“Tell us a story, Grandpa!” Betty cried.
It was a starry night in the Old West. The war had been over for decades, but the country was still settling in. Deals with the native landowners were still being brokered as many communities still dared to live on the frontiers. In those days, many chose to live independent of established settlements. Many drifted in search of a home, in search of a life. Some, having lived the lives they had wanted, chose to spend the rest of their days camping in the scenery the land afforded, living on the frontiers. Just like the old man sitting by the fire with his grandchildren, under the night sky.
The twins‘ squeals were so loud they echoed in the still night. He tried to calm them down, though he still enjoyed the sound of youth around him. What precious moments he could have with these children, be it in wilderness camp-outs, he was determined to enjoy. He’d only wished it had been under better circumstances.
“Yeah!” Ben intoned, rubbing his palms together. “Tell us a scary story.”
“Or a romantic one,” Betty said, beaming. “Where the man fights for the maiden’s heart.”
“Ugh…” Ben shook his head.
Grandpa turned to Janice, their older sister at sixteen. “What d’you think, Janana?”
From the wagon behind them where she sat, she smirked. “It’s Janice, Grandpa.” She had chosen to stay in the wooden wagon, probably deeming the grass too undignified for a young woman like her. “It’s been ages since anyone called me that.”
“You used to love it when we called you Janana.”
“Yeah, when I was nine.”
“C’mon, Grandpa,” Betty chimed in. “We want to hear the love story.”
“As long as it’s also a scary one,” Ben added.
“Last time you heard a scary story you wet your bed, and I had to wash those sheets,” Janice said, staring pointedly at him.
“GRANDPA!” Ben protested, Betty laughing by his side. “She wasn’t supposed to bring that up again!”
“But the stink on that mattress was lethal…”
Grandpa tried to stifle a laugh, holding a hand up. “It’s alright, little man. Nobody’s bringin’ it up again. Are we, Janice?”
“OK, Grandpa.” She returned to the book she was ‘reading’. Grandpa was certain she could barely even see the words in the dim lighting where she sat.
He ruffled the boy’s hair. “’Sides, you’re all grown up now, Benny. I’m sure you don’t wet the bed anymore. Like the Good Book says, old things are passed away.”
Janice muttered, “The bedbugs definitely passed—“
“Janice!” His eyes flared enough for her to get the message. She covered her lips, still smiling. “I could tell stories from your own childhood, young lady. Embarrassing stories.”
She gasped, playing along. “You wouldn’t.”
“Oh, this sounds good.” Betty said, sitting up.
“Tell us, Grandpa!” Ben said.
“Grandpa?” Janice was just now considering the possibility that he was not joking. He was considering the same thing.
Pa leaned in to the twins conspiratorially. “There was this time, when Janana was just a wee little—…”
“You know what?” She threw her hands in the air. “The fire’s dying, Grandpa. I’ll go get more wood. And it’s Janice.”
He knew there was much more on her mind than she let on. “You OK?”
“I’m fine, Grandpa,” she pushed herself to her feet.
Their parents had dropped them with him on their journey west, telling the children that they would just be ‘spending the summer with Grandpa’. But he knew it was really gold fever that had overtaken them. Rumors of the gold deposits in California had drawn throngs from across the nation just to get some gold to change their lives. He could not blame them, though he feared they would be disappointed. Even if there was something to this gold rumor, then soon everyone would have gold, and then it would be worth nothing. It was all up to chance. He just wished their lives could be better. The children definitely felt the same, and none felt it more greatly that Janice. They surely deserved better.
“Don’t go too far,” Grandpa turned to her. “You don’t want the Rider to getcha.”
“The who-now?” Ben asked, his ears practically perked at the idea.
Pa turned to the twins, knowing he had their attention. Dramatically affecting a shocked expression, his nose flared in mock horror. “They never told you about the Rider?”
Janice rolled her eyes. “Ugh, you are not telling them that one.”
“What story?” Ben’s ears practically perked at that. “Tell us, Grandpa.”
“You’ve never told us this story,” Betty said, frowning at Janice.
