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A Holy War, A Lucifer Jones Story by Mike Resnick

I suppose if I’m going to tell you about what really happened in Tahiti, I should begin at the beginning, which is to say at the end of my last thrilling exploit, which I’m sure you’ve all read a dozen or more times and committed to memory by now. As you know I was making my way across the Pacific to the promised land of Australia, and that means I probably should tell you about Myrtle.

Now, Myrtle wasn’t much of a talker, and she didn’t move around much (which would have upset the boat I kind of secretly borrowed when I was escaping from a bunch of deceitful pirates back on Treasure Island), and Lord knows she wasn’t always looking for a snack the way Basil, the shark what kept me company for a few weeks, was always doing. If truth be told, Myrtle wasn’t much to look at neither, even as oversized sea turtles go, but she was a mighty good listener and I found that, like always, I had a lot to say, especially about all the things I planned to do when next I ran across Erich von Horst, who’d just flim-flammed me for the somethingth time. (I use that term because I started counting how many times he’d walked off with what was supposed to be our money, and I ran plumb out of fingers.)

After a month of heading west on this little wooden boat Myrtle began looking a lot prettier to me, especially when she hid her head inside her shell and I didn’t have to pay no attention to the fact that she was cross-eyed,. After another month of eating nothing but raw fish, Myrtle began looking a little less beautiful and a lot more delicious.

In fact, I was trying to decide between proposing marriage to her and eating her for dinner, when a fair-sized mountain hove into view. Now, even in my weakened state, I was pretty sure mountains didn’t swim around in the Pacific even when the mood took ‘em, and that meant there was an island out there, and suddenly Myrtle began looking a lot more like a turtle again, and a pretty ugly one at that.

I steered toward the mountain and as I got closer I saw that, sure enough, it was attached to a piece of land that was covered with trees and flowers and huts and a bunch of lovely ladies that weren’t intent on keeping the local clothing industry in business. Before I could holler “Hello!” or ask if this was Australia, a bunch of them and a bunch of their boyfriends climbed into some big canoes and headed my way. Now, I figured they called them boats “war canoes” for a reason, and I was thinking of turning around and heading back to the high seas, but a girl in the bow of each canoe stood up and began waving at me, and when you ain’t seen any women in months, and especially gorgeous ones who are mostly waving and mostly bouncing up and down and mostly naked, well take it from me, the high seas just don’t hold much appeal.

So I sat in the boat, and decided to make a present of Myrtle to the first girl who came aboard, but Myrtle guv me a look that said I’d broken her heart and jumped into the ocean before I could stop her. Given what I was rapidly being approached by, and the fact that I didn’t figure to miss her at all, I realized that it was just a passing fancy and we’d both be happier elsewhere, and my elsewhere was about forty feet away, jumping up and down at the front of her canoe, and shaking like unto a flag in a high wind, which is a pretty poor comparison now as I come to think about it. (For one thing, she didn’t have no stars nor stripes on her, and believe me, I was staring hard enough that I wouldn’t have missed a single one.)

“We welcome you to Bora Bora!” cried two or three of the young ladies in unison.

“Well, thank you thank you,” I said, in case repeating yourself was a local tradition. “Are we anywhere near Melbourne, or maybe Sydney?”

“I have never heard of them,” said one of the girls. “But there is Moorea,” she added, pointing off to her left. Then she turned the other way. “And there is Tahiti.”

“I got to say you speak mighty good English for a bunch of illiterate island girls who probably spend all your time doing things that could get me tossed in the hoosegow back in Moline, Illinois just for thinking about them.”

“We learned English from the missionaries,” said one.

“But they are gone now,” added another. “They gave up and left when we would not change our ways.”

“Or our clothes,” said a third. “So now we are without spiritual guidance.”

“Well, this is your lucky day,” I said, because of course I am a man of the cloth, or I am when the cloth ain’t torn to shreds and used as fishing lines.

“Our legends tell of a white god who will come down from Heaven to live among us,” said the first girl. “Is that you?”

Well, I didn’t want to step on my Silent Partner’s toes, so I just smiled and shook my head and said, “No, I’m His kid brother. He wants me to learn the god trade out here in the boonies before I take on New York or Paris or one of them other cities that ain’t had no use for us in ages.”

“Then we shall slay a pig and have a feast and prepare for the reunion!” said one of the men.

I liked the having a feast part, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out who I was having a reunion with. I must have looked puzzled, because one of the girls spoke up and said, “Didn’t He tell you?”

“Didn’t who tell me?”

“Your brother,” said the girl. “He’s living on Moorea.”

“Just a minute,” I said. “If He’s on Moorea, why in tarnation were you expecting God to show up here too?”

“Well, there are twenty-seven gods,” she said.

“Not counting the little ones,” said another.

“You’re not much to look at,” said a third. “But I suppose any all-powerful god is better than none.”

“Then why are we wasting time?” I said. “Kill a pig and let’s dig in!”

“Since you’re God’s brother, perhaps you’ll create, kill and cook the pig while we’re on our way back to shore, and that way it will be waiting for us,” suggested the first girl.

“I could, I suppose,” I said. “But that’d rob my people of the chance to show me how much they love me.”

“True,” she agreed thoughtfully.

“And while we’re on the subject…” I continued.

“Of pigs?” said the guy who’d spoken up earlier. “I could talk about pigs all night.”

That wasn’t exactly the subject I had in mind, but the other men all chimed in enthusiastically, and I got to listen to them discuss pigs all the way back to the island.

When we hit the shore. I got out, stretched my legs (which had been in dire need of stretching for the past eight or nine weeks), and took a look around. There were a bunch of grass huts up near the beach, where all the canoes were pulled up onto the sand, and there seemed to be a very public restaurant around a big stone fire pit, and there was a freshwater stream leading down from the mountain so the folks could drink, but there was one hut - bigger than the others - way off by itself, maybe half a mile away from the rest of the village.

“The King live there?” I asked, indicating the hut.

“No, the King lives right here with the rest of us,” said one of the young ladies.

“The Emperor, then?” I asked.

