Published on Tuesday, February 21, 2011
Welcome to Dry Creek, Reverend!
By Oscar Case
It was a long and hard journey from the coastal ridges of Oregon to this dry and desolate place in northwestern Utah Territory. But here we are, having been sent by the Lord, Himself, in a dream that Reverend Sweeney had one foggy night. The fact of the matter is, the citizens of Peerless were fed up with his preaching about the evils of John Barleycorn and chased us out of town.
I came with him and his family. I'm twelve now, but when he found me in the mountains where I had been abandoned by my tribe, I was a seven-year-old sick Indian excuse for a boy. The tribe thought I had that terrible, Indian-killing, white-man disease they called "caller." It wasn't cholera. It was just a common cold with a very high fever. Mr. Sweeney took me home and I got well and began helping him. I hoped someone from my tribe of Cayuse would come for me, but they didn't. The Sweeneys treated me like a member of the family, except I had to sleep in the barn. They couldn't pronounce my Indian name, so they called me Bobby Chase-the-Lord and taught me how to read and write and speak their language.
The peace in Dry Creek was shattered to smithereens as soon as the Reverend of the High Church of the Valley of Christ the Redeemer in Heaven on Earth opened up his barn to Sunday church meetings. It started the same day we pulled into Dry Creek, not with a bang, but eavesdropping by a certain human as we walked to Mrs. Fisher's millinery store to pick up the key to our new house. We had to pass by the Texas Panhandle Saloon and when the Reverend saw the sign painted on the store front, he had a conniption fit.
"See that sign, Bobby? I've spent half my life preaching against the evils of drinking. I thought that in a Territory full of religious zealots there wouldn't be allowed dens of iniquity like this. We will put an end to it," he railed in a sweat. He took off his beat-up, old, brown hat and wiped his forehead with his handkerchief.
The eavesdropper was the owner of the Panhandle, who gave us the dirtiest look he could muster unbeknownst to us with one foot resting on the boardwalk and his peg leg in a pile of dry horse manure. He was sweeping the night's dirt and sawdust out to the road and we didn't pay him any attention.
"He's gonna have one helluva fight, if he thinks he can close this Texas cowboy down," Pete muttered. "Miners and cowboys like their likker and so do some of the cit'zens, not countin' half the Mormons. They and me ain't goin' to stand for bein' shut down in the name of religion."
With ten dollars in advance and a verbal promise to stay through the summer, we returned to the wagon and followed the woman's directions to our rented house. It wasn't a mansion by any stretch of the imagination, but behind it was a barn and corral that satisfied Mr. Sweeney. We unloaded the wagon and made ourselves at home. The door was not hanging too well on the frame and the glass in the three windows was broken.
"We have all summer to fix those windows. I'll fix that door as soon as I can get around to it, but first things first, Bobby, let's get the barn cleaned up for tomorrow's services. The Lord's work can't be delayed," he said.
Clyde, three years younger than me and the oldest Sweeney kid, and young Charlie, who was seven years old, helped me get the barn in shape and even helped make my bed in the hayloft. After that, Clyde and I took some notices of the meeting Mr. Sweeney had ready and nailed them up on the buildings in town.
The town was bustling with miners, muleskinners, cowboys and locals and the two saloons were bursting at the seams with customers buying Valley Tan and sink-taller whiskeys.
We raced through town, stopping to look at the men playing cards and drinking barleycorn and laughing and talking loudly; big men with beards, little men with beards, ugly men with beards, guffawing, showing their yellow teeth with each outburst as we peeked through the dust-covered windows and the cracks in the swinging doors.
That night, I went to sleep in the barn with a big smile on my face. It had been a good day with lots to see and do in this new town.
I was up with the sun, washed my hands and face in the washtub by the well and entered the house to eat breakfast. Mrs. Sweeney was busy cooking oatmeal and making biscuits. She was in a good mood, singing a song about praising the Lord and humming.
"Good morning, Bobby, sit down at the table and have some oatmeal." she said.
Mr. Sweeney came out of their bedroom as Clyde and Charlie came into the kitchen.
