The sun beat down its merciless heat onto the sick man struggling to stay upright in his saddle. His horse’s hoofbeats became slower and slower as the reins trailed from his fingers. He slipped from his horse’s back, falling for a seeming eternity until his body made contact with the hot ground of the desert. Unsure of what to do and not wishing to leave, the faithful animal stood guard over his fallen comrade as the man shivered and shook with fevered chills. Moans floated on the dry air and agitated whispering of unknown names, dates and money sums passed across the man’s twitching lips in unison with his jerking head. The worries of the earth churned in his fevered mind until blessed peace finally came. The darkness of unconsciousness stole him from worldly care into an existence which contained no thought and no meaning, only oblivion. Hours later, night fell and still the man had not rallied.
Death seemed to loom ahead of him; his pulse slowed, his breath became as shudders from his nostrils and his chest heaved in an attempt to capture life-sustaining oxygen. No hope appeared to be apparent but then a figure, riding upon a white steed, appeared on a distant hilltop as if by magic; a ghost coming to escort the dying into eternity. But when the shadow came closer down the road, he was not apparition but a man. He was strumming a fine guitar and singing to the moon while his white mount plodded along without direction from its rider. Note after note was played and as their source drew closer, the unconscious man revived just enough to hear the last few words floating on the frigid breeze.
“Lonely as he can be… riding on endlessly… lonely as he can be… his spirits never dreams…that’s where to look for him… under the red rock rim…”
The febrific man wasn’t sure if these were the words sent to accompany him into eternity or not but the voice was the only sign of life that he could hope for and so he clutched at it. He attempted to shout out, to plead for help, but the only sounds escaping his parched throat were more groans and mutterings. The song continued to torture him with its nearness as he began to slip away again.
“Rim, rim, under the red rock rim… that’s where to look for him… Rim, rim, under the red rock rim… that’s where to look for him… under the red…”
By some miracle, the song jerked to a halt and the white steed stopped not more than a few yards away as if it felt the prayers being sent out for its rider’s help. The man on the ground could hear running footsteps as if they were coming from miles away and then he felt cold hands touching his face and gently probing his body. All sensations ceased for a lonely time until the hands were back again, lifting his head and trickling refreshing droplets of water into his burning mouth. He longed to quench his insatiable thirst but the hands restrained him and a deep voice encouraged him to relax. Too weak to think or argue, he surrendered by drinking more slowly and then falling into black slumber.
When he awoke two days later after tossing and turning during that time, a large campfire was the first link to reality that he could identify. As if in a trance, he watched the flames licking at the dry brush; their dancing threatened to sway him back into the embrace of sleep but he forced himself to remain awake. He felt so weak and confused but strangely better than he remembered feeling before. What happened? Where am I? The last thing I remember was…money, where’s the money? Panic rose in him but soon abated when he saw his leather saddlebags within easy reach of his right hand. With great effort due to his fragile condition, he searched through their pockets and found the three thousand dollars still nestled where he had first left it. He lay back with his eyes closed, relieved that his father’s profits were safe. He had worked long and hard to finalize that timber contract and to lose the triumph now would have been devastating for all concerned.
A reminiscent and friendly voice broke through his thoughts. “Ah, I see that you’re awake! I thought that you’d never come out o’ it!”
Memories of the past days came flooding back. The particulars of the contract negotiations, the strange weakness that had settled upon his shoulders as he rode into the desert, the ground racing toward him as he fell, the gentle hands. He looked past the fire and saw a man of similar build to himself sitting up against a dead tree. The smiling man got to his feet and approached with a canteen. Wetting a handkerchief with the cool water, the friendly-looking stranger proceeded to wipe the rousing man’s face and neck. Then the former extended a hand to the latter.
“Name’s Morgan, Danny Morgan. What’s yours, Mister?”
“Ca…Cartwright, Adam Cartwright.”
The man above smiled down at his charge and shook Adam’s proffered hand that was shaking slightly from fatigue. “Pleased ta meet ya, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Call me Adam.”
Morgan’s smile deepened and he returned to the fire. “Well, I reckon you’ll just have ta call me Danny then, Adam.”
