[NOTE: This is part four of a four part short story. Please refer to the main page for the other three.]
A soft, flickering light shone behind his eyelids and Black Jack realized that he was lying somewhere warm. He opened his eyes and saw that he was covered in thick blankets and a fire flickered in a small hearth on the wall behind his head. He was obviously in a very sparsely furnished cabin. Apart from the bed on which he was lying, there was only a small table in the middle of the room, covered in books – including a very prominent Bible – and a chair sitting next to it.
Black Jack attempted to sit up and found that his body was hurting in so many places that the effort was nauseating. He collapsed back from the half-upright position he had managed and began taking stock of his injuries. His stomach hurt the most. It seemed to burn with every breath and the exertion of simply trying to sit up had left a pulsing pain. He could feel a steady, dull throb in both of his shoulders and his left leg felt numb. The knife wound he had received on top of the mountain was burning like fire in his back and all of his body felt stiff and sore.
His mind felt almost completely clear however and Black Jack relived for a moment what had happened on the mountain. He must have been the only survivor from the shootout. He had seen clearly that Aston had been trampled – in addition to the bullet he had caught. Coffee had received three of Collins’ bullets. Snyder couldn’t have made it through two shotgun blasts to the chest and Butler … well, Black Jack vaguely remembered the blood spreading from a spot directly over his heart as the man’s eyes went blank.
Why don’t I feel more relieved? Why don’t I feel more justified? Why am I not experiencing some peace from the situation, now that it is over?
Breaking through his thoughts was the sound of the door being pushed open and a small man entered the room with an armload of firewood. The man had a long, shabby duster which fell down to his feet where it had been rubbed down and frayed by years of scuffing against the ground. He glanced over at Black Jack and a smile creased his wizened face. The smile served to immediately disarm any apprehension Black Jack felt about his helpless state – so at the mercy of this man he was – and as the man walked silently over to lay his bundle by the hearth, Black Jack broke the silence. “I think that I owe you thanks. You obviously have saved my life, sir.”
The old man turned to look at him, before replying with a thick French accent, “I am glad I found you when I did. You were very close to death.” Turning back to the fire, he stoked it before removing his old, tattered duster. Underneath it he was wearing long, thick, brown robes and a small crucifix hung around his neck.
Black Jack, anxious to know something of his savior, introduced himself. “My name is Jack Collins. I live down in the valley at the eastern end of this pass.”
“I am Father Rémy,” the old man replied. He quickly shuffled over to a shelf and picked up an old teapot, filled it with water and placed it on the hearth, before turning back to give Black Jack his full attention. “You have lost a lot of blood and you have several very bad injuries. You’ve been asleep for several days now and, even though you are awake, you probably shouldn’t move around or attempt to get up. I have some little skill with healing wounds, but it is now only time and rest which will help your recovery.”
“How did you find me?” Black Jack asked.
“This cabin is not far from the place on the pass where you had your fight and I heard the shots from here.”
“Were you able to find my horses? I’d hate for them to have frozen out there.”
“Yes, I found five horses altogether. They are sharing a small shelter I have for my pony. I’m afraid there isn’t much room for them … but better cramped and warm than out in the snow, freezing.”
Silence set in for a few minutes as Rémy brewed some tea and prepared some soup, setting a pot down near the fire. When both men had a steaming cup, Rémy pulled his chair over near the bed and began checking Black Jack’s bandages.
“Are you able to tell me what happened down in the pass?” Rémy asked with interest.
Black Jack hesitated before answering. “Yes. I … I believe I can …” And before he could stop himself, he began recounting every detail of his story, starting with his time as a Ranger. While giving the details of his discovery of Emily’s murder all the way through his hunt of the outlaws, he wondered to himself why he felt so free to share with this old man. Was it because he had saved Black Jack’s life and therefore deserved to know? Was it that he was a man of the cloth and was therefore trustworthy with the particulars? Or was he somehow seeking some sort of iron-clad justification for his actions by giving the facts? Possibly it was the last reason – which seemed to have more credence simply because Rémy seemed likely be the last person who would condone killing for killing’s sake – but more probably it was a combination of all of those reasons.
Collins’ tale was punctuated with several instances where he attempted to rationalize his actions through appeals for Rémy to see the justice that was Black Jack’s ultimate goal. Throughout it all, Rémy listened quietly and without interruption; nor did he make any indication that he disapproved of or condoned Black Jack’s actions.
