Trail Notes: The Tale of a Wayward Journey - PG13 *New*

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Trail Notes: The Tale of a Wayward Journey - PG13 *New*

Postby Lilly » Tue Apr 09, 2019 8:59 pm

Ridiculously Long Author’s Note: Well, I’ve done it! I broken my own record for the latest Challenge response ever. It’s been 8 years and over 4 months since the announcement of Champagne Challenge #114 – the “First Line” challenge. The goal was to write a story using one of the opening lines posted in this game/exercise thread: viewtopic.php?f=137&t=6169

I had originally posted in that thread the most absurd, ludicrous opening line that I could think of – mostly for a laugh. :whistle: But once Challenge #114 came around, I was determined to turn that line into a story that made sense. I had a kernel of an idea and began working on it immediately, but for one reason or another, I never finished it to my satisfaction.

Big, special thanks to Alle, who’s attention to detail and unwavering support make her the best beta a gal could want. :rose: :hearts:

Disclaimer: I don’t own the Moonlight characters – but that would be cool, wouldn’t it? Sometimes they tell me stuff and I just write it down. No disrespect or copyright infringement is ever intended.

Rating: PG-13

First published: 4/9/2019



Trail Notes: The Tale of a Wayward Journey


There’s no easy way to get blood out of a harmonica.

That’s probably not something most people spend a lot of time thinking about. Then again, most people don’t spend more than a century carrying around a souvenir of their mistakes. All I know is some things are immensely hard to clean up. And it’s not like I haven’t tried.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s not a whole lot I’d change about what happened, and I don’t believe in good luck charms. It’s just that this thing has been with me since before St. Joseph, and I kind of got used to carrying it around. That’s all.

I know, you’re probably wondering how the blood got in there in the first place. I guess some might say that was the point when my luck ran out. But as I said, I don’t believe in luck. I got caught off guard, and that was no one’s fault but my own.

I’d been in Fremont Springs longer than I planned. It was a welcome respite from the harsh reality of the northern trail and I got distracted by the local color, but I had every intention of making it to Salt Lake City before the nights started growing longer. Ironic, you know? I had no idea how much longer the nights were going to be.

My name’s Jeremy Boudin – or at least it used to be. Before the harmonica incident.

-----

A ways back, I wanted to be a courier for the Pony Express. Or at least I did when I was twelve. My older brother Jasper and I read all about it in the Chronicle, the stories of the adventurous boys and fearless young men who signed on to carry the mail on horseback from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento. Even though most folks thought I was more suited to sorting the mail than transporting it, I wanted to be one of those nameless legends. No matter how you look at it, twenty-five dollars a week was darn good money, and each day you’d set out with a new goal, attainable in hard-won, ten-mile increments. Each new station that dotted the trail offered a fresh horse and a new horizon. Problem was – time wasn’t on my side.

I shot up about a foot between my twelfth and thirteenth birthdays, and I saw my dreams of break-neck adventure fading fast. While most kids were praying for their fathers and brothers to come back from the war, I just kept praying I’d stop growing. By the time we got word of the meeting at Appomattox, I was almost eighteen and twenty pounds over the weight limit. I guess I should’ve prayed harder—or better – because my brother never did come home, and I was left to look after my Ma on my own.

Still, it wasn’t the war or my growth spurt that killed my dream. The heyday of the riders had passed, their flame snuffed quickly, almost five years earlier, once the transcontinental telegraph bridged the gap to the West.

For a long while I cursed the telegraph. And the railroad. Progress, they called it. I called it a damn shame. Some things were better left alone. Some things were meant remain challenges for young men like me. I never got a chance. But by then, I had other concerns.

I could tell you that it broke my mother’s heart when the Savings & Loan took our place after the war and we had to move into Miss Maybelle Johnson’s boarding establishment, but the truth is Ma was never the same after we lost Jasper. She kept herself busy with the cleaning and the cooking at Miss M’s, and I did odd jobs around the place. It was only Miss Maybelle’s generosity that allowed me to keep up my music lessons. She said it was good business, that it set a genteel tone, my playing the parlor piano for her guests after supper most evenings. Maybe it was good business on her part, but there was a good measure of old-fashioned kindness and charity involved with it, you can be sure.

