Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Genre Prompt...Western

My writing group had a new photo prompt for October's story prompt. It's titles Haunted House. My genre this time was Western. Now really, does this photo look like the setting for a western?

Stories set primarily in the latter half of the 19th century American Old West. Depicts society organized around codes of honour and personal, direct or private justice (such as a feud). Often set around the life of a cowboy or gunslinger

 Here's my story. I'll warn you it's long, just over 2100 words.

A Promise to a Dead Man

It was all for naught. The journey he’d undertaken, to keep a promise to a dead man, was all for naught.

Jesse Simpson took a moment and tried to come to terms with what he was seeing; comparing it to the image he held in his mind. He climbed down from the saddle and wrapped the reins over the branch of a grand old oak, dripping with water and moss. This was not what he’d expected when he’d come east in search of March Manor.

It rose; three stories high, eroded and empty. The gray brick and stone faded into the mist of a rainy November morn. The paint was peeling, the balconies sagged, and the once pristine lawns were now a jungle of weeds. It didn’t take long for the bayou to claim the land, he thought, not when the owners had abandoned their stake in it.

Alone in the eerie silence, cloaked in the damp and dew, it was silent but not still, he thought. He swatted the bugs away from his face, and listened to the hum of mosquitoes, the soft sounds of animals moving through the marsh. He’d take the heat, the open spaces of New Mexico over the dank and dreary humidity of Louisiana, any day.

But he’d made a promise to a friend, and was honour bound to keep it. In a strange way, he was glad his friend was dead, oblivious to what had become of his family and his home. Victims all of them, of a war that had turned brother against brother, father against son, and brought wreck and ruin to what had once been a prosperous sugar plantation.

Here he was in the heart of Dixie, and him a Union Sympathiser. He had never been east of the Mississippi before, had never been part of the battles fought on Confederate land. The ravages of battles won and lost had left scars still unhealed.

Jesse wondered what the house had looked like when Theodore March, the younger of the two March brothers, had been in residence. Of course, that was six or seven years ago, at the beginning of the War Against Northern Aggression, as these Southerners liked to call the Civil War.

Theodore March grew up pampered by wealth and luxury. Jesse had a difficult time coming to terms with the fact that his friend Teddy and that man were one and the same.

They had met in a saloon in some hick town in Colorado in 1862. Teddy had been gambling, and had relieved the fresh-off-the-trail cowboys of a great deal of their money and what was left of their goodwill.

Accused of cheating, and out numbered, Teddy had been in serious trouble when Jesse opted in to the fray, to even the odds. He’d watched the game from the bar, watched as the cowboys had drunk themselves into the bad temper that came with losing. Teddy had played smart, stayed sober and had luck on his side, for a time.

The ensuing brawl had caused some damage, to the bar and to them. When the sheriff suggested they leave his town, while the cowboys were temporarily taking up residence in his jail, the two had hit the trail, with no particular purpose or place in mind.

They’d forged a friendship as they rode west, days spent on the trail, nights sitting and talking by the light of a camp fire. They worked ranches, trail drives and took any odd jobs that would get them from one town to the next.

Despite the differences in their background, they had one thing in common, domineering and disapproving fathers. Jesse had grown up working the family farm in wilds of Wisconsin, and suffered the ongoing wrath of his father’s heavy hand. At sixteen he’d had enough, and was big enough to fight back. He left and never returned.

Theodore and his father had reached a moral impasse that had been brewing for years. He objected to his father’s treatment of the slaves on the plantation and his use of money and power to influence and control. His brother was his father’s shadow. He surpassed his father’s inhumane treatment of the plantation workers, excusing his behaviour as just the randy antics of youth.

The war had been imminent and his father was politically and morally aligned with the South. He expected his sons to join the cause and was willing to buy them rank in the Confederate Army. Theodore had refused, and his father had responded with an ultimatum, agree to his terms, or get out. So he’d packed a bag and travelled north on a Mississippi riverboat, ultimately making his way to a Colorado card game.
Jesse walked along a broken path to what was left of a set of stairs, and hesitated. He didn’t need to enter the house, there was no one left to hear his message. His debt was paid with the journey, yet he felt his obligation had not been met.

The sounds of the marsh faded away and he thought he could hear music, the tune striking some memory in the back of his mind. Where was it coming from? He looked about, but saw nothing.

He wasn’t a fanciful man, but at that moment, when the air blew cold across the back of his neck and a chill ran up his back, he had to wonder if the house was haunted. He gave a rueful laugh, caught up in the ghostly spell of a misty morning, he decided.

Tall, dressed in a black suit, wearing his best hand tooled leather boots and black Stetson; he looked and felt out of place. He was a man used to being in control, but at that moment he felt uneasy and unsure. In an unconscious gesture of reassurance, he touched the gun he wore about his waist, a gun it was his habit to wear.

