This is one of a series of short stories I had intended to record as a Podcast. Then I went and lost my voice, which is now reduced, temporarily, I hope, to a frog-like croak. So, Plan B, post them here. At some point, maybe, the voice will get better and I'll be able to go back to Plan A.
The main characters in this story were all real people who really knew each other. One or two of the of the other events might be true, too, but I wouldn’t put money on it. The story’s called The Good, the Bad and the Theologically Misguided.
The story begins in Santa Fe, New Mexico, one velvet night some time in the late 1870’s. Sister Blandina Segale, a nun, was having dinner with Lew Wallace, the state governor.
The Nun was not from around these parts. She’d been born in Italy, and her parents had emigrated to Ohio when she was just four years old. In her teenage years she heard ‘the call’ and signed up at the local convent. The Mother Superior there eventually sent her first to Colorado then to New Mexico where she had a floating brief, administering to the spiritual and, as a nurse, medical needs of the community.
This was the West, and by God it was wild. Cholera, smallpox and rattlesnakes, were chief among the dangers. Some of the local native Americans, pissed off about have having their land stolen, were planning to retaliate under a warrior who called himself ‘Isa-Tai’ or Coyote’s Vagina. And there was a sizeable population of felons, gunslingers and desperadoes, often hired as vigilantes to protect the property people already owned or to appropriate that which they didn’t. That the good Sister lasted more than a week in such a place ought to count as a miracle, but she kept going well into the 20th century, and lived long enough to see troops leave to fight on the Western Front, flappers dance the Charleston, the flouting of prohibition, the rise of Hitler and the release of Frank Sinatra’s first record.
She often found herself rubbing shoulders with the wealthy and powerful who might provide the means to build the schools and hospitals territory so badly needed, which was how she came to be dining with the Governor.
Lew Wallace was an ex-soldier who had served on the union side in the Civil War. His tastes and manners, though, were as far removed from the barrack room as could be imagined. His chef, for instance, who had prepared the meal they were eating, was Parisian, and though the locally produced goose liver had nothing in common with foie-gras and Brie around those parts was just a nonsense word, his concoctions often came close to real French cuisine.
The bookshelves in the governor’s library were filled with works of philosophy, history, science and literature. And at his desk were rough notes towards a work of his own, an epic of ancient Rome.
When the meal was over, the Governor and the Nun sat on his terrace and he told her about his novel.
The plot concerned a Jewish nobleman, living in Jerusalem, whose enemies frame him for a murder. The nobleman is arrested and spends time first as a galley-slave, then a charioteer. More than once he comes close to death, but miraculously survives. Meanwhile, his beloved wife and daughter are hauled off to prison where they contract leprosy. Finally, the nobleman returns to his homeland resolved to seek bitter revenge on those who have wronged him. The Governor had title for the book, Judah Ben Hur - the name of the main character, followed by a subtitle - A Tale of Vengeance.
Sister Blandina admired the broad strokes of the story, and was sure, that The Governor had the literary abilities to match its theme. But she had reservations about the ending. Suffering, she said, gives us a closer understanding of heaven where - she quoted scripture - ‘there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.’ A man who had suffered as Judah Ben Hur had suffered, would have gained too deep a Christ-like spiritual awareness ever to entertain a motive as shallow as vengeance. She had nursed, she said, many men who had been beaten, betrayed, lost friends, families and fortune, so she knew from experience that what they seek in the final reckoning was never vengeance but redemption. They bless their enemies.
The Governor begged to differ. He had commanded the third division under Grant at the Battle of Shiloh. He had seen men without faces, without limbs, when the only thing keeping them alive was the hideous rattle of pain. He had sat with the most God fearing of soldiers as they breathed their last and knew that, far from seeking redemption and forgiveness, they are usually inclined to curse their creator and beg their fellows to slaughter and maim as many of their enemies as they possibly can. It didn’t make sense to him that a man who’d suffered as much as his hero Judah Ben Hur had suffered could ever forgive. Only Christ on the Cross could show that sort of compassion. In fact wouldn’t it even be a sort of blasphemy to suggest that a mere human could ever show that sort of Christ-like mercy?
‘No,’ said the Nun. ‘It is the duty of all men and women to follow Christ in every way. The blasphemy is to suggest that they cannot. And to tell a story like yours, that takes the reader into the very soul of a man, and then to claim that, having been thus tempered in the fire of suffering, that man could still think of vengeance, is to spit on Christ and the Christian religion.’
They argued well into the night, but remained in their fixed positions: the Nun, the idealist, believing that, in extremis we think only of redemption and the life hereafter, the governor, the cynic, believing that we mere mortals can never rise above our natural cussedness.
