If you like this story, you can thank Chris LeDoux; two of his great country songs, Billy the Kid and Hairtrigger Colt .44, inspired this fic.
Several elements from the middle part of this story were grafted from the lives of John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Willie Sutton, and all those other great Depression-era outlaws. Just so you all know.
I realize now that I had great adults all around me when I was young, but like most young people, I didn't realize it then. Of course, that's one of those things you don't realize until your parents and relatives are gone, so I can't ever tell them how sorry I am for all those times I didn't do as I was asked, yelled at them for trying to help, and other such things. Mom, Grandma, Grandpa, if you are reading this, just know that, although I was being stupid and doing things that I now know I shouldn't have, I did pick something up from those lessons you tried to teach.
My favorite of my older relatives, Uncle Billy, just passed away about a week ago. He was my mother's oldest brother, a big, burly man with a torso as big as a tree trunk and a face like those you see on the extras in those old Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns, as rugged as the wilderness they lived in. He had been everywhere, from New York City to Los Angeles, from Rome to Cairo to Moscow to London. He was the uncle every young boy wishes they had; rambunctious and eccentric, the type that makes one's straight-laced parents a little nervous. I loved everything about him, but I especially loved the camping trips we took together. I loved the hiking and fishing, but I especially loved the nights, where we would sit around the campfire, eat roasted hot dogs and marshmallows, and Uncle Billy would tell a story. Oh, you should have heard them. He spun amazing tales, tales of knights in shining armor, cowboys and gunslingers, brave soldiers, noble and not-so-noble men of the sea; tales of horse races across the Sahara, of fights to the death… the kinds of stories young boys love. Uncle Billy taught me one of my greatest lessons around that campfire, and that's what I'm here to talk about today.
It was in the summer of 1998, right about the time when I began to itch for some adventure, to get out of the tiny suburb we lived in and see the world, have some of those amazing adventures that Uncle Billy had told me so much about. It was at the height of this time when he (Uncle Billy) took me on a camping trip into the Sierra Nevada mountains. I loved them; they were so stern and forbidding, just the place to have those great adventures that I wanted so badly to have.
We had a great time, but, as usual, I was primarily excited for that time around the campfire. I was a little disappointed, though; Uncle Billy didn't seem as excited or eager to talk as he usually did. He had kind of a faraway look in his eyes, like he had something he wanted to say and didn't know how to say it.
Uncle Billy finally opened his mouth. "Your mom tells me you're bored just hanging around town."
I smiled, excited that he was finally talking. "Yeah."
"You enjoying the camping trip?"
"Yeah, it's great."
Billy studied me, then smiled a wistful smile. "You know, you're a lot like me. Got an itch to go out and see the world."
I smiled wider. Finally, somebody who understood me! "Yeah!"
"Well, that can be good, but it can be bad. There's danger in seeking excitement."
My smile slowly faded away. "What do you mean?"
Uncle Billy sighed. "Let me tell you a story."
I hunkered down, ready for a crackerjack of a yarn. Here, below, is the story as best as I can remember it, in Uncle Billy's own words:
Back in 1969, when I was 22 and your mother was seventeen, there was a young girl that your mother and I grew up with. We were really close with her. Her name was Valerie. She was very pretty, with flaming red hair and very clear blue eyes. Just about every boy in town had a crush on them, and Valerie loved stringing them along. She acted like she loved all of them, but in fact, she loved none of them. They weren't her kind of guys. They just weren't exciting enough. She wanted to get out and see the world, have some fun. She was a lot like you.
Well, that fall of 1969, she went to college in Los Angeles. One day, when she was shopping, she met a young guy named Walt Stegner. Walt was everything Val had dreamed of, exciting, dashing, a little bit dangerous. He was very handsome, with slick black hair and brown eyes and his snappy clothing. Valerie later learned that Walt had spent time in prison for attempted robbery and breaking and entering, but that only added to Walt's allure for her. Anyway, Walt one day asked Valerie to run away with him. Valerie was so excited. This was exactly the kind of opportunity she had been waiting for, and so she agreed.
