“Cowboy Load” by Dan Klefstad

I like big guns and I cannot lie. Why? Because they feel good, shoot good, and you get a nice flame out the barrel. For you novices out there, I’m talking about cowboy guns. Revolvers. My apologies, by the way, to that fella with that “Big Butts” song, though a rap is not technically a song which has to have melody and harmony. But Jamal insists on calling it that, so I won’t argue. He’s my one black friend. I keep tellin’ him a simple key change would improve any of the tracks he listens to on Spotterfly or whatever they call it. He ignores me but has been a good sport when my music plays while driving to the range. America First Radio. I told him they play Charley Pride every now and then, which he knows ain’t true, but he likes “Tequila Makes My Clothes Come Off,” by one of them New Country guys. Or maybe it’s “Her Clothes.” Either one works as a premise. Still, Nashville ain’t what it used to be. I cut my teeth on Cash and Haggard and sewed my 1970s oats to David Allen Coe. He just kills me with that line, “I was drunk when my mama got out of prison.” Jamal laughs at that, too. Did I mention he’s my one black friend? The name sounds Muslim but I know he ain’t cause he likes wine with his steak. Expensive wine. I insist cold beer goes better but we agreed to disagree on that sort of thing. Same goes for shootin.’ I like Wild West irons, he likes the modern shit. But every now and then I’ll shake things up:

“Mind if I try your Beretta?”

“Hell no.” He scoffs. “Not after what you did last time.”

“You sure? I wore the good underwear today.”

“Fuck you.” Jamal fires a steady drumbeat of 9mm—pop, pop, pop, pop—that seems to last forever until the final round flies downrange. I can’t help smilin’ as I recall putting his gun behind my loosened belt, pants hangin’ way low, before aiming it on its side like the rappers do. Of course, I missed the target which proved my point. Not that I need to prove anything to Jamal. He’s a serious guy who holds it proper, two-handed, and groups ’em nice around the bullseye—sixteen holes packed super-tight. My groups amount to five, though I could shoot six if I wanted to. I, however, play it safe with my Colt. Single-actions have a design… I wouldn’t call it a flaw, more a limitation, where the hammer sits right against the primer. That’s the cap that detonates the powder behind the bullet. Even knockin’ the hammer a little might cause it to fire. Hence the Cowboy Load: Insert one bullet, skip one, then load four. That way, when you lower the hammer it sits on an empty chamber which allows you to holster it worry-free. Jamal just shakes his head as he pops a fresh mag in and keeps firing. 

The price of bullets goes up and up, but it doesn’t faze him. He’ll squeeze off two hundred rounds to my fifty and regret not buying an extra box. I forget what he pays, but my .45s cost as much as a dry-aged ribeye at Wyatt’s steakhouse. Both are worth it, of course, but we limit our outings to every other week. OK, I do since my state pension stretches only so far. I worked 30 years for Arizona Game & Fish which runs this range, so I pay half admission which helps me keep pace with Jamal. He’s been rolling in dough ever since he became a government contractor. Drives a slick Audi with Blueteeth everything. All he does is say, “Play Nelly” or that ludicrous guy and the music starts. Course, I’m bein’ generous by calling it music. I paid extra to install satellite radio in my old Ford pickup but boy is it worth it. Most earth-bound stations play Spanish music which I don’t care for. But the monthly bill does cut into my finances, so I eat beans in between meals at Wyatt’s.

“Got another gig in Romania,” he announced before tucking into a New York cut. Every now and then Jamal goes overseas to set up computer networks at military bases. He’ll go for two or three months and return with enough cash to order high-end bottles with exotic names.

“Guess we should warn Max to stock up on Screaming Eagle or that Opus thing you like.” I tip back my bottle of Tecate and watch his eyes light up. 

“Yeah. Damn, I miss the good stuff.”

“Good stuff? That Bernello you ordered cost a hundred dollars.”

“Brunello di Montalcino, and yes, it is fine.” He grins. “But it ain’t Opus One.”