“No, we do not have an emperor.”

“I got it,” I said. “It’s an isolation ward for them what got leprosy, or at least a serious case of the uglies.”

“It is Tondelayo’s hut.”

“What’s he?” I asked. “Your war chief?”

“She is our most beautiful and graceful woman,” came the answer. “That is why she lives apart. She is reserved for the gods.”

“Your most beautiful woman, you say?”

“Oh, yes,” replied the girl, who made Miss America look like a boy. “She is the sun and the moon. We are as nothing next to her.”

“And she’s reserved for me?” I said.

“She is reserved for the greatest god of all.”

“That’s what I just said,” I told her.

“We do not know for a fact that you are the greatest god.”

“I had the brains to come to Bora Bora instead of one of them other islands, didn’t I?” I said.

“But you are merely the younger brother of the mighty god who lives on Moorea.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say I’m the younger brother, so much as that he’s the older, toothless, senile, decrepit one,” I answered.

“This is too complicated for a simple, shapely, nearly-naked island girl like myself to fathom,” she said. “Perhaps Tondelayo will know how to choose between you. I’m sure all will become clear in the fullness of time.”

The men all nodded their heads sagely, but of course those were the same heads that only wanted to talk about pigs when they were surrounded by all these beautiful girls, so I didn’t put much stock in anything they thought.

“This here god on Moorea,” I said. “He got a name?”

“I don’t know,” said one of the girls. “Do all gods have names?”

“All the ones that I know do,” I assured her. “What’s he look like?”

“It’s all hearsay, of course,” she said, “but we gather he looks very much like you.”

“But not quite as ugly,” added another.

“No, not quite,” said a third. “At least according to what we hear.”

“Maybe I’ll have some of you lovely ladies take me over to Moorea in one of your canoes,” I said.

“Why?” they asked in unison.

“To see if he’s really my brother or just some foul imposter,” I explained. “I wouldn’t want him messing with your spiritual sisters over there if it turns out than he’s just a flesh-and-blood human being.”

“Messing with?” they repeated, frowning in puzzlement.

“I can see I’ll have to give you a demonstration, so you’ll recognize it if he should sneak over to Bora Bora in the future,” I said. “But let’s eat first. I’m starving.”

“I thought it was written that gods couldn’t be hungry.”

“Only in the King George version,” I said.

“I don’t know…” said one of the men.

“I say we can get hungry,” I told them firmly. “If you can find a higher authority around here, ask him.” Which put an end to the conversation.

They wanted me to demonstrate my powers by wishing a pig to death, but I explained that I was near-sighted and the last time I’d wished a pig to death I missed and killed three men, a dog, and a palm tree, so they went and butchered it.

“Surely you can light a fire just by cursing a woodpile,” said one of the girls, who looked like she wasn’t real eager to rub two sticks together for the next ten minutes to get a spark.

“Of course I can,” I said. “Problem is, I’m a mighty powerful god, maybe the most powerful of ‘em all, and I can’t do no little curses. Last time I cursed a woodpile, the three nearest villages went straight to hell. Still, if you want me to try…”

“No!” she said. “The exercise will be good for me.”

“If you’re sure…” I said.

“Definitely,” she said.

So she rubbed the sticks until we had a blaze going, and they brung out what was left of the pig, and I sat there and concentrated on being godly, which of course was easier for me than most people, me being a man of the cloth and all.

After the pig was et they brung out some native beer and we all got to talking and swapping dirty jokes just like old friends, and then some of the girls got up and started dancing, and they invited me to join them, so I put my natural shyness in my back pocket and got up and showed ‘em the old Missouri Stomp, which had made its way up to Moline before I left.

I don’t remember what happened next. In fact, the next thing I did remember was waking up between two young ladies in one of the huts, while a third brung me my breakfast.

“Good morning, God’s Brother,” she said, as she laid a tray down on the dirt floor. “Did you sleep well?”

“He sleeps a lot better than he does some other things,” muttered one of the women.

I decided it was too early in the day to bring my heavenly wrath down upon her, so I just ignored her and began chowing down. When I was done I got to my feet, ducked my head to pass through the doorway, and walked out into the sunshine.

One of the men was passing by with a fishing net and a spear, and he just stopped and stared at me for a minute, and finally he spoke up. “Am I supposed to bow?” he asked.

“Only on formal occasions,” I answered.

“What is a formal occasion?” he said. “I don’t think we’ve ever had one.”

“I remember one of the missionaries talking about formal occasions when I was a little girl,” said a young lady. “Everyone puts on clothes and there’s no drinking anything made from fermented fruit.”

“Not to worry,” I told her. “We ain’t never gonna get that formal as long as I’m running things.”

“Then I don’t have to bow?” continued the man.

I thunk about it for a minute, and then allowed that inclining his head and staring at the ground would be good enough.

“But what if there’s a tree in the way?” he asked.

“Walk around it,” I said.

“But if I’m staring at the ground I won’t see it,” he said.

“Okay,” I said. “Stare at the ground with one eye. The other can stare straight ahead.”

“But—” he began.

“You finish that sentence and I’m going to take you three miles out to sea and baptize you,” I said severely.

He suddenly decided that he had urgent business elsewhere, and since just about all the other men were busy fishing or repairing huts and off hunting for birds for them what didn’t like fish, in which category I was first and foremost after the last few months, I found myself alone with the young ladies again.

“So tell me about this Tondelayo,” I said. “Is she your high priestess, or what?”

“She is perfection itself,” said one.

“Who would want to be a mere high priestess when she could be” - a deep sigh - “Tondelayo?” said another.

I figgered if she was all that perfect the least I could do was tidy up a bit before sweeping her off her feet, so I began running my fingers through my hair to make it a little neater, but all that happened was a couple of disgruntled bugs climbed of out of it, guv me an annoyed look, and flew off.

“So how do your menfolk shave and such?” I asked. “Just out of curiosity, you understand. Us gods can just wish our whiskers away, and dirt is too scared of us to hang around under our fingernails.”

“But you have a beard and your nails are filthy,” said one of the young ladies.

