“Shooters, on your mark.”
Aztec Annie’s voice came from behind me. The yellow light in the middle of the round metallic target blinked in front of me. My right hand was on my gun, finger off the trigger so I wasn’t befuddled, shooting the wax bullet into my own thigh.
I felt a little funny, standing there, duded up with boots, belt and holster, waiting to draw my gun like I was in the Old West. I knew this wasn’t how it had really been. At least, not for my family members who had come before me.
There was no blinking electronic light in front of them telling them when to shoot. For that matter, there were no wax bullets or metal targets either. The targets were usually people, and from what I know, it wasn’t always the bad people being shot at.
The light in the target stopped blinking for two seconds, and then it came on - the signal to shoot. By the time I drew my gun, cocked it and shot, my opponent had already done so. If I had been in any honorable fight, I was gone for. But there’s no tales of my family in any honorable fight.
My great-grandmother’s maiden name was Stilwell. For those of you familiar with west Texas or the gunslingers of the West, this name might ring a bell.
Frank Stilwell is my great-great-grandfather. He was a minor character in Tombstone, known mainly for killing and dying. One of his targets — Morgan Earp, shot in the back.
My family hasn’t done much to color up that image, to make the man any more honorable. He shot a man in the back. Then, he was killed by Wyatt Earp for it. Guess it was figured that it wasn’t the worst thing done in my family, and after all, maybe Morgan had it coming. Frank, well, he must’ve known he had it coming.
I had come to the San Juan Shootist Fast Draw not only to feel a bit of what it had been like for my family to be drawing and shooting for their lives, but I came to do it with an honor that hasn’t much been talked about.
“Shooters take your mark,” Annie said again.
I put my hand on my gun and looked at the disk in front of me, waiting for that last light. I pulled the gun from my holster, trying to make it quick. My thumb slipped. I pulled the trigger without having cocked it. I let out a shriek, hurried and flustered. I cocked the gun and shot, sending my bullet past the target into the archery netting. My opponent long finished, stood there staring at me with a smile on his face.
“You’re doing good,” Aztec Annie told me, also with a smile. I nodded and said thanks, knowing this was “good sportsmanship,” making the loser feel good.
Wench (all the members of the San Juan Shootists have wild west names) came up and assured me that she had at first been worse than this; it was an oddity for her to hit the target. Anyway, she said, it was really all about having fun.
I didn’t mention that I’d shot before. That when I go home to El Paso, my father, my grandmother (Narcissus Jane, granddaughter of Frank) and I go out to a desert range and shoot. Ole Narcissus, age 93, she still sleeps with a loaded gun under her pillow.
There was no excuse to be this bad. If anything was supposed to be in my blood, it was guns.
I drew my gun, shot, hit the target. The light on my disk blinked, meaning I had won. I smiled.
“Don’t be easy on me,” I told my opponent, though by his smile and nodding, I knew that he was.
Nobody had gone easy on my family, probably because they never went easy on anyone else.
Frank’s daughter, Camilla, she’s my great-grandmother. She wasn’t much of a talking woman. She left writings, though, an incomplete memoir. When she was a young woman, there were buffalo soldiers roaming around Texas. By her account, they’d go around pillaging the houses and taking the woman. To keep this from happening, she and a relative waited for a buffalo soldier to come to the house. When he finally did, they shot him. In the dark of night, they dragged his body down to the river and pushed it in.
When Camilla got older and married, she had a run-in with a gang of bandits. When they came through their ranch, among other things, they took her husband’s gun. His favorite gun. Without a word to anyone, with five children left running around, she got on her horse and rode after ‘em. After a day, she caught up with the gang in Mexico. When they were gathered in a tent, she barged in, two guns out, cocked and aimed at the bandits.
“I came for my husband’s gun,” is all she said. They gave her the gun, and she fled, hiding in a corral for a day and half, her and her horse so short no one could see them. When she got back, she threw the gun on her husband’s lap. Nothing was said.
I stepped up to the line again, three bullets left to shoot. My great-grandmother’s locket dangled around my neck and a slew of family ghosts whirled around me.
I missed my next shot, but hit the next one. My opponent had listened to my request, and beat me both times.
“It’s not about winning,” Wench told me. “It’s about having fun.”
That was the difference between me and my family ghosts. It wasn’t about having fun or even winning for them. It was about living or dying, about keeping what was yours, anyway you could.
For me, at the San Juan Shootist Fast Draw, Wench was right: it was about having fun.
But, for once, a member of my family was drawing a gun and shooting fair. Maybe I wasn’t single-handedly bringing honor to the family, but at least I wasn’t shooting my opponent in the back.