Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
“Who among you will swear to devote his life to country and crown? Stand you then and be appointed.”
He had stood up on that solemn occasion, had been counted, and subsequently dishonored and disparaged by his entire country, which quickly had gone under a different rule.
On a night dark as new promises, the year of turmoil 1793, hoof beats announcing organized columns of one belief or another without a known flag borne for identification and loyalty, the air reeking with forebodingness and clandestine alliances, Jacques de Lemoine, 22 years of age, experienced in battle, soldier by profession, horseman by choice, swordsman by desire, bound elsewhere, slipped out of France from an unknown port on a small fishing boat and landed in Spain.
His landing was a serious affair, the boat capsizing in a storm, the others disappearing from view even after a desperate search, yelling out names of comrades, and trying to measure the distance to shore. In one moment of search, self-preservation kicked in and he struck out for the shore. He touched solid earth under his feet, stood up in the sea water, knew Spain underfoot, and strode ashore. His sword was gone, his boots gone, his cape gone, all shed for survival to overcome the pull of the water threatening to drag him down. If he had his choice, he thought, he’d rather be on a steed heading into battle, his weapons at hand as well as the enemy, for he knew what he was capable of, what he had done, where he had been. He was not a man of the sea; he was a horse soldier, a cavalryman, a veteran of wars at a young age, who now needed a new cause; that was his destination, his odyssey.
On the beach, leaning on a wooden bench, an old man stared at him, a decrepit old man, a funny hat on his head, the oddest cane in one hand, wielded as if just torn from a tree, a heavy knob on top that could be used as a weapon. The shaft of the cane exhibited many sharp points where branches had been slashed away, each remaining nub capable of depositing pain upon an enemy. In advanced age the man still looked formidable, able to take care of himself. Lemoine wished himself that formidable after uncountable more decades.
But several times the inquisitive old man looked back over his shoulder, to the chimneys and rooftops of a nearby town set inland less than a half mile away. Lemoine thought him at first to be looking for compatriots, perhaps another coastal watcher at the same duty, but the man was not alarmed at the sight of him; more curious than alarmed.
Then the old man said in Spanish, “Lo que le trae por aquí?” (What brings you here?”) They were at the very edge of the ocean, the place called Castro Urdiales behind them showing a few housetops, smoke rising from morning fires, the scent of cooking food in the air, olive oil and the riches of women working in the grand mix of early day. Then he repeated his words in French, “Ce qui vous amène ici?”
Lemoine, aware of the furtive looks in the old man’s eyes, said, with considered pauses breaking up his words, “Puede usted hablar inglés, lo cual será más fácil para mí?” He offered an immediate translation into English: “Can you speak English, which will be easier for me?”
“Yes,” the old man replied, a glint in his eye, a look again over his shoulder as if there was another listener hanging about them.
“Our boat was swamped,” Lemoine explained. “There are no other survivors that I know of, but I must search along the shore to make sure. They were good men to take me away from my troubles.”
“How did you alone survive?” The old man’s English was excellent. “I have seen no one else come out of the ocean, no strangers other than you on the beach. I have been here since before the sun came lifted out of Asia.” He pointed westward.
“I am a strong swimmer,” Lemoine replied, his eyes searching the old man’s face for other signs, and then his own look sent off to the nearby community.
“You are French, are you not?” the beach watcher said. “Do you flee the unrest in France? Were you loyal to the crown or to the new ideals?” The look on his face, at the choices mentioned, was neutral at delivery. Age itself, it was easy to see, had a solid grip on him, but his hair was thick on his head under the brim of his strange hat, and flowed down on worn shoulders, gray as a cloudy dawn sky. The tunic he wore was torn in a few places, and dearly in need of cleaning, as were his pants, but his boots were close to shining, as though they had been gifted to him by a generous soul.
“I was a soldier. I was doing my duty.”
“Aha,” said the old man, “without a king the kingdom goes away and with it goes its army. You must leave here soon. Find a boat going to the new world, to America. Everyone there and everyone going there get a new start with a new government of the people. Think about the new chance in a new land, going to the new place with all your old skills that have proved their value. You may go without baggage but you do not go empty-handed. You have those skills you sharpened in your service and a new chance to use them again.”
His delivery sounded like a tutor at work; and Lemoine heard the depths of it.