“That’s because I’m a compassionate god, and even dirt and hair have got feelings.”

“They do?” asked another.

“Who told you they don’t?” I said.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m merely a gorgeous but uneducated half-naked island girl. I have never thought about such things.”

“No problem,” I said. “I’ll do all the serious thinking around here.” I looked around to see if anyone was gonna challenge me to a thinking contest, which is something I hate, especially that early in the day, but no one did, and I continued: “So how do they shave?”

“With their knives,” answered another. “But it is very painful. They are always cutting their faces, and my brother sneezed while he was shaving.”

“Poor No-Nose,” said the first one.

“And their hair?” I asked.

“They comb it with fish bones.”

“Of course, the bones tear their heads up pretty badly,” said another.

I wasn’t real thrilled with what I was hearing, so I said: “They got a general store over on Moorea or Tahiti?”

“Yes, on Tahiti - but what would a god buy at a store? If you want something, can’t you just make it?”

“Of course I can,” I said. “I just need to check up on ‘em, and make sure they ain’t selling weather or sunsets or the stars or anything else I own the copyright on.”

“Ah!” she said, nodding, and I decided if she was bright enough to understand that, she was the one I’d want as my guide to Tahiti, since I didn’t know where it was, or if they spoke any American at all.

“You got a name, Honey?” I asked.

“Melora,” she said.

Which figgered. Almost every other time I’d run into a gorgeous mostly-naked native girl in my travels around the world she was named Melora.

“Melora,” I said, “you and me are taking a canoe to Tahiti.”

“I am honored, God,” she said, “but why can you not just wish us there?”

“I suppose I could,” I allowed, “but the god business has a lot of hidden facets to it. For example, I got to see how my ocean and all my finny critters are doing.” I paused and looked at her. “Now, gods ain’t much into paddling, so you’ll do that.”

Do you rudder?”

“Not since about four o’clock this morning,” I said.

“Rudder,” she repeated. “Steer.”

“Oh,” I said. “No, us gods hardly ever rudder when we can help it. You’re a sturdy young woman, one of my better creations, so I’ll leave the paddling and the steering to you. Pack a lunch for three and let’s be on our way.”

“For three, God?” she asked, looking around.

“Yeah,” I said. “With the sun beating down on us, and you paddling your little heart out, there’s every chance I might work up two appetites. Best to be prepared.”

“Can’t you just say a magic word and food will appear?”

“Well, of course,” I answered. “But them sharks take a lot of killing, and I don’t see how you can dispatch it, skin it, gut it, and cook it while you’re busy paddling. Best to make the meals here.”

“Yes, God,” she said.

“By the way, how long does this here trip figger to take?” I asked. “Three or four hours, maybe?”

“I have never been to Tahiti,” said Melora. “I know that it is one hundred and fifty miles away, but I don’t know how long a mile is.”

“That far?” I said. “Okay, let me give this a little godly thought.” I lowered my head and rassled with the problem for a couple of minutes, then looked up. “All right,” I told her. “Make eight lunches, and invite a friend to share the paddling. That’ll be two lunches for each of you, and four for me.”

“I could invite one of the men,” she suggested. “They’re bigger and stronger.”

I shook my head. “Anyone that big might capsize the canoe,” I said. “You got to think these things through. Go pick one who looks just like you, and I’ll visit her with divine inspiration.”

“While we’re paddling?” she asked, frowning. “Won’t that capsize the canoe?”

“You misunderstand me, my child,” I said. “You have my godly pledge that I’ll probably keep my hands to myself, and especially if the sea gets choppy.”

That answer seemed to satisfy her, and she said “I will go find Lealla and tell her that God has chosen her to accompany us.”

“If she’s gonna faint from excitement,” I added, “tell her to do it now and not when we’re on the high seas.”

Well, it turned out that Lealla was, if anything, even prettier and nakeder than Melora. I was wondering if these young ladies ever felt a mite embarrassed about their state of dress, and Lealla must have guessed what I was thinking, because she smiled at me and said, “There is nothing to be embarrassed about, God. After all, you made us.”

“Well,” I said, “I just want to state for the record that you two are just about my finest handiwork. I rank you well ahead of Eleanor Roosevelt, and just a tad behind Bubbles La Tour, star of stage and screen. Well, screen at the policemen’s smoker, anyway.”

“Thank you, God,” said Lealla. “And you are handsomer than two of the other gods that I worship.”

“Well, that’s mighty kind of you to say so,” I said. “How many other gods do you worship?”

“Thirty-five.”

“I thunk your sisters said there were twenty-seven.”

“They are conservatives,” she said. “You can tell from the way they dress.”

“I can?” I said.

She nodded her head. “They wear sandals.”

Well, the meals got packed, we hopped into a canoe - Lealla paddling up front, Melora paddling and steering at the back, and me in the middle, guarding the lunches - and I guess I must have fallen asleep, because when I woke up the moon was directly overhead, and Melora was poking me with a paddle.

“Wake up, God,” she said.

“Yeah, what do you want?” I asked, rubbing my eyes.

“We left before noon, and it is almost midnight,” she said. “We are very tired from paddling and would like our lunch.”

I looked over the side. “You can’t be that tired,” I said. “We’re moving with the current.”

“If I don’t eat, I think I may pass out,” said Lealla.

“Okay,” I said, handing out the grub. “I hereby declare a five-minute lunch break. But then I expect you to paddle extra hard to make up for lost time.”

“But we’re exhausted!” complained Melora.

“Well, you’d better get unexhausted pretty damned quick,” I said, opening my second lunch. “You only got one more meal for tomorrow midnight, so we’ve got to be at Tahiti in, oh, three or four days, before you ladies suffer some serious discomfort from lack of food.”

“I wonder what the god on Moorea is like?” mused Lealla.

“Mean as they come, take my word for it” I said. “I’m the compassionate one. He used to tear the wings off flies, and I’d go around behind him gluing them back on.”

