|To Kill a Gun
Author: M. George PM
"Though I than he may longer live, he longer must than I. For I have but the power to kill, without the power to die." - Emily DickinsonRated: Fiction T - English - Tragedy/Western - Words: 6,245 - Reviews: 3 - Favs: 6 - Published: 01-04-12 - id: 2985574
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
note: Inspired by a line I read in an Emily Dickinson poem.
To Kill a Gun
I was still warm and lying partially hidden in the grass, but the heat of battle had moved past me. Something was coming closer—or someone. It was the steps made by a man's boots, almost louder to me than the distant sound of my sisters serving lead into bodies. A young man—boy, really—stumbled near me and freed my sleek iron body from the grass. His bare fingers felt foreign without the soldier's gloves.
He threw himself against a tree, its trunk wide enough to conceal his lithe frame. With both hands, he clutched me against his chest, where I felt his excited heart drumming beneath the wet cotton of his shirt. His hands were large enough to conceal me entirely, despite the boyish quality of the skin pressing so tightly into mine.
With fumbling hands, he opened my cartridge to see if any bullets remained. I had three left. The gray coat of a confederate soldier hung too big off his shoulders and flapped open in the middle, buttons undone. A large brownish stain on the left side marked where its previous owner had bled and the fresh stains of its new owner splattered the front. The stains were black and glistening on his stolen uniform, but red on the pale of his exposed neck.
Two men burst from the trees opposite where we stood. They drew up short. Having already killed many Yankees, I recognized the navy color of their uniform. With little sound, the hands which held me repositioned my bullet cartridge and a finger slipped over my trigger, shaking like maybe it had never touched one before.
Careful, I whispered, shivering in his palm. I'm ticklish there.
One of the men saw my barrel, trained over his heart. The bullet would miss—the boy held me too high—but he would still die.
"Take it easy there, son," the man began.
He shot him. Not in the heart, as I predicted, but he fell just the same, blood trickling out his mouth after a choking cough. Needing no further incentive, his partner drew the sword from his waist and thrust. Still braced against the tree, the boy scrambled to evade the attack, but despite his effort the blade caught his face. It sounded wet and quiet to me, until the cry of war pushed out his lips—which, if you never heard war's cry, is not like any other sound in the world. It's raw and deeply inborn, like an animal's. He nearly dropped me, then—he shot wildly into the air—far above his target's head, into the naked branches over us. The noise of it stunned the Yankee just long enough for the boy to shoot again, this time in the Yankee's stomach.
More voices carried through the trees. We left both men on the ground, not dead but dying, and ran the other direction. We ran for a long time, deeper and deeper into the woods, until the pain forced him to his knees. He rolled onto his side and his grip on me slackened, then loosed entirely so I lie in the dirt facing him. We stared at each other, his breathing ragged. His eye was glazed, only half open. It was the same color as the old bloodstain on his jacket; grayish brown. A beautiful eye, I thought. The other eye was swollen closed, maybe forever, against the crimson gash which ran a crooked line from the corner of his mouth to his temple—like a ghastly extension of a smile. He held that side of his face in one hand.
His breath puffed into the cold air between us and his pallid face sparkled with sweat and delirium.
"Oh—my God," he rasped, as well as he could with the wound on his lips. He was talking to someone, though I saw only the wind nearby. "My God, my God . . ."
He was praying, I would learn later—though I never heard him utter a word to God since then.
My new master spent some time in a hospital tent for a while, after that first day when he picked me off the ground, a white bandage covering most of his head and face. I slept under his cot with his boots and stolen coat.
"That sure is a nice pistol you got there," the doctor told him. I was an 1861 Colt Navy Revolver and only two years old. I was a damn nice pistol.
"She killed two Yanks," Papa whispered. That was my name for him. I heard it used before among men, but thought it sounded best when a girl used it for a man, full of affection and respect.
It helped him, I realized, to blame death on me. "Shoot pretty for me, Em," he would say (Emily was his name for me), and I did, always, for him.
