University School - Hunting Valley
Instructor: Ashley Worthington
The canyon was swaddled by darkness. Dark blue blanketed the dusty path as the traveler made his way along. The night felt warm and comfortable. The traveler surveyed his surroundings as he took a deep breath. He was a slim 18-year-old with the impression of a smile on his face, but his eyes told of a much more wistful and world-weary man. A wry smile broke out on his face as he realized he had traveling companions
"Fireflies!" he gasped with a chuckle. There was an amount of reverence and wonder in the statement which betrayed his age. "Now, Bill," he began, glancing down at his horse. "Is it true what they say about fireflies and music?" The traveler's hand drifted to his hip holster, from which he took a harmonica that shone in the moonlight. He brought the instrument up to his mouth, and after a moment of deliberation, he sounded a verse or two of "Red River Valley." His eyes became misty as his face was bathed in soft green light from all around. "Beautiful night, eh Bill?" His voice was trembling, as a similarly shaking hand replaced the harmonica. The traveler rode on.
The horse's pace slackened as its owner peered off into the distance.
"Bill," the traveler croaked hoarsely, "you seein' what I'm seein'?" Off in the distance, there was a building with its lights on. "Middle'a nowhere…" he chuckled. As they got closer, he made out the sign.
"Sunset Inn & Tavern" it read. The traveler slowly steered his steed into the stable adjacent to the Sunset.
"You be good now," the traveler instructed as he locked his horse in the stable. The horse flopped on its side in an ungraceful attempt to lie down. The traveler laughed. "Love you too, Bill." On his way out of the stable, he saw a jet-black horse with what looked like glowing eyes. "Evening," he said simply as he walked past the strange creature. The traveler walked back to the front door and playfully hopped over the three steps to the porch. He took one more step under the cover of the balcony when it started pouring intensely. He looked up curiously as he heard the ginormous raindrops slapping the brick of the building. "Huh. Ain't that a thing," he mumbled to himself as he pushed open the saloon doors.
After a quick headcount, the traveler concluded there were five people on the first floor of the saloon. A pudgy and good-natured bartender with small spectacles greeted him. The traveler walked up to the bar grinning, when he heard a hoarse voice clear its throat from behind him. A gruff looking man was standing at a counter with many different loaded holsters on the wall behind him.
"Guns. Now." He spoke with more than a little animosity.
"Sir, I'd be obliged, but the fact of the matter is I don't believe in the carryin'a firearms." The attendant was silent but narrowed his eyes and glared at the small, glimmering object peeking out from around his belt. The traveler glanced down and laughed. The attendant tensed as he grabbed the object from his holster.
"This here's my harmonica, sir," he teased with a smile. The attendant was unamused.
"Get your goddam drink."
"Gladly." The traveler clicked his heels together and walked back to the bar. "Whiskey?" he asked, as he clattered some coins on the counter.
"Right away, sir." The bartender slapped the counter and began fiddling with various odds and ends and bottles, everything, the traveler noticed, except a whiskey bottle. Busy night, he figured as he went to take a seat next to the other three bar patrons.
The three men looked relieved to have another conversation partner. The first was a larger man with a wiry mustache and a nervous and sweating face, the next was a man of about 25, with a jet-black goatee and stylish black duds. The third was the oldest in the party, and with the nicest suit. He looked to be about 75 and was grinning idly.
"SALUTATIONS!" the old man shouted in a nasally, high pitched voice. Judging by the others' reaction, he'd been yelling like this for the whole night.
"How do, friend?" the young cowboy grinned as the traveler flung himself into a cushioned chair.
"Just as the sun sets and the moon rises, I get by," the traveler breathed, relieved to sit on anything other than Bill.
"Got a name, my celestial compadre?" The young man asked.
"Name's James. Some call me Jim, Jimmy, and some even call me Jack, but that tends to be due to an error in communication," the traveler explained
"Well, it's a pleasure to meet you, Jimmy." The cowboy returned. The nervous man stood up and offered a sweaty hand to shake. After a moment of hesitation, James took it and smiled. The nervous man spoke in a mumbling thick Italian accent.
"Enchanted, James." James smiled appreciatively. As soon as the man finished speaking, James winced.