Lealla turned and stared kind of strangely at me, which just made me eat all the faster, since I figgered any minute she was going to ask me to share it with her. A wind came up just then, and I was going to take full credit for it and suggest we make a sail out of their clothing, but then I remembered that the boat didn’t have no mast and the girls didn’t have no clothing to speak of, so I just explained that I created the wind to cool them off a bit since it was time to start paddling again. It was only later that I realized I should have took credit for the current, too.

Anyway, they were still worshipping me but they’d guv up talking to me by the time we reached port two days later. I climbed out of the canoe, waded ashore, and told Melora and Lealla to carry it inland a bit so we weren’t taking up nobody’s parking place.

Then I saw a big sign that said “Welcome to Papeete”, and I got a little hot under the collar since all this time I’d thunk they were paddling us to Tahiti, and just before I could give ‘em what-for, I saw another sign telling me that Papeete was the capital of Tahiti, so I let ‘em carry the boat over their heads and march it to the canoe parking lot without losing my temper, and then they fell into step behind me while I headed off looking for some shop where I could pick up some shaving gear and maybe a comb and scissors. I saw a store labeled General Sundries with some packs of razor blades in the window, told the girls to wait outside for me, and entered.

“I’ll have a couple of packs of them blades you got on display,” I said.

“Sorry, but they’re spoken for,” said the guy behind the counter. “Next ship is due in six weeks.”

“I can’t stay on Tahiti for six more weeks,” I told him. “There’s two packs in the window. You sell me one of them, or I’m busting you to Corporal Sundries!”

“Sorry, friend, but them’s mine,” said a voice from the other side of the shop, and I turned and saw a guy who looked as unshaven and un-barbered as me. He walked over, picked up the blades, and studied my face. “Still, you seem to need ‘em as much as I do, and I can tell by your lingo that you’re a fellow American, so what the hell, you can have a pack.”

“Why, thanks, friend,” I said. “What’s a fellow American doing out here in the South Seas?”

“I was almost shipwrecked,” he answered.

“Almost?” I asked.

“Comes to the same thing,” he said with a shrug. “I was on a cargo ship, and we was playing poker when they threw me overboard. Seems they never saw five aces before. Couldn’t have got no wetter if the ship had gone down in flames, or whatever it is that ships go down in these days.” He extended a hand. “Elmer’s the name. Elmer Hinkle.”

“Pleased to meet you, Elmer,” I said. “And I’m the Right Reverend Honorable Doctor Lucifer Jones, but you can call me Lucifer. Where do you hail from?”

“Oh, a lot of places,” he answered. “The only one I ever left voluntarily was Mattoon, Illinois.”

“Well I’ll be damned!” I said, wrapping my arms around him and hugging him.

“Tread easy there, Lucifer,” he said, disengaging himself. “I don’t know exactly what your church teaches, but…”

“It was just a boyish burst of enthusiasm,” I said. “I grew up in Moline, Illinois. We were practically neighbors.”

“Moline?” he repeated. “We used to drive there of a Saturday night to watch Bubbles La Tour do her Dance of Sublime Surrender.”

“Hell, we might even have been there the same night a couple of hundred times!” I said. “This calls for a celebration! You gotta come back to Bora Bora with me.”

“I wish I could, Lucifer, but I got my own island to return to.”

“Which one is that?” I asked.

“Moorea,” he said.

“So you’re the god they all worship over there?” I asked.

“Beats working for a living,” he allowed. “You must be the new one who claims to be my kid brother.”

“Now how in blazes did you know that?” I asked. “I only arrived there three or four days ago, and word couldn’t have reached Moorea yet.”

“One of the half-naked young ladies standing just outside the door asked me to pray to you to give ‘em more food.”

I shook my head sadly. “They never appreciate them girlish figures until they lose ‘em,” I said.

“Excuse me for asking, Lucifer,” said Elmer, “but why are you bothering with razor blades when there’s a perfectly good barber shop on the next street.”

“A barber nicked off part of my chin,” I said. “You can’t see it with all this hair covering it, but I don’t trust barbers no more.”

He stared at me, and then grinned. “So you can’t afford a barber neither.”

“Well, there ain’t a lot of money floating around these here islands,” I said. “Most of the people pay for things with seashells.”

“Yeah, that’s the case on Moorea too. Though if it’s a really big purchase, they’ll pay with a pig.”

“Just a minute,” said General Sundries. “Do you mean to say that neither of you two have any money?”

“No, I certainly didn’t mean to say it,” I answered.

“Me neither,” chimed in Elmer.

“Give me back my razor blades!” he growled, grabbing them out of Elmer’s hand.

“Just for that we’re takin’ our business elsewhere,” said Elmer with all the dignity he could muster.

“Right,” I said. “Come, fellow deity, let us leave this den of inequity.”

“That’s iniquity!” snapped General Sundries.

“That too,” I said as we walked out the door. I introduced Elmer to Melora and Lealla, who immediately fell to their knees and began worshipping him, and he introduced me to three of his followers, who could have been identical triplets, joined at the beauty to Melora and Lealla. Since they knew I was their god’s kid brother, they contented themselves with bowing and kissing my hand. (Actually one of ‘em was about to kiss my feet until she got a good look at them.)

“So, Lucifer,” said Elmer when we were all through being worshipped, “what do you say - shall we hunt up some grub?”

“Long as we don’t have to pay for it,” I said.

“Well, that does present a problem,” admitted Elmer. “I suppose we could just walk into a restaurant and order the specialty of the house, and when the check comes we could explain we ain’t got no money and let our acolytes wash a day’s worth of dishes.”

“That’s counter-productive,” I said. “They wouldn’t finish til tomorrow, and by then we’d be hungry again and right back where we started. Besides, I don’t know about you, but I got to lay in some grub for the return trip.”

“True,” he agreed. “I don’t know about your paddlers, but mine turn into atheistic heretics if I don’t feed ‘em as often as they want.”

Just then I saw a bunch guys coming down the gangplank from a cargo ship that had just docked, and my Silent Partner smote me right betwixt the eyes with another of His heavenly revelations.

“I do think I see a solution to all our problems,” I said. “Come with me, Elmer.” I turned to the five handmaidens. “You too.”

