All was quiet on the Mississippi. A gentle breeze blew across the water and stirred the Spanish moss hanging from the trees lining the banks, and from time to time the twitter of birdsong could be heard. A pristine picture of Southern beauty, just waiting to be captured on canvas by an artist, but none were around to do so -- not a soul was at that spot on the wide river at the moment, no one nearby to witness all that God-given glory.
Then something began to happen at a point about twenty feet above the river: a strange boiling in the air, small at first, then growing until it took the shape of a man. It remained indistinct for a few seconds before the details came into focus -- the shape gained color, the face gained features -- and for a few seconds more, the figure hung in the air as if suspended by strings, then gravity took hold and he plummeted, hitting the surface of the river like a rock and sinking out of sight. The noise of his splashdown sent the birds into a frenzy, taking off from the trees en masse. When it seemed that all the commotion had passed and the world had returned to its original placidity, the river was disturbed once again as the man broke the surface, gasping and coughing, ripping away the red bandana covering his face so he could better draw breath.
His name was Greg Saunders, and his mind was reeling. The last thing he could remember with any clarity was fighting alongside his fellow Soldiers, trying to take down the creature known as the Nebula Man. The battle had taken a turn for the worse, and Sylvester...what had that kid done? Something drastic, but they all agreed it was necessary, so they’d charged forward as one, and then there was an explosion, and...
I should be dead, he thought. I felt the shockwave rip through me, and there was light, a black light... He whipped his head around, taking in his surroundings. If I ain't dead, then where in blazes am I? This sure don’t look nothin’ like Philadelphia...not to mention that it’s daylight all of the sudden. He coughed up more water, then called out, “Crimson? Sir Justin? Where is everybody?” No answer came, which certainly didn't help his confusion. Maybe they sank deeper than I did, Greg thought, and briefly considered diving back down to see if he could spot anyone before pushing the idea aside. It was taking all the strength he had just to keep his head above water, a task made more difficult by the fact that his right arm had been wrenched badly during the fight. You’re gonna have to worry ‘bout yourself for the moment, Saunders. Get to shore before you drown out here. He soon realized that was easier said than done: the river appeared to be close to a half-mile wide, and he was floating roughly in the middle of it. Don’t think ‘bout the distance, he told himself, just start swimmin’ and don’t stop ‘til y’all got land under you.
After the first few strokes, however, his battered body was shivering from the strain. “Keep goin’...g-gotta keep goin’,” he gasped, but it was no good: his soaking-wet clothes, coupled with the weight of the sixguns strapped to his hips, threatened to pull him under every time he paused to rest. “Ain’t gonna drown...you ain’t gonna drown...” he repeated over and over, but he knew merely saying it couldn't prevent it.
He was bracing himself to try again when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye: something massive was coming towards him from upriver, a boat of some sort. Thank you, Lord, he thought, then called out, “Hey! Hey, I need help!” He clutched his bandana in his good hand and waved it about, yelling until he was hoarse. It seemed like forever before he heard the peal of a brass bell and a voice shouting, “Man overboard!”
As the boat came closer, Greg saw it was an old-fashioned paddleboat, the great red wheel at the stern churning up the water behind it. It was an odd sight, but he was in such dire straights, he didn’t care if his rescuers were in a rubber dinghy so long as they pulled him out of the drink. He treaded water as best he could until he saw someone on the lowermost deck toss out a rope. It hit the water a good eight feet away, and Greg clumsily swam over to it, wrapping the end around his good arm and holding on for dear life as the men on deck pulled him in. When he was within reach, some of the men took hold of his royal-blue shirt and yanked him over the rail -- Saunders hit the wooden deck with a wet thud. “Get back! Give the man some air!” someone said.
Grasping one of the rail’s supports, Greg pulled himself up to a sitting position and tried to catch his breath. As he stared back out at the river, he saw something small and white bobbing in the boat's wake. “That's my hat,” he rasped.
“Well, you’d best bid it farewell, because I’m sure as Hell not diving in there for it.” Greg turned his head and saw a man in a tweed suit and bowler hat kneeling beside him. Funny thing was, the cut of the suit looked to be a few decades out of fashion. “How’d you end up in the middle of Ole Miss, anyhow?” the man asked. “You fall off another boat?”
“‘Ole Miss’...Mississippi? I got blown all the way to Mississippi?” He blinked in disbelief. “That’s...what, five states away?”
The man cocked an eyebrow. “You’re on the Mississippi, but you’re in Louisiana,” he explained, then asked, “Where did you think you were?”
“Philadelphia…at least I was in Philadelphia,” Greg said as he ran a hand though his matted-down hair, his brain still coming to grips with the new information. The change in venue certainly explained the paddleboat, as well as the man’s outdated clothes – this was probably a showboat of sorts, running up and down the Mississippi River for the benefit of tourists, giving them a taste of the Old South. Then he took a look at the other men and women gathered around them, whispering amongst themselves about their unexpected visitor: they were all dressed in turn-of-the-century fashions, down to the last bustle and starched collar. Not a stitch of modern 20th century clothing could be seen. Okay, so they all work for the tourist trade, he thought. “Where’s the captain?” he asked the man in the tweed suit. “I need him to get on the radio, see if we can get some more boats down here. My friends…”
“You need him to get on what?” The man stared at him.
“The radio. Get on the radio, call the Coast Guard or whomever patrols the river.” Saunders climbed unsteadily to his feet, looking out over the water. “If my friends landed up here too, they might be in as bad a shape as me.”
“Mister, you’d better sit back down. You’re not making one bit of sense.” The man turned to the crowd and said, “Does anybody know if there’s a doctor onboard? I don’t think this fella’s all right in the head.”
“Probably drunk,” another man said, his own suit as out-of-date as the first gentleman’s. “You know how cowboys get when they’re in town. Bet you a dollar he got sloshed on some other sternwheeler an’ fell over the side.”
A woman beside him clucked her tongue. “Abel, that’s a terrible thing to say. The poor man’s been through a trauma.” She stepped forward, her petticoats rustling, and patted Saunders on the arm. “Don’t you worry, dear. You’re safe and sound now.”
“Um…thanks.” This was getting far too strange for him. He was about to ask the woman if everyone on board was an actor or if they provided costumes for passengers when a newcomer approached from the bow -- judging from his own period getup, Greg figured he must be the captain. “Sorry if I’m interruptin’ your show,” he said, doing his best to stand up straight, “but I need you to call the authorities, it’s an emergency.”
