Western Short Story
The rider sat awkwardly in the saddle as he came onto the Benedict Road, his horse moving as though he was hobbled. Clara Wilson, at the reins of the ranch wagon, her father flat in the back of the wagon after a visit to Doc Traverse in town, eased her own horse to a halt. The rider, in a gray sombrero, black vest and faded gray shirt, did not notice her approach. Clara had a rifle at hand, but did not reach for it. As ever she was ready for surprises, recalling at that instant her grandmother saying happiness and sadness come in the strangest shapes and at the strangest times. She wondered if this was one of those times.
In the rear of the wagon her father moaned a soft protest about the bumpy road. Out in front of her, in the middle of the road, the stranger fell off his horse and lay still in the dust.
Clara, with rifle in hand, as if the act was a ruse, approached on foot the fallen man whose eyes remained closed but whose breathing was apparent. Such a good looking young man, she thought, as she checked his pulse, moved his head so she could get a better look at his face. Besides being handsome, she knew he was hurting as the moan escaped from his lips, a shiver shook his body. A strange silver medallion was clipped to his shirt, appearing to read FR/1stRR on a star shape. Clara had never seen anything like it and had no idea of what it was or what it represented. In her 18 years she had never been beyond the ranch and the little town of Benedict, at the foot of the Tetons.
It was too far to go back to town. She’d have to take him to the ranch. With some difficulty she managed to get him onto the wagon beside her father, who stared at her and the new passenger and said, “You be careful, Clara. We never saw this man before. Better give me the rifle. I can hold it close on him.”
“He’s really hurting, Pa,” she said, and climbed back behind the reins, set her feet, and set the horse off on a gallop to home. “We’ll get him home and send somebody for Doc Traverse.”
Only two hours earlier, Boyd Hardy Forsyth, cowboy in search of work, had been riding free and easy at the edge of a slight forested rise at the foot of the mountain. The sun was shining brightly, he could hear birds singing above him in the tree line, and his mount was freshly watered, brushed down and fed. A sense of comfort touched him, and then a bullet tore into his side from an unknown source. Amazement hit him also; he had seen no riders for half a day, heard no gunfire, and expected none. His horse bolted and Forsyth had to hold tight to stay in the saddle, knowing he had little control over the animal. In seconds he was bent over the pommel, barely keeping himself on the horse that took him through a copse of trees, sundry brush, and through a canyon full of echoes of his horse’s shoes.
No other shots followed the first one, but he knew he was far from safe because of the blood he was losing. He grabbed the pommel tighter, felt light-headed, and feared falling from the saddle.
He woke in a bed in the ranch house of Carl Wilson, recuperating rancher who had been gored by a wild steer, and was being ministered to by a young girl and an elderly man who said he was a doctor. For the second or third time that day, all surroundings faded away and this time he lapsed into a deep sleep, hearing no more of the conversation that swirled around him.
The doctor said, “He rode right out of the trees and collapsed on the road, Clara? No warning? No yelling? Nobody chasing him? Rather strange, don’t you think?” He stood beside the bed and shook his head
“Doc,” Carl Wilson said, “you ask more questions without waiting for an answer than my dear departed Alma ever threw at me. What Clara said is just the way it happened. It was a strange encounter, needless to say, and Clara acted as any Good Samaritan would. She’s an angel like her mother was. And you know that as well as I do.”
“You know damned well, Carl, that I loved her as long as you did. There’s no mystery about that. She was a very special lady and Clara is following in her footsteps, plain and simple. But this is still a mystery. For all we know he might be an outlaw on the run and some posse gunner might have taken a shot at him. It doesn’t look like an accident to me. It just doesn’t happen like this, out in nowhere. Nor does it end up here in the bed of an old friend of mine. There is more coming to this, mark my words.” The doctor paused and added, “And what in tarnation is this thing he’s wearing on his shirt?”
“There you go, Doc, with more questions. We don’t have any idea. Clara asked me too, right off, and I have never seen anything like it. And, I might add, I have no idea at all about it.”
The doctor said, “It has to be some kind of affiliation, perhaps military, but nothing like anything around here, at Fort Albion or even at the command post back on the river.”
Clara interjected, “I don’t think he’s an outlaw. I don’t think any posse member shot him and then just didn’t follow up. Besides, he’s too handsome to be wrong.” She made another judgment and added, “At anything.”
Her father and the doctor raised their eyebrows, nodded and squeezed their lips in agreement … with each other.
Forsyth woke early in the morning, a persistent ache doing the wakening, dryness in his throat. Clara stood in the doorway as he stirred awake, a coffee pot in her hands. He thought she was the prettiest picture he had seen in a long time.
“Well, whatever your name is, I have hot coffee for you, and interest mounting all the time about who you are. Somebody asked if you might be an outlaw shot by a posse. I said I didn’t believe you were. My name is Clara Wilson and you are in my father’s house at the end of the Benedict Road. We found you on the road. You fell off your horse. We have him in the corral. He’s okay.”
Forsyth shook his head and mustered a smile. “Thank you, Clara Wilson, for being so good to me. I am not an outlaw and don’t know who shot at me. My name is Boyd Forsyth and I was just looking for work in one of the ranches down this way from Benedict. One gent told me there was work out this way. I met him when I was getting a shave.”
Clara smiled at that revelation, seeing how clean shaven he was, and good looking.
