Western Short Story
Horse of Another Color
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Tracker Meglin, part mountain man, part villager, came into Forbes Village in a mad rush, hat gone, shirt flying, no weapons on his belt and no rifle in the saddle scabbard, and he was yelling for the sheriff, Duly Loften. His Paint stallion was in a lather as well. The Paint had a stock horse body of the Quarter Horse, with a muscular build and density that was heavy but not overly tall, was highly maneuverable, and showed powerful hindquarters that allowed quick acceleration. A sprinter in other words, good for quick escape, but not this time, it appeared.

“Get the sheriff,” he yelled to folks on the boardwalk of Sweeney’s General Store, which Meglin had last visited more than two months earlier. The folks in town knew him from his occasional visits and his great stories told at the saloon on those few visits. “He’s so colorful,” one patron said of him, “that you have to believe everything he says.”

“The sheriff’s out of town,” one of the folks on the boardwalk said. “You hurtin’, Tracker? Want the doc?” He walked to Meglin and offered him a hand down from the saddle, which Meglin refused with a shake of his head, but slid off the saddle in a clumsy manner.

“No,” Meglin said, “but that fellow with the black mask and riding a dark horse saved me again, the second time. This time from different robbers. Not the same ones as last time I was robbed out that way, right near the edge of Krepp’s Canyon where they came at me right out of the darkness. But they took my weapons this time. This masked gent just showed up when it looked like I was done in and started shootin’ and they vamoosed in a hurry. Second time he’s done it. The second time. Can you beat that? Like he’s my savior or the angel sitting on my shoulder.” His hand tapped his shoulder, where said angel might have sat, with a solemn tribute to the providential spirit.

Meglin’s eyes rolled in wonder and the meaning was clearly understood by those looking on. The unknown masked man had long been a topic of conversation not only in Forbes Village and but along a good stretch of the Snake River. The masked man supposedly had been around for a long time, but nobody ever pinned a name on him or ever saw his face.

Maurice Timmons, a new and young deputy, came out of the Bull’s-eye Saloon when he heard the commotion and said, “C’mon in, Tracker, and cool down. Have a drink with us and tell us what happened. Sheriff’ll be back in a couple of hours. He’s at Yancy Dermid’s place. They been hit again by robbers, in the night. Sheriff’s lookin’ things over. Said he’d be back by supper.”

After a couple of swallows of beer, Meglin told his story again. “Masked, he was, just like before. Masked and a sharpshooter you’d be proud to be on your own, and fearless. I swear to High Goodness he was not afraid of getting shot for one minute, for the whole time it lasted, which wasn’t much after he come up on us.”

Timmons, fondling both his beer mug and his new deputy badge, said, “What color did you say his horse was, and what kind of clothes was he wearin’, Tracker? You told us once, but tell us again, won’t you. Sheriff’ll want to know the first things you said, like they’ll be the freshest thing you know about this masked man.”

“What about the outlaws?” Meglin said. “Don’t you want to know anything about them? The sheriff will want to know, you can bet on that.”

“Oh, okay, Tracker, tell us about the bad guys, but there’s lots of them around and only one of them good guys like you’ve been talkin’ about. You see what I’m up to, don’t you?”

“Hell, Maurice, I can talk about the masked guy for hours, but I want you to know about them bad guys. They got all my guns.” He held out his empty hands, palms up, and then rolled his eyes again in wonder.

Sheriff Duly Loften, run ragged by a rash of crimes in the village area, sat in a chair at the Bull’s-eye Saloon and shook his head as he looked at Meglin. “Tracker, that’s twice now, right, that the masked gent saved you?”

“Two times, yes, that’s right, Duly. Even though they got my guns, he got me out of the firing line. How’d you thank a guy like that? He was up and gone soon as the scoundrels lit out for wherever they hide up there in them rocks.”

“What kind of a clothes does he wear, Tracker? The usual stuff? And what color’s his horse?”

“He dresses like anybody else I guess, ‘cept for the mask he wears, a black one, hides his eyes and nose and much under his hat. Had a gray shirt and black vest and he rode a big gray, a good-sized gray makes you look at him twice or more with want.”

