Chapter 2 — Paris High Noon
The Seine ran through Paris like the Colorado cutting through the deserts of the West. Granite bridges stretched their lazy stone out over the river while the grey mesa of Notre Dame sat off the muddy banks just beyond its licking wake. Only two white clouds floated in the bright blue sky above, like lost sheep. It seemed the Creator had decided to make up for the war by giving Paris one of it’s prettiest summer day.
Along the Quai Saint-Michel, six German soldiers lounged easy outside the Happy Flower café, their tunics loosened, their hair freshly cut and faces cleanly shaved to reveal battle-bronzed skin. Cups were raised and bottles passed back and forth. Laughter followed lies while the men sat content as a pack of full-bellied coyotes. Unlike their fathers, who fought in the Great War, they were victors. They felt entitled to a roll in the dust.
Inside the café, Jean Malheur had just written down the day’s specials on the sandwich blackboard (two hard-boiled eggs, choice of pastry, and coffee for one franc).
“Erase the eggs,” said Moue Bouche. “We don’t have many, and the cheese will stay fresh longer.”
“But we don’t have much cheese either,” Jean said. He looked up and erased the board with his sleeve. He was a month shy of fifteen, but used to Moue telling him what to do as if he was five. And what not to do—like fall in love with her.
Moue didn’t respond. Passing time with the boy tested her patience, which she didn’t have much of to begin with. Now, with the Nazis occupying France, she didn’t have much hope either.
“What does it matter?” Moue finally said after Jean had written the cheese platter as the day’s special. “I say we just give these jackal-laughing Boche the key to the café and let them have their way. They’re doing the same thing to the rest of the country. Why not the Happy Flower?”
Jean said nothing. His mother, still in the hospital from a nervous breakdown after the blitz, insisted Jean open the café. Jean tried to argue, but his mother said, “Where will we go? What will we do?” Refugees choked the roads like a thousand-head cattle drive to the southern cities. Those who had money stood in line with tens of thousands of others for the next steamer out of Marseille. The Malheur family had no money, no car, no family outside of Paris; so until things changed, they would stay put.
For her part, Moue was tired of being in her small room in the back of the café, which was nothing more than a storage closet. Although she’d stayed inside so far, Moue didn’t find the soldiers that frightening. They seemed content to sit, drink, and speak their horrible language at each other, acting more like rude tourists than invaders.
She watched as Jean put the blackboard outside, where the soldiers were getting drunker and meaner. Moue’s heart quickened. She balled up her fists and squeezed her eyes shut. When she opened her eyes, Jean was coming back inside.
“Hey, you in there!” one of the soldiers shouted in horrible French, “bring another bottle, and make it the good stuff.”
“And don’t try to poison us, either,” said another.
Jean went behind the counter to grab a bottle. “I’ll take it to them.”
“No,” Moue said. “It’s my turn.”
Jean protested, but the more the boy tried to persuade Moue, the meaner she got.
“This is pointless,” she said, almost shouting. “What else is there? How long do you expect me to be cooped up in the café? Until the Boche leave and France is free? Nothing is going to happen.” When she reached for the bottle, her hands shook. “The war is over. All these Boches want to do is have a drink and blow off a little steam.”
Moue set the bottle down and took a few deep breaths. She pressed her hands against her temples. Outside, the soldiers laughed and shouted. Moue’s heart bucked like a bronco on locoweed.
Jean looked up at her with big brown eyes that looked like desert dirt after a spring storm. “It’s just that I’m worried.”
Out of all the men in Moue’s life, it seemed the boy was the only one who was worried for her. She didn’t know whether to laugh or curse her luck.
“I’m a big girl,” Moue snapped. “I can take care of myself. You think I haven’t had a drunk feel me up? You think I’m some virgin who’s been saving herself for you?”
Jean dropped his eyes. He’d rather face a thousand bullets than take one barb from Moue.
“Quit your moping,” she said. “Act like a man. You’d think we’re the only ones that have to deal with a bunch of drunken Boches, the way you carry on. Wake up! The war is over and we lost. The only thing we can do is what they tell us. It’s their country now.”
She then straightened out her hair with her fingers, stretched the wrinkles out of her skirt, picked up the bottle, and walked outside.
“Ah, now that’s what I’m talking about,” said a soldier with a buzzard nose.
“Do you mean the bottle or the broad?” asked a soldier with crooked teeth.
“Hell, why not both,” the first one said and reached for Moue’s leg.
Startled, Moue dropped the bottle onto the table, splashing red wine on the offending soldier’s uniform.
“Scheiße!” he shouted. “Look what you did, you stupid bitch!”
Moue began to apologize, the words spilling out faster than wine onto the table.
