Though he didn’t apppreciate it till later, Bill’s life hung by a thread as he sat tranquilly in that day in church, just as he had every Sunday of his life. We all lined that pew, third from the left in front, Billy, Daddy, Mother, Marilyn, Connie, Phyllis (she was good help with the little girls), then me, on the end, where I’d hopefully pay attention best. Careful thought had gone into the seating. Billy and I couldn’t be trusted to sit together. I couldn’t be next to the little girls. I played with them, encouraging them to “act up.” Nobody sitting next to Phyllis got any encouragement to do anything except be worshipful. This generally worked out pretty well, giving bored kids plenty of time to think, the very thing that put young Billy’s body and soul in mortal peril that particular Sunday.
As the minister droned on and time dragged, Billy had plenty of time to think. The offering had been collected and sat temptingly on the altar: a handful of change, a couple of fives, tens, ones, a twenty, and a few checks. Brother Deck, an ancient deacon, who’d help collect it, had nodded off in the pew directly ahead of us, his head drooping as he slept. Occassionally, he delighted us by tooting in his sleep. It sounded like a screen door flapping and was quite satisfying, though we couldn’t make as much of it as we’d have liked, having been forewarned not to laugh when he did it again this week. It was still something to look forward to, relieving the tedium of the service.
Brother Elmer Elkins and his wife Miss Margie sat on the other end of the pew ahead of us. Brother Elmer had had the good sense to marry money. His wife had inherited land as well. Mr. Elmer was an excellent farmer, adding to the investment of her inheritance, and was the envy of the that farming neighborhood and the undisputed “boss” of the church. Though the church might vote on expenditures, plans didn’t come to fruition unless Brother Elmer, the church treasurer, signed the checks. As Billy pondered the fortune displayed temptingly before him on the altar, it occurred to him that in the bustle of church dismissal, that treasure would be unattended. He might be able to pick up a little offering of his own, if he slipped to the front unnoticed.
As the prayer ended, he slipped out the opposite end of the pew from the rest of us, intending to sidle by the offering plate unnoticed, helping himself to a little gift. Brother Elmer must have dealt with this temptation before. He slid out of his seat just ahead of Billy, turning to glare him down, before “collecting” the collection plate. Apparently, Billy wasn’t the first to think of this little trick. Thank God, Brother Elmer’s “bad boy” radar was working that morning. It saved Billy’s life!