We moseyed over to the dock and stood there, ready to greet the cargo hands as they made their way down the gangplank. Most of ‘em took one look at our young ladies and didn’t evince no interest in going any farther inland.

“Howdy, boys,” I said. “Welcome to Tahiti.”

“Where’s the action?” said the closest of them.

“Right here, if any of you happens to have a deck of cards with him.”

Three decks appeared as if by magic.

“Fine,” I said. “We’re blocking traffic here, so come along into that alley over there behind the fish market” - Papeete has a lot of stores, and half of ‘em are fish markets - “and we’ll get this show on the road.”

“What’s the game?” said one of them when we’d arrived in the shade of the building and sat down on the dirt.

“Poker,” I said. “And since me and Elmer here are the residents and you’re the tourists, I figure it’s only fair that him and me take turns dealing.”

I expected some objections, but they were so busy staring at the young ladies that they said nary a word.

I was getting all set to deal when one of ‘em finally spoke up. “What are the stakes?” he said.

“You guys are betting money,” I said.

“And what are you betting?”

“If you win the hand, we’ll toss in an article of clothing.”

“You’re going to play strip poker against our cash?” demanded one of them.

“That’s right,” I said.

“Well, that’s downright stupid,” he said. “What do we want with your clothes?”

“Not mine,” I said. I jerked a thumb at the five young ladies. “Theirs.”

“I’m in!” shouted the first of them.

“Me too!” said a second.

“Shut up and deal!” said a third.

Every now and then in my near-blameless life I’ve inserted myself into the laws of statistical probabilities when dealing a deck of cards, and I’ve been a guest of hoosegows on five continents to prove it, but this time they were so busy watching the girls that nobody seemed to pay any attention to my hands, an attitude I wish more women of my acquaintance would share, and within fifteen minutes Elmer and I had cleaned ‘em out.

“What now?” asked Elmer when the disgruntled cargo hands had left us.

“Well, we got money now,” I said. “I suppose the first thing we do is get ourselves a pair of shaves and haircuts, and then lay in a supply of food for the trip back.”

“Wait a minute,” he said with all the brainpower that just naturally accrues to us Southern Illinois boys. “Since we got money, why don’t we buy passage back on one of them cargo ships?”

“I got a better idea,” I said. “They been at sea a long time. Why don’t we just trade passage in exchange for letting ‘em look at the young ladies during the trip?”

“You got a real head on your shoulders, Lucifer,” he allowed. “I can’t say much for the young ladies’ table manners, but I can’t imagine they won’t spare you and me a meal or two as long as we bring them to the table too.”

Our next step was to hunt up the barber shop, where we got a friendly greeting. “Howdy, gents - take two years off the top, and do a little serious hunting for your cheeks and jaws?” were his very words.

Melora and Lealla and their counterparts took one look at Elmer and me as we came out of the barber shop an hour later and got a little panicky, but we calmed ‘em down and explained that we were the same two gods they worshipped, but more beautiful than ever.

Then we headed to the dock, but it must have been a slow day, because there were only five ships there. One was the one that had just arrived with our poker players and three others weren’t leaving for a few more days. That left only one ship that was heading out to see. The captain admitted that he was passing right by Bora Bora, but it was against company rules to take on any passengers. I allowed as to how we quite understood, and we and the half-naked young ladies would simply have to find another way of getting home.

“They’re coming with you?” said the captain, and his eyes were suddenly as big and round as poker chips.

Which is how we got passage back to Bora Bora.

Elmer wanted to go to Moorea, of course, but I figgered we’d just fix him and his paddlers up with a canoe, point them in the right direction, and wish them a fond farewell so he could get back to practicing the god trade.

“So where’s your digs, Lucifer?” he said, looking around as we came ashore. “I’d have expected a small palace, or at least a mighty comfortable church.”

“Give me time, Elmer,” I said. “I actually only been here one night.”

“Damn, you’re good!” he said. “It took ‘em two whole days to accept me as a god over on Moorea.” He learned forward and lowered his voice. “Just betwixt you and me, how many wives have you got?”

“None yet,” I said. “But I got my sights set on one.”

“Even prettier than the two what came with you to Tahiti?” he asked, and I could tell, one god to another, that he was mighty impressed.

“So they tell me,” I said.

“Tell you?” he repeated. “Ain’t you seen her yet?”

“Like I said, I only just got here.”

“You’re a slow operator for a Moline boy, Lucifer,” said Elmer. “Hell, I had two wives before they declared that I’d riz up to heaven and become a god.”

“This one’s worth waiting for,” I said. “She’s been saving herself for the perfect man or god.”

“Well, then you’re plumb out of luck,” he said, “because that’s me.”

“I don’t want to dampen your hopes,” I said, “but you ain’t in Mattoon no more. She’s looking for a man - or god - of the world.”

“I been all over the world,” he said, getting kind of hot under where his collar would be if he was wearing one. “I been tossed out of bars on islands you ain’t never even heard the names of.”

“Well, I’ve been to 43 countries and 7 islands,” I shot back, though I didn’t see no sense in adding that I’d been ordered by all 43 countries and 6 of the islands never to come back.

A handful of islanders heard our voices getting louder and wandered by to see what the fuss was all about, but Elmer just ignored ‘em and kept on talking.

“Remember,” he said, “you’re god’s kid brother. Age before…” He stared at me and frowned. “Age before whatever’s younger.”

“She wants youthful vigor, manly good looks, and brainpower,” I shot back, “so you’re already behind on all three counts.”

“Nonsense,” he said. “I’ve done forgot secrets of the universe that you ain’t even learned yet.”

I could see we were starting to gather quite a crowd, so I turned to them and said, “I’m glad you’ve come to my aid, my faithful parishioners. Throw this here fishbait off the island.”

“You’re his kid brother,” said Melora. “You should show him more respect.”

“He could be an imposter,” said another half-naked worshipper. “Look at that weak chin and the dull eyes that are devoid of all intelligence.”

