Hand-in-hand Levi started towards the beach and each man he passed fell in line behind him until every pirate, soldier, and common man walked in single file with Levi leading the way. Charley walked behind Victoria who periodically turned and waved to him.
Levi felt like a zombie whose maker willed him onward. He had run back and forth through the woods several times and in a few instances several of these fiends had fired upon him during those occasions. He witnessed men getting shot or blown to pieces. He saw the destruction of two ships, and he heard the terrifying howls men made right before they died. He watched as the dead rolled in on the waves and he fled from a screeching banshee in the sky. His body ached and at this moment he wanted to be at home, sleeping next to his wife but instead he led a rag tag collection of men to their salvation.
Edward murdered William and his wife Mary. Did he deserve to be saved despite the life he led? What of William and Mary or the other pirates? They thieved and plundered for a living. How much did they steal and who did they hurt or kill during their employment? Did paradise hold a place for such scoundrels?
A few of them lived well however. They did not plunder other ships or threaten children. They were men mistakenly killed. Did Tom Pipken deserve to spend his years trapped amongst the trees because he sought out the gold and a better life? What about the young man with his cattle and dog; should he be included with this lot of plunderers and pillagers? Should John Callis not be freed from his prison? Did he not deserve more so the benefits of everlasting life on which these thieves and murderers turned their backs?
Levi did not wrestle long with the implications of saving a group of men he perhaps believed did not deserve to be saved. He felt the Holy Spirit in his heart instructing him on what he must do and Levi obeyed faithfully. God is mercy and ready to forgive all those who called upon him. If these men truly believed and repented of their sins then they could claim salvation for through faith one is saved; not of good works.
He did not understand the presence of ghosts. The Bible made no significant mention of them, but behind him a whole troop followed. When in history had so many spirits in such a solid form congregated for such an event? Levi speculated never. He would record every detail from his first meeting with Doris all the way through to the salvation yet to occur. If the world wanted to read his book then they were welcome to the story. They could choose to believe it or not. At the minimum, perhaps they might find hope within it.
Victoria hummed and smelled her flowers and swung his arm which he had not noticed. Who more deserved salvation than she? What glory awaited her?
Farther back the coughing pirate continued to wheeze and hack.
“Stop coughing on me. I do not want to catch yer disease!” one man shouted.
“Fool, you be already dead! Yer not catchin nothin!” the sick pirate fired back.
“Aye, but ye be dead too and ye still be coughin so I’m supposin it don’t matter none whether I’m dead or alive, I might still catch your consumption.”
“Awww it makes no difference,” the sick pirate returned. “God will cure me. There’s no sickness in heaven. Didn’t you ever attend temple when you was little?”
“Well never mind yer disease it’s still not mannerly; they don’t cough on people in Heaven do they?”
A couple of neighboring pirates laughed.
A few yards behind him he heard a familiar voice say, “Are you aware if this is the King’s Highway?”
Levi smiled. He looked forward to getting that ghost out of the woods and knew Doris would be happy to see him go also.
Farther down the line, William and Mary held hands.
“I missed you so,” William said. “I’m sorry I left ye.”
“It is not yer fault and let us not speak of it further. I want no more trouble in my heart. I just want to enjoy you.” She reached caressed his face.
“Aye, I have a feeling we’ll have plenty of time for that,” he leaned his head against hers. She smiled and closed her eyes. They walked without speaking the rest of the way but every few yards William pulled Mary’s hand to his lips and kissed it.
Bringing up the rear behind two dozen more men, walked John Callis, Tom Pipken, and the young man who owned the cows. His dog followed beside him and his cows plodded behind.
“What do you think is going to happen to us?” the young man asked. “Do you think we’re really going to heaven?”
“Probably so,” Tom Pipken answered. “I bet there is a whole bunch of treasure in Heaven to be found. Gold streets, gold trees, diamond forks, you name it, I bet they got it!” he exclaimed. “I know it won’t be worth much if everyone has it but it will be a whole lotta fun seeing it all.”
“How do you think we’re gonna get there? Do you think we’re going to fly up in the sky?” the young man asked.
“Who knows,” Tom answered. “Maybe we just turn to dust where we stand.”