When Black Jack finished telling the story there was only silence for several minutes. Rémy leaned back in his chair thoughtfully and Black Jack gazed, unblinking, at him – waiting for his judgment.
When Rémy spoke, it was with reservation and he seemed to have guessed that some sort of absolution was desired by Black Jack in return for his story. Collins had not asked for any sort of forgiveness, or even a judgment, but both of the men knew that it didn’t need verbalization. “I think that you are an amazing survivor. And your late-wife would be happy to know that you have lived through the experience of tracking down her killers.”
Abruptly the old man got to his feet to check on the soup, turning the large pot to heat its other side and stirring the contents. Nothing was said for many minutes and Black Jack, exhausted from the emotion and energy of telling his story, fell asleep in the silence.
When he woke, he knew instinctively that it was several hours later. Rémy was sitting next to his bed, reading. Noticing that Black Jack was awake, he spooned some of the soup he had kept warm by the fire into a bowl and handed it to the exhausted and injured man.
“I suppose,” Black Jack said between slurps, “that you think me a monster for having killed those men?”
Black Jack didn’t know why he had said it. It was as if he had come to the conclusion while asleep that Rémy could think nothing else of him.
“No. I do not think that.” Rémy responded charitably. “I think that you acted rashly. I even think that you acted unjustly,” he raised his hand momentarily to halt Black Jack’s rising interjection. “But I don’t think you a monster.”
“Don’t you think that it was justice which I gave to those men?” Black Jack asked with incredulity.
“No …” the older man shook his head, looking at the ground thoughtfully. “No, I don’t think that you could ever have brought them justice.”
Rémy’s cryptic response startled Black Jack and his questioning look encouraged Rémy continue.
“I am of the opinion – bolstered significantly by frequent experiences over the many years of my life – that it is impossible for man to mete out justice. True justice, you see … not the punishment for a wrong so commonly called justice. Man is inherently sinful, therefore man is inherently unjust. But this applies to all men, not just you or me. Instead, I think that you delivered what your mind and your flesh told you was justice … and you did it in spite of what your conscience was telling you.”
“Why do you think my conscience was telling me that killing Butler and his men was wrong?”
“Well … I thought about that question for a long time while you were sleeping, because my initial reasoning was simply intuition. But I think that I now know why.” Rémy paused as he deliberated over his next words. “You made a curious comment during your story that stuck in my head. You said, ‘I couldn’t bring myself to think about Emily throughout the chase. It just slowed me down and made me feel sick.’”
Black Jack remembered the words, but was still surprised that he had said them. He had only briefly thought about it but hadn’t fully realized the fact that he had consciously suppressed thoughts of his lovely wife.
After a pause, Rémy continued, “I think that you know, somewhere deep down, that your late wife wouldn’t have approved of your taking the law into your own hands in the way that you did. I think that you made the decision – once again deep down – to repress thoughts of your wife because it would bite your conscience in the middle of your actions to know she would have wanted better from you. And, even more than that, I think that deep down, fear drove you to this so-called ‘act of justice’ because you did not know of another way to deal with the anger, grief and guilt you were experiencing in the wake of Emily’s murder.”
Several minutes’ silence ensued while both men pondered what Rémy had said. It was finally broken by a new question from Rémy. “Are you a Christian man, Jack?”
Emily had always been very faithful to God and Jack, desiring fervently to be closer to Emily, had embraced the church in their town in another effort to grow closer to her. He had been pleasantly surprised at the time that it also seemed to lighten the burden he carried from his rough years of law-keeping in Texas to have people with relatively clean pasts embracing him for who he was.
“I am. Though I haven’t always been … and I’m not Catholic.” Black Jack responded.
Rémy nodded as if he expected this answer. “I have a feeling that your time chasing rustlers and thieves early in life encouraged the idea of justice through the laws of the land – something which is admirable so long as the laws are just themselves. And since you represented the law and visited it upon law-breakers with more independence than most, you could have easily been swayed to equate your justice – enabled and sanctioned by authority which was not your own – with actual justice – which cannot be wielded or exercised by man.”
Rémy glanced at Black Jack to make sure he was still with him.
