Bernie’s Corner

In the grand tradition of Balaam’s donkeyA Conversation with a Mule (no this is not my autobiography) is the story of Bernie the mule and Mo’, a horsefly, who are struck by a light and begin to talk. The deacon board of a tiny remote mountain church saddle Bernie with the responsibility to straighten out two young ministers before the congregation selects its next pastor.

Bernie’s Mission

The mule’s mission is simple, for the next six months he’s to cart around the two preachers, one a conservative who believes everyone is standing on the brink of hell about to fall in and the other a far-left liberal who believes there are many roads to God, and challenge their skewed beliefs. Only one problem, Bernie doesn’t want anything to do with either one of them or with God. As conflicts mount, the ministers resort to underhanded tactics to defeat the other and become the next pastor.  But in the midst of this turmoil, a visitor from the past returns to the tiny church and threatens to destroy the entire community forcing the two preachers to work together with Bernie and Mo’ to try and save the church from a horrible fate.

Allegorical Tale of a Divided Church

This fictional story illustrates the sharp division in our culture and its influence on Christianity in America, an influence that has split the Church to the point that it threatens its effectiveness in presenting the central message of the Gospel, Christ and Him crucified. Once a month, I’ll post a chapter of the book for your reading pleasure. Comments are welcomed.

 

(If you’ve read the first seven chapters, scroll down to the picture of Bernie to begin chapter 8.)

Chapter 1

If God was determined to screw up his life, Bernie wanted to look those responsible straight in the eye. So Sunday afternoon, the mule ambled up the front walkway of the tiny wood-framed church and climbed the steps to claim the pew before Aunt Nell arrived. The extra leg room on the third row would make it easy for him to slip between the benches and, once there, she’d never budge him from her favorite spot.

Halfway up the steps, Deacon Brown appeared from behind the large door and blocked the mule’s path. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Going to church,” the mule said.

“I don’t care that you talk. Church is not the place for a jack….” The deacon stopped in mid-sentence and corrected himself. “A mule is still a mule and church is not a place for animals that live in a barn. You can listen to the service on the green.” He pointed around the corner.

Bernie’s nostrils flared. A jackass. That’s what you were going to say. Church is not the place for a jackass. The mule held his breath an extra beat to steady his simmering anger and slow the pounding in his heart. It made him mad that the slur bothered him, even when coming from humans.

His gaze shifted from the deacon blocking the doorway to inside the pristine chapel with the irritating shine on the wooden floor that reflected a well-polished pulpit–a stark contrast to his comfortable stall in the cozy barn filled with other scruffy creatures like himself, hay strewn everywhere and manure splattered around in little clumps on the stable’s dirt floor. He gagged at the noxious smell of the faint scent of Lysol as it wafted out from the sanitized building, its presence still lingered despite a service earlier that morning.

“Are you okay?” The deacon eyed the mule closely.

Bernie coughed. “Hairball.”

“Would you mind not spitting up hairballs on the steps? Everyone will be here for the evening service before long and I don’t have time to clean it up.”

Bernie glared at the deacon. Why did humans always insist that everything be so sterile? The mule shook his head. Maybe that’s why people only went to church once a week, and then only for a short while. If they stayed for any length of time, they might gag, too. Maybe if the sanctuary had a sweaty scent, something to give it that ‘homey’ smell, then humans might hang around a little longer, at least long enough to find out who the stranger was at the end of the pew they sat in every Sunday.

For a brief moment, he considered disappearing into the mountains and leaving the church to its own fate. After all, he didn’t ask for this. It wasn’t his problem. But if he left, God might do something worse than take away his bray and make him talk like a human. Though he couldn’t imagine anything worse, he shuddered at the possibility. When God made him a mule, He should have left well-enough alone.

On the other hand, he could head-butt his way past the deacon, knock over a few tables, and kick some pews out of the way, which would make him feel better, at least for a while. And by the time the dust settled on everything ‘sacred,’ his hooves could easily ‘wipe that smile’ from off the table-top shine. But there was just one problem. That would be messy, and church doesn’t do messy. If the deacon board had done a better job they wouldn’t need a ‘jackass’ to straighten out the ‘two nit-wits’ competing for the head pastor position in the church. Why did God choose him to clean up this mess? He should have picked the janitor.

Bernie snorted, but the deacon refused to budge. Unsure of what God might do should he rush the large man, the mule backed down the stairs and paced back and forth on the outskirts of the green to sort things out. Though he wished God would leave him alone, he knew that defying Him wasn’t the answer either, at least not openly.

As the evening service drew near, the members of the little church gathered on the green in small groups, glancing over their shoulders every once in a while, trying to spot the new minister when he arrived.

Shortly before the evening service, the preacher skipped up the steps to the sound of organ music as it drifted out like a siren’s spell, luring each parishioner mindlessly toward a familiar pew claimed years ago by ‘squatter’s rights.’

Bernie trudged across the green to an open window, still fuming over the deacon not letting him inside the sanctuary.

After several spirited hymns, Reverend Jesse stepped to the pulpit, flung open his Bible and belted out the opening line of the evening’s sermon. “The day of God’s judgment is upon this church and everyone in it.”

The hair on Bernie’s neck stood up–a shiver flew down his spine.

Reverend Jesse’s message was as jarring as the one he had delivered earlier that morning. The preacher flailed about and danced from one side of the pulpit to the other as he drove home each point.

The congregation sat wide-eyed, backs flush against the pews with a stunned look on their faces. Mouths dangled open for long periods of time, only closing briefly to swallow.

Ten minutes into the message, Bernie glanced over his shoulder when he heard his friend buzz up from the creek.

Mo’ landed on the ledge. “Is he still preaching?” The horsefly flicked his wings.

“I’m afraid he is.” Bernie turned back to the sermon.

“God will not tolerate sin in this church.” The Reverend Jesse slammed his hand down on top of the pulpit, startling Deacon Brown out of his nap.

“Is it time for the offering?” The deacon sat up and grabbed the pew in front. He looked at those around him but no one dared to take their eyes off the preacher.

Directly behind him, the Murphy twins tried to stifle their giggles without much success. The harder they tried, the harder the pew shook.

“They’re ‘deep-fried,’” Bernie said.

“In hot grease.” Mo’ scooted along the edge of the window.

From the other side of the church, their mom shot them a look that suggested if they didn’t ‘zip it’ now, she’d deal with them later. When she spotted their iPods, she snapped her fingers and glared.

The girls exchanged nervous glances, yanked the wires from their ears and stared at their shoes until their mother turned around.

Deacon Brown settled back against the hard bench, his face still red.

“I hope that pulpit holds up for the next six months.” Mo’ landed on the mule’s head.

“He is kind of loud.” Bernie poked his nose through an open window to see how others reacted to the harsh words.

No one moved except to fan their faces, their eyes glued to the minister as he continued with this tongue-lashing.

“The Word says that ‘The Lord will destroy Babylon.’” The Reverend Jesse raised an index finger to underscore his words. “If we allow sin to reign in this church, then we’re no different than Babylon. And listen to what the Word of God says happened to that ancient city. It says that ‘Babylon’s thick walls were leveled and her high gates set on fire.’” He slammed his hand down again, timing it perfectly with the first syllable in the word “fi-re.”

A lady on the front row flinched so hard that her Bible slipped from her lap and landed at her feet. Two months of church bulletins spilled from its pages and slid across the wooden floor. When the preacher peered from over his notes, she gradually leaned back, leaving the bulletins scattered about underneath the altar.

Bernie stepped back from the window. “I’m going to need a bath after tonight.”

“Mules don’t take baths unless they’re caked with mud or slimed,” Mo’ said.

“My point exactly. After this sermon, I’m going to take a nice long, hot bath.”

“Bernie, be nice. He’s a young preacher with a lot to learn.”

“But why does he have to ‘learn it’ on me?”

“I don’t know.” Mo’ crept along the mule’s back. “You heard the deacon board the other night. This is the third time in the past hundred years that a light has knocked a mule to the ground on the canyon road and, when they got up, they started talking.” A slight breeze blew past, lifting the horsefly up into the air. “The first two times it happened was because the people around here had stopped listening to God, particularly those in the pulpit. That’s probably why it happened again.”

“But why me?” The mule stomped his foot. “Why was I chosen to straighten out the preachers?” He spit. “I don’t even know what to say to him or Reverend Ray. And there are plenty of other mules in the county better suited for this than me.” He nodded toward the pasture. “What about old Rufus? He’s been around forever. He knows more than I do. Why not him? It’s just not fair.”

When the breeze let up, the horsefly landed on a post nearby. “I don’t know what to tell you, Bernie. God must have His reasons.”

“I’ll just kick them in their shins.” Bernie gritted his teeth. “That’s what I’ll do. A kick in the shins will knock some sense into them.”

“What?” Mo’ leaped into the air and hovered in front of the mule’s long snout. “You can’t kick them in their shins.”

“Why not?” Bernie snorted. “That’ll get their attention. Maybe then they’ll start listening and I can go back to my own life.”

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“Who says?”

Mo’ sighed. “Bernie, it’s just for six months. If they don’t listen by then, you can go back to the pasture and the way things were.”

“I won’t do it.”

“You can’t refuse this.” Mo’ landed on the mule’s neck.

“Oh, yes I can.” The mule tried to shake Mo’ off. “I won’t cart those preachers back and forth. It’s not my fault they’re not listening to the Great Almighty.”

“Bernie, God has used mules for centuries for things like this. I know it seems inconvenient. But trust me, it’s an honor. Try to go with it.”

“I could ‘go with it’ a lot better if it happened to some other mule.” Bernie poked his nose inside a window.

“Mark my words.” The Reverend Jesse leaned over the pulpit and glared into each person’s face. “God will not tolerate sin in this church.”

Bernie grimaced. What happened to make this preacher so angry? He watched the young man’s face contort with each hostile word. His God is so harsh, out to slap down anyone who doesn’t ‘toe the line.’

For some reason, the preacher lost his place in the sermon and fumbled with his notes.

