My father, William Gray, was a politician. At least that’s what my mother always told me. I never met him. He supposedly died a year ago on his way home to meet me for the first time. I never found out what killed him, but my mother said it was the long journey.
“And that’s why he never, ever visited,” she huffed, a tear rolling down her cheek. “He never should have worked there in the first place. Washington is so far away.”
She was precisely the opposite of a strong woman, which made it gut wrenching to watch this bereavement weigh down on her tiny little heart. But I should have known better back then. Ten years? That’s far too long for a married man to not come home. But that doesn’t matter now because six months ago I found out what my father actually was: a Union spy. That became apparent to me just before Christmas, when an unholy man came to Downfall Valley.
Our house was a lonely, wood cabin standing in the trough of Downfall Valley. It was modestly sized; large enough for a family but it certainly didn’t impose on the land that surrounded it and it was not the kind of place that travellers stumbled upon accidently. Nobody lived in the whole valley apart from my family. It was private land and had been ours for generations. The man who had settled it, a distant descendant of ours, was called Theodore Down and he had once said that all things fell in the valley. Be it the seeds of spring, the rain of the summer, the leaves of autumn or the snow of winter. That’s how the valley got its name, Downfall.
At this time of year, Christmas, it was snow that fell and the valley was full of both darkness and light. Along with some of the most beautiful views in all the Blue Ridge Mountains, came many hidden undulations in the shadowy depths of Downfall. In a hike from top to bottom, one could come across open white flats of snow at the peaks, or dark, woodland sheltered ravines where the slush collected at the bottom of the slopes. The winters here were not too cold, and that’s why there was a constant slide of melting snow from top to bottom, which made avalanches more than common.
Rather characteristically, it was both dark and snowing the night that the man interrupted my life forever.
* * *
The first time I saw him, I thought death had returned for his loose change. He stood in our doorway, his dark silhouette taking up the whole frame and sucking the light from our kitchen. He wore heavy black clothing that rounded his already large figure and as he stepped inside, the shadows clung to his brow casting darkness over his eyes. His inky mop of hair was marbled with grey and soaking wet, as if the rain had washed its color down into his thick, charcoal beard. Between those was a face almost too broad for its own good, stretching his skin and allowing middle age to make its wrinkled mark.
I had never seen this man before and didn’t know who he was, but the way my mother silently ushered him in implied that although he wasn’t a friend, he was either someone to be trusted, or worse, someone to be feared.
“Prepare a fire,” he brushed past me without making eye contact. “Mary,” he turned to my mother and paused as she stared back expectantly. “Board the windows.” For a moment, only the wind could be heard, howling sorrowfully until finally, the man ended the quiet.
“I’ll explain later, just do as I say.”
I will never forget the look on my mother’s face that night. Her dark brown eyes sunk even deeper into her skull and her skin turned a thick, pasty white. It was both the fiercest and the most fearful I had ever seen her. It’s not easy to explain the feeling of seeing your own parent, your last remaining guardian, scared out of her wits. All I can tell you is that it chilled me to the bone. And that was when suspicion infected me. Who was this man? What was he doing here? Why was he telling my mother and me what to do?
But the man made no further introduction, and for the rest of the night he didn’t even speak at all. Mostly, he just sat in the darkness of the living room, carving little men out of firewood and tossing them into the flames.
The next day, while my mother was trying to tutor me in English, I couldn’t stop thinking about our visitor. How was I supposed to care about grammar and spelling, after the events of the previous evening? None of it made sense. A strange man, turning up in the middle of the night and giving out orders as if our home belonged to him. And my mother obeyed! Things were not right. Things were not right at all.
* * *
It snowed heavily for the rest of the week. So for the next few days I stayed inside and simply watched our visitor, trying to learn more about him.
“His name is Truman. He worked with your father… in Washington.” My mother told me one night at dinner.
“Why doesn’t he eat with us.”
“Because he sleeps during the day,” she replied.
“Why does he do that”
“Because that’s what his job requires of him.”
“What is his job,” I asked. At this my mother slammed her spoon against the table.
“Why do you always ask so many questions Bill? Truman is a politician, that’s it, that’s all he is.” And that was the end of that conversation.
My only mistake was that I believed her. But politicians didn’t turn up unannounced in the middle of the night. Politicians introduced themselves when they met you and they certainly didn’t sleep through the day and work after dark. I should have known better, but I suppose that’s just what you do when you’re twelve years old. You take what adults say for granted. But here’s what I have learned since then:
Rule No. 1: Never trust an adult
I shouldn’t have trusted him. He hadn’t earned it, and it was on the third day of Truman’s visit that my life began to change forever.
