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An excerpt from "Alas, Poor Country," a novel about faith and fortune

by Greg Coyle

The following is an excerpt from an as yet unpublished novel entitled "Alas, Poor Country," a story detailing the events of the uranium boom on the Colorado Plateau in the late 1940s to early 1960s.

I could hear the voices of my wives and daughters in the kitchen. What greater restorative for a man than the sweet palaver of his women heard through an open doorway in his home. It is surely the special dispensation of God to the righteous, as all things, and a balm to the soul. I sat in my chair and rocked and let the midday meal settle, ever listening to the chorale of their voices. And how often I have sat thus, in this spot, fulfilled in the generous provenance of the Lord, and grieved to the heart at the wayward course of the church. Bedeviled by a society in dire apposition to God, they have discarded the principles of His word. Much as Christ was turned out to the desert, so have we been.

It makes me fearful because I know that God will pour out His judgments upon those who have so rejected the testimony of Jesus. They have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof. As He has told us, "With promise immutable and unchangeable, that inasmuch as those whom I commanded were faithful, they should be blessed with a multiplicity of blessings; but inasmuch as they were not faithful, they are nigh unto cursing. Therefore, inasmuch as some of my servants have not kept their commandment, but have broken the covenant through covetousness, and with feigned words, I will curse them with a very sore and sorrowful curse."

My elder wife, Jane, came from the kitchen, bringing me a plate of sliced apple. This she set on the table and then placed herself in the seat beside me.

"Eat them before they turn brown this time," she bid me.

"I do not mind them brown," I said. "I like them softened some, like my wives."

"You…," she said, and shook her head. As she took up her darning basket, I could see she was smiling.

I ate from the plate of apples and watched her. She was the daughter of Brother Weir, the best friend of my father. I had originally thought her plain in appearance, taking more of her mother’s rounded face and small eyes than her father’s plain and rather unremarkable aspect. But she had an unusually calm bearing and a strength of faith that soon charmed me. Since then, she has not changed, and has, along the way, born me four children. Each seems to have been uniquely endowed with one specific feature of their mother, as if by parsing herself in this way, she gives greater praise to the bounty of God.

The apples made me thirsty for water and after some moments, I got up, and said, "I should like a drink."

"Sit yourself," Jane said. Her fingers mid-stitch, she called to Anna in the kitchen as Anna and the others completed the washing of the dishes from the midday meal. "Anna," she said, "please tend the well and bring your father a pitcher of water."

From the kitchen, Anna said, "Yes, mother," and shortly entered the main room with the water bucket and exited through the front door.

Once the screen door had clapped against the jamb, Jane turned to me and softly asked, "Have you spoken to Brother Tipton about Arthur."

"I have," I said. "He agrees they would make a fine match. Have you spoken to Anna of this?"

"Not yet, but I think she will not be surprised." She smiled.

"We have many trials. I do not deny it. We work hard to keep our post and remain faithful to the covenants made, not only with each other, but with God. And this is not always easy, especially when the world would try so to stop us, to thwart us from having our eternal increase. But is it not worth it, my wife, after all? Is it not worth it when we are provided such blessings as the marriage of our first daughter to such a man?"

She said that it was. But before more could be said, I heard shouting from outside the house. It was Anna, and in the next instant she bolted through the screen door, her face crazy with fear and her cheeks pale as wheat chaff. Her eyes were wide and white with horror.

"What is it, child?" I insisted.

"Oh father, father, something terrible has happened, terrible!"

She appeared half gone from whatever it was she had witnessed and was shaking.

"Tell me, what has happened?" I told her, rising from my seat.

"You must come, now, right now!" She grabbed after my hand and endeavored to pull me from the house. "Please father, Daniel will kill him!"

"Daniel?" I took hold of her shoulders. "Stop now, child. What is it? What has Daniel to do with this? Tell me what has happened."

"There is no time," she said. "You must come this minute!"

I bade Jane wait and let Anna drag me from the house. The public grounds onto which our homes all faced were strangely quiet. Normally busy with children at this hour, I could see only the Caulder boys chasing after a chicken in the shadow made by the eaves of their house.

"He said he will kill him," Anna said.

I did not understand any of it. Daniel had in recent weeks turned sour and disagreeable, yes; he had begun resisting my authority, which he knows full well is predicated upon the law and authority of God. I was even forced the week previous to take the strap to him, which I had not done for some time. But he is still but a young man, and so I understand his susceptibility to a certain incontinence of spirit, and for this I grant him some latitude. But what can he have done, or threatened to do, to have so horrified his sister I could not imagine.

Anna led me out of the circle of houses and toward the flour mill and the well. Before I saw anything of the spectacle, I heard their voices. They came out of the distance without apparent ownership, strange and otherworldly.

"Hurry, father!" she said.

As we moved by the grain shed, I spied them just beyond where work had recently begun on a stone foundation for the school. I let go of Anna’s hand and ran ahead of her. I found about a half a dozen members of the community staring on at Daniel and young Brother Tipton as they rigidly squared off against one another like dogs with their ruff up.

"What is this!" I shouted. Brother Tipton looked at me, his lip bleeding, but did not answer. The onlookers gave me to believe by their expressions that I somehow had a role in these terrible proceedings. Among them, I noted Brother Madden, who stared at me hard and straight. "I said, what is going on here?"

