11:27 p.m., Tuesday, November 22, 1881.
After all these years I can still remember the exact day and time I boarded the train heading west from Topeka. The night was as black as the coal the Fireman was stoking in the front-end locomotive. As the water converted to steam, sparks spewed out of the smokestack like fuzzy stars, smudged by the invisible smoke that carried them upward into the dark, foreboding sky.
I put my travel bag on the seat next to mine and when the Conductor punched my ticket I asked him to wake me before the train reached my stop in Newton.
Tired as I was, the clacking, creaking and swaying of the train kept me awake until Burlingame, where four men climbed into the car. They entered together but sat in four different places. The youngest, who looked to be around sixteen years old, chose to sit in the seat facing mine.
I greeted him with a nod and he returned the greeting with an almost imperceptible sideways twitch. His blank, unfocused eyes were as wide open as the prairie we were crossing, and his face, lit by a dim kerosene lamp and framed by a red bandana around his neck, was sallow and pale. The cloth bag he held on his lap looked as if it was empty.
After several minutes of silence, curiosity got the best of me.
"Where you headed?" I asked.
"Nowhere, I guess," he stammered. "Somewhere . . . I don't know . . .
His voice drifted off and the silence returned.
"Sounds like you're either traveling on a real cheap ticket or a real expensive one," I offered with a smile.
If my comment was meant to be bait, the fish forgot to bite at it. So, I tried again.
This time I reached out my hand and said, "I'm Robert . . . Robert Graves."
The boy opened his mouth to reply but hesitated, as if rethinking how he should answer.
After a time, he swallowed, placed his cold, sweaty, limp hand in mine and croaked out the words, "James . . . James Wheeler."
For the first time, his eyes locked on mine.
"And you?" he asked. "Where are you going?"
He had taken the bait and it was time to set the hook.
"Newton," I said. "And then a fair ride north to Menno."
For the first time the boy seemed to actually be interested in hearing my answer.
"I'm a preacher," I said, hoping the revelation wouldn't bring the conversation to an abrupt end. "A circuit rider of the Methodist persuasion. Six congregations . . . including my wife and five children."
There was silence again.
"My mother died and I just buried her in Topeka," I added as an afterthought.
Over the years I've found that most folks don't want to talk to preachers. Maybe they feel nervous because they're guilty of something and don't want to be reminded of it. Maybe they're just put off by religion in general or maybe they're afraid I'm going to launch into a sermon and spoil the rest of their trip.
James, on the other hand—or whatever his real name was—seemed eager to continue the conversation.
"So, Preacher . . . " he whispered as if unsure what to call me. " uh . . . I mean, Reverend Graves . . . can I ask you a question?"
I nodded and he began talking.
"Can a person hang for not doing something?"
"I'm not sure what you mean," I said. "If you're asking if innocent men are ever hanged then I suppose the answer would have to be, 'Yes.'"
"No," he said, "I don't mean that. I mean, can a man be guilty even if he didn't do anything?"
"Well," I said, "there is something called the sin of omission, which is when someone should have done something right and good, but didn't."
"You mean like someone falls down a well and you know it but you leave him there and don't pull him out?"
"Yes," I said, wondering if he was confessing to something that had actually happened to him. "That would be a good example of a sin of omission."
There was another long pause as the train screeched, squealed, stopped, and then clacked, clanged, and swayed its way through Emporia.
"No," he said at last. "Not that, either."
I sat and waited until he was ready to start talking again.
We were half-way to Florence by the time he picked up where he had left off.
He leaned forward as far as he could without falling out of his seat.
"It's like this," he said. "What if someone was going to do something bad . . . and they planned to do it and they were drunk but they agreed to do it and were willing to do it . . . "
"But," I cut in, "they didn't do it? Is that it?"
The boy nodded and stared at me as if his life depended on my answer.
"Well," I replied, after chewing on the question for a bit. "Jesus said that thinking about doing a bad thing was just as much of a sin as actually doing it."
As I spoke, the boy's head sagged and his eyes drifted off into another blank stare.
"But," I quickly added, "I don't think that Jesus meant that there wasn't a difference between the two. Both are sins, but doing the bad thing is always a more serious sin than not doing it."
The boy's head lifted a bit and his eyes locked back on mine.
"The Bible says that?" he asked as if hope had been rekindled somewhere deep in his soul.
"Not straight out," I said, "but it makes sense to think of it that way. After all, doing the deed causes harm that must be atoned. But the thought alone, if one repents of it, can be forgiven."
"But that's the Bible, right? What about the law? God might not hang me but a judge or a mob might do it . . . right?"
I could see sweat beading up on his forehead.
The Conductor's voice interrupted my answer.
"Florence, Kansas," he bellowed. "Next stop, Florence, Kansas."
As the train clattered to a stop, the boy grasped my arm with a strength and urgency that startled me.
"Preacher," he said with tears forming in his eyes, "you've got to get off the train . . . now . . . here . . . in Florence . . . now!"
When I hesitated, he stood, pulled me out of my seat and began to drag me off the train. Not knowing what to do, I grabbed my bag and followed him through the nearest door and onto the station platform.
"Run!" he ordered. "Follow me."
Numb with confusion, I ran and followed him out of the station, across an empty street, and into the cold, dark night.
After several minutes we stopped and stood, gasping for breath, puffing steam in the stillness of the pre-dawn chill.
"Whatever you do," he wheezed, "do not get back on that train! Promise me you won't get back on that train?"
He stood like a spectral shadow with his eyes burning like two pieces of coal in the darkness.
To my surprise I heard myself answer, "Yes, I promise . . . "
He was gone before I could ask him, "Why?"
As I stepped forward, I stumbled over his cloth bag.
Later, after finding a room over a late-night saloon, I opened the bag and found a loaded Colt .45 and a scrap of paper with the words, "Stay where you are. This is a stickup. Put your money, jewelry and other valuables in the bag and no one will get hurt."
As it turned out, the train wasn't robbed that night; probably because the rest of the gang got cold feet after the boy pulled me off the train and left them behind.
Today, fifteen years later, I received an unsigned letter in the mail addressed to "The Reverend Robert Graves."
"Mr. Preacher," it began. "You don't know me, but fifteen years ago on a train you saved my life. It has taken me a long time to track you down. I just want to say, 'Thank you.' I am a farmer, now. In Missouri. With a wife and three children, two boys and a girl. The oldest boy is named Robert."
There was no return address.