That morning, as my mother was polishing my shoes, Truman returned from a walk in the valley with a gun. It was a Springfield rifle, 1861 model. The most accurate and powerful long-range weapon in existence. My mother turned to acknowledge him but as she saw the rifle, she froze in silence. The rifle sat comfortably in his large palms. The polished, grainy wood running smoothly from the tip to the trigger, upon which one of Truman’s large fingers rested. My mother snapped her head back to my shoes and continued polishing. But now she was scrubbing so hard that the leather began to burn away.
“Mother” I yanked my foot out of her claw like grip.
“I’m sorry Bill” she hesitated, “I just…” She put her hand on her chest and I could swear she was about to say something before she turned away and hurried into the kitchen. I looked back to Truman, but he had disappeared up the stairs.
That evening at sunset, Truman left the house without a word, carrying the Springfield rifle. My mother had gone to bed early saying that she didn’t feel well, which left me alone in the house. The rest of the night that awaited me consisted of drinking tea, eating stale bread and probably sitting, staring into the fire. Or I could break into Truman’s room and find out what he was doing here. Naturally, this seemed like a much more intriguing option.
Truman was staying in the guest bedroom, to which he had locked the door. This however was no issue to me. When you grow up as an only child, lock picking is one of the few skills that you can actually learn yourself. When I got in, I saw that Truman had left the room almost entirely empty. It was as if he wasn’t even staying here. The wood floor was bare, the curtains drawn and the cupboards unfilled. He had brought just one small duffle bag with him, which lay right before me in the middle of the room. I walked forward nervously and opened it.
Inside were two files. I reached for the first one and upon opening it, I immediately realized that Truman was not a politician. Inside was a report labeled “Assassination: A Military Case Study” and then another one labeled “Interrogation Techniques and Remedies: Women and Children.” Lastly, underneath the files, was a silver revolver.
As I picked it up, the cold, silver gunmetal sat heavy in my hand. The shine had been worn off and now the silver was almost a shade of gray, similar to the lead bullets littered at the bottom of the bag. As I looked closer at the gun however, my hand began to tremble. Carved into the ivory handle, was a set of initials that read WRG: William Randolph Gray.
I felt a burning sensation well up inside of me. What was Truman doing with my dead father’s gun? What was he doing with documents about Assassination and Interrogation? I could only speculate, but it seemed that Truman had killed my father. I couldn’t help but to imagine the moment that Truman prized open my father’s cold, lifeless fingers, claiming the gun that was rightfully mine. But it didn’t make sense. If he had done so, why hadn’t he killed me yet, or my mother? Perhaps that was exactly what he had come to do, I thought. Perhaps he was going to interrogate me and my mother for all the information we had on my father’s life, and then, when we were no more use to him, kill us both. I cast my memory back once more to the night that he had arrived and it all made sense. His pale, lifeless skin, his empty eyes; the man was an assassin. And so, driven by confusion and fear, I slipped the pistol beneath my jacket and set out into the valley to find Truman.
* * *
Just as the light was dying, I reached a broad, flat opening on a snow shelf from which you could see both faces of Downfall Valley, clad in white from peak to peak. I bent over and placed both hands on my knees, heaving puffs of white smoke from my mouth. As I straightened up I took out the gun once more and stroked the initials with my index finger. WRG.
“Do you even know how to shoot one of those?” A voice emerged from behind me. As Truman walked towards me he held the Springfield and smiled. We stood face-to-face, ten yards apart, the pistol in my hand, the Springfield in his.
“Who are you? Why are you here? Why do you have my father’s gun?” I demanded.
“So many questions” he replied casually, strolling towards me. “But it is me who asks the questions here Bill. It is me that is here for you.” He cast his eyes on the gun in my hand. “I see you broke into my room. Do you know what I do to people who break into my private things?”
“No” was the only word I could croak out. There was a momentary silence.
“So, as I was saying, do you know how to shoot your father’s gun?”
I raised the revolver and pointed it at his chest. But as I held it up, I realized that I had forgot to even load the gun. The best I could do was bluff.
“Oooh, okay.” Truman cooed, “but don’t forget.” Click. Truman cocked back his rifle and closed the gap between us with his long, calm strides.
My throat felt like I had swallowed a mouthful of sand. I couldn’t speak. Truman had come so close that I could no longer hold his stare. I briefly cast my gaze uphill to the horizon where I could see the black silhouettes of five trees, bony and thin from the winter. Then I glanced back at Truman, whose gun was now raised pointing at me.
“Come on now,” he raised his rifle and pointed it at me. “Lets pretend I’m here to kill you. What would you do?”
Here to kill me? I repeated the words in my head. Suddenly, my blood started rushing through my veins. There was nobody around to stop him. It was Truman and I alone in the valley.
“First, close one eye and look straight down the barrel.”
Was Truman going to shoot me? My heart started to pound in my chest now as Truman’s thumb fingered the safety lock. I glanced once more at the trees. But now there was one missing. One of the trees had ducked beneath the skyline. I wanted to say something but I had nobody to say it to. I wasn’t even sure that Truman knew what was happening.
