Annie raised her hands in surrender as the woman in black charged toward her. Jake was less compliant. He threw himself in front of Annie, pushing her to the ground and landing on top of her.
The woman dropped her gun and held her hands to her face. “Oh, no! What have I done? I didn’t mean to hurt or scare anyone.”
Annie pushed Jake off her. “I’m not hurt, but what the fire are you thinking, running in here shouting threats and waving a gun like that?”
Jake stood up next to Annie and mumbled. “You’re welcome.”
The woman appeared crestfallen. “I just got worked up. Eldon said you might still be in here.”
Annie swatted at the dust on her jeans. “No excuse for being reckless. Ain’t you never been told to treat every weapon like it’s loaded? You’re gonna get folks killed. Probably yourself.”
The woman shook her head. “No. That’s why I’m here. Nobody’s taught me anything. I want to learn, though. From you.” She handed her gun to Annie. “I don’t have any ammunition, but I can get some.”
Annie looked over the aged stock. She tucked the butt into her armpit and looked down the barrel, carefully aligning the sights. “No sense in fooling around with live ammo ‘til you know what you’re doing. Salt is good enough for the time being.”
“Jake was still on guard, shaking his head. “How do we know this isn’t a trap? Guns and ammunition are both outlawed. You could just turn us all over to Authority.”
“I didn’t have to rescue your ship before. I could have ignored the whole situation and just let the lawmen take you. You were all dead to rights until my men stepped in. And like I was saying, your troubles aren’t nearly over yet.”
Annie’s jaw dropped. “You’re Ferry Commander Dale. Forgive us. We didn’t realize.”
“It’s Rebecca—and there’s nothing to forgive. Just, please teach me. Authority is out of control.” She drew a deep breath. “I can pull rank and jurisdiction for now, but laws change. Usually to favor the powerful. Folks out here don’t have any way to fight back.”
Jake nudged Annie. “You can do this, Love. Make it part of your act. Show these people how to stand up to Authority. Make them want to.”
“Yes,” Rebecca agreed. “Authority’s grip is tighter every day. Even the independent colonies are starting to feel it. Please?”
Annie sighed. “Let me figure this all out.” She looked to Rebecca and smiled. “I’ll teach you. I just need to work at how. Ain’t never taught nobody before.”
Jake took the weapon and handed it back to Rebecca. “Come early to the show. We’ll do it.”
Jake and Annie left Rebecca in the arena and went back to the Nightengale for the animals.
“How can I put gun lessons for one person into a show for thousands? I ride my horses. I sing.” Annie rolled her eyes. “I’m not some hero.”
Jake scoffed. “Maybe not yet, Love.” He took her hand. “Did I hurt you back there? You know, when I saved your life?”
Annie bumped into his side to make him stumble. “You didn’t save my life.” As she said it, though, she thought that he had been quick and selfless in reacting to a potentially deadly situation. She felt her heart pound harder the more she considered it. She wanted to linger a little longer in his hand. She wanted to feel his smothering protection over her for a minute more. She wanted to change the subject.
“I used to shoot targets while riding Jefferson. For fun. I’d set old cans on fence posts and then run the horse around the yard and shoot from the saddle. You think anybody would want to watch something like that?” Annie considered if it was feasible for the arena.
Jake laughed as the two of them reached the ship. “Can you sing at the same time?”
Annie almost began to explain how difficult that would be before realizing Jake was teasing. She punched at his arm.
Jake held up his hands in self-defense. “I think it would be incredible. Now let’s get this show figured out.”
The whole crew worked together to get the animals prepared. Dhabi and Ingrid strategized for the perfect program. Introduction, two songs, two or three horse tricks, another song to allow time for the target set up, and then the gun exhibition.
Jake and Annie discussed the best way to engage an audience while teaching Rebecca how to safely operate her weapon. In another hour, they had the horses and all their gear packed and ready for the short parade to the stage.
Once in the theater, Cody again pulled out his equipment to check the horses. He brushed their coats and hummed to keep them calm.
“Beautiful animals,” a young woman in a trim brown tee shirt and jeans said as she leaned against the gate to the stalls. She flipped her long dark curls over her shoulder and flashed her baby-blue eyes in Cody’s direction. She reached out and scratched Nero’s nose. “Is he yours?”
Cody looked around for his sister, or for whoever allowed this woman access backstage. “Umm, yeah. But you shouldn’t be back here. You could get hurt.” He gestured to the door leading to the stands. “Best if you find a safe place to sit.”
“You’re Cody, right?” She didn’t move from her place near the big black horse. “You’re an animal doc. Do you ever work on people?” Her full pink lips curved into a knowing smile.
“Not often.” Cody’s frustration infused his voice with a quiver. “Look, I don’t think…”
Annie bounced passed. “Hi, Rebecca. I see you’ve met my brother.” Annie gestured for her to follow. “I almost didn’t recognize you with your hair down. Are you ready for your first lesson?”
“Before the show?”
“Just a few basics so no one gets hurt. Rule number one: always treat every gun as if it’s loaded, all the time. Get it?” Annie picked up her own rifle, careful to point the barrel to the floor.
As Annie and Rebecca went to the other side of the room, Jake approached Cody. “I think she likes you.”
“Who is she?”
“That, Mate, is Ferry Commander Rebecca Dale. The same Commander Dale who saved our ship from Authority. Your sister has agreed to teach her how to shoot a gun. Right here in front of the whole audience.” Jake gestured for Cody to look at the women, who were both smiling back at the two men.
“I suppose we can trust her?”
“If not, she’s taking her sweet time to bait the trap.” Jake nodded to Annie.
