Orphans Preferred: Part I
by Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer
“What kind of burying do you want?”
I jerked my head up from where I had ol' Jesse's hoof in my hand. A stringy brown haired girl stood in front of me, hands folded proper with a solemn look on her face. I'd seen her around town, thought she might be kinda pretty. Until now.
“What kind of fool question is that? I'm only seventeen.”
I returned to picking Jesse's hoof. The girl squatted eye level with me. “You're a Pony Express rider. They die all the time.”
“Still a fool question from a fool girl.” I lowered Jesse's hoof and checked the cinch again.
“It's not a fool question and I'm not a fool girl. My pa is a traveling preacher. He asks folks that all the time. He says it gets them thinking about where they'll spend eternity.”
I wanted to get shed of this gal, so I lied. “I reckon a Christian burial. That's what my ma would want.”
I never knew my ma or pa. That was one of the things that drew me to the advertisement for Pony Express riders:
Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen.
Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily.
It paid good.
The stringy brown haired girl raised up on her toes, trying to be as tall as me. It made her look more scrawny. “Are you a Christian, then?”
I shrugged. “I'm not sure.”
“Oh, you'd know for sure if you were. You'd better talk to my pa before you leave.”
“Don't have time.” I yanked the looped reins from the hitching post, freeing them and freeing me from this yammering girl. I led Jesse down the busy road to the Pony Express station. The pest followed.
“I'm Sadie and my pa's Preaching Bill. We're camped on the east side of town.”
“Shame. I'm riding out west.”
“We're having a meeting next Sunday. When will you be back?”
“Monday, if ever.”
I wasn’t sure if I meant to make her sad, but she strained to look at me as she trotted to keep up with my long strides. Her brown eyes filled with tears. “I hope you don't get killed.”
“Would you grieve at my graveside?”
I halted in front of the Express office. “At least there'd be one.”
“What about your ma?”
I felt bad about the lie. I might not have another chance to explain. “She passed a long time ago.”
“My ma died when I was ten. Pa says it's a hard country, that's why he asks folks what kind of burying they want. They may not get another chance to think about it.”
Sadie echoed my thoughts. And she didn't have a ma. I really looked at her now, and wanted to say something right.
But Mr. Henderson stepped out of the office and slung the bulging mochila at me. I caught the mail bags and swung them over my saddle. I hoped the action looked easy. The bags were heavy.
Sadie didn't seem to notice. “We'll have preaching all day and all night. You should ride hard and make it back before Sunday.”
“I always ride hard.” I nodded to Mr. Henderson who went back inside without a word. He trusted me to get the job done. “That's why it's called the Pony Express.”
She wasn’t being flirtatious. In fact, the way she spoke so quiet made that impossible. “I'm sure you're one of the best. But think about it while you're riding. What kind of burying you'd want. We'll all die sometime.”
I gripped Jesse's mane. “Thanks for that encouragement. Your pa sending you around to talk to everyone in town like that?”
The stringy brown haired girl slowly shook her head. “No. I've never talked to no one like this before. But God told me I should talk to you. I was scared to death, but I figured it was the right thing. Maybe I heard wrong.”
“Maybe so.” I stuck a boot in the stirrup and swung myself up on Jesse. “Maybe not.”
I tried not to smile down at Sadie. She did look scared, now that I paid attention to her. “I'll be back by Sunday, if I come back at all.”
Sadie nodded, solemn again. “I'll pray for you.”
Someone as sweet and innocent as she was…surely her prayers must get heard. I walked Jesse a few feet, then spurred him to a full gallop. I knew I'd see little Sadie again.
Orphans Preferred: Part II
by Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer and readers
It wasn’t that Sunday when I saw Sadie again.
Her words got me to thinking hard, though, riding for my life out there on the prairie. I’d nearly convinced myself to go to that revival meeting on the ride back but then my loyal horse Jessie took a tumble.
His leg broke. I had to shoot him and that opened just a crack in my guarded heart. I had to roll up that night, alone, on the cold ground with the mochila for a pillow. I dreamed of Sadie and her daddy. Actually, I dreamed of me.
