TBJ Short Story Contest 2019 Third Place

The Kid’s Gun

By Blair Dancy

Short Story 3rd Place

Awkward was an understatement.

I sat in a folding chair in the corner, behind my children. In typical blue blood fashion, Cameron and Camille had arched their eyebrows upon seeing me. That was the most surprise they could muster without seeming gauche.

The law office was rimmed in leather and wood and filled with Sheila’s family and work colleagues: her mother, three brothers, four Rice professors, three adult children she had had after our two, and husband-number-two aka Bubba Bong (whose real name was Charles something-or-other the Third). His eyes confessed a mix of tears and early morning marijuana smoke. In typical Bubba Bong fashion, he sported dusty Ropers and an untucked plaid shirt with mother-of-pearl snaps, more suitable for a junior high hoe down than the reading of a will.

I never quite got how she went from me to him. I mean, I got how she quit me. I was still amazed she had married me in the first place. She had been the youngest chair of the archaeology department in the day and part of the team that discovered the lost city of Jenne-Jeno in Mali. A rising star in academia.

But her main interest had been in artifacts. The female version of Indiana Jones. Trips to Africa every summer, including the island of Gorée and coastal Songo Mnara in later years. When she was younger, she fought and cajoled customs officials in sub-Saharan nations; London, Paris, Rome, and Madrid on her return flights; and of course in the U.S. The items were always only on loan until she could find—or help create—a suitable home for them in their countries of origin.

I could almost hear her voice. “It’s ego that tells us we own things. But it’s love that tells us we’re merely custodians.”

She began every semester’s class that way. I had sat in on enough of them to know. The students adored her because of that selflessness, and it bled over into everything she did. After the fall of Moammar Gadhafi, when Tuareg rebels seized Timbuktu, Sheila had spearheaded a U.S. fundraising effort to get 350,000 medieval Arabic manuscripts out of the city and away from Islamic fundamentalists bent on destruction. When the local curators were short of funds, she cashed in her own IRA. That had led to a whole round of arguments between us.

“How are you going to retire?” I had asked.

“I’m never retiring, Billy. I’ll die in the field, digging.”

“What if you don’t have a choice? The IRA is for security, not vacations. Not this. What if you get cancer?”

I regretted saying that now. She played archaeology field commander, anthropology professor, and antiquities smuggler with equal competency, but in the end, it was cancer that ultimately took her. Melanoma from all those sunny summers. Ironically unadventurous. At least it had been quick.

“Still slinging bearer bonds?” Cameron asked over his shoulder. He didn’t even turn around.

That apple sure didn’t fall far from the tree. Cameron was 35 and already on his third wife. He prodded and pried those closest to him, feisty to a fault. I didn’t know how he did it, with six (or was it seven?) kids now and splitting every other weekend between his current toddlers and the tweens and teens from his previous wives. It was like he kept trying to create new people with the hope that one would finally fit his ideal of a perfect child.

Thankfully, I had learned that wasn’t possible after only two.

The room had fallen silent. They wanted to hear the persona non grata speak. “You know I never sold bearer bonds,” I said. “Just that one time, gifts for you two.” They had been beautiful, too, embossed and colored like birds of paradise.

Camille shifted in her seat and tilted her head to speak as indirectly at me as her brother. “The only thing a broker could sell that could be physically stolen. High roller to the last.”

“You’re both right,” I said. “I biffed that one. I should have bought you Dell. Or Berkshire Hathaway. Something burglars couldn’t yank out of the closet.”

Cameron sighed. “Or a safe. You could’ve spent some of that money on a safe.”

The frowns in the room were palpable. If disapproval were a smell, it’d be freshly vacuumed carpet and leather chairs.

The office door opened. Martha Wigstrom wore a long black skirt, white button-down, and black jacket. Her hair was dyed chestnut with saffron highlights. Her eyes scanned the room before she marched to her desk.

Martha had been a friend of Sheila’s family before I had entered the picture. Smart as Sheila, she had a knack for finances and organization. I had always enjoyed talking with her about the finance side of things—junk bonds, gold futures, where the next financial collapse would start. As for organization, that was never my area. For Martha, the combination made her top of the game in the wills and estates world. Despite Sheila’s sparse funds, Martha kept her as a client and even dedicated time pro bono to Sheila’s archaeology pursuits.

“I’m sorry for everyone’s loss,” Martha began before sitting down and thanking us for being there. “I’m sure you’re aware that Sheila collected many things over the years. She held many of them in trust for others, but some she owned outright. I thought it would be most helpful to have all of her beneficiaries and successors in one place to discuss how these items are to be handled.”

