The Duelist

The sun beat straight down on the dusty road that crossed through the center of town.  He checked his pocket watch, waiting for the exact moment when he should step out from the shade and into the nearly blinding sun.  He wore one of his best outfits – the grey saddle pants with the light grey shirt and the pinstriped waistcoat with the narrow wine-colored stripes.  Every metallic accessory he owned – from his pocket watch to his fob, his badges, his small sheathed knives, buckles and chains – hung off him, creating a jangling that even the slowest and most careful of movement could not silence.  Good thing he did not have to quietly ambush someone, he thought.  

The iconic theme from that Clint Eastwood movie reverberated in his head as he slowly stepped off the boardwalk and into the street to meet his opponent.  He let the piece drift repeatedly though his mind, and although he could not whistle, he allowed himself the luxury of joining in on the musical reverie: at the appropriate moments, he half-sang the ‘wah-WAH-wah’ parts.

His opponent appeared before him, down the street a ways.  Double Dog could not say for sure who his opponent was – the man’s hat was pulled low against the sun, and he had no familiar characteristics to identify himself.  He could have been any number of gunslingers….

His phone rang.

Double Dog had a dream.  He wanted to be first in the Duelist category in his cowboy-action groups.  He had come close, landing comfortably in fourth place several times, and even pushing into third once or twice.  But he had never made first, and with the skill of most of the other shooters in the category, he wasn’t sure he’d ever be first.  Placing first overall across all categories was out of his reach; other shooters were just too fast for him to catch up.

 
On a cooler than average day, first weekend of December, Double Dog had, for the very first time, made it to first place Duelist, and was enjoying the small award that was given at some of the individual matches: a large coin of indeterminate alloy, with the words “Duelist – First Place” and the date of the match.  It really hadn’t mattered to Double Dog that he was the only one who had shot in that category, or that he had lost a lot of points due to procedurals; a win was a win.  Besides, he’d have to get through two more matches to win the prize.  Still, this gave him a good chance.  He placed the first-place coin on top of his dresser, where it quickly got lost in the piles of spare change, empty brass, coffee mugs, socks, penknives, coasters, electric bills, and half-empty packages of dried apricots and wasabi peanuts.

His timing had been perfect.  At the Saturday dinner, the club had just announced a new award system that might allow more shooters to reach their goals. Dubbed ‘The Year-End Games,’ anyone who came in first in a category at three successive matches during the last month of the year got to keep the major award until the following December, when the award was once again up for grabs – kind of like the Stanley cup in hockey, but not as large. 

The awards themselves were nice – large trophy cups in pewter on a solid square wooden base; the winners’ names would be etched under the base, along with the year.  Once the base was filled with names, it would be retired and a new trophy would be cast.  A major award was now within his reach, and Double Dog wanted that award, even if he had to give it back the following year; as far as he was concerned, he’d be the top Duelist for the year, which was good enough for him.

 
The following weekend he showed up at the range an hour early.  He hadn’t had a chance to go practice at the indoor range during the week, so he was eager to see the stages and plan out his day. He remained optimistic, confident in his skills.  There might be new shooters, who often chose Duelist as their initial category, drawn more by the romantic notions of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday than by any true understanding of how much forearm strength was needed to shoot a true Duelist style.  Heck, even Wild Bill Hickok had resorted to using one arm as a rest for his pistol during his famous duel with Davis Tutt.     Besides, maybe Double Dog would be the only one in the category again.

As he ambled slowly between the stages, he could smell the slight tang of gunpowder from previous matches.  Surveying the area, he watched as other shooters began to move towards the stages, intending to set up their gun carts at their early stages to save time.  One shooter in particular made his slow and careful way across the field that separated the stages from the suttlers.   He wore his hat low and walked with a sure and steady gait, not stopping to talk to anyone

Perhaps this was his opportunity.  He turned to face the approaching marksman head-on, determined that, should the need arise, he would get in the first shot.  The theme played in his head again, and he tried whistling, producing instead a sort of ocean-breezy sound. 