"Morning, boys," greeted Mr. Sweeney. "It'll be just like old times in Peerless. Let us pray for the blessings we have."
He sure is in a good mood, this morning. He only gets this way when Sunday rolls around.
Sweeney stopped praying and Mrs. Sweeney dished up the oatmeal and biscuits, which I made quick work of and took my chair to the barn. Clyde and Charlie followed with their chairs, and we set them in a row facing where Mr. Sweeney would be standing. We moved a bench that was in the barn to a new position behind the chairs, stood back, and looked at our handiwork.
Mr. Sweeney was anxious to start preaching against John Barleycorn, but we still had three hours to wait.
An hour-and-a-half later, I spotted a lone man walking up the road having a wobbly time of it, stumbling and weaving from side to side and looking around at the weeds and sagebrush. I told Clyde, "There's the first victim walking up the road. See, he's just going through the dry wash."
"He's not very steady on his feet. Do you suppose he's drunk?" said Clyde.
"Either that or he just wants to look at the sagebrush growing on the sides of the road," I said, laughing.
"Howdy, boys!" the man said coming closer. "Is this where those services going to be held? I sure need to be saved after last night."
We led him to the barn, telling him he was the first one here, and showed him the seating arrangements.
He was a short man with a paunch and muscular arms and legs. His blue eyes were red and droopy under his bushy eyebrows. His dirty shirt and trousers looked like they had been worn for a month or two. He smelled of whiskey and while taking a chair in the front row, he fell over backward, knocking the chair over, too.
We all three rushed to help him up, but he was too heavy for us. He no sooner got himself arranged on the seat than he fell asleep with his head thrown back, exposing the throat, ears and hairy nostrils under the hat brim and the dirty whiskers of his beard. The tops of his ears were sticking straight out, pushed there by his dirty black hat, which hadn't fallen off.
I began laughing and Clyde and Charlie joined in.
"There's a good prospect for your Pa to start working on, Clyde," I said, laughing so hard I could hardly get the words out and clapping my hands on my knees as I bent over and took a good look at the hairy face staring at the roof of the barn with his eyes closed.
"My Pa's got his work cut out for him," retorted Clyde, and we started guffawing again as a loud snore ruffled the beard of the sleeping man.
"We better not tell your Pa that his first worshipper is drunk and sleepin' or he'll have another conniption fit," I said.
We got ourselves righted and climbed on the corral fence to wait for the others, giggling and chuckling and surmising who would show up next. Four-year-old Kathleen wandered out of the house and joined us. She stood by the lower rail of the corral, her blond hair askew and brown eyes wide with expectation, and a big smile on her pretty face.
"Here comes a wagon with a load of kids," I said, watching the horses climb out of the gully.
We watched the skinny man and skinny woman on the bench seat, the man holding the reins and clucking to the horses and the woman turning around as they entered the yard and yelling at her children, "Sit down and behave yourselves!"
"Is this Reverend Sweeney's place?" the man yelled.
Mr. Sweeney came out the front door with some papers in his hand, yelled at the wagon, "You found us. Just park your wagon, folks, and come into the barn. The services will be starting in about ten minutes."
We hopped off the fence. The girl climbed through the fence rails and ran to the house, and Clyde, Charlie, and I showed the family where to go, telling them, "Right this way, sir. We only got enough seats for three or four old people, but there's plenty of standing room."A cowboy rode into the yard on his horse, hopped off, tied the reins around a fence post, and fell in behind the family without saying a word. He had on a clean shirt and a pair of wool trousers, both brown colored, and a big pistol strapped to his waist with a belt full of bullets. He no sooner entered the barn than two miners on burros rode up and followed him in astride the jackasses.
The Reverend and Mrs. Sweeney, holding the hand of the four-year-old daughter, walked leisurely toward the barn as two more men with beards entered the yard, one on a horse and one on a burro.
"Good morning, gentlemen," said Mr. Sweeney. "The services will be starting as soon as we get in the barn."
