Western Short Story
She had carried the vision with her practically all her life, since she was a six-year older on a ranch in Copa Verdi, Texas, and in the sights of her rifle that vision brought itself back to life. Dolly Provident, her accurate eye set on the sights of the rifle, felt the first tear begin to crowd itself into being. The whole scene from the past terror spread across the back of her mind; she had been tending new kittens in a corner of the barn’s hayloft where they had been born, when she heard the argument first and then the shot. In a hurry she ran to the open loft load door and looked down and saw the stranger, tall, in a dark Stetson and a black shirt, standing over her father flat on the ground. The stranger reached down and took her father’s gun belt and then a fold of money from his pocket. He looked around, saw no one, remounted his horse, a big black stallion, and rode off as if hurry did not exist.
Behind her, deep in the loft where she had spent hours of joy, the kittens made small noises.
All of it came back to her in a rush. Her father had been the most considerate and most cautious man she would ever have known, and preparations of his were always evident for family safety, for family survival in a new but hard country. In his concern he had placed a rifle beside the front door of the house, kept one in the root cellar, and on a narrow ledge in the loft of the barn had set down a Springfield Special. “These are the just-in-casers,” he always said about his awareness for family safety.
All six years of Dolly Provident that eventful day went to the ledge in the loft and picked up the Springfield Special. She went back to the window, took aim on the man who had killed her father, and shot. The shot took off the man’s hat and he raced ahead of a second shot and out of sight.
Dolly spent the next few hours sitting beside her dead father, waiting for her brother Devon to come home from town. Devon went looking for the hatless rider and never found him, but found another hatless man who had been shot in the back at close range.
Hours after her father’s death, the rest of the family came home from a neighbor’s ranch a half day’s ride away. They found Dolly up in the hayloft tending the kittens and Devon digging a grave under a cottonwood tree beside the barn.
A year later Dolly’s mother Hazel married a widowed neighbor who further improved Dolly’s aptitude with the rifle, with constant practice. Before she was ten years old she had won a dozen contests, some of them established just to bring into small towns the little star shooter as those towns tried to get to be bigger towns. She was always advertised as Deadeye Dolly who would take on all contestants and who always did, and usually won.
As it also turned out for young Dolly, brands and markings of all kinds were of constant interest to her and her mother and stepfather never had an idea of what drove that interest in Dolly, now at 17 a most beautiful and talented young lady. Boys, it was apparent, did not seem to interest her in the slightest bit, and it appeared she loved to upstage them every chance she had. But Devon, ever alert, had long felt there was something near mystical with Dolly’s interest in markings. He never knew what it was, but was certain it had something to do with her terror-filled day in her sixth year. He could not count the times he had come upon her making tracings and markings in the dirt around the house, and she’d immediately destroy those markings by drawing quick and furious lines through them. Devon never once invaded her privacy and consigned much of it to the active imagination of his kid sister and never once broached the subject with her, but kept alert to what and who was around her, always, and what signs or markings were most evident. He could not separate part from parcel among them, but relied on his intuition that he would one day recognize any important sign.
On this day of the welling tear in her targeting eye, Dolly was in her third shooting competition in a week. The bank at Meridian Basin had guaranteed her a handsome 100 dollars for her participation, and an opportunity to grab her fair share of prize money. The crowd was gathered at the edge of town, with targets marked against an abrupt rise in the landscape. The sun paused its journey behind the shooters and no way hindered the view of the crowd. More than a hundred people were spread out in two thin lines almost reaching the target area, their noise and excitement riding atop the air and rushing off to the wide grasslands beyond. The signs from the Meridian Basin Bank were very prominent and colorful, all hand-painted, and Devon saw nothing to alert him all that day coming down to the choice event with its choice reward.
The bank’s chief owner, and president, was prancing about the spectators like sagebrush or tumbleweed on a windy prowl, glad-handing prospective customers, smiling his wide grin at every opportunity, reflecting how often he would bring Deadeye Dolly back to Meridian Basin for an encore. It would make him look into the eyes of potential customers with an apparent glee. He was jubilant at every step and acting flighty for his age and some folks could have marked the new interest in old bank accounts. Sure as silver, prosperity shone on Meridian Basin like a reflection coming off the Snake River at dawn. Things could not get any better for him, he fully believed, and no chance they’d get worse.
Life, we all know, is full of surprises; for bank presidents, older brothers with younger sisters, teen-age girls with long memories and spectacular eyes, a town crowding itself with a clutch at gathering joy and expectation. And now and then an odd participant in the harsh games of life. Trouble is, you might not know where he stands in the way of things, or what stance he holds.
