Five knew two things about Brother Ted Gunderson: The man loved Jesus, and hated his own son. Five was never allowed to call him Father or Pa. Once Five was old enough to string the words together, Brother Ted Gunderson was Brother Ted Gunderson, and Five would catch a beating if he left off a single syllable.
Brother Ted Gunderson, on the other hand, had plenty of names he could call Five: Demon, Hellspawn, Murderer. Five was born a murderer. He had killed his mother when he came into the world, and Brother Ted Gunderson never let him forget it.
“Lord Jesus,” Brother Ted Gunderson prayed when they sat down to eat on the dirt floor of the revival tent or on the ground by the wagons or on the running boards as they moved to another town. The words as common to Five as the Lord’s own prayer: “I pray your comfort for my murdered wife, and I pray for your protection on those around us. May you keep this boy from murdering anyone else on his road to hell.”
Five liked it when Brother Ted Gunderson preached from the Psalms or the Gospels or anything that didn’t get him shouting about the end times. Five liked how Jesus was always feeding people and healing people and forgiving people. Liked how the Psalms felt like the wanted posters he saw on the building walls of each town they moved their revival tent to, only opposite. The Psalms didn’t call out Jesus for crimes he did, but thanked him for, and hinted at, all the good things he was going to do. And the words in the Psalms were so beautiful, Five could conjure up a picture of Jesus that was clearer than any wanted poster’s poorly drawn sketch. Five always watched Brother Ted Gunderson speak about Jesus from a dark corner of the tent because if the preacher’s gaze fell on Five, all the joy and miracles would slide from his words and the sermon would turn to judgment and the coming damnation.
Five didn’t like hearing about the coming damnation. Growing up a murderer meant judgment was always on his mind.
Five was trying to cry quietly the day he first met the woman with the rotten teeth. He had been surprised by a snake as he checked around the back of the revival tent to make sure that it was properly fastened and stepped on a sharp stick in his haste to avoid the serpent.
“Are you okay?” the woman said. She gasped and held her mouth in pain as soon as she spoke.
Five held out his bare foot, and she knelt beside him. She wiped the blood away with the hem of her skirt and tore a strip to wrap his foot.
“Now that’s better,” she said carefully. “What’s your name?”
She smiled and Five stared at the twisted brown stumps of her teeth.
“Your name, not your age, silly.”
She covered her mouth and inhaled through her nose in pain. Brother Ted Gunderson had been spreading the word that tonight’s service would be a healing revival. Five knew what she would be praying for.
Five was small for his age, but he wasn’t a little kid anymore. Ever since he was old enough to hold a shovel, his birthdays were marked by Brother Ted Gunderson standing over him while he dug a rectangular hole. Five had to place something he loved into the hole before filling it back in. Three years ago, he was forced to bury his last pair of shoes. The only precious thing he had for two years running was his supper.
The woman with the rotten teeth must have had bad eyes too because he could remember digging at least seven holes for Brother Ted Gunderson. Before the shoes, he buried a worn hat someone left in the revival tent, a twisted root that looked like a galloping horse, a marble given to him by a little girl whose parents were attending one of Brother Ted Gunderson’s services, all the way back to the first thing he was forced to bury: a jet-black chicken feather he stroked his cheek with to fall asleep at night. He liked to pretend it was the exact color of his mother’s hair. By Five’s count, he was ten or eleven, but Five knew a murderer had no right to correct anyone, so he showed her to the front of the tent. The woman hugged him before going inside.
Five liked healing revival nights. The miracles in the revival tent were never as exciting as those in the Bible. Cripples didn’t get up and dance, but folks with limps walked out afterword a bit easier and with a smile for God.
“Make a joyful noise,” Brother Ted Gunderson shouted as he whipped the crowd into a frenzy before the healings started.
People hallelujahed and amened at the top of their lungs. They laughed and cried and danced on the tent’s dirt floor. Five watched the woman with the rotten teeth from a crack in the tent. She didn’t sing or shout with the rest of them. She clapped her hands.
