Authors: Gilbert Morris
Tags: #FIC042030, #FIC042000, #FIC026000
Â© 1994, 2006 by Gilbert Morris
Published by Revell
a division of Baker Publishing Group
P.O. Box 6287, Grand Rapids, MI 49516-6287
Previously published in 1994 under the title
A Time to Die
Ebook edition created 2012
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any meansâelectronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or any otherâwithout the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Johnny Winkâmy friend
Every writer needs someone to give him a start
âand you gave me that first push.
Thanks for that, and for the times you made
me laugh with your nutty poetry.
Thanks for the time you stood by me
when I needed a stander-by.
Thanks for being my friend.
ylah Stuart waited until the conductor placed the small steel platform in place, then smiled brilliantly at him as he took her hand to assist her from the train.
“It's been a lovely trip, Robert,” she said, giving his hand a warm squeeze. It amused her to see his blink of astonishment, but she was accustomed to men being speechless in her presence. “Tell your wife and son I'd love to meet them sometime.”
Robert Symington had been a conductor on the MoPacâthe Missouri-Pacific railroadâfor eight years. Before that he had served both as an engineer and a fireman, but he had never met anyone on the train as beautiful as Lylah Stuart. She had learned his name almost immediately, and somehow he had found himself telling her all about himself. All the way from Chicago, he had made it a point to see that the actress got the best treatment, and now he said eagerly, “I'll do that, Miss Stuart! Sure do hope to see you in a play someday.”
“If you ever have a chance, send me word, Robert. I'll see that you get free tickets.” Lylah smiled at him again, then turned and walked away.
Tim Malloy, the brakeman, sidled up to Symington. “Hey, Bob, you're in pretty fast company there,” he remarked slyly. “Who was that dame?”
Symington shot a scornful glance toward the diminutive brakeman. “That was no dame, you hick! That was Lylah Stuart, the famous actress!” His eyes followed Lylah's progress as she made her way to the ticket office, then he shook his head. “Boy, she is really something, ain't she now?”
“Better not tell your wife about her, Bob.” Tim grinned. “None of the wives I know would like their husbands getting close to a dish like that.”
Lylah was aware of the admiring glances of the two men, but had become so accustomed to them that she paid no attention. Entering the small station, she walked at once to the ticket agent, a heavyset man of fifty with thinning white hair, and asked, “Is there any way I could get someone to drive me to my parents' home?”
The ticket agent blinked rapidly, then shook his head. “Well now, ma'am,” he said, “there ain't but one what you might call a taxi in town. Belongs to Ed Jenningsâ¦but he's sick. Tell you what, though, I got a friend who's got a car. He usually drops in sometime a little later in the morning to play checkers. If you'd like to wait around, I reckon he might be willing to drive you where you want to go.”
Lylah flashed him a dazzling smile, nodded, and said, “I'll go get something to eat. Then I'll come back and check with you later.” She turned and left the station, walking slowly, tracing her way along the dimly remembered streets of Fort Smith, Arkansas. A soft smile played on her lips at the thought of how enormous this small Arkansas town had appeared to her during her youth. Now it seemed that it had shrunk to the size of a miniature village. The Grand Hotel on Oak Street with its majestic height of six stories had seemed to her a mammoth structure when she had come as a child of five to see the rodeo parade. But after the skyscrapers of New York and Chicago, the Grand now had for her the appearance of a small and pathetic warehouse. As she wandered the old streets, she thought,
Time does that to things, I guess. Everything changesâ¦and most everything loses something. But I wouldn't go back to those days.
A whim seized her and turning impulsively, she made her way across town to the stellar tourist attraction of Fort Smithâa recreation of Judge Isaac Parker's gallows. During the late 1800s almost a hundred outlaws operating out of Indian Territory had been sentenced to execution by the famous “Hanging Judge.”
A family of four, obviously tourists, were standing in front of the structure, staring up open-mouthed at the six ropes with their neat hangman's nooses, stirring with a ghostly motion in the spring breeze. The oldest of the children, a whey-faced fat boy of ten, suddenly reached over and took his sister by the throat, crying, “I'm the Hanging Judgeâ¦and I'm gonna string you up!” The father, a slight man wearing a suit that would have been fitting in New York society, said sharply, “Wallace! Leave your sister alone!” Whereupon, the mother, a leather-faced woman with a sour expression, snapped, “You always take Lucy's side! Come along, Wallace!” And she stalked away, her head high in the air.
