Sunday, April 24, 2011

Chapter 3: Long Rifle

"When Pa was at home the gun always lay across those two wooden hooks above the door. Pa had whittled the hooks out of a green stick with his knife, and had driven their straight ends deep into holes in the log. The hooked ends curved upward and held the gun securely.

The gun was always loaded, and always above the door so that Pa could get it quickly and easily, any time he needed a gun."

Every evening, before Pa did anything fun with the girls, he took care of one of the most important tasks on the frontier. He prepared his gun for the next day's use. First he made the bullets by melting lead and pouring it into the bullet-mold. When he had replenished his stock of bullets it was time to clean the gun.

He washed the inside of the gun with boiling water, thoroughly dried it, then while it was still hot, he oiled it. It sounds like it could be a very messy job, but one that was vital to survival. A dirty gun was not a reliable gun. After cleaning, the next step was to load the gun.

Laura and Mary stood on each side of Pa to make sure he didn't make a mistake in the process, but he never did. First a carefully measured amount of powder went in, then a little piece of greasy cloth with a bullet nestled on the top of it. They were both pushed down to bottom of the barrel, then pounded with the ramrod to settle the bullet against the powder. The last step was to carefully place a firing cap underneath the hammer of the rifle--letting the hammer down too hard would fire the gun.

The long rifle played a very important role in American history. The purpose of the ridiculously long barrel was that it increased the accuracy and range of the gun. (something about the longer the powder burns, the greater the muzzle velocity, the greater the accuracy) This advancement in technology allowed the rough frontiersmen to out-shoot the better trained, but surprised, British soldiers.

"Whenever Pa shot at a wild animal, he had to stop and load the gun---measure the powder, put it in and shake it down, put in the patch and the bullet and pound them down, and then put a fresh cap under the hammer---before he could shoot again. When he shot at a bear or a panther, he must kill it with the first shot. A wounded bear or panther could kill a man before he had time to load his gun again."

The down side of this greater accuracy was the increase in the time it took to load. An old-school musket could be re-loaded in 20 seconds--still a little long if a grizzly is charging at you--but the long rifle required a full minute between shots. People on the frontier became good shots because their lives depended on it. If they missed the first time, there was no next time.

Now that's pressure. Miss and you're lunch! I wondered how long I would last in the Big Woods. In the interest of transparency, I didn't wonder very hard---I'd shot a gun approximately 2 times in my life, the first time in my teens. They let me try twice before my dad took the gun away because I was such a danger. (I'm still bitter.) The second time was with a pistol in a shooting range, and that didn't go too impressively either.

I prepared my target. How close would I have to let a charging panther get before I used my one shot? I painted the galloping mountain lion, not quite full size, but a large juvenile, then measured out 300 feet, the standard range for an average shot with the long rifle.

If you look really close and maybe click on the picture so it shows larger, you can see my panther target. Needless to say, I did not hit the target at 300 feet. At this distance the panther would reach me in less than eight seconds. Certainly not time enough to reload if I missed. I moved to 200 feet. Still not a dent in the paper. My dad felt the need to give me a little more instruction on how to hold the gun, as he felt my natural aptitude fell a smidge short.

"If you were any more awkward, you'd fall over."

He also fired a sample shot, and put a hole right through the panther's spine. Showoff!

I moved to 125 feet. The panther is getting closer---at this range, I have 3 seconds to make my shot count. I would be a bit nervous if I weren't dealing with cardboard. I fire another round with the .22 and Laura runs to check. Nope, nothing. Now it's time for the big caliber gun, the shotgun. My dad says the experience of firing it is the closest any of his guns come to firing a long rifle. It doesn't fire a single bullet, but a round of pellets that has a greater chance of hitting the target. I fire one round, and Laura runs forward again. Nothing. Not a mark. A second round, still nothing.

I move forward yet again, to the 100 foot mark. I wanted to go closer, but my dad said I could hit it with a rock from that distance. Speak for yourself! I was down to the last shotgun round and I braced myself for the painful repeat of the previous 2 shots. Literally painful. Shooting a shotgun is a LOT different from shooting a .22! It kicks, and with no earplugs, you're a little deaf for a moment or two afterward. Just as I was about to shoot, Laura told me to wet the sights, ala Sergeant York (great movie, watch and you'll know what she was talking about). At this point, what did I have to lose?

Even from 100 feet away, I could see some faint holes! Yes, I hit the target, and wonder of wonders, one of the pellets went through the heart of the panther. A kill shot at last. Any shot at last. But I still wanted to see how close I would have to be to really show off my superior marksmanship and get a kill shot to the head.

