Fiction: Grace Before Meals

“Young man, you lost the girl to drink, didn’t you?”

“No,” William replied, folding his arms before him. “You’re wrong. She’s not my girl.”

The missionary raised his hands. “All right, I believe you, but you see, I desperately need a mapmaker—a real artist to capture the flavor of the tribes and the landscape. I need a first class cartographer to illustrate the routes we’ll be exploring. Captain Bourke said you were the one, and I believe him.”

“You don’t even know my work.”

“There you’re wrong.” The missionary laughed and pulled three wrinkled sketches of women from his bag.

William wanted to vomit. His most disgusting work in the hands of a missionary!

“These belong to you, I assume, though you didn’t sign them.”

“Where did you get them?” William asked.

“Father Diaz. He says that a man came full of regret at the way his life turned out and gave over his worldly possessions to the church.”

William scratched his head. “That sort of thing sells here, sir. I was sort of desperate for cash.”

“We’re not in the army, William. No need to call me sir. Technically, these drawings show talent–and misplaced use of it. The captain says you’ve had it hard at times, but he vouches for your character.”

“Really?” William leaned in, hungrily. He’d made such a mess of things in the army.

“So will you come? We can’t pay much, but . . .”

“Come where?” William asked.

“I’m not sure yet, but you’ll be fed,” Kenyon said.

“I don’t know. I have to think . . .”

Kenyon took the last sip of his non-alcoholic drink. “But I’m afraid that when we travel, spirits—in the form of liquor—don’t follow. We need to present our best side in order to convert.”

William sighed. “It’s not for me, sir. My leg . . . I don’t have much time for God, and I won’t convert people.”

Mr. Kenyon laughed again. “I would never ask you to convert people. How could you? You don’t know the Lord. This is purely a practical thing. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s not a wealth of talent here. We have no money to attract established artists, and you seem to be at loose ends—though you’d have a difficult time leaving behind the drink.”

“Do you think I’m that weak?” William asked.

The missionary didn’t answer. He adjusted the sack on his back and walked toward the saloon door.

William stood with his arms crossed. He was weak and pathetic and hungry. “Sir . . .”

“Come along and let’s eat,” Mr. Kenyon said with a generous wave of his arm.

The missionary wiped food from the dirty table at Matilda’s with his bandana. “Crumbs bother me,” Mr. Kenyon said. He ordered for both of them in a Spanish dialect that pleased the older lady who served them.

William said, “I’m not good at language.”

“English or Spanish?” Mr. Kenyon teased.

William was serious. “Neither, I guess. I’m like my father.”

“I’m like my father, too. He was a missionary, and so am I.”

“Well, that’s an impressive thing,” William replied, tapping his fingers on the table.

“I don’t know, but sometimes it’s lonely, hard work. I’m away from family and friends most of the time. Thank you again for joining me.”

“Well, I have nothing better to do,” William replied, but felt he’d been too harsh. “I mean, thank you for inviting me. Can I ask—why do you do it? Probably the Indians will die off and good riddance to them—so what’s the point?”

“I said that my life can be hard at times, but I love it. The Indians won’t die off. They’re strong and interesting in their way. I’m blessed to be alive at a time when there is such potential for the Gospel to change their lives.”

“What if the Indians want things as they are?” William asked.

“Most people like what they know. It’s easier, isn’t it?” Mr. Kenyon replied.

William stretched his neck, waiting for the food. A young Mexican girl with soft eyes brought their plates. William grinned at her, and she giggled before leaving them.

Mr. Kenyon asked, “Shall I say something?” It was more of an announcement than a question.

“Go ahead. If you want to,” William replied, but was aghast when the missionary took his hand for prayer. He glanced around and back to Kenyon, who bent his head with eyes shut.

“But thanks be to God who always leads us in His triumph in Christ and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place.”

William chuckled and turned to his food. “The only aroma I smell is of burnt beans and chilies.”

“Nourishment is from God.”

William dropped his fork on the plate. “Is that the way religious types talk all the time? Do you ever have normal talk or do you have to bring God into every little thing? It’s damned annoying—and off-putting, I might add. All those quotes from the Bible like you’re so smart and holy. If God didn’t pick such conceited men to preach His words He might get more followers. I think you’re a fake.” He considered leaving, but the food smelled so good. He sat for a few moments trying to come up with something to say. “Listen, I’m sorry about the joke.”

The missionary shrugged and continued eating. “Good stuff,” he said in between bites.

“Yes, it’s good,” William said as the hot food warmed his empty stomach.

Kenyon took a drink and said, “Missionaries are pretty ordinary, William. We talk about normal boring things, of course, but to be honest, I feel in a celebratory mood. A good meal, a new friend and finally a replacement for our last artist. For some, hearing Scripture is like a fork scratching china, but to me it’s poetry. I’m not much of a singer, but good words I can say. I am what I am. How people will judge me is of no consequence.”

With his mouth half full, William said, “I’m not really the person you’re looking for. Thanks for the meal, but . . .”

Kenyon unfolded the pieced together map William had made for Bourke. He passed it to William.

“William, here, you have a great gift. Whatever darkness you have in your heart, you made this. I’ve seen many a map, but none that captures the soul of its maker so beautifully. That map is a work of art. If you can put the world on paper like that, I can put up with your cynicism and less than stellar opinion of humankind—especially the religious types.”

William swallowed. “So you like the map? You think it’s all right?”

Kenyon gave him a sideways glance, wiping his forehead. “We have some supplies—paints and things—you can look at if you’re interested.”

“Um, what happened to the other fellow—the last artist?” William asked.

“He was killed,” the missionary said his eyes welling with tears.

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