Western Short Story
The Silent Horseman
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Javer Moncton, who owned a decent-sized ranch with a decent-sized herd of cattle in Nevada foothills near the town of Jasperville, woke with a start, and recalled the sound that roused him, one that plunked at his cabin door. The first thought was an Indian arrow, but there were no follow-up cries, no ungodly threats, just silence. Besides, the Indians had been quiet in the area for half dozen years.

He found a note printed on a remnant from a sack tied to a small arrow stuck in his door. In rough letters it said, “The cattle rustled yesterday from your herd are at the end of Coyote Canyon. Bring enough men to get them and bring them back.” A large “X” in a circle sat at the bottom of the message. Coyote Canyon was a dozen miles up the river.

When Moncton tracked horse marks from the spot where the arrow was apparently shot, the trail quickly faded by the river and was lost.

Moncton gathered his few hands and a few neighbors’ hands and they rode into Coyote Canyon and retrieved the cattle stolen from him and at least two dozen head rustled from the neighbor’s herd, which was a surprise to the neighbor. No rustlers were around the stolen cattle that were penned in place by brush and rope at the deep end of the canyon.

The sheriff of Jasperville, Will Almsby, was surprised at the outcome of the note when Moncton told him the story, but admitted it was not the first time that some thievery or other crime had been uncovered by an unknown person who never made an appearance, so far as he knew, but had nevertheless provided explicit instructions on how and where to find stolen goods. “He’s like a righteous angel or a gent too good to be true,” the sheriff commented, nodding his head in added approval.

“This fella, the one who leaves notes around, he leave you any notes, Sheriff?” It was asked by Rag Tolman, a cowpoke locked up a few times by Almsby for being drunk and waving his gun around the Rocky Tor Saloon. The question sounded like sour grapes coming into the mix, as if Tolman was asking the sheriff if some unknown person was doing the sheriff’s job.

Almsby, a quiet man with a dozen years of service to a couple of communities in Nevada, did not show contempt for the pointed question from Tolman. On the job he’d often seen, or heard, doubt coming from some men who, in his mind, would never make it even as a part-time deputy, never mind being saddled with a sheriff’s responsibilities. Often he had judged men not in the throes and difficulties of danger, where survival instincts would kick in, but in those moments when contemplation and self-doubt marked the character of a man.

“None that I ever read first, Rag, though I’ve now seen two notes brought in to me. This one to Moncton and one a week ago. Looks like we have a quiet ranger or invisible lawman on our side and I’m not disregarding any of it. Everything helps, you have to admit. Like having a new man on the job. ‘Course, if you want my job, Rag, I’ll step aside for you. You can have the badge right now.”

Almsby’s hand went up to his chest as if to unpin the badge. His way of getting to the root of a man’s doubt was straight on … with just a little bend in it, he might qualify if asked.

Tolman shrugged off the challenge with a face still looking sour, but did not reach for the badge. The sheriff obviously was getting some help, and that meant the town and the folks benefitted by the extra help, so there was no use in making off what it wasn’t.

It was only a week later that a ranch hand from the KA-KA spread raced into town and dismounted hurriedly at the sheriff’s office. “Someone grabbed Kurt Agular’s little girl, Will, little Kedie. God, she’s only 11 years old. Took her right off her pony on the back end of the KA-KA’s north pasture. We looked all over and can’t find her, and her pony had a hunk of rope on him where we found him pulled up and looped to a fence pole. Hell, Sheriff, Kurt’s out there going crazy with 6 or 7 men still looking and they can’t find a thing. Told me to tell you. But you know what something like that can do to a man. Kurt’s bound to shoot at the first thing looks out of the ordinary to him. And I suppose his boys’d do the same thing. Kedie’s the little pet of all of them.”

Almsby grabbed every able-bodied man on the street and emptied the saloon, swore them in as deputies, and the whole posse rode out of town, headed for the Agular ranch. Rag Tolman was one of the riders, a half a body more in a posse is better than no more of a body in a search.

The sun was setting behind the Rockies, a cool breeze had come into play tempering the heat of day, and the force of men had ridden and rumbled to a head of steam and anger and violent promises of what would happen to any man found with the child.

Almsby, in his time on the job, had seen some strange and unwarranted actions from misguided people caught up in mob anger, mob mentality. He knew he’d have to hold them in place,

The posse was rushing down the riverside, bent on anger and annihilation of a perceived coward and child molester, when one of them spotted the girl sitting on the bank of the river. She was muddy and incoherent and cried and shook the whole time the sheriff tried to ask her questions. Her dress was ripped in a few places and red marks circled her wrists. At length she pointed downstream and said, still in a near hysterical voice, “There. There. Down there.” Then she began to shake again.

