The Outstretched Hand


The Outstretched Hand

The six-mile walk between Salt Lake City and Bountiful was usually a long one for Jamie. But on that summer afternoon, with Isaac Barlow waiting to question him, the distance seemed too short. Long before he felt ready for the ordeal, the Barlow home was in sight. Only the knowledge that Hannah also waited gave Jamie enough courage to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

In January, he had met Hannah Barlow at her cousin’s home. Never before had Jamie known anyone who affected him the way she did. His sober self-consciousness faded when the vivacious young girl favored him with a smile. Jamie didn’t know why, exactly, but he came alive in a tingling new way whenever Hannah was near.

He thought about her constantly. Asleep, he dreamed of how she gathered her corn-gold hair into a glistening coil on her slender neck. Awake, he remembered how soft her skin felt the evening he had impulsively laid his palm against her cheek.

The first time Hannah invited him to visit her home, it took Jamie several days to recover from his delighted astonishment. His joy dwindled, however, when he found her folks to be people of some substance.

Isaac Barlow had built a spacious home from the rock that so generously littered the Wasatch Mountain foothills. Behind the house, a barn for cows towered solidly near a fenced enclosure for poultry, which was next to a large horse corral. The extent of the Barlow property depressed Jamie. How could he ask Hannah to leave a home where she had so much, to be with him—Jamie Wheelwright—who had nothing?

Jamie stopped in the shade of a young poplar tree to rest. Heat waves from the July sun danced above the surface of the Great Salt Lake. Careful not to get his good shirt dirty, he leaned against the tree and tried to remember when he had first heard about the salty inland lake.

Maybe it was after he and his parents left Florence, in Nebraska Territory, twelve years earlier, in the spring of 1858. The six weeks from England in a sailing vessel were a blurred memory to Jamie, although he was sure he remembered hearing talk of the Salt Lake Valley, and probably its lake, before his family left England.

After their ship docked, Jamie remembered little about the miles they’d traveled to reach Florence. But after they left there, he recalled the wagon he had walked beside, mile after weary mile. And he had never been able to forget how grief twisted his insides the night his mother died.

Cholera, they said. Several people besides Amy Wheelwright had died of the disease, which struck with such deadly swiftness. Then, one day after the captain of their tent company announced that he felt they were out of danger, William Wheelwright also lay dead of cholera and his boy, Jamie, was left an orphan.

His mother’s young sister, Rachel, was already in Utah. When the wagon train reached Salt Lake Valley, she met Jamie. The ten-year-old boy and the 19-year-old girl tried to become a family, but in less than two years Rachel fell in love with a man who wanted to go on to California. Rachel went with him.

Since then, mere day-to-day living had been a struggle for Jamie. Somehow, though, he had made his own way, had tried never to forget the last words his father said to him: “Stay close to the Lord, son, and you’ll never be alone.”

Well, he hadn’t been alone, but most times he’d been mighty lonely. Now there was Hannah. Jamie set out again, his strides long with eagerness to see her.

He slowed when he saw Isaac Barlow standing in the hard-packed dirt yard, waiting. In no time, Jamie was close enough to see the frown on the man’s sun-red, craggy face.

Hannah was nowhere in sight, although her brothers, 11-year-old twins, grinned at Jamie as they herded squawking geese toward a pen.

How will I ever get up the nerve to ask Isaac Barlow for his daughter if he’s going to keep looking at me like I was a stray? wondered Jamie. He stopped in front of the older man, who cleared his throat with a cavernous growl, then pushed his hair off his forehead.

“Let’s go inside.” Isaac’s voice, thought Jamie, sounded like it came from a root cellar.

Hannah was not in the front room, nor could Jamie see her through the kitchen doorway. Hoping his disappointment didn’t show, Jamie took the chair Isaac indicated.

“Sit there so’s I can see you.”

Perched on the edge of the seat, Jamie found himself unable to form thoughts solid enough to prevent the fidgets brought on by Isaac Barlow’s frank scrutiny.

Jamie himself wasn’t too sure what he looked like, so he didn’t know exactly what the older man was seeing. He did know that his six-foot frame had filled out well, and that work as a teamster had given him muscular shoulders and a straight back. Also, the outdoor work kept his skin tanned the year round.

But he wasn’t sure what color his eyes were. Gray or green, he thought, and he was certain his curly hair was brown. He was glad he had managed to shave closer than usual this morning. Mrs. Cox, who let him park the freight wagon in her yard when he was in Salt Lake City, had given him hot water, and she had reminded him to use a cloth to sponge off his trousers.

