Western Short Story
Asa Finstock, retired sheriff, was taking part in the liar’s Game at the Wobbly Cow Saloon, in the heart of Texas. It was a believability contest about whoppers and was celebrating its fifth year in a row. Finstock had been in all of them, his retirement allowing him time to compose, reflect, enjoy “older age,” as he called it every time out, older age, not old age, his deflection of time and comfort. For a man who had been a number of times to the edge of Hell, or any other such place, he was a most pleasant man with a day-long smile.
Married once, no children, widower at fifty, Finstock had been a savage enforcer of the laws all around Mansfield, Texas, a town that could well have died if it had not been for him and his view on murderers, brigands, bank robbers, out-and-out criminals in any of their insidious arts. Wounded three times, recovered at home with the help of his wife, and then by a neighbor’s daughter versed in the medical arts, he was a living testament for those who lived around him. Neighbors and law contacts, and just about everybody acquainted with him, knew there was something special about Finstock, possibly indefinable, but evident to those who knew him.
From day one hereabouts he had presented, on the job or off the job, a rock-steady appearance. People saw a singular determination about him, a push to the final act on any of his tasks, and his rock-carved face, with a simple smile, could disarm most ladies immediately. All his fidelity he’d sworn to MaryLou, and kept true right to the minute of her death in childbirth, when she and her child perished together at a critical time. Finstock, for once, showed devastation. It took a month or more, but he crawled out of a deep hole and went back to work.
People saw that, felt its impact, praised the recovery. “What’ll we ever do without Asa,” had been echoed a hundred times.
And, because he was so well liked, so well listened to, he was a favorite in the yearly contest at The Wobbly Cow Saloon, and had won it hands down on three of the previous four attempts.
Now, much of Mansfield’s adult males were gathered in the saloon. It was a glorious Saturday in October, the sun a red firepot in the lower skies over the mountains, a time-changing breeze coming up from the Gulf of Mexico on a two-day run, and the earth under horses hooves still warm to the touch, “but don’t hold your breath for its staying so.” October nights crawled in with their slyness,
When Finstock walked in at 3 o’clock, the saloon’s main room was just about full, most of the townsmen out in force. They all knew him, liked him, listened to him, remembered what he had said on many occasions, including past liar’s efforts at the Wobbly Cow, where he had become a star who once wore a star. That he was a hero on many fronts was known to all; but now he was on the line again, at this new session of the Liar’s Game.
The room was noisy; bottles and glasses tinkled and clattered, almost a music in themselves; chatter was incessant at every table and all along the L-shaped bar where most of the drinkers were the younger crowd of cowpokes, town clerks, other youngsters finally enabled to partake in public because of a recent birthday or parental permission, or the type of job they held in town, or acceptance of some as men on the early move.
Suspense was in the air and floated about the room, as though something new and great could be expected, when Finstock walked in. Surprises would be welcomed with open arms at The Wobbly Cow Saloon.
“Hey, Asa,” said local rancher Brad Newhart, “I bet you wrote down a whole new book for today, ain’t cha?” Newhart was about as big as a man can get in this part of Texas, sitting his saddle like some god loosed by the Aztecs well south of them in the jungles, or some other tribe of Indians who had lived thereabouts for a thousand or more years.
That image of Newhart was carried by Finstock on sight of the man. He had heard early in life about Indians crossing over at the Bering Straits, right out of Russia, and others, from Norse land, coming from the other direction, with some big men in the mix.
Finstock, for much of his adult life, had wondered about them, those Indians who had come into this land so early from wherever, made their way, survived for centuries by wiles amid both plenty and meagerness, and then, quick as a shot, went away like a whisk of the broom. Or a fish who had pulled mightily on one’s fishing rod for an hour only to disappear into nothing right there in the heart of a stream. Right in front of your eyes. Mysteries intrigued him.
