Finding Hope
Chapter 10 - Crossing Over

Alone, again.

The stranger still couldn't remember anything before Clyde and Eunice Ward, but the moment he lost sight of their scrubby little patch of land, he was struck by a miserable familiarity to being out on his own. For all he knew, he'd come from a bustling family of ten, and had struck out on his own the moment he could mount a horse. But even if that were true, the stranger couldn't shake the awful feeling that he'd been on his own before, for a long, long time. He didn't like it.

One foot in front of the other. One foot in front of the other.

He tried to tell himself that every step forward was a step closer to civilization, a step closer to other people, a step closer to another world he could lose himself in for a little while. He tried to tell himself that at the end of his journey he'd find someone who knew who he was, and that there was no need to fear, that he'd done no wrong. He tried to tell himself that the pain in his gut wasn't real, and that he was just feeling put out for getting put out.

He stumbled and landed on hands and knees in the hot dust. Almighty heavens, but he was tired. He was tired, and his belly really did hurt, dammit. He collapsed to his good side and panted, just trying to take in some air. He'd been on the road since mid-morning, and the sun was already beginning to slope to the far end of the sky. He was exhausted. He hadn't walked more than the length of the fenced in yard in the weeks since his awakening, and he'd only recently grown strong enough to put in a full day of work without having stretch out in bed halfway through. He was still terribly out of shape, no good to be walking such a long distance in the sun, with no chance for respite.

But he couldn't stay out in the open where he'd fallen. Get up. The old man had to have made it home already, he had to have seen his unpaid servant was gone. He would've had time even to turn back to fetch the sheriff. On your feet, boy. The distance a footbound man could cover in half a day was a pittance compared to the distance a man could cover on horseback. Every second the stranger spent idling was another long legged equine stride to whatever fate the law held for a man who couldn't defend his past actions. Damn it all to hell, get up!

Though it took some doing, he managed to get upright enough to put more trail dust between himself and the Ward property, scrabbling in the hot, scrubby land. The land around him soon turned soft and sweetly green, and in the distance, tall, old trees emerged from the cool, pliable earth. But the road he was on remained dry and dusty, and the shrubby bushes that dotted the nearby landscape provided him no shade. There was no place to rest and eat unmolested, no place to hide. Not even a place to relieve himself discreetly, not if he was worried about a posse dragging him away at a man's most vulnerable moment. And the need to make water was becoming almost as urgent as the need to take water.

The stranger kept his eyes peeled as he trudged on, looking for any kind of place to take cover or signs of the law finally catching scent of his trail. When he finally saw something, he thought for a moment he'd found a mirage: way out in the distance stood a little farmstead of some kind, complete with a patch of vegetables growing a little ways out from the boxy little wooden structures.

Where there's homes or agriculture, even a tiny vegetable garden, there's usually water. Water meant thicker brush, maybe even trees - a natural hiding place. He didn't see any such treeline yet, but that didn't mean he couldn't check - besides, the land might dip and tumble, like the slope behind the Ward place. There could be all kinds of hiding spots, if he stopped sticking so close to the worn path under his feet. The stranger veered off the path, and headed for the vision.

He soon reached a small stream - a creek, really. He bent his knees, intending to kneel for a drink, and was surprised when he just kept on going down. He landed face down in the creek, and sputtered and splashed until he managed to get a shoulder in the water and his nose and mouth out of harm's way. His whole body was heavy with exhaustion. Maybe he could just go to sleep, and let nature take its course, whichever way it fell. The coyotes could come for him, or maybe he'd get bit by a rattlesnake. Or he could just fall face down in the creek again, dead asleep, and never wake up.

The idea was tempting, but it wasn't what the stranger wanted. He figured if the Good Lord wanted him back so soon, He wouldn't have let him live through the pain of getting cut all to pieces and sewn up again by Eunice Ward, and the foolishness of her husband's twisted rage, only to drown in a thimbleful of water. Besides, he could still see the farmhouse or whatever it was downstream. He could probably find shelter somewhere on the property, if he could just get himself there.

So the stranger dragged himself out of the water, hand over hand, to the muddy soil, and let himself breathe, just lay there and rest for a few moments. Then he crawled like a snake in the grass, dragging his belly through mud and dandelions along the side of the creek.

It took the stranger an awful long time - too long - to get up alongside the property, but he made it before sundown. He lay in the grass next to the creek and listened for a posse. He heard nothing. Maybe the old man had been bluffing? Whatever the case, the only sound the stranger could hear was the gurgling water flowing past his head.

