The old barkeep struck me as a man who waited; though for whom or what, I could not say. He had busy, watchful eyes that peered out from beneath a shock of tangled grey hair. His yellowed fingernails drummed against the bar in an irritating staccato that I suspected was born of anxiety more than boredom.
I cast several discreet glances at him from my stool, and each time I found his eyes fixated on me as if he were a hawk, and I, his prey. Why does the old man stare so? Why am I the subject of his scrutiny, as opposed to any of the other patrons who bend their elbows in the tavern this day? His behavior was irksome at best. Whether driven by irritation or curiosity, I cannot now recall. But I was compelled beyond all reason to seek the answers to my questions; and so, I engaged the man in conversation.
“Nice establishment you have here, sir. Gideon Thorpe,” I said, extending my hand.
“Levi James,” he replied. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.” His hand settled into mine like a crippled bird. The sallow skin of his forearm sagged like crepe and quivered as he poured us shots of his special recipe, fresh from the still. “Where ’bouts you from, Thorpe?”
“Boston originally, but I’ve been west for some time now,” I said.
A red fly jittered near his hand; that seemed odd, red flies in winter. He poured another shot and handed me some bread.
“Eat up boy, you look half starved. Boston, you say. What’re you doing here in Oregon?”
“Penance,” I said, with a laugh. The old man’s smile felt as comfortable as a well-worn chair. His whiskey bottle appeared to have no bottom. Its contents slid down my throat like honey, coaxing loose an honesty I had not known I possessed. “In truth, Mr. James, I am a gambler, flimflammer, even a rumrunner when the occasion calls for it. There isn’t much I haven’t done. And yet, at present, sir, I haven’t a dime to my name. I cannot even pay for this whiskey you’ve so generously provided.”
James laughed. “Now, don’t you worry that. I’m enjoying getting to know you. Besides, ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’ Isn’t that what the good book says? I’m no angel myself.” His smile turned almost predatory.
I suddenly realized that the other patrons had filtered out and we were now alone. I began to feel like a fly that had wandered too close to the spider’s web. Unwilling to disclose more about myself, I changed the conversation. “What brought you to Oregon, Mr. James?”
“Gold,” he said, looking toward the mountains. “Came from Tennessee in 1845, searching for the Blue Bucket Mines. Hell, everyone was. Gold by the buckets, they’d said. But that shiny bitch was always one shovelful away. By ’61, I’d had enough. I drove that shovel deep into the ground and told myself, gold or no, it was the last time. And didn’t I find her! Swear to God. Let me tell you, that sparkly whore was very well endowed! I had money to burn. Even did that once, lit a pile right up. Did a lot of other things too. Some bad, others worse. A few that haunt me at night. I’ve got more money than I’ll use in this lifetime, and I’d give it all for a good night’s sleep.”
He paused, as if awaiting my reaction, but I found myself unable to respond with anything more than a simple nod. He leaned over the bar. We were nearly nose to nose when he continued, “I’m not long for this world. You can see that. I want to meet my Maker with a clean slate.” He tossed back another shot. Then his eyes locked into mine. “You a God-fearing man, Thorpe?”
I shooed a cluster of red flies from my bread. “I suspect the Lord would smite me if I answered yes. No disrespect, Mr. James. I am not a believer.”
James broke into scripture. “‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.’ My sins are scarlet, boy. I’ve shed blood—more than once. I need them sins white like the Lamb of God. Now, before I’m gone! And you’re the one who can do it. I’ve been waiting on you. You can take my sins away. I’ll give you every cent I own if you do that for me. It’s all here, under the floorboards, next to the stove. Yours, every cent.” Dozens of red flies swarmed his head.
“Mr. James, please, the flies!” I begged.
“What flies, boy? Ain’t no flies in here. Only sins! Grievous sins that need forgiving!”
My thoughts muddled from the alcohol, the flies, and his lunacy. Though reason urged me to flee, my avarice bid me to stay. What harm could come from humoring the old man? If he wanted absolution, I’d give it to him. Let him die in peace. Besides, his cache of gold would be mine for only the price of my indulgence.
He must have read my mind. Pulling his knife from its sheath, he sliced his wrist, bled into a shot glass, and dipped my bread in it. The blood instantly seeped into the bread and jelled. The droning buzz in the room rose to a crescendo, then bust into a roar as his body exploded into a roiling mass of flies. His voice sprang up from inside the crimson swarm. “Now, Thorpe! Eat, drink. Take my sins away from me. You will have all that I promised, and this lunacy shall pass!”
Wanting nothing more, I choked down his trespasses, retching and tasting my own bile as the flies swarmed inside me. They slid past my gullet, deep inside me and the world went black. When I awoke, I was alone. No sign of James, no flies, no blood, just an empty whisky bottle and a toppled shot glass. Not for the first time in my life, I swore off the demon liquor.
Apparently, in his compassion, the old man had plied me with drink and allowed me to sleep it off. I shuffled toward the warmth of the stove. The floorboards creaked underfoot and teased loose a memory. Something about the floor. His promises returned, first in a trickle, then flooding my mind like a raging river—the gold, the money, his legacy. With the singular purpose of a madman, I tore at the wooden boards, bare hands bruised and bloodied, to claim my fortune, and found…absolutely nothing.
I bellowed at the betrayal and drove my bloodied fists into the floor. It wasn’t possible! The notion of me, a flimflam man, falling for the promise of fool’s gold? Absurd! Preposterous! And yet, an inconsolable anguish welled inside me for the loss of a fortune I had never possessed.
But it was only when a tiny fluttering stirred deep within me that I understood the truest depth of despair. A solitary red fly found its way up my throat, into my mouth, and emerged from between my lips. There would be no reprieve from my misery and no escape from the eternal flames of a hell I had not, until this moment, even believed existed. The scarlet sins of Levi James had taken flight.
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