For a brief moment, Bernie saw in the preacher’s sad eyes a deep shame that had gutted his spirit years ago, shoved down by fear, far past any awareness of its existence or impact on his life, a painful wound that had festered a long time. Caught off-guard by the preacher’s slip-up, Bernie’s heart softened as he thought of his own shameful past, his mongrel heritage that had left him a hinny. Worse than a mule, he had a horse for a father who lacked the good sense to find one of his own kind and a donkey for a mother who let the idiot slip up on her. Their thoughtless stupidity had screwed up his life forever, leaving him a half-breed without a chance to sire. There had been whispers. ‘Jackass,’ some mules had said. They suspected the difference, but with similar markings they couldn’t be sure and he’d never tell. An outcast by virtue of one foolish night, this shameful past would die with him. Why else would his best friend be a horsefly?

When the preacher failed to find his place, he shoved his notes deep inside the leather-bound Bible and glared at the congregation.

The scowl on the preacher’s face snapped Bernie out of any foolish compassion for the source of his troubles and reminded him that he was still mad at God.

“Bow your heads with me.” The preacher growled.

Every head dropped.

“God help us survive this nightmare.” The mule gritted his teeth.

“Shhh,” Mo’ said. “Reverend Jesse’s praying.”

Jaws clenched, Bernie refused to close his eyes.

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Chapter 2

While everyone bowed their head, Bernie glanced around the sanctuary and spotted each of the five deacons in their usual pews, which meant the front door sat unguarded. Now was his chance to confront the minister along with the congregation on the idiocy of a mule trying to straighten out the two preachers, men obviously more educated than him, despite the fact that their schooling hadn’t help either one up to this point in their lives. And why would they listen to a mule anyway? It didn’t matter that a couple of his ancestors had intervened twice before in the church’s long history, this was still a stupid idea. And while he was at it, he might as well set God straight, too. The Creator of everything could certainly come up with a better plan than this. After all, He was God.

Bernie ambled toward the front of the church, running through his mind exactly what he’d say once he stormed through the front doors. In the middle of rehearsing, the mule’s mind went blank. Nothing. Nada. Zippo. He forgot everything he had planned on saying. His one chance to end this mess and he couldn’t even form a single, simple intelligent sentence. Panic set in and he froze.

“What’s wrong?” Mo’ scurried down the mule’s long snout.

Bernie sputtered as he tried to speak.

“Are you okay?”

The mule swallowed hard.

“You’re scaring me, Bernie. Say something.”

Bernie inhaled deeply and wheezed as he let out a breath. After several more attempts, he managed to squeak out a couple of words. “I’m okay.”

“Thank goodness. You had me worried there for a while. What happened to you?”

Bernie shook his head and poked his nose inside a window near the back, his gaze drifted toward the preacher.

When Reverend Jesse grabbed the pulpit, the veins in his forearms popped out. Sweat ran down his cheeks onto an already drenched rolled-up white long-sleeved shirt and a dingy dark brown tie dangling over a Bible that lay open on the pulpit. “If there’s anyone here tonight with sin in their heart, it’s time for you to make it right with God.” The preacher released his grip and stepped down from the platform. “I want you to come down right now and meet me here at this altar. Don’t let Satan rob you of the chance to make things right.”

Members of the congregation glanced around the sanctuary without moving from their seats.

“Don’t worry about what others might think, just come on down. Quickly! Right now, head this way!” The preacher snapped his fingers and pointed at the altars.

Several parishioners stood slowly and made their way to the front of the church.

The preacher laid his hands on top of their heads and shook them as he cried out to God.

“Ms. Maddie’s not going to like him messing up her hair.” Bernie watched as pins scattered all over the floor, shaken loose from her tightly braided bun by the enthusiastic prayer, a few strands dangled alongside her ears. “Six more months of this?” The mule shook his head. “I don’t think I’m going to make it till then.”

“Sure you will, Bernie, six months will go by fast.” The horsefly circled the mule’s head.

“Only if I’m in a coma.” The mule glanced at the ceiling fans as they sucked the muggy air through the open windows of the tiny church, their humming barely audible above the organist. He shook his head in disgust and plodded toward the front green while hundreds of fireflies twinkled in the woods next to the church. “Human words sound so barbaric coming from my lips. I wished I could bray.”

“The words sound funny when I speak, too.” Mo’ flew along beside him.

The mule stopped at the road. “Thank goodness you were on my back when the light hit or I’d be talking to myself. Just don’t let the other mules know or I’ll never hear the end of it.”

“Why do you always worry about what the other mules think?” The horsefly landed on top of a post at the edge of the green.

The mule sighed. “I just do, that’s all.”

Mo’ slipped into the air and landed on the mule’s head. “But how are you going to avoid the pasture for the next six months?”

“I don’t know.” Bernie flicked his tail. “But I’m not going near it until these words go away. And when they do, you’re going to hear the loudest bray this county has ever heard.”

“Just warn me before you do so that I don’t go deaf.”

Most of the congregation had poured out from the tiny church after the last “Amen” and spilled onto the lawn at the bottom of the steps. Little pockets gathered around the green to talk about the new preacher and the evening’s sermon, and to catch up on the latest gossip.

Bernie paced along the edge of the dirt road waiting for the preacher to say his goodbyes.

Mo’ relaxed between the mule’s ears.

“Bernie.”

The mule flinched. He glanced around to see who had called out his name.

Someone approached from out of the darkness.

The mule backed up a step unsure of who it was.

A shadowy figure appeared. “If there ever was a time that we needed you, we need you now, fellow.”

Bernie caught a whiff of alcohol.

“After hearing both of those boys preach, I’m not sure who’s going to do the most damage.” The voice was that of Deacon Brown’s.

“It’s a toss-up in my book.” Bernie kept his distance from the deacon and ambled toward an ankle high patch of grass on the edge of the green.

Deacon Brown walked over and reached out toward the mule. “You certainly have your work cut out for you.”

The mule skipped a few steps away. “Don’t try and be nice to me now.”

The deacon’s hands dropped to his side, a surprised look covered his face. “Are you still mad about this afternoon?”

Bernie’s nostrils flared. “Why wouldn’t you let me inside the church?”

The deacon shook his head. “It’s nothing personal.” He reached out to scratch the mule’s neck.

Bernie stiffened.

The deacon stepped closer. “The rest of the deacon board would have my ‘hide’ if I let your hide inside the sanctuary.” He smiled. “Bernie, you know I’ve always liked you even before you started talking.” He rubbed the mule’s ears. “Don’t you remember nibbling at my coat pocket for sugar cubes? I always made sure to slip a few in before coming to see you.”

“But you called me a jackass.” The mule felt his eyes moisten.

“I sorry, Bernie, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. Will you forgive me?”

The mule glared at the deacon.

“Please?” Deacon Brown scratched the mule between the ears and down his face.

Bernie felt his face softened. “Okay, but don’t do it again.”

“I won’t.” The deacon leaned an elbow on the back of the mule and slipped a flask from inside his coat pocket.

Bernie snorted.

“You want a swig?”

“Can I?” Bernie’s ears picked up.

“Don’t give him any.” Mo’ buzzed the deacon.

“Aw, come on. Just one swig.” The mule pleaded his case.

“Not with you carrying the preacher and me back to Fairfield on that dark canyon road tonight.”

Bernie’s ears drooped. “I guess I’ll have to pass.”

“Suit yourself. But this is some mighty corn whiskey. I made it myself. It comes from the best still in the county. I’ve let it age for several months. But don’t tell the wife or the deacons. They’d make me destroy the still and pour out the whiskey and that would be an abomination to God.”

“I promise, we won’t tell a soul.” Mo’ settled on the mule’s back.

Bernie chopped down on another clump of grass.

“I just hope you can straighten out those boys so that we can find the right pastor for this congregation.” He unscrewed the lid. “It’s been hard on the folks since that bale of hay fell on Pastor Joe.” He tilted his head back and took a sip. “The pastor knew better than to ask Smudge to help him load bales of hay into the loft. I mean after working on cars all day, that guy is one big grease ball. Everywhere he touches, he leaves a grease spot. The pastor had to know he’d smudge up that rope.”

“That would have been my guess.” Bernie leaned over and ripped some grass out of the ground.

“Even when the rope slipped through Smudge’s hands, he still could have slowed the fall in time for the pastor to get out of the way. But of all the times he could have sneezed, he had to choose that one. And when he did, that rope shot through his hands like silly string from a can.” Deacon Brown shook his head. “The pastor never knew what hit him. One moment he’s standing in pig slop, the next moment he’s walking on streets of gold. It just goes to show you that what the Good Book says is right, ‘Never leave home without clean underwear.’”

“Uh, I don’t think the Bible says that.” Bernie shook his head.

“It doesn’t?” Deacon Brown looked puzzled. “I’m sure I read that somewhere.” He scratched his head. “Maybe it was in Reader’s Digest.”

Bernie’s eyes widened. “That had to be it.”

“I’ll miss Pastor Joe.” The deacon nodded. “He was a good man.”

“That he was.” Mo’ gripped the mule tighter when a soft breeze blew past.

All three grew quiet as they stared at the stars.

Bernie broke the silence and squared up to the deacon. “Tell me something, why can’t the church go ahead and pick one of these guys to be the next pastor? Why does there have to be a six-month preach-off with me carting them back and forth between the two towns? And why do they need straightening out?”

Deacon Brown rubbed his chin. “Well, it’s a blue state, red state thing.”

Mo’ hovered in the air. “What’s a blue state and a red state?”

“It’s a long story but it has to do with politics.” Deacon Brown sat down on a stump.

“What’s politics?” The horsefly landed on the deacon’s knee.

“Trust me, you don’t want to know.” The deacon sipped from the flask. “Right now the country’s split down the middle between blue states and red states, conservative and liberals, and pro-this and anti-that. This mind-set has polarized our country and divided the Church.”

Mo’ flew to the top of a post. “So what’s that have to do with the preach-off?”

The deacon thought for a moment. “These two preachers seem more interested in pushing their own agendas rather than listening to what God has to say. And if one of them is to lead this congregation, then he has to give up what he wants and return the ‘plumb-line.’”

“So how will you make that happen?” Bernie stepped past the deacon.

“I won’t. That’s where you come in.”

The mule snorted. “But I don’t know what to say to these preachers.”