Just then, the marksman veered off his previous path and headed towards a stage two places away, where he greeted a friend while he removed his rifles from the protective covers.    Double Dog relaxed.

Double Dog once again came in first in the Duelist category.  The other self-declared Duelist, a newcomer who wore too many silver conchos on his leathers, and with almost no experience handling firearms, had given up after the third stage, declaring that he’d rather just watch, and probably would not be back.  Double Dog had a procedural on nine of the ten stages, but still easily came in first. It wasn’t exactly how he wanted this victory – a little more competition would have been nice, but he wasn’t about to change his own category.

At the Saturday dinner, he graciously accepted the coin-of-indeterminant alloy again, not sure how he could refuse without looking like an ungrateful wretch.  His fellow shooters, many of whom had come in first in different categories – Gunfighter, Wrangler, Frontiersman – stopped by his table to congratulate him and wish him well for the next matches.  He passed around the forbidden flasks of apple and maple-flavored whiskies he had purchased on his way to the match, along with various cigars.

Gappy Jack appeared from out of the crowd. Usually he and Double Dog had asked to be assigned to the same posse, but last-minute travel plans meant that they could not be accommodated this time.  Gappy had not come in first in his category in this match, but no matter: he had managed more first-place rankings than he could remember.  He slapped Double Dog on the shoulder, and reached across the table for one of the flasks.  “So, I see you won the first-place award again,” he commented, crossing one ankle over the other knee and downing a large shot of the contents of the flask.  He made a face.  “What is this crap?”

“Second match in a row – one more and I win the cup for the year. A win is a win – I didn’t know you thought it was crap.”

“Hardly seems like a win when you’re the only one in the category – this is not like a personal best contest.  And I meant this whiskey – what is it?”

“It’s smoked maple.”

“The maple kind?  Bleah.”  Gappy passed the flask over to another shooter.  “So, are you actually accepting these awards?”

“Why not? They’re mine.”

“Maybe you could tell them you want the second and third-place awards as well, since technically, or at least by default, you won those too.”  Some of the other shooters at the table laughed, leaning in to each other to mumble their own assessments. “If it were me, I wouldn’t have accepted. I would have just waited till next year.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”  Double Dog bristled, agitated that his friend could not seem to be happy for him.

“Hey – all I’m saying is that you’re an adult and this is cowboy shooting – not everyone gets a prize just for showing up.” 

Sensing the shift in mood, some of the other shooters started to get up from the table. Double Dog and Gappy Jack were famous for their bar fights, amongst other things, and although no one ever got really hurt, bystanders stood a good chance of having objects hurled in their directions – beer, onion rings or anything else that came to hand. Tonight, they had been served chicken-fried steak (the emphasis on fried), and no one wanted to risk being on the receiving end of that – nor of the bacon green beans or al dente sweet potatoes.

Double Dog had on one of his best waistcoats, an Asian-style red silk print on a black satin background.  He would hate for it to get dirty during any sort of kerfuffle, so he chose instead to back down.

“You know, I may not get anything at the next match.  I’m sure more shooters will show up for the last match of the season.  But for now, I’m just going to enjoy the possibility of being first.” Double Dog punched Gappy playfully in the arm.  “Here, have a cigar.”

 
The weather for the last match of the season was cold and clear, with a slight wind that had just a bit of a bite to it.  Double Dog showed up extra-early to view the stages and make sure his firearms were set up just right. He checked the posse list – Gappy Jack was on the same posse, of course – and scanned the rosters to see if anyone else he knew was shooting.  Only one other person was shooting in his category, someone he had never heard of.  She was on the same posse, which meant he could keep track of her scores.  Technically they could not be in the same category, since she was a female shooter, but the Year-End Games were open to everyone, so it would be interesting to see how the issue was handled.

