Flash from the Past, Part I
In which Dodger remembers the spring of 1847
“Raise the barrel higher, son,” Al said.
“But I’m aiming right at the thing,” Rodger said. “Why ain’t I hittin’ it?”
“I just told you why. You’re letting it go too slack when you fire. You gotta correct for your handicap.”
“But I don’t want a handicap.”
“Well, too bad, ‘cause you got one. Now, lift it up just a bit. That’s good. Now squeeze, don’t-”
“I know. I know. Squeeze, don’t pull. Stop talking down to me. I’ve fired a gun plenty of times. And I ain’t a little kid.”
Al chuckled. “Coulda fooled me.”
Rodger didn’t care what anyone said. He was fourteen, and that was an adult as far as he was concerned. Why else would the U.S. government pick him for this kind of work? If he was old enough to be an agent, then he was old enough to be addressed like an adult. Rodger pushed the thought away as he concentrated on the row of small red dots painted on the face of a thick square of wood a hundred feet across the yard. He lowered the Colt to take direct aim at the middle target, cocked the hammer, then carefully cradled his finger against the trigger just like Al had shown him.
Rodger drew an even breath, exhaled, then squeezed.
A chunk from the wooden plank below the dot splintered off into the grass.
“Damn it!” Rodger yelled. He flinched at his own language, then cringed again when the heavy hand of his mentor landed on the back side of his head. Not a blow hard enough to physically hurt, but enough to remind him of his place.
“Language,” Al scolded. “I won’t have a foul-mouthed roustabout living with me.”
“A roustabout is bad enough.”
“Stop being sorry, and do what I told you to do. Maybe you’ll hit it this time.”
“I just don’t understand what I’m doing wrong. I’ve fired a gun hundreds of times.”
“Don’t feel so bad about it, boy. Wild game is much larger than what you’re shootin’ at now. It takes some time and talent to hit a half-inch target dead on from this distance. Hell, I have trouble even seeing the things. Darned old eyes of mine.”
Rodger grinned, not fooled by his mentor’s confessions of aged vision. “Will you show me again?”
“Again?” Al sighed. “I just showed you yesterday, boy.”
“Please, Al? I wanna watch how you do it. It’ll make me better. I promise it’ll be the last time.” Rodger held the gun out, grip facing Al, just like he was taught. “Once more, and I won’t bother you ‘bout it again.”
A wide smile crept over the old geezer’s face. “Will you answer me one question?”
Rodger slumped and grumped at the familiar words. “Do I gotta?”
“Your mind should be as sharp as your blade and as quick as your trigger finger. Only way to flex that muscle is to make you think. Now, will you answer me one question?”
“Oh, all right. Ask.”
Al cleared his throat as he rubbed his salt-and-pepper beard, staring at Rodger through a thoughtful squint. “Thieves seek my company, the vilest need me to stay. I’m deep into depravity, yet the divine I won’t betray. You can’t invoke without me, but you can instead pray. What am I?”
Rodger turned his mind to the riddle, repeating it over and over in a hushed whisper as he clenched his eyes shut and strained to concentrate. Thieves and the vilest. Depraved but divine. Prayers instead of invocations. Holy yet irredeemable?
He cracked an eyelid and glanced to his grinning mentor. “A preacher that lost his congregation ‘cause he was gambling and stuff?”
“Try again,” Al said. He poked an index finger into the air, counting down the guesses.
Rodger had three tries before he had to concede. He was usually pretty good at the game, but this riddle was a tricky one. Al had obviously stepped up the difficulty because either he didn’t want to do what Rodger asked, or he was tired of Rodger always getting them on the first guess.
Rodger closed his eyes again and balled his fist. It was something simpler than a defrocked priest. Al always said go for the simplest and most obvious answer first, then try for complicated when that didn’t work. What did the words themselves have in common? He whispered them one by one until he realized one of the words was slightly different. ‘Pray’ didn’t share a letter that the others did. Simple? Heck, that was just silly. Rodger decided to risk it anyway.