"We didn't come for no damn church service," said the bigger man with the blackest beard. "We're lookin' for Blackie MacPherson, a short man with a beard and a big belly, who owes us money. He took off walkin' early this morning tryin' to excape and came headin' this way. Is he hidin' out in that barn?"
"Let's go inside and see." Sweeney said, hurriedly taking Mrs. Sweeney's arm and leading her and his young daughter into the barn followed by the two men.
With a signal from Mr. Sweeney, Clyde and I ran to the barn doors and pulled them shut just as the big man with the blackest beard yelled, "There he is! Grab 'im, Rafe, he ain't gettin' away this time!"
Rafe saw him the same instant the other man yelled and grabbed the sleeping man by the arms.
"Wake up, you dirty thief," yelled Rafe, and the man jumped up and ran for the door.
Alcohol was still weighing heavily on him as he staggered into the kids now standing in front of the door, knocking two of them down and he stumbled and fell down, with Reverend Sweeney yelling, "Gentlemen, gentlemen! Please, we're holding church services. Sit down and wait 'til it's over." He looked up heavenward, "Save us, Lord, from these unholy men!"
The two men had the drunk in their grasp and were holding him up. They smelled like they had been tippling the devil's potions, too. The cowboy had had enough of it, pulled his pistol and shot at the roof. It sounded like all Hell had broken loose. He pointed the smoking gun at the three men struggling by the door.
Clyde and I were crushed against the barn doors. Mrs. Sweeney fainted dead away falling into the straw on the floor as Mr. Sweeney jumped about a foot in the air when the blasts went off. He fell to his knees, praying to his Redeemer, "Oh, Lord, save us, save us!"
There was a loud banging on the doors from outside and someone yelling, "Open up in there! Is anybody hurt! What's going on in there?"
The cowboy, with his gun aimed at the three bearded men, yelled, "That's enough of that fightin' and wrestlin'. You three find a seat. I came from the Crossfoot Ranch to attend church and, by damn, I'm going to hear what the preacher has to say."
It was so quiet you could hear a mouse rustle the straw. The crowd slowly took up their former positions and released me and Clyde so we could open the doors and see who had been knocking.
Standing there with a small pistol in his hand was Pete Shoemaker, the peg-legged owner of the Texas Panhandle Saloon.
"What the Hell's going on in there?" asked Pete. "I thought there was supposed to be a church service here."
By this time, Reverend Sweeney had recovered and came rushing to the door.
"Come in, come in, sir," he said. "A couple of men had a quarrel and the cowboy stopped them. I'm about to get started with the sermon, come in, come in."
Pete tucked the gun under his belt and stepped inside, observing the scene. The cowboy had his gun aimed at the bearded men now standing to the side of the door. Pete recognized the one in the middle as being one of the drunks he had kicked out of the saloon the night before. He took a seat on the bench behind the couple.
The bearded men were watching the cowboy with the gun. The Reverend helped his wife to her feet. She shook her long skirt to get rid of the clinging straw, stared at the audience, took a deep breath and began singing a hymn, Bringing in the Sheaves, or something. I was still shook up from the gunshots. Even young Indians get the frights once in awhile.
As soon as the singing was over, Mr. Sweeney, in a loud and cracking voice, began, "If the cowboy gentlemen will put his gun away and you men find a seat or a place to stand, we shall get on with the service."
No one moved. Sweeney said, "Well, ladies and gentlemen, I'm not in the habit of having our services begin in such an unruly manner, but we shall proceed as if nothing happened.
"The High Church of the Valley of Christ the Redeemer in Heaven on Earth is new to Dry Creek and has high hopes of staying in service to the residents of the valley for a long time, even with the unholy beginning that we have just witnessed. We plan to make our Church the best, and as more people hear of us, I'm sure we will be able to fulfill the Lord's work. Let us pray. Oh, Heavenly Father, we thank Thee for the many blessings we have and ask that we may continue our duties to You. Amen."
