Chapter 1

Chapter 1 — In A Small Café

 

William “Catfish” Hancock walked downstairs to the lobby of the Hotel Heureux Mouffette, which looked like a saloon five years after the gold had played out. His spurs jingled as he sat in a soft beam of morning light, facing the door. Off in the distance, a score of church bells tolled ten o’clock. The chimes echoed across the facades of Paris, rolling down the empty boulevards and bouncing off statues, which stood mute like rocky mesas, disinterested in the problems of men.

Normally, morning meant the smell of croissants from the bakery just two doors down; so fresh that a haze of flour wafted down the street, dusting pedestrians. So much coffee brewed in every café that the blue sky threatened to turn a sweet milky brown. Yet today, the city slumbered, still hoping against hope that the last few weeks had been nothing more than a nightmare. Morning brought the terror of life under the Nazi jackboot, along with mundane everyday affairs. Bills had to be paid, shops needed to be opened, and dusty floors had to be swept despite the fact liberté, égalité, and fraternité were nothing more than discredited words. The Parisians didn’t resist the facts they woke up to, but continued to plod around like cattle in the feedlot, waiting for the eastbound trains.

Bernard, the proprietor of the Hotel Heureux Mouffette, a nervous balding man whose perspiration ran down his face and wicked off his waxed moustache, approached the old cowboy who had been living up in room 305 for the past three years.

Like all men, Bernard was afraid of what he did not understand, and the first time Catfish entered the parlor wrapped in a linen duster and a well-worn cowboy hat, his mouth dropped open as if he’d backed into a prickly pear. He saw visions of blazing six-guns, horses crashing through the lobby, and wild lassos flying through the air, snaring everything from bottles of wine to his daughter’s virginity. But the old cowboy had only smiled, stretching his long silvery moustache from one wind-worn ear to the other to remove all doubt.

“Good morning, monsieur,” Bernard said, though in truth there wasn’t much good about it. France had fallen. Her soldiers had run like scolded children from a one-room schoolmarm.

“Mornin’ Bandito,” Catfish said.

The old cowboy’s French sounded like a jumping cholla in Bernard’s ear, but he had passion in his vowels, which was what counted most.

“What can I get you?”

“I’ll take a cup of coffee that will float a pistol. And while you’re at it, how about a big chunk of crap.”

“You mean crepe, monsieur?”

Catfish laughed and raised his hands. “Got me again, Bandito.”

Catfish eased back into his chair and stroked his moustache while he waited for his coffee. In all of his years in Paris, he never thought it could turn into a ghost town. Trash and paper tumbled down the cobblestone streets, and shop signs creaked in the wind like old bones. He remembered the first time he came to Paris back with Brazos Billy’s Wild West Show. It was a spark of a city back then and when he came back during the Great War, it was still sparking. Some nights, he heard the thunder of the distant guns, but it seemed folks didn’t much care; as if Paris herself would guard them from the sputtering bombers and lumbering zeppelins.

The large doors of the hotel opened. A round little man with sweat pouring over his face waddled in. Catfish smiled and pulled out a flask of Kentucky bourbon.

“Touch of the brown, Hiccup?” Catfish asked his Parisian host.

Hoqueter “Hiccup” Nerveux sat down at the table with his back to the door and waved off the bourbon.

“I told you a hundred times,” Catfish said to his friend and business partner, “the day you don’t face the front of any entrance is the day you get shot. That’s what happened to Wild Bill Hickok. Of course he had it comin’.”

“I c . . . can’t believe you are still here,” Hiccup stammered. The lumpy Frenchman had a stutter that at times got so bad, Catfish had to translate for him.

Sweat dripped down his jowls and dampened the lace tablecloth. Catfish grabbed a napkin from another table and gave it to Hiccup to wipe his face down. The first thing Catfish liked about Paris were the lace tablecloths in every café and restaurant. No matter how shabby, lace was as ordinary an occurrence for Parisians as cowboys farting around the campfire.

“Good God, Hiccup, someone looking at you sweating like that may think you just tickled the fanny of a nun.”

“Don’t you understand that the Boche are here?” Hiccup asked.

The old cowboy held his tongue. The whole world knew the Germans were in Paris and in Belgium and in Norway and in Holland and in Poland. Catfish thought he might roll over in his bed one night and find a Hun sleeping right next to him.

Bernard came back with his coffee. He looked down at Hiccup with the solidarity that condemned men have walking to the gallows. Catfish poured a generous touch of brown into his coffee. “How about a cup of the black stuff before we head out?”

Hiccup agreed to the coffee, not that he needed any more stimuli this morning. He felt a twinge of guilt for his friend. He had hoped the old cowboy would ride out his last days in Paris, sharing his stories of a vanished life with the youth of France. It was also easy money and the pair rode the lecture circuit like two cowboys on a drive full of sunny skies, fresh grass, and plenty of water. At first, the professors were apprehensive having an American cowboy speak—most of the foreign lecturers were teachers or men of standing. What could a rough old cowboy say that would make any sense of the times they lived in now? But all it took was for Catfish to smile with his silver moustache looking like the wings of a vagabond angel and the crowd was enchanted.

Now the universities were closed indefinitely. There was no one to lecture to, no halls full of excited young students hanging on every word, every nuance of Catfish’s soft scratchy voice. And here was Catfish, with his cowboy hat and linen duster on, dressing and acting like he did every morning, with a light heart and not a care in the world.

“You are an American,” Hiccup began as his coffee arrived. “You can still get out of F . . . France. You should have left with the other Americans.” Hiccup sipped his coffee and wiped the sweat from his face. “You could be in New York City right now.”

