What follows is a sample from the first of several stories I intend to write about Lachlan in a Wild West that never was. Green Grow the Rushes is neither officially a short story nor a novella, but fits in that odd in-between state called the “novelette.” But few readers know (or care) what “novelette” means, so I agreed to call it a short story to prevent marketing headaches. Anyway, come along with me into a Weird Wild West of cowboys and demons that runs parallel to our own…
Green Grow the Rushes
(Weird Wild West Short Story)
“Green Grow the Rushes” second edition copyright © 2014 by Lynn Kilmore
“Green Grow the Rushes” copyright © 2011 by L. M. May
Published by Osuna Publishing
The wet sharp scales brushed against his leg as Lachlan swam amongst the rushes and water lilies that lined the huge mountain lake. He twitched away and swam faster, heading for shore, but prickly tentacles wrapped around his bare chest, pulling him under towards the deep edge of the lake.
With a gasp he broke above the surface, gulping in the moonlit night air, the tentacles digging into his skin. The water rippled, and a scaled head with bulging eyes popped out of the water next to him. A catfish-like creature the size of a man, its whiskers holding him close.
He lashed out, kicking its belly as hard as he could, but it only smiled at him and said in a watery voice in Lachlan’s head, I am so hungry. Its mouth gaped wide and the whiskers tugged him closer.
The thing paused, and stared at him with large golden eyes. You are young, but you have worked many years under the sun. I admit I’d prefer something tender. Bring me a child and I’ll grant you a wish.
It dug its whiskers into him, cutting into his skin. You do not believe? Promise me my meal, and I’ll show you what I’m capable of by placing gold under that egg-shaped rock near the shore.
“And you won’t eat me?”
No. Just think, with pocketfuls of gold coins you could marry Elizabeth.
Lachlan gazed across the lake, and faintly reflected in its depths was the newly-built gabled house, the oil lamps glowing in the windows behind damask curtains. The biggest house outside of Denver, to the richest man in the county. Elizabeth Wenner of the chestnut hair and dark eyes.
She’d been the reason he’d ridden up the lake, to stand at the far shore where he wouldn’t be seen and gaze across to dream of her. It had been a horrible mistake on his part to think the water was safe to swim in. But the creature that held him tight in its grip was something out of a tall tale; such things weren’t supposed to actually exist. The burning stinging sensation of its tentacles around him made it all too clear this impossible creature was real.
Lachlan said, “You can make me richer than Mr. Wenner?”
Yes. So is it a bargain?
Lachlan studied the whiskers wrapped tightly around him. “I don’t see where I have much choice. Deal.”
The whiskers slid off him, lightly abrading his skin. He swam swiftly for the shore, and pushed amongst the rushes until he was able to clamber up on the rocks. He dressed as quickly as he could, his abrasions stinging.
He found the rock shaped like an egg. Leaning down, he took a deep breath and heaved, rolling it over.
Under it was a leather wallet, which he ripped open, spilling out gold eagle coins under the quarter moon. Enough for good ranch land and more, he thought.
A soft rippling chuckle came from amongst the rushes.
Lachlan pocketed the gold, leaving the wallet behind underneath the rock.
He knew just what he’d bring to the lake creature tomorrow.
Lachlan rode his horse up near the lake, wrapping the reins around the branch of a pine tree. He yanked down onto his shoulder the limp flour sack, and hauled it to the water’s edge.
He waited there, until a gleam of eyes appeared in the twilight from amongst the rushes, then tossed the sack into the water.
With a gaping snap, the creature tore open the sack, to find a dead porker. It swallowed the pig in bloody bites, then swam as close to the shore as it could, popping its head above water. This was not what we agreed to.
“I don’t need a wish or more money. So I’ve brought you a meal in payment for what you gave me.” He went over to the egg-rock and tipped it over, putting back three-fourths of the gold he’d taken.
A promise is a promise.
“I don’t owe you a damn thing.” Lachlan walked away and climbed back onto his horse.
Five months later, as Lachlan sat with Elizabeth in the Wenner parlor before the crackling fire after their engagement party, she said, “It’s the strangest thing. Frederick and I thought we saw a huge fish under the lake ice swimming around.”
