Published on Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Lessons of a Lifetime
By Peter Quigley
Abe wiped the sweat from his brow as the hot breeze came in through the window. The dusty heat of these towns never used to bother him. Oh to be young and quick again. He looked at the fresh face staring at him and shook his head.
"What?" the kid asked.
Abe snorted. "You kids are all alike, full of vinegar."
The face darkened. "I'm twenty. Quit calling me kid."
Another snort. "Twenty? My boots are older than that." He sighed. "What do you want, kid?"
The kid frowned, but answered. "I want to learn the tricks. I've heard you've been telling them." He paused and then added, "now that you're near the end of the line."
Abe walked over to the window and looked down at the horses tied to the rail in front of the saloon. They seemed oblivious to the dust swirling around them. Maybe they weren't old enough to be annoyed.
"The end of the line, huh," he said with a wry smile. "I guess you could say that." He turned and sat against the sill. "Do you know how many have come to pick my brain?"
"No." The kid didn't care as long as he got what he wanted. The old guy must be lonely to be carrying on like this.
"A lot kid. I never knew I was so popular. I should write a book instead of telling people like I do."
Abe shook his head and pushed away from the window. His mind never used to wonder when he was younger. He can outgun everybody but Father Time.
"You think you're quick with the draw?"
The kid smirked and opened his mouth to answer, but Abe waved him off.
"Of course you do or you wouldn't be here. Kid, it takes more than a quick draw; a lot more."
The smirk was replaced by confusion. He had made it clear that's why he was here. Why was the old guy carrying on?
"Hold out your hands." When he hesitated, Abe crossed the room and grabbed his hands. "Hold them straight out, elbows locked," he said and pulled them. When he let go, the kid didn't move.
"Good. You've got steady hands. I've had kids come in here with hands shaking enough to beat an egg. It might be nerves, or that's just the way they are. Some guys are born jittery. Either way, I tell them to find another line of work. You can't shoot if your hands shake."
Abe sat and put his feet on the table. The kid looked at his boots and realized he may have been telling the truth about those.
"Why do you want to be a gunfighter?"
The brows furrowed.
"What do you mean?"
Abe snorted again.
"Why do you want to be a gunfighter? There are easier ways to make a living."
"The money's good," the kid said and twisted his neck to get rid of a kink. "A lot of banks pay top dollar for protection."
"Why not buy a piece of land with cows and pigs and make a run of it. No one bothers you and you live by your own rules. Get a wife while you're at it and have a couple of kids. They can help out at the farm."
The kid's mouth opened, but no words came out. He watched Abe, waiting for a smile. When none came, the kid cleared his throat.
"I'm not the farming type."
"I didn't think I was at your age either," Abe said.
The hot wind rustled the curtains, but neither noticed.
"You're a legend," the kid said, incredulous at what he was hearing. "You were the quickest gun anybody had seen. Guys would avoid a town if there was a rumor that you were there."
Abe nodded and watched the curtains settled back down.
"Yeah, but what does it mean? Now everyone wants to know how it's done, but no one wants to hear the truth. It ain't a glamorous life, kid."
The old guy really has lost it, the kid thought. He is the envy of every man alive.
"I'm not looking for glamour."
Abe sighed and nodded slowly. Everyone said they weren't looking for glamour, but that's just what they were doing. To the outsider, a hired gun lead a perfect life. . . as long as you had the skills. You never had to buy a drink or a steak dinner. Women flocked to you and men admired you as they cowered in your presence. Of course, if the skills weren't there, it wasn't a perfect life. It was a quick life.
"The tricks, huh?" Abe began with a rub of his whiskers. Now that the stubble was coming in mostly gray, he shaved more often. Maybe looking younger was one of the tricks.
The kid shrugged and settled into his chair. The old guy was taking forever, but at least he was heading in the right direction.
"The first trick to learn is there are no tricks." Abe saw the predictable confused frown. "You have to have all of the skills; speed, nerves of steel, perfect eyesight and be arrogant as hell. So far I see you have the last one."
The kid started to protest, but Abe waved him off.
"I just paid you a compliment, kid. You have something on the list. I'll take your word on the eyesight and the speed, but you won't know about the nerves until you're staring down a guy who wants nothing more than to put a couple of holes in you."
"I've shot guys before."
The wind picked up again and brought with it the sweet, tangy smell of manure and Abe remembered one of the reasons he never became a farmer.