The young man walked silent for a moment looking at his animals and pondered this. “What do you think will happen to my animals? Will they go to heaven too do you think?” the man asked with trepidation and turned to look at his loyal animals following him.
Tom Pipken shrugged his shoulders. “Whatever happens to them, I don’t think they will stay here.”
“Why not?” the young man asked sounding hopeful.
“I don’t think that’s God’s will.”
The young man smiled at this idea. He had spent so many years with his animals that he hated leaving them behind.
“You got a name young man?” Tom asked.
“Yeah, it’s Keith,” he replied.
“All right!” Tom grinned. “Keith and his cattle. What’s your dog’s name?”
“Well that’s a fine looking dog you got there!” Tom commented on the black and white dog trotting alongside Keith.
“Thank you,” Keith replied and thought quietly for a moment. “Can I ask you guys a question?”
“Go ahead, Keith!” Tom returned. Since they began their walk to the beach Tom had a permanent smile on his face. He had the appearance of a man headed home to tell his wife he won the lottery.
“How did you guys die?”
“Had a heart attack I think,” Tom answered. “Hit me right in my chest. I saw the ghost pirate ship floating up the creek and I got so scared I had a heart attack. The next thing I know I fell off my boat and I’m sinking beneath the water.”
“So did you die of a heart attack or did you drown?” James asked.
A puzzled look formed on Tom’s face. “I don’t think I remember. Hmm?”
Keith smiled at how well Tom appeared to take his own death. “Aren’t you worried about what happened with your family or if they worried about you?”
“Naw,” he answered. “I didn’t have family but I wanted to start one. I guess that’d be my only regret. But I reckon not starting a family isn’t as painful as actually having one and losing it.”
“I’m worried about what my mom thought? I bet she was pretty sad.”
“Yeah, but look on the bright side. You’ll see her soon right?” Tom added.
“I guess that’s true.”
“How’d you die James?” Tom asked.
“Some hunters killed me.”
“I was killed too!” Keith exclaimed.
Tom grunted. “You’d think with all the murders in these woods the authorities would have caught someone.”
“How do you know they weren’t?” Keith asked.
“I’d have felt it?” James answered and continued staring at the ground as they walked.
“Do you think the guys who killed us are in hell?”
“Maybe yours are,” James returned, “but who can say. I’m sure more than a few among this bunch were as bad as the guys who killed you but after today will they be going to hell? I’m not so sure. Is that fair? It’s not for us to decide. As for the men who killed me, I think they’re still alive.”
“Did you leave anyone behind?” Keith asked.
“I don’t like to think of it that way,” James replied, “because I didn’t choose to leave. Yes, when I entered the woods I lived near them with my wife and she’s now alone, but I didn’t leave her any more then you intentionally left your momma. I loved my wife and she loved me. Fate has dealt just as great an injustice to her.”
“Well you’ll see her soon too right James?” Tom said with an uplifting tone trying to lighten the mood.
“She’s still alive,” James replied with a tone that sucked the wind out of Tom’s joyous sails.
Tom and Keith exchanged startled glances.
“Still alive?” Keith questioned.
“I think she’s holding on,” James answered and avoided their gazes.
Keith frowned and wondered whether his mother had done the same. Tom walked silently for a few minutes then began to whistle a merry song as the beach’s gray sky came into view.
Levi walked out onto the sand, stood near the water and turned to face the motley host of ghosts and soldiers who filed out of the woods and lined up horizontally to face him. Victoria continued to hold his hand and her flowers while they waited until all took their places. They stretched at least forty yards from Charley who stood at the far left all the way down to John Callis who exited the woods last.
Levi called out to them, “It says in the Bible, there will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repenteth more so than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance. How much joy then do you think there will be today when over ninety-nine sinners repent? Make no mistake. Heaven is watching.”
Most smiled, a few shed tears, and a few others cheered with laughter.
Levi knelt in the wet sand, Victoria knelt with him, and the others facing him did the same. “Dear Lord,” Levi began and the others repeated his words, “I have sinned. I have not led my life according to the way in which you wanted me to lead it. I have not feared you and I have not kept your commandments. I have lived a life in defiance of your goodness and your holiness. I have become wicked and sorrowful in your sight.”