"ALWAYS LOVELY TO MEET A NEW FRIEND, JIMBO! NAME'S TACK" The old man exclaimed.
"That's a new one." James muttered. The young man in black chuckled.
"You know, it- it occurs to me, I never caught your Christian…" The Italian man trailed off in the direction of the suspicious fellow.
"That's because it wasn't offered." The young man warned. He barked a short laugh. "Oh, what the hell. Names Robert Henry. Expectin' some'a yall'll know me." A nervous grin flashed over his face. It seemed like he was trying to impersonate malevolence.
"GOOD GOD!" the old man began, "YOU'RE THAT FELLA WHAT'S IN ALL THE PAPERS!" his wrinkled face was filled with horror. The nervous man began quietly babbling.
"No good. Not good. I'm not him. He's not- I'm not him." James became concerned and walked up to put a hand on the man's shoulder.
"Y'all can go ahead and relax." The outlaw's reassurances fell on deaf ears. "Doubt this'll convince anyone, but those days are behind me." The nervous man's breathing became labored as he tried to croak out a sentence.
"You… are not… good man…" Despite James's nonverbal protests, Robert walked up and took the man's hand.
"Listen, I know that. I know. But I will change. Listen. 'Ccording to that storm, we'll all be here a while. If you'll allow, I'll gladly share my tale'a woe. Maybe that could convince you." The man's breathing regained normality.
All four men shot around when they heard a bell ring at the bar. For some reason, they were stunned into silence. The bartender placed a foaming mug of ale on the counter. Then footsteps. A man came walking down the stairs. The bartender's smile was gone. His face was totally blank. He pushed the drink forward slightly when the patron arrived at the bar. The patron picked up the mug. He turned around. He had a gleeful smile on his face, with bloodshot eyes that seemed to be screaming for help.
"Gents," the man mustered, raising his mug a little. "Cheers." An uncomfortable amount of weight was placed in the declaration. He drank.
"Folks." The bartender nodded, before cleaning the empty bar.
"Hey," James started. "Sir, there any chance we could rent out a room for my friend here? He's in a bad way right now, and I think some rest'd do him some good."
"'pologies," the bartender's smile was back, "but we're all booked up for the night." James didn't trust this man. "Good news, though. Your drinks'll be ready real soon." James gave him a smile and walked back to the group. He realized he was shivering as he sat down. He smiled and said:
"If'n we're sharing stories, I'd be glad to start us off. Although first I'm gonna need y'all to understand something."
30 minutes had now passed. James's smile had been replaced entirely with frustration. Robert had that same shit-eating grin on his face as the Italian and the old man tried to work it out together.
"SO YOU MEAN TO TE-e-Ell ME… YOU'RE A…" he trailed off.
"What word did you use, it eludes me…" the Italian chipped in.
"YOU ARE A HO-mo-SEK-shul?" the loud man finished. James sighed as he heard the nervous man mumbling the Hail Mary. James was about to say something when Robert began speaking. "You know, I've had folks'a yer… disposition in crews'a mine in years past. They're just as effective at bank robbin' and at the end of the day we spend less at the brothel!" He barked several harsh laughs. James did not know how to take this dubious attempt at a compliment.
"I don't know if you all remember, but I was beginning a story." James considered it a lost cause at this point.
"Please, friend." Robert offered, a manic glint in his eyes.
"Right." James gathered himself. "So, not too close to here is the town I used to call home. This was a few weeks, maybe months ago. I'd been outta grammar school a while, taking up odd jobs here and there. There was this boy in town, we were friends, but then he told me one day that he shared my…" he gestured to Robert, "disposition." The nervous man doubled over, breathily speaking in Latin. Robert kicked him until he scurried back to his chair. James glanced at the scene and decided to continue. "Y'all can relax. Things were kosher 'twixt us. Y'see, I wanted to wait until I would turn 18, which was a few weeks before today. Still though, he was the love of my life. We wrote letters. The practice was silly, we were a few minutes' walk away, but he loved it all the same. One night, we went to the movies, as 'pals.' I walked him home, and when we thought the coast was clear, he pecked my cheek. As it turned out, the local preacher just had his suspicions confirmed." James sighed. He dropped the quippy tone he had been trying to keep. "He intercepted a letter or two in the mail, and not two days after that picture we were facing a full-on pitchfork and torch mob. We were separated from one another, my compatriot and me. I got trapped in a barn on the outskirts of town, and they set it ablaze. I blacked out a minute from heat exhaustion before meeting my current business associate Bill." The attempt at a joke fell flat as the others stared blankly. "Bill is my horse. Anyways, poor thing kicked his way out of the barn, and I hopped on, and we rode off into the sunset. What's strange is that as we were hightailing it, I don't think I heard no mob no more. Granted, I wouldn't've looked back for all the money in the world. A lot of uncomfortable travel later, I stand before you."