“I’m sure God will tell you when the time comes.” Deacon Brown stood. “Hang in there, Bernie. Remember, we’re counting on you.” Before the deacon left, he added one more thing. “Now, don’t scare him too badly tonight. We still don’t know if the other fellow is coming back next week.”

“Don’t worry, deacon. We’ll take good care of him, won’t we, Bernie?”

The mule glanced at his friend and then ambled toward a tall patch of grass without so much as a word.

Deacon Brown slipped the flask back inside his coat pocket and disappeared around the corner of the church.

“Bernie, you’re not going to scare the preacher tonight, are you?”

“Leave me alone.” The mule moved further away.

“Bernie!” The horsefly circled the mule’s head then landed on a stump nearby.

“I didn’t ask for this.”

“Bernie, don’t scare the preacher.”

The mule glared at his friend. “Talk to my rump all you want but leave me alone.”

“Bernie.”

The mule snorted, flicked his tail, and turned away.

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Chapter 3

Bernie closed his eyes as a wave of dizziness flooded over him. Why does everyone want me to help these two preachers? Everything was happening way too fast, from the light on the canyon road three weeks earlier that left him talking like a human, to the deacon board deciding that God had chosen him to for this ‘special mission’ to save their church. Save your own church. The mule opened his eyes and snorted. And now his best friend had bought into this nonsense, demanding that he not scare the preacher. How else could he get rid of him unless he scared him? The mule snorted again. Idiots, all of them were idiots.

“Bernie, are you listening to me?” Mo’ landed on top of the mule’s head.

The mule shook the horsefly off. “Leave me alone.”

Mo’ hovered in front of him. “You heard the deacon. Don’t scare the preacher tonight. He wants him to come back.”

Bernie snorted. “I don’t care what the deacon wants. That preacher won’t come back if I can help it.”

Mo’ buzzed the mule’s head and bit him on the ear.

“Ouch, that hurt. What was that for?”

“You’ve been spouting off all evening. Quit being stubborn and straighten up before the preacher gets here.” The horsefly landed on the mule’s rump.

Bernie rubbed the ear gently against a post. “That was uncalled for.”

“Oh no it wasn’t. You’ve been acting weird all night long. You’d better pull it together before we go home. I don’t want you falling into the river in the dark.”

“Is he still shaking hands with everyone?” His ear throbbed.

Mo’ hovered high in the air and scanned the crowd until he spotted Reverend Jesse deep in conversation with the head deacon. “He’s over there talking with Carlos.”

The mule sighed. “We could be here all night. Carlos loves to talk about anything, everything, and nothing. We should just go on home.”

“We can’t leave without the preacher.”

“Oh yes, we can. Watch.”

“Bernie, stop it or I’ll bite your ear again.” Mo’ landed on the post next to his friend.

The mule flinched. “Leave the ear alone.” He cast a weary eye on Mo’ as he mulled over whether or not to risk another bite and leave the preacher to walk home in the dark or to wait around for him. This isn’t fair. A swift kick in the shins would solve a lot of problems.

The Reverend Jesse and Deacon Carlos walked slowly toward them, oblivious to others on the green.

“They must be talking about something really important.” Mo’ gripped the post tighter when the wind picked up.

“They must be.”

The Reverend Jesse shook his head. “There’s got to be another way.”

“Well, that’s part of the deal.” Deacon Carlos shrugged his shoulders. “We’re a poor congregation and don’t have the money to pay for the gas for both you and Reverend Ray to drive back and forth between Fairfield and our little church. I mean it’s at least a six-hour drive on a winding rock-filled road through these mountains. Most of the time you can’t go more than twenty, twenty-five miles an hour without tearing up the underside of your car.”

“Carlos, it’s one thing to ride a mule in the daylight when you can see everything around you. But it’s an entirely different matter to ride him in the dark of night through a narrow canyon with a thirty foot drop-off along the surging Rushback River.”

“You needn’t worry about ole Bernie.” The deacon slapped the mule on the rump. “He’s made that trip hundreds of times in the dark and has never fallen in. Besides, he was born and bred right here in Bartsville. Traveling that canyon in the dark is in his genes. In fact, he can travel that road in his sleep.”

The Reverend Jesse didn’t look convinced. “What you call a road is little more than a rocky path. And for most of the canyon only one mule can pass at a time. I don’t need him to travel it in his sleep. I just need him to get me home safely.”

“If it makes you feel any better, the road through the canyon is the main way everyone around here gets into Fairfield. We’ve been doing it for almost two hundred years. Our fathers did it and so did our grandfathers and so on.”

“Has anyone ever fallen in the river?”

Carlos ran his fingers through his hair. “Well, back in the beginning, quite a few slipped over the edge.”

The preacher’s face grew pale. “Any chance of me staying with someone here in Bartsville?”

Carlos smiled. “I wish there was. We’re fortunate that both churches in Fairfield are willing to put you and Reverend Ray up for the next six months.”

Disappointed, the preacher’s face dropped.

“The good news is that around a hundred years ago, an old miner brought several horses and a handful of donkeys to the area and bred them for travel between the two towns. Since then, no one’s fallen in.”

The preacher still seemed leery. “I know that should make me feel better, but…” He shook his head as he eyed the mule. “I don’t know.”

“I tell you what. Ride him tonight. If you still feel this way after a month, we’ll see what we can do.”

The Reverend Jesse grabbed the rope dangling from Bernie’s harness and hoisted himself on to the mule’s bare back.

Mo’ flew around behind the preacher and settled in his favorite spot on Bernie’s rump for a long nap home.

“Just give him his lead and he’ll have you home in an hour-and-a half. It’s kind of like the ‘cruise-control’ on a car except it’s even better, you don’t have to steer.”

“I hope you’re right.” Reverend Jesse nudged his heels into the mule’s ribs.

Bernie headed toward the canyon.

“See you in two weeks,” Deacon Carlos said.

The lights from the little church disappeared as Bernie, Mo’, and the preacher slipped into the darkness. With the moon’s view hidden by the steep limestone walls, the stars provided the only light as they entered the canyon.

“I don’t think I’m going to like riding a mule for the next six months in the dead of night.” The preacher patted the mule’s neck. “No offense fellow.”

Bernie felt the preacher grab his mane tighter. The click of his hoofs on the rocks scattered along the dirt road blended in with the night sounds. Now, how do I get rid of this one?

When the road narrowed around a bend, the mule veered close to the cliff to stay as far away from the edge as possible.

The Reverend Jesse jerked the rope when the mule brushed against the sheer rocky wall. “Hey, watch out. Don’t run me into the rocks.”

Bernie felt a slight twinge in his neck when the preacher yanked on the reins. “Take it easy with the rope.”

“Who said that?” the preacher asked.

Bernie cringed. Oops, I didn’t mean for that to slip out.

“Is someone out there?” The preacher squeezed Bernie’s mane.

He’s scared. This could be fun.

The preacher inhaled deeply. “I need to settle down. My imagination is running wild.”

Bernie plodded ahead. Further down the canyon road, he scooted close to the limestone wall again, this time on purpose.

“Stupid mule, quit running me into the rocks.” The preacher jerked on the rope again.

“Who are you calling stupid?” Bernie shook his head.

“Who said that?” The Reverend Jesse yanked on the rope.

When Bernie stopped dead in his tracks, he felt Mo’ tumble forward on the top of his rump. Please, Mo’, don’t wake up. But, it was too late. He felt the horsefly stir. He won’t like me tormenting the preacher. His ear still throbbed from the earlier bite.

“Tell me who you are right now.” The preacher squeezed his legs tighter around the mule’s middle.

Bernie felt his friend leap into the air. “Mo’, everything is okay.”

“Who’s Mo’?”

Bernie sensed panic in the preacher’s voice.

“I’ve got a gun.” The preacher gripped the mane tighter.

“Come on, just go back to sleep.”

“I wasn’t asleep,” Reverend Jesse said.

“Not you, I’m talking to Mo’.”

“I’m warning both of you. Though I’m a man of the cloth, I’ll shoot you dead.”

“No you won’t.”

“What makes you think I won’t?”

The mule snorted. “You don’t have a gun.”

“How do you know?”

“You didn’t have one back at the church.”

“So you’ve been following me since then?”

“Well, not exactly.” Bernie heard a loud, angry buzz dive from out of the darkness past the preacher and toward his ears.

As the buzz past the preacher’s face, the reverend slapped at the air. “Get away from me.” He swung blindly and hit himself in the face with the end of the rope. “Ow, that hurt.”

Mo’ hovered in front of the mule. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Going home, what else?” Bernie tried to sound innocent.

“What’s that buzzing?” Reverend Jesse asked.

“That’s Mo’.”

“Do you want me to bite the other ear?” The horsefly landed on the mule’s head.

“No,” the preacher said.

“Not your ear, Bernie’s ear.”

“Who’s Bernie?” the preacher asked.

“I’m Bernie.”

“Bernie who?”

“Bernie the mule.”

“That Bernie?”

“Yes, the ‘stupid’ mule you’ve been riding since we left the church.”

Terrified by this revelation, the preacher scrambled off the mule’s back. But in the darkness, he lost his balance and landed with a thud in the middle of the road.

“Are you okay?” Mo’ flew close to the preacher.

“Stay away from me.” Reverend Jesse picked himself up off the ground and backed away.

“Don’t move.” The horsefly shouted at the preacher.

But it was too late. With the next step, the preacher slipped off the edge of the road and plunged toward the deadly rapids thirty feet below.

*************************

Chapter 4

A moment before the Reverend Jesse disappeared into the darkness his hand latched onto the rope to the mule’s harness. He hung on for dear life.

Bernie’s neck jerked toward the river when the cord grew stiff.

The preacher dangled over the rapids and clung desperately to the rope. “Help, get me out of here.” The river muffled the preacher’s voice.

Bernie’s neck hurt from the strain of the weight. Though he braced his legs on the rock-filled surface, his hooves slid slowly toward the edge of the cliff. The roar of the river grew louder as he gradually ran out of road. If he didn’t stop soon, he would fall in after the preacher into the raging waters below. He had to do something quick. If I slip out of my harness, I can get rid of this one now. He attempted to wiggle loose from the leather straps around his head.

The horsefly landed on the rope near the Bernie’s nose. “Don’t do it.”

