Western Short Story
Darkness reigned in the Virginia valley in 1864 where an advanced unit of the Union army forces was camped. Rifles and cannons were silent, and every few moments a standing sentinel might catch sight of flames from a few distant fires, friend or foe according to the direction where sighted. The silence of the night was broken by the sound of running boots. Immediately there came the order to “Halt,” loud and convincing, and it was followed by the sound of a second set of pounding boots and quickly chased by another yell, and then a third order to “Halt.” A rifle shot dropped the first man running across the area from the temporary jail for army deserters. He fell to the ground screaming, his words spoken in German and only Sergeant Otto Pilsner admitted to understanding the escaped man’s last words.
Answering an officer’s questions about the shooting, Pilsner said, “Sir, he was screaming about getting home. I guess he thought heading toward the enemy’s lines, where he thought he had a better chance, him being a deserter to begin with.” The two men spoke a few more words, unheard by anybody else, and the incident was closed as a deserter shot while trying to escape his punishment.”
The company area settled back to finish off a night’s sleep, before war came to visit again.
One trooper, Norman Dupres, rolled over in his blanket, but sleep would not come. When he finally fell asleep he said goodnight to his wife far away in three different languages. One of them, whispered as were the other two, came as, “Gute Nacht, süßer Liebling, bis wir am Sonnenaufgang sprechen.” Pilsner, if he heard it, would hear, “Goodnight, sweet darling, until we speak at sunrise.” Pilsner, if he knew the man who uttered that version of goodnight, would have strangled him before dawn.
With a dozen years of military service in the Prussian ranks, Otto Pilsner had been a quick rise as a non-commissioned officer in the Union army in the War Between the States. A few officers had taken note of his military presence in several activities demanding skill, intelligence and bravery under fire, and he was marked for promotion almost from the start.
But there was a downside about Pilsner that none of the officers were aware of.
This night brought the downside into a new focus,within the person of Norman Dupres, the company clerk and a mere private in the ranks.
Norman Dupres was a French-Canadian, from New Brunswick, a student of languages, self-taught, who had been caught up in the fervor of the war and enlisted in the army from the Massachusetts area of Lynn where he was a laborer. His wife and child were now living with her family in Massachusetts. He had not seen her in more than a year and thought about her continually, talked to her in his mind in the several languages he kept studying, all which helped his fluency. Some days he thought about her using nothing but English or French. This day was set aside for German appreciation. That appreciation did not go far with the death of the German speaker who tried to run away. He kept hearing the escaping prisoner’s final words, “Helfen Sie mir. Helfen Sie mir. Er ließ mich so los er konnte mich schießen. Pilsner ist ein Mörder. Er tötete meine Frau in Deutschland."
Dupres, of course, heard it first as, “Aidez-moi. Aidez-moi. Il m'a libéré ainsi il pourrait me tirer. Pilsner est un meurtrier. Il a tué ma femme en Allemagne.” Then moved it to, “Help me. Help me. He set me free so he could shoot me. Pilsner is a murderer. He killed my wife in Germany.”
Dupres had no trust in Pilsner from the first day he had been assigned to this company and Pilsner swaggered in, almost as if he still wore some kind of Prussian embroidery on his uniform. The colonel’s orderly, Desmond Riley, had spoken of him in an aside to Dupres; “He comes here like he’s going to win the war himself, but is content to sit here at regimental headquarters and not in a unit on the line. Some hero, heh?”
Dupres had said, “Well, some of us escape the carnage being here at this level. The colonel needs support around him.”
Riley responded with, “The colonel doesn’t need heroes here; he needs heroes up there in the line units, up where the real fighting goes on. Back here we’re only mere pawns, dummies if you will, in this game of war.”
“I suppose you’re right on that account,” Dupres said, “but something about this man is cold and very devious, the way he looks at things, the things he says in explanations, and the things he mutters under his breath almost.”
Dupres immediately wished he had said nothing about the muttering, which was always in German. He felt he had some kind of advantage by knowing German and keeping it to himself. And he’d never want Pilsner to know about his language abilities.
Of course, there were other German-born soldiers around the Union forces, and also in the Confederate army for that matter, many of them having served in the Prussian army in the first Schleswig War that supposedly was over in 1851. (It had started up again in 1864 and ended with the Gastein Convention of 1865.) At this time Dupres knew of no others in the company who had served in the Prussian ranks during that first war or in the period thereafter and had brought that experience with them, but they were in the ranks about the regimental company.
Dupres and Riley were in constant contact because of their responsibilities and a bond developed between them. Once, in secrecy, they had agreed to help each other if the need ever came, from their basic responsibilities, Dupres as the company clerk and Riley from his association with the colonel.
With luck on their side, all three men, Dupres, Riley and Pilsner, were separated from the army in July of 1865. The colonel had by that time promoted both men to sergeant and Dupres saw that the records of both men were taken care of promptly, showing time in rank somewhat previous to the official word, all with Riley’s help. Riley told Dupres that Pilsner mentioned to the colonel that he was headed west to Abilene, Kansas to become a sheriff.
The night before leaving the army, Riley was killed with a single stab wound in the chest. He was found behind a supply tent by a sentry who told Dupres that Riley had stuck three fingers wet with blood onto a piece of canvas. Dupres knew immediately that Riley was telling him who had killed him.
Five years later, Dupres and his family, now with two children, headed west.
Dupres knew they’d end up in Abilene.
There really was no way that Dupres wanted to work as a cowboy, having seen too much of their work on the way west. He planned to teach school and open a language school on the side. His wife agreed with him. “You came through the war, Norman, and you say that was luck. Those cowboys have a harsh life. I’ve seen that every time they are near us. I am positive you can make your way with the skills you are so good with.”