“That proves nothing,” said Lealla, pointing to me. “It’s clearly a family trait.”

They fell to discussing it for a few minutes, while Elmer and I forgot to argue and just listened to them. The upshot of it all was they agreed we both were gods.

“Good,” I said. “My big brother here has disgraced the family, and since this is my island and you worship me, throw him off.”

“You gonna listen to my kid brother?” demanded Elmer. “Why, his second teeth have only just started coming in. And look at his cheeks - as smooth as the naked ladies around here. He ain’t mature enough to make any such decisions or demands.”

“Hey!” snapped Melora angrily. “We are only half-naked ladies. And your cheeks are smooth too.”

“That’s because I didn’t want him to feel like everyone was staring at him,” explained Elmer. “It shows how compassionate I am.”

“If you’re really a god, kill and roast a pig right now!” I challenged him.

“Yeah, that’ll prove it one way or the other,” said a couple of the men, whose interest in pigs hadn’t diminished since I’d been gone .

“I’m not just the god of half-naked savages,” Elmer shot back. “I’m the god of pigs, too, and I ain’t killing no pigs what worship me.”

“What makes you think any pig on this here island worships you?” I demanded.

“I just ran a spiritual plebiscite while we were standing here, and it’s unanimous.”

“Pigs can’t vote,” I said.

“What kind of god are you, denying pigs the vote?” he said, pointing an accusing finger at me.

“I’m the kind what don’t waste my time talking to pigs,” I said.

“Hah!” he came back at me. “I’ll bet you can’t talk to pigs!” He faced the crowd. “Can you believe that - a god who can’t talk to swine?”

“I talk to swine all the time,” I said. “Including right now. I just don’t waste my godly time talking to pigs.” I guv the people time to digest that, and then allowed one of my more triumphant smiles to cross my face. “If you’re really a god, give us a cloudburst right this minute.”

“You want a cloudburst, you’ll get a cloudburst,” he said, grinning at me while I wondered what he had in mind. “Abra cadabra!”

I looked up, and the sky was sunny as ever. I held out a hand to see if there were any spare drops of rain coming down, and all that happened was that a bird flying low overhead relieved himself on it.

“Well?” I said.

“Well, what?” he shot back. “You want another?”

“You didn’t produce a first one!” I yelled.

“Of course I did,” said Elmer. “But since I didn’t want my faithful worshippers to be uncomfortable, I just turned Time back ten minutes to before it started, so they’re all dry again and probably don’t even remember it.”

An awestruck muttering sprang up, and I knew I had to do something fast. My mind raced like Equipoise coming down the homestretch, and suddenly I hit on it. I reached into my pocket, pulled out the deck of cards I’d kept after the poker game, and pulled one out of the middle.

“Okay,” I said. “If you’re a god, tell me what this card is.”

“You’re betting I can’t do it, is that it?” he said.

“That’s right,” I said.

He smiled at the crowd. “He’s willing to bet on it - and gambling is a sin. So which of us is a god?”

“Maybe he’s just a sinful god,” said one of the men.

“Not so,” said Melora. “Gambling isn’t a sin.”

Elmer frowned. “You people got any sins?”

She walked up to him, stood on her tiptoes, and began whispering in his ear. He started drooling about three minutes into it, and was sweating up a storm when she finally finished.

“Don’t that take a lot of special equipment?” he asked.

She smiled and whispered to him again.

“Well, I’ll be damned!” he said. “You folks is more sophisticated than I thought.” He turned to me. “Too bad you ain’t gonna be around to enjoy that, Lucifer.”

“I ain’t going nowhere,” I said. “This here is my kingdom on Earth.”

“I made the Earth,” he said to the crowd, “and I ain’t left no part of it to him. I don’t plan on dying for a long time yet.”

“Aren’t gods immortal?” asked one of the girls.

“Well, yeah, when we get drunk we can be as immoral as humans, but of course we got the god-given ability to forgive ourselves.”

“Immortal,” repeated the girl.

“Right,” he said. “That’s why I don’t feel no need to make out a will.”

Which guv me my opportunity on a silver platter.

“So you’re telling her that gods are immortal?” I said.

“If you don’t know that, you can’t be much of a god, can you?” he shot back.

“Oh, I know it, all right,” I said. “Gods can’t be killed, and especially not by mere mortals, right?”

“Right,” he said, looking at me suspiciously.

I turned to my parishioners. “You heard him.”

“So?” said a few of them.

“If he’s a god, you can’t kill him, can’t even draw blood,” I said. “Let’s find out just how godly he is.”

“Hey, that’s a great idea!” said one of the men.

“Yeah, I like it. I’m tired of going to war against the other islanders,” said another. “We’re always too exhausted to fight after we paddle all day in our canoes to get to the battlefield.”

“Maybe we should go after both of them,” said a third. “If one of them’s a phony, maybe they both are.”

“Get this heretic out of here!” I demanded. “We don’t want him poisoning the flock.”

“Let me get this straight, God,” said Melora to me. “We should just throw our spears and knives at your big brother?”

“Just a minute!” hollered Elmer. “The first one of you to threaten me with a spear or a knife is going straight to hell!”

That stopped ‘em for a minute. Then one of them spoke up and said, “Where is hell?”

“Way down south of here,” said Elmer. “It’s hotter than you can imagine, and you got no labor unions, and there ain’t a drop of water to be had.”

“Sounds just like Bora Bora, except for the water,” said the first man.

Elmer shook his head in disgust. “Didn’t the missionaries teach you nothing?”

“Before we ate them, you mean?” said a girl.

“I thunk you told me they all got tired of trying to civilize you and left,” I said.

“Well, the ones we didn’t eat did,” she agreed.

Elmer took a good look around, and turned to me. “Lucifer, my esteemed younger brother, maybe you and I can put our heads together and come to a friendly resolution.”

“Does that mean we can’t attack either of you?” asked a couple of the men, sounding plumb disappointed.

“Uh…we’ll get back to you on that,” I said, putting an arm around Elmer’s shoulders and walking to a little stand of palm trees.

“You didn’t tell me they was cannibals,” he said.

