Somewhere in the Dakota's
by Hugh Houchin
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The acrid sweat and coal permeated the air as the train slowed, and awkwardly jostled to a stop. Through our coach window, Becky Jo and I laughed as we watched the rotund conductor labor down the three steps to the ground. On the ground, he walked alongside the train and positioned himself between its two passenger cars, and wiped the grime from his forehead.
“If your destination is Durango, you’re here, he said. “For the rest of you, do what you need to do, fast, ‘cause we’re leaving in fifteen minutes, maybe less.”
“Guess we’re here Becky Jo,” I said, sitting upright in my seat craning my neck to see around the station house to the village. “Did you notice the sign outside town; across from the cemetery? It read, ‘Durango, somewhere in the Dakota’s.’ I guess that’s our return address; I mean somewhere in the Dakotas; not the cemetery.”
Becky Jo stood up, arched her shoulders, inhaled, and looked down to meet my eyes. “Pastor, as your newly appointed helpmate, I welcome you to your first church.” She put her hand above her eyes and turned a full circle. “Wherefore art thou oh church in Durango, somewhere in the Dakota’s,”
She was beautiful and full of life.
“We certainly aren’t going to find it here,” I said, and grabbed her hand as I rose. “Let’s go explore, ‘cause the day belongs to us. Sure was a great idea to arrive a day before they expect us.
“Whoa, Pastor, in case someone puts two and two together, and since you don’t look particularly spiritual; let me straighten your collar and tie, and brush off your coat. Fact is, God and I are probably the only ones who’d claim you right now, and I’m not so sure about me.”
“Thanks a lot, I said” As she straightened my tie, I kissed the tip of her nose and with my finger, wiped the perspiration from her upper lip. Even sweaty she smelled good. “Gee, my own pastoral greeting committee, and a pretty one at that.”
“Time to go,” Becky Jo said.
I picked up our overnight bags, walked to the coach door and jumped to the ground.
“Maybe you should give that conductor a lesson about how to get down the steps from the train,” Becky Jo said.
I put the bags down, turned, and held my arms out, “C’mon, gimme a leap of faith.”
“Here I come,” and she jumped into my arms. I let her to the ground and we walked around the
station to view our new hometown.
“Wow,” I said. “I didn’t know a town could be this small.”
“It’s not Denver or Philadelphia,” she said, wrapping her arm around mine and laying her head below my shoulder. “Let’s walk and see more.”
I nodded and without saying a word, we began walking the twenty-five or thirty yards where a boardwalk would get us off the dusty street.
I grew up and went to undergraduate school in Philadelphia. When I graduated, I received a scholarship at a seminary in Denver and went west to finish school.
In Denver I met Becky Jo, who was Denver bred and fed. We met at a church where I filled in for their vacationing pastor, and, for me, Becky Jo was love at first sight, but she did not reciprocate. Eventually, though, I swayed her to my way of thinking, and we were married a week after I graduated.
Everybody called her Becky, but to me she was more than just Becky, and I’ve always called her Becky Jo.
Durango was one of at least a dozen places where I sent a pastoral application. They were the only one who responded positively, consequently, we figured God must have something special in mind and accepted their call.
With her at my side, I knew I could handle whatever life threw me. I couldn’t be happier.
As we stepped onto the boardwalk, she lifted her head off my shoulder. We paused, and then continued to walk slowly, intent on look shopping.
The first business was a boutique shop; followed by the bank and post office, and a barbershop and café were directly across the street. Three horses stood next to a hitching rail in front of the bank, their reins thrown over the rail.
I tried to guide her into the boutique shop, but she tugged me forward a few more steps; then stopped and pointed.
“There it is,” she said.
For as long as I, live I’ll mourn the fact I didn’t insist we go into the boutique shop.
“There is what?” I asked. My eyes followed where her finger pointed.
“Our church,” she said. “See it about two blocks away, and that must be our home next to it; it’s the same color.”
Before I could answer, three men stumbled out of the bank, bandanas over their faces and each had a gun in his hand. One of the men walked backwards staring at the bank; the other two faced the street scanning it to the right and to the left.
Becky Jo and I stood, immobilized. We were so close we smelled the stench of rancid clothing.
Suddenly, from the barbershop, a booming voice said, “Stop, where you are; drop your guns. I mean now.”
The three men looked at each other, then Becky Jo and I. The one closest to Becky Jo grabbed her; shots rang out and there were groans. In less than a second, it was over. Becky Jo and the three men lay on the boardwalk.
“Becky Jo, Becky Jo,” I cried and dropped to my knees; gently lifting her limp body to mine. There was no response.
I clutched her tighter and closer. “No, no, no, no, no,” I sobbed. Our life, our plans, our dreams flooded through my mind making no sense. The lifeless form I held to my chest made those thoughts a cruel joke.
I held her, rocking back and forth, crying until I felt firm but gentle hands on my shoulders, and someone lifted Becky Jo out of my arms. I wept inwardly and outwardly, my shoulders rhythmically convulsing with each sob.
Finally, somewhere, I found self-control, composed myself and stood up. I wiped my eyes, blinked, and stared at the unfamiliar faces staring back at me. I looked at the three men lying on the boardwalk; two were quiet, one writhed in pain. The boardwalk in the immediate vicinity was a forlorn ugly reddish brown.
I again stared at the crowd; the look in my eyes asked the obvious question.
“We don’t know who shot her,” someone said. “No one knows if it was us or them. Who are you anyway, why’d you two stop in Durango? We don’t have many people do that.”
