In my experience, there are few things that men like to see more than a little girl holding a big rifle. Accordingly, I’m dressed young, hair in pig tails, dress to just below my knees. As I wait for the hotel manager, Harry, to go and bring his sharp shooting guest, I play to the crowd, smiling just as demure as I can, and posing with my rifle.
“Shit,” I hear. “She can’t barely walk, ain’t no way she can shoot that thing.”
Mr. Gillie stands next to me paternally, looking over the crowd. “Not a bad crowd, girl.” He reaches into a pocket for a cigarette that’s never there. “Good thing they don’t know what you done.”
He looks just the same today as on the day I killed him. His greased black hair is plastered to one side, his dress shirt white and starched under the blue suspenders which hold up his khaki pants. Just the picture of a gentleman farmer, except for the tiny bullet hole in the dead center of his forehead. His hands are thrust deep in his trouser pockets against the cold, though it’s actually hot enough on the fair grounds that most of the men are in their short sleeves.
“Tell me,” he says, “was I worth it? Was I worth going to Hell over?” I ain’t in hell yet, I think, though summer in Cincinnati is near hot enough. I don’t say nothing. As always, that don’t stop him from talking. “What are you gonna tell the Lord? That you were mad? Where’s it say you can murder someone when you’re mad? Show me.” He holds up his Bible.
I still don’t answer him, but this time I rub the back of my head. He’s too vain to let me see the mess in the back of his head, but you better believe I took a good look at it the day I killed the bastard.
He scowls at me. “It ain’t too late to repent,” he says.
I’ve drunk enough that I can just smile. I clean my guns, and keep one eye trained on Mr. Gillie. Eventually, that’s what killed him, coming after me one too many times when I saw him coming. I hold up my Winchester, point it at him and squint, try to look like I’m just making sure the sights are aligned. I don’t want the folks round here to think I’m crazy. I figured out a long time ago that no one else can see Mr. Gillie now. Which suits me fine.
He sighs and shakes his head. “Sad to think you’re going to hell on account of me, girl. You can still repent. You just have to open your heart.”
Just then Harry comes back, leading a tall man wearing an old Union Army uniform. “That’s right, sir,” Harry is saying, loud enough for the crowd to overhear. “Her daddy died when she was ten, and her mama farmed her out as hired help. She taught herself how to shoot with no help from no one.”
The stranger is bald on top, with the hair in the back long enough to keep in a tiny ponytail, held together by what looks like an Indian bracelet. He’s got a Winchester Marlin lever .22 rifle slung over one shoulder, the nicest gun I’ve ever seen, and he’s carrying a sign that says “Lieutenant Frank Butler — Sharp Shooting Specialist.” His eyes are watering something awful, and he sneezes into his left hand while he offers me his right.
“Howdy doo, Miss Oakley,” he says. “The name’s Frank Butler. Your friend tells me you’re about the best shooter Cincinnati has to offer.”
I take his hand, smile at him for the crowd to see how nice I am. His hand is cool and dry. Unlike some men he doesn’t try to hang on forever.
Mr. Gillie don’t like it when I smile, and he starts to raise his voice to talk over Mr. Butler. “What are you going to do when you die, girl?” Even drunk on Vin Mariani, even knowing the man is dead, his shouting gets to me. I can feel my eyes start to water. “Gonna be too late to say you’re sorry, then.”
No one else hears Gillie’s voice of course, but Mr. Butler has good eyes. He produces a handkerchief from somewhere and offers it to me. “Cincinnati is hell on the allergies, eh, Miss?”
“You gonna shoot Lord Jesus?” Mr. Gillie is thundering now.
One thing about the Vin Mariani. It makes me stupid sometimes. Mr. Gillie is shouting so loud I just want him to stop, and my rifle is already at my shoulder. Before I can think twice, I shoot through him.
Even as the bullet is leaving the chamber, I’m realizing what this will look like. Course, I know it’s a safe shot, burrowing straight into the ground some yards behind Harry and Mr. Butler. But not everyone here has seen me shoot before.
Sure enough, the crowd around us gets silent and then someone behind me says, “The girl tried to kill him.” Someone else says, “She’s crazy.” The whispers get louder and then the crowd is shouting and surging around me. I fumble for my bottle of Vin Mariani and take a quick sip to soothe my nerves, but it just makes me feel jumpier, like my skin’s about to crawl off my bones or something.
Mr. Butler, though, he’s just as calm as though he was in church. His lips are twitching a bit on one side. At first I think he’s trying not to sneeze and then I realize he’s fighting a smile. “I take it you don’t like handkerchiefs,” he says. “I must say, Miss Oakley, you have an admirably direct way of expressing yourself.”