“I didn’t know,” I told him. “But they don’t want to eat me, so why don’t you and your three ladyfriends hop a canoe and hightail it back to Moorea?”

“Because the most perfect woman in the world is right here, waiting for me to claim her hand and all the good stuff that comes with it,” he said. “If I leave, I’m coming back with a navy.”

Now, I didn’t see ten or twelve war canoes as being much of a navy, but then I thunk about it and decided that it came to maybe a hundred armed Elmer-worshippers that weren’t here now.

“No, let’s settle this like reasonable men - or gods,” I said.

“How?”

“We could let Tondelayo choose betwixt us,” I said.

There was a little pond right ahead of us, and I took a good hard look at my reflection, and he did the same, and I began thinking, based on my experience with the opposite sex (and there ain’t none more opposite than women), that even the most perfect woman in the world might very well be possessed of aberrant taste, and I could tell he was thinking the same thing.

“Nah,” he said at last. “Let’s not put such a strain on the poor woman.”

“I agree,” I said. “After all, we’re compassionate gods. It ain’t fair to make her choose.” Which was absolutely true, though she wasn’t the one it probably wasn’t fair to.

I really think an all-out religious war would be best,” he said at last.

“If that’s the way you feel, what the hell,” I said.

“You have no problem with it?” he said. “After all, it’s Bora Bora we’d be tearing up, not Moorea.”

“No problem at all,” I said. “You can call down any angels and demons you want to support you, and I’ll just form an army out of my local believers here.”

“Now just a minute!” he said. “That wasn’t what I had in mind at all.”

“Too bad,” I said. “It’s well known that a god can’t go back on his word.”

“Just watch me!” he bellowed, and suddenly all the islanders pressed close to see what the commotion was.

“The gods are angry!” whispered one of them in terror.

“Only against each other,” I said. “He’s just challenged me to a holy war, with the sun, the moon, the earth, and Tondelayo as the stakes.”

“Why don’t you just split them up?” asked Melora.

“Seems fair enough to me,” I said. I turned to Elmer. “Big brother, you can have the sun, the moon, and all the planets from Mars on out to Pluto. I’ll take Earth and Tondelayo.”

“You go to hell!” snapped Elmer.

“No, that’s your vacation home,” I said. “Tell you what: I’ll even throw in the asteroids.”

I could see he hadn’t never come across the word. “Sounds like hemorrhoids,” he said distrustfully.

“Ain’t no such a thing,” I said. “Okay, us true gods are the soul of reason. I’ll take the asteroids, and you can have Mercury.”

“Yeah, that’s fair,” said one of the men, and most of the others nodded their heads.

“I got a better deal,” he said. “I’ll take Tondelayo, and you can have everything else.”

“Afraid not,” I said. “She’s reserved for me.”

“Says who?”

“Says everybody on the island. Just ask ‘em who she’s waiting for.”

“I already heard all that,” said Elmer. “She’s saving herself for me.”

I turned to the islanders. “Well, you can see that I done my best,” I told ‘em. “It looks like we’re gonna have a religious war for the favors of the exquisite Miss Tondelayo. Now, which of you loyal subjects are willing to put your dull, lackluster lives on the line for me?”

Nobody stepped forward, not even Melora.

“I guess that shows you what’s what,” said Elmer with a great big smile. “Now, which of you are willing to stand by me in my war with my kid brother?”

Nobody moved.

“Are you deaf?” he said angrily. “Step forward and be counted!”

“This is a war between the gods,” said Lealla. “We’d just be in the way.”

“But we’re anxious to watch,” added Melora.

“All right,” said Elmer. “It looks like we’re gonna have to do this the hard way. Lucifer, choose your weapon.”

“Bazookas at fifty paces,” I answered.

“Machine guns at forty paces,” he said.

“Rifles at thirty paces,” I said.

“Six-guns at ten paces,” he said.

“What happened to twenty paces?” I asked.

“I flunked math,” he said.

“Okay,” I said, “I agree to machine guns at forty paces.”

“Good,” he said. “Let me have one and let’s get this over with.”

“Me?” I said. “You’re the guy who named ‘em.”

“Fair enough,” he said. “When you’re right, you’re right. We’ll do bazookas at fifty paces.”

“I just remembered that I’m fresh out of bazookas,” I said.

“There are a lot of small rocks on the beach,” suggested Melora. “How about stones at twenty paces?”

“Sounds good to me,” said Elmer. “There was a time when I was thinking of pitching for the White Sox.”

“Me, I guv some serious thought to quarterbacking the Bears,” I said. “Yeah, let’s do it and get this over with so me and the exquisite Tondelayo can start getting acquainted.”

“It’s a deal,” said Elmer, heading back to the beach. He started picking up some wicked looking rocks, and I measured off twenty paces and began picking up my own rocks. When both of us had an armful, I asked if he was ready, he allowed as to how he was, and I said, “Then let the holy war begin!”

Well, maybe he’d have won 20 games for the White Sox, and maybe I’d have made people forget Red Grange, but we was both a little out of practice. We flang them stones until we’d used up all we gathered, and the end result was that we flattened four onlookers, three men and a woman.

“Wanna do Round 2 from five paces?” I asked.

“No!” he said, sounding like a Greek chorus, and then I realized that he hadn’t said a word, but fifteen or twenty onlookers had offered their opinions.

I figgered it was time to put my prodigious brain to work, since we clearly weren’t going to decide who was the more attractive god by any of the usual means. I considered a spelling bee, but there wasn’t no one but a bunch of illiterate mostly-naked people to judge it, and I couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t lean Elmer’s way on close calls.

As for other duels of wits, I just kept coming up against a stone wall: I knew so much that no one else was qualified to judge if I was right or wrong, which is a real problem when you’re just naturally brilliant.

“I hate to admit it, but I’m running plumb out of ideas,” said Elmer.

“Me, too,” I said. “Why don’t you go back to Moorea and I’ll stay here and we’ll both mull it over for a couple of years and see if we can’t come up with an equitable form of holy war?”

