One might have wagered a pretty pile of gold that Lyle Plagg would sooner wind up standing on the platform of a gallows on this fine Sunday afternoon than lining up to be baptized.
Even his mother back in Tuscaloosa would have taken that bet. And lost. Because right now, there he was, shirtless, wading through the shallow water of Mobile Bay to where the good Reverend Clancy Bent stood waiting.
The reverend was not alone by far, surrounded as he was by the gathered parishioners of the Baldwin County First Baptist Church. Each one of them just a quick splash from salvation. Applauding the as-of-yet sinners was a gowned group with wet hair and warm hearts. Piles of clothes littered the wood planks that led to water's edge. None present were too concerned with their belongings being stolen, after all, this was Sunday service. Besides that, their pockets had been lightened quite a bit, after much fervent encouragement from the man of God. Reverend Bent was keeping a steady eye on his overstuffed satchel of money, and an equally close eye on the pleasant aesthetics of Mr. Lowry's fine young wife.
Now, nearly all eyes were on Lyle Plagg; he was quite a sight. Skin as brown as his breeches, which were riding low and exposing a well-defined lower torso and the points of his hips. Rumor was he'd notched his belt with so many kills he'd cut entirely through it. Now, here he was, sans belt, the view giving more than a few penitent parishioners further thoughts to confess.
The still unbaptized decided their salvation could wait a mite longer and moved aside to let the rogue gunman to the front of the line. "Just like Noah parting the great waters," he said. Clancy opened his mouth to correct the outlaw and thought better of it.
Plagg was a lanky son of a Best not say it on Sunday, towering over the silver-haired Baptist. He removed his black hat with a flourish.
A gasp came unbidden from the gathered crowd. It was common knowledge that Lyle Plagg carried an "eight-gallon cannon under a ten-gallon hat." But the big Colt six-shooter didn't make an appearance. Instead, the man pulled out a thick heap of bank notes. Now a gasp came from the reverend.
"What brings you here today, son?" Clancy Bent said, looking hungry, and not for the salt pork sandwiches in the basket up on the riverbank.
"Bent, is it?" Lyle Plagg answered the question with one of his own. "'As the twig is bent, so grows the tree!' Which apostle said that?"
"Franklin," came the dry answer. Reverend Bent liked to claim that he had the patience of Job, but it often wore as thin as his veneer of piety. The outlaw Lyle Plagg was trying to steal the show, and First Baptist's finest had worked hard to reach this point. He'd poured sweat and spirit into his rousing "Lighthouse" sermon, and he'd done it right in front of the brand-new lighthouse. It was a stroke of genius, he thought to himself. It had certainly been persuasive; the newly enlightened had been compelled to open up their hearts and their pocketbooks. Now Clancy Bent just wanted to close the deal and go home. Or, perhaps, to Lowry's.
"I have questions, Bent," Plagg announced. He didn't call anyone Father that wasn't his father. His hand rubbed the black scruff on his chin thoughtfully, and the buckle-shaped scar on his cheek.
The reverend exhaled pure exasperation, looking heavenward as if for strength. "I'll do my best to answer your question."
"Questions," repeated Plagg, digging in his heels. "And, I'd prefer that the Good Book answer me. I can trust what it says."
Bent did his best to ignore the slight. "Of course, my son. Of course."
"You working here today, right? That don't need a Scriptural answer."
"I'm always working, with the Lord." He probably ought to have said "for the Lord," but the unexpected delay had his dander up a tad. Bent straightened up his back and puffed his chest.
"And does not the worker deserve his wage?" Plagg followed up.
"Yes. It is so written!" Bent's eyes lit up. "The worker deserves his wages," he emphasized the plural, "The first letter to Timothy, chapter five and verse eighteen!" He had regained his composure, his preacher voice, and, he noted to himself with pride, his audience.
"I thought as much. I aim to see to it that you get your full wages today." He whistled sharply through the Missouri-sized gap in his front teeth. "You there, hold on to these for me. I suspect that unlike souls, they lose value if they go under the water."
The reverend's eyes might well have bored holes in the bundle of money as the outlaw tossed it to a new convert drying out at water's edge. He licked his lips greedily. Then he caught the glance of young Ellen Lowry, and his reptilian tongue lingered before it darted back into his mouth.
"Now, you've got yourself a conundrum, haven't you, Bent," Plagg mocked. "Three things to stare at, and just two hungry eyes." He winked.
"The sun is not standing still in the sky for us as it did for Joshua," Bent prodded. "We ought to move along."
"I'll get to the point directly. Can I be baptized here today?"
Reverend Bent gave him a long look as if appraising the man's righteousness, or lack thereof. Took in the irreverent scowl, the multitude of scars from knives, bullets, barbed wire. So much blood on his hands it fairly dripped off into the bay. What was his angle?
"We welcome everyone," Bent said, raising his hands in a magnanimous gesture, as if he spoke for the gathered crowd, the Lord Himself, and His vast myriads of angels.
"And then, after my ablution, (he pantomimed washing himself, and several chuckles were stifled), I will be saved?"