As the men repeated his words, many wept. Some of the pirates patted their neighbor’s back in a sign of support.
“Lord I submit myself to you and humbly ask for your mercy. Please forgive me of my transgressions. Please bestow on me the gift of the Holy Spirit. Create within me a clean heart, O Lord and renew a right spirit within me. Lord I accept Christ as my savior. I recognize him as the Father’s, Son and the only path to salvation. Enter my heart and cleanse me of all my wickedness. Please free me from this world so I may one day walk with you in paradise.”
Levi paused to allow those crying to regain their composure. Levi recited the Lord’s Prayer and as he started the sun rose behind him. He felt as though these men were finally escaping the darkness and stepping forth into the light.
“Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thine name, thy Kingdom Come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil for thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”
The men wiped their eyes. The sun, like the face of God, renewed their spirits. They turned to one another and either shook hands or hugged. They appeared as men, deserted for years on a lonely island, who now saw the rescue boats on the horizon. They smiled and laughed. A few threw their hats in the air while others pulled out their pistols and prepared to let fly with their shot but thought the Lord may frown upon them so they discreetly tucked their guns away.
“Are we done?” Victoria asked. “Will I get to see my parents soon?”
“Yes, very soon,” Levi returned. Levi waved his arms until the assembly noticed him and grew quiet. “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things have become new!”
They nodded and Levi smiled. “Charley, please accompany me into the water.” He picked up Victoria, turned and waded into the bay until the water came to his waist. The other pirates remained silent. Charley waded out behind them and stood waiting for instruction.
Levi looked to Victoria with tears pooling in his eyes. Her time to depart had arrived and impending loss overwhelmed him.
“What’s wrong?” Victoria asked.
Levi took a deep breath. “It is time for you to go now, honey. Would you like to say good-bye to Charley?”
Victoria nodded with a frown for though her heart yearned for her family, she saw how sad leaving made Levi. Levi handed Victoria over to Charley and he hugged her warmly.
“We’ll both be leaving Victoria. I’m sure I will see you when we get there,” Charley reassured her.
“I hope so. I missed you so much when you went away in the woods.”
“I missed you too.”.
She turned to Levi and held her arms out for him. He quickly pulled her in and hugged her tightly. She wrapped her arms around his neck and spoke into his ear. “I’m going to miss you too, Levi.”
Levi rocked her back and forth and cried in her long brown hair. “I’m going to miss you too honey.”
She leaned back in his arms to get a look at his face. Tears filled his red eyes. He knew this time when she vanished, he would not find her again.
“I’m sorry you are so sad,” she whispered and tears began sliding down her cheeks too.
“Don’t worry about me, baby. I will be okay. I don’t want you to cry anymore. You have cried far too much.”
She held up her four flowers she had picked after Levi had saved her from Captain Wilcox. “Do you remember my flowers?” she asked with a quiver in her voice. “This one is my dad,” she said pointing again to the larger one, “this one is my mom, this small one is me, and this fourth flower is you,” she explained and Levi smiled despite his sadness.
“I’m going to plant these when I get to heaven so I will always remember you. I don’t think it will ever die in Heaven do you?”
He shook his head and laughed through his tears at how remarkable and pure a soul she had. “No honey, I think they will bloom forever.”
“I love you Levi.”
“I love you too Victoria,” he returned choking on his emotion. He thought of the first words Charley had spoken to him, smiled, and said, “If I ever have a daughter, I want her to be just like you.”
Victoria kissed him on the cheek and he hugged her one more time.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Do you love the Lord, Victoria?”
“Peace be with you, daughter,” and with those words Levi dunked her under the water and drew her forth again. As the water ran over her body she disappeared.
“Bye-bye, I love you,” she said and then vanished.