"Didn't know a horse could kick its way out of a barn." Robert mused. James didn't hear him.
"Where are our drinks?" He asked, puzzled.
They looked to the bar, and the Bartender rang the bell once again. Hurried steps came down the stairs
"No." A woman in an elaborate purple dress walked into the bar. "I won't."
"Ma'am, please, be reasonable." Something small in his voice briefly flickered from affable to chilling.
"No. I'm not done. I won't be." She was shaking. James was terrified but unable to move. "No." She said finally before walking through the bar and out of the saloon doors.
The smiling woman in the elaborate purple dress picked up her beer. "Here, here!" She cried.
The bartender continued washing up the empty counter. The four men migrated to the piano, where Robert leaped onto the stool and began playing. The old man lit a cigar while the nervous Italian dropped into an upholstered chair. James kicked back against the wall as Robert played a few rudimentary chords.
"S'posin I'm next for tellin' m'tale." Robert paused and stared pensively, a smirk on his face, before performing a glissando and jumping into a jauntier rhythm. "Little town east of these parts, called Fallrock. My associates and I were scopin' this town out, cause, y'see, this big ol' bank decided to put one of its largest headquarters in this absolute backwater!" By the time Robert got into the story, James was grinning. Robert's energy was palpable. "So y'know, the boys and I, we get to wondrin', why is this bank here? We thought it was the easiest score we'd had in a long time. Well, we got to work, pulled together a real tidy heist. All details accounted for, even a few extra precautions, cause the smartest of us still smelled a rat. Day comes, I'm in position, we go through with it. It was going swimmingly, I tell ya. So we nab all the cash we can carry, then some and we make our way out. We'd let our guard down, we… We- I don't know." Robert's expression was now a battleground of emotional conflict. He wanted to carry his smile and wit, but something was very clearly getting to him.
He eased off the piano. "We heard this voice. Gents, I hear this voice every night before I close my eyes. It was gruff. So gravelly and deep it barely sounded human. My pal Felix was first. He said-uh- 'Felix Weston, several counts of murder, armed robbery, and general skullduggery,' then he picks up his shotgun, and-uh-y'know-uh… Felix-"Robert's hands were twitching. The others thought about how scared they were of him initially and how now he seemed little more than a quivering child. "This man was the sheriff of the township. Must've been the single reason for the bank's setting up shop. Anyway a few of my pals made it out into the fresh air. We ran but… Shamus Connely, murder, criminal conspiracy, embezzlement, blam. Y'know," he chuckled, tears in his eyes. "Y'know I never pegged Shamus for the embezzlin' type." James came over and patted Robert on the back. "and then there were two of us. Kyle Mann and I… we- we were thick as thieves! Friends since we'd been five, and then I saw him boiled down to the only things he'll be remembered for. For Christ sakes, he could've added that he was shit at poker to the list! I tripped and fell just as I was reaching the town outskirts. A major dust storm was rolling in. Then that voice. 'Robert Henry'" Robert was choking down sobs as he imitated his near killer. "'Murder. Armed robbery. Adultery. Consumption of illicit substances…' The list seemed to go on for hours to the point where I was begging for that buckshot. But then… a wave of dust blinded me. Once I felt I could open my eyes, I was completely alone. I thought about what had just happened. My impact on the world. I'll be remembered as scum. I can't have that. When I was real little, I wanted to do great things. I wanted to be the president, for heaven's sakes. But here I am, dirt on my ass, being told the only record'a me 80 years from now." Robert gathered himself. "Anyway, then in came the horse. The silly girl ran full speed for, jeez, good 40 yards, just to come up and say hi. She didn't object to riding together for a while. Named her Estella. Not after anyone. I just think it's a pretty name." He took a pause, as if he had very little else to say. His foot quivering on the piano pedal indicated otherwise. "Anyhow, here I am, a better man. I've repented, and I'm ready to start anew as someone else. Make something of myself. Gentlemen, I'm a blank slate now, and I just want to make the world a better place." His grin seemed more genuine and kind, but with a hint of apprehension in his eyes, as if he didn't quite believe he'd wiped the slate clean. "Listen, I… I'm trying." The nervous man stood up and walked over to the cowboy hunched over the piano stool.