The mule gritted his teeth. “Mo’, leave me alone.”

“You had better not let him go.”

Bernie’s hooves scrapped across the slick rocks. “Mo’, I can’t stop sliding. It’s him or me.”

“You can do it, Bernie. Just hang on.”

His muscles started to burn. “I’m going over the side with him.”

Mo’ hovered near the edge of the cliff. “No you’re not.”

The preacher’s dead weight pulled Bernie steadily closer to the wide open space above the turbulent, untamed river. His heart beat faster as he fought against tumbling over the edge into the dark waters below. If God had only left him alone, he’d be in his stall right now dozing off instead of fighting for his life, struggling to keep from plunging to a watery death.

A few inches from the edge, his hooves unexpectedly dug into the road and he stopped sliding. Relieved, he let out a deep breath. After adjusting his legs, he slowly backed up a few feet, carefully placing his short, choppy steps on the slick surface.

Mo’ hovered near his friend. “Keep pulling, Bernie. You can do it.”

The mule labored hard against the rope, gradually inching himself away from the edge, straining to pull the preacher onto the road, careful to keep his hooves underneath him. His neck ached from the constant tension on the cord.

“Way to go, Bernie.” Mo’ shouted encouragement. “You’re going to make it.”

Bernie kept an eye on the edge of the cliff, desperate for the preacher’s hand to appear to let him know this ordeal was almost over.

Mo’ settled at the edge of the road. “Just a little more and you’ll have him up.”

When Bernie took the next step, one of his back hooves landed on a small rock causing him to lose traction. “Whoaaa.” Adrenaline shot through his body as he lost his balance and slid forward toward the raging river beneath the canyon road. His leaned back and stiffened his legs to brace his hooves.

Mo’ flew into the air.

The preacher screamed.

A couple of feet from the edge, his hooves dug into the road and he stopped abruptly. Bernie stood there a moment, his legs shaking from the near miss.

Mo’ hovered in front of him. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah” The mule steadied himself and took a couple of deep breaths. “That was close.”

Mo’ circled his friend. “Take your time.”

When Bernie settled down, he slowly inched his way back, this time without misstep, until the preacher’s hand finally clutched the jagged edge of the road.

Reverend Jesse clawed at the ground until he finally pulled himself out. There in the middle of the road he lay trembling, gasping for air as he gradually calmed down.

The horsefly landed on the preacher’s leg. “Are you okay?”

By now a full moon shown brightly into the narrow canyon making it easier for the preacher to see Bernie and Mo’. The preacher slapped at the horsefly. “Get away from me.”

Mo’ flew into the air and hovered at a safe distance.

“He tried to kill you.” The mule shuffled his feet. “I should have dropped him in the river when I had the chance.”

“Bernie, be nice.”

The preacher studied the mule. “Are…are you the devil?”

Mo’ landed near the preacher. “No, he’s not the devil.”

“But the horsefly is,” Bernie said. “Run for it.”

“Awwwwwww.” The preacher screamed. Panic stricken, he slapped at Mo’. “Get away from me.”

The horsefly slipped away easily. “Bernie, quit tormenting the preacher.” He hovered above the road. “I’m sorry Reverend. Bernie’s not too thrilled about carrying you and Reverend Ray back and forth between the towns.”

The preacher laid his head in both hands. “What’s happening to me?”

“Probably the same thing that happened to Reverend Ray last week.” Mo’ landed on a rock nearby.

“What do you mean?”

“Last week he had a hard time with the idea of talking to a mule just like you.” Mo’ flew into the air and circled over the preacher’s head. “And I can understand how that might be a little unnerving. It’s been hard on me getting use to talking human.”

“I’m hallucinating, that’s what I’m doing. This is a flashback from some acid I took as a teenager.” The preacher struggled to calm down as the panic gripped him tighter. “Oh God, deliver me from my sins. I’m so sorry.”

The horsefly hovered near the preacher. “Well God may need to deliver you from your sins, but this is not an acid trip.”

The preacher raised his head. “You mean I’m actually talking to a mule?”

“And a horsefly.” Bernie snorted. “Don’t forget you’re talking to a horsefly.”

“Shhh, Bernie.” Mo’ buzzed the mule’s snout. “Yes, you’re talking to a mule and a horsefly and you’re not on an acid trip and you’re not going crazy or anything like that.”

“But how?”

“I don’t know.” Mo’ landed on a rock next to the preacher. “You’ll have to ask God. He’s been using mules for centuries for times like this.”

“For times like what?”

“For times when preachers stop listening to Him,”

“What do you mean?” The preacher’s jaw tightened. “I listen to God.”

Bernie pawed at the ground. “They why didn’t you listen to Him before you preached that sermon tonight?”

Mo’ buzzed the mule. “Shut up, Bernie. You’re not helping.”

The mule stomped off a few feet away.

The horsefly flew back to the rock. “Look, all I know is that for some reason, you’re not listening to Him.”

“Hey, wait a minute. I’m the preacher here. I’m the one who went to Bible school. I’m the one who’s ordained to preach God’s Word, not you. You’re just a stupid old horsefly. And he’s a stupid mule. What do you mean I’m not listening to Him?”

The mule stepped toward the preacher. “If you call me stupid one more time, I’ll kick you in the shins.”

Mo’ buzzed the mule’s ear. “Bernie, let me handle this.” He swung around to the preacher. “You’re right. I am a stupid old horsefly. I haven’t been to Bible school like you. In fact, I haven’t been to any school. I’m not ordained to preach and I’m not particularly smart.”

The preacher studied the horsefly. “Then where do you get off saying that I’m not listening to God?”

The wind picked up slightly.

“Bernie started talking.” Mo’ hovered near the preacher. “And mules don’t talk unless men stop listening, particularly those in the pulpit.”

The preacher appeared confused. “Well then, how did you start talking? You’re a horsefly not a mule.”

Mo’ landed on the road in front of the preacher. “I was on Bernie’s back when the light hit him. I just happened to be at the right place at the wrong time or the wrong place at the right time or something like that.”

The preacher stood to his feet. “Then what’s God trying to tell me that I’m not hearing?”

Mo’ flew into the air and backed up a bit. “I don’t know and neither does Bernie. But I do know that you only have six months to find out before the church picks their next pastor.”

The preacher pointed at Bernie. “And that flea-bitten excuse for a mule is supposed to enlighten me, to get me to hear from God.” He shook his head and dusted himself off.

Bernie stomped his feet. “I’m going to head-butt you into the river.”

Mo’ flew over and hovered in front of the mule’s snout. “Shut up, Bernie, or I’ll bite both of your ears.”

The mule snorted. “If you do, you’ll have to fly home tonight by yourself in the dark. And I’m sure there are some hungry bats flying around looking for a big fat juicy horsefly with a loud mouth.”

“If I don’t get to ride, I’ll just bite your rump until you let me.” Mo’ turned back to the preacher. “Bernie’s not going to get you to do anything. That’s not his job. That’s God’s.”

The preacher shook his head. “Well, I don’t need a stupid mule to help me hear God’s voice. I’m God’s anointed, not you. I don’t need your help with anything.”

The mule rolled his eyes. “I could help you with those sermons.”

“Bernie, zip it.”

“Sorry.”

“Well, you have a couple of weeks to think about it before it’s your turn to preach again. In the meantime, you’ll need Bernie to get you home tonight.”

A scowl crossed the preacher’s face. “I don’t need any help from him. With the moon out, I’ll just follow the road all the way into town.”

“Come on, Mo’, let’s go.” The mule nodded down the path toward Fairfield. “You heard the man. He doesn’t need our help to get home.”

The horsefly ignored his friend. “In about ten minutes the moon will disappear behind the other side of the canyon wall. When it does, this road will be pitch-black, and there are a lot of bends between here and Fairfield where it narrows. Without the moon’s light, you’ll fall into the river.”

Bernie snorted. “And they won’t find your body for weeks.”

Mo’ buzzed his friend. “Bernie, you’re wearing on my last nerve.”

The mule stiffened.

The Reverend Jesse studied the moon and the road and Bernie. “Okay, maybe I do need your help tonight.” The preacher gingerly reached for the rope and hoisted himself on top of the mule. “What am I going to tell the people I’m staying with?”

Mo’ hovered in front of the preacher. “Well, I don’t think you tell them anything, at least not yet. The deacon board asked that the congregation not be told so they stay focused on selecting the next pastor. A talking mule and a horsefly might distract them too much.”

The preacher rubbed his forehead. “I think you’re right. But if you don’t mind, let’s not talk anymore tonight. My head’s still spinning.”

“Okay. We won’t talk, will we, Bernie?”

The mule snorted.

Mo’ landed on Bernie’s head. “You have enough to think about as it is.”

The preacher nudged his heels into the mule’s ribs.

Bernie plodded along the canyon road.

Mo’ slipped around behind the preacher to his favorite spot on the mule’s rump.

The moon quickly disappeared behind the canyon wall and darkness covered them once more.

Bernie gritted his teeth. “I should have dropped him in the river when I had the chance.”

“What did you say?” Mo’ asked.

“Nothing, Mo’, go back to sleep.” Bernie scanned the edge of the road for a place where he could ‘accidently’ dump the preacher into the waters below. If he was slick about it, no one would know, not even God.

Bernie picked his way along the rocky path as it meandered through the canyon. Angered by the preacher’s harsh words, he muttered to himself so low that Mo’ couldn’t hear. “So I’m a ‘flea-bitten excuse for a mule.’” But something about what the preacher had said touched a tender spot, a tormenting pain of many years that surprisingly pushed aside his anger with ease. He didn’t like that. He’d rather feel the anger than the pain. The idiot preacher was just a waste of time, his time. The more he mulled over the injustice of it all, the better he felt as the thought stoked the coals of rage, encouraging his anger’s return to its familiar place, thrusting the pain deeper, away from any awareness on his part.

*************************

Chapter 5

An hour later, they entered Fairfield and passed through the town’s square without seeing anyone milling around in the streets. Late on a Sunday evening, everyone had long since gone to bed since most everyone in town typically rose before dawn to begin their day. Exhausted from a day that began before the sun came up, Bernie plodded along the street toward the stable, past the City Grill with its’ bright red neon sign that read “Closed” and the granite statue honoring the town’s founding fathers.

