Summary: Even preachers struggle with doing the right thing.
Category: The Clayton Chronicles
Word Count: 3956
Dave sank down into the steaming water and gave a long sigh as the heat soaked deep into muscles tense and tired and sore from a long day on the trail and the encounter in the stable. He closed his eyes and relaxed against the high bronze back of the tub. This bath had cost him a pretty penny and he intended to enjoy it to its fullest. Of course, the hotel clerk had been very annoyed at the request for a tub of hot water in his room, but the five dollar gold piece Dave had plunked down on the counter soon changed his tune. As Dave sank deeper into the soothing warmth, he decided it was money very well spent.
He lay immersed and thought about the town he was headed for, pushing aside thoughts of the events in the stable earlier. From what he had heard, Silver Flats was a rough mining town with plenty of saloons and not much interest in anything else beyond having a good time. He’d been a bit surprised at the nudge he’d gotten the first time he’d heard the name mentioned, but he’d learned to trust it. He’d said goodbye to the congregation in Sweet Water, coming nearly to tears when they presented him with a fine Arabian gelding as a goodbye present, and following the leading of the nudge, headed for Silver Flats.
From the sounds coming through his hotel room window, it sounded like this town was a pretty wild one as well and his mind drifted to the other reason he’d ordered the bath.
He had been giving his horse some extra attention at the livery before heading to a restaurant for something to eat when the group of five young men and boys had entered the stable. The leader of the group, a large, course youth of about twenty that they called “Pole”, had hollered for the attendant, who came slinking nervously out of a back room. He obviously knew these boys. Dave had waited quietly in his horse’s stall while the young man demanded horses for him and his friends. The attendant scurried out, leaving the boys behind. Dave waited, instinct telling him these boys were up to no good. He could hear the boys milling around the stable, talking and laughing with each other.
All would have been well if Dave’s horse hadn’t snorted. There was instant silence and then Dave heard footsteps approaching the stall and Pole’s head peeked over the top of the door. His eyes rested on Dave and the collar of his suit and a smile spread across his face.
“Well, well, well. Look what we got here boys!” Pole called over his shoulder, and then he opened the stall door. Soon there were five pairs of eyes staring at Dave over the sides of the stall.
“Hey, it’s a preacher!” A sandy-haired boy in bad need of a haircut laughed.
“Shut up, Clint. I’ll do the talkin’ here,” Pole snapped.
He grinned at Dave, but there was nothing friendly about it and Dave had a feeling he was in serious trouble. These boys had it written all over them. He glanced around the group, holding each of their eyes in turn for a moment, before finally resting on Pole. He squared himself with the young man and waited quietly his hands clasped loosely together.
Pole returned the stare for a minute and then Dave could see the restlessness start in them all and he smiled to himself. It worked every time; bullies never could handle a quiet opponent. He let them squirm a minute longer and then spoke.
“Well? What can I do for you boys?” he asked with an easy smile.
Pole smirked and glanced around at his gang. “You a minister?”
“Don’t care much for ministers.”
There was snigger from someone in the group and Pole glared their way. The smiles they had been wearing faded and they ducked their heads. Pole obviously had the members of his gang cowed as much as he had the livery attendant. Dave turned his attention back to Pole and waited.
Pole stared Dave up and down with a look Dave knew was meant to be intimidating and then he turned his attention to Dave’s horse. “Nice horse.”
Dave glanced at the fine sorrel next to him. “Thank you.”
“Could use me a horse like that.”
One corner of Dave’s mouth lifted. “Most people could.”
Pole’s face turned ugly. “You getting smart with me preacher?”
“No, just stating a fact.”
“Don’t like smart-alecky preachers.”
“Seems to me you don’t like much.” The sudden opening of the back door and the entrance of the livery attendant, who took one look inside and left again, diverted their attention and Dave took his chance. “Now if you’ll excuse me,” Dave said suddenly moving forward and brushing past Pole into the open.
It didn’t help his situation much and Dave knew that; these boys weren’t going to let him leave this stable peaceably. But he’d have a better chance out in the open where he had more room to maneuver even though it also left him more open to a gang attack. It had been a toss-up, but there was also the horse to think about. He didn’t want to be fighting in such close quarters with an unpredictable animal adding to the mix.
