Thursday, August 9, 2012

First Kill

First Kill

He wondered how long it took for it to drown.

"It's just a field mouse," his father said.

"Yes, sir, I know, but shouldn't we turn the buckets upside down so little
critters won't get trapped and drown?"

The father frowned, shook his head and said "Just forget about it and get
these animals fed up.  You'll be late for school."

All day the boy thought about the little gray field mouse swimming around
in circles inside the bucket trying to find a way out, trying to climb the
slick wet walls, panicking, its lungs and breath giving out.  It's heart
busting.  How long, he wondered, did it take for it to quit breathing air
and start breathing water.

"Let me out.  Help.  Help," the boy squeaked.  The other students gawked
at him.

"John Travis," the teacher said, "what in the world is wrong with you?
You haven't fallen asleep in class and are having a nightmare are you?"

The class laughed.

That night after supper John's mother and father sat on the back porch and
watched the sun go down.  Late summer was giving way to fall, there was
that distinct airishness.  A wedge of mallards honked over the pines,

"Annie, there's something wrong with that boy?"

"Why in the world would you say something like that?  He's just quiet,
that's all."

He told her about the field mouse.

"Oh, he's just at that tender age."

The next morning as they fed the stock, the father noticed the buckets
turned upside down.  As they washed up for breakfast he asked his son if
he found anymore drownded critters.  The boy replied no and did not
mention the upside down buckets.

"How'd them buckets get upside down, son?"

The boy scrubbed hard at his knuckles and mumbled so that his father asked

"I came out last night after ya'll went to bed and turned them upside
down."  He dried his hands and looked up at his father.

"Let's eat," the father said and pushed the boy inside the door.  Not a
rough push but threatening enough to let John Travis know his father was
displeased with him.

They ate in silence, the boy avoiding his father's eyes.

"May I be excused?"  the boy said, pushed back his chair and stood up.
He hadn't eaten much.

"Yes, John Travis," his mother said glancing at her husband.  The boy went
up to his room, got his books and quietly came down and out the front door
just as the yellow bus rounded the curve down the road.

"He aught not be wasting food like that, Annie."

"It's just a phase, Big John, he'll get over it.  I'll put his plate away
and eat it for lunch."

"He's still worrying about that damn dead field mouse.  He got up last
night and turned the water buckets upside down.  They need to stay up to
catch water in case it rains."  She wondered why she hadn't noticed the
hardness that had crept into her husband.   She remembered how kind and
tender he'd always been to her, never saying he loved her but always
showing it.

"He's just tender hearted.  The way you used to be."  She meant it as a
joke but it came out wrong.

"I ain't got time to be tender," he said pushing back from the table,
"Things are tough and I need some tough help."  When he got to the door he
turned back to say something but shook his head slowly, kicked open the
screen door clomped across the porch,  got in his old pickup and roared up
the road like a Texas tornado.

The days passed too quickly for the boy who avoided his father,  a
maneuver his father recognized but let slide.  Suddenly, within hours it
seemed, the weather turned and it was fall.  The first frost came in mid
October, leaves turned and some floated to the ground.  Soon it would be
Thanksgiving Day, the first day of  the new hunting season.  The boy
dreaded it.

The father had put it on lay-away almost a year ago.  It lay on the seat
beside him, brand new and in its original box.  He was sorry now that he
had gotten it.  Hell, that boy don't want nothing to do with a gun, he
can't even tolerate a drownded rat.  He turned onto the long road leading
to the house, then pulled over under an old white oak and slid the rifle
out of its box. It felt good in his hands, substantial, something of
value.  He stepped out of the pickup and aimed at a squirrel running along
the top rail of the old cedar wood fence surrounding a pasture. After he
got back in the truck he petted the weapon, running his calloused hands
and fingers up and down its sleekness.  He liked the freshly oiled smell
of it.

Sitting in his truck, he remembered how he had tried to talk to his son
about getting his first rifle and he recalled how excited he was when his
father took him to town to get it.  He still had it, a Winchester 30
millimeter model 94 lever action.  But his son was not interested.  No, he
even turned pale when he told him about selecting the right gun, how
important it was to select one that killed clean and sure.  Then he tried
exciting the boy with Boone and Crocket scores and the size of antlers and
racks but the boy turned away.