They let him go home, after that—not only because of his face, but I guess he was too young to be there to begin with. I barely remember Papa's old home, the Hamilton Estate. We weren't there long. It was big and the pillow Papa put me under was soft goose down. His mama couldn't be in the same room without crying and looking away with shame. Nobody could look at him long, because men don't like to be uncomfortable for more than a minute, maybe. Soon only one person came every morning, and that was the old maid. The things I remember are her hands, which were rough and brown as my oak handle, and how she clucked her tongue and called Papa Mistah James.
The first time Papa saw his face, he was looking at me. The candle on his bedside hit my metal skin just enough to cause a reflection. Even then it might not have been bad, except Papa kept me so polished. Needing to see it all the way, but I knew he didn't want to, he went to the mirror in his room. He kept me in his hand, though I don't know who he intended on shooting with me.
The flesh on the left side of Papa's face was knotted up in purple lines and crimson trenches. The part stretching from his mouth exposed a gleam of teeth. Where his left eye had been there was only a dark red, leaking pit. In a second I knew what he meant to shoot and four of my bullets shattered the mirror into a hundred little pieces of Papa's old life.
Even after the wound became a scar, Papa wouldn't go near mirrors or windows or anything with glass. He stayed in his bed where it was always dark and died a little, I think.
Then we went back to the world I knew, the world of war and singing bullets and heat—hot blood, hot lead, hot words and most of the time hot days, under the sticky Southern sun. Papa grew into that stolen uniform, which in turn grew more stained, not only with blood, but with marks of honor. In the beginning he was just a good soldier—fearless, and an "uncanny shot with that Colt revolver of his." Then they gave him names—dark, unholy names—because of the scar and the unforgiving aim of his one eye. The North feared the names and the stories attached to them, and his fellow soldiers thanked the devil for sending him to their side of the battlefield.
Not that Papa cared which side he was on. As I think about it now, he probably expected to meet death, but everywhere he went each expectation only got him two things: better, and more scars. Sometimes, when his opponent drew the same time as he did, he shot offhand and slow—as if hoping their bullet would find his life sooner and quicker than his would theirs. But I fixed his mistakes, straightened his uneven aim when his lack of left eye gave him poor balance, and we never missed. I knew what to do, and I wanted to shoot pretty for him.
In the night, Papa never sat with the other soldiers by the fire and they never asked if he wanted to come. He polished and cleaned me, sometimes with a hum of a melody on his ravaged lips—his fingers so careful, so precise. I slept under his pillow, if one was to be had, and guarded his head.
After the war, Papa was alive and dumbfounded because of it. We wandered from place to place, sometimes doing a little bounty work on account of his "uncanny shot with that Colt revolver of his," but fear eventually caused people to drive us away. The war had made Papa what he was, but now it had no use for him.
We tried the other side of the law, but Papa didn't like that much. I think Papa had more or less made his peace with shooting people, but only on his terms. When the banker who cried and said something about his wife took a rifle shot in his forehead, I saw the frown on the half of Papa's mouth that could. Mostly, it was how the outlaws handled their women. The women's soft cries were the cries of war, only we weren't in a war. "Animals," Papa muttered when we left that way of life for good. He cried later, after saying it, I think because he thought he was the same now, no better than them.
He was better, though. He was the best of all men.
We lived alone after that, surviving in the woods. Papa had a rifle he used to hunt animals and game. I was reserved for killing people, but always rode on his right hip whether there were people to kill around or not. But he still spent his time at night polishing me, not the rifle.
In early spring, Papa was shaving at a river; I was behind him in the grass. He always shaved because one side of his face couldn't grow a beard properly, and he didn't like how it looked with only half a face of hair. That was one of the rare occasions I left Papa's waist, when he was knelt over water like that. He didn't like me to get wet. He told me why, once, when he'd startled and spilled his canteen water over me. "I'm mighty sorry, Miss Emily," he said, wiping me dry with his shirt tail. "God knows, the fastest way to kill a gun is to get it wet."
