Ruth was so hungry even the grass was starting to look good. She had already resorted to digging through refuse and compost piles for something to eat. Her stomach didn't constantly hurt like she would have expected before experiencing starvation, but she did know she needed to eat if she was going to survive.
Her parents, recent immigrants from Scotland like so many in the area, had died from smallpox, leaving her totally alone in the world. She'd lost the little they owned to debt collectors, leaving her without a roof over her head and food in her belly. She was fast approaching desperation. In fact, she'd passed it.
A woman, young without looking it, no doubt from her heavy workload, struggled to hang her laundry with four children at her feet, who were all under the age of five.
"Ma'am, can I help you? I wouldn't charge much." she asked, hopeful.
The woman cast a critical eye on her before replying. "We have nothing to pay you with."
"Please, I'll do anything." She would have gotten down on her knees if she thought it would help. "I'm a hard worker. I'm good with children. I wouldn't even charge for money. Just a meal."
"Get out of here before I stick my husband on you."
She didn't know whether she hung her head in sadness or she could barely hold it up anymore in her growing weakness as she walked away.
She tried to remember that the young mother's nerves were probably frazzled to think of her more compassionately, but she'd certainly had kinder rejections, but they were always rejections. Someone took pity occassionally and offered her scraps but never a place in their home or a steady supply of food.
It wasn't so much that they were uncaring as that they already had too many mouths to feed. You took care of your own kin in these mountains before you took care of a stranger, and no one wanted a skinny girl of thirteen, who was getting skinnier everyday.
She spent the late summer nights in a lovely little grove just beyond the meadow. It sheltered her from all but only the heaviest rains. She worried what she would do when winter came if she didn't waste away before then.
She suddenly had the distinct feeling of being watched. Her pace quickened even though she had nowhere to run to. Her imagination conjured all kinds of possibilities as to who was chasing her.
She didn't run very far before she could run no farther. She turned to face whatever fate lay before. Her imagination couldn't have brought forth a scarier image than the cloaked figure before her.
Fear gripped her, and she shook like a leaf. He'd been there at her parents' funeral as he was at every funeral where the people hadn't had time to repent before their passing.
The hood on his cloak covered his face and added to his mysterious nature, but he pulled it back to speak to her. She didn't know what she expected. A monstrous face? He looked like a human being but so haggard like he'd lived a thousand lifetimes.
He wasn't scary so much as he was pitiable. Sympathy for this man flooded through her, making him more human than she'd previously believed him to be.
"Come with me, Ruth McKenzie."
She wondered if she should be scared that he knew her name, but of course he did. He was a part of the community even if he was forced to remain in the shadows. She didn't know what compelled her to follow him, but she believed he meant her no harm.
Some might have been optimistic and called where he lived a house, but there was no better word to call the place than hovel, and it beat her home that was only a cluster of trees.
Alone inside, he told her in a voice raspy with disuse, "I've been watching you."
The fear came back. Was it too late to run?
"I'm dying," he told her, dismissing the thought to flee from her head. Was he asking her to care for him in exchange for bread and a place to sleep? She wouldn't mind if he were. "You could be the next sin-eater."
Her? She'd never considered it before. It wasn't exactly a role children dreamed of taking someday. A terrible thought entered her head. "Who's going to eat your sins?"
"No one. No one could eat away the magnitude of sins I've taken on me, and you will be faced with the same end if you do this, but you will never have to worry about your next meal, and you will ease the minds and souls of so many. It's a great service we sin-eaters provide to keep a man's soul out of hell."
She was hungry, and who else would agree to take his place? She couldn't bear the thought of so many souls suffering in hell when she could have stopped it. And some believed the souls would walk in unrest on the earth without a sin-eater, terrorizing the living. "I'll do it."
"Then Ruth McKenzie," he said, removing his cloak and passing what seemed more like a shroud to her, "you're the new sin-eater. May God have mercy on your soul."
Except that He wouldn't, not now that she was a sin-eater.
The sky was overcast, blotting out the sun. Ruth was thankful for the darkness. It made what she was about to do easier somehow, made her feel like no one was watching and that even God Himself had turned His face the other way.
Though if she expected the funeral attendees to look at her, she was wrong. Perhaps it was because they carried a sense of shame that they'd put such responsibility on the shoulders of a young girl or perhaps they were afraid some of the sins she carried could be rubbed off on them.
She approached the casket that was waiting to be lowered only after she had completed her task. The eyelids were thankfully closed. She didn't know if she could have borne unseeing eyes staring at her.
Did the elderly man, who looked even smaller and more withered in death, know of her sacrifice on the other side? Was he grateful? The sum of his sins spread across so many years must have been terrible. She shuddered to think they would soon be heaped onto her soul.
But she recited the half incantation and half prayer as she'd been taught. "I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen."
Only one part left to the ceremony, the eating of the meal. Did they have to lay the bread right on his chest like that? Couldn't they just hand it to her? It made what she was about to do feel even more vile.
But she picked it up, along with the cup that set beside the dead man, and ate and drank.
The bread was dry and made drier by her fear and the dark proceedings. It stuck in her throat until she pushed it on down with the water and then it set heavy in her stomach like a stone. It was the symbolic act of what was taking place. She was consuming every bad thing he'd ever done.
She didn't leave the graveside until she'd eaten every last morsel and drunken every last drop. And then it was finished.
She meant to walk back down the hill, but her steps got longer and longer until she was running down it, away from the cemetery on its top. A tree helped stop her impromptu flight. She hugged the trunk until the rough bark bit into her flesh.
She closed her eyes as the tears squeezed from them. There was no going back now from this life she'd chosen. It felt harder to breathe and not just because she'd run, but she'd done it. Taken on sins that weren't hers. Her heart felt heavier and more burdened.
She returned to the hovel that she now called home to tell the sin-eater of how it'd went, but he was dead. He'd passed the mantle just in time. It was then she realized she didn't know his name. She didn't know if he even had a distant relative. Perhaps, he was an orphan like her.
She should have asked, but it had seemed the role of sin-eater overshadowed everything about the person, their identity, their past. She supposed the people who lived in this valley would soon forget she ever had a name or remember she'd once had parents who loved her and had dreamed of a better future for her than this.
She dragged his lifeless body out into the dark day and dug with the shovel, one of the few things the sin-eater owned. Two passerbys came and went, strapping men who could have made the needed hole in half the time it was taking her, but they didn't offer to help. They even quickened their steps when they saw her as if she had leprosy.
She hadn't sobbed so hard as she did right then since her parents had died. She thought she'd been lonely before, but she hadn't begun to know the meaning of the word until today.
And so no one but her presided over his burial. It was just as he'd said no one came to take away his sins. She would have tried if she had anything to make bread with, but she didn't. No one even stopped to say a few kind words over the resting place of a man who'd kept so many of their family and friends from the pits of hell.
Exhausted and weary when she patted down the final shovelful of dirt over his body, she said, "Earth to earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust." The rest of the oft said funeral phrase didn't seem appropriate for a sin-eater, so she simply repeated what he'd said to her, "May God have mercy on your soul."
The laughter of a young couple in love rang out through the glade, and Ruth was drawn by its sound. She didn't mean to spy, but as happiness eluded her, she couldn't help wanting to watch other people living happily.
But seeing them didn't warm her heart, instead it sent the cold fingers of dread around her. She felt as if the fingers were wrapped around her neck, squeezing the life out of her.
