“Hurry up!” Miss June said. “It’s happening!”
I came running toward the porch as fast as my chubby seven-year-old legs would take me. “I’ll protect you, miss!” I shouted, holding on to my cowboy hat, waving my pistol.
“You don’t need to protect me,” she said. “Just hurry, we don’t wanna be late!”
I sat in the front seat of Miss June’s Cadillac—no seat-belts—staring out the window, my Smith and Wesson holstered around my waist. On my chest: a gold star.
These were the days before iPhone games and juice boxes. If I wasn’t wearing a cowboy hat and packing a six-shooter, I was rescuing a maiden from peril, shouting, “I’ll protect you, miss!”
Which is what cowboys do.
Anyway, folks my age might not be as technologically brilliant as today’s youth, but we did know how to play dead whenever someone shot us. Which must count for something.
The hospital was a sterile-smelling place. When I walked into the delivery room, I met the smallest thing I’d ever seen—except for frogs. Once, I’d shoved nearly four bullfrogs into my pockets. And then, while sprinting toward the house at top speed, I tripped and fell.
Only one frog survived.
After that, I never trusted myself with any more than three frogs at a time.
Which is why I was afraid to pick up this newborn. What if I dropped her? Cowboys, you’ll note, are grizzled human animals, who lack the most basic sensitivities. This is because we’ve spent the majority of our lives eating raw armadillos, drinking cactus juice, practicing our John-Wayne walks in front of various full-length mirrors.
Not holding babies.
Even so, they put this child in my arms and said, “Say hello to your new sister.”
My eyes must’ve grown ten sizes.
She was lighter than I thought. She weighed less than our cat. She didn’t open her eyes, but her skin smelled like flowers. Real flowers. She was warm, soft like old cotton, and she had gangly legs that looked like chicken wings.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” Mama said.
I removed my hat; cowboys do this in hospitals.
Beautiful. It was an understatement. I’d never seen anything more breathtaking in all my life. Not even a sunrise.
Something happened in my chest. A sharp feeling. No longer were frogs and lizards my responsibility. Not climbing trees, nor cowboy hats, nor ’73 lever-action Winchester twenty-inch-barrel carbine forty-fours. It was this girl, in my arms. This person. The prettiest thing I’d ever laid eyes on. She needed me.
“I’ll protect you, miss,” I said.
And I meant it.