“A gun? I’ve never shot one. I don’t ever remember holding one even. Is it hard? I don’t know if I could shoot someone…” Her voice trailed off.
“Well, think of it this way. Could you have shot el Viejo when he was abusing you? Would you have had the courage then to protect yourself? If he comes back it will be worse than that.’
Ellen took a deep breath. “Could you teach me in the little daylight we have left?”
“I’ll get it,” Slade said briefly. “Maybe it would be easier for you if you kept the shotgun. It isn’t so hard to aim.” He stood up and walked to the big armoire at the back of the cabin. From its depths he pulled the big shotgun; he reached down a box of ammunition from the top of the closet. “I only have the one box of shells so you will have to be a quick learner.”
Ellen stood up and went to pull on her boots and coat. Slade filled his pocket with shells and they went to the door that led out across to the fence.
“I need to get this path shoveled out too. You can’t walk in ankle deep snow drifts all the time. Those boots aren’t that high.” He gave her the gun and went to the barn for a shovel. Quickly he scooped an area along the fence and another quick series of scoops opened up a space of about ten square feet beside the outhouse. He replaced the shovel by the barn door.
He returned bringing several frozen cow splats with him. He propped the black ovals in the snow at a short distance from them against a sharp rise in the hillside. When they stood beside the outhouse, the black ovals were only about ten or fifteen feet away.
“Now, you don’t need to worry about shooting him if he’s off a ways.” Taking the gun from her he reached in his pocket and pulled out two shells.
“He won’t know you are here and he may just go on past not wanting to meet up with decent people. Even if he comes up to the door, don’t worry unless he actually breaks in. When he does that you’ll be close enough that you can hardly miss him. That’s the time to shoot.”
Slade broke open the breech of the shotgun, showing her how to do. “You take a shell and put one here and one here.’ He indicated where they went. “Then you close the breech. Just click it up. And aim it at what ever you want to shoot. If there’s anything this close and you are pointing the gun in the general direction, you will hit it.” He swung the gun to his shoulder and shot. One of the cow splats erupted in an explosion of particles.
Ellen screamed at the unexpected explosion and then clapped her hands over her mouth.
“I’m sorry. It took me by surprise. I’ve never been this close to a gun going off… Do you think I can do that?” She looked doubtful.
To himself, Slade had to admit his own doubt. She wasn’t very big, hardly coming to his shoulder and slender from months of privation under Viejo’s control. And yet, her determination and inner strength were evident from her flight. He only hoped that her physical strength would equal her heart.
“The best we can do is learn, eh?’ He grinned at her. “Which hand do you write with?” She raised her right hand. “Okay that’s the hand you will hold on the trigger. Turn a little sideways to your left side. Hold the barrel in that hand and point it at one of the cow patties.”
Ellen did as she was told and Slade rested the barrel of the gun in that hand. He lifted the stock of the gun to her shoulder and guided her right hand to the trigger guard.
“There are two triggers, one for each barrel. You could pull both at once, but it is better to do one at a time. The one closest to your hand is best.” He indicated the triggers. “Don’t touch them until you are ready to shoot.
“Now, if you can point at what you want to shoot you can probably hit it. The nice thing about a shotgun is that you don’t have to aim it too carefully. Just point and shoot.”
He stopped and scanned the near hillside. “See that big rock sticking up? You’re gonna shoot it in a minute. Let’s try for that first. It’s bigger than the cow pats, if you can hit it then we’ll try for them.
“First. Be sure the stock is tight against your shoulder.” He pushed the gun firmly against her shoulder. “It’s going to kick backwards as hard as the shot goes forward, so hold it tight and be ready for it… Brace you back leg here and hold it tight.” He stepped behind her, ready to keep her from falling. “All right. Slowly, pull just one trigger.”
Ellen positioned her feet as he’d told her. She held the gun tightly against her shoulder and pulled the trigger!
The gun exploded and her shoulder felt as though she had been kicked by a very large horse! She flew backwards and would have landed in the snow had not Slade’s arm been there to catch her. Her shot blasted a hole in the snow of the hillside well beyond the rock and cow pats.
He placed her on her feet and she fought the tears in her eyes. As soon as she had her breath again she said, “Again! Now I know what to expect.”
“Just wait a second,” Slade admonished. “Take a little bit to stretch your arms before you try.” He took the gun and held it while Ellen swung her arm gently in a circle and rubbed her shoulder. Then she took the gun again.
“Now,” she said, with resolution, “I think about pointing at the rock with my front hand. I hold the stock against my shoulder and rest the gun securely in my on my left hand. I pull the second trigger carefully.” Ellen completed each step as she spoke. The noise of the explosion did not frighten her this time and the recoil of the blast although it still hit hard did not knock her backward this time. And to her amazement the blast of shot knocked a few spatters off the top of the rock.
“I hit it!” she exclaimed. “I cannot believe I hit it! I’ve never even held a gun! Of course, I didn’t hit it very well. It might not have really killed anyone, but look how close!” Ellen was as excited as a child.
