PEARL HANDLED PISTOL

She was just a little girl, still flat-chested, when she first saw Tig. He was a grown man but not old enough to be her father. She would have liked to have a father, but she’d never had one so she didn’t know much about how that would be. She saw Tig out the window of the boarding house dining room, washing in the horse trough with his shirt off, his bright red hair sticking up on end, his shirt flopped over the hitching rail. His wet shoulders and chest gleamed in the sun and she never forgot that image as long as she lived, though for a long time she hardly knew why. The dust washed off him easily, just trail dust from bringing thirty steers to the butcher from a rancher up one of the long green valleys.

Her mom broke into her reverie. “Get those plates to the table, Duchess, and stop that staring. Mind your own business.” The boarding house had to hustle to keep up with the torrents of men coming to the gold fields in hopes of a lucky strike. Since her step-dad had left them, which was a relief to Duchess, her mother had been very cross. She seemed to think it was the girl’s fault that the man had left. Duchess supposed she was a burden, but thought soon she would be grownup enough to strike out on her own. Meantime, she did her best.

The men at the long table were hungry and tired. They leaned apart for her to set down their dinners, then got to work with their big spoons, demonstrating the same determination they showed all day with shovels and rocker boxes, searching, searching, always searching without quite knowing what they were looking for. When the bread loaf was passed around, they cut off chunks with the big knives they carried on their persons at all times. It was dangerous around there. The smaller table by the window was occupied only by one man in a suit with a gold watch chain across his belly. He watched the girl closely and was not so interested in his food, since he was accustomed to being well-fed.

The young red-haired man — she didn’t know his name was Tig yet — came in with his shirt back on and his hair slicked over his ears. The only seat left was at the small table but he went to pull out the chair, looking inquiringly at the man already there. The banker — that’s who it was — rose abruptly, threw down his napkin and stalked out without speaking. He didn’t like sharing. He didn’t like talking. He liked getting things, mostly money. Without commenting, Duchess brought a plate to Tig. She had seen. She smiled and he smiled back, but both of them were bashful. No one in these parts ever talked much. Too tired. Too many secrets.

Dipsie, the old alcoholic handyman, had also seen. He saw a lot, though no one paid attention to him. He went out on the porch and sat on a bench he’d made for it — sat there whittling and watching the banker’s back and neck, humped up like a stud horse, as the man went down the road past the bank to his house. It wasn’t quite so well-kept as it had been when the banker’s wife was alive. Little things: shades different heights, porch and walk not swept.

In a day or so on a convenient afternoon Dipsie invited the Duchess to go for a little walk. He took her to a clearing not far out of town. “What are we doing, Dipsie?”

“Just givin’ you a bit of educatin’, Missie.” He had a small handgun and he taught her to shoot it. “You can’t really hold a gun still without a tripod, see, so what you want to do is to draw a line with the sights lined up, a line that goes slowly down through your target, and then — just a touch before you get there — you pull that trigger.” It took her a few tries to catch on but in an hour, she was pretty good. Then he gave her the gun.

When she objected, he said, “My hands shake so much not even a tripod could help. Anyway, I only keep it to prevent bein’ held up, but the only thing of value I’ve got is this here little pearl-handled pistol, so if I give it to you, there won’t be no reason for anyone to rob me.” She had to laugh.

“If anyone tries to rob you, Dipsie, I’ll shoot their ears off!”

“You’ll have to practice a LOT to get that good!”

Then Dipsie taught her how to clean and oil her pistol. Most of the things she handled were not so complicated but she had a head for how things fit together and the little gun was well made. She was grateful for the gift, not because she wanted to shoot things but because of the elegant mother-of-pearl handle. She was concentrating so hard that she didn’t notice Tig on his horse, back in the aspens, pausing on his way back out of town to the ranch up the valley. He was watching. Dipsie saw him and so did the banker who had heard the shooting and walked quietly to see what was happening. It was sometimes profitable to know.