Then, he draws himself up, and fires his rifle in the air. Again there’s an instant of quiet. “What kind of city is this?” he says loudly. His voice is resonant and deep, carrying without sounding like he’s trying to — the perfect carnival barker’s voice. “Is this how you greet the best shot y’all are likely to see today? A shot through a crowded square, and this little lady didn’t hurt a fly. Why, I wouldn’t try that shot on my luckiest day on earth.”
He slings his rifle back over his shoulder and begins to clap. For a moment there is silence except for the sound of Mr. Butler putting his hands together and the far off noise of livestock. Then a fat man in a battered cowboy hat chuckles and starts clapping too and before I know it the whole crowd is clapping. Mr. Butler holds up his hand and it’s like he’s conducting an orchestra. That’s how fast the crowd gets quiet. “Say — are you folks ready to see a shooting contest?”
As I’m leading him to the shooting gallery, he says, “No offense, miss, but that was a stupid shot.”
“I’m awfully sorry,” I say. The sun is hot on my face, and I feel almost good. Mr. Gillie is gone for a few minutes for sure, what with the combination of the shooting and the wine. “But I knew I had it.”
“Sure you did. But you didn’t get a penny from anyone for taking it.” Mr. Butler shakes his head in honest sorrow over the money I’ll never see. Then, with a shrug, he turns to the crowd. “Watch this,” he says, and then in a louder voice, “Who here wants to see some shooting?”
The crowd roars good naturedly. Mr. Butler pretends he can’t hear and they roar louder. He takes off his hat and says, “I have to tell you folks. After all the gunshots I’ve heard, my hearing ain’t what it once was. Truth is, the only sound I can really hear now is the sound of quarters dropping into my hat. Course that’s nothing to the sweet sound of silver dollars.”
Again, Butler plays them like an instrument, passing the hat around, jollying and bullying them until we have the largest pot I’ve ever seen — what looks like twenty dollars at stake. The farmers are feeling flush, I guess, having just sold their steers, and he knows how to talk to them.
I miss the first few shots, but then I find my range and beat him, four bullseyes to his three. Truth is, I miss my tenth shot on purpose just to make it closer. The people cheer more when it looks like a close contest.
After the crowd has dissipated, and Mr. Butler has given me the purse, he says ruefully. “I have to tell you. Before I left the hotel I felt guilty, at the thought of taking money from a small-town shooter. And when I saw you were a woman, it near about broke my heart.”
“Girl,” says Mr. Gillie from somewhere, not quite willing to show himself yet. “We both know what this man is after.” I take a step away from Mr. Butler without thinking about it.
His eyes narrow and I prepare for some angry remark — something about how the least I could do is be nice after winning so much money from him. Instead he says, “What I want to know is what do you do when it’s not the state fair?” He looks at my threadbare dress, patched at the elbows and covered with dust after a day at the fair. “I mean, you could be making some real money.”
“Yeah, well, I surely appreciate your concern, Mr. Butler,” I say. “I’ll be seeing you.”
“Look here,” he says like I haven’t said nothing. He takes a hand mirror out of his satchel and attaches it to a little metal stem welded to the barrel of his rifle, leaving the mirror facing forward. Handing me the rifle, he asks, “Do you think you could learn to fire using this mirror? Backwards like.”
I can’t resist picking up his gun. It’s easy to see how it works. Holding the rifle pointing over my shoulder, I squint at the mirror. “I reckon so, Mr. Butler,” I say.
“Call me Frank. Why don’t you come back tomorrow and we’ll practice a bit together, maybe try a few tricks and make a few more dollars?”
I’m about to say no, when I realize there’s only two days left of the fair, and twenty dollars won’t last me through the winter even if I hunt every day. Not if I want to afford the Mariani wine. I tried switching to regular wine, but it just makes me tired and stupid. Vin Mariani has something in it, a cocoa plant the patent men say, that makes you smarter, and stay younger too. Lately when I try to go even a day without it, Mr. Gillie gets real loud, and I get shaky, too shaky not to be scared of him. “All right,” I say. “I’ll see you here tomorrow.”
Before I can slip away, Frank quickly and gracefully takes my hand, bends and kisses it. I’m too surprised to tear my hand from his grip, which — well — a man don’t often surprise me into letting his lips touch me. Not after Mr. Gillie. But my hand is so dirty, stinking of gun power and the state-fair smell of animal manure and roasting meat, and me having just won twenty dollars off of him. I’m not expecting it and his lips just seem to kiss right through the dirt. It all takes me off guard enough that I actually smile.
