“That old man’s a regular puzzlement, isn’t he?” Nathan blurted out to his six-year-old brother, B. J., who walked beside him down the dirt road toward home.
“What old man?” B. J. asked without looking up as he stomped his already muddy feet in the December rain puddles along the wagon-rutted road.
“You know,” Nathan returned, “the one who moved into the Kelsay place six months back. Josiah Potts. It’s less than three weeks until Christmas, and he’s just as ornery as ever.”
“You mean because he never smiles?” B. J. asked, jumping like a frog over a dirty puddle.
Nathan stopped to stare at the sod house nestled in a tangle of dogwood trees just off the road. He leaned against the rickety fence that bordered the little yard. “I guess so,” he said barely loud enough to hear. Thunder boomed and jagged flashes of lightning rent the damp air like the sights and sounds of the war his pa had gone to fight and had never come home from.
A frigid wind tugged at B. J., and he squinted up impatiently at his twelve-year-old brother. “Don’t fret about it, Nathan. Mr. Potts is just a grumpy old man.”
Nathan nodded, still gazing intently at the house.
“Maybe Mr. Potts lost somebody in the war, too, B. J. Maybe that’s why—”
Nathan stopped abruptly as Josiah Potts appeared on the little warped porch in front of his house. His long, ghostly white beard whipped every which way in the stiff wind, and his deep-set eyes seemed every bit as dark and foreboding as the sky above.
Nathan jumped back from the fence, his sleeve catching on a rotting picket and breaking it loose.
“Well,” the old man barked, “just what’re you staring at?”
Nathan swallowed hard. “Nothing in particular, sir.”
“Since when am I ‘nothing in particular,’ boy?”
“Didn’t mean no spite, sir,” Nathan uttered meekly.
“Then get away from my fence,” Mr. Potts growled. “I lost enough in Atlanta during the war without some young scalawag coming by here and busting up my fence.”
Nathan couldn’t keep from asking, “Did you lose anything besides property, Mr. Potts? Kinfolk, maybe?”
Gray, wiry brows buckled over Josiah’s eyes in tired pain. “My wife and boy, if it’s any of your business—which it isn’t!”
Nathan fidgeted uneasily. “My brother and I lost our pa at Shiloh.”
“You two had best get on home before you get caught in the rain,” Mr. Potts muttered, adding, “The heavens have a way of dropping a heavy load on a fellow’s shoulders without warning and of leaving him in the lurch.”
Nathan sensed the old man’s despair. Maybe Mr. Potts doesn’t know what B. J. and I know, Nathan speculated, about how families can be forever. He doesn’t know about —
“Well?” Josiah’s voice interrupted Nathan’s thoughts. “What are you dawdling for?”
As soon as Nathan had hauled wood and taken the lids off the rain barrels under the eaves to catch the runoff so his ma would have water for the next washday, he hurried into the dugout. He stuffed something under his arm and was on his way out the door when his mother stopped him. “Where are you off to in such a hurry, Son?” she asked.
“I just want to give something to Mr. Potts, Ma.”
Nathan revealed a little worn Bible under his arm.
“Your Bible? What on earth for, honey?” his mother asked.
“I’ve read it twice,” Nathan explained. “Maybe it will help Mr. Potts as much as it did me. Besides, I still have the Book of Mormon Pa gave me when he got home from his mission before the war, and we have our family Bible that I can use.” Nathan eyed the scriptures in his hands. “There’s something in here I want Mr. Potts to read. See, I marked the pages.”
B. J. looked skeptical. “He’ll probably just throw it away.”
Nathan sighed. “Maybe. But it’ll give me some peace of mind. I’ll be able to walk by that old man’s place and say that at least I tried to mend his hurt, and it won’t weigh on me so much any more.”
Ma looked at him a long moment, her eyes misting. “I’m seeing more and more of your pa in you every day, Nathan. We could use another good Mormon missionary right here in Mapleton.”
When Nathan reached the sod house, he paused, talked himself into going up the steps, and almost knocked on the door. Instead he decided to write a note on the inside of the Bible’s cover. When he had finished, he placed the book on a chair on the stoop and left as quietly as he had come.
Two days later, as Nathan was passing Josiah’s house on his way to the gristmill, he heard Mr. Potts call, “Hey, boy!” The old man was standing just behind the screen door. “Why’d you give me the Bible, boy?” He stepped out onto the porch for an answer.
Nathan took a deep breath. “It’s … it’s almost Christmas, Mr. Potts. It’s … a gift.”
The old man stared at Nathan, a ragged smile starting to push at the edges of his melancholy. “Why would you want to give me a gift?”
“I figured you could use one,” Nathan answered.
Josiah’s knotty, leathery hand brushed a wad of unshorn hair from his unblinking gaze. “You marked a place in it that says, ‘He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.’
“‘And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.’
“I take it that means that a body’s loved ones who have passed on are waiting somewhere for those still alive in the flesh?”
Nathan nodded. “That’s right, Mr. Potts.”
Tears spilled in streamlets down the old man’s face. “I’d give anything in the world to believe like you do, boy. Anything.”
Nathan thought he would burst inside as he said, “Well, for a start, Mr. Potts, how about an hour of your time this Sunday? Would you come to church with us—with Ma, B. J., and me?”
“I think I’d like that,” Josiah answered slowly. “Yes, I do believe I would.”
A few minutes later as Nathan continued on his way to the mill, rain started splintering down. Funny, Nathan thought as he walked along, it sure feels warm.
That year, on Christmas day, Josiah Potts was baptized in Cold Water Creek by Bishop Nephi Cole. When he came up out of the water, Nathan saw him gaze toward the heavens in a way he never had before.