From then on Duchess always carried her little pistol in her skirt pocket, which was built into the seam in the side, rather than putting the gun in her pinafore patch pockets where the bulge would show. When she walked out onto the hills, which she had always done, she could now occasionally nail something for the pot back at the boarding house: partridge, rabbit. Once she shot a rattlesnake but left it lay. Dipsie scolded her for that, saying he could’ve tanned it for a hat band. She always gathered a handful of flowers. She’d done that all her life. Her mother said it was because she was a Duchess who liked airs and graces. She kept her “posies” in a jar of water on her bedroom windowsill. She didn’t know the men on the street could look up and see them and were pleased by them. And by knowing which room she slept in.

Times change fast out West in boom towns. Pretty soon the front of Duchess’ apron bib had filled out. But she still sat on the edge of the back porch alongside Dipsie while she peeled potatoes, plucked chickens, shelled peas, and even mended socks for the men. Dipsie, for his part, braided rawhide and occasionally went behind the woodshed for a little nip. You might know that “dipsomaniac” just means “drunkard.” Duchess knew he did it, but never commented. When she first sat down, the pistol in her pocket would clunk against the porch floor and remind them both it was there. They’d smile at each other.

In the Civil War, Dipsie had been a medic and he said that’s when he began to drink in order to keep his nerve. He told Duchess many stories about the injuries and how he tried to help the men. Flesh torn, bones broken, everything peppered with dirt and bits of metal. It was mostly a matter of trying to clean the ragged wounds, maybe sewing them up, and then keeping their dressings clean. If they had morphine, that was good, but the pain killer and disinfectant most likely to be handy was alcohol.

The gold boom began to dwindle. There were fewer men in the boarding house. The banker began to think of politics and took a wife, a senator’s widow who knew what was what and had a lot of money. They built a much bigger house on the edge of town where they could have real grounds, not just a yard. A doctor bought the banker’s old house but he had to buy it on time and couldn’t always keep up the payments. The banker would have foreclosed, but there was no one else in a position to buy it. Even Fat Sally had loaded her girls, their parasols, and their trunks into an open coach and headed for the coast.

One day Dipsie just wasn’t feeling well. “My lungs are shot, my liver is like a rock, my heart flutters, and my feet hurt,” he complained. Over her mother’s objections, Duchess put him in the small room next to the kitchen and carried soup to him. Her mother was often in bed late now and Duchess did the breakfasts. Earlier her mother had always done the rooms up for the day, but now Duchess did them. If there had been more men, she could not have managed. One day Dipsie, tucked up in his narrow bed, gave a little smile and a wave and left for the other side of the Big Dark River. It wasn’t much longer until Duchess’ mother just didn’t come down to lunch. Never did again. Slid away with no fuss. Duchess kept on as usual. She didn’t know any other life.

One day the doctor was the only one who showed up to eat. He sat at the single table alongside the window, looking down the street at the banker’s old house and suddenly had an inspiration. Why not convert this boarding house to a hospital? He could move in, pay Duchess instead of the banker, and they could go forward together. Maybe even think of marriage.

Duchess was against marriage: she didn’t have a good opinion of the nuptial state, but she thought maybe she could be a pretty good nurse. After all, she remembered everything Dipsie had told her. So the doc brought over his instruments and they converted the parlor into a consulting room. The banker watched all this, annoyed at losing the house payment, irregular as it was.

All this time Tig had been regularly bringing steers into town for the butcher. Even now, though only a few were needed, he came down every few weeks with fresh meat. Then one day he was bushwhacked on the trail, shot just above the heart and lungs. Broke his collarbone (clavicle, the doc called it) so he had to hold his arm to his side instead of handling the reins, but his horse brought him on into town the way they always came. By the time they got to town, Tig was nearly unconscious from blood loss and it was Duchess who glanced out that front window and saw the horse standing patiently with Tig swaying in the saddle.

After a session on the doc’s examination table, soaking off the blood-glued shirt, fishing out the bullet and the bits of clothing it had carried into the wound, sewing up the torn flesh and skin, the doc and Duchess put Tig to bed upstairs in their little hospital. It was going to take a while to heal. Every morning Duchess gently washed the shoulders and chest she’d once seen gleaming in the sun. The doc took care of everything below the waist. At first it was a silent task because Tig was rarely conscious. But he didn’t become infected.

Then she’d take her flannel cloths and towels down to the back porch to soak in lye soap water, boil, then put through her hand-crank wringer and pin onto the clothesline, still the same improvised rope from porch to tree it had been from the beginning. The feel of him under her hands was stronger than the soap and hot water.