Still, it didn't pay to throw all caution to the wind. He stayed low to the ground, dragging his wet body through the dust and brambles, to get to the nearest building. He was slow, careful not to make a sound - not even so much as a twig snap. He held his breath and hoped that there were no mutts on the property, nothing that could sniff him out and sound an alarm. After a moment he began to relax - if there were any dogs about, they were busy or stupid. Nothing came to announce his presence, and he huddled in the shadow of the small boxy building closest to the stream.

He could just make out the sounds of human life, now that he was practically in the middle of the property. He could hear the yelp of a disgruntled child, and the sharp word of a man, and the clank of glass and metal. He blew the creek water out of his nose and found he could smell meat and bread. His stomach gurgled, and he unwrapped his portion of hard biscuit and jerky, and pretended to be satisfied with his ration.

Eventually, the sounds of supper time died down, and the sky began to separate into bands of color. The stranger picked his way around his chosen hiding place, hoping to find an entrance of some kind. It was some kind of outbuilding a few steps away from the main house. There was no opening he could use on the three walls that faced the property's exterior - not even a window. He wasn't surprised - if he couldn't get in without walking onto the people's land, then a thieving bushwhacker couldn't either. Still, he worried about dogs or curious kids catching him trying to slip in the door unawares. He worried about the door being locked. He worried about finding the structure stood wide open with no fourth wall to hide him, just a gaping lean-to that served as semi-shelter for a wagon or some such.

When the sun was nearly down, just before the family began lighting lamps inside, the stranger risked a look at the front of the structure. At first glance, he didn't see any windows on the building, just a single door right in front. He skittered back, and looked carefully at the house itself. There was a clear line of sight to at least one entryway to the house. The house was also lined with a striking number of windows. But he couldn't see any silhouettes, no one reading by the brightly glowing lamps that sat perilously close to the dry looking muslin curtains. If his luck held out, then all he had to do was get to the front of the outbuilding, get the door open and shut, and he'd be able to rest for a spell.

He pressed his back to the wall and edged along the house-facing side of the structure. He spared a precious glance away from the house to check briefly for a lock or latch. There was none that he could see - just a frosty little windowpane set into the door, right at his eye level. He wanted to look inside before trying the door, but he didn't dare turn his back on the house a second time. Instead, he reached backward and groped blindly until he got his fingers around the rusty metal handle. He grit his teeth and pulled the door open, inch by careful inch, until it was just wide enough for him to squeeze his bare head in. His body, too lean from farm chores and no heavy food, slipped through real easy.

The room was dark and smelled of rust, dirt and leather. The stranger put his hands out and inched into the room, trying to feel his way to a safe place to nest. With a bit of slow, silent fumbling, he could make out a hoe and and a pair of rakes, a couple of worktables and some heavy shears. Tool shed, he decided. This could either be a perfect hiding place, or a dead giveaway, depending on how often the tools were used. The Wards hadn't had any such shed. They'd stored their tools in the barn. This shed and the house made up two of the four structures the stranger had seen on his approach. One of the structures seemed large enough to be a barn of sorts to the side. He hoped the tools in the room he was nesting in were simply part of the overflow collection.

He put all worry out of his mind, deciding he'd find out in the morning, at any rate. Maybe they'd be more kindhearted folks who'd take in a man down on his luck and send him off with a good, hot meal. Unlikely, but he lulled himself to sleep with the thought anyway.

When the sun streamed in through the little window, piercing his sleep with bright light, the stranger knew no one would disturb him. There were spiderwebs everywhere, and most of the tools looked like they would disintegrate if he breathed too hard. The only disturbance in the thick layer of dust was the track he'd laid down to get to his hiding space in the corner.

He crept back towards the door, intending to investigate the rest of the property, and nearly came face to face with the family matriarch. An old woman stood in front of the shed, staring right at the window. The stranger ducked down, and reached out to catch a falling broom before it sent everything else in the room crashing to the dirt floor. He could hear his heart pounding in his chest as he waited for the other shoe to drop.

But then the sound of a squealing child calling for grammy broke the spell. The stranger leaned back, and he saw the woman's shadow pass over the window before disappearing altogether. He strained to listen for returning foot falls, for signs that the woman had alerted the family to his presence, but no one came,.

Still, he was too shaken to try leaving just yet. He listened to the sounds of life, and nibbled at his rations, trying to keep up his strength. The sun rose and set twice before he ran out of food. When he drained his canteen, he knew he couldn't keep hiding in a tool shed. Still, it took him another day to gather the courage to even look out of the window again.

Chapter 9
Chapter 11

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