Happy Easter! Please enjoy an excerpt from this pulp retelling of the resurrection of Jesus, wherein he’s a Mexican gunslinger in the Old West.
It was a beautiful day for a hanging.
The desert was still and serene, as though heaven and nature both had stopped in their course to observe the moment of truth. Kings and beggars alike had gathered before the gallows- wondering if they were about to witness a miracle, or if the notorious outlaw’s luck had at last run out.
The condemned man seemed not to have any of his famous tricks still left up his sleeve. He stood defeated and silent as the executioner read out the charges, and didn’t so much as flinch when the noose was tightened around his neck.
“Any last words?” asked the executioner.
The outlaw looked for Mary in the crowd. She was ashen-faced and trembling, staring blankly ahead. Her hands were clasped as if in prayer, but there was no light in her eyes.
“This is a mistake,” he replied. He spoke quietly, but his voice carried as though the words had been shouted. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
It was not one of the rousing speeches the man was known for, and the executioner looked almost disappointed. “That’s it?”
“That’s it,” said the outlaw. “My soul goes to God.”
“May he keep it,” said the executioner.
And the outlaw said, “You’d better hope so.”
The executioner hesitated, if only for a moment. It was as though some part of him wanted to find a reason not to pull the lever; as though he had some sense of the great wrong that he was about to commit and the chain of events that it would set into motion.
But the moment passed, spurred on by a hard look from the Sheriff. The executioner pulled the lever, and the trap door swung open.
The drop was over before Jesús had the chance to realize it. Mary screamed as the rope snapped taut. The agony in her voice was the last earthly sound to ring in her husband’s ears, before everything went black.
CHAPTER ONE: He Is Risen
Jesús awoke in darkness, gasping for breath. The hangman’s noose had crushed his windpipe, and every inhalation felt like trying to swallow a red-hot poker. But it didn’t matter whether his lungs were working or not- there’s not much air in a shallow grave.
He didn’t know how far down he was buried. The lack of a coffin was a good sign. It meant that whoever had been tasked with disposing of the outlaw’s body hadn’t bothered to do the job properly. And that meant Jesús had a chance at digging himself out of here- and he knew it was his only chance.
But the burial shroud pinned Jesús’s arms to his sides, and he couldn’t tear himself free no matter how hard he struggled. He could do nothing but thrash and flail in the dirt and the darkness, trying desperately to wriggle his way to the surface. It was impossible to know if he was making any progress, or merely wasting what little strength he had left in his body. With every passing moment Jesús grew more panicked- panicked that he wasn’t going to make it. Panicked that he was doomed to suffocate.
Panicked that he would never see Mary again. Her last memory of him would be that of a twisted body swinging on the gallows.
No, Jesús thought. No, it can’t be. She deserves better than that.
He willed his body into stillness, fighting against the urge to give in to panic and fear and despair. He stopped his futile attempts to breathe where no air existed, and focused instead on conserving the small amount of oxygen he’d been able to force into his lungs. Jesús thought no more of his current position, trapped two feet beneath the scorched surface of the desert.
Instead, he thought of Mary. The moment he’d known that she was the one.
They’d met in a whorehouse. Jesús had spotted his future wife from clear across the room, the moment that he’d walked through the swinging doors. Her flaming red hair had caught his attention, but it was her tragic beauty that had held it. Her eyes had seen far too much of the evils of this world, but still they shone like topaz in the firelight.
She was sitting alone, until Jesús took the seat beside her. He’d stammered out the first line that came into his head. “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”
He knew it was a stupid question, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to talk to her.
She’d laughed. “What makes you think I’m such a nice girl?”
“I’m a good judge of character,” Jesús said. “Ask anybody. If I say you’re a nice girl, it means you’re a nice girl.”
That time, she didn’t laugh. “You’d be surprised.”
Jesús knew it was true, even if she didn’t know it herself. “What’s your name?”
“Everyone just calls me Red.”
She hesitated. Jesús would learn later that she didn’t like to answer personal questions, and especially not when she was on the clock. But she must’ve had the same premonition that he’d had, or at least the same strange feeling in the pit of her stomach. “My friends used to call me Mary.”
That was when Jesús had known.
“My mother’s name was Mary,” he said.
“That’s not the kind of compliment you usually hear in a brothel,” Mary said.
“Good,” Jesús said. “I don’t ever want to make you feel like you’re in a brothel.”
They’d left together that same night. Mary had asked him, again and again, if he was sure he wanted to run away with a whore. But he was sure- as sure as Mary was that she wanted to run away with a gunslinger, one with a bounty on his head by order of the Sheriff of Rome County himself.
What would it matter to Jesús that the girl had a past, when he could so clearly see that she was his future?
Jesús came to the end of his recollection of the night that he’d met Mary, and realized with immeasurable relief that he could see daylight once more. The plan had worked. He had focused his mind on the only thing that really mattered, the only thought strong enough to distract. And then he had set his body to the manual task of digging, by wriggling upwards inch by inch like an earthworm, paying no mind to what grueling work it was.
And he had broken through to the surface, and at last he could feel the fresh air on his face again.
It was only his face that had emerged from the dirt. A face that was bruised and bloodied, with dirt caking in his beard and in his pores and in the creases of his sun-darkened skin. It was the face of a man who had been betrayed, sold out, abandoned, and left for dead…and had survived it all.
Most gunslingers thought themselves invincible. But this one was right.
In shuffling vertically through the dirt, Jesús had loosened the wrapping of the burial shroud. He was no longer bound up like a Mexican cigar, and finally regained the use of his arms. Jesús forced first one arm and then the other up through the dirt, thrusting his shoulders out afterwards, until he was free to the mid-torso. Each hand spread flat on the dirt, Jesús pushed against the ground with all of his strength. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to slowly and painstakingly hoist himself out of the ground.
Freed from the earth, Jesús knelt panting in the middle of the Calvary Hill Cemetery. An unforgiving sun beat down upon the spattering of forgotten gravestones. This was the final resting place of thieves and bandits, criminals and outlaws, men so unimportant or so reviled that no one bothered to pay for a funeral.
Calvary Hill Cemetery didn’t get visitors. And what Jesús needed in this moment, more than anything else, was anyone else. He was weakened and disoriented. How long had he been underground? He didn’t know what time it was, or even what day it was. He had precious little to use for survival- everything had been taken from him when he was arrested. His clothes were gone, and so were his shoes. His six-shooters had probably been pawned off by now, or claimed by a Rome County Deputy as decorations for his mantle. The only item left in Jesús’s possession was the dirtied linen sheet wrapped loosely around his person. It wasn’t a scrape the gunslinger could get out of on his own, not in his current state.
But if he could make it into the town of Calvary Hill, he could find someone to help. Surely someone would take pity on the victim of a mostly-successful execution.
Jesús got unsteadily to his feet. From the cemetery, he could look down the hill and see the road that led into town. The walk was about a mile, maybe two.
Better get started, Jesús resolved. As he turned to leave the grim scene, he was surprised to notice that the Sheriff had seen fit to give him a headstone. The bastard probably had it carved weeks before he finally caught up with Jesús to make his arrest. The headstone read:
Here Lies the Outlaw
Jesús of the Desert
Requiescat In Pace
“He wishes,” Jesús said. His throat ached and his mouth was dry, but he used the last spattering of saliva that he could muster up to spit on his own grave.
And then for good measure, Jesús kicked over the headstone. The cheap shale slab snapped in half as it hit the ground. The outlaw Jesús of the Desert lay there no more.