Episode Twenty-seven ♦ Twelve Gauge

Twelve days, mostly riding, long and difficult, but George struggled to remember a time when he had slept so well at night. Each morning he crawled out of his bedroll, muscles aching, ready for another day of the same food, the same people, and an endless view of gently rolling grassland – and occasionally a tree if water was near. He was happy to be alive and eager for another day in the saddle.

The small band had settled into their roles: George and Eetu were responsible for the camp, Sig and Anita made the food and cleaned up, and Kent took care of the animals, wood, and water. But provisions were running low, not knowing how far they still had to travel, George felt a touch of unease.

They finished eating another filling breakfast of flapjacks, tinned fruit in heavy syrup, and sausage – hunger was the best antidote to the monotony of trail food. Kent said, “Don’t bother striking camp.” He pointed to Eetu. “You’ll join me in the wagon. We’ll go to town for supplies.”

“Can we all go?” George asked, eager to see a wilderness town.

“No. I’m dark but they know me. You two won’t be welcome. They won’t mind him and he don’t talk. Just the way it needs to be. We’ll be back around sunset.” Kent reached into the back of the wagonette and removed a shotgun. He tossed it to George who, now used to having things thrown his way, caught it. “Know how to use a coach gun? Twelve gauge.”

“No,” George said looking at the weapon’s side-by-side barrels. He was surprised by the gun’s heft. Its potential secreted in its mass, not its volume. The wood butt was scratched and nicked. The barrel too, scratched. It was a bit longer than his arm. “Is it loaded?”

“Not yet. Follow me,” Kent said walking, carrying an empty tin can and a piece of string. He removed two cartridges from his belt and handed them to George. “Move the lever on top with your thumb to breech the gun. Horses should be fine around shotguns, but no need to stress ’em. Don’t let that stop you if you need to use it.”

They walked towards the small stream, their source of fresh water. It was far enough to require shouting to be heard at the camp. Kent pulled out a pocket knife, punctured the side of the can, and hung it from a tree branch while George breeched the gun and figured out which end of the cartridge fit in the barrel. Kent helped George position the butt against his shoulder. “You’ve two triggers. One for each barrel. Pull one trigger at a time. Bend your knees. Not that much.” Kent pushed George’s knees back then moved his right foot so it was at a thirty degree angle to his left. “Gun’ll kick. Lean into your left foot. Brace with your right.”

George tried to keep up with each of the commands – left hand here, butt in shoulder pocket, front trigger for this barrel, back for the other, cheek next to the stock, both eyes open, do this, don’t do that. He was just about to hand the weapon back when Kent said, “Looks good. Aim at the can. Then fire.” George lined up the sight with the can and squeezed the front trigger. He struggled against the recoil, pushing himself forward with his right leg and tensing the muscles in his back.

“Wait for the can to stop swinging,” Kent said.

“I missed it?”

“Yup. Now y’know what t’expect.”

George checked his stance, put the butt to his shoulder, aimed, pulled, but nothing happened.

“Other trigger.”

“Forgot.” George moved his finger and sighted the can. The gun kicked, but George held his ground.

“Good shot. Winged it. Need to practice. I’ll give you a box of shells at the wagon. Keep four or six in case you need them. Keep the used cases. Keep the gun loaded. Come out, shoot a couple rounds. Go back to the women. It’s unlikely anythin’ll happen. You’ll protect them if needed. First shot should be a warning. Never hesitate if you need to kill. Center of the chest.”

“Protect them from what?” asked George.

“Wolves, maybe. Lawless types are rare here’bouts.”

George swallowed, closed his eyes, and massaged his temple. His head swam. Life, especially Anita’s and the small one, was precious and yet suddenly precarious on the plains: he felt every hair follicle bristle as he contemplated the importance of his charge. He opened his mouth as they started back to the camp, but they walked in silence.

Anita spoke. “The horses were fine. They barely looked up.”

“Good. As expected. Samuel knew what we needed.” Kent handed George a box and joined Eetu on the bench of the wagonette.

As the two men rode north from the camp, Sig asked, “So, did gun shoot good?”

George nodded. “Still need practice, but I can handle it.”

The right side of Anita’s mouth drew upward. “He shoot good.”

♦ ♦ ♦

Resting that day was more difficult than riding and even more boring. George watched the sun make the slow arc across the sky wondering if it was the right time for a bit more target practice. He remembered his limited supply of ammunition and decided to read from Huck Finn instead. Maybe he could find the meaning of the last clue. “My pioneers. West. Find me under a red cloud.” But sitting still was hard: his backside, sore.

