Thursday, 30 April 2015
“So I hear you're the condemned man?” Barkus turned to the speaker, who sat himself down on the empty barstool beside him. “Usual please Jim.”
“I guess I am,” Barkus replied ruefully, turning back to his beer. Funny he hadn't had a beer in nearly ten years –spirits and cigars for him, yes sir!-- but once he set foot in the smoky, badly-lit honky-tonk, he craved a beer. And the barkeeper had turned out a few dusty bottles of what he used to drink back in the day, which is what he really craved. So he had one, after wiping the cobwebs off it of course. He took a pull, then made the universal gesture for another bottle as a glass of whiskey was put on the counter by Jim, the bartender.
“How's it suit you?” the stranger asked, as Jim obligingly placed a cleaned-off bottle in front of Barkus and took away the empty.
“Tastes good," Barkus replying, prying off the patina-ed cap. "Just what I need.” The stranger glanced at Jim who shrugged.
“Whatever floats your boat stranger.” Presently, a pouch of tobacco and a raggedy pack of papers were produced, from which appeared a professionally thin rollie. Jim wordlessly handed the stranger a lighter just as the man started patting his pockets. Nodding his thanks, the stranger lit up and handed it back. Jim replaced the the lighter right in front of an ancient, yellowed “No Smoking” sign and went to another customer.
“I take it that my story is in every smoke signal by now,” Barkus said after a while. It bothered him, he had never been a very public person, but had grown up in a small, rural town and knew full well that whenever anything any way out of the ordinary happened, it was pounced on with relish.
“Oh, the carrion eaters started circling not long after you drove through the first flowerbed, I think the press office opened up right about the time you kicked your way through the second flowerbed and the APBs were being issued when you started yelling and cursing at George and Levi, that's the Police Sergeant and Constable,' he added. "In case you didn't catch their names.” Barkus winced and took another pull of beer. “So of course, when you sat down in front of the squad car and refused to move, it just made everyone's day.” The stranger laughed at Barkus' sudden bewilderment. “You do know that stories tend to mate and produce bizarre offspring, don't you?”
“Thanks for reminding me.” Barkus smiled ruefully and stuck out his hand. “John Barkus, gossip-maker extraordinaire.”
“Sol Mantic, Banjo player and general jack of all trades.”
“Hey Sol,” a guy down the back of the bar called out. “When are you gonna give us something to listen to besides that damned jukebox?”
“Now Marc, you know that my joints need lubricating first,” Sol replied and exaggerated taking a pull of whiskey. “Aaah, that's better.” He lifted a banjo case from the floor and extracted an old, but obviously well cared for banjo. He plucked a few strings, grimaced, turned a knob slightly and seemed pleased with the result, though Barkus was damned if he could hear the difference. Then he played a merry little riff that got everybody's toes tapping without prior instruction from any brains. Then he looked fondly at his banjo, put it back into the case and went back to his drink. “What?” he asked in mock surprise at the groans and aahs from the audience. “Told you guys I need lubrication first.”
About an hour after this, a tall, lean, bearded man strode into the bar, absently puffing on a rollie, twirling a short chain with a single key around his finger. The man set down on the empty stool beside Barkus, on the opposite side from Sol.
“How're you doin' Jim?” the man asked as Jim put a glass of clear liquid in front of him.
“Not too bad now Gus,” Jim replied.
“You hear about the goings-on today?” Sol enquired. Gus snorted.
“Who didn't? That idiot must really need attention to get up to that stuff in a town this size.” Barkus felt his face turn red.
“Well, introduce yourself and ask the idiot what he was thinking then,” Sol told him, taking a sip from his drink, never once looking to his left.
Gus turned towards Barkus and subjected him to a calculating gaze. Underneath the attention of those piercing steel-blue eyes, Barkus felt that his soul was being weighed and if found wanting, he would never know why...
“Well,” Gus volunteered eventually. “At least my ears wont be full of the newest babies in town for a while. The gossips are talking about you now boy.” He lifted his hat slightly in mock salute before resettling it on his shock of iron-grey hair. “Which saves me a whole lot of hassle. Gus Gunan, and I already know your name John Barkus.”
