My father, a conscientious objector and lifelong man of peace, handed me the revolver and told me that his father would have wanted me to have it. That was true. My grandfather would have liked seeing the Smith & Wesson in my hands, on the ranch. He’d have been pleased to think of me riding through mountains where the herds summered, the .357 Magnum steeling me against bears, darkness, and other terrors. He’d have been glad to know that his old handgun delivered brutal, necessary mercy to cattle I could not cure.
The Smith & Wesson was more than pretty. It was exquisite. Darkly perfect. When the weapon first came to me, I couldn’t stop touching it. On slow nights, I’d sit in the bunkhouse alone, tracing the cylinder’s machined curves, the sweep of checkered grips, the shining and adamant barrel. I was enthralled. Pointing the revolver at a rough-finished wall, beyond which lay pastures and Montana’s black night, I’d let the hammer rise and fall on empty chambers.
I was sold on an American myth back then. Born in a rain-soaked city by the sea, I had come of age and driven eastward to Montana, where the West was rumored to be. I worked. I stayed. I lived beneath the vaulted, vaunted sky and never got enough of it. Each night, my dreams resurrected vastness, aridity, peaks, and grassland. This midnight Montana, when it was populated at all, included sun-worn, straight-backed cowboys on horseback. They were armed—I remember that clearly—with rifles in saddle scabbards or revolvers on hips. I knew the weapons at a glance. They were the guns that won the West.
Say you have a favorite dog who sleeps on the bed and noses you awake each morning. A working dog, a herding dog you trust entirely, to whom you are loyal, from whom you consider yourself inseparable. One night, your eyes open from a dead sleep to find him standing over you, close and wolfish, a snarl revealing canine teeth you’d long forgotten or ignored. It was that way for me with the revolver.
It happened on a dark, shatteringly cold winter night. I was living on a ranch, mostly alone, with an unsettled mind. Death was all around me that year: I had trained a horse, ridden joyfully through hills, then watched as his kidneys failed until I had to put him down. I had fought, without much success, to save dozens of calves as a parasitic infection ripped through the herd.
It’s hard for a cattleman to admit that death is its own master, an eternally unbroken horse, since that fact threatens the basis of husbandry. A rancher has to believe that hard work helps preserve life, that it provides some control over mortality. When that belief is undone, one is tempted to rely on more destructive powers.
After dinner, I cleaned the Smith & Wesson. I rechambered the bullets, as was my custom, but did not set the weapon aside. I sat on a futon, holding the clean, purposeful revolver in my hand, with a thought running through my mind: I had never aimed a loaded gun at my own foot before. Checking carefully that the hammer was lowered and my finger clear of the trigger, I did so. Looking across the bucktoothed sights at the thin metatarsals ridging my sock, I thought how beautifully complex a foot was and how irreparably it could be shattered. It was terribly easy to point that handgun at things—my knee, my thigh. My right hand turned it on my left. It cost no more effort than a gesture.
I understood it then. As one hand threatened the other, I realized that I had stumbled across the only sure way to take the reins of death. There ensued an awful stillness, in which I thought seriously about self-destruction for the first time in my life. I had known the magnetism of the void before, when I stood looking from the rims of cliffs. Everyone feels that pull and knows the thrill of resisting it. This was different and more dangerous. I had never seen so clearly how the thing was done and why people did it. I had never entertained such thoughts with a loaded weapon in hand.
When morning came, I buckled on my grandfather’s gun. It had grown heavy overnight.
A friend of mine, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, convinced me that I was wrong about fire. Fire, she said, was only destructive, only hellish, in European cosmology. To Native people in the Northern Rockies, it was a means of renewal, an agent of rebirth. She meant this practically, among other things. For millennia, the Salish and other Native cultures tended forests with periodic burning. Flames cleared the understory. Heat opened the stubborn cones of pines. Afterward, everywhere, life rose from the ashes.
Steel, a master blacksmith named Jeffrey Funk told me, is miraculous in its origins and ability to be reborn. Metal originates in the heavens. Stars make iron. The universe is so ordered by the laws of physics that a sun first burns lighter elements, such as hydrogen and helium, by way of nuclear fusion, before progressing to heavier fuel, such as iron and nickel. Then, the process falters. The star cools. It dies explosively in a supernova, hurling metal into the void, seeding our cosmos with iron.
On Earth, Funk said, the star metal is constantly recycled. It is a shapeshifter, made new by fire. Reduced to rust, it sinks into the ground and rises again as ore. “Sometimes,” he told me, “it seems like the stuff wants to be reused.”
Those words were ringing in my mind when I took up my grandfather’s revolver in tongs, walked to a blazing furnace, and set the gun inside.
At 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the Smith & Wesson was cherry red. Near 2,000 degrees, it glowed like a lightbulb. Soon after that, it burned pure white—star white. It shone, looking as beautiful as it ever had in my Western dreams. We annealed the gun overnight, softening the steel by cooling it slowly in a chest of ash. In the morning, Funk lit the forge again and we went to work with hammers.