“Old Garfield’s Heart,” by Robert E. Howard
When I first started this blog, the month of June, which is also the anniversary month of the death of Texas writer Robert E. Howard, was devoted to his stories. And then a few years went by, and Howard disappeared from these pages, his place taken by other Southwestern writers.
Well, he’s back! And with a double shot of Texanism – a Texas writer most famous as the creator of Conan the Cimmerian showing off his less familiar Western stories. But although Westerns are outwardly less familiar to Howard fans than his sword and sorcery fantasies, the blood of Conan still ran strong, frequently bringing strains of horror and the fantastic even to Howard’s Westerns, such as today’s “Old Garfield’s Heart,” originally published in the December 1933 issue of Weird Tales magazine and brought back to life in the collected volume, Grim Lands: The Best of Robert E. Howard.
Owing very little to its setting in a Texas apparently contemporary with Howard’s writing, it’s a weird Western that would give a Cimmerian goosebumps.
Exactly how old is “Old Jim” Garfield? Lingering into a 20th century Texas where gasoline engines are rapidly replacing horses, Garfield claims to have fought in the historic 1836 battle of San Jacinto, when Texans under the leadership of Sam Houston defeated the forces of Mexican dictator Santa Ana.
But that can’t be true, can it? It would make “Old Jim” more than a century old, instead of the fifty-something he appears to be.
“You think old Jim’s the biggest liar in this county, don’t you?” the grandfather of the story’s young narrator asks. Still, even the grandfather has been in Texas for more than 60 years, and Garfield was already living in their small town then. And strange to say, “he don’t look a day older now than he did the first time I saw him.”
Stranger still, the grandfather continues, soon afterward, he and Garfield were in a fight with Comanches in which Garfield received an apparently mortal lance thrust through the heart. Out of nowhere, an old Indian appeared, claiming to be a friend of Garfield’s, and asking to be left alone with him.
“I don’t know what went on out in the mesquite where Jim Garfield’s body lay,” the grandfather says, “(but) at sunrise Jim Garfield came walkin’ out of the mesquite, pale and haggard, but alive, and already the wound in his breast had closed and begun to heal.” And although the battle was decades past, Garfield not only still lives, but hasn’t appeared to age.
But life even in 20th century Texas, can be dangerous. And after being patched up after a serious accident with a bronc, Garfield has begun to fear that his strangely resilient heart may outlive the rest of his body.
And when – if that time comes, “I can’t die. Not as long as my heart’s in my breast. . . Yet it ain’t rightly mine, either. It belongs to Ghost Man, the Lipan chief. It was the heart of a god the Lipans worshipped before the Comanches drove ‘em out of their native hills. . .
“If by some mischance I should die, now or later, promise me this! Cut into my bosom and take out the heart Ghost Man lent me so long ago! It’s his. And as long as it beats in my body, my spirit’ll be tied to that body, though my head be crushed like an egg underfoot! A livin’ thing in a rottin’ body!”
And they promise, little thinking how soon they will have to keep their word, to cut from a body already stiffening a thing the size and shape of a human heart, that still throbs with a cosmic power, “sending vibratory radiations of energy up my arm until my own heart seemed swelling and bursting in response. . . and I suddenly wished passionately that it hammered and thundered in my own bosom in place of my paltry heart of tissue and muscle.”
Readers in the 80 years that have passed since Howard’s own heart stopped beating, may well share the narrator’s wish.
(Next Friday, Adventure classics continues a June of Robert E. Howard with more of his Western stories. And listen to him ride again, with a Western reading at YouTube.)