Footprints of Providence

7: AMBUSH

Miles Higbee leaned forward, his hand gripping the arm of the chair until his knuckles were white. But his face remained a smiling mask as he faced Pastor Kaufmann.

"Now, there, Pastor, you don't believe gossip like that, do you?"

The minister shook his head. "I wish it were only gossip, Miles. You know I wouldn't bring up something so serious if I didn't have very good evidence indeed."

"But Pastor, you've known me for years. I've been a deacon in the church almost as long as you've been here. Me and Hannah never miss a Sunday. You know I wouldn't do a thing like that!

Kaufmann sat silent for a moment. His eyes contained the hint of tears. "Miles, if you'd only confess your sins, they could be forgiven. You know the Lord can't overlook these things just because you go to church every week. While you may fool men, you can't fool Him. Why don't you confess like a man? Hannah loves you. She'll forgive you. And the Lord loves you far more

Miles held up his hand to stop the flow of words. His face was hard. "I'm sorry you have chosen to believe such lies. But there isn't any truth in what you say, and I don't appreciate your lack of faith in me at all." He stood up. "Now, will you please leave?"

Pastor Kaufmann rose but made no move to go. Instead he said softly, "Does the name Antoinette mean anything to you?"

The color faded from Miles' cheeks. He made no reply, but his eyes glared.

"I have a responsibility to you," Pastor Kaufmann went on, "but I also have a responsibility to the church and to the honor of the Lord. You can't go on this way. Either you must confess and make everything right, or the church will have to remove you from its fellowship. I have no pleasure in exposing the sins of professing Christians. But to allow such to go on in wickedness within the church only weakens the church, dishonors God, and gives the sinner a false sense of security. You must make the decision, and soon. I'll expect to hear from you before next Sunday."

The minister's words were measured and sad, but he didn't flinch before the unveiled hatred gleaming from the eyes of the other man. He picked up his coat and walked to the door.

Miles never moved until the pastor opened the door. But the visitor stepped out, and the whisper followed him, "If you tell, I'll kill you." Giving no sign that he had heard, Pastor Kaufmann closed the door behind him, leaving Miles to glare at the oak paneling.

The rest of the week inched by. At night Miles slept but little. Many times after Hannah was asleep, he wandered around the house muttering to himself. With each passing day his tension grew.

Early Sunday morning he called to Katie, the maid. At the moment Hannah, in the other room, prepared for church.

"Katie," he whispered, "I have an important message for you to carry to the pastor this morning. Make sure you reach him before he gets to church, and deliver it in private. Remind him not to forget what I told him just before he left, for I'll surely keep my word."

"I'll tell him, for sure. You can count on me, Mr. Higbee," she answered. As he turned away, her eyes followed, gleaming with curiosity.

Moments after Katie left, Hannah appeared in her Sunday best. "Miles, why aren't you ready for church? We have to leave right away!"

Her husband shook his head, struggling to make his face look natural. "I'm feeling all strange and sick, Hannah. I don't think I can go this morning. Maybe I'll go back to bed."

Hannah's face clouded with worry. "What's the matter, dear? Something must be very wrong. You haven't missed church in years, unless you were out of town. I'll be happy to stay home and care for you."

"Oh, no." Miles shifted uncomfortably. "I don't want you to miss. I'll be all right."

His wife still hesitated. "Well, all right, if you say so. Maybe you've caught what Mr. Moore has. He's been real sick for several days."

Finally he persuaded her to leave. Miles watched her walk down the little country road. Then he went to a closet and drew out a long rifle. He sat for nearly an hour by the fire, his hand caressing the smooth metal.

Katie had found Pastor Kaufmann as he strode up the path toward the church. It was still early, and no one else was near. She delivered her message and waited for a response. But the pastor only paused for a moment to look searchingly at her face, then turned and walked away without comment. She shrugged and watched him go.

Pastor Kaufmann spent many minutes that morning behind the curtain in front of the little church. He prayed as the congregation gathered. When he came out, his face was relaxed and gentle.

After the preliminaries he stood up to speak. He chose for his text John 15:12: "Love one another, as I have loved you." His sermon on practical brotherly love left few untouched. By its close many eyes in the congregation glistened with tears. Then, leaving the pulpit, he walked down closer to the congregation.

"And now, my brothers and sisters," he said, "we have among us a brother in special need of our love, patience, and prayers. The devil has taken him in his snare. He must surely be delivered, or he will die. I have labored with him in private, but to no avail.

"Now I must appeal to the people of the Lord to pray for this brother that he may make free confession of his sin and be forgiven. If he will not do this, then we must surely remove this evil from among us, or we will not stand free before God. The man of whom I speak is our dear brother, Miles Higbee."

A sudden intake of breath raced throughout the congregation. Hannah stiffened, her face drained of blood. The minister saw her reaction. He hesitated painfully, then continued. "Brother Higbee has been living a double life. Brothers Harris and Larson saw him on the streets of Williamsport with a young woman. They made careful inquiry and found that he is well known there under a different name. He frequents a certain tavern when he visits that city and is often seen with this young woman of dubious reputation."