“Sounds good,” he said, “if we can borrow a canoe.”

“Sure can,” I said.

“Thanks,” he said. “You know, Lucifer, you ain’t a bad sort of guy, for a fiend from the pits of hell that flim-flammed all these people into thinking he’s a god.”

“Well, if truth be known, you’re a pretty good person yourself,” I said, “except maybe for your looks and your brain and your personality and your delusion of godhood.”

He began walking to where all the canoes were piled upside down when he suddenly stopped and turned to me. “Wait a minute,” he said. “Tondelayo’s here, so why am I going there?”

“This is her home,” I said. “And it’s my home. But your home’s on Moorea.”

“I just immigrated,” he said. “And while I’m thinking of it, what’s for dinner? A man can work up quite an appetite fighting a holy war.”

One of the local women offered to make a little something for Elmer and his three ladies, and I decided I was feeling a mite hungry myself, so I went off with Melora and Lealla for a few dozen shrimps and some fried oysters and a couple of lobster tails.

“Will the war continue after dinner?” asked Melora.

“It’ll continue until one or the other of us wins the luscious Tondelayo’s hand,” I told her.

“Good,” she said firmly.

“You like wars, do you?” I asked.

“No. But we all love Tondelayo, and she has been waiting so long for the perfect mate.”

There was just a little something in the way she said “so long” that I got to thinking about it, and then I thunk some more, and then I asked her justhow long Tondelayo had been waiting.

“Oh, since before I was born,” she said.

“Before your father too?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, nodding her head.

“I thought you told me she was the most beautiful critter alive,” I said accusingly.

“It is an inner beauty, a beauty of the spirit,” she said.

“Of the spirit?” I asked, just to make sure.

“The spirit,” she repeated.

“Well, I do believe this has been a most educational meal,” I allowed. “I’ll wash it down with a quart or two of native beer, and then I’ll be ready to continue the war.”

I had another lobster tail and half a dozen more oysters, just to round off the meal, and then I got to my feet, almost without no help from Melora, and moseyed back to the center of the village, where Elmer had just finished his dinner.

He got up, and he had the strangest smile on his face. “Are you ready, Lucifer?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I said.

“We ain’t had much luck with volunteers, and even less with weapons,” he said. “Why don’t we just duke it out, mano a mano?”

“You mean godo a godo,” I corrected him. “But I’m game.”

“Winner take all?” he said.

“All of Tondelayo,” I agreed.

“Clear back, folks,” he said to the gathering crowd. “We’re gonna be hitting each other so hard godly sparks’ll be flying every which way, and we wouldn’t want for none of you to have your hair nor your miniscule garments go up in flames.”

“Right,” I said. “There’ll be blood splattering in every direction, and a god’s blood really smarts when it touches your bare skin, of which you’re displaying an awful lot.”

They backed up, and formed a large circle around us.

“You ready, Lucifer?” asked Elmer.

“Ready and eager,” I said.

“Then let’s get it on, and may the best god win.”

We approached each other, and I swang a roundhouse right that had to be a foot over his head. He swang back, right at my nose, but it fell about eighteen inches short.

Well, we started throwing punches furiously, grunting with each of them, but after three minutes we hadn’t laid a finger on each other, and I realized I wasn’t the only one who’d figgered out that Tondelayo wasn’t exactly a spring chicken.

The crowd, which had begun by cheering, was now mostly yawning, and a few of them started wandering off. I knew I was going to have to come up with a stratagem real soon, before Elmer came up with one himself, so I set my mighty brain to the task, and the next time he swang his Sunday punch, I grabbed my belly and fell to the ground, moaning and groaning.

“Aw, come on, Lucifer! That was a foot over your head again!”

“Nosir!” I wheezed. “You done nailed me right in the solar plexus.”

“Damn it, Lucifer!” he said, nudging me with his toe. “Get the hell up!”

I guv out a bellow of pain. “You kicked me!” I screamed. “I didn’t think you’d stoop so low!”

“Get up,” he said.

“I can’t,” I said. “I’m crippled for life. I guess you won her.”

“We ain’t got no referee to count to ten,” he said. “I can wait all night until you get up.”

“I’m never getting up again,” I said.

“This is silly,” he said, walking over and grabbing my hand. “Here, I’ll give you a hand up.”

I guv out a howl that would have done a banshee proud. “You busted my wrist!” I wailed. “Now I can never write poetry again! You win, you foul friend!”

Well, he could see that there was no way I was going to let him lose the fight, and finally he got so frustrated that he walked over and kicked me in the ribs. “That’s for being a poor loser!” he growled.

And about two seconds after that he was surrounded by a bunch of the men who were pointing their spears at him.

“We know you gods can be a little peculiar,” said one of them, “but kicking an opponent when he’s down and helpless is an almost human action. You do it again we’ll have to assume you are a man and turn you into a pincushion.”

He looked at all the spears, and then down at me. “That was a low, deceitful thing to do, Lucifer,” he said sternly. “I’m willing to admit you’re the better god.”

“You just proved that you are,” I said, “in a fairly-fought Battle of the Century. The Marquis of Queenbury would be proud.”

“The Marquis of Queenbury is probably drinking himself silly in some heavenly bar if he watched the fight,” said Elmer.

Melora stepped forward and took him by the hand.

“Come, Elder God,” she said.

“What’s this all about?” he asked suspiciously.

“I will lead you to Tondelayo,” she said. “She has been waiting so long for you.”

A manly little sob escaped his lips and a tear rolled down his cheek, but a most of the spears were still pointed at him, and he finally fell into step alongside her.

About five minutes later the island got a little noisy in the direction of Tondelayo’s hut. First there was a loud masculine scream, which meant that Elmer had finally laid eyes on the once-exquisite Tondelayo, and then there was an even louder, more horrified one, which meant Tondelayo had just seen what she’d been waiting for all these years.

As for me, I figgered one god was enough for any island, especially when he held a grudge against me, so I waited until everyone was asleep, borrowed a canoe, and pointed it for Australia, where I planned, after 49 false starts, to settle down and finally build my tabernacle.