Ben picked up the lumber in town and made an order for bricks to replace those ones from the chimney that had broken. He even got a few offers from men loitering in the general store to come and help build again when he was ready. Ben and Agnes headed back home, determined to set things right on the farm and get back to a sense of normalcy.
Ben and Agnes found their usual seats toward the back of the chapel and waited for the services to begin. They nodded their hellos, but most visiting was reserved for after the services. This new pastor was even greener in town than Ben. The old pastor who had married them had only recently gone back east to live with a daughter when his rheumatism made it hard to care for himself. Pastor Templeton had just graduated from the seminary and arrived in town shortly after being ordained. He was eager and well-meaning and had big ideas that didn’t always sit well with the town. But most people felt like they were going to get him trained to their suiting as time passed and that he would soon understand how the town liked its religion served up. He liked to hear himself talk and the orations stretched on longer than could easily be endured on a hard, wooden pew without some squirming, but most people forgave him for it because of his youth, his good humor, and his genuine concern for people. Luckily, with each passing Sunday, the sermon was a little bit shorter and more concise.
Pastor Templeton was about ten minutes into his speech when the door creaked open and Beth stuck her head in. Agnes was one of the few who heard and turned in time to see Solomon looming behind her. So, they really were going to give church a chance, Agnes thought. Next to her, Ben gestured to Beth and then scooted closer to Agnes, making room for both the diminutive Beth and the mammoth Solomon on their row. The two had cleaned up as well as they could, but their clothes were worn nearly through. Agnes was pressed between the shellacked wall and Ben’s body. They were pressed hot together from knee to shoulder. She didn’t know why, but was surprised by how solid he felt next to her. When Agnes turned to Ben, she could see fine beads of sweat springing up along his upper lip and forehead.
The Williams had entered the chapel unobtrusively and few would have probably known they were present until the end of services if Pastor Templeton’s voice hadn’t started to run down like an old clock when he saw them take seats next to the Spencers. After just a moment, he regained his composure and returned to his notes with authority, but by that time most people had turned to see why he had faltered in the first place. A wave of unease washed through the congregation.
“Go ahead and preach on there, Pastor,” Ben called out in a voice with only the barest hint of a quaver, even as Mr. Rutherford on the second row stood and glared with malice at the younger couples in the back. There was an awful lot of shuffling and uncomfortable muttering going on in the congregation. Mothers pulled their children closer. Fathers tried to keep an eye on both the Pastor and Rutherford at the front of the room and the Spencers and the Williams in the back. Beth sat ramrod straight, her natural vitality condensed to her small space on the back row. Solomon brushed his large knuckles reassuringly against her folded hands.
Agnes overheard Solomon whispering to Ben, “I wish I’d brought Maggie in with me.”
Ben replied by tugging on the lapel of his Sunday suit, revealing a small filigreed pistol tucked close to his vest. Agnes was shocked; that fancy pistol looked like something a gambler would sport. She didn’t even know he owned it. Apparently, the things she didn’t know about Ben could fill their barn. “Sometimes God’s word needs a little firepower behind it,” Ben muttered to Solomon in return.
Agnes didn’t think the Williams would actually come to church and now she was scared. Violence was no stranger to either Ben or Solomon. Ben was reluctant to talk about his time in the war, but the ragged edge to his voice when he talked about certain events, told Agnes more than his words ever did. And Solomon hadn’t been exactly forthcoming with his life story either, but his initial wariness when they first pulled up to the yard for their visit made Agnes suspect it hadn’t been a bed of roses.
Mr. Rutherford had begun to shake his finger and sputter when Pastor Templeton’s voice rang assertively from the pulpit. “I am abandoning my original text. From Acts we read, And He hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.”
“Preacher!” Rutherford angrily appealed.
“From first John: If a man say I love God and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from him. That he who loveth God love his brother also.” Templeton thundered, striking his fist on the pulpit.
Agnes exhaled. She hadn’t realized she had been holding her breath. She knew there were plenty of Bible verses that could be interpreted as pro-slavery and support the claim that people of different races had no business marrying one another. She loved that Pastor Templeton had decided to take a stand. The town thought they were molding this pastor to represent them. But, it was he who would mold the town. In coming years he would become a bedrock of the community. Folks realized, even as his oration continued that day, that they would look back and see this short sermon as the moment that defined him and cemented his place in the town. Even if people disagreed, most chose to respect him for his views and authority.
Thankfully, the pastor made the rest of his remarks short and sweet--which endeared him to most of the congregation. When the final hymn was sung and the last communal “amen” echoed through the church, the Rutherfords and a few other families rushed out shooting daggers at the couples in the back.
“I guess we know who isn’t on the welcoming committee,” Ben said to Beth and Solomon as the exodus swept by them.
