He'd first seen the Daisy B.B. gun behind the counter at Lawson's Hardware & Feed, a carbine-style copied after the famous Winchester Model '96. It was in a maple-wood rack that held seven other guns, two shotguns and five center-fire type hunting rifles. The barrel was blued just like the hunting rifles and the stock was polished walnut. There was a tag hanging from the lever but it was turned so he couldn't see the price. He stood there, mouth partly open, looking at the guns for so long, old Mr. Lawson noticed and headed his way.
"Something I can help you with, Danny?"
Mr. Lawson was a tall gray-haired man. Danny's round brown eyes came to about the bottom of the top apron pocket that held two yellow pencils and a pair of reading glasses.
Danny wet his chapped lips and swallowed. "How much is the Daisy, Mr. Lawson?"
"Well, let's see." Mr. Lawson went behind the counter, put his reading glasses on and looked at the price tag. "Twelve dollars plus tax."
Danny Ward sighed and ran his fingers through impossible to comb straw-brown hair, a gesture now habit when facing uncertainties.
"How much are B.B.s?"
"Dollar for five hundred."
The store was quiet. No customers except Mrs. Wilson who was looking at wallpaper samples. The smell of newly-bailed alfalfa, molasses and leather saddles filled the air with their heavy perfume, a smell Danny enjoyed almost as much as his mother's cooking.
"Danny, you'll need your father's okay for me to sell you the gun. Don't want trouble from parents."
Danny was looking at the Daisy like a kid waiting for a slice of apple pie a la mode, images of himself walking down the sidewalk with the gun tucked under one arm, John Wayne stalking the bad guys. Christmas was still two months away, his birthday, two months passed.
"Anything else, son?"
Danny, lower lip between one new too-large upper front tooth and a row of white permanent lowers sighed. He went over to the saddles and rubbed his hand over smooth cool leather. It was a Lichenburger-Fergusson roping saddle with low-roll cantle and roping pommel, a real cowboy no-foolin'-around saddle with fine tooling at the edges of burnished tan cowhide.
Danny Ward may have been a bit small for his age, but had an imagination that played larger than life movies than the old theater in the center of town, most starring him in the role of the hero. Though he didn't have a horse, at least not yet, he sorely hoped his father was going to get him one before he turned thirteen. He'd be able to ride with his dad on weekends.
Still daydreaming, he left the smell of animal feed and lumber, leather and saddle blankets and walked outside into warm golden Wednesday afternoon sunshine.
That night Danny waited until after dinner, knew his father would be in the best of moods. He went into the front room, sat on the floor near his father's feet and nervously mentioned the Daisy.
His father lowered the evening paper and looked down at his son. "So it's time for you to have your own gun?"
"It's just an air-gun. I'll be real careful, dad…I'll learn real good. You've taught me good about shooting… "
"I'll think on that." His father raised the paper and read again. A moment later, without lowering the paper, he added his last comment for the evening. "We'll look at it on Saturday."
That night Danny couldn't get to sleep, not until a few hours before sun-up. Came morning, his eyes looked like it.
The next two school days passed so slowly the normally soft-spoken old teacher had to scold Danny about daydreaming and staring at the wall-clock instead of doing lessons. So as not to seem too eager, at home he made sure not to mention the Daisy again.
When he didn't eat a second piece of fried chicken at dinner, his mother knew something was wrong. "Are you coming down with something, Danny? You look like you're not feeling well."
"No...no, mam. I guess I ate too much when I came home from school. Sorry. Dinner was real good."
"Well, don't snack so much before dinner. You need to eat balanced meals."
He helped clear the table and dried dishes without being asked.
"Are you sure you're feeling all right?"
"I'm fine, mom. I was just thinking about some of my homework assignments."
"Go get them done now so you get a good night's sleep."
Saturday was still a day away. It could have been a year. Friday was going to have about ten million hours. He was only two days older when Saturday arrived.
His father came in from the barn, changed his shoes and put on the cleaner go-to-town-lace-ups. "Let's go, son. I've got a lot a chores to finish today. You can help out with a few when we get back."
It was a fifteen-minute drive into town, a distance that took Danny an hour to walk. It was still warm for October. The skies were a deep clear blue. They parked behind Lawson's where his dad always parked, backing in so he could load the pick-up bed from the dock. The Taylor's truck was parked next to theirs and Mr. Taylor was loading the bed with cinderblock and bags of cement.
"What are you building, Emmet?" Mr. Ward took the four steps up onto the dock in two.
"New pig pen."
Mr. Taylor was already sweating.
"If you need help, Emmet, just ask."
