The pastor walked back down the dirt trail etched in the side of the Arkansas mountains, his heart heavy.
The new visitor at church had begged and pleaded. “Please, sir. Please visit my family. They live up in the mountains just outside of town. I’ve been telling them about Jesus, about how he changed me but I don’t think they’re listening.” The young man’s ears reddened. “My family is a mite…peculiar. Superstitious. They think I’m confused but I believe they might listen to you.”
He could never deny such a request. After work and supper the following day, he’d set off for the house, his knuckles turning white as the gravel road climbed higher into the mountains. His wheels churned up a cloud of dust and clogged the air. He swallowed as he pulled into the cluttered yard. A sagging porch, rusted cars, animals and children running through the too-tall grasses. Two younger men were cleaning their guns while a burly, older man studied him through narrowed eyes.
“Hello!” The pastor had smiled and offered his hand, which the older man reluctantly shook. “My name is Timothy. Your nephew has been visiting my church. He’s told me so much about his family, I thought I would stop by and say hi.”
The burly fellow pushed back the brim of his hat. “The name’s Big John.” He swatted away a fly buzzing around his head. “It’s a hot day, but if you don’t mind us tending to our work while we visit, you’re welcome to stay.”
The pastor heaved a sigh of relief. “I’d enjoy that.” He turned to follow Big John to the house when a little girl of no more than five caused him to jump back in surprise. Her big blue eyes blinked up at him. Her golden hair was coming free of their crooked braids. A smudge marred her freckled nose.
“Who are you?”
The pastor knelt and smiled. “My name is Pastor Tim.”
The little girl rocked side to side, twisting her shirt between her fingers. “I’m Evie.”
“Nice to meet you, Evie.”
After giving his neck an impulsive hug, she blushed and ran off.
Timothy and Big John chatted until after the sun went down, discussing everything from hunting and fishing, to politics and religion.
Big John walked with him towards to his car. “I appreciate the invitation to visit your church, but I ain’t much on God.”
Timothy fixed him with a steady stare. “Perhaps not. But God has done much for you.”
Big John rubbed his whiskered chin. “Maybe. Maybe not. Be careful on the way down. Don’t let my lion scare you.”
The big man grunted. “Didn’t I tell you? We’re working on getting a permit to open up our very own zoo. Got the lion cub already. Keep her in a cage over yonder.” Big John pointed to a rickety shack surrounded by brush and iron bars. “She sounds a big testy at times but the cage’ll hold.”
Timothy walked back to his car, defeat seeping through every pore. Perhaps if he were more convincing, more likeable, more persuasive, Big John and his family would have been receptive to the Gospel. How could he make them understand?
Three days passed. His cell phone blared on his nightstand, yanking him from a dreamless sleep. Timothy blinked at the bright light, his mind scrambling. The number displayed was unfamiliar.
“Pastor Tim? It’s me. Peter. You remember? I’ve been visiting your church? You visited my family a few days ago?”
Timothy fought to clear the fog from his mind. “Peter. Of course. What’s wrong?”
He could hear the tears clogging the young man’s throat. “It’s Big John and little Evie. They’re at the hospital. Please come. It’s bad.”
“Good timing. We just wheeled her in. Her mother is bringing her a stuffed animal from the car.”
The pastor watched little Evie’s chest gently rise and fall. Her head was wrapped in bandages. Her complexion was ashen as she slept. He reached and touched her tiny hands. Cold.
“Will she recover?”
The nurse smoothed the child’s blanket. “Thanks to her grandfather, yes. I believe she will.”
Timothy whirled around to see Peter rush towards him, tears filling his eyes.
“Thank you for coming. I didn’t know who else to call.”
“That’s what I’m here for.” He gave Peter’s shoulder a squeeze. “You said it was bad. What happened?”
Peter stared at Evie, his eyes red. “It was the lion. That stupid lion they insisted on having.”
Bile rose in Timothy’s throat.
Peter inhaled a shaky breath. “Someone was careless after feeding the lion cub earlier. Left the cage unlatched. Best we can guess, Evie must have gotten curious. She’s always loved the lion, you know.” He swiped under his nose. “We heard screaming and came running. That lion had her, biting the back of her head, pinning her body down with its claws.” Peter’s body began to shake. “Blood was everywhere.”
“Everyone was shouting and panicking. Big John went nearly mad trying to get her free. Nothing would get that lion to turn loose. So Big John, he…he…”
A single tear traced a path down Peter’s cheek. “He offered his arm to the lion instead.”
A lump wedged in Steve’s throat.
“The lion let Evie go when it smelled fresh meat. It lit into his arm something fierce. I’ve never heard such screaming. He hollered for us to shoot the blamed thing. Took four shots but the lion finally died. We rushed them both here.”
Knees trembling, Timothy embraced the teary man. “Where is Big John?”
“Just got out of surgery a while ago. Room 419.”
The burly man’s eyes cracked open a slit. “You come to talk hunting and politics tonight, Preacher?” His voice was hoarse.
Timothy smiled and eased down into the chair next to the bed. “No. I wanted to see if the stories are true.”
“That you can wrestle a lion to her death.”
A soft chuckle rumbled Big John’s chest. “I wrestled it all right, but I think I came out on the losing end.”
“I’ve been talking to Peter. That was a mighty brave thing you did.”
The older man’s eyes turned glassy. “It had my baby girl. I would do it twenty times over to save her life.”
Timothy nodded and leaned forward. “I know. Your love is that deep.”
Big John stared at the white bandages covering his arm. “Guess I’m just a mauled and mangled man now.”
“No, those scars tell a story. You were willing to give that lion your own arm to rip her away from its clutches. You saved her life by giving it yours.” Tears burned Timothy’s eyes. “That’s what Jesus did for you, Big John. He did it for you, and little Evie, and Peter, and anyone who will call on Him.”
For the first time in his life, Big John bowed his head and wept.
“I think I understand now, Preacher. Praise God, I understand.”
This story is based on real life events. A huge thanks to Keith R. for permission to use it and the beautiful truth it contains. May God birth beauty and hope from the ashes.