Brun… I don’t know if he’s saying it right, either. But he was based in Italy while in the Air Force. At least, that’s what he told me. “So what the hell is our military doin’ in Romania?”

“Keeping the Russians out. Because you know Putin’s itching to reclaim those old Soviet territories. That’s why they got Trump elected.”

“Hey.” I point my knife at him. “We laid down rules, remember? No politics.”

Jamal lowers his empty glass to allow the waiter to refill. “When are you going to wake up and realize that guy is a Russian operative?”

“And when’re you gonna realize that that ‘Russian operative’ is a better champion of your Second Amendment rights than Hillary. Or Obama.” I slam my beer hard on the table. “If Putin wants Romania, Ukrainia or Draculvania, that’s a price I’m willin’ to pay.”

Jamal just stares at me, mouth hangin’ open. Finally: “I need to store my piece in your safe while I’m gone.”

“Sure.” I stare at the dessert cart knowing I won’t order anything. “Thought your friend kept it for you.”

“Neighborhood’s changing. I’m putting the house up when I get back.”

“Yeah, the whole state ain’t what it used to be. When do you leave?” 

He looks at his watch. “About five hours from now.”

“Guess you’d better get in more practice before facin’ off with Putin.” I finish my beer. “Wanna head back? I’ll drive you to the airport after.”


Here in Arizona we have open carry, so I exit the Ford wearin’ my Colt in a holster that hangs perfect below my hip. Years ago, I sprung for hand-stitched leather that looks real good as I stroll up to the check-in counter. And you know I have a Stetson, though I can’t wear boots anymore due to a plantar thing. Jamal keeps his gun in a box because he worries how someone will react if he’s strapped. I keep sayin’ it’s not like he has gold chains and a doo rag. He wears nice jeans, belted correct, and a Diamondbacks cap, plus a friendly smile. But I guess he’s seen enough videos of black folks gettin’ shot so… safety first.

Jamal’s worse for wear after drinking an entire bottle of red wine. And with the temperature still north of 100, the sweat streams into his eyes. His aim’s for shit this time, which makes him kinda mad. I only had a couple of beers knowing I’ll down eight more later by the pool. I open the loading gate and start feeding my Colt – one, skip one, one, two, three – 

 “How come you never offered to let me shoot that?”

 “Uh, don’t know.” I look up. “Figured it wasn’t sophisticated enough for you.”

 “It’s a classic, though.”

 “That it is.” I close the gate and hand it over. “Let the hammer down easy and you’re ready to go.”

 “Uh-uh. I’m shooting six.”

 “The fuck you are.”

 “The fuck I’m not.”

 “Shit, you’re way too drunk to be here. We’re leaving.”

 “Look, I’m fine.” He takes a bullet from my box and holds it up. The exposed lead slug seems to swell in the heat. “It’s on me if something goes wrong, okay?”

 “All right, Tex. Suit yourself.”

 “You know,” he rotates the cylinder until he finds the empty chamber, “I really am from Texas.”

 “Then you should know how to operate this thing.” I point. “Now pull the hammer all the way back.”

 “No way. I’ll do a quick-draw.”

 My eyes go wide. “From where?”

 “My belt. Just like with the Beretta.”

 “You’ll blow your dick off – and your leg.”

 “Oh ye of little faith.”

 “You’ll miss your flight if you shoot yourself, you know that right?”

 “Oh, I’m going to Romania tonight. Before Putin gets there.”

 I step back, hands in the air. “It’s on you, man.”

 Jamal faces downrange and stuffs the gun behind his belt. Then he wiggles his fingers before resting them on the handle. “Know how to say ‘shoot’ in Russian?”

 “That a serious question?”


 “I never spoke Russian and I ain’t startin’ now.”

 “Say it.”

 “No way.”

 “SAY IT.”

 I sigh. “If I agree to this, and you survive, you’ll give that gun back and never ask for it again.”