The buzzard-nosed soldier stood up. “Well, I can’t go on duty with a uniform stinking of wine. I need a place to clean up.” He wrapped his arm around Moue’s waist and pulled her in tight. “I guess your place will do.”
The other soldiers laughed as he tried to force a kiss, but Moue pushed him off. She couldn’t understand the words coming out of his mouth, but she understood his bloodshot eyes, stale breath, and wandering hands.
Jean came out from the café doorway. “Herrs,” he said, using what little German he knew along with whatever confidence he had, “please forgive Moue for making a mess of things. Please, take this bottle of cognac on the house.”
“What about my uniform?” the buzzard-nosed soldier said.
Jean held out the bottle of cognac. “Please feel free to use our water closet to freshen up.”
“I’d rather go to this bitch’s house,” he replied.
“I’ll take that.” The soldier with crooked teeth grabbed the bottle of cognac. He kicked Jean in the backside, and the boy fell to the ground. “Vive la France, boys,” he said, lifting up the new bottle.
The rest of the table laughed, even the squint-eyed lieutenant, who knew the orders that came down from headquarters: no raping or stealing. But easy victory and too much wine changed his perspective, along with the sight of Moue.
“I say this girl needs to be taught some manners,” the lieutenant said. “And if anyone else wants to teach the girl a thing or two then they are more than welcome to it. I might even have to do some teaching, eh boys?”
“Please, monsieur,” Jean said, on his knees. “Why fight over this one girl? I can take you to a place where there are plenty of whores.”
“Shut your mouth, kid,” the soldier holding Moue said and pulled her in tighter.
Jean tried to get up and put himself between Moue and the soldiers, but the one with the crooked teeth kicked him in the breadbasket. Jean fell flat on his face.
“You Frenchies should learn to lay down like the whipped puppies you are!”
The men laughed while the buzzard-nosed soldier dragged Moue into the café. Moue started to kick and squirm. A fat soldier grabbed her legs. Moue tried to scream, but found herself gasping for air like a fish on the banks of the Seine.
“Put the girl down!”
The heavy voice came from the end of the cobblestone boulevard. It startled the soldiers. It was in English, spoken with subtle authority, like the whisper from a whirlwind.
The squint-eyed lieutenant turned and noticed an old man with a wide silvery moustache. He wore a long linen duster and a dirty brown cowboy hat low on his brow. A big six-gun rested on his hip.
“I said put the fraulein down,” Catfish said. He had been walking down the Rue Du Bac, listening to his spurs jingle along the cobblestone streets when he heard the ruckus up ahead. Catfish rounded the corner and saw the six soldiers ganging up on the garçon. He’d seen many a dirty fight in his time. Usually, he would mind his own business, but when they grabbed the girl, he had enough.
“Old man,” said the buzzard-nosed soldier in broken French, “go away before you get yourself killed.”
“I don’t think grandpa here speaks French,” said the soldier with the crooked teeth. “He’s English.”
“I thought all the English swam away?” said a young soldier from the table.
The squint-eyed lieutenant chuckled. “No, my little spud. I think our intruder is an American.”
“Well, I speak English.” He affected a Yankee accent. “And I think it would be wise for you . . . how they say in movies? Ah, yes. Mosey on out.”
“You got the lingo down right,” Catfish said. “But I think it’s you all who should do the moseying before there’s trouble that you can’t stop.”
The rest of the soldiers chuckled, except for one, a bull of a sergeant rose from the table. His huge hands gripped a submachine gun. He was about to raise it when he heard a loud metallic click.
Catfish pulled his six-gun and pointed its business end at the sergeant.
“Hold your fire, sergeant,” said the squint-eyed lieutenant. He approached the gun-toting cowboy with his hands up. “I believe in the Wild West they had duel.”
“That’s right,” said the fat soldier who held Moue’s leg. “In the middle of a dusty street.”
“Correct,” the lieutenant said. “A showdown.”
The fat soldier laughed and let go of Moue. The others stood confused. “He’s going to have showdown with the old cowboy,” he explained to his comrades.
“Like in the movies?” said the young soldier.
“Oh, this is going to be better than poking some whore,” said the buzzard-nosed soldier. He let go of Moue to watch.
Moue stumbled for the café door. Her first instinct was to grab Jean, who was still on his knees; and run as far away as possible. But just like everyone else on the empty boulevard, she was enthralled by the mysterious old cowboy who stood alone against six, his duster blowing gently behind him like the wings of a tired angel. So she watched from the glass window, hiding behind the painted words.
“All right, you Boche bastard,” Catfish said. “You want to play six-gun stud, then ante up. But I want your boys to stand down and away from their rifles.” Catfish pointed to the sergeant. “Especially that bull over there with the bullet sprayer.”