Pa dramatically paused, letting the shadows of the flames dance in his face as he took on a haunting tone. “Why, the Legend of the Dark Rider is a tale as old as time. It was first told to me when I was … really really young.”
“Bet Janice wasn’t born then,” Betty intoned.
“It’s a story just as true back then as it is to this day. But the best way to tell it…” he hoisted his guitar up on his shoulder. “Is to tell it in a song!”
“Yeah!” Ben pumped a fist. “A story and a song.”
“Sshh…” They fell silent as Grandpa strummed. He could see Janice sauntering by the periphery, listening. Everyone loved a good story, he mused. He cleared his throat dramatically and, with a barrelling baritone, began:
There’s a tale about a man from hell
Who rides across the desert land.
Only thing on earth he’s got’s his horse
And the rifle in his hand.
He rides to find the life he lost
Or a life he seeks, nobody knows.
You’d best watch out or he might just take yours.
That’s how the story goes.
“Is he a ghost?” Betty asked.
“More like an Outlaw?” Ben asked, his mind reeling with ideas. “Ghosts don’t know zip about guns.”
“When did you become an authority on ghosts and guns?” Grandpa asked with a smirk, still strumming. “You OK back there, Jan … ana?” He completed the pet name quietly, sending the twins in giggles.
“I’m fine, Grandpa!” Janice called back.
“Better be careful,” Grandpa called back. “Forgotten the rest of the story already?”
Janice turned back. “Grandpa, you can’t keep scaring us with cautionary tales to make us stay safe in the desert. Stay close, don’t wander off on your own. That’s the gist of it. If you want them to wet their beds while you’re at it, it’s fine by me. I don’t care.”
Grandpa wrapped the bridge and moved on to the next verse.
He creeps out in the dead of night
There’s no telling when he’s here.
He’s always lurking beyond your sight
I tell ya, you’d best beware!
‘Cause it make no difference who y’are
He’s a tortured soul, he’s got no care
He preys on your most darkest fear
That’s how the story goes.
“Most darkest?” Betty asked.
“Hey, grammar wasn’t all refined back in the old days,” Grandpa said. “That’s how the song was taught to me.”
Don’t matter just how far he’s gone
Don’t matter all he’s taken.
When he’s got his rifle in your face
Remember, he ain’t fakin’.
He’s never full, he’s always out
To have his fill. He’s always about
To spill more guts and blood and gout.
That’s how the story goes.
The twins were grimacing now.
“Don’t worry. It gets better.” Grandpa peeked over his shoulder. “Janana? Wanna sing the next part?”
“Oh, don’t stop, Grandpa.”
“Yeah. The music is nice. The story, well…”
But then he stopped strumming. “Janice?” She had not replied him.
That was when he realized that something was wrong. He did not have to wait too long to find out what.
As one they turned, and the sight before them took their breaths away. Grandpa’s heart sank as he hurried to his feet. There was a horse standing by the wagon. And there was Janice on that horse, her face white. But it was the man covering her mouth, the man on the horse, who completed the picture. His wide brim hat cloaked his face in a shadow.
Dear God, Janice!
“Speak of the devil and he will appear,” his voice gruff voice droned. “Looks like someone wasn’t listenin’ in church.”
The twins screamed. Grandpa pulled them to stand behind him. But the stranger would have none of it.
“QUIET! All’a you, zip it, or she’s dead!” The barrel of his gun was in Janice’s cheek. Grandpa’s heart thumped as he tried calmed the twins down. The fear in Janice’s eyes sliced through his gut. In a way he feared he had brought this evil upon them all.
Dear God, please… it can’t be.
He held his hands out. “L-let the girl go, please,” Grandpa said, mustering as much confidence as he could. “You don’t have to pull that trigger. I – I’ll give you anything. We don’t have much money. But we have f-food … an-and water, and—“
“When he’s got his rifle in yer face, remember, he ain’t fakin’…” The Rider twisted the barrel in her cheek, drawing his voice out by her ear. Her sobs were amplified in her breathing now.