When he turned down the lane toward home, he spotted an unfamiliar truck sitting across the street a half a block past the barn. His ears stood on end and his muscles’ twitched. This was the third time in the past week that he’d seen it parked there, a stranger sitting inside on each occasion. He knew everyone in town and what they drove. Strange pick-ups parked late at night on his street never happened, at least not until the two preachers showed up.

His nostrils flared as he gritted his teeth. What now? It was bad enough that he had lost his bray and that the church had insisted he cart the preachers around. But now some stranger sat across from his ‘sanctuary,’ the only place he could call his own, a safe haven from all this preach-off nonsense. Just the thought of someone watching his every move made him mad…and uneasy. What do they want and why are they sitting there? The worrisome strain of helping to decide the next pastor had already started to wear on him and this was just the first week.

“Hey Mo’.” The mule called out over his shoulder. “Wake up.”

The horsefly stirred. “What do you want?”

“Do you see that pick-up?” Bernie asked.

Mo’ lifted up into the air, his gaze drifted over the preacher’s shoulder and down the street. “Yeah.”

The mule eased toward the opposite side of the road away from the truck. “Do you know whose truck that is?”

The horsefly landed on the mule’s head. “Can’t say that I do.” He turned to the preacher. “Reverend, do you recognized the pick-up?”

“No, I don’t.”

Bernie felt the preacher’s hands shake on the back of his neck. As they approached the stable, the mule stared at the cab. “Do you see anyone inside?”

Mo’ hovered nearby. “No. Let’s go take a closer look.”

Bernie shook his head. “I’m not going over there. You go.” The strain of the moment flushed his last remaining ounce of energy. He knew if he didn’t keep moving, he’d sink to the pavement and fall asleep in the middle of the road.

Mo’ walked along the mule’s neck. “I think I see someone moving inside.”

The mule’s ears stood up. “Can you tell who it is?”

The horsefly circled the mule’s head. “No, it’s too dark.” He landed on his snout. “Maybe it’s a stakeout.”

The mule snorted. “You’ve been reading too many murder mysteries. Besides, we know all the cops in town.”

Mo’ scooted behind the mule’s ear. “Do you think someone’s watching us?”

The mule’s nostrils flared as a shiver flew down his spine. “What for?”

“Maybe they want some information from us.”

Fatigue numbed his mind as fear added to the muddled fog in his brain. “Like what kind of information would a mule and a horsefly have that someone would want?”

Mo’ walked down the mule’s snout. “I don’t know. Maybe we know something that we don’t know that we know.”

“Huh?” Bernie sighed. “You’re not making a lot of sense right now. Let’s just get inside the barn.” He slipped through the doors of the stable.

The preacher hopped off the mule’s back. “If you don’t mind, I’ve had a long day and I’m going home.”

“No problem, reverend.” Mo’ buzzed the preacher. “Just get the harness off Bernie and close the door on your way out.”

The preacher quickly obliged. “With that stranger parked across the street, I think I’ll go out the back.” He disappeared into the night.

Bernie and Mo’ pressed their faces hard against the wall and peeked from between the slats to catch a glimpse of the stranger.

Suddenly, a tiny flame appeared from behind the glass, dimly illuminating the cab.

Bernie flinched at the sight of the haggard face behind the flame.

Deep shadows danced across the man’s knarly features as each puff tickled the reddish-orange glow that covered his mouth.

The mule swallowed hard. “Do you know who that is?”

“No, I’ve never seen him before.” Mo’ crawled up the board to a wider gap in the slats. “But he’s looking this way.”

After lighting the cigar, the stranger blew out the match and darkness once more poured into the truck’s cab.

Mo’ flew to the mule’s head. “What do we do if he comes in here?”

“I don’t know.” The mule trembled. “I guess we’ll run out the back.” He took a deep breath and glanced around the barn to see if he could find anything that might keep the stranger out but could find nothing.

Mo’ walked along the mule’s back. “Maybe we should stack bales of hay in front of the door and block his way in.”

Bernie shook his head. “That won’t keep him out.”

“Then maybe we should make a run for it.”

Bernie flicked his ears. “And tell me why we should run for it.”

Mo’ flew into the air and circled the mule’s head. “Because that’s what you do when you’re being watched on a stakeout.”

Bernie rolled his eyes. “I’m definitely taking away your library card.”

The horsefly landed on a knotty board. “But I don’t have a library card.”

Bernie shook his head. “It’s just a figure of speech.” He pressed his head hard against the boards and eyed the stranger from between the slats.

A large ball of smoke rolled out of an open window and gradually vanished into the night air. When the last trace of the smoke disappeared, the cab light flicked on.

Bernie stiffened. “He’s getting out.”

Mo’ flew in circles. “What do we do? What do we do?”

“Shhh.” Bernie tried to stop shaking. “Try and pull it together, Mo’.”

The stranger slowly got out of the truck and closed the door behind him.

“Is he coming in?” The horsefly landed on the mule’s neck and clung to his mane.

Despite an itch on the end of his nose, Bernie refused to take his eyes off the stranger.

After a couple of puffs from his cigar, the stranger reached into his pocket.

Bernie gasped when he spotted something in the stranger’s hand.

“What’s he doing?” Mo’ burrowed deeper into the mule’s mane.

Bernie tried to stop shaking. “He pulled out a knife.”

“We’ve got to get out of here.”

“Shhhh!” Bernie had trouble catching his breath. He peered from between the slats at the stranger.

Instead of coming inside, the stranger leaned against the door of the pick-up and pulled out a flat stone.

Bernie gulped. “He’s sharpening the knife.”

Mo’ panicked. “He’s going to kill me.”

“Mo’.”

The horsefly flew chaotically around the barn. “He’s going to come in and cut me into tiny little pieces.”

“Mo’.”

“The barn will be covered with my blood.”

“Mo’.”

“What?”

“Mo.” The mule sighed. “You’re a horsefly.”

“I know.”

Bernie shook his head. “First of all, you don’t have any blood. You’ve got green goo inside you.”

“Okay, so I misspoke.”

“See that beam up there.” The mule nodded toward the ceiling. “If he comes in here, all you have to do is hide on top of it. He won’t see you at all.”

Mo’ stopped flying about and hovered in the air. Suddenly, it dawned on him what Bernie had said. “Oh. You’re right. I’m safe.” The horsefly let out a big whoop.

“Mo’.”

“I was so worried there for a moment, thinking about being slashed to shreds.”

“Mo’.”

“What a relief. He can’t get me. Yes.”

“Mo’.”

The horsefly stopped celebrating. “What?”

“I can’t fly up to the beam.”

“I know.”

The mule sighed. “He can still come in here and cut me up into tiny little pieces, splattering my blood all over the place.”

The horsefly thought a moment and then the light went on. “Oh, Bernie, I’m so sorry. I was so worried about myself that I forgot about you.”
“That’s okay.” The mule closed his eyes as a second wave of fatigue hit him.

The horsefly landed on the mule’s neck. “What are we going to do about you?”

Bernie opened his eyes. “I don’t know.”

“Do you want me to go get the sheriff?” Mo’ flew to the wall.

The mule shook his head. “By the time the sheriff calmed down about a talking horsefly, it would be too late.”

Mo’ landed on the mule’s snout. “Then what are you going to do?”

Bernie sighed. “I guess I’ll just have to watch him.”

“I’ll help you.” Mo’ flew to the wall and stared out a slat.

“Mo’, we’ll have to do this in shifts and I’ll take the first one. As tired as I am if I fall asleep now I won’t wake up until morning or until the knife slashes through my heart.” Bernie turned to his friend. “I’ll stand watch for as long as I can. You go to sleep and I’ll wake you when it’s your turn.”

Mo’ didn’t argue. “Okay. Good night.” He dove into the feedbag.

Bernie stared through the slat and tried to stay awake.

The stranger continued sharpening the knife, pausing every so often to take a puff from his cigar, occasionally blowing smoke into the air as if filling the sky with tobacco-laden clouds. He never moved from beside the pick-up as he stared at the barn.

Bernie’s eyes grew heavy as he watched the stranger rhythmically slide the blade against the stone, blowing one cloud of smoke after another into the air over his head. The long day of travel had taken its toll. A couple of times, the mule nodded off, his head bobbing like a cork in a pond.

After one such bob, Bernie’s nose bumped into the wall startling him out of his sleep. When he glanced through the slat, the truck was gone. Panic gripped him as he glanced up and down the street and inside the barn to see if the stranger lurked somewhere near in the darkness. In the midst of his frantic search, the high-pitch sound of a truck engine speeding up pierce the fog in his mind, shooting adrenalin throughout his body, clearing his senses for a moment. He trotted to the barn door in time to see the truck reach the end of the block, its running lights off. When the stranger rounded the corner, the lights flicked on and the tires squealed as the truck disappeared behind the building and into the night.

*************************

Chapter 6

The following Sunday the stable door creaked startling Bernie out of a fitful sleep. He stared into the early morning darkness to catch a glimpse of the intruder; nerves still on edge a week after a stranger had parked his pick-up across the street. He stepped back as he strained to see who pushed open the wooden door. The sun’s faint rays filtered through the beat up weathered slats on the side of the rickety barn providing the only light for the dingy stall. The mule glanced at both exits trying to decide which might offer the best chance for escape.

The high-pitched snoring inside the feedbag let him know that his friend was asleep and reminded him to wake the horsefly before eating breakfast. The last time he stuck his snout inside the canvas bag and woke his friend, Mo’ bit his nose, furious over the mule’s wet nostrils snorting moist air on his wings. It took Mo’ two days to dry out and even longer to get rid of his cold. Bernie’s nose was tender for a week. Given Mo’s panic the last time a stranger showed up, he was glad the horsefly still slept.

The solitary figure slipped inside and paused at the door before making his way toward the mule’s stall.

Bernie held his breath.

When the stranger stepped into a ray of light, the mule relaxed.