Well, around Elko, Nevada, they ran out of money. Walt told Valerie that he was very sorry, but there was only one way he knew to get money, and that was through robbery. Valerie was excited. This was exactly the kind of excitement she had been waiting for. Walt loaded up a Colt .45 and entered a bank. He hadn't intended to use the gun, but a guard fired on him and Walt fired back, killing the guard. Walt, terrified, grabbed the money and dashed out of the bank, but not before several people got a good look at him. Some followed him outside and got a good look at Valerie, as well. They were now fugitives wanted for robbery and murder, but Walt and Valerie didn't mind. It was the excitement they had been looking for. Gaining confidence, they started robbing more and more banks all across the country, their takes getting bigger and bigger.
The FBI was called in. The biggest, toughest FBI agent there was, Norm Whitman, was assigned to take them down. Staunch and determined, and angry after two bungled attempts to capture Walt and Valerie, vowed that the two, now called "The Star-Crossers," would be captured, dead or alive.
In the spring of 1970, Walt and Valerie ended up in Chicago. Satisfied with their take, they decided to blow off some of their hard-won money. They began going around to all the big stores, getting fancy clothes and the like. They were recognized by several people, and the FBI was contacted. Excited, Whitman assembled a team of his best men and headed over to Chicago, arriving just as night fell.
Deciding to take in a movie, Walt and Valerie went to the famous Biograph theater, where Love Story was playing. The clerk in the box office recognized them and contacted Whitman through a hotline number that had been announced over the radio earlier that day. Snatching at his chance, Whitman and his men dashed over to the Biograph and set up an ambush across the street. Whitman told his men that they would give Walt and Valerie a chance to come along quietly, but if they didn't, they would be forced to open fire on them.
Walt and Valerie came out of the theater at the end of showtime, to be greeted by Whitman yelling from across the street, telling them to come across the street with both hands in the air. Walt responded by pulling out his Colt and firing on the agents, wounding one. Furious, Whitman commanded his men to open fire. And they did. Tommy gun fire ripped into the front of the Biograph, and into Walt and Valerie. Walt pitched over on his face, and Valerie, in confusion, took a step onto the sidewalk, making herself an easier target. More bullets tore into her, and she silently fell on her face. Walt was taken to the hospital, where he died the next morning. Valerie, however, was never taken to the hospital. She died right there on the pavement, in a pool of her own blood.
All this would have been tragic enough, but God, having a sense of irony, decided to add a little to the situation. You see, Valerie died in the red flashing of a neon sign, perched on top of a building on the other side of the street. The sign read THE WORLD IS YOURS. That was all Valerie had wanted, the world, and everything in it. She had attained it, or so she thought, but she still had to pay the price. She did that night. She paid it in blood.
When Uncle Billy finished, he just sat there for a while, completely silent. His eyes glistened a little with tears. He swallowed, and looked at me. "The end," he managed to get out.
I could feel some tears in my eyes, as well, but since I figured a guy my age wasn't supposed to cry, I blinked them back. "How sad, " I said. "It must have been hard for you and mom to lose such a close friend."
Uncle Billy nodded. "You have no idea how hard," he said. "You see, Valerie was more than just a friend to your mom and me. She was our sister. Your aunt." He looked at his watch and swallowed. "You'd better be getting along to sleep now. It's late."
I nodded, unable to say a word. I turned and made my way back to the tent, not turning until I got into the tent. Uncle Billy still sat by the fire, staring into it. His eyes still glistened with tears. Then, slowly, he took his harmonica out of his pocket and started playing it, playing a sad, wistful song. The notes swirled up in the air into the clear, cold air above, into the winking stars above. I listened silently. I knew the song was for me, but it wasn't just for me. It was for Aunt Valerie, Walt Stegner, and for every other person who wanted the world and everything in it, adventure, love, everything. It was for me, yes, but it wasn't as much for me as it was for Aunt Valerie, Walt, all of them who had paid the price for it. It was as if the song was asking me a question, asking me if I was willing to make that same sacrifice for what I wanted, for that was the price, and it was non-negotiable. I knew the answer was no. I never complained about not having enough adventure again, for I was too afraid of the price.
Uncle Billy knew the score, and he explained it to me. I was grateful then, but I think I'm more grateful now, as I look at the wife and two children I have that I wouldn't have if it weren't for Uncle Billy and Aunt Valerie.
I don't think I ever thanked Uncle Billy, and I couldn't ever have thanked Aunt Valerie, but I'm doing it now.
Thank you. Thank you both. Thank you for giving me my life.