"Of course you've shot people before or you wouldn't be here. I'm saying you'll be lined up with someone that you've never heard of, someone who has done nothing to you or your girl or even your dog. He hasn't pissed you off in any way. All he has done is come into town and call you out. You might not be feeling well, or you just ate a big meal and feel bloated. It doesn't matter. You've been called out and you have to shoot someone because, if you don't, whoever has hired you will drop you so fast it will make your head spin. They'll hire the new gun and there's nothing you can do about it."
"If I was ever that stupid, I'd come back and show that new gun who's faster," the kid said lazily, as if he'd thought this through.
Abe walked over to a pitcher on the table and poured himself a glass of water. He didn't offer the kid any. The kid shrugged and looked around the room. What a dump. Why would a guy like this being staying here? The curtains were ragged, the bed had a couple of springs sticking out and the sofa was almost worn through. When he glanced toward the bureau, he stopped at the rocker next to it. Hanging from the back was the gun belt. A black, steel butt poked out of the end of the holster. Nothing fancy. It looked like just another gun if you didn't know the history behind it. Some guys got full of themselves and bought a pearl-handled revolver or a nickel-plated piece. This guy danced with the girl that got him here. The kid wanted to go over and touch it, but knew that wasn't right.
Abe finished his water and ambled back to the window sill. The movement broke the kid's trance and he followed Abe across the room with his eyes. He noticed the trail dust that had settled on the windowsill.
"So you'd just shoot the new guy and take your job back?"
The brows furrowed momentarily as the kid tried to remember. "Yeah," he said, the cockiness still there.
"That's great, but the bank won't have you."
The brows furrowed again.
"Because you didn't fight once. They'd be afraid it would happen again, only this time with someone looking for loot not you. Believe me, kid, word would get out that a bank has a gun that doesn't always fight. The money a bank holds would make many a man willing to take a chance that he'd hit the bank on one of your down days. The idea isn't to shoot three guys a day to prove how good you are, it's to be good enough not to have them come at all. No matter how good you are, if enough guys come, you'll meet someone better. Or maybe someone almost as good will hit you on a bad day. That's lesson number one."
The smirk and the slouch were gone. The kid looked like a schoolboy on his first day of class where the teacher hits the slackers. If Abe noticed this, he ignored it. He was willing to talk. At this point, he didn't much care if anyone listened or not.
"There are two types of lessons you need to learn. The first is how to have all of the advantages when you end up in a battle. You have to learn that there are only some things that you can control, but you have to control them. It will give you an edge as well as confidence. If you think you can win, then you probably will. Even if you don't, you'll die cocky and quick."
The kid flinched slightly at the casual way Abe said the last sentence. Getting shot was just another on the job hazard, no different than getting kicked by a mule.
"The other is a lifestyle lesson. Everything you do, and I mean everything, must be done with your chosen profession in mind. That's why I told you to be a farmer. If the cows ain't milking today, a farmer can get drunk and have a good time for a night. He'll feel lousy in the morning, but it will wear off. If he has a cold or a touch of the fever, he can have the kids stay home from school to tend to the animals. Or at worst, stagger out and do what needs to be done. If he does a lousy job, fix it tomorrow."
"I understand the drunk part, but how can I not get sick? I have no control over that." It was the first question that didn't have an edge to it.
"Stay away from sick people. You eat right and get a good night's sleep--every night of the week, even Saturday. You make sure your food is fresh and cooked proper. You stay away from women you don't know. Kid, you have to will yourself not to get sick. I ain't had nary a cold in twenty-five years."
The kid exhaled loudly and shook his head. The commitment this was going to take finally took hold.
"Look kid, this is a twenty-four hour job. I've been called out at first light and at sunset. And some fools think a moonless night is perfect for robbing a bank. The fact that all of the money's locked up and no one is there to open the vault doesn't mean I don't have to shoot them." When the kid's shoulder's slumped, Abe continued. "I would like to tell you that you have to call it an early night on Saturday when playing poker with your buddies, but that ain't happening. First, you'd be tempted to drink if you're playing in a saloon. Second, you'd stay for one more hand, and before you know it, it's after midnight. Third, the smoke in the saloon and reading cards by candlelight will kill your eyes. And lastly, you won't have any buddies to play with. All the men are scared of you."
