possibly be serious? And who among them would agree to such a bargain? The saloon soon filled up with more than two dozen souls who sat or stood in silence, none being ready to open such a confusing and disturbing conversation that had the potential to challenge their very morality. It would be more than an hour before anyone spoke a word.

 

     "Seth!" Otis blurted out. "It could be Seth."

 

 Seth was a somewhat mentally challenged young man, very slender of frame with an oversized head, scraggly brown hair, and a pockmarked face, who had found his way to town more than four years ago. Not being very bright, unable to speak other than an unintelligible mumble, and without skill of any sort, he had been provided a few dollars a month and some free food in return for sweeping the boardwalk and picking up litter from the street. These days he slept in the loft of the abandoned livery barn and wandered the street a few hours a day before returning to his solitude. Bell usually provided him with some food and had become the only person in town to pay attention to him. If the loneliness troubled him, it didn't show. He had been nowhere to be seen during the town's encounter with the Counselor. 

 

     "I won't hear any of that talk," Bell bellowed. Tragically it had become one against the rest, and Bell was alone in her objection. The pleas from the others were incessant.

 

 "He really isn't one of us. Just some dimwitted fella who showed up uninvited and stayed," Otis said, waving his hand in circles.

 

"He's right, Bell, and he sure don't have much goin' for him," said Sue, the eldest of the three whores.

 

"It ain't right. It just ain't right," Bell bellowed. Walt had been standing quietly in front of the saloon's swinging doors but finally spoke.

 

"Listen, Bell, this ain't easy for anyone, but we need to think of the majority. We don't have, but maybe another few months before we all start starving. Should we all die? What kind of depraved behavior might come when the food runs out? We need to make the right decision here. The one that saves the majority."

 

     Bell had more to say on the subject.

 

"Who says this crazy little man is what he says? Have we gotten to where we will believe anything we hear? What if we do this and nothing happens? We will have killed a harmless, brain-damaged young man who never harmed anyone for nothing. Can we live with that?" 

 

     "I believe him," said Lou, "No normal human could have crossed that desert and those mountains the way he did. It's clear that he has a power. He looks, well, religious, like a man of God. I trust him."

 

     How interesting to hear anyone use the word God again. Perhaps six months into the drought, the town's Preacher, Reverend Henderson, had packed up his family's belongings and headed for the railhead with his wife and two young children. He had not, as one might think, deserted his flock. It was his flock that had abandoned him and God. As the crops had withered, the soil had become arid and barren, and desperation had overtaken Cross Creek; he had held daily prayer meetings in the now disused house of worship. It was at one time painted a pristine white with a picket fence to match but was now a battered and graying shell of itself at the East end of the street bearing the name "God is our Savior Church," still visible in faded black paint on the plaque above the door. For more than four months, he had done so. As the rains failed to come and the prayers seemed to count for naught, month after month, the attendance had dwindled, finally to a complete absence of anyone in attendance, as some deserted the town, and others deserted the idea that God would ever be their savior.

 

     ‘We might as well pray to the devil because there seems to be no God’ was a common refrain that assaulted the ears of this devout preacher. With his flock now gone, despite his daily pleadings, he had felt obliged to seek safety for his family. The debate continued for hours, with Bell holding her own against the rest. The counselor had made it clear that any decision must be near to unanimous, unanimity minus one, and under that restriction, the debate became quite heated lest any others take the side of Belle, and in the end, no others did.

 

     "Do what you must. I won't stop you. May God forgive us all." she sadly said as she climbed the stairs to her room. Bell had never permitted herself to cry, but the tears did not wait for permission that night. With the required result achieved, there was another decision to be made. What would be the method of this sacrifice?

 

     Despite their willingness to accept the concept of sacrificing an innocent to save themselves, there was a nagging need to find a way to justify it by some quasi-legal means.

 

    "It don't seem right to shoot him," the dentist said. There were nods of agreement as various folk rubbed their chins and scratched their heads in search of an answer.