The captain gave him a sour look. “What are you talkin’ about? Who the Hell are you to be givin’ me orders on my own ship?”
“I’m the Vigilante, with the Seven Sol…”
“You bein’ a vigilante don’t hold a bit of sway with me,” the captain interrupted. “Vigilance committees aren’t real law, so unless you’ve got a badge stashed under that shirt, you’d best stow that high-and-mighty tone right quick, mister.”
“‘Vigilance committee’?” Greg echoed. “Listen, I understand y’all want to project an ‘old-timey’ image and all that, but can you drop it for five minutes or so? I need to borrow your radio so’s I can…”
“What in blue blazes is a ‘ray-dee-uh’?”
The man in the tweed suit shrugged. “Got me. He’s been saying all sorts of odd things ever since he got on board.”
“He’s drunk!” the man addressed as Abel called out, and the woman shushed him.
“What’s wrong with you people?” Saunders yelled in frustration. “My friends could be dyin’ right now, and y’all are too wrapped up in your playactin’ to lift a finger! If you’re not gonna help me, then get the Hell out of my way.” He tried to push past them, but the captain grabbed Saunders by his right arm and jerked him to a stop, sending a white-hot jolt of pain up into his injured shoulder.
“Now you wait just a damn minute,” the captain said. “I don’t know who you think you are, but I’m not about to let you go wanderin’ about my ship, especially since you can’t seem to talk anything but nonsense. Now, you’re gonna come with me, an’ you’re not gonna give me a lick of trouble about it, or else I’ll heave you back over the side, you savvy?”
Teeth gritted against the pain, Saunders nodded his assent, and let the captain lead him into the paddleboat’s interior, all the way to what appeared to be the man’s personal quarters. As with everything else he’d seen, the room was filled with perfect reproductions of late-19th century furnishings and sundries, with not one anachronism to be found to shatter the illusion. “I don’t know who owns this boat, but he sure sank a lot of money into makin’ it authentic,” Greg muttered as he looked around the small cabin, holding his sore arm against his chest. He walked over to a roll-top desk tucked away in the corner – a crisp copy of the St. Louis Dispatch was laying on top of it, the date below the masthead declaring that it had been printed on May third, 1875. “You folks did a better job here than they did on my last movie.”
The captain frowned. “Do me a favor, son: Don’t talk unless I ask you a question. It helps cut down on the gibberish. Now, do you got a proper name, ‘Mister Vigilante’?”
Now it was Greg’s turn to frown. Telling his true identity to a civilian wasn’t something he did often, but considering the urgency of the situation, plus the fact that half the people on this boat had seen his face, he figured he had no choice. “My name’s Greg Saunders…reckon you’ve probably heard of me.”
“Why? You wanted for something?”
“Huh? No, I meant you probably heard me on the radio, or saw one of the movies I’ve been doin’ lately…not that I’d really recommend them, I pretty much do ‘em for the exposure.”
“Right, that ‘ray-dee-uh’ thing again. Mind explainin’ to me exactly what that’s supposed to mean?”
“Look, I’ve tried to be patient, but this isn’t funny anymore. Stop playin’ dumb and help me!”
“Son, I’d love to help you, but I swear to the Lord Above that I don’t have the foggiest notion what you’re talkin’ about.” He stepped over to where Greg stood beside the desk and gently laid his hands on the man’s shoulders. “Now I figure you must’ve whacked your head or something when you was out in the water, and you don’t realize that you’re not makin’ any sense. So until we get into port, I want you to just sit here and be quiet, and we’ll get you to a doctor as soon as we can.”
Saunders glared at him, the frustration and worry he felt slowly turning into outright anger, then he began to realize that this man wasn’t playing around -- he seriously didn’t understand what Saunders was asking for. But how could you not know something like that? he thought. Everybody knows what a radio is…unless… He swallowed hard, then glanced back down at the newspaper on the desk. “How…how old is that?” he asked.
The captain followed his eyes. “Picked it up when we stopped there last week.”
“So today…” He almost couldn’t say it. “So today’s date is May tenth, 1875?”
“Same dif’rence.” It was a good thing the captain had a hold of him, because Greg felt his knees unhinge. The man guided him down into the desk chair, asking him if he was all right, but Greg couldn’t find the words to answer; his mind was too fixed on the date. This can’t be right; it’s got to be a dream, he thought. How in God’s name could I have been tossed into the past? Then an even more troublesome thought popped into his head: Am I the only one, or did the rest of the Soldiers get tossed back too?
His train of thought was disrupted by a knock on the cabin door. “Excuse me, Cap’n,” a young man said, “but they need you up in the wheelhouse.”
“Be there in a few minutes.” The captain looked Saunders in the eye. “If I leave you here by yourself, you promise to sit tight ‘til I get back?” He nodded, then the captain went over to a trunk sitting nearby. He rummaged through it for a moment, then pulled out a well-worn shirt and a pair of pants. “Here, you might want to change into something drier before you catch your death,” he said, laying them on top of the trunk.
“Thanks,” Greg mumbled, but he didn’t move from the chair. When the captain went to leave, though, he called out, “Wait…where exactly is this boat goin’?”
The bullets were ruined, he was sure of that. After he’d changed into the dry clothes (and wrung out his boxers as well as he could -- he wasn’t about to wear somebody else’s clothes with no underwear beneath), Greg pulled out his guns and did his best to dry them out with a rag he’d found. He was sure the pistols would be fine, but the bullets…no way was he going to trust ammunition that had been sitting in water for as long as he’d been. At least he knew finding replacement ammo would be easy: the guns were authentic 1873 Colt Peacemakers, passed down from his father, who in turn had gotten them from Greg’s grandfather. Matter of fact, ol’ Grandpa Jud was probably running around Wyoming with those same guns at that very moment -- a young man who’d come to the West seeking adventure, and who eventually would help tame it as a lawman. It was bizarre to think about, but that didn’t make it any less true -- he wasn’t in 1948 anymore, and the sooner he faced up to that, the sooner he could figure out just how in the Hell he got there.
