What happens when someone burns three churches and kills a man? Cleansed by Fire.
July 22, 2013
A VG Serial: Cleansed by Fire
Father Frank drove to City Park. He was encouraged by his talk with Ward. He might return to God. Father Frank thought about the life Ward had lived through. How could anyone expect him to be normal? It made the priest angry just thinking about it.
That didn’t excuse the horrible crimes Ward had committed, but it did offer some insight. Father Frank believed steadfastly in God’s willingness to forgive. God wouldn’t give up on Ward and neither would Father Frank. A passage from the gospel of Matthew came to him.
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes.”
Last night’s events put an end to the church fires. Father Frank was convinced of that. What a relief that was for all the church-goers of Pine Tree. Actually, to everybody in Pine Tree. Misfortune for one part of the town damaged the entire town.
Thank you, God, for saving the two churches last night.
He pulled into the parking lot, parked and strolled over to watch the basketball for a while. So many unusual things had filled the past week that Father Frank had had little time for his basketball league. Fortunately, Dan Zimmerman had taken up the slack. The scores of the games and the standings were posted on the fence. The priest scanned the rankings. The realignment had worked. Every team had won some and lost some. No team dominated, none was a doormat.
Today, the Tigers and the Greyhounds were fighting like, well, like cats and dogs. Sweat and smiles abounded. Father Frank thought this contest illustrated what basketball should be—a fun game—hard fought but fun. Contrary to popular folklore, winning was not the only thing.
A boy on the sideline came over to him.
“Father, Earl has been around again. Not trying to sell us nothing. Just asking lots of questions. Trying to find out how things worked. We told him we didn’t know and didn’t wanna know.”
Father Frank listened thoughtfully. “Thanks. I appreciate your telling me.”
With the capture of Ward and the end of the church fires, he had put Earl out of his mind. But drugs still posed a problem for Pine Tree.
The priest continued to watch the game but his mind was not on basketball. What was Earl doing? Was he the big drug force in town, or just trying to get in? And why did he have to pick Pine Tree?
Thirty minutes later, Father Frank arrived at the hospital and went straight to Sammie’s room. It was empty. Crisp sheets, tucked tightly all around gave no sign Sammie had ever been there. Father Frank’s stomach suddenly felt like he was in a fast-falling elevator, and he clenched his fists as he hurried to the nurse’s station.
The nurse concentrated on the computer monitor, not acknowledging his arrival.
“Hi. Can you tell me what has happened with Sammie Winters? He was in room two oh nine.”
She continued to type, apparently ignoring him, or perhaps deaf.
“Sammie Winters. He was—”
She held up her hand. “Let me finish this entry.”
She needed only a few seconds but to Father Frank, it drug on too long.
“The Winters boy?” She looked up. “He regained consciousness during the night. This morning, his doctor had him moved out of intensive care. Let me look up where they put him.”
Relief flooded through Father Frank and he found himself smiling. Out of intensive care sounded like very good news.
When Father Frank finally found Sammie’s room, the doctor was just leaving.
“Can I see him?” the priest asked.
“Yes. He asked about you. I told him you had a broken collar bone but were otherwise okay. He seemed relieved. You can visit with him for a few minutes, no more than ten. He needs to rest.”
Over his shoulder as he left, the doctor said, “And so do you.”
Sammie’s eyes opened when the priest entered the room. He smiled, but Father Frank could tell the boy was still in pain. Two clear plastic bags fed liquids into a tube which ended with a needle inserted into Sammie’s arm.
“Father. How’s your shoulder?”
“About the same as your head. Sore. They’ve got a sort of X-bandage on my back to keep my shoulder from moving too much. It’s actually the collarbone that broke but it isn’t too bad. The doctor said it should heal with no complications.”
“Doctor told me the worst was behind me. Might get to go home tomorrow.”
“Don’t rush it. Ward must have given you quite a whack on the head.”
“Yeah. Doctor said if the corner of the board had hit me, it would have fractured my skull.” The boy grinned. “Good thing I got a hard head, right?” He turned serious. “Dad said you pulled me out of the fire. Thanks.” Again, he managed to coax a smile through his pain.
“Well, that wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t yelled to warn me. You gave me just enough time to get my head out of the way.” He laughed. “Of course, if I’d been as fast as I thought I was, he might have missed me altogether.” His smile vanished and his tone became sober. “You saved both our lives.”
“Thanks. Father.” For a minute, Sammie looked like he was composing what he wanted to say. “Father, I’m sorry.”
“If I’d told you more about what Ward was doing, he might not have burned Prince of Peace. Might not have broken your shoulder, uh, collarbone.”
Father Frank nodded. “You’re right. And if you had told the police earlier, several churches might have been saved. You should have spoken earlier. Keeping silent is not always the best policy.”
“Ward made me swear I wouldn’t tell anything. I thought we were friends.”
“If your friends tell you to do something that’s wrong, maybe they’re not your friends.”
“I know that now. I just thought… well, I don’t know what I was thinking.” Sammie looked on the verge of tears. “After the first one, it got even…” His voice faded and he looked away from the priest.
Father Frank laid his hand lightly on Sammie arm. “I understand. You start down a path, and sometimes it’s hard to turn around. But you did. You stood up to him last night.”
Sammie looked back at the priest.
Father Frank decided it had to be said and now was a good time. “You also know you have to tell Detective Oakley everything you know about the fires. Right?”
“Yeah. I do. And I will. Promise.”
Sammie closed his eyes, and Father Frank could see he was still in pain. “I guess I’d better go and let you rest.”
Sammie’s eyes opened. “How’s Prince of Peace?”
“Still standing. The floor in the vestibule and up the aisle a little is charred. And a few of the pews at the back. But the firemen snuffed it out pretty quickly. And the fire wasn’t moving as fast as in other churches. The diesel didn’t soak into the vinyl tile like it did in the wood floors. So a lot of the fire was just the diesel burning, not the floor. No doubt, we were blessed.”
“And Ward only used half the diesel. He was saving the other half for another church. Did he burn down another church?”
“No. Thanks to you, we found him before he did. He’d poured the diesel on the floor and was ready to light it. You helped us get there in time.”
“Thank the Lord for that,” said Sammie.
“Yes, thank God for saving both churches. Well, I’d better go and see how the cleanup is progressing. There was still a lot of water in there when I left. Got to get that all dried out by tomorrow. Hang in there, Sammie. And sleep. That’s the best thing.”
“Ward’s in jail?”
Father Frank nodded. “He said to tell you he was sorry.”
“What’s going to happen to him?”
Father Frank shook his head. “I honestly don’t know. There are extenuating circumstances. But he did burn down three churches and killed a man. He’s in serious trouble. He needs our prayers, Sammie.”
Chapters of the serial are published on Monday, Thursday, and Sunday.
You can learn more about Cleansed by Fire and other James H. Callan novels on his Amazon Author Page.