The Man Who Couldn't Change

by Caroline Masters (May 2011)

A slightly different view of the episode "The Stranger" (season 7, episode 26), following on from my earlier stories, "Requiem For a Fine Man" and "The Saddle Warmer – After the Party".

For some reason that she couldn't explain, Elizabeth couldn't stop thinking about the new hand. There was something strange about him that she hadn't encountered before. She found it difficult to put it into words when Uncle Clay questioned her about him at dinner. But one thing she did know: she was certainly glad that Garrison had told her the truth about her goulash. She would have felt awful if she had continued to make the dish in the same way, thinking that the hands liked it, when they actually hated it! Thank goodness, he had been honest with her. Everyone else had pretended to like it simply so as not to hurt her feelings.

It had made her realize how much she missed having someone around who told her the truth – Stacey had always done so when necessary, whether it was saying that a dress didn't suit her, or that she had behaved childishly over some trivial matter. As brother and sister, they had enjoyed a very honest relationship and had been able to speak bluntly to each other, without giving or receiving hurt. When his quick temper had got him into trouble that first night he arrived in Medicine Bow, she had made sure he knew she disapproved of his behavior. Remembering the openness of their relationship, she suddenly realized how much Garrison reminded her of her brother.

It wasn't just that he was of similar build and of similar age. No, there was something about his quiet stubbornness that brought Stacey into mind. Stacey had certainly been more friendly and welcoming to others than Garrison was but Elizabeth recognized that the stranger and her brother shared a similar obstinacy.

He was also an expert horseman, a quality that Elizabeth, who had loved horses since early childhood, valued highly. She couldn't fail to be impressed by how tenderly he cared for his own horse and the effort he had taken to alleviate the pain of the filly with the injured hoof.

She tried to disguise her interest in him so that the others wouldn't notice but she was such an open person that it was hard to hide her feelings. Her uncle and the Virginian were soon in no doubt about her liking for the stranger.

That became even more apparent when Garrison was arrested for the murder of Sam Marish. Then there was no hiding Elizabeth's distress.

"You've got to do something to help him," she begged her uncle. "He's a stranger in town. Everyone hates him because he had that fight in the saloon with Sam, and Sam was such 'a good man' that they're all determined to avenge his death as quickly as possible. They'll hang him. I know they will."

Her uncle tried to reason with her. He argued that Garrison would get a fair trial where all the facts would be heard. But all Elizabeth could think of was what had happened to her brother: alone and defenceless in a strange town.

The Virginian was becoming increasingly concerned too. Worried by the vitriolic attacks in the Medicine Bow Banner against Garrison and haunted by his failure to save Stacey, he took particular care to obtain a defense lawyer for the new hand.

Garrison was grateful for the help but curious to understand exactly why the Virginian and the Graingers were taking so much trouble over him. The evening before the trial, when Mark Abbott brought in his supper, he asked him about it: "Sheriff, I appreciate what the foreman and the Graingers are doing. But why are they helping me? I'm just a hand who rode in a couple of weeks ago. They don't know me or owe me anything."

"Well, they're good people. They know that most of the town think you're guilty but they want you to have a fair trial. You work for them and they feel a responsibility for you."

"But there must be something more than that."

"There is another reason." The Sheriff paused for a moment. "Elizabeth's brother got into trouble in a strange town not so long ago. Just like you, he was accused of robbery and murder. There was a trial and he was convicted. They weren't there to help him, and he was hanged. He was later proved innocent. In the light of that, I think it's natural that they should want to make sure that you get all the help you need."

"I'm sorry."

"For what?"

"For bringing them more pain. I wish I'd just got on my horse and rode out of here after I had that bust up in the saloon. I don't usually make the mistake of staying in places too long. I should have known just to keep on riding."

"What's done is done. The only thing you should feel sorry for is if you did kill Sam Marish. If you didn't, well the rest isn't your fault and you shouldn't blame yourself."

"Even if I'm the cause of someone else's suffering? Oh no, Sheriff, I learned a long time ago that if you keep clear of people and don't get involved, no one gets hurt." He shook his head. "I broke my own rule and I deserve to be punished for it."

