Deep ruts gouged the prairie ground from the Conestogas that passed before him. Pastor Jacob O’Reilly swung from side to side in rhythm with his covered wagon as he guided his mares around the grooves. The scent of sweet-smelling prairie grass ravaged his nostrils while his eyes followed a tumbleweed scrambling ahead, stirring the dirt into a small cloud. Jake was unfamiliar with this terrain, but he knew that if he stayed on the westward trail, it would lead him to a settlement somewhere. He held his hand up to his sweaty forehead, shielding the bright sun. On the horizon, he thought he could make out shapes. “Keep going, ol’ girls,” he urged the two horses with a light snap of the reins, “won’t be too long now.”
Jake was hot and thirsty by the time he reached the settlement. The sweat from his brow trickled down his road-grimed face. He wiped his forehead with his kerchief, and scanned his surroundings.
“Hey, you there,” a man called from the boardwalk. He pointed a finger at Jake. “You, you’re the one,” he bellowed. “You killed my wife.” He stomped across the road, toward him.
Jake stopped the wagon for fear this man might shoot him if he ran. He chose to remain quiet in the face of his accuser.
“You’re a fraud,” the man screamed. “You call yourself a healer?” He stepped up on the spoke of the wheel, grabbed Jake by the shirt, pulled him off the wagon, and slammed him to the ground. “You should be dead.” He spat in Jake’s face, and kicked his ribs with a vengeance.
Two men raced over and knocked his accuser to the ground. “What do you think you’re doing?” Jake heard one of them ask. He looked up and noticed they were addressing the man who attacked him. “This is a man of the cloth, you fool,” one of them barked. “Can’t you see his collar?”
He helped Jake to his feet. “You all right, mister?” he asked while he brushed the dust from Jake’s back and shoulders.
“Sure, I’m good,” Jake grunted. He felt a sharp stab in his side and collapsed to the ground, coughing and splattering blood from his lips.
“Get this man a doctor,” yelled one of the rescuers.
Two men grabbed an arm each and lifted Jake to his feet, supporting him between them. “You all right?” one of them asked. “We’re goin’ to get you to the doc’s house.”
A white light exploded in Jake’s brain as he struggled to speak, and he fell senseless.
Jake strained to open his eyes. He could just make out the silhouettes of two people standing in a doorway.
“Ya think he’ll be all right, Doc?” Jake overheard the taller of the two men ask. “He’s bin out for three days.”
“He’ll be fine as long as he stays here and rests.” Jake figured this man to be the doctor. “The lung puncture didn’t kill him, but I’m sure if those fellas didn’t stop that person you put away, he’d be dead for sure.”
“Has he said anything yet?” asked the taller man.
“Nope, just a bunch of ramblings about healing, or something.”
“Hmmm, well, let me know when he comes around.”
Unable to stay awake any longer, Jake fell back asleep.
He didn’t know what day it was when he regained awareness. The sun shone bright in the solitary window, making him squint to cut the glare. As his eyes focused, he thought he saw a shadow moving outside the door. “Hey, you.” He rolled on his side, and pushed himself up on one elbow. “Hey, mister,” he called. Not getting a response, Jake eased himself down on the bed and sighed.
He placed his hands over his ribs, and recited the healing prayer he had become accustomed to using over the last few months. He felt nothing except the pain in his side. What good is this gift if I can’t use it on myself? he thought. I could have been killed, and then what good would I bring the people?
Thoughts continued to roll around in his brain until he was interrupted by a knocking on the wall.
“You’re awake. I’m Dr. Baron,” a man announced as he stepped into the room. “How are you feeling?”
“Okay, I guess,” Jake answered. “How long have I been here?”
“Not long enough, I figure,” Dr. Baron replied. “You’ll have to lie here for a couple more days. Those ribs were pretty beat up, my friend.”
“Well, I am blessed to have you fix me up, Doc.” Jake rolled to face the doctor. “May I call you Doc?”
“I suppose. That’s what everyone else calls me around here. The word in town is, you’re a healing man.” Doc furrowed his brow. “I don’t reckon the Lord has ever healed anyone around here, c’ept through me and medicine.” The wooden floor creaked under his feet as he shifted from one leg to the other. “What do they call you besides a healing man?”
