Dirty Faces

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Chapter 25: Cold Snap

The Priest stepped out onto his porch and set the bottle and glass on the little table between the rocking chairs. He then sat himself down in one of the chairs and removed his clerical collar, laying it down on the table as well. It had been an unseasonably warm New Year's Eve, but as darkness fell, so had the temperature. The old timers with their achy bones had assured him that 1924 would start out cold, and he knew well enough to listen to them, as evidenced by the large pile of firewood he'd made sure to have on hand.

He had stayed busy recently, with influenza spreading like wildfire, but this day was over. The sole boarder had left a few minutes earlier; not that it made much difference, as the man kept to himself and took his meals in his room. But now the Priest was very much alone, just as he'd hoped. He planned to raise a toast to the new year with a glass of Old Bushmill's from the bottle he hadn't touched since this time the year before; he kept it stashed in his nightstand, safe from the eyes of the law and the grimy hands of dishonest boarders.

He hadn't had time to enjoy his blessed solitude when a shot rang out into the cold, quiet night, the first of the celebratory gunfire that was sure to continue until near dawn. He glanced at his watch: eight o'clock. They just couldn't wait.

Perhaps be needn't wait, either. After all, it was quite chilly and the alcohol would keep him warm. And should he have to see a patient in the night, it wasn't likely he'd be the only one with whiskey on his breath. He pulled out the cork and filled the glass halfway with that amber liquid of life, and took the first sharp sip.

Relaxing back in the rocking chair, he watched as the man and woman next door headed out with their grandson, on foot, toward town. Before they'd even made it out to the street, their front door flew open and his friend came running toward his house. He set the glass down and smiled; solitude could wait.

She tore up the porch steps and through the screen, and came to a stop directly in front of him. As usual, her long, blonde hair was a mess and her big, trusting eyes smiled right along with her lips. She held out her hand, presenting him with a piece of paper.

"For me?" the Priest asked.

She nodded enthusiastically.

He accepted the paper from her and admired the crude crayon drawing of a flower. At the bottom was scribbled, in all capital letters with a backward 'E', the only word she could write.

"Why thank you, Mary Adele," he said, clutching the drawing to his chest. "I shall treasure it forever."

Her smile grew wider.

He gestured for her to have a seat in the other rocker and she obliged. She was what the locals called "simple", or sometimes, "simple-minded". He supposed she was physically about fourteen or fifteen, but mentally she was about ten years younger.

Silently, she rocked the chair back and forth, waiting on him to speak. The Priest didn't much care for talking any more than what was required of him, but for his friend Addie, he made an exception. Their conversations were generally one-sided. He knew she delighted in hearing his funny accent and so he talked and she listened.

Though Addie could talk, she said very little. When she did speak, it was almost always completely at random and the words made little sense. It seemed that every time she spoke, all the words she'd ever wanted to speak came rushing out at the same time, but the Priest always knew what she was trying to say. And he was quite sure she understood everything he said to her, as well.

"Do you know what's special about this night?" he asked.

She shook her head.

"In the morning, it'll be next year."

Addie stared at him blankly.

"I suppose you're right," he sighed. "Just another day." He took another sip of whiskey and wrinkled his face at its sharp bite. Addie looked at the bottle, then back at him expectantly.

"Sorry. I know it's terribly rude, but I'm afraid I just can't offer you any of this."

She pursed her lips, and he knew she was disappointed.

"You wouldn't like it anyway. It tastes horrible."

She raised a brow.

"Really, it does. Why do I drink it, you ask?" He set the glass back down and thought on it a moment. "Truthfully, I don't even know. I suppose it's the only New Year's tradition I have," he said, frowning. Addie frowned back at him..

"Yes, I agree. Celebrating by drinking alone is quite sad, isn't it? But I'm not alone now, am I? You're here with me, and that's always cause for celebration!" With this observation, the brilliant smile returned to his friend's face.

They rocked a few minutes in silence and then he asked, "Granny and Paw take Kent to the church service?"

She nodded.

"Surely they didn't leave you home by yourself?"

She shook her head. "Susan...Susan...Susan's over there and and and and and and...." She sighed, frustrated that the words were, as usual, her foe.

"Your sister's staying with you," the Priest clarified, his tone calm and soothing. "And what else, Addie?"

She bit her lip, frustration still etched on her face, then she cradled an invisible baby in her arms and began rocking it side to side.

"Oh, I see," he said with a smile. "She brought the baby with her."

Addie nodded, grinning once again.

Her cheeks were rosy and when he glanced down at her little red hands, he knew they must be cold as ice. "Does your sister know you're over here?"

She nodded.

"And does she know you're out here without a coat?"

He nearly chuckled at the guilty look on her face. "You should probably get on home before you catch cold out here. And I'm sure Susan needs your help taking care of that baby."

Her face lit up at the suggestion that she might be needed, and she immediately jumped up and darted off the porch and back home without saying goodbye.

He watched for the front door to shut on the foreman's house, then the Priest took another sip. Appraising the little drawing she'd given him, his lips curved into a smile. Truthfully, he wished she'd been wearing a coat because he was sad she was gone.

The other townsfolk accepted his medical knowledge and were grateful to have a doctor available, but they were always suspicious of him and his "papist ways", and though he knew better than to steal sheep, none of them seemed convinced of that. They told him as much in that sugar-coated way they all had of expressing opinions that could be construed as offensive. All of them, that is, except for sweet Addie. To her he was a friend, and that was all that mattered.

He liked to think the Lord had big plans for such a beautiful soul, bigger than merely bringing a smile to the face of a lonely man of the cloth, at least. When he thought of Saint Joan of Arc, he saw Addie's face: young, pure, unlikely. And he liked to think that one day his friend would be just like Joan and surprise them all, and be an inspiration to people of all kinds.

But he had always been a dreamer.

He hadn't even finished half of his glass when a scraggly-looking little boy came running from the general vicinity of the camp houses. And so it begins, thought the Priest.

"Doc, doc! You gotta come quick!" the boy cried.

"What's the matter, son?"

"My pap done passed out cold and fell down and conked his head on the cookstove. Now Maw can't get him to wake up!"

"Very well. I'll just go get my bag and be right over."

"But he wasn't drinking no liquor or nothing!" the boy added, wide-eyed.

The Priest chuckled as he put the cork back in the bottle. Yes, Addie was right: just another day.

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