Back over his shoulder the old man looked, first along the beach and then back to Castro Urdiales, the old one still on guard, using his experience, before he renewed his talk. “It is better than going back. I too was a soldier and was hounded, but have found a place here. It can be treacherous some days, for many factions move among us. From France, too, they have come, like you or those searching for those like you. Just a few days ago such men chained up a few men they found coming in on a small boat, just before dawn. I heard they would have their heads chopped off once they were brought back to the chief city, to Paris, to the guillotine. As for me and my past, it goes away at times. And I am too old to go any other place, but caution should be exercised by you for escape. Some you meet will be wounded by a word before the tip of the sword makes them flinch. Watch for such men. Be alert for such men. Use them ably. They too provide opportunity.”
He was imparting as much lesson as warning; again it came home to the Frenchman in flight.
Alertly like the good watchman he had become, the old man scanned the area behind him and then out in front of him. “Go along the coast, on that road there.” He pointed to a marked trail along the water. “I have a horse you can buy if you have money, or else you can have him. Wherever you leave him, say he belongs to Armand the Cripple of Castro Urdiales. He will come back to me one way or another.” He nodded his head in assurance, as though he was known along the whole coast of Spain. His eyes sparkled with belief, with a clutch at humor.
Lemoine noticed once more the man’s leg, how it was bent at a strange angle, how it said pain in a familiar language of the mind. They were brothers in the art of warfare, their memories perhaps the same, but their lingering pains now different.
When he mounted the golden horse, Lemoine said, “I will make somebody promise to bring the horse back to you. I will find an honorable man. As I said, I am sorry I do not have any money for you.”
“Aha,” said Armand the Cripple, “I have found not only an honest man, but a man of standing, a soldier. We of Spain sent off our horses many, many years ago to the New World with our explorers, gallant men going into the unknown breech of darkness. Some of their horses were the likes of my Carlo, gold as the sun or a full moon above the orchards. He will not make that trip. Do not worry about him. He will come back?” His head nodded in affirmation, a smile grasping his whole face.
Quizzically, knowing the old man’s tune had suddenly changed, Lemoine asked, “How are you so sure about the horse Carlo coming back? Do you know everybody I will see on the way?”
Armand the Cripple laughed heartily, “Oh, he is one of promise, my Carlo, his name meaning the free one. He always comes home. I have sold him five times,” a smile adding, “and he always comes home.” He laughed again, “Without fail.” He laughed again and added, “Perhaps more than five times.”
The two men roared at the edge of the ocean, and Lemoine rode off, on his next leg of the trip to America, laughing at a sudden image of one Spaniard saying to a fellow countryman, “Do not buy the golden horse Carlo, the free one, who belongs to Armand the Cripple of Castro Urdiales, for your money will only call him home again, back to Castro Urdiales and to his one and only master. One bit of gold draws and matches the other. The cripple gathers twice the fee.”
In 1803 and again the following year Lemoine thought of going back to France when Napoleon was exerting his influence and crowned as emperor in 1804, but he realized the changes were too dramatic for him.
Time, the way it can leap with the adventurous, to men on various pursuits, brought Lemoine, now 33 years of age, in that latter year of 1804 to a small town in the western part of Ohio, to a saloon that had drawn him by its name, Le Cheval d'or Saloon, The Horse of Gold Saloon. Behind the long bar, adorning a good length of the wall, was a painting of a palomino pony in graceful flight across a grassy plain. The golden hue of the horse almost sang out to Lemoine when he first walked in and stared at the palomino, for he thought immediately of Carlo, the horse he had borrowed years ago from the old man at Castro Urdiales, a horse as golden as a new coin.
From the moment of his entry, though, Lemoine wanted to call the saloon The Museum, for much of the walls and the overhead beams were hung with old weapons. He saw lances and shields and swords as well as old matchlock pistols and flintlock blunderbuss rifles with bores like hungry mouths, like angry mouths. He noted familiar dragon pistols, the dragon’s head clearly visible around the muzzle that many cavalrymen had carried and had brought about the name of the Dragoons in some cavalry units in Europe. His eyes landed on favored weapons his hand itched for, his past called back again, and it made his gaze move onto all weapons in a twist of memory.
Meanwhile, the long ride he had just accomplished working on him, Lemoine thirsted for a taste of wine. He had in no way lessened that taste in his western stay, and drank it in preference to all other liquors and beers if it was available.
And this was not the first time it had brought about a confrontation with other patrons of a saloon.
