The Circuit Rider
The trail led out of the valley, climbing up the slope and winding its way through the pass and on down the other side towards the next valley and the next town. Along this trail, mounted on dapple-gray stallion that had traveled these paths for most of his life, rode the circuit rider. He was dressed in a dusty black suit with a white shirt whose collar had seen one too many dusty roads. Over that he wore a long black duster and black Puritan style hat. He had a bed-roll tied down tightly over his saddle bags and a Winchester slid into a saddle sling where he could reach it in a hurry if he had to. The man himself was an intimidating figure with or without his black garb. He was six-foot-one and weighed in at about one-hundred-eighty-five pounds. His eyes were a piercing green and his jaw was set forward and determined. Overall, the circuit rider had the look and feel of a man who knew who he was and what he could do.
Daylight had long since gone and twilight was fading when the circuit rider arrived at the next town in the Ozark Mountains. The general store was closed, the street was all but deserted and the only place that exhibited signs of life was the gaudily-painted, faded, and slightly ramshackle saloon at the far end of the street. Sighing to himself, the rider touched his heels to his horse’s flanks and headed towards the building. He swung himself down as they reached the porch and flipped the reins over the top of the hitching post. “Don’t worry, Brother,” he whispered to his steed, “it shouldn’t take me too long.” Then he turned and flung open the doors as he strode into the saloon.
No one really paid him any attention as he stomped across the floor, not until he pounded a fist on the wooden and bar and announced for all to hear, “Sarsaparilla, bartender, and make it quick.” A hush fell over the room that was quickly broken by the scattered laughter that quickly escalated into a roaring howl. The rider let it continue and ignored it as the barkeep slid the bottle of soda down the bar into the rider’s outstretched hand. The rider tipped his hat to the keep and then popped the top and took a long drink. One of the cowboys, a big, burly fellow with a six-gun on his hip and too much whiskey on his breath, sauntered over to the bar and propped himself on one elbow. He looked the rider over and snorted. “Boy, you look way too tired and dusty to be drinking a sodie. Whiskey is the drink for a man.” He nodded to the bartender and the keep sloshed out two shot glasses of whiskey and snapped them down in front of the cowboy. “Have a drink.”
The rider picked up the glass, studied it for a moment, then replaced it and slid it back to the cowboy. “I appreciate the gesture, friend, but I don’t drink.”
The burly cowboy wiped the remnants of his drink from his mouth and slammed his glass down. “You don’t drink? Well, that’s gull-darnedest thing I’ve ever heard of. You’re tired, dusty, and you look like a man who’s spent more time in the saddle than he has on his feet. If you ask me, a drink is exactly what you need. And after all the trouble I’ve gone to in buying it for ya’, the least you can do is drink it.”
The rider took another drink from his sarsaparilla.
“That is,” the cowboy added, “if you’re really a man.”
The raucous saloon had now fallen silent as they waited to see how the man in black would respond to the cowboy’s challenge. The rider drained the remainder of his soda and set it back down in the bar, casually draping his hand over the empty bottle. “I don’t much appreciate you challenging my manhood over something as trivial as a shot glass of whiskey,” he countered, “and I don’t mean to seem contrary. But, I don’t drink and I don’t plan on changing anytime soon.”
A drunken smirk spread across the cowboy’s face. He started backing away from the rider, his hand falling from the bar to hover a few inches above the butt of his pistol. “Is that a fact,” he muttered. “Well, I say you are. Now, what do you plan on doing about that?”
The entire room was hanging on edge as the rider took a deep breath and drummed his fingers along the neck of the bottle. “That depends on how stupid drunk you really are.” He paused as the cowboy’s hand moved closer to his gun. “Friend.”
