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  • James Wheeling

It's all about authenticity

Whenever possible, I have tried to do the thing that I ask my characters to do so I know it is possible.

For instance, I had never fired a pistol. My characters all live in a time when the firearms were evolving from single-shot to multiple-shot, and most firearms were cap-and-ball varieties, which meant they had to be loaded in phases: powder, ball, cartridge and percussion cap. I wanted to know how to do that loading, understand the amount of time loading took, and then once fired, what the kick of the weapon felt like, the blue smoke obscuring vision and, most importantly, accuracy. A friend enthusiastically gave me this experience with one of his percussion revolvers. He showed me how to load the six-shot pistol by loading one and then letting me do the rest. It took me so long to load the other five chambers that he pronounced me dead if it had been a true gunfight. I will forever be grateful for the time and authenticity he and many others have joyfully given to my writing.

Then there are times when I just have to experience it on my own.

We had a coyote preying on the young calves. While we generally love to have coyotes working our pastures for rodents, when they start taking our livelihoods, their numbers are out of balance and we have to reduce the population. My brother was having a terrible time getting a shot at the thief. I offered to help any way I could to which he brought me a single shot rifle with a scope and said that while he had hoped he would have had time to sight it in for accuracy, he had not. He showed me how to load one cartridge into the chamber. He showed me where the safety was and that was that. I had never fired the weapon before.

Later that day, in broad daylight, the coyote started circling the mama cows and their new babies. I was planting beets seeds, my straw hat pulled low and my rubber boots heating my feet to melting in the early spring sun. When I saw the coyote, I shoved the seeds into my pocket and took off for the house, a fifty-yard dash in rubber boots. My husband and a friend were installing a new dishwasher when I came in, breathless, snatched up the rifle and one cartridge. They asked me what I was doing and I said the coyote was back and I had to take a shot. They went back to work on the dishwasher.

I rushed outside, loaded the cartridge, found a flat surface to rest the rifle’s barrel, flipped off the safety and watched the coyote move away from the herd. It actually came in my direction but was about one hundred yards off. I watched through the scope as it stopped and lifted its nose in the air. I wondered if it could smell me. God knows I was sweating up a storm. When it put its nose down and looked back at the herd, I decided now was the time. And I shot the coyote. It was over in an instant. And boy, oh boy, were my husband, his friend and my brother surprised.

That is when I knew that if I could do it, it was plausible that one of my characters could, too.

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