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Simpson Creek, Texas, April 1868
I must be the most misnamed person in this whole town, maybe in the whole state of Texas, Faith Bennett thought, staring into the cool green water of Simpson Creek. Her parents had confidently given her that name, never guessing that by the time their daughter grew up, she would not believe in God.
It was a secret Faith shared with no one, not her parents, her neighbors and certainly not her friends in the Simpson Creek Spinsters' Club, of which she was a loyal member. She couldn't imagine what any of them would say if they knew. Her parents wouldn't know what to do about such a declaration if Faith ever made it. Her mother would worry and fret about her, and she didn't want that. Her friends in the Spinsters' Club wouldn't shun her, she thought. But they might not be so comfortable around her anymore, and they might wonder why she attended church every Sunday morning, just as they did.
A logical person would question why she enjoyed being in church. Attending church on Sunday mornings was just what one did in this small hill-country town, she mused, and everywhere else in Texas. Faith found tradition comfortingsinging the familiar hymns and listening to Reverend Chadwick preach. Even though she'd long since stopped believing in the God the preacher spoke about, she always found something uplifting in the sermons, which reinforced her belief in goodness and treating her fellow man with fairness and love.
So she continued to come here each Sunday morning, yet kept her secrether name was Faith, but she didn't have any.
She only hoped that if and when she made a matchthrough the Spinsters' Club or however else it came aboutthe man she came to love would not mind that she was not a woman of faith. Somewhere there had to be a man who felt like she did, or if he was religious, wouldn't mind that she wasn't. The fact that she was a good, honest person was the most important thing, wasn't it?
It was probably time she joined her parents inside the sanctuary a few yards away.
"Miss Faith?" someone said behind her, and she whirled around, shading her eyes against the sunlight that filtered through the trees.
It was Gil Chadwick, the son of the preacher, and a fresh-from-seminary minister himself. Gil was staying with his father and sharing in his pastoral duties in preparation for being called to a church of his own soon.
"Good morning, Reverend Gil," she said, smiling up at him. He had a scholarly looking face, and wore spectacles when he read, but was saved from being too austere by a mischievous cowlick that often popped up at the back of his head despite his attempts to tame it. Any young lady, herself included, would be proud to be seen with the handsome unmarried preacher. But she was not a suitable match for a man of the cloth.
He pushed back a stray lock of chestnut-brown hair that had fallen low over his brow. "I'm glad I saw you coming down to the creek. I hope I'm not intruding on your prayers," he said.
Faith squelched the urge to laugh at the irony. "N-no, you weren't." She'd been thinking, certainly, but not praying. Instead of greeting her fellow worshipers before the worship service started, she'd felt the need for some quiet reflection. "It's just so hot inside this morning, even with this," she said, lifting the ivory-handled fan she had brought with her, "I thought I'd spend a few moments in the shade first. Just looking at the water makes me feel cooler."
"It is very warm for late April," he agreed, running a finger beneath his stiff shirt collar. "Why, it's so hot a farmer told me this morning his hens are laying hard-boiled eggs." Humor twinkled in his hazel eyes.
She chuckled politely at the old joke, realizing he must feel the heat in his black frock coat and long-sleeved shirt almost as much as ladies did in their heavy layers of petticoats.
A silence broken only by the splash of some fish in the creek below stretched between them. She waited, but he seemed content just to gaze at her.
She heard the first few notes of "Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus" waft toward them from an open window in the church. "Was there was there something you wanted to say to me?" she prompted.
He blinked. "Oh, yes, of course, Miss Faith. I was merely wondering if" He took a deep breath, as if gathering himself for a great leap, and went on, "If you might like to join me after church for dinner at the hotel."
She stared at him. She could not say his asking her out was a total surprise. She'd thought he had his eye on her for a while now. His invitation was both the fulfillment of a dream and the one thing she must not agree to, and she wanted to accept almost more than she wanted her next breath. But having dinner with him today would be the first step in a courtship, and for Gil's sake, she must not begin something she could not rightly continue.
