**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."
**Editor's Note** The last installment will appear Wednesday 12/23/09. Thank you all for hanging with me! Now go have a cookie!