“You see, like I said before, since man is inherently sinful – something with which I’m sure you can agree, having the history you do – true justice cannot be concluded by man. This becomes more apparent when you realize that man is neither omnipresent, nor omniscient; as God is. Man cannot know what happened at a certain time or place unless he was there and in his right mind. In addition, he cannot know the intentions of the hearts and minds of other men –as God can – because he seldom even understands his own intentions. This leaves him in a very weak position for actually and perfectly serving justice.”
“Surely you aren’t saying that man should not punish criminals.” Black Jack said, aghast.
“Oh certainly not!” Rémy replied with obvious disgust. “No, Saint Paul acknowledged the right of civil authorities to keep the law by calling them ‘established’ by God and saying that they do not ‘bear the sword in vain.’ And we both know the chaos that would reign if men like the Rangers did not hunt down and punish evildoers.
“But my point about true justice is one that is more nuanced for a reason. You seem conflicted in your handling of the ‘justice’ you worked. You seem to question, if only subconsciously, whether you served justice in the right way. And, because of that, I believe that you are looking for justification of your actions to alleviate some of the guilt you feel. Since you are not Catholic, you wouldn’t believe that I have any power to absolve you of that guilt – and I agree, incidentally – but you still seek it from me simply because I am another man who presumably has a sense of morality.”
Rémy had hit the nail on the head. Black Jack realized that this old man had gone right to the heart of the matter and had seen straight through to the intentions of which he had not even himself been aware. He still wondered why he was getting a lecture about the true nature of justice, but it was obvious that Rémy was working toward that. Encouraged but also chastened, Jack shifted slightly on his bed in order to get a better look at the old priest as he spoke.
“So … have I done wrong?” Jack asked, humility evident in his quaking voice.
Rémy sighed audibly before answering. “Unfortunately I can’t answer that. I don’t know the intentions of your heart. Nor do I know the circumstances of each action you made – beyond what you have told me, of course.”
The words hung in the air, obviously meant to be expounded upon, but Rémy got up from his chair and crossed the room to the kettle. He poured two more cups of tea and brought one to Jack. Sitting down, he took a sip thoughtfully and then continued.
“Personally, I don’t blame, or condone you,” he added, looking directly at Jack, “for responding the way you did in the passion of the moment. You reacted as a man of action would react to the violence he had felt. Nor do I think that your brand of ‘justice’ exceeded in proportion the wrong committed by the six cowards who murdered your wife. No doubt the Territory would have hanged the men had you somehow captured them and brought them back to a judge.”
Jack drew a deep breath, partially relieved at these words, partially nervous about those that would come next.
Rémy continued, “But your conscience has struck you and peace has not come from the ‘justice’ you gave. So there must be something unanswered and unfulfilled deep down. My silly discourse on what I have called ‘true justice’ might possibly offer an answer … and from there bring a solution which will give you peace.
“There is, after all, a reason that Saint Paul and Saint Peter wrote not to take revenge. They both said, ‘Repay to no man evil for evil’, calling instead on Christians to bless and forgive those who hurt us.”
Jack obviously had the disgust he was feeling at this thought etched on his face, because turning to look at him, Rémy addressed it. “It is repulsive to you to bless the killers of your wife … which is very understandable. But the Church Fathers were repeating Jesus’ instruction in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, love your enemies and bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.’ Jesus said this because He was erecting a new covenant, one which drilled to the core of what God intended for man all along.
“You see that, from the beginning, God intended for man to do what is right all of the time, endowing man with the capacity for love and kindness as a reflection of the love and goodness of God. But that was spoiled by the first man and woman. In response, while preparation for man’s redemption and justification was underway, God laid down a set of rules – rules carved into stone incidentally – which, when broken, were punishable by death. After all, if the blood of bulls and goats was necessary to hold God’s wrath at bay for even the smallest sins – and then only temporarily appeasing it – how much more the death of the sinner in recompense for his sin? But when Jesus came, He not only brought forgiveness apart from the death of the sinner, He also brought a deeper understanding of sin itself. That is, that sin is a problem of the intentions of a heart not dedicated to God. The law said, ‘do not commit adultery’ and Jesus said ‘do not look at a woman lustfully.’ The law said ‘do not murder’ and Jesus said ‘do not be angry.’ The law said, ‘an eye for an eye’ and Jesus said ‘love thine enemies.’”
Rémy looked the breathless Jack in the eye very purposefully, as if underlining his words, “And that is the reason your conscience smites you! You have realized intuitively – Praise God! – the fullest and most heinous truth about your sin … not just a sin of breaking some rule about taking the law into your own hands, but of hating your enemy and vowing destruction upon him because he brought destruction upon you.