Somehow he had adapted. “Life disappears in a bundle or a snicker,” he was often heard to say. Such remarks made him a respected man in his hometown; it was said he had a grasp on things, though some of them admitted he was beyond them in his thoughts, nice as he was.
Newhart’s shoulders were ox-wide, presenting his strength and formidableness; he had been on many posses with Finstock and was a power unto himself.
“Nah, Brad, just getting wound up for a new run at the bar, with the good and the bad in the mix.” The new winner would get a free tab at the bar for two months, for himself, and one night selected for a “drinks on the house from me.” A man could be happy at that, or become an alcoholic for good.
“You got anything to top last year’s story? That was a whopper of a whopper. I ain’t heard that much lying from one man in my whole life, and that includes some of those ‘innocent ones’ we brung in on those posters on your wall at the old jail. We got an hour to go and I can’t picture what you’re gonna come up with this time.”
Finstock laughed, a hearty and comfortable and totally friendly laugh that warmed Newhart as usual.
“Lies are lies, Brad, plain all-out lies. Nothing more and nothing less. Only good thing going for them is today’s time for contending and alibis for the bad guys caught on the wrong side of action.
Then, late in the day, the red sun on its last legs on the far peaks to the west, one beer barrel emptied and replaced, expectations rising right across the room, the liars began spreading their condemnation. It came in a wave of wild assumptions, improbabilities galore, and out and out mischief from a half dozen minds and imaginations brought to the brink of impossibility. It was a pandemonium of untruths; elastic in reason, as in “might be,” “might not be”; formidable in extent, heroic in attempt and, on occasion, as flat as the rain- and wind-washed grass out on the heart of grazing land.
Nobody booed any liar.
Everybody had their own way of telling a tall tale.
In the latter hours of the affair, Asa Finstock came to the piano and sat on the piano bench, set up for all contestants on the small stage where players and singers parlayed their talents. If the liars chose that arrangement, they had it to themselves for their contributions.
There had been six other “orators” as he called them who had come “on” before his turn. Their expressions had pleased him to an extent, but he knew one secret that none of them had employed; it would be his ace in the hole.
He started in a moment of silence that slipped across the saloon like a ferret. No glasses sounded use. No boot scraping on the floor sounding nervousness, apprehension, no sheets popping in the wind – not yet.
Asa Finstock was into his story:
“In the tail end of last century, a good way inland from the ocean, the pirate John “Lord Jack” Gordon, privateer of the highest order, had taken a select group of his crew to look for food supplies and goods they’d need for the next leg of their voyage to the new world. Until they filled their stores, they could not leave for the long journey to the new world – and a host of targets at sea. The riches out there were again waiting for them. According to stories coming back to them at odd taverns they’d slip into at nights, the seas of the New World were crawling with riches afloat. The stories filled the pirate crew with the possibilities of a rich retirement on a pleasant island in Central America.”
Someone in the audience roared out, “Which kind of places are those, Asa? Can you tell us what they’re like, those islands in Central America, wherever t’is?” It was the usual kind of question or comment from the audience to throw the competition liar off kilter and spoil his story.
Finstock ignored the heckler and continued.
“Their search was successful at the last stop, a small farm with a laden barn, a goodly sort of animals for meat, and a family of a man, wife and son. When the pirates attacked, the farmer waged a terrific battle against the heavy odds, bringing down three men, breaking the noses of two others, before he was overpowered. Lord Jack admired the farmer, admired his guts and his tenacity at combat, had noted his broad shoulders, his skills at combat, how he used feints and dodges to toss off an enemy attacking him.
“My man,” Lord Jack said, “you are a formidable foe. I am going to leave you tied up here and I am going to take your woman and your son with us to work aboard our ship.”
The farmer screamed and twisted and tried to get out of his bonds, nearly doing so several times while his foes looked on. “You can’t do that, you blackguard. They are my family. They are what I have worked for, turned this out of place land upside down for its crops.” Lord Jack , it should be noted here, had no idea the farmer had left the sea some years earlier to start a new life with his wife and newborn son, but inland, away from these same terrors now descended on them.
