“I don’t think it’s big enough,” said Tehtehma.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Thomas. It’s plenty big enough.”
“I’m telling you it’s too small to work.”
“And I’m telling you this size has always worked fine,” Thomas said. “It isn’t my first time doing this, you know.”
“It’s not my first time, either,” Tehtehma said. Tehtehma’s pursed lips formed a straight line across her face.
“I thought you said this was your first time,” Thomas stammered.
“No,” said Tehtehma. “I have a little experience.”
“Who with?” said Thomas.
“Two of my cousins.”
“And my sister,” mumbled Tehtehma.
“Her, too? Huh.”
“And my father taught me a little, as well,” she said. “That’s why I know it’s not big enough to fit properly.”
“Clearly, none of you know my trick,” said Thomas.
“Fine,” said Tehtehma, as she rolled her eyes. “What is this trick for your small balls?”
“I don’t use wadding,” said Thomas. “My father taught me to wrap it in buckskin.”
“Show me what you’re talking about,” said Tehtehma. “Show me how the White Man does it.”
“Watch this,” said Thomas, as he retrieved a patch of buckskin from the leather bag that hung at his side. He held up the patch with a flourish for Tehtehma to see before passing it to his left hand, which still held the business end of the musket. Thomas dug deeper into his possibles bag. After feeling his way around the bottom, he retrieved a musket ball. He held it between his thumb and forefinger for his novice to examine.
“I still say your balls are too small,” said Tehtehma, shaking her head.
“That’s why I do this,” Thomas said, as he doubled over the piece of buckskin, placed it over the muzzle, and pressed the lead ball into the layer of buckskin until it filled the opening. “It takes up the extra room.” Tehtehma reached a hand out and pressed her thumb again the ball. It did not move against her touch.
“What does taking up the extra space do?” said Tehtehma, as she withdrew her hand and looked at Thomas.
“Makes it more accurate,” said Thomas. He pulled the ramrod from where it tucked into a hole that ran parallel to the barrel the length of the stock and lined up the brass seating jag with the ball. With short movements, Thomas pressed the ball into the barrel until it rested below the lip of the muzzle. The excess buckskin drooped out of the muzzle. He removed the ramrod and passed it to Tehtehma. “Here. Hold this.”
“How does it do that?” Tehtehma said, as she gripped the ramrod. Thomas removed a small knife from his belt and began to cut away the excess buckskin flush with the muzzle.
“I don’t know,” Thomas said, slicing through the last of the material. “I asked the same question when I learned about it, but nobody knew why it worked. It just does.” He slipped the knife back into its sheath and stuffed the patch of buckskin back into his possibles bag.
“Do you push it down with the rod like normal?”
“Just like loading anything else,” said Thomas, as he took back the ramrod with his free hand and lined it up with the ball a second time. The seating jag peeked from the bottom of his fist as the matching curvatures of lead ball and brass jag kissed. He pushed down until his fist met the musket’s muzzle, re-gripped, and pushed again. Tehtehma crept toward the display and leaned forward for a better view as Thomas muscled the ball down the musket’s throat. The strokes grew longer the further down the barrel the ball went until nearly the entire ramrod was swallowed by the musket. Thomas gave the ramrod a few final tamps until the face of the muzzle was flush with a line scribed into the wooden ramrod. “Take it down to the mark so you know the ball is at the right depth to rest against the powder. That’s why I measured it so carefully.”
“That makes a difference?” Tehtehma said.
“How far off the mark was I?” said Thomas. His face broadened into a smile. Tehtehma narrowed her eyes and studied Thomas.
“Can you do it again?”
“I think I can,” Thomas said. He turned where he stood and faced his target tree. Thomas reached for the outside edge of his possible bag and withdrew a sewing needle that he kept threaded between the stitching for safekeeping. He drew the needle free and lifted the musket, pinning the butt of the stock in his armpit. Holding the needle between this thumb and forefinger, Thomas pivoted the frizzen forward with the remaining fingers of his hand.
“What are you doing, now?” said Tehtehma. She stepped up behind Thomas and peered over his shoulder at the musket’s lock. Tehtehma leaned further forward until her chest contacted Thomas’ back and her breath danced across the base of his neck. Neither moved away.
“I use it to clean the dottle out of the flash hole,” Thomas said, as he brought the needle toward the musket’s powder pan. “That little hole gets blocked and after a while, it won’t fire.”
“How often do you have to do that?”
“I try to do it as often as I can, but sometimes, I forget,” said Thomas, as he shrugged his shoulders. He inserted the needle into the flash hole and scraped it around the inside twice before holding it up for Tehtehma to see the collection of fouling. “All that plugs the hole and blocks the flame from reaching the charge.” Tehtehma reached around Thomas’ shoulder and plucked the needle from his fingers.
“Huh,” said Tehtehma, as she looked at the blob of gummy, burned gunpowder that clung to the needle. “That’s something I didn’t know. Who taught you that?”
“My father,” Thomas said. “He’s taught me a lot about shooting. He even lets me use his rifle sometimes. That is when he’s not angry at me.” Thomas retrieved the powder horn slung on his side opposite the possibles bag. He pushed the wooden plug from the narrow end of the horn with his thumb. The plug dangled from a short tab of rawhide that secured it to the main body of the powder horn.
“He’s not angry at you that often,” said Tehtehma. She flicked the blob of sludge from the needle with the tip of her finger.
“He has been this summer,” Thomas said. He brought the mouth of the powder horn to the musket’s cock and jiggled the horn until gunpowder trickled out. The powder flakes formed a mound in the pan. “He’s always yelling at me for not working fast enough or not doing chores right.”
“Maybe he’s trying to teach you things you’ll need to know for when you have your own homestead?” Tehtehma said. She reached for the possibles bag that hung by Thomas’ hip. She steadied the bag with one hand as the other slipped the needle back into its place along the stitching.
“I think he just wants a slave,” snorted Thomas. He pivoted the frizzen closed over top of the pan and gave the musket a shake to remove extraneous flakes of gunpowder. “Even if you’re right, I won’t have need for most of what he wants to teach me. It’s only of use if I’m going to live out in the wilderness as a trapper or something.”
“What will you do otherwise?”
“I know I don’t want to live out in the middle of nowhere,” Thomas said. He thumbed back the hammer of the musket and brought it up to his shoulder. “Cover your ears.”
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