Girl with a Gun
"Wild West Show's Frank Butler to Compete in a Shooting Contest Today at the Grand Terrace Hotel. Who Will Beat the Dashing Sharpshooter from Kentucky?"
Greenville Gazette – March 25, 1885
Annie Mosey struggled to negotiate Buck and the wagon through the bustling town square traffic of Greenville, Ohio. Carts and carriages crowded the tree-lined street. Annie swallowed down the dust, watching women parade up and down the hard, dirt-packed streets in their full-length satin and velvet dresses, twirling parasols above their heads. Men wore fine wool suits, beaver hats, and fancy shoes with buttons down the side. Annie looked down at her shapeless dress trimmed with old, tea-stained lace. It paled in comparison, but she didn't care. Her modest Quaker sensibilities dictated that clothes do not make the woman.
Annie guided Buck to the Grand Terrace Hotel's white columns then hopped off the buckboard seat to help down her mother, Susan. She motioned for her youngest siblings, John Henry and Hulda, to climb down from the back of the wagon bed.
"I wonder how many will be competing? I'm not sure I like this, dear." Her mother's dark eyes strayed toward the pedestrians in the street. She pulled her shawl closer over her ample body, covering her large bosom. "The show's manager, Mr. LeFleur, told me they would only allow twenty shooters. They don't want to wear out Mr. Butler. The Wild West Show has to go on the road next week."
"You mean that show that travels like a circus, with worn-out cowboys and Indians acting like a bunch of foolish boys? I don't see the attraction."
"Frank Butler isn't a worn-out cowboy, Mother. He's the world's most famous sharpshooter."
They made their way around the brick walls surrounding the colonial style building. An expanse of rolling green lawn led to a pristine lake, shadowed by weeping willows and soaring elm trees. Tables set up along the back wall of the hotel indicated where the contest would take place.
Well-dressed gentlemen and sophisticated ladies milled around the tables. Annie's gaze settled on Frank Butler. He appeared relaxed, laughing with some of the other gentlemen, all of them smoking cigars, a cloudy halo around their heads. He removed his hat, raked a hand through his thick, blonde hair, and winked at one of the passing women. Annie ignored his obvious charm and concentrated on her goal: winning the money her family so desperately needed.
Someone gripped her elbow.
"Hello, Annie. Are you ready for the big match?" Mr. LeFleur's Southern drawl, with the hint of a French accent, added to his sophistication. His hazel eyes flitted over Annie's face. A bit older than her mother, with grey at his temples and tiny white streaks through his mustache, his panache made him appear much younger. Today he wore a rich brown brocade coat and velvet vest with a gold watch fob tucked in the pocket. Annie stared up at him.
"I don't know ... I'm afraid I'll let you down —"
"Let me down? What's this talk?"
"It's just so much." She waved her arms to indicate the hotel and its surrounding beauty, and then focused her eyes on Frank Butler, "and he's so ... pretty. Like a peacock. I feel a bit out of my league shooting next to him." Annie chided herself for feeling inferior. Her father would be appalled.
LeFleur laughed. "I guess women do consider the Irish rake pretty. But you're the best shot in Darke County."
Annie nodded, mustering her courage. She'd been shooting game to make extra money since she was ten years old, and so far, she'd not missed a single bird, rabbit, nor squirrel. Pretty or not, famous or not, she could outshoot Frank Butler. She straightened her spine.
"Yes, I am."
"Believe me, he's not perfect. He's not even a perfect shot."
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, he's good. A year ago, no one could have beaten him. He still wins most of the time, but something's changed. If anyone's got a chance to win here today, it's you. This is your opportunity, Annie. Have faith." Annie looked over at her mother, who frowned at Mr. LeFleur's enthusiasm. Annie's older sister was a proper Quaker and the pride of their mother. She led a simple life of humility and grace, and married into the servitude of God. But Annie had always been different, more like her father, and somehow she knew that a simple life would not be enough for her.
But there was more at stake here than her spiritual struggle. The simple truth prevailed. Despite her mother's protest at Annie showing off her shooting skills, she needed to win the $200 prize. The farm's mortgage could not be paid with the meager earnings she made hunting game. They needed to pay the farm's mortgage, and she needed to pay LeFleur the contest entry fee. If she didn't win, she would have to marry Friend Mick Easton, another member of the Friends community she'd grown up with, who'd recently asked for her hand. Her life would be far easier, but it would be a life of sewing and housekeeping, like the life of her sister. No more shooting, no more hunting, never to leave North Star.
When the sound of gunfire filled the air, Annie and Mr. LeFleur made their way to the weapons tables.
"See anything you like?" he asked.
Annie's eyes roamed over the fine rifles, shotguns, and pistols displayed on a gleaming blue silk tablecloth.
"Oh, yes," she sighed, "but I'm going to use my father's Henry. It'll bring me luck."
LeFleur reached for her rifle. "1860 .44 Caliber."