The congregation on the shore gasped but said nothing. Levi bit his lip and turned from Charley. He wept. He wanted to sink below the water and indulge in self-pity. She was finally free from the terror of the woods and this pleased him, but part of him wished they had returned home together. While they had sat in the woods leaning against the tree he had thought of raising her. He wanted to take her to church in a new pretty dress and push her on the swings at the playground. He wanted more time to be her hero. He had never in his life felt as significant as he did when he helped her. Never had he experienced such a level of gratitude from anyone. Now she had gone onward and though he knew she picked flowers, skipped and maybe even sang, the pain of knowing he wouldn’t see her for so long bit at his heart. Was this the same anguish she felt when her mother and father rode off without even a farewell? How terrible the separation must have been as she chased their wagon screaming. Poor Victoria deserved to be in paradise more so then any man or woman present and he hoped her mother and father embraced her with years of overdue affection.
He wiped his eyes on his shoulders and faced Charley. “I’m sorry,” he stumbled on the words.
“Don’t be. I love her too. Now you understand my anguish when she died.”
Levi nodded and thought about Victoria’s lifeless body in the woods. She appeared as a little angel who had crashed to Earth and landed beneath the trees.
“I don’t know where you will go exactly or what you will remember, but if you can find her, will you?” Levi looked like a man who had been sitting awake all night at his dying wife’s bedside.
“I surely will.”.
“Thank you.” Levi swallowed hard his misery and took a deep, composing breath. “Ready?”
“I am ready.”
“You accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your savior?”
“May the Lord cleanse you of your sins!” Levi bent Charley backwards until his head submerged beneath the water then yanked him upright.
“Tell Victoria I love her,” Levi blurted before Charley disappeared.
Charley nodded then waved to those on the shore before vanishing. The people on the beach slapped their own faces and their mouths fell agape.
“How about that?” Tom said and he danced where he stood.
One of the pirates, a young skinny boy dressed in rags with scraggly hair, sprinted into the water towards Levi and almost fell under in his desperation to reach him. His Captain, suddenly absorbing the boy’s youth as he watched him run, fell to his knees and prayed for forgiveness for allowing such a small child the grueling and unforgiving life of a pirate. The sailors under his charge, those accustomed to his stoic and cold charge, avoided staring at him for fear of his wrath as he cried. This man’s heart transformed from stone to flesh.
The boy waded out to Levi with tears in his eyes and Levi recognized him as the young pirate who had washed onto shore after his ship sunk at sea. Levi had prayed over him and he felt a warm sense of joy filling his soul to see how God had answered his prayer.
The boy stood not five feet tall and his clothes did not fit him because he wore the clothes of an adult. His long, dirty hair dangled over his thin malnourished face. The sun’s scorching rays had ravaged his pale skin. The pitiful boy approached huffing and puffing and stared at Levi with wild panic.
“You have asked Jesus into your heart?” Levi asked with redness in his own eyes because he had not recovered from losing Victoria.
“Yes,” the boy said with conviction but with also a saddened quiver in his voice.
“Then why are you sad?”
“I miss my parents and my sister, sir. I haven’t seen them in so long. I ran from home at eleven.”
“If Jesus has saved them as he has you, then you will be with them in the clouds when He returns.”
The boy’s face brightened. “They attended church and read the Bible all the time. I’m sure I will see them then.”
Levi smiled at the child’s strength of faith. “You standing in this water represents your crucifixion. Jesus died on the cross for your sins so you might have everlasting life.”
The boy bowed his head and nodded in understanding. “The submersion in the water represents burial just as Jesus was buried and just as you emerge from the water so too did the Lord resurrect Jesus. Levi grabbed the boy and leaned him into the water then yanked him forth. With this baptism, you have proclaimed your faith in Christ.”
The congregation applauded and cheered. The boy smiled, waved, and then disappeared.
“He is free,” Levi whispered.
One by one, they waded out in the water to meet Levi and he explained to each the purpose of the baptism. A few of the pirates were large, sturdy men and Levi struggled pulling them out of the water. Once they stood to their feet, they jumped and cheered like small children and disappeared while smiling.
The pirate prisoner, Christopher’s grandson, forced to show the other pirates the treasure’s location, waded out next. He was short and thin and his hair barely hung to his shoulders. Levi guessed he was not a pirate at all but a prisoner stolen from another vessel because of his knowledge regarding the treasure.
“What is your name?” Levi asked.
