**Editor's Note** This is the third installment of a piece of short fiction inspired by Cap'n Ergo. If you missed the first two, this is the first and this is the second. My dear friends, may the joy of the season be yours, and may goodness and mercy follow you for all the days of your life. Cheers!
"We know whut Mr. Umbala brought but how about you two?" Clayton asked.
"I have brought for him some myrrh incense to help with his meditations and his morning prayers. My people have used it for centuries," Pang said with a note of pride.
"And you Amir?" asked Umbala with a nudge, as Amir remained quiet.
"I have brought some expensive French perfume. It was the only thing I could find that I could bring on the plane," he said a bit sheepishly.
"Oh yeah?" said Clayton with renewed interest, "Whut's it called?"
"Essence of Frankincense," Amir said quietly.
"Is that the kinda stuff French hook- um, French ladies-of-the-evening wear?" inquired Clayton.
"Certainly not!" Amir said firmly and he struggled to get his Gitanes from his pocket and lit one.
"You can ash on the floorboard Mr. Amir but I think Mr. Umbala better crack a window if he can reach it," Clayton said apologetically.
From there they rode on in silence for a while. Pang tried the radio but Clayton explained that the heater controls were the only thing that really worked well, or at all, in his old truck. The wind picked up and buffeted the truck and it started to sway into the other lane now and then. Clayton tightened his grip on the wheel and assured them that it would be alright.
Then the snow started to fall. Big, fat flakes the size of a quarter started to strike the windshield and Clayton swore quietly as he turned on the wipers and leaned forward in his seat to catch glimpses of the lines on the road. To make matters worse, the passenger side wiper would only rise a few inches to clear away the snow and left most of that side of the windshield covered.
"I've been meanin' ta fix that," Clayton muttered as he slowed down to meet an unexpected corner. But even as the snowstorm gathered strength, the star shone before them like some unearthly beacon guiding them to their goal. At the edge of the headlights they could see the land grew thick with trees and shrouded them in even greater darkness.
Umbala turned to the others and said, "Gentlemen, I think we should pray." Each nodded their agreement and bowed his head, except for Clayton who leaned a little closer to the wheel to see beyond the hood of the truck. All of them muttered their prayers in his own native tongue, and each hand sought out the hand of another as they prayed for their deliverance from the storm that threatened to halt them in the wilderness. The minutes seemed to stretch and the creaks and groans of the old Ford sounded as if it was adding it's prayers to theirs. The wipers kept time to their cadence and a soft sweat ran down the creases of Clayton's furrowed brow. The snow began to drift across the road. And then, as if by some silent signal, the wise men ended their prayers and the silence was only punctuated by the slap of the wipers.
"Hot Damn!" Clayton shouted, and by the light of an oncoming snow plow the green sign at the side of the road was illuminated, "You are now entering Licking County; Land Of Legend."
"It's alright now fellas," Clayton exclaimed, "This is my hometown and I could guide us through here blindfolded. Mr. Amir, can you see the star?" Amir said that he couldn't, but Umbala rolled his window down and leaned out into the storm and giggled like a school girl. "There Mr. Clayton!," he pointed, "Straight ahead! We are so close!" and his deep laugh was so infectious that they all snickered a bit and a couple of the fisherman from in back pressed their noses to the glass to see what all the the laughter was about.
"That there is the Hanover exit," Clayton said with a smile as he pointed out in a sea of white, "That's where I'd get off if I was headed for home." Despite the grim conditions, joy filled them all and they grinned until it hurt.
Then they saw the lights. Yellow, red, and blue ahead and the shape of patrol cars blocking the road came into view.
"Looks like there has been an accident," muttered Clayton as he crawled to a stop. A patrolman came to the side of the truck and rapped on the window with his flashlight. "Sorry folks, but the road has been closed. A National Emergency has been declared on account of the blizzard," he said in a cold, bloodless voice.
"On who's authority?" Clayton challenged in an angry tone.
The patrolman leaned in the window and shined his bright light from face to face and responded, "Under the authority of his honorable Agent Munson T. Herrod, Head of Homeland Security for the state of Ohio. Who the hell are you?"