 

     "Water!" said Otis, and everyone took notice. "We put a law to rationing water. Water could be taken once, and only in the morning, one bottle each. Water being crucial and sparse, you all remember that the penalty for violation is hangin'."

 

     "That's right," said Walt. "Just a day before yesterday, that boy took water twice. I saw him. Otis saw him too. And it ain't the first time."

 

     "Yes," Beth chimed in. "We seen him too. But nobody ever done nothin' about it because he ain't all there in the head."

 

    The crowd agreed. They had all been aware of Seth's occasional violations of the

rule. The justification for the action they were about to take had been discovered, and their consciences were at ease. They would merely be enforcing the law.

 

     "So that's it then," Walt declared. "Bull can set about buildin' a gallows tomorrow. Gotta do it all proper and such. We'll have a quick trial; Elmer, as Justice of The Peace, can hand down the sentence." Bull and Elmer nodded in agreement.

 

     It was now past midnight, and the Counselor was again asleep in his spot in front of the General Store. The delivery of their decision would wait until morning.   One might imagine that a sleepless night would befall those who had participated after such a decision, and yet nothing was further from the truth. So secure were they in the justice and righteousness of their decision that the townsfolk slept without remorse.

 

     Except for Belle. After hours of intense sobbing in the confines of her room, she had descended the stairs, exited the Saloon, and made her way down the dark street to the place where the Counselor sat, forearms resting on his thighs, head hanging low, his chin resting upon his chest, and seemingly deep in slumber. Belle stood there momentarily, staring at this object of her discomfort, this stranger who had turned the townsfolk into what she considered no less than savages. The Counselor was seemingly oblivious to her presence and to the words she spoke before returning to the Saloon. "You may have your way, but you will not have my vote. My conscience will be clear."  The Counselor moved, not a muscle.

 

     Such was the sequence of events that had resulted in this gathering of citizens to witness a hanging. Now, as the crowd began to display a restless impatience, the Sheriff finally exited the jail with the town's sacrificial lamb in tow; Seth's hands had been bound behind his back, a look of complete confusion on his face, a face that belied the slightest trace of intelligence. The actual trial, such as it was, had been swift and without much in the way of legal balance or justice—a Kangaroo Court. The sentence had been handed down, and no more than five minutes had lapsed from beginning to end.

 

Upon reaching the gallows, which with no shortage of irony had been constructed from wood stripped from the now unused pews of the "God is Our Savior" church, the Sheriff led Seth up the nine steps to the platform, stood him over the trap door, placed the noose around his neck, a black hood over his head and then stepped back. They had drawn straws to determine who would pull the lever to release the trap door and plummet Seth's body the three feet required to snap his neck. The Dentist, whose hands now trembled uncontrollably, had drawn the short straw. In his role as Justice of the Peace and having handed down the verdict and sentence the previous day, Elmer announced said verdict from his place on the gallows beside the Sheriff.

 

      The Dentist hesitated, stepped back, and then, admonished by the crowd to do what he was chosen to do, reached for the lever with both hands, closed his eyes, and pulled with barely enough force to release the trap door. Seth's body fell quickly, and the distinct snap of his neck could be heard by those in the front row of the crowd. His legs quivered and twitched for what seemed an eternity, and then, suddenly, were still. Seth's body was lowered to the ground and carted off in a wheelbarrow by the undertaker to be placed in an unmarked grave in the cemetery.

 

 The crowd was now prepared to go and inform the Counselor that the sacrifice had been made. As they turned, almost in unison, to walk to Elmer's store, they were surprised to see the Counselor standing not more than ten feet away, a witness to the entire affair. Standing there with an expression that seemed pained and lacking the gentleness previously witnessed, he spoke.

 

"Your decision was made, your sacrifice carried out. My word is my bond. The rain will come, and you will reap what you have sown."  Without another word, he walked to the Saloon, where Belle remained, peering out through that dirty window. He entered, looked at Belle with that once again compassionate expression, and said, "Now you must come with me."

