The reverend William Webb had been dealing with people of all stripes for forty years, and Henry knew this preacher's practiced eye would discern the news from the doctor was bad. Likely as not, Henry's two boys had made such a prediction to the preacher man. Both his sons went to this preacher's church, Harvey, the oldest, a regular. We might as well get on down to the quick on this one, Henry thought.
"Henry, Thomas and Harvey have been telling me something's bad wrong with you. Said you've been coughing and spitting up blood. They said you were coming in to see the doctor this morning, and I watched you go in there. I've been lying in wait like a highwayman for you to come out of there. Now, I"
"Doctor Belton said it's consumption, Will. Tuberculosis. He's given me a year to live. Maybe not that long. Maybe a little more." Henry stood, like a patient man in line at a bank, his arms at his side. He was a tall man, just at six feet, and medium-built, his shoulders still square and his spine still straight. Nothing about him projected grave illness, and he could have passed for a man of fifty, though he was sixty-two. His clear blue eyes locked on the dark eyes of the preacher, darker still under the soaked brim of his hat. William Webb shook his head.
"I am sorry, Henry." The preacher wrapped the reins around the brake, slid across the wet seat, taking hold of the seatback to help steady his rise. "If you'll let me, I'll pray with you, Henry. Just a brief word with the Lord." A big redbone hound bellied out from underneath the porch, startling the horse into a quick forward step, snatching the wagon. The preacher lurched and fell back, sitting down hard on the wagon seat. "Aw, Bo, damn your hide!"
Henry smiled. "Keep your seat, reverend." He watched the old hound trot across the street, going diagonally toward the alley that would take him behind the Melton Hotel, and perhaps a scrap of bread, raked off a breakfast plate. The morning fell darker and there was a low roll of thunder toward the hills east of town, and the rain fell harder. "I'll let you know when I need a prayer lifted on my behalf, though I do appreciate your intent, Brother Webb."
"Can I at least give you a ride back out to your place? This muck'll ruin your boots." The preacher let his eyes travel slowly down to Henry's long bare feet. "Well, that is, when you put your boots back on. I've got to go in that direction, Henry, and I'd not think a thing of carting you to your front gate."
"But, it's to the Pearly Gates you truly want to cart me. I have known you for too long, Will. You will never give up. You would talk all the way, and make half a dozen altar calls."
"I expect there'd not be time for half a dozen entreaties to rescue that starving soul of yours." Preacher Webb propped a booted foot on the buckboard's dash, caught the wet and wilted brim of his hat and tilted it back a bit for a better look at Henry James Stuart. "I worry about you, Henry, staying away from the church like we've got out a quarantine sign. Both your sons come as often as we open the doors. Don't you think Molly would want you in the church with her boys?"
Henry braced his shoulders and closed his hands, though not tight into fists. "Molly did want me to go to church. With her. And I went, glad to go for the pleasure it seemed to give to her. But, Will, Molly is dead three years now, and"
"And you have not darkened the door of my church one time since she passed, Henry."
"Nor shall I, Will."
"And do you not fear for your soul now that you'll soon face the Almighty?" The preacher sat straighter.
"My face has never turned away from God, nor my ear ever inclined away from his counsel. You do not stand between me and my creator, Will Webb. It seems a prideful thing to suggest, and a touch arrogant."
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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