The Return of the Stranger

by Caroline Masters (June 2011)

A sequel to the last episode in series 7, "The Stranger", and my earlier story "The Man Who Couldn't Change" based on that episode. This story is set during the series 8 episode "Holocaust/The Shiloh Years".

Jim Horn heard the horse galloping down the drive and reached for the shotgun resting on the bunkhouse wall. With the rest of the hands away and he himself not yet recovered from being injured in the stampede, he was taking no chances. Not after all that had happened in the past week.

The newcomer, a slim cowboy in his mid twenties, stared coldly at Jim sitting on the bunkhouse porch, then slowly got off his horse.

"What do you want?" asked Jim.

"I heard about the fire."

"What business is it of yours?"

"I just want to know – is everyone all right? Was anyone injured?"

"Why? Did you have anything to do with starting it? Have you got a guilty conscience?"

"No! Just tell me – is Mr Grainger all right? And…" his voice tailed away.

"Mr Grainger wasn't at home when the fire started. He was on the cattle drive with the rest of us."

"What about his family?"

"You still haven't given me any reason to answer your questions. Who are you?"

"I worked here for a while last year."

"And you just decided to come back when you heard about the fire?"

"Yes. Look, if you won't help me, I'll ask Mr Grainger himself."

Jim cocked the shotgun.

"You stay right here, friend, until I'm satisfied you're no danger to Mr Grainger or anyone else at Shiloh."

"Look, I told you. I used to work here. Just tell me no one was hurt. Tell me!"

When Jim didn't immediately answer, the cowboy started to move towards the steps, but Jim aimed a shot at his feet. The noise brought Elizabeth running from the front door of the blackened house. She looked down to see the two men angrily facing each other.

"Jim! No, wait!" she shouted.

On hearing her voice, the stranger's face broke into a smile and he turned to watch her run down the steps. When she reached the bottom, he grabbed her hands, pulled her towards him and hugged her tightly.

"You came back!" Elizabeth cried.

"I had to when I heard about the fire. I was so worried that you'd been hurt or…" Again, he couldn't finish the sentence.

"I thought I'd never see you again."

"I'm sorry. When I left I thought it was the right thing to do. But I was wrong. When I heard about the fire, I realized that I had changed – you had changed me."

She smiled and looked over to Jim who had put down the shotgun.

"This is someone who used to work for us, last year."

"So he said but I still don't know his name."

The stranger walked towards the bunkhouse and stretched his arm out to shake Jim's hand: "The name's Garrison, Luke Garrison."

Elizabeth laughed. "You really have changed!"

Garrison looked at her and grinned. "I guess I have."

"Come into the bunkhouse and have a cup of coffee. We can't use the kitchen in the house as nearly everything was ruined in the fire, so we're cooking and sleeping down here. Aunt Holly and I share the Virginian's room while Uncle Clay sleeps in the main bunkhouse with Jim. Hopefully by the time the men get back from the drive, we'll have tidied up the house and will be able to sleep there."

Garrison looked at Elizabeth with concern. "You weren't hurt by the fire, were you? You are all right?"

She smiled. "Yes, I'm fine. Aunt Holly and I were both unharmed. Luckily we weren't asleep when the fire started. The noise of the windows breaking downstairs alerted us and we were able to get out in time."

"It must have been frightening."

"Yes." She turned away from him and started to walk towards the bunkhouse. "But it's over and we're all right. That's all that matters now." She glanced back, waiting for him to follow her. "Let's not talk about the fire. Tell me what you've been doing, where you've been, what you've seen over the last year."

Garrison followed her inside. "I've been roping cattle, branding cattle, herding cattle, riding from ranch to ranch, town to town, never staying anywhere for longer than a few weeks – on the trail, always moving on, always searching."

"Searching for what?"

"For a reason for living."

"Did you find it?"

"Yes, in the end, but only when I finally stood still." He would have explained further but Jim opened the door to join them.

Afterwards Elizabeth took Garrison up to the house and introduced him to Aunt Holly who had been away from Shiloh when he had worked there the previous year.

"I'm pleased to meet you Mr Garrison. Elizabeth, it's nearly lunch time, will you go down to the bunkhouse and get the meal ready, please? I've still got a couple of things to finish here."

"Of course, Aunt Holly."

"Mr Garrison, perhaps you'll help me move these chairs. They're so badly damaged, we can't repair them."

"I'd be happy to, ma'am."

