The range was a half-mile walk down another dirt road, away from the creek into the scrubland, past scattered trees and immobile rocking-horse oil pumps. Ranya felt more confident with her hair trimmed evenly, and the residual ink on her neck scrubbed off with Olivia's cold cream. She had gratefully accepted the offer to wash up in their camper's tiny bathroom, and felt much better with a fresh face and clean teeth.
As she walked, she reflected upon the fact that all of the clothes she wore belonged to a dead woman, from her tan leather hiking boots, to her green ball cap and even Linssen's gold-rimmed aviator-style sunglasses. This was more than a little bit creepy, but after years of nothing but prison denim, it felt nice to be dressed in casual civilian clothes.
She walked on, enjoying her aloneness, reveling in her anonymity. There were no terrain features to speak of anywhere around Barlow's Creek, it was practically dead flat over vast expanses of land to the horizon. Willows, cottonwoods, and cattails defined the course of the creek to the east and the west. Only trees, oil pumps and occasional houses broke the monotonous uniformity of the land.
The slap-dash outdoor shooting range was like many she had visited in Virginia before the troubles. The firing line consisted of a dozen rough unpainted wooden tables, with a plywood roof extending above all of them to protect the shooters from the mid-day sun. Two hundred yards from the firing line, there was a bulldozed dirt berm for a bullet backstop. This berm was the only "hill" in the vicinity. A few cars, pickup trucks, motorcycles and bicycles were parked on the grass behind the firing line.
A red flag twenty feet up a pole announced that the range was open. Nobody paid her any attention as she dropped her brown pack on an empty table at the left end. There was a small plywood range shack behind them, with a hand-painted sign advertising reloaded ammunition and targets for sale. The firing line was hot. Four men were shooting rifles from sandbagged positions on the tables at paper and cardboard targets 100 yards away. Ranya had only the Glock pistol and two full magazines of 9mm bullets, just thirty rounds in all, which she had taken from Linssen's bedroom. She had no plan, no itinerary, just a general desire to get to Albuquerque somehow, and the range had drawn her back to the sights and sounds of her youth. Any shooting range was familiar, friendly territory, a place where she felt that she had the best chance of making the kinds of contacts that she would need to assist her on her way.
A pair of men behind one table fiddled with a Mini-14 rifle, they couldn't get the stuck magazine out. The rifle reminded her of the 'gun guards' in the fields back at D-Camp, she wondered if they knew that she had escaped yet. A full size black AR-15 also lay on the table, along with gun cases and nylon zipper bags. Going back five years to the last she had heard, semi-auto rifles had been outlawed, but here they were, lying out in the open. A tall range safety officer wearing a red ball cap walked over. He tersely admonished the two for inadvertently pointing the muzzle of their rifle sideways down the firing line, while they tugged at the magazine. The lanky RSO appeared to be in his mid-fifties, she thought. The same age her father would have been, if he had not been murdered.
The range master finished with the two men, and walked over to Ranya's end table. "Howdy. You new around here?" He noted her pack, with the rolled-up blanket tied underneath.
"Just got in," she replied.
"What're you shooting today?" She had no visible gun case or range bag.
"Glock 19." She pulled the 9mm pistol from a side pouch on her pack. "I'd trade it for a .45 though, a model 1911. That's more what I'm used to. Anybody around here trade guns?"
The man laughed. "Anybody here trade guns? Who doesn't?" Random rifle blasts split the air just to their side. "Look, you need ear protection. We're not very formal around here, but we do insist on that. I'll cut you a break though--wait just a second." He walked over to the range shack and returned in a moment, and handed her a pair of plastic earmuffs. The man had sandy hair sprinkled with gray; he wore jeans and a faded blue polo shirt with the lightning bolt logo from Thunder Ranch.
A .45 caliber pistol, a model 1911, was holstered in leather high on his right hip. She gestured with her head toward the rifles on the nearby table. "Weren't semi-automatic rifles banned a few years ago?" she asked.
He took a half step back and regarded her carefully. Questions posed by strangers about firearms legality were regarded with suspicion at gun ranges. The realistic fear of ATF entrapment stings ran deep.
