Finding Hope
Chapter 21 - False Start

"This is Cheyenne, folks," came the unnecessary bellow from outside the slowing stage coach - unnecessary because the city had risen up from the desert like a mountainous outcropping, and had swallowed the stage some time back. The plume of trail dust that had plagued the stage settled down inside the coach, coating all the passengers in a fine layer of powdery grime. One young lady close to the stationary window hacked and choked in a most unladylike way, and nearly drowned out the rest of the driver's announcement. "Welcome to Wyoming. If you're getting off here, there's visitor's information in the office."

The fella who'd been riding shotgun appeared at the door and opened it wide, and took up talking where the driver left off. "If y'all are riding on, this is a real fine place to stop over for dinner, and you can take an evening stage - at no extra charge, of course. Just show the driver your fare. This here's also a good place to stay overnight, what with them having beds and all, instead of a bunch a wild mustangs pullin' a coffin on wheels." The driver and shotgun rider bellowed with laughter, but the other five people shoved into the coach with the stranger scowled even harder before struggling to get off. His mouth twitched a little, but he kept his laughter to himself. He could understand why the other passengers weren't too amused. Not everyone was up for gallows humor, and hardly anybody who'd been stuffed into the tiny, hard box on wheels for however many miles the others had been would be up for that kind of joke. Sure, he could understand them not laughing.

"Tough crowd," the shotgun fella said when it was the stranger's turn to alight. "You'da thunk they'da took one a those fancy locomotives if they don't like our company."

The stranger shrugged. "Some folks are always unhappy." He tipped his hat to the man and wandered out into the street, leaving the stage line and the trail dust and memories of Buckeye, Colorado behind.

Cheyenne was big. Really big. Tall buildings lined the wide street, and the wooden walks that kept the ladies from dragging their pretty skirts through the dust and muck were wide enough to fit a six team coach. Smack in the middle of the road, just a few yards down from the Cheyenne stage office, was an eight-sided open area that was separated from the rest of the thoroughfare by an intermittent white picket fence. Green grass grew in the cordoned off area, and there were a number of fruit trees that shaded several strategically situated benches. Several couples, young and old alike, sat on the benches and made sweet faces at one another.

A pair of men brushed past the stranger. One wore working clothes, jeans and gingham. The other wore so fine a suit the stranger doubted he'd have remembered a fancier one even if he did recall all the events of his life. Both men tipped their hats and smiled broadly as they passed, murmuring quiet but gentle apologies for the jostling.

The stranger waved belatedly at the men, amazed by how differently people could be from one town to another. He hoped it was an omen of things to come, and made his way to the nearest hotel.

The clerk turned him away gently, and sent him further down the street to a much cheaper hotel that didn't look near so inviting out front. The inside of the place was just as unappealing, but it was clean and had a roof overhead, and the price let him get two whole nights with what was left of his traveling money, so the stranger didn't complain too much. The door locked okay, and the sheets smelled sweet. This wouldn't be so terrible.

The nervousness that had skittered up and down the sides of the stranger's neck began to settle down. This was a big town, but a friendly one. Maybe Cheyenne was big enough and friendly enough to hide him from whatever misfortune might await him in Laramie. Maybe it'd be alright to settle in for a short stay after all.

Bright light streamed in through the tattered curtains that hung over the sagging old window. The stranger blinked miserably as the morning sun blasted through the last wisps of the latest iteration of his usual dream - instead of being buried alive, he was lost in a fog, and a chasm opened up at his feet as a rich, velvety voice called out from the mists. He couldn't make out any words, only that there was a voice calling plaintively in the thick, white fog, and that the voice was looking for him.

He shook his head, irritated with himself for dwelling on the foolishness of a sleep-induced fairy tale for so long, and for sleeping until the sun was high enough in the sky to cut through sleep in the first place. He was burning daylight, and was going to be sleeping under the open range with no weapon to keep him safe if he didn't get some kind of work soon.

He asked at the desk if they knew of anyone who'd need a pair of strong hands, but the clerk laughed and turned away.