It had to have been the Nebula Man. That was the only explanation he could come up with that seemed even remotely possible. When he and the other members of the Seven Soldiers of Victory found out about the thing, and just what the Iron Hand planned on doing with it, they knew they had to stop it no matter what. Only problem was, they weren’t entirely sure what it was capable of -- they knew it was some sort of powerful demonic force, but just how much power did it have? Enough to send him flying through time? It would probably help if my brain wasn’t so muddled, he thought. The shock of the explosion -- he was sure there was an explosion -- had apparently blocked out parts of his memory. Never mind what you don’t remember, focus on what you do. Greg rubbed a hand over his face, trying to recall everything he could, but it just wasn’t enough. For now, he’d just have to assume that everyone else got caught up in the same blast as him, and that they’d all ended up here as well.
Wait…where had Daniel been? He sat up straight, his face pale. I told him to run, at least I think I did…oh God, why did I let him talk me into bringin’ him along? He should have known better, but everything had happened so fast, he hadn’t thought at first about the danger he might be putting his young partner in. But the moment Saunders realized just how high the stakes really were, he’d made sure that Daniel Leong wasn’t part of the equation. “I told him to run,” he repeated aloud in an effort to assuage his fears. “I know I told him to run, and he’s never disobeyed me before…Stuff’s a good soldier, always has been.” Though not officially part of their group, the boy was as close as one could get -- “the eighth Soldier”, that was their nickname for him -- but that didn’t make that particular battle his. No, that was for the original seven alone. I just hope that wasn’t our last battle, he thought.
The captain returned to the cabin once they’d pulled into port. Despite the man’s insistence, Greg begged off on seeing a doctor -- though his shoulder ached like crazy, and his ribs were bruised up pretty bad as well, he figured he’d be fine after a day or so. That, and he knew the captain was more concerned about Greg’s brain than his body, but trying to explain the truth about his earlier confusion certainly wouldn’t help matters much, so he bluffed his way out. “I was just in shock from fallin’ in the river, that’s all,” Saunders told him. “Sittin’ down for a bit cleared that right up, though.” The captain didn’t seem entirely convinced, but let him leave the boat anyways, his soggy garments balled up in a cotton sack and his sore arm tucked in a sling he’d made from his bandana.
Now came the hard part: Where should he start looking for the others? The docks seemed the most likely place, on the off chance that they’d been picked up like he had, so Saunders began to make his way along the riverfront, doing his best not to gawk at the antiquated sights -- and people -- around him. This is normal for them, he kept telling himself, absolutely normal. Just because you ain’t seen things like this outside of old photographs don’t mean you need to be starin’ at ‘em like that. To help distract himself, he worked up a line to feed to folks when describing what his friends looked like -- he certainly wasn’t going to tell anybody straight out that they were all from the future, and crime-fighters at that. Circus folk, he decided, that’s the best way to explain their costumes. Yep, we’re circus folk, and the boat we was travelin’ on had an accident, and I fell overboard. Nice and simple.
Unfortunately, he soon found a good cover story was the least of his problems. After talking to damn-near every sailor he came across, he ended up with zilch. No one had picked up anybody stranded in the water, nor had they seen anyone matching the description of his friends at any of the ports along the way to St. Roch. In fact, the only positive thing that came out of the whole ordeal was a sympathetic soul gave Greg three dollars to tide him over until he was reunited with the others. He didn’t want to take it at first, then realized he had no choice, as it wasn’t very likely that the local shops would accept currency from the 20th century. At least I’ll be able to get a hot meal and maybe a room for the night, he thought as he stuffed the bills into the pocket of his borrowed pants, then I can start fresh in the morning.
The morning…Lord, it wasn’t even sundown yet, and he was already thinking of this whole misadventure in terms of days. The possibility of being stuck there long-term wasn’t one he was ready to consider yet, even as he left the riverfront and entered St. Roch proper. He’d been there once before in his own time, playing a quick one-night gig years ago to promote an album, then zipping off to the next stop -- he didn’t even recall venturing far beyond the theatre. Seeing it now in its earlier days made him wish he’d lingered a little more the first time, just so he could take note of the changes seven decades would bring to the place. For sure, the younger St. Roch seemed a busy town, with people coming to and from the docks almost constantly. The crowds thinned up a bit the further he got from the water, but even then he sometimes found himself stepping off the boardwalk and into the muddy street to let a knot of people pass on by. It was his own fault, really: they all knew where they were going, whereas he was simply wandering about like a wide-eyed tourist on his first trip to the big city. Yeah, some city, he said to himself. I ain’t seen one building higher than three stories yet. In an odd way, it reminded him of the little Wyoming town where he’d grown up, just with older trappings. That made the idea of spending more than a day there a bit easier to swallow.
As the sun dipped lower in the west, Greg decided he’d better see about getting some food in his stomach and a pillow under his head…and considering the money situation, he wasn’t all that choosy about either. He headed back to the main street, where he’d seen a fair amount of saloons, and simply ducked into the first one he came across that didn’t look too pricey. The place only had a few patrons, and most of them were too focused on a poker game going on at one of the tables to even notice Saunders as he walked up to the bar. A balding, heavyset man stood behind it, wiping a shot glass with the corner of his stained apron. Greg tried not to make a face at the sight of that, and asked, “Excuse me, sir?”
The man glanced at him from the corner of his eye, as if suspicious of the word “sir” being used in his presence. “Shot or bottle?”
“Um, neither.” Especially if that’s goin’ to be my glass, he silently added. “I was hopin’ y’all served food in here.”
The man grunted, “Two bits,” then turned and went through a doorway behind the bar. Greg could hear the sound of meat sizzling a moment later -- he assumed that must be the way to the kitchen -- then the barkeep returned. “You sure ‘bout not wantin’ any likker?”
“Positive.” Considering his situation, remaining sober seemed the best course of action. “Got any coffee?”
“‘At’s a nickel.” Back through the doorway again, this time lingering back there a bit longer before coming out with a tin plate and cup. The barkeep stood in front of Greg, an expectant look on his face, but didn’t set the food down. It took Greg a moment to realize what he was waiting for, and pulled out one of the paper dollars the sailor had given him. The man snatched it up and, after finally relinquishing the chow, went over to another section of the bar.
Wonderful ambience this place has, Saunders thought, and looked at the food. He was pretty sure it used to be hamburger, with bits of chopped onions sticking out of the half-cooked meat. He poked at it with the fork, unsure if he should attempt to eat it -- he thought some of the meat looked a mite green.