The congregation began to sing, and she glanced once more toward the church. There wasn't time to think of a way to decline his offer in a way that wouldn't hurt his feelings.
"Perhaps we could discuss it more after church, Reverend Gil?" she asked. "We really should join the others inside." It would be harder after the service to get a private moment with himin the short time he'd been in town, he was already very popular with the congregation. Hopefully during the sermon, she could think of an acceptable excuse to decline Gil's wonderful invitation.
Or find a way to justify accepting it, a rebellious voice within her insisted.
He sighed, darting a glance back over his shoulder at the church. "You're right, of course, Miss Faith," he said in that pleasant deep voice of his that curled so ap-pealingly around her heart. "All right, then, we'll talk after church. I'll meet you under that old gnarly live oak in the back of the churchyard."
Faith nodded as she took his proffered arm, savoring his nearness. They really should go in separately, so no one got any mistaken ideas that the two of them were courting. But Gil's invitation suggested he wouldn't mind at all if it looked that way, and somehow she couldn't bear to let go of his arm.
Faith felt every eye on them as she let him escort her down the aisle between the rows of pews. She could almost hear the speculative hum rising in the brains of those who liked to be in the know.
Her father and mother looked up from their hymn-book and beamed delightedly at Gil as he stopped with Faith by the pew they were occupying. He acknowledged them with a smile as Faith settled herself next to her mother, then he strode on toward the front of the church.
Her mother cast a sidelong glance at her. Faith knew she was full of questions, but fortunately, she could not ask them now. Safe from parental curiosity for the present, Faith opened her mouth to sing the next hymn along with the rest of the congregation.
After they finished singing, Gil rose and strode toward the pulpit. "Good morning, congregation," he said, taking hold of the pulpit with both hands and grinning as they returned his greeting. "In just a moment Papa will bring us the message, but I wanted to remind you of next Saturday's weddingour first in our new church building. Isn't that exciting?"
A chorus of murmured agreement arose from the congregation, and Faith knew everyone was remembering the smoldering ruin of the old church, burned to the ground by a band of evil men last summer. The town had worked diligently to rebuild it, and it had been completed just before Thanksgiving.
"Miss Caroline Wallace and her fiance, Jack Collier, have asked me to remind everyone the whole town is invited," Gil went on. "The ceremony begins at one o'clock, and the reception afterward will take place in the church social hall. It sounds like a wonderful, blessed time will be had by all, so let's all plan to attend and support the new couple as they begin a life together."
Caroline and Jack, sitting on the opposite side of the aisle from Faith with Jack's twin daughters, waved at the folks around them, radiating happiness.
What a good, generous man Gil Chadwick is, Faith thought, as he returned to the front pew and his father took his place at the pulpit. Gil seemed genuinely happy for the engaged couple, yet a good many people in Simpson Creek knew that not too long ago, Gil would have preferred to announce his own upcoming wedding with Caroline. It was apparent he'd been taken with Caroline when he'd first arrived in Simpson Creek, but had unselfishly kept her company only as a friend until Jack realized he'd better get off the fence and propose to Caroline or risk losing her.
Faith knew some of the other members of the Spinsters' Club were interested in capturing the interest of the bachelor preacher before he was called to another town and left Simpson Creek. Gil wouldn't be single for any longer than he wanted to be.
"Our text comes from 'So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God,'" Reverend Chad-wick said.
He looked a little pale, Faith thought, and thinner than he had been. As he'd moved to the pulpit, his steps had been halting. Perhaps, like some elderly folks, he didn't sleep well, or suffered from some ailment.
His son had taken over the pastoral calls to outlying ranches that Reverend Chadwick had once made, but once Gil was pastoring his own church, the old preacher's congregation would have to realize they would have to come visit him, rather than the other way around. No doubt some woman of mature years would have to be found to keep house for the old preacher, for his wife had been dead for a score of years or more.
Reverend Chadwick raked a hand absently through his thinning, snowy-white hair. "H-hearing by the w-word of God," the preacher repeated. "What d-does that mean, cong-congregation?"
Was she imagining it or was Reverend Chadwick having trouble speaking? His words suddenly sounded slurred, thick. He'd always been the most eloquent of men, his delivery smooth and polished.
