Our Soldier of Fortune

by Kirk Combe

Our Soldier of Fortune

Cleve Clucus was high mountain people before he came to live with us. Not trappers or recluses or nothing odd like that, but high range people in the Sawtooth, over by the Salmon River. Kin. Part of our clan families around Arco. Clucuses, Combes, Barlows, Gordiols. All Swiss that hadn’t wanted to be in the Italians’ war. Granddad always told me all about it. How we come across on the big boats to keep out of the trenches. Then how we come clear across country to the Rockies. To what to us looked like home. No crowded New York City or empty flatlands would do. No, we wanted high range country and lots of it. Granddad said there hadn’t ever been enough of that back in the Entremont or, later, down in the Piemonte, all this back before the Great War. Even in the old country we was land hungry and on the move. Granddad swore up and down that all that time we was in the Piemonte we was still Swiss, never Italians, no matter how them wop bastards fudged their borders. That’s why finally we left and come across the water. In an odd way, to be Swiss again. The clans homesteaded first what remained of the good pickings down in Utah, along the Wasatch, way back in the nineties. Only later we come north, into Idaho, mainly to get as far away as we could from the damned Mormons. Come up past Pocatello. Up across the wide sagebrush basin. Past the Big Butte. Finally to settle at the mouth of the Lost River Valley, here around Arco. Nice looking country, Granddad called it. Bit dry. Good for cattle and if you worked it right could keep an orchard. Keep bees, too. Granddad did them all. That was enough like the old country to suit him. He’d grin sometimes and say the Big Butte was our Grand Combin, the Sawtooth our Pennine, Arco our Sion. I took his word for it without really hearing the scoff in his voice. Hell, for some reason when I was younger I wanted us to be Swiss.

Really Cleve was Dad’s first cousin, though he was more our age. When Cleve was six, their cabin caught fire in the night and burned all the way down to the ground, way up there and without anybody around. Four days later Granddad found just the boy alive, blackfaced and sick from eating nothing but chokecherries for days. They wrapped him in blankets and brought him down the pass to our valley, to our cattle ranch along the Big Lost River. That’s how Cleve come to grow up with us. Or really it was more we grew up with him. He was older even than my older sister Jo, who was the oldest of us five. Hell, I wasn’t even born until Cleve’d been with us two entire years. To me, that made it more Cleve’s ranch to have than mine. I was the oldest son, sure, and got Dad’s given name, like most Swiss families did in Arco. By custom that meant I got all the property that went with the name to boot. That’s just how it went. But I never felt those things particular to be mine, not the ranch or the name. And the older I got the more I knew I didn’t want anything to do with either one of them. But Cleve, jeez Louise, Cleve flat loved the place. He and the ranch might as well been the same thing.

Like early mornings in summer Cleve woke me by holding onto my big toe, that way not waking up anybody else. We’d be out by ourselves on the Big Lost a couple three hours before breakfast, getting in near half a day’s fishing before griddlecakes and first chores. In truth, I never was that keen on the fishing part. That impossible, feather feel of a fly at the end of a fishpole never much was something I could control. But Cleve could cast wherever in hell he damned well pleased. Right by a log, sidearm underneath branches dangling in the current, wherever. Cleve could catch himself a mess of trout like nobody’s business. I just liked being with Cleve and being on the early morning river. There was mourning doves hooting sad. There was the smell of wet grass and cattle land mixing with fast water and river willow, all kind of sweet and acid shifting together on the first breezes. There was the sun just rising up making the day start. Cleve never let it seem like me tagging along or that he’d best be nice to me. Nobody ever took it like it was him just being obliging. Cleve to me was what I couldn’t have. A big brother. Maybe a father that wasn’t cold and hard. Hell, it was Cleve who snuck out to us the pan of hot water that afternoon coming home from third grade when I’d talked my dumb-bunny cousin Fulmer into sticking his tongue on the frozen railroad track. I would’ve caught hell for that little trick. Lucky the water warmed up the iron enough for Fulmer to peel off his tongue, leaving just that soggy red smear of skin behind. Fulmer never did taste anything on that patch again. Then when I got barely old enough and Dad forced me to sleep in the bunkhouse, it was Cleve who kept the worst of the ranch hands off me at first. I was damned big for my age and cowpokes always see something special in whipping the boss’ son. Cleve showed me how to cowboy fight, that means fighting real dirty, and soon enough I could whip most the sons of bitches myself. Then when I had to watch the summer high range herd by myself, thirteen I think maybe that was, I’d say out loud to myself to make Cleve proud of me. Make Cleve proud by not being shit-britches scared every night when my campfire was ringed with pairs of yellow coyote eyes. I had a rifle and my horse, Flash. I had a good fire going. Hell, I was fine compared to what Cleve’s likely going through. Cleve’s likely going through a lot worse right now. So stop your bellyaching.

And most there was that winter when I was fifteen and me and my next brother down, Barth, skidded off the road in a blizzard driving a truckload of cattle down to Idaho Falls. I kept telling myself then, all night long, to be Cleve-brave. I put the two words together like that into the one big idea. Cleve-brave. Do now what Cleve did then. Don’t snap. Don’t go into a tizzy. Help somebody else. Don’t sweat it about yourself. That’s what I kept telling myself. We were half overturned in a deep snowbank and some of the cattle in the back I knew was killed already. The rest probably would freeze before morning. Barth was crying and heaped on top of me. The snow was falling thick and piling up on the windshield fast. I’d banged my head on the steering wheel pretty hard. There was some good blood and the spot was numb, but behind my eyes hurt like a son of a bitch. We were well past the halfway mark across the Arco desert. Dark was coming down and there was no way in hell to dig ourselves out or pull the truck out the ditch. And, wouldn’t you know it, not another soul was in sight. Dad shouldn’t have sent us, and I told him not to, but he said to get our sorry asses in the truck. Now we had no choice but to sit it out and wait to be found. I pulled out the blankets and the jerky and the bottles of cider and the candles and tin pan we always packed in the cab for winter. I stayed awake all night keeping a candle lit in the pan and making sure Barth was fed and warm. All but one of the cattle froze. Next day about noon people happened by in a truck big enough to pull us back onto the road, and I drove us to Idaho Falls anyway to see if they’d take the carcasses. Being frozen like they were, they did take them, lucky for us. By that age I knew full well how much the ranch needed the money. I remember I drove all headachy and eyes stinging that day from no sleep and the white glare off the new snow. I remember looking out across the big flat of the wide desert so endless and black-and-white stark after the blizzard and thinking to myself how goddamned much it looked like the goddamned Pacific Ocean all endless and stark and empty. I remember shaking my head at that thought and thinking about Cleve and Cleve-brave. I’d done something a little like what Cleve did. A little. I knew that. Cleve would have praised how I’d handled myself in a pinch, how I’d managed things smart and took good care of Barth. I knew Cleve would’ve admired that. And knowing that made me proud. Only, Barth and I didn’t die at the end of our hardship. We hadn’t come really even that close to it. We’d stayed pretty cozy, matter of fact, in the cab of our truck all night. Almost like a little Christmas party. So me being Cleve-brave? I knew I didn’t know the half of it. Hell, I hoped to God I’d never have to.

Anyway, that’s some idea of what Cleve was to us. The third son even got named for Cleve, after the second boy was given Granddad’s funny Swiss name, Barthelemi. To all of us, but most to Dad I think, Cleve was something to hang your hat on. Something steady. To me a lot he was, but the most to Dad, I think. It wasn’t until after Cleve was off the ranch that Dad and me started to fight so bad in the open. He didn’t like me reading books all the time. He didn’t like me wasting my time playing for all the sports teams after school. Soon I was trying to tell him where the money should go. Or tell him how not to treat Mother or my sister and brothers. Sometime in there the sudden thought came to me that what he and I really was fighting about was which one of us didn’t want the ranch more. That and the good dose of shame in us both over Cleve being gone.

I was fourteen that summer when it happened.

After morning ranch work, I worked afternoons for my Irish grandpa, Big Charley Mecham. He was Mother’s Dad and stood six-foot-eight or so and, as he told it, used to wrestle in carnivals all around the state. He billed himself as “The Cardiff Giant” and took on all comers, sometimes more than one at a time the way he liked to recall it. Big Charley now was the Sheriff of Arco. You got to know that the Swiss side and the Irish side of my family were all the time caught up in their cockeyed feuding. It made Dad’s family damned mad that he went and married a piece of Irish trash like they all considered Mother to be. To tell you the truth, what Dad had done made me like him more. It seemed human to me, and a good piece of first-son defiance. Hell, I even envied it. But I sure made sure to stay out of ever taking family sides. I loved both my grandfathers the same, and neither one of them ever said a bad word about the other one or groused for a minute about sharing in my bringing up. Both of them knew how much I needed them both.

Anyhow, that summer I was keeping Big Charley’s jailhouse for him. I swamped out, brought the grub over from the Craters of the Moon Cafe for the Indians and the cowboys locked up in the drunk tank, corrected Grandpa’s arithmetic in his ragged ledger book, and generally kept an eye on things. The day it happened was Saturday. On Saturdays I was more or less junior Sheriff for the day, running the whole show. Big Charley always would be off somewhere, normally telling me he was riding out to the Buttes to bust up bootleg stills. Often as not he was only down at the Train Depot shooting the breeze with the old-timers and waiting on the MacKay Special to roll through. (Up here we said it “Mackie.”) That train stopped over in Arco once a week for a few minutes on its way up from Blackfoot, headed north up the valley. Grandpa enjoyed just seeing who got off and on, I think. The Special was supposed to pull in at noon, but never did on time. You knew when it did get there because its steam whistle could pop your eardrums. It echoed loud off the orangey cliff faces butted up alongside the tracks at that east edge of town. Main Street ran due west from the Depot and those foothills. Arco’s one thoroughfare didn’t stretch much more than a quarter of a mile before arriving at the west edge of town and open sage desert. The Sheriff’s Office was about halfway down. On Saturdays, Arco didn’t get rough until nightfall. By then Big Charley had taken back over and I was back home, trying to slip in some secret reading.

It’d gone eleven and I’d just finished dunging out all the cells. I was making myself coffee and getting ready to puzzle out Big Charley’s scrawl in his record books. The smell of the reheating grounds had me wishing I’d eaten more breakfast that morning. At fourteen I was getting big, Big Charley big, and already was eye-to-eye with Dad, maybe even a bit taller. That was something I knew he didn’t like. Dad didn’t like it either that I’d started eating like a horse. Already I was glancing at my sack lunch of rye bread and headcheese. That’s when Claudine came banging in through the old wood door, the one that still had the couple of bullet holes shot through it. She was my age, in my grade in school, and my first cousin. Even so she was getting these bumps on her chest that I was finding interesting. Her mother, Vivien, was Dad’s sister. Aunt Viv had married a top hand, Clyde Hopla, who broke all the wild range horses around here for everyone. That gave Claudine the same respected toughness and the same dead calm and the same shock of red hair as her father.

“Junior,” she said, still holding onto the doorknob, “it’s Cleve.”

And I thought: My little brother?

She saw the misunderstanding on my face and said, “No. Not Cleve Elmo. Cleve.”

I followed Claudine quick out the door, yelling to Pete, a regular in the tank, to get the chicken fried steaks himself at noon if I wasn’t back. Big Charley’s daytime drunk tank never was locked. You didn’t dare come out until Big Charley said to. Claudine went in a rush up one of the two sidewalks in town. I could tell she wasn’t going to talk. We walked double fast down Grand Avenue heading away from the Depot. It was painful sunny and dry-hot outside. Then we were crossing Grand Avenue, which had been laid out double, maybe even triple wide for cattle driving and for turning wagons around. I saw we were bee-lining towards George Walker’s movie house.

“What’s going on, Claudine?”

Now almost running, like her job was almost done, Claudine said nippy over her shoulder, “You’ll see, Junior,” and I realized that she didn’t want to talk to me. Almost that she couldn’t. Her voice was sturdy enough, but not right. I don’t think she wanted to look right at me either, not even with those dead-calm Hopla eyes of hers.

Half the town was packed inside the cool dark of George Walker’s movie house. Every seat was taken. Folks stood crowded two or three deep along the walls and like sardines down the one aisle. But people stepped aside for me and Claudine. Making way. And I heard voices all around me whispering, respectful, saying things like:

“Here he is.”

“Here’s Junior.”

“Let ‘em through.”

“Now he’ll see what they done, too.”

At the head of the central aisle, in a kind of a clearing, I found Dad standing smack alone. Folks were keeping their distance. Dad was almost deaf as a post by now. Scarlet fever had started taking away his hearing as a child. Through the years it got gradual worse. Ranch hands and folks in Arco who weren’t Swiss always did have a hard time making out his English. But they all figured that’s because we’re damn Frenchies. Few really knew how hard hearing he was, making Dad his distant-quiet and his somber-proud. Dad was a busy and an unhappy man. He never bothered with the movies. Not until the Pathe Newsreels now, every time a new one came into town.

I touched his shoulder and when he turned to look at who it was I formed my lips and upped my eyebrows into “Dad?” We stood there eye to eye for a moment or two. Maybe me a bit over him. He wore no expression and none came to his face because of me or my question. Then he just turned back toward the screen and kept standing there. By himself. Like he was waiting. The screen went a bright and blinding white and everyone reached to shield their eyes. Dad just squinted. From above, out the little projection window, George Walker called out.

“Just one minute, folks. I’ll rewind it and show it again.”

No one talked. Nobody moved. Like Dad, I squared my shoulders to the screen, squinted, and waited for whatever it was that George Walker was going to show again. Finally scratchy lines started jumping bottom to top along the screen. Then a five with a circle around it then a four with a circle around it then a three with a circle around it then you had the rhythm of the thing so you counted to yourself the two and the one which didn’t come on the screen then the gray of a newsreel and the tinny music and the feverish talkover blaring at us. September 7th 1944! The Philippines! Treachery of the Japs! Prisoner “Hell Ships” used as screens for Jap convoys! Torpedoed by our own sub! Tragedy of war! Then moving footage. Aerial. A gray ocean, gray waves through broken gray clouds, gray ships, massive and fragile, some pouring out smoke. So much gray water. The whole damned screen way to either side nothing but gray water with a horizon line you could barely notice way up at the top. Then down closer. Black specks, tiny, roundheaded, hundreds, like seals. Then sweeping low, lower than you could imagine, close to the water and slow, slower than you could imagine, so it looked like slow motion but you could tell it wasn’t quite. And the specks turned into men, hundreds, bobbing, swimming, clinging, drifting. Hundreds, scattered like water-skippers on a huge pond. Then faces. Shocked, gaunt, tightlipped. American. American faces. Razor stubble, large ears, big Adam’s apples. Gray and stunned American faces. Then right in the middle of the screen, right in the middle of the cluster of faces floating in the not-ending gray of the ocean, right in the middle of the grainy black-and-white slowness of the catastrophe, the camera focused on Cleve. Our Cleve. No possible mistake about it. You couldn’t not see it was him. So close up you imagined you could hear him breathe. A gasp came up from the audience. I had the feeling it was just as big, just as startled, just as scared as the first time they saw him up there on the screen. It was Cleve all right. Calm, long-nosed, deep-eyed, square-jawed. And he watched—yep, he watched—the camera flying slowly by. He watched it. Damned cool as could be. That was Cleve. He would do that. He had on only the rags of a shirt. He was leaner than even when he left the ranch in 1940 for the better life of a peacetime soldier in the Philippines. He ended up on Corregidor. That meant Cleve had marched all the way from Bataan. (I’d been wondering when exactly he stopped getting my letters. I wrote for the family. We only ever got two censored letters back from him. Said he missed the mountains. Said when he got back he was going to climb to the top of the Big Butte, just for the hell of it. Buy some bootleg liquor, sit up on top, drink it and howl at the world. Said he wanted me to come along. Said he was going to strike out for the West Coast. Get him some kind of work in California. Said he liked California. Said he bet I’d like it too. And I’d been wondering ever since if by me coming along Cleve meant only to the top of the Big Butte, or all the way out to the West Coast.) Just off the northern shores of Mindanao! No rescue ships in range! Converted tramp steamer Shinyo Maru! The treachery of the Japs! When the camera started to get past him, it seemed like Cleve’d had enough of looking at it. Really, I had the feeling, more like he’d had enough of staring back at all of us. Cleve could be spooky like that, I swear. So he broke his eyes away and looked off to his right, back toward where the plane had come from, at what I don’t know. I imagine at the flat horizon of all that ocean. Of all that gray. The scene gained altitude and then the film cut away. Before we knew what was happening the scene was the same again but moving from the other direction. And this time Cleve again, damn it. Clear, centered, focused, and paying no attention to us now at all. He was profiled, the big wave at the crown of his black hair etched sharp against the gray water. The same swirl Dad and me both had at the back of our hair. He was wide-mouthed and Roman-nosed—our noses—calling out soundless to a guy nearby, reaching over in that direction to help. The man looked burned. That was Cleve again. Being his brave. Then no picture at all. A long stretch of those scratchy lines. Then the blinding white of the screen. Then George Walker from above.

