Pastor Russell lay dying.
Outside the sleeper car Pampas, Texas flatland spun by like a carnival ride.
Fits of shivering and cramps wrenched his gut throughout the long night. The cup of hot tea at bedtime had soothed and left him drowsy. Later, cramps took hold and wrung him out.
His spectacles lay carefully folded beside his bible like a dead spider. The clakety clack, clackety clack of the under carriage lulled him to rest on a special pillow embroidered with a cross and crown: the Watchtower engraving of his religious magazine.
His labored breathing set him groaning and the light began to fade from the narrow crinkles where his eyes hid behind trembling lids. The smell of strong coffee troubled the air and his bedsheets seemed to crawl across his body like an anaconda tightening a death grip.
"Charlie!" His mother's voice.
"Sonny, you are dying!" Mother's voice again! Impossible and wonderful, and---frightening!
Yes, he knew it was impossible. Ann Eliza Birney passed when he was but a boy of nine. Russell squeezed tears in great drops at the slightest memory of her.
The vision of her face in silent repose, arms folded across her breast inside the lavish coffin, weeping in the vast candlelit chapel filled his head and wrenched his insides with sorrow again.
"Listen to me, Son. It is time for you to pass."
Russell forced open his clenched lids to gaze upon his mother's face once more. Hers was a light brilliant as diamonds as the radiance filled the sleeper car and lifted Russell's spirits in an instant of time.
"Mother, you--you are alive?"
The vision smiled and years fell away like the scales from a blind man's eyes; Saul on the road to Damascus; a delicious warmth that bathed the soul in an amniotic womb of ecstacy and transcendance.
Russell found himself somehow standing beside his train berth, blinking down at his feverish form swaddled in quilts. Gasping and lifting his hands to his eyes, he beheld the youthful color of a boy's fingers and wrists unspotted by age and smooth as the face of heaven reflected in a golden pond.
He turned his head and immediately the train car vanished like a mist spun away by the strong breezes of a Pennsylvania summer.
Or, was it Pittsburgh?
Yes! The family home sat untouched by time on a grassy hill under a harvest moon. His pulse quickened! He felt an electric signal pass through his limbs and in a flash he was running like a sorrel across the old path that led to his favorite tree only to spring like a bullfrog for the rope which dangled from its leafy arms.
Out--out--and away up high he scribbled an arc in the sky and kicked at the baffled clouds with the toe of his shoe. His strong, youthful body seemed to hang in the air for the longest beat only to plunge back toward the gravel and up to the other side in a carefree semi-circle.
Letting go the rope he flew straight to the ground and tumbled to earth with a cowboy's "Yee haw" only to spring back up again and head off toward the nearby schoolyard to discover any of his school chums shooting marbles or tossing mumblety peg.
The chalkmarks he had made on the sidewalk as a lad! Young Charles came full stop to view them in mounting wonder! How could this be? Still there?
That was so--so long ago he had dropped to his knees and printed out the block letters in red and white chalk for all to see! Warnings! The fear of hell in him those years past!
As he read the words he shook his head, embarassed and suddenly foolish.
Even as a boy he had worried that Hell would swallow them all down! His mother had taught him well enough.
But--how silly of him!
Russell frowned and arched a half smile in puzzlement at his own mind.
There was no Hell! Not that kind of Hell, anyway. Hell was just the grave...wasn't it?
He fumbled at being sure now and not knowing why it was so important to do so at this moment. He was in a no-man's land between remembering and forgetting, between terror and rapture.
"Charlie! Listen to me!" His mother's voice again! More urgently now.
"Come here, Sonny. I have to tell you something. Come quickly, there isn't much time left."
"I'm coming mother. I'm coming."
Little Charlie Russell sprang away from the hellish scribbles screaming in chalkdust as the landscape began to shimmer and unravel and dissolve like a melting ice cream sundae on a picnic afternoon.
He plunged through a sudden gust of leaves and dust only to find himself standing in the railroad sleeper car once more beside a dying old man who looked disturbingly familiar.
"Who is that, mother? Who is that old man?"
"Listen to me Charlie, that is you. You are passing over. You know not where."
The words unsettled the longing of his heart and set off a low moan within him like the howling of a hungry wolf under an indifferent sky.
"Yes, Charlie. It is almost time. But, we have to speak first. We have to talk. I have to know something that has troubled me so. All these long years since I left you my heart has haunted me."
Russell felt weird and peculiar tremblings take hold of him now, as though he were being devoured by insects with ravenous mouths infesting his clothes and invisible to the eye.
"What's happening? Mother, don't leave--what's happening to me? If heaven calls I fear nothing."
"Listen Charlie. Listen carefully. Why did you leave the faith? Why? I must know! I know you were only nine when I died. But, I had so carefully taught you with patience and love---how could you abandon it so quickly?"
"No, mother. I'm sorry, but, that isn't true. I didn't leave the faith. I found the faith! I found the true faith when Jehovah spoke to me and showed me His truth, His sacred secrets."
"You didn't find the faith, Charlie, you invented a new one and left the true faith shattered like a broken mirror; the true faith I gave you--you forsook like an unlucky mirror in shards upon the ground."
Russell heaved a sigh and wearily hung his head. Reeling backward, he sat hard upon the sleeping berth as the vision of little mouths of white maggots devoured his skin. He recoiled from the erosion of his being.
"No Mother, I promise. I found the true faith."
"You founded an old one which only appeared new! I can't believe my son became apostate!"
