Austin changed into a new shirt and grabbed his cap. Heading out of the house, he hurried through the pouring summer rain and climbed into his truck, wiping a few drops from his knuckles. With Rachel still at work for two more hours he decided to make her a nice meal for the evening and have it ready when she got home. The thought of a stiff drink entered his mind, and he did nothing to push it out. Backing out of the gravel driveway, he hit the gas a little hard and his book tumbled off the dashboard into the passenger seat. The Last American Man by Eustace Conway—the story of a man who had ridden a horse across the United States. He reached over to fix the smashed pages.
The book had been the highlight of his last month. The courage and grit of a man to take such a risky journey had given him a mental escape from his own mundane drudgery and feelings of failure. After filling the grocery basket with the few items needed to grill out, he remembered the drink. Turning down the alcohol aisle, he grabbed a six-pack of beer off the shelf. As he made it to the end, nearing the bread, he turned back towards the shelf and placed the beers down. Staring at it for a moment, he wrestled with the disappointment Rachel would feel for him to have a drink again after going this long without it. It was too easy to choose it over her. Then the personal disappointment in himself rose up. He didn’t want to be that man anymore.
He left it sitting there and walked to the check-out.
Pulling out of the parking lot, he turned left at the light. The rain fell in sheets and his wipers were on full blast. As he passed the BP gas station across from the post office in downtown Canton, he glanced over and saw a slew of horses with pack equipment—a man and woman standing nearby wearing cowboy hats.
With mouth agape, he gawked at the sight through the blurry window as his truck slowly rolled past. Facing the windshield again, he absorbed the oddity of the visual. After another moment it hit him. His head turned towards the book lying next to him.
Are you crazy? he thought. That’s Eustace!
He turned into the parking lot of a sandwich shop on the corner and turned the truck around. Pulling up underneath the awning of the BP station, he hopped out and walked towards them. The cowboy noticed him coming and smiled, spurs clicking against the pavement as he took a few steps his direction.
“Howdy!” The redneck twang carried in the acoustics of the awning against the white noise of the pouring rain. Austin flashed him a warm smile. “What are you doin’, brother?” he continued.
“What are y’all doin’?” Austin replied. Both of them chuckled.
“I just read a book about Eustace Conway,” Austin continued. “Do you know him?”
“No, brother, I don’t think I do. Who is it?”
“He rode a horse all the way across the country. He had pack horses and mules and all kinds of stuff that I imagine looked just like what you’ve got going on here.” He motioned to the line of horses standing behind them as they talked.
“The Lord led us to do this for God and country,” Tim stated in a true cowboy twang, reaching into his pocket. “Here’s my card. My name’s Tim Tuggle. That’s my wife, Lynn,” he pointed to her standing next to the horses’ water bucket as she talked with several other locals. “And that’s Chico,” pointing to the wandering Red Heeler with wagging nub of a tail and a red bandana around his neck. He named off each individual horse for him. Austin glanced down at the card which read Disciples of Jesus Horsemen.
“We rode from California.”
Austin looked up at him, mouth hanging open.
“We left a couple years ago and here we are. When the weather got bad we just pulled up underneath this covering to wait it out, but at this point we will need a place to stay for the evening.”
Virtually every customer at the gas station was surrounding them now–petting the horses, taking pictures, talking with Lynn. Austin jumped at the opportunity.
“I’ll find you somewhere to stay,” he said in a frenzy, unable to hide the panic that he might lose them to someone else.
“Several others are on the phone right now trying to find us a place as well,” Tim said, pointing out three different people scattered around them on their cell phones. Austin felt his hopes drop slightly, yet refused to budge.
“Hey, man, can I wear your hat for this picture?” a young man interrupted them. Tim smiled at him, removing the hat.
“Sure,” he said, placing the hat on his head. He walked back to the horses to snap a photo with a few others. Several more came over asking questions and striking up conversation. Austin stood by, unwilling to go anywhere.
“Come on over, I’ll introduce you to Lynn.” The two men walked to the fence where the horses stood. Lynn looked up from her conversation with another man and woman, seated in the grassy area by the edge of the fence. She took a few steps towards them as they came and shook Austin’s hand, smiling brightly up at him. He bent down to pet Chico.
“These folks over here say they have a large pasture for the horses to stay in and plenty of room in their house,” Lynn told Tim, motioning to them behind her. He turned back towards Austin.
“Do you have anywhere to put us?” Tim asked. Austin stood back up.
“Look, my wife and I live in five hundred square feet and we don’t have a whole lot. She is a few months pregnant with our first child. We do have a good deal of land though.”
“Is it fenced?” Tim asked.
“No, it ain’t fenced,” Austin answered.
“Well, how many bedrooms do you have?” Tim asked.
“Well, just one,” he answered, slightly dejected at the hopelessness of his offer. “Look, I’ll find you something. I’ll make it happen,” he added, relentlessly against any option that would let the breathing Eustace slip through his fingers.
“Here, let’s pray about it,” Tim said, grabbing both of their hands. The trio bowed their heads as Tim prayed. “Lord, if this is where we should go, I have faith that You will make it happen.”
Their hands broke away and Austin retreated a few feet back to make a phone call.
“Mom, I need somewhere to put five horses,” he said urgently into his phone. “These people have ridden from California.”
“Wow, that’s great honey,” she responded in typical mother-tones of high-pitched sweetness. “And they are missionaries?”
“Yeah, they are missionaries. Like legit. They aren’t handing out pamphlets; they are truly doing mission work in the form of sharing the gospel and encouraging people to pray.” He tried not to sound panicky. He wanted to trust in Tim’s prayer—that God would make a way according to His plan. But then he knew Tim probably prayed that prayer with everyone, and perhaps it was his selfishness that just wanted to have them to himself.