At this, Clayton demurred. He handed over his drivers licence and explained that the guys he had with him were some veterinarians that were from out of the country and he had brought them here to examine his sheep before the end of the year sell-off, and that the guys in the back of the truck were local sheep farmers just like him who had chipped in to finance their trip. The deputy examined everyones cards and passports and seemed a little miffed that they were who they said they were, but in the end he couldn't let them continue on. The road was closed. Clayton said he would just head back down the highway and take the Hanover exit to get home and he would be out of the officer's hair. "No," insisted the cop, "you can't move this vehicle one more inch. You are welcome to hike, but the truck stays here. This road is closed and all traffic is to be stopped."
"But we will freeze to death!" protested Clayton. "And when we get the okay to open the roads, we will send out a search party," the cop offered, and in a quieter, more stern voice he said, "Should you come across something unusual, don't hesitate to call it in. We appreciate your cooperation."
"I'm sure you do," mumbled Clayton, "Alright fellas, everybody out of the truck. It looks like we are hoofin' it from here." The shepherds and fisherman grumbled as they climbed out into the snow. "Here's how we are goina do this, we travel single file. I'll lead and brake a path with Mr. Umbala behind me as we have the longest legs. I want you to reach forward and grab the belt of the guy ahead of you. John, you are in back with Mr. Pang. Anybody falls, call out. Anybody lets go of a belt, call out. And Zeke, you damn fool, put the beer back in the truck! We can't carry it anyway! Let's headout!" The officer smiled and touched the brim of his hat as they left, and then he called in on the radio.
The going was rough and the wind through the electric wires along the road gave an unholy shriek as it swept along. The snow began to crust on the cuffs of their trousers which only made each step that much heavier than the last.
Amir, in the middle of the pack, clutched at Johnny's belt and was thankful that at least his right hand was warm while the rest of him hovered between frozen and numb. The wind caught his wool cap and sent it zinging off into the darkness and he could feel the snow collecting on the top of his head now. His breath was ragged from his exertion but he tried to think of other things, warm things, like the orchid room in his father's flower shop where the temperature was always sweltering. The orchids had always been his mother's favorite, his father had explained. She had always tended them with such loving care, but when she died the job fell to him. His father had tried to look after them for a few weeks after her death, but always broke down in heaving sobs that would bring him to his knees. After that they went to the mosque more often and became much more active in the faith. They made friends and his father helped him to learn to read the Koran. "Life is a sport and a pastime," that was Amir's favorite passage. "You must always keep the faith," his father warned, "You have a strong mind and it will take you far, but always remember that you also have a strong heart that is the gift of your mother." Lost in his memories, Amir didn't hear that Clayton had called for a rest and he walked into Johnny's back.
Johnny turned, "You all right suh?" he asked with concern. "Yes, yes, just tired," responded Amir as he sat down on his briefcase in the snow.
"We'll take fifteen here fellas, and Mr. Umbala, no offence sir, but I wish you would quit switching hands on me. You start sliding that cold hand into my pants just makes me want to jump out of my skin."
"My apologies Mr. Clayton, but the bag gets heavy in one hand for too long." Umbala said. "Well shove that gold brick in your pocket and take the socks from your bag and cover your hands, and let me have that white shirt. Mr. Amir put this shirt on your head like a turban. It might look a little out of place but at least it will help keep your head warm. Zeke, what have you got there?" Zeke, looking a little ashamed pulled a handful of beers from his old army field jacket. "Well pass them around, you got six so every man gets a half but don't offer none to Mr. Amir. He can't drink it." Zeke smiled broadly at the prospect of having a beer to himself.
"No, I think I'd like to have some," Amir said to his own surprise, "I think Allah will forgive me just this once." Zeke's smile disappeared but he slugged down his half in two gulps and handed it to Amir. The unfamiliar taste and sting on his tongue was welcome and unsettling at the same time. "Mr. Amir, have you got any idea how much farther we have to go?" asked Clayton. Amir sat silent as the cold seemed to drive for his bones. He opened his briefcase to consult his notes but his sock garbed hands couldn't hold on to his papers and the wind snatched them away into the night. He looked up blankly at Clayton.
"The King is less than a kilometer away," said Pang. "Are you sure? I mean if-" Clayton started. "My work is measured in the milliseconds Mr. Clayton Delaney and I have spent my entire life working for this moment. I would not waste my life, or the lives of these good men, on a simple guess Mr. Clayton Delaney. If I am wrong, may my ancestors torture me in Hell for all eternity."
Clayton looked him in the eye for a long minute, then grinned and nodded, "By God, that is good enough for me Mr. Pang. That's damn sure good enough for me." And with a loud voice Clayton called them to their feet, "Alright you sorry sinners, get off your asses and start making tracks. The Savior of us all is just down the road a piece and we are gointa be there when he comes!"
