The Sharps Rifle

        The rifle featured in the short story The Stand is the .45-70 Sharps, the best known of the “buffalo guns”.  Here Barrett takes aim with a Sharps owned by his partner “Arizona Lawdog” of the Single Action Shooting Society.

 

THE STAND: A SHORT STORY

                      By Barrett Tillman

     I was young and full of myself in 1939, but not wholly without reason.  Following the national rifle championship at Camp Perry, Ohio, I left the rest of my Army team members for some accumulated leave after making the top ten individual scores.  Riding the Northern Pacific line through Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, I sat back in the Pullman coach, enjoying the view of the American heartland, sleeping late and eating when I pleased.  The roadbeds were well maintained in those days, and rail travel was a pleasure.

     At age twenty-three, with corporal's chevrons already on my sleeves, I knew I had a great chance to add that third stripe in the coming year.  America was slowly awakening to the imminent threat of war in Europe, and with the draft snagging thousands of new GIs, everybody would move up quickly.

     Of course, barely three years later, much of the cockiness got knocked out of me when I found my platoon pinned down by Vichy Frenchmen on some godawful stretch of North African sand near Casablanca.  The yammering Hotchkiss guns quickly relieved me of any lingering sense of superiority just because I could punch the ten ring with my match grade '03 Springfield.  But that's another story.

     That summer I was looking forward to spending part of my leave with my parents on their farm in Washington State.  I was like many of my rifle team: farm kids from the Depression who found at least a temporary home in the Army.  The team was great duty for anybody who liked to shoot--especially in those lean years when ammunition was literally allotted one round at a time.

     So there I was, slim and fit and sassy with my feet propped up on the opposite seat when we pulled into Sioux Falls, South Dakota, one afternoon.  With my cap pulled down low, arms folded, I assumed a posture of studied nonchalance but kept one eye open for any girls' gams beneath lightweight summer dresses.  One or two merited a raised eyebrow, but I was content to stake my claim to both seats and continue the journey in pleasant solitude.

     I'd no more than closed my eyes again when I heard a distinct "Ahem."  I ventured a quick glance and saw lined riding pants tucked into high-top boots.  Following the individual's long legs northward, I came to the south end of a buckskin jacket, and aged, gnarled hands grasping an old-time valise that had logged many, many miles.

     Now fully alert, I raised my cap back to somewhere near where it belonged.  A colorful bandanna was knotted at the collar of the fringed jacket, and a magnificently-trimmed van dyke beard framed the most memorable face I ever saw.  The old gentleman had to be in his late seventies, with a walnut complexion and bushy gray eyebrows.  Set atop that face was a wide-brimmed ten-gallon hat, the sort I'd only seen in Tom Mix movies as a kid.

     It took me a moment to realize that this fugitive from Colonel Cody's wild west show intended to sit across from me.  So I reluctantly ceded the opposite seat and was about to ask if I could help the geezer with his large bag when he one-handed it into the overhead luggage rack.  He also placed his hat up there, smoothing his collar-length hair with one hand.  "Thank you, son" were his first words.

     As the train pulled out of the station, the old-timer settled in his seat, allowing his buckskin jacket to open.  I saw that he was whipcord thin, but his demeanor--the Army called it "command presence"--was one of quiet confidence.  The conductor came by, punched our tickets, and moved on.

     I wondered how to start a conversation with the intriguing character without seeming inquisitive or oafish.  But he beat me to it, pointing at my OD blouse on the seat.  "I see you're an expert rifleman," he ventured.

     Glancing down, I nodded toward the marksman's pin.  I was within two "legs" of going distinguished.  "Yes, sir.  I'm on my way back from Camp Perry."

     "Good for you, son!"  The old timer chuckled as if enjoying some private joke.  "I've always been fond of rifles myself," the man responded.  He extended his right hand.  "Marshall's my name.  Frank Marshall."

     I clasped his hand and was surprised at the strength of his grip.  The old bird had been around the block a time or two.  I remembered to tell him mine.

     Being well brought up and accustomed to nearly five years of service routine, I automatically addressed Mr. Marshall as "sir". But he dismissed that formality with a wave of a bony hand.  "Call me Frank," he said.  So I did, and I never made a quicker friend.

     Gradually I learned that Frank was headed for Butte, to visit friends.  He never spoke of a wife or children, and I was too shy to ask; I sensed that he was alone in the world but not terribly concerned about it.  Reflecting upon his age and mode of dress, I believe that Frank Marshall must have learned a great deal about loneliness in his life on the frontier.

     The hours slipped by, gliding smoothly on steel rails.  We adjourned to the dining car, enjoyed a pleasant dinner with liquid refreshment, and continued talking as evening settled over the great plains.  Now and then Frank would look out the window, never breaking the conversation, but focusing his attention on the far horizon.  That was where his gaze always returned; it seemed to be where he belonged.

     Mostly he spoke of the land, the openness and the freedom.  Occasionally he spoke of the people: hunters, guides, immigrants, and the Indians.  But he always returned to one topic, the central interest of his life: shooting.