Hannah sprang to her feet. "Is this true, Brother Larson?" White faced, she looked at him across the congregation. His eyes full of pity, he stood up slowly.

"It is true," he said. With a cry she turned and ran from the church.

"As his brothers and sisters, the minister continued, "it is your duty to pray for this man and for his family. Let brotherly love draw him back from the land of the enemy." With that he quietly dismissed the congregation.

That afternoon a furious and shaking Miles Higbee strode along a certain forest path. The rifle over his shoulder spoke of his intention. Well he knew that Pastor Kaufmann would travel the path that same afternoon to visit the sick Mr. Moore. He vanished into the undergrowth beside a large rock.

An hour crept by. He twisted and turned restlessly. Still Pastor Kaufmann didn't come. Was it possible he suspected? The minutes dragged. A footstep crunched in the silent forest. Miles stiffened. He pushed his rifle forward and sighted down the barrel, his heart pounding. It was the minister, but two men accompanied him. Who would be going along with him on his visit this afternoon? Certainly they were strangers to Miles, who prided himself on knowing everyone in the area.

The three men passed safely down the pathway and out of sight. But Miles didn't move. Maybe the pastor would come back alone. All might still work out.

The next hour was more unpleasant than the last. Waiting in an agony of suspense, fear, and unrest, he could not keep still. At last the returning footsteps came, but again he saw three men instead of one. When they had gone well out of sight, Miles crawled stiffly from his hiding place. The evening shadows were lengthening. He started home, his step heavy and his shoulders sagging.

When he arrived, he saw no one about. He walked through the house. Sobbing sounds came through the closed bedroom door. Quiet movements in the kitchen suggested that Katie was preparing the evening meal.

"Katie?" he called softly.

"Yes, Mr. Higbee." She came out wiping her hands on her apron. Her eyes did not meet his, but he noticed an amused lift to the corner of her mouth.

"I want you to go visit Pastor Kaufmann again. Do you have any good excuse to talk to his maid?"

"Why, yes, I could borrow a couple of eggs."

"Good. Then find out from her who went with him on his visit to Brother Moore's this afternoon."
"All right, Mr. Higbee. But what about dinner?"

"I don't think we're very hungry," he answered dryly.

While Katie was gone Hannah never stirred from the bedroom. Glad he didn't have to face her again, he paced up and down, his fists clenched white. Hearing Katie return, he swung around eagerly.

She came in and closed the door. "Well?" He couldn't hide the urgency in his voice.

"Susannah says he never goes with anyone. Only had his Bible."

"Bah!" he exploded. "There were two men with him. I saw them myself, with my own eyes. Why would Susannah lie about it? I've got to know, I tell you. I've got to know.

"You go right back and talk to the pastor himself. You can tell him I sent you if you like. Tell him I know there were two men with him this afternoon; I saw them myself. Ask him who they were." Katie went out again without comment. Miles sat down, but he could not rest. He resumed pacing, his face contorted by an inward struggle.

Pastor Kaufmann was sitting in his study when Katie arrived. Susannah ushered her in. Katie stood before him, fingering a button on her blouse, but her eyes were defiant and bold.
"Well, Katie?" The pastor tipped his chair back.

"Mr. Higbee sent me. He said to tell you he saw two men with you this afternoon when you went to visit Mr. Moore. He wants to know who they were."

Pastor Kaufmann didn't immediately reply, but he seemed to be weighing her words. Then he stood up and walked to the window. For a time he stood looking out into the night. Finally, with a solemn smile, he turned back to Katie. "Go tell Mr. Higbee that I know of no man who went with me this afternoon. But I am never alone. The Lord whom I serve is always with me."

Katie's eyes looked dazed. She didn't answer but went out the door. Pastor Kaufmann locked it behind her and sank to his knees. He was still there an hour later when a loud knock roused him. It was Miles himself. "Come in, my brother," the pastor invited kindly. Miles entered, his face stiff and white as if he had seen a ghost.

"Aren't you afraid to ask me in? How can you call me brother? Don't you know I tried to kill you?" He sank down on a chair and hid his face in his hands. Great sobs shook his body. "I would have shot you today in the woods, but the Lord sent His angels to protect you. I'm an adulterer and a murderer. God help me, or I'm lost forever!"

Pastor Kaufmann put his arms around the man's shaking shoulders. "Be of good comfort, my brother. You need not be lost. Jesus will forgive your sins just now if you'll only ask Him. We all love you and are praying for your salvation."

Miles Higbee lifted tear-filled eyes. "What about Hannah? Poor Hannah. She didn't deserve to be treated this way."

"You must go home like a man and make your peace with her. She's a kind woman and a Christian. I know she'll forgive you. You can build a marriage on the solid rock of love, without all this pretense."
"Will you pray with me, Pastor? If you can forgive me, maybe the Lord will too."