No sooner had they fallen back in line and began their trudge through the deep snow, the wind died down and the snow quit altogether as if the storm had lost it's will to hinder them any further. At the first sight of a lit streetlight a cheer of joy rang out from them all and an impromptu snowball fight began until Clayton told them to knock it off and get moving.
Pang grabbed Clayton's elbow and pointed, "Here Mr. Clayton Delaney. Here is where we find the King of Kings."
"At the Best Western hotel?" asked Clayton incredulously. "We have followed a star that has led us to the west Mr. Clayton, why not the Best Western?" queried Umbala. "You got me there. Let's go see who's checked in," Clayton said with a shrug.
The sidewalk leading to the front door didn't show a single track in the snow and Clayton pulled on the handle only to discover it was locked. He pounded with his fists on the glass and yelled to the top of his lungs only to be joined by eleven cold and frustrated men. In a moment a thin wispy haired man in a parka came to the door. "We don't have any rooms!" he shouted from the other side of the glass, "Go somewhere else!"
"We're lookin' for somebody!" shouted Clayton but the man turned his back and walked away with a dismissive wave. "Stand back," warned Umbala as he rested his hand on Matt's shoulder and cocked his long leg back. Umbala's foot flew forward and connected with the rushing sound of splintered glass. He reached in and turned the latch and held the shattered door open so the rest could pass, and smiled as he did it. They all filed into the lobby that was standing room only and pressed their way to the wispy haired man who gaped at them in wonder. "Who do you think you are? You can't just break in here!" he shouted, "I'm going to call the cops! You are going to jail! This is breaking & entering, this is trespassing, this is..." he faltered.
"I said we was looking for somebody," said Clayton in a slow, menacing voice, "and we were having a little trouble getting your attention from outside. Now you go right ahead and call the cops Mr. ..."
"Smythe, Mr. Carl Smythe, I'm the manager and I'll-"
"You'll help us Mr. Smythe, 'cause the cops are six blocks away and your phone don't work I'm willing to bet, what with all this snow. We don't want to get ugly, but that can be arranged." As Clayton spoke he positioned he face an inch away from Smythe and slowly backed him up against the counter. "We need to find a woman. A pregnant woman. We don't know her name, but maybe she mentioned she was related to a guy named David. Ring any bells?"
"I don't know..," Smythe stuttered, "There are too many people here...not all of them checked in...some just getting out of the weather.." Clayton reached in his pocket and pulled out a large pocketknife and opened it in a slow ceremony. He reached past Smythe and cut the cord on the phone with deliberate motions. "Are you sure you can't help us?" he asked again as he examined the knife's edge.
"Don't," warned Markus at his elbow, "it isn't our way." Clayton looked at him for a moment, then nodded and closed the knife and slid it back in his pocket. "I'm sorry," apologised Clayton, "it's just that we have come so far and been through so much... we just need to find her so we can help her. You see, she's in trouble. She is in bad trouble and we have came to help..." Clayton trailed off and the crowded lobby breathed an almost audible sigh of relief.
"Hey dude," spoke up a leather-clad biker woman near Clayton, "there was a pregnant lady who knocked on the door a few hours ago. There was a guy with her," she offered. "What room are they in? Where'd they go?" Clayton asked eagerly. The biker shrugged.
"The jackass manager here wouldn't let them in," said a guy in a rainbow T-shirt.
The fist that connected with Smythe's nose flew so fast that Clayton wasn't sure he had thrown it himself until he heard the bones snap under his hand. Smythe slid to the floor with a nasal "Owww," and he held his tie to it to staunch the flow of blood.
"What kind of asshole sends a pregnant woman out in a storm?" Clayton shouted. At that moment a man in ratty clothes and a mud stained Steelers hat was working his way through the crowd from the back of the room with three hot cups of coffee in his hands. "Scuse me, hot coffee, comin' through, pardon me, clear a path, headed for the door" he called out, ignorant of the scene that had just transpired.
As the man shouldered his way through the crowd and as he passed, Amir touched his arm. "Where are you going with that coffee?" Amir asked. The man's brown face broke into a look of concern, "Out to the trailer. I got Mr. Wainwright's horses to look after," he said, "besides the new child and momma and poppa," he chuckled. "Take us to them," Pang said, and the thirteen of them filled out into the snowy parking lot leaving a bewildered crowd behind them.