Sighing wearily and leaning his head back, Adam raised a hand to pass over his face. Morgan poured out two cups of coffee and brought both of them over. Adam accepted his cup and gratefully tasted the bitter brew. He glanced over to Morgan and wondered where the man had sprung from. A man riding around in the middle of the night and strumming a guitar wasn’t exactly normal but it had been his own saving grace. Not one for relying on suppositions, Adam decided to ask for the facts. He gazed over the edge of the tin cup. “So, Danny, I’m mighty obliged to you for finding me but how did you happen to be riding out in the desert in the middle of the night?”
Morgan glanced over and chuckled. “Ridin’, jest ridin’. I jest naturally can’t stand t’ be cooped up. Especially at night I…I reckon I like my space is all.”
It was Adam’s turn to chuckle. “It’s a good thing you do or I might be stretched out dead somewhere.” He sobered and continued, “Thank you for saving my life. Someday I’ll find a way to repay your generosity.”
“Tweren’t nothin’, Adam,” Morgan waved the remark off and returned to the fire where a large pot of beans was cooking. “’Sides, you seem to be the kinda feller who’d do the same for me in a pinch. You hungry any?”
Adam nodded and the other man passed him a plate filled with the hot concoction. Taking a bite, he grimaced and couldn’t keep a grin forming as he glanced over in Morgan’s direction. “You might be a life-saver but after tasting your cooking I’m inclined to doubt that fact.”
Morgan guffawed at his own ineptness but continued to fork the offensive food into his mouth. Finding himself famished as well, Adam too finished what was on his plate without anymore humorous comments. Morgan’s company was quite pleasant and both men existed amiably during the next three days. They were able to talk quite a bit as the fever relinquished its hold but by the time that Adam felt well enough to ride, he still hadn’t learned all that much about his savior. He resolved to leave well enough alone and mind his own business. He gave Morgan plenty of space both physically and mentally, something for which the withdrawn man was grateful for. The twosome began to travel and soon they had covered quite a few miles. Adam was still easily tired so traveling was slow but he was secretly anxious to get to the next town so that he could trade in the bundles of money for a bank draft. He trusted Danny Morgan well enough but three thousand dollars in cash can make many men reexamine their loyalties and Adam couldn’t predict who it could make turn on him. He assumed that Morgan hadn’t seen the money because he hadn’t mentioned a word about it nor tried to steal it but one could never be too careful. He wished that he had thought to grab a draft back in Coaldale instead of carrying cash but there was little profit to worrying about that now. He supposed that the fever had been working on him sooner than he thought it had. At least nothing had happened to the money yet.
Finally and with more than one good reason, a relieved and exhausted Adam could pull his horse to a stop in front of the livery stable in the dusty town of Luning. The horses were given into the care of the stable owner and then two hotel rooms and accompanying baths were directly sought out. At last both men were able to relax comfortably after days and nights out in the harsh desert terrain. Adam, in particular, relished the bath. It felt so good to be able to feel the days of fever, dried sweat and dirt melt off his body into the hot water. As he finished scrubbing with the soap, he puzzled on one minor thing though. The question swirling around in his mind for the past days had been about his mysterious companion. Morgan hadn’t told Adam much about himself and what Adam did know was enough to pique his curiosity. Most peculiar of all had been the man’s tendency to play that guitar hour after hour but always strumming the same tune until Adam felt himself becoming on edge from silent irritation. I wonder why he continually sings that song…What possible enjoyment could he find in a murder ballad?… he’s a strange one, that’s for sure.
Adam finished his bath and soon turned his thoughts from Danny Morgan to the immediate issue at hand. He completed dressing and then he gathered his saddlebags and made an afternoon visit to the local bank. After the bank draft was in hand and his family had been wired his location and the status of his well-being, he returned to the hotel in time to catch the delicious dinner served. Late that night, he retired to his warm bed and fell into a healing sleep. Deep in the night however, he was awakened by a singing voice outside his two-story hotel window. Numbed by sleep, he shuffled to the window and ran a hand through his tousled hair. He looked down out of the window and couldn’t help an unbelieving smile tingeing his lips. There was Morgan riding down main street with his leg hooked over his saddle horn and the guitar being played in his hands while his white horse found his own way without direction. Adam watched with amusement as the horse uncannily stopped in front of the livery stable and Morgan dismounted to lead it inside. The man was still humming as he disappeared from sight into the building. Still that same song…Adam shook his head and returned to bed.
