Tribulation

The day James Tarwood was released from prison the sky was black and the rain fell in thick sheets. He was officially let go as a ward of the state at two in the afternoon, but it had looked like midnight. The bus to take him to Eustis was supposed to arrive at two thirty. It was now six, and James sat on a small wooden bench, a Stetson hat pulled low over his eyes and drops of rain dripping through rust holes in the tin roof above him made little pathways along his brown duster jacket. The entire time he had sat stock still, his hands folded into his lap and his large, muscular frame straight as rail. Rick, the gate manager, stepped outside his booth and lit a cigarette.

"Sorry about this, Jimmy," said Rick, taking a long drag of his cigarette and exhaling a slow puff of smoke. "We tried calling central about that bus, we can't get a hold of anybody." Rick checked his watch. "We don't hear anything in the next half hour or so we're going to send somebody out there."

"Been waiting twenty years," James spoke with a voice gravelly from infrequent use. "Don't mind waiting a few more hours."

"I'll bet," Rick said, grabbing the front of his sky blue correctional facility-issued button up and moving it back and forth to relieve some of the stifling humidity that now permeated his little box. Although he was much better covered than the former inmate sitting on the bench just outside, he appeared more drenched, sweat sticking his oversized clothes to his thin frame. Rick pondered over the recently released man sitting an arm's length away. James had been in this prison over a decade before Rick had even begun working here, which in itself seemed like ages ago, and now here he was, hours after his release, and the poor bastard had only made it a hundred yards outside the prison walls. The guard reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the box of cigarettes, shook them slightly to get one slightly out of the opening and then leaned out the booth's window, offering one to James. The ex con shook his head, then reached into the duffel bag they'd given him which contained all his personal effects. He pulled out a box and opened it, then removed a cigar.

"Could use a light," he said. Rick tossed his lighter to James, who lit the flame and took a few puffs to get the stogie going, then extended his arm and leaned slightly to hand the lighter back to Rick. After taking a few more inhales James took the cigar in his hand and admired it, making sure to keep the burning tip protected under the brim of his hat. "Warden gave this to me. I was saving it. For when I got to the new digs. But what the hell." As James continued smoking there was a crack of lightening across the sky and a loud succession of thunder bursts out towards the west. The two men stared out at the landscape, following the long, two lane side road that ran from the prison to the highway. About four miles down the road there was a hill that hid the rest of the horizon behind it. A strange luminescence was emanating from the land just past the hill, swirling and flickering just behind the torrential rains, strange and distorted like the reflection off some bright metal trinket at the bottom of a stream.

"Weird fucking weather," Rick said, shivering. "Warden thinks that's why the bus ain't showed yet, why we can't reach central. Maybe there's flooding or something's taking out the phone lines or whatever. That light sure is something, though. Had a cousin once in the air force, stationed way out in Alaska, used to tell all about the Northern Lights, sounded something like all this. Course, I don't know what the Northern Lights would be doing in Nebraska."

"Strange," said James.

Rick checked his watch again, sucking on his teeth as he did so. "Well, shit," he muttered. "I'm going to give the warden a call, see what the hell he wants to do about this mess. You sit tight, Jimmy."

Rick went to return to his booth when Jimmy suddenly rose from his seat.

"I said sit tight, Jim. We're gonna get this settled…" James's eyes had narrowed to thin slits and he was staring out to the west, his jaw set so firm the long hollows of his cheeks took on a rigidity that made them look carved from wood.  Rick followed his gaze to the horizon, then felt a sudden shiver pull down from the base of his skull to the small of his back. Standing on the horizon were four giant horses, and atop each horse a rider. Even from a distance it was obvious the men were abnormally large, twelve foot a piece at least. Rick's cigarette fell from his mouth.

"Oh shit," said Rick, turning around and running inside. He picked up the phone to dial inside but got no dial tone. "What the hell?" he said, staring at the phone. "This phone is closed circuit, why am I not…" He looked out the window and saw the horsemen riding towards the prison, trailing the otherworldly light show after them like a bridal train.

