Western  Short Story
The Ragged Rider
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Theona Harmon saw the horseman from her cabin rooftop where she’d been patching a heat leak Her favored stallion, sole black horse in her small remuda, alerting her with a snicker and a look afar. That far rider appeared to be listing in the saddle, twisted to one side, possibly carrying a slug from a handgun, once entering his frame, now raising its particular havoc.

They had come before to this lone cabin against a silent hill, the ill, the gunshot, once a pregnant woman, with a youngster helping her steer her wagon, to get help to deliver her child. All came except the Cherokee as a nation who long ago accepted her as godly and bothered her no more; she had treated a number of them who had come crawling to her (snake-bit, clawed by beast, speared by errant arrow, fall from a jagged cliff, carrying a rifle’s slug); “Fear the lady with the rabbit hat. The rabbits scamper at her will, come back to her when she calls.” It was said, “Even chieftain John Ross, who also bore the Cherokee name Tsan-Usdi, would have bowed in her presence, him next to god of gods, him who declared that divinity in the clouds had messengers on Earth, thereby acknowledging Theona Harmon in no uncertain terms.

As the rider leaned more so in his saddle, she realized he’d not get to her cabin. She leaped on her harnessed wagon and went to the rescue, reaching his side, allowing him to fall easily into her wagon, as he whispered, “Shot in the back,” and passed out.

Three days later, coming to from her swift doctoring as best she could the extraction of the bullet, he spoke his name. “I am Thorn Hughie, Georgia way, shot by a hidden rat, a sniper, but not by a rifle but by a lighter, and closer weapon. It feels like a handgun bullet does draw slowly on my blood, from close range, from darkness. It made haggard my ride as I was chasing a bank robber who took enough from the bank in Widow’s Hill to shut it down. I might have winged him too. Best that you be aware of the injured.”

He slept again, and again, after short recoveries.

His clothes, indeed, were ragged, worn, useless to wash. She added them to her smoky fire, the smoke seen for miles above the grass, like a direction finder: all knew her abode against a hill.

Theona caught danger in the air; all the while keeping her eyes on her horses, especially the tall black, “Incisor,” she called him, with a smile on her face almost prairie-wide. The air kept up the active warnings, and Incisor’s attitudes kept pace, once in a while twisting his head to look back at her, her almost hearing the words he seemed to say.

Thorne Hughie’s manners, meanwhile, pleased her, his quick determinations, his kindness, and the old look still alive in his eyes finding notice in her person, at certain of her physical pronouncements, at certain angles of her exposure, an old tingle becoming known anew, making statements on its own. Twenty years had passed her teen years, 20 years untouched on the grass. The incline of his cheeks, his nose, the broad side of his forehead troubling her senses with its comfort, and his oh. so solid hands dancing in space as he spoke, illustrating their potential.

She did not feel god-like, not in the least; nor goddess-like, she might have corrected.

But those few nights alone found him in her dreams, all of him.

With this all going on, perhaps more easterly there was a cattle drive working its way to market on the dry-grass prairie, a dozen cowboys at work, or a stagecoach heading also west with three men and three woman bound for the new adventure, or, per chance, somewhere on the same direction, another ragged killer followed his old memories and was bent on revenge. Holding the answers in some fashion was Incisor, her horse quick at detecting many things.

Theona much earlier had told Thorn that the traffic west was contending for attention, that people came for a hundred reasons and she had seen many of them on their search. “They dream the wild dreams, the wildest they can imagine, and settle for less than a half of their dreams, if they can get that far. They end up in saloons, drinking, playing cards, watching near-bare ladies dancing on their own dreams, never quite getting loose of where they had found themselves.”

Thorn had said, “I’ve seen all that, all of it, but it is true; for every one lost, another comes to take her or his place, a parade all the way from the East Coast and the Big East Cities, seeking the new adventure, losing their way, a few attaining their goals. You could set the odds on the lot of them that have come for help, who just passed by, for the poor souls who never got a hundred miles from here, dead in their tracks, picked apart by eagles or wolves, or rotting with the dead grasses.”

“You picture the horrors. I see some strong ones who get as far as the next ocean and set up their tents.” She raised her head, heard Incisor at work, and she said, “Another rider comes. I will go and check him. Stay here, under cover.”

She rode off on Incisor, not seeing Thorn leave the bed, don clothes, and strap on his pistols. No way was he letting her face a new peril by herself. He saddled a horse, rode slowly on her route away from the cabin; she was easy to track, due east where the sun came from, and often trouble finding the same path this way. As it had this very day

Passing through a rocky gorge near the near mountain face, he saw her dismounting Incisor ahead of him, and another rider also dismounting beyond her, but behind a huge boulder, furtive as a rat. He wanted to fire a warning shot, but that would upset the balance, even if it was uneven. Thorn secured his horse, scrambled through a mess of fallen rock, came up to the north of the newcomer who was laying his rifle across a huge chunk of rock for a shot at Theona. It was dead-shot close.

Thorn yelled, Theona ducked, the stranger tried to swing around to bring his aim at Thorn, squirreled in his own pile of stones, who, with one shot borne of desperation, knocked the rat asunder. They buried him under tons of stone, free of eagles, coyotes, mountain wolves, all on the prowl.

Theona hugged him all the way back to their cabin, Incisor riding aside them, his reins loose as old rope, the sun chasing them all the way home.