The Fourth of July party is taking place on the Boles farm. Half the town has turned out on the big spread to eat, drink, and be merry with traditional and nontraditional activities. Local chefs are keeping an endless supply of barbecue beef, chicken, and ribs available with six grills and an open pit going nonstop. Farm and ranch wives are trying to out-do each other with side dishes, salads, and desserts. There are inflatable bouncy castles, a church sponsored puppet theater, and several water activities for the children. There is a small carnival with booths and rides for the whole family. There is a stage to be used for local bands, a talent contest, and the high school drama class. And a larger stage for the evening concert that has two aspiring performers that are debuting their first albums, and the main act, an ex-A-list band that has not had a hit song in over a decade; but they are still fairly popular with the middle-age crowd. And there will also be a western show followed by a fireworks display.
Billy, now twelve, charges out the side door of the main house just as his mother, Kathlynn, approaches.
“Whoa! Not so fast,” she said. “We can sure use an extra pair of hands to bring out the rest of this stuff.”
“Ah, Ma!” said Billy. “I helped set-up the tables and the other kids aren’t doing nothing.”
“Don’t sass your mother, William,” said Ben, Billy’s father, approaching from the boy’s blindside.
Billy stops arguing immediately, lowers his head, and begins to fidget.
Ben points toward the house: “Get your butt back in there and do like she told you.”
Billy stares at the ground, stuffs his hands in his pockets, and heads back towards the door, scuffing his shoes every step of the way: even on the wood floor as he disappears inside.
“Must you always talk to him like you’re cracking a whip?” said Kathlynn.
“That boy’s on a mud-slick trail to nowhere,” said Ben. “And you know it.”
“Do you have to start that again now?” said Kathlynn. “This is supposed to be a festive day.”
Ben looks toward the corrals and sees Dalton surrounded by kids and several adults.
“I told you not to invite him.”
Kathlynn grabs her husband’s arm and turns him to face her.
“This feud is between you two,” she begins in a low stern tone. There are people all around and she was raised proper. “Once and for all, will you just keep Billy and me out of it?”
“I’ve tried for years to keep you out of it by keeping ya’ll away from him,” said Ben loudly, not caring a hoot for propriety. “But you’ve been the opposition to that.”
“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” said Kathlynn as she glances toward Dalton. “All I see is a kind old man who is rough around the edges.”
“That’s cuz’ you don’t know everything about him.”
“Then tell me.”
They stare at each other, neither wanting to give an inch. It is just the most recent in a long line of stand-offs.
This time Ben gives in first. He huffs, turns, and heads over by a group of guys congregating around a few kegs of beer.
She wants festive, he thinks while grabbing a full mug. I’ll show her festive. He gulps down the beer in one long pull, slams the empty glass down, belches, farts, and grabs another.
A short time later Billy carries his final armload of plates to the tables near the open pit with a rotating side of beef, where the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lasso is slopping on his family recipe next to a worried looking chef.
Kathlynn ruffles her boy’s hair.
“Now was that so bad?”
She was hoping for a smile but it did not appear.
“Momma, why does Papa hate me?”
Her smile disappears as she hugs him tightly.
“It’s not hate,” she begins. “It’s not even about you really.” She wishes she can transfer all the love she feels into him through the hug.
“I don’t understand why,” said Billy.
“Neither do I, son,” said Kathlynn. “Neither do I.”
During the lull after lunch while most folks are lounging, napping, or enjoying the activities two groups are out passed the corrals in an open field making final preparations. One group is adding last minute touches for the fireworks set-up. The other group, on the opposite side of the field, under Dalton’s experienced leadership, is Billy and a couple dozen men and women finalizing preparations for a western action show that will precede the fireworks display.
“This’ll be the first time Pa’s ever seen me do a routine,” said Billy.
“It don’t pay to fret,” said Dalton while inspecting weapons. “Besides, you got the gift, boy. You’ll have your pa and all these folks spellbound when you get to shootin’.”
“I hope he likes it enough to let me tour with you.”
“I told you this life will bite you when you got the gift,” said Dalton while cracking open and inspecting the barrel of a side-by-side scattergun. Clean as a whistle and lightly oiled… perfect.
“It’s all I’m ever gonna do, Grandpa,” said Billy while spinning the cylinder on one of his two single-action Ruger Blackhawks: verifying it is empty before inspecting the cylinder and barrel for cleanliness. “Ever.”
A few hours later Dalton, Billy, and the performers from the traveling show take-up positions. The veteran entertainer gets the attention of the announcer and acts like he’s stretching something between his hands: letting the announcer know he needs to stretch the introduction so a couple of last minute adjustments can be made.