“Give them time. There’s always next week,” Solomon remarked dryly.
Few people came to greet Beth and Solomon that day, but, thanks to Ben and Pastor Templeton, some level of tolerance permeated the town. Agnes tried to figure out what people were thinking. Maybe that Kansas was part of the union and that they had submitted to be ruled by Washington. These people’s sons had not come back from a war fought in part over a man’s right to self-determination. And as Kansans, most of them, no matter their personal feelings on the matter, liked to leave well enough alone. Seeing as how there was no negro church in the area, was it their place to deny this man and his wife access to God?
After church, Ben and Agnes accompanied Solomon and Beth to their home, making sure they were safe. From the wagon behind, Agnes watched how Beth snuggled close to Solomon. The thought crossed her mind that they truly were one flesh. Was that something she wanted for herself? She glanced at Ben who drove the horses stoically. It had been a stressful day for them all. The Williams waved as they turned off to their own place. After seeing them enter their home, Ben slapped the reins and headed to their place with hunched shoulders.
The two drove on silently. Agnes reflected on the events at the church. She wondered about Ben’s courage and composure, the surprising pistol, and the gulf between what she knew and didn’t know about Ben. She never was very good at discovering what was going on in his mind, but she figured there was no time like the present to find out. “What are you thinking, Ben?” Agnes asked almost flippantly.
Ben’s response was immediate and vehement, so at odds with the tone she had asked her question. “I’m wondering if you’ll ever give me a chance. I want a love like theirs. Am I not a good man, Agnes? Do I not deserve to be loved?”
Agnes was astonished. She hadn’t expected an outburst like this.
“I fell for you through your letters. You were smart and witty and were offering me a whole new life. It was a dream come true. I hoped--especially after I met you that first day--that there would be more, but I couldn’t assume that you would want me. I came and I’m trying to be a good farmer and a good husband, but sometimes I feel like an intruder in your life. If you could, I think you would run the farm by yourself. I feel like a necessary evil. What right do I have to claim not only your farm but you too?”
Agnes was stunned and said the first thing that came to her mind. “Loving isn’t the same as claiming someone. Of course I don’t want to be claimed. I’m not part of some land grab.” Agnes couldn’t believe she’d brought up the word “love.”
“I don’t understand. What are you saying?”
“I don’t know!” And Agnes didn’t know. She wasn’t sure what she wanted and couldn’t remember why she had made decisions in the first place. She thought she knew herself, but now realized she didn’t even know her own heart.
“I thought when I arrived that there might eventually be a chance for something between us. But in those first months you put a definite stop to it. You made it clear you never wanted me for more than a husband in name only.”
Agnes thought back to the second or third month they were together. Ben would linger in the front room while she finished her mending. She recollected the time he asked if she would read aloud and she had deliberately sighed, telling him she didn’t want to be disturbed even though she enjoyed spending time with him. How he had tried to help with the dishes and Agnes had become agitated thinking he didn’t think she was up to the task of completing her own chores. She had spent a lot of time pushing him away in those first few months. She wanted to make it clear that there was no expectation of more than a business deal for either of them.
In those early months too, she recognized the signs of loneliness in him--the signs she knew only too well because they ate at her gut too. The gnawing that happened when she thought of her brothers, mother and father abandoning her. She tried to drown those feelings within herself. Acknowledging Ben’s loneliness and trying to help him would have brought all those feelings flailing violently to the surface. It hurt to love and lose. And so she had done nothing to help him. And she had done nothing to risk her heart.
She was awkward and she knew people thought she was cold. Recently, she had found herself softening toward him. He really was such a good man. But what if she had offered up her heart to him and he didn’t want it? It would be humiliating and pathetic to be yoked to a man who had rejected her.
“I’m sorry I’m so cold. I don’t know how to do this.”
“But, you’re not cold Agnes. Lately, you’ve chosen to be warm and kind to me. I think it’s who you really are and I think you’ve had to work hard to freeze me out in the past.”
Ben was right. It was hard to choose not to like him. She had to work at it. And over the course of these last few weeks, she found she was failing. She didn’t want to admit it to herself, but she thought she loved him.
“Would it hurt so much to try?”
Maybe. Love was painful. And beautiful. Agnes had been looking off into the distance, but now through watery eyes she turned to Ben. Yes, it would hurt so much--it was scary--this risking her heart. But, she believed Ben was worth it.
She wasn’t sure about this tumbling down into love. The quake had shaken their land, but she wondered if it had taken an earthquake to shake some sense into her soul too.
She made a decision. To answer his question, she slipped her hand beneath his arm. She nestled her head momentarily beneath his chin. Ben tentatively kissed the top of her head. She didn’t know how to do this, but she was willing to try. “Let’s hurry home,” she said.
Ben wasted no time ordering the horses to giddyup.
Thanks for reading!