Afterword

Shooting Skeet

At first we thought the rancher was witty, and he was, but like a lot of people on the hot rolling plains who try to make a living from the land, an air of meanness kept his bristles stiff. Several dozen of us had come to his sister’s ranch for the 4th of July. Some would swim before we ate in the yard of the big house—a converted school building that had been set so its ends faced east and west exactly. That kept the central part of the house out of the threatening heat. Others would ride horses while a bigger number were happy to occupy the shade a big cottonwood gave on the north side of the pool. A pickup load of us, however, accepted an offer to go skeet shooting.

I had hunted a fair amount in my youth, but I had never tried shattering clay pigeons. I had also given up hunting while I was in high school, and my shotgun had been broken for at least 20 years. My wife’s jaunts for game had primarily been when she was a girl, fishing Louisiana bayous with her father. So this was going to be a new event for us, and neither one of us thought we had anything important on the line.

When we unloaded ourselves from the bed of the pickup, the rancher who had brought us out to the pasture we were on said, “Women first,” as he sat on a canvas camp stool behind his spring trap with two boxes of skeet beside him. He held out a 20-gauge shotgun, and my wife took it, then he told her he’d be glad to give her a 12-gauge. “It kicks a lot harder,” he said, laughing to himself. “Bruise you good, real good.” She looked coolly at him but said nothing. His observation hung awkwardly in the air.

Because she was wearing only one contact lens—she’d been doing that for years at her optometrist’s suggestion—my wife, who’s left-handed, had to shoot right-handed. Shouldering her gun, she said she felt awkward, “And probably look worse,” she added.

Moving her feet and adjusting her torso, she positioned herself over a red clay hummock covered with scrub grass. Thunderheads pillowed the late afternoon sky, and a high wind blew the sun’s heat at us. Strawy with drought, the pasture rolled vastly around us, and the only green on the land came from a spread of mesquite in the distance.

“Black out the target,” the rancher told my wife, then spat. “And squeeze off your shot, don’t jerk the damn thing. Now lean forward—forward,” he insisted. “Your weight on your front foot.” Turning to the rest of us, he grinned and said, “We’re gettin’ ready to get hustled. You can always tell when they hold the gun the way she does. Hell, she’s just pretending to look awkward.”

Her shoulders and jaw tensed but she didn’t glance back at him.

“Now relax,” he said, “but not so damn much you collapse.” It seemed clear that he liked to agitate people, perhaps especially those he didn’t really know. He wasn’t our link to the gathering. His sister and brother-in-law and stepmother-in-law were. “Now when you’re ready,” he said, “say pull.” A gust of wind smashed us.

“Pull?” my wife asked, readjusting her aim.

“That’s right,” he said impatiently. “I don’t pop the trigger unless I hear pull—and no damn question marks at the end of it either. Think you got it? Think you can do that?”

“Pull!”

For a moment I smiled because I’d heard in my head some things she was calling him in her thoughts.

She missed each of her five shots, and as she looked for someone to hand the gun to, the rancher snapped that she was waiting too long to fire: “You wait till they start dropping, you’ll miss ever’ time. So try once more—and nail that sonofabitch early. Blast him to hell.”

The strategy worked—twice in a row in fact—but the flurry of celebration diminished when he said, “See? There’s a right way and a wrong way, and I know which is which. Keep that in mind if you want to shoot.”

Before long it was my turn. Glad I got to shoot left-handed, I took my sunglasses off and slipped them in my shirt pocket. I surprised myself when I hit the first skeet. I also hit the next two before missing the fourth then clipping the fifth.

“Not bad—four out of five,” I said, surprised at my luck, then the rancher told me to try one more, and I did, but the clay pigeon flew off far to the right and low. He had shifted his position at the last moment, and I missed. In fact, I almost didn’t get the shot off at all. He’d tricked me, but I didn’t mind that at all till I heard him announce:

“Anyone comments on getting four out of five is gonna get thrown a damn curve.” Then his lips twisted into an abrasive grin, and his scorched blue eyes flashed heat. I laughed again, but not out of joy. I laughed because I’d lived near a similar routine most of my life. The rancher was continuing the frontier tradition of keeping distance from soft emotions and using a mean turn of wit to maneuver through a meanly changeable world.

The idea was not that the other person was considered an enemy. He might not be. But it still made good sense, tradition said, to stay free from sweeping assumptions, especially those with a positive or potentially sweet turn. Antagonists were always about, so one stayed wary and prickly. Some of the antagonists were people, others were snakes. Some were drought while others were tricky and slick. One never knew how or when or where they would strike. There were a lot of rattlesnakes here in this dry, wind-wild sandstone country. Who knows if I’m talking about people or serpents now? I don’t. Both of them often stay quietly lazy or slide away when larger creatures come near them. Sometimes, though, they’ll strike, but they often buzz the nuisance first. Sometimes, however, they give no warning at all before striking. I later told my wife that.

“But I wasn’t a threat,” she said.

“I know,” I said, agreeing with her, “but some people react by habit. He’s probably spent too much time by himself. Horseback or pickup, he rides an environment that tends toward the edgy.”

“But why did he want to humiliate me?”

“He probably didn’t think he was. Maybe all he was doing—in his own mind—was protecting himself.”

“From what?”

“Who knows? That’s the problem with the inarticulate. Being your own company is full of rotten limits.”

“Maybe so.”

Tension had crept into the conversation. I’d experienced that before, and not just with her, with maybe everyone I knew. Belligerence around here often works like an allergy or a virus, a tolerable irritant. Still, truly serious horrors sometimes hit: tornadoes, drought, late freezes, prairie fires, price collapses. So problems with skeet shooting seemed minor. So sometimes do a lot of other things.

I keep thinking, though, about that 4th of July picnic when my wife and I shot skeet. We didn’t know a lot of the people there, and the same seemed true of the others; and the loudness of the rough wind made what pockets of familiarity there were seem pretty much beside the point. Even more, I keep thinking about the needless trickery, the purposeless edginess that named that afternoon. One’s own demons or private chemistry will do that, especially when you come to see—as many around here who are connected with the land do—that the best one can do is to escape disaster. Notions of conquering it seem foolish.

I also remember learning that those we call our forefathers and their fathers often had a cup of whiskey with breakfast. Maybe having a huge and changeable world before one was enough to turn one nuts. Or maybe the truth was closer to home than that. Maybe having inherited part ownership in a comparatively old ranch whose land might be condemned by a nearby city so it could build a new lake—maybe knowing that could unhinge some major parts. Or maybe what we had come upon was simply an oddly nominal Episcopalian whose soul was Holy Roller but whose breath was too short to cut loose and babble. Of course, there were likely a thousand other explanations, most of them doomed to remain mysteries.

I can’t do anything about the irritations that day, and I can’t do much about any of the people there, maybe even myself. I can only be glad that the lessons of restraint I had been oppressed with years ago had taken. It wouldn’t have done to turn and blast the guy with a borrowed shotgun. A stunt like that really would have ruined the party.

James Hoggard is the author of 16 books, most recently Patterns of Illusion: Stories and a Novela and Medea in Taos and Other Poems.

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