He returns my smile and says, “You’re a showstopper, you know? A beautiful girl who can really shoot. Stick with me and you’ll make more money in a day than you used to make in the whole fair.”
“Stupid girl,” Mr. Gillie says. “There’s only one way he’ll be giving you money.” I remember Mr. Gillie’s cold hands running up and down the inside of my thighs and my smile disappears. Even before I turn I have the bottle to my lips.
“Just one condition if you’re going to shoot with me,” Frank says and I stiffen. Mr. Gillie was right. He’s going to invite me up to his hotel room. “Save the wine until after the show. It’s a bad habit for a shooter to be in.”
I don’t respond or nothing. Just take another swallow and walk away. I understand. I don’t do shooting contests with drunks either. But he don’t know what he’s asking, to go a day without the Vin Mariani.
* * *
The next morning when I wake up, I lie in my bed for a few minutes. This is my favorite time of the day. Mr. Gillie doesn’t realize I’m conscious, and I can just think for a few minutes without him shouting and without the blur of the Vin Mariani between me and the world. That’s what brings me back to the fair. I figure if I’m practicing shooting all day I won’t need to drink to keep Mr. Gillie away.
Frank is waiting for me on the fair ground. He has dark circles under his eyes like he didn’t sleep much, but he smiles when he sees me. “Good morning, Miss Oakley.”
I don’t smile back. After a second his smile fades. He hands me his rifle, with the little mirror attached and then steps in front of me. A few people are around, but this early in the day, most of the folks are still bargaining over livestock or watching the contests. Shooting backwards is harder than I thought it would be. The first shot misses the target entirely.
Frank steps up to me, and I think he’s going to take the gun back. Instead he takes my left hand and puts it on the base of the rifle’s barrel, bracing the barrel between my hand and the side of my back. His hand brushes my stomach, but it was like he’s forgotten I’m a woman. He doesn’t smirk or nothing, just steps back and nods to me. “Try it again, Miss Oakley.”
It’s much easier the way he shows it to me. And like always Mr. Gillie disappears every time I pull the trigger. I miss the Vin Mariani a little, but concentrating on shooting helps me with that, too. By the afternoon, when the crowd starts filtering into the fair ground after lunch, we have a few easy tricks ready. I don’t have my range backwards, but I hit the target most every time. Almost as good as Frank, and he’s been practicing for years. One thing I notice, though, is after a while, Mr. Gillie stays gone for less and less time after each shot. By the end of the day, he’s only gone for a few minutes each time I pull the trigger.
After the crowd has gone home, Frank smokes a cigarette as I clean and reload my rifle. Our eyes meet and he smiles. “Miss Oakley, you are one phenomenal markswoman.”
I try not to smile back, but something about the way he looks at me, like I’m some kind of natural wonder of the world, make it impossible. “I wonder if we couldn’t think of some other tricks for you,” he says and looks at the cigarette he just rolled.
I look at the cigarette, too. At that range, it’s not even hard. I know I have it. I shoot it out of his fingers, leaving him with just a tiny stub of tobacco.
Frank looks shocked for a moment and he shakes his head. “Miss Oakley, for a smart woman you’re a slow learner. Never pull the trigger for free.”
I try and fail not to smile at him. “Why, that look on your face is payment enough, Mr. Butler.”
I hear Mr. Gillie’s voice, though the smell of gunpowder is still in the air. “Why don’t you just tell him he can have you for free?”
I nod at Frank and walk home. It’s not that I care what Mr. Gillie says. It’s that hearing him say anything reminds me of what he did to me. And I remember that I don’t want any man touching me like that again.
* * *
The next day is the last day of the fair. I’m not sure Frank will even be there, but he’s waiting for me next to a sign. “What does it say?” I ask him. It’s a wooden plank he found somewhere with a few words lettered on in white paint. Mrs. Gillie was supposed to teach me my letters, but she didn’t teach me nothing except how to stay away from her husband.
“I thought I’d give our act a name.” Frank sneezes. His allergies are worse in the morning, I’ve noticed. “So people remember it better.”
My hands are shaky as I load the gun. I was so tired when I got home last night I didn’t even bother with the Vin Mariani. This is as long as I’ve been without it since two years ago when I found a bottle of it inside Mr. Gillie’s cabin. “So what’s it say?”
He looks at me. “You don’t know how to write your own name?”
I shrug, and he taps the sign. “I reckon this is a fine time to learn. Those middle two words are your name.”
