B. B. Riefner
Join a modern Noah or Don Quixote as he fights his way from Spain in 1936 to the Belgian Congo in 1963. He begins as an idealist mounted on a shaggy Siberian Pony and carrying a sub-machine gun. He ends kicking gold teeth out of the mouths of the innocent dead.
The Last Horseman
The Last Horseman is not a linear story in the traditional sense. It is a sea of voices, a kaleidoscope of images, opinions, and observations about one man, George Arnold, and his time. The voices come from different periods of our most recent history, and each has a unique perspective, its own story to tell, yet all the voices center on George Arnold. He is a man out of one time, searching for his place in another.
George Arnold was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. He was a good son, the perfect student, the brilliant promise of so many peoples’ dreams. George, the idealist, leaves The Johns Hopkins University to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Through various accidents of fate, he becomes involved in World War II. Caught in France without a valid passport, he enlists in the French Foreign Legion. He escapes from the Maginot Line to England. Still unable to return to his home, he joins the RCAF, only to be shot down over Germany. Ultimately, he fights much of the war with a Siberian Cossack unit . . . on horseback.
George is not released from the Soviet Union until l948, a bad year for someone who has fought with communists to be coming home. When he cannot find work in America, he turns to using the only skills he knows, first with the Israelis, later with the French in Viet Nam and Algeria, and finally with various mercenary groups in Africa. He drifts from one conflict to another, but the reader sees him through the overlapping voices of those around him, those who love him; and also through his own voice, as he leaves an oral history for the one woman with whom he finds love. The reader must use these voices as keys to understanding the brilliant, idealistic young man who left the American dream in order to help his fellow men, but finishes his career as a mercenary, kicking gold teeth out of dead men’s mouths.
This story, however, is not just one of some tragic flaws in character. It is not even solely a study of the character himself, but a revealing look at man during our time. George lives in the numbing twentieth century society of war. The novel questions what causes him to become what he becomes, and perhaps what has happened to mankind in general, in the technological, global society of today.
THE LAST HORSEMAN
A Novel Excerpt
By B. B. Riefner
OBLIGATIONS UPON BECOMING AN IMMORTAL
The knife is inserted almost an inch into the flesh, then drawn quickly across for about a foot. Three more incisions forming a rough square follow, as another pair of hands take hold of the lower cut and pull the flesh upward, allowing the knife to get beneath and sever the stringy layers of flesh from the first layer of muscle. The blade is very sharp and rapidly cuts through the thin layers of membrane and fat, as hands pull the slices of flesh upward ; always applying pressure so that the knife can move more quickly to the intersection of the original incision. Then the piece of flesh comes completely free.
Four men, dressed in thick fur-lined parkas and breeches, held the shaggy pony motionless on its side in the snow. All four feet were hobbled. Four more ropes were stretched across the horse, their ends tied firmly to stakes driven in the shallow snow and frozen earth. The pony was strangely passive while the flesh was cut from it. Only its lips fluttered baring strong white teeth. Occasionally one leg tried to kick, but the combined strength of a man, the hobble and the center ropes made it almost impossible for the horse to even twitch.
Once the steak was free, a second man stepped forward and began applying a thick poultice, made from hot tallow, dung and earth over the slightly bleeding area. Slowly he worked the mixture in and around the edges of the wound, spreading it as if it were mortar. Once done, he picked up a large square of soft leather and fitted it over the wound. Satisfied it covered the entire area, he grunted something and the four men untied the ropes and released the back hobbles. Instantly the pony came to its feet, its long hair falling on both sides of its flanks like the oriental tassels at bottom of a drape. It shook its head and the four men laughed, carefully petting and running their hands over it to soothe its fears. Meanwhile the fifth held the leather bandage close to the wound. The last man reached under the belly taking the two strips of leather hanging free, drawing them through and tying them to the other pair already thrown over the animal’s back. After they had secured them and made a final check to make sure no blood was leaking from the sides of the wound, the last hobble was untied and the tiny animal led back to the horse line and tied there.
The butcher dropped the raw steak in the snow and carefully rubbed some of it on the bloody side. Then he skinned the fur and first layers of flesh from the meat, laid it to the side. Then he rubbed the entire remainder with snow again. Satisfied his job was complete, he flipped the steaming flesh to one of the holders, who caught it and carried it away, as a bugle made a sound very much like a tire being twisted from its rim.