So many things. Our house had been stacked to the vents, but Sheila never stopped collecting.

On our first anniversary, she had given me a Colt 1873 that was a candidate to have been owned by Billy the Kid. She always joked that I looked like him, and we shared the first name after all. I was definitely a fan, but we didn’t need more stuff. Eight years later, I hit bottom along with the stock market and found myself selling that gun to a pawnshop. Leave it to Sheila to find the one thing out of a thousand missing from the house. She accused me of being addicted to coke—which I denied, and I haven’t touched the stuff since—and demanded to know where I sold it. She left the house for the day. “Did you get it back?” I asked when she returned.

She had waved her hand dismissively at me. “Someone bought it,” was all she said. She fussed around the house that evening in silence, like I had broken something irreparably. Just before we turned off the lights that night, she said, “You know, I’ll always love you.” We never talked about the revolver again, and I got served with the divorce papers a couple months later.

The professors eyed me from across the room. They had to know the Colt story, and I was betting 10-to-1 they were plotting on how to steal back anything Sheila might have bequeathed me.

But, so far, nothing. The items went to those family members and colleagues with interests in whatever the subject. Her daughter, Sarah (not mine), inherited the Apollo 17 Goodwill Moon Rock given by the Nixon administration to Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu, auctioned by the leader’s estate after his 1989 execution for genocide. Sheila’s brother, Tommy, got the Texas flag that purportedly flew over Cozumel for three days, when the Texas navy claimed the island in 1837, and some lesser known letters from the Alamo, including one in Spanish by a Texian. Sheila gave Professor Stephens (I never knew her first name) a steel-nib fountain pen used by Abraham Lincoln and inherited by his grandniece, Mary Edwards Brown, custodian of the Lincoln Homestead, and three thank you notes from Harriet Tubman, kept by the freed slave’s Canadian descendants. Camille got the cowboy hat worn by Barack Obama in Austin in 2007, at his first sizable rally before becoming president.

Martha would run down a list of items, note their locations, and then hand the person an envelope with a note Sheila had written in her last days. Eventually, she came to the end of the list. Everyone had an envelope—a few had two—except me.

“Nothing for you, huh, Pops?” Cameron said. He glanced at his sister. Their mouths tightened in half grins, but their eyes did not smile. They pitied me. Not the emotion I’d have preferred.

Typical of Sheila. She wanted me to be here just to hear where everything was going, so I wouldn’t claim something for myself. So I knew precisely who got everything.

She had told me often enough after the divorce that she still loved me, more like another child than anything else. I suppose the pity was universal, and this was her last lecture to me.

Martha flipped through the pages again, as if double-checking that she had not overlooked something. “Billy, why are you here?” she muttered to herself. She had not seen my rockier moments. She didn’t know that I was unreliable. In so many ways.

Martha raised a hand. “Oh, of course. I remember now. There’s a codicil from just last month.” She pulled a manila folder off one of the stacks on her desk. “Here it is. A Colt Model 1873 SAA revolver. It includes documentation showing a purchase in 2001.”

The air in the room quieted. “I’ll be damned,” I said. My revolver. Sheila had bought it back from the pawnshop. “Someone bought it” for sure. She had, all those years ago.

Martha continued. “The revolver is being titled to the Smithsonian. But possession is not to take place until your passing, Billy. So you essentially have it until death do you part, but you can’t sell it.”

The professors continued their murmuring. A conspiracy in the works. Someone was going to come for it.

“There is more,” Martha said. “Sheila obtained letters from various authorities on the subject, authenticating it as best she could. A couple of them are in the room.”

I looked at the budding cabal. Professor Stephens nodded in my direction. Professor Roger Watson (at least I think that was his name) said, “Sheila still had a place in her heart for you after all these years.”

Martha held up a small envelope, identical to the ones for the others. “And this is for you, too.”

. . .

I still have the revolver. It’s in a glass case on a shelf in my apartment. But I’m not as reckless or naïve as I used to be. And I’m aware of the crowd I keep.

I tell anyone who comes over that it’s a cheap replica of an Old West gun, a sentimental gift from a relative some years back. Sometimes I tell them I won it in a raffle. I think I told at least one woman that I fetched it out of a dumpster. But I’m sure no one expects me to have a multi million-dollar artifact on a bookshelf in a cheap-ass apartment, hiding in plain sight.

As for the envelope, I could never open it. I added it to the stack of professor letters and figure that when I die, maybe the Smithsonian can study the gun along with the mysteries of the heart.TBJ


is an insurance coverage lawyer in Austin and a partner in Cain & Skarnulis. He is unaware of the actual location of Billy the Kid’s gun or any other artifact (or fictional person) in this story.

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