One burly cowpoke at the bar, broad in the brow and the shoulders and aware of a difference between him and the slim and handsome Lemoine standing on his right, decided he’d put the differences to a test.
“Say, there, stranger,” he said, “are you new around here? I never seen you in here before. You come far?” He had turned to face Lemoine straight on, a silly look on his face, as if he was facing a totally unworthy opponent in a silly grudge match.
Lemoine had seen it all before, the same look, the down-range appreciation of differences between men. He took a deep breath.
The big man continued. “You sure look like you come from some other place.” He looked about the saloon and tried to bring others at the bar and at tables to side with him, and nudged the man on the other side of him, urging him to enter the cajolery.
Lemoine, not looking at the man, and holding the glass of wine close to his mouth, only said, “From far enough to appreciate my own habits.” He voice was level, moderate, in no manner offensive, except for his crystal clear intention of saying, in other words, “I come from a place where people mind their own business.”
But the big man was not sure of what the remark meant. “What does that mean, mister? You pokin’ fun at me?”
He nudged the bar patron on his left, saying, “What do think of this foreigner pokin’ fun at a real American cowboy? Huh, what do you think of that? “
Turning back to Lemoine he said, “You goin’ to answer me, mister, or do I call you out?” His hands dropped to his sides, close to a pair of side arms on his belt.
Still sipping at his glass, Lemoine said, “You mean, am I challenging you to a duel, or is it you challenging me to a duel?”
“You’re damned right I’m challengin’ you. I don’t plain like your attitude. You foreigners always bother me bein’ so smug and tricky, like you’re better than any of us here, us real Americans. I was born here when this country was born.” Pride hung on his voice thick as syrup.
“Then I guess you’re challenging me to a duel. Is that what you’re saying?” Lemoine had his hand on his sidearm.
The big man smiled and said, “Damned right I am.”
Lemoine said, “Then I have my choice of weapons? Is that the art of the west, the way of the west? The way of the new America where I have been for 11 years of my life, working my way toward California and the vineyards there. Is it my choice of the weapons in this challenge?” His hand touched again the pistol on his belt.
“Sure is, pal. It sure is.” The big man’s smile was as wide as his face.
Lemoine reached overhead and drew down from a beam a sword, a long, tapered sword. Light from lamps in the room reflected off its long, thin shaft. “I choose swords,” he said. He leaned his whole long and thin body onto the sword as it touched the floor, the thinness of each as if posed together.
The big man’s pal pointed overhead and excitedly said, “Grab that big one up there, Gunther! You can crush him with it! One swing and he’s on his butt. Grab the big one looks like a hunk of iron from the blacksmith shop down the street. Smash him, Gunther. Smash him a good one!”
A hint of strange intervention crossed Gunther’s face as his expression said, “Oh, oh,” but it could not be said aloud. Pride, and the usually blustery nature of the big man, made him reach for the broad sword. It was heavy to his hand, but a strange power in its weight, a sold heft came in its handle. He slapped it into the air, clomped it against the overhead beam, and felt the ominous striking power that had come to his hand as the building shook.
Chairs creaked and scraped on the floor as patrons pushed themselves out of danger that created a wide space in front of the bar, like a small arena bound by the bar on one side and patrons at table on the other sides.
At the back of the saloon, other men, not in the affair from the beginning, stood to get a better view.
One of them said to a table partner, “Looks like Gunther Locumb’s at it again. But he ain’t got a gun in his hand this time. Got a stupid wide blade sword like he’s gonna chop down a tree. Oh, boy, I don’t see this starting right for him. That other fella looks like a sword himself. Maybe this is the day we been waitin’ for. Better have a look.”
The other man at the table stood, a smile on his face, and said, “Think we never been lucky at cards, huh?” Down on the table he threw his hand of cards, “and me with three aces.”
In front of the bar, in front of people who had known him for practically all his life, Gunther Locumb hefted the sword again. “How do we do this?” he said. “I ain’t ever used these before.”
Lemoine said, “Stand in that corner near the bar. I’ll stand here. The barkeep says, ‘Go,’ and then we start. May the best man win.” He said the last part in French also, as though it was a prayer: “Pouvoir la meilleure victoire d'homme.” He held his sword upright in front of his face as a salute to his opponent, the flat of the weapon touching his nose.
It infuriated Gunther Locumb who rushed at Lemoine, not just in distaste and anger, but with vile hatred, the broad sword swinging in crude arc over his head as though he was going to crush Lemoine with the weight of it.