“Don’t worry, it’s edible,” a voice said behind him. He turned to see a woman standing there, tray in hand. He’d missed her on his way in. “It may be the sorriest-looking Hamburg steak ever, but the meat’s good, I promise.” She paused, then added, “You might want to skip the coffee, though.”
Greg laughed in spite of himself -- after the day he’d had, it felt good to do so. “Okay, I’ll take your word for it,” he said. “If I get salmonella, though, I’m blamin’ you.” As he dug in, the barkeep came by again, laying a half-dollar on the counter for Greg’s change. “Hey, wait a minute,” he said as the man walked off, “you shorted me.” The man turned around and gave him the same look as when he first came in, but Saunders continued anyways. “You said two bits for the food, and a nickel for coffee...that’s thirty cents, all told.”
“An’ a Yankee greenback’s only worth eighty, so ‘at’s all you get. You’re lucky I even took the cussed thing.”
Saunders cocked an eyebrow, saying, “Since when is a dollar not worth a dollar?”
“You’re not from around these parts, are you?” the woman asked him, then said to the barkeep, “Give him a break, Mort. He looks like he needs one.”
You don’t know the half of it, lady, Greg thought. Mort the barkeep grumbled under his breath as he produced the other twenty cents, which Greg scooped up before the big man could change his mind. “Thanks for helping out,” he said to the woman.
“Like I said, you look like you need a break. I’d advise you stick to spending gold or silver while you’re in town, though, or you’ll get more of the same.”
“I would, but paper’s all I got.” He propped his chin on his hand. “This certainly explains that fella’s generosity...he must’ve known greenbacks weren’t worth face value ‘round here.”
“What fella’s that?” Greg tried to wave the question off, but the woman prodded, “Come on, I ain’t got nothing to do ‘til those guys need another round.” She laid the empty tray on the bartop. “You might as well tell me a story.”
He took a few more bites of food, thinking, then began to tell her the same tale he’d repeated up and down the docks earlier, now adding on the part with the “good Samaritan” and the greenbacks. “So now I reckon I’m back where I started: dead broke and alone,” he said once he was done. “If I don’t find my friends tomorrow, I ain’t rightly sure what I’m gonna do.”
“Well, you’re not completely broke,” she replied. “You’ve got more than enough silver to cover a room here. That’s better than sleeping in some back alley.”
“I suppose you’re right.” It was strange: though he couldn’t tell her the entire truth, telling her what little he could made him feel better. She seemed to honestly be listening to him as he spoke of his troubles. “I think what’s bothering me most is not knowing where they are, and if they’re okay or not.”
The woman began to say something else, but they were interrupted by one of the poker players coming over to them, calling out, “Alice, honey, time to congratulate me!” He sidled up to her and threw an arm around her waist, pulling her close. “I’ve got two hundred dollars burning a hole in my pocket...care to help me spend a little?”
“I think I could spare you some time. Why don’t you go meet me upstairs?” She ran a finger along his jawline with a playful smile, and he did as she asked. Alice then looked at Greg, saying, “I’m sorry, but Jerry’s not the most cultured fella.”
“No apology necessary.” Greg felt stupid for not realizing that she probably did more around the place than just serve drinks -- it certainly explained why she seemed to be such a good listener. “I’m sorry if my problems were keepin’ you from your...business.” That seemed the nicest way to phrase it.
She laughed. “Don’t worry. ‘Business’ doesn’t usually come up until one of those guys wins big. And besides, I think you needed me more at the time than old Jerry needs me now.” She then smiled at him, a more genuine one than she’d given the other guy, as she turned away from him. “You take care of yourself, mister.”
“Greg...my name’s Greg...and thanks again.” He watched Alice as she ascended the stairs at the back of the saloon. She had a nice body under that dress, and if he’d been inclined to partake in her particular ‘business’, he was sure he wouldn’t regret it.
The bed he slept in that night over the saloon was barely worth the two bits he paid for it, but, remarkably, he did sleep. The events of the last twenty-four hours had sapped Saunders completely, to the point where he probably could have conked out on the bare floor and not noticed the difference. When he woke up the next morning, he actually called out to Daniel a few times in a groggy voice, asking the kid to bring him some strong coffee and a couple of aspirins, until the gears in his brain began to move enough for him to remember that Daniel wasn’t there, and this definitely wasn’t the New York brownstone he called home. He lay there in bed for a while as his situation sank in anew, wondering how he should go about looking for his fellow Soldiers today. Walking the docks obviously wasn’t enough -- this time, he was going to have to head back upriver, hopefully all the way back to where he’d fallen in. But how? He knew from asking around yesterday that two dollars and change certainly wouldn’t buy him passage on a boat, and going on foot would take forever. Then he remembered seeing a livery off the main street -- if he was lucky, he might be able to rent a horse for the day.
A plan decided on, Greg dragged himself out of bed, his body a mass of aches, and got dressed. His uniform was dry now, but it smelled moldy from being in the river, so it was back to the borrowed duds...which didn’t do much to hide the stink that was beginning to come off himself. I’d pay for a bath if I had the money to spare, he thought as he tried to tame his dark hair into something respectable, but unless I find the others today, I’m gonna need to hold on to every nickel I got. Greg looked around for Alice as he exited the saloon, but she was nowhere to be seen. He thought about asking Mort where she was, but considering the man’s surly attitude last night, it seemed a poor idea, so he left without a word, making a beeline for the livery.
It took quite a bit of talking, but eventually Greg managed to secure a horse, riding tack and all. The only drawback was, since he didn’t have enough money to cover the entire fee, he had to leave his Peacemakers as collateral -- they were useless until he could afford bullets anyhow, but that didn’t make handing them over to a complete stranger any easier. As he rode off to the north, parallel to the river, he tried not to think about the fact that he was now armed with only a sturdy pocketknife. At least with the guns strapped on, I looked like I could do a little damage. Now I just look like some bum...easy pickings for any owlhoots prowling the back roads. He pushed that thought aside, and concentrated instead on finding any trace of his friends: a footprint in the mud, a scrap of one of their uniforms, anything to let him know he was on the right track. Every mile or so, he’d stop at a tree near the riverbank and carve VIG into the bark, with an arrow pointing the way to St. Roch -- if the others were doing the same as him, hopefully they’d find it and understand. By the time midday had come and gone, however, the gesture seemed futile, and Greg was beginning to sag in the saddle -- he was just too tired and too hungry to go on with the search that day. Besides, he still had the ride back to consider. He marked one last tree, then looked out over the Mississippi with a sigh, saying, “I ain’t givin’ up, fellas, I promise...and I hope y’all won’t give up on me.”