Brother Ted Gunderson pulled the loudest from the crowd and prayed for their healing. Five watched the woman attempt a hallelujah when she was overlooked. She covered her mouth in pain and shouted no more. With tears running down her face, she clapped. She looked at Brother Ted Gunderson and clapped. She looked to the heavens and clapped and clapped.
No one had ever bound Five’s wounds. No one had ever given him a hug. Five prayed to Jesus for the woman. Prayed that her teeth wouldn’t hurt her any more. Prayed that the rotten stumps in her mouth would become as beautiful as the kindness she showed him.
The woman’s hand went to her mouth.
“I,” she said, “I’ve been healed.”
She shimmered in the dim tent lights. Brother Ted Gunderson heard her finally and parted the crowd to get to her side. He put his hand on her shoulder then pulled it back and inspected his palm.
“Gold dust,” he said. “Gold dust from heaven.”
The woman smiled and her teeth shone. Pure gold.
The revival carried on until the sun lightened the sky.
Brother Ted Gunderson’s revival stayed in town for an extra week. The tent was packed each night. Everyone wanted their own gold teeth. Everyone wanted gold dust from heaven.
At the end of the week, the woman with the golden teeth married Brother Ted Gunderson and the whole town said halleluiah. She took the name Mary Gunderson and the town said amen.
The revival was packed in the next town and the next as Mary Gunderson told of her healing. Five watched from the shadows and praised Jesus. Brother Ted Gunderson explained to the crowds the act of clapping hands to bring the Holy Spirit.
Mary Gunderson was surprised to find out that the wounded orphan boy outside the revival tent was Brother Ted Gunderson’s son, but she learned quickly never to call him such. She learned that the boy was a murderer. She learned to hate him from the man she thought could perform miracles. Five wanted to tell her that it was his prayer that healed her, but knew she would never listen to a murderer. Though her golden smile stayed hidden when he was in sight, Five cherished her kindness back when he was still a stranger.
On Five’s birthday, she stood with Brother Ted Gunderson over the boy as he dug his hole.
“Leave what you love in the hole,” Brother Ted Gunderson said.
“I can’t,” Five said.
“You can and you will.”
“But I love Mary,” Five said.
Brother Ted Gunderson commanded his wife to cut a switch from the twisted manzanita. She gave Five his beating that night with a zeal that left him bleeding, his shirt torn and dirty. His supper was buried once again.
Months out from the miracle and many towns down the road, people stopped believing that Mary Gunderson was healed by a miracle.
“You’re a charlatan,” they’d cry as they drove Brother Ted Gunderson’s Clap Hands Revival from town. “This is dentist work, not God’s. You just want our money for your own set of gold teeth.”
Mary Gunderson stopped showing her miraculous smile, and Brother Ted Gunderson preached in a tent devoid of miracles. Five tried to pray for more miracles, but the land was dry, the money was tight, and he could not find the same love he felt for the woman with rotten teeth.
“I thought Jesus told us not to lie,” Mary said when Brother Ted Gunderson told her his new revival plan.
“But it’s not a lie,” Brother Ted Gunderson said. “You were healed by a miracle. And Jesus also said that our most important job was to spread his good news. You want to spread his good news, don’t you?”
She agreed and left while there was still enough light to travel.
Mary Gunderson wore a disguise and circled the town to come at it from the opposite direction the revival tent would arrive from. She grimed herself up, shuffled with a limp all hunched, wore rotten caps over her golden teeth. She begged for change and made sure the whole town heard her complain about the pain in her mouth.
Brother Ted Gunderson rolled into town and set up his revival tent a few days later. He introduced the few who came at first to the spiritual practice of clapping hands. He gave testimony that clapping brought the Holy Spirit. Talked about the people he’d seen healed, the rain that had come to dry lands, and the wealth that had poured from the heavens at the sound of clapping hands.
