Something was different in the morning air. It was damp but not at all unpleasant. The usually dry little town of Traildale drank up the dew with thirst and flowers seemed to have appeared overnight, adding to the pleasant feeling that gave many hope after a hard winter. But it was not only the recently arrived spring season that filled the streets.
Peering out from between two buildings, a dark, 16 year old girl watched the steady stream of people with curiosity. It was a curious thing indeed for so many of those of Traildale to be someplace other than their work or the saloon.
Children and couples, apparently having dropped whatever random task they had been at, moved leisurely in one direction. A tired mother with a gang of little boys in ragged breeches and a baby in her arms, tried her best to keep the frolicking, energetic boys in the same direction. A washer woman bustled past, talking nonstop to anyone who cared to listen. Her cheeks were flushed, her sleeves still pushed past her elbows, and soap suds adorned the big apron tied across her front.
“We’ll ‘ave to return later for our dinner when not so many are around to notice,” she whispered to the curly headed boy holding on to her skirt.
He nodded wisely and turned his big brown eyes on the passersby. She disappeared on silent feet into the shadows and tucked a huge basket out of sight.
Reaching for his hand, she turned to go but the sudden loud bang of a door caused her slim form to jump and twirl around. Across the dirt length that served as Main Street a burly man stomped out onto the sagging porch of his saloon.
He glared down on the happy villagers calling out to each other in greetings, as though it were an offense to the world.The bartender growled something seemingly to a lad passing by at the moment.
A trapped look crossed the boy’s face and he touched his cap nervously, gasping out as he ran backward, “A preacher…come by horse last night…at the Trading Post,” and darted away as the man said some awful, threatening words and punched the air with his big fist.
The girl flicked a coarse braid over her shoulder and scooped to swing the brown baby onto her hip as she ran after the others, her long patched skirt dancing around her ankles. She was dressed in the fashion of a Gypsy. Two long braids fell down the back of her fitted blouse and tiny golden hoops graced her ears.
Spotting her, the bartender yelled, “Hey, Fern! Gypsy girl! Tell your ma, your papa will be home late…” he stopped, seeing she was already far off and couldn’t hear. But there were the beginnings of tears on her black lashes.
On the steps of a building with the sign above it reading “Trading Post”, stood a strong young man speaking to the people in a loud voice. His broad shoulders were clad in buckskin and he held a worn book in one hand, gesturing widely with the other. His strong voice carried across the quiet people who listened intently, almost hungrily. A girl silently joined on the fringes of the crowd, almost entirely unnoticed.
He paused and his grey eyes searched the faces before him. “I say, mister, have you ever stolen anything?” he asked a skinny man in overalls.
The man squirmed and his face reddened with either embarrassment or anger.
The preacher continued steadily, “Ya know, just the smallest little thing that wasn’t yours? I know I have!”
The man’s face relaxed suddenly and he blinked twice and swallowed. His companion laughed and punched him on the shoulder merrily.
But the young man was still talking, “I don’t deny it; I’m just as bad as the rest of y’all. Sure don’t make it okay though,” here he turned and locked eyes with the Gypsy girl who found herself shrink under his calm gaze, “God the Father, who has power over everything and is chief of all peoples, has told us over and over in his book of instructions, the Holy Bible, ‘You shalt NOT steal! …For the wages of sin is death.” And later says that “…all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone’…”
Fern clenched her fists.
He turned back to the dirty man before him and said, not at all unkindly, “You’ve just told me you‘re deserving of death, sir. And that’s only one of the ten commands He’s given us.”
A murmur rippled through the onlookers. “I’ve heard of this religious, woman stuff!” commented one man to his neighbor.
“Sure, but I never heard of it put quite that way before,” was the whispered reply.
“We’re all headed for an awful death in a lake of fire and brimstone,” he said grimly, then he broke into an unexpected grin, “Except He didn’t stop there! “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” “I’m sure most of you have heard of Jesus before. He came to this world as a little, helpless baby to give Himself up for us. He took our death penalty that we deserved and died a cruel death on the cross. Accept this gift, and pray for forgiveness and strength to follow God!”
He finished with a prayer, but Fern did not hear his words. Something stuck in her throat, and the bowed head of the preacher blurred before her eyes. “How dare he!” she thought bitterly.
She hardly noticed when he dropped to the steps, looking suddenly weary; or when the people of Trialdale drifted away. Her mind was storming so, it made her almost dizzy with anger.
Fern marched towards him. “You wouldn’t know,” she choked out, her voice breaking. He looked up with two of the most honest eyes she had ever seen. It annoyed her that he was so calm and kind about everything. Fern balled up a handful of her bright skirt in her fist and practically yelled, “You wouldn’t know how it is! Being poor, so. You’ve ain’t gone without food and warm fire. Everyone’s got to look out for themselves. Not our fault others keep much for themselves and won’t give,” her voice shook. She jerked her head up and glared at him through her tears, tilting her chin defiantly.
He took up his hat that had been lying beside him and pulled it on, with a grim look on his face. Her big brown eyes grew wide. The young preacher had pushed himself up stiffly and stood.
Flinching, she drew back a ways and broke into a fresh torrent of tears, “No! Please, please don’t hit me! I’m so sorry for what I said, just don’t touch me!” she pleaded.
He stopped and a look of grief flooded his chiseled face. Fern suddenly became quiet and she whispered softly, “Y…you’re not mad?”
The man smiled. It was a smile she had never seen before. It wasn’t the slightest bit mean or sly; just purely kind. He ruffled the little boy’s hair fondly and replied softly. “No.”
The woods were glorious! Fern dug her toes into the cool dirt of the forest floor and looked up into the branches above. Cheerful light filtered through the new leaves, and Fern hugged herself with delight. “Spring!” she cried, her eyes dancing.