One day, not long afterwards, while she was travelling in Lincoln County, Sister Blandina heard that a desperado was holed up in a cabin nearby slowly bleeding to death from a gunshot wound. No doctor would go near. The Lincoln County war - a big time feud between landowners - was raging. Any doctor who tended the wounds of one side’s hired killers would more than likely be gunned down by the other side’s hired killers. But the good Sister knew her duty. As soon as she heard about the poor man, she asked about the location of the cabin, rode over there and, with her bandages and ointments and sewing kit, saved the outlaw’s life.
Now, it turned out that the wounded man was an associate of Billy the Kid, also known as WIlliam Bonny, also known as William Wright, also known as Henry McCarty, along with a lot of other names. Billy was just nineteen years old but had already had his exploits written up in the newspapers and was rumoured to have shot and killed six or seven men.
A few nights later, as Sister Blandina lay sleeping in a hotel room, Billy broke in and appeared like an apparition by her bed. She woke up and recognised him from the wanted posters. She wasn’t scared. To be honest it never even occurred to her that the man might have come to do her harm. She just smiled, said, ‘Hello, Billy,’ and gave him her blessing.
Billy pulled up a chair and thanked for her her charity towards his associate. And thus the two of them, outlaw and Nun, he in boots, hat and spurs, she in her chaste nightwear, enjoyed a quiet conversation.
She asked him how he had fallen into his current occupation - which was, at the time, hired killer and part-time cattle rustler - and he told her his story.
He was born in New York City and baptised and raised in the Roman Catholic faith. He could still recite his Hail Mary, his Our Father and his Credo but had not been to church in a while and, these days, the only time he heard the names of God or Jesus was as cuss words in a saloon.
When his father had died, his mother and stepfather had moved to New Mexico. Then his mother had died, too, and his stepfather had abandoned him. His first crime, he said, was to steal bread without which he would certainly have starved to death. Crime begets crime and the companionship of criminals put conscience easily to sleep.
Billy told her that he had in his brief time on earth, broken all of the ten commandments except one. He had never at any time coveted his neighbour's house, wife, manservant, maidservant, ox, or ass because if he wanted them he just took them.
The Nun asked whether he had any wish to confess, to seek forgiveness and change his ways, and he told her that was exactly what he wanted to do, but that he found himself in something of a bind. Stealing and killing, he said, was the only life he knew and he had made so many enemies that often the only way he could stay alive was by shooting before he was shot.
Sister Blandina reassured him that, if he was truly penitent and put his faith in God, then the great and blessed Lord would lead him to righteousness and though he walked in the shadow of the valley of death he should fear no ill.
Billy hoped that she was right but when ill comes in the shape of some sharpshooter with a Winchester, he said, you’d be a fool not to fear it.
The Sister promised she would pray for him, and Nun and outlaw parted as the best of friends.
A week or so later, the Governor got a letter from Billy, saying that he wanted, as he’d told the Nun, to renounce his wicked ways and he believed that with the Lord’s help he had found a way.
He suggested a deal.
If the Governor could offer him protection from his enemies and from the many vigilantes and bounty hunters who would do him harm, if the Governor could promise him a fair trial and guarantee that he would not hang for his crimes so as to give him a chance to seek redemption through prayer and service to God, then, in return, Billy would turn himself in and supply the Governor with information that would lead to the arrest of many other felons who had been bothering the territory. He would also happily testify against them in court, in the hope, of course, that, with help from the Nun, they, too, might find penitence in their hearts.
When the Governor showed the letter to Sister Blandina, she leapt for joy. Her brief conversation with Billy had born fruit. He was resolved to confess, repent and reform.
The governor could not believe that anybody could be so naïve. Did she not realise what Billy was doing? He would not be the first crook to try and save his own neck by ratting on his others. And anyway, it was more than likely that he’d keep his friends safe, and rat only on enemies - people he’d be glad to see dragged to the gallows.
The Nun pitied the Governor for his lack of faith in his fellow human beings and the Governor pitied the Nun’s innocence.
Lew Wallace, who knew how to lie and to cheat as well as any outlaw, put it about that Sister Blandina herself had convinced him of Billy’s good intentions and that he agreed to the deal. He appointed Pat Garrett, a former associate of Billy’s turned lawman, to collect Billy and bring him safely to jail. This Garrett did, facing down angry mobs and vigilante gangs along the way.
As arranged, Billy was given a fair trial. The jury found him guilty and the judge, having no other option given the circumstances, sentenced him to hang. In keeping with deal he thought he had, Billy appealed to the Governor to pardon him.
The Governor laughed. A deal made with a thief and a murderer, he said, is not worth a pot of piss. The sentence would stand.