I was watching from my station by the door as the Reverend winds himself up and feels the work of the Lord rush through his body making him oblivious to everything else. Just as he was going to begin again, there was a loud banging on the door. I opened it and let some of the odors dissipate, the smell of horse manure and whiskey breath, while letting in two gentlemen and a lady. Waving to Clyde, he and Charlie rushed up and showed the guests the seating arrangements, yelling, "This way, please. Make way for the lady, gentlemen. Give a seat to the lady, sir," yelled Clyde to the miner sitting on the bench.
"Thank you, sir," said Clyde.
The miner gave Clyde a look to singe his hair off, but Clyde hurried to the back and acted like he didn't see it.
"Close the doors, Bobby," said Mr. Sweeney. "Let's get started again."
"Now, ladies and gentlemen, with no more interruptions we shall take up where we left off. I was just going to welcome everyone here and ask that they stand and introduce themselves so everybody knows everybody. Friendliness is next to Godliness. We'll start with the gentleman in the front row. Sir, welcome to the High Church of the Valley of Christ the Redeemer in Heaven on Earth. Would you tell us your name and introduce your family?"
"Well, Parson, my name is Harry Brickell and this is my wife Gertie, and them six kids over there by the wall are our sons and daughters, Ralph being the oldest, then there's Rachel, Ramona, Rodney, Raymond, Rutgers, and Ruby June. We live in town and I work at the bank."
"Thank you," said Mr. Sweeney. "You two standing over there, would you tell the congregation about yourselves?"
"We Czechs. No unnerstan' too good the Englich. We work in mine. My name Kohout, his Soukup."
"Thank you," said the Reverend. "And the cowboy with the pistol, you said you were from the Crossfoot Ranch. Tell us about it, if you don't mind, sir."
"The Crossfoot is a small ranch, only about five thousand acres. The handle is Dale Marchand, Pastor, and I came to this church because I was hopin' it was non-denominational. I don't believe in those other churches, especially the Mormon and the Baptist. Don't know nothin' about the Luther'ns, but a Catholic priest cornered me in Bozeman and got me as drunk as a hoot owl. I figure he can't be too religious carryin' on like that, so now I'm a non-denominational."
"Yes, yes, Mister Marchand, we accept everyone, no matter what religion they profess. Your story about the priest leads me into the main subject of my sermon today, but I'll get to that when we know everybody," said Pastor-Parson-Reverend Sweeney.
His gaze went around the barn, noting a snicker and a chuckle from the drunken men who created the fuss.
"Now, this young lady on the end of the bench, would you introduce yourself?"
She looked at the two men she came with standing at the end of the bench. Slam Norton dipped his chin, signaling her it was all right to go ahead.
Standing and looking at the preacher, she said in a sultry voice, "I'm Donna Delmonico. Most of the men here know me already since I work in the Bangtail Tavern for Mr. Norton. I sing and dance and entertain the miners and cowboys on Friday and Saturday nights."
The miners let out a hoot, one saying, "She's a mighty fine dancer, too!"
Mr. Brickell looked at his children and said to Mrs. Brickell, "This ain't no place for young kids with the likes of that woman."
"We came to church and we're stayin' for the services, Harry," said Mrs. Brickell. "Nothing's going to happen to them in church."
He gave her a dirty look, but didn't have time to respond before Reverend Sweeney said, "Who do we have left? Oh, yes, these two gentlemen and those three men over there." He looked at Slam Norton and said, "Please tell us who you are, sir."
Slam was a handsome man with coal-black hair slicked down to the sides of his head over his ears, dressed in an expensive black suit with string tie and white collar. Slam gave the appearance of a live cadaver, his sunken cheeks and black eyes in a gray face on a slim body. He scared the heck out of me without half trying.
"Most of these people know me, Preacher," said Slam. "Even the gent with all the kids comes into my joint once in awhile. I'm Slam Norton, owner of the Bangtail and this man with me is the lady's brother, Slugger Pancovic, Poncho, for short."
Mrs. Brickell gave her husband dirty looks and whispered a few choice words to him, before slamming him over the head with her purse.
"That's for lyin', Mr. Brickell," she said loud enough for everyone to hear, even her kids.
