The back door skidded along the compacted ice and snow that stuck to the metal trim as he pushed. His warm hillside home began to thaw Jim’s frozen bristles as he wiped the cold off his beard. His wife—retired much earlier than Jim would’ve thought — scrubbed the cake pan in the sink. Being gone all morning wasn’t long enough to get a welcome home smile these days, not after so many years of mundane repetition. His son—thirteen years old now—was glued, as he always was, to the computer. He was playing some raucous and blood-soaked video game filled with dragons and swords. His daughter, nine years old today, stood to attention. She stood bundled up and ready to leave at a drop of a hat. She always had a smile for him, especially for today.
“Ready, Daddy?” Fevered excitement stretched her vowels. Jim forced a smile, but sighed, “Let’s go.” His unenthusiastic response would have won an angry scowl from his wife had she been paying attention. But she was busy, she always was, busier than Jim ever wanted her to be. He glanced once more to his son down the hall while shaking his head, he gave his daughter’s hand a little squeeze and she galloped merrily alongside her father out toward the sputtering pick-up.
Hayden Creek Shooting Range was about a mile down the crooked highway when she asked, “What do I get to shoot?”
“The .22 rifle. The one I got you for your birthday.”
“What about the other guns?”
“Those are Daddy’s, you can start with the .22. You need to get used to guns and measure their power. If you tried to shoot my guns, they’d knock a little girl like you right on her butt, or worse. So, you do what I say when we get there. Otherwise, I’m giving that gun to your brother.”
She dipped her chin and wiggled her feet. “You already gave him a gun. He doesn’t use it.” Jim didn’t respond. The pick-up rocked back and forth crunching over mounds of snow and frozen rocks eventually slowing to a halt. She clapped her hands in glee, tugging at his jacket sleeve. Jim didn’t get it. Why was she the one so excited to go shooting? Jim turned the truck off and the absence of the heater began to claw away at his weathered skin. He rubbed his calloused hands and they both hopped out of the truck.
He spent a good deal of time showing his daughter how to properly handle and load the rifle. Practical wisdom came in a variety of phrases like: “Don’t point it at anyone, even if it’s unloaded.” And, “Hold the butt to your shoulder. Don’t pull the trigger, squeeze it.” She nodded as if she already knew, Jim knew she did, they had already gone over everything he just said. Jim knew he never had to tell his little girl anything more than once. He set the targets.
She squeezed the rifle trigger with excitement, every round proving a near perfect shot as the orange paper centers splintered away to plywood. The corner of Jim’s mouth curled up.
“Was that good?”
“Hell, yes, it was. That’s fine shootin’, baby girl.”
The sun gleamed off Jim’s magnum.
“I want to shoot that one!” She pointed to her father’s hip.
“Oh no, that’s Daddy’s, too much kick for you. Why don’t you keep shooting your rifle?”
“You let Bryson shoot it.” Her lower lip sagged, but her eyes narrowed forming an expression that was a combination of disappointed and adorable, an expression that could wrestle away good judgment from any father. But he explained, “Well, he’s older, and he’s…well, he’s just older, okay? You’re too little for this one.” Jim tapped the magnum’s grip.
“He’s not that much older,” she said. Jim’s baby girl fired her rounds until the clip ran dry. The plinking sound of the .22 slowly ceased to ignite her excitement after each clip emptied. She was bored. Then, a mighty roar ripped through the valley. Jim smiled through the revolver’s smoke and began unloading the gun so he could fill it with different bullets.
“You know what’s great about a .357 is that it can shoot big bullets and small bullets. Most .357s can shoot .38s, too. Now, I’m not gonna let you shoot the big ones, but since it’s your birthday, you can shoot the little ones, how’s that?”
Her eyes and smile were the biggest he’d seen in a long time. He handed her the pistol grip and keeled down next to her, adjusting her arms for proper pistol handling.
“It’s heavy,” she said.
“I know, keep your arms out, but not too straight.” When her posture was perfect, Jim told her to “Let ‘er rip!”
The magnum fired, and the barrel cracked back into her nose and mouth. She flew back, landing right on her butt, just like Jim had warned. He crouched over her and pushed the gun away.
“Let me see, let me see,” Jim said. There was no worry in his tone. In fact, the other side of his mouth curled up. She began to choke and tear up, but stopped as she felt blood stream from her nose. Her mouth opened to reveal a loose front tooth.
“Yeah,” she smiled, pushing her tongue onto her loose bloody tooth. .
“Was it worth it?”
“Yep, it sure was!”
Jim looked over to the cans laid out for pistol fire. The one in the middle laid down in the snow.
“Nice shot, kiddo.” Jim hoisted her up. “Your nose hurt?”
“You afraid of guns now?”
“Nope.” She giggled, holding her nose as she got into the truck. She turned the key, sparking up the old engine—it was her favorite thing to do while waiting for her parents. Jim gathered the dead rounds and equipment. He could see it now, shooting with his daughter, maybe hunting, maybe anything. He realized she wouldn’t be that little girl up for anything with her dad for long. He didn’t need a son to teach fishing, hunting, and marksmanship to, he needed a child to teach those things to, and Jim saw that now. He looked up to see that child, his little girl, waiting for him to hurry up so they could get home for birthday cake.