1882 – WBWW runner-up
Here’s the story that came third place in our WBWW competition. It’s the tale of a cowboy called Alex Solvay in the American old west, being told to his great grandson, also called Alex. Alex is a character in the game Blue Dwarf played on OngoingWorlds.
The story is written by Jack Tennant, who has even recorded this story to audio, which you can listen to through the YouTube video below, or read the story underneath.
In a rare moment of calm aboard ship, the lonely space-farer sat back on his small bunk, in his small quarters, with a small glass, and took some time to dip his toe into the warm bathtub of his childhood…
… Alex’s dad was tall and strong. Alex was proud of him. He knew he stood out among other dads – he was cool, he was kind and for some reason all his friend’s mums were extra friendly to him. He also told a good story.
“Come and sit down mate. That’s it put your hat and scarf on the radiator first. Good lad.” Twelve year old Alex did as he was told.
“You know, it was a wild evening like this that your great great – some number of greats – grandpa met Horace Hampton for the first time.”
Alex’s brother giggled as he too came in and put his damp woollens on the radiator. “Oh yeah! ‘Horace Hampton!'”
Their dad smiled “It’s true. That was his name.”
“Uh-huh. Sounds like a super hero.”
Alex looked keenly at his dad, saying nothing, waiting.
“It was a dark and stormy night…” he began. Alex grinned.
The more outspoken brother, Jacob, laughed again. “Isn’t that a cliché?”
Alex didn’t know what a cliché was, or how his nine year old brother did, but he didn’t care much, he was just impatient to hear the story.
“Go on” he urged, softly.
“It was back in the days when us Solvays were out in the Old West…”
When telling stories, his dad’s mainly English Estuary accent often carried a slight American lilt, even during the bits where he wasn’t doing voices. Alex liked it.
“The year was…”
The barkeep polished his whiskey glasses and squinted at his solitary customer – a long limbed, long haired youngun with a chin you could strike matches off. The customer was staring morosely into his drink, face mostly obscured by a wide brimmed hat. People mainly came to the Bucket of Mud to offload their concerns into Horace’s one good listening ear, not this ‘puncher, though.
“Don’t talk much, do you boy?”
The drinker took a moment to reply. When he did, all he said was “another”, in a low grunt.
Horace hesitated. “Another an’ I don’t much like your chances of makin’ it home tonight, son. You’ve had enough to floor a mustang, and this weather’s enough to knock down anyone, drink or no.”
He grimaced at the cold wind tugging at the eaves of his beloved saloon, threatening to rip her apart.
The young man pushed the brim of his hat up, treating the older man to a flash of his steady blue eyes. “Don’t got a home, mister. And I ain’t ‘had enough’ in years.”
Horace studied his face awhile, noting the thick scar running up his cheek, not long healed, and nodded. “You look more sober’n most after that much liquor, I’ll give you that.” He poured another and pushed it into the young man’s impatient hand.
The wind howled something wild and the saloon doors thunked open. The boy didn’t look round but gruffly murmered “git down”.
Horace was taken aback some. “Why? It’s nuthin’ but the wind.”
The stranger stood and pushed him down behind the bar. “I said git down.”
“You’re drunker’n I thought!”
Horace was about to stand back up when he heard several heavy sets of footsteps enter, cruel spurs a-jangle, and thought twice. His daughter wouldn’t thank him for getting shot on the eve of her littlun’s first birthday. He remained as still as he could and strained his working ear to better hear what was going on across the bar. He shivered at the sound of a harsh voice, which said: “Well looky here boys, looks like we happened ourselves upon our man.” It paused. No reply. It continued. “Might’ve known we’d find you in a drinking establishment, particularly one so broken and low down as this here drinking establishment.”
Behind the bar Horace frowned at the insult. One of the other recent arrivals chuckled.
There was a thick scuff as the kid musta pushed away from his stool.
A different voice chipped in, that of a henchman, no doubt. “Now now, Alex. Don’t be tryin’ ta run, we don’t wanna hurt ya-”
“Like hell you dont.”
“Just come on with us now, and we’ll see about righting all that wrong you did.”
“Ain’t goin’ any place wi’ you, Lee.”