Undaunted, the stranger headed out into the street, and began asking the businesses that lined the main thoroughfare if they needed any help. The faces were friendly and welcoming enough when they thought he might come spend some money, but as soon as they realized what he really wanted, the faces shuttered quickly. Still, they used courteous language to wish him better luck while they ushered him out of their shops as quick as they could. No one shouted him down or threw him out on his ear or accused him of being a thief, so he counted himself lucky. Soon though, his queries joined the town's gossip mill, and he found himself stonewalled at every open door. After being denied entry four doors in a row, he packed it in and moved off the main drag to the smaller avenues that branched out in all directions from the town square.

Discouragement began to seep in at the edges of his enthusiasm when the sun set and rose, and still no one had any offers for him, not even a bit of day labor in exchange for a hard roll or some jerky. He was hungry and a bit concerned about the fact that he no longer had a room to return to, and that most of the townspeople had seen him wandering the streets without a gunbelt.

He came to a church long after sunset, and stood in front of the pretty little white-washed fence that separated its beautiful lush grass and flowerbeds from the sidewalk. A house stood next door, separated from the church by the same fencing, though there was a little side gate that connected the two properties. The stranger could smell food, and he could see the puff of smoke coming from the house's chimney. He thought about moving over to knock on the door, to see if maybe the folks inside were connected to the church. But he also thought about the friendly faces in town that shut down when he asked for a little help. He didn't want to be turned away at so late an hour, especially not by church folk. Getting on a preacher's good side could do a man a lot of good getting him on a whole town's good side - and that could work in the other direction, too. Best to wait until daylight, when a preacher might not be so wary of a begging stranger, than to interrupt him when he's trying to settle his family in for the night.

The stranger decided that until he had a chance to see just exactly what kind of preacher the church had, his best bet was simply to walk on into the sanctuary to spend the night. If the door was locked, there'd be no point in trying to get on the preacher's good side, because chances were there wasn't one. He tried not to think to hard about what he'd have to do if the doors were indeed locked, eased open the front gate, and went up the stone walk. He put his hands to the doors, held his breath, and blew it out in relief when the door swung open silently on well oiled hinges.

He pulled off his hat, unconsciously shielding his scarred and empty belly with it, and crept inside. He stood staring at what he could see of the simple altar in the moonlight that filtered in through the dark glass windows. He could make out a large, plain wooden cross on the wall behind the altar. It loomed over him, and he wanted to turn tail and run for the hills. But he couldn't run on empty, and anyway, what better place to beg for a miracle than at a church?

He lowered his eyes, screwed up the last shreds of his courage, and tiptoed up the aisle to the altar, elbows tucked in. He was afraid to touch the pews as he passed, lest he awaken the Almighty himself, who'd surely bring the whole city of Cheyenne down on his head for trespassing.

When he got to the altar, he dropped to his knees. In the days since awakening in the barn, he'd wished and hoped and coveted as hard as a man could. But until that moment, he had no idea that he could be a praying man. He leaned against the simple pine pulpit, and touched the little cross that was carved into the pale wood. His throat was dry, and no sound escaped his mouth, but his lips formed words meant for no earthly ears. "I don't know where I'm going, or where I've been. But if I've done wrong, then I'm sorry. If this is my punishment, just give me a sign. I'm hungry. I'm tired. I-" -and here his silent whisper faltered - "-Oh, God, I'm afraid." He hadn't shirked from the feeling. He knew he was afraid, from the moment he emerged from the darkness. But it hurt his pride and heart all the same to say it. "I don't... I don't think I could stand it if I knew that I was supposed to be floating, alone and unwanted. I feel so separated. So cut off. Is this... Am I supposed to be alone? Am I wrong to want to find a family I wouldn't recognize if I saw them?"

If there was an answer to his questions, he couldn't hear them. The silence had an echo all its own, and it reverberated through the little wooden building, until it settled over him like a blanket. He lifted his head from the pulpit and looked up past it, to the equally simple cross that hung on the wall behind it.

