First light broke amber waves over cold prairie. Morning stretched like a cosmos before Flinty McGoughlan—not that his baptismal name was Flinty. That name was remembered by so few, and they now far away and no longer part of his story. Flinty just fit, had always fit, so he wore it lion-rampant. It was in his blood.
So it was that Flinty, a murder of crows, a forever-flock of flying blackbirds, a horned toad, and two disinterested cows witnessed that bloody-as-Armageddon sunrise sending pools of fire dancing over grasslands. “Oh, Yosiyah,” mourned Flinty in words of Yerimiyahu now forgotten. “How are thou fallen, son of Dawid? How are thy mighty men slain upon the mountains?”
It was at that moment Flinty saw that horned toad, eagerly soaking up sunfire. “Ah,” he switched from vocal to silent. “Blessed art thou, King of the Universe, who hast provided bread in my wilderness.” Inwardly he coiled, though outwardly he was as still as a rattler. Then he struck.
It was a tenet of Flinty’s faith that the prairie would provide bread. He referred to it as his “moving feast.” A second tenet was like it: that a moving rock went ahead of him, gushing water in this dry land. To Flinty, the puddles left by summer showers were evidence. What more did he need?
His repast over, he rose and went upon the strength of it eight miles, skirting cattle farms and crossing occasional dirt roads after stopping, looking, and listening; unwilling to meet another person on his pilgrimage. As he walked, he sang, mostly of Yosiyah, but occasionally old, remembered songs—Old Dan Tucker for one, and Wayfaring Stranger for another. Thus as the sun softened to hard white, he came to his buttes, heartland of his private world. Not those popular buttes, goal of many day hikers, but lesser buttes unworthy of photography or artist’s canvas, or hiker’s homage. Here in this familiar landscape he hid from those who would have him live in soulless cubicles, controlled by sterile heretics who believed not that a man should live, but that he should only exist.
There were a number of caves here, hardly more than small depressions into these buttes. They were deep enough to keep occasional rain out. By the far butte’s base, a small spring, hardly more than a trickle, told him his moving rock had once rested here. This was abundance for Flinty, for it was all he needed.
Sunset painted fiery oranges, flaming crimsons, even back as far as to where sun had risen. Flinty sat outside his claimed cave, waiting for stars. And as twilight deepened, they came dancing their ancient steps to music heard only by the spheres. With stars came The Fathers, as he called them. “Ghosts,” he told himself, “spirits of all fathers gone come to talk babble, like the tower.” He let them babble, paying no more attention to them than he had paid his uniformed attendants with their plastic cups of apple juice and pills.
He watched stars instead of listening to babbling Fathers. Then, suddenly, every Father fell unnaturally silent, untimely still…just…gone, like that. Then deep, strong, a voice spoke and Flinty trembled, for this voice knew his name.
“Ian,” it spoke, and it seemed every star bent nearer to hear the quiet voice. Flinty sat up, giving full attention. The voice whispered yet softer yet as strong. “Go, now. Follow Arcturus. Look near the highway. Now.”
Something in the voice required no questioning. Flinty rose, sighted Arcturus, and began walking. Maybe half-mile later, Flinty saw them cowering by rusted-out-car, gibbering. “Come, Fathers,” he called. “Might as well have company. Lots of walking to do.” They came, trailing behind him, babbling their speech.
“Wish I could understand your gibberish, but then, not likely to be worth listening. So you listen to this, and he began singing, his voice rocky, his tune approximate.
“On the dusty earth-drum
Beats the falling rain,
Now a whispered murmur,
Now a louder strain.
Slender, silvery drumsticks,
On an ancient drum,
Beat the mellow music,
Bidding life to come.
Chords of earth awaken,
Notes of greening spring,
Rise and fall triumphant,
Slender, silvery drumsticks,
Beat the long tattoo—
God, the Great Musician,
Calling life anew.”
“Like that? Flinty called. The Fathers gibbered. “It’s by Joseph Cotter, it is,” Flinty continued. “I learned that from old Mrs. Toussaint. She used to watch me when I was a child. Taught me more, too.” So singing, he moved through his stock—Markham’s Outwitted, Teasdale’s Barter, Lanier’s The Stirrup-Cup, Patmore’s Magnus Est Veritas, and many another forgotten old poem.
So singing, he never noticed Arcturus sink below the distant mountains, or Altair follow Arcturus, or Vega now lying low in the west. He never noticed he was now alone, deserted by his familiars. On he sang, walking to the rhyme of the lines, the rhythm of the words.
Yet when first silver thread laced east’s horizon, he knew. Shortly after he saw twin beams of a passing truck, heard its hiss of tires on pavement, knew he was near his destination. Switching from his stock of poetry, he returned questioningly to his Lament for Yosiyah. “Women would go out to meet you, singing songs of your deeds. Silent are their songs, and singers weep for you, oh, Yosiyah.” It was his way of asking guidance.