His shoes! He’d forgotten to dust them. Oh, well. Too late now. Isaac’s searching glance was already skidding downward. Jamie felt his toes curl inside the heavy work shoes, coated with the dust of his long walk, but he resisted the urge to slide his feet under the chair. Some things weren’t to be helped. He’d done the best he could.

Thinking that, Jamie sat proudly erect just as Isaac looked up. Their eyes met. Stubbornly Jamie returned the stare he was getting. If the big, dour man weren’t Hannah’s father, thought Jamie, he’d get to his feet and leave, making sure he stomped his dusty shoes on the way out.

“Well, young man!” boomed Isaac. He crossed his ankles, placed both elbows firmly on the arms of his chair, and leaned forward. “You come all the way out here just to set and glare, or you got something you want to say?”

Amazed that his voice sounded calm, Jamie said, “I have something to say. Your daughter, Hannah, has become very dear to me. I’d like your permission to ask if she’ll marry me.”

“Figgered as much.” Again the hollow roar as Isaac Barlow cleared his throat. “You know anything at all about your folks, Jamie Wheelwright?”

“My father was a glazier, in England. My mother—” Memory strengthened Jamie’s voice. “They were good people, Brother Barlow.”

“Don’t doubt they were. All the same, I can’t hand my Hannah over to a fellow I don’t know anything about. Bring me word from your bishop testifying to your worthy character. After that, we’ll talk.”

Jamie barely tasted the dinner Hannah had prepared, and he spoke absently to her when she walked to the road with him to say goodbye.

All the way back to Salt Lake he brooded. How could he get a character reference when he was never able to attend any ward long enough for a bishop to get to know him? Oh, he went to church regularly, but one week one place, the next week another. He freighted loads as far south as St. George, as far north as the Bear River Valley, with stops in between. He knew bishops aplenty, but none knew him well enough to say whether Jamie Wheelwright was a good man or bad.

What was he to do? For days Jamie worried. Then one afternoon, walking near the Tabernacle, he saw Brother Edgar Walton, bishop of the ward the Barlows lived in.

Obeying an impulse, Jamie hurried to intercept the man, who looked at him blankly, even after Jamie explained who he was.

His longing for Hannah gave Jamie the courage to tell Bishop Walton his story and to ask for help, but there was none in the answer he received.

“Brother Wheelwright, I wouldn’t be fair to Isaac Barlow if I gave a character reference for a man who’s a stranger to me. Clean living you may well be, and prayerful, but I don’t know those things for a fact, now, do I?”

Downhearted, Jamie bade the bishop goodbye. Despair gradually swelled inside him. Of what use had it all been, the struggle to make his own way, the day-by-day determination to stay close to the Lord? Why had he deprived himself of all but meager necessities to save for a family of his own if he was never to have one? Some people preached love thy neighbor, but they wouldn’t even venture an inch out on a limb to rescue a lonely brother.

Jamie decided to forget Hannah. At the end of two weeks he had succeeded so well he only thought of her 20 hours a day instead of 24.

Grimly he went about the business of earning a living. The joy he’d begun to feel in his work was gone now that he was no longer able to hope that what he saved would help him and Hannah start their life together. At the end of the month, Jamie left the building where the teamsters picked up their loads and started north toward the tithing office. A few men working on the temple glanced at him as he walked by. But Jamie didn’t see them. He was asking himself, Why give a tenth to the Lord? Why not drive up to Corinne—have a little fun for once in my life? Ever since he’d started freighting he’d heard about the wide-open railroad town. He was still telling himself he deserved a good time when he left the accounting office, his tithing paid.

Steps on the wooden walk behind him caught his attention. He glanced casually back in time to see Bishop Walton go inside the building he had just left. Jamie was glad he’d missed coming face to face with the man.

But during the next two weeks everywhere Jamie went Bishop Walton seemed to be somewhere around. Once, as Jamie left Mrs. Cox’s kitchen, he was sure he saw him enter the house next door. Two days later the tall man was striding away from Mrs. Cox’s house as Jamie approached. What could a bishop whose ward was in Bountiful find to do in Salt Lake? wondered Jamie. Maybe he planned to move.

The very next day he was sure it was Bishop Walton he saw leaving the building where teamsters picked up their shipments. After that, Jamie thought he saw the man everywhere. Even when he only fancied he saw Bishop Walton’s distinctive, dipping gait, Jamie, hostility a dark cloud in his mind, turned and went the other way.

