This Way of Life
|Even submarine captains have to have hobbies.....|
This Way of Live by Lee Crane
He rode down the center of the rutted muddy street with his rain slick and heavy jacket covering his chest and his hat pulled down to keep the rain from his eyes. The slick was pulled back just enough to give a clear path to his gun. It wasn't important that his right leg was soaked to the skin, but in his mind, a pathway to his tool of trade was imperative. In his short life in his chosen occupation, he had made many enemies, well at least the ones that hadn't died from one of his bullets. A dead enemy wasn't a foe any more, they were just an empty husk with the soul consigned to hell. He figured that by the time he got there, he'd have a couple of acres full of them waiting just for him. His slight smile was still on his face as he veered his horse toward the hotel's covered porch.
He was tired, but he could still see the humor in living. Of course, he didn't know any other way of life. He had been on his own as long as he could remember. There were vague memories of people's voices, the warmth of a woman's arms around his small body, a mongrel skinny hound that followed him as a toddler. Hunger, loneliness, and coldness had always been a part of his growth. It was what he was used to.
Dismounting, he tied his horse to the hitching rail, slung his rifle over his shoulder, and went into the lobby. He looked around as he cleared the door. The pot belly stove in the corner had a radiance that drew him. Heat was always appreciated to someone who seldom found it this far north. Taking off his tan gloves and like a moth to the flames, he headed to the stove.
The clerk behind the desk followed his movements and after an adequate time period, yelled out to him. “You taking up residence over there or are you going to get a room, Mister?”
Lost in thought, he swiftly turned at the sound, his hand ghosting over the grip of his gun. Just as quickly, he moved his hand away and raised it up. His voice was soft, but carried. “A room ... I'll need a room.” Stuffing his gloves into his coat's side pockets, he walked over and signed the registry. “Any chance of getting a hot bath and a good meal around here?”
“Sure thing. I'll have a bath brought up in an hour. The cafe next door makes a good beef stew with cornbread and apple pie. Great coffee, too.”
“I'll check it out. Where's the livery?”
“Just down the road, next street over.”
Exchanging some coins for the key, he put on his gloves and he headed for the outside door with a wistful glance at the narrow stairs snaking its way behind the clerk's desk. A hot bath and soft bed would have to wait until his horse was bedded down and he had satisfied his hunger.
It was almost one hour exactly when his spurs musically stepped into the hotel. He glanced over to the clerk and knew that the man had recognized his name on the ledger. The clerk was throwing off into the air his excitement and apprehension. With an inward sigh, he continued upstairs to his room and bath. He would have to put the chair under the door knob tonight to get some sleep. Sometimes gossip was faster than his draw, and by now the majority of the town would know he was there. Well, at least he would be clean when he rode out tomorrow.
His sleep was restless, filled with nightmares of past gunfights brought on by the drunken shouts and shots of fools roaming the street between his hotel and the all night saloon. The final shout from the local deputy eager to fill his jail cells woke him fully. Coldness had seeped in from the window stuck almost closed. Rolling over to his side, he hugged the quilt to his chest and allowed his thoughts free rein.
The soft tapping of the freezing rain turning to sleet wasn't a source of happiness to him. He had journeyed this far north into Oregon in hopes of starting a new life. He'd been saving his wages from his last three jobs to buy the small spread he'd heard about, but that dream was just that ... a dream of a foolish man.
He was at a crossroad. Should he continue pushing north into the snowy mountains, go east or give it up and resume his life and livelihood in the south desert border towns? Instead of making a major life decision, he turned onto his side, covered up tightly with the heavy quilt and drifted back off to sleep. When he once again woke, the precipitation had stopped and the sun was trying to peek out from behind the retreating dark storm clouds. He was hungry and threw his covers off. Rapidly, he dressed and shaved using the freezing water in the pitcher.
After a quick trip to the outhouse, he went in search of food and returned to the cafe he had frequented the night before. The same waitress served him, but she was colder than the ice-coated road outside. She wasted no time in fulfilling his order and as he glanced around at the other customers, he noted that the atmosphere was 10 degrees colder from the previous night.
He needed to eat and paid no obvious attention to the waitress's piss-poor attitude. It wasn't as if he was used to being treated like a king. Most of the time he was met with fear, anxiety, and distrust. He didn't let it spoil his appetite and even ordered seconds to vex the lady. With a full stomach, he sauntered to the door. Looking out at the sparkling ice-covered world, he figured he was still safe to hang around town for another day.
The flash of a blue dress through the saloon window across the street from him attracted his attention. Maybe the taste of a stiff drink and the touch of soft hands would melt the icicle in his inner core. Verifying no one was watching his movements, he exited and stepped onto the icy road. Hitting a smooth patch, he slid across, picking up speed and slammed up against the hitching rail. A grin from ear to ear broke out as he enjoyed a childhood activity he had never experienced.