[At this point in the story, twelve year old Alex’s jaw had dropped and he’d interrupted. “His name is Alex!” Jacob, now all ears, had shushed him.]
Now the original harsh voice – the boss man, Horace supposed – spoke up again. “Come on, Mister Solvay, it’s been a fun ride but it’s time you played nice.”
The kid sighed. “Well, I am kinda tired, perhaps you’re right.”
“For real!?” One of the henchmen answered, stupidity and surprise ringing through his voice.
“Not a chance” said Alex.
There was a bunch of noise which sounded an awful lot like a brawl. Poor Horace figured he’d have some stools to replace in the morning. His mind was groaning over the damage when a loud shot sang through the air. He feared for the kid. Whatever he’d done, he seemed a heap of a lot less sinister than the nasty sounding folk after his hide.
After a few minutes’ silence Horace crossed himself and poked his head above the bar. He wasn’t expecting the scene which greeted him.
The room was scattered with the various bodies of whoever was – or had been – after the stranger. The boy could clearly fight something fierce.
Before Horace could speak, the now hatless Alex Solvay did.
[Twelve year old Alex beamed at his full namesake.]
“Uh, sure, here.” With trembling fingers, Horace fumbled in his pocket and threw a small pouch over the bar. He looked again at the unconscious men.
“What happened, who got shot?”
Solvay accepted the pouch and pointed to a damaged beam.
Ah. Horace swallowed and waved a hand towards the group. “They..?”
“Dead? Nah. Just knocked out is all.”
Horace nodded, and winced as he noticed the younger man’s face was smashed up pretty good on one side, one of his eyes was rapidly swelling shut.
“Geez, kid, you okay?”
“Ain’t a kid.”
“Can’t be far over twenny nine…” muttered the shaken barkeep.
The younger man nodded in affirmation.
They eyed each other.
“Well exactly” they said, together.
Before much else could occur, one of the prone men began to groan and awaken. Solvay, not being in the mood for more fooling, threw a broken section of stool at him, knocking him clean out again. The peace loving Horace’s eyebrows raised at this but he considerately said nothing, besides “need a hand?”
They worked swiftly, in silence, tying the men up. The resourceful Alex withdrawing any items of worth from the unconscious men’s pockets and depositing them in his own. After ten minutes, they had the men strapped down tight, trussed up like the gobbling turkeys they were.
“Sorry ’bout the mess, and bringing you trouble, but it’s time I was on my merry.” The mysterious Alex emptied some coins onto the bar for the kindly Horace’s benefit, right out of one of the other men’s money pouches.
“You can’t just go, son, you’re banged up pretty bad. And what’m I s’posed to do with these fellas?”
The kid shrugged, scooped up his hat and walked to the door with a slightly uneven gait. “Up to you, sir.” He looked back at Horace.
“Thanks for the… hospitality… Much obliged.”
With that he turned and departed the saloon.
It was a good exit… quite a good exit, anyway. You see, a few moments later Horace heard a weighty thud outside. The youngun had collapsed…
[“And now, it’s time for dinner.” The boys howled in protest. “Later” promised their father, and after dinner they sat down again…]
Someone, a man, was calling his name. His body ached something chronic, even his ears, and he’d rather forget his name if it meant shutting the noise out. He groaned a protest, but the call came again.
He opened the one eye he could, and saw a shadowy figure standing over him. He sat bolt upright and grabbed it by the head.
“How’dyou know mah name?”
The other man spluttered “Easy there! I heard the creepy fellas say it. It’s me, Horace! From the saloon.”
Being a generally polite sort of fellow, Alex let go instantly.
“Pardon me, Mister Horace. I didn’t mean you no harm.”
Horace coughed a little and stood up. “It’s understandable, you had a rough night an’ you’re half blind right now on account a’ that bruised eye.” He lit a candle.
“Yeh.” Alex peered around the gloom and made out that he was in a humble bedroom. “Where is this?”
“Brought you back to mine.”
Solvay was touched. “That was mighty gracious.” He paused a moment to frown. “How’d you know I wasn’t no good?”
[Twelve year old Alex was confused at this. Jacob elbowed him “Shh, it makes sense – how did he know he wasn’t a no gooder, a bad guy. Carry on, Dad.”]