Danbury John Folsom was at the line, drawing a bead on the target, a target bull’s-eye in the center of the target which said, quite boldly above the bull’s-eye, Meridian Basin Bank. He was a sure-shot Plainsman off the wide grass and had a reputation for unerring accuracy with his rifle, a Hawkins one-and-only Duby Special he had fitted for his own purpose; that of a money winner and not a life taker.
The bull’s-eye was directly under the word Basin, and had been the idea of the bank president, who saw coin in every circular image. Danbury John, whom everybody knew was a noted gunsmith, target shooter, a dead-eye dick in his own right, was somewhat fearful that the teen-age girl was going to steal the top prize. He stood tall and broad-shouldered, with fading red hair hanging like a tail from under his trail hat, a sombrero-type with wide brim to keep the sun out of his eyes. His Hawkins rifle was a thing of beauty and both the wooden stock and the metal barrel and trigger parts shone like a topaz gem. The shooters were on the hundred yard target range. His first round, squeezed of with some certainty, was a bare inch off dead center. His second shot was closer, and so was his third. The fourth round, to the exasperation of the crowd hungry for Dolly’s next victory happening in their town, was dead center, absolutely dead center. The buzz lifted from the crowd like a hurried bird flushed to flight by a bird dog. The excitement rippled and then ran from the front end of the crowd, those nearer the targets, and sped like a train down the long lines of spectators, noise and motion at full stir.
The bank president could almost begin to count proceeds in his mind. His eyes went from gray to green. His cheeks flushed. Dollar signs spun through his head quicker than jackrabbits. The sun, setting low behind them, tossed a glow on everybody and everything. The noise died down, the ripples of excitement smoothed to a hum, the air caught up a sense of silence, as the crowd looked at Danbury John at the line about ready to take his next shot, the rifle coming slowly into position for firing.
Over his shoulder he could feel rather than see Deadeye Dolly sighting various targets down-range on the target line, an activity or habit she had always brought to competitions. It was, Danbury John felt sure, one of her ploys at upsetting her opponents, presuming all were looking at her, measuring her accomplishments, including her most recent wins in Bourbon, Torn Bull, Texas Grange and Big Red. Dolly had crushed all her opponents, some of them as old as Danbury John himself, men who likely had been through trying wars of their own, not like these contests as valid as turkey shoots.
He would tell listeners later at the saloon that a Plainsman’s intuition had taken over his senses, commanding that alertness was needed, that danger was at hand, that life was at peril. It had not eased into his senses but had invaded him quick as a thought. He spun about and there was the 17-year-old sure shot girl with her rifle leveled at a tall man in a black hat only about ten feet away, in the front line of the crowd. Danbury John did not recognize the man, but it was quickly evident, from the look on Dolly’s face and the steady posture of her weapon, that she did.
He, too, brought his weapon to bear upon that total stranger.
“What is it, Dolly? You must know him. What’s he done?” He kept his shiny Hawkins dead-level and as sturdy as at a target shoot.
Devon, in the far crowd, ran down the line of spectators who had frozen in place. “What’s going on, Dolly?” He saw the look on his sister’s face, the fire in her eyes, the redness starting to fill her cheeks.
“What is it, Sis?” All the strange moments he had found his sister in, for all the years since their father’s death, rushed back upon him. Revelation, though still distant, was coming upon him. He could feel the mysteries breaking loose as a nervous herd might suddenly stampede.
Deadeye Dolly Provident walked towards the man in her aim. “What’s your name, mister? Say it real loud so everybody can hear it.”
The targeted man, as quickly nervous as any person under a drawn weapon, said, “My name is Garret Ruffin, and I ain’t never seen you in my whole lifetime until just this day.” But even as he spoke his protective piece, the unnerving condition was exerting itself. His feet shuffled. His hands itched. The guns at his hips would never clear the leather of his holsters before this sure shot girl would put a bullet right through his heart. But he knew he was telling the truth, that he had never seen her before.
“Devon,” Dolly said as cool as a winter morning, “take off his hat and see if he’s got any scar on his scalp.”
Knowledge, like a sudden flare at deepest night, hit Garret Ruffin. The sting of the bullet from long ago came back on the top of his head. He could feel his hat get knocked off its perch again, the blood rush warmly down onto his neck, the wind in his face as the horse under him raced ahead of expected shots. Just as quickly he remembered the man he shot in the back just to get another hat, but he was positive he had never seen the girl before, not once in his whole life.
Devon, stepping in back of him, whipped the hat off his head. As Garret Ruffin tried to go for his guns. Devon wrapped his arms about him as both Dolly and Danbury John stood up to him, their rifles almost in his eyes.
The buckle on the man’s frame caught the slanting rays of the sun. The near hieroglyphics inscribed on the buckle, their meaning never understood by Dolly, remained a brand-like inscription on her father’s gun belt buckle, memorized by a girl every waking moment of her life.