With the smile lingering around his lips, he slowly and with caution, entered the saloon. This one was cleaner then the ones he had frequent in his past and, after a glance at the two saloon gals, he decided that they took good care of themselves as well. The ladies were appreciative of him as they boldly swept their twinkling eyes over his graceful and lithe frame.
The room was moderately filled as he made his way to the back corner table. The two men sitting there, upon seeing his low slung gun belt, quickly rose and went to the bar leaving the table empty. He sat down with his back against two walls. It afforded him a good look at the entire room. Crooking a finger up, one of the ladies came over to take his order. In minutes, she returned with a shot glass and a clear bottle with a worm floating in the bottom. She had a look of disgust on her pretty face as she gazed at his choice of drink. She set them down and left to return with bowls of salt and lime.
He appreciated the view as she leaned over to push the bowls closer. His attention was diverted from her murmured explanation that the bottle was their only one, as not many customers had ever ordered tequila that far north. He would have to switch to whiskey after that. She would be willing to share the drink and other delights with him when he did. He crooked his finger again and she came closer. Whispering in her ear, a slow grin graced her face as she straightened back up, turned and swayed her way back over to the other saloon girl.
The ladies stood watching him like vultures waiting for the right time to pounce. His Mexican style of dress was out of place in Oregon, but suited his darker skin color and his slim build. They watched in fascination as he dipped his thumb in the salt, licked it and threw back the shot of tequila into his throat. He reached for the lime and chewed on the fruit. He poured himself another shot and leaned back on his chair. Pulling his hat down further over his eyes, he played with the shot glass and wondered if he really should take the lady up on her offer.
The old rancher could hardly hobble as he slowly came into the saloon. He waited as his eyes adjusted to the dark, hoping that he would, this time, find the man he was searching for. His heart jumped in triumph as he spotted him in the back sitting at a corner table. He had a drink and bottle in front of him as he relaxed back into his chair. His hat was pulled down and he was twirling the shot glass around and around. Bowls of lime and salt were arranged nearby.
The rancher knew this man was dangerous and he planned to be cautious in his approach, but he was determined to have a talk with the young man. He needed the best and from everything he had heard, this young gunfighter was considered the top of his trade. He didn't intend to take no for an answer. He had traveled too far and for too long searching for this fellow.
Making his way over to the corner table, he stood and waited for the gunhawk to take notice of him. It wasn't long until his bad leg was bumped by a chair being pushed out from under the table. Sitting down, he pulled the chair closer, placed his hands on the table and waited. The young man raised his hand and crooked a finger. Within seconds, a shot glass was placed in front of the older rancher and the gunhawk had poured tequila into the glass.
"Drink up, old man. They tell me it's the last bottle."
After dipping his thumb into the salt, the rancher slung back the shot glass and reached for a lime slice. A grimace crossed his face as he gazed hard at the worm in the bottom of the bottle. "That worm must have been old twenty years ago, before it was pickled."
The gunhawk shoved his hat back off his forehead revealing his black hair and his blue eyes glanced at the rancher. A slight grin graced his face. "Yep. At least twenty. What're you doing so far up north, old timer?" He pointedly stared at the Spanish cut of the rancher's clothes, mirroring the cut of his own.
The gray haired rancher was pleased that he had gotten the curious attention of the gunfighter. He was normally a blunt man and he saw no reason to go against the grain at this point in his life. Leaning forward, he lowered his voice, since his business was his own. "Searching for you."
"You know who I am?"
"Haven't found anyone in my journey so far that didn't know who you are and which way you were traveling."
For a fleeting moment, sadness crossed the young man's face before his head was lowered to stare at the table. A grim coldness crept into the gunman's voice. "What do you want, old man?"
"To buy time."
Jerking his head up with a twinkle in his eyes, the young man barked a harsh laugh. "Can't be done, old timer. There's only so much time that Dios gave us. Can't get any more than that." His eyes turned icy and his voice lowered dangerously. "Twenty fours hours is our limit and you've already reached the small amount I'm willing to spare for you." He leaned forward and placed his hands on the table in preparation to rise.
With a "Wait," the rancher's weathered right hand shot out and covered the young gunfighter's left hand. The icy stare darkened and the lowered tone of voice grew soft. "Take your hand off me and you'll live."
The old man, with sadness in his eyes and voice, came back with "Then, I'll die, for without buying your time, I'll have nothing to live for."
The young man was still for a moment, but allowed curiosity over the weathered old fool's statement to govern his actions. He pushed further back into his chair and pulled his hand away from the warmth of the gnarled and calloused hand sitting on top of his. Reaching for the bottle, he poured two shots for the rancher and himself. Leaning back, he searched the man's face. There was no fear in the old man's eyes, only hope.
