The preacher stopped by the quietly bubbling stream to let the horses drink. The wagon seat creaked as he climbed down, then wrapped the reins around the footrest. He pulled a small flask from the pocket of his coat, took a healthy swig, then grimaced as the whiskey burned its way to his belly. The danger was real, that he was on his way to becoming a drunkard as well as a fornicating hypocrite but it didn’t stop him from having another jolt. He was puzzled by his rapid descent into wantonness, as his faith eroded and his dedication to duty disappeared, but had no answers, only questions. Was it meeting a woman willing to cheat on her husband? Lack of coins for the collection plate? Moral weakness? Had he never been a true man of the cloth? Whatever the reason, the face reflected in the water was no longer worthy of chastising sinners for their earthly failings.
The woman whose marriage he defiled had packed a hamper for him before sending him away for good. Reaching for a hunk of bread and some jerky, he chewed slowly as he observed the splendor of the world around him. A stand of magnificent oak trees. Lowing cattle grazing on a grassy ridge. Flowers waving colorful blooms in a gentle breeze. A bevy of quail bobbing and weaving through shrubs. Were these wonders truly created by God? Or were they part of a naturally recurring cycle that required no one’s worship? Once again, he had no answers. For over a thousand years people kept saying the lord would return to gather his flock and cleanse their souls but no one appeared. Was there really a devil who led people astray? Or were humans inherently evil?
When the horses seemed sated and ready to continue, he climbed aboard and pondered the intersection ahead. Which road led to a brighter future? Did danger lie down one, or all? He’d never wavered in his convictions before nor fretted over decisions. Cast adrift by circumstances that he’d created, he was suddenly fearful, where he’d been steadfast.
He chose the trail that led to the open prairie, since he had nothing to feed the horses and the mountains might offer sparse sustenance. With their bellies full of fresh grass they would be more willing to journey outward. The one thing he knew for sure was that when he reached the next town, he wouldn’t introduce himself as a preacher. Swamping stalls or sweeping the saloon floor could refill his flask and belly without exploiting the guilt of the faithful. Such work might help restore his sense of self-worth. If not, he’d be like a tumbleweed blowing in the winds of change. By doing so, he might reach a destination and an endeavor worthy of his attention.
As the wagon bumped its way along, he admired the cloud-filled sky, wondering why birds could fly while man could only walk. He wished he could soar high into the air and see more of the world he was passing through but maybe birds tired of flying or faced dangers he couldn’t comprehend. Deciding he was complicating his journey by trying to figure out something men had been unable to decipher for centuries, he took a small sip from his flask and simply listened to the clopping rhythm of the horses’ hooves. When sunset faded, he saw lights in the distance and realized the opportunity to start anew lay just ahead. Whether he continued to spiral or climb was a fate held in his own hands and heart.