One day he opened his eyes and she saw that they were blue. She hadn’t thought about it earlier. Blue eyes. Flower-colored. Sky-colored. He gazed at her wonderingly but didn’t say anything or move. The next day when she came with her pan of hot soapy water, he grabbed her wrist. “Ain’t you that little girl they call Duchess?”

She nodded solemnly.

“You sure have growed up.”

She began her washing. “You’re healing pretty good. Must be healthy.”

Big gleaming white teeth in a curving smile. “All that fresh air and exercise.”

Pretty soon he was able to walk around and do his own washing. He’d sit by her out on the back porch just like Dipsie used to do. The pistol still made a klunk when she sat down, but Tig didn’t seem to notice. The banker didn’t know where the pistol was, but he knew it existed and he was watching carefully to see what happened.

His high class wife was watching HIM and didn’t like what she saw. At her little tea parties she began to hint that maybe someone was picking up where Fat Sally’s girls had left off. She called the hospital “that old boarding house with its many rooms.” (There were five bedrooms.) Someone took the doc aside to fill him in. People liked the doc. Actually, they liked Duchess, too. Sometimes when someone was very ill, she came to sit with them so the family could get some sleep. They trusted her.

By now, money was a little tight so Duchess didn’t practice her marksmanship with live ammunition anymore. Instead, she pointed her gun and, like a kid, said, “Kueessshhh” while she pretended to shoot clothespins off the line. This made Tig laugh, but the banker got the idea that the gun wasn’t loaded. The doc bought a shotgun and leaned it next to the front door. It was loaded. The banker didn’t know about that, either.

The situation didn’t come to a head until Tig was well enough to walk around town. He passed the corral behind the banker’s house and there was the hide off one of the steers he’d been bringing down from the valley ranch when he was shot. The brand was plain. He sent a message to the rancher and figured he’d ride back with him. After whatever happened had happened.

Duchess would be sorry to see him go, but he could hardly stay in the hospital forever. She didn’t care what people thought, but it wasn’t good for Tig himself. He needed to get back to his life. They sat on the back porch while she did a bit of mending. Not anything of his. His shirt and coat had been too torn up and were just discarded. There was a little bit of a breeze and the sheets were moving but not enough to tangle or snap.

Tig was feeling like he wanted to know how things were before he left. “Don’t you think you’d like to marry someday, Duchess?” asked Tig. “Have some children and all that?”

“Well, I did think it might be nice to have a dog around the house, but it’s a hospital and I don’t think it would be sanitary.”

“You have a cat.”

“Well, several for the mice. But they don’t come in the house. There’s one over there in the brush now — I can hear it rustling.”

Tig heard the rustling but it didn’t sound to him like a cat. He thought of the shotgun in the house. The doc had ridden off somewhere to tend a woman giving birth. He stood up.

A shot rang out and a piece of the porch pillar was blown off. Tig lunged into the house.

Duchess did not stand up. She drew out her pistol, propped her elbows on her knees for a tripod and said in a steady voice, “Come out of there or I’ll blow your ears off.”

The banker stepped out with his gun. He wasn’t afraid because he thought Duchess’ gun wasn’t loaded. He raised his own gun. So she blew his right ear off his head, but that didn’t kill him. She heard Tig slamming through the house and the screen door bursting open. There was a roaring shotgun blast and the banker crumpled.

Shocked and horrified, Duchess whirled to challenge Tig. She had never imagined he would actually kill someone. But he was standing there with no shotgun at all, himself stunned. One of the sheets on the line was swept aside and there stood the shooter with a shotgun. It was not the doc, though he had taken the shotgun with him. It was the banker’s wife.

A banker who underestimates women is not a very good banker and should not be trusted with other people’s money. The banker’s wife would not be prosecuted since she had clearly saved the lives of Duchess and Tig. Finally, she remarried a man who become governor.

Duchess turned to Tig. “On second thought,” she said, “Would you like to have a wife who wanted to keep a dog in the house?”

“Hell, yes!” he said, and swept her into his arms. “But wait! Just one thing. I know you can cook and clean and bandage and shoot, but I have no idea what kind of kisser you are.”

“I don’t know myself. I’ve never kissed anyone before. Let’s try it.”

They did. Several times. It was fine.

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