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Chapter 17

The Saugerties Bard; A Theft of Identity.

I walked on, in spite of searing pain, down a road whose direction and destination I did not know. When far enough away to be sure I was not still being chased I stopped to put my trousers back on. It increased the pain but rendered me more decent for travel on a public road—though how public I was not sure, as I hadn’t seen a soul for miles. The shot had not been fatal, but with an arse full of gravel I feared I could die of infection if the wounds were left untreated. I needed to see a doctor, but had no way to know where to find one, or even if the road I was on led to somewhere that a doctor could be found. All I could do was keep walking in hope that I would come across someone who did know.

From behind me on the road, I heard the sound of a rickety old wagon approaching. The clatter of the wagon was augmented by the sound of bells, and I heard the thing long before I was able to spy it. As it came closer, I could see that the wagon as festooned with American flags and had cowbells hanging below, accounting for the sounds I had heard. I thought the driver must be a traveling peddler of some kind. He pulled the horse to a stop when he came alongside me.

“You appear to be in bad shape, young fellow,” he said, “may I give you a ride somewhere?”

“Yes, sir, please,” I replied.

I briefly told my story and explained why it would be impossible for me to sit down next to him on the wooden seat. He pulled a blanket from the back of the wagon and fashioned a cushion for me, and I found that if I put all my weight on an unwounded section of my left buttock, I could ride relatively free from pain.

“Tell me your story in detail,” he said, “I may write a song about it.”

“Why would you write a song about it?” I asked.

“Have you not heard of the Saugerties Bard?” He looked at me incredulously.

“I’m not from these parts,” I said.

“The Saugerties Bard,” he told me, was the name by which he was known as he traveled up and down the Hudson Valley, playing fiddle or flute and singing songs he had written. He wrote about notable local events—murders, fires, steamboat accidents—and thought my story might make a good song. In town after the town he would sing a new song, then sell copies of the lyrics at a penny a sheet.

“Can you make much money at that?” I asked.

“I get by.”

The Bard’s real name was Henry Backus; he was short and squat with gray hair and beard, long but neatly trimmed; and he had a peg leg. He was nattily dressed in knee britches and a cutaway coat with a broad-brimmed hat on his head. He had been a teacher, he said, with a wife and several daughters, but his children were grown, and when his wife died he took first to drink then to religion, neither was effective at ending his grief, and he wound up in a lunatic asylum in Hudson.

“Now free from both grief and insanity I travel these hills and entertain people with my music and song, and I may wish to write one about your adventure.”

I told him my story starting from my arrival at Kaaterskill; fearing that my entire story would take more than one song to capture. He took no notes, but I could tell he was mentally putting words to meter, beginning the songwriting process in his mind.

As flattered as I was to have my misfortune immortalized in song, I told the Bard that my immediate need was finding a doctor.

“You seem to me sick at heart; you might do better with a visit to the Poughkeepsie Seer.” He looked at me closely then, “But you do look a mite pale, and I appreciate the value of timely medical treatment,” he tapped his wooden leg on the floorboards. “I am bound for Poughkeepsie. I will do my show there; then help you find a doctor.”

I would have preferred the doctor first, then the show, but when we arrived in Poughkeepsie I saw why we had to follow his order. As we entered the outskirts of town noise of the rickety wagon and its bells attracted the attention of dogs encountered on the way. They followed us and their barking, in turn, attracted other dogs as well as laughing children who followed alongside the bedecked wagon.  We led a loud and joyful parade as we approached the center of town. There the Saugerties Bard stopped the wagon, stood up and began playing loudly, a familiar tune on the fiddle.

His playing was adequate, and the sound and sight were enough to draw a crowd of Poughkeepsie citizens away from their drudgeries. Dozens of men and women gathered around the wagon and applauded while he played them popular melodies on fiddle and flute. Then he began singing his own songs in a voice that was rough but pleasing. The melodies were familiar, but the words were intricate stories of events that were, no doubt, familiar to those in the crowd.

The sight of such a large and attentive crowd ignited a flame of larceny in my heart. It had become instinctual for me to view a gathering like this as so many sheep to be shorn and in spite of the pain, I jumped down from the wagon and walked through the crowd to see if I could come away with some wallets and watches.

I managed to lift a wallet from the coat of a gentleman who was listening intently to the Bard sing about a terrible powder mill explosion. I stuck the wallet inside my shirt, but as I hastened to the outside of the crowd, I realized that I had become feverish and was much sicker than I thought when sitting in the wagon. I became dizzy and had to go to my knees. Before I knew it, I was lying flat on the ground, going in and out of sleep, with much of the crowd now gathered around me.       

The Bard and some other men loaded me into the wagon, and I passed out from the pain and fever. When next I woke, I was lying face down on a table in a doctor’s office.

“Ah, Mr. Ridley, you’re awake,” said the doctor as he put on his spectacles and readied his tools, “I believe you will live, but we must remove these stones from your backside.”

I concurred but wondered why he called me Mr. Ridley.

“This may hurt a bit.” He said as he dug a knife into one of my wounds and used forceps to pull out a piece of gravel. It hurt like hell. I heard a clink as he dropped the stone into a tin pan. I heard that clink at least a dozen more times, and the pain, each time, was greater than the time before.

Finally the doctor said, “That’s the last, Mr. Ridley. I will bandage the wounds and let you sleep until the fever breaks.”

Sleep I did. It was a deep and dreamless sleep that lasted into the following day. When I awoke, I felt refreshed and no longer feverish. I saw my clothes on a chair nearby, and as gently as I could, I dressed myself. The wallet I had stolen lay on the seat of the chair. Upon opening it, I learned why the doctor had called me Mr. Ridley. Inside was the calling card of Mr. George Ridley, Esq., with an address on Washington Street in Oneida, New York. Judging by the amount of cash Mr. Ridley’s wallet, he was a very successful attorney.

The doctor came in and was pleased to see me up and dressed. He said all the things that doctors say—take it easy, don’t put too much pressure on the wounds, come back if they start to infect—but I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was not worried about my chances. I paid my bill and gave him a little extra for his trouble.

After I paid, the doctor said, “It’s not my place to inquire how you happened to get a backside full of grapeshot, but if you don’t mind my saying, you appear to be a young man lacking in direction.”

“That would be the truth, doctor,” I said.

“I can help with your physical wellbeing,” he said slowly, “but for the rest, I would recommend that you visit the Poughkeepsie Seer.”

“Sorry doctor, but I’ve had my fill of religion.”

Oh, this is not religion as you know it, Mr. Ridley. The Seer will look into your very soul; tell you what you need to know.”

I was anxious to leave the town before the real George Ridley got wind of someone traveling under his name. But after two recommendations, as I was already in Poughkeepsie, I decided to visit the Poughkeepsie Seer.