"Where are you from?" he asked her, his hands on his hips.
"Virginia...back east. Well that explains it. Sure, semi-auto rifles were banned, after the Stadium Massacre. And they still are banned, I guess. But this is North Texas, not Virginia, and we sort of do things our own way out here. We're not too worried about the federal gun laws, as you can probably tell. I mean, if the feds tried to come out here on gun raids, they'd have a real time of it! Anyway, I'm thinking they've already got their hands full in Detroit and LA, places like that." The man snickered. "Yeah, they've got plenty enough on their plates as it is, without declaring war on Texas."
"So, there're no feds in Texas?" she asked.
"Oh, no such luck. I'd say we still have our share, but they tend to mind their own business. They don't get out of the office much, you might say. They're not stupid: they want to go home at night, like everybody else. Meaning no disrespect to Virginia, but trying to enforce the old federal gun laws in Texas these days, well, that would be just about purely insane."
She nodded, and then asked, "Say, I noticed those two guys couldn't even get the mag out of their rifle. Are there any instructors around here? I could stand to earn a few bucks."
He chuckled. "Yeah, you might say there're a few instructors here. In fact, you're looking at Numero Uno. But you seem kind of young to be a gun pro--you're a firearms instructor? NRA certified? Or maybe you're just some kind of a natural Annie Oakley?"
She grinned at the mention of one of her childhood nicknames. "Something like that. All of the above, I guess. I grew up around guns. My father was a gunsmith; he owned a gun store with an indoor range. Back in Virginia." She pointed to the logo on his shirt. "He even came out to Texas, to Thunder Ranch a few times, back when?" She cleared her throat, her voice cracking. "So yeah, I can shoot. I'm a little rusty, but I can shoot."
"Say, what's your name?" He put out his hand, and she took it.
"Diana. Diana Williams."
"Diana, I'm Mark Fowler. I run this range, and I know everybody that matters around Barlow's Creek. Hey, you know what? If you can shoot, I mean really shoot, you might be able to make a little money, or maybe win some prizes later on this afternoon. There's not much to do for excitement out here but watch the grass grow and the wind blow, so shooting is pretty much the big sport. Of course, we encourage it: we keep the spent brass, and I get to reload it and sell it all over again. It's how we stay in business, you might say. Hey, you gotta be creative to make a buck these days." He paused, looking her up and down, considering. "You know, if you want to shoot for money, I might even lend you one of my .45s. You don't want to be shooting lead reloads out of that Glock, not even my reloads."
"No kidding--I don't want to lose any fingers. And I've only got two magazines of factory nine mill."
"Well then, let's see how you do with one of my .45s. If I think you can beat the local talent, I'll sponsor you, and spot you the ammo. How's that sound?"
"That sounds great Mr. Fowler, I appreciate it." She flashed him a toothy smile, forming cheek dimples, and he grinned right back at her.
"Mark. Please call me Mark...I'm not that old! Let me get a competition pistol out of my truck, and we'll see if you can shoot. None of the suckers around here will shoot against me anymore, so it might be fun to enter a ringer in the money matches. We usually have some macho men show up, and their pride just won't let 'em quit when a lady's whoopin' on 'em. Now let's grab my race gun, and see what you can do with it."
It took Ranya only a hundred rounds through Mark Fowler's custom-tuned .45 to get her shooting reflexes back up to speed. More shooters began arriving after lunchtime, mostly on foot or bicycle, or packed into the backs of trucks. It was becoming evident that gasoline was not only expensive, but it was hard to come by. She did as much listening and as little talking as she could, concealed behind her ball cap and aviator's sunglasses.
They started with a contest shooting steel targets for time. A judge with a stopwatch followed behind the competitors. Skillet-sized steel plates were balanced on steel bar frames, at ranges from ten to thirty yards from the firing line. When hit, they made a loud ringing clang and flopped over. Shooters had to run from position to position, firing at specific groups of targets, knocking them all down before moving on, changing magazines as needed.
If nothing else, she figured she would get in plenty of pistol practice, after five years without firing a shot. Practice that she might put to good use later, when it was time to rescue her son from his kidnappers.