What happened next took place in about the amount of time it takes to blink. The cowboy’s hand flashed towards his pistol and the rider closed a fist around the neck of the bottle. About the time the cowboy cleared leather the rider flicked his wrist and sent the bottle pinwheeling in a path parallel to the bar. The pistol came up level with the cowboy’s waist just as the empty bottle smashed into the revolver and shattered into a thousand pieces and tiny shards that cut into the cowboy’s hand.
The man cried out in pain and the gun slid form his hand and clattered onto the floor. He sunk to his knees, clutching his bleeding hand with his left and muttering unintelligible phrases under his breath. The rider picked up the shot glass of whiskey and strode towards the bleeding cowboy, yanking the towel off the barkeep’s shoulder as he passed him. He knelt beside the cowboy and pried the man’s left hand off the bleeding right. “Let me see it,” he said, using a far gentler tone than he had used a moment earlier. He carefully examined the hand, plucking out a shard of glass here and there as he went. He looked the cowboy in the eye and said, “This ain’t gonna feel good.” Flipping the shot glass over, he spilt the contents over the top of the cut hand. He then wrapped the towel around it and told the man to keep it tight. Rising to his feet, he turned and addressed the still silent group of cowboys and farmhands.
“My name is Jess,” he thundered. “I’m a circuit riding preacher and I figure on holding a meeting here over the next couple a’days. Maybe longer if the Good Lord sees fit. Ain’t quite sure as of yet exactly where it’ll be held, but it’ll be right easy to find.” Here he paused and let his eyes flit about the crowd, meeting the gazes of the men as he did so. “You are all hereby invited and expected to attend.” He nudged the man on the floor with his boot. “Especially you. That is, as soon as you get a doctor to look at that hand.”
Jess then sauntered towards the doors, his spurs jingling with each long stride. He pushed the doors open and then paused. He turned back towards the men and added, “No whiskey.” And then, like a long black shadow, he vanished into the night, leaving an audience of open-mouthed, open-minded, and wide-eyed men in his wake.
Once outside, he took the reins in his hands and gently slid his hand along his horse’s neck. “See, Brother, that wasn’t long at all. Now, let’s go find a place to bed down for the night. We’re going to have a busy day tomorrow.” He jammed his foot in the stirrup and swung his leg over the top of his saddle. His horse gave a snort as Jess tugged him back from the hitching post. “What’s that, son? Well, of course I was nice to them. I’m always nice, so long as they don’t start trouble.” Brother gave a soft whinny in response. “Well, there was a little bit, but no worse than I’ve seen before.” Another snort. “Hey, he started it.”
The circuit rider stayed in town for a little over a week, holding services all nine days. People said there hadn’t been that big a change in a town for “as long as they’d heard tell of.” The big cowboy with the sliced up hand has since traded in his six-gun for a “sixty-six cannon”, as Jess called it. The saloon now stocks more sarsaparillas than it does whiskey and the school house now has more people in it on Sundays that on the rest of the weekdays combined (that is excluding, of course, the days that they have the monthly square-dance). Although the people begged him to stay on permanent, Jess saddled up his faithful Brother and was off again as soon as all the new Christians had been baptized in the creek.
Once again Jess and Brother found themselves climbing yet another path that wound up and around yet another mountain. As he rode, Jess would often sing, using the steady clomp of Brother’s hooves as his beat. Old stand-bys, newer hymns and even a few of Jess’ own compositions filled the air as dawn slowly gave way to midday, midday to afternoon, and afternoon to evening. Soon, they would reach the next town and hold their next meeting. More than likely there would be another thick-skulled ignoramous that needed settling down and more than likely Jess would figure out a way to deal with it.
This was the life of a circuit rider. It was a life of endless cycles and countless journeys. He was always traveling and never getting there. In a way, the rider was a perfect picture of the Christian life. Always on a journey, always sharing a message, and always looking forward to the Home that was waiting ahead. And as Jess disappeared over the mountain, his string voice could be heard singing the old favorite:
This world is not my home,
I’m just a’passing through!
My treasures are laid up,
Somewhere beyond the blue!