The Measuring Stick

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Published on: Sep. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

wind, one hand on the handlebar, the other clutching my first real rifle like a Pony Express rider ahead of a Sioux war party.

I was deeply thankful for the nearly full box of cartridges bulging my pocket. I loved the inscription, "RANGE ONE MILE-BE CAREFUL." Wow! I thought, BE CAREFUL wasn't a careless admonition to a kid-it was directed to everybody. And how about ONE MILE! The concept left me breathless. Forget my Daisy pump air rifle. I now owned a man's firearm that would shoot a mile. Cartridges that warned grown men to BE CAREFUL.

I didn't go straight home with it, either. No boy would have. I had already passed the bounds of my endurance, waiting to try the thing out. I stopped this side of civilization at a woody field near town, where the coffee brown water of the little Fox River wound through cottonwoods and willows, and the land was abandoned fields.

I found a can by the road and walked back into the field with it.

I had only shot a .22 once before and wasn't sure, but I set my can against a fallen sycamore log and stepped back 100 yards, three times farther away than my old air rifle could shoot on its best day-with a tail wind.

I walked back to my bike and wiped one of the moldy shells on my pants. I put it into the breech and cocked the hammer. The can winked in the sun, no bigger than the front bead-sight, and behind it was the safe bulk of the log. I aimed and fired and the little rifle cracked like a whip.

But to my horror, instead of the clank sound of a can shot through the middle, I heard the high keening whine I'd heard in a dozen Tom Mix movies-a ricochet. The sound of people shooting at people. RANGE ONE MILE-BE CAREFUL! the box had yelled.

I stood stunned in the silence.

I must have shot low and hit an unseen rock in the field and now the bullet was on its way to Iowa . . . or worse. I waited for a human scream as the cordite odor of the shot wafted back from the barrel.

I listened for the sound of breaking glass, the whinny of an injured horse, the bawl of a struck cow, an angry yell from a wounded farmer.

I don't even know what I listened for because

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