Note to my regular readers: Son of a Preacher Man, including The Sodomite (Chapter One) arose out of a personal crisis. My most recent effort, The Slider, started out well but–like a number of other unfinished novels–soon came to a screeching halt. Basically, if I wrote the story “right,” it was going to bore readers. If I “spiced it up” for readers, it was going to be garbage.
What, then, was I to do? It occurred to me that (a) the next effort had to involve something I could “sink my teeth into,” (b) it needed to be told in a setting other than today’s societal environment (where I’ve proven I don’t belong as a writer, at least in my opinion), and (c) it had to be able to “pop!” for the reader without artificiality.
Tall order? Seemed that way. Still, there’s much to be said for the idea of “sleeping on it.” I remembered a few real life incidents that provided the seed. For most of Saturday and Sunday, I didn’t want to do anything but hide from the world and sleep.
When I finally rejoined the living at around 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, I had it. I can’t tell you how long it will be between chapters, but neither do I expect to “run out of gas.” Please note that this tale is gritty and entirely fictional.
Here we go.
My name is Remus “Skip” Bemis. I’m making my way down the two-rut dirt road with the usual WAAD of companions talking in my head: Wariness, Appreciation, Apprehension, and Determination. Wariness is too deeply embedded in my nine year old nature to require conscious thought. Every day and night of my young life, so far as I can remember anyway, I’ve had plenty to be wary about. Plenty of danger. Plenty to keep my mouth shut about. From age six forward, plenty of pain.
Mom told me early on, called me her “little genius,” warned me by the time I was five:
Hide how smart you are, Skip. Don’t let anyone know you could read by the time you were three. Use small words when you can, or don’t speak at all. Only rich children can afford to show their smarts. Brilliant young ones in these rough-and-ready Territories become targets for the less gifted. Hide what you are, and be humble. Realize when you look at another who is just plain mean or stupid that there but for the grace of God go I.
Mom certainly learned to keep her own light firmly shuttered under a bushel basket, long before I was old enough to realize my own father was a far greater threat than any brain-dead bunch of boys. An exponentially greater threat. It was a constant struggle, remembering to use the smaller word instead of the more precise one.
Bartholomew Bemis, Preacher Bemis to the unwashed masses.
Bartholomew Bemis, Mr. Bemis to his family or by God feel the wrath.
Bartholomew Bemis, school of hard knocks educator of the son who’d learned the real meaning of words like sodomite, catamite, hypocrisy.
Yeah, I talk of myself in the third person in my head sometimes. And critique the grammar of a sentence like that, too. Sometimes it isn’t easy being me.
It’s easier to remember not to say “ain’t.”
Fell in a bucket of paint.
Not that my schoolmates didn’t eventually figure out my too-much-brain problem at Prescomb and, before that, in the town of Bullwater, never mind that few of those kids could even spell “eventually.” Neither was a big school but they both bred plenty of boys who acted like they had no more brains than a herd of young bulls, pushing and head-butting, bragging and fighting. And picking on any Teacher’s Pet they could find.
Problem was, it didn’t take me long to understand things like penmanship, spelling, grammar, addition, subtraction, even fractions and long division…and I never could manage to pretend those things were mysteries to me, especially if queried directly.
Showoff, one boy declared, and punched me in the nose. Bookworm, another sneered from behind, and kicked me in the seat of the pants.
I’d also been pantsed, had my britches yanked down over my scrawny hips before I knew how to avoid that, or even that such a thing was a possibility. That was the worst, seeing as how Mom had no cloth with which to make me any drawers and Preacher Bemis wasn’t about to get her any. Lots of snickers after that about my teenie weenie.
Appreciation? Oh, yeah. I had that despite the constant Wariness. Plenty of gratitude, too. New school, so no more worry about the former bullies at Prescomb. There’d be new ones–always were–but none that had seen me pantsed. Best of all, I’d be a full mile and a half away from home until midafternoon, hence the feeling of relief, burden lifted from my shoulders. Meadowlarks sang the prairie morning on this fine September day in 1866. Sky blue, weather balmy. School, at least in the classroom itself, was Heaven for me, a respite, a place where I felt safe.
Not like home at all.
And of course….Apprehension, a steady brain-ache, worry worry worry. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those who worries about what might happen. I only worry about what is sure to happen.