“Malcolm sir,” the prisoner answered like a young suitor looking to impress Levi.
“Do you repent of your sins?”
“I do sir. I have done things I have regretted in life. I have always believed in God but I have not done what he asked of me which I guess is even worse than not believing at all.”
“Were you a pirate?”
“No sir, a fisherman.”
“How is it then you were taken prisoner?”
“I drifted too far from shore and they caught me in the Bay. I thought they were going to kill me and I told them the story about the treasure hoping they might spare me. We didn’t dig it up. I guess that’s good. They would have been royally angry with me if they found nothing but cannonballs,” he grinned.
Levi smirked. “Yes, I suppose you were fortunate.” He scanned the shore and found Edward with his eyes. The man stared at the sand. “Do you know if your grandfather ever took the Lord to be his savior?” Levi asked.
The prisoner frowned and as he pondered this he grew more concerned. “I don’t know sir. I did not see him the last days of his life. I suppose he may have but cannot be certain. If he did not then what has become of him?”
“I cannot speak to God’s business,” Levi answered.
Of all the ghosts, this man’s grandfather puzzled him the most because to Levi’s knowledge, Christopher did not die among the trees. If so, then Levi should not have seen him earlier in the night.
“Then sir why did you ask? Did you know my Grandfather?” He maintained his manners but his eyes expressed growing concern.
“How did your grandfather know where to find the treasure?”
“Well because he told me he….” the prisoner’s voice faded and a horrific look clouded his face as the realization of his grandfather’s treachery became apparent. “Oh no, this can’t be! How could he be responsible?”
Levi placed his hand on the man’s shoulder. “You cannot choose your family but you can choose life over death. Do you choose to love the Lord? Do you believe in him?”
The man nodded but he the color had left him and his eyes drooped. The truth brought to his attention disturbed him. The realization his Grandfather Christopher had a hand in killing William and Mary.
“The Lord will not judge you for your family’s sins.”
“Yes sir, but I loved my grandfather. He was a good man to me. Not an evil man who murdered others. I can’t bear to think of him in hell!”
“I apologize for telling you. I wanted to know if he had changed his ways. If by God’s will he had become a good man.”
“He was a good man sir. Truly! He did good things for people. Surely that will get him into Heaven right?”
“It is not good works that get us into Heaven, it is the gift of God through our faith in Jesus otherwise he could accept none of us. There is still a chance your grandfather repented.”
“Yes sir, I’m sure he did!” the man exclaimed grasping at the idea.
“Take comfort then.”
Levi baptized him and the man grabbed Levi’s hand to shake it before disappearing and the strength of his grip faded with his body.
The coughing pirate waded out next. The man who viciously slashed Levi’s tent hoping to kill whatever slept inside. As he approached, the water moved around him and created a wake in the same manner a wake is created when a boat moves through the water. When he coughed however, his body briefly appeared skeletal and for a split second the water did not move around him but through him. Levi encountered him in the woods first and despite the attack and this man’s supernatural appearance, Levi did not fear him at all.
He stood shorter than Levi. He had a dark mustache and goatee and dark stubble on the rest of his face. His dark, bushy eyebrows sat upon yellow eyes exuding disease and the skin beneath them appeared purple. He strutted and grinned as he approached revealing a set of yellow and gold teeth.
He waded out to Levi and stood before him panting but grinning like a child about to receive a medal. Unfortunately, as Levi prepared to speak, a humbling lung attack overcame the man. He held up his hand imploring Levi to be patient. The fit at such a significant moment embarrassed him. He coughed and hacked for many seconds and Levi cringed with each outburst feeling sorry for the wretch. Once done, the pirate took several short breaths and wiped blood from his chin. Sweat glistened his pale face.
“You haven’t felt well in a long time, have you?”
The man nodded with closed eyes but did not attempt to talk until sure his attack had passed.
“I’m sure you are looking forward to feeling better,” Levi stated.
The man turned, cleared his throat and using a little bit of breath whispered, “That I am.” The attack purged his arrogance and he appeared weak and frail.