He wondered, why plain pine? Why not gold, why no inlaid stones or glass bits? Where were the cups, the fancy woodwork? The lace and linen, the stained glass windows, the thick, sweet smell of incense? He turned to the pew and took in the simple wooden benches, the low ceiling, the flat wood walls that held no organ pipes, no mysterious secret balconies.

An old memory tried to surface, childhood, perhaps. A long, dusty walk, behind a man wearing... he didn't know. Bells rang. People cried. He cried too, maybe. He'd lost his faith then, he knew that. Somewhere along the way, though, he'd found it. He must have, because he was sitting in a church, a simple church, with simple trappings, one that probably never smelled like sickly sweet smoke, where the man in front probably wore pants and a good shirt like everyone else, where the ladies could hope to marry off their sons to the preacher's daughters, because he had some.

He got to his feet, surprised by the difficulty of the task, and went to one of the pews. He dropped himself in it with a sigh, and told himself to quit sniveling like an old worried hen. He needed rest, food, some money, and a way out of Cheyenne, in that order. He couldn't do anything about leaving town until he had money, and he couldn't really get his hands on money until he'd done something about the grumbling in his stomach. But he couldn't do anything about any of it until he'd spent a little time off his aching feet, and anyway, the other three things involved other people some kind of way, for now, anyhow. Rest was easy and plentiful and for the taking, in a dark church, after sundown. He stretched himself out on the seat, closed his eyes, and was back to his strange dreams in the space of a breath.

A gentle pressure on his shoulder pulled the stranger from his misty dreamscape. The gray fog dissipated first to darkness, then to warm sunlight that filtered into a wide, wooden room. He blinked, confused, at the polished wood slab underneath him.

"Good morning."

The stranger pushed off the wooden slab with a gasp and reached automatically for a gun that wasn't tied to his hip.

A tall, sandy, bespectacled man, dressed all in black, save his crisp white collar, jumped back and held his hands up. "Thank the Lord you aren't armed. Do you usually shoot up churches, friend?"

The stranger's sigh was part embarrassment, part relief. This was not the way he'd wanted to meet the preacher. "I don't usually hide in churches," he mumbled.

"I see. And why were you hiding in here?"

The stranger cringed, annoyed at himself for his word choice. "Wasn't really hiding. I needed a place to sleep. Didn't think the townfolks would appreciate a tramp sleeping on their boardwalks, and since I lost my iron, I don't feel safe sleeping in the open by the highway."

The preacher raised an eyebrow. "Why would you need a gun to sleep under the stars?"

The stranger couldn't help his snort of laughter. "Because there's snakes and coyotes out there. And animals, too."

"Unlike you, I take it?"

The stranger shrugged. "I've been accused of being a thief. But I don't think I am."

"You don't think? Is it open for debate?"

The stranger's stomach growled, loudly.

"What were you accused of stealing? Food?"

"I wish it were that simple." The stranger told his story - waking in the barn, frightening his benefactors, the first suspicions, the impossible charges, the release that amounted to his being run out of town. "I did steal that horse, that's true - and I shouldn't have done that, I know. But if they'd bothered to charge me for it, I'd have stood before the judge and took my punishment."

The preacher cocked an eyebrow. "You admit to stealing a horse, but you're not a thief?"

"No, I'm not."

"You're a man who's stolen a horse, who's broken into a church, who's first instinct is to draw first and ask questions later, but you still don't know who you are."

The stranger frowned. "Right now, I'm a hungry man who's out of work, out of money, with no way to get out of a town that has no work for a stranger. I'm a man with no past, and, unless I get myself out of this hole, a man with no future. I'm nothing and nobody."

"I see. Do you have a name?"

The stranger sighed. "I don't know it."

"Of course not."

The stranger felt his temper fray and struggled to remain cordial. "I don't remember anything before I was rescued. The couple who nursed me called me Jesse James, because they didn't know how else to call me in for lunch, but, truth be told, I'm not particularly fond of being called by an outlaw's name. Too many dirty looks, you know."