"Amen, friend," The nervous man had a wistful smile on his face, "You are young. You have much to learn. But you're on the right path, son." Robert smiled up at him.
"WHO NEEDS A DRINK?" The other three jumped as the old man grinned. The four of them strolled over to the bar.
"Apologies gentlemen, it'll still be a few minutes." The bartender smiled apologetically.
"Really?" Robert mused. "I got, what, a beer, same as grandpa, our adolescent got a whiskey, pops, what did you get?" He asked the nervous man.
"Just- Just a water." The nervous man began to fidget again.
"Water!? Why in the hell are you getting a water tonight, pops!" James was gesturing to Robert to cut it out. "I mean tonight's a night for celebration, you gotta!" For once, the nervous man spoke clearly and directly.
"I will thank you to stay out of my business." The others were speechless. "No. No, you have told me of your sins, I suppose you must hear mine."
"It's alright, don't feel pressured to-"James assured.
"No. I- I have to do this." The newly articulate man said.
"Let's take a seat." James guided the party back to the sitting area.
"Well, I am from Italy, as you may have guessed. None of you know my name, do you? No… that, that is for the best. Anyways, it was my dream from a young age to be a great doctor. I studied for a long time and took a boat out to the Americas. I landed in New York and made my way out west."
"That's how you got here? That ain't nothing to be ashamed of, pops." Robert chortled.
"Godammit, Henry, the man ain't done." James's frustration was growing.
"Excuse me." The nervous man cleared his throat and took a deep breath. "I made it to a small town not far from here. Very close knit, and I began a practice. I was a local celebrity. I don't believe they'd had a doctor that graduated medical school in the place. Anyways, I got a big head about myself. Started drinking and didn't stop. One night, I was at the bar, and I had had more than a few. My assistant ran in saying someone had been shot. I of course got back to my office, and I tried to operate. I made so many mistakes. I-" He choked. "I killed that man. He died because of me. Let us say it didn't take long for me to sober up after that. I thought about what I had done, how I'd broken my oath, and I couldn't take it. I found these pills. They were pretty strong; the advisory was for half a capsule twice a month. I took the whole bottle. But then… I woke up. There was a pitch-black horse with bright yellow eyes outside of my office. At that moment I broke down. What a cruel joke. Not even the devil's own horse would take me to Hell. And so, I mounted, and I ran. I ran and I ran, and I ended up here. I don't have a purpose. I don't have a future. I'm just floating. Apparently, death wouldn't even accept me." The room was silent. James stood up and patted the nervous man on the back.
"Thanks for telling us, doc." He said simply.
"Wait." Robert looked confused. James winced as Robert continued. "How didn't those pills kill you?"
"I don't know. Could've been sugar pills, could've been expired, could've been some… sick twist of fate. I don't know, any number of possibilities." Robert nodded understandingly but looked unconvinced.
"Well, I've gone," Robert figured. "And you've gone. And he's gone, so that leaves… oh dear god."
