“How does a preacher get throwed in jail?”
“Good question. I seem to recall saying something about the law.” Having just awaked, I nursed the painful lump at the base of my neck. There was faint light, but from where I sat on the bunk, I made out the bulk of my conversationalist, leaning on the bars separating our cells. Gingerly rubbing the sore spot, I asked, “How’d you know I was a preacher?”
He uncrossed his arms to jerk a thumb at the window. “Our boisterous hosts mentioned it when they tossed you in.”
I cocked my head, listening. “Quite a party.”
“Yeah,” he said, dryly. “Been goin’ on for hours. Reckon they’ll be coming for the guest of honor any time.”
His voice was sardonic, “Yeah, that’s me. Wanted in seven states and listed among the most dangerous.”
“Proud, are you?”
He shrugged. “Never thought about it.”
“You’ve got time now. Could be a good place to do some serious thinking about the future.”
“What future, Preacher? My boots will shortly be leavin’ the ground for good.” His statement was flat belief, delivered in a hoarse whisper.
“Everyone has a future,” I said. “I’m talking about eternity.”
He gave a derisive snort. “I know where I’m goin’.”
“Yeah? Well, I know where I’m going too.” Though he might not have seen it in the semi-darkness, I couldn’t help but smile. “I sometimes think I can’t wait. Like the Apostle Paul said, ‘To live is Christ and to die is gain.’”
“You want to die?”
It was true; I did not fear what came after death. Answering him, I said, “I don’t look forward to the process, but I know a second after I die, I’ll be in the presence of my Lord. Can’t wait for that part.”
There was a heavy crash somewhere in the street and a short burst of gunfire. The yelling seemed to be getting louder.
“Where’s the Sheriff?” I asked, standing to see if I could see out the window. The view wasn’t worth the effort, seeing only a darkness of the backs of buildings.
“Took for the hills,” Bander said. “Too much excitement, I reckon.” Patting his pockets, he shifted nervously. “Got a smoke?”
As the front office door splintered, Bander spun around in feral fear. Gripping the bars, he gave a shaky laugh. “Here it comes. The hospitality committee has arrived.”
I took the few steps to the door of my cell. “Get back in the darkness and stay quiet.”
Waving an arm toward the deep shadows, I rasped, “Just do it. Hurry.”
The drunken crowd battered down the heavy oak door between the cell area and the office, spilling whiskey-soaked men into the short hallway. The mob was shoving one another, stumbling around.
“Who’s got the keys?” There was a jangle of iron and swearing. “Get a light, I can’t see the door. Get back, gimme room.”
I laughed, doing a fair imitation of Bander’s nervousness. “Don’t hurry on my account, boys. I’ll be right here.”
“You’ll stop laughing soon enough.” Someone else responded, “Your neck itchin?’ There was laughter.
More men arrived with lanterns and the man at the door figured out the lock. I fought, kicking and gouging as they dragged me out. They wrestled me to the floor and my arms wrenched behind me so they could tie my wrists. Triumphant yells and curses accompanied their dragging me outside. I heard Bander yell something, but it was lost in the noise. Unceremoniously tossed face down in a wagon, three men held me down, their boots digging into my back.
The wagon stopped amid the macabre scene at a tall
Cottonwood tree. They stood me on the wagon tailboard and set the noose, certain in their drunkenness, that they were hanging Bander. Bruised and battered, through dripping blood, all I saw was spots of light and blobs of angry faces.
“Lord Jesus,” Lifting my eyes to look at the stars through the tree limbs above my head, I whispered, “will You do this now?” I focused on the rope where it came over the branch and down to my neck. It wouldn’t be long until it became tight. In moments, my weight would pull it to its length.
A shot rang out and the bullet-severed rope fell on me. I tumbled back into the wagon. To everyone’s amazement, especially my own, the Sheriff had returned with the reinforcements.
A month later, facing state execution for his crimes, the most dangerous man in the territory knelt in his cell to accept Jesus Christ as his Savior. Raising his face to me, pale with fear, yet his eyes steady with confidence, Bander said, “I know where I’m going, Preacher.”
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