The Bullet Truer
You gotta understand the time we grew up in; just about every man we knew in our town had served. These old men—aging farmers, loafers at the mill, the hardware and seed stores—each bearing their secret wounds, and sometimes, if you were lucky, you’d hear one of their stories, and me, Dillon, and Shane, we collected and traded their stories like baseball cards. The three of us were thick as thieves and always into something. One day we had a debate going—somebody got it in our heads. We wanted to know what a bullet sounds like.
Of course, since we were all in seventh grade, we’d had plenty of experience hunting, but we wanted to know what a bullet really sounds like: what our forefathers heard when they were shoeless and bloodying up the snow at Valley Forge; what Davy Crockett and Sam Houston heard when they were protecting the Alamo with every last ounce of guts; what the boys heard on the beaches of Normandy on D-day.
History was our subject. We liked reading about old times when politicians were a different breed. Real men. Gun-toting battle-horses like Andrew Jackson and T.R. who’d paid their dues and didn’t just sit around in Washington voting on useless laws, kissing babies, figuring out new ways to tax the workers in this nation. Don’t get me started.
It was always war with us. Wars or shoot-em-ups. Used to, every Saturday night we’d catch the double feature in town: The Longest Day, The Sands of Iwo Jima, anything with John Wayne: The Searchers, The Alamo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance…
But about the bullet—maybe it was Dillon who said, It sounds like a 200 mile per hour bumble bee whizzing past your ear.
You don’t know that, I said. I’ll bet it’s like a tiny racecar with the world’s fastest, smallest engine.
You don’t know nothing, Shane said to me. No sir. Ain’t none of you right. You know how it sounds when we’re hitting around that old rubber ball in Dillon’s back yard? I mean, when one of us sends it sailing all the way to the cotton field, you can hear it cutting the air over your head. That’s what it’s like—a ball cutting the air, fired from a Sandy Koufax cannon.
Then we’d argue about baseball.
One day we cooked up this idea. Every day after school we’d go behind Dillon’s house. His dad had this old barn he used for a shop. He could weld or fix anything you broke. He was always having to fix mess Dillon broke on the farm. Mess like, oh man, Dillon was the worst farmer son I ever seen. Hated driving his dad’s tractors, and sometimes when he’d truck tobacco, he’d turn too sharp at a stop sign or down a dirt path and bend the hell out of a trailer tongue. But his dad was always patient. Patient as a farmer can be, I guess. When your job depends on the weather, you learn patience or you don’t live to be a very old farmer. Worrying kills farmers like heart disease, you know? Anyway, he’d just shake his head and say, Boy, we’ll get you learned how to drive a tractor one of these days. Then he’d have to saw off the trailer tongue and weld it back on straight, but once you mess one up, they ain’t ever the same again. Reckon that’s how it is with all broken things.
So we’d work in Dillon’s barn. His dad had saved a pile of lumber from when they’d sold the timber on that few acres behind me and Shane’s houses (we lived across the road), and his dad didn’t care what we did with it so long as he had enough to build a little shelter for the lawn mower, bicycles, and such, and a small house for their red bone, Sniper.
Won’t nothing out of the ordinary to see us dragging tools and lumber and God knows what all down to the edge of the woods across that cotton field. I mean, Dillon’s mom saw us that day and didn’t think nothing of it. Why should she? She’d seen it dozens of times. We’d get on kicks like these. Few weeks we’d play baseball with rock bases and an army of ghost runners in Dillon’s backyard, or we’d go to me and Shane’s yards and play “smear the queer,” which is basically football for the sake of knocking each other around. I was always the runt, but the fastest—could dodge and cut like a rabbit, and they’d wear themselves out trying to catch me. Shane was the biggest, about half a year older than me and Dillon, and poor Dillon: tall, lanky, slow, glasses and all. Catching him was like catching chicken pox in kindergarten.
So, we built this thing in pieces and toted it across the field, down to the woods. Dillon’s dad had a piece of plywood he’d staple paper targets to, leaning against an old cedar tree. Some farmer long before Dillon’s dad had planted a few rows of cedars as a windbreak. I reckon we climbed to the top of nearly every one. We’d come back from climbing with our hands, arms, elbows, and clothes all stained with the sap.
About fifty yards from the target, we started setting up our invention, “The Bullet Truer.” Nothing spectacular. Basically, it looked like saw horses. Two big saw horses sitting close together with one row of two-by-fours making a kind of table. And we built a little stool for the shooter to sit on. Now, the main part of The Bullet Truer was what sat on the table. Shane had drawed up these plans at school, maybe the only thing worthwhile ever came out of Mrs. Hill’s English class. Dillon did all the cutting under Shane’s instruction because his dad didn’t want us to get hurt using his saws. Every time Dillon pushed a piece of wood along that screaming table saw, I felt something uneasy in my stomach.