     I learned a great deal about rifles and marksmanship from Frank Marshall, and it was a revelation.  I was already an accomplished shooter myself, with a national ranking, but I began to realize the drawbacks of my specialized equipment and fine, high-velocity ammunition fired in formal, almost ritual fashion. I was a fine shooter--Frank Marshall had been a superb marksman.

     He spoke wistfully of nights on the plains, carefully examining his equipment for the next day.  He used French powder and English brass with simple, rugged reloading tools secured to a wagon box.  He and his partners cast their own lead bullets from bars carried in the wagon, and religiously cleaned their tools: Sharps and Winchesters.  It was a major chore in the days of black powder, but their rifles were their livelihood as meat hunters for the railroad and later as hide hunters for the voracious Eastern markets.

     Frank patiently described the niceties of buffalo "hunting," at some pains to explain the contradictory nature of that term.  He had preyed upon bands of the great northern herd which, only a few years before he reached the prairie, could take four days to pass a single point.  "Buff are noble creatures," he said, "but dumb."  He spoke for 30 or 40 minutes, describing his best "stand," a long afternoon of lying prone on a Wyoming hummock 200 to 250 yards from a grazing herd.  At the end of the day he had dropped 83 of the beasts with 91 rounds and still had ammo remaining.  He quit because the skinners in the outfit could not possibly handle more.

     That night the party dined on bison steaks, fresh-cut from steaming carcasses.  Frank's crew numbered seven or eight: two shooters, four skinners, a drover and a cook.  Everybody had to lend a hand stretching the hides and curing them in the sun.  It was hot, gory, unglamorous work; the smell had to be appalling "but you got used to that after a spell," Frank opined.

     Despite the hardship and the gore, there was a tacit code of behavior on the plains--a sort of prairie civility.  You didn't ride into a strange camp in the dark without announcing yourself.  If you got a come-on reply, you approached with your long gun held sideways over your head, and you didn't dismount until invited.  If you were well mannered, you did not inquire too closely of your hosts' origins, intentions, or destination.  Talk around the fire dealt with immediate concerns: weather, food, rifles, Indians--and possibly Comancheros.

     Hospitality was considered a Western virtue, as it was among the tellers of the Norse sagas, as I learned when I finally got around to college.  But the Comancheros often were shot on sight.  They were, Frank insisted, either thieving murderers or murdering thieves, depending upon one's priorities.  He had partners who had lost a summer's work to the prairie pirates, and none of the horseback killers was safe within range of a .50 caliber rifle.

     We talked the night through, Frank and I, seated in a remote corner of the Pullman car where we wouldn't disturb anyone.  We watched a spectacular lightning storm in quiet appreciation of nature's power, then enjoyed the inevitable illumination as grayness turned to the low yellow light of dawn.  At the end of that marathon conversation, I wasn't even tired.

     I shook Frank's hand as he stepped off the train in Butte, promising to keep in touch.  He had given me his address, written in a clear, firm script, and he wished me luck in the next match.  Then he was striding down the platform in search of his friends.

     It's odd, you know, but I can't remember the color of Frank's eyes.  At first I'd have said brown or maybe hazel, but nearly all the time I spent talking to him was in darkness.  Today when I think of him, I see every detail except those marksman's eyes.

     Over the next five or six years I often thought of Frank Marshall.  From North Africa to Sicily, Italy, and points north, I kept seeing his face, hearing his voice.  I was the best rifleman in any unit I ever joined after 1941, and I even made a few hits beyond 300 yards.  How I looked forward to meeting Frank again after the war and trying to match his stories from the Great Plains with my "European walking tour". 

     In 1946 I finally got back to Sioux Falls and planned to spend a night or more there.  With six stripes and a diamond on my sleeve, plus two Silver Stars, I finally felt I could talk to the old buffalo hunter on something like equal terms.  I had long since lost his address, but if he was living I knew he wouldn't be hard to find.

     It was as I feared: a grizzled old cop told me that Frank had died in July '43, about the time I began climbing coastal mountains in Sicily. 

     During the war, it was easy to rationalize not writing to Frank--I certainly had other things on my mind.  But I couldn't help thinking that Frank Marshall, the dedicated marksman, would have talked to other dogfaces and some of them must have written to him.  In an odd, almost eerie fashion, I've spent part of every day for nearly 60 years wondering what the old plainsman must have thought of that fresh-scrubbed corporal on the train in '39--the one who promised to write and never did.

     Wherever he is now, I hope one thing as much as I ever hoped in my life: I hope that Frank Marshall is where he wants to be, spending his celestial days in leisurely pursuit of bison bison americanus, doping heaven's winds and sighting through the tang of a finely-crafted Sharps that never needs cleaning; spending starry nights in pleasant company of other marksmen, sipping on a bottle of something good while reloading .50 caliber cartridges for the next day's hunt.

     And now that I'm even older than Frank was when we met, I allow myself one more aspiration.  Please, Lord, someday soon let me sit around that angels' campfire listening to the tales of remembered hunts on the open plains when men were as free as they wanted to be, answerable to no one but themselves and their own consciences.

     That, to me, would be heaven.

 

This story is largely true.  It was first related to me by a flying buddy c. 1980, who had competed in the National Rifle Championships in 1939.  I wrote this version upon confirming some details before my source died in 1997.

      

   
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