The hammering from the street invaded the room but not so much the noise as the meaning for it. The man paced like a caged animal, four quick steps one way, swift turn, and back four steps. The wide-open, fear-white eyes would check the small window. His body language screamed a strong urge to fly, the man’s heart willing for freedom. His hands appeared to have a life of their own, constant movement without purpose, clenching at his sides, sometimes rising to wipe his sweating face.
I sat in a cane chair outside the cell, watching Burt Norbuck, the man scheduled to hang. I wasn’t looking forward to it, though he certainly was guilty of the crime. This would not be the death of a blusterer. There would be no snide remarks at the crowd. Burt hadn’t admitted to the murders even when caught without a doubt with his not long killed victims. I was afraid there would be neither confession nor repentance.
“Please, Burt, ask God to forgive you.”
“Forgive what?” Stopping in the middle of his left hand pace, Burt grabbed the bars with white-knuckle fury. “You think confessing to you will save my soul?”
“No,” I said. “Confessing to me won’t save you. It’s only God who can forgive sins.”
“Then what good are you?” he shouted.
With the morning light, I asked permission to speak with the prisoner. Burt being a very dangerous man, I agreed with the sheriff that I would be safer outside the cell instead of locked in with him. He’d given me a chair to sit in and I’d stayed there all day, against the jail wall, out of Burt’s reach. This was his last day alive in this life and I had only the daylight hours to persuade him of Jesus’ love for him. I read verses proclaiming the Gospel message and explained Jesus’ death on the cross for Burt’s sins. That Jesus wanted Burt to know that He, the Son of God, had graciously taken the punishment for all Burt’s wrongdoings onto Himself and died in Burt’s place. Because God was the perfect sacrifice for the sins of all mankind, anyone who accepted God’s forgiveness would have eternal life with God.
I read and talked for hours while Burt ranted at me with frantic feral fear and paced. Only a few moments now until sunset and he had the appointment with the noose sealing his fate. It was up to Burt whether he died forever saved, or forever damned. I didn’t want him damned.
“The verses I read to you, don’t they mean anything?”
“Preacher,” Burt said, “you could have read me that whole book, and it wouldn’t make your deal matter on this table. I’m stuck with the hand I was dealt.” He turned to the window, high up in the wall, a small portal of light to the evening sky. Lowering his head into his hands, he gripped his hair tightly, shaking his head back and forth. “It don’t matter.”
“Don’t you feel anything?”
“Feel, Preacher?” For the first time that day, his shoulders slumped with release. He pointed through the window. “I feel the need to escape. I feel the need for that to be so big a wagon can go through it.” He turned toward me and peered through one of the small spaces between the bars. “I feel anger that judge hanged me.”
Behind Burt, I saw the light fading. The hammering had quit and the other noises seemed more ominous. We both jumped hearing the banging test of the gallows trap.
“You don’t care you took the lives of the Kincaid family?”
“Ha, if I had felt anything, I wouldn’t have done it in the first place.” He came back to the bars, facing me. “There, I said it. So now, what has changed? Is the hanging called off?”
“No,” I said. “You will hang, but I would dearly love for you to accept Jesus as your Savior and live with Him in eternity.”
Burt stopped moving and held onto the bars, cocking his head at me like a quizzical bird. His quiet stare gave me a small hope.
“Will you be with Jesus for all eternity, Preacher?”
I smiled. “Yes, I’ll be there.”
He shoved away from the bars, scowling with disgust. “Then I don’t want to go.”
Just then, the big door opened, admitting the sheriff and his deputies. After binding his hands, they escorted Burt Norbuck to the gallows.
I had to close my eyes when the trap opened and Burt went to eternity in the lake of fire.
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