My hand was cold and clammy and I couldn’t help it but the preacher wanted to shake it anyway.
My hand wasn’t the only thing being shook. My whole body had the shakes. I’d never felt so cold in the middle of summer. The trail boss put me under a piece of canvas from the chuck wagon to get me out of the sun, but truth be told I’d’ve rather stayed out there in the heat. Except for when the chills left me and the fever took over.
The preacher was passing through, riding circuit from one town to some other town. I don’t know much about the towns hereabouts, just riding herd across the open range. The end of the trail was still a couple weeks north and here I was laid up bringing the cattle drive to a halt.
“Mind if I pray for you, son?”
“Nope, s’pose not. Just help me sit up first.”
“You should lie back and rest,” he said.
“But you said we’re going to pray.”
“You can pray there in your blanket just fine. God doesn’t mind.”
Seemed odd to pray on my back, but then the fever came on and I couldn’t do anything but stay down under my blanket anyway.
He went to where his horse was tied and pulled a Bible out of his bags. He sat next to me under the canvas strung between the branches of one of the scrawniest oak trees stuck out here in the middle of the range and read, “‘Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves.‘”
“Now Lord,” he said, “this child of yours here is burning like a furnace with this fever, and he needs your healing so he can get back up with the strength of those frolicking calves your prophet Malachi is talking about here in your word. You’re the Almighty, so you can do it. Amen.”
Funny kind of prayer, I thought, but I couldn’t not say amen to it. So I did.
“Now here’s some water, take it slow.”
It was warm on my tongue, but felt good. “Do you think that prayer’s going to work?”
“Why do you ask?”
“The cook on the last cattle drive we were on, last summer, he got a fever. The trail boss prayed a lot for him, but he didn’t make it.”
“All I can tell you is that God answers every prayer every time. He just doesn’t always say yes.”
“So I might die too?
“Of course you’re going to die, son. We all are. What matters is what comes after that.”
“That’s what the trail boss said. Cookies’ parents told me they weren’t worried about him when I told ‘em he’d died. They were awfully sad about it, but they seemed kind of cheerful almost in their grief. Said he was with Jesus.”
“It sounds like Cookie and his parents knew the Lord.”
“Well, his Dad’d been a preacher, like you.”
“So they knew where Cookie was, even though he’d died.” He stood up and put his Bible back in his saddle bag. “What about you, son. Do you know the Lord?”
“Sometimes I talk to the trail boss about God. Maybe that’s why I wanted to ride with him again this year. Cookie’s mother gave me his Bible to keep for myself, so I try to read it and learn what I can about God.” I reached toward the canteen and he stooped down and brought it to my lips. “Can’t say that I think I know him, though, not like you and the trail boss do, or like Cookie did.”
“I think your friend Cookie still knows Jesus, and a lot better than I do,” he said.
“Preacher, I’m sorry to say it but I’m feeling awfully tuckered.”
“Sure, ‘course you are. You need to rest. I’ve got a feeling God’s not done with you.”
I was about out of strength to stay awake, but my question about his last comment must have shown on my face.
“I don’t think my passing by while you’re laid up here in camp was an accident. I don’t believe in accidents, not like this anyway. No, the Lord brought me across your trail today for a reason.” He stood up again. “Where’s that Bible Cookie’s mother gave you?”
I lifted my hand a couple inches and pointed at my saddle bags by my horse Pete, tied up next to his.
He got the Bible and opened to a place somewhere in the middle. “This is another one of God’s prophets,” he said, “a wise man named Isaiah, and he wrote ‘Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near.’ That’s good advice.”
He folded down the corner of the page and placed the Bible next to the canteen. “You read that for yourself when you’re a bit stronger and keep seeking God.”
“Seeking?” I managed to croak out. “I don’t know … .”
“Oh you’ve been seeking him, son. But you’ve known that for a while. What you may not know is that means he’s been seeking you even longer.”
I closed my eyes, maybe from exhaustion, maybe just from thinking on what he just said. God seeking me? The trail boss said things like that too.
My head sank deeper into Pete’s saddle I was using for a pillow. I didn’t even hear the preacher ride off.