The Sheriff looked at him curiously. "You've certainly got a strange way of looking at the world."

When Garrison was escorted from the court by the Sheriff after the guilty verdict was declared, he said nothing to the Virginian and Elizabeth and Clay Grainger who were waiting for him outside. The slight wry smile he gave to the Virginian was the only rebuke he made to the foreman for forcing him to return to town after his escape from jail. He barely glanced at Elizabeth, not wanting to see the pain in her eyes. However, as he lay in his jail cell that night, and relived the events of the past couple of weeks, it was Elizabeth's earnest face that kept reappearing.

By the next morning he had resigned himself to his fate. His only wish was that no one from Shiloh would come to see him before Friday as he was unsure whether he would be able to control his emotions if they did. He had spent most of his life on his own, deliberately keeping himself apart from other people, and he was quite prepared to leave his life in that way. It would be easier for him. No one else would suffer from his passing.

So when the Virginian suddenly arrived the next afternoon, Garrison's heart sank until he saw the broad smile on his face and the Sheriff unlocking the cell door.

He was mightily relieved to hear the full details which exonerated him from any involvement in Marish's death and the robbery. Still, he found it hard to understand how Art Willis could remain silent throughout the trial and even after the pronouncement of the death sentence. It wasn't until the Virginian had confronted Willis that he had been forced to tell the truth. The realization that the man had been prepared to let him hang gave Garrison an almost physical pain in his stomach.

"You know Willis better than I do. Would he have said something – before Friday?"

The Virginian turned away, unable to look at him directly for a moment.

"No. I'm sorry." He shook his head. "It's unbelievable that anyone could do that – let an innocent man hang. But it's happened before. When Stacey Grainger was hanged, there was a saloon girl who knew the truth. But she said nothing because she was protecting other people. Perhaps Art kept silent because he wanted to protect Sue, not just himself. I don't know."

Garrison nodded. "Maybe. I'd like to think that was the reason, rather than him punishing me for the fight I had with Sam."

"Oh, I'm sure that wasn't the reason."

"Well, perhaps it was my fault. Next time a man offers me a drink, I'll accept."

"Well, seeing as you brought the subject up," said the Virginian. "How about a walk over to the saloon? I'm buying."

"In the circumstances, I think I should buy you one."

"Now what did you just say? Are we going to fight over it?"

Garrison smiled. "No. All right. You buy the first one, I'll buy the second."

"And I'll buy the third!" said the Sheriff.

It was hard for him to leave. But it would have been harder to stay. He knew that if he remained at Shiloh, he couldn't have avoided seeing Elizabeth every day. And the more he saw her, the more he thought about her. Out of sight, out of mind was a good motto, or so he thought. Better to ride out the next morning and not look back.

He would have preferred to have left at sunrise, before anyone else was up. However, that would have been cowardly, and he did owe them his life. So he steeled himself for the painful goodbyes.

Elizabeth could not understand why he was leaving: "I thought that after all that happened you'd stay. I thought you'd changed."

"After all that happened, I can't stay. And I can't change."

He couldn't explain how guilty he felt that he had lived, when her brother had died. Or perhaps the truth was that he had lived because her brother had died. If Stacey hadn't been a stranger in a hostile town, would the Virginian and the Graingers had been so determined to help him? Perhaps. They were, after all, "good people" like the Sheriff said. But most "good people" would have given up after the trial and accepted the verdict. Instead they had kept fighting.

But he knew that wasn't the real reason why he had to leave. He had spent too much of his life on his own, apart from others. As the Virginian had realized: he was his own man and he wanted to go his own way. He couldn't afford to get involved with those he met on his journey. He needed to travel light.

He certainly hadn't intended to give Elizabeth any memento to remember him. But when they were saying their farewells, he suddenly wanted to make the parting easier for her, and the only way he could do so was to give her the wooden face he had been carving when they first met. It was something he had created and as such was a part of himself, a reflection of who he was: a man who stood apart from the crowd, watching others from a distance, never knowing whether to laugh or frown.