Perhaps a hundred and fifty men ran to the horse line, carrying saddles and leather saddle bags. Quickly the horses were saddled and the bags secured behind them. The company took the reins of their horses and formed a straight line, standing at a very informal position of attention while two men came toward them, walking briskly, waving their arms. Steam formed a continuous curtain above the men and horses. The temperature was 44 degrees below zero. The sun was moving rapidly across the empty horizon, casting oblique rays in unending flatness. Off to the left, constant sets of flashes, some much larger and longer than others, flashed constantly, often forming strange bouquets of light flashing pale red ,then winking off to be instantly supplanted by another bunch. There was no sound except for the incessant wind blowing across the frozen layers of snow.
The two men accepted their mounts and pulled themselves into the saddles. One raised his right arm and after looking from one end of the line to the other, stiffly brought it down. The company rose like an undulating black wave against a foamy background. Already the winds were increasing. In the east huge gray clouds were moving toward them. As they swung left in a column of twos, moving off at a trot, the tiny horses seemed to float across the frozen surfaces.
In less than two hours the storm over took them, tearing at their thick coats, threatening to seize both horses and men, and send them cartwheeling through the gloom. The column continued to pick its way, each man fixing his eyes on the back of the man in front of him and keeping his horse’s feet in the footsteps of the one ahead. Even when the wall of snow and sleet began pelting their backs and flanks, the horses continued plodding, almost oblivious to the natural forces wanting to sweep them from the plains as if they were unwanted dirt upon a carpet. It was impossible to tell how much of the swirling snow was falling and how much was merely being torn from the earth and hurled forward by the sheer force of the wind. As stoic as their horses, the men bent over the necks of their mounts and concentrated on keeping the man in front in view.
A very short time after the full force of the storm hit them, the commander decided it was going to worsen and began searching for some place he could bivouac which would give any sort of protection for the men and their mounts. He had joined this unit two days ago. His second I command ended his orientation by telling him he was the ninth commander that month. He refused to believe the lieutenant, since his second also admitted he had only been with the unit for six days himself. The captain did believe that it was once a battalion of about six hundred men. That was about twenty-two days ago. Then it was thrown at the southern flank of the retreating German Army. He had brought fifty-three replacements with him when he joined the unit the evening before. He was aware that his total of l56 men could not function as though they were still 600, but would be expected to do exactly that.
He found the gully after his horse stepped off the ridge and slid gently, even gracefully to its bottom. What remarkable luck, the captain congratulated himself. When the column halted he rode slowly along the length of the gully. Yes there is enough room for all of them, he thought. He was even happier when the gully was slightly deeper at the far end. Just a fold in the earth, perhaps a run off when the torrential spring rains came, but it was enough for his needs. He motioned for his troops to dismount and turned his attention to his own welfare.
They led their horse into the depression, slipping and sliding down the sharp incline to its bottom. Once imbedded they pushed and pulled their horses until they were forced to lie down, and be hobbled. Others pulled canvas tarpaulins from the pack animals and passed them along the line. Each man fitted the sheets along the windward side of his horse, using leather thongs to tie it securely about the neck and one leg. Once that was accomplished, layers of snow were packed around the lower edge of the canvas.
Quickly now they kicked and pushed snow away from the bellies of their mounts until a slight cup formed beside the animal. The saddles were removed and placed beside the rear legs. The saddle cloths were stretched across the snow at the bottom of the horse’s belly in the shallow cavities. Then, each chose a place to sit, their backs braced against the belly of the horses. Now each made his preparations to survive the blizzard raging all about them.
Coat collars covered their necks and heads. Fur-lined caps were pulled down until they covered the nape of the neck and eyes. Thick gloved hands were thrust into the wide sleeves of coats and feet tucked up under their bodies so all their flesh sat on the saddle cloths. Already the eddying snow was beginning to drift over the horses’ exposed flanks, acting as insolation from the terrible cold quickly descending through the darkness. The remarkable heat generated by the ponies slowly penetrated the thickness of the leather undercoats each man wore.
By then everyone had sought their own state of suspended animation. Some concentrated on flowers made from shining coal. Others stared at shimmering images of famous grandfathers. A few sought the familiarity of their own yurts many thousands of miles away; and mentally join brothers and sisters before the fire, eating bits of fat and meat, laughing as they waited for their father and his wives. Only a very few chose the company of women as their trance objects. It was generally considered not good to think about the softness of women gently laughing somewhere in the bed ; their waxy warm flesh almost burning the hands stroking them.