"I see," the preacher said again.

"Well, what about you? Do you have a name?"

The preacher smiled tightly. "I'm Reverend Cady."

"Nice to meet you, Reverend." The stranger held his hand out to shake. Reverend Cady hesitated just a moment, but he took the stranger's hand in both of his and clasped it warmly. "I guess you can call me the thief on the left... or is it the right? No, wait, I don't want to be remembered as a thief. Say, maybe you can call me Job!"

The reverend shook his head, but he smiled broadly. "Your irreverence will get us both stricken down where we stand, friend."

"Maybe you should call me Lazarus," the stranger said softly. "Seeing as how I'm about to beg you for something to eat." When the reverend didn't answer, the stranger got slowly to his feet. "Okay."

"If I fed every tramp that passed through this town, I'd be up to my ears in strays," the reverend said.

The stranger stared at him. There was something in those words, something that made his heart ache. But he couldn't place the feeling with any precision, except that it belong to a memory locked away in the fog of his past.

"Besides that," the reverend continued, "I don't know how I feel about feeding a man who'd as soon kill me as not - and don't deny it, friend. The first thing you did was try to draw a gun you don't have."

Angry, the stranger yanked his shirt up, revealing the raised, angry scars he bore from the old woman's stitchery. He reveled in the satisfaction of seeing the good Reverend Cady recoil in horror. "When I woke up, an old man was arguing with his wife over my dying body about whether or not to fix this," he growled. "I was left to die, and dragged in by dogs! I've been accused of stage robberies, of taking people's jewels, of framing saloon girls, and I've been tossed in jail for it, and threatened with hard labor for things I never did! I'm tired, I'm hungry, I've got no way to catch game or defend myself against whatever thieving tramps y'all seem to think are outside your city limits! I'm a stranger in a strange place, and you touched me while I was sleeping - damn straight I tried to draw on you! You think I'd have done such a thing if I wasn't in desperate need?"

"If I give you a loaf of bread, will that satisfy you?"

"One loaf?"

"Aha," Cady said. "So you want to come to me and be fed indefinitely? How long until you get on your feet? How will you ever-"

"I need a job, Reverend," the stranger said slowly. "I need a job, and a place to sleep, and food to eat, and enough money to get out of Cheyenne. I've asked all around." The stranger looked about. "This is a beautiful church."

"Thank you," Cady said warily.

"It's beautiful, and I bet your wife or kids or something have to come over and dust it every Saturday evening or some such, so that it's all ready for Sunday."

"We come over a few times to clear out the cobwebs," Cady said, still wary.

"Well, would you be willing to hire me on to do that for you? And then you all could have a little extra free time, and you'd be an example of how to deal with strangers who come to town looking for handouts, or whatever you think it is I'm doing wrong."

Cady mulled this over. "I have no extra funds for a caretaker. That's why we've been handling it ourselves. I'm sorry."

The stranger deflated, and fell back to the pew. He turned his head, trying to hide his sudden tears. What now?

"Still... I'm sure there must be someone in town who could use a strong fellow like you," Cady went on. "I... I can see if my wife can fix you a plate at dinnertime. And there's a store room in the back, behind the altar, where the broom and mop and such things are kept. There's a pallet back there. My daughters sometime nap there during the late services. I suppose you could use it. But you'd have to do a good job of keeping the place tidy. This wouldn't be charity. I'd expect you to work well."

"For one hot meal and a pillow?"

Cady stiffened. "It wouldn't take you long to clean this little room up. You could continue your job search in the meantime. And you wouldn't have to starve."

Unappealing as the offer was, he had to admit that it was the best he'd had since getting off the stage. Hell, it was the best offer he'd had since leaving the Ward's. And maybe taking a job for no pay for the Reverend Cady might soften some of those hearts in the middle of town. Reluctantly, he got to his feet. "I'd like to start now, then, if I can."

Cady nodded shortly. "I'll show you the storage room. And I'll have one of the girls bring you something to tide you over until dinnertime. Follow me."

Chapter 20
Chapter 22

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