Lemoine was ready. He stepped to his left in a slight feint, saw Locumb lean that way, came back in a swift dance and stepped to the right, saw the broad sword swinging its clumsy arc from high overhead as though to cut him in half. The thin rapier, in the hands of a skilled swordsman, slashed into the air, provided the sleekest cut at the wrist of Gunther Locumb, and the heavy sword fell uselessly to the floor.
Silence, an occasional gasp, filtered in the room as the rapier, like a needle, was at the throat of Gunther Locumb full of the direst threat, a horrible death. Locumb did not move, the point of the sword at his Adam’s apple, the way a stiletto might feel, keen, sure, a vile outcome at hand.
Lemoine, with a loud voice, said, “If you swear peace with me, and friendship, it is over and done with at this minute. If not, I will carve you to pieces.” The thin blade had not moved, had not quivered once in its position, Lemoine’s arm as steady and rigid as a fence pole.
Only Locumb’s eyes moved, searching out the room, seeing the moment of truth descending upon the silent audience as though it had been cast on the place from high heavens. He dared not swallow for fear it would signal a movement from either combatant. He wondered what the next drink would taste like … if he got to it. He wanted that drink, but was no longer sure of anything else except that he could die in a hurry, at the hands of the stranger who at one point, only most recently, had not seemed to belong in this hard world of the west.
Desperate, but his mind working against his normal ways, Locumb dropped his weapon, unhitched his belt and all in the saloon watched it slide down his legs, the era of one bully at the end of a long trail. It was as though one universal breath was let go from one chest, the sound coming clear, relief in order.
Locumb’s pal turned his back on his one-time pal who stood, harmlessly, at attention, while the slim stranger slowly withdrew his slim blade from Locumb’s throat and set it on the bar.
The barkeep spoke first. “You kin have it, mister. You earned it, though I’d begin to tell stories about it if you left it here for us to look at once in a while.”
With a quick motion Lemoine hung the sword back on the two nails that held it on the overhead beam. “It’s my pleasure to return it to its place.” With a slight bow, “Merci,” came from his lips, and then Lemoine said to the barkeep, “Please pour a drink for my new friend here, and another glass of wine for me. I’d buy a drink for all present, but I can’t afford it.”
“Hell, mister, the drinks are on me. We’ll celebrate the Day of the Sword from now on. I can just see a match come out of it, a day-long affair, a shivaree for Le Cheval d'or Saloon.” He did not offer it in the best French, but all understood.
From one side of the saloon, a heavy-set fellow wearing a wide brimmed and sparkling-clean white sombrero approached Lemoine. “Sir,” he said, “I am Augustine Lombard of the Little Italy Ranch that sits along the river ten miles west of here. I ask to whom I am talking and if you’re open to offers of employment, I sure could use a man like you. The pay to start with would be three dollars a day and board and keep and one weekend off a month. You appear quick, smart, and possessed of the talent to survive. Have you been a member of the military?” He put out his hand.
Lemoine shook Lombard’s hand. “Sir, he said, “I am Jacques de Lemoine, soldier, horseman, swordsman, bound someplace lest a job detains me. I am once of Colonel-General Cavalry of the besieged garrison at Lille, France in 1790. We fought among ourselves, the people and the cavalry, and one of us lost his way. I have come to America, perhaps 10 years ago, and have worked my way in many places, done many things, and look for the future all the time. I would like to buy you a drink and one more for my new friend here, Gunther, but one apiece, mind you. It is all I can spare at this time.”
So it was that three strangers came into diverse roles, friends to each, one an employer, one employed, one still looking on, the way things change in life for one and not for another.
“What do you say to my offer, Mr. Lemoine?” Lombard had his hand out, waiting for the acceptance.
“If you offer Gunther a job, I will take the offer. One needs friends no matter where he is in this world, or what he does. Gunther is now my friend. I am his friend, though I have come from afar. Do we not all come from elsewhere? And now Napoleon is to become Emperor of the French, in my own language ‘L'Empereur des Français.’”
Lombard shook with laughter. “You are right, Mr. Lemoine. We all come from elsewhere, myself from Italy 20 years ago and your new Emperor, the General, has a foothold in my old homeland, too.” He turned to Locumb with the origin question on his face.
“I was born here, in Pennsylvania,” Locumb said, almost apologetically, “but my folks came from Germany, from the forests of Bavaria. I am the first horseman in our family.”