His heart skipped a beat. With the lake creature’s gold he’d been able to leave the town of Prosperity to purchase ranch land down on the Colorado plains. He was now seen as a young fellow with a promising future by Mr. Wenner, who’d allowed Lachlan to court his daughter and ask her to marry him.
However, Mr. Wenner insisted the marriage couldn’t take place until June when relatives from St. Louis arrived.
So far Lachlan’d failed in his original plan of coaxing Elizabeth to stay in Denver with his ma during the winter and spring months until they were married. But he had to keep trying.
He clasped her soft hand in his, still finding it hard to believe that his ring was on her finger, and said, “Darlin’, I wish you would visit my ma. I’d be able to ride out from the ranch to see you.”
She shook her head, tendrils of hair escaping to fall over her forehead and ears. “Oh, darling, I just can’t. Father needs me here until Aunt Lucy arrives, and she’ll need my help to get settled.”
Lachlan looked out the parlor window, across the billowing humps of snow, to where the lake lay white and smooth with its thin crust of ice going off into the distance. Far away he could make out the faint outline of the pine tree he’d tied his horse to when he’d brought the dead pig to feed the thing in the water.
Elizabeth squeezed his hand. “Is anything wrong?”
He made himself smile at her. “Of course not. I’m the luckiest man in Colorado.” He sighed and got to his feet. “I’d best be riding off. Long journey ahead of me.”
He kissed her on the forehead, inhaling the scent of rose water and warm skin.
Spring came, and Lachlan would look across the rippling grass of his purchased ranch and shiver—it reminded him too much of a grass lake. Who knew what could swim in it.
A flock of geese cried out overhead, flying in V-shaped patterns amongst the clouds.
He dug into his trouser pocket and pulled out Elizabeth’s letter, scrawled in ladylike fashion across both front and back. Her Aunt Lucy had arrived safely from Boston, and was now taking the household and Elizabeth’s four younger brothers firmly in hand. But Lucy loved the water, and had asked for a rowboat in order to be able to row back and forth across the lake. And Elizabeth’s father had agreed to get one.
Lachlan hated the idea of Elizabeth going on that lake. The sooner he got Elizabeth down from Wenner Lake to live here, the better.
He smiled grimly to himself. The ranch house was now ready for him to bring a wife here; it’d been snug and warm all winter, with enough rooms for a large family. He could imagine their children chasing each other around the water pump.
But there were ranch hands to oversee, and work to be done. It was time to stop daydreaming.
Lachlan took off his hat as he rejoined Elizabeth outside the seamstress shop in Prosperity. Her two oldest brothers and Aunt Lucy were trailing behind her to peek in the grocer’s windows. They’d all gone to town to celebrate Lachlan’s safe arrival from his ranch.
He said, “Frederick! Come here, boy,” and smiled as Frederick ran up. Tucking his hat under his arm, he dug into his pocket, pulling out several coins. “Go and get your brothers some penny candy.”
Frederick licked his lips and cried out to George that he would get candy for him, then ducked into the grocer’s.
An unusually warm May wind whipped up the street dust, intensifying the smell of dirt and horse manure. Aunt Lucy grabbed hold of her bonnet—even with hatpins it was trying to jump off her head. Elizabeth reached up and added a hatpin from her own bonnet to that of her aunt’s. Behind them followed George, fifteen years itching to be twenty, arms piled high with brown wrapped packages.
Elizabeth frowned. “For goodness sakes I forgot to buy the ribbons.”
Lachlan placed his hat back on his head and offered his elbows, escorting her and Aunt Lucy into the crowded grocer’s.
The scent of wood shavings and smoked ham filled his nostrils as Elizabeth looked over various ribbons, finally choosing blue and burgundy ones. She dug into her reticule, forehead creasing into a deep frown.
Lachlan reached into his pocket and placed a few coins on the counter.
“Really, Lachlan, you don’t have to.”
“Please, let me buy them for you as a gift.”
“Well … all right.”
There was a glint of gold from inside her reticule. Leaning closer, he saw a gold eagle like those he’d gotten from the lake creature.
Dizziness made him place a hand on the counter to steady himself.
Elizabeth closed her reticule.