Flitting over to the little boy who was playing happily in a field of flowers, she knelt beside him and began plucking blossoms and twisting them together into a crown. Joy was written all over her pretty, dark face. One of her braids came loose and tumbled over her shoulder, and she undid the other, settling the crown on her head.
With a quick glance at the happy boy she grabbed up her basket and skipped through the tall field of flowers. She called out merrily, “Come along, deary!” He tumbled after her. As the berry bushes, shaded under the huge tree limbs, came near, Fern broke into a run. The swift run made her spirits soar, her brown legs flashing underneath her short dress.
She dropped to the ground with a laugh and caught the baby in her arms. “Oh, I’m so glad winter has finally left!” She whispered and thought of the hard times that were all set right now that there was green again in Traildale. “Since the preacher came the pass must be clear! Oh, darling, that means we can move out and the Gypsies can return to the meadows!” Fern plucked a fat berry and let the juicy coldness spurt into her mouth.
“Oh my heart is gonna burst!” She cried. She nimbly jumped to her feet and put her hands to work. In no time at all her basket was half full and stained a gay purple. “Less berries in your mouth, silly,” she laughed and pushed the baby’s little hand away from the berries.
A bird called from somewhere high in the tree tops, and Fern whistled back in perfect imitation. A creek nearby sang a song of liberty from its ice and rushed busily along with a quiet roar and the sun shone down through the thick foliage, warming her heart. She paused with a handful of berries and gazed dreamily at a beetle making its way across a leaf.
A robin swooped just above her hand. She startled and turned to see it alight in the grass, eyeing her warily. Fern smiled and stepped closer, as quiet as a fox, and with the berries outstretched.
Stopping, she held her breath. Mr Robin seemed to be holding his breath too. The forest was still. Too still.
Something made Fern turn and a scream died in her throat. The little boy had crept to the bank of the creek and was on his stomach kicking his feet, and peering over the edge. Fern ran. The crown of flowers was dashed to the ground.
Looking up he giggled, and Fern screamed, “Don’t move!” But it was too late. She stopped still yards away and watched in horror as he slowly toppled over and disappeared.
Fern came to life and ran to the edge, digging her toes into the dirt to keep from pitching over. The ledge dropped no more than four feet. She took a big breath and held it; she could do it. She had to. Closing her eyes she plunged into the foaming water. Fern suddenly had to fight to keep her head up as the cold water surrounded her. She looked around frantically, her brown eyes searching the white crested water that swirled between its banks.
She screamed something. The boy had suddenly appeared but only to be pulled further away by the strong spring current.
Fern plunged recklessly towards him. Her head was pulled under and for a moment she was gone. It was an awful struggle and she felt so weak, but she finally burst to the surface again, choking the cold water from her lungs. By now her teeth were chattering and her arms felt icy numb. She found that the rushing river had swept her closer to the boy.
In the pause that followed Fern wondered if he was still conscious and a staggering pain of fear pierced her already aching heart. But she didn’t have time to get mad at herself for forgetting him. Just as she was carried towards a dead tree jutting out from the right bank she reached out and grabbed at the baby’s wraps, just getting a hold around his waist. She threw an arm around the trunk and held fast.
She laid her head against the smooth bark for a while to catch her breath and closed her eyes. The baby gave a pitiful cry that seemed to waken her, and, holding on tightly, she edged herself along the tree to get as close as she could to the bank. She was exhausted way deep down inside but somehow kept herself going.
Finally the dirt embankment rose above her and with a sinking feeling Fern knew she couldn’t save the baby as well as herself. Fern paused and squeezed the baby close, whispering, “Remember me.” And gathering her last strength, Fern stretched up and set him as far onto the grassy bank as possible. He cooed sadly at her and peered down.
Fern smiled weakly and lay her head on her arms. Her limp body began to disappear slowly into the water. Suddenly, a strong hand gripped her arm. “I’m not letting you go,” a man’s voice said firmly.
Fern lifted her head and looked into two steady, grey eyes. A feeling of complete relief washed over her, and she allowed herself to be lifted into his arms and carried far out of the horrible grip of the waves. He carefully propped her against a tree and flopped to the ground beside the girl.
She sputtered and began to breathe more easily. “Wh-where is the baby?” she whispered shakily. The preacher gently handed her the boy whom she immediately smothered in tearful kisses. She hid her face in the baby’s curly black hair and cried. The young man sat silently and looked about at the peaceful surroundings. A breath of air moved through the forest and rippled through the grass.
Fern presently became quiet and shivered in the breeze. He wrapped his buckskin overshirt around her shoulders and offered his hand to help her stand, with a quiet, “We’d better get you back to your camp.” He took the sleepy baby in one arm and guided her slowly along the easiest paths.
After some time in silence, she pushed a damp lock of hair from her forehead and glanced at the man’s calm, expressionless face. He looked straight forward, the warm wind playing with his light hair. The baby put a hand up and fingered a fresh scar on the preacher’s cheek that hadn’t been there the day he had taught on the steps of the Trading Post. He winced and accidentally met eyes with Fern. She looked down, feeling strangely responsible for his wound inflicted by her people and at the same time maddening at her concern for him.
Finally, she put to words the question that had been plaguing her mind. “Why did you do that for me…even when I had treated you rudely?” she asked softly and looked up at him.
He continued forward and his face didn’t change. Fern wondered if he would reply.
Then he paused and turned to her, emotion filling his words, “If you are valuable enough for Jesus Christ to save, you are plenty valuable enough for me to save.”
He smiled, and Fern met it with a sweet, real smile of her own.