It was nearly dark by the time Saunders reached St. Roch again, saddle-sore from head to foot -- bouncing around on a horse all day certainly hadn’t helped the pain he was already in. What I wouldn’t give to have my motorcycle here, he thought as he left the livery, his reclaimed guns back in place. Who gives a damn if it’d scare the piss outta everybody, at least the thing’s got shocks and a cushioned seat. He somehow managed to make it all the way back to the saloon, this time choosing to collapse at an empty table near the door instead of standing at the bar. Most of the same men from the previous night had shown up again, along with a few others, and Alice was working her way from one group to the next, smiling all the while. Greg leaned back in his chair and watched her, marveling at how she dealt with them -- he imagined that a woman in her position probably wasn’t treated in any sort of kind manner most of the time, but she seemed to take it all in stride. When she finally noticed him, he nodded and did his best to smile, though he was nowhere in the mood to do so.
“Well, look who’s back,” she said as she passed near his table. “You stopping in for a bite?” He nodded again, and she went over to the bar, eventually coming back with the food. “You’re lucky, Mort’s fixing up hash tonight...it’s not bad.” She stood back a little and regarded him. “You’re a lot quieter tonight. No luck finding your friends?”
“Not a one. I ain’t turned up hide nor hair of ‘em, but I can’t just give up, y’know?” He poked at the food with his fork. “They could be only a few miles away, but too hurt to be searchin’ like I am.”
“You should go talk to the sheriff. He could send out a wire to some of the other towns around here. That would help, wouldn’t it?”
Greg sighed. He didn’t want to drag lawmen into this -- they’d ask far too many questions that he couldn’t answer -- but she had a point. “Maybe tomorrow...I don’t know.” He ate a little more food, then said, “I know that I’m gonna have to spend part of the day beggin’ for a job, that’s for sure. I’ve only got enough money left on me for the food and a room tonight.” He gave her a half-hearted smile. “Know of anybody willin’ to hire a waterlogged musician?”
Alice tilted her head, looking at him. “I thought you said you worked for the circus?”
His eyes widened, suddenly realizing the slip-up in his story. “Well...I do work for the circus...as a musician,” he said, fumbling with the words.
“Uh-huh...what do you play?”
“Guitar, mainly, but I’ve been known to bang out a tune on the piano now and then.” He looked about the saloon. “Too bad you ain’t got one here, I’d play you something.”
“Actually, hold that thought.” She stepped over to the bar and talked to Mort for a moment, then went into the back room. She came out a few minutes later carrying, to Greg’s surprise, a fine-looking guitar.
“Where in the world did you get that?” he asked, leaving the table and meeting Alice halfway. Greg took the instrument from her and immediately started to give it a once-over -- except for a bit of dust and some odd scuff marks on the backside, it was in perfect shape.
“Some dope calling himself ‘the Minstrel Maverick’ came in here a few months back, and him and some other guy busted up the place,” she explained. “He claimed he was on the side of the law, but Mort wasn’t too happy with the damage they caused, so he took the guy’s guitar to pay for it. It’s been sitting in the storeroom ever since.” She nodded towards the barkeep, saying, “If you promise not to do the same, Mort might let you play here in exchange for room and board.”
Greg had only been half-listening, his attention focused on strumming the strings and adjusting their tension accordingly, but the last sentence made him look up. “Wait a minute...are you sayin’ that old sourpuss over there is givin’ me a job?”
“Not yet. He said he’ll let you fool with the thing tonight, but if he ain’t impressed, then no deal.”
“Oh, I’ll impress the socks off of him.” He tossed the guitar’s strap over his shoulder and began to play. It was only idle pickin’ at first as he acquainted himself with the new instrument, no particular tune in mind. Then one occurred to him that seemed appropriate, and he started singing, his fingers dancing over the strings:
“The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping I dreamed I held you in my arms But when I awoke, dear, I was mistaken And I hung my head and I cried.
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine You make me happy when skies are gray You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you Please don’t take my sunshine away.”
For the first time since he’d arrived in the past, Greg felt in his element. Ever since he was a boy, music had been one of his greatest pleasures -- no problem was so big that it couldn’t be forgotten for the few minutes it took to perform a song. The feeling that came over him as the words poured out made the weariness inside him fade away briefly, and the ache in his shoulder virtually disappeared. In fact, he was so wrapped up in singing that he barely noticed the saloon around him -- he could have been standing in front of a mike at the recording studio, or on stage in a concert hall with a thousand people seated before him -- no matter the locale, the energy he put into his performance was the same. When he was done, and Saunders came back to reality, he was surprised at the way everyone in the saloon was looking at him. Even the fellas playing poker had stopped their game to listen.
“Land’s sakes, Greg, that was...” Alice shook her head, words failing her. “I was expecting a little finger-pickin’, not a serenade.”
“Always give the audience more’n they expect,” he replied with a wink.
“Where’d you learn that song, anyhow? I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like it.”
He bit his lip, then said, “Well, it’s still kind of new...but trust me, someday, everyone in Louisiana will know it by heart.”
“Play it again!” one of the poker-players called out.
“Naw, play ‘Old Dan Tucker’!” said another man standing at the bar.
“Reckon that’s up to the owner.” Greg looked in Mort’s direction and spread his hands. “What do you say, boss? Room and board, plus I keep any tips.”
The barkeep snorted, “You expect tips?” He then waved his hand and said, “Sure, if’n anybody here’s willin’ to pay you for what you’re doin’ for free, y’all can keep it.”
Saunders grinned, and turned back to the other men. “Gentlemen, requests cost a nickel per song.”