Levi explained the baptism to him as he had done with the others then dunked him. The frail man felt as light as the young boy he had baptized earlier. When he emerged from the water he sucked in a large gulp of air and grimaced with fear as he prepared for a painful, coughing attack to follow but none came. His clean lungs welcomed the fresh air and he cried with appreciation for the power of the Lord. He disappeared as had the rest.
A few people later and out waded a curious specter whom Levi knew little about. The ghost who searched for King’s Highway.
“I remember you,” the ghost said when he approached Levi.
Levi smiled sheepishly feeling bad he had fibbed to the ghost.
“I’m sorry but I do not know what the King’s Highway is,” Levi replied. “I did not want to mislead you but I could not be delayed in trying to help you so I sent you on your way.”
The specter smiled. He appeared not as sickly or supernatural as Doris had mentioned but perhaps his vitality had more to do with standing in the sun than in the moonlight.
“The King’s Highway is a path from the North to the South. We stopped near these woods to unload supplies en route to a settlement on the Bay. I remember sweating with fever. They told me to scout the path through the woods and determine how far from the coast the Highway ran but I could not find it. When I returned, my ship had departed. I wandered around for a few days but without food and water my sickness overcame me. I do not know where my body rests.”
Levi speculated whether they abandoned because of his illness but he saw no point in opening that wound.
“It is irrelevant where you died or where they buried you. What is important is where you end up. Your body carried your soul. It no longer possesses value.”
“I do not know for what sins I should be ashamed but I know no man is perfect and I am certain I have surely sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. For this I am sorry.”
“Do you believe Jesus Christ is your savior?” Levi asked.
“I do sir.”
“Then peace be with you.”
When the man rose from the water he looked skyward as he vanished and whispered.
He turned and saw Edward wading out to Levi with his head hanging. He removed the bandana from his neck, dipped it in the water, and then wiped clean his face.
“You repented of your sins?” Levi asked.
Edward nodded and wiped his nose because he had been crying but still did not look at Levi.
“You accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your savior?”
Edward nodded again. “How can he forgive me?” Edward cried and rubbed his eyes with his palms.
“Because you believe in him and you have repented. If we confess our sins, he is faithful to forgive us of our sins,” Levi explained.
Edward, a weather worn man in his forties cried harder. “I’m so sorry for what I’ve done!”
“The Lord hears you,” Levi replied. “The angels are rejoicing.”
Edward soaked up the sky and wiped his tears. What a glorious day he thought.
Edward nodded. “I’m ready.”
Levi dunked him and drew him forth. The remaining dozen people left at this point all clapped. Edward smiled. “Thank you,” he said to Levi and then he vanished.
A British soldier waded out to Levi. Taller and stouter than Levi, powder stains blackened his coat. This man served with Charley and likely cannon fire from Lord Dunmore’s fleeing ship killed him. “I had already accepted the Lord as my savior as a young boy in England but I did not have the chance to be baptized prior to leaving and I’ve lost my way since then,” he stated.
“Do you love the Lord?”
“I do sir.”
“Do you repent of your sins?”
“Indeed I do.”
“Then the Lord has forgiven you.”
Levi dunked the soldier. He rose out of the water, waved to the three friends he still had remaining on the shore and disappeared like the rest.
Captain Wilcox approached next. He waded out to Levi with no apparent humility in his gait or fear in his face. He had pulled his still oily hair into a pony tail and buttoned his vest to appear more presentable. More importantly the wildness had vanished from his eyes. When he reached Levi, he stared him right in the face and spoke like he addressed a senior officer.
“I apologize for striking the girl. I can see she meant a great deal to you. I too had a daughter whom I left behind before coming to Virginia and I greatly desire to see her and her mother again. I have no excuse for my actions. I can only say madness sickened me otherwise I would not have conducted myself in such a despicable fashion as to bring dishonor to myself, my family, my country, and most of all my Lord. The Lord has cleansed me of this sickness but the memory of my actions lingers and my behavior plagues me.”
Levi nodded and accepted the sincerity of Wilcox’s words. “Do you repent?”
“I surely do.”
“You have accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your savior?”
“I am his humble servant,” Wilcox responded.
“Very well then, the Lord forgives you. Are you ready?”
“I am indeed, sir.”
