Circuit Rider

The revolver hung heavy against Allan’s side, tucked beneath his faded duster. He tried to ignore it, but with every stride the gun would poke him like a dog begging attention.  Just ahead, Jim was guiding them up an overgrown trail running alongside the edge of a small ravine.

He did not much abide guns, being a preacher, but he saw the need for them. As the frontier grew, the church had needed to push the preaching circuits further and further west. He had nearly lost his way this time out; stumbling upon Jim’s farm had been God’s own blessing.

They were looking for an easy place to cross the ravine now.  The streambed, a good twenty feet below, was drying up, but the slopes were eroded from seasonal flooding, leaving the dirt and rock loose.

“I do appreciate ye comin’ out all this way, Rev’rend,” Jim said, leading them around the uprooted end of a tree that had fallen into the ravine. He scratched absently at his wiry, gray beard as he talked. “We ought to get ye to Linville ‘fore nightfall.”

“It’s my pleasure,” Allan said, “And my duty. God’s Word needs to be spread.”

“It surely does. People got a way of forgettin’ the right way of things out here.”

“Well, you’re a good man to guide me over to town. Linville’s newly settled, isn’t it?”

“Aye, a few months back. And after that sermon last night? Duty to God, duty to your fellow man… Hell, how could I not help?” He cleared his throat. “Beg pardon, Rev’rend.”

“It’s all right. I thank you all the same, Jim.”

“Look there, I think that’ll be the best spot we’ll find.” He pointed to a dip in the ridge where the slope was shallower, though still covered in loose dirt. The far side looked steeper, but still workable if they led the horses and took it one at a time.

They dismounted and, with some prompting, guided their horses down into the ravine. The going was slow and once Allan stepped on a rock that gave way, but he managed to keep his feet. They paused long enough at the stream to water the horses, and then started up the other side.

Jim took the slope first. They started easily enough, but about halfway up Jim’s horse whickered and tugged back on the reigns. The earth shifted beneath their feet and Jim redoubled his grip on the leather straps to keep the horse from turning. Allan’s breath held in his throat; the finer silt slid and settled, but the earth held.

Patting his muzzle and clucking softly, Jim coaxed the horse forward again. They were nearly to the top of the ridge when there was the sudden, unmistakable hiss and rattle of a diamondback. The horse snorted and balked, twisting away back down the slope. Jim, his hand still wrapped in the reigns, staggered and fell, and then the slope gave way beneath them.

Allan threw away his reigns and ran, the rush and roar of falling dirt and rock behind him punctuated by the panicked shrieks of the horse. Dust rose up from the slide like smoke from an extinguished fire, but the dirt was still settling when he rushed back.

The horse was braying and struggling to rise, but one of its legs had snapped.  Jim lay just beyond him. He went to horse first, drew his revolver and put the animal to rest. Then he was kneeling beside Jim.

Jim was lying half on his side in the stream, his breath ragged. The hand that had held the reins was a mangled ruin. Then Allan realized the man’s chest was sunken in.

“Jim, God have mercy.”

“Rev’rend, hurts… Hurts bad.” Jim coughed the words more than said them, a bloody spittle flying from his lips.

“Easy. Easy now. Listen, you fell and your horse rolled on you. We’ll get you to a doctor, alright? Is there a doctor in Linville?”

“No.” There was a pause as he struggled for breath. “Have to go back. Bakersfield.”

Allan rubbed his neck. Bakersfield was more than a day’s ride past the farm. He asked, “Can you move?”

“Can’t… Can’t hardly breathe.”

“I’ll try to move you, all right? Hold tight.” He moved around to grab Jim by the shoulders, but as he lifted, Jim groaned and shuddered so much he had to set him back down. Jim started coughing again and, for long minutes afterwards, Allan thought each fit would be the last. He didn’t notice that his own lips were moving in prayer.

Finally though, Jim settled back into a stuttered breathing. Allan sighed and said, “I thought you were gone for a minute. Look here, I’ll go back to your farm and get you help.”

“Rev’rend.”

“Jim?”

“I ain’t make it that long.”

“Don’t say that, you’ll live if God wills it.”

He looked up at Allan. Tears streaked down the man’s face, mixing with the blood and dirt. “I’m… broken up inside. I ain’t make it ‘fore ye come back. Do for me… Do for me like you done for my horse.”

Allan stood up. “I can’t do that Jim. You know I can’t do that.”

“If ye can’t… If ye can’t, give me the gun.”

“I said I’ll get you help and, God willing, I will. You’ll keep until then.”  He started to turn away, but the look in Jim’s eyes stopped him. The sixth commandment rang in his head, Thou shalt not commit murder, but he knew Jim was right. He had hours, not days.

But to let him commit suicide? Allan stared down at his friend and tried not to let his face screw itself up on him. Lord, forgive me, he thought and again pulled his revolver from its holster.

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