The sweat that poured down Rick's back had now taken on an icy coldness. It seemed as though all his weight ran into his feet and he barely had the strength to lift his arms. After the interminable moment of paralysis passed he grabbed an oversized key ring and fumbling through a series of keys. "James, inside!" he yelled as he found the key he was looking for. Rick ran to a small metal door a few feet down the prison's outer wall, unlocked it, and was about to run inside when he noticed James was not behind him. He ran back to find James still standing, unmoved. "Let's go, James! Inside, where it's safe!"

"Ain't going back inside," was all James said. Rick could see there was no use in trying to argue with the man and turned back, running through the door and locking it behind him.

Once he was sure he was alone, James moved, slowly and with purpose, to the guard booth. He gave it the once-over and found what he was looking for in a drawer underneath the desk. A Remington 11-87 shotgun, attached to the underside of the desk by a small latch. James unhooked the gun, threw it over his shoulder and went out to meet the horsemen.

As James walked down the road he pulled his coat tight around him and lowered his head, fighting hard against the rain. In the early days at the prison his fantasies of the day when he'd finally be freed were big and cinematic. Sarah would be there to meet him, waiting outside the gates of that godforsaken penitentiary in one of those pretty sun dresses he'd always liked to watch her put on, just about as much as he liked watching her take them off. That scarred-up Judas of a partner Milton would be there, too, giving him his due both in credit for sticking out the sentence on his own and of whatever remained of the take. Then, of course, there was the most vivid part of the dream. Freedom. Open expanse and the ability to move through it, possibly in a convertible car with the top down. Going somewhere, anywhere, far away from any place that had you marked down as some kind of number, then stowed away and peered at like some kind of moth pinned down to a kid's insect collection. That dream had died slowly, like most do after years inside. Sarah had stopped writing years ago, said all the waiting and worrying was too painful for her, which he supposed he could understand. It certainly hadn't been a picnic for him, either. He hadn't heard word one from Milton the whole time he'd been in, so the prospect of getting his due had seemed untenable for a long while. He now considered himself a fool for ever even thinking it. No one got what they deserved. All he'd allowed himself to hope for now was merely the smallest bit of movement. A nice, leisurely ride to Scottsbluff. Actually watching the scenery change outside a window instead of seeing the same static image outside the same rueful, barred hole every shitty, solitary day. He'd eat a meal in a restaurant. He'd turn out the lights when he wanted to. He'd sleep in a real bed. And these fuckers had ruined it.

James stopped and stood in the center of the road. He placed his legs shoulder length apart and took the shotgun down, holding it at his side. He bent the brim of his hat to let the rain slide off to the side so that he could get a good look at the four horsemen who stood before him. On a white horse rode a man carrying a longbow with arrows that had no arrowheads. On a black horse was a man carrying scales with wheat on one side and gold on the other in equal measure. The rider on the red horse carried a glowing sword. The rider out in front, the leader, rode on a pale green horse, in his hand was a long, slender scythe that he pointed straight at James.

"Stand aside, mortal." James could feel the rider's voice drumming in his gut. "We ride towards the Armageddon. Judgment Day approaches!"

"Don't think so," James said. He took the cigar out of his mouth and flicked it at the lead horsemen, who reflexively swatted it away in an inelegant panic before regaining his composure. The man on the white horse let out a small burst of laughter, prompting the lead horseman to turn sharply, chiding him with an explosion of green flames igniting from his eyes. The white horse's rider collected himself and shamefacedly begin picking at the hide-wrapped grip of his bow.       

"We have many miles to travel and much to do," the lead horseman said. "We bring the message of the world's end!"