He struggled again to get out of his bonds.
“There is one way for you to spare your family, my good man, “Lord Jack said, knowing he’d want such a man like this farmer at his back in any kind of fray.
The courageous farmer said, “What way is that?”
“Simply this,” Lord Jack said, a smile crossing his face, an opening in place. “I know you are a landlubber, and a hard worker at that, with all the goods you have saved up, but if you swear your fealty to me, work aboard my ship as nothing more than a slave, I shall let you accompany your wife and son who will be coming with us one way or another. It is bounden on your promise to work as directed by me for as long as I say.”
“There is no other way?” the farmer said. “You wouldn’t go man against man with me, name your weapons or use your fists?”
“I am not stupid, my man, I am only captain of my own ship, myself a taken boy a long time ago, like your son will be. Do you agree to my terms?”
The farmer, seeing the truth in the pirate captain’s eyes, hung his head, thought, looked up and said, “I agree. On my word.”
He knelt before the pirate Lord Jack.
The family, with much of the supplies from their own farm, along with their own personal belongings, helped carry all with the other pirates back to their ship.
They set sail for the New World.
The farmer worked as directed, for long and arduous hours, and rarely saw his wife or son. He did not know how they fared, for each day or night he was not working he was bound by chain to a place below the deck. It was at night, working on the deck or in the masts or spars or on the canvas of the sails, that he kept up his vigil on the stars. He read them continually, was aware of directions. He read the winds, too, like an old document resurrected from the past.
Continually he dreamed of an escape for his family. The one tool he had, hidden since his capture and imprisonment aboard the pirate ship, was a small cloth bag containing a mixture of bark of mandrake and seeds of the henbane, both given to him by one elderly man that he had helped the previous year. The old man, a wizard of sorts, had said, “Keep this as long as you can, but do not eat it or taste it. It will put you to sleep, or whoever you feed it to. I have added my own secret potion to the henbane and the mandrake. It will do as summoned once you have introduced it to someone, for whatever cause.”
The farmer, still studying the stars, bade his time. It would come soon. He studied the stars again, cooked up his escape plan, thought it over and over, eliminated the bad points, stressed important issues, found decision.
Thus it followed; on a ruse, slyly, he was able to empty the contents of the small bag into a cauldron of soup the cook was making on his iron stove in the galley.
When all hands gathered for the evening meal of soup and hard bread, and a container sent topside to working crewmen, the farmer waited his time. In an hour all men of the ship, including Lord Jack, had fallen asleep wherever they relaxed after the meal.
Quickly he tied the ship’s wheel in place, freed his wife and son from the cabin of Lord Jack, and gathered all the supplies they could manage. The supplies were secured as best they could against water spoilage, tied to ropes and put over the side to trail the ship. Then the three freedom-seekers went overboard and climbed aboard the trailing dory. The floating goods were collected after knifing them loose. The farmer, back on the sea, took with them as much rope as possible, extra oars, a sheet of canvas, and a final goodbye.
Studying the stars again for guidance, and a proper route, the trio headed away from the Lord Jack’s ship now making a slow curve on the sea, as dictated by its wheel tied in place, like a helmsman bound and gagged. Lord Jack was on his own once more.
“Asa,” yelled out big Brad Newhart with solid gusto, “that’s about as big a lie as anyone here can tell. That’s a whopper. Nothing bigger than that one. Couldn’t outdo that one in a month of Sundays, could you, Asa?”
The challenge was out there, the glove dropped.
“Yes I can,” replied Asa Finstock.
He gathered himself once more. “None of it’s a lie,” he said as he felt the toss of water under him and the edge of a fair wind on his brow and against the spread of a homely sail, heard the creak of an oar in the oarlock and his father saying, as though but scant feet away, “West by southwest, son, west by southwest, and watch that bright star overhead.”