We had wandered far enough north to be into the southern part of Ohio, and the small river snaked through what was mainly frontier land, with some farms scattered here and there. Papa tried to avoid people when he could help it, but the settlers had smartly done all of their settling close to the river, and there wasn't much way around it when we needed water.
Only a mile or so downriver, a scrubby homestead had taken advantage of the picturesque layout of the river bank, but it was still early morning and only the black farmhand had been up when we'd looked from a distance.
As Papa ran his blade a final time down his neck, someone splashed a little ways down the river. He went as still as a snake, his eyes fixed a ways off to his left on the bend of the river, where it just hid the offender from view. With one hand, he reached behind and wrapped his fingers around my handle.
A young woman stomped up the river, her skirts hiked high in both hands revealing her white shins and red knees. She stopped, staring at Papa. His good side was turned toward her, so she couldn't see the scar yet; Papa had a handsome face. The girl looked like autumn, her hair the color of fallen leaves, piled on her head to better display the graceful curve of her neck. She had high cheeks and a generous mouth, with eyes big and dark like a doe's. Her body was everything mine wasn't—delicate, soft and curved.
I didn't think she was dangerous, but Papa looked even more nervous than before—which was why it confused me when he set me down.
"Hello! You startled me, there," the girl called. "I'm Elizabeth Browning, and my family owns the land just down river. Who are you?"
Papa didn't answer. Normally he had to talk quiet anyway, since opening his mouth too wide hurt him, but he didn't even attempt a whisper. He turned his head, putting the scar yet farther from her view.
"Well, how do you like that?" she continued. "Here I am, being awful friendly, considering you're the one trespassing on my property, and you can't find your common manners. Now, tell me your name a'fore I get Daddy to call his hunting dogs on you."
This girl was mouthy. I wondered if Papa wanted to shoot her, like I did.
Instead of answering, he grabbed his hat without turning and put it on his head, tilting it to better shield the ruined side of his face. "Sorry, ma'am," he muttered and with his usual deft grace, swept up his belongings and turned to leave—too quickly for her to get a look at anything.
"Lizzie, where are you?" Another girl burst through the trees on the river side. She was younger, probably only twelve or thirteen, but otherwise the spitting image of the first girl. Unfortunately, she came on the side where Papa couldn't see her with only one eye, and he turned on instinct at the unexpected voice. He might have heard something so clumsy as a child traipsing through the woods, but as I was to learn, Elizabeth Browning could make Papa very distracted.
No one spoke or even breathed. The younger girl met Papa's one-eyed gaze face to face and her view was still somewhat obscured, but he'd turned so now Elizabeth couldn't see the handsome side of his face at all, only the scar. I almost never saw what other people saw, looking at Papa straight on, but I always saw their reaction and knew, in the eyes of man, it was something terrible. All at once, things which had slipped by her notice flared up like rearing horses. She didn't see his naturally genteel posture or scrubbed clean hands, she saw his roughness and his wildness. Most of all she saw two things: me, deadly and cradled in his arms, and the dull look of death staring out at her from the shadow his hat cast over his remaining eye.
Her eyes widened and her lips slowly parted. Then she screamed, covering her mouth with her hands.
"Stay away—run, Annie!" she shrilled and they fled, Elizabeth tugging on Annie's arm and Annie sobbing.
In the ensuing silence, Papa did nothing. Then he removed his hat and placed it over his heart with flourish, dipping in a low bow. "James Hamilton the third," he said.
I thought we would leave after that. It's what we always did after the screaming and sobbing—leave to another, even farther place.
We did leave—but Papa was so jittery, and we turned around and came back. It wasn't the first time someone had ran away at the sight of Papa's face, Lord knows it wouldn't be the last, but this time had shaken something loose in him. I guess I'll never know for certain, but my opinion is Elizabeth Browning was the last test he decided to hold himself up to. One final trial to see how inhuman he really was. I don't know if he wanted to pass or fail, in the end, but for whatever reason, he'd put his opinion of himself in her hands. He circled the little farm like a scavenger bird, until finally walking up to the old man on the back porch, who was, we'd know later, Elizabeth's daddy; bearded and pudgy as a sweet roll, rocking in a chair as he read a book. It was Papa's way to move silent as death, and Elizabeth's daddy didn't see him until he stood in front of him, hat in hand. The old man glanced up, annoyed at first—paled at Papa's face—then was annoyed again.