Catfish swirled the coffee around in his cup. Never once since the start of the war did he consider going back to America. Any wanted posters of him were probably in a museum and any lawmen who had chased him throughout the decades were either dead or so old that they would have a better chance making water than an arrest. He wouldn’t leave because he had come to love Paris for all the same reasons he loved the wide-open Wild West. It was a place bigger than he was and the thought of it being conquered tore at his soul.

The Wild West he knew, lived, and roamed was gone. Civilization had ruined its untamed beauty with bankers, speculators, and worst of all, authority. Yet Paris had the kind of civilization that reminded him of the Wild West. From the slow amblings of the Seine and the stone bridges that tiptoed across its deep waters to the rocky mesas of Notre Dame and Arc de Triomphe, the city had molded a people that lit the world with a gay and romantic civilization. Paris was a new frontier for him, a new challenge—a new home—and now the Germans had gone and dragged dirt all over the carpet.

“I don’t fancy New York City,” Catfish said. “I already bought a grave in Montparnasse. I reckon they don’t give refunds. Besides, holes in the ground are going to go for a high premium pretty soon. I got to stay and look out for my investment.”

“I’m sure the coffin makers are doing brisk business,” Hiccup said. “If I were a young man, I would stand and fight.” The Frenchman wiped a tear from his eye.

“I was your age when I defended France,” Catfish said. “Of course I wasn’t as round or fatalistic.”

Hiccup knew the story, but held his peace out of respect. During the Battle of Belleau Wood, Catfish and Lee English, his old outlaw partner from their Wild West days, rode up to the front lines to do some scouting for General Black Jack Pershing. Somewhere in all that death, blood, and fire, Catfish lost his pard, a pain that never left him.

“Pétain is forming a government in Vichy,” Hiccup said. “Maybe he can restore France’s honor.”

“The only one that can restore France’s honor is France and I’m not talking about government or politicians,” Catfish said. “It’s the people that make a country and the land shapes them. At least that’s the way it is where I come from.”

Catfish took another sip of his coffee. “You see, it doesn’t take a noble man or a man of character to restore honor to the land. It just takes ordinary people.”

“You sound like a Communist,” Hiccup said.

“Well I don’t cotton to any political ideology. Any form of consolidated power is bound to go wrong.”

“Ah, now you sound like an anarchist.”

“I’ve lived by the gun long enough to know that the best way to stay alive is to keep away from death, who’s always looking for you. That’s the only law you need to learn.”

Hiccup gave a smile. The old cowboy had a way of speaking that made even a man about to get his neck stretched feel at ease with the world. He almost believed that as long as Catfish was around, nothing bad could happen. But unless thousands of cowboys rode into Paris, France didn’t stand a chance of freeing herself from the Nazi grip.

A rumble shook the parlor, causing the coffee to ripple and spill on the lace tablecloth.

“My God,” Catfish said, “if I didn’t know this was Paris, I’d swear we’re in the middle of a ten thousand-head stampede.” His eyes were still on the door and his right hand rested on the edge of the table. Hiccup looked outside and saw the muzzle of a tank round a corner and roll up the street.

“Looks like we better go out and surrender,” Catfish said.

The panzer rumbled past the hotel, shaking the table and rattling the windows. Soon, twelve soldiers marched past the window, their rifles and submachine guns at the ready. One peered in the window at Catfish. The old cowboy’s right hand eased down to his thigh, disappearing under the table. The soldier, a young boy whose helmet looked like a stew pot on a cherry, decided that a funny-looking old man and a fat one were no threat. He quickened his pace and rejoined his comrades. Catfish’s hand went back onto the table.

“They’re just boys,” Hiccup said, watching the troopers as they made their way down the street.

“You’d be surprised at what boys can do,” Catfish said.

The old cowboy’s soft blue eyes turned hard like cobalt. It was a look Hiccup had seen during the Great War and once recently. A French army officer had made Catfish the butt of one too many jokes. He challenged the old cowboy to a shooting contest, stating that no one could shoot the center of a playing card at fifty yards—calling Catfish a liar. Those baby-blue eyes turned hard as the steel of his Colt .45 Peacemaker, and Catfish fired off a shot that blew a hole in the center of the card. He promised that next time he’d place that card on the officer’s forehead.

Catfish eased his chair back and got up from the table. He took off his hat and swept his long silvery hair back with his hand, then placed his hat back on, pulling it low and snug on his wrinkled brow. With the same hand he swept back his duster to pull a coin out of the vest pocket. Hanging low on his right hip were his Peacemaker and a gun belt full of cartridges.

“Are you a fool? Where are you going armed, other than your grave?” Hiccup got up from his seat. He knew the old cowboy had his pride, but didn’t suspect it would make him suicidal. “The Boche will shoot you down like a dog.”

“Well, dogs bite back,” Catfish, said, “especially old ones.”

Catfish smiled and stuck out his hand to Hiccup. “I guess I got a bad habit of defending France. If I ain’t back by dusk, get out by dawn. See you along the trail, pard.”

Hiccup took Catfish’s hand but didn’t smile back. He wanted to tell Catfish to be careful, but he might as well try and tell the sun to stop shining.

Catfish walked out the door. It was as pretty a day as there ever was in Paris. It reminded him of the summer of 1906 when he first passed through the streets of the City of Lights with Brazos Billy’s Wild West Show. He’d rode down the grand Champs Élysées, with the same hat on his head and same gun on his hip that he wore this summer day almost thirty years later. Catfish ached for a horse. It just didn’t seem proper to walk to a fight, but he would have to make do.

 

 

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