The Measuring Stick

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Published on: Sep. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

all I could hear in my head was the nasty whine of a rifle slug going somewhere it didn't belong and my own heart pounding like a marching-band drum.

I saw a headline in the Clark County Courier-big black letters, "GUS JAYNE'S BOY KILLS ELDERLY WIDOW WITH CARELESS SHOT!"

And it was at this point that my father's unadorned words entered my mind as clearly as if he were there. "Mitch, you're responsible for what you shoot." In those hard times a name was all you really owned and it was important to a family beyond measure. With one pull of a trigger I had reduced my family's name to the shameful level of a crime report.

Hardly daring to put one foot before the other, I walked into the field, fear dragging at my feet along with the barbed vines of blackberry runners. My first shot, and I had to try a long one, not knowing the gun's trajectory, never having tried its sights, not knowing what lay behind the tree line. Not knowing anything! Dumb as a fishing worm. A dumb kid!

The June sun shone warmly on the field, but it didn't warm me as I walked toward my can, then past the tree line where I could now see the sunny splotches of a pasture where my bullet had most likely gone on a killing spree. As I moved through a tangle of hedge apples, I thought I could see black shapes in the pasture. Cows! My lord, my fateful bullet had ricocheted into a pasture full of black angus, and one of them probably lay bleeding to death right now.

"JAYNE BOY KILLS PRIZE ANGUS COW VALUED AT $1,000,000!" I hurried through the thicket, tearing my clothes on briars, my heart in my mouth. A hundred feet from me a black shape lay motionless in the tall grass, and

I had to gather every ounce of my courage to approach it. It shone in the sunlight, black as coal, and was utterly motionless.

I wiped the sweat and blood from my scratched face and took another fearful step, and a wave of relief washed over me. It was a burned stump. The field was full of burned stumps and blackened trunks shiny against the sea of orchard grass. Not cows, stumps. I felt a rush of relief that left me faint.

Clutching my rifle, I kept walking up the sloping pasture across the top of the next hill where an old woodlot made deep and impenetrable shade. No house, no animals, no carnage. From the high point I looked in every direction for the roof of a barn, a housetop, any sign of people. Still uneasy, I made a wide circle. After a half hour, I decided that whatever else I might have done, I had at least missed any living thing in my part of the world.

I came slowly back to the road where my bike lay on its dusty side and I collapsed beside it in the grass. I had hardly dared look at the rifle, but now I lay it across my lap.

I worked the small lever and the tarnished shell popped out with a little 'spung' sound. What a tiny thing to so thoroughly jar my mind. Before, the gun had seemed shiny and graceful. Now it looked dry and rusty and sinister and deadly-a sleeping rattlesnake.

I had learned a great lesson, and I let it settle while my sweat dried and the briar scratches turned to a dull ache on my arms. Tomorrow I would get a square of cardboard and bring it back here, and I would shoot, from maybe 10 feet away until I knew how the rifle shot.

I would back away slowly until I knew how much the little .22 slug dropped and how much the breeze would affect it. I would be right here, shooting at my target, and if anyone came along to tell me my wild shot today had hit something, I would give myself up and go quietly. After all, I was responsible for what I shot. I was not some dumb, careless kid.

Having decided all that, I picked up my gun and raised the bike from the weeds. The gun was looking better all the time. It was a fine gun. "A measuring stick," the old man had called it, and I kind of liked the thought.

With a leather sling and some practice I could probably carry it crosswise from a shoulder while riding my bike and have both hands free to steer. You had to think about that sort of thing, it occurred to me gravely, when you became an adult.

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