The sun surrendered to the clouds that baptism day almost like a prophetic act. We hadn’t seen a good, soaking, lasting rain in Franklin County in nearly seven years. Folks kicked up dirt as they parked in the field and got out of their cars, trucks, and motorcycles and made their way to the creek. I walked alongside Mean Jess, who said nothing. Mama kept pace, her head held high.
“You better hope that church dunks you first boy!”
A chorus of rowdy laughs ensued. I turned and saw them tipping their hats to my mom, but eyeing Mean Jess with sinister looks. They were the Waylon brothers, legends in the county for their poker skills.
“Hey ya Jesse! There’s still time to turn around and head back…to my arms!”
Miss Candee Apple, I’m pretty sure that ain’t her real name, licked her lips as we passed. I looked down and saw Jess squeeze mama’s hand even tighter. Mom looked straight ahead, Cedar Creek in her sights.
Jesse Taylor had a list of folks he asked to attend. Looking around the worn out trail to the creek, I couldn’t think of anyone in the county not present to watch. The landlord, Mr. Franks, didn’t say a word, but he was watching closely. Gambling was Mean Jess’ mistress, next to Miss Apple. Paying rent wasn’t high on his list.
“Jesse, mighty good thing you’re doing here today.”
The neighbor, Mr. Henderson, struck out his hand for a firm shake. Jess’ voice was parched as he tried to croak out a thanks. We reached a patch of forest that led to the creek.
“Jesse Taylor your salvation is such an answer to prayer I dare say we’re going to get our long awaited rain today.”
Mrs. Hayes’ voice powered over the thunder looming in the distance. The town matriarch continued,
“Jesus is smilin’ wide for sure.”
Mama and Mean Jess gave a small smile. I almost tripped on a branch but caught myself, my eyes finding Pastor Joe and Deacon Sam discussin’ something pretty heavy. Mom tensed.
“Jesse maybe we should wait. Maybe another day, another church.”
“No Nancy, it’s here and now.”
Behind us the entire crowd followed. We sounded like ants marching to a picnic.
“Jimmy, stand by Mrs. Davis please.”
Mama gestured and I nodded. She joined daddy at the edge of the creek almost like they were getting married. Deacon Sam’s outburst lingered.
“It’s my turn to do the baptizin’!”
Pastor Joe shook his head no.
“But Pastor, you know my wife left me because of her runnin’ the bars with this no good drunken loser.”
Pastor’s Joe’s wife covered my ears, but they still burned. As hard as everyone tried to hide stuff from me, I knew. My dad’s choices draped over our place like plastic on a couch.
“Sam, it’s a no. Everything Jesse Taylor did until last Monday is forgiven by the grace of God through the blood of Jesus Christ. He is forgiven and it is forgotten. All of it. And as pastor, I will be baptizing him tonight.”
The winds started swirling as Sam backed off. He said a bad word and stalked off.
“Is this for real Pastor Joe? Is Jesse Taylor a changed man?”
The president of the only bank in town called out from rows behind me.
Pastor Joe put his arms around my parents and faced his outdoor congregation. Small droplets of water began to fall. Daddy stepped forward.
“The devil had me but good. I walked in the church Monday night planning to rob it to pay off a debt.”
The Waylon brothers exclaimed in unison.
“Instead, I ran into Pastor Joe. I was desperate. And when I was torn literally between granting life or death, Jesus gave me the same option through the words of Pastor Joe. I broke in that hallway and I will never be the same. And Franklin County, you wouldn’t want me to go back. I’m serving the Lord, my wife, and Jimmy from here on in. I ask your forgiveness, all of you, for all the bad I did.”
Cheers sprung as heavy rain began to fall. Pastor and dad moved into the creek and at 7:07 that night, my dad went under for the Lord. It rained for three days. Sunday attendance doubled. No one in Franklin County was ever the same. Most of all, the son of redeemed Jesse Taylor.
*The Baptism of Jesse Taylor-words and music by Dallas Frazier and Sanger D. Shafer*
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