Amos teased me that way when I was seven.
Closing her eyes, Lylah allowed the strong memory of time past to flow over her spirit.
We'd come for the County Fair, and when we came to the gallows, Amos told me I was bad and would be hanged one day. I was scaredâbut didn't let him know itâand anyway, Owen whipped him for scaring me.
Standing in front of the gallows, she was transported back to those days. Pigeons cooed softly and reverently, and from the river echoed the muted blast of a tug shoving its way up the Arkansas River. The sweet smell of cottonseed oil from the plants came to her, reminding her how it had always been her favorite smell as a child.
Let's go to Fort Smith so Lylah can smell the cottonseed,
her father had always called out when they were ready to go to town.
She closed her eyes and suddenly a saying that her Uncle Pete had been fond of leapt into her mind:
You can't step in the same river twice.
Once she'd asked her father about it. “Why can't you step in the same river twice, Pa?”
Will Stuart had been whittling on a stick of red cedar, not carving anythingâjust making beautiful curls of the fragrant wood, letting them fall to the ground. Carefully and deftly as a surgeon, he'd completed his stroke with the razor-sharp Buck pocket knife, then looked at her and smiled. “You can go back to the same spot on a river, honey, but the water that was there last time you wentâ¦why, it's moved on.”
He'd snapped the knife shut, slipped it in the pocket of his faded overalls, then putting his hand on her head, he'd added almost sadly, “That old river over there won't stay still for nobody! Whut Pete meant was that the river keeps on goin'â¦and that's the way time is. Can't nobody stop it. And when you try to go back, it ain't there anymore. It's a brand new riverâand that one will be gone as soon as you turn your back.”
The memory disturbed her and when the mellow announcement from the clock in the tower of City Hall came echoing through the hot, still air, she started slightly. She opened her eyes and turned away from the gallows, thinking,
Hope I don't have nightmares about that blasted thing like I did the first time I saw it.
As she moved along the street, a sharp sense of dissatisfaction stabbed at her, triggered by the disappointment the sight of Fort Smith had brought. It was a small shabby town hidden away in the backwoods of Arkansas, but during her years of trooping as an actress, she had kept some sort of dream: When she tired of the theater, she could always go back and pick up the life she'd left as a young woman.
“I couldn't abide living in this burg for two days!” she muttered, and abruptly hurried to the area where Bethany Bible Institute was located. She had hated it fervently during her days as a student there, but years had dimmed that part for her, so that she had now come to regard that time as an edenic period. It had been the last time she'd known anything that resembled tranquility.
Turning down Laurel Avenue, she was pleased at the sight of the huge elms shading the broad street. Long fingers of amber light from the burning sun overhead passing through the leaves made a filigree pattern on the pavement. All the houses were set far back from the street, unlike those in New York and Philadelphia and other eastern cities. Each one had a broad porch with a swing, and in one of them an old woman with a crown of silver hair rocked with a rhythmic cadence that matched the movement of the earth itself.
Meandering down the broad streets that led to the school, Lylah passed an ice wagon driven by a huge black man. He wore a leather cloak to keep dry, and she stopped to watch as he drew up to a big white house with three gables. A covey of children fluttered down the walk, crying in shrill voices, “Ice, Dorsey! Ice!” The large man laughed, the fragmented sunlight gleaming on a gold tooth. He stepped to the ground and chipped pieces of ice for them. They walked back toward the house, sucking on the clear crystal pieces as the iceman shouldered a massive block of shimmering ice. It looked like a huge diamond glittering in the sunlight, Lylah thought as she watched him carry it into the house.
Slowly she moved along the shaded street, drinking in the peace of it. Her world was loud and hectic and frantic, and she had a sudden weariness, thinking of the years that had passed since she had walked this street as a seventeen-year-old girl.
And then she turned the corner and there it wasâBethany Bible Institute. Stopping abruptly, she was shocked at how the sight of it affected her, for it was like stepping into the past. Years and months and days had passed, but time had left little mark on the school. She noticed one new building, but the mossy brick structures, dressed neatly in ivy, that made up the two main edifices of the college squatted lazily in the mottled shade just as they had years ago. Staring at the classroom buildings, she thought of those days, of the students she had made friends with, and wondered if the faculty were still thereâ¦and if they still remembered the wayward girl, Lylah Stuart, who had run away from school to become an actress.
