Daniel waited until the roaring ceased and the wind no longer tore at his duster before lifting his head from beneath his arms. The tornado had been smaller than he’d expected and left behind only torn soil and a spattering of wet snow on the plains. “Thank the Lord for that,” he muttered as he climbed to his feet, groaning slightly at the protest of a body too old to be knocked about by a twister. He found no irony in thanking God for being merciful with a punishment He Himself had sent; after all, it could have hailed instead of snowed. Though there was always next time.
The thought of “next time” prompted Daniel to hurry his check for cuts and scrapes and plan his next move. He scanned the plains, trying to reorient himself in a landscape made unfamiliar by the wind churned earth. Mountains loomed in the distance off to his right, their peaks hidden by the pregnant bellies of purplish storm fronts. There was no sense in going back where he had come from, not when the Lord’s Judgment had already swallowed those towns in wind and water, so he turned his back to the range and set off east.
An hour’s walk brought him to a creek cutting across the plains. Daniel knelt for a drink and a chance to scan his surroundings as inconspicuously as possible. Movement in a grove of pine trees on the other side of the stream caught his eye. Just as he’d expected; the Elders in Providence, the only speck of civilization within fifty miles, wouldn’t leave their border unprotected for just any old soul to wander in. Daniel removed his revolver from its holster as he crossed the stream, careful to keep his motions slow and purposeful. He held up both hands, revolver hanging from his fingertips where it couldn’t pose a threat, and made his way toward the grove. From its shadows a young woman emerged, scowling down the barrel of the rifle aimed at his chest. “Toss the gun over here,” she barked. Daniel obeyed without question. This seemed to appease the sentry somewhat and she lowered the rifle, though her finger never left the trigger. “What’s your name, stranger? And what are you doin’ way out here?”
“Parish. Daniel Parish. I’m seekin’ shelter from that,” He nodded over his shoulder to the mountains crowned in thunderheads. Lightning danced at their slopes, twisting and twining as if pulled together by a force more powerful than just the funneling wind. The storm looked a long way off still but he knew distance made no matter here; the Lord would strike when and where He willed. And He would strike again soon.
“Mmm,” The woman narrowed her eyes as she scanned the horizon. “Movin’ in fast. Well, alright then. Come along and you can petition the Elders for sanctuary.” She pocketed Daniel’s weapon and gestured for him to walk ahead, still holding the rifle where she could raise it quickly if needed. They walked in silence for a while, the only sounds the crunch of their boot steps and the distance rumble of approaching thunder.
“You get any twisters ‘round here lately?” Daniel asked over his shoulder. “Not recently,” the reply came, as professionally perfunctory as everything else the woman had said. “Been calm.” Daniel nodded, thought about saying “it won’t stay that way for long” but decided against it and fell silent. Providence would see the truth soon enough.
Another hour or so brought them to the base of a low rise. At its top sat an impressive structure of polished wood and heavy iron. Try as he might, Daniel couldn’t help but feel at least slightly impressed by the Providence stronghold. It didn’t exactly exude that old time Christian hospitality, of course, but it could handle just about anything this new world order threw at it. Though probably not, he guessed, whatever the good Lord saw fit to unleash upon His children next.
The woman led Daniel to the front gate and passed inside, leaving him to wait awkwardly outside while the sky darkened overhead. As the wind began to pick up, moaning around the corners of the compound, a slot in the gate opened. From within he caught the tail end of a clipped conversation. “…found this fellow wanderin’ out by Shallow Creek,” his guide, hidden somewhere behind the door, explained to whom he could only presume to be the Elder summoned for judgment. “Says his name’s Daniel Parish. He wants shelter from the storm.”
“Parish?” A new voice, aged yet still hard as steel, let out a short bark of laughter. “Forgot to add in the ‘Reverend’ part, did he? Or I suppose that’s ex-Reverend now, ain’t it? Sorry, Parish, but only those washed clean in the eyes of the Lord step through this gate. You’ve been wanderin’ a dark path these days so you just turn right around and face the demons you’ve brought down on yourself. It’s God’s will; you know that better’n anyone.” The unnamed Elder gave a dark chuckle. “Best say your prayers, Parish. The long night’s a comin’.”
The wooden slot slammed shut; the laughter faded. Daniel stared at the barred gate a moment, glanced briefly to the sky peppered with funnel clouds, then shrugged. He hadn’t exactly expected to be welcomed with open arms, after all. Providence had never been known to live up to its namesake. Well, if the front gate remained barred, he would just have to find another way in. Even a fortress like Providence must have a side door, a broken window hinge, something. And when he did make his way in, the Elders would understand the true meaning of ‘God’s will’. Maybe they’d even come to regret their hasty judgment when the storm descended. What was it Jesus said about casting the first stone?
“Come on, sinners, let’s go down, down to the river to pray…” Daniel allowed himself a small smirk as he belted out the old spiritual tune and began to search for a way in. Even such an innocent song could sound mighty threatening under the right circumstances. “Come on, sinners, don’t you wanna go down?”