The Bible Man


I saw his wagon coming across the flats, wheels churning up the dust, wagon top flapping in the wind. I slid off Red’s back and broke into a run for the cabin.

“Look, Ma!” I hollered. “The Bible man is coming!”

Ma came to the door. Shading her eyes against the sun with a flour-covered hand, she watched the dust cloud slowly moving our way. “If he stops here, help unhitch and feed his horses,” she said. “I’ll get the biscuits into the oven.”

I tied Red to the corral poles and sat on the fence to wait. I knew he’d stop. Anybody who knew about Ma’s biscuits wouldn’t pass on by. And the Bible peddler knew about them, sure enough. He’d stuffed down plenty of them every time he’d stopped by our cabin.

The peddler would likely be hauling the same wooden box filled with hymnbooks and Bibles. And he’d talk about how he was saving “lost sheep” by selling his books to folks.

He usually teased me about my red hair matching perfectly with my horse, Red. I didn’t much look forward to his teasing.

When the peddler drove into the yard, I hopped off the fence to help him unhitch.

“See you still got that red colt,” he said, first thing.

I nodded. “I ride him now.”

“Want to sell him?” he asked, all the while rubbing his thick mustache.

My head jerked up. “I won’t sell him for any price! He’s the best thing I ever had!”

He chuckled and slapped the flank of the nearest unhitched horse. I led his team to the corral and tossed them some loose hay. I gave Red some too. Then I sprinted for the cabin. Even though I dreaded the peddler’s teasing, I didn’t want to miss out on anything.

He was eating Ma’s biscuits like he’d never get another chance. Ma had set out fresh buttermilk for him too. I slid onto a stool, hoping she’d set some out for me. But she paid me no mind at all, and I saw why. She was holding one of his books and sliding her fingers over its pages edged with gold. “How much?” she asked.

I missed what he told her, his mouth being so full of biscuit. But Ma heard. She just sort of smiled, put the book down ever so gently on the table, and shook her head.

The Bible man glanced at me. “I’d take that red colt out yonder for it,” he told Ma. “This here is the finest Bible made. I’d throw in the latest hymnbook to boot.” He might have winked at Ma, but I didn’t see it.

I came off the stool, my eyes wide. “You can’t do that, Ma! Red’s my own!” I gave the peddler a dirty look. “Red’s worth more’n any old book; you know he is.”

The peddler gulped down the last of the buttermilk and rose from the table. “I’ll come by next year,” he said. He looked at me. “Maybe by then Ben can figure out a way for you to have that Bible, him being the man here now.”

I looked at Ma. What looked to be a tear slid down her cheek. I’d not seen Ma shed tears since Pa died, and it choked me. I knew she really wanted that Bible, and I wished that I could figure out a way. But I sure couldn’t part with Red to get it for her.

I was still choked some when I went to lead the peddler’s team outside and hitched them up again to the wagon. I held the team while the Bible man put an armload of books back into the wooden box at the end of the wagon bed and climbed up onto the wagon seat. I wasn’t sorry to see him go.

I watched him going toward the knoll that marked one edge of our homestead, his wagon wheels making dust again. He hadn’t teased me at all about my red hair, and I puzzled over it.

Right in the middle of my puzzling, Ma came running out of the cabin, hollering, “He forgot the Bible!” Her face was full of worry. “He’ll think I kept it on purpose!”

My mouth dropped open. Nobody could think that about Ma. “I’ll catch up to him,” I promised her.

I ran to untie Red, and sidled him over to the fence so that I could climb onto his back. Then I took off after the Bible man. Halfway to the knoll I slowed, thinking. What if I don’t catch up? Will he remember leaving the Bible behind? Ma would have plenty of pleasure from that book by the time he comes again.

I let Red plod slowly along in the dusty road, and the peddler’s wagon went out of sight behind the knoll. I reined Red in and sat awhile. Then I started feeling uncomfortable.

I had never done anything deceitful like I was doing now. It bothered me some that I had told Ma that I’d catch up to the peddler, and I wasn’t even trying. I kicked Red and sent him toward the knoll at a good lope.

At the top of the knoll I stopped and stared. The wagon was bouncing and rattling off through the sagebrush, the team looked to be on a dead run, and the peddler was pulling hard on the reins.

Runaway!

The clatter of the bouncing wagon was something fierce. It swerved through a boulder patch, hit a big rock, and bounced high in the air. The wooden box came flying out, sending books sailing. I closed my eyes for an instant and prayed that the Bible man wouldn’t go sailing off too. When I looked again, I saw that the wagon had slowed some and the peddler had the team circling.

I rode Red down through the brush to help look for the scattered books. Nobody will miss a gold-leaf Bible in all this mess, I decided. And with such excitement, even Ma wouldn’t hold me to remembering why I’d set out after the Bible man.

I slid off Red’s back, righted the wooden box, and gathered the books and loose pages the best that I could. It was a while before the peddler had the horses calmed enough to drive them to where I was. Then he just looked at the jumbled books and rubbed his mustache.

After a while he said, “An old sage hen and her young’uns flew up right under the horses’ noses. Scared them clean out of their wits for a spell.”

He picked up one of the books. “Not worth much now,” he said.

“There’s one book not hurt at all,” I heard myself say. “You left the gold-edged Bible back at the cabin. Ma sent me to tell you.”

I could have kicked myself for saying it. I looked away, chewing my lip, knowing that Ma’s only chance to read that Bible was gone.

“A good, biscuit-bakin’ woman like your Ma should have a Bible,” he said. “Now, I could be takin’ Red there as payment for it.”

My chin dropped, and my heart plumb sank inside me. I figured I’d best get Red out of the Bible man’s sight. When the peddler stooped to load the wooden box, I started scrambling onto Red’s back.

Then I heard him laugh.

“I meant her to have that Bible—to even up some for all those good biscuits that she’s fed me. You tell her so, Ben.”

He climbed up onto the wagon, grinning at me, and I knew then that he’d been teasing me all along. That was why he hadn’t mentioned my red hair. He had sparked more fire out of me over Red than he ever could have about my hair.

As the Bible man turned his team toward the road, I waved. “I’ll tell her!” I yelled.

And I was kind of sorry to see him go.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn