Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: CHECKING IN OR OUT (hotel/motel on vacation) (08/27/15)
TITLE: When Memories Cling
By Zacharia Fox
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Three years after The Great War, Jean sat at a banquet, though everyone else stood clapping. His hand twitched when Alfred Munnings presented his painting, "The Charge of Flowerdew's Squadron". His hand always twitched when he remembered.
When the Germans routed the British in Moreuil Woods, France, three squadrons from the Canadian Cavalry Brigade entered the fray. Two squadrons dismounted, driving the Germans east, while Flowerdew’s squadron, in which Jean was an officer, attempted to surprise the Germans from behind. But the Germans had a surprise of their own – twenty machine-guns. One-hundred-and-fifty horses charged. Four survived. Jean’s midnight-black horse, Nox, wasn’t one of them.
Munnings had sat on a hill watching the Germans gun down the Mounties, painting.
As Munnings handed the painting to the curator of Ottawa's, National Gallery of Canada, Jean didn’t see a masterpiece, and he didn’t hear applause; he saw Lieutenant Flowerdew catch a bullet to the chest, and heard the perpetual clap of machine-guns making the cavalry obsolete.
“The last great cavalry charge…” he said.
“Jean!” Jean looked up to find his field chaplain studying him. “The painting’s here for the same reason we are - to honor them. That’s all we can do now, though it’s less than they deserve.”
“Thanks, Chappy.” Jean stood and made to clap, but his hand twitched.
After the ceremony, he swapped stories with other survivors, but he saw in their eyes the same agony burning in him. He left for the hotel. The sun hung low outside his window, Jean wearing a face as long as his shadow. One look around the lonely room and he knew he couldn’t stay the night.
"Checking out early?" Jean nodded to the receptionist.
"Hey pal, hurry it up." Jean glanced back at some yokel wearing a whip like a badge.
"Here you are, sir! Have a nice..." Jean grabbed his receipt and walked toward the exit as a frigid gust swept in, carrying flurries and the whinnying of a horse. Out the window, a horse black as Nox stood strapped with a tippler’s load of casks.
His hand twitched.
He remembered his mornings in France, sunrise painting the countryside as Nox buried his snout in a sack of oats.
The yokel swore, stomping from the counter. Jean caught him on the arm. “Is’at your horse?”
“What’s it to ya?” The man’s words carried the scent of whiskey.
“That load’s too heavy.”
The man shook his arm free. “Mind yerself, b’fore I teach ya what’s what.” The man barreled away and Jean heard a whip crack before the wind slammed the hotel door.
The horse plodded onto a bridge – crack - crack - snow clinging to the Ottowan spring like those murderous woods clung to Jean. He heard the machine-guns' rattle.
Crack – crack – crack… The horse slipped but stayed upright.
His hand twitched and Jean could feel Nox collapse, catapulting him onto the soggy field.
He scrambled out onto the street. “The loads too heavy!” Crack – crack.
The horse screamed and reared before it collapsed to the cobblestone. Crack – was the man’s answer.
Jean bolted, feet sure as his rage, guiding him over the battlefield. He lowered his shoulder on contact and the man’s head snapped back. Jean stole the whip – crack – crack – crack…
He was hitting the Willies - and that silver-spoon painter sipping tea on the hillside – he was whipping those cursed French woods - the Great War - the very madness by which men make war.
“The last..." - crack - "Great..." - crack - "Cavalry charge!” And then he was facedown in the snow.
“Jean! He's not them. Let it go now.” At Chappy’s voice Jean dropped the whip.
The man snatched it. “I’ll have the constable on ya’! Put ya’ in the loony bin where ya’ belong!”
The man coerced his horse upright and jumped on his cart before leveling on Chappy. “The war’s cooked it with that one.” And then – crack...
Jean cried as loud as the horse, its whole miserable trek across the bridge – crack – crack – crack - then there was only the mellow sound of snow landing on snow.
Jean stood and staggered over the bridge. The man stood heaving, whip limp in his hand.
Jean’s hand twitched. “Nox...”
He knelt in the red snow, laid against the horse’s chest and wept.
* * * * *
The WWI Battle of Moreuil Wood was fought on March 30, 1918.
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