He’d been right; the four outside the stall closed in around him before he’d taken many steps and Dave had to stop. He gazed around the half circle they made, debating his chances.
“Where you think you’re goin’, preach?” Pole’s voice was smug behind him and Dave turned. He smiled at Pole, calmly, though his heart was racing. It was five to one, bad odds for anybody, and Pole alone was enough to worry him. Dave had done a fair amount of street fighting at one time and he was good at it, but Pole was both heavier and taller than he and his reach was longer. It’d be a close thing any way he looked at it, assuming of course, they let him fight it out with Pole alone. From the look in Pole’s eyes, that wasn’t the idea.
“Back to my hotel. I don’t want any trouble and I’m just passing through, so if you’d kindly ask your friends to move aside. I’ll be on my way.” Dave said, trying one last time to sidestep a fight.
Pole leaned back on one leg and crossed his arms. “‘Fraid I can’t do that.”
“Nope.” The right hook he sent Dave’s way was quick but not quick enough, Dave had been expecting it and dodged under it, swinging toward Pole’s gut. Pole jumped back and Dave swished air. Then Pole connected with a left that spun Dave around and into the waiting arms of the kid, Clint, who sent a jab to his stomach that knocked the wind out of him and Dave knew he was lost. They ganged up on him then and even though he defended himself as best he could, landing more than a few hard punches and blacking some eyes, they soon had him down on all fours gasping for breath. A swift kick to the middle knocked him over and Dave curled up hoping to protect his head and any other vital parts as the five pounced on him.
A sudden yell and a gunshot startled them all and broke up the attack. The gang rushed out the back door, leaving Dave rolling and grimacing on the ground behind them.
Gentle hands turned him over and he winced
“Well, now. Looks like they did a number on you. Good thing I got here when I did.”
Dave peeled an eye open. A silver star shone on a black vest and he raised his eyes. A kindly face smiled back at him. “Those boys ’cause more trouble around here than they’re worth, that’s for sure,” the sheriff said as he helped Dave sit up. “But it doesn’t look like they did much damage,” he added, giving Dave a quick once over.
Dave gave a humorless laugh. “Thanks to you.” He touched a sore spot on his cheek where Pole’s left had landed and gave himself a mental going over. The sheriff was right; he was going to be sore and no doubt end up with more than a couple bruises, but there didn’t seem to be much actual damage.
“Well, Avery came runnin’ in saying Pole’s gang had a man cornered down at the livery. Got here as fast as I could. Sorry it wasn’t quicker,” the Sheriff said helping Dave to his feet. “You all right?”
“Yeah, I think so. Thank you. My name’s Dave Clayton. I was just passing through on my way to Silver Flats.”
“Sheriff Thompson. Hearda Silver Flats. Bit of a rough place.”
“Rougher than here?” Dave tried to grin and grimaced instead.
The sheriff laughed. “Got a point there. By the way, it looked to me like you gave them a few bruises yourself before they got you down. Thought it might help.”
“Thanks.” And surprisingly it did.
The sheriff had helped him back to the hotel, promising to send a man to the livery to keep an eye on Dave’s horse for him, though he didn’t think Pole’s gang would try anything more. They were just a gang of bullies who liked throwing their weight around. They’d crow over roughing Dave up awhile and the sheriff figured that would be that. Dave had thanked him again and went to check into the hotel, ordering the hot bath that had become even more necessary than before.
Dave closed his eyes and let the heat soak into the bruises. He had a fine one starting along his rib cage and he realized it was only by God’s good grace he didn’t have a broken rib or two.
He didn’t know how long he’d lain there when an urgent rapping on his door startled him.
“Preacher! Preacher!” The voice was young, frightened and insistent.
“Who is it?” Dave called.
“It’s, it’s… Please, sir. Open the door!”
Dave sighed. “All right, give me a minute.”
Dave rose and toweled himself off as quickly as he could, but it wasn’t quick enough for whoever was outside, there was more banging.
“Please, Sir. You gotta hurry. Pole needs you!” The voice was almost in tears now.
Dave, who was shrugging into his robe, stopped abruptly. “Who?”