Mr. Brickell stood up, but Reverend Sweeney said, "Enough rowdiness, ladies and gentlemen! Let's get on with the service or we'll be here all day."
Brickell took his seat and Sweeney continued, "Ahem, I'll dispense with the introductions in the name of the Lord. Our church teaches that sinning is Hellishness, but that Godliness is divine, and the fewer sins an individual commits the better it is when he meets the Saviour. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the sooner all people quit sinning, the sooner there will be Heaven on earth."
I whispered to Clyde, "Your Pa is windin' up for a good long and blustery sermon this morning. I hope he learned something from being chased out of Peerless. He's been on the brink of a cliff, itchin' to deliver his message against sinners again. Listen to him, gettin' ready to let everybody have a dose."
"I'm telling you now, sinners, if you continue along your chosen path to Hell, our Lord the Redeemer and Jesus Christ Almighty will surely send you to the very depths of the fiery furnace to languish in your agony and torture forever and ever. But, if you throw away the temptations of this earth and renounce your sins and live a good moral life, the Lord will look upon you as worthy for passage to Heaven. Yes, Brothers and Sisters, passage to Heaven is the ultimate journey that those who lead an exemplary life on earth will receive upon his death. A reward greater can no man or woman live for. What could be better than being with Our Lord Jesus Christ for everlasting?
"And those who sin, no matter the size or extent, even to the consumption of the most evil concoctions, whiskey and beer and other flotivious nectars, will keep you out of Heaven and doom you to Hell. To Hell, I say! Brothers and Sisters, you must refrain from any lascivious thoughts, also, because they will doom you to Hell on earth and in Heaven."
Clyde whispered to me, "He's gettin' ready to let them have it," and we both broke into silent laughter, chuckling under our breath.
"John Barleycorn, whiskey, rotgut, or whatever you may call it has ruined more lives than anybody can count, and the Lord frowns on those who use it. It is time, Brothers and Sisters, to do away with this inebriating, debilitating, scurri-latin' drink and drink the elixir of God that is readily available to all. I'm speakin' of water, friends, the cleansing, healthy, beverage of the gods, all gods, even Our Lord in Heaven. During my lifetime, I've seen grown men, big and strong men, fall into the depths of despair and rot away to nothing from the drink of the devil, whiskey. Once it has a clutch around the heart, it's only a certain length of time when you end up in the gutters of Hell. One of the goals of the High Church of the Valley of Christ the Redeemer in Heaven on Earth is to abolish it from the face of the earth, my friends, abolish it from every store and saloon and house in the country, my friends, and..."
Blam! Blam! Blam!
The noise of the pistol shots rang out loud and unexpected, giving everyone a fright as Pete Shoemaker cut loose, shooting holes in the roof. He stood there next to a bale of hay with the gun smoking and an angry look on his red face.
"Hold up there, Rev!" he yelled. "If you think you're goin' to drive me out of business, you'd better put your thinkin' cap on and give it more study. My life savings and work went into that saloon and no two-bit sermonizer's goin' to run me out, you can bet your church on that."
"Nor me neither!" put in Norton. "I've been runnin' the Bangtail before there was a town, practically, and I intend to keep on doin' it, too.'
I was crushed up against the door again as the Brickell clan tried to get out. The bigger kid had a hold of Clyde and was trying to shove him out of the way, but Clyde was fighting back. The two bearded miners took advantage of the disruption and started beating on the third that stole their money until the cowboy put his nose in.
Blam! Blam! Blam!
The shots rang out, loud and deafening in the enclosed space, and everyone headed for the door. They rushed outside and ran to hide behind the house, thinking they were going to kill the preacher and whoever else got in the way. Two mules followed them. I barely got out of the way, moving to the side in a quick lurch, but Clyde was carried out. I stood in the shadows watching for what was going to happen next.
