Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
Claire Brown was fourteen years old the first time he daddy stuck a gun in her hand and told her to go shoot something. When she tried to question him as to what exactly she was to shoot, he said, “Anything that’s not walking on two legs, now git!”
Claire stepped outside into the cool breeze of a late autumn afternoon with the gun cradled in her arms. She looked down at the small rifle and realized that she was shaking like a newborn chicken. So she drew in a deep breath, and stood tall, and boldly looked in every direction to see if anyone was watching, but the ranch was quiet.
She studied the gun carefully, taking in the scent of oil, and the beautiful shade of dark cobalt blue that reflected from the metal barrel. Her hand caressed the stock. It was smooth and silky like Momma’s touch. But when her small thumb pulled on the hammer it was cold and hard like a slap from her daddy.
Claire glanced around; then headed for the barn. Just shoot Something, she repeated over and over in her mind. Her heart pumped wildly with excitement. She had been waiting for this moment. Claire was the last member of the family to be handed a gun, and she knew the importance it held out here on the prairie.
She swung open the doors to the barn and waited for her eyes to adjust. She carried the rifle carefully past the horses, whose gentle noises filled the barn as they enjoyed a meal of hay and millet. They swatted at her with their long tails. But she was used to that. She was careful to keep the muzzle pointed up, as her older brother had taught her.
When she reached the far end of the barn, Claire, slung the gun to her back by the tanned leather strap that dangled from it’s underbelly. She then grabbed the ladder that led to the hayloft and climbed. At the top she sat quietly and listened.
The wind whistled through the cracks of the barn as the horses continued with their afternoon banter. Fluttering wings grabbed her attention and she peered up into the rafters.
Nestled between the timbers, Claire spotted a brown barn owl sitting on a perch.
But you don’t shoot no barn owls, she thought. It’s bad luck, and besides, he’s standing on two legs.
The owl was spellbound, and Claire followed his line-of- sight to the feed sacks stacked in the corner of the barn.
She slid the gun from her back and eased herself onto her hands and knees. Quietly, she crawled over to the far end of the hayloft. Her imagination went wild as she saw herself hunting a tiger in the jungle. She brought her eyes to the edge of the wooden loft and peered down at the sacks.
Right smack in the middle of the largest open sack, was a big fat gray rat with a tail as long as her arm.
Claire’s eyes widened, then she slid backwards and rolled onto her back. She lifted the gun to her face and glided her finger across the engraved words, Winchester .22 Caliber.
She gently cocked the lever action and studied the bullet as it smoothly loaded itself into the bore.
It was beautiful, she thought.
Cocking the rifle was pleasant. It reminded her of making music; like drawing a bow across a violin.
She now felt dangerous, and empowered with the loaded gun.
She rolled back onto her belly and kept the rifle perpendicular to her small body. She crawled forward the way she had seen her brother do many times before when he hunted.
At the edge of the loft, Claire slid the barrel over the side, and braced the butt of the gun to her shoulder. This was not new to her though, as her brother had secretly let her fire his gun at some glass jars once. But now came the tricky part.
She sighted the rat down the barrel and positioned the front bead squarely between the split uprights at the rear of the gun. She drew a deep breath and held it.
But her vision wandered lazily back and forth like an old cow between the gun sights and the rat. The rat seemed oblivious, devouring the seed that wasn’t his to take.
For a moment, Claire felt as if she left her body. She saw the rat’s whiskers twitch in the light and small puffs of dust were backlit by sun’s rays as the rat eagerly clawed at his treasure.
Claire pulled back smoothly on the trigger and in an instant it was over. She couldn’t even recall the crack of the gun when it fired. The rat was now still.
She clambered up onto shaky knees, then sprang to her feet. She threw the gun onto her back, and ran to the ladder, almost tripping, and falling, as she hurried to get down.
Claire ran toward the feed sack but stopped short; and stared at the motionless rat.
Finally, she took one step, then another, until she stood over the animal. She dropped down to a knee and put a finger on the rat’s back. It was warm. Gingerly, she rolled it onto its side and observed a small red bullet hole in its chest.
The whiskers were unruffled. Claire touched them. Her jaw was set in a way that made Claire look like her daddy; and then she cried.
Claire sobbed so loudly, that it echoed back and forth throughout the barn causing the horses to shuffle in their stalls with nervous energy. When she stopped; her face was puffy, and red, and matted strands of black hair were stuck to her cheeks.
She knelt there for a very long time, and waited for her tears to dry, and then she swore an oath that she would never cry again. The sun had set and the ranch grew dark. Claire heard her
daddy calling from the house. She picked up the rat by its stiff tail and left the barn. Her daddy sat on the steps of the front porch, and she approached him timidly with the rat dangling at her side.
He stood, reached down, and gently took the rat from her grasp. He turned away from his youngest child and threw it into the garden. Learning to kill was a hard but necessary lesson, and he felt great sorrow at having to teach it to her.
He put his arm around his daughter and walked her into the house and closed the door.