Elizabeth's daddy considered him and asked where he came from, and Papa told him, leaving out some bits. They talked about the war. Turned out, Elizabeth's daddy was a southern man at heart. On their little farm in southern Ohio, they made most of their money being descendants of Elizabeth's granddaddy, Cecil Browning, who owned a lot of big things in Georgia. Elizabeth's daddy was the fifth son, named Joe, and didn't know much about farming. To use his own description, he was a politician.
"I don't want no trouble, you understand," he warned, "But I sure could use the help this close to planting season, and there's no help to be found after the damned war."
Seeing them from the house window, Elizabeth went outside with the intention of warning her father, and turned red as tobacco sauce when she saw them shaking hands.
"What's gotten into you?" Joe Browning asked.
As humble as I'd ever seen him, Papa said he would be much obliged if Joe would take him on. White and trembling, she begged her daddy to change his mind. "He's a monster," she said. Papa kept his head down and didn't refute her claim. Almost like he knew Elizabeth would always hate him, and that meant what it meant, but at least he didn't have to wonder what he was or wasn't anymore. Joe sent her back to the house, and she went, but not before sending Papa a look that could have peeled paint off a barn door.
"You'll stay in the back of the barn, with the rest of the boys," Joe said. The black farmhand appeared around the corner, and Joe motioned him over. "Here's Willie, he'll show you what needs doing."
Willie looked Papa up and down, his arms crossed over his chest. He was as black as my insides and had the same flinty look of distrust I was used to seeing on Papa.
"Whass your name?" Willie wore a white undershirt and suspenders, a piece of hay stuck out his thick lower lip.
"Imma call you, Jimmy. Hope that's all right."
"James," Papa repeated.
Willie met Papa's darker tone with a slow smile. "And where you from, Jimmy?"
Papa's one eye narrowed. His fingers twitched against my side, but he didn't free me from my holster.
Papa studied Willie's black skin and Willie studied Papa's scar. A sort of understanding passed between them, and eventually Papa returned Willie's smile with an almost imperceptible one of his own. "Virginia."
"I got a cousin from there." Willie's eyes dropped to study me. "That's a fine lookin' gun."
Papa placed a protective finger over me. I glowed with pride and satisfaction. "Colt Navy Revolver, 1861."
"Know how to use it?" Willie asked.
Papa said nothing, but Willie must have seen the answer elsewhere on Papa's face because he chuckled low and deep. "Well, good. You might need it, 'round here."
The next morning, three men rounded on Papa as he worked on a fence the way Willie had showed him only hours before. The posts needed to be straightened, and retied with wire so they stayed upright. I quickly guessed our three visitors to be the reason a person might need a gun on the Browning farm. They hissed as they saw Papa's face. "Mr. Browning's picked him an ugly one."
"Careful, Martin—it is still human, I reckon."
Papa ignored them, bent on one knee. With slow, deliberate fingers, he readjusted some wire.
"Hey, Ugly—you like making friends with Negroes?" The man named Martin asked. Martin Luce, as I remember him, was a lot of red. The stubble of beard on his chin was red, red splotches covered his skin and his watery eyes were rimmed in red—all just catalysts of his reddest of red temper.
"Nah—look there at his hat, John." Although faded, the braided rim around Papa's gray hat was Confederate yellow. Pinned on the side was a tiny lapel of crossed cavalry sabers.
"Well! It's a goddamn Johnny Reb! Heaven must love me, giving me another reb to shoot."
Still, Papa said nothing. Martin brought a muddied boot onto Papa's shoulder, likely with the intention of kicking him to the ground, but Papa rolled loose and was on his feet with my muzzle pressed between Martin's eyes before he had time to set his foot down. Startled, he paled, and then seemed to remember his position. "Shooting a man is murder up here, reb," he said, spittle dribbling onto his lips.