After the shooters’ meeting, Double Dog scanned the crowd to try and determine who this PepperJack Patty might be.  He imagined she’d be somewhat muscular, if she was able to shoot Duelist, and with a name like PepperJack Patty he pictured a woman in black jeans and plenty of silver, a no-frills no- nonsense kind of gal.  He asked a few of his posse mates if they knew her, and someone had waved towards a bench where a woman just as he had pictured sat chatting with some other shooters.  She was strong-looking, with broad shoulders and a big smile, and from what Double Dog had heard of her this had to be her.  When she stood up and headed towards the stages, he assumed his stance, hearing the faint echo of ‘wah-WAH-wah’ in his mind as he tried to stare her down from afar.

As the last stragglers reached their stages, the posse leader called out, “Hey, Patty – good to see ya!”  Double Dog turned, expecting to see the black-clad shooter behind him. 

PepperJack Patty had been shooting for years, but had had to stop temporarily due to a small cerebral bleed a few years earlier – not a total surprise, given that she was seventy-eight years old.  She maintained her own firearms and brass.  She was able to work through the stages – she just needed a little extra time and a bit of patience from her posse members.  Patty had such a sweet disposition that people were more than happy to help her, although she preferred to be independent.  She had not done as well as she would have liked at the last matches she had shot, in the summer, but she was glad to be out participating – the spirit of the game meant a great deal to her. 

Patty rolled out in her motorized wheelchair, dragging a small gun cart behind her and waving to the posse.  About thirty feet from the stage she stopped, looked at her posse members, and grit her teeth.  Catching sight of Double Dog, she tilted her head down slightly and headed towards him.  The ruts in the grass made it a little difficult to stay on a straight path, but she managed to keep her posture upright and her gaze direct.  The eye patch over her left eye did not diminish the intensity of her stare. 

“I heard you shoot duelist,” she called as she approached him. 

“Yes – what do you shoot?”

“Duelist.”

Double Dog took in the frail-looking arms, the eye patch, and the slight tremor in her hands. 
“Well, I wish us both good luck!” he said cheerfully.

“Only one of us can come in first, and I think we both know who that’s going to be.”  PepperJack Patty rolled forward towards the stage, managing to run over Double Dog’s toes in the process. “I’m going to make your day,” she said over her shoulder.  As Double Dog watched her, he could hear the faint refrains – but this time she was the one producing the tune, and she could actually whistle.   

Once the matches started, Double Dog considered his strategy.  He was used to shooting third at every stage, and so far, it had brought him luck.  Patty shot after him, and he could easily see there wasn’t much of a contest – after the first two stages, she trailed him by ten seconds and a procedural.  On the third stage, he let her shoot before him, comfortable with his lead.  But he managed to miss one target, ruining his chance at a clean match.  Patty actually came in two seconds faster.  ‘Damn it,’ he thought; ‘I let her get into my head.’

Although he was still confident that he’d be taking home the prize, he knew he couldn’t relax too much.  He went back to shooting third for the rest of the stages. Once he shot, he would meander over to the next stage and watch the shooters, noting everyone’s times and any mistakes they made.  That way, he knew what to avoid for each stage, and where to spend his time most wisely.  He shot the rest of the stages clean, with only one procedural that no one had noticed.  He had written down his own times for each stage, and was very happy with his scores – he knew the prize was his, and this time he would have won it fair and square, even if the competition had not posed much of a challenge.

Since pictures would be taken for the top three in each category, Double Dog wanted to look especially good.  He settled on one of his favorite outfits: a gold-toned brocade waistcoat with a tan colored frock coat and brown suspender pants.  The only problem was that he had forgotten to bring his other ropers, so he’d have to wear his black earth-walkers with his pants tucked in.  The effect was less formal than he had hoped, a sort of mélange of cowboy-traditional with Renaissance-Faire elements.  Well, they would not be taking pictures of his feet anyway.

