The glow from the embers painted their faces an orange-yellow, and delivered a heat that warded off the slight chill in the air. The bright, dancing flames before them reduced their world to the group that ringed the fire pit, and their eyes struggled to see the details in the black, beyond. It was only by looking straight up, with chins thrust towards the sky, that they could see the heavens aglow with the fires of an endless number of distant stars and planets.
The short cowpoke with the big hat stretched out the toe of his boot to nudge the tail of a piece of wood, and push it deeper into the fire. When he did, it crackled a bit, and sent a shower of sparks skyward, which danced and corkscrewed erratically for a few moments, as they rose. The flames bloomed for a second as well, shining a fleeting spotlight on the assembled faces, which were all transfixed on the burning show in front of them.
“Well,” said the cowboy, shifting the cigar to the corner of his mouth without taking it out, “I ‘spose we should call this meetin’ to order, and git down to business.”
“We was wonderin’ when you’d git to that, Elmer,” said one of the crowd, “but since it’s yer first time runnin’ this outfit, we figgered to give ya some extra rope.”
“Yeah,” jeered another, playfully, “but we’re glad you finally got to it, before Skeeter had to make another mesquite run, to keep the fire going.”
A chorus of voices chuckled in unison at the wisecrack, as the cowboy scrunched up his face and turned towards the speaker with a look of irritation. But just as quickly, a crooked grin washed across his face, and he turned back towards the glow, wagging an upright finger as if to say, “OK, I’ll give ya that one, but watch yer step, pardner!”
Elmer reached a hand up to the crown of his Stetson and pulled it off its perch. He thrust a disfigured left hand inside, to fetch out a piece of folded paper with his handwritten notes on the night’s agenda items, then placed the hat back atop his head—this time, with the brim pushed up a bit in the front, so the hat rode a little farther back on his nugget.
After replacing the hat, he fished underneath his plaid wool coat, left with its top button undone, to find a set of reading glasses in his shirt pocket. His hand came up empty though, and he groped around fruitlessly for a few seconds, before another voice from around the campfire teasingly called out, “they’re not there, Elmer! Remember, you don’t need ‘em up here, you old billy goat!”
The endless sea of voices hooted again, as the sawed-off cowboy with the equally short temper stood up and turned to face the direction the voice had come from. It was obvious he “had half-a-mad on,” but before he could speak, another voice blurted out from the darkness, “stand up Elmer, so we can see ya!” The outburst brought another crash of laughter from the crowd, and also drew a shaking fist from Elmer, which only made the friendly audience laugh harder.
The tall, lanky fella that had been sitting next to Elmer at the fire drew himself up, and turned to face the crowd, wiping away a tear from his chuckle with the back of a large hand. He then clapped Elmer on the back with it, in a “there, there, good fellow,” kinda way, and used his other big paw to wave the voices down and restore a semblance of order. “OK boys, let’s let him git on with it,” he said, in an unmistakable, Louisiana drawl. He left his hand on Elmer’s shoulder, giving the vertically mismatched duo the look of a dad reassuring his son.
“Thanks Bill,” said Elmer, as he fanned the paper open with his left hand, and casually rested his right on the carved ivory grip of the Croft sixgun on his hip. As he read the paper, he was pleased to see that the jester had been right, after all—everything was clear. It was just another one of those things that reminded him things were different, up here, just like how his broken left hand wasn’t broken, and didn’t hurt, any longer.
“I hereby call this meeting of the HGC to order,” he boomed, “so will all you dirty varmints please rise and bow yer pointy little heads?” The spirited retort drew millions of chuckles as the assemblage shuffled to their feet, removed their hats, if they had them, and bowed their heads.
A change came over the slightly ornery cowboy, and his playful crowd, as he began to speak.
In an earnest and reverent tone, he prayed to their Savior, thanking Him for their many, many blessings, and asking Him to use them as instruments of His will. “And Lord,” pleaded Elmer with humble conviction, “please watch over those souls, down below, who have lost their way, and help them to discover Your word, Your peace, and Your grace.”
And millions of voices answered in unison, “Amen.”
Elmer replaced his Stetson, with its golden “HGC” pin clasped to the front, and the crowd settled in.
“Alrighty then,” he said, “I’ll start with the announcements.”
The cowboy didn’t need to raise his voice to be heard, as he went down the list of administrative topics. Even though he was surrounded on all sides by a sea of men, women and children that stretched for miles, each of them could feel the warmth of the fire, and hear the cowpoke’s voice, as if they were sitting in the front row. And while many of them had spoken in a different tongue down there, no translation was necessary for them to understand the cigar-chomping speaker, as the only border that mattered up here was the line between those who believed, and those who did not. None of the latter would ever cross over to this side of the divide.
“The Pistol Range will be closed for two minutes tomorrow mornin’, as the Archangels police up all the brass,” said Elmer. “If you’re a reloader, make sure to bring yer bucket and claim yer issue of deprimed, tumbled, and polished brass.”
The cowboy president continued on. “The Shotgun Range will host its monthly exhibition shoot and clinic on Wednesday,” he said, adding, “Ad and Elizabeth Toepperwein will be the headliners, this time . . .”
“Ooh, they’re really good,” whispered Herb Parsons, in an aside, leaning towards his neighbor. “I gotta see that. You coming?”
“Maybe,” said the curly-haired gent in the beaded, fringed, buckskin coat. “I heard Jelly Bryce is puttin’ on a hipshooting clinic on Wednesday, and I don’t want to miss it.”
“Oh, of course,” said Herb. “You gonna bring your engraved Single Action Army to that one?” he asked.