“As a matter of fact, even if you had started with the most pure motives and the most ironclad permission to hunt down and kill your wife’s murderers, your whole operation could have dissolved into sin. Obsession can derail justice just as easily as impure motives or inappropriate license. Obsession leads to a placement on high of things which are unworthy. I’m sure that if you hadn’t been able to track down and bring to ‘justice’ your wife’s killers so quickly, you wouldn’t have stopped with the tracking of them into this pass. You would have followed them forever and a day, pursuing peace … and subsequently losing it along the way. Yes, obsession is the next step in the graduation of sin; insidious because it slithers under our defenses and disguises itself as that which is good.”
The old man stopped talking for a few minutes to allow his words to sink in. He got up silently and crossed the room to a shelf near the door. Pulling down a small, wooden box, he rummaged through the contents and pulled out a small medal. Holding it carefully in his hand, he closed the box and replaced it on the shelf before walking back across the room to Jack. When Rémy offered the medal to him, Jack took it and looked carefully at it. It was obviously very old and was not of the highest workmanship, but beautiful nonetheless because of its recognizable significance. In the middle was a strong, though crude cross and etched around the outside were the words, “Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam.” Jack mouthed the words soundlessly as he tried to remember the little bit of Latin that he knew.
Rémy said the words aloud, “’Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam’ – ‘For the greater glory of God.’ It is something of a motto for my order. I am a Jesuit. I came south from Canada to Montana with my friend and countryman, Pierre-Jean De Smet, hoping to do some mission work amongst the tribes in the area. After he moved on, I continued south with one other member of my order. He passed away a few years ago and I have remained here. My head says that I should move back to be with my order where it is still active, but my heart keeps me here. During the last few years I have only had two people with whom I am in regular contact and neither one knows God. They keep me here because it would hurt my conscience to leave and abandon them to Satan. Indeed, I stay here because my heart keeps telling me that it is ‘for the greater glory of God.’
“I won’t tell you, Jack, that I have always lived up to the ideal of ‘Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam’, but it is a useful reminder of where my loyalties lie … of where my focus should be. And I try … I try …” he placed so much emphasis on the word that Jack understood.
A deeper silence than any the pair had experienced before seemed to settle. The older man’s words had a melancholy timbre that Jack couldn’t bring himself to break and he kept running his fingers over the etched words, “Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam,” as if trying to internalize them through contact.
Several more minutes passed before Rémy looked again at Jack. “Son,” it seemed strange to Jack to be addressed as such by the older man – a man to whom he owed his life – but somehow it still seemed to fit, “you set out from your ranch with grief weighing you down and you sought peace from it through revenge fueled by anger. You see now that you haven’t found peace in spite of your best efforts meeting with success; and even then according to the parameters which you yourself had set for your success. Realize now that revenge, nor ‘justice’ such as it is on earth, can bring peace to you. The pain is inside, the anger is inside … how can an external action lead to a satisfying quench to that which is internal? You must come to understand that God, who knows the thoughts and intentions of each man’s heart, and who has the ultimate power over life and death, is also the One who can sooth the ache of your soul and slake the bottomless pit of despair that has come from the loss so horrible of a treasure so cherished.
“Even a just law upheld by a judge with integrity, followed by a hangman’s noose for the men who killed Emily, wouldn’t be enough to fill that hole in your heart … and you have dug it deeper by fighting your conscience through serving a justice contrived by your own imagination. Give it all to God now and accept the call to do everything ‘Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam’ from now on. Or, at least to try! All intentions of the heart will be weighed by the true Judge, and all consequence will come to His glory anyway. So walk the path that matters, the path of peace and true justice and dedicate yourself to do everything ‘for the greater glory of God.’
It was three months before Jack was able to hobble out of Rémy’s cabin and begin the long trek back to his ranch. The bullets, shot and knife used on him had all left deep scars and he now limped visibly when he walked. But as he rode east through the pass back toward home, Jack noted that he felt a little lighter, a little freer. He still had a hollow feeling in his stomach from the loss of his lovely wife, but now, when he closed his eyes, she beamed at him with the pride and love he wanted to remember.
Though pain and injustice be encountered in my life, You my Lord, are still righteous. Help me to never react based on my fleshly desires and always to respond … for the greater glory of God.