I’m a big fan of Louis L’Amour. I recently read through his Sackett series again, and one of his characters is named William Tell Sackett, who goes by Tell. Recently I was half awake one morning, and came up with an interesting plot line that involved Tell in the 20th century.
If you’re not familiar with the characters, please read this page first. It introduces Tell and gives you the backstory to appreciate mine. Without further ado, here you are.
Time And Again
On a clear cool evening, from the top of the butte he could see both the town of Mora and Tyrel’s place with his new binoculars. The air was always clearer when it was cool. He pulled them down and looked them over again. The black leather pulled tight over the frame made the grip feel more sure. They must have cost Orrin a fortune, but apparently being Governor paid well. He would never have spent so much, but he couldn’t deny the pleasure they brought him.
He guessed his own age at somewhat past 70, and while he still rode herd on some cattle, he didn’t jump up after a tumble as quickly as he used to. These binoculars let him wander the land from his own place on the butte.
People told him he was crazy for building a place up there, but he liked it. The air was cooler, he could see farther, and it reminded him of the place where Ange lay. He always did love the long views.
A bit of movement caught his eye and he brought the binoculars to his eyes again. Looked like Barney was headed his way in that machine of his. Barney was Orrin’s boy, but for all their lives his nephews from both brothers had spent time living with other family. Mostly Tyrel and Orrin’s kids back and forth, but ever since Tell had settled on the butte they’d all spent some time with him. He never thought he would enjoy having children around, but he surely did. They had that sharp curiosity for the world, and they reminded him of his brothers when they were young. And they brought in wood so he didn’t have to.
He turned and went into the house and put some coffee on. He was sitting in his chair on the porch when Barney’s Ford Model T rolled into the yard. Tell still didn’t approve of it. Made too much noise, and could only go where the ground was flat. Barney had spent most of a summer building a road to the top of the butte so he could drive it up there, rather than ride a horse like a normal person.
Still, Tell couldn’t deny the power of that gasoline engine. He’d heard in town that back east a couple of brothers had managed to build a flying machine of all things, powered by one of these engines.
He adjusted his seat in his chair and sighed. What a world it was turning out to be.
Barney walked up to the porch and said
“Howdy, Uncle Tell. Mind if I sit?”
“‘Course not! There’s coffee on the stove if you want some.” Tell said.
“‘Preciate it”, Barney said, and went in and poured himself a cup.
They sat quietly on the porch for a while and then Tell said
“What brings you?”
There was another period of silence.
“I got a letter last week” Barney said.
Tell waited patiently through the silence.
Barney cleared his throat and said “Looks like I’m heading to the war in Europe”.
Tell felt a cold feeling go through him. Suddenly he could hear the thunder of cavalry in his mind, and the screams of men as they were trampled, shot, and fell beneath the sabers.
“How are your folks taking it?” Tell asked, knowing full well how they must be feeling.
Orrin had been in enough Indian battles to know how awful that kind of fighting could be. Tell had heard that Anne had had her times of fighting too, but had never asked for details.
“They’re both acting calm, but I know they’re afraid for me” Barney said. “Pa’s been telling me a lot more stories about the old days, when he, you, and uncle Ty fought Indians. Not the exciting stuff you tell Easterners, but real fighting stuff. Ma’s been keeping real busy, talking about normal things as much as possible.”
There was another long period of silence. More stars were out, the last of the orange fading in the west. Something small moved quickly in the brush.
“I know you all fought Indians and the like, but you’re the only one of them that was actually in a war” Barney said.
Tell waited with a sick feeling in his stomach for the question he knew would follow. It had been 50 years since he walked away from that war, and he still woke up in a cold sweat sometimes.
“What was it like?” Barney asked.
There was another long period of silence as they sat in the dark, an old man full of memories and a young man who desperately needed wisdom. Barney began to wonder if his uncle had fallen asleep, but when he began to speak, his voice sounded different than it ever had before.
“Truth is, son, I can’t really tell you what it was like. There aren’t words for that kind of thing. I can tell you things that happened. Things I’ve done. Things I’ve seen other people do. I can tell you it’s the most awful thing you’ll ever experience, but none of that will mean a damn thing until you’re there. It’s the kind of thing no-one can understand until they’ve been there, and it’s the kind of thing no person should ever have to understand.”
Tell talked long into the night, not about the horrors of war, but about the horrors that follow men home when the war is over. He knew that the Army would teach Barney how to fight, but the Army never was any good about teaching men how to live afterwards.
When the stars had moved a good bit across the sky, and the conversation petered out, Barney asked if he could stay the night. Tell said yes, but decided to stay out and watch the stars a little longer. Out of habit he listened for the Indians that he knew would never come again.
So much had changed. So much hadn’t.