He felt like a kid again. Not so much in the sense of actual youth, but owing more to the arrangement he’d struck with Mort. It was quite similar to ones he’d made when he first came to New York as a wet-behind-the-ears country boy, right down to the stipulation about the tips. Those first few years were awful, Greg remembered: living hand-to-mouth, playing on a bench in Central Park for spare change when he couldn’t land a gig, sleeping in the back storerooms of bars when he did. But that was before Bill Gunn became his agent, before he made his name on the radio as “The Prairie Troubadour”...and certainly long before he started his second career as the Vigilante. None of that success meant anything back in 1875, though -- he was back to square one, albeit with a lot more experience under his belt. He knew how to read a crowd now, figure out what was working in a performance and what wasn’t, and he’d built up a healthy stable of responses for hecklers. All that helped keep the nickels coming as he played his heart out every night, glad that he’d memorized just about every song Stephen Foster ever wrote.
The gig also helped in another way: it took Greg’s mind off what was becoming a futile search. At Alice’s insistence, he’d spoken with the local law about his missing friends, concentrating more on physical descriptions than the actual circumstances of their separation. So far, that had led to nothing, and Greg had exhausted his options in the area around St. Roch, but he kept looking anyway. It was wearing him out, searching all day and performing all night, but he refused to give up on the notion that the other Soldiers were out there, just waiting for him to find them.
One morning, nearly a week after he’d arrived in St. Roch, he was getting ready to head out once again when there was a knock on the door of his room. He opened it to find Alice standing there, dressed a bit more demurely than usual. “Morning,” she said. “Just thought I’d check and see what plans you had for your day off.”
“What day off?”
“It’s Sunday. Town’s got an ordinance against drinking and gambling on the Sabbath, so Mort closes up the bar. Of course, if you want to play for a bunch of empty chairs, you’re welcome to it.”
“No, I don’t find that all too appealin’.” He scratched under his chin, thinking. “Well, knowin’ now that I don’t have to rush back, maybe I’ll go down to the docks and see if I can hitch a ride upriver for the day. I think I might have enough money now to...” He stopped, seeing the look of disappointment on Alice’s face. “You had something else in mind?”
“I was kind of hoping you might be willing to spend a little time in town with me instead.” She smiled slightly, saying, “I’m not sweet on you or anything, so get that idea out of your head. It’s just...I know you’re worried about your friends and all, but if you don’t give yourself some time to rest, honey, you’re gonna bust.”
Greg sighed and leaned against the doorframe. He hated to admit it, but she was right. “Okay, today it’s just you and me. No hittin’ the trail, no walkin’ the docks. Hell, I won’t even look in the direction of the river. So...what would you like to do?”
“Actually, I hadn’t planned that far ahead yet. I thought for sure you’d wave me off and go do like you always do.”
“Don’t you remember what I told you? Always give the audience more’n they expect.” He held out his arm, and she took it gladly, the two of them leaving the saloon for a little Sunday stroll. Many of St. Roch’s residents were in church, but there were enough moving about the town to see the couple -- Greg did the friendly thing, giving them a smile and nod, but the gesture they’d return was more akin to a glare. After the third or fourth time, he noticed the way Alice tensed up. “What’s the matter?” he asked.
“I’m sorry, Greg. I’m used to it myself, but it didn’t occur to me...” She shook her head, not wanting to say more, but he pressed her until she finally answered, “The folks in this town prefer that their whores stay inside.”
“You’re not a whore.”
“What do you think me and them boys do when we go upstairs? Play whist?” She leaned against his shoulder as they walked along. “You’re sweet, you really are...but you can be a real idiot too, sometimes.”
“That’s part of my charm.” They both chuckled at that, and he continued, “I just meant that you’re sellin’ yourself short, callin’ yourself a whore like that’s all you are. Nobody’s just one thing and that’s it...and they ain’t always what they look like on first glance, neither. Take me, for example: when you first saw me in the bar, what did you think I was?”
She thought about it for a moment, then said, “A cow-puncher, I suppose. A bit down on your luck, to be sure -- and I was right about that -- but between the clothes and the guns, I never would have figured you for a musician.” She furrowed her brow. “Why do you wear those guns, anyhow? Can’t imagine circus life being that dangerous.”
“Well, I wasn’t always in the circus,” he replied, inwardly debating how much he should reveal -- he avoided talking about himself as much as possible to keep from constantly inventing new lies. “My friends and I...we used to be soldiers.”
“Y’all met during the War?” He gave a noncommittal shrug, and she asked, “What regiment were you in?”
Greg smirked, then said, “Law’s Legionnaires, outta New York.”
“What? What’s ‘aha’ about?”
“It’s about you secretly being a Yankee. Certainly explains why you seem so ignorant about some things: you haven’t spent enough time amongst us genteel Southern folk,” Alice said with a smile. “A few more years, and you’ll fit right in.”
“Yeah, a few more years.” He tried to sound sarcastic, but it came out flat.
The smile faded from her face, and she stopped walking. They’d left the main streets far behind them, and were now in St. Roch’s Lagnappe District, where many of the town’s well-to-do residents lived. She looked up at him, saying, “I’m sorry, that didn’t come out right. I was just trying to make a little joke, that’s all.”
“No, you’re fine. My mind just...it was on something else when you said that.” He turned away slightly, and was surprised when she took his hand and pulled him back a few steps. “What are you doin’?”
“We’re backing up. I think we were about...here.” She set him at a spot roughly eight feet from where they’d stopped walking. “Okay, we’ll do this over again. You were telling me about you and your friends in the War, and that your regiment was called Law’s Legionnaires.” She looked at him expectantly. “So? You gonna keep going?”
He blinked at her, then started laughing, running a hand through his hair. “Yeah, the Law’s Legionnaires, that’s what we called ourselves,” he said once he’d composed himself. “Some other folk down the line started callin’ us the Seven Soldiers of Victory, but Law’s Legionnaires was our first name.”
“There were only seven of you? That’s barely enough for a platoon.”
“Oh, but if you saw us in action, you wouldn’t believe your eyes.” They began walking again, and Greg told her, “Tom and Justin, they always seem to argue over who’ll take point. Tom’s really headstrong, doesn’t listen too well to other people’s ideas, and Justin...well, it’s his background.” His eyes wandered up to the clear blue sky above them. “He just gets up on that horse and dives straight down into the thick of it, never mind that the rest of us are doin’ our damnedest to catch up. Danette’s the only one of us who can talk him down when he gets like that. She’s sort of the conscience of our group...the little sister all us boys try to protect, even though she can scrap just as hard as the rest of us.”
Alice raised an eyebrow. “Y’all had a girl fighting alongside you? What’d she do, disguise herself and sneak in?”