My music was a source of comfort to my mother. When her health went into decline over the course of the next couple of years, it got so she couldn’t come down to the parlor any longer to hear me play. During those last months, I climbed the stairs with my harmonica and blew quiet hymns by her bedside. The winter of ‘67, Ma finally succumbed. Doc Waters said it was the pleurisy running its natural course, but I knew better. Her heart just quit pretending there was a good reason to go on beating. It wasn’t that she didn’t love me as much as Jasper. She did. She once dreamed of me heading down to St. Louis or up to Chicago to pursue my music studies, but she knew I’d stay planted in that two-bit town until she let me go. So let go, she did.

I didn’t leave right off. I set things right and made sure Miss M had reliable help to take my place. But the road still called to me, more than music ever had, and pulling up roots was never going to be any easier than it was at that moment.

Fact is, there were plenty of things in my life that didn’t come easy to me. It was just pure irony that music was the exception. The problem is, sometimes the things that come naturally aren’t the things that set your heart racing. So I set my sights on California and left music behind. That is, all but the one instrument I could carry in my pocket.

Some things are hard to get away from, though. Music is a cipher of sorts, and I guess you could say I have an understanding of ciphers and rhythms. Lucky for me, the Morse code just came naturally, too.

The station master at the St. Joseph terminus said I took to the code faster than anyone he’d ever apprenticed. He said I had a gift for communications. I didn’t know about that. All I cared about was that I set out with a new trade and a letter of recommendation to fill a recently vacated shift at a mid-Nebraska station. And like that, it was decided. I was going to follow the Oregon Trail in short dashes, until I made my way to Sacramento. The Pony Express may have died, but the northern route was dotted with stories just waiting to be told. It was my intention to collect them along the way, maybe write a novel or a series of stories of those short-lived glory days.

So, that’s how I started on this unexpected journey. I ended up in California, all right, but I took a decidedly different route in getting here.

It was kind of slow going at first. For a while, it seemed like destiny wanted me planted on a stool rather than in a saddle. Ten months out, in the middle of Nebraska, and I still didn’t have a horse of my own. Kind of hard to emulate the lads who passed that way before me when I didn’t even have a mount to carry me. I decided to stay put for a while, hole up for the winter, and save up as much as I could for the rest of the journey. I’d found thus far that my skills as a telegraph operator weren’t always in demand, so I learned to improvise to bring in extra capital. Turned out that my fingers provided more than one way to earn a wage. I guess I should’ve known it wouldn’t be so easy to leave music behind.

In Fremont, the local dance hall had recently lost its piano player in an unfortunate incident involving a whiskey-fueled game of chance and a hustler whose bullets outnumbered his chips. You wouldn’t think sitting in the corner communing with the ivories would be particularly hazardous to one’s health, but I guess it was a case of being in the wrong place when the lead started flying. Anyway, the proprietor was hard up for a replacement. He’d just hired a singer from the East coast and she turned out to be a big draw before the big dust-up.

Now this singer -- she was something special. Maybe you’ve heard of Jenny Lind? Yeah, well, the only thing she had over our nightingale was a well-paid publicist.

Miss Linnea London was the rarest of songbirds. A willowy beauty with porcelain skin and hair that shone like corn silk. Strawberry blonde, I’ve heard it called, but I’d never seen any living thing -- strawberry or blonde -- that could rival it. It wasn’t her looks that made her exceptional, though; it was her voice, pure and sweet as any instrument I’d ever heard. She didn’t sing like an angel. The angels took lessons from her.

To say I was smitten would be an understatement. I was spellbound.

When she wasn’t performing, she moved like a whisper – mysterious and light. She was quiet, but not in a shy sense. She just kept to herself. I wondered if maybe she was widowed. There was a sadness about her, an aura of having seen too much, despite her young age.