No matter what the object, each man quickly drifted into a trance which excluded the cold and wind, blocked out fear of freezing and effectively reduced the heart beat and circulation. Like sled dogs then sat with their horses curled about them. They survived through their heat, and their own ability to totally accept the superiority of nature and the fragileness of life. Every fourth man sat on the strips of flesh recently cut from selected horses. Rations had not found them for two days. Drastic times called for drastic measures. The troop was glad their commanding officer was one of them and allowed the meat to be taken.
As the storm’s intensity rapidly increased, those sitting on a slab of meat concentrated on warming it so it could be chewed more easily. One of two bothered recalling the fourteen commanders they had since entering combat. Only this new one was one of them, and it was a good sign he had been sent just when he was needed badly.
Every time the drifting snow covered its legs and hips, one figure shook itself much like a dog. It was much longer than any of the others and because it was completely wrapped in many layers of quilted blankets, had no real definition. The head and shoulders swayed up and down, at times the head almost striking the upraised knees. Occasionally a cough or high-pitched sound got through the tightly clenched lips. The foreigner imagined even his teeth were beginning to freeze. The cold was approaching a level of abstraction he could no longer combat. Slowly everything on his body was withdrawing, numbing, And even though he knew he was going to freeze, he felt he must stand and try to force the blood to circulate Fortunately his mind refused to allow any part of him to begin that process.
Half asleep, objects flew slowly by . . . He reached for each one . . . Had to slow up to catch . . . Out run any . . . Another one . . . The . . . Come again low . . . Ankles . . . Head drops . . . Inside! . . . INSIDE! . . . Good!
He did not notice when the wind completely died. The fragments from long lost days still refused to fit, and remained bits and pieces . . . Unfamiliar,, unattached floating mosaics. His head bent forward, resting on his slowly rising and falling chest. All his joints felt frozen; that he would never be able to move again. ‘ Throw me over the horse . . . By spring I’ll break to pieces . . . Parts falling off . . . Trails of me . . . Fingers and toes first . . . ’ He wondered why his lungs continued to work. He felt his heart beating very slowly, yet very fiercely, trying to hammer its way right through his ribs into the cold, dark night.
‘ I am cold and they warm me . . . I am sick and they tend to me . . . The group will bring me out of this darkness . . . The earth is a part of my legs . . . I am a bird crossing a great mountain. . . There are many gods and many friends . . . Greatness is friends becoming gods. . . Lifting me up into the hot rays of the sun . . . Pale and old in the good blue sky, the bear and I rise up from our winter’s sleep . . . Seeking honey and bees of the hives.’
Then suddenly through the cold, he could hear the barking of his comrades. They were already stirring, calling through the dark to one another, to each friend, mocking the storm’s ferocity. “It was but a little mother.”
“Yes! I had better in my woods before I had my first bow!” The chiding goes on. That he can understand is proof that none of this is happening. That he is not hallucinating for they do sound like barking dogs, and only their smiles, motions and signs tell him what they might want to convey. He leans his head back until it rests on the belly of his pony. Illusions or not, it is good to feel no longer the stranger, the visitor.
To his left he thinks someone calls his new name, Cloud Brusher. It is real and the words are in Russian, his Mother’s native tongue. He slowly raises his right arm in the universal sign of victory. “ You learn very quick! You have fine dreams?” He is not able to nod his head. The gentle fog, and the trance still enfolding him, are reluctant to leave, and he is not willing to give it up. The terrible cold is already seeking openings. His toes are more like ten needles, his hands are not able to feel nor can he close his fingers, but he has survived his third major Russian snow storm.
Around him the 2nd Battalion of the Ninth Siberian Army, a mounted unit which has suffered almost 500 percent casualties in fourteen days, comes to its feet. They have been pressing a hit and run attack into the flanks of the German forces surrounding Moscow. Soon they will be back in their saddles, and every fourth man will have the slab of horse flesh pressed under him, warming it for the evening meal. If they encounter a ration train, they will use the horse meat later.
He cannot get his legs and feet to function so he continues sitting behind his horse, nodding to those who pass, hoping one of them will pull him erect and prove positively he is still alive. It is almost the same eerie focus as his dreams. Therefore, he thinks this is still dreaming. He is convinced he is as he watches a huge, two hundred yard long snowdrift off to his right, slowly begins to shrug itself. The entire length of it trembles and huge hunks of dry frozen snow begin to fall from its sides. It is as if some great monster has decided to cast off its long sleep and once again terrorize the earth. Fascinated but not quite believing, he bears witness to the rebirth of the beast.