“Just one minute, folks. I’ll run it again.”

Even though George Walker played almost nothing but Roy Rogers and Gene Autry movies and closed the movie house down whenever he didn’t feel like showing one, he would outright buy this newsreel and show it anytime anyone asked him to, no charge. That first day he showed it over and over again as much as anybody wanted to see it. Everybody said what a decent thing it was for George Walker to do. And it was. I only ever watched it twice. That first time in disbelief, then a second time right after, standing alone alongside Dad with our shoulders close but never touching. I felt like each of us was real aware that it was the other one standing beside, watching it over just to make damned good and sure. Toward the end of that second go around, when Cleve wasn’t any longer looking at us but had things to do, the whistle of the MacKay Special, the trip north across the Arco Desert and past the Big Butte done, pierced the walls of the movie house and about split my empty insides. Everybody but Dad in the theater jumped. When the reel was done, I looked over my shoulder at the neon theater clock George Walker had sent all the way to Salt Lake City for. In soft purple numbers and hands it read exactly noon. Exactly. Well I’ll be a son of a bitch, I remember thinking. Of all Saturdays for the damned Special to get to town right on time.

I pushed our way out of the movie house, leading Dad into that painful sunshine. As we came out onto the sidewalk Jacob Kingston reached a comforting hand out for Dad’s shoulder. Dad slapped it aside. Everyone around us stayed hushed. The girls and women were all crying. All the men and the boys old enough to understand had hard looks on their faces. Dad stood a moment outside the movie house to let his eyes adjust from the dark. He stood straight still and calm. Long-nosed, deep-eyed, square-jawed. Not hearing a thing. Tears rolling off his cheeks. That was the one and only time I saw him crying. Then Ben Merrill’s worthless son Lonnie, his oldest boy, went scurrying across Grand Avenue with his head bowed and running like he was headed for the damned horizon. Goddamned son of a bitch. His daddy, one of the town rich men, was also head of the county draft board. It was Ben Merrill that talked Cleve into taking Lonnie’s place when Lonnie’s number was pulled from the lottery box. That sort of thing happened more than you know and was mainly legal. Two hundred dollars and a new suit was too big a money for a proud orphan with no prospects to pass up. Cleve didn’t have his own family to talk real sense to him. Only kin who could take in the boy but couldn’t make real room for the man. I almost ran after Lonnie right there. He was older and bigger than me but I knew I could hurt him no matter how much he hurt me. Instead, and I don’t really remember how, I wound up back at the jailhouse. I found myself eating at my sack lunch. For some damned reason that’s just what I went and did afterwards. To this day I don’t know why. I just wandered off from Dad without a word. Without so much as a glance.

I know that’s the day something snapped in us both. Dad went into some kind of a slow-burning tizzy. I decided for real come hell or high water I was getting off that ranch and out of damn Arco. I played balls out on every sports team and read every damn book teachers could lend me. By the end of high school I’d won my football scholarship to Idaho State College, down in Pocatello. I boarded the southbound MacKay Special on a Sunday afternoon with my one suitcase and forty dollars in my pocket. I barely set foot in Arco for years until I had to come up to liquidate the ranch. Mother had long-since left Dad and remarried over to Idaho Falls a chain-smoking Swede who was a Union man. Not a bad guy, you come right down to it. My sister Jo got married to a telephone line repairman and went off to live in Boise. My next two brothers down, Barth and Cleve Elmo, both abandoned the ranch for ISC, just like me. At the end, that left only Dad and Jerry on the spread, trying to work it themselves. One morning early I got a call from the Butte County Sheriff next after Big Charley. A guy named Worth Jardine. Decent guy. He told me the night before Dad wrote some notes, went in and shot young Jerry in the head when he was asleep, then shot himself. And, wouldn’t you know it, I was the only one of the whole family brave enough to come back to Arco and take care of all that mess Dad left behind.

About the Author

Kirk Combe

Website

I teach at Denison University in Ohio. I’ve published a great deal in the academic areas of early modern British literature, popular culture, and contemporary satire. I’ve also published short fiction (most recently in _Millwork_, August 2018) and the novel _2084_ (Mayhaven Publishing, 2009; revised ebook edition 2018). In addition to fiction writing, I’ve co-written the screenplay and executive produced a short film titled “The Feed,” which appeared in U.S. film festivals during 2015-16.