The words stung Russell's ears. He winced as though struck by an arrow to the heart. Why was his mother chiding him so?
"Charles, we are Presbyterians. That is how we reared you. You were carefully taught and you abandoned the Lord. I need to know why!"
Russell felt the light ebbing into a gray shadowland beset by troubling faces as he slumped into the bed and sunk into the old man's form with his own deteriorating body. He could see the creatures working under his nightgown as they harvested his flesh rippling the cotton fabric with their frenzy.
Another figure appeared beside the sleeping berth. A man with a face like misery, squat and heavy-shouldered, hovered nearby; a dark rectangle with the words Holy Bible in his massive hands
"I too trod your path, Pastor Russell! I too dug my own tunnel to hell!"
Russell knew this face from photos and books he had read with great interest as a youth. This man was William Miller! The Baptist farmer who had heralded the arrival of Jesus' second advent; he had proved with uncanny reckonings that the end would come in this lifetime!
"I know your thoughts, Pastor Russell. I warned them. I warned them all. I preached the End of all things. But, it was my own end I brought down!" Miller's raspy voice quavered like the knell of a funeral bell as two yellow slits stared out at the dying old man.
"The Great Disappointment! Miller, I know whereof you speak. But, your argument was sound! It was buttressed by scripture and fervent computation---you only erred by a narrow margin. Did you know that? Surely you must know." Russell strove to convince this great man what a wonderful awakening he had wrought.
"Miller, it was I who found the true date of Christ's coming! I have been chosen as the mouthpiece of Jehovah. I am his faithful slave. I am his discreet, wise servant. I feed the household of God great truths!"
"You found only darkness and judgement, my brother! Like myself, you must bear the burden of this awful lie you have laid upon the flock. Your hour is nigh. The day of reckoning is upon you!"
"Yes, but, not as you say! Christ, our Lord, returned---not with the eye of mortal man to witness, no. With the eye of faith only! He did return---he did! He is invisible. He is invisible!
It was Parousia--a presence and not a coming!! That is where you erred. The lovely irony of it--you were only wrong in believing you were wrong."
"Wrong is wrong! The only thing that came was judgement for me. For you it is now. Your heart beats its last few strokes like the pendulum of a dying clock. There will be no more winding."
"But, Miller! The outbreak of this great World war--what of the sign? The sign, man!"
"These signs are illusion! It is the wicked and faithless generation that is looking for a sign. You gave them pyramid passages that measure charts and lying dates---not the truth of the living God to feast upon. Your "truth" is humbuggery and you paid a pretty dime for it--your father's fortune.
You are apostate and you must pay for your labors as an evil slave!"
A lower voice, like white smoke, formed before his blinking gaze.
"Son, beware the Judge. Beware! The Judge is coming." His father's voice!
Joseph Lytel Russell, the family patriarch had joined the throng. The father who built success into money and who entrusted him with early responsibility, now, before him stood.
"Father, you've been gone these nineteen years only to return with a curse upon your lips?"
"You have brought this curse upon yourself and myself as well."
"But, you are reunited with mother again--surely that is no curse at all!"
"No,Charlie!" His mother's voice again. "We cannot be together. You turned him away in your apostacy. Our family you corrupted with your fantasy and tissue of lies and errant imaginings! All rebaptised into your hellish fantasy!"
"Beware the Judge! Beware!"
The sputtering light of dying candles sucked hope from sleeper car and tiny rivers of molten wax puddled into clusters of greenish hell.
"The gold mines were fraud too. You are here to shut down the work--but, the humbuggers shut you down instead."
Russell swung round to the tea cup with its peculiar smell.
"Judgement. For you. Now."
"I do not--can not fear the judgement of my Lord! I have served him without shame! I have discharged my faith with utmost honesty. No blemish stains my work!"
"Rose Ball, your little plaything, says different." His mother cried accusingly. "Maria, your castoff wife says different. No grandchild for me issued from that marriage and you know why!"
"Beware the Judge! Beware!" The father cried.
Russell gasped for air and vainly struggled in rebuttal. The voices clattered in the air in sharp disarray. The light in his eyes extinguished. Snakes and serpent's teeth tore into him and a dark pit was opening beside his bed yawning like the blackened abyss of childhood fears.
Devoutly, he wished to croak out heartfelt prayers before the consuming night swallowed him into that widening pit of anguish.
"If I erred---I, I----"
With one last mighty effort of will he thrust his soul against his fragile ribcage and sat erect, eyes wide apart, staring at the bright morning of total emptiness before him.
Empty sleeper car. Pampas, Texas sunrise washing a watercolor primer coat across railroad tracks and arroyo grasses. The chirping sound of sparrows twittering in the stillness of another Halloween.
Then, the utter blackness of death! The errant soul of Pastor Russell collapsed like an empty circus tent with nary a sound but for the rattle of exhalation.
The dream, the life, the warning hung heavy upon the fetid smoke of candles. Steam from the locomotive hissed like a den of snakes unleashed from hell to carry unrepentant liars off to Hell.
Miles away, Judge Rutherford's eyes opened blearily. He belched whiskey like the bark of whipped dog as he rubbed the temples on his pounding skull with shaky hands. Another day! Another chance to kick some ass and take names. Make room. All rise. The honorable Judge Franklin Rutherford is about to heft his flabby ass in judgement. Please be seated!
Beware the Judge. Beware!
The telephone rang.
"The old man is gone."