Horace fixed him with a wry smile “I don’t. ‘Fact I reckon you’re trouble.”
Alex’s seemingly naturally sullen face surprised Horace by sliding into a lopsided grin “Reckon you might be right.” The grin dropped as he grimaced at the ache in his skull. “I got a powerful sore head…”
“Ain’t surprised, you look like you were kicked by a mule.”
Unaware a young lady had entered the room, Alex started at the female voice.
“Martha, don’t be disrespectful to our guest, now” Horace gently scolded.
Alex dipped his head “ma’am”.
She snorted and shoved a tray of cornbread and meat onto his lap. He looked up questioningly at Horace. “It’s your free lunch, son. Tuck in.”
Martha wasn’t shy with her feelings. “Soon as you get him outta here, Pa, the better.”
Alex cocked his head to look at her but munched on. She was stern and surly and she hated him.
He liked her already.
Horace flushed at her rudeness. “Quiet now, Martha.”
“No, Pa. You bring home this stranger, full as a tick, reekin’ o’ difficulties, and I’m supposed to carry on like normal? I got a baby to be lookin’ after.”
Alex finished a mouthful and cleared his throat. “I’ll be on my way after this.”
She looked at him, jaw set. “Mind that you are.”
“Mm, I will. Plan to be far away ‘fore your daddy unties them bounty hunters.”
Martha and Horace looked at each other.
[Twelve year old Alex mouthed “bounty hunters”.]
“Yep. But all I did was stole me some horses and bootlegged some rum.” He said, like it was the most casual thing in the world. Then he thought a moment before admitting “‘Course, I drank most o’ the rum.”
“Stole you… some horses?” Asked Horace, disapproval and concern in his voice and on his face.
Martha scowled. “Told you he was a low-life.”
“Never said nuthin’ to the contrary, miss” said Alex with a glint of mischief in his eye, feeling brighter after the food. Though he’d been drinking like a deadbeat, it was the first time he’d eaten in days. Had one of his eyes not been swollen shut, he might have even winked.
It was about then that Horace began to wonder if a soul could be both bad and good. Despite the air of trouble, he’d been sure this boy was basically a good type but here he was brazenly admitting to being a thief. And a wanted criminal! He even seemed somehow proud of it.
[Alex’s eyes were wide. Jacob – the more discerning of the boys – looked up. “How do you know all this?” Their dad smiled “diaries, word of mouth, town records, family, folklore, and a pinch of poetic licence to fill in the gaps. Anyway…”]
Horace and Martha left the room and had words. What the words were, Alex wasn’t certain, but they sure were loud. While they were outside, Alex took the opportunity to get his clothes on and gather his things. He left some more coins on the bed and walked out past Horace and his ill tempered daughter.
“Wait! Where’re you going?” Horace hooked him by the sleeve.
Solvay shrugged “Anywhere but here. Thankin’ you again for your hospitality.”
He reached real close past Martha, to fetch his hat, noticing how good she smelled. He thought it would be impolite to mention it in front of Horace so he settled for another “ma’am”. Following it up with:
“Reckon your husband’ll be home soon. Don’t think he’d take too kindly to a stranger in the house.”
The grumpy young woman actually blushed. “He’s away working on the railroads.”
“All the same, I’ll be on my way now.”
“Good thing too.”
“There’s no need…” Horace tried in vain to stop him.
“Yer a good man, Horace. I’ll see y’around.”
This time his exit went as planned.
He sidled on out of there and made his way back to the Bucket of Mud, where he promptly stole the still bound bounty hunters’ horses, leaving his own Sally for Horace, and galloped on to the next town.
Unfortunately our Alex preferred being a lover to being a fighter, so instead of paying the next town the fleeting visit he should’ve, he was tempted into dark ways by some ladies of the night…
[“What are ladies of the night?” “Vampires, shut up.”]
Beautiful ladies they were too and as it happens, despite his bruising, they found Alex to be somewhat aesthetically pleasing as well.
[Alex opened his mouth but saw the warning look in Jacob’s eye and decided to not bother finding out what it meant.]
So Alex, thinking with brains other than those in his head, and being richer than he’d been in a year, spent three days in the company of the ladies. By which time the bounty hunters had walked to the town and reclaimed their horses.