Faith saw she was not alone in noticing something was wrong. Dr. Walker, sitting at the other end of the same pew, leaned forward, an expression of concern furrowing his features. Beside him, his wife, Sarah, bit her lip worriedly.
"Obviously it means spending time r-reading the BiBi" He stopped, and looked around in bewilderment, as if he could not find the familiar word. He looked to Gil as if entreating his help. His mouth seemed to droop on one side.
"Papa?" Faith heard Gil ask. Tentatively, he rose and started forward.
Reverend Chadwick put out a hand as if assuring his son that he was all right. And then he collapsed.
Behind Faith, someone shrieked in alarm.
She watched, horror-struck, as Gil reached his father first, followed close behind by Dr. Walker. With the assistance of the doctor, Gil gently turned his father onto his back and knelt so that Reverend Chadwick's head could be elevated in his lap. Dr. Walker loosened the preacher's shirt collar.
Faith could see that the preacher's face was ashen, his eyes closed. She could hear him breathing, but his respirations sounded rattley and snoring.
People began to leave their pews. An anxious murmuring arose. She heard her father praying aloud, asking the Lord to save the old preacher.
"I think he's had an apoplexy," Faith heard Dr. Walker say to Gil. "We'll need to carry him to my office."
Assisted by Sheriff Bishop, Gil lifted his father from where he'd been lying by the pulpit. The old man felt so light, as if a puff of wind could blow him away. Lord, please save Papa. Please don't take him yet
It wasn't far to the doctor's office. Dr. Walker paced alongside Gil and Bishop, peppering Gil with questionshad his father complained of a headache? Dizziness? Unusual fatigue? Numbness or tingling of his limbs? Pain in his chest? To all of these, Gil shook his head. His father had been his usual cheerful self before church, and had eaten a good breakfast.
A number of people followed them, and some of these lingered in the waiting room with him. He was vaguely aware of Faith sitting in the midst of them, and he remembered with a pang the dinner he had hoped to have with her. But he couldn't think of her now, nor of the whispered prayers and conversations around him. Instead, he besieged Heaven with silent pleas of his own. And when he could think of no other way to ask that his father be spared, he added, Lord, help me to be willing to accept Your will, if You decide to take him Home.
"Is my father still with us?" Gil asked, an endless time later, when Nolan Walker emerged from his examination room. Walker was followed by his wife, Sarah, who often helped him with his patients. Gil looked for clues to what Walker would say. Had his father gone to be with God, leaving only the shell of his body behind?
Nolan Walker nodded. "He's breathing, but as to whether he will live " He shrugged. "I'm sorry, but I honestly don't know, Gil. It does seem to be an apoplectic attack, as I thought in church. It's in God's hands now, and the next few hours will be critical. If he lives, he may suffer paralysis and be unable to speak. I'll keep him here for now and watch him closely. His heartbeat is strong, and his breathing is regular at least. Perhaps by morning we'll know more."
"Is he is he awake? May I see him?"
"He's still unconscious, but of course you may see him," Walker said. "Stay as long as you like."
Because it may be the last time you spend with him, Gil knew Walker was thinking.
Gil followed the doctor into his examination room on legs that felt wobbly as a newborn calf's.
Faith couldn't have said why she'd accompanied the pillars of the town, Mayor Gilmore; Mrs. Detwiler, the town matriarch; Mr. Avery, the bank president; and Mr. Wallace, the postmaster as they followed Gil and Sheriff Bishop carrying the old preacher to the doctor's officeshe only knew she had to be there for Gil's sake, even though she could not bow her head and join the others in praying for the stricken preacher. She could not have gone home and merely hoped for the best.
And now she didn't know why she remained. It wasn't likely Gil would be leaving his father's side soon. The others had departed, asking Faith to convey their best wishes to Gil.
A few moments later, Dr. Walker returned to the waiting room. "I'm glad you are still here, Miss Faith," he said in his down-east Maine accent. "I need to ask you a favor."
She blinked. "Whatever I can do, Doctor."