Western Short Story
Off the Beaten Path
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

The old stranger in the region, marking himself with cane help, hair wild as a jungle tree, scowl and scar regular countenance parts of facial structure, revelations as they were, came to a split in the path he trod. Which way to take befuddled him, choice not a regular gift for him, often a minor torment. It was angular, small as the turn was, but separation loomed, difference, life and history as they might come to pass.

The split seemed inevitable, bound to bring him elsewhere and his choice the cause of it all: he would be the one to blame for his choice; it did not sit well on him; which way would he take, what would it do? Looking for a guiding mark, a guiding light, a sight down either path that could call him hence, none appeared.

Then a fallen signpost, letters upside-down to him, and totally askew, offered perhaps a solution to his quandary. Of course, it could say Heaven or Hell, or Here and There, or The Right Road to Eternity, but none of those choices came at him, but more misery, more indecision, another stab of doubt, of pain.

It simply said Tomorrow on one side, painted there perhaps by a blind man, a left-handed painter, a trickster at play, the easiest way out of the puzzle. The route west was always full of choices. Turns, new revelations by foot as well as by pound of his feet on the ground trail.

Often, he had wondered what tomorrow meant, what it would bring him to, who would he meet on the thorny or rocky path, the way seemingly littered all the time with minute or smaller-than-life particles of the territory, for it always changed as weather changed each day of travel.

Here it was 1870, the big battle done around the corner from him all the way from Boston on his own two feet most of the route. Now and then, a donkey served him, a friendly horse on loan, a wagon seat from a kindly stranger who was bound to hear about Old Ironsides in Boston’s Charlestown harbor, a fate all listeners found to their historical pleasure, their own measurements of the country at large and getting larger. Some folks along the way called him The History Pusher, part and parcel all the way, and a “twist to a tale” he’d often add with a smile, his humorous side always sat play, his most welcomed respite from daily ordeals.

He'd been in too many big battles to remember the small ones, the face-to-face or hand-to-hand encounters we find in all wars, right from the creation of the very first club, wherever and whenever that was, to afford protection from a sworn enemy or an accidental affair in front of others. Long after he had made up his mind not to carry such a face along with him, because it toted such pity on its own, the forgotten eyes of fear, of hate, of why-am-I-here in this God-forsaken place.

Whenever he found a friendly wagon train on his path, he made sure all youngsters in hearing range had their britches just about scared off them by battle stories he told for that very purpose, making some older sorts say that he never told the real truth.

Hat trend got him caught up in some minor skirmishes with other veterans who had less experience than him, or sang a different tune than his. He was Boston Yankee every foot of the way.

What he squirmed for, fidgeted for, hoped for, was the sight of the Pacific Ocean from a beach of that ocean, looking out and knowing he had crossed America from one end to the other, He had seen the moves and the matters of all kinds of people, and he liked more of them than he did not like. To share the good ones, he brought all their good parts unto himself, a sharing in itself, so that he himself was an All-American from the word “Go.”

His meeting with Rod Gable from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, was particularly to both their advantages; they were students of history and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company as activists in the creation and growth of the country in every direction. Gable had already seen some of the islands of the Pacific, a piece of Canada, and knew old England way back over his shoulder as a piece of the past, one not to be pushed onto the future.

There was too much skullduggery back there, too much “me and not you” for him to swallow, for he was, from his first step on this land, an American all the way to the very end, whenever that came his way.

He recalled his first bracing just outside of Massachusetts when a rider tried to drive him off his path West, wanting the whole way to himself and his small party, picking a sword to force the decision, where he first announced his name to an enemy, an opponent of sorts, by saying, “By George, my name is Francois derLeon

Conturie, and I am now and forever an American and you. Sir. have no right to stand in my pathway.

“Well, Georgie Porgie, puddin’ ‘n’ pie, get off that horse because I need it more than you, a damned foreigner. I am one hundred per cent American born here and have more rights than you because of my beginning.; let’s agree on that at first as the first and last word twixt us two.”

Francois derLeon Conturie, swelling up as his own self American, now and forever, went at him with his sword from the saddle of that wanted horse, driving the loudmouth from his path. “I am going to see the Pacific Ocean, and then coming back this way again, carrying the good word about America to all its people met and encountered. It is a glorious land I have seen so far, and I am going to see it all, if I have to make this trip more than a few times, Yes, siree, a few times, know it back and forward, know it as mine, as ours, who’s ever at my side.”

“Let it be known here, that herein lies Francois derLeon Conturie, on his 6th trip through Omaha, who was an American from core to core and sea to shining sea, by the Good Lord who sent him here as spokesman for all America.”

The “Amen.” was deeply chiseled into the stone by a man who was on his second trip across America, and knew he’d come back this way again, off the beaten path.