Preacher Man, he whistles past the graveyard, giving the crows something to gossip about. The eye the wrinkled black suit and cackle. Preacher Man knows they is laughing at him, their sable feathers all to the glory his dress lacks. He don't worry none, though. They is just birds. At least, that's what he tells himself. He composes a sermon in his head to call down God to walk with him awhile. The sun is setting, and you don't want to be alone after dark on the fringes of Hell.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley in the shadow of death, I will fear no evil...that's what the good book says, or so rumor has it. I tells myself that every morning to get my feets on the floor, and out the door. Cain't set still, evil finds you too easy that way."
The crows cocked their heads. Beaded ebony eyes with a hint of wisdom. They said nothing. Preacher Man laughed. A nervous titter disturbed the moss on the stones around the graveyard. He clutched his good book tighter. The cracked leather of the cover was stained with sweat. And maybe blood. Preacher Man didn't know. He started walking again, keeping an eye on the trees.
"Evil is not my main concern, friends!" he shouted to the crows. They rustle and murmur. "Loneliness is quite another matter. A creature of a different stripe. And it is on my trail. My trail!"
Preacher Man's voice echoed off the rocks of the valley then died amongst the cedars. He reckoned the crows cared little for him or for loneliness. The flock muttered, shifted, hunched their wings. Musical notes on the sheet music of the branches. Preacher Man shivered at the thought of unholy music, tritones twisting his mind into knots.
"I've been walking for days, friends. A mite slow, mebbe, but faster than it!" Little puffs of dust arose from under his hobnailed soles. "I've the Lord on my side, I tell ye. He'll carry me, this I know. He'll not let me fall. He won't." Preacher Man shook his fist at the birds. They laughed.
The track was rising up to the west. Farther along, too far to make out much detail, but Preacher Man could see what appeared to be a plateau. In the sky above it was a brighter spot, the sun a luminescent blob buried in the pearlescent wool of the clouds.
"Amen to that, friends and brothers. Amen. I can stay the night there." He quickened his pace, eager to make the plateau before nightfall. A slight breeze stirred the trees. Preacher Man thought he could smell rain on the wind. He welcomed the thought. His whiskey had run out three days ago, and the bottle was dry. Maybe he'd luck into a spring up there.
The grey light brightened, catching him unawares. Ragged holes appeared in the clouds, two not far apart. The clouds roiled over themselves but the holes remained open. Silver-grey sunlight speared down, washing over him. Preacher Man stopped, chilled, shivering. Behind him the crows whispered in avian argot, but Preacher Man knew they were talking about him. He turned to look over his shoulder. The inky black birds had alighted in the track, a thick mass stretching form one side of the track to the other between the rock of the valley wall and the graveyard.
The crows fluttered and stared. Preacher Man gaped. His bowels felt cold. Shaking, biting his lip, he turned his head back and decided he better start walking again. As he did so, he saw the other shaft of light up ahead along the track. It was shining down on the plateau, washing the side of the butte beside it. In the middle of the plateau, in the sunlight, Preacher Man could make out a large black shape, vaguely human in outline. As he stared the shape lifted what looked like an arm.
It curled the arm, gesturing as if waving to the man to come forward. Preacher Man gaped, gasped, dropped the bottle on his foot. A dark stain bloomed out across the front of his dirt-caked trousers. He clutched the good book to his chest and stumbled up the track.
"All this time, you bastard, all this time," croaked Preacher Man, "I's thinkin' you were behind me. And there you are, in front of me. It's enough to make a man lose his religion!"
His voice trailed off into a wheeze. He staggered up the valley. Behind him the crows chuckled and danced. On the plateau, the lone black shape crossed its arms, waiting.