“Now you are hired, Mr. Locumb,” Lombard said, “for I have Mr. Lemoine’s word of acceptance.”
Fate moved swiftly for the three men, tightening the bond from a strange beginning; twice more Lemoine saved Locumb from certain death, once with the sword pulled miraculously from his scabbard when both rifle and pistols had fully discharged all ammunition against a gang of renegades, and once with a deft shot from his rifle at a bear about to tear Locumb apart. The swiftly ascended foreman of Lombard’s ranch saved his daughter Alicia, 20, from a kidnapping plot by sheer bravado and trick horsemanship, and Gunther Locumb had in turn saved Lombard in a mad stampede of cattle, using his brute strength to pull the cattleman from a certain trampling.
A few years later, in 1806, Augustine Lombard stood happily and proudly as his daughter Alicia married her savior with Gunther Locumb standing as best man at the wedding.
A son was born in late 1807, Benjamin Lemoine and Lombard threw a boisterous party at the ranch. Thereafter, in testimony of events and celebrations, Lombard started a small shrine of sorts with memorabilia in place: Lemoine’s sword and his original matchlock pistol, two shoes taken from the horse Locumb rode to save the rancher, Lombard’s own pistol that had jammed and did not fire when he aimed at what he thought was an intruder but was only a hungry vagrant that ended up working for him, and Benjamin’s birth record handwritten by the local sheriff.
As a separate part of the testimonial wall at one end of the family room, Lemoine started keeping pertinent records of his new family and his old days that had gone anew in France. He used dated events burned into a simple slat of wood that were placed in ascending order, oldest to the newest. This slat method enabled him, when news came much later than the event and oftentimes after other events had been entered earlier, to be posted in proper chronological order.
The notations were by year only, and were maintained faithfully by Lemoine, which began simply as:
1806, Alicia Lombard and Jacques de Lemoine married. (The legend burned with care into the simple wooden slat showing an artful hand.)
That first entry set the tradition off and running, Lemoine looking to his past, his old homeland, his new homeland, his military and family interests, as follows:
1807, Son Benjamin born to this house.
1807, Victory of Friedland over the Russian, and Code Napoléon enacted.
1809, The Emperor moved into the Elysée Palace.
1809 Napoléon departed to rejoin the Grande Armée.
1809, Napoléon’s victory at Wagram and at Znaim.
1809, A daughter was born to this house, Mary Elizabeth.
1810: Napoléon married Maria Louisa, Archduchess of Austria, Civil marriage at Palace of Saint-Cloud and a religious marriage in the Louvre.
1811, Son born to Napoléon and Maria Louisa at the Tuileries Palace, with title of King of Rome.
1812, Son Norman born to this house.
1812, French troops entered Prussia.
1812, Napoléon departed for the Russian campaign. Another son was born.
1812, The United States declared war on Britain.
1812, Napoléon victory of Borodino or the Moskova.
1812, Gunther Locumb killed by Indians … (never married, no children)
1812, Napoléon entered Moscow and left, starting retreat from Russia.
1813, Prussia declared war on France.
1813, Augustine Lombard Lombard died from drowning.
1814, Benjamin’s tutor, Fitzgerald arrives and starts lessons.
1814, Napoleon exiled to Elba (300 days)
1815, Napoleon returned to France
1815, The battle of Waterloo is lost.
1815, In the Elysée Palace, Napoléon abdicated in favor of his son.
1815, The allies entered Paris - Louis XVIII returned to Paris.
1815, Napoléon tried to reach United States. Instead, as war prisoner, deported to Saint Helena.
1816, Fitzgerald says Benjamin is the best student he has taught.
1821, (Saturday May 5) Napoleon died and I, Jacques de Lemoine, was 50 years old this same day.
1822, Benjamin wrote his first story, The Golden Horse. (“A gift is ours,” Lemoine burned into the wooden slat as a post script to this entry.)
Jacques de Lemoine, Jack Lemoine to all his friends, was constantly exclaiming to all those friends about Benjamin’s story of a golden horse named Carlo that was sold 17 times and kept coming back to his master who raised hundreds of golden horses from that sire. “The lad has such a grand imagination to conceive of such a tale and I am sure that this family will see a new hero rising in its midst, a master storyteller, not born to the sword, but born of it. No doubt he has many more stories to tell in his time.”
As Lemoine waited to read more stories from his son, he continued to live the legend of his times.