Wanderlust

A.N.: Not much to say about this one. The idea happened upon me during a late night rehearsal for "The Music Man." (I'm Alma Hix) Takes place just before Harold comes to River City.

He'd boarded the night train at 10:00 yesterday evening. He'd been in such haste this time that he cursed his ineptitude of not even trying to book a sleeper train. It hadn't mattered, he'd felt the grip of urgency – time to dash. He'd bled the town dry, and it wasn't especially the authorities that were making him nervous.

No, it hadn't mattered. He could stretch out on a bench as well as any other member of the traveling fraternity and sleep just as soundly from exhaustion and be just as uncomfortable. Poor jerks playing it honest. Still, with money to burn, he inevitably grew accustom to some things – like a decent night's rest on an actual sleeper train. And he had been sore tired.

But he was of the traveling kind same as they were. So he could shake off the luxuries in any sort of pinch. He was a smooth operator, a big spender. He was a master.

Maybe pulling the wool over the eyes of the poor people of Illinois wasn't fair or sporting, but nobody won that had ever played it fair or sporting. You learned these sort of things the hard way. Social Darwinism applied beautifully here just the same as anyplace else.

"River City Junction – River City next station stop!"

He'd been in a sore hurry to get out of that town this time, and chances were he'd never go back. Couldn't, even if he had the inclination – which he didn't. Maybe he'd get a few more bucks in the next run; head into Chicago and have himself a nice spree. The traveling kind didn't have much else to spend the money they earned on, and he wasn't about to quit. He was in his prime, just as the last town and last girl that he was rushing out of and away from had proven….

This one had had brown eyes. Big ones, with lashes she batted just so that – had he been the truly romantic type – would have had him following at her heels like a puppy dog the moment she wanted. But he wasn't predisposed to romance, so he just oiled his way around her same as everybody else. "Professor Harold Hill," didn't puppy dog it to anybody. Never had, and probably never would. And he'd had that foolish little broad eating right out of his hands. Not a music teacher this time, just a local dame he'd cozied up to because he could. He got what he wanted from her the same as he got it from everyone else who happened to be on his target list.

"Boart! All aboart!"

Wanderlust was a cruel mistress, and if anything owned Hill, she did. It kept him moving, which wasn't so bad. Staying in one place too long made him get attached, and it also made him edgy. He wasn't the settling type. Not a family man, no. He didn't suppose kids were so bad. He'd had enough boys following him around every which way he went he deserved an award for surrogate father figure. He liked kids alright. And the band was good for them, got them straightened up. His band was a service to mankind! It-

There wasn't any band. Hill was such a smooth operator he even fooled himself without fail. Thus the pain of wanderlust.

He used to think maybe he should have been an actor. After all, he'd trained himself to call to the name "Harold," with such skill, he occasionally forgot he was born "Gregory." Which, he figured, was the price of an actor who played the same part too long – they started wising they could really be their character.

Music wasn't so bad. If it came straight down to it, he quite liked it. Thought as a kid maybe he could learn it. But the damn thing was like learning French, and he'd never quite got the trick of that, either. Still, he could imitate, like his younger days in Joplin. And he could do it better than a damn chameleon, as the numerous music teachers he'd fooled had proven.

The wanderlust had its perks, along with the music business. He liked the way those kids looked at him sometimes, though it was only a perk. The money was good, the idea behind music was nice, and he was never forced into a position of commitment; whether it be conducting or women.

He'd snuck out of that girl's room while she was still asleep. Sometimes he waited until morning, but he was in a hurry, and he didn't always like seeing them when they woke up. The frustration or the tears or the petty death threats. But he wasn't sure how well he could handle this one's eyes misting up – those damn pretty, big, brown eyes and their long lashes. Nicely shaped lips, too. Hm, she'd been a rare little thing, young and pretty and wholly trusting in her blind innocence, ignorance. But it didn't make any difference. He'd kissed her soft, pale cheek in the dark when he slid out the door into the warm summer night, and he'd headed straight for the train depot. Now he was in the process of forgetting her name – which wouldn't even take long.

"River City! River City next!"

He'd bought a copy of a local newspaper from the vendor in the morning to give him something to do, and now had it spread in front of him as he sat back, soaking the area around him in. The train was making a passenger stop, and more salesmen were getting on board, settling in and starting a fresh set of complaining. Poor suckers, making honesty money. Honest money was no money at all, far as he was concerned. He raked in hundreds a go for the uniforms alone, the working man's way was petty change.

So where to now? He had Illinois just about cleaned up, and he wasn't in the mood to travel down south, not in the summer. He could go up to Michigan, or maybe-

He found his thoughts wandering, which annoyed him, because there was only one thing his thoughts really wandered to. Every other thought linked perfectly with the next, unless he was thinking in the slightest of romantic terms. Damn pretty girl, he was having a bit of trouble getting her out of his head. In an hour, he knew, she'd be long gone, just like the rest, but that's what made him want to cling to her now in his last passing moments of her. And he thought maybe she was thinking of him.

There'd be another girl in the next city, there always was. One with big brown eyes, maybe, or flashing green ones. Grey, blue, gold, it didn't matter. A dame was a dame to be kept off balance out of fun or necessity, and he played them all equally false.

"Ever meet a fella by the name of Hill?"

He imperceptibly twitched. They were talking about him, obviously, and he sat just a touch straighter. The bald one with the hat on gave him a very slight bother with his long winded statements dead set against him, but he was a model of the American dream, that was for sure! They could only dream to emulate him! Now there was a feeling, that's what the wanderlust got you.

"River City! We're across the state line into Iowa."

Hill leaned back, spread the paper carefully in front of him, scanning more than reading. He was too disjointed to try and seriously read it.

"Even the great Professor Harold Hill wouldn't try to sell them out here, not these neck bowed Hawkeyes."

Was that a challenge? Oh, he loved those. He couldn't help but rise to meet them, and usually win. It was something of an irresistible hobby with him, and this one looked oh so promising…

"Gentlemen, you intrigue me," he said, standing and folding the paper carefully, grabbing his case. "I think I'll have to give Iowa a try."

"I don't believe I caught your name," Cowell was saying, eyeing him coolly.

He smirked. "I don't believe I dropped it."

The End