“What about the first and last word?”
Frank steps back from the sign. “Step right up,” he says in his crowd voice. “It’s The Annie Oakley Show.”
“Mr. Butler. Are you making fun of me?” I tell him. “Everyone knows this is really your act.”
Frank’s eyes get real wide and he starts to laugh like I’m the funniest thing he’s ever heard. Then, in mid-laugh, he starts sneezing and almost chokes, which makes him laugh even more. “You are something else, Miss Oakley,” he manages to get out. He doesn’t have such a loud laugh, but for some reason I can’t seem to hear Mr. Gillie when Frank’s laughing. “My own mother wouldn’t come to see me if she had the chance to watch you shoot.”
Once he quiets down, he says. “Hey, Miss Oakley. I was wondering if you might want to come along to the Pennsylvania state fair next week? It makes Cincinnati look like the backside of nowhere. I bet we could clean up for sure.”
I suddenly don’t know what I was thinking cutting off the Vin Mariani before a big shooting day like today. My hand is shaking like a branch in the wind.
Frank sees my hand shaking and comes over. “Are you all right?” When I don’t say anything he picks up one of my hands, friendly-like. Mr. Gillie tries to step between us, but he passes straight through Frank and disappears. “That patent medicine can bite you pretty good when you stop taking it. You sure you want to shoot today?”
“I’ll be fine,” I say, taking my hand back from him. “Once I start shooting the shakes go away.”
Mr. Gillie has gotten quiet again, I absently notice. It’s like he realized I wasn’t paying attention to his noise. Funny because I’ve tried ignoring him in the past and he can always tell he’s getting to me, even when I don’t look at him or nothing.
“Right,” Frank says. He doesn’t say ‘are you sure?’ or anything else. Just ‘right.’
Sure enough, once I start shooting my hands get steadier. I get my first bullseye shooting backward that morning. People arrive earlier today — it’s the last day of the fair, so I guess business is mostly done by then. Someone saw me shoot the cigarette from Frank’s mouth the day before but Frank won’t let me do it again. Not for a while. We take a break for lunch and we’ve already made thirty dollars.
Finally in the late afternoon, Frank lets people talk us into the cigarette trick. He pretends he’s scared, pretends I don’t want to do it, until he has people shouting. There’s something electric to the air. No one wants to go home, no one wants the summer to end. The place is full of dust and Frank keeps sneezing.
Finally, Frank lets himself be persuaded. He knows it’s an easy shot really. Much easier than shooting backwards. He stands back and puts the cigarette between his teeth. I’m about to shoot. And then Mr. Gillie steps right between me and Frank.
Used to be Mr. Gillie would do anything to stay away from my gun. I’d touch it and he’d disappear. But something about Frank scares him more than the gun, and he’s standing right between me and Frank, so I can’t be sure exactly where the cigarette is, exactly where Frank’s lips are. And thinking about Frank’s lips, my hands starts to shake as I’m holding the gun. This ain’t never happened before either. The gun’s been my lodestone. When I touch it, I’m as steady as a rock.
I put the gun down. The crowd boos, and Mr. Gillie smiles. I shiver suddenly, though the afternoon sun’s beating down on my back and I ought to be hot. I want the Vin Mariani so badly, I don’t care about the crowd. Don’t even care about my gun. Frank is saying something to the crowd that I can’t make out over Mr. Gillie laughing. And then I’m shouldering my way through the crowd, biting my lips.
It seems to take me a long time to ride back to my campsite. The streets are crowded with horses and men, and I can’t ride too fast shaking like I am. I’m camping at the far eastern outskirts of Cincinnati, where you can tent for free. By the time I get back there the sun is almost down. I dismount just for the second it takes me to find my tent shovel, and then get back on my horse.
Mr. Gillie is happy as a pig in mud when I ride past my tent, away from Frank Butler, away from the fair. But he shuts up when he realizes where I’m heading. It doesn’t take him long. His old property is a few miles northeast of town, pretty much due north of where I’m camping. There ain’t much else around.
I thought I might have trouble finding his grave, but it turns out to be easy. I leave the horse at the remnants of their house and walk out back to where I buried him, carrying the shovel and my saddlebag. It’s as though I’ve been coming back here every day for two years, that’s how well my feet know the path, even in the darkness. The moon is almost full, too, so I can see the ground just fine.
The hard part is shoveling, when my hands are shaking so much I can scarcely hold the spade’s handle, let alone use it. I keep my Winchester propped up on a nearby tree but it don’t make me feel much safer.