As they carried the burnt chairs outside, Aunt Holly suddenly looked at her helper. "Garrison, aren't you the young man who was mistakenly accused of murdering Sam Marish?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"My husband told me all about it. I'm so sorry for what happened."

"That's all past now, ma'am."

"I'm glad you can see it that way. I'm also glad to meet you but I'm afraid if you're looking for work, we can't help you. My husband isn't able to take on new hands at the moment. We don't even know if we can keep the hands we've got. We won't really know what our position is until we hear that the men have got the herd to Cheyenne."

"I didn't come looking for work."

"Then why did you come, Mr Garrison?"

"I heard about the fire. I had to come back to see if Mr Grainger was all right, and you, and…"

"And Elizabeth."

"Yes, ma'am."

Aunt Holly stared at the newcomer thoughtfully.

Garrison felt he owed her an explanation, even though he wasn't sure he could explain it himself. "I was in a saloon in Rawlins when I heard about the fire at Shiloh. A couple of the locals had read about it in the newspaper and were talking about it. I just had to leave right away to find out for myself what had happened. I didn't even wait to finish my drink. I just got on my horse and rode. I rode all the rest of that day and only stopped at night because it wouldn't have been fair on my horse if I'd carried on.

"It's hard to explain but it was as if I've spent my whole life riding in the middle of a dust storm, always on the road, but never able to see where I was going or know why I was traveling. Then suddenly when I heard about the fire it was as if the dust had been blown away and I knew then where I had to go and why."

He shook his head. "I've been so blind and so stubborn. I was determined to stand apart, to keep my distance, not to get involved with anyone. I thought that way I'd never get hurt and no one else would get hurt because of me. But even though I tried really hard I couldn't stop thinking about Elizabeth. Every day since I rode away from Shiloh last year I've thought about her: every night before I went to sleep, and every morning when I woke up. I thought the memories would fade but they didn't. And when I heard about the fire and thought she might be hurt, or that I might never see her again, I realized that I'd spent the last year pretending to be looking for something, when in reality I was running away from what I'd already found. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Aunt Holly smiled. "I understand. It often happens that people don't realize how important someone is to them until they lose them or fear they are about to lose them. I'm just glad that you realized it in time."

"Yes, ma'am. So am I."

"She thought about you, too, over this past year – often. She kept that carved head you gave her on her dressing table and sometimes when I'd go in to kiss her goodnight I'd find her staring at it. It was as if she was trying to figure it out. To understand what the face was trying to tell her. She wouldn't tell me about it but would try to hide it away from me but I knew that she treasured that face and was concerned for the man who had given it to her."

"You're very kind, ma'am."

"No. I just want you to understand how much she cares for you. You've come back to her, something that she never thought would happen. I hope you're going to stay. If you were to leave again, it would hurt her terribly, and I don't want her to be hurt."

"Neither do I, ma'am. I won't leave again. I promise you. I've come back to stay."

Aunt Holly smiled again. "You know they say that there's a silver lining in every cloud. Perhaps we should be thankful for the fire – for without it, you wouldn't have returned."

Garrison shook his head. "No, ma'am. I could never be thankful for that fire. Not for something so terrible and destructive. When I look at what it's done to your house, and how it could so easily have destroyed both your lives, I can't be thankful for that. If I had the sense I was born with, I wouldn't have needed a fire to bring me back. But I was stubborn and wouldn't change. I've learned my lesson now: those who don't change become fossilized in stone and can never truly live."

"My husband said you were an unusual young man, and now I know just what he meant. Come on, let's go down to the bunkhouse and see how Elizabeth is getting on with the lunch."

They walked down the steps together without speaking, both thinking about the conversation in the house. It was only when they entered the bunkhouse and sat down at the table beside Jim that Garrison asked, "Well, what's on the menu?"

"Will you believe me, if I tell you it's goulash?" replied Elizabeth.

Garrison looked incredulous. "Are you serious?"

"I certainly am. But just to set your mind at rest, I can assure you that I have practiced making this dish several times over the past year and I think I've finally got it just right."

"Well, I'll let you know once I've tasted it. If you haven't, I might just get back on my horse and ride out of here!"

"It's all right, Aunt Holly." Elizabeth had noticed the puzzled expression on her aunt's face. "The very first time we met he criticized my cooking – for which I'm eternally grateful to him!"

Garrison added, "You may have heard that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, but I have to say that Elizabeth certainly proved that not to be true!"

At that, all four of them burst out laughing.