"SONNY, I DON'T KNOW WHERE TO START! I SUPPOSE I SHOULD TELL YOU ABOUT MY STORE FOR STARTERS. YOU FOUR ARE LOOKING AT THE OWNER OF AN INCREDIBLY SUCCESFUL CON-VENIENCE-STORE." The others winced a little as the old man shouted out his life story. "NOW ONE DAY, SLOW DAY FOR BUSINESS, WHICH IS UNCOMMON, AND THEREFORE ODD, COUPLE OF FOLKS WALK IN, AND THEY START PERUSING, AS ONE DOES, Y'KNOW? WELL, THEY PULL A SHOTGUN ON ME AND MY COWORKER. HE TELLS US TO GET ON THE GROUND, AND I DO. ANYWAYS, I START SMOOTH TALKING THEM. TELL THEM EXACTLY WHERE I KEEP THE MONEY AND HOW NEITHER OF US GOT A PHYSICAL PROFILE OF EITHER OF THEM. ANYWAYS MY EYES HAD BEEN CLOSED FOR MOST OF THIS. I OPEN THEM ALL OF A SUDDEN, AND THEY'RE GONE! GONE I TELL YA! THIS CALL WAS TOO CLOSE, THOUGH. I PACKED UP AND HEADED OUT ON A VACATION OF SORTS. I SUPPOSE YOU WOULD CALL IT A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY. WELL, I DROVE ALL THE WAY FROM, Y'KNOW, THE EAST, TO AROUND KANSAS. I DIDN'T SEE ONE SOUL ON THE ROAD, THANK JOBE, 'TILL MY AUTOMOBILE BROKE DOWN, AT WHICH POINT MY PENSIVE SOLITUDE BECAME MUCH LESS OPPORTUNE. I WAS SAT THERE FOR WHAT SEEMED LIKE AN HOUR, TILL WHO WOULD GALLOP BY BUT THE VERY STEED WITH WHICH I RODE HERE TODAY! GAUNT OLD BOY, GOT ME HERE JUST THE SAME." James nodded quickly.
"And that's how you found us. Lovely." He turned to Robert to see if he had a smart remark of any kind, but Robert looked as if he was doing mental calculations of some sort.
"The horses- he did not- the pills, no,no no. The pills should've done it. Horses can't kick through- no. No, they cannot. The stickup- no, not the- but the… that fucker's a goner for sure."
"Rob, you doin' alright?" James cautioned. Robert didn't look up. A horrified look came on his face. Robert stood up and walked around seemingly aimlessly.
"Dead. They- we- I- dust… storm…" his croaky voice died before he could elaborate. He ended up outside the gun counter.
"Rob, what's up, bud?" James barely got the words out. In the span of a second, Robert smashed the attendant's head into the counter, grabbed his pistol, and pointed it straight at the bartender. They had just enough time to whip around and see the bartender totally unfazed. They heard the crack of the gun and the spiderwebbing crack break out all around the bartender's head. Robert was cackling. James closed his eyes. His head was spinning. The grin was gone from his face, and despite the intensity of the situation, only a quiet grimace replaced it. His mind was screaming. All of a sudden, he was pulled back to reality.
"Gentlemen," the untouched bartender grimaced. "You are all being quite disruptive. We picked this venue because we assumed that it would be comforting for the four of you, but I think that façade has gone up in smoke. Since you quite know where you are, I feel I should remind you that you four are not the only ones who need to… move on tonight. If you would please just sit tight, things will proceed much more smoothly." Robert was nearly choking.
"Sit- s- SIT TIGHT! HE WANTS US TO SIT FUCKING TIGHT! It's all gone." His laughter turned to sobs. "You bastards made me think I had more fucking time." Robert's croaks switched back to hoarse laughter. The bartender gave him a side-eye for his coarse language.
"Well, I don't suppose it matters now." The bartender said gravely. It was hard to recall a smile on the inhumanly emotionless face of the bartender. Despite him clearly not moving a muscle, they all heard the ringing of the bartender's bell. "Folks. Your drinks are ready." When he placed the 4 glasses on the bar, even Robert quieted. James could hear the doctor begin the Hail Mary, then pause. He turned around to see the doctor, who now seemed quietly resolved. No longer shivering, he looked like he was at the end of a long and hard day of work. They all heard a sharp sound and turned around to see James playing his harmonica. Robert recognized the tune and began to silently cry. James stepped forward. His parched voice said four words.
"Will he be there?" he said, tears in his eyes. The bartender was silent but nodded ever so slightly. The others stepped forward. Some sense of reverent horror washed over them. James reached forward to grab his glass. It was cool to the touch. His trembling fingers wrapped around the glass. He turned to his compatriots.
"Gentlemen," He began, as a tear dropped into his glass.