Papa studied Martin's face, long and hard. "Deserter," he said at last. There were certain ways a man who had fought and finished a war needed to look, and Martin had the look of a soldier who hadn't fought or finished anything.
Any red left in Martin's face drained away. Lips pulled tight over his teeth, he swatted me away from his face. Quick as a rattlesnake, Papa backhanded him with my blunt end.
Martin reeled back, and his comrades rushed forward to steady him.
"Don't touch my gun," Papa hissed, and without another word, stalked away from the fence.
Cursing and spitting, Martin called after him. "Watch yourself on this farm, nigger-lover!"
All three of them were the three worst things in the world, as far as Papa was concerned. Yankees, deserters, and nigger-haters. But they were too scared of Papa to do anything in the open—and Papa was too smart to let them get close in the dark
.For a week or so, Martin carried a mark from his encounter with Papa, but never made a fuss over it to Joe, so neither did Papa. Weeks passed and I was only used to blast thrown up horseshoes Willie couldn't use any more. The first time Martin watched Papa shoot was the easiest time we ever had of him. After witnessing Papa's skill firsthand, he wouldn't so much as look at Papa for days.
Elizabeth Browning, on the other hand, about killed him one day when she waved while he sat on top of the barn fixing shingles. Since she had treated him with nothing but disdain since the first day he came to work, he nearly fell off from shock.
Women fight differently than men. In Elizabeth's eyes, if Papa didn't pay attention to her, he was winning. She could only reject something that was there to reject. In Papa's eyes, Elizabeth was winning just by being alive. I think Papa addled her as much as she addled him. She wasn't used to men ignoring her, which Papa did, with religious persistence, and she didn't know what to do with him.
"What's that book in your hands?"
In my usual place at Papa's hip, I felt the tension crawl up his back like a pine beetle up tree bark. It was Sunday, our day off, and we sat in the loft in the barn reading poetry. Papa had been tilted back in a makeshift chair he crafted himself, a booted ankle rotating lazily in a circle over one knee, when Elizabeth's head popped over the ladder like a weed. His foot dropped immediately, and he straightened. His hand flew to the ruined side of his face.
"Do you need help with something, Miss Browning?" he asked carefully. I saw him look for his hat, which was too far away to grab, keeping his face turned away and almost into his shoulder.
"My, but you always talk so quiet—I can hardly hear you half the time. I was looking for my hair ribbon in the barn and I saw you reading up here. What book is it—is it the Bible?" She climbed higher up the ladder, until her upper half was visible.
Papa drew in a long breath. "Tennyson," he muttered finally.
"Tennyson?" she echoed, hoisting herself the rest of the way up. "Never heard of him. I read Charles Dickens once—d'you know him?" She walked closer, hands on her hips.
Papa stayed glued to the chair, looking like he wished he'd never said anything at all, like he'd rather curl up and die. She prattled on, seemingly undeterred by Papa's lack of answers.
"I'm not surprised you don't know him—I'm surprised you can read at all, frankly. Education is hardly an important matter to your type. Well, don't just sit there—read me something from it. Is it a story?" I wasn't sure if she was trying to convince Papa or herself that he was beneath her.
"No," Papa said. "Poetry."
Then, just to prove herself to be the craziest human I'd ever known, she added in a softer tone, "I think poetry is romantic, don't you?"
Sometimes when Papa is amused, he doesn't look amused, and this may have been one of those times, but I don't know. He didn't blush or act flustered like I think Elizabeth expected him to. His face was blank as he flipped through his book to find the right poem. In a quiet voice, he read,
"Pale with the golden beam of an eyelash dead on the cheek,
Passionless pale, cold face, star-sweet on a gloom profound;
Womanlike, taking revenge to deep for a transient wrong
Done but in thought to your beauty, and ever as pale as before
Growing and fading and growing upon me without a sound,
Luminous, gemlike, ghostlike, deathlike . . ."
"Well, that's . . . nice." I could tell by the line between Elizabeth's brows she hadn't understood a word of it. If she had, she'd probably be a lot madder, because Papa had hit a nail right on the head choosing that poem for her. Either that, or she was surprised by how pretty Papa could sound if he stayed quiet and slow.