"Thanks, Jonathon. Appreciate it."
Danny followed his dad into the magic of the old west. While his dad talked to Mr. Lawson about feed mildew, Danny, heart racing, went directly to the counter so he could see the Daisy. He was relieved to find the gun hadn't been sold. The two men talked for so long he was getting fidgety as a dog on a hot street looking for shade.
"That it?" His father’s question made Danny jump.
"Yes, sir…the Daisy."
"Let's see it, Elmer."
Mr. Lawson handed the air rifle to Mr. Ward. "It's the last one I got. It's the new model. Holds a hundred B-Bs. Load 'em in that tube under the barrel."
"This is what you want, son?"
"And you'll follow all the rules about handling guns? You know the rules, son. I don't ever want to hear that you've accidentally shot someone or something. Understand? No broken windows or dead chickens."
"Yes, sir. I won't shoot any windows or chickens."
"How much, Elmer?" Mr. Ward was looking at the tag. "Twelve dollars? Good Lord, man, that's a much as I paid for my 30-30 fifteen years ago. How much for the B-Bs?" The answer made him frown. "Well, son, that's a lot to pay for an air-rifle. What are you going to do to help earn it?"
"I'll work whenever you ask, Father…I'm getting stronger…I can even help load hay."
For a second a smile moved the corner of his father's lips. "Well, you're going to be working hard, son. I don't want to hear any complaints when your friends want you to play and we have work to do."
"You won't, Father. I understand."
Danny's face felt like it was going to break by the time he got home. Out in the back, he loaded the tube until he could see the copper B-Bs. He cocked the lever. A tomato can sat on a post his own height, the shiny tin bull's eye bottom facing in his direction.
"Aim at the center of those circles." His father stood next to him and pointed at the small target some twenty paces away. "Let's see how accurate that gun is. Don't pull the trigger, remember? Just squeeze steady until it goes off."
Sights on the center of the can, Danny squeezed. There was almost no kick and little noise when the rifle fired, just a pneumatic 'pop'. The can didn't move.
"Where did it go?" He squinted at the post.
"Let's look." The small ball of copper was lodged in the post three inches below the can. "Here. You'll have to raise the sights. Try again."
Raising the sights two notches, Danny cocked the gun and took aim. The can spun and fell from the post.
"I got it!" he cried. He ran to the post and picked up the can. "I got it, Dad! I hit it right here!"
The B-B. had nearly gone through the can, but not quite dead center.
"You pulled the trigger instead of squeezing." His dad examined the deep dent in the can's bottom. "Almost went through. I'm surprised. It's got a lot of power, that gun. You best be careful, son. That thing can do some real damage."
"Yes, sir…I mean, I know, sir. I'll always be careful."
"Well, don't shoot around the house…and don't shoot close around anyone's place. You shoot way out there in the fields or over there in the woods. Learn to be a safe shooter, son. Now; go practice, but get back here in an hour. I need a hand with chores."
"Yes, sir!" Danny turned and took a few steps, then turned back to face his father. "Father…thank you. This is just the best present ever."
"Get back here in an hour."
For an hour, Danny prowled the fields and corn stubble, taking practice shots at dried stocks and tan grasshoppers. He skirted the edge of the woods, watched a hawk hunting a squirrel. He imagined all those things most boys his age might imagine with a new B-B. gun in hand, imagined himself a man entering an unexplored frontier, a man who needed no stores, a man who knew how to live off the land.
He worked the rest of the day with his father. It was dark when they went in to dinner. This night he ate like he hadn't eaten for days.
His father smiled at his mother. "Danny's got himself a new rifle, Mother. He's a good shot, your son."
She looked at Danny with guarded concern; then smiled wanly and nodded. "You're becoming quite the grown-up young man, but you'll always be my son."
"Yes, Mam." Danny smiled almost shyly.
After helping with dishes he went to his room and carefully cleaned the Daisy like Mr. Lawson had shown him. It stood propped against the head of his bed when he finally went to sleep.
Before the sun came up, Danny got up and helped his dad with chores, collecting eggs, filling feeders, breaking-up bales of hay. He ate a big breakfast and nearly ran from the house when his mother said it was all right for him to go, but reminding him he had to be back in time to get cleaned-up and go to church.
He took the same path to the edge of the woods and played for an hour building a small structure from fallen branches. He decorated it with hundreds of colorful leaves and marked the entrance with two small piles of rocks. He took a dozen shots at leaves still hanging from overhead limbs to see if he could knock them off. After six in a row, he smiled, a marksman no one would dare question.