In spite of her penchant for solitude, and even though they came from different worlds, she made time for the working girls who entertained the saloon’s clientele. She would come in mid-afternoon to visit one or another of them in their quarters upstairs. She gave them lessons in French and music. At the time, I couldn’t say what she got out of the arrangement, but I know the women appreciated the way she treated them – always with kindness and respect.

Sometimes, we got to talking, Linnea and I, late at night after the saloon had turned out its last customer. Mostly, it was about music. Other times, she would just close her eyes and listen to me play. She was classically trained, but she declined to say where. The fact that she actually understood the Italian and French lyrics she sang led me to believe that she’d spent a fair amount of time abroad.

She had only been in town just shy of six months, but it seemed like she was ready to move on again. Somehow, I couldn’t shake the thought that she was running.

Early one evening, she said she was expecting a telegram, confirmation of a new engagement in a larger venue. She was sure word would come through by sundown or not much past, and, hopeless as I was, I promised to wait for it to come over the wire after ole Pete the regular operator had gone home. Night fell and the line was quiet. Eventually, I decided to break out my harmonica to pass the time. After a few moody dirges, I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself. Hell, maybe she’d change her mind about taking along her own piano player, someone who was familiar with her repertoire. I’d given it a lot of thought and, heck, maybe it wouldn’t so much be giving up my dream as latching onto a new one. Maybe music was in my future after all.

Anyway, that all changed faster than I knew what hit me. Two verses into Stephen Foster and three lead slugs to the chest; I was fixing to blow a low A, but all I managed to choke out was a mouthful of A positive. I was hit without ever seeing the two men enter the telegraph office. After that, it was all slow motion as one of the bandits holstered his revolver and emptied the contents of the till into a dirty satchel. Never was sure why they decided to shoot me instead of asking nicely, but the sound of their horses’ hoofbeats pounding a retreat was the last thing I heard.

The next thing I knew, Linnea was bending over me, my head in her lap and her shawl draped over me. She was explaining to the few townsfolk who had begun gathering around that she had found me unconscious when she came in to check on her wire. The bandits had knocked me out cold, she supposed, and she had only just begun to revive me when the other folks had shown up.

I was so out of it, I honestly began to question whether I had been shot or not. My head hurt a hell of a lot more than my chest did at that point. Linnea insisted that she help me back to my room behind the tavern and assured everyone that she would tend any injuries I might have. So, while the locals thought she was nursing me back to health, the fact is she nursed me back to life and set me on a very different path.

I had a lot to learn, but strangely enough, I was a quick study. Not like I had much of a choice. And, it turns out, the ladies in residence above the dance hall were angels of mercy who provided nourishment and reserved judgment. In fact, a couple of them who had never given me a second look suddenly seemed much more interested in me and our new working relationship.

As for Miss Linnea London and I, well, that never played out the way I’d hoped. Sure, we got our teeth into one another a few times, but it never grew into anything more. We went our separate ways a year after she turned me. I never saw her again.

I can tell you this, though, to this day I can’t hear Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” without a full-on fang drop. Some connections are ingrained so deeply you never get over them.

Anyway, the turn of events, so to speak, didn’t dictate a change of course – only a change in tactic. Like the anonymous Pony Express couriers who carried out their mission with little ballyhoo or fanfare, who left each station with a new mount to carry them on the next leg of their journey, I adopted the same approach. Sure, I stayed longer than a few minutes at each stopping point along the trail – sometime as much as a year or two – but setting down roots was never an option. I changed personas like the couriers changed horses – and I never looked back. Well, mostly never.

There’s no easy way to get blood out of a harmonica. But it just doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s the only thing I’ve held on to all this time, and every time I bring it to my lips, I get a taste of my own mortality.

My name’s Jeremy Boudin – but nowadays, folks just call me Rider.