"You shall," was the assurance, the reverend, again speaking for everyone from the Alpha to the Omega.
"Amen!" boomed across the water.
"But," Plagg protested, "I am a bad man." It was an understatement of Biblical proportions.
"I observed that you walked through the waters, not on top of them," Clancy Bent said. "As is true of all of us, isn't that so?"
"Amen!" Everyone testified.
"But . . . "
Clancy Bent grit his teeth; he was getting tired of "But's." When would the rambling interloper run out of interruptions, he wondered? Now he seemed to be bragging about his wickedness. "I've broken numerous laws. I've cheated. I've stolen." The reverend frowned. Usually confession was a separate liturgy for a separate fee, but he supposed he'd let the grievance pass. "I've even . . . " He stopped just then, and practically all in attendance were silently mouthing the word.
"Killed?" The reverend mainly just wanted to move this along. "I don't kill people!" the outlaw brayed, an unexpected and inexplicable laugh. Puzzled looks were on every face, so he explained: "My gun kills people, not me!" No one laughed but Lyle Plagg; his sense of humor was not for this crowd, nor for this era.
"Point is," he said finally, "I am unworthy. My path is far from the footsteps of your Exemplar."
The reverend saw his opening. "It sounds as if your heart is prepared to accept just how undeserved divine grace is. It is yours for the taking. Today, you will die as to your old way of life and be born again by spirit. Come, son. Come be washed clean." He reached out, clearing his throat to cover the sound of his suddenly growling stomach. He wasn't finished answering questions, though, it turned out.
"So, what do you think?" Plagg rubbed his chin thoughtfully some more. "Was I a bad man from birth? Did I wake up one morning wicked? Was I . . . Was I made this way?" Without leaving pause for an answer, he plodded forward. "Or, rather, would you not say it was many poor decisions, many wrong actions along the course I've chosen that made who I am?"
"I suspect that the latter would be the correct answer."
"I suspect as much myself. So. Wouldn't it make sense that this here one single action today in this river, in front of God and these damp people (the Reverend's eyebrow raised at that) will not in and of itself save my soul? Would it not also take many right decisions, many proper actions? Good deeds, charity, amends? Compensations?"
"Well, certainly, yes! Compensations!" Reverend Bent answered a bit too eagerly, eyeballing the parishioner holding the bundle of banknotes. 'Bear fruits worthy of repentance,' so saith Saint Paul."
"Amen!" it was confirmed by all.
Plagg still wasn't finished. "So, in fact, tellin' these folks that they go in sinners and come out saints, why, that's a bit of a taradiddle, now aint it?"
"Well? A fib?" The water was suddenly still, and the crowd even more so.
"I'd call it perhaps a part of the greater truth."
"And the part that ain't truth?" Seemed like Clancy Bent was trying to slither off, and the evildoer by his side was having none of it. "Look, I just want answers, not hemmin' and hawin', and these folks behind me, why their legs are starting to look like prunes. Some were to start with, I suppose," he corrected himself needlessly. "So, Bent. If the thing you said wasn't all true, then what was it?"
"Well, it's more of a little white lie, if anything." At this point he looked heavenward, for approval, or perhaps intervention. "You see—"
"A little white what?"
No one spoke. Even the birds and critters were silent, as if a gun had just fired. "I know you aren't all dumb," Plagg encouraged, "You were all shouting Amen unto the Lord just a moment ago."
"It was a. Lie." The reverend barely squeaked it, stiffening like the lizard he'd found out on his porch this past winter. Suddenly he was missing the safety of his personal domicile, the sprawling estate just down the street from the tiny church.
Everyone found themselves holding their breath as they watched for Lyle Plagg's reaction.
"Thank you!" he exclaimed, with a huge grin, and again doffing his hat theatrically.
Everyone exhaling at the same time sent a cool breeze rippling across the water's surface.
"So. Now are you ready, Son?" Bent said it like he was trying to put the man back in proper place, and it was surely what he intended. He didn't call anyone Son he wasn't trying to get the best of.
"Nearly," Plagg said. "Lying. It's a sin, I suppose?"
The Reverend was overheated, soaked, mosquito-bit, and more than a tad peevish. "Yes, young man. Lying, much like horse thieving, and the wasting of other people's precious time, is a sin."
"Coveting, too, ain't that right?" The outlaw nodded pointedly in the direction of Mrs. Lowry.
Reverend Bent looked about to spit fire and sulfur from his mouth. "Yes," he hissed. "AND envy."
"Can I ask one more question?"
"What might be the wages paid for sin?"
The reverend thundered his final answer it as if it were the words of the Almighty himself coming down from the heavens.
"Says Romans chapter the sixth, verse the twenty-third, 'The wages of sin is death!'" Onlookers swore that the water shook, so forcefully had he shouted the word "Death."
The loudest "Amen!" of the afternoon followed, and service was over. Nearly.
The reverend Clancy Bent had secretly been a gambler, at least when he wasn't condemning the vice. But in all of his days, he would never have wagered that he'd be plunging beneath the water's surface this fine Sunday afternoon.