He extended his hand toward the doc. “Pastor Jacob O’Reilly, but you can call me Jake.” He withdrew his unshaken hand, puzzled.
“I’ll let the sheriff know you’re awake.” Doc tipped his head in a nod, and left the room.
Jake sat back on the pillow, and tilted his face to the window. He stared at the crimson sky, wondering if God had forsaken him. Why did that man accuse him of murdering his wife? he pondered. Did he mistake him for someone else? He felt frustrated by questions that only his attacker could answer. He was still lost in his thoughts when Doc and the tall man he recognized from the other day entered his room.
“This is Sheriff Marlow.” Doc gestured toward the sheriff. “He needs to ask you some questions.” Doc and the sheriff exchanged a glance, then Doc tipped his head and exited the room.
The sheriff stepped forward and leaned in to shake his hand. Jake recoiled. He found it hard to breathe as the pungent odor of pipe tobacco filled his nostrils. He waved his hand over his nose, coughing, in an attempt to clear the scent faster. When he was able to inhale, Jake extended his hand to the sheriff. “Sorry, sir. Couldn’t breathe there for a minute,” Jake stammered in a hoarse whisper.
Sheriff Marlow shook his hand, and sat down on the wooden chair beside the bed. “So, Mr. O’Reilly, is it?” His heavy frame leaned back in the chair, and he folded his arms.
“Yes, sir, just call me Jake.”
“How’s the ribs? You took quite a beating.”
Jake patted the cloth wrap around his rib cage. “They’re getting better. I’ll be up and about in no time.” He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, and sat up using his arms to steady himself. “There, that feels better.” Jake inhaled in a deep breath. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Something’s bugging me about the doc.”
“What about Doc?”
“I think I offended him.”
“He wouldn’t shake my hand when I offered it to him.”
“Doc don’t shake nobody’s hand. He thinks shaking hands is what makes folks ill.”
Jake felt relieved. “He may be right.”
“Now, let’s get to the point. The fella I have locked up for puttin’ the boots to you says you killed his woman.” He tilted forward and eyed Jake intently. “Is this so?”
“No, I don’t think so. I mean, I don’t know.” Jake was dumbfounded by the question, and struggled to find an answer. His mind couldn’t wrap around the notion that he might be responsible for the death of anyone, let alone that man’s wife. No, I’m a healing man, not a murderer, he thought. He regained his composure, and met the intense gaze of the sheriff. “I am sure I did not kill that man’s wife. By the good graces of the Lord, I have been blessed with the gift to heal the sick, not kill them.”
“He’s unbending in his accusation. Says he’s positive it was you who supposedly healed his woman of the fever. Says she drowned in her own blood during the night. Claims it was running out of her like a river.” He sat back and tempered his gaze. “Sounds a bit far-fetched to me, but unless he’s a crazy man, he seems earnest enough.”
Jake mulled the sheriff’s words over in his mind. He tried to place this woman or the man who attacked him, but his memory failed him. He had healed so many people and in so many places. It didn’t make any sense to him. How could he have healed this woman of a fever and be responsible for her bleeding out during the night? “Surely she must have had something else wrong with her.”
“That’s all possible, but when you claim to heal people, don’t you heal everything?” Sheriff asked with a smirk.
“Well, yes, I guess I do. At least I’m supposed to, I think.” Jake shifted on the bed. Along with the confusion in his mind, he had a sudden urge to pee. “Would you excuse me for a minute or two,” Jake asked. “I need to use the pot.”
“Sure enough,” the sheriff answered as he stood up. “Now that you mention it, that’s not a bad idea.”
Jake was thankful for the few minutes alone with his thoughts. He felt he needed to meet with the man who accused him and get more information. A part of him hoped he wasn’t the preacher that man was looking for. He finished relieving himself, and braced his ribs with one arm while he tucked the pot under the bedside table. He had just sat back down on the bed when the sheriff returned.
“Sounds like troubles brewing up the street.” The sheriff looked at his timepiece and shoved it back in his pocket. “I expect I’ll keep that fella locked up in my jail till we figure this out. That way, he won’t be botherin’ you.”