"It's important that you know where to hit the deer, where to aim.  You
got to hit a vital spot to get a clean kill.  Now, the head shot is good
if you want a quick kill but it's a small target and you got to be good to
hit it.  I don't think you're ready for a head shot.  And if you want to
have the head mounted you don't want a head shot.  Hell, you'll blow half
of it away." He chuckled.

The boy turned from his father thinking I don't want to kill anything.  I
don't want to blow anything's head away.  Why can't I just use the
binoculars and enjoy  looking at them?  He wanted to tell his father that
but he didn't have the courage.  He cringed at what his father would
think:  goddamned coward, should have been a girl.  So he heard but did
not listen:

"The best place to hit a deer is in the neck.  Either in the upper part of
the neck or the lower.  The upper part is where the spinal cord is.  Your
high powered exploding round will bust it and kill instantly.  If you hit
him in the lower part of the neck you'll hit him in the windpipe and
jugular and drop him dead as a door nail.  But there's other shots..."  He
was going to tell the boy about the deer's heart and lungs and why a shot
there is very effective but the boy looked sick, fighting the gags.

The father recalled  that cold Christmas morning when he was a boy and had
gotten his Winchester Model 94.  He and his father sat on the front porch
of the very house they're living in right now reading the manual for his
first rifle.  His dad was so proud.

"Look at that stock, son.  pure walnut, smooth as a baby's butt."  He
remembered looking away, embarrassed but glad his father talked to him
like a man.  "And check those front sights, perfectly aligned with the
rear ones.  Ain't that something, son?  Then his father handed him the
rifle with the carefulness of handling a baby or a fine guitar.  "Always
handle them with care and respect, son."

Big John started the engine and sat another moment. Now, what's he got.  A
punk kid who don't know the butt plate from the muzzle, who turns pale
when he mentions killing.  Maybe, he thought, the sight of this beautiful
thing will bring him around.  What the hell, if the boy don't want it he'd
have another magnificent weapon to enjoy himself.

He hid the rifle under their bed and went and sat at the kitchen table.
Annie Ruth came in and poured them coffee.  They sat silently for a while
each waiting for the other to bring up the subject.

"Annie Ruth, what is the matter with John Travis?  He's almost seventeen
years old for God's sake.  Ain't it time he started acting like a man?"
He blew into his coffee, sipped.  When she didn't answer he went on.  "I
picked up the rifle and it's under our bed."

She saw the hurt in his eyes.

"It's all right,  Big John.  He's just at that age where things don't make
much sense."

"Well, it's not like I'm trying to make him a murderer.  I'm trying to
show him he's got to stand up and be counted.  If he can't shoot a deer
what the hell is he going to do if he gits called up?"

She didn't answer.   But the look on her face told him she wasn't sure
what he was talking about.

"I mean that mess over there in Viet Nam is heating up.  More than likely
he'll be called up for that.  It's his duty.  We got to stop them
comminists or they'll take over us too."

"You really think so, John?

He looked at his wife as if to say do you think I'm  talking just to hear
my head roar?  Hadn't he, like his father and his grandfather, willingly
gone to war because their country needed them?  Iwo Jima might have been
twenty years ago but being there was still in his mind.  He was a good
Marine who fought for his country and killed as many Japs as he could.
Once a Marine always a Marine.  He found it best not to answer her.

Instead.  "Where is he now?"

"At school."

"Still at school?  Kinda late ain't it?  What's he doing at school at this
Should be home doing his chores.  Maybe he can turn over a few more
buckets."  He sipped his coffee and stared at his wife until she answered.

"He's at drama club trying out for the high school play."

"A play?  What kind of play?"

"Romeo and Juliet."

He swallowed hard, almost choking on his coffee.  She smiled, almost laughed.

"What kind of goddamned shit is that?" he said as he slid back from the
table  and busted out the door.  She could still hear him cussing as he
strode off to the barn.

"He's trying out for the Romeo part," she whispered.

"But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun......

See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!

Act II, Scene II."