Mrs. Sweeney had fainted away again and was lying on the straw. Mr. Sweeney looked at her and then looked at the cowboy, who still aimed his pistol at the peg-leg bartender, and then saw Mr. Norton had pulled his pistol and was aiming it at the cowboy, while Pete aimed his gun at Reverend Sweeney. My heart was pounding like a hammer, and I was hoping nobody would get killed. I wiped my eyes and forehead and saw the blonde woman backed up against the wall with her hands spread wide pressing against it like she was hanging on for dear life, her eyes wide and gazing at Slam. It was so quiet you could hear the rustle of the straw as Mrs. Sweeney moved her head.
I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. It was Clyde coming back in to stand by me, but only for a second.
"Don't shoot my Dad!" he yelled and ran to him, throwing his arms around his Pa's waist and putting himself between Pete and the Reverend.
"It's all right, boy," said Pete. "Nobody's goin' to shoot the preacher. I was jist lettin' him know we don't like his sermonizin'. Ain't that right, Norton?"
Slam, still holding his pistol aimed at Marchand, his steady gaze watching every move, said, "That's right. We don't want to hear any talk about the evils of alcohol. I'll put my gun away if Marchand does the same. My intentions are honorable."
"Sure. I'm getting pretty annoyed at these interruptions," said Dale, "and I believe the man has the right to say what he wants in his own church, even if it doesn't fit in with everybody's way of thinkin'. If drinkin' whiskey is a sin, then by God, he can say so without bein' interrupted by a bunch of no-good sinners takin' the contrary position."
I could see that Mr. Shoemaker was getting ready to do something, exactly what, I couldn't figure out, but his black eyes were switching from the cowboy to Norton, to the Reverend, to the three miners or muleskinners still fussing and wrestling, and back to the cowboy. Ole Peg Leg was standing nervous and tense like a cat getting postured for a jump at a mouse.
Mrs. Sweeney let out a loud moan, sat up in the hay, and wiped her hand across her forehead.
Mr. Sweeney took one step toward her and a voice rang out, "Reach for the sky!"
It was the Sheriff standing in the barn doorway with a shotgun leveled at the cowboy.
"Don't anybody move or they'll get a blast from this new Remington side-by-side twelve guage," yelled the Sheriff. "What kinda church service you runnin', Preacher? Me and my deputies were out lookin' for a man named Garlich and heard all the gunfire, and we thought sure somebody's gettin' killed. And here we sneak in here to find three men holdin' guns on everyone? What's goin' on? Did we interrupt a holdup or a robbery of some kind? Why don't you tell us, Peg Leg, since the preacher seems to be tongue-tied. What's that lady doin' sittin' in the hay a-holdin' her head? She been shot?"
"I don't think so, Corny," said Shoemaker. "She's jist fainted. Why don't you help her up, Preacher, since she's your wife?"
"Hold on, Preacher. Don't nobody move 'til I find out what's goin' on here", said Sheriff Corny. "You men put yer guns away and tell me, Peg Leg, what the story is."
Shoemaker stuck his pistol back in his belt and began, "Well, it ain't what it looks like, Corny. That cowboy started shootin' at the ceilin' when I objected to the sermon is all that's goin' on, other than them miners fightin' with that other one over some poker debt or somethin'. Ain't that right, Slam?"
"That's about it, Sheriff," said Norton, when Marchand added his two cents.
"That's not exactly what happened. That peg-legged Texas saloon owner shot first, interruptin' the sermon fer the second time, and I..."
"I don't care who shot first as long as nobody got hurt," interrupted Corny, who was losing patience. "I'll haul the whole congregation to jail, if we hear any more of it. Now, Preacher, I suggest you forget about holdin' this service and take care of your wife.Maybe next week, you'll get off to a better start. I'll send one of my deputies out to attend and keep order."
The Sheriff drew a deep breath and looked at the preacher, who was nervous and sweating, holding Mrs. Sweeney by the shoulders as she lay across his knee. Corny tilted his head up and down in a consolatory gesture, and said, "Welcome to Dry Creek, Reverend."
Oscar Case began writing about ten years ago, starting with genealogy and family history and changing to Western fiction. He has published three Western novels and several short stories and is working on four more novels.