As he had listed the reasons, Abe had ticked them off on his fingers. The kid looked up from Abe's hand and Abe nodded at the look he was receiving.
"That's right, kid. Your whole life will revolve around your gun and your right hand. They come before anything else or there won't be anything else, you'll be six-feet under."
As Abe poured himself another glass of water, the kid noticed there wasn't a single wasted effort. Abe swallowed and turned back.
"That leads me to my next point. How is your left hand?"
The kid cocked his head. "I've never shot with it."
"I don't doubt that. What I'm asking you is how good you are with a comb, a razor, shaking hands, that sort of thing?"
"I don't know," the kid stammered. "I've never done any of those things with my left hand."
"Then start. The more you do with your right hand, the better the odds of hurting it. If your right hand gets hurt, you end up dead in the street. And don't think word of an injury won't get out. You get hurt, people are calling you out the next day. Keep your hand in your pocket as much as possible. If it's in there, there's less of a chance of banging it."
Looking down, the kid saw Abe's right hand stuck in his pants pocket. When he thought back, he realized the water was poured and the drunk with the left hand. This was going to be tough.
"That's it for life lessons. Eat right, live clean and remember what you are every waking minute." Abe stopped and snorted. "Make that every minute of every day. You should be dreaming about this too. There no shortcuts, kid. The reason so many crash and burn is because they get soft. Once that happens, you might as well put the gun to your own head. It'll save time."
There was a loud rolling noise followed by whinny as a stage coach pulled in front of the hotel. This town may be dusty, but the gold found ten miles to the south kept the travelers coming. It also loaded the bank vault, making it the highest paying job around. Abe had more money than he could count. He just had no way to spend it. The cost of the room was the only money he spent.
"What about on the day?"
Abe looked at the kid and nodded.
"Yep, there's many ways to get that day in your favor, but it takes time. The most important thing is to know everything you can about where you're going to be. This is a big advantage to the hired gun because he has lived in the town a while and knows the layout of the land. He knows where all the divots in the road are, which way the wind blows so as to be sure the dirt is blowing in the other guy's eyes, which way the sun is at any particular time of day so he can be sure to have it behind him, and where all the shadows will be. You have to know every inch of the street. Now this doesn't mean a newcomer can't get these facts himself. Someone smart would spend time in the town before fighting. You go in blind and the cards are stacked against you. I spent a month in this town before I made my move. It's tougher if you've started to develop a reputation. People may know you by sight. I shaved my beard, with my left hand of course, and cut my hair before coming in. After I studied everything and felt I knew this town, I made my move. Even then he put a bullet past my ear before I put him down."
When Abe leaned back against the windowsill, the kid knew the lesson was over for the day. He stood and touched the brim of his hat toward Abe. A smile came over Abe's face.
"Quick learner. Most try to shake my hand with their gun hand. Good luck, kid."
A simple nod and he left. Abe watched the door close and went over to get his gun. When he had it strapped on, he went back to the window and looked down. He saw the kid come out and turn toward the building.
"Abe Carson!" The kid yelled. "I'm calling you out!"
Abe shook his head and smiled. He wasn't sure why he told these punks what he did when he knew most of them were going to do just what the kid did. A few were scared away by the stories, but most followed through. He supposed a small part of him wanted it to be over and he was moving the odds in that favor, but most of him simply wanted more of a challenge. His reputation kept people away and he started to feel rusty. He needed the competition to stay fresh and he put word out that he was willing to talk. They didn't flock at first, but they warily came.
He glanced at the clock and saw it was noon straight up. This kid is smart. He picked a time when the sun would be neutral. Abe had also seen him off and on around town for the past week, so he had a decent understanding of the area. He wondered if this would be the day, more out of curiosity than fear. He was always surprised at the sense of relief that came when he thought that. He then thought about the weathervane on top of the church. The kid probably never saw it and certainly didn't know it cast a wicked glare this time of the day. Abe almost felt guilty as he walked down, knowing the kid would choose the end of the street opposite the church because the road sloped slightly downhill and it was always easier to shoot down. That is, of course, unless there is a bright glare in your eyes just as you turn to shoot. Maybe he wanted to live after all.
Peter has been writing short fiction for his family for several years and is working toward having his work published now that his two sons and daughter have grown and aren't as available for story time as they used to be. An avid reader and lifelong dreamer, Peter often sees stories in everyday life and enjoys creating stories in his mind about the people next to him in traffic or on the train.