Grandpa shook his head. “We’ll give you all of it! Just … please, let the girl go. Don’t … do … just, p-please … don’t hurt her.”
For a moment they just stared at each other, Janice whimpering with tears streaming down her face. God protect that child. Dear God …
“Where is it?”
Grandpa blinked. “What… Oh, sure, yes. We’ll give it to ya.” He kept his gaze on the man as he reached back for the twins. “It’s OK, little ones. I’m just going into the wagon, to get s-some stuff for the good gentleman here. You stay right here, and don’t move. Ok?”
But they still clung to him, quivering. The night had flipped, taken a turn for the worse. This was definitely the last thing they had expected for the night, and why would they? They must have been scared to death, but Grandpa had to think of their safety too.
He turned to the man on the horse. “I’ll move with the children. The food is in the wagon—“
“No,” the Rider growled. “You go in. They stay.”
Pa tried to take a step, but they still clung tighter to him.
“GET BACK!” the Rider snapped. That jolted the children as they let go of Grandpa, bawling with all their might. “Get them to shut up! Disgusting maggots!”
Grandpa stretched his hands out to calm them down. “Shh. It-it’s OK. Everything’s gonna be fine. I promise.”
They sobbed past their closed mouths as Grandpa walked slowly towards the wagon. The Rider maneouvered his horse to stand by, keeping Grandpa in full view at all times. The older man knew that he could defend his family. But that gun in Janice’s face sat on the edge of his mind through it all.
Good Lord, protect that girl.
He stepped out with the sack of fruit. He dropped it by the Rider’s horse. “This is all we’ve got.”
The man watched Grandpa without a word. Slowly, he dug out one of the fruits from the bag. An apple. He bent low and gave it to his horse. The crunching of the beast’s munching stood out bizarrely in the stand-off.
Janice was crying out loud now.
Pa wished he could take control of the situation. But he couldn’t. No options – no safe options – presented themselves to him. He stepped back to hold the twins.
The Rider tossed Janice to the ground then. The girl screamed and scampered over to her Grandpa, who was just grateful to have her alive. “Oh, thank God,” Grandpa exhaled as he hurried to her. “Are you OK?”
“I’m f-fiiiiii…” But she wasn’t. Now she let the waterworks flow as she cried openly. Grandpa embraced her. The twins clung to him, crying and quivering.
“W-was that him?” Ben asked. “The Dark Rider?”
Grandpa looked up, but the man in black was already riding off into the night.
Grandpa shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s OK, Jan… it’s OK.”
She cried into his chest as Grandpa looked on. “I th-thought I was g-going to d-die…”
“You’re not dying, pumpkin.”
“H-he’s not coming back, i-is he?” Betty stared off in the Rider’s direction too.
Grandpa shook his head. “No, he’s not. But we’ll be safe and prepared, if he does.”
Something did not sit right about the intruder to Grandpa. It could not be the Rider of the story he was telling. But if it was, then that meant a whole cache of other things were about to unfold.
“And he’ll get what’s coming for him,” Grandpa said. “The story wasn’t over.”
He whispered in their ears,
So the Rider came to steal to his fill
He took and did whate’er he willed.
He’s crept on us, ’cause we weren’t on our toes.
“Pa,” Janice tried to protest, but he just patted her hair and nodded.
Cheer up, my dears, though all be dim.
‘Cause we’re not victims of his whim.
He’ll surely get what’s comin’ for him.
That’s how this story goes.
“Still think that song makes things better?” Janice asked.
Grandpa nodded. “He’ll get what’s coming for him.” He squeezed their shoulders.
One thing he knew, staring into the eyes of that man, was that he was flesh and blood. And whenever myth gave way to reality, whenever the word became flesh, things could never go as planned. Something was about to happen. He could feel it in the air.
“If I know a thing or two about men like him, it’s that no man can escape from his own story. That man’s story is not done. Not just yet.”
TO BE CONTINUED IN ‘THE RIDER’, THIS FALL
© Emmanuel Onimisi 2017