I had died. My funeral was being held at a church graveyard. No one was there—no pallbearers, no fellow Pony Express riders. No one except Sadie’s daddy to preach my funeral. And Sadie. She really did miss me when I died.
That dream made me decide to talk to Sadie’s daddy when I got back in town.
But they weren’t there. In fact, Preaching Bill was dead, shot while trying to settle a squabble between two men outside his tent meeting.
That was all the convincing I needed. If even a man of God could die at anytime, I knew I sure as anything better get right with my Maker and be ready for my own burying.
That was the best thing I ever did.
It took me ten years to meander out to St. Louis, where I’d heard Sadie had been sent to live with relatives after her daddy was killed. As a Pony Express rider back in the day, you’d have thought I could’ve gotten there quicker, but I had a lot of news to carry along the way. Oh, not the mail kind of news; the Pony Express had dissolved years ago. Nah, instead of other people’s writings, I carried the Word of God. And I preached it, too.
Trust me, that surprised me more than you, and I knew it would surprise Sadie. I could hardly wait.
But when I got to the boarding house I’d heard she’d moved into in St. Louis—she was a schoolteacher now, never married—I wondered if I’d get to see her at all.
Her roommate came into the parlor where I was waiting for news of when Sadie Boxley would be home that day. The fine looking gal, pure city, smiled too nice at me.
“Miss Boxley usually arrives at dinner time. However, we are not allowed to have guests for dinner.”
The young woman waited, like maybe she was wanting me to ask her out to dinner.
“Where does Miss Boxley go to church?”
“I have never known Miss Boxley to attend church. I am not accusing her of being a heathen, mind you, but it seems she is always ill on Sundays when we leave for services.”
My mind went a decade back to the moment when I heard Sadie’s daddy had been killed. I’d never thought about how it might have sent Sadie down a trail leading her away from the hope she’d tried to give me.
I pulled out my Bible where I kept scraps of paper and a pencil stub. I scribbled a note:
What kind of burying do you want?
Come to the revival tonight at 7.
An Orphaned Pony Express Rider
“Would you give this to her for me?”
“Of course, but…”
I left quick.
Rain lashed the large canvas tent that evening. I kept looking for Sadie. Would I recognize her in city clothes? Would she remember me? The note was enough to tell.
I didn’t see her come through the open doors by the time the organ started pumping and I reluctantly took my seat at the front.
I’d attracted a small crew in my travels, preaching God’s word. There was Lester, a former drunk with a club foot who’d not had a drop of whiskey in three years. He put up the tent near singlehandedly every night.
Willis, a Choctaw man from Indian Territory, could belt out hymns in a way that made your scalp tingle. He would have the crowd in such a heavenly state, there was practically nothing left for me to do but an altar call.
A half dozen other men were always around in our travels, helping spread the word and preach. They always started off asking people the same question, the one I’d used to get them to set foot in the revival tent.
When Willis had the Spirit moving strong under the canvas, I took my place at the pulpit Lester had dragged out for me. I opened my Bible and looked at the smallest but finest crowd we’d ever had. Boy, they were dressed fancy and looking comfortable. They didn’t think they needed what I was about to say, but I said it anyway, booming out above the downpour pelting the tent roof.
“What kind of burying do you want?”
That sure got their attention and I lit right into the fieriest sermon I’d ever preached, desperate to awaken them from their apathy. I wondered if even one would heed the call tonight.
I caught my breath and waited for the blood to retreat from around my eyes. A soggy latecomer slipped through the open tent door. She sat quickly, but her gaze traveled over the backs of heads as though looking for someone. That was how I knew it was her, a full grown beauty in a woman’s dress. When she took off her wet hat, her stringy brown hair showed. It was softer now, twisted loosely at the nape of her neck.
I gripped the edge of the pulpit. In a gentler but still loud voice, I said, “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart.”
Her gaze jerked around to me and I saw her sad eyes. A decade of grief and loneliness shadowed her face. Then she dipped her head and I saw her start to cry. I remembered my own tears when Jesse died.
I knew there’d be at least one to walk the aisle this night.