The young woman, who was near her own age of nineteen was already married. She'd heard the chapel bells ring for her and her husband only six months ago. Now here she was in the woods meeting secretly with a man that wasn't her husband.
Wasn't she content with one man? Ruth would have been if any man would've had her. And weren't there enough available women that this man didn't have to meet up with a taken woman to steal a few moments of passion? Adam Scott, her husband, wasn't known for his reasonableness and good temper. He wouldn't be happy to know his wife was out cavorting with another man. This couldn't end well.
When they kissed with wild abandon, thinking they were alone, Ruth quickly turned and left before she saw anymore. Her cheeks were hot with embarrassment and a little anger.
Sin was rampant. She supposed it was rampant everywhere, but people were too selfish to remember that if they died tomorrow or forty years from now, their sins would one day come to rest on her. And their sin more often than not ended in misery for them before they ever passed it off. She couldn't take it from them while they lived.
She tried to take her mind off of it all as she wiled away the time collecting wood for winter, but her mind kept turning back to them. She wished she could tell them how much they hurt God doing things that were just not of God, but she had more sin than both of them combined, so what right did she have?
She could only sit back and watch and hope they made the right choice in the end. Was that a little how God felt when looking down at them? She thought so.
She went down to the little pond of water near her house when her labor was done. Her knees sunk into the soft earth. There really was no joy in her life, not even when she sacrificed one more part of her soul, the only thing that gave her life any meaning at all. Sometimes she thought she would have fared better had she starved or froze to death in her thirteenth year.
She pulled down the hood of her cloak and hazarded a look at herself in the water. She didn't have mirrors hanging in her abode. She couldn't have stood seeing her reflection all the time, to watch all the sin she carried corrupting her flesh.
What she saw looking back wasn't an accurate picture of who she was inside at all. She should have seen a twisted, dark wretch, not the plain, pitiful girl she saw instead. She picked up a stone and cast it at her mirror image, the ripples distorting it and painting a better facsimile of her inner self.
She moved further back so she couldn't see it anymore and hugged her knees to her chest. Sometimes the bitter roots of discontent sprung up inside her. She wasn't sorry to be of aide, not really, but sometimes she felt sorry for herself.
She envied the others, their freedom to more or less do as they pleased, knowing their sins would be paid for. And though she didn't quite hate them something akin to it would raise its ugly head every now and then. Then the tears she didn't know herself still capable of would flow because these thoughts and feelings were sin, adding more to the account that God kept with no one to blame but herself. Sometimes it was all too much.
A black cat with golden eyes rubbed up against her. Considered unlucky by some, he was a godsend to her. He was the only one who didn't fear her, who didn't see the sin before he saw the person. She'd named him Blessing because she secretly hoped he was. That God still saw her and had a sent a friend.
"You're more than just a black cat, ain't you, Blessing?" She lifted him up until he was level with her face. "And I'm not just a sin-eater." She wished she could convince herself of that.
He meowed at her, not liking his change in altitude. This was what passed for conversation these days. It had to be better than talking to herself, but she longed to talk with real people. She set Blessing down in her lap and stroked him.
When he'd had enough and left to hunt, the palms of her hands came to rest against her forehead. Her head hurt. She was weary of life, and if she lived to a reasonable age, it'd barely begun.
The death bell suddenly tolled through the valley, making her raise her head. No one had been sick that she knew of. The death must have been unexpected. More than just an announcement of a funeral, the sound she dreaded most in the world was her signal that she was needed once again.
Ruth passed by the Graham house. There were signs of mourning: the windows were all covered and the smell of lots of different foods were in the air. It was the house of the adulterous young man, and she had a bad feeling about how and who had died.
She caught up with the funeral party. It was as she'd suspected, the person and the method. The body showed the signs of a violent death.
It was a solemn, quiet walk other than for Mrs. Graham, his mother, who was weeping and wailing. His lover was nowhere to be seen.
Eight men carried his coffin to his final resting place. She wondered if Adam would soon follow him down to the grave. It was possible if one of the Grahams' relatives decided a revenge killing would be in order. Or would he take more of his anger out on his wife?
It had ended as badly as she'd feared it might this morning though sooner and more horribly than she'd thought. Should she have or could she have intervened before it had come to this? They wouldn't have listened just because of who she was, and they may not have listened if God Himself had told them, but she hated being right. In this instance anyway.
It was all so sad, so dark, so evil. Were things ever going to change in this life? For her? No. She was destined for hell. But this old world, these people before her, needed some kind of an awakening. Though she wasn't sure He would hear her, she prayed for one.
He was only passing through. He never stayed anywhere long.
Evening had fallen, and he was looking for a place to sleep. He would have preferred a tavern to get himself in out of the cold autumn night and warm his bones with a drink, but this sleepy place didn't seem to possess such a thing. He'd have to settle for a night under the stars.
His heart skipped a beat when a solitary, hooded figure passed silently by. He turned to stare, and he could have sworn it was a wraith that paused a moment in the moonlight, the shadowy trees casting an eerie backdrop.
It spoke not a word though it had to know it was being looked at, adding credence to his ghost theory.
He followed it. Probably foolish on his part, but his curiosity got the better of him, and he knew how to take care of himself. He followed it all the way to a procession that was taking a body to be buried.
A bell ringer led the strange, almost ghoulish parade. Many carried candles, but no one paid the mysterious newcomers any mind. The figure hung back as if it were the soul of the departed man he saw. He was getting more than a little spooked by it all.
A very curious thing happened when they reached the ready plot. The man was put down on the ground and a wooden plate with bread on it and a matching cup set out directly on his chest. Then the crowd of gathered people parted like the Red Sea and turned their backs.
All except one. The one he'd almost come to think was more spirit than flesh lifted up pale, solid hands and pulled back the hood.
He was surprised to find it was a beautiful woman. He would have been less surprised to discover it was some hideous creature or translucent phantom.
Her hair shone a tad red in the golden moonlight though it was obvious it was mostly brown. Even in the dark he could see freckles, proof of a sun-kissed face that didn't always hide. She was haunting in a completely different way than at the start.
She spoke, but he was a little too far back to hear. Her words were carried away on the wind.
He watched in frozen fascination at first as she ate and drank from the dishes, but he gathered enough wit to approach at the last. Her macabre meal was completed, and she was turning to go.
Before she masked herself again, their eyes met. They were the saddest, wisest blue eyes he'd ever seen in his life, and they captivated him.
She peered at him not quite accusingly but like he'd broken some unwritten rule by looking at her.
She said nothing, however, only disappeared from whence she'd came. And he, all too astounded by it all, let her.
He saw them when he was sleeping, and he saw them when he was awake. Those soulful, mournful eyes. He didn't believe in love at first sight, but somehow in that wordless moment, their hearts, their souls, had communicated.
Who was she? He had to find her whatever it took. This was the kind of place where everybody knew everybody, so he didn't figure his task would be hard. He stopped to ask at the first home he came to.
A man came to the door. The man looked at him distrustfully as if he were up to no good. He supposed the people weren't used to strangers passing through.
He stated his business right away before he closed the door in his face. "I'm looking for someone. The woman that was at the funeral yesterday." The man either hadn't been at the funeral or had no idea which woman he meant because his expression was puzzled. "The one wearing the black cloak. She ate some kind of bread."
Recognition filled his features. "Oh, you mean the sin-eater."
"What in the world is a sin-eater?"
"She takes the dead's sins on herself by the eating of a meal. What do you want with her? She's not fit to be around, and I doubt you got anyone you need to bury."