Reverend Ray shook his head, deep furrows etched across his brow. “There has to be a logical explanation.” He set his Bible on a bale of hay as he entered the stall and reached for the harness hanging on the wall. “I’m a man of science, a man of reason. I can figure this out.” He slid his fingers over each leather strap and metal piece on the harness, carefully turning it over several times to make sure he scanned every inch of the surface. “Maybe there’s a speaker implanted somewhere. That would account for the mule talking. And in the dark, I couldn’t see if his lips moved. That makes perfect sense.” A sigh of relief slipped between his lips. “Somebody played a trick on me.” He chuckled. “And it was a good one.”

Bernie snorted.

The preacher flinched and almost dropped the harness.

The mule bent over and nibbled on some hay.

The furrows returned to the preacher’s forehead as he pulled the harness close to his face. “If there’s a speaker in here, it must be tiny. I can’t find anything that remotely looks like one.” He turned it over. “Hey, maybe this isn’t the same harness.” His mood lightened. “That’s what they did. They changed harnesses after I left the other night. I can’t believe it. And here I worried about nothing for two weeks.” The preacher’s hands dropped to his side, the harness dangled against his leg. He let out with another sigh of relief.

“But what about Mo’?”

“Whaaaaaaattt?” When the preacher leaped sideways, he stumbled over a bale of hay and slammed against the back wall. The blood drained from his face.

“It seems you’ve figured out how I talked.” Bernie moved about the stall, trying his best not to snicker. “But, how did Mo’ do it, especially without a harness? Where did they hide his speaker?”

The preacher cowered against the wall. “You speak.”

“And I’m not wearing a harness. Can you imagine that? Maybe the speaker is in my teeth. Do you want to check?” Bernie stepped toward the man and opened his mouth, relishing the preacher’s torment. I might as well spread the misery around. It felt good to ‘jack’ with the minister.

“No. Stay there.” The preacher’s hands trembled as waved the mule off. “Don’t come any closer.”

“Suit yourself.” Bernie backed up. “But you still haven’t answered my question about Mo’. How did he do it?”

“There has to be a reasonable explanation for all this.” The preacher ran a hand through his rapidly thinning hair as several strands ‘sprouted’ between his fingers and fell to the ground. “I’m a man of reason and reason says that mules don’t talk.”

“I know what you mean.” The mule nodded. “I’m a ‘mule of reason’ and I use to believe the same thing until the words started spewing out of my mouth. What I wouldn’t give for a good bray right now. Those were the good old days.” Bernie heard stirring in the feedbag. “Mo’, you up?”

Mo’ flew out of the feedbag. “Good morning, Bernie. Good morning, Reverend Ray. Did you sleep well last night?”

The preacher gasped. “A talking horsefly.”

“You already knew that. I told you two weeks ago on the way home from church.” He circled the preacher. “Don’t you remember?”

The preacher stared in disbelief at the two of them. “This doesn’t make any sense.”

“Who said it has to?” The horsefly lit on top of a bale of hay. “Hey, you want to practice your sermon on Bernie and me on the way to church this morning?”

Reverend Ray’s face grew ashen as he tried to catch his breath. “I’m having a nervous breakdown.”

“Why do you and Reverend Jesse always think you’re having a nervous breakdown every time we say something?” The horsefly scooted toward him.

“Because mules don’t talk.”

“But what about Balaam’s donkey?” Bernie nibbled on some strands of hay spread over the ground in the corner. “Haven’t you read the Bible? You’re a preacher, aren’t you?”

“Of course I’ve read the Bible.” The preacher snapped back. “But what does Balaam’s donkey have to do with you?”

Bernie cocked his head in mid-bite. “Balaam and his donkey had a conversation.” He paused. “We’re having a conversation. Hello, do you see any connection?”

“But that’s just a Bible story. It didn’t really happen.” The preacher struggled to his feet and dusted himself off.

“What do you mean it didn’t happen?” Mo’ flew past the mule’s head. “It’s in the Bible, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but it’s not real.” Reverend Ray sat down on a bale of hay and took a few deep breaths. “It’s like a metaphor. It’s a made up story to illustrate a point.”

“So, what’s the point?” Mo’ landed on the top rail.

The preacher sighed. “The point is that when we do things our way and don’t listen to God, he uses other means to get our attention.”

Bernie’s ears stood up. “Like…speak through a donkey?”

The preacher shook his head. “No, that’s not what I’m saying.”

“But that’s what happened in the story.” The mule rubbed his shoulder against the rail to scratch an itch.

The preacher’s face grew taut. “It was a dream or a vision or something like that. Donkeys don’t speak.”

“Why not?” Mo’ walked along the rail.

“Because they can’t, that’s why.” Irritation bled through his words.

Bernie studied the preacher. “Do you believe there’s a God?”

“Of course I do.” A funny look spread across the minister’s face. “I wouldn’t be a preacher if I didn’t.”

“Can God do anything He wants?”

The preacher hesitated. “Yes.”

“The way I see it, if God can’t speak through one of His own creatures when He wants to, then He’s not God.” Bernie flicked his tail. Now that he could talk, he knew he held the upper hand. This could be fun.

The preacher frowned. “But, mules don’t talk. They don’t have the physical structure in their throat to say words. It goes against reason and science and all natural laws.”

Bernie eased back against the rail to scratch the itch again. “Before or after The Fall?”

“What?” The preacher looked dumbfounded.

“Natural laws, you said ‘this goes against all natural laws.’” The mule stopped scratching. “I just want to know if you’re talking about natural laws before or after The Fall, you know when Adam and Eve sinned?”

The preacher cautiously eyed the mule. “Does it matter?”

The mule snorted. “It does if you’re a woman.”

“What do you mean?”

Bernie relished the confusion covering the preacher’s face. If he let himself, he could get use to annoying the man. “Well, before The Fall, a woman went through childbirth without any pain.” He closed his eyes a moment, unsure of how he knew this, but strangely curious to know more. “Painless childbirth was part of natural law before man sinned.” The mule felt smug. A professor couldn’t have said it any better. “Sin bent natural law and, as a result, women feel pain when giving birth.” Take that you nitwit.

A scowl crossed the preacher’s as he snarled. “So what’s your point?”

The preacher’s sharp rebuff got under Bernie’s hide. A swift kick in the shins is all it would take. The mule inhaled deeply to calm himself down so as not to lose it. “The point is The Fall bent everything.”

The preacher folded his arms and sneered, which irritated Bernie even more.

The mule glared at the preacher. Why am I wasting my time with him? He’s not listening to anything I’m saying anyway. Despite his impatience with the man, the mule trudged on. “Everything changed after they sinned. All things were bent including the rules of science and natural laws. They changed as well.”

The minister shook his head in disgust. “I don’t know where you get this stuff. You’re just a stupid old mule.”

The preacher’s snide remark infuriated Bernie more. He wanted to scream, “I don’t need this aggravation. I have a life and you’re not part of it.” Why does God want me to try and convince this preacher of anything? He obviously isn’t going to listen to me, ‘a dumb mule’. The thought of fleeing the county and leaving the ministers to their own fate was sounding better and better. But something held him back.

Bernie struggled to pull it together, to regain the edge. He had to if he was to survive the next six months. “All of nature waits for the day when everything returns to its original state, including science and all natural laws.” If God intended to speak through him, he was determined to use it to his advantage.

The minister said nothing.

The mule eyed the preacher. “What if under natural law all animals talked or at least man and beast understood what the other one said? I mean, after all, the serpent did speak to Eve and she understood him. If she hadn’t, she’d never have done what he told her to do.”

The preacher appeared to consider this.

The mule studied the preacher’s eyes. “Everything changed with sin. They lost the ability to talk with each other when natural law was bent.”

The preacher’s jaw tightened.

“Not convinced?”

“Nope.” The minister’s weak protest lacked conviction.

“I understand.” Bernie nodded. “It sounds pretty incredible to me, too.” He cocked his head and paused a moment. “Ever consider that when Jesus walked on the water or when he multiplied the loaves and fishes, or even when he walked through walls, that this was normal before The Fall.”

The preacher appeared stunned by the idea, like he’d never considered it before. “No, I haven’t.”

“Instead of sickness and death, the body’s natural immune system healed itself. All this happened under natural law before man sinned.”

The preacher stared at the mule.

“Now, we consider each of those things ‘miracles’ because natural law is bent and doesn’t allow for them.”

Silence settled over the barn.

The preacher took a deep breath. “I don’t know about all that ‘natural law changing’ stuff.”

The mule cocked his head. “Alright, lets look at it another way.” He paused. “Maybe we see miracles all around and never recognize them for what they are simply because they happen every day. Maybe we think they’re ‘normal’ because ‘science and reason’ can explain them.’”

“Are you making fun of me?” The preacher clenched his fist.

Bernie bit his tongue and ignored him. “Or what if years ago snow fell one winter evening or the leaves changed to their autumn colors and it never happened again? Would you say it was a miracle or metaphor, and how would you know the difference hundreds of years later?”

The mule paused to let the words sink in. “Or what if someone saw the only rainbow that ever appeared in the history of the world? If God is God and wants to paint the sky all the colors in a crayon box, is it okay with you if He never paints it again? Is it okay with you if he speaks through a donkey or a mule and never does it any other time in history?”

The preacher shook his head. “But what you’re saying doesn’t line up with science or reason.”

Bernie nodded. “You’re right, it doesn’t line of with any of that because all of creation is bent.”

The preacher paused a moment. “Even if what you’re saying is true and natural law is bent, then these supposed ‘miracles’ still couldn’t have happened.”

The mule scratched his nose on the rail. “If God is God, then He created all the laws of science and reason, right?”

The preacher slowly nodded.

“And if God created them, then He can change them back to their original state any time he wants, if it suits His purpose. Right?”

The preacher rolled his eyes. “Are you telling me that I have to interpret everything in the Bible literally?”

Bernie shook his head. “No, not at all. But what I am saying is if God is God then don’t dismiss the possibilities.”

 

 

*************************

Chapter 7

The preacher’s jaw tightened as he mulled over Bernie’s words. His mouth opened and closed repeatedly as if attempting to spit out some clever response to the mule’s retort, but he never uttered an intelligent sound worth mentioning.

Mo’ circled the speechless minister. “Hey, we need to leave soon if we want to make it to the church on time.”

The preacher paused a moment and shook his head. “I don’t think I can do this.” He glanced at Bernie. “And I’m not sure I want God to speak to me through a mule. Maybe I’m not the right pastor for this congregation.”

