The Striker – 2

Hey, Boss!” One of the Bermudian ship handlers was wedged into a corner to stabilize himself against the roll of the launch. He pointed high into the skeletal girders of the ocean platform.

Wade couldn’t ignore the chill that enveloped him now that cargo transfers had slackened. Garden variety sea-sickness would have felt better. He looked up through the Texas Tower’s web of cross braces to the ET standing on a catwalk and gazing down at their pitching departure. They waved. The launch fended off at a funereal pace. The ET climbed back into his lab.

Thanks for having Smitty send me down in the cargo net,” said Dusty, sitting unsteadily on his seabag nearby. His voice came out in a rattle as he fought to keep his balance. Then he caught Wade’s new gaze and his hand reflexively wandered over his pocket as if to calm a pack of cigarettes there.

The chill in Wade knotted his shoulders. The tower, the launch, the water’s turmoil were unsettlingly similar to when his brother had been swept into the sea. Their hands had been inches apart when a storm wave broke into a curtain of foam, driving the launch away from that drilling platform’s landing.

This striker’s distress had been an echo. They had no blood ties between them, but at the basic level of survival, Wade felt responsible for protecting this innocent.

How old are you Sailor?” he asked Dusty. If he could distract them both, then the rough trip and painful memory might pass easier. But Dusty’s face flushed to the question, not to the upheaval of the oncoming storm.

Dusty swallowed unproductively, and his answer was lost in the mumble that followed.

You gotta home, Dusty?” Wade continued in his best practiced interview techniques.

Dusty’s pale face regained color from some unknown source. “Dad says I’m the kid from Cyanide Gulch.”

Uh-huh. And that means …”

Something funny from one of his detective books he’d call me when I fucked up. Trouble always finds me, but this time I’m gonna show him.” Dusty was wound up on some mission, but the pallor returned as suddenly as it had gone.

He stooped to the kid’s level and gave Dusty’s shoulder a protective squeeze. “Doesn’t sound funny—ha-ha funny. My dad’s humor is dry, too, so I get it’s a joke. Let’s try this again. Where’s home, Dusty?”

Dusty slid to the deck with his seabag behind his back. “Place in Colorado where you can see Pike’s Peak, but our gold is black.”

I’ve moved a lot in my life, so I have a hard time about where’s home.” Wade drew on a faint memory of a visit to the Air Force Academy dedication his father was invited to between diplomatic mission assignments.

Pueblo, Steel City, hmm?” Pueblo, a manufacturing center, was fifty miles southeast of the academy, out on the great plains.

It was as if it were the first time Dusty saw him. “Steel’s not much to call home. So … What’s your name?”

Wade.”

Dusty slung a thin arm over his seabag, and sat up straighter. His other arm wrapped around a sharp bent knee to stabilize against the boat jostling in the sea’s pitch. “We moved there from Fountain—and from all my friends—and now I’m here. What the fuck—over? Now, Wade, you name a place called home.”

Ah, there’s that question, again. I owe you, Dusty, and it will be a long answer, because there’s no short one.

Let’s see. Something like fifteen years ago, give-or-take, I was a Cub Scout when we lived in Frisco. One weekend, our pack had a field trip to Treasure Island out in the bay. I wore my blue uniform. We saw ships, climbed all over them, and then we went to the chow hall that seemed like a visit to heaven.”

Poor kid,” said Dusty. “Why heaven?”

They had this kool-aid fountain that sprayed up into a glass dome, and us cub scouts could drink as much as we wanted.”

I bet that’s changed.”

Wade smiled ruefully, this kid was as quick to judge as his brother. “Not really. Ten years later, I was there again, in another blue uniform, and they called the drink in that very same fountain bug juice.”

Dusty hoisted his small body back onto his large seabag. “Thanks, but Dad would remind me that I’m not a real sailor. I’m a thousand miles from solid mountains, and this is getting to me.”

Get out there and help my men secure our load,” Wade told the young sailor. “The activity will help your stomach, and the air will clear the cobwebs.”

Dusty rose tentatively as the launch bucked suddenly, sending spray over the bow. “Yeah … Dad … I gotta re-learn clean talkin’ afore I go home. The Nav’ turned me off the straight and narrow, and has led me away from the path of the righteous. I was raised as a squared away boy before this shit started rollin’ down hill.”

With his gait timed to the roll of the launch, Wade followed the cook-striker out of the cabin and watched him stumble to the rail to start with dry-heaves. A cassette, not a cigarette pack, dropped from his shirt pocket in his third set of convulsions.

Wade picked up the cassette, but he was not quick enough to save the sailor’s white-hat that whipped athwart, past the crew checking that the lockers were tied fast. He marveled at the poor cook’s having a cassette player. Wade’s expensive Hi-Fi equipment was packed in storage somewhere in the Oakland Army Depot where he shipped it home from the Navy Exchange in Yokosuka.

The Four Seasons by Vivaldi.” Wade turned the tape over for some description on the opposite side. “This Vivaldi guy?” He looked at the now paler face of Dusty who had given up his strength to the sea and was struggling to recover the tape from him. “Like, who is he, Bro?”

Dusty laughed at Wade’s question.

Bro’…” He wiped his chapped bleeding lips. “Baroque. Go for Baroque … Pardner,” he whispered with a stern grin that defied fading with his rapidly diminishing strength. “My soul aches.” He reached out one hand towards Wade, and then he slipped into a faint on the deck.

Wade tucked the cassette back into Dusty’s shirt pocket and signaled the men to carry him to the lockers at the centerline and lay him across them. For his age, Dusty didn’t seem to have much innocence left to protect. And experience found in the Navy rarely allowed it to survive.

continue

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