I remember burying him here, chipping away at the frozen earth until my fingers were bleeding on the handle of the spade. I hadn’t gone too deep, maybe two feet. If anyone had looked they’d have found him for sure.
I heard that Gillie’s widow had sold the place not long after her husband disappeared. It never occurred to me to feel sorry for her before, but as I work, trying to ignore her dead husband cursing at me, I think that her life with him had probably been almost as miserable as my own. She never said a bad word about me after I killed Mr. Gillie. Just gave it out that he hadn’t come back from hunting, and she was taking the children back east where her people lived. Somewhere near Philadelphia, I heard.
Mr. Gillie looms over me, when I have his remains out of the hole. The canvas work pants he had been wearing are mostly intact, but the flesh beneath them has long since rotted away. It’s just a little bone and some shreds of fabric. “Oh, girl.” He says and his voice is almost compassionate. “There’s no need for you to go to Hell.”
I bend to touch his remains with my hand.
“It ain’t so hard. You just got to beg my forgiveness. Then you got a chance.” Mr. Gillie’s voice misses a beat when I touch one of his remaining bones, the big one in his upper leg, and it crumbles.
I can’t quite believe it. This was the man who had tortured me? Shreds of cloth and dust?
Then he continues. “The Lord Jesus wants to take your sins. He just needs to hear you repent.”
I step on his skull with my boot. It, too, crumbles like the ashes of a long dead fire. “Fine, you little slut.” Mr. Gillie says. He’s getting angry, angrier than he’s been since right after I killed him. Now he starts reminding me what he was really like when he was alive. “The things I’m going to do when you get to hell. I’m going to stick that gun so far between your legs, it’s going to split you in two. But you won’t die, see, because you’ll already be dead.”
I take a saddle bag off my horse, and crouch over his dusty remains. “We’ll see how well you like that. We’ll see how well you like being tied up while every man in Hell has his way with you.” He goes on like that, telling me all the things he’s going to do to me. All the while I crush his bones and put as much of his dusty remains into my saddle bag as can fit.
* * *
When I ride back to my tent, I find Frank sleeping in his bedroll outside my tent door. I wonder how he knew where I was camping. I’m still not tired, so I sit down next to him, begin to mix my gunpowder, and stuff my cartridges by the light of the moon. My fingers learned their way around the darkness when I was helping my real daddy. On winter days the daylight had to be saved for hunting, if we were going to eat anything at all.
Just as the sun’s beginning to lighten the horizon, I look up to find Frank watching me. His eyes are drinking me in like a thirsty man with a glass of Jack Daniels. “Howdy,” he says, “You forgot your half of the purse. I was worried you had left town for good.”
“Nope,” I say. I want to tell him that the quaver in my voice will go away as soon as I can buy another bottle of Mariani, want to tell him that it has nothing to do with his coming or going. Instead I keep my eyes on my hands — now that they’re doing gun work they’re as steady as ever.
Behind him I see Mr. Gillie beginning to solidify again.
“You planning on going to war?” Frank says. “That’s a lot of gun powder.” He fumbles in his bag and finds a flask from which he takes a long swig.
“I’ve been offered a part in a traveling show,” I say. I tie the knot on the last bag of gun powder, and stand. I’ve mixed Mr. Gillie with topgrade gunpowder, so I reckon the mixture should still shoot just fine.
When I turn away from Frank I find Mr. Gillie standing right behind me, his lips thin, his face set. He surprises me enough that I step back without thinking about it. I can tell he likes that. “Why not repent, girl?” he says. He was always big on repentance. Begging my forgiveness for hours, when my insides hurt so bad I thought I was going to die.
He sees the tears in my eyes and misunderstands. “That’s right. Embrace Jesus and beg his forgiveness. Just say you’re sorry you killed me and I’ll leave you alone. Why not open your heart?”
I train my rifle away from him, aiming at a pine cone hanging from a tree about one hundred feet away. “Because I’m not sorry,” I say and pull the trigger. Mr Gillie disappears the second I fire the first shot, but I reload and shoot again and again until every pine cone on the tree is gone.
The total silence afterward is a relief. The sun is just over the horizon now and although it’s still cool, I can feel sweat dripping down my forehead mingling with my tears.
Frank looks up from where he’s starting a fire, and I quickly wipe my face with my sleeve. He shakes his head. “Those shots were too easy for you, Miss Oakley.”
“Call me Annie,” I say.
His lips twitch into a smile. “I reckon I will. Annie.” He gets the fire started and reaches for a small frying pan. “I reckon I will.”