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Western Short Story
Almost all the community gathered in the Heldfeldt’s barn, where fresh straw covered the dirt floor and battled the smell of dried horse sweat and dung. Old Axel played the fiddle nestled in the crook of his left elbow. Reinhardt brought his battered washboard, and Big Herman played his spoons. Erhardt called the dances and sang traditional songs. After an hour, Erhardt’s dry throat and sweat-soaked shirt required a break.
During the break, most men went to refill their plates or gathered around the beer barrel with the bridegroom, Huppert. But some stood just beyond the light in the empty stalls where Heldfeldt usually kept his massive Belgian draft horses. There in the shadows, men stole quick sips from jugs of hard cider passed from rough hand to rough hand. Women gathered around Adele, the bride, or put on aprons and fussed around tables creaking under the weight of special dishes made only once or twice a year. Specially marinated beef and pork slow-cooked for hours were joined on the table by all types of sour vegetables, a staggering array of sausages, and pastries with crusts so light that they threatened to float off the table.
After a few minutes, the toasts began. Some of the older men offered earnest prayers to the stern Lutheran God they all worshipped. Other toasts tested the boundaries of good taste, but they never crossed that sharp, dark line separating what had the ladies hiding their faces in their hands and laughing behind their handkerchiefs and what would make those same women turn themselves and their families away from the speaker at the next church service. Except of course, Herman’s toast, but everyone knew that since his accident last spring he had been plowing with something short of a full team. Besides, to chastise him would embarrass his wife, Hannah, a fine, upright, Christian woman with enough problems already. She had married a hard-working, god-fearing man who now seemed a different person. So, everyone chuckled just long enough to be polite.
Then, the men began to finish their beer or grab last bites from their plates, preparing to continue dancing in their heavy, square-toed boots and their damp, collarless shirts with their wives and daughters clad in rough cloth where the only rich colors appeared in scarves or shawls worn by the women from more prosperous families. They had imported these frills from the exotic environs of Chicago or St. Louis, despite the gruff mutterings of their husbands about the sin of vanity and cost of a good milk cow.
Everything stopped when Ansgar entered the barn. The last inch of beer remained in mugs, and the last bite of strudel went back to the plate. Ansgar and Huppert had courted Adele at the same time. Huppert came sparking in a surrey with leather seats for four, springs, and a cloth cover. A matched pair of thick-necked black Morgan carriage horses drew the surrey into the Kaempel’s front yard. Ansgar came courting in a pecan wood Texas buckboard that boasted a rough wood seat just wide enough for one. An enormous buckskin with its coal black mane and feet pranced between the buckboard’s traces.
Huppert’s family had been community leaders both before and after all the families had all moved together down from Wisconsin. Since arriving in Texas, Ansgar’s family had hung precariously onto the hardscrabble end of the valley. He saw the plow kill his father and grandfather, while his family reaped close to nothing in return. When his mother died, he took an axe to that plow, then burned the axe with all the harnesses and other tools that a farmer needed to survive.
Now Ansgar caught and broke horses, selling most to the Army. Some said he traded with the Comancheros for goods, and then he traded those goods for horses with the forlorn bands of Lipan and Mescalero Apache who still rode free in the lands to the west. He spoke Spanish, wove his long, blonde hair into a single braid, wore beaded buckskins, and kept an old Navy Colt strapped to his leg and a lever action Winchester in a scabbard attached to his buckskin’s saddle.
After only a few visits to Adele, the head of the Kaempel household gathered up the courage to have his wife turn Ansgar away without even telling Adele that he had again come courting. He had his wife speak to Ansgar because he sensed that Ansgar was not a man who took disappointment in matters of the heart lightly.
“Fill your mugs with Kaempel’s good beer,” Ansgar shouted, stepping to the center of the barn. Some men began moving along the crowd’s edges, searching among discarded harness shafts, yokes, and tools for stout clubs. These men had long ago learned the emotional languages spoken by the bodies of horses, cattle, and men. They recognized the tension that foreshadowed trouble. When this trouble began they knew they would need to be armed and rush Ansgar from all sides at the same time. To do otherwise would be foolish, and all these men had long ago learned the wages paid for foolishness among the hardened men who lived in this rough land. Though he was not wearing his Colt, a deer horn knife handle protruded from the top of one calf-height moccasin. Ansgar had never used a gun or knife against any man in the community, but these men knew that no matter how Ansgar had been raised, he was not really a farmer. He had never learned to take disappointment in love with the same unchanging expression a farmer used when faced with too little rain, too much rain, or a swarm of grasshoppers. They understood that Ansgar had a solitary, brooding heart, and they knew lost love could make such men crazy.
Ansgar said loudly, “A toast!” He raised a mug of beer and began, “Since we came here, my family’s had a special toast for bridegrooms. I offer Huppert my families’ wedding toast.” Looking directly at Huppert, who had begun sweating heavily the moment Ansgar entered the barn, Ansgar said, “May your stock be healthy. May your crops reach the sky. May children’s laughter bless your home. May the man you long to be always be the man you see reflected when you look into your wife’s eyes. May your love last for as long as the Sun rises.”
He emptied his mug in one, long swallow. Relief crept through the crowd. The women began tentative smiles. Some men raised their mugs and drank, saying, “Ja! Ja!” Others tried to slip their makeshift weapons behind their backs or lean them against the nearest barn wall. The women’s mostly faced Ansgar, but their eyes flitted constantly toward Adele. Her gaze had not left Ansgar since he entered the barn.
Then, Ansgar continued. “Today, I add my own special toast for the bride.” Adele’s high cheeks began to shift in color from pink to red. Some men reached again for the implements that they had just put down. Adele turned toward Huppert, but as soon as Ansgar began speaking, she turned back to face him.
He said to Adele in a soft voice that carried to each corner of the barn, “May you quickly learn that your husband’s heart is a cold thing longing only for its own fulfillment. In his eyes, you will only see the reflection of the woman he demands you become. He will have you risk your life bearing child after child, not for love, but so he can leave a legacy. If you stay with him, your soul will shrink until all that remains will be a blackened stone that holds no heat. Escape this living death before children forever block your way. Come back to me. Put your fingers against my throat. Feel my heart and yours begin to take up the same rhythm. Touch my lips, and feel your fingers burn.”
Ansgar threw his mug against the barn wall. It became fragments strewn across the stall floor that broke the light from the lanterns above into a rainbow of soft colors. With long quick steps, he turned and strided quietly out of the barn. Everyone remained motionless, silent until the quick, receding rhythm of his buckskin’s hooves could no longer be heard.