Slowly she turned to walk along the sidewalk toward the chapel that rose beneath huge oak trees. As she stepped up to the door, the thought came to her of how she had hated chapel with a passion! She had missed so many times that the president himself had had to call her in and warn her about it. She had thought about those chapels many times in her travels, sometimes lying awake in a third-rate rooming house, touring with a play that was slowly going broke. She had remembered those chapels and the men who had preached the long fiery sermons.
If I had to do it again, I might listen to them a little more closely.
Abruptly she shook her head and stepped inside. It was like stepping into the past. The chapel had not changed. The familiar smell of the old wood took her back. Looking up at the high ceiling, Lylah saw the stained glass windows portraying David killing Goliath, Daniel sitting among the group of lions as if they were big tabby cats, Joshua marching around the walls of Jericho. The past rolled over her, bringing a taste of sadness for days long gone. Slowly she walked down the aisle and sat down on the pew that had been her seat in those days.
The silence of the building surrounded her. She sat there thinking about her lifeâwhat it had been and what it had become. Then suddenly she became conscious of another presence. A tall man had come through the front door and was proceeding along the aisle. He came almost even with her before he lifted his eyes and then stopped abruptly.
“Oh!” he said. “I'm sorryâ¦I didn't know anyone was here.”
The light in the chapel was dim, but Lylah recognized him instantly. She smiled and said, “Donald? Don't you know me?”
Leaning forward, the tall man peered through his wire-rim glasses and his eyes went wide as recognition came. “Lylah!” he gasped. “Is it really you?”
Lylah stood to her feet and put out her hand. “Yes, it's really me. I suppose you couldn't have been more surprised to find the Kaiser himself in church here, could you, Donald?”
Donald Satterfield was a tall man in his mid-thirties with sandy hair and bright blue eyes behind the lenses of his glasses. He was homely enough, but Lylah thought he always had been. Still, there was that kindly look in his eyes she remembered fondly. As she stared at him, she also remembered how he had been in love with her seventeen years ago. She had known it then, but her sights had been fixed on much more than marrying a preacher and trying to satisfy the ladies of a congregation for the rest of her life.
“Lylah, what in the worldâ”
“I've just gotten off the train, Donald. We're having a family reunion and I'm on my way home. I'm waiting now for someone to come to the station and take me.”
Donald Satterfield straightened up. “Why, you don't have to do that,” he said eagerly. “I've got a car. I'll be glad to take you.”
“That would be wonderful! We could talk about old times, couldn't we?”
Satterfield nodded vigorously. “Come along. I want you to meet my wife and children. Then we'll go right on out to your place.”
He led her into the parsonage that had been the president's home and there introduced her to his wife, a plump, pretty woman of about twenty-eight, and his two boys, Henry and Charles, ages two and five. When he told his wife about Lylah's profession, Lylah did not miss the flash of apprehension that came into Mrs. Satterfield's eyes.
She's heard about me, I see
, Lylah thought.
And she's afraid to let her husband go with one of those loose actresses from the big city.
Perhaps that was the case, but Mrs. Satterfield, when her husband had explained the problem, was gracious. “Why, of course you must take Miss Stuart to her home, Donald.” She turned to Lylah then and asked, “Would you let me fix you something to eat before you go?”
“No, thank you. I ate on the train, and I'm anxious to get home. I haven't seen my family in five years.”
Donald bustled about, getting ready, and ten minutes later the two of them were headed out of Fort Smith in his Model T Ford. She waited in the seat until he cranked the engine. It fired, and he ran back to adjust the spark.
“It's got a few miles on it, but she runs fine,” he said. There was a proud note in his voice as he spoke of the car. “Didn't like that black paint, so I put the red paint on myself.”
“It's beautiful, Donald. I know you're very proud of it. Not everyone has a car.”
As the old Ford chugged out of Fort Smith, Donald shouted above the racket. “It must be exciting, being an actress. We read about you from time to time, and I always wished you'd come here to do one of your plays.”