PepperJack Patty showed up in a huge feathered hat, which she knew did not conform to Victorian standards of ladies not wearing hats for evening events, but since most of the other ladies who attended always wore hats she decided to follow suit.  Her purple taffeta dress was adorned with black lace ruffles, so many that her motorized wheelchair was not visible from the front.  She was warmly greeted by other shooters as she made her slow and careful way over to a table, near the awards display.  She was also a comfortably near distance from the dessert table, which was filled with huge trays of obviously homemade desserts – slightly overbaked cookies of odd shapes, slightly under-baked brownies with small melted marshmallows on top, and various cupcakes covered with a variety of mostly edible decorations. 

Double Dog watched her from a distance.  He had practiced what he would say to her when the awards were given.  He wanted to be gracious to her, knowing that despite her best efforts she would still be in second place.  She noticed him watching her and smiled a wide sunny smile, raising her Styrofoam cup of iced tea to him.  He smiled and nodded in return, glad that there didn’t seem to be any true animosity between them.  These were friendly competitions, after all, and some people just performed better than others. 

After the fine dinner of steak fried to the texture of leather, canned green beans with bacon, smashed potatoes with white gravy, and instant iced tea, the awards were presented, accompanied by a great deal of applause.  Winners for each category were announced, with only one upset: the top three shooters in the B-Movie category had each won one match only, so the award would be held until the following year.  The engraver who had been hired to etch the winners’ names into the award bases thoughtfully put the award back on the table.

When the two contenders in the Duelist category were called up, Double Dog idly wondered why they had been called at the same time.  Perhaps the judges had decided to give two awards (although only one appeared on the table).  Maybe they wanted to include PepperJack Patty in all the pictures (in deference to her age).  Maybe they were planning to make a nice gesture and present her with some sort of small token, since she had been a truly amiable participant.  When they got to the front of the table, they turned to face the audience.  Double Dog extended his hand to Patty, mumbling, “Thanks for being a great sport.”

Their scores were read.  Double Dog had come in second, trailing Patty by a good fifteen seconds overall.  A gasp could be heard from the assembly, followed quickly by muffled laughter.  Double Dog, angry and embarrassed, turned bright red as he glared at the gathering.

After reading their scores and their ranking, the announcer stated, “Since Double Dog did not win the third round, we’ll be holding the award until next year, when everyone can try again.”  Pictures were taken of the two duelists together and individually, and each was presented with a small parchment certificate praising them for their participation.  Double Dog could feel his tinnitus acting up.

PepperJack Patty held out her hand to Double Dog, shaking it warmly and declaring, “What a great match!  Better luck next year!”  She then turned her chair around, and slowly edged along the awards table.  Just as she got to the end, she quickly snatched the Duelist award off the table and hid it amongst all her mountains of ruffles.

It took Double Dog a few seconds before he realized what had happened.  He started to follow her, saying, “You can’t just take the award – you didn’t earn it!”

Glancing back over her shoulder, Patty responded.  “I’m disabled.  Fuck off.”  She sped up, passing the dessert table quickly and getting one corner of the long table cloth stuck in the spokes of her wheels.  She kept going, sending the desserts flying everywhere.  Double Dog, still in pursuit, stepped on some sort of sweet potato cobbler and lost his balance, landing in a heap next to the table, where he was pelted with cookies, brownies and cupcakes – two of which stuck to his brown gambler’s hat.  Patty laughed as she rolled quickly out the door of the VFW hall and into a waiting Golden Chariot van, which fishtailed as it sped over the gravel of the parking lot, leaving tread marks at the entrance.  Double Dog could still hear Patty’s laughter, along with her splendidly rendered version of the song.  He got up off the floor, brushing cookies from his lapels and spreading frosting all over his frock coat; ‘Wah-WAH-wah’ echoed over and over again in his head. 

 

Stay tuned for our upcoming novella - Welcome Home - in which we follow the ongoing reacclimation of our friends Jeremy, Jared, and Joseph, as the settle into their new surroundings....

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