He squinted at Al and asked, “The letter V?”
Al considered the answer with a grunt, then snatched the offered Colt. “Lucky guess.”
Rodger applauded himself while his mentor opened her up and went through the motions of reloading: powder, ball and cap in that careful order. Grumbling under his breath about the silliness of youth, he motioned his pupil to one side.
“Go on, Rodger,” he said. “Let me have some space.”
Rodger willingly stepped aside, anxious to watch the master at work.
His mentor toyed with the gun for a moment—getting his feel for the girl—then raised her toward the block of wood and cocked the hammer.
“No,” Rodger said before Al could fire. “Not like that. The other way. The better way. And don’t make me guess another one to get you to do it, ‘cause you knew that’s what I was asking for.”
Al rolled his eyes and grumbled a bit more as he stuffed the pistol into the holster on his right hip. “This really is the last time, son. I despise showin’ off as much as I like showin’ out.”
His mentor turned at an angle to the plank of wood, with his right side closer and his left back a bit. He flexed the fingers of his right hand, then rubbed the pad of his thumb across the tips of the other fingers, as if feeling something that wasn’t there. The man drew a few steady breaths and dropped his head. There he stood, breathing deep and staring at the dirt and grass between his boots.
Without warning, the old man raised his head as his right hand slapped sharp against the leather, pulling the Colt from its holster. He brought his other hand up to meet the gun now before him, using the edge of his left palm to pull the hammer back between each discharged bullet. Six reports, six blast of lead balls striking wood, then it was done. The whole thing took just a few seconds, tops, but for Rodger, it seemed like an eternity of magic. He never wanted it to stop. But it did. It always did.
Rodger whooped and hollered with delight. He ran to the wooden block and inspected the results, though he already knew what he would find. Six shots fired. Six half-inch targets gone. Nothing left behind but deep holes to mark where the targets once were. Rodger let out another whoop of joy and raced back to the beaming Al.
“Stop makin’ such a fuss, boy,” Al said, trying hard to hide his pride. “No need to make a mountain out of a molehill. It’s just smart shootin’, that’s all.”
“It’s more than that, sir,” Rodger said. “It’s magic. I swear it’s pure magic.”
“Naw. Magic makes it sound like a trick. Ain’t no trick involved. Just levelheaded thinkin’ and a steady hand.”
“That why you don’t drink?”
“I told you once, drinkin’ is for sinners and roustabouts. I ain’t got time for neither.” He nodded to the splintered wood across the yard. “Now clean this mess up and come say your lessons before supper.”
Rodger slumped again, the excitement of the moment robbed by the lingering dread of higher education.
“What’s eatin’ you?” Al asked, sensing Rodger’s disappointment.
“Well, sir, I love learnin’ about the art of weapon handling, but that other stuff is so boring. Greek myths and ancient philosophers and junk like that? What good is that gonna do me when I finally take my first job?”
Al looked away, unable to face Rodger at such a question. “Don’t worry about that. It will all make sense when the time comes. And besides, every man needs a dose of smarts.”
“Truth?” The old man grinned again. “Because you don’t wanna end up an old bachelor like me.”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Women don’t like to talk about guns. They like flowery words. They like a smart man. That’s why you need more learning.” Al chuckled at his own humor.
Rodger turned away to tend to the mess as he said under his breath, “My old man was smart, and look where it got him.”
Al struck Rodger on the back of the head, hard enough to pitch him ass over elbows onto the grass.
Rodger rubbed at his sore crown and asked, “What was that for?”
Al scowled and poked a thin finger in Rodger’s direction. “Don’t let me ever catch you bad mouthin’ your pa like that. Ya hear me, boy?”
“Yes, sir,” Rodger whispered, more embarrassed than angry.
“Wasn’t smarts that got your old man dead. It was evil. That’s why we do what we do, to keep folks like that from hurting folks like your pa.”
“But, Al, you can’t kill a man with words. Even smart words.”