“Put your gun on the table, sergeant. That’s an order.”
The sergeant said nothing, but stared at Catfish.
“I said put the goddamn gun on the table!”
The sergeant placed the submachine gun on the table, leaving it within easy reach.
The first bell toll of noon echoed through the streets of Paris like a wolf howling through the wide empty prairie. The squint-eyed lieutenant walked into the middle of the boulevard facing Catfish. “On the last toll, we fire.”
Catfish thought this whole thing was nonsense. Never in his life in the West had he been in a showdown like the ones in the picture shows. He wondered at times who made those celluloid lies. Must have been a feller who slept on a pile of money. But it was six against one, and playing along might give him the edge.
“The last toll,” Catfish said.
The second toll rang out.
Catfish whirled his six-shooter off his finger and slid it back in the leather holster.
The third bell tolled. A gentle breeze blew down the cobblestone boulevard. Old tin signs creaked on their hinges.
The fourth bell tolled.
The squint-eyed lieutenant unsnapped the holster that secured his Luger and let his hand hover.
The fifth bell tolled.
The men gathered together, forgetting their rifles were stacked behind them.
The sixth bell tolled.
Jean looked on with morbid fascination. His first impulse was to snatch a rifle while the soldiers were distracted. But his hands, used to working espresso machines, lay still.
The seventh bell tolled.
An old newspaper with headlines screaming out in bold letters the fall of France blew past the two men.
The eighth bell tolled.
Catfish took in a deep breath and held it. He remembered a time when Butch Cassidy shot a tin can off a fencepost from fifty yards at a full gallop.
The ninth bell tolled.
The squint-eyed lieutenant’s right hand began to shake above the Lugar.
The tenth bell tolled.
Five pigeons flew onto the awning, watching the showdown.
The eleventh bell tolled.
The breeze died and the air was still.
The twelfth bell tolled.
Six shots rang out along the boulevard while the last bell echoed off the facades. The pigeons flew away. The next sound was the tinkling of empty shell casings falling on the cobblestone street.
Catfish broke open the loading gate on the Colt and began shucking out spent brass and slapping fresh cartridges into the cylinder, wishing he’d brought a Winchester instead. But he still hadn’t lost his touch with a pistol or his choice of targets. The sergeant was the most dangerous man, not the drunk wanting the showdown. That’s where the first bullet went, right into his chest as he made a lunge for his weapon. The sergeant crashed through the glass table and fell on his gun.
The second shot went right into the squint-eyed lieutenant’s forehead. Though his hand was an inch away from the Luger, he never cleared leather.
The last shots didn’t really matter, as the remaining soldiers were drunk and worthless. Catfish cut them down before they could turn around for their rifles. About the only one he regretted shooting was the kid. It was a bullet he wished he hadn’t wasted, as he only had his gun belt and two boxes of cartridges. But it all happened too fast, in his old age, he couldn’t get his brain to stop his reflexes.
Catfish had loaded the third bullet when a roar caught him off guard. The sergeant rose up from the broken glass, the submachine gun in his hands. Catfish quickly closed the chamber on the half-filled revolver and took a shot, but the hammer struck an empty chamber.
The sergeant bellowed like a mad bull as he squeezed off a burst from the MP-40, throwing his dying weight into the kicking gun. Catfish jumped and rolled as the wild shots pinged off the cobblestone around him. It wasn’t the first time Catfish had found himself on the bad end of a gunfight. Still, it took all of his nerve to keep his hands steady as he raised the Colt. Again, the hammer fell on an empty chamber.
A loud crack cut off the sound of the submachine gun and the sergeant dropped dead. Catfish looked up and saw the café garçon holding a smoking rifle. The boy’s face was white and wet. His hands shook so bad that the rifle fell. It was a reaction Catfish knew all too well.
“Easy son, easy,” Catfish said in his rough French.
Jean looked up at the cowboy with teary eyes. Five minutes ago, he wanted to kill all those soldiers for pawing Moue and kicking him around. Now the hot rage pumping through his heart had evaporated, leaving a cold sick feeling in his stomach.
Catfish took the rifle from the boy and helped him up to his feet. “You had to do it. Son of a bitch had it coming.”
Moue still watched from behind the glass. Six men had died, and the minute hand had just reached the first mark of the new afternoon. Even more stunning was Jean taking up the rifle and killing the sergeant. She’d wanted to yell at him not to pick it up and get himself killed. In that violent minute, her fear and hate dissolved into a queer feeling some would call love.
Jean, still in a daze, said nothing. He didn’t look at Moue, the café, or the old cowboy. He just ran tear blind down the boulevard.