“Thought you were going to be a good boy this year,” Sol said in severe reprimand, with a wink at Barkus. Gus shrugged.
“I am good, that's the problem.”
Some time later, Gus looked around at the low stage in the back corner of the bar.
“How's them joints Ol' One?” he asked, while taking two slim sticks out of the pocket of his long-worn leather coat. Sol shrugged with one shoulder, finished his drink and picked up his case.
“Still good enough to show you, Ol' One.” The pair strolled over to the stage where Gus gently removed a tarp from what Barkus had assumed was a lump of junk. He sat behind the shiny drum kit that was revealed and, after checking the tuning on the drums, twirled his drumsticks around his fingers while Sol puttered around, exaggerating every groan and moan as he lifted his banjo from its case and checked the small microphone.
A quick glance between the pair and Gus started a throbbing heartbeat that made you want to get up and move. Sol joined with a simple but compelling riff that he built and elaborated until everybody was up and dancing. At some apparent signal, a late-middleaged woman with silver shining proudly through her blonde hair, jumped up and supplied words to the melodies. Barkus didn't know what was happening or how many women he was dancing with but goddamn he was enjoying it! After what felt like hours, Sol and Gus relinquished the stage to a group of 20-somethings, Sol clutching his precious banjo, just in case anyone dared to ask for a lend. Gus had a quiet word with the enthusiastic 'drummer' of the group, after which the lad looked less enthusiastic and more interested in an instrument change. They got ambushed by the crowd on the way back to their seats, so Barkus took the opportunity to ask Jim something that had started to nag at him.
“Why did they each call the other 'Ol' One' earlier? Surely one is older than the other.” Jim, whilst polishing a glass in the finest of barkeeping tradition, shrugged.
“They were both born on the same day in the same year,” he rumbled at last. “Dunno what the times were so they're each as old as the other.” Barkus looked at the pair. The short, ever-smiling Sol, looking like he got a joke that no-one else even knew existed, and the tall, stoic Gus who seemed like a thunderstorm could break on his back and he wouldn't turn a hair.
“Proof that Astrology doesn't mean squat then,” he laughed, turning back. Jim's hands ceased their polishing on a glass that gleamed.
“Well no-one knows where they came from, much less their birthplace and apparently even they don't know what time they were born,” Jim told him with a frown that Barkus didn't see as he tried to keep a bug from getting into his beer and resorted to smooshing it on the side of the bottle.
“They're not from here?” he asked in surprise as he wiped his hand on his jeans. He looked back at the slowly-advancing pair. In his tiny hometown at least, 'strangers' had to be really special to get treatment like that and he expected it was the same here.
“Nope, they're blow-ins,” Jim acknowledged another customer and started pouring out a rum and coke -by eye of course- but continued talking to Barkus. “Sol arrived in one day about 20 years ago from the south somewhere and about a week later, Gus arrived out of the north. Neither ever said where they'd come from despite all the gossip's questions and I never asked. None of my business. They're here now and they're good men.” Barkus frowned.
“But how do you know what they got up to before they arrived up here?” Jim's frown returned with emphasis, but the words were out of Barkus' mouth before he could bite them back. “How do you know what they're running from?” Jim looked over at Sol and Gus in the middle of his bar, laughing and joking with his customers, then looked at Barkus, then leaned over the counter. It was all Barkus could do not to scuttle backwards. Jim was b-i-i-ig.
“Who said they're running? And as I said,” Jim growled a bare six inches from Barkus' face. “They're good men.” He pulled back, shook his head and carried the rum and coke to its waiting recipient while Barkus tried not to look relieved as Sol and Gus returned.
“So what did Jim have to say then?” Sol asked as they sat back down on either side of Barkus.
“Jim's not into Astrology, is he?” Barkus asked instead, taking a slug of beer, for some reason his throat was very dry. Sol whistled and Gus grimaced.
“You didn't get into that did you?” Gus shook his head. “You poor bastard.”