“Great, one down and one to go.” The mule skipped about the stall. “Since we’re not going to church, I can sleep in a little longer. I love sleeping in on Sunday mornings. It’s my favorite thing to do on the weekends.” The mule yawned. “Wake me up on Tuesday.”

Mo’ landed on the mule’s head with all six legs. “Bernie, he’s got to preach in Bartsville.”

“No he doesn’t. You heard the man. He doesn’t want to do this.” The mule nodded toward the preacher. “Reverend Ray, it was nice meeting you. Have a great life. And don’t forget to close the barn door on your way out.”

Mo’ scurried down the mule’s snout. “Bernie, stop it now.”

The mule’s eyes crossed when he tried to look at his friend. “What did I do?”

Mo’ stared him in the eyeball. “You know what you did. Cut it out.”

Bernie snorted.

Mo’ flew to the top rail. “Reverend Ray, there’s a congregation waiting to hear you preach this morning. If you want to quit after today, that’s between you and God. Just tell them during your sermon that you won’t be coming back. But we need to leave soon.”

A scowl crossed the preacher’s face as he folded his arms. “Well, according to you, I’m not listening to God. So how do you know I have something from Him to say to those people?”

The horsefly flicked his wings. “Well, maybe you do and maybe you don’t. But right now, this morning isn’t about that.”

The preacher’s hands dropped to his side. “Then what’s it all about?” He spit the words out.

The horsefly walked along the rail and then stopped. “It’s about you getting fixed.”

“What?” The preacher’s chin dropped.

Mo’ flew to the top of several bales stacked next to the minister. “A couple of months ago, we had a preacher–I think his name was Mumford, uh, Bob Mumford. Anyway, he spoke at the church and said something interesting. He said ‘God fixes a fix to fix you. If you fix the fix before you’re fixed, then God has to fix another fix to fix you.’”

Bernie stuck his nose inside the feedbag and chowed down

“If you leave now before God fixes you, he’ll just put you in another situation like this to straighten you out. It’s kind of like the children of Israel wandering around in the desert for forty years until they got fixed or, in some cases, died off. If you want to keep wandering around the same mountain all your life, then leave before God’s through with you here.”

Mo’ flew to Bernie’s rump. “However, if you want to get this over with, finish out the next six months and see if you can hear what God’s trying to say.”

The preacher stared at the ground and rubbed the back of his neck.

Bernie lifted his face out of the feedbag and glance at Reverend Ray. “Are you still here?”

Mo’ bit the mule’s rump.

“Ow, that hurt.” Bernie danced around the stall. “What was that for?”

Mo’ flew to the edge of the feedbag. “The preacher’s not the only one God has in a fix here.”

“What do you mean?” The mule backed up to a rail to scratch the tender spot.

“Maybe God has you in a fix, too. And if you get out of this fix before you’re fixed, it might be a lot longer than six months before you bray again. Do you want to speak human words for the next year or two, or maybe the rest of your life?”
Bernie stopped scratching. “God wouldn’t do that to me, would He?”

“Bernie, all I know is that God doesn’t waste a single opportunity to change every one of His creatures who are a part of the same situation. And right now, you’re a part of this for whatever reason. I have a feeling this isn’t just about the two preachers. So, I have to believe that He wants to change something in you, too.”

The mule stared at his friend. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“You bet I am.”

Bernie took short, choppy steps, starting and stopping at a frantic pace as he darted about the stall. “I hadn’t thought of that. What if I never bray again? I’d never be able to show my snout in the pasture with all the other mules. My life’s ruined. What am I gonna do?”

Mo’ crawled along the edge of the feedbag. “You’re going to do the same thing as Reverend Ray. Face this now.”

Bernie stopped pacing and stared at his friend. “Next time, God had better find somebody else to do this.” He scooted over to the minister. “Okay preacher, let’s get this over with. Come on, hop on. The quicker I get you to church, the quicker I get my life back.”

Reverend Ray hesitated.

Mo’ landed on the stack next to the preacher. “What’s it going to be?”

“Well….” The preacher chewed on his bottom lip. “I’ll go today. But I don’t know about next time.”

“Like I said earlier, that’s between you and God. But if we don’t leave now, we’ll be late for the morning service. So hop on Bernie and let’s go.”

The preacher’s body slouched as he reached for the harness. After fitting the contraption on Bernie, the minister picked up his Bible, led the mule outside the barn and climbed on.

Mo’ settled on Bernie’s rump and they headed off through the town’s square toward the canyon road.

A couple of miles outside of town, Bernie let out with a long, loud wheeze.

After the third time, Mo’ flew around the preacher and hovered in front of the mule. “Is something caught in your throat?”

“No.”

“Then what’s going on?”

Bernie felt moisture well up in his eyes. “I’m trying to bray.”

Mo’ chuckled. “So you think you can force out a bray through sheer willpower despite God taking it away from you.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I miss mule talk.”

Mo’ laughed. “I miss your mule talk, too.”

“Do you think if I ask God, He’ll let me bray just once?”

“I don’t know, Bernie. But it sure doesn’t hurt to ask. I’m going back to your rump.” Mo’ flew away.

“Dear God, will you please let me bray one more time? I promise to be nicer to the preachers.” After the brief prayer, Bernie inhaled deeply and then wheezed as hard as he could. Nothing came out, no bray. The mule sighed. “I’m stuck for five-and-a half more months.”

“I’ll bet if you joined the circus, you could make a lot of money.” The preacher chuckled after the snide remark. “A talking mule would sure draw a crowd.”

Bernie stopped in the middle of the road. “Say one more stupid thing and I’ll dump you in the river.”

The preacher quickly apologized. “Sorry.”

When they arrived on the church green, Reverend Ray quickly hopped off and headed toward the front door without so much as a word.

“You’re welcome.” Bernie shouted after the preacher. “Can you believe that guy? Not one ‘thank you’ or ‘I appreciate you getting me here on time.’ I busted my tail on that narrow road just so he can have 15 minutes to gather his thoughts before the service. He’s the one who ‘dilly-dallied’ around trying to make up his mind whether or not he’d preach this morning, not me.”

The horsefly flew to the top of a post. “Bernie, he’s got a lot on his mind right now. I’m sure he’s grateful. Try to understand.”

Bernie snorted.

Halfway across the green, the high shrill sound of a woman’s voice pierced the morning air. “Yahoo, Reverend Ray, over here.” The voice belonged to Aunt Nell.

Reverend Ray’s head spun around looking for her. When he spotted a hand waving in the air, he stopped and waited, took a few deep breaths, and straightened his jacket.

Aunt Nell walked briskly toward him, dragging someone with her across the green. When she drew near, her paced slowed. “Good morning, Reverend Ray.”

The minister put on a big smile. “Good morning, Ms. Nell. You look mighty lovely this morning. Is that a new dress?”

Aunt Nell shook her head and briefly glanced away. “This old thing? I’ve had it forever.”

The preacher smiled again. “Well, it looks very nice on you. In fact, I think the blue brings out the sparkle in your eyes.”

“Why thank you, Reverend.” Aunt Nell returned his smile. “I’d like for you to meet someone.” She motioned toward the young lady beside her. “This is Amanda Jean, my niece. Amanda, this is Reverend Ray, the preacher about whom I spoke.”

Amanda Jean smiled and extended her hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Reverend.”

A bright red flush rose from the preacher’s neck up his cheek, past his eyes and finally covered his forehead, the same color of flesh that’s been too long in the sun without sunscreen. He swallowed hard and extended a hand that shook slightly. “It’s so nice to meet you, too, ma’am.”

Bernie lingered a short distance away.

The horsefly hovered nearby. “Do you think he’s going to pass out cold or slobber all over himself?”

“Hmmm. My guess is slobber on himself.” Bernie snorted. “And if he does, I’m headed to the creek at the first sign of any drool.”

Amanda Jean’s long blonde hair and delicate features were enough to turn any man’s head, much less a soft, pudgy preacher with rapidly thinning hair.

“Reverend, do you know that Amanda Jean comes from your part of the country?”

He turned to the young lady. “Oh really, where?”

Amanda Jean smiled softly and gently batted her eyes. “This past May I graduated from the university there in Fort Worth with a degree in Child Studies.”

“She just loves children.” Aunt Nell smiled. “Did you know that while in school, Amanda Jean volunteered at the local adoption agency and rocked babies in the prenatal unit at the downtown hospital?”

Amanda Jean appeared embarrassed by her aunt’s revelations. “Oh, Aunt Nell, the Reverend’s not interested in all that.”

“You are interested in children, aren’t you Reverend?” Aunt Nell touched his arm.

Another flood of red gushed from his neck as he glanced away. “Of course I am, Ms. Nell.” He turned back to Amanda Jean. “What’s brought you to these parts?”

She glanced away, then looked up into the preacher’s face and blinked twice before she spoke. “Aunt Nell called last week and suggested I come and stay with her a few months before I begin looking for work.”

“Well, I’m very glad you decided to come our way.” The preacher grinned.

A soft smile parted her lips. “I doubt that you’d remember but we met briefly a few years ago.”

The preacher’s eye grew wide and he cocked his head to the side. “Oh, when was this?”

Amanda Jean paused. “My first year at the university I pledged with the Pi Delta Phi’s and your mother hosted a back-to-school luncheon in your lovely home there on the west side of Fort Worth.” She pointed her finger at the preacher. “I believe you were on your way out the door to return to seminary that day. Your mother caught you before you left and wouldn’t let you leave until you greeted all the ladies. And if I remember correctly, you turned bright red when she did.” She giggled. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a man turn as red as you did that day.”

The red flush covered him along with a sheepish grin that spread across his face. “I remember that luncheon. So you were there?”

“Yes, I was.” Amanda Jean’s face lit up. “Your mother’s a lovely woman, and your home is simply beautiful with all the rich mahogany woodwork and the marble floors spread throughout the house.” Her eyes sparkled in wonder as she recalled that moment. “And I don’t think I’ve seen that much art anywhere other than in a museum.”

The preacher shook his head and chuckled. “Mother does like to collect things.”