"What's it about?" Papa asked. He knew, too. The real insult wasn't the poem, it was that he understood it and she didn't.
"I know what it's on about," Elizabeth said. "You should know I hear poetry like that all the time from plenty of people who read poetry. But I don't rightly care hearing it from you."
Papa said nothing. He looked down and closed his book.
"Haven't you got work to do?" she questioned, again with that high and mighty air—looking down her nose at him.
"It's Sunday," he replied.
Her cheeks flushed, but she nodded, as if she'd known all along, but was only testing him. She was spared having to respond by Willie's voice drifting up through the rafters.
"Jimmy! You up there? Your good aim would be mighty helpful just now—oh. Good day, Mizz Browning."
"Hello, Willie." She waved from the loft. "It seems you have work after all, Mr. Hamilton." She climbed down the ladder
Papa stood and leaned on the top of the ladder, watching her leave all the way to the door. I wondered if she swayed her hips like that on purpose.
He climbed down and stood next to Willie, who shook his head.
"What do you need help with?" Papa asked.
"Ain't me that needs the help. It's you—and I done just gave it to you, up there reading poetry to Mizz Browning. Nearly thought your one good eye was gonna fall right out your head, way you watched her leave just now."
Willie was teasing, but I saw hope fade in Papa's eye. Between his face and his reputation, he had no illusions.
"You really reading Tennyson?" Willie asked, softer now. He stared at the book in Papa's hand the same way Papa stared at Elizabeth.
Papa's eye blinked into focus and he squinted at Willie. "Yes."
"Want to read me a few verses?" Willie shrugged. "I like the way it sounds, poetry. My mama knew about Lord Tennyson."
Papa's stare remained unblinking and intense. "Can you read, Willie?"
Again, Willie shrugged. "A little. Not much. Not poetry, anyhow. No need to read to plow a field."
Then Papa said the words I would come to curse him for. "I'll teach you."
"I'd like that."
The last day of everything started with Elizabeth's morning ride. The leaves were turning the colors of Elizabeth's hair, and Willie could read two stanzas out loud like he was born to it. Lacing his fingers to make a step, Papa helped Elizabeth into the saddle without a word or even eye contact, as he usually did. Elizabeth wouldn't say it, but she was glad it was Papa who helped her. She wouldn't have minded if Willie helped her, but he was always working the fields in the morning. The other workers touched a lot getting her on and off the horse. She'd been struggling to mount from the fence the first time Papa quietly offered his assistance. That was before Tennyson, but maybe the reason why Elizabeth kept losing her hair ribbon on Sunday afternoons. Afterward, she never thanked Papa for being a gentleman, just mutely accepted his hand as she dismounted and left him the reins and care of her horse. Papa had been there every morning since.
On this day, however, when she held out her hand for him to take, he held the bridle of the horse to keep the animal steady and looked up at her. She blinked, hand still hovering. She'd stopped noticing his face, but Papa hadn't stopped trying to hide it, so his directness surprised her.
"My work gets done at five," he said. "Sometimes I go on a ride then, by the river."
Silence yawned between them.
"Would you like to go with me?" he finished. I hated Papa like this—submissive, dependent on her answer.
Her eyes widened. "Oh, I—oh." Her flawless skin colored. "I'm . . . I'm afraid I . . . can't."
He looked down, nodded once. I'd seen shell bombs do less damage. To my outrage, he held out a hand to help her down. As soon as her feet touched the ground, he released her as if she were too horrible to touch.
He stalked away and I heard Elizabeth's tiny voice behind us. "Mr. Hamilton, I'm sorry—"
He headed to the shed, probably to find something difficult to do with his hands.
If what happened next hadn't happened right after Elizabeth's rejection, things might have been different. But it did, and it was a sorry time for anyone to encounter Papa.