“Pole. He’s hurt bad, mister, and he needs you.”
Dave finished tying the robe around himself and walked to the door. “You mean the Pole I met earlier?” he called through the door.
There was a minute of silence. “Yes, Sir. We’re real sorry about that.” Another pause. “But he’s askin’ for you. He’s dyin'”
Dave stood silently, leaning against the door for several long minutes, emotions raging through him, with anger by far the uppermost. Then the irony of the situation hit him and he chuckled. “Lord, you sure do have ways of teaching me to live by the good Book, don’t you,” he whispered. He knew what he had to do, though every fiber of his being shouted out against it. That boy and his cronies had just beat the stuffing out of him for no other reason than that they could and now… Dave took a deep breath and tried to control the surge of anger that swept over him. He stood for some time wrestling with himself and his God. It was only by the barest thread that God won – Dave was, after all, still very human.
“All right. Give me a minute to get dressed,” he finally called through the door.
There was a muffled gasp that might have been a sob. “Thank you, Mister. Thank you, so much.”
“This isn’t going to be easy, Father,” Dave prayed as he hurried into a clean shirt and trousers and shrugged into his suit coat. “You know the anger I have in my heart over what this boy and his friends did to me. Help me to put that aside and do what I can to help him.” He paused to push back another onslaught of anger, taking several deep breaths before continuing. “I’m going, Lord, but under protest.” He stopped again. “Help me,” he whispered and then went to join Clint.
As they ran down the darkened back street of the town, Clint filled him in on what had happened to Pole. The gang had hired some horses, the reason behind their visit to the livery, and were racing each other. Somehow or other, Pole’s horse had gone down, rolling over him. Pole had been crushed, and though still alive, the doctor gave him little hope, saying it was only a matter of time.
Dave prayed hard as he entered the small house on the edge of town behind Clint. The living room seemed filled with people. In one corner, a gray headed woman was weeping in the arms of a man Dave took to be her son. Several women stood behind her, their faces sober. Several more men sat silently around a table to one side. The boys from the livery stable, teary eyed and silent, stood uncertainly next to the door. They averted their eyes when they saw Dave walk in the door. Clint threw a glance at them and then headed to the corner where the old woman sat.
“Mrs. Jackson, I brung the minister,” he said laying a hand on the woman’s shoulder.
The woman raised her head and looked at Dave. She gave a gasp and raised her hands to her mouth when she saw his face. Dave could imagine what he must look like, his face was tender in more than one spot and no doubt starting to sport some colorful bruises.
“Oh, my. Did my boy do that?” she asked her voice catching.
“It’s nothing much,” Dave said, his heart going out to her. Now that he was here, his anger began to subside, leaving only sorrow for the young man who would so soon meet his Maker and from the sounds of things wasn’t ready for it. It was a miracle he’d experienced often and still held him in awe. How seemingly out of nowhere feelings of care and compassion and even love could so suddenly take a hold of him for people he barely knew and had no reason to care for and, occasionally, every reason to hate.
He knelt next to Mrs. Jackson and laid a hand on her knee. “Clint says your son was asking for me,” he prompted gently.
“He’s in there.” She nodded to a door at the back of the room. “Doc’s with him, but he says…” She couldn’t continue and hurriedly put a handkerchief to her eyes.
“Thank you.” Dave glanced at the man beside her.
“Go in, Reverend.” He jerked his head toward the door. “I’ll take care of Ma.”
The woman stopped him with a hand on his arm as Dave started to rise. “Pole was always a good boy, Reverend,” she said her blue eyes wide and pleading. “It was after his pa died that he started gettin’ into trouble. Now he’s so scared. You’ll help him?”
The last was more a question than a statement. Dave smiled and patted the hand on his arm. “I’ll do my best.” He clasped the hand briefly and she let go.
Pole was conscious when Dave entered the room, but obviously in extreme pain. The doctor, who stood next to him talking quietly, looked up as Dave entered and walked to him. “You the minister Pole’s been asking for?” he whispered.
The doctor took a good long look at Dave’s face, scanning the multi-colored bruises beginning to well on his chin and cheeks, and then stared into his eyes. “The boy’s dying, Reverend, and scared half out of his mind. I hope you haven’t come bent on revenge.”