Abilene, as if waved at with a wand, came as their destination after significant changes en route, and Dupres found work as a school teacher, all based on army records that Riley had “taken care of.”
One day when he was with his wife, he saw Pilsner standing outside the sheriff’s office and the jail. Dupres said to his wife, “Never let that man know that I understand German. Never. If you ever see him talking with others, tell me who those people are, or who they might be from any source you can. It is important to us.”
That’s all he had to say.
And the day came at the store where she worked when she saw Pilsner talking with a man wearing a black derby hat and a gray vest with a feather on it. She told her husband. The next day that man approached Dupres and asked if there were any openings in his language classes held in the evenings. “I wish to learn German,” the man said.
Dupres said, “I only teach French and Spanish, and I am fairly new myself to the Spanish, but we could grow together in it.”
The man in the derby hat said, “You do not teach German?”
“No,” Dupres said, knowing where the word would go.
The derby hat was doffed and the man left and made his way directly to the sheriff’s office. Dupres, who had followed him, did not know where to turn for help. But when he discussed it with his wife, she said, “Some men at the store talked about him in a corner. They don’t trust him at all and believe he hass convicted some innocent men to gain a solid foothold in this town. In the past two years several men charged with crimes have been hung by a court who has pushed the charges according to the sheriff’s word. They are convinced he is a killer in his own way.”
“Do you know who those men are?” Dupres said.
“”I know one of them. He is the husband of a friend who comes often to the store for her yarn. His name is Victor Stanbury and he has a ranch not far from town. One of his men, a man by the name of Schneider, was convicted of a killing and hung in a matter of hours after the guilty verdict. Stanbury said that his man knew of Pilsner in the other country.”
“We have to get to Stanbury and I will not leave you here with the children. We have to go tonight and don’t let anybody know. Don’t tell the children. We’ll wake them when we leave. I have to tell you that two of Pilsner’s deputies speak German.”
In the middle of the night, they hitched a carriage to a horse and slipped out of town. In a few hours they were at the Stanbury ranch. Dupres told Stanbury all that he knew about Pilsner, and told him of his fears of the man, and that two of his deputies spoke German.
“I knew none of that,” Stanbury said. “What else bothers you?”
“He will find our trail out here. We will push on and try to get somewhere else before he finds us.”
“Well,” Stanbury said, “I believe that you best make a stand here and help us. I am bound to disclose this man. He arranged the death of one of my men, and others no doubt. Some of us have felt that all along. He manages to get too much done in too much hurry. We will make a stand here if he comes for you. You’d be at his mercy out on the trail, you and your wife and your children.”
Stanbury called in his foreman and said, “Brad, I want you to get to Joe Mulcahy and Swede Malvo and tell them we need help. I think Stanbury and his deputies will come here later today and make a charge against Dupres. We have to stop him before he goes further in his masquerade.” He paused and said, “Do it pronto, Brad, and get them here with as many of their men as they can afford or muster. We’ll hide them in the barn. Get to it.”
Stanbury’s foreman was on his way in minutes.
Later in the afternoon, one of Stanbury’s men sauntered into the ranch yard and casually said to Stanbury, “There’s five riders coming up the trail, studying ground, and I’m sure they’re following the tracks of the carriage that came in last night.” He went off casually to tend his horse.
The ranch yard was quiet when the five riders came into the ranch, Pilsner leading them, two of them his deputies, and two he had called for a posse ride.
“Stanbury,” Pilsner said, “we had a murder in town last night and we know that it was committed by that teacher and language gent, Dupres. We tracked him this far. Did he stop here last night?”
“He sure did, Sheriff,” Stanbury said. “We sent him on his way with some grub my wife scraped up for them in a hurry. She knows that woman of his. They went on their way before daylight.”
Pilsner did not like what Stanbury said. “Well, you won’t mind if I look around, will you? Just in case they didn’t get out of here.”
“I just told you they left here,” Stanbury said. “That should do it.”
“Well, it doesn’t do it for me. This is a murder case and I won’t leave a stone unturned to bring that killer to quick justice.”
“Just like you did to my man, Sheriff?” Stanbury said, the bristles starting to show in his make-up.
“I don’t care how you feel about another murderer who got what he deserved, and I don’t care what you feel about Dupres either,” Pilsner said He turned to two deputies standing apart on their horses and gave an order. "Hans, George, geht überprüfen die Scheune. Wenn irgendjemand im Weg ist, sie schießen. Wir sind in der Verfolgung eines Verbrechers, eines Mörders, und niemand kann uns aufhören. Gehen."
The two deputies started off to the barn. Dupres, hearing the order, stepped forward at the loft door and yelled out, “Stanbury, he told them, the deputies, ‘to go check out the barn. If anybody gets in your way, shoot them. We are in pursuit of a criminal, a murderer, and nobody can stop us. Go."
He screamed it again as the two deputies raced toward the barn, only to be met by a wall of men who came out of the barn, rifles leveled at every member of the posse.
The two deputies stopped short, reached across their bodies and dropped their guns on the ground with their left hands. Pilsner, irate, caught in the middle of all his evil works, reached for his gun, brought it out of his holster and aimed it at Dupres still standing in the loft door.
Stanbury shot Pilsner out of his saddle, his gun still in his hand when he hit the ground.
The German-speaking deputies told all they knew, which was enough for court held on the spot. They were advised to leave the territory before they would be brought to a quick trial of their own. They left, heading south in a hurry.
When Norman Dupres erected his sign for language classes, he listed French, Italian, Spanish and German as his disciplines.