Levi baptized him and pulled him upright. “Bless you sir!” Captain Wilcox uttered and evaporated with the water.
William and Mary waded out together. Levi gazed at the morning sky above the trees and tried to remember how terrifying she appeared wailing in the pale moonlight. Standing there in the warm air and watching the seagulls arrive on a developing breeze made the past night feel like a bad dream.
They stood before him with their arms locked at the elbow as though presenting themselves for marriage.
Her plain, weathered face made confusing her for a man, easier. When she smiled at William however, her eyes and nose crinkled and she took on the lovely, feminine appearance of a woman enamored with her husband.
“Do you forgive those who trespassed against you?” Levi asked.
“Do you repent of your sins and ask for forgiveness?”
“Most heartily,” William answered.
“We surely do,” Mary added.
“Do you accept Christ as your savior?”
“Are you ready?”
Mary reached out and gently grabbed Levi’s arm. “Thank you for helping us. May the good Lord bless you.”
“Yes, we are obliged, mate,” William added and he squeezed Levi’s shoulder.
Levi nodded. “I can baptize only one of you at a time and when you vanish I am not certain if you will be together. There is no marriage in Heaven. Perhaps you should hug each other once more.”
They both nodded. “We understand,” Mary answered. She hung her head like a woman departing from her true love at the airport. “We said our good-byes to one another on the shore.”
William embraced her one final time. “I love you Mary.”
“And I love you, William.”
“We agreed she goes first,” William said.
“Here we go.” Levi smiled, laid her beneath the water then raised her.
“I love you dear,” she said to her husband and she disappeared like sand in the wind.
William sighed the way Levi had when Victoria vanished. “I did not get a chance to tell her. I miss her terribly already. We just reunited.”
“I understand how you feel,” Levi replied thinking about Victoria. “Would you like a moment?”
“No,” William shook his head. “If I can be with her then I want to be with her at once.”
“Here we go then. Ready?”
William closed his eyes as Levi leaned him into the water. Once Levi stood him to his feet William said, “Thank you,” then vanished.
Only three men remained; John Callis, the young man, and Tom Pipken. Levi watched as the young man shook both Tom and John’s hand then waded out into the water. His dog ran to the water’s edge but put no more than his front paws in the creek. He whined and barked as his owner waded out to Levi.
“It’s okay Jasper,” Keith called. “Everything is okay.”
The dog barked again then paced along the water crying.
“What do you think will happen to Jasper and the cows?” Keith asked.
“I don’t know,” Levi replied honestly. “It doesn’t make much sense they are here. Animals don’t have spirits to my knowledge.”
“So they won’t go to heaven with me?”
Levi sighed, “I don’t think so but I don’t think they are going to remain here without you either. Don’t feel like you are abandoning them.”
“I’m afraid to leave them behind.”
“It is your time to go. If they are still here, then I will figure out what to do?”
“You will take care of them?” Keith asked with renewed hope in his eyes.
“I’ll take care of them.” Levi smiled and meant what he said.
Keith exhaled. “Thank you very much.”
“You are welcome. Are you ready then?”
Keith nodded. “Goodbye boy!” he called to his dog. “You’ve been the best darn dog I ever had.” The dog cocked his head then barked further. Keith breathed heavily and grimaced in anger because he didn’t want to cry in front of Levi. “I can’t believe I’m crying over a dog! You must think I’m pretty stupid! You lost your daughter and I’m crying over Jasper.”
Levi had forgotten Victoria told Keith she was his daughter. “He’s been with you a long time. It is understandable you should be so upset,” Levi said. “I promise I will look after him.”
“Thank you,” Keith replied. “I think I’m ready,” he said with a deep breath.
Levi nodded. “You accept Christ as your Savior?”
“Do you repent of your sins?”
“Then go and be at peace.” Levi dunked him. When the young man stood he caught one last glimpse of his dog and smiled as he saw both his dog and his two cows fading with him.
Levi also grinned, pleased the man departed without worry.
“Well how about that?” Tom Pipken said with a large smile to John. “His dog and cows disappeared too.”
“I’m glad Keith saw that before he went away,” John replied.