“I’m the new pastor, Becky Jo was my wife.” The tears started again.
A man put his arm around me and steered me away from the scrutiny.
“I’m Joshua, I go to your church; do you want to go to the parsonage?”
I tried to talk, but my throat was dry and no words came out. I just nodded my ascent.
Over the next three days, until Becky Jo’s and my parents arrived, the citizens of Durango did their best to console me, but I refused any condolences. I ate nothing, but did have water from a pump in the parsonage.
When mine and Becky Jo's parents arrived, they provided an outlet for me and I talked incessantly about Becky Jo. They helped me bring home the trunks of clothes still at the depot; Becky Jo’s trunk remains unpacked.
In that cemetery outside of town, close to an oak tree almost directly across the road from the sign we adopted as our return address; Becky Jo lies in her premature grave. I pray Durango and I get along, because I’ll never leave without her.
After my parents and in-laws left Durango, the walls in the parsonage seemed too close, because, except for daily trips to the cemetery, I never left the parsonage. Although the church offered me a paid leave of absence, for as long as I needed, I felt the need to immerse myself in the churches work, because my mourning and loneliness were counter-productive.
As a result, as tough as it was, three weeks after Becky Jo’s service I was in the pulpit of the Durango church God gave me to shepherd. However, how could I shepherd when my heart was full of bitterness? I was bitter towards the bank robbers, bitter towards Durango and anything that reminded me of Durango, and bitter towards God for allowing Becky Jo’s murder.
Nevertheless, a few weeks later I awoke with the feeling I should go to the jail and see Becky Jo’s killer, because I needed to forgive him. Despite fighting the desire, it persisted and that morning I poured my heart out to God that I didn’t want to go.
On an on I rambled and cried, as my soul released the pent up anger, hate, hurt, disillusionment and loneliness inside me. Finally, after those feelings drained from every pore in my body, I was wet with clean perspiration, my soul cleansed. For the first time since Becky Jo and I walked toward that boardwalk, I felt secure, and knew peace would come when I obeyed and went to the jail.
The sheriff asked, “What are you doing here?”
“I want to see him. What’s his name?”
“Him?” the sheriff jerked his thumb toward the door that went into the cells. “He says his name’s Jerome.”
“Kinda early for last rites, isn’t it?” The sheriff laughed at what he perceived as humor, and opened his desk drawer for the keys.
They still didn’t know who shot Becky Jo, but the surviving robber was accused of murder. A jury, undoubtedly, would find him guilty and he’d hang. The only delay was the wait for the circuit judge to arrive.
“This way reverend,” the sheriff unlocked the door to the cellblock and pointed to the only occupied cell. “Jerome, this is the reverend, reverend, this is Jerome.” The sheriff then walked out of the cellblock closing the door.
I stared at him. The same rancid smell Becky Jo and I smelled in front of the bank surrounded me. He lay on the cot; his left thigh wrapped in a bloodstained cloth, and his crutches on the floor.
“You come to see the object of the turkey shoot?” he said.
I looked at him and searched myself for love or compassion, but found hate and anger. I couldn’t say a word, so I turned and walked out. In silence, I walked out of the sheriff’s office.
I went home and rationalized to God about what happened. However, God never answered, and my excuses seemed to bounce off the ceiling showering me with conviction. What’s more, at the cemetery that day I didn’t tell Becky Jo about my encounter with Jerome.
The next day I went back to the jail and again stood outside Jerome’s cell. My mind whirled in confusion; I knew I needed to forgive him, really forgive him, but I was too numb to forgive.
A sardonic voice from the cell called out, “was that your lady for the day that was shot?”
Somehow, Jerome’s sarcasm broke my anger, hate and will to resist. Tears flowed as I grabbed the bars on his cell door, gripping them in a strangle-like hold, so tightly my knuckles turned white and ached afterwards. “My life was shot and killed that day; don’t you understand, my life was shot and killed that day. But, I forgive you, in the name of Jesus Christ, I forgive you.”
That statement surprised us both and we looked at each other in a way that penetrated the others being. Jerome broke the silence. “So, big deal, the circuit judge got here today and my trial starts tomorrow afternoon. Day after tomorrow I’ll hang, and where I’m going there’s no forgiveness.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” I said. “Let me tell you about”…
“Get the hell out of here and don’t come back,” was Jerome’s response.
I would never see him again.
Minutes later, I sat next to Becky Jo’s grave spilling details of my visits to the jail. I talked of forgiving Jerome, and his last statement, which, for all practical purposes, was his last will and testament. I spent most of the rest of the day with her, but in a different context. For me, instead of remorse and sorrow, it was a time of peaceful healing and acceptance. I left her feeling strong, uplifted, and the hope that coursed through my veins touched all of me.
When I left her, I walked through the town of Durango, somewhere in the Dakotas, absorbing it. I remembered how we felt God had a special plan for us in Durango, and now, once again, I had that feeling. I had no idea how I would make it without her, but I had hope, which, for now, was enough.
I actually had a spring to my step as I walked the block where the parsonage was. I stopped in front of it; gazed and pondered its majesty. When we arrived in Durango, to begin life’s journey together, Becky Jo saw it from the boardwalk, and remarked that it must be our home because it was the same color as the church.
“Yes,” I thought. “It is the same color as the church, but it’s no longer the parsonage, it’s home. Yes, God, you lead and I’ll follow. Now that we’re here, what are we going to do?”
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