At first, all Brother Ted Gunderson needed was a bit of sleight of hand and the shavings from his last gold coin. He picked someone with a glimmer of devotion and a sheen of gullibility. Sprinkled some gold dust into their hair and slipped some into their pocket as he guided them through the holy practice. Once they discovered the dust, they brought in their families, and the town’s new tooth-achey beggar made her way to the revival. She dropped the few coins she got begging into the collection plate and out-clapped every soul in the tent. When the holy fervor of clapped hands reached the right pitch, she popped the rotten caps from her teeth and proclaimed the miracle.
“I’ve been healed,” she cried.
Brother Ted Gunderson inspected her mouth and called for a baptism. The grime sloughed from her skin and she stood straight, not quite beautiful but no longer a crone.
“She gave everything she had,” Brother Ted Gunderson called out, “and the Lord healed her. She clapped and was richly rewarded.”
One look at her shining gold teeth was all that was needed to bring the whole town to the revival. They filled the collection plate. Brother Ted Gunderson collected enough that he didn’t mind grinding a handful of coins and gold nuggets down to dust. The more dust he sprinkled, the emptier the townspeople’s pockets became before he packed up his revival tent.
Five ran away after the third town visited by Brother Ted Gunderson’s new Clap Hands Revival. He couldn’t find it in himself to pray for another miracle while Mary’s miraculous teeth were being used to fill Brother Ted Gunderson’s purse. He looked for the kindness of the woman with the rotten teeth. He looked for a place where miracles could happen. He found meanness and hunger. He found a gun.
The first man he killed was trying to rob him. The second was robbing a stranger. The third was beating his own son. Meanness and evil found Five around every corner.
Years of survival went by, and he found a poor depiction of his own face on the wanted posters on the walls around towns. “Nickname ‘Five’,” they read, “Real identity unknown.”
Five never really thought about the fact that he didn’t have a proper name until he read that first sign, and it got him thinking about Brother Ted Gunderson. Five earned his face on a wanted poster when he stopped looking for miracles and started stomping out meanness. He couldn’t think of a meaner target than his own father.
He stole a horse and went looking for Brother Ted Gunderson’s Clap Hands Revival.
The revival wasn’t hard to find. Far out, Five came across poor towns whose folk would draw on him if he so much as brought his palms together more than twice. He knew he was getting close when the townspeople still clapped and sang and looked at the sky in hope.
The tent throbbed with the thunder of clapped hands. The revival must have been on its last night in town. Five could hear Brother Ted Gunderson’s voice boom out above the applause.
“Clap your hands,” he cried. “Bring the spirit of the Lord down upon us and clap your hands.”
Five waited to confront his father until the last worshiper went clapping home to check behind his ears for gold dust.
“Revival’s done for the night,” Brother Ted Gunderson said when Five strode into the tent.
The preacher went still when he saw the pistol in Five’s hand.
“Listen, friend,” Brother Ted Gunderson said, “we’re doing God’s work out here. We don’t have anything to steal.”
“Bullshit,” Five said.
“Do not curse in the Lord’s house,” Brother Ted Gunderson said as he lifted his eyes from the gun and looked his son in the face. “Well look who’s come crawling back. Mary’ll never believe the murderer’s back with the revival. She’s outside. You can help her load the wagon if you want any supper.”
Five pulled the trigger, and Brother Ted went down with a hole in his gut. Mary Gunderson screamed, and Five turned as she rushed him. She didn’t deserve her miraculous teeth. She didn’t deserve teeth at all. He grabbed her by the throat and squeezed until she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t swallow. He hit her in the mouth with the butt of his gun over and over again and then tipped her face to the ground and fished out a handful of gold teeth.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Brother Ted Gunderson asked as he held his leaking stomach.
Five wanted to list the lies. Wanted to throw the names of the towns of dying poor he had been through to find the revival tent at Brother Ted Gunderson’s feet. Wanted to recount the beatings and terrible lessons his father taught him in the spaces between towns, but all that came out was, “Why Five?”
Brother Ted gagged a laugh and retched blood. “Why’d I name you Five? I was a real preacher before you came along. And not in a tent either. Fought the good fight. Saved souls. But as soon as I laid eyes on you clawing your way out of my dead wife, I knew all hope was lost. You were a pitiful little son of hell, full of all the evil of the world. I took one look at you and realized that the end times were upon us. Pestilence, Famine, War, Death. The four horsemen had done their work and you were all that was left. A new evil to end our days with suffering.”
“I’m evil?” Five said. “You left a trail of dead and dying towns full of hungry people who will never believe in miracles or goodness ever again.”
“I was spreading the good news,” Brother Ted Gunderson said. “Jesus saw fit to give me but one miracle, and I used it as best I could. They left with lighter pockets, but they left with lighter souls too.”
“Your miracle?” Five said and held up the handful of bloody, golden teeth. “I prayed for this. It was me. I made this happen.”
“Prayed for vengeance?” Brother Ted Gunderson said as he coughed more blood and closed his eyes. “That’s not God. That’s another stamp on your ticket to hell, and confirmation that you are exactly the type of monster I always knew you to be.”
Five rode until his horse was exhausted. Rode west and south, away from judgment, away from damnation. He rode until he found a town that had never heard of Brother Ted Gunderson’s Clap Hands Revival. Rode until he stopped seeing his face on the wanted posters.
He paid for several nights of lodging with a small gold tooth that was proclaimed to be the oddest gold nugget the town had ever seen. He no longer carried a gun. He didn’t want to be a murderer anymore. But without the gun he was easy prey.
Thieves ran him out of town when they realized he had a pocket full of gold teeth. Five kept walking south.
“Ayudame,” a man said.
Five looked around. He was at the edge a dusty town he would have thought was already dead if it wasn’t for the man standing waist deep in a wide hole.
“Ayudame, por favor,” the man said again. His voice was weak. He sounded sickly.
Five didn’t understand the words, but he understood the tone as a plea for help.
“Water,” Five said and made drinking motions.
The man nodded and handed Five a nearly empty water skin. Five hadn’t had anything but cactus water for three days. He took a sip but the man motioned for him to finish it off.
Giving the last of his water away before he even finished digging his new well, Five thought. This is a good man. This is the kind of man miracles are supposed to happen to.
Five took the shovel and replaced the man in the hole. The man walked to a wagon parked in the shade of the nearest building and began pulling it toward Five.
Horses must have all died without water, Five thought.
The man obviously didn’t know much about digging wells. This was far too wide and shallow. Five picked a spot in the middle and pried out a shovel full of dirt. The mouthful of water was not going to last him long, so Five started praying as he dug.
Five prayed for the dirt to turn to mud, for fresh water to flow from the ground. Five felt dizzy from days without food and too little water, but he continued to dig. With each shovelful, Five prayed for water to save this dry town. He prayed that this would be the last thing he did on earth. That he would be remembered for this well and not the murders.
The dry soil turned dark. Water gushed from the ground. Five thanked Jesus, took a drink, and sat on the edge of the hole.
“Go get your family,” Five said. “The water’s good.”
Five looked to the man to see his smile, but his eyes were wide with fear, and he prayed in words Five could not understand. Five knew why the small town was so quiet as he watched the man cross himself again and again, standing next to a wagon piled high with bodies. Five heard a word that sounded like monster, another that sounded like demon as the man dropped to his knees and covered his head.
Five looked at the water and saw it for what it was to the man. A grave become a well, a lifesaving miracle to mock his loss. The man wasn’t seeking salvation. He had nothing left to save.
Five turned back to the desert. Maybe no one deserved miracles. Maybe Brother Ted Gunderson was right and judgment and damnation were all that was left. Five started walking back the way he came, leaving the man next to the slowly filling hole that was meant for everything he loved in the world.