Loften nodded and said, “Thanks, Tracker. You have a good night here in town and the rest of us will go back to work looking for him and for the gents who took your weapons.” He walked directly out of the saloon while Meglin told his story again to a few newcomers who crowded him for information when they heard about the masked man on the loose in the area of Forbes Village, on the banks of the Snake River in Idaho.

A few minutes later, in the sheriff’s office, Deputy Timmons said to Loften, “He’s plain confused, Sheriff.”

“Sure, and he told you and the others first thing that the masked gent rode a dark horse and tells me the horse was a big gray, and carries on about the horse while he’s telling me it’s a big gray. Think that’s part of his confusion?” He shook his head and said, “It sure is part of my confusion.”

“He was screamin’ and yellin’ half the time, Sheriff, like he was still scared of the whole situation he’d been through. Can’t blame a gent for that. I sure can’t.”

“Hell, Maury, I ain’t saying he’s lying. Maybe just confused like you say. I can’t remember Tracker ever being scared of anything ‘cept a mad bear that time it was cornered up in Rocky Glen, but I can’t do my job if people don’t tell it like it really is. I’d be running around like that damned chicken looking for her head.”

In the morning, after a good sleep in the loft of Lafferty’s Livery, Meglin set out for his place up in the rocky hills along the Snake. Without fail each time heading back to his place, he made sure nobody was trailing him. He didn’t like company and never wanted for company, except an occasional fellow hunter sharing a catch or a bit of news or an Indian girl out from her village for a long walk in the dark. For weeks after either kind of visitor, he’d make sure it was not repeated too soon at his cause; lonely is good except when lonely works a mystery inside.

The masked gent was part of the mystery that Tracker Meglin knew lurked inside him. It would not let go of him. He’d continually go back to the times he sat on his grandfather’s knee and heard stories about the masked man of the mountains. He had to come out of the mountains because nobody ever found where he came from on the flatland. At least, not out on the grass or any place close along the Snake.

“This man was scared of nothin’, Tracker,” his grandfather said, “and could shoot the eye out of a squirrel or a prairie dog soon as look at him, if he was up to shootin’ such critters. But he’d come down from nowhere up there and help someone in trouble, ridin’ up and shoutin’ and shootin’ and scarin’ the pants off everybody at the scene, ‘specially the outlaws if you can picture that.”

“Why’d he wear a mask, Grandpa? Was he afraid of being known? He was a hero, so why wear a mask.”

“’Cause he’d get kilt otherwise when he was not wearin’ it and the outlaws he drove off would set up a trap and waylay him like bushwhackers do all the time. That’s why.”

“Did you ever know who it was, Grandpa? Ever see him with no mask on?”

“Once in a while, in a mirror, like in a saloon,” his grandfather said. “Those big kind that spread along the back of the whole bar almost. I saw him in a mirror like that once and never saw him in it again.”

“Was he a good looking man, Grandpa, a regular guy? He didn’t wear a mask ‘cause he had a horrible face, did he?”

“Oh, he sure was a good looking kind of cuss, I’d say. And Grandma thought he was too.”

“Grandma saw him too?”

“Yup, once or twice in a mirror, but never when I was lookin’ at him.”

Meglin had always remembered those words, the exact way they were said. It was a long while, though, before he caught up to what was really being said. And at that precise and clear moment, some things in his life had taken new turns … but only every once in a while. He could smile at it all, every time out. He had a good teacher.

“That fellow with the mask,” his grandfather said another time, “kept all the robbers and outlaws on their toes because he kept workin’ in the territ’ry and kept stoppin’ crime and people remembered him, and some of them outlaws even moved to another territ’ry to do their dirty work. That all happened ‘cause he, the masked man, kept comin’ around when things got tough, and even when they didn’t, all so the outlaws stayed worried about him showin’ up on their hold-ups and such.

And after this new appearance just outside Forbes Village, Tracker Meglin would make sure when the masked man came again, out of the mountains, he’d be riding a big gray, just like he told the sheriff.