"What's your name?" asked Clayton. "Able Amos Moses O'Brien, but most folks call me Moz," he replied, "You guy's from the Government?" he asked.
"Nope," said Clayton, "just kinda friends of the family."
"Tha's good, cause it's always good to have family about when a new youngin is borned. The momma and poppa always need lotsa help den." Moz handed the hot coffee cups to Pang so he could undo the latch at the back of a large horse trailer. "Now you gots to be real quiet now as momma and baby was just fallin' asleep when I went in an hour ago and I can't have you spookin' them or the horses neither. So shuts up and wait for me to call you all in one at a time."
Umbala asked eagerly, "Everything went alright didn't it?" and the grey-haired old black man smiled. "I've delivered a lot of calves and foals in my time and I've had some tough ones too, but I ain't never delivered no baby before, but this one come out like he was ready to meet the world. He don't cry or whine. He just snuggle to his mommas tit and fall asleep like he got the peace of Heaven on him. I put him in the feed trough with some hay and wrap him in some horse blankets cause that's all I got, and momma, she need some rest."
"Does Mr. Wainwright know you got a mother and child in his horse trailer in the dead of winter?" asked Amir.
"No suh, and I don't aim to tell him. I done this all on my own and I ain't about to involve him in somethin' that don't concern him, provided he don't find out." Moz said.
Clayton took the shepherds and fishermen aside and held a quiet conversation with them, and in a moment they headed back into the hotel. "Why don't you fellas go in one at a time and see our new addition to the family," Clayton suggested with a wink. Moz took the coffee cups from Pang and lead him into the trailer. A few minutes later, Pang came out and knelt on the ground in the deep snow and wept as he prayed. Umbala crept in and pulled the door softly shut behind him. In a few minutes he returned and could say nothing as he motioned for Amir to take his place. A few more minutes passed and Amir returned with a look in his eye as if he had seen something that would change him forever and he held Umbala close to him like a long lost brother.
What transpired next was a bit of a blur for all concerned. The fishermen and shepherds returned with a cot that they used to carry mother and child into the hotel and on up to the Honeymoon suite that had been recently been vacated by a very kind, very rich, and devout Mr. Wainwright. The Biker chick and the guy in the rainbow T-shirt had held the doors open on the elevator as the mother and child were transported to their new room while the adoring crowd in the lobby was held at bay by the bloody manager Smythe who threatened to turn loose this band of hooligans against the first person who woke the baby. The kitchen staff was ordered to feed anyone who was hungry and the small lounge was opened to provide drinks on the house to anyone who had come to seek respite at the Best Western in the horrible blizzard of '08.
As Clayton and the gang settled into the largest booth in the lounge and waited for Smythe to come and take their order, a thin and well-worn young man of seventeen with a scraggly beard wandered up.
"Are you Amir?" he asked and Clayton pointed to Amir. "My name is Joe, and I just want to thank you for all you have done for us and if you ever need new cabinets in your kitchen, just give me a call."
"Are you the baby's father?" asked Clayton.
"Well, sort of..." he said. "We just got married yesterday at the courthouse and..."
"Well we pooled our money and got you something," said Clayton with a grin, "Alright fellas, put it on the table." And with that appeared a bottle of expensive French perfume, some Myrrh incence, a Swiss Army knife, three packs of smokes, two lighters, a Snickers candy bar, one ticket to the monster truck pull, three Happy Meal Toys, a tea bag, a bottle opener, three-hundred dollars worth of prepaid phone cards, and the keys to a 1984 red Ford pickup that could be picked up at the Hanover exit as soon as the roads were clear.
Joe looked down at the stuff that filled the table and tried to mumble his thanks but the words just wouldn't come. At this, Umbala stood up and took off the jacket to his three-piece pinstripe suit and slid it over the youth's bony shoulders.
"You need this much more than I, " he said softly, "but it will fit much better when you get the weight out of the pocket."
Joe reached for the large brick that rested in the pocket and pulled it out to see what made the coat so heavy and gasped when he saw what it was.
"And the coat looks good on you too," said Clayton as he got a fresh chew.
**Editor's Note** I have borrowed and swiped a lot to create this story, as well as embellished, gilded the truth, and out and out lied, but know that I did it for you. Dale & Skyler's Dad, thank you so very much for sticking with me for this tale. I dedicate it to the both of you. God bless and keep you safe.