Something in the shadows moved maybe twenty paces before him. Not a rabbit, nor coyote, nor other familiar beast. He stared at the spot and sang new words to the Yosiyah tune.
“I will not hurt you, little one. Do not fear. Come to me, little one, I will help you.” With each line, he moved a careful, quiet step forward. Pausing to listen, he heard a soft whimper, heard fear. Again he sang, “Are you cold? I will warm you. Are you tired? I will let you sleep. Are you lost? I will rescue you.”
The whimper came again, a little louder, very uncertain. “Let us go find your mother,” he sang. “Come to me, little one. I will keep you safe.”
Then from behind a bush and into dawn’s growing light, a child, a toddler, crawled out.
“How did you get here?” Flinty wondered. He took a last step, caught up the boy and held his shivering body against his own. “Your safe, now,” he comforted the child. “Let’s go find your mother.”
Climbing the last hillock between him and the highway, Flinty saw the sun’s flames lick across the grasses north of him. Following its beams trajectory, he saw at least twenty trucks and cars a mile north, parked just off the highway. Taking this as an omen, he changed course. The boy was already asleep. Flinty’s arms shook from his added weight.
It was a search party; sheriffs, farmers, and father. Someone, Flinty never knew who, saw the man cradling the child, called out alert. A dozen people raced to Flinty. A young man called out, “Jeffry,” and seized the sleeping boy out of Flinty’s arms. Others grabbed Flinty, calling out questions cascading. “Who are you?” “What were you doing with Jeffrey?” “Have you harmed him?” Flinty, for the first time all night, lost his voice. “Oh, Yosiyah,” his heart cried out.
Then everything blurred together—child taken to a trailer, Flinty searched, handcuffed, thoughts only of Yosiyah’s Lament, a pronghorn running free across a far hill, questions over and over again, trying to find one word, a right word to say, sun singeing sky, a sheriff’s car arriving, a sheriff’s car.
An officer stepped from that car, walked over to those questioning Flinty. He stared at Flinty, then smiled. “Well,” he declared, “if it isn’t Flinty McGoughlan. How are you doing, Flinty?”
Flinty stared up, wondering how people he didn’t know could know him. “Oh, Yosiyah,” he murmured—his first words since questions had started.
“Yes, that’s Flinty, all right, singing laments over Josiah. No idea where he learned the Hebrew pronunciations. Gentlemen, if you will take off those handcuffs, I know Flinty won’t cause any problems. I’ll vouch for him.” Reluctantly, it was done. “Now, if you will leave Flinty alone with me, I’m sure we two can sort this out.” Slowly, they yielded several steps back.
“Flinty, I’m Officer Lawson. You don’t remember me, but I’ve talked to you before now. I even found you a couple times after you escaped from McKinley House. They never could get a lock that could hold you, and I don’t blame you for trying to escape. Wouldn’t want to stay there myself.”
“Anyway, Flinty let me tell you a story and you tell me where I’m right and where I’m wrong.” So as the sun’s amber turned to iron, officer Lawson told a story, mostly wrong except where Flinty found the missing child (“By chance,” Lawson insisted while Flinty rocked a little, whispering, “Oh Yosiyah, how art thou fallen? Let no dew fall on thy mountains.”) So even there Lawson was only partly right. “Then you brought the child here, unharmed. Am I right?”
“The Fathers ran away, but the voice said ‘follow Arcturus.’”
Lawson nodded sagely. “As I thought. Now you sit here quiet while I straighten out this little rumpus.”
For several minutes Officer Lawson talked with the searchers, slowly, seemingly without design, sheep-dogging them closer to the trailer where Jeffry’s father and a sheriff had determined that aside from mild exposure and a good case of hunger, Jeffry was unharmed. Suddenly, Flinty realized the crowd was several yards away, paying no attention to him.
At that same moment, he heard that voice in his ear, singing like a joyous cricket. “Go! Now!” it sang. Quietly, he went, keeping as many trucks as possible between the others and him. Before long, he came upon a small gully just past the last car. Descending into it, he followed it northward, heading a long way round back to home.
Officer Lawson, alone, saw Flinty’s flight. He had been watching for this, hoping for this, even praying for this. He spoke compellingly, keeping attention on himself until Flinty vanished. “Ah Flinty,” he thought when Jeffry’s father came out of the trailer to report the good news. “We owe you this much. Go in peace.” A moment later he added, “Jeffry was lucky that you came upon him. We could have searched a week and never found him.”
Had Flinty heard that last thought, he would have emphatically replied, “Oh, Yosiyah,” in negation. He had never believed in luck.