"She literally eats their sin? That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. A person can't do that."
He'd offended the man, but he wasn't sorry. These backwoods yokels had turned an innocent, young girl into a social outcast to make themselves feel better about the rotten things they did. It was unconscionable.
"It may not be what you do wherever you're from," he said unfriendlier than at the first, which he hadn't thought possible, "but it's what we do here. What right do you have to judge?"
"What right do you have to ruin somebody's life?" He knew why she was sad now, and he wanted to rescue her from this crazy life.
He didn't trust himself not to haul off and deck the man. He didn't know why he was so angry on this girl-he-didn't know's behalf. He supposed it was that invisible connection they'd made last night.
So he left, but he watched the man from the corner of his eye. You never knew when somebody was going to reach for their gun, but the man let him leave with no incident.
He tried other doors, but no one would tell him where this so-called sin-eater lived. When he finally found her, late in the afternoon, it was purely a stroke of luck.
She had her hair down, falling in long, glorious waves. The locks looked even more coppery in the light and her eyes more blue. She had her shoes off as well, dangling her bare feet in the water out in front of the most pitifully constructed house he'd ever seen.
She was alone except for a black cat that was curled up in her lap. She was stroking it and talking to it cheerfully and sweetly as if it could understand every word she said.
If people could be divided into two categories, children of the moon and children of the sun, she would be a child of the sun. Her smile was as bright as any rays he'd ever seen. And while not quite carefree, he could tell by the way she interacted with the cat that she had a warm and kind personality.
He could have stayed there behind the trees all day, looking at this lovely scene, this lovely woman, but realizing he was acting like a peeping Tom, he moved out from his hiding place to introduce himself and find out her name.
To say he startled her was an understatement, she moved the cat off of her and jumped up to run from him, not stopping to worry about gathering her shoes.
She ran into the hut, slamming the door. It made him cringe because he wasn't sure if the building could handle such a vigorous closing of the door.
He hadn't taken her for the shy type, but he supposed a life like she lived could make anyone shy. He was more convinced than ever that he needed to help her. Maybe he'd start by making her home more sound, but first, he had to figure out a way to befriend her.
Seeing as how the place she called home had no windows, Ruth peeked through the crack of the door to see if the boy had gone away. For a boy he was, his whiskers had barely grown in. He was sixteen or seventeen at best. He was the stranger who had been staring at her last night.
What did he want with her? Why was he waiting outside? Maybe if she ignored him, he would go away.
As if he'd heard her thoughts, he called out, "I'm not going away until we talk."
It was kind of silly hiding behind her door. He had a nice face, a handsome one really, with a shock of black hair and dark eyes. It had an honest, gentle look. Besides, if he wanted to, he really could bust into this flimsily constructed house.
There was nothing she could do about being barefoot as her shoes were outside, but she couldn't believe he'd seen her with her hair down. It was embarrassing. Preserving what modesty she had left, she pinned it into a bun before going out to talk to him.
"That's more it," he said. "Why'd you run from me?"
"Not used to people wanting to talk to me, I guess. And I don't know you."
"That's easily fixable. What's your name?"
It had been a long time since someone had talked to her. It had been even longer since someone had asked her what her name was. "Ruth. What's yours?"
He seemed more reluctant to share it than she had been to share hers. She wondered if she would have to guess at it like the queen had tried to guess Rumplestiltskin's, but at last, he said, "Bartholomew."
She smiled, thinking it a very nice name though not one she would have guessed for him.
He was immediately offended. "Are you laughing at my name?"
"Not at all. It's a perfectly charming name. Biblical, isn't it?"
"Probably. My parents were Bible-believing people."
"If you don't like it, why don't you shorten it?"
"Because I don't like the sound of Bart any better. But I didn't come to talk to you about my name."
"Oh, no?" She couldn't deny she was deeply curious.
"Run away from here."
"Excuse me?" She wondered if she'd heard him correctly. Then she laughed. "We just met. You don't know anything about me, and you want me to run away with you?"
He flushed a little. Probably only realizing how forward it had sounded. "What I meant was you need to run away for your sake. Though I'd be happy to go with you."
"Run away for my sake? Do you know what a sin-eater is?"
"I do now. I asked around, and it's all foolishness."
She was angry now. "Foolishness? I have not wasted years on foolishness. You can call me a lot of things: dark, twisted, pitiable, frightful. There's little I haven't heard, but you will not call my life's work foolish. That's one thing it's not. I provide a peace for people. Do not tell me it's in vain."
"I didn't mean to hurt your feelings," he said, throwing his hands up in surrender. "But you talk like you're a hundred years old. You have a life, a future. What do you owe these people?"
"My soul. And it's too late to change what I do now even if I wanted to. What do you even know about what is foolish or not? You're nothing but a kid."
He was startled by her sharp words. She realized it had bruised his ego to be called a kid. She'd meant to do it. Maybe then he'd leave her alone. Things were hard enough without him tempting her into believing there was another life away from here.
"Yeah, well, this kid knows you're miserable," he said, his words surprisingly soft for the words she had just thrown at him. "And that you don't have to be if you just come away."
"You don't know nothing. If you're looking to play hero, why don't you go find somebody who actually needs saving?"
He didn't argue with her anymore. Instead, he unpacked his bedroll and started picking up large stones and making a circle with them. He obviously planned on building a campfire.
"What in heavens name do you call yourself a doing?" she asked.
He didn't look away from his work as he answered her. "I'm not going anywhere until you agree to leave here with me."
"Well, Bartholomew, you're going to be waiting a long time."
Bartholomew was true to his word. He was still there the next morning when she came out to the pond to do her laundry.
She was in the middle of hanging her only other dress when six children ranging between the ages of nine and thirteen appeared from behind the trees and began pelting her with stones.
As she ran for cover, Bartholomew ran beside her acting as a shield. She went into the hut, but he doubled around and chased the children off with his shouting and charging at them. "Get out of here! Get!"
They scattered in different directions like light through a prism. He knocked to tell her it was all clear.
"What on earth?" he asked.
"I'm like the scary old lady all the children are convinced is really a witch, which means I'm fair game for their worst natures. It's almost a rite of passage for the children around here to face me down."
"It's disgusting is what it is. Their parents ought to be told. There's no justification for hurting an innocent person."
"That's just it. I'm not. And worse than just being an object of scorn, I'm also feared, but the children ain't really out to do permanent harm."
"But they could."
She picked up her basket after draping her wet dress back over the tree, seeing they weren't going to agree on the matter, and started into the woods. He was right at her side.
"I'm only going on a walk. You don't have to come with me."
"After that little incident? I don't think I'd be human if I let you go off alone."
He was sweet. Protective and willing to let her win the argument, at least for now. He was a proper gentleman for one so young. No man had treated her this kindly since her father had passed.
He wasn't much for talking though. She did all the talking on the walk. She might as well have been talking to her cat, but he was actually listening to her. That made for a nice change.
They came across a thatch of blackberries, which was why she'd brought the basket.
She squatted down and remarked, "This'll make some fine jam."
"It'll make a fine snack, too," he said, plucking off a fat purple berry and popping in into his mouth.
He helped her put some in the basket, but he did more snacking than gathering.
"You're not one for working, are you?" she teased.
"Not overly fond of it, no. You're not one for playing, are you?" he teased right back.
"Who's got time for it?" she asked a little more seriously.
"You do," he said, pressing one against her mouth.