He’d made this trek east for his friend, to deliver his dying words to the father and brother. Teddy may have thought he’d left Theodore long behind but truth be told, he’d missed having family, missed the lazy days on the bayou. He may not have wanted to be part of their fight, but he’d been restless these last few years, wondering and not knowing how March Manor had survived the war.

They had challenged Lady Luck too many times and won, until that fated day their luck ran out. As they crossed the Rockies from Los Alamos to Santa Fe they were caught in a sudden snow storm. Teddy’s horse had shied and skidded on the loose rock, falling with Teddy’s leg trapped beneath.

Jesse had done the best he could, and considered it a job well done that Teddy survived the ordeal, let alone kept the leg. They had finally put down roots; albeit reluctantly. A vagabond life was not suited to a man with difficulty walking and in constant pain.

Teddy had dusted off his law degree and opened a store front office in Santa Fe while Jesse signed on with The United States Marshall Service.
Pride was a deadly sin for a reason, Jesse thought. Teddy might have thought about going home, but then dismissed it completely. He would not go home a cripple.
Lost in the memories of his friend, Jesse was startled when he heard the music again, this time he recognized the sad and mournful notes, remembered Teddy singing them when he rode the trail.

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home.

Jesse carefully made his way past the house and was not surprised when he came upon the family cemetery. Surrounded by a metal fence, almost covered in vines, he found the gate and stepped into the deeper shadows of raised tombs. He’d never seen anything like it, more used to headstones, or a plain wooden cross.

The crypt he sought was ornate, with fancy grillwork and a statue of an angel on top. He remembered Teddy telling him the crypt had been commissioned after the death of his mother. The old man would have been buried alongside his wife, as that was the custom here. The water ran high and close; and the marsh gave back in times of flooding, any bodies that were buried underground.

The family that lived together, he thought, together for perpetuity in their stone house of death. He found their names carved in the stone pillar, and ran his fingers over the marker worn smooth by the elements.

William March, Teddy’s brother, born in 1837 and died in 1863 at the Battle of Vicksburg.
“Well, old man,” Jesse said, “Your son fought for the Confederates like you wanted, and lost. In the end, you all lost. Did he make you proud, dying a soldier’s death?”

Jesse thought about the great Mississippi River. Teddy had taken a steamboat on the river to get away, and William had taken it north to die. Did the father think of that when he looked at those muddy waters?

The father had died a year after the war had come to an end. It had been bad times, being on the losing side of the battle. Slaves were granted freeman status, and suddenly the old man had lost his workers, and what was left of the land the new regime had whittled away to nothing.

Reaching in the pocket of his jacket, Jesse withdrew the letter he’d carried with him for months. Teddy had written it on his deathbed, literally with his dying breath. For what? Hoping for some peace, and wanting, no, needing that father’s approval?

“You thought him a coward and cast him out. But you were wrong. He was one of the bravest men I ever knew.” Jesse crumpled the letter in his fist and turned to look at the house, shrouded still in the mist and rain.

“He believed in the rights of all men, didn’t dismiss them, or mistreat them because of their colour or station in life. He had a code he lived by that never wavered.”

Jesse took the letter and shoved it through a slit between the pillar and the door, and stepped back. He removed his hat and stood, turning it around in his hands, restless to be done and on his way.

“I was in Taos, sent to the aid of a sheriff beset by a gang running wild in his town. The troublemakers decided to rob the bank, wanted to ride out with their pockets full, I’d guess. The sheriff and I stepped in to stop it. When all was said and done there were three shot, the sheriff, an innocent bystander, and one of the gang members. And there were two dead, brothers as it happened.

“I returned to Santa Fe, and that trouble followed me. Turned out there were three brothers in that miserable family; and the third was hell bent on making me pay for killing his kin.” Jesse let his gaze wander, the image of that last fight etched forever in his memory.

“They would have had their revenge that day, if it weren’t for Teddy. They called me out, the brother and two of his friends, and I figured I was done for sure. Then that son you considered a coward limped his way out to stand with me in the street. He was better with words than he was a gun, but no way would he let me face that fight alone.

“I killed that third brother, and one of the men standing with him, Teddy shot the other. But they got Teddy, gut shot so he didn’t die right away. He lingered long enough that with his dying breath all he wanted was to make peace with the family.”

Jesse shook the rain off his hat before putting it on. “Goodbye old friend.”

He rode back to town, turned the horse in to the livery. He knew what needed to be done now and walked back toward the hotel.

Jesse couldn’t bring Teddy’s body home for burial in the family crypt, but he could bring him back to the family fold…by having Teddy’s name and place of death engraved on that stone pillar, along side those of his parents and brother.

There was no one left to object, or care, he thought. No one but him. He’d do right by the man who had stood at his side and died in a fight that wasn’t his own.

And when it was done, he’d return to the place he called home, grieve for his friend, and get on with his life, his debt paid.
As he walked the streets the words of the song that Teddy had sung so often ran through his mind like a litany. “Swing low, sweet chariot coming for to bringing me home.”

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