Sure enough, here came one of those happenings now. Much older boy, trotting his pinto horse up the same road. One of those rich ranch kids, more likely than not. Only place out past us was the L+T. Big operation. Thousands of cows.
Mr. Trouble pulled up beside me. Was the hazing going to start already? I thought about the rusty sort-of knife in my worn farmer style boot. This kid was man-big already. He’d likely take Slicer from me if I pulled it on him. Shove it where the sun didn’t shine.
A blue butterfly flittered through the space between us, going on its merry butterfly way. Stupid sign of hope.
“Need a lift to school?”
Didn’t see that one coming. I forgot my fears for a second, studied the boy-man’s countenance. Cowboy, all right. Dusty hat over a wide, smiling face. Merry brown eyes, broad nose a bit lopsided–human fist or kick from a critter? Broad shoulders. No fear in this one.
I envied him that lack of fear. Envied so hard it burned inside.
“Thank you, but I can walk.”
He ruminated on that for a spell. Spat a stream of tobacco juice, nailed a big grasshopper fair and square. Wow. “Ain’t no doubt you kin walk, seeing as how you’re doing it. On the other hand….” He paused long enough to spit again. “At the pace you’re going, you’ll be late fer the bell. And Miz Hawkins don’t cut much slack fer tardy.”
“Never, uh, never been on a horse before.”
“Always a first time.” He kicked his near boot free of the stirrup, instructed me briefly in the process, and when I reached up my free hand–the one without my lunch can in it–he pretty much yanked me up behind him like I was nothing.
“Grab holt of a saddle string,” he advised. “We gotta keep moving.” The pinto sped up from walk to trot and I jolted along behind the saddle like a sack of feed, only with less grace and coordination. By the time we got to the school yard, he’d spit out his chewing tobacco. He’d also unbuckled his gunbelt and had me lift my right leg out of the way while he stowed the rig in the saddle bag on that side. Miss Hawkins, I surmised, did not allow revolvers in the classroom, either. I did wonder at first why he wasn’t afraid someone would steal the valuable gun while he was inside, but then it occurred to me. His horse would be at the hitch rail. No way a thief could rifle a saddle bag and not get caught in that wide open area.
My benefactor hadn’t mentioned his name but that didn’t matter. First thing the teacher did was take roll in that one-room school. Nearly twenty of us, first through eighth graders, none bigger than the pinto’s rider. “Remus Bemis,” I announced clearly when my turn came, flinching inwardly, waiting for the snickers. None came. Either the rather pudgy Miss Hawkins ruled with an iron fist or being seen with the biggest boy in school had peripheral benefits. “Ross McCleary,” he sang out when she got to him.
So. Ross McCleary of the L+T, already a friend to little old me.
Cottonwood School was already looking like a serious upgrade from Prescomb. Two hundred miles farther west into savage frontier territory but way more hospitable to the likes of Skip Bemis.
When lunchtime came and several kids introduced themselves with obviously friendly intent, I couldn’t believe it. They even accepted my preferred nickname and called me Skip after that.
Happily, none of them seemed to pick up on “Remus.” Frankly, that was the final straw that had inspired Bartholomew Bemis to pick his family up and seek a preacher-needed church farther west. Somebody–I never knew who or how, but word spread among the boys at least–had come to suspect the Preacher’s true nature. One loudmouth got caned by the Schoolmaster for belting out in off-key song,
Ream-us Bemis, whose daddy swore by God
Had his black earth plowed by that nasty old Sod
There’d been talk of tar and feathers. We’d left under cover of night, protected by the dark of the moon. Even though he believed (erroneously) I’d been the one to blow the whistle, he was so relieved to still be alive that even when he felt safe and got drunk, he didn’t quite beat me to death.
Mom knew. Sure she knew. But what could she do about it? He mistreated her, too. Never left a mark on her that anybody could see, yet I heard them at night sometimes. Amazed me that he never completely broke her spirit.
I took strength from that.
At least when the burden was on me, she wasn’t getting hurt physically. Her heart hurt, though. Hurt bad. We held each other sometimes when the old man was away, rounding up sinners, exhorting them to attend his Sunday sermons. Preacher Bartholomew Bemis excelled at rounding up sinners, being such a fine upstanding example himself.
More than anything, we were both worried about little Eunice Bemis. My sister would be turning six next month, same age I was when the Sodomite decided I was ripe enough. I’d seen him start looking already. I hadn’t figured out how yet, but I knew one thing.
I’d kill him first.