Belle Metcalfe stood on the steps of her cabin at Rocky Look Bible Camp and looked toward the dropped-down sun. A blue pickup shimmied along the valley road far below, fishtailing here and there on the loose gravel. Though she couldn't see the truck, Belle heard it coming. She knew that her niece Jeanette was finally home from an all-day trip with Drew Parks, and she knew, too, that they'd been up to no good. About the only thing she didn't know was that a hitchhiker sat in the back seat of their pickup, wondering what kind of weird fate had brought him here. The mountains to the east had turned dark purple. You could still smell dinner, though dinner was all done and the dining hall staff had finished washing up.

"What do you think about Jeanette and her boyfriend?" Belle asked her husband, Dean, who sat beside her on the steps having his after-dinner pipe before vespers. Belle was grey-headed, but Dean and his brother, Gratian, both had shiny curls of hair, black as you please. It grew down the sides of their faces like tree bark, and Fansher, the camp cook, liked to tell them they had African blood.

"There's a Afro-American in your woodpile," she'd say.

Could be true or could be not true. Most people said that Gratian looked like Abraham Lincoln, but poor Dean was too fat for that.

"I think it's about time little Jeanette found herself a husband," Dean said calmly. "She don't seem to have nobody else interested in her."

"That's because she's already dated every other man who set foot here! She's run through most of the counselors, none's good enough."

"I can understand that," said Dean. "The counselors are a little young for Jeanette, ain't they? She's past college age, she don't want a younger man."

"She's not past 30," said Belle. "She's only 26, and that Drew Parks is younger than she is."

"Oh, what you so worried about, Mother?"

"I'm worried about the way they act together."

"How do they act together?"

Belle whispered something to her husband, something that had the words "tight clothes" and "temptation" and "desperate" in it. He looked around warily, then knocked the ashes out of his pipe and stuck it in a clean brass spittoon beside the door.

"Well," he said, "she's not the beauty in the family; you can't blame her for trying to reel one in while her sister Delphi's off to college. This is a Christian boy we're talking about, isn't it?"

"Dean, do you hear what I'm saying? I'm trying to keep Jeanette out of trouble. She's so crazy for the boys. She reminds me of her mother."

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"Oh, don't let's get started on to that."

"Get started on to what? Tell me your brother doesn't need help raising two girls alone. I think you should say something to him about this."

"I'm going down to the chapel. I'll see you at vespers."

"I wonder why God brings all these rascals our way," she mumbled. "Can't he bring just one decent fellow?" She watched her husband—so innocent, so trusting, too godly for his own good—pick his way down the hill toward the campground. When he was well out of sight she hurried jauntily after him. She slung past the pretty log cabin that belonged to his brother, Gratian—the cabin where little Jeanette and Delphi had been raised without a woman's guiding hand (other than her own) since their mother ran off so long ago.

She took a trail that did not lead to the chapel. This trail cut off through the woods toward the playing fields. It was ferny and damp, strewn with boulders and pine straw. Down near the softball field lay Jeanette's cabin, beside a row of pecan trees and a small parking lot with a sign thrusting up from the middle of it that said


There sat the blue truck, empty, in front of Jeanette's cabin. The hood made a clacking noise as it tried to cool. The air smelled like burning oil. Belle looked this way and that to make sure her husband didn't come out of the trees and catch her snooping. Then she waved at some girls pitching a ball a hundred feet away and darted past the empty truck to the cabin.

She pulled slightly at the screen door, trying to be quiet, but it had swollen tight shut in the heat. She clenched her teeth and yanked the door open with a loud screech. "Jeanette girl, you home?"

"Huh?" A bare-chested boy jumped about a foot from a folding chair behind the door.

"Excuse me, ma'am!" He stood up, covering his white stomach with his elbows.

Belle's mouth dropped open. "Son, what you doing in Miss Jeanette's cabin? Don't you know the rules? No male campers in the girls' cabins."

"Well, ma'am, I'm not exactly a camper."

"No excuses. Come on out right now. And get you a shirt!"

The boy came outside as quickly as he could, smiling in what she thought was a stupid way. His jaw stuck out from his head; his face was red either with sunburn or shame.