She smiled and relented. It wasn't long before they were both laughing hard at the purple that was staining their fingers and lips. She almost would label the moment carefree. It was at least the closest she had come to it in a long while.
"You have a little juice right here," he said with a tenderness foreign to her as he took his thumb and brushed the corner of her mouth.
It was a strange pull she felt with that little bit of human contact. She craved and needed more of it, and she found herself pulling closer to him.
She tried to talk herself out of what she knew was coming by remembering he was younger, but the truth was he was only two or three years younger. Time would make that age gap seem less.
Their lips brushed in an innocent, first kiss that was brief from inexperience but still had the power to inflame deeper passions.
She pulled back at the overwhelming sensations, and he pushed back some strands of hair that were hanging in her face. "You're too good for them."
The magic was broken. They were people she cared about. What was she thinking to believe she could give into romance like she was a normal girl for even a moment? "We need to get back."
He heard the censure in her voice though it was herself she blamed, and he followed her back like a reprimanded child.
In front of her door, there was a jar of honey and a coin setting on top.
He looked puzzled by their appearance, but she wasn't. "People know I can't live only off the bread of the departed. There ain't enough deaths to keep me fed thankfully. And how would I dress? They do what they can when they can; they don't want to lose me."
"No, I don't suppose they would," he said with a tone that said he didn't think they were being generous at all.
There were great, big pillars of flame and the sound of tortured voices crying out in pain, misery, and regret.
She was walking between the fiery columns looking at the faces of these poor souls in torment. What scared her more than knowing she was in hell was that she recognized the people.
They were the men and women whose sins she had atoned for. What were their souls doing here? She deserved to be here; she was the sin-eater, not them.
She looked for an answer in this place of darkness, and her eyes came to rest at last on a kindly face. A face she thought she should recognize but didn't. A light from within himself illuminated him, making him stand out from all the rest.
"Listen to my voice." It was all he said, but she knew somehow that if she did, she would have the answer she sought.
Then she woke up. She was drenched in sweat as if the fire of hell had been real.
"It was just a dream," she told herself. "It was just a dream."
But if it was just a dream, why did it feel so real?
Bartholomew had heard her distressed moaning in the night. It had had taken all his resolve not to burst in there and comfort her, but he knew it wouldn't please her if he had. As much as she loved the people that was how much he hated them for causing a beautiful girl, inside and out, such mental suffering.
There were no outward signs of her anguish the next morning. She wore a smile as she brought him two slices of bread, one with honey and one with blackberry jam. "I figured as long as you insist on sticking around like some kind of stray pup, I might as well feed you."
She was taking another jab at his youth, but it didn't change the fact she'd kissed him yesterday. Pup indeed. It was amazing to him a woman in her circumstances had been able to keep a sense of humor.
"You like having me around," he said. "Admit it."
"I don't hate having you around," she was willing to concede.
She ate breakfast with him, having brought out her own slices of bread. In between bites, she spoke about how bad last winter was. Probably an attempt to make him move along, but it wasn't working. Not unless she went with him.
She bent over to wash off her sticky hands, and in a mischievous moment, he dipped his own hand into the pond and sent a splash her way.
She looked startled at the spray of water. Had she never had any sort of fun in her life? But she recovered her presence of mind in time to splash him back.
Soon a barrage of water was flying backing and forth, sending her cat far away to a safety zone where he watched them both like they'd lost their minds.
Her laughter was beautiful, not tinkling, polite laughter like so many girls were taught, but deep and hearty laughter that spoke of a woman who put her whole heart and soul into everything she did. It was contagious, and he was soon laughing, too, and he rarely laughed.
It was in the midst of that happy playing that he uttered the words, "I love you".
The simple statement made her eyes go wide with not horror exactly, but there was definitely panic there and an unwelcomeness. The water settled until there weren't even ripples to remember how carefree the moment had been just a minute before.
It caused his stomach to twist as he knew she wasn't going to say it back. He felt humiliated. He didn't think he'd ever blurt those words out again. If he ever said it in the future, it'd be because the woman had said it first.
To make the moment worse, someone had heard them, one of the many grim men that grew like weeds out here, and he looked at Ruth like some patronizing father as if he had that right. "Have you taken a lover?"
She was probably as shocked that he was talking to her as she was by the question. He knew he was.
"No, of course not," she answered. "I'm just showing a stranger hospitality."
But Bartholomew was angry that the man thought he could ask something like that. "What business is it of yours if I were her lover?"
That was all he needed for a supposed confession. "You are blackening your soul with the darkest soul there could be. Haven't you any sense?"
"Why should it matter? According to you, she can just eat my sins away when I die."
She put a hand on his arm pleading for him to stop. The action only made the man more furious and convicted her more.
"Don't think I won't tell the others." The man stormed away angrily.
"Maybe you should go," she fretted. "I can't afford to anger them. And who knows what they might take in their heads to do? Besides, he ain't wrong. It's not good to be with me."
"I'm willing to take my chances, and don't worry about them. I don't think anyone's lining up to take your job."
She looked so vulnerable, worrying about what they thought of her. He shouldn't have pulled her into arms, but he did. She was so small, so warm.
Despite what she said, she wanted to be comforted, and they ended up sharing another kiss. Her lips were soft and yielding unlike her heart. If she didn't have feelings for him, she was doing an awful good job of confusing him.
When they pulled apart, needing air, she wore a look of guilt. He supposed it was just hard for her to believe she deserved to love and be loved.
He didn't know when she would be ready, but he knew one thing, if she wasn't willing to run, he was willing to stay with her forever.
Ruth had known Bartholomew for three weeks, but it felt as if she'd known him a lifetime. And the worst part was every day it was becoming harder and harder to imagine life without him.
The memory of their kisses kept playing over and over in her head until she was sure it was a sin. It was hard to stop it when he was always so near though they avoided the topic, but he was always helping her with her day-to-day tasks as if determined to prove two were better than one.
And she couldn't deny the truth of that when her roof caught fire. Alone, she would have had to run back and forth from the pond with a bucket and likely lost the battle. With two of them the distance was cut in half, and the fire was put out in record time.
Her thatched roof had been gone in the blink of an eye, but the walls were sound. The roof was an easier fix than a whole building.
"I don't know how to thank you," she said in between the coughing from all the smoke. "Your quick action saved my home."
"I don't know if that's a good thing," he said in between his own coughing. "This place is a death trap. You should do all your cooking outside." She didn't have a fireplace just a hole in the roof, at least she'd had a hole in the roof before the fire.
"I should at least be sure I've put enough ashes over all the embers." Her home may not have been much, but it was hers.
"I know you, and I know you're a careful, tidy person. I just wonder if you really did leave any embers."
"What do you mean?"
"You ain't seen any people sneaking around, have you?" he said, looking around as if he might spot them hiding in the trees even now.
"I ain't seen nary a one since Mr. Pickens came to say his piece about what he thought we were up to. Why?"
"I just remember that promise that old fellow made about telling everybody. What if somebody thought they'd scare us apart?"
She sure hoped not. She was racked with guilt to think she might have put him in danger though she knew that wasn't why he'd told her.
It was particularly warm for a fall day, so Bartholomew had his shirt off as he thatched the roof. He was lean, but it didn't stop his muscles from rippling. She tried looking away and mostly succeeded, but he painted such a glorious picture up there on the roof working in the sunlight, covered in a glistening sheen. She had to splash some water onto her burning cheeks more than once.