He determined a game was what they needed and set about looking for rocks. After finding nine egg-sized stones near the stream he fired off a couple rounds at the hanging can – it now had a few holes in it – and returned to camp. He removed the airball jersey from his valise and laid it on the ground. He took three paces away from the shirt and started tossing the stones. Landing all but two and drawing Anita and Sig’s attention, he gathered up the rocks and took four paces from the shirt before tossing the stones.

“We play too,” said Sig as she picked up the stones, divvied them up, and stood beside George. They cheered as all three of Sig’s stones landed on the shirt’s “8” and laughed as Anita’s landed short. George gathered up the stones as the women stepped back half a pace and the three tried again.

“You’re way too good at this, Sig,” said Anita. “Maybe you should be learning to shoot.”

“We play game like this young kids. But use circles, not manshirt. I no like gun.” She shook her head ferociously from side to side.

Anita turned to George. “How are you doing with it?”

“Fine, but I wish I could practice more.”

“Shoulder hurt?”

“Yes. But doesn’t everything out here?”

They laughed and threw more stones.

♦ ♦ ♦

The women cooked supper and George felt uneasy that Kent and Eetu had not returned. Only half the sun remained above the horizon and he worried six remaining shells were too few. Carrying the gun, he started to pace away from the camp in the direction the men had ridden out. He returned to camp, then paced a bit farther.

After a few trips Anita met him fifteen paces from the fire. “Please come and eat. You’re starting to make Sig nervous. They’ll be back soon.”

“But what if they’re not?”

“We’ll be fine. Come.”

Sitting by the fire, the loaded shotgun at his side, George refused seconds. “Better save it for them. They’ll be hungry.” His left foot twitched out in front of him.

The red sky deepened into the gloaming night. There was no sign of the men.

Anita put a couple more pieces of wood on the fire as Sig entered her tent.

“What if someone sees the fire?” asked George.

“That was kind of my idea,” she said. “I’m going to move the horses closer before going to bed. I’ll get some sleep now. Wake me in a couple hours.”

George’s gut clenched as his dinner rumbled inside his stomach. “What? Did they tell you they weren’t coming back tonight?”

“No, George. Don’t worry. I’m sure it just took a little longer is all.”

“So why did you…”

“I’m just saying, if you start getting sleepy, wake me. That’s all. Okay?”

“Okay, but…” He stopped speaking as thoughts crowded his brain. He needed to prepare. They might not return that night. They might not return at all. What would the three of them do then? As the adrenaline entered George’s bloodstream he fought to control his shaking limbs knowing, no matter what, he needed to remain calm. Sig, Anita, and the baby were depending on him. Kent had given him the shotgun. “Nothing. Get some rest.” I can do what needs to be done.

With the women inside their tents, George patrolled around the camp, practice aiming at trees, stars, the rising moon, anything that caught his eye.

♦ ♦ ♦

George looked up at the sky as the women slept. He pulled his coat closed and tried to remember the constellations from childhood nights spent stargazing at summer camp. He found Ursa Major and Minor but imagined he saw an octopus with eleven tentacles and something else resembling a crown of many jewels. Which one was Cassiopeia? He always liked that name.

He stood, the shotgun in his right hand, and walked to the dwindling pile of wood. Grabbing another piece, he tossed it in the cinders before walking away from the camp. Time to urinate. He stopped halfway to the stream and looked up at the constellation of a herdsman, unable to remember what it was called.

The night sounds changed. Was he imagining it or were the crickets chirping slower now as the night air cooled? Frogs croaked by the stream.

He cut off the flow. The new sound was familiar. It came from the west. No, Kent had ridden north. George was certain of that.

George stuffed himself into his trousers. Ignored the buttons. Swallowed deeply. Raising the butt to his shoulder, he stood still and listened. Yes, someone definitely approached from the west.

Walking away from the campfire, he looked for the source of the noise, hoping it was them. The waxing moon was low in the southern sky. George scanned the horizon. Nothing stood out. He was not imagining it. A slow, distant grinding of metal wheel in the prairie dirt. The sound came from the direction of the stream. They must be close to the trees.

George hated that he had not checked to make sure the shotgun was loaded. No, he was positive. After firing two shells at the can he always reloaded.

The sound grew. They were closing. If it was Kent, he would call out. No voice. It was time. First shot would be a warning. George swiped the sweat off his brow. He held the gun firmly. Aimed at Hercules’ heart.

A single shell exploded into the night sky.

♦ ♦ ♦