When he finished the reading no one giggled or laughed as they had at the
other boys.  Embarrassing silence, settled heavily on them as they looked
at one another for a sign, something, that would make it a joke. Billy Joe
HarDister, star quarterback and class clown tried to smile it away but all
he he managed was a crooked grin and a nod of his curly head that said he
had just witnessed something good.  There would be no doubt about it, John
Travis Daybright  would play the part of Romeo.

"Mom, I got the part.  I'll be playing Romeo in our senior class play!"

Thanksgiving Day, first day of hunting season, came faster than mother and
son wanted.  For her it meant a terrible rift in the family, father and
son separated.  Instead of thanksgiving it filled the son with dread.  He
loved his father.  But he could not kill, it just was not in him.

The day before Thanksgiving, John Travis turned seventeen.  That evening
they held a family birthday party, the three of them.  The boy easily blew
out the candles and made his silent wish that his father would understand.
 While the mother and son ate the chocolate cake, the boy's favorite,  Big
John excused himself and went for the Winchester.

Just before stepping into the kitchen in the dimness of the living room he
paused to look at the two of them smiling and laughing.  Something he'd
noticed before but becoming more prominent, a fineness about them, a
delicate touch each shared.  For a second he thought about taking the
rifle back .

Big John marched in front of his son and thrust the Model 94 at the boy
like his Marine drill sergeants at Paris Island had done indicating the
weapon was ready for inspection.  The boy, in the middle of a bite, froze,
his fork holding hand poised above the cake.  The father looked down at
the rifle ejection port then quickly back up locking his eyes on his son's
indicating the boy, like a good Marine, should snatch the weapon away and
inspect it.

The mother watched, her eyes moving slowly from father to son, son to father.

"Dad, I can't...."   The mother touched her son's arm.

It seemed a long time, the three of them motionless, quiet, the mother's
white hand still on the boy's arm.

"Take the goddamn weapon, private," the father said through tight jaws.

"Dad..." the boy repeated.

"John," the mother said to the father.

The boy looked from his father to his mother and the father read this as a
plea for help.

"I didn't buy this weapon for your mother, boy, I bought it for you and I
expect you to receive it like a man.  It's a new Model 94, the finest
lever action rifle ever made.  It will knock a deer dead in its tracks at
a hundred yards."  As he glanced down again at the rifle he thrust it
again at the boy.

"No," said the boy and stepped back.

Suddenly, the father turned about face and marched out of the room
carrying the weapon at port arms.  They heard him kick the screen door as
he roared through it.  A ringing silence echoed  the room.

Mother and son blinked away the tears.  There was no use to talk, they
said it all with their eyes.  Almost immediately they heard a pounding
like a bat hitting the soft living bark on a tree.  Several powerful
blows, then silence.

The next morning at breakfast nothing was said about the night before.
Big John ate heartily, kissed his wife, winked at the boy, and lined out
for his pickup.  For a while mother and son sat silently, one wanting to
speak but neither did.  Then the boy got up, kissed his mother, walked to
the door.

"I'll be at rehearsal after school, Mom, okay?"

"Okay, son.  Do your best."

As he passed under the big red oak that shaded the back yard he saw the
splinters of the walnut stock scattered about  wet with dew.  Over near
the tractor shed the sun glistened on a piece of blue metal.  He slowed
but did not stop, took a quick look and went on to the bus stop.

John Travis was so intent on learning and playing his part that last night
did not enter his mind.  Not until, during rehearsal, when Romeo's friend,
Mercutio is killed and the boy, as Romeo, says "O sweet Juliet/Thy beauty
hath made me effeminate,/ And in my temper soften'd valour's steel."

He saw his father's face, felt his fury and his hurt.

Later in the back yard lit with the yellow glow from the kitchen window he
passed under the oak ; he noticed the splintered stock gone and a quick
look over at the tractor shed found nothing, no butt plate, buttstock,
finger lever, trigger, trigger guard, loading port, forearm, magazine
tube, muzzle, front sight, barrel bands, rear sight, ejection port,
rebounding or manual hammer stop.


The End


Author: Rocky Rutherford

Dedicated to Vann Dwain Sherrill, 118th Aviation Company (AML), killed in
action 23 October 1965,  at Duc Hoa, South Vietnam.