"Come inside," he said when he came down. "I have a surprise for you."
She'd figured as much since he hadn't let her go inside while he was working on it. He took her hand and dragged her in.
He had not only built back her roof, but he'd built a fireplace. He was looking at her with a boyish eagerness as he waited for her to comment on it.
He'd carefully selected the stones so that it was aesthetically pleasing. He'd even made a little mantle that would give her a place to put stuff. "It's beautiful. You didn't have to go to all that trouble."
"I wanted to."
She'd never realized how small the hut was until he was in there with her. It was even smaller with him still without a shirt. "Well, thank you," she said concentrating on her straw mattress on the floor in the corner. It seemed a safer place to look at the moment than at him.
He put a hand under chin so that she was forced to look up at him. Even in the relative darkness she could see the tender, loving look on his face. It drew her in because she loved him, too.
His love, his kiss, had the power to transport her away from all that was wrong with her life.
His hands danced across her back, making her own hands dig into the grip she had on his hair, not yet daring to touch all the available bare skin. She groaned and received an answering moan. A fire was waking inside her that she didn't even know existed. Her head said no, but her heart and body screamed yes.
Her hands finally made it to the smooth skin of his biceps, and it wasn't long after that they found their way to the mattress.
It would be so easy to keep going, but somehow she reached inside herself and found the power to speak before she was completely overcome. "Stop. Please."
His lips continued to drag across her cheek but at least he stopped kissing the sensitive skin on her neck. "Why? Don't this feel right?"
She didn't blame him for not backing away from her immediately. Her own hands lingered on his chest. "Yes, but it's not." She couldn't make the wicked rumor about them true. "Please."
He heard her brokenness and reluctantly made space between them on the mattress, but he wasn't ready to give up. "What difference does one more sin make? You think you're going to hell though I know God would never send someone as wonderful as you to a place like that. Can you be any more in danger of hell than you already are?"
"Yes. I'm in a living hell that gets worse all the time," she said, hearing the tears in her voice at the same time as they spilled across her cheek. Oh, she wanted this kind of intimacy, but something told her it would be a mistake. That it wouldn't be the intimacy she craved. "You don't understand the burden I carry. It's heavy, so heavy, and it's more than I can bear to add even one. It's bad enough when others add to it. I can't add to it myself."
"You're right. I don't understand, but I want to help you carry the weight. I don't want to add to your sin. I want to marry you. I'd even be willing to stay here and let you eat sin or whatever it is you think you do."
If she was any other girl in the world, she would have said yes. If she thought he could even lift a little of the invisible weight she carried, she would have been tempted beyond belief, but she loved him too much to let him get tangled up with her. Her darkness was bound to rub off on him, and one soul destined for hell was quite enough.
"Oh, Bartholomew. You know why I can't. I'd pawn my soul for yours, but I won't let you do that for me."
"Why do you always wear that awful black cloak?" Bartholomew asked Ruth as they walked in the wood, looking for more berries before an October frost killed them all. He playfully pulled her hood down.
Though she smiled, she pulled it back up. "Because it makes others more comfortable if they don't see my face."
"I should have guessed. It's always about them, ain't it?" He didn't bother to hide the bitterness in his voice.
"I consider others before myself if that's what you mean." It wasn't always easy. There were days she thought it'd be better if her parents had never come to this valley, or better yet, if she'd never been born.
"They feel shame. That's why they don't want to see your face. You should let them see it." His voice normally soft despite its strength was raising in volume.
"I don't want them to feel shame. That's why I do what I do, and I'll do it until the day I die."
He was so frustrated by that reply all he could do was splutter. Then he spun on his heels and went the opposite way.
She had noticed he went for long walks at the height of his anger. It was quite sensible. It avoided more ugly words, or worse doing something you might later regret. And often times, all a person needed to calm down was time.
He didn't understand her. She hoped he would one day, but when he did, that would be the day he finally left, realizing their futures couldn't possibly be intertwined.
She stopped as a strange noise traveled through the air. It took her a moment to realize it was singing. The sound drew her, warm and passionate. She followed its trail until she could finally make out the words.
"But drops of grief can ne'er repay
The debt of love I owe:"
She crouched down and stayed behind the thick oak, not wanting to reveal herself. He was another stranger though she could no longer call Bartholomew that. The woods were apparently crawling with them. He was singing at the top of his lungs and in key it was not, but it was beautiful because she'd never heard joy like that.
"Here, Lord, I give myself away,
'Tis all that I can do."
His hair was wild and graying. His pant legs were rolled up, and he was standing in the creek with his arms held open wide as if there were an invisible rain falling down on him.
A twig snapped under her foot, which he heard and stopped his off-key tenor.
"Hello?" he called out.
She couldn't bring herself to speak. She felt unworthy and frightened though he looked friendly enough. She was afraid he would decide to check out the source of the noise and her muscles became tight in preparation to run.
Instead, he waded to the bank and picked up a leather-bound book. He opened it to a particular page and looked as if he had a message to proclaim, but who was he proclaiming it to? The birds or the squirrels? Or did he suspect the sound came from a human source after all?
In any case, he opened his arms again and shouted in a mighty voice, "The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek."
His voice bounced and echoed, but it wasn't what made her tremble; it was the words themselves. How could he say the Spirit of the Lord on him? And if it was, and somehow she thought it might be, why did that scare her even more? She wanted to shrink back into the cover of the trees. "Run, run!" a voice inside her was crying, but as if her feet had sprouted roots, she couldn't tear herself away.
"He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound."
And then she knew. She was the brokenhearted, She was the captive. She was the one bound in a prison of darkness. Was the Lord talking to her through this man? The realization should have sent her running towards him to hear what the good tidings were, but the voice telling her to run was strong.
She put aside her crazy thoughts. He might be bringing good news for the people of this valley, but he wasn't bringing it for her. If he knew what she was, he would drive her away from her only livelihood. He would preach the news of damnation, information she already all to aware of.
Giving into the desire to escape, she turned and flew toward the direction of her home, not caring about the thorny bushes and branches that tore at her cloak and exposed skin.
Ruth couldn't forget what she'd witnessed yesterday, the man with a message. She hadn't been to church for so long, she'd almost forgotten what it looked like inside, but she was there now, having a feeling that was where such a man would be.
The church was a little white-washed building with a simple steeple pointing toward heaven. The inside was just as simple: pews and an altar with a wooden cross. There were probably a hundred churches that looked just like it, yet it was the church she'd attended with her parents for a short time and that made it stand out to her with fond memories.
An unexplainable longing to enter filled her, but she knew she wasn't welcome. Instead, she stooped down by one of the windows just out of sight, listening to the captivating man from yesterday.
His voice was so passionate when he spoke, there was almost a wild edge to it like a person might have imagined John the Baptist to be. Certainly, he was a voice crying out in the wilderness.
"I sense evil here today, demonic forces. There is a darkness spreading across our land even as it expands westward. And I clasp my hands together in prayer and supplication to drive that darkness back. We need to awaken from our slumber and drive it back with the light of truth."
He was doing what folks called a revival, an exciting turning back to God among the people who knew about God but had let the spark of faith die if they ever had one to begin with.
"Hell is the destination for every man and woman born, and it's the only just end for sinners such as we, but praise God, He has made a way out through the means of sacrifice. Our Lord is merciful!"
There was weeping from some of the women, some of the men, too. She felt her own eyes pricking with tears. Why must there be a sacrifice? Why did she have to be that sacrifice?