Her eyes grew big. “And the tour of your home lasted at least forty-five minutes.” She shook her head. “That’s the largest house I’ve ever been in. How do you ever find your way around that big old place?”

The preacher chuckled. “Sometimes I have to pull out my GPS just to navigate the halls.”

Amanda Jean’s eyes twinkled.

Organ music spilled out from the tiny wood-framed church onto the green.

Reverend Ray glanced at a few stragglers scrambling up the steps of the church. “I’d love to visit with you all day, but I’ve a sermon to deliver and a congregation waiting.”

Aunt Nell straightened the collar on his jacket. “Reverend, do you have plans for lunch after the morning service?”

Caught off-guard by the question, he stammered a bit. “Why…why…why no ma’am, I don’t.”

“Well then, why don’t you join Amanda Jean and me for lunch at my home after church, say about 12:30?” She patted his collar.

The preacher’s face lit up. “I’d love to.” He turned to Amanda Jean. “May I have the honor of escorting you and your aunt to your pew?”

“Thank you, kind sir.” Amanda Jean slipped her delicate arm inside his while Aunt Nell latched onto the other one.

As the three of them walked toward the front steps of the church, the mule snidely muttered under his breath. “And they lived happily ever after.”

“Bernie.” The horsefly buzzed the mule’s head.

“What?”

“Be nice.”

The mule snorted. “Something about this stinks.”

 

*************************

Chapter 8

The horsefly landed on the mule. “Do you think this is his last sermon?”

Bernie shook the fly from off his neck. “Get off me.”

“What’s gotten into you?” Mo’ hovered above the mule’s snout.

The mule gritted his teeth. “If you hadn’t said what you did, the preacher wouldn’t have come today and I’d be back at the barn sleeping in instead of spending the day carting this idiot on a lunch date.” He stomped off a few yards away then glanced back at the horsefly. “Furthermore, the preach-off would be over and I’d finally get my life back.”

Mo’ appeared surprised by the mule’s outburst. “You heard him earlier. He’s probably not coming back.”

“Yes, but that was before he met Amanda Jean.” The mule snorted. “And after the way he looked at her, he’ll be here long after the preach-off is over. In fact, we’ll have a hard time getting him to go home tonight.”

“I think you’re exaggerating things a bit.”

“Oh, you do, do you?” The mule’s eyes widened. “Well, let’s hear what the preacher has to say in his sermon. We’ll see who’s ‘exaggerating’ what.” He plodded toward an open window.

“Can I catch a ride?”

The mule snorted.

Mo’ settled in between the mule’s ears.

When Bernie reached the open window, he stuck his nose inside as Reverend Ray slipped into a chair on the platform. The mule snorted. “The first thing he’d better say is good-bye.”

Aunt Nell and Amanda Jean sat three rows back on the left side of the church in the pew with the extra leg room.

The minister of music led the congregation in a spirited rendition of “On Christ the Solid Rock, I Stand.” Following two more rousing hymns, the song leader stepped off the platform and sat down at the end of the front row.

After the offering, Reverend Ray sprang to the pulpit. “Good morning, everyone. I hope you’ve had a great week. Just before the service this morning, I had the privilege of meeting Ms. Nell’s niece, Amanda Jean, from Fort Worth.” He pointed toward the two ladies. “She’ll be staying with her aunt for the next several months. Let’s welcome her this morning.”

Reverend Ray led the congregation in a polite round of applause. When the clapping died down, he smiled. “In honor of our guest, I’ve decided to speak on something different than I had planned. If you would, turn in your Bibles to Matthew 19:14 and read along with me.” He paused a moment to let everyone find the passage. When the rustling of the pages ceased, he continued. “And Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me; and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’” The preacher looked out over the congregation. “How many of you love children?”

Hands lifted throughout the sanctuary.

“Jesus loved children as this passage reveals.” He lifted his hand and looked down at Amanda Jean and smiled real big. “And I love children, too.”

Amanda Jean blushed.

Bernie turned from the window. “I think I’m going to throw up.”

Mo’ flicked his wings. “But mules don’t throw up.”

Bernie ignored his friend. “Can you believe that guy? He didn’t even want to come this morning. Now, he’s seriously thinking about having children with a woman he just met for the first time fifteen minutes before this service.”

Mo’ landed on a stump. “Don’t you think you’re being a little hard on the guy?”

Bernie stopped in his tracks and stared at his friend. “You’re kidding me, aren’t you?”

“No, I’m not kidding you.  It’s just that….”

Bernie shook his head. “I don’t want to hear it. That Aunt Nell’s a shrewd one. Find her niece a preacher who stands to inherit half of Fort Worth and that’s her ticket out of this place.”

The horsefly scooted across the stump. “Aunt Nell’s not like that.”

“Don’t kid yourself, little buddy.” He stared at the horsefly. “Aunt Nell’s got her own agenda.”

“Well, I don’t believe it.” Mo’ lifted into the air and hovered nearby.

“Suit yourself. But watch what happens over the next few weeks. I mean, Amanda Jean hasn’t even met the Reverend Jesse with all his charm. And he’s a lot better looking than this one. And if I’m right and Amanda Jean is smitten by the Reverend Jesse, Aunt Nell will do everything she can to keep her niece away from the penniless preacher, and involved with Reverend Ray and all his money.”

The horsefly landed on the mule’s back. “Aren’t you getting ahead of yourself? He hasn’t even decided to come back yet.”

Bernie glanced over his shoulder. “Mo’, the moment he laid eyes on that woman he heard ‘the voice of God’ telling him to stay, a voice crying out from that ‘burning bush’ deep inside her bosom.”

“I’m not so sure.” Mo’ flew to the window ledge.

“Wait till after church and you’ll see.” Hearing the start of the message only irritated him more, so Bernie decided to graze instead of listening to Reverend Ray drone on about how much he loved children and watching him drool all over his Bible.

The service ran a little longer than usual, but still managed to let out a few minutes before noon. Reverend Ray stood on the top step and greeted everyone as they left the service. Aunt Nell and Amanda Jean were among the last to leave.

Aunt Nell extended her hand. “Wonderful sermon, Reverend.”

“Yes, that was a fine message.” Amanda Jean smiled and shook his hand.

“We’ll see you shortly now.” Aunt Nell smiled.

“I’ll be there, 12:30 sharp.” The preacher nodded.

After shaking a few more hands, the preacher skipped down the steps and walked briskly toward Bernie. “You do know where Ms. Nell lives, don’t you?”

The mule rolled his eyes. “Of course I do.”

The preacher rubbed his hands together. “Good. I don’t want to be late.”

The mule squared off with the preacher. “Did you tell them?”

The preacher frowned. “Tell them what?”

“Did you tell the congregation this was your last sermon?”

“Why would I do that?”

Though not surprised by the preacher’s answer, Bernie’s ears drooped. “Well, this morning before church it sure sounded like this wasn’t what you wanted to do. You weren’t sure that you were even coming back in two weeks.”

The preacher glanced away and scratched his chin. “Well, since our conversation, I’ve thought a lot about what Mo’ said about ‘God fixing’ me.” He pointed at the horsefly. “You know, I think he may be right. Maybe I should stay and see what God’s trying to tell me.”

The mule’s ears stood up straight. “Even if He speaks to you through a mule?”

Reverend Ray hesitated. “Even if He speaks through a mule.”

“Wait a minute.” Bernie closed his eyes. “I think…I think He’s telling me something about you and Amanda Jean.”

“What’s He saying?” The preacher held his breath, his face flush with excitement.

“I think I’ve got it.” The mule opened his eyes. “Yes, I have it. He said, ‘Run. It’s a trap.’”

The preacher rolled his eyes and slowly shook his head. With each turn, his jaw tightened a little more.

“Bernie, quit jerking Reverend Ray around.” Mo’ hovered nearby. “I’m sorry, reverend. But do you really think you’ll stay?”

The preacher glanced at the horsefly. “Yes I do, at least for a while.”

“See, I told you.” The mule nodded. “All it took was that pretty little thing for him to hear God’s voice.” He leaned over and munched on some grass.

“What did you say?” The preacher glared at the mule.

“Don’t pay any attention to him, reverend. He’s just a stubborn ‘ole mule.” The horsefly landed on Bernie’s head. “Come on. We’ve got to go or you’ll be late.”

The preacher hopped up on Bernie and gave an extra stiff kick in the mule’s side.

“Hey, not so hard.” Bernie plodded toward Aunt Nell’s house.

On the other side of town, Bernie turned down a small lane. At the end of a short dirt road stood a small wood-framed home with a white picket fence. A wooden swing and a couple of white wicker chairs filled the tiny porch, an idyllic scene that would have made Norman Rockwell proud, if things were as they appeared.

Reverend Ray climbed the steps and knocked on the front door. He ran his hand over his head to smooth out a few loose hairs.

The screen door swung wide open. “Come on in, Reverend.” Aunt Nell motioned for him to enter.

The preacher disappeared inside, the screen door shut behind him.

Out of the corner of his eye, Bernie noticed an unsuspecting insect stumble into a nasty web spread across the top of the porch where two beams came together. The spider, ever the gracious host, moved in quickly to make sure her guest felt ‘welcomed.’

Bernie’s gaze returned to the closed door, his gut tied in knots. The bile in the pit of his stomach spiked each time he imagined the minister gazing into Amanda Jean’s eyes from across the room as they made pleasantries while nibbling on slices of pears and short-bread squares before lunch, waiting for Aunt Nell’s famous Sunday casserole to warm, a well-known ‘religious’ tradition in these parts celebrated every week. At the monthly meetings of the Ladies Auxiliary, Aunt Nell often served the pear slices picked from the trees in her own yard along with the home-made short-bread squares, an old family recipe handed down on her mother’s side, or so he’d heard her say to the women in town.

On numerous occasions, Bernie had listened while the ladies prattled on about the texture and sweetness of the fruit, of how different it was from any other in the county. Aunt Nell never revealed her secret to growing the pears despite their persistent questioning. From what Bernie could tell, she never gave anyone a helping hand, much less ‘the upper hand’. She’d simply flash that ‘wicked smile’ and say it was “the Hand of God” that had blessed the fruit. At the moment, he didn’t care. All he wanted to do was to relieve himself on the pear trees.

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