[“What an idiot!” Jacob yelped in outrage. “Depends how pretty they were.” Alex said in a quiet voice, making his dad laugh.]
The bounty hunters strolled into the bedroom of Alex and the ladies, casual as you like, and Lee shot him right then and there. Luckily Alex was a fast mover so it only got him in the arm. He rolled off the bed amid the screams of his companions and bolted from that establishment like a bull from a branding iron, making sure to grab his hat on the way, of course.
The wounded, naked boy crept around town, using his guile to keep out of the sight of his hunters, and using his hat to cover his dignity.
While the hunters were about the town, terrorising poor folk on their search for Mister Solvay, he only had the bare faced cheek, pardon the expression, to steal their horses a second time!
He’d learned some from his mistake, and had the sense to head for the hills to tend his wound. He galloped the horses flat out, planning on going as fast and as far as they could manage, thinking he’d rotate between steeds in order to spread some of the burden of his weight and keep the pace up. They made it a good mile and a half before Alex’s adrenaline started to wane and he felt himself getting faint. He found a scrubby area of bushes, tied the horses up and got to making a fire. The shivers had set in, and he had to get the bullet from his arm.
Still naked he managed to somehow get a fire started and sat down with a knife – which had mercifully been left tucked in one of the saddles – to get digging. He stuck the knife into the meat of his shoulder, trying to lever the lead out, and wailed like something from hell, on Earth. Panting and crying at the pain, he knew he couldn’t scream out like that in case he was heard. Re-thinking his strategy, he stuffed the folded brim of his hat into his mouth while going at it again. He couldn’t keep from sobbing, but the hat helped. He managed to turf the intruder out and, with effort, valiantly managed not to throw up the lunch his lady friends had so kindly bestowed upon him earlier that day. This was all a relief but he still had to finish the job. He stuck his knife in the fire to heat it good, then pressed the blade to the wound to cauterise it. The hat dropped from his mouth and again he hollered like a hell hound, and hoped to God no fellow was around to hear it.
[“Dad, isn’t that bit from a movie?” Jacob was suspicious. His dad chuckled, “Where do you think those kind of stories started? Real life scoundrels like Alex!” Alex smiled at his name in such a sentence and unconsciously rubbed his own shoulder.]
So Alex lie, naked and beat, shoulder screaming in agony but fixed as much as possible for now. He’d lost some blood and hadn’t even the energy to move from the spot. He passed out for the second time in a week with nothing to his name but a hat, a knife, some water skins, and three horses.
And that’s all you’re getting for now!
[Once again, the lads howled in protest and convinced him to tell them just a little more. “Okay, just one more snippet.”]
Alex returned to the Bucket of Mud in several years time, much the same but less beaten and with more money. He set up business with Horace-
[“Horace turned bad too?” “Depends on your perspective, but he certainly took to Alex’s way of life pretty easily.”]
And as for Martha, well Alex turned out to be a better man than her swindling, beating husband, for sure. Alex, Martha and Horace had lots of rascally adventures but those are stories for another time.
[“Were there more ladies..?”]
“… Son, there were many more women in Alex’s life, but those stories will have to wait till you’re older.” He walked to the radiator.
“All right, scarves are dry. Up you go now!”
Alex went to bed with a grin on his face and a cowboy song in his heart. He didn’t know how, or why, but he identified with his some-number-of-greats-grandpappy. He got straight into bed while Jacob sat and did his homework. As he fell asleep, his own homework neglected as usual, knowing he was in for a telling off tomorrow, Alex smiled to himself. Perhaps you didn’t always have to be perfect…
… The lonely man sat on his small bunk, three million years into space, and smiled at the memory causing such warmth and pain in his stomach. He wiped the wetness from his eyes. “Smeg, Jacob.”
The ship’s computer flashed on. “‘Ere, you all right, Alex? Thought I ‘eard some snivelling.” The man paused a while before answering, his own name sounding strange. “Yeh. Fine, Holl.” The large, friendly computerised face scrutinised him. It was about to speak again but before he could, the long haired, long limbed, stubble chinned man did.
“You seen my smokes?”
Written by Jack Tennant