The hawk hunted too. Danny watched it dive for a squirrel, hitting the running animal before it got to the safety of a tree. He watched the raptor take flight, squirrel in talons as it headed for some secret retreat. He watched a flock of starlings lift from the fields and fill the sky with sound of beating wings. A grouse came upon him as he sat in silence, and surprised, took sudden wing. Danny loved autumn, the change of color, the pungent smell of fall air.
A dove flew into the overhead thinning canopy, a single tan neck-banded in black large-eyed dove. He lifted his rifle to shoulder and aimed down the barrel.
"Bang," he said to himself, more than to the bird.
The dove blinked and tipped its head. Danny lowered the gun and looked back at the farm. It was a five-minute walk. Guessing it was only just past eight, and church didn't start until eleven, he reasoned he had another hour to enjoy his freedom before listening to Reverend Darling's Sunday sermon.
He walked as silently as he could through the carpet of fallen leaves, stopped to listen to the subtle sounds of the woods. Again he heard the sound of wings before the dove landed in the large tree before him.
"Bang," he said, aiming at the dove.
It tipped its head again but didn't fly. Danny cocked the Daisy and took aim again.
"Bang," he repeated.
The dove blinked and tipped its head to the other side.
He slowly squeezed the trigger.
The dove fell as though it had simply gone to sleep and had fallen off of the limb. Danny stood, not moving, feet like lead.
The dove lay on its back in a pile of yellow leaves, a tan shape like a folded glove. It didn't move.
When he picked it up if felt weightless, lighter than expected, body warm, feathers soft as down in his mother's duvet. Its head hung back as though it wasn't really attached to its body and might fall off if turned the wrong way. Danny's fingers cradled the warm body. Then, as he stared at the bird, a single drop, a deep-red gem, popped from between delicate feathers on the dove's light-tan breast, a priceless ruby-red gem, a surface so perfect, Danny could see his face in its reflection.
The knowledge of what he'd done came upon him like an unexpected storm. Tears fell from his eyes as he spoke to the dove, told it not to be dead, tears turning the ruby-red gem into a small ruby river between his fingers.
Down on his knees, using his pocketknife, he made a cross out of twigs and put it at the head of the small pile of earth he covered with multi-hued leaves. Still crying, empty as a drifter's stomach, he walked back to their farm and went straight to his room after washing his hands at the pump.
When his mother called him to church, he came downstairs and got into the truck, sat in the middle of the bench-seat. His father helped his mother into the cab and closed her door, then got in behind the wheel. Danny didn't look at either.
After church he asked if he could walk home. They looked at each other and nodded, neither questioning their son's motive.
"Was it the sermon?" his mother asked, after they'd driven for a few minutes.
"Maybe, but I think it was something else our son learned. Did you see his face when he got in the truck? If I didn't know better, I'd say he'd been crying."
"What about, Jonathon? What would make Danny cry?"
In bright mid-day light, they drove back without further conversation.
When he got home Danny went back up to his room after asking permission to miss dinner.
Hours later, when the sun was setting and shadows lengthened, he set the pencil down. He left his desk and the blank piece of paper he'd been staring at and opened the slightly yellowed curtains at his window. He stood and looked at the distance woods until the rising autumn moon rose behind the trees, black silhouettes like paper cut-outs framed over his mother's dressing table. He heard the cry of a barn owl, then the sounds of his mother downstairs putting dishes away in the kitchen. A door closed and his father walked across the yard toward the barn to check on the animals before retiring.
Danny turned and looked at the Daisy leaning against the wall next to the door, then back out the window when he heard his father locking the barn. He looked at his hands, though he'd washed them until the palms were tender. He picked up the Daisy, went downstairs and out onto the porch where he waited for his father.
Jonathon Ward dusted off the front of his overalls and filled his pipe from a worn leather pouch. Danny didn't speak until after his father had the pipe lit and had blown out the match.
"Father," he began, head down, air rifle in hand, "please…keep the Daisy in your room for awhile."
Mr. Ward joined his son on the porch and put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Are you all right, son?"
Danny looked up, then lowered his eyes and held out the Daisy. "Yes, sir. Please don't ask me why right now, but it would be better if you kept the Daisy until we can have a talk."
"Whatever you think best, son. You let me know." His father, accepting the air rifle. "Are you going in now?"
"Yes, sir. I'm a little tired…I'm going to bed."
"Sleep well, son…and Danny, don't worry, son. We all make mistakes at times. Any time you want to talk…just say."
"Yes, sir. Good night, Father."
"Good night, son."
Before saying his prayers and getting into bed, Danny brushed his teeth and washed his hands again. He examined them closely but found no traces of ruby-red.
* * *