“Take one deep breath.” Truman wasn’t flinching. This was it. I had to act now but I couldn’t sum up the wind to speak. It felt like someone had wrapped a belt around my chest. “And when you’re ready.“ A gunshot echoed through the valley. I looked at Truman. He had not fired.
I heard the bullet whistle past. The snow beside me exploded from the ground. And then, something hit me right in the chest. It felt like I had been struck by a train as the heavy thud took me off my feet.
The blow had come from Truman. He had shoved me off the shelf, sending me ten feet down onto a snow-padded slope and tumbling head over heels to a halt. I immediately jumped up. My hands were empty. I had dropped my father’s gun. Then two more gunshots sounded and I dropped back to the ground. I looked back up towards the ledge but Truman was gone. I could feel the adrenaline from the hair standing on the back of my neck all the way down to my legs, rooting them into the mountainside. They would only let me go one way. And so, like any twelve year old would, I did exactly what I was told and I ran home.
Truman did not return that night. When I told my mother what had happened, she burst into tears and began hurriedly packing a bag for the both of us.
“We’re leaving.” She wouldn’t look at me.
“I thought he was going to kill me,” I pleaded to my mother but she snapped back at me before I could finish.
“He would never kill you. Don’t be stupid, Bill.” Her eyes were flushed pink from all of the tears and her lip quivered with worry.
“Take this,” she shoved a bag of clothes into my arms. “Without Truman we’re not safe.”
But I had no intention of running away. It was clear to me now that Truman’s arrival was no accident. The cuts, the guns, my mother’s behavior; he had come to protect us from something or someone.
“I found father’s gun,” I said. My mother stopped in her tracks. “I’m not leaving.”
“Oh William.” As my mother embraced me I knew something was wrong. She rarely used my full name.
“Why does Truman have father’s gun?” I demanded.
“Because William, they were… partners.”
“What kind of partners.”
“Your father and Truman were spies.”
* * *
The following morning was mild as I set out into the valley. The hazy sunlight had melted some of the snow, which now started to form a glassy pulp that sloshed beneath my feet. After my conversation with my mother, one thing was clear to me. I had to find Truman. I had to find my father’s gun. I had to find out more. Truman could have been anywhere in the valley or worse, he could have been dead. I needed to get the gun if I was going to help him. So, this time with a pocketful of bullets, I returned to the ledge.
As I approached the plateau, I was greeted with a shock that sent the same chills crawling down my spine as the day before. Right where Truman and I had stood just one day earlier, two men sat beside a camp tent, waiting for something, or someone. They couldn’t see me, I was twenty yards away amongst a thick of trees, and so I crouched down and observed them.
They both carried weapons and had a violent air about them that bore a resemblance to Truman, as if guns were like fifth limbs to them. One man was thick, muscular and ugly and carried a pistol. The second man sat in a chair facing the valley, a rifle placed across his lap. He wore a Stetson hat, which met the corners of his upturned collar and created a gauntlet for his face. I could barely see his features beyond the shadows but could just make out a crooked nose and a combed, straw beard that hugged his jaw. They were both wearing ranger uniforms. This was strange, I thought, because there were no rangers in Downfall Valley. That was when I noticed the model of the rifle on the one man’s lap. It was a Springfield 1861. The only gun powerful enough to shoot across such a long distance. Whoever these men were, they had tried to kill Truman and me the day before.
Roughly fifteen yards below them, hidden from sight under the ridge was my father’s gun. I knew I had a chance of getting it but doing so without being seen was impossible. My escape route was a straight run down the valley until I reached a ravine that I could follow home. I knew the terrain, but it was sure to be uneven and icy and I stood little chance of outrunning them. It was life or death, but this time I was not going to let fear get the better of me. Having made my mind up, I bolted into the open.
They saw me as soon as I broke the tree line, but were slow to react. I dashed across the opening and straight for the gun. As I approached, the chunky man leapt forward and fired his pistol over my head as I slipped beneath the ledge. I snatched the gun and hurled myself downhill without stopping. Flashes of green and brown went streaking past me as twigs and thorns cut and tore at my skin. The pain was quite literally blinding but I had no choice other than to push through it.
Just then a loud crack erupted nearby. A tree trunk to my right shattered to pieces as a bullet ripped into it. Was it possible to shoot a pistol that far with such accuracy? I quickly glanced back to see the muscular man hurtling down the hill. He was only fifteen yards behind me and gaining quickly. He was moving with ease, as if keeping up with me was no problem at all. Next time he’d be a lot closer and wouldn’t miss his target. And that’s when I fell.
I must have lost concentration because as I turned to keep running I was met by a low hanging branch. There was no time to stop. I crashed face first into the thick beam of wood. My feet were lifted off the ground as I completely lost my bearings. I hit the floor with a thud and slid, spun and rolled until I came to rest in the middle of a stream.
