The Stranger and the Thunderbird
Another 2020 HITRECORD contribution. Short story for Michael Madsen's “Whiskey River Short Film” project.
The stranger sat down at the bar, two stools from some of the regulars.
Saying it’s uncommon for someone nobody recognizes to be wandering into my saloon would be an understatement, even more so looking like this fellow. Clothes tattered, coated in goodness knows what, the gentleman looked like he’d been wrestling a tiger in a tar pit, and had a smell to match.
The whole place erupted into whispers. Couldn’t make out the lot of them, but I presume they were saying something similar to what I had going through my head.
Some, I also presume, were wondering what I was fixing to do.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m typically more than able to hold my own when a need to get rid of unruly or unwanted guests arises, but I was running low on fuel from a long week and had nothing close to a clue as to what this individual was capable of. Plus, money is money. I figured if this fellow could pay, he was welcome to stay, so long as he didn’t start any fuss.
“You’re new, aren’t ya,” I said, attempting to start some polite dialogue. The stranger looked up at me.
“Just passing through.” His voice was deep and rumbly, like he’d been taking shots of desert sand.
“I see. We don’t get many folks like that here,” I responded with a smile, wiping down a glass. I could feel the stares of half the room locked on the interaction. “Can I get ya something?”
“Whiskey,” he said.
I filled the glass and placed it in front of him. “If you don’t mind me saying, friend, you look like you’ve been through some ordeal. You alright?”
The stranger took a sip from the glass. If the tone of his voice wasn’t serious before, there was no question it was at this point.
“Thank you, kind sir, but an ordeal doesn’t even begin to describe what I’ve been through. I’m lucky to be sitting here today in one piece.”
There was something in the way he said it. I can’t explain it, but under that rough, tattered exterior presented in front of me and the other patrons, I began to see a shaken, frightened soul.
“Anything you want to get off your chest,” I asked. “We’re all good folk in this town, and I’m certainly willing to lend an ear if ya need one.”
The stranger stayed silent for a while, then asked, “Ever heard of Whiskey River?”
“Can’t say I have,” I replied. I looked around the room for anyone who may have also heard the question. “Y’all ever heard of Whiskey River,” I shouted.
Head shakes and silence.
“I guess that’s not too surprising,” he said. “We don't get many folks passin' through either.” He finished his glass. “Could I get another, please?” I nodded and poured him one more.
“It’s not the type of place people really get to leave,” he continued.
My eyes widened. “Pardon?”
“Sorry, I guess there’s a lotta story to tell.”
I walked over, moving the whiskey bottle closer to his glass. “I’m listening.”
The stranger swirled his glass as he took in and let out a deep breath.
“Town library don’t offer much as far as dates, but more than a couple generations have been born and buried there, including my Pa and Grandpa. Books say it was founded by a man called Luke. Luke Barrowood.” He looked up at me, as if to see if the name rang any bells.
“Doesn’t sound familiar,” I told him.
He let out a small sigh. “Guess that’s not too surprising. Story goes Luke set out to found a town for brilliant thinker types, to dream up and create all kinds of things. Travel, food production, storage…”
“And whiskey, I’m assuming,” I cut in.
“Of course,” he said, with the closest thing I’d seen to a smile from him since he walked in. “There’s always going to be whiskey, right? Anyway, it started out well enough. Luke managed to convince all kinds of scientists, doctors, engineers, and such to settle down out in the middle of nowhere. Whiskey River was lookin’ to be a new wonder of the world, or something like that.”
“But eventually the wrong folks caught wind of Lukes special town too. Those folks also saw potential. Potential riches for the taking.”
“Flocks of ‘em. Residents of Whiskey River were smart, but most ‘em weren’t what you’d call fightin’ folk. Story goes years worth of work got snatched up, taken apart, and sold to the highest bidder. There was talk of callin’ it quits, of closing the whole town down and writin’ it off as a failure. But Luke wasn’t about to give up just yet. He told the townsfolk he had one more trick up his sleeve. He gathered up a bunch of those scientists, doctors, and engineers to build a guardian; a protector that would watch over the town. That guardian was Parakeet.”
“I’m sorry, what?” I nearly choked on the Gin I’d been sipping while listening to the stranger’s tale. “Did you say Parakeet? Like the little bird?”
“Luke seemed to think it was clever. Parakeet is far from little though; an over fifty foot mechanical monster. I think the engineers called it an automaton.”
I put my glass down.
“Wasn’t enough to have someone control it like a puppet; too many chances for human error, Luke’d say. No, Luke took it upon himself to build this creature a mind of its own.”
At this point, more than half the saloon had left their seats and drifted over, as drawn into the story as I was. “But how is that even possible,” I asked.
“Nobody knows,” the stranger said. “At least, nobody remembers. And the books don’t say.” He took another deep breath.
“Parakeet was very good at his job. He either killed all the bandits off, or word spread enough for the rest to know it was a bad idea to come tryin’ somethin'. The future for Whiskey River looked mighty bright for a while until…”
“Until?” I responded.
“Yeah, until?” an eavesdropping patron shouted from the back of the newly gathered crowd. The strangers hand started to shake.
“Until it wasn’t,” he continued. “Thing about giving a monster a mind of its own is it starts to think on its own. Parakeet had his own ideas about what was good for Luke and the townsfolk of Whiskey River. He decided the only way to keep us safe was to make sure nobody got in and nobody got out.”
“Why didn’t Luke just… shut him off,” another patron asked.
“Story says he tried, but he realized too late that he’d built something that was never meant to be controlled. Nobody knows for sure what happened, but nobody saw Luke again after he went to confront him up at his perch.
Soon after, we were forbidden from speaking of Parakeet, and later from speaking at all. Anyone who did, well, they went the way of Luke.”
It took some serious strength to keep my jaw from dropping to the floor. “What did the townsfolk do,” I asked.
“Wasn’t much we could do,” he said. “Every couple of years, you’ll have some folks that’ll try to organize and rise up against the beast, but Parakeet’ll always manage to catch ‘em. More common, some brave, foolish soul will try to sneak out of town undetected. That don’t usually go very well either.”
“Usually,” he said. “Like I said, I’m lucky to be sitting here today.”
Another patron leaned forward. “Do you need anything? Where are you going to go?” The room was flooded with questions.
“So what now,” I asked him.
The stranger pushed his empty glass towards me. “Now, I thank you all for the hospitality… and I go back.”
“You can’t be serious…” The whole saloon was wearing the same expression.
“I’ve got a brother and sister in Whiskey River… and I made them a promise. This freedom’s nothin’ without family.”
With that, the stranger got up, tossed some coins on the table, and walked towards the exit. As the door swung open, I called out to him.
“Do you need someone to come along with you? There’s gotta be some way we can help.”
The stranger stopped, for a moment, in the doorway. “I think it’s best that y’all just forget about Whiskey River,” he said.
“Maybe that way we'll never see another one.”