His mentor lost his anger, his face slipping into a sad little frown. “Son, you are mighty smart already, but you have still got so much to learn. Besides, how many times do I gotta tell ya? We don’t kill if we don’t have to. Killin’ is a last resort. The things I have been teachin’ you have been for what?”
“Self-defense,” Rodger recited obediently.
“Good boy.” Al handed the Colt to Rodger. “Clean this up too, and I’ll get your supper ready. Whatcha been readin’ this week?”
“That so? No wonder you’ve been mouthy. That Odysseus never knew when to keep his trap shut. He never did what he was told either. Still, maybe that’s what made him such a great man.” Al winked at Rodger before leaving him to gather up the mess.
Rodger glanced down at the Colt with a pout. Why couldn’t he do the same magic as Al? He always thought of himself as a good shot. A damned good shot was what his pa called him, and Pa was supposed to be a smart man, so he should’ve known. Maybe he was thinking too hard on it. Al said go for the simple, leave the complicated for last. Maybe it wasn’t as complicated as it looked.
Rodger glanced up to the house and wondered how much trouble he would get into for firing the Colt unsupervised. The corner of his mouth twitched with a smirk. Odysseus never followed orders, and he was such a great man that someone wrote a whole big poem about him. That was proof enough for Rodger.
It took a few minutes to load the Colt, because Rodger wanted to make absolutely certain that it wasn’t going to blow up in his hands. Al always hovered like a vulture when Rodger loaded the gun, picking out every little error, no matter how tiny. Loaded gun in hand, Rodger drew his obligatory deep breaths and raised her to the places the targets used to be, taking aim just above the holes his mentor had left behind, so he would know where his shots landed. He relaxed and squeezed the trigger. Rodger reset the gun without fussing about where the first shot landed, figuring he had to get those five shots out before Al swooped down on him and snatched the Colt away.
Relax and squeeze. Five times, he repeated the process, firing with a cool and calm assurance that he was striking his intended target. When it was over, he lowered his now-shaking arm and stared at the plank of wood.
Nothing. No new holes. Nothing at all changed about the block.
He had missed with every single shot.
“Damn it!” he cried, and tossed the gun into the grass.
“Dodger,” Al said from right behind him.
Rodger froze. The only time Al called him that was when he was in serious trouble. “Yes, sir?”
“Did you just fire that brand-new weapon without permission, then throw it away like it were a used-up snot rag?”
“Yes, sir.” Rodger’s eyes welled with tears. He sniffled, trying to hold them back, but they spilled down his cheeks of their own accord.
“Turn about and face me, boy.”
Rodger spun on his heel and looked up at Al, hot tears streaking down his face.
“Why you cryin’?” Al asked. “You knew what you done was wrong. No need to get all weepy about it. You must’ve wanted to do it pretty bad, or you wouldn’t have disobeyed me.”
“I know, sir,” Rodger said. “And I didn’t mean to throw the gun. Not really. But I was just so darned mad.”
“Mad about what?”
“I missed! Every single one. How could I miss all of ‘em?”
Al squinted at the plank behind Rodger. “Really? You didn’t even hit the wood?”
“No. I’ll never have the magic like you.”
“I told you, son,” Al said as he approached the target board. “Ain’t nothing I do magic. Just a touch of common sense, a little bit of patience and a whole lot of practice.” He fingered the marks his own shots had left behind and grunted.
“I can’t believe I missed the whole thing.”
“I can’t neither.”
Al pulled a penknife from his back pocket and dug at one of the target holes. After a fair bit of burrowing, he pulled out the lead shot from the wood. He palmed the ball and returned the penknife to the target again, digging away like he was after buried treasure.
“What you lookin’ for?” Rodger asked between sniffles. “You already got your shot out.”
“Ain’t my shot,” Al said. With a wide grin, he popped a second ball from the target block and held it out to Rodger. “This is my shot.” Al opened his palm to show Rodger the first ball he’d retrieved. “This one is yours.”
“Yes, son. Now that is what I call magic.”
It took Rodger a moment to make the connection. But he only had a moment to enjoy the sensation of what he had just accomplished, because after that, he passed out.