Switching back to the .22, I moved to 75 feet and fired. I must have been improving, because I hit the target on the first try, with a shot to the heart. Still not satisfied, I moved forward and shot from 50 feet away. Definitely improving, because I hit his head this time--I took out a tooth from his cheek. Now he was very mad and would reach me in just over one second.

Only 25 feet from the target, I was one leap away from kitty chow---the mountain lion can cover that distance in a single bound. This shot had to count and it did, a bullet square in the center of his brain. I would live to pioneer another day. Of course, I'd died about 50 times already, but in virtual pioneer land you get do-overs.

My shoulder is still sore from the recoil of the shotgun, but I feel a sense of accomplishment. I am not as putrid a shot as I was this morning. I'm still glad my life does not depend on my ability to hit a moving target. If it's got to depend on anything, I am hoping for a slow, patient target at least. Maybe a rabid, vicious giant sloth.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Chapter 2: Winter Days and Winter Nights

"The snow kept coming till it was drifted and banked against the house. In the morning the window panes were covered with frost in beautiful pictures of trees and flowers and fairies.

Laura and Mary were allowed to take Ma's thimble and made pretty patterns of circles in the frost on the glass. But they never spoiled the pictures that Jack Frost made in the night."

Winter is tightening its grip in the vast expanse of the Big Woods. Pa spends his days walking the trap lines, gathering wild creatures while their fur was thickest and most valuable. He never leaves his gun behind because the woods are still a dangerous place and you never know when you'll need to defend yourself. Each evening he comes home with icicles hanging from the ends of his mustache, chilled and ready for the warm, cozy fire.

Ma and the girls do the housework during the day; each day of the week has its own chore to do:

"Wash on Monday,
Iron on Tuesday,
Mend on Wednesday,
Churn on Thursday,
Clean on Friday,
Bake on Saturday,
Rest on Sunday."

After a day of busy work by every one in the family, Ma sews by the light of the kerosene lamp (lucky Ma) while Pa sings, plays games with Laura and Mary, or tells them stories of the old days.

After reading Chapter 2, I had two options for my experiment this week. I could either make butter or be chased through the woods by a panther. I chose to make butter, even though the second option would have been more exciting for my readers, I'm sure. I couldn't even find a cow to milk; dairy farming has gone seriously out of style in this region of the country. I could have tried to milk a wild range cow, but it turns out I do not have enough love to do that for you.

"Laura liked the churning and the baking days best of all the week."

My butter making supplies were somewhat different than Ma would have used, but the core process is still the same. Milk the cow, separate the cream, or go to the store, buy a container of (vastly over-priced) cream, and draw a picture of a cow on it so you don't feel so bad. Then you're going to need to agitate the cream by some method.

In the olden days, a churn was used. And used. And used. A more modern method is to use an electric mixer, just as if you were making whipped cream. In fact, I found out my own grandma, farm cook extraordinaire, occasionally turned her whipped cream to butter by beating it a smidge too long. I tried both methods, but lacking a churn, used a glass jar and a whole lot of energy shaking it.

I poured part of the cream in the jar, covered it with a plastic baggie and a rubber band, and started shaking it. My family provided moral support by putting on music to shake by, telling me I needed to shake faster, and laughing at me. Five minutes into it I was finished---unfortunately, the butter was not. It was another five minutes before I even began to see a change in my fluffy cream. However, having begun to change, it shifted rapidly, and another minute showed why you never want to over-beat your whipped cream.

"At first the splashes of cream showed thick and smooth around the little hole. After a long time, they began to look grainy. Then Ma churned more slowly, and on the dash there began to appear tiny grains of yellow butter."

Within 15 minutes of shaking, with breaks for taking pictures, I was looking down at a beautiful glob of creamy yellow butter swimming in thin buttermilk. I took it out onto a wooden board and began to work the buttermilk out of it.

Then it was time to try the modern appliance way. I tried the blender first, but all that did was whip it up too thick for the blender to work. So I poured it into a bowl and started mixing it with the mixer. It went much faster, and I had butter within 8 minutes. And it was much thicker butter, too, with more of the buttermilk worked out. I mixed the two batches together and added salt.

"Laura and Mary watched, breathless, one on each side of Ma, while the golden little butter-pats, each with a strawberry on the top, dropped onto the plate as Ma put all the butter through the mold. Then Ma gave them each a drink of good, fresh buttermilk."

I didn't have a butter mold, but made do with squishing the butter into a little glass bowl. Then it was time to clean up the rather large mess I'd made. Who would have thought innocent, little butter would be so untidy? My wonderful mom did all the dishes I'd gotten dirty, so a special thanks to my "Ma." Motherhood hasn't changed all that much since pioneer days--moms still get stuck with all the jobs nobody else wants.