Tom only nodded. “Well I guess we’re the last ones,” Tom said. “Do you want to go first?”
John thought it over and shook his head slowly. “No, you go ahead. I entered last. I think it’s only fair I be the last one out.”
“Okay then, if you’re sure?”
“You mind if I have one more smoke before I leave?” Tom asked with a large smile.
John returned the smile and pulled out his pack. “Sure you can.” He lit the smoke for Tom then handed it to him.
Tom took a large drag and exhaled happily. “I don’t think God minds one more for the road,” he laughed. He reached out and shook John’s hand. “I’ll see you in the afterlife Mr. John.”
“You be good, Tom,” John returned.
“God will keep me straight,” he replied with a large smile and laugh. He turned and headed to the water.
He waded out with his large smile stretched from his left ear to his right and merrily blew out smoke as he trudged along. Before reaching Levi, Tom flicked his cigarette into the water at which Levi shook his head.
“If you knew how polluted the Bay has become since you died, you probably wouldn’t have done that.”
“The way I figure it, that cigarette ain’t even real,” he smiled again.
“You have a point.” He liked Tom.
“Do you think I might find a wife in heaven?”
“There is no marriage in heaven Tom, but I’m sure you’ll find the treasures you’re looking for.”
“Good enough!” Tom replied eagerly. “Let’s go!”
“Do you repent of your sins?”
“I sincerely do.”
“Do you accept Jesus Christ as your savior?”
“With all my heart!” Tom replied cheerfully.
“You bet I’m ready.”
Levi put Tom under then pulled him forward. Tom waved to John and disappeared like smoke in the breeze.
Levi surveyed the lonely shore. An hour ago it held a full host of pirates and soldiers desperate for salvation and now only one elderly man remained who had waited his turn while he watched all the others vanish before him. Levi stood in the water feeling somber and waited for John to wade out but John remained on the shore and watched the sun rise.
“John?” Levi called.
John did not answer; instead he sat in the sand.
Confused, Levi lingered another moment then waded to shore and took a seat next to John. He so wanted to depart especially now that Victoria had passed but he couldn’t leave a soul behind. God wanted him to see the story through to its end. He thought about his feelings of inadequacy. They felt silly now when considered against all he had endured throughout the past night and all he had recently accomplished. Though no one alive witnessed his daring or appreciated this task he had fulfilled for the Lord, he never would again doubt his courage or his worth and he realized he didn’t need the praise of others to feel good about himself. The Lord had shown him this.
“What is wrong John?”
John drew a line in the sand with a stick. “I’ve already taken the Lord as my savior and I’ve already been baptized but I’m still here even after everyone else has gone. Maybe I just don’t want to leave my wife.”
“John…. its time for you to go.” Levi tried to hide his impatience and his anxiousness. He ached to leave suddenly.
“I don’t know how,” John returned, his voice cracking with emotion.
Levi frowned. He had only been in the woods for one night but he felt more sad and desperate than ever he remembered. Now that only John remained, Levi felt the finish line within his grasp, and he felt more desperate than ever to get to it, but he couldn’t leave John behind. He intended to save John too and so he prayed over what he must do as John sat smoking beside him.
“When we first moved here my wife and I walked to the beach in the early morning and watched the sun rise.” John took a long drag of his cigarette then exhaled through his nose. He stared at the pack in his hand. “I never seem to run out of these things. I take one out but I never have less or more than what is in there right now.”
Levi opened his eyes from prayer not hearing what John had said. “I think I know what to do. Follow me.” Levi’s wet clothes chafed his thighs. He glanced at the water again before leaving and thought of Victoria. She finally found her family once more and hopefully she would find the time to plant the daffodils she carried with her. He wished she rode on his back as he once more trekked into the trees he had grown to hate. He had received as much comfort from her companionship as she had from his and even though John walked with him, he still felt alone without Victoria.
“Will we be passing the pond?” Tom asked.
“We can stop there if you’d like.”
Tom stood and brushed sand from his pants. He flicked his cigarette on the ground and once again Levi rolled his eyes.
“Along the way I will tell you who killed me,” John said.
Levi spun around, shocked but said nothing more.