Though the Nun, outraged by the Governor’s duplicity, pleaded for his life, Billy was was transferred to the Lincoln County Jail where a gallows was being built.
If you know the story of Billy the Kid, you’ll know what happened next. He broke out of that jail, killing the two deputies guarding him, and went on the run.
The Nun hoped he would seek her out and ask for her blessing, but in this, she was perhaps guilty of the sin of pride. Or perhaps she was just exhibiting the unstinting trust that comes with true faith in God’s goodness.
Either way, he didn’t show up.
Most people reckoned that, having escaped, Billy would have ridden south into Mexico; others that he would have gone North maybe all the way to Cheyenne or Laramie. But the Nun had a hunch he’d hide out somewhere nearby. He was a frightened boy. He needed the comfort and protection of friends. He knew no-one in Mexico, or Cheyenne or Laramie.
As she rode around going about the business of her mission, she heard rumours everywhere. In Santa Fe, she heard the Billy had been seen walking around bold as brass in Silver City. In Silver City that he’d stolen a horse in Gallup. In Gallup that he’d been seen drinking in an Albuquerque saloon. In Albuquerque that he was riding out of state towards Amarillo.
A month or two went by. Sister was tending to the needs of a little community near Aqua Negro Chiquita where a fever was raging. A rider, passing through, said he’d heard talk that Billy was hiding out in Fort Sumner, forty miles south.
This made sense, Billy, the Nun knew, had friends in Fort Sumner.
But she knew she was in a race. Every rumour she heard was also heard by an army of lawmen and bounty hunters, eager to lay hands on the $500 reward that the Governor had put on Billy’s head. At dawn, she saddled up, rode out and arrived in Fort Sumner just after sunset.
She lost the race. Billy was already in his coffin. Pat Garrett had shot him the night before. The young outlaw had died without confession, absolution or extreme unction.
Sister Blandina was allowed to say a prayer over his body. Then she sought out Pat Garrett at the hotel.
'Did Billy have any dying words?' she asked.
'He mumbled,' Pat said. 'It was difficult to tell what he was saying. He had a bullet in his chest.'
'Did it sound like a prayer?'
Garrett looked at her strangely. 'What kind of a prayer?'
‘Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and …'
‘No. Nothing like that.’
‘Did he curse? Did he call out for revenge on his enemies.’
‘He was in no state to call out at all.’
Before she left, Garrett spoke to her again. He had heard that she had ridden forty miles just to say a prayer over Billy’s body.
‘And where are you headed now?’
‘Santa Fe,’ she said.
‘That’s a hundred and fifty miles.’
‘I have many friends along the way, places I can stay.’
‘But you ride alone?’
Two weeks went by before she had cause to visit the Governor again. She told him, only very slightly varying from the strict truth, that at the end Billy had mumbled something that may have been a prayer, but he definitely did not call out for revenge on his enemies and neither did he curse the Almighty.'
‘Who told you that?' the Governor asked, smiling.
'Pat Garrett,' she said. 'The man who shot him.'
'Pat Garrett,' The Governor said. 'Is a proven liar. He will say anything he takes a notion to.’
From inside her habit, the Nun took out a pistol, an army Colt, and cautiously offered it to the Governor, who looked as alarmed as anyone would who had a gun pulled on them by a woman in a wimple.
'You carry a pistol?' the Governor ask.
'No. Never. Except Pat Garrett insisted I take it. He said that if was travelling alone I should be able to defend myself. I told him that the Lord was my defence. And he said that the Lord can’t strike down your enemies with lightning every time. Sometimes he needs a little help from a six-gun. I didn’t want to just throw it away in case it fell into the wrong hands.'
'Is it loaded?'
'I have no idea,' the Nun said.
She pulled back the hammer to see if there was a bullet underneath, but she didn’t pull quite hard enough to reach the safety notch. It was loaded. The hammer sprang back. The bullet caught the Governor just above the collar-bone making a nasty exit wound and embedding itself in the wall behind him.
'Holy Mary, mother of God,' he said. ‘Help me. Help me Jesus, help me. May God have mercy.’
In recuperation he welcomed visits from The Nun and was thankful for her prayers. And, when he was well enough to return to his work, he gave his novel a new title. Instead of Judah Ben Hur - A Tale of Vengeance it became Ben Hur - A Tale of Christ at the end of which the hero witnesses the Crucifixion and forgives his enemies.
The novel did terrifically well. It was the bestselling US novel of all time until it was overtaken by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. The movie version, the Charlton Heston 1959 one, directed by William Wyler, cost $15 million to make, took nearly ten time times that at the box office on its first release and has been a steady earner ever since. I saw it on TV a couple of weeks ago. The chariot race is brilliant. Not sure about the ending, though.