“That’s it folks, take your seats,” said the announcer, the town barber. “And everyone please remain on this side of the markers. We don’t want anyone getting hurt, especially today. And let the kiddies up front so they can see. That’s it, keep a coming.”
He glances toward Dalton and sees him nod and give the thumbs up signal.
“The sun is fading so we best get started,” said the announcer. “And don’t forget we got the fireworks show right after this event. But first, let’s give it up for our very own Dalton Boles and his Sure Shots for bringing us this free show on this blessed day of freedom.”
The crowd applauds. Dalton signals the troupe and they burst forth to begin their action-packed exhibition of riding, roping, shooting, fighting, and a few rarer talents like knives, hatchets, and bullwhips. It is a scaled down modern-day version of the western extravaganzas, like those put on by Pawnee Bill and Buffalo Bill Cody.
The show continues to entertain the enthusiastic audience as a little girl runs by Ben as he continues to intoxicate his wounded ego near the keg crowd: where he’s been all afternoon, except for piss breaks.
“Hurry, Molly!” said the little girl. “Billy’s in the show.”
Ben stops paying attention to the dirty jokes being told by keg connoisseurs, and tries to focus thru the beer-induced fog on the girls talking about Billy. He does not recognize the little girl but he recalls Molly. He believes she has been a friend of Billy’s for most of his life, though he is not certain of anything at the moment.
The little girl approaches Molly. Molly is the older of the two, by a few years. She is only a year younger than Billy.
“Billy… are you sure?” said Molly while darting off toward the field before her friend can respond.
The little girl takes off after Molly, but her shorter legs cannot keep the same pace.
“Yes, Billy,” said the Little Girl while huffing and puffing and lagging behind. “He’s with his grandpa.”
Ben startles the small group of people in the vicinity as he throws down his beer mug and storms off toward the field far behind the girls.
“That damn brat,” Ben mutters while getting angrier with each step. “Think he can disrespect me just cuz’ all these people are here, well…” He stumbles but remains upright. “He’s got another thing coming.” He pinches closed his left nostril and blows a hunk of snot out of the right nostril thinking it might clear his head some. But it gives him a head-rush and he almost falls again. “I’m gonna give that little sum-bitch the business end of my belt like he ain’t never had it before.”
On the field the bang-bang-shoot-um-up action has peaked and is beginning to decline as the performers begin to meet their staged deaths one-by-one in dramatic fashion: blown off a wagon, roped from the saddle, dragged by a horse.
Molly and her little friend stop near the other kids to watch and cheer. But Ben, intoxicated and fuming, does not care a hoot about what’s going on as he stomps passed the crowd and safety markers.
Surprise responses begin emanating from the spectators and catch the attention of Kathlynn, which up to that point was beaming brightly with pride for her son’s performance.
“No, Ben!” she yells, but knows it’s a waste of breath. Damn him! Damn him to hell!
Ben is so focused on punishing Billy he does not hear the crowd and charges head-strong into the choreographed fracas.
Several entertainers are becoming aware of Ben’s intrusion. Unfortunately, it is primarily the stationary ones already “dead” in the show: but now having instant resurrections. And most of the crowd is now aware of the situation, with a growing number becoming frantic.
However, Dalton, Billy, and two other performers are in the middle of a wild shoot-and-chase sequence, and have no idea Ben is in harm’s way as they come charging around some western town facades. And it’s too late.
The two pretend outlaws take the turn wide, with Billy and Dalton cutting the corner, hot on their heels.
Ben sees the first two horses and, drunk or not, realizes he’s in deep shit. He jumps to his right… right into the path of Billy.
Without hesitation Billy yanks the reins to the side and back – knowing what it means for himself and his horse – in a heroic effort not to plow over his father. The young boy and his hard-charging mount crash into the nearest façade, tearing thru the wall, and tumbling over the props and braces. The volatile sounds of impact, along with a young boy’s yell and the animal’s painful snorts and whinnies, tears at the heart of every sober onlooker.
Kathlynn screams the soul-piercing scream of a mother watching her boy go down hard.
Dalton is just far enough behind, and to the side of Billy’s mount, that he’s able to jump over Ben’s sprawling form.
Performers and audience members begin to rush toward the impact site, while Dalton and the two other riders slow their mounts and backtrack to the impact point.
Dalton, still in the saddle as he approaches, can see Ben being helped to his feet, but there is no sign of his grandson near the spot where some men are trying to calm the wounded horse.
“Stop your pawing,” said Ben to those trying to check him for injuries. “I just stumbled. Ain’t you ever seen anyone stumble before?”
The people near enough to hear and smell Ben begin to move away from him with expressions of disgust.