Almsby said to his regular deputy, “Go down there and take a look, Thorny, I’d guess near that bunch of trees. From these tracks, I think she came up here from down there. Probably crawled half the way.”

In no time at all the deputy called back loudly from the middle of the cluster of trees and said, “Better get down here, Sheriff. Somebody’s here but he ain’t goin’ no place now.”

The sheriff found “the someone that ain’t going no place now.” He was a complete stranger, in regular cowpoke clothes that were in absolute tatters. He wore no regular boots but rugged pelt-made moccasins appearing to have had constant use, and he was hanging by his neck to a stout limb on a tree in the middle of tree shade. A note had been thrust under one suspender loop and said, in large letters on a piece of tanned hide, “This will happen with no trial to any man who risks a child’s life.” A large black “X” closed the message.

“Look for tracks,” Almsby ordered as he held Kedie Agular in his arms and waited for her father who had been summoned.

An hour later Agular was reunited with his daughter who clung to him still sobbing, and all traces of the unknown person now described by various men as “the unknown hangman,” “a righteous angel,” “a gent too good to be true,” “a quiet ranger or invisible lawman,” “the quiet rider,” or, finally, “the silent horseman.” That man so described had been swallowed up by the river and its current, which was born in the mountains and headed southeast on a dead run, mostly silent except at certain points, much like the silent rider, the silent avenger of wrongs done to the innocent or the helpless or the unwary.

Will Almsby had no idea who the mysterious and silent rider was. There were some men he knew who might be capable of these deeds, but most of them could not keep quiet about such doings. Not with the notoriety that soon gathered around the image of the unknown person avenging the victims of all kinds of crimes.

In the Rocky Tor Saloon at night there were arguments galore about the hanging of Kedie Agular’s tormentor, some saying that his hanging without a trial was a crime in itself to the full reverse of the argument where some men loudly affirmed that he got what he deserved.

Almsby never entered into such discussions, either keeping quiet in a corner of the saloon, where folks most likely would not bother him except the truly outspoken and inconsiderate ones, or he’d walk out of the Rocky Tor and leave his drink untouched on the table --- a sign to those who could read it.

The area generally was quiet for a few months, fall and its cooler weather coming down from the mountains in the north, with the slow evolution coming across the foothills, and the wide grass and the rivers joining in the spell of daily changes. The sheriff was content with the quiet turn of events, not looking for or wanting a posse chase or a shoot-out on the main street or any kind of deception pulled across the eyes of the community and its folks.

Quiet for him was always better for him. It was better than hard chases and gunshots and show-downs where mostly immature men tried to be other than what they really were … just growing boys reaching for manhood and woefully equipped to do so. The frailty was too common where life of the times demanded much of a person

Almsby could be happy in a variety of pastimes, like watching for hours for what he doted on. He liked the slanting sun as it crawled into secret places only to let go its grip earlier than it usually did. He liked to hear a song come from the saloon when a traveler with a penchant for music and its delivery spent a few nights within hearing distance of his office or his small cabin just off the main street, his horses letting him know they were still close by, comforts reigning. In the mornings he was just as happy when he woke to birds putting their voices to the start of a new day, and the soft, durable pleasure of the time was suitable to him.

But, as the Earth changes in its seasons, so changes came in the temperament and attitudes of folks. The thought of winter sat harshly in a goodly number of them and he saw the differences … which told him that other elements would change: man would change the neighborhood as well as the neighbors … the environment would change the people and the people would change the environment.

In one night, near cataclysmic for the quiet sheriff, there was a shoot-out that shifted from the Rocky Tor Saloon to the street that resulted in a needless death, then revenge came from a bushwhacking of the survivor early on the following morning, before the sun rose, and two days later the bank was robbed by two hard-eyed men who shot a teller in the arm as he tried to draw a weapon from under the counter. His blood spattered on some of the currency, which the robbers left scattered on the floor.

The town of Jasperville was once more torn asunder by anger and hatred and frustration and murder of its citizens. The hue and cry was loud and often went directly at the sheriff, who was too often seen sitting and enjoying life, but there were no clues about the bushwhacking or the robbery and shooting at the bank. The three days of calamity was a force that kept surfacing in discussions of every gathering, the saloon, the store, at the cemetery when the dead were buried, in any passing of neighbors on their rounds.

It worked on Almsby with a vengeance, but three more days passed and nothing surfaced about any guilty parties … including silence from “the avenging angel,” “the silent rider.”

A rider, in the early morning five days after the town was turned on its head, slammed his fist on the sheriff’s cottage door, yelling, “Hey, Sheriff. He’s done it again. Them bank robbers is tied up in a wagon that rolled into town a bit ago and if someone didn’t stop it the danged thing would have run clear through town. The whole shooting match is hitched to a rail down at the livery and they’s waiting on you.”