"What's your story, old timer?"
"My daughter and her husband were killed in a wagon turn-over many years back. They left twin girls for my wife and me to raise. They're beautiful and set to be married in the spring to two Dons from Mexico. I chose carefully their mates. Both men suit the girls well and can provide for them without discomfort. They live close to each other. I've carefully allowed them some time with my granddaughters and the girls have given me acceptance to their marriage."
"So what's the problem that you've had to follow me over two states?"
"Two brothers from the East Coast chased out and took over the Chavez ranch next to mine. They saw the girls while they were out riding with their escorts. The next day, the two showed up on my doorstep wanting to marry the girls. I told them no, the girls were promised to others. They were filthy men with dirty mouths. They swore the girls would be theirs and marriage wasn't necessary. No one was going to stop them, including me. I ordered them off my land and they turned on me and started beating and kicking me. My foreman came upon us and pulled his rifle on them. He told them to leave or be shot. They left with threats. Since then, we've had fences cut, cattle shot, fires and waterholes fouled. When my foreman was winged, he suggested I find you, that you would know what to do."
"So, who's minding your place now?"
"The girls' intended have both come with some of their men to protect the women until I return. They cannot stay a long time, as they have ranches of their own that will suffer from their departures."
The gunman absently chewed on a slice of lime. "Well, how about moving up the weddings and shipping the girls to Mexico?"
With a swipe through his graying hair, the rancher brought his hand down to rub his chin. "Believe me, Senor, if I thought that would have solved the problem, I would, but it would only move the battle. These two Easterners are obsessed with my granddaughters."
"You wanting to hire me to stop them?"
"In any way you can!"
The gunman threw back the shot of tequila and softly asked the next question needed in this conversation. "And your price for doing this job?"
"The cost for my granddaughters' happiness and well-being is priceless. Whatever you deem necessary I'll pay."
"Ten dollars a day, plus bullets, if I get the job done or not and $1000 at the end when I finish the job."
Standing up and pulling his wallet out, the old man peeled off several hundred dollars and placed them on the table. "Traveling money for you, if you ride the train back instead of riding your horse. I want you there soon. My quest is done, I'll leave on the train tomorrow morning."
"Where am I going, old man?"
"Santa Barbara, California. I'm Felipe Hernandez and I'll meet you at the train station when you arrive and guide you to my ranch.
Looking up at the rancher, eager to leave, the gunman was curious. "Why me?"
"You are the best and love of my family and home is worthy of hiring the best."
Dipping his head into his chest to hide the regret in his eyes, the young man softly spoke. "I'll see you in Santa Barbara soon. I'll catch the train in two days." Standing up, he took the money off the table and tucked the bills away in his belt and shook the hand of the weathered rancher. Glancing over to the saloon girl, he crooked his finger at her. As she went to fetch a whiskey bottle with two glasses, he watched the rancher leave with a spring in his steps. The gunman's dream of a different future with a home and family of his own, for now would have to be put on hold. Maybe someday he could hang up his gun, but not now. He was going back into the game where he was considered the best and knew well this way of life.
He shook off the dark thoughts and, with a large smile on his face, he took the bottle from the saloon gal and strode up the steps of the stairway to her room of comfort.
Captain Lee Crane pushed back his chair from his desk in his room on the submarine, Seaview. It was a quiet and routine mission they were on and he was pleased that he could take time out from his nightly activities to write down this story that had been churning in his brain. Gathering up his papers, he shoved them under the mattress of his rack along with the other story he had been working on dealing with the life of the young gunfighter. He hated to have to stop on his main story, but this prequel kept knocking in his skull demanding to be put on paper. Looking at his watch he knew it was late, but before going to sleep he wanted to make a walk through his sub.
He found nothing wrong with his gray lady as he walked, her usual smells and sounds were comforting to him and he touched her bulkhead in tenderness. She was his boat and as she took care of him and his crew, he took care of her. His journey took him to the front porch of the sub. She was running on the surface and, after pouring a cup of coffee from the pot that Cookie made sure was always hot, he sat down and gazed out of the windows the Admiral had thoughtfully provided in the sub's front. He frowned as he thought of his stories. He needed more Spanish words in them. He made a mental note to order some tapes and books from the Naval Institute of Marine Research library the next morning.
The ocean water was churning over the submarine and the strength of the moon's rays gave a glow to the waves. He would never tire of this sight and as he finished his coffee, he acknowledged his fatigue. Rising, he headed to the circular stairs leading to Officers Country and waved at the young Lieutenant manning the Conn. Opening the door to his room, he went to the head and took care of washing his face and hands before donning his pajamas. Going to his rack, he drew back his blankets, turned off the light and snuggled into his sheets and pillow. Turning onto his side, he drifted off to sleep dreaming of the next chapter of the life of his young gunslinger.