Dalton dismounts and brusquely pushes through the growing crowd. The sight that befalls him as he nears the shattered façade sparks concern. The injured black and white Pinto is frantically trying to rise from atop a broken blank. And there, underneath the cracked four-by-eight plywood plank, Dalton can see his grandson is pinned: only half his body is visible. And, though Billy is trying to remain brave, the pain is evident.
Kathlynn cannot stop the tears as she does her best to cradle Billy’s head while the struggling horse and men trying to calm it continue to rock the plank atop his body.
“Do something!” she yells.
Dalton shoves people out of the way.
“If you ain’t needed and don’t know what the hell you’re doing, back-off.”
Sheriff Wyatt follows Dalton through the crowd and stops beside him: a few feet away from the frantic struggle.
“I need to borrow that,” Dalton said while gesturing for the sheriff’s weapon.
Sheriff Wyatt, realizing Dalton’s weapons are filled with blanks – not to mention what this is going to do to Billy – gratefully hands his .357 caliber Smith and Wesson to his friend.
“Do what you got to do.”
Billy looks at his grandpa with soulful eyes, imploring him not to.
Kathlynn tries to shield her son’s eyes and turn his head away, but he won’t allow it.
“We got to, son,” said Dalton. “Little Joe’s busted up bad, and you can see the pain he’s in.”
“I’m busted and hurting,” said Billy, “and you ain’t shooting me.”
Dalton kneels beside the animal and strokes its bloody neck and mane.
“Look at him, boy,” said Dalton. “Your head and heart know what’s right.”
Dalton continues to stroke the wounded animal while raising the pistol, aiming, and cocking the hammer back. He then looks at his grandson.
Billy’s heart breaks as he nods approval and he can no longer hold back the tears.
Knowing that prolonging it only adds to the hurt, Dalton squeezes the trigger. The loud report silences the crowd as quickly as the bullet silences the heart-wrenching struggle of the injured horse. With one difference, the crowd noise re-emerges, led by the sobs of the sensitive members; like Molly and her little companion as they are turned away by nearby adults. And many of the folks keep going, to their vehicles and off the property, not caring if the fireworks show is cancelled or not.
Dalton hands the pistol back to Sheriff Wyatt. He holsters it and gives his friend a nod for the hard task completed.
Dalton twirls a finger at the two performers still mounted. Both men toss the loop of their ropes to their boss while they secure their ends to their saddle-horns. Dalton fastens the loops around the carcass: one around the neck and the other around the front legs. The mounted pair ease their horses rearward, trying to maintain a steady non-jarring motion as they drag the dead horse off the plank. And as soon as the burden is removed, Dalton and Sheriff Wyatt heave the large piece of wood off Billy, while a few crowd members with medical training begin to assess the boy’s condition as he lies helpless in his mother’s arms.
Ben pushes his way thru the remaining onlookers.
“Where’s that boy?” he yells. He sees his father blocking the path. “Damn you! Where’d you hide that brat?”
Dalton turns sideways, as if allowing Ben a clear view of the activity around Billy. But to everyone’s surprise he was just positioning himself in order to cock back his arm.
The loud fist to jaw impact startles the people nearby, and sends Ben toppling backwards like a felled tree: its lights out before he hit the ground. Dalton returns to his vigil near his grandson. And everyone close by is equally content to leave Ben lying unconscious in the dirt.
Within a half-hour the ambulance is on-scene and Billy is stabilized, prepped, and loaded. Kathlynn jumps into the vehicle to accompany her son, as the attending EMT continues to monitor vitals and relay information to ER staff.
Sheriff Wyatt helps clear a path through the remaining crowd as Dalton heads to his truck.
“Don’t worry about a thing,” said Sheriff Wyatt. “I’ll supervise the clean-up here.”
“You set them fireworks off first,” said Dalton while climbing into the truck cab.
“Ain’t nobody in the mood for that.”
“It’s Independence Day, damn you,” said Dalton. “You set them off and light up that sky.”
“Dammit, Dalton,” said Sheriff Wyatt. “What the hell difference does it make now?”
Dalton gestures toward some families gathering together and a congregating group of kids.
“Cuz’ I don’t want their last memories of this day being the shame of my family, the pain of my grandson, and the death of his horse.”
Sheriff Wyatt can tell by Dalton’s clenched jaw and piercing gaze that any further discussion on the subject is useless. So he nods agreement, watches his old friend back out and speed down the drive, and he turns to fulfill his promise. And by the time Dalton reaches the main highway to town, a couple miles away, the first colorful projectiles are exploding in the clear night sky above the fields.
In the ambulance, while the EMT relays vitals to the ER staff over the radio, Billy looks at his mother.
“I can’t feel my legs.”