"What is your name?" Belle asked, putting her head back through the door, "and who is your counselor?"

"My name's Cecil Howard. I'm not a camper, ma'am. I got a ride out here from Georgia, see. These folks picked me up back on the road and I don't mean to stop long, neither. I'm on my way to New Mexico."

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She had her mind on other things. "Do you happen to know exactly where my niece went?"

"Jeanette? I think she went thataway." Cecil pointed to a path that led into the woods beyond the pecan trees.

Belle straightened up. "Was she with him? Drew Parks?"

"Yes, she sure was."

She narrowed her eyes. "Well go on to vespers, son. Don't be hanging around Miss Jeanette's cabin any more."

"No, ma'am, I won't. Have no intention of it."

"Good." Belle hurried over to the path.

Cecil took a breath as he watched the trees close around her. She might have been a rabbit, the way she bent forward, her round tail sticking up. He looked back at the truck, figured there was no chance of getting any farther on the road tonight, and sat down on Jeanette's porch to think about his plans.

In his back pocket was a letter from the girl he intended to reach before the end of the week:

Dear Cecil,
I am not very happy in this place, but when I think about you and how you are so kind, it is enough to make me cry with happiness. It is very hot and dry here. Even if I could have a garden I couldn't bend over far enough to plant things but they don't let us garden since there is not enough water and we already have to take three minute showers.

I'm getting out on June 1 if everything comes out all right (ha ha) and the address of the new place is Sunshine House, 145 Eureka Trail, Albuquerque. So come as soon as you can and I will be waiting for you, sans baby, since it will be in foster care. I promise I will not sign anything final until you get here.

All my love,


Cecil had never laid eyes on Maria, only written to her c/o the Branton, Georgia, Public Library Pen Pal Program, but he pictured her as a beautiful person about his age sitting beside a cactus in a hot desert garden, one soft hand across her swollen stomach. Now he was on his way to rescue her and her child. That was his plan, at least, though he'd already come out of his way just by accepting a ride to Tennessee. What would their meeting be like? He saw himself stepping in between Maria and the sun and saying, "I'm here. I'm going to take care of you and that baby of yours, and you won't have to worry about a darn thing."

"I really am coming, Maria," he thought as he sat on Jeanette's porch, "I really am coming, but this was the only ride I could get and now I'm stuck here for tonight."

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A bell began to ring. "Vespers!" shouted the softball players across the field, and they crowded together and began walking in the same direction. Cecil watched them go, then stood up and started after them.

He brushed against a shaggy apple tree, its leaves a mix of deep green and pale yellow, no fruit on its branches. Must not be any other apple trees about. Straight in front of him, right beneath a big hill shooting up from the ground like a man's head, sat a little chapel.

"Hey you! Where's your shirt?" asked a young man standing by the chapel bell. He wore a whistle around his neck. "You can't go in to vespers like that."

"I reckon I got it too dirty to wear."

"Then go on get another shirt, boy. Don't be coming down here half naked. Which cabin you in?"

"I—" Cecil gestured back toward the hill.

"Oh, up there in Enoch. Where's your sense? Go in my cabin—it's the one behind the latrine. Borrow a shirt from my dresser. Not my Vols shirt. And give me the shirt right back after vespers!"

Cecil moved through the crowd to the cabin. It sat in long shadows, under oaks and more pecans. He opened the screen door and slipped in quickly.

The bunks were simple mattresses on metal frames. Each one had a sleeping bag rolled up at the foot. Each one had a striped grey and white pillow. On a trunk at the far left end of the cabin sat a transistor radio playing something religious, and next to the radio lay a pile of T-shirts, size X-tra large, three pairs of rolled-up socks, and a pair of black sports sandals.

There were some pictures, too. One was of a girl. Cecil couldn't see her well in the shadows. He hesitated for a second, then picked it up and walked back into the light. The girl was pretty. She had long blond hair and heavy bangs. Her eyes were sort of turned up, her teeth white. Could Maria look like this? On the back was written, "To Franklin, Love Delphi." Cecil smiled at the girl and hated to set her back down alone in the dark on that guy's trunk in this place. He put the picture in his pocket next to the letter from Albuquerque and went on to vespers wearing a plain white T-shirt he'd found at the bottom of the pile.

