Upriver: Ch. 4 “Rattler Cole”
Written by A. LaFaye
Illustrated by Peter Catalanotto
A Breakfast Serials story
The Story So Far: It’s 1867, and eleven-year-old Iah Thomas is making his way home by working as a runabout on a Missouri River steamer. He has just visited the hold, where he feels that something—besides the rats—isn’t quite right.
Mr. Davis showed me to the stateroom I shared with all the food stores for the crew. They had stocked that room so full, I nearly had to sleep on my side if I wanted to keep my bed free of canned food. Just standing there made me feel like the room had a mind to squeeze me until I fit into a tiny hole on one of them food shelves. Made me think on Miss Vinca, trussed up and carried off. Probably had her locked away in a far worse place. Saying a prayer for her, I actually felt glad to have deck-swabbing duty. By dusk my muscles had been worked so hard, they nearly melted into that sliver of a bed. Fell into sleep before my boots hit the floor.
Come morning, the clatter and clanging of the kitchen woke me up with thoughts of Maxine’s, the restaurant on Barker Street where Mama and I ate Sunday brunch, two eggs over easy and stewed tomatoes. Mama had that dish every Sunday till she took sick. She cut the eggs into ribbons while she asked after my Bible lesson. I missed seeing her hands work that knife and fork, the smile I put on her face when I said my verses.
The memory had me searching the shelf for a bottle of vanilla, so I could smell her. Mama always put a drop of it behind her ears before heading to the shipping office where she worked.
A knock on the wall flipped me around faster than a fish on a hook. Then a sliding window popped open.
A sweaty face appeared. “Here’s Davis’s j.o.” The man handed me the coffee.
Keeping the cup steady, I headed up to Davis’s quarters. Met him coming out of the cabin. Taking the cup, he said, “Late riser, are you?”
Sun hadn’t even started to shake the red out of its tail yet, but I didn’t say nothing. Sass is no way to butter up a new boss.
“Help out in the Gentleman’s Cabin,” Davis said, walking off. “They’re down to just the bartender.”
“Yes, sir.” I ran there, hoping to stay clear of Mike. But he stepped in front of me as I came down the steps.
“You running after another rat?”
“No, sir.” I kept my eyes on the deck. “Got to help out in the Gentleman’s Cabin.”
“From a serving girl like Betty Lou to you?” He laughed. “They’ll probably pitch you overboard.”
He walked off, chuckling to himself.
Those gents in there came awful close to proving Mike right when I started serving drinks. They didn’t have a kind word to say.
“What is this, a schoolhouse or a saloon?” asked a man chewing his cigar.
Another said, “The view in here has become hard on my eyes.”
The bartender wasn’t any happier. “Move any slower and I’ll just fish up a turtle to do your work.”
“Yes, sir.” I tried to hurry, but then he yelled at me for spilling drinks, saying nobody paid to have their drinks wash the floor.
That place stretched my nerves tighter than a tanning hide.
Then the bartender sent me to bring a drink to a gentleman with rattler tails on his hat. Downriver, where I come from, there aren’t many rattlers, but I knew enough to see a rattler tail as a medal, a sign a man wasn’t afraid of no deadly snake. And that man had enough rattler tails on his hat to start his own band, so I figured there wasn’t a thing in this world that scared him.
Coming around to set his drink on the table, I saw he’d proven himself fearless in plenty of battles. He had a scar cutting down over his eye that looked like he’d fought a bear and lived to talk about it. His hands had more scars than knuckles. He even had fresh marks on his cheek, like he’d been bit. When he looked at me and I saw his scarred right eye turned white as a skull, I near about dropped my tray.
“You going to serve that drink or just let it dry up in the sun?”
I tried to say sorry and serve him his drink, but that dead white eye had me all froze up inside.
The men he played cards with laughed, one of them saying, “You got him spooked, Cole.”
“Give me my drink, boy!” Cole barked, snapping my muscles to attention.
I slammed that drink down right quick.
“That’s better.” Moving like a snake himself, he struck the air with snapping fingers, shouting, “Now, get!”
I ran, letting their laughter chase after me.
The bartender shook his head as I reached the bar. “They sent me a darn pansy flower. Just sweep up until you stop shaking.”
I had to grip the broom white-knuckle tight to keep from shivering, but I couldn’t stop my eyes from drifting back to that rattler man, Cole. He sat all hunched over his cards, but he had his feet planted on either side of his chair like he could spring up at the drop of a nail. He wore snake-skin boots, rattler, I bet. And guns. Two coal-black guns.
Those dime novels citified folks read say fellas out west wear guns like an extra hat. Truth is, most fellas don’t go around with six shooters unless they’re one of only a few types. A dandified show-off who couldn’t shoot the hat off a sleeping elephant. A lawman. Or a gunfighter, one of those fellas who make a living by killing. And by the looks of him, old Cole got some kind of twisted pleasure out of taking lives.
Crossing myself, I promised Mama I’d steer clear of that Cole.
(To be continued.)
Text copyright © 2006 Alexandria LaFaye. Illustrations copyright © 2006 Peter Catalanotto. Reprinted by permission of Breakfast Serials, Inc., www.breakfastserials.com. No part of this publication may be reproduced, displayed, used or distributed without the express written permission of the copyright holder.