He was relieved when he was given a load of window sashes to freight to Parowan. At least he wouldn’t run into Bishop Walton in that distant settlement. He might even find a girl there he could cotton to. If he did, he’d make sure she had a father who wouldn’t mind if a fellow had no one to stand up and say, “Here is Jamie Wheelwright. He hasn’t any folks, doesn’t own much, but he tries.”

A vision of the lovely, golden-haired Hannah went with him as he drove his team south to Parowan. He thought the passage of time would shrink the emptiness inside him, but if it did, he was hard put to tell the difference.

Two weeks later, when he got back to Salt Lake City, Jamie drove his empty wagon into Mrs. Cox’s backyard. He was fastening the gate when he heard her call.

“There’s a letter for you, Jamie.” She flapped something white overhead. “A man brought it yesterday.”

Jamie was too astounded to do more than mumble his thanks. He’d hardly ever seen a letter before, let alone received one.

Somehow he knew it was from Hannah. His feeble effort to forget her was abandoned entirely as he unfolded the paper.

“Dear Jamie,” he read. “If you get this before Sunday, will you come to dinner and church? Hope to see you by half after two. Regards. Hannah.”

Mrs. Cox asked anxiously, “Bad news, Jamie?”

“No, ma’am,” he said.

But as he lay in the wagon bed, the star-scattered heavens his ceiling, he admitted his fear that the note was, indeed, bad news, and that probably Hannah wanted to tell him a polite goodbye. Nevertheless, on Sunday he began the long walk to Bountiful.

Hannah waited for him by her front gate. Looking at her, Jamie realized he’d forgotten how lovely she was, and suddenly he thought, I won’t give her up without an argument. I’ll tell her father he’s going to have to take me for what I am—an honest, hard-working fellow who just happens to be alone in the world.

Hannah walked to meet him. “I’m glad you came, Jamie. Let’s go inside.” Then she smiled up at him, and Jamie was convinced his heart turned right over in his chest. Already light-headed from the sensation, he reached the Barlows’ front room doorway and lost what little breath he had left.

As formally as though they were in church, Isaac Barlow and Bishop Walton sat side by side. Each man looked at Jamie solemnly as he stumbled over the threshold.

Isaac cleared his throat, then said, “Sit over there.” Turning to Hannah, he said, “Wait in the kitchen with your mother.”

Jamie sat on the edge of a chair, hat balanced on knees that trembled even though he clamped them together.

Isaac spoke to Bishop Walton.

“All right, Edgar, here he is. And here I am. Now, what was it you wanted to say to us?”

The bishop nodded to Jamie but he spoke to Isaac. “This young man,” he began, “came to me—oh, a month and a half back. Told me he loves your Hannah but lost her because you asked him for references he couldn’t get.”

Isaac’s mouth opened, but he shut it again as the bishop held up a hand.

“Now, that’s understandable, Isaac. No man wants to give a daughter to some fellow he doesn’t know the first thing about. So, since Jamie here didn’t have a regular bishop to tell you what sort of man he is, I had a talk with me. Ended up appointing myself Jamie’s bishop. As such, I went around asking questions. Talked to the fellow he freights for. Had an afternoon’s chat with Sister Cox, the lady who owns the yard where he parks his wagon. Spoke to youngsters in that neighborhood. Finally, I came to see Hannah.”

He paused, letting his glance go from Isaac to Jamie and back to Isaac.

“Now I’m prepared to tell you, Brother Barlow,” he continued, “that everyone I spoke to has only good to say of Jamie Wheelwright. All say he’s an upright young man who loves his Heavenly Father. As his bishop—temporarily”—he winked at Jamie—“I have come to tell you he will make your Hannah a fine husband.”

Silence fell. Jamie was sure the two men across the room would hear his heart pounding. Slowly, Isaac Barlow stood up. He crossed the room to the kitchen door.

“Hannah? Elsie?” His voice echoed. “Come in here, please.”

His wife and daughter came through the doorway. Isaac looked at Hannah, his craggy face stern, before turning toward Jamie. The scowling look made the moment the longest Jamie had ever endured.

Then Isaac took Hannah’s arm. His strides deliberate, he marched across the room to where Jamie waited. He took his daughter’s small fingers and tucked them inside the young man’s big hand.

“You’ve been without a family long enough, Jamie Wheelwright,” Isaac Barlow boomed. “Time you started your own.”

Sister Syndergaard serves as young women’s activity counselor in the Aaronic Priesthood MIA of Kaysville Third Ward, Kaysville (Utah) Stake.