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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 badfour 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 doingin his own mindwas 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 seeas many around here who are connected with the land dothat 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 lakemaybe 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. 6/18/04 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 31