Anyway, this invention Shane devised was kinda like a cradle to sit a .22 rifle in. Dillon had a nice one that we’d shot many a squirrel, snake, rat, turtle, bullfrog, you name it, with. Once I’d seen Shane shoot a damn carpenter bee, no lie. This cradle was secured with two C-clamp vise grips to hold it down good and tight. The end near the stock of the rifle was made where you could comfortably fit your hand in and shoot the gun but without moving the gun a fraction of an inch. There was a little prop attached to the end of the device that the barrel of the gun rested in. I have to give it to him—Shane was pretty clever. More clever than me and Dillon, anyway.
In the course of a few days, we tried that thing out a hundred times. Stapled a new target to the plywood down by those cedars every fifteen shots or so, and we figured how tight a pattern the thing would shoot, and I’m telling you, it was tight. Probably no more than eight-inches wide. Most of the time the bullets would stay within a five-inch grouping, but sometimes they’d go a bit wider due to the wind or something. Anyhow, we shot targets with the thing every day.
Then we just left it.
You know how it is. You play baseball every day after school for a season, two, three, and then, for no good reason, you start doing something else. You never decide on it; it just happens that way. Who knows? We probably took to riding our bikes all over creation, down the roads and paths and farms. Boys get restless.
Then one day, somebody says, What about that damn Bullet Truer?
So, we rode our bikes down there. We all had bolt action rifles, but we figured the less we had to touch or move the rifle, the better, so Dillon brought his dad’s semi-automatic Winchester .22 slung over his shoulder. We set the gun down in The Bullet Truer. We tested it out about thirty times. Each of us shot it ten times apiece just to make sure we were on the same page. All three of us were practiced up real good, and we all hit that tight five-inch pattern just like always. Must’ve been a hundred, no, two hundred holes in that plywood from before. Shot to pieces. The bullets we wasted on that thing.
Shane, always in charge, said he’d be the first to go. Dillon sat on the little stool, and Shane got a bit squeamish, said, If it’s all the same to you, Dillon, I think I’d rather have Jeff shoot.
Dillon looked hurt, but I couldn’t blame him. Dillon’s shot patterns were typically the most off. But even then, I’m telling you, they hardly ever went out of that five-inch pocket.
So, Shane walked down to our target and stood with his head three feet from where the bullets generally went. Then he waved his arm.
God, at the time, that was the scariest shot of my life—aiming a gun at another human being, not only that, one of my best friends, just outside my sights. I couldn’t imagine shooting at another man back then. Jesus, we were out of our minds.
I was trembling like a starved puppy. Dillon kept telling me won’t nothing going to happen and that we’d done it a million times and that if I couldn’t shoot, he would.
I’ll shoot. I’ll shoot, I said
What the hell’s the hold up? Shane shouted from way over there by the cedars.
Get still! He’s gonna do it! Dillon shouted back.
Shane stood there like one of them blind-folded guys in front of a firing wall, brave, not afraid to die, with this kind of resolve that I couldn’t comprehend until years later.
Keow! You know how a .22 sounds. Kinda high, sharp, and startling like when Mrs. Hill would slap that taped-up ruler on the chalkboard.
Whoooeee! Shane was screaming like a mad man. He come running up to us all out of breath, knees shaking, Fellas, it ain’t like nothing you ever heard. It ain’t like nothing you ever heard. Between gasps he said, It was like an instant rollercoaster; it starts in your brain then rumbles out of your whole body all in a split second.
And I’ll be damned if we weren’t so excited by then, me and Dillon near about started fighting over who would go next. I won best of three on paper, rock, scissors, so I ran on down to the target. I looked directly at the spot where Shane had stood. His brogans had left two indentions in the cotton stubble. I took a deep breath and waved my arms.
Shane had calmed down enough to do the firing. I asked him to shoot since Dillon seemed a little sore that I beat him out for the next shot.
I got real still. Real still. Still like a winter night just before the first snow falls, and all God’s creation is hunkered down and tucked into itself, staving off the cold. And BAM! I don’t know what was louder, the bullet splintering the plywood, or me hollering, but the sound before it hit the target—unbelievable. A quick zip, like if you were trying to get the last bits of pineapple from the bottom of a milkshake from the old Tastee Freeze. So fast. Not even a second. Just gone.