A muffled sound of pain drew Papa to the back of the shed. Willie was prostrate, blood on his head and in a pool around where his face pressed to the dirt and grass. All three of the Yankee deserters stood in a circle around him. Next to Willie's body was Papa's book of poetry, face open. I guess they didn't like Willie reading Tennyson.
In half a heartbeat, Papa—too stunned to move—stared at Willie, and then they slammed Papa into the side of the shed. They stripped him of the few tools he had on his person and they grabbed me, tossing me far enough away to be out of reach. Martin's fist hit the side of Papa's head and I could only watch as he teetered and knocked clumsily into the shed. But he didn't fall.
Papa's eye went flat and lifeless—it was a familiar look to me, the weary look of a man who has no fear of death or hell. Martin, arrogant and eager, stepped forward and shoved Papa again. I pitied the Yankee, almost. Papa took a step back, as if to regain his balance, but I knew better.
"Your turn, reb," Martin said and reached down to his gun.
Papa struck. He plucked Martin's pistol from its holster and aimed it between Martin's brows. Martin gave a cry of outrage, realizing too late what had happened and attempted to grab it back, but the sound of a hammer deliberately cocked froze him. A shot blasted and Martin toppled to the ground. The man closest to him fumbled, his gun halfway free, backing away from Papa. He threw up his hands. "Go easy," he spluttered, "It was Martin—I never even laid a finger on the nigger—"
With a terrible casualness, as if it was only the annoying sound of the man's voice he wanted to exterminate, Papa shot him in the mouth. The cylinder rolled over with a series of oiled clicks and the smoking barrel swung to the next worker.
Papa waited until the last man met his eyes, pleading with soundless horror.
"Mr. Hamilton, I changed my—"
Papa pulled the trigger, shooting the third man in the stomach. Some of his innards splattered over the grass.
The echoes of the last shot faded away and Papa lowered his hand. Elizabeth saw me on the ground and picked me up. She had small hands—weak, especially compared to Papa's. She panted, holding me with both hands. She pulled back the hammer. Papa's trained ears heard the familiar sound and he turned.
"Don't you come near me, you monster!" Elizabeth shouted.
Pain made the good half of Papa's face look nearly as tragic as the scarred side. He held up his hands and the gun fell. He watched her, his only movement the rise and fall of his chest—his breath still heavy from the exertion of the attack. I nearly wept at his expression, if a revolver could cry. Kill me, his face said. He was so tired.
I didn't know if Elizabeth would shoot him or not. She didn't hold me like someone who'd never touched a gun before. I knew, from the way she aimed my barrel, the bullet would go straight through his good eye. She knew how to shoot a gun. I wouldn't be able to change the course of the bullet enough in order to miss him. At best I could get the side of his head. Maybe just his ear, if I really pulled. I wondered what she practiced on to feel so comfortable with me between her palms. Did she know I was a people-killing gun?
Papa took a step toward her. Her finger tightened on the trigger.
"I said don't come near me!"
He stepped again. She would shoot him for sure if he kept coming, out of fear if nothing else. It was a challenge, the same old one, but now I wasn't with him to save him. He lunged forward and she shrieked and pulled the trigger. I did the only thing I could.
It was agony, to be sure, but a softer kind of agony than carrying the bullet that killed Papa would have been.
The explosion of powder ruined her hands. It went into her face; she'd held me close in order to aim. She fell back. I didn't know if she was dead, but she was silent. We were side by side on the ground, both broken and burnt, but it was her body he cradled, not mine, when he rushed forward. I saw him rocking her, heard the frantic stammering of a desperate plea.
Only now, when I remember, do I think he was praying again.
I still ached, black and ruined, but was happy to be in his hands. He held me the entire walk to where the mouth of the river met the lake, cradling me in front of his body like an offering. His eye was dry as he stared down at me. I love you, I thought as he drew his arm back and launched me over the silver waters of the lake. I broke the surface with a soft splash and sank fast to the muddy bottom. The fastest way to kill a gun is to get it wet, he said, God knows. But it wouldn't be the end, for I had the power to kill, without the power to die.1
1 Reference to Emily Dickinson's poem, "My life has stood – A Loaded Gun."