"Stay out of this, father," Daniel said.

I pointed at him. "Step back, Daniel," I said. "I demand that you step back immediately. Brother Tipton, you too, step back." But the two did not listen and instead continued their slow circling of each other, left to right.

"Brother Tipton," Daniel scoffed. "He is no brother of mine."

"And you are a liar, Daniel," said Brother Tipton. "You have broken your covenants with the Lord, and by His will you shall go down for it."

Daniel feigned a lunge, sending Brother Tipton staggering back on his heels. "Better a liar than a coward," Daniel said. "You and the rest, you will be buried by your fear. You are weak and afraid and would have the world outside take what is ours. It is only for boldness that God rewards man with real blessings."

"I support your father," Brother Tipton said. "And here he is. Why not tell him, tell him what you have been saying, what everyone here has heard."

I stepped forward and those about me drifted back until I stood alone. "Yes," I said, "tell me, Daniel. Speak."

Daniel looked at me and said nothing, and his face was altered in some particular I could not immediately identify. The new aspect chilled me.

Seconds went by and still Daniel said nothing. Brother Tipton drew his mouth across the fabric of his shirt at the shoulder, wiping clean the blood that issued from his lips. "Now you will not speak?" he asked. "Where is your courage now, Daniel? He is here. Speak. Tell him."

"You shut your mouth, Arthur!"

"Apostate!" Brother Tipton yelled.

"I’m going to cut you from this world," Daniel said, drawing a knife from his boot. Its appearance sent a charge through those collected.

"Daniel!" I said.

Brother Tipton continued. "You are an apostate. You have forsaken your very father, and abandoned your God, all for the promise of riches made you by your uncle and his band of brigands. And now you will–"

But this was interrupted as Daniel launched after Brother Tipton with great energy, slicing him across the chest where his shirt hung open. I shouted after him and moved to intercede, but was frozen when I saw Brother Madden take a step forward as well. He marked me and shook his head.

The men separated and those closest to Brother Tipton ran to him to offer aid, which he waved off.

Daniel spat into the dirt. "Abandoned God? You know nothing at all of God because you fail to think for yourself. You, and those like you, you are like children. You would have God wipe your nose before doing it yourself. But the truly righteous know there is no reward in heaven for a man who will not help himself on earth, Brother Tipton."

Brother Tipton pushed away attempting to tend to his cut. "Including your father?" asked Brother Tipton. His face was pinched in pain as the wound bubbled blood and soaked his shirt to the belt.

I spoke up. "Enough, Daniel," I said. "Now throw down the knife. Throw it down. What evil has infected you that you would take up a weapon against your brother?"

This made Daniel laugh. He wiped the bloodied blade on his pant leg as he paced back and forth in the makeshift circle of men. "Evil, father? No, no evil. You see evil where there is only strength and sound judgment. You mistake action for evil. If you had eyes you would see we are protecting this community."

"You are in error, Daniel," I said. "You are young; you do not understand. Now put down the knife."

"You would have us do nothing," he said, "opening ourselves to others that would take what is ours. No vision is necessary to know that God would not provide for those unwilling to protect what has been given. No age is necessary for that. As Uncle Loren has said, ‘when you act as prey, you are thought as prey.’"

I said, "Your uncle is wrong, Daniel. Remember the words of the 18th chapter of First Nephi: ‘I did not work the timbers after the manner which was learned by men, neither did I build the ship after the manner of men; but I did build it after the manner which the Lord had shown unto me.’ Do not be confused, Daniel; the two are not the same."

"Enough of this nonsense," Daniel said. "Say what you will, father, but we will not permit our way of life, or the ore to which God has led us, to be taken away. Not by fear or failure to--"

Then, just as I thought the temper of the fight had begun to clear and the men to settle, Brother Tipton leapt forward and seized Daniel, deftly pivoting so as to hold him from behind. He clutched at the arm holding the knife as if at an errant firehose. I rushed to them and attempted as well to subdue his arm and weapon. But Daniel was strong and just now full of the spirit of some malignant force, and I could not, even with Brother Tipton’s help, overpower him. He cut me deep along my forearm and this sent me reeling backward, my head gone light. And then I was on the ground. I felt aiding hands on me and heard Anna’s voice, but could only watch, as if after the transactions of a nightmare, Daniel and Brother Tipton struggle in the dirt before me. They stumbled and twisted and then Daniel managed to turn on Brother Tipton, cutting him again, this time at his shoulder. This sent him hard to the dirt and in an instant Daniel was on him, pinning the boy’s arms to the ground with his knees and clutching his neck. Sitting above him, Daniel panted and raised the knife above the other’s face.

"No!" Anna yelled, springing from me. But the others stopped her. "No, Daniel, no!"

Just when it seemed Daniel was about to plunge the knife into Brother Tipton’s neck, Brother Madden appeared from the circle and took hold of Daniel’s arm. He shook his head. "Enough, Daniel," he said, and my son looked at him with his changed face and then a moment later released Brother Tipton and got to his feet. He stood there, slump-shouldered and wet from commingled sweat and blood, Brother Warren still holding him at his wrist. This was my son no longer.

I rose to my knees. "You will regret this day," I said.

Greg Coyle is a blind religious cleric and part-time Civil War reanimator living in Portland. He writes novels to quiet the voices in his head.



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