 

"Why would I come with you?" she said. "You are the cause of this."

 

"I am the cause of nothing," he replied. "I merely pose a choice, and those who choose will reap what they sow. Nothing more. The rain will begin soon, and we must leave. You will see the truth of my words soon enough. You were the only one who refused. You are the only one who must come with me."

 

Strangely, a sense of calm overcame Belle at that moment. She could not have explained why. You cannot explain what you do not understand, but she chose to put herself in the hands of this odd little man with the hair lip, the dead eye, and what seemed to be a hypnotic power of persuasion.

 

     She followed him into the street where the crowd now gazed at the sky to see gray clouds rolling in from the West, the first few drops of rain now falling. There were tears of joy, laughter, hugs, backslapping, and a general mood of celebration. Not a soul noticed the Counselor and Belle walking East out of town. The Counselor had advised them well. Their decision had been wise. The town would live again. The clouds turned from gray to black and blotted out the sun. The rain became not gentle drops but great torrents of drops the size of eggs. So thick was the rain that it was impossible to see two feet in distance.

 

The townsfolk hurried to their homes and shelter from the storm and those egg-sized drops that hurt like hell. The Counselor and Belle walked the road towards the railhead, the rain always remaining slightly behind them. Their pace was hurried yet comfortable and as if by some miracle, covering in a few hours what would normally take the better part of a day with no sense of fatigue.

 

As they walked, the Counselor reached into his bag and withdrew a ledger. In it, he scribbled the results of his Counsel in Cross Corner. The ledger contained a record of his journey from the Southernmost corner of South America. Along the way, he had, as he had told the people of Cross Corner, encountered many communities or villages suffering from every form of disaster. In each case, he had offered the same counsel. The residents of Cross Corner had not known that regardless of their decision, the drought would have ended. Those along the Counselor's route that had experienced pestilence and had refused sacrifice saw the pestilence end and their community survive. Those that chose sacrifice saw the pestilence end, only to be replaced by a disease that claimed every life.

 

  Floods could be turned into fertile land or drought. Likewise, drought could be turned into fertility or flood. You reap what you sow. By the time the Counselor and Belle had reached the railhead in an astonishing seven days, the town of Cross Creek had been decimated by the flood. As the residents had sheltered in their homes, the torrential rain continued. The nearby Calhoun Creek overflowed its banks and inundated the town. Buildings collapsed, and those that did not were swept away and the occupants with them. Within that short period of four days, every soul in Cross Creek perished. Every building but one had succumbed to rain and flood. Only Belles Saloon remained standing. Even the "God is Our Savior" church had met with destruction. Belle followed close behind as the counselor walked to the livery. After selecting a fine pair of horses and a suitable buckboard wagon, he reached into his bag and paid with a gold coin. Then it was off to the general store, where the wagon was loaded with supplies, food, tools, lumber, fabric, bedding, and other items paid for with another gold coin.

 

     Then the Counselor spoke. "It is time for you to return. The flood will have receded, and the land will now be fertile, the fields ready to yield their bounty. The word will spread that Cross Creek has a future, and new settlers will come. They will need a boarding house and general store to sustain them while the town is rebuilt. Your establishment could be modified to suit that purpose nicely. You will need some help, and Seth will be waiting."

 

     "But Seth is dead," exclaimed Belle.

 

     "No! was the response of the Counselor. "He is very much alive. Everyone saw what I wanted them to see, what they wanted to see. During the night, I spirited Seth out of town and into the mountains to the West, away from the rain and flood that would come. What they led to the gallows and so callously hung was an apparition, nothing more. A mirage, if you will. I would never permit such a killing. Now go and begin the rebirth of Cross Creek."

 

With those final words, the Counselor turned and walked away, never to look back, off to find the next community in need of his counsel. After watching until the little man in the monk-like robe and straw hat was out of sight, Belle climbed aboard the wagon, slapped the reins against the hindquarters of the two horses, and began the return journey to Cross Creek and a new beginning. She had reaped what she had sow

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