"You can't pull yourself from the flames. You need a mediator. I need a mediator. Or there is no hope!"
They broke out into song.
"There is a land of pure delight,
Where saints immortal reign,
Infinite day excludes the night,
And pleasures banish pain."
Oh, it sounded heavenly. She wanted to live without the constant pain that filled her soul. If she could just have a tiny corner of heaven, she'd be the happiest person in the world. It had to be enough to help other people there.
She felt a large pair of hands belonging to a man clasp her shoulders, and she let out a gasp of horror, sure she'd been caught by the revivalist, but it was only Bartholomew.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"Listening. He's such a powerful, wonderful speaker." His gaze seemed to darken while she tried to return her breathing and pulse to a normal rate. She supposed she should have told him where she was going, but she wasn't used to having anyone caring about her comings and goings unless they needed her for a funeral. "You scared the wits out of me."
"You've done that yourself giving into their plan for you," he said, gesturing towards the people inside the church.
Her temper rose up. "So now you're calling me stupid? I chose to be a sin-eater. I was hungry, and I wanted a purpose for my life. No one else made that decision for me."
"Didn't they when they refused to help a girl by feeding her, by caring for her?"
"They weren't far from absolute poverty themselves. They had to look after themselves and their own first. It's the way things are."
"I know. And that's why I'm not a Christian. Christian charity demanded them to share what they had. To adopt you into their family even."
She took a page out of his book and walked into the woods away from him. Not to mention, she didn't want anyone in the church hearing them argue.
But he wasn't done. He chased after her and continued the argument. "They sit in that church every Sunday, hearing the Christian message, keeping you an outcast, who in their mind is not worthy to even sit in the house of the Lord. And they go on practicing their superstition that makes the whole Bible null and void if it were true. Is there a single person in there living out the life Jesus of Nazareth told them to?"
She didn't trust herself to answer. She couldn't remember ever being so angry at another person.
He answered for her. "No, and until I find just one Christian with a heart willing to help anyone who needs it, regardless of what they look like or whether it makes things uncomfortable for them, I refuse to believe it's true that love like that exists."
She forgot her anger her in shock and came to a standstill. Was he saying he wasn't even sure he believed in God? Would God even let such a person's sins be eaten? "Oh, Bartholomew."
"I don't want your pity," he said, his frown-lines out.
"What do you want?" she asked though she already knew.
Ruth was surprised to hear the sounds of a guitar wake her. She quickly dressed and opened the door to better hear it.
It was Bartholomew playing. He was singing as well, and she found his voice unusual but alluring. As joyful as the revivalist's singing had been that was how melancholy Bartholomew's was. Yet, it spoke to her as well; it pulled on her heart in a different way.
"The frozen Streets in Moonshine glitter,
the midnight hour has long been past,
ab' me the wind blows keen and bitter,
I fink beneath the piercing blast,
in every Vein seems life to languish,
their weight my limbs no more can bear
but no one soothes the Orphan's anquish,
and no one heeds the Orphan's pray'r."
It could have been her story he was singing. Maybe it was. She went outside to join him, and he stopped playing and laid his guitar beside him.
"I didn't know you were musical. You've a gift."
"I could be better. I've only just taught myself."
"Taught yourself? Now I am impressed. I'm not very gifted myself, but I do love music."
He smiled, but it was plain he didn't like talking about himself as he shifted the conversation. "Is there anything I can for you today?"
He was so considerate. Was she mad not to accept his proposal? "Well," she said, eyeing his gun. "I've a hankering for meat if you're any good with that thing."
"I can do that," he said, standing up.
"Don't feel like you got to stay out all day. Don't shoot yourself. And do come back to get some lunch."
He grinned at her bossy side coming out. "Yes, ma'am. No, ma'm. And yes ma'am."
While he hunted for meat, she hunted for wild greens. As she picked by a dirt path, a family with three youngens come up the pathway. They were people she didn't know, and they weren't the first of the day she'd seen. There were more strangers passing through than these hills had ever seen.
"I still wonder if we should've come all this way to listen to preaching," the woman was saying. "Mother says it's too emotional and sensational."
"Brother Wesley draws crowds, and those crowds feel things. He's got the hand of God on him. You won't regret coming after you hear him at the camp meeting."
She supposed people were beginning to camp. The services had probably had to be moved outside. It must be a sight. A part of her wanted to see such numbers praising and worshiping God; it sounded inspiring, but another part of her was afraid of coming face-to-face with Brother Wesley. A man like him would see all the evil in her right away.
When she returned with some clovers and mushrooms, Bartholomew was waiting with a plump, brown rabbit. It wouldn't have a lot of meat on its bones, but it would make a good meal.
She took it from him, and after some quick cuts, hung it up on one of the tree branches to drain. She then proceeded to dice up the clovers and mushrooms that would go nicely with rabbit.
"What's on your mind?" he asked.
She'd barely realized she'd been staring out into the pond instead of chopping. "Brother Wesley."
"He has a name now?" He almost sounded jealous, but surely there was no reason for him to think she'd choose a man more than double her age, or any man for that matter.
"I heard some folks talking about him, and I just can't stop thinking about him. I'm tempted to slip into the camp meeting when it gets dark enough and listen."
"Why? You think he can absolve you of your guilt?" He was full of derision, not that she was surprised after their conversation at the church.
"No. I can't be saved. This is my lot in life. I'm first and foremost a sin-eater, and I always will be."
His eyes widened a little. Had he finally realized that she couldn't be shaken from her fate? "I can't save a person who doesn't want to be saved," he said, angry and disappointed both.
"Who asked you to?" she asked just as incensed. "And believe me if I thought you could, I'd let you, but this isn't a fairy tale. A love between a man and woman doesn't save anyone's soul."
"How do you know? You won't give it a chance!" he shouted, red in the face.
"Maybe being separated from society, while painful, has allowed me to see things most never see. I ain't saying being married's not nice, but it's not the cure for what ails you. We are never going to happen and you can wait outside my door until we're both old and gray, but that's not going to change."
She was hurting him. She could see it by his crestfallen expression but better he face it now than later down the road. "You're nothing but a kid, holding onto dreams and fantasies. And if you want to know the truth of it, you're adding to my pain doing it. I just wish you'd go and leave me be."
"Is that really the way you feel?" He was doing a good job of keeping a stiff upper lip, but she could see the anger and injury under the mask.
"With all my heart," she answered though she wasn't even sure she had one still beating in her chest. If she did, it was made of stone, hardened by sin and unworthy of being given away. Perhaps he possessed it even so, but that shouldn't mean he had to be doomed to stay here with her. He had a chance of finding love with another woman, one free to love him the way he needed.
"Then I'll go." He was fighting mad all the while he packed up, but after he got up on his horse, he said to her rather sorrowfully. "I hope you find peace one day. I wish I could've given it to you."
She watched him ride off with tears in her eyes, proving even stone hearts could break.
Determined to take her mind off her grief, Ruth concentrated on skinning the rabbit, but she felt her isolation more keenly than ever, and she was tempted to run after Bartholomew and beg to go with him or for him to come back. She wouldn't however.
Blessing rubbed his head against her legs, what he could find of them with her long, worn skirt in the way. He gave an earnest meow as if to say, "You still have me."
But she wasn't fooled for a minute. "You just want me to share my meat," she said with a chuckle. "Not enough mice out in them woods for you?"
He answered her with another meow.
"No need to get your tail in a knot. I'll share."