The chapel was a huge, dark, wood-paneled room with big screens for windows and a stone fireplace at the front. He sat down on a wooden folding chair near the back, next to a blond boy with a red face and cracked lips. You could see that he'd recently grown about a foot. The skin on his knees was pink and smooth. His hands looked too large for him.

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"You like this camp?" the boy asked.

"Guess so. Never been to another."

"This is the best I been to so far. What cabin you in?"

"Well, Jonah, I guess. I just got here."

"I'm in Ezekiel." The boy cracked his knuckles. "I'm glad I'm not in Jonah, ain't y'all's counselor that Franklin over there with the big stupid whistle? I heard y'all take those 4:30 a.m. hikes most every day."

"Sounds nasty," said Cecil.

"I'm in the Scouts. You in the Scouts?"

"Used to be," said Cecil. "I hate the Scouts."

"Sorry to hear that."

The boy sighed, then looked around and started a similar conversation with the girl on his other side. While they waited, it turned dark outside. No light remained but the big hanging light inside the chapel, shaped like a globe.

"All right, young people," said a pudgy black-headed man standing up to the polished wooden pulpit. "Brother Gratian's going to deliver the Word of the Lord tonight. I'm just going to open with prayer. I want each and every one of you to pray that the Lord will speak something to your heart tonight, something that will change you forever. Pray with me now."

A quiet fell across the room, a quiet like first sleep. The man prayed. Cecil didn't really listen, except when the man said, "Lord, forgive our wandering hearts. Draw us to you, O Lord."

"I ought to get on my way," thought Cecil. "I ought to be getting on my way out West." Outside, the frogs sang loudly.

The prayer stopped and the man raised his head and sat down. Then, from the back of the room came another man, just as black-headed but much taller, with broad, thin shoulders and a long neck and low-hanging belly.

"Thank you, Dean," he said when he got up to the pulpit. "You know, it's a little funny sometimes to hear Dean call me 'brother' and reflect on the fact that he is indeed my brother, my earthly brother, and yet that you all are my brothers and sisters. Am I right? Yes, I am right. Folks, young people, am I a good man?"

There was a nervous pause. "Yes, Brother Gratian," said a girl in the front with braces on her teeth. "You are."

"What's your name, sweetheart?"

"Kenna Drender."

"Kenna, why do you think I'm a good man?"

She said something in such a low voice that Cecil couldn't hear.

"Well!" Brother Gratian practically shouted the word. "That's nice of you to say so, Kenna, but what if I was to tell you I'm a murderer? I killed a man. You still think I'm nice? No, I reckon you don't. In fact, you want to run out that door, don't you, so you can call your mama and tell her to climb in her automobile and come after you? Don't want to be friends with me no more. Because I am a dangerous man. Am I right, y'all?"

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Some of the boys laughed, but Brother Gratian paid no attention. "It happened quite a few years ago, you see. I killed a good man, tortured him and watched the breath and blood slowly ebb, ebb, ebb, ebb from his pain-racked body. I looked on without mercy, I turned away from him without regret. I thought I was innocent, but his blood is on my hands."

Everyone in the room hushed. "I killed a man," said Brother Gratian. His hands shook as he lifted them. "But so did all of you kill him. Kenna Drender and"—he pointed to a boy in the front—"that young man there, I don't know your name yet, son, but I'll learn it, and John Evan over there, and even my own two sweet baby girls, Jeanette and Delphi. We all killed him, every one of us. Drove spikes through his hands and feet. And the blood ran down his cheeks from the thorns of his mock crown.

"You say, 'How, Brother Gratian? I was not there the day that Christ Jesus died.' But I say to you, young people, we were all there. With our sin we nailed him to a cross. And with his death he paid out our debt to God for all that filthy, disgusting, murderous sin.

"You say, 'How, Brother Gratian? I haven't sinned that much.' But listen, young people, you got to look in your heart. What's there? What's behind the face you show to the world? Is there rage? Is there jealousy? Is there lust? Is there a desire to be your own savior, to do works of righteousness in order to save yourself or your sister or your brother—when really we're all doomed to perish without Jesus there to snatch us from the Devil's jaws?