Dave returned the doctor’s frank gaze. “No, I’ve not come for revenge. I’m a minister. I’ve been asked for. I’m here to do my job.”
The doctor searched Dave’s face again. “You’re a better man than I am then, Reverend.”
“Not really.” He smiled ruefully. “I almost didn’t come.”
The doctor smiled at that and nodded. “Now I believe you. I’ve given him something for the pain; it should be taking effect soon. I’ll leave you alone. Let me know if you need me.”
“There’s no hope then?”
“Outside of a miracle, no.”
Dave nodded. “Thank You,” he said and then moved past the doctor toward the bed where Pole lay groaning.
It was some time later that David re-entered the living room, his heart somewhat lighter. Pole had listened intently to what he had to say and seemed to accept it, his fear easing. Now he rested as comfortably as was expected. Nothing much had changed outside except the doctor now sat next to Mrs. Jackson. She rose when she caught sight of him, holding out her hands to him, and he went to her clasping her hands firmly in his own.
“He wants you.” Dave told her.
She nodded and then scanned his face. He smiled gently at her. “I think all will be well with him.”
She didn’t say anything but her face broke into a wide smile, and she shook their clasped hands in a way that told him all he needed to know before she hurried towards the door and her son.
He watched her go and then turned toward the doctor. “He’s calm and I think as ready as any of us ever are,” Dave said simply. The doctor nodded and followed Mrs. Jackson into the back room.
Dave sighed and then sat down in the chair Mrs. Jackson had vacated. He plunged his face into his hands and rubbed it hard. He longed for his bed back at the hotel — the hot bath was now nothing but a distant memory — but knew he should stay until it was over. Mrs. Jackson might need him. He kept his head down and silently prayed for the woman as she said goodbye to her son.
The sound of someone shuffling in front of him brought him back to the present and he looked up into the red and embarrassed face of Clint. The boy dropped his eyes and shuffled uncomfortably. “Can I talk to you, Reverend?”
Dave nodded and motioned to the seat beside him.
“Me and the others,” Clint began. “We just wanted ta tell you how sorry we are for what we did.” He paused and looked at the floor. “We was pretty shocked when Pole started askin’ for you. And most of us never figured you’d actually come.”
Dave watched the boy silently, letting him talk.
“Well, we been talking about it and we was wondering.” Clint gulped. “Well, why did you? After what Pole did to you, I’d think the last thing you’d want to do is help him.”
He didn’t answer immediately. The truth was he didn’t know exactly what to say. He hadn’t wanted to come, had fought against it, but in the end, he’d simply known he had to, for his own sake as much as for Pole’s. He wasn’t sure he could make Clint understand that – he knew he had to try.
“Well, I suppose it was a matter of doing what I knew was right, Clint. I’m a minister and with that comes certain responsibilities. Responsibilities that I take very seriously.” He reached into his suit pocket and pulled out the tiny Bible he always carried and handed it to Clint. “That Book tells me to love my enemies and to do good to those who do wrong to me. I try to live by that.” He smiled. “Not that I do a very good job of it,” he admitted, “but I try.”
“So that’s why you came?”
“That’s why I came.”
Clint looked down at the Book in his hands, a look almost of awe on his face.
“You have one of those?” Dave asked.
“My ma does; she reads it regular.”
Dave reached out and took the Bible, placing it back in his pocket. “Why don’t you try reading it yourself?” He nodded his head toward the door. “You never know when it might be you back there. It might be good to know what you need to before it gets here in case there isn’t a minister around.”
He saw Clint glance at the door his eyes wide. “Yeah,” Clint said softly and Dave knew he’d gotten through to him.
He thought of that moment several hours later as he finally lay in bed back at the hotel. His life was filled with such moments and he contemplated that fact with an awe of his own. He’d wasted so much of his life, headed down a road that led only to misery and taking quite a few men down that road with him. Now each time he had an opportunity to rectify that by helping to change the life of someone else as his had been changed, it left him with a deep sense of satisfaction. He clasped his hands behind his head, thinking about it. Who would have thought getting a trouncing would bring him another such opportunity? “You do work in mysterious ways, Lord,” he whispered into the night and smiled to himself. “You surely do.”