“As a matter of fact...” he started to say, then shook his head. “That’s a whole ‘nother story. Maybe some other time.”
“Okay, so what about the others?”
“Pat and Sylvester...now those two are fun to watch. They were a team long before the Soldiers came along, so they’ve got their own rhythm. That’s not to say they don’t work well with the rest of us, but if we have to split up during a fight, we know for sure to put them together. Then you’ve got Lee...we’d been friends for a while before we got our group together, though me and him are kind of like ‘country mouse and city mouse’, y’know? We don’t look like we should get along, but we think a lot alike when it comes to doin’ the job. And he’s smart too; he’s good for makin’ plans. If we had to choose a de facto leader for the group, I’d say it’d be a toss-up between Lee and Justin.”
“You can’t put it behind you, can you?”
“The War. You talk like you and your friends are still fighting in it,” she said with a frown. “I’ve seen a lot of men that act like it all happened yesterday instead of ten years gone. Like those Black Sunday fellas...they probably wish the War never stopped.”
“What do you mean, ‘Black Sunday fellas’?”
“A little local history, and not the good kind. A few months after Appomattox, a gang of former soldiers was raising Hell around these parts: stealing from farms, terrorizing folks on the road...they even strung up some coloreds for no good reason, least none anybody could figure out. Most lawmen ‘round here were afraid to go after ‘em, but the sheriff here in St. Roch, he managed to get the drop on one and brought him in alive. Reckon maybe he thought he’d make the old Reb talk, tell him where the rest of the gang was, but he never got the chance: the morning after the sheriff nabbed him, the Reb’s friends rode into town to set him free.”
Alice slowed her walk, eventually coming to a full stop. “It was Sunday, in case you hadn’t already figured, and most folks were in the church that used to be over thataway,” she said, and gestured to the southeast end of town, far from the fine homes surrounding them at the moment. “Far as anybody knows, the gang went there first, blocked up the doors, then set the church on fire. After that, they hit the other buildings at random, just chucking torches in windows and shooting anybody that dared come outside, until they reached the jail. By then the whole town was pandemonium, so the sheriff was all by his lonesome when the gang got hold of him, and when they were done...” She let the words trail off, her arms hugged tight against her. “Thirty-eight people died that day, including the sheriff. A whole lot more were hurt. Far as I know, nobody ever dared to bring those men in again, and they eventually moved on to God-knows-where.”
Greg didn’t know what to say. The brutality of that, the cold-heartedness of such an act...his father’s death years ago, the tragedy that drove him to become the Vigilante, paled in comparison. “My friends and me...we’re not like that,” he said after a time. “We’ve been through a lot of battles over the years, but we always fight to prevent things like that, with our dyin’ breaths if need be. If we’d been here, those men would’ve regretted ever settin’ foot in St. Roch.”
She tilted her head to look at him. “You really mean that, don’t you? Y’all would have stood up for a town full of strangers, just ‘cause it was the right thing to do.” He nodded, and to his surprise, she stood on her tiptoes and kissed his cheek, saying, “If there were more folks like you in the world, it might not be such a bad place to live.”
“Funny, I’ve thought the same thing ‘bout you ever since I washed up here,” he said, and leaned down to return the gesture. She surprised him again, however, by turning her head so that his lips met her own instead of her cheek. “I thought you said you weren’t sweet on me?” he asked.
“I’m not sweet on you.” She slipped her arms around his neck. “Not in the least.”
“Okay, just so we’re clear on that.” He pulled her close for another kiss, paying no mind to the stares coming their way from the respectable folk passing by.
The word “love” never entered their conversations, neither of them wishing to speak it for their own personal reasons. That didn’t prevent them from occasionally enjoying the intimate pleasure of each other’s company as the weeks passed and the humid summer nights began to roll in. During the daylight hours, Greg spent less and less time searching for his friends and more time in town -- the initial discomfort of his situation was all but gone, and he found himself settling into the rhythm of life in St. Roch. It was a nice place, with good people who accepted him into their number without question, and some of whom were showing up at the saloon on a regular basis just to hear him play -- it eventually reached a point where Mort had to admit that Saunders’ presence was increasing business, and started paying him a reasonable wage. All things considered, he had it pretty good...and perhaps that was why he got blindsided so easily.
It was a night like any other, with Greg sitting on a stool near the back of the saloon, strumming away on his guitar. He’d decided to try one of his own songs out on the crowd, just for variety, and was pleased with the reaction so far. As always, he began to lose himself in the moment, his eyes closed and the words coming out of him with an easy flow, the joy of performing being carried along in his voice. Somewhere in the middle of the choral reprise, however, another voice managed to carry something back to him with enough force to make his fingers stumble on the strings:
“Hey, Greg! Where the Hell have you been?”
It was like somebody had thrown a bucket of ice water in his face. The song died in his throat, and his eyes snapped open, scanning the crowd frantically. Pat...that sounded just like Pat, he thought, and got off his stool and began to push his way past folks, his heart banging away from excitement as he tried to spot his friend. He then saw a burly redheaded man near the bar, his back to Greg. “Oh my God...Pat, you’re alive!” he shouted, and grabbed the man by the arm and spun him around.
“‘Scuse me, son?” the man said, looking down on Greg with a face that definitely didn’t belong to Pat Dugan. The build was right, as was the hair, but that was all -- not even the voice matched up. Greg stared at the man, his mind unable to adjust to what he saw, then he heard his name again, this time from another part of the saloon. He turned and saw a dusty cowpoke standing up from a table and waving to another man who just entered the place. The cowpoke laughed and clapped the newcomer on the back, talking to him in the same voice that Greg had heard call his name.
It was a coincidence, plain and simple. A total stranger who sounded vaguely like Pat, greeting another stranger who just happened to be named Greg. Numbness crept up Saunders’ spine and down his arms as he watched the two men settle down at the table, pouring drinks and catching up on old times, and when the numbness reached his fingers, the guitar in his hand fell to the floor with an unmelodious thud. He heard a woman saying his name from somewhere far away, but he didn’t look. He couldn’t look, he couldn’t handle being wrong again. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder, and another on his cheek, turning his head until he was facing Alice. “Greg? What’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” she said.
He opened his mouth to tell her yes indeed, he had seen a ghost. Seen and heard, right this very second, in a roomful of people at that. But no words came out, not so much as a squeak, though he found that tears came easily enough.