"Not today, you don't," said James. He gave the shotgun a quick toss and grabbed it by the barrel, then swung it like a baseball bat, connecting the stock with the front legs of the lead rider's horse. With an audible crack the legs snapped out from underneath the horse and the lead rider toppled to the ground, pinned underneath his steed. The rider on the red horse raised his sword, but before he could strike James flipped the gun back around and released a shot straight into the red horseman's torso. The rider flew backwards off his mount, his sword flying from his hand. The rider on the white horse began shaking with intense anxiety. He grabbed for his arrows but fumbled them in his hands and dropped them to the ground. While the horseman searched his packs for some other form of weaponry James grabbed the bow itself from out of the horseman's hands and hooked his head between the stock and the string and yanked the rider off his horse, giving him a few solid kicks to the face to keep him down.

James walked back over to the red rider, who was beginning to come to. The rider stared down at his torso, poked it tenderly for a moment, then looked at James with incredulity. "What stupid insolence to believe you could actually harm one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with one of your silly little toys!"

"I figured as much," said James. He reached down to the ground beside the red horseman and picked up the glowing sword that had fallen from his hands in the impact of the gunshot. "So maybe I'll give this toy a try." James held the sword tentatively in his hand, testing its weight and movement.

"No!" said the red horseman. "Impossible! What devilry is--" James cut off his words by bringing down the sword straight down upon the red horseman's throat. The rider gurgled and spat, silver shining liquid dribbled out of the opening in his neck. Then he was silent.

"How dare you!" shouted the black horseman. He gave his horse two sharp kicks in the side, spurring him into a charge. James turned around, bent down in a lineman's pose, and charged right back at the horse. Startled, the horse reigned back onto its hind legs and James plunged the sword into the horse's belly, cutting a line straight down the underside of the horse and releasing a torrent of blood and viscera. He dodged to the side as the horse collapsed, its rider tumbling off to avoid being trapped. As the black horseman struggled to regain his footing James came up behind him, quick and quiet, and swung the sword in a long arch that separated the rider's head from his body.

James then walked back over to the horseman still trapped underneath his pale green steed. "You have no idea what you've done," the horseman gasped between short, belabored breaths.

"And you do?" asked James. The horseman was silent. James studied the rider, noted his look of bewilderment and saw within the ethereal warrior the terrifying realization that things had irreversibly strayed far, far away from the plan.

"Which one are you, anyways?"

The horseman smiled. "Death," he replied, then coughed out a broken laugh.

James smiled back. He had to admire a man with a sense of humor. Then he raised the sword and ran it through the horseman's throat.

With one knee firmly planted on the white horseman's chest James reached down and grabbed the rider's right ear and then twisted it sharply. The horseman moved slow and groggily, then suddenly bucked and squirmed with pain.

"Ow! You accursed human, unhand me!" cried the horseman, grabbing feebly at the hand that held his ear until he felt the cold metal of the sword at his throat. His hands fell slowly to his sides and he stared up at James with a look of fear and resentment.

"I don't care who you are," said James. "I don't care what side you work for, I don't care what some book somewhere tells you you gotta do. I want you to go back and tell whoever the asshole was that sent you that this ain't happening today. It ain't happening tomorrow, it ain't happening for a long goddamn time yet, comprende?"

"They'll come after you," said the horseman. "Both sides. A transgression like this will not be tolerated."

"You just go and make your report, and you let them know that if I see any of you big men again, coming around thinking you've got the right to run smooth over a man's life, I will put this sword straight through their neck. No hesitation. Now," James rose to his feet and kept the sword trained at the white horseman. "Get."

The horseman rose and began to move towards his white horse. "Nah-uh," said James. "No horsey for you. Walk." The horseman turned to protest, but James held fast with the sword still raised at neck level. The rider began walking.

James looked at the two horses left standing. "Like it's even a question," he laughed to himself. He picked up the shotgun, put the sword in sheath on the saddle and mounted the white horse. He sat for a moment, listening to the rain thump against his hat. He looked down the road towards the highway. Somehow, Eustis didn't possess the same meager appeal it had only a short time before. Maybe Mexico, James thought. He turned the horse to face south, and as he began to ride the storm began to break and small rays of light burst through the clouds like buckshot against tin siding.