She had it deskinned in two shakes of a lamb's tail. Cleaning a rabbit was messy work, and the sight of the crimson blood staining her hands both repulsed and unnerved her. It was like she was seeing her sins before her displayed in this physical manifestation.
She hurried to the pond to wash them. Hands submerged and white again, she laughed at the silly notion, but it fueled her desire to attend the camp meeting once it got dark.
Her stomach was full of rabbit stew, but she had a deeper emptiness inside her that even the promise of a romance hadn't been able to fill. She knew this attendance wasn't going to feed it either, but at least, she could watch others getting fed.
She snuck into the revival, realizing she would draw more attention to herself if she wore her hood, she left it down. She still kept the cloak around her shoulders, nevertheless, as it was a cold night, and the garment had almost become such an extension of herself.
She'd never seen so many people in one place. It was electrifying being a part of the group. It didn't take her loneliness away, but it gave her an energy she normally lacked. Being a sin-eater wouldn't be nearly so hard for her if she wasn't such a people person.
They were only singing at the moment. Though she didn't know the songs, the music and words were speaking to her in a way she couldn't put into words.
In between hymns, she turned her head and gave a small gasp when she realized she was standing right next to the minister of the church. She had always gotten the feeling he resented her even if he tolerated her. He must have felt she was stepping into his territory but that the will of the people reigned supreme.
If he saw her here, there was no telling what he'd do: call her out in front of everyone, drive her away with holy ire. Ready to creep back into the shadows, she turned to leave. It would be easy enough being in the very back like she was.
The single, unexpected word stopped her cold in her tracks. She looked at the minister carefully to gage whether he really meant it. He was looking at her more kindly than he ever had. He must have experienced a revival already.
So she did stay, and she listened to the words preached by Brother Wesley with a hunger, watching as others got saved. She wished she was one of them, but she was happy so many were getting a new lease on life. She watched Adam and his wife repent. Murder and adultery, two sins she wouldn't have to take on at their deaths. She praised God over their conversions as loudly as any of them and with more relief. Too loudly because it caused the people in front of her to spot her.
"You have no reason to be here," one of them said.
"You're a child of the devil, a worker of iniquity!" shouted another.
Soon those around her, the ones that recognized her, were jeering at her as if she were evil incarnated. She was evil, more evil than most having consumed too many sins to count, but what was she hurting just listening and watching? She backed up though, afraid they might turn to violence.
Brother Wesley had heard the commotion and had come to the back to see what was taking place.
"What is going on here? Why are you driving this woman back?"
Tears stung here eyes, but she answered. "I am a sin-eater, sir. Unworthy to take part in this holy gathering."
The others added hisses of agreement and their cries commanding her immediate removal. She started to leave again. She'd never meant to be a distraction.
"Sin-eating is blasphemy!" His nostrils flared. Brother Wesley had heard of sin-eaters apparently. There must have been others hidden up in and along the Appalachian Mountains.
She shuddered as a cold feeling swept thought her at the strong accusation. She halfway wondered if he would call for a stoning.
"Jesus is the only sin-eater. A sinner can't take on the sins of another. Even the priests of the Old Testament couldn't do that with all their animal sacrifices. Only the blood shed from a perfect sacrifice can remove sin." He addressed the crowd mostly, but then he looked right at her.
His gaze and tone softened. Did he see her contrite spirit with only lanterns brightening the dark? "It only takes believing once on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you and your household will be saved: now, on the day you die, and when you stand before the Judgment Seat."
"Listen to my voice." The words of her dream echoed in her head as if they were being spoken in real time. Had God been preparing her somehow for this moment? Did He still speak through dreams? Was He speaking now through this man in front of her?
"For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him."
She knew by his change to older English that he was speaking scripture. If she were asked what the one thing she wanted most in the world was, she would say for someone to take her sins from her and the sins of those who had died, and it turned out someone already had. Had not just taken the world's sins but had become sin to put it to death once and for all. Why? So she could be called righteous? When God looked at her, He wouldn't see her sin, He would see righteousness thanks to the work on the cross.
She fell on her knees and wept at such a profound and glorious idea. "Oh, God have mercy on me, wretch and sinner that I am. I believe. Save me." She didn't care that others heard her prayer. She was focused only on the One who heard in heaven. She wept harder still when she felt her burden lifted.
She remembered the family she'd overheard on the road. The lady's mother would have vastly disapproved of her emotionalism, but she couldn't help it. She was overcome with thankfulness to have more than hope but surety. She could do no less than fall to her knees in worship of God Almighty, and her overflowing heart had to release the tears of joy over her salvation and the sorrow over the multitude of sins she'd needlessly carried for so long.
She remembered then the awakening she'd prayed for. God had done her one better. He still spoke through dreams, and He loved her enough not to ignore her. He didn't think that one lost soul wasn't as bad as hundreds of lost souls like she'd believed, like the people of the valley had believed.
Brother Wesley gone to his knees with her to pray and rejoice with her. A snowflake, the first of the season, fell like a kiss from heaven. God had reached down and given her a new heart, a heart of flesh to replace her heart of stone.
Ruth didn't miss a minute of the camp meetings that took place over the next two weeks. She soaked all the biblical teachings in. Some of it was familiar as her parents had been believers, and they'd attended church, but now that she was saved it was as if she heard it with new ears and saw it with new eyes.
As such, she was there when a woman limped her way to the front. She wasn't terribly old only in her thirties, but she was bent over with rheumatism. Ruth recognized her as the lady who had rejected her so unkindly all those years ago. She must have recognized her too because she looked down in shame.
"Could you ask God to heal me?" she asked Brother Wesley, her voice barely above a whisper.
He did and disappointed tears appeared in the eyes of the woman when nothing happened. She was ready to give up, but Ruth wasn't. She knew what the Bible promised. When people prayed and believed, bodies would be healed.
She boldly stepped out in front of the woman before she could return to her seat. "Do you want to be healed?"
"Of course." She looked at her with a trace of that sharpness from all those years ago.
"Then believe that He can. Receive His blessing." She laid her hands on the woman, remembering the extortion to do so in scripture.
She watched the woman's face light up with joy when the pain was gone, melting away the years, as she was able to straighten her body.
There was shouts of praise and surprise and quiet amazement in the crowd at what they'd just witnessed.
"You have the gift of healing," Brother Wesley said after the revival was over.
"It's not my gift. It's God's." Now that she knew the truth about sin-eating, she felt like she had done so much harm to people. Maybe this was God's showing her she could be a help rather than a curse.
"Do you think I sent people to hell?" she asked. Her dream still haunted her, or more specifically the faces of the passed away participants.
"No," he said with no hesitation. "Once a person's dead, their choices have been made. Either they had a relationship that absolved them of their sins or they died choosing rebellion against their Maker. Your sin-eating wouldn't change that one way or the other."
"It was me," Adam said, coming up and looking desperate to confess something or get it over with. His wife was with him though not standing as close as she might have. Despite the fact that they were new creatures, the road to a better marriage was going to be long and hard.
She had no idea what he was talking about. Her confusion must have shown plainly because he continued. "I deserve to be locked up for my crimes. I've abused my wife. I beat a man to death in my anger, and I set your home on fire because I was mad you'd consumed the sins of a man I despised."
"You tried to kill me?" Bartholomew had been right; the fire had been no accident.
"No. I just wanted even. I knew you and your beau were out."
She could have protested he wasn't her beau, but it didn't matter. He was right that he deserved locking up, but the only justice found here was one a man took for himself or on behalf of his kin. There was no formal authority.
