They pulled into our cow camp just as I was loading the last of my gear onto a pack horse. The woman was good-looking with long, flowing blond hair, a fellow grazing-permit owner who was a treasure to talk to. Her outfitter, on the other hand, operating behind washed-out pig eyes, sullenly tied their pack mule to a snubbing post out front and then pulled his horse up close to me without saying a word.
I didn't have much tolerance for this guy, talking to the woman as I was, but kept an eye on him peripherally. He made sure I noticed the large-caliber handgun he carried strapped around his waist in a bandolier-style belt that contained additional rounds for the hogleg. The unique characteristic, at least to me, was that he holstered his handgun backward on the belt, butt of the grip facing forward. He did that, no doubt, so the lead rope from the mule wouldn't accidentally cock the hammer on his pistol, creating potential havoc. The guy was doing his best to bully me, and I figured if push came to shove, by the time he got his pudgy fingers around the handgun and straightened out in my direction, my long, bone-handled knife would have him lying face-down in his own gut pile.
Gun control is a big topic of conversation in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., massacre, and what rational person wouldn't give it some thought? My first gun was a .22-caliber, single-shot rifle given to me when I was 9 years old. It came with an afternoon of shooting instruction, taught by my dad. When I turned 12, I inherited my grandfather's .30-30 lever-action hunting rifle - a big step up, but the basics were there.
Almost everyone I knew had a gun of some type when we were growing up. So foreign was the idea of using a firearm against our fellow man, if we'd have wanted to hurt someone, we would have put the gun down first and used our bare hands.
I've heard the familiar refrain, "Oh my God, you have a gun," hollered at me by folks who somehow didn't think such things still existed in the land of civilized Westerners. Most of them refused the opportunity to examine the weapon, going into a meltdown of unbelievability, failing even to have a conversation about guns. Where that sort of unfounded psychological fear comes from, I couldn't say, but I know it exists.
It should be said that I never thought too much about keeping a gun close by until our mountains started holding overly aggressive people. Like the "local," not long ago staring me down, covered head to foot in camouflage, blocking the main trail, slowly drawing an arrow back in his bow as he refused to move aside for me and my horse, voicelessly claiming sovereignty. Or the high-powered guy with pale-gray eyes under red brows with rifle in one hand, a man I'd never seen before, instructing me to catch his runaway mule. Like a pissed-off parent, his parting refrain was, "You'd better not come back this way without that mule." Sometimes you have to watch your own back.
If you've been listening to the news, there is a national undercurrent of urgency, a sense that "something needs to be done." A tragedy like Newtown instills a certain fear within, and many are quick to clamor for change. Something does need to be done, and first is to have an honest discussion on whether we blindly mean "gun control" or actually wish to curb violence in our society and stop murderous grandstanding by mentally challenged folks. Typically, we throw money and laws at things we want to "fix," pretending to answer complicated issues without ever understanding the question. Political flamboyance, as demonstrated by the White House this week, does little to aid the cause or the conversation.
The Second Amendment is reality, as upheld by the Supreme Court, and there is a lot of misinformation out there, foisted on us by both sides. We need straightforward discourse, and we need to take our time. Failing that, we're just shooting pigeons in the dark.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.