The next morning, he was up bright and early, having slept better and awoken fresher than he had for some time. Whistling as he anticipated turning his steps homeward, he descended the hotel steps into the plain foyer and sought out an appetizing breakfast. After he had eaten and was pleasantly full, he returned to his room to gather his things. He met up with Morgan by welcome coincidence when he entered the livery stable. Both Morgan’s own white horse and Sport had been saddled and the man was now putting the finishing touches on his handiwork. He paused in his brushing and turned when Adam’s shadow fell across the doorway.
“Oh, howdy, Adam. Jest thought I’d get the horses ready to go. I take it you’ll still be leavin’ today?”
Adam stepped forward and took a soft brush to finish with Sport’s chestnut coat. “Yep. I’m planning on reaching Virginia City within a few days. Are you sure that you won’t come with me? We can always use a good man on the ranch.”
Morgan shifted his weight from one foot to the other and turned back to fiddle with his saddle. “Na, I…I reckon I’ll jest stay here for awhile, Adam. This town seems friendly enough and I’m a might tired of travelin’. Thank ya kindly for the offer anyways.”
Adam tossed his brush aside and nodded contemplatively. “I understand. But my offer still goes. If you’re ever around Virginia City, you’ll have a job waiting for you at the Ponderosa anytime. That’s the least I can do for the man that saved my life and if you are ever in any trouble, just contact me and I’ll give whatever help I can.”
Both horses had been led outside by this time and Morgan turned to bid farewell to the man he had known for only a short time but that had become a very understanding friend; something Morgan hadn’t had in his entire life. He smiled and extended his hand in imitation of their first meeting. Except this time, Adam’s hand was strong and his grip firm when their hands met. “Thank ya, Adam, I might jest take ya up on both offers one day.”
Adam had a quick thought. “Oh, Danny, do you need any money? Because I’d be happy to loan you some if you do. No sense you going hungry.”
Much to Adam’s bafflement, Morgan glanced at him with an uncharacteristic and calculating stare before responding. “No, thanks but I’ll be jest fine. ‘Sides, if I needed any money…I would have taken it long before now.” He shook Adam’s hand once again. “See ya around, Adam.”
“Sure…Danny…,” Adam’s voice trailed away as he watched his friend riding deeper into town then he mounted up onto his own horse. He sat and watched the man he knew as Danny Morgan disappear back into his naive and simple life and he wondered if those prayers he uttered that fevered night had been answered by an unlikely angel or simply by a lonely man. Adam nudged his horse to trot in the other direction and as he traveled out of Luning towards the Ponderosa, he pondered on how he envied Danny’s way of life. If only he himself could find the same measure of contentment; not necessarily without haunting memories but happy with his path despite them.
* * * * * * *
The same thoughts crossed my mind now as I watched that big, white horse disappear around the side of the Ponderosa barn with the stanzas of that haunting song beginning to rise yet again. As I walked back to my family’s warm house and the happiness therein, I decided that maybe that was why Danny sang that song. Maybe sometime in his life, something had happened to brand the frailty of life into his head and now he sang the song to unknowingly remind himself of that frailty and the need that existed for his gentle brand of life. Ever since Kane had played such tricks on my mind last year, I had found it increasingly hard to see any good in the world. But the arrival of my old friend had changed my outlook or, should I say, it brought at the very least a little hope for new plans for the future. This man, this child-like representation of faith, would most probably never be heard from again, just another face in the crowd, but I knew that I’d never forget Danny Morgan or what he did for me both that night and this night.
I closed the front door behind me and resolved to begin planning for new beginnings and to leave bad memories where they belonged…in the past and banished by a song in the dark.
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