It was too late for him to make restitution for killing a man though maybe he could start by taking care of the sonless mother. His wife had obviously forgiven him even if she was never likely to forget. And Ruth could do no less when she'd been forgiven of so much. "I forgive you."
It was three very powerful words. She watched his body loosen up in relief.
These weren't the only ones who sought forgiveness during that period of renewal, who offered an apology for the shunning they'd given her for a role they'd all but forced her in when they'd refused to help. She found more food on her doorstep than she knew what to do with, making her feel a love and acceptance among them she never thought she would.
However, she was sure there were still a few stewing at losing her services. Tradition, even tradition that deserved it, didn't die in a day. She ended up giving the food she didn't need to some of the widow women in the area, who because of their gender especially struggled to put food on the table.
One more sought an apology of words, finding his courage on the last day of the camp-meetings. "I am so sorry I let you be a sin-eater."
It seemed to her the minister had the least to do with it. Granted he had done nothing to help her in her hour of need, but neither had a lot of people. He at least had disapproved of the practice. "There's nothing to be sorry for."
"Oh, yes there is. I knew it was wrong unlike most, but I did nothing to stop it, which is an even worse sin than ignorance. I let my congregation and you be victimized by a ritual belonging to the devil," he said.
"Well, it's done now. It's time to leave that particular custom from the old world in the past where it belongs."
"And with much prayer and the action of God's people," he said, "perhaps it will die out there as well."
"Amen. I believe it'll be so," she said, filled with a faith that didn't come from herself.
"What are you going to do with your life now that you're longer a sin-eater?"
It was a question she hadn't fully considered yet, but an answer had been growing inside her. She was never happier than here at this revival, and now it was ending. She knew she couldn't follow Brother Wesley; he wasn't her husband and there were no females to chaperone or anybody really as he traveled alone, but why couldn't she be a revivalist herself? She was used to being on her own, and she'd have God's protection.
She couldn't help imagining the spiritually hungry souls beyond theses hills, souls in need of salvation, or the people who needed physical healing and would see the love and power of God through it. And maybe a small part of her wondered or hoped she'd run into Bartholomew again.
"I want to take a revival westward and stop the spread of darkness."
He smiled, a much gentler man than he'd been before. "I think that's a fine idea, Sister Ruth."
No one had ever addressed her as sister before. She rather liked the title. It made her realize she was an orphan no longer, and she'd been placed in a family larger than she could ever dream of.
There was a loud crack as the air shattered.
One instant and it was over. Bartholomew had shot a man and not just shot him but killed him. It was self-defense as the man had been drunk and had reached for his gun first, but it didn't change the fact that a man was dead because of him.
So this was what guilt felt like. If Ruth had felt even a fraction of what he felt now, it was no wonder he hadn't been able to persuade her from her penance.
"Son, don't you know who you just shot? That there is Elmer 'Sureshot' Murphy," said the man standing beside him.
Bartholomew supposed Sureshot wasn't just a middle name given to him by his mother.
"No one ever beat him in a draw until now, and he had a lot of them. You're going to be famous," said another.
That thought didn't thrill him. He foresaw more gunfights in his future. This wasn't what he had expected to have happen to him when he struck out on his own away from his strict, controlling parents.
"Who are you?" asked one of the onlookers. All the people in the saloon seemed eager for his name. Probably so they could slap a new nickname like "Dead-eye" on it and spread it all over.
Ruth's spurning of him still hurt and her last words weighed heavy. "Just a kid apparently," he said, sitting down on the barstool before his shaky legs brought him to the floor.
"Well, Kid, what can I get you?" the bartender asked as he wiped a glass with a rag. "You look like you could use a stiff drink."
He liked the sound of his new name very much. He'd never been fond of the stuffy, saintly sounding Bartholomew that was better fitted on a church sign than as a moniker for a gunfighter because that was clearly what he was now. "A whisky."
Sister Ruth was going to marry Kid Cole tomorrow morning, Lord willing and if the creek didn't rise. Theirs had been a whirlwind romance, unexpected, and they'd fallen for each other hard and fast over the span of a few days.
Bathed in moonlight, sitting out on the bridge in front of the church, they spent the eve of their wedding day together just talking. Well, granted she did most of the talking, but he looked as if he were enjoying listening as she talked about the places she'd been and the people she'd met.
Truthfully, they still didn't know much about one another, but when you loved a person, the past didn't matter as much as the present.
"I better get back to my wagon for some sleep before tongues start to wag or I make myself a very fine-looking bride with circles under my eyes." She leaned over to give him a kiss to the cheek.
"Okay, darling. I guess that's wise given how enticing I'm finding you right now." She cast her gaze downward, the smoldering look in his eyes embarrassing her a little but also making her smile. "If you need anything, I'm spending one more night at the clinic."
She wasn't halfway down the street when she heard the playing of a guitar. Kid had moved to the porch of the clinic and was playing a hauntingly familiar song on the guitar. She moved closer and listened all the way until the last verse.
"He's gone! no mercy man will show me
in prayers no more I'll waste my breath
here on the frozen Earth I'll throw me
and faint in mute despair for death
farewell, thou cruel world tomorrow
no more thy scorn my heart will fear
the grave will shield the Child of sorrow
and Heaven will hear the Orphan's pray'r."
She had come to the realization that she'd seen the man and guitar before during the course of the song. "Bartholomew!"
His guitar almost fell off his lap he stood up so quickly. "How did you know that name? I haven't told anyone my real name in years."
"It's me, Ruth. You spent some time with me one fall back when we were both kids. I was a sin-eater."
She watched the parade of emotions: recognition, amazement, joy, love. "No wonder I fell for you so quickly."
It didn't make them love each other any more than they already did, but it was nice to know they had a deeper, longer history with each other than they'd thought. It was like an incomplete story that had finally been brought to a satisfying conclusion.
"I went back that summer. The people there wouldn't tell me where you had gone. I think they thought they were protecting you. I had to make myself be happy with the knowledge that at least you had gotten away."
She was touched both by the fact he'd returned to get her and that the people who once shunned her had become her protectors.
"How could I have not recognized you?" he asked himself as he took both her hands in his. "Especially when I knew your name was Ruth."
"A common enough name, and I was a lot thinner then and younger," she said with wry-self-humor.
"It's more than that. You always had a spark of fire in you, but now you positively glow and that makes you look more different than any physical changes."
She knew exactly what he meant. "My guilt had overwhelmed me. Now it's pure, inexpressible joy that fills my soul. Who you are inside has a way of manifesting itself on the outside in one way or another." She had seen it when she caught a look at her reflection the first time after her salvation. She almost hadn't recognized herself, and it was the first time in memory she hadn't despised it.
"When I think of all the time that was wasted when we could've been together..."
"It wasn't wasted. I've spent my life leading people to the Lord. And you, your life, your choice to be a gunfighter, and this consumption that you've got has finally brought you to a moment where you could accept the Lord as your Savior and realize that maybe Christians ain't hypocrites as much as they are imperfect people loved and saved by a perfect God."
"I reckon that's true, but I have always loved you. Why do you think I never got married?"
"Lord knows I've loved you, too, but I think we can love each other so much better now that we know what real love is," she said, glancing upward as if she could see Jesus in the stars. "Now that we're free from the burdens of the past, of our sin."
And then he was kissing her, giving a foretaste of what it must feel like to float right up to heaven.