“I don’t know, honey,” his mom responded. “I don’t know. I’ll think on it and call you back.”
“Well you call whoever you know,” he stated, finally. The call ended.
A strange peace washed over Austin, calming his nerves and settling him with a mysterious assurance that it was all going to work out one way or another. The odds were totally against him, yet he just knew. Tim returned to Austin’s side.
“You live close?”
“Yeah,” he replied.
“Lynn and I have talked and we feel we should go with you.”
Austin jumped into his truck, heart soaring and then quickly plummeting. He gripped the steering wheel with his eyes wide, processing the last half hour.
“Lord,” he said out loud. “I just about bought beer. I’ve got missionaries that rode across the country. And I was thinking about getting drunk tonight. Now, I ain’t gonna get drunk tonight. And I ain’t got nowhere to put horses.”
His scattered thoughts swelled with anxiety giving way to exhilaration giving way to the pure unknown.
After giving Tim the address to put in his phone, Austin pulled out of the parking lot, driving slowly at first to accommodate the trot of the horses. The absurdity of the sight in his rearview mirror made him laugh. Here he was with a pack load of horses and two cowboys on his tail. This was Canton, North Carolina. Everybody knows everybody. There are no cowboys in Canton.
Coming up the farm road a mile from his house, Austin thought of Kim Fortney—the closest thing to a cowboy in Canton. Good Christian man. Purple heart, Vietnam veteran. He has horses and a barn, and it all just hit him at once. As soon as the thought entered his mind, he cleared the top of the incline to find a man standing at the end of his drive.
As if he was waiting on him.
Austin pulled into the drive and his mom called.
“What about Kim?” she said as soon as he answered.
“Mom, I’m sitting in his driveway. I’ll call you back.”
Austin got out and quickly described the situation at hand, asking Kim if he could accommodate the guests.
“Oh yeah, yeah, we’ll find a place for them horses. They rode across the country?” he asked, eyes wide with intrigue.
“Yeah, I ain’t got time to talk about it. Here they come up the road now.” Austin pulled out his phone frantically and started filming the trotting horses as they cleared the top of the hill. Like straight out of a western, it wasn’t a sight seen every day.
After introducing them to Kim, Austin headed down the road to his house to get things ready for their arrival.
“I met these two strange people on the side of the road,” Austin spoke urgently into his phone as he picked up stray items in the living room. “They’re going to spend the night at our house.”
Rachel listened to the unexpected information, not surprised at the actions of her big-hearted husband.
“Okay…?” she responded, not sure what to say. “I’m just now leaving work so I’ll be home in about thirty minutes.”
The evening was spent around a hearty meal off the grill and peach cobbler for dessert. Rachel fell in love with them as quickly as Austin had.
“So how long are y’all staying?” Rachel asked.
Tim and Lynn glanced at each other, relishing their bites of cobbler.
“I guess we’ll see,” Lynn answered ambiguously.
“Y’all can have our bed tonight!” Austin announced. Rachel gave him a subtle scowl.
“Your wife is pregnant.” Lynn smacked his arm. “What is wrong with you!”
“We will sleep in the basement,” Tim decided.
They stayed three nights and four days with the young couple. Their last night together Austin’s parents joined them for dinner and Austin prepared a huge spread for everyone, one of his favorite things to do. Towards the end of the evening, Austin found himself alone with Tim for a brief moment out on the porch.
“Ya know, I’ve got to be honest with you,” Austin began. “I’ve got problems, like we all do. I struggle with drinking and I struggle with feeling like a complete failure of a husband. I know I have a heart for the Lord and I love people first. I climb inside people’s pain and I feel it with them. I know that’s true about me. I just struggle with, well, me.”
Tim listened, nodding knowingly at Austin with soft eyes.
“I’ve been in bad situations too, Austin,” he responded. He described his time in prison and how God met him there, setting him free from his own chains, yet still struggling with so much even to that very day. “I’ve been there,” he continued. “You are not too far to find true freedom.”
Here he was, living the proverbial definition of freedom, yet still imprisoned to his own addiction and his own self-loathing. To have a man delivered from the literal confines of imprisonment stand here and tell him he could be set free—it brought tears to his eyes. The weight of Tim’s humility crumbled the edges of Austin’s struggle. A crack formed, fracturing the chains around his heart. And for the first in a long while, fresh life seeped in.
“Don’t you think when you’re the worst screw-up in the world that you’re not still capable of doing something for the kingdom,” Tim spoke with final emphasis.
The ease in relating to Tim was a deep comfort to Austin’s heart. He saw a father in him, feeling as if he had known him his whole life.
As they set out to leave the following morning Rachel came outside with two sacks of food.
“No, no. We will find food,” Lynn assured her.
“No, no no, you need a plan!” Rachel responded, insisting they take the gift. Lynn smiled sweetly at her.
“Sweetheart, you don’t understand. We literally don’t have room to put that anywhere. Welcome to our only plan, ever: trust the Lord.” Without another word Lynn turned back to the pack equipment she was tying up. Rachel carried the sacks back inside, dejected at having nothing to contribute.
“Is there anything at all we can give to you?” she said, turning back towards them on the porch. “A key to our house, maybe? Whatever you want is yours!”
Lynn chuckled and assured her they had done more than enough already. It sounded like a joke, but Rachel wasn’t kidding. The disappointment at their departure was welling up within her and she could hardly bear the imminent goodbye.
The two couples embraced, shedding many tears. They waved the cowboys off and Austin snapped one last picture, heart overflowing with gratitude that he had just met an even better man than Eustace Conway.