When I got back to The Bullet Truer, was I shaking. Dillon ran past me on the way. He had told Shane to shoot for him, too.
Now, there’s much speculation as to what had happened between the time I got to Shane and the gun, and when Dillon reached the target. Shane told me Dillon was hunched all over his shooting shoulder as he made the shot for me, breathing in his ear. He was gonna tell him to step back off, but he said he was trying to concentrate on the shot. Well, Shane says Dillon must’ve nudged the table. Maybe that’s so, but surely Shane would’ve noticed, but then, we were both so excited. I remember looking at the vice grips and how they’d rusted from all the rain that summer. Maybe that’s what happened. The rain, I mean. It probably softened the ground up, so if Shane leaned on the table a bit between shots, maybe, it might’ve sunk in the ground a tad.
Like I said, Dillon was the tallest, and I don’t reckon he noticed exactly where we’d stood. Just seemed like common sense to me to look for Shane’s footprints, but I guess Dillon was too excited. He must’ve only looked at the shot pattern and ended up standing a shade on the inside of where we stood. So, there he was, standing fifty yards away, staring down the barrel of his dad’s Winchester. And maybe Shane was a little overconfident or something since the first two shots had been on the money. I don’t know, but there Dillon was, a .22 rifle pointing straight at him. Me and Shane both held our breaths. Shane squeezed the trigger.
Near about immediately Dillon falls to the ground.
We’re terrified. Scared out of our minds. Too scared to think to scream. You don’t think. But you feel it all over—your own life draining from your body. We run down there faster than we ever ran. Shane beats me by a long shot. I see him hunched over Dillon and the side of Dillon’s face is covered in blood.
Dillon is rolling around on the ground, hands all bloodied up and covering his face, hollering, screaming like something I ain’t ever heard before. Like an animal, a bobcat or something, but deeper and louder. He’s kicking his legs, digging his heels in the cotton stubble, screaming like hell or napalm come burning down on all creation.
Shane jumps on top of him and kinda tries to hold his shoulders down so we can get a look, and he’s screaming, bleeding all over everything. I’m feeling cold like we’re all dying and our lives are ending right then and there.
Then we see what happened.
The bullet grazed Dillon’s ear, just enough that it grabbed a hold, and that spiraling bullet snatched the flesh, the outside tip of his ear, and just ripped half of his ear clean off. Well, clean ain’t quite the right word. Most of his ear was gone.
It sounds crazy, but we looked for it and never could find it. I guess if the bullet didn’t tear that part of his ear to shreds, then some buzzard or something must’ve picked it up that evening. Maybe the ants broke it down and carried it away in hundreds of little pieces. Me and Shane went down there the next few days. We had to sneak out at night and look with flashlights. Our parents told us we won’t going to be playing with each other for a long time. Maybe never. But we knew they couldn’t stop us from seeing each other at school, and in a month or so we were back playing together.
We did find his glasses the first night we went back to cedars. We couldn’t face his parents, so we put his glasses in their mailbox. From my living room window, I watched Dillon’s mom check the mail the next day. She pulled out a few letters and saw the glasses in there. She reached in and pulled them close to her chest, and I remember seeing her shoulders shaking.
Dillon lost most of the hearing in the ear. I was scared the kids at school were gonna make fun of him and us, but they didn’t too bad. We didn’t mind so much what they said about us, but we didn’t tolerate nothing being said about Dillon. You know, back then, kids in small-town schools like ours, they were a little more forgiving, I think. You don’t turn your back on a fellow you’ve grown up with just because of some accident, something stupid.
So, anyhow, that’s how come when me and Shane signed up for the volunteer draft, Dillon didn’t go. He wanted to, but he knew they wouldn’t take him.
We didn’t know what we were doing. Hell, everybody on our road was getting sent out there, and me and Shane were going crazy waiting for our number to be called. Seemed like the right thing to do. That day we left home, Dillon stood with our parents at the bus station looking sadder than anything. We told him there won’t no sense in all three of us getting shot to pieces. Dillon tugged the ear and gave us a sad grin; he said, “Don’t forget, boys.” But how could we? No. It could’ve just as easy been one of us. We were the lucky ones.
Dean Marshall Tuck is a writer of fiction, an advisory editor for Tar River Poetry, and a singer/songwriter: www.deantuck.com. He teaches composition and creative writing at Wayne Community College in Goldsboro, North Carolina. His work has been featured in publications including the Los Angeles Review, Zone 3, SmokeLong Quarterly, Vestal Review, and in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. He has work forthcoming in Natural Bridge.