When Almsby threw the door open, the rider mounted up again and said, “I’ll tell ‘em down there you’re comin’.” And he rode off in the same hurry he had arrived.

The sheriff knew the day was no longer his, figuring it would belong to “the silent rider.”

At the livery, the wagon was a strange one to Almsby; he had not seen it before, at least not noticed it. But the message painted on its side was clear as an advertisement. “Here are two hombres who robbed the bank and all the money is in the satchel, every dollar is here but five I took for fee for my horse waiting on these scoundrels.” Followed by “X.”

Almsby attached a veiled sense of humor to his first question, smiling slyly but not carried off by laughter. “So tell me, boys, how one man got you wrapped up so tenderly and delivered here in style?”

The livery man and a few folks gathered for the interrogation tittered at the twist of the sheriff’s words.

“It weren’t fair, Sheriff,” one of them said. “He was just sittin’ on us, waitin’ all the time we was robbin’ the bank, sittin’ right there in the cabin of our’n and chowin’ down on our grub, and his horse, a big gray one, relaxin’ with our mare, all ‘em waitin’ for us to come back with the money and that’s just plain cheatin’ stuff.”

“Know him?” Almsby said. “Know him at all? Anything about him say who he is?”

The second robber, just as irritated as his pard, said, “This I know, Sheriff. He’s nothin’ but a plain all-out, all-aces coward who wears a mask so you can’t get back at him later on. A plain all-out, all-aces coward. That’s just what he is.” He looked at the folks gathered around the wagon, his arms tied to one side of the freighter’s wagon and legs still roped to the tail gate but hanging over the back end, like he was ready to jump off … but couldn’t.

“He call his horse by name?” The sheriff had tempered his humor a bit.

“Yah, that’s a good one, Sheriff, like he was gonna tell us his own name, huh? Called the horse “Horse” every time he spoke to him. Just ‘Horse’ and nothin’ else. I guess he ain’t as stupid as you think, is he?”

“Nope,” Almsby said, as he fingered the money bag. He told his deputy to handcuff the pair before he untied them, and then get them into a cell at the jail. He took the money bag and rode off, saying to his deputy, “I’ll be at the bank, returning the money.”

As he rode off, he looked at the mountains touching the early sky with their magnificence, and dwelled on the bold meeting the beautiful and then wondered where that thought had come from. Joy swept him as he realized it was some spark in him that kept getting ignited by plumb good thoughts … which included his outlook on life in spite of an odd few of his sheriff duties and a hopeful look for the good people of the area, most all who only wanted a chance at independent living … and having unknown friends in the ranks of those people.

At the bank he spent a good hour in the office of the bank president, outlining an idea he had and making certain demands on the banker concerning the returned money and all the new money that had come into the bank in the last week or so. Then he swore the banker to utmost secrecy. "You mess up on me and I'll haunt you and your books until the day one of us dies ... and I don't have any plains any too soon."

He made two stops after that, choosing the two after deep consideration. One was at the barbershop knowing he could trust the barber without any doubt, and then at the general store, which was run by a similarly trustful person. He had eliminated the saloon because he could not trust any element there to keep quiet.

With nothing more than hope on his side, and a bit of faith, he set his plan into operation and planned his part in it. Each day he ambled slowly around town, fortunate that things had quieted down … the bank robbery solved, the bushwhacker had come forth on his own … and Almsby's ambling, slow walk brought him to the barbershop and the general store several times a day.

On the third day, the barber nodded as he sat down just to read the paper, and the barber placed a five dollar bill in his hand and a small note that contained the name of a rancher. Almsby knew the man whose name was printed on the note, nodded in agreement, and stuck the note in his pocket. The barber swapped the five dollar bill for one Almsby offered as he left the shop.

Almsby had not told the barber anything about what he was up to, and told no one else. Not even the banker knew. The five dollar bill from the barber went into a drawer in his office desk.

But now Almsby knew who the Silent Rider was, and deliberated for days about it. The man was married, had two children, and was a solid citizen on all orders.

On one ride for a mile or so out of town the next morning, the air chilly but the sky bright, pretending to the livery man that he wanted to get his horse some exercise, he thought it all over, and weighed all the crime solutions that had involved the man he’d come to know as the Silent Rider, including the hanging of Hedie Agular’s kidnapper, and finally agreed he would do nothing.

Again he dwelled on the mountains meeting the sky, “Glory unto glory” he thought, and fully comforted himself with the things his eyes fell on, scanned, or saw more in them than what was visible.

It was settled and done in his mind; he was, after all, the law and order in Jasperville, and that included the protection all the local homes and ranches for 50 miles around, and their occupants and workers; a heady summary of a lawman.

He’d let the Silent Rider do what he could as long as he could; it was like having a silent deputy on duty, from wherever he’d see or hear of a crime against the people and start solving it on his own.

He knew the possible luxury of his decision.