"Yes. My father was quite proud of it. I'm better with a shotgun, but today it seems to make sense to use a rifle."
"I agree." LeFleur lit a cigar and then pointed to the shooters. "Let's see what you're up against."
Annie trained her eyes toward the competitors and their weapons.
An assembly of people, many clad in western-styled, fringe-trimmed garments and fine leather jackets with glittering collars and cuffs, stood nearby. Next to them stood a group of Indians wearing buckskin and headdresses. Annie's eyes swept over them until a tall, barrel-chested man stopped her cold. She recognized his thick head of wavy brown hair and the beard that culminated to a fine point on his chin. She was staring at the Honorable William F. Cody, Buffalo Bill, owner of the Wild West Show, standing just a hundred feet from her.
A woman with exotic features leaned into Buffalo Bill, her hand curled around his arm. Her olive complexion, almond-shaped eyes, and rosebud lips, along with her purple lace bodice and flowing black skirt, made her stand out among the group like an orchid in a cotton patch.
The announcer's voice startled Annie.
"You'll go last." LeFleur leaned down, his breath warm on her ear. "It'll really pack a punch after all these gents."
Another man stepped forward and glared at Frank Butler, his face set in hard lines. Butler flashed him a confident smile and nodded for the stage to begin. A contest official threw a red glass ball into the air. The opponent aimed his rifle and shot, shattering the target into hundreds of sparkling ruby pieces. Annie gauged the toss to be about thirty feet high, definitely within easy range for her. Seconds later, the official threw a blue glass bulb into the air. Butler destroyed it with ease.
The glass balls flew up, one by one, and each man hit his targets. On the fifteenth toss, the opponent missed. The official threw one more in the air and Butler hit it. The crowd roared with applause. Another opponent stepped forward.
One by one, Frank Butler annihilated his challengers. As Annie's turn approached, she tried to calm the fluttering in her chest. She turned to look at Mr. LeFleur, and he gave her a wink, rolling the cigar between his teeth, a satisfied smile playing on his lips.
"Mr. Butler is shooting well today," a woman, standing just behind Annie, said in a raspy whisper.
"Today, yes — you should have seen him last week," her friend said. "Disastrous."
"I heard Cody and his manager are thinking of dropping him from the show, if he continues to shoot poorly."
"Such a pity if he loses. You know, he gives large amounts of money to the Darke County Infirmary, to help clothe and feed poor people."
The sound of gunfire diverted Annie's attention back to the competition.
"You're up next," said LeFleur.
Annie curled her hands fiercely around the rifle, her fingers aching from the pressure. She could feel the crowd stirring, searching for the last shooter, but her feet had grown roots and she couldn't move. LeFleur grasped Annie's elbow and pulled her forward.
"Mr. Butler, meet your last opponent, fifteen-year-old Miss Annie Mosey." LeFleur grinned.
Goose pimples rose on Annie's skin. She cast a glance in Frank Butler's direction only to be greeted with that wicked smile. Annie tried to return his smile but couldn't make her lips work. She didn't want to be thrown off her aim.
"How do, Miss Mosey," he said, removing his hat with a polished flourish.
"Ready!" The announcer crowed to the audience. "Best of two rounds wins. Miss Mosey, the first shot is yours."
The official threw a glimmering, translucent yellow ball into the air. Annie drew her aim and shot, shattering the bulb into sunny fragments. Butler took aim at the next ball and shot, a pop echoing through the breeze as the shards fluttered to the ground. One by one, Annie and Butler took turns hitting the glass balls, their aim steady and sure. After fifteen hits each, the announcer stepped forward.
"Well, at this rate, it's going to take all afternoon," he said. "Let's make it a bit more challenging — two at a time!" The crowd roared.
Annie let out her breath. The shooting calmed her, made her feel more herself, as long as she didn't look at Butler. His ease in the limelight was only overshadowed by his swaggering confidence. Annie fought to maintain concentration, to not feel completely intimidated by his undeniable skill. She'd never met anyone like him. Friend Easton came close, but even he never radiated such self-assured coolness.
Two glass balls soared into the air and Annie hit them in succession with ease, gaining back her momentum. Butler hit the next two. Annie's arm began to tire. Used to the weight of the Henry, it had never taken her this long to make a day's wage in the field.
They progressed to three balls. Her eyes followed the targets. Bang, bang, bang, she hit them all.
At Butler's turn, he took aim and missed the first ball, but hit the other two. The crowd stirred behind her, their excited voices floating on the air. If she missed one of the balls, they would have to shoot again. If she hit all three, she would win $200 — money her family desperately needed. But if she won, Butler could lose his job — and be ridiculed for letting a woman win. She'd win the opportunity to help her family keep the farm, but he could lose everything. She'd be responsible for bringing down a hero, the greatest sharpshooter in the world. Annie turned to him, her gaze meeting his.
"Think of what you could do with $200, sweetheart. Shoot straight." He winked at her.