By concentrating on the feel of the counter under his fingertips he brought himself out of the rush of panic. Surely he was overreacting, and the gold coin had nothing to do with the creature.
“Darlin’,” he said, low next to her ear, “where did you get that odd-looking gold eagle?”
Elizabeth blinked up at him. “Father.” She tilted her head while studying him. “Are you well?”
He looked away from her eyes. “Ah, I’m just tired from the journey.”
Frederick came up. “I couldn’t decide, so I got lemon drops, peppermint sticks, horehound drops, …” and he proceeded to list the rest as Lachlan escorted them out and back to their buggy.
Lachlan helped George to get the others settled in for the ride back to the lake—Frederick’s sticky hand passing through his, then Lucy’s, and last Elizabeth’s. Through the fabric of her glove he could feel her warmth.
I’m the luckiest man alive, he thought as her hand was in his. June can’t get here fast enough. Reluctantly he let go of her hand, and let George drive them off as he stood there watching them go.
He needed to be sure that Elizabeth was kept safe.
Mr. Wenner spat into the fireplace, then put the lit cheroot back in his mouth. “Funny you should ask about that gold eagle.” He puffed out a cloud of smoke. “I found it in our new rowboat just two days ago.”
Lachlan ran a hand through his hair. Worse and worse.
Wenner said, “I’d gone out to do some fishing that morning.” He took the cheroot out of his mouth to jab it at the view of the lake from his study window. “And there it was, under one of the boat’s seats.” He put the cheroot between his teeth and grabbed hold of his own lapels, rocking back and forth on his boots, pleased with himself.
“And you have no idea who left it there?” Lachlan said.
Wenner snorted. “Must’ve been dropped by someone into the boat long before it reached the lake. Probably the coin got wedged into a crack, then loosened to roll out.”
The lake creature had put it there, Lachlan was sure of it. The damn thing was plotting something.
“That rowboat is lucky,” Wenner said.
Then Lucy passed into view outside, with Elizabeth and Frederick in tow. Elizabeth carried a picnic basket.
They were headed for the crude pier built for the rowboat.
Lachlan’d tried to get Elizabeth to promise to not go out in the boat, but she’d gotten angry with him and told him she’d been a fine enough swimmer as a girl.
Lachlan stood up from his chair. “Pardon me, sir, but I see no sign of George, or any of the hands. What if the boat capsizes? The lake runs deep.”
Both Lucy and Elizabeth were in afternoon dresses with bustles.
“That’s …” Wenner scowled out the window at the women—who were struggling to step from the pier into the bobbing rowboat. Abruptly he tossed his cheroot into the fire to hurry out the study door, Lachlan right behind him.
The rowboat, with Frederick and Elizabeth at the oars under the directions of Lucy, was already on its way to the center of the lake by the time Lachlan and Wenner reached the pier.
Lachlan wanted to yell at them, tell them to come back—his throat felt thick with the held-back shouts—but instead he just waved his hat above his head.
The three on the boat returned his greeting with laughter and waves.
Lighting up another cheroot, Wenner grunted to himself as Frederick and Elizabeth went back to rowing. “It’s warming up in the afternoons,” he said around the cheroot. “Clear sky, lots of sunlight. Lake stays cold all year round though.”
Lachlan eyed the lake’s surface, which was no longer smooth due to the ripples from the rowboat and its oars.
Then Lucy leaned over the rim of the boat to point at something she saw beneath the surface of the water. Elizabeth and Frederick stopped rowing to gaze over as well. There was a flicker, like fish scales, underneath the boat.
“Aw, hell,” Lachlan said. He flung off his hat and sat down upon the rocks to yank at his boots.
“What in tarnation are you doing?” Wenner said.
As Lachlan tossed his second boot aside, Lucy gave a cry of alarm as the rowboat began to rock. Fumbling, he got his gun belt and vest off, and plunged into the shock of the cold water.
When his head broke the surface, he heard Elizabeth’s screams mixed with those of Lucy and Frederick, and above them all the incoherent shouts of Wenner on shore; the boat was rocking wildly due to the wriggling scaly thing underneath it.
The boat capsized, plunging Elizabeth and the others into the water.
…. (End of story sample.)
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Until next time. Cheers, L. M.