"Yes, there is, because we all have sin in our hearts. And when Jesus filled his burning lungs to gasp, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,' who do you think he was talking about?

He looked around, raised his eyebrows for a second, and sighed. "And all you in this room. We all killed him. He forgave all of us."

There was a sharp smell in the chapel, pine wood and young sweat. Cecil felt a pain at the back of his neck, as though someone had yanked him up like a cat. He stared at the preacher's lips, which kept opening and closing, and for another moment all he could hear in the room was the slow whine of a girl beginning to cry.

Outside, an owl hooted. At the back of the chapel a door opened and Brother Gratian stopped in the middle of his sentence and took a deep breath. All the young heads in the room, those baby faces on grown bodies, turned to look. Belle came in, her short grey hair sticking up and her mouth set straight. Behind her walked Jeanette, staring at the floor. Where was Drew?

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"Have a seat, honeybun," said Brother Gratian. "Glad you finally decided to join us." Jeanette nodded at her father and slipped onto a back row across from Cecil. She didn't look at him, but he knew something was wrong. Her long hair was kinky and wet. She had grass on the backs of her bare calves and heels. She stared straight down, her mouth as tight as a seam in her white face. Cecil watched her until the sermon was over and the singing started. "This World Is Not My Home," "Jesus, Name Above All Names," "Beautiful Savior," "We Are One in the Spirit."

Jeanette didn't sing. She sat as still as the dirt dug from a grave. Then suddenly she got up and walked to the front alone. She walked right to the pulpit all by herself and stood before her own father.

He pulled a piece of grass out of her hair and said something to her in a gentle voice.

Cecil felt a terrible, terrible need. He hardly knew Jeanette, he'd only met her that afternoon, and yet he couldn't bear to see her alone up there kneeling. It was the loneliest sight he'd ever seen, her with her shoulders shaking and her daddy leaning over her. "Come!" something said. He stood up and jumped forward as if somebody had pinched him. He practically pushed Jeanette sideways to kneel beside her. She smelled like wet grass and crushed mint leaves. Their bare arms touched.

"Son," said Brother Gratian hastily, looking down at him with lifted eyebrows while Jeanette began to sob and moan—"It's all my fault! I drove my precious Drew away."

"Son," said Brother Gratian, beginning again, "do you come today to repent of your sins and accept the Lord Jesus?"

Cecil stammered. "Mostly, uh, yes sir, I believe I do."

"Then pray this prayer with me." Two heavy weights fell upon Cecil then, one pair of hands on his shoulders and another on his head. He closed his eyes and repeated Jeanette's father's words, and then he heard feet shuffling up behind him. Others had come to be saved.

After a few seconds the burden of hands lifted from his head and shoulders and he opened his eyes again. But Jeanette was no longer beside him. He twisted around and saw that the back door of the chapel stood open. She had slipped away, but he was trapped by the small crowd and couldn't escape to reach her.

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Even when the singing and praying had finished and he could go out in the dark to search for her—well, then he couldn't get to her! He found her cabin windows lit, but the shutters were drawn and others were already inside talking. He heard snatches of their conversation: "By their fruits ye shall know them," Jeanette's aunt said, and Brother Gratian said, "It's a good thing we found out about that Drew before it was too late, before he got our little girl in real trouble." Below their voices he heard Jeanette's soft crying.

Cecil figured he'd find a place to sleep, not far away, and help Jeanette in the morning. So he settled down on the ground again, next to a creek that cut its way down the hill above her cabin. All night he slept soundly, no longer thinking about Maria, not wondering when he'd reach Albuquerque, not remembering the photograph in his pocket nor even considering that he might now be bound for heaven. Yet Brother Gratian had said that he was—right after that brief prayer in the chapel: "Son, you have been redeemed and justified, signed, sealed and bound up for glory. Amen."

Betty S. Carter is the author of two novels, I Read It in the Wordless Book (Baker) and The Tower, the Mask, and the Grave (Harold Shaw), and has just completed a third, from which this story is taken.

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