I dizzily got to my feet and looked around to see if the man had found me. Nothing. I was standing in the middle of the ravine with water trickling around my ankles. The earth rose steeply upward on both sides and the overhanging trees cast a web of dark shadows against the cold, white ground. It was quiet down here, so deep into the valley where even sound did not venture. My eyes whirled around me until I caught something, a flash of color. A ranger’s uniform, to be specific. The chase was over. His approach turned from a run into a jog and then, slowly into a stroll as he came to face me across the stream. His lips were thin and as a smile crawled across his face, he revealed a set of discolored teeth, like he had been chewing on his bullets.
After a few moments the man stopped laughing and gave me a cold look. I had my pistol in my hand but I knew I wasn’t going to shoot and so did he. Then, without a word, he raised his gun and pointed it at me. I shut my eyes and braced myself. The shot sounded. It boomed. It was much louder than I had expected. In fact, it was too loud for a pistol. That was when I noticed that I hadn’t been shot. A body hit the ground. I opened my eyes. The man across from me lay face down in the stream. Behind him, up the hill stood Truman, looking down the smoking barrel of his rifle.
“Were you watching?” He smiled. “I wont show you again.”
“Truman!” I screamed. But it was too late.
The other ranger had sprung from a bush and wrapped a rope around Truman’s neck. The two men went flying, locked together and tumbling towards me. Truman had lost the advantage, he had dropped his gun when he was tackled and now had both of his hands on the rope trying to breathe.
“Bill,” Truman croaked desperately.
I had to think of something fast. That was when I felt the ivory letters ‘WRG’ in the palm of my hand. It was time. I tried to get a better angle on the thin man but the moment I moved, he kicked Truman to the ground and pointed his handgun on him.
“You move I shoot.” He casually flicked the tip of his pistol at Truman.
I did what he wanted and stiffened up. He left Truman kneeling in the middle of the ravine as he backed away, his gun on Truman, his eyes on me. What he did not realize is that he was now under a rock face that had slowly accumulated the day’s slush. For a moment, we stood in a triangle of silence as the ranger decided which one of us he would kill first. He looked at Truman and then back at me. His face was a map of scars with eyes that were an icy, burning blue.
I was still holding my father’s gun but knew I wasn’t ready to shoot him. Not only was I too young to kill a man but I also wasn’t a good enough shooter to even hit him. And so I did something that surprised everyone. I drew my revolver and emptied five shots into the side of the hill as fast as I could. I had never shot a gun before and the recoil jerked my wrist back painfully. As I fired, the ranger looked at me bemused. My bullets were going nowhere near him. I wasn’t even aiming at him. Instead, I had shot loose some snow higher up the slope, right above the ledge. As the ranger turned away the snow mass started to move. In a matter of seconds more and more snow gathered, driving towards the drop off. The ranger turned but it was too late, the snow came sliding down and with a muffled scream, he disappeared in a heap of white. One of the ranger’s hands jutted out of the pile, twitching for a few moments before eventually coming to be still.
Truman huffed a sigh of relief as he got to his feet. “Way to stay… cool.”
But I didn’t have anything to say in reply. I just stared at the pile of snow and clutched my burning wrist.
“Good job Bill, let's get out of here before he wakes up.”
* * *
The following morning when I woke up, Truman was gone. He had left my father’s gun and as I examined it, I found a note tucked into the sixth chamber of the revolver.
My Dearest William,
I am sorry that you and I were never able to meet. I wanted nothing more than to watch you grow into the man that would make your mother proud. She speaks of you always. Make sure you protect her, as I soon will not be able to. There are many things that I am sure you would like to know about me that I cannot afford to write in this letter. For that I am sorry William. I am truly sorry.
You have shown great courage over the years, courage that cannot be replicated by ordinary people. You will soon find it easy to meet an enemy face to face and to stand up to fear, but it is the unseen enemies that take will present to you greatest tests. Make sure you carry such strength in the face of adversity and despair. Do not let these internal battles be the ones to defeat you.
Be good to your mother, she loves you, much the same as I do.
On the back of the scrap of paper, Truman had left a post note.
If you want to know more about him, meet me outside the town hall at midnight on Christmas Eve.
37.7986° N, 79.7911° W
I received a note from father today. Truman gave it to me. I don’t think father is dead and I am leaving to find him. By the time you read this, I will be gone. Don’t try to stop me. I do not know if Truman is dead or alive, but I must find him also. I hope you do not come to think the same of me. I do not know who the next visitor will be to Downfall Valley but I will not be here to greet him. As much as I regret leaving like father did, there are questions that I must know the answers to. Besides, I will return eventually, perhaps dressed in dark overalls, posing as a politician.
Signed, Formerly known,
WRG Bill R. Gray