Preacher Webb took his foot from the dash and banged it down on the puddled floorboard, leaning forward to unwrap the reins. "And you are the stubbornest man in all of Idaho, Henry. My prayer is that you get a chance to argue your name onto Heaven's roll, for you could argue the horns off a goat." The rain quickly eased and almost stopped and both men looked briefly toward the sky.
"Let me argue with you, Will," Henry said, drawing his bushy white eyebrows together in a frown. "Let me tell you how I believe that all the names of all the people in all the ages are written forever onto that roll you speak of. When our Maker claims what is his at the birth of a child and duly records it in his Book of Life, that little one is a divine property that neither foe nor force nor deed can steal."
Henry lifted his hands, a questioning gesture. "Can't you get your preacher's heart to believe that what was ever once God's is always God's? There is nothing that can oppose the creative force of the universe. There is no where to get to, Will, if you never truly left. It's because you and others of your ilk cannot even approach such an idea that I have no need of what you're selling at the churchhouse, Will."
"This your Everybody Gets Back to Heaven' sermon?" The reverend held the reins one in each hand, and was bent forward slightly with his forearms resting on his heavy thighs. "Come on, Henry. What a load of bull. I don't know how they graduated you from Mount Union. Must've been an off year for them in their divinity department."
Henry shook his head, but smiled. He had first laid-out his theology to Will Webb on one of their fishing afternoons down at a favorite spot on Lake Lowell. It was after Aldus Sansing, a man well-known to Henry, had been cut down with a double barrel shotgun during a robbery, and had died without officially "coming to the Lord" on a Sunday morning. Aldus never went there. Not for weddings and not for funerals.
His murderer was soon caught, and, while he waited in jail to be hanged, found his salvation, presided over and attested to by Reverend Orlen Estes. A grammar-schooler, thought Henry, could see something wrong with the killer getting his writ to enter Heaven, while a good man had been murdered and tossed to Hell.
Ruminating upon that, in a moment's insight, Henry had come to believe that if indeed there was a "next step" after this trail is quit, then all and everyone are privileged to walk that walk. Henry believed he saw clearly the advance of all things. He knew that a boy who takes early to drinking and carousing is not left in some box marked 1907, but gets himself along to 1915 and a box labeled "Loving Husband/Good Father". But then he might run off with the neighbor's wife the next year. And that was that. And it did not matter a whit for all manner of things would in time be set right.
But Henry's first son Harvey told him to his face that he was Hell-bound. Neither he nor his friend Will Webb could cotton to a simple line that all persons would perfect the soul awarded them, even if it takes eons. Neither could seem to comprehend the absence of a devil who could actually oppose and defeat the maker of the universe. But for Henry the debate was ended. And now, it seemed, he'd be the first of the three to discover the truth of his religion. And that was well enough for Henry, as he thought how Tolstoy was excommunicated and, therefore, buried without the help of the Russian Orthodox church.
The reverend William Webb slid back across the wagon's board seat, making a swipe at the spot he'd just vacated. "Here, then. Put your boots back on, Henry, and hop up here and let me give you a ride home. Come now, before this rain takes up again. I'll not preach a word in the direction of your black heart." The preacher gave an exaggerated wink. "While we're riding you can tell me about this consumption, or what-have-you, that's fool enough to think it can kill you. It's not catching, I guess."
Excerpted from The Poet of Tolstoy Park by Sonny Brewer Copyright © 2005 by Sonny Brewer. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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