“I suppose so,” said the old showman, as he stroked his beard, “unless the gunsmith is done working on my custom New Service.”
“Fitz sure does good work on the Colts, doesn’t he?” said Parsons, and Cody nodded.
“ . . . and we’d would love to see more of you at the clinic, which follows,” droned Elmer. “As always, ammo and lunch will be provided—just bring yer favorite scattergun.”
Elmer’s long list of club announcements was momentarily interrupted, mid-stride, by a flash of light, and the thunderous crack of a bullet. In response, the crowd immediately erupted in a celebratory, “Huzzah!”
Elmer seemed overjoyed at the disruption. “Well, I see we jest had a coupla thousand new members of the club join us,” he beamed. “Welcome, everyone, and please stick around after the meetin’ for more information on yer orientation tour.”
“Bill, here, will be glad to show you ‘round,” said Elmer, jerking a thumb towards the tall drink of water to his right.
“Yes indeed,” drawled Jordan, as he stood and waved. “We’re mighty pleased to have ya, folks. Make sure to stop in, and we’ll get you set up with a locker in the clubhouse, an ammo account, and some coupons for free gun cleanin’.”
NOT DONE YET
Elmer made quick work of the rest of his list, and was about to close the meeting, before he was struck by a slightly-naughty inspiration, that he just couldn’t resist.
Jordan would later say that he could almost hear the seesaw battle between Elmer’s ears, as one part of his brain urged him to do it, while the other part told him not to, but in the end, the former won the battle.
The side of his mouth that wasn’t pinched around the cigar slowly began to curve upward, in a boyish grin, and Elmer’s eyes began to twinkle. As he carefully put the folded agenda paper away in his pocket with one hand, Elmer fished the cigar out of his mouth with the other, so he could use it as a pointer, to emphasize the final bit of housekeeping.
“One more thing,” said Elmer, as his dancing eyes locked on Jack O’Connnor, in the distance. “As HGC President, I hereby declare that the entire supply of .270 Winchester ammo will be scrapped, and immediately replaced with .338. That is all!”
The crowd gasped, and O’Connor recoiled at the impromptu decree, but before a word could be spoken, a searing light, accompanied by a booming thunder–so loud that you felt it, more than you heard it—erupted all around them. When the membership’s flash-blinded eyes could see again, they saw Moses had appeared before the grinning cowboy, who stood looking like he was still quite pleased with himself.
The mischievous grin melted away quickly though, when the bearded prophet handed him the stone tablet.
The cowboy’s eyes darted back and forth as he read the commandment carved into the stone, and the crowd waited in breathless silence. Finally, after clearing his throat, the cowboy reached up, removed his hat, and addressed the club like a child who had just been scolded by his father.
“Well . . . um . . . it seems that I’ve been temporarily relieved of my duties, and will be on brass detail for the week. Bill will serve as acting president, until I git back. And, um . . . I’m sorry, Jack.”
O’Connor smiled, graciously shook his hand, and told him it was OK.
Then he told Elmer that he’d be shooting over on Position Number 70 all week, and to be careful to get all of his .270 brass.
Moses chuckled, and turned away to talk gun leather with Sam Myres.
WELCOME TO THE CLUB
Back in the 458th row, Ed Freeland, one of the brand-new arrivals, sat there in shock. The former insurance salesman, and enthusiastic, rimfire plinker, from a small town in Iowa, was taken aback by the spectacle of it all. Jack Weaver could tell he looked a little spooked, so he nudged him with an elbow, leaned over, and said, “Quite a show, hey Ed?”
“It sure is!” he retorted, exuberantly. “Is it always like this, up here?”
“Nah,” said Jack. “The last time I recall a tablet delivery was when Cooper declared that all the 9mm shooters would have to shoot in the Ladies’ Division,” he said with a chuckle. “I think Jeff got two weeks on brass detail for that one, and had to clean about thirty or forty thousand Glocks—took him three days, to do all of those.”
“I see,” said Ed, still a little unsure.
“C’mon,” said Jack, throwing an arm around Ed’s shoulders, “let’s go down and get you signed up for your tour with Bill, then I want you to tell me about that trick shot you do for the kids with your 10/22 and the aspirin tablets . . .”
FADING EMBERS, AND A NEW GLOW
The members of Heaven’s Gun Club (HGC) adjourned for the night, talking about their plans for the following day, as they disappeared into the darkness beyond the reach of the campfire’s fading embers. Only the former, southwestern lawman, who was charged with tending the fire, remained behind.
Skeeter dumped an armload of fresh mesquite near the fire pit, then reflexively reached to adjust the ride of the .44 Special on his hip, as he walked off to fetch another load. As he turned away, the fire cracked and hissed at his back, and the withering flame bloomed brightly for a moment, in a gasp of energy.
The intense light cast a pair of shadows on the ground. Skeeter was surprised to see the silhouettes of two cowboys painted before him, and he paused, then slowly turned back towards the campfire to make sense of it. As he did, the old lawman’s hand naturally drifted towards his gun, out of habit, even though he knew there would be no threat waiting for him, up here.
“Hello Dad,” said the new figure standing before him, framed by the glow of the campfire. “I’ve sure missed ya.”
The voice washed over Skeeter like a wave, drowning him in emotion. It took a moment for his voice to work. “I’ve missed you too, son,” he replied, extending his arms for a hug, “welcome home, Bart.”
The firewood was collected in half the time, that night.
I’d like to thank RevolverGuy Steve Tracy for the lead image! To learn more about the Skeeter Skelton tribute gun, see Steve’s article, here.