 “If I hit the bullseye, this gun is mine.”

 “You raising the ante? You little fucker. You never even liked this gun.” 

 “I like it now.” He pulls it out and inspects it again. “Feels heavy and powerful.” Then he stuffs it back, delighting as I cringe. “Are we on?”

 My head keeps shaking but I can see only one way out of this. “Fine. But you’ll do it like I did with yours, rapper-style.”

 “Gangsta style? With a cowboy gun?” Jamal scoffs. “I can’t decide if that’s a brilliant mashup or just plain racist.”

 “Hey, you started this which means I get to up the stakes: If you miss, you hand back my gun and buy all my bullets from now on.”

 “And if I hit the bullseye,” he grips the handle again, “I get the gun and you buy me a lifetime supply.”

 “But you gotta hold it wrong, like them rappers do.” 

 “Just say it in Russian, like I told you.”

 “All right.” I make him wait a little more. “Stray-liet.”


I’m on my seventh or eighth beer when a screen I’ve never seen before pops up on my computer. Jamal’s face appears. “Hey.”

“Jamal. What are you doing on my screen – and how the hell’d you do that?”

“I installed Skype when you weren’t looking. That way we can stay in touch.”

“The fuck?” I pick up my laptop and peer under it. “That’s some James Bond level skills you got there.”

“Hardly. You have no password protection, no security. You’re a disaster if the Russians try another hack attack.”

“Not sure what they’d want with me. You know, you coulda just called.”

“Your flip phone?” A devilish grin crosses his face. “But then I couldn’t torture you.” He dons a brand-new Stetson and I start groaning. Then he lifts my Colt and holds it right in my face. “Miss her yet?”

“Ever damn day. Until today. I was lookin’ for discount ammo for you, but then I found a nice replacement for sale. This one’s also nickel-plated but with a longer barrel. Think I might take out a home equity out on it.”

“Do it, man!” Jamal puts away his prize. “I might want yours if I lose this one to the Russians.”

“Wait. I thought you were in Romania.”

“I am. There’s a delegation here, part of a diplomatic thing. But these guys — they’re crazy about cowboy shit: guns, hats, boots, everything.”

“Think they’ll steal it?”

“Nah.” His face and voice briefly distort before returning to normal. “They might challenge me to a bet like we had. But they’re trickier than you are. No offense.”

“None taken. Be sure to have them put up somethin’ valuable—like a jet fighter.”

“Will do. Hey, I might be out here longer than I expected. They want me to stay at least a year now.”

“Well, that’s one year of ammo I don’t have to buy.”

 “Ah, no. I need you to send it to me. I’m emailing you the address.”

 “Jamal, you can’t just send bullets via Fed-X or somethin’. There’s paperwork. Federal paperwork—and I’ll bet military too.”

 “What if I told you things were getting hot here, and I might need bullets to defend myself.”

 “I’d say get on the next plane and get the fuck outta there.”

 “Nah, the money’s too good. Remember, I want Opus One when I get back.”

 “Yeah, Max ordered a coupla cases anticipatin’ your return.”

 “How’s he doing?”

 “Fine. He checks often on me while on there.”

 “You’re eating alone?”

 “Yeah.” I laugh. “I used to refer to you as my one black friend. Didn’t realize ‘til recently the word ‘black’ doesn’t matter.”

 Jamal grins. “I miss you too, buddy. Take care of yourself. Hey, if you have an inside connection with Trump, tell him to pay attention to what’s going on here. My life could depend on it.”

 I nod. “I know a group of supporters. They could start a tweet-storm in your favor.”

 He looks doubtful. “They’d do that for a black guy?”

 I laugh. “They’ll do it for a black fella wearin’ a Stetson and a Colt. And if they don’t, I’ll get on Twitter.”

 “Woah, look who’s entering the 21st Century. You’ll need a handle, you know.”

 “Oh. Hadn’t thought about that.” I pause. “How about BigButtCowboyLoad?”