A customer nearby banged on his table, saying, “Hey, keep makin’ with the music!”
“Put a cork in it, fella!” Alice snapped, then began to steer Greg towards the back room, pausing only to pick up his guitar and place it behind the bar. Saunders didn’t fight her in the least, having barely enough strength in him to stand -- when she led him over to a crate laying in the corner, he more collapsed on it than sat down. Alice then sat as well and put her arms around him, letting Greg lean on her as he tried to regain control of himself. “It’s okay, honey, it’s okay,” she said softly, not having a clue as to what caused him to break down.
“No...no, it’s not,” he managed to choke out. “I’m lost...all of us, we’re all lost...”
At first, she didn’t know what he meant, then it slowly sunk in. “You’re not lost, Greg. You found your way here, and someday your friends will too, I know it.”
“No, they won’t...they can’t.” He pushed away from her, shaking his head. “I’ve been foolin’ myself ever since I ended up in this place, not wantin’ to admit the obvious. I just kept on tellin’ myself that so long as I kept lookin’, we’d eventually find each other, and then everything would be jake...but it ain’t gonna happen. Pat and Lee and all the other Soldiers, they’re just as lost as me, maybe even dead...maybe they think I’m dead.” He stared down at the floorboards, saying, “Nobody knows where I am, there’s no rescue comin’...I’m gonna be stuck here for the rest of my life.”
They both sat in silence for a moment, then Alice told him, “You’re a lousy soldier, you know that?” Greg picked up his head and looked at her, and she continued, “You talk about how you and your friends fought together in the War, and that y’all were willing to lay your lives on the line to help folks, but the minute you think that they’re all gone from this world, you’re ready to give up. Do you think they’d want you to do that?” She reached over and took his hand, giving it a squeeze. “I know you miss them, and I know the thought that they might be dead is a terrible one, but you’re not dead. There’s a lot of life left in that heart of yours, and you can’t just toss it away like it means nothing. You’ve got keep fighting, even if it’s on your own, because if someone as good and caring as you gives up, what does that say to the rest of us?”
Greg stared down at the floor again. What she said had merit, but it did nothing for the pain inside him -- after weeks of denial, finally facing up to the notion that he’d never see his home or his friends again just hurt too damn much. He thought of all the battles he and the other Soldiers had been through over the years, and how close they’d all grown because of those shared experiences -- many of them had no family, but to one another, they became family. Then he remembered that first night in 1941, when they’d been virtual strangers to one another, drawn together by circumstance. No one could have predicted that night what lay ahead for them, or that they’d greet the dawn surrounded by new friends, each of them willing to speak an oath that would bind them to a mutual cause, and make them comrades in arms. That oath came to mind as he sat there, and he found himself reciting it aloud just as he’d done seven years before, only now he spoke it alone: “While tyrants breathe, and men conspire against their fellows, and greed stalks unleashed...this good right arm shall never falter, nor this good sword be sheathed.”
“What does that mean?” Alice asked.
He wiped at his wet cheeks with the heel of his hand, then turned towards her. Though his eyes were still red, she could see something new in them, a hint of steel shining through the pain. “It means that a member of the Law’s Legionnaires isn’t allowed to sit around on his butt feelin’ sorry for himself,” he answered, “especially when there’s still work to be done.”
Saunders told her everything after that. About who he and his friends really were, about where they were really from, and about their last stand against the Nebula Man. She didn’t want to believe a word of it, of course -- how could anyone believe such a thing, considering what little proof he had -- but the more he talked, the more convinced she became. She also couldn’t look at him the same way afterward, and when Greg said a few days later that he was thinking about leaving St. Roch, it didn’t surprise her, though it didn’t please her much either. She knew deep down, however, that it had nothing to do with her, and everything to do with him and who he was behind that warm smile and caring nature. He was a Soldier, he always would be, and he didn’t feel it was right to hide himself away when he could be going out into this new world and helping others.
When the day came for him to depart, Alice walked with Greg to the outskirts of town, leading a fine palomino behind him. They talked very little on the way, the two of them having spent most of the night talking in bed, in between heated bouts of lovemaking. He promised to write, and to be careful, but when it came to the notion of him returning to St. Roch someday, he danced around it. Alice wouldn’t let him off the hook, though, and when they paused at the head of the road that led west, she asked him one last time, “When will I see you again?”
Greg avoided the question for a minute, turning away from her and checking the straps on his saddlebags. The neck of his guitar jutted out from one of them -- he’d managed to talk Mort into letting him keep it, even though the man damn-near spat nails over him quitting. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be back,” he said finally. “I’m not tryin’ to be mean, it’s just...I can’t say for sure what lies ahead, and I don’t want you waitin’ on me like I’ve been waitin’ on my friends. You should go on livin’ your life, not sittin’ around wonderin’ when I’m gonna walk through the door.”
“Maybe I want to sit around waiting for you, did you ever think of that?” She laid a hand gently on his back. He was wearing the same clothes he’d been when he landed in the river, now all cleaned and mended: a royal-blue shirt, cuffed jeans, and a red bandana tied around his neck, all topped off with a new white drover’s hat. He called it his uniform, though to Alice, they just looked like fancy cowboy duds. “I’m not asking you to set a date,” she continued, “just that you try and stop by now and then, that’s all.”
“Okay, I’ll try,” he said, and looked at her with a smile. “But if you find somebody else to ‘not be sweet on’ in the meantime, don’t hold back on my account.” She agreed, and the two of them embraced, but didn’t kiss -- it seemed easier that way. “Before I go, there’s one more thing,” Greg said once he pulled back.
“What is it?”
“Sort of a souvenir, and sort of a message...just in case.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out an odd, V-shaped belt buckle -- she remembered seeing it on his gunbelts before, and now noticed that he’d replaced it with a plain brass one. He pressed the V buckle into her palm, saying, “I want you to hold onto this. Keep it somewhere safe, and if you should ever come across somebody who doesn’t look like they belong around here -- maybe they look a little lost, or their clothes don’t seem quite right -- you show ‘em that.” He closed her fingers around the buckle, one last sign of hope left behind on the trail.
“You show ‘em that,” Greg said, “and you tell ‘em that the Vigilante’s still ridin’, and that his good right arm ain’t faltered yet.”