Cody dropped the brush into the basket and checked Nero’s bridle. “Why would you say something like that?”
“What? I can’t sneeze without you all questioning my motives. I make one joke.” Jake shook his head. “This show is going to be one for the books. Your sister is something else.”
Annie joined the men as Rebecca left for the stage door. “Whoo, Cody, she sure likes you.”
“If I had known who she was, I would have thanked her for her intervention.” Cody helped Annie up onto the saddle on Liza Jane’s back.
Annie raised her brow. “I think she’ll give you a chance to thank her.” She listened for Rebecca’s voice. “Y’all get ready. This is gonna be a big one.”
Commander Dale addressed the crowd over the loudspeaker. “My fellow travelers, as you all know we lost a ferry full of good souls to the oppressive hand of Authority acting far beyond what the law allows. Tonight we celebrate the lives of our friends by saluting a brave company of refugees. This young woman, Annie Birchfield, along with her brother and friends, have stood face to face with Authority, and didn’t back down. Please welcome Miss Birchfield, riding one of her prize horses, Liza Jane.”
Annie rode out to the center of the ring amid deafening cheers and flashing lights. She began by singing “Amazing Grace” and had everyone on their feet. Annie couldn’t see an empty seat in the house. She sang about her horse, Ranger, and then led the horses through the routines of counting, prancing, bowing and jumping. Annie finished her cowboy song and brought Rebecca back out as Cody and Jake placed poles topped with green balloons around the floor.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I want to talk to you about why we are really here.” Annie took her horse’s reins from Jake’s hand. “This is Jefferson. He is a registered Quarter Horse, and that registration marked him for death. Following our registered arms and our registered cattle, all our registered horses were to be confiscated by Authority and destroyed. My brother and I left earth to save these amazing animals’ lives. We had watched everything we held dear destroyed by the heavy, greedy hands of our government for decades. My parents lost nearly everything they loved until they were lost themselves.”
She pulled the rifle from Jefferson’s saddle strap. The crowd gasped. Rebecca held up her hands, asking for calm.
“Years ago, these weapons were every person’s right. That was a long time ago. Now they are banned. Of course, not in the independent territory, but out here finding one is a challenge. And I think that’s a shame.” She pulled up the shotgun and demonstrated the proper stance and grip for the safety of the shooter and anyone in the vicinity. “This is the gun I used to defend myself and my property against Authority. Tonight I intend to show Commander Dale how to use one properly, for self-defense and for the defense of others.”
As the audience watched, Annie and Rebecca went through a few pre-planned moves. The crowd went wild when Dale finally discharged the long gun. Annie patted Jefferson’s neck, thanking him for remaining quiet.
Annie raised her hand again when the cheering stopped. “Some of you may wonder why any woman, anyone at all, would need to know how to fire a gun.” She paused for dramatic effect. “I’m here to tell you that I needed to know. And if things don’t change, you may need to know, too. I believe that bearing a gun should be as natural to any woman as bearing a child. Too often we have to be the ones to defend our homes. Our families. Our own children. And friends, it doesn’t matter from what or whom we have to defend ourselves. What matters is if we can.”
Annie nodded to Rebecca and took the shotgun from her and replaced it in the saddle strap. Rebecca bowed slightly and waved to the audience as she trotted out of the lights.
Annie mounted Jefferson and began a slow run around the ring, turning right and then left around the balloon-topped poles. The people cheered and pumped their fists in the air. “An-nie! An-nie! An-nie!” they chanted as she picked up speed.
When Jefferson was taking each turn with pounding force, Annie tightened her grip with her legs and pulled out a pair of pistols from her hip holsters. She found her first target. Pow! The green balloon popped. Another turn, another shot, another balloon disappeared. Another. Another.
With each popped balloon, the audience roared louder. Three more. Four. Five. The people were jumping in their seats. Annie found the last green target in her sight, but instead of racing past with a final shot, she pulled Jefferson to a halt and dismounted. She slipped the pistols back into her holsters and pulled shotgun back out from beneath the saddle. The screams and cheers faded. Cody came out to see what she needed. After a word with Annie, he took Jefferson back to his stall.
“There’s one left, y’all.” Annie tucked the gun under her arm and sauntered a full ten paces away from the last balloon. She waved as Jake offered her the hand mirror that Cody gave him.
He placed it in her hand, but before he released it, he pulled her close and kissed her. A loud whoop rose from all around.
Annie blinked back her surprise.
“You’re fantastic, Love.” Jake left her standing in the spotlight, holding a shotgun and a mirror, and licking the taste of his kiss on her lips.
A few seconds passed before she could collect her thoughts. “Do you think I can hit it from here?”
Sounds of confidence and doubt mingled.
She took three more paces away. “From here, then?”
She carefully balanced the shotgun on her right shoulder and turned her back to the balloon. “Backward?”
She held up the mirror in her left hand and slipped her right thumb gently against the trigger. She knew the shot would make her deaf for a moment. The audience was almost that loud already. Her heart slammed against her ribs. She had done this trick dozens of times back home, but never with more than a few people watching. She didn’t dare miss. She held her breath and the sounds around her faded.
She only heard Jake’s whisper in her ear. You’re fantastic, Love.
She pulled the trigger. Pow! And then nothing else. No cheering. No pop. She couldn’t hear anything at all. She stared into the mirror, but couldn’t find the balloon in it. She looked up to the crowd. Everyone was jumping and waving their arms and yelling. Annie heard nothing but a distant ringing. Jake and Cody were on either side of her, both of them smiling and congratulating her. She thought they looked like mimes at the circus. She laughed, but couldn’t even hear herself.
Annie had done it. With one shot, she was a star.