The official launched the targets. Annie hesitated, thrown off by his patronizing words still ringing in her ears. She missed the first one, but hit the next two. A collective gasp rattled through the crowd.
Annie clenched her jaw. How could she have missed? She never missed.
"Next shot wins." The announcer's voice echoed throughout the grounds. "Mr. Butler's turn."
Annie glanced at Butler, praying he would miss, and then silently admonished herself for wishing another ill will. Butler pressed a thumb and finger against his eyes, looking as exhausted as Annie felt.
"My money's on the little gal," a man shouted. "Double or nothing, anyone?"
People around them laughed, and some men raised their hands to join the bet. Butler steeled his eyes forward and lifted his rifle.
The crowd murmured — the tension in the air was so palpable, Annie could feel it slicing into her bones. The ball went up and she watched it drift toward the heavens, each moment going higher and higher. She held her breath. When would he shoot? She could feel him calculate the timing of when to pull the trigger, when to destroy the shining piece of red glass in a perfectly cloudless sky — a tiny object with the power to hold or mold a future.
Frank fired and the glass ball shattered into sparkling red fragments, raining blood from the sky.
The crowd roared with delight. Frank Butler, the most famous sharpshooter in the world had won again.
Frank turned to her to shake her hand and when his palm pressed against hers, she felt as if the ground shifted beneath her feet.
"You're quite an excellent shot, Miss Mosey. You had me worried for a minute there."
Now so close to him, Annie noted that the glint of arrogance in his eyes had faded to a complacent resignation. His smile, radiant from a distance, displayed a jaded and practiced stiffness.
"Thank you, Mr. Butler. It's a pleasure to meet you."
With his right hand still holding hers, he used his other hand to lightly encircle her arm. "The pleasure was all mine." His eyes roamed over her face and then met her gaze, lingering for a moment, as if she beguiled him. Annie's face grew hot.
Seconds later, the masses, like a dark cloud, pushed forward and swept him away.
"You did just fine, Annie. Just fine." Her mother came up behind her. "I lost, Mother. I lost the money."
"It doesn't matter." She pressed her palms to Annie's face. "You had your chance. God will provide. We'll get by somehow."
"Of course. Let's find the children. I want to go home."
Annie took her mother's arm and headed towards the main thoroughfare. She felt all the eyes of the spectators on her as they passed by. Several people shouted, "Great job, excellent shot, you sure had him worried." Annie nodded or offered a tight smile, tugging her mother through the throng.
"Miss Mosey, wait." LeFleur pushed his way through the crowd. They all three stepped aside — away from the wave of people.
"I'm so sorry, Mr. LeFleur," Annie said. "I owe you the entry fee. I'll pay back every penny, I promise."
"You are a wonder, Miss Mosey. The crowd loves you." LeFleur grabbed both of her hands and laughed.
"But I lost."
"It doesn't matter, Annie. They loved your spunk, your talent. They've never seen a girl like you. Listen, I want to take you and your mother to dinner at the hotel. There's someone I want you to meet."
Annie and her mother exchanged glances. Her mother frowned again, in obvious disapproval.
"Well, I suppose we will then, thank you." Annie hoped Frank Butler wouldn't be there. She didn't want to face him again. "We'll have to bring along my brother and sister."
"Meet me in the hotel restaurant at six o'clock. Bring everyone." LeFleur tipped his beaver top hat and pushed into the crowd again.
"Eating at the hotel," Susan said. "I'm not sure we should. I'm not sure it's proper, and we certainly haven't enough money for the week." "But it would be rude to refuse, Mother. The grouse are coming back.
I'll have a good week next week. Don't worry."
Annie's mother gave her a dubious look. "Eating at the hotel — as if I were the Queen."
* * *
The main door to the Grand Terrace Hotel revolved in a circle, sucking people in and spewing them out, all in one fluid motion. Annie and her mother watched for several minutes before stepping into one section of the orbiting door and scooting their way into the interior, plush with velvet chairs and potted palms. A grand marble staircase soared in an upward arc to the next floor. Large tapestries decorated the walls. One depicted sleek horses, red-coated riders, and a pack of long-eared dogs, galloping in pursuit of a fox. Others illustrated pastoral scenes and grand houses.
"Excuse me?" A man wearing a dark red suit and a tiny cap approached them. "Are you Annie Mosey?"
"Follow me, please." He tipped his hat and led them through the elegant lobby into the restaurant filled with silk brocade upholstered booths and gleaming marble tables. They paused in front of a set of cream-colored velvet curtains, and the man pulled them back to reveal a small group of people chatting and sipping champagne.
Mr. LeFleur, Buffalo Bill, the exotic woman, and a stocky Indian wearing a full-feathered headdress, engrossed in their conversation, didn't seem to notice Annie and her family.
No Frank Butler. Annie didn't know if she felt relieved or disappointed.
"Mrs. Mosey, children. Please come in and join us." LeFleur stood up.
"It's Mrs. Brumbaugh" Susan said.