Forsyth, stroking his chin, said, “That must have been yesterday, but I’m not really sure. How long have I been here?” Around the room he looked, seeing the décor and the set-up of the room. There was no denying whose room it was, for it spoke so clearly of this girl had brought him to her home, who now stood so pretty in the doorway waiting to wait on him. He blushed a little thinking he was in Clara Wilson’s bed.
“You’ve only been here overnight,” she said, and resolved any doubts by adding, “I slept on the couch for the night. Chances are my parents will rush you out of here today and settle you in the bunkhouse. If you want work we have a job here.”
Her mother called as she entered the room. “How’s our guest doing, Clara? He feeling better?”
“Oh, yes, Ma’am,” Forsyth said and noticed the receptive smile on the face of each woman. “Nice and comfortable, and my wound feels much better. Did the doctor remove the bullet?”
“Yes, he did,” said Mrs. Wilson. “Doc Traverse is his name and he said it was a little difficult, but he made do. He generally does. He was also wondering about that attachment you wear on your shirt, as does everybody else. Do you mind if I ask what it is?” She had placed her hands on her hips, like the lady of the house would only expect a true answer.
“Not a bit, Ma’am. I wear it honor of my grandfather’s army outfit, Forsyth's Rifles which he modeled after the First Regiment of Rifles, United States Army. That’s what the FR/1stRR stands for. It’s a silver replica. The unit, in 1812 and ’13, was stationed in northern New York under his command, Captain Benjamin Forsyth. They sought to provide protection against British troops in the surrounding areas and to keep a lookout for British military movements.
That evening, as supper was just over, Clara’s father, Carl Wilson, said, “Son, we have word about a bank robbery back down the road you came from. The description of the man sure does not fit you, but me and Doc Traverse have a theory about some of what’s gone on here.”
Forsyth said, “And you think I’m involved in it?” He looked at Clara with a worried look. “I swear I’ve done no wrong, sir.”
“Oh,” Clara said, “we believe you, Boyd. It’s just something else they’ve been thinking about, or cooking up just to ask each other a bunch of questions. Been doing it most of their lives. Real inquisitive, the pair of them.”
“It involves me getting shot?”
“It does, son,” Wilson said, “but we have settled on a very curious explanation.”
“I’d like to hear that, sir, especially the part of me not being directly involved.”
“Oh, I didn’t say not directly involved, you were that, but not in the holdup of the bank, or the death of a teller and a customer, but you did get shot, son.”
“I don’t understand any of it now, sir,” Forsyth slid in, shaking his head, shrugging his shoulders.
Clara jumped in before he father could answer. “At first we thought you had been shot by a posse and managed to escape them, and your wound wore you down so you fell in the road right off the saddle. They have come up with something else all together.” She smiled, as if all his problems were over, just as his hands touched the softness of the material so that he could remember it ever after.
“Yes, Boyd,” Wilson said. “When we realized you didn’t fit the description of the robber, and didn’t get shot at by a posse, we thought maybe the robber thought you were part of a posse and shot you.”
“Why would you think that, or why him think that?” Forsyth shook his head again.
“Simply because that piece you were wearing on your shirt, being real silver as you say, catches the sun just like a deputy or a sheriff’s badge would, or a marshal’s badge. The robber and killer must have known that someone would be on his trail sooner or later, with all the mess he was running from. He saw the shine of it and figured it was a badge.” He paused and then asked, “Do you remember exactly where you were when the bullet hit you? He might have a hideout somewhere near there.”
Forsyth thought a while, about the lay of the land, where he had last watered his horse, where the tree line was the thickest in the day’s ride. A small crop of rock overhang came into his mind. A large bird, maybe a vulture had been circling high overhead. The bones of a dead animal were strewn on the ground.
“Yes, I could find that place again if you took me right back to where you found me, give me a starting point.”
“Yes,” Clara said, clapping her hands. “We’ll get you right back in the same wagon and go back there. Such a short ride it was. It was quicker and safer for you to get you home here, like I said before.”
“I’d rather ride my horse, Clara, if you don’t mind.”
“Well, not today anyway, son,” Carl Wilson said. “We’ll give you another night’s rest if Clara doesn’t mind giving up her bed for one more night.”
“Not at all, Pa,” Clara said, and her father knew she had strengthened her rights of possession, the smile on her face, the light in the young man’s eyes. His own history came rushing through him.
Just as dawn broke the next day, the sun coming over the eastern hills, the unofficial posse from the Wilson Ranch moved slowly into the area as Forsyth pointed out a few points of interest that he had remembered. It had been an easy ride for him, with only a slight discomfort from his healing wound.
The seven riders, almost at the same instance, held their horses in place as the aroma of morning coffee and burnt biscuits filled the air. The swirl of smoke, above them in the maize of rocks, catastrophic falls and old blow downs, spiraled upward in a thin stream.
Not a shot was fired as five men crept right up on the robber-killer as he munched on his breakfast, five weapons drawn and pointed, and a click from one weapon as he wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and stared at the bores of the pointed weapons.
You know the story about Boyd Hardy Forsyth from then on, how he worked as a drover for Carl Wilson, married his daughter Clara, raised a family, and became the marshal of the territory, all after getting the $500 reward for a desperate bank robber and killer. On his chest he wore the marshal’s badge and continued to wear the old silver testament to his grandfather’s service to the country, the one that looked like another badge.