It was round about midnight when Scupper McGee burst into Dancing Frog, tears streaming down both cheeks.
It was the day before halloween, the night of Ol' Long Tom's funeral, and the Frog was fuller than it'd been in months. Most of us were holing up til the Host and Hunt had had their way. The nights weren't safe. It was a sullen kind of quiet, but the Frog was a safe haven.
A football game played on the television, but the Franklin had the sound turned off. None of us were really payin attention to it anyway. We played it for Ol Tom. We were a sad lot that day. Loss played selfishly about us, leaving us all with the lingering thoughts of our sad shortcomings.
Now, Scupper was a big man. He had the build of a football player, but soft hands that made the Frog's piano sing like you wouldn't believe. Most days, Scupper would sit at the keys like he was praying, his lips moving with no words comin out. Then someone would shout out a title or a phrase, and it didn't matter if Scupper'd heard the song before, he played it with his eyes closed. Sometimes, he got so into it, he cried. But he insisted that he never knows what's gonna come out of him when he played.
So, when he burst open the doors and cried out, the whole damned bar went quiet and stared. He was one of us--touched by the Autumn. And there were few enough of us left now that Ol Tom'd gone the way down the primrose path.
Scupper McGee had stayed behind to watch the body get put in the ground. I don't think none of us had the heart to do that. But Ol Tom was like a father to Scupper. And family looked after its' own.
We gathered around Scupper, makin' to see if he was okay or something. Maggie-May-I called out to the Franklin to pour the poor boy a beer, and damned if the big man didn't already have a pint of dark waiting.
"What is it, Scup?" Maggie-May-I asked him. She laid her arms on Scuppers shoulder, and tensed briefly as her eyes went wide. "You're freezing! Dammit Tin-Can, get the boy a blanket!" Maggie-May-I practically pushed Scupper to a chair by the fire and placed the beer in his hand. She pushed the people back a bit to give Scupper room to breathe.
Scupper, for his part sat looking down at his enormous hands, the tears rolling down his cheeks like he were a little boy. He sniffed and looked up at us, his eyes distant and dark. "The hunt rides tonight." he said quietly.
It was like a sudden charge of electricity rippled through the room. The crowd pressed forward. Maggie-May-I crossed herself and Smith-Klien crossed his arms and frowned. Emily caught her breath and the Donovan twins exchanged an uneasy glance. Even the man in the black suit looked nervous. The Franklin was the only one in the entire room who didn't seem affected none by Scuppers words.
"The hunt's not til tomorrow night, though." Smith-Klien rumbled from his seat at the back.
"I done saw what I saw." Scupper said. "And Ol Long Tom's gone hunting."
The crowd argued back and forth--some arguing for, others against the possibility. But one way or the other, we'd all been touched by the Host and the Hunt. They claimed their dead, and only the brightest hearths played strong enough to protect.
So it was that the Franklin rang the last-call bell and held his hands up til we all stopped quiet to listen.
"It's time, then." The Franklin said in his low, slow drawl, "It's time for the Tellin'. Stories of life. To keep the Hunt away."
Maggie-May-I bit her lip and nodded her head. "Who's first?" she looked out over the crowd.