--------
Lilly

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Re: Trail Notes: The Tale of a Wayward Journey - PG13 *New*

Postby MickLifeCrisis » Tue Apr 09, 2019 11:53 pm

Wow! And a zinger at the end! Not who i was expecting!

Great story, Lilly! And really, in the ML universe, a plausible reason for blood in one's harmonica. :yes: I really enjoyed reading this.

:thanks:
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Re: Trail Notes: The Tale of a Wayward Journey - PG13 *New*

Postby Lilly » Wed Apr 10, 2019 12:05 am

Thanks so much, MLC! :flowers: I'm so glad you enjoyed it. :hug:
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Re: Trail Notes: The Tale of a Wayward Journey - PG13 *New*

Postby allegrita » Wed Apr 10, 2019 12:52 am

Lilly, when you sent this story to me, I had no idea who it was about, till the very end. That says a lot, right there. But then, on looking back, I saw that you'd given me a bunch of clever clues, if only I'd been smart enough to see them. He wanted to be a Pony Express rider. He was already a master of all things tele...graphic :winky: even way back then. And honestly? He does look quite a bit like a hayseed from the Midwest. :snicker:

It's wonderful to have a chance to get to know Rider, about whom we knew almost nothing. I love the way he took to technology in its infancy. I love the fact that he had hopes and dreams, and that he took good care of his mama. :heart: And I love the fact that he's musical. I worked with computer scientists for nearly my whole career, and it amazed me how many scientists and engineers weren't just fond of music, they were really good at it! I guess it's the math--as Jeremy says, "cyphers and rhythms."

I'm totally impressed that you crafted a really compelling origin story out of that improbable line. Thank you so much!! :hug: And you are living proof that it's NEVER too late to do a Challenge story! :teeth:
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Re: Trail Notes: The Tale of a Wayward Journey - PG13 *New*

Postby francis » Wed Apr 10, 2019 10:05 am

Brava!!! This was a ridiculous line :snicker: and you made such a compelling story out of it :heart: . Rider, no less, was a total surprise. :rolling:
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Re: Trail Notes: The Tale of a Wayward Journey - PG13 *New*

Postby allegrita » Wed Apr 10, 2019 10:59 pm

Oh my gosh--look what showed up on my Facebook page today! (You can view it without a Facebook account.)
https://www.facebook.com/outdoorrevival ... =3&theater
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Re: Trail Notes: The Tale of a Wayward Journey - PG13 *New*

Postby Lilly » Wed Apr 10, 2019 11:41 pm

Oh my gosh - that is awesome! :snicker:
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Re: Trail Notes: The Tale of a Wayward Journey - PG13 *New*

Postby Shadow » Mon Apr 15, 2019 3:02 am

Wow. This is my favorite sort of story, the kind that is completely different on the first reading from the second one. The first time through, I was enjoying the story so much, though I had absolutely no idea who it was about.... until the last line. And then, suddenly, it was so obvious, and the second reading was all about Rider! It's amazing how many hints there were in this story about Rider's identity, even though we knew so very little about him from the show. I can't quite figure out how you gave him so much depth out of so little to work with, but it's awesome. Learned some history here too; I never knew there was a weight limit for the Pony Express, for instance. I'm really impressed with how you managed to use that first line, too, and make it something meaningful!
(Just looked at that Facebook post of allegrita's,too.... that is so cool, a perfect illustration for this story.)
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Re: Trail Notes: The Tale of a Wayward Journey - PG13 *New*

Postby Lilly » Mon Apr 15, 2019 3:24 pm

Shadow! :wave: Thank you so much for your kind words! :hug: :rose: I'm so glad you went along for the "ride" and enjoyed the story without knowing who was narrating. :blinksmile:

I'm not sure where I got the idea for Rider's origins, but he always struck me as a wide-eyed mid-West boy. Somehow, I could just picture him in a starched shirt with sleeve garters and a clerk's visor. :teeth:

Alle - Thank you so much for everything - especially your lovely comment! :hug: :flowers:

And, francis :hearts: - It's good to see you! I'm so happy you enjoyed this. :hug:
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