By Andii Valo




He was back in purgatory.


And the worst of it was, he knew he deserved it!


Cort lay sprawled face-down in the desert dirt, exactly where he’d fallen hours before. At least it felt like hours; it might only have been minutes. He had no way of telling. Time had passed, though, because it was getting cold and last time he’d opened his eyes it was dark. He’d smelled food cooking and his empty stomach had growled in response but he was too tired and sick to eat, even if any of it should happen to come his way, which he doubted. He was too exhausted even to move and, since moving hurt like hell anyway, it was easier to stay put. He drifted in and out of sleep – which might have been unconsciousness – the only thing he could smell now was the blood and sweat on his own body.


Something large but relatively soft hit his cheek and he heard it thud away into the sand. He didn’t really care what it was, only that it hadn’t hurt much, but a sudden painful jerk of the manacles on his wrists and Ratsy’s nasal whine of a voice, slurring slightly, soon informed him.


“There’s your supper, preacher. Eat it before it goes cold!”


They both had a good laugh at that, Ratsy and Foy, and he finally forced his eyes open and raised his head just enough to look over at them. It took a while to focus but he eventually saw what he’d expected – his two tormentors sitting around a campfire slugging from a bottle of whisky. The other end of the long chain attached to the shackles, his own personal leash, was in Ratsy’s fist and he hoped to God the bastard didn’t keep yanking on it. He didn’t think his arms could take much more abuse. But he knew that as they got drunker they’d dream up increasingly creative ways to hurt and humiliate him. He’d found that out last night, and he was bone weary of being their object of recreational violence. Cort glared, loathing the sight of them, wishing he had a gun in his hand right now…


Foy glanced across at him, caught the look and his face hardened.


“Quit staring like that, preacher. I ain’t in no mood for fire and brimstone.”


He lumbered unsteadily to his feet and lurched over. Cort braced himself, waiting for another blow to land but instead Foy stooped to retrieve something then dropped a hunk of bread into the dirt next to him.


“Don’t you go dying on us, y’hear? Mister Herod needs you alive.”


He couldn’t eat, not now, and it was one of the few things they couldn’t force him to do. Maybe he’d try later. Right now the physical effort of lifting his head had set it spinning and pounding again; a wonderful little combination of concussion, heatstroke and dehydration. It made it hard to think straight, hard to remember just how he’d arrived at this sorry, Godforsaken place. Did he even want to remember?


He stumbled around in a chaos of scattered thoughts before spotting the elusive recollection and he grasped at it before it could flitter away. And once more he saw the vision he knew he’d never forget as long as he lived. Which might not actually be too much longer, all things considered...


The mission, his mission, his home for the past three years, burning before his eyes as he lay in the mud, chained like a dog, Ratsy’s boot between his shoulder blades and a shotgun aimed at his head. Ratsy and Foy were laughing, complementing each other on a successful night’s work. They’d been laughing as they’d beaten him too, clearly enjoying it and Cort cursed himself for not putting up some kind of fight. Even though he was unarmed, even though they were carrying pistols and shotguns, even though they’d taken him completely by surprise, even though he’d sworn to renounce violence… If he’d known they were going to torch his church he would have died trying to protect it. It was the only thing he’d ever really cared about…


He’d spent much of the next two days wishing he really was dead. The butt of Ratsy’s shotgun slamming into his left temple finished his view of the burning chapel and he’d finally woken up to the heat of a desert morning, with the headache from hell, tied across the saddle of a horse with a blood-streaked flank. He’d thought the animal was injured until he’d come to realise the blood was his own. Once Foy and Ratsy saw he’d regained consciousness they’d decided his horse needed a rest and told him he could walk for a while. Actually they’d made him walk most of the day, on the end of that long chain, and the pace was always too fast to be comfortable. More often than not he’d been dragged along, shoulders aching with the constant strain, the iron manacles twisting and chaffing on his wrists, the sweat and sand rubbing them raw. A few times Ratsy found it amusing to kick his horse into a fast canter, seeing how long Cort could keep up before falling over. It was never long…


So ended Day One; chained to a dead tree with half a loaf of stale bread and a cup of water to nourish him. Ratsy and Foy entertained themselves by throwing bits of their own supper at him and, later on, stones and rocks. If he forgot to grunt or moan when they hit, or if he fell asleep long enough not to notice, one of them would come over and kick him, making sure he was still alive. As they got drunker the blows got heavier. It didn’t stop until they’d drunk themselves to sleep.


Day Two wasn’t much of an improvement and it was still another full day’s ride – or walk in Cort’s case - to Redemption. Whatever John Herod had lined up for him there would probably make this little trip seem quite pleasant...


Something smacked against Cort’s head, pitching him out of the not-so-pleasant reverie. It seemed as though Foy and Ratsy had begun their evening’s sport. He remembered to moan, to let them know he’d felt it. It was better than another kick in the ribs or guts. Now his head was hurting even worse than before and the welcoming chasm of unconsciousness was yawning before him. He fought it, didn’t want to fall all the way in. God only knew what might befall him while passed out. He was now only dimly aware of anything beyond pain, discomfort and utter exhaustion, but suddenly it seemed like there were new voices in the camp. Opening his eyes was beyond contemplation so he strained his ears, certain he must be either imagining or hallucinating them. But there they were again. Foy and Ratsy’s unmistakable tones and two, perhaps three others. He heard his own name mentioned, heard Ratsy’s voice rise in some kind of protest, but he couldn’t make out any of the conversation. Footsteps approached him and he tensed, waiting for the blow which didn’t come. Finally he had no choice but to open his eyes and try to figure out what was happening. He got a bleary look at a man standing over him and then the stranger squatted down, reaching out a hand. Cort flinched away but the man smiled.


“Easy, son. I’m not gonna hurt you.”


The man was holding something but Cort wasn’t looking at that, he was transfixed by the man’s eyes, the kind of eyes you didn’t forget in a hurry. Ice cold, blue eyes which seemed to be boring right into his soul. Hard, calculating eyes which right now seemed tempered with compassion and something else he couldn’t quite read.


“You look like you could use a drink, my friend.”


Cort finally focussed on what he was holding. It was canteen of water and right now it looked like heaven on earth. He rolled onto his side and managed to prop himself up long enough to reach awkwardly for it. The damned chains made every movement difficult but all he cared about right now was getting at the canteen. He drained its contents in one long, breathless draught and handed it back to the stranger with a pang of guilt.


“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to take it all, but I can’t remember the last time…”


The man smiled and patted his shoulder.


“You’re welcome, Cort. It’s the least I can do. I’ll pray for you, son.”


Cort frowned. How could this stranger know his name? He’d never seen him before. He opened his mouth to ask but the man was already striding back to the campfire, over to Foy and Ratsy. This time Cort could hear his words clearly and they didn’t sound friendly.


“That’s a man of the cloth you’ve got there. You should treat him more kindly…”


Ratsy’s snivelling voice, protesting:  ‘But, hell, mister, we only got…”


The man took a step closer, silencing him. “If you don’t, I’ll come looking for you, understand?”


The threat was unmistakable and seemed to register even in Ratsy’s whisky-addled brain.


“Whatever you say, mister.” Ratsy looked over at him and scowled. Cort could see the fear and disappointment written clearly on his face.


He smiled then instantly regretted it. It made his jaw ache.