Slade grinned at her enthusiasm. “That’s the reason I decided to give you the shot gun. It is the easiest firearm to do damage with, even if you don’t know what you’re doing.
“Let’s try a couple more rounds. We can’t use too many because I don’t have a very large supply. And I don’t want to make your arm too stiff. You are going to feel these few shots tomorrow but I think you do need to try a couple more to be sure you know the process.
“Let’s see if you can open the breech and load another set of shells.” He directed her in opening the gun, expelling the used shells and inserting the new ones. Then when the gun was loaded, he made her repeat the process several times until she could load and unload the gun without his direction.
Slade watched the concentration in her eyes as she followed his instructions and then insisted on doing it alone. He held his breath at the very thought of the life she must have led for the past months that made her so determined to learn to defend herself. He admired the tremendous strength of will contained in such a delicate form. He gathered his building emotion and tied it away in the recesses of his heart. Finally, she was ready to try shooting the shotgun again.
Raising the gun to her shoulder, Ellen focused on the near rock. Her desire to attain some mastery over the weapon was intense. Her years as a daughter and wife had given her no facility with weapons. She had traveled west with her parents, well protected by scouts and soldiers and guards. She had lived on the rancho surrounded by strong men with a devotion to the land and its owners. Until the sudden coming of el Viejo she had never even felt in danger.
Then without warning she found her self alone facing vicious, selfish men. Her attempts to protect Margarita had come to nothing. For herself, during the first days she had no determination to do anything but submit and pray the nightmare would soon be over.
It wasn’t until those last weeks as the outlaws had stripped the ranch of its wealth and began abandoning the holding that she had seen the necessity for taking some action to protect her own existence. Only then had her submission become a cover for careful planning and determination. The final confrontation with el Viejo, although somewhat planned for, had come in an essential moment of necessity and bravado.
Now this piece of steel and wood offered her some hope of self defense. And the man beside her was growing more important hour by hour.
She looked carefully along the double barrels and pointed her forward hand toward the rock. When she carefully pulled the trigger the center of the rock exploded in a shower of white fragments. And when the dust cleared the rock had a new white circle on it.
“Well done!” Slade clapped her back in an unguarded moment of surprise and pride. Then remembering himself he pulled his hand away quickly. “That was excellent. I’ve never seen such a good pupil!”
Ellen laughed at her own success. Flushed with the feeling of pride, she immediately looked around for something else to shoot. The black cow pats were the next object of her attention. The first she missed. The second she hit on the edge making it fly away. The third she blew into tiny pieces. She twirled around in excitement. Raising the gun quickly she aimed at a fence post only a few feet away. The blast coincided with the disappearance of the top of the post! Ellen did a little jig of jubilation swung around until the gun pointed at Slade.
“Whoa, whoa there.” Slade pushed the barrel of the empty gun toward the ground. “You will leave me no fence posts at this rate.”
“I’m sorry!” She answered. “I had no idea it would do that! But I actually hit it! No one will come in that cabin door if I have this in my hands.” And suddenly the confidence shone through her eyes to Slade. He realized her willpower flowed from a deep well of fear. Without a thought he took the gun from her hands and enveloped her in an engulfing hug.
“Never fear, ma’am. As long as I’m around, no one will harm you. And before I can be ambushed, I’m gonna see to it that you can shoot any gun you lay your hands on.” He hugged her tightly and, without warning, Ellen’s courage deserted her.
She grabbed the sides of his coat and began to sob. The despair held at bay for so long swept through her. The tears she had no opportunity to cry for her husband and father began to pour out. The loss of Margarita overwhelmed her. The months of abuse and terror in the hands of el Viejo engulfed her again. Her knees wobbled and collapsed under her. Her hands began shaking so hard that she could no longer hold to Slade’s coat.
The tears led to shudders and heart-wrenching sobs that seemed to go on and on. Slade held her against his chest. He had no other choice, given her emotional disintegration. And in those few moments a feeling swelled within him that he hesitated just yet to name, but recognized only as a determination to make the best life for her that he could.
As her sobbing ebbed Ellen realized how limply she leaned against Slade and that she stood by his strength alone. She pushed her self to her feet bracing her hands against the man’s chest. As soon as he knew she was able to stand alone, he moved his hands to her upper arms, still supporting her, but waiting until she had her balance. Then he released her.
Mopping her face, Ellen spoke in a still trembling verse. “I do apologize, Mr. Slade. I am not a weepy woman at all. I can’t believe I did that.” She used the end of her scarf to wipe her face and stem the drops from her nose. Then she straightened her coat. “I think perhaps I’m too cold. We probably should go back to the house.” She turned and began walking to the fence and then along the shoveled path back to the barn door. Without waiting for Slade, she hurried along the track in the snow and back to the house.
Slade followed more slowly, shoveling the path from the barn to the porch, giving her time to collect herself.