“Thank you,” Jake replied. Before he could say another word, the sheriff left. He lay back down on the bed, and stared up at the wooden ceiling. He focused on a spider busily spinning its web, and let his mind drift off into prayer. A few minutes later, he arose from the bed and knelt on the frayed mat in the center of the room, facing the window. The full moon peeked out from behind its dark blanket, illuminating the room in an eerie glow. Jake clasped his hands together tight, squeezed his eyes shut, turned his face upward, and began pleading to the faceless God he had come to love.
“May the Christian Lord guide my hand against the darkness of evil that has befallen me.” He bent his head to his knees, weeping.
“You’re such a dedicated and faithful child,” said a voice.
Startled, Jake sat up. “Who said that?” He stared in the direction of the sound, but could see nothing in the dimly lit room. “Who are you and why do you hide?” He listened intently for any sound of movement, but his ears failed him.
“Believing is not seeing, and seeing is not believing,” said the voice, sounding amused.
“Why do you speak to me in such riddles? Where are you?” Jake felt frightened. “Show yourself,” he shouted.
“Why do you speak to the one you claim to love with such anger,” the voice roared. “Now, stand and face the one who commands you.”
Jake’s heart and mind raced. He no longer felt annoyed, just confused and afraid. “Forgive this stupid man for not knowing who is addressing him.” He stood up and was surprised at the ease of standing. He felt no pain. “How can I face you when I cannot see you?”
“You deny knowing the one who granted you such a precious gift?”
A sense of awareness entered Jake’s mind as he realized who he was speaking to. He covered his face with his hands, and fell to his knees. “Lord. Oh, my Christian Lord, forgive me,” he pleaded. “Please forgive this vile man for not recognizing his Holiness. I am ashamed.”
“Rise up, my son, and face me,” the Lord commanded. “In thy disgrace, I have decided to set you a task to test your loyalty. You are one of my favored among men as I so graciously granted you my gift to lay hands on those who suffer and rid them of their ailments. If you fail me in this task, I will no longer allow you to continue on this chosen path, but return you to the place whence you came.”
Jake removed his hands from his face and opened his eyes. Before him stood a magnificent light. He could just make out the figure of a man, ghostlike, standing in the center. “Am I dead?” He could no longer see the room.
“No, my son. You are asleep and standing in my presence.”
“What does my Lord ask of this humble servant?” Jake bowed his head.
“It is a commission that is not for the faint of heart, but for a strong man in the love of his Lord.”
“Thy will be done. What do you ask of me?”
“You must go to the man who brought evil upon you and smite him down. He has brought shame to my house.”
Jake lifted his head and stared into the light, unsure of what he just heard.
“You mean take his life?” he stammered.
“Go now and do my will,” the Lord said.
“I cannot do this. I cannot!” he pleaded.
“Go now and do my will.” The sound of the Lord’s voice reverberated through the room.
“I cannot,” he gasped as he awoke and sat straight up in bed.
He didn’t know the time, but the room was bathed in light. He looked out the window where he could see the moon’s face, full and round. He leaned over, and felt the top of the bedside table for the box of matches. He sat up, lifted the globe off the oil lamp, struck the match, and lit the wick. He eased the glass back down, turned the wheel, and adjusted the fire before black smoke could escape into the room. Something sparkled in the light and caught his eye. A jeweled dagger lay ominously on the table beside the lamp. Jake stared at it in disbelief. “It can’t be,” he whispered. “It was only a dream.”
His mind wandered back to the time when he realized he had been given the gift of healing. It also came to him in a dream, he thought. It was so real then that he didn’t consider it a dream. But now this dagger lay in front of him, with its jewels exhibiting a spectacular display of color on the walls. He picked it up, and ran his fingers over the piercing tip of the blade. “I cannot do this,” he wailed.
“Go and do my will!” a voice in his mind roared.
“I cannot do this! How can you ask me to take a life?” Jake questioned the voice in his head. A knifelike pain ripped through his brain. He dropped the weapon, grabbed his head, and rocked until the agony subsided.
“Go now and do my will,” the familiar voice barked.
Jake grabbed his head again as it filled with the affliction, more excruciating than the last. “Please make it stop,” he pleaded. “I’ll do what you ask, just make it stop,” he cried. The anguish ceased. Jake shook his head with relief and stood up. He bent over, picked up the dagger, and fetched his clothes from the hook on the far wall. He dared not think to refuse for fear the pain would return. He dressed and slid the blade into his belt. He tiptoed from the room to the front door, careful not to wake the doc, whom he suspected was asleep behind the closed door on the right.
He stepped outside into the heavy damp air and took a deep breath, slowly closing the screen door behind him. As he tried to find a direction through the dense fog that filled the street, he saw the faint shapes of buildings to the west and complete darkness to the east. He struggled with not thinking about the task at hand as he walked heavy-footed toward the sound of voices.
He guessed they were from the local watering hole. He thought about asking them where the jail was, and then changed his mind because he didn’t want anyone to know the purpose of his going there. He continued to walk toward the sound. Then he noticed the fog clearing on the left just long enough to make out the large sign that read, Sheriff’s Office. “There it is,” he muttered as he took a deep breath. His heart quickened as he approached the door. He pressed forward, fighting the impulse to turn and run.
He opened the door and stepped inside. The man who had attacked him lay on a cot inside the barred room. Jake spotted the keys hanging on a hook behind the empty chair and cluttered desk. His hand shook as he lifted them from the wall. He grabbed them quickly, and cupped them in his hand so they didn’t rattle. He approached the door and paused. Jake picked out the only key that looked like it might fit. He held his breath as the man stirred, rolled over, and seemed to return to sleep. His trembling hand reached out to put the key in the lock, and turned it with a loud click. His heart pounded as he opened the door, allowing a squeaky, grinding noise to escape into the air. The man from the cot jumped up, turned to face Jake, and backed up against the wall. Jake pulled the dagger from his belt, and held it high as he stepped forward.
“Forgive me,” he cried as he lunged, missed his target, and sunk the dagger into the man’s leg.
The man jumped, rolled, and crouched in the corner. “Why? Why are you doing this?” he cried. Blood oozed from his fingers as he held his wound.
“I must.” Jake moved toward him again, determined to make this the lethal blow.
The man’s hands flew up over his head. “Stop,” he yelled. “It’s not just my wife. All the people you touched are dead.”
Jake stopped, holding the weapon inches from the man’s head. “What do you mean, all dead?” He withdrew the blade a bit. “What are you talking about?”
“All those people you healed, including my wife, bled out during the night,” the man pleaded.
Confusion filled Jake’s mind. “What?” he gasped.
“It’s true. I don’t know what kinda healing you do, mister, but they’re all dead.”
Jake dropped the dagger, and it fell to the floor with a clatter. He cupped his face and fell to his knees. “What have I done? Oh my Lord, what have I done?” He raised his head and gazed at the man with tear-filled eyes. “I didn’t know. Can you ever forgive me?”
“Sure, I’ll forgive you,” the man bellowed as he grabbed the weapon from the floor and plunged it deep into Jake’s chest. “You can go to hell.”
Jake grunted and fell on one elbow, eying his attacker. “I deserve hell,” he whispered as his mouth filled with blood. “But so do you.” He reached out, grabbed the man’s leg, and recited the healing prayer.
“Bravo.” The figure of the apparition Jake thought was his lord stood over him, clapping.
“Even in your dying breath you bring me another soul. I am touched.” He turned to the trembling man Jake had just healed, laughing. “And you’ll be joining your wife soon.”
The figure turned back to Jake. “Seems you have a slight problem, my son,” he taunted.
“Don’t call me son,” Jake sputtered.
“I can’t let all your excellent work go unrewarded. I’ll make you a deal.”
“I don’t want any deals from you.”
Chuckling, he knelt down beside Jake. “You agree to bring me more souls, and I’ll give you your life. It’s simple.”
“Go to hell,” Jake spat.
“Gladly. See you shortly.” He stood up and vanished.
Jake regarded the man who stabbed him with an apologetic look. “Can you ever forgive me?”
The last thing Jake saw was the devil coming to collect his soul through a